Small Gods Page 35


“They go to sleep.”

“After feeding-?”

Brutha looked round at Vorbis, who was slumped against a rock.

“Feeding?” he repeated.

“It'll be a kindness,” said Om.

“To the lion, yes! You want to use him as bait?”

“He's not going to survive the desert. Anyway, he's done much worse to thousands of people. He'll be dying for a good cause.”

“A good cause?”

“I like it.”

There was a growl, from somewhere in the stones. It wasn't loud, but it was a sound with sinews in it. Brutha backed away.

“We don't just throw people to the lions!”

“He does.”

“Yes. I don't.”

“All right, we'll get on top of a slab and when the lion starts on him you can brain it with a rock. He'll probably get away with an arm or a leg. He'll never miss it.”

“No! You can't do that to people just because they're helpless!”

“You know, I can't think of a better time?”

There was another growl from the rock pile. It sounded closer.

Brutha looked down desperately at the scattered bones. Among them, half-hidden by debris, was a sword. It was old, and not well-made, and scoured by sand. He picked it up gingerly by the blade.

“Other end,” said Om.

"I know!..

“Can you use one?”

“I don't know!”

“I really hope you're a fast learner.”

The lion emerged, slowly.

Desert lions, it has been said, are not like the lions of the veldt. They had been, when the great desert had been verdant woodland.[7] Then there had been time to lie around for most of the day, looking majestic, in between regular meals of goat.[8] But the woodland had become scrubland, the scrubland had become, well, poorer scrubland, and the goats and the people and, eventually, even the cities, went away.

The lions stayed. There's always something to eat, if you're hungry enough. People still had to cross the desert. There were lizards. There were snakes. It wasn't much of an ecological niche, but the lions were hanging on to it like grim death, which was what happened to most people who met a desert lion.

Someone had already met this one.

Its mane was matted. Ancient scars criss-crossed its pelt. It dragged itself towards Brutha, back legs trailing uselessly.

“It's hurt,” said Brutha.

“Oh, good. And there's plenty of eating on one of those,” said Om. "A bit stringy, but-

The lion collapsed, its toast-rack chest heaving. A spear was protruding from its flank. Flies, which can always find something to eat in any desert, flew up in a swarm.

Brutha put down the sword. Om stuck his head in his shell.

“Oh no,” he murmured. “Twenty million people in this world, and the only one who believes in me is a suicide?”

“We can't just leave it,” said Brutha.

“We can. We can. It's a lion. You leave lions alone. ”

Brutha knelt down. The lion opened one crusted yellow eye, too weak even to bite him.

"You're going to die, you're going to die. I'm not going to find anyone to believe in me out here-

Brutha's knowledge of animal anatomy was rudimentary. Although some of the inquisitors had an enviable knowledge of the insides of the human body that is denied to all those who are not allowed to open it while it's still working, medicine as such was frowned upon in Omnia. But somewhere, in every village, was someone who officially didn't set bones and who didn't know a few things about certain plants, and who stayed out of reach of the Quisition because of the fragile gratitude of their patients. And every peasant picked up a smattering of knowledge. Acute toothache can burn through all but the strongest in faith.

Brutha grasped the spear-haft. The lion growled as he moved it.

“Can't you speak to it?” said Brutha.

“It's an animal.”

"So are you. You could try to calm it down. Because if it gets excited-

Om snapped into concentration.

In fact the lion's mind contained nothing but pain, a spreading nebula of the stuff, overcoming even the normal background hunger. Om tried to encircle the pain, make it flow away . . . and not to think about what would happen if it went. By the feel of things, the lion had not eaten for days.

The lion grunted as Brutha withdrew the spearhead.

“Omnian,” he said. “It hasn't been there long. It must have met the soldiers when they were on the way to Ephebe. They must have passed close by.” He tore another strip from his robe, and tried to clean the wound.

“We want to eat it, not cure it!” shouted Om. “What're you thinking of? You think it's going to be grateful?”

“It wanted to be helped.”

“And soon it will want to be fed, have you thought about that?”

“It's looking pathetically at me.”

“Probably never seen a week's meals all walking around on one pair of legs before.”

That wasn't true, Om reflected. Brutha was shedding weight like an ice-cube, out here in the desert. That kept him alive! The boy was a two-legged camel.

Brutha crunched towards the rock pile, shards and bones shifting under his feet. The boulders formed a maze of half?-open tunnels and caves. By the smell, the lion had lived there for a long time, and had quite often been ill.

He stared at the nearest cave for some time.

“What's so fascinating about a lion's den?” said Om.

“The way it's got steps down into it, I think,” said Brutha.

Didactylos could feel the crowd. It filled the barn.

“How many are there?” he said.

“Hundreds!” said Urn. “They're even sitting on the rafters! And . . . master?”


“There's even one or two priests! And dozens of soldiers!”

“Don't worry,” said Simony, joining them on the makeshift platform made of fig barrels. “They are Turtle believers, just like you. We have friends in unexpected places!”

“But I don't-” Didactylos began, helplessly.

“There isn't anyone here who doesn't hate the Church with all their soul,” said Simony.

"But that's not-

“They're just waiting for someone to lead them!”

"But I never-

"I know you won't let us down. You're a man of reason. Urn, come over here. There's a blacksmith I want you to meet-

Didactylos turned his face to the crowd. He could feel the hot, hushed silence of their stares.

Each drop took minutes.

It was hypnotic. Brutha found himself staring at each developing drip. It was almost impossible to see it grow, but they had been growing and dripping for thousands of years.

“How?” said Om.

“Water seeps down after the rains,” said Brutha. “It lodges in the rocks. Don't gods know these things?”

“We don't need to.” Om looked around. “Let's go. I hate this place.”

“It's just an old temple. There's nothing here.”

“That's what I mean.”

Sand and rubble half-filled it. Light lanced in through the broken roof high above, on to the slope that they had climbed down. Brutha wondered how many of the wind?carved rocks in the desert had once been buildings. This one must have been huge, perhaps a mighty tower. And then the desert had come.

There were no whispering voices here. Even the small gods kept away from abandoned temples, fo the same reason that people kept away from graveyards. The only sound was the occasional plink of the water.

It dripped into a- shallow pool in front of what looked like an altar. From the pool it had worn a groove in the slabs of the floor all the way to a round pit, which appeared to be bottomless. There were a few statues, all of them toppled; they were heavy-proportioned, lacking any kind of detail, each one a child's clay model chiseled in granite. The distant walls had once been covered with some kind of bas-relief, but it had crumbled away except in a few places, which showed strange designs that mainly consisted of tentacles.

“Who were the people who lived here?” said Brutha.

“I don't know.”

“What god did they worship?”

“I don't know.”

“The statues are made of granite, but there's no granite near here.”

“They were very devout, then. They dragged it all the way.”

“And the altar block is covered in grooves.”

“Ah. Extremely devout. That would be to let the blood run off.”

“You really think they did human sacrifice?”

“I don't know! I want to get out of here!”

"Why? There's water and it's cool-

“Because . . . a god lived here. A powerful god. Thousands worshiped it. I can feel it. You know? It comes out of the walls. A Great God. Mighty were his dominions and magnificent was his word. Armies went forth in his name and conquered and slew. That kind of thing. And now no one, not you, not me, no one, even knows who the god was or his name or what he looked like. Lions drink in the holy places and those little squidgy things with eight legs, there's one by your foot, what d'you call 'em, the ones with the antennae, crawl beneath the altar. Now do you understand?”

“No,” said Brutha.

“Don't you fear death? You're a human!”

Brutha considered this. A few feet away. Vorbis stared mutely at the patch of sky.

“He's awake. He's just not speaking.”

“Who cares? I didn't ask you about him.”

“Well . . . sometimes . . . when I'm on catacomb duty . . . it's the kind of place where you can't help . . . I mean, all the skulls and things . . . and the Book says . . .”

“There you are,” said Om, a note of bitter triumph in his voice. “You don't know. That's what stops everyone going mad, the uncertainty of it, the feeling that it might work out all right after all. But it's different for gods. We do know. You know that story about the sparrow flying through a room?”


“Everyone knows it.”

“Not me.”

“About life being like a sparrow flying through a room? Nothing but darkness outside? And it flies through the room and there's just a moment of warmth and light?”

“There are windows open?” said Brutha.

“Can't you imagine what it's like to be that sparrow, and know about the darkness? To know that afterward there'll be nothing to remember, ever, except that one moment of the light?”


“No. Of course you can't. But that's what it's like, being a god. And this place . . . it's a morgue.”

Brutha looked around at the ancient, shadowy temple.

“Well . . . do you know what it's like, being human?”

Om's head darted into his shell for a moment, the nearest he was capable of to a shrug.

“Compared to a god? Easy. Get born. Obey a few rules. Do what you're told. Die. Forget.”

Brutha stared at him.

“Is something wrong?”

Brutha shook his head. Then he stood up and walked over to Vorbis.

The deacon had drunk water from Brutha's cupped hands. But there was a switched-off quality about him. He walked, he drank, he breathed. Or something did. His body did. The dark eyes opened, but appeared to be looking at nothing that Brutha could see. There was no sense that anyone was looking out through them. Brutha was certain that if he walked away, Vorbis would sit on the cracked flagstones until he very gently fell over. Vorbis' body was present, but the whereabouts of his mind was probably not locatable on any normal atlas.

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