Reaper Man Chapter 1

Author: Terry Pratchett

Series: Discworld #11

Genres: Fantasy , Humorous

The Morris dance is common to all inhabited worlds in the multiverse. It is danced under blue skies to celebrate the quickening of the soil and under bare stars because it's springtime and with any luck the carbon dioxide will unfreeze again. The imperative is felt by deep-sea beings who have never seen the sun and urban humans whose only connection with the cycles of nature is that their Volvo once ran over a sheep.

It is danced innocently by raggedy-bearded young mathematicians to an inexpert accordion rendering of "Mrs. Widgery's Lodger" and ruthlessly by such as the Ninja Morris Men of New Ankh, who can do strange and terrible things with a simple handkerchief and a bell. And it is never danced properly.

Except on the Discworld, which is flat and supported on the backs of four elephants which travel through space on the shell of Great A'Tuin, the world turtle. And even there, only in one place have they got it right. It's a small village high in the Ramtop Mountains, where the big and simple secret is handed down across the generations.

There, the men dance on the first day of spring, backwards and forwards, bells tied under their knees, white shirts flapping. People come and watch. There's an ox roast afterwards, and it's generally considered a nice day out for all the family.

But that isn't the secret.

The secret is the other dance.

And that won't happen for a while yet.

There is a ticking, such as might be made by a clock. And, indeed, in the sky there is a clock, and the ticking of freshly minted seconds flows out from it.

At least, it looks a clock. But it is in fact exactly the opposite of a clock, and the biggest hand goes around just once. There is a plain under a dim sky. It is covered with gentle rolling curves that might remind you of something else if you saw it from a long way away, and if you did see it from a long way away you'd be very glad that you were, in fact, a long way away.

Three grey figures floated just above it. Exactly what they were can't be described in normal language. Some people might call them cherubs, although there was nothing rosycheeked about them. They might be numbered among those who see to it that gravity operates and that time stays separate from space.

Call them auditors. Auditors of reality.

They were in conversation without speaking. They didn't need to speak. They just changed reality so that they had spoken.

One said, It has never happened before. Can it be done?

One said, It will have to be done. There is a personality. Personalities come to an end. Only forces endure. It said this with a certain satisfaction.

One said, Besides... there have been irregularities. Where you get personality, you get irregularities. Well-known fact.

One said, He has worked inefficiently?

One said, No. We can't get him there.

One said, That is the point. The word is him. Becoming a personality is inefficient. We don't want it to spread. Supposing gravity developed a personality? Supposing it decided to like people?

One said, Got a crush on them, sort of thing?

One said, in a voice that would have been even chillier if it was not already at absolute zero, No.

One said, Sorry. Just my little joke.

One said, Besides, sometimes he wonders about his job. Such speculation is dangerous.

One said, No argument there.

One said, Then we are agreed?

One, who seemed to have been thinking about something, said, Just one moment. Did you not just use the singular pronoun, "my'? Not developing a personality, are you?

One said, guiltily, Who? Us?

One said. Where there is personality, there is discord.

One said. Yes. Yes. Very true.

One said, All right. But watch it in future.

One said, Then we are agreed?

They looked up at the face of Azrael, outlined against the sky. In fact, it was the sky.

Azrael nodded, slowly.

One said, Very well. Where is this place?

One said, It is the Discworld. It rides through space on the back of a giant turtle.

One said, Oh, one of that sort. I hate them.

One said, You're doing it again. You said 'I'.

One said, No! No! I didn't! I never said 'I'!... oh, bugger...

It burst into flame. It burned in the same way that a small cloud of vapour burns, quickly and with no residual mess. Almost immediately, another one appeared. It was identical in appearance to its vanished sibling.

One said, Let that be a lesson. To become a personality is to end. And now... let us go.

Azrael watched them skim away.

It is hard to fathom the thoughts of a creature so big that, in real space, his length would be measured only in terms of the speed of light. But he turned his enormous bulk and, with eyes that stars could be lost in, sought among the myriad worlds for a flat one.

On the back of a turtle. The Discworld - world and mirror of worlds.

It sounded interesting. And, in his prison of a billion years, Azrael was bored.

And this is the room where the future pours into the past via the pinch of the now.

Timers line the walls. Not hour-glasses, although they have the same shape. Not egg-timers, such as you might buy as a souvenir attached to a small board with the name of the holiday resort of your choice jauntily inscribed on it by someone with the same sense of style as a jelly doughnut. It's not even sand in there. It's seconds, endlessly turning the maybe into the was. And every lifetimer has a name on it. And the room is full of the soft hissing of people living.

Picture the scene...

And now add the sharp clicking of bone on stone, getting closer.

A dark shape crosses the field of vision and moves up the endless shelves of sibilant glassware. Click, click. Here's a glass with the top bulb nearly empty. Bone fingers rise and reach out. Select. And another. Select. And more. Many, many more. Select, Select.

It's all in a day's work. Or it would be, if days existed here.

Click, click, select, the dark shape moves patiently along the rows.

And stops.

And hesitates.

Because here's a small gold timer, not much bigger than a watch. It wasn't there yesterday, or wouldn't have been if yesterdays existed here.

Bony fingers close around it and hold it up to the light. It's got a name on it, in small capital letters.

The name is DEATH.

Death put down the timer, and then picked it up again. The sands of time were already pouring through. He turned it over experimentally, just in case. The sand went on pouring, only now it was going upwards. He hadn't really expected anything else.

It meant that, even if tomorrows could exist here, there weren't going to be any. Not any more.

There was a movement in the air behind him. Death turned slowly, and addressed the figure that wavered indistinctly in the gloom.


It told him.


It told him that No, it was right.

Not a muscle moved on Death's face, because he hadn't got any.


It told him, he should know that there was no appeal. Never any appeal. Never any appeal.

Death thought about this, and then he said:


The figure floated closer. It looked vaguely like a grey-robed and hooded monk.

It told him, We know. That is why we're letting you keep the horse.

The sun was near the horizon.

The shortest-lived creatures on the Disc were mayflies, which barely make it through twenty-four hours. Two of the oldest zigzagged aimlessly over the waters of a trout stream, discussing history with some younger members of the evening hatching.

"You don't get the kind of sun now that you used to get, " said one of them.

"You're right there. We had proper sun in the good old hours. It were all yellow. None of this red stuff."

"It were higher, too."

"It was. You're right."

"And nymphs and larvae showed you a bit of respect."

"They did. They did," said the other mayfly vehemently.

"I reckon, if mayflies these hours behaved a bit better, we'd still be having proper sun."

The younger mayflies listened politely.

"I remember, " said one of the oldest mayflies, "when all this was fields, as far as you could see."

The younger mayflies looked around.

"It's still fields," one of them ventured, after a polite interval.

"I remember when it was better fields," said the old mayfly sharply.

"Yeah, " said his colleague. "And there was a cow."

"That's right! You're right! I remember that cow! Stood right over there for, oh, forty, fifty minutes. It was brown, as I recall."

"You don't get cows like that these hours."

"You don't get cows at all."

"What's a cow?" said one of the hatchlings.

"See?" said the oldest mayfly triumphantly. "That's modern Ephemeroptera for you. " It paused. "What were we doing before we were talking about the sun?"

"Zigzagging aimlessly over the water," said one of the young flies. This was a fair bet in any case.

"No, before that."

"Er... you were telling us about the Great Trout."

"Ah. Yes. Right. The Trout. Well, you see, if you've been a good mayfly, zigzagging up and down properly -"

"- taking heed of your elders and betters -"

"- yes, and taking heed of your elders and betters, then eventually the Great Trout -"

"Yes?" said one of the younger mayflies.

There was no reply.

"The Great Trout what?" said another mayfly, nervously.

They looked down at a series of expanding concentric rings on the water.

"The holy sign!" said a mayfly. "I remember being told about that! A Great Circle in the water! Thus shall be the sign of the Great Trout!"

The oldest of the young mayflies watched the water thoughtfully. It was beginning to realise that, as the most senior fly present, it now had the privilege of hovering closest to the surface.

"They say, " said the mayfly at the top of the zigzagging crowd, "that when the Great Trout comes for you, you go to a land flowing with... flowing with..."

Mayflies don't eat. It was at a loss. "Flowing with water, " it finished lamely.

"I wonder, " said the oldest mayfly.

"It must be really good there, " said the youngest.

"Oh? Why?"

" 'Cos no-one ever wants to come back."

Whereas the oldest things on the Discworld were the famous Counting Pines, which grow right on the permanent snowline of the high Ramtop Mountains.

The Counting Pine is one of the few known examples of borrowed evolution.

Most species do their own evolving, making it up as they go along, which is the way Nature intended. And this is all very natural and organic and in tune with mysterious cycles of the cosmos, which believes that there's nothing like millions of years of really frustrating trial and error to give a species moral fibre and, in some cases, backbone.

This is probably fine from the species' point of view, but from the perspective of the actual individuals involved it can be a real pig, or at least a small pink root-eating reptile that might one day evolve into a real pig.

So the Counting Pines avoided all this by letting other vegetables do their evolving for them. A pine seed, coming to rest anywhere on the Disc, immediately picks up the most effective local genetic code via morphic resonance and grows into whatever best suits the soil and climate, usually doing much better at it than the native trees themselves, which it usually usurps.

What makes the Counting Pines particularly noteworthy, however, is the way they count.

Being dimly aware that human beings had learned to tell the age of a tree by counting the rings, the original Counting Pines decided that this was why humans cut trees down.

Overnight every Counting Pine readjusted its genetic code to produce, at about eye-level on its trunk, in pale letters, its precise age. Within a year they were felled almost into extinction by the ornamental house number plate industry, and only a very few survive in hard-to-reach areas.

The six Counting Pines in this clump were listening to the oldest, whose gnarled trunk declared it to be thirty-one thousand, seven hundred and thirty-four years old. The conversation took seventeen years, but has been speeded up.

"I remember when all this wasn't fields."

The pines stared out over a thousand miles of landscape. The sky flickered like a bad special effect from a time travel movie. Snow appeared, stayed for an instant, and melted.

"What was it, then?" said the nearest pine.

"Ice. If you can call it ice. We had proper glaciers in those days. Not like the ice you get now, here one season and gone the next. It hung around for ages."

"What happened to it, then?"

"It went."

"Went where?"

"Where things go. Everything's always rushing off."

"Wow. That was a sharp one."

"What was?"

"That winter just then."

"Call that a winter? When I was a sapling we had winters -"

Then the tree vanished.

After a shocked pause for a couple of years, one of the clump said: "He just went! Just like that! One day he was here, next he was gone!"

If the other trees had been humans, they would have shuffled their feet.

"It happens, lad," said one of them, carefully. "He's been taken to a Better Place, you can be sure of that. He was a good tree."

The young tree, which was a mere five thousand, one hundred and eleven years old, said: "What sort of Better Place?"

"We're not sure, " said one of the clump. It trembled uneasily in a week-long gale. "But we think it involves... sawdust."

Since the trees were unable even to sense any event that took place in less than a day, they never heard the sound of axes.

Windle Poons, oldest wizard in the entire faculty of Unseen University - home of magic, wizardry and big dinners - was also going to die.

He knew it, in a frail and shaky sort of way.

Of course, he mused, as he wheeled his wheel-chair over the flagstones towards his ground-floor study, in a general sort of way everyone knew they were going to die, even the common people. No-one knew where you were before you were born, but when you were born, it wasn't long before you found you'd arrived with your return ticket already punched.

But wizards really knew. Not if death involved violence or murder, of course, but if the cause of death was simply a case of running out of life then... well, you knew. You generally got the premonition in time to return your library books and make sure your best suit was clean and borrow quite large sums of money from your friends.

He was one hundred and thirty. It occurred to him that for most of his life he'd been an old man. Didn't seem fair, really.

And no-one had said anything. He'd mentioned it in the Uncommon Room last week, and no-one had taken the hint. And at lunch today they'd hardly spoken to him. Even his old so-called friends seemed to be avoiding him, and he wasn't even trying to borrow money.

It was like not having your birthday remembered, only worse.

He was going to die all alone, and no-one cared.

He bumped the door open with the wheel of the chair and fumbled on the table by the door for the tinder box.

That was another thing. Hardly anyone used tinder boxes these days. They bought the big smelly yellow matches the alchemists made. Windle disapproved. Fire was important. You shouldn't be able to switch it on just like that, it didn't show any respect. That was people these days, always rushing around and... fires. Yes, it had been a lot warmer in the old days, too.

The kind of fires they had these days didn't warm you up unless you were nearly on top of them. It was something in the wood... it was the wrong sort of wood.

Everything was wrong these days. More thin. More fuzzy. No real life in anything. And the days were shorter. Mmm. Something had gone wrong with the days. They were shorter days. Mmm. Every day took an age to go by, which was odd, because days plural went past like a stampede. There weren't many things people wanted a 130-year-old wizard to do, and Windle had got into the habit of arriving at the dining-table up to two hours before each meal, simply to pass the time.

Endless days, going by fast. Didn't make sense.

Mmm. Mind you, you didn't get the sense now that you used to get in the old days.

And they let the University be run by mere boys now. In the old days it had been run by proper wizards, great big men built like barges, the kind of wizards you could look up to. Then suddenly they'd all gone off somewhere and Windle was being patronised by these boys who still had some of their own teeth. Like that Ridcully lad. Windle remembered him clearly. Thin lad, sticking-out ears, never wiped his nose properly, cried for his mother in the dorm on the first night. Always up to mischief. Someone had tried to tell Windle that Ridcully was Archchancellor now.

Mmm. They must think he was daft.

Where was that damn tinder box? Fingers... you used to get proper fingers in the old days...

Someone pulled the covers off a lantern. Someone else pushed a drink into his groping hand.


In the hall of the house of Death is a clock with a pendulum like a blade but with no hands, because in the house of Death there is no time but the present. (There was. of course. a present before the present now, but that was also the present. It was just an older one.)

The pendulum is a blade that would have made Edgar Allan Poe give it all up and start again as a stand-up comedian on the scampi-in-a-casket circuit. It swings with a faint whum-whum noise, gently slicing thin rashers of interval from the bacon of eternity.

Death stalked past the clock and into the sombre gloom of his study. Albert, his servant, was waiting for him with the towel and dusters.

"Good morning, master."

Death sat down silently in his big chair. Albert draped the towel over the angular shoulders.

"Another nice day," he said, conversationally.

Death said nothing.

Albert flapped the polishing cloth and pulled back Death's cowl.


Death pulled out the tiny golden timer.


"Yes, sir. Very nice. Never seen one like that before. Whose is it?"


Albert's eyes swivelled sideways. On one corner of Death's desk was a large timer in a black frame. It contained no sand.

"I thought that one was yours, sir?" he said.


Albert peered at the thing in Death's hand.

"But... the sand, sir. It's pouring."


"But that means... I mean... ?"


"I know that, sir, but... you... I thought Time was something that happened to other people, sir. Doesn't it? Not to you, sir. " By the end of the sentence Albert's voice was beseeching.

Death pulled off the towel and stood up.


"But you're Death, master," said Albert, running crab-legged after the tall figure as it led the way out into the hall and down the passage to the stable.

"This isn't some sort of joke, is it?" he added hopefully.


"Well, of course not, no offense meant. But listen, you can't die. because you're Death, you'd have to happen to yourself, it'd be like that snake that eats its own tail -"


"But what will happen to me?" Albert said. Terror glittered on his words like flakes of metal on the edge of a knife.


Albert drew himself up.

"I really don't think I could serve a new master," he said.


"But if I go back -"

YES, said Death. YOU WILL DIE.

In the warm, horsey gloom of the stable, Death's pale horse looked up from its oats and gave a little whinny of greeting. The horse's name was Binky. He was a real horse. Death had tried fiery steeds and skeletal horses in the past, and found them impractical, especially the fiery ones, which tended to set light to their own bedding and stand in the middle of it looking embarrassed.

Death took the saddle down from its hook and glanced at Albert, who was suffering a crisis of conscience.

Thousands of years before, Albert had opted to serve Death rather than die. He wasn't exactly immortal. Real time was forbidden in Death's realm. There was only the ever-changing now, but it went on for a very long time. He had less than two months of real time left; he hoarded his days like bars of gold.

"I, er... " he began. "That is -"


"It's not that I don't want... I mean, I've always... it's just that life is a habit that's hard to break..."

Death watched him curiously, as one might watch a beetle that had landed on its back and couldn't turn over.

Finally Albert lapsed into silence.

I UNDERSTAND, said Death, unhooking Binky's bridle.

"But you don't seem worried! You're really going to die?"


"It will? You're not afraid?"


"I could show you, if you like," Albert ventured.



"Master... if you go, will there be -?"


"Oh. " Albert looked relieved. "You don't happen to know what he'll be like, do you?"


"Perhaps I'd better, you know, clean the place up a bit, get an inventory prepared, that sort of thing?"


"Oh. You'll see him, then?"


"What. so soon?"


Death adjusted the saddle, and then turned and held the tiny hour-glass proudly in front of Albert's hooked nose.


Albert backed away nervously.

"And now that you have it, what are you going to do with it?" he said.

Death mounted his horse.


The party was in full swing. The banner with the legend 'Goodebye Windle 130 Gloriouse Years' was dripping a bit in the heat. Things were getting to the point where there was nothing to drink but the punch and nothing to eat but the strange yellow dip with the highly suspicious tortillas and nobody minded. The wizards chatted with the forced jolliness of people who see one another all day and are now seeing one another all evening.

In the middle of it all Windle Poons sat with a huge glass of rum and a funny hat on his head. He was almost in tears.

"A genuine Going-Away party!" he kept muttering. "Haven't had one of them since old "Scratcher"

He Went Away, " the capital letters fell into place easily, "back in, mm, the Year of the Intimidating, mm, Porpoise. Thought everyone had forgotten about 'em."

"The Librarian looked up the details for us, " said the Bursar, indicating a large orangutan who was trying to blow into a party squeaker. "He also made the banana dip. I hope someone eats it soon."

He leaned down.

"Can I help you to some more potato salad?" he said, in the loud deliberate voice used for talking to imbeciles and old people.

Windle cupped a trembling hand to his ear.

"What? What?"

"More! Salad! Windle?"

"No, thank you."

"Another sausage, then?"



"They give me terrible gas all night," said Windle.

He considered this for a moment, and then took five.

"Er," shouted the Bursar, "do you happen to know what time -?"


"What! Time?"

"Half past nine," said Windle, promptly if indistinctly.

"Well, that's nice, " said the Bursar. "It gives you the rest of the evening, er, free."

Windle rummaged in the dreadful recesses of his wheelchair, a graveyard for old cushions, dog-eared books and ancient, half-sucked sweets. He flourished a small green-covered book and pushed it into the Bursar's hands.

The Bursar turned it over. Scrawled on the cover were the words: Windle Poons Hys Dyary. A piece of bacon rind marked today's date.

Under Things to Do, a crabbed hand had written: Die.

The Bursar couldn't stop himself from turning the page.
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