The Lorelei Signal
Written by Lynn Rushlau / Artwork by Marcia Borell
The slap of the screen roused Fera from the anxious thoughts that had been spiraling around her mind half the night. Heart thudding, she sprung to her feet and rushed to the entry.
One of the strands of demon beads tangled in Breen's hair and held her at the door. She looked up with a lazy smile. "What are you doing up so early?"
Breen looked fine. Perfectly fine. Her hair had worked out of its braids, hence her current entanglement. She wore the same sarong Fera had last seen her in three days ago. Sand and salt crusted on the extremely wrinkled fabric.
But she wasn't hurt. There wasn't a mark—Fera's gaze latched onto the hickeys on Breen's neck and the worry that had kept her up all night blazed into fury.
"Where have you been?"
Puzzlement clouded Breen's eyes. "I—"
"You haven't shown up for work in three days. No one has heard from you. Gran went without half her meals for two days. Two! She didn't tell me until last night when I happened to be home for dinner—and not on my night to cook!—that you never brought lunch the day before yesterday or dinner the day before that.
"We owe her everything! If you lacked the ability to fulfill your responsibilities, where was the common courtesy of letting me know so our Gran doesn't starve to death?"
Breen's bruised lips hung open. "Fera, I—"
Fera shoved past her, through the beads and out the screen. Not now. She couldn't listen to Breen now. Airless depths, what could her sister say?
Gran was blind, not Fera. She could see the woman who'd tumbled from a lover's bed standing in that hallway, and no man's love was worth Gran's hurt.
The sun barely peeked above the horizon. Not that it mattered. She'd lived in the Kiff all her life and could navigate it in the dark if need be.
Fera crossed bridges without noticing their sway. She heard people in the homes she passed, but saw no one. At the deserted portico, she untied her sarong and hung it alone on the empty hooks. Good. No one else was in the water.
She strode to the end of the pier and dove. The icy water hugged her like a friend. She took a deep breath and felt the gills open in her neck. The webbing between her fingers and toes helped her to zip through the water.
She swam her fury out by the time she reached Odge Island. The tiny, lush island was one of her favorite resting places in the sea. Unfortunately, she wasn't the only one who loved it. Fera grimaced as she surfaced. Its myriad grottos made it a favorite trysting place of lovers too. Her heart eased to see the empty beach.
Speculation caught her breath. Lovers. Had Breen been lolling about on Odge Island these past three days?
Fera's gills burned. She shook herself. In or out, idiot, not both. The smallest child knew as much. She ducked under water and took several deep breaths, through her happier gills, to steady herself. Out to greet the sun properly, followed by home to get things straightened out with Breen, she decided. She had to. She, Breen, and Gran were family.
~ * ~
Fera returned home too late. She found Gran lingering over breakfast, but Breen had already left for work. Gran sensed her anger and spent Fera's breakfast trying to calm her down. That Gran would stick up for the granddaughter failing her only made Fera angrier.
But duty called. Despite the crowd on the diving pier, Fera spotted Breen immediately. She strode over to her sister and interrupted her conversation.
"Do I need to see to Gran's lunch?" Fera asked.
Breen had the gall to look flabbergasted. "Of course not. It's my day."
The supervisor reached their group with their assigned sectors before Fera could say more. She turned and left. She and Breen were not part of the same team. If Fera didn't go home for lunch, she needn't see Breen until dinner.
Not that she wouldn't go home for lunch. She dared not trust Breen to care for Gran.
At their midday break, she followed Breen. Watched her enter the house, but Fera chickened out and slipped away without going in.
That evening, Fera made dinner with an ear on the door. Wind blew through the screen and jingled the beads, but Breen didn't return until Fera was setting the dishes on the table. Grinding her teeth, she filled another plate and set it before her beaming sister.
"Breen told me at lunch she has big news to share tonight!" Gran smiled in Breen's general direction. Breen reached out and clasped her hand.
"Oh, Gran, I hope you'll be happy for me. I've met the most wonderful man, and we're going to marry!"
That was quick. Fera swallowed the words, but her eyebrows shot up of their own accord. Breen laughed and grabbed Fera's hand.
"Fera, I know you'll just love him! He's so sweet and loving and…and…just the most wonderful man!"
"I take it he doesn't live in the Kiff?" Fera asked.
Breen frowned. "Why would you assume that?"
"You said you just met him."
"Oh. Oh, but no, he's from the Kiff. He lives in the village."
Not kin then. Not a Swimmer. Fera glanced at Gran in time to see the flicker of sadness cross her face. When a Swimmer married a mere mortal, the offspring would not necessarily be Swimmers.
"We know everyone in the Kiff. How could you have not met him before?"
Breen smiled, but a tiny furrow appeared between her eyes. "I…I don't know. It's so odd that I wouldn't have known Jefferd all my life."
"Jefferd?" Fera dropped her spoon. "Tall, lanky, stringy black hair with never a nice word to say to anyone? Constantly on the verge of being fired, dishwasher in the kitchen at Mallee's? That Jefferd?"
Gran frowned now too. "You know this boy, Fera?"
"We both know him. We've known him forever. Breen, you hate his guts. He made you cry every time we saw him when we were kids."
Breen shrugged and grinned
"Ah." Gran smiled.
"What?" Fera demanded.
"Boys are like that when they're young, Fera. He was trying to show Breen he liked her by being mean. He grew up, as did she."
"You'll love him, Gran. I know you will."
"I'll love anyone who loves you, my dear."
Fera dumped her food in the bucket for the compost pile and stalked out of the room. She'd confront Breen alone. The argument would go nowhere with Gran determined to be happy on Breen's behalf. Fera hesitated in the hall. She'd be too easy to find in her own bedroom, but everywhere else would be too crowded for privacy and she desperately wanted to be alone.
Jefferd hadn't been picking on Breen because he liked her. He'd bullied everyone. Still did. He made rude and offensively suggestive comments to every young woman in the Kiff. More than one girl's boyfriend had beat him up for it. He was a nasty, angry man, and Breen could never have fallen for him. Never!
Gods, this couldn't be real. How could Breen love him?
"Fera?" Breen poked her head in the door. She stepped inside and twisted one of her braids around her finger. "He's a good man. Really. Not like the brat he was when he was a boy."
"What about the man who tried to rape Solis? Was he just being a brat and a boy six months ago?"
"He did and you know it! You saw her bruises. You heard it from her sister!"
"He's not like that!"
"He is. And you hate him!"
"I love him!" Breen wrapped her arms around her chest. "And he loves me. I want you to be happy for me—"
"Breen, he's been stalking you for half a year. You've complained to the peacekeepers!"
"He was trying to work up the nerve to ask me out."
"A handful of days ago, you said you wouldn't go out with him if he was the last man in all the world! What changed?"
Breen's brow furrowed. She shook her head. Her eyes appeared glazed when she looked at her sister. "I—I need to go see him. I love him so much. It hurts to be away from him."
Fera jumped off her bed and caught her sister's arm. "Don't go yet. Please. Explain this to me. Tell me what changed. How did you meet him again that made everything different?"
"I—I—not now, Fera. I need to see Jefferd. I haven't seen him all day. I miss him."
"He can wait ten minutes while you explain this to me!"
Breen tugged her arm free. "No, Fera. I can't right now. I need to be with Jefferd. I love him. You'll understand when you love someone."
Mouth agape, she watched her sister drift out of the room. Breen didn't hate Jefferd in the way people who might end up together sometimes initially disliked each other.
The man terrified her. He made her skin crawl. She never ate at Mallee's because she protested she couldn't get two bites down if he was in the same room. Any event where he showed up, Breen begged to leave. She wouldn't go alone. She feared Jefferd would follow her and refused to risk being alone with the monster.
Fera sat down slowly and stared into space. The sun set and the room grew dark. No matter how she racked her brain, she could only come up with one circumstance that would make Breen go from terror to adoration of Jefferd: he'd used magic to ensorcel her.
~ * ~
Fera left the house the next morning as if she were headed to work, but at the first bridge she turned left. Only two weeks before, she'd harvested an oyster containing a pearl. The bonus was a month's salary. She could more than afford to skip one day for something so much more important.
The Kiff was busy with Swimmers making their way through the twisting sandstone corridors to the beach. Hunters, divers, traders, even seaweed gatherers all worked from the water. Different teams worked from different locations. For half the length of the Kiff, she walked amidst others, none of whom questioned that she headed away from her usual locale.
When those she walked with broke away to head down to the water, they merely waved her goodbye. No one asked where she was headed. Another several blocks worth of homes and the marketplace lay before her. The people outside this area weren't all walking determinedly in the same direction. To see Fera pass wasn't strange.
At the end of an empty corridor, she reached the edge of the flattened pathway. Taking a deep breath, she stepped over the barrier that designated the Kiff's boundary and walked out into the dunes. Gulls cried, wheeling over the water. The wind caught her braids and battered her about the shoulders and face with them. Scowling, she looped one braid around the others and tied her hair back.
The dunes ended at a great pile of stones, about half the size of the Kiff, but this land hadn't been shaped into a warren of homes for anyone. Sand spilled across rough paths that petered out into walls. Weeds grew in crevasses both on the paths and the walls.
She had never been here, but everyone knew the way to the Tariidea. She squeezed through the tiny crack on her left about ten paces after reaching the rocks and entered a suffocatingly narrow corridor that extended for about twenty paces. A larger crevasse opened into a slope spilling sand and gravel across the path.
She slipped and cursed. She couldn't use her webbing for traction. With the webbing came the gills, and she wouldn't be able to breathe on land.
The slick path veered left. She heard chimes as she rounded the corner. About half a block down a thin ledge, a branch, bare of leaves, stretched over the water. Several chimes made of shells hung from the branch. Water slapped over her feet. The ledge stood underwater in some places. She hesitated. It'd be easier to cross the distance in the water, but stories claimed one had to approach the Tariidea on the land and spoke of terrible retribution for any who ignored that warning and came by sea.
She sighed and inched forward. If she fell, she'd only land in the water and change. It wouldn't be that big a deal, but she refused to listen to that rational voice in her head.
Water caught her next step. She froze, huddled against the wall. Her gills came out. Holding her breath, she hurried along using her webbing for support.
Another five feet and she was back on dry land. She made it to the entrance without another scare, but didn't know what to do there.
The wind rattled the chimes. No screen covered the entrance. Did she walk in unannounced?
"Going to linger out there all day?"
Fera jumped. Her right leg slipped off the ledge and she landed hard on her left knee. With trembling hands, she dragged herself back on the ledge and crawled into the cave.
The Tariidea snorted. "Needn't be so pious. Would have thought a Swimmer come to see me would have more spine." She raised an eyebrow, but turned her attention back to the splatter of oyster shells on the floor.
Fera stared at the back of the Tariidea's head. Her ropy white dreads spilled down her back. The Tariidea hovered one boney hand over the oyster shells.
"Young one, I haven't all day. What is it you want?"
Fera explained what had happened to her sister. The Tariidea showed no signs of paying attention until Fera faltered to a stop.
"She wearing his ring?"
Brow furrowed, Fera pictured her sister in her head. She didn't remember a ring. No, she was pretty sure Breen wasn't wearing any new jewelry. She'd have noticed that. Fera shook her head.
"What about her braids?"
Fera frowned. "What—?"
"Same style as usual? Any love knots tied in? Any knots at all? Beads?"
Fera shook her head in response to each question.
The Tariidea stared at the oyster shells and nodded. "Physical jolt's the only way to break the spell then."
"So she is enchanted!" Fera felt a weight lifted off her shoulders. The Tariidea saw the same thing she did. She was right and could now get her sister back.
The Tariidea shook her head. "I swear you Swimmers get stupider every generation. Of course, she's enchanted. Didn't you just come out here to tell me so?"
"I wasn't sure. I've never seen magic."
The Tariidea snorted. "If you know someone well, it doesn't take great powers of observation to realize they're not acting like themselves."
Fera nodded. It hadn't taken any at all for her to realize. "How do I break it."
The Tariidea rolled her eyes and spoke slowly. "Physical jolt."
Fera narrowed her eyes. "Like what?"
The Tariidea rose and slapped Fera across the face. Fera jumped back and clutched her cheek. "Ow! What was that for?"
"That was a love tap. You want your sister back, you hit her and you hit her hard. Harder than that."
Fera gasped at the Tariidea. "I can't hit Breen!"
"Then watch the enchanter's web consume her."
~ * ~
Fera dove off the path outside the Tariidea's cave and went for a long swim. Twice she stopped to rest and think on islands far out to sea, but no answers came to her. As the sun grew heavy in the sky, she made her way back to the Kiff.
At home, she found Gran and Breen laughing together in the living room. Her sister wore mom's wedding sarong. She spun and the silver threads sparkled in the light. The delicate strands of shells hanging from the hem made a sound like the waves against the shore.
"Tell me she looks lovely, Fera," Gran ordered.
Fera complied without the need to lie. Breen looked beautiful indeed. The radiant smile nearly outshone the intricately embroidered and beaded sarong.
Breen beamed. "I better take this off. I have to go meet Jefferd."
She was already smiling, but her entire demeanor changed when she spoke of meeting him. Her eyes turned dreamy and unfocused. Her smile grew private.
Fera wanted to punch her.
The emotion took her aback. She didn't react at all as Breen left the room. Not even the delight on Gran's face as she stared unseeing in the direction Breen had disappeared jarred Fera from her shock.
~ * ~
Breen didn't come home that night. Fera next saw her down at the pier. Jefferd escorted her to work. Their lingering goodbye kiss drew hoots and whistles from Breen's coworkers—though she spotted a couple of Breen's closer friends scowling and whispering. Her sister turned pink, but smiled. She moved into a cluster of her friends.
Jefferd met Fera's gaze. That he had her sister in his thrall was acknowledged in the cocky nod he gave her before he turned to walk back into town. Rage raced through Fera's veins.
She ruminated on the Tariidea's advice while she worked, which made her slower than usual. When she finally filled her bucket, she rose without looking and slammed into another Swimmer. Both spilled the contents of half their buckets, and Fera couldn't apologize enough when they rose to the surface with their re-collected oysters.
That night, Gran dined out with friends. Fera rejoiced to have the house to herself. She sat on the couch with a bowl of étouffée and a beer. As she shoveled the first bite into her mouth, her sister walked in. Fera's mood soured. She didn't want to deal with this now.
"What are you doing here?" Fera asked.
Breen scowled. "I live here."
"That didn't stop you from staying out all night last night."
Breen's smile turned secretive. That inflamed Fera's anger. "You might think about Gran!"
"Gran is happy for me! I can't understand why you're not."
"He's a wonderful man. Charming. Oh-so-sweet. All he cares about is what I want, if I'm happy. If you just get to know him—"
Fera sat her bowl down with a thud.
A tiny perplexed frown crossed Breen's face. She shook her head and repeated her earlier spiel of Jefferd's virtues. Fera noted she used the exact same words in the exact order as before.
She crossed the room and stopped directly in front of Breen. "He is a monster, and he has you under a spell."
Her sister gasped. Hurt filled her face. "How can you say that? I thought you loved me—"
"He is messing with your head. He doesn't love you. You don't love him. Nothing you feel is real."
"What is wrong with you? How could you even think that? I will not hear my love spoken of like this. He is—" Breen rattled off a few dozen synonyms for wonderful.
Fera took a deep breath. It would be for the best. She was saving her sister. Breen wouldn't hold this against her. Not once she was free of the spell.
And she couldn't leave Breen at Jefferd's mercy a moment longer. Who knew what he was making her do? What horrors Breen would have to live with. Those couldn't be added to. She was saving Breen.
Fera backhanded her sister. She put all her strength into it, but feared it wouldn't be enough.
Shock flashed in Breen's eyes as she fell.
Fera held her breath. Was that the spell breaking? Was the shock she saw realization dawning? Oh, please gods.
Breen's head cracked against the table. She collapsed silently to the floor and stared out into the room with eyes more sightless than Gran's.
Fera whispered, "Breen?"
She took a step towards her sister. Another. Breen didn't move. Blood spilled from her head. Fera spoke louder this time. "Breen?"
And when she touched her sister's limp body, Fera started to scream.
Lynn Rushlau graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in Anthropology and minor in Sociology--which seem like awesome planning for a life creating cultures and societies, but she'll admit to not have been thinking that far in advance.
She lives in Addison, Texas with two attention-needy cats, and can be found at lynnrushlau.com.