AUTUMN 1278, OLDENDORF
I CAN STILL REMEMBER WHEN MY FATHER WAS A GREAT MAN. I was nine, and Papa was strong, but me—well, I had fine bones. The girls in the next cottage called me scrawny, though how could you expect girls like them to recognize fine bones?
The lord of our manor didn’t think much of Papa. But then, he didn’t think much of anybody. I would say to blazes with him, and Mama would say don’t talk like that.
Papa used to jump on me and growl, and I became the knight whose job it was to slay the dragon. I loved it, even though it was completely unfair—the dragon had a huge advantage. It should have been easy, stabbing a pretend dragon in the chest with an imaginary sword, but the problem was, Papa could hold me up in the air away from him with just one hand. We’d roll around till finally he’d let me stab him; then at last he’d die, twitching and roaring. It was my favorite game.
That was the year Papa made his flute. He’d hold it up to his nose, peer along that little curved surface, give a touch of the knife here, a touch there, and blow away the wooden curls. He played all kinds of tunes, and sometimes Mama would sing along.
“Oh, where is my boy now, who went far away?”
Asked the weeping old woman of Aerzen town.
“For many a fair promise was made on the day
When the children left, singing, with hardly a frown,”
Said the weeping old woman of Aerzen town.
My father tried to teach me to play that song every time we took a break from plowing, but I just didn’t have his flair.
The neighbor girls picked on me for making the flute squeak. Not that they even knew which end went up. The fact is, they picked on me about everything. If we were threshing barley, they’d say, “So were you swinging that flail, Joopi, or was it swinging you?”
That’s another thing: they called me Joopi. I hated that more than anything. My name was Johannes, thank you very much. Joopi made me sound like Mama still wiped my nose.
One day Papa lunged at me, growling as he always did, and I charged back. Then, just as he was reaching out to grab me, he coughed, hard and long. When I thrust at him with my invisible sword, he fell over on his side and kept coughing. At first I figured the coughing was a new way of dying and letting me win. Then I asked if he was all right. He pulled himself to his feet, patted my head, said something funny about dragon sickness, and walked away, looking a little shaky. A few days later, one of his coughs brought up blood. We never played dragon again.
After that, Papa got real sick, coughing up blood almost every day. Soon I was doing almost all the farming, though I could barely manage that threshing flail. By the time I was twelve, we were way behind in paying our share of grain.
One day at suppertime a neighbor dropped by. He stood in the doorway and spoke to my father. “Brought some grain. We know you’re having trouble making quota.”
Papa laughed as if he’d just heard the funniest thing in the world, then straightened up and said, “Well, thanks a whole lot, but we’re doing fine. I’ll be better soon.”
The neighbor looked at Mama, who was studying the ground. Eventually he left.
It happened again, and then again. When Papa said no for the third time, I saw Mama’s mouth set in a hard line. Papa said we’d do fine. But I felt the broken blisters on my hands; I saw how Mama’s back was bent at the end of the day. Papa might be fine, but we weren’t. I was only twelve, but I could see it plain as day: there was something more important to my father than my mother was.
It was dark in the cottage the night the lord of the manor came; the fire was small. We were always short on wood. My mother laid a fragrant, cloth-wrapped bundle on the little table, then sat across from Papa. He reached around with his cold hand and squeezed my aching shoulder.
Taking the hint, I prayed aloud, “Our Father, who art in heaven . . .” And I thought, Lord, when You give our daily bread, make Papa take it. Then, as always, the part about forgiveness reminded me of the landlord. Amen.
Papa opened the cloth and lifted out the little brown loaf. Just by the way he broke it carefully into three pieces, I could tell: tonight Papa would not be crabby, as he sometimes was since he’d grown too sick to work.
“Well, now,” said my mother, rubbing my back. “Eat up! You’re a growing boy, Hannes.”
I ate slowly, to make it last. Mama’s bread was great, soft but solid, pushing back just enough against the teeth and tongue. All through that meal, Papa only coughed once, and there was no blood. And when we had eaten every crumb, my father took out his flute.
My mother and I scooted our stools together for warmth and settled down to listen. Papa hardly ever felt well enough to play. He lifted the flute with a flourish, pressed his lips together, and blew. The music rose, warm as a summer breeze, swelling and turning, rising and falling. At last the tune dropped down softly, pirouetted through one gentle trill, and faded into the dying firelight.
“I’ve got an idea,” Papa began. His eyes were shining.
Mama looked at her hands in her lap.
He held up the flute. “I could become a musician up at the manor house. One little entertainment, and I could make more than a whole week in the fields. The lord might pay; the guests might tip. When I get stronger, I could dance. I’m not a bad juggler.”
Still looking down, Mama asked, “Has the landlord ever shown interest in anything but getting more grain out of us?”
A quiet thudding came from outside—horse hooves on soft ground.
“And then,” Papa went on, “what if a visiting troupe comes through Oldendorf, thinks I’m good, takes us with ’em to Bielefeld or Braunschweig or—”
Someone banged on the door with a stick. Mama jumped like she’d been hearing that stick in her nightmares. My father got up, leaning hard on the table, and opened the door. I could see the steward’s horse. A voice said, “The master would like a word.”
Papa turned to us with a grand smile. “It’ll be fine,” he whispered, and he was still grinning as he stepped out.
“Not enough grain,” I said to Mama.
She folded up the bread cloth without looking at me and muttered, “Not for that landlord.”
I unbolted the shutters as quietly as I could. I had never seen the lord of our manor, who often traveled between his various houses, including the one in Oldendorf. But some of my friends had seen him. He was a huge man, they said, and bald, with a wine-colored, crescent-shaped birthmark way up on his forehead.
I opened our little window. In the dark, I made out my father walking slowly by the steward’s horse. A little ways away stood a second horse, larger, whose rider I couldn’t see.
“Good evening, sir,” said Papa’s voice. Then he started to cough.
My mother’s grip on my shoulder tightened.
“Sir,” Papa wheezed, after a pause where all I could hear was a rumble, “this year was hard on everyone. I’ve been a little under the weather; my son’s been helping out.”
I saw my father listening.
“But, sir!” he stammered. “I’ve been right regular for—how many years now? We’ll make it up next harvest, sir. I won’t be sick forever; my boy’s getting stronger.”
The response was very short this time.
“Sir, I’ve thought of a way I could make it up to you. You have lots of visitors up at the big house. I could come play for your guests, often as you want. Folks say I’m not bad on the flute, sir. Here, let me—”
A laugh rang out like a thunderclap. There was a commotion, the horses turned, and the men were gone.
My mother and I ran out. Papa was lying full-length in the mud. He was coughing and coughing, with blood dribbled on his chin. I turned toward the sound of the horses riding away. I wanted to scream at the man who had hurt my father—the most awful, powerful curse in the world. I started to run after him, but Mama grabbed me.
“Don’t be stupid!” she snapped. “Help me with your father.”
We knelt beside Papa. He gulped air as Mama and I pulled him out of the mud. We could barely hear him as he gasped, “He’s got someone else to work our land.”
I pushed our wheelbarrow through the fog. My father had tried to take a turn the first day, but he collapsed onto the handles, coughing and shivering. And a week on the road had not helped, especially the night it rained. We were all but carrying him now.
“How much bread do we have?” he murmured.
My mother answered, “Two or three more meals.”
“Not enough to get to Braunschweig,” Papa said, looking at the ground. He shook his head, looking hopeless in the way that made my chest freeze up. “And there might be no more work in Braunschweig than there was in Oldendorf.”
I felt the bite of the cold and hunched up my back against it. When I hit a pothole, I shoved the wheelbarrow out before my father could see and try to help. I pitied my father, but with every jolt in the road, another feeling was also growing.
Then I heard the sound of hooves battering through the fog ahead.
“They have horses; they’ll have money,” Mama said. The trotting got closer and louder, and she grabbed me with urgent eyes. “Hannes, get ready to wave and shout at them. Just say, ‘Mercy, kind sirs.’”
“I’ll . . . I’ll play for them,” said Papa. He pulled out his little flute.
My mother bit her lip when Papa raised the flute with a wave, as though hundreds were watching. He spread his stooped shoulders, took a step. He stumbled. When I jerked up my arm to catch him, the wheelbarrow tipped, heaving into the mud our cups, cook pot, blanket—everything we owned in the world. The flute slid from Papa’s hand as he bent double with a racking cough.
My mother held a rag to his mouth and hissed to me, “You play! Quick!”
All I knew was “The Woman of Aerzen.” As the pounding hoofbeats bore down on us, I raised the flute from the mud, wiped it frantically on my trousers, and tried to stop shaking.
But all I could see was that tipped wheelbarrow, and I started to cry like I had never cried in my life. As I cried, of course, every gasp made a little squeak on the flute. I tightened my stomach, breathed in deep, and sent some wavering music out into the mist.
Seven dark horses burst out of the fog, nearly on top of us, their riders surrounded by swirling cloth like wings. With all the shouting, swerving, rearing, neighing, and mud spattering, I jumped and bit my tongue but didn’t miss a note of “The Woman of Aerzen.”
One of the riders held up a hand, and the next thing I knew, a half circle of mounted men stood around my family. I looked down at the road and kept playing.
I heard the stretch of a saddle, the clink of a stirrup, and the squelch of a boot in the mud. The only other sounds were horse breath and that wistful tune coming out so feeble, note by note, from my father’s flute, bearing the tale of failure: He vowed they would win, but they vanished instead. . . .
Clean hands reached down in the mud to pick up the pot. I stopped playing. White hair surrounded the rescuer’s face. It wasn’t fitting for a serf-boy to look a wellborn man in the face, so I looked down at his clothes, made of fabrics I didn’t even know the names of. On a strap at his shoulder, nestled against his robes, hung a weapon. No, not a weapon—a long flute trimmed with gold, flaring like a trumpet.
The white-haired man righted our wheelbarrow, wiped the pot on the grass, and laid it in the cart. The other six riders swung from their saddles and began to gather our possessions. My parents rushed over to stop them, both from embarrassment and in the hope that the strangers’ sympathy might take the form of coins instead.
Their leader walked over to my father, who had stopped coughing but was bent over, with blood flecked on his face and hands. The man said, “You’re sick.”
We were afraid to speak.
“Will you make a bargain with me?” he asked.
One of the riders, also wearing a flute, stepped up to the first man. “My lord,” he said in a low tone, “we need to move on. Anselm has been gone for a week. Who knows what he—”
“I’ll make this brief,” said the white-bearded man.
He turned back to my father, held out his golden flute, and said, “If we take you to a place of healing, will you give me your son as my apprentice?”
Apprentice. The word drifted to me from another world, and for a moment I did not understand what he had said. Then hot and cold tingled through me and I saw myself, with my training finished, riding alongside this man with a flying robe and a golden flute of my own. I looked sideways at my parents, and my stomach sank. In the morning I would wake up, and my mother and father would not be there. And yet—the opportunity to be one of these men! I held my breath. Would Papa see this as charity and refuse it?
“He would have wages, payable to you,” said the man, “as well as room and board. I am the Pipelord, head of the Pipers Guild; he would be well trained. And I swear to you on my pipe”—he gripped the golden flute—“I will treat him as I would my own son.”
Papa straightened up as far as he could. “Sir, we’re honored to have our son apprenticed. But as for the wages . . .” Suddenly he began coughing again.
My mother spoke up. “Thank you, my lord.” And she bowed very low.
“Thank you,” said the man. And so it was decided. “What is the boy’s name?”
“Johannes,” said my father, and coughed again.
I couldn’t speak. My mother and father hugged me. I offered my father his little wooden flute, but he pressed it back into my hand.
“Son, I want you to have something to remember me by.”
As my new master gave instructions to two of his companions, my mother cried on me a little, and still I said nothing. Then my parents got on horses with the two men, our things in a sack behind my mother, and I got on the horse of the white-bearded man, clutching my father’s flute. My parents and I looked back at each other, then rode in opposite directions, leaving the little wheelbarrow by the side of the road.
“. . . should have tested him,” one of the riders muttered.
“Shhh! The boy’ll hear you,” another voice answered. “And we didn’t have time.”
“But the Pipelord’s own apprentice?” said the first. “He could at least show some caution, after what happened to his last one.”
“I can hear you,” said the Pipelord above me, without turning around.
The murmurers fell silent.
“Did you notice that the boy kept piping, no matter what! We could all learn from that.”
The horses clattered on.
“Don’t mind Master Friedrich,” the Pipelord murmured, his face upside down above mine. “He’ll be your best friend by the end of the month.”
The road below was a blur; everything else was rushing fog. I was dizzy from the height and a speed such as I had never known.
“Are you all right?” the Pipelord asked.
“Yes, my lord,” I lied.
“You’re my apprentice,” he said. “Call me Master Josef.”
“Yes, sir,” I answered, and added, “Master Josef.”
The ride was long and silent, except for the constant thudding of hooves. Finally my stomach quieted down, and I shut my eyes. The horses’ feet went on beating in the darkness as I sank against the Pipelord’s warm chest.
What seemed like a moment later, he was shaking me awake. I was very sore now.
“We’ve reached Hamelin,” he said. “It looks like we’ll have to open the gate ourselves.”
I blinked. Behind us, I could hear and smell a river, the Weser. In front of us was a huge wall. Beyond it to the right I could see a golden spire shining—the ancient abbey of St. Boniface that my father had told me was the oldest thing in Hamelin. And directly in our path stood a gate, shut even though there was still daylight. I tried to imagine the five horses pulling it open.
I felt the Pipelord take a deep breath. He lifted his golden pipe to his mouth. As his fingers moved up and down the holes, a few hard, eerie tones came out . . . followed by one long note.
A rumble sounded through the gate.
The Pipelord leaned back, nudging the horse with his knees so that it moved back too. He repeated the notes he played at first, except lower, and then the long one again. He held the note, his face and hands perfectly relaxed.
Something large in the gate shoved and clicked. The gate creaked and slowly opened, as if the Pipelord had it on a string.
His face was very serious now. He slapped the horse with the reins, and we jolted forward into the city with the others close behind.
I heard a roar from up ahead and felt the Pipelord’s muscles grow tense. The horses clattered along the cobblestones, and the city houses flew by. There were no people anywhere. When we turned onto another street and slowed down, I realized what the noise was: hundreds, thousands of human voices. Angry voices.
As we turned the corner, I saw a large open space boiling with people. They were all shouting and jostling one another to get a better view of something I couldn’t see. The Pipelord’s horse stepped slowly toward the crowd, and the other riders fell into place behind us. The people at the edges saw us first, and they froze.
Their faces were covered with gouges and three-rowed scratches, barely scabbed over. Silence ate through the crowd as more and more scarred faces turned to us. Amid the crowd a worried-looking girl about my age met my eyes. Surrounded by a waterfall of brown hair, her face was unscarred except for one small cut over her left eyebrow. Then someone moved between us, and I lost her.
At last the men in the center turned around, and I saw what all the shouting was about. A boy, twelve or thirteen, was locked, neck and wrists, in the stocks. His clothes were torn, and his dirty black hair was sticking up, with tufts of it missing. Blood and bruises covered him from his shaking knees to his cringing shoulders. But his eyes were hungry and burning.
As soon as the men stepped back, the boy’s eyes pounced on us, and through cracked lips he shouted, “Master! At last! I knew you wouldn’t want to see one of your own in the stocks.”
“Be silent, Anselm of Aerzen!” the Pipelord shouted back, with echoes crackling from the walls around. “I don’t want to see you in the stocks. I want to see you in court.”
From the corner of my eye, I saw the people in the crowd look at each other, then look at the long pipes Master Josef and his men carried. The Pipelord turned away from Anselm toward the building nearby, which seemed to be Town Hall. In the dusk, its three stories loomed up, heavy and imposing, over the square full of people.
The Pipelord urged his horse forward. The crowd made way with doubtful faces, and we rode toward the bottom of the steps.
“O great Pipelord!” Anselm screamed, and we stopped. Burning anger forced the words through that thickened tongue and broken face. “You think you can just replace me? As if any of your lackeys could do what I’ve done. But you see, I know what you are. I know you’ve come to take Hamelin from me and run it for yourself.”
The Pipelord’s jaw tightened, but he never turned around. He dismounted and swung me down. As the pipers tied their mounts to a post, he said to me, “Stay here and watch the horses.”
With his companions, the Pipelord strode up the steps of Town Hall two at a time and, flinging the doors wide, plunged into the darkness within. As the last of them disappeared inside, a murmur went through the square, and a few people ran up the steps. Soon the crowd followed, and Anselm got no more than a passing cuff on the ear from an old woman as they all climbed, jabbering, under the heavy archway. And the doors boomed shut.
I shuddered. I could feel Anselm looking at me, though with the setting red sun behind him, I couldn’t see his eyes. At last he spoke.
“He blamed all this on me, didn’t he?”
I put my hand on the neck of the Pipelord’s horse.
“You trust him?” he asked.
I didn’t answer.
“Why do you think he’s here today?”
When I still said nothing, Anselm went on, his eyes pawing at me.
“It’s all to keep his power. His reputation. Everything he says is just to sell the goods.” He drew a breath, then groaned. “I’m innocent. The villain in this town is the man who put me here. You look . . . honest. Listen to me. The key to the stocks is in the vice-mayor’s office. In that building, just down the hall—”
He stopped and turned his head as well as he could in the brace. Boot heels were clicking on the cobblestones. Anselm shrank. A four-sided stone pillar stood nearby, and I jumped behind it.
The clicking heels grew still. I peeked out from my hiding place. An enormous man stood ten feet from where Anselm’s slight frame was bunched up in the stocks. He towered broad and black against the red sunset.
“Comfortable, Anselm?” he asked in a rumbling voice. He strolled closer. “Your hands look so empty without a pipe.” Two feet away he stopped, raised his fist, and slammed it down on Anselm’s head.
The prisoner choked for a long time.
“Your friend died before he gave anything away,” the man growled.
Anselm’s wide eyes rolled up at the man.
“But I hope to get more out of you. If only satisfaction.” He crouched to look Anselm in the eye.
I did not move and barely breathed.
“Nobody gets back at me forever, boy. Nobody.” He brought his massive hands toward Anselm’s head.
A girl’s voice rang out over the red-lit square. “Excuse me, sir!”
The man jumped and spun toward the voice. It was the girl with the cut by her eyebrow. She was standing on the steps, looking pale and thin as her dark hair and clothing stirred in the breeze.
“Sir, they’re having a meeting about Anselm. They need you to come.”
“I’ll be right there,” answered the man.
“But they need you now, sir,” the girl insisted.
The man hesitated. Then he rose and marched up the stairs, his heels clicking all the way. One of the horses shied from the man as he passed, and though the pillar hid me, I shrank too. The girl watched him go until the sound of his boots faded behind the door. Then she turned, ran down the steps to Anselm, and pulled out a key.
Anselm wheezed out a little rattling laugh. “I knew it. I knew you loved me.”
“I don’t,” she snapped. “I never did. And I never want to see you again.”
I heard the key in the lock.
“And don’t try anything now or I’ll scream, and then you’ll really be in trouble.”
“If you don’t care about me,” Anselm croaked, “why are you letting me go?”
She was silent for a moment, struggling with the lock.
“What you did was horrible. But that doesn’t mean they can do this to you,” she answered.
With a click the top of the stocks opened, and Anselm carefully stood and rubbed his wrists.
“Go on, get out of here,” she said.
“Which way is safest?”
“I’m not helping you!” she retorted. “I’m only here because one murder is enough. Go on.” She pointed down a street. Just then she saw me and stood petrified.
At the look of terror in her eyes, I got up. “I won’t tell,” I promised. “Don’t worry. I won’t tell.”
A shiver went through her, and she glanced back at Anselm. “Go!” she said. “Now!”
“Good-bye,” he said. As he limped down the street, the girl ran past me, up and through the big doors.
The square was silent. One of the horses snorted. I heard the sound of running feet. Perhaps they’d caught her. But the sound wasn’t coming from Town Hall; it was coming from around the corner.
The girl had had time to return the key. I sprinted up the stairs and yelled into the hallway, “Master Josef! Master Josef, Anselm has escaped!”
Soon the Pipelord, his pipers, and a crowd of men pushed me back out through the doors. About two dozen boys of Anselm’s age, dressed in red cloaks and carrying long pipes, stood facing us.
At the sight of the boys, most of the Hameliners shrank back, but one yelled, “Go for the pipes!” and a few men rushed at the boys.
“Wait!” the Pipelord shouted, but already the boys had raised their pipes and played a burst of screeches.
The men ran faster at the boys, but I heard wings beating the air. In the fading light, crows appeared, black against the dark blue sky, with the sunset glinting red on their wings. They swooped over the buildings and down at the men like a pack of hunting wolves. The men waved, ducked, scattered. And the crows rose and fell in a relentless, bloody dance—dive, claw, jab, dive, claw, jab.
A long, deep note throbbed through me. The Pipelord was stepping out into the square, his pipe to his lips. The music pulsed in the air, the boys’ hands shook, and thin smoke rose from their pipes. At last the boys yelped and dropped the steaming pipes onto the paving stones.
The crows slowed down. The Pipelord spread his feet and elbows. Abruptly the music tilted, and the crows swept away from the men, gathering around the Pipelord in a spinning ball. The music grew louder, higher. I could see only tiny glimpses of the Pipelord between the feathers as the crows raced around him in a whirling wall of beating wings. The music stretched and stretched until I thought the world would break; then, suddenly, it did.
A blinding flash of lightning cracked from the glowering clouds down into the crows. Fire burst from bird to bird, through the fluttering mass of them, and flaming crows were flung out in all directions. My ears rang, and my eyes were full of dancing light.
There stood the Pipelord, his pipe in his hands, the ground around him paved with dead, burning crows. He strode through the smoke and fire to the injured men. One of the pipers used the sash of his robe to snatch up the boys’ pipes, then bound them together with a leather strap. The other pipers were already tying the boys’ hands.
“Here,” said the one with the bunch of pipes, looking my way. He held out the bundle at arm’s length, as it swung, smoking, on the strap. “Put these in my pack.” He nodded at the bag on his horse.
When I nearly toppled from the weight, he said, “Careful. They’re still hot.”
The boys were nursing their burned hands and stabbing at me with their eyes.
“Yes, sir,” I said, and went over to the horses, bracing my left arm with my right. The pipes spun, glinting, with smoke trailing off them. I supposed I would get one soon. I shivered at the sight of so much power and lowered the pipes into the saddlebag.
The townspeople, who had retreated at the sight of the crows, were coming back out of the doors now, milling on the steps of Town Hall at a safe distance. The Pipelord found a doctor to tend the men that the birds had attacked, then turned to the boys. They did not meet his eyes.
“Why?” he asked after a long while. “Why did you listen to him?”
They did not answer.
“These people never did anything to you. How could you do all this?” He waved at the dead crows, the men with gouged faces.
The boys looked at their shoes.
The Pipelord breathed slowly in and out. “Take them into Town Hall,” he said to the pipers. “We still have to negotiate their trial.”
The pipers led the boys away across the smoldering square. The Pipelord’s face fell as he surveyed the shuffling boys, the gawking crowd, the reeking ruin of the birds.
One of the pipers spoke to him. “My lord, don’t punish yourself. It’s over now. At least we’ve ended the Unbound movement.”
The Pipelord said nothing.
“Except for Anselm,” added the piper.
The Pipelord nodded.
He came over to me. “I’m sorry you had to see all that,” he said. “Now help me put out the crows before a fire starts.”
Even as he spoke, there was a cold breeze, and I smelled lamp oil. The Pipelord stiffened, and the crowd gasped. I turned toward the smell in time to see Anselm on the roof of a house, splashing oil from a barrel on the walls below him. Already smoke rose behind him and an eerie light flickered from the windows.
“My lord!” Anselm made a mock bow, then dumped the rest of the barrel in a long arc to the nearest burning crow.
Flames leaped from the bird to the house, flowing into the windows and slithering up the walls. The crowd shouted. People ran for water. The roofs on both sides of the burning house were slate, but the one across the street was thatch.
The flames swelled, drawing in air, and the house glowed red against the gray sky. The fire welled up around the edge of the shingles, and we could hardly see Anselm through the red light and streaming heat. The Pipelord’s eyes reached out to the boy on the burning house.
“Anselm!” he screamed over the rushing sound of the flames. “Anselm! Get onto the roof of the next house!”
“What’s that, master?” Anselm hooted. He crouched down and put his hand to his ear. “Still giving orders to the very end?”
“Anselm!” the Pipelord repeated. “I can put out the fire, but what I do will kill you if you are in the way. Do you understand? You will die!”
“We will all die, master!” Anselm screamed back. “But I will die young and free, and you will die old, with nothing but a book of rules to keep you company.”
The flying sparks were falling near the thatch now. Someone tried to dump water on the burning oil, and fire splashed everywhere. Some men were pointing at the roofs on either side of Anselm and bringing buckets into the neighboring houses below. Flames crept into the shingles.
“Anselm, go!” the boy mimicked. “Master, surprise! I’ve learned to laugh at your orders. I see them now for what they are.”
A man with a bucket poked his head out onto the roof beside Anselm’s.
“You!” Anselm pointed a finger at him, and the man gaped. “Do you know what I would have done for you? For all of you!” His hand swept out over the crowd. “I would have made you a great empire!” He seemed to float in the red rippling heat. “Hamelin would have been my capital. One of you”—he squinted through the fire to scan the crowd—“one of you would have been my queen! And, master, I would have given you the crown. If you had been honest enough to admit you wanted it!”
The man with the bucket jumped up from the hole, and in the same moment, part of the wall between his roof and Anselm’s collapsed. The roof warped, fire gushing from the wound. The man with the bucket fled, other firefighters scrambled from homes on both sides, and still Anselm swayed above the flames.
“Children!” he screamed. “You are all just foolish children!”
He crouched and, as dozens of voices screamed, he sprang into the yawning fire.
“Anselm!” the Pipelord yelled, and he ran toward the upward-streaming flames.
I saw him, small against the wash of fire, and I ran after him.
The wind whipped around us, sucking us to the red mouth of the house, and the flame beat us back. My skin went tight with the heat, but I plunged ahead and grabbed the end of the Pipelord’s cloak just as he would have run through the glowing door.
He pulled against me. I fell to my knees and clung to his cloak, wrapping my whole body around it. I felt the cloak go slack.
“My lord,” a piper was shouting, “Karl will look for him from the other side. Please, get away from the fire.”
The blaze roared, and the draft lashed the Pipelord’s hair about his face. He lifted me to my feet.
We trudged from the house with the crowd spinning around us, the roof of the house breaking and spilling. At last the pipers came and told the Pipelord there was nothing alive in the house. He nodded, and one of the pipers played a tune in a minor key. The fire swept out of the house toward us but gasped out at the last moment, leaving the rubble crusted with frost.
They called my master. With his hand on my shoulder, he walked into the shell of the first floor. There lay the body, a boy-shaped lump with the outer flesh burned away, covered with fine, white frost. I thought I would be sick.
The Pipelord kneeled in the rubble and ashes and put his hand on the charcoal forehead. “Good-bye, Anselm,” he said. He nodded to the men, who carried the body away on a cloth stretched between them.
He looked up at me out of a weary face and said, “He was my last apprentice.”