The City of the Tree

(Content note: hanging.)

The tree dominated everything. The sky above, the sea below, the earth on which it stood, and the city that sheltered beneath its leaves. Its branches stretched out over the streets and houses of Cahuei, rope-twisted as if by wind, but a century of hurricanes would not have been enough to sculpt the wood of this impossible cypress. Temples and shrines clung to its bark, reachable by rope lifts or, for the truly faithful, a seemingly endless staircase that spiraled up its trunk. Each morning the priestesses greeted the sun from its uppermost reaches and each evening they bid it farewell, their voices fading to nothing before they reached the ground below. The tree had been there since before Cahuei was founded, and its people believed it would be there always.

But now it was dying.

They told themselves they had forgotten none of the old forms, even though no one alive remembered a time before those forms had been outlawed.

They called themselves the Sayacha, the ruling council of Cahuei, and they met between the enormous natural walls formed by the roots of the cypress. The actual council chamber of the Sayacha was long gone; in its place stood the fortress the Jenevein had built. The fortress was both a defense—the Jenevein knew the Issli would never dare to attack them so close to the tree—and a deliberate insult, putting the heart of their military power in a place that used to be sacred, and ought to be still.

None of those who called themselves the Sayacha now were willing to meet in the fortress.

Six elders gathered, out of the nine clans that made up the Issli. The Fir were nearly extinct, the Pine had no leader they could agree on, and the elder of the Sequoia refused to come. “The Sayacha,” she said scathingly when they asked. “That’s as dead and gone as the archon of the tree. Call yourselves what you like, but you are not the council of our past. And I am too old to play pretend.”

Her words stung, but not enough to stop them. Cahuei was in disarray, freed at last from Jenevein control, but uncertain what to do with its newfound liberty. And while the city hesitated, the tree continued to die.

“We have to cut it down,” the elder of the Willow said when the opening rituals were complete. People might only half-remember the songs, but Sutsetu knew the traditional role of his clan; they were the ones to propose swift action.

Swift, but not necessarily ideal. “That’s blasphemy,” Chimenil said, and on her heels Nazcuc said, “That’s impossible.”

For the smaller branches, they could do it. But an army of men with axes could not cut through the main limbs: the Jenevein had tried. And even if they succeeded—even if the tree’s slow death now made a swifter one possible—the severed material would only fall as a cataclysm on the city below. A city that had suffered cataclysms enough already.

“Restore the rituals,” Aptachi said. In past times the Cedar had not been the main advocates of orthodoxy, but one could argue that made their elder the ideal person to suggest a return to the old forms. Year by year, Jenevein laws had strangled Issli traditions; now that those traditions were nearly extinct, looking to the past for guidance was nearly the most unorthodox thing the Issli could do.

Simkitsi gave him a pitying look. “The rituals were meant to placate the archon, to keep him asleep. They won’t do any good now that he is gone.”

“Do we know that?” Aptachi challenged her. “We only know that he woke after the rituals stopped. Maybe their purpose was to strengthen the tree, and he woke because it began to weaken.”

“Or the tree began to weaken because he awoke and died—”

They fell to arguing, the elders of the reconstituted and incomplete Sayacha. Which was, in its own way, a tradition as old as the council.

Above them, the tree continued to die.

The danger took some time to manifest. Yes, the archon of the tree was gone, but the tree itself remained, its roots buried deep in the stony headland that guarded the sheltered bay beyond. It had been there forever, and would be there forever; no one gave it a second thought.

Then the leaves began to fall. Their brown, scaly remnants dusted the city’s rooftops and streets, the corners where the wind gathered them in drifts. Looking up, one could see the deep, shadow-bright green fading to a duller shade. But mostly people did not look up. They swept their doorsteps and corners, used some of the material for tinder and kindling and threw the rest out, and never spoke of what was happening.

Cahuei was the City of the Tree. For that to end was inconceivable.

The slow fall of dead leaves went on for weeks before the earth shook. Nothing compared to the stone-shattering quakes that had devastated the city when the archon awoke—just an ordinary tremor, such as the region had seen before—but from above came a sound the people of Cahuei would soon learn to dread: the crack of dry wood.

What fell that first time were only a few small branches, limbs that on an ordinary cypress would have been respectably-sized but were mere twigs to the great tree. A handful of houses suffered damage; one person died. The city had faced worse before, and within recent memory.

But it was a warning of things to come.

A storm rolled in from the sea. In an ordinary winter the rain it brought would have been welcome—but it also brought high winds that snapped more branches free. When the skies cleared, the dulled leaves had not regained their hue, and those who claimed the tree only suffered from drought and would soon recover fell silent.

Drought had never touched it before. The tree drew its life from another source, one that had slept beneath its roots for untold ages.

Now that the source was gone. And unless someone found a solution, Cahuei would be the City of the Tree no more.

If it fell, Cahuei might be no more.

At the base of the tree, the argument continued.

“We could pray—”

“To the gods? They grant rich harvests, fat livestock, thick shoals of fish—not life to trees of impossible size.”

“We cannot afford to wait for a miracle. We have to take action now, before the tree falls and destroys the city.”

“A miracle is the only thing we can hope for. Nothing else will save us.”

“Yes,” Huysiya said. “Only a miracle.”

It was the first time she had spoken since the opening rituals concluded. The elder of the Redwood clan was as small as her clan’s namesake was tall, a little starling of a woman whose painted wrap had to be pinned to her shoulder to keep it in place. She did not even come up to Aptachi’s chin. But she was respected for her wisdom not just by her clan, but by the entire city, and when she spoke, the others fell silent.

Simkitsi was the first to realize what Huysiya meant. True to form, she did not bother to explain to the others, but launched straight into an objection. “We don’t even know how.”

Chimenil stared at Simkitsi, then at Huysiya. Her hands wrapped tight around her ceremonial staff—one of the few originals to survive, carved out of her clan’s redbud and hidden away from the Jenevein conquerors. “Roots of my ancestors. There are stories, a few chants…but even if we manage to piece those together, there’s no guarantee we would get what we need!”

“Then we try again,” Huysiya said, unmoved. “Again and again, as many times as it takes, until we succeed or the tree dies.”

“What are you talking about?” Aptachi demanded. “Try what? How are we supposed to get a miracle?”

A small branch of the cypress, about as large as he was, tumbled from the tree high above. They watched it fall, but could not see where it landed.

Huysiya said, “We must summon a new archon.”

They should have known. Wonders like a cypress tree large enough to overshadow an entire city did not happen naturally, and the traditions of Cahuei were permeated with rituals of offering and placation. But given enough time, anything can fade out of memory. If asked, the average citizen might have said, “There used to be something here, yes, but it is long gone.”

Not gone. Only sleeping. And when the rituals stopped, so did the sleep.

The people of Cahuei blamed the Jenevein, and not without cause…but if the Issli had remembered the full truth, they might have been able to persuade their new imperial masters to let the rituals continue. Or perhaps not: the Jenevein were known for their arrogance, and might have believed they could turn the archon to their own ends.

But he was ancient, full of power—and free. Whatever human had summoned him from the apeiron, whatever purpose he was originally bound to serve, that had all been lost to memory. No force in the world could bind him now, save his true name, which they did not know.

The people of Cahuei, Jenevein and Issli fighting side by side, were barely able to kill him.

The six elders of the Sayacha did not dare ask publicly for information. To do that would have invited questions, protests, open riot. The Jenevein had outlawed the summoning of archai as a way to protect their own power—but after the destruction wrought by the archon of the tree, there were many who felt that law had been wise.

Instead they worked in secret, as swiftly as they could. Nazcuc’s aunt, even older than he was, remembered the chants the people used to sing. Out of nothing, into the world; out of death, out of the space between deaths, into life and breath we call you. Those chants were not the ritual; they were the background, the accompaniment, the way the common people involved themselves when their priests and elders undertook to summon an archon. But they were a start.

Chimenil tracked down a rumor of hidden texts, and found none. Instead she found a story that a certain pattern commonly woven into baskets described the path of the dance once performed as part of the ceremony. In recent years the dances of the Jenevein had become more popular, but there were games the children still played which preserved the old steps and gestures—perhaps.

Sutsetu spoke to members of the Willow who had gone into exile and returned after the Jenevein left. Other lands had not forbidden the summoning of archai: spirits from beyond the mortal world, archetypal tales given flesh. Although the rituals used there were closely-guarded secrets, the exiles had heard a few things. Practices drawn from other traditions, whose underlying principles might be extracted from the chaff.

The members of the Sayacha braided together rumor and guesswork and half-faded recollection, fragments left behind after Jenevein control and approximations of things that had never been recorded because the necessary people knew them, and they hoped it would be enough.

They came together at dawn, in the sheltering embrace of the dying tree. They built an altar of all nine woods and hung over it branches from the cypress, both living and dead, bound into sacred bundles with twine. They played drums and flutes. They sang the chants and danced the figures, and prayed, beseeched, demanded that something come to answer their call.

From dawn until dusk they called, until they were staggering and exhausted beyond speech, because all the Issli remembered this: that only through trials of endurance could wonders be achieved.

And as the darkness drew tight around them, the air changed. Thickened. Cohered into a body.

A figure like a man knelt on the ground, sand-colored in hair and skin.

They had agreed beforehand. The one who proposed the idea should be the one to act. And—though they did not say it—to bear the glory if this should succeed…and the blame if it failed.

Huysiya lurched forward, shaking from head to toe with weariness and fear. In a voice no louder than the rasp of a dead leaf, she said, “I am Huysiya, elder of the Redwood clan of the Issli, and I bind you to this task: to restore the health of our sacred cypress tree.”

The Jenevein used archai all the time. They merely forbade anyone else to do the same.

Their priests knew the art of summoning, as it was practiced in Jeneve. How to call, and how to refine that call, ensuring that whatever came from the apeiron would suit their needs. Not just a warrior, but a defender. Not just a healer, but one with power over plagues. Not just a savant, but a mind that could help them refine the devices they used to maintain their control over conquered lands.

They knew the art of strengthening an archon. When one first emerged from the apeiron, it was invariably weak: lacking in memory, operating on instinct. The Jenevein priests had made a study of how to nurture what they called, observing each archon’s aptitudes and giving them opportunities to pursue those, until their abilities flowered enough to be of use—but not enough to break free of the supernatural chains that bound them to serve their summoners.

And they knew the art of dismissing an archon.

Every child understood that when such a creature died, it returned to the apeiron, the formless realm from which it came, there to remain until summoned again. The priests kept a close watch over those they called. If one grew too strong, its power reshaping the world around it, they killed it before it could become a threat.

Then they summoned another to take its place.

Nameless and naked it came from the apeiron. They called it Omastut—the life found in green things—in the hope that the word would prove prophetic. They gave it masculine clothing, because it had male form, and could pass for human for now.

And they asked him how to heal the tree.

“I don’t know,” Omastut said, laying one hand on the rough, strip-split bark of the cypress.

Aptachi twitched as if he did not know whether to bluster or supplicate. The creature they’d summoned was an archon; he possessed abilities beyond human understanding. But he was also new-summoned, and if Aptachi struck him no one doubted he could knock Omastut down.

“You don’t know yet,” Simkitsi said. “But you will. You do. You must think. Are you a healer? A gardener? Do flowers spring up where you step?”

Her words made them all look reflexively at the ground, even Omastut. The moss beneath his bare feet was unchanged.

Omastut shook his head. “I—I don’t know. Don’t you understand? I don’t remember anything. I should know things and I don’t. I reach inside and there’s nothing there but a hole.”

His voice grew strained, half-panicked with absence. The elders thought of an archon as the devastating creature that had woken from beneath the tree, or the imposing figures that had served the leaders of the Jenevein. Not as this: a man scrabbling after the lost essence of himself. He seemed like a man now, not a font of mysterious power.

Not the savior they had prayed for.

Huysiya laid one hand on his arm, bird-light and soothing. “We called for someone to save the tree, and you came. That means you have some way of doing it. It will come to you in time.”

The elders of the Sayacha did not say, Only if we performed the ritual well enough.

They did not say, We do not have much time.

Huysiya knew those things. And if Omastut failed…

The Jenevein were gone. The death of the tree was their fault, but they were not present to take the blame.

The elder of the Redwood was.

No one truly knew the story of the archon of the tree. When he woke his skin was cracked and brown like bark, his hair a trailing mass of scale-like leaves. There was no guessing what people in what corner of the world had originally told his tale, what myth he sprang from, what he might have been like when he was closer to human. They could only know him by how he shaped everything around him.

Because an archon could not exist in the world without influencing it. If the story was that a woman had three loyal husbands, three men would in time find themselves gravitating toward her, stepping in to play the roles her tale demanded. If the myth said a man dwelt in a dark forest, trees would spring up to provide him with his proper home.

Not quickly, and not right away. Like a wind growing from a whisper to a gale, archai needed to gain in strength before their presence could exert such force. The man of the forest would seek out a suitable wood long before he caused one to grow around him—as long as he had the freedom to do so.

For the archon of the tree, the people of Cahuei knew only this: that like all archai, he had two aspects, seimer and gemer, creative and destructive. When he slept he was seimer, and the tree grew. When he woke he was gemer, and the city nearly fell.

Huysiya took responsibility for Omastut. He could pass for human, and so she lodged him in her home. She fed him the traditional foods of the Issli, even though neither of them was sure if he needed to eat. Frowning as if trying to recall a long-distant memory, he asked if she had foods whose names she did not recognize; when she asked him to describe them, he only shook his head. The words were there, but the knowledge was not.

She took him around Cahuei, from the waterside district of the Reeds to the paved streets built by the Jenevein on the slopes above. She took him around the base of the tree, tracing every gnarled root that gripped the headland like an ancient fist, and the dead branches that littered the ground like bones. She took him up the staircase, ignoring the complaints of her aging joints, around and around the trunk of the tree until they reached the lowest of the mighty branches—and then up farther still, past the shrines the Jenevein had permitted to continue and the ruins of the ones they hadn’t, all the way to the highest reaches of the tree, from which it seemed like a person could see to the ends of the earth.

Everywhere she looked, she saw the tree dying.

“Please,” she said to him as they sat on the topmost branch that would support them. “I know we have asked the impossible of you—but it is the nature of archai to do the impossible. If you cannot help us, I fear nothing can.”

Omastut skimmed his palm along the surface of the branch beneath him. The drying bark peeled up when he tugged at it, a long thin strip, and Huysiya felt like it was a strip of her own skin flayed off.

“Why does this tree matter so much?” he said, measuring the strip between his hands. “It threatens the city below, yes—but that isn’t the whole story, is it?”

Huysiya’s lips pressed into a bloodless line. One hand, trembling, reached inside her patterned wrap and came out with a little glass vial on a thong. She lifted it from around her neck and passed it to Omastut, who studied it without understanding. “What is this?”

“All that remains of our redwood,” she said. “That, and a few other vials like it. The Jenevein burned them all when they decided to break the backs of the clans. Our willow and our oak, our pine and fir and redbud, our cedar, our sequoia, our aspen. And the redwood of my own people.”

The ancestral trees of the clans, from which their ceremonial staves had been carved. Staves the Jenevein had also burned, except for three the elders at the time had managed to hide, providing substitutes taken from ordinary branches. “Those trees were the heart and soul of our clans,” Huysiya said. “Our sacred places, our reminders of who we were.”

“Nine trees,” Omastut said, peeling up another strip of bark. “But not the cypress.”

“The cypress is the tree of the Issli. It belongs to no clan, and to all of them. So long as we have this, we are still one people; the Jenevein have not broken us. If we lose it—”

She could not finish her sentence. Omastut nodded and tore up a third strip of bark. Huysiya reached out to stop him—then stopped herself instead.

He was rolling the strips of bark into a strand. A strand longer and thicker than the bark itself could possibly account for.

“I don’t know how to save your tree,” Omastut said. “But there is one thing I can do.”

In the lands and among the people where the summoning of archai was openly practiced—places such as Jeneve—they understood there were signs by which an archon might be known. They kept lists of those signs, secret texts controlled and fought over, because they could identify who had been called long before the archai themselves remembered.

They could be used to refine the call itself, increasing the precision of the act.

Some of the signs were marks on the body. These took time to develop, like the bark-cracked skin and leafy hair of the archon of the tree. But others the knowledgeable called icons, and they were objects the archai carried: symbols that represented some facet of their nature, like a warrior’s weapon or a ruler’s crown.

The elders of the Sayacha had bound their cypress branches with twine and hung them above the altar when they called. And so Omastut, acting on the instinct of his story, had made a rope.

The tree was beginning to split under its own impossible weight. The wound was still small, but it would grow. The pull of the wind and the tremors of the earth would widen it, until the cypress broke in half and crushed the buildings below.

For now, though, the split formed a gap only a little larger than a man. A little larger than Omastut.

“Seven days,” he said. “I don’t know why seven. Just give me that long.”

“To do what?” Huysiya said, mystified.

His hands were still working at the rope. She could not see what he was doing with it. But then he climbed the trunk—she would have sworn it was impossible—and wrapped one end around a small branch just above the split, binding it with a tight knot.

When he dropped down once more, she saw the other end had been shaped into a noose.

“No!” She lunged forward, frail hands out as if they could stop Omastut. “If you kill yourself—”

He would return to the apeiron. They would have to call him again, and all the understanding and strength he had gained, however small it might be, would be lost.

Omastut stopped her with a gentle hand. “I won’t die. I’m sure of it. This—” He fell silent, frustrated once more with the void in his mind, created by the endless cycles of death and rebirth. “Think of it as a trial. An ordeal. I will get something from it. Knowledge, I think. And that knowledge may help you.”

By hanging on a tree for seven days. It was not a story Huysiya had ever heard—but she had heard stranger ones.

Like a creature that slept beneath the earth for a thousand years, while a cypress large enough to overshadow a city grew above him.

But she was Issli, and she understood that only through trials of endurance could wonders be achieved. And an archon could endure more than any human might hope to.

“Seven days,” she said.

“Then cut me down,” he said. “And I will tell you what I can. I hope it will do some good.”

He took the noose of cypress bark and set it around his neck. As it pulled tight the rope shortened, lifting his body into the air; the split trunk of the tree closed around him until it seemed whole, and only the twist of rope around the branch above showed where he hung.

And the seven days began.

On the first day, the branches stopped falling.

On the second day, the creak of dry wood ceased.

On the third day, dead leaves no longer dusted the city.

On the fourth day, the desiccated green grew shadow-bright once more.

On the fifth day, new leaves began to bud.

On the sixth day, the people of Cahuei breathed freely.

On the seventh day, an impromptu festival filled the streets.

On the eighth day, Huysiya called the elders of the Sayacha together.

“What did you do?” Aptachi demanded, almost laughing in relief. “Where is Omastut? How did he heal the tree?”

“For the safety of the city,” Huysiya said, “I will not tell you.”

Even in joy, Simkitsi was not without her argumentative side. “What? Why not? If he stays here, he’ll start to shape the city around him. We need to protect ourselves against that. We need to—”

“Need to what?” Chimenil said sharply. “Banish him?”

“We cannot,” Huysiya said. “Like the archon before him, it is his continued presence that will keep the cypress safe. The tree is part of his story, and so as long as he lives, it must stay alive to play its role.”

Silence fell. Now it held only the cry of seabirds and the rush of the wind on which they flew, rather than the slow death cries of the tree. Sutsetu knew Huysiya the best of them all, and knew that within that kindly, delicate body beat a heart that would do anything to protect the Issli.

He said quietly, “Explain.”

Huysiya folded her knobbled hands. “He did something to seek out answers—but he could not promise me that when it was done, he would have what we needed. He is young, after all, and not very powerful. But so long as he continues seeking, that part of his story will not end. So I left him where he is.”

As one, they looked upward. At the towering, twisted branches of the cypress, the one thing the Jenevein couldn’t destroy. The tree that belonged to all the Issli equally, and bound them together as one people.

At the price of an archon imprisoned forever.

Huysiya said, “But you are right, Simkitsi. He will shape the city around him, whether he knows it or not. And we do not know what he will shape it into. The only answer, I think, is a counter-balance.”

“More archai,” Nazcuc breathed.

Conflicting stories, all competing for control of the city. They might have small effects in their immediate vicinity, but none of them would be able to dominate.

Chimenil’s voice was cold. “Are we to become the Jenevein, then? Calling them, using them, and killing them when we grow to fear what they’ve become?”

“No,” Huysiya said. “There are free archai in the world. Those who have escaped their bindings, or been released by their summoners. They will know their stories well enough for us to understand what their presence would mean.”

A city of free archai. There were places where summoning was permitted, and places where it was forbidden, but none of the elders had heard of a place, past or present, where archai were invited to come and dwell.

A city of free archai…and one who was not.

Huysiya said, “If any of you have another solution, I will gladly hear it.”

They had lost so much to the Jenevein. Their history, their traditions, and the sacred trees of their ancestors.

They could not lose the cypress.

“Until we find a better answer,” Simkitsi said at last. One by one the others echoed her. It had the sound of an oath.

In ancient times the Issli had executed traitors and criminals by hurling them from the headland to the rock-strewn sea below.

Huysiya’s body washed up on shore the next morning. She left no message, but the elders of the Sayacha understood. She had passed sentence on herself for her monstrous act—and made certain they would never find where the archon of the tree hung.

Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for material. She most recently misapplied her professors’ hard work to Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent; the first book of that series, A Natural History of Dragons, was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and won the Prix Imaginales for Best Translated Novel. Her collaborative novel Born to the Blade, written with Michael R. Underwood, Malka Older, and Cassandra Khaw, was recently published by Serial Box. She is also the author of the Doppelganger duology of Warrior and Witch, the urban fantasies Lies and Prophecy and Chains and Memory, the Onyx Court historical fantasy series, the Varekai novellas, and more than fifty short stories. For more information, visit swantower.com or her Patreon at patreon.com/swan_tower.

 

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