The thanes of Dun Daigh charged the enemy host.
Fair-haired Ciarin, son of the Red King, bounded into the center of the enemy horde. Hacking and chopping with every step, he carved a bloody swath through the wall of iron and muscle, warrior after warrior brought down by his spear.
His men followed. They screamed that the gods of Faerie would smile on them. The stink of death spilled out across the green fields of Erin.
The odor crawled over green dales, and through old forests. Every blow, every rotten scream of misery spawned an ill wind. It fouled the air with a cruel stench. Birds choked, chased from the sky. Woodland creatures fled.
But there was one for whom the odor was not vile, and it was she who arose from the mist, called by the gale she was ever-seeking.
It roused her from slumber, filled her with delicious wailing. Every whimper gave her strength. Every lovely hint of anguish. She savored the carnage.
The Banshee screamed.
/// //// ///
The feast of carnage spread out in such savage glory that the ghostly maiden fell still at first sight of it.
Perched among the sharp cliffs, girded with dawn-fog, the death Faerie held her voice at bay. She watched the killing field in gleeful awe. She felt the stench thicken, rising about her in a shroud of screams.
It softened her stare.
Deep amidst the swirl of iron and entrails, Ciarin drew her gaze. She knew him. He had first hefted a blade while still a teen, and in the twenty years since he had written his reputation in blood across the fields of Erin.
It was a body of work the death maiden admired.
Brutality. Cruelty. The relish he took from ending life etched a mark of respect through the faerie’s empty soul. This was not the first time she had paused to marvel at his butchery.
The habit had not gone unnoticed.
Beyond the veil of mist, behind the reflections of the world of men, Lugh Samildanach saw her pause. The silence echoed in the great god’s ears. There was no scream. No killer howl. The lord of Tuatha De Dannan was not pleased by the interest his ghost-lady had taken in the affairs of men.
On that morning, as the strife stained black the green of spring, Lugh brought his interminable gaze from the realms of faerie. Across the valley Othma he looked long and hard, seeing through the smoke of crumpled chariots and the eddies of dying groans.
He drank in the clamor of Ciarin’s rage and the stirring scent of dead men rotting in the mud.
A frown twisted his red beard.
"There sits my Banshee. She wilts after the doings of Ciarin while the Gates of Death stand closed. A dove upon the clouds."
Brigit, the ancient queen of faerie, listened to him ponder. She was not as dismayed. She drifted toward him through the magical shadows, sparkling with phantom shards of light.
"What trouble is that?" she asked. "Why shouldn’t the spirit of death be moved by such ferocity?"
"She has no heart," Lugh answered. “No feelings.”
Brigit sighed. A sea of clouds danced around her like fair maidens. She did not reply.
Another voice sounded through the dolmens. It was the Leanan, soul of muses.
"Mortals love those who speak to their desires and their minds, as do we. Cannot a Faerie then, even one so baneful as the Banshee, come to such affection?" the Leanan asked.
Lugh did not consider her words.
"The Banshee has but one purpose. That is all she has ever done, and all that I intend for her," he said.
/// //// ///
So it was that the Leanan was bade travel to the fields of Ulster, as messenger of the Gods of Faerie.
She came upon the death maiden at the approach of noon, seated still where Lugh had seen her, enthroned among the low clouds.
So smitten was she that the Banshee failed to note the Leanan’s approach as she came upon a torrent of leaves and straw grass. Before the spirit spoke, she gazed for a space upon the ghost-queen, her name a bane to both Faerie and Gael alike. The glare of her red eyes followed the blood-trailing figure of Ciarin.
Lugh had not been mistaken.
"Banshee! I come at the behest Lugh Samildanach. He demands that you issue your call. Many men have fallen this day, yet your scream has sounded but once."
The Banshee shifted her gaze from the struggle. The Leanan shuddered. Her stare was ghastly. Echoes of horror danced in her eyes.
"I serve Lugh. Never have I failed him," the death-faerie said.
Her voice slithered in vile fragments of sound. It echoed within itself a thousand dreadful times, as though spoken in a cavern.
"After age upon age, ere these times since the days of the lost Fomori, what complaint could he have?"
The Leanan looked away. She faded in and out of sight with each gust of the sea-wind. "I speak only the words I have been given. Lugh commands you to carry out your calling."
She now wished nothing more than to flee the hideous gaze.
"I shall do my work," the Banshee said, shifting her
translucent form. "In my own time. Tell Lugh Samildanach. And be gone from here.”
The Leanan grimaced. The ghost-faerie pointed her away.
“Now leave me," she hissed.
/// //// ///
Thus upon the wind did the Leanan return to the misty mounds of wandering spirits. She feared the words she carried, knowing the anger they would rouse in the Lord of Faerie.
"In her own time!" he thundered. "She dictates her duty to me?"
Brigit slipped through the shadows, summoned by the rage of the Ever-Seeing.
"Take some pause, Lugh. Never before has the Banshee refused you. Perhaps she deserves deference. Would you not allow any of us as much? For the sake of love?" she said.
"Love?” he replied. “We speak of the Banshee. She exists only to herald the descent of the dead. That is her only use, and she is perfect in that creation!"
Brigit passed through the mist trails in Lugh’s wake. Her aspect splintered into a dozen reflections. She came together as she answered.
"Perhaps too perfect, so enamored of death that she has come to love the man who so often brings it to his foes," she said.
"Fine,” Lugh replied. “If the Banshee so loves death, then let her herald his own."
Lugh’s decree sounded up from the darkness. It made the megaliths tremble. The Burren wept. As the Banshee watched Ciarin, raising his blade upon a foe, he was struck down. A bronze club smashed his skull.
He collapsed, his crown shattered. Gray matter mixed with mud and pointed flecks of bone.
Finally, the scream came.
The phantasm streaked down from the clouds. While her voice commanded death upon mortals, she held no power to restore life. Now her calling was stronger, for her next announcement would mark the death of the man she most admired.
She did not have tears. The death-faerie nurtured no such human traits. Yet as she raised up the ruined corpse of Ciarin, shepherding his spirit out of the broken flesh, a cold fire seethed inside her. The eyes of the warlord stared even in death. He met the Banshee’s vacant gaze as few men ever had.
"Ciarin the slayer, long have I admired your spear and your blood lust. I will not lose you.
"Lugh! I refuse your task. I shall not herald the march of the fallen, lest you restore Ciarin to his beautiful form!"
Her cry shrieked across the green isles. It chilled the blood of thanes and sliced a path to the gods. But it shepherded no spirit up from the plain.
The clouds shivered, shrinking from the death scream. The seas raged. Waves battered the cliffs. Lugh heard the tortured lament of his domain, squeals of deer and shrieks of birds.
"Let her scream!” he said. “She serves my wishes. She will suffer my wrath.”
The words of Faerie were not spoken lightly. The tone of Lugh’s angry boast rolled down from the mist and the hidden reaches. It brought his spite to the fields of men in hammer-strokes.
Misery descended. Crops failed overnight, fields withered to dust in the hours of darkness. Grain stores rotted in their sheds just as quickly. The double shadow spread across the land, plague and famine invaded every village and hut.
They ignited a flame of anguish, fanned by the wails of the starving and the cries of suffering children. The thanes of Daigh Tuatha, men of the clans of Ciarin, already saddened by the falling of their leader succumbed with ease.
In the shrouded mounds of the hidden hills, Lugh Samildanach watched the grieving, the wilting of the fields and the dying of the forests. The isles faltered under his wrath, days long and dark as none could recall. Yet among all the long times of grief, as spring wore to summer and then summer into fall, there grew up a sign more ominous than all the
The Druid priests were at first loathe to dwell upon it, though as the affliction grew worse it soon demanded redress. For all the despair, and in all the cold months of dread, there had not been a single death across the lands of Eire.
Not in Ulster, or in Munster or Connacht.
Not on Innish More, or at Dun Guarie or Tara.
Where sickness once felled men, they breathed still. Riddled with pain that would have no respite, they watched their bodies rot and putrefy.
But they did not die.
Hobbled husks of men, little more than walking skeletons wandered the countryside. Warriors hacked their blades into the flesh of their enemies from light of dawn until deep into the moonless night.
But they did not die.
Druids assembled. They argued under sacred dolmens. They drank blood and divined the innards of birds and beasts. They sought answers in the black shadows of their Clochans.
They could find no other answer. Eire had been forsaken.
//// //// ///
All the magical creatures of the realm, filled with grief for the sufferings of the world, came across the northern seas to the cloud tops where the Banshee reposed.
Great-armed Goibniu, master smith of Faerie implored her to loose her ghastly shriek. Ogma the sun-faced pleaded the same. In Dagda, the wise and ancient All Father, flew with urgency to the refuge of the rebel spirit. The deceit of the Fear Dearg himself lapsed, and the red trickster joined in the beseeching.
The calls went unheeded.
In time even the Morrigan made her way to the frigid abode. Feared and hated no less than the Banshee herself, it was to her, finally that the others turned for a final plea.
She came upon her dark chariot, drawn by twin ravens with breath of fire, and though a horrific sight, the Morrigan was surprised to find the Banshee pleased at her arrival.
"Long has it been," the Morrigan began.
"Yes, not since the glorious slaughter at Aran. Many brave men followed my call to the darkness that day," the Banshee answered.
The ghost of Ciarin sat beside her upon the cloud, a phantom consort to a spectral queen.
"Even greater agony now menaces,” the Morrigan said. “Lugh's anger ravages the isles, and legions of the dead walk among the living. Druids invoke our aid, but we are left helpless. Even I am rendered useless, forced to ignore the prayers of those men upon the fields who battle without end.
"I implore you, as all our kind have done before me, surrender the soul of this man. Quiet the fury of maddened Lugh!"
The Banshee remained unmoved. She clung ever harder to the wraith that had been Ciarin mac Ruaidhri.
"Lugh has heard me. I hold sway over the gates of the dead. He may rage for all time, but only I can open them.
"Long have I served him with never a waver in my devotion. Yet now, that I wish one soul spared, he curses the world? No, Queen of War, I shall not lead a single soul to the abyss."
Fire-eyed Morrigan could find no words to reply. A deep voice spoke instead. It was Ciarin himself.
"Queen of Battle, many times I invoked your aid," the ghost said. He raised his phantom hand as the Morrigan turned to hear him. "Now my beloved Banshee gives me refuge from death itself. Yet the world suffers for my stay, as all the gods of Faerie have here attested.
"Perhaps I should go. Perhaps I should fade into the dim, else there be no world for us to remain in."
For a moment, silence reigned. The wicked War-Goddess and the Herald of Death reflected upon his words. Finally, the Banshee answered.
"Perhaps you are correct Ciarin. Lugh will only be satisfied when I open the way to the darkness. So I will do so."
/// ///// ///
The dawn of the day following was nothing so much as a herald of horror.
Fractured sunbeams fell across a tormented Erin. The stench of rotting flesh pervaded the wind, even spreading through the mist of Faerie, though Lugh Samildanach remained unmoved.
The Morrigan returned from the north seas with only the cryptic word of the death maiden. She called upon the lords of the mist to gather, the Morrigan told them, upon the Ulster field where Ciarin had fallen many months before. There, the Banshee would appear.
The rising of the sun soon came and passed, and the gods began to grow restless.
Then, a shriek split the morning like thunder. It quaked the hills with frightful echoes. Beneath them, the gods watched a black chasm tear open the field. Above them, the screeching form of the Banshee hurled out of the clouds.
"Lugh Samildanach, Lord of Faerie! By my scream the gates to the abyss have opened, and here Ciarin, son of the Red King stands ready to enter," the Banshee proclaimed.
Her voice grated upon even Lugh's own ears. He was a moment before answering.
"Well and good that you have come to realize my authority," the red-bearded god said.
Ciarin did stand ready at the dark gates, jaws of sundered stone and mud gaping before him. But as he began to step toward the chasm, the Banshee remained beside him. Arm-in-arm.
Brigit gasped. The Morrigan cried out.
"She means to enter with him!" the Leanan exclaimed.
“Cease this folly! None may ever return from the land of the dead, mortal or otherwise!" he roared.
The Banshee and her companion wraith ignored him. They continued to edge closer to the caverns of Hell.
"If you call it folly then my efforts have indeed been in vain, for you still fail to understand what I asked of you," the Banshee said.
She spoke amid a swirl of wind, the screams of the dead churning all around her as she moved closer to the darkness. The summoned immortals watched one of their own reach out for the place of all gloom.
Finally, Lugh sighed, and the red bearded faerie’s breath brought pause to all things.
"You would do this just to be with Ciarin, son of the Red King?" he asked.
The Banshee stared him down.
"I will enter and close the gates behind me. I will have Ciarin mac Ruaidhri in the land of the dead if not in the land of the living," she replied.
Ciarin's own spear rested in her hands.
Again, Lugh frowned and did not speak. His all-seeing eyes turned to the face of ageless Brigit, whose counsel now echoed in his heart.
"Perhaps I have been wrong," he said. "Perhaps you are so perfect in the love of death that you would bring the world to its knees by your devotion. Perhaps I have been blind."
The Banshee and Ciarin halted, poised at the precipice of the smoldering maw.
"Noble sentiment Lugh, but words do me little good. Ciarin remains a ghost."
Again, Lugh met the gaze of Queen Brigit, and the eyes of heaven now looked upon him.
"Very well. Ciarin, son of the Red King is dead, and I did slay him. For that I do regret, though after such time has passed I cannot restore him. Yet your struggle has been brave, and for that I offer a concession."
As the host of Faerie watched, Lugh Samildanach came down to the world. He laid his hands upon Ciarin.
"Ciarin mac Ruaidhri, so loved by the spirit of death, I raise you up to the skies, and free you from mortal bonds. Join with your Banshee, not as a ghost, but as a true immortal. May you both herald the dead."
The Banshee smiled her ghastly grin, and Ciarin joined her in eerie mirth. Away they took then from the other gods and spirits, to ply their lethal trade for ever after.
So it was from that day onward, that the people of old Ireland came to know a second voice from the darkness, the twin callings of death from the Banshee and her eternal love.
(Copyright) 2012 Frank Cavallo