Back | Next

Untrained Melody

There was a dwarf on Laura Polaski's coffee table.

Even as Laura searched the small apartment for something heavy to throw at him, she could hear the too-perky voice from the Kiki's Coffee House orientation video reminding her of the importance of sensitivity.

Fine. Not a dwarf. A little person. A Little African American Person, to be precise. Wearing a brown pinstripe suit and a black fedora. Sitting cross-legged on the end of her coffee table, working on the crossword puzzle in the back of the TV Guide. Laura stepped back into the bathroom, retrieved the still-hot curling iron, and waved it like a sword. "I don't know how you got in here, but—"

The dwarf whistled a jazzy melody that climbed two and a half octaves and ended on a chord.

The curling iron twisted out of Laura's hand and landed on the coffee table. The cord twitched along the floor as the curling iron balanced on the handle, like a puppy begging for treats.

"How did you do that?" Laura asked.

He doffed his hat, revealing a scalp of white stubble. "You learn a few tricks over two hundred years. The secret is to hear the melody at the core of a thing, so you can—"

"No, the whistling. You whistled a D-minor chord. That's impossible. Unless you've got three throats?"

"Not that I'm aware of." He pulled a silver pocket watch from his suit and glanced at it. "My name is Aleksander Yusupov. Al, if you prefer. You're a hard woman to track down. The wedding company said they weren't using you anymore, and the fast food place told me you quit a few weeks back. Fortunately, they had your address—"

"If so, why am I still waiting for my final paycheck?" She reached toward the papers scattered over the end of the coffee table: overdue bills, junk mail, a few pay stubs. The whole apartment was a disaster. She matched Al's stare...then gripped the end of the table with both hands and lifted.

Al tumbled onto the floor. Laura leapt across the living room to grab the floor lamp in both hands. She raised it overhead, ready to slam the weighted end into Al's head if he so much as—

He whistled again. The electric cord whipped around Laura's arm. She switched her grip and swung the other end. Al rolled out of the way, barely dodging a spray of shattered glass.

"Easy, girl." Al raised his hands and backed into the wall. "I'm trying to help you."

Laura pointed the lamp at him. A broken halogen bulb fell to the floor.

"I know why you've been having nightmares," Al said. "And why you cringe from the shadows."

Slowly, Laura lowered the lamp. A sudden pounding from below made them both jump. She rolled her eyes and shouted, "Sorry about the noise, Mrs. Salvati." To Al, she said, "You've got one minute."

Al stood and removed a long, slender satchel which had been slung across his shoulder. "Landed on it when I fell," he muttered. "My chiropractor's going to be pissed."

"Fifty seconds."

Al brushed himself off. "You're a bard, Laura. When you play, you call upon powers deep within this world. Sometimes, darker things answer. You've called something to our world, and now you have to help me send it back."

He sounded so grave and serious. And he had managed to make both the curling iron and the lamp dance to his tune, as it were. "Fifty bucks."

"What's that?"

She crossed her arms. "I don't know anything about dark powers or magic music, but if you want me to play, that's my rate."

"You've got an obligation. It's part of being a bard."

"I've got an obligation to pay my rent on Monday." Laura tapped the plastic nametag on her shirt. "I'm no bard. I'm a Kiki's cashier, and I have to be at work in an hour."

Al sighed and pulled out his wallet. He set a crisp fifty dollar bill on the arm of the chair. "Fetch your instrument."

Laura stared. She hadn't expected him to agree. She set the lamp on the floor and went to the hall closet, where she retrieved a red box. Simply unfastening the latches helped to calm her, as did the old, leathery smell of the box. She brought it back to the loveseat and opened the lid.

"You've got to be kidding me," whispered Al.

"Shut up," Laura snapped. She lifted the accordion with both hands. The straps fit comfortably over her shoulders, smooth and supple as a baby's skin. The fingers of her right hand brushed over the piano keys. With her left hand, she slowly expanded the accordion, filling the bellows. "What would you like me to play?"

Al untied a leather cord on the end of his satchel and pulled out a long, speckled flute that appeared to be made of polished granite. "Just follow my lead. You'll provide the power, I'll shape the spell. And try to keep up."

She ran through a few quick scales, stretching her fingers. Try to keep up? She planned to leave her diminutive intruder in the dust.

Al began to play. His instrument produced a deeper sound than any flute she had heard before. At least two octaves deeper. He trilled a low B, like the call of a bird, and then his fingers began to fly over the holes. He played a fast, cheerful melody that made her want to leap out of her seat. There was a jazzy, improvisational feel to it, but it also reminded her of Russian folk music, with a slight trace of that new age, faux-Native American stuff.

She grinned and squeezed her accordion. The instant she touched the keys, her body grew warm, like she was standing on the beach in August. She kept to simple chords and harmonies as she learned Al's melody. Soon she was improvising, adding a jaunty triplet here, playing a low countermelody there. And somewhere along the line, their roles switched. Laura began to lead, with Al following along.

His eyebrows shot up when it happened, and he actually missed a note. His face turned even darker, and he scrunched his forehead as he caught up with her.

Laura laughed and played faster. She forgot about her stupid job. She forgot about being alone and broke in the big city, stuck in a crappy apartment. Blood pounded through her shoulders and arms, and her fingers raced across the keys.

Al nodded at the window. Laura gasped. The glass at the center was cracked. As she watched, tiny shards began to fall away. The landlord would kill her! "What's—"

Al stomped his feet and played louder. He jabbed his flute at her accordion.

Laura gritted her teeth and kept playing. The stupid dwarf had broken her window. That was going to cost him extra.

The window continued to break, leaving a jagged hole the size of her two fists. Frost covered the edges, though it was the middle of July. Outside, a shadowy form twitched toward the window.

Al's playing changed, becoming slower, more seductive. Laura could feel him calling, like the most brazen prostitute trying to lure her next customer.

The floor shook. The creaky voice of Mrs. Salvati cried out, "Any more racket and I'm calling the police! And the landlord!"

Laura froze.

"Don't stop!" Al shouted.

The window shattered. Broken glass swirled into a miniature tornado and rushed toward her...fragments large and sharp enough to slice her skin to ribbons.

Al leapt in front of her and blew a single shrill note that brought tears to Laura's eyes. He turned his face away as the glass burst into powder.

And then all was quiet. The shadow was gone. The sun shone through the empty windowframe. Laura was once again alone with Al, who was tucking his flute back into its case.

"What happened?" she asked.

"You interrupted a bardic spell, that's what happened." Al sat down beside her and hummed. Bits of glass dropped from his sleeves.

"Look, I'm sorry, but I can't afford to lose this apartment. I can't even afford a new window!"

"You don't understand, girl." Al doffed his hat and tapped glass from the brim. "Your music summoned that creature back here, and your music opened a portal to send it home. Then you stopped playing. You surrendered control of the spell, and he grabbed it."

"And that's bad?"

"Before, we had one nasty running loose. You just handed it the means to summon an army."

* * *

Mrs. Salvati glared from her window as Laura and Al left the building.

"A bard taking threats from some cranky old bat," Al muttered. "She's lucky you don't charm every rat within a block to come nest in her unmentionables."

"I can do that?"

Al snorted. "Better not try it. Mess up that spell like you did the gateway, and you'll be swimming in rats yourself."

Laura shivered at that image. "What was that thing at my window?"

"I think of them as puppeteers. They have no body of their own, so they use ours. That one was stronger than I expected. Must have been feeding off of you for months."

Laura shook her head. "I think I'd have noticed a freaky shadow lurking in my apartment."

Al closed his eyes and hummed, oblivious to the passing cars and the stares of people on the sidewalk. He turned in a slow circle, then opened his eyes. "Looks like it went east. Come on."

Laura followed. It wasn't easy to hurry while carrying an accordion. "What are we doing?"

"You're a bard, Laura. That's a special kind of gift, and it carries special responsibilities. In this case, it means fixing your screw-ups." He glanced up at her. "How is it you never learned all this? A teacher should have found you the instant you started playing."

Laura flushed. "I had lessons for a while when I was younger, but I quit. I didn't want to spend all my time practicing. Mister Hartwick tried to change my mind, but I wanted to play soccer."

"Good old Bobby Hartwick." Al shook his head. "He could play a violin like it was the voice of god himself, and you quit to play soccer."

She flushed. "I started playing accordion again in high school. I just didn't like the lessons, or people telling me when to practice."

Al stopped walking. "That's too bad. If you'd stayed with Bobby, he might have taught you not to stop in mid-spell and feed your magic to the nasties. That's one of the earliest lessons, right after Hot Cross Buns. Now, you see that lady, the one with the nasty leopard-fur purse?"

Laura fought the urge to turn around and head home. Let Al deal with this on his own. He was the bard, after all.

Guilt made her stay. Guilt and the fact that, no matter how annoying he might be, Al played a flute like nobody she had ever heard before. She quickly spotted the woman with the purse. "The one with the toy poodle?"

"That's no poodle. Not really a lady, either. Those are puppets, and they're coming after us." Al pulled her into an alley between a used bookstore and an Italian restaurant. The smell was a foul mix of fresh-cooked lasagna and rotting garbage.

Al raised his flute to his mouth as the silhouettes of the woman and her poodle appeared at the end of the alley. "This time, just follow along."

He began to play a variation of the melody from Laura's apartment. The music had a greater sense of urgency than before. The beat was faster, the notes sharper. Laura added her accordion to his flute, playing softly so she wouldn't drown him out.

The poodle yipped and tore down the alley, his pink leash bouncing along the pavement with every step. Laura winced at the sound. Yippy dogs were bad enough, but this one was worse. His mere presence grated on her like a badly tuned piano. The woman was just as bad.

Al played faster. The poodle slowed to a walk, then sat in a puddle and began to lick himself. The old woman walked toward them like she was in a trance.

The music grew louder. Each note was a hammer blow, striking the creatures within the woman and her dog. Again and again Al pounded, driving them from their puppets. He walked closer, and a faint shadow pulled away from the poodle.

The woman pointed a manicured nail. Al glanced at Laura, his expression worried. A pile of old pizza boxes flew from beside the dumpster, lids flapping as they swarmed over him. He tried to keep playing, but soon the boxes were knocking his flute away from his mouth.

The woman smiled. A broken pizza cutter flew from the open dumpster, disappearing in the flock of greasy cardboard. The poodle didn't move. Apparently Laura's playing was enough to hold him. What was different about his owner?

And then Laura saw it. She stopped playing and filled the bellows of her accordion.

"Don't interrupt the spell!" Al bellowed a string of harsh, foreign-sounding words. Profanity, from the sound of it. "I bet you never mastered Hot Cross Buns, either!"

Laura kept retreating until her back hit the dumpster. She heard more garbage stirring within, and wondered what would leap out to smother her if she failed. It would be just her luck to end up garroted by moldy spaghetti.

Praying this worked, Laura blasted two simple notes as loud as she could. The woman froze, and Laura leapt forward, yanking the white earbuds from her ears, then scampering out of reach.

Laura repeated the two notes. She waited a beat, then played them a third time. Again and again, faster and faster, building the tension and fear. She added a dramatic flourish, never breaking the rhythm of those two bass notes. The woman fumbled with the earbuds, but terror made her clumsy. Her purse dropped to the ground.

The woman fled, her poodle yipping at her heels. The pizza boxes fell away from Al, and the cutter clattered to the pavement. Al's suit was torn, and blood dripped from dozens of cuts on his hands. He shivered as he bent to retrieve his flute.

"That was some powerful frightening music," he said as he inspected his instrument for damage. "Sent those puppeteers running for Mama, you did."

"It did the same to me, the first time I heard it." To tell the truth, she was a bit shaken herself. Even after all these years, she couldn't watch that movie. She half expected a great white shark to burst from the dumpster. She retrieved the fallen purse and fished around until she found the woman's iPod. She glanced at the playlist. "Looks like your flute was no match for 'The Best of Tom Jones.'"

* * *

Al hummed as they walked, trying to heal his wounds. He had managed to stop the bleeding, but his hands were still swollen and bruised. "That blasted pizza cutter was bad enough, but cardboard cuts sting like the devil's piss, I tell you."

Laura rolled her eyes, willing that image from her mind as they approached an old hotel building. Polished brass gleamed in the sun. Sparrows chirped from their nests among the gargoyles.

"You feel it, don't you?" Al asked.

Laura nodded. The same wrongness she had felt back in the alley, only stronger. It was all she could do to not squeeze her hands over her ears as she walked through the revolving door.

A man in a navy suit with a hotel badge on his chest hurried around the desk to intercept her. Laura realized she was humming, just to block out the atonal wrongness of the man.

Al held up his battered hands. "You're on your own, Laura," he said. "Best I can do is whistle backup."

Laura nodded and opened the purse the woman in the alley had dropped.

"I'm sorry," the man said, flashing a smile. "You'll have to leave your instruments with me. I'll be happy to store them in the hotel safe until you—"

A quick blast of pepper spray left him on the floor, rubbing his face and weeping. Everyone in the lobby stopped and stared. Another hotel employee started toward them.

Al began to whistle, and slowly everyone went back to what they were doing. Al grabbed Laura's arm and tugged her toward the elevator. Only when the doors were closed did he stop whistling.

"You know, traditionally a bard uses her instrument to fight the bad guys."

Laura handed him the pepper spray. Her hands were shaking. "I told you, I'm no bard. I don't even know what I'm doing here. I was supposed to be at work ten minutes ago."

"You have a duty, Laura. An obligation to protect this world."

"Can't you call someone else? You came here to take care of these puppeteers. Let's hit a payphone, and you can call up some friends. Tell 'em you're getting the band back together or something."

"By the time anyone arrives, it will be too late. They have a gateway, Laura."

Because of her. The doors dinged open, and Al dragged her into the hallway.

"Music is in your soul," Al said as they passed a woman with an ice bucket. An older man hurried by, dragged by a little girl who kept trying to pull the fire alarms. "You'll know what to do."

They stopped at a door marked DeVine Ballroom. An A-frame sign read Reserved for the wedding of Julie and Roger.

Laura stopped.

"They're inside," Al said. "Feels like a lot of them."

"I know." Laura's throat was tight. "And I know who summoned them."

"What's that?"

"I was supposed to play this wedding. Michelle called to say I wouldn't be needed after all, today or in the future. She said there simply wasn't a demand for accordion players."

"Who's Michelle?"

"The wedding planner." Laura glanced at her watch. The wedding had started over an hour ago. "She hired me for one or two gigs every week when I first moved here."

"Feeding on your power until she was strong enough to survive on her own," Al said. "Then, once she was ready, she ditched you so there'd be no chance of you learning the truth."

"She said I wasn't good enough," Laura whispered.

"I've heard you play." Al rapped the side of her accordion. "Anyone who can wrangle music out of this contraption has talent."

Laura scratched her nose with her middle finger and turned to the door. "What do I do?"

"Hit them all at once. Something powerful. Something that will grab the whole room and get them out of our way. Then we break the gateway. It's your music fuelling it, so you'll have to be the one to destroy it."


Al shrugged. "It's different from every bard. Magic is like a song. You'll feel it. Trust yourself."

"The last time you told me to wing it, I handed a magic portal over to a soul-possessing shadow from another dimension."

"True enough. And believe me, I'd much rather head to the nearest coffee shop and spend the next year filling you in on all the lessons you missed when you bailed on old Bobby. But I think I'd rather save the world first."

Right. Laura's fingers touched the keys. Her mind was blank. She knew hundreds of songs by heart, and suddenly she couldn't remember a single one.

"No time for stage fright," Al said. "Keep it simple. And remember, once you start playing, don't stop until it's over, one way or another."

Something to grab the whole room. Something powerful. Laura nodded. "I'm ready."

Al yanked open the door. Inside, a handful of people stood at a buffet line. The bride and her bridesmaids were with Michelle, posing for photos in front of a wedding cake. From the atonal filth washing over the crowd, Laura figured most of the guests were already possessed. Michelle straightened, and her eyes met Laura's.

Laura gritted her teeth and squeezed out the opening notes of the chicken dance.

"Look at the cake," Al said.

It was a typical wedding cake. Three layers, frosted in white with lavender flowers and green curliqueues. The top layer balanced on clear plastic pillars. A miniature bride and groom stood in the center of a plastic heart decorated with lavender ribbon.

Al whistled, and the tiny groom tumbled backward. His head and shoulders vanished. The cake topper was the gateway.

"But it's so small," Laura said.

"A gateway needs a frame. And a soul will fit through the eye of a needle, if you yank it hard enough. Keep playing!"

Laura picked up the tempo. Already a handful of children had run onto the dance floor, flapping their arms and laughing. Others moved to join them, compelled by Laura's music. A teenager snarled and ran toward them. He made it halfway across the room before he stumbled. His hands began to clap like a beak. An older couple tried to flee, but the chicken dance drew them back.

"Make for the cake," Al said.

Laura walked through the crowd. More and more of the possessed guests tried to reach her, but her music stopped them all. She and Al were an island of safety in a sea of dancing chickens.

The only one unaffected was Michelle. "She's absorbed a good deal of your music," Al said. "It gives her a bit of immunity."

Michelle reached out and tore several chunks from the wedding cake, which she stuffed into the bride's ears. She did the same with the closest bridesmaid, who immediately grabbed a long, ribbon-bedecked cake knife and advanced.

"Don't stop playing," Al said. He drew his flute and gripped it with both hands.

"What are you doing?" Laura asked. "You can't—"

Al swung the flute like a baseball bat, smacking the bridesmaid in the knee. She howled and fell in a cloud of purple satin and chiffon. Al grinned at Laura. "Never underestimate the power of a dwarven battle flute."

A plate shattered on Al's head. He staggered and shook his head. Bits of broken china fell like snowflakes.

The bride picked up another plate. Without thinking, Laura worked the final measure of Pop Goes the Weasel into her song. The plate exploded in the bride's hand.

Sweat trickled down Laura's face as she increased both the tempo and the volume. Already several of the guests had collapsed from exhaustion, but the shadow-spirits still floated above them, flapping their spectral arms to the music. The bride began to tremble, fighting the urge. She reached for another plate, and again Laura destroyed it. The bride turned away and tried to stuff more cake into her ears.

"That might work against him," Laura said, gesturing toward Al. "The flute you hear with your ears. The accordion you feel in your bones."

And then Michelle smiled. "So much power," she said. "But haven't you learned anything from your mistakes?"

Laura ignored her. Michelle was just trying to distract her, to get her to stop playing. Another few steps and she would be at the portal. She could hear it now, a chorus of accordions and flutes, woven around a single repeating melody. Over and over it played, a single track on an infinite loop.

Michelle clapped her hands. The injured bridesmaid pulled herself up long enough to throw her knife. Propelled by magic, it flew like an arrow from a bow. The blade sank into the bellows of her accordion. Laura could barely breathe. It was like the knife had pierced her own lungs.

"All that power you've summoned, mine for the taking," Michelle said. "A wedding feast indeed."

"Keep playing," said Al. Blood dripped down his face.

Laura squeezed the accordion, which made a sound like a dying animal. Air wheezed out of the bellows. She could barely get enough air to produce a single note. The wedding guests began to shake off the effects of her magic.

Al hummed. It was an odd melody that danced through several keys, almost at random. Slowly, the music settled into a regular tune, then grew simpler, coming back to a simple C. He hummed it again and again, bringing chaos into order.

The torn material of her bellows tightened and sealed itself around the knife.

"Finish it," Al said, then went back to humming.

Laura played. The guests might have thrown off the chicken dance, but she could do better. Never taking her eyes from Michelle, Laura began to play the Macarena.

Al kept humming as he walked beneath the table and whacked the legs with his flute. He dove away as the table collapsed.

Michelle barely managed to seize the topper before the cake toppled onto the bride. Michelle extended her other hand, fingers spread. Smoke rose from her palm. "You're not strong enough to stop me."

Flames leapt out, but Laura only smiled. She could hear the music behind the fire. Her music. It swirled through the room, filling her with giddiness. Even the fire danced to her song, turning and leaping to the addictive beat of the Macarena.

Laura's hands blazed across the keys, and she saw fear in Michelle's eyes. It was time to end this, to reclaim her music and her power. One final song to send these spirits home and heal the portal behind them.

She played a bridge, transitioning to yet another tune. Michelle's eyes widened.

Music pounded through Laura's blood. She winked at Al, then stepped around the table, backing Michelle into a corner. "Let's polka."

* * *

Laura sat at one of the few undisturbed tables, watching Al mingle through the crowd. She wondered if anyone else could hear the humming. She knew nobody else could feel the way his music reached out, nudging memories and pushing them to believe his half-assed story about a chemical reaction in the insulation and hallucinatory gases seeping into the room.

Eventually, he made his way back to her. He had picked up a bit of wedding cake...not a slice so much as a lump. "Not bad for a first-timer," he said.

Laura ran her fingers over the hole in her accordion. This would likely need more than a patch job. The entire bellows would need to be replaced. She didn't have the money. Heck, she was more than an hour late for work. She'd be lucky if she still had a job.

"Is this normal for you people?" She waved one hand, encompassing the chaos of the ballroom.

"'You people?'" Al repeated, raising an eyebrow.

Laura flushed. "Bards, I mean."

"I know. Girl, if you don't know what you are after all this..." He shook his head. "Magic or no magic, anyone who can make music with that overgrown mutation of an instrument—"

"Hey." Laura winced and lowered her voice. "Look, I'm sorry I helped Michelle conjure up her puppeteers. I'm sorry you got beat up by a bunch of pizza boxes."

"And a pizza cutter!"

"I'm sorry you can't play the flute again until your hands heal. But if you keep insulting my accordion, I'm going to take that flute and put it somewhere you'll never play it again."

Al chuckled and ate a bite of cake. "You're a bard all right. And to answer your's a lot more normal than we'd like."

"Fine." Laura stood up. "Then I need you to hum for me. And I need to borrow this." She plucked the hat from his head.

Al looked surprised, but he did as she asked. Laura smiled as the torn bellows struggled to seal itself.

"Ladies and gentlemen," Laura said. "In all the commotion, Julie and Roger never got to share their first dance as a married couple."

She made a sad face and played a quick, mournful stanza, which drew a few chuckles. "Fortunately, I have a solution." She set Al's hat on the table, then played the opening notes of It Had to be You.

Neither Julie nor Roger looked ready to dance, but Laura put an extra push into her music. Slowly, Roger took Julie's hand, leading his cake-covered bride onto the dance floor. The guests began to applaud.

Laura glared at Al, then jerked her head at the hat. "You owe me for that window."

Al shook his head, but he pulled out his wallet and tossed a fifty into the hat. Laura played a quick flourish, and he added another fifty.

"Hey," he said, reaching in to retrieve the second bill.

"Don't stop humming! Don't you know what happens when a bard interrupts his magic?" She grinned. "I won't make anyone else tip me if they don't want to. But if this stuff is going to keep happening, I need to save a little something for accordion repairs."

Al rolled his eyes, but made no further move to retrieve the money. He wandered on to the dance floor, still humming as he held out one hand and invited a limping bridesmaid to dance.

Lauren smiled and kept on playing.


Author's Note: This was also written for a Julie Czerneda anthology, called Misspelled. (Julie and Roger are named after the Czernedas, and they were much amused.) Two factors drove me to write this story. The first was Lauren and her accordian. I read so many books about bards growing up, and they always played flutes and guitars and lutes. Where were the bagpipe-playing bards? Where were the 80's bards rocking the magic on their synthesizers?

The second factor? Three words: dwarven battle flute.

Back | Next