The Roots of Discontent
Sordid parties, bad behavior, ancient gods, and a man at war with himself.
A murmur of excitement rushes through the hall as Rowan Yarn, the bard of House Stave, steps up to the rostrum. He stands in silence, rooted to his place, until silence prevails once more. Then he clears his throat and begins to speak in a low, earthy tone…
If it wasn’t for the saccharine stench of human corpses that still hung in the air, it’d be an idyllic morning.
The rains the night previous had lessened even that nigh-constant reminder of the recent tragedy. The warmth of the summer sun imbued the wreckage that still clogged many of the town’s thoroughfares with possibility; in the rubble of banks, shops, and tenements lay the seeds for a second chance. The Gods appeared to assent to the celebratory disposition that had spread across Amalcross, a fine omen on The Day of the Consecration.
“Healing Self Heals Others” were the words carved beneath the wooden statue of a twelve-handed shaman that greeted all who arrived at the Crossings neighborhood, a thrumming hive of construction and excavation. This ancient interpretation of Bouledar, the God of Healing and Community, reflected what many of the peasants who had lost their homes to the Great Quake believed: They needed all twelve of Bouledar’s hands and then some to salve their fractured families and the wounded, shaken city. At least on this morning, it felt as though Bouledar had answered their prayers — his salubrious digits had already begun their holy work upon the district.
Children streamed out of newly risen flats, improvements to the slums they had previously inhabited, running ahead of their parents into the gathering crowd. The Quake’s destruction, and the rebuilding it necessitated, had markedly bettered their lives already. Their shit no longer flowed in the gullies, for one. From destruction, sweet life could spring forth.
It was fitting that Bouledar bid the growing gathering welcome. Everyone who now bowed and held the hands of strangers had come to visit the temple newly erected in His name. The surging press included the living ancestors of all the Hundred Houses. The Imperial Family was there, too, their first public appearance since the Great Quake.
No matter the size of their purse, thousands walked together up a new tree-lined path that opened into a vast, circular courtyard. Here, all gathered together, and a hopeful feeling of community began to sprout out of their shared grief.
The Temple grounds were marked by thirty-seven freshly planted saplings, representing a new beginning. The courtyard gave way to a garden blessed by Fen himself. There were both exotic everpurple trees from unpronounceable lands across the Hurron Sea and the familiar bottlenecked Oocrahen trees from the local forests. Climbers, creepers, and wildflowers were in orchestral bloom around them. The scent of lingering death that had taken root in the noses of the residents transmogrified into fresh life.
If everyone in attendance were petals of a budding flower, the woman in surreal vermillion and teal robes at the center of a stage in front of the temple’s grand entrance was their pistil. At exactly midday, all attention was fixed on the great High Priestess Binder Farquen. No announcement or bell was required.
Unquestioned leader of the assemblage, the wizened Farquen still looked the part of the warrior mage she had been in her adolescence. Even with only one eye, she seemed to peer into the souls of everyone in attendance. Before she had come into womanhood, it was said Farquen ripped out one of her own blue eyes and replaced it with a red gemstone to affirm her complete devotion to the Meridian. There were whispers that the stone itself was Bound in ancient magic. But one thing was certain: She saw only the truth.
On Farquen’s left, a young man was set to hang.
On her right, a woman overflowing with child was attended by the Emperor’s own midwife. Her loud contractions echoed across the assemblage.
The man and woman had each been chosen via lottery, plucked to sate the hunger of the Gods. The random death of a peasant man, a fletcher’s apprentice, represented Chaos. The birth of a new child signified fresh Order, a great balancing of the Chaos. Or so it was said.
The peasant’s family were there in attendance, cheering. To have your kin chosen for such a sacrifice was a great honor, and brought a flush purse as further compensation.
The newborn child would be brought up in the Imperial Palace, destined for an honorable life in the Amalguard and given access to a fairytale life its orphan mother couldn’t dream of. That thought likely comforted her now, in the throes of agonizing childbirth.
After a particularly grisly cry, the midwife signaled to High Priestess Binder Farquen.
“The new Order is coming.”
Farquen’s announcement incited wordless, full-throated chants. Half of the congregation sang high, the other half low, finding a melodious middle.
The High Priestess removed a small, two-sided axe from her robes. One side was covered in velvet and soft to the touch, whereas the other… well, anything that touched that blade would never be able to touch again.
The chant stopped abruptly as the High Priestess swung the Untouchable end of her axe at the wooden stool upon which the man was standing.
One year earlier.
A tall, thin man stumbled, lost, in a vast nothing.
The man was starved, parched, empty of meaning.
Until something wriggled beneath his feet.
One of the Earth’s own brown fingers, the root of an unseen tree, was touching him.
The man followed the root. It was soon joined by others — an infinite network taking him deep into a thick, fog-ridden wood. The forest was a haze of forgotten memories, and he was Remembering.
Everything led to one great Thing, the beginning and end of all life: an ancient, twisted tree. There was no bark, just exposed white wood. Its thick-limbed branches held up the cosmos. Its twinkling leaves were the stars in the sky.
Nothing reached further than the trees. Nothing had a longer memory.
The roots coiled in spiraling, concentric circles around the world. More accurately, it was the world that grew around these roots. Forests, flowers, mountains, stones, lakes, oceans, animals, Salavasters, Rilk’gar, humans — each began as buds from the Tree.
The man found himself within the Tree’s inner circle of roots. The primordial whorl.
Return to us.
The Tree’s many branches stretched out wide, welcoming the dreamer with open arms.
The man pushed forward, hungry. He reached out to touch the Tree…
Dreues Stave stirred back to life, or what was left of it. He had become mere decoration in his own dusty bedchambers. His face was pale, tormented by ghosts. The red splotches on his emaciated cheeks, it was remarked, numbered the sons he had lost.
The sun had risen well beyond the view of the window, its rays leaving the lord’s bedroom aglow. Dust motes danced in the afternoon light.
Dreues grumbled and creaked, lurching out from under layers of thick linens. He was late.
He was about to call out for the pages when he remembered they were no longer in his service. He could no longer afford them.
Dreues was nearly seven feet tall. Always lean, he had once been likened to a slender yew tree. Now he looked like a withered branch, about to snap under the weight of the past year. He was only middle-aged, but the weight of tragedy had added soupy rings under his eyes.
Of all the Hundred Houses, Stave’s own was hit hardest by the Quake. His was a proud industrial family who, alongside (and in fierce competition with) Houses Gravsend and Finewood, built many of the buildings that had made Amalcross the most exalted city in the empire. Now, their family was in the midst of a clearcutting.
When the Great Quake hit, most of Dreues’ projects — building contracts for schools, factories, warehouses — went up in literal flames or washed out into the Amal Straight.
In the cloudy mirror, he watched his proudest project perish, as he had done every morning since.
He imagined his firstborn son, Drayven Stave, praying amongst the commonfolk in the pews of the once great Skaardruf Temple. The finest in the city. Until its stone walls shuddered, shook and collapsed, crushing Drayven and hundreds of others down into a chasm, pulled into the Earth. Skaardruf had been hungry that day.
The Gods were insatiable whores.
Dreues unwrapped a bloody bandage around his right hand, revealing a pus-ridden wound upon his palm. The infection pulsated out through the lines on his hand, reaching his wrist.
Dreues’s grandfather had boasted that their family’s flesh was closer to bark than skin, impenetrable to cuts, scrapes and bruises. They were the roots of the realm, after all, claiming to be the oldest family in the Reaches, with blood that could be traced back to the trees themselves.
And now a fucking splinter was going to kill him. Cruel irony?
“Pathetic,” Dreues spat.
In the wake of the Great Quake, Dreues had been one of the first to lend his hands to the cleanup efforts. He had gone straight to where Skaardruf’s temple once stood, determined to find his son’s body. He worked for three days without food or rest, but no body was found in the ruins. The only thing he had uncovered was a fresh lesion, slashed by a piece of wood as he dug through the rubble with his bare hands.
Dreues turned and saw his three surviving daughters in the doorway, already in their most formal dresses. Nearly as tall as he, they stood together like a copse of trees.
“You look terrible,” his middle daughter Elowyn remarked with a smile. Dreues’s responding laughter only brought further pain to his joints.
“We’re going to be late,” his youngest daughter Ilana said as they started to dress their father.
“Splendid. We don’t want to appear desperate now, do we?” Arden, the eldest, said.
“That would merely be the truth,” Dreues retorted, trying to make his right hand into a fist. He succeeded in contorting it into a claw more sickly than fearsome.
His daughters recoiled.
“For Skaardruf’s sake, cover that,” Elowyn said.
They all winced, including Elowyn. Skaardruf’s name had become taboo in the household.
“I’m sorry, Father,” she said. He batted away her apology with his good hand.
“They are but words. He has divided enough of us. Now, leave me. Your father can dress himself.”
His three daughters shared doubtful looks — even before his ill turn, Dreues Stave was hardly the fashionable sort — but they left him.
Dreues returned to the dais where the mirror hung. A scroll was open on the counter.
Out of obligation or pity, the High Priestess Binder had invited Dreues and his daughters to her rectory for a party. If only it was just a party. Billed as a fundraiser to help rebuild the realm, it was where she would receive whispered bids to build the new temple that would take Skaardruf’s place.
Nobody, not even Dreues himself, expected him to secure the bid over the Finewoods, but he had to try. For his daughters’ sakes.
Yellow, resiny pus oozed out of his palm.
He was running out of time. A rotting tree scheduled for removal.
When Dreues and his daughters arrived, they were part of a thick procession of horse-drawn carriages delivering lords and royals up a winding hill.
They passed beggars on either side, many homeless after the recent disaster. Not a single carriage stopped for them, impatient to reach the safety of the party behind the iron gates.
A few of the carriages moved without horses, powered by spells woven by Binders. It was a gross display of wealth under such circumstances. Dreues knew Lady Serai Finewood was inside one of them. While Dreues’s buildings crumbled, she had married into wealth not once but four times over. Many branches of her family — unseemly though it was — now dripped with gold. Chancellor Kringe of the Magist Imperial University was one of many who spoke out against her blasphemy, but there was no limit to the wonders of coin. The commission of a new dormitory (emblazoned with the Finewood name, of course) soon sealed his wagging lips.
At the hilltop was Meridian’s Edge, the High Priestess Binder’s rectory. The site of the lodge, constructed upon the edge of a cliff overlooking the Boern River and a symbolic dividing line between order and chaos, was no accident.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Ballads of the Distant Reaches to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.