Small Gods Page 16

And then Om was shaken free.

Something white swept down toward him as he seesawed over the edge, and he bit it.

Brutha yelled and pulled his hand up, with Om trailing on the end of it.

“You didn't have to bite!”

The ship pitched into a wave and flung him to the deck. Om let go and rolled away.

When Brutha got to his feet, or at least to his hands and knees, he saw the crewmen standing around him. Two of them grabbed him by the elbows as a wave crashed over the ship.

“What are you doing?”

They were trying to avoid looking at his face. They dragged him toward the rail.

Somewhere in the scuppers Om screamed at the Sea Queen.

“It's the rules! The rules!”

Four sailors had got hold of Brutha now. Om could hear, above the roaring of the storm, the silence of the desert.

“Wait,” said Brutha.

“It's nothing personal,” said one of the sailors. “We don't want to do this.”

“I don't want you to do it either,” said Brutha.“Is that any help?”

“The sea wants a life,” said the oldest sailor. "Yours is nearest. Okay, get his-

“Can I make my peace with my God?”


“If you're going to kill me, can I pray to my God first?”

“It's not us that's killing you,” said the sailor. “It's the sea.”

“ `The hand that does the deed is guilty of the crime,' ” said Brutha. “Ossory, chapter LVI, verse 93.”

The sailors looked at one another. At a time like this, it was probably not wise to antagonize any god. The ship skidded down the side of a wave.

“You've got ten seconds,” said the oldest sailor. “That's ten seconds more than many men get.”

Brutha lay down on the deck, helped considerably by another wave that slammed into the timbers.

Om was dimly aware of the prayer, to his surprise. He couldn't make out the words, but the prayer itself was an itch at the back of his mind.

“Don't ask me,” he said, trying to get upright, "I'm out of options-

The ship smacked down . . .

. . . on to a calm sea.

The storm still raged, but only around a widening circle with the ship in the middle. The lightning, stabbing at the sea, surrounded them like the bars of a cage.

The circle lengthened ahead of them. Now the ship sped down a narrow channel of calm between gray walls of storm a mile high. Electric fire raged overhead.

And then was gone.

Behind them, a mountain of grayness squatted on the sea. They could hear the thunder dying away.

Brutha got uncertainly to his feet, swaying wildly to compensate for a motion that was no longer there.

"Now I- he began.

He was alone. The sailors had fled.

“Om?” said Brutha.

“Over here.”

Brutha fished his God out of the seaweed.

“You said you couldn't do anything!” he said accusingly.

"That wasn't m- Om paused. There will be a price, he thought. It won't be cheap. It can't be cheap. The Sea Queen is a god. I've crushed a few towns in my time. Holy fire, that kind of thing. If the price isn't high, how can people respect you?

“I made arrangements,” he said.

Tidal waves. A ship sunk. A couple of towns disappearing under the sea. It'll be something like that. If people don't respect then they won't fear, and if they don't fear, how can you get them to believe?

Seems unfair, really. One man killed a porpoise. Of course, it doesn't matter to the Queen who gets thrown overboard, just as it didn't matter to him which porpoise he killed. And that's unfair, because it was Vorbis who did it. He makes people do things they shouldn't do . . .

What am I thinking about? Before I was a tortoise, I didn't even know what unfair meant . . .

The hatches opened. People came on deck and hung on the rail. Being on deck in stormy weather always has the possibility of being washed overboard, but that takes on a rosy glow after hours below decks with frightened horses and seasick passengers.

There were no more storms. The ship ploughed on in favorable winds, under a clear sky, in a sea as empty of life as the hot desert.

The days passed uneventfully. Vorbis stayed below decks for most of the time.

The crew treated Brutha with cautious respect. News like Brutha spreads quickly.

The coast here was dunes, with the occasional barren salt marsh. A heat haze hung over the land. It was the kind of coast where shipwrecked landfall is more to be dreaded than drowning. There were no seabirds. Even the birds that had been trailing the ship for scraps had vanished.

“No eagles,” said Om. There was that to be said about it.

Toward the evening of the fourth day the unedifying panorama was punctuated by a glitter of light, high on the dune sea. It flashed with a sort of rhythm.

The captain, whose face now looked as if sleep had not been a regular nighttime companion, called Brutha over.

“His . . . your . . . the deacon told me to watch out for this,” he said. “You go and fetch him now.”

Vorbis had a cabin somewhere near the bilges, where the air was as thick as thin soup. Brutha knocked.


There were no portholes down here. Vorbis was sitting in the dark.

“Yes, Brutha?”

“The captain sent me to fetch you, lord. Something's shining in the desert.”

“Good. Now, Brutha. Attend. The captain has a mirror. You will ask to borrow it.”

“Er . . . what is a mirror, lord?”

“An unholy and forbidden device,” said Vorbis. “Which regretfully can be pressed into godly service. He will deny it, of course. But a man with such a neat beard and tiny mustache is vain, and a vain man must have his mirror. So take it. And stand in the sun and move the mirror so that it shines the sun towards the desert. Do you understand?”

“No, lord,” said Brutha.

“Your ignorance is your protection, my son. And then come back and tell me what you see.”

Om dozed in the sun. Brutha had found him a little space near the pointy end where he could get sun with little danger of being seen by the crew-and the crew were jittery enough at the moment not to go looking for trouble in any case.

A tortoise dreams . . .

. . . for millions of years.

It was the dreamtime. The unformed time.

The small gods chittered and whirred in the wilderness places, and the cold places, and the deep places. They swarmed in the darkness, without memory but driven by hope and lust for the one thing, the one thing a god craves-belief.

There are no medium-sized trees in the deep forest. There are only the towering ones, whose canopy spreads across the sky. Below, in the gloom, there's light for nothing but mosses and ferns. But when a giant falls, leaving a little space . . . then there's a race-between the trees on either side, who want to spread out, and the seedlings below, who race to grow up.

Sometimes, you can make your own space.

Forests were a long way from the wilderness. The nameless voice that was going to be Om drifted on the wind on the edge of the desert, trying to be heard among countless others, trying to avoid being pushed into the center. It may have whirled for millions of years-it had nothing with which to measure time. All it had was hope, and a certain sense of the presence of things. And a voice.

Then there was a day. In a sense, it was the first day.

Om had been aware of the shepherd for some ti-for a while. The flock had been wandering closer and closer. The rains had been sparse. Forage was scarce. Hungry mouths propelled hungry legs further into the rocks, searching out the hitherto scorned clumps of sun-seared grass.

They were sheep, possibly the most stupid animal in the universe with the possible exception of the duck. But even their uncomplicated minds couldn't hear the voice, because sheep don't listen.

There was a lamb, though. It had strayed a little way. Om saw to it that it strayed a little further. Around a rock. Down the slope. Into the crevice.

Its bleating drew the mother.

The crevice was well hidden and the ewe was, after all, content now that she had her lamb. She saw no reason to bleat, even when the shepherd wandered about the rocks calling, cursing, and, eventually, pleading. The shepherd had a hundred sheep, and it might have been surprising that he was prepared to spend days searching for one sheep; in fact, it was because he was the kind of man prepared to spend days looking for a lost sheep that he had a hundred sheep.

The voice that was going to be Om waited.

It was on the evening of the second day that he scared up a partridge that had been nesting near the crevice, just as the shepherd was wandering by.

It wasn't much of a miracle, but it was good enough for the shepherd. He made a cairn of stones at the spot and, next day, brought his whole flock into the area. And in the heat of the afternoon he lay down to sleep-and Om spoke to him, inside his head.

Three weeks later the shepherd was stoned to death by the priests of Ur-Gilash, who was at that time the chief god in the area. But they were too late. Om already had a hundred believers, and the number was growing . . .

Only a mile away from the shepherd and his flock was a goatherd and his herd. The merest accident of microgeography had meant that the first man to hear the voice of Om, and who gave Om his view of humans, was a shepherd and not a goatherd. They have quite different ways of looking at the world, and the whole of history might have been different.

For sheep are stupid, and have to be driven. But goats are intelligent, and need to be led.

Ur-Gilash, thought Om. Ah, those were the days . . . when Ossory and his followers had broken into the temple and smashed the altar and had thrown the priestesses out of the window to be torn apart by wild dogs, which was the correct way of doing things, and there had been a mighty wailing and gnashing of feet and the followers of Om had lit their campfires in the crumbled halls of Gilash just as the Prophet had said, and that counted even though he'd said it only five minutes earlier, when they were only looking for the firewood, because everyone agreed a prophecy is a prophecy and no one said you had to wait a long time for it to come true.

Great days. Great days. Every day fresh converts. The rise of Om had been unstoppable . . .

He jerked awake.

Old Ur-Gilash. Weather god, wasn't he? Yes. No. Maybe one of your basic giant spider gods? Something like that. Whatever happened to him?

What happened to me? How does it happen? You hang around the astral planes, going with the flow, enjoy the rhythms of the universe, you think that all the, you know, humans are getting on with the believing back down there, you decide to go and stir them up a bit and then . . . a tortoise. It's like going to the bank and finding the money's been leaking out through a hole. The first you know is when you stroll down looking for a handy mind, and suddenly you're a tortoise and there's no power left to get out.

Three years of looking up at practically everything . . .

Old Ur-Gilash? Perhaps he was hanging on as a lizard somewhere, with some old hermit as his only believer. More likely he had been blown out into the desert. A small god was lucky to get one chance.

There was something wrong. Om couldn't quite put his finger on it, and not only because he didn't have a finger. Gods rose and fell like bits of onion in a boiling soup, but this time was different. There was something wrong this time . . .

Source: www_Novel22_Net

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