Wendell the harper played his harp in inns and taverns and alleys, and he wasn’t terribly good with the strings. His fingers fumbled often and he forgot where to strike the right notes. This had little consequence on his wallet, as he had a house and parents and siblings to feed and care for him. But Wendell had a need greater than money. Every skilled harpist could draw the women to his table or their bedroom windows, or his bed with ease, but Wendell’s music lacked the knack. He saw it better apt for frightening cats and emptying rooms, unless they were filled with the deaf.
One day as he plucked his strings at an alley’s edge, a bent old woman came creeping by. She was clothed in simple rags and carried a great bulging sack on her back. Wendell offered her a song for a coin, and began to play his noise.
The old woman watched and listened, and when the torment ended, she cackled madly. “If I had a thousand coins, I’d sooner give one to a boy banging two sticks together. But cheer up—I have something better for you, for I am a heartsmith witch, and I know your desires. You may have them, if you’ll trade.”
Wendell felt nervous, consorting with a witch, but if she knew what he wanted—and he could have it—she was worth a listen. “What do you propose?” he asked.
Dropping her great sack on the cobblestones, the witch fished around inside and pulled out a stunted ivory pipe, half the length of Wendell’s forearm. “One blow on the Lady-call, and a maiden will be drawn by its entrancing music to you, its player dashing, and you need not even know how to play. Simply blow and the Lady-call does the work. But what will you give me? Not this harp you cannot play. It does me no good either.”
“All I have is my family,” Wendell said.
“An old woman could use a good family for some love and fattening in these last years of mine,” the witch said. “You have a deal.”
So the witch went to Wendell’s home and took his place, mooching off his family and contributing little, just as he did. Once she was out of sight, Wendell blew the pipe. The Lady-call pulled his fingertips to its ivory, leading his fingers up and down to play the notes of the song. Its music was loud and soft, stirring but peaceful.
After a minute, the spell released him, and a serving girl from his favorite tavern came running into the street, catching his arm. “What gorgeous playing from a gorgeous man. I want you and you’re mine.” She then threw her arms around his neck, and he led her to bed her shortly.
There were many fine ladies in town, finer than serving girls, and a woman of one kind or another came at every call of Wendell’s pipe. Days and days passed, and Wendell drew woman after woman to his side, until he was sharing drinks, kissing, and bedding a woman every night.
Illustration by Falineowlight.
One evening, after a few too many drinks, Wendell had a revelation. “A common man seeks common company,” he said with a slur in his usually gentle voice. “I will take my pipe north from our little village, up the long road to the kingdom’s capital and castle, and I will call a great lady to me, perhaps a duchess—no, a princess! And when we’ve wed and I am king, I’ll have riches and fineries, along with any woman I choose, from anywhere.”
With newfound ambition, Wendell stumbled from the tavern with only his harp and the Lady-call at his side. He passed his old home where the witch now lived, passed the crude wooden fence that guarded the town, and went lurching up the road in search of highborn prospects.
After an hour or two, he began to sober, and quickly realized he was walking up a moonlit dirt road in the middle of the night, with thick woods to the west and empty plains to the east. “I should have started out in the morning,” he muttered. “No matter. I’ll blow on the Lady-call, and the nearest rural woman will appear to bring me to the safety of her home until dawn.”
Wendell blew the ivory pipe, his fingers playing its notes, and its music swept over field and forest with the sweetest song a lady could hear. When it ended, only the wind answered, and Wendell wondered if he was too far from any woman for the music to entrance her.
Then the trees rustled, leaves crunched on the ground, and a shape came running from the woods. Wendell sighed in relief at first. The woman quickly emerged from the shadows of the trees, and Wendell’s voice fled when he realized he’d summoned a hideous trollop. Her eyes were big black stones in her horrid, bulgy face, her body hunched and swelled in all the wrong places, and a thick ox tail swung back and forth, down near her cloven hooves.
“I was off to check on my sister’s changeling, whom she traded for a human babe, but I have found a nicer prize,” the trollop cooed. “Your song is lovely, and you, lovelier. I want you and you’re mine.”
Before Wendell could find his voice, the trollop snatched him up and carried him off to her home. She charged through trees and over hills, until they came to a castle at the foot of immense, white-capped mountains. Its parapets scowled and its gateway grimaced, for this was the home of the trollop’s father, a fearsome troll king who ruled the dark forest.
Illustration by Darryl Fabia.
The trollop dropped Wendell in the troll king’s hall, a ratty, small corridor where troll statues leered, their stone faces frozen in bestial snarls. The troll king sat on the lap of such a statue, watching his daughter sullenly. There were others, a few fat trolls, two other trollops as hideous as the first, and beside them stood two young, bearded men, their eyes staring blankly.
“I have found me a husband, father,” declared the trollop, and she took Wendell’s pipe and harp from his hands. “I have claimed him and all he owns, and carried him here, and I wish to wed.”
“Then you’ll wed, youngest princess,” the troll king said, and he pointed a doughy finger at Wendell. “You will join my sons-in-law in the kitchen and make our feast for your wedding.”
Wendell was carried by two lurching male trolls to the kitchen, where he was chained to the floor and made to work. He greeted the blank-faced men who joined him, but they said nothing, stricken with a trollop enchantment, and were bid only to speak when their wives wished. Wendell saw his fate in their eyes. For three days he chopped pig flanks and horse meat, diced vegetables, burned fats and his hands, stuffed breads, plucked chickens, and all the while he wished to have his harp in his hands instead—or better yet, the Lady-call! He could play and summon an army of amorous women to carry him to safety, or perhaps entice the other trollops to fight their sister, and meanwhile he would escape.
His chance for freedom came at the feast. Three days of mistakes taught him passable cooking skills, decent enough to satisfy a troll, and the whippings taught him how to serve respectfully, as the troll royalty liked.
“Your majesty,” Wendell said, laying a plate of horse head before the troll king. It resembled its diner quite well. “Would it please your kingliness and his daughters to hear sweet music at your feast?”
“It would,” the troll king said. “Fetch the boy his harp.”
The two enchanted men left the dining hall and returned with the harp, placing it in Wendell’s hands. He played as well as always, which was not at all, and after enough awkward strums and missed notes, the king slammed his fist on the table, shaking every dish. “Enough. You pluck chickens better than notes!”
“In truth, your majesty, the harp is for practice,” Wendell said, slinging it onto his back. “I am better with my ivory pipe.”
The troll king ordered the pipe be brought, and hastily the two men fetched the Lady-call for Wendell. No sooner did it touch his lips than its beautiful song echoed through the hall. When the music ended, Wendell looked first to his betrothed’s sisters and saw no enchantment upon them. Then he looked to the doorway, but no maidens appeared to rescue him.
Suddenly the castle quaked and the dining hall roof tore free from the walls. Evening sunshine ripped over the table, and every troll, common and king alike, went stiff and gray as stone in an instant.
“We’re awake!” the two trollops’ husbands cried together. “We’re free!”
A shadow fell on Wendell and he’d scarcely looked up before the great hairy hands of a giantess reached through the hole in the ceiling, pulling him to her breast. “I was off to catch more goats for my herd, but I have found a better prize,” the giantess bellowed. “Your song is lovely, and you, lovelier. I want you and you’re mine.”
Before Wendell could shout to the freed husbands for help, the giantess lumbered up the mountain, her feet dragging them skyward into the gray, stony cliffs. They stopped beneath the snow-covered peaks, where the giantess carried Wendell into a snarling cave formed from the mouth of an ancient, enormous troll that hadn’t hidden himself from the sun. Large shelves jutted high on the cavern walls and a great wooden bed sat at the back of the throat, its mattress draped in sheets that could’ve covered Wendell’s old house. A herd of mountain goats shuffled aimlessly around the bed legs.
The giantess snatched Wendell’s instruments with two of her dirty fingernails and placed them on a shelf before dropping Wendell on the petrified troll’s tongue. “No music playing now,” the giantess said. She was twenty feet tall, matted in thick hair, and her limbs swung like tree trunks stuck to boulders. “You will clean the cave and tend to the goats, and tonight you will love me. Now, work.”
Wendell spent hours sweeping the troll tongue floor with straw from the mattress. He then gathered flavoring herbs that grew around the cave’s stone teeth, milked the female goats, and found the fattest male for eating, all the while wishing he had the Lady-call again. When the giantess was satisfied with his work, she set him to killing the fat goat and cooking its meat, and he roasted it finer than his cooking for the trolls.
“I am a lucky bride-to-be,” the giantess boomed, gobbling up her supper. “Now you will put me with child, and our kin will rule the mountains.” Before Wendell could finish his few bites of goat, the giantess swept him up and carried him to the bed. Her broken teeth grinned from within her scraggly beard and seeking the Lady-call became an immediate necessity.
“I could be a better husband still,” Wendell said. “I am a romantic.”
“No need for romance,” the giantess said.
Normally, Wendell would’ve agreed, but this time he insisted, and the giantess relented, out of curiosity more than anything. Wendell took the fat of the slain goat and fashioned a makeshift candle for light. He then asked the giantess for his instruments, promising a song that would ensure many children. She gave him his instruments and tapped her giant foot impatiently.
Wendell did not know what to hope for this time as he blew the Lady-call. He envisioned a great lady knight, charging up the mountain to whisk him away like a damsel-in-distress, or perhaps his previous hope that the trollops would fight each other might come true in the form of a rival giantess. When the song finished, the giantess looked briefly pleased, until a shadow fell over the cave. Wendell’s hope was fulfilled, or so he thought, turning to see the new giantess vying for his attention.
A tremendous she-dragon’s wings enveloped the light from the cave mouth, and the giantess shrank back to her bed. Wendell could not utter a sound before a claw the size of a bull snatched him from the floor, harp, pipe and all, and dragged him from the giantess’s home. The dragon said nothing about lovely songs or a lovely Wendell, or about having him. She simply took him up the mountain, her great wings flapping over rock and snow, braving icy winds until they reached the white-capped summit, where an ivory castle nestled between two peaks, with a gateway large enough to accept a dragon.
Wendell squirmed desperately at first, once they landed on the dragon’s three other claws, but her fingers clutched him more tightly, until his bones threatened to break. He had no idea what one did with a love-struck dragon, and he didn’t want one. He strained his arms, hoping he could bring the Lady-call to his lips, that maybe something else might take him—anything but a dragon.
The dragon dropped Wendell in the ivory hall and the pipe flew out of his hand. A fair-haired young woman clad in steel plate caught the Lady-call in mid-air. “This belongs to me,” she said. “I am Agatha the Mighty. An old hag pilfered it from my treasure room. I would call maidens to the mountains to feed my dragon in peace. What would you do with it?”
Wendell saw no point in lying—he told the whole sorry tale to Agatha. She listened thoughtfully, and then cracked the ivory pipe between her fingers. “If you want to be had by a lady so much, I will make it so,” Agatha told the harper. “You will clean my castle, cook my meals, groom my dragon, and lay in my bed. You will be fed and clothed, and enjoy the riches of my home, for I have many servants, but would enjoy having a passive man to call my own. You will do these things without complaint or mistake; else I’ll feed you to the dragon.”
Wendell saw little choice in the matter—he consented.
Agatha pulled him close then. “You will play no more pipes, but only the harp, and you will do it well. Now follow me, and I’d best be pleased.”
And so Wendell lived in the ivory castle, cleaning up after a dragon, tending to Agatha the Mighty, and he did enjoy fineries and passion, and he found his harping did improve when threatened with a fiery mouth. He enjoyed all these things, and did his best to please Agatha, for the rest of his life—however long or short that was.