The second half of the “Lean Times in Lankhmar” collection.

Publication year: 1996 (1964-1968 for the stories)
Format: print
Page count: 144
Publisher: White Wolf Inc.

The collection contains the stories “In the Witch’s Tent”, “Stardock”, “The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar”, and “The Lords of Quarmall”.

These stories chronicles the adventures of the Grey Mouser and Fafhrd. Fafhrd is a tall Northern barbarian while the Mouser is a slight man and a former sorcerer’s apprentice. They’re both warriors and thieves, and Mouser has some slight skill in magic, as well. They’re after fortune and women, and sometimes fame, too. Often they adventure together but sometimes they are pitted against each other, like in this collection’s last story. They both have a strange wizard as a patron: Fafhrd works for Ningauble of the Seven Eyes and the Mouser’s patron is Sheelba of the Eyeless Face.

The first story is really short and funny. The Mouse and Fafhrd are planning a trip to the Stardock which is the highest mountain in the whole Nehwon. They are searching for treasure which is supposed to wait for any man who reaches the top. But first, Fafhrd insists that they consult a witch. This doesn’t go well.

In “Stardoc” the duo starts their climb accompanied by an ice-cat Hrissa whom they had bought free during their travels. The mountain is a very dangerous place but they are also trailed by a couple of other rogues who are also searching for the “pouch of stars”. The ice and the snow are the real enemies in this story, though.

After that adventure, the duo gets into an argument and split up. They even split their jewels and try to fence them separately. This is difficult because the jewels can only be seen at night, so ordinary fences most likely don’t want to deal with them. So, they each get quite a quirky fence as buyer.

In the final novella, the duo are still so sick of each other that they take different jobs – or so they believe. In reality, they’ve both been hired by a prince of Quarmall. Quarmall is a strange, labyrinthine place, mostly underground. It’s ruled by Lord Quarmal whose two strange sons hate each other and are constantly trying to kill each other by wizardry. Now, they’ve both hired a swordmaster as well: Gwaay has the Grey Mouser and Hasjarl has Fafhrd. Gwaay lives in the Lower levels of Quarmall and his brother in the Upper levels, so they never actually meet and neither do their households, unless a meeting is specifically arranged. Hasjarl’s wizards send disease spells to Gwaay all the time but Gwaay’s wizards protect him from them, all the time. Lord Quarmal is old and his sons are expecting his death.

As usual, Leiber’s writing is fantastic and evocative:
“Once, the Lords of Quarmall ruled over broad meadows and vast seas; their ships swam between all known ports, and their caravans marched the routes from sea to sea. Slowly from the fertile valleys and barren cliffs, from the desert spots and the open sea the grip of Quarmall loosened; not willingly but ever forced did the Lords of Quarmall retreat. Inexorably they were driven, year by year, generation by generation, from all their possessions and rights; until finally they were confined to that last and stauchnest stronghold, the impregnable castle of Quarmall. The cause of this driving is lost in the dimness of fable; but it was probably due to those most gruesome practices which even to this day persuade the surrounding countryside that Quarmall is unclean and cursed.

It’s also bizarre and horrible, especially in the fourth story.

The world itself is quite depressing. By today’s standards it might be called grimdark: lots of people are slaves with no hope of escaping. In the last novella especially, one brother is a torturer and the other is apparently a psychopath: he has no regard for the people around him, the only feeling he seems to have is extreme hatred toward his brother. Oh, and women are very much second class citizens (if at all citizens): slaves mostly, victims and prizes. But the vast majority of men aren’t much better off: mostly slaves, also, and the rest doing what they must. The powerful are too worried about keep their power to actually enjoy it (except by keeping harems of slave girls). Indeed, very few people seem to enjoy their lives in these books.

As much as I liked the earlier stories, I’m again reminded of why I don’t read these back to back.