(Author’s Note – If you’ve ever heard Peter Hollens’ version of The Hanging Tree from Hunger Games, that’s what semi inspired this legend. I’ve also been reading a lot of folklore about vengeful ghosts and mourning lovers who died without getting any peace in life. So that’s where this bit came from. And this is NOT a nice story, and I’ve told it in exactly the same way a blunt old sage would. So there’s no softening of any of the events.)
Manas looked at Lilavati. “Are you certain you want to hear this tale, my dark scholar?” he asked. He was pale and shaking. “It’s not a pretty story, and it has to do with my parents’ crimes against the people of Phiri Hu.”
“The mere mention of the tree has sent you into a near panic, my living flame,” Lilavati said. “I feel I must know.”
“Manas, you’re still not recovered from your fever,” Ludger said. “I know the story as well as you do. Let me tell her while you try to rest a little more.” Manas nodded and Ludger moved closer to the pair.
“Great Lady, has Manas told you about his parents?” Ludger asked.
“A little,” Lilavati said. “Enough for me to know that I am grateful they no longer exist in this world.”
“All right,” Ludger said. “Then I won’t need to explain the whole of it. The Wailing Oak is a massive tree, far more ancient even than the stone walls of the barrier wall that surrounds Phiri Hu. It was used for many purposes over the years, but the most common was to hang condemned prisoners.”
“Hanging is a terrible way for anyone to die,” Lilavati said.
Ludger nodded. “I agree. Now, this tale actually comes from before Manas’ great-grandparents were born. This was during a time when magic users walked freely among the people of Hiilguus, before they all vanished into the temples.”
“Or worse,” Manas muttered.
Ludger ignored him. “There was a sorcerer whose power was feared in the land. He could summon the dead from their graves and command them to do his bidding. He would twist the minds of those around him until they practically worshiped him. Everyone was frightened of him and refused to stand up to him until the day he decided that Lady Princess Renata was his predestined bride.”
“What did he do?” Lilavati asked.
“He used a spell to get one of his servants into the castle. That servant drugged Renata and carried her back to the sorcerer’s citadel,” Ludger said. “There he used all manner of methods to break her mind until, at last, she became his most devoted follower. Now, the king and queen knew where she was and were plotting with their court magicians to get her back. Then the sorcerer walked boldly into the palace with Renata on his arm. She proclaimed loudly that she loved him and had wed him so he was now the heir to the throne.”
“That could not have gone down well,” Lilavati said.
“The king declared that he wouldn’t recognize the marriage and then named Renata’s younger brother Gerhard the true heir in front of the entire court,” Ludger said. “The sorcerer reminded the king that he’d been able to get an agent into the castle to take Renata, and that young Lord Prince Gerhard would be an easy victim of his assassins since the boy was barely five years old. This pushed things too far. The court magicians, the Royal Guard, and several noblemen attacked.”
“What happened?” Lilavati asked when Ludger paused.
“Renata was pulled to safety, though she kept screaming for her husband,” Ludger said. “The sorcerer killed several people before a nobleman – Manas’ ancestor, in fact – managed to get in close enough to knock him out. The court magicians bound him in so many spells the man could barely walk on his own, let alone use his magic. He was pronounced guilty of multiple crimes, including the torture and mental manipulation of Renata. He was sentenced to die, but the king couldn’t do it in the capital. He was worried that the man’s death would destroy property. It was a valid concern, given how much magic the man was rumored to have.”
“So what did they do?” Lilavati asked.
“They took him to Phiri Hu,” Manas said, his harsh voice full of anger. “They took him to the great oak and hung him. He swore he’d never rest in peace and that his soul would forever live within the tree, turning the spirits of all those executed there into demons. My ancestor and his house magician took him seriously even when no one else did. They put their heads together and found a way to bind the tree so even if he could do as he claimed, no evil spirit would ever leave.”
“That isn’t the worst of it,” Ludger said. “The Wailing Oak gets its name because of Lady Princess Renata.”
“What do you mean?” Lilavati asked.
“Renata went mad with grief,” Manas said. “She escaped her watchers one day and somehow made her way to Phiri Hu. The sorcerer was still hanging from the tree even though it had been nearly a month since his execution. No one wanted to pass through the barrier placed around the tree to retrieve the body. Renata did. She laid his body on the ground, took the same rope he’d been killed with, and hung herself.”
“It is her spirit that wails in the branches of the tree,” Ludger said. “She refuses to leave, to relinquish her mindless haunting of the oak tree. There have been many preesters who tried to release her. Some went mad. Others left the tree with scars on their minds. And there were some who took the rope – it still hangs off the branch and is as strong as the day it was first woven – and hung themselves in despair, adding their souls to the number collecting in the tree.”
“What does this have to do with my lord’s parents?” Lilavati asked. Ludger shared a grim look with Manas before explaining exactly what had gone on so many years ago.