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Everything in Its Proper Place

Nick McRae is a PhD student in English at the University of North Texas and a devoted disciple of the goddess Ursula K. Le Guin. He is the author of two poetry collections and editor of a poetry anthology. This is his first published work of fiction.
The God-King of the East lay at her feet, one arrow jutting from the gap between his bronze cuirass and his skirt of studded leather, another through the eyehole of his crested helm.
She had fulfilled every part of the prophecy.
Born a slave, she had when still a girl slain the slavemaster and gone south into the wilderness.
Among the free tribes of the jungle she had lived and learned the dance of war. Before her thirtieth year she was made chieftain.
She had loved a good, brave man, himself a chieftain, and built a marriage hut with him. She had killed that same good man in single combat for leadership of all the tribes, as law required and prophecy foretold.
She had felled the Holy Tree, slain the Sacred Ram, and from the wood and horn and sinew made a bow with power enough to kill a god.
At dawn she had led a host of free warriors and taken all the God-King's city save his palace, which only she might enter. The God-King's slayer, said the prophecy, must face the god alone.
On the ground now at her feet, the dying God-King trembled.
"You bested me, slavegirl," he said, and coughed dark blood.
"It was decided long ago," she said, "by greater gods than you."
"Greater, perhaps. Older. Empty legend. Prophecy is all that's left of them."
"Yet they guide my arrows." She drew her longknife. "They will guide my blade."
"Tell me--" He shuddered. "Tell me why."
"Why kill this tyrant who would make my people slaves?"
"You would make yourself a god in my place."
"No."
"Of course you would." He choked on a laugh. "And will. You will be the Slave-God, come to free the slaves and make slaves of the masters. Your dominion will be vaster even than mine."
"Feeble insults. The people are impatient. I will now take your head." She raised her longknife.
"And then?"
"I will go into the wilderness until the great gods bid me go down into death." She bent over him, cast his helmet aside, and grasped his braids.
"What if--" The dying god raised a shaking hand. "What if I give you my power? You could build grand cities for your people. Forge weapons to protect them. Retrieve the dying from the very edge of death." He wheezed, red spittle bubbling on his lips. "All but yourself." He began to sob. "Take my power, it is yours! Just spare my life, I beg you!"
There was pity in her eyes. "Not for the power of a thousand gods would I turn from my path." She raised her blade for the last time.
"Then you have passed the test," the God-King said. "End of simulation."
The God-King flickered and was gone. In his place beneath her lay a spindly frame of metal in the rough shape of a man. She swung her longknife, but it too flickered and was gone. And then the whole throne room flickered and all was nothingness, bare white floor and whiteness like a dome of ivory.
She stood and peered into that solid white. "What is this place?"
"It is where you have always been," answered a calm voice behind her.
She spun. The spindly metal man stood near, its delicate fingers laced in front of it, the smooth head perforated by two spots of light like gleaming sapphires.
"What trick is this?" Unwelcome fear stirred in her. She kindled anger to burn it away. "What illusion do you trap me in, God-King?"
"I'm afraid the God-King was the illusion. And his kingdom. And the forests of your tribe. Everything but you." Its voice was gentle, almost sad.
"You think me ensorcelled by these shadows. I know it is mere trickery."
"It is science--though that must be, to you, a kind of magic."
"You give yourself away, metal man. Only the God-King knows the ways of magic. The God-King, and the gentle gods."
"I represent neither. I represent those who made you. Who made me, too, as it happens."
"And who was that if not the gods?"
"Men and women."
"Perhaps they also are illusions, as you say the God-King is."
"I'm afraid not. My masters are perfectly ordinary scientists. Men and women of flesh and blood."
"The God-King too is flesh and blood. I just now spilled it."
"It's true they made the hologram--the vision you call God-King--in the likeness of a man. There was a purpose for that, just as for a purpose they made me. And you."
"And for what purpose do you say that is?"
"To do again exactly as you've done here in this simulator where you've lived since infancy."
"To serve the gentle gods?"
"To serve mankind. To kill a tyrant with an evil heart and the powers of a god. To live the life your years have been a play at living."
"Fortunately I am no fool. I know truth from mere seeming. I have felt truth in my heart, and with my body."
"In the arms of one you loved?" the metal man said in the voice of her husband, dead two years.
Her blood turned to ice. "Were this not a lie, it would prove your own gods crueler than the God-King."
"Do you not recall," the metal man continued in the dead man's voice, "the first night in our marriage hut? How with your knife you nicked my inner thigh and whispered, this scar will be mine alone, not for any other eyes?"
She felt empty. There was only a vague sickness at her stomach, a white-hot rage inside that burned silent and distant as a star.
At length the metal man spoke in its own voice. "Perhaps it would help you to know why--why the illusions, why you were made."
She looked through the metal man, her eyes unfocused.
The metal man waited as if for response, but receiving none went on. "Out among the stars, there is a world almost exactly like your simulation. It is the object of my masters' study. A tyrant rules there, a being from another world. A contaminant that must be removed.
"You are one of many specimens engineered to lead the people--as though one of them--in revolution. Each of you has faced this same lifelong simulation. Some still face it as I speak. You are the first to succeed." All was silent for a time. The metal man raised a wiry hand. "If you would--."
"I will be the weapon," she said, her eyes snapping into focus, dark and sharp.
The metal man gestured to one side, where a door had appeared from nothing. "Then you may proceed. Go and meet my masters."
She shook her head. "In my tribe, it is the servant's place to lead, and the guest's place to follow."
"So it is." The metal man turned and treaded toward the portal.
She moved to follow. "I will be the weapon," she said to the back of the metal man, "of the greater gods. And you will be mine." She leapt on its back and it crashed to the floor beneath her. With one twist of her hands, the head and rigid spine ripped free of the spindly frame in one piece, the sapphire eyes extinguished.
The God-King had compelled his slaves to kill, had deranged their minds with sorcery. And yet the God-King had been but a shadow of these scientists, these dark magician-gods who had made him, who would make her, too, their slave, broken and ensorcelled to their will, a beast on a tether. She was no beast, nor a slave to be broken. She was a weapon. A tool.
She stood and hefted the head on its rod. The weight was good. She swept it through the air with one hand, then the other. The balance was fair enough. It would make a fine club of war. A fine tool.
Her gods were the older, gentler gods. They took no slaves, tethered no beasts. They worked through prophecies, songs, poems chanted around the cook fire. All they needed was a weapon, and anything can be a weapon--a rock, a bone, the body of a metal man. A woman, body and soul. A weapon need not be coerced. Wherever it is moved, that is where it is. Everything in its proper place. That is its nature.
She had followed the path of the prophecies, lived the songs, become the very rhythm of the poems for this purpose. She would be the weapon of the greater gods, who would not suffer gods of science-magic with their mind-ensnaring shadows, their puppets shaped like men.
She stood, her club of war in hand, and, stepping through the door, smiled to think how lucky was her station. She had thought to kill but one false god before she went down into death.
How lucky was this tool to find such wealth of purpose.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, April 22nd, 2016


Typically, at the end of a fantasy novel the heroine, as we know, defeats the god-like villain and helps bring a kind of order back to her world. I wrote this story because I found myself wondering if I could write a story in which vanquishing the God-King was just the beginning of the story. Where would she have to go from there? What kind of disorder might it bring to her world? I couldn't even have begun to try writing this story without the inspiration of Judith Tarr and Ursula K. Le Guin. The mystic Bronze-Age setting of Tarr's The Hall of the Mountain King and the hybrid fantasy-scifi worlds of Le Guin (especially, in this case, Rocannon's World) provided the overwhelming sense of wonder that moved me to stop just thinking about it and start writing about it.

- Nick McRae

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