Small Gods Page 3

Vorbis sat back, his expression unchanged. His expression seldom changed unless he wanted it to. The inquisitor watched him in terror.

“I see,” said Vorbis. He stood up, and nodded at the inquisitor.

“How long has he been down here?”

“Two days, lord.”

“And you can keep him alive for-?”

“Perhaps two days more, lord.”

“Do so. Do so. It is, after all,” said Vorbis, “our duty to preserve life for as long as possible. Is it not?”

The inquisitor gave him the nervous smile of one in the presence of a superior whose merest word could see him manacled on a bench.

“Er . . . yes, lord.”

“Heresy and lies everywhere,” Vorbis sighed. “And now I shall have to find another secretary. It is too vexing.”

After twenty minutes Brutha relaxed. The siren voices of sensuous evil seemed to have gone away.

He got on with the melons. He felt capable of understanding melons. Melons seemed a lot more comprehensible than most things.

“Hey, you!”

Brutha straightened up.

“I do not hear you, oh foul succubus,” he said.

"Oh yes you do, boy. Now, what I want you to do is-

“I've got my fingers in my ears!”

"Suits you. Suits you. Makes you look like a vase. Now?

“I'm humming a tune! I'm humming a tune!”

Brother Preptil, the master of the music, had described Brutha's voice as putting him in mind of a disappointed vulture arriving too late at the dead donkey. Choral singing was compulsory for novitiates, but after much petitioning by Brother Preptil a special dispensation had been made for Brutha. The sight of his big round face screwed up in the effort to please was bad enough, but what was worse was listening to his voice, which was certainly powerful and full of intent conviction, swinging backward and forward across the tune without ever quite hitting it.

He got Extra Melons instead.

Up in the prayer towers a flock of crows took off in a hurry.

After a full chorus of He is Trampling the Unrighteous with Hooves of Hot Iron Brutha unplugged his ears and risked a quick listen.

Apart from the distant protests of the crows, there was silence.

It worked. Put your trust in the God, they said. And he always had. As far back as he could remember.

He picked up his hoe and turned back, in relief, to the vines.

The hoe's blade was about to hit the ground when Brutha saw the tortoise.

It was small and basically yellow and covered with dust. Its shell was badly chipped. It had one beady eye -the other had fallen to one of the thousands of dangers that attend any slow-moving creature which lives an inch from the ground.

He looked around. The gardens were well inside the temple complex; and surrounded by high walls.

“How did you get in here, little creature?” he said. “Did you fly?”

The tortoise stared monoptically at him. Brutha felt a bit homesick. There had been plenty of tortoises in the sandy hills back home.

“I could give you some lettuce,” said Brutha. “But I don't think tortoises are allowed in the gardens. Aren't you vermin?”

The tortoise continued to stare. Practically nothing can stare like a tortoise.

Brutha felt obliged to do something.

“There's grapes,” he said. “Probably it's not sinful to give you one grape. How would you like a grape, little tortoise?”

“How would you like to be an abomination in the nethermost pit of chaos?” said the tortoise.

The crows, who had fled to the outer walls, took off again to a rendering of The Way of the Infidel Is A Nest Of Thorns.

Brutha opened his eyes and took his fingers out of his ears again.

The tortoise said, “I'm still here.”

Brutha hesitated. It dawned on him, very slowly, that demons and succubi didn't turn up looking like small old tortoises. There wouldn't be much point. Even Brother Nhumrod would have to agree that when it came to rampant eroticism, you could do a lot better than a one-eyed tortoise.

“I didn't know tortoises could talk,” he said.

“They can't,” said the tortoise. “Read my lips.”

Brutha looked closer.

“You haven't got lips,” he said.

“No, nor proper vocal chords,” agreed the tortoise. “I'm doing it straight into your head, do you understand?”


“You do understand, don't you?”


The tortoise rolled its eye.

“I should have known. Well, it doesn't matter. I don't have to waste time on gardeners. Go and fetch the top man, right now.”

“Top man?” said Brutha. He put his hand to his mouth. “You don't mean . . . Brother Nhumrod?”

“Who's he?” said the tortoise.

“The master of the novices!”

“Oh, Me!” said the tortoise. “No,” it went on, in a singsong imitation of Brutha's voice, “I don't mean the master of the novices. I mean the High Priest or whatever he calls himself. I suppose there is one?”

Brutha nodded blankly.

“High Priest, right?” said the tortoise. “High. Priest. High Priest.”

Brutha nodded again. He knew there was a High Priest. It was just that, while he could just about encompass the hierarchical structure between his own self and Brother Nhumrod, he was unable to give serious consideration to any kind of link between Brutha the novice and the Cenobiarch. He was theoretically aware that there was one, that there was a huge canonical structure with the High Priest at the top and Brutha very firmly at the bottom, but he viewed it in the same way as an amoeba might view the chain of evolution all the way between itself and, for example, a chartered accountant. It was missing links all the way to the top.

“I can't go asking the- Brutha hesitated. Even the thought of talking to the Cenobiarch frightened him into silence. ”I can't ask anyone to ask the High Cenobiarch to come and talk to a tortoise!"

“Turn into a mud leech and wither in the fires of retribution!” screamed the tortoise.

“There's no need to curse,” said Brutha.

The tortoise bounced up and down furiously.

“That wasn't a curse! That was an order! I am the Great God Om!”

Brutha blinked.

Then he said, “No you're not. I've seen the Great God Om,” he waved a hand making the shape of the holy horns, conscientiously, “and he isn't tortoiseshaped. He comes as an eagle, or a lion, or a mighty bull. There's a statue in the Great Temple. It's seven cubits high. It's got bronze on it and everything. It's trampling infidels. You can't trample infidels when you're a tortoise. I mean, all you could do is give them a meaningful look. It's got horns of real gold. Where I used to live there was a statue one cubit high in the next village and that was a bull too. So that's how I know you're not the Great God”?-holy horns-"Om.

The tortoise subsided.

“How many talking tortoises have you met?” it said sarcastically.

“I don't know,” said Brutha.

“What d'you mean, you don't know?”

“Well, they might all talk,” said Brutha conscientiously, demonstrating the very personal kind of logic that got him Extra Melons. “They just might not say anything when I'm there.”

“I am the Great God Om,” said the tortoise, in a menacing and unavoidably low voice, “and before very long you are going to be a very unfortunate priest. Go and get him.”

“Novice,” said Brutha.


"Novice, not priest. They won't let me-

“Get him!”

“But I don't think the Cenobiarch ever comes into our vegetable garden,” said Brutha. “I don't think he even knows what a melon is. ”

“I'm not bothered about that,” said the tortoise. “Fetch him now, or there will be a shaking of the earth, the moon will be as blood, agues and boils will afflict mankind and diverse ills will befall. I really mean it,” it added.

“I'll see what I can do,” said Brutha, backing away.

“And I'm being very reasonable, in the circumstances!” the tortoise shouted after him.

“You don't sing badly, mind you!” it added, as an afterthought.

“I've heard worse!” as Brutha's grubby robe disappeared through the gateway.

“Puts me in mind of that time there was the affliction of plague in Pseudopolis,” it said quietly, as the footsteps faded. “What a wailing and a gnashing of teeth was there, all right.” It sighed. “Great days. Great days!”

Many feel they are called to the priesthood, but what they really hear is an inner voice saying, “It's indoor work with no heavy lifting, do you want to be a ploughman like your father?”

Whereas Brutha didn't just believe. He really Believed. That sort of thing is usually embarrassing when it happens in a God-fearing family, but all Brutha had was his grandmother, and she Believed too. She believed like iron believes in metal. She was the kind of woman every priest dreads in a congregation, the one who knows all the chants, all the sermons. In the Omnian Church women were allowed in the temple only on sufferance, and had to keep absolutely silent and well covered-up in their own section behind the pulpit in case the sight of one half of the human race caused the male members of the congregation to hear voices not unakin to those that plagued Brother Nhumrod through every sleeping and waking hour. The problem was that Brutha's grandmother had the kind of personality that can project itself through a lead sheet and a bitter piety with the strength of a diamond-bit auger.

If she had been born a man, Omnianism would have found its 8th Prophet rather earlier than expected. As it was, she organized the temple-cleaning, statue-polishing, and stoning-of-suspected-adulteresses rotas with a terrible efficiency.

So Brutha grew up in the sure and certain knowledge of the Great God Om. Brutha grew up knowing that Om's eyes were on him all the time, especially in places like the privy, and that demons assailed him on all sides and were only kept at bay by the strength of his belief and the weight of grandmother's cane, which was kept behind the door on those rare occasions when it was not being used. He could recite every verse in all seven Books of the Prophets, and every single Precept. He knew all the Laws and the Songs. Especially the Laws.

The Omnians were a God-fearing people.

They had a great deal to fear.

Vorbis's room was in the upper Citadel, which was unusual for a mere deacon. He hadn't asked for it. He seldom had to ask for anything. Destiny has a way of marking her own.

He also got visited by some of the most powerful men in the Church's hierarchy.

Not, of course, the six Archpriests or the Cenobiarch himself. They weren't that important. They were merely at the top. The people who really run organizations are usually found several levels down, where it's still possible to get things done.

People liked to be friends with Vorbis, mainly because of the aforesaid mental field which suggested to them, in the subtlest of ways, that they didn't want to be his enemy.

Two of them were sitting down with him now. They were General Iam Fri'it, who whatever the official records might suggest was the man who ran most of the Divine Legion, and Bishop Drunah, secretary to the Congress of Iams. People might not think that was much of a position of power, but then they'd never been minutes secretary to a meeting of slightly deaf old men.

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