XI. Along Came a Werewolf

Peter prowled through the woods toward the inn. He moved upright on long, semi-wolfen legs. He swept the last of the branches aside with hairy, spindly hands. His ears perked. His nose twitched. He growled, but these humans weren't for killing. He had another use for them. He shifted the sack off his back.

A door creaked. Footsteps approached.

When the drunk staggered around the corner, Peter was human, dressed in motley, complete with cap and bells.

"Whar--!" the drunk said. "Almost wet myself! You gave me quite a scare."

"You're very fortunate I didn't mean to," Peter said. "Boo!"

They laughed.

The man pulled it out and pissed. "So what for're you skulking around out here? And dressed like that."

"I just did what you're doing. I'm Peter. On my way to Castle Volfric. I hope to be jester to the Count. Pleased to meet you."

The name of Volfric sobered the man. He squinted at Peter.

Peter smirked. Everyone knew Volfric impaled his last court jester. A crier rode through Wungoria with the man's head on a pike, and called all fools to audition at the castle.

Peter practiced his audition at every tavern, inn, and hall along the way. He joked, sang, juggled, and did acrobatic feats as if the drunken sods were Volfric. In deadly earnest, he kept them laughing and perfected every detail of his act. Audiences loved him.

As usual, tonight, he earned a meal, a drink, and a mat on the floor.

He lay near the hearth. A painted wooden carving of his head topped his scepter, with a velvet cap to match his own and bells that jingled when he shook it. He looked himself in the face--handsome devil, if he did say so. Like him, the scepter was more than it appeared.

He set it aside, and took up his lute. He plucked the strings in lulling melodies. Soon, all those around him breathed deeply in their sleep.

More softly still, he played a song of beauty lost, beauty longed for, and love he hoped one day to know again. He lowered his voice to a whisper, until he only mouthed the words.

Hoofbeats outside interrupted him. He stopped and listened. Someone arrived on horseback and dismounted.

The door opened. Moonlight framed a hooded figure, who stalked directly to Peter. Despite the peremptory tread and clank of armor, nobody else awoke.

Peter put the lute down. He reached for the scepter.

The figure stopped before him. "What a lovely song," it said---in a young woman's voice, to his surprise. "I beg your pardon. I couldn't help overhearing it. What if I could show you such a beauty, such an object for your love?"

"You mean yourself?"

The hood shook side-to-side. Night and shadow hid the face. "No. Her name is Katia."

"Hmmmm." Peter grinned. "I smell a trick or trap."

"My, what a keen nose you have. You're right. A trap. For me."

"I confess, your offer does intrigue me. I'm afraid, though, I have business at the castle."

"This is on your way," the woman said.



"Gorna! That's so far out of my way--"

"Rovenmare is in your way!" Her armored fist rang against her armored palm. "I know who you are, Peter, what you are, what you want, and why. The Baron is an obstacle you'll never pass alone. If you don't understand that, you're more fool than you pretend to be."

Peter stared at her.

"He, Rovenmare, awaits me in Gorna," she continued. "He holds Katia there. I will kill him. But I need you to free her while I do it."

The more Peter considered the strange proposal, the more preposterous every word of it sounded. Rovenmare in Gorna? Still, this was no ordinary visitor, whoever she might be.

"One night," the woman said. "Surely you can gamble one night on a fool's errand?"

He laughed. When she put it that way, how could he refuse?


Peter's mirth deserted him when the woman's horse carried them into the sky. Few tales in his repertoire mentioned flying horses. Those that did were frightful, even to a werewolf. Most concerned the Rider who haunted Castle Volfric.

The horse ran them to Gorna before he could change his mind. He'd experienced such speed before, once. He didn't like it this time, either.

They touched down outside the village and rode in.

"Promise me," the woman said over her shoulder, "you'll free Katia, whatever happens."

"What do you mean, 'whatever happens'?"


"All right. I promise. Just tell me one thing. Who are you?"

She slumped a moment, but straightened again. "It's no secret any longer. My name is Wendoline."

"Wait. Wendoline? You mean--?"

"Yes and no. It's a long story. We're here."

Two large fixed torches burned in the village square. What little feeling remained in Peter that this might all be a lark evaporated at the grisly scene they lit--a girl staked through the heart and nailed to a cross. She wore a cape and boots and nothing more.

"There! Go! Now!" Wendoline said.

"But," Peter said. "But I don't think . . . Is she alive?"

"She's a vampire. Take her down and get away. Hurry!"

Peter slid off the horse. He jogged across the open ground, more uneasy with each step. His plan gave him confidence, but this was no part of it. The bells on his costume jingled. His palm sweated around the scepter.

At the foot of the cross, he hazarded his first good look at Katia. Her black hair draped straight down from her lolling head. Her dark eyes stared in the vacant manner of a corpse. Between her lips, he could just make out the points of fangs. For all that, she was beautiful as Wendoline promised. That part was no trick. Her face struck him as uncannily familiar, as if he'd seen it before, perhaps in dreams.

His sensitive ears caught noises he recognized. The leather armor Volfric's soldiers wore made distinct creaks and squeaks as it flexed and rubbed. Peter heard a chorus of these sounds on every side. Wendoline did mention a trap.

She also mentioned Rovenmare. Years ago, Peter's mother scared him off to bed with threats of the White Baron. Since then, he'd heard and told many tales of the necromancer. He wouldn't want to be a character in any of them. Though Wendoline was right, that his plan put him on a collision course with Rovenmare, he hadn't figured that part out yet, and didn't like to think about it.

The sounds of bows and crossbows snapped Peter back to the present. He considered going wolf, but decided to save that for a surprise, if necessary. He closed his eyes, relaxed, and let his instincts time his move.

He burst into flips, handsprings, zigzags, and dodges. A chatter of twangs sent arrows and bolts criss-crossing around him. All missed.

Red-armored soldiers poured into the square.

Peter twisted the scepter's head. A sword snicked from the shaft.

The soldiers converged on him.

Fiendish speed and strength propelled him through a whirlwind of slaughter. Severed heads trailed corkscrews of blood away from toppling bodies. He caught the heads and juggled them, juggled the scepter-sword, and hurled the heads, beaning other soldiers off their feet.

A glimpse of white at the far end of the square stopped him in his tracks. He dropped everything.

A freak who could only be Rovenmare rode a horse skeleton slowly into view. Here was the fabled Baron--thin, thin, thin, and white, white, white, just as Peter's mother said, but starker and more dreadful in life than Peter ever imagined. He held a goat-skulled staff of bone. A fishnet bag of slimy brown bones hung from the saddle.

Peter broke into a cold sweat.

The soldiers also froze. They faced the other way. Peter smelled their fear. He glanced back, and saw Wendoline as they did--cowled in black, sword in hand, a vision of Death. The sight dispelled all doubt about the company he kept tonight. Saint or not, she was the Rider.

She spurred her horse to charge.

The soldiers scattered.

Rovenmare blasted white fire from the staff. Wendoline answered with hellfire from her sword.

Peter dove from between them. The fires met before he hit the ground, and exploded. For an instant and eternity, he hung suspended, bathed in the eruption of sorcerous energies. The air shimmered. Rovenmare's death magic rippled through him. The icy wave stopped the beating of his heart. But a wave of Wendoline's power triggered his metamorphosis. The dark power within him awakened and flashed through him, melting and reshaping him. His heart pounded back to life. The explosion swelled and expanded as he fell. Small rocks floated in its updraft. It snuffed the torches and knocked them cockeyed. The concussion blunted Wendoline's charge. Her horse lowered its head against the blast-wind. Her hood blew back. Her brown curls whipped. Her eyes narrowed. Grass died on the square in a quickly-spreading circle. At last, Peter landed on all fours, more wolf than man--and not dead, to his trembling relief.

A jarring stillness followed.

Peter bolted for the cross. He shed the tatters of his costume as he ran. The duel commenced noisily behind him. It cast eerie lights and shadows on Katia's pale body. Only when he reached the cross did he look back.

The mounts circled each other with a savage, stamping gait. Rovenmare and Wendoline fenced with streaks of white and blood-red lightning.

In flashes, Peter caught peeks at Wendoline's face. He recognized the soft, pretty features of the saint, hardened by rage. With her cloak thrown back, all in armor from the neck down, she looked steel through and through. Here, he understood, was the truth behind the Wendoline of legend.

Recalling his promise to her, he rose on hind legs, shifted his mutable form to stand upright, and turned his forepaws into hairy, monstrous hands. Carefully, he snapped the cross off at the base.

An incandescent maelstrom raged between Wendoline and Rovenmare as they went round and round. Stray bolts and deflected blasts set fire to buildings around the square. Wendoline pressed forward, but Rovenmare kept his distance, pulling the fight in elliptical loops.

Peter lugged the cross to the edge of the square, safe at least from the horses' hooves. Strong feelings welled up in him--pity for Katia, rage and disgust over what had been done to her. The nails looked horrendous. The stake immobilized her. He pulled it out first, in case she could somehow free herself at once from all the rest.

She couldn't. She could only voice a weak, hoarse mewl. The torment Peter heard in it wrenched his soul. Her eyes didn't glow as a vampire's should, either.

"Let's get you free." He worked his fingers for a grip on the nail through one hand. Katia squeezed her eyes and mouth shut. He began to pry it out. "All right. It's almost over."

He looked to see how Wendoline fared.

She shouted an incantation, tore her cloak off, and swung it at Rovenmare. It shuddered to life. It burst into blackish-red flames. The hood scrunched into a mockery of a head. The ends flapped as wings. Each beat fanned the stench of brimstone, leaving no question what kind of spirit she cast into the cloak. It flew at Rovenmare like no bird, bat, or insect of this world. Peter imagined a flock of such things in flight across some gloomy abyss. He caught an impression of a face within the fabric of the hood--mercifully indistinct, for what little he could make of it stirred a sudden loathing in him for the cloak. Though he knew it had been plain and harmless around Wendoline's shoulders on the ride to Gorna, the memory of touching it horrified him now.

Rovenmare swept his staff at the dead soldiers. They shot up in the air and glommed together as a giant floating hand. Some corpses formed the palm, and some the fingers. Rovenmare flexed his free hand into a fist, as if trying on a glove. The giant hand mimicked the motion. Where the bodies lacked joints corresponding to his knuckles, bones cracked. Peter winced at the staccato, but what really disturbed him was the practiced thoughtlessness of Rovenmare's action--as though he'd conjured so many such hands that he broke them in that way by rote. The pressure squished things around inside the bodies. When the hand opened again, blood poured from the neck stumps and other wounds.

Under Rovenmare's control, faster than Peter would have thought possible, the hand seized the flapping cloak. It crumpled the fabric into a wad that would have been most painful to any living creature, and the cloak truly seemed to feel it. Only the hood stuck out, whipping side-to-side, struggling and straining, and worst of all, whining. Blackish-red flames blazed through the gaps between the fingers. Greasy smoke billowed from inside the fist. It reeked of burning leather, flesh, and brimstone. Rovenmare gritted his teeth and clenched his raised fist even tighter. The cloak's scream made Peter's fur stand on end.

The first nail popped loose. Katia gasped. She twitched her hand. It flopped from the wood into the dirt. Peter dashed to her other hand, and started on that nail.

The giant hand released the cloak, which fluttered down, inanimate once more. Badly damaged by the spirit's fire, the hand looked all the more ghastly. Charred particles rained from the smoldering palm. Only blackened skeletons remained of several fingers. In the light of the buildings that burned around the square, Peter had never seen anything so hideous.

It reached for Wendoline.

She pointed at Rovenmare. He shifted his staff to parry. A black beam from her finger shattered the goat skull and struck him in the eye. He cried and dropped the staff.

The giant hand fell apart. Corpses thudded to the ground.

Black energy fizzed in Rovenmare's eye. He stabbed a finger in and plucked it out. A black aura crackled around the eyeball. Before he could throw it away, the black energy leaped back into the socket, and slurped its way straight back into his head. He slapped a hand over the bloody cavity and shrieked.

Peter swore. The second nail came free.

Wendoline pointed at Rovenmare's mount. She gestured as if pulling a loose thread. The horse skeleton collapsed beneath him into a pile of bones. She shouted, "Hya!", and spurred. Her horse raced to trample him. He grabbed the bag of bones and lunged out of the way. Red-hot hooves pounded the remains of the horse skeleton to smoking bits.

Wendoline slashed at Rovenmare's throat. He jerked back, and she only chopped his beard off. Still backpedaling, he tucked the bag under one arm. The horse snorted fire. He threw his other arm up to shield himself. The blast incinerated sleeve and flesh. With no muscles to support it, the skeletal arm dangled from his shoulder. As he scrambled for dear life, his limp bones flapped in a grotesquely comic manner.

Peter laughed. After so much tension, he needed to. He knelt at Katia's feet, and wormed two fingers through a hole in her boot to get at the last nail. That didn't work, so he clawed the leather to widen the hole. When he looked up again, he saw nothing to laugh about.

He'd no idea where the white-robed skeletons came from, but four of them surrounded Wendoline. They whipped chains around her neck, her sword arm, her horse's neck, and one of the horse's hind-legs.

Rovenmare staggered a few steps to relative safety. Somehow, he reanimated the bones of his arm.

Wendoline turned ghostly. Peter saw through her and the horse. He imagined they could pass through walls like that. When the chains didn't fall away, he didn't like the flicker of alarm in her expression. He feared the trap she sprang had caught her. She turned solid again and strained against the chains.

Rovenmare gesticulated at her with his skeletal arm, and swayed the bag of bones like a censer. He babbled an incantation as fast as he could move his lips.

Peter sensed a difference, a whole new urgency in Rovenmare and Wendoline alike, as if the duel hinged entirely on this ritual. At the heart of it was that bag. The rotten bones set it apart from the spotless white of Rovenmare's other tools and accoutrements. It occurred to Peter they might be Wendoline's.

The skeletons tugged this way and that, keeping Wendoline and the horse off-balance and occupied. They wouldn't let her gesture to cast spells, and spoiled her aim when she lashed out with raw magic. Her sword blinked from her left hand to her right, for all the good that did her. She hacked at the chains, to no avail. The skeletons jeered. They yanked the chains, and danced beyond her reach.

Rovenmare grew more smug with every word he spat at her.

Peter nervously wondered how many words remained, and what they portended. Such questions made him all the more impatient to free Katia. She'd twisted her torso off the cross. Only the nail through her feet still bound her to it. He couldn't grip the head, no matter how he tried. Blood in her boot made it too slippery. He snarled.

Through sheer martial rigor, Wendoline began to wrest control of the struggle away from the skeletons. She constrained and dictated the rhythm of their movement, but her desperation grew increasingly apparent.

Given time, she could free herself, Peter knew, but time was running out. He almost couldn't watch without running to help her. He weighed his odds of charging Rovenmare. He had a clear path, and Rovenmare seemed thoroughly absorbed in the ritual. If only Peter got to him, once he sank his teeth in, that would be the end of it. But he hadn't freed Katia yet. Wendoline anticipated this, he realized, when she insisted on his promise.

At wits' end, he braced the cross with one shaggy foot, and grabbed Katia's ankles. "I'm sorry. This'll hurt." He pried her legs up. Her mouth stretched in a cry stifled only by her weakness. At least she was free of the cross. He scooped her up and set her down well clear of it, then hurried to get the nail out of her feet.

Wendoline flourished her sword in a figure-eight that struck the skull and hands off a skeleton. That freed the horse of one chain. It bucked onto its forelegs and smashed its hind-hooves through another skeleton's ribs and spine.

Katia quivered in Peter's arms. She retched up clots of blood. Most importantly, she regained some strength and movement.

Rovenmare's voice rose alarmingly. His motions became frenzied, but also triumphant.

Peter had to act. He eased Katia down, and nerved himself to charge one of the scariest men in the world.

Wendoline chopped a third skeleton to pieces.

Katia said, "Help . . . her!"

Peter rushed at Rovenmare as a wolfish blur, shapeshifting as he ran. Fluid muscles grew strongest the instant he needed them. His paws adjusted to the battle-scarred ground.

The horse reared. It tossed its head, and slung the last skeleton high into the air.

Rovenmare shouted a syllable--the final one. It filled the square, and echoed with a potency far beyond its volume. Peter's sharp, enchanted hearing caught an otherworldly resonance he'd heard in the cloak's demonic voice. He dreaded what would happen next, whatever that might be. He sped up anyway, as if it weren't too late.

A cataclysmic tremor rocked the earth. It heaved Peter headlong into a bouncing roll.

The ground fissured open beneath the horse and Wendoline. A blast of brimstone smoke obscured them, but as it mushroomed overhead, a fiery glare underlit them from the chasm's depths. Wendoline screamed. The horse neighed and scrabbled frantically, but for once, the power of flight was not enough. A stronger power dragged them down.

Peter tumbled toward the fissure too fast to stop himself. Over the side he went, from night air into scorching heat that rose in waves palpable enough to ruffle his fur. His stomach queased as he began to fall. He shot out an arm as long as he could stretch, and grabbed the ledge with the biggest, strongest hand he could form. It held. He dangled.

The last skeleton fell from the sky. It pinwheeled its arms, but couldn't reach a ledge. It dropped, screaming, past Peter. He couldn't help following it down with his gaze. Beyond it, Wendoline and the horse continued to plummet. Beyond them--

He looked up and away. That glimpse of Hell would haunt him ever after. Nor could he shut out the eerie hum he now recognized as distant, endless, countless voices screaming. He still lived, though, and Katia still needed help.

Rovenmare stalked to the ledge and threw the bag of bones into the chasm. Peter guessed that bag was Wendoline's last hope. He tried to catch it with his foot. His claws tore the fishnet. The bones spilled loose into the abyss.

Rovenmare looked startled to see him hanging there. For the skip of a heartbeat, Peter locked stares with the necromancer. Rovenmare's pitiless eye and gruesome socket almost made him lose heart, but his life depended on pressing his slim advantage of surprise. He poured everything he had into a snarl so chilling, even Rovenmare cried and jumped back.

Peter grabbed the ledge with his other hand. He hoisted himself half out of the pit, and risked a glance back. Fully and angrily recovered, Rovenmare spread his arms. Peter kicked his legs over the edge just as Rovenmare slammed his palms together, flesh to bone.

The fissure crashed shut.

Not the faintest seam remained.

The awful finality overwhelmed Peter. He ran. He snatched up Katia and ran. He swung her onto his back. "Hold on!"

She wrapped her arms and legs around him.

He dropped to all fours and ran and ran and ran.


Anonymous said...

I resisted the urge to comment until I hread all of the chapters. For some reason, I can see comments and times but not dates, so I have no idea when chapters were released or comments were entered. Oh well. First, I will say that its hard for me to find novels that I like. I mostly am interested in plot, characters and the interplay and so writers who go on and on describing minor scenes or characters bore me. Anyhow, I really enjoyed this story and would certainly pay normal prices to read the final version if/when it goes to publication or anything else you care to write. My favorite character by far is the necromancer with Katia a clear second. And I think the Count (or Baron or whatever) is really uninteresting though I would love to just skip to his end. Katia doesn’t seem very committed to his death, I’d think she’d want to at least antagonize him or cause him so pain enroute to her final battle with him. I love her use of Baptiste’s father against him, that kind of stuff is priceless. Some more deals and coalition building between the characters would be nice but I guess is not in keeping with the black/white of a fairytale. Then again, you already crossed those lines – maybe Baptiste should have been turned by Katia – I don’t see why he shouldn’t have at least considered it. Anyhow, great work. I wish I could write as well.

Curt Purcell said...

Thanks for both the kind words and helpful criticisms! Sorry it's not finished yet--I've been working for some months on the next chapter (titled, "The Circus"). The necromancer is certainly the most fun and engaging of the characters to write. Not to give too much away, but there will be a little shuffling of allegiance in another two or three chapters. Again, thanks!

Anonymous said...

Look forward to the next chapter! Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Cant help notice is there a reference between your baron rovenmare and a certain other character baron rivendare?

Curt Purcell said...

No relation whatsoever, but after googling his name, I can see why you might think so. Thanks for pointing that out--I'll have to change his name in the next draft. A shame, as I've become pretty attached to this one.