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|This is a rather dark fairy story, written around an image, and a central character, who visted me one windry, grey and rain-slicked autumn afternoon...||
The Piper and the Princess
Once upon a time, in the days when the earth still wore proudly her green mantle, there lived a piper. He was not a wealthy man, and he did not live in the high stone castle on the hill, though every day when he woke he could see it starkly against the sunrise, and again at night before he lay down to sleep. The piper lived in a simple hut, deep within the forest’s mysteries and changeful darkness. He hunted and fished, and it seemed to him that the forest cared for him like the mother he could not remember, or the wife he had never met. Each day as he roamed the forest, he would play his wooden pipe, sometimes light and skipping fast like sunlight on a moving stream, sometimes slow and solemnful like the growth of the eldest of the old oak trees at the forest’s heart. Sometimes, as he played, the wind would riffle through the leaves, and it made him smile to imagine that the forest danced with his music.
With a sigh, the wind took leave of its dancing partners, and swept on up the high hill, like a carriage late for its appointment at the castle. It skirled round the towers and shrieked down the cloisters, and to the princess who lived in the tallest tower, it seemed like an undisciplined child, always angry or mischievous.
“If only somebody would take it away and give it a smack!” her nurse cried peevishly. The princess stabbed her needle once more into her embroidery.
“Endless embroidery, every day,” she sighed. “ I wish I could go outside and play, like the wind.” She spoke in barely a whisper, but her nurse’s keen ears missed nothing.
“Now, now my little precious thing, you know that playing outside with the wind is a fine thing for little girls who know no better, who don’t wear fine silk dresses and aren’t being courted by …” the nurse droned on, and her words were soon lost beneath the beguiling wail and call of the wind. If she listened almost as hard as she could, the princess imagined that she could hear a music carried on the wind. Something wild and old, not at all like the stately and rigid compositions of the castle minstrels.
Suddenly, she stood up. “I need to go to Confession,” she told her startled nurse, and skipped off out of the door before any remonstrance could be made.
The princess raced down the hill, the wind behind her pushing her forward like a fussy courtier anxious that she shouldn’t keep the party waiting. She giggled as she thought this, and the wind grabbed hold of her laughter, amplifying and distorting it and carrying it deep into the forest. The sound disquieted her, and she slowed her footsteps. The forest was close now, and she fancied that she could feel the darkness flowing out of it like a vapour. She shivered as it touched her, and for a single moment she hesitated, turned half towards the castle. Then a skein of music drifted high and thin and sinuous from the forest, entwining itself unnoticed around the princess’s feet and heart. She took three steps forward, plunging into the forest like a swimmer into water that is cold and immeasurably deep.
The princess had no idea how long she had been in the forest. At first, she had been surprised how the sunlight flickered and glittered through the leaves, dancing with her through the forest. She had followed the music like a bright ribbon before her. It was quiet now. The darkness was beginning to settle, like the softest snow. The princess began to feel a little frightened. She began to miss her warm, tapestried chambers and her nurse bringing her afternoon tea. She tried not to think about dinner in the great hall, with meats and ales and exotic sweets, and the minstrels playing in the gallery, the swish of the dancers in their fabulous dresses…
The piper, meanwhile, was thinking of making a start on the preparation of the fish he had caught that day. As he fished, and as he strolled back through the forest he had played softly but continually upon his wooden pipe. Now he placed the pipe carefully upon a tree-stump, and turned his attention to the fire and the fish. As soon as the flames were leaping eagerly to the fish, wrapping themselves around it like the arms of long-lost friends, he took up the pipe again. His fingers slipped easily into a lively, jumping melody, a counterpoint to the play of the flames. All day he had been aware of movement, always just beyond the furthest tree. His curiosity flared with the flames. Peering through the trees, he could just make out a figure this time, dancing not gracefully but without self-conciousness. At the moment he saw her, the figure sensed him. The princess froze. The piper stepped forward, playing all the while, moving slowly and carefully as if approaching a startled animal.
The princess had found herself carried away by the new flurries of music and by her ballroom reverie. Just as she had been inexpertly working her way through the steps of the current fashionable court dance, with the wind and the dark and her fancies as a partner, she had become aware of eyes upon her. She froze. A figure stepped towards her. He was tall and lean, with long hair like the mosses that hung from the oldest trees, and eyes as dark as the peat pools lost children drowned in. He held a crude wooden pipe, and his fingers danced across the holes quick as insects, whilst all the time he held her gaze with those too-dark eyes. She took a hesitant step towards him, and then she noticed that his clothes were peasant rags, and that he was a stranger to any court except the windy revels of the woods. She turned and ran. He did not chase, but the melody of the pipe lingered with her almost back to the castle.
Several nights later, her nurse turned to her. “Where have you been these past few nights?” She demanded. The princess said nothing, and turned intently to her embroidery. “Why, just look at the state of these skirts! All covered with moss and bits of dry leaf – goodness knows however I’ll get them clean again – and your hair, too. All tangled and wooded like a peasant girl’s. And you to be ma-”
“Nurse, please tell me that story again,” she interrupted sweetly. “The one about the exiled prince who lives secretly in the woods till he meets the beautiful princess…”
That night, she did not return at all.
“See the moon,” the piper gestured with one elegant hand. With the other he caressed the princess’s hair. “Almost three full moons you have visited me here to dance over the leaves, under the moon’s changing lights, like the most exquisite bird that no lime may trap.”
The princess laughed. “Your music is the sweetest lure, but it is within another’s cage that I must dwell.”
“You speak of marriage to another?” Hurt twisted through the piper’s words like a glittering wire. “But we have lain beneath the moon together these past nights. What of the promises we whispered?”
“Promises whispered, that none but us and the night air might hear. My father has promised for me, loudly at noon with proclamations and trumpets. I am to marry a great Prince. I shall be Queen, in a palace, with princesses of my own to run laughing about me and bring me flowers for my chamber.”
“But what of the flowers of the forest?”
“Oh my piper! Do you not see? To visit the forest is the most wild, thrilling thing, but I could never live here – I am a princess from the great stone castle, and I must marry a prince, not a woodsman.”
“Do you love your Prince of stone?”
The princess nodded, her face hidden behind her gilt hair.
The piper turned, and walked away. That night, a melancholy music drifted from the forest that chilled all who heard it. The rain came down as if even the sky were moved to tears, and the princess’s mantle was sodden and smeared with mud before she reached her castle.
The days before the wedding passed in a bright blur of dresses and fussing for the princess. It was only during the night, as she lay alone in her stone chamber beneath the waning moon, that she sometimes thought she heard, at the cusp of hearing, a sweet, brittle music from the woods. It contrasted with the loud, triumphal music of the palace in its wedding preparations but it had lost the beguiling element that had once entranced her wandering feet. Instead she felt a thrill of fear, and buried herself deeper under the swans-down quilts to dream of matrimony. On the pre-nuptial night, the music threaded through her dreams, like a trickle of silver mercury, leaving her uneasy and un-refreshed the following morning.
The bride sat in her throne beside her prince, radiant and beautiful. The sumptuous feast lay in polite ruins, and even the speeches had subsided happily into a pleasant, merry drunkenness.
“Music!” someone called, and more and more voices took up the summons.
“Yes, what a splendid idea,” the bride agreed, and waved a ringed hand in the direction of the minstrels’ balcony.
A single figure stood up. He held a crude wooden pipe in one hand, and his tangled hair fell past his slender waist.
“Madam, your minstrels are indisposed. Might I play for you?”
The new bride paled.
“Play on, fellow!” cried her prince. “Yes, play on,” she echoed weakly.
The bride and her prince skipped through dance after dance, their subjects whirling round them like the sparkling halo of a star.
“Sir, we grow weary!” the princess laughed. “A rest? A drink perhaps?”
“Nay, my lady, it is a merry occasion. Dance!” the piper replied.
The dancers kicked off their shoes and cast off coats, many of them looking longingly towards the benches and the wedding meads.
“I fear our feet cannot sustain much more!” the prince called out.
“Nothing must mar the jollity of a wedding dance – dance on!” the piper replied, replacing the pipe immediately at his lips.
The music pulled them onwards inexorably through jig and reel. On bleeding feet and with panting breaths they set and curtseyed, skipped and turned.
“Our hearts! Please stop,” the princess gasped.
The piper’s fingers danced ever faster across the pipe stem.
Footsteps echoing, the piper stepped through the slumped and lifeless opulence. Pausing by the bride’s body, he snapped the pipe in two with a sound like a bone breaking and dropped the pieces by her still breast. He left the great wooden doors wide to the night and the forest creatures, and on a night when the new moon sheds its darkness, you may still see the ghostly dancers. Do not linger to hear the piper’s music, however, else you may join them in their hellish mirth…
|Prologue||Crow Girls part 1|