Mort, Page 2Terry Pratchett
Most of the stallkeepers had packed up and gone. Even the hot meat pie man had stopped crying his wares and, with no regard for personal safety, was eating one.
The last of Morts fellow hopefuls had vanished hours ago. He was a wall-eyed young man with a stoop and a running nose, and Sheepridges one licensed beggar had pronounced him to be ideal aterial. The lad on the other side of Mort had gone off to be a toymaker. One by one they had trooped off – the masons, the farriers, the assassins, the mercers, coopers, hoodwinkers and ploughmen. In a few minutes it would be the new year and a hundred boys would be starting out hopefully on their careers, new worthwhile lives of useful service rolling out in front of them.
Mort wondered miserably why he hadnt been picked. Hed tried to look respectable, and had looked all prospective masters squarely in the eye to impress them with his excellent nature and extremely likeable qualities. This didnt seem to have the right effect.
Would you like a hot meat pie? said his father.
Hes selling them cheap.
No. Thank you.
I could ask the man if he wants an apprentice, he said, helpfully. Very reliable, the catering trade.
I dont think he does, said Mort.
No, probably not, said Lezek. Bit of a one-man business, I expect. Hes gone now, anyway. Tell you what, Ill save you a bit of mine.
I dont actually feel very hungry, dad.
Theres hardly any gristle.
No. But thanks all the same.
Oh. Lezek deflated a little. He danced about a bit to stamp some life back into his feet, and whistled a few tuneless bars between his teeth. He felt he ought to say something, to offer some kind of advice, to point out that life had its ups and downs, to put his arm around his sons shoulder and talk expansively about the problems of growing up, to indicate – in short – that the world is a funny old lace where one should never, metaphorically speaking, be so proud as to turn down the offer of a perfectly good hot meat pie.
They were alone now. The frost, the last one of the year, tightened its grip on the stones.
High in the tower above them a cogged wheel went clonk, tripped a lever, released a ratchet and let a heavy lead weight drop down. There was a dreadful metallic wheezing noise and the trapdoors in the clock face slid open, releasing the clockwork men. Swinging their hammers jerkily, as if they were afflicted with robotic arthritis, they began to ring in the new day.
Well, thats it, said Lezek, hopefully. Theyd have to find somewhere to sleep – Hogswatch-night was no time to be walking in the mountains. Perhaps there was a stable somewhere. . . .
Its not midnight until the last stroke, said Mort, distantly.
Lezek shrugged. The sheer strength of Morts obstinacy was defeating him.
All right, he said. Well wait, then.
And then they heard the clip-clop of hooves, which boomed rather more loudly around the chilly square than common acoustics should really allow. In fact clip-clop was an astonishingly inaccurate word for the kind of noise which rattled around Morts head; clip-clop suggested a rather jolly little pony, quite possibly wearing a straw hat with holes cut out for its ears. An edge to this sound made it very clear that straw hats werent an option.
The horse entered the square by the Hub road, steam curling off its huge damp white flanks and sparks striking up from the cobbles beneath it. It trotted proudly, like a war charger. It was definitely not wearing a straw hat.
The tall figure on its back was wrapped up gainst the cold. When the horse reached the centre of the square the rider dismounted, slowly, and fumbled with something behind the saddle. Eventually he – or she – produced a nosebag, fastened it over the horses ears, and gave it a friendly pat on the neck.
The air took on a thick, greasy feel, and the deep shadows around Mort became edged with blue and purple rainbows. The rider strode towards him, black cloak billowing and feet making little clicking sounds on the cobbles. They were the only noises – silence clamped down on the square like great drifts of cotton wool.
The impressive effect was rather spoilt by a patch of ice.
It wasnt exactly a voice. The words were there all right, but they arrived in Morts head without bothering to pass through his ears.
He rushed forward to help the fallen figure, and found himself grabbing hold of a hand that was nothing more than polished bone, smooth and rather yellowed like an old billiard ball. The figures hood fell back, and a naked skull turned its empty eyesockets towards him.
Not quite empty, though. Deep within them, as though they were windows looking across the gulfs of space, were two tiny blue stars.
It occurred to Mort that he ought to feel horrified, so he was slightly shocked to find that he wasnt. It was a skeleton sitting in front of him, rubbing its knees and grumbling, but it was a live one, curiously impressive but not, for some strange reason, very f rightening.
THANK YOU, BOY, said the skull. WHAT IS YOUR NAME?
Uh, said Mort, Mortimer . . . sir. They call me Mort.
WHAT A COINCIDENCE, said the skull. HELP ME UP, PLEASE.
The figure rose unsteadily, brushing itself down. Now Mort could see there was a heavy belt around its waist, from which was slung a white-handled sword.
I hope you are not hurt, sir, he said politely.
The skull grinned. Of course, Mort thought, it hasnt much of a choice.
NO HARM DONE, I AM SURE. The skull looked around and seemed to see Lezek, who appeared to be frozen to the spot, for the first time. Mort thought an explanation was called for.
My father, he said, trying to move protectively in front of Exhibit A without causing any offence. Excuse me, sir, but are you Death?
CORRECT. FULL MARKS FOR OBSERVATION, THAT BOY.
My father is a good man, he said. He thought for a while, and added, Quite good. Id rather you left him alone, if its all the same to you. I dont know what you have done to him, but Id like you to stop it. No offence meant.
Death stepped back, his skull on one side.
I HAVE MERELY PUT US OUTSIDE TIME FOR A MOMENT, he said. HE WILL SEE AND HEAR NOTHING THAT DISTURBS HIM. NO, BOY, IT WAS YOU I CAME FOR.
YOU ARE HERE SEEKING EMPLOYMENT?
Light dawned on Mort. You are looking for an apprentice? he said.
The eyesockets turned towards him, their actinic pinpoints flaring.
Death waved a bony hand. There was a wash of purple light, a sort of visible pop, and Lezek unfroze. Above his head the clockwork automatons got on with the job of proclaiming midnight, as Time was allowed to come creeping back.
Didnt see you there for a minute, he said. Sorry – mind must have been elsewhere.
I WAS OFFERING YOUR BOY A POSITION, Said Death. I TRUST THAT MEETS WITH YOUR APPROVAL?
What was your job again? said Lezek, talking to a black-robed skeleton without showing even a flicker of surprise.
I USHER SOULS INTO THE NEXT WORLD, Said Death.
Ah, said Lezek, of course, sorry, should have guessed from the clothes. Very necessary work, very steady. Established business?
IHAVE BEEN GOING FOR SOME TIME, YES, said Death.
Good. Good. Never really thought of it as a job for Mort, you know, but its good work, good work, always very reliable. Whats your name?
Dad — said Mort urgently.
Cant say I recognise the firm, said Lezek. Where are you based exactly?
FROM THE UTTERMOST DEPTHS OF THE SEA TO THE HEIGHTS WHERE EVEN THE EAGLE MAY NOT GO, said Death.
Thats fair enough, nodded Lezek. Well, I —
Dad — said Mort, pulling at his fathers coat.
Death laid a hand on Morts shoulder.
WHAT YOUR FATHER SEES AND HEARS IS NOT WHAT YOU S
EE AND HEAR, he said. DO NOT WORRY HIM. DO YOU THINK HE WOULD WANT TO SEE ME – IN THE FLESH, AS IT WERE?
But youre Death, said Mort. You go around killing people!
I? KILL? said Death, obviously offended. CERTAINLY NOT. PEOPLE GET KILLED, BUT THATS THEIR BUSINESS. I JUST TAKE OVER FROM THEN ON. AFTER ALL, ITD BE A BLOODY STUPID WORLD IF PEOPLE GOT KILLED WITHOUT DYING, WOULDNT IT?
Well, yes — said Mort, doubtfully.
Mort had never heard the word intrigued. It was not in regular use in the family vocabulary. But a spark in his soul told him that here was something weird and fascinating and not entirely horrible, and that if he let this moment go hed spend the rest of his life regretting it. And he remembered the humiliations of the day, and the long walk back home. . . .
Er, he began, I dont have to die to get the job, do I?
BEING DEAD IS NOT COMPULSORY.
And . . . the bones . . . ?
NOT IF YOU DONT WANT TO.
Mort breathed out again. It had been starting to prey on his mind.
If father says its all right, he said.
They looked at Lezek, who was scratching his beard.
How do you feel about this, Mort? he said, with the brittle brightness of a fever victim. Its not everyones idea of an occupation. Its not what I had in mind, I admit. But they do say that undertaking is an honoured profession. Its your choice.
Undertaking? said Mort. Death nodded, and raised his finger to his lips in a conspiratorial gesture.
Its interesting, said Mort slowly. I think Id like to try it.
Where did you say your business was? said Lezek. Is it far?
NO FURTHER THAN THE THICKNESS OF A SHADOW, aid Death. WHERE THE FIRST PRIMAL CELL WAS, THERE WAS I ALSO. WHERE MAN IS, THERE AM I.
WHEN THE LAST LIFE CRAWLS UNDER FREEZING STARS, THERE WILL I BE.
Ah, said Lezek, you get about a bit, then. He looked puzzled, like a man struggling to remember something important, and then obviously gave up.
Death patted him on the shoulder in a friendly fashion and turned to Mort.
HAVE YOU ANY POSSESSIONS, BOY?
Yes, said Mort, and then remembered. Only I think I left them in the shop. Dad, we left the sack in the clothes shop!
Itll be shut, said Lezek. Shops dont open on Hogswatch Day. Youll have to go back the day after tomorrow – well, tomorrow now.
IT is OF LITTLE ACCOUNT, said Death. WE WILL LEAVE NOW. NO DOUBT I WILL HAVE BUSINESS HERE SOON ENOUGH.
I hope youll be able to drop in and see us soon, said Lezek. He seemed to be struggling with his thoughts.
Im not sure that will be a good idea, said Mort.
Well, goodbye, lad, said Lezek. Youre to do what youre told, you understand? And – excuse me, sir, do you have a son?
Death looked rather taken aback.
NO, he said, I HAVE NO SONS.
Ill just have a last word with my boy, if youve no objection.
THEN I WILL GO AND SEE TO THE HORSE, said Death, with more than normal tact.
Lezek put his arm around his sons shoulders, with some difficulty in view of their difference in height, and gently propelled him across the square.
Mort, you know your uncle Hemesh told me about this prenticing business? he whispered.
Well, he told me something else, the old man confided. He said its not unknown for an apprentice to inherit his masters business. What do you think of that, then?
Uh. Im not sure, said Mort.
Its worth thinking about, said Lezek.
I am thinking about it, father.
Many a young lad has started out that way, Hemesh said. He makes himself useful, earns his masters confidence, and, well, if theres any daughters in the house . . . did Mr, er, Mr say anything about daughters?