As soon as the bargain was struck, the tinker packed the boy’s former flute into his case and was on his way quick as a wink. As for himself, the boy took himself away from the inn’s back door in search of a dry place to get acquainted with his new instrument. He settled for sheltering in the granary just outside of town. Though dark and somewhat musty, it was dry and that was good enough for him. Even if it wasn’t he wouldn’t have had much choice. The granary was the only place he could find a way into that late at night. A large rat hole had been made larger by a few industrious kicks so that the boy could squirm through.
Inside were huge bags of grain, made of heavy canvas to keep out water and pests. The boy noted that optimistic as the bags’ makers may have been, they were not very good at doing the latter part of their job. Many of the bags had holes eaten out of their corners, spilling grain across the smooth stone floor. Well, the grain would have been spilled, and probably had sometime in the past. There was no evidence of it on the floor, however, save for the mass of rats which clustered around the damaged bags. When mob seemed ready to disperse, the boy approached a bag, hoping to snatch a few handfuls for himself. As one rodent, the rats turned upon him, chittering and hissing, scrabbling over each other to get at the intruder. The boy swung at them with the only weapon to hand, his new flute, backing away all the while until he felt the rough mortared stone behind him.
Play, said a voice in his head, round and breathy, and with a fluid motion only achieved by sleep walkers, the boy brought the flute to his lips. Some part of him tried to justify the action, thinking of all the times he’d heard about animals being calmed by music, and of snakes being charmed by flutes. He’d never heard of someone using music to abate a tide of rats, but he played. He played an old slow song, Danny Boy, and was awestruck to see the rats halt in their charge. Their eyes, which until then had shown with the rage of thieves whose haul has come under attack, dimmed.
Thinking himself safe, he stopped having only played a few bars. Don’t stop! said the voice again. Even as the boy inhaled to follow the silent command the rats were waking up from the music’s spell. He played. He played Danny Boy all the way to the end, and then again twice more before the rats left him alone. They vanished into hidy-holes and gave no more vocal notice of their presence, though the boy could still hear them crawling around in and between their nests.
That one was gratis, for it saved us both. The boy strained his eyes in the gloom. The clouds obscured what moonlight might have reached through the windows high on the granary walls and he could really only see contours of his surroundings. He felt not quite alone, though. Allow me to introduce myself, I am Mhargadh. I live within the flute which you have come to own.
“Oh,” said the boy. “I’m Geoffrey. Pleased to… meet you?”
The pleasure is mine, Geoffrey. I assure you. The voice seemed to savor his name. Its syllables coiled in his mind. They rose and fell in tone and repeated, almost but never quite the same each time they came around. What can I do for you? I am at your service.
“What can you do for me? You’re a flute.” Geoffrey bit his lip. “What can you do?”
Anything! I can make your wildest dreams come true. If you can meet my price, everything is within your grasp.
We would strike a bargain. I do something to you and you do something to me. It is the nature of my power.
“Oh. What sort of thing would you ask me to do?”
Just something proportional with your request. Nothing that would undo it, to be sure. I would not, for example, ask you to join the church after giving you immense riches.
“Could you make me famous?” the boy said, eyes lighting up in the darkness.
Yes, I could. How famous would you like to be?
“I want to be known the country over, no, the world over. I want my story to be told for ages long after I am dead,” the boy declared.
That is easy enough. Yes, I know just how we shall do this.
“Really? Wonderful!” The boy paused. “What would you ask in return?”
Oh nothing much. Tomorrow you shall go to the mayor of this town and offer to deal with their rat problem. Ask a fair price, say, four bags of gold as big as your head.
“I doubt there’s that much gold in this whole town,” the boy said.
We shall cross that bridge when we come to it. Just do exactly as I tell you when dealing with the mayor and your story shall carry on through the ages.
“Okay. I’ll do it,” said the boy, striking his second ill considered bargain in as many hours.
Excellent. Just remember to uphold your end of the deal. Deal with the mayor exactly as I tell you.
Now get some sleep, you’re going to have a busy day tomorrow.
In the morning, before any of the workers arrived, the boy squeezed back through the rat hole and into to the misty streets of Hamlin. You could hardly see the cobbles for all the rats. Horses whinnied with irritation and fright in their stables. Dogs barked and cats cowered, out numbered as they were by their ancient foe. The boy followed Mhargadh’s directions to the house of the mayor and knocked politely on the door. The door did not open, but the shutters of a nearby window banged ajar and the mayor stuck his head out of the open window.
“What! What do you want, boy?” barked the mayor.
“I-I-I see you have a rat problem,” the boy stammered.
“Yes! Thank you for pointing out something I could clearly not see for myself!” The mayor seemed to be holding onto his patience with his teeth and he’d had little enough to begin with.
“I can fix it for you,” said the boy with a little more confidence.
“Really now, how would you do that?” the mayor demanded.
Don’t tell him.
“Don’t worry about that. How much will you pay me to take care of your rat problem?”
“Anything you ask!” replied the mayor, obviously not believing him.
Accept the deal! Tell him the rats will be gone by noon and you’ll be back by sundown.
“Very well, sir. The rats shall be gone by noon. I shall return by sundown.” The boy stood on tip toe and reached up to the window. The mayor was a good bit more savvy than the boy, but he was desperate and felt there was no way the boy could do what he claimed he could before noon so he shook the offered hand.
The boy grinned ear to ear and set off through the sea of rats. Good, now play me. Walk every street in this town and play me. It doesn’t matter what song. The boy did as he was bid and played. He toured the whole of the town, his music admittedly tuneless. Those that heard it put it down to being played for ears other than theirs, for where ever he went, rats emerged from everywhere to follow his footsteps and the lilt of his flute. A good half hour before noon the boy quit the town, rats in tow.
. . .
After both witnessing this event and hearing the townsfolk’s reports of what was quickly being called a miracle, the mayor mopped at his brow. Who knew what could possibly be asked in return for such an extraordinary feat? What could be of equal value to curing the town of its plague? He paced his office and waited for sundown. Perhaps the boy would be late. If he arrived after the sun had set, surely the deal was off?
Alas for the mayor, the boy arrived in the late afternoon. The shadows were long and his shadow was longest of all. In his hand he carried his snake carved flute. The whole town had turned out to greet their new hero. They insisted upon carrying him through the streets, making a triumphant parade that wound through all the back neighborhoods. As the shadows lengthened the Mhargadh spoke in the boy’s mind. They are delaying you. The mayor will not keep his bargain. The boy was so joyful that he paid the words no heed until he saw how the shadows had all blended together by the time the townsfolk set him down on the steps of the mayor’s office.
“Well, well,” said the mayor, his voice much smoother than this morning. “It would seem you have at last arrived to collect you payment.”
“Yes, sir. I would like four bags of gold, each as big as my head.” The boy bowed his head respectfully. Nice touch.
The crowd went stony. They had not been privy to the negotiations, brief as they had been, but they knew that there was not that much gold in the whole of Hamlin. The boy could feel their eyes upon him. Each stare seemed to say, take it easy, boy. You’re on thin ice. The mayor saw this too and raised his hands, palms down.
“Now, now,” he said broadly. “I did promise you anything if you upheld your end of the bargain, but it would seem a problem has arisen.”
“Do you not have the gold?” the boy asked.
“Well, no,” admitted the mayor. “But that is not the problem to which I was referring.”
“The rats are gone. I had them all out before noon.”
“Yes you did. Well done!” The mayor was smiling now, the townsfolk as well. “But you didn’t show up at the appointed time to collect your fee. It seems to me you are the one in error here.”
The boy gaped. Mhargadh was silent but for a faint chuckle. “You can’t…”
“Oh, you’ll still get paid. But only one bag of gold. A little bigger than your head, even, to show there aren’t any hard feelings. That should be enough for a boy like you.” Behind the boy, the townsfolk murmured their assent. Four bags of gold was a fair price for the task, but they could not pay and there was something to be said for punctuality after all.
Say this, whispered Mhargadh. Say to them ‘If I don’t have four bags of gold by sunrise tomorrow, I shall take your children.’ In his mind, the boy tried to argue. Disappointing as only the single bag was, the real prize had been the feat of removing the rats. The only way this story wasn’t perfect was in this strange betrayal, but even that made for good drama. SAY IT!
“If I don’t have four bags of gold by sunrise tomorrow,” said the boy in sullen tones. “I shall take your children.” This wasn’t how it should go. He was turning into the villain.
Now play me. Hands moving like a marionette, the boy brought the flute to his lips and played. The tune was a mirror of the one he’d played this morning. The townsfolk were repulsed by it and try though they might to keep him from leaving, they could not bear even to look at the boy as he left.