It was a miserable wet October night in 1301 when a cripple trudged his way into the market town of Durschtuck. He walked with a cane, and his feet squelched in the mud with an uneven rhythm. The watchman saw his shape on the road and raised a hooded lantern to turn its beam on the approaching figure. “Hallo!” He called out as the visitor squelched toward him. “Who comes?” The stranger raised his face, but its features were unclear in the deluge. He was tall and tried to walk with a straight back but even his long travel cloak could not disguise the serious limp. As he drew close the light revealed tatty patchwork clothes and a jerkin far too thin for the weather. Everything was soaked in rain and caked in mud from what looked like days of walking.
The figure raised his cane in greeting before returning it to the ground to steady himself before he lost his balance in the mud. “Oh, Hallo freund. My name is Johannes. I am from the monastery town. I meant to arrive before sundown but...” He nodded down to his cane with a derisive smirk. “It is so frustrating.” The watchman lifted the light to see into Johannes’ face, and was surprised to see that he was only a young man, with a round boyish face and the pale blonde fluff of a blooming beard on his chin.
He smiled in the light and went to doff his cap to the watchman, but the watchman waved a dismissal. “Nein! Nein! Do not worry yourself, you’re already soaked. Get yourself to the “Three-legged cat” at once and warm yourself by the fire. Here.” He stepped forward and pressed a coin into the traveller’s hand. “Go get yourself an ale and a seat by the fire. Fraulein Kolner is most generous, she will take care of you. I think there’s even a bard at the inn too so you’re in luck!” The young man’s smile did not leave his face, but it faltered. He closed his fist around the coin and nodded his thanks. “Very kind Herr. Danke!”
On the watchman’s directions, Johannes slogged his way up the dirt track between the low wooden houses up to a thatched building with a water-slick sign swinging over the wooden door. Despite the dark and pounding rain, Johannes could make out the image of a cat with three legs, its remaining forepaw on the breast of a dead rat, triumphant and smiling. The limping man shouldered his way in, steam rising from his clothes the instant entered the warmth that seeped into his bones like a golden tonic. Few faces turned to look at him but most remained focused on the figure in the corner. Johannes slipped his coat, hobbled between vacated tables, and paid for an ale with the coin from the watchmen before hobbling to a chair by the fire.
It was angled so that, whilst it appeared as though he was watching the flames, he could watch the whole timber tavern from the corner of his eye the man that stood surrounded by faces. He was dressed in the brightest clothes Johannes had ever seen with dazzling red sleeves, that fluttered about his gesticulating hands, affixed to an ivory-coloured doublet with polished brass buttons. His trousers were a glaring diamond patterns of rich colours, grass green, ruby red, baby blue and more that clung to his legs and crotch like a second skin. His head was bare but for silky-auburn locks that curled inward around his jaw and caught the light almost as much as his buttons.
He was clearly midway through a story as the all the occupants of the Three-Legged Cat were around him and the empty hat that lay expectantly at his twitching, shifting feet. Not only could Johannes see this enigmatic dancing figure, but he could hear him. The voice was enchanting, low, and yet melodic that changed pitch and pace like a valley breeze. As he watched, he felt as if he was falling under a spell. Again. As The pipe in the bard’s hand drew trails of smoke in the air.
“… But would you believe it was me the queen came to. Me! So, I said “But queen, I’m just a silly town drunk! A storyteller at best, a beggar at the least. What good am I to you?”” At this he took a toke on his pipe and exhaled a large cloud that, with a few waves of his hand and precise twitches of his lips, took on the shape of two ghostly figures. One a smoky queen in her royal gown, and the other a jester bowing low. The crowd were enthralled by the silhouettes.
“She said to me. “A jester and a pauper you may be, but you will go unnoticed. This demon, who hath bartered to make me give up my first-born child in exchange for my position, hath seen all my men and all my family. He knoweth each of their tricks and each of their skills but you…”” He pointed, taking on the role of the queen, his green eyes full of desperate longing. “”Will not be suspected. Pray, what are your skills?”” He paused, snapping back into his own character, and the smoke reformed once more taking on the shape of a tankard that floated above his head. He looked up at it, made a face of acceptance and looked back to the crowd shrugging. “I can drink?”
At this the crowd all laughed heartily, a few banging on tables and raising mugs in agreement. Johannes watched carefully. “So, I tracked down the queen’s nemesis. The peculiar goblin was taking refuge in the dingiest tavern in town, a place called…” He cocked his lips and began to sway and stomp as if drunk, “The Sickly-Swan. Oh, he was a strange looking fellow, all nose and knobbly skin like a leper. His hair was coarse as a dog and he walked with a limp as if one of his legs was screwed on backward.” The bard limped comically around the tavern as the occupants once again roared with laughter at his performance. Johannes momentarily met the performer’s eyes. They glanced at the cane for an instant, before switching back to his crowd.
“Easier to get on with than you’d think, goblins are.” The bard went on smoothly, re-assuming his position. “Especially when you tell them you’re buying!” He pulled out his empty pockets and pouted, at which the crowed made pitying noises and one threw a penny. “We drank everything! We drank ale! We drank wine! We drank whiskey! We drank rum!” With each new drink mentioned the crowd cheered and laughed as the bard acted drunker and drunker. “I wus gettin’ fair forget whut I wus ther furrrr…” He pratfell face-first to the ground with a loud crash on the wooden boards and lay still, his hair spilled about over his skull like molten gold.
The silence hung and the crowd watched him. Johannes also stared. Suddenly, the bard lifted his head and a raised finger for attention. “But I had a duty to the queen!” He seemed to fall in reverse to a stand and then, inserting his pipe into his mouth continued. “Every drink we had. I asked him his name. You recall those were his conditions. He had said if the queen knew his name by noon the next day, she would be allowed to keep her child.” The crowd made motions and sounds of agreement. The bard began to toke on his pipe furiously, surrounding himself in a blue haze of smoke. “A hard nut to crack this goblin was, but with every sip he grew softer and softer and softer, and it was with an iron liver that I held my liquor, and at last when I thought I could stand no more, he let it slip.”
The crowd gasped in awe, some choking on the incredibly dense cloud that now surrounded the performer with the pipe, completely blocking him from view. “His name was mine!”
The smoke coiled lithely, taking on a new shape that floated above the crowd like a menacing phantom. A long face, with evil gimlet eyes and a wicked cutting smile with every evil detail carved out in grey mist.
“I told the queen the name and, with a sore head I imagine, the goblin approached her and asked “Well Queen? Doth thou wish to give me the child now? Or doth thou have one guess to give me of the name that you can never know?” You know what she said?”
Without warning, the bard leapt forward onto a table, his hand extended in an accusing finger to the terrifying goblin face that hung in the air. “Rumpelstiltskin!” He declared. “Rumpelstiltskin! That is your name!” The ugly face writhed in the air and opened its mouth in a silent scream, that was somehow louder and more terrifying that a real one could ever be, before exploding into nothing leaving no trace but a thin haze and the sound of a distant trilling note. Johannes shuddered. The crowd gazed in rapture at the spectacle as the bard spun, his legs crossed and arm behind his back. “He was banished and to this day the Queen still lives with her beautiful child, as content as cotton.” He bowed low “Dankesein!” the crowd whooped and applauded, helping the performer down and plying him with drinks and coin, showering him with so much praise that it could almost be seen running off him like the rain. Back at the table by the fire nothing but an empty glass and an empty chair remained. The tavern roared with mirth as the patrons called and chatted, no-one mentioning the man with the limp who had entered and left without saying a word.
Many hours later, after the drunks had gone home and as the candles were being extinguished, the bard slipped out the door taking great care not to be seen. He wore a cloak as black as the night to cover his bright clothes, and taking a last careful backward glance stole out into the muddy streets.
“Piper!” He froze.
“It is you isn’t it? The Piper of Hamelin?” The Piper turned to face the speaker. Johannes stepped out of the side street, the cadence of his cane tapping along with his asymmetrical stride. “It’s taken me a long time to catch up with you. I make it 17 years. This damn-leg I suppose.” Piper watched the boy with his dazzling green eyes carefully. “And look at you. Hardly aged a day.”
“What do you want from me boy?” The Pied Piper asked, turning to face him the black cloak billowing to reveal the bright clothes underneath. The wind blew the pipes that bounced on a chord at his waist, releasing a few discordant notes into the empty street. “Do you want revenge? Do you want to try and kill me for what I did?” Johannes almost laughed.
“Kill you? The cripple, try to kill a wizard…”
“Don’t call me that.”
“Which ever you call yourself. Nein. I do not wish to kill you.”
“Then what do you want?” The Piper asked, reaching for his pipes. “To join the others? To know where I led your friends?”
“My brother.” Johannes corrected. “It was my brother that you took from me that day. The day you played your pipes and led all the children out of Hamelin. I just watched them go. Following your music. I tried to follow too but…” He stabbed his cane into the mud a few times with a look of contained frustration on his face, “This leg.” The Piper watched him carefully as he took another few hobbling steps toward him. “Nein. All I’ve wanted…” Another step, “All I’ve wanted.” He repeated, stopping, and looking up into Piper’s face. “Is not revenge, or even answers.” The Piper frowned as he looked into the boy’s eyes and saw tears. “It’s just… All these years, despite everything. All I can think about. Keeps me up at night, is I never heard how the song ended.”
His hand shot forward and he grabbed the bright cream jerkin and Johannes pulled his quarry toward his face. “Why? Why can I not get your song out of my head?! It is like I am the addict! What cursed magic have you put in my mind that it plays this incomplete melody, over and over and over…” He punched out with each “Over”. “So please…please.” He begged, looking up into Piper’s face with gritted teeth and a teary face. “Please just… Play me the song. Show me how it ends.”
The Bard looked down on the cripple and gently removed the hand from the front of his clothes. He took up his pipes and Johannes’ face broke out in a weak smile, his eyes glazed like he was on opium. The Pied Piper inhaled then began to play. The notes were delicate but commanding, pure and corrupting.
Where the rats came from could not be determined, but there were so many that they carpeted the ground, swarming up Johannes’ body and devouring him so fast that he barely had time to take in a breath to scream. The Piper kept playing until only bones remained and then, with one last lingering trill, the rodents dispersed into the night. Regarding the remains, the Piper took up Johannes’ cane broke it over his knee. Tossing the scraps away, not even good enough for kindling, he swept out of town as silently as death.