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Page 17

The Disc sun was close to the horizon by the time Binky cantered wearily through the skies over Sto Lat, and Mort looked down and saw the borderland of reality. It curved away below him, a crescent of faint silver mist. He didn't know what it was, but he had a nasty foreboding that it had something to do with him.

He reined in the horse and allowed him to trot gently towards the ground, touching down a few yards behind the wall of iridescent air. It was moving at something less than walking pace, hissing gently as it drifted ghost-like across the stark damp cabbage fields and frozen drainage ditches.

It was a cold night, the type of night when frost and fog fight for domination and every sound is muffled. Binky's breath made fountains of cloud in the still air. He whinnied gently, almost apologetically, and pawed at the ground.

Mort slid out of the saddle and crept up to the interface. It crackled softly. Weird shapes coruscated across it, flowing and shifting and disappearing.

After some searching he found a stick and poked it cautiously into the wall. It made strange ripples that wobbled slowly out of sight.

Mort looked up as a shape drifted overhead. It was a black owl, patrollng the ditches for anything small and squeaky.

It hit the wall with a splash of sparkling mist, leaving an owl-shaped ripple that grew and spread until it joined the boiling kaleidoscope.

Then it vanished. Mort could see through the transparent interface, and certainly no owl reappeared on the other side. Just as he was puzzling over this there was another soundless splash a few feet away and the bird burst into view again, totally unconcerned, and skimmed away across the fields.

Mort pulled himself together, and stepped through the barrier which was no barrier at all. It tingled.

A moment later Binky burst through after him, eyes rolling in desperation and tendrils of interface catching on his hooves. He reared up, shaking his mane like a dog to remove clinging fibres of mist, and looked at Mort beseechingly.

Mort caught his bridle, patted him on the nose, and fumbled in his pocket for a rather grubby sugar lump. He was aware that he was in the presence of something important, but he wasn't yet quite sure what it was.

There was a road running between an avenue of damp and gloomy willow trees. Mort remounted and steered Binky across the field into the dripping darkness under the branches.

In the distance he could see the lights of Sto Helit, which really wasn't much more than a small town, and a faint glow on the edge of sight must be Sto Lat. He looked at it longingly.

The barrier worried him. He could see it creeping across the field behind the trees.

Mort was on the point of urging Binky back into the air when he saw the light immediately ahead of him, warm and beckoning. It was spilling from the windows of a large building set back from the road. It was probably a cheerful sort of light in any case, but in these surroundings and compared with Mort's mood it was positively ecstatic.

As he rode nearer he saw shadows moving against it, and made out a few snatches of song. It was an inn, and inside there were people having a good time, or what passed for a good time if you were a peasant who spent most of your time closely concerned with cabbages. Compared to brassicas, practically anything is fun.

There were human beings in there, doing uncomplicated human things like getting drunk and forgetting the words of songs.

Mort had never really felt homesick, possibly because his mind had been too occupied with other things. But he felt it now for the first time – a sort of longing, not for a place, but for a state of mind, for being just an ordinary human being with straightforward things to worry about, like money and sickness and other people. . . .

'I shall have a drink,' he thought, 'and perhaps I shall feel better.'

There was an open-fronted stable at one side of the main building, and he led Binky into the warm, horse-smelling darkness that already accommodated three other horses. As Mort unfastened the nosebag he wondered if Death's horse felt the same way about other horses which had rather less supernatural lifestyles. He certainly looked impressive compared to the others, which regarded him watchfully. Binky was a real horse – the blisters of the shovel handle on Mort's hands were a testimony to that – and compared to the others he looked more real than ever. More solid. More horsey. Slightly larger than life.

In fact, Mort was on the verge of making an important deduction, and it is unfortunate that he was distracted, as he walked across the yard to the inn's low door, by the sight of the inn sign. Its artist hadn't been particularly gifted, but there was no mistaking the line of Keli's jaw or her mass of fiery hair in the portrait of The Quene's Hed.

He sighed, and pushed open the door.

As one man, the assembled company stopped talking and stared at him with the honest rural stare that suggests that for two pins they'll hit you around the head with a shovel and bury your body under a compost heap at full moon.

It might be worth taking another look at Mort, because he's changed a lot in the last few chapters. For example, while he still has plenty of knees and elbows about his person, they seem to have migrated to their normal places and he no longer moves as though his joints were loosely fastened together with elastic bands. He used to look as if he knew nothing at all; now he looks as though he knows too much. Something about his eyes suggests that he has seen things that ordinary people never see, or at least never see more than once.

Something about all the rest of him suggests to the watchers that causing an inconvenience for this boy might just be as wise as kicking a wasp nest. In short, Mort no longer looks like something the cat brought in and then brought up.

The landlord relaxed his grip on the stout blackthorn peacemaker he kept under the bar and composed his features into something resembling a cheerful welcoming grin, although not very much.

'Evening, your lordship,' he said. 'What's your pleasure this cold and frosty night?'

'What?' said Mort, blinking in the light.

'What he means is, what d'you want to drink?' said a small ferret-faced man sitting by the fire, who was giving Mort the kind of look a butcher gives a field full of lambs.

'Um. I don't know,' said Mort. 'Do you sell stardrip?'

'Never heard of it, lordship.'

Mort looked around at the faces watching him, illuminated by the firelight. They were the sort of people generally called the salt of the earth. In other words, they were hard, square and bad for your health, but Mort was too preoccupied to notice.

'What do people like to drink here, then?'

The landlord looked sideways at his customers, a clever trick given that they were directly in front of him.

'Why, lordship, we drink scumble, for preference.'

'Scumble?' said Mort, failing to notice the muffled sniggers.

'Aye, lordship. Made from apples. Well, mainly apples.'

This seemed healthy enough to Mort. 'Oh, right,' he said. 'A pint of scumble, then.' He reached into his pocket and withdrew the bag of gold that Death had given him. It was still quite full. In the sudden hush of the inn the faint clink of the coins sounded like the legendary Brass Gongs of Leshp, which can be heard far out to sea on stormy nights as the currents stir them in their drowned towers three hundred fathoms below.

'And please serve these gentlemen with whatever they want,' he added.

He was so overwhelmed by the chorus of thanks that he didn't take much notice of the fact that his new friends were served their drink in tiny, thimble-sized glasses, while his alone turned up in a large wooden mug.

A lot of stories are told about scumble, and how it is made out on the damp marshes according to ancient recipes handed down rather unsteadily from father to son. It's not true about the rats, or the snake heads, or the lead shot. The one about the dead sheep is a complete fabrication. We can lay to rest all the variations of the one about the trouser button. But the one about not letting it come into contact with metal is absolutely true, because when the landlord flagrantly shortchanged Mort and plonked the small heap of copper in a puddle of the stuff it immediately began to froth.

Mort sniffed his drink, and then took a sip. It tasted something like apples, something like autumn mornings, and quite a lot like the bottom of a logpile. Not wishing to appear disrespectful, however, he took a swig.

The crowd watched him, counting under its breath.

Mort felt something was being demanded of him.

'Nice,' he said, 'very refreshing.' He took another sip. 'Bit of an acquired taste,' he added, 'but well worth the effort, I'm sure.'

There were one or two mutters of discontent from the back of the crowd.

'He's been watering the scumble, that's what 'tis.'

'Nay, thou knowst what happens if you lets a drop of water touch scumble.'

The landlord tried to ignore this. 'You like it?' he said to Mort, in pretty much the same tone of voice people used when they said to St George, 'You killed a what?'

'It's quite tangy,' said Mort. 'And sort of nutty.'

'Excuse me,' said the landlord, and gently took the mug out of Mort's hand. He sniffed at it, then wiped his eyes.

'Uuunnyag,' he said. 'It's the right stuff all right.'

He looked at the boy with something verging on admiration. It wasn't that he'd drunk a third of a pint of scumble in itself, it was that he was still vertical and apparently alive. He handed the pot back again: it was as if Mort was being given a trophy after some incredible contest. When the boy took another mouthful several of the watchers winced. The landlord wondered what Mort's teeth were made of, and decided it must be the same stuff as his stomach.

'You're not a wizard by any chance?' he enquired, just in case.

'Sorry, no. Should I be?'

Didn't think so, thought the landlord, he doesn't walk like a wizard and anyway he isn't smoking anything. He looked at the scumble pot again.

There was something wrong about this. There was something wrong about the boy. He didn't look right. He looked —

— more solid than he should do.

That was ridiculous, of course. The bar was solid, the floor was solid, the customers were as solid as you could wish for. Yet Mort, standing there looking rather embarrassed and casually sipping a liquid you could clean spoons with, seemed to emit a particularly potent sort of solidness, an extra dimension of realness. His hair was more hairy, his clothes more clothy, his boots the epitome of bootness. It made your head ache just to look at him.

However, Mort then demonstrated that he was human after all. The mug dropped from his stricken fingers and clattered on the flagstones, where the dregs of scumble started to eat its way through them. He pointed at the far wall, his mouth opening and shutting wordlessly.

The regulars turned back to their conversations and games of shovel-up, reassured that things were as they should be; Mort was acting perfectly normally now. The landlord, relieved that the brew had been vindicated, reached across the bar top and patted him companionably on the shoulder.

'It's all right,' he said. 'It often takes people like this, you'll just have a headache for a few weeks, don't worry about it, a drop of scumble'll see you all right again.'

It is a fact that the best remedy for a scumble hangover is a hair of the dog, although it should more accurately be called a tooth of the shark or possibly a tread of the bulldozer.

But Mort merely went on pointing and said, in a trembling voice, 'Can't you see it? It's coming through the wall! It's coming right through the wall!'

'A lot of things come through the wall after your first drink of scumble. Green hairy things, usually.'

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