Songcaster and Little Dune
by Scott Hughes
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3 4
The songcasters finished their wine and donned their cloaks as they waited for Lenore and Novah to gather the belongings for the trip. Dante sat tapping his heel on the floor. Galliard paced by the door.
Outside, the songcasters’ horses cried out, then were silent.
“Heathens!” a man’s voice called from outdoors. “Come out now, and we’ll spare you! We’re here for the mother and girl, not you!”
Lenore and Novah, eyes brimming with fear, hurried into the room with the songcasters.
Dante leapt up, flute drawn. Galliard unhooked the quiver from his pack, secured it to his belt, unholstered his violin, and looped the pegbox’s strap around his left wrist. As the knight outside continued to call for them, Galliard ushered Lenore and her daughter to a corner and into a cramped space between the stove and a cabinet.
“Hunker down here,” Galliard told them. “Do not move. If they come inside, they won’t be able to see you.”
Lenore said, “But we’re—”
Galliard stopped her. “Don’t move. Or speak.” He played a haunting, airy cloaksong as quickly as he could. The woman and her daughter became blurry, as though one were looking at them through a smudged window, and then they disappeared from sight.
“Do not move,” Galliard said once more, “or the spell will cease to work.”
He and Dante went to the front door and opened it.
Next to the garden, three Knights of God loomed over the songcasters’ slaughtered horses, and their trio of gargoyles were feasting on the dead animals’ entrails, smacking sickeningly. The Kogs’ armored horses were hitched to an elm. One knight had removed his golden helmet with a red plume and held it under his arm, just above the long hilt of his broadsword.
Dante couldn’t be sure if he’d encountered this particular knight, since they all were practically identical. They wore lustrous gilded armor from head to toe, and their chest plates bore a crimson cross. They all had pale, completely shaved heads — even their eyebrows — and eyes black as soot. They looked reptilian. Only the colors of their helmet plumes were different to denote rank. The two Kogs with their helmets still on had white plumes.
They always traveled in threes, each accompanied by a gargoyle — a mutated creature the size of a leopard with a horned head, a grotesque face that was a horrid fusion of boar and lynx, and eyes like red-within-yellow whole notes. Although gargoyles rarely stood upright, they had humanlike legs and arms, their toes and fingers ending in obsidian talons. Their gray hides had matted patches of black fur, and their veiny bat-like wings had a full span of six feet.
“Ah, they show themselves!” said the knight with his helmet off. “Exit the house.”
“And if we don’t?” said Galliard.
The knight kicked one of the gargoyles. It squealed, and all three scurried away from the horses. The knight planted his boot on the flank of Dante’s dead horse. “Then you meet the same swift end as your steeds, I’m afraid.”
“How do we know you won’t kill us anyway?”
“I give you my word,” said the knight, “and that is the word of a Knight of God.”
“Doesn’t mean much to us,” said Galliard.
“Of course it doesn’t, heathen. However, it does to us. While your kind might not be children of God, our kind is.” He lowered his foot from the horse, and the gargoyles dove back in and resumed feeding. The Kog looked down at them, then at Galliard. He shrugged. “They’re hungry. What can I say? Not much meat in the desert. Now, out with the both of you.”
“Very well,” said Galliard. The songcasters stepped out and moved clear of the house, keeping their distance from the Kogs.
“Throw down those Devil’s instruments.”
“Only if you and your men throw down your swords.”
None of the men, neither the Kogs nor the songcasters, relinquished their weapons.
“As I thought,” said Galliard.
“Keep them at your sides,” the helmetless knight said. Then he motioned his free hand toward the cabin. “Search the house. Find them.” One of the white-plumed Kogs clanked as he marched indoors.
“You won’t find anyone,” said Galliard. “The home was abandoned when we arrived.”
“We’ll see soon enough.” He handed his red-plumed helmet to the other knight and strolled into the garden. He bent down and snatched a carrot from the soil. He sniffed it, straightened himself, and turned to the songcasters. “Do you know what this place is?” He gestured with the carrot to their surroundings.
“A miracle,” Galliard answered.
“Miracle?” The knight rolled the word in his mouth as though it tasted bitter. “No, no, no. It is blasphemy.”
“It’s life where there is none.”
“Life does not make something good. Tumors live and grow... and must be cut out.”
“If this place is blasphemy,” said Galliard, “then I suppose that makes the deserts sacred?”
“Indeed, they are. God’s pure, cold judgment for mankind.”
“This is more God’s work than any desert. What if this is the first of many places like it?”
“Places where, as you said, there is no life, then suddenly...” The knight held up the carrot. “Life.”
“Sounds like God to me,” said Galliard.
“Does, doesn’t it? Unless that life appears from the blood of a little girl. God would never work through such blood magick heresy.”
“So, you claim to know the ways God will and will not work?”
“I claim to know the difference between a true miracle and a cleverly disguised trick of the Devil.” The knight dropped the carrot and crushed it under his boot. “Take, for example, blackbark trees. We Knights of God have many names for them — Devilwoods, soot trees, Lucifer’s horns—”
“Songtrees,” said Galliard.
“Yes. Those cursed trees appeared from nowhere, and you heathens immediately began worshipping them as false idols. You believe they whisper to you. Only the Devil would whisper to men through trees.”
“Songtrees do not whisper,” said Galliard. “They make music. Your God is the one who talks through burning bushes.”
“You should stop speaking of God as though you know Him.”
“As should you.”
The knight’s hairless face became deep red like the cross on his chest. He clenched his teeth. “I am—”
A crashing sound came from inside the house, followed by shouting — of both a man and woman.
Galliard swiftly lifted his violin and cast a skittering windsong spell that bowled over the two Kogs and hurled the shrieking gargoyles into the trees. Then he played the crisp, energetic notes of a firesong. Orange flames flared up from the ground and enclosed the knights in a fiery dome.
Galliard released his violin, and it dangled by the strap on his wrist, to keep it close in case he needed to cast another song spell. He pulled the extendable bow’s ends, nearly doubling its length, and the special ribbon woven from horsehair and songtree root fibers grew taut without breaking.
Galliard held the now-longer curved bow in his left hand. With his right hand, he drew an arrow from the quiver on his belt and nocked it. All this he did, through years of rehearsal, in three seconds.
“Help them!” he said to Dante. “Go!”
Inside, Dante found the knight floundering on the floor with his hands up. Lenore’s hazy form began to flicker in and out of view over the knight, who punched at the blur above him. His steel-covered fist finally connected, and Lenore fell beside the knight, who was struggling on his back like an overturned tortoise.
Dante’s shrill stillsong froze the Kog in place, but the man continued to grunt as he tried to fight the magick Dante had inflicted upon him. The spell was effective, though not long-lasting. Dante hurried over and helped Lenore stand. As he did so, the cloaksong completely wore off.
Dante was about to ask Lenore why she’d moved despite Galliard’s warnings, when the knight outside hollered, “We have your man, heathen! Send out the woman and the girl, or we’ll spill his guts and let our gargoyles eat until their bellies burst!”
“Where’s Novah?” Dante asked Lenore.
Her eyes turned to the spot where Galliard had hidden them.
Dante looked at the corner. Even though he couldn’t see the girl, he said, “Stay there. Don’t move.”
“Take them!” Galliard shouted from outside. “Flee! Get away fr—”
He was silenced by a loud thwack, probably from a Kog’s gauntlet or sword hilt.
“Damn,” Dante murmured to himself. Then he asked Lenore, “Is there another door?”
“Yes, through the bedroom.” She raised her hand to point when the Kog’s blade swung from below and struck her forearm, nearly cleaving it clean off. Lenore howled and fell to her knees.
The stillsong had worn off, or mostly so, and the Kog had drawn his sword even though he was still lying down. He hacked horizontally with the sword, and the blade sliced into the woman’s midsection. Blood splattered across the knight’s armor and the floor, and Lenore slumped lifelessly onto her side.
Dante twirled the flute in his hands so that the blade faced downward, intending to plunge it into the slit between the Kog’s helmet and chest plate, when a high-pitched scream rang out from the corner. Two jets of scarlet sprayed from the air there and joined Lenore’s blood on the floor around the knight. Where it landed, hundreds of long wooden needles burst from the boards. They punched through the Kog’s armor with ease and impaled his legs, arms, torso, throat, and head. He quivered, uttered a gurgling sound, then went limp.
Dante didn’t look away from the Kog’s body until Novah appeared in the corner. She was standing, both hands out, and the bandages were stained with splotches the color of Galliard’s spiced wine. Her forehead was drenched with sweat. Her glittering green eyes glared at the dead knight.
“Send them out, heathen!” the knight outside said. “Now!”
The Kog’s words shocked Dante from his stupor. His priority was to get the girl to safety, yet he could hardly leave Galliard with the knights. He couldn’t do both, not without risking the girl’s life. Galliard had told him to flee.
Novah was on her knees by her mother. Dante touched her shoulder, and she spun toward him, her bloody palms extended.
Dante withdrew his hand. “We have to go.”
“But my ma,” said the girl, her cheeks glistening with tears.
“I’m sorry. She’s gone, but you’re not. You will be killed — we both will be — if we don’t leave now.” Dante knelt, set down his flute, and cupped the girl’s face as her mother had. “I swore to your mother I’d protect you, and I will.”
The girl nodded.
The songcaster picked up his flute and shouldered Galliard’s pack, his own still strapped to his dead horse’s saddle outside.
“The back door,” he told the girl. “Run and don’t stop. I’ll be right behind you.”
The girl fled. Dante followed, pausing long enough to play the rapid angry tones of the strongest firesong he knew. The stove exploded, and the flames began to catch all over the cabin’s interior. He raced across the bedroom and out the rear door as the remaining knights kicked down the front door.
Dante kept his eyes on the girl as they sprinted through the forest. He cast the powerful firesong again and again, igniting the flora left and right.
Finally, as he and the girl climbed to the top of a steep embankment, they collapsed to their knees and took turns guzzling water from Galliard’s waterskin between hitching breaths.
A towering tornado of black smoke had risen in the desert. Between the fire Galliard had conjured and the several Dante had, there would soon be nothing left of Novah’s miracle but smoldering ash.
As Dante tucked the waterskin into Galliard’s pack, he spotted three winged shapes circling the smoke. The gargoyles. They would find him and the girl soon.
“Where now?” Novah asked.
Dante stood and gazed in the opposite direction from the smoke. In the distance was a brown wall of dust. A sandstorm. Not something you’d normally walk toward in the cold deserts, although it would provide them some cover.
He nodded at the sandstorm. “That way.”
He helped the girl up, took off his cloak, and threw it around her. She tugged the hood over her head with hands still wrapped in soaked bandages. Dante thought there might be clean bandages in Galliard’s pack, but he didn’t have time now to change them, not while the Kogs and gargoyles were so close.
Novah began walking, the tail of the songcaster’s cloak dragging in the sand.
Dante turned one last time to look at the smoke. “Sorry, Galliard,” he whispered.
* * *
Copyright © 2019 by Scott Hughes