From the pages of Bone Swans: Stories
C. S. E. Cooney
For the erstwhile Injustice League
Dora Rose reached her dying sister a few minutes before the Swan Hunters did. I watched it all from my snug perch in the old juniper, and I won’t say I didn’t enjoy the scene, what with the blood and the pathos and everything. If only I had a handful of nuts to nibble on, sugared and roasted, the kind they sell in paper packets on market day when the weather turns. They sure know how to do nuts in Amandale.
“Elinore!” Dora Rose’s voice was low and urgent, with none of the fluting snootiness I remembered. “Look at me. Elinore. How did they find you? We all agreed to hide—”
Ah, the good stuff. Drama. I lived for it. I scuttled down a branch to pay closer attention.
Dora Rose had draped the limp girl over her lap, stroking back her black, black hair. White feathers everywhere, trailing from Elinore’s shoulders, bloodied at the breast, muddied near the hem. Elinore must’ve been midway between a fleshing and a downing when that Swan Hunter’s arrow got her.
“Dora Rose.” Elinore’s wet red hand left a death smear on her sister’s face. “They smoked out the cygnets. Drove them to the lake. Nets—horrible nets. They caught Pope, Maleen, Conrad—even Dash. We tried to free them, but more hunters came, and I…”
Turned herself into a swan, I thought, and flew the hellfowl off. Smart Elinore.
She’d not see it that way, of course. Swan people fancied themselves a proud folk, elegant as lords in their haughty halls, mean as snakes in a tight corner. Me, I preferred survivors to heroes. Or heroines, however comely.
“I barely escaped,” Elinore finished.
From the looks of that gusher in her ribs, I’d guess “escaped” was a gross overstatement. But that’s swans for you. Can’t speak but they hyperbolize. Every girl’s a princess. Every boy’s a prince. Swan Folk take their own metaphors so seriously they hold themselves lofty from the vulgar throng. Dora Rose explained it once, when we were younger and she still deigned to chat with the likes of me: “It’s not that we think less of anyone, Maurice. It’s just that we think better of ourselves.”
“Dora Rose, you mustn’t linger. They’ll be tracking me…”
Elinore’s hand slipped from Dora Rose’s cheek. Her back arched. Her bare toes curled under, and her hands clawed the mossy ground. From her lips burst the most beautiful song—a cascade of notes like moonlight on a waterfall, like a wave breaking on boulders, like the first snow melt of spring. All swan girls are princesses, true, but if styling themselves as royalty ever got boring, they could always go in for the opera.
Elinore was a soprano. Her final, stretched notes pierced even me. Dora Rose used to tell me that I had such tin ears as could be melted down for a saucepan, which at least might then be flipped over and used for a drum, thus contributing in a trivial way to the musical arts.
So maybe I was a little tone-deaf. Didn’t mean I couldn’t enjoy a swan song when I heard one.
As she crouched anxiously over Elinore’s final aria, Dora Rose seemed far remote from the incessantly clever, sporadically sweet, gloriously vain girl who used to be my friend. The silvery sheen of her skin was frosty with pallor. As the song faded, its endmost high note stuttering to a sigh that slackened the singer’s white lips, Dora Rose whispered, “Elinore?”
My nose twitched as the smell below went from dying swan girl to freshly dead carcass. Olly-olly-in-for-free. As we like to say.
Among my Folk, carrion’s a feast that’s first come, first served, and I was well placed to take the largest bite. I mean, I could wait until Dora Rose lit on outta there. Not polite to go nibbling on someone’s sister while she watched, after all. Just not done. Not when that someone had been sort of a friend. (All right—unrequited crush. But that was kid stuff. I’m over it. Grown up. Moved on.)
I heard the sound before she did. Ulia Gol’s ivory horn. Not good.
“Psst!” I called from my tree branch. “Psst, Dora Rose. Up here!”
Her head snapped up, twilight eyes searching the tangle of the juniper branches. This tree was the oldest and tallest in the Maze Wood, unusually colossal for its kind, even with its trunk bent double and its branches bowing like a willow’s. Nevertheless, Dora Rose’s sharp gaze caught my shadowy shape and raked at it like fingernails. I grinned at her, preening my whiskers. Always nice to be noticed by a Swan Princess. Puts me on my mettle.
“Who is it?” Her voice was hoarse from grief and fear. I smelled both on her. Salt and copper.
“Forget me so quickly, Ladybird?” Before she could answer, I dove nose-first down the shaggy trunk, fleshing as I went. By the time I hit ground, I was a man. Man-shaped, anyway. Maybe a little undersized. Maybe scraggly, with a beard that grew in patches, a nose that fit my face better in my other shape, and eyes only a mother would trust—and only if she’d been drunk since breakfast.
“The Incomparable,” I agreed. “Your very own Maurice.”
Dora Rose stood suddenly, tall and icy in her blood-soaked silver gown. I freely admit to a dropped jaw, an abrupt excess of saliva. She’d only improved with time; her hair was as pale as her sister’s had been dark, her eyes as blue as Lake Serenus where she and her Folk dwelled during their winter migrations. The naked grief I’d sensed in her a few moments ago had already cooled, like her sister’s corpse. Swan Folk have long memories but a short emotional attention span.
Unlike Rat Folk, whose emotions could still get the better of them after fifteen years…
“What are you doing in the Maze Wood?” The snootiness I’d missed was back in her voice. Fabulous.
“Is that what this is?” I peered around, scratching behind my ear. She always hated when I scratched. “I thought it was the theater. The Tragedy of the Bonny Swans. The Ballad of the Two Sisters…”
Her eyes narrowed. “Maurice, of all the times to crack your tasteless jokes!”
Aaaarooooo! The ivory horn again. This time Dora Rose heard it, too. Her blue eyes flashed black with fury and terror. She hesitated, frozen between flesh and feather, fight and flight. I figured I’d help her out. Just this once. For old time’s sake.
“Up the tree,” I suggested. “I’ll give you a boost.”
She cast a perturbed look at dead Elinore, grief flickering briefly across her face. Rolling my eyes, I snapped, “Up, Princess! Unless you want to end the same, here and now.”
“Won’t the hounds scent me there?”
Dora Rose, good girl, was already moving toward me as she asked the question. Thank the Captured God. Start arguing with a swan girl, and you’ll not only find yourself staying up all night, you’ll also suffer all the symptoms of a bad hangover in the morning—with none of the fun parts between.
“This old tree’s wily enough to mask your scent, my plume. If you ask nicely. We’re good friends, the juniper and I.”
I’d seen enough Swan Folk slaughtered beneath this tree to keep me tethered to it by curiosity alone. All right, so maybe I stayed with the mildly interested and not at all pathological hope of meeting Dora Rose again, in some situation not unlike this one, perhaps to rescue her from the ignominy of such a death. But I didn’t tell her that. Not while her twin sister lay dead on the ground, her blood seeping into the juniper’s roots. By the time Elinore had gotten to the tree, it’d’ve been too late for me to attempt anything, anyway. Even had I been so inclined.
And then, Dora Rose’s hand on my shoulder. Her bare heel in my palm. And it was like little silver bells ringing under my skin where she touched me.
Easy, Maurice. Easy, you sleek and savvy rat, you. Bide.
Up she went, and I after her, furring and furling myself into my more compact but no less natty shape. We were both safe and shadow-whelmed in the bent old branches by the time Mayor Ulia Gol and her Swan Hunters arrived on the scene.
If someone held a piece of cheese to my head and told me to describe Ulia Gol in one word or starve, I’d choose, magnificent. I like cheese too much to dither.
At a guess, I’d say Ulia Gol’s ancestry wasn’t human. Ogre on her mama’s side. Giant on her daddy’s. She was taller than Dora Rose, who herself would tower over most mortal men, though Dora Rose was long-lined and lean of limb whereas Ulia Gol was a brawny woman. Her skin was gold as a glazed chicken, her head full of candy-pink curls as was the current fashion. Her breasts were like two mozzarella balls ripe for the gnawing, with hips like two smoked hams. A one-woman banquet, that Ulia Gol, and she knew it, too. The way to a mortal’s heart is through its appetite, and Ulia Gol prided herself on collecting mortal hearts. It was a kind of a game with her. Her specialty. Her sorcery.
She had a laugh that reached right out and tickled your belly. They say it was her laugh that won her the last election in Amandale. It wasn’t. More like a mob-wide love spell she cast on her constituents. I don’t know much about magic, but I know the smell of it. Amandale stinks of Ulia Gol. Its citizens accepted her rule with wretched adoration, wondering why they often woke of a night in a cold sweat from foul dreams of their Mayor feasting on the flesh of their children.
On the surface, she was terrifyingly jovial. She liked hearty dining and a good, hard day at the hunt. Was known for her fine whiskey, exotic lovers, intricate calligraphy, and dabbling in small—totally harmless, it was said—magics, mostly in the realm of the Performing Arts. Was a little too enthusiastic about taxes, everyone thought, but mostly used them to keep Amandale in good order. Streets, bridges, schools, secret police. That sort of thing.
Mortal politics was the idlest of my hobbies, but Ulia Gol had become a right danger to the local Folk, and that directly affected me. Swans weren’t the only magic creatures she’d hunted to extinction in the Maze Wood. Before this latest kick, Ulia Gol had ferreted out the Fox Folk, those that fleshed to mortal shape, with tails tucked up under their clothes. Decimated the population in this area. You might ask how I know—after all, Fox Folk don’t commune with Rat Folk any more than Swan Folk do. We just don’t really talk to each other.
But then, I always was extraordinary. And really nosy.
Me, I suspected Ulia Gol’s little hunting parties had a quite specific purpose. I think she knew the Folk could recognize her as inhuman. Mortals, of course, had no idea what she was. What mortals might do if they discovered their Mayor manipulated magic to make the ballot box come out in her favor? Who knew? Mortals in general are content to remain divinely stupid and bovinely docile for long periods of time, but when their ire’s roused, there is no creature cleverer in matters of torture and revenge.
Ulia Gol adjusted her collar of rusty fox fur. It clashed terribly with her pink-and-purple riding habit, but she pulled it off with panache. Her slanted beaver hat dripped half a dozen black-tipped tails, which bounced as she strode into the juniper tree’s clearing. Two huge-jowled hounds flanked her. She caught her long train up over her arm, her free hand clasping her crossbow with loose proficiency.
“Ha!” shouted Ulia Gol over her shoulder to someone out of my sightlines. “I thought I got her.” She squatted over dead Elinore, studying her. “What do you think of this one, Hans? Too delicate for the glockenspiel, I reckon. Too tiny for the tuba. The cygnets completed our wind and percussion sections. Those two cobs and yesterday’s pen did for the brass. We might as well finish up the strings here.”
A man emerged from a corridor in the Maze Wood. He led Ulia Gol’s tall roan mare and his own gray gelding, and looked with interest on the dead swan girl.
“A pretty one,” he observed. “She’ll make a fine harp, Madame Mayor, unless I miss my guess.”
“Outstanding! I love a good harp song. But I always found the going rates too dear; harpists are so full of themselves.” Her purple grin widened. “Get the kids in here.”
The rest of her Swan Hunters began trotting into the Heart Glade on their plump little ponies. Many corridors, as you’d expect in a Maze Wood of this size, dead-ended in thorn, stone, waterfall, hedge, cliff edge. But Ulia Gol’s child army must’ve had the key to unlocking the maze’s secrets, for they came unhesitatingly into the glade and stood in the shadow of the juniper tree where we hid.
Aw, the sweetums. Pink-cheeked they were, the little killers, green-caped, and all of them wearing the famous multicolored, beaked masks of Amandale. Mortals are always fixed in their flesh, like my rat cousins who remain rats no matter what. Can’t do furrings, downings, or scalings like the Folk can. So they make do with elaborate costumes, body paint, millinery, and mass exterminations of our kind. Kind of adorable, really.
Ulia Gol clapped her hands. Her pink curls bounced and jounced. The foxtails on her beaver hat swung blithely.
“Dismount!” Her Hunters did so. “Whose turn is it, my little wretches?” she bawled at them. “Has to be someone fresh! Someone who’s bathed in mare’s milk by moonlight since yesterday’s hunt. Now—who’s clean? Who’s my pure and pretty chanticleer today? Come, don’t make me pick one of you!”
Oh, the awkward silence of children called upon to volunteer. A few heads bowed. Other masks lifted and looked elsewhere as if that act rendered them invisible. Presently one of the number was pushed to the forefront, so vehemently it fell and scraped its dimpled knees. I couldn’t help noticing that this child had been standing at the very back of the crowd, hugging itself and hoping to escape observation.
Fat chance, kiddling. I licked my lips. I knew what came next. I’d been watching this death dance from the juniper tree for weeks now.
Ulia Gol grinned horribly at the fallen child. “Tag!” she boomed. “You’re it.” Her heavy hand fell across the child’s shoulders, scooting it closer to the dead swan girl. “Dig. Dig her a grave fit for a princess.”
The child trembled in its bright green hunter’s cape. Its jaunty red mask was tied askew, like a deformed cardinal’s head stitched atop a rag doll. The quick desperation of its breath was audible even from the heights where we perched, me sweating and twitching, Dora Rose tense and pale, glistening faintly in the dimness of the canopy.
Dora Rose lay on her belly, arms and legs wrapped around the branch, leaning as far forward as she dared. She watched the scene with avid eyes, and I watched her. She wouldn’t have known why her people had been hunted all up and down the lake this autumn. Even when the swans began disappearing a few weeks ago, the survivors hadn’t moved on. Swan Folk were big on tradition; Lake Serenus was where they wintered, and that was that. To establish a new migratory pattern would’ve been tantamount to blasphemy. That’s swans for you.
I might have gone to warn them, I guess. Except that the last time she’d seen me, Dora Rose made it pretty clear that she’d rather wear a gown of graveyard nettles and pluck out her own feathers for fletching than have to endure two minutes more in my company. Of course, we were just teenagers then.
I gave the old juniper tree a pat, muttering a soundless prayer for keepsafe and concealment. Just in case Dora Rose’d forgotten to do as much in that first furious climb. Then I saw her lips move, saw her silver fingers stroking the shaggy branch. Good. So she, too, kept up a running stream of supplication. I’d no doubt she knew all the proper formulae; Swan Folk are as religious as they are royal. Maybe because they figure they’re the closest things to gods as may still be cut and bleed.
“WHY AREN’T YOU DIGGING YET?” bellowed Ulia Gol, hooking my attention downward.
A masterful woman, and so well coiffed! How fun it was to watch her make those children jump. In my present shape, I can scare grown men out of their boots, they’re that afraid of plague-carriers in these parts. The Folk are immune to plague, but mortals can’t tell a fixed rat from one of us to save their lives.
Amandale itself was mostly spared a few years back when things got really bad and the plague bells ringing death tolls in distant towns at last fell silent. Ulia Gol spread the rumor abroad that it was her mayoral prowess that got her town through unscathed. Another debt Amandale owed her.
How she loomed.
“Please, Madame Mayor, please!” piped the piccolo voice from behind the cardinal mask. It fair vibrated with apprehension. “I—I cannot dig. I have no shovel!”
“Is that all? Hans! A shovel for our shy red bird!”
Hans of the gray gelding trudged forward with amiable alacrity. I liked his style. Reminded me of me. He was not tall, but he had a dapper air. One of your blonds was Hans, high-colored, with a crooked but entirely proportionate nose, a gold-goateed chin, and boots up to the thigh. He dressed all in red, except for his green cape, and he wore a knife on his belt. A fine big knife, with one edge curved and outrageously serrated.
I shuddered deliciously, deciding right there and then that I would follow him home tonight and steal his things while he slept.
The shovel presented, the little one was bid a third time to dig.
The grave needed only be a shallow one for Ulia Gol’s purposes. This I had apprehended in my weeks of study. The earth hardly needed a scratch in its surface. Then the Swan Princess (or Prince, or heap of stiffening cygnets, as was the case yesterday) was rolled in the turned dirt and partially covered. Then Ulia Gol, towering over her small trooper with the blistered hands, would rip the mask off its face and roar, “Weep! If you love your life weep, or I’ll give you something to weep about!”
Unmasked, this afternoon’s child proved to be a young boy. One of the innumerable Cobblersawl brood unless I missed my guess. Baker’s children. The proverbial dozen, give or take a miscarriage. Always carried a slight smell of yeast about them.
Froggit, I think this little one’s name was. The seven-year-old. After the twins but before the toddlers and the infant.
I was quite fond of the Cobblersawls. Kids are so messy, you know, strewing crumbs everywhere. Bakers’ kids have the best crumbs. Their poor mother was often too harried to sweep up after the lot of them until bedtime. Well after the gleanings had been got.
Right now, dreamy little Froggit looked sick. His hands begrimed with dirt and Elinore’s blood, his brown hair matted with sweat, he covered her corpse well and good. Now, on cue, he started sobbing. Truth be told, he hadn’t needed Ulia Gol’s shouting to do so. His tears spattered the dirt, turning spots of it to mud.
Ulia Gol raised her arms like a conductor. Her big, shapely hands swooped through the air like kestrels.
“Sing, my children! You know the ditty well enough by now, I trust! This one’s female; make sure you alter the lyrics accordingly. One-two-three and—”
One in obedience, twenty young Swan Hunters lifted up their voices in wobbly chorus. The hounds bayed mournfully along. I hummed, too, under my breath.
When they’d started the Swan Hunt a few weeks ago, the kids used to join hands and gambol around the juniper tree all maypole-like at Ulia Gol’s urging. But the Mayor since discovered that her transformation spell worked just as well if they all stood still. Pity. I missed the dancing. Used to give the whole scene a nice theatrical flair.
“Poor little swan girl
Heart pierced through
Buried ’neath the moss and dew
Restless in your grave you’ll be
At the foot of the juniper tree
But your bones shall sing your song
Morn and noon and all night long!”
The music cut off with an abrupt slash of Ulia Gol’s hands. She nodded once in curt approval. “Go on!” she told Froggit Cobblersawl. “Dig her back up again!”
But here Froggit’s courage failed him. Or perhaps found him. For he scrubbed his naked face of tears, smearing worse things there, and stared up with big brown eyes that hated only one thing worse than himself, and that was Ulia Gol.
“No,” he said.
“Hans,” said Ulia Gol, “we have another rebel on our hands.”
Hans stepped forward and drew from its sheath that swell knife I’d be stealing later. Ulia Gol beamed down at Froggit, foxtails falling to frame her face.
“Master Cobblersawl.” She clucked her tongue. “Last week, we put out little Miss Possum’s eyes when she refused to sing up the bones. Four weeks before that, we lamed the legs of young Miss Greenpea. A cousin of yours, I think? On our first hunt, she threw that shovel right at Hans and tried to run away. But we took that shovel and we made her pay, didn’t we, Master Cobblersawl? And with whom did we replace her to make my hunters twenty strong again? Why, yourself, Master Cobblersawl. Now what, pray, Master Cobblersawl, do you think we’ll do to you?”
Froggit did not answer, not then. Not ever. The next sound he made was a wail, which turned into a shriek, which turned into a swoon. “No” was the last word Froggit Cobblersawl ever spoke, for Hans put his tongue to the knife.
After this, they corked up the swooning boy with moss to soak the blood, and called upon young Ocelot to dig the bones. They’d have to replace the boy later, as they’d replaced Greenpea and Possum. Ulia Gol needed twenty for her sorceries. A solid twenty. No more, no less.
Good old Ocelot. The sort of girl who, as exigency demanded, bathed in mare’s milk every night there was a bit of purifying moonlight handy. Her father was Chief Gravedigger in Amandale. She, at the age of thirteen and a half, was his apprentice. Of all her fellow Swan Hunters, Ocelot had the cleanest and most callused hands. Ulia Gol’s favorite.
She never flinched. Her shovel scraped once, clearing some of the carelessly spattered dirt from the corpse. The juniper tree glowed silver.
Scraped twice. The green ground roiled white as boiling milk.
It was not a dead girl Ocelot freed from the dirt, after all. Not even a dead swan.
I glanced at Dora Rose to see how she was taking it. Her blue eyes were wide, her gaze fixed. No expression showed upon it, though. No sorrow or astonishment or rage. Nothing in her face was worth neglecting the show below us for, except the face itself. I could drink my fill of that pool and still die of thirst.
But I’d gone down that road once already. What separated us rats from other Folk was our ability to learn.
I returned my attention to the scene. When Ocelot stepped back to dust off her hands on her green cape, the exhumed thing that had been Elinore flashed into view.
It was, as Hans had earlier predicted, a harp.
And a large harp it was, of shining white bone, strung with black strings fine as hair, which Ulia Gol bent to breathe upon lightly. Shimmering, shuddering, the harp repeated back a refrain of Elinore’s last song.
“It works,” Ulia Gol announced with tolling satisfaction. “Load it up on the cart, and we’ll take it back to Orchestra Hall. A few more birds in the bag and my automatized orchestra will be complete!”
* * *
Back in our budding teens, I’d elected to miss a three-day banquet spree with my rat buddies in post-plague Doornwold, Queen’s City. (A dead city now, like the Queen herself.) Why? To attend instead at Dora Rose’s invitation a water ballet put on by the Swan Folk of Lake Serenus.
I know, right? The whole affair was dull as a tidy pantry, lemme tell you. When I tried to liven things up with Dora Rose a little later, just a bit of flirt and fondle on the silver docks of Lake Serenus, I got myself soundly slapped. Then the Swan Princess of my dreams told me that my attentions were not only unsolicited and unwelcome but grossly, criminally, heinously repellent—her very words—and sent me back to sulk in my nest in Amandale.
You should’ve seen me. Tail dragging. Whiskers drooping. Sniveling into my fur. Talk about heinously repellent. I couldn’t’ve been gladder my friends had all scampered over to the new necropolis, living it up among the corpses of Doornwold. By the time they returned, I had a handle on myself. Started up a dialogue with a nice, fat rat girl. We had some good times. Her name was Moira. That day on the docks was the last I saw Dora Rose up close for fifteen years.
Soft as I was, by the time the last of the Swan Hunters trotted clear of the Heart Glade on their ponies, I’d decided to take Dora Rose back to my nest in Amandale. I had apartments in a warren of condemned tenements by the Drukkamag River docks. Squatters’ paradise. Any female should rightly have spasmed at the chance; my wainscoted walls were only nominally chewed, my furniture salvaged from the alleyways of Merchant Prince Row, Amandale’s elite. The current mode of decoration in my neighborhood was shabby chic. Distressed furniture? Mine was so distressed, it could’ve been a damsel in a past life.
But talking Dora Rose down from the juniper tree proved a trifle dicey. She wanted to return to Lake Serenus right away and search for survivors.
“Yeah, you and Huntsman Hans,” I snorted. “He goes out every night with his nets, hoping to bag another of your Folk. Think he’ll mistake you, with your silver gown and your silver skin, for a ruddy-kneed mortal milkmaid out for a skinny dip? Come on, Dora Rose! You got more brains than that, even if you are a bird.”
I was still in my rat skin when I told her this. She turned on me savagely, grabbing me by the tail, and shook me, hissing as only swans and cobras can hiss. I’d’ve bitten her, but I was laughing too hard.
“Do you have a better idea, Maurice? Maybe you would be happiest if I turned myself in to Ulia Gol right now! Is that what I should do?”
I fleshed myself to man-shape right under her hands. She dropped me quickly, cheeks burning. Dora Rose did not want to see what she’d’ve been holding me by once I changed form. I winked at her.
“I got a lot of ideas, Dora Rose, but they all start with a snack and a nap.”
Breathing dangerously, she shied back, deeper into the branches. Crossed her arms over her chest. Narrowed her lake-blue eyes. For a swan, you’d think her mama was a mule.
“Come on, Ladybird,” I coaxed, scooting nearer—but not too near—my own dear Dora Rose. “You’re traumatized. That’s not so strong a word, is it, for what you’ve been through today?”
Her chin jutted. Her gaze shifted. Her lips were firm, not trembling. Not a trembler, that girl. I settled on a nice, thick branch, my legs dangling in the air.
“Damn it, Dora Rose, your twin sister’s just been turned into a harp! Your family, your friends, your Folk—all killed and buried and dug back up again as bone instruments. And for what?” I answered myself, since she wouldn’t. “So that Mayor Ulia Gol, that skinflint, can cheat Amandale’s Guild of Musicians of their entertainment fees. She wants an orchestra that plays itself—so she’s sacrificing swans to the juniper tree.”
Her mouth winced. She was not easy to faze, my Dora Rose. But hey, she’d had a tough day, and I was riding her hard.
“You’d be surprised,” I continued, “how many townspeople support Mayor Gol and her army of Swan Hunters. Everyone likes music. So what’s an overextended budget to do?”
Dora Rose unbent so far as to roll her eyes. Taking this as a sign of weakening, I hopped down from the juniper tree.
“Come home with me, Ladybird,” I called up. “There’s a candy shop around the corner from my building. I’ll steal you enough caramels to make you sick. You can glut your grief away, and then you can sleep. And in the morning, when you’ve decided it’s undignified to treat your only ally—no matter his unsavory genus—so crabbily, we’ll talk again.”
A pause. A rustle. A soundless silver falling. Dora Rose landed lightly on her toe-tips. Above us, an uneasy breeze jangled the dark green needles of the juniper tree. There was a sharp smell of sap. The tree seemed to breathe. It did that, periodically. The god inside its bark did not always sleep.
Dora Rose’s face was once more inscrutable, all grief and rage veiled behind her pride. “Caramels?” she asked.
Dora Rose once told me, years ago, that she liked things to taste either very sweet or very salty. Caramels, according to her, were the perfect food.
“Dark chocolate sea-salt caramels,” I expounded with only minimal drooling. “Made by a witch named Fetch. These things are to maim for, Dora Rose.”
“You remembered.” She sounded surprised. If I’d still been thirteen (Captured God save me from ever being thirteen again), I might’ve burst into tears to be so doubted. Of course I remembered! Rats have exceptional memories. Besides—in my youth, I’d kept a strict diary. Mortal-style.
I was older now. I doffed my wharf boy’s cap and offered my elbow. In my best Swan Prince imitation, I told her, “Princess, your every word is branded on my heart.”
I didn’t do it very well; my voice is too nasal, and I can’t help adding overtones of innuendo. But I think Dora Rose was touched by the effort. Or at least, she let herself relax into the ritual of courtesy, something she understood in her bones. Her bones. Which Ulia Gol wanted to turn into a self-playing harpsichord to match Elinore’s harp.
Over. My. Dead. Body.
Oh, all right. My slightly dented body. Up to and no further than a chunk off the tail. After that, Dora Rose would be on her own.
“Come on,” I said. “Let’s go.”
She took my elbow. She even leaned on it a smidge, which told me how exhausted and stricken she was beneath her feigned indifference. I refrained from slavering a kiss upon her silver knuckles. Just barely.
* * *
The next morning, thanks to a midnight raid on Hans’s wardrobe, I was able to greet Dora Rose at my dapper best. New hose, new shining thigh-high boots, new scarlet jerkin, green cape and linen sark. New curved dagger with serrated edge, complete with flecks of Froggit Cobblersawl’s drying tongue meat on it.
I’d drawn the line at stealing Hans’s blond goatee, being at some loss as how best to attach it to my own chin. But I did not see why he should have one when I couldn’t. I had, therefore, left it at the bottom of his chamber pot should he care to seek it there.
Did the Swan Princess gaze at me in adoration? Did she stroke my fine sleeve or fondle my blade? Not a bit of it. She sat on the faded cushion of my best window seat, playing with a tassel from the heavy draperies and chewing on a piece of caramel. Her blue stare went right through me. Not blank, precisely. Meditative. Distant. Like I wasn’t important enough to merit even a fraction of her full attention.
“What I cannot decide,” she said slowly, “is what course I should take. Ought I to fly at Ulia Gol in the open streets of Amandale and dash her to the ground? Ought I to forsake this town entirely, and seek shelter with some other royal bevy? If,” she added with melancholy, “they would have me. This I doubt, for I would flee to them with empty hands and under a grave mantle of sorrow. Ought I to await at the lake for Hans’s net and Hans’s knife and join my Folk in death, letting my transformation take me at the foot of the juniper tree?”
That’s swans for you. Fraught with “oughts.” Stop after three choices, each bleaker and more miserably elegant than the last. Vengeance, exile, or suicide. Take your pick. I sucked my tongue against an acid reply, taking instead a cube of caramel and a deep breath. Twitched my nose. Smoothed out the wrinkles of distaste. Went to crouch on the floor by the window seat. (This was not, I’ll have you know, the same as kneeling at her feet. For one thing, I was balancing on my heels, not my knees.)
“Seems to me, Dora Rose,” I suggested around a sticky, salty mouthful, “that what you want in a case like this—”
“Like this?” she asked, and I knew she was seeing her sister’s hair repurposed for harp strings. “There has never been a case like mine, Maurice, so do not dare attempt to eclipse the magnitude of my despair with your filthy comparisons!”
I loved when she hissed at me. No blank stare now. If looks could kill, I’d be skewered like a shish kebab and served up on a platter. I did my best not to grin. She’d’ve taken it the wrong way.
Smacking my candy, I said in my grandest theatrical style, even going so far as to roll my R’s, “In a case, Dora Rose, where magic meets music, where both are abused and death lacks dignity, where the innocent suffer and a monster goes unchecked, it seems reasonable, I was going to say, to consult an expert. A magical musician, perhaps, who has suffered so much himself he cannot endure to watch the innocent undergo like torment.”
Ah, rhetoric. Swans, like rats, are helpless against it. Dora Rose twisted the braid at her shoulder, and lowered her ivory lashes. Early morning light wormed through my dirty windowpane. A few gray glows managed to catch the silver of her skin and set it gleaming.
My hands itched. In this shape, what I missed most was the sensitivity of my whiskers; my palms kept trying to make up for it. I leaned against the wall and scratched each palm vigorously in their turn with my dandy nails. Even in mortal form, these were sharp and black. I was vain about my nails and kept them polished. I wanted to run them though that fine, pale Swan Princess hair.
“Maurice.” Miraculously, Dora Rose was smiling. A contemptuous smile, yes, but a smile nonetheless. “You’re not saying you know a magical musician? You?”
Implicit in her tone: You wouldn’t know music if a marching band dressed ranks right up your nose.
I drew myself to my not very considerable height, and I tugged my scarlet jerkin straight, and I said to her, I said to Dora Rose, I said, “He happens to be my best friend!”
“I saved his life down in Doornwold five years ago. The first people to repopulate the place were thieves and brigands, you know, and he wasn’t at all equipped to deal with…Well. That’s how I met Nicolas.”
She cocked an eyebrow.
“And then we met again out back of Amandale, down in the town dump. He, uh, got me out of a pickle. A pickle jar, rather. One that didn’t have air holes. This was in my other shape, of course.”
“Of course,” she murmured, still with that trenchant silver smile.
“Nicolas is very shy,” I warned her. “So don’t you go making great big swan eyes at him or anything. No sudden movements. No hissing or flirting or swooning over your sweet little suicide plans. He had a rough childhood, did Nicolas. Spent the tenderest years of his youth under the Hill, and part of him never left it.”
“He has lived in Faerie but is not of it?” Now both Dora Rose’s eyebrows arched, winging nigh up to her hairline. “Is he mortal or not?”
I shrugged. “Not Folk, anyway—or not entirely. Maybe some blood from a ways back. Raven, I think. Or Crow. A drop or two of Fox. But he can’t slip a skin to scale or down or fur. Not Faerieborn, either, though from his talk it seems he’s got the run of the place. Has more than mortal longevity, that’s for sure. Among his other gifts. Don’t know how old he is. Suspect even he doesn’t remember, he’s been so long under the Hill. What he is, is bright to my nose, like a perfumery or a field of wildflowers. Too many scents to single out the source. But come on, Dora Rose; nothing’s more boring than describing a third party where he can’t blush to hear! Meet him and sniff for yourself.”
* * *
Nicolas lived in a cottage in the lee of the Hill.
I say Hill, and I mean Hill. As fairy mounds go, this was the biggest and greenest, smooth as a bullfrog and crowned at the top with a circle of red toadstools the size of sycamores that glowed in the dark.
It’s not an easy Hill. You don’t want to look at it directly. You don’t want to stray too near, too casually, or you’ll end up asleep for a hundred years, or vanished out of life for seven, or tithed to the dark things that live under the creatures living under the Hill.
But Nicolas dwelled there peaceably enough, possibly because no one who ever goes there by accident gets very far before running off in the opposite direction, shock-haired and shrieking. Those who approach on purpose sure as hellfowl aren’t coming to bother the poor musician who lives in the Hill’s shadow. They come because they want to go under, to seek their fortunes, to beg of the Faerie Queen some boon (poor sops), or to exchange the dirt and drudgery of their mortal lives for some otherworldly dream.
We Folk don’t truck much with Faerie. We belong to earth, wind, water, and sun just as much as mortals do, and with better right. For my part, anything that stinks of that glittering, glamorous Hillstuff gives me the heebie-jeebies. With the exception of Nicolas.
I left Dora Rose (not without her vociferous protestations) hiding in some shrubbery, and approached the cottage at a jaunty swagger. I didn’t bang. That would be rude, and poor Nicolas was so easily startled. Merely, I scratched at the door with my fine black nails. At the third scratch, Nicolas answered. He was dressed only in his long red underwear, his red-and-black hair standing all on end. He was sleepy-eyed and pillow-marked, but he smiled when he saw me and opened wide his door.
“Maurice, Maurice!” he cried in his voice that would strike the sirens dumb. “But I did not expect this! I do not have a pie!” and commenced bustling about his larder, assembling a variety of foods he thought might please me.
He knew me so well! The vittles consisted of a rind of old cheese, a heel of hard bread, the last of the apple preserves, and a slosh of sauerkraut. Truly a feast! Worthy of a Rat King! (If my Folk had kings. We don’t. Just as all swans are royalty, we rats are every last one of us a commoner and godsdamned proud of it.) Salivating with delight, I dove for the proffered tray. There was only one chair at the table. Leaving it to me, Nicolas sank to a crouch by the hearth. I grazed with all the greed of a man-and-rat who’s breakfasted solely on a single caramel. He watched with a sweet smile on his face, as if nothing had ever given him more pleasure than to feed me.
“Nicolas, my friend,” I told him, “I’m in a spot of trouble.”
The smile vanished in an instant, replaced by a look of intent concern. Nicolas hugged his red wool-clad knees to his chest and cocked his head, bright black eyes inquiring.
“See,” I said, “a few weeks back, I noticed something weird happening in the Maze Wood just south of town? Lots of mortal children trooping in and out of the corridors, dressed fancy. Two scent hounds. A wagon. All led by Henchman Hans and no less a person than the Mayor of Amandale herself. I got concerned, right? I like to keep an eye on things.”
Nicolas’s own concern darkened to a frown, a sadness of thunderclouds gathering on his brow. But all he said was, “You were snooping, Maurice!”
“All right, all right, Nicolas, so what if I was? Do you have any ale?”
Nicolas pulled a red-and-black tuft of his hair. “Um, I will check! One moment, Maurice!” He sprang off the ground with the agility of an eight-year-old and scurried for a small barrel in a corner by the cellar door. He set his ear to it as if listening for the spirit within.
“It’s from the Hill,” he warned softly.
I smacked my lips. “Bring it on!”
Faerie ale was the belchiest. Who said I wasn’t musical? Ha! Dora Rose’d never heard me burp out “The Lay of Kate and Fred” after bottoms-upping a pint of this stuff. Oh, crap. Dora Rose. She was still outside, awaiting my signal. Never keep a Swan Princess in the bushes. She’d be bound to get antsy and announce herself with trumpets. I accepted the ale and sped ahead with my tale.
“So I started camping out in that old juniper tree, right? You know the one? The juniper tree. In the Heart Glade.”
“Oh, yes.” Nicolas lowed that mournful reply, half-sung, half-wept. “The poor little ghost in the tree. He was too long trapped inside it. The tree became his shrine, and the ghost became a god. That was in the long, long ago. But I remember it all like yesterday. I go to play my pipe for him when I get too lonely. Sometimes, if the moon is right, he sings to me.”
Awright! Now we were getting somewhere! Dora Rose should be hearing this, she really should. But if I brought her in now, poor Nicolas’d clam up like a corpse on a riverbank.
“Hey, Nicolas?” I gnawed into a leathery apple. “You have any idea why Ulia Gol’d be burying a bunch of murdered Swan Folk out by the juniper tree, singing a ditty over the bodies, and digging them up again? Or why they should arise thereafter as self-playing instruments?”
Nicolas shook his head, wide-eyed. “No. Not if Ulia Gol did it. She’d have no power there.”
I spat out an apple seed. It flew across the room, careening off a copper pot. “Oh, right. Uh, I guess what I meant was, if she got a child to do it. A child with a shovel. First to bury the corpse, then weep over it, then dig it up again. While a chorus of twenty kiddlings sang over the grave.”
Nicolas hugged himself harder, shivering. “Maurice! They are not doing this? Maurice—they would not use the poor tree so!”
I leaned in, heel of bread in one hand, rind of cheese in the other. “Nicolas. Ulia Gol’s murdered most of a bevy of Swan Folk. You know, the one that winters at Lake Serenus? Cygnet, cob, and pen—twenty of them, dead as dead can be. She’s making herself an orchestra of bone instruments that play themselves so she won’t have to shell out for professional musicians. Or at least that’s her excuse this time. But you remember last year, right? With the foxes?”
“And before that,” I went on, “didn’t she go fishing all the talking trout from every single stream and wishing well? Are you sensing a pattern? ’Cause no one else seems to be—except for yours truly, the Incomparable Maurice. Now there’s only one swan girl left. One out of a whole bevy. And she’s…she’s my…The point is, Nicolas, we must do something.”
Nearly fetal in his corner by the ale barrel, Nicolas hid his face, shaking his head behind his hands. Before I could press him further, a silvery voice began to sing from the doorway.
“The nanny-goat said to the little boy
Baa-baa, baa-baa I’m full
I’m a bale of hay and a grassy glade
All stuffed, all stuffed in wool
I can eat no more, kind sir, kind sir
Baa-baa, baa-baa my song
Not a sock, not a rock, not a fiddle-fern
I’ll be full all winter long”
By the end of the first verse, Nicolas had lifted his head. By the end of the second, he’d drawn a lanyard out of the collar of his long underwear. From this lanyard hung a slender silver pipe that dazzled the eye, though no sun shone in that corner of the cottage. When Dora Rose got to the third verse, he began piping along.
“The little boy said to the nanny goat
Baa-baa, baa-baa all day
You’ll want to be fat as all of that
When your coat comes off in May!”
By the time they reached the bridge of their impromptu set, I was dancing around the cottage in an ecstatic frenzy. The silver pipe’s sweet trills drove my limbs to great leaps and twists. Dora Rose danced, too, gasping for breath as she twirled and sang simultaneously. Nicolas stood in the center of the cottage, tapping his feet in time. The song ended, and Nicolas applauded, laughing for joy. Dora Rose gave him a solemn curtsy, which he returned with a shy bow. But as he slipped the silver pipe back beneath his underwear, I watched him realize that underwear was all he wore. Shooting a gray and stricken look my way, pretty much making me feel like I’d betrayed him to the headsman, he jumped into his tiny cot and pulled a ratty blanket over his head. Dora Rose glanced at me.
“Uh, Nicolas?” I said. “Me and Dora Rose’ll just go wait outside for a few minutes. You come on out when you got your clothes on, okay?”
“She’s a swan!” Nicolas called from under his cover. I patted a lump that was probably his foot.
“She needs your help, Nicolas. Her sister got turned into a harp yesterday. All her family are dead now. She’s next.”
At that point, Dora Rose took me by the ear and yanked me out of the cottage. I cringed—but not too much lest she loosen her grip. Dora Rose rarely touched me of her own volition.
“How dare you?” she whispered, the flush on her face like a frosted flower. “The Pied Piper? He could dance any Folk he pleased right to the death, and you pushed him? Maurice!”
“Aw, Dora Rose,” I wheedled, “he’s just a little sensitive is all. But he’s a good friend—the best! He’d never hurt me. Or mine.” She glared at me. I help up my hands. “My, you know, friends. Or whatever.”
Dora Rose shook her head, muttering, “I am friendly with a magical musician, he tells me. Who’s familiar with Faerie. Who knows about the Folk. He’ll help us, he tells me.” Her blue eyes blazed, and I quivered in the frenzy of her full attention. “You never said he was the Pied Piper, Maurice!”
I set my hands on my hips and leaned away. Slightly. She still had a grip on my ear, after all. “Because I knew you’d react like this! Completely unreasonable! Nicolas wouldn’t hurt a fly half-drowned in a butter dish! So he’s got a magic pipe, so what? The Faerie Queen gave it to him. Faerie Queen says, ‘Here, darling, take this; I made it for you,’ you don’t go refusing the thing. And once you have it, you don’t leave it lying around the house for someone else to pick up and play. It’s his livelihood, Dora Rose! And it’s a weapon, too. We’ll use it to protect you, if you’ll let us.”
Her eyebrows winged up, two perfect, pale arches. Her clutch on my ear began to twist. I squeaked out, “On another note, Dora Rose, forgive the pun”—she snorted as I’d meant her to, and I assumed my most earnest expression, which on my face could appear just a trifle disingenuous—“I have to say, your idea about singing nursery rhymes to calm him down was pretty great! Poor Nicolas! All he sees whenever he looks at a woman is the Faerie Queen. Scares him outta his wits. Can’t hardly speak, after. He’s good with kids, though. Kid stuff. Kid songs. You were right on track with that baa-baa tune of yours. He’s like a child himself, really…”
Dora Rose released my ear. More’s the pity.
“Maurice!” She jabbed a sharp finger at my nose, which was sharp enough to jab back. “One of these days!”
That was when Nicolas tiptoed from the cottage, sort of slinky-bashful. He was dressed in his usual beggar’s box motley, with his coat of bright rags and two mismatched boots. He had tried to flatten his tufted hair, but it stuck up defiantly all around his head. His black eyes slid to the left of where Dora Rose stood.
“Hi,” he said, scuffing the ground.
“It is a fine thing to meet you, Master Nicolas,” she returned with courtly serenity. “Bevies far and wide sing of your great musicianship. My own mother”—I saw a harsh movement in her pale throat as she swallowed—“watched you play once, and said she never knew such joy.”
“I’m sorry about your family,” Nicolas whispered. “I’m sure the juniper tree didn’t want to do it. It just didn’t understand.” His eyes met mine briefly, pleading. I gave him an encouraging go-ahead nod. Some of this story I knew already, but Nicolas could tell it better. He’d been around before it was a story, before it was history. He’d been alive when it was a current event.
Nicolas straightened his shoulders and cleared his throat.
“Your Folk winters at Lake Serenus. But perhaps, keeping mostly to yourselves, you do not know the story of the Maze Wood surrounding the lake. The tree at the center of the wood is also…also at the center of—of your family’s slaughter…You see, before he was the god in the tree, he was only a small boy. His stepmother murdered him. His little stepsister buried his bones at the roots of a sapling juniper and went every day to water his grave with her tears.
“To comfort her, the boy’s ghost and the juniper tree became one. The young tree was no wiser than the boy—trees understand things like rain and wind and birds. So the ghost and the tree together transformed the boy’s bones into a beautiful bird, hoping this would lighten his sister’s heart and fly far to sing of his murder.
“That was in the long, long ago. Later, but still long ago, the villagers of what was then a tiny village called Amandale began to worship the ghost in the tree. The ghost became a god. Those whose loved ones had been murdered would bring their bones there. The god would turn these wretched bones to instruments that sang the names of their murderers so loudly, so relentlessly, that the murderers were brought to justice just to silence the music.
“Many generations after this, these practices and even the god itself were all but forgotten. The juniper tree’s so old now all it remembers are bones and birds, tears and songs. But the Mayor of Amandale must have read the story somewhere in the town archives. Learned of this old magic, the miracle. And then the Mayor, then she…she…”
A small muscle in Nicolas’s jaw jumped. Suddenly I saw him in a different light, as if he, like his silver pipe, had an inner dazzle that needed no sunlight to evoke it. That dazzle had an edge on it like a broken bottle. Handle this man wrong, and he would cut you, though he wept to do it.
“The Mayor,” said the Pied Piper, “is abusing the juniper tree’s ancient sorrow. It is wrong. Very wrong.”
This time he met Dora Rose’s gaze directly, his black eyes bright and cold. “She is no better than the first little boy’s killer. She has hunted your Folk to their graves. As birds and murder victims in one, they make the finest instruments. The children of Amandale helped her to do this while their parents stood by. They are all complicit.”
“Not all,” I put in. Credit where it’s due. “Three children stood against her. Punished for it, of course.”
Nicolas gave me a nod. “They will be spared.”
“Spared?” Dora Rose echoed. But Nicolas was already striding off toward the Maze Wood with his pace that ate horizons. Me and Dora Rose, we had to follow him at a goodly clip.
“This,” I whispered to her from one corner of my grin, “is gonna be good.”
* * *
The maze part of the Maze Wood is made of these long and twisty walls of thorn. It’s taller than the tallest of Amandale’s four watchtowers and thicker than the fortress wall, erected a few hundred years ago to protect the then-new cathedral of Amandale. But Brotquen, the jolly golden Harvest Goddess in whose honor the cathedral had been built, went out of style last century. Now Brotquen Cathedral is used to store grain—not so big a step down from worshipping it, if you ask me—and I’m quite familiar with its environs. Basically the place is a food mine for yours truly and his pack, Folk and fixed alike. And the stained glass windows are pretty, too.
Like Nicolas said, the Maze Wood’s been there before Brotquen, before her cathedral, before the four towers and the fortress wall. It was sown back in the olden days when the only god in these parts was the little one in the juniper tree. I don’t know if the maze was planted to honor that god or to confuse it, keep its spirit from wandering too far afield in the shape of a fiery bird, singing heartbreaking melodies of its murder. Maybe both.
Me and the Maze Wood get along all right. Sure, it’s scratched off some of my fur. Sure, its owls and civets have tried making a meal of me. But nothing under these trees has got the better of me yet. I know these woods almost as well as I know the back streets of Amandale. I’m a born explorer, though at heart I’m city rat, not woodland. That’s what squirrels are for. “Think of us as rats in cute suits,” a squirrel friend of mine likes to say. Honestly, I don’t see that squirrels are all that adorable myself.
But as well as I knew the Maze Wood, Nicolas intuited it.
He moved through its thorny ways like he would the “Willful Child’s Reel,” a song he could play backwards and blindfolded. Nicolas took shortcuts through corridors I’d never seen and seemed to have some inner needle pointing always to the Heart Glade the way some people can find true north. In no time at all, we came to the juniper tree.
Nicolas went right up to it and flung himself to the ground, wrapping his arms as far about the trunk as he could reach. There he sobbed with all the abandon of a child, like Froggit had sobbed right before they cut out his tongue.
Dora Rose hung back. She looked impassive, but I thought she was embarrassed. Swans don’t cry.
After several awkward minutes of this, Nicolas sat up. He wiped his face, drew the silver pipe from his shirt, and played a short riff as if to calm himself. I jittered at the sound, and Dora Rose jumped, but neither of us danced. He didn’t play for us that time but for the tree.
The juniper tree began to glow, as it had glowed yesterday when the Swan Hunters sang up Elinore’s bones. The mossy ground at the roots turned white as milk. Then a tiny bird, made all of red-and-gold fire, shot out of the trunk to land on Nicolas’s shoulder. Nicolas stopped piping but did not remove the silver lip from his mouth. Lifting its flickering head, the bird opened its beak and began to sing in a small, clear, plaintive voice:
“Stepmother made a simple stew
Into the pot my bones she threw
When father finished eating me
They buried my bones at the juniper tree
Day and night stepsister weeps
Her grief like blood runs red, runs deep
Kywitt! Kywitt! Kywitt! I cry
What a beautiful bird am I!”
Nicolas’s expression reflected the poor bird’s flames. He stroked its tiny head, bent his face, and whispered something in its ear.
“He’s telling the god about your dead Folk,” I said to Dora Rose with satisfaction. “Now we’ll really see something!”
I should’ve been born a prophet, for as soon as Nicolas stopped speaking, the bird toppled from his shoulder into his outstretched palm and lay there in a swoon for a full minute before opening its beak to scream. Full-throated, human, anguished.
I covered my ears, wishing they really had been made of tin. But Dora Rose stared as if transfixed. She nodded once, slowly, as if the ghost bird’s scream matched the sound she’d been swallowing all day.
The juniper tree blazed up again. The glowing white ground roiled like a tempest-turned sea. Gently, so gently, Nicolas brought his cupped hands back up to the trunk, returning the bird to its armor of shaggy bark. As the fiery bird vanished into the wood, the tree itself began to sing. The Heart Glade filled with a voice that was thunderous and marrow-deep.
“Swan bones changed to harp and fife
Sobbing music, robbed of life
String and drum and horn of bone
Leave them not to weep alone
Set them in a circle here
None for three nights interfere
From my branches let one hang
Swan in blood and bone and name
Bring the twenty whose free will
Dared to use my magic ill
Dance them, drive them into me
Pick the fruit from off this tree!”
The light disappeared. The juniper sagged and seemed to sigh.
Nicolas put his pipe away and bowed his head.
Dora Rose turned to me, fierceness shining from her.
“Maurice,” she said, “you heard the tree. We must bring the bones here. I must hang for three days. You must keep Ulia Gol and Hans away from the Heart Glade for that time, and bring those twenty young Swan Hunters to me. Quickly! We have no time to waste.”
And here the heart-stricken and love-sore child I once was rose up from the depths of me like its very own bone instrument.
“Must I, Ladybird?”
Did I sound peevish? I hardly knew. My voice cracked like a boy soprano whose balls’d just dropped, thus escaping the castrating knife and opium bath and a life of operatic opulence. Peevish, yes. Peevish it was.
“Must I really? So easy, don’t you think, to steal an orchestra right out from under an ogre’s nose? To keep Ulia Gol from tracking it back here. To lure twenty children all into the Maze Wood without a mob of parents after us. That’ll take more than wiles, Princess. That’ll take tactics. And why should I do any of this, eh? For you, Dora Rose? For the sake of a friend? What kind of friend are you to me?”
Nicolas stared from me to Dora Rose, wide-eyed. He had placed a hand over his pipe and kneaded it nervously against his chest. Dora Rose also stared, her face draining of excitement, of grief nearly avenged, of bright rage barely contained. All I saw looking into that shining oval was cool, contemptuous royalty. That was fine. Let her close herself off to me. See if that got her my aid in this endeavor.
“I’m gonna ask you something.” I drew closer, taking her slack silver hand in mine. I even pressed it between my itching palms. “If it were me, Dora Rose, if I’d come to Lake Serenus before your courtly bevy and said to you, ‘Dear Princess, Your Highness, my best old pal! Mayor Ulia Gol’s exterminating the Rat Folk of Amandale. She’s trapping us and torturing us and making bracelets of our tails. Won’t you help me stop her? For pity’s sake? For what I once was to you, even if that was only a pest?’
“What would you have said to me, Dora Rose, if I had come to you so?”
Dora Rose turned her face away, but did not remove her hand. “I would have said nothing, Maurice. I would have driven you off. Do you not know me?”
“Yes, Dora Rose.” I squeezed her hand, happy that it still held mine. Was it my imagination, or did she squeeze back? Yup. That was definitely a squeeze. More like a vise, truth be told. I loved a vise. Immediately I began feeling more charitable. That was probably her intention.
“Elinore now,” I reflected, “Elinore would’ve intervened on my behalf.” Dora Rose’s head turned cobra-quick. Had she fangs enough and time, I’d be sporting several new apertures in my physiognomy. I went on anyway. “The nice sister, that Elinore. Always sweet as a Blood Haven peach—for all she loathed me tail to toe. You Swan Folk would’ve come to our aid on Elinore’s say so, mark my words, Dora Rose.”
“Then,” said Dora Rose with freezing slowness, her grip on my hand yet sinewy and relentless, “you will help me for the sake of my dead twin, Maurice? For the help my sister Elinore would have given you had our places been reversed?”
I sighed. “Don’t you know me, Ladybird? No. I wouldn’t do it for Elinore. Not for gold or chocolate. Not for a dozen peachy swan girls and their noblesse oblige. I’ll do it for you, of course. Always did like you better than Elinore.”
“You,” scoffed Dora Rose with a curling lip, flinging my hand from hers, “are the only one who ever did, Maurice.”
I shrugged. It was true.
“As a young cygnet, I feared this was because our temperaments were too alike.”
I snorted, inordinately pleased. “Yeah, well. Don’t go telling my mama I act like a Swan Princess. She’ll think she didn’t raise me right.”
From his place near the juniper tree, Nicolas cleared his throat. “Are we, are we all friends again? Please?” He smoothed one of his long brown hands over the bark. “There’s so much to be done, and all of it so dark and sad. Best to do it quickly, before we drown in sorrow.”
Dora Rose dropped him a curtsy and included me in it with a dip of her chin. My heart leapt in my chest. Other parts of me leapt, too, but I won’t get into that.
“At your convenience, Master Piper,” said she. “Maurice.”
“Dark work? Sad?” I cried. “No such thing! Say, rather, a lark! The old plague days of Doornwold’ll be nothing to it! My Folk scurry at the chance to run amuck. If you hadn’t’ve happened along, Dora Rose, with your great tragedy and all, I’d’ve had to invent an excuse to misbehave. Of such stuff is drama made! Come on, you two. I have a plan.”
* * *
We threw Nicolas’s old tattercoat over Dora Rose’s silver gown and urchined up her face with mud. I stuffed her pale-as-lace hair under my wharf boy’s cap and didn’t even mind when she turned and pinched me for pawing at her too ardently. Me in the lead, Dora Rose behind, Nicolas bringing up the rear, we marched into Amandale like three mortal-born bumpkins off for a weekend in the big city.
Dwelling by the Hill, Nicolas had lived as near neighbor to Amandale for I don’t know how many years. But he was so often gone on his tours, in cities under the Hill that made even the Queen’s City seem a hermit’s hovel, that he wandered now through Amandale’s busy gates with widening and wonder-bright eyes. His head swiveled like it sat on an owl’s neck. The woebegone down-bend of his lips began a slow, gladdening, upward trend that was heartbreaking to watch. So I stole only backward glances, sidelong like.
“Maurice.” He hurried to my side as we passed a haberdashery.
“You really live here?”
“All my life.”
“Does it,” he stooped to speak directly in my ear, “does it ever stop singing?”
I grinned over at Dora Rose, who turned her face away to smile. “If by singing you mean stinking, then no. This is a typical day in Amandale, my friend. A symphony of odors!” He looked so puzzled that I took pity and explained, “According to the princess over there, I’m one who can only ever hear music through my nose.”
“Ah!” Nicolas’s black eyes beamed. “I see. Yes! You’re a synesthete!”
Before I could reply, a fire-spinner out front of Cobblersawl’s Cakes and Comfits caught his eye, and Nicolas stopped walking to burst into wild applause. The fire-spinner grinned and embarked upon a particularly intricate pattern of choreography.
No one was exempt, I realized. Not me, and not the pretty fire-spinner. Not even Dora Rose. Plainly it was impossible to keep from smiling at Nicolas when Nicolas was pleased about something. I nudged Dora Rose.
“Hear that, Ladybird? I’m a synesthete!”
“Maurice, if you ever met a synesthete, you’d probably try to eat it.”
“Probably. Would it look anything like you?”
Dora Rose did not dignify this with a response but whacked the back of my head, and her tiny smile twisted into something perilously close to a grin. We ducked into the bakery, pulling Nicolas after us so he wouldn’t start piping along to the fire-spinner’s sequences, sending her off to an early death by flaming poi.
One of the elder Cobblersawl children—Ilse, her name was—stood at the bread counter, looking bored but dutiful. A softhearted lass, our Ilse. Good for a scrap of cheese on occasion. Not above saving a poor rodent if said rodent happened to be trapped under her big brother’s boot. She’d not recognize me in this shape, of course, but she might have a friendly feeling for me if I swaggered up to her with a sparkle in my beady little eyes and greeted her with a wheedling, “Hallo, Miss…”
She frowned. “No handouts. Store policy.”
“No, you misunderstand. We’re looking for…for Froggit? Young Master Froggit Cobblersawl? We have business with him.” Dora Rose poked me between my shoulder blades. Her nails were as sharp as mine. “If you please?” I squeaked.
Ilse’s frown deepened to a scowl. “Froggit’s sick.”
I bet he was. I’d be sick too if I’d swallowed half my tongue.
“Sick of…politics maybe?” I waggled my eyebrows.
A smell came off the girl like vaporized cheddar. Fear. Sweaty, stinky, delicious fear.
“If you’re from the Mayor,” Ilse whispered, “tell her that Mama spanked Froggit for not behaving as he ought. We know we’re beholden. We know we owe the fancy new shop to her. And—and our arrangement to provide daily bread to the houses on Merchant Prince Row is entirely due her benevolence. Please, Papa cried so hard when he heard how Froggit failed us. We were so proud when his name came up in the Swan Hunter lottery. Really, it’s such an honor, we know it’s an honor, to work for the Mayor on our very own orchestra, but—it’s just he’s so young. He didn’t understand. Didn’t know, didn’t know better. But I’m to take his place next hunt. I will be the twentieth hunter. I will do what he couldn’t. I promise.” She unfisted her hands and opened both palms in supplication. “Please don’t take him to prison. Don’t disappear him like you did…”
She swallowed whatever she was about to say when Dora Rose stepped forward. Removing my cap, she shook out that uncanny hair of hers and held Ilse’s gaze. Silence swamped the bakery as Ilse realized we weren’t Ulia Gol’s not-so-secret police.
“I want to thank him,” Dora Rose said. “That is all. The last swan they killed was my sister.”
“Oh,” Ilse whimpered. “Oh, you shouldn’t be here. You really shouldn’t be here.”
“Please,” said Dora Rose.
Her shaking fingers glimmering by the light pouring off the swan girl’s hair, Ilse pointed out a back door. We left the bakery as quickly as we could, not wanting to discomfit her further, or incite her to rouse the alarm.
The exit led into a private courtyard behind the bakery. Froggit was back by the whitewashed outhouse, idly sketching cartoons upon it with a stubby bit of charcoal. Most of these involved the Mayor and Hans in various states of decay, although in quite a few of them, the Swan Huntress Ocelot played a putrescent role. Froggit’s shoulder blades scrunched when our shadows fell over him, but he did not turn around.
I opened my mouth to speak, but it was Nicolas who dropped to the ground at Froggit’s side, crossing his legs like a fortune-teller and studying the outhouse wall with rapt interest.
“But this is extraordinary! It must be preserved! They will have to remove this entire apparatus to a museum. What, in the meantime, is to be done about waterproofing?” Nicolas examined the art in minute detail, his nose almost touching the graffitied boards. “What to do, what to do,” he muttered.
Taking his charcoal stub, Froggit scrawled, “BURN IT!” in childish writing over his latest cartoon. Then he scowled at Nicolas, who widened his eyes at him. Nicolas began nodding, at first slowly, then with increasing vigor.
“Oh, yes! Indeed! Yes, of course! Art is best when ephemeral, don’t you think? How your admirers will mourn its destruction. How they will paint their faces with the ashes of your art. And you will stand so”—Nicolas hopped up to demonstrate—“arms crossed, with your glare that is like the glare of a tiger, and they will sob and wail and beg you to draw again—just once more please, Master Froggit—but you shall break your charcoal and their hearts in one snap. Yes! You will take all this beauty from them, as they have taken your tongue. I see. It is stunning. I salute you.”
So saying, Nicolas drew out his pipe and began a dirge.
When he finished many minutes later, me and Dora Rose collapsed on the ground, sweating from the excruciatingly stately waltz we’d endured together. Well, she’d endured. I rather enjoyed it, despite never having waltzed in my life, least of all in a minor key.
Froggit himself, who much to his consternation had started waltzing with an old rake, let it fall against the outhouse wall and eyeballed the lot of us with keen curiosity and not a little apprehension. What did he see when he looked at us, this little boy without a tongue?
Nicolas sat in the mud again. This made Froggit, still standing, the taller of the two, and Nicolas gazed up at him with childlike eyes.
“Don’t be afraid. It’s my silver pipe. Magic, you see. Given me by Her Gracious Majesty, Empress of Faerie, Queen of the Realms Beneath the Hill. It imparts upon me power over the creatures of land, sea, air, and fire. Folk and fixed, and everything between. But when I pass into the Hill, my pipe has no power. Under the Hill it is not silver but bone that sings to the wild blood of the Faerieborn. Had I a bone pipe, I might dance them all to their deaths, those Shining Ones who cannot die. But I have no pipe of bone. Just this.”
Nicolas’s face took on a taut look. Almost, I thought, one of unbearable longing. His knuckles whitened on his pipe. Then he shook himself and dredged up a smile from unfathomable depths, though it was a remote, pathetic, tremulous thread of a thing.
“But here, above the Hill,” he continued as if he’d never paused, “it is silver that ensorcels. Silver that enspells. I could pipe my friend the rat Maurice into the Drukkamag River and drown him. See that Swan Princess over there? Her I could pirouette right off a cliff, and not even her swanskin wings could save her. You, little boy, I could jig you up onto a rooftop and thence into the sky, whence you’d fall, fall, fall. But I will not!” Nicolas added as Froggit’s round brown eyes flashed wider. “Destroy an artist such as yourself? Shame on me! How could I even think it? I have the greatest respect for you, Master Froggit!”
But Froggit, after that momentary alarm, seemed unafraid. In fact, he began to look envious. He pointed first to the silver pipe, then to his charcoal caricature of Mayor Ulia Gol, dripping gore and missing a few key limbs.
His wide mouth once more woebegone, Nicolas burst out, “Oh, but she is wicked! Wicked! She has an ogre’s heart and a giant’s greed. She is a monster, and we must rid this world of monsters. For what she did to the juniper tree, that alone deserves a pair of iron shoes baked oven-bright, and four and twenty blackbirds to pluck out her eyes. But for what she has done to you…and to the swans and the foxes and the trout. Oh! I would break my pipe upon her throat if I…But.”
Drawing a shaky breath, Nicolas hid his thin face in rigid hands.
“No. I shall not be called upon for that. Not this time. Not today. No. No, Nicolas, you may stay your hand and keep to your music for now. Maurice the Incomparable has a plan. The role of Nicolas promises to be quite small this time. Just a song. Just the right little song. Or the wrong one. The wrongest song of all.”
Froggit sat beside Nicolas and touched a trembling hand to his shoulder. Nicolas didn’t take his hands from his face, but suddenly bright black eyes peeped between his fingers.
“Your part is bigger than mine, Master Froggit. If you’ll play it. Throw in with us. You have no tongue to speak, but you have hands to help, and we’d be proud to have your help.”
Froggit stared. At the huddled Piper. At proud Dora Rose standing like a silver statue in the small courtyard. At my grin that had the promise of carnage behind it. Back to Nicolas, whose hands fell away to reveal an expression so careworn and sorrowful and resolute that it terrified me, who knew what it meant. I rubbed my hands together, licking my lips. The boy took up his charcoal stub and wrote two words on the outhouse boards.
One was “Greenpea.” The other “Possum.”
I stepped in, before Nicolas asked if this were a recipe for the boy’s favorite stew and spun off on another tangent about the virtues of Faerie spices versus mortal.
“Of course your friends are invited, Master Froggit!” I said. “Couldn’t do it without ’em! You three and we three, all together now.” I hooked Dora Rose’s elbow and drew her nearer. She complied, but not without a light kick to my ankle. “Your job today, Master Froggit, is to take our resident Swan Princess around to meet Miss Greenpea and Miss Possum. They’ve sacrificed a pair of legs and eyes between them, haven’t they, by refusing to help murder swans?”
Froggit nodded, his soft jaw clenching. What with the swelling of his truncated tongue, that must’ve meant a whopping mouthful of pain. Boy should’ve been born a rat!
“You’re just what we need. Old enough to know the town, young enough to be ignored. Embittered, battle-scarred, ready for war. Listen up, Master Froggit. You and your friends and Dora Rose are gonna be the ones to, uh, liberate those pretty bone instruments from Orchestra Hall. You must do this, and you must return them to the Maze Wood tonight. It all has to be timed perfectly. Dora Rose will tell you why. Can you do this thing?”
Dora Rose put her hand on Froggit’s shoulder when his panicked glance streaked to her. “Fear not, princeling,” she said, as though soothing a cygnet. “Have not we wings and wits enough between us?”
Before the kid could lose his nerve, I sped on, “Me and Nicolas will be the distraction. We’re gonna set Amandale hopping, starting this afternoon. No one will have time to sniff you out, I promise—no matter what shenanigans you four get up to. We’ll meet you back in the Maze Wood in three nights’ time, with the rest of…of what we need. You know where. The juniper tree.”
Froggit nodded. His brown eyes filled with tears, but they did not fall. I looked at Dora Rose, who was twisting her hair back up under my wharf boy’s cap and refreshing the dirt on her face.
“Help her,” I told the kid, too quietly for Dora Rose to overhear. “She’ll need you. Tonight most of all.”
Froggit watched my face a moment more, then nodded with firm decision. His excitement smelled like ozone. He shoved his charcoal stub into his pocket and stood up, wiping his palms on his cutoff trousers. Solemnly, he offered his hand to Nicolas, who clasped it in both of his, then transferred it over to Dora Rose. She smiled down, and Froggit’s gaze on her became worshipful, if worship could hold such bitter regret. I knew that look.
Stupid to be jealous of a tongueless, tousled, char-smudged bed wetter. Bah.
“Take care of each other,” Nicolas admonished them.
And so, that Cobblersawl kid and my friend the Swan Princess-in-disguise made their way down a dark alley that teemed with the sort of refuse I relished. Until they disappeared from my sight.
“Shall we?” Nicolas’s voice was soft and very dreadful behind me.
“Play on, Pied Piper,” said I.
Nicolas set silver lip to scarlet mouth and commenced the next phase of our plan.
* * *
Have you ever seen a rat in a waste heap? The rustle of him, the nibble, the nestle, the scrabble and scrape. How he leaps, leaps straight up as if jerked by a string from the fathoms of that stinking stuff should a clamor startle him? How swift he is. How slinking sly. Faster than a city hawk who makes her aerie in the clock towers and her dinner of diseased pigeons. A brief bolt of furry black lightning he is, with onyx for eyes and tiny red rubies for pupils.
Now imagine this natty rat, this rattiest of rats, with his broken tail, his chewed-looking fur, imagine him as he often is, with a scrap of something vile in his mouth, imagine him right in front of you, sitting on your pillow and watching you unblinkingly as you yawn yourself awake in the morning.
Then multiply him.
There is a reason more than one of us is called a swarm.
* * *
Amandale, there will be no Swan Hunt for you today.
Nor will bread be baked, nor cakes be made, nor cookies, biscuits, doughnuts, nor pies. The smell arising from your ovens, Amandale, is singed fur and seared rodent meat, and all your dainty and delectable desserts bear teeth marks.
No schools remain in session. What teacher can pontificate on topics lofty and low when rats sit upon her erasers, scratch inside the stiff desks, run to and from the windowsills, and chew through whole textbooks in their hunger for equations, for history, for language and binding glue and that lovely woody wood pulp as soft and sweet as rose petals?
The blacksmith’s hand is swollen from the bite he received last night as he reached for the bellows to stoke his fire. The apple seller has fled from fear of what he found in his apple barrels. The basket maker burns in his bed with fever from an infected breakfast he bolted without noticing it had been shared already by the fine fellows squatting in his larder. I’m afraid the poor chimney sweep is scarred for life. And no, I don’t mean that metaphorically.
The Wheelbarrow Mollys and the Guild of Bricklayers are out in the streets with their traps and their terriers. Poor fools, the futility! They might get a few dozen of us, maybe a few hundred. They might celebrate their catch that night with ales all around. But what’s a few? We are thousands. Tens of thousands. Millions. The masses. We have come from our hidey-holes and haystacks. We are out in force.
So what if the local butcher flaunts his heap of fresh sausage stuffing, product of today’s rat-catching frenzy? We’re not above eating our own when we taste as good as sausages! And we’re not above petty vengeance, either. You, smug butcher, you won’t sleep cold tonight. No, sir. You’ll sleep enfolded in the living fur of my family, Folk and fixed alike, united, yellow of tooth and spry of whisker. Resolved.
In the midst of mothers bellowing at those of us sniffing bassinets and cradles, of fathers shrieking like speared boars as they step into boots that bite back, of merchants sobbing and dairymaids cursing and monks chanting prayers of exorcism, there is a softer sound, too, all around. A sound only we rats can hear.
It is the Pied Piper, and he plays for us.
He’s there in a corner, one rat on his boot-top, two in his pocket. That’s me right there, scurrying and jiving all up and down his arms and shoulders, like a nervous mama backstage of her darling’s first ballet recital. Oh, this is first-rate. This is drama! And I am the director.
Amandale, you do not see Nicolas, the red in his black hair smoldering like live embers in a bed of coal, his black eyes downcast and dreamy, his one rat-free boot tapping time. He’s keeping us busy, keeping us brave, making us hop and heave to.
Amandale, you do not see Nicolas, playing his song, doing his best to destroy you for a day.
Or even for three.
* * *
On the second Night of the Rats (as the citizens of Amandale called our little display), Mayor Ulia Gol summoned a town meeting in Orchestra Hall.
Sometime after lunch that day, I’d fleshed back into man-shape, with two big plugs of cotton batting in my ears. This made me effectively deaf, but at least I wasn’t dancing. The point was to stick as close to Ulia Gol as possible without ending up in a rat catcher’s burlap bag. To that end I entrenched myself in the growing mob outside the mayoral mansion and slouched there for hours till my shadow stretched like a giant from the skylands. As reward for my patience, I witnessed the moment Henchman Hans brought Ulia Gol news that the rat infestation had destroyed her bone orchestra.
“All that’s left, Madame Mayor,” moaned poor Hans (I’m not great at reading lips, but I got the gist), “is bits of bone and a few snarls of black hair.”
Ulia Gol’s florid face went as putridly pink as her wig. Her shout was so loud I heard her through the cotton batting all the way to my metatarsals. “Town meeting—tonight—eight o’ clock—Orchestra Hall—OR ELSE!”
I ran back to report to Nicolas, who laughed around the lip of his pipe. Slapping my forehead, I cried, “Clever, clever! Why didn’t I think of it? Manufacture false evidence; blame the rats! It’ll keep thief-hunters out of the Maze Wood for sure. Did you think that up, Nicolas?”
Pink-cheeked, Nicolas shook his head and kept playing.
“Wasn’t Dora Rose,” I mused. “She’d view leaving fragments behind as sacrilege. One of our stalwart recruits, then. Froggit? He’s great, but he’s kind of young for that level of…Or, I suppose it could’ve been Possum’s idea. Don’t know her so well. Always thought her one of your sweet, quiet types, Possum.” Readjusting my cotton batting, I mulled on the puzzle before settling on my final hypothesis.
“Greenpea. Greenpea, I’ll grant you, has the brain for such a scheme. What a firecracker! Back when the Swan Hunt started, she was the most vocal opposition in town. Has a kindness for all animals, does Greenpea. Nearly took Hans’s head off with the shovel when he tried to make her dig up that first murdered cob. Ulia Gol took it back from her, though. Broke both her legs so bad the surgeon had to cut ’em off at the knee. Fear of festering, you see. Least, that’s what he said. But he’s Ulia Gol’s creature, badly gone as Hans. Yup, I’ll bet the hair and bone were Greenpea’s notion. Little minx. I’d like to take her paw and give it a shake. Oh, but hey, Nicolas! We’d best get a move on. You haven’t eaten all day, and the sun’s nearly down. Mayor Ulia Gol’s called a town meeting in a few hours regarding the rat conundrum. I’ll fur down and find a bench to hide under. That way I’ll be ready for you.”
Slipping the silver pipe under his patched tunic, Nicolas advised, “Don’t get stomped.”
By this time, the rats of Amandale were in such a frenzy it wouldn’t much matter if he stopped playing for an hour or two. Most of the Folk rats would come to their senses and slip out of town while the getting was good. Likely they’d spend the next few weeks with wax stoppers in their ears and a great distaste for music of any kind. But they’d be back. By and by, they’d all come back.
The fixed rats, now…Smart beasts they may be, those inferior little cousins of mine, but their brains have only ever been the size of peas. Good thing they reproduce quickly’s all I’m saying. ’Cause for the sake of drama and Dora Rose—they are going down.
* * *
The Mayor of Amandale began, “This meeting is now in—” when an angry mother shot to her feet and shouted over her words. It was the chandler, wailing toddler held high overhead like a trophy or oblation.
“Look at my Ruby! Look at her! See that bite on her face? That’ll mark her the rest of her natural life.”
“Won’t be too long,” observed a rouged bawd. “Wounds like that go bad as runoff from a graveyard.”
The blacksmith added, “That’s if the rats don’t eat her alive first.”
The noise in Orchestra Hall surged. A large, high-ceilinged chamber it was, crammed with padded benches and paneled in mahogany. Front and center on the raised stage stood Mayor Ulia Gol, eyes squinting redly as she gaveled the gathering to order.
“Friends! Friends!” Despite the red look in her eyes, her voice held that hint of laughter that made people love her. “Our situation is dire, yes. We are all distressed, yes. But I must beg you now, each and every one of you, to take a deep breath.”
Enchantment in the expansion and recession of her bosom. Sorcery in her benevolent smile. Hypnosis in the red beam of her eye, pulsing like a beating heart. The crowd calmed. Began to breathe. From my place beneath the bench, I twitched my fine whiskers. Ulia Gol was by far her truer self in the Heart Glade, terrorizing the children of Amandale into murdering Swan Folk. This reassuring woman was hardly believable. A stage mirage. The perfect politician.
“There,” cooed the Mayor, looking downright dotingly upon her constituents,“that’s right. Tranquility in the face of disaster is our civic duty. Now, in order to formulate appropriate measures against this rodent incursion as well as set in motion plans for the recovery of our wounded”—she ticked off items on her fingers—“and award monetary restitution to the hardest-hit property owners, we must keep our heads. I am willing to work with you. For you. That’s why you elected me!”
Cool as an ogre picking her teeth with your pinkie finger. No plan of mine could stand long against a brainstorming session spearheaded by Ulia Gol at her glamoursome best. But I had a plan. And she didn’t know about it. So I was still a step ahead.
Certain human responses can trump even an ogre’s fell enchantments, no matter how deftly she piles on those magical soporific agents. It was now or never. Taking a deep breath of my own, I darted up the nearest trouser leg—
The scream was all I ever hoped a scream would be.
Benches upturned. Ladies threw their skirts over their heads. The man I’d trespassed upon kicked a wall, trying to shake me out of his pants. I slid and skittered and finally flew across the room. Something like or near or in my rib cage broke, because all of a sudden the simple act of gasping became a pain in my everything.
Couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t…
There came a wash of sound. Scarlet pain turned silver. My world became a dream of feathers. I saw Dora Rose, all downed up in swanskin, swimming across Lake Serenus. Ducking her long, long neck beneath the waves. Disappearing. Emerging as a woman, silver and naked-pale, with all her long hair gleaming down. She could dance atop the waves in this form, barefoot and unsinkable, a star of the Lake Serenus Water Ballet.
I came to myself curled in the center of the Pied Piper’s palm. He had the silver pipe in his other hand as if he’d just been playing it. Orchestra Hall had fallen silent.
This was Nicolas as I’d never seen him. This was Nicolas of the Realms Beneath the Hill. His motley rags seemed grander the way he wore them than Ulia Gol’s black satin robes with the big pink toggles and purple flounce. His hair was like the flint-and-fire crown of some Netherworld King. Once while drunk on Faerie ale he’d told me—in strictest confidence of course—that since childhood the Faerie Queen had called him “Beautiful Nicolas” and seated him at her right hand during her Midnight Revels. I’d snorted to hear that, replying, “Yeah, right. Your ugly mug?” which made him laugh and laugh. I’d been dead serious, though; I know what beautiful looks like, and its name is Dora Rose, not Nicolas. But now I could see how the Faerie Queen might just have a point. So. Yeah. Kudos to her. I suppose.
Nicolas’s smile flashed from his dark face like the lamp of a lighthouse. His black eyes flickered with a fiendish inner fire.
“Ladies and Gentlemen of Amandale!” Sweeping himself into a bow, he managed to make both pipe and rat natural parts of his elegance, as if we stood proxy for the royal scepter and orb he’d misplaced.
“Having had word of your problem, I came straightway to help. We are neighbors of sorts; I live in the lee of the Hill outside your lovely town. You may have heard my name.” Nicolas paused, just long enough. Impeccable timing. “I am the Pied Piper. I propose to pipe your rats away.”
So saying, he set me on the floor and brought up his pipe again.
I danced—but it was damned difficult. Something sharp inside me poked other, softer parts of me. I feared the coppery wetness foaming the corners of my mouth meant nothing salubrious for my immediate future. Still, I danced. How could I help it? He played for me.
Nicolas, who at his worst was so sensitive he often achieved what seemed a kind of feverish telepathy, was eerily attuned to my pain. His song shifted, ever so slightly. Something in my rib cage clicked. He played a song not only for me but for my bones as well. And my bones danced back into place.
Silver swanfire starfall burning.
Jagged edges knitted. Bones snapped back together. Still I danced. And inside me, his music danced, too, healing up my hurts.
Nicolas took his mouth from the pipe. “I am willing, good Citizens of Amandale, to help you. As you see, rats respond to my music. I can make them do what I wish! Or what you wish, as the case may be.”
On cue, released from his spell, I made a beeline for a crack in the wall. A sharp note from his pipe brought me up short, flipped me over, and sent me running back in the other direction. I can’t sweat, but I did feel the blood expanding my tail as my panicked body heated up.
“For free?” called the chandler, whose wounded babe had finally stopped wailing for fascination of Nicolas’s pipe.
“For neighborliness?” cackled the bawd.
Nicolas scooped me up off the floor. He made it look like another bow. “Alas, no. Behold me in my rags; I cannot afford charity. But for a token fee only, I will do this for you!”
Me he dangled by the engorged tail. Them he held by the balls. Oh, he had them. Well-palmed and squeezing. (Hoo-boy, did that bring back a great memory! There’d been this saucy rat girl named Melanie a few years back, and did she ever know how to do things with her paws…)
Mayor Ulia Gol slinked out from behind her podium. Bright-eyed and treacherous and curious as a marten in a chicken hut, she toyed with her gavel. Her countenance was welcoming, even coquettish.
“A Hero from the Hill!” She laughed her deep laughter that brought voters to the ballot box by the hordes. “Come to rescue our troubled Amandale in its time of need.”
“Just a musician, Madame Mayor.” Nicolas’s dire and delicate voice was pitched to warm the cockles and slicken the thighs. “But better than average perhaps—at least where poor, dumb animals are concerned.”
“And, of course, musicians must be paid!” Her lip curled.
Ulia Gol had reached him. She walked right up close and personal, right to his face, and inhaled deeply. She could smell the Hill on him, I knew, and those tantalizing hints of Folk in his blood, and the long-lost echoes of the mortal he may once have been. The red glint in her eye deepened drunkenly. His scent was almost too much for her. Over there in his corner of the hall, Hans watched the whole scene, green to the gills with jealousy. It clashed with his second-best suit.
Ulia Gol’s expression slid from one of euphoria to that of distaste as she remembered me. Crouched in Nicolas’s open hand, I hunkered as small as I could make myself. I was not a very big rat. And she did have a gavel, you see, for all she was letting it swing from the tips of her fingers.
In a velveted boom that carried her words to the far end of the hall, she asked, “What is your price, my precious piper?”
“I take my pay in coin, Madame Mayor.”
I swear they heard his whisper all across Amandale that night. Nicolas had a whisper like a kiss, a whisper that could reach out and ring the bells of Brotquen Cathedral so sweetly.
“One thousand gold canaries upon completion of the job. If you choose, you may pay me in silver nightingales, though I fear the tripled weight would prove unwieldy. For this reason I cannot accept smaller coin. No bronze wrens or copper robins; such currency is too much for me to shoulder easily.”
Silence. As if his whisper had sucked the breath right from the room. The chandler’s baby hiccupped.
“Paid on completion, you say.” Ulia Gol pondered, stepping back from him. “And by what measurement, pray, do we assess completion? When the last rat drowns in the Drukkamag River?”
Nicolas bowed once more, more gracefully than ever before. “Whatever terms you set, Madame Mayor, I will abide by them.”
Ulia Gol grinned. Oh, she had a handsome, roguish grin. I think I peed a little in Nicolas’s palm. “It cost our town less to build Brotquen Cathedral—and that was three hundred years of inflation ago. Why don’t you take that instead, my sweet-lipped swindler?”
“Alas, ma’am!” Nicolas shook his red-and-black head in sorrow. “While I am certain that yours is a fine cathedral, I make my living on my feet. I take for payment only what I can trundle away with me. As I stated, it must be gold or silver. Perhaps in a small leather chest or sack that I might lift upon my shoulder?”
He tapped the Mayor’s shoulder with his silver pipe, drawing a lazy sigil there. Curse or caress, who could say? Ulia Gol shivered, euphoria once again briefly blanking out her cunning.
“One thousand bright canaries,” she laughed at him, “singing in a single chest! Should not they be in a cage instead, my mercenary minstrel?”
Nicolas twinkled a wink her way. “Nay,” said he, husking low his voice for her ears (and mine) alone. His next sentence fair glittered with the full formality of the Faerie court. Had I any choice when hearing it, I’d’ve bolted right then and there and never come out from my hole till my whiskers turned gray.
“But perhaps,” he continued, “thou shouldst be, thou pink-plumed eyas. A cage equipped with manacles of silver and gilded bullwhips and all manner of bejeweled barbs and abuses for such a wicked lady-hawk as thee.”
Pleased with the impudent promise in his eyes, and pink as her candy-colored wig, Ulia Gol spun around. The tassel on her black satin cap hopped like a cottontail in a clover patch. She addressed the hall.
“The Pied Piper has come to drive our rats away. He is charging,” she threw the room a grin as extravagant as confetti, “an unconscionable fee to do so. But, my friends, our coffers will manage. What cost peace? What cost health? What cost the lives of our children? Yes, we shall have to tighten our belts this winter. What of that?” Her voice crescendoed. Her arms spread wide. “Citizens, if we do not accept his assistance now, who knows if we will even live to see the winter?”
A wall of muttering rose up against the tide of her questions. Some dissent. Some uneasy agreement. Ulia Gol took another reluctant step away from Nicolas and waded into the crowd. She worked it, touching hands, stroking baby curls, enhancing her influence as she gazed deeply into deeply worried eyes and murmured spells and assurances. Shortly, and without any overt effort, she appeared behind the podium like she’d grown there.
“Friends,” she addressed them throbbingly, “already the rats are nibbling at our stores, our infants, the foundations of our houses. Recall how rats carry plague. Do you want Amandale to face the danger that leveled Doornwold fifteen years ago? We shall put it to the vote! I ask you to consider this—extreme, yes, but remember, we only need pay if it’s effective!—solution. All in favor of the Pied Piper, say aye!”
The roar the crowd returned was deafening. The overtones were especially harsh, that particular brassy hysteria of a mob miles past the point of reasoning with. I wished I had my earplugs back. Ulia Gol did not bother to invite debate from naysayers. Their protestations were drowned out, anyway. But I could see Hans over there making note of those who shook their heads or frowned. My guess was that they’d be receiving visitors later. Probably in the dead of night.
From her place on the stage, Ulia Gol beamed upon her townspeople. But like magnet to metal, her gaze clicked back to Nicolas. She studied him with flagrant lust, and he returned her scrutiny with the scorching intensity the raven has for the hawk. He stood so still that even I, whom he held in his hand, could not feel him breathing.
“When will you begin?”
“Tomorrow at dawn.” This time, Nicolas directed his diffident smile to the room at large. “I need my sleep tonight. It is quite a long song, the one that calls the rats to the waterside and makes the thought of drowning there seem so beautiful.”
“Rest is all well and good, Master Piper. But first you must dine with me.”
“Your pardon, Madame Mayor, but I must fast before such work as I will do tomorrow.”
Her fists clenched on the edges of the podium. She leaned in. “Then a drink, perhaps. The mayoral mansion is well stocked.”
Nicolas bowed. “Ma’am, I must abstain.”
I wouldn’t say that the look Ulia Gol gave him was a pout, exactly. More like, if Nicolas’s face had been within range of her teeth, she’d have torn it off. He had toyed with her, keyed her to the pitch of his choosing, and now he would not play her like a pipe—nor let her play his. Pipe, I mean. Ahem.
His short bow and quick exit thwarted any scheme she might have improvised to keep him there. Outside in the cooling darkness, cradling me close to his chest, Nicolas turned sharply into the nearest alleyway. Stumbling on a pile of refuse, he set me down atop it, and promptly projectile-vomited all over the wall.
I’d never seen that much chunk come out of an undrunk person. Fleshing myself back to man-shape, I clasped my hands behind me and watched him. I had to curb my urge to applaud.
“Wow, Nicolas! Is that nerves, or did you eat a bad sausage for dinner?” I whistled. “I thought you couldn’t talk to women, you Foxface, you! But you were downright debonair. If the Mayor’d been a rat girl, her ears would’ve been vibrating like a tuning fork!”
Wiping his mouth on his hand, Nicolas croaked, “She is not a woman. She is a monster. I spoke to her as I speak to other monsters I have known. It is poison to speak so, Maurice—but death to do aught else. But, oh, it hurts, Maurice. It hurts to breathe the same air she breathes. It hurts to watch her courtiers—”
“Constituents,” I corrected, wondering whose face he’d seen imposed upon Ulia Gol’s. If I were a betting rat, I’d say the answer rhymed with “Airy Fleen.”
“So corrupted…Necrotic! As rotten as that poor rat-bitten babe shall be in a few days. They—these thinking people, people like you or me”—I decided not to challenge this—“they all agreed to the genocide. They agreed to make the orchestra of murdered swans, to abuse the god in the juniper tree. They traded their souls to a monster, and for what? Free music? Worse, worse—they set their children to serve her. Their babies, Maurice! Gone bad like the rest of them. Maurice, had I the tinder, I would burn Amandale to the ground!”
Nicolas was sobbing again. I sighed. Poor man. Or whatever he was.
I set my hand upon his tousled head. His hair was slick with sweat. “Aw, Nicolas. Aw, now. Don’t worry. We’ll get ’em. There’s worse ways to punish people than setting fire to their houses. Hellfowl, we did it one way today, and by nightfall tomorrow, we’ll have done another! So smile! Everything’s going steamingly!”
Twin ponds of tears brimmed, spilled, blinked up at me.
“Don’t you mean swimmingly?” Nicolas gasped, sighing down his sobs.
“I will soon, you don’t quit your bawling. Hey, Nico, come on!” I clucked my tongue. “Dry up, will ya? You’re not supposed to drown me till dawn!”
I could always make Nicolas laugh.
* * *
In a career so checkered that two old men could’ve played board games on it, I’ve come near death four times. Count ’em, four. Now if we’re talking about coming within a cat-calling or even a spitting distance from death, I’d say the number’s more like “gazillions of times,” but I don’t number ’em as “near”-death experiences till I’m counting the coronal sutures on the Reaper of Rodents’s long-toothed skull.
The first time I almost died, it was my fault. It all had to do with being thirteen and drunk on despair and voluntarily wandering into a rat-baiting arena because life isn’t worth living if a Swan Princess won’t be your girlfriend. Embarrassing.
The second time was due to a frisky rat lass named Molly. She, uh, used a little too much teeth in the, you know, act. Bled a lot. Worth it, though.
Third? Peanut butter.
Fourth—one of the elder Cobblersawl boys and his brand-new birthday knife.
But I have never been so near death as that day Nicolas drowned me in the Drukkamag River.
He’d begged me not to hear him. That morning, just before dawn, he’d said, “Maurice, Maurice. Will you not stop up your ears and go to the Maze Wood and wait this day out?”
“No, Nicolas,” said I, affronted. “What, and give a bunch of poor fixed rats the glory of dying for Dora Rose? This is my end. My story. I’ve waited my whole life for a chance like this. My Folk will write a drama of this day, and the title of that play shall be Maurice the Incomparable!”
Nicolas ducked the grand sweep of my hand. “You cannot really mean to drown, Maurice. You’ll never know how the end of your drama plays out. What if we need you again, and you are dead and useless? What if…what if she needs you?”
I clapped his back. “She never did before, Nicolas my friend. That’s why I love the girl. Oh, and after I die today, do something for me, would you? You tell Dora Rose that she really missed out on the whole cross-species experimentation thing. You just tell her that. I want her to regret me the rest of her life. I want the last verse of her swan song to be my name. Maurice the Incomparable!”
Nicolas ducked again, looking dubious and promising nothing. But I knew he would try. That’s what friends did, and he was the best.
You may wonder—if you’re not Folk, that is—how I could so cavalierly condemn thousands of my lesser cousins, not to mention my own august person, of whom I have a high (you might even say “the highest”) regard—to a watery grave. Who died and made me arbiter of a whole pestilential population’s fate? How could I stand there, stroking my whiskers, and volunteer all those lives (and mine) to meet our soggy end at the Pied Piper’s playing?
I could sum it up in one word.
I speak for all rats when I speak for myself. We’re alike in this. We’ll do just about anything for drama. Or comedy, I guess; we’re not particular. We’re not above chewing the scenery for posterity. We must make our territorial mark (as it were) on the arts. The Swan Folk have their ballet. We rats, we have theatre. We pride ourselves on our productions. All the cities, high and low, that span this wide, wide world are our stage.
“No point putting it off,” I told Nicolas, preparing to fur down. “Who’s to say that if you don’t drown me today, a huge storm won’t come along and cause floods enough to drown me tomorrow? If that happens, I’ll have died for nothing! Can any death be more boring?”
Nicolas frowned. “The weather augur under the Hill can predict the skies up to a month in exchange for one sip of your tears. She might be able to tell you if there will be rain…”
I cut him off. “What I’m saying is, you have to seize your death by the tail. Know it. Name it. My death,” I said, “is you.”
His laugh ghosted far above me as I disappeared into my other self.
“Hurricane Nicolas,” he said. “The storm with no center.”
* * *
Comes a song too high and sweet for dull human ears. Comes a song like the sound of a young kit tickled all to giggles. Like the sharp, lustful chirps of a doe in heat. Comes a song for rats to hear, and rats alone. A song that turns the wind to silver, a wind that brings along the tantalizing smell of cream.
Excuse me, make that “lots of cream.”
A river of cream. A river that is so rich and thick and pure you could swim in it. You bet your little rat babies there’s cream aplenty. Cream for you. Cream for your cousins, for your aunts and uncles, too. There’s even cream for that ex-best buddy of yours who stole your first girlfriend along with the hunk of stinky cheese you’d saved up for your birthday.
Comes a song that sings of a river of cream. Cream enough for all.
Once I get there, ooh, baby, you betcha…I’m gonna find that saucy little doe who’s chirping so shamelessly. I’m gonna find her, and then I’m gonna frisk the ever-living frolic out of her, nipping and mounting and slipping and licking the cream from her fur. Oh, yeah. Let’s all go down to that river.
Now. Let’s go now. I wanna swim.
* * *
Funny thing, drowning.
By the time I realized I didn’t want it anymore, there was nothing I could do. I was well past the flailing stage, just tumbling along head over tail, somewhere in the sea-hungry currents of the Drukkamag. The only compass I could go by indicated one direction.
Rats are known swimmers. We can tread water for days, hold our breath for a quarter of an hour, dive deeply, survive in open sea. Why? Because our instinct for survival is unparalleled in the animal kingdom, that’s why.
Once Nicolas’s song started, I’d no desire to survive anymore. Until I did. I never said rats were consistent. We’re entitled to an irregularity of opinion, just like mortals. Even waterlogged and tossed against Death’s very cheese grater, we’re allowed to change our minds.
And so, I did the only thing I had mind enough left to do. I fleshed back to man-shape.
The vigor of the transformation brought me, briefly, to the surface. I mouthed a lungful of air before the current sucked me back down into the river.
This is it, I thought. Damn it, damn it, da—
And then I slammed into a barrier both porous and implacable. Water rushed through it, yet I did not. I clung to it, finger and claw, and almost wept (which would have been entirely redundant at that point) when a great hook plunged at me from out of the blue, snagged me under the armpit, and hauled.
Air. Dazzle. Dry land.
I was deposited onto the stony slime of a riverbank. Someone hastily threw a blanket over my collapse. It smelled of sick dog and woodsmoke, but it was warm and dry. I think I heard my name, but I couldn’t answer, sprawled and gasping, moving from blackout to dazzle and back again while voices filtered through my waterlogged ears.
Children’s voices. Excited. Grim.
I considered opening my eyes. Got as far as blurred slittedness before my head started pounding.
We were under some sort of bridge. Nearby, nestled among boulders, a large fire burned. Over this there hung an enormous cauldron, redolent of boiling potatoes. A girl with a white rag tied over her eyes stirred it constantly. Miss Possum, or I missed my guess.
A bowl of her potato mash steamed near my elbow. I almost rolled over and dove face-first into it, but common sense kicked in. Didn’t much fancy drowning on dry land so soon after my Drukkamag experience, so I lapped at the mash with more care, watching everything. Not far from Possum squatted Master Froggit, carefully separating a pile of dead rats from living as quickly as they came to him from the figure on the bridge. The dead he set aside on an enormous canvas. The living he consigned to blind Possum’s care. She dried them and tried to feed them. There weren’t many.
My slowly returning faculty for observation told me that our bold young recruits had strung a net across a narrowish neck of the Drukkamag, beneath one of the oldest footbridges of Amandale. They weighted the net with rocks. When the rats began to fetch up against it, Greenpea, seated on the edge of the bridge, leg stumps jutting out before her, fished them out again. She wielded the long pole that had hooked me out of the current.
For the first time since, oh, since I was about thirteen, I think, I started sobbing. Too much hanging out with Nicolas, I guess. Not eating properly. Overextending myself. That sort of thing. Prolonged close contact with Dora Rose had always had this effect on me.
I applied myself to my potatoes.
Once sated, making a toga of my dog blanket, I limped up to the bridge and gazed at the girl with the hooked pole.
“Hey.” She glanced sidelong at me as I sat next to her. “Maurice the Incomparable, right?”
“Right-o.” I warmed with pleasure. “Hand that thing over, will ya? My arms feel like noodles, but I reckon they can put in a shift for the glory of my species.”
She grunted and handed her pole to me. “I don’t see any more live ones. Not since you.”
“Well, cheer up!” I adjured her. “We’ll rise again. We’re the hardiest thing since cockroaches, you know. Besides you humans, I mean. Roaches. Blech! An acquired taste, but they’ll do for lean times. We used to dare each other to bite ’em in half when we were kits.”
Greenpea, good girl, gagged only a bit, and didn’t spew. I flopped a couple of corpses over to Froggit’s canvas. “So. This whole net thing your idea, Miss Greenpea?”
She replied in a flat, unimpressed recitation, “Dora Rose said you’d try to drown yourself with the other rats. Said it would be just like you, and that we must save you if we could, because no way was she letting you stain her memory with your martyrdom.”
I chuckled. “Said that, did she?”
“Something like that.” Greenpea shrugged. Or maybe she was just rolling her stiff shoulders. “Before we…we hung her on that tree, I promised we’d do what we could for you. She seemed more comfortable, after.” She wouldn’t meet my eyes. “And then, when I saw all the other rats in the river, I tried to save them, too. Why should you be so special? But then…So long as the Pied Piper played, even though he’s still all the way back in Amandale, the rats I rescued wouldn’t stay rescued. No sooner did we fish them out of the Drukkamag but they jumped back in again.”
“Listen, kid.” I returned her hard glare with a hard-eyed look of my own. “That was always the plan. You agreed to it. We all did.”
The net bulged beneath us. Greenpea didn’t back down, but the bridge of her nose scrunched beneath her spectacles. Behind thick lenses, those big gray eyes of hers widened in an effort not to cry. How old was she, anyway? Eleven? Twelve? One of the older girls in Ulia Gol’s child army. Near Ocelot’s age, I thought. Old enough at any rate to dry her tears by fury’s fire. Which she did.
“It’s horrible,” Greenpea growled. “I hate that they had to die.”
“Horrible, yeah,” I agreed. “So’s your legs. And Possum’s eyes. And Froggit’s tongue. And twenty dead swans. We’re dealing with ogres here, not unicorns. Not the nicest monsters ever, ogres. Although, when you come right down to it, unicorns are nasty brutes. Total perverts. But anyway, don’t fret, Miss Greenpea. We’re gonna triumph, have no doubt. And even if we don’t”—I started laughing, and it felt good, good, good to be alive—“even if we don’t, it’ll make a great tragedy, won’t it? I love a play where all the characters die at the end.”
* * *
The Pied Piper stood on the steps of Brotquen Cathedral, facing the Mayor of Amandale, who paraded herself a few steps above him. Hans and his handpicked horde of henchman waited nearby at the ready. Displayed at their feet was Froggit’s macabre canvas of corpses. Most of the rats we’d simply let tumble free toward the sea when we cut the net, but we kept a few hundred back for a fly-flecked show-and-tell.
Nicolas’s face was gray and drawn. His shoulders drooped. New lines had appeared on his forehead apparently overnight, and his mouth bowed like a willow branch. The pipe he no longer played glowed against his ragged chest like a solid piece of moonlight.
“As you see,” he announced, “the rats of Amandale are drowned.”
“Mmn,” said Ulia Gol.
Most of the town—myself and my three comrades included—had gathered below the cathedral on Kirkja Street to gawk at the inconceivability of a thousand bright canaries stacked in a small leather chest right there in the open. The coins cast a golden glitter in that last lingering caress of sunset, and reflected onto the reverent faces of Amandale’s children, who wore flowers in their hair and garlands ’round their necks. All of Amandale had been feasting and carousing since the rats began their death march at dawn that morning. Many of the older citizens now bore the flushed, aggressive sneers of the pot-valiant. In the yellow light of all that dying sun and leaping gold, they, too, looked new-minted, harder and glintier than they’d been before.
Nicolas did not notice them. His gaze never left Ulia Gol’s shrewd face. She blocked his path to the gold. Hand over heart, he tried again.
“From the oldest albino to the nakedest newborn, Madame Mayor, the rats are drowned one and all. I have come for my payment.”
But she did not move. “Your payment,” she purred, “for what?”
Nicolas inhaled deeply. “I played my pipe, and I made them dance, and they danced themselves to drowning.”
“Master Piper…” Ulia Gol oozed closer to him. I could see Nicolas stiffen in an effort not to back away.
I must say, the Mayor of Amandale had really gussied herself up for this occasion. Her pink wig was caught up in a sort of birdcage, all sorts of bells and beads hanging off it. The bone-paneled brocade of her crimson dress was stiff enough to stand up by itself, and I imagined it’d require three professional grave robbers with shovels to exhume her from her maquillage. She smelled overpoweringly of rotten pears and sour grapes. Did I say so before? At the risk of repeating myself, then: a magnificent woman, Ulia Gol.
“I watched you all day, Master Piper,” she told Nicolas. “I strained my ears and listened closely. You put your pipe to your lips, all right, my pretty perjurer, and fabricated a haggard verisimilitude, but never a note did I hear you play.”
“No,” Nicolas agreed. “You would not have. I did not play for you, Ulia Gol.”
He pointed at the soggy canvas. “There is my proof.”
Ulia Gol shrugged. Her stiff lace collar barely moved. “I see dead rats, certainly. But they might have come from anywhere, drowned in any number of ways. The Drukkamag River runs clean and clear, and Amandale is much as it ever was. Yes, there were rats. Now there are none.” She opened her palms. “Who knows why? Perhaps they left us of their own accord.”
Most of the crowd rustled in agreement. Sure, you could tell a few wanted to mutter in protest, but pressed tight their lips instead. Fresh black bruises adorned the faces of many of these. What were the odds that Ulia Gol’s main detractors had been made an example of since last night’s town meeting in Orchestra Hall? Not long, I’d say. Not long at all.
Ulia Gol swelled with the approval of her smitten constituents. Their adoration engorged her. Magic coursed through her. There was no mistaking what she was if you knew to look out for it. She stank like an ogre and grinned like a giant, and all that was missing was a beanstalk and a bone grinder and a basket for her bread. She loomed ever larger, swamping Nicolas in her shadow.
“Master Piper—if a Master indeed you are—you cannot prove that your alleged playing had aught to do with the rats’ disappearance. Perhaps they decamped due to instinct. Migration. After all, their onset was as sudden as their egress. Perhaps you knew this. Did you really come to Amandale to aid us, or were you merely here by happenstance? Seeing our dismay and our disarray, did you seek to take advantage of us, to ply your false trade, and cheat honest citizens of their hard-earned coin?”
The Mayor of Amandale was closer to the truth than she realized—ha! But that didn’t worry me. Ulia Gol, after all, wasn’t interested in truth. The only thing currently absorbing her was her intent to cheat the man who’d refused her bed the night before. It never occurred to her that the plague of rats was a misdirection of Amandale’s attention during the theft of the bone orchestra. Okay, and part of its punishment for the murdered swans.
“Look at the color of his face,” Greenpea whispered. “Is the piper all right?”
“Well…er.” I squirmed. “It’s Nicolas, right? He’s never all the way all right.”
But seeing his sick pallor, I wasn’t sure Nicolas remembered that all this was part of a bigger plan. He looked near to swooning. Not good. We needed him for this next bit.
“Please,” he whispered. “Please…just pay me and I’ll be on my way.”
“I am sorry, Master Piper.” Ulia Gol laughed at him, her loud and lovely laugh. “But I cannot pay you all this gold for an enterprise you cannot prove you didn’t engineer. In fact, you should consider yourself lucky if you leave Amandale in one piece.”
The crowd around us tittered and growled. The children drew closer together, far less easy with the atmosphere of ballooning tension than were their parents. It was the adults whose eyes narrowed, whose flushed faces had empurpled and perspired until they looked all but smaller models of their Mayor. Nicolas took a step nearer Ulia Gol, though what it cost him, I do not know. He was a smallish man, and had to look up to her. Nicolas only sometimes seemed tall because of his slender build.
“Please,” he begged her again. “Do not break your word. Have I not done as I promised?”
I leaned in for a closer look, brushing off Possum’s anxious hand when it plucked my elbow.
“What’s he doing?”
“Your guess is as good as mine, kid.”
How Nicolas planned to act if Ulia Gol suddenly discovered within her scrumdiddlyumptious breast a thimble’s worth of honor, compassion, or just plain sense, I do not know.
But she wouldn’t. She was what she was, and behaved accordingly.
If she could but smell the furious sorrow on him, as I could…scent that destroying wind, the storm that had no center, the magic in his pipe that would dance us all to the grave, then perhaps even Ulia Gol might have flung herself to her knees and solicited his forgiveness. Did she think his music only worked on rats? That, because he trembled at her triumph and turned, in that uncertain twilight, an exquisite shade of green, he would not play a song Amandale would remember for a hundred years?
“Please,” the Pied Piper repeated.
Something in Ulia Gol’s face flickered.
I wondered if, after all, the Mayor would choose to part with her gold, and Nicolas to spare her. Never mind that it would leave Dora Rose pinioned to a juniper tree, the swans only partly avenged, and all my stylish stratagems and near-drowning in vain. Oh, he—naw, he…Surely Nicolas—even he!—wouldn’t be so, so criminally virtuous! Voice breaking and black eyes brimming, he appealed to her for a third and final time.
The flickering stilled. I almost laughed in relief.
“It’s gonna be fine,” I told my comrades. “Watch closely. Be ready.”
“Henceforth,” purred the Mayor, “I banish you, Master Piper, from the town of Amandale. If ever you set foot inside my walls again, I will personally hang you from the bell tower of Brotquen Cathedral. There you will rot, until nothing but your bones and that silver pipe you play are left.”
Ow. Harsh. Fabulous.
Nicolas nodded heavily, as if a final anvil had descended upon his brow.
To my great delight, to my pinkest tickly pleasure, his posture subtly shifted. Yes, altered and unbent, the sadness swept from him like a magician’s tablecloth right from beneath the cutlery. Nicolas was totally bare now, with only the glitter of glass and knives left to him.
He sprang upright. And grinned. At the sharp gleam of that grin, even I shivered.
“Here we go,” I breathed.
Beside me, Greenpea leaned forward in her wheelchair, gray eyes blazing. “Yes, yes, yes!” she whispered. “Get this over with, piper. Finish it.”
Solemnly, Froggit took Possum’s hand in his and squeezed. She lifted her chin, face pale behind her ragged blindfold, and asked, “Is it now, Mister Maurice?”
“Soon. Very soon,” I replied, hardly able to keep from dancing. Lo, I’d had enough dancing for a lifetime, thanks. Still, I couldn’t help but wriggle a bit.
“Citizens of Amandale,” announced the Pied Piper, “although it causes me pangs of illimitable dolor to leave you thus, I must, as a law-abiding alien to your environs, make my exit gracefully. But to thank you for your hospitality and to delight your beautiful children, I propose to play you one last song.”
“Time to put that cotton in your ears,” I warned my recruits. Froggit and Possum obeyed. I don’t think Greenpea even heard me; she was that focused on the motley figure poised on the steps of Brotquen Cathedral.
My caution turned out to be unnecessary. Nicolas was, indeed, a Master Piper. He could play tunes within tunes. Tunes piled on tunes, and tunes buried under them. His music came from the Hill, from Her, the Faerie Queen, and there was no song Nicolas could not play when he flung himself open to the sound.
First he played a strand of notes that froze the adults where they stood. Second, a lower, darker line strong enough to paralyze the ogre in her place. Then he played three distinct trills that sounded like names—Froggit, Possum, Greenpea—exempting them from his final spell. Greenpea licked her lips and looked almost disappointed.
Last came the spell song. The one we’d worked so hard for these three days. A song to lure twenty little Swan Hunters into the trap a Swan Princess had set. A song to bring the children back to Dora Rose.
I don’t think, in my furry shape, I’d’ve given the tune more than passing heed. But I was full-fleshed right now, with all the parts of a man. The man I was had been a child once, sometimes still behaved like one, and the tune Nicolas played was tailor-made for children. It made the tips of my toes tingle and my heels feel spry. Well within control, thank the Captured God.
You know who couldn’t control it though?
Ocelot, the Gravedigger’s daughter. Ilse Cobblersawl, her brothers Frank, Theodore and James, her sweet sister Anabel, and the nine-year-old twins Hilde and Gretel. Pearl, the chandler’s eldest daughter, who let her sister Ruby slip from her arms, to join hands with Maven Chain, the goldsmith’s girl. Charles the Chimneysweep. Kevin the Gooseboy. Those twelve and eight more whose names I did not know.
Heads haloed in circles of silver fire that cast a ghostly glow about them, these twenty children shoved parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, siblings, cousins, teachers, employers, out of the way. Those too small to keep pace were swept up and carried by their fellow hunters. Still playing, Nicolas sprinted down the steps of the cathedral and sprang right into that froth of silver-lit children.
All of them danced. Then the tune changed, and they ran instead.
Light-footed, as though they wore wings on their feet, they fled down Kirkja Street and onto Maskmakers Boulevard. This, I knew, ended in a cul-de-sac abutting a town park, which sported in its farthest shrubbery a rusted gate leading into the Maze Wood.
“Step lively, soldiers,” I barked to my three recruits. “Don’t wanna get caught staring when the thrall fades from this mob. Gonna get ugly. Lots of snot and tears and torches. Regardless, we should hie ourselves on over to the Heart Glade. Wouldn’t want to miss the climax now, would we?”
Froggit shook his head and Possum looked doubtful, but Greenpea was already muscling her chair toward the corner of Kirkja and Maskmakers. We made haste to follow.
Dora Rose, here we come.
* * *
I’d seen Dora Rose as a swan, and I’d seen her as a woman, but I’d never seen her both at once. Or so nakedly.
I confess, I averted my eyes. No, I know, I know. You think I should’ve taken my chance. Looked my fill. Saved up the sweet sight of her to savor all those lonely nights in my not-so-distant future. (Because, let’s be honest here, my love life’s gonna be next to nonexistent from this point on. Most of the nice fixed does I know are bloating gently in the Drukkamag, and any Folk doe who scampered off to save herself from the Pied Piper is not going to be speaking to me. Who could blame her, really?) But, see, it wasn’t like that. It was never like that, with Dora Rose.
Sure, I curse by the Captured God. But Dora Rose is my religion.
It was as much as I could bear just to glance once and see her arms outstretched, elongated, mutated, jointed into demented angles that human bones are not intended for, pure white primary feathers bursting from her fingernails, tertials and secondaries fanning out from the soft torn flesh of her underarms. Her long neck was a column of white, like a feathered python, and her face, though mostly human, had become masklike, eyes and nose and mouth black as bitumen, hardening into the shining point of a beak.
That’s all I saw, I swear.
After that I was kneeling on the ground and hiding my face, like Nicolas under his covers. In that darkness, I became aware of the music in the Heart Glade. Gave me a reason to look up again.
What does a full bone orchestra look like? First the woodwinds: piccolo, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon. Then the brass: horn, trumpet, cornet, tenor trombone, bass trombone, tuba (that last must’ve been Dasher—he was the biggest cob on the lake). Percussion: timpani, snare, cymbals (those cygnets, I’d bet). And the strings. Violin. Viola. Violoncello. Double bass. And the harp. One white harp, with shining black strings.
Elinore, Dora Rose’s twin sister.
All of them, set in a circle around the juniper tree, glowed in the moonlight. They played softly by themselves, undisturbed, as if singing lullabies to the tree and she who hung upon it.
I’d heard the tune before. It was the same phrase of music the tiny firebird had sung, which later the tree itself repeated in its seismic voice. Beneath the full sweep of the strings and hollow drumbeats and bells of bone, I seemed to hear that tremulous boy soprano sobbing out his verse with the dreary repetition of the dead.
Only then—okay, so maybe I took another quick glance—did I see the red tracks that stained the pale down around Dora Rose’s eyes. By this I knew she had been weeping all this while.
She, who never wept. Not once. Not in front of me.
I’d thought swans didn’t cry. Not like rats and broken pipers and little children. Not like the rest of us. Stupid to be jealous of a bunch of bones. That they merited her red, red tears, when nothing else in the world could or would. Least of all, yours truly, Maurice the Incomparable.
Me and my three comrades loitered in the darkness outside that grisly bone circle. Greenpea, confined to her wheelchair; Possum, sitting quietly near her feet; a tired Froggit sprawled beside her, his head in her lap. Possibly he’d fallen into a restive sleep. They’d had a tough few days, those kids.
We’d come to the Heart Glade by a shortcut I knew, but it wasn’t long till we heard a disturbance in one of the maze’s many corridors. In the distance, Nicolas’s piping caught the melody of the bone orchestra and countered it, climbing an octave higher and embroidering the somber fabric of the melody with sharp silver notes. The twenty children he’d enchanted joined in, singing:
“Day and night Stepsister weeps
Her grief like blood runs red, runs deep
Kywitt! Kywitt! Kywitt! I cry
What a beautiful bird am I!”
In a rowdiness of music making, they spilled into the Heart Glade. Ocelot was yipping, “Kywitt! Kywitt! Kywitt!” at the tops of her lungs, while Ilse and Maven flapped their arms like wings and made honking noises. A flurry of chirps and whistles and shrieks of laughter from the other children followed in cacophony. Nicolas danced into the glade after them, his pipe wreathed in silver flames. Hopping nimbly over a small bone cymbal in the moss, he faced the Heart Glade, faced the children, and his tune changed again.
And the children leapt the bones.
Once inside the circle, the twenty of them linked wrists and danced rings around the juniper tree, as they used to do in the beginning, when the first of the Swan Folk were hunted and changed. As they whirled, a fissure opened in the juniper’s trunk. Red-gold fire flickered within. Like a welcoming hearth. Like a threshold to a chamber of magma.
The children, spurred by Nicolas’s piping, began to jump in.
They couldn’t reach the fissure fast enough. Ocelot, by dint of shoving the littler ones out of her way, was first to disappear into the bloody light. And when she screamed, the harp that had been Elinore burst into silver-and-red flame, and disappeared. The first silver bloom erupted from the branches of the juniper tree.
Dora Rose shuddered where she hung.
A second child leapt through the crack. Ilse Cobblersawl. The bone trumpet vanished. A second silver bloom appeared. Then little Pearl the Chandler’s daughter shouldered her way into the tree. Her agonized wail cut off as a bone cymbal popped into nothingness. Another silver bud flowered open.
When all twenty instruments had vanished, when all twenty Swan Hunters had poured themselves into the tree, when the trunk of the tree knit its own bark back over the gaping wound of its molten heart, then twenty silver blooms opened widely on their branches. The blooms gave birth to small white bees that busied themselves in swirling pollinations. Petals fell, leaving silver fruit where the flowers had been. The branches bent to the ground under the colossal weight of that fruit and heaved Dora Rose from their tree. Into the moss she tumbled, like so much kindling, a heap of ragged feathers, shattered flesh, pale hair.
Nicolas stopped piping. He wiped his mouth as if it had gone numb. He looked over at Froggit, who’d been screaming wordlessly ever since waking to the sight of his siblings feeding themselves to the tree. Nicolas held Froggit in his dense black gaze, the enormity of his sadness and regret etching his face ancient.
For myself, I couldn’t care less about any of them.
I rushed to Dora Rose and shook her. Nothing happened. No response. Reaching out, I tackled Nicolas at the knees, yanking him to the ground and pinning him down.
“Is she dead, Nicolas?” I seized the lapels of his motley coat and shook. “Nicolas, did you kill her?”
“I?” he asked, staring at me in that dreadfully gentle way of his. “Perhaps. It sounds like something I might do. This world is so dangerous and cruel, and I am what it makes me. But I think you’ll find she breathes.”
He was correct, although how he could see so slight a motion as her breath by that weird fruity light, I couldn’t say. I, for one, couldn’t see a damn thing. But when I got near enough, I could smell the life of her. Not yet reduced to so much swan meat. Not to be salted and parboiled, seasoned with ginger, larded up and baked with butter yet. Not yet.
Oh, no, my girl. Though filthy and broken, you remain my Dora Rose.
“Come on, Ladybird. Come on. Wake up. Wake up now.” I jostled her. I chafed her ragged wrists. I even slapped her face. Lightly. Well, not so hard as I might’ve.
“Maybe she’s under a spell,” Possum’s scratchy voice suggested. “She told us it might happen. She’s a Princess, she says. She has to play her part.”
“Oh, yeah?” I might have known my present agony was due to Dora Rose’s inflexible adherence to tradition. Stupid swan girl. I could wring her white neck, except I loved her so. “What are we supposed to do about it, eh?”
I glanced over my shoulder in time to see the blind girl shrug. She did not move from the shadows of the Heart Glade into the juniper’s feral light. Froggit at her feet sobbed like he would never stop.
Greenpea rolled her wheelchair closer to us.
“She said that Nicolas would know what to do.”
I looked down again at Nicolas, who blinked at me. “Well?”
“Oh. That. Well.” His face went like a red rose on fire. “You know, Maurice.”
I’d had it. Time to show my teeth. “What, Nicolas?” I hissed. “Spit it out, wouldja? We’re working within a three-day time frame here, okay? If today turns into tomorrow, she’ll be gone. And what’ll all this be for? So say it. How do we wake her?”
“True love’s k-kiss,” Nicolas answered, blushing more deeply and unable to meet my gaze. “It’s pretty standard when one is dealing with, with…royalty.”
“Oh.” I sat back on my heels. A mean roil of jealousy and bile rose up inside me, but my next words, I’m proud to say, came out flat and even. Who said I couldn’t control my basest urges? “Okay then, Nico, hop to it. But no tongue, mind, or I’ll have it for my next meal.”
Nicolas scooted away from me, scraping up moss in his haste. “Maurice, you cannot mean it.” He ran nervous brown fingers through his hair.
“Nicolas,” said I, “I’ve never been more serious. No tongue—or you’ll be sleeping with one eye open and a sizeable club under your pillow the rest of your days.”
“No, no!” He held up his hands, blocking me and Dora Rose from his view. “That’s not what I meant at all. I only meant—I can’t.”
“I can’t k-ki…Do that. What you’re saying.” Nicolas shook his head back and forth like a child confronted with a syrupy spoonful of ipecac. His hair stood on end. His skin was sweaty and ashen. “Not on your life. Or mine. Or—or hers. Never.” He paused. “Sorry.”
I sprang to my feet. Wobbled. Sat down promptly. Limbs, don’t fail me now. Grabbing him by the hem of his muddy trousers, I yanked him back toward me and pounced again, my hands much nearer his throat this time. “Nicolas, by the Captured God, if you don’t kiss her right this instant, I’ll…”
“He can’t, Maurice,” Greenpea said unexpectedly. She fisted my collar and pulled me off him, wheeling backward in her chair until she could deposit me, still flailing, at Dora Rose’s side. That girl had an arm on her—even after fishing drowned rats out of the Drukkamag all day. Her parents were both smiths: she, their only child. “He can’t even say the word without choking. You want someone to kiss her, you do it yourself. Leave him alone.”
Nicolas turned his head and stared up at her, glowing at this unexpected reprieve. If he could have bled light onto his rescuer, I don’t think Greenpea’d ever get the stains out.
“We’ve not been introduced, Miss…? You are Master Froggit’s cousin, I believe.”
“Nicolas of the Hill.” His mouth quirked. “Nicolas of Nowhere.”
She frowned fiercely at him. She looked just like a schoolmarm I once knew, who laid a clever trail of crumbs right up to a rattrap that almost proved my undoing. She’s how I ended up in that pickle jar, come to think of it. Unnerving to see that same severe expression on so young a face.
“Nicolas,” she said, very sternly, “I am not happy about the rats.”
All that wonderful light snuffed right out of his face. Nicolas groaned. “Neither am I.” He slapped a hand hard against his chest, driving the pipe against his breastbone. “I am not happy.” Slap. “I will never be happy again.” Slap.
With that, he crumpled on the ground next to Froggit and Dora Rose and began to retch, tearing at his hair by the fistful. Me and Greenpea watched him a while. Froggit, meanwhile, crawled over to the juniper tree and hunkered down by the roots to cry more quietly. Nothing from Possum, lost behind us in the darkness.
Presently, I muttered to Greenpea, “We’ll get nothing more out of him till he’s cried out. It’s like reasoning with a waterspout.”
Greenpea studied the Pied Piper, her brow creased. “He’s cracked.”
“Got it in one.”
“But you used him anyway?”
I bared my teeth at her, the little know-it-all. Show her I could chew through anything—metal spokes, bandaged leg stumps, leather coat, bone.
“Yeah. I used you, too, don’t forget. And your friends. Oh, and about half a million rats. And all those children we murdered here tonight. I used the Mayor herself against herself and made a puppet of the puppet master. I’ll tell you something else, little Rebel Greenpea—I’d do it again and worse to wake this Swan Princess now.”
Resting her head on the back of her chair, Greenpea whispered, “It won’t.” I couldn’t tell if it was smugness or sorrow that smelled so tart and sweet on her, like wild strawberries. “Only one thing can.”
“But it’s not—” I drew a breath. “Seemly.”
Greenpea’s clear gray gaze ranged over the Heart Glade. She rubbed her eyes beneath her spectacles. “None of this is.”
In the end, I couldn’t bring myself to…
Not her lips at least. That, Dora Rose’d never forgive, no matter what excuse I stammered out. No, I chose to kiss the sole of her foot. It was blackened like her mask, and webbed and beginning to curl under. If she later decided to squash me with that selfsame foot, I’d feel it was only my due. I’d let her squash me—happily. If only she’d wake.
Beneath my lips, the cold webbing warmed. The hard toes flexed, pinkened, fleshed back to mortal feet. I bowed my head to the ground and only dared to breathe again when I felt her stir. I glanced up to see Dora Rose wholly a woman again, Greenpea putting the Pied Piper’s motley cloak over her nakedness and helping her sit up. Nicolas scrambled to hide behind the fortress of Greenpea’s wheelchair as soon as Dora Rose was upright.
Then Dora Rose looked at me.
And I guess I’ll remember that look, that burning, haughty, tender look, until my dying day.
She removed her sole from the palm of my hand and slowly stood up, never breaking eye contact.
“You’re wrapped in a dog blanket, Maurice.”
I leaned on my left elbow and grinned. “Hellfowl, Dora Rose, you should’ve seen my outfit when they fished me outta the Drukkamag. Wasn’t wrapped in much but water, if I recall.”
She turned a shoulder to me, and bent her glance on Greenpea. It brimmed with the sort of gratitude I’d worked my tail to the bone these last three days to earn, but for whatever reason, I didn’t seem to mind Dora Rose lavishing it elsewhere. Probably still aquiver from our previous eye contact.
“You did so well, my friend.” She stooped to kiss Greenpea’s forehead. “You three were braver than princes. Braver than queens. When I hung on the juniper tree, I told the ghost inside it of your hurts—and of your help. It promised you a sure reward. But first…first I must hatch my brothers and sisters from their deaths.”
Dora Rose moved through the tree’s shadow in a beam of her own light. She lifted an exhausted Froggit from the ground and returned him to his cousin. He huddled in Greenpea’s lap, face buried in her shoulder. Possum crept toward them with uncertain steps, feeling for the chair. Finding it, she sat down near one of its great wheels, one hand on Froggit’s knee, the other grasping fast to Greenpea’s fingers. She was not a big girl like Greenpea. Not much older than Froggit, really.
They all patted one another’s shoulders and stroked one another’s hair, ceasing to pay attention to the rest of us. There was Nicolas, huddled on the ground not far from them in his fetal curl. At least he’d stopped crying. In his exhaustion, he watched the children. Something like hunger marked his face, something like envy creased it, but also a sort of lonely satisfaction in their fellowship. He made no move to infringe, only hugged his own elbows and rested his head on the moss. His face was a tragedy even I could not bear to watch.
Where was my favorite Swan Princess? Ah.
Dora Rose had plucked the first fruit from the juniper tree. I went over to help. Heaving a particularly large one off its branch (it came to me with a sharp crack, but careful inspection revealed nothing broken), I asked, “Now what would a big silver watermelon like this taste like, I wonder?”
“It’s not a watermelon, Maurice.” Dora Rose set another shining thing carefully on the ground. The silver fruit made a noise like a hand sweeping harp strings. “It’s an egg.”
“I like eggs.”
“Maurice, if you dare!”
“Aw, come on, Ladybird. As if I would.” She stared pointedly at my chin until I wiped the saliva away. “Hey, it’s a glandular reflex. I’ve not been eating as much as I should. Surprised I’m not in shock.”
As Dora Rose made no attempt even at pretending to acknowledge this, I went on plucking the great glowing eggs from the juniper tree. Soon we had a nice, big clutch piled pyramid-style on the moss.
Let me tell you, the only thing more tedious than a swan ballet is a swan hatching. You see one fuzzy gray head peeping out from a hole in a shell, you’ve seen ’em all. It takes hours. And then there’s the grooming and the feeding and the nuzzling and the nesting, and oh, the interminable domesticity. Swan chicks aren’t even cute like rat kits, which are the littlest wee things you did ever see and make the funniest noises besides. Swan chicks are just sort of pipsqueaking fluff balls.
But Dora Rose’s silver-shelled clutch weren’t your average eggs.
For one thing, when they burst open—which they did within minutes of being harvested—they all went at once, as if lightning smote them. Up from the shards they flew, twenty swans in total, of varying aspects and sexes.
But all a bit, well, weird.
When they finally came back down to the ground, in a landing that wanted nothing in grace or symmetry, I noticed what was off about them. They had no smell. Or if they did, it wasn’t a smell that matched my notion of “swan” or even of “bird.” Not of any variety. Second, as the disjointed moonlight shone through the tree branches to bounce off their feathers, I saw that though the creatures were the right shape for swans, that flew like swans and waddled like swans, there was something innately frightening about them. Impenetrable. As if a god had breathed life into stone statues, and that was what they were: stone. Not creatures of flesh and feather at all.
It hit me then. These swans were not, in fact, of flesh and feather. Or even of stone. They were covered in hard white scales. Their coats weren’t down at all, but interlocking bone.
Even as I thought this, they fleshed to human shape. Ivory they were, these newborn Swan Folk. Skin, hair, and eyes of that weirdly near-white hue, their pallor broken only by bitterly black mouths: lips and teeth and tongues all black together. Each wore a short gown of bone scales that clattered when they walked. Their all-ivory gazes fastened, unblinkingly, on Dora Rose.
She reached out to one of them, crying, “Elinore!”
But the swan girl who stepped curiously forward at the sound of her voice made Dora Rose gasp. True, she was like Elinore—but she was also like Ocelot, the gravedigger’s daughter. She wore a silver circlet on her brow. Dora Rose averted her face and loosed a shuddering breath. But she did not weep. When she looked at the girl again, her face was calm, kindly, cold.
“Do you have a name?”
Elinore-Ocelot just stared. Tentatively, she moved closer to Dora Rose. Just as tentatively, knelt before her. Setting her head against Dora Rose’s thigh, she butted lightly. Dora Rose put a hand upon the girl’s ivory hair. Nineteen other swanlings rushed to their knees and pressed in, hoping for a touch of her hand.
I couldn’t help myself. I collapsed, laughing.
“Maurice!” Dora Rose snapped. “Stop cackling at once!”
“Oh!” I howled. “And you a new mama twenty times over! Betcha the juniper tree didn’t whisper that about your fate in all the time you hung. You’d’ve lit outta the Heart Glade so fast…Oh, my heart! Oh, Dora Rose! Queen Mother and all…”
Dora Rose’s eyes burned to do horrible things to me. How I wished she would! At the moment though, a bunch of mutely ardent cygnets besieged her on all sides, and she had no time for me. Captured God knew they’d start demanding food soon, like all babies. Wiping my eyes, I advised Dora Rose to take her bevy of bony swanlets back to Lake Serenus and teach them to bob for stonewort before they mistook strands of her hair for widgeon grass.
Shooting one final glare my way, Dora Rose said, “You. I’ll deal with you later.”
“I…” She hesitated. Scowled. Then reached her long silver fingers to grab my nose and tweak it. Hard. Hard enough to ring bells in my ears and make tears spurt from my eyes. The honk and tug at the end were especially malevolent. I grinned all over my face, and my heart percussed with bliss. Gesture like that was good as a pinkie swear in Rat Folk parlance—and didn’t she know it, my own dear Dora Rose!
Out of deference, I “made her a leg”—as a Swan Prince might say. But my version of that courtly obeisance was a crooked, shabby, insolent thing: the only kind of bow a rat could rightly make to a swan.
“So long then, Ladybird.”
Dora Rose hesitated, then said, “Not so long as last time—my Incomparable Maurice.”
Blushing ever so palely and frostily (I mean, it was practically an invitation, right?), she downed herself for flight. A beautiful buffeting ruckus arose from her wings as she rocketed right out of the Heart Glade. Twenty bone swans followed her, changing from human to bird more quickly than my eye could take in. White wind. Silver wings. Night sky. Moonlight fractured as they flew toward Lake Serenus.
Heaving a sigh, I looked around. Nicolas and the three children were all staring up at the tree.
“Now what? Did we forget something?”
The juniper tree’s uppermost branches trembled. Something glimmered high above, in the dense green of those needles. The trembling became a great shaking, and like meteors, three streaks of silver light fell to the moss and smoked thinly on the ground. I whistled.
“Three more melons! Can’t believe we missed those.”
“You didn’t,” Nicolas replied, in that whisper of his that could break hearts. “Those are for the children. Their reward.”
“I could use a nice, juicy reward about now.”
He smiled distractedly at me. “You must come to my house for supper, Maurice. I have a jar of plum preserves that you may eat. And a sack of sugared almonds, although they might now be stale.”
How freely does the drool run after a day like mine!
“Nicolas!” I moaned. “If you don’t have food on your person, you have to stop talking about it. It’s torture.”
“I was only trying to be hospitable, Maurice. Here you go, Master Froggit. This one’s singing your song.”
I couldn’t hear anything. Me, who has better hearing than anyone I know! But Nicolas went over, anyway, and handed the first of the silver eggs to Froggit. It was big enough that Froggit had to sit down to hold it in his lap. He shuddered and squirmed, but his swollen eyes, thank the Captured God, didn’t fill up and spill over again.
To Possum, Nicolas handed a second egg. This one was small enough to fit in her palms. She smoothed her hands over the silver shell. Lifting it to her face, she sniffed delicately.
Into Greenpea’s hands, Nicolas placed the last egg. It was curiously flat and long. She frowned down at it, perplexed and a bit fearful, but did not cast it from her.
Each of the shells shivered to splinters before Nicolas could step all the way back from Greenpea’s chair.
Possum was the first to speak. “I don’t understand,” she said, fingering her gift.
“Hey, neat!” I said, bending down for a look. “Goggles! Hey, but don’t see why you need ’em, Miss Possum. Not having, you know, eyes anymore. Can’t possibly wanna shield them from sunlight, or saltwater, or whatever. For another, even if you did, these things are opaque as a prude’s lingerie. A god couldn’t see through them.”
“That is because they are made of bone, Maurice,” Nicolas said. “Try them on, Miss Possum. You will see.”
Her lips flattened at what she took to be his inadvertent slip of the tongue. But she undid the bandage covering her eyes and guided the white goggles there. She raised her head to look at me. An unaccountable dread seized me at the expression on her face.
“Oh!” Possum gasped and snatched the goggles from her head, backhanding them off her lap like they were about to grow millipede legs and scuttle up her sleeve. “I saw—I saw—!”
Greenpea grabbed her hand. “They gave you back your eyes? But isn’t that…?”
“I saw him,” Possum sobbed, pointing in my direction. “I saw him tomorrow. And the next day. And the day he dies. His grave. It overlooks a big blue lake. I saw…”
Nicolas crouched to inspect the goggles, poking at them with a slender finger. “The juniper didn’t give you the gift of sight, Miss Possum—but of foresight. How frightening for you. But very beautiful, and very rare, too. You are to be congratulated. I think.”
A sharp, staccato sound tapped out an inquiry. Froggit was exploring his own gift: a small bone drum, with a shining white hide stretched over it. I wondered if the skin had come from one of his siblings.
Best not to muse about such things aloud, of course. Might upset the boy.
Froggit banged on the hide with a drumstick I was pretty sure was also made of bone.
What does the drum do? asked the banging. Is there a trick in it?
“Froggit!” Possum cried out, laughing a little. “You’re talking!”
A short, startled tap in response. I am?
“Huh,” I muttered. “Close enough for Folk music, anyway.”
Flushed with her own dawning excitement, Greenpea brought the bone fiddle in her lap to rest under her chin. She took a bone bow strung with long black hair and set it to the silver strings.
The fiddle wailed like a slaughtered rabbit.
She looked at her legs. They didn’t move. She tried the bow again.
Cats brawling. Tortured dogs. That time in the rat-baiting arena I almost died. I put my hands to my ears. “Nicolas! Please! Make her stop.”
“Hush, Maurice. We all sound like that when we first start to play.” Nicolas squatted before Greenpea’s chair to meet her eyes. She kept on sawing doggedly at the strings, her face set with harrowing determination, until at last the Pied Piper put his hand on hers. The diabolical noise stopped.
“Miss Greenpea. Believe me, it will take months, maybe years, of practice before you’ll be able to play that fiddle efficiently. Longer before you play it well. But perhaps we can start lessons tomorrow, when we’re all better rested and fed.”
“But,” she asked, clutching it close, “what does it do?”
“Do?” Nicolas inquired. “In this world, nothing. It’s just a fiddle.”
Greenpea’s stern lips trembled. She looked mad enough to break the fiddle over his head.
“Possum can see. Froggit can talk. I thought this would make me walk again. I thought…”
“No.” He touched the neck of the bone fiddle thoughtfully. “I could pipe Maurice’s broken bones together, but I cannot pipe the rats of Amandale back to life. What’s gone is gone. Your legs. Froggit’s tongue. Possum’s eyes. They are gone.”
Huge tears rolled down her face. She did not speak.
He continued, “Fiddle music, my dear Miss Greenpea, compels a body, willy-nilly, to movement. More so than the pipe, I think—and I do not say that lightly, Master Piper that I am. Your fiddle may not make you walk again. But once you learn to play, the two of you together will make the world dance.”
“Will we?” Greenpea spat bitterly. “Why should the world dance and not I?”
Bowing his head, Nicolas dropped to one knee, and set a hand on each of her armrests. When he spoke again, his voice was low. I had to strain all my best eavesdropping capabilities to listen in.
“Listen. In the Realms Under the Hill, my silver pipe is the merest pennywhistle. It has no power of compulsion or genius. I am nothing but a tin sparrow when I play for the Faerie Queen; it amuses Her to hear me chirp and peep. Yet you saw what I did with my music today, up here in the Realms Above. Now…”
His breath blew out in wonder. “Now,” the Pied Piper told her, “if ever you found yourself in Her court, with all the Lords and Ladies of Faerie arrayed against you, fierce in their wisdom, hideous in their beauty, and pitiless, pitiless as starlight—and you played them a tune on this bone fiddle of yours, why…”
Nicolas smiled. It was as feral a grin as the one he’d worn on the steps of Brotquen Cathedral, right before he enchanted the entire town of Amandale. “Why, Miss Greenpea, I reckon you could dance the Immortal Queen Herself to death, and She powerless to stop you.”
“Oh,” Greenpea sighed. She caressed the white fiddle, the silver strings. “Oh.”
“But.” Nicolas sprang up and dusted off his patched knees. “You have to learn how to play it first. I doubt a few paltry scrapes would do more than irritate Her. And then She’d break you, make no doubt. Ulia Gol at her worst is a saint standing next to Her Most Gracious Majesty.”
Taking up his cloak from the spot where Dora Rose had dropped it, Nicolas swirled it over his shoulders. He stared straight ahead, his face bleak and his eyes blank, as though we were no longer standing there.
“I am very tired now,” he said, “and very sad. I want to go home and sleep until I forget if I have lived these last three days or merely dreamed them. I have had stranger and more fell dreams than this. Or perhaps”—he shuddered—“perhaps I was awake then, and this—this is the dream I dreamed to escape my memories. In which case, there is no succor for me, not awake or asleep, and I can only hope for that ultimate oblivion, and to hasten it with whatever implements I have on hand. If you have no further need of me, I will bid you adieu.”
Alarmed at this turn, I scrambled to tug his coattails. “Hey, Nico! Hey, Nicolas, wait a minute, twinkle toes. Nicolas, you bastard, you promised me almonds!”
“Did I?” He looked up brightly, and blasted me with his smile, and it was like a storm wrack had blown from his face. “I did, Maurice! How could I have forgotten? Come along, then, with my sincerest apologies. Allow me to feed you, Maurice. How I love to feed my friends when they are hungry!”
Greenpea wheeled her chair about to block his way. “Teach me,” she demanded.
He blinked at her as if he had never seen her face before. “Your pardon?”
She held out her bone fiddle. “If what you say is true, this gift is not just about music; it’s about magic, too. And unless I’m wrong, Amandale won’t have much to do with either in years to come.”
I snorted in agreement.
“Teach me.” Greenpea pointed with bow and fiddle to her two friends. “Them too. Teach all of us. We need you.”
Please, Froggit tapped out on his bone drum. We can’t go home.
“Of course you can!” Nicolas assured him, stricken. “They’ll welcome you, Master Froggit. They probably think you are dead. How beautiful they shall find it that you are not! Think—the number of Cobblersawls has been halved at least; you shall be twice as precious…”
Possum shook her head. “They’ll see only the ones they lost.”
Once more she slipped the goggles on. Whatever she foresaw as she peered through the bone lenses at Nicolas, she did not flinch. But I watched him closely, the impossible radiance that rose up in him, brighter than his silver pipe, brighter than his broken edges, and he listened to Possum’s prophecy in rapturous terror, and with hope. I’d never seen the Pied Piper look anything like hopeful before, in all the years I’d known him.
“We are coming with you,” Possum prophesied. No one gainsaid her. No one even tried. “We are going to your cottage. You will teach us how to play music. We will learn many songs from you, and…and make up even more! When the first snow falls, we four shall venture into the Hill. And under it. Deep and wide, word will spread of a band of strange musicians: Nicolas and the Oracles. Lords and Ladies and Dragons and Sirens, they will all invite us to their courts and caves and coves to play for them. Froggit on the drums. Greenpea on her fiddle. You on your pipe. And I?”
Greenpea began to laugh. The sound was rusty, but true. “You’ll sing, of course, Possum! You have the truest voice. Ulia Gol was so mad when you wouldn’t sing up the bones for her!”
“Yes,” Possum whispered, “I will sing true songs in the Realm of Lies, and all who hear me will listen.”
All right. Enough of this yammering. My guts were cramping.
“Great!” I exclaimed. “You guys’ll be great. Musicians get all the girls anyway. Or, you know”—I nodded at Greenpea and Possum—“the dreamy-eyed, long-haired laddies. Or whatever. The other way around. However you want it. Always wanted to learn guitar myself. I’d look pretty striking with a guitar, don’t you think? I could go to the lake and play for Dora Rose. She’d like that about as much as a slap on the…Anyway, it’s a thought.”
“Maurice.” Nicolas clapped his hand to my shoulder. “You are hungry. You always babble when you are hungry. Come. Eat my food and drink my Faerie ale, and I shall spread blankets enough on the floor for all of us.” He beamed around at the three children, at me, and I swear his face was like a bonfire.
“My friends,” he said. “My friends. How merry we shall be.”
* * *
Later that night, when they were all cuddled up and sleeping the sleep of the semi-innocent, or at least the iniquitously fatigued, I crept out of that cottage in the lee of the Hill and snuck back to the Heart Glade.
Call it a hunch. Call it ants in my antsy pants. I don’t know. Something was going on, and I had to see it. So what? So I get curious sometimes.
Wouldn’t you know it? I made it through the Maze Wood only to find I was right yet again! They weren’t kidding when they called me Maurice the Incomparable. (And by “they,” I mean “me,” of course.) Sometimes I know things. My whiskers twitch, or maybe my palms itch, and I just know.
What hung from the juniper tree in that gray light before full dawn wasn’t nearly as pretty as a Swan Princess or as holy and mysterious as a clutch of silver watermelon eggs.
Nope. This time the ornaments swinging from the branches were much plainer and more brutal. The juniper tree itself, decked out in its new accessories, looked darker and squatter than I’d ever beheld it, and by the gratified jangling in its blackly green needles, seemed very pleased with itself.
Ever see an ogre after a mob of bereaved parents gets through with her?
Didn’t think so. But I have.
Certain human responses can trump even an ogre’s fell enchantments. Watching twenty kids disappear right out from under your helpless gaze all because your mayor was a cheapskate might induce a few of them. Hanging was the least of what they did to her. The only way I knew her was by the tattered crimson of her gown.
Mortals. Mortals and their infernal ingenuity. I shook my head in admiration.
And was that…?
Yes, it was! Indeed, it was! My old friend, Henchmen Hans himself. Loyal to the end, swinging from a rope of his own near the mayoral gallows branch. And wearing his second best suit, too, bless him. Though torn and more than a little stained, his second best was a far sight better than what I presently wore. Needed something a bit more flamboyant than a dog blanket, didn’t I, if I was going to visit Lake Serenus in the morning? Bring a swan girl a fresh bag of caramels. Help her babysit. You know. Like you do.
Waste not, want not—isn’t that what the wharf boys say? A Rat Folk philosophy if I ever heard one. So, yeah, I’d be stripping my good old pal Hans right down to his bare essentials, or I’m not my mother’s son. And then I’d strip him of more than that.
See, I’d had to share the Pied Piper’s fine repast with three starving mortal children earlier that night. It’s not that they didn’t deserve their victuals as much as, say, I (although, really, who did?), and it’s not like Nicolas didn’t press me to eat seconds and thirds. But I still hadn’t gotten nearly as much as my ravenous little rat’s heart desired.
The juniper tree whispered.
It might have said anything.
But I’m pretty sure I heard, “Help yourself, Maurice.”
C. S. E. Cooney (csecooney.com / @csecooney) is the author of Bone Swans: Stories (Mythic Delirium 2015). Her novella The Two Paupers, the second installment of her Dark Breakers series, will shortly be appearing in Rich Horton’s Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. She is an audiobook narrator for Tantor Media, the singer/songwriter Brimstone Rhine, and the Rhysling Award-winning author of the poem “The Sea King’s Second Bride.” Her short fiction can be found in Black Gate, Strange Horizons, Apex, GigaNotoSaurus, Clockwork Phoenix 3 and Clockwork Phoenix 5, The Mammoth Book of Steampunk, and elsewhere.
stories by C. S. E. Cooney
introduction by Gene Wolfe
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