PETEREL AND THE TERRIBLE HEAD by J. Motoki

The storm peterel stood before them
with its wings spread. He straddled
the back of the great bird, and the
bird bore him into the sky...
Glinting in the sun lay a brass-bound wooden chest, the length and breadth of a coffin.

What luck, Erasmus thought. For he was weakening in his old age, and the things of the sea eluded him. When he raised the chest lid, the fisherman cried out. Inside lay the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, asleep with an infant at her breast.

Erasmus stood helplessly. When he looked up, a storm peterel was circling down. The bird landed on the lid.

“Bring the chest home,” the peterel said. “When the boy is in danger, be sure to give him my gift. His life is forfeit if you forget.” The bird took flight, becoming a thin hair on the horizon. Erasmus blinked and saw in the sands a single white feather.

The fisherman was filled with a vigor he had lacked since his youth. He heaved the chest in his arms and strode back to his home. A solitary man, and childless, he fretted about nursing the woman and infant to health. He covered the woman with a blanket and held the child crookedly in his arms. The child wailed. The beautiful woman opened her eyes.

Her name was Dinae. Her father cast her out, as she was husbandless and with child. He forced her into a wooden chest and set her adrift in the sea.

“I thought we would die,” Dinae whispered. “But a storm peterel fed me fish through the lock. It told me not to fear. And so, my son will be called Peterel.” 

“A strong name,” Erasmus said. He said nothing about the bird he had seen or its gift—he hid the feather away and never spoke of it to anyone.  
 
Dinae’s father was the king across the sea. He was a cruel ruler, and surrounded himself with greedy sycophants. The king regretted his decision to banish his daughter, as it was possible that her son survived and that the prophesy could still come to pass. The king sent scouts and soldiers to distant lands to search for a beautiful woman with long curling hair and her child. A whisper grew of a beautiful woman and her handsome son who lived on an island not too far away, and one day a ship manned by soldiers came for them.  

Erasmus saw the approaching men from his window and thought of the stormbird’s words all those years ago. He had enough time to find the hidden feather. The soldiers herded them to the ship and set sail immediately.

Peterel had never seen a more wonderful sight than the palace by the sea. He marveled at the multitudes of people in their bright clothing, the strange foodstuffs sold in markets. It looked nothing like his island village. The town had cobbled streets and neatly bricked houses, and the king’s palace towered on a hill beyond, overlooking all.

The king welcomed his guests warmly. His court thrummed with excitement at the return of the princess and her handsome son. Whispers of “the future king!” traveled through the courtiers, for the king was old and widowed. Dinae stood before the throne and greeted her father coldly. She remembered begging him for mercy as he closed the chest on her and her newborn.

“The princess has returned to us,” the king announced to his court, amid cheering and rejoicing. “My daughter, I welcome you home with open arms. I welcome your son also, for I see my own face in his.”

“Boy,” the king said, although Peterel was nearly a man. “You are my daughter’s only son, and thus my successor. I ask only that you bring me an object to prove your worthiness of the crown.”

And Peterel, overwhelmed by the court spread before him in a peacock’s tail of sparkling gold and jewels, said: “I will do anything you wish, if it can be done by a living man. On my life, I swear it.”

His mother turned away and Peterel saw sorrow on her face. He had never said anything to hurt her before.

“Brave lad,” the king said, approvingly. “Then you shall bring me The Terrible Head. Beyond the edge of the kingdom lies a cave inhabited by three monsters. The two ancient monsters are older than time and cannot be killed. The youngest is but a demigod—and it is her head that I want. Come, I shall see you outfitted with everything you need, and you will leave as soon as you will.”

Peterel found himself torn from his mother and Erasmus. He was laden with armor and weapons, so he could barely move, and servants ran to bring him food and supplies, horse and wagon. The king gave him a jeweled dagger. As his head spun from the chaos, Peterel felt a hand grip his arm and Erasmus’ voice in his ear. Together Peterel and the fisherman slipped away from the preparations, and walked to the edge of the sea.

Erasmus told him what the wicked king did not—that the three monsters were sisters, terrible and wild, with wings, brass claws, and venomous serpents growing from their heads. Whosoever looked upon the visages of these monsters turned instantly to stone.

Peterel turned pale. But he was determined to keep his oath. He asked Erasmus, who was like a father to him, why his mother was unhappy after being reunited with her father and childhood home.         

The fisherman told him that his birth frightened his grandfather. A prophet had warned the king of his daughter’s only son—who would be the cause of his death. Peterel listened with amazement as Erasmus told him of the chest and the speaking stormbird. Erasmus brought forth the white feather and gave it to Peterel. As soon as his hand touched it, the ground beneath them rumbled and waves leaped from the sea.  

The storm peterel stood before them with wings spread, beautiful and white. It was larger than Erasmus remembered, chest-high and the length of three men. The peterel bade the fisherman to leave. Bewildered, Erasmus touched Peterel’s shoulder, and left them. The bird then commanded Peterel to dispose of all the things the king had given him, which he did—save for the dagger in his pocket.    

“The king proposed an impossible quest,” the peterel said. “With the expectation that you will never return. I have come to help you. Get on my back, we leave at once.”

Peterel hesitantly straddled the back of the great bird, worrying that his weight would hurt it, but the bird bore him without complaint into the sky.  
They landed in a valley of flowered trees. A silver river wound through curling ferns and lily-fronds, and the scent of honeyed nectar hung heavily in the air.   

“You brought nothing with you but the clothes on your back?”

Peterel nodded and flushed, feeling the weight of the dagger in his pocket.

“Then take this. Follow the river. When the time comes, you will know what to do.”

Peterel watched the stormbird fly away and felt dreadfully alone. He looked at the crown of white feathers in his hands. A voice in his head told him to leave the dagger behind, but he felt defenseless armed only with feathers. He walked for some time alongside the river, under a grove of crimson fruit. He became hungry, although he was not certain they were safe to eat.

Peterel reached for a fruit—and froze. The three monsters lay asleep beneath a poplar-like tree, with golden leaves fallen like coins all around their bodies. Two lay with their brass claws crossed before them and slept with their heads tucked behind their wings like birds. Their serpents writhed from gold feathers.

Between them lay the youngest. Unlike her sisters, she slept on her back with her wings curled around her. Peterel glimpsed a half-turned face that was so lovely and sad that he shivered in spite of himself. Her serpents undulated around her shoulders.

Peterel looked at his drawn dagger, then at the feather crown. He did not know what to do. He held each as he approached the monsters. The youngest turned her face towards him in sleep, and his heart leapt to his throat. Nothing happened. Tears fell from her closed eyes. Peterel thought of the cruelty of his grandfather, how he sentenced his only child to die at sea. He flung the dagger away from him, where it fell into vines and sprouted into a tall sapling with gold trunk and jewels for leaves. At the sound, the youngest opened her eyes and sprang to her feet. Her sisters did not wake. Peterel looked upon her face, wondering why her magic failed on him.  

The monster approached him. Her brass claws tore the ground and her serpents hissed and lashed.

“I was sent to bring your head to the king,” Peterel said, torn by pity and terror. He had never seen a face so grieved. The monster stopped. “But I am not my grandfather, who would cast his only daughter and her newborn into the sea.”

“The storm peterel gave me this for protection.” He held out the feather crown to her.

“May I give it to you?”

The monster stared at him.

Peterel hesitated before her, then gently gathered the serpents together. They twisted in his hand, but did not strike. He slid the feather crown over them and onto her head.

A terrible scream arose as the others roused from sleep and began to fly to them. The woman threw the crown around Peterel’s head and bore them to the sky, but it was too late—Peterel was a stone statue in her arms.

The others called to her as they pursued them like birds of prey. She was younger and swifter despite the heavy weight of stone, and they soon fell behind, their shrieks and clacking of brass claws fading. The woman wept and spoke to Peterel. Her name was Magda. She was a maiden once and went to worship at the sea god’s temple, when he appeared and forced himself on her. His wife, enraged, cursed her with a monstrous form so that she would be alone and reviled until the end of time.

Magda’s tears fell upon the stone body, and she felt him stir slightly in her arms. She flew away from the valley and to the sea.
The wicked king celebrated his grandson’s foolishness with his closest advisors. He arranged a banquet for the occasion. Dinae barricaded herself in her room and refused to appear.

As the king congratulated himself, the doors of the palace flew open. There stood Peterel, handsome and regal in the sunlight. Beside him stood a heavily veiled and winged woman. Peterel shouted to his grandfather: "I swore to bring you The Terrible Head, and see how I keep my oath!"

Magda flew to the table where the king and his advisors sat. She unwound her veil and out poured her terrible serpents that hissed and spat venom. The king and his advisors had time enough to scream once before they all turned to stone.

Thus was the prophesy fulfilled.

Peterel placed the white feathers upon Magda’s head and kissed her. She remained as she was, winged, clawed, and serpent-haired, but all powers of stone-changing were lost as long as she wore the seabird’s crown. They were welcomed by Dinae and Erasmus who had waited long for Peterel’s return.    

The kingdom rejoiced in the death of the wicked king. Peterel and Magda were wed and crowned king and queen of the realm. They loved each other passionately, and each of Magda’s head-serpents learned to love Peterel as well. Their children had wings, or bronze claws, or serpents, or all—but they were beloved by the people, and none of them could turn man to stone. They all lived long and happily, and their lineage ruled the kingdom for centuries. 
J. Motoki is the Short Story Editor of Coffin Bell Journal and the Strange Editor of Rune Bear. Her works have been published or are forthcoming in Blood Song Books,The Other Stories Podcast (Hawk & Cleaver), Black Hare Press, Coffin Bell Journal, and others. You can read more of her at www.jumotki.com

Cover: Amanda Bergloff @AmandaBergloff
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