The Archers and The Sacred Tree: A Fable
Once upon a time, a very long time ago when there were wolves in the forests and the future could be discerned through the observation of the flight of birds and the entrails of beasts, there was a little village just like any other, called Ica. Outside the village, between it and its rolling hills and the wide world—of which the people of the village spared nary a thought—stood a small wood.
Now it was reckoned by the villagers that half of the trees in this wood were mundane, Worldly Trees suitable for worldly things, for building and burning and carving and to any other use the hands and the minds of men could put them. The other trees, however—tall and dressed in a delicate, silver bark which peeled and curled from the trunk—were sacred to the goddess Stice, whose trees these were and whom all good men feared and reverenced.
Not all of the villagers were good, however, or so thought the people of that place. They whispered that some of their neighbors were jealous of the goddess and scorned her trees and wanted them felled and their beautiful bark stripped and made into ornaments and that the jealous goddess would send wolves among them in retribution. However, how many of them there were who so desired was greatly magnified and re-magnified by rumor, and thus a great many of the people looked suspiciously on those around them and imagined evil intentions in their neighbors’ hearts.
It was, moreover, believed that one who loosed an arrow from the Ritual Shooting place and struck a Worldly Tree would take some good fortune from the goddess. If they missed, however, and pierced a Sacred Tree with their arrow, they would be severely punished and would live a shamed life thereafter, harried by wolves in the night.
There was, they say, a poor farmer upon whom good fortune did not fall who on a certain evening went to the Shooting Place with a borrowed bow and a single arrow. He wished as he stood there in the breeze and fading light that he would have much preferred that the ritual might be done with a pitchfork or a plough—tools in whose use he was well studied—and not the bow. He never so much as held a bow until this day.
Nonetheless, he stood at the Shooting Place, pressed the bow, aimed as best he might at the biggest of the Worldly Trees, loosed and waited. Through the air the arrow flew but the breeze ever so gently pushed it aside and, instead of the tree at which he aimed, the arrow struck a Sacred Tree and buried itself in its flesh.
The poor farmer tried to flee, but the village Seer, who foresaw the striking of a Sacred Tree, grabbed him, and said, “Poor Farmer, why did you shoot the Sacred Tree?”
“Seer,” said the Farmer. “I did not intend to hit the Sacred Tree! I was aiming at a Worldly Tree, one suitable to become chairs and timbers.”
The Seer, like many in the village, would hear nothing of it and the poor farmer was taken to the village square and put in the stocks. A bucket was put upon his head and the folk of the village were encouraged to hit the bucket with sticks. Children were wont to throw rotten fruit and other stuffs offensive to the senses at his bottom. The old and infirm abused him, and the people wondered aloud if the wolves would get to him before he was released.
So ignominious was his act that no tale records his name, though presumably he had one.
There were in those days twin brothers so alike in nature that they could be nothing but natural enemies, and so alike in aspect that none could tell the one from the other but by the color of his tunic. Lican there was who wore a crimson tunic and Crat there was also who wore a tunic of indigo.
Great in power these brothers were, so that their followers wore tunics of like color to show their allegiance and, though they formed far less than the greater part of the people, they were among them the most vocal. Furthermore, the supporters of each brother were convinced that the other was set on profaning the goddess and her Sacred Trees. Thus, their influence was spread throughout the village like a plague of deep suspicion.
It happened that while the poor farmer was still in the stocks the Harvest Blessing Festival was at hand, when the village gathered by the Shooting Place to seek the goddess’s favor for a good harvest at planting time. It was the tradition that the Elder held in the highest esteem would loose an arrow from the Shooting Place. A Worldy Tree struck, a full and prosperous harvest was promised in the Autumn. But if the tree that held the arrow was a Sacred one, wolves and famine would obtain.
The village was divided as to which brother should fire the shot, as it was said that each of them never missed, and even the greater part of the villagers in their undyed tunics spoke of it. A Council of Elders was called, and it was determined that both should shoot at the same time, thus conferring neither greater nor lesser honor on either of the brothers.
On the appointed day, the villagers went to the Shooting Place and Lican and Crat stood to the fore of the people.
“I worry,” said Crat to Lican. “That your nature will show, and you will take this opportunity to profane a Sacred Tree with the head of your arrow and bring wolves upon us.”
At this, his supporters jeered.
“My piety is genuine,” said Lican to Crat. “It is you whose arrow troubles me.”
“I never miss,” said Crat. “I know the ways of the pull of the ground, the buffet of breeze, the closeness of the air.”
“Nor do I miss,” said Lican. “Known to me are the pressures of the sky, the whimsies of the zephyrs and the thinness of the air.”
The brothers were right in the telling of their knowledge.
Great it was, indeed, but imperfect.
A counting was decided between them and the Seer, who was with them, made the count.
Just as they loosed their arrows, there was a great clap of thunder, a howl of a wolf from the wood and a great torrent of rain began to fall upon them all. All hastened to their hearths and resolved to see where the arrows had landed in the morning.
Thus, as the sun came up, the people of the village thronged to the wood with Crat and Lican and the Seer before them. They were astounded by what they saw: Two trees, side-by-side, one Sacred and one Worldly, each with an arrow sticking out.
“I see,” said Lican loudly. “That my aim was true, and the Worldly Tree has been pierced. I see, too, that in your wickedness, Crat, you aimed at the Sacred Tree and struck it! The wolves that will shadow all our doors come at your call!”
The followers of Lican shouted and roared.
“You lie!” yelled Crat in return. “It is my arrow that stands proud from the Worldly Tree, and yours from the Sacred!”
Argue as they might they could not tell the arrows apart, even after their quivers were brought and their other arrows examined.
What did this portend? Should the harvest go well in the Autumn, to which archer aught the honor go? And should the harvest fail, to whom the ignominy?
The Seer was consulted, a man called Oberts. He would, he said, with his arts divine the will of the goddess. And so—having once been shat upon while observing the flight of birds as a youth and a delicate constitution unfit for the observation of offal—he went to fire and cauldron and performed the rites of tyromancy, that is divination by cheese-making. Only the finest milk from a certain cow could be used and the rennet from her calf likewise.
As these were brought to temperature and the curd began to form, the Seer peered into the murky whey and furrowed his brows.
“What is it?” the brothers asked. “What does it say?”
“‘Reply hazy; try again.”
And thus, through the years the brothers and their successors and their followers, believing their own aims and methods to be perfect, and their counterpart’s malevolent, have attributed to malice that which is almost always simple, human imperfection and only the villagers in undyed tunics slept well thereafter, for no wolves would creep about their doorsteps at night.