Mort, p.8
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       Mort, p.8

         Part #4 of Discworld series by Terry Pratchett
 
Page 8

  And so Mort came at last to the river Ankh, greatest of rivers. Even before it entered the city it was slow and heavy with the silt of the plains, and by the time it got to The Shades even an agnostic could have walked across it. It was hard to drown in the Ankh, but easy to suffocate.

  Mort looked at the surface doubtfully. It seemed to be moving. There were bubbles in it. It had to be water.

  He sighed, and turned away.

  Three men had appeared behind him, as though extruded from the stonework. They had the heavy, stolid look of those thugs whose appearance in any narrative means that its time for the hero to be menaced a bit, although not too much, because its also obvious that theyre going to be horribly surprised.

  They were leering. They were good at it.

  One of them had drawn a knife, which he waved in little circles in the air. He advanced slowly towards Mort, while the other two hung back to provide immoral support.

  Give us the money, he rasped.

  Morts hand went to the bag on his belt.

  Hang on a minute, he said. What happens then?

  What?

  I mean, is it my money or my life? said Mort. Thats the sort of thing robbers are supposed to demand. Your money or your life. I read that in a book once, he added.

  Possibly, possibly, conceded the robber. He felt he was losing the initiative, but rallied magnificently. On the other hand, it could be your money and your life. Pulling off the double, you might say. The man looked sideways at his colleagues, who sniggered on cue.

  In that case — said Mort, and hefted the bag in one hand preparatory to chucking it as far out into the Ankh as he could, even though there was a reasonable chance it would bounce.

  Hey, what are you doing,said the robber. He started to run forward, but halted when Mort gave the bag a threatening jerk.

  Well, said Mort, I look at it like this. If youre going to kill me anyway, I might as well get rid of the money. Its entirely up to you. To illustrate his point he took one coin out of the bag and flicked it out across the water, which accepted it with an unfortunate sucking noise. The thieves shuddered.

  The leading thief looked at the bag. He looked at his knife. He looked at Morts face. He looked at his colleagues.

  Excuse me, he said, and they went into a huddle.

  Mort measured the distance to the end of the alley. He wouldnt make it. Anyway, these three looked as though chasing people was another thing they were good at. It was only logic that left them feeling a little stretched.

  Their leader turned back to Mort. He gave a final glance at the other two. They both nodded decisively.

  I think we kill you and take a chance on the money, he said. We dont want this sort of thing to spread.

  The other two drew their knives.

  Mort swallowed. This could be unwise, he said.

  Why?

  Well, I wont like it, for one.

  Youre not supposed to like it, youre supposed to – die, said the thief, advancing.

  I dont think Im due to die, said Mort, backing away. Im sure I would have been told.

  Yeah, said the thief, who was getting fed up with this. Yeah, well, you have been, havent you? Great steaming elephant turds!

  Mort had just stepped backwards again. Through a wall.

  The leading thief glared at the solid stone that had swallowed Mort, and then threw down his knife.

  Well, – – – – me, he said. A – – – – ing wizard. I hate – – – – ing wizards!

  You shouldnt – – – – them, then, muttered one of his henchmen, effortlessly pronouncing a row of dashes.

  The third member of the trio, who was a little slow of thinking, said, Here, he walked through the wall!

  And we bin following him for ages, too, muttered the second one. Fine one you are, Pilgarlic. I said I thought he was a wizard, only wizardsd walk round here by themselves. Dint I say he looked like a wizard? I said —

  Youre saying a good deal too much, growled the leader.

  I saw him, he walked right through the wall there —

  Oh, yeah?

  Yeah!

  Right through it, dint you see?

  Think youre sharp, do you?

  Sharp enough, come to that!

  The leader scooped his knife out of the dirt in one snaky movement.

  Sharp as this?

  The third thief lurched over to the wall and kicked it hard a few times, while behind him there were the sounds of scuffle and some damp bubbling noises.

  Yep, its a wall okay, he said. Thats a wall if ever I saw one. How dyou think they do it, lads?

  Lads?

  He tripped over the prone bodies.

  Oh, he said. Slow as his mind was, it was quick enough to realise something very important. He was in a back alley in The Shades, and he was alone. He ran for it, and got quite a long way.

  Death walked slowly across tiles in the lifetimer room, inspecting the serried rows of busy hourglasses. Albert followed dutifully behind with the great ledger open in his arms.

  The sound roared around them, a vast grey waterfall of noise.

  It came from the shelves where, stretching away into the infinite distance, row upon row of hourglasses poured away the sands of mortal time. It was a heavy sound, a dull sound, a sound that poured like sullen custard over the bright roly-poly pudding of the soul.

  VERY WELL, said Death at last. I MAKE IT THREE.

  A QUIET NIGHT.

  Thatd be Goodie Hamstring, the Abbott Lobsang again, and this Princess Keli, said Albert.

  Death looked at the three hourglasses in his hand.

  I WAS THINKING OF SENDING THE LAD OUT, he said.

  Albert consulted his ledger. Well, Goodie wouldnt be any trouble and the Abbott is what you might call experienced, he said. Shame about the princess. Only fifteen. Could be tricky.

  YES. IT is A PITY.

  Master?

  Death stood with the third glass in his hand, staring thoughtfully at the play of light across its surface. He sighed.

  ONE so YOUNG. . . .

  Are you feeling all right, master? said Albert, his voice full of concern.

  TIME LIKE AN EVER-ROLLING STREAM BEARS ALL ITS. . . .

  Master!

  WHAT? said Death, snapping out of it. Youve been overdoing it, master, thats what it is—

  WHAT ARE YOU BLATHERING ABOUT, MAN?

  You had a bit of a funny turn there, master.

  NONSENSE. I HAVE NEVER FELT BETTER. NOW, WHAT WERE WE TALKING ABOUT?

  Albert shrugged, and peered down at the entries in the book.

  Goodies a witch, he said. She might get a bit annoyed if you send Mort.

  All practitioners of magic earned the right, once their own personal sands had run out, of being claimed by Death himself rather than his minor functionaries.

  Death didnt appear to hear Albert. He was staring at Princess Kelis hourglass again.

  WHAT is THAT SENSE INSIDE YOUR HEAD OF WISTFUL REGRET THAT THINGS ARE THE WAY THEY APPARENTLY ARE?

  Sadness, master. I think. Now —

  I AM SADNESS.

  Albert stood with his mouth open. Finally he got a grip on himself long enough to blurt out, Master, we were talking about Mort!

  MORT WHO?

  Your apprentice, master, said Albert patiently. Tall young lad.

  OF COURSE. WELL, WELL SEND HIM.

  Is he ready to go solo, master? said Albert doubtfully.

  Death thought about it. HE CAN DO IT, he said at ast. HES KEEN, HES QUICK TO LEARN AND, REALLY, e added, PEOPLE CANT EXPECT TO HAVE ME RUNNING AROUND AFTER THEM ALL THE TIME.

  Mort stared blankly at the velvet wall hangings a few inches from his eyes.

  Ive walked through a wall, he thought. And thats impossible.

  He gingerly moved the hangings aside to see if a door was lurking somewhere, but there was nothing but crumbling plaster which had cracked away in places to reveal some dampis
h but emphatically solid brickwork.

  He prodded it experimentally. It was quite clear that he wasnt going back out that way.

  Well, he said to the wall. What now?

  A voice behind him said, Um. Excuse please?

  He turned around slowly.

  Grouped around a table in the middle of the room was a Klatchian family of father, mother and half a dozen children of dwindling size. Eight pairs of round eyes were fixed on Mort. A ninth pair belonging to an aged grandparent of indeterminate sex werent, because their owner had taken advantage of the interruption to get some elbow room at the communal rice bowl, taking the view that a boiled fish in the hand was worth any amount of unexplained manifestations, and the silence was punctuated by the sound of determined mastication.

  In one corner of the crowded room was a little shrine to Offler, the six-armed Crocodile God of Klatch. It was grinning just like Death, except of course Death didnt have a flock of holy birds that brought him news of his worshippers and also kept his teeth clean.

  Klatchians prize hospitality above all other virtues. As Mort stared the woman took another plate off the shelf behind her and silently began to fill it from the big bowl, snatching a choice cut of catfish from the ancients hands after a brief struggle. Her kohl-rimmed eyes remained steadily on Mort, however.

  It was the father who had spoken. Mort bowed nervously.

  Sorry, he said. Er, I seem to have walked through this wall. It was rather lame, he had to admit.

  Please? said the man. The woman, her bangles jangling, carefully arranged a few slices of pepper across the plate and sprinkled it with a dark green sauce that Mort was afraid he recognised. Hed tried it a few weeks before, and although it was a complicated recipe one taste had been enough to know that it was made out of fish entrails marinated for several years in a vat of shark bile. Death had said that it was an acquired taste. Mort had decided not to make the effort.

  He tried to sidle around the edge of the room towards the bead-hung doorway, all the heads turning to watch him. He tried a grin.

  The woman said: Why does the demon show his teeth, husband of my life?

  The man said: It could be hunger, moon of my desire. Pile on more fish!

  And the ancestor grumbled: I was eating that, wretched child. Woe unto the world when there is no respect for age!

  Now the fact is that while the words entered Morts ear in their spoken Klatchian, with all the curlicues and subtle diphthongs of a language so ancient and sophisticated that it had fifteen words meaning assassination before the rest of the world had caught on to the idea of bashing one another over the head with rocks, they arrived in his brain as clear and understandable as his mother tongue.

  Im no demon! Im a human! he said, and stopped in shock as his words emerged in perfect Klatch.

  Youre a thief? said the father. A murderer? To creep in thus, are you a tax-gatherer? His hand slipped under the table and came up holding a meat cleaver honed to paper thinness. His wife screamed and dropped the plate and clutched the youngest children to her.

  Mort watched the blade weave through the air, and gave in.

  I bring you greetings from the uttermost circles of hell, he hazarded.

  The change was remarkable. The cleaver was lowered and the family broke into broad smiles.

  There is much luck to us if a demon visits, beamed the father. What is your wish, O foul spawn of Offlers loins?

  Sorry? said Mort.

  A demon brings blessing and good fortune on the man that helps it, said the man. How may we be of assistance, O evil dogsbreath of the nether pit?

  Well, Im not very hungry, said Mort, but if you know where I can get a fast horse, I could be in Sto Lat before sunset.

  The man beamed and bowed. I know the very place, noxious extrusion of the bowels, if you would be so good as to follow me.

 
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