The road to Hameln was patchy and overgrown, choked in the verdant growth of a hot, wet summer. Rattenfanger’s blue roan walked with a lazy gate, nipping at high grasses that poked through the wagon-tilled dirt. With such a beautiful day at hand, he was in no humor to hurry her along. Instead he counted each step with a tired smile and let the noisy insects cast sleep in his eyes with their monotone rasp.

Above the approaching treeline a few wispy lines of chimney smoke marked his destination. A community in Lower Saxony had requested his attention, and he checked the missive once again. It would not be a lucrative contract—a minor infestation if the letter was accurate—but it was important not to let his skills dull, or let the enemy get too complacent. A brief interlude between greater endeavors. It was his nature to play music and charm, and so he did; it could be no other way.

The trail bled into the town like a river delta, widening out into a tiny Bavarian village nestled between wooded hills. The town’s streets pooled around a stone church that resided at the center of town, but all the avenues were oddly empty. He led the mare to the church doors and clapped the iron knocker against the heavy oak. A young priest came to the door, squinted at Ratten, and grew pale.

“You…You’re…”

“At your service,” Ratten smiled, dipping his head in mock bow. The priest continued to stare, trying to solve this puzzle. People always looked at Ratten as if they could almost place his face, as if they knew him but didn’t know how. The young man adjusted his spectacles to get a better look, eyes likely ruined from years of reading in dark chambers. Ratten was thankful he had no concern for such maladies.

“May I come in?”

The priest started, mumbling a few embarrassed apologies and pulled the door open. Ratten tied up his horse and stepped inside the cavernous basilica, where a dusty, stained-glass window admitted a single pillar of angled light. It was barely enough to illuminate the sanctuary’s cluster of wooden pews.

“Father Keimnevitz!” the priest called towards the back of the church. “He should be right with us,” he said, looking back anxiously. “The bell. He was ringing the bell.” The young man wrung his hands and bit his lip. “Are you actually a sorcerer?” He finally blurted, unable to contain his curiosity any longer.

“He is indeed,” a baritone voice interjected from the far recesses of the room. An elderly Vater emerged from the back alcoves, his voice dripping with scorn. “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live, Alfred. But apparently such commands are forgotten in times of convenience and base necessity.”

“I’m hardly a witch, Vater,” Ratten grinned, used to the clergy’s conflicted song and dance. His talents were rarely appreciated by any religion. “Der Hexenhammer doesn’t list bards among the enemies of the faithful, I don’t believe. Unless they’ve revised it once again; I do so rarely have a chance to read all the translations.”

“Bard!?” Keimnevitz sputtered, growing red in the face, “You traffic with spirits and evil and call yourself a bard? I should have put an end to this foolish notion when it was first suggested. Hameln can handle its own problems, Fanger!”

“Vater, please.” Alfred offered, “We’ve already tried everything else—and the children…”

Ratten raised an eyebrow, his concern peaked, “Children?”

“Yes, the children.” Keimnevitz growled, deflating slightly. “Perhaps it’s best if you see for yourself.”

“Lead the way, Vater.”

#

“When the rats first arrived, they traveled in a subtle pack, overlooking the town from that hill,” Alfred explained as he, Keimnevitz, and Ratten strolled the cobbled streets. He pointed to the only rise that had been cleared of trees by the townsfolk, the crosses and flat stones of grave markers poking up from the top. “We sent men up to scare them off with torches and blades, but always they scattered and returned, keeping vigil. Then, on the seventh night there was a great commotion. The rats made an amazing fuss, and a viridian fog rolled into the town, touching each of the homes as it passed. None of the children have woken up since.”

They stopped at the stoop of one of the homes along the path, a quaint wooden hut adorned with a placard that read “Fonseca.” “The rats came into town for the first time soon after that,” Alfred concluded grimly, “They pester the sleeping children tirelessly, chittering and skulking.”

With a quick knock, they entered the cottage. Inside, a woman shooed back a pack of rats with a broom, frustrated tears streaming down her face. When Ratten approached, however, the rats scattered, repelled as if by instinct. Goodwife Fonseca returned to her station by the bedside of a sleeping girl, her arms crossed in gentle repose.

“Vater, you must do something!” Goodwife Fonseca implored Keimnevitz, “I drive the rats off, but they always return, always watch!”

Ratten turned his gaze to the multitude of beady, red eyes staring out from the crevices and the rafters. Their tittering was incessant.

What an odd vermin coven, Ratten thought. He had seen groups that were as stupid as a garden tulip, little more than a force of nature. But a few, a very dangerous, select few possessed a fearsome intelligence. Clever enough to scheme and plan and even practice their own minor sorceries. The rats of Hameln seemed hyper-aware by normal standards. They were almost certainly a pestilent horde. Still, he was the Rattenfanger. It should all be finished by the end of the day.

He approached the bed and took the little girl’s hand. It was warm and he could feel a strong pulse. She smiled as if she were enjoying some secret joke, and her nose twitched to and fro in a spat of dream movement. Whatever the spell was, it caused no discomfort. Or didn’t seem to. Small solace in that.

“I will need some time to prepare,” Ratten declared, patting his motley jacket for his flute. “If these rats are smart enough to do this to your kids, they won’t be coerced into the river so easily.” He discovered the instrument in a side pouch and brought it to his lips, testing a marching tune’s first notes. The hiding rats showed only minor interest, tilting their heads like curious dogs. It should have put them into at least a minor panic. Ratten felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up, wondering now just how minor this infestation was. And there was more, as if he were forgetting something, missing a warning right in front of him.

“If you harm even one of these children with your…dark arts…” Keimnevitz threat interrupted his thoughts. Of course the priest would be troubled—the sounds of the flute were disconcerting, born of a mathematics wholly divorced from common music. Alfred shivered reflexively.

“A few hours to prepare,” Ratten said again, “A stable will be satisfactory, unless you’ll permit me to use the chapel…”

It was a long time before Alfred could get Vater Keimnevitz to calm down at the suggestion.

#

Ratten sat cross-legged on the floor in the center of a chalk outline. Incense burned at the corners of the rune-scarred design. From time to time he would search his belongings for a particular ointment or herb to eat or burn upon the open flames. Alfred watched the procession with wonderment.

“What does this all do?” Alfred asked, as Ratten meditated silently, “Are you speaking to…the other side?”

Ratten rolled his eyes behind eyelids and didn’t reply. He had lived for hundreds of years, seen worships of all sorts and even met lower deities, but never had people been so fixated on a monotheistic god. And this one didn’t even throw lightning bolts, command the oceans, or hold ritualistic orgies. Ah, the orgies.

“Does the incense do something important?” Alfred tried again.

“Mostly, it helps me center myself,” Ratten said. Alfred still didn’t catch on.

“I see. Have you done this a lot? What’s it like, commanding rats?”

Ratten sighed and surrendered this losing battle.

“That’s a bit of a tough question. I’ve been doing this since the Pharaohs, so I don’t know much else. My memory’s a bit hazy before then.”

“Pharaohs?” Alfred asked, biting his lip..

Ratten smiled. “If the Vater knew you were so curious he’d have you excommunicated.”

Alfred leaned back, trying to seem more aloof. “I suppose killing rats isn’t so heroic.”

Ratten wasn’t sure why, but the comment stung. “Rats can be worse than any witch in the right numbers, Alfred. In Persia, I once had to restore a Raj after he was deposed by a swarm of them. The larger their numbers, the smarter they are. Some can even practice their own magics.”

“Then I guess its good you are here!” Alfred marveled, dropping his feigned indifference. His wonder was endearing. Ratten pondered the last time anyone had appreciated his presence. Before the rise of the Church, certainly. When there were so many more like himself.

“Your life seems so interesting. Can you tell me more stories?”

He chuckled, glad at that moment to be a bard. “Well, we only have a few hours until sun up, but I might be able to get through three centuries or so by then.”

#

The first threads of dawn wove their way through the hilltop trees, casting the town in tones of rust and sepia. Ratten stood in the courtyard amidst a group of curious townsfolk who looked on silently as the great Fanger prepared his tools. Even the insects had ceased their persistent chatter; only the sound of a distant, lonely buzzard broke the muggy silence.

He checked the flute for the third time, to make sure everything was in order. He tested the air with a raised finger, then cast a bit of dust into the breeze, rubbing his fingers importantly. The men and women muttered to themselves, while Keimnevitz shook his head and scowled. Ratten’s fingers found their home on the instrument’s sculpted rosewood body. Satisfied, he winked at the old priest and brought the instrument to his lips.

The crowd leaned forward in anticipation, then rocked back as the first note rang out. It slid along a chord that shivered the skin and welled tears in the eyes. Ratten coerced the tune back, as it always sought to escape, then dragged it along a discordant dirge to push it into submission. When he was confident the music had been cowed, he began the staccato notes of the march.

Each piping brayed like a stallion, maddeningly complex, piercing and alien. The townsfolk muttered in alarm as they noticed their limbs start to spasm and quake. Even Ratten felt the jarring in his bones. But soon, first as a trickle, then as a torrent, a swarm of rats marched through the town, pawed feet stepping in time like miniature soldiers. The flood was more than he had imagined, more than he had feared. Ratten redoubled his efforts, careful not to let the song jerk his jaw bone at the wrong moment.

And so he began to walk. He led the hoard into the woods, as the townsfolk watched from behind. Newly minted terror kept them frozen in place. He played and walked, walked and played, stepping carefully through the tangled overgrowth, toward the Wesen River. Sweat ran in Ratten’s eyes and his clothes stuck to his back. His tune was accompanied by the squeaking and tittering of hundreds of rats struggling against a trap.

Ratten’s focus was flawless—until a crouched form tumbled out through the underbrush. For a terrible second the marching tune whinnied a high note of victory. It thrashed about the scales before he wrenched it back with a supreme act of will. Ratten could feel the flock’s eyes upon him and wondered if the rats were preparing to pounce, if he had been too late. But when he checked the rodents looked more resigned than aggressive.

A wave of relief was followed by the cold weight of doubt. Rats this smart should have been more opportunistic, he thought. More calculating and vicious. But to prevent another slip-up, he had to cast off his concerns.

Instead he turned to the huddled figure on the ground, unsurprised to find Alfred near the brink of tears. Even he could sense the grave danger they had narrowly avoided. He stood sheepishly, and Ratten nodded his head towards the river while continuing the song. The young man may as well see this to the end.

The forest grew thin as they approached the shore, the swift water burbling hungrily at its upcoming meal. The rats began to react with animal instinct, scrabbling and squeaking louder and louder as the water approached. Yet they couldn’t help themselves, and marched inexorably on. The first of them dipped their toes into the Wesen, then were shoved under as the rest of the rats forced their way in as well. Their screams were shrill and haunting, almost human in their wailing. They bobbed in the current, an island of matted fur, trying to use drowning comrades to hold themselves above water.

Then the Rattenfanger’s final note sounded, lower than any flute could play, lower than a church organ. It was a sentient thing that trailed out invisibly, hanging like a miasma. When it reached the rats, their struggling ceased and they floated paralyzed. Their lungs filled with water and their stillness became natural. The River Wesen carried its prize far and away.

“I…that…” Alfred searched for words that wouldn’t come, shivering despite the heat. Ratten closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to dispel his headache.

Noticing Alfred’s fright, he patted the priest on the shoulder, trying his best to smile. “It’s a rare man who is willing to follow the Rattenfanger at his business. Whatever possessed you?”

“Everyone sent you off alone, with all the rats. It didn’t seem right. I was just going to watch. And then I fell. I can’t believe I almost…” Alfred’s rambling trailed off as he covered his face with his hands. Ratten laughed.

“It was my fault, Alfred. No harm done.”

Alfred nodded, his face still worried.

“And I appreciate it.” Ratten was as surprised by his words as the priest, whose eyes widened in delight.

“We’d better go back and make sure the children are well,” Ratten suggested. “I know a few stories to entertain us on the way.”

#

Hameln was bedlam. Children ran screeching through the streets, chased by impotent mothers and fathers. Some of the adults wept. Others bellowed in pain, bitten by the children they were trying to restrain. Over the din Keimnevitz shouted a prayer in Latin. When he saw Ratten he stormed across the courtyard.

“You!” he hollered, accusing with a gnobby, old finger, “You’ve done this, with your Satan’s magic. The children are possessed by demons! I’ll have the church after you!”

Alfred looked between the Vater and Ratten, unsure of what to do. Ratten watched the scene with curiosity and a growing concern.

“They can’t be possessed by something that doesn’t exist, Vater.” Ratten chastised, his annoyance bared by his gnawing fear, “Either they’re just disturbed by their ordeal … or the rats did something else, something I didn’t expect.”

“What could they have done?” Alfred wondered aloud. “Whatever it might be, I’m sure you can fix it, right?” He looked expectantly toward Ratten.

“Maybe…” Ratten drawled, distantly regretting his word choice as the Vater began to shriek creative invectives unbecoming a man of the cloth.

What could he have forgotten? He couldn’t recall any rat magic such as this. Was it madness, a wasting disease, some curse? These rats had seemed so perceptive, so intelligent, and yet they had barely managed to resist his tune. What had been their final play?

One of the eldest girl children stopped her jagged sprints to smile at Ratten. She was pretty, soon to be a woman with long blonde hair and pale skin. She was caked in dirt, and her smirk had a predatory look about it. It marred her features the same as a scowl.

“Rattenfanger, Rattenfanger,” she croaked, stumbling over the sounds of the words as if language were foreign to her, “Thank you, thank you. Can’t go back now.” And then she was running again, laughing in a high-pitched squeal. Suddenly, Ratten knew, and he was filled with a dread that stopped Vater Keimnevitz and set Alfred back a step.

“Is everything ok, Ratten?” Alfred asked nervously.

“Yes. Yes, it’s ok.” He stared into the distance, focused on nothing.

Keimnevitz and Alfred exchanged a glance.

“Just give it some time. A day or so. They’ll be good as new. I’ll stay in the stables tonight and check on them in the morning.”

“If you think we’ll pay you…” the Vater began, but Alfred interrupted.

“Please, Vater. Trust the Rattenfanger.”

Ratten walked away to hide the tears of those words welling up in his eyes.

#

A summer storm growled somewhere in the night, rattling the stables as Ratten prepared himself for the task ahead. The children, tired from their caterwauling, had eaten gluttonously and fallen asleep on beds stacked with mussed sheets and torn cloth. Tired parents accepted this as a slow recovery and caught what rest they could. Ratten found none.

As he lit a small brazier, the door to the stables slid open and Alfred peered in. A light patter of rain had begun to fall, and he craned his head awkwardly as fat drops splashed onto his head.

“May I?”

Ratten merely nodded and the priest stepped in and shut the door behind him.

“The children seem much better,” Alfred went on, sitting on a nearby bale of hay, “You were right, it will just take some time, I’m sure.” Ratten looked away, a pained sound escaping his lips unbidden. “Are you alright?” Alfred asked, worry etched across his face.

“Alfred, I must tell you something, because I consider you a friend,” the words were very slow and deliberate.

“Of course, anything!” He couldn’t help but beam.

Ratten almost laughed, but it choked in his throat. “What I am going to tell you is a terrible thing, Alfred. The children, all of the children,” he tried to swallow with dry mouth.

“Yes?” Alfred said very softly. He must have now sensed the gravity of what Ratten intended to confess.

“I killed them, Alfred. They’re all dead. Those things out there aren’t boys and girls, they’re rats. They traded places before I even arrived. I marched the young of Hameln into the Wesen to drown.”

“I don’t understand,” Alfred answered, his face turning white in the orange lamplight.

“No, I think you do.” Ratten covered the brazier and began collecting his things. “I murdered them all. Those rats we escorted had the spirits, the minds of your children, and the children that remain are actually rats. I told you they have magic, did I not?”

“How can you fix it?” Alfred asked, though Ratten could see the young man’s faith in him beginning to recede.

“There is only one thing to do,” Ratten said painfully. He placed the last of his things in his bags,  keeping the finely carved flute in his hand.”The Church will hunt me, Alfred. Keimnevitz will see to that. Please help them however they ask. I will not be in danger.”

“But you didn’t know,” Alfred said, “You did the best you could.”

Ratten almost smiled at his innocent sense of justice. “Thanks. That means a lot to me.”

Then he grabbed the mare’s reins and stepped out into the rain.

#

In the dark downpour, a lone note howled. It spread wings of cacophony, shadows that stretched out to the homes of Hameln, gently beckoning the rat children from their burrows. And they soon answered the call. Worried parents clutched at jerky limbs, but the waltz would not be denied. Despite the bizarre gaiety of the childrens’ dance, their faces were twisted in hatred and rage as they followed the leader.

In time, the entire town was roused, and they rushed into the woods after their little ones. They arrived at the waters’ edge just in time to watch every boy and girl leap into the River Wesen, as Ratten played on. The song changed and became a fugue, blending with the sorrow of all the parents, who searched in futile grief amidst the aphotic water. Then the music stopped and the mare and the bard rode off into the night. They chased after him for hours, some for days, but there were never any tracks to find, not even a branch disturbed by his passing. That was the last the town of Hameln would ever see of the Rattenfanger.

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