Mort, p.34
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       Mort, p.34

         Part #4 of Discworld series by Terry Pratchett
 
Page 34

  Although the scythe isnt pre-eminent among weapons of war, anyone who has been on the wrong end of, say, a peasants revolt will know that in skilled hands it is fearsome. Once its owner gets it weaving and spinning no-one – including the wielder – is quite certain where the blade is now and where it will be next.

  Death advanced, grinning. Mort ducked a cut at head height and dived sideways, hearing a tinkle behind him as the tip of the scythe caught a glass on the nearest shelf. . . .

  . . . in a dark alley in Morpork a night soil entrepreneur clutched at his chest and pitched forward over his cart. . . .

  Mort rolled and came up swinging the sword double-handed over his head, feeling a twang of dark exhilaration as Death darted backwards across the checkered tiles. The wild swing cut through a shelf; one after another its burden of glasses started to slide towards the floor. Mort was dimly aware of Ysabell scurrying past him to catch them one by one. . . .

  . . . across the Disc four people miraculously escaped death by falling. . . .

  . . . and then he ran forward, pressing home his advantage. Deaths hands moved in a blur as he blocked every chop and thrust, and then changed grip on the scythe and brought the blade swinging up in an arc that Mort sidestepped awkwardly, nicking the frame of an hourglass with the hilt of his sword and sending it flying across the room. . . .

  . . . in the Ramtop mountains a tharga-herder, searching by lamplight in the high meadows for a lost cow, missed his footing and plunged over a thousand foot drop. . . .

  . . . Gutwell dived forward and caught the tumbling glass in one desperately outstretched hand, hit the floor and slid along on his stomach. . . .

  . . . a gnarled sycamore mysteriously loomed under the screaming herder and broke his fall, removing his major problems – death, the judgement of the gods, the uncertainty of Paradise and so on – and replacing them with the comparatively simple one of climbing back up about one hundred feet of sheer, icy cliff in pitch darkness.

  There was a pause as the combatants backed away from each other and circled again, looking for an opening.

  Surely theres something we can do? said Keli.

  Mort will lose either way, said Ysabell, shaking her head. Cutwell shook the silver candlestick out of his baggy sleeve and tossed it thoughtfully from hand to hand.

  Death hefted the scythe threateningly, incidentally smashing an hourglass by his shoulder. . . .

  . . . in Bes Pelargic the Emperors chief torturer slumped backwards into his own acid pit. . . .

  . . . and took another swing which Mort dodged by sheer luck. But only just. He could feel the hot ache in his muscles and the numbing greyness of fatigue poisons in his brain, two disadvantages that Death did not have to consider.

  Death noticed.

  YIELD, he said. I MAY BE MERCIFUL.

  To illustrate the point he made a roundarm slash that Mort caught, clumsily, on the edge of his sword. The scythe blade bounced up, splintered a glass into a thousand shards. . . .

  . . . the Duke of Sto Helit clutched at his heart, felt the icy stab of pain, screamed soundlessly and tumbled from his horse. . . .

  Mort backed away until he felt the roughness of a stone pillar on his neck. Deaths glass with its dauntingly empty bulbs was a few inches from his head.

  Death himself wasnt paying much attention. He was looking down thoughtfully at the jagged remains of the Dukes life.

  Mort yelled and swung his sword up, to the faint cheers of the crowd that had been waiting for him to do this for some time. Even Albert clapped his wrinkled hands.

  But instead of. the tinkle of glass that Mort had expected there was – nothing.

  He turned and tried again. The blade passed right through the glass without breaking it.

  The change in the texture of the air made him bring the sword around and back in time to deflect a vicious downward sweep. Death sprang away in time to dodge Morts counter thrust, which was slow and weak.

  THUS IT ENDS, BOY.

  Mort, said Mort. He looked up.

  Mort, he repeated, and brought the sword up in a stroke that cut the scythes handle in two. Anger bubbled up inside him. If he was going to die, then at least hed die with the right name.

  Mort, you bastard! he screamed, and propelled himself straight towards the grinning skull with the sword whirring in a complicated dance of blue light. Death staggered backwards, laughing, crouching under the rain of furious strokes that sliced the scythe handle into more pieces.

  Mort circled him, chopping and thrusting and dully aware, even through the red mists of fury, that Death was following his every move, holding the orphaned scytheblade like a sword. There was no opening, and the motor of his anger wouldnt last. Youll never beat him, he told himself. The best we can do is hold him off for a while. And losing is probably better than winning. Who needs eternity, anyway?

  Through the curtain of his fatigue he saw Death unfold the length of his bones and bring his blade aund in a slow, leisurely arc as though it was moving through treacle.

  Father! screamed Ysabell.

  Death turned his head.

  Perhaps Morts mind welcomed the prospect of the life to come but his body, which maybe felt it had most to lose in the deal, objected. It brought his sword arm up in one unstoppable stroke that flicked Deaths blade from his hand, and then pinned him against the nearest pillar.

  In the sudden hush Mort realised he could no longer hear an intrusive little noise that had been just at his threshold of hearing for the last ten minutes. His eyes darted sideways.

  The last of his sand was running out.

  STRIKE.

  Mort raised the sword, and looked into the twin blue fires.

  He lowered the sword.

  No.

  Deaths foot lashed out at groin height with a speed that even made Cutwell wince.

  Mort silently curled into a ball and rolled across the floor. Through his tears he saw Death advancing, scytheblade in one hand and Morts own hourglass in the other. He saw Keli and Ysabell swept disdainfully aside as they made a grab for the robe. He saw Cutwell elbowed in the ribs, his candlestick clattering across the tiles.

  Death stood over him. The tip of the blade hovered in front of Morts eyes for a moment, and then swept upwards.

  Youre right. Theres no justice. Theres just you.

  Death hesitated, and then slowly lowered the blade. He turned and looked down into Ysabells face. She was shaking with anger.

  YOUR MEANING?

  She glowered up at Deaths face and then her hand swung back and swung around and swung forward and connected with a sound like a dice box.

  It was nothing like as loud as the silence that followed it.

  Keli shut her eyes. Cutwell turned away and put his arms over his head.

  Death raised a hand to his skull, very slowly.

  Ysabells chest rose and fell in a manner that should have made Cutwell give up magic for life.

  Finally, in a voice even more hollow than usual, Death said: WHY?

  You said that to tinker with the fate of one individual could destroy the whole world, said Ysabell.

  YES?

  You meddled with his. And mine. She pointed a trembling finger at the splinters of glass on the floor. And those, too.

  WELL?

  What will the gods demand for that?

  FROM ME?

  Yes!

  Death looked surprised. THE GODS CAN DEMAND NOTHING OF ME. EVEN GODS ANSWER TO ME, EVENTUALLY.

  Doesnt seem very fair, does it? Dont the gods bother about justice and mercy? snapped Ysabell. Without anyone quite noticing she had picked up the sword.

  Death grinned. I APPLAUD YOUR EFFORTS, he said, BUT THEY AVAIL YOU NAUGHT. STAND ASIDE.

  No.

  YOU MUST BE AWARE THAT EVEN LOVE IS NO DEFENCE AGAINSTME. I AM SORRY.

  Ysabell raised the sword. You re sorry?

  STAND ASIDE, I SAY.

  No. Youre j
ust being vindictive. Its not fair!

  Death bowed his skull for a moment, then looked up with his eyes blazing.

  YOU WILL DO AS YOU ABE TOLD.

  I will not.

  YOURE MAKING THIS VERY DIFFICULT.

  Good.

  Deaths fingers drummed impatiently on the scytheblade, like a mouse tapdancing on a tin. He seemed to be thinking. He looked at Ysabell standing over Mort, and then turned and looked at the others crouching against a shelf.

  No, he said eventually. No. I CANNOT BE BIDDEN.

  I CANNOT BE FORCED. I WILL DO ONLY THAT WHICH I KNOW TO BE RIGHT.

  He waved a hand, and the sword whirred out of Ysabells grasp. He made another complicated gesture and the girl herself was picked up and pressed gently but firmly against the nearest pillar.

  Mort saw the dark reaper advance on him again, blade swinging back for the final stroke. He stood over the boy.

  YOU DONT KNOW HOW SORRY THIS MAKES ME, he aid.

  Mort pulled himself on to his elbows.

  I might, he said.

  Death gave him a surprised look for several seconds, and then started to laugh. The sound bounced eerily around the room, ringing off the shelves as Death, still laughing like an earthquake in a graveyard, held Morts own glass in front of its owners eyes.

  Mort tried to focus. He saw the last grain of sand skid down the glossy surface, teeter on the edge and then drop, tumbling in slow motion, towards the bottom. Candlelight flickered off its tiny silica facets as it spun gently downward. It landed soundlessly, throwing up a tiny crater.

  The light in Deaths eyes flared until it filled Morts vision and the sound of his laughter rattled the universe.

  And then Death turned the hourglass over.

  Once again the great hall of Sto Lat was brilliant with candlelight and loud with music.

  As the guests flocked down the steps and descended on the cold buffet the Master of Ceremonies was in non-stop voice, introducing those who, by reason of importance or simple absent-mindedness, had turned up late. As for example:

  The Royal Recogniser, Master of the Queens Bedchamber, His Ipississumussness Igneous Cutwell, Wizard Ist Grade (UU).

  Cutwell advanced on the royal couple, grinning, a large cigar in one hand.

  May I kiss the bride? he said.

  If its allowed for wizards, said Ysabell, offering a cheek.

  We thought the fireworks were marvellous, said Mort. And I expect theyll soon be able to rebuild the outer wall. No doubt youll be able to find your way to the food.

  Hes looking a lot better these days, said Ysabell behind her fixed grin, as Cutwell disappeared into the throng.

  Certainly theres a lot to be said for being the only person who doesnt bother to obey the queen, said Mort, exchanging nods with a passing nobleman.

  They say hes the real power behind the throne, said Ysabell. An eminence something.

  Eminence grease, said Mort absently. Notice how he doesnt do any magic these days?

  Shutuphereshecomes.

  Her Supreme Majesty, Queen Kelirehenna I, Lord of Sto Lat, Protector of the Eight Protectorates and Empress of the Long Thin Debated Piece Hubwards of Sto Kerrig.

  Ysabell bobbed. Mort bowed. Keli beamed at both of them. They couldnt help noticing that she had come under some influence that inclined her towards clothes that at least roughly followed her shape, and away from hairstyles that looked like the offspring of a pineapple and a candyfloss.

  She pecked Ysabell on the cheek and then stepped back and looked Mort up and down.

  Hows Sto Helit? she said.

  Fine, fine, said Mort. Well have to do something about the cellars, though. Your late uncle had some unusual – hobbies, and. . . .

  She means you, whispered Ysabell. Thats your official name.

  I preferred Mort, said Mort.

  Such an interesting coat of arms, too, said the queen. Crossed scythes on an hourglass rampant against a sable field. It gave the Royal College quite a headache.

 
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