As originally published on Medium
Who’s the girl, then? Come, now! It must be someone here in Eskivik sent you trekking all the way up that mountain to Maidenfall. The lovely Vigdis, maybe? Or dark-haired Ragnhild? You’ve fancied her ever since I can remember. Ah, the smith’s daughter, is it? Esja’s her name, right? Aye, a pretty one, that. And clever, too! I can see how she stole your heart. By the look of you, I’m guessing you feel your tribute to Itaia was successful then? You’ll find out soon enough, I’m sure. Esja usually comes ‘round to the tavern this time of day selling her ma’s eggs and butter.
Tell me, Aegir, did your ma or fa ever tell you why the people of Eskivik have always gone to the mountain when love seemed out of reach? Or how those peaks came to be known as Maidenfall in the first place? I’ll tell you what. While you wait for your lady love to pop ‘round, I’ll fill you in on the story and you finish that flagon of liquid courage you keep nursing there. What do you say?
Well, the story, as told to me by my own fa, goes like so…
The shrine to Itaia is a relatively new addition to the mountainside, being just a few centuries old. Before that, the place was sacred to none save those wildling spirits of stone and tree that still call it home even now. But there came a day when all that changed as Graethas, God of Lust, looked down upon the world of mortals. Bored out of his wits and seeking distraction, he was.
Always possessed of a wandering eye, his current lover, the mortal Alfhild, had lost her appeal for him and, though he could hear her sobbing pleas for attention as they echoed through the planes, he had little desire to return to her. Alfhild was too familiar. He wanted something new, something different. It was only by chance that a gleaming stone of giant’s size caught his gaze as it perched high atop the mountains. Polished by rain and sculpted by wind, it was so reminiscent of a woman’s form that the wanton god found himself smirking as he thought of what he could do with such a voluptuous partner were she not made entirely of lifeless rock.
Now, many a man, myself included, might smile and chuckle at the suggestive shape of the stone before moving on to find a willing friend of flesh and blood. But not Graethas. Instead of finding a living lover, an idea took root within his mind. Like a shadow, he stole into his sister Lilne’s chamber and stole the magical tools with which the Lady of the Arts sculpted the gnomes. He then set to work perfecting the stone’s form, tailoring every curve and line to his wanton craving.
But the stone maiden did not live.
Undeterred and stealthy as a serpent, Graethas crept into the marble-columned halls of his grandmother Dionea, she who bestows the breath of life on mortals. There, the Lady of Marriage and Birth lay sleeping on her couch and from her cherry lips, he stole a single breath as she slept. Finally, he pilfered a spark from the brazier of his grandfather Vidis, who gifts to mortals an active mind. These he then placed within the heart and head of the stone maiden.
Yet still, she did not live.
For a long time, Graethas sulked. Why, he was a god, after all! What he wills should come to be, should it not? How dare this lump of stone refuse to come to life as he commanded it? Angry and sullen, he wandered the gods’ home of Elethine and many other worlds, lamenting his failure and hurt pride and acting out against any mortals he encountered who were happy in love. Aye, more than one loving couple and budding romance saw the lust god’s wrath in those days.
Like a spoiled child, he continued this way until he stumbled across his cousin Sitri, daughter of the Sea Lord, as she brought into being a new flower. At first, he regarded her with bitterness and no small amount of jealousy as she wove the seed into being but, as he watched, he noticed her do something peculiar. As she held the sleeping seed in the palm of her hand, Sitri blew upon it, thereby gifting it some of her own divine essence. The seed immediately leapt to life and sprouted. As the nature goddess gently placed it on the ground, its new roots dug eagerly into the soil.
Graethas’ rancor turned to joy and he whooped victoriously as he sped back to his stone maiden. This was the key he had overlooked!
You see, my boy, Graethas had always been a selfish god. He never cared to know the ins and outs of creation so therefore he had no idea that, at birth, the gods give to all living things a trinity of gifts. He had given the stone maiden the first two, breath and consciousness, but it was the most precious one of all that he had missed, the one without which you and I would be naught more than a lump of dead flesh.
The divine spark, that which awakens and propels life forward.
Returning to the maiden, he stood before her and kissed her passionately, willing some of his own essence into her form. Within moments, he felt her stir. Her body rose to his kiss and her flesh warmed to his touch. When their lips parted, the stone maiden smiled and looked demurely away.
From the moment she awoke, Graethas was enamored of her beauty and named her Kanai, meaning “comely one” in the ancient tongue. And a sight to see she was indeed! Her honey-brown skin, smooth as polished obsidian, sparkled in the sunlight. Ebony hair fell about her shoulders in flowing waves. She smelled of spring rain and mountain flowers. Beautiful and kind, gracious and graceful, the testament of Kanai’s divine origins was proclaimed through her every movement.
For a time, it seemed as though Kanai had calmed Graethas’ roving spirit as he whiled away countless hours in the giantess’ arms, losing himself within the sparkling depths of her slate-colored eyes as they lay tucked away in the grotto he’d carved into the mountain top just for her. Lust had found his new plaything, pleased that she was there as he desired her to be and that his desire was at last appeased by her willing flesh.
Kanai, for her part, truly loved Graethas and her love grew with each encounter. She adored him wholly and, in her innocence, believed the sweet words he whispered as they lay entwined. As he had often told her was the case, she lived for him alone and each time he took his leave, she sat forlorn and lonely until his return.
Now, that’s not to say that he neglected her. Quite the contrary, actually. Graethas showered her with gifts and tasked the valryths, those winged messengers of the many gods and goddesses of Elethine, with bringing her mead and meat and exotic fruits. But, as with many things, it wouldn’t last.
Lust, my friend, hides a fickle heart and it was only a matter of time before Graethas once again grew bored. Unlike his other lovers, Kanai required tending to in ways he had not anticipated. Sheltered on the mountain top, he had kept her sequestered for centuries, ignorant of the world around her, aware only of her home and her love. Inevitably, as with all living things that grow, a day came that Kanai wanted more. Graethas, for his part, had no desire to teach her about the rest of Creation or her place in it. These were subjects which he considered to be of too little consequence for a god. In addition, she had been created for his pleasure alone and so he shrugged off any questions she posed with a kiss. This tactic served to distract her for a time but, as children are wont to do, Kanai eventually started to challenge him. She begged him to show her the world and to teach her about the creatures that lived in it.
Lust tolerated this behavior for a time but when she showed no sign of giving up this foolish desire for growth and knowledge, Graethas decided that it was time to move on. None of his other paramours had made such demands of him. He had wanted a lover, not a student or a child. And so he once more cast his eye about in search of something new, spending less and less time with Kanai until finally, having found entertainment in the bed of another, Graethas forgot the stone maiden to whom he had once promised eternity.
Alone and neglected, Kanai wept. And as she wept, the divine essence Graethas had bestowed upon her began to slip away. Why? Because, boy, a creator must tend to his creation like a parent. Just as Sitri cares for nature, Graethas should have cared for Kanai, teaching and guiding her so she could one day provide for herself. He should have nurtured the divine spark within her, which would have allowed her to become a new living being in her own right. But because the Lust god did not cultivate it, the divine spark he gave her never truly took root; it never became her own. So, it slipped away with her grief, carried to the foot the mountain by her tears, which pooled and formed the Líf’kelda, the lake we call the “life well.”
Revenge? No, that thought never crossed her mind. Too kind and sweet, she was. Too like a lost child. Instead, heartbroken and weakened, Kanai welcomed the end she knew drew near.
Many seasons passed as she lay there on the mountain, letting the last of her life force trickle away. And then a peculiar thing happened…
One early spring, as Kanai barely clung to consciousness and her vision had nearly faded away, her body returning to the stone from which it came, a sound reached her ears. Just before the final breath seeped from her lungs, Kanai heard a man muttering a prayer at her feet.
It was a young shepherd from our very village, his footsteps crunching on the melting snow as he half-heartedly searched for a lost member of his flock. Breathing a sigh of relief at finding the small ewe grazing near what appeared to be nothing more than an outcropping of mountain rock, he pressed his back to the cold stone. Closing his eyes, he called to Itaia, lamenting the unrequited love he felt for a young maiden. The crisp scent of wet earth and pine clung to the air as his sheep nibbled on fresh green shoots, looking curiously at their master as he spoke aloud his prayer to the goddess.
Kanai’s broken heart gave one final beat. With her last breath, she called to him, bestowing upon him a blessing that he might obtain the love she never would. Hearing what he believed to be the voice of Itaia, the shepherd gave thanks. He returned to the village and, shortly thereafter, won the heart of his beloved.
It wasn’t long after that Itaia herself sent a priest to Eskivik. He told of the sacrifice made by Kanai and called for a shrine to be built at that strange outcropping of stone; at her feet. It is there, he told the villagers, that Itaia would henceforth honor the prayers of any who called to her in the name of true love. The mountains themselves soon became known as the Place of the Maiden’s Fall, or Maidenfall, as we call it now. And ever since, it has been a place of pilgrimage for the lovelorn.
Why did Itaia send the priest? Well, it is said that Kanai’s final outpouring of essence on behalf of the shepherd made Itaia take pity on the maiden and claim the site as sacred to herself. But, then Graethas is the divine Lady’s own son. Perhaps she knew of his actions all along and wanted to atone for his mistreatment of poor Kanai. Or perhaps her heart, moved by the many lovesick pleas uttered there, urged her to take heed.
But I suppose only the gods know why they do what they do. All that matters is, for centuries, many a man and woman have uttered a prayer to the Holy Lady at that spot, just as you done, and it worked out all right for them.
And don’t look now but I think you’re about to find out just how well it works first hand. Esja’s just walked in the door, smiling wider than the Askfjord and heading straight this way.