For the first half of the story see the post below this one.
I kept my eyes shut, hoping to be able to let them accustom to the new light, but I really wanted to open them and see the player of those pipers. I did wonder if I were asleep and dreaming all of this.
The rough sound of the pipes had become smoother and more even and I sensed that in the silence, the player had perhaps been altering the pipes to make them sound better. I let myself listen to the tune that was never quite a tune; I kept thinking I would recognise the melody but I began to understand this melody had no name because it was new. It issued from the mind and the pipes completely newborn and unnamed. It came to me that I was the first human being to hear this piece of music.
Finally, I made myself open my eyes.
I’d begun to know what I’d see for some time but even so, it came as a shock. My mind said it wasn’t afraid but my knees disagreed and gave way, and I pitched forward onto the grass, suddenly boneless and unable to stand.
Apart from the piper, everything else was a complete shock. From being a scrubby bit of land tucked away behind a row of old council houses, the land had transformed into a glade from a forest. No wonder I couldn’t see any streetlights; they were gone. In the penumbra of light shed by the piper, I could see trees seeming to extend into the distance for a long way before being lost utterly in deep shadows. What trees they were, too! I’ve seen trees like them only in dreams, great giants from the ancient past, trunks rearing to the sky like massive stone pillars, their bark rutted and coated with moss and lichens. The undergrowth was scanty, the grass dotted here and there with the white dots of sleeping daisies amid emerald moss as lush as a carpet. Even in the weird light I could see that the usual forest floor army of brambles was absent.
The piper lolled against one of the huge trees, half sitting and half sprawling against it, his legs crossed and his eyes twinkling as he blew soft notes in his set of pipes. They were made of reeds, I thought, or maybe bamboo, but I know nothing of these things; I only know he made such tender tunes as he breathed softly into them.
I’d known him for many years but I thought he’d been a dream, a fantasy lost in childhood memories. He’s a shape-shifter but he’s gone back to the form that amused him most, the one that humans used to know him by, and later reviled him for, calling him devil or demon.
“You don’t think I’m a demon do you?” he said, softly, letting his pipes drop into his lap, his hand still curled round them protectively.
I shook my head but I didn’t seem to be able to speak. I’m not afraid, I wanted to say but on some levels this wasn’t true at all. I certainly didn’t think him a demon.
“When did we last meet?” he asked and again I shook my head. I didn’t know. In all the years since I first glimpsed him, I’d often thought I’d seen him again but never quite sure whether my over active imagination was playing tricks on me. I’d even begun to doubt my own experiences as a child.
“That wasp,” he said. “The one you saved from the Coke. I was there. You didn’t see me, of course.”
“Then you know about the one I killed,” I said, my throat dry and rough.
“It happens,” he said. “You had good reason. That’s all I ask, really. Good reason.”
“But we didn’t meet then,” I said. “You were watching me, but I didn’t know.”
“Didn’t you?” he asked, one eyebrow going up at a comical angle.
“I didn’t know,” I said, firmly.
He shrugged again.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I think we almost met, when was it, now. Ah yes, 1982, Summer time, Bedford Castle. You ran away.”
“I was scared,” I said defensively. “You don’t know how scary you are, you know!”
A small creature had appeared in the grass near his crossed ankles and he scooped it up; it was a tiny baby rabbit. He held it up to look at it and black button eyes regarded him evenly for a moment before he let it down and laid it on his lap where it sat happily whiffling its nose at the pipes in his other hand.
“Scary am I?” he asked.
“To a human, yes,” I said. “Very scary indeed.”
“Are you scared now?” he asked.
I considered. To be honest I was feeling odd but not as scared as I had been.
“A little,” I said.
“I suppose it’s only natural,” he agreed.
“What do you want with me?” I asked.
I wasn’t sure why I had or where I’d found the courage to ask it.
He shrugged, a strangely elegant gesture that seemed very human indeed.
“I get lonely,” he said.
I almost laughed out loud and he must have sense this or read my mind because he did then laugh. His laugh reminded me of the sound a stream makes as it flows over rocks.
“I do,” he said a little defensively but I thought he was not serious really.
He sighed. The little rabbit shuffled and then scrambled off his lap and disappeared into the grass.
“There’s not many of you left these days who can sense me,” he said. “The children don’t play the way they used to, you know. They don’t climb trees much or paddle in streams or make things from bark and leaves. So they grow up and never know what’s out here, beyond their garden fences. Some of them never even go into the gardens. They surround their lives with concrete and metal and plastic and never feel grass beneath bare feet or the moon on their faces or the frost in their lungs.”
“It was going even when I was a child,” I said.
“I never dreamed it would,” he said. “I can scare humans still but they never see me any more. I can pull their hair and trip them up and yet they don’t know I am there.”
He gazed round the deep dark shadows of the forest.
“They never come here in their dream even,” he said.
He seemed downcast and the pipes had slid from his hand and dropped into the grass.
I managed to get to my feet and staggered over to where the pipes seemed to be dissolving in the earth and retrieved them. I put them back into his hands, brushing off the earth that seemed to cling to them. He stared at them as if he’d never seen them before and then with a renewed smile, his teeth gleaming like the light on the surface of moonlit water, he set them to his lips and began to play.
He watched me for a moment and then stopped playing.
“You will keep telling people about me, won’t you?” he said, his voice seeming to plead with me, but playfully. I didn’t believe he really needed to plead; it was part of his games, like the game an otter plays with a shiny stone for an hour in the sunshine.
“As long as you keep playing those pipes, I will,” I said.
I could feel myself becoming rapidly sleepy, like a slow anaesthetic seeping into my bloodstream as the melody seeped into my bones again. I felt my eyes grow heavy and irresistibly they closed as I sank gently to the mossy surface of the forest floor.
When I woke, the dew had fallen and I lay curled like a hedgehog in the middle of the lawn, my nightie sopping wet and stained with green from grass and lichen and bark, and dawn light shone through low level clouds and the rising sun hung like a dove-grey pearl beyond the trees.
I sat up, my body aching with the damp and my head pounding and tried to remember how I’d ended up here. I must have walked in my sleep, I thought and then I saw the back gate stood ajar still and as I rubbed my eyes, I saw the tiny fluffy white tail of a baby rabbit whisk away out of sight and I remembered.