Fiction Excerpt: “The Mourning Trees”
By Peadar Ó Guilín
Illustrated by Chuck Lukacs
from Black Gate 5, copyright © 2003 by New Epoch Press. All rights Reserved.
Moya’s husband pulled the leather strap out from its hiding place in the thatch above the door.
“Lazy,” he whispered, turning to face her, feet scuffing the dirt floor.
Moya clenched her teeth. He always beat her worse when she fought him. She raised her little fists.
“Lazy,” he said again, but got no further, for that was when they heard the screaming.
As one, they pushed through the wattle door into autumn sunshine. Women poured out of houses where they had been weaving, to surround the bawling child.
“What happened?” asked the Headwife. “Where are the other children?”
“A tree!” wailed the child. “Flowers…”
Moya didn’t understand, but many of the others visibly paled. She felt a cold lump settle in her belly.
Owen, whose birth had almost shattered her thin frame, beautiful Owen, had gone with the other children.
The bawling girl led the villagers toward the spot where the children had been sent to stack turf. Men ran in from the fields to join them with worried questions. A little way onto the bog they heard distant cries. Moya broke into a run along with the rest.
“Please, gods,” she begged, “please let Owen be all right.” The gods had never listened to her before. “Please, oh gods, please, please!”
A strong smell of honey filled the air of the bog, and a tree rose above the last hill which separated the villagers from the screams of their children.
Moya, at the back of the group, heard Kwiveen the Headman’s voice raised above the screams, “Back, sink you! Stay back you all, or I’ll brain you myself!”
On the far side of the hill piercing screams assailed Moya’s ears, and honey smell clogged her nose. The tree dominated all else; tall, graceful, with red tear-shaped blossoms hanging toward the ground. A group of children huddled together around the lowest flowers, clutching them and writhing. Other children, also in obvious pain held onto their fellows in a chain of suffering.
Owen was last in line, farthest from the tree. He held his friend Enya by the sleeve, and they screamed, their voices becoming hoarse.
Moya ran to pull her son away, but a blow from Kwiveen’s staff knocked her to the ground.
“I told ye!” yelled Kwiveen, his voice shaking. “I warned ye. We can’t help them now. Any as touches them, joins them. Nothing we can do. This here’s a Mourning Tree!”
A great wail rose among the parents.
Moya tried to scramble toward Owen again, but her husband caught her in his arms and head-butted her savagely. He threw her over his shoulders and carried her off toward the village.
“What about Owen?” she asked — or maybe just thought she asked. A fog seemed to fall over her eyes.
A Mourning Tree. She remembered the story now, about the last days of the war between the great University of Rosaveel and the jealous Hospitallers of Kinvarra. A sob escaped as she realized that if they couldn’t find a way to save her son his suffering had barely begun.
Her husband forgot to beat her when they got home. He tied her up as he used to do when he had first bought her. He had stopped that after Owen was born.
This night he’d been sloppy with his knots, and as he tossed in his sleep she slipped easily out of the old rope binding her wrists. She gathered barley loaves in a cloth and stepped outside.
In the moonlight she came face to face with the Headwife, who was leaving her own hut. The Headwife had openly hated Moya in the past, but now, as she looked down at the wrapped bread, she spoke only as one mother to another.
“They cannot take food on a Mourning Tree, or so the tale says.”
“Then why have you come?” asked Moya.
“I will not let my Niamh die without my arms around her.”
“Then you will die too.”
“Yes,” said the Headwife. “Are you coming?”
“I’m going to live,” said Moya, “and Owen is going to live with me. I have heard there is a great reservoir of magic in the city. They store it under the University in a ball of yellow glass. Somebody there will know how to save my boy!”
The Headwife sneered. “Run away then, little slave. The Magicians couldn’t save their own people when the Trees came to them during the war. You think on that as you run after your ball of glass. Your son will die in agony and you far from him.”
The Headwife turned her back and strode off into the night.
Resolve shaken, Moya almost went with her. But then she turned the other way, toward the coast and the city of Rosaveel. The Headwife’s words ran around and around in her skull along with the image of poor Owen, last in a line of screaming children.
He would live longest of them all. From the stories she remembered, the tree would enfold the closest children in its branches and slowly digest them while their screaming friends would be drawn nearer to the center.
She would only have a few days in which to save her son.
The next day, Moya saw the sea for the first time since she’d been stolen from her parents. Wind tossed the waves as it flung her black hair about, and scented the air with salt and kelp. To the East she spied sails. Pirates! she thought, frightened, remembering the night she’d been stolen. But the ships ignored her and ploughed onward toward the dot on the horizon that could only be Rosaveel.
It grew in size and magnificence as she approached. Copper domes glittered in the thin sunshine and deep red sails fluttered in the breeze like so many moths about a candle. The track she walked upon became a crowded road.
Surely, thought Moya, there will be power enough here to save my boy.
A wall surrounded parts of the city. Houses had sprung up outside it in astonishing numbers, but they could not hide all the cracks and burns the walls had suffered during the war with the Hospital Keepers of Kinvarra.
A river of people dragged Moya through the same gates where Mourning Trees were said to have first appeared at the end of the war.
She had never seen so many of her fellow human beings together at one time in her entire eighteen years. The crush tightened about her as it began to rain.
“Where’s the University?” she asked a woman next to her in the crowd. The woman failed to reply and Moya thought she might simply be deaf until the next three or four people ignored her too.
Finally, in anger, she grabbed a boy who was hurrying past with a basket of cabbages. “Where’s the University?” she shouted full in his face.
“Two thousand steps East,” he said, “but don’t think they’ll let the likes of you in!”
“Why?” she demanded, but the boy had already wriggled himself clear and had run off.
Moya wandered through the city, past new temples, past the thousands of peasants and craftsmen constructing and expanding mansions while tearing down the shacks in their way. Incense floated through the air.
The University, when finally she saw it, dwarfed all these other constructions. From a base of no more than a hundred paces, it rose gracefully into the sky, widening the further it got from the ground, windows of red glass bright against the rain.
A wall surrounded it at the base, and from everywhere young men in blue robes jostled each other under the downpour, rushing for the safety of large houses where music spilled through open doorways and painted women beckoned.
Burly men guarded the ornate metal entrance to the University. They threw her into the street when she tried to saunter past them. She landed in a freezing puddle.
“Please,” she said, “I need to speak to a magician.” She explained about Owen in great detail, but none noticed her or the dozen other supplicants unless they tried to get past.
“I’ve been here a week,” said a woman to Moya. “My food is gone.”
She coughed into a patch of cloth already stiff with blood. Moya shared her last loaf with her although she was sure the woman wouldn’t last another week. Nor would Owen before the Tree killed him.
An hour passed, then two. The rain stopped, but Moya and the other supplicants shivered in the breeze that sprang up to replace it. Most of the others were ill, or missing limbs. So much suffering! But she couldn’t help herself, let alone them.
Then, with no warning, the guards ran forward and pushed everybody back. A carriage emerged, pulled by five white ponies.
Now! thought Moya. She ducked between a pair of guards and shoved herself into the path of the ponies, waving her arms and shouting so that the animals reared in fright and tried to back away.
Something pricked Moya in the back.
“Wait!” called a voice from within the carriage, “don’t kill her!” The sharp point pulled away from between her shoulder blades.
Her body broke out in sweat despite the wind.
“Approach,” said the voice. A thin face poked out from behind curtains in the carriage window.
“Are you a magician?” she asked.
“A straight-forward woman,” he said. “I am the Gardener.”
The coughing woman behind Moya gasped.
“You haven’t heard of me?” said the Gardener. He sounded disappointed. “You came looking for a magician and you have found the best. So, speak my pretty, speak!”
“Can you save my son?”
“If he lives, and — ” He looked Moya up and down. “And if it pleases me.”
“He lives, sir. He’s caught on a Mourning Tree.”
“Ah!” He frowned, but then his face lit up again. “Come back with me to my house, pretty one. I swear to you, an hour in my arms and you will forget you ever bore him! It is the least I can do to console you for your loss!”
Moya bit down hard on her lip to stop herself from flying at him in rage. “Please save my son, great one, Gardener, sir.”
The head pulled back into the carriage. “Move on,” she heard him call. “She’ll think better of my offer when her wretch is dead.”
The guards threw Moya aside and the ponies resumed their journey.
An hour after her refusal by the greatest magician in the world, Moya found herself wandering through the city market in a desperate search for hope.
“Impossible tricks!” shouted one man above the noise of fishmongers to either side, “Impossible tricks for your coppers!” He wore blue robes but they were faded and torn. Moya wondered why he didn’t perform a few of those tricks on himself. She moved on.
“Excuse me, Miss? Excuse me?”
She jumped at the hand that touched her shoulder. It was a huge, hulking man in student’s robes. He was hunched over, as if ashamed of his height. Balanced on his nose was a pair of the new seeing lenses that aided those of weak sight. In spite of his size she thought he could be no older than her own eighteen years of age.
“I thought, Miss, we might have a bowl of stew at — ”
Moya punched him on the nose. Doing her husband’s farm work had made her strong in spite of a slight frame. She turned away from her victim and moved deeper into the din of the market.
“Miracles!” screamed a fat woman, “Miracles! Silver buys you a night with the one you love! Gold to make them your slave! Miracles!”
“My son is stuck on a Mourning Tree,” said Moya when she caught the woman’s eye.
“Have you silver?”
Moya nodded, not trusting her tongue with the lie.
“I can sell you a potion to get you with child again,” said the woman. “Even if your husband gets hisself as drunk as the god o’ screams!”
“I don’t want another child,” said Moya. “My son is still on the Tree — ”
“Miracles!” shouted the woman. “Miracles!” She ignored Moya’s further attempts to speak to her.
The hulking student she’d hit earlier stood beside her again. His nose was bleeding, and someone must have stood on one of the lenses before he could pick them up.
“My name is Owen, Miss.”
She had raised her hand to strike him again, but the sound of her son’s name stopped her from completing the motion. Big Owen kept talking, blood drying on his lips and on one sleeve of a dirty blue robe.
“I didn’t mean anything improper, Miss. I frighten people sometimes with my bigness, I know I do. I’m sorry.”
She was crying now. He seemed to think it was his fault, unaware of the coincidence of names.
“Please, Miss. I need to talk to you. That’s all. If you could… In a tavern, even. You’d be safe in a tavern, wouldn’t you? We could sit right out where people could see us and you could talk to me, right?”
Moya allowed big Owen to lead her across the square to a public house crowded with students and women. The pot slave brought mugs of beer, barley loaves and baked trout. Moya could think only of her son and the Tree that might even now be ending his life.
No, she thought, I still have a few days.