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The entire town rejoiced. They had been freed from the burden that had plagued them.

Their cupboards, which for so long had been raided so often that it was easier to keep them bare, could now be filled until they were heaving. Their houses, which had been rattled and shaken by the pests running around for years, now stood quiet and calm.

The piper had saved their fortunes, and their sanity. But they hadn’t paid him the price he asked.

He stood at the top of the mountain, arms folded, and looked down at the town, his multicoloured cloak fluttering in the breeze.

“Any moment,” he muttered to himself. “Any moment now.”

The sun passed overhead, and began to sink towards the horizon. Still he waited, watching the town.

“Well, that’s not right!”

He paced back and forth. Where were they? What could have gone wrong? According to his calculations, they should have been clamouring for him by now, desperate to thrust their hard-earned coins into his hands.

Where were they?

He had to find out. He threw his cloak off, replacing it with a plain brown one, and he stooped and screwed up his face that he might not be recognised, and he set off down the mountainside into the town.

He stopped first at a small, cosy house, where the windows glowed with warm light, and he peered in. At a candlelit table, a man leaned forward to feed a morsel of food to his wife, as her bare foot caressed his leg. They didn’t seem upset in the least.

The piper frowned, and moved on.

The window of the next house revealed a similar picture, and the one after that made him blush to the roots of his hair.

A laugh rang out through the evening air, and the piper turned. A middle-aged couple were dancing through the town square, quite obviously drunk and delighted.

“Excuse me,” he called, trying half-heartedly to mask his voice, “What has happened here?”

The woman giggled. “The most wonderful thing,” she said. “Our children are all gone! We are free of responsibilities after so many years – I can go out without worrying about child care, I can get drunk without worrying about people calling me an unfit mother, I can wear a nice dress without worrying about a baby vomiting down the front of it! It’s the best thing ever!”

The piper said nothing. He turned on his heels and strode back up the mountain.

The couple in the town square stopped dancing when he was out of sight, and around them doors creaked ajar and people peered out.

The dancing woman looked at her husband, her voice suddenly sober. “Do you think it worked?”

He nodded. “I think so,” he said. “They’ll be home soon, don’t you worry.”

© Kari Fay