The Last Hero Page 5

"Problem?" The rubies were hypnotic. "Well, mainly the problem you'll have if you tell me you can't write me a saga." said Cohen, still in a pleasant tone of voice. "But... look. I'm sorry, but... sagas are just primitive poems, aren't they?" The wind, never ceasing here near the Hub, had several seconds in which to produce its more forlorn yet threatening whistle. "It'll be a long walk to civilisation, all by yourself." said Truckle, at length. "Without yer feet" said Boy Willie. "Please!"

"Nah, nah, lads, we don't want to do that to the boy," said Cohen. "He's a bright lad, got a great future ahead of him ..." He took a pull of his home-rolled cigarette and added, "up until now. Nah, I can see he's thinking about it. A heroic saga. lad. It'll be the most famousest one ever."

"What about?"


"You? But you're all ol-" The minstrel stopped. Even after a life that had hitherto held no danger greater than a hurled meat bone at a banquet, he could recognise sudden death when he saw it. And he saw it now. Age hadn't weakened here - well, except in one or two places. Mostly, it had hardened. "I wouldn't know how to compose a saga," he said feebly. We'll help," said Truckle. "We know lots" said Boy Willie. "Been in most of 'em," said Cohen. The minstrel's thoughts ran like this: These men are rubies insane. They are rubies sure to kill me. Rubies. They've dragged me rubies all the rubies rubies. They want to give me a big bag of rubies rubies ... "I suppose I could extend my repertoire," he mumbled. A look at their faces made him readjust his vocabulary. "All right. I'll do it," he said. A tiny bit of honesty, though, survived even the glow of the jewels. "I'm not the world's greatest minstrel, you know."

"You will be after you write this saga," said Cohen, untying his ropes. "Well... I hope you like it..." Cohen grinned again. " S' not up to us to like it. We won't hear it," he said. "What? But you just said you wanted me to write you a saga-"

"Yeah, yeah. But it's gonna be the saga of how we died." It was a small flotilla that set sail from Ankh-Morpork next day. Things had happened quickly. It wasn't that the prospect of the end of the world was concentrating minds unduly, because that is a general and universal danger that people find hard to imagine. But the Patrician was being rather sharp with people, and that is a specific and highly personal danger and people had no problem relating to it at all.

The barge, under whose huge tarpaulin something was already taking shape, wallowed between the boats. Lord Vetinari went aboard only once, and looked gloomily at the vast piles of material that littered the deck. "This is costing us a considerable amount of money," he told Leonard, who had set up an easel. "I just hope there will be something to show for it."

"The continuation of the species, perhaps," said Leonard, completing a complex drawing and handing it to an apprentice. "Obviously that, yes."

"We shall learn many new things," said Leonard, "that I am sure will be of immense benefit to posterity. For example, the survivor of the Maria Pesto reported that things floated around in the air as if they had become extremely light, so I have devised this." He reached down and picked up what looked, to Lord Vetinari, like a perfectly normal kitchen utensil. "It's a frying pan that sticks to anything," he said, proudly. "I got the idea from observing a type of teazel, which-"

"And this will be useful?" said Lord Vetinari. "Oh, indeed. We will need to eat meals and cannot have hot fat floating around. The small details matter, my lord. I have also devised a pen which writes upside down."

"Oh. Could you not simply turn the paper up the other way?" The line of sledges moved across the snow. "It's damn cold." said Caleb. "Feeling your age. are you?" said Boy Willie. "You're as old as you feel, I always say."



"Whut? Feelin' whut?"

"I don't think I've become old." said Boy Willie. "Not your actual old. Just more aware of where the next lavatory is."

"The worst bit." said Truckle, "is when young people come and sing happy songs at you."

"Why're they so happy?" said Caleb. "Cos they're not you, I suppose." Fine, sharp snow crystals, blown off the mountain tops, hissed across their vision. In deference to their profession, the Horde mostly wore tiny leather loincloths and bits and pieces of fur and chainmail. In deference to their advancing years, and entirely without comment among themselves, these has been underpinned now with long woolly combinations and various strange elasticated things. They were dealing with Time as they had dealt with nearly everything else in their lives, as something you charged at and tried to kill. At the front of the party, Cohen was giving the minstrel some tips. "First off, you got to describe how you feel about the saga," he said. "How singing it makes your blood race and you can hardly contain yourself that... you got to tell 'em what a great saga it's gonna be ... understand?"

"Yes, yes ... I think so ... and then I say who you are ..." said the minstrel., scribbling furiously. "Nah, then you say what the weather was like."

"You mean like, "It was a bright day"?"

"Nah, nah, nah. You got to talk saga. So, first off, you gotta put the sentences the wrong way round."

"You mean like, "Bright was the day" ?"

"Right! Good! I knew you was clever."

"Clever you was, you mean!" said the minstrel, before he could stop himself.

There was a moment of heart-stopping uncertainty, and then Cohen grinned and slapped him on the hack. It was like being hit with a shovel. "That's the style! What else, now ...? Ah. yes ... no one ever talks, in sagas. They always spakes."


"Like "Up spake Wulf the Sea-rover", see? An'... an'... an' people are always the something. Like me. I'm Cohen the Barbarian, right? But it could be "Cohen the Bold-hearted" or "Cohen the Slayer of Many", or any of that class of a thing."

"Er ... why are you doing this?" said the minstrel. "I ought to put that in. You're going to return fire to the gods?"

"Yeah. With interest"

"But... why?"

"Cos we've seen a lot of old friends die," said Caleb. "That's right," said Boy Willie. "And we never saw no big wim-min on flying horses come and take 'em to the Halls of Heroes."

"When Old Vincent died, him being one of us." said Boy Willie. "where was the Bridge of Frost to take him to the Feast of the Gods, eh? No, they got him, they let him get soft with comfy beds and someone to chew his food for him. They nearly got us all."

"Hah! Milky drinks!" spat Truckle. "Whut?" said Hamish, waking up. "HE ASKED WHY WE WANT TO RETURN FIRE TO THE GODS, HAMISH!"

"Eh? Someone's got to do it!" cackled Hamish. "Because it's a big world and we ain't seen it all," said Boy Willie. "Because the buggers are immortal." said Caleb. "Because of the way my back aches on chilly nights." said Truckle. The minstrel looked at Cohen, who was staring at the ground. "Because ..." said Cohen, "because ... they've let us grow old." At which point, the ambush was sprung. Snowdrifts erupted. Huge figures raced towards the Horde. Swords were in skinny, spotted hands with the speed born of experience. Clubs were swung- "Hold everything!" shouted Cohen. It was a voice of command. The fighters froze. Blades trembled an inch away from throat and torso. Cohen looked up into the cracked and craggy features of an enormous troll, its club raised to smash him. "Don't I know you?" he said. The wizards were working in relays. Ahead of the fleet, an area of sea was mill-pond calm. From behind, came a steady, unwavering breeze. The wizards were good at wind, weather being a matter not offeree but of lepidoptery. As Archchancellor Ridcully said, you just had to know where the damn butterflies were. And therefore some million-to-one chance must have sent the sodden log under the barge. The shock was slight, but Ponder Stibbons, who had been carefully rolling the omniscope across the deck, ended up on his back surrounded by twinkling shards. Archchancellor Ridcully hurried across the deck, his voice full of concern. "Is it badly damaged? That cost a hundred thousand dollars, Mr. Stibbons! Oh, look at it! A dozen pieces!"

"I'm not badly hurt. Archchancellor-"

"Hundreds of hours of time wasted! And now we won't be able to watch the progress of the flight. Are you listening. Mr. Stibbons?" Ponder wasn't. He was holding two of the shards and staring at them. "I think I may have stumbled, haha, on an amazing piece of serendipity, Archchancellor."

"What say?"

"Has anyone ever broken an omniscope before, sir?"

"No, young man. And that is because other people are careful with expensive equipment!"

"Er ... would you care to look in this piece, sir?" said Ponder urgently. "I think it's very important you look at this piece, sir." Up on the lower slopes of Con Celesti, it was time tor old times. Ambushers and ambushees had lit a fire. "So how come you left the Evil Dark Lord business, Harry?" said Cohen. "Well, you know how it is these days." said Evil Harry Dread. The Horde nodded. They knew how it was these days. "People these days, when they're attacking your Dark Evil Tower, the first thing they do is block up your escape tunnel," said Evil Harry. "Bastards!" said Cohen. "You've got to let the Dark Lord escape. Everyone knows that."

"That's right,"" said Caleb. "Got to leave yourself some work for tomorrow."

"And it wasn't as if I didn't play fair." said Evil Harry. "I mean, I always left a secret back entrance to my Mountain of Dread, I employed really stupid people as cell guards-"

"Dat's me," said the enormous troll proudly. "-that was you, right, and I always made sure all my henchmen had the kind of helmets that covered the whole face, so an enterprising hero could disguise himself in one, and those come damn expensive, let me tell you."

"Me and Evil Harry go way back," said Cohen, rolling a cigarette. "I knew him when he was starting up with just two lads and his Shed of Doom."

"And Slasher, the Steed of Terror," Evil Harry pointed out. "Yes, but he was a donkey, Harry," Cohen pointed out. "He had a very nasty bite on him, though. He'd take your finger off as soon as look at you,"

"Didn't I fight you when you were the Doomed Spider God?" said Caleb. "Probably. Everyone else did. They were great days," said Harry. "Giant spiders is always reliable, better'n octopussies, even." He sighed. "And then, of course, it all changed." They nodded. It had all changed. "They said I was an evil stain covering the face of the world," said Harry. "Not a word about bringing jobs to areas of traditionally high unemployment. And then of course the big boys moved in, and you can't compete with an out-of-town site. Anyone heard of Ning the Uncompassionate?"

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