The braziers in the Silver Eel could not press back the cold. So the tall swordsman and the small fought the chill with tankards of fiery red wine brought by Braggi, the tavern-master, who served his customers — the only two enduring the late hour and the cold — with a brusque efficiency.
“What is that I hear, Fafhrd?” asked the small, gray-clad man, one hand grasping the handle of his tankard, the other playing with the hilt of his dagger, Cat’s Claw. “Something tinkles, disturbing the silence of the night.”
“The clamor of your brain, Mouser,” replied the big northern barbarian. “It seldom lets you appreciate quiet.”
“Nay, oaf, listen.”
An almost musical jingling penetrated the Silver Eel from the street above. Sharing a brief glance, the twain arose and climbed up the steps. Facing the chill without complaint, they watched an astonishing apparition appear in the sky: a red sleigh flying through the gelid fogs of Lankhmar, drawn — or so it seemed — by deer, who’s harness jingled as their hoofs trod the sky. The sleigh slewed about and came down for a landing, runners crunching against the rime of ice frosting the cobbles. A stout, white-bearded man dressed in fur-accented red hauled back on the reins.
“One of yours?” The Gray Mouser asked. “He looks to have come from the Cold Waste. A relative, perhaps?”
“I know him not. None from Cold Circle would wear red; much too visible against the snow.”
“Verily. And had you such wonderful magic devices in the north, you’d never have journeyed to civilization. Perhaps then he is one of the gods in Lankhmar?”
“Certainly not one of the gods of Lankhmar. But observe, little companion, the bulk of that sack occupying the rear of the magical conveyance.”
“Booty,” Fafhrd confirmed.
“It strikes me, oversize companion, that the guardian of such a sack might appreciate a tankard of something warming on a night such as this.”
“A tankard to be drunk out of sight of sleigh, beasts, and bag.”
As the twain spoke, the rotund old gentleman leapt with surprising dexterity from his sleigh. With black-booted strides he approached.
“Ho ho,” he ejaculated, “you rascals. I have a suspicion this world is not Narnia.”
“No, my good fellow,” The Gray Mouser said. “Newhon.”
“Newhon? These Bubbles get ever more confusing. And yet, I do have business in Newhon this night.”
“Bubbles?” The Mouser asked, intrigued despite himself. “Come within, let us discourse on worlds and Bubbles. Let me buy you a tipple of something warming while you regain your bearings.”
“Wellll,” the red-suited man temporized. “I suppose the reindeer could use a breather.”
“Reindeer, you say,” quoth Fafhrd. “Allow me to scrounge up some feed, whilst you take your repose, sir.”
“A good deed,” the man said. “You may call me Claus. They will eat most anything, but they are particularly fond of carrots.”
Fafhrd nodded, then moved sure-footedly across the ice. As Mouser led the newcomer downstairs, he overheard Claus ask, “Have you been good?”
“Good?” came The Gray Mouser’s rejoinder, “in what fashion? Concerning wine, women, and weapons I have been good. Exceptional one might say. Now, in a metaphysical, not to say moral, sense…”
Fafhrd chuckled, approaching the sleigh. The reindeer snorted. Fafhrd kept to the rear of the train, away from the animals. He sprang up into the driver’s seat, then turned his attention to the enormous sack. What treasure might it conceal?
He leaned over the partition between front and rear of the sleigh, worked both hands around the soft, velvety material, getting a firm grip. He heaved. And the sack heaved back. Fafhrd found himself pulled off balance. He let go, returning to his starting position. He frowned. He’d not allow some puffed-up satchel to outmuscle him. This time he knelt. He tested his grip, braced, then pulled. He might as well have attempted to pull free an elephant’s trunk. And yet he hauled grimly on the sack.
The next thing Fafhrd knew, he was lying flat on his back, feeling the cold seep up from the iced cobbles. The sack sprawled atop him, pressing him down in a smothering embrace. He fought, pushing at it. Yet it merely yielded where he pushed, pressing down inexorably everywhere else. He could hear the reindeer snorting and stomping on the street.
“You two,” sounded Claus’ voice, as Fafhrd’s struggles grew more and more feeble, “are on the naughty list.”
The pressure vanished, as Claus, with one hand, raised the sack and deposited it in the back of the sleigh.
The Gray Mouser helped his companion arise. The two watched as Claus sprang nimbly into the sleigh and shook the reins. The sleigh rose from the street and circled over the heads of the twain, heading east.
They heard him exclaim as he drove out of sight, “Coal for Ningauble, and for Sheelba, anthracite.”
With apologies to the great Fritz Leiber.