NOW CONSIDER THE TORTOISE AND the eagle.
The tortoise is a ground-living creature. It is impossible to live nearer the ground without being under it. Its horizons are a few inches away. It has about as good a turn of speed as you need to hunt down a lettuce. It has survived while the rest of evolution flowed past it by being, on the whole, no threat to anyone and too much trouble to eat.
And then there is the eagle. A creature of the air and high places, whose horizons go all the way to the edge of the world. Eyesight keen enough to spot the rustle of some small and squeaky creature half a mile away. All power, all control. Lightning death on wings. Talons and claws enough to make a meal of anything smaller than it is and at least take a hurried snack out of anything bigger.
And yet the eagle will sit for hours on the crag and survey the kingdoms of the world until it spots a distant movement and then it will focus, focus, focus on the small shell wobbling among the bushes down there on the desert. And it will leap . . .
And a minute later the tortoise finds the world dropping away from it. And it sees the world for the first time, no longer one inch from the ground but five hundred feet above it, and it thinks: what a great friend I have in the eagle.
And then the eagle lets go.
And almost always the tortoise plunges to its death. Everyone knows why the tortoise does this. Gravity is a habit that is hard to shake off. No one knows why the eagle does this. There's good eating on a tortoise but, considering the effort involved, there's much better eating on practically anything else. It's simply the delight of eagles to torment tortoises.
But of course, what the eagle does not realize is that it is participating in a very crude form of natural selection.
One day a tortoise will learn how to fly.
The story takes place in desert lands, in shades of umber and orange. When it begins and ends is more problematical, but at least one of its beginnings took place above the snowline, thousands of miles away in the mountains around the Hub.
One of the recurring philosophical questions is:
“Does a falling tree in the forest make a sound when there is no one to hear?”
Which says something about the nature of philosophers, because there is always someone in a forest. It may only be a badger, wondering what that cracking noise was, or a squirrel a bit puzzled by all the scenery going upwards, but someone. At the very least, if it was deep enough in the forest, millions of small gods would have heard it.
Things just happen, one after another. They don't care who knows. But history . . . ah, history is different. History has to be observed. Otherwise it's not history. It's just . . . well, things happening one after another.
And, of course, it has to be controlled. Otherwise it might turn into anything. Because history, contrary to popular theories, is kings and dates and battles. And these things have to happen at the right time. This is difficult. In a chaotic universe there are too many things to go wrong. It's too easy for a general's horse to lose a shoe at the wrong time, or for someone to mishear an order, or for the carrier of the vital message to be waylaid by some men with sticks and a cash flow problem. Then there are wild stories, parasitic growths on the tree of history, trying to bend it their way.
So history has its caretakers.
They live . . . well, in the nature of things they live wherever they are sent, but their spiritual home is in a hidden valley in the high Ramtops of the Discworld, where the books of history are kept.
These aren't books in which the events of the past are pinned like so many butterflies to a cork. These are the books from which history is derived. There are more than twenty thousand of them; each one is ten feet high, bound in lead, and the letters are so small that they have to be read with a magnifying glass.
When people say “It is written . . .” it is written here.
There are fewer metaphors around than people think.
Every month the abbot and two senior monks go into the cave where the books are kept. It used to be the duty of the abbot alone, but two other reliable monks were included after the unfortunate case of the
59th Abbot, who made a million dollars in small bets before his fellow monks caught up with him.
Besides, it's dangerous to go in alone. The sheer concentratedness of History, sleeting past soundlessly out into the world, can be overwhelming. Time is a drug. Too much of it kills you.
The 493rd Abbot folded his wrinkled hands and addressed Lu-Tze, one of his most senior monks. The clear air and untroubled life of the secret valley was such that all the monks were senior; besides, when you work with Time every day, some of it tends to rub off.
“The place is Omnia,” said the abbot, “on the Klatchian coast.”
“I remember,” said Lu-Tze. “Young fellow called Ossory, wasn't there?”
“Things must be . . . carefully observed,” said the abbot. “There are pressures. Free will, predestination . . . . the power of symbols . . . turning-point . . . you know all about this.”
“Haven't been to Omnia for, oh, must be seven hundred years,” said Lu-Tze. “Dry place. Shouldn't think there's a ton of good soil in the whole country, either.”
“Off you go, then,” said the abbot.
“I shall take my mountains,” said Lu-Tze. “The climate will be good for them.”
And he also took his broom and his sleeping mat. The history monks don't go in for possessions. They find most things wear out in a century or two.
It took him four years to get to Omnia. He had to watch a couple of battles and an assassination on the way, otherwise they would just have been random events.
It was the Year of the Notional Serpent, or two hundred years after the Declaration of the Prophet Abbys.
Which meant that the time of the 8th Prophet was imminent.
That was the reliable thing about the Church of the Great God Om. It had very punctual prophets. You could set your calendar by them, if you had one big enough.
And, as is generally the case around the time a prophet is expected, the Church redoubled its efforts to be holy. This was very much like the bustle you get in any large concern when the auditors are expected, but tended towards taking people suspected of being less holy and putting them to death in a hundred ingenious ways. This is considered a reliable barometer of the state of one's piety in most of the really popular religions. There's a tendency to declare that there is more backsliding around than in the national toboggan championships, that heresy must be torn out root and branch, and even arm and leg and eye and tongue, and that it's time to wipe the slate clean. Blood is generally considered very efficient for this purpose.
And it came to pass that in that time the Great God Om spake unto Brutha, the Chosen One:
Brutha paused in mid-hoe and stared around the Temple garden.
“Pardon?” he said.
It was a fine day early in the lesser Spring. The prayer mills spun merrily in the breeze off the mountains. Bees loafed around in the bean blossoms, but buzzed fast in order to give the impression of hard work. High above, a lone eagle circled.
Brutha shrugged, and got back to the melons.
Yea, the Great God Om spake again unto Brutha, the Chosen One:
Brutha hesitated. Someone had definitely spoken to him from out of the air. Perhaps it was a demon. Novice master Brother Nhumrod was hot on the subject of demons. Impure thoughts and demons. One led to the other. Brutha was uncomfortably aware that he was probably overdue a demon.
The thing to do was to be resolute and repeat the Nine Fundamental Aphorisms.
Once more the Great God Om spake unto Brutha, the Chosen One:
“Are you deaf, boy?”
The hoe thudded on to the baking soil. Brutha spun around. There were the bees, the eagle and, at the far end of the garden, old Brother Lu-Tze dreamily forking over the dung heap. The prayer mills whirled reassuringly along the walls.
He made the sign with which the Prophet Ishkible had cast out spirits.
“Get thee behind me, demon,” he muttered.
“I am behind you.”
Brutha turned again, slowly. The garden was still empty.
Many stories start long before they begin, and Brutha's story had its origins thousands of years before his birth.
There are billions of gods in the world. They swarm as thick as herring roe. Most of them are too small to see and never get worshiped, at least by anything bigger than bacteria, who never say their prayers and don't demand much in the way of miracles.
They are the small gods-the spirits of places where two ant trails cross, the gods of microclimates down between the grass roots. And most of them stay that way.
Because what they lack is belief.
A handful, though, go on to greater things. Anything may trigger it. A shepherd, seeking a lost lamb, finds it among the briars and takes a minute or two to build a small cairn of stones in general thanks to whatever spirits might be around the place. Or a peculiarly shaped tree becomes associated with a cure for disease. Or someone carves a spiral on an isolated stone. Because what gods need is belief, and what humans want is gods.
Often it stops there. But sometimes it goes further. More rocks are added, more stones are raised, a temple is built on the site where the tree once stood. The god grows in strength, the belief of its worshipers raising it upwards like a thousand tons of rocket fuel. For a very few, the sky's the limit.
And, sometimes, not even that.
Brother Nhumrod was wrestling with impure thoughts in the privacy of his severe cell when he heard the fervent voice from the novitiates' dormitory.
The Brutha boy was flat on his face in front of a statue of Om in His manifestation as a thunderbolt, shaking and gabbling fragments of prayer.
There was something creepy about that boy, Nhumrod thought. It was the way he looked at you when you were talking, as if he was listening.
He wandered out and prodded the prone youth with the end of his cane.
“Get up, boy! What do you think you're doing in the dormitory in the middle of the day? Mmm?”
Brutha managed to spin around while still flat on the floor and grasped the priest's ankles.
“Voice! A voice! It spoke to me!” he wailed.
Nhumrod breathed out. Ah. This was familiar ground. Voices were right up Nhumrod's cloister. He heard them all the time.
“Get up, boy,” he said, slightly more kindly.
Brutha got to his feet.
He was, as Nhumrod had complained before, too old to be a proper novice. About ten years too old. Give me a boy up to the age of seven, Nhumrod had always said.
But Brutha was going to die a novice. When they made the rules, they'd never allowed for anything like Brutha.
His big red honest face stared up at the novice master.
“Sit down on your bed, Brutha,” said Nhumrod.
Brutha obeyed immediately. Brutha did not know the meaning of the word disobedience. It was only one of a large number of words he didn't know the meaning of.
Nhumrod sat down beside him.
“Now, Brutha,” he said, “you know what happens to people who tell falsehoods, don't you?”
Brutha nodded, blushing.
“Very well. Now tell me about these voices.”
Brutha twisted the hem of his robe in his hands.
“It was more like one voice, master,” he said.
“-like one voice,” said Brother Nhumrod. “And what did this voice say? Mmm?”