The first one was discovered when it bit a child. Such a thing was not unheard of. Children often tugged and poked and got themselves bitten or kicked or nipped at. But when this little boy’s mother came to pick him up and check his wound, she found something far more insidious than broken bleeding skin and a crying child. The gash was deep, the flesh shredded, and it bubbled and festered with a foul odor, as if the flesh had been rotting for days, though it was only freshly wounded.
The boy had been playing with a wild hare. An unusually fat and fluffy and sedate hare. His mother looked at the creature with both doubt and suspicion as it sat calmly nibbling. It was the first known incident, but not the last. These hares cropped up all over the town—several, then dozens, then hundreds—and it did not take long for the townsfolk to realize that they were no ordinary hares. They seemed fat and lazy, but when pursued, they moved with preternatural speed. Their bites were not the bites of an animal with teeth made for grinding plants and seeds. The bites were like those made by fanged predators. And worse, the hares’ spittle seemed to contain some kind of poison or venom. Those who suffered even one bite fell ill, growing lethargic and pale as if slowly being drained of their blood.
Livestock and horses were not spared. Farmers living in the outlying lands that surrounded the town would hear the suddenly terrified lowing of their cows and run out to see their animals felled. Inside the town, dogs, cats, pigs, chickens, and even flying birds were found wounded and dead.
One day, there came news of a farmer who had tried to rid his fields of the hares and been attacked by more than one. He was found lying in his fields, his body torn and bloody, his face near unrecognizable. His wounds festered and fouled. And he died within days.
Where did they come from, these monsters disguised to look harmless? How were they multiplying so quickly? And most urgently, what could be done about them?
Entreaty to higher authorities in the land had been tried. And had failed. The townsfolk were not a superstitious people. But nor were they a people who believed only in what they could perceive. Some prayed to new gods. Others prayed to old ones. And a few remembered that there were old folks in the town who spoke of ancient legends of their land, from a time when their town was the seat of a kingdom. The old tales spoke of terrors such as the one that plagued their town now. Curses laid by rival kings or by covetous demons or wrathful spirits.
Whatever hell the hares had come from and why they had come, the townsfolk did not know. They only knew that they had to kill the hares before the hares killed them. The town was surrounded by farmlands and mountains and plains, and it was far from other towns and villages and cities. It seemed sensible for the folk of such an isolated town to believe in the spirits of trees and in the wrath of the river and in curses and plagues laid by unseen beings.
The mayor and his wife decided to protect their people using an ancient remedy that everyone thought was a mere legend. The town archives contained many documents and books and artifacts. Among them was a chair forged of wood and metal and the ashes of a king. The Wolf Chair.
The oldest citizen of the town was a retired miller in the ninetieth decade of his life. His family was a family of historians, but they only kept memories of times before recorded history. They passed down and inherited stories through memories and orations. The miller had no sons or daughters or grandchildren to pass his stories on to. So he had at last allowed a young scholar to begin writing down his knowledge. That scholar was the one who alerted the mayor to a prior account of an attack on the town by hellish hares who were said to be vessels inhabited by a legion of demons.
In that legend, the town was the seat of power for a great highland king, whose enemy had summoned an army of demons into himself to fight his rival. The highland king in turn called upon the spirits of the natural world to fight the unnatural. And in particular, his greatest strength came from the spirit of the wolf. His queen spoke in tongues and was a great trickster. She tricked their enemy into casting out the army of demons. But instead of returning to whatever foul realm from whence they had come, the demons latched onto the closest living things they could find, a group of hares. The poor possessed beasts became twisted and vicious. They multiplied and plagued the land until the king transformed into a giant wolf and devoured them all. He descended into hell, carrying the hares and the possessing demons with him. His queen and his people thought he was lost, but he returned. Naked and bruised, he was found near the field of battle under the light of a full moon. And he passed all the tests that his queen put to him to prove that he was not himself possessed by demons or even by friendly spirits.
After that time, the king was called the Wolf King and he worshipped the wolf and the moon. When he did finally die, his body was burned. He had no throne when he was king. Only a chair of wood on which he sat when he received supplicants and emissaries and captured enemies. The queen had a greater chair made from the wood of her king’s seat, the metal of his weapons, and the ashes of the king himself. It was said that she enchanted the chair, so that any who sat in it and were worthy would be imbued with the spirit of the wolf just as the Wolf King had been.
The mayor brought the Wolf Chair into the mayoral manor. He announced his intention to sit in the Chair and summon the spirit of the wolf to help him protect his town. The old miller and the scholar warned him that there might be parts of the legend that were missing and that the chair might not work or it might be dangerous. They asked for more time for the old miller to search his memories and for the scholar to search the archives. The mayor’s advisors begged him to let a volunteer try the Chair first. But the mayor told them all that there was precious little time left. And he would not ask of his people any task or burden that he was not willing to take upon himself.
The hares were finding their way into homes. People were boarding up windows and sealing doors as if a storm were coming. Townsfolk had to travel in packs and mobs armed with whatever weapons they had just to go draw water from the well or visit the granary. No visitors came. No aid from outside the town.
Despite the danger of venturing outside, the townsfolk had felt a nervous hope when they heard of the mayor’s plan. Some thought the plan futile, that the Chair was just a chair. Others thought it brave but reckless. Almost all gathered in the manor to watch the mayor’s plan unfold one desperate night.
The mayor and his wife sat in the chair one by one. And some would later say that the mayor’s wife was the braver one, for she saw what happened to her husband. He sat in the chair and waited, gripping the armrests. Almost at once, he let out a breath and stiffened, his eyes widened, and he jumped out of the chair. He dropped to the floor and waved away those who rushed to his aid. He yelled out in pain and his body curled up. Then his moans became growls. He wore loose clothes in anticipation of a transformation. And all expected he would change into a wolf, for his nose grew long and his face sprouted fur. His fingers elongated and claws displaced his fingernails. His body grew taller and bigger, straining against the tunic he wore. But then, he suddenly stopped growling. And he suddenly stopped transforming as if he’d stopped halfway through. He was not a wolf. He was no longer a man. He was a bit of both.
There was intelligence in his eyes. But he looked so ferocious that none dared approach him. And all gave way when he leapt across the room and out through the door.
The mayor’s wife went next and she underwent the same transformation. That night they waged a bloody war against the hell-hares. And when morning came, they walked back into the mayoral manor, where the people who had seen the transformation had waited all night. The mayor was a man again. His wife a woman. They had transformed back into humans as the first rays of dawn struck them.
The mayor and his wife were covered in blood, some of it their own, for the hares had put up a fight. They remembered killing many, but said there were still so many left. And it seemed to them that for each one they killed, two more sprouted up in its place. That night, the mayor and his wife transformed again. They did not need to sit in the Chair. The spell had worked on them and was a part of them each now. But after a few days of fighting, the mayor and his wife came back bruised and battered and none the victorious.
And so the mayor gave his permission for any whose will could bear the pain to sit in the Wolf Chair, be transformed, and join him in the fight. More and more of the townsfolk took on the burden of the Wolf Chair. But the bloody battles were doing no good. It seemed that there were even more hares in the town. They covered the square and swarmed around the mills. Their town was suffocating from the plague of hares.
The wolf-people or half-wolves as the townsfolk took to calling them were as vicious and frightening as the hellacious hares. So those among the townsfolk who did not transform stayed indoors at night while the fighting raged. They only came out in the morning to tend to the half-wolves after they transformed back into their human bodies.
One night, a hunter dared to stay outdoors. He had not taken on the burden of the Wolf Chair. He aimed to fight the hares, but he wanted to keep his whole wits about him. And he wanted to watch the battles first, to see what was going wrong. What he saw astounded and horrified him. In their half-wolf states, the townsfolk didn’t see what was happening. The hares were multiplying not by mating, but by some blood sorcery. Each time one was killed and its blood spilled, more hares rose from the blood. The mindless brutal killing was only making the crisis worse.
The hunter managed to return to the safety of his home before he could fall prey to hare or wolf. In the morning, he reported to the mayor, who was in a sickbed by that time, and to the gathered advisors and townsfolk. No one knew what to do and so most hid behind their faith in their leader, the mayor. They denounced the hunter for they were terrified of what it meant if he was right.
But a few believed him and among them were the old miller and the scholar who had first alerted the mayor to the legend of the Wolf Chair. One of the mayor’s advisors, who was pregnant, also joined them. With a baby coming, she wanted everyone to face the truth and try to do something to assure a future for the town, not just hope and pray that the hares would go away. And there were a few of the younger men and women of town who felt as that advisor did and felt compelled by both fear and heroism. A few of those young men and women watched at night from roofs and towers and saw that what the hunter said was true.
During the days of bloody battle, the scholar had been scouring the archives where the Wolf Chair and other ancient objects were kept, paying special heed to books of spells and incantations that were transcribed by scholars much like her from accounts told by keepers of wisdom just like the old miller. She gathered their small group in the archives one night when the half-wolves were out futilely tearing the hares into pieces that just begat more hares. The scholar pointed out that the half-wolves never howled. A murmur of agreement went through the others, for they too had noticed though not consciously till that moment. They listened to the night, confirming their observation. It was eerie hearing the half-wolves growling, snarling, snapping but not howling.
The scholar explained that they did not howl because they were not fully wolves. The half-wolves retained some of their humanity—though not enough—and so if they wanted to attack as one, they seemed to give signals through gestures. This was not common. They acted separately for the most part not as a pack. The hunter and some of the others had seen and reported as much. So the half-wolves did not howl to each other. As strange luck would have it, the scholar believed, that howling held the key to stopping the hares. The howl of a wolf in the wild would stop a natural hare in its tracks, make it freeze with fear, freeze in place until the danger passed. The scholar believed the hares in their town, demon-possessed though they were, would behave the same way by reflex. If the hares would freeze long enough, then perhaps they could be rounded up and drowned in the river. And if no blood was shed in their demise, then it was likely no more hares would arise. The old miller nodded as the scholar spoke. The tales he remembered about demon-possessed creatures and the spirits of nature bore out her presumptions.
The scholar had also found that she and the miller had been right to warn the mayor about the dangers of the Wolf Chair. When the Wolf King asked for the spirit of the wolf to take him, he would transform completely into a wolf and run wild through his kingdom, surveying and protecting it during the night from any evils that roamed. Before he sat in the chair, the queen would draw a glyph on his forehead to remind him he was a man and needed to return to his true form. The glyph had to be drawn using the king’s own spit, for that represented the tongues of man, the intelligence of man. Inside his mouth, she placed a wolf’s tooth, so he would also have the voice of the wolf.
The townsfolk had observed none of the proper rituals. Their transformations were incomplete. That was why they appeared so gruesome. They were half-human and half-wolf.
Someone had to go through the proper rituals, transform fully into a wolf as the ancient king had done, and howl as the spirit of the wolf would howl to stun the hares. But they also had to stop the half-wolves from going out. No one outside of the small group gathered in the archives believed the hunter. So the townsfolk could not be counted on to help keep their half-wolf kin and half-wolf friends tied up at home. The old miller said that that transformation spell was too powerful to undo at least by the likes of the uninitiated as they all were. But he remembered legends of binding. When a spell was too powerful to undo, a spell-caster would attempt to limit the spell’s power by binding it to a place or a person or a time.
The Wolf King worshipped the moon. His power was greatest when the moon was full and weakest when it was new. They searched the archives and found a spell that might bind the wolf transformations to the full moon. If the spell worked, then once the full moon passed, there would be no half-wolves about to muck up the plan. With that danger eliminated, they could deal with the hares. The scholar, miller, hunter, and the rest took a great risk with the lives of their fellow townsfolk. The half-wolves may not have been doing their job as planned, but they were all that stood between the townsfolk and the hell-hares.
The hunter volunteered to be the first to undergo the kingly ritual, the proper ritual of transformation. If it succeeded, then there were four others who would be transformed. Their pack would surround the town and howl so all could hear them, howl until the hares were stunned. The rest of their group would be ready with nets and cages, to gather the hares and drag them to the river. There were so many hares that they all hoped the other townsfolk would help when they saw the plan was working—if the plan worked.
The ritual began. The scholar made the glyph on the hunter’s forehead. She placed a wolf’s tooth in his mouth. She and the hunter and the old miller chanted words of summoning and protection. Suddenly, they heard a great crack and the hunter was thrown from the Chair. The hunter began to moan and growl as all the others had, but where all their transformations had stopped his continued. He did not grow larger, but smaller and slimmer. He dropped to all four limbs and his limbs jerked at odd angles until they were shaped and positioned like the limbs of a wolf. And unlike all the others, the hunter grew a tail. When the transformation was complete, the hunter looked like a natural wolf. He shook at his tunic and the scholar removed it. She spoke to him to gauge his intelligence. He answered with the tapping of his right paw, just as they had discussed beforehand.
But the old miller called for their attention and he pointed to the Wolf Chair. It was cracked straight down the middle. One of the others tried to sit in the Chair, ignoring all objections. But nothing happened. The Chair’s enchantment was broken. There would be no more spirit-wolves. The hunter was the first and the last.
But the others did not falter. They went out with nets and cages to capture the hares. And the hunter-wolf went out with them. Without the half-wolves attacking them, the hares seemed deceptively harmless as they sat or hopped about the town, nibbling (likely on flesh).
The hunter-wolf stopped in the middle of the town and he began a low keening that progressed to a full howl. And as they had hoped, the hares froze. Not only were they stunned, but they appeared mesmerized as if by siren song. The wolf’s howl was like no natural wolf’s howl. It was beautiful and penetrating. And the hares did not remain stunned. They turned to the wolf and began to move toward him. The hunter-wolf saw this and so he kept up his howling song of lament and started to walk out of town.
The hares followed.
The wolf led the hares out of town. He led them into the river. And without shedding a single drop of their blood, he led them to their doom. For they drowned in the river. The wolf sang through the night. But one night was not enough. There were so many hares, that he had to sing for seven nights before the town was rid of the demonic creatures. He remained a wolf during all that time, even in the daytime, but he set aside any concerns and sang and howled for his people.
In the meantime, his clever friends found the source of the curse. There was a hole spewing evil airs some leagues away from the town. Someone likely went prospecting for another site where they might dig a well and they dug up a curse instead. They used a spell to seal up the hole that let the demons through. There must have been an unsuspecting and unwitting family of hares nearby when the seal first broke. And once again in the history of that land, hares had suffered possession by evil forces.
The townsfolk who sat in the Wolf Chair were not freed from their burden when the Chair broke. They remained half-wolves, transforming whenever the moon was full. They were the dangers now, and willingly let themselves be bound and secured on the nights of the full moon. And though they had not succeeded in doing away with the hares, they were still honored by the care of their fellow townsfolk.
The hunter remained a wolf. The scholar surmised that it was likely because the Chair had broken while they performed his transformation. She lamented and took the burden of the accident upon herself. She swore to the hunter that she would find a way to restore him by restoring the Chair.
The broken Wolf Chair did not remain in the mayor’s manor. It was taken back to the archives, where the scholar spent her life trying to fix it. She never succeeded. It is broken still.
But the town remained free of the curse of hares. And the town came back under the protection of a spirit-wolf.
And so it remains still.
Copyright © 2015 by Nila L. Patel