Joan tells the Witch a Story
‘And it wasn’t a lie. I had spoken to the King and he hadn’t expressed any concerns whatsoever about my plan in the course of our conversation.’
The Witch grinned at Joan and topped up her mug. ‘He needs better councillors. How could they not hear what you weren’t saying?’
‘If it wasn’t for the fact that they’ve shown time and time again they’re dimmer than a single rush-light in fog I’d suspect it were because they thought I was just a wee lassie and incapable of pulling it off. But speaking of lying, did you hear what the King’s previous councillors, the ones they had before this shower, did when the Piper came calling?’
The Witch winced. ‘Do I want to know?’
‘Well I want to tell you and that’s practically the same thing.’ Joan took a fortifying gulp of mulled apple. ‘Now I wasn’t there for this, mind, so it’s a second-hand story but Gammer Beavis were the one to tell it me, so I doubt there’s much embellishment.
‘The Piper turned up late summer, when the river was low, the harvest was in, and the rats were making a nuisance of themselves in the grain stores as is their want. Everyone had been expecting him for weeks and they’d all put coin aside so there’d be no problem about payment. He’d barely made it to the town square when the councillors accosted him and whisked him off, up to the palace, and no one saw hide nor hair of him for the rest of the day.
‘Now everyone was right upset by this, not knowing what was going on, and rumour was rife; the councillors had thrown him in the dungeons, the King was going to ask him to use his magic to heal his leg instead of getting rid of the rats, it wasn’t The Piper at all but an imposter and the real piper was dead. You know how outlandish folks get when they’re worried.
‘Come morning the Piper was still nowhere to be seen but the three councillors were back in the square with a squad of eight guards, demanding that all the children be brought to them there and then. They explained that the guards would take the children for a nice day out along the river, the councillors would gather the coin for the Piper’s payment and once they had it all the Piper would be allowed into the town to work his magic. The Piper would then leave with the rats and everything would be back to normal. Hiding the children was just a precaution, obviously, but we’ve all heard the stories, better to be safe than sorry.
‘Now none of the townsfolk were particularly keen on this, seeing as how they had heard the stories and knew there’d be no trouble providing the Piper was paid. Were the councillors intending to double cross the Piper, they asked. Of course not, the councillors assured them. Just being careful.
‘At which point the Piper appeared on the wall of the square, well out of reach of the councillors and guards, and enquired of the townsfolk what the problem was. When they said they did not want to send their children off with the guards while he worked, he looked surprised. But do you not want to be rid of your children, he asked, for the councillors have assured me that you do, and that they would have them all waiting for me on the road to Koppelberg so I would not have to waste any time returning to town to collect them. He paused for a moment and then added, they also said you had no alternate means of payment.
‘He lies, the councillors protested, shuffling closer to the guards. He is a trickster trying to set us against one another. Can you not see he was always planning to take your children but now he is trying to deceive you all by laying the blame at our door.
‘But the townsfolk were not easily deceived. They looked at the men who made up the squad of guards and saw there was not a father amongst them. Then they recalled all the goods the councillors had purchased on credit, debts that they had assured all the shopkeepers they would settle at summer’s end.
‘Did they offer you no coin at all, Jason the Blacksmith shouted up to the Piper. Not one copper, he replied, they insisted it was your children or nothing. At this the townsfolk surged forward as one and it took far less time than any of the guards were happy about before they, and the councillors, were tied up and gagged.
‘Come down, Piper, and bargain with us, the townsfolk cried. We have coin for you and we would see you paid fairly. Half now and half when the rats are gone.
The Piper appeared in the square in the blink of an eye and addressed the townsfolk thus. I will trade with you, good people. I will take the rats away if you will give me these men who have tried so hard to take your money and your children and blacken my name into the bargain. They have behaved no better than the rats that steal your food and spread disease in your town. Let me take care of them for you.
‘The townsfolk looked at each other and then Jason spoke for all of them again. You have a deal, Piper and we are grateful for it. May we at least provision you for the road.
‘And so it was the Piper left the town with a full pack and a merry tune on his pipe, a tune that not only called all the rats from the grain stores, gutters, sewers, and cellars but made eleven humans scamper reluctantly after him too. And the townsfolk have not heard hide nor hair of them to this day.’
Joan drained her mug and looked quizzically at the Witch. ‘Well?’
‘You were right,’ she said, cutting Joan a generous slice of fruit cake and refilling her mug, ‘I did want to hear it.’
This story is the eleventh of a twelve part series that was written at the start of December 2022 in response to daily prompt emails from Writer’s HQ for their 12 Days of Flashmas challenge. It is presented here pretty much just as it was originally written on the eleventh day of the challenge. If you’d like to know more my explanatory post can be found here.
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