The Last Hero Page 20

"You help me get down and I'll write you into the saga as the most wicked, iniquitous and depraved evil warlord there has even been, understand?" The bead came up again, wheezing. "All right, all right. But you gotta promise ..."

"And if you betray me, remember that I don't know the Code! I don't have to let Dark Lords get away!" They descended in silence and, in Harry's case, mostly with his eyes shut. Off to one side and a long way down, a foothill that was now a valley still Rimed and bubbled. "We'd never even find the bodies," said the minstrel, as they sought for a path. "Ah, and that'd be 'cos they didn't die, see?" said Harry. "They'd have come up with some plan at the last minute, you can bet on it."


"You can call me Evil, lad."

"Evil, they spent the last minute falling down a mountain!"

"Ah, but maybe they kind of glided through the air, see? And there's all those lakes down there. Or maybe they spotted where the snow was really deep." The minstrel stared. "You really think they could have survived?" he said. There was a slight touch of desperation in Harry's raddled face. "Sure. O' course. All that talk from Cohen ... that was just talk. He's not the sort to go around dyin' all the time. No old Cohen! I mean ... not him. 'E's one of a kind." The minstrel surveyed the Hublands ahead of him. There were lakes and there was deep snow. But the Horde was not in favour of cunning. If they needed cunning, they hired it. Otherwise, they simply attacked. And you couldn't attack the ground. Its all mixed up, he thought. Just like that captain said. Gods and heroes and wild adventure ... but when the last hero goes, it all goes. He'd never been keen on heroes. But he realised that he needed them to be there, like forests and mountains ... he might never see them, but they filled some sort of hole in his mind. Some sort of hole in everyone's mind. "Bound to be fine." said Evil Harry, behind him. "They'll probably be waitin' for us when we get down there."

"What's that, hanging on that rock?" said the minstrel. It turned out, when they'd scrambled up to it over slippery rocks, to be part of a shattered wheel from Mad Hamish's wheelchair. "Doesn't mean nothing," said Evil Harry, tossing it aside. "Come on, let's get a move on. This is not a mountain you want to be on at night."

"No. You're right. It doesn't." said the minstrel. He unslung his lyre and began to tune it. "It doesn't mean anything." Before he turned to leave, he reached into a ragged pocket and pulled out a small leather bag. It was full of rubies. He tipped them out on to the snow, where they glowed. And then he walked on. There was a field of deep snow. Here and there a hollow suggested that the snow had been thrust aside with great force by a falling body, but the edges had been softened by the wind drift.

The seven horsewomen landed gently, and the thing about the snow was this: there were hoofprints in it, but they did not appear exactly where the horses trod or exactly when they did. They seemed superimposed on the world, as if they had been drawn first and the artist did not have much time to paint the reality behind them. They waited for a while. "Well, this is jolly unsatisfactory." said Hilda (soprano). "They ought to be here. They do know they're dead, don't they?"

"We haven't come to the wrong place, have we?" said Gertrude (mezzo- soprano). "Ladies? If you would be so kind as to dismount?" They turned. The seventh Valkyrie had drawn her sword and was smiling at them. "What cheek. Here, you're not Grimhilda!"

"No, but I think I could probably beat all six of you:" said Vena, tossing aside the helmet. "I shoved her in the privy with one hand. It would be ... better if you simply dismounted."

"Better? Better than what?" said Hilda. Mrs McGarry sighed. "This," she said. The snow erupted old men. "Evening, miss!" said Cohen, grabbing Hilda's bridle. "Now, are you goin' to do like she says, or shall I get my friend Truckle here to ask you? Only he's a bit... uncivil."

"Hur hur hur!"

"How dare you-"

"I'll dare anything, miss. Now get off or I'll push yer off!"

"Well, really!"

"Excuse me? I say? Excuse me?" said Gertrude. "Are you dead?"

"Are we dead, Willie?" said Cohen. "We ought be be dead. But I don't feel dead."

"I ain't dead!" roared Mad Hamish. "I'll knock any man doon as tells me a'm dead!"

"There's an offer you can't refuse," said Cohen, swinging himself on to Hilda's horse. "Saddle up, boys."

"But... excuse me?" said Gertrude, who was one of those people afflicted with terminal politeness. "We were supposed to take you to the great Halls of the Slain. There's mead and roast pork and fighting in between courses! Just for you! That's what you wanted! They laid it on just for you?"

"Yeah? Thanks all the same, but we ain't goin'," said Cohen. "But that's where dead heroes have got to go!"

"I don't remember signin' anythin'," said Cohen. He looked up at the sky. The sun had set and the first stars were coming out. Every one was a world, eh? "You still not joining us, Mrs McGarry?" he said. "Not yet, boys." Vena smiled. "Not quite ready, I flunk. There'll come a time."

"Fair enough. Fair enough. We'll be going, then. Got a lot to do ..."

"But-" Mrs McGarry looked across the snowfield. The wind had blown the snow over ... shapes. Here a sword hilt projected from a drift, there a sandal was just visible. "Are you dead or not?" she said. Cohen scanned the snow. "Well, the way I see it. we don't think we are, so why should we care what anyone else thinks? We never have. Ready. Hamish? Then follow me, boys!" Vena watched as the Valkyries, squabbling among themselves, made their way back to the mountain. Then she waited. She had a feeling that there would be something to wait for. After a while, she heard another horse whinny. "Are you collecting?" she said, and turned to look at the mounted figure.

THAT IS SOMETHING ABOUT WHICH I DO NOT PROPOSE TO ENLIGHTEN YOU, said Death. "But you are here." said Vena, although now she felt a lot more like Mrs McGarry again. Vena would probably have killed a few of the horsewomen just to make sure the others paid attention, but they'd all looked so young, I AM. OF COURSE, EVERYWHERE. Mrs McGarry looked up at the stars. "In the olden days," she said, "when a hero had been really heroic, the gods would put them up in the stars." THE HEAVENS CHANGE, said Death. WHAT TODAY LOOKS LIKE A MIGHTY HUNTER MAY LOOK LIKE A TEACUP IN A HUNDRED YEARS' TIME. "That doesn't seem fair." NO ONE EVER SAID IT HAD TO BE. BUT THERE ARE OTHER STARS. At the base of the mountain, at Vena's camp. Harry got the fire going again while the minstrel sat and picked out notes. "I want you listen to this," he said, after a while, and played something. It went on, it seemed to Evil Harry, for a lifetime. He wiped away a tear as the last notes died away. "I've got to do some more work on it." said the minstrel, in a faraway voice. "But will it do?"

"You asking me will it do?" said Evil Harry. "You're telling me you think you could make it even better? "Yes."

"Well, it's not like ... a real saga," said Evil Harry hoarsely. "It's got a tune. You could whistle it, even. Well, hum it. I mean, it even sounds like them. Like they'd sound if they was music ..."


"It's ... wonderful..."

"Thank you. It will get better as more people hear it. It's music for people to listen to."

"And ... it's not like we found any bodies, is it?" said the very small Dark Lord. "So they could be alive somewhere." The minstrel picked a few notes on the lyre. The strings shimmered. "Somewhere," be agreed. "Y'know, kid." said Harry, "I don't even know your name." The minstrel's brow wrinkled. He wasn't certain himself, any more. And he didn't know where he was going to go, or what he was going to do. but he suspected that life might be a lot more interesting from now on. "I'm just the singer." he said. "Play it again," said Evil Harry. Rincewind blinked, stared, and then looked away from the window. "We've just been overtaken by some men on horseback." he said. "Ook," said the Librarian, which probably meant. "Some of us have got some flying to do."

"I just thought I'd mention it." Spiralling through the air like a drunken clown, the Kite climbed the column of hot air from the distant crater. It was the only instruction Leonard had given before going and sitting so quietly at the back of the cabin that Carrot was getting seriously worried. "He just sits there whispering things like "ten years!" and "the whole world!"," he reported. "It's come as a terrible shock. What a penance!"

"But he looks cheerful," said Rincewind. "And he keeps drawing sketches. And he's leafing through all those pictures you took on the moon."

"Poor chap. It's affecting his mind." Carrot leaned forward. "We ought to get him home as soon as possible. What's the usual direction? "Second star to the left and straight on 'til morning"?"

"I think that may very probably be the stupidest piece of astronavigation ever suggested." said Rincewind. "We're just going to head for the lights. Oh. and we'd better be careful not to look down on the gods." Carrot nodded. "That's quite hard."

"Practically impossible." said Rincewind. And in a place on no map the immortal Mazeda, bringer of fire, lay on his eternal place. Memory can play tricks after the first ten thousand years, and he wasn't quite sure what had happened. There had been some old men on horseback, who'd swooped out of the sky. They'd cut his chains, and given him a drink, and had taken it in turns to shake his withered hand. Then they'd ridden away, into the stars, as quickly as they'd come. Mazeda lay back into the shape his body had worn into the stone over the centuries. He wasn't quite sure about the men. or why they'd come, or why they'd been so happy. He was only sure, in fact, about two things. He was sure it was nearly dawn. He was sure that he held, in his right hand, the very sharp sword the old men had given him. And he could hear, corning closer with the dawn, the beat of an eagle's wings. He was going to enjoy this. It is in the nature of things that those who save the world from certain destruction often don't get hugely rewarded because, since the certain destruction does not take place, people are uncertain how certain it may have been and are, therefore, somewhat tight when it comes to handing out anything more substantial than praise. The Kite was landed rather roughly on the corrugated surface of the river Ankh and, as happens to public things lying around which don't appear to belong to anyone, quickly became the private property of many, many people. And Leonard began the penance for his hubris. This was much approved of by the Ankh-Morpork priesthood. It was definitely the sort of thing to encourage piety. Lord Vetinari was therefore surprised when he received an urgent message three weeks after the events recounted, and forced his way through the mob to the Temple of Small Gods. "What's going on?" he demanded of the priests peering around the door. "This is ... blasphemy!" said Hughnon Ridcully. "Why? What has he painted?"

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