The Job That Harridan Banshee Had To Do
This story is taken from a fantasy role-playing game called Runequest that we used to play a lot. I played a character called Aransar who adventured with a group of freedom fighters trying to resist the Lunar Empire (an invading army from the north). Aransar was decidedly anti-Lunar, and this animosity had to come from somewhere. So I wrote this story to explain Aransar’s hate of the Lunars…
Aransar woke up feeling fresh after having had a good night’s sleep. He had fallen asleep at sunset and didn’t wake up again until sunrise. It was a sunny, fresh Spring day and he was keen to be up and out.
His mother sat by the hearth, breastfeeding his baby sister. On the fire was an earthernware skillet and Aransar broke an egg in the pan and fried it, then ate the egg and used a piece of bread to mop up the oil.
“Don’t come back ‘til you have a brace of good-sized eels or a couple of plump rabbits. Preferably both,” said his father.
“I will, father,” answered Aransar between gulps of goose egg and flat bread. “Aye, I will at that – the bunnies will be out, full of glee, on a day like this.”
His father said nothing but smiled at his young son and he went over to his wife and newborn babe. The man kissed his wife on the forehead then awkwardly stroked the head of his baby daughter. Aransar watched them, sitting aside, and poured some water into a large waterskin, wrapped up a block of cheese in a cloth and took what remained of the bread. This would be his meal for the day.
“I need you to be right canny, our Aransar,” said his father. “Your mam’s still weak after giving birth to your sister and needs all her strength for looking after the wee bairn.”
“I’m not so weak…” started his mother.
“I will father. And mother. And I’ll be back with a good haul for the pot and in time to help with chopping the wood. Our sis will be the best wee girl in the village and all the Uroxi and Vingans will shudder when they see her.”
Both parents laughed.
“I know you will, son. Aye, I know you will.”
Aransar met Rhys ap Cluddoc down by Slowduck creek where they set their eel traps and then made up for the heath land atop the Malani hills. The mid-morning sun warmed up the land, fat bees wobbled past them and waves of starlings took to wing. Whilst the rounded hills were glorious and green with fists of bright yellow daffodils and primroses among the bramble bushes and trees. The top of the hills were flat, with a cool summer breeze that kept the sweat off their brows and it was here they decided to hunt the many rabbits that lived on the downland. The two boys sat in the shrubs, looking for good stones for their sling shots, turning them over, checking they were smooth and rounded. The sun was high and warming and the distant Starfire Ridges were purple against the spring skyline.
“So how’s your new gal, then?” asked Rhys.
“Our sis is right strong and will be the talk of the village – the whole Greydog will be proud of her. Mam and dad are so chuffed and happy. They’ve called her Voriasa – after the Spring.”
“Aye. But in fifteen summers time she’ll be ripe for the plucking, and no spring virgin anymore.”
“Aw, give way speaking like that! Man, that’s wrong!”
Rhys laughed and Aransar took a small stone, wiping off the earth, shaking his head.
“Watch me get this,” said Aransar as he folded the stone into the pouch of his sling. “See that big bugger there,” he said, nodding out toward the field of rabbits in front of them.
“Aye, I see it – the big grey one with the brown rump.”
“That’s the one. Watch me get it between the eyes!”
Aransar kept behind the bushes and started swinging his sling. Slowly at first but then building up momentum, watching where the rabbits had their burrows for when they ran. Keeping low behind the shrubs, moving behind Rhys, then suddenly stepped out and let the stone fly!
The rabbits had been caught by surprise. The stone was halfway there before they saw Aransar and by the time they had started to move the slingshot had rattled across the heath and bounced in the grass. The shot had missed and the rabbits were gone.
“Aw, shit, man. Missed the sod!” cursed Aransar.
“I knew you would miss,” said Rhys, “you’re a right pansy with that there sling. You couldn’t hit Old Ma Thompson’s arse from five yards!”
Aransar shook his head. “Aye,” he said, “that’s a big arse.”
“Come now,” said Rhys, “let’s off to Farmer Wilko’s field – there’s rabbits-a-plenty there. Leave it to me, this time.”
With that the two of them took up their belongings and made off across the downland, heading to Big Elm Valley. But as they followed the trails eastwards they saw in the yellow valley below a line of soldiers, some two-score in number, making their way south toward Greydog village. With the soldiers were two covered wagons and instinctively Aransar and Rhys took cover among the trees and undergrowth to watch the line of bronze-clad hoplites march slowly south.
“Wretched bastards!” spat Aransar. “What are the Lunars doing here?”
“Shh!” said Rhys. “Keep yer head down.”
The two boys watched the soldiers. There had been talk of Lunar tax missions in the countryside – one had even been to the king at Swordvale – and the invaders had been raising revenues from the tribes throughout the land. Each of the soldiers wore a crested bronze helm and carried a spear and bronze-faced shield – some had been painted with demons or crimson-red. Others polished bright and left to shine sharply in the rising sun. When they’d passed, Aransar and Rhys came down off the hills and made their way across the road and into Big Elm Valley and the farmlands.
* * * * *
By late afternoon the sun was beginning to set. Aransar and Rhys had managed to kill three rabbits and snare half a dozen black birds. The eel traps had proven to be empty, and so the two boys bickered about who should take what home. As they came across the north common they saw two black columns of smoke coming from the village, and both knew these were too big to be simple hearth fires. They approached the village at a walk, but as they got nearer the pace speeded up until they were running full speed for their home village.
They ran into the village square amid snatched half-conversations – “there’ll be hell to pay for this one”, “the bastards!”, “there was no earthly reason to do this”, “get me my spear, woman!”…
Then Aransar saw that his family home was the source of one of the fires, and that the thatched roof had long since burnt away, and that the wattle and daub walls were fiercely ablaze.
He looked around for his family. “Where..?” he stammered. “Where..?” He threw down the rabbit and blackbirds he’d got off Rhys and tried to make his way to the burning roundhouse.
“Where are they?” he called. The panic in his voice was now obvious. “Where are they! Someone, where are my mother and father? Where is my little baby sister?”
Then a hand came down on his shoulder and a voice called to him, “Get away from the fire, you young devil; or else the flames will take another life!”
And then he was abruptly pulled away by his collar and he fell to the ground, scared and alone. Standing in front of him was his father.
“Calm down, laddy,” he said to Aransar. “Calm down. I’ve some terribly sore news for you.”
* * * * *
Harridan Banshee had been called from Swordvale and arrived in Greydog village just before midnight. She had with her a bag full of the tools she would need – a small trowel, some charcoal, a handful of spring blossoms, and a small stone-carved figure. And she also had with her a bottle of brandy to keep off the night-time chill.
When she arrived in Greydog village she made for the hall of chief Kornos. They all knew the Ty Kora Tek crone was in the village and they spoke about her in hushed, and fearful, tones – she only came to the village when there were dead to be buried.
The funeral cortege made for the top of Spiny Fell among the Starfire Ridges. The way was strewn with bracken and thorns and crossed with fox tracks. The stars above were bright and from atop the hill one could see below the glow from the hearth fires.
Aransar walked at the head of the procession with his father, who kept his son close and whose face showed the tears he had shed and whose eyes showed the defiance and rage. They walked ahead of the bodies of the young child and its mother, wrapped in linen shrouds, carried by the village thegns.
Behind them was Harridan Banshee, who wailed for the murdered woman and child. All else was silent. Filing behind them came the rest of the village, led by chief Kornos. The silent, solemn, procession gradually made its way to the top of Spiny Fell where a pyre was built.
“Aye, aye, this shan’t be left to lie,’ said Aransar’s father to his son. ‘There’ll be hell to pay for this,” he said.
Harridan Banshee kept up her wailing and lamentations, screeching to the very winds, appealing to the gods for mercy and damnation. She made a pledge for the souls of the fallen – through the songs and dirges she sang. Then at the appointed spot she unwrapped the bodies, still smeared with their own dried blood, and she began to draw symbols and runes on their faces with charcoal – blessings so their souls may pass peacefully to rest.
Aransar looked on the scene with a numb expression. The cool night time wind billowed about him and the crone’s songs left him with a sorry feeling.
‘You did the right thing, chief,’ Aransar’s father said to chief Kornos. ‘I bear you no ill-will and do not hold you responsible.’
‘You’re a kind and fair man,’ answered Kornos. ‘Though I still say that my household now owes yours a favour or grant. Name your boon, and it will be yours.’
Harridan Banshee finished her preparation of the bodies and it was to the thegns to lift them to the pyre. The old priestess resumed her death-songs and stood alone, fulfilling her vows to sing for the dead.
‘What did they want, father? How much?’ asked Aransar.
‘Never mind such questions.’
‘I want to know. I want to know how much me mam’s life and our sis’s life were worth.’
‘Don’t talk like that, son – you’ll regret speaking those words.’
‘I’ll regret nothing. I’ll regret that they’re now dead – killed by those bastards. I’ll regret that they’re dead because…because…’ he looked at chief Kornos, who had heard everything, unsure whether he should continue, ‘…because the chief refused to water and feed their horses!’
‘Stay your tongue, boy – you’re still young enough for a hiding!’ ordered his father.
Still Harridan Banshee wailed, and the bodies lay atop the pyre, the winds blew and the stars shone down on the hill top.
‘The lad can speak,’ said chief Kornos. ‘Let him speak. Let him have his say. No need to keep it in.’
‘I don’t have anything else to say,’ said Aransar sullenly. ‘I don’t…’
Harridan Banshee’s cries filled the air and she walked around the pyre offering blessings and curses and she placed a small statue of the Earth Crone among the logs and turned to Aransar and his father.
The father and son each took a flaming brand and one stood at the head of the pyre and the other at the foot. Aransar’s father said a small prayer to his wife and child but Aransar did not speak a word, he just stood there, shuddering in the wind, crying.
Then, as one, they cast the flaming torches onto the pyre, which caught and burnt bright against the night sky, atop the hills and ridges. The wind fed the flames which were soon burning hard and fast.
The fire was soon fierce. Harridan Banshee knelt some way from the villagers and she whined and keened at the burning of the corpses. As the flames took hold of the bodies Aransar could hear a high-pitched screeching and he bowed his head, sure that even the earth cried for his mother and sister. The villagers made their way back down the hill, leaving Aransar and his father to keep vigil around the burning pyre, and Harridan Banshee wailed for their souls, because that was her job.