The first time he saw her, she couldn’t have been more than nine years old. Even with her horns, she didn’t even reach his shoulder. The old shopkeeper felt a strange fascination with her the moment he saw her, standing outside his shop, half-hidden beside the door. He watched her from behind the counter as he sanded a wooden cylinder, the beginning of what would become a magdal drum, and waited while she gathered her courage. He hoped she would come in. The shop was too quiet for his liking.
She was unlike any infernabeast he’d ever seen – shy, eyes downcast. That was what grabbed his attention. Most people were predictable, and after running this shop for forty years, they all blurred together in his mind. The interesting customers, the ones he remembered, were the ones with contradictions. A tiny, feisty gnome who’d walked out of the shop with the biggest hollahorn the shopkeeper had ever made, dragging it behind her with stubborn persistence. An old elf dressed in tattered rags who produced a large purse from under his frayed cloak and bought the most expensive lute in the shop, inlaid with purple myorna wood in an intricate spiral design. A tall, clumsy ogre who tripped on the doorstep as he came in, nearly wrenching the door from its hinges, then picked up a viol, cradled it like an infant, and played it with such exquisite sensitivity that the shopkeeper was almost moved to tears. A young infernabeast who spent ten minutes outside the door working up her nerve, then grasped the door handle and slipped into the shop like a wisp of smoke, wincing slightly as the chimes on the door jingled. She stood for a moment in reverent awe, breathing in the scent of freshly-cut wood and taking in the colourful array of musical instruments that lined the walls and hung from the rafters. Then she bent her head and timidly approached the shopkeeper.
“I want to buy a flugalin,” she said, almost in a whisper. His strange attachment to her grew – though he was proficient in all the instruments he made, the flugalin was the one he’d chosen to master, and he had a soft spot for aspiring flugalists. The girl kept her head bowed, though he saw her eyes furtively wandering the shop, still spellbound by the magnificent variety of instruments crammed into the small space.
“Certainly,” replied the shopkeeper warmly, hoping to put her at ease. He couldn’t remember ever having an infernabeast customer before. Little wonder she was trembling – she’d probably been thrown out of other shops before. To most people, infernabeasts meant evil, violence, and fiery destruction. Their tough, charcoal-black skin, fiery eyes, curling horns, barbed tails, and tendency to burst into flame marked them as creatures to be avoided and feared. The shopkeeper had heard enough stories to stay well away from infernabeasts whenever he saw them, but it was obvious he had nothing to fear from this shy young girl.
He set down his work and led his customer to the section of the shop where the flugalins were displayed. Surveying the selection of wooden instruments mounted on the wall, he remembered the sense of satisfaction he’d had in creating each one. He found a keen pleasure in the methodical rhythm of cutting, joining, sanding, carving. His weathered hands knew their craft well, knew how to shape wood and metal and string into perfectly formed vessels of sound. He never grew tired of the process of creating.
“I have several models available,” he said. Gesturing to the ones at the bottom of the wall, he explained, “Beginner models start at sixteen halan. They’re made of rill wood, so they’re not top quality, but they’re easier to get a sound out of if you’ve never played before. Mid-range instruments are between thirty and eighty halan, with the higher quality ones including an extra E-flat key for better resonance.” He pointed to the flugalins at the top of the wall, which were made of a darker wood and covered in ornately carved designs. “Professional models are made of rivengold wood, and they’ve got all the bells and whistles. They start at one hundred halan.” He glanced down at the girl. Her dark eyes were open wide, staring at the instruments in wonder. He made a point never to make assumptions about a customer’s financial status, but he was fairly certain this girl wouldn’t be paying for rivengold wood.
She looked down. “I only have fourteen halan,” she said softly. He felt a pang of pity. Fourteen halan was probably all she had in the world – and she was spending it on a flugalin?
“Well,” he said, “I have good news for you. First-time customers get a twenty-five percent discount.” A spark flickered to life in her eyes, and she looked at him with hope. He knelt down, took down the flugalin at the bottom of the wall, and handed it to her. “So you can have this one for twelve.”
Her hands closed around the instrument like it was the most precious thing she’d ever held. She ran her small fingers over the pipe’s gentle curves, from the narrow mouthpiece to the pear-shaped bell. Then she looked up again at him with a smile and nodded.
He led her back to the counter, where she stood on tiptoe to empty her small sack of coins and handed him all but two. He took the coins and gave her a cloth case for her new instrument.
“It’s yours,” he told her. “Mind you keep it out of the rain.”
She clutched the flugalin to her chest, practically glowing. “Thank you,” she whispered. Then she scurried out of the shop, as if she was afraid he would change his mind.
Most of his customers were forgotten by the end of the day, especially since his memory wasn’t what it used to be, but this girl was one of the few who stayed with him. A destitute, solitary child, whom most people would have shunned as a monster, whose eyes shone with joy as she held the cheap flugalin she’d just given up most of her money for. That image burned itself a permanent place in his heart. As time went by, he often found himself thinking about her, wondering if she had a family or a home, imagining her practicing her little rill-wood flugalin.
It was a warm summer evening, three years later, just after the sun had set, when he took out his flugalin to practice. The sky was a deep, fiery purple, and his window was open to the fresh night breeze. He had already closed up the shop and ascended the narrow flight of stairs, which somehow seemed to grow steeper each time he climbed them. Alone in the small room above the shop that he called home, he had finished all the work he meant to do that day, eaten a simple supper, and then taken his flugalin out of its leather case. Making and repairing instruments was how he made his living, but after doing the same thing for over forty years, sometimes it became nothing more than a routine. Sometimes it was easy to forget why he had chosen to devote himself to this craft. Now he remembered, as his body moved with the melody and he wove a story in the air, a story made of nothing more than the air from his lungs and the instrument in his hands. He was painting a melody in rich crimson and purple and gold. The rivengold flugalin was so familiar under his practiced fingers that the carvings around the fingerholes were almost worn smooth. Captivated by the flugalin’s rich tenor voice and the story it told, it was a long time before he realized he had an echo.
Surprised, he stopped playing and listened. There was no sound but the crickets outside, chirping their nighttime symphony. He put the instrument to his lips and repeated the last line of music he’d just played, leaving it hanging in the air like a question.
After a second of silence, he heard it – an answering flugalin voice from outside the window, stuttering and stumbling over the notes in an attempt to mimic the line he’d just played. It would have been painful to listen to if it wasn’t so thoroughly heartwarming.
Aiming the instrument toward the window, he played the line again, slower this time. Again he heard that shrill voice attempting to copy him. The flugalist was still struggling to find the notes, but it was better this time. The shopkeeper smiled at this peculiar dialogue. Once more he played the line, emphasizing the contour of the phrase, and his mysterious echo, having found the right notes, repeated it confidently with all the sensitivity and expression of a screeching cat. The shopkeeper shook his head. Even without seeing the player, he could hear a dozen bad habits he itched to correct. Whoever it was had clearly never had a teacher.
Curiosity piqued, he got up from his chair, went to the window, and looked out. He surveyed the street below. No one was there. Raising the instrument to his lips, he played the melody once more, then listened. This time he heard his echo coming from above him. Leaning out the window, he looked up and saw an infernabeast perched on his roof.
Normally, an infernabeast on his roof would be cause for alarm. But this one he recognized at once. Her sound faltered and she lowered the flugalin when she saw him watching her. She shrank back slightly, watching him to see what he would do. She was taller now, but still a child, and her eyes held the same look as when she’d entered his shop three years ago, timid as a shadow. He was impressed with her skill. For all her terrible technique, the fact that she’d taught herself to play showed she had both talent and discipline. In other words, she had potential.
“What’s your name?” asked the shopkeeper.
The girl’s eyes lowered. “Varishku.”
He frowned. He knew enough of the infernabeast language to know what it meant: flame of death. A typical infernabeast name, but one that didn’t suit her. He shook his head.
“No,” he said. “I’m going to call you Echo.”
A tentative light flickered in her eyes, and she seemed to grow slightly. He had named her. An invisible bond had formed between them.
“Echo, why don’t you come inside and I’ll teach you to play this beautiful instrument the way it was meant to be played.”
The flame in her eyes brightened, like a candle. For one second, she hesitated, motionless as a statue. Then she sprang to her feet and nimbly slid down the steep roof. She grabbed hold of the window frame and gracefully swung herself into the room, then stood there holding her flugalin, looking at him expectantly.
The shopkeeper shuffled to the table to get another chair. He lit a lantern, filling the small room with warm light, and took a deep breath. It had been so long since he’d had another person in his home – never mind a creature of flame and death, a creature who haunted children’s nightmares, a creature commonly used by mothers to scare their children into good behaviour. A creature who sat on the edge of her chair, brimming with eagerness and warmth and a burning desire to be more than a monster.
The shopkeeper felt that impulse rising in him again, that urge to create, to shape and craft and fashion raw materials into an extraordinary work of art, perfectly formed to paint music on the air.
“Sit down, Echo,” he said. "Let's begin. We've got a long way to go."