Part of the Travellers’ Tale series, included in Travellers’ Tales: collected short stories
Even the most impossible dreams can come true—for a price.
Matthew Lee plays his fiddle for pennies at the local inn, though he’s more interested in Roger, the innkeeper’s son, than the coin he earns with his bow. When a stranger offers to trade him his fiddle in return for granting his dearest wish, Matthew knows he should be wary, but he can’t help being tempted. Will his weakness lead to ruin, or to the truth that’s been right in front of him the whole time?
© M. King 2010
“You play a fine tune, friend,” the man said.
He dressed well—better than the average punter here, though by no means to seem obviously wealthy—and projected an air of determined authority that made him impossible to ignore. The oddest thing was that, as Matthew glanced surreptitiously around the pub, he seemed to be the only person taking any real notice of the stranger. He swallowed nervously, rasping his tongue across his lower lip.
“Thank you, sir.”
“Please….” The man’s long, well-manicured fingers rubbed along the worn table’s wooden edge, and he smiled. “Call me Luc.”
He didn’t sound foreign, though Matthew recognised it as a French name; he wondered how the devil the stranger had found his way here. He didn’t dare ask, so he just nodded brusquely and focused on packing away his fiddle.
“It’s a beautiful instrument.”
“Thank you, sir. Luc,” Matthew corrected, peering warily at the man. Such striking faces were rarely to be trusted, in his experience. “It belonged to my grandfather.”
“I see. Would you trade it?”
Matthew’s fingers tensed protectively on the fiddle’s neck. What sort of a question was that? The stranger’s face gave away no hint of an ulterior motive, or even of understanding the import of what he had said. He just continued to smile at Matthew, as polished and hard as a mirror.
“Trade?” Matthew heard himself say, his lips clumsily framing the word.
“Mm. A natural mechanic of the world, my friend. Commerce oils the wheels of society, or so they say. I ask simply out of interest.”
He genuinely seemed to mean it, yet Matthew couldn’t stop himself raising a wary eyebrow.
Luc leaned forward a fraction, and the finely flared nostrils of his chiselled, narrow nose twitched, like a dog scenting prey.
“Every man has a price, Mr. Lee.”
Matthew didn’t ask how the stranger knew his name. It would have been easy enough to glean that information from anyone here tonight…and there need not be anything suspicious in it, need there? A thin prickle of sweat began to bead on his lower back, and Matthew turned his head, conscious of wanting to look away from those curiously pale blue eyes. Luc’s gaze held him in an uncomfortable thrall, kept him off-balance and cloth-headed, the way strong beer hits an empty stomach.
“Perhaps. But what could you give me for it?” Matthew asked, not particularly wanting to know.
The fiddle lay nestled in its case, the warm fingers of lamp-glow and firelight caressing the wood. The strings seemed, for a moment, to sing a little in warning before Matthew closed the lid, latching it firmly against prying eyes. He’d never trade his fiddle. Not in this lifetime.
“What would you have, rather than anything? Hm? Riches? Fame?”
Matthew made to shake his head, still staring down at the battered leather case, but he heard Luc’s breathing change—just a subtle shift, an intake of air that sounded almost like a realisation—and he shifted his gaze to the stranger.
The time bell rang, and Matthew saw Luc staring across the inn to where Roger Laughton stood behind his bar, his white shirt rumpled with the heat and sweat of the evening, his golden hair haloing his head.
“Time, gentlemen, please! ’Tis late, and your beds should be calling you.”
The usual groans and reluctant heaving of the last few bodies out of the last few seats were met with Roger’s landlordly wit and good humour.
“Aye, and you, Robert Hunter…I know you. G’arn and git home! I don’t care if your old lady won’t let you in—you can’t stay here!”
Laughter rippled into the encroaching night, and Matthew felt rather than heard Luc’s voice. It seemed to bubble just under the surface of his skin; low, soft words that taunted and tempted him just beyond the limit of his endurance.
“Perhaps your price is something else? Something money can’t buy?”
Warning bells clanged in Matthew’s head—the sound of the brass time bell multiplying back on itself and tolling a dozen different alarms—but he tried hard not to hear them.
“I don’t understand,” he lied.
“It’s quite simple.” That same dark, devilish voice. When the stranger spoke, it was simple. “You want him, don’t you? I know it’s true. I can smell how much you desire him. I can taste it. And I could give you that power. Just give me the power you have. Your fiddle.”
Matthew’s attention was still fixed on Roger, on every graceful movement of his arms, his hands. That smile, that laugh….
He heard the words, but barely understood that they had come from him. It couldn’t be real. It must be some trick, some dream, some—
Matthew glanced down at the table. His fiddle had gone, as had the man who called himself Luc. All that remained was a thin piece of red cord, vivid against the scarred wood. It was tied into a knot that Matthew knew well. A lovers’ knot—the same at the back as the front, two symmetrical halves joining to make one piece. He shook his head in disbelief, then picked up the cord, turning it slowly in his fingers.
This was old magic.
Matthew stuffed the cord into his pocket, knocked back the last of his pint, and stood hurriedly, readying to leave the inn.
The Gypsy’s Fiddle is inspired by, strangely enough, on ‘A Gypsy’s Fiddle’, a Hungarian tale included in John Hampden’s collection, ‘The Yellow Dragon’.