The Screaming Tree

It wasn’t that Ciaran and Ciara O’Breoghan were naughty children. No, there were many children who behaved naughtily among the families that made up the The O’Breoghan’s household. What made Ciaran and Ciara truly stand out was the fact that they enjoyed being naughty.

The scarlet-haired twins had heard, again and again, that they should behave ‘properly’. There father, their mother, their tutors and even their servants would remind them that they were The Future Of The Clan O’Breoghan. Ciaran was told how he would one day take his father’s place as chieftain of the clan. Ciara had heard how she would one day marry the son of one of the neighboring clan’s chieftain.

And both of them hated being told what they would do.

At ten years of age, both of them both of them wanted nothing to do with the boring necessities of becoming the people their parents wanted them to be Yet no matter how much they protested, no matter how they tried to avoid it, they’d been told that as the only surviving children of Ruari O’Breoghan, what they wanted was less important than what their clan needed.

So they had settled on gone out of their way to be annoying. In hopes that their bad behavior would cause their parents to reconsider, they made a game of finding new ways to try the patience of their servants. They tormented one tutor after another until they gave up. And as often as they could, they offended guests to their father’s hall.

Of all their acts, this caused their parents the most trouble. In Irish society, the guests of a chieftain were honored before everyone else in the household but the chieftain themselves. So the twins took great pleasure in offering offense to any and all people who guested in Ruari O’Breoghan’s hall.

Tonight’s guest was a traveling shanachie. Both twins loved the stories brought by shanachies, and their resolve to cause trouble wavered when they first heard such an important person would be visiting. Then they saw their father’s guest. He looked nothing like the other shanachies who’d visited. His robes were frayed and filthy, and the skin of his face hung in pale folds around the pale eyes of a blind man. He seemed to hang from the pair of attendants who supported him, not walk proudly to face their father as the other shanachies had. But when he spoke, in a high, squeaky voice, they found it hard to hold in the gale of laughter that arose in both of them.

“Ruari O’Breoghan, son of Rian O’Breoghan, who was son of Niall O’Breoghan, who’s father bore your name, I thank you for your gracious hospitality. May your house and clan know peace and plenty through all the years.”

Both children watched in stunned amazement as their father rose from his seat and embraced the filthy old man. “Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin, son of Daithi Mac Giolla Bháin, who’s fame is know across Ireland, Scotland and even among the English, I bid you welcome. It has been far too long since you have graced this hall. I was but a boy of nine when you visited last, and I hope I may show you as much honor as my father did.”

Taking the old man’s arm over his shoulder, father helped him to a seat servants brought and set beside the fire. There the two of them fell to talking of that long ago visit, a subject neither child cared to hear of. They made to leave, but their movement drew their father’s attention. “Children, come meet our guest for tonight, the greatest shanachie in Ireland, Scotland and England, Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin.”

To walk away would anger their father, and earn them banishment from the feast that was to come, so Ciaran and Ciara came forward to address the old shanachie. “We bid you welcome to this hall, Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin, greatest of all shanachies.” they chorused together.

Diarmuid cocked his head to one side, and an unpleasant smile spread across his toothless mouth. “Ah, I am welcome by you two, am I? I wonder where that welcome was when you were stiffing your laughter at my appearance not a moment ago?”

Ciaran and Ciara spared a quick glance, each seeing the other’s face go pale in response to their father’s face going crimson with embarrassment. Both of them began stammered attempts at apology, but their father’s voice growled out an apology that drown theirs out. “I apologize for my children’s ill manners, Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin. Ciaran, Ciara, apologize to Himself, now!”

They’d only heard that tone applied to those who had gotten on the bad side of their father’s temper, and never to themselves. Bowing low, they put every bit of the chagrin they felt into their apology. We are most humbly sorry for have offered offense to you, Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin.”

They kept their faces down-turned, waiting for the acceptance of their words they expected. Instead, after a long silence, they heard a single sniff before the old man began speaking to their father again of his travels. Both of them wished to leave, but knew that until the old shanachie spoke to them, they could not, in good grace, even stand straight. He kept talking, pointedly ignoring them, and both children went from fear of their father’s reaction to anger at being so treated in their own hall. Worse, father kept up his side of the conversation, ignoring them and their plight as if they were invisible.

It wasn’t until after he’d finished a long, rambling account of his visit to the hall of the King of Connachta that Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin took notice of them. And even then, all he said to them was “Oh, you children may go.” before he launched into a story about his encounter with a Milesian trader.

Together, they raised their heads, hoping to find their father ready to rebuke the old shanachie for his lack of courtesy to them. Instead, they found their father listening with rapt attention to to the old man’s tale of the joys of wine from across the wide ocean. He did not even look towards them, leaving Ciaran and Ciara with no choice but to retire.

The shame they felt, being treated in such a manner in their own hall, felt beyond bearing. But it was nothing compared to the way the servants treated them. Like all great halls, theirs was staffed with many slaves. Some were captives taken from among the English, others people taking in battle and forced to serve those who had conquered them. All of them knew to lower their eyes and act humbly around their master and his children. Now, though, every time the children walked past a servant, there was a moment, just as their gaze slide away from them, when they saw not humbleness, but triumph. Their servant’s faces were no longer studiously blank in their presence, but held the trace of a smile, as they reveled in their tormentor’s discomfort.

That humiliation, with their father’s ignorance of their plight, raised a tide of anger in both of them they fought to contain until alone. The room they shared was the only place they could truly be alone, and once the door had closed, they both began to shout.

How could father let him…”

Can you believe the way that English serving girl looked at us…”

That we could be treated so, by our own father…..”

That old man, how dare he…”

It’s beyond bearing, it is!”

It cannot go unanswered!”

In that moment, as they often did, both children were struck by the same thought. They would find some way to take their revenge, not only on Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin, but on all those who they thought had mistreated them. But how? No matter how much they debated the problem, neither of them could find a method for exacting their vengeance. They were brooding on the injustice of it all when the nameless old hag who tended them entered their room.

Your father bids me remind you to be clean and properly dressed for the feast tonight. As the other servants are busy setting the table, you should be getting ready.”

Those words sparked the same thought in both of them, a thought they held inside until they were alone again.

If we can make others laugh at that old fool…”

“….then father will have no choice but to forgive us!”

They sketched out their idea as they dressed, laughing at each new addition they came up with. Ciaran stopped in mid-laugh. “But we can’t let them know what we plan to do.”

Of course not, brother. We must be as meek as mice and as polite as can be.”

With those words, they both banished any sign of mirth from their faces and walked side by side to the feasting hall.

Outside, the rumble of thunder told them that Taranis was busy this night, but the feasting hall shone bright with candles and fires. Father and the shanachie were already seated, but enough to the family retainers had yet to arrive that Ciaran and Ciara’s arrival could not be regarded as late. They approached the two men together, bowing low before speaking.

Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin, we most humbly offer you our apology. Our ill manners brought shame to our clan, our father and this house.”Ciaran started, and Ciara finished. “We both bid you welcome to our hall and house, and hope you will enjoy our hospitality.”

They’d practiced the speech several times, and both children thought their presentation perfect. It caused their father to smile at them like they’d just recited the epic of Fionn mac Cumhaill from memory. But Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin? His blind eyes stared at them until they as transparent as the waters of Loch na Coille Bige, and he could see their lie as clear as a great brown trout swimming just beneath the surface. Then cheerful smile spread across his face. “Of course, children, and I thank you for your kind welcome. Please, don’t bother yourself over an old man’s ill humors. It’s only natural for children to desire enjoyment. So I hope you will feast and enjoy yourself this night.”

Unnerved but happy to be free, the twins took their place at the long table to await the coming feast. Their wait was short, as all the retainers had heard that tonight one of the greatest shanachies in all the Irish lands was to entertain them. That, and the rich feast such a visit would entail were enough to draw every member of the household with a claim to a spot at The O’Breoghan’s table. When the last had taken his spot, father arose to address them all.

Join me in welcoming our guest tonight, Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin.” The crowd raised their flagons in a roar of agreement, even the twins lifted their cups of cider. After a long silence as everyone drank the great shanachie’s health, the old man rose and lifted his own flagon. “I thank you all for your welcome and kindness. But now is no time for speeches by old men like me. Eat, drink, enjoy yourselves. Sláinte!”

An even louder chorus of agreement and laughter greeted this, and as the old man settled himself again, servants began to pour into the hall bearing food. The feast that followed brought food of every type, food in quantities fit to challenge even the greatest glutton. It flowed in such a delightful manner that the twins began to enjoy themselves, even to the point of forgetting their pledge of vengeance against Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin. But no feast last forever, and as the last plates were being taken away, every flagon was topped off and their father again rose to address the hall.

My clan, I ask you to join me again drinking the health of Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin, and to ask him to grace us with the telling of one of the great tales.” The shouts that greeted this call befitted the quantity of drink and food that had gone into the assembly. They were by far the loudest of the night, and with the drink on them, the adults called out their suggestions for what tale they wished to hear.

Tell us the tale Táin Bó Cúailnge!”

No, tell us of the forming of the Fianna!

Please, Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin, tell us the tale of Oidheadh chloinne Lir!”

The old man listened to the cries, quietly smiling, until The O’Breoghan raised his hand for silence. When the voices had stilled, he turned to the shanachie. “Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin, you are my guest, and it’s a poor host who demands payment for his hospitality. If you would choose to grace us with a tale, I would count it an honor beyond any I ever looked for. But I will not demand one of you, and if you decide to speak, I will not dictate to you what tale you tell.”

The old man bowed in his seat. “You honor me with your words, Ruari O’Breoghan. Truly, you and your hall know the meaning of hospitality far better than many another chieftain. But it would be a poor guest indeed who felt no need to repay such a feast as I have had this night. If you and yours will indulge me, I would tell the tale of Fionn mac Cumhaill and his many adventures.” The hall rang with approving shouts that brought a broad smile to the old shanachie’s face, but as they tapered off, his head turned towards Ciaran and Ciara. The smile became less one that of a man swept up in praise, and more like that of someone seeing a chance to do an old foe injury. “But that is a long tale, one that I will no doubt have to interrupt it to drink and ease my dry throat.” The men laughed at the joke, knowing the shanachie would drink many a flagon of beer before he finished. “And I would not expect the young ones here to stay awake through it all as courtesy would require. Ruari O’Breoghan, would it not be a wise thing to allow your children to retire for the night?”

Their father looked at them, then his guest, and the twins saw he had understood what was really being said. The old shanachie wanted them gone so they could not enjoy the telling of one of the greatest stories of all Ireland. Perhaps it was petty, but every chieftain knew how unwise it was to cross a traveling shanachie like Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin. “Perhaps you are right. Ciaran, Ciara, it is late, and you should be off to bed.”

Perhaps he expected them to be angry, and the twins were angry at how the shanachie had dismissed them out of hand. But as they rose and made their bows to their father, they also knew this would give them the perfect chance to exact their revenge on Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin. Ciaran and Ciara made their way to the door, but instead of leaving through it, they turned aside and slipped along the wall. They found a spot out of their father’s sight but visible to many of household and waited. They had to wait but a short moment. The shanachie rose from his seat to walk into the center of the hall. With a final bow to their father, he launched into the mighty tale.

Goll, son of Daire the Red, with fame,
Son of Eochaid the Fair, of valor excellent,
Son of Cairbre the Valorous with valor,
Son of Muiredach from Finnmag.

Goll slew Luchet of the hundreds
In the battle of Cnucha, it is no falsehood:
Luchet the Fair of prowess bright
Fell by the son of Morna.”

As he spoke, Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin’s arms swept about in the sort of dramatic gestures every shanachie they’d ever seen or heard loved to use. And as he gestured, the twins imitated his every movement in silence, making their movement even more exaggerated than the shanachie’s. At first, no one noticed their antics. Then one drunk warrior caught sight of them and nudged the fellow beside him. Both of them smiled as the the sad opening rolled on.

By him fell great Cumall
In the battle of Cnucha of the hosts.
It is for the chieftaincy of Erin’s fian
That they waged the stout battle.

The children of Morna were in the battle
And the Luagni of Tara,
Since to them belonged the leadership of the men of Ireland
By the side of every valorous king.

Victorious Cumall had a son,
Finn, bloody, of weapons hard:
Finn and Goll, great their fame,
Mightily they waged war.”

A third man noticed them, and where the first two could contain their mirth, this one watched them for only a moment before chuckling, then bursting into open laughter. No man laughed at such a moment without drawing the attention of those around him. Worse, it drew the attention of Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin, and he paused in mid-stanza, their. When he did, their father came around the pillar that had kept them hidden. Finding Ciaran and Ciara were the cause of the commotion, his face went scarlet. For a long moment, they watched their father’s face as he struggled to contain the anger that filled his voice when he finally spoke. “What mischief have you two been up to? I told you to go to your beds!”

This was not the result they’d hoped for. Ciaran tried to answer. “Father, we….we were just…”

“Enough!” Their father had never shouted at them like this before, nor had he ever looked this beside himself with anger when dealing with their past deeds. He scrubbed his broad hands over his face before shaking his head. “I have tolerated your actions in the past because I thought it caused by your mother not being here to help care for you. Clearly, I have been too lenient in dealing with you. No more. Tonight, now, you will take yourselves to the cottage Cillian Mag Aoidh. You will stay there, obeying his command and helping him with his farm, until I decide you have learned your lesson.”

That stopped both of them. Cillian Mag Aoidh was the oldest retainer of their clan they knew of, a man so old he’d taught their father the use of weapons. For this service, their grandfather had gifted him a cottage and some land overlooking a cove most of a day’s walk from the hall. Did their father truly expect them to make the walk at night?

But father, how can we got to…”

Ciaran had no chance to finish his question. Father cut him off, his voice filled with anger. “You’ve made the walk more than once, both of you. Ill let you take your cloaks, it’s going to be a wet walk, but enough delays. You need to learn that your actions have consequences. If that means walking to an old man’s cottage in a storm, then consider it a small price to pay for the offense you have committed against this hall and your family’s name. Go! Be getting yourselves out of my sight.”

Their father stormed off to retake his seat, leaving them in a circle of shocked, silent faces. Ciarian turned to do as he was told, but Ciara, as usually, would not leave well enough alone. “This is all your fault, you filthy old beggar! Coming into our hall, disrupting our lives, and for what? So we can hear you tell a tale in your silly voice! Who’d want to hear you say anything?”

Such a blatant insult caused even Ciaran to gasp. He grabbed his sister’s arm, intent on checking her, but his words stooped in his throat when the bard turned towards them. His eyes were no longer milky white. No, now they glowed like the center of a forge as he spoke.

And who will ever hear your voice again, disrespectful child? Lugh sees what you children do, and all the gods have heard what you say. My you both repent your words and deeds, for if you don’t, then the gods will curse you to silence from this day forward.”

Whether it was those terrible eyes, or the cold ringing voice that called so ominous a curse down upon them, the twins fled the hall as fast as their feet would carry them. Yet even as they donned their cloaks, Ciara continued to rant about what had happened. “How dare he? Try to scare us with that silly curse, will he? Like I’d be put down by the likes of him!” She was still muttering under her breath as they exited the front door and made their way through the gate. As it closed behind them, Ciaran grabbed his sister’s arm, hoping to reason with her.

Are you mad, thinking his curse hollow? Did you not see his eyes, nor hear his voice? We need to apologize to Himself, we do.”

Ciara stopped, but listen to him? She’d never listened to him, or anyone else, once her blood was up. She shook off his hand, and stared at him for a long moment. Her voice, when she spoke, was like a whip of thorns on his soul. “Is it a brother I was born with, or a sister? Was I the only one born with any courage, or any sense of what’s right? No, we need to find a way to strike back for this insult, we do. For if we don’t, we’ll never be respected as long as we live.”

Her words drove Ciaran’s reason aside, leaving his anger to take control of him. “I’m no woman, and I’ll not have anyone say otherwise, not even you! But what can we do, now, cast out of the hall?”

We might be cast out of the hall, for now, but there’s no one to say we can’t plan our revenge while we walk now, is there?”

With those words, the twins set out through the growing darkness, spinning out more and more elaborate plans for taking revenge upon the shanachie. But with every step they took, the darkness of the storm, until then just a threatening presence on the horizon, came closer. Taranis announced it’s arrival with a stupendous clap of thunder, followed by a roaring wind filled with rain and hail. Their cloaks did little to protect them from the assault, so Ciaran grabbed his sister’s hand and together they ran through the deluge seeking shelter. But no cottage, not even a herdsman’s lowly shelter, did they find. Again and again, Taranis’ mighty hammer struck the heavens, sending lightening down to smote the ground, and thunder to stun their ears.

Hope of shelter began to fail the twins when a huge dark shape loomed out of the rain. Changing course, they found it to be a ruined oak tree, its branches bare even though Litha was but two months passed. Ciara raised her cloak enough to tilt her head back before rounding on Ciaran. “Well, brother, this is a fine discovery you’ve made! Are you next going to lead us to a stream, so we can stay dry by drowning in it now?”

It’s sure you’ve a tongue in your head, but no brains to go with it. At least if we can go to the downwind side, we’ll have a bit of shelter to stand in while we get our bearings. Or do you enjoy being pelted by hailstones?”

That silenced his sister, but the thing that amazed them both was the broad, dark crack they found in the mighty tree’s trunk. Ciaran reached into it, up to his shoulder, and found nothing. “I think there’s space in here for one of us, maybe both. Would you like to try getting in, or would you rather I go first?” Ciara had a deathly fear of small spaces, something her brother knew well. “No, you can go first.”

Ciaran found the crack wider at the bottom than the top, but even there, it was more like he was forcing his body through the solid wood than into an open crack. Slipping his cloak off allowed him to finally get himself into the space behind the opening. It was profoundly dark inside, but it was also dry. Better, when he sat down and stretched his legs out, his feet barely touched the opposite side of the hollow. “Come in, sister, it’s dry and there’s plenty of room for both of us.”

Ciara heard her brother’s shout, but the thought of squeezing through the narrow opening filled her with a fear she couldn’t easily overcome. Another stroke of Taranis’ hammer, this one sending a lightening bolt down on a hilltop in front of her, overcame her fear. Unlike Ciaran, she could squeeze through the crack without shedding her cloak. Her brother helped her settle in next to him, and rather than get his own cloak, they wrapped themselves in Ciara’s. Ciaran could feel his sister shivering, and knew it had little to do with the chill from their wet clothing. “I ask you, is this not better than being out in rain?”

It is, but my heart still quivers with fear at the thought of being here. Does it not bother you, brother, to be in this small space?”

Ciaran opened his mouth, ready to deny he felt fear at all, but some deep part of him feared this place. When he answered as levelly as he could. “It does bother me, but I can set aside my fear if it means I’m not battered by hailstones while being soaked to my skin by rain.”

Ciaran should have listened to his fear. The words had just left his mouth when the crack they’d entered through closed without a sound. The noise of the storm gone, they could hear the great tree creaking, sounding so like a high, squeaky voice laughing at them. For a moment, they were stunned into silence. Then, as one person, they flung themselves at the wood, beating it with their fists, scratching at it with their fingernails. And as they tried to force the crack open, both of them screamed and screamed for help.

#

Ruari O’Breoghan’s head felt fit to burst as he untangled himself from the young Scottish serving girl he’d bedded and threw aside the bed covers. “Am I too old to be at the drink?” It was a question that made him want to prove his vigor. After a quick piss, he crawled back into bed for a morning’s roll with the fine young wench still asleep there. She was quite happy to oblige him, and after a long, breathless ride, she took his seed with joy.

Ruari lay for a while, happy to be resting, as his bed partner dressed and left. Then he rose, dressed himself, and made for the kitchen to find something to eat. There was a fine level of chatter going on, but every voice fell silent when he entered the room. That sudden silence told him something had happened, but he knew asking what would get nothing but silent evasion. “Cook, a bowl of porridge and mug of warm cider. Bring both to the small hall.”

The small hall was the oldest part of the complex that house the O’Breoghan’s. Supposedly it had been build by Ruari’s great-grandfather, but whomever built it, it was a dry, warm space on even a raw wet day like this. Cook brought Ruari’s breakfast himself, along with a spare mug of cider for himself. The two men had grown up together, Caolan being the son of a buanadha Ruari’s father had hired to train his warriors. Alone, they fell back into the informality they’d enjoyed as boys. “So, are you free to tell me what is it that the grand lord’s not supposed to know?”

Caolan took a long draw of his cider before answering. “Well, if you’ll be listening to the rumors flying through the hall, there’s many. The biggest is that when the servants went to ask what Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin might be wanting for breakfast, not only was his room empty, but the bed hadn’t been slept in. More interesting is the fact that the guards who were at the gate insist they never saw him leave.”

Ruari nearly choked on his mouthful of porridge. “You’re serious now?

I am.”

Well then, who was that telling us tales last night? Never mind. As my Da said, some things, it’s better to not know.”
“Aye, that true. But what of the twins? Will you be calling them back?”

No matter who our guest was, spirit or flesh, their behavior was beyond bearing. No. Staying with old Cillian for a day or two will do them no harm. In any event, I wouldn’t ask anyone to make the walk on a day like today. Besides, with them out of the hall, I’ll be able to have my breakfast without being disturbed.”

Ruari was good to his word, and it wasn’t until the the Sun rose next morning in a clear sky that he sent a servant off to Cillian Mag Aoidh’s cottage. He was brooding over his children’s manners when the whey-faced servant returned to report that the children had never arrived at Cillian’s.

What do you mean, they never arrived? Think, man! Did you see any sign of them? Any tracks?”

And how could I find any sort of sign or track after the storm we had? The only thing that could have left a mark that survived such a rain would be a herd of cattle, and two children aren’t a herd of cattle, no matter how ill-mannered.”

It was true, and Ruari knew it. Still, where could they have gotten to? “They need to be found. Have every servant, every warrior, follow the track to Cillian Mag Aoidh’s. There’s no cliffs along the path, and I can’t see them just walking into the ocean, so look for any place they might have taken shelter.” When no one moved, he rose to bellow at them “Go, blast you all! Or do I have to lead you in a simple search for two missing children?”

For the rest of that day, and all of the next, every member of the O’Breoghan clan, and every household servant, scoured the countryside. But not one sign did they find of the missing twins. On the third day, a cattleherder’s son came to the gate. The boy carried two things: a child’s cloak like the one Ciaran had worn, and a tale of as terror so profound he could not at first tell it. Several flagons of beer loosened his tongue enough to relate how he’d gone to gather missing cattle, only to find the cloak lying beside an ancient oak tree. It had been dead as long he had been alive, but none of the local people would cut it down because it was held to be sacred. But when the boy found the cloak, the tree had been covered in fresh green leaves, like it was a young sapling. It also had something else new: a pair of burls the boy had never seen before. Two burls like a pair of faces screaming from the side of the tree.

Ruari O’Breoghan followed the cattleherder’s son to the tree. It was well away from the path his children should have been following, but on reflection, he realized that on a stormy night, it might have drawn the twin’s attention. He had never visited it before, but one look at the pair of burls protruding from its side told him all he needed to know. Even with their mouths locked forever in mid-scream, and the faces twisted in terror, he knew the faces of his children.

#

No one ever bothered what became known as the Tree of Screams. Even a thousand years later, when black Cromwell’s men made a sport of desecrating Irish holy sites, none of them would approach the towering oak. When it fell in a cyclone, the people who lived nearby hoped the dark curse that had brought it to be was dispelled. Then a sapling sprang from it’s roots, and no one was surprised to find, on it’s side, the same screaming faces.

scream