Songcaster and Little Dune
by Scott Hughes
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3 4
The cold deserts no longer made music as nature should, just a low drone when a freezing sandstorm raged. The two songcasters, wearing umber shemaghs that covered their faces except for their tinted goggles, rode night and day, their tan cloaks fluttering behind them. They stopped only occasionally to rest and feed their horses and themselves and to wait out the relentless sandstorms that could last for minutes or hours.
The Now-World was mostly frigid deserts. Little moisture. Little life. Just cold, barren sand. During the day, the sun was a dull circle of candlelight behind the permanent swath of dark gray clouds. The moon was a rare sight, like a tree growing outdoors instead of in a city’s greenhouse farm. Stars had become something of a bedtime story.
Andante — or Dante, as he preferred — and his mentor Galliard had been tasked with investigating a “false miracle.” A spy from the Songcaster Order had intercepted a message intended for the Knights of God, or Kogs, as songcasters knew them. It referenced a “fabrication by the Devil that could be perceived as a false miracle” in the Empyrean Desert’s Sunken Basin region. In other words, something the Kogs would destroy in the name of their god.
The closest Kog stronghold was a few days farther from the Sunken Basin than Galliard and Dante’s songcaster conservatory. Word of the miracle would inevitably reach the knights. The songcasters had to beat them there. So, Galliard and Dante had readied their horses and set off through the gates of Tharaud Conservatory.
On the morning of the fifth day, they reached the Sunken Basin and spotted a pillar of smoke a few miles ahead. It could be the knights. In the deserts, Kogs built fires the old-fashioned way: with wood they lugged on their horses. They couldn’t create smokeless firesong flames. They used no song spells. They forbade all types of magick and even music. These things, according to the Knights of God, were unholy.
Galliard fetched a pair of binoculars from his pack and surveyed the desert in all directions. Then he put them away, and the songcasters continued on with caution.
As they crested a steep hill, Galliard uttered, “Unbelievable...”
Spreading below them in the valley was a perfect circle of dense, lush forest perhaps half a mile in diameter with trees twenty and thirty feet high. Even from this distance, Dante could see specks of color — yellows and oranges and reds and blues — that were likely flowers or fruits or both. Never had Dante seen such vivid green in the wild in all his twenty-eight years. He supposed Galliard hadn’t seen such, either, in his fifty-three years.
The smoke was rising from the forest’s center.
“The miracle?” Dante asked.
“Could it be anything besides?” responded Galliard.
They cantered downhill. When they reached the forest’s edge, they stopped their horses. The songcasters lifted their goggles and pulled down the shemaghs from their mouths. The sight was even more astounding up close. All imaginable types of flora had sprung from a blanket of grass. Apple trees, pear trees, lemon trees, orange trees, dogwoods, weeping willows, palms, ferns, roses, daffodils, tulips, lilies — all thriving in the middle of a cold, infertile desert.
Dante would have dismounted and spent an hour lying on the grass and picking fruits to devour. His mouth watered at the mere thought. Galliard, however, looked over his shoulder, perhaps hearing something Dante didn’t. Although the man was older, his ears were sharper and more attuned than Dante’s.
“Cloaksong spell?” Dante suggested.
“We would need an entire songcaster symphony to hide this place,” said Galliard. “Haste.” He kicked his horse’s sides with both heels. Dante followed.
As their horses galloped through the trees, the smells made Dante dizzy. Rich, moist earth and the tang of vegetation so sharp he could taste it. The sugary scent of various fruits wafted past him, his stomach tightening like an overwound cello string about to snap.
Soon they arrived at a clearing and a modest cabin. The smoke was coming from its narrow chimney pipe. By the cabin was a bountiful vegetable garden: cornstalks, tomato vines climbing wooden stakes, cabbages, lettuce, carrots, turnips, beets, squash, pumpkins, okra, peas.
A naturally occurring outdoor garden this size, of any size, was impossible. Growing such things in the Now-World cities’ greenhouses required all manner of technology and chemicals. At songcaster conservatories, producing an outdoor garden involved hours of spells every day: watersongs, earthsongs, and sunsongs. As far as Dante knew, no songcasters lived here. The Now-World loathed growing things. This indeed was a miracle.
Galliard dismounted from his horse. The animal stooped its head and munched at the grass. If they didn’t have urgent work to attend to and the threat of Kogs, Dante might have ripped up a handful of grass and stuffed it into his own mouth.
Galliard untied his pack from his horse’s saddle and slung it over his shoulder. On one side of the pack was the holster holding his violin, and on the other was a quiver containing arrows and his violin bow. Dante hopped from his horse and cinched his wide belt around his waist. It held a dozen feathered darts and a pouch as well as a long, thin, cylindrical holster for his songcaster instrument. He started to unsheathe his flute, but Galliard shook his head.
As the songcasters neared the cabin door, Dante heard movement inside. And talking. An adult female and a child. He couldn’t tell if the child was male or female.
Galliard knocked gently on the door.
“Go!” the adult’s voice said inside, not to the songcasters but to the child. “Under the bed. Not a peep.”
Light footsteps trotted farther into the cabin. Then heavier footsteps proceeded to the door. It opened a crack, and a woman’s brown face peered at the men wearing cloaks and shemaghs. “My husband will be home soon from hunting,” she said. “You should go.”
Galliard pocketed his goggles and undid his shemagh so as to no longer appear masked and menacing. Dante did the same. The woman scrutinized the older man’s thinning gray hair, aquiline nose, and pointed white beard, then the younger man’s jaw-length chestnut hair, almost golden eyes, and cheeks dotted with stubble.
“Madam, I am Galliard, and he is Andante. We are members of the Songcaster Order.”
“Never heard of such,” said the woman.
“Perhaps you know of the Knights of God.”
Her eye narrowed. “Yes. Heard of them.”
The woman started to shut the door, but Galliard held it open. “Madam, let me be clear. The Knights of God are on their way here, and you are fortunate we arrived first. They will kill you and your husband and your child.” Galliard had heard the child too, of course. “They’ll destroy this entire place — this miracle.”
“Miracle...” she echoed.
“Yes, madam. We are here to help you, to keep you safe, so they cannot hurt you.” Galliard stepped back from the door. Dante retreated a step as well.
“Songmasters, you say?” the woman said.
“Songcasters,” said Galliard. “An order of musicians trained in the art of song magick.”
“Magick’s forbidden. Heresy. Devil’s work. So say the Knights of God.”
Galliard smiled. She was testing them. “Madam, what you’ve created here in the desert is magick. A miracle. You as well as I know it’s not the work of any devil.”
After a moment, the woman fully opened the door. She was perhaps Dante’s age. She had a round face, and her hair was concealed beneath a turquoise headwrap.
“Come in,” she said.
As the songcasters entered the cabin, the woman took their cloaks and shook off the excess sand outside before closing the door. She hung the cloaks on a nearby hook. “Have a seat,” she said. “I knew this day would come.”
She gestured to a small table and three chairs in the center of the room. Galliard put down his pack. Then he and Dante sat at the table.
The woman, standing by the woodburning stove, watched them warily. “What’re those?” she asked, eying the holsters on Dante’s belt and Galliard’s pack.
“Our instruments,” said Galliard. He set his polished violin on the tabletop. His eyes met Dante’s, and Dante placed his silver-plated flute beside the violin. Extending from the flute’s food end was an eighteen-inch double-edged blade. The woman’s eyes widened a bit.
“I never saw many instruments,” she said, “but I don’t think they’re supposed to have knives tacked to them.”
“Songcaster instruments double as weapons,” said Galliard. “However, we use them only for our protection — and the protection of others.”
“Protection from what?” the woman asked.
“Whatever or whoever intends to harm innocent people,” said Galliard.
Becoming impatient, Dante interrupted. “Sorry, madam, but the Ko... the Knights of God are coming as we speak, and you’ll find they won’t be as friendly as we. If you care for your husband—”
“He’s hunting,” the woman said.
“What’s your name?” Galliard asked.
“Not much to hunt in the cold deserts, Lenore. Outside, we overheard you talking with your child, who’s now hiding. Where is your husband, truthfully?”
She kept her eyes locked on Galliard’s, her mouth a straight, stern line. “Fane, my husband, goes now and again to trade our produce in the nearby cities for things we need, like gardening tools and parts to fix the water collector and such. I beg him not to go every time, yet he goes anyway. Stubborn, that man. Always has been. He left ten days ago and hasn’t returned.”
The songcasters exchanged a wordless look. They knew what had happened. A man trading fresh produce would draw all kinds of attention. She had been right to beg him not to go. Fane had been captured by the Kogs, which is how they had learned of this place.
“Something to drink?” Lenore asked. “Our water collector out back is older than creation, but it works. Water tastes a bit metallic. Drinkable, though.”
“Although I am rather thirsty,” said Galliard, “you needn’t waste your reserves on us. We need two empty cups, nothing more.”
One eyebrow arched quizzically, she brought over a couple of wooden cups and set them on the table. Galliard retrieved his bow from the quiver on his pack and picked up his violin without looping his left hand through the woven wrist strap tied to the pegbox. He cocked his head and placed his chin on the violin’s black chin rest. His right hand worked the bow across the strings while his left hand’s fingers danced along the instrument’s neck, producing an arrhythmic, almost drunken tune.
Dark, steaming liquid swirled into existence in both cups. Galliard set his violin back on the table, and he and Dante sipped the cups’ contents.
“Warm spiced wine,” said Galliard. “Of all the song spells, it is one of the finest. Care for a cup?”
Lenore shook her head, an astonished yet distrustful look in her eyes. Dante didn’t blame her. It was an expression he’d seen before on the faces of people witnessing a songcaster spell for the first time.
“Now that you have seen a display of our magick,” said Galliard, “perhaps you could show us a display of yours.”
“I have no magick to show,” she said. “unless you count living as magick.”
“As a matter of fact, I do, but not quite the type of magick I’m referring to.”
“How did all of this appear in a barren desert?” Dante asked.
“My daughter.” Lenore raised her eyes and looked past the songcasters.
They turned to see girl of perhaps nine or ten in the open bedroom doorway, both hands behind her. She had her mother’s russet skin and round face, and her black hair was plaited into two short, tight braids that curved around her ears. Her eyes, examining the songcasters suspiciously as Lenore had, were the verdant green of the grass that surrounded this cabin.
“Was that supposed to be a song?” the girl asked Galliard.
“Of a sort,” he said.
“Didn’t sound like a good one.”
The old man smirked. “Tell me what you know of music, little one.”
“Come, Novah,” said Lenore.
The girl focused on the songcasters’ instruments on the table. “They’re still making sounds.”
Galliard leaned forward in his chair. “You hear them? Now?”
“Novah, come here,” Lenore said, more forcefully this time.
The girl scampered to her mother’s side. As she passed them, Dante noticed the girl’s hands were completely wrapped in cloth bandages, fingers and all. Lenore put an arm around her daughter’s shoulders.
“Promise me,” Lenore said to the two men. “Promise me you’re here to protect us. To protect her.”
“We promise,” said Galliard.
Dante nodded. “We promise.”
Lenore weighed their responses, then turned to her daughter. “Novah, show these men what you do. Something little.” She unwrapped the bandages from the tip of the girl’s right forefinger.
Novah approached the table. She extended her right hand, palm down, and closed it into a fist except for the one naked fingertip. Her eyes began to sparkle like tiny green lanterns. A thin slit opened on the pad of her finger, no bigger than a papercut, and a few red dots dribbled onto the tabletop between the violin and flute. Lenore came over and rewrapped the bandages around her daughter’s finger.
Galliard and Dante watched the table intently. From Novah’s blood droplets, a tendril wiggled upward. At first, it was as thin as a strand of hair. It curled and thickened to the width of a violin string, growing to the height of the songcasters’ eyelevel. Then a purple oval budded from its tip and bloomed into a violet flower.
The songcasters stared at the flower, neither knowing what to say.
“We used to live in Maré,” said Lenore. “My husband and me. And then Novah was born. When she was about one, soon after she started walking, she fell and cut her hand on the fireplace corner. A patch of grass grew there, right on the bricks, where she bled. Over the next year, she started doing it on her own, making plants and flowers in our home. We knew we couldn’t stay in Maré anymore. People would find out, learn what she could do. She’d be taken from us. So, we left the city and came here. Made this place for ourselves — with Novah’s help, of course.”
“She grew everything here?” Dante asked. “Like she did this flower?”
“Madam,” said Galliard, “you and your daughter must leave with us now. The knights know of this place. They believe it to be an ungodly atrocity. They’ll kill you both.”
“And where will you take us?” Lenore asked. “How do I know you aren’t these knights?”
“Because if we were, we would not be having this conversation. You’d already be...” He trailed off. “We’d have already burned down this entire forest and been long gone.”
“We’ll take you to our conservatory,” Dante added. “Both of you will be safe.”
Lenore considered their offer. “Swear.”
The songcasters nodded.
“Say it,” she said.
“We swear,” the songcasters said in unison.
Lenore knelt and cupped her daughter’s face in her hands. “Novah, would you like us to go with these men?”
The girl studied Galliard and Dante. “Will you play more music where you’re taking us?”
“As much as you’d like,” said Galliard. “I’ll even teach you to play whichever instrument you want.”
Novah grinned. She looked at her mother and nodded.
“All right,” Lenore said to the songcasters. “We need to pack some things first.”
“Very well,” said Galliard. “Make haste. The knights are coming.”
* * *
Copyright © 2019 by Scott Hughes