In the town of Hamlin, there was a problem. The problem was rats. There were rats everywhere: in the grain stores, in the streets, in the houses, and in the town hall. They slept in the cupboards by day and scurried through the houses by night. There were times when people could not walk for stepping on rats.
"Mayor, what should we do about the rats?"
"Take all the food that is in your cupboards and seal it in the tightest jars and boxes that you have."
That didn't work. The rats knocked the jars over or figured out how to open the lids. They chewed holes in the sides of the boxes and made off with the food inside.
"Mayor, what should we do about the rats?"
"Seal up all the cracks and holes in your house to keep them from coming in."
That didn't work either. The rats simply made new holes in the houses.
"Mayor, what should we do about the rats?"
"We will bring in cats from the neighboring town to kill the rats."
Nope. Within days the rats had driven the cats back to the original town. It seemed that nothing could stop the rats. They had made their home in Hamlin, and in Hamlin they seemed destined to stay.
Then, one day, a stranger came to the town...
Mathis was not the first to notice the stranger. That honor went to Wendel, one of the younger boys, who ran through the streets yelling about the man in many colors. By the time Mathis noticed something was amiss a crowd had gathered. Woman had stopped their gossiping or chores to stare. Men abandoned their stores. Children chased dogs in the streets or else hid behind their mother's skirts.
He was tall, taller than most people in Hamlin, and as thin as a stork's leg. His hair was black as night and cut pageboy style so it framed his face. The stranger's skin was pale like the noblest of ladies. Mathis couldn't see his eyes.
However, the most striking thing about the stranger was his clothes. They were a riot of color, diamonds of every hue sewn together in a manner that should have been garish but wasn't. It made his hair look darker, his limbs longer, and his body leaner. It also made him stand out in the crowd of people. As if he wouldn't already.
Instead of standing beside the street gawking, Mathis raced ahead to the city's main hall. He ducked in the side door, the servant's door, and ran through the narrow halls until he came to his father's office. His father the mayor was sitting behind his giant, oaken desk.
"Mathis, why are you always in such a rush? Haven't I spoken to you before about running around like that?" The mayor was a portly man with robes trimmed in ermine that dominated even the massive desk. He got up as his son entered. "What has you worked up this time?"
"Father..." Mathis began. He hesitated for a moment, not sure what he was going to say or even why he felt it necessary to speak to his father first. "There is a man coming up through town. I have... a feeling about him. Don't listen to what he says. Send him away."
"A feeling?" The mayor reached out at patted his son on the head like he was a child. His next words were said in an indulgent tone of voice. "Well, let's go see what this man who provoked a feeling in my son wants."
They met the stranger on the steps of city hall. People from all over the village had gathered and the crowd milled around, whispering to themselves. If the pied stranger was disturbed by this, it didn't show.
"Silence! Silence!" Mathis's father called out. He held his hands up and the crowd fell obediently silent. As he spoke the rest of the town council made its way to the front. Only once they were crowded around the mayor in a show of solidarity did he speak. "What brings you to our town?"
The stranger bowed low. "Mayor of Hamlin, I have traveled through the lands of the east and through the lands of the west. I have crossed rivers and deserts, forests and glens. In my wanderings, I heard news of a town, your town. Hamlin: a town that is plagued with rats."
"What you have heard is true," the Mayor replied.
"It is," the stranger replied. He pulled up from his bow. "I have seen the rats that roam the streets in broad daylight, bold as brass, with my own eyes. Now that I have ascertained the truth to the rumors, I have a proposal for you."
"A proposal?" the Mayor said. "Before we hear such a thing, I would like to know who brings such a thing before the council of Hamlin."
"I am but a humble Piper," the stranger replied. "A pied Piper." As if to back up his words the stranger pulled out a pipe. It was a straight and narrow, carved of rich wood with brass rings. His fingers roamed over the holes as if they longed to play.
The Mayor waited for more, a given or family name, but none was forthcoming.
"Very well, Piper. Follow us into city hall and we will discuss your proposal," the Mayor said. He gestured for the Piper to go up the steps. The Piper remained where he was standing.
"In the city hall?" The Piper looked astonished, but the emotion was too exaggerated to be anything other than faked. "But Mayor, I would think that you would want the entire town to hear what I say. For I propose to get rid of all the rats of Hamlin. Every single one of them."
Everyone started talking at once, their excited voices turning into a deafening cacophony. Mathis resisted the urge to cover his ears. The Piper was smiling and Mathis couldn't tell if it was a cruel smile or not.
"Silence! Silence!" The Mayor called again. It took considerable longer for the townspeople to obey this time. "How exactly do you intend to get rid of the rats?"
"The how shouldn't concern you. Suffice to say that I have my ways," the Piper said. He started up the stairs as he spoke. As the piper stepped closer, Mathis could see the color of his eyes. They were pale yellow. Those eyes briefly landed on him and it was as if all the breath left his body. Then the Piper was once again looking at his father and Mathis was left to wonder if he'd imagined his reaction.
"What should concern you is my price. I demand five thousand gold pieces for my services."
This time Mathis really did have to cover his ears. People were shouting. The council was shouting. His father was shouting. The Piper seemed unperturbed through it all. Finally the din died down so that Mathis could make out individual voices.
"Five thousand gold pieces? You'll bankrupt the town!"
"What good is gold if the rats eat us out of house and home?"
"Why should we trust a stranger dressed as he is?"
"Didn't you hear him? Hamlin has become known as the town of rats. Do you really want that to be what our town is known for?"
"When do you want payment?" Mathis asked during a lull. The Piper looked toward him and Mathis knew he hadn't imagined anything. The look once again took his breath away. It was like they could look into his heart and see exactly what he felt. "You understand we can't give you the money ahead of time. There's no way for us to know that you won't skip town with the money."
"I can't imagine why you wouldn't trust me," the Piper said. His words were self-mocking. "Tell me, who is it that speaks with such knowledge?"
"That is my son Mathis," the Mayor said as he clapped Mathis on the back. A few people still shouted their opinions and suggestions, but most had calmed. "He is right though. We won't pay you until you've performed this miracle of yours."
"But you agree to my terms? Five thousand gold pieces in return for ridding your town of rats, and you'll pay me as soon as they're gone?"
"Should we at least give this stranger a chance?" the Mayor asked the assembled crowd. "After all, if he fails, we'll be no worse off than we are now."
The cheers in the Piper's favor were the loudest of all. Only Mathis seemed to have a bad feeling about this. He tried to get his father's attention, but the Mayor ignored him.
"Where are you staying, Piper?" the Mayor asked as people began to disperse. Their eager conversations lingered in the air.
"I have not found lodging yet," the Piper replied. "I came straight here and did not stop."
"There's an inn on the western edge of town called the Green Dragon. I know the owner." Mathis knew the owner too. Every customer the Mayor sent to the Green Dragon meant another discreet coin in his father's pocket. "Mathis will show you where it is."
Whatever protest Mathis would have voiced died as those yellow eyes fell upon him again. There was not enough emotion in those eyes for him to tell what the Piper was thinking. It made him nervous. "I will be sure to thank him. Come young Mathis. I will follow where you lead."
The inn keeper of the Green Dragon was as lean as the mayor was portly. He greeted the Piper with a false familiarity that made Mathis's skin crawl. His voice was eager as he asked the Piper if what he'd heard, gossip you understand was his trade, was true. Did the Piper really intend to rid the town of rats?
"I do. Before I do that, I will need a room for the night," the Piper replied. Nothing of what he thought of the inn keeper showed on his face.
"Of course, of course. As you understand there is a matter of payment," the inn keeper said. He spread his hands wide in mock apology. "I am afraid the mayor did not make any arrangements."
One minute the Piper's hands were empty. The next they contained a single silver coin which he flipped at the inn keeper. Never to let money fall from his grasp, the inn keeper caught the coin in mid air. Then he tested it with his teeth to make sure the metal was good. Mathis had the feeling that the Piper frowned on such a gesture though his face was as smooth as ever.
"Be a good boy and show him to the room at the end of hall. You know the one." Mathis did. It was not the best room in the inn and was worth quite a bit less than the silver the Piper had paid. He was a split second from saying something when he felt a hand on his shoulder.
"I am sure it will do. Thank you for your kindness." The faintest hint of irony touched the last word. The Piper knew he was being scammed. As quickly as the hand was on his shoulder, it was gone. Mathis turned quickly towards the stairs and led the way to the room.
"That will be all," the Piper said once they reached the door at the end of the hall. Only half the lanterns were lit and the flickering lights threw odd shadows on the wall. "Thank you for showing me here."
"They don't mean to pay you," Mathis blurted out. The Piper stood there, head cocked to one side, listening but not reacting. Mathis felt himself flush. "My father that is... and the council and the townspeople. They won't pay you what you've asked. It's too much."
"Did they tell you as much?" Mathis shook his head, suddenly shamed. The Piper reached out and tilted Mathis's chin up until he had no choice but to meet those strange eyes. "It's not wise to accuse people with no evidence. Perhaps your father will surprise us both and do what he has said he will do."
"We will see. Goodnight, young Mathis. I will see you in the morning." Then the pied Piper was gone, disappearing into his room quicker than thought. Mathis stood in the hallway feeling every inch of the unsure sixteen year old he was.
His skin tingled where the Piper had touched him.
The next day dawned clear and beautiful with a morning sky colored like glass in a chapel. At exactly seven o'clock in the morning, just as the bells in the church were tolling the time, the Piper arrived at the steps of city hall. A crowd had gathered to watch.
"Good morning, Sir Mayor. It is time for me to uphold my end of the bargain," the Piper said by way of greeting.
"Yes, it is. I must admit that I am curious to see how you will rid us of our plague of rodents," the Mayor said. A few people in the crowd laughed nervously. "You have to admit, a stranger dressed such as yourself saying that he can rid the town of rats... it is something that has to be seen to be believed."
Mathis watched as the Piper drew himself up, tall and lean and proud. Again the bright colors of his outfit and the diamond pattern in which they were sewn seemed to make him larger than life. His black hair blew in the breeze. It was impossible to tell whether the Piper was insulted by the Mayor's words, but Mathis thought he might be. Just a little.
Then the Piper bowed, all smiles and politeness. "As you wish."
More than a few people snickered when the Piper pulled out his pipe. He brought it to his lips as the sun crested the mountains and poured light like melted butter into the valley. Everyone held his or her breath.
The first note was low and wavering, as if not sure of its place in the world. After that the notes came stronger and clearer. Soon they found a beat, and the pied Piper was playing a jaunty tune.
First it was a single rat. Then a dozen. Then a hundred. Soon thousands of rats were running in the street, called by the Piper's music. People shrieked and ran for their houses as the rats came. The mayor grabbed his son and pulled him into City Hall. Mathis lost sight of the Piper.
He didn't see what happened next, but he heard about it. The Piper led all of the rats out of town. A great sea of rats, in brown and gray and black, that flowed outwards into the countryside through the western gate. When it was done the townspeople looked high and low, but there was not a single whiskered nose or scaly tail to be found.
People took to the streets cheering. Mathis watched his father wave from the steps of City Hall, soaking up the peoples' praise and adoration like he had done all the work. "People of Hamlin! The rats that have lived in our houses, eaten our food, and bitten our children are gone. It is time for celebration."
"Father," Mathis said. He touched the Mayor on his elbow to get his attention. "Shouldn't we tell people to go and seal up their houses as best they can to prevent the rats return?"
"Or course not, my son. Today is not a day for working. Today is a celebration." The last was shouted to the gathered people. A great cheer rose up and the Mayor waved.
"No, no. Mathis run along and play. When you are older, you will understand."
Mathis wanted to shout at his father. I am older. I'm sixteen. Stop treating me like a child. I'm the one acting like an adult here. None of those words passed his lips. "Yes, Father."
Everyone had forgotten about the pied Piper and his payment until the next day, when he showed up on the steps of City Hall dressed in garish colors. The townspeople pretended like the Piper did not exist. Small children who would stare at him were pulled away by their parents. No one greeted him. No one met his eyes.
If the Piper was at all affected by his abrupt fall from fortune, there was no indication. He just calmly sat on the steps. Waiting. Occasionally, he played a tune on his pipe. Butterflies gathered around him, dancing in the air in time to his songs.
Mathis went in the side door and into his father's office. The Mayor was seated at his desk, his concentration on the document in front of him. "Wha... What? Oh! Mathis. What brings you here?"
"The Piper is outside," Mathis said. His father froze for a second, tense, and then forced himself to relax. It was a false calm. "Well, yes. Please send him on his way with all our thanks."
"Father," Mathis said. "I think he's here for his payment."
"Payment?" His father rested his clasped hands on the desk and regarded Mathis as if he were a particularly slow child. "Our thanks is all the payment the Piper will receive. The town is deeply grateful for his services."
He had known this was coming. Still, seeing his father's deception hit Mathis like a physical blow. "But not grateful enough to pay the Piper his price?"
The Mayor's face turned red with anger. "Mathis! Don't you dare talk to me like that. What do you know of the business of running a town? Five thousand gold pieces is a ridiculous sum. Why that is enough to build five building or ten bridges or pave twelve roads. Hamlin could never afford to part with that much."
"Then why did you tell him that you would pay him that much?" Mathis demanded. His father gave him a look.
"I should not have expected someone as young as you to understand. You see everything as black and white. I could never allow this town to be bankrupted over a wandering vagabond." The Mayor shook his head. "I care too much for the people to do that."
"You're going to just ignore him?"
"Sometimes that is the best way to deal with a problem. Ignore it until it takes care of itself." The Mayor turned back to the paperwork on his desk. "This conversation is over. I will see you at dinnertime."
It felt like his feet had turned to lead. Each step took all the energy he had. When he went outside, the sunlight seemed to rebuke him. The Piper turned towards him as Mathis stepped closer. His heart seemed to trip over itself.
"Good morning, young Mathis. You seem troubled," the Piper said. Not for the first time, Mathis wished he could tell what the Piper was thinking. His slight smile gave nothing away.
"They're not going to pay you."
"Did your father say this or are you still accusing without proof?" Mathis felt his cheeks burn. He felt like a fool. Part of him wanted to turn around and leave. The Piper didn't deserve to be paid. A bigger part made him stay and speak.
"My father said it. They won't pay you."
"I appreciate your honesty, young Mathis." The Piper turned back to look out at the town. "You alone chose to tell me the truth. For that reason, I will give your father, the council, and the townspeople seven days to do what is right."
"You could give them seven years, and I don't think they'd pay you."
"How uncharitable," the Piper replied, but there was no reproach in his voice this time. "But I fear you are right. Time will tell though. We shall see."
"What do you plan on doing to them?" Mathis asked at noon on the seventh day. At his side was the bag he had taken from his father's office. Inside was all the gold he had been able to find in seven days. It took all his strength not to drop it on the steps of the city hall. Guilt was a heavy load.
The Piper looked from where he was sitting. He squinted into the sun, but did not raise a hand to shield his eyes. "If I tell you, will you warn them?"
Mathis didn't even bother trying to lie. "Yes."
"Then you understand why I cannot tell you," the Piper replied. As the days had gone by the colors had disappeared from his clothing: first black, then purple, then blue, then green, then yellow, and finally orange. Now on the seventh day he wore nothing but shades of red. It was not a comforting sight.
"I brought part of you payment. Don't take revenge."
At his words, the Piper stood. He looked down at Mathis. "Only part?"
"I couldn't find any more. This is all I have," Mathis replied.
The Piper stroked his thumb against Mathis's cheek, slow and gentle. He shivered. Golden eyes seemed to pin him in place. "Your honesty and your honor are wasted on this city. Leave. What happens to them shouldn't concern you."
"I can't," Mathis said. "They are all I know. I can't abandon them."
"I would expect nothing less from you." Mathis did not realize how warm the Piper's touch was until it was gone. The Piper took a step back and Mathis could feel the distance between them.
"For the price of 1,674 gold pieces I promise you that I will not harm anyone from the town of Hamlin." Mathis jerked in shock, wondering how the Piper knew the exact amount of gold without ever opening the bag. "Will that suffice?"
"Is there no way I can persuade you to forego your revenge?"
"Not unless you can come up with the additional gold pieces. A contract is a contract, even if it is only spoken, and I must abide by the terms." The Piper inclined his head. "I will exact my revenge at sundown."
As the sky turned to shades of crimson and violet on the seventh day, the Piper got to his feet.
"Hamlin," he started. Every one ignored him, intent on getting home in time for dinner, so the Piper blew a sharp note on his pipe. All the bells in the church rang at once. People streamed from their homes, hands clapped over their ears. Once he had their attention, the Piper began again.
"Hamlin. For seven days, I have waited on the steps of your City Hall for my payment. For seven day, you have ignored me. You have gone back on your word. If you will not pay me in gold, I am afraid I will have to take my payment in another form."
The first note was strong and bold in complete contrast to the first time the Piper had played on the steps. It was followed by another and then another. Soon a merry tune was winding itself through the streets. It flowed into the cracks, seeped into the bedrooms, and called from the rooftops.
Wendel was the first to come. He laughed as he ran to the Piper and started to dance. Gwendolyn was next, her skirts flying around her ankles. Then Jacob and Wilhelm, the twins, showed up. The Piper began to walk through the town and the children poured into the streets to follow him.
None of the adults could move to stop them. They stood, frozen and slack-jawed at the sight. A few of the townspeople had tears flowing from their eyes as they watched their children flock around the Piper.
Mathis trembled. Part of him wanted to go towards the sound, and another part of him didn't seem to be able to move. Caught between childhood and adulthood, the Piper's spell could grab a hold of neither. After a few seconds, it broke around him and went in search of another victim.
His heart was racing and his breath came in short shallow gasps. Mathis took one unsteady step, then another, then a third before he found his stride and followed the Piper and children. The urge to dance was still there, but he ignored it. Some instinct told him that to dance was to fall prey to the Piper's spell.
The Piper led the children down the main street, across the bridge, and out of town. Mathis walked behind trying not to breathe the dust they kicked up. All Mathis could see of the Piper was the occasional flash of red in the distance.
They reached the foothills long after nightfall. The stars were high up in the night sky and the moon was all that lit their way. Mathis's legs ached. He wasn't quite sure how far they'd come – at some point the Piper had turned north, then south, then east again – but he did know he'd been walking for hours. All of the village children continued to laugh and dance. It was like they never tired.
From the side of the hill, a golden light poured forth. Mathis flinched. After the pale silver moonlight, the light from the hill was almost too much. It made his eyes water. Still he made himself look. He was the only one who'd be able to tell the people of Hamlin what the Piper's revenge was.
It was a door. A doorway in the side of the hill. The Piper stepped inside, ducking his head slightly to avoid bumping it on the jamb. For a split second, his golden eyes seemed to single out Mathis. Then he was gone and the children were all following him.
He wanted to yell at them to stop, but couldn't find his voice. The music had not dimmed in the least. If anything, it had gotten stronger, flowing with harmonies and counter harmonies that were impossible for a simple pipe to make. One by one the children followed the Piper into the doorway.
It was only when the last child had walked through and the hillside closed behind them, that Mathis heard a wail of despair rise up from the town of Hamlin.
Mathis walked west, towards the mountains, in the direction the Piper had initially taken the children of Hamlin. The walk back to the village was a vague memory that had an almost nightmarish quality for Mathis. Quite honestly, he didn't remember which direction he'd taken to get back to Hamlin. All he'd done was follow the stumbled towards the sound of wailing as the townspeople realized their children were gone.
He was prepared to walk for days, to walk however long it would take. Therefore it was a little disconcerting to see the Piper less than two hours outside of town. Mathis stopped in the middle of the road and stared.
The colors the Piper wore were different, more muted blues and grays and browns as opposed to the brilliant rainbow he'd worn the first time and the blood red he'd donned the last day. Mathis wondered if his clothes somehow reflected him moods. Even if they did, he didn't know what the colors meant.
"Young Mathis. I should have expected as much," the Piper said by way of greeting. He was sitting on a boulder at the edge of the crossroads. "What brings you out here?"
"I... " Mathis took a deep breath and tried again. "What would it take to get you to release the children?"
"Did your father put you up to this? I imagine he is promising all the gold your city has if I will return the children." The Piper smiled. His flute was in his lap and his fingers wandered idly over the holes. "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. No, I don't think I'll accept such an offer. Go home."
"That's not... Yes, he'd promise you all the gold in Hamlin if you brought the children back. I don't blame you for not believing him again. But my father didn't put me up to this. I came on my own," Mathis said. He shifted from foot to foot, feeling sweat spring up on his back and forehead. "What would it take to get you to release the children?"
"Poor, poor Mathis. You don't have any money. You gave it all to me in order to ensure that no one would be harmed." The Piper spread his hands wide. "There is nothing left for you to give me. Go home."
"What would it take to..."
"Stop!" The pied Piper slid down off the rock and stalked towards him. He towered over Mathis as he spoke, his voice low and quiet with rage. "You do not want to ask that question again. You don't want to force me to answer. There is power in threes."
If Mathis asked the question one more time, the Piper would be forced to answer. He would have what he'd come for. It was hard to meet those strange yellow eyes. Harder still to force himself to shape the words. Mathis had to know.
"What would it take to get you to release the children?"
The Piper grabbed Mathis by the arms, twisted him around, and shoved him against the rock he had been sitting on a few minutes ago. It didn't even occur to Mathis to struggle. He felt the heat of the Piper's wrath, the heat of his body. It contrasted with the coolness of the rock against his back.
Then the Piper was kissing him.
It was not a sweet kiss. It was hard and demanding and angry. Mathis wasn't sure what to do. This was nothing like the occasionally peck on the cheek he'd stolen from girls at the autumn dances. This was way outside his experience.
Mathis responded as best he could. He opened his mouth to the Piper's kiss. It was hard to breathe, but he managed until the Piper's tongue rubbed against his own. Then everything stopped for a second before the Piper ended the kiss and reality came crashing back down.
"Fool," the Piper said as he drew back. Mathis was happy to note that the Piper's breathing hadn't been unaffected by the kiss. "You couldn't leave it alone. Are you happy now?"
It took him a few seconds to gather his thoughts together. The Piper was still pressed against him, his forehead resting on Mathis's. "Me?" His voice cracked mid-word. "You want me?"
"To have you, I would relinquish my hold upon the children."
His yellow eyes had gone unreadable, and Mathis couldn't tell what the Piper was thinking. He could still feel phantom pressure on his lips, ghost feeling from where the Piper had kissed him. "Why? Why me? You could have anyone else in the world."
"I don't want anyone else in the world," the Piper said. "And that is the problem. Say no, young Mathis. I don't want to watch you grow to hate me."
"Why would I grow to hate you?" Mathis asked. He could still feel the heat from the other man. Mathis wanted to close his eyes and lean forward, press his cheek against the Piper's chest and listen to his heartbeat. He didn't quite dare.
"You would have to leave all that you've known. Your city, your father, and your friends... you could never see them again. My house is strange in its ways, and those that live around it stranger. I would be gone for days, sometimes weeks at a time and would leave you alone." The Piper shook his head. "Do not bind yourself to me."
"Yes." Mathis was proud that he managed to genuinely shock the Piper.
"Have you listened to a word I've said?"
"Yes," Mathis said again. "I always listen to what you say. I want this. I want... to go with you. To be with you. I want... more." This time Mathis did give into the urge and buried his face against the Piper's chest. His cheeks were red. "I've had feelings for you since I first saw you walk into town. I didn't know what they were till now"
"I can't dissuade you then?" The Piper's arms settled around Mathis's waist, holding him close. He liked that.
"Then it is settled," the Piper said. "Sealed with a kiss, as they say." The Piper tilted Mathis's face up and kissed him again, this time gentle and sweet. "You are mine."
Four days later the children of Hamlin showed up in a neighboring village early one morning. They were crying and weeping, but all were accounted for. The village leaders contacted the city of Hamlin. Parents flocked to the town to retrieve their children.
In all the joy surrounding the return of the children, not even the Mayor noticed that Mathis was missing. Three days later was the first time someone inquired about the Mayor's son. What had happened to him?
One person recalled that Mathis had argued with his father. Hadn't he? Another talked about he always seemed to be leaving town lately: growing more independent and venturing forth on his own. A third said they were sure they'd seen Mathis packing his things not too long ago. Rumors spread and multiplied until the town was convinced that Mathis had left to find his fortune.
In a way, he had.
At the top of the hill, Mathis looked back towards Hamlin. All he was taking with him rested in the pack on his back. He'd met the Piper at the town gate after packing, just like he'd promised he would. People had walked right by the Piper without even noticing he was there. As soon as Mathis had joined the Piper, they'd done the same to him. The Piper, dressed in clear greens and golds this time, had led him west.
"Regrets already?" the Piper asked when he noticed that Mathis was not following in his footsteps. Mathis took one last look and sighed.
"No," Mathis replied. Then he turned and followed the Piper towards the mountains.