Fans of Virginia Crow's historical fiction novel, The Year We Lived, will enjoy her retelling of The Pied Piper of Hamlin. Continue reading for a dark historical tale of betrayal, greed, and revenge...
The youngest of seven sons, Stephan didn't follow in the footsteps of his brothers. They were learned, wise, shrewd, and powerful. Stephan wasn't. He was referred to as the runt of the Sir Johannes' litter. A reference he had accepted during his father's tenure, and his eldest brother's.
But now his nephew, Heinricus, held the family lands.
"I'll get the money," Stephan assured Cristina, pacing the small room. Heinricus had thrown Stephan from his father's lands. He had never questioned this, until now as Heinricus sought Cristina as his bride.
"One thousand guilders, Stephan," Christina wept. "It can't be done. We've failed little Giso."
Placid Stephan winced at his son's name. He was certain Heinricus was behind the abduction of Giso, but the man was too clever to be incriminated. Stephan couldn't even go to Cristina's father for help as, although the man was even richer than Heinricus, he knew nothing of his grandson's existence and had unwittingly promised Heinricus his daughter's hand with a dowry of one thousand guilders. That was why this sum had been set as Giso's ransom.
Stephan crouched beside Cristina. "God will show us a way."
"I'm afraid we've fallen so far from His gaze."
But Stephan couldn't accept this. He took work throughout Hamburg, going without food to save what meagre earnings he could muster. He wrote to his brothers, begging for whatever they could give. But he received no returns. The deadline for the ransom was drawing ever closer and, in desperation, he sold all his belongings. This son of a great knight reduced to the standing of a beggar.
Obtaining the thousandth guilder, he immediately began towards the docks where he was to secure his son's safety. He waited as night closed in, jumping at the shadows it caused and cursing himself for believing he would be reunited with his infant son in such a place. Shuffling the moneybags in his patched coat, he turned to leave.
He stumbled forward as something struck the back of his head. Crashing to the ground, his vision formed spirals which bled into one another. A group of men closed around him. It was impossible to see their features, and their voices were distorted as they laughed over the extent of wealth they discovered on their victim. Unable to defend himself, Stephan begged, but their compassion extended only as far as another strike to his head, dropping him into a state of unconsciousness.
In the dream which followed, Giso took his hand. The child had taken his first steps only days before he was snatched from his cradle. Now he walked confidently, guiding his father to a statue in the enormous central nave of the cathedral. Stephan savoured the touch of Giso's short fingers as they clung to two of his own.
The child stopped beside a statue of an angel, pointing up at it. It was playing a long, wide flute, carved so perfectly, Stephan could almost hear the notes. With his free hand, he reached towards it.
This stretch caused him to wake. Giso was gone, and Stephan found himself staring up at the apex of the cathedral's nave. He couldn't remember how he got here but, towering over him, was the angel from his dream.
"Careful," a gruff voice snapped.
Stephan turned to apologise, but the man was already talking to someone else.
"Rats?" laughed his companion. "Nowhere is free of them. They should fetch cats or the ratcatchers. We all manage our own vermin."
"Apparently their treasury overflows," replied the first. "The merchants' wares are being ruined and they're talking of trading elsewhere."
"As part of the League, they can choose wherever they wish."
"Precisely why the mayor is offering one thousand guilders to any man who can rid Hameln of rats."
"Hameln?" Stephan breathed. With a horse, he could be there in two days. Giso's ransom had five days remaining. It was perfect. More than that: it was heaven-sent.
Delighted with his idea, he visited Cristina to impart his plan. They met in a small outhouse, her father never accepting Stephan as a suitable match.
"How will you ensnare the rats?"
"I'll go from house to house and chase each one if I must, my love."
"You'll never manage it. They're smart. They'll go to the houses you've just cleared."
"I don't have anything else."
"Yes you do. Wait here."
He watched her rush out, dropping his head into his hands and imagining the grip of his son's fingers. Each second added to little Giso's danger. He had come so close. He had held the thousand guilders only to have them stolen.
"Here, Stephan." Cristina's words caused his head to jerk up and he frowned across at the long flute in her hands. "Do you remember the night you played the flute for me?"
"You said you'd follow me anywhere."
"There's magic when you play. Take it and bewitch the vermin. They'll follow you, I know." Cristina provided Stephan with a horse from her father's stable and followed him to the courtyard gate. "Don't be late, Stephan. For our little Giso. One thousand guilders will exchange hands in five days' time, to save our son or sell me to Heinricus."
Assuring her he would travel with the speed of the east wind, Stephan departed. The young horse read his urgency, travelling at speed when the terrain would allow. Both steed and rider rested in the open air, continuing through the darkness, but stopping often to recover.
He arrived at Hameln by evening of the second day. Kicking the tired horse forward at a sedate pace, they reached the gates just before sunset. Three men stood there and one lifted his hand as Stephan drew close.
"Speak your business."
"Send word to your mayor," Stephan announced, encouraged by the time he had made and the promise of the thousand guilders which would return Giso safely to him. "I've come to rid your town of rats."
As the three men looked at each other, Stephan wondered whether he had imagined the conversation in the cathedral. He had been beaten, his senses numbed. Perhaps he had wished for such a thing rather than actually heard it. After a moment one of the guards gave a laugh.
"I'll take you to the mayor myself."
The expression of relief on his face matched Stephan's as they passed through the streets. There was certainly an infestation. He saw dozens of rats and heard more. There were shrill cries too, as people discovered rats in their beds or larders. The town was in a frenzy.
Stephan dismounted before the chambers and, tapping his fingers on the flute which hung from his belt, followed the guard inside. Ten men turned at his arrival.
"This man has come in answer to your offer, sire," the guard began. "He's a ratcatcher."
"Good sir," laughed the mayor, wafting the guard away. "You come at an opportune moment. These gentlemen need assurance the vermin will be eradicated."
"And you have it now," Stephan replied. "Every rat from every house will be dead by tomorrow noon. But let us discuss the fee."
"Money?" the mayor laughed. "You're a shrewd man, ratcatcher."
"A thousand guilders," Stephan said hastily. Other men might have tried to barter more, but he only needed the thousand guilders. They would promise his son's safety and Cristina's freedom.
"Yes, of course," the mayor said, his gaze taking in every inch of the ratcatcher. Stephan followed the guard from the room, listening as the mayor continued, his words greeted with laughter from the rest of the council. "He must need the reward to buy a new suit."
"Bless you, sir," the guard said. "You're heaven-sent. My son almost died because of those rats. Tripped the length of the tower stairs when one ran under his feet."
"Then I'm doing this for your son and mine."
Stepping into the town square the following morning, Stephan tentatively set the flute to his lips. Cristina had believed in him. It had to work. He played a stream of lively notes only meant to awaken his fingers and clear his head, but the scenery seemed to spill vermin. Rats, fearless of humans but subjected to the emotion of music, tumbled from the houses. From windows, doors, and cracked masonry they pelted towards him, while he laughed into the flute like a madman.
His path led to the river where he stepped onto a small craft. He watched the vermin tumble into the water, unable to reach him after growing fat on the food of the people of Hameln. Behind, the quayside filled with people, staring in grateful amazement.
When he returned to shore, it was to a hero's welcome. People gathered to thank him, but he continued determinedly towards the council. He had achieved in an hour what many had failed to do in days. Yet it wasn't accolades he sought, it was the thousand guilders which would return Giso to him.
"Piper," the mayor announced. "It seems there's magic in your flute."
"Indeed," Stephan replied. "You won't find a rat in this town. I've come for the promised payment."
"A thousand guilders was the agreed price." Stephan looked in confusion at the small purse the mayor handed him.
"But fifty will buy you a fine suit. What possible use could a man like you have for any more?"
"A thousand guilders," Stephan snapped. "I need that money."
The mayor shrugged. "What will you do? Resurrect the rats from their watery grave? No, good sir, fifty is plenty."
Stephan stared at the purse. Within those fifty pieces of gold was the death of his son and the loss of his lover.
"You'll regret this," he hissed.
"Enough!" The mayor's face burnt as he turned back. "You'll hang in a gibbet if you threaten us."
Turning on his heel, Stephan walked out. He ignored the people who tried to thank him, but collected his horse and left the town. He couldn't bring himself to return to Hamburg, travelling instead to Brunswick, where he wrote a heartfelt letter to Cristina, begging her forgiveness. He received no reply.
As the deadline for Giso's ransom passed, he stood outside a tailor's shop, recalling the mockery of the mayor. News had reached him that Heinricus had exposed Cristina's lack of virginity, placing her in a nunnery and keeping her dowry. Having lost everything, a madness overtook him. He felt like a corpse, his soul taken while his body lingered.
A few days later, Stephan returned to Hameln wearing a new green suit. It was a Sunday, and the streets were quiet but for children playing. If the inhabitants saw him, they closed their shutters despite the summer sun.
Giving a crooked smile, Stephan set the flute to his lips. He walked through the streets, making his way to the eastern gate where he had left the week before, cheated and alone. Now, as he looked back, he smiled at the dancing children who followed. They laughed with one another, some trying to catch his coat as he led them from the town and towards the hills. Reaching the summit, Stephan watched as the children continued along the ancient paths. He lowered the flute as a crippled child approached him.
"You can't make this journey," Stephan said. "Your father was good to me. Tell them all, I've taken my payment to paradise."
Stephan smiled as he set the flute to his lips and guided the 130 children into the hills.
Some say Stephan returned to Hamburg two weeks later, seeking revenge on Heinricus. A green-clad figure wielding a burning flute was rumoured to start the fire which destroyed all the houses but the one where Giso had been born. Others claim he discovered paradise and found Giso there.
Whatever the truth, his deeds are remembered, though his loss is long since forgotten.
It is 1074, eight years after the fateful Battle of Hastings. Lord Henry De Bois is determined to find the secret community of Robert, an Anglo-Saxon thane. Despite his fervour, all his attempts are met with failure.
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