|illustration by William Blake|
The Cave of Atabis
A Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser Fan Fiction
“You cannot – in all seriousness – claim to me you were raised by cats,” Fafhrd said, checking the slim silk rope for signs of fraying. He twisted lengths around his calloused palms and tugged suddenly, both hoping and dreading that the line would snap. He doubted the wisdom of the Gray Mouser’s plan as much as he doubted the smaller man’s claims of feral upbringing, yet moreso desired the treasure at the bottom of the shaft.
“I can certainly claim it for I have already. The doubt is rather in whether you believe me,” the Gray Mouser replied. He looked to Fafhrd, eyebrow twitched high in questioning, and the barbarian nodded assent to the silent question. The rope was sturdy and would bear the Mouser’s weight. The slim swordsman smiled.
“I have told you of my years apprenticing to a wizard,” he said, doffing his gray, coarse-woven cloak. “Whence might I have sharpened my cat-like reflexes when grinding herbs and mixing potions? Is it not more likely that I honed stealth and dexterity prowling alleys with my clowder than hunkering over tomes?”
The big Northerner rolled his eyes and began helping his friend into the harness they’d cobbled together from baldrics and bootstraps. “I will allow that as an orphan in the smoke- and sewage-ridden city that birthed you, you did enjoy the friendship of a pack of cats that nibbled the flaky crumbs of fish you stole to feed yourself.” Fafhrd knelt to thread the silken rope through a loop in the Gray Mouser’s belt, then another two fitted to the townsman’s ankles.
“Mayhap they even crowded ‘round you in some abandoned garret,” the larger man continued, “making a blanket of their bodies to warm you as you slept. Nonetheless, they did not raise you as parents do a child – merely comforted you in your loneliness and were comforted in turn.” He looped the silk line around his waist and tied the free end of the rope to an iron spike the twain had with some labor driven into the cave floor.
“Family is as family does, my friend,” said the Mouser.
They walked to the edge of the shaft – just wide enough to admit the Gray Mouser slim shoulders – and made final preparations for the Mouser’s descent. Fafhrd lit a long-handled, glass-bowled oil lamp while the Gray Mouser stretched his limbs. The latter then took hold of the lamp, lowering it into the waiting darkness, while the former braced his feet and took the long, coiled rope in hand. The Gray Mouser crawled into the hole. Once the rope played out sufficiently, Fafhrd straddled the stone shaft, lowering his companion by inches into the hole.
Despite the long handle, the smoke and heat from the oil lamp seared the Mouser’s lungs. Long minutes passed in pain as the Gray Mouser hung suspended in the vertical tunnel, neither falling nor flying but furthering lower and lower down. At last, a glint of gold shone back through the blackness, and first lamp then arm then head and shoulders poked out of the shaft. “Hold!” shouted the Mouser back toward his friend.
The chamber was as the valley-men had described: smooth-domed walls forming a hemisphere, like a bubble welling up through solid stone, floored with gems and ingots and coins. The thought teased the Mouser that perhaps the chamber was a full, round sphere and the riches were piled high enough to fill half the chamber. That would not account, however, for the bones scattered amongst the gold, nor the heady musk of big cat filling the air.
“Lower!” he cried and Fafhrd let the rope play out more, until the Gray Mouser beheld the side-tunnels leading off in the cardinal directions. Like the chamber itself, these tunnels were too smooth and perfect for nature to have wrought and instead bore the hallmarks of human hands. Given the ancient king’s sarcophagus and overflowing loot decorating the chamber, this surprised the Mouser little, though it made him wonder why the slender shaft through which he descended had been constructed and why the side-tunnels had passed out of human knowledge.
“Mayhap the august potentate buried here commanded the tunnels closed and the workers slain? Did the last of them escape through the means by which I entered?” he asked himself. Regardless, the passage of centuries opened one of the tunnels, and now some hunting cat made its lair amid a king’s treasury. He lifted his voice and called for Fafhrd to lower him more.
He was but his own height from the floor when a bestial rumble – not a growl, but a grunt of effort – reached his ears, alerting the Gray Mouser that he was not alone. The scuffing sounds of something heavy being dragged emanated from the western tunnel and a female brindled pard appeared, dragging the corpse of their packhorse. The pard’s eyes glowed, the Gray Mouser’s feeble lamp adding to the big cat’s inherent lambent flame. She stopped and now a growl issued from her throat.
“What’s going on?” Fafhrd shouted down the hole. The pard took a wary stance, its ears flattening, its muscles tensing, a hiss escaping its bloodied maw. The Gray Mouser steeled himself, trying not to sway. Keeping his eyes on the brindled pard, he shouted back to his partner “Lower me another four ells – and keep quiet!”
The cat growled again at the noise, but busied herself with her kill. The Gray Mouser breathed easier; he daren’t tell Fafhrd about the pard for the northman would likely try to speedily haul the city-born thief to safety, inadvertently turning the Gray Mouser into an enticing cat’s toy, like a human-sized piece of string or colorful feather. No, the cat would be occupied with eating until her belly was full, and as long as the Mouser disturbed not her meal, he could gamble that the pard was more interested in food than in him.
High above, Fafhrd played out enough rope to let the Gray Mouser down onto the bed of gems and gold. The smaller man stepped sideways toward the sarcophagus, wanting to keep himself at his full height rather than presenting a tempting smaller target to the pard. He undid the tight row of buttons on the leather satchel the twain had rigged to carry loot aloft and upside-down, then reached out to gather treasure from the top of the coffin, keeping his eyes on the cat the entire time.
Long minutes passed during which the Gray Mouser fought his own imagination, trying to keep his mind from straying to distracting fantasies and instead concentrating on the warily watching the pard. He flinched involuntarily as the thought of skeletal kingly hands reaching out from the sarcophagus crossed his mind. He shifted nervously when considering counterweights beneath him tipping as the weight of gold was transferred into his bag, tripping a trapdoor or spikes or somesuch. He smiled to himself in the hope that the pard would shed her spots and stripes, revealing herself to be some exotic and amorous beauty; he lost focus for a moment dreaming of a rough tongue against his skin, claw-like nails holding tight, soft-furred thighs parting... The two adventurers had certainly encountered stranger things.
What he never imagined was drawing his sword Scalpel and his dagger Cat’s Claw in a desperate attempt to kill the brindled pard. Firstly, such an attempt was doomed to failure; astonishingly talented swordsman though he may be, the Gray Mouser would be no match for the speed and power of the big cat. Secondly and most importantly, however, he also knew such an attempt was unnecessary, perhaps even immoral. The cat offered him no direct danger, and revenge against a beast for fulfilling its nature – devouring the packhorse – would be the height of pettiness. Perhaps he even felt some supernatural aversion, some sense that slaying kin to his self-chosen totem would bring some curse upon him.
The Gray Mouser’s hardened heart admitted no sentimental reasons.
The sarcophagus top ran out of coins, so the Mouser reluctantly knelt to gather gold from the floor. Ancient coins and gem-encrusted curios went unseen into the half-full satchel. From previous experience, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser knew they wanted to limit trips into the chamber to a minimum – every additional venture risking some knew trap or ghostly wrath – and they trusted not the valley-men who had told them tales of the tomb. Such folk too often proved courageous enough to attempt murder if too cowardly to dare a treasure-delve themselves. Knowing now that this single satchel would be all his partner and he would carry away from the hemispherical tomb, the Mouser was determined to pack the satchel full.
He realized to his chagrin how wandering his mind had been, how his eyes had been looking but unseeing, and his ears unhearing. The pard no longer ate, staring at him in curious regard. She rose to her feet and paced quietly around the horse carcass, unceremoniously flopping down on the near side of it. After a brief warning growl to the Gray Mouser to keep away from her repast, the brindled pard licked a paw and began to rub the blood off of her face.
The Mouser filled the bag as fully and hurriedly as the big cat’s occasional curiosity allowed. When he finished and rebuttoned the satchel, he tugged on the silk line. In the cave above, Fafhrd began drawing in the rope. As the rope at his feet drew taut, the Gray Mouser plucked a jeweled orb off the floor and put it in his mouth. He bent over and planted himself in a handstand, a bizarre posture that caused the brindled pard to half rise, intrigued – as the Mouser imagined – by this gray monkey-man.
The Gray Mouser began to rise into the air, slowly and steadily and upside-down. The long-handled lamp grated against the treasure and stone as he bore it aloft in one hand, the other cupping the orb when he spit it out. Cautiously, the brindled pard approached the ascending thief, lambent eyes alight with mischief. The Mouser was but thrice his own height above the floor, within easy reach of a big cat’s leap.
He threw the orb past the cat, shattering it against the far rock wall. The pard spun, wary, distracted, and the Gray Mouser shouted “Faster, Fafhrd! Pull!” The Mouser shot upward, out of range, nearly cracking his head against the stone shaft as his companion pulled him through.
Returned to the upper cave at last, the Gray Mouser sagged, laying his full, short length out upon the floor.
“What happened?” Fafhrd asked, offering the other mixed water and wine.
The Mouser had prepared his lie almost as soon as he saw the pard. “The chamber was not as man-shaped as the valley-men tell. Glass-fragile stalactites crust the ceiling, ready to drop and pierce muscle and bone. I fear this was the only descent we dare to plunder that tomb.” He patted the well-stuffed satchel.
Fafhrd unbuttoned a corner and examined the loot. “Ah, well,” he rumbled, “It’s a goodly haul. If no beast nor ghast nor trap beset you, then we can presume war-like Kos and spidery Mog blessed this venture,” the Northerner continued, referencing the deities the pair paid occasional lip-service to. “I’m glad you’re safe, friend. Perhaps your cats gifted you nine lives.”
“I was never truly in danger,” the Gray Mouser replied. “I simply worry that another attempt would spell the end of my luck. Let us hurry, though; I fear the valley-men might steal our horses.”