“The Sadness of the Executioner”

And so, on the occasion of the Weird Tradition taking up discussion of this story, I return – reluctantly – to Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series.

As it turns out, I go a long way back with this story. It was in the book that exposed me to sword-and-sorcery, Flashing Swords #1. I didn’t feel any need to immediately follow up with any of the authors in that book, though, later I did become a fan of Poul Anderson. Now, Flashing Swords #2 . . . I immediately sought out Michael Moorcock’s Elric series after coming across it there.

Review: “The Sadness of the Executioner”, Fritz Leiber, 1973.

I admit I didn’t mind this one so much. 

It’s fairly short and about Death at the heart of Shadowland. But even Death has his masters, and he’s got a quota of people whose expiration date has arrived in the city of Nerewhon:

“one hundred sixty peasants and savages, twenty nomads, ten warriors, two beggars, a whore, a merchant, a priest, an aristocrat, a craftsman, a king, and two heroes.”

Mostly easy, but things are running close. He’s got 12 heartbeats to dispatch the last 12 people.

And, so, he turns attention to two heroes or, at least, Fafhrd and Mouser. Sure, they had “served him well and in vastly more varied fashion than the Mad Duke” whom he just killed. But even pawns that get promoted have to be taken off the board eventually.

And so Death moves another piece to make the strike: Esafem, one time harem-girl, now mutilated and depiliated and on a second career as a blacksmith, scantily clad in metal breast cups from which poisoned – if alluring – needles jut.

(Spoilers ahead)

Of course, our two heroes manage to beat their fate.

Death is sort of a stand-in for an author. He likes to use the material at hand to make his deaths believeable, but, if pressed for time (as happens when Fafhrd and the Mouser evade their deaths) he’ll resort to deus ex machina as he does by killing two paragons of chivalry – which Fafhrd and the Mouser definitely aren’t.  It’s interesting that even Death has his masters and will eventually die.

2 thoughts on ““The Sadness of the Executioner”

  1. Bookstooge March 24, 2023 / 4:18 am

    I think I’ve read F&M short story in some collection and while I don’t remember the details, I do remember that it didn’t make me want to go seek out more of their adventures.

    • marzaat March 24, 2023 / 7:26 pm

      I like Leiber — except for his most famous work which his the Fafhrd and Mouser series.

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