Authors: Tanith Lee
Table of Contents
RED AS BLOOD
WHEN THE CLOCK STRIKES
THE GOLDEN ROPE
THE PRINCESS AND HER FUTURE
BLACK AS INK
THE WATERS OF SORROW
Copyright © 1983 by Tanith Lee.
Expanded edition copyright © 2014 by Tanith Lee.
All rights reserved.
* * * *
“Paid Piper” originally appeared in
The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction
, copyright © 1981 by Mercury Press, Inc. “Red As Blood” originally appeared in
The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction
,copyright © 1979, by Mercury Press, Inc. “Thorns” originally appeared in
Young Winter’s Tales
,copyright © 1972 by Macmillan, Ltd. “When the Clock Strikes” originally appeared in
copyright © 1980 by Lin Carter. “Wolfland” originally appeared in
The Magazine of
Fantasy & Science Fiction
, copyright © 1980 by Mercury Press, Inc. “The Waters of Sorrow” was written especially for this volume, but was published first in the online preview edition of
. Copyright © 2013 by Tanith Lee.
In the late summer afternoon, the river lay thin and shallow among its smooth stones. A young girl kneeled there, washing her long dark hair. Her name was Cleci, and she was fourteen.
Up on the left-hand bank stood a group of lindens. Their leaves were powdered by the summer dust, which floated in the air like smoke. Beyond the lindens was the village of Lime Tree, which was called for them. It was a large, sprawling, prosperous village, of many narrow streets and open squares, that stood in the midst of its own wheat fields. While beyond the right-hand bank of the river, these fields ran off into Lime Tree’s vineyards, where the red grapes ripened on their stocks.
Lime Tree understood why it was so prosperous. It wisely worshiped the rat god, Raur, and Raur therefore kept his folk in order. Other places might be plagued by vermin, who spoiled the crops and fouled the granaries, but not Lime Tree village. Lime Tree took gifts to Raur in his whitewashed temple by the ford. After the harvest, in thanks and homage, they would lay wheat sheaves, apples and wine on his altar.
Last Spring Festival, Cleci, along with thirty other young girls, had been made a Maiden of Raur. This happened to all the many daughters of the village when they were about fourteen or so. It meant that they were allowed into the sanctuary, to gaze on Raur for the first time. Cleci thought him very beautiful, for he was five feet tall, and carved in flawless marble, with rose-opal eyes. His rat’s face was intelligent and amenable. The rich people of the village kept white fur rats in gilt cages, and Cleci had determined she too would have a white fur rat to talk to and to play with. She began to save up her coins, of which she got but few. She was the washerwoman’s daughter, and her father was dead. She would fetch the washing, help wash it in the tubs of scalding water, help dry it in the yard, then carry it back to the houses it had come from. Already Cleci’s hands were rough, and she put them behind her back now, when she went to the temple, in memory of Raur’s soft silken paws.
* * * *
Every fifth day Raur was worshiped, but in winter, spring and late summer, there was a great festival. Lime Tree would deck itself with ribbons and banners. There would be eating and drinking and dancing in the streets. And Raur’s image would be taken out of its sanctuary, though veiled—the Lime Treeans were only permitted to look at him face to face on special occasions—and up and down the byways on the shoulders of his priests. Finally he would be borne through the fields to safeguard and bless them. When night fell, there would be bonfires and singing. Cleci was looking forward to the Summer Festival, which was now less than a day away.
That was why she had stolen the hair-washing hour away from her mother. The washerwoman cared more for the cleanliness of the garments of paying neighbors. But Cleci had now rinsed her hair, and sat combing it into a dry dark shining in the wide westering bars of the sun. As she did so, she mentally counted her coins. There were only ten, however, and counting did not increase them. Which was a pity, since she would need twenty times that number to purchase a white rat from the priests.
Suddenly, all the birds in the lime trees stopped singing. Then a new bird began to sing.
Cleci lifted her head, astonished, wondering what the bird could be. Its voice was much fuller and more mellow than that of any she had ever listened to. And, if possible, more sweet. Yet the trillings and flights of music must definitely be those of a bird, for only something natural could sound so primitive, strange and marvelous. Then the song broke into a double cascade of extraordinary harmonizing notes, took on, in addition, a wild, dancing rhythm, and began to come along the right-hand bank above her. She realized it could not be a bird after all. She stood up involuntarily, to see. And so she saw the Piper.
There had, once or twice, been minstrels—pipers, harpers—who had passed through Lime Tree. But never one who made music like this. Or who looked like this.
His hair grew to his shoulders, and it was a curious somber red, like no hair she had ever seen. There was a full, loose wave in it, too, like the shapes the wind made of grasses, clouds or smoke.… His skin was fair, not tanned at all, and his eyes were large, and blue as distance. His breeches were also blue, but the blue of a storm sky, and his sleeveless jacket the dark crimson of old wine. The pipe was of a pale plain wood and hung from a cord about his neck. He looked young, yet somewhere in his eyes he was much older. Yet his smile was the same age as Cleci.
“Who are you?” he said to Cleci, after he had smiled at her and filled her with a bizarre elation.
“I’m Cleci. Who are you?”
“Who do you think I am?”
“I thought it was a bird, singing.”
“Ah,” said the Piper. He tilted back his head on his young, strong neck, and looked up into the linden tops. And all at once three or four birds flew from the branches, dipped across the river, swooped to him and dropped, soft as leaves on to his shoulders.
“Oh,” said Cleci. “Oh.”
“Oh, yes,” said the Piper. The birds kissed him on the lips with their sharp pointed beaks. Other birds were drifting down into the grass, hopping past his feet. A snake coiled round his ankle. A butterfly flickered in his red hair.
“I saw a temple by the ford,” said the Piper. “Who do you worship there?”
“Raur,” she said with automatic pride. “The rat god.”
“Why?” said the Piper.
A great stillness came when he asked her, as if the land listened too.
“Because…” said Cleci. “Because he keeps his creatures from harming us. And because—he’s beautiful.”
The Piper looked at her. Suddenly she felt ashamed. She did not know why. She stared at the ground and said, “Excuse me, please. I must be getting home.”
And then she turned and ran, straight through the shallow river, up the slippery stones and up the bank. She ran under the lindens and toward the village. She was afraid.
* * * *
When she got home to her mother’s small house, the washerwoman scolded her. For running off, for washing her hair. All through the scolding, Cleci thought of the Piper. All through supper, Cleci thought of him. And as the day went down through a rift of swarthy red in the west, and the east closed to a shadowy blue, still Cleci thought of him. But by then her fear had gone, and a weird disappointment taken its place. She had begun to think she had dozed at the river and dreamed him. She dared not tell her mother, certainly, for her mother would scold her for that too. For dreaming, particularly for dreaming of a young man. Or was he so young as he looked? Could he possibly be as old as that something inside his eyes? “You,” her mother would say, “you dreamed of being a princess when you were ten.
When I am a princess,
you would say. Doing the washing cured you of that. Then you wanted to be a priestess of Raur. As if they take anyone, boy or girl, who isn’t from a rich man’s house. Then, since you were Raur’s Maiden, and saw a white rat in the miller’s hall that day, all you would talk of was having a white rat we could never afford. And now you’ve met a beautiful young piper by the river. A likely tale!” No. Cleci would not tell her mother, for this was what her mother would say, and it was all true. It made Cleci despondent to think he had only been a dream. For there should be such people in the world.
“You’ve not eaten your supper,” Cleci’s mother scolded her. The washerwoman wrapped up the bread and cheese and put it away carefully for tomorrow.
Cleci went to the open door and looked out into the narrow street. The roofs leaned near to each other overhead, and the darkening sky rested on the gap between.
Suddenly all the dogs in Lime Tree, and there were a great many, began to bark and yelp and howl.
“Whatever’s up?” said the washerwoman, as she lit the clay lamp. “They sound like a pack of wolves, they do.”
But then the dogs fell silent. Down the street came floating, soft as the cool air, ripple on ripple of exquisite melody. It was an evening song, delicate yet piercing like the first stars coming out overhead. The pipe sounded deeper now, darker, old as the earth, or nearly.
A light fell over Cleci’s shoulder onto the road. She realized her mother had come to the door, the lamp in her hand.
“Why—” said Cleci’s mother, “whoever’s that? He’s a rare musician, whoever he is.”
The Piper came walking along the street like a lynx, yet every fifth or seventh step, he would give a curious little skip, and the music would skip with him. He held the pipe sideways-on to his lips, and his cheeks scarcely altered their shape at all as he blew.
Other lights were falling out of doors and windows as people came to see. No one spoke at first, merely watched, and listened. But that changed presently. For behind the Piper, drifting like mist in his footsteps, came most of the dogs of Lime Tree, all that had been able to slip their ropes. And none of the dogs fighting, not even glancing at each other, a brindle, low-backed army, gliding to the tune of the pipe.
Cleci heard, along the way, the bursts of exclamation and oaths which marked their progress. Then the river of music came in again, filling the holes these sounds had punctured in the atmosphere. Cleci’s mother did not speak, but she let out a great sigh, as if she had been holding her breath her entire life, and now could let it go. She set her free hand on Cleci’s shoulder, and for once the contact was aware and gentle.
Just then, the Piper went by their door. He angled his head to look at them, but said nothing. Cleci wished she could touch him, to be sure he was real. Then he had gone.
Paws slid across Cleci’s feet.
People stood in the street, staring, as the wonderful music faded like a scent.
“Where’s he going?” she heard someone ask. They had not thought—or dared—to question the Piper himself.
“Toward the miller’s house, looks like.”
The miller was one of the important men of Lime Tree village, being one of the richest. His eldest son was a priest of Raur.
“Did you see the dogs?”
“The dogs were after some food he had, obviously.”
“What does he want?”
“How do I know? Why are you asking
“Tomorrow’s Festival Day. Maybe he wants to play for the dancing. For a fat fee.”
“Ah. That will be it.”
Cleci felt a strange excitement under her ribs, like pain. She wanted to scream or laugh or sing. She wanted to be quiet as a stone.
“He’s only another vagabond,” her mother suddenly said, and Cleci turned and saw her mother, a worn, raw-handed stranger, her eyes tired to death, and greasy hair hanging in them. “Just another beggar.” And Cleci hated her mother with a dull and grinding hate.
One last absconding dog rushed noiselessly up the street, pursuing the invisible tide of music that had flowed away there.
* * * *
Cleci took her white Maiden’s Dress out of the chest and put it on. It was not yet light, and so she was able not to observe the whiteness of the Dress had faded. She tied a scarlet ribbon at her waist. The baker’s wife had given it to her because it had a tear but, tied carefully, the tear was not apparent.
Her mother anxiously grumbled, because today she was not allowed to work.
All through the night, perhaps once every hour, at the moment when it turned over into every next hour, Cleci had awakened. She had wondered what the miller and the baker and the smith, and the other important rich men, had said to the Piper. She had wondered if the Piper would lead Raur’s Procession as, very occasionally, the most accomplished minstrels had been chosen to do.
Even before the sun was up, Lime Tree was hanging banners from its windows, but the colors did not show, or the paintings of magic scenes to do with the rat god: Raur turning a plague of rats and mice aside from the village; Raur battling a giant crow like a black dragon.
“I must go now,” said Cleci to her mother.
“There’ll be enough Maidens,” said Cleci’s mother disparagingly. “They won’t miss
But Cleci ran out of the door and along the street.
As she ran toward the temple, the sun rose above the winding clutter of houses, and all the banners burst open like flowers into green and crimson and violet. Gilt discs sang on streamers in the dawn wind, and little effigies of Raur, made of clay or pastry, bounced lightly on their strings.
The river was the color of the sky. Even the lindens were streaked by cool gold. Cleci picked a spray of blossom, thoughtlessly killing it, because it was beautiful, and put it in her hair.
Lime Tree was prosperous, and had many children, many young men and girls. All told, this year, there were a hundred Maidens, for a girl remained a Maiden till her wedding day, when she would be about fifteen. Then she became a Matron of Raur.
* * * *
The Maidens came together on the bank above the ford, like a flock of white ducks. Next, the boys arrived, with their rat masks made of thin wood, their wooden swords, their skin tabors, and all their shouting. Raur would be carried out into the morning on the shoulders of the priests; the Maidens and the boys would follow Raur back into the streets, and the rest of the village would pour after them.
Sugar plums were being given out. The masked boy rats had some difficulty getting them through their mouth-holes. The Maidens ate with dainty self-consciousness, and wiped their sticky fingers on the grass. Today it did not matter so much that Cleci was the washerwoman’s daughter. Some of the girls actually spoke to her. One of the baker’s daughters even said loudly to her: “How nice that ribbon looks on you. I can’t see the tear in it at all.”
“Look! There’s our illustrious daddy!” cried another daughter, more loudly still, over all the general noise.
Out of the temple walked Lime Tree’s eminent men. The baker and the butcher came first, then the miller, the smith and the wainwright. Last, but not least, the vintner. Behind them, however, came only empty air. Cleci strained her eyes, trying to find the Piper in it. Perhaps, he would come out next, with the priests.
,” said the baker’s daughter, and Cleci realized she had spoken aloud.
“Indeed not,” said the miller’s daughter. “My father says he won’t permit such lawless music to be played before the god. Not that he heard the fellow play, of course, but daddy’s so clever, he didn’t need to hear, to judge.”
The sugar plum Cleci had eaten curdled in her stomach. Disappointment felt like toothache. Then she felt a wave of elation instead. And then the commotion began.
The Maidens turned in a snow-drop flurry. The boys turned their pointed handsome rat faces. The priests who were just starting to spill from the temple door, spilled faster, craning to see.
Out of Lime Tree came striding a wonderful young man in a sleeveless jacket of wine red, and storm-blue breeches. His hands balanced a pipe, held sideways-on to his lips, but you could not hear it over the crowd’s hubbub. Only—only
the music of it, that somehow pierced through air and light, bone and blood, and in at the walls of heart and mind.
His dark red hair blew back from his clear pale forehead, and he was smiling as he piped. Behind him came a flood tide of living creatures, dogs, a skitter of little lizards, a low-flying wing of birds, and a fizzing of insects even, dragonflies, butterflies and bees. There were all the village’s twenty asses too, one with a saddle on it, the rest trailing chewed-through tethers. And there were
; the tiny white bounding rats, that somehow—how?—had got out of their cages.
The sight of the rats, or maybe it was finally the unheard yet
glamour of the piping, caused the entire vociferous crowd to break into silence.
At which, of course, the music became audible.
But it was not like music anymore. It was like the river, the sky, the country. Like the pulses of the crowd beating, the drums of life itself, and the sun spinning on the blades of space and time. More music than a single piper could produce from the slender reed of a single pipe.
When suddenly the music stopped, everyone was left floundering, as if cast abruptly out of a great sea. Or as if they had all gone deaf.
Cleci became aware that the veiled statue of Raur had been carried out of the temple, and was shocked she had not previously noticed. Now Raur sat there on his garlanded stretcher, balanced on the priests’ shoulders, still as everything else. As if he, too, had been entranced by the pipe.
The Piper lowered the instrument slowly. He looked about. Cleci could not help admiring him for his magnificent poise, assurance and charm with so many hundreds of eyes fixed on him. Then one of the rich men bellowed, and everyone instead looked at him. It was the miller.
demanded the miller, choleric in the face, not poised at all, nor very assured, certainly not at all charming.
did you steal our rats out of their cages?”
There was a small ripple of bemused agreement, and someone else shouted from the crowd: “And how did he loose my dad’s riding-ass and all?”
Then a welter of voices. How this, how that. The Piper just waited for them to finish. Which, inevitably, they did. Then the Piper said to the people of Lime Tree, in a voice that carried without shouting: “You try to lock everything up in a cage. Your animals and your hearts. But love will always get out. Love, or hate. Somehow.”
Cleci shut her eyes. She held the words to her like a precious stone. She did not understand them, but she clung to them. Then she heard the Piper say, “So tell me now. Do I lead you in the dance, or not?”
And Cleci screamed, at the top of her lungs: “Yes! Yes! Yes!”
Then clapped her hands to her burning cheeks, opening wide her eyes in horror. But it was all right, for the whole crowd had cried out at exactly the same moment that she had, and the same words. Even the miller had, though he looked perplexed, and he turned immediately to the priests and spoke to them. The priest who was the miller’s son nodded, and stepped forward, raising his hand for attention. He called to the Piper nervously.
“We’re willing to elect you to play for us, to the honor of Raur. But what will you want paying?”
“Whatever you think I deserve,” said the Piper.
“Oh, come now. That’s an invitation to haggle.”
“Don’t be afraid,” said the Piper. “I won’t ask for anything you can’t give me.”
And he smiled that smile that was only fourteen years of age, and his eyes were several centuries old.
One of the priests squeaked, and Cleci saw the white rats from the temple cages had also somehow got free. There were about fifty of them, and they were scampering through the priests’ robes and over their toes, to get near the Piper.
“Raur himself, it seems has chosen you, pre-payment or not,” said one of the older priests, and his face had relaxed. A slow warm sigh passed over the crowd, and at that moment the rim of the sun dazzled right up over the temple roof.
* * * *
They carried Raur along every street, through every alley, across every square. By the doors and the bannered windows. Beneath arches, where ribbons and flowers danced with them. Round the two wells. Up the stairs. Not a treading place of Lime Tree was left untrod. The priests strode over it, and the men walked, and the Maidens and the women danced. The boys banged their tabors and the priestesses shook bells. And before them all, the Piper went, neither striding nor dancing nor walking, but something of all three. And the pipe sang like the voice of the day, like the voice of the earth itself.
By noon they came to the big square where the meat was roasting and the bread popping crisply out of the ovens. No one was tired. Somehow their feet kept tapping or making little dance steps. Then the jars of wine were brought. Even the Maidens drank the wine. A furry rat came and sat on Cleci’s arm, and she fed it, loving the way it held discs of pastry in its paws, nibbling the food like a squirrel.
Birds lay thick as strange summer snow on the ledges and roofs. Dogs played chase and battle over each other’s backs. Lizards basked fearlessly. No one quarreled. The baker allowed the butcher should have the best cut of the meat. The butcher insisted the baker should have it. The miller’s daughter said to Cleci, shyly, “You are much prettier than any other girl here.” And she made Cleci take her own waist ribbon of blue silk, three inches broad, and quite flawless.
Then they went on, and the pipe, which somehow had never ceased to play—or had they only imagined it had not, for of course the Piper would have stopped playing to eat and drink too—soared up like a golden bird, and all the golden birds soared after it.
The sun lay on the streets in shining coins. Cleci ran dancing, hand in hand with the Miller’s daughter and the baker’s daughter.
* * * *
When the Procession broke from the town and saw the fields, stretching like yellow forests away into the blue sky, they laughed for gladness. It was all so exotic, and so new to them. Though they had seen these things every day of their lives, they saw them now for the first time.
They danced through the fields, garlanded with sunlight. Now the priests were dancing too, though all the marble weight of Raur was on their shoulders. Wild flowers were painted on the wheat. The Maidens brushed them with their fingers, but did not tear them up. Cleci touched the blossom in her hair, and her eyes filled with tears because she knew that, though it died, the blossom forgave her for plucking it without need. And she looked back for her mother in the great shimmering, dancing crowd that seemed to have been spangled with gold dust. When Cleci could not see the washerwoman, instead she called to her from inside her head:
I love you. I do.
And she visualized her mother’s tired, irritable face smoothing out, as it had never really been smoothed since the day Cleci’s father died. But then the dance whirled even individual caring from her mind.
Of all the paths among the fields that might be trodden, they did not miss one with their treading. They crossed the river, and the far fields were loud with their music and voices. And then they went up to the terraces where the vines bloomed in soft crimson rust, and the Piper led them between the stocks.
Baskets of sweets, of grapes, and skins of wine were passed along the Procession. They made no pretense of stopping now. They were less wearied than they had been at midday. Weariness was unknown to them. They could dance forever.
And the priests were laughing now. Everyone was. Or was it the pipe which laughed?
And then, the day began to go. It was curious, for it had seemed the day, too, would last forever. But still, it was a lovely departure, the sun folding itself under a wide pink wing, a violet light filling the enormous sky, and stars like bright birds coming to hover in that enormity.
Then the torches were lit. The Lime Treeans put their god down on the grassy slopes between the vineyards and the wheat fields. They lay on their elbows on the fragrant back of the world, and watched the last stain of sun linger on the river below, and the village beyond the river. And the village flamed softly like a burning rose in the moment before the dusk drank up the sun.
Do I live
THERE? Cleci asked herself in wonder.
In so beautiful a place?
A dog lay over her knee, and she kissed its head.
And then she thought about the music of the pipe, and how, rather than making them listen, it had made them see and feel and
And now Cleci knew so much, she knew that the world belonged to her, and she must love it and cherish it so that it might love her also. And she knew she would live forever, even after her body had died. And she knew that she, and all men and women, and all beasts, and all forms of life, had been born simply in order to be happy.
Then the pipe stopped.
In the great stillness she heard the evening breeze flying low over the slopes. She sat on the grass, and smiled, as if she had just woken from a miraculous dream which she would never forget. And there was no face in all the crowd, wherever she glanced, that looked any different from her own. She felt then younger than the youngest child, and older than the hillside.
The Piper was standing about halfway up the hill, and he was clearly visible. The breeze lifted strands of his hair tenderly, and set them down. His face was radiant and still as the dusk. Yet his eyes, which were the dusk’s color, glowed and shone. They were full of untold emotions. Emotions that perhaps no human had ever felt. And although he stood above her on the hill, Cleci was slightly puzzled as to how she could see all this so well from such a distance.
Some of the priests, and all Lime Tree’s important men were walking slowly toward the Piper. They walked as they would have walked after a good dinner, contented, savoring.
Cleci heard their voices through the medium of the same intense clarity as had shown her the Piper’s eyes.
“Well, Piper. I take it all back. You’re a find, and no mistake. I’ve never known such piping.”
“Never felt so good after the Procession, either. Where’s the blisters I always get?”
“Ah. And where’s my wife’s swollen ankles?”
“On her feet?” innocently suggested the butcher, and the rich men burst out in childish guffaws, slapping each other on the back.
“There’s more to come, more dancing yet,” said the baker. “There’s the bonfires to be lit, and the best wine to be drunk. But I say we should pay you now, to reward you for this fine day’s work.”
“Is that your only reason?” inquired the Piper. His head was raised, as if braced for a blow. There was a sudden strange tearing in his face, as if he knew an ancient, but well-remembered stab of pain.
“Oh, just for good measure,” said the miller. “You know what they say: Once you’ve paid the piper, you can choose the tune.”
“Not,” said the miller’s priest son, with anxious courtesy, “that the tunes you already played for us were not singularly splendid.”
“State your fee,” said the vintner. “Whatever you like. Gold if you want—I’m sure we’re all agreed. I’ll even throw in a jar of my best ruby.”
“Yes, gold. And as much bread as you can carry.”
“One hundred gold pieces, I say. And the pick of my forge.”
“One hundred and fifty. And the pick of my stable—the best white ass for you to ride.”
Then came a long nothing of soundlessness. The wind died, the dog sprang abruptly from Cleci’s knee. She held her breath, and, as by the river in the westering sun the first time she met him, she felt a dreadful shameful fear.
She could hardly bear the Piper’s face, so rare, so young, so old, so braced against agony. His whole body seemed braced against it now. As if slowly he were being wrenched apart, or beaten, or pierced by thorns, or iron nails.
At last he said, softly, his voice carrying to the edges of the sky, “I don’t want any of that.”
The rich men chuckled, uneasily now.
“You’re not saying that you’ve played for
“No. I’m not saying that.”
“Never heard one turn his nose up at gold before.”
“What I want is better than gold.”
The priests seemed to draw together, their faces closing, their eyes watchful. The rich men still blustered.
“Well then,” said the miller. “Come along, lad. What
Everyone on the slope seemed to realize the miller’s awful gaffe. Even he. He should not have called the Piper “lad.” But the Piper, in his slow invisible anguish, only said: “Don’t you know what I want?” He turned his head, and looked at them gravely. In that vast crowd on the darkening hill, he seemed to miss no one. And when he looked in Cleci’s eyes, she grew cold. “Do you truly not know? Are you truly so blind? Can you really only see commerce and cages? Only pray to save your goods or to fill your bellies? Could you never pray merely from the joy of being alive? That,” he said and, turning, he pointed toward the veiled statue of Raur, which stood there shrouded and inanimate in the gathering darkness, “that is the symbol of your limitations. Don’t you want to be free?”
“But Raur is beautiful,” Cleci whispered under her breath. But she knew now he was not so beautiful as life, nor as the Piper, nor music, nor the land itself. Raur meant security, but not joy. Or not true joy, which only the Piper could teach them.
The crowd rustled. Some were getting to their feet, and some huddling down. Overhead the sky was almost black.
“Choose,” said the Piper. “The cage, or the world.”
The miller shouted at him: “Today was a festival. You’re all right for Festival Days. But we can’t carry on like this every day. There’s work to do. Money to make.”
“Look at the flowers,” said the Piper, quietly. “Look at the stars. How gorgeous they are, and how well they live. And are they making money, do you suppose?”
His voice smiled, but you could hear there was a knife in him, in his very soul.
“Corrupter!” bawled one of the priests. “Blasphemer!”
Other priests took up the cry. All at once, most of the crowd was thundering. Only here and there someone wept, usually a woman.
“The fee I wished for,” said the Piper, and even over the din they heard him, “was to win your love away from that statue of a rat, which is not any kind of god, whatever you may say.”
Screams of outrage roiled on the slope. Again the Piper spoke, and again they heard him.
“But you won’t pay my fee, will you? You won’t open your cage and follow me.”
From somewhere a stone whirled over the sky and aimed to smash the Piper on the cheek, then another and another. A rain of stones and clods of earth flailed around him, and then ended, because none of the missiles had hit its mark. Like frightened wretches who have pulled the tail of a chained lion, only to find the chain is unfastened, the crowd collapsed on itself. The priests flung themselves down the hill to the feet of Raur the rat god. They tugged off his veil, and there he was, in all his marble magnificence, for the people to cling to. He would keep them sane and safe. He would drive off the rats and make sure that the granaries were full, and that some would get rich and all could dream of it. He would ensure there was always a profit to bicker over, someone better off to be jealous of, someone to cheat, someone to hate. And if any struck you in the face, Raur the rat would be sure to lesson you that you in turn must strike them back.
“Save us!” the priests and people yelled to Raur, clasping his chilly smooth sides.
Cleci remembered how she had hidden her rough hands from him, embarrassed to be poor.
The Piper watched the people on the hill, silently. And, just as before, his quiet spread to them, and their noise went out like the flames that were somehow going out on all the torches.
“I can’t force you,” he said at length. They all heard him, and most of them shuddered. “There would be no point in that.”
“Our god is protecting us,” someone screamed.
“Go away, you evil magician. Take your devil’s music and go.”
The Piper turned. It was odd. He appeared to be limping. Perhaps one of the stones had hit him after all.
All the stars seemed to die.
From the depths of the crowd, a woman squealed spitefully: “He’s just a great tall insolent child. A wicked child that needs whipping.”
At that, the Piper turned back. His face was a white blank that seemed to have no features.
“Am I to be wicked for you?” he said softly. “Yes, perhaps I can be. I’d forgotten that. As for children… I couldn’t lead you aside from your ugly rat god. But it seems a pity to me your children should be enslaved to him, as you are. I think I will take your children away from you.”
On the hill, empty of day, of winds, of stars, of kindness, the crowd trembled.
“Yes,” said the Piper. “My fee. Not your gold, and not your love. Your children I’ll have.”
Cleci stared, but the Piper was not on the hill any more.
Then she felt a sharp pinch on her arm. The miller’s daughter hissed at her: “Why, you little thief. You’ve stolen my ribbon. Give it back, or my daddy will have you ducked in the river.”
Cleci tore the blue ribbon from her waist and threw it at the miller’s daughter. Cleci jumped up before she knew what she was doing. She ran away, up into the night-black vineyards.
* * * *
The only light in the vineyards seemed to be Cleci’s own dull whitish dress. No moon showed, and no stars. The black sky must be choked by black clouds. The vines hung around her, also black. Once she turned her foot, and looked down and saw a silvery thing. One of the priestesses’ bells, dropped during the Procession.
The day seemed a hundred miles away, and she knew he was nearer. She had only, it seemed to her, to wish to find him, and she would do so. But she was afraid. She could not bear to find the Piper, though she had come looking for him. She cried, and rubbed her eyes on her hair and her sleeves, till the scent of her tears blotted out the sweet tang of the grapes.
“Don’t cry,” he said to her eventually, out of the dark.
“Why not,” she said. “You have spoiled everything.”
She was so afraid of him, she did not become any more afraid from speaking to him in this way, though she understood by then he was supernatural, and a god.
“I regret the spoiling,” he said from the darkness, “but I would do it again.”
“Why must we love you, and not Raur?” she demanded. “Why?”
“You know why. Of them all, you know.”
“Yes…because he’s only a stone. But you are—”
“Yes. I am.”
“Then, what difference does it make to you?” she asked him, sensing omnipotence, fire, aeons, and all of them his.
“Because, quite simply, unless I am believed in, I shall die. And when I die, Cleci, some part of the spirit of humanity dies with me.”
“Yes,” she said. She sighed, and sat on the grass between the stocks. She could not see the grapes, or his hair. If she had been able to, they would have been the same red. “Couldn’t you,” she said, “perform some magic to convince them?”
“The magic is everywhere. They’re not convinced. Water can be turned into wine, or blood. I shall have to die for them, before they believe in me.”
“I believe in you,” she said.
“I know you do. That is why I am here.”
“But the children,” she said. “You mustn’t take the children away.”
“I’ll spare you,” he said.
She said hotly, “I’m not a child.”
When he laughed gently, she knew for sure how dangerous he was. The others had been determined not to know, averting their eyes from the truth of him. He was like a snake, coiled in the shadows, smooth as amber, with the bite of death in his mouth which had made music.
“You spoke of love, but you’re cruel,” she said.
“Yes. Love is cruel, when denied. I’m sorry for your village, but I would do that again, too, if it were to be done. I will be remembered. Somehow.”
“They’ll remember wrongly.” She looked away into the vines and the night. She knew she would not see him physically anymore. “How,” she said, “will you take the children? Will you play the pipe and make them follow you, as the dogs and rats followed you? Will you pipe them into the deep water below the ford and make them drown?”
“No, Cleci,” he said. “It’s easier, and more vile, than that. But still, recollect when you are older, I promised I would spare you, and I shall. Because you believed in me, and through you I can exist. A while longer.”
“How long have you lived?” she murmured, dazed.
“I was born on the day the first men thought of me. I shall die on the last day, when the last man forgets.”
She beheld his loneliness then, like a pale mote in the night. She stared at it, and pictured him, a god who was lonely and dying. And somewhere in that staring, sleep came, and the night folded itself behind the world.
* * * *
When the sun rose, she got up and looked about her, and saw only the fields and the vinestocks, the shallow river, the dusty lindens, and the sprawling village. And when she had gone home alone, she saw the poverty of her mother’s house. And when her mother slapped and cuffed her for being gone all night, and called her horrible names, Cleci saw that, too. Yet through it all she dimly perceived, as if through smoke or water, how the earth had been, and how it still might be, under its veil of misery and lies.
* * * *
In the days which followed, and in the weeks which followed these, the Piper was spoken of in fear and whispers, and later in noisy jibes and sneers. No one heard the pipe, and soon no one listened for it. The children ran about the streets and yards, and along the river bank. Despite his threat, he had not taken the sons and daughters of Lime Tree. Not only was he a vagabond and blasphemer, but a charlatan also.
Not until the first still-births occurred at the summer’s end, did any nervous awe steal through the prosperous village. And then, when winter had come, and spring and summer, and another summer’s end, and no fresh births with them, only then did a leaden horror blow through Lime Tree like the winter winds. And like the winds, which stripped the lindens of their leaves, so Lime Tree lay under the snow, stripped of its future. No new life was conceived, or born, and would never be. He had said he would take their children, in place of their love and their gold, and he had done it. Lime Tree withered among its wheat fields, and year by year its crops grew thin, its vines tarnished, and, one by one, its lindens died.
When Cleci was eighteen, the river mysteriously silted up. That was the year her mother died, too. She died of hard work more than anything, for hard work does actually kill, when it is too hard, too hopeless, and has too meager a reward.
Cleci went away to the south, and some years later, when she had borne her first child, she carried him to the shrine she had made, and laid an offering on the altar—grapes, and a lock of her own dark hair, and a flask of wine. And, as each of her children grew, she taught them who they must worship.
She did this not out of fear of him, but out of pity. Because she had come to see the ultimate terrible truth behind all others. Which was that the stupidity and avarice and hatred of mankind had finally begun to make him also stupid, avaricious, hating, and cruel beyond reason. Even though he was a god, a god of love.
RED AS BLOOD
The beautiful Witch Queen flung open the ivory case of the magic mirror. Of dark gold the mirror was, dark gold like the hair of the Witch Queen that poured down her back. Dark gold the mirror was, and ancient as the seven stunted black trees growing beyond the pale blue glass of the window.
said the Witch Queen to the magic mirror.
“Volente Deo. Audio.”
“Mirror,” said the Witch Queen. “Whom do you see?”
“I see you, mistress,” replied the mirror. “And all in the land. But one.”
“Mirror, mirror, who is it you do not see?”
“I do not see Bianca.”
The Witch Queen crossed herself. She shut the case of the mirror and, walking slowly to the window, looked out at the old trees through the panes of pale blue glass.
Fourteen years ago, another woman had stood at this window, but she was not like the Witch Queen. The woman had black hair that fell to her ankles; she had a crimson gown, the girdle worn high beneath her breasts, for she was far gone with child. And this woman had thrust open the glass casement on the winter garden, where the old trees crouched in the snow. Then, taking a sharp bone needle, she had thrust it into her finger and shaken three bright drops on the ground. “Let my daughter have,” said the woman, “hair black as mine, black as the wood of these warped and arcane trees. Let her have skin like mine, white as this snow. And let her have my mouth, red as my blood.” And the woman had smiled and licked at her finger. She had a crown on her head; it shone in the dusk like a star. She never came to the window before dusk: she did not like the day. She was the first Queen, and she did not possess a mirror.
The second Queen, the Witch Queen, knew all this. She knew how, in giving birth, the first Queen had died. Her coffin had been carried into the cathedral and masses had been said. There was an ugly rumor—that a splash of holy water had fallen on the corpse and the dead flesh had smoked. But the first Queen had been reckoned unlucky for the kingdom. There had been a plague in the land since she came there, a wasting disease for which there was no cure.
Seven years went by. The King married the second Queen, as unlike the first as frankincense to myrrh.
“And this is my daughter,” said the King to his second Queen.
There stood a little girl child, nearly seven years of age. Her black hair hung to her ankles, her skin was white as snow. Her mouth was red as blood, and she smiled with it.
“Bianca,” said the King, “you must love your new mother.”
Bianca smiled radiantly. Her teeth were bright as sharp bone needles.
“Come,” said the Witch Queen, “come, Bianca. I will show you my magic mirror.”
“Please, Mamma,” said Bianca softly, “I do not like mirrors.”
“She is modest,” said the King. “And delicate. She never goes out by day. The sun distresses her.”
That night, the Witch Queen opened the case of her mirror.
“Mirror. Whom do you see?”
“I see you, mistress. And all in the land. But one.”
“Mirror, mirror, who is it you do not see?”
“I do not see Bianca.”
The second Queen gave Bianca a tiny crucifix of golden filigree. Bianca would not accept it. She ran to her father and whispered, “I am afraid. I do not like to think of Our Lord dying in agony on His cross. She means to frighten me. Tell her to take it away.”
The second Queen grew wild white roses in her garden and invited Bianca to walk there after sundown. But Bianca shrank away. She whispered to her father, “The thorns will tear me. She means me to be hurt.”
When Bianca was twelve years old, the Witch Queen said to the King, “Bianca should be confirmed so that she may take Communion with us.”
“This may not be,” said the King. “I will tell you, she has not been Christened, for the dying word of my first wife was against it. She begged me, for her religion was different from ours. The wishes of the dying must be respected.”
“Should you not like to be blessed by the Church,” said the Witch Queen to Bianca. “To kneel at the golden rail before the marble altar. To sing to God, to taste the ritual Bread and sip the ritual Wine.”
“She means me to betray my true mother,” said Bianca to the King. “When will she cease tormenting me?”
The day she was thirteen, Bianca rose from her bed, and there was a red stain there, like a red, red flower.
“Now you are a woman,” said her nurse.
“Yes,” said Bianca. And she went to her true mother’s jewel box, and out of it she took her mother’s crown and set it on her head.
When she walked under the old black trees in the dusk, the crown shone like a star.
The wasting sickness, which had left the land in peace for thirteen years, suddenly began again, and there was no cure.
* * * *
The Witch Queen sat in a tall chair before a window of pale green and dark white glass, and in her hands she held a Bible bound in rosy silk.
“Majesty,” said the huntsman, bowing very low.
He was a man, forty years old, strong and handsome, and wise in the hidden lore of the forests, the occult lore of the earth. He could kill too, for it was his trade, without faltering. The slender fragile deer he could kill, and the moon-winged birds, and the velvet hares with their sad, foreknowing eyes. He pitied them, but pitying, he killed them. Pity could not stop him. It was his trade.
“Look in the garden,” said the Witch Queen.
The hunter looked through a dark white pane. The sun had sunk, and a maiden walked under a tree.
“The Princess Bianca,” said the huntsman.
“What else?” asked the Witch Queen.
The huntsman crossed himself.
“By Our Lord, Madam, I will not say.”
“But you know.”