“Now I have heard tell that death sometimes calls to a man in a voice only he can hear. Then he must rise and leave his friends and go to whatever place death shall bid him, and there meet his doom. Has death ever called to you in such a fashion?”
Fafhrd might have laughed, but did not. The Mouser had a witty rejoinder on the tip of his tongue, but instead he heard himself saying: “In what words might death call?”
“That would depend,” said the small man. “He might look at two such as you and say the Bleak Shore. Nothing more than that. The Bleak Shore. And when he said it three times you would have to go.”
“The Bleak Shore.” With a third mention of this strange land, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser leave Lankhmar on a red-sailed sloop, braving wave and storm to arrive at the cursed land. As the months grow long, the city believes the two men to be dead, but the last of Fafhrd’s Mingol crew turns up in the city, spreading tales of their journey.
At the far end of the Bleak Shore’s bonefield, a voice greets Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. “For warriors, a warrior’s doom.” Then armored beasts rise from the sands…
One of the shortest stories in Fritz Leiber’s classic Swords Against Death, “The Bleak Shore” is one of the most memorable, hooking readers instantly with Death’s call to action. While the plot is a stripped down version of what we’ve seen before in , where Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are hypnotized into some strange adventure and escape due to the Mouser’s keen eye, the mood utterly captivates. Starting with Death’s eerie introduction and summons, to the slave sailor’s spooky sea tale, and, finally, the battle on the beach, each scene builds up the dread that Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser might not return. While the Mingol sailor’s sea story might violate the well-worn adage, “show, don’t tell,” the extra distance it places between the readers and Fafhrd and the Mouser only heightens the aloofness inflicted by whatever spell compels them. Not only that, but the contrast between the safe passage through the storms on the way to the Bleak Shore compared havoc wreaked as Mingol and his sailors try to escape the cursed shore amplifies the suspense created by the ominous knowledge that someone wanted Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser to arrive. It is good to know the rules of storytelling, but it is better to when to break them for effect.
After five stories full of mesmerized characters, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser need to do something about their willpower saves.