Horst, apprentice to Maximilian the alchemist, lifted his blond head toward the geese in the evening sky. It was the beginning of a rare summer evening with a faint gibbous moon and swirling warm breezes. Even so, he felt a strange chill touch his brow as he dropped his heavy knapsack and pulled his cloak closer. He thought how tired he was as he wearily lowered his tall, trim body to the grassy bank.
Unconsciously he touched the corner of his left eyebrow, white as snow, and thought of his task. He was close now, and the sounds on the night air were clear and pleasant. The geese, safe in flight, honked away toward the south. There were other sounds as well, but Horst was listening for only one - the sound of the flute in the ancient stone guardsman's tower on the knoll behind him.
As he rested beside the small stream which ran to the Rhine valley below, he thought of what his master had said when he left three days ago. Horst had felt the old wizard's concern - he had seen the tear glisten on the ancient cheek as he picked up his knapsack to leave. "Take care my son, there is danger in what you do. And remember, none of the magic I have taught you will work in the vicinity of Cassarella's pipe."
He knew Maximilian thought of him as a son, but the words stayed in his mind because it was the first time the old man had ever referred to him in that manner. Once Horst had been a beggar waif, hungry and scared, and Maximilian had saved him from an angry crowd which had called him a marked child because of his one snow white eyebrow. From that first day he had loved the old man. Maximilian would be delirious with happiness if he managed to return with the pipe. Many times they had spoken of the good ways to use its white magic.
The tower became black against the night sky as the evening deepened. Horst watched with awe as a soft glow slowly formed near the top of the parapet. From its upper levels there was also music, halting at first, with soft measure, coming slowly as the moon filled the night sky. The first sounds were light and lilting with an ethereal quality which belied the power to come. As the moon grew bright the music became bolder. Suddenly there was a wild cascade of notes, one tumbling over the other, soaring, rising, reaching to a primitive wail which swooped and rose again.
A melody emerged which brought visions of turmoil and wonder, of magic and wizardry, and of how Gorn and Cassarella, once the two most powerful humans in the world, had sworn to kill each other. The mage's flute told of them first as lovers, and of their power over the world, and how magic had been pure white. Suddenly the music became discordant. There had been a quarrel. Many things were said which could never be taken back. The notes of the flute blended together and took on a somber pitch, lower and lower, almost a wave of feeling rather than a sound. The lovers parted, sworn to kill each other. Then, as the melody continued with jarring step notes, the sobbing instrument revealed how Gorn continued to live in an ice palace in the northern reaches while Cassarella had fled to inhabit the interior of an Asian mountain.
It was a magical pipe and the wonderful sounds were a narration of olden times, days long gone by, of the pain and love entwined together which were a part of the strife which was tearing at the two powerful enemy/lovers. The duel between them had started over two hundred years ago, and now the magic was dying. The flute told how the magic they controlled had taken on color - shifting, changing, at times out of control, - and finally turning dark and wild. Magic in the world was dying. Not quietly, but kicking, howling and very slowly it writhed in agony. For two centuries strange things had occurred in the throes of its struggle: apple trees bore wonderful fruit with arcane powers in the dead of winter; fierce young rabbits, eyes flashing, hunted huge timber wolves and delighted in their terror. The North wind whispered to maidens and asked the direction home. The sun stood still in its travel, and once, when tiny frogs rained from a bright sky, it did not set for seven days.
Gorn, the Lord of the North, shook the earth with his terrible wrath, unleashing the North wind to whip and saw around the mountain where his once consuming love had fled.
Cassarella, when her strength returned, changed the icy blast to gentle breezes, directionless, which wandered the earth searching the way home. In turn she had held the summer sun over the northern ice palace, but at a price. Cassarella aged a hundred years during those seven days. The magic, once used to make life long and happy, was being twisted and tormented. All this the flute related in a melody which was marvelous in both its range and its power.
In her flight from the northern kingdom, Cassarella had passed through this Bavarian countryside with her entourage. She had carried the pipe with her, but her heart was no longer pure and the flute refused to play for her. In rage, she had locked it in this tower and many whispered that she had forgotten it.
Maximilian, then a young apprentice himself those many years ago, had watched in awe as the great Cassarella swept through his home countryside and made her passage East. Every wizard in the area had hidden during that time; but he had watched, at mortal threat to his own life, as the flute was imprisoned. Since then, he had spent much of his lifetime trying to free it. Now he was old and his magic often failed, or worse, did strange and unpredictable things. This year, on the anniversary of that terrible time, he had sent his senior apprentice to the tower.
Enraptured, Horst shivered in the warm night air as the music trailed off and became a monotonal dirge. Later, he slept fitfully as the tower's glow waned and the warm night fled, rousing when he could feel the cool dawn approaching. He lay on the grassy bank below the old watch post and slowly brought his mind back from the soaring trip he had taken on the wings of the music. He considered his problem: How was he to obtain the pipe from the tower?
Many times Maximilian had told Horst how the tower had been sealed completely on that infamous day and how Cassarella had wept during the entire trial. No one would go near the old tower after that; and many legends, most of them untrue, had been told and retold around the countryside. The most popular story was of a phantom, a demon beast, locked inside, which sucked the breath from any who would dare to enter the crypt of the flute. But Maximilian, who had watched the entire imprisonment, continued, "I am responsible for that rumor. I must gain possession of the pipe before any others who might corrupt it. It would be a terrible loss to the world."
When he was young, Maximilian had spent nine years living near the tower and had gone to it everyday. He had managed to quarry a break in one of the huge stones and crawl partly inside to a small cellar only to find he could not stay conscious after gaining entrance. Luckily, he had the foresight to tie a rope around his waist. The other end was tied to his saddle outside. Had his horse not pulled him into the fresh air, he might have stayed there forever. On yet another occasion Maximilian and his sister had combined their magic and managed to swoop him to the top of the tower where there was an easy entrance to the abandoned barracks room below. He had spent four days in a baffling labyrinth and only by the power of his sister's tears had he found his way back to the rooftop entrance.
When Horst first heard the story, he had vowed to take up the rescue attempt after Maximilian had grown feeble. A fort-night ago they had made plans and Maximilian had given him a wineskin and two documents: a parchment map and a line rendering of the tower.
The morning sunlight showed the tower ancient and hoary. Thick brush surrounded its base and clinging vines ran up at least ten meters. The tower was easily over twenty meters tall with a smoothly irregular surface without a break anywhere. Massive granite stones, huge at the base, tapered in size as the tower grew taller. The highest ones formed the over-hanging parapet and were smooth and weather worn. Some were slick with moss. The ancient tower had been built to fend off an army and Horst did not think it could be scaled. It looked dismayingly impossible to gain even the rampart, let alone the upper chambers of the old guard tower.
Most of the morning had passed before he found the crevice Maximilian had shown him on the drawing. It appeared to angle down and take a sharp turn out of sight. Gingerly, after hoisting himself onto the ledge created at its entrance, he opened his pack and took out six candles. Then, with a disconsolate shrug, he took the large wineskin from his belt and poured the remaining content on the ground. Placing it to his mouth, he blew until it ballooned out and was taut with air.
It was long moments before he moved deeper into the rift, traversing carefully one foot slowly placed ahead of the other. Finally, he stopped to light a candle so he could survey the passage. Short and narrow, it seemed to end abruptly; but as the pupils of his eyes widened he saw a black area at his feet where the candlelight indicated there was an opening almost directly in front of him. Pausing, aware of the mephitic stench coming from within, he wondered if he had the courage to descend. The dank odor was oppressive and made his head hurt. The noxious smell, combined with the flickering light and the cold, assaulted his senses and left him feeling terribly alone. It seemed to affect his very soul.
Then, pushing his pack into the opening, he lowered himself into the darkness below and stood up. The candle guttered and brightened as it caught a stir of air from the hole over his head. The flame cast dancing shadows on three walls, but nothing ahead of him. The interior lay that way.
With a dull feeling and a pain in his chest he started toward the blackness. Twenty steps and the candle flame grew smaller. Another thirty steps, which seemed to take hours to achieve, and he was against a smooth wall. He tried to think why he was there. It was hard to breathe. Hard to think.
He moved slowly to his right, one hand lightly crawling over the surface of the cold wall while he tried to hold his breath. Nothing. Time seemed to crawl with him as he continued the search for an exit. The wall felt to be curving away toward the interior, but he could not be sure. He knew he was lost now. The light from the entrance in the ceiling had disappeared, and the candle guttered and burned only dimly. Even so, it provided a reassuring and warm companionship. His hand came to a corner and he stumbled over something which skittered dryly across the floor. In panic he jerked as he saw the broken skeleton he had come across. He took another deep breath of the foul air and waited to gather his courage. He wanted to run, but in which direction?
The tiny flame died the moment he ducked into a low doorway. Still, just before the candle winked out, he caught a glimpse of the narrow stairs. The chill sent another shiver through him as he saw the remains of an earlier adventurer lying a few feet above him in the stairwell.
The glow of the wick expired.
His head was pounding. His lungs burned. He felt the lethargy settle in him. He sat on the steps and tried to think. He had been ready for this. Why couldn't he remember his plan? He put his head down and felt himself drifting toward sleep. It would be a wonderful thing to lie down here. Just a short nap and when he awoke he would have the answer. The cold stone on his face roused him slightly and he pulled the wineskin under his cheek. The wineskin. Yes, now he knew! Slowly, painfully, he held it to his lips and gulped a great breath of the air inside. He held it for a moment and then took another. Fear ran fingers down his back as the fog in his mind lifted slightly. He stood up and began to climb
When the stairs ended Horst bumped his head on the heavy cellar door covering the stairwell. With another kiss of the wineskin he put his back against the door and heaved upward with all his strength. A rush of cold, fresh air poured down on him. He pushed the door open a little further. Fear was on his side of the door. He knew not what was on the other side. His body trembled violently as he waited for his mind to clear and the fear to subside. He crouched on the top step and felt his strength return as the chilled air poured over him.
The horrible darkness all about him changed and became a frightful reddish glow. It died down and flared again. Hard shadows blazed stark on the cold stone. Horst could feel his heart quicken as the blackness pulsed with the dull red light. Fear came again and gripped his throat. It encircled his chest. Once again it was difficult to breathe, but this time not from lack of air.
The fire-bright pulsations shifted and changed to a soft cohesion of colors and then to separate pastel hues. They spread from a corner and slowly flooded the room with pinks and blues and yellows, each new radiance growing brighter than the previous. The colors blended together into a melody and burst into music as Horst found elation replacing his fear. The sound and the light became one, running up and down the scale, each single note and each pure color seemingly too beautiful to hear and behold. As harmonics were added the light became a prismatic splendor, flashing, melting and merging, each burst of color trailing off into an infinite series of diminishing sparkles and eddies. There was joyous laughter in the music and a quick beat that seemed to be saying, "Free - Free - Free."
Horst did not remember the wild, leaping bounds he took down the stairway nor the climb through the ceiling into the wall's crevice. The entire flight seemed to take but a moment. He did recall the incredible flute's crescendo of notes as he broke free of the tower and ran down the grassy knoll. He had Cassarella's pipe and now it was his. He could feel the flute's grateful thanks and knew no harm could come to him.
The music continued as he came into the grassy glade, a trilling and rippling which went from aleatory to staccato and filled him with an overwhelming desire to dance. His spirit floated on the color and the music.
There was a resonance, a feeling of surging power filling Horst as he twirled and leaped with Cassarella's pipe. Finally, he fell in happy exhaustion on the flowers by the stream and felt the music bring peace and warmth and joy. There were low, pulsing throbs of ecstasy coming in waves as the flute poured out its happiness at being released. Horst's own feelings were added and blended, reflected back to him in heightened awareness of colors and sounds. He was one with the flute.
Emotion was rampant when he thought of Maximilian - the flute seemed to indicate an awareness of his master all these many years and amplified his feelings. He was anxious to be home - at last he felt he could repay Maximilian for all the love he had received from him.
The stars were beginning to come out when Horst stopped at the crossroads to open his pack. He was a piper now and wanted to dress in a manner celebrating the release. He took out his pied jacket and held it at arm's length. It had been given to him by Maximilian's sister and it was certainly the right one to wear for this occasion. The many colors reminded him of the flute's power. With a satisfied glow he donned it and turned down the road's fork to the village of Hamelin, on the banks of the river Weser. A traveler had told him of a rat problem there.
-------------------------------------------- r.w. -----------------------------------------