First lines and Fritz Leiber

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser by Michael Whelan

I saw a writing contest a short time ago where the first line of a book was submitted to see if it “hooked” anyone.

(The first lines of my three books aren’t that exciting, with the possible exception of Roger Mantis, but that’s just a slight alteration of the first line of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.)

Last week I started re-reading Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series (I like reading my old favorites). These books are mostly short stories, and I began noticing how great the first lines were.

Below the break, I’ll list the first lines from some of these short stories (and the second ones for good measure) under their associated collection titles.

* * *

Swords and Deviltry

I. Induction

Sundered from us by gulfs of time and stranger dimensions dreams the ancient world of Nehwon with its towers and skulls and jewels, its swords and sorceries.

Nehwon’s known realms crowd about the Inner Sea: northward the green-forested fierce Land of the Eight Cities, eastward the steppe-dwelling Mingol horsemen and the desert where caravans creep from the rich Eastern Lands and the River Tilth.

II. The Snow Women

At Cold Corner in midwinter, the women of the Snow Clan were waging a cold war against the men.

They trudged about like ghosts in their whitest furs, almost invisible against the new-fallen snow, always together in female groups, silent or at most hissing like angry shades.

III. The Unholy Grail

Three things warned the wizard’s apprentice that something was wrong: first the deep-trodden prints of iron-shod hooves along the forest path—he sensed them through his boots before stooping to feel them out in the dark; next, the eerie drone of a bee unnaturally abroad by night; and finally, a faint aromatic odor of burning.

Mouse raced ahead, dodging treetrunks and skipping over twisted roots by memory and by a bat’s feeling for rebounding whispers of sound.

IV: Ill Met in Lankhmar

Silent as specters, the tall and the fat thief edged past the dead, noose-strangled watch-leopard, out the thick, lock-picked door of Jengao the Gem Merchant, and strolled east on Cash Street through the thin black night-smog of Lankhmar, City of Sevenscore Thousand Smokes.

East on Cash it had to be, for west at the intersection of Cash and Silver was a police post with unbribed guardsmen in browned-iron cuirasses and helms, restlessly grounding and rattling their pikes, while Jengao’s place had no alley entrance or even window in its stone walls three spans thick and the roof and floor almost as strong and without trap doors.


Swords Against Death

I: The Circle Curse

A tall swordsman and a small one strode out the Marsh Gate of Lankhmar and east along Causey Road.

They were youths by their skin and suppleness, men by their expressions of deep-bitten grief and stony purpose.

II: The Jewels in the Forest

It was the Year of the Behemoth, the Month of the Hedgehog, the Day of the Toad.

A hot, late summer sun was sinking down toward evening over the somber, fertile land of Lankhmar.

III: Thieves’ House

“What’s the use of knowing the name of a skull? One would never have occasion to talk to it,” said the fat thief loudly.

“What interests me is that it has rubies for eyes.”

IV: The Bleak Shore

“So you think a man can cheat death and outwit doom?” said the small, pale man, whose bulging forehead was shadowed by a black cowl.

The Gray Mouser, holding the dice box ready for a throw, paused and quickly looked sideways at the questioner.

V: The Howling Tower

The sound was not loud, yet it seemed to fill the whole vast, darkening plain, and the palely luminous, hollow sky: a wailing and howling, so faint and monotonous that it might have been inaudible save for the pulsing rise and fall—an ancient, ominous sound that was somehow in harmony with the wild, sparsely vegetated landscape and the barbaric garb of the three men who sheltered in a little dip in the ground, lying close to a dying fire.

“Wolves, perhaps,” Fafhrd said.

VI: The Sunken Land

“I was born with luck as a twin!” roared Fafhrd jovially, leaping up so swiftly that the cranky sloop rocked a little in spite of its outriggers.

“I catch a fish in the middle of the ocean.”

VII: The Seven Black Priests

Eyes like red lava peered from a face black as dead lava down the sheer mountainside at the snowy ledge that narrowed off into chilly darkness barely touched by dawn.

The black priest’s heart pounded its rib cage.

VIII: Claws From the Night

Fear hovered in the moonlight over Lankhmar.

Fear flowed like mist through the twisting thoroughfares and mazy alleyways, trickling even into that most intricately curved and crevicelike street where a sootily flickering lantern marked the doorway to the tavern of the Silver Eel.


Swords in the Mist

I: The Cloud of Hate

Muffled drums beat out a nerve-scratching rhythm, and red lights flickered hypnotically in the underground Temple of Hates, where five thousand ragged worshipers knelt and abased themselves and ecstatically pressed foreheads against the cold and gritty cobbles as the trance took hold and the human venom rose in them.

The drumbeat was low.

II: Lean Times in Lankhmar

Once upon a time in Lankhmar, City of the Black Toga, in the world of Nehwon, two years after the Year of the Feathered Death, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser parted their ways.

Exactly what caused the tall brawling barbarian and the slim elusive Prince of Thieves to fall out, and the mighty adventuring partnership to be broken, is uncertainly known and was at the time the subject of much speculation.

III: Their Mistress, The Sea

The next few days were not kind to the Mouser and Fafhrd.

To begin with, both got seasick from their many months ashore.

IV: While the Sea-King’s Away

Stripped to his loincloth, underbelt, and with amulet pouch a-dangle under his chin, the Gray Mouser stretched lizardlike along the bowed sprit of the sloop Black Treasurer and stared straight down into the hole in the sea.

Sunlight unstrained by slightest wisp of cloud beat hotly on his deep-tanned back, but his belly was cold with the magic of the thing.

V: The Wrong Branch

It is rumored by the wise-brained rats which burrow the citied earth and by the knowledgeable cats that stalk its shadows and by the sagacious bats that wing its night and by the sapient zats which soar through airless space, slanting their metal wings to winds of light, that those two swordsmen and blood-brothers, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, have adventured not only in the World of Nehwon with its great empire of Lankhmar, but also in many other worlds and times and dimensions, arriving at these through certain secret doors far inside the mazy caverns of Ningauble of the Seven Eyes—whose great cave, in this sense, exists simultaneously in many worlds and times.

It is a Door, while Ningauble glibly speaks the languages of many worlds and universes, loving the gossip of all times and places.

VI: Adept’s Gambit

It happened that while Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser were dallying in a wine shop near the Sidonian Harbor of Tyre, where all wine shops are of doubtful repute, a long-limbed yellow-haired Galatian girl lolling in Fafhrd’s lap turned suddenly into a wallopingly large sow.

It was a singular occurrence, even in Tyre.


Swords Against Wizardry

I: In the Witch’s Tent

The hag bent over the brazier.

Its upward-seeking gray fumes interwove with strands of her downward-dangling, tangled black hair.

II: Stardock

Early one evening, weeks later, the sky’s gray cloud-armor blew away south, smashed and dissolving as if by blows of an acid-dipped mace.

The same mighty northeast wind contemptuously puffed down the hitherto impregnable cloud wall to the east, revealing a grimly majestic mountain range running north to south and springing abruptly from the plateau, two leagues high, of the Cold Waste— like a dragon fifty leagues long heaving up its spike-crested spine from icy entombment.

III: The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar

Through the mazy avenues and alleys of the great city of Lankhmar, Night was a-slink, though not yet grown tall enough to whirl her black star-studded cloak across the sky, which still showed pale, towering wraiths of sunset.

The hawkers of drugs and strong drinks forbidden by day had not yet taken up their bell-tinklings and thin, enticing cries.

IV: The Lords of Quarmall

The room was dim, almost maddeningly dim to one who loved sharp detail and the burning sun.

The few wall-set torches that provided the sole illumination flamed palely and thinly, more like will-o’-the-wisps than true fire, although they released a pleasant incense.

* * *

I was not surprised, though maybe a little depressed, to find that these books seem to be out of print, available only in Kindle editions, and (also not surprisingly) Kindle editions without the nice covers, maps, proper formatting, and scattered with typos and errors.

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like a lot of good writing is being quietly buried out there.

Are you a fantasy fan that has never read this series? That’s highly unlikely if you’re my age, but maybe not so unlikely for younger readers. Heck, when I think of George R. R. Martin, I still think of “A Song For Lya” and the Wild Cards series.

Pick the series up on Kindle, or check your library and used bookstores. If you’re a comic fan, try and find the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser trade paperback, adapted by Howard Chaykin and illustrated by Mike Mignola while Hellboy was still just a gleam in his eye.

(Illustration by Michael Whelan)

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