Mort, p.5
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       Mort, p.5

         Part #4 of Discworld series by Terry Pratchett
 
Page 5

  After a while he became aware that someone else was watching him. The girl Ysabell was lean-big on the half-door, her chin in her hands.

  Are you a servant? she said.

  Mort straightened up.

  No, he said, Im an apprentice.

  Thats silly. Albert said you cant be an apprentice.

  Mort concentrated on hefting a shovelful into the wheelbarrow. Two more shovelfuls, call it three if its well pressed down, and that means four more barrows, all right, call it five, before Ive done halfway to the . . .

  He says, said Ysabell in a louder voice, that apprentices become masters, and you cant have more than one Death. So youre just a servant and you have to do what I say.

  . . . and then eight more barrows means its all done all the way to the door, which is nearly two-thirds of the whole thing, which means. . . .

  Did you hear what I said, boy?

  Mort nodded. And then itll be fourteen more barrows, only call it fifteen because I havent swept up properly in the corner, and. . . .

  Have you lost your tongue?

  Mort, said Mort mildly.

  She looked at him furiously. What?

  My name is Mort, said Mort. Or Mortimer. Most people call me Mort. Did you want to talk to me about something?

  She was speechless for a moment, staring from his face to the shovel and back again.

  Only Ive been told to get on with this, said Mort.

  She exploded.

  Why are you here? Why did Father bring you here?

  He hired me at the hiring fair, said Mort. All the boys got hired. And me.

  And you wanted to be hired? she snapped. Hes Death, you know. The Grim Reaper. Hes very important. Hes not something you become, hes something you are.

  Mort gestured vaguely at the wheelbarrow.

  I expect itll turn out for the best, he said. My father always says things generally do.

  He picked up the shovel and turned away, and grinned at the horses backside as he heard Ysabell snort and walk away.

  Mort worked steadily through the sixteenths, eighths, quarters and thirds, wheeling the barrow out through the yard to the heap by the apple tree.

  Deaths garden was big, neat and well-tended. It was also very, very black. The grass was black. The flowers were black. Black apples gleamed among the black leaves of a black apple tree. Even the air looked inky.

  Alter a while Mort thought he could see – no, he couldnt possibly imagine he could see . . . different colours of black.

  Thats to say, not simply very dark tones of red and green and whatever, but real shades of black. A whole spectrum of colours, all different and all – well, black. He tipped out the last load, put the barrow away, and went back to the house.

  ENTER.

  Death was standing behind a lectern, poring over a map. He looked at Mort as if he wasnt entirely there.

  YOU HAVENT HEARD OF THE BAY OF MANTE, HAVE YOU? he said.

  No, sir, said Mort. FAMOUS SHIPWRECK THERE.

  Was there?

  THERE WILL BE, said Death, IF I CAN FIND THE DAMN PLACE.

  Mort walked around the lectern and peered at the map.

  Youre going to sink the ship? he said.

  Death looked horrified.

  CERTAINLY NOT. THERE WILL BE A COMBINATION OF BAD SEAMANSHIP, SHALLOW WATER AND A CONTRARY WIND.

  Thats horrible, said Mort. Will there be many drowned?

  THATS UP TO FATE, said Death, turning to the bookcase behind him and pulling out a heavy gazetteer. THERES NOTHING I CAN DO ABOUT IT. WHAT Is THAT SMELL?

  Me, said Mort, simply.

  AH. THE STABLES. Death paused, his hand on the spine of the book. AND WHY DO YOU THINK I DIRECTED YOU TO THE STABLES? THINK CAREFULLY, NOW.

  Mort hesitated. He had been thinking carefully, in between counting wheelbarrows. Hed wondered if it had been to coordinate his hand and eye, or teach him the habit of obedience, or bring home to him the importance, on the human scale, of small tasks, or make him realise that even great men must start at the bottom. None of these explanations seemed exactly right.

  I think . . . he began.

  YES?

  Well, I think it was because you were up to your knees in horseshit, to tell you the truth.

  Death looked at him for a long time. Mort shifted uneasily from one foot to the other.

  ABSOLUTELY CORRECT, snapped Death. CLARITY OF THOUGHT. REALISTIC APPROACH. VERY IMPORTANT IN A JOB LIKE OURS.

  Yes, sir. Sir?

  HMM? Death was struggling with the index.

  People die all the time, sir, dont they? Millions. You must be very busy. But —

  Death gave Mort the look he was coming to be familiar with. It started off as blank surprise, flickered briefly towards annoyance, called in for a drink at recognition and settled finally on vague forbearance.

  BUT?

  Id have thought youd have been, well, out and about a bit more. You know. Stalking the streets. My grannys almanacks got a picture of you with a scythe and stuff.

  I SEE. I AM AFRAID IT IS HARD TO EXPLAIN UNLESS YOU KNOW ABOUT POINT INCARNATION AND NODE FOCUSING. I DONT EXPECT YOU DO?

  I dont think so.

  GENERALLY IM ONLY EXPECTED TO MAKE AN ACTUAL APPEARANCE ON SPECIAL OCCASIONS.

  Like a king, I suppose, said Mort. I mean, a king is reigning even when hes doing something else or asleep, even. Is that it, sir?

  ITLL DO, said Death, rolling up the maps. AND NOW, BOY, IF YOUVE FINISHED THE STABLE YOU CAN GO AND SEE IF ALBERT HAS ANY JOBS HE WANTS DOING. IF YOU LIKE, YOU CAN COME OUT ON THE ROUND WITH ME THIS EVENING.

  Mort nodded. Death went back to his big leather book, took up a pen, stared at it for a moment, and then looked up at Mort with his skull on one side.

  HAVE YOU MET MY DAUGHTER? he said.

  Er. Yes, sir, said Mort, his hand on the doorknob.

  SHE IS A VERY PLEASANT GIRL, said Death, BUT I THINK SHE QUITE LIKES HAVING SOMEONE OF HER OWN AGE AROUND TO TALK TO.

  Sir?

  AND, OF COURSE, ONE DAY ALL THIS WILL BELONG TO HER.

  Something like a small blue supernova flared for a moment in the depths of his eyesockets. It dawned on Mort that, with some embarrassment and complete lack of expertise, Death was trying to wink.

  In a landscape that owed nothing to time and space, which appeared on no map, which existed only in those far reaches of the multiplexed cosmos known to the few astrophysicists who have taken really bad acid, Mort spent the afternoon helping Albert plant out broccoli. It was black, tinted with purple.

  He tries, see, said Albert, flourishing the dibber. Its just that when it comes to colour, he hasnt got much imagination.

  Im not sure I understand all this, said Mort. Did you say he made all this?

  Beyond the garden wall the ground dropped towards a deep valley and then rose into dark moorland that marched all the way to distant mountains, jagged as cats teeth.

  Yeah, said Albert. Mind what youre doing with that watering can.

  What was here before?

  I dunno, said Albert, starting a fresh row. Firmament, I suppose. Thats the fancy name for raw nothing. Its not a very good job of work, to tell the truth. I mean, the gardens okay, but the mountains are downright shoddy. Theyre all fuzzy when you get up close. I went and had a look once.

  Mort squinted hard at the trees nearest him. They seemed commendably solid.

  Whatd he do it all for? he said.

  Albert grunted. Do you know what happens to lads who ask too many questions?

  Mort thought for a moment.

  No, he said eventually, what?

  There was silence.

  Then Albert straightened up and said, Damned if I know. Probably they get answers, and serve em right.

  He said I could go out with him tonight, said Mort.

  Youre a lucky boy then, arent you, said Albert vaguely, heading back for the cottage.

  Did he really make all
this? said Mort, tagging along after him.

  Yes.

  Why?

  I suppose he wanted somewhere where he could feel at home.

  Are you dead, Albert?

  Me? Do I look dead? The old man snorted when Mort started to give him a slow, critical look, and you can stop that. Im as alive as you are. Probably more.

  Sorry.

  Right. Albert pushed open the back door, and turned to regard Mort as kindly as he could manage.

  Its best not to ask all these questions, he said, it upsets people. Now, how about a nice fry-up?

  The bell rang while they were playing dominoes. Mort sat to attention.

  Hell want the horse made ready, said Albert. Come on.

  They went out to the stable in the gathering dusk, and Mort watched the old man saddle up Deaths horse.

  His names Binky, said Albert, fastening the girth. It just goes to show, you never can tell.

  Bulky tried to eat his scarf in an affectionate way.

  Mort remembered the woodcut in his grandmothers almanack, between the page on planting times and the phases of the moon section, showing Dethe thee Great Levyller Comes To Alle Menne. Hed stared at it hundreds of times when learning his letters. It wouldnt have been half so impressive if it had been generally known that the flame-breathing horse the spectre rode was called Binky.

  I would have thought something like Fang or Sabre or Ebony, Albert continued, but the master will have his little fancies, you know. Looking forward to it, are you?

  I think so, said Mort uncertainly. Ive never seen Death actually at work.

  Not many have, said Albert. Not twice, at any rate.

  Mort took a deep breath.

  About this daughter of his — he began.

  AH. GOOD EVENING, ALBERT, BOY.

  Mort, said Mort automatically.

  Death strode into the stable, stooping a little to clear the ceiling. Albert nodded, not in any subservient way, Mort noticed, but simply out of form. Mort had met one or two servants, on the rare occasions hed been taken into town, and Albert wasnt like any of them. He seemed to act as though the house really belonged to him and its owner was just a passing guest, something to be tolerated like peeling paintwork or spiders in the lavatory. Death put up with it too, as though he and Albert had said everything that needed to be said a long time ago and were simply content, now, to get on with their jobs with the minimum of inconvenience all round. To Mort it was rather like going for a walk after a really bad thunderstorm – everything was quite fresh, nothing was particularly unpleasant, but there was the sense of vast energies just expended.

  Finding out about Albert tagged itself on to the end of his list of things to do.

  HOLD THIS, said Death, and pushed a scythe into his hand while he swung himself up on to Binky. The scythe looked normal enough, except for the blade: it was so thin that Mort could see through it, a pale blue shimmer in the air that could slice flame and chop sound. He held it very carefully.

  RIGHT, BOY, said Death. COME ON UP. ALBERT. DONT WAIT UP.

  The horse trotted out of the courtyard and into the sky.

  There should have been a flash or rush of stars. The air should have spiralled and turned into speeding sparks such as normally happens in the common, everyday trans-dimensional hyper-jumps. But this was Death, who has mastered the art of going everywhere without ostentation and could slide between dimensions as easily as he could slip through a locked door, and they moved at an easy gallop through cloud canyons, past great billowing mountains of cumulus, until the wisps parted in front of them and the Disc lay below, basking in sunlight.

  THATS BECAUSE TIME IS ADJUSTABLE, said Death, hen Mort pointed this out. ITS NOT REALLY IMPORTANT.

  I always thought it was.

  PEOPLE THINK ITS IMPORTANT ONLY BECAUSE THEY INVENTED IT, said Death sombrely. Mort considered this rather trite, but decided not to argue.

 
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