They thought it was just a cold at first.
They were wrong.
Eventually, secretly, ignoring their priests, they called for me.
I knew it for what it was.
I studied it through the bars.
Seeing me the child snarled and flew at the door. The weathered oak shook as if struck by a battering ram, giving final confirmation to my suspicion.
He fell to the floor, stunned and peaceful for a moment; then I saw the feral glint return to his eyes. Crawling away he began to croon under his breath; his body rocking from side to side. Fingernails ripped crimson channels in his forearms, drops staining the floor as sat, head on one side, regarding me with cold hatred.
Our eyes locked. He knew me.
I drew out my chosen weapon for this task and, taking a deep steadying breath, began to play.
At the sound of the first note, his rocking stopped abruptly. A laugh began inside him, forcing its way out through pale red lips in single sounds, like bubbles from hot mud.
I changed to a different melody. A slow, halting lament, mirroring the rhythm.
The laugh rose in pace and pitch, daring me to follow. I moved to a sailors’ jig, rising up the scale.
His mouth pursed then relaxed to emit a ragged giggle.
He stared, not blinking now, no movement in him, a wailing gargoyle. Faster he cackled; my jig became a frenzied tarantella; fingers flying across the stops.
He threw back his head and let out a throat scoring shriek. A single note, a demented torment to dogs and bats – and me.
With sweating hands I gripped the suddenly treacherous pipe, lest it squirm from my grasp and damn me. I gasped to wring the terminal note from its wooden guts and, a ringing noise rising in my ears and lights dancing before my eyes, found it.
It soared out from the pipe, thin as the last failing breath that propelled it, pure as a morning echo across a winter lake. It called with a magical summons not to be denied in this world or the next. A hook and line cast into the netherworld.
The note shook, a ghostly vibrato; and returned to me, its ethereal catch snagged, wriggling but helpless. It was dragged deep into the now cracked wooden flute and lay silent.
The child lay still, life betrayed only by an almost imperceptible movement of the chest, features now smooth once more in innocent rest. I leaned against the door, pale and sweating, legs shaking and called to them for my payment.
As footsteps approached in the passage outside, I snapped the tainted instrument between my shaking hands and ground the splintered shards underfoot.
They came, but would not approach me or meet my eye. I thrust their grateful guilty gold deep into my pockets, brushed aside their nervous thanks and insincere offers of lodging and asked for directions to Hamlyn.