Another bleak children’s story. Not for children.
Ilyana and the Piper
Once upon a time, Ilyana woke up to the sound of music.
There was not normally music in the mornings, at least not the steel-bright, axe-sharp mornings like this one (she was somewhat used to music at that blurry point in the night where it stumbled across to morning and the grown-ups would begin singing, their voices strangled by liquor).
This music was different to the brash accordions and pounding drums favoured by her village – this music was high and light, dancing through the air as if the wind itself was blowing through a pipe. It was quite captivating and Ilyana found her food tapping along to its wild, cascading rhythm.
Being a naturally curious child, she decided to find out where the music was coming from.
She swung her feet out of bed and into her sturdy and oft-patched trousers, trimmed in the fur of wolves that troubled the village from time to time. She threw on her shirt, embroidered with the patterns of each winter she had survived (soon she would have to begin again on a bigger shirt if she kept living through the cold months like this) and slipped on her comfortably worn leather shoes, fitted to her feet through days of hard work and nights spent running from the terrors of the dark.
(Those pointed leather shoes were quite unsuited to dancing, by the way, but she found the music running down her bones and putting a spring into her step nonetheless.)
Finally, she put on her big, warm, green coat. Lined with fur and patterned with thorns, it was warm as the hearth fire and fine as spring-time and it was the envy of all her friends.
She scurried outside, feet tapping out a perfect rhythm across the rough and warped floor that had tripped many a drunken visitor, pushing hard against the heavy, iron-shod oaken door and the snow behind it.
In the village square, she found the source of the music, as a tall man dressed head to foot in bright crimson stood in the centre by the ashes of the village’s hearth fire. Around him, the people of the village were gathered – the adults squinting in the face of the bright winter morning, while the children bopped and leaped and cavorted to the music that swirled round them like sweet pipe-smoke. Being a naturally curious child, Ilyana found this interesting.
The man’s head was bobbing and his foot was tapping and he played out his tune on an intricately carved pipe without ever seeming to draw breath. The pipe was a mess of eye-catching swirls, scored into pale wood (or perhaps old bone) and the skin on his face had a similar look to it (every other inch of him was covered in that bright red cloth). Not pale because he didn’t get enough sun, but bleached by too much of it.
As the song came to its end, the village chief stepped forward, his gleaming antlers reaching up to spear the morning light.
“That was very nice, sure,” he said gruffly, “but I don’t see how paying you to play will keep the dire rats away?”
“Oh! You’d be surprised how easily rats are entranced by the sonorous sound of an enspirited song.” The man’s voice lilted with the up-down rhythms of his pipe, as if the cleverly carved pipe spread all the way down his throat.
“And, of course” the man continued, “I could keep charming the children with a quick chorus or two. Free of charge.”
As the man and the chief began haggling over price, Ilyana walked slowly up to them, pushing the younger children aside and wriggling past the grown-ups until she was right next to the piper. As Ilyana was a curious child, she took out her small iron boot-knife and stabbed him in the hand.
The blade went straight through his glove and sizzled as the cold iron pierced his ivory flesh. He shrieked and his voice was so high that the grown-ups collapsed to the ground, clutching their bleeding ears. The man stood on his too-long, stick-thin legs above the people of the village, as his screams wracked their bodies with pain.
He leapt away from the town square, jumping far further than a real person should be able to jump, and landed on all four spindly limbs on the side of the village walls. Clinging there like a spider, he scrabbled up to the top and called down to the townfolk:
“Cursed child! It was reckless of you to interrupt this compact. If you’d done a deal I would only have dealt disaster to a dozen or so of your toddlers and other addled broodlings.” His cackle was the sound of bone-chimes clacking in the wind. “Instead I shall slip the noose of my songs around all of your necks and the smoking remains of your homestead shall serve as a sign to all that they should not cross me.”
The village spent the rest of the day frantically preparing, whilst also spitting caustic curses at Ilyana’s foolishness, for the piper would surely return at dusk. While they reinforced the walls and sharpened their axes, Ilyana allowed herself the luxury of lighting her family’s single candle and made some last preparations of her own – just simple chores. She watered and fed the herbs and flowers of the village’s gardens with snow-water she’d gathered in a blizzard at midnight. She polished the floors of her house with bees’ wax taken with the blessing of the hive’s queen and burned fragrant herbs that had grown fat on the earth of her village. And she put a few final stitches into her fine green coat with thread that shined silver.
When the winter sun felt the dark coming and began its slow retreat they heard the capering tune of the pipe – rising wild and strong like a storm around them – and the first of the rats appeared outside the walls. Great, hulking rodents, they were large even for dire rats and they set about gnawing at the villages walls and fortifications, snuffling for weak points.
The village-folk fought them off with iron and fire, but there were so many and they swarmed like a tide of filth up the walls, with the piper riding high upon their back.
As he crested the wall, the tone of his music changed, growing shrill and discordant, spattering out its notes in sharp shards of sound that pierced the peoples’ ears. Many fell to the floor in agony, their bodies shattered by the twisted song. As they fell, the music changed again, to a full-pelt, intoxicating reel of dance that was like the songs he’d played earlier, only faster and spikier. As he began to play it, the children of the village emerged from their homes and set upon their injured parents with tooth, nail and kitchen knife.
But, just as the first child closed its teeth around his father’s throat and began to spill his blood, they heard another song echo from the other side of the village.
Standing in her house’s doorway stood Ilyana, mouth open, song tumbling out in a hearty gust of notes. Her voice had never been pretty to hear, but she sang now with a strength and steel that commanded attention. She sang the song of her people – not the raucous drinking songs or sad dirges – a song of war and blood and snow.
The children faltered, just for a moment, and as they did every plant in the village rose up. Ilyana’s song swelled and the blossoms that had hidden through the winter burst, filling the air with fluttering petals and sweet scents, while bright green tendrils rose up from the earth in which they’d slumbered and ensnared the children and the rats alike.
The piper was furious. Shrugging off the thorns that tried to catch him, he bounded after Ilyana, playing a horrid jig upon his pipe that sounded pained and misshapen, like a man bent upon the rack. The village chief rose up to try and stop him, but upon hearing that jig he collapsed as every bone in his body shattered at once.
Ilyana, of course, heard neither the jig nor the chief’s screams, as her ears were stuffed full of candle wax.
The piper sped across the village, his limbs extending in length so that he clambered easily past every obstacle. Swift as forest-fire he was bearing down upon Ilyana, who ran quickly back inside her house.
The piper followed her inside and choked immediately upon the multitude of sweet scents that filled the hallway. He bit back the bloody bile in his flute-like throat and scuttled on, following the sound of fleeing footsteps.
In his hurry, he slipped upon the slick polish of the uneven wooden floor, his distended limbs skidding across so he landed spread-eagled across it. He retracted his arms and legs to gain better purchase, but as he did so he felt something close tight around him.
As Ilyana bundled the piper up in her coat, the runes of binding she’d embroidered across it blazed with fierce silver flames. The piper struggled and tore, and as he began to rip pieces of the coat away, Ilyana gave him a swift kicking with her old, comfy shoes. The tough leather spread cracks across the man’s porcelain skin and he screamed in rage.
Then Ilyana plunged her small iron boot-knife through his throat and his screamings ceased.
The piper’s cracked body shattered into so many pieces of old bone. The only piece that remained whole was his pipe.
Ilyana had always been a curious girl.
She picked up the pipe and raised it to her lips.
She was never seen again.
But, sometimes, the village’s new chief told stories of a wild little magic girl, bound in her own ragged green coat, who roamed the forests with a bone flute raised to her bloodied lips and a parade of monsters followed her playing.