the amazing maurice and his educated rodents Page 18
'More than you can, piper.'
'Sounds like a challenge to me,' said the piper. 'The piper doesn't accept challenges from-' the old man on the cart began, but the rat piper waved him into silence. 'Y'know, kid,' he said, 'this isn't the first time some kid has tried this. I'm walking down the street and someone yells, “Go for your piccolo, mister!” and I turn around, and it's always a kid like you with a stupid-looking face. Now, I don't want anyone to say I'm an unfair man, kid, so if you'd just care to apologize you might walk away from here with the same number of legs you started with '
'You're frightened.' Malicia stepped out of the crowd. The piper grinned at her. 'Yeah?' he said. 'Yes, because everyone knows what happens at a time like this. Let me ask this stupid-looking kid, who I've never
seen before: are you an orphan?'
'Yes,' said Keith. 'Do you know nothing about your background at all?'
'Aha!' said Malicia. 'That proves it! We all know what happens when a mysterious orphan turns up and challenges someone big and powerful, don't we? It's like being the third and youngest son of a king. He can't help but win!' She looked triumphantly at the crowd. But the crowd looked doubtful. They hadn't read as many stories as Malicia, and were rather attached to the experience of real life, which is that when someone small and righteous takes on someone big and nasty he is grilled bread product, very quickly. However, someone at the back shouted, 'Give the stupid-looking kid a chance! At least he'll be cheaper!' and someone else shouted, 'Yes, that's right!' and someone else shouted, 'I agree with the other two!' and no-one seemed to notice that all the voices came from near ground level or were associated with the progress around the crowd of a scruffy-looking cat with half its fur missing. Instead, there was a general murmuring, no real words, nothing that would get anyone into trouble if the piper turned nasty, but a muttering indicating, in a general sense, without wishing to cause umbrage, and seeing everyone's point of view, and taking one thing with another, and all things being equal, that people would like to see the boy given a chance, if it's all right with you, no offence meant. The piper shrugged. 'Fine,' he said. 'It'll be something to talk about. And when I win, what will I get?' The mayor coughed. 'Is a daughter's hand in marriage usual in these circumstances?' he said. 'She has very good teeth, and would make a goo-a wife for anyone with plenty of free wall space-'
'Father!' said Malicia. 'Later on, later on, obviously,' said the mayor. 'He's unpleasant, but he is rich.'
'No, I'll just take my payment,' said the piper. 'One way or another.'
'And I said we can't afford it!' said the mayor. 'And I said one way or the other,' said the piper. 'And you, kid?'
'Your rat pipe,' said Keith. 'No. It's magic, kid.'
'Then why are you scared to bet it?' The piper narrowed his eyes. 'OK, then,' he said. 'And the town must let me solve its rat problem,' said Keith. 'And how much will you charge?' said the mayor. 'Thirty gold pieces! Thirty gold pieces. Go on, say it!' shouted a voice at the back of the crowd. 'No, I won't cost you a thing,' said Keith. 'Idiot!' shouted the voice in the crowd. People looked around, puzzled. 'Nothing at all?' said the mayor. 'No, nothing.'
'Er… the hand-in-marriage thing is still on offer, if you-'
'No, that only happens in stories,' said Keith. 'And I shall also bring back a lot of the food that the rats stole.'
'They ate it!' said the mayor. 'What're you going to do, stick your fingers down their throats?'
'I said that I'll solve your rat problem,' said Keith. 'Agreed, Mr Mayor?'
'Well, if you're not charging-'
'But first, I shall need to borrow a pipe,' Keith went on. 'You haven't got one?' said the mayor. 'It got broken.' Corporal Knopf nudged the mayor. 'I've got a trombone from when I was in the army,' he said. 'It won't take a mo to nip and get it.' The rat piper burst out laughing. 'Doesn't that count?' said the mayor, as Corporal Knopf hurried off. 'What? A trombone for charming rats? No, no, let him try. Can't blame a kid for trying. Good with a trombone, are you?'
'I don't know,' said Keith. 'What do you mean, you don't know?'
'I mean, I've never played one. I'd be a lot happier with a flute, trumpet, piccolo or Lancre bagpipe, but I've seen people playing the trombone and it doesn't look too difficult. It's only an overgrown trumpet, really.'
'Hah!' said the piper. The watchman came running back, rubbing a battered trombone with his sleeve and therefore making it just a bit
more grimy. Keith took it, wiped the mouthpiece, put it to his mouth, pressed the keys a few times and then blew one long note. 'Seems to work,' he said. 'I expect I can learn as I go along.' He gave the rat piper a brief smile. 'Do you want to go first?'
'You won't charm one rat with that mess, kid,' said the piper, 'but I'm glad I'm here to see you try.' Keith gave him a smile again, took a breath, and played. There was a tune there. The instrument squeaked and wheezed, because Corporal Knopf had occasionally used the thing as a hammer, but there was a tune, quite fast, almost jaunty. You could tap your feet to it. Someone tapped his feet to it. Sardines emerged from a crack in a nearby wall, going 'hwunftwothreefour' under his breath. The crowd him dance ferociously across the cobbles until he disappeared into a drain. Then they broke into applause. The piper looked at Keith. 'Did that one have a hat on?' he said. 'I didn't notice,' said Keith. 'Your go.' The piper pulled a short length of pipe from inside his jacket. He took another length from his pocket, and slotted it into place on the first piece. It went click, in a military kind of way. Still watching Keith, and still grinning, the piper took a mouthpiece from his top pocket, and screwed it into the rest of the pipe with another, very final, click. Then he put it to his mouth and played. From her lookout on a roof Big Savings shouted down a drainpipe, 'Now!' Then she pushed two lumps of cotton-wool in her ears. At the bottom of the pipe, Inbrine shouted into a drain, 'Now!' and then he too snatched up his earplugs. … ow, ow, ow echoed through the pipes… … 'Now!' shouted Darktan in the room of cages. He rammed some straw into the drainpipe. 'Everyone block their ears!' They'd done their best with the rat cages. Malicia had brought blankets, and the rats had spent a feverish hour blocking up holes with mud. They'd done their best to feed the prisoners properly, too, and even though they were only keekees it was heartbreaking to see them cower so desperately. Darktan turned to Nourishing. 'Got your ears blocked?' he said. 'Pardon?'
'Good!' Darktan picked up two lumps of cotton-wool. 'The silly-sounding girl better be right about this stuff,' he said. 'I don't think many of us have got any strength left to run.' The piper blew again, and then stared at his pipe. 'Just one rat,' said Keith. 'Any rat you like.' The piper glared at him, and blew again. 'I can't hear anything,' said the mayor. 'Humans can't,' muttered the piper. 'Perhaps it's broken,' said Keith helpfully. The piper tried again. There was murmuring from the crowd. 'You've done something,' he hissed. 'Oh yes?' said Malicia, loudly. 'What could he have done? Told the rats to stay underground with their ears blocked up?' The murmuring turned into muffled laughter. The piper tried one more time. Keith felt the hairs stand up on the back of his neck. A rat emerged. It moved slowly across the cobbles, bouncing from side to side, until it reached the piper's feet, where it fell over and started making a whirring noise. People's mouths fell open. It was a Mr Clicky. The piper nudged it with his foot. The clockwork rat rolled over a few times and then its spring, as a result of months of being punished in traps, gave up. There was a poiyonngggg, and a brief shower of cogwheels. The crowd burst out laughing. 'Hmm,' said the piper, and this time the look he gave Keith was shaded with grudging admiration. 'OK, kid,' he said. 'Shall you and I have a little talk? Piper to piper? Over by the fountain?'
'Provided people can see us,' said Keith. 'You don't trust me, kid?'
'Of course not.' The piper grinned. 'Good. You've got the makings of a piper, I can see that.' Over by the fountain, he sat down with his booted legs in front of him, and held out the pipe. It was bronze, with a raised pattern of brass rats on it, and it glinted in the sunlight. 'Here,' said the piper. 'Take it. It's a good one. I've got plenty of others. Go on, take it. I'd like to hear you play it.'
Keith looked at it uncertainly. 'It's all trickery, kid,' said the piper, as the pipe shone like a sunbeam. 'See the little slider there? Move it down and the pipe plays a special note humans can't hear. Rats can. Sends 'em nuts. They come rushing out of the ground and you drive 'em into the river, just like a sheepdog.'
'That's all there is to it?' said Keith. 'You were expecting something more?'
'Well, yes. They say you turn people into badgers and lead children into magic caves and-' The piper leaned forward conspiratorially. 'It always pays to advertise, kid. Sometimes these little towns can be pretty slow when it comes to parting with the cash. 'Cos the thing about turning people into badgers and all the rest of that stuff is this: it never happens round here. Most of the people round here never go more than ten miles away in their lives. They'll believe just about anything could happen fifty miles away. Once the story gets around, it does your work for you. Half the things people say I've done even I didn't make up.'
'Tell me,' said Keith, 'have you ever met someone called Maurice?'
'Maurice? Maurice? I don't think so.'
'Amazing,' said Keith. He took the pipe, and gave the piper a long, slow stare. 'And now, piper,' he said, 'I think you're going to lead the rats out of town. It's going to be the most impressive job you've ever done.'
'Hey? What? You won, kid.'
'You'll lead out the rats because that's how it should go,' said Keith, polishing the pipe on his sleeve. 'Why do you charge such a lot?'
'Because I give 'em a show,' said the piper. 'The fancy clothes, the bullying… charging a lot is part of the whole thing. You've got to give 'em magic, kid. Let 'em think you're just a fancy rat-catcher and you'll be lucky to get a cheese lunch and a warm handshake.'
'We'll do it together, and the rats will follow us, really follow us into the river. Don't bother about the trick note, this will be even better. It'll be… it'll be a great… story,' said Keith. 'And you'll get your money. Three hundred dollars, wasn't it? But you'll settle for half, because I'm helping you.'
'What are you playing at, kid? I told you, you won.'
'Everyone wins. Trust me. They called you in. They should pay the piper. Besides…' Keith smiled. 'I don't want people to think pipers shouldn't get paid, do I?'
'And I thought you were just a stupid-looking kid,' said the piper. 'What kind of a deal have you got with the rats?'
'You wouldn't believe it, piper. You wouldn't believe it.' Inbrine scurried through the tunnels, scrabbled through the mud and straw that had been used to block the last one, and jumped into the cage room. The Clan rats unblocked their ears when they saw him. 'He's doing it?' said Darktan. 'Yessir! Right now!' Darktan looked up at the cages. The keekees were more subdued, now that the rat king was dead and they'd been fed. But by the smell of it they were desperate to leave this place. And rats in a panic will follow other rats… 'OK,' he said. 'Runners, get ready! Open the cages! Make sure they're following you! Go! Go! Go!' And that was almost the end of the story. How the crowd yelled when rats erupted from every hole and drain. How they cheered when both pipers danced out of the town, with the rats racing along behind them. How they whistled when the rats plunged off the bridge into the river. They didn't notice that some rats stayed on the bridge, urging the others with shouts of 'Remember, strong regular strokes!' and 'There's a nice beach just downstream!' and 'Hit the water feet first, it won't hurt so much!' Even if they had noticed, they probably wouldn't have said anything. Details like that don't fit in. And the piper danced off over the hills and never, ever came back. There was general applause. It had been a good show, everyone agreed, even if it had been expensive. It was definitely something to tell their children. The stupid-looking kid, the one who had duelled with the piper, strolled back into the square. He got a round of applause too. It was turning out to be a good day all round. People wondered if they'd have to have extra children to make room for all the stories. But they realized they'd have enough to save for the grandchildren when the other rats arrived. They were suddenly there, pouring up out of drains and gutters and cracks. They didn't squeak, and they weren't running. They sat there, watching everyone. 'Here, piper!' shouted the mayor. 'You missed some!'