The Lorelei Signal
The Cursed Coin
Written by Monica Goertzen Hertlein / Artwork by Lee Ann Barlow
When the Baroness brought Merlynne to stay on her estate, she smiled a lot.
She was tall, taller than the other adults, with a jewel-studded wig of silver-blonde curls that brushed the top of her velvet-lined carriage. She smelled like roses.
She smiled when displaying the room where Merlynne would sleep, a chamber larger than Merlynne’s family’s home, with its own hearth. The huge bed had silky sheets and embroidered blankets.
There was even a library where Merlynne was allowed to study and a workroom where she could practice spells and potions.
“I hope you’ll be comfortable here, dear.”
The Baroness smiled when she invited Merlynne to sit at her table in an enormous room with paintings on the walls and rugs on the floor. The table was so long and full of food, Merlynne expected the entire houseful of servants to join them but it was only her and the Baroness sharing roast venison and white bread and fruits Merlynne did not know the names of.
“Try the mangoes, dear.”
The Baroness smiled while showing Merlynne the gardens with secret paths and hidden benches. They smelled of lilacs in spring and roses in summer.
“The pink blooms opened, dear. Have you seen them?”
Later, the smiles only appeared when Merlynne produced an enchantment she requested. “I’m proud of you, dear.”
Pleased to receive that special smile of approval, Merlynne shrugged off a growing feeling that the enchantments she was asked to make felt wrong.
Autumn roses in the table centrepiece matched the pink gemstones in the Baroness’s tall wig of blonde hair when Merlynne gathered her courage at supper one evening. She told the Baroness how the poisons and curses made her stomach hurt when she cast the spells.
It was the first time the Baroness frowned at her. Merlynne dropped her gaze and fiddled with the lace edging on her sleeves.
“Perhaps you simply need to concentrate harder, dear.”
When Merlynne looked up, the Baroness was smiling again. Merlynne nodded.
She kept making enchantments, but she stopped putting her power into them.
The Baroness came to the workshop and watched one day while Merlynne enchanted a coin that would make the bearer ill if he wished harm on the Baroness.
Merlynne fixed her gaze on the coin, fingers clenched on the gold that grew colder as the enchantment was cast until a tinge of frost glittered around its edges. She did not look up, even after the spell was done and the frost melted, even when the Baroness lifted it from her now-lax grip.
The woman held it up to the light slanting through one of the wide windows along the outside wall of the workshop, rolling it between her fingers. Red jewels decorated her wig and her sleeves were tied with red ribbons. Her rose perfume smelled overly sweet, aggravating the upset in Merlynne’s gut.\
“Is it done to my specifications?”
The woman’s bright blue eyes darted from the coin to Merlynne. “Exactly to my specifications?”
Unable to break their gazes, Merlynne swallowed. A fatal illness, the Baroness had said. “It…it will be a terrible sickness.”
The Baroness did not look away. Her red jewels glittered in her fake hair. “Not a fatal illness, though?”
Despite her quiver of fear, Merlynne shook her head.
The Baroness did not smile. She reached out and took Merlynne’s hand, opened her limp fingers, and pressed the coin into her palm. It was warm from the Baroness’s grip.
“I want the person to die. It’s a fitting punishment for wishing me harm, don’t you agree?”
Merlynne’s hand shook, encased between the Baroness’s warm fingers. “No.”
For a long moment, the Baroness stared into her eyes. Merlynne’s heart pounded in her chest. The hand in the Baroness’s grip grew so warm the coin was slippery with sweat.
Then suddenly, the Baroness released her. She looked thoughtfully around the workshop. “I think we can find a more suitable place for you to work. Perhaps somewhere that allows you to concentrate better, don’t you think?”
She smiled, but it made Merlynne’s insides shiver.
The new workshop had no windows. It was at the bottom of a long flight of narrow stone stairs. It was chilly and the walls were mildewed.
She set the gold coin on a workbench in a corner. The next day, she put a book on top of it.
She continued to make the charms for bountiful crops and healthy animals but she stopped making enchantments to catch thieves or curse poachers.
No invitations came to join the Baroness at supper. Rye bread and brackish water were delivered to her room morning and night. One of the servants, a man with thick arms and no neck, followed Merlynne from her bedchamber to the workroom and back, barring her way if she headed for the gardens.
She did not see the Baroness for a fortnight, nor any of the servants except the one without a neck, but some mornings she found that items in the workshop had been moved: a book open to a different page, a cauldron lifted and put back not quite in the same place.
One afternoon, as Merlynne completed a talisman to make pigs fat, the workshop door opened. She froze as the Baroness walked in, looking around before going straight to the book on the corner workbench. She lifted it and picked up the gold piece.
She tilted her head and looked at Merlynne. Diamonds in her tall wig sparkled like ice chips. “Is the coin finished?”
“I…I don’t know what you mean.” Bile burned the back of Merlynne’s throat. Her hands balled at her sides, but she held the Baroness’s gaze.
The blonde woman set the coin down and left the workshop without smiling. When Merlynne could move again, she edged close enough to slide the book back over the coin.
That evening when Merlynne tried the workshop door, it was latched from outside. She shouted, but no one answered. She waited, but no one delivered food.
She flipped through the books, looking for a spell that would unlock a door, but her practise attempts only made the latch rattle. She stopped practising when she heard bootsteps on the stone staircase. She held her breath rather than shout for help.
The next day, she huddled on the dirt floor, shivering, and tried to banish thoughts of the Baroness’s long table full of meat and gravy and warm bread and stewed plums. She wondered if the garden had become brittle stalks.
Would she damn her own soul if she prayed for the Baroness to die?
In the morning, Merlynne heard the workshop door open and close. On the floor was a loaf of stale rye bread and a hunk of mouldy cheese along with a pitcher of water. Merlynne ate it all as fast as she could and then sat, praying her rolling stomach would hold it in.
When the Baroness arrived, Merlynne still sat on the floor of the workshop beside the empty pitcher, trying not to vomit. She looked up through bleary eyes. From the floor, the emeralds in the Baroness’s tall wig seemed impossibly high above.
A hint of the old smile crossed the Baroness’s thin lips. Then she went directly to the table in the corner, picked up the coin, tossed it in the air, and caught it. She set it back down and walked out without a word.
Merlynne stopped staring at the door and sat staring at the coin.
The big man gripped Merlynne’s shoulder tightly. The bruises would be dark and deep.
Despite the pain, Merlynne was glad. The only reason to have her dragged from her basement cell to this wing, a wing that had been off-limits even when Merlynne was still in her mistress’s favour, was that the Baroness was angry. Furious. Defeated.
The servant’s meaty fist knocked gently on a set of double-wide, carved wooden doors inlaid with gold.
Then it swung inwards, pulled by a sour-faced maid barely older than Merlynne.
In the centre of the room, on a wide bed draped with gauzy white linen hangings edged in lace and embroidered bedclothes scented with lavender, the Baroness lay.
In spite of the lavender, the room smelled of vomit and antiseptic.
Perhaps it was the enormous bed, or the absence of her tall wig, but the Baroness looked small. Even frail.
Her real hair was wispy and soaked with sweat, stuck to her forehead. Her cheeks were sunken and her skin pallid.
But her eyes were sharp and full of hate. Even knowing the woman was too ill to physically strike, Merlynne stepped back.
The big man shoved her, sending her stumbling towards the bed. She caught herself and stood, hands folded, waiting for the Baroness to speak. Waiting to begin negotiation.
The sour-faced maid dipped a silk cloth in a pan of water and touched it to her mistress’s brow. She winced when the Baroness slapped her hand away.
The Baroness never took her malevolent gaze from Merlynne. “Is this curse fatal?”
“Yes, milady.” _As instructed_.
“You can be executed for this.” The Baroness coughed, setting off a fit of wheezing and gasping.
“Yes, milady. If you die.” Merlynne nearly wished for that. Was the woman spiteful enough to die so that Merlynne would be burned at the stake?
For a moment, the hatred in those sharp eyes flared brighter. Then the Baroness lay back on her mound of lace-edged pillows to catch her breath.
Her gaze narrowed but the blazing anger was replaced by ice-cold calculation. “What is your price?”
Though anxiety pierced down her spine, Merlynne looked the Baroness in the eye. “Safe passage.”
In the ensuing silence, broken only by the Baroness’s wheezing breaths, Merlynne forced herself to remain still, chin high, gaze locked with her adversary.
Finally, the Baroness nodded. “Done. But if you return, if I even hear word of you from anyone in this barony, our deal is void.”
Heart pounding, mind spinning with the need to remain calm until she left this woman’s presence, Merlynne nodded in return.
Another fit of coughing wracked the Baroness before she lay back. “Do it.”
Merlynne stepped forward and held out a hand. “Give me the coin.”
The Baroness gestured at the big man standing behind Merlynne. He pulled the gold coin from a pocket and placed it in Merlynne’s palm.
Once she had hold of the source, she cast the spells that would drive out the black magic. As it broke, she had an impression of thick black ooze running out and sinking through the floor, dispersing into the earth. When it was done, she dropped the coin on the floor and wiped her hand on her skirt as if soiled.
The Baroness drew a deep breath without any rattling wheeze. She pinned Merlynne with a glare. “Now go.”
Spinning, Merlynne bolted from the room. She raced out the garden door, through the rows of wilted roses, and across frost-tipped fields.
Finally, her legs aching, her breath short, she knelt in the dirt and bowed her head. She prayed for her family, for her safe journey, for the servants at the barony, even the man with no neck, and for the Baroness herself.
Then she got to her feet, shook out her skirt, and began walking.
Monica is an accountant, sociologist, and aspiring author. She always wanted to write, but never thought it was a real job. After career and family, in 2014 she returned to her childhood passion of fiction writing. One of her short stories recently won Silver Honourable Mention in the Writers of the Future contest and another won Honourable Mention. She grew up, resides, and writes in Saskatoon, on Treaty 6 Territory and the homeland of the Métis.