website design software
Story 2

Jeremy Miller

Jeremy Miller was once a computer scientist and is now a doctor. He wrote a short story some twelve years ago and decided it was not time. At the urging of his brother, he decided to re-enter the fray with Horace and Juju. These two characters were inspired by a sketch in an ancient board games exhibit at the Smithsonian long ago. Two demons sat next to each other playing mandolins.

These characters stayed with Jeremy all through medical school and eventually took advantage of him during a Christmas break to come to life. The resulting characters bear little resemblance to their inspiration.

Jeremy lives in the Southwest. This is his first published story, but hopefully not his last.

Two itinerant musicians get the gig of a lifetime, or did they...?

Enjoy Part 1 of this story and read the conclusion in the Summer issue of 4 Star Stories.



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 unrecognizable tune.

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 growled.

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 us.”

“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 read: “Fenwick”.

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. “Fifty gold!”

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 again.

Instead, Juju hopped off the rock and stretched out his arms.

“We have to go,” he said.

Horace moaned.

“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 the trail.”

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 people.

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 chairs.

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 face.

Berzog gave out a little scream and pulled Juju closer to him.

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 caverns.”

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 bass.”

“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 festival chamber.”

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 his footing.

“How much farther?” Juju finally asked.

“Nearly there. Just around this bend,” Berzog replied from ahead.

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 hand.

“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 guests!”

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 his parents.

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 festival.

“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 excited crowd.

 “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 violently.

“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 arrival.”

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,” he said.

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,” Gideon said.

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, watched Gideon.

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 muffled groan.

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 stage.

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 understand.

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 eyes.

Continued in the next issue of 4 Star Stories...


[Index] [About Us] [Stories] [Story 1] [Story 2] [Story 3] [Story 4] [Guest Art] [Editors Write] [Archives] [Contact Us] [Links]

CCopyright © 2013 by 4 Star Stories. All Rights Reserved.