Songcaster and Little Dune
by Scott Hughes
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3 4
Novah and the songcaster came upon shelter, the ruins of a Pre-World church. Without speaking, the girl crawled under one of the remaining pews and curled beneath the tan cloak Dante had given her. She resembled the other tiny dunes that had formed along the aisles. The songcaster gathered pieces of a busted pew and used them to bar the doors. This long-abandoned church was the first sign of civilization, ancient or current, that they had encountered.
Dante didn’t want to stop, but he could see the girl was exhausted. She could rest for a little while. Then they’d have to keep moving. He couldn’t let her sleep in this open nave, though. He’d barricaded the doors to keep the Kogs — or anything else that might come wandering from the desert — from having easy access inside. The hostile winds were still blowing swirls of sand and icy air in through the partially shattered stained-glass windows and the ceiling’s many holes.
Dante prodded the girl with his boot. “Up, Little Dune. I’ve spotted a room. Safer there.”
The cloak undulated, and a petite bandaged hand appeared out of it. The songcaster helped Novah to her feet. She followed him to a door near the altar that led to a small room. No windows. No holes. No wind. Some sand, but not much. In a dark corner, the girl once again made herself into a fabric dune.
Dante took off his goggles, then unraveled his shemagh and spread it on the floor. He dropped Galliard’s leather pack and straightened his aching spine with a few muffled pops. He removed his belt, sat on the shemagh, and exhaled.
The songcaster unbuttoned the top of the holster and unsheathed his instrument. He blew away a few specks of sand that had glommed onto the metal, then raised the flute to his lips. He played a slow, deep, soothing tune, and a foot-tall blue flame materialized, floating inches above the floor in front of him. He briefly closed his eyes and allowed the warmth to caress his face.
Too long, and sleep would overtake him like a fast-acting poison. The songcaster opened his eyes and piped a few hushed notes. The flame shrank to half the size. Better to be a bit colder and safer than warmer and more in danger. In the vast expanses of unoccupied deserts, what little life there was always gravitated, fortunately or unfortunately, to other life. And to heat, however minuscule.
Dante set his flute aside and unfastened the leather pack’s brass buckles. As he suspected, Galliard had a roll of clean white cloth.
“Novah, time to change those bandages.”
The dune sniffled, then said, “I’m fine.”
“Come on. It’ll take less than a minute.”
Novah left the cloak in the corner and approached him, her eyes on Dante’s flute. “How does it do that? Make sound by itself.”
She held out both arms. Dante began unwinding the bandages, stiff with dried blood and rough with sand, from her left hand.
“What sound is it making?” he asked.
Novah tilted her head, listening closely. Then she hummed a note, middle C, for a few seconds. Not only did the girl have enchanted blood, she had perfect pitch as well.
“Not everyone can hear that, you know,” said Dante. “Only songcasters.”
Her brow furrowed. Then suddenly her eyes widened, and she sat up straighter. “Does that mean I’m a songcaster?”
“I suppose so.” A songcaster, he thought, and something more. He’d intended to play a healsong, but there were only faint pinkish ghosts of wounds on her skin. “Do you normally heal this quickly?”
“Does it hurt?” Dante didn’t mean Does it hurt now? He was about to say more, when Novah’s eyes met his.
“Have you ever got stuck by a thorn?” she asked. “Or a splinter?”
“A few times. Cut myself quite often when I was first training with my flute.”
“It’s like that, I guess. But it tickles, too.”
“Like a tingling.”
Dante knew what she was describing. He felt a similar sensation when he played song spells. Whatever magick lived in this girl, it was akin somehow to that of the songtrees.
He started unwrapping her right hand. “Becoming a songcaster takes years of training and hard work. Hearing the songtrees’ music is just the beginning.”
“What’s a songtree?”
“It’s what makes the sound you hear coming from my flute now, what gives people like... like Galliard and me the ability to cast spells, what started the Songcaster Order in the first place.”
He tore off a pair of two-foot strips of Galliard’s white cloth and began rewrapping Novah’s hands.
“No one, not even the songcasters, know the trees’ origin,” he said. “At the beginning of the Now-World, the first one was found by people like you and me and Galliard, people who could hear the strange, beautiful music the tree produced. They made woodwinds — like simpler versions of my flute — from its fallen branches, and when they played these instruments, they could summon sparks to light candles or puffs of air to put them out. The first songcasters.
“Then they found another songtree and another... Each was over a hundred feet tall with broad blue leaves and bark as black as coal. But there were only twelve across the whole Now-World, so the songcasters built conservatories around them to protect them. They started making all sorts of instruments from the wood. The more complex the instruments, the more powerful the magick. Even the trees’ sap could be mixed with polish so metal instruments, like my flute, could cast song spells, too.”
Dante stared at the blue fire, only vaguely aware that he had been speaking for so long. When Novah pulled her hands away from his, he snapped from his trance.
“Okay,” he said. “You’re...” He’d almost told her she was all better now. After seeing her mother struck down in front of her, though, she wouldn’t be all better for some time. At least, that’s how Dante would feel if it had been his mother.
Instead, he said, “You can rest now.”
“Mister Galliard was going to teach me an instrument.”
Dante considered lying, telling her Galliard still would teach her, that they would see him again. “I’ll teach you, Little Dune. Which instrument?”
“All of them,” she said.
Dante laughed, then saw the seriousness on her face.
“Well, you can’t play all of them at once,” he said. “Which one do you want to learn first? The flute?” He gestured toward his.
Novah scrunched her face, shook her head. “The one he had.” She cocked her head and raised both arms to mime bowing Galliard’s instrument.
“The violin,” said Dante.
“Yes, the violin.”
“Good choice. But promise me you’ll learn the flute second.”
“Those are the only two I know.”
“Not for long,” he said. “Once you’re at Tharaud, I’ll show you all the different instruments.”
“How many are there?”
“Difficult to say exactly. Several hundred. Maybe a thousand.”
Novah’s mouth dropped open.
“You’re still going to learn them all, right?” Dante asked.
She closed her mouth, her stern expression so much like her mother’s. “I am.”
“I believe you, Little Dune.”
“Thank you, Mister Songcaster.”
“You hungry or thirsty?”
Without answering, she returned to the cloak. In seconds, the little dune was snoring, her slow breathing like a lullaby.
How Dante wanted to let sleep wash over him like it had her. He could, if he were careless — how easy it would be to close his eyes and drift — yet that would leave them both in peril.
He dug the waterskin from the pack and drank the last swallow. He stoppered the waterskin, set it down, took up his flute, and trilled — quietly — the spritely melody of a watersong spell. The skin expanded as though an invisible person had blown a lungful of air into it. Dante gulped the water he’d conjured.
Now for food. In the pack was a cloth folded around the remaining portion of what songcasters referred to as a gruel brick: oats and shredded, dried vegetable pulp — and, some songcasters swore, sawdust — compressed into a dense rectangular shape that tasted like old parchment and was just as difficult to chew and swallow. Songcasters carried them on treks into the deserts because the bricks could last for weeks and, despite their grittiness and lack of flavor, provided all the sustenance a person needed for survival.
Dante gnawed off a hunk begrudgingly. Songcaster magick could conjure many things — fire and water and wind — yet anything resembling food was beyond their powers.
In the corner now illuminated by the flame, the girl kicked in her sleep under the cloak. She whispered a single syllable, then settled. Not just a syllable. A word. It had been almost inaudible, but Dante’s well-trained ears heard it as clearly as if she’d spoken it inches from his face.
She had said, “Ma.”
* * *
Dante awoke at the sound of shattering glass. He rose and tossed his shemagh over the sapphire flame, extinguishing it without burning the cloth since that particular firesong spell was meant for warmth, not cooking. He opened the door an inch, enough to peek through.
Two misshapen shadows were skulking into the church at different broken stained-glass windows. The gargoyles. Dante couldn’t see any of their monstrous features in the darkness, only the movement of their distinctive silhouettes.
He shut the door and pressed his back against it, cursing himself for falling asleep. Dante listened, waiting for the gargoyles to sniff around and hopefully fly away, yet he knew better. If they had found this church, they likely already sensed that he and Novah were here. In minutes, they would close in on this room.
He crept to the little dune and placed one hand gently where he thought her legs were, and the other he pressed harder where he thought her mouth to be. She jolted and started to speak.
“Silence,” he whispered. “Complete silence.”
Dante put on his belt and unsheathed his flute. He clutched the instrument in his right hand, opened the door as stealthily as he could, and slipped a dart from his belt with his left hand. The church was pitch black. The sandstorm was over, and night had fallen. He would have to trust his ears, which wasn’t a problem for songcasters. They trained blindfolded for hours a day, both fighting and practicing song spells. In fact, some of the best songcasters were completely sightless.
Two of the gargoyles were directly ahead of him, scratching and rooting at the floor near the pew the girl had tried sleeping under. The third he couldn’t hear, yet he knew it had to be here with the others. If he tried casting any song spells, he risked alerting this other gargoyle to his position.
With his thumb, he slid open the flute’s lip plate to load the dart. He held the projectile’s feathered end in place with his thumbpad as he guided the instrument in the direction of the two gargoyles. They were close together. Another songcaster early in his or her training might loose a dart in that general direction, hoping to hit one of the targets, yet he waited another few seconds, turning his left ear toward the creatures’ noises.
One made more of a ruckus than the other, clambering atop a pew fifteen feet away. Dante whipped the flute overhead and forward, lifting his thumb at the last second to release the dart. He knew he hit his mark when the gargoyle screeched so shrilly the remaining glass rattled in the windows.
The songcaster dropped to his knees and loaded another dart as the other gargoyle charged. Easy enough. He flung the dart. A rank mass crumpled to the floor inches from him.
He still couldn’t hear the third gargoyle. He slid the lip plate back in place and blared a sonorous firesong spell. A large blue fireball crackled to life above him, illuminating the entire nave. The gargoyle next to him and the one across the church, both now motionless, had darts stuck in their foreheads.
Breathing overhead. Dante spotted the creature clinging to the ceiling. He played a quick run of reverberant notes, and the flaming sphere flew at the gargoyle and exploded in bright sparks, plunging the church in complete darkness again as the beast dove at him.
Dante lay on his back and thrust the flute’s blade upward. The gargoyle skewered itself. Still, it skirled and flailed and clawed and gnashed. He shoved with all his strength, his biceps threatening to tear as he hoisted the beast’s bulk far enough away that its humanish hands couldn’t rip open his throat. Its putrid spittle showered his face. The songcaster twisted the blade clockwise, then counterclockwise. The creature’s sour blood spilled onto him like heated oil.
He rolled over and straddled the gargoyle, squeezing his thighs to keep it from wriggling free as he stabbed down again and again and again into the wailing animal until it lay lifeless under him.
Dante waited several seconds to see if it had any fight left. When he was certain it was dead, he wiped the lip plate clean on his pantleg and cast another firesong spell. The church was alight once more in a blue glow. He stood over the gored gargoyle. The second one still lay close by. He checked the dart in its forehead. The nickel casing had an X etched on it — a fatal poison.
The remaining gargoyle, however, was no longer by the pew across the aisle. He scanned the nave to make sure it wasn’t lurking around. It was gone. He inspected his belt. The other missing dart had been next to ones etched with a line instead of an X; a mild sedative, not a fatal poison. Damn. The creature had come to and was on its way back to its master.
The songcaster plucked the dart from the gargoyle’s head and put it in his belt pouch to refill later. For good measure, he stabbed his blade through the top of the gargoyle’s skull. Even though he’d filled it with enough poison to kill something three times its size, he wanted to leave nothing to chance.
A bright cleansong spell rid his flute and clothing of the gouts of blood. He didn’t want to scare the girl any more than necessary. Then he went to the room and cast another weak firesong spell so Novah could see him. She was hunkered under his tan cloak, a quivering dune.
“Novah, it’s me,” he said.
She lifted the cloak enough to peek at him with her green eyes, which shone like emeralds in the light of the summoned flame. “Safe?” she said.
“No. We must leave. The men will be here soon.”
She pointed one of her bandaged fingers at his face. “Blood.”
He touched his cheek and looked at his hand. Blood, yes. His own. Facing three gargoyles, he was lucky to come away with a single minor scratch.
He mustered a smile. “Nothing a healsong spell can’t fix, Little Dune.”
She didn’t return his smile.
* * *
At sunrise, the songcaster stopped in the desert to check his compass. The girl, now wearing his goggles and umber shemagh, plopped down beside him. He’d also given her a coat from the pack. It was too bulky for her but didn’t flow below her feet and slow her down like the cloak. She rolled up the coat sleeves, sat cross-legged, and began drawing shapes in the sand with her bandaged fingers.
The songcaster took the compass from his belt pouch and flipped it open. He paused as he saw the inscription on the inside of its cover:
We are the music makers
And we are the dreamers of dreams
Galliard had gifted him this compass the day Dante had completed his apprenticeship and become a full-fledged songcaster.
They were headed west, the direction of Tharaud. Considering the roundabout way they had traveled on foot, he guessed they were six days, maybe seven, away. He snapped the compass closed and returned it to his pouch, then swigged from the waterskin. He offered it to Novah. She shook her head. He produced what remained of the gruel brick from the pack, bit some off, and offered the brick to her. Again, she shook her head.
“You need to eat,” Dante said.
She stopped drawing in the sand and peeled the bandages from one finger. A teardrop of blood dripped from her fingertip. A twisted branch rose from the sand, and two ripe red apples grew on it in an instant. She plucked the apples and tossed one to him. She pulled the shemagh from her mouth and bit into the apple.
The songcaster turned the fruit in his hands as though he didn’t believe it was real. He chomped into it, its juice alighting his taste buds to the point he felt his head was spinning.
“Thanks, Little Dune,” he mumbled through a mouthful.
“Those were my ma’s favorite,” Novah said.
Dante stared at the chunk he’d bitten from the apple’s flesh, thinking of the Kog’s sword in Lenore’s side. His stomach soured yet simultaneously cried out for the rest of the fruit.
“We should keep moving,” he said. “Can you eat while we walk?”
They continued west as they finished their apples. Novah discarded the core of hers. The songcaster ate the entirety of his, seeds and stem and all.
* * *
Copyright © 2019 by Scott Hughes