Tash had always been told he was perfectly and completely useless.
‘Perfectly and completely useless,’ his father would say, in a voice that was an instrument for making absolutely clear statements of mathematically precise fact. His brothers would nod their heads solemnly in agreement, and his sisters and mothers would creak wheezily from their alcoves to show that they also agreed that Tash was perfectly and completely useless.
Tash would bow his head and let his arms droop, as if to agree that what his father said was true.
‘And yet,’ Tash would think to himself, ‘I am not useless at all.’ And he would daydream of what he would do one day to prove to everyone that he was not perfectly and completely useless and lose track of what his father was saying.
It is not my intention to excuse anything Tash did or didn’t do on the grounds that he had an unpleasant childhood. I am not telling you this so that you will feel sorry for him, or so you can psychoanalyse him. It is only that if Tash hadn’t had an unpleasant childhood, he would have gone on to live a very ordinary life like his brothers and would not come into this story at all.
For the first four years of his life no one said a kind word to Tash. Four years among the thalarka is about the same as fifteen or sixteen of our years, for the world of the thalarka rolls sluggishly around their great green marrow-fat pea of a sun. In all that time no one told Tash that he was anything other than perfectly and completely useless.
In point of fact, he was useless. To live in the Plain of Ua requires stamina, to work all day in the endless fields of mud: planting grith, and fertilising grith, and weeding grith, and warding off the beasts of mire and mist that are eager to eat the tender young grith plants, and harvesting the spindly fruit of the grith that must be picked in darkness and husked and pickled the same night it is picked so it will not spoil. Tash was weak, and could not do any of these things for more than half an hour at a stretch. Furthermore, he was sickly, and was forever getting fevers that made him no good for any work at all for days on end. Worse, he was impatient and easily distracted, and long before he was too weak to work he would usually have wandered off to tease some many-legged crawling thing with a bit of stick, or make little dams and canals in the mud with the hoe he was supposed to be weeding with. And he was clumsy: he would trample the little grith plants, and pull them up instead of the weeds, and at harvest time he would get bits of husk in the pickling pot, and drop fruit in the mud, and stab his fingers on the prickly parts of the fruit so that they swelled up and were perfectly and completely useless for any more husking.
Once in each long year of the thalarka was the festival of Quambu Vashan, which was held in the city where the Procurator of the Overlord had her alcove, some days journey away on the edge of the Plain of Ua. There was always great feasting at the time of the festival of Quambu Vashan, and acrobats and clowns, though only old Raaku of all the villagers had ever seen them.
Two or three times a year the rain would stop and the sun would peer down through a canyon in the clouds. Then the thalarka in the fields would down tools and try not to look up at the great green marrow-fat pea of the sun and mutter proverbs. Tash would always look up at the sunlit sides of the canyons of cloud- which were almost too bright to see- and dream of what it must be like to be up there.
Eight times a year was the frenzy of the harvest, and after the harvest came the feasting, and after the feasting the coming of the Overlord’s tax collectors, to carry off rather a lot of the pickled grith that was left over from the feasting.
Two or three hundred times a year there would be some sort of holiday to break the round of working in the fields, with the proper dates for each holiday kept in order by the priests. There would be dancing in figures, and wagers on fights between caged mire beasts that were things like hairless weasels, and the priests would usually sacrifice something and make patterns on the walls of the priest-house with dripping bits from its inside.
Every day it rained.
The plain of Ua was a plain of grey mud, and the skies were of grey cloud, and the stick-like grith were grey, and the huts of the thalarka were grey. The thalarka themselves were also grey. The huts of the thalarka were dry inside with a fitful clammy dryness, in which lamps burned only with a feeble bluish flame. Tash thought fire was splendid, since it was not grey. That was how he managed to burn one of his hands rather badly just before the harvest. At this particular harvest he was needed more than usual, since his two oldest brothers had been married off into other villages since the harvest before, but because of his injury he ended up being even less useful than usual.
This was not long before the festival of Quambu Vashan. Besides clowns and acrobats, great numbers of sacrifices of a particular kind were always required at this festival, so it was the custom of the tax collectors of the Overlord to demand from each village they visited at the harvest an appropriate sacrifice. This would not be important if it were not that the sacrifices required for the festival of Quambu Vashan were thalarka of about four years of age. It was required that they have all their limbs intact, and have no obvious serious blemishes, but otherwise it was all the same to the Overlord whether they were useless or not. This part of the festival did not feature in Raaku’s stories, and the older thalarka of the village tended not to discuss it in the presence of younger ones.
‘We should give Tash to the tax collectors for sacrifice at the festival of Quambu Vashan,’ said Tash’s father to his mothers one night. ‘For he is perfectly and completely useless for anything else.’
A family that freely gave the sacrifice for the festival of Quambu Vashan would be noted on the books of the tax collectors and not be called upon to give another for a generation, during which time more useful members of the family suitable for sacrifice would be spared to work in the fields. It was also the custom in Tash’s village for the families who had not given a son or daughter to the tax collectors to bring presents to the family that had, and speak approvingly of them, so Tash’s father’s suggestion was quite a good one. It is only fair on Tash’s mothers to report that they did not croak their agreement immediately, not until Tash’s father had reminded them of these things.
So after the harvest when the tax collectors of the Overlord came to the village Tash was sent off with them.
‘You are being apprenticed to the tax collectors,’ Tash’s father told him. ‘You will leave with them when they have finished lunch.’
Tash did not realise why he had been sent off until he had been travelling the rest of that day with the tax collectors. He had spent most of the afternoon staring up at the roiling patterns of the clouds, imagining that they had hidden meanings. They were like secret symbols from a mysterious power in the sky sending orders to its minions in the mire, in a tremendously complicated language that never said exactly the same thing twice. The tax collectors had already collected four other young thalarka for the festival of Quambu Vashan. Three of them were girls, and Tash could not understand their speech – it was another part of Tash’s uselessness that he had a bad ear for women’s language – and the fourth was a boy. He was slow-witted and smaller than Tash, but he had paid more attention to the world around him.
‘Where do you think we will stop?’ said Tash as it started to get dark, meaning ‘where are we going to stop tonight’, but the slow-witted one took him at his word and said, ‘At the festival’.
‘Why did you say, ‘at the festival’?’ said Tash, since he was bored and couldn’t think of anything better to do than quibble with the slow-witted boy. ‘Why not say we’re going to the city of the Overlord’s Procurator?’
‘I don’t understand,’ said the slow-witted boy. He hung his head and drooped his arms in exactly the same way Tash had always done when his father told him how useless he was.
‘So, what does the festival have to do with it?’ said Tash impatiently.
‘I’m going to be a sacrifice at the festival,’ said the slow-witted boy. He said it in the same way that Tash’s brothers would say things like ‘I’m going to weed the south-eastern corner of the field today’.
Tash looked around at the others and thought that the tax collectors had treated all five of them in exactly the same way since they had left the village. Here they were, all walking in a line through the mud. And he realised that his father had very probably lied to him, and that he was going to be a sacrifice as well. For a while he could say nothing at all.
‘I seem to be in terrible trouble,’ Tash thought.
Over the next few days of tramping across the Plain of Ua Tash tried to escape many times, but the tax collectors were experienced collectors of sacrifices, and he had no luck. They went through nine more villages and collected nine more sacrifices for the festival of Quambu Vashan. Five of these were boys, and they were all slow-witted except for Zish, who was contrary.
‘I was opposed to the ways of the village because they were brutish and stupid,’ said Zish, in a way Tash had never heard before, that was bitter and mirthful at the same time, as if it pleased Zish more than anything to call the ways of his village brutish and stupid. ‘So I’m to be sacrificed now,’ he went on. ‘At least my blood will be of some use to the Overlord Varkarian, if it is of no further use to me.’
‘I’m sure there is some way to escape,’ said Tash. ‘If we work together’-
‘There is no way to escape,’ said Zish in his bitter mirthful way. ‘This is our destiny, Valgur’ - he had confused Tash with one of the other boys, whose name was Valgur, and took no notice of Tash’s efforts to correct him - ‘to serve the Overlord by being sacrifices at the festival of Quambu Vashan. Our destiny is inexorable. Our destiny is irresistible.’
Tash stopped listening to Zish as he talked more about inexorable destiny and the usefulness of being sacrificed. Tash was not sure whether this was what Zish really believed or not. Perhaps he did not know himself whether he believed it or not. Sometimes Zish talked in such a way that Tash thought he must be mad, and sometimes Zish told Tash that he was mad.
‘I have said the same thing to you a dozen times, Valgur, and you haven’t said a word back, just gone on staring at the clouds,’ said Zish. ‘You must be mad. It is no wonder you are only fit to be sacrificed.’
At any rate Zish was too contrary to be in any way helpful to Tash.
If he had not known he was going to be sacrificed at the end of it Tash would have had a lovely time. The long hours of walking were dreadfully wearying at first, but he felt himself growing stronger each day, and the sacrifices were fed twice a day with the freshly pickled grith the tax collectors had gathered, which was more and nicer food than Tash had eaten before. Each day he saw new villages, with new and different temples, and new fields cut into different shapes, and great coiling worms of rivers, and broad lakes spotted with rafts, and companies of spear-men and javelin-women marching on the highroads, their armour as silvery-grey as the lakes and spotted with metal spikes instead of rafts. He had seen nothing but his village and the fields immediately around it for his whole life and found he quite liked travelling.
At the edge of the Procurator’s city Tash’s party met up with several other parties of tax collectors. All the sacrifices were collected together and tied in a long chain to keep them tidy, ankle to ankle and wrist to wrist, and in this way they all shuffled together into the Procurator’s city. This city was made of grey stone, huts and palaces alike, and they were scattered together in no particular order over the plain, at first with plenty of space between them but then closer and closer together until they almost blocked out the clouds.
‘Do not let the splendour of this place fool you, Valgur,’ said Zish. ‘Here, too, the ways of the common people are brutish and stupid. But we are irresistibly called to a higher destiny. Inexorably!’
In the middle of the city was the Tower of the Procurator of the Overlord, ten or twelve times higher than any other built thing Tash had ever seen. It was carved on every side with images of mist-beasts and mire-beasts and thalarka, all larger than life, and all making gestures of obeisance to the sigil of the Overlord Varkarian, which was at the top of the tower and was worked in huge blue stones like fire.
‘Sweeter than narbul venom is it to serve the Overlord,’ intoned the most senior of the tax collectors, when the party could first see this sigil in blue stones like fire. All the more junior tax collectors dutifully intoned in unison that it was sweeter than narbul venom to serve the Overlord, and so did the long line of sacrifices. Strictly speaking Tash had no idea whether this was true or not, having never tasted narbul venom nor anything other than grith. But he intoned along with the others. They only had a few moments to look at the tower. Tash would have stared longer, but was dragged along as he was chained to everyone else. Then they were steered through a big black door and down a long ramp which stretched down into a chamber somewhere underneath the tower. The ramp ended somewhere in the middle of the chamber, which stretched off into darkness on every side, over-warm and evil-smelling. Some dozens of boys and girls for the sacrifice were there already, chained to posts set in the floor in groups of six or seven. On top of these posts there were lanterns, and every post that had thalarka chained to it had its lantern lit, with a dancing flame that was more green than blue. Tash’s long line of sacrifices was split up into groups of six or seven and chained to posts, and at the same time the lanterns on top of the post were lit. But there were still many many more empty posts with unlit lanterns.
The chamber was drier than any place Tash had ever been. You or I would have found this its one redeeming feature, but to Tash it was unnerving. The dryness hurt his ears and made his throat itch.
The thalarka who lit the lanterns was an old priest woman, bent over like a grith plant that has grown in too dark a shadow, and she lit the lanterns with a thin silvery stick longer than she was tall. Tash found the lighting of the lanterns very interesting and wondered if the old priest stayed down in the chamber all the time, waiting for a reason to light the lanterns, or if she went somewhere else. She seemed so completely a creature of the dark chamber that Tash could not imagine her being anywhere else. Tash ended up chained with a group of dim-witted boys around one of the pillars at the edge of the darkness.
As soon as all the sacrifices were properly chained a group of younger priests handed out something to eat that was not grith. They were cakes of something very much nicer than grith, though I dare say you or I would still have found them very nasty, and Tash devoured his greedily. So did all the others. When they had finished eating two more priests in more resplendent garments – still mostly grey, but shiny – came and gave speeches, one in male language and one in female language.
The speech that Tash heard went something like this:
‘Welcome in the name of the Overlord Varkarian. Truly it is sweeter than narbul venom, and more pleasant than the song of horn and cymbal, to serve the Overlord Varkarian. Truly are you favoured, for through your sacrifice the Overlord will be glorified. Truly will your sacrifice bring the inscrutable designs of the Overlord closer to their inexorable fruition. Though you may have been useless until this moment, very soon you will attain to a destiny greater than that of many a skilled spear-man or artifex. The part you play in the designs of the Overlord is a very great one.’
There was much more like this and Tash soon stopped paying attention to it. He was more interested in the costumes of the priests than in what they were saying. Their chest pieces were particularly splendid, much more splendid than the chestpieces the priests of his village wore when they sacrificed mire beasts. They were set with such marvellous stones, blue and green and other colours he could not name, and shone delightfully in the lanternlight.
The priest explained while Tash was not listening that they would be given things to eat as nice as the cakes, or nicer, for the next few days until the festival, and that they would be taken out in batches and cleaned and ornamented before the ceremony, and then again that theirs was a rare and glorious destiny.
Because he was not listening Tash was taken by surprise to be taken out and scrubbed and plastered with some sort of oil and hung with jangling bits of fine chain. The only good thing about the oil was that it made it quite impossible to tell how evil-smelling the chamber was. The smell of the oil stung and tickled and burned and it was almost impossible to think of anything else when you had been plastered with it.
‘What’s that you’ve done to your hand, lad?’ asked the young priest who was seeing to the oiling of the sacrifices. ‘Burnt it, eh?’ The young priest found this amusing. ‘Well, mind you keep it away from the lanterns now. Stick one little finger in the fire and you’ll be sizzled to a crisp in an instant, with that oil on you.’
Tash took respectful note of this advice.
Tash had been chained to a post on the other side of the ramp from Zish, and the dim-witted boys who were chained with him were too dim-witted to be any use talking to. He spent the night peering out into the further reaches of the chamber, wondering what was there and thinking of all the marvellous things he had seen in the last few days and what a pity it was that he would be sacrificed in a few more days. The sacrifices around him shuffled and wheezed and jangled in their sleep and the smell of the oil hung thick and heavy in the air. No one came and turned down the lanterns, but they seemed to dim of their own accord, and burnt with feeble flames that were greenish-grey, if such a flame were possible.
Tash found it impossible to get free of his chains. Even if he had, it would surely have been impossible for him to have forced his way through the heavy doors, past the watchers beyond, and made his way to somewhere safe.
‘It seems such a waste, when the world is so big and interesting, to be ending so soon,’ he thought to himself. And a black mood took him and he thought to himself: ‘Perhaps I am useless after all’.