Friday, November 27, 2009

The Other Slipper

This story was one of Ashley's favorites. The editor of Sein und Werden also liked it enough to contact me a few months after initially rejecting it, asking if it was still available for her fairy tale themed issue.

The Grand Duke sat in the drawing room of the chateau, pretending to doze, while the hideous Tremayne daughters grackled like gulls over a crust of bread. The lovely young maiden he’d expected to find at this house hadn’t arrived, and he’d begun to suspect Lady Tremayne of hiding her. Not that he would dare accuse the minor noblewoman of anything so uncouth as kidnapping. Still, he suspected that she suspected he suspected her. Even so, he didn’t allow his mounting nervousness to show, instead feigning a regal ennui, while all the while his insides drew up like a tax collector’s purse.

To give himself breathing room, he had already read the entire proclamation, though that certainly wasn’t necessary, and now he was allowing the daughters all the time in the world to try to squeeze their enormous flapping feet into the tiny slipper. He was rapidly losing hope that the girl he’d come to find would ever show. This didn’t change the fact that he simply couldn’t leave without her – it was more than his life was worth.

Lady Tremayne stood nearby, smiling obsequiously and watching him narrowly. The daughters fought like baboons over the shoe, while the Grand Duke nodded and made snoring sounds in the armchair. What would he do if she didn’t show? He’d be ruined. Exiled! Or worse!

“Drusilla dear, give Anastasia a chance,” Lady Tremayne said in her soft, oily voice.

“But she’s already had her chance! Now it’s my turn!” Mme. Drusilla screeched like a fishwife.

“Quietly, girls,” Lady Tremayne admonished. “You’ll wake His Grace.”

Finally, one of the girls nearly broke the precious slipper, causing the Grand Duke to leap out of the chair in alarm. And so, of course, he could no longer pretend to be asleep. He reluctantly prepared to depart. Hobbs the footman rushed to open the door for him. Once beyond that portal, all his careful plans would come crashing down. He felt the door was opening upon a prison cell rather than the bright morning air. He paused with his foot upon the threshold and turned.

“You are the only ladies in the household, I presume?” he asked hopelessly.

“There’s no one else, Your Grace,” Lady Tremayne responded smoothly.

He sighed in resignation. His failure would likely cost him his head. “Quite so. Good day,” he said, stalling a moment longer, searching the room one last time, praying she might be hiding behind a tattered tapestry. “Good Day,” he repeated and turned to go.

And then he heard her familiar lilting voice calling to him from the top of the stairs. “Your Grace! Your Grace! Wait!” she cried as she hurried down. “May I try it on?”

Masking his relief with a haughty demeanor, the Grand Duke strode toward the stair. Lady Tremayne looked aghast, but quickly recovered. “Oh, pay no attention to her. She’s only the scullery maid,” she said as she stepped into His Grace’s path.

“Madame, my orders were to interview every maiden!” the Duke said petulantly and pushed by her.

“Come my child,” he said to the lovely young girl now descending the stairs toward him. She was blond, angelic, barefoot and dressed in shameful rags. One glance at her dainty feet and tiny pink toes and he thought his heart would stop.

At a sign from the Grand Duke, Hobbs the footman rushed forward with the slipper. But Lady Tremayne, in a final act of desperation, cruelly stuck out her walking stick and tripped him as he passed. The slipper tumbled through the air and smashed into a thousand pieces on the marble floor at the foot of the stairs.

“Oh no!” the Duke cried, seeing all his plans smashed into as many tiny shards as the glass slipper. “The king! What will he say?”

Lady Tremayne smiled in grim satisfaction.

“But perhaps, if it would help…” the girl began.

“No, no! Nothing can help now,” the Duke wept as he picked up the fragments of the slipper and clutched them to his breast, almost forgetting himself in his grief. “Nothing!”

“But you see, I have the other slipper,” the girl said as she removed a tiny glass shoe from the pocket of her tattered apron.

The Grand Duke leaped to his feet, took the slipper from the maid’s hand, and guided it onto her tiny outstretched foot. It fit as though made for her. Lady Tremayne gasped in surprise. Mmes. Drusilla and Anastasia burst into anguished tears.

“Oh, no!” they wept. “Not her!”

The Grand Duke was saved! “Come with me, my child, at once,” he shouted joyfully. “Away, to the castle! The prince and the king await!”

Hobbs the footman took the slipper as the Duke lifted the barefoot young woman over the shards of the first broken slipper and danced with her to the door. The Tremayne girls cried like a pair of peacocks hanging upside-down while being beaten with buggy whips. Lady Tremayne clutched at her throat as though all the air had been sucked from the room.

The Duke set the beautiful young maid on her feet outside the door. She turned and looked back at her step mother and two step sisters. “Goodbye, Step Mother,” she said sweetly. “I shan’t ever forget you.”

Taking her by the hand, the Duke led her to his waiting carriage – a small, black four wheeler with a pair of restless white horses in silver harness. Hobbs rushed ahead to open the door for them, while the driver lifted the reins and smiled as though at some secret joke. The Duke and the maid climbed into the carriage. Hobbs handed the slipper to the Duke, closed the door, and climbed on behind. The driver cracked his whip and the carriage lurched into motion.

Cinderella looked back at the chateau where she’d spent her entire miserable life, and at the three people who had made her entire life so miserable. They stood at the door, the sisters loudly blaming each other and exchanging frightful thudding bare-knuckled blows. Lady Tremayne stared after Cinderella as though she suspected the girl of arranging the whole unlikely affair.

Cinderella sank back in the soft cushions of the carriage seat and propped her feet in the Duke’s lap. “Christ, I’m glad that’s over,” she sighed. “Do you know, the bitch actually locked me in the tall tower! I was sure she recognized me in that dress last night.”

“But that was a brilliant stroke, Cindy, pulling out the second slipper when the old bat tripped Hobbs and broke the first one. I could have murdered her then, I swear to God,” the Duke said as he massaged Cinderella’s dainty pink toes. “Hobbs really is a clumsy oaf. I shall have him hanged when we get home.”

Cinderella glanced around at the inside of the carriage, frowning. “Why are you riding around in this ratty old heap? Where is your carriage?”

“Still being repainted,” the Duke said. “We could hardly drive up in that white-and-gold monstrosity from last night. People might suspect our collusion.”

As the Grand Duke sat with Cinderella’s feet in his lap, he recalled the first time he’d seen her – barefoot and lovely, walking through the market with a new mop, a string of louts stumbling over their tongues behind her. She was enchanting to behold, even amidst such squalor. But more than her exquisite beauty, her dainty feet were what truly captured his heart and his imagination, the way the mud squeezed between her toes, the shapely curve of her ankle.

He’d ordered his coachman to follow her at a safe distance until they were well outside the village. On a lonely stretch of road leading up to her family chateau, they’d caught up to her. The Duke offered her a ride and she’d accepted with a shy smile. A perfect picture of innocence, childlike and pure, she’d climbed inside and sat down with the mop between her mud-spattered legs.

But she, of course, had seen through the Duke from the very beginning, taken the measure of him and guessed at his most secret desires. “Take me for a ride,” she’d said even before the carriage set off. “I don’t want to go home right away.”

“Won’t your mother be worried?” he’d asked.

“My mother is dead. I live with my Step Morther. But I don’t care. All she can do is beat me when I get home,” she’d said with a sigh. “She’ll do that no matter when I arrive.”

“Your step mother beats you, child?”

“Every day,” she’d said. “My step sisters, too. I wouldn’t mind so much, if only they were pretty. For you see, they make me undress first. My wicked step mother believes that sin is best driven out when the sinner stands naked as Eve beside the Tree of Knowledge with the fruit still upon her lips, ashamed and exposed.”

The Duke had sat up at this news, his mind whirling. He had rapped the roof of the carriage and shouted directions to the coachman.

They’d gone to the deer park behind the castle. The old king never hunted there anymore and the prince was away at school. And as Cinderella crouched there on all fours on the floor of his grand coach with her bedraggled skirt flung up over her back, she’d whispered huskily into his ear, “Oh Dooky Dooky, tish I’m tea.” And he’d gone mad, simply mad, promising her anything, everything within his power.

They planned the whole thing that night, right there in the coach in the middle of the deer park, surrounded by trees and rutting deer. Mostly, Cinderella had planned it, with here and there a suggestion from the Duke. The glass slippers, especially, had been her idea. But for the most part, she wasn’t sure how or even if the Duke could pull it off, not until last night when the dress and slippers arrived at the back door, with a note saying that a coach and four would pick her up after her step mother had departed.

“What are we going to tell everyone now?” the Duke asked as Cinderella dug her toes into his crotch. He squirmed with delight and lightly stroked her trim ankles.

“People are suckers for romance and magic,” she laughed. “We’ll tell them my fairy godmother visited me, fixed me up with the coach and four, footman, coachman, dress and slippers. That I had to leave the ball before the stroke of midnight because that’s when the magic spell would end. And that I lost a slipper as I fled.”

“They’ll never believe it,” the Duke said.

“Oh, but they will, Dooky dear. People love fairy tales, gobble them up by the bookload. Every scullery maid from here to Provence dreams of being carried away by a handsome prince. By tomorrow night, they’ll be singing my story throughout the kingdom – but only if you tell them, dear sweet Dooky of mine. You’re my fairy godmother.”

“Fairy godmother indeed!” the Duke laughed thoughtfully.

Digging her toes deeper into the Duke’s pants, Cinderella continued, “The king did as I expected, ordering you to find the maiden who wore the slipper and declaring that she would marry the prince. That was the whole point of my leaving the slipper behind.”

“I see it now, though at the time, I wondered why you insisted on glass slippers,” the Duke said.

“Glass slippers can’t be stretched. And who else in the kingdom has feet as small as mine?”

“Or as delicious?” the Duke groaned in delight. “Besides, the prince is simply mad about you, can’t live without you, he says. So you’re set.”

“That’s another thing that worried me, Dooky,” Cinderella said. This pet name of hers gave the Duke a wonderful tickly feeling inside. He pressed himself against her probing toes and she smiled. “How in heaven’s name did you know the prince would fall for me? Everything hinged on that, and to be honest, I had my doubts.”

“Well, you are a lovely girl, my child,” the Duke said a bit breathlessly. “But if I may be so bold, I happen to know that the prince and I share a… particular fancy,” he said.

Cinderella raised her foot and twinkled her pert, fleshy digits before the Duke’s nose. “These?” she giggled.

“Indeed!” the Duke sighed lustily. His tongue darted out and briefly probed between her toes. “That’s another reason why the glass slippers were so perfect. I knew as soon as the prince caught sight of your marvelous toes, he wouldn’t be able to resist.” He slurped her big toe into his mouth and sucked it greedily.

“Oh, those horrible slippers! I couldn’t get out of them soon enough. Let me tell you, it wasn’t easy dropping that slipper on the stair so it looked like an accident. I thought I was going to pull the damn thing off.” She extracted her toe from his mouth like a cork from a bottle, then returned her foot to his lap. He stiffened in his seat and bit his lower lip. His monocle dropped from his eye. “Even so, the Prince might have chosen another girl before I even arrived at the ball. There must be a hundred girls in the kingdom with small feet,” Cinderella said.

“Thankfully, yes, though none so tiny or so fine. I must confess, I resorted to magic, my love,” the Duke said shudderingly. “Before the ball, I slipped the prince a love potion infused with your pubic hair. Just to make doubly sure this would work.”

“Oh Dooky!” Cinderella shrieked. “I wondered what you wanted with that! I thought it was just another of your silly fancies.”

“I love it when you call me Dooky, Cindy,” the Duke sighed.

“And I love you, Dooky dear. Once more unto the breach, before I’m married? For old time’s sake?”

He nodded and rapped his knuckles on the roof of the carriage. “To the deer park!” he shouted.

Cinderella slipped out of her skirt, while the Duke unbuttoned his trousers. She untied her apron and flung it on the seat. The Duke leaned back to watch her while he fondled himself. She ripped her blouse apart so that the cheap buttons popped in every direction. One struck him on the monocle with a tiny tik.

“I won’t need that anymore,” she giggled and flung the tattered blouse out the window of the moving carriage.

“Put on the apron, my dear,” the Duke said. “It becomes you.”

She obliged with a sly smile, then resumed her seat across from him, settling her long blond hair so that it lay across her small, pert breasts. She picked up the glass slipper, considered it a moment, then hung it from his noble rod of office.

“It’s yours,” she said. “A gift from me to thee.”

“Thank you, my princess,” he sighed.


In the years to come, Princess Cinderella never forgot the Grand Duke and all he’d done for her. Neither did she forget her step mother, the Lady Tremayne, or the shrill harpies that were her step sisters, Drusilla and Anastasia. The story of her ill treatment at their hands had already spread far and wide by the time her honeymoon was over. But everyone was amazed at Cinderella’s generosity and kindness, for she always made sure that the Lady Tremayne and her two wretched daughters were invited to the very best parties and balls.

T’was not kindness that inspired Cinderella to place them at the top of her invitation list. Well she knew that Lady Tremayne had spent the last penny of her father’s fortune years ago and could ill afford the expensive dresses and jewelry required of those invited to the castles and chateaus of the kingdom’s nobles. Cinderella made sure that only a pittance of the allowance the king allotted to Lady Tremayne, as a royal cousin of the princess, ever found its way into her grasping claws. Instead, every Christmas she sent the lion’s share of Lady Tremayne’s allowance to the Grand Duke, wrapped up in a bundle along with a generous supply of her own soiled underwear. Mme. Drusilla and Mme. Anastasia grew ever more hideous as the unkind years passed, and they never married – Cindy made sure of that as well. And so at each party the three Tremayne women arrived wearing patched rags and paste jewels, and the entire kingdom thought Cinderella a saint for inviting them.

But Lady Tremayne knew, even if her idiot daughters didn’t, that Cinderella’s kindness was the cruelest punishment of all.

© 2007 Jeff Crook

Friday, November 06, 2009

Across World Bubbles - Le Grande Finale

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

"And that is exactly how it happened," Tasslehoff said as he leaned across the bar at The Inn of the Last Home in Solace. His very dear friend, Tanis Halfelven, smiled into his beard and tried very hard not to laugh out loud. But Caramon, another of Tas' dear friends, could not control himself. He roared right in the kender's indignant face.

"It's true, every bit of it!" Tas complained. "The Mouser's lightning bolt struck the iron rod and suddenly I found myself sliding across a cellar in the castle of Lord Gunthar uth Wistan. I crashed into a rack of crystal flagons. You should have seen the look on Wills the butler's face. I thought he was going to explode.

"So after I left Lord Gunthar's castle - he was very sorry to see me go, by the way - I made my way to Mount Nevermind and returned the boots of speeding to Delorianiusian, their gnomish inventor. Then I came straight home, only stopping once in Palanthas to visit Lady Crysania. She invited me to tea."

"I'm sure she did," Caramon snickered.

"And these boots," Tanis said. "The gnomes invented them and they actually worked?"

"Not exactly," Tas said with a slight blush. "It was probably my fault, but I was supposed to be able to travel at the speed of sound. I always wanted to hear what I sounded like, so I thought I could say something, then rush around in front of it to see how it sounded. And I actually did get to hear my own voice - in Ninguable's cave, only I think the rocks did something to my voice because my voice is really much deeper than that. Isn't it? Anyway, the boots needed an additional boost of energy to work and that's why I had to get struck by lightning and how I ended up in Lankhmar adventuring with Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser."

Le Finis

Across World Bubbles - Pt 8

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

By a slim shaft of light shining from the black lantern at his knees, Mouser examined the run sent to him by his wizardly mentor, Sheelba of the Eyeless Face. Although he prided himself on his sorcerous skills, the Mouser hadn't the first clue what spell reading the rune might unleash. That it must be a spell of tremendous might and power, he had no doubt, else Sheelba wouldn't have bothered him with it.

He only paused for a moment to wonder about Ninguable's vague warning against it. These two archmagi, Ninguable and Sheelba, were great and ancient enemies in all things magical, insanely jealous and suspicious of one another, and forever trying to out do the other in the placing of impossible geas and quest burdens upon Fafhrd and himself. He knew the wisdom of never ignoring one of Ning's warnings, particularly since a maddening premonition of disaster had come upon him less than an hour ago. So strong was his premonition that he would almost have broken the rune tablet across his knee, were he not even more curious than frightened to try it out.

Hearing shouting voices and a cry of pain, the Mouser glanced around the chimney behind which he hid in time to see a peculiar line of fire streaking across the rooftop toward him. "Vile sorcery!" he hissed as he gripped his rune. "Best to battle sorcery with sorcery."

At the same time, he heard Fafhrd bellow, "Now, Mouser! Now!"

He threw open the grate on his black lantern and shone the shaft of light full on the magical tablet in his hand, and in a sonorous voice that made even his neck-hairs prickle, he intoned the rune inscribed thereon. It began to twist and flame, sparkle and bedazzle (a sure sign of progress), while in his mind he felt the compulsion to lift his hand and point to where he desired the thurmatalurgical blast to fall. So he pointed at the rapidly advancing line of mystical fire.

A flaming blue levinbolt erupted from the Mouser's fingertips, splintered across the dark and smoky sky, and converged upon its hapless target, illuminating for one horrific moment the startled face of the kender before it blasted him to smithereens.

Mouser stood aghast, the breeze of the blast blowing to him the acrid scent of scorched iron and burned hair. Moments later, Fafhrd slid to a stop beside him.

"I saw the blast, Mouser. Good work," his friend congratulated him. He glanced around for the kender and said, "But where's Tasslehoff?"

"I'm sorry, Fafhrd," Mouse sighed. "I've done it again, it seems."

Read the Grand Finale

Across World Bubbles - Pt 7

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

After what seemed an eternity, the black bag was ripped from Tasslehoff's head. He'd been trussed up and bound most cruelly, heaved and hauled by malicious hands, then force to lie in such an imprisoned state for hours upon a cold stone floor. Tasslehoff had nearly perished of boredom. Someone went through all his pouches without his helps, all the while asking him questions in a language who couldn't understand in the least.

For his part, he heaped upon their heads the blackest curses imaginabler, drawing deeply upon his vast repertoire of taunts, but they didn't understand a word he said, while the few insults he managed to sputter in his awkward pigeon Lankhmarese lacked the true power and creativity to produce the sort of results he desired. However, his shrill voice alone was enough to set the teeth of his captors on edged, so after the first hour they gagged him.

Now, he stood in an office, blinking in the light of a bank of black candles. The gag was cut from his mouth. Before him sat a man of ponderous girth and weighty jowls, who sucked gravy from his fingers as he considered the kender before him. His name was Dravis, and he was third sub-lieutenant in charge of riff-raff at the Thieves' Guild in Lankhmar. He'd never seen a kender before, but he had heard news of one, quite recently in fact. Tasslehoff would have been insulted to know he was riff-raff.

"Tell me again, Tasslehoff Burrfoot of Solace-on-Krynn," Dravis said in pigeon Lankhmarese. "What business have you with thouse two notorious freelancers, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser?"

"What do mean you?" Tas asked. "And how do from I'm where you know?"

"I know many things. It is my business to know them. I know, for example, that you carried upon your insignificant person a letter of introduction to those aforementioned scoundrels, penned by that sorcerous villain, Ninguable of the Seven Eyes. What exactly is your connection to him? Is the Grandmaster of Forgeries considering an assault upon the Guild?"

"Am I supposed to know how?" Tas asked. "Mouser the Gray Fafhrd and were going to home me find the way help, all is that!"

"Oh, come now. I think you know all too well. I heard about your little foray of freelance robbery from my Guild brothers in Ilthmar. From what hell did you crawl, you little thief, and what are your intentions here?"

"Thief!" Tasslehoff shrieked in his mother tongue. "Why you low-born, chicken-hearted, son of a goblin and a..."

"Aieeee!" Dravis screamed as he ducked under his desk. "Guards! The hell-spawned imp tries to cast his infernal spells upon me!" Four brawny thugs dashed into the room and snatched Tasslehoff up my his knees and elbows. "Take this monster to the roof and garotte him!"

Kicking, screaming, hurling curses and insults in a voice pitched to make dogs howl in agony, Trasslehoff was hauled down torch-lit passages and up narrow, steep stairs. He was still furious about being labeled a thief, and by a thief, no less! At the end of a long hall, the guards stopped, and one of them used a tall iron rod to push up a trap door in the ceiling. Another propped a ladder in the hole and a third climbed up on the roof while the fourth maintained his hold on the kender's topknot.

"Hurry up," said a muffled voice from above, so the guard began to climb, dragging Tasslehoff by his hair up the ladder. As he neared the top, a huge hand reached down, grasped Tas by the collar, and hauled him up. He was roughly deposited on his feet. Tas gasped at the giant figure towering over him, grimly silhouetted against the newly-risen gibbous moon.

"Ffrd!" he cried through his gag.

Fafhrd grinned as he kicked the trap door, smashing the guard across the head. They heard him tumble down the ladder with a great cry. The first guard who had gone up lay sprawled on the roof, his eyes rolled up in his head. Fafhrd quickly untied the giggling kender, ripping the ropes apart as easily as Caramon had ever done.

Suddenly, the trap door flew open again, shoved below by the iron rod. Swift as a bolt of lightning, Fafhrd snatched it from the guard's hands and smashed him in the teeth with it. He tossed the rod to Tas and jumped on top of the door to hold it down.

"See that tall chimney yonder," he said to Tas.

Tas looked and saw the one he indicated. "Yes, do I?" he said.

"You run that way as quick as you can, whilst I guard your retreat. Mouser's over there, and he'll cover us both with blasts of his sorcerous artillery.

"Thank you," Tas said as he gratefully shook the big Northerner's hand.

"My pleasure, little imp," Fafhrd answered. Two leaden missiles whistled agrily over their heads, and Fafhrd returned their fire with his long bow, even as the door beneath him began to thump and crack with the blows of many hammers.

A dagger-wielding thief crept from the shadows of a rooftop water tank. Perhaps he'd come up through some other hole, or perhaps he had been guarding another section of the roof. Tas swung the iron rod at his knees and was rewarded with a terrific roar of pain. Still gripping the rod, he ran toward the chimney where the Mouser waited. At the edge of the roof, another guard leapt into his path, but with a deft thrust of his pole he sent the poor fellow plummeting to the alley below. A clay sling bullet buzzed his topknot. He planted the pole at the roof's cornice and vaulted over the narrow gap, landing at a full run, blazing a trail in his magical boots across the next roof.

Read Part 8

Across World Bubbles - pt 6

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

After having separated to baffle pursuit, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser met in Dim Lane before the iron-reinforced curtained doorway of the Silver Eel, possibly an even more seedy tavern than the Lamprey. Fafhrd pushed aside the heavy drapery, admitting his compatriot into the close confines of the smoky common room. They took up their abode in an empty booth and ordered wine to slake their heroic thirsts.

After they had drunk, Fafhrd removed a scroll from his belt and laid it on the table before the Mouser. It was a most unusual scroll, crafted of some silvery scaly material, neither parchment nor metal. It reminded the Mouser of dragon skin. "I found this in my pocket," Fafhrd said.

The Mouser gingerly lifted the thing with two fingertips and unscrolled it. They leaned their heads together to read:

Greetings Gentle Son,

Let us suppose for a moment that you and your gray companion were lost in a strange world quite unlike those others you've visited, in that upon arriving there you knew nothing of it, neither its cities nor its languages, its peoples or its gods. And let us suppose that you met there a most kind and generous host who took you in and treated you as though you were his own beloved sons, and that this adoptive father happened to be the greatest wizard to ever have lived in any of the known or unknown worlds...
They scanned ahead a bit, then read...

Take care of this small wanderer from another world. Protect him with your very life, and as a great personal favor to me, help him find his way home - a world with the uncouth name of Krynn (please don't laugh). He is a greater weaver of preposterous lies and bald-faced forgeries than even your friend and accomplice, the Mouser Gray. But before you send him on his world-hopping way, the three of you might see to a small matter, that of a princess in Ool Hrusp who has gone astray and threatens to remain unmarried upon assuming the throne from her decrepit father: a sort of virgin queen, if such a thing can be imagined. Also, if it is not too much trouble...
The narrative continued for several more feet, detailing various impossible quests for the three to undertake, if they were in the neighborhood. The letter was signed with a seven-armed swastika, one of the many sigils used by Ninguable of the Seven Eyes. Also, there was a postscript, hastily penned:

P.S. Beware of Sheelba's rune!

"He must mean this," the Mouser said as he laid a small clay tablet on the table. One edge was caked with a gray and salty mud, and its upward face was carved with a queer rune. "I found it in my pocket, not unlike your scroll."

"Nimble little fellow," Fafhrd commented.

"So where do you suppose this Tasslehoof has gone?" Mouser wondered.

"Tasslehoff: two ef's and one oh. Ning's handwriting is atrocious. I suspect the creature was nabbed by those Guild bravos, thinking he was our accomplice." Fafhrd rubbed his head as though it ached him, then took another long pull of wine. As he thumped his cup to the table, he sighed, "I suppose we shall have to rescue him, lest Ning place a curse on us."

"Another foray against Thieves' Guild?" Mouser groaned.

"It would seem we are forever doomed to enter that accursed den," Fafhrd said.

Mouser thoughtfully tapped his teeth as he reread Ninguable's missive. "Perhaps after we've rescued him, we could take the chap straight home, bypassing all of Ning's quests. This Krynn sounds like an interesting place, though I don't quite understand what could be so wonderful about a dish of spiced potatoes."

"Different people, different customs. I wonder why Ninguable even bothered to mention it."

"Most likely to fire our curiosity. Flights of dragons in the sky, he says. Preposterous. It might be worth investigating, if only to debunk it," the Mouser said. "It's a wonder old Ning doesn't have a cave somewhere that leads to Krynn."

"He probably does. He just wants us to come to him before he tells us of it. Shall we hie ourselves to Thieves' Guild?" Fafhrd asked.

"If we must," Mouse said.

"Besides, the little thief has stolen my dagger."

"Mine, as well."

Read Part 7

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Across World Bubbles, Pt 5

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

At the corner of Cash and Whore, in the city of Lankhmar, there stands a tavern seedier than most, known to its patrons as the Golden Lamprey. In nearby Plague Court, a shadow passed unnoticed in the dark and slipped up Bones Alley, skirted a drunk (or perhaps it was a corpse) and stopped outside the door of the aforementioned tavern. It dodged aside as a man in browned-iron cuirass staggered outside, cradling a jug of fortified wine and mumbling to himself.

Strangely, the drunkard appeared to sober instantly upon breathing the fog-shrouded night air. He unbent his back, whistled thrice like a shrieking night hawk, and darted down Bones Alley where his whistles had been answered by two hoots of an owl. After observing this odd assignation of bird imitators, the shadow ducked through the curtained doorway and revealed itself to be none other than Tasslehoff Burrfoot, though being unfamiliar with the kender race, at first no one paid him any mind.

The common room was thick with the smoke of a dozen different fires, be they candles or torches or strange, water-bubbling pipes smoked by dreamy-eyed men of the Eastern Lands. The air reeked with centuries of sour wine, sourer beer, and spilled blood. A dancing girl, clad in nought but a girdle of copper coins, sauntered past the kender, causing his eyes to start from his head (to think of Tika so dressed, or undressed). She gave his pouches an appraising glance as she fingered the tiny, razor-sharp blade secreted in her limited attire. A score of villains sat about the room in various stages of debauchery, from roaring to snoring.  Tas scanned the room, finally spotting a pair of men closeted in a far corner booth almost hidden within the pall of smoke. They perfectly fit the description given to him by Ninguable of the Seven Eyes.

One was a big, strapping fellow with coppery-red hair and ominously bulging biceps. He wore a barbaric assortment of piecemeal armor, thick copper torcs on his arms, and a big, dangerous sword almost as long as the kender was tall. His companion in wine was a short, wiry chap clad entirely in gray, from his ratty gray boots to his mousy gray hood. At his side he wore the slimmest of rapiers, likewise sheathed in furry gray, and between pulls on a leathern jack of red wine, he fiddled with a needle-sharp dagger. Tasslehoff instantly recognize the twin expressions of monstrous boredom upon their faces - an affliction he soon hoped to remedy.

During his brief stay in Ilthmar, Tasslehoff had picked up a basic grasp of pigeon Lankhmarese, and so as he strode confidently across the room, he called out to the two heroes in the corner booth, "Ho, Fahrad! Hist, Mouser Gray! I've wizards mentorly from your greetings!"

But the objects of his greetings understood him well enough to know that their respective sorcerous grandfathers had need of them, probably to perform some impossible quest of derring-do which only they could do. This small, elfin creature with its bulging pouches, atrocious grammar and barbaric accent was obviously a demon conjured from some diminutive hell and sent to retrieve them.

Fafhrd broke for the front door while the Mouser dove for the back. Tasslehoff nearly split himself in two trying to chase them both. But the Mouser found his exit blocked by a crowd of club-wielding thugs, while Fafhrd escape was similarly stymied by a gang of sword-brandishing bravos.

"By Cat's Claw," swore the Mouser, "what have we done to earn the Guild's ire this time?"

"By Heartseeker, I know not, but they've employed the Slayer's Brotherhood to make us pay for it," Fafhrd replied.

Tasslehoff, with his limited understanding their language, was rather slow in responding. "By Rabbitslayer, take us not alive they will!" he cried. Before he could further declaim his warrior solidarity, the twain crushed him between them, as they took up familiar positions back-to-back and prepared to face the onslaught.

"Who the devil was that small chap, anyway?" Fafhrd asked as he drew his sword.

"Mog only knows," Mouser said as he brandished his own. "Some imp of Ninguable's sending, I deem. I don't see him anymore, but I feel his hands in my pockets."

"Likewise. He must have more arms than were first apparent." Now completely surrounded, their stalkers prepared to attack. "On guard, Gray One, they seem to have some grudge against us."

And so began one of the more terrific battles in recent Lankhmar history, during which those two most notable swordsmen, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, barely escaped with their lives. But they gave better than they were dealt, littering the floor with corpses and filling the night with screams. For some months afterwards there was a noticeable shortage of brawny cutthroats for hire, as well as a sharp drop in muggings, burglaries, and midnight robberies. As for our two heroes, an otherwise boring evening had taken an exciting, if mystifying turn.

For Ninguable's imp had vanished as quickly as he'd appeared.

Read Part 6

Across World Bubbles - Pt 4

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

So it was the next day that Tasslehoff set off for fabulous Lankhmar, with specific instructions to avoid, at all costs, vile Ilthmar and its rat gods. Naturally, that is exactly where Tas went first, as he very much wanted to meet a rat god. He soon became embroiled in a scandalous adventure that is still denied in the most vehement language by the government of that ill-famed city.

After his escape from their attempt to sacrifice him to their shark gods - who were second only to their rat gods, Tasslehoff was once more on his way to fabulous Lankhmar. In his pouch he carried letters of introduction, delicately penned on a scroll of dragon skin, to the pair of heroes he was supposed to find. He crossed the Sinking Land, very much puzzled why it should bear such an extraordinary name, until it began to sink, much to his delight and consternation. Luckily, he still had on his magic boots and so was able to escape the demise suffered by Pharoah's army in another time and another world.

His boots brought him safely and speedily to the Causey Road through the Great Salt Marsh on a day when a brisk noreaster was blowing; the gale had all the huge salt spiders sailing through the air depending from their spiderwebbery parachutes. Tasslehoff ducked and dodged them as he walked, looking rather like a short, drunken sailor who hadn't got his land legs.

As he neared the Marsh Gate of the great city of Lankhmar, the sun had begun to set and the brisk noreaster had blown itself round to a sultry southwester. He found the road blocked by some poor peasant's hut that had been wrecked by the gale. It lay on its side in the middle of the road with its four stilts sticking up in the air, like some huge dead dog. Before it sat its wretched owner, grieving over his loss. So heavily robed and cowled was he that Tas could see neither his face nor his hands.

"I'm so sorry about your house," Tas commisserated. Now, Tas, being a stranger to this world, didn't know that nobody, but Nobody, lived in the Great and Extraordinarily Dangerous and Deadly Salt Marsh, except Sheelba of the Eyeless Face - the other greatest sorcerer in all Nehwon and bitter rival of Ninguable of the Seven Eyes. So he was completely unprepared for the rude response he received.

"What do you care?" barked a harsh voice from deep within the hood.

"Well, I..." Tas stammered. "Look, you, I was only trying to help!"

"You want to help? Give me a chicken foot, or get lost," the rude and strangely hooded creature shrieked.

"A chicken foot!" Tas exclaimed. "I have the very thing." He sat down in the middle of the muddy road and began to joyfully rummage through his pouches. All kinds of interesting new things had fallen into them, and what with the exciting misunderstanding back in Ilthmar and his harrowing escape from certain doom, he hadn't had time yet to go through them. With giggles of deltight, he pulled one oddity after another from his pouches, each one stranger than the next, and taking time (now that his voice had recovered) to explain in great detail the history and lineage of each new surprise to the ever-more-irritated archmage.

At long last, at the bottom of the fourth pouch he discovered that which he sought. "One chicken's foot, slightly used," he said as he flourished the grisly relic before him. "I seem to remember there was a voodoo priest from tropic Klesh whose performance I was priveleged to witness in the bazaar in Ilthmar. For some strange reason, he couldn't understand a word I said, and this led to the most unfortunate..."

"Thank you very much," Sheelba snapped as he snatched the chicken's foot from Tasslehoff's grasp. The archmage shuffled over to his shattered hut and attached the foot to the base of the fifth - and broken - stilt. It grafted itself to the wood as if by magic. With a shudder of strange life, the entire hut scrambled to its chicken feet, much to Tasslehoff's delight. A ladder dropped down from the doorway and Sheelba ascended with a movement unnervingly spiderish, and there in the darkened doorway he sat, or squatted.

"You're welcome," Tas said. "And goodbye," he waved sadly as the hut strode off into the swamp. Before it had gone completely out of sight, it turned. Something sailed out and landed with a thump at Tasslehoff's feet. He picked it up and found that it was a clay tablet carved with a single, strange rune. Looking at it made his insides turn upside down, so he quickly looked away.

"Find the Gray Mouser," a scratchy voice called from the distance. "Likely he's drunk to the point of uselessness in a tavern called The Golden Lamprey. He'll be in the company of an equally useless sot name Fafhrd."

"But Ninguable has already sent me to find them," Tas said.

"Ha!" Sheelba laughed like a cracking stone. "Give him that rune; the Mouser, not Fafhrd. Tell him Sheelba sent it with very deepest regards and under no circumstances should he attempt to use it." He laughed again, briefly, with a sound like shattering glass. The hut turned and vanished into the thorn and seahawk trees which grew thick as weeds throughout the Great Salt Marsh.

Read Part 5, if you dare

Across World Bubbles - Pt 3

Part 1

Part 2

Tasslehoff sat back and enjoyed the swirling lightshow of pale stars swirling in the darkness. Truly, they were lovely, forming all sorts of interesting constellations. Eventually they began to fade, until there were but seven faintly-greenish orbs which outlined the shape of an hourglass. This gave Tas quite a start and he stood up, ready to run if need be. "Raistlin?" he whispered, somewhat nervously.

"Come closer, my child," answered a sugary voice. The stars swam apart, forming a rough circle. "Allow me to ascertain what manner of creature you might be. What manner of creature might you be, anyway?"

"Tasslehoff Burrfoot," Tas said. He extended his hand toward the faint lights. "I'm a kender."

"A kender? A kender. Where have I heard that name before? Hmmm. I receive ever so many visitors. Tell me, kender, where are you from?"

"I'm from Kendermore," Tas said. One of the glowing stars moved ahead of the other six and examined his extended hand. Tas realized with a gulp that it was some sort of eye. "Lately of Solace?" he offered when the owner of the eye, or eyes, didn't answer. Finally, he said, "Krynn?"

Four more eyes shot and looked Tas up and down, topknot to toe, while a fifth peered suspiciously over the kender's shoulder. "Krynn, you say!" the septioccular creature chuckled. Tas heard a peculiar scratching noise which he imagined to be two or more thorny old hands rubbing together. "My goodness, aren't we a long way from home!"

"Are we?" Tas said. "Why, yes we are. I mean, I am. I think." He shoved his hand into his pocket and tried to be as casual as possible for a kender. "Where am I, by the way?"

"Where are you? Specifically, you are in the secret caverns of the greatest wizard who has ever lived - Ninguable of the Seven Eyes, whose splendiferous presence you now behold before you..."

"But I thought Fistandantalus... er, I mean Raistlin, was the greatest wizard who ever..." Tas began to say.

"Bah! A mere upstart. Pray do not interrupt. As I was saying, specifically, you are in my cave. Locally, you are east of Ilthmar. And generally, well, generally I must never tell you where you are. No, never," the darksome creature chuckled.

"Why not? I'm not in The Abyss again, am I?" Tas cried.

"The Abyss! Heavens, no. What would make you think such a thing? Are you quite sure you're not an adept?"

"No, I'm quite certain I am a kender, though I was a mouse once. That was the time I was in the Tower of High Sorcery. I would love to tell you..."

"That does sound interesting," Ninguable interrupted. "Perhaps some day you will have time to regale me with your unlikely tale. But first you must tell me about your being in The Abyss. I recall, you specifically said in The Abyss again. What did you mean by again? It is not often that one receives information from The Abyss - so few escape it," he cooed as he edged his ponderous bulk closer.

"Well, first I think I should start at the beginning," Tas said, realizing with sudden delight that here before him sat, or squatted, a person, or creature, or something anyway, who had never heard a single one of his stories. Ever!

"Please, the beginning is as good a place as any," Ninguable agreed as he edged even closer.

And so began one of the most unusual and unprecedented conversations that has ever taken place on, or in, any of the known worlds. Its proportions were epic, lasting one day and one night for each of Ninguable's seven eyes, and by the end of the seventh night, poor Tasslehoff's voice was little more than a hoarse croak. Incredibly, he had exhausted all of his stories, and for perhaps the first time in recorded history two of the most unlikely of events occured at precisely the same time - a kender stopped talking even though no one told him to, and Ninguable of the Seven Eyes, Gossiper of the Gods, found himself speechless. Tas slowly toppled onto his side and fell asleep.

Of course, this world of Nehwon (and many another) had gone to pot during those seven days without Ning's careful tinkering. He needed a hero or three to put things right. Before him snored one - namely, Tasslehoff Burrfoot of Krynn - and he knew just where he could acquire the other two.

Read Part 4