Dead Man's Curve
"... and once we get the two officials to agree, we won't have any problem signing back the cabbage fields to their private owners," theorized Mort, reading back on his notes. The carriage rocked as the horses in front walked slowly down the road pitted with holes. They could be called potholes, but they could be more accurately termed as "man-eating mudholes that burp after eating entire caravans".
"Of course," Ysabell answered sleepily, tucked up in her massively oversized skirts.
Mort wanted desperately to be home again; Susan was coming home from her boarding school in Quirm in a few days, and he wanted to see her... perhaps, one last time. He bit his lip uncertainly. "Ysabell, darling," he started, unsure of what to say.
"You know my biography, the one your father gave me for our wedding?"
She snapped to attention, very suddenly awake. "What about it?"
"Well...er... I was looking in it the other day, no reason in particular, just wondered what it was writing..."
"And I didn't want to worry you, but..."
Ysabell's voice became very calm and collected. "Mortimer, I want you to tell me this very minute precisely what was in that book. Now."
Silently he took it from his bag on the floor and handed it to her. She flipped though it, going straight to the place where the writing ended. She read, her alarm growing.
..."Mort!" she cried, peering down at the pages. Her eyes filled with tears. "There's only three pages left!"
"I know," hr said morosely. "I think that's about a week, since the writing's small. But I think I want it this way. Your father offered me eternity, but I don't need it."
Ysabell closed the book. "Mort," she said tearfully, "I don't want to be a widow. I don't want Susan to grow up without a father. She could manage it, but I couldn't live without you!" She bowed her head. Mort switched seats to sit next to her, took her in his arms. She rested her head on his shoulder.
"I want to know how long I would be without you," she said in a muffled, yet determined voice.
"What do you mean?"
"Can you get my lifetimer?"
"Are you sure-"
"All right." He concentrated, holding his hands close together. Nothing happened. He concentrated harder; the air turned greasy and thick, like Ankh-Morpork in August, and took on blue and purple shadows.
"I think you accidentally stopped time, Mort," she commented.
HE DID NOTHING.
Mort and Ysabell whipped their heads up to see the figure crammed uncomfortably into the other carriage seat. "Father!" gasped Ysabell.
HELLO, DAUGHTER. MORT.
"Am I already dead?" asked Mort cautiously.
NO. BUT SOON YOU SHALL BE, AND YSABELL AS WELL, UNLESS YOU CHOOSE WHAT I OFFER.
Mort gripped Ysabell's hand tightly. "Sir, will she and I die together?"
YES. BUT YOU DON'T HAVE TO DIE. His leaden tones had a tiny glimmer of hopefulness in them.
"Father, Mort and I decided a long time ago to be human, not immortal. We knew the consequences."
PLEASE, CHILDREN, Death pleaded, RECONSIDER. WE CAN REDESIGN MY HOUSE WITH YOUR IDEAS. YOU WILL NOT AGE OR CHANGE. SUSAN CAN COME, TOO. ANYTHING YOU WANT. IF YOU YOUR OLD JOB BACK, MORT, I'LL LET YOU HAVE IT. ANYTHING.
The blue light in Death's eyes was feverishly bright. He leaned close to them, every inch of ivory bone in his face begging for them to accept his offer. They looked into his eyes; the eyes turned dark and Mort felt his mind spiraling away into an infinite nothingness. Ysabell saw the heartbreaking loneliness, and everything in her ached for her father. She realized now, after everything, how dearly she loved the old skeleton.
"I-" she started, then stopped.
Mort seemed to awaken as from a trance. "Sir, I can't accept your offer, generous as it is. You have nothing but kind to me, except for that little while when I nearly destroyed reality... er, but I'm very thankful for all you've done for me. I shall miss you, but I really want to see what happens next. Though if Ysabell feels differently, I only want her to be happy. I'll stay if she wants to."
"I feel the same, Father," Ysabell said quietly.
DO YOU? The hollow tones were more hollow than ever.
"Yes," they answered together.
YOU WOULD CHOOSE MORTALITY OVER ME?
"Please don't put it like that! I don't want to leave you. I love you, Father."
DO YOU REALLY?
"Yes! I always have. I just... didn't realize it. But I can't endure any more years like my thirty-five years of being sixteen. I would rather have a life of normal length, that begins and ends. This is my choice."
Death's eyes went from deep blue to darkest black. I, TOO, LOVE YOU BOTH VERY MUCH.
"How, sir? I mean, you don't have any glands," Mort asked before he could stop himself. Death turned his gaze on him.
LOVE IS NOT A FEELING. IT IS A CHOICE THAT I CHOSE WHEN I SAVED YOU AND BROUGHT YOU HOME, YSABELL. I CHOSE IT WHEN I ALLOWED YOU TO MARRY HER, MORT. I WOULD THINK THAT YOU WOULD KNOW THAT, BEING MARRIED. Death showed more understanding than usual, his voice low, as always, and earnest. He made a sound like he was clearing his throat, which Mort wondered about, seeing how he had no throat. SO... DYING SOON IS YOUR FINAL DECISION?
THEN I SHALL SEE YOU SOON. FAREWELL.
He vanished, and time resumed its normal flow. Mort buried his face in his hands. "Did I make the right decision?" he asked the universe in general. "I don't mind dying, though I hope it doesn't hurt. What I do mind is leaving Susan. Do you think she'll be alright?"
"I know she'll be fine," comforted Ysabell. "She has such great stores of common sense. Let's tell the driver to speed up; we'll get home soon, see Susan, tell her everything, (it's about time she knew, anyway) and put our affairs in order."
Mort stuck his head out the window. "Can we go faster?" he asked the driver. "I need to get home."
"'Ow fast d'ya need ta go, mate?" the driver returned. "Trot, or full gallop?"
Mort thought. "Full gallop?"
"As ya wish, yerroner." He slapped the horses across the rump with the reins, and they began to run. Mort wished fervently for Binky, but the white horse didn't seem to be appearing in the sky anywhere. He stuck his head back in the coach, and Ysabell's small trunk worked itself loose from under the seat. Rattling across the floor, it ran over Mort's foot and pain shot up his leg.
"Yowch!" he exclaimed, lurching to the side. His sudden motion caused the carriage to swerve, just the tiniest, most unnoticeable bit. "Hyah!" They heard the driver shout, and the horses ran faster still along the narrow mountain road.
The next events occurred so quickly they barely realized what had happened. There was a jolt as they struck a pothole, then a crack like the sound of a god breaking his shins as the peg attaching the horses to the carriage broke. The horses galloped away, squealing in terror; then a muffled curse and the sound of a person jumping to the ground. Mort stuck his head out, then in again quickly.
"We have no driver, which is alright, since we have no horses." His face was paler than normal. "And we're about to hurtle over a cliff and fall into a dry riverbed."
"This is the end, then," said Ysabell tonelessly.
Mort's eyes widened in fear, then settled to acceptance. "Then let's make an end to it properly, darling." He pulled her onto his lap, hugging her tightly. She pushed silvery hair out of her eyes and kissed him. They barely noticed when the coach sailed out through a rickety, useless fence into the empty air above the riverbed, then plunged down into darkness, and rain lashed angrily against the windows. They struck nothing on their way down, and then a loud crash, and then—
Mort stood up, brushed off his clothes with one hand and helped Ysabell up with the other. The carriage burst into flame around them, and a cartwheel went bouncing out of the burning wreckage. "That wasn't so bad, was it?" he asked, taking a step to turn around and look at his body. To his great surprise, he was yanked back by his glowing blue lifeline. He found himself staring into the grinning visage of his father-in-law.
"Hello, sir. I'm surprised you haven't swung your scythe yet."
I WANTED MORE TIME FOR GOODBYES.
Ysabell was attempting to pet Binky, but her hand kept slipping through his nose. He snuffed on her, blowing her softly backwards. Confusion showed in his eyes. What was his master's daughter doing, being a ghost?
Death stalked over to her, and she threw her arms around him as best she could. He awkwardly wrapped her in a bony hug. I SHALL MISS YOU, MY FAVORITE AND DEAREST DAUGHTER.
"I'm your only daughter, Father," Ysabell replied with a small laugh.
YOU'RE STILL MY FAVORITE AND DEAREST. I SHALL MISS YOU GREATLY.
"And I will miss you, too."
AND YOU, he said, turning to Mort, IT WAS NICE KNOWING YOU, AND WORKING WITH YOU. EVEN IF YOU WERE A SPECTACULAR FAILURE. Tact was still something Death was working on.
"Will you..." Mort struggled for a second, then made a decision. "Will you take care of Susan? I know I didn't want her taking after you in the past, only now she's an orphan and-"
YES. OF COURSE. AND NOW...
Death pulled his sword from its scabbard with and almost inaudible swish. He held it above his head regretfully for a second, then spun and brought it screaming down through the glowing blue lines.
"The sword, sir?"
I THOUGHT YOU DESERVED IT.
"Er... thank you, I suppose. Sir?"
"I remember you once said you heard the Creator was quite kindly disposed towards people..."
"Well, perhaps we might see each other again one day."
PERHAPS. Death watched them fade a bit. SUSAN IS UP ON THE ROAD. IS THERE ANYTHING YOU WISH ME TO TELL HER?
"WHAT????!!"Ysabell and Mort cried out together. Their voices would have been almost audible enough to hear with mortal ears, if there had been any to there to hear.
SHE TRAVELED IN TIME TO FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENED HERE TONIGHT. SHE WANTS TO KNOW IF SHE MIGHT HAVE SAVED YOU.
"Tell her it was fast. It didn't hurt," said Ysabell slowly. Mort added, "And that everything has a beginning and an end, and this was ours."
They were both transparent, almost gone. Something like a breeze blew Ysabell's hair. She turned, and seemed to see something of another world. "Au revoir," whispered Mort with a tiny smile, and in a voice quieter than the murmur of a sigh, Ysabell breathed in a delighted voice, "Oh, Fa-" and disappeared in a brilliant pinpoint of light.
Death carefully and gently caught the two glittering specks and stowed them away in the dark recesses of his robe.
He stalked back to Binky, taking the scythe from where he had leaned it against the horse's side and mounted. He barely noticed the nearly vertical path leading to the road; he was experiencing things he had never experienced before, and he didn't know what to make of it.
It felt as if iron was clamped around his neck area. It felt as if a rock was throbbing in his chest cavity. It felt as if acidic burning was attempting to consume his eye sockets. His whole skull, no make that his whole body, hurt. To someone who had rarely, if ever, felt pain, this was all very mysterious.
He reached the road, and dismounted. His knees threatened to give out, so he leaned on his scythe and looked down at the glowing embers in the riverbed, all that was left of the coach. Memory came, and he knew his granddaughter stood behind him. It didn't take much to figure out what she was thinking; anyone, anyone, would be thinking it under the circumstances.
He straightened up, but couldn't bear to look at her, couldn't bear to see her face, but see Ysabell's eyes, her light hair...
YES. I COULD HAVE DONE SOMETHING, he answered her unspoken question.
"How... how did you know I was here...?"
He waved his hand irritably; she was wasting breath on silly questions. I REMEMBER YOU. AND NOW UNDERSTAND THIS: YOUR PARENTS KNEW THAT THINGS MUST HAPPEN. EVERYTHING MUST HAPPEN SOMEWHERE. DO YOU NOT THINK I SPOKE TO THEM OF THIS?
He spoke earnestly, trying more to convince himself than her.
BUT I CANNOT GIVE LIFE. I CAN ONLY GRANT... EXTENSION. CHANGELESSNESS. ONLY HUMANS CAN GIVE LIFE.
The iron clamp around his spine seemed to tighten, forcing him to speaking fragmented sentences.
AND THEY WANTED TO BE HUMAN, NOT IMMORTAL. IF IT HELPS YOU, THEY DIED INSTANTLY. He spit out the word; it was no help to him. INSTANTLY.
"I could go back and save them...?" She left the sentence dangling, only the tiniest waver in her voice making it a question.
Death answered her through gritted teeth. Every word pained him, he expelled them fiercely.
SAVE? FOR WHAT? A LIFE THAT HAS RUN OUT? SOME THINGS END. I KNOW THIS. SOMETIMES I HAVE THOUGHT OTHERWISE. BUT...
He paused. But what? Yes, he could have saved them. But then, he would have lost who he was. And they would have lost, too.
WITHOUT DUTY, WHAT AM I? THERE HAS TO BE A LAW.
He never turned to face her, but jumped onto Binky's back, rode away. A memory rose unbidden in his mind.
WHAT IS THAT SENSE INSIDE YOUR HEAD OF WISTFUL REGRET THAT THINGS ARE THE WAY THEY APPARENTLY ARE?
"Sadness, master," said Albert, "I think. Now-"
I AM SADNESS.
I AM SADNESS.
A/N: Yes, I know this wasn't in the Terry Pratchett style, but I needed something to express myself. The only grandfather I've ever known died recently, and I thought this would help. It kind of did. I hope you liked it.
Discworld belongs to Terry Pratchett, and I think I'll leave it in his able hands except to borrow it now and then.