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Piper: A Song for Flute and Chorus

painting of a flute player

[by J. J. Roth]

 

My name is Dannah Endlove, but this is not my story.

This story belongs to all the inhabitants of my home, the city-state Barosa. We have told and retold this tale countless times and passed it down to our children. One day, it will belong to the entire world.

No, this is merely my version of that terrible event. But as I did not witness all of what happened, I have enlisted other Barosan voices and my imagination to fill in the gaps.

Our story began in the early days of winter, when lazy snowflakes whispered onto the alders’ spindly, naked branches. Barosa’s land, reluctant to let autumn go, took its time about hardening against the  northern icecap’s harsh breath. The land seemed to be waiting and watching, as was the habit of its flinty-eyed, hardboiled residents, for the first sign of imminent danger.

“Another refugee, come to leach off us,” must have thought all the not-so-busy merchants in their market stalls, as the wind blew a light coating of snow from the stalls’ roofs onto their wares.

They heard his sultry tenor raised in song before they saw the tall, thin man swinging his long legs in time to the tune with the deliberate gait of one on stilts—though the words they could catch over the north wind’s stuttering gusts made no sense to them.

“A walking birch tree,” one of the merchants teased, and the others who heard chuckled and shook their heads.

Their eyes followed the stranger, making his way up the cobbled market road with his unusual stride. They watched the sparrows fly before the man’s feet, the cats skitter across the cobbles to hide behind packing crates, and the dogs lay their heads on their paws and whimper. Inside, they must have felt icy pangs of apprehension, the sense that full-on winter would come very soon.

Though we did not know it then, the stranger chose our town for a reason. Or perhaps, as the sages say, the town chose him—because Barosa’s collective consciousness cried out for a lesson in what goes around comes around.

During his stay among us, we learned that he had come for his child. Years ago, his wife ran away to Barosa with her lover and gave the child—a boy with a withered arm, exceptionally clever and kind for his age—up for adoption to the Mayor’s daughter and her husband, General Maximillian Voldonas. Thereupon, the man’s wife and her lover disappeared. The man searched for his boy, following every clue, however small, until one led him to Barosa.

It would later transpire that this man—who came to our town with the purist of motives—was transformed through his grief into a monster.

Some of us remember only what happened after the man’s meeting with the Mayor’s daughter. The Mayor’s housekeeper, Geraldine Onchinko, told of the aftermath.

Geraldine Ochinko, The Mayor’s Housekeeper

I shouldn’t listen at doors, I know, but it was terrible, just terrible! Lady Voldanas, sobbing fit to hurt herself while telling her father about the row that occurred when the man learned influenza had taken his boy. Like she was reliving the loss of her adopted son as she described his natural father, lashing out through anguished tears.

She told the Mayor his name: Frederick Piper. A sometime musician, sometime rat-catcher. Aged thirty-eight. No other children. Still loved his wife despite her betrayal.

Others remember farther back, to the Friday two weeks after All Hallow’s Eve, when Piper strode down Market Street’s cobblestones and into the town center.

Along his route, Piper would have seen the thatch and wattle hut of Mikaela Crowcall, the herbalist (some might say witch), on the southern fringe of Barosa. He would have seen through her open door braids of garlic and strings of thyme hanging from the hut’s rafters, and the large iron cauldron in her fireplace, fire licking its underside like the tongue of a flaming orange newt.

He would, perhaps, even have seen me, leaving the hut with Mikaela to attend to our business in town.

He would have crossed the bridge at the river Mondrian, noisy ale houses, steamy brothels, and quaint fortunetellers’ shacks lining the stone span. The aromas of malt and wood fires would have greeted him.

Taking in the sights, sounds, and smells of Barosa, he must have thought the town cheerful and open-hearted. He must have felt hopeful that his beloved boy was well loved and cared for and wanted for nothing.

So Piper arrived at winter’s start during the sparest of snowfalls. Ask any Barosan to describe him and they’ll tell you something different. Some might say taciturn, sad, distracted or menacing; others, dreamy, kind, or insistent.

I found him puzzling. Affable, though self-righteous. Gentle, though intense. Charming, with an almost palpable charisma that captured my young mind and heart.

Maybe he seems an enigma because none of us can comprehend fully what happened once he came into our midst. We imagine him now in whatever way allows us to process what occurred after he crossed the bridge and set his long, narrow feet among the cobbles of Barosa.

After these many years, Piper has become foggy in our minds, leaving only vague impressions. Sunken eyes. Thin lips. A mellow, round tenor voice, musical and airy like the tones from a wooden flute. Handsome, in an unconventional way, with a well-groomed short-cropped reddish beard, and a multi-colored, patchwork cloak that had seen better days.

However we now remember Piper, we know for certain how Victor Podory, the town guard, saw him the day he descended the bridge and entered Barosa’s gates.

Victor Podory, Town Guard

Most of the time, people come through the gates looking at the ground; either they’re bent low under the burden of wares to sell in the market or they’re making sure they don’t twist an ankle on the cobbles or tread on droppings—we get a lot of oxen through here pulling wagons. And horses, mostly bearing the gentry. But that man held his head high, though he looked so thin-boned that one wrong step on those stones would snap his shins. He took in everything, like he was memorizing every detail.

He paid special attention to the kids. He stopped among groups of young boys to try to interest them in a story or a song, but I could tell he was searching for someone. He eyed each of them like a tailor measuring for new suits. Even when he didn’t seem to have a purpose, he had a purpose. The thought crossed my mind he might be a thief looking for an easy mark. But I watched him for a good long time and it was clear he wasn’t interested in money.

Old Greta bumped right into him and dropped her bundle, half-crowns rolling everywhere. The ragamuffins descended on the coins like locusts on sweet corn. You should have seen it: the man gave each of those snot-nosed little urchins nothing more than a stern look and they dropped the coins and scattered. Like black magic, it was. After, he bent down and collected the money, handed it to Old Greta and smiled.

Of course, she counted it all, though how she managed with that milky eye of hers is a real question, seeing as she seemed to be keeping her good eye on him the whole time. As though she couldn’t believe a stranger wouldn’t take advantage of an old crone. He must have given her every penny back, because she nodded and waddled away without a word, and she can be right noisy when crossed. Then he just went on, with whatever mission he’d set for himself. But I knew he wasn’t a common crook.

Once through the gates, Piper headed toward the Mayor’s mansion, through snowy eddies swirling in the wide Borosan squares. Many young maids, in town on errands for their mistresses, later said they stopped to admire the man and whisper among themselves. Flower, egg, and apple mongers approached him, but he waved them away and loped toward the white stone inner wall of our fortress city.

He ducked under the crossed sabers of two Legion of Eight officers, members of the Mayor’s personal guard. The senior of the two recalled him passing through the inner wall “without incident,” moving ever forward through the gusting wind, not even flinching when icicles fell from roofs and trees, clattering on the cobbles around him like dagger blades.

Piper stood in front of the Mayor’s mansion, its generous grounds turning white from the accumulating snow, until Forsto Weng, the mayor’s amanuensis, brushed past and doffed his hat.

Forsto Weng, the Mayor’s Secretary

He had a gleam in his eye, as if feverish or having drunk some invigorating tonic, but otherwise seemed normal. He extended his hand toward me in a supplicating gesture, and a moment later I noticed the scrap of parchment. He asked if I would take his message to the Mayor’s daughter and say it was from her adopted son’s natural father.

A weight seemed lifted from him when I agreed. As though he’d thought it would be much harder to get his missive into the mansion and couldn’t believe his good fortune. He turned the parchment over and over in gloved hands, his fingertips protruding in several places from the worn, brown wool, as if the shred of cured sheepskin constituted his greatest treasure.

“I would tell you where you may send the answer, but I don’t yet know where I will pass the night, as I am from a hamlet in the country south of here and have never before been to Barosa,” he said.

I recommended the Boar and Harp. I took a shine to him and wanted to help him because he didn’t suck up to me or act entitled, unlike everyone else in this town who seeks the ear of the Mayor or his household. Of course, I knew about his boy. It broke my heart not to tell him, but I didn’t feel it was my place. I had an armful of unwieldy tomes which decided to slide toward the dirty slush on the walkway. Fortunately, I arrested their fall, and while I was so engaged he tucked the parchment into my waistcoat pocket. A shiver went up my spine when his long finger probed against my ribs. He was quite handsome.

“My gratitude for your kindness,” he said, and left down the walkway outside the mansion, running his fingers along the decorative ironwork fence surrounding it until he turned the corner.

I’m embarrassed to say I may have started the rumor he was from “Hamelin.” The wind picked up and I misheard “hamlet” as “Hamelin.” I’m afraid I repeated my misunderstanding once or twice before learning of my error. It snowballed from there.

Innkeeper Obulion at the Boar and Harp confirmed Piper spoke to him about a room and took the chamber at the end of the second floor hallway under the eaves, with a low, slanted ceiling on which he must have bumped his head a few times. He dropped his small rucksack on the bed, but kept with him the lute slung over his shoulder and a tattered instrument case. He followed Innkeeper Obulion back to the public room, where he nursed a pint of Rundengren’s Black under the intent gaze of Mikaela Crowcall.

She had finished her business in town and stopped at the Boar to warm herself with a hot toddy on her way home. As usual, Mikaela sat at a small, round table in the corner with her back to the wall so she could see everyone enter and leave.

The most judgmental among us suspected Mikaela of imbibing her own potions to stay the most beautiful young woman in Barosa year after year—not simply out of vanity or as a walking advertisement for her professional competence—but also so that if one day her son Peter returned, he would know she was his mother. Peter had been conscripted into the army at nineteen after his father died in battle. Mikaela packed his bag, gave him an invisibility potion, and bid him cross the border into neutral Sirsken to wait out the war.

Back then, they lived in a stately, government-owned house inside the inner wall, as became an officer of the Barosan army. To keep up appearances, Mikaela did not ply her trade, nor did she take on apprentices. When Peter became a suspected draft dodger, the army strongly encouraged Mikaela to move (she was not cast out for fear she might turn those responsible into something inhuman) and paid her dead husband’s military pension in a lump sum.

The tiniest fraction of that money went to erect Mikaela’s hut, and to purchase cauldrons, flasks, amulets, and other charms, herb seed, minerals, and animal claws, spleens, and other body parts. With both her son and husband gone, Mikaela employed trainees, more for the company than for the income.

Since then, she has taken on a young girl of Barosa, a girl with few prospects, like me, at the age of thirteen, to apprentice to the age of nineteen. The age I was three months from reaching when Piper arrived in Barosa; Peter’s age when Mikaela last saw him. So that if Peter should return, he would know she had not tried to replace him, but let her surrogate children go not one moment past the time she spent with him.

And every day at sunset, Mikaela sat in the Boar and Harp, watching and listening. I suspect she hoped to see her son’s nineteen-year-old face on a forty-year-old man, or hear his post-adolescent voice grown gravely with age. Or perhaps simply to find new customers, determine the nature of their longings, and whether any spells in her arsenal could fulfill them. That particular day, I was with her.

Mikaela elbowed me and said, “Dannah, reconnaissance,” by which she meant I should get closer and learn more about the stranger.

I had just taken a seat at the table next to his when a page wearing the Mayor’s red and gold household livery bustled to Piper, bowed, and handed him a small scroll. Piper unrolled and read it. “Yes, I can be at the gate tomorrow at eleven. I can be there earlier. Any time, really,” he said to the page. “I doubt I’ll sleep a wink tonight, though I hear the Boar’s beds can make one sleep like the dead,” he added, and smiled at the unsmiling page who clicked his heels and whisked back through the crowd the way he came.

As soon as the page departed, Jeeena Obulion arrived. One of the Boar’s regular hostesses and the Innkeeper’s daughter, Obulion often took breaks to pull up a chair and chat with new guests, particularly tall, handsome new guests.

Decked out in her uniform, a tight-laced bodice that pushed her small breasts into larger versions of themselves and a golden dirndl skirt decorated with red and green bric-a-brac, she had a flirty, extroverted manner radiating the inviting innocuousness of a woman who loved men. After receiving a nod in response to her query, “May I?” Obulion fluffed out her ample skirt and took the seat across from Piper.

Jeeena Obulion, Hostess at the Boar and Harp

I knew from the start something was wrong with him. The whole time I tried to talk to him he seemed intent on polishing the fingerprints off his lute, or cleaning disgusting liquids out of that silver flute in the black case. Like he’d rather touch his instruments than a woman.

“Might you be able to find me a clean length of chamois?” he asked. “I can pay.”

He seemed satisfied with the cloth I brought from a back room, and the shine it buffed out of the lute’s blond spruce body. I refused his coins.

“Solo?” I asked, trying to turn the conversation to music, since it interested him.

“Whatever’s needed,” he said.

“I’d love to hear you play,” I said, trying to prod him to enthusiasm.

He had no interest at all. He finished draining the spit from his flute, replaced it in the case, and pushed his chair back to stretch out those skinny legs. He wasn’t even looking at me; he was staring at that witch’s apprentice, that Dannah End-something. That was the only time I saw him smile. I could tell his intentions toward her were anything but honorable, and I now consider myself lucky I never went to his room.

“You know,” I said to him, because I thought he should be warned, though by then I disliked him with a passion, “Most people in this town look harmless on the outside but survive by taking advantage of others. Take these herbalists. Does their magic work? No one can say. Some swear by it, but if you ask me it’s all coincidence and power of suggestion. My friend and I went halves on one of Mikaela’s love potions. She ended up married to the bloke who drank her potion. All I got was blamed for mine growing a third testicle.

“Their magical track record is haphazard at best. They couldn’t help at all with the war refugee problem. The Mayor paid them a mint to set repulsion spells at the city gates. You can see the spells, shimmering on the stone when the sun is at the right angle. But we still get more refugees trickling in every day, and the native Barosans are up in arms about it. We deport them, we don’t shelter or employ them, we don’t treat them at all well. In fact, we mistreat them every chance we get. But they just come back anyway.

“The more packed it gets inside these walls, the more often we have plagues. During the influenza epidemic last winter, Mikaela and her gal Friday got paid another bundle for immunity potions. The potions didn’t work for everyone; some fiddle-faddle about the Mayor requiring a blood tie to Barosa to merit immunity. Kill two birds as they say, solve some of the refugee problem at the same time. A bunch of immigrants died—lots of them kids. They’re all buried in a graveyard west of the outer wall. I admit, I drank a potion and stayed well. And I’m only half Barosan. Maybe I wouldn’t have fallen sick anyway. Like I said, no one can say.”

When I mentioned immigrants dying, his face snapped toward me and went pale as a white horse’s ass. He seemed about to ask a question. Then he winced, as if a sudden pain shot through his temple.

“Thanks,” he said, though he didn’t sound very thankful. He turned his eyes toward that weird girl again. “I’m sure you mean well, but I don’t need help navigating. The only reading of people I trust is my own.”

What the seven friendly devils? I was beyond insulted. No man has ever been that indifferent toward me, not even Forsto Weng. That’s when I knew he was up to no good.

I’ve met a lot of men who come through this town, and a good many are up for some fun with no strings attached, especially those not traveling with wives. Even those who don’t go through with it are usually at least willing to consider the possibility. Not this fellow.

He seemed a little contrite, kissed me on the cheek and said goodnight. He broke our embrace before I did, and took in the room, probably looking for that sorceress’ apprentice, but she and her mistress were long gone by then.

We know much of what happened because when it was all over, Captain Mordelon, commanding officer of the Legion of Eight, investigated the matter and prepared a written report.

In that report, Mordelon says Piper passed the first night at the Boar. He kept his appointment at the Mayor’s house the next morning, where he learned his son’s fate. He blamed the Mayor for his sweet boy’s death while the Mayor’s blood grandchildren survived.

He bought a bottle of schnapps and went to the graveyard outside the wall. There, he sat for hours by his son’s grave, playing his lute and singing lullabies so heartbreaking and glorious that the gravedigger, Simon Schola, swore that the snow stopped falling and hung in the air to listen. He must have played his fingers raw, thinking, “I’m alone and my heart is breaking. What is left for me now?”

When I came upon Piper in the graveyard, he must have already decided to seek Mikaela’s help, the decision that would lead to our ruin.

Mikaela had sent me to pick Fairy Flounces, a cold-loving variety of purple toadstool shaped like a lock of unruly hair, which grew in abundance in the graveyard. When Piper saw me, he sang to me, tear tracks frozen on his face, as though if he stopped his song he’d lose his way altogether. His voice, pure and high, warmed my blood and drew me to him like a windlass draws a bucket from a well. I wanted nothing so much as to take him in my arms and comfort him.

“I’m Dannah,” I said.

“I know,” he replied.

I knelt in the snow next to him and took his hand. His breath smelled like anise, and I could taste the schnapps’s fiery tang when I kissed him.  Though the snow resumed when he stopped strumming his lute to touch my face, I am certain he wasn’t cold. I know I wasn’t. We made love in broad daylight, on his son’s snow-covered grave, in the cemetery devoid of living souls except for us and Simon Schola, who politely turned his back. Afterward, I brought him to Mikaela’s hut.

We rested on a wolf skin rug before the fire and warmed our hands on cups of hot chamomile tea. Piper, weak with grief, laid his head in my lap while I stroked his auburn hair. Mikaela rocked in a stout oak rocking chair, examining me with unusual interest.

Piper mustered the last of his energy to ask Mikaela to bring his son back to life.

“I’ve never tried the magic you want,” she said. “Raising the dead—that’s difficult. Perhaps beyond my skill. Dangerous, too. I’ve only heard of it done once or twice, and only by practitioners in Sirsken. Thing of it is, the more against the way of nature, the more difficult the spell. The more difficult the spell, the more uncertain the outcome. I can’t make any guarantees. Or any predictions if things should go wrong.”

He nodded off before she finished speaking.

While Piper slept on Mikaela’s rug, she must have been thinking about her own son and the bottomless hole that would open in her heart if she learned of his death. She began to consult volumes on the oak shelves that lined the walls of her hut’s main room, placing marks between pages, inventorying ingredients in baskets, bins, and bottles. I, too, fell asleep while she researched late into the night.

When I woke, Piper was gone.

Mikeala told me the same thing she told Captain Mordelon when he interviewed her.

Mikaela Crowcall, Herbalist

During his weeks of waiting, Piper took on music students. Mordelon’s report contained several interviews with parents of his students, such as this one from Lady Zafarna.

Lady Zafarna, Noblewoman and Friend to Lady Voldanas

In just that short time, he taught my Lizbeth to play the harp and he made quite a drummer of my Will. Always so pleasant on the surface, but something about him made me uneasy even then. It seems the height of irony now that so many of us let down our guard and welcomed him into our homes.

What really crushes me is to think how good he was with the children. They’d come running at the mere sound of his voice, like retrievers drawn to a dog whistle. And they were ecstatic in his presence, like cats rolling in catnip. How could I have missed the signs?

Piper also took an occasional job ridding a home or business of rats, which he could do with aplomb equal to his musicianship.

Around the end of the second week, a rumor took hold that Piper had a mistress in town. Some said he was sleeping with the Mayor’s daughter, but Rosamund Tory, the candle-maker, disagreed.

Rosamund Tory, Chandler

Piper came into in my shop one day, as he sometimes did, just to admire the hand-dipped tapers. I expect he felt a kinship with them, both they and he being so long and thin. He had two forest green beauties resting across his palm when the bell on the door tinkled and who should walk in but Lady Voldanas and her retinue.

“Fix my girls up, won’t you, Tory?” she said, and I said, “Yes m’lady,” and went to the back to bring out her order.

I made several trips so I didn’t witness the whole thing. But seeing as she almost never comes to my shop herself, I figured it had something to do with him. Still, I’ll be damned if I’ve ever seen two people so frosty to one another without coming to blows. I’m sure it wasn’t an act.

Six weeks into Piper’s stay, another rumor joined the whir of Barosa’s flapping tongues, one that turned out to be true. Dannah Endlove, the witchling, that is to say me, got pregnant out of wedlock.

I am not too proud to let another tell what he saw.

Barton Findlay, Town Crier’s Son

I seen her picking up loaves at Nadine’s Bakery. And there t’ain’t no polite way to say this.

She never had nothin’ to look at chest level afore, cause believe me, that’s the first place I always look. But that day, whoa. All a sudden she, as they say, became well-endowered.

And if that t’ain’t enough fer yas, she took one whiff of them loaves, went all porridge-colored and barfed in the street.

The townspeople didn’t put two and two together until much later. Piper and I made love only that once, and we never spoke of it again. Simon Schola, our lone witness, remembered only Piper’s singing and the snowflakes suspended in mid-air.

I never told Piper about my pregnancy. I intended to, but the time never seemed right. I decided to wait until he got his son back. But the night that was to happen, events intervened.

Mordelon’s full report of the weeks between Piper’s arrival and the debacle runs to 150 pages. Perhaps if another voice from our Barosan chorus told this story, he or she would choose to include an account of the four-day blizzard.

Or the confrontation between Piper and the Mayor at the mid-winter festival, ending with Piper cursing the town until the end of time.

Or the little show Piper put on in a borrowed puppet theater for the town’s children, including Kelsy and Krosby Valdonas, the Mayor’s living grandchildren, with the rats he caught in Tory’s shop basement and taught to dance. Talk afterwards had Piper taking an unnatural interest in the Voldanas children, or instructing the rats to snarl at them, depending on who did the telling.

I will say only that as the second full moon drew closer, I noticed a change in Piper. He became manic—talking, playing music, even walking faster than usual—this last being difficult with his pole-like legs. His sublimated rage at the Mayor festered into obsession; he never spoke a sentence without mentioning the Mayor. I feared what might happen if the spell did not succeed, but I also feared raising the possibility of failure, so convinced was Piper that he would soon hold his sweet boy again.

The night of the second full moon, Piper was seen leaving the Boar with his rucksack, his lute, and his banged up instrument case. He stopped at Albie’s Ale House on the bridge. The aroma of roast lamb with mint and clove doubtless attracted him. “He ordered a slice of lamb with parsnips, boiled beets with onions, and a pint of Redtripp Red,” Albie’s wife recalled. “Polished his lute and tended to his fife while he drained his mug. When he said goodbye, it sure sounded like he wouldn’t ever be coming back.”

On his way down the bridge, he stopped under a swinging wooden sign illuminated by lantern light, depicting a crystal ball. Hannock, the proprietor, greeted him and offered to read his cards. At first, Piper seemed interested, but then he apparently thought better of it. “He touched everything in the shop—rune tiles, crystals, do it yourself books on divination—but he didn’t buy anything. He looked haggard, pink around the eyes, like he hadn’t slept in a while.”

When he arrived at Mikaela’s door, I took one look at him and knew he would be leaving, taking the boy back to his hamlet in the south country. I also knew that if he asked, which he did, I would tell him I could not go. He told Lady Voldanas he still loved his wife. He never told anyone he loved me. I expected to part as friends, to raise the infant myself. No one would be surprised if I broke the rules—that was the only good thing about living on Barosan society’s fringe.

“You don’t belong in this Mayor’s town,” he said to me, looking mad with grief and anger. “You’re too warm-hearted for this place; the only reason I didn’t go mad from grief and anger. But I know it’s a big step, and I won’t push. I’ll never forget you.”

Mikaela handed Piper a potion and a poultice and told him, “I’ve always felt you have some innate magical ability, some power over people, animals, and especially children, and this will work in your favor. It’s always best to design magical solutions that play to the client’s strengths, in your case, music. Go to the child’s grave at midnight, drink the potion, apply the poultice to your flute, and play. And this is crucial. You must clear your mind of everything—animosity, grief, judgment—except love for your son before the music begins.”

Mikaela’s enormous clock struck ten as soon as Piper left the hut. “Rest, little mother,” she said to me. I must have looked shocked, because she added, “Yes, I know. Now, drink this and let me tuck you in. It won’t hurt the baby, but it will knock you out. There’s nothing more we can do for him and no point in waiting up. If all goes as planned, we’ll say goodbye to him in the morning and we’ll all live happily ever after.”

I’m told it was just after midnight when I woke in my small bedroom at the back of Mikaela’s hut. My sleep had been dreamless, restorative, sublime, until a fall jarred me from my peace.

At first, I thought I had rolled from the bed, as I’d never fully outgrown that childish problem. But then, I felt myself being pulled, belly first, across the floor. I touched my abdomen. A rounded point under the skin, like the tip of a nose, pushed against my fingers and knocked my hand away. This point inside me dragged me across the dirt floor toward some invisible goal, like iron toward lodestone.

I am told I screamed, though what I remember is pain when my head banged against the bedroom’s doorway. I clung to one side with my hands and braced against the other with my feet to stop myself from being pulled through. Unable to progress, the point sought a way out of me. My abdomen seized and went rigid, and had I not been bracing myself the cramp would have curled me into a ball. A bubble released from between my legs and sticky dampness that smelled of brine and metal pooled on my skin.

I remember Mikaela kneeling beside me, forcing leaves into my mouth. “Chew,” she said. “Mugwort. To stop the bleeding. Then you’ll sleep. I must find Piper.”

I may have dreamed it, but before I passed out, I thought I saw Mikaela lift something tiny and pink, like a worm, from the floor and drop it into a matchbox.

As Mikaela told me later, she set off fearing the worst.

Mikaela Crowcall, Herbalist

In the pine woods near the cemetery, I came upon a man of about forty years coming from the direction of Sirsken, leading a donkey burdened with packs and cases.

“Help me,” he said. “I was on my way home after a long absence, hoping to surprise my mother. About half an hour ago I lost the ability to guide my own steps. I can’t stop walking, either.”

I kept pace with him, both of us staring at each other before the man added, “Mother?”

“Peter?” I said. My heart filled with light and joy at his return. I reached for his hand.

Moments later we broke through the tree line and into the graveyard. Under the bright full moon, the snow carpeting the ground gleamed blue-white. A haunting, hypnotic flute melody, its notes as clean and clear as any ever played, soared in the otherwise silent night.

A line of people hundreds strong meandered through the modest grave markers. As we approached, it resolved into individuals, all of them children. The only exception: Peter, who joined the queue despite my clutching his arm and trying to dig my heels into the frozen ground. I could not stop him; I lost my grip and fell. I could hear my voice, as if coming from outside my body, screaming, “Don’t go, oh please don’t go!”

As I lay there in the snow, I recognized Lizbeth and Will Zafarna barefoot in their nightclothes, drifting like happy ghosts toward Piper. Behind them, Kelsy and Krosby Voldanas, followed the line toward Piper, their eyes sparkling with love. An unseen force sucked the matchbox, still in my hand, from my fingers and piloted it through the air.

Piper stood at the foot of his son’s grave in his multi-colored patchwork cloak, the poultice tied to his flute, playing high and sweet. A love song or a lullaby. The grave remained closed, but something else had opened.

In Piper’s chest, a heart-shaped hole glowed red as smoldering embers. Into this hole, the matchbox flew, disappearing in a flash of white light. Piper’s frenzied gaze met mine, tears frozen to his face, just as the first smiling child in the column reached Piper. Just before the second flash of white light.

I rushed Piper, yelling, “Stop!”

Between breaths, he said through teeth gnashing like those of a provoked bear, “Not—until—I—have—him.”

Two more children flashed away. I lunged at him. I tried to wrench the flute from his lips, but his arms were solid as stone.

He twisted away with the strength of a tiger downing his prey, slamming me to the ground. Right before he kicked me in the head and it all went black, I watched Peter, my son come back to me, vanish in a flash of white light.

At dawn, my eyes opened. I was lying on the still-closed grave of Piper’s boy.

Piper was gone, as were Barosa’s children: those who survived the epidemic through our magic and those who came to exist thereafter. They left only a line of footprints in the snow. And the distraught parents and mounted soldiers combing the countryside for the little ones soon obliterated even those.

I remembered my Peter. And I lay on the snow and wept.

By convention, our story ended here, in the depths of winter.

We heard nothing about Piper for a generation, until a trapper from Sirsken got drunk one night at the Boar and regaled the room with the tale of a hamlet in Calmento, the state Barosa defeated in the war, the state whose penniless refugees sought shelter in Barosa during the time our story took place.

“I’ve been there and it’s amazing,” he said. “Only two elders in the entire town, the rest no older than thirty-five, every one of them a talented musician and all as healthy as horses, never sick a day in their lives. They say the place just appeared overnight. And guess what? They don’t have a single rat there, either. It’s magic, I say.”

The trapper could be right. Or there could be other explanations—or none at all.

Sola Tondi, another of Mikaela’s former apprentices and a specialist in fertility charms and lost child divination, offered one opinion.

Sola Tondi, Herbalist

In my business, I see the despair of the childless every day. People who want children but don’t have them will do most anything to get them, and people who’ve had and lost them, well, that’s even worse.

I don’t know what went wrong, why Peter was called. If I were to venture a guess, I’d say Mikaela let too much of her own sadness at missing Peter seep into that poultice.

As for why Piper’s son stayed buried, I can’t say. Perhaps he was too good for Barosa, or Piper couldn’t stop hating the Mayor while he played. It’s possible Mikaela just screwed up.

Do I think they’re alive? We’ll never know unless someone travels many miles to that hamlet in Calmento and reports back. Not likely, now that the missing kids’ parents are old and dying off.

As for me, in the aftermath I mourned. As did Mikaela, as did Lady Zafarna and General Voldanas, as did all of Barosa.

I finished my training, found someone to love, and started a family and a business. I specialize in family planning charms. Barosa’s women are my biggest fans.

I tried to put it behind me. We all did.

But in the dead of winter, when I visit his boy’s grave, I can still hear Piper’s song—so stirring and pure that even the snowflakes halt in mid-air to listen.

 


J. J. Roth lawyers at a tech company, parents her two school-aged sons, and writes literary speculative fiction in the interstices. Her work is forthcoming in Podcastle, and has appeared in Nature, Urban Fantasy Magazine, and various semi-pro and small press venues.

www.jjroth.net

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