Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Piper Calls

It was the music he could never forget.  The music first drew him, held him, bound him.
Cole was four years old the first time he heard it.  His smiling mother had sent him out to the field to call his father for dinner; half an hour later, she’d gone to investigate their absence and found her little boy sitting beside his father’s prone body, twisting together a crown of blood-red poppies.  His father, thirty-one and stronger than the oxen he used to plow, was dead.  There were no apparent causes.  All Cole remembered afterward was a hauntingly sweet, sorrowful music twisting through the air, mixing with the scent of the poppies that didn’t grow anywhere near his family’s farm, and a pair of dark, lonely eyes.  He could not even tell his mother where he’d gotten the flowers.
The second time he heard it, he was sitting on the back porch with his mother and stepfather, sipping lemonade and listening to the sound of his younger siblings playing while his parents argued playfully about what to name the baby on the way.  As the music drifted across the waving wheat and stalks of corn, he lifted his head to catch the source.  No one else showed any sign of noticing the music, but Cole could not ignore its plaintive qualities.  It was somehow reminiscent of the lullabies his mother used to sing to him, containing all their sweetness and love, yet also like the sound of his best friend saying goodbye before moving to the village across the river.  It made his heart ache so sharply and beautifully that he could not think of anything else, did not want to think of anything else.  But he saw nothing, only a distant flash of memory showing yearning eyes in a face he could not remember and had never known.  Though he had felt while listening as though he could have sung every turn of phrase, predicted the fall of each minor cadence, once the music faded again, he could not remember enough of it to sing even two notes together.
For the next four years, Cole heard nothing out of the ordinary.  He and his siblings grew up a bit, though the baby whose name his parents had been arguing about had never really needed a name, dying only moments after her birth.  He never spoke to anyone about the music.  Sometimes he dreamed of the haunted eyes, dreams in which he longed to make the sorrow melt into peaceful joy but could not determine how to do it.  Upon waking, he would lie quietly in his bed and think of his father and the smell of poppies until the last wisps of the dream melted from his mind and he could no longer remember either the exact shape or the shade of brown those eyes had been.  Then one of his brothers would stir, and the smell of breakfast would seep into the room, and the sights and scents of morning would drive away any lingering remembrance.
It was the night of his seventeenth birthday that he next heard the music lilting mournfully across the fields.  He’d been savoring a moment alone under the willow tree in the front yard while his siblings got ready for bed and his parents cleaned up the remnants of the small party they’d thrown him.  The few friends he had invited had gone home an hour ago while it was still light.  In the peaceful dark, Cole rested his back against the bark, still warm from the heat of the day.  For a moment, he let himself imagine it was the heat of another body seeping through his shirt, but he cut the thought off quickly.  None of the village lads were interested in a quiet giant like him, too intimidated by the increasing breadth of his chest and shoulders and too bored by his propensity for long periods of silence.  The lasses were little better, though Cole had just as little interest in them.  He was sure his parents would arrange a match for him when it was time, and he would marry as he was bid because there was nothing better for him elsewhere.
The sound of a solitary wood flute playing a song he could swear he’d heard a million times before crept into his consciousness.  Cole sat up straighter, knowing there would be nothing to see but unable not to look just once more, eyes raking the darkness for any unfamiliar shadow. 
“ Why do you sit here alone on the night you become a man?”
Cole jerked at the sound of a husky voice that curled softly around him like smoke in the darkness.  Though he knew that he should not recognize the man to whom such a voice belonged, the sound tugged at a memory somewhere deep inside him, somewhere mixed with the scent of poppies, the sound of forsaken hope, the sense of loss.  “Who goes there?”
A figure emerged from the shadows, the stars and the faint glow from the windows of the house the only light by which Cole could see his tall, thin frame and the darkness of his hair and eyes. Eyes he recognized from his dreams.  Eyes he recognized from the day his father died.  Cole sucked in a breath.  “You,” he murmured.
He flushed slightly when the stranger’s eyebrows lifted.  “You remember me?”  Cole nodded, unable to speak.  Something in the lonely face eased, and with it something inside Cole eased as well.  “I did not think you would.  You have not seen me since you were a very young child, and I was rather surprised that you saw me even then.  Most do not.”
“You gave me the poppies,” Cole breathed with a sudden vivid flash of remembrance.  “And”—he cut himself off, cold as he recalled what had happened next.
The sadness returned to the stranger’s face.  “Yes.  Then I took your father.” 
They were silent a moment, and Cole listened wistfully to the music, wishing hopelessly that it would not fade away and leave him without a memory this time. 
The stranger spoke again after a moment in his quiet way.  “I am not sorry I took your father, because it was his fate and because that is my role.  I am sorry that I took him from you, however.”
Cole blinked, surprised by the sentiment.  “I hardly remember my father, so I do not miss him, and my stepfather is a good man.  I have not lacked for anything.”
“No,” the stranger murmured, something in his eyes dimming.  “I suppose you have not.”  He sighed so softly Cole almost thought it was the wind through the branches of the willow, but the leaves did not stir around him.  “Enjoy your birthday.  It does not seem as though it will be your last.”  He turned to go, and Cole lunged to his feet, not wanting the man to disappear again just yet.
“Wait!”  His hand closed around the thin arm, cool under his fingers.  The look of surprise on the stranger’s barely visible face made something in Cole’s heart beat faster.  The dark eyes looked almost… what?  Pleased?  Sweet?  Hopeful?  “I don’t even know your name.”
“It is not time for you to know it.”
“Please,” Cole begged, unsure why it mattered so much that he have a name to go with the face.  “I have been dreaming of you since I was four years old, and I don’t know why.  I don’t understand why you were there that day, or why you took my father, or why you were so kind to me.  I don’t know why you didn’t take me as well.  I don’t know why you’re here now.”  He stopped abruptly, realizing how hard he was gripping the stranger’s arm and releasing him before he left bruises.
“I do not entirely understand it myself,” the stranger answered, “but I have always been drawn to you.  I did not even intend to speak to you tonight, just to come and look for a moment.  I did not expect you to be alone.”
“I am often alone,” Cole admitted. 
“Are you lonely?” The yearning in that voice of smoke wended its way deep into Cole’s heart, mixing with the soft music still drifting through the air.  Cole had never thought about whether he was lonely or not, but he knew instantly that the man to whom he was speaking was.  Desperately lonely.
“Is the music yours?” he asked instead of answering.
A nearly imperceptible smile curved the thin lips.  “You can hear it?”
Cole nodded.  “No one else ever has.”
The stranger’s mouth opened as though he wanted to say something, but he hesitated.  When he spoke, Cole had the impression that the words were not what he had originally intended to say.  “The music aids me in my job.  Few people ever hear it more than once.”
“That is a shame,” Cole said honestly.  “It is lovely, like remembering everything good that has been lost or left in the past all at once.  I always wish I could remember it after it’s over.”
Those dark eyes watched him pensively for a long moment.  “Will you come with me?” he asked suddenly, almost impulsively. 
“All right.”  Cole was taken aback by the sudden nervousness in the face before him.  “Where?”
The stranger looked away.  “To my home.”
The music grew louder.  Cole felt it spreading through his limbs.  He was humming along with it as he followed the stranger through the darkness.
The darkness seemed to grow deeper somehow, the stars absorbed into the velvety blackness of the sky, the shadows enfolding any stray beams of light, until Cole knew where to walk only by the soft sound of footsteps in front of him and by the haunting melody that seemed to lead him closer to itself.  The footsteps stopped, and Cole felt his hand grasped by a smaller, thinner, colder hand.  The voice like smoke murmured, “We are at the door.  Do not be afraid of what lies within.  You are my guest, and none but I can touch you.”
Before Cole could ask why he might be afraid, the stranger placed their joined hands on what seemed to be solid rock.  Cole felt the cool roughness beneath his fingertips for only a moment; then it gave way with a low rasp, and he was being led into what appeared to be a large city contained within a mountainous cavern.  The light was pale, like the light just before dawn or just after sunset.  He could find no sun or moon.  Everywhere he looked, people moved about, yet the city was utterly silent.  Buildings sprawled across the stone floor but sent up no sounds of life. On the far side of the city, a beautiful field scarlet with poppies called to Cole with the sound of that sweet music.  He started to walk towards it, but the stranger pulled him gently in another direction. 
“My home lies this way.”
When at last the stranger stopped before a doorway, Cole hesitated.  The house was the largest in the city, placed at the very center, decorated beyond anything he had ever seen before.  His life on the farm had not prepared him for this sort of finery, and he was afraid that he would not know how to behave in such a place.  The stranger pushed him gently forward, the hand on his back reassuring. 
“If you have need of anything, speak up.  My servants will attend you.”  Even as the stranger offered their services, two pale, nearly translucent figures silently glided up to them with bowls of steaming water.  Cole stood still as one of them gently washed his large feet with her tiny, pale hands.  She looked up at him only briefly as she finished and gave him a small smile.  Cole returned it before he realized that she had only gray mist where her eyes ought to have been and lost his smile in shock. 
The stranger led him deeper into the house.  He paused in a large dining room.  “Are you hungry?”
“No, thank you.  My family fed me well for my birthday.”  Cole patted his stomach self-consciously.  The stranger’s eyes traveled over him in a way that made Cole flush, but neither of them said anything more.
 At last they came to a balcony overlooking a large gray lake.  People were lying on its shores, relaxing or asleep.  Cole would have thought them sunbathing had there been any sun.  “My people,” said the stranger, gesturing to them.  “They are grateful for the peace I can provide, and I am happy to please them.  They love me in their own way, and I love them after a fashion. Yet they are always silent, always distant, always too filled with awe and gratitude to truly love me.  But you,” he said, turning to him with a hunger burning in his eyes for something Cole could not name but wordlessly understood, “you do not see me that way, do you?”  Mutely, Cole shook his head.  “Are you afraid of me, Cole?”
A shiver passed down his spine, and he nearly said yes.  But he looked again into that familiar yet unknown face, young as the day he first saw it though it should have aged by nearly two decades, and read nothing fearful in the thin lines and pale skin, the dark waves of hair thick on his forehead or the burning black eyes.  He saw only a man who wanted what he himself wanted, and so he stated with quiet earnestness, “I am not afraid.”
The man’s fingers lifted to Cole’s face, pushing back the flaxen hair, trailing over the sun-tanned cheek, one cool thumb brushing the corner of his lips.  Cole’s breath quickened.  He knew what such a motion implied.  He recognized the reaction it evoked in his own body.  Yet never had he been sought out for such attention before.  He did not move, waiting to see what the stranger’s next action would be. 
“You are a man now, Cole.”  The voice alone sent blood rushing hot through his body in unfamiliar ways.
He stepped closer.  “May I kiss you?  I have been waiting what feels a very long time.”
In answer, Cole dipped his head until his nose bumped against the stranger’s.  The man closed his eyes and let out a soft sigh, a small smile curling his lips.  “Thank you,” he murmured.  Then he tilted his head up to meet Cole’s mouth with his own.
After the first gentle brush of lips, Cole’s arms closed around the thin body and brought the man closer.  The stranger’s hand slipped around to the back of Cole’s head, pressing their lips together more firmly as he deepened the kiss.  Cole exhaled through his nose, intoxicated by the taste of cinnamon and mint in the man’s mouth, the fragrance of myrrh rising from his clothes. Outside, the music grew stronger, more sweet than bitter, though Cole hardly noticed.  He was distracted by the hand sliding over his chest, smoothing down the arch of his spine, settling in the curve of his back to pull him closer, then sliding further downward to places no other man had touched. 
The kiss broke as the other man pulled Cole’s shirt over his head.  “You have grown so strong,” he said, running his hands over the expanse of Cole’s chest.  “I never dreamed you would grow up to be like this.  And you are so very warm.”  He leaned in to kiss him again until Cole felt it necessary to return the favor and tug off the soft black shirt the stranger wore.  The press of skin to skin, cool to burning, seemed to heighten their fervor, and soon Cole’s gentle hands were roaming as freely as the stranger’s, touching and exploring the skin so white it seemed never to have been kissed by the sun.  When his trousers were loosened and dropped to the floor, Cole simply stepped out of them with a grunt and reached for the fastenings of the other man’s.  He shuddered to feel a hand not his own ghost over his cock, instinctually reaching down to grasp them both in his own hand. 
The stranger moaned softly, bucking his hips and clenching Cole’s broad shoulders in his hands.  They rocked together a few minutes more until the man gasped and came in Cole’s hand.  He froze for a moment, then wiped up a finger of the sticky mess and held it up to Cole’s lips.  Without thinking, Cole leaned forward and sucked the finger into his mouth.  The other man made an appreciative noise before withdrawing his finger and dropping to his knees.  Cole let out a cry as the stranger’s cold mouth engulfed him and came almost immediately. 
“Come to my bed, Cole,” the stranger commanded.  Cole did not think he could have resisted if he had tried, not with the music heightening his emotions and calling to his heart, nor with the weakness of recent pleasure still melting his bones to water, nor in the face of the promise that shone in eyes that had plagued his dreams as long as he could remember.  As though in a trance, Cole followed the man through a doorway into a magnificent bedroom.  Taking Cole’s hand in both of his, the stranger turned to him with his eyebrows raised in unspoken invitation, then fell backwards onto the bed, pulling Cole willingly along.
When the strange, pale light of the city began to grow dimmer, Cole at last sighed, “I suppose I should go home.  My family will soon be wondering where I am, and I do not want them to worry.”
The stranger looked at him silently, and for a moment, Cole saw a flicker of the old loneliness return to his eyes.  He had not noticed until that moment how completely it had disappeared.  “I shall walk you home.”
The return journey was quiet, the distance between them increasing as they walked.  By the time he saw the old willow tree appearing over the crest of the last hill, Cole could almost have forgotten that he and the man beside him had ever done more than walk side by side.
The stranger came to a halt at the top of the hill.  Dawn was breaking rosy and warm across the sky.  “I shall leave you here.”  In the light of day, the huskiness of his voice seemed even more vaporous. 
Cole studied him for a moment, trying to burn the image into his mind so that he could not forget this time.  “Will I ever see you again?”
The stranger’s voice was surprisingly gentle and warm as he replied.  “Yes.  You tasted my seed six times, so you belong to my world now as much as you belong to this one.  But I shall not take you from it yet.”  Cole nodded as though he understood, gaze dropping to his feet so that those penetrating eyes would not read in his face the emotions Cole had not yet identified.  The stranger’s fingers gently pushed his chin up until their eyes met.  “When you hear my music, you will know I am nearby.  It happens more often than you think.  If you wish to see me, you need only call me.”
“What name shall I call?”
The stranger smiled fully, and Cole was surprised by how beautiful his sober face became.  “For now, you may call me Corwin.”
“Corwin,” Cole repeated.
Corwin leaned forward to brush his lips tenderly across Cole’s.  “I will hear you, no matter how softly you speak my name.  Though I will not be able to stay with you any more than you are now able to stay with me, there will be time for moments like these.  And when you come at last to live with me, there will be no more need to part.  Then shall I tell you my truest name.” 

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