The door slams behind me, cutting off their low voices and dampening the smell of cabbage. I sit down on the corridor floor and lean back against the wall outside Zelda’s flat. The bricks are cool on my back, and that tight feeling that’s been building in my chest loosens a little as I light up a cig. Smoke curls around my fingers, and I can almost see tiny serpents weaving in the silvers and greys. Wild magic, changing the face of the world, and waiting for someone to harness it. I can almost understand why Heinrich wants it. If all this was mine…. I flex my fingers, rippling them through the smoke. Under the ground, the world shifts, half-dreaming. Immense with power.
But I’m not Heinrich, and I don’t want to rip a hole in the word so I can get more magic I can’t control. All I want is for the people I love to be safe. To stay alive. For that alone, I need to understand how to use my own power. I snort. Power I don’t even know how to access. God. I have no idea what I’m doing.
I sniff and pinch the bridge of my nose. Damn Caleb. And Rain, for being so stupid. I dig my mother’s book out of my bag. It feels safe and familiar in my hands, and I trace my finger down the thin page, looking for my place. There, they’d just found out how much money the piper wanted.
My mother’s voice rises in my head.
The price the Mayor quoted might have been enough to buy the village food all through the winter, but the people thought it a fair enough amount to pay the piper. Men took their wages, women their savings, and the children turned their coins out of their pockets. They filled a large teak chest inlaid with brass and heavy as granite. The strongest of the village men carried the kist of gold through the streets of Hemel, puffing all the way, bent-backed under their load. The people of the village stopped what they were doing, peered out from the nibbled curtains and watched from the archways of doors to see the Mayor walking and smiling and triumphant ahead of the chest.
“Oh good people,” he said, in his loudest voice. “Today comes an end to all your troubles, for I have found us a ratcatcher, and he will free us from this terrible plague. By midnight, not a rat will live in Hemel.”
The crowds cheered weakly, for they were starved, and even good news does not a meal make.
The Mayor led the kist-bearers into his office, had them set the great thing down on the flagstones, and then bid them leave.
The ratcatcher, Heinrich, watched all this while he leaned against the wall and smoked a long pipe filled with finely milled tobacco. When the Mayor unlocked and opened the kist with a flourish, Heinrich drew the pipe from his wide thin lips, and blew two great puffs of smoke from his prodigious nose, and for an instant, he looked like a fire drake wreathed in billows of grey smoke.
“Well,” said the Mayor, waving his hand over the gold. “A thousand coins, as we agreed.”
Heinrich did not speak, he stooped, and ran his bony fingers through the coins, and nodded in satisfaction at the dull soft sound of gold against gold. “As soon as the Silver Prince has risen in the night sky,” said Heinrich as he straightened. “I will stand in the square, and make the rats dance.”
“Good, good,” said the Mayor. He rubbed his hands together. “The day cannot come to a close soon enough.” He shifted, lifting one foot to let a rat run under it, and slammed the lid down. He locked it quickly, and slipped the key onto a chain around his neck “for safe keeping.”
Heinrich only grunted in amusement. He left the mayor’s rooms, and made his way down to the cobbled plaza that stood before the ancient church, which had been built over another place of worship, which had been built over still another, for that is the way history goes—
“Does it?” asked young Caleb. “Why?”
“Because,” Mr Henry said as he caught all but the last threads of the boy’s magic, and began weaving them into a small tight ball, tugging to make sure the knots were tight. “All religion, all magic, is just about trying to trample down the others, and take the most for yourself.”
“It seems rather silly.”
“Oh, it is,” agreed Mr Henry. “But, as you shall see, when you grow up, adults are rather silly creatures.”
Caleb nodded, because this dove-tailed rather well with his world view of old people already. “I’m not growing up,” he said.
Mr Henry shrugged. “Well, there’s some that don’t. Mayhap you’ll be one of them, drifting from one place to another like a branch in the tide. Who can say?”
Caleb frowned, digesting this information. “Go on,” he said. “Please.” For manners had been beaten into the young master Dunning from a very early age. But that was hardly unusual back then, and indeed, the world might be a sight better off were we to go back to the practice.
Heinrich waited in the town square, one eye on the sky, and the other on the gathering crowd of rats and townspeople. When the young crescent moon finally showed his face, Heinrich smiled and lifted his pipe to his lips. A hush fell over the square as the first notes flowed sweet and clear as a mountain stream over sharp rocks.
The rats all stood upright, straight as stocks, the only movement was the twitching of their whiskers. The tune changed, and as one, all the rats turned to a partner, bowed, and linked their arms.
A slow and stately dance began. The rats bowed and twirled and exchanged partners with a courtly flourish.
Heinrich played a little faster, and the rats changed to a dance more in keeping with this new tempo. And so it went, Heinrich played faster, and wilder, and the dancers echoed his tune, little rat feet stamping the dusty cobbles. So many of them were there that they made enough noise with their stamping and leaping to drown out all conversation. The only thing that rose louder was the melody that sprang from Heinrich’s gleaming pipe.
When all the rats were leaping and dancing and to-and-fro-ing, the Mayor took the opportunity to slip away from the crowd, and secret away the extra two hundred gold pieces. He returned to the square just in time to see the piper leading the rats a merry dance through Hemel’s narrow streets, under the thatched eaves.
The crowd was following, clapping a beat for the dance, and the piper twirled and played as if his very life depended on it.
The dance left the village, and went past the orchards empty of fruit and leaves, past the bare fields where even the oat stubble had been chewed down to the very sod. They danced down the brick road, until the brick gave way to dry mud. Over hill, over dale.
Eventually the town’s people could go no further, their feet aching, their sides tight.
And still the piper played. He played the rats high up the sides of the mountain that overlooked Hemel, and the rats leapt and fell, their bodies twisting as they realised their doom.
Fur and blood plastered the rocks below the cliff, and the snap of bones and the high squeals of the dying almost drowned out the piper.
My cigarette has long since burned to a drooping cylinder of ash. I sigh and flick the ash away and put the butt in my key chain ashtray just as my phone rings.
Thanks to the broken screen I’ve no idea who’s calling. I wonder if I should even bother answering then again, it could be David calling to beg me to come back to work. Unlikely, but I flick the phone open anyway. “Ja?”
“Irene?” My dad always mangles my name. I don’t know how my mother put up with him. Everyone else can say I-ree-nee, but not my dad. He’s incapable of that and somehow he always makes it sound like a statement: “I, Reen.”
“What?” Then I remember I’m probably going to be begging for my room back pretty soon. “Something wrong?”
“Have you seen Dale today?”
“Uh, no? I mean, I don’t really see all that much of Dale. It’s not like we hang out. Why?”
“He had a drum lesson this afternoon. His teacher called to say he didn’t make it. When I called his school to find out if he was still there, they said he hadn’t been in class today.”
I sit up. Dale loves the drums about as much as he loves his collection of dagga plants. That is, a whole freaking lot. “Did you go check the skate park?” Much as I’m breaking the unwritten rule that you do not bust your sibling for bunking school, I’m worried. “Cause, uh, sometimes, he doesn’t quite go, um, to school, you know.”
“Irene.” He’s shuffling paper on his desk, the soft crackle blanketing his words. “You’ll have to go see if he’s there. I’m on deadline with this damn campaign. You’re not at work are you?”
Not quite. No Dad, actually I’m busy running around Joburg with some random old guy who thinks I’m going to help him kill some other random old guy.
Oh, and did you know Mom was a magician, ’cause no-one exactly informed me of this little skeleton in the family closet.
I clear my throat. “Uh, work? No, no not today.” Damn. I close my eyes and lean my head back against the bricks, snagging my hair on the rough surface. I love my brother, but why on top of everything does he have to pull a stunt like this now? “Sure. Yeah. I’ll go look for him.”
“Thanks.” There’s a pause. I wait for my dad to work out what it is he’s supposed to say next. No need to wonder where I got my amazing social skills from. “Right. Good. You’re a good girl, Irene. I appreciate it.”
“Yeah, yeah.” My dad might be a daft bastard, but he’s family.
I snap the phone closed and pack my stuff back into my bag. Guess there’s no time like the present to inform His Royal Highness Caleb that we’ll be taking a little detour. Probably not too far. My brother goes to Parktown Boys, so if he skipped school, I’ve a pretty good idea of where he is. Probably smoking it up with his friends from art school.
The three of them look up when I come inside.
“We were wondering if we needed to send a search party after you,” Rain says. Then he notices the look on my face. “What? What happened?”
“My dad called. Dale’s kinda missing.”
“He’s probably toked one too many spliffs and fallen asleep somewhere. You know what Dale’s like.”
“He missed drum practise.”
“Oh.” Rain looks down and twists his fingers.
“Anyway,” I force some cheerfulness into my voice. “We’re just going to go check if he’s by the skate park, or near the art school, or, or something.”
“We don’t have time for that,” Caleb says. He stands, looming over us like some kind of fright night monster.
“Let the girl go,” says Zelda. “I need to pin-point where Heinrich is. You have time enough before I have him tracked.”
“There’s soup in the kitchen,” Rain says. “We really were about to come call you, so you could have some lunch.”
I eat quickly, drinking my soup down from a large mug. It’s watery and cabbagey, but it’s better than nothing.
“Where are you going?” Caleb snaps as Rain and I head to the door.
“I already told you—”
“Not you,” says Caleb.
Rain narrows his eyes, “I’m not leaving Irene to drive all over Joburg,” he says and it makes my heart brighten a little, that he would come with me even if it means annoying Caleb. Perhaps the bonds are weakening on their own and it’ll just take a little shove to snap them completely. It’s almost like old times, though I’m not so stupid as to think Caleb hasn’t changed Rain in some way. A good way, even if I’m not keen to admit it. Rain’s like something that’s been dragged out of its shell, only instead of curling up and dying, he’s unfolding, growing bigger. My heart jumps, and I feel strangely fearful and hopeful all at the same time. I’ll forgive Caleb a lot if he’s the reason Rain snaps out of his fragile cocoon and starts actually living.
Caleb is frowning, glaring first at me, then Rain. “I’m coming with,” he announces. “It’s safer that way.”
And I’m not going to argue. I’m not stupid enough to think that if I meet up with a Hunter alone, I’ll be much good. We’ve already seen I’m not. I’ll save taking on the demonic forces of witchcraft for when I’ve worked out my power. In fact, having Caleb along means I can ask him some questions.
I’m getting nowhere on my own, and for all my mother’s book has told me, it’s not exactly brimming with actual information I can use. Maybe there’s an instruction manual hidden among the rest of my mother’s stuff: SO YOU FOUND OUT YOU’RE A MAGICIAN! One Hundred And One Tips For The Magically Impaired.
The sounds of our feet echo through the corridor and the entrance, and everything takes on an eerie emptiness, like we’re travellers from another world going through the ruins of a dead city. Except for the occasional flurry of wild magic at the edge of my vision, everything is still. It makes me nervous. I’m itching to get into my dad’s car, fold my hands around familiar leather and listen to music made by real people who have nothing to do with Caleb’s world. We pass into the parking garage, and the echoes sound shriller and weaker. My heart goes cold. I hate this place. A few cars are parked here and there, but mostly it just feels like a ghost world
Luckily, my dad’s car is still where we left it in the parking lot, so that’s one good thing.
The bad? A rat is sitting on the bonnet. It sees us coming and leaps down.
Caleb moves faster than I believed possible, catching the rat with his bare hands. There’s a sickening snap, and he drops the limp body to the ground.