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The Piper Is Gone

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This is my story to tell, although I have not been a part of it for many long years. The parts that came after I heard from she of the teeth and skulls or the girls of the cold river or the riders that pass by this place, morning, noon and night. There is more truth in some of them than in others, but I cannot separate the falsehoods, not here, not in this place. But the parts before, those I can tell you. The truth of that is all I am left with.

We were inseparable, Sef and I. I was with him when he bought his pipe from a peddler at a fair in the town, and I was his companion as he herded his geese. It was a quiet life that we had, but not an unpleasant one. And then we met Tat, a lord's granddaughter in rags, and our lives were not as quiet, a little more pleasant. Tat's grandfather wanted nothing to do with her, as her birth had brought with it the death of his favorite daughter, and she had been neglected and left to run about in her tattered clothes with no one to care for her. But we were her friends, and for years later when she came to us with troubles and tears, Sef would play her sweet tunes on his pipe and I would dance with her under the sun or the bright moon, and she would forget her sorrows, at least for a while.

And so we grew up, all three together. And then came the day when we met the stranger; he was a handsome man with splendid clothing and dark hair and an easy smile, and we liked him immediately, all three of us. Sef played his pipe as he had never played before, with wanting and wishing entwined in a low melody, and Tat danced down the lane, and the stranger did not look at anything but her. And the more attention he paid to Tat, the more she looked at nothing but him, and the more desperate Sef's tune felt, as if he was trying to accomplish something with it, trying to weave some magic spell over all of us, although even I, his closest companion, could not tell if he wished to gain the stranger's attention or Tat's. But if there was any magic in his playing that night, it worked against him, for not two days later, Tat and the stranger were wed, and we, friends for so long, were all but forgotten.

Sef was unhappy after this, and set out to do something about it, although he did not tell me what he intended. I followed him anyway; I had no choice.

We wandered for a long time, and I knew we were looking for something, although I did not know what; Sef did not speak, nor did he play his pipe. The silence was strange and unsettling, but there was little I could do to lighten his mood. If he would not play, I could not dance. If he would not talk, I could not listen.

We stopped one morning at a town where a fair was being set up in the square, and Sef walked through, asking if there was a peddler there who sold musical instruments, and we were directed to a small wagon and an old man. He seemed familiar to me, and even more so to Sef; he smiled the first smile I had seen since the night we met the stranger, although it was colder than his old smiles, satisfied instead of happy.

"You sold me this pipe," Sef said, pulling the instrument from his pocket and holding it up for the old man to see.

"I've sold many pipes," the man said, but he had a knowing look in his eye when he looked at it. "Perhaps I sold it to you, perhaps I did not."

"Don't waste my time," said Sef; he had spoken so little in the past weeks that I was unused to the impatience and hardness in his voice. "I've been looking for you, and now that I've found you, I want to talk."

"All right, all right," said the peddler. "What do you wish to know?"

"There's magic in this pipe," Sef said. "I can feel it. But I can't control it. Please, I wish to know how to use it."

"I wouldn't know anything about that. I didn't make that, you see."

"Can you tell me who did?" Sef asked.

"I can tell you where to find her," said the peddler, and there was a gleam in his eye that I did not trust. But Sef did not see it. The old man told us about a faraway forest and a log cabin that was closer to the sky than the ground. "I cannot tell you exactly where it will be," he said. "But you will know it when you see it. It will seem without door, but say this and you will be welcomed there." And then he whispered something in Sef's ear, something that I could not hear. And Sef, politer now that things seemed to be going his way, thanked him.

And we set out again, following the old man's directions. He had not been false with us, for eventually we came to the forest and then came across the cabin, closer to the sky than the ground. Around it was a fence made of skulls and bones, and I could feel Sef's hesitance. But we had traveled a long way, and he was determined to do what he had come to do. He walked up to the gate and, his voice shaking, broke the silence of the evening and said, "Turn your back to the forest, your front to me." And at his words the eyes of the skulls lit up and a door appeared in the cabin, swinging open with a loud crash. I wanted to run, but Sef walked forward, and I could not leave without him.

In the cabin was the hag, she of the skulls and teeth. "You have something of mine," she said.

Sef pulled the pipe out of his pocket. "I wish to know how to use this," he said. "I thought it could draw people to me, but when I most wished for it, it did nothing but turn their attention away."

And she smiled. "I will teach you," she said. "Although you must help me in return."

We could not have left the cabin then even if we wanted, for the door had disappeared as soon as it shut behind us. So we stayed, although the hag often left us alone; neither of us could figure out how she so freely came and went. When she left, she gave Sef various tasks to do, cooking or cleaning, and when she returned, if she was satisfied, she would teach him a small melody for his pipe, although she never told him what any of them were for.

And one day, after teaching him a song, she whistled a melody herself and a window appeared in the wall of the cabin. She opened it and bade Sef come over to it. "Play the tune you have just learned," she said. "Play it so all the forest can hear." And Sef did, over and over, and the hag laughed and laughed. "Perfect, my boy," she said. "I will not go hungry tonight." Outside the window we could see that the cabin was at the very edge of the forest, and that a town was nearby. And from the town came something that moved quickly down the path towards us, closer and closer until we could see that it was a line of children, all dancing to the melody that Sef played.

Sef stopped playing, and the children stopped as well. "What do you want with them?" he asked, and the hag cackled and said again, "I will not go hungry tonight. Keep playing." And he lifted the pipe to his lips again, although I could feel that he did so against his will and against his wishes; I wished we had never come to the home of the hag. As he played, the door appeared, and the hag opened it and stood, waiting for the children to come to her.

Now when we were younger, when there had been three of us instead of two, Sef and Tat and I often got in trouble, and Sef was often the one who figured out best how to get us out of it. I followed his lead back then, and that is what I did when he escaped from the cabin. The hag blocked the open door, but the window that Sef played his tune from was open too, and large enough for a person to fit through. While the hag was distracted, he jumped up and jumped out of it, still playing the tune, and I, as I always did, followed.

But the hag was not so quick to be fooled, and before I had made it out, she was back inside and had grabbed me tight. And Sef could do nothing but leave me behind; we ripped apart as he fell to the ground. It was the worst pain we had ever felt, the most bitter loneliness. And he must have known that to come back for me would be useless, would mean never being able to escape himself. So he ran away, past the fence and the glowing skulls, towards the village, still playing his song, and the children followed behind him, like the shadow that he no longer had.

And I was left alone with the hag, and her hold on me is tight still.

And that is where my tale runs out, and nothing I know after is certain. I have been told that Sef, left alone without friend or lover or shadow, wanders still, searching for all of those. But the hag did not teach him the songs to draw to him a lover or friend, and he has forgotten that there are ways to do so without magic, without his songs. So he plays the tunes that he knows, the songs for the children and the rats and the sorrow, and makes what living he can in the world. Perhaps one day he will chance upon the right notes to find happiness again, to return to being the Sef that I knew before, but although I can hope, I will never know for certain.

For there is no tune to reunite with one's lost shadow.