Once upon a time, in the kingdom of Nor, there lived a handsome young goatherd named Lysander. His hair shone the color of an acorn, and he was gentle of heart. All the maidens in his village admired him from afar, but he paid them no heed. Instead, he spent his time playing the flute to his flock, keeping them happy. Some said he was nervous around pretty maids, and others said that he must have a sweetheart in some other town, for how could he not be in love? After all, he spent most of his time out in the emerald mountains, with no one for company but his goats and his music.
One day, a small girl became curious and decided to follow Lysander about his daily routine. Early in the morning, she told her Mama and Vada goodbye and took along a loaf of bread and a hunk of cheese to eat throughout the day. Putting them into her little basket, she skipped off to find Lysander.
It took almost no time at all to find the youth, as he was gathering his herd of goats. He played a short, merry tune on his flute, and his goats trotted after him. The small girl hid betwixt the goats, smelling their sweet scent and petting their shaggy fur. Despite goats being hungry by nature, not a one touched the small girl’s basket. Perhaps they knew that she was on an important mission.
By noon, the goat herd had moved to a grassy clearing in the forest, close to the mountains. The small girl ate half of her bread and cheese, and drank milk from one of the goats nearest to her. She watched Lysander eat his midday meal, two goose eggs and a big piece of goat cheese. When he was satisfied, he began to play his flute. The goats frolicked, and the small girl listened to the cheerfully rolling melody. She wanted to dance along, too, but didn’t want to reveal her hiding spot. So, she tapped her feet in time to the music.
In the afternoon, when the sun began to make its way down the sky, Lysander moved his herd again. The small girl still followed. When the sunset fell, they were in a new clearing, this one filled with the most beautiful wildflowers. In the middle of the clearing was a great grassless circle, perfectly round and smooth. Lysander gave out a wistful sigh, and the small girl tipped her head to the side, listening. Did he sigh for a lost love? For a maiden who didn’t love him back? Or maybe for a loved one long gone, passed on to the Eternal Banquet?
Lysander raised his flute to his lips once more, and the goats were quiet. None of them wanted to step into the great grassless circle. The small girl decided that she wouldn’t step into the circle, either. The sounds that came from the flute were unearthly, ethereal. Sadness dripped with every note, and the small girl couldn’t help crying. She wondered if Lysander wanted to cry, too.
As the four moons appeared in the sky, Lysander played on. The notes were long and drawn out, as if each one was a heartstring pulled directly from the youth’s bosom. The small girl stayed hidden.
And then she came.
A single maiden, appearing from the mist, arose from her slumber in the center of the great grassless circle. Her hair was pale gold, and her white gown was full and tattered. She held two bouquets, one of mint and one of columbines surrounding a singular black rose. Rising up onto her toes, she began to keen and dance, going to the edge of the circle and shaking her bouquets. Once, she got close to where the small girl hid, and the heavy scent of mint made her eyes burn.
Lysander continued to play, stopping occasionally to wail along with the ghostly maiden, pouring his soul out with every breath he took. He reached out to touch her, but she danced just out of his grasp. This continued for some time, with Lysander letting a hand fall from his flute to touch her shoulder or take her by the waist, but failing to capture the mourning maid.
The small girl’s eyelids fluttered, and she noticed that they grew heavier with each dainty step the maiden made. Soon, she was fast asleep, and the goats took her home in the night.
The next few days, the small girl followed Lysander again and again, just to hear the haunting songs of the flute and to see the beautiful golden maiden dance. For six days she did this, and the goats always returned her to her Mama and Vada, who wondered why their daughter chose to sleep in the clover-patch outside, rather than in her nice, warm bed. Every night, they took her inside and tucked her in, and she woke up each morning refreshed.
On the seventh day, she went about her usual routine, following Lysander from the village to the grassy clearing, and from the grassy clearing to the clearing with the wildflowers. But this time, none of Lysander’s songs were cheerful. The joyful song he used to call the goats in the morning was now a woeful cry. The goats did not frolick at noon, they laid and listened to Lysander’s song, the song of a tormented soul. The youth had dark circles under his eyes, as dark as the caves of Nor, and his movements were sluggish. A strange something hung from his belt. Painstakingly, he lead his goats to the last clearing, and began to play the last song of the night.
The maiden rose from nothing once more, and began her sorrowful dance. But this time, more maidens, equally as ethereal as the first, came from all directions. They materialized out of the flowers, from the trees, and from every rock and stone. The first maiden wept in agony, and Lysander’s flute accompanied her sobs. The small girl watched, afraid. The maidens formed a circle and began to slowly weave in and around each other, twirling back and forth in a such a way that the small girl couldn’t look away.
The dancing became more frantic, and so did the music. Lysander’s face was wet with tears, and the first maiden, staying in the center of the great grassless circle, shook her bouquets at her fellow dancers, as if to drive them off. This time, the small girl wasn’t tired. Feelings of pain washed over her, and she began to cry harder than she ever had in her small life. The goats huddled around her, and she hugged them, desperately seeking comfort.
Lysander still played on. The outer circle of shimmering dancers kept him from even reaching out to his maiden. They leered at him, shrieking and screaming in voices that were all too human, all too real. His lips seemed glued to his instrument, never even breaking away to add to the mournful cries coming from the maidens.
The maiden in the center seemed to muster up her courage and run towards him, causing him to weep even more. In a desperate attempt, they thrust their arms towards one another, and their hands locked. Only now did Lysander stop playing. But his music still lingered.
It came from all around, from the very rocks and trees and flowers surrounding the great grassless circle. The small girl was sure that the spirits of the forest were crying, singing their own rendition of Lysander’s last song.
Lysander was now in the circle with his maiden, and the two embraced. But their feet moved at a pace faster than lightning, never out of time. In the midst of their caress, he reached into the strange something at his waist and pulled out a knife.
The small girl screamed and lunged forward, but the goats shoved her back. Her warning was drowned out by the music of the forest and the horrible wails of the maidens. Lysander grasped the hair of his maiden and sliced through it like it was air. They cried out in unison, and the maiden smiled up at her beloved, pearly tears slipping down her cheeks. Lysander held her tightly, but the other maidens grabbed at his shoulders, trying to draw him into their ring.
Before the eyes of the small girl, the maiden started to fade. Her feet dissolved into mist, followed by her legs, and then her torso. In one last anguished movement, she kissed her beloved, holding his head in her hands. And then she was gone. But Lysander remained.
The small girl couldn’t look away as he continued to dance, and the circle of maidens took him by the arms. His feet began to show through his shoes, and soon there were bloodstains mixed with dirt in the great grassless circle.
Still, the small girl watched, eyes wide with horror as the youth was forced to keep time with the inhuman maidens surrounding him. Blood shone bright in the light of the moon, and sparkling beads of sweat flew from Lysander’s face. The dirt turned to mud in some places, but only Lysander’s feet became dirty. The maidens stayed pristine.
As the small girl tried desperately to shut her eyes, Lysander collapsed. He took one long, shuddering breath, and looked longingly at the sky. Peace came over him, and then he was gone. The goats were silent. The dancers quieted their cries. In that moment, the small girl understood. But then her eyelids grew heavy, and she found herself unable to keep them open.
The next day, she woke to the sound of her Mama calling her for breakfast. When she turned over to roll out of bed, she stopped. There, sitting on the small table beside her bed, was a plain wooden flute. Next to it, barely visible in the morning sun, was a lock of shimmering golden hair, held together with a scrap of white fabric.