The Lorelei Signal
A Price Already Paid
Written by MM Schreier / Artwork by Marge Simon
Astrid looked out over the empty field. A fat moon sent a ribbon of liquid silver over a sea of tall grasses and snoozing wildflowers. She stamped a foot.
“There’s nothing here.”
Glancing up, she checked the position of the stars, then retraced her steps to the gnarled tree on the edge of the meadow. This had to be the place. Had she gotten the directions wrong? She pulled a wrinkled scrap of parchment from the pocket of her hoodie and squinted at the smudged lettering.
Thirteen paces due West of Grandmother oak.
She’d done exactly that. Astrid crushed the paper in her fist and choked back a frustrated scream. That swindler Jackum was probably off somewhere having a laugh at her expense.
Jackum. Something about him tugged at her memory.
The peddler’s vintage smoking jacket had shown too much pasty wrist. A faint scar meandered in a wavering line across his face, chin to cheek to the corner of his flat black eyes. He’d appeared one day at her favorite cafe, sipping a steaming latte, his stork-like legs folded and jammed under the table. When he spoke, language all frilly and antiquated, she had the sense he was from another time.
“I know thine secret and that which thou seek.” He had known her name. Said he’d been waiting for her. He traded in information, and for a snip of her hair and a chaste kiss, he had told her exactly what she wanted to hear.
Astrid shook herself. “Idiot.”
She paused. Jackum was lanky. His thirteen paces would outmatch hers. A flock of hummingbirds danced in her stomach; the tickle of fluttering wings punctuated by stabbing beaks. She oriented herself and lengthened her stride, counting out the steps.
The night shimmered. Mingled scents of exotic incense, spicy roasting meat, and something coppery tickled her nose. Stars, descended from the heavens, became twinkling fireflies. No, lanterns. She blinked and rubbed her eyes. Tents and wagons filled the field that, moments ago, had been deserted. In the distance the lilting voice of a pipe sang a haunting melody. Whispers pulled at her soul, and she took a step forward.
“O’tch. Not without thine entrance fee, m’lady.” The familiar, unctuous voice nibbled her ear like a lover.
“Jackum.” Astrid tamped down her annoyance.
The peddler’s angular features blended into the night, a living shadow. He stepped sideways and disentangled himself from the darkness. Pale skin glistened in the moonlight, his scar an inky river flowing across his face.
“Come now, inamorata.” Long fingers wrapped around her wrist, gripping like tentacles. “A miniscule prick, and all shall be at thine disposal.”
Astrid swallowed. “A prick?”
Jackum pulled a dagger from his jacket and pressed the razor tip to the ball of her thumb. “Do thoust give freely?” The blade hummed against her skin; a snake poised to strike.
Astrid ignored a protesting inner voice. She could do this. She didn’t have a choice. Jaw clenched, she nodded once.
The knife flashed so sharp she didn’t feel it at first. When the sting came, she tried to jerk back, but Jackum held fast. He exchanged the blade for an ivory square of linen and caught the single drop of blood that dripped from her thumb. The stain marred the handkerchief, crimson on snow. For a moment the peddler held his breath.
The hairs on the back of Astrid’s neck stood on end when the bloody mark faded, as if the fabric drank it in.
Grinning, the peddler tucked the pristine square back in his jacket and bowed. His gangly arm took in the meadow in a fluid, sweeping gesture. “Welcome to the Night Market.”
~ * ~
Astrid wove her way through the myriad of tents and wagons. A strange crowd haggled with vendors selling an array of trinkets and amulets. Three men in midnight blue robes, hands hidden in their sleeves, chanted around a fire. Something flapped on white, powdery wings, circling a lantern like an overgrown moth. A squat figure in a dark cloak stalked passed her, jostling her aside.
“Excuse me.” The voice from under the hood came as a froggy croak.
Across the way, a middle-aged woman pawed over a table of fabric. Dressed in plain slacks and a cardigan with a tidy, ash-blonde bob, she looked like a minivan-driving soccer mom. She held up a bolt of gauzy purple that shimmered in the lamplight––swirling from lilac to violet to silvery amethyst, as if it were stitched from dragonfly wings.
The soccer mom turned in triumph. Orange eyes reflected catlike in the night. Astrid shrank back and ducked under a flap of heavy canvas to avoid the woman’s predatory gaze.
Inside, she squinted as her eyes adjusted to the bright lamplight. At the back of the tent, a man in flowing trousers and a rainbow-colored vest over a bare chest added a pinch of something to a boiling cauldron. Beneath the cast iron pot flames crackled green and purple.
Astrid glanced around. Jars in varying shapes and sizes crowded on roughhewn shelves. She scanned their contents, unwilling to let herself hope that it would be here. Unlabeled powders, dried herbs, and tinctures jumbled together in no discernable order. A tall bottle of blue glass caught her eye, and a thrill ran through her. Something sloshed inside, as she picked it up and with trembling fingers worked to open the cork.
“Ah, an excellent choice.” Astrid jumped as the man came around the cauldron. “Careful now! Don’t spill it. That’s the last of this summer's rosewater tincture.”
Astrid frowned and breathed in the sweet scent.
“Well, if you’d like something a little spicier, I have a lovely cedar and marigold potpourri over here somewhere.”
Astrid snorted. “Potpourri?”
“What were you expecting? Deadly nightshade and eye of newt?” The man’s chuckles grew to great belly laughs. His toes curled, poking out of the worn straps of his sandals. He leaned over, hands on his knees, and tried to catch his breath. “I’m a simple perfumer. If you’re looking for something a bit more potent, try the hedge witch down by the seers. I hear her mandrake is to die for.” Another wave of snickering overtook him as Astrid swallowed her disappointment, put down the rosewater, and slipped from the tent.
Outside, the moon had started its descent and Astrid scrubbed sweaty palms on her jeans. She raced through the Market, passing by a stiff artifact seller, his face frozen in a wooden rictus like an overgrown doll. Her breath caught in her throat. No blue glass.
It had to be here somewhere.
She peered into the next wagon and the next. The deeper she moved into the sea of tents, the darker the wares became. Cursed broaches crusted in black diamonds, unidentifiable body parts in grimy pickle jars. Not what she was looking for.
Overhead, a shadow slid across the moon. A howl shattered the night in a throaty, hungry call. Astrid pulled her sweatshirt closer.
“Fate or fortune?”
Astrid spun. The flare of a candle blinded her––a halo of light too close to her face. She stumbled back and a hunched crone in a black dress peered up at her. Frazzled grey hair framed her face like coarse straw and wrinkles carved deep furrows in her cheeks. She turned and shuffled up the steps to her wagon. “Come inside, Astrid. The night is fleeting.”
Speechless, Astrid followed, feet moving of their own volition.
Inside the covered wagon, hundreds of flickering candles filled the space with a warm glow. Sheets of black fabric draped the ceiling, studded with small gems. They reflected the candlelight, glittering constellations in a velvet sky.
The old mystic lowered herself into a chair behind a table, bones creaking. “Sit, child.”
“How…” She sank in the seat opposite of the old woman, cleared her throat, and tried again. “How do you know my name?”
“I see much.” She waved a twisted, liver spotted claw over a crystal ball. Shadows moved in its depth, and Astrid leaned closer.
Two teens sat cross legged on the floor. Two pairs of soulful brown eyes, two slightly pointed chins––perfect mirror reflections. One twin wore her hair short in a cloud of curls, a dark halo around her head. The other’s long locks spilled over her shoulders in glossy waves. Knee to knee, the pair held hands and chanted. They caught each other’s eyes and laughed.
Beside them a book lay open, its leather cracked, and paper yellowed and stained. Curled texts and scrawled diagrams covered the page. A breeze fluttered the lacy curtains. The girls, overcome by a fit of silent giggles, didn’t notice as the pages flipped to a new section of the book.
The long-haired twin hushed her sister and glanced down at the text. She studied the words for a moment and then dictated the lines to her twin. Together they resumed their noiseless chanting. Overhead, the light fixture flared. The bulb exploded and a shower of glass rained down.
Mouth stretched in a scream, the curly haired girl flopped to the floor. Arms and legs flailed, and eyes rolled in the back of her head. Her twin sobbed, tears and snot streaming down her face.
The thrashing stilled. A sparkly pink cloud separated itself from the girl’s chest. It zoomed around the room, a swarm of glittering bees, then flittered towards the window. A pale hand slithered over the sill and snatched up a narrow blue glass bottle. In a flash it dumped the drooping flowers from the makeshift vase onto the carpet and crooked a finger. The cloud settled inside the bottle. Then, the stranger stuffed a cork into the top and disappeared into the night.
Unmoving on the floor, the curly haired twin stared up at the ceiling with flat, soulless eyes. Her sister howled.
Astrid choked down the memory of her scream. “Oh, Fiona. I’m so sorry.”
“Children shouldn’t play with things they don’t understand.”
Astrid glanced up. The crone’s visage wavered in the candlelight. Arms and legs lengthened. Wild grey hair shrank back to lie flat and golden against her head. Cheeks smoothed, the wrinkles squirming like serpents until they coalesced into a single, meandering scar. With a snap of wan, spidery fingers, black crepe transformed to green velvet. Jackum pulled the too short sleeves of his smoking jacket over his wrists and flashed her a wolfish grin.
“It was you!” Astrid jumped up, the chair clattering to the floor behind her. “Where is it?”
Jackum reached in his jacket and plucked out the slim blue glass. Astrid lunged.
The peddler muttered something, and she froze, toes an inch above the floor. “Sit.” He waggled his fingers and the chair righted itself. With another wave, Astrid landed with a thump in the seat, bruising her tailbone. The spindly wooden legs marched up to the table and tucked her in tight.
Jackum set the corked bottle on the table and laced his fingers together. “Now, let us converse.”
Astrid’s locked muscles loosened. “You stole Fiona’s spirit.” She spat the accusation.
“Incorrect.” He arched an eyebrow. “I merely collected it, after thou so recklessly severed it from her corporeal form. Thou art lucky I happened to be passing by.”
Astrid reached across the table. “Then I can have it back.” Fingertips scraped across icy glass, before Jackum snatched the bottle back.
“Alas, nothing comes without due price. And mortal souls fetch quite a bounty here at the Night Market.”
Astrid thought of her sister lying motionless on the floor of their room, face ashen. “Name your price.”
“A lock of hair. A whisper of breath. A drop of blood freely given. The price hath already been paid.” With a sharp thumbnail, he flicked the cork from the bottle. The pink mist shot out, like a shaken soda can. It swirled around the room, then dipped, laughing with Fiona’s voice and rocketed out the door.
In the crystal ball, Astrid watched as Fiona’s spirit circled over the meadow. A shadow darkened the moon, leathery wings stretched wide. It dove, open jaws ringed with rows of sharp, broken teeth.
“No!” Astrid tore her eyes away and clawed at the chair that pinned her to the table. It refused to budge. Once again, a howl pierced the night. This time in triumph.
“Now, as agreed, a soul for a soul.” The peddler rummaged in his pockets and pulled out a dark curl, wrapped in a snowy handkerchief. He leaned forward and brought them to his lips.
Astrid’s blood chilled, an icy tingle that blossomed in her fingertips. It spread to her hands, down her arms, creeping through her body. Her limbs turned numb and leaden, refusing to do her bidding. Something wrenched inside her. A cloud of lavender and silver glitter separated from her chest. She felt weightless.
Jackum crooked a finger and with a woosh, Astrid’s world turned blue.
MM Schreier is a classically trained vocalist who took up writing as therapy for a mid-life crisis. Whether contemporary or speculative fiction, favorite stories are rich in sensory details and weird twists. A firm believer that people are not always exclusively right- or left-brained, in addition to creative pursuits Schreier manages a robotics company and tutors maths and science to at-risk youth.
Recent publications can be found in All Worlds Wayfarer, Dream of Shadows, and Curiosities.
Additional listings can be found at: mmschreier.com/publications.