Sunlight and leaf whisper, peace and games.
That was what Elly thought of when she looked up from her never-ending carding in time to see the tall, gangly man in patchwork clothing stroll down her street. There was just something in his sparkling eyes, in his unassuming face that reminded her of her early childhood, when all that mattered was food and shelter and love. Mixed with the reassuring promise that all three would be forthcoming in unlimited measure, he was the most appealing adult the twelve year old had ever seen. So she watched him as he walked past her house, giggled and blushed pink when he made a gently teasing bow toward her, a warm smile on his waved when he walked around a corner before resuming her all but forgotten chore, sighing her frustration when a large clump of briars appeared in the wool.
Others would disagree with her first impression. They would happen to look out upon the gangly man who strode down the main street with inborn confidence,admire the lavishly decorated, broad rimmed hat that he woreas proudly asa king'scrown, realize with some shock that his clothing wasn't made of the silk and fine linen that his confident smile declared them to be, but tattered cotton of a rather coarse weave, and go away with their own views on the stranger. Some thought that he sang of wealth and power, with the means to raise others to that station; others nodded unconsciously at his promise of safety and security. Still others thought that he could mend anything broken, or close the rift between old friends, or help find the right words to prove love. But all of the townspeople who saw him, from beggar to Mayor, were absolutely certain that anything he promised would be realized.
Having seated himself at the town gates in the hopes of picking up a few extra coins from the scattered travelers that occasionally passed through, Axim – Hamelin's sole beggar –was the first to meet the man who radiated assurances of good, warm food and a safe, comfortable home. Being the first to meet someone was hardly new to him. What was interesting was the fact that rather than hurrying past the beggar as so many travelers before him had, intent on seeing the Mayor, the tall man paused mid-stride, considered Axim for a moment, and then gave him a quick, ironic smile before resuming his journey. It wasn't the condescending one that the beggar had seen all too often, but a shared moment of understanding of a beggar's lot in life, as though the stranger had once been familiar with the trade. The only ones who could have known about the rather gangly man before Axim were the rats, and they had been comfortably asleep, safely away from the reaches of the midday sun. That proved that the creatures were far smarter than the humans that worked through the hottest part of the day, or, at the very least, it proved it to the rats.
Mayor Tommer was a crinkled old leaf of a man, with a crazed maze of wrinkles that decorated his oak brown face, the impossibly gnarled twist of his hands and fragile build only adding to that impression. He'd been Mayor of the town for so long that perhaps the only people who remembered him as anything other than Mayor Tommer were his children – who called him Father or Mayor, depending on the situation – and his grandchildren – Grampa Mayor Tommer. He was an only child, and his beloved wife of forty years was a decade dead, his parents even longer so. Whether or not he remembered his given name, no one knew.
He was also the only person who didn't trust the stranger.
A moderate amount of caution beingone of a responsible Mayor's qualities - Tommer's son called it paranoia, but what did he know? - it wasn't wholly the gangly man's fault. With his proud, open stride, easy smile and quiet charm, it came as a shock to many that the man whoseemed to be the key to their every desire was likely to be the one most in need of aid. Safety, food, power, love – nothing was beyond him. And what Mayor Tommer expected, no, what he wanted was a rival. He wanted the challenge of proving that though he was more than half a century old, he could still hold his own against a competitor. He wanted a foe dangerous enough to prove that he wasn't about to step down, yet not so skilled that he would lose his town.
When the man stood in Mayor Tommer's office, the Mayor analyzed him carefully through eyes half-buried in the mass of wrinkles on his old face. The stranger's broad rimmed hat hung over his eyes and shadowed his face, and beaded strings dangled from the brim clacking against one another whenever he moved his head. A large, black feather was tucked in the wide blue ribbon tied around his hat, pointing back at the door as though telling Tommer to watch the door. His dirt-brown knee-length coat was decorated with an assortment of mismatched buttons that might possibly keep it closed, though the Mayor doubted it. At the moment all of them were undone to reveal a frayed red shirt that hung off of the gangly man's body, a few surprisingly neat seams that looked as though they had been done with threads pulled from the shirt, adding variety to the plain top. His pants (mostly hidden by the coat) and his mud-caked black boots were only revealed as grey and dingy when he moved. Perhaps not a rival, then, Tommer thought, but the confidence and not-quite-hidden pride that shone through his tattered clothing still marked him as trouble.
It was more the way he stood than anything else, radiating a quiet self-confidence, gloriously certain that things would always work out in the end. A small smile crossed his face as he met the Mayor's probing eyes, the sort of smile that was given to unimportant relatives of the influential. The sort of smile that accompanied the phrase, "Charmed, I'm sure," when it was obvious that the speaker meant anything but. So Mayor Tommer replied with the sort of smile that said, "As am I."
"I'm Mayor Tommer," he declared, extending his hand and waiting to see what would happen.
"Piper," the gangly man replied, accepting the hand. He gave it a firm, brisk shake, not testing the Mayor's grip but still revealing some of his strength. "Charmed." He didn't need to add the rest of the phrase, didn't need to use the condescending tone or the same smile that had so charmed Elly had somehow become a challenge in Tommer's mind, just as the once unusually fascinating clothing had become all but a mess of perhaps it wasn't the Mayor's mind, but simply another aspect of Piper, that he could speak such disparate worlds of meaning with the same smile.
"And what brings you to our town?"
"I'm looking for work. I'm a bit of a jack-of-all-trades, really. I'm sure that there will be something here for me." His voice was to Tommer's asfresh spring greens to crackling autumn leaves; soft and smooth, with a surprising strength and flexibility that took advantage of the harsh cracks in the Mayor's. "I've worked as a sailor, a labourer, a painter, a musician, an exterminator, a street guard; you name it, I'm almost certain to have done it."
"An exterminator?" All trace of the interest that thrummed through the Mayor's body was absent from his voice, a bland little half-crack of a damp leaf.
"Yes. Most pests. Cockroaches, ants, squirrels, moles, mice. Rats," he added, almost as an afterthought. But not quite. The Mayor followed his gaze to where a large black rat sat up on its haunches, seeming almost befuddled by Piper's presence in the Mayor's office. Then, with a twitch of its ragged whiskers, it was off again, just barely missing the shoe Tommer threw after it. "I see you have those, Mayor Tommer."
"We do," he snapped tersely. "What of it?"
He shrugged, and his coat fell open to reveal a large seam that ran most of the way down his shirt. "You have rats. I need a job. We could work out an agreement."
"How much?" His voice was a tired sigh of autumn leaves being blown down the cobblestone streets of his town.
"Well, if your only rat is the one who so kindly came out to meet me, I'd say ten coppers." Ten coppers? he thought coppers for each of the rats that swarmed through his village, brazenly stealing food from the tables of his people and spoiling the harvest? A fortune and a half to save half a fortune. "But if you have more, I could certainly work for a lower price. Perhaps five hundred gold?"
He nearly hissed in shock – while far cheaper than ten coppers per rat, five hundred gold was an excessive price. "Why should I pay that much?" he asked, still seemingly uninterested. "I can always call in some of the ratters from nearby towns – they don't charge nearly as much as you do."
"You could," Piper agreed genially. "But I doubt it. Why wouldn't they have come sooner, to see how much you would pay them? You are the Mayor of Hamelin, the town of rats, sir. In other towns they've mentioned your rats, said that they're as big as a small dog. I see they've exaggerated, but…" He shook his hat, beads clacking furiously against one another. "Besides, ratters always miss one or two. Say a mother, staying behind with her infants, or a clever rat that hides in a crack that a dog would never notice. I never miss a single rat."
A confident boast that was as confident as his stance. "Three hundred gold. And I want to see these rats gone before I pay you."
"Four hundred; and I want half up front."
Piper's eyes narrowed behind his hat. "If you aren't going to trust me, Mayor Tommer, then I won't trust you. I'll take half right now, thank you."
"I'll give you one hundred now, and put you up in a house for the night."
That smile again, confident and condescending. "Very well." He followed Mayor Tommer to the safe where the town treasury was kept and waited patiently until the coins were counted into a bag and presented to him. He slipped his pack from his shoulders and opened it, revealing a jumbled assortment of clothing, papers and – strangely enough – apples. Tossing an apple over his shoulder to make room, he pulled out something strangely long and thin from his pack, laying it beside him as he settled the coins into their new home. A pipe, Tommer realized, made of wood and bronze.
Piper noticed what he was looking at and smiled, swinging his rucksack back onto his shoulders as he did so. He gave the pipe an experimental twirl before saying, "My mother wanted someone to play this. It had been her grandfather's, but she wasn't very good with it. So she named me Piper in the hopes that I would have some skill with it."
"And do you?" Or did he only keep it for sentimental reasons? Tommer wondered silently.
His smile took a different tone, a bit far off and strangely focused on the Mayor at the same time. "That's a matter of opinion, sir." He tucked it into a pocketthat the Mayor couldn't remember having seen inthe younger man'sgrey pants. "Some people have said that my pipes are the most magical thing they've ever heard. And there are those who have said it's the worst thing ever. It's all a matter of opinion, really. Now, where did you say I would be staying the night?"
Tommer pointed a gnarled finger at the door. "Down the main street – ask for Mistress Chandelay."
"Thank you, Mayor Tommer." And with a clack of that beaded hat and a flash of that small, strange smile, he left the room, leaving the Mayor to his thoughts.
"Are you Mistress Chandelay's daughter?"
Jerked from her daydream, Elly dropped her carding and looked up with a gasp to see the gangly man standing before her. It took a few seconds before she realized what he'd said. With her heart pounding so loudly that she expected to see the walls of her house vibrating, she nodded vigorously.
"I didn't introduce myself, did I?" He extended one hand, palm upward, which she accepted with a giggle. His hand was quite a bit larger than hers, and as rough as her father's. But her father didn't have such a wonderfully fascinating hat. "I'm Piper, Miss Chandelay."
"Elly," she said shyly. "Miss Chandelay is only for when I'm in trouble, or when my aunt is visiting."
"My apologies, Miss Elly." He bestowed her with that shining, gentle smile and tugged her hand lightly, pulling her to her feet and forcing her to abandon any thoughts of reclaiming her carding. Not that she wanted to do that – it seemed like for every basket of wool she carded, there were two more waiting in the kitchen. "Would you be so kind as to show me to your mother? Mayor Tommer said that I would be able to board here while I worked."
"What are you going to do?" she asked as she led the gangly man around the house to the back door. Then her jaw dropped when the first part of his statement hit her. "You're going to stay here?"
"If your mother agrees, Miss Elly."
She looked hesitantly down at his dirty boots, and without a word being spoken, he stepped out of them and into the house, revealing socks that had plainly been patched as often as the rest of his clothes – certainlyher mother would have relegated them to the rag pile long ago, had they belonged to Elly."You'll need to take off your coat and hat, too. You can hang them here." She waved at the pegs mounted on the wall of the back entrance, where her own raincoat and hat hung.
He stripped off his coat without question, hanging it neatly next to hers, but frowned slightly when his hand closed around the brim of his hat, almost protectively. "I'm a bit fond of my hat, Miss Elly. Do you think, maybe –"
"I'm sure mother won't mind," she assured him quickly. Wouldn't Rachel be so jealous when she found out that Piper was staying at Elly's house? Ha! She didn't even know his name! That would stop her chatter about her boyfriend, sure as the sun rose in the east. And wasn't it just lovely the way he called her Miss Elly, like she was someone important. So what if he wanted to his hat inside. If she had a hat like that, she'd want to wear it all the time. Maybe, she thought suddenly, if she was really, really good, he'd let her take a closer look! Or even wear it!
With that thought in mind, she led Piper into the kitchen, where she found her mother humming a cheery tune as she carefully pressed air holes into a pie crust with her fork. She covered it with a cloth, preparing to take it to the baker, who would cook her meals for a small fee, and turned to see the gangly man standing next to her daughter.
Chelsea Chandelay was stunned. A neat woman by nature, she never would have guessed that a man dressed in such patchwork clothing, with an absolutely ridiculous hat, standing in his much-worn stocking feet could seem so reassuring. "Don't worry," he seemed to say, though his lips didn't move except to form a quiet, calming smile. "Don't you worry, Mistress Chandelay. You'll carry this one safe, and Miss Elly will have herself a second sibling." That should have been alarming by itself, as she had only just become aware of her condition today, and no one else had been told yet. But here he stood, this tall, gangly man, and she could only feel reassured.
"Mister Piper, this is my mother. Mom, this is Mister Piper."
Piper flashed a warm smile, somehow making it seem as though she had known him for years. Even knowing that she had just met him, the smile still gave her the pleasant sensation of being unexpectedly remembered. "Pleased to meet you, Mistress Chandelay."
"The pleasure is mine, Mister Piper."
"Just Piper, please, Miss Elly, Mistress Chandelay."
"Then I'm Chelsea."
Elly was disappointed to be losing the Miss so soon, but Piper looked down at her and winked from beneath his hat. "I'll still call you Miss Elly, if you like."
"Thank you, M- Piper."
Looking around absently, he noted, "No rats in here." Chelsea stiffened – who was he to come into her kitchen and talk about rats like he expected to see the nasty creatures crawling everywhere? Hastily, he added, "I was under the impression that there were rats everywhere."
"Rats don't come into my kitchen," she declared firmly. "They may be everywhere else, but not my kitchen."
"I'll believe that. Now, Mayor Tommer told me that you might have a room for me? Just for one or two nights." He smiled hopefully at her from beneath that slightly ridiculous hat.
"Of course. Elly, show him to the guest room – he can leave his sack there."
"Thank you, Chelsea." He leaned over and pickled up her pie. "Miss Elly can show me where the baker's is afterwards and I'll drop this off for you." Then the tall man and slightly short girl left her kitchen, and Chelsea shook her head. What a charming man Piper was. Pity he would be here for such a short time. He might have been able to teach her son some manners. She quickly shoved aside the thought that crept up when she looked at the place where her pie had sat seconds before, dismissing it as coincidence or a familiarity with her kind of town.
She hadn't told Piper that she wanted the pie taken somewhere.
The sky was just starting to brighten into a false dawn when Elly woke up. She sat up quickly, not sure if a rat had somehow made it into her bed and was crawling over her even now. With a muffled scream, she whipped the blanket off of her to reveal absolutely nothing. She sat alone in her bed, without even a flicker of a rat's whisker to suggest that things had been different all night. She was just relaxing once more when she heard a strange sound. Soft, gentle and coaxing, sunlight and dawn.
Curious, she walked cautiously across her room, keeping a wary eye out for the fearless rats. Well, almost fearless – they absolutely refused to go anywhere near her mother's kitchen. But they would run right up to a person to try and steal their meal from their hands, and lounge in plain view in the middle of the day, certain that they could escape anything. Still, no rats leapt out at her, so perhaps the day-walking rats of her town had finally gone to sleep. She pushed her bedroom door open and peered into the hallway. Also rat-free. But the sound was growing louder, so she followed it downstairs and outside.
Piper sat on the porch, pipe to his lips. He still wore his hat, and he had recovered his boots and coat, so he looked especially out of place sitting outside, the only visible figure on the street. He looked like he was playing a role in a play, or like he was a jester in some court. The sweet, coaxing song that came from his pipe completely defied any of that – "an angel's music couldn't sound that beautiful," Elly thought. It was so… Just what it was, she wasn't certain, but it was amazing.
He looked up with a clack of his beaded hat and stopped to smile at her. "Hello, Miss Elly. Did I wake you up?"
"Maybe." She sat down next to him, feeling tired again. "It's very pretty."
"Isn't it? You can stay and listen, if you like."
"That would be nice." She closed her eyes as he continued to play, weaving pictures in her head. It was as though he was coaxing the sun to rise, making sure that the day would be brightened by his music. Slowly she began to drift off to sleep, leaning against the gangly man. There was a slight hesitation in the music, almost as though the player was confused, and then a warm weight settled around her shoulders – a rather beat up, too large coat. Then, almost as an afterthought, another weight on her head. She smiled, nearly asleep, and snuggled up against the strange man who somehow made her feel safe.
If anyone had been awake to see it, they would have been as stunned by Piper's smile as by his music. But even the rats were asleep.
A rat, large and black, with a long scar running down the left side of his body, poked his nose out of his home. The sun was coming up, and the baker would be making bread. That meant there was fresh food to be had, for the baker still only shouted when he saw rats, rather than throwing something in the hopes of scaring the pests away. He set out with a surprisingly derisive squeak, skittering across the wooden floor of the Mayors house and only pausing long enough to bite a hole in the coat that had foolishly been left on the floor.
Suddenly something held him in place, and he sat up on his haunches, twitching his nose and ears back and forward. It wasn't food-scent or fire-scent, wasn't dog-bark or man-shout, but it had drawn his attention. So he listened, curious. And he liked what he heard.
A place, the feeling whispered to him, to all of the rats. It was a strange feeling, a combination of sound and smell and thought and certainly nothing he was familiar with.A place with humans as foolish as these, but with challenges. Grain, so much grain, enough for a hundred thousand rats and a hundred thousand more. That last was a mental image of many, many more rats than there were in this town. Dogs that know what they're doing, but many, many places to hide from them. Cats, lazy and arrogant, that can be tricked, too. Tricked by a clever rat.
No rat would declare that it wasn't clever. That was a concept understood by the creatures, and a point of
pride to them. So they scurried from their homes, children not even old enough to be leaving the nest following their mothers, old rats who could barely feed themselves hoisting themselves up, all of them intent on finding the source of this strange feeling, this challenge.
It wasn't hiding, simply standing in the middle of the town. It was a man-creature, but it didn't seem quite as foolish as the rest of the beings in that village. It stood far higher, and its eyes held more than the glimmer of intelligence that the others had. Its scent was unfamiliar, but…
I know where the place is.
A sea of black surrounded the strange man-creature, the one who knew how to speak with sounds and smells and ideas. The man-creature couldn't do it alone; it needed aid from the long thing that it held to its muzzle. Still, it was far more than any of the town's rats had seen for a long time. A clever ratspeaker.
The rats ran after the man-creature as it strode down the streets, sending assurances of rich foods and places for tricks, not just the boring fear the man-creatures of that town held for them. A place where they could prove that they were as clever as they knew they were. So they followed, followed the sound of the long, thin object held to the ratspeaker's mouth, followed the clacking sound of the many – tails? ears? hairs? – that hung from its strangely shaped head.
Eventually, the rat realized that they weren't following the man-creature anymore. It was long gone, only the glimmers of the feeling it had projected leading them on. But…
He sat up on his haunches, sniffed the air. It was thick with the scent of rats, of kin, but over it all he could smell a strange, wild scent: food, tricks, and a struggle for survival. He liked that scent. He would go there. So he set off, breaking away from the clusters of confused rats. And they followed him into the large forest west of the town.
"I want my money."
Mayor Tommer looked up, surprised to see Piper standing before him when he himself had only just gotten into his office. But the gangly man was there, dressed in his beat up coat and bizarre hat. The Mayor let out an impatient sigh – he'd already given him a hundred gold. How much would he need to pay this man before he would start his job?
"You need to get rid of the rats first," he pointed out dryly.
"I did. This morning."
He laughed; a crisp crackle of dried leaves. "From one house, perhaps. Not from the entire town."
"Every house. Every building. Every place a rat could possibly hide is free from rats. Now, Mayor, I want my money."
"I don't believe you. Give me some proof that all of the rats are gone, and I'll consider giving you your money."
"Consider?" Fury radiated from his rival. "Consider paying? Mayor, I don't think you understand. We had an agreement. You will pay me."
"I'll consider whatever I want to! Now go and get rid of some rats and I'll talk to you later."
Piper's rage disappeared so suddenly it was scary. "Are you going to pay me today, Mayor?"
"No. Tomorrow, perhaps, when I have proof that all of the rats are gone."
"I see." And with a clack of the beaded strings that decorated his hat, he was gone.
A song – strangely similar to the ones that had drifted through the town at dawn that day and again shortly after – began after Elly woke up to Piper's music for the second time that day. Much to her disappointment, Piper had reclaimed his hat and coat after singing his song to the sun, which was now high enough to pour its light through her window. The house seemed strangely silent, without the tiny footsteps and squeaks that were a part of her life. As though… as though the rats were gone. She looked around with wonder – could it be true? Was that why Piper had come? To get rid of the rats, so that her family and friends would be safe?
She jumped up and began to dress; quickly, because the song was getting louder. Piper was calling her out to play. All of the children could come. And they would have a wonderful time, and maybe he would let her wear his hat again. That was an offer that couldn't be refused. So she ran down the stairs, not even calling to her mother to let her know where she was going.
So she joined the swarm of children that followed Piper much like the rats had followed him two hours before.
"I want my money."
Tommer slammed his fist down furiously when he saw the tall, gangly man standing before him again. The traitor! Coming and demanding payment for getting rid of rats, when all he had done was kidnap the children! How could he even think that Tommer would give him money? Trembling like a leaf in the wind with fury, he snapped, "No. You kidnapped the children. Bring them back, get rid of the rats, and then I will pay you. If I don't have you declared an outlaw!"
"I want my money." The man's eyes were hidden beneath the brim of his hat, but the tight set of his mouth revealed his anger. That and his voice – no longer like the smooth new leaves of spring, but the sharp crack of the nearby river beginning to melt. "Pay me, Mayor, and I will bring your children back. I have already gotten rid of the rats."
Of course, the mayor thought, wanting to shout his anger. In two hours, he had gotten rid of every rat in town. Even the most skilled of ratters took at least a week to clear a section of the average town, and his town was plagued by rats. Liar. So he told Piper as much.
"You won't pay me?"
"I see." His beads clacked against one another as he turned to leave once more, but this time the sound was far more ominous, like the clacking of bone. And he brought his pipe up to his lips, bronze flashing in the sunlight that poured in through the window, and began to play a strange, haunting tune as he walked from the office.
Chelsea Chandelay stormed into his office seconds later. "Do you know why my girl is gone, Tommer? Because you wouldn't pay the man who got rid of the rats! You were too damned stubborn, too damned blind to realize that maybe he knew what he was doing! And now my daughter is gone, and it's all your fault, you –"
She fell silent, and Piper's haunting tune slipped into the room. She smiled when she heard it, turned and walked away as though she had never spoken to the Mayor in the first place. Simply left. And the song played on.
It was days later before Piper returned, days in which Mayor Tommer wandered the town, searching for someone, anyone. But they were all gone, from the youngest of children to the oldest of the elders. Even the rats were gone. The birds didn't come to sing, and the crickets didn't chirp in the heat. He wandered through the town, completely, totally alone, a dried up leaf of a man rattling through the husk of a town.
He was sitting in his office once more when a familiar clack of beads made him look up to see Piper standing before him, dark and angry. "I want my money."
"I have no way to get money now! All the people are gone, and if I pay you, there will be no way to give them what they lost."
"And yet you hired me."
"I would have been able to pay it if you hadn't taken them all away!"
"I want my money, Mayor."
"I won't give it to you!" he shouted, standing as tall as he could.
A strange expression crossed his face, and he reached up to touch the brim of his hat. With a smooth gesture, he pulled it from his head and placed it on the Mayor's desk, revealing a pair of very dark, very green eyes. "As you wish, Mayor." He brought his pipe to his lips and played a heavy, dark note. Then another. And another. Staring at him through those very dark, very green eyes all the while. Stared until all the Mayor could see were those eyes. Until all he could see was darkness. And then nothing at all.
Piper donned his hat once more and left, the clacking sound his beads made now muffled. He didn't look back, didn't even pause. Simply left. He had others to take care of now.
So no one else saw the dried up husk of a man in the dried up husk of the town that was once Hamelin.