Der Rattenkönig by Sean Taylor (April 2022, Winner of the Easter Contest)
Dirty dirty rat-king!
Catching rats, eating rats
What a dirty rat-thing!
He woke, the rhyme lingering in his consciousness. Rubbing his eyes, he peeled off the threadbare blanket, little comfort lost in its absence, and slid into his shoes. Or so he tried; to scant surprise, one foot made contact with something furry within.
He withdrew, tipping the shoe upside down.
A rat flopped to the floor, its plaintive squeaking trailing it into a dark corner.
After watching it go, he stepped into the shoe and sighed. He reached for the rafters, shooing away another errant rodent, pulling a rubbery carrot from a dangling canvas bag. He chewed on its watery flesh as he poked around his hovel.
Dusty sunlight filtered into the room through holes in the shutters. As such, he took care not to tread on floor-bound rats, gently pushing others aside to gather his accoutrements: a waterskin, a badge of office, and his trademark pipe. On this last object he lingered, thinking of his thankless achievements. This led his eyes to the cupboard, and what sat draped over it: a multicoloured raiment with pied patterning, a ghost of its former glamour. It lay interred in dust, its colours faded, its lines decayed by the devices of clothes moths.
The rats never touched it.
His fist clenched around the pipe. Rounding away from the rotten thing, he threw open the door and set out into the dawn.
He was expected in Hannover. The mayor had sent for him, asserting that “the Rat-King must control his subjects.”
On the roads, travellers, farmers, and villagers alike made no advances on his rustic appearance. To all onlookers he looked, and otherwise belonged, among them.
This continued until midday, when he stepped into the market square.
The piper withdrew his instrument, blowing a preparatory note.
Onlookers in the square began to chatter; some darted away to spread the word. He took a deep breath, then began to play.
News trickled forth about the piper, carried with the entrancing tune floating on the afternoon air. Stallholders sat upon their counters, women brought themselves and their children indoors, and the menfolk crossed their arms, watching the whole affair.
Large rats, little rats, slow rats, quick rats. One by one, they emerged, skittering from shadowy places. Dark shapes sprouted from the street gutters, the alleyways, the pipes. They pooled at the piper’s feet, clawing and biting at one another. A particularly large black rat, gripping some nameless something between its teeth, sat contentedly before the piper. Before long, a furred throng coated the ground; a sleek, squeaking swarm of vermin.
The men around him stood in silence, grim expressions on their bearded faces. Occasionally, one would become startled, kicking rats into the air with a curse. The piper could hear them muttering to themselves: “Filthy…”
He did his best to ignore them, to maintain the melody he was being paid to perform.
Once the rats were assembled, he played another tune, a lively gigue. The horde rippled with vigour, enchanted by the piper as he led them down the main street. As he went, a chorus of children’s voices followed him:
Dirty dirty rat-king!
Catching rats, eating rats
What a dirty rat-thing!
A man, opulently appointed, awaited him at the gates, surrounded by men-at-arms.
The piper marched up to him, halting his melody. “The payment?”
The mayor raised his arm, fingers curled around a leather purse.
The piper took the bag, pulling at the drawstring to eye its contents and fish around inside. “This is-”
“Fifty guilders.” The mayor smiled. “That is what Hameln paid you, and that is what I shall pay you.”
The piper lowered his voice: “Sir, if I stop playing, these rats will disperse once more.”
The mayor’s grin twisted into a smirk. He cocked his head; one of the armed men stepped forth. “Captain, tell the Rat-King what your orders are.”
The captain rested his hand on his sword-hilt. “Our orders are, if an accord isn’t made, to slay as many rats as we can before they scatter.” He sighed. “And to slay the piper who summoned them.” He cast his eyes downward.
The corner of the piper’s mouth twitched. “That won’t be necessary, sir.” He gestured at the purse. “Nor will that. I will instead take payment in the equivalent amount of grain, should it suit you.”
The mayor’s eyes widened. “Of course! Our harvest was bountiful this year! I will have the grain delivered to your dwelling-”
Once more the gigue blared from the pipe, the retinue of rats flooding towards the horizon.
The farmhand gazed skyward. An autumn night’s ride back to Hannover was something he would rather avoid; though the wrath of his master would be worse, so he stayed the course. Eventually, he found the place in question:
“A grimy little hovel, over the hill, down a dirt path through the woods. A perfect little nest for the Rat-King.”
This was the instruction the young man had received and he could scarcely disagree. A primitive house, built into the side of a rocky hill, seemed fitting for a man of such status.
He approached the front door of the dwelling and knocked hard. “Sir? I bring recompense, in grain, for your services.”
“Sir?” It was then he noticed that no smoke issued from the smokestack, and all the shutters were closed despite the extant light. He decided to just unload the grain and leave.
As he made to do so, he heard it. A tortured squeal scraped at the farmhand’s eardrums, torn from a mouth somewhere inside the house; an unearthly shriek of agony. His heart drummed against his ribcage at the sound; the hairs on his arms bristled. Every fibre of his being urged him away from the dwelling.
He steeled his nerve and twisted the handle, the door floating away from him into the semi-darkness.
The house was unlit, but he could make out a wooden bed, a table with a candle, a dying hearth, and an overturned cupboard. The embers of the fire were enough to bring the candle to life; a weak glow, but better than nothing.
The fresh light uncovered new details. Signs of vermin, yet no vermin to be found. Rodent droppings were strewn amongst the greasy floor rushes; all the wooden fixtures were gnawed, as was the mattress atop the bed, rough straw poking from frayed holes. The most prominent discovery, however, was the opening in the cliff face. Once the cupboard had barred passage, but now it yawned freely into the room.
He approached the tunnel, examining its smooth edges. It looked to have been excavated over an extended period of time, and without tools. As he neared the aperture, he caught a sickly scent issuing from it, sticking to his nostrils as he recoiled. Holding the candle forth, he ventured into the unknown.
With every darker step, the odour intensified, and with it a low rumbling that he previously did not perceive. Something brittle snapped under his foot, but it seemed to go unnoticed. As the warren wound deeper into the cliff, he realised that his path was getting brighter, the crimson glow of sunset seeping from somewhere before him. The rumble evolved into a cacophony of squealing and squeaking.
He came to an antechamber exposed to the sky, bathed in red. Therein, he beheld its dread majesty.
Rotting rats, rotten rats, writhing rats, wriggling rats.
Dead and living rats all were grafted by their tails into one entity, a nest of writhing worms made legion by insidious means. Its whole mass convulsed, thousands of shining, pip-like eyes glinting in the fading light. The pile exuded a stench of faeces and dead flesh, which would have caused the farmhand to retch were he not rooted to the spot in fear. It shrieked in chorus at the sight of the farmhand, a hive of pink limbs scrabbling in every direction.
Seated atop the pandemonic mess was what appeared to be a man, draped in a suit of once-colourful pied finery. He wore an overlarge, black rat’s head, its blood trickling down his chest. The ill-omened owner of said head lay decapitated at the man’s feet, sporting the piper’s badge of office. The rat-headed man turned to him.
“Do you know who I am, boy?” The voice was noble, sonorous.
The farmhand choked. “Y-you’re the Pied P-Piper-”
“No!” The crowd of rats howled with him, a horde of vermin given voice. “Heed me, boy!” The man rose, stepping from his living throne onto the earth littered with rat bones. “The Pied Piper is dead, and you have killed him.” He plucked the headless corpse from the floor and thrust it into the farmer’s hands. “Take this. Return to Hannover with my message. Tell the people we are coming for them.”
He returned to the throne and, sat atop it, the rats echoed his proclamation: “The Pied Piper is dead. Long live the Rat-King!”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sean Taylor is a writer of historical fiction, fantasy, horror, and poetry. He is currently a third-year student of Creative Writing at the University of Cumbria and a member of the Carlisle Writing Group. He has been writing since he was four years old and aspires to transform his love of writing into a career.
When he isn't writing or reading, Sean enjoys listening to and creating music, streaming, and going on long walks. For further enquiries, feel free to shoot him an email at email@example.com.