The Lorelei Signal
Written by Mike Morgan / Artwork by Marge Simon
Illyrian’s grandfather didn’t talk to her. He couldn’t bear to be in the same room as her; he refused to breathe the air she did. He did everything he could to avoid acknowledging she existed.
He believed his cruel behavior was justified, as all cruel people do. Her grandfather, the lord of the eastern steppes, had disinherited his daughter’s only child, had expelled her from his halls, for one reason: Illyrian’s mother had died in childbirth.
The baby had killed his daughter and so he wanted nothing to do with the cursed spawn.
Horrified by his decision, the nurse already employed to help care for the newborn took the infant into her own humble shack that stood in the shadow of the great lord’s castle. She cared for Illyrian as if she were her own. There was no one else. Illyrian had no family other than the lord, for her father had been killed in battle three months earlier. The lord offered no objection when the nurse took her away, nor did he ever order her return.
In time, the baby grew into a girl and then into a young woman. She learned to care for the flock of geese owned by her former nurse, the old woman called Mabble. She became expert in the skills required to maintain a dwelling and extract a tenuous livelihood off the land they rented from her own grandfather. In all those years, the venerable ruler of their part of the world said not one word to his descendant. Then, the old nurse passed away and Illyrian found herself alone.
The villagers thereabouts offered no comfort. They called Illyrian the Raggedy Girl, on account of the state of her careworn clothes. Knowing her lineage, they gossiped to each other there must be some terrible secret behind why their lord had shunned his only living kin. They invented countless fantastical tales around Illyrian’s past, each one more heartless than the last. When Illyrian brought goose eggs to market they gave her as few coin-bits as they could for her wares, snipping the soft metal of the domain’s coinage into tiny shards, reveling in how little they could force her to accept.
She endured their treatment without comment and got on with living, as best she could.
~ * ~
One day, there was a great commotion and Illyrian, now nineteen years old, saw her grandfather pass by her shack, his carriage rattling along the road that led after many long miles to the shining citadel-state of Ionnia.
There were villagers there too, by the stony, uneven road, and they shouted to the Raggedy Girl, “Raggedy Girl! Your grandfather goes to the annual ball, in celebration of the Summer Solstice. It is hosted by the Duke of Ionnia, in the most beautiful of all of Fair Ionnia’s perfect palaces. There will be dancing and fine food and wine enough to flood the valley in which Ionnia stands. You are of regal blood—are you not invited also?”
How they laughed.
Illyrian thought about how she had no one left to tell her no.
The dust kicked up by the carriage’s wheels slowly thinned and settled and Illyrian shrugged. “Call me raggedy if you must. My clothes are as well darned and stitched as I can keep them. Yet I concede they seem ragged in my eyes also. But do not call me girl. I am a woman and have been for the many long months I have been my own mistress.”
They glared at her, their cheeks turning red.
“You ask if I am invited to this grand event. I say yes. I know how such invitations work. They request the attendance of all the kin of the lords and ladies of the minor kingdoms that revolve about Ionnia’s blazing glory. I am your lord’s granddaughter, as you so often remind me. Therefore, I will attend.”
She walked back to her ramshackle cabin and secured its door and made sure the geese were safe and had food and water enough for a day or two. Next, she packed a small satchel of provisions and wrapped her best shawl around her shoulders to fend off the wind that blew across the steppes. Then she set out along the same road her grandfather’s carriage had clattered upon.
“You can’t be serious?” one of the villagers called out. “His lordship will never let you in.”
“His lordship isn’t in charge of Ionnia. The duke is.” Illyrian did not slow her pace. “Besides, grandfather swore never to speak to me as long as he lives. How will he order me to leave the ball?”
~ * ~
On the stony way, not far past the first of the four distance markers between her shack and the city of Ionnia, at the crossroads with the path to the river towns, Illyrian met a richly dressed man. From his attire she assumed he was a merchant. He seemed well off, if a little muddy.
He introduced himself as Cavan.
“Where is your horse or carriage?” she asked him. It was strange a man so well dressed was walking.
“Taken from me at sword-point on the road from the river towns. I am destitute. At least until I reach Ionnia.”
She offered him a portion of the food in her satchel. He accepted it with thanks. Since they were both making for Ionnia, he offered to protect her along the way.
“You offer the protection of a man who was successfully robbed?”
He coughed. “The bandits were many in number. There were extenuating circumstances.”
“I’m sure there were. I can defend myself, but I welcome your company.” It was a long road to Ionnia, and he was handsome.
Illyrian did not regret her decision. Cavan asked her many questions about her life and listened attentively to her answers. They passed three more markers in what seemed no time at all. The last one announced they were on the final stretch to the city walls. It wasn’t a helpful announcement as they could see the city for themselves as the stony road curved around the side of a low hill. Illyrian felt a twinge of sadness that their sojourn was drawing to a close.
Cavan paused as they approached the throng of people waiting to pass through the narrow city gates. “You didn’t say. Where are you going within the city?”
“To the ball.”
“There’s a coincidence. I believe I am requested to attend also. Perhaps I will see you there?”
“Perhaps you will,” she agreed. The thought was not upsetting.
~ * ~
Illyrian was worried the sentries at the duke’s palace would refuse her admittance. She knew she did not fit the stereotype of a lady and had prepared an entire speech explaining her rank and her right to be there. So convinced was she that her efforts would meet with failure she had already planned what public sights she could see for herself within the resplendent city. It was her first time in Ionnia, after all, and it was the fabled citadel of science and magic.
However, the sentries merely nodded as she stepped toward the palace doors and let her in. A servant announced her, declaring her name, family, and rank in a loud voice after the customary fanfare. It was all very strange. She couldn’t imagine how the staff knew who she was.
The ball was everything she’d dreamed. Hundreds of nobles milled about a hall of stunning beauty. Music bathed the gathering, promising the intricate dances to come.
The guests at the ball were uniformly polite. Not one of them remarked on the condition of Illyrian’s aged clothes. Quite the reverse. A couple of ladies in resplendent gowns complimented Illyrian on the fine pattern of her shawl. Their kindness was perplexing.
Perhaps, she thought, Ionnians were just nicer.
She did take the opportunity, between bites of fine food, to wash the dirt of the road from her sandaled feet. Emerging from the side room housing the low fountain where guests attended to such matters, she saw her grandfather.
Illyrian was certain the old man had glimpsed her. Keeping to his pledge, he refused to even look in her direction. Anger surged through her body, though she knew it would achieve nothing, and she left the party.
Seeing her grandfather had ruined it for her.
On her way out, she caught sight of Cavan. He was separated from her by several party goers. Despite the attractiveness of the women clustered around him, it was her he was staring at.
It didn’t matter. Illyrian was too angry at old injustices to speak to anyone, including Cavan.
She only wanted to go home.
~ * ~
Cavan found her on the road back to the eastern steppes, clomping up the hill, not yet at the first marker, the city walls at her back. “What are you doing here?” she snapped at him. “Was the ball not to your liking?”
“It was fine. I’ve been to a lot of balls. You left early.”
She didn’t answer. He walked at her side, not going away.
“Are you following me?”
“No, absolutely not. I have business in, er…where is it you’re from again?”
“The eastern steppes.”
“I have business in the eastern steppes.”
“I assure you I do.”
Illyrian was going to say something biting—she hadn’t decided what, but it was going to be a really cutting remark—when she found a pot. It was in the center of the road, looking as out of place as, well, as she’d been at the ball. It was a large pot, made of clay, with a wide top.
She was not in a position to ignore any windfall that came her way, no matter how minor. “If it’s been thrown away, it won’t be any good for storing food. Still, maybe I can plant some flowers in it.” That would brighten up her shack at least.
She looked inside the pot and was astonished to find it contained dozens of gold coins.
“Cavan, look. I’ve never seen so much money.”
He blinked a few times. Eventually, he said, “You found it. It’s yours.”
“You don’t want a share?”
“No. You have it.”
Could she believe him? On the one hand, he appeared rich and was well connected enough to have been at the duke’s ball, so maybe he didn’t need any more gold. On the other hand, he could be lulling her into a false sense of security and plotting to take the coins later. No, that seemed wrong. He could take them now if he wanted—he was probably strong enough to make a fight of it. His attitude made as much sense as finding gold abandoned in a pot in the middle of nowhere.
He offered to carry it to her home.
“I couldn’t possibly impose,” she replied.
Illyrian unwrapped her shawl and tied the pot within its folds, winding the rest of the fabric into a cloth rope. Slinging the material over her shoulder, she dragged the heavy mass behind her.
“You’ll let me know if you get tired?”
“Of course,” she lied.
~ * ~
After dragging the pot for a little while up the hill, Illyrian saw the first of the distance markers. She was relieved to be making measurable progress along the road because the pot was heavier than she’d admit to. She looked down at the shape wrapped in her shawl.
Instead of the pot, she saw a lump of glittering metal.
Cavan noticed her expression and looked as well. “Illyrian, the pot and all the coins have turned into silver.”
“It is. Trust me. I’ve seen a lot of silver. That’s a big chunk of it. Really big.”
They exchanged a glance. Clearly, there was magic at work.
Cavan frowned. “You must be disappointed.”
“Goodness no. Gold coins would have been useful, but silver is better than gold.”
“How can you say that?”
“It’s less likely to be stolen.”
He thought that over. “You may have a point.”
They kept going.
~ * ~
Time passed and they reached another distance marker. Halfway to the edge of the farming lands controlled by the Fair City and the outskirts where the eastern steppes began. On either side of the route grasses stretched away, gradually turning into fields ploughed in service to the duke.
Illyrian took another look back at the load she was dragging.
The silver was no longer silver. Now, it was darker.
They regarded the new contents of her shawl.
“It certainly seems to like changing.”
“I think this is iron,” said Cavan.
“That’s no tragedy. Iron is easy to sell, and there’s a market next to grandfather’s castle where I can find a buyer. This much should fetch several half-coins, and that amount of currency will attract far less unwelcome attention. It’s for the best, all things considered.”
Cavan squinted at her. “That’s not the reaction I was expecting.”
“Would you rather I got upset?”
“No.” He was smiling, she noticed.
With a shrug, she resumed dragging the load, grateful the faded material of her shawl wasn’t tearing on the coarse grit of the road.
~ * ~
They reached the third distance marker.
Illyrian risked another glance at her treasure. She was resigned to it being different again.
Sure enough, now it was a gray rock.
“Oh, look. It changed.”
Cavan made a sound of disgust. “This is awful. Now it’s not worth anything to you.” He was genuinely concerned for her, she reflected.
Illyrian shrugged. “It doesn’t matter.”
“Doesn’t matter? How can you say that? You obviously need money. I mean, look at your clothes.”
“I’m sorry if my attire offends you.”
“No—!” He paused. “All I meant was that you deserve more.”
She allowed the tension to pass out of her shoulders. “Look, a rock it may be now, but it’s an excellent one. It’ll be perfect as a door stop.”
He shook his head in wonderment. “You really do find the best in every situation.”
She thought of her grandfather. “There’s no point in letting life get to you.”
Cavan beamed at her. “You are wonderful.”
She felt her jaw muscle clench. “You’re the only person who thinks so.”
She resumed pulling her windfall.
~ * ~
They arrived at Illyrian’s shack not long afterward, as the sun was starting to dip below the horizon.
The geese honked at her happily. They’d missed her. She was waiting for Cavan to pass comment on the dilapidated condition of her dwelling when the rock underwent one last transformation.
It shimmered and rippled and was suddenly a sinuous tangle of snake-like limbs. Illyrian knew what she was seeing: it was the Ionnian Kow, the mischievous trickster figure of local folklore. There wasn’t any mistaking it; there were many other magical creatures in the world but none of them looked like the Kow or shared its peculiar sense of humor.
Off it ran, laughing with mirth, no doubt enormously amused at deceiving them.
Cavan groaned, “All your work, for nothing.”
“I wouldn’t say nothing. I’ve seen the Ionnian Kow. Not everyone can say that. I’m lucky when you think about it.”
Kow was a daft name, she thought. It was an old word, the original meaning long ago lost. Some said it meant cruel or spiteful. It was a word thrown about as an insult.
Cavan looked at her for a long time. Then he said, “I was wrong. You’re not wonderful at all.”
“Oh, I’m not?” That was a shame. She’d been thinking about inviting him in for a cup of herbal tea. Oh well, she would find contentment another way. By connecting her sandal with his rear end, most likely.
“No. You’re better than wonderful. You’re perfect.”
“You think I’m perfect?”
“I do. Anyone who can react to misfortune the way you have—well, you’re a woman who can handle anything. In fact, you’re a woman I want to marry.” He sank to one knee.
“Marry? I see. That’s nice.” Illyrian helped him to his feet. “How about we drink some tea first and get to know each other better? For a start, I’d like to know who you really are. Because it occurs to me you never talked about yourself.”
She led him by the hand into her shack.
~ * ~
Her instincts were correct. Cavan had his own story to tell. One that involved being the very eligible bachelor son of the Duke of Ionnia.
That did explain why Illyrian had been ushered so effortlessly into the ball and how the servants at the duke’s palace had known what name to announce, let alone why the guests had been so scrupulously courteous (under threat of punishment, she suspected). Cavan’s claim to be coincidentally going her way on Illyrian’s return journey turned out, to her complete lack of surprise, to have been a hastily contrived pretense.
He was kind, and he was considerate, and he cared. It was not a burden for her to love such a man. She tried a kiss with him and decided he’d do. So, they married, and Illyrian sent word to the village for her former neighbors to assume care of the geese, and to bear in mind they were now the property of the ducal family of the city of Ionnia, the most powerful city state on the continent, and the health and well-being of said geese was not to be treated lightly.
The shack she let fall into ruin, after arranging for a proper gravestone to be placed on the site where she had buried Mabble’s remains.
Her grandfather never did speak to her or sit willingly in the same room as her again, determined unto his final breath to stick to his vow, but Illyrian had the consolation of a faithful husband, many children, the love of her people, and—in time—the joint rule of the world’s most advanced bastion of science and magic.
All things considered she did not feel deprived.
As for the lord of the eastern steppes—while he lived he had the comfort of his pain and his misplaced hate. Perhaps that was enough for him.
Illyrian never did find out, and nor did she ever ask.
Mike Morgan was born in London, but not in any of the interesting parts. He moved to Japan at the age of 30 and lived there for many years. Nowadays, he's based in Iowa, and enjoys family life with his wife and two young children.
If you like his writing, be sure to follow him on Twitter where he goes by @CultTVMike or check out his website: https://PerpetualStateofMildPanic.wordpress.com.