There was a man in the City on the desert’s edge who made gods. He sold them to order in his little shop beneath the shadow of the wall, close enough to the temples that he could hear the bells ringing but not so close that he could see them.
He worked with wood and with stone, with ivory and with bone. Whatever the client desired, they would receive. He was not the only godmaker in the City. Some were like him, in little shops next to the walls. Others, working with gold and bronze, made idols for the temples and household gods for the wealthy.
Still, there was always demand for gods, and the godmaker had work enough.
A shepherd came to him. Her sheep were straying, and a wolf was roaming. Night after night she reached them too late, to find a mess of blood and wool and hear the wolf’s mocking howl echo across the hills.
The godmaker nodded and said he would do what he could.
He made a goddess of wood from an old shepherd’s crook and carved Her with a snarling face and hard eyes. In Her left hand, he put a lamb, and in Her right a heavy staff. She was the Earth’s daughter, and She asked only for the sacrifice of a single lamb each spring to take into Her flock.
He gave Her to the shepherd.
“Why is She angry?” the shepherd asked. “All the other shepherd’s gods are kind, with soft faces and warm eyes.”
“She is angry,” the godmaker replied, “because She loves Her sheep and She would not see them hurt. A shepherd’s god cannot be soft. What good is a soft god when the wolves come?”
The shepherd nodded. She paid him what coin she had and promised him a woolen cloak come the shearing season.
A wife came to him with a face made thin and weary by tears. One hand stayed on her belly the whole time she spoke. She had tried many times now to become pregnant and yet her womb remained barren as the sands. No life would take root there.
The godmaker took her hand and said he would do what he could.
He made a goddess of clay and left Her face unpainted. About Her sprouted weeds of every kind, etched into the clay with his little pick.
The wife frowned when he presented Her. “Why are there weeds?” she asked. “There should be flowers, surely. Flowers and eggs and things that grow.”
The godmaker scoffed. “Flowers grow only in soft soil. They need watering and caring for. Eggs shatter easy as anything. Most are barren and only good for breakfast. A weed grows where it is not wanted, in the hardest of places, and it will not stop growing even when you tear it up. What is more alive than that?”
“Why does She have no child?” the wife asked. “Why is She not pregnant?”
“She is not a mother goddess,” the godmaker replied, “but a goddess of mothers.”
The wife nodded, though she did not look convinced. She paid him two silver coins and thanked him for his time.
A soldier came to him, fresh-faced and fidgeting in a battered helm two sizes too large. The Sea Raiders had set up camp to the north and were pillaging the farms all round, who owed fealty to the King of the City. The farmers had sent word to the King and the King had declared his intent to go to war. The soldier would ride with him, but he had never seen battle before and did not know if he would survive it.
The godmaker smiled and said he would do what he could.
He made a god from an old bronze axe-head melted down into the shape of a crouching man. There were arrows in His back and a wound in His side. His face was full of anguish.
The soldier trembled when he saw the god. “He is wounded,” the soldier said. “And He is crouching. What war god would let Himself be wounded?”
“He is a protector,” the godmaker said, “and He takes arrows that are meant for you and takes your wounds in your place.”
The soldier nodded and paid the godmaker two silver talents, though he was still trembling as he left the godmaker’s store, heading off to fight in the King’s war.
The godmaker kept no gods himself: no shrines, no idols, no prayers. He did not go to the temples, and he did not purchase curse tablets or miracle spells.
He was a trickster, he told himself. He did this for the money alone.
But when he worked, when he carved, when he made his gods, he did not feel like a trickster. He did not feel like an inventor. He felt like a discoverer, as if the gods had been waiting for him to find Them.
The shepherd came back as she had promised, bearing not only a wool coat but a hat and a scarf also. There was more wool, she said, than she knew what to do with.
“I set Her upon the boundary,” she explained, “and since then, no sheep has wandered off. They see Her and they turn back.”
“And the wolf?” the godmaker asked.
“Dead,” she replied. “I found him one morning. His head had been struck open.” Her eyes narrowed. “As though by a heavy staff.”
The godmaker smiled. That was belief for you, he thought. Plant an idea in someone’s head and they will see it everywhere.
The shepherd left in high spirits, and he waved her on her way.
He had not been expecting the wife to return, but return she did, with a husband smiling broadly and three infants sleeping in three baskets.
“Triplets!” she said. “I cannot believe it possible!”
“Neither can I,” said the godmaker.
“But it’s all thanks to you,” she said. “To your goddess. I’ve returned to ask your name.”
“My name?” the godmaker asked.
“Your name,” she replied, “so I may name one of them for you.”
The godmaker protested. The wife insisted. The husband beamed. The infants shrieked.
At last he told her, and she gave it to the smallest and quietest of them. If the infant felt any honour in this naming, he did not show it.
She left the shop, and the godmaker waved her on her way.
Coincidence, he thought. Coincidences happened every day.
And then the soldier returned.
He wore a purple cloak, dyed many times over, and armour of splendid bronze. When he saw the godmaker, he clapped him on the back like an old friend.
“Come,” he said, “let me buy you a drink.”
They went down to the alewife’s house. There they sat and drank together while the soldier told what had happened to him.
On the first night, as the King’s men slept and waited, the raiders had come in the dead of night, with bows and with horses. Three arrows pierced the soldier’s tent, but none touched him. The soldier stumbled outside. A horseman charged towards him, but a stray stone caught the horse’s hoof and the horse fell lame, jerking its rider clear. The soldier set upon the rider and slew him easily.
When morning came, it was discovered that the dead horseman had been the captain of the Sea Raiders, the son of their great chieftain, and with his loss, the raiders had scattered and withdrawn. The King had been elated and ordered that the soldier be given all honours. He was clothed in purple and anointed in oil, and on the way back to the City, he marched at the King’s side.
“So you see,” the soldier said, “I owe it all to you.”
“I see,” the godmaker replied, though he did not. He drank deeply of his ale and bade the soldier a good day.
“I will help you,” the soldier promised, “if I can. Your god has saved my life.”
The godmaker smiled pleasantly and made his way home quickly as he could. He shut the doors of his shop and lay in his bed, telling himself again and again about the power of coincidence. Belief did strange things to the mind, made patterns appear where there were none, made three incidents seem a certainty.
He was a craftsman, nothing more. He sold icons and idols, nothing more.
“I cannot make gods,” he said, though there was nobody to hear him. “I am a man. How can a man make gods?”
There was silence in the workshop, and for a terrible moment, he was afraid he would receive an answer.
“He cannot,” he told himself, before anyone—anything—else could say otherwise, “so I have not.”
He smiled contently, for his logic was convincing, if circular.
Then came the voice at the back of his mind. A thought, he told himself, and there was nobody to contradict him.
“He cannot make gods,” the thought said, “but he can discover them.”
When the godmaker opened his shop the next morning, the King’s vizier was waiting. He was a thin man, a eunuch in fine porphyry, and he bore the King’s ring. The godmaker started at the sight of him, for most who saw the King’s vizier did not live to tell of it. The King was a hot-blooded and hot-headed man who was never happier than when he had a sword in his right hand and an enemy’s head in his left.
“Good day,” the eunuch said.
“Good day,” the godmaker replied, cautious as a mouse who has seen the housecat about.
“You are a godmaker?”
The eunuch gave a thin smile. “Your services come recommended to the King of the City by one who has recently won favour and honour.”
“What does the King desire?” the godmaker asked.
The eunuch hesitated. “Let us say that the City were to be attacked... Not, of course, that there is any danger of such a thing. And let us say that the attacking army was vast and that the great chieftain rode at its head... Not, of course, that it is, or indeed, that he is... Which is to say, there is no danger and no threat, and any who say otherwise shall face the King’s axe.”
The godmaker stood silent and trembling.
“Do you understand?” the eunuch asked.
The godmaker nodded. He understood too well.
“The King desires a god,” the eunuch said, “so that the people might feel assured.” He paused. “Not, of course, that they have any reason to be otherwise.”
The godmaker bowed and said he would do what he could.
When the eunuch had left, he fell shaking to the floor. The chieftain of the Sea Raiders was a formidable man. The cities who defied him were left no more than rubble and ashes. He had demanded of the King of the Great North his beard and one of his wives. The King of the Great North had laughed and told him no. The chieftain had razed the Great North to the ground and taken the King’s head, beard still attached, and all his wives, and his daughters also.
The City was nothing compared to the Great North. It had a King, to be certain, but in these days any man with two camels might call himself a King. And their King owned only six.
The godmaker shut the shop and went out. The baker waved pleasantly to him in the street and wished him a good morning. The godmaker smiled back and hurried on. The bells of morning prayers were ringing faintly from the temples, and smoke and incense rose into the wind. Overhead the sun was bright and yellow in a blue sky, and the walls of the houses he passed were warm with its light. Children played. A little girl laughed.
The chieftain was coming to all this, with spears and fire, and they did not know it.
“How am I to make a god to match this?” the godmaker asked himself, softly under his breath. “A god for the City. A god to hold back death.”
He shook his head. No man could make such a thing. His fingers were not equal to the task.
The King of the City, no doubt, would give him gold, but what gold could capture the light of the sun upon the terracotta?
The King of the City would give him rubies, but what rubies could match the laughter of a child?
The King of the City would give him craftsmen to make the god a hundred feet tall, but what god would be large enough to encompass all the City’s winding ways and secret alleys?
It was a task beyond him. Beyond men, he reckoned.
“Good day to you,” called a beggar. He was a heavy man, despite his hunger, and he smelled of stale filth. He reached out his hands and with them his begging bowl. “Spare a coin, citizen?”
Spare a coin? the godmaker thought. What use would coins be when the chieftain came? What would matter one beggar when the City crumbled?
Then an idea struck, clear in his mind, and he smiled. He reached into his purse and pulled out a silver talent. The beggar’s eyes went wide as the coin clattered into his bowl. He stammered his thank yous as the godmaker demurred and carried on his way, his mind full of waking dreams aching to be made, his fingers already tracing the shapes he would make.
He gathered things on his way home: fresh clay from the brickmakers, trodden straw from the streets, two dull copper pieces trampled in the dust.
Then he made his god, the god of the City: a bent figure of workman’s clay about half-size, with His begging bowl between His knees, with coarse straw for hair and dull coppers for eyes in a crooked face.
The godmaker worked at it long into the night, as the moon hung and the chieftain surely drew closer, his raiders cutting their slow way about the desert’s edge. When the godmaker was done, his fingers were raw and aching and his eyes red and sleepless, but he smiled when he saw his finished work.
The King’s vizier did not. He frowned and tutted and poked at the drying clay. He wiped his hands after he had touched it and looked at the godmaker with eyes uncomprehending.
“No,” the eunuch said. “This will not do.”
“But do you not see,” the godmaker began, “He is a god of the City. And He is made of the things of the City and in the image of—”
“He will not do,” the eunuch said. “Make another.”
The godmaker started. “Another?”
“Yes,” the eunuch said. “Make one of gold and precious jewels. The King will provide them. He has many trinkets taken from the raiders. Melt them down to shape your god. We will give you goldsmiths if you desire and silversmiths and jewelers and—”
“I shall think on it,” the godmaker said.
The eunuch nodded. “See that you do. We were told your work was pleasing, godmaker. It would be a great thing to have a King in your debt.”
“And,” the godmaker said, “to have the City saved.”
The eunuch laughed. “Tomorrow I shall return. And you will tell me of your plans for the new god and we shall begin the work. Be swift, godmaker. The chieftain’s horses certainly shall be.” He paused. “Not, of course, that they are coming here.”
He left, and the godmaker sat deflated, looking at the god he had made. All that had seemed wise now seemed foolish, and all that had seemed masterful now seemed artless.
He took up a wax tablet and a stylus and began to sketch out designs for the god as the eunuch wanted them. A god tall and strong, with legs astride the City gate. No, that would not do. A god with rubies for eyes. No, sheer vanity. A god all of gleaming gold, with face bearded and handsome. No, too soulless.
A god in the King’s own image.
The godmaker nodded. Yes, that would please the King. It would please the people too, especially if the godmaker made the King comelier than he was—a wart shaved off here, the jaw made stronger there, eyes less mad and more serene.
The godmaker drew it and looked upon it. Yes, it would be pleasing to the King. Yes, it would be pleasing to the people. And there was craft in it, to be certain. None of his teachers would have faulted it.
And yet it was dead. It was a drawing of a statue, not a god.
The godmaker put his stylus down and went to bed. He lay awake for fitful hours. In the dusk, it seemed he heard chariot wheels turning and horses racing. But whenever he went to the window to check, he saw only the City and the stars silent in a purpling sky.
That night he dreamed of three gods, seated on three thrones. Yet the thrones were joined. The shoulders of the gods flowed one into the next, and Their voices seemed so alike—despite being different in every way—that he had troubling telling which of Them was speaking.
They were his gods: the shepherd’s god, the mother’s god, the soldier’s god. Behind Them he saw more of his workings, cruder things, and They seemed all a living shadow, one face becoming another, all formless despite Their shapes.
“You are not real,” he said. “A man cannot make a god.”
They laughed. “No. He cannot.”
“Then you do not exist,” he replied. “You are only my creations, my idle etchings. I am a trickster and a crafter. I sell false things. I have always known this, and I have never felt shame in it.”
“You tell lies so well-practiced that ‘trickster’ seems an apposite title. And yet you know you are not a maker of false things. This is where your shame lies.”
The godmaker shook his head. “A godmaker makes gods as a silversmith makes a candleholder. The silversmith would be a fool to worship his candleholder, and so I would be a fool to—”
“There is no point in this lie.” It was the shepherd’s god who spoke this time, he was sure of it, though the others’ mouths moved as well. “You know as well as I that you do not create from nothing. You express. You draw from the real to make the unreal.”
“Ah!” The godmaker smiled, delighted to have caught his dream in a fallacy. “So you admit that I make the unreal.”
The mother’s god chuckled. “The shadow is unreal. You cannot touch it or catch it or feel it. And yet, something must cast it.”
The godmaker said nothing.
The soldier’s god stepped forward. He bled with each motion, and the arrows moved in His back. “War is coming, godmaker. Ask yourself who you would have protecting you.”
The godmaker woke with sweat upon his brow. He walked down into his workshop and, with calm and steady hands, he wiped the wax tablet clean.
The eunuch was displeased when the godmaker again presented his beggar god. He scowled and fumed and raged, but the godmaker remained serene and immovable as the mountain. At last, the eunuch turned his back.
“We shall find another,” the eunuch said, “and do not imagine the King will think kindly of this obstinance.”
“And what of the god?” the godmaker asked.
The eunuch threw up his hands. “Break it. Burn it. Worship it. I do not care. It is yours to do with as you please. But you shall not receive a single copper in payment for it.”
And with that he was gone, leaving both god and godmaker behind him.
They asked another godmaker, one of the prestigious ones who made idols for the temples, to craft the New God. This godmaker made it a splendid figure, twelve feet tall, with rubies for eyes, coated with gold. The face was very like the King’s, but the King insisted this was a mere family resemblance.
They set him upon the West Gate and made sacrifices to him: blood offerings and burnt offerings and grain offerings. New priests were appointed to him and made proclamations in his name.
That evening, the chieftain’s riders were seen in the hills. Shepherds came weeping to the gate. The raiders had slaughtered all their sheep and made mutton and stew and woolen cloaks of them.
Only one shepherd had escaped, her whole flock having wandered southwards without explanation the night before the raiders came. When she found out what she had escaped, she resolved to bring the godmaker another woolen coat come the shearing season.
The next day the raiders were at the West Gate in their thousands. They carried spears and torches. Someone saw a group of them wandering westward to the grove of cedar trees, to fell a stout one to make a battering ram.
At this there was fear, for the West Gate was old and the wood was weak. There were some who denounced the King for spending money on finery instead of making a stronger gate, as the northern cities had; for devouring food at his fabulous feasts instead of storing it for times of need.
Those who said these things met the King’s axe by midday, but this did nothing to ease the unrest. So, the King announced that he would make a great sacrifice to the New God: one of his daughters. He brought her to the West Gate and had her slaughtered before the New God’s feet, then burned her body as an offering.
There were some among the crowd who murmured that this had been no great sacrifice on the King’s part. His daughter had been loved by the people for her kindness and her fiery heart—more loved than the King. And he was a jealous man.
“Now,” the King said, his fine robes splattered with his daughter’s blood, “the New God shall grant our prayers.”
The godmaker, returned to his workshop after the slaughter, looked at the beggar god sitting in the shadowed corner. Twice he almost went to Him, but twice he turned away. He went to bed early but fell asleep late, tossing and turning in fitful fever. Three times he awoke, brow thick with sweat, and thought the City was burning.
But it was only the heat of the night and the smell of the chieftain’s fires rising over the wall.
In the morning, the raiders were still at the City walls. The chieftain laughed and taunted the King, telling him to come out and face him. There were many amongst the people of the City—and even, some said, amongst the King’s own household—who said that this would be the best thing for it. The King shut himself away in his palace and would see no one, though the people pounded upon the palace gate.
The food already was running thin, and it seemed the keepers of the King’s granary had squandered its contents away, selling it to far-off markets when no one was looking. The keepers were dragged out into the center of the City and set afire. None of the King’s soldiers lifted a finger to stop this. The people cheered and laughed, but when the fires burned down and the screams stopped, they knew their burnt offerings would mean no more than the King’s. The granary would still be empty, even if they killed a hundred of the King’s people.
The godmaker dreamt again of fire and of ashes settling over the City, of his home laid waste and all his work no more than dust trampled beneath the hooves of horses.
On the third day, the chieftain’s men returned with their felled tree. They worked it with their tools, fashioning a sharpened ram to break through the West Gate. The people stayed in their homes, silent and trembling, and prayed to their household gods for deliverance. The priests rang the bells in their temples. The bells echoed dull and hollow across the City.
At evening, the godmaker went to his workshop and knelt before the beggar god. In His outstretched bowl, he put first a strand of wool from a shepherd, then two silver coins from a mother, then a talent from a soldier.
“Deliver us,” the godmaker prayed, for the first time since he was a boy, for the first true time in his life.
That night he dreamt no dreams. The wind was cool through his window, and he slept soundly in his bed.
A plague spread through the chieftain’s camp. Dying men sat cramped around dying fires. Their supplies had run low, and there were no healers left to treat the wounded. The chieftain himself banged upon the West Gate and demanded aid.
The King would not grant it.
By the next day, the chieftain was dead. The remainder of his raiders bore his body away, back to the sea whence they came. The rest of the dead they burned in great fires. Black smoke carried out over the desert and was lost upon arid winds.
The people rejoiced. Death, which had seemed so certain, had been averted by what could only have been a miracle.
The King and the New God’s priests saw the mood of the crowds and were quick to capitalize upon it. “Praise to the King!” the priests cried as they walked through the City streets. “He gave his daughter to the New God, and the New God delivered us!”
There were some who remembered that the King had killed his daughter on the first day of the siege but the raiders had not been struck by plague until the fourth. That was not very quick, they thought, for a god so mighty and a sacrifice so great.
Most were happy enough to give the King credit for their deliverance. The City was saved, the chieftain and his army were dead, and they would give coins to any god who might continue to bring them good fortune.
The New God must be honoured, the King proclaimed, and he set his architects to work drawing up plans for a grand new temple, in which the golden statue that bore his face could be housed. The priests of the New God were sent out across the City to collect offerings for its making.
“Honour the New God!” they cried as they walked. “Honour the God of the City!”
When one knocked on the godmaker’s door and held out his bronze offering plate, the godmaker laughed and gave him a penny.
“A penny only?” the priest asked. “For he who delivered the City?”
The godmaker shut his door.
He walked over to the beggar god sitting in shadows in the corner of his workshop. The offerings still rested by Him. The godmaker bent to remove them, then stopped himself.
“The people think their golden god saved them,” he said to the beggar god, “or they pretend they do. They don’t know what you did. What I did. They’re building him a new temple while you sit here, gathering dust in a workshop.”
The beggar god did not answer. Clay did not speak, no matter how well-formed the mouth.
Still, the godmaker thought he understood.
“No. It doesn’t matter. The City is saved. Let them celebrate who they wish.”
He thought of the golden monstrosity. Its makers had not understood. They thought making a god was a matter of making something beautiful, something that impressed. That was not how a god was made. A god had to be truth above all else, or it was nothing.
The New God had been meant to be a god of the City, but there was nothing of the City in it. The City was not made of gold. It was made of old clay and straw and scattered coins. The New God had the face of the King, but the face of the King was not the face of the City. The City had only one King, but it had many beggars.
There was no truth in the New God. It was only a beautiful, polished lie.
The godmaker had thought himself a liar once. Now he was not so sure.
Perhaps he made gods with real power. Perhaps it was a gift he had, to know what form a god should take and to have hands that could make it.
Or perhaps the power was not in him at all. Perhaps he put so much truth in his creations that he had discovered the true forms of real gods; gods that had always been, gods that were waiting patiently for him to find Them and give Them form.
Or perhaps it was all only chance. Perhaps there were no gods and no powers. Perhaps it had only been luck that had saved the City, protected the sheep from wolves, guided the soldier’s hand, and given the mother her children. There might be no pattern. His dreams might only have been dreams.
Perhaps. Might. There was no way of knowing.
He looked at the beggar god and His outstretched bowl. He might only be clay and straw. His copper eyes might only be two coins.
“I suppose,” the godmaker said softly, “it’s a matter of faith.”
In the end, only the gods knew, and They told no one Their secrets, not even Their maker.