The God of Au
by Ann Leckie
The Fleet of the Godless came to the waters around Au by chance. It was an odd assortment of the refugees of the world; some had deliberately renounced all gods, some had offended one god in particular. A few were some god’s favorites that another, rival god had cursed. But most were merely the descendants of the original unfortunates and had never lived any other way.
There were six double-hulled boats, named, in various languages, Bird of the Waves, Water Knife, O Gods Take Pity, Breath of Starlight, Righteous Vengeance, and Neither Land Nor Water. (This last was the home of a man whose divine enemy had pronounced that henceforth he should live on neither land nor water. Its two shallow hulls and the deck between them were carefully lined with soil, so that as it floated on the waves it would be precisely what its name declared.) For long years they had wandered the world, pursued by their enemies, allies of no one. Who would shelter them and risk the anger of gods? Who, even had they wished to, could protect them?
More than any other people in the world, they were attuned to the presence and moods of gods — they would hardly have survived so long had they not been — and even before they came in sight of the line of small islands that stretched southward from the larger island of Au they had felt a curious lifelessness in the atmosphere. It was unlike anything they had ever met before. They sailed ahead, cautiously, watched and waited, and after a few days their leader, a man named Steq, captain of Righteous Vengeance, ordered the most neutral of prayers and a small sacrifice to whoever the local gods of the waters might be.
Shortly afterwards, twelve people disappeared in the night and were never seen again. The remaining Godless knew a sign when they saw one, and their six captains met together on Neither Land Nor Water to consult.
The six ships rode near a small island, sheer-sided black stone, white seabirds nesting in the crags, and a crown of green grass at the top. The breeze was cold, and the sun, though bright in a cloudless, intensely blue sky, seemed warmthless, and so they huddled around the firebox on the deck between the two hulls.
“What shall we do?” Steq asked the other five when they had all settled. He was, like the other Godless, all wiry muscle and no fat. Years of exposure had bleached his dark hair reddish, and whatever color his skin had been at his birth, it had been darkened yet further by the sun. His eyes were brown, and seemed somehow vague until he spoke, when all hints of diffusion or dreaminess disappeared. “I have some thoughts on the matter myself, but it would be best to consider all our options.”
“We should leave here,” said the captain of O Gods Take Pity, a broad-shouldered man with one eye and one hand, and skin like leather. He was older than any of the other captains. “The god in question is clearly capricious.”
“What god isn’t?” asked another captain. “Let’s make up a sacrifice. A good one, with plenty of food, a feast on all six boats. Let us invoke the god who punished us for our recent offense. In this way perhaps we can at least mollify it.”
“Your thought is a good one,” said Steq. “It has crossed my mind as well. Though I am undecided which I think better — a feast, or some ascetic act of penitence.”
“Why not both?” suggested another. “First the penitence, and then a feast.”
“This would seem to cover all eventualities,” said Steq. The others were agreed, except for the captain of O Gods Take Pity.
“This god is tricky and greedy. Moreso than others. Best we should take our chances elsewhere.” And he would not participate in the debate over the safest wording and form of the rites, but closed his one eye and leaned closer to the firebox.
When the meeting was done and the captains were departing for their own boats, Steq took him aside. “Why do you say this god is greedier and trickier than most?”
“Why do you ask me this when the meeting is finished?” asked the other captain, narrowing his one eye. Steq only looked at him. “Very well. Ask yourself this question — where are the other gods? There
is not an infant in the fleet that does not feel the difference between these waters and the ones we’ve left. This is a god that has driven out or destroyed all others, a god who resents sacrifices meant for any other. And that being the case, why wait for us to make the mistake? Why not send warning first, and thus be assured of our obedience? It pleased the god that we should lose those twelve people, make no mistake. You would be a fool not to see it, and I never took you for a fool.”
“I see it,” said Steq. He had not risen to a position of authority without an even temper, and considerable intelligence. “I also see that we could do worse than win favor with a god powerful enough to drive any other out of its territory.”
“At what cost, Steq?”
“There has never been a time we have not paid for dealing with gods,” said Steq. “And there has never been a time that we have not been compelled to deal with them. We are all sick at heart over this loss, but we cannot afford to pass by any advantage that may offer itself.”
“I left my own son to drown because I could not go back without endangering my boat and everyone in it. Do not think I speak out of sentiment.” Both men were silent a moment. “I will not challenge your authority, but I tell you, this is a mistake that may well cost us our lives.”
“I value your counsel,” Steq told him, and he put his hand on the other captain’s shoulder. “Do not be silent, I beg you, but tell me all your misgivings, now and in the future.” And with that they parted, each to their own boat.
A thousand years before, in the village of Ilu on the island of Au, there were two brothers, Etoje and Ekuba. They had been born on the same day and when their father died it was unclear how his possessions should be divided.
The brothers took their dispute to the god of a cave near Ilu. This cave was a hollow in the mountainside that led down to a steaming, sulfur-smelling well, and the god there had often given good advice in the past.
Let Ekuba divide according to his satisfaction, was the god’s answer. And let Etoje choose his portion. Let the brothers be bound by their choices, or death and disaster will be the result.
But instead of dividing fairly, Ekuba hid the most desirable part of his father’s belongings in a hole under the pile he was certain Etoje would not choose. It was not long before Etoje discovered his brother’s deception, and in anger he drew his knife and struck Ekuba so that he fell bleeding to the ground. Thinking he had killed his brother, Etoje took a small boat and fled.
The island furthest to the south of Au had reared its head and shoulders above the water, with much steam and ash and fire, in the time of Etoje’s great-grandfather. Birds were still wary of it, and it was not considered a good place to hunt. Its sides were black and steep, and there was no place for a boat to land, but Etoje found a spur of rock to tie his boat to, and he climbed up the cliff to the top, where a few plants and mosses had taken tentative root in the ashes, and a pool of warm water steamed. There was nothing else of interest.
But darkness was falling and he had nowhere else to go, so he sat down next to the spring to consider his situation. “Oh, Etoje,” he said to himself, “your anger will be the death of you. But what else were you to do?”
As he sat, a seabird flew overhead, carrying a large fish. Etoje thought that if he could make the bird drop the fish, he might at least have some food for the evening. So he took up a stone as quickly as he might and threw it at the bird.
The stone hit its target, and the bird dropped the fish. But the fish fell not on the ashy land, but into the spring. Etoje could not see it to pull it out, and he was wary of wading into a spring he knew nothing of, so he settled himself once again.
When he had sat this way for some time, he heard a voice. “Etoje,” it whispered. Etoje looked around, but saw nothing. “Etoje!” This time Etoje looked at the spring, and saw the fish lying half in and half
out of the water.
“Did you speak to me, fish?” Etoje asked. It looked like any other fish, silver-scaled and finned and glassy-eyed.
“I spoke,” said the fish, “but I am not a fish.”
“You look like a fish to me,” remarked Etoje.
“I am the god of this island,” said the fish in its weird whisper. “I must have a mouth to speak, and perforce I have used this fish, there being nothing else available.”
“Then I thank you, god of this island, whatever your proper name, whether you be male or female, or both, or neither, for your hospitality. Though I have little besides thanks to offer in exchange.”
“It was of exchange I wished to speak. Shall we trade favors and become allies?”
“On what terms?” asked Etoje, for though he was in desperate straits, he knew that one should be cautious when dealing with gods.
“I was born with the island,” said the fish. “And I am lonely. The cliff-girt isles around me subsist on the occasional prayers of hunters. They are silent and all but godless. No one hunts my birdless cliffs, and my island, like those others, will likely never be settled. Take me to Au, and I will reward you.”
“That, I’m afraid, is impossible.” And Etoje told the fish of his father’s death, and his brother’s deception, and his own anger and flight.
“Take me to Au,” the fish insisted. And it told Etoje that if he would do so, and make the sacrifices and perform the rites the god required, Etoje would be pre-eminent in Au. “I will make you and yours rulers over the whole land of Au. I will promise that you and yours will be mine, and your fates my special concern, so long as Au stands above the waves.”
“And when the tide comes in?”
“Shrewd Etoje! But I meant no trick. Let us say instead, so long as the smallest part of the island of Au stands above the waves. If you feed me well I will certainly have the strength to do all I say and more.”
“Ah,” said Etoje. “You want blood.”
“I want all the rites of the people of Au, all the sacrifices. Declare me, alone, your god. Declare me, alone, the god of your people. Declare me, alone, the god of Au. Any who will not accept this bargain will be outlaws, and I will have their blood.”
“What of the gods already resident on Au? Would they not starve?”
“Do they care now if you starve?” asked the fish.
“You have a point.” And Etoje was silent for a few moments.
“With your help,” said the fish, “I will enter any good-sized stone you bring me — there are several nearby — and you will bring it to Au. Then you will offer sacrifice and free me from the stone.”
“And this sacrifice?”
“I hear the seabirds crying above the waves. They have flown over Ilu and they tell me your brother is not dead, merely injured. Have you considered how much simpler the question of your inheritance would be if he were dead?”
“I must ponder,” said Etoje.
“Certainly. But don’t ponder excessively. This fish won’t last forever.”
“Speaking of which,” said Etoje, “do you need all of the fish for talking? I’m quite hungry, and I’m sure I would think better on a full stomach.”
“Take it all,” said the fish. “In the morning bring another to the spring. Or a seal or bird — fish aren’t made for talking and this is quite taxing.”
“Thank you,” said Etoje. “I’m reassured to find you so reasonable. I will now dedicate this fish to you and indulge in a sacrificial feast, after which I will consider all you have said.”
And Etoje did those things.
In the thousand years after Etoje made his bargain, the village of Ilu became the city of Ilu. It stood at the mouth of a wide, icy stream that tumbled down from the heights of the glacier-covered mountain Mueu. On Mueu’s lower slopes the spring in the cave still steamed, but the god was long silent, either absent or dead. Behind Mueu was the high, cold interior of Au, a wasteland of ice and lava where no one went.
Ilu’s green and brown houses, of turf and stone and skins, spread down to the sea where racks of fish lay drying, where the hunting boats lay each night and left each morning, and where frames of seaweed rose and fell with the tide. In the center of the city was the Place of the God of Au, a sprawling complex of blocks of black lava, rising higher than any other building there.
In days long past, anyone might raid a foreign village and bring his captives to Ilu, feeding the god handsomely and increasing his own standing and wealth. Whole villages perished, or else threw themselves at the feet of Ilu’s rulers and declared themselves faithful servants of the god. Many
humble but clever and brave young men made their fortunes in those days. But now the only outlaws in Au were condemned criminals, and only the same several officials, who had inherited the right to dispense justice, could present human victims to the god. No other outlaws were to be found in the land. Every village — for Ilu was Au’s only city — offered its rites and sacrifices to the god of Au alone.
In return, the people of Au prospered. They were healthy and well-fed. Seals, fish, and whales were abundant. It was true that over the years the number of offenses punishable by death had increased, but if one was a solid, law-abiding citizen and meticulous about honoring the god, this was of no concern.
There was a man named Ihak, and he lived in the Place of the God. It was his job, as it had been his father’s, and his father’s before him, to receive the outlaw victims intended for the god, and issue receipts to the providers in the form of tokens of volcanic glass carved into the shape of small fish. In former days this had been a position of great influence, but now was merely a ceremonial duty. Ihak was a tall man, almost spindly. He walked with a slight stoop, and his features were pinched and narrow. Though he and his wife had been together for many years, they had produced no children. He had often presented the god with fish, and with his own blood, and once he had even bought a human victim from one of the officials he dealt with, though it had meant a great deal of his savings. Making each sacrifice he had reminded the god of his faithful service, and that of his own ancestors, and he humbly and sincerely begged the god to provide him with that one thing that would complete his happiness. This was the only defect in his otherwise comfortable life.
One day two hunters came to the Place of the God with a dozen injured captives in tow. The gatekeeper gaped in astonishment and tried to turn them away, but they would not move. The captives were dressed oddly, and didn’t seem to understand normal speech, so questions about how they had come to be here, bound and bleeding in front of the Place of the God of Au, went unanswered.
Finally the Speaker for the God came to the gate. He was a dignified man, very conscious of his responsibilities as a descendant of Etoje. Every inch of him, from his thick, curled, pale hair to his immaculate sealskin boots, declared him a man of importance. Too important to be bothered with
a couple of hunters, but he had realized as soon as he had heard the message that the situation was a serious one. So he questioned the hunters. Where had these people come from?
“The other day some boats sailed into the islands,” said one hunter. “Large ones, joined in pairs by wide platforms.” He attempted to describe the mast and sail of each boat, but left his listeners perplexed. “Each one had many people aboard. They anchored and began hunting birds. My cousin
and I watched them, and saw they weren’t from Au.”
“Where did they come from, if not from Au?” asked the Speaker. As far as he knew, there wasn’t anywhere else to come from. “Did they spring up out of the waves, boats and all?”
“Perhaps,” said one hunter, “the god of Au is tired of a steady diet of criminals.”
“Perhaps,” said the other, with the merest touch of malice, “the god of Au wishes all men to have a chance at riches and nobility, as was the case in former days.”
The Speaker didn’t particularly like hearing this. As the gatekeeper had, he questioned the captives. One spoke, or tried to speak, but something was evidently wrong — no words came out, only meaningless sounds.
By now, passers-by had stopped, and some of them confirmed the hunters’ story — there were strange boats anchored in the islands, carrying strangely dressed people. And though the custom had not been followed for more than two hundred years, the Speaker could think of no immediate grounds on which to deny its fulfillment now, and plenty of grounds for possible retribution later, if it should become a problem. So he sent the hunters to Ihak.
Ihak was no less astonished than anyone else. However, unlike anyone else he had reason to take this development with a fair amount of equanimity. “So, ah, hm,” he said, looking over the captives. “Who captured which ones?”
“We worked equally together,” said the first hunter. “So we should get equal credit.”
“That’s right,” said the second.
“Ah,” said Ihak. “I see.” He looked the line of captives over more carefully. “Ah. Hmm. You say you both participated equally in all twelve captures?” The two hunters assented. “So. Twelve tokens, then, six for each of you. And you may then call yourselves Warriors of Au.”
“I can’t wait to walk through the market,” said the first. “Oh, to see the looks on everyone’s faces!”
“What about the pregnant one? She looks pretty far along. Shouldn’t she count for two?”
“Ah. No,” Ihak said. “I regret to say. The guidelines are quite clear on the matter. So. But aren’t you more fortunate that way? If there were thirteen tokens, how would you divide them without a dispute? Hm?”
So Ihak formally accepted, on behalf of the god, the sacrifice brought by the two hunters, and gave them their tokens. And then he went to speak to his wife.
In due course, a baby girl was born, and Ihak put it about that his wife had given birth at long last. She had been extremely surprised to discover herself pregnant, but this was understandable, as she had long ago stopped looking for signs of it. And everyone knew some tale of a woman who had not realized her condition until nearly the last moment. Clearly Ihak’s wife was one of these.
Ihak held a great feast at which he presented the child to his friends, and he gave extravagant thanks to the god of Au. He named the girl Ifanei, which is to say, the god provided her.
When the period of fasting, vigil, and mortification had passed, each of the six captains of the Godless presided at a feast in honor of the god of this place, who punished us for our recent offense. The day was gray, and the breeze made the constant mist of rain sting. The inhabitants of each boat crowded together on their respective central decks and offered prayers praising the god as the most powerful, the most gracious, rightly the only ruler of the islands and the surrounding sea. “We desire to hear your will!” all the Godless cried, carefully making no other request, and no promises at all, while the captains let blood into the water.
Steq sat, then, and his wound was bound, and the people around him ate, with every bite praising the generosity and bounty of the god. He himself was not particularly hungry, but he knew that he should eat for the sake of his people and because of the blood loss, and so he did.
The Godless had been miserable with cold, and their hearts were sore with the loss of the twelve. Their acts of penitence had only increased their unhappiness. But now, despite the clouds and the rain, and the doubtfulness of their prospects, their spirits began to lift. There was plenty of food, all of it as carefully prepared as their situation allowed. The smiles and laughter began as performance but, as often happens, feelings began to match actions in at least some small degree. Steq could not bring himself to smile, but he was pleased to see the Godless enjoy themselves.
“If nothing else,” called the captain of O Gods Take Pity from his own deck, “we will die with full stomachs.”
This brought a bitter half-smile to Steq’s face. “As always, you speak wisely,” he answered.
Eventually the feast drew to a close, and the Godless began to clear away what was left of the food. Steq sat in thought under his boat’s single square sail, his back to the mast. He sat brooding as people went back to their routine tasks, and as the day grew later the clouds blew away from the western sky, leaving a strip of blue shading down to green and orange, and the setting sun shining gold across the water. Colors that had been muted under the gray light seemed suddenly to glow — the brilliant emerald of island-topping grass, the brown of the boat’s planking, the tattered, wheat-colored sail, the pink of a slab of seal fat the cook was packing away, all shown like jewels. The sun sank further and still Steq sat in thought.
When the sun had nearly set, Steq suddenly stood up and called a child to him. “Go to O Gods Take Pity,” he said, “as quickly as you can. Tell the captain to be on the watch — my skin prickles, and the air is uncanny. Bid him pass my warning on.”
“I feel it, too,” said the child. Before any further move could be made, the other captains came up onto the decks of their ships — Steq had not been alone in his premonition. All work on the boats had halted as well, and the Godless were afraid.
“Fear not,” said Steq. “Either we are about to meet our end, in which case our troubles are over, or we will survive. In any event, we have done all we could and will face our future as we always have.”
As they stood waiting, a jet of water rose up just beyond the stern, and a dead-white tentacle snaked up from the water onto the deck. It ran half the length of the boat and with a thud it curled itself around the mast where moments before Steq had sat in thought. The boat’s stern plunged towards the water. “Bail!” cried Steq, and in the same instant he spoke the Godless were taking up their bailers. Crew without bailers ran to the bows of the double hull, in part to balance the boat, and in part from fear of the glistening, gelatinous tentacles that had come out of the water after the first and wound and grasped at the other end. All around, the crews of the other boats stood watching, bent nearly over the gunwale strakes, crying out in horror and fear.
From the stern came a weird, bubbling noise, which resolved into gurgling speech. “Steq!”
“Don’t answer!” cried one godless.
Steq only walked as steadily as he might to the end of the unsteady deck, stepping cautiously over lengths of suckered flesh. Behind him his own crew except for the bailers froze, hardly daring to breathe, and the watchers on the other boats fell silent.
At the end of the deck, he looked over the rail into the water. There, looking back from the waves, was a huge, silvery-black eye, as large as Steq’s own head. Under this eye the white flesh in which it was set branched out into the tentacles that held his boat, and in the center of those was a beak like a bird’s. “Steq,” the thing gurgled again.
“I am here,” he said. “What do you wish?”
“Let us each speak of our wishes,” it bubbled. “An association would benefit us both.”
“You are abrupt. Some might consider this disrespectful, but I will attribute it to your ill-treatment at the hands of gods so far. Or perhaps your extreme courage, which would please me.”
The truth was, Steq dared not move lest he tremble and betray his fear. He knew that at this moment every life in the fleet depended on his smallest action, and he bent every effort to keep his voice steady. “You are most generous. I await your explanation.”
The thing gurgled wordlessly for a moment. “Then I will explain. A thousand years ago, on that very island you see before you, I made a deal with a man of Au.”
“Au being the mainland?”
“Yes. I declared that this man and his descendants would be pre-eminent in Au, if only they offered the sacrifices I desired and gave their rites and prayers to no other god. They have kept the terms of the bargain and I have as well.”
“We don’t fall under the terms of this bargain,” Steq observed.
“You do, in a way. The acceptable sacrifice, according to the agreement, is those who are outlawed. In the beginning these were any who did not confine their worship to me. Now there are no such people to be found on Au, and they offer me murderers, robbers, and various petty criminals.”
“I begin to see,” said Steq. “We offered what might be construed as sacrifice to some other god, and were then fair game for your altar.”
“Just so,” bubbled the monster. “Would you prevent this re-occurring?”
“Had I been given the choice in advance, I would have been pleased to prevent its happening at all,” Steq observed, not without some bitterness.
“No matter,” said the thing, its liquid eye unblinking. “We did not know each other then, and past is past. Besides, I offer you something I imagine you hardly dare dream possible.”
“Myself. I have become unhappy with my bargain. I will be frank. I am ambitious, and intended to reign supreme over Au, and from there expand my authority. But once they had conquered their island, the people of Ilu had no inclination to travel any further and arranged things so that they would not be required to do so. You, on the other hand, travel widely.”
The wind was already chill, but it seemed in that moment to blow colder. “You have a binding agreement with the people of Au,” he said.
“The agreement has its limits.”
“As would an agreement with us, I am sure.”
“You are a shrewder man than Etoje of Ilu,” gurgled the thing. “And your people are well accustomed to keeping an advantage when dealing with gods. We will be well-matched.” Steq said nothing. “I am strong with a thousand years of sacrifices,” said the god of Au. “Have you fled from all gods? Have all other nations cast you out? Take me as your god, and be revenged. Take me as your god and your children will live in health, not sicken and starve as so many do now. Your fear and wandering will be at an end, and you will sit in authority over all the peoples of the world.”
“At what price?”
“The price I demanded of Etoje: all your rites and sacrifices. Those who will not cease offerings to other gods will bleed on my altar.”
“And when there are no more of those?”
“Ah,” bubbled the monster. “That day is far in the future, and when it comes I will demand no more human victims.”
“What, precisely, was your agreement with Etoje of Ilu?”
“That so long as the smallest part of the island of Au stood above the waters Etoje and his descendants would be pre-eminent in Au, and all those who accepted the terms of the agreement would be under my protection, their fates my special concern. In exchange, the people of Au would offer me the sacrifices I desired, and perform the rites I prescribed, and would make no offerings to any other gods, at any time.”
“And would we enter into this same agreement, or make a new one with you?”
“We would make our own agreement, separate from my agreement with Au.”
The sun had now set. In the east the clouded sky was black, and the body of the monster glowed blue under the water. Steq stood silent for some minutes, regarding it. “We are cautious,” he said, when he finally spoke. “And I would discuss this with my people.”
“Let us make no long-term commitment at the moment. But we will agree to this much: while we are in your territory we will make no offering to any other god, and you will not require us to bleed on your altar.”
“This is reasonable,” gurgled the god of Au. “Furthermore, it gives us both a chance to demonstrate our goodwill.”
“I am pleased to find you so generous,” said Steq. “It will take some time for us to determine the best course. It is not wise to rush into such things.”
“Take what time it requires. I am in no hurry. Indeed, I have affairs to conclude before we can make our deal binding. It may be quite a long time before I am able to proceed.”
“How long? We live at sea, but we are accustomed to land fairly frequently, for water and to buy or gather what we need, and to maintain our boats.”
“Take the island you see before you, and the two north of it. All three have springs, and I will see to it that the hunters of Au will not trouble you there.”
“Very well. What name shall we call you?”
“For the moment, call me the god of Au.”
“Surely you have some other name.”
“This one will do. I will speak to you again in the future. In the meantime, be assured of your safety so long as you worship me alone.” And with those words, the tentacle that had coiled about the mast grew limp, and the whole tangle of arms slid into the water. The blue glow had begun to fade, and was nearly gone, and the huge eye was staring and vacant.
“It’s dead,” said Steq, and he called the child to him again. “Take a message to the other boats. We will meet tonight under the covers of the starboard hull of Neither Land Nor Water. Bid her captain lash them securely. No bird or fish will overhear our council.” Then he turned to his crew. “Grab this thing before it floats off. It will feed us all for a week. For which we will offer thanks to the god of Au.”
But whether due to possession by the god or the nature of the creature itself, the meat was bitter and inedible, and after a few foul-tasting bites the Godless cast it all back into the sea.
Ihak and his wife loved Ifanei greatly, and she was a happy child. She did not grow into any great beauty. She was short, and wide-boned, and her dark hair lay flat as wet seaweed. Indeed, she was so unlike her father Ihak that some commented disparagingly. But Ihak said quite frequently, “Ah, it’s true, she looks nothing like me. But she’s the very image of my late mother. So. I love her all the more for it.” And he did indeed dote on the child, and there was no one in the Place of the God who remembered his mother to speak of, and so they held their tongues, and eventually the sight of Ihak going about with Ifanei’s small hand in his became such a common, constant thing that it seemed unthinkable that anyone had ever suggested that she was not his child.
When Ifanei was fourteen, her mother died, and by the time she was sixteen Ihak was old and feeble. The Speaker began showing Ifanei small attentions, and Ihak called her to his bedside and spoke seriously with her. “So,” he said, his voice a thin thread of breath. “Do you wish to be the wife of the Speaker for the God?”
“He only wants the inheritance,” Ifanei said. She knelt on the floor and took her father’s hand, thin and light and fragile as the bones of a bird. Ihak had dwindled away to almost nothing. In the flickering light of the single oil lamp he seemed faded and so completely without substance that one feared a gentle word might blow him away, but for the skin laid across him to keep him warm.
“Ah.” It was a barely audible sigh. “You’ll need a husband one day, and you could do worse than the man with the authority of the god of Au.”
Ifanei turned the corners of her mouth down. “I could do better,” she said. “The wife he already has is beautiful, and proud. She would not welcome any division in her husband’s attentions, and she is altogether too unconcerned about the matter. I would be ignored at best.”
Ihak managed a breathy laugh. “We think alike. So. I only asked because if the prospect had pleased you I would have done my best to secure him for you. Hm. It does not, so we must make other plans.”
Now, Ihak had been a shrewder man than anyone had known. When he realized that the only child the god would grant him was a girl, he had hidden a part of his savings — the stacks of sealskins and volcanic glass blades that were the wealth of Au — in places only he knew. He had seen the resentment of the elite of Au when the two hunters had elevated themselves. He knew that the Speaker would have moved to discontinue the custom if he had not feared the anger of the common people. But further attempts on the strangers had proved futile, and the hopes of advancement had ceased to be real. The threat had receded, but it might reappear one day. Ihak knew that he would almost certainly be the last holder of his office. He also knew that the Speaker would go to considerable inconvenience to gain possession of Ifanei’s inheritance. Thinking of all this, he had planned accordingly.
The day after Ihak’s funeral, when Ifanei was sitting silent and cross-legged on the cold stone floor of her quarters, hair unbound and mourning ashes smeared on her face, the Speaker came to see her. “Ifanei,” he said, “I have spoken to the god. Your father’s office is to be discontinued. It is hardly a surprise; if it had been meant to continue, your father would have been granted a fit heir for the position.”
Ifanei knew well enough that the god had never been concerned with petty matters of administration, so long as sacrifices arrived regularly. She did not look at the Speaker but at the floor, and she kept her voice small and tear-choked as she answered. “As the god wills.”
“Poor Ifanei!” said the Speaker. “We will all miss your father, but you will understandably miss him the most. How fortunate you are to have cousins nearby to take care of you.” She said nothing. “Don’t forget, I am your cousin, too, and I regard you highly.” Still Ifanei was silent. “Lovely Ifanei!” said the Speaker then, with no hint of mockery. “When the time comes, you will want to ponder the advantages of a closer connection with me, and at a more appropriate time I will speak to you of my desires.”
In a bag, under Ifanei’s bed, were an undyed hooded sealskin coat and black glass knife. In her memory were the locations, well away from the Place of the God, where Ihak had cached a significant part of his valuables. In a week, villagers from along the north coast would come to Ilu, bringing their tribute of seals and seabirds to the Place of the God. When they left, who would notice one extra young boy among them?
“I will think seriously on everything you say,” Ifanei said to the Speaker. She still looked steadily at the floor. “My father often spoke of his great respect for you, and I am fortunate to have such a cousin. I am so very grateful for your concern.” She said this with every evidence of sincerity, and the Speaker was pleased with himself when he left her.
It was at this time that the god of Au returned to the Godless, and spoke to Steq, and shortly thereafter Righteous Vengeance ventured by night close to the shore of Au, and Steq went ashore.
Each year the north coast villagers who brought their tribute to Ilu traveled in a long, chaotic column along the sea. The seals, skins, birds, and eggs they brought were piled on sledges, the eggs carefully packed in grass. Each traveler took a turn pulling the offerings of his own village, each village they passed added to their number, and by the time the procession neared Ilu it became a noisy throng, the spirits of the participants undampened by the fact that at least half of them were suffering the effects of too much seaweed beer the night before. Between the crowd and the beer, no one noticed that a stranger had joined their number.
Steq had not been a young man when the Godless had sailed into Au’s waters, and after sixteen years his hair had grayed. But he had not changed otherwise. He did not much resemble the people of Au — his skin was too dark, his hair too fine, his features not quite right somehow, though this may have been only a certain hardness about the mouth that was unusual in a man of Au. He kept the hood of his coat up, and his head down, and those walking next to him thought he must be from some other village, and attributed his silence to last night’s beer, and let him be.
What Steq could see of Au was tall grass sweeping up the skirts of an ice-topped mountain. Here and there a stream was lined with stunted osiers, but there were otherwise no trees. The view was all green grass, black stone, and white ice, with gray clouds over everything. The villages they passed seemed nothing more than turf mounds huddled together, with here and there a whale rib protruding. At each one children ran shouting out of the low houses, clad in sealskin coats and trousers but barefoot in the mud. The whole column came to a swirling semi-halt as men and women followed the children out of the houses with much waving and laughter and handing over of food and skins of what Steq presumed was the ever-present beer. Then as if at some signal Steq was unable to detect a few of the villagers picked up the lines to their own sledges, the crowd moved forward again, and the village was left behind.
From a distance Ilu seemed no more than a bump on the treeless hillside, the Place of the God no more than a pile of stones, and the whole vista was dominated by the same mountain, and the icy blue river that ran down to the sea. Arriving, Steq saw the same tumble of turf houses, the same shouting, barefoot children, and he was nearly at the Place of the God before he realized that he was in the city itself. He had thought they were merely passing yet another village.
The procession broke like a wave onto the whale-rib gates of the Place of the God and spilled into the surrounding streets. Pushed along with the crowd, Steq found himself in a muddy, open square where women wearing coats sewn with seabird feathers and painted white, brown, or muted green began singing out in loud voices. The only word Steq recognized was “beer,” which he had learned in the first hours of his joining the pilgrimage. The women were instantly surrounded and began what appeared to be fierce bargaining, though Steq had not seen anything resembling money. He turned against the flow of the crowd and made his way back to the Place of the God.
By now the sledges were lined up at the gates, and no few sledge pullers were casting glances in the direction of the square Steq had just left. He found a morose-looking man at the end of the line, and put his hand on the braided sealskin rope the man was holding.
The man instantly stood straighter and grinned. He said something — a question by the sound, but Steq knew only a few words of the language of Au. It was possible that yes, no, or beer would answer the man satisfactorily, but it was best not to speak. Keeping his face half-hidden by his coat hood, Steq shrugged towards the square.
The man, still smiling broadly, dropped the line, took Steq by both shoulders, drew him close into a miasma of fermented seaweed, and kissed him on the cheek. He said something else, sending an even stronger waft of beer Steq’s way, and reached into his coat, pulled something out, and pressed it into Steq’s hand. Then, none too steadily, the man walked away. Steq found himself holding a lump of glassy, brownish-golden stone that had been smoothed and rounded into a vaguely animal-like shape that he could not identify. He put it in a pouch under his coat.
By this time it was late afternoon. The line of sledges moved slowly forward and Steq watched each one halt before guards at the gate. One guard examined the cargo of each sledge, counting small, rounded pebbles into a pouch at his waist as he did so, and then waved the man who had towed the sledge through the gates. Other guards appeared and pulled the sledge to the side, where yet others unloaded it and then left it empty in front of the building. A trickle of villagers came back out of the gates, the sledgemen done with their business in the Place of the God and making with all speed for the square where their fellows crowded.
By the time Steq’s commandeered sledge arrived at the gate the sun was setting. The guard looked over the cargo, counted his pebbles, and then waved Steq past with hardly a glance. As he had seen the man before him do, he dropped the tow line and walked into the Place of the God, straight ahead into light and the smell of sweat and burning oil.
The room was small — a dozen people would have crowded it. On the floor were woven grass mats, much scuffed and dirtied. The walls were plain and dark. In the center of the room was a low, blocky table on which sat a single black stone. The man who had preceded Steq in line stood before this, his back to Steq, facing another man, presumably a priest, who spoke at length and then brought out a disk of polished bone from inside his skin shirt and handed it to Steq’s predecessor, who turned and left without another word.
Steq stepped forward. “God of Au,” he said, before the priest could speak. “I am here, as you instructed me.”
The priest frowned, and opened his mouth to say something, and then his eyes grew wide and his body stiffened. “Were you last?” he asked in a dead monotone, in Steq’s language.
“You have done well,” he said. A tremor passed through the body of the priest. “I am not surprised.”
“How long do we have?”
“Not long,” the priest answered. “I have withdrawn into the stone once more, and we are in danger until we depart Au.” The man then turned and picked the black stone up from the table. “We go.”
“What, do we merely walk through the streets of Ilu?”
“Yes. No one will stop us. But you must find a boat, and bring us to your fleet.”
“Could you not have taken control of the priest and had him bring us the stone?” Steq asked.
“No. I could not have.”
“I wonder why not.” Steq followed him back out into the night. The guards seemed not to see them, and the area in front of the Place of the God was empty of anyone else.
The priest walked ahead without looking left or right, away from the Place of the God and into the square where that afternoon so many of Steq’s traveling companions had crowded. It was empty now, and dark — there was no light but the glow of an oil lamp from a doorway here and there. In the center of the square the priest stopped abruptly, and Steq nearly ran into him. “Find someone,” the priest said without turning around.
“Someone in particular?”
“Anyone will do,” said the priest. “Between here and the water, where the boats are, is the place where the villagers are camping for the night. Someone strong and healthy would be best, but take anyone you can alive.”
Steq knew without being told what the god wanted with a live person from the camp. “Can we not sacrifice the priest you’re possessing?”
“He has been dead for the last several minutes.”
“That’s inconvenient,” Steq said. “You expect that I will just walk off with someone in the middle of the camp?”
“Yes,” said the priest, and he walked forward again.
“You said nothing of this, when last we spoke.”
“I said you would know more when you came to me in Ilu,” the priest said, still walking forward. Steq hurried to catch up to him. “You accepted that.”
“You promised there would be no difficulties.”
“There will not be if you follow my instructions.”
Steq had known from the day the god had first spoken what food it preferred, and what they would be required to give it, if they accepted its offer. He was not ordinarily a sentimental man. But he thought of the people he had walked with in the last few days. They had been a smiling, happy lot, had offered him food and beer without stinting, even though they could not have had any idea who he was.
They had also killed twelve of his people, had only been prevented from killing more by the protection of the god, and would not hesitate to kill Steq himself if they knew he was not of Au. Steq was not unaccustomed to the idea of human sacrifice, or shocked by it. It was only that he could not avoid some small sympathy; the Godless were well used to being required to pay gods with their lives. Still, he had not come this far to quail at the last moment.
The camp of the pilgrims was a noisy, sprawling affair. Here and there a few tents had been raised, but mostly the men sat in the open, passing the ever-present skins of beer. What light there was came from three or four campfires, though what fuel they burned, since there seemed to be
little or no wood anywhere, Steq had no idea. Everyone seemed to be near someone else, to be in conversation or sharing food or drink. If Steq had known more of the language, he could conceivably have taken a likely prospect by the arm and said something like, “Come aside, I must tell you something.” But he could not, and he reached the far edge of the camp without seeing how he could do what the god required. The thought crossed his mind that one of his own people would be made to pay, if he could not find someone of Au.
He would not allow it. He stopped at the far edge of the camp and looked more carefully at the people around him. The two nights he had spent with the pilgrims he had taken care to stay at the edges of the camp where darkness would hide his foreign features, and where others would not pay him too much unwelcome attention. If anyone in the crowd wished to be alone he would likely do the same.
He walked the perimeter of the camp, just outside the edges of the light cast by the several fires, and when he had nearly made a circuit he found what he sought. A single shadowed figure sat motionless on the sand, just outside the camp. He stood quietly, watching, and the man didn’t move. After a few minutes Steq walked slowly behind him, any sound he might have made covered by the raised voices of the celebrating pilgrims. He knelt behind the man and threw one arm around him, the other hand clapped across the man’s mouth.
Steq realized immediately, with a mixture of regret and relief, that it was a boy he held, not a grown man, and in the same instant the boy bit his hand, hard. Steq did not dare let go and let the boy shout for aid, and did not dare cry out himself. He raised the arm circling the boy, meaning to strike him on the back of the head, and instantly the teeth were loosed and the boy was up and running across the beach. Steq ran after.
He caught up quickly, and brought the boy down to the sand. Steq pinned his arms behind and wrestled him up, dragged him, as he struggled ineffectually, down the beach to the water where the dim shadow of the priest stood. In all this time, though he fought Steq ceaselessly, the boy made no sound.
The god-possessed priest did not turn as Steq came up. “You took too long,” he said in his flat monotone. “Get a boat.”
“And in the meantime, what about this one?” Steq asked. “I can hardly just let go of him. And you don’t want me to kill him yet.”
Before the god could answer a sharp, thundering crack echoed across the sky. The encamped pilgrims cried out and then were silent a few moments. “We are in great danger,” said the god. “We must leave immediately.” Behind, in the camp, someone laughed and the voices started up again as though nothing had happened.
“The mountain Mueu is a volcano,” said the god. “As I have withdrawn from the island, I can no longer contain it, or any of the others.”
“You might have said as much sooner,” said Steq, and dragged his captive along the beach until he found a small hunting boat, carefully stitched skin stretched over a frame of bone and osier. In the bottom of the boat was a coil of rope, and this he used to bind his captive. Then he called to the priest. “Over here! I have found a boat, and it will be quicker if you come to me, rather than me coming to you.” He tipped the boy into the boat and then pushed it across the tide line and into the water, hoping the skin wouldn’t tear along the way. As the god reached the boat another loud crack silenced the camp yet again. This time the returning voices were pitched higher, and seemed to carry a note of fear. The god climbed in, and Steq pushed the boat out further and then stepped in and took up the oar he found and began to row.
“You will have to bail,” he said after a short time. “We are too many for this boat.”
“Give me some blood,” said the priest. “I will ensure that we do not sink.”
“Blood! To keep water out of the boat? You do not inspire confidence in your power. Are you not well-fed by the sacrifices of the people of Au?”
“Much of my attention is currently elsewhere, keeping back the flood of melted glacier that will shortly sweep down the sides of Mueu and wash Ilu into the sea. Until we are farther from shore we are not safe, and I cannot turn my attention from Mueu. I could not do this were I not strong enough, and you will not be disappointed in me, once this danger is past.”
“Bail,” said Steq. “I will not row the distance wounded, and I will not bleed the boy lest you complain about the condition of your victim when it comes time for the sacrifice.” He rowed a few more strokes. “Bail or drown.”
Without a word, the priest took up a bailer from the bottom of the boat, and set to work.
When they reached the Fleet of the Godless, Steq turned his captive over to his crew. The priest, still inhabited by the god, took up the stone again and went to the deck where he sat in front of the mast and stared ahead, saying nothing. The crew avoided him, though Steq had not told them the body was dead.
They had already abandoned their island camps, and now they sailed south, away from Au. By afternoon the sky had darkened and ash began to fall from the air, like snow. The boats were muddy with it, and the Godless lashed the covers over the hulls to keep it out, and swept the covers and the decks constantly. They still avoided the dead priest, who did not move but sat at the mast covered in ash. That night the northern horizon was lit by a baleful red glow, and Steq approached the god.
“Am I to understand that Au is in the process of sinking beneath the waves, thereby releasing you from your contract?”
“Yes.” A small slide of gray ash fell from the dead priest’s mouth, the only part of him that moved. “Though it will take several more days.”
“We are sailing away from Au with what speed we can manage.”
“So I noticed,” said the god.
“Will the body last long enough?”
“I intend to preserve it until I no longer need it,” said the priest. “But in any event, I will tell you how the sacrifice will go. Cut the victim’s throat and let the blood fall on the stone. Say these words.” And here the god spoke the words of the rite. “Put both bodies into the sea. By doing this, you will be bound to the terms we agreed upon.”
“Let us review those terms,” said Steq.
The priest’s head moved, dislodging more ash from his face, and he opened blank, staring eyes. “I warn you, I do not have any intention of re-negotiating at this late date.”
“Nor I,” said Steq. “I wish only to be certain there will be no misunderstandings.”
“As you wish. I have no apprehensions.”
“This is what we have agreed. We will give our prayers and sacrifices to no other god but you. With your assistance, we will compel all those we meet either to abandon all other gods but you, or die as your victims. We will do so until no one lives who offers rites to any other god, whereupon we will no longer be required to offer humans as sacrifices, though we will still owe you our exclusive devotion.
“For your part, you will protect us from all danger and misfortune, and will assist us against our enemies. We will be pre-eminent over all the peoples of the earth.”
“For as long as you keep your end of the bargain,” said the corpse at the mast. “My wrath will be terrible if you break the terms of the agreement and turn to another god, or fail to seek out every person who does not worship only me. Such was our agreement.”
“And if you don’t keep yours?”
“I will keep it,” said the god. “Do you think I have gone to these lengths only to amuse myself?”
“No,” said Steq. The corpse said nothing more.
Steq went forward, and stood at the rail.
He had known almost from the beginning that they were dealing with a minor god — a deity of some spring, or small island. This hardly mattered if, fed, it could do all it promised, and keep the Godless safe.
The past sixteen years had been like a dream Steq had feared to wake from. Food had been plentiful, illness rare. The hunters of Au had let them be after a few failed attacks. No vengeful god had come upon them. And they would shortly be Godless no more.
Do you think I have gone to these lengths only to amuse myself?
That the god had gone to great lengths — greater lengths, perhaps, than it wished to admit — had become more and more obvious. And why did the dead priest still sit guard over the stone?
Only one conclusion seemed likely — the god was vulnerable, and did not trust the Godless. And so, why put itself in this position?
Steq had believed the god when it had said that it was ambitious, that the people of Au had failed to serve that ambition as it had wished them to. But was that ambition enough to drive the god to take such a risk? Steq thought not.
The mountain Mueu is a volcano.
The god of Au had exhausted its strength, or nearly so, holding back Mueu. Why wait sixteen years, then? Why not flee the moment the Godless presented themselves? Had it, perhaps, waited until the danger was so extreme that the island was certain to sink entirely, thus releasing it from its obligation to the people of Au?
He thought of the wet and windy trek along the coast, the drunk, chattering villagers hauling their tribute to Ilu, the women who had pressed skins of beer on him, the men who had cheerfully shared fish and other, less identifiable food along the way. The image rose unbidden of the man in line before the Place of the God, morose until Steq took his place.
One of the Godless spoke, then, interrupting Steq’s thoughts. “Captain, you’re needed in the starboard bow.”
Steq climbed from the deck into the starboard hull, and stooped to pass under the coverings, which on this shallow vessel did not allow one to stand up straight. In the bow he found two crew members hunched, bewildered, in front of a crouching, naked young woman. She looked directly at him, clearly afraid but also clearly in command of herself. He remembered her silence during the pursuit and struggle on the beach. This woman was not given to panic. She was short compared to the people of Au he had met, and wide-boned. Her hair was flat and lank. Her face was the face of a woman Steq knew had died some sixteen years ago.
“Get her some clothes,” he said to the two guards. “No one is to speak of this.” He turned, and made his way to an opening in the covers, and climbed back up onto the deck.
Steq had his supper that evening under the covers of the port bow of O Gods Take Pity. He sat on a bundle of skins in the flickering glow of a single oil lamp, the captain of O Gods Take Pity facing him, on a bunk. They spoke in low voices, bent forward under the low ceiling, knees nearly touching.
Steq reported all that had happened. “I don’t doubt that it will do everything it says for us,” he concluded. “But neither do I doubt that it will sink us in the sea like the people of Au if it finds some other, better bargain, or thinks itself endangered.”
“This is self-evident,” said the captain of O Gods Take Pity. “But this is not what troubles you. You hesitate now because of the woman.”
“I do not hesitate,” said Steq.
“I knew you when you were an infant at your mother’s breast,” said the captain of O Gods Take Pity. “Lie to the others as you wish, but I won’t be deceived.” Steq was silent. “She is none of ours. If you asked her where was her home, who her family, she would say Au, and name people we have never seen or heard of.”
“But for an accident,” said Steq, “she would be one of us.”
“But for an accident I would be king in Therete, dressed in silk and sitting on a gold and ivory throne, surrounded by slaves and courtiers. But for an accident, the king in Therete would be one of us, fleeing the wrath of the gods, wresting what life he can from the waters with no luxury and little joy, though I assure you the thought has never crossed his mind. And rightly so. Begin this way, and where do you stop? There is no one in the world who would not be one of us, but for an accident.”
“Years ago you urged us not to take this course,” said Steq, bitterly. “Now you are in favor of it.”
“No,” said the captain of O Gods Take Pity. “I am not in favor of it. Only, if you pitch this god and its corpse into the sea without accepting its deal, do so because you have found some way out that will not cause all our deaths. Do not take this step, which will surely have dire consequences, because of qualms over this woman. We have all lost people because of mistake or accident, and we have all regretted it. Do not be the first to endanger the fleet because of your own regret.”
“I said nothing of taking such a step.” The other captain said nothing, and Steq took another piece of fish from the bowl in his hand, chewed and swallowed it. “It is tied to the stone, and can not be released without a sacrifice.”
“It is not confined, and it has power yet to animate the corpse. It may have power to do other things as well.”
“What would they do, our people, if I threw the stone into the sea?” Both men were silent, considering Steq’s question, or perhaps unwilling to answer it.
“We have opposed gods in the past, and survived,” said the captain of O Gods Take Pity after a while.
“Not all of us,” said Steq.
“There is no use in worrying over the dead.” He set his bowl beside him on the bunk. “We have lived too easily for too long.”
“Perhaps we lived too hard, before.”
“Perhaps. But we lived.”
And Steq had no sufficient answer to this.
Ifanei lay bound on a bunk on Righteous Vengeance. Two guards sat opposite her, and they never looked away. When she had shivered they had covered her, but left her hands in sight.
It would not have mattered had they not — they had tied her with strong, braided sealskin and she had no way to cut it. They had taken her knife, and when they had taken her clothes they had found the needles and awls she had carefully wrapped and tied to the inside of her leg. She could see no means of escape.
She had understood that she was on a boat of the Fleet of the Godless, though she would not have known to give them that name. What she had not understood was why she had been captured to begin with. They had not killed her, or otherwise mistreated her. When they had done searching her they had returned her clothing. She could not imagine what anyone might want with her, unless they knew of Ihak’s caches, which seemed unlikely.
She had days to consider. Days in which she was fed and her other needs cared for as though she were ill and helpless. Never at any time was she allowed off the bunk, nor were her hands or feet ever unbound.
The darkness never faltered — the coverings were tightly lashed, and even if the sun could have shone through, the skies were dark with smoke and ash, but Ifanei had no way of knowing that. She knew only the close, dimly lit darkness and the smell of unwashed bodies. Eventually she felt stunned with the sameness of it all, and ceased to wait for anything further to happen.
An unmeasured time later, she woke to the chill as her cover was roughly pulled off. One of her guards held her bound wrists, the other cut the bonds around her ankles, and she was pulled as upright as the low ceiling allowed, and pushed down the narrow space that ran the length of the hull, bunks on one side, unidentifiable bundles and stacks along the other. She took two steps and her legs buckled under her, weak from long inactivity. Her guards caught her, pulled her up again, and helped her along to where a faint light shone through an opening above.
Hands reached down and pulled her through, up onto a railed platform. The sky was dark, and the breeze cold, and despite her coat she shivered. Guttering torches, a few oil lamps, and a fire in a large box provided some light. There were people all around, all along the railings. Facing her was the man who had brought her here, his face expressionless. No one moved, though the platform pitched and rocked in a way that made Ifanei step and stumble as she tried to stay on her feet.
In the center of the platform was a wide, tall pole and leaning up against that was a pile of gray dust. In front of this was the Stone of Etoje.
“God of Au!” she cried. “Help me!”
A weird gasping, choking noise came from the pile at the foot of the pole. The whole thing heaved and from underneath it a man stood up, swaying and staggering slightly, and the gasping noise continued. The dust fell and swirled away in the wind.
His long blond curls were covered in ash, his face and clothes gray with it, but she knew him. She realized, with a freezing horror, that the choking sound was laughter.
“Ifanei,” said the dead Speaker in a flat, toneless voice. “I provided you indeed, and I will have you back from your father.” She said nothing, could think of no answer. “Here is symmetry,” said the god. “Here is perfection.”
“My god.” Ifanei’s voice trembled with cold and dread. “I know you will protect me. The people of Au are your people and you have always kept us from misfortune.”
“Au has sunk beneath the waves,” said the priest. “Not the smallest part of the island remains. And you were my victim from the beginning. I lent you to Ihak, and it is only right that you return to me at last.” Still the people around her, and the dark, hard-faced man in front of her, were silent. There was no sound, except the wind and the water.
“Au beneath the waves,” she said. “Why? You have betrayed us!”
“It was the nature of the island itself,” said the god. “And it was never in my power to keep any human alive forever, nor did I ever promise such a thing.”
She saw the dishonesty of the god’s words, but could not find sufficient answer for it. “What of Etoje’s service to you?” she asked. “Had he not taken you for his god you would still be on the island, with no company but the cries of birds. Does this mean nothing to you?”
“Etoje’s service was pure self-interest,” said the dead priest. “He killed his own brother to satisfy his greed. Surely you know this, the tale has been told often enough. And it should not surprise you. It is the way people are. As it happens, it serves my purpose.”
She looked at the people around her. They would, she knew, cut her throat as easily as the Speaker had offered up the victims of Au. Did they know what they dealt with? Even if she had spoken their language, and could have warned them, would she have wished to?
But there was nothing she could do. And that being the case, she would not beg or scream. She took two stumbling steps to the Stone of Etoje, knelt heavily and then made her back as straight as her shivering allowed and waited for the knife.
Steq had known that the woman was no coward. He had, when he had thought of what was to come, been grateful that he would not have to steel himself to endure pitiful weeping or wailing.
She knelt shivering by the stone, her chin up as though inviting the knife. Her eyes were open, and she looked not at the grimy, dead priest but at Steq.
He had not expected to be undone by her bravery. “What did she say to you?” he asked the god.
“It does not matter.”
“I am curious.”
“You are delaying. I wonder why?”
“Why should it matter to you?” Steq asked.
“It does not matter.” Steq did not answer. “Very well. The woman begged me for help, invoking my agreement with the people of Au. I explained to her how matters stand. That is all.”
That was all. Steq took a breath, and then spoke. “Godless, I fear I have led you astray.”
“And I fear this ship needs a new captain,” said the dead priest.
“It will have one,” said Steq, “if the people do not like what I have to say.”
The corpse made as if to step forward, but a voice spoke from the watching crowd. “Touch him and you’ll be over the rail, stone and all.” Other voices murmured in assent.
“Put me overboard and you’ll speedily discover your mistake,” said the god, but it made no further move.
“If we feed this god what it desires,” said Steq, “it will almost certainly have the power to do much of what it has promised us. And the blood that it demands will be none of ours.” His gaze shifted momentarily to Ifanei, and then back to the priest. “But let me tell you why the god has abandoned its promise to the people of Au. The great mountain above Ilu was a volcano, and there were others. For a thousand years the god held the island safe, because of its promise to the people of Au, but after all that time it could control them no longer. A thousand years! Imagine the power thwarted, enough to destroy the whole island when it was finally let loose. And when this god realized that it could not hold back the fires forever, what did it do? Did it command the people of Au, who had served it faithfully all that time, to build boats, and escape under its protection? No, it allied with us behind their backs, and left them to their fate. It will do the same when its agreement with us becomes inconvenient.
“Many of you have lived all your lives under this god’s protection. The rest are too accustomed to living in opposition to all the gods and peoples of the world to fear what might happen if the god of Au has not the strength to do as it promises. Perhaps I have grown too soft with easy living, and sentimental. But the fate of the people of Au troubles me greatly, and if you would ally yourselves with this god you must choose another captain.”
“And if we would not?” cried a voice.
“Then we must cast stone and corpse overboard, and sail away from here as quickly as we may. It has some power yet, and we will be in some danger, but I do not think it will follow us far. The gods of surrounding waters will have no love for it, and even so, at the bottom of the sea there will be no one to feed it.”
“I will show you my power!” said the corpse.
“Show it!” came the voice of an old woman. “We all know your weakness, and Steq has never yet led us wrong!”
As though her words had been a signal, the boat lurched to starboard. Steq grabbed the rail, watched as three or four people tumbled into the water. Crew slid across the deck, and the stone began to roll but the priest caught it up, and then a thick, dead-white tentacle reached up and onto the boat, twisting and snaking until it found a rail, which it curled around and pulled.
The rail snapped and was thrown up into the air. Another tentacle joined the first, groping along the hull, and then another. Torches tumbled from their places and bounced across the deck and into the water. Still a wavering, flickering light lit the boat — the sail was aflame.
“You!” Steq grabbed a man by the arm. “Loose the port hull!” The man scrambled to obey him, speaking to others on his way, who followed him. Steq then let go of the rail, to slide down the deck up against a writhing tentacle. “Everyone to the port hull!” he shouted. What they could do against the monster in an overloaded single hull he did not know, but he did not think they could extinguish the fire and right the ship, and so it was the only chance for survival.
In the meantime he would attack the monster in any way he could. He reached into his coat for his knife, and his hand brushed up against his pouch. There was nothing in it to help him — a few needles, a coil of fishing line and some hooks, and….
He looked around for the woman of Au, and saw her scrambling up the deck, hands still bound. He followed, grabbed her ankle and pulled her to him. She lashed out, swinging her fists, and hit him, hard, just under his ear. “Stop!” he shouted, though he knew she would not understand him. But she did stop. “Look!” Out of the pouch he pulled the small piece of polished, golden glass he had brought from Au, and held it before her eyes.
She looked at it for only a moment, and then closed one hand around it and called out, and suddenly the writhing arms were motionless and the sound of snapping wood ceased. “Up,” he said, and pushed her along the sloping deck towards the port hull, which was nearly free, and climbed after her.
“Steq!” The voice of the dead priest, weird and gasping. “Steq! What is that?”
“It is the smallest part of the island of Au,” called Steq, without turning his head. He and the woman reached the edge of the deck and leapt into the port hull just as it was freed. The Godless were unlashing covers and pulling out oars.
“She is not of Au!” cried the dead man. “I am not bound!”
“Then move against her!” This was answered with an inarticulate cry. The last few flames of the burning mast went out as Righteous Vengeance slipped under the waves, and the only light was the torches of the other boats, for the rest of the fleet was still nearby, their own crews watching in horror.
“Row for the nearest ship!” Steq ordered then. “It can not harm us so long as the woman is in the boat, and as for the others, it has not the strength to bring more monsters against them, or it would have done so already.”
The woman sat shivering in the bottom of the hull, both hands clutched around the small glass token. Steq went to her and cut her bonds. “There is a place in the south,” he said, though he knew she would not understand him. “A mountain so high they say you can touch the stars from its top.” She did not answer, he had not expected her to. “Do you hear that, god of Au?” But there was no answer.
The next morning the Fleet of the Godless, reduced to five boats, sailed southward. Behind them, far below the featureless sea and attended only by silent bones and cold, indifferent fish, lay the Stone of Etoje, and the god of Au.