A Uni's Panpipes
Thanks to all my proof readers, especially max_frei, who helped me make this story the way it is!
Hathim the Uni walked through the great desert city, the setting sun warming his face and the sand shifting under his hooves. You could not escape the desert even inside the city walls, no more than you could escape from your own breath. The desert had its own spirit that watched over you. Hathim pricked up his ears. The spirit's agents, the desert winds, were blowing through the streets, as if they were musical pipes sounding an eerie tune. The Uni smiled at the strangely calming sounds and stroked his own panpipes. The wind was whistling through them too, trying to imitate its streetsong.
The Uni thought about the mysterious stranger, a foreign magician, who came to the city every year with things from faraway lands to show them to the curious city inhabitants. Sometimes, one or another was lucky enough to talk him into selling the wares. Hathim worked long and hard, doing exhausting chores around the market, to save for the panpipes he first saw a long time ago, when his parents were still alive. It had been just a few months ago when he finally saved up enough. The trader came on his usual day. Hathim summoned his courage and came up to him. To his surprise the stranger smiled at him, and held out the panpipes, saying, "Take good care of these, young pet. One day, this instrument will help you unlock a precious secret, a magical power of great wonder".
Hearing this, Hathim took the pipes and handed over this purse with all his savings. But he did not care about the money: he now had the pipes he had dreamed of, and with them, a promise of greater things to come. What more could he ask for? From then on he would never let the pipes out of his sight. When he wasn't playing them, he wore them on a string around his neck. Not that many of his waking hours passed without him making a tune! As he got better with the pipes, other pets would often stop to hear him play, and even slip him a coin or two. He was glad that he no more had to work long hours at the market, but it warmed his heart even more that other pets, rich and poor, young and old, all loved his music.
Still under the charm of these happy thoughts, Hathim pricked his ears to hear the sounds of the wind better, his blue fur mirroring the sky and his eyes shining. The tune was so beautiful he wished time would stand still. He would remember it and play for his listeners tonight.
"Hey, baby Uni!" A gruff, unkind voice interrupted Hathim's daydream. The music stopped as if shying away from the unrefined, crude sound. Hathim sighed and turned to face the voice. That was not one of his fans, definitely. The voice belonged to a large red Scorchio in tattered clothing with one torn wing and a scar going across his brow. He was accompanied by two sidekicks, a Moehog and a Lupe, who did not look as tough as their boss, but still terrified Hathim. All three were wearing the same malicious grin that Hathim had seen in so many nightmares.
"So where do you think you're going?" The Scorchio sneered. "I know, you were composing one of those stupid tunes of yours, right?" He laughed and his sidekicks laughed with him. Hathim winced. Even after a thousand times, being called a baby and calling his tunes 'stupid' hurt him. He lowered his head, trying to hide the pipes from view. He could heal, but not the pipes.
"Can't you leave me alone, Khune?" Hathim said, almost pleading.
"Aw, what is wrong with you, baby Uni? Scared? Or maybe those tubes on your neck are too heavy?" Khune laughed, reaching out for Hathim's panpipes. Hathim reacted instantly.
"Don't you dare touch them, you stupid bully!" he screamed and, blinded by fear, he kicked at Khune.
He hit the Scorchio just under the knee. Khune screamed in pain as he stumbled and fell. His sidekicks stared at Hathim with a look of pure disbelief on their faces. Realisation came over Hathim like a fever. He had just kicked Khune, the nastiest bully in the whole city! Taking advantage of his enemies' surprise, which he knew wouldn't last long, Hathim galloped away. Oh, what had he done! The wind whistled in his ears, this time not making a sound not musical but harsh and cruel, to match Hathim's fast, deep breathing. His thoughts kept drifting back to what Khune would do to him once he caught up with him, and these thoughts made him run faster and faster, leaving dusty wake behind him.
Hathim finally stopped, exhausted and covered with street dust, in a blind alley. His hooves burned, begging him to rest. Hathim obeyed their call. He could not run any further. He sat down in the shade and looked at his pipes. They were the most precious things in the world for him and the only source of relief and joy. He smiled as he began to play them, following the tune the wind sang to him in the morning. Whatever Khune and his friends were going to do to him, it wouldn't matter as long as his pipes were unharmed.
Despite all of Hathim's bravado however, he could not get the threat of Khune out of his head. It was always there, hanging over him like a storm cloud. He decided to take the long way home, to avoid meeting Khune and whatever punishment the bullies had thought up for him. He planned his route carefully, making sure he would stay on busy streets at all times. He set off, fearing that Khune or his friends had already been tracking him. He thought, 'My enemies are just bullies who have intelligence problems. I will surely outsmart them as I've done before.'
For all his planning, this time Hathim was out of luck. Khune and his sidekicks caught up with him outside the Palace. There was usually a big crowd next to its walls, but today there was not a soul there. Khune was still limping but that didn't make him any less threatening. Hathim knew the look that was on Khune's face only too well. It meant business, and trouble.
"Well, look who we have found. The baby Uni," Khune said with a look that would have been appropriate if he had just stepped into a pile of dung. Hathim gulped, his stomach suddenly painfully heavy. What fiendish torture did Khune have in store for him?
"We were thinking about beating you up but that would be so cliché, and I don't think you would learn your lesson well enough that way," Khune went on, his expression changing to a sneer. "So we have decided to do something much more... memorable."
These words sent a chill down Hathim's spine, despite the desert heat.
Without a word of warning, Khune's cronies grabbed Hathim and pinned him down. He struggled but the hold was too strong. Khune strolled up to him. Hathim felt his own powerlessness creeping over him like an evil scarab. Khune laughed, bent over and grabbed Hathim's panpipes. Hathim gasped as the familiar feel of the string around his neck and the panpipes on this chest was gone.
"Watch and learn, baby Uni."
Khune flashed his favourite "Jetsam smile", as his sidekicks called it, and held the panpipes up. Then he started crushing the instrument between his huge gnarly palms. The pipes held for a few seconds but they were only made of reeds. Khune laughed maliciously as part of the pipe snapped. Hathim almost cried out. That pipe was a part of him, just like his horn or his mane. Khune had chosen his punishment well. The Uni turned away his head, unable to look, as another piece snapped off the pipe in the Scorchio's hands. His blue eyes filled with tears. Another piece snapped. With it Hathim remembered all the long hours of work that he had to do to earn enough money for those pipes, the mysterious stranger who told him to use the instrument well when he offered to sell it, his strange parting words, and most of all the joy of making music that took him to faraway lands, leaving the drab dusty city streets behind. But no more. What use would his improvisation talents, his breath control, his lip movements, which he perfected with constant practice, be now? He heard a thump in front of him. Khune had finished with the panpipes. For a long time, Hathim stared at the mangled reeds and fibres that had once been his most prized possession. He shifted the remains gently with his hoof, hardly aware of the mocking laugher around him. Blinded by the tears, he walked towards the palace wall, and found a nook in it where he could weep without making Khune and his friends happier than they already were over his torments.
He wept terribly. He wept for all the times the pipes had lifted him out of sadness. He wept for all that work he did, for ending the day barely awake with fatigue, for putting up with people ordering him about, all for this piece of wreckage that was once his lovely instrument. Most of all, he wept for betraying the stranger's trust by allowing the panpipes to get damaged. Without the pipes, how could he unlock the secret the wizard was talking about? Hathim used to think of himself as an optimist, but now he didn't see anything good, either in the present moment or in the future. It was hopeless. Without the panpipes he was just another Uni, the commonest pet, and not a musician. Hathim let another sob rock him as he tried to blot out the world and the injustices it threw at him every day.
"Are you all right?" A voice full of concern reached Hathim's ears. He looked up at the source of the voice, not even ashamed, as any Uni in his situation would be, that his blue eyes were now streaked with reddish veins. A red Kyrii in expensive-looking white robes and golden ornaments on his shoulders was looking at him with kindness and concern on his face. Hathim wanted to snap back at him, to tell him to go away but something in the Kyrii's eyes held him back. Was it really sympathy? Nobody had looked this way at Hathim before, not since his parents died.
"What do you want? Can't you see I'm miserable?" he replied, choking back another sob. The Kyrii looked, with understanding, at the remains of the pipes still lying in the dust nearby.
"Did you play those?" he asked.
"Not anymore," was all Hathim could say. "My panpipes have been broken beyond repair by a Scorchio, a Lupe and a Moehog. Now my music is gone."
Hathim let the tears run through his blue fur. The Kyrii crouched down next to him.
"You don't need them. They were just reeds. Your true musical power lies in your voice." Hathim's eyes widened with surprise. It had never even occurred to him before that his voice could serve as a musical instrument. The realisation was sharp as lightning. Could this be the meaning of the mysterious stranger's riddle?
"Have you even tried singing?" the Kyrii said, as if reading his thoughts.
"No, I never tried," Hathim admitted. "I just used my voice to talk. My pipes always did the music for me."
The Kyrii smiled.
"Maybe we should give your voice the chance to replace your pipes," he said, and glanced at the broken reeds once again.
"You say they have been broken up by some pets," he stated with a sudden royal air. Hathim nodded.
"It's because I stood up to their bullying this morning. This was their revenge."
The Kyrii stood up.
"Maybe you wish to be rid of these... bullies?" he asked. Hathim wanted to scream at him. Of course he did want to get rid of them! For the last four years he had wanted to get rid of them! But he'd never had the chance or the courage to do that! Hathim restrained himself, knowing that if he would upset this stranger, he might lose his only chance to have Khune leave him alone.
"I do wish for them to be gone from my life. But what can I do? Anything I try only makes it worse," he said, ruffling his wings. The Kyrii just smiled.
"Your singing has power you have yet to discover. Unlock it and it will put an end to all your troubles." Hathim nearly let out a bitter laugh. That Kyrii made it sound so easy. But then he decided to try it. With his pipes broken, he had nothing to lose.
"I know where these bullies go at this time of day. Please climb on my back, I can take you there," said Hathim. The Kyrii looked surprised but obeyed. Hathim stretched his wings, getting used to the weight. Then, spurred on by the prospect of being free from the daily fear of Khune, he galloped like the wind, the Kyrii just managing to hold on to the Uni's dark mane. Hathim was already enjoying himself. He felt as if he was already free.
That joy was quickly gone, however, when they rounded the corner to Khune's usual hangout. All three bullies were sitting at a street cafe table, enjoying their cool afternoon drinks and laughing at today's events.
"That will teach the little Uni not to mess with you, Boss," the Moehog said, smug as if he had just rid the land of a great evil. Khune laughed raucously.
"That Uni will know not to mess with Khune the Scorchio," he roared. Upon hearing this, Hathim snorted in anger and stomped his hoof, making the Kyrii on his back sit up. Khune finally noticed Hathim, and his face twisted into a scowl.
"I see the little Uni hasn't learnt his lesson well enough yet. Well boys, who wants a second helping of Make the Uni Cry?" He flexed his muscles and advanced on Hathim and his Kyrii passenger. His cronies followed. Hathim took a step back.
"What should I do?" He asked the Kyrii, suddenly struck with fear.
"Sing," the strange Kyrii replied. Hathim was puzzled. Sing?! Surely those vicious neopets could not be stopped with a mere song.
"Trust me," the Kyrii whispered. Hathim finally found his courage. He opened his mouth and sang. He put all the fear, all the pain, all the tears, all the anger of the long years of bullying into his song. He felt the power coming out of his lungs, his throat, finally breaking free and striking out with a flattening force. This was more than just playing a tune with his panpipes. This was... magical. Magical and dangerous.
The effects on the advancing Khune and his friends were devastating. They fell down in the sand, clutching their heads and asking him to stop. All the threat and malice was gone from them. It was replaced with a pleading cry as the tide of Hathim's previous emotions swept over them like a raging sandstorm. For the first time ever they didn't refer to him as 'baby Uni' or 'little Uni' but by his name. For Hathim they were no longer bullies but poor and not very smart children who were going about the streets to relieve their boredom. He knew then that they had all had enough and went silent. The trio scrambled up to their feet, dizzy and confused. Khune's friends ran as soon as they recovered their sense of direction but Khune stayed, his eyes, surprisingly, still blazing with unrestrained anger.
"So you wanted to make me squeal, Uni!" Khune shouted. "But we'll now see who will be the last to laugh."
Khune charged forward. The Kyrii, who had until now kept a low profile, leapt off Hathim's back and stood in Khune's way. He stretched out his arm, looking like someone of great authority. Hathim watched as a bolt of blue lightning flashed out of the Kyrii's hand and struck Khune, knocking him off his feet. The Kyrii's hands shined with the afterglow of magic as he spoke.
"Leave now, Scorchio, or I will banish you from the city forever!"
Khune whimpered and ran away without a word to Hathim or the Kyrii.
"Thank you," said Hathim. "You saved my life."
The Kyrii turned to him, his white robe swirling like a sand dune.
"That's not quite true. I just delivered the final blow. Your song weakened him enough to be vulnerable to my magic," the Kyrii said, thoughtfully.
Hathim tossed a navy blue lock hanging over one of his eyes.
"Do you think my song will always hit everyone around me like this? Other pets used to like my music, but I'll probably lose their friendship now," he said, sadly.
"I can't tell for sure," the Kyrii said, "but perhaps you could try singing on a happier day than this, and who knows, maybe your magical talent will prove to have more than just one side."
Hathim nodded in agreement.
"Also, may I ask what your name is?" he enquired.
The Kyrii hesitated at first, but then smiled shyly and replied.
"My name is Prince Jazan, King Razul's son. What is yours?"
Hathim looked at Jazan.
"I'm Hathim. Some call me Nightsteed because of my dark mane," he said. Jazan smiled.
"It has been a great honour to meet you, Hathim Nightsteed."