The elves have had their burial rituals for ages. Millennia ago, they realized that it was not enough to simply return the deceased to the soil, but that their hears also yearned to add ceremony to the passing on of those they loved. There had once been a hunter, much like Shiir of the old legends. who chased deer in an old willow forest in order to feed his family. Whenever he had extras, he would dry the meat and trade it with the other villagers for vegetables and grains. Their fruits were whatever his beloved and their children could gather from the bushes and fruit trees at the edge of the forest.
Life for the hunter and his family was as pleasant as could be expected. That is, until the day that the deer the hunter was chasing fled into a ticket where a bear cub had curled up to sleep. The hunter, not seeing the cub, notched an arrow into his bow and raised it to strike the deer. It dashed away, rustling the bushes and alerting the mother bear who had been drinking from a brook just beyond the thicket. Before the hunter could flee, the massive creature was upon him, and he soon met his demise. With nobody else there to buy him, his body laid in the soil beneath the bushes, his blood seeping deep into the ground.
Back in the village, nobody had any way of knowing what had happened to the hunter. He simply never came home. For a while, the other villagers helped to care for how widow. She would go to the edge of the forest every day and call out his name. She dared not go in, for her children were still young and she feared losing them as well. After a while, she would accept there there would be no answer that day, pick her berries, and go back home. Sometimes, she was able to look after the little ones from other families for a day, and they gave her food in thanks for her care. Though she was lonely for her beloved, and the children sometimes cried for him in the night, she survived.
That is, until the drought came. A year of precious little rain made the fields and forest stingy, and there was little to eat… and even less to give away. The mother long to have her beloved back, who might have been able to help the family through that difficult year. Most tragically of all, her youngest child, who had been just a baby when the hunter disappeared, and now hardly more than two years old, gave in to starvation as the autumn grew colder. He was not the only villager to remind the elves of their fragile mortality that year, but he was the youngest.
The mother wailed for his loss all through the night, and the other villagers worried that the others would soon follow suit. They looked after her other children so that she could carry her toddler to the edge of the forest and called out for her beloved. The winded moaned as she cried to the trees, clutching the child close.
“Look what you have taken from me! Not only this child’s father, but now his own life! What have we done to deserve such a cruel fate?”
As she wept, a deer came up between the trees. When it caught her eye, she paused, unsure what to do; never before had an animal approached the elves like that.
“You are the woman he once fed,” she heard a voice say. It seemed to come from the deer, though it could not have been possible. “You are the one who has been shouting for him.”
“Yes.. yes it was me!” she exclaimed back, not caring, is her hysteria over her child’s death, how strange it seemed to be speaking to a deer.
“Come with me,” it told her, and turned around to walk back into the forest, not bothering to look back to see whether or not she was following.
The elvan woman quickly followed after it. Their walk through the forest was long and winding, and she hardly knew where she was going. After a time they came to a thicket that grew along a narrow channel that might have once been a brook. The drought had left the bushes dry and scraggly, although there was one willow tree that grew taller and greener than the rest.
“You beloved died here,” the deer told her, “and I wish I could say that there had been anyone here to bury him.”
“Where is his body?” the woman begged, wanting to search the ground for his remains but at the same time too afraid.
“It is no more. Nature took back all that once was. It once laid on the spot where this weeping willow now grows.”
“Oh!” the woman cried, falling to her knees before the willow tree. “My beloved! If only we had been able to find you!”
“Fear not,” another voice said, this one more soothing yet at the same time otherworldly. “You had no way to know what had happened to me.”
She looked up then, and saw the faint image of her beloved hunter floating beside the tree. “My love…” she wept, afraid of saying what happened to their infant son, yet knowing that she had to. “My love, look what this drought has done to us!”
The spirit of her beloved came closer to the body of the child, and made a mournful sound. “I weep for my boy,” he told her. “I beg of you, bury him beside me, and plant a willow sapling with him, so that I am not lonely in the eons to come.”
“If it is your wish, then I shall do it. Lt it be the way of our family, even the way of our village.”
With that, the woman went back to her village and brought back to the only green willow in the woods a priest and one of the few remaining men with the strength to dig. They pulled a willow sapling carefully from its place further upstream from the former brook, and prepared for the burial ceremony. A small gathering bade farewell to the tiny boy, and watchful through tearful eyes as the soil covered his body. Their only comfort was that he would not be alone in that place.
As they prayed beside his willowy grave, the ghost of the hunter knelt beside the woman. He wept for his child, and as he did, the wind grew colder, and the sky darker. clouds rolled in from the west, and soon raindrops began to patter down on the forest. The elves gazed up in amazement at the falling rain and how plentiful it was.
“Let no more of my people die from this drought,” he groaned as his tears fell.
It rained on an off for several days, not so much that anyone feared a flood, but enough that the land became lush and green once again. The elves were able to salvage their crops and gather enough food from the land to make it through the coming winter. The brook began to flow again, and all along the forest path those who had succumbed to hunger were laid to rest with willow saplings. They thrived in that late autumn rain, it seemed, and were sturdy still through all the winter.
The story of that family’s tragedy spread from village to village, with everyone remarking what a miracle it was that the ghost had called back the rain. From then on, the elves buried their loved ones with a young weeping willow tree, and every time it thrived and grew strong. The trees provided comfort to those still living, and the ceremony kept the spirits of the dead restful and content.
Still, there was one elf who had never had a burial at all, and he haunts the willow forest to this very day, warning hunters of angry bears so that they do not meet the same fate as he.