The Lorelei Signal
Party of Five
Written by Ray Daley/ Artwork by Marge Simon
"We shall need supplies. Enough for three months, I'd wager. This should cover those. And you'll need a mount of course. This should cover that."
I looked down into my hand. He'd given me a groat to buy a steed? I might get a dead horse for that much, I thought.
It took four hours of looking before I found a merchant who didn't laugh when I showed him how much I had to spend.
"Well son, there's this 'un. Ain't much to look at, but it ain't looks you's buying 'im for." The merchant's eyesight was as bad as his aroma. The mule was female, and she looked fairly sprightly too. I eventually beat him down to half a groat and spent the rest on feed for her and supplies for myself.
Hiring Pages and Squires for epic quests is a fairly easy affair. Just position yourself in the local town or village square and if you can remain awake until a likely party of questing heroes happens along, you're almost certain to be hired if you are still breathing and standing.
After all, that's pretty much how I got this job working for a nobleman.
Sir Michel Boudin. Yes, a Frenchy I very much fear. However, he paid in cash and he paid up front which was always the best way.
I loaded most of the supplies onto their horses. Them being Sir Michel himself, his Squire Stephan (also a Frenchy, sadly), his farrier John (a good stout Englishman), his wizard Eminare (I still can't tell you where he came from, his accent was never the same twice!) and Jojo his minstrel.
And yours truly, Alan Smithy, acting as their Page. As the role of Squire was already full, much to my dismay. I'd been hoping to not get lumbered with all the terrible jobs. Like cooking and washing and setting up camp. But Page I was.
We were riding west, in search of the mighty dragon Ascreni. Well, we were looking for the horde all dragons were known to enjoy amassing. That much was evident from Sir Michel's cheapness. He was in dire need of money, at any cost, other than to himself or his pocket.
After a week, we'd run out of water and needed information. Wizard Eminare had spotted elf-sign and called us to a halt. He'd cast some spell or other under his breath and an opening had appeared in the side of the hill. "In here, sire." And they'd gone inside.
By they I mean everyone who wasn't me. I was left to mind the horses and my mule until they returned.
That turned out to be well over five hours later, all of them emerged, coated from head to toe dripping in blood and gore. Even Jojo and his lute were covered in guts.
I'd seen the light beginning to fade and had set up the tents, built a fire and got some food on the go. I'd even had time to put my feet up. In fact I'd just been getting nice and comfortable, almost thinking they'd all been horribly killed when I saw them come out of the hillside.
Sir Michel immediately sent me for water so he could wash. Squire Stephan wasn't quite so upset about his personal hygiene and Wizard Eminare merely muttered another incantation and was immediately clean. Jojo insisted on following me to the closest stream where he washed himself and gave his lute a minor wipe down with his doublet. I could see he wasn't the washing type, otherwise he'd have known to just use the sleeves. He ended up having to wash the doublet a second time.
I just stood there gathering water for my master. I left Jojo to his washing, carrying the buckets back to Sir Michel's tent. "Your water, sire." The heathen didn't even ask me to heat it up. The French, so backward in their ways. He didn't ask for any further help so I left him to his ablutions.
The rest of the party expected hot food, so I had made the right call to prepare something in their absence. I knew there wouldn't be time for me to eat so I'd already had an extra large helping while they'd been inside the hill.
Between mouthfuls of his stew, Squire Stephan explained the local elves had been rather unhelpful, and Sir Michel's temper had been extremely short. So, to obtain the information they required, he simply began to slaughter their people until someone told them what they wanted to know. By which time they'd brutally murdered five hundred elves. Men, women and children.
And Squire Stephan didn't seem to see the problem with this. Clearly this was how information was acquired in his world. It wasn't just that incident that set my mind against them. Their treatment of not just elves, but the entire world in general.
If they came to a wood blocking their path, Wizard Eminare would be summoned to burn a path through to the other side. If people were slow move to one side as we passed them on the road Sir Michel would simply use his horse to push them off the track. "These…people. They have no sense of order. Where I come from, if one encounters a nobleman on a quest, you step off the track to let him pass by unhindered on his journey."
What a fool! I was glad I hadn't been born in France.
We met a band of old women camped near a river we stopped at one night. Sir Michel took it into his head they were witches. Of course, they were simply old women travelling to the local market. That didn't stop Sir Michel and Stephan violently stabbing them to death in their sleep. And in the morning that noble man had the gall to order me to go through their things. Looting, as well as murder of innocents? Not so noble, I realised.
The final straw was the child, however.
In our second week on the road we were riding along a narrow mountain road. We reached a young boy walking towards us. I half expected Sir Michel to order the boy to stand to one side. He simply geed his horse, almost as if he hadn't seen the boy in front of us. The horse trampled him beneath its hooves.
His screams continued to haunt me for the rest of the journey.
I knew that some men were evil creatures. It appeared this "noble" was unworthy of his position in life, so I vowed I would exact revenge upon him and his party.
Jojo the minstrel went first. His daily litany, which he laughingly referring to as "songs", was crass and almost always out of tune. If his lute ever had been in tune. Which I highly doubted.
"Sir minstrel, a cup to water thine throat so as to better entertain us all?"
Of course he accepted. Jojo always looked for ways to curry favour with his master. A ballad composed about his great deeds on the fly, or a short tune to entertain the camp while I cooked. Not that I ever had the chance to stand and listen to them, thankfully. Jojo drained his cup and sealed his fate. A little hemlock ground into his cup saw to his end.
Of course I feigned ignorance and cried, on discovering our minstrel dead the next morning. "Sire! Jojo is dead! Our music-smith has gone onto the great beyond."
Wizard Eminare showed his lack of knowledge, completely missing the cause of death. "Sire, I rather fear he was taken by imps as he slept. I will cast a protective upon the party before we move on, to ensure our further survival."
We journeyed on, forever onward with Wizard Eminare assuring us our destination lay no further than another day away. It is my humble belief Sir Michel would have slain the Wizard where he stood if he did not believe the man's worth at our final destination. Which took us another two weeks of hard riding to reach.
The cave of Ascreni.
Farrier John finally had real work to do when we arrived. Swords to sharpen, armour to prepare. A little more than a few hours did it take him to prepare the dozen or so items Sir Michel and Stephan finally chose to wear in their assault upon the dragon. I took the time to scout out the local wildlife. Just in case they made it out alive.
And that was where I met the witch, Karizad.
"They don't know, do they, girl?"
So, she was certainly worthy of the name witch. She had been the only one to see me for what I truly was. A young woman who had cut her hair short, donned male clothes and was trying to pass herself off as a man amongst other men. And that was all the other men had seen. But not witch Karizad!
"Know what, old woman? That their humble Page is gathering herbs for their evening meal?" I thought it was at least worth trying to maintain the lie, on the off chance none of the others had overheard her call me a girl.
"Deadly nightshade is a mere herb? I think not, young lady. And I see your true self. However, I will respect your desire to keep it secret. And where are these men you prepare poisoned food for? Are they such terrible people?"
I nodded. They had killed many, and seen no ill in their deeds either. "To call them terrible would be a kindness, old woman."
"You know my true name, do you not?"
I nodded. I had recognised her as the witch Karizad instantly. I highly doubted any of my fellow party members would have known her true name. Not even that so-called Wizard! "That I do, Mistress. I believe our wizard would not, however?"
Karizad cackled. I didn't believe witches did that outside of stories until I actually heard her do it. "That old fool Eminare, isn't it? Still calling himself 'wizard' then?"
I smiled at her. "Indeed he is, Mistress. I suppose I should go up to the cave and see if they are still alive or not?"
Karizad smiled and nodded. "If you must, young Page. I fear you will find naught but a live dragon inside."
I knew Karizad's power by legend. "Is there some spell I should know, to make it out alive?"
She cackled again. "Go safely, young Page. You have no need of spells inside that cave. You will live to see the light of another dawn."
There was a cloud of thick black smoke billowing from the cave when I reached it. I had heard their terror-stricken screams as I had made my way up the treacherous scree path. I'll admit I was afraid for my life while I waited for the smoke to clear, but Karizad knew enough magical lore. If she said I could survive in there, then I would.
With the smoke dissipating, I scrambled across the rocky floor into the cave.
"Come in, young human. Come to thy doom!" Ascreni sat on the pile of gold and jewels she had amassed. She was licking something red off one of her teeth. Something that might have once been part of a living man, but now it was impossible to tell. And the floor before her was littered with fragments of chewed armour and torn clothing. I spotted Eminare's blue robe amongst the pile.
I tried to move as stealthily as I could. The rocks would part under my weight as I moved, surely Ascreni would torch me where I stood?
"Now then, young human! Why is it that I can neither see nor smell you? I've always detected the men coming to kill me. And now here you are, and I can't sense you. Now why is that?"
I'd heard tales about Ascreni. That she could smell any man. Those same tales had never mentioned she couldn't smell women.
I could see a bare spot where Sir Michel had clearly kicked the rocks from beneath his armoured feet as he had tried to fight her. The exact same spot where he had dropped his best and sharpest sword. Right under Ascreni's belly. And if legends were to be believed, that was her only vulnerable spot.
I crawled across the cave floor slowly, making my way to the sword, inch by painful inch. I had to be cautious, each move I made could potentially signal my location to Ascreni. After ten long minutes on my belly I finally reached Sir Michel's sword. Then spent another two minutes quietly burying the hilt fully into the ground.
Then I made my play. "Ascreni! Down here! Bite me!" As I shouted, I immediately began to roll across the clear part of the floor.
Ascreni bore down, aiming her jaws where my voice had just been. And that was exactly what I had hoped she would do.
Because the blade of the sword ripped into her unprotected belly as she bore down upon where she thought her next meal was standing.
Dragons take a long time to die. I spared Ascreni the pain of that extended death. Using Squire Stephan's sword, I stabbed through her eyes, aiming into her brain, killing her in moments.
Karizad stood waiting for me at the cave entrance. "Give me the eyes, dear. The treasure is yours by right. Leave me the eyes, and I'll see fit not to speak to that farrier back at your camp."
I had no choice, of course. Karizad had me right where she wanted me. But the situation was quickly reversed to my favour when she turned to collect her prize. Do you know the one thing that most people aren't aware about witches? They die just like anyone else if you cut their heads off. Karizad had been holding herself together by magic alone it appeared. Because once her head left her body, both of them dissolved in a cloud of green mist.
I took the bloodied wizards robe and filled it up with jewels until I could barely lift them. Then I slowly staggered back to the camp.
To say John was surprised to see me would be an understatement. "You're alive?" he gasped.
I nodded. "I have a suggestion for you, John. This treasure seems enough for any man to open the greatest forge any farrier could ever hope to own. Would it be enough to see that you might never return to our fair hamlet?"
His eyes had been on the treasure from the moment I'd placed it on the ground in front of him. Farrier John was a great deal wiser than I had given him credit for. He watched me the entire time, as he picked up the makeshift sack I'd fashioned from the wizard's robe. Which he recognised.
"He's dead. As are they all. I'll wager that's a great deal more of a share than Sir Michel ever thought of giving you," I said, indicating the treasure.
John laughed. "He had already paid me in full before we even set out. Ten groats. I believe this will more than make up for the time spent in his foul company. I didn't want to kill the elves, you know. He held me at sword-point, to protect his own worthless skin. I'm glad he's dead now, to be honest."
In the end I realised he was just a simple man who had been put into a bad situation by a terrible person. He'd use the treasure wisely enough and find himself a new home far from our village.
I spent a whole day unloading our gear off the horses. I took enough supplies to get me over the mountain, carried by my humble mule. The horses were able to carry half of the treasure that was still left. I figure I can come back for the rest if I ever run out of money in my lifetime.
Which I highly doubt.
I bought myself a nice little fortress with some of the money. The drawbridge gets a lot of closing action though, now they know there's a rich young woman living here. I'll keep my secret about the dragon to myself. Unless some likely suitor rides up looking to marry. I'll have to find a man eventually; society expects me to.
And somewhere in a village hundreds of miles away, there's a tale of how Wizard Eminare and Sir Michel made their last stand against the mighty dragon Ascreni. The story goes that all parties present died in that cave. Yet no-one ever asks how the story managed to get back to their village.
And I hope they never work it out.
Ray Daley was born in Coventry & still lives there. He served 6 yrs in the RAF as a clerk & spent most of his time in a Hobbit hole in High Wycombe. He is a published poet & has been writing stories since he was 10.
His current dream is to eventually finish the Hitch Hikers fanfic novel he's been writing since 1986.