The Fifth Throne, Part 1: Tau and Rho

A druid council attempts to navigate multiple crises in a time between times

Wabi Sabi
The Small Dark Light

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Tau is the last to arrive as usual. They enter the small clearing, scuttle through the circle of boot-flattened, dew-soaked grass, duck under the low stone arch, hang up their cowl and rustle into the chamber. Making their apologies, they take their place on the east-facing throne, a plain granite affair dating back to a time when druids were built shorter and had simpler tastes. In those far-flung days of mist and legend an unadorned stone chair was good enough for you and you could comfortably walk under a four-foot arch without bowing your head.

‘Ah, so you’ve finally bothered to show up. Kalli to the end, eh?’ This from the towering grey-green figure on the south-facing throne, Rho — head of the Polems, once thought of as the “warrior race” in those dark Days of First Contact. It took many hundreds of years for the Kalli, Polem, Temel and Sofal tribes to realise that they originated from a single species, and many hundreds more before they decided that uneasy cooperation served all parties better than all-out competition. And so the Days of First Contact capitulated to the Days of War, the Era of Trade and finally the so-called Era of Coordination.

The spindly, bearded Chi, ever the smooth talker, leans forward from their north-facing throne. ‘Meaning we’re all here, and we can begin. We really have no time to waste, so let’s get on with the rites.’

The other druids mumble their assent, and Chi, Tau, Rho and Eta rise together to hallow their meeting in the same way they have done since the time before time. While they would hardly admit it to themselves, let alone each other, the way they rush through the complex invocations and gestures strikes a note of hollow formalism that has never sounded in this gathering before. Observances should ideally proceed from the inside out, tangible proofs of convictions so deeply held they emanate from the very cells of the body; rituals like today’s are directed from the outside in, half-measure attempts to convince the viscera of something that has become in some way foreign to them.

The foursome’s rapid-fire call-and-response reaches its inevitable climax, each druid intoning their share of the names of the forty-seven elements over and over in increasingly complex patterns, until the last colours have distilled from the ceiling and the rites have come to their slightly less than convincing close. The shamans sit in silence regaining their senses and studiously avoiding each others’ eyes, until Chi decides that enough is enough, rises and taps their staff twice against the stone floor. ‘Well, we know what we’ve come for, so let’s get to it. Who needs what, how much of it, for how long? How can our collective resources best be allocated to meet the challenges of the present moment? And most importantly, how do we address the looming — ‘

Eta, that undulating ball of curiosity whose very form can’t keep still from one moment to the next, isn’t so easily rushed. ‘Surely we can spare five minutes to catch up on how everyone is doing. I know we all have a general impression of how things go here and there, but it’s always useful to get each tribe’s individual take on the state of play. Context is everything.’

Rho swivels round to glare at the west-facing throne. ‘You never were much for protocol.’

‘No, Rho, I never was. I’ve always found it an excellent way of maintaining traditions that have long outlived their usefulness. Anyway, I hope I can be excused for taking a personal interest in the welfare of my colleagues.’

‘“Colleagues?” One meeting every four years does not a colleague make.’

Eta turns back to face the others and spreads their hands. ‘Alright, well let’s settle for “allies” if that would make Rho happier. Or at least less miserable.’

Chi holds up their hands in a deliberate echo of Eta’s gesture, a subtle move that simultaneously manages to convey respect and a certain unspoken authority. This informal council of ambassadors may be nominally leaderless, but it’s a rare room with more than one person in it that doesn’t contain an implicit hierarchy, or at the very least a constant undertow of status dynamics. This room is no exception. ‘Eta’s right. There’s no harm in giving each other a little background before we proceed with the negotiations. The resource requests might seem as if they’re coming out of nowhere otherwise.’

‘And four years is a long time,’ adds Tau. ‘We’ve seen epochs fall away and new ones rise up to take their place in less time.’

Eta glances over at Rho. ‘Although you’re always the last to know when your own era has come to an end.’

‘That’s the kind of thing Chi would say,’ laughs Tau. ‘To be fair, it can be hard to tell where the First Principles end and the Innovations begin.’

The First Principles represent Chi and the Sofals’ attempt to reach back through the Forest-dwellers’ collective store of wisdom and express the intuitive, systematise the informal, concretise the nebulous and discard the outdated. Touted as a new way of knowing, the intellectual approach is taking the Great Forest as a whole by storm. It finds its physical counterpart in the wild experimentation of the Temels, whose Innovations are hit-and-miss attempts to break physical objects down into their component parts and reassemble those parts in practically useful ways. These mutually reinforcing projects have always made Tau uneasy, and a certain ironic edge creeps into their voice whenever they mention either.

Irritated rustling from Eta. ‘And the kind of thing you would say is that neither principles nor innovations can ever reach the heights of the ancient arts, poems and songs. Am I right?’

‘I’ve always held that everything ultimately flows from my tribe’s way of thinking,’ says Tau seriously. ‘I know, I know. Of course I’m going to claim that about my own people. And it’s just as easy to make a case that the primordial state of mind, our true “state of nature”, can be found in the warlike pragmatism of Rho’s Polems. But I can’t help feeling there’s something unitary, or undivided, about the ancients’ view of life. It’s so all-encompassing.’

The small, slight druid looks even more thoughtful than usual. ‘I’ve always felt we have a lot to learn from our children. Babies are natural sages. It’s only later they arrive at fine-tuned analysis,’ nodding at Chi, ‘or the exploratory impulse’, this to Eta. ‘I’m finding it hard to put words on what I mean, but in a way that only proves my point.’

‘Conveniently enough,’ coughs Rho.

Tau continues undeterred. ‘Poetry is about the ineffable. What we don’t know is greater than what we know, and what we know but can’t express is greater than what we know well enough to describe.’

‘Isn’t all this another way of saying my tribe’s way of doing things is more advanced? That you in the west have some catching up to do?’ says Eta. Smiling, but with undercurrents.

‘Possibly. Or maybe you easterners have some unlearning to do.’

‘Tau can’t help themselves,’ laughs Chi, neatly slicing through the tension in the air. ‘There’s no use expecting anything more hardheaded than that from someone who makes a virtue of inscrutability.’

‘The trouble being that for every genuine bit of counterintuitive Kalli wisdom you get a hundred paradoxes that play with language for the sake of it,’ adds Eta. ‘I’ll keep my head hard, thanks.’

‘Best to keep every part of the body in shape these days if you ask me. Ready for action. When it comes down to it the only wisdom that makes a difference is the practical kind. What’s in front of us, and what are we going to do about it?’

‘Good question, Rho. But none of us knows what’s in front of each other yet, because we haven’t asked.’ Ever the stubborn one, Eta.

Rho sighs for effect; even the most ruthlessly pragmatic of diplomats are thespians at heart. ‘I can see this is going to be one of our longer meetings. Well, if you must have your status reports, why don’t I go first.’

‘Why not indeed, Rho.’

Rho grips their axe a little tighter. The weapon is purely ceremonial these days, but they insist on bringing it to every meeting in keeping with Polem tradition dating back to the time before time. Rusted with age, with most of the golden gilding long chipped away, the implement still has the capacity to impress, serving as a constant reminder to the assembled diplomats that should diplomacy fail, there are time-honoured instruments even blunter than the law.

‘Well, no matter how we choose to spend our time, we all live in the world, and it can’t have escaped even Tau’s notice that things are bad out there and getting worse. I’d venture to say that we haven’t seen this level of scarcity in the Highlands since the final days of the Era of Isolation.’ The Highlands, that rocky outcrop where the Polems have scratched out their living since before the befores, is so desolate the trees themselves struggle to put down roots there. Even the most casual visitor to that barren wasteland would see that the proudest of all tribes didn’t come by their muscular physiques, survival skills or hardbitten common sense by accident.

Rho subconsciously runs their fingers up and down the axehead. ‘Crops are failing. The few things we do manage to grow are eaten by the sky-thieves before our children get anywhere near them.’ Hard enough to eke out a living in the Highlands without having to deal with those huge, hulking creatures of the air that swoop for barley and grain with the same ruthless relish with which our vultures tear into human flesh. ‘We’re exhausting our resources but stockpiling nothing: as Chi will be well aware, we’re importing grain as fast as we can mine the ore.’

Eta senses the opportunity for rhetorical advantage and takes it. ‘You should be on your knees thanking the Manifestations for those mines. None of the Four Tribes are exactly looking at food surpluses at the moment, and you just so happen to possess the one commodity that can persuade the rest of us to part with — ‘

‘Let them finish, Eta.’ Chi, of course.

‘Get it over with, Rho.’

Rho’s face turns a brighter shade of ochre; they grip their axe even tighter. ‘You’re the one who suggested we waste valuable time harping on about — ‘

‘Eta’s sorry, Rho,’ says Chi. ‘Please continue.’

Rho settles down, though they don’t take their eyes off Eta. Tau, always more comfortable with idealism’s soothing abstractions than conflict’s brute specificity, stares at the floor. The druid briefly wonders, and not for the first time, what all the symbols on that worn limestone surface mean. It’s impossible to clearly make out their shapes today, much less decipher intents and purposes: just one more tantalising legacy of the time before time. Sometimes Tau thinks that if one could read that floor as it was meant to be read, out would spring the Answer that would finally dissolve all the contradictions and tensions of this tedious, bureaucratic age. At other times they wonder if symbols ever contained Answers, even in those days of mist and legend. It’s hard to be sure of anything recently.

But Rho is speaking again. Tau lifts their head, and their diffuse grey eyes come into focus.

‘Things can’t continue as they have been. Supplication and ritual are failing us. The Method is failing us. The Habits are failing us.’ The Method and Habits, as everyone knows, are the twin pillars of the Polem lifestyle: the one representing the agricultural practices, crop rotation techniques and general accumulated practical wisdom that have been passed down since the time before time, and the other summarising the profoundly embodied approach this devout tribe takes to what we would call faith. In their earthy vision of spirituality, in which movement and gesture function the same way mantra and prayer do in so many of our religions, propositions flow directly from practices, and natural and supernatural are fused into a single indivisible way of life.

Rho sits up a little straighter, and assumes an expression of stoic dignity. ‘Trade is just about keeping us afloat — for now — but we’re living on time that isn’t so much borrowed as stolen. At best, this will be the bleakest cold season in living memory. At worst, many of us will starve.’ They turn once more to face Eta. ‘There you are: is that enough background for you?’

Eta levelly returns Rho’s stare. Chi breaks the silence again, clearly choosing their words with care. ‘I take it, Rho, that a temporary arrangement would be out of the question…one in which we — ‘

The sturdy Polem swiftly cuts them off. ‘This is the Era of Coordination, not of Charity. Besides, I know how things work round your neck of the Forest. Your giving is loaning, and your loaning comes with interest.’

Even Chi can’t help bristling at this. ‘And your lot has always been known for its selflessness, has it?’

‘We may not subscribe to the platitudes of the Friends of the Totality, or whatever you call your cave-dwelling fanatics Tau, but we’ve always looked after anyone we were affiliated with. What those “universal solidarity” mystics can never understand is that affiliations are local and have to be built up over time. And what you southern mercenaries can never grasp, Chi, is that there’s any place for relationships that go beyond the purely transactional.’

With an effort, Chi regains their famous, or infamous, self-control. ‘Well, I think we’ve done alright for ourselves.’ They turn towards the east-facing throne, and Rho’s belligerent expression suddenly shifts slightly. The warrior-druid hadn’t been expecting the focus to shift from Polem affairs so abruptly, and given their well-earned reputation for telling nothing but the truth, it pleases them enormously to be spared the ordeal of telling the whole truth.

‘Why don’t we hear from Tau next,’ continues Chi. ‘Maybe they have a few words to say in defence of the cave-dwelling fanatics.’

The wispy one shrugs. ‘The best defence I can offer is that they’re very few in number. Like anyone else in the Great Forest, most of us spend most of our time tilling the soil.’

Rho is unimpressed. ‘Funny, but over where I am we need every hand on deck, and I see to it personally that that’s where every hand is. Maybe that’s just me.’

Tau’s watery form flickers in frustration. ‘I know, I know, the rest of you insist that any devotionalism worthy of the name can’t exist apart from the daily grind. And if I thought that the ascetic’s life was the right one for me I wouldn’t be sitting here now. Still, it’s no secret that I halfway envy those mystics in their lairs. And if universal love isn’t possible for those of us who don’t spend our days inhaling the vapours of those caves, at least I think it represents the most beautiful ideal Forestkind ever aspired to. There’s a certain nobility in reaching for something just beyond your grasp.’

‘If at first you don’t succeed, at least Tau will think you’re noble.’ Eta doesn’t quite succeed in saying that under their breath, because they don’t quite try.

Tau presses on. ‘Anyway, you’re not here to hear about the Cavers. But if we can all still call ourselves co-religionists at all — if you’re not going to pretend we weren’t all there the day the Manifestations first appeared — you’ll want to hear how it goes with the oracle.’

In an instant the mood in the room shifts; Rho is the picture of sincere humility; Chi leans forward in their chair; even Eta’s naturally sarcastic expression realigns itself and their limbs cease flowing quite so restlessly in their seat.

It’s hard to say which note sounds more forcefully in Tau’s own expression, confusion or sadness. ‘I shouldn’t have to remind you that the Sayers were due to pronounce on the seventeenth this year. But the date came and went, and…’ The druid fidgets miserably, not knowing how to continue. Rho and Eta, once their initial shock has passed, glance uneasily at one another with the instinctive solidarity that accompanies a shared blow. Tau continues. ‘It was the nineteenth before the oracle finally spoke. Their message seemed plain. If our foragers went further afield than normal and picked a different route than usual, they would be rewarded with a haul like we haven’t seen for years — more of the nourishment we already rely on, plus additional nutrients we don’t have names for yet. A greater risk for a greater reward.’

Chi raises an eyebrow. ‘Quite a specific prediction.’

‘Yes,’ Tau says. Suddenly a feeling of defiance courses through them. ‘But that doesn’t mean there’s no room at all for interpretation. You, an educated druid, can see that. But it’s harder to get the people of my village to see sense, especially the hungry ones. Which by now is almost all of them. As the little intrepid band set out — well, I haven’t seen such excitement since the end of the Days of Wars. And when they finally returned from their longest expedition yet, weary, discouraged and virtually empty-handed…well, I’ve never seen such…’

An almost physical darkness descends over the room. The thrones seem to cast longer shadows.

Rho breaks the silence. ‘And your foragers…they carried no message? Received no revelation?’

Tau looks positively anguished. ‘That’s all a matter of definitions, isn’t it? They spoke — does that mean they gave a message? They saw things and felt things on their journey — does that mean they received revelations? You know how the oracle works. Nothing is as it seems. Every pronouncement carries a hidden layer, and another layer below that. Every statement can be taken several ways; every apparent truism contains a hidden paradox, every apparent contradiction a paradoxical unity. It’s no more possible for the Sayers to be “wrong” than it is for the trees to point downward. Their statements simply are.’ They’re speaking with the fervour of someone who’s primarily trying to convince themselves, and the others know it.

‘I’m sure you’ve ruled out the possibility that the foragers did not, in fact, take a different route or travel further afield than usual,’ Chi says, in what they hope is a matter-of-fact tone. ‘And I’m sure you endeavoured to convince your people to take words like “nourishment” metaphorically, to interpret the brave example of the adventurers as “rewarding” the community in some intangible sense, and so on. You likely even believed these things as you said them. But I hope you don’t expect to comfort the three of us here today so easily. In fact, I don’t mind telling you that the oracle’s irregularity has helped clarify a few things for me.’

Rho’s brow darkens. ‘And what things might those be, Chi?’

‘We’ll come to that when it’s my turn,’ says Chi evenly. ‘I may not like the things I have to say, but I’d be a coward if I didn’t say them. All in good time. Do you have anything else to report from the Clearing, Tau?’

Tau’s words come slow and heavy. ‘Only this: the people of my tribe aren’t as simple-minded as you seem to think. Honestly speaking, they’re sharper than I myself had realised. In many ways, hunger clarifies things: nothing plants your two feet so firmly on the ground.’ They gaze up through the narrow skylight, their eyes a million tree-widths away. ‘There’s unrest in the village. Violence simmering just below the surface like I haven’t sensed since the Days of Wars. People are questioning every certainty. They haven’t seen the things we’ve seen. Their connection to the Numinous doesn’t cut as deep. With them, it’s a simple equation: if the Ultimate doesn’t feed me, I don’t set anything aside for It. Yesterday I meekly suggested to the Head Elder that it’s possible the Manifestations are simply punishing us for holding ever more back from our fruit and grain sacrifices. “Oh? And which betrayal came first?” they replied.’

Rho’s frownlines press together, merge. ‘I’ve had the very same conversation recently.’

If anything, Chi looks grimmer still. ‘Some of my people are starting to suggest it isn’t grain we should be donating.’

Tau’s face is too weary by now to register shock. ‘Human sacrifice went out with the Era of Trade.’

‘Well, you’re the one who always says that everything cycles around again in time.’

Tau has no response to this. Gradually their form, which has been shuddering steadily for the past several minutes, settles down and they reach a decision. Not everything that’s thought needs to be spoken. ‘Let’s hear from Eta.’

The inscrutable Eta is feeling many things at once. There’s a gloomy sense that old truths are giving way and there’s nowhere to stand. That the earth is opening up and spewing out new possibilities and terrors, exciting and overwhelming in equal measure, as these sorts of seismic changes always are. But there’s also a sense of relief. It seems the others genuinely don’t suspect anything.

In a world as stiflingly small as the Great Forest has come to seem in this hyperconnected age — where secrets are bought and sold like so much meat and wool, and rumours have reached the furthest reaches of the grapevine almost before the words have left the gossips’ mouths — how is it possible every last one of the others has remained ignorant of the true economic potential unleashed by the eastern Innovations?

Of the Well?

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Wabi Sabi
The Small Dark Light

Writer, composer and filmmaker, into soul music and Chinese philosophy. Editor @ The Small Dark Light