Once, in a land of dense forests and deep cold rivers, there lived a King who was respected and feared by the people, but not loved. The King was neither kind nor merciful, instead meting out harsh justice to all, whether farmer or merchant or fisher; but because he did not steal their daughters away in the night, because he did not steal their sons away to fight in wars for his own glory, because he did not steal their coin away until they had none left for themselves, the people proclaimed him to be a good King.
Now it happened that the King had one true joy in his life, and that was the hunt. He treasured those hours when he could saddle his horse and ride out into the wilderness, wielding spear and dagger and bow against the great stags and fierce bears and wild bulls who sheltered in the dense woods.
One autumn day, when the air was crisp and the leaves were brittle, the King saddled his stallion and rode out with a company of guards at his back. Soon he spied a magnificent stag, its coat a glossy brown, its antlers curving in the green shadows of the forest.
The King drew his bow and let loose an arrow, but the stag dashed away. He gave chase, his stallion leaping through the trees, his guard at his back. For hours they chased the great stag, finally cornering it in a small meadow beside an even smaller farm. Triumphant, the king drew his bow. But, just as he would have slain the great stag, an arrow arced across the small meadow and pierced the animal’s heart.
The King shouted in outrage and leaped from his stallion. When he reached the fallen stag, he found the farmer kneeling next to the animal, his clothes ragged, his skin lank and sallow with hunger.
“The stag is mine!” the King yelled. “You have stolen from your King!”
And though the farmer protested that his fields had failed him, that his cattle had died, and that his family was near to starvation, the King would not listen. The punishment for theft was death, and so he slew the farmer on the spot.
Ignoring the wails and tears of the farmer’s family, the King took his great stag and his stallion and returned to his palace, where he hung its head upon his wall.
Season passed into season, autumn into winter. And one cold day, when the deep rivers were near to frozen, the King saddled his stallion and rode out with a company of guards at his back and entered the dense woods. Soon he spied a fierce bear with thick black fur and sharp teeth. He took up his spear and charged the bear. They fought through the trees, the bear swiping with his massive paws and snapping with his sharp teeth, the King thrusting with his spear and stabbing with his dagger.
Finally, after many hours, the King, with his guards at his back, cornered the bear against the high stone wall that surrounded a merchant’s fine house. Triumphant, the king raised his spear. But, just as he would have slain the bear, the merchant stepped out and drove his own spear through the animal’s heart.
The King shouted in outrage and leaped from his stallion. When he reached the fallen bear, he found the merchant kneeling next to the animal, his clothes threadbare, frost tingeing his skin a dull blue.
“The bear is mine!” the King yelled. “You have stolen from your King!”
And though the merchant protested that his business had failed him, that he had no fuel for his fire, that the bear’s thick fur would keep his family warm through the winter, the King would not listen. The punishment for theft was death, and so he slew the merchant on the spot.
Ignoring the wails and tears of the merchant’s family, the king took his fierce bear and his stallion and returned to his palace, where he hung its head upon his wall.
Season passed into season, winter into spring. And one rainy day, when the deep rivers were swollen over their banks, the King saddled his stallion and rode out with a company of guards at his back and entered the dense woods. Soon he spied a wild bull, its hide a beautiful white, its shining horns sharply curved in the spring mist. He took up his spear and his dagger and his bow. He raced through the trees, his guards at his back, the bull turning to charge with his horns, then racing away, then turning to charge again.
Finally, after many hours, the King cornered the bull on the banks of a river where its hooves sank deep into the mud and cold waters. Triumphant, his guards waiting at his back, the King raised his dagger. But, just as he would have slain the bull, a fisher ran forward and drove his own little knife into the animal’s heart.
The King shouted in outrage and leaped from his stallion. When he reached the fallen bull, he found the fisher kneeling in the mud and water next to the animal, his clothes soaking wet, his fingers cut and calloused, his skin burned from working so long beneath the sun.
“The bull is mine!” the King yelled. “You have stolen from your King!”
And though the fisher protested that the bull’s shining horns could be used for lures, that its intestines could be used for lines, that its beautiful hide could be made into boats, the King would not listen. The punishment for theft was death, and so he slew the fisher on the spot.
Ignoring the wails and tears of the fisher’s family, the king took his beautiful bull and his stallion and returned to his palace, where he hung its head upon his wall.
Season passed into season, spring into summer. One hot and green day, when the forest was thick with shadows and flowers, the King saddled his stallion and rode out with a company of guards at his back and entered the dense woods. Soon he spied a massive wolf, its fur black and grey and deepest red, its eyes a haunting amber.
He took up his bow and loosed an arrow, but the wolf dashed away. The King gave chase, his stallion leaping through the trees, his guards following at a distance. For hours they chased the massive wolf, but they could never catch it, and the King returned to his palace in defeat.
Twice more, the King sought to capture and slay the wolf, with his spear and his dagger. Both times he failed, and returned to his palace, shouting and growling in anger. And so he sat in his palace at a wide window overlooking the woods, miserable and sulking, while the heads of the stag and the bear and the bull looked down upon him.
Then one day, as summer neared its end, while the King looked out his window brooding, he heard a strange song. Leaning closer, he saw a woman walking along the edge of the woods, a babe strapped between her breasts, a flute at her lips. And the King, astonished, watched as the animals of the forest — bird and snake and rabbit, stag and bear and bull — followed along behind her, entranced. So docile were the animals that they seemed to dance at her heels.
Immediately, the King hatched a terrible plan. He sent his guard out to seize the woman and drag her into his palace. He had the woman brought before him and demanded to know her name.
“I am the Flute-Player,” the woman answered. “As was my mother before me, as will my daughter be after me. As my mother could calm the storms of the sea, so I can calm the animals of the wilderness. My daughter’s song I do not know yet.”
“There is a wolf who lives in these woods, a massive beast with fur that is black and grey and deepest red, and eyes of amber. You will play your flute and bring this animal to me.”
“Why do you have need of him?” the Flute-Player asked. “Will his flesh fill your belly? Will his fur warm you? Will his hide and intestines and shining teeth serve you upon the cold waters of the river?”
The King laughed. “Never! I have no use for such things! I shall hang his head upon my wall!”
“You would steal his life to no purpose? You would slay him for no reason?”
“I am King! That is purpose and reason enough!”
“No. I shall not call him for you,” the woman said.
“You shall. If you do not, I will slay your daughter as I have slain so many others, and there shall be no more flute-players.”
The woman lifted her chin and stared at the King. “I know the wolf whom you seek. He is a King, as well. But where you are only the King of this small bit of land and the people who farm and trade and fish upon it, he is the King of All Wolves. His territory is vast, his people without number.”
The King lifted his dagger. “You will do as I command, Flute-Player, or I will slay your daughter in front of you and I shall care nothing for your wailing or tears!”
“I shall call the King of All Wolves,” the woman said. She picked up her flute and began to play. The woman swayed as she played, her fingers dancing across her flute, her infant daughter humming against her breasts.
For hours she played, the sun slipping higher and higher into the sky, and then slipping lower and lower towards the horizon. Finally, as night settled upon them and the moon silvered the trees of the dense forest, a deep howl echoed through the air and the massive wolf walked past the trembling guards and into the palace.
Triumphant, the King leaped to his feet.
The woman lowered her flute, resting one hand upon the head of her humming daughter.
“He is the King of All Wolves,” she said.
A howl split the night, and the trees of the forest shivered.
“His territory is vast.”
A second howl, and a third, and a fourth, and the stones of the palace quaked and cracked.
“His people are without number.”
More howls and more and more filled the night. The guards, terrified, tried to flee, but fell before the howling mass of wolves who descended upon the palace. They filled the hallways and the ballrooms and the bedrooms and the kitchens, their fur black and grey and deepest red, their eyes haunting amber and ice blue and cold grey like the moon.
Frantic, the King swiped with his dagger, but the King of All Wolves leaped away. Afraid, the King reached for his spear and his bow, but he could not find them. Wailing and weeping, he fell as the King of All Wolves tore out his heart with a single snap of his sharp jaws.
Howling, their bellies full, the wolves returned to the wilderness. The King of All Wolves followed behind, his eyes a haunting amber.
Her little daughter strapped between her breasts, the Flute-Player left the ruins of the palace, its floors bloody, its walls cracked. Where she came from and where she went and what became of the Flute-Player and her daughter after none can say, but the land of dense forests and deep cold rivers saw no more of her, and ever after the only King spoken of by the people was the King of All Wolves.
[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. A complete list of her published faerie tales, fantasy, horror, mystery, romance, and science fiction can be found there.]