Dark Tales II – The Grove

English: Photograph by Mario Vaden, at Simpson...

This is bigger than you are. It’s bigger than all of us put together… Don’t make it angry.

When men camp in the true wilderness, tales are told – not the pale, sanitized tales told by civilized men, confident in their dominance of the world, but tales that give form to the old darkness, the terror of the night before men drove it back with walls, and roofs, and lamps.

A lumberman named Ethan – his tales polished by a decade of spinning yarns about the campfire – knows some tales of eld, preserved across the years because those who listen to, and retell such tales usually live longer than those who laugh and shrug them off…

You want to know one of the horrors of the forest? Well, there are things it is unwise to discuss there but (as he looks around theatrically) it should be all right here in a city marketplace! Come, get me a mug of ale to wet my throat and I will tell you some of the darkest secrets of the forest!”

Centuries past, Valfan the Cruel reigned over this city – and his name was well-earned! He grew tired of throwing his victims – and their families, right down to the smallest children – into the arena to die for his entertainment, and sought to attain greater amusements from their suffering.

The city was smaller then, and the wilds deeper, and filled with monsters now driven far from the lands of men. Valfan took to chaining his victims to trees as bait, to hear their screams, see them devoured alive – and to take the occasional feasting monster as a trophy for his halls.

The trees – well fed on human blood, fallen scraps of flesh, and decaying bone – grew tall and strong – and twisted.

The kings trophy collection – and his skull-goblet collection – grew, and those who would defy him trembled, and dared to meet only in deep secrecy. All went well for Valfan until he turned his wrath against a small community of elves who had dared to complain of his excesses.

The elves fought bravely, and with the archery skill of their race – but the end was never in doubt. The elvenfolk too went to feed the beasts – but one elder amongst them, who possessed some of their ancient skills, choose to invoke a terrible magic as the beasts fed upon his grandchildren and were slain by Valfan and his huntsmen. With the magics of life and death and his hearts blood he bound his and his neighbors spirits to the trees – and gave the trees a hunger for souls to match the carrion soil they grew upon.

The trees sprinkled Valfan and his men with drifting seeds.

Occasionally, when a seed touched naked flesh, it would vanish – silently and painlessly merging with it, sinking down to the very marrow of the bones. Valfan and his men never noticed that subtle peril…

Two weeks later they hunted late, beneath the stars, and settled down to sleep The night was fine, a watch was posted, and few monsters dared to threaten a powerful warrior-king and his guards and huntsmen gathered around their leaping fires.

But their bones were wood – and where their flesh was near the earth, beneath the open sky, their bones grew together, and put down roots, and began to put forth shoots… The panicked cries of the men on watch – now unable to move or fall – became a festival of screams as others roused to find themselves in the same predicament – and the agonies of having their flesh pierced by shoots and their bones becoming rough with bark began.

The campfires died, and darkness – but not silence – reigned.

To Valfan and his men came all the agonies of their victims in weeks of searing anguish before the end – and from them flowed their life force, to bring new life to the spirits bound into the parent trees. The elves were reborn as forest fey – and the tormented souls of the wicked king and his men were themselves bound in wood for decades or centuries, to haunt the grove of trees that they had become – and to prey on yet others in their turn.

Even now, in certain groves, the legacy of that curse continues, the sap of the trees runs the red of blood and seeds will occasionally fall on lumberers and passers-by. And sometimes – a few weeks later – terrible screams will echo in the woods for a time until stillness – but not surcease – comes once more.

Back in the city, when it became apparent that Valfan would not return, the people celebrated their deliverance from misrule – according to rumor, a gift from the fey, who had led Valfan and his men on a mystic hunt to a realm far, far, away. And if there were other rumors… Well, who would risk the wrath of the Fair Folk by repeating such tales? Even now it is wise to see if any are about before revealing the truth.

As most of the city youngsters gathered to listen glance nervously about, one of the older kids suddenly leans towards one of the smaller ones, looking her over with an air of startlement…

“Hey! I just saw a maple seed land on your shoulder THERE (pointing at her bare skin) and now it’s just GONE! Ohmygods! You’d better not sleep anywhere near dirt EVER AGAIN!”

And there will be an outburst of screaming panic.

Accompanying the tale comes, of course, a list of fey haunts and freeholds, faerie circles, groves where it is unwise to trespass, and haunted areas of the woods where terrible fates lie in wait and where wanderers pass only at their own risk.