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Petre and the Wolfsbane

by Sean Prater 3 months ago in literature
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A Fabled Tale

Petre and the Wolfsbane
Photo by Josie Weiss on Unsplash

Aconite. Monkshood. Wolfsbane, if by any other name. Friend to none but witches, warlocks, and herbwives, whom are merely sickly-sweet matronly witches in guise. The kind that would candy belladonna shoots, and jam belladonna berries, sell them as treats to ignorant passerbys, numb to the deception, fooled for the chance to help an old woman with shaky hands and a twisted spine.

Sweet taste by first bite, bitter by last, and last be the last bite you’ll taste. Words written by the wise for wary, or for the unheeding fool.

I pluck the flowers from their stems one by one carefully. Beautiful little indigo bonnets spiraling up a central stock. All the woman desired was the delicate petals, where normally she would sow them onto a drying rack by the hundreds and upon completion, grind them into a powder. The tonics she would make had a number of uses. Joint pain, breathing difficulties, and stomach discomfort to name a few. Its other uses, what its more famous for, what its named for, is what I’m more interested in. Large hands picking tiny flowers. She said they must be fresh, for fresh is how they shall be used.

I am Petre of Orfheim, the logger. Born big in a small village of already big folk, I stood a head taller, and a half a pace wider than any other man in Orfheim. It was early on in my life that I found I had a knack for felling trees and dragging them back to the river to be floated to the mill. Truth be told, I was so good, that in a matter of a few years, I had treed the forest, nearly a full mile in all directions of the town.

Without any work, I intended to leave the village and find another place to call home. A place with a thicker wood, and a higher demand for lumber. My village, so pleased with my work, commissioned the local smith to forge me a parting gift.

Standing nearly a fathom high with its handle made of black oak, the battle ax had a wide double-headed blade, smiling hungrily. Its blade was polished to a glassy reflective finish, and I was told that every villager took a turn hammering the metal in the final moments of its forging. A memento. An honor.

Timberhound. Haunt of the forest. That thirsts for pine, and beech, and fir. It sang when swung hard. A pleasant song, like the wind whipping through hung bedsheets on a spring morn.

They didn’t thank me for the timber. For the lumber which built the town up and allowed them proper commerce, that they might trade wood for food and iron and linen.

They gave me the tool, that I might use it as a weapon, as I did in years past for the sleepy little wooded village. Wolves had plagued the town for centuries past. A problem that was only a problem when rules were broken. Stay indoors at night. Never travel alone. Never travel unarmed. Keep the wind at your back and the sun off the horizon. Stay on the road.

Huntsmen and lumbermen abided by such rules when time and task allowed. As they drove deeper into the woods to find new prey and larger trees, they would often become the prey. The wolf pack, led by Fenrir, an unusually large white wolf, found a pair of woodsmen one day and left no sign of the two, but a smear of blood and a pair of longbows. It was later that they discovered that the alderman of the village’s daughter was sweet on one of the huntsmen and accompanied the pair that day. She too, was amongst the gore. It was the first time in a long time that the wolves had taken a life.

In response, the entire village formed a guerilla and hunted the wolf pack. The battle turned into a war, lasting several months. There were casualties on both sides. Spears, bows, torches, and ax were carried by bands of men that scouted the woods, a different direction every time. They returned to the village each time with wolf heads on the tips of spears, and human corpses being drug in makeshift sleds. I decided to stay, but a bit longer, to aid my village from the threat. One final responsibility before I set off.

Each time I came back with a notch on my little ax. I was given a spear initially when we started hunting, but it felt wrong in my hands. The weight, the motion. All wrong. I may as well have been swinging a pine bough, or thrusting a fishing pole. So I started bringing my woodcutter ax. Half a fathom high and with a blade width twice that of a hand, it had never failed me before. I remember the feeling and sound of it biting into flesh as I swung the weapon at a beast on my first encounter. The creature ran straight for me and leapt into the air. I caught it with my ax head on the right shoulder as I stepped left, avoiding the oncoming attack. Fur, flesh, tendon, and bone. It cut cleanly through all. The creature yelped, tried to hobble away, and collapsed in the dirt.

I encountered three more beasts that day, and brought home a total of four heads. The battle ended with an eerie howl. Upon a hill at the edge of the chosen battlefield, a lone white wolf stood watching the battlescene. Fenrir. It was our first encounter. He locked eyes with mine, licked his maw, and turned away from the battlegrounds. His entire pack followed in suit, running off into the woods. It was the first battle we felt we had truly won. It wouldn’t happen again for a while. Pelts would soon be sent on barge down river to be sold to the next village. The wolves would not be returning, and I would soon be leaving, and heading west to the riverlands.

That day was the day the alderman had Timberhound made. Two weeks and the glorious weapon was in my hands. It was time to test the shining metal. It went through wood like a scythe cuts grain. Smooth, and clean. I could only imagine what it might do to flesh.

After that battle, the wolfpack changed tactics and attacked the village in small packs. They attacked women and children, dragging them off into the woods. Lone men met similar fates. New laws were passed in the village. A crude wall now surrounded the village. Trenches were being dug outside the walls, eventually to meet a canal being dug from the nearby river. Torches ringed the walls, and several bonfires were kept burning bright from dusk til dawn at the village gate. Sometimes bodies were left behind, nearly untouched. Beyond their killing wounds, they all had one thing in common, their jaws had been ripped cleanly off. A macabre sight to be seen, but more so it was a message. They discovered this when one terrible night, the village awoke to screaming.

At the entrance to the western gate, across the bridge that had been built over the nearly made moat, a pack of wolves stood. A single woman was before the pack, pinned down on her back by a wolf. Amongst the wolves was Fenrir, who eyed the villagers with such daring and malevolence. He padded up to the woman, and gave her a sniff. As she lifted her head to meet his gaze, she began to let out another scream, before Fenrir attacked and in one terrible move, tore her mandible from her face with a terrible crunch and a spray of blood. The great beast faced the village and appeared to smile cruelly at them with his red-stained bloody maw. He let out a long eerie howl and the entire pack started howling in unison. They scurried about around their leader, igniting his fury and kicking up a cloud of dust.

The villagers reacted by screaming at the creatures and dizzily firing arrows and stones and torches at the beasts, whom fled before any of the missiles could find a mark. I stood at the gate, Timberhound in hand. I didn’t scream or yell, I was calm, my gaze fixated on the dripping maw and amber eyes of Fenrir, hound of hell. Fenrir was the last to leave, languidly turning about and trotting off into the clearing.

Fury wracked the hearts of the villagers. They were growing desperate and the town was slowly dying. Graves couldn’t be dug fast enough, and they had to have pyres built on more than a few occasions to prevent sickness from spreading throughout. Food stores were getting low despite the dwindling population. Weapons were becoming difficult to replace. Proper limbs couldn’t be collected for making arrow shafts, let alone feathers for fletching. They resorted to slinging stones and brick. Water hadn’t been a problem until the wolves began dragging bodies into the river upstream, and the alderman forbade anyone from drinking from it.

They were under siege.

Weeks past, there were more losses on both sides, but the wolves were winning. Messengers were sent out upon the fastest horses to get aid from the nearest villages and towns. No word came, and more than once, a wolf would drag a saddle to the outskirts of the woods and drop it before the villagers eyes, like a warning, a head on pike.

It was true night they feared the most, when a new moon was in the sky. True night, darkest of dark nights. The wolves would not howl, there would be no warning if they were to strike. It was those nights that torches were doubled and bonfires burned extra hot. Homes had been deconstructed to compensate for the extra burning. It wasn’t like they had occupants. The wolves saw to that.

No one could say how she got into the village. Was she an angel? A spirit? A devil? I was on watch when she appeared. She wore a black cloak and was hidden until my torchlight flickered off a gemstone ring she wore on her right hand. The hand held a cane, that bore most of her weight. She was old, older than old by any account. Her back was twisted and the cane shook slightly as she leaned upon it. She came up from behind me and spoke ever-so-softly. I still am not certain how she entered the village unknowingly.

“Boy, he is too smart for the likes of this little dying village.” It was barely a whisper. She smiled, not cruelly, but pleasantly, like a mother might look upon a sleeping babe. Her lips were thin, and she didn’t appear to have any teeth left. Her hood kept her eyes hidden from me, her head low.

“The white one leads the pack, and he brings more to his cause as sure as the moon waxes and wanes. What will you do Petre of Orfeim? If this continues, you will be called Petre of Naught. Leastways, such will your stone read. Whom fought fiercely and was eaten by a dog.” She smiled again, her head bobbing about.

I said nothing. Not certain with exactly who or what I was dealing with before me.

“The forest has punished the village for taking more than what was needed. Fenrir is their creation. Now the beast takes more than he needs. The forest can control him no longer. It is on you child of pride, that must return the balance. Quell the forest’s fury.”

I raised Timberhound before her, and the old woman smirked.

“A beautiful piece of work.” She shook her hooded head, “But it won’t be enough. “Fury wont abet fury. Strength against strength. Stone to stone.”

“What do you suggest? What do you know of wolves and demons?” I ask, feeling my fury rise.

She raises an upturned palm, “Too much.” As she lifted her hand, the sleeve of her cloak slid down her arm, revealing a gnarled scar that from her wrist to her elbow.

“The price of pride, I suppose.” And she lowered her arm, the sleeve sliding back into place. “I suggest you use that which has been available to you this whole time.” She reached into the folds of her ebon cloak, and removed a small book. Ballads of Balderdash & Other Fine Follies read the cover. She opened the book and removed a flattened sprig of a dried plant. She handed the desiccated thing to me and I carefully turned it about, inspecting the specimen. Sharpened frilly leaves, and delicate deep purple flowers.

“Know you this plant, axman?”

I stared at the thing and turned it in my hand carefully. The wind caught it and made it flutter about in my hand suddenly. Yes! YES! “Yes!” I proclaim, “A flower of Spring. It grows from green meadows, near trickling creeks fed by the snow.” I closed my eyes and envisioned the deep meadows, littered with the purple flowers amongst glacier lilies, heath, and flowering billberries. “Monkshood.” I say, and squint, “Old Maggi says they’re toxic. Worse than bloodcap mushrooms.”

“The first men called it aconite from araknitsa. Spider-hide.” She said as she stamped her cane. “Called such for the little garden spiders that hide amongst the foliage. The fable says the spiders bite stems of the flowering plant and make the white flowers turn purple, and brim with poison.” She shook her head, “In truth, the little spiders are harmless, and only eat the moths that try and suck out the nectar come nightfall.” She stopped tamping, and lifted her head to finally meet my gaze. White cloudy eyes peeked from beneath her hood.

“It goes by another name,” The blind woman began, “Wuftdan.”

“Wolfsbane.” I translated.

“Very good.” She says.

I remember now. I remember the stories. The warnings. I remember the oldwives and Old Maggi telling the children to pick their peas from tendrils tall, and never from peapods that appear in fall. A clever rhyme that probably saved a young life or two.

Monkshood bloomed all summer long, but didn’t produce its seed pods, which closely resembled spring peas, until early fall. Worse than the flowers were the seeds, which contained highest levels of toxin. The name wolfsbane was originally coined by shepherds. Wolves were a constant threat to their flock.

With knowledge of the power of the poison, the desperate men tried a variety of ways to poison the beasts. They tried bait, but the wolves would not eat from carrion. They painted a tincture made from the plants onto pigs and tied it to a tree. Again, the beasts would not take, and simply growled at the squealing animal. Rabbits were immune to aconite poison, as it turned out, and so were fed exclusively monkshood peapods and fermented berries for an evening. By dusk, the hour of the hunt, the rabbits were released into the woods. The wolves devoured the easy prey, as they stumbled about drunkenly. By daybreak, the predators were dying or dead.

“You would have me poison this monster?” I asked incredulously.

“I would have you fight and win!” She proclaimed. “Fenrir is not of this world, and a blade alone will not slay him.” She stamped her cane, “The forest desires balance between man, beast, and all things that grow. So they gave us deer to manage what grows. Wolves to manage the deer. Man, who is tasked with shepherding all in a fine balance. So the forest gave the wolfpack Fenrir. So it gave the village you.”

Neither of us said a word for a moment. A soft wind rustled her robes, and made the torch nearest us flicker in response.

“Wolfsbane works fast. He will not eat it. He will not feast on rabbit. He only hungers for man. Bring me the flowers, fresh as possible, for fresh is how they shall be used. A blade coating will I make for you Petre of Olfheim. Petre the Axman. Petre Wolfsbane.”

I hoped the plan had gone accordingly. It was dangerous. I told the alderman, and the rest of the village’s elders. They tentatively agreed to go along with my idea. A few hours before dusk, when the guard changed, we would start a small fire near one of the western gates. This will appear diverting to the wolves as a brigade of villagers attempts to put out the flames. The wolves seeing the opportunity will rush the gate allowing me to sneak out the eastern gate. I would rely on the additional smoke to jar the beast’s senses, and not pick up my trail. Dangerous, indeed.

Yet, here I was, crouched amongst a blanket of indigo flora, the wind rippling them like a wild sea at dusk. One by one I plucked the purple flowers from their knee-high stalks, and dropped them into a gathering basket the old woman had provided. Little white spiders fled up and down the stalks as the cover of the flowers disappeared and they were left exposed.

Finished, I turned about to see a flume of dark smoke rising in the west.


Looking at the smoke, I couldn’t help but wonder how the village faired against the onslaught of wolves. A little white spider climbed from my hand, plopping from finger to finger before leaping to a nearby half-picked monkshood stalk.

“This better work.” I sigh, closing the herb bag that was brimming with purple flowers.

“That depends entirely on you.”

I turn to find the woman behind me, lightly brushing a hand across the tops of the flowers as she walked about. Where did you come from? I wanted to ask. No point in it, I suppose. She would probably answer cryptically and dodge the question.

“I go where I am needed.” She answered without being asked. “Let us prepare the balm.”

I hand her the pouch of flowers, and she lifts the lid. Her head bobbed slightly, and she appeared satisfied. “I wished they smelled. Pretty flowers should all smell.

A hand disappeared into the black folds of her garments and produced a brass bowl. It seemed too large to fit within the confines of her clothing. She smiled at the thought. My thought.

All the herbs went into the bowl, and she began pounding them to a frothy plum pulp with her cane. “Only needs a few ingredients to work.” She dove a hand into her sleeve and tossed a pinch of something into the bowl. “Salt from the Sea of Sabinn way out west of west.”

“One more.” Again the hand disappeared, and pulled out a small lidded crock. Off popped the cork to reveal smooth silky fat.

She looked at me and only smiled, nodding her head.

“Wolf?” I declare, more than ask.

“What else? What better way to offer the beast rest. Surely its weary. Are you not?” She asks, cocking her head to the side.

“I just want this to end. I want my people safe. I want the forest to grow back from water and helping hands. Not from the blood of man and beast.”

“Indeed. It is said that seeds sown and grown upon bloody are cursed. Crops grow bitter, and animals that feed upon the grass yield no milk or meat.” She stood, with my help, and handed me the crock of salve, now purple in color.

“Come, Petre Wolfsbane. Meet your destiny. Be it victory. Or defeat. Either way, your coming and going shall be carved into stone and the story shall be passed on and on from tongue to tongue. Cups shall be raised, or poured out on the earth. Let us be done with it.”

A gentle wind whipped across the meadow, rippling the plants about them. I turn about, and in the distance, I see the trees swaying about. “The forest grows impatient.” I say, and turn about, but I am again alone.

“Thank you.” I say to no one. I say to the woman. To the forest. “Come, wolf-king, I am waiting.”

As I approach the village from the east, the sun is nearly spent, with just a sheen of red fading in the western sky. Already the moon is high in the sky, and accompanied by a string of stars. An astral audience to this eve’s events. I can hear the clamor of weapons, barking, howling, yelling, screaming, yelping. The battle continues.

As I come within a hundred paces of the gate, I look slightly south and notice something up on a hill. A figure sat upon a great stump. I remember that tree, twice as wide as a man’s outstretched arms. Took a day and a half to bring down. The figure was staring at me. Waiting. It was him. He was waiting for me. It bothered me that I didn’t know for how long. Since I left? Once he realized I wasn’t at the gate? Perhaps just now. It mattered not. It was time.

I had already coated my double-headed ax, but only enough for one of the blades. It felt good in my hands. Perfect weight. Perfect balance. The edge was sharp. It never seemed to dull. Never rusts. The night was growing cold, and the hairs on my neck began pricking up. A gentle breeze whipped about the beast and myself. Its alabaster fur rustled slightly in the breeze. The beast had already fed, its maw a deep purple color in the dying light.

The beast dipped low, languidly stretching, and then howled long and loud. Deeper than ever before, the sound was haunting and dramatic. He looked at me with his amber eyes. The creature knew as much as I did. This was our final fight. This would be the end. This would be the story of the great wolfpack that was, or last day a small village amongst the woods.

“The forest take you back.” I say, and I charge. Fenrir lets out a snarl and leaps into the air. I raise my ax, but not in time and the white wolf catches me with its front paw on the shoulder. We both tumble rolling over one another. He snaps out, trying to bite at my exposed neck as we tumble. I push hard with a free hand and separate us from one another.

I recover quick, and regain my footing. The beast is up as well, and already circling about me. He is silver in the moonlight, his eyes glowing like little moons of their own. With a bark he charges again, and I am more ready for this charge. I take a step back and brace that foot into the soft earth. Raising Timberhound before me, I ready myself for the attack. Just a knick. Just a grazing blow. That is all I need. It will end soon after, or the day after that. Soon enough, either way.

Fenrir goes low and lunges for my front leg. I do not expect such an attack, but am able to turn at the last minute. How fast he is! The creature is able to clamp down on my lower thigh, missing my knee. The angle is awkward and so I am able to do little more than hit the monster with the butt of my ax. Once, twice, and again. The third blow catches him in the inner ear and a yelp escapes the animal.

He backs away and shakes his head wildly in frustration. He growls fiercely at me, clearly enraged. Without looking, I can feel blood streaming down my leg. I test some weight on it, and the wound is not back.

We square off again, and again prepare to charge. It is my turn to make an aggressive move, and I take a few running steps before leaping into the air, Timberhound high in the air. It is a fool move, and the creature easily dodges the attack. I realize the error before I land, and quickly turn about, allowing my weapon to follow the move. I am met with an open maw filled with sharp teeth coming right at my head. Turning to the side at the last moment, I use my momentum to spin about. The mouth misses my head, and I feel resistance and I careen off the side of him.

An angry growl lets out from him as we separate again. Timberhound is dripping from half its blade. Fenrir as well. A short red line, the length of a hand, ran across his flank, just in behind the shoulder. Almost an unforgiving wound. Almost fatal. Inspecting the ax heads, I realized that the beast was cut with the uncoated blade. Not good enough. He will live with such a wound.

The beast circled about wildly, howled again, and dashed off to the side of me. It circled about and kept me moving. The wolf was looking for a weakness, an opportunity. He tucked in and snapped at my ankles, but it was merely a feint. I saw the move, and countered with my own.

I raised my ax to execute an overhead chop, but at the last second, kicked out hard and caught the wolf under the chin. A clomping sound was made as the jaw snapped shut from the blow.

Fenrir sneered at me as it backed away. An odd set of grunts escaped its maw, that may have been a wolf’s fit of laughter.

It charged again, going low and then popping up as it reached me. The beast clambered up upon me and pushed hard. It was all I could do to raise the haft of my weapon to block against the daggerlike teeth from finding my throat. We spun about, the wolf-king up on his hind legs. He was impossibly heavy, and I was growing weary from the weight. More than once I tried to shove him away, but he pressed forward, gnawing at my ax handle.

His hot breath was foul. Thick with the irony smell of blood. Pink froth, foamed at the corners of his mouth as he growled and fought fiercely to overcome me.

The beast continued its push on me, and I was losing ground. Behind me was a hillside, and it became clear what the monster intended to do.

Our glorious battle ended almost as quickly as it had begun, as the execution of Fenrir’s plan was cut short. My heel found a root. An uncanny vein of the forest, thrust just slightly above the grass line. I felt my world pulling away from me as I fell backwards, and grabbed for anything I could to stop my tumble down the hill. A handful of fur is all that was available.

We tumbled, and tumbled, and tumbled. Seconds passed as minutes, as our bodies found stones, and branches. A constant supply of debris to bruise and cut. And cut again, and again.

And cut?

Timberhound. Fiend to the forest. Made to lie low tree and beast alike, had found a mark. Myself. Betrayed by my own, I continued my tumble, and my thoughts traveled to the blade, to the poison, to my glorious end. Each cut was a roll of the die. Equal chances. Live. Perish. Alive. Dead. Once I stop, so does the die.

My head bounces off a rock, and the world disappears into blinding white light.

Perhaps I’m dead. What does death feel like? My head is pounding. If this is death, I am not looking forward to life after.

Slowly, ever so slowly, my world returns to me. Pain, all I know is pain. Pain in my leg. The wolf. I remember. Pain in arm, pulsing angrily. The greatest pain though, is in my gut.

I see the moon. I see the stars above, twinkling playfully. All I feel is pain, and an incredible weight. I can’t move. So heavy.

I look down and realize where I am, and what has happened. My arm has a gash upon it. The ax, while I tumbled. I look lower to find I am pinned down by a mass of fur. White fur. My enemy lays upon me. Fenrir, king of wolves.

He is staring at me, hollow amber eyes. He is lying on my legs with his head resting on my stomach. He is no more. His neck is red, and flowing with blood. I look further down and see a another wound on the beast. Small. Barely a knick. Stained purple. Stained with poison.

I can’t help but allow a weak smile. It is done.

I try and move, and pain explodes behind my eyes and in my middle. I reach for his head and begin to lift it. Such a gash. His throat is open from left to right, and within, one of the ax heads. The uncoated side by the looks of it.

I feel burning, incredible burning coming from my stomach. Panic falls over me, and then a great calm comes over me. It is done.

Beneath the head, one side of the battle ax blade. Beneath that, the other side, the poisoned, lodged deeply into my gut.

Balance is restored. The forest can rest. The land can heal. The people will live on.

I look up the hill. It is rimmed with the wolf pack. They are staring down at me. Not hungrily. Not with anger or fear. Many bow their heads low. One by one, they howl and walk away, as if saluting. They offer respect for the fallen, and leave. Leave the village, the cleared forest, and the forest beyond.

Balance is restored. The story of Petre and the Wolf will be told again and again through the ages.


About the author

Sean Prater

I'm a chef by trade who has too much chaotic creativity penned up to dump solely onto plates every evening, thus I spend my mornings pouring off the excess into stories and the like.

Enjoy the madness.

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