Y'Bent City of Thieves
Black Cherry Ent.
“But we’re not trying to conquer anything,” Hashkemolshen said, probably for the twelfth time since they’d started preparing for this presentation. “I don’t see why they won’t listen, we just have to stick to the research angle.”Her teacher didn’t look down at her, just kept walking down the steep caldera side. “You have never tried to gain the permission of all the groves before. Repetition and patience.”
“But they might listen. We have a good argument!” She had to take two strides for every one of his, hurrying down the steep, pumice slope toward the water, but her teacher walked with things on his mind, so it was easy to keep up. “Why would our grove agree and the other groves not?”
She knew why, in theory, because they idea of any Ent leaving their territory would scare them. Too many bad feelings over the old civil war. That she could believe. What she couldn’t believe was that her teacher really thought they had no chance of success. They’d convinced their own grove, the Grove of Tuishcham, after all, and many of those old Ents had been alive for the civil war, too.
But her teacher wasn’t interested in having this argument again, apparently. “Don’t get hasty about it, Shen. You might still be growing, and want to reach up and grab the sun, but they won’t listen to us if you imply they’re cowards for having been burned.”
If he didn’t want her to be hasty, why use her short name? Probably because he wasn’t used to her having a longer name, but that was no excuse! She sighed, reminding herself she did, in fact, respect his brilliance, or she wouldn’t have been caught up in his research at all. Best not to say anything and pretend she had patience. “Yes, hashiuga. I didn’t in our grove, did I?”
“No,” he said, “but they were all colleagues.”
She expected another lecture was coming, but instead he fell silent. Probably best not to test his patience again.
They reached the caldera bottom, wading into the lake. She’d been to their grove of groves before, though it had met on Salmon Mountain last time, but she’d been young then – actually young, not what her teacher called young – and had spent most of the time chasing shadows and getting into squabbles with the other entings. She’d never been to the grove of groves as any kind of participant, and while that should have made her nervous, all she could think about was that their argument made sense. How could they say no?
She and her teacher were the only ones crossing the lake to the iron island at the middle. It was black and orange with young rock, and only a handful of pine trees growing there. All the rest of the leaders must have been there already, but instead of thinking of how significant their meeting was, with all the oldest and most powerful Ents of all the groves, she wondered if they brewed here on the island. She’d never brewed with (or in) pumice or obsidian or anything this young before. The surrounding areas had plenty of whitebark pine, but little else in the way of rich soil. It was all nitrogen poor and young. So if they did brew here, they must have been hauling some soils or composts from far away.
Then again, even with the grove of groves meeting here, there were few Ents in the surrounding forests. So maybe they didn’t need to brew much. Though now she thought of it, she wondered why the grove of groves was meeting here this year. Usually they met somewhere that a lot of others could gather. The volcano was becoming active again, and they were discussing it, maybe?
The lake deepened, reaching to her arms, then nearly her face, though it was still clear enough the darker, newer rock showed ahead of her on the lake bottom. At the deepest, the water reached over her topmost leaves, and she had to swim, though it only reached up to her teacher’s shoulders. The bright wolf lichen on his bark looked even greener when wet.
A few small islands stuck out of the water as it shallowed, and as they reached the shore she spotted a non-pine tree – a centuries old oak, that had no business (nor any local lichen) in the caldera. She looked for eyes, but even though she couldn’t spot any, it had to be an Ent.
Nervousness finally hit her, making her leaves shiver, but the wind disguised it.
The oak on the shoreline turned now, slowly, finally showing where her legs bent, and opening her eyes.
Shen’s teacher gave a long, low sound of greeting and stopped inches short of dry rock. “We have been called to attend the grove of groves.”
Shen hurried up to stand next to him, finally realizing she really was going to end up in audience with the Ents who would decide their futures. Why had she been so confident! She was practically still an enting.
“Sun welcome,” the oak Ent said, after Shen’s teacher introduced them. “We’ll wait at the fumaroles. You’re the only petitioners today.”
Which explained why they were the only ones crossing the lake. Shen looked up at her teacher, but he merely followed the oak Ent. Was it a bad sign they were the only petitioners? Were they trying to keep their request quiet? They’d framed it as a research request, not a request to leave the Ent forests. They couldn’t be worried about rumors, right?
“Wait here,” the oak Ent said, reaching a small round cove, then turned to stride up the mostly black rocks toward the island summit.
They didn’t have to wait long. Shen had only just begun examining the edge of the now-inactive and rather disappointing fumarole (since her teacher wouldn’t talk, not even about brewing with pumice), when the oak Ent returned to summon them.
The climb was harder than Shen expected. The small black and orange pumice stones, and even the large ones, kept crumbling in her feet’s grip, but they didn’t have the decency to compact like sand would. Luckily, the grove of groves met at the top of the tree line, rather than the island summit.
Whitebark pines grew in a windswept arc, making a nearly perfect circle around a flattened part of the conical island. No streams came down the side, but water pooled in a deep, root-formed basin. Whether the Ents had brought the water up, or it had fallen there on its own, was impossible to tell.
Around the pool swayed twelve Ents. The grove of groves. The peach-tree Ent that lead their own grove, the Tuishcham grove, was there, along with eleven others. Ash, oak, hickory, fir, hazel, pine, even a redwood that Shen had never seen before. All twelve grove leaders stood higher than the whitebarks around them (especially the redwood), but somehow they didn’t seem to dwarf it, but make it bigger.
“You wish to leave our forests,” one of them said without preamble. It wasn’t an accusation, but it wasn’t a question either. Shen picked her out as the pine.
So much for starting from the research angle. They already knew.
Shen’s teacher creaked as he lifted his hands, then lowered then in an appeal to be heard. “Wisest. We are not conquerors, but brewers. For rings upon rings, my grove has studied the sacred art, increasing not only our own skill but the knowledge of all our groves. We-”
“And so you’d leave the confines of our lands?” the redwood asked. She stood tallest, but also the heaviest scarred, with long jagged marks on her bark, which had grown wider with her. “For a fancy? After so many of us have died, burned, rotted to restore our forests and protect our borders, you’d risk all of that by leaving?”
After all that advice not to be hasty, and the grove of groves was being the hastiest? Shen swallowed a retort.
“We fought – we’ve all fought,” the pine said, “to keep our forests safe, not to tempt the axes and fires of the outside world, and to keep our own folly from doing the same. What knowledge is worth that? Our brewing is sufficient.”
Shen’s teacher seemed in no hurry to answer, though their peach grove-leader was. “This isn’t a lark or fancy. At least let them plead their case.”
The pine creaked louder than her teacher had, shoving her arms up in irritation. The redwood watched them with the same cool hard stare as all the other grove leaders.
“Wisest,” Shen’s teacher said, “no one disagrees our brewing is sufficient. We feed our own, we keep the rivers flowing. No root, leaf, or enting lacks. Nor have we forgotten. I, too, fought in the wars, and would sooner toss myself into the open cracks of magma above the Klamath than endanger our forests.”
Shen had a passing wonder if he’d ever seen the cracks that opened to the underworld, but instead of listening to his speech, she watched the grove-leaders. Redwood and pine both seemed dead set against the idea, but the others… who could tell? The older Ents got the more difficulty she had in reading them, though they seemed quiet enough, and kept swaying with the others in the wind.
“But why do we drink? Why move about, why do we not stay still?” her teacher asked. “We could. We could hide from the peoples of blood, who might put fire to our forests again. We could remain still, dig deep with our roots, never herd, never brew. We would live, wouldn’t we?”
What about entings like her? This hadn’t been part of the planned presentation, and Shen looked up at her teacher. Maybe she wasn’t an enting anymore, but she was much closer to it than they were. If they all stood still, she’d never have learned… well, anything. A vague sort of outrage started to climb her trunk, starting somewhere low in her root-toes.
“Sufficient. Yes I suppose we are sufficient. I do not come here today to speak of conquering, as once we did before the wars. I don’t wish for an expansion of our physical borders, but an expansion of our mental ones. I don’t think we are sufficient. We have reached the limits of what research can do. When it comes to brewing and much else, our streams of knowledge have pooled and grown stangnant. Other peoples, the peoples of blood even, have streams of knowledge, and I only want to go drink from them. Not to conquer them and plant our own trees around them.”
Before she could help herself, Shen said, “And who wants to drink stagnant water?”
Her teacher went rigid and looked at her sidelong.
Embarrassed, but not exactly apologetic, she lowered her voice. “Well I don’t.”
A shiver went around the grove of groves, giving the exact same noise on leaves that wind on still trees, only they hadn’t been still.
“Who did you bring with you?” one of the grove leaders asked.
“An apprentice,” her teacher said. “Ignore her, she’s barely out of the hastiness of youth.”
“It’s a high ideal,” the redwood said, apparently ignoring Shen’s interruption, “but it’s a great risk. To us all. Only the life we pour into our herds of trees keeps out the peoples of blood.”
“Why do you think we’d learn anything about brewing outside?” another asked, the fir. “The people of blood are too different from us to brew the same way.”
That lead into a lengthy discussion about their research, as well as the limited knowledge they had of the world outside. This was what Shen had been brought along for, since she had done a great deal of the laborious sorting and reading of old record-stones, as well as tracking down stories from still-living Ents who had seen outsiders.
“If nothing else,” she said in conclusion, “there will be other plants and trees we’ve never run across. Some that can’t grow here, we already discovered some of that during the last regrowths. Even if we avoided all peoples of blood we’d still learn more than enough to make it worth the trip.”
She’d concluded their presentation to their grove leader as well, but the conviction and outrage that had started in her roots had worked its way into her trunk and head.
The grove leaders all seemed more still now, swaying less, though still swaying together.
“How would you avoid peoples of blood?” the pine asked, sounding amused. “What if you travel where cherry trees don’t grow, eh?”
Being treated like a child did nothing to lessen the conviction she felt. “I’d tell them not to pick my leaves, and ask them what they like to drink.”
A ripple of laughter went around the circle.
“We’ll consider now,” the hazel said, who hadn’t spoken or asked a single question the entire time.
Shen’s teacher lifted and lowered his arms again.
The grove of groves began to sway together, more pronounced than before, and began a chant. It wasn’t one Shen recognized, but since they weren’t dismissed, and had to wait, she occupied herself by trying to memorize it. It didn’t work, and she despaired briefly of her own troubles swaying and meditating. She’d just never been able to get the right frame of mind.
But as the chanting grew louder, she found herself less impatient, and almost mesmerized. The pool they stood around began to darken, first the deep, bright blue of the lake in the crater, then an even darker blue, with a bright light down at the bottom. The whitebark pines that made the grove hall swayed now with them, and she could have sworn the wind had changed direction.
It was hours before they stopped, but for the first time when being asked to wait on older and wiser ents like this, she didn’t feel the passage of time at all. It then struck her, watching their scarred, tall, sometimes mossy limbs, that they had fought in the civil wars. She’d known it, even known her teacher had, but until this moment, it had never seemed so real. They’d fought. Fought each other, fought their elders, sometimes their friends. Their teachers had probably all died then. Most of them had taken their positions after their predecessors had died in those wars.
They weren’t going to say yes. And for the moment, for the first time, she couldn’t actually blame them.
The last of the light faded from the pool, their chanting died, and the hazel spoke. “We agree to your request, brewmaster.”
Shen stared. She’d heard wrong. Her ears weren’t working. No one had thought they’d get a yes except her, and she’d only just now realized why.
“We’ll send a brewer to learn, explore, and bring back knowledge,” the hazel continued, “but not you. We can’t afford to lose your grove’s oldest brewmaster. But you may send your student.”
Portrait credit, https://www.flickr.com/photos/gemstone/