Men, unbidden, came and believed they conquered the hills but the hills, disinclined, changed. No man outlasts the hills.
Treen. That's all. Treen she was. She hadn't bent to say more in a coon's age. No call to start now. 'Sides, nary a one that came to her cared to know her afore name. Nary a one could summon even Treen after.
The house deep in Gwrach Gorge had been home to her kin since - always, it seemed to folk. No one recalled who built it, likely not even Treen, though Lord knows she wouldn't tell if she knew. For all its weatherin', a warm and cheerful place. Splashes of color from the shelf-lined walls stocked with jars and ewers. Old wooden chairs worn shiny with time and use and molded to fit a body. The cackle of the black chickens out back lilting along the air.
She hadn't always dwelt in the house - course not, that was impossible, folk knew. Just seemed that no one alive these days could remember before Treen.
Herb Woman the kinder called her. Some, with a glance back for hidden, spoke of the Backwoods Witch. A few, braver or more foolish, inched even closer to a greater lie or the greater truth.
These folk, maybe they had heard the keening.
In the valley, the day began when he left. She arose. Said the mirror: bruised enough to hurt but not enough to be seen.
Shame masked, pride saved, and again she cried – brutal, ripping, noiseless. At last, the cloaked ache deep found form and grew, gained power and called out - still unseen but no longer unheard.
From the belly of the hills came an answer, and a beckoning.
Pain helped the needy find the way. It spirited them down the old wagon trail, up the ridges, through the thickets, into the gorge.
Lulled by the contented sounds of the black chickens, she looked around the bright room, spying ... blackberry and chicory roots, cherry bark, willow leaves, perhaps wild ginger?
"Are you comin' to me, child?" said Treen. "Just ailin' a bit and hankerin' for help, or are you comin' to me?"
She nodded, slowly.
"I'll suss out the truth, child, don't be callin' on me with no nasty selfish lie."
The old eyes missed nothing. Owl eyes, sighting telltale signs of untruths or withholding. What was glimpsed remained unspoken.
At last: "The pain will go, child. You don't get to decide. Treen don't decide. But it will go."
A death wail heard once, the soul flinches, chills. Twice, it's a truth unclothed, lay bare, and irrevocable. The third cry of the banshee, no living being recollects.
On the ancient table, worn to be almost concave, stone and glass, roots and leaves, mortar and pestle, and thick, black ... water?
"Is a way back, child, after the first. Even the second can keep. But, a tríu? The stone is thrown."
She nodded. She didn’t look away. Treen worked.
An ashen moon lighted upon the earth through skittering clouds. Mists frolicked about gullies and trickling water. But they just were, they didn't do.
The night's other whiteness, most unnatural but more nature than else, searched. The work of the soul-cry: It came when called ... and called when it came.
He started from deep asleep, winced, then laughed. Tweren't nothin' what he heard. She jumped, chilled, but no smile followed. She tucked the bedcovers higher under her chin and looked out the pane into the darkness.
Despite the warmth of the sun, the fire in Gwrach Gorge blazed with purpose, consuming the air and all Treen fed it. The black chickens took heed, scattered, kept their distance.
The trees stood in silent vigil, the wind held its breath, but she didn't come back into the hills, with bawls of regret, with pleas for release.
Old bones groaned as Treen bent back toward the fire.
In the valley, he jolted awake again, but no laughter cracked the air this night. Something ... there was something. The shrill cry of a night bird. A haunting from an old dream. But the truth was a lie, he reckoned. He looked toward her.
The coldness of the wail's echo burned in the silence.
Treen worked and waited and thought. Child, this is the last time the choice be yours. Mind it well, for what fate will nigh decide, no human being can divine.
"Truth be told, though," Treen said to the black chickens, "sufferin' don't have many druthers."
Disquiet stole down from the headlands and into the valley. Folk made for home, molested by their own familiar shadows now turned sharp and poorly fitting. A presence roused under the peculiar hush that held the night.
The push of the night woke him, and her, when the air in the room drew too close for slumber. He jerked from the bed to pace, recoiling from the windows, talking aloud to himself and to no one. It was coming, he knew, but what he knew he couldn’t conjure.
The pause of the wind was a full-mouthed silence.
The whiteness, unstoppable, cleaved the darkness outside, and the specter birthed as a body without flesh, hollow eyes dead but all-seeing. The face, the face of the banshee, split, and a keening rent the night - a tríu.
White turned black, and the bloom of a smile touched her face as she closed her eyes in welcome.
A shroud seemed to cover her thoughts, remembrances, when she arose the day after the funeral. Days, perhaps weeks gone missing - though oddly unmissed. Except for the rays of the sun, all was vagueness.
So many people had she seen, so many faces unknown. Such a shock, they had said. Your loss so great, they had said.
The pain will go, child, they had said.
The power of the hills lies in how they keep their secrets. No man outlasts the hills. ________________________________________________