It was hundreds of years ago, a tale of ol'e, as they say, but still it is written and sung by the men of Eländale. It is a tale of two souls, forests and shadows, as are all tales of the North. It bears many names, but for now we will settle for the simplest : the maiden of the grove.
It began in a village far from all, in the depths of the Shroudwald where mist lies - a cursed place in a cursed land. In those times sunlight still fell on its soil, and men lived from the hunt and fruits it bore. In the bushes now bare and the meadows now lifeless still grew plants of many shapes and kinds, daisies and milkweed where now grows only thorns. There was, near this village still spared by the Wald's cursed fog, one of such fertile groves, sacred to these men of the woods. They sent only the purest of souls to pick its fruits, and she was always a maiden, unmarried, untouched : the maiden of the grove.
On the morning of a holy day, under the setting moon, the maiden set out for her harvest, sickle and basket in hand. She was dancing among the evergreen boughs, a crown of flowers in her hair as she sung hope to the sacred trees, when among the twisted trunks she caught the glint of steel. She found under dawn's first ray a kneeling knight, with blade and blood at his feet.
"Fear not! I mean no harm", he spoke softly. "I am wounded and worn."
Indeed dirt did stain his garb and armor, and surely his face too must've borne many scars.
"You tread upon sacred lands, stranger, but you are wounded, and so I cannot chase you." "I did not mean to intrude, but the night has worn me, and I longed for the warmth of the Sun." She seemed surprised at his words.
"You should not wander into the woods at night, there are things that prowl here - things risen from the earth, that hunger for the flesh of man."
He pointed to his blade, planted firmly in the ground.
"No demon can ever hope to match a sword wielded with light in heart. Yet I am wounded," the knight laughed - his voice betrayed a smile, though his face was hidden by the visor of his helm. "Please, if you would help me, maiden? The leaves of this tree could soothe my pain, but I cannot reach them - if you would gather a few for me, I would be eternally grateful." And so the maiden brought to the knight leaves of the sacred grove's tree and mended his wounds, and did not see him again for many days.
On a night of sabbath the maiden set out for the harvest, sickle and basket in hand. The fog still hung low, rain fell deathly cold, and there she found on the trees rough arrows and marks of blade - the maiden thought of the wounded knight - but did not see them again for many moons.
On an evening of feast she set out again to the grove where she was to find herbs, and saw in dusk's rays what remained of a war - arrows, swords, arms of all kinds, the soil of the sacred grove drowned in blood, a knight upon a long spear, impaled to the twisted trunk of a tree. Horrified, she gasped, and rushed to his side. "What violence have you brought to our sacred land?"
"Ah, maiden of the grove", he grunted in pain, and turned away to cough violently. "I thought they had found me already. Tell me, maiden, how high still is the sun?"
"The sun is setting," she said. "I cannot stay here for long", the knight answered, his voice discordant, "Please, maiden, if you would help me, I would be eternally in your debt." She did not see how she could help him, for her herbs could heal, but not bring back life. "You are dying, knight, there is nowhere you can go, but I will remain at your side, if you wish."
"You must trust me, maiden. If the sun is soon fallen, you must free me from this spear, and run back to your village," he insisted, gasping for air. And so the maiden pulled the spear and freed the dying knight, ran back to her village, and did not see him again for many days.
On many days of anguish did the maiden set out without sickle or basket, despite the warnings of the people of her village. With winter's breath nights grew longer and even day was no longer safe, for the creatures of the Wald were unpredictable. Many times she treaded the bloodsoaked soil, touched the tree where laid the dying knight, but did not see him again for many weeks.
On spring's first morn the maiden left for her harvest, sickle in hand and mist in her hair. She danced among the newborn boughs, a crown of flowers on her brow, sung to the sacred trees. On spring's first morn in light of dawn the maiden saw the gleam of steel, and ran forth to the resting knight. "Knight of the grove," she called, but none answered, for the knight was not asleep but dead, leaning to the scarred tree's trunk. She dared not lift the visor of his helm, afraid to disturbed his sleep she knew wakeless. She laid his sword upon his breast, her crown upon his brow, and sung to the scarred tree - her song was mournful. And so the maiden left the resting knight to the peaceful earth, and did not leave for her harvest again for many days, for the grief was strong in her heart, and the guilt even stronger.
It is then accounts of the tale begin to vary. Where some say the shadows of the Wald came forth to burn the village, some blame men themselves, but surely what awoke the resting knight on the day of fall's sabbath was not the light of the sun, but that of flame. They licked upwards in skies clouded with darkness, all-consuming like the hunger of the things of the Wald - he knew this hunger very well.
It was too late when he reached the village, for all who were not dead had fled in haste. Needless to say, they were lost, and never escaped the Wald's fog. But of those who remained among the everburning flames there was the maiden of the grove, and she was bound upon a tall pyre, the hellish fires rampant at her feet.
"Maiden of the grove," he called, but she did not answer.
He braced hellfire to cut her bounds, and she fell into his arms, lifeless, yet more alive still than he was. For when he took her into the sacred grove, on the day of the sabbath of fall, when he laid her to rest among the dying boughs, a crown of thorns upon her brow, when he took off his helm, she could have seen how lifeless he was, when he knelt praying by her side, and laid a gentle kiss upon her lips - hers still red, and his rotten and decaying.
Some say she was not truly dead - some more say she then awoke too as undead, and they were bound in this curse. Some again pretend the maiden's love freed the knight from undeath, and that he lays now dead by her side, his sword upon his breast. But still now ash lingers between the ruins, and embers burn in long-cold hearths. On every whisper of the forest wind rests murmurs of those who still wander, lost souls seeking forgiveness guarding the sacred bones of the maiden of the grove.