Horace and Juju Tip the Scales
by Jeremy Miller
She heard them before she saw them. A twangy sort of
melody rang out in the air with a high pitched voice
and a bass accompaniment that rattled her brain.
Kaelan had dismounted an hour before and was marching
with her rearguard. Two long columns stretched out
before her, kicking up dust on the wide road leading
south to Tanju. She decided to stop and let her army
pass before swinging around to the opposite side of
the road to ferret out the source of her headache.
Two men sat on a rock outcropping just off
the upcoming intersection. One was playing a mandolin
tethered about his neck with a leather strap. He was
scrawny, with splotchy blue skin pulled taut over
tent-pole arms, and sunken, closed eyes. His rib cage
expanded and contracted while he squealed some
The other man, singing deep bass, was easily half
again as tall as the biggest warrior in her army, with
a face that looked odd to her, peaceful even. Kaelan
thought she detected a faint blue tinge to his skin
but wasn’t sure. He moved his body to the music, like
a reed swaying in the wind. She snapped her fingers,
and her scribe whipped his head around to receive
orders. She made a quick motion toward the musicians,
then crossed back to the other side of the road,
mounted her warhorse, and rode ahead.
The scraping of boot against rock broke Juju’s
concentration. He tried to focus on the insignia over
the approaching man’s right breast, but couldn’t make
it out. It didn’t matter; Juju knew what the man
wanted. The song died on his lips, and he slapped his
hand across the strings.
Horace’s deep rumble stopped at once, and his eyes
popped open. He looked at the approaching scribe and
Juju took his right hand off the strings and slowly
raised it towards Horace. “Relax,” he said.
The scribe pretended not to notice Horace’s
discontent. “Good evening, gentlemen.” He bowed
slightly with the greeting.
“We’re not interested,” Juju replied. He had thought
it respectful to play music for the long line of
soon-to-be-dead soldiers, most of whom were
mercenaries anyway. He had no desire to join their
ranks, even if they could benefit from a little class.
The scribe continued on, undeterred.
“Well, what says your friend here?” The scribe shifted
his attention towards Horace. “The Dreadlord Kaelan is
leading this army herself. She is keen to enlist
soldiers to join her in victory, in the name of our
mighty god, Sho’Gul, and for the glory of the royal
family, especially soldiers with such desirable
attributes.” The scribe’s eyes lingered on Horace for
a moment longer before he turned back to Juju. “Glory
and riches lie at the end of this road, friends. Join
“Tanju lies at the end of that road, friend,”
Juju replied. “And we are contracted to play at the
end of another.” He pointed to a crooked signpost
marking a small road heading southwest. In faded black
letters scrawled across rough, corrugated wood it
The scribe peered down the path and smiled broadly.
“That is no obstacle. Dreadlord Kaelan will buy out
your contract, send word of our arrangement to the
village via scout, and take both of you on as
infantry. You will make more from war than you ever
could as musicians. In addition, a sign-on bonus and a
salary paid weekly are guaranteed, commensurate with
experience of course.”
“Of course,” replied Juju. He could explain that they
were musicians and not fighters, that they didn’t know
the first thing about soldiering, but arguing was
pointless. If he did not agree, the scribe would just
find another angle and keep pressing. Juju reached
down and pulled the contract out of his bag. The
rolled-up parchment tingled in his hand with the magic
of the seal. He handed it over.
The scribe unrolled the paper and nearly choked.
Juju inspected the fingernails on his hands. “That
low?” he asked. He heard the scribe flip the thin
parchment over to examine the Guild stamp.
“I am afraid your...” The scribe hesitated for a
moment and glanced at the receding army. “...talents
are a bit more costly than I had originally
envisioned.” He quickly rolled the parchment up and
handed it back to Juju.
“Your army got a free performance. Consider it a gift
to the mighty Dreadlord Kaelan and her army. It
is a pity you could not afford us.” Juju placed the
contract back in his bag, sat up straight, closed his
eyes, and strummed the mandolin, launching into a
rendition of “Even the Mighty Fall”. By the time Juju
and Horace finished their set, the scribe was gone.
Juju watched the columns of the army disappear into
the horizon. “I do not envy his position, Horace. If
his Dreadlord was willing to buy out our contract, she
must have really wanted you. She will be displeased.”
Horace was silent, waiting for Juju to start playing
Instead, Juju hopped off the rock and stretched out
“We have to go,” he said.
“Oh, come off it! We played plenty. Besides, we have
lost our audience and another waits. This one’s
paying.” Juju muttered the last bit to himself.
“No moping,” he said sternly.
Horace stood up and grabbed his pack. He was moping,
but at least he was moving.
“When we break for camp, we will rehearse some of our
newer material,” Juju said, trying to reassure Horace.
Horace was always like this when the music stopped.
Juju took one last look at the weathered sign, and
with a deep breath, started walking.
At dusk, Juju found a suitable place to camp: a small
clearing just visible from the path in the weak light.
A log flanked one side with a shallow fire pit next to
it. Juju could tell the fire pit had not been used in
a long while. He collapsed onto the log and tended to
his blisters while Horace went off to collect fuel.
When Horace returned, Juju pulled flint and steel from
his pack and started a fire. The orange flames licked
at the night sky, keeping the desert cold at bay,
while they ate dinner and played music deep into the
night. When Juju’s eyes started to water, he knew it
was time to sleep. He stoked the fire with the
remaining wood, then he and Horace curled up in their
blankets and slept.
Juju awoke to Horace’s snoring in the crisp morning
air and the dying embers of the campfire. He didn’t
really want to get up, but the thought of playing for
an audience and being paid in gold sent shivers of
excitement through his body.
“Let’s go,” Juju yelled. He extricated himself from
the layers of blankets and started to pack. The sun
was out, melting away the morning frost, and Juju
moved at a frenetic pace to keep warm. “We’ll eat on
By mid-afternoon, they had finished the last of their
food and were running low on water when they crested a
ridge and spied a lush valley sprawled out before
them. “There!” Juju said, pointing to a spot of
thatched roof between two trees in the distance.
Horace ignored him, preferring to watch the billowy
clouds float across the sky. “That should be the inn.”
Three of his favorite things were waiting for him down
in that valley: people, music, and money. He and
Horace began working their way down the steep slope,
stepping gingerly on the loose gravel.
As they reached the village, Juju was shocked to find
houses everywhere, interconnected by a vast network of
paths. The vegetation had provided the perfect
camouflage. Something else occurred to Juju: he had
been so mesmerized by the architecture and network of
the village that he had failed to notice the lack of
They continued on, walking down the main path, until
they came to the two-story inn Juju had spied through
the trees from the ridge. The large letters “The
Kicking Stance” were carved above the doorway. Juju
stopped and listened to the roaring of the river on
the other side of the inn. There were no voices, no
people, no signs of life. He looked at Horace and
raised his hands. “Where is everybody?” Horace dropped
his pack, walked over to the river, knelt beside it,
and stuck his head in the water.
“Not the answer I was looking for,” Juju said. He had
to admit there was a certain appeal to dipping his
body into the cold water, especially his feet, but he
resisted the urge.
He let Horace be and walked up to the inn, turned the
doorknob and pushed. As soon as the door opened, Juju
heard a weak baritone singing “Love is Blind”. He
stepped into a large common room with a path carpeted
in worn, red velvet running from where he was standing
to a bar on the opposite end. On either side of the
carpeted path sat round tables covered with flipped
The source of the music, a small, elderly man with
peppered grey hair and a thick, white mustache, came
out of a doorway on one side of the bar. He started to
wipe down one of the stools when Juju said “Hello.”
The man stopped what he was doing and looked up. “The
talent has arrived!” he exclaimed. He clapped his
hands together and then walked around the bar and met
Juju in the center of the room.
They shook hands and smiled at each other for a
moment. Juju was used to being stared at because of
his skin, but it still made him uncomfortable when the
old man inspected him from head to toe.
“I’m Juju, the musician.”
“Berzog, master innkeeper,” the man replied.
“Glad to see another human. I was starting to worry.”
“Yes, the village is empty. Everyone is in the
caverns, preparing for the renewal festival.”
“Yes, the festival is held in the caverns just outside
of town. I stayed behind to guide you there.”
“Oh!” Juju sighed with relief. “That makes sense.”
“Where are you coming from?” As Berzog asked the
question, Juju heard the creaking of the front door
swing open and saw Berzog’s eyes go big. Juju turned
to see Horace duck through the entrance way. He was
dripping wet and had a huge smile plastered across his
Berzog gave out a little scream and pulled Juju closer
Juju was used to this reaction and tried to put the
man at ease. “Berzog, this is Horace, my fellow
musician. Horace this is the innkeeper, Berzog. Berzog
is here to show us to the festival, down in the
It took a moment for Berzog to process the
introduction before he released his grip on Juju.
“Big,” Berzog blurted out.
“No need to worry. He is a gentle giant. He plays
“With what?” asked Berzog.
“His voice,” Juju replied.
Berzog laughed at that and relaxed a bit. “Well,
pleasure to meet you both. Come, have a drink with me.
Then we’ll close up and head down to the cave.” He
motioned them over to the bar, where he poured each of
them a drink from the tap, then disappeared
momentarily into the kitchen. When he reemerged, he
handed a towel to Horace. While they enjoyed a beer
and Horace dried off, Berzog talked about the
festival: “Once a decade homage is paid to Kaza, the
great god of the earth, down in the caves, so as to
renew the fertility of the valley,” he explained.
Juju said that he and Horace were honored to play in
such a festival and had been looking forward to the
experience during their long journey. He asked if they
could eat before they left, a matter of propriety he
explained, but Berzog insisted that they join the rest
of the townsfolk for the festival meal. Before Juju
could protest, Berzog ushered them outside, locked the
inn, and led them over a wooden bridge to the other
side of the river. They turned west and walked along
the riverbank on a gentle decline. A half mile down
river, well past the outskirts of the village, a small
trail led them south. The trail descended in a series
of switchbacks leading to the cavern entrance.
Juju stared up at the black hole in awe. “You could
fit a house in there.”
Horace groaned behind him.
“Don’t worry,” Berzog said, sensing their reluctance,
“there will be plenty of light once we reach the
Juju entered the cave with Berzog leading and Horace
close behind. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust
to the low light, but he could easily make out
Berzog’s figure winding between rocks as he continued
deeper into the cave. Horace groaned again, so Juju
pulled the mandolin from around his back and started
to pluck at the strings. Horace started humming to the
notes echoing off the cavern walls. The minutes passed
as they worked their way down into the darkness. The
light diminished until Juju could barely make out
Berzog’s outline, and he was having difficulty with
“How much farther?” Juju finally asked.
“Nearly there. Just around this bend,” Berzog replied
Juju stopped strumming his mandolin and put his arms
out so he could protect himself from bumping into
rocks. He could no longer see Berzog.
“This way,” Juju kept saying, trying to lead Horace.
As the path came up against a monstrous boulder,
outlined by a soft, yellowish glow, Juju heard voices
from the other side. He paused and looked around with
the aid of the weak light. The path veered sharply to
the left. He took it and was hit by a rush of warm,
moist air and enough light to send stars dancing
across his vision. With one hand cupped over his eyes,
he cast his broken vision to the floor, revealing
Berzog hopping down a long flight of stairs chiseled
into the gray cavern rock. He heard Berzog say “Watch
your step” and was rubbing his eyes when Horace bumped
him in the back and sent him sprawling into a
neighboring rock. With arms flung out in desperation,
Juju grabbed onto the rock to keep from careening down
the stairs. The mandolin’s neck swung out from Juju’s
body and took a glancing blow against the hard
surface. He quickly examined his instrument and his
hands, assessing minimal damage, then turned to
admonish Horace, who was looking out over him.
Juju turned around. Hundreds of people, dressed in
white, sat in a chamber with dinnerware, candles, and
food spread out before them on white blankets. The
candles bathed the chamber in that soft light that had
moments before partially blinded Juju. He followed the
candles out to the periphery where thousands were lit
between a series of pools elevated off the main floor.
Steam billowed up from their limpid waters. Some of
them bubbled lazily while others remained serene. Juju
looked straight through one of the pools, to the very
bottom, where little veins zigzagged across the cavern
floor. He followed the pockmarked walls up to the
vaulted ceiling dripping with stalactites. The faint
smell of sulfur wafted across Juju on the humid air.
He wriggled his nose at the noisome odor and wiped the
condensation from his forehead with the back of his
“Welcome!” a voice boomed from the right. Juju broke
his gaze and looked over at an incredibly fat man in a
dark robe standing on a large flat stone serving as a
stage. The man brought his arms together, intertwining
his fingers, and rested them on his belly. His face
was red and shiny with thinning, dark hair combed back
to reveal a sloped forehead. “Our guest has finally
arrived,” the man said.
“Honored guests!” Berzog corrected. “We have two
musicians with us tonight.”
Juju made his way down the stairs, smiling to the
crowd as he went. He saw Berzog weaving between
people, walking toward the man on the stage.
The audience gave a collective gasp when Horace
stepped out into the light at the top of the stairs
and started to make his way down.
“My mistake,” the fat man said. “Of course, two
Pockets of claps and cheers erupted from the audience.
When Juju got to the bottom, he felt something brush
up against his leg and looked down. A chubby little
boy with a mop of brown hair pulled his hand away
quickly. “He’s blue.” Juju heard the boy whisper to
He waved to the crowd, trying to take in the vast
space, while Horace slowly worked his way down the
stairs sideways. Juju glanced at the stage, where
Berzog was saying something into the fat man’s ear.
The man was frowning, but when he saw Juju looking at
him, the frown disappeared, and he motioned for Juju
to come over.
By the time they made it to the stage, whispers from
the audience filled the chamber. The fat man
introduced himself as Gideon, the town mayor and high
priest. He welcomed both Horace and Juju to the
“The pleasure is mine, sir,” Juju replied. “I am the
lead singer and this…”
“Is Horace,” Gideon interrupted. ”Berzog was just
telling me that he plays the bass. You are a very
large feIlow. I hope you are not prone to violence.”
Gideon eyed Horace intently.
“Oh no,” Juju said. “He is a gentle soul. I have never
seen him lay hands on anyone in anger or otherwise.”
A look of understanding swept across Gideon’s face,
and he seemed appeased. “We had authorized our
representative to contract only one player.” He paused
for a moment and rubbed his chin with his hand as if
to consider another option. “This is a minor
complication. We will make do.”
Juju was relieved. Even though the contract had been
signed and sealed, he did not want the mood soured on
such a small detail. If the extra food or lodging was
an issue, they could pay out of their earnings.
“Berzog, prepare a place for our guests.” Berzog
nodded and left, making his way over to a large wooden
chest sitting just off the stage. “Time to begin,”
Gideon said, taking out a handkerchief from beneath
his robe and dabbing at his face. He turned to the
“My followers,” the audience quieted quickly, “Kaza
has delivered us all here in good health, has given us
fertile soil to make this food, and has helped us earn
enough gold to hire not one, but two musicians. This
night we feast and dance in his honor. Pledge yourself
to Kaza.” When Gideon finished the last part, everyone
in the great chamber spoke as one, “I pledge myself to
Kaza,” three times in rapid succession. Then Gideon
shouted “Let us feast,” and the chamber filled with
noise as the celebration began.
Gideon pointed a finger towards Juju. “I hope you
don’t mind eating off the floor,” he said. “It is
tradition.” He put the back of his hand to the corner
of his mouth so as to tell them a secret. “Besides,
can you imagine if we had to lug all the tables and
chairs down here? It would take forever.” He snorted
and wheezed with laughter, his stomach shaking
“We don’t mind at all,” replied Juju as Gideon showed
them to their places. Juju looked across the spread:
the thick cuts of meat; the various cheeses; the fat,
green and purple grapes; the thick chunks of bread;
and the goblets filled with pungent apple cider. His
stomach growled. “We are thankful to the people of
Fenwick and to your god, Kaza.”
Gideon looked at him, just then, with hungry eyes. The
hairs on Juju’s neck started to rise in alarm, but
just as quickly the look went away, replaced again by
warmth and merriment.
“I will leave you to your meal,” Gideon said, turning.
“Oh, I almost forgot.” He turned back and faced Juju.
“May I see the contract?”
Juju removed his pack and instrument and placed them
on the floor. Horace followed suit, dropping his pack
onto the ground. Juju took out the contract and handed
it over to Gideon. The mayor grasped the paper with
his right hand and went digging in his robes with his
left. He produced a bag and tossed it to Juju.
“The full amount,” Gideon said, unrolling the contract
and signing the bottom with a quill he had also pulled
from somewhere beneath his robe. “Count the gold and
sign the contract at your leisure. As far as I am
concerned, you have met your part of the bargain.”
Juju looked at the bag as if it were going to explode
in his hand. “But we haven’t even played yet,” he
said. “The contract indicated only half payment upon
Gideon leaned down and handed the contract and quill
to Juju. “I have complete faith in you both,” he said,
putting his hand over his heart. “Take your time
eating, and I will witness your signing before you go
onstage.” Gideon turned and walked away, talking to
Berzog at his side.
Juju sat down with the bag of gold in one hand and
quill and contract in the other, staring blankly at
Horace. Horace was eyeing the food eagerly, waiting
for some sign from Juju that it was time to start
eating. Everyone around them was having a good time,
yet he felt strange. The sequence of events ran
through his head. He looked at the contract, then at
the gold, then back at the contract. Had Gideon looked
at him in a funny way? Juju couldn’t even be sure it
had happened. He watched Gideon walk and talk among
the people in the cave like a butterfly tending to
flowers. He looked over at Horace, who was slobbering
all over himself, and finally relented. “Let’s feast,”
The food was every bit as delicious as it looked. Juju
tried not to eat too much, knowing he had to perform
after the meal, but Horace had no such reservations,
devouring everything that Juju did not. During the
meal, Juju untied the drawstring and looked into the
bag. The glint of gold met his gaze, and Juju felt his
heart leap into his throat. He showed Horace the
contents, but Horace was unimpressed and went back to
eyeing his next morsel.
No one bothered them while they ate. There
was plenty of gawking, but their privacy was
respected. After they finished, Juju counted out the
gold coins -- fifty as promised. He placed the bag in
his pack and waved Gideon over. The quill was ebony
with gold, Guild markings emblazoned along its shaft.
It did not use ink. Juju signed the parchment; his
signature pulsing a soft blue in the candlelight. The
words “Contract Fulfilled” appeared underneath the
Guild stamp. Juju felt the familiar tingle as the
binding of the contract lifted.
“The deal is done. Your stage and audience await you,”
Juju and Horace grabbed their belongings and stepped
onto the stage. The audience quieted down. One of the
large wooden chests that had held food and dinner ware
had been moved to the center of the stage. Juju opened
the chest and placed both their packs in it, then he
closed the lid, and they sat down upon it; the hard
wood bore their weight without a sound. Juju began
tuning his mandolin while Horace and the audience
waited eagerly for him to start playing.
With each strum of the mandolin, the vibrations
carried out into the open space, reverberating off the
cavern walls. Horace swayed back and forth at his
side, humming the bass. At first, Juju watched the
faces in the audience as they watched him. Then he
started to feel the music. The mechanics of play
slipped away, replaced by instinct.
He was aware of a shift in the audience. People picked
up bottles, glass plates and cloth and put them back
into the wooden chests scattered about the room, then
returned to their spots and blew out the nearest
candles. The songs came and went: “No Sunshine in a
Mausoleum”, “Imp on the Lonely Wharf”, “Pockets of
Blood”. People were standing now, moving to the beat.
Juju picked up the tempo, and people started to dance
in earnest. He continued the fast pace and was
startled to see flesh; his audience was stripping.
Within the span of a song, everyone was either dancing
in the nude or taking off their underwear. Juju
struggled to maintain his high, unsure of the
audience’s direction. He eyed a plump village woman
sinking noisily into one of the pools off to his
right. The rest of the village followed suit. They
hollered and splashed, spraying water in all
directions, putting out more candles. Juju found his
rhythm again, his fingers moving lithely on the gut
strings, playing “The Fires Flickerin’ Below”. He
closed his eyes, concentrating on the intensity of
play. Horace’s deep melody accentuated every stroke.
They were playing at their best. Juju strummed the
final chord of the song with force and looked out at
the crowd, his right hand suspended in the air. The
audience was completely silent, watching him. He felt
the sweat beading down his face.
A movement caught Juju’s eye from directly opposite
the stage. Gideon was standing up. His naked body
gleamed in the dim candlelight. There was no robe to
hide his pendulous stomach swinging over two skinny
legs, obscuring his genitals. He gyrated back and
forth with his arms behind him, stepping up on the lip
of the pool. Everyone except Horace, who was swaying
lightly and waiting for the next song to start,
Juju’s hand lowered back down to the strings, and he
found himself plucking a simple melody, “Come, Little
Worm”, a song from his childhood. Suddenly, Gideon
leaped into the air with a powerful thrust, and landed
with a slap on the floor. He was crouched in a shallow
squat, wiggling his butt back and forth to the music.
His arms swung out, and a knife glinted in his right
hand. He placed the knife between his teeth and held
his arms out in front of him, going into a deep squat.
The blood drained from Juju’s face. He stopped the
music in his mind, but his fingers kept moving,
playing the same simple melody. He tried to yell, but
his lips wouldn’t move. The sound came out as a
Pivoting onto the balls of his feet, Gideon dived
forward, sliding across the cavern floor -- now slick
with pool water -- on his belly, like an otter on ice.
When his momentum slowed, he started to wriggle back
and forth, following a serpentine path toward the
The minutes stretched out as Juju watched Gideon
wiggle on the floor. When Gideon was about halfway,
his eyes started to glow red. Juju could see him
trying to chant something with the knife in his mouth.
He focused on the people in the background, where
Gideon had first emerged from the pool, to see if
someone would rise up to stop this madness and was met
with the same glowing eyes, multiplied, all of them
terrifying and focused on him. He could hear it now;
they were all chanting something he could not
Juju noticed motion in front of the stage. He was
drawn to it not because of the light, but because of
the absence of light. As Gideon grew closer, the
darkness grew larger. Juju alternated between looking
into the swirling blackness of a vortex and the raging
fire in Gideon’s eyes, not sure which one was worse.
When Gideon came up to the edge of the vortex, he shot
up onto his feet and took the knife out of his mouth
with his right hand. Juju had tears streaming down his
face now. The image of Gideon slicing open his throat
and holding his head out over the stage, while his
blood poured down that hole, flashed through his mind.
Gideon strutted around the perimeter of the hole,
flicking the knife back and forth to the beat set by
Juju’s fingertips, looking at him with those hungry
Continued in the next issue of 4 Star Stories...