General Fiction posted January 6, 2022

This work has reached the exceptional level
Chapter One (1st chapter competition)

The Piper

by giraffmang

A doleful tune escaped the flute as he played; sad, and wistful. The melody echoed through the forest from the clearing where he sat. In the branches above, the birds stood still and listened. In their sets, the badgers raised their heads towards the night air to catch the music as it floated on the breeze. He loved to play. It was the best feeling in the world, well… almost. Lithe, thin fingers flitted from hole to hole, as graceful as a concert pianist. As he played, the forest around him settled to silence. A smile tried to ease onto his lips but concentration on the tune pushed it away, lest the music suffered. He knew they were listening. Music can soothe the savage beast, but it can also transfix the others.
The Piper rose from the large stone he sat upon, slow and careful; fully aware of the wildlife around the edges of the clearing. Gazing around, he spotted a huddle of rabbits near the tree line. They sat stock still; ears perked up, little noses high in the air. Almost as if they could smell the melody as well as feel it. The music was almost at an end. He edged towards the bunnies and knelt. The rabbits never even flinched. While balancing his flute in one hand, he reached into his calf length boot and grasped a long-bladed knife. In one fluid motion, he removed it and pierced the rabbit's chest. As he ceased playing, the forest sprung back to life. The noise was almost deafening for a moment or two. The piper allowed himself a smile then. Pleased with both his tune and its effect. He looked down at the rabbit, skewered on his blade, and sighed, "Rabbit for dinner, again."
The Piper skinned the rabbit with practised ease, while the fire blazed away. Once the rabbit was prepped, and on the spit, the Piper picked up his flute and considered another tune. He looked into the night sky and slowly shook his head, causing the silk ribbon which held back his long, blond hair to shake loose. The piper set down his flute and retrieved the red silk piece from the ground, dusting off any dirt quickly. As he held it, his mind drifted to the young girl who had given him this favour. So engrossed was he in his reverie that only the smell of burning rabbit brought him back. He sighed and wiped a wayward tear from his cheek. He re-tied his hair with the silk and rescued the rabbit from an unfortunate cremation.
As he ate, the pleasant breeze took an ominous turn. It wasn't just a cool breeze that replaced it, but an icy blast that brought tears to his eyes and coldness to his meal. The fire flared up, and the sky took to rumbling. The sky grew darker as a cover of bleak clouds crept across the night, blotting out the stars. The piper picked up his flute and bag before turning and setting off through the forest. Before he had travelled much farther, the rain began. The thick foliage of the trees helped to protect the piper from the worst of the downpour but he would need to find shelter soon, as the weather would only worsen.
The forest floor began to rise as he ascended the side of the mountain. The trees thinned, and the Piper felt the sting of night's icy breath through his thin clothes. On the other side of the tree line, the Piper spied a cave, hollowed from the hillside. It would be a perfect place to shelter from the storm, except for the large, brown bear that was prowling by the entrance. The piper glanced around for a suitable perch. He then swung himself, with the skill of a gymnast, to the lower limbs of a large oak tree. It was a shame the oak had not been hollow as it would easily have been big enough to house a sleeping man. The piper edged along one of the oak's mighty limbs until he could peer past the foliage to the cave. He removed the flute from its resting place on his belt and began to play.
The growling bear at the cave entrance pricked up his ears at the new sound. One he had not heard before from the forest. He ceased his growling, and prowling, and sat down with a thump on the broken-down bracken in front of the cave. The beast pawed the air in front of his face; an itch that couldn't be reached. He let out a low moan. In the tree, the Piper continued to play. The bear continued to sit in place much to the consternation of the Piper. The animal appeared docile now, but the Piper needed to be sure. After all, it was a bear. He hopped down from the tree without dropping a note, and walked towards the resting beast.
The bear sniffed the air loudly in front of him and watched as this strange-sounding mammal approached him. Normally the bear would charge anything advancing on his home, but this fellow was very intriguing. The bear stopped pawing the air and fixed the interloper with a steady gaze. A curious scene played out by the mountain cave. The Piper, still playing, walked right up to the bear, and knelt in front of him. The bear edged its snout closer to this enigma and sniffed him. Seemingly satisfied that the stranger held no danger, the bear turned and walked into the cave; and with a nod of its great head, in a surprisingly human-like gesture, beckoned the man to follow. The Piper accepted the invitation.
Once inside the cave, out of the worsening storm, the piper quickened the pace of his song. The bear flumped to the ground in a sleepy, heaving mass of limbs and fur. As before, keeping the tune alive, the piper reached out with one hand, slow but steady, and closed the bear's eyes. The sound of the snoring bear accompanied the flute's serenade, in a not unmelodic manner for several notes. The Piper ruffled the bear's head, but the bear was fast asleep. The Piper drew his tune to a close, knowing that the beast would not awaken.
"Sleep well, my friend, and dream of wondrous things," intoned the Piper before settling himself down for the night, curled against the mighty beast's back for warmth against the onslaught of the night.
The bear never awoke the next morning. The Piper was up at dawn and well on his way up the mountain side. The unseasonably cold weather made it treacherous underfoot, but the nimble-footed piper was used to all kinds of weather on his travels. The icy winds troubled him not either, as he pulled his newly acquired bearskin tighter around his shoulders. He had enough meat to last for several days courtesy of his less than furry, and slightly less hefty, overnight companion. The Piper regretted the fate of the bear but found it much more preferable than the other way around.
The air grew thinner as he rose in altitude. He knew this was the way he must come but was doubting the wisdom of his trip as he laboured against the unfavourable conditions. He had promised her that he would come back when freedom was his. That had been how many years ago? Ten, maybe more. The silk in his hair a constant reminder of her love. So lost in thought was he, he did not hear it until it was almost too late. The low growl startled him and brought him back to reality.
In front of him stood a grey wolf, ice encrusting round the drool of its muzzle. Its ears were pricked up, lips pulled back, and pawing at the frozen ground. Hunger filled its eyes. It looked thin under the lank fur hanging from its frame. The Piper's immediate reaction was to run, but he remembered one of his former companions in the travelling show telling him that you stood more chance against a wolf if you faced it down rather than run. So still he stood. The wolf paced a little side to side, weighing up his fur-clad prey. The Piper stood tall and puffed out his narrow chest, in an attempt to make himself look more imposing. Slowly the piper moved his left hand towards the flute hanging from his belt. The wolf cocked his head, quizzically. The Piper stopped. There was no point. Wolves, for some reason, were not susceptible to the charms of his flute. He had never found the right notes.
The Piper's legs began to ache from the stand-off. His right knee buckled, and that was all the wolf needed. Having not eaten for several days, the wolf was ravenous, and ferocious. He pounced full of raking paws, and gnashing teeth. Quick, and hard, he flew at the Piper, who took a step back, and slipped against the hard rock and went down. The wolf was on him in an instant, scratching his chest with furious footwork while snapping at his face with rancid, razor-sharp teeth. The piper managed to get his hands up just in time to protect his face. He grasped the jaws of the ravenous animal in each hand and hung on. If the wolf had not been weakened by hunger, he’d have been dead already. The Piper as beast's teeth cut into his hands, sending panic through the young man. He knew he couldn’t hold out much longer.
The Piper squirmed beneath the wolf until he was able to bring his knees up under the belly of the beast. He wedged one knee just under the animal's ribcage and brought the other leg straight. With everything he could muster, the Piper brought the free leg up, smashing his knee into the other side of the ribcage. He heard the snap and felt the wolf try to yelp which came out as a gurgle, as he still held its snout firmly. Using the momentum generated from the blow, the Piper slung the wolf off him. and quickly righted himself, grabbing the bearskin as he did so.
This time the Piper was ready. He knew there was nothing more dangerous than a wounded animal, and pure anger burned in the eyes of this one. As the wolf jumped at him, he used the skin as a decoy, whipping it over the beast's head at the last moment. Something he had picked up on his travels where barbarians bated bulls for their sadistic enjoyment. This bought him a little time; the wolf entangled in the fur trappings. The Piper reached into his boot to retrieve his blade but came away empty - the blade had gone. He spotted it on the other side of the path, beyond the distracted wolf trying to shake the skin from its head. The Piper picked up the largest rock he could manage and ran at the wolf.
The wolf threw off the bearskin just in time to be greeted with the Piper's rock crashing down onto its spine with the maximum force the young man could muster. The wolf sank to the icy floor, with a howl and a whimper. Between the injured ribcage and the shattered spine, the wolf was done for. Anger drained from its eyes, replaced with sadness. The Piper knew these were human emotions but animals had souls too, as far as he was concerned. The wolf lay twitching and whimpering. The Piper looked down at the beast, compassion filling the gaps the adrenaline left. He retrieved his blade and walked up to his adversary. The wolf lifted its head one last time and groaned an acceptance of his fate. The piper thrust the long, cold blade through the wolf's ear, penetrating deep inside, and ending the suffering of the animal.
The Piper retrieved the bearskin from the ground. Although the outer fur was wet, the interior was only a little damp. It would suffice against the winds. He wondered how much longer it would be until he reached his destination. And, of course, he thought of her. The long, dark hair hanging down to her slender waist; the curves of her hips, and the swell of her breasts. She had an exquisite neck, flawless complexion and a face that made a moonlit night look dull. With these thoughts in his head, and tightening britches, the Piper drifted off to sleep; protected between the mountain wall and the body of the wolf.
It was early evening when he awoke. The weather had abated somewhat and he needed to be moving again. His muscles groaned as he stretched the sleep from them.
"Thank you, my friend, for your warmth and protection from the night. Enjoy your hunt in the stars." The Piper stroked the stiffening wolf once, before heading off up the path.
It was not long before the light started to fade but the Piper kept climbing. He knew that when he crested the mountain his journey would soon be at an end. The thought of her spurred him on. During his time on the road, he had written to her on numerous occasions, but it was always a one-way conversation. How could she return his kindnesses when even he did not know where the show would pitch up? Such was the life of travelling performers. The crest of the mountain was in sight, silhouetted against the deep blue night sky. A perfect moon hung in the sky; a beacon guiding his way. As he cleared the summit, snow began to fall; flakes glistened in the moonlight like the stars above them.
The Piper rested for a moment, scooping up the gathering snow in his hands. The tiny flakes stinging the cuts on his hands from the encounter with the wolf. Flexing his fingers, the Piper wondered if it would affect his playing. Painful as it was, he grabbed the flute and raised it to his lips. He played, but this time it was just for him. A tune he had not played in a very long time. The notes danced on the breeze and twirled with the snowflakes. A beautiful tune of love, and lament. When he finished, the Piper smiled. He could still play.
The snow had deepened and covered the landscape in a beautiful, clouded blanket. Across the shimmering woodlands and plains, a soft glow had arisen on the horizon. It caught the Piper's eye, and held his breath. Unconsciously, he reached out a hand, as if to grasp the glow and hold it tight. He was almost there; his destination in sight.


A First Book Chapter contest entry


2454 words.
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