The Lorelei Signal

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The Crystal Cave

Written by Denice Penrose / Artwork by Marge Simon

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“I want some Heartsease.”

 

“Oh, I’m sorry for your loss. What happened?”

 

“My girlfriend is going to leave me. I know it.”

 

Corrinine wrinkled her brow. “So, you’re not in pain now?”

 

“Not yet. But I don’t want the pain when it happens.” He slapped two silver coins on the counter.

 

“You should really wait until you are in pain to take the cure.”

 

“I didn’t ask for your advice. I asked for Heartsease. Just give me what I asked for.”

 

Corrinine opened her mouth to speak but closed it again. She sold potions, not judgements. If he wanted to avoid pain, she could make it possible. Fingers ticked through softly clinking vials for a tapered red crystal that throbbed with a dull red light. She held it out to him. He snatched it and sauntered out of the cavern.

 

As she watched him leave, an idea stirred: the elixir as prophylactic. Life in Alvaron could be perfect. Would they then be satisfied, when they no longer remembered pain? Could we know pleasure if we did not know pain? Silly thoughts, she shook her head. Of course, they’d be better off without pain – she knew from bitter experience! This new potion would be a best seller, she could feel it. And she had the perfect golden vials to put it in.

 

Corrinine surveyed her dispensary, pride swelling. The cave housed a glittering array of vials that eased pain, fatigue, worries, prevented children, or encouraged fertility. With her elixirs, youth could be extended, love or life begun or ended, any ache mended. If there was an unwanted feeling, condition or ailment, Corrinine had a vial for it.

 

It hadn’t always been this way. Once, Alvaron had known war, and pain and loss. They’d constantly warred with the Gabervenny. She’d been young then, newly apprenticed. She’d slaved for hours over the bodies of soldiers. Their haunted screams still punctured her nightmares. A soldier’s scars had been worn with pride, a badge of honour that shouted: ‘we survived’. There were no scars anymore – a poultice of silverflax covered by moonleaf thrice applied in darkness removed them.

 

~ * ~

 

As soon as Veronina waddled in, Corrinine reached for a slender vial filled with muddy liquid.

 

“Thanks, Corrinine. I don’t know what I’d do without this.” Chins wobbled as she talked. Pudgy hands lifted from the counter, revealing five sweaty coins. Veronina opened her mouth wide, emptied the vial and liquid glooped onto her glistening tongue. She gagged at the taste, then shuddered. Her outline blurred as her body convulsed, and she collapsed on the floor. Corrinine sighed. Usually, Veronina at least had the courtesy to wait until she was home or used a cubicle. Corrinine rounded the tree trunk that served as her counter, grabbed Veronina’s arms, and dragged her inch by meaty inch into a curtained booth. Corrinine sagged against the stone walls to catch her breath. Recording the sale in her ledger, her eyes fell on the date of Veronina’s last visit. They were becoming more frequent. But Veronina would rather take the cure periodically than change her lifestyle, and Corrinine’s potions meant Veronina could live as she chose.

 

Corrinine’s eyes fell on a dusty corner shelf. Fondly she opened a wooden bowl and sniffed at camphor, sandalwood, eucalyptus, cures for long-dead diseases.

 

They’d fought their last war centuries ago. On a blood-soaked battlefield, they’d counted the cost, and agreed a peace with the Gabervany, divided the scarred land. People began to rebuild their lives, and healers had time again for common ailments. Except for Corrinine. Her lover’s blood watered that thirsty field, life dissipated as it ebbed into dark soil. Dazed, she’d hidden herself in the deepest recesses of her cave, tears emptying her soul, darkness both her peace and torment.

 

Then she’d heard voices: “She’s a healer, surely she can take something for this?”

 

“Our cures are only for physical pains. Her pain is deeper.”

 

A silvered question punctured her darkness. “Why couldn’t she create a cure for emotional pain?” And her quest had begun, experimenting, trying her own potions, until she’d made the one that cured the piercing pain in her heart: Heartsease. She’d turned the cave into her shop and began concocting her potions. She’d read, and travelled, collected plants and seeds and berries. Now the tradesmen with rare elements came to her first.

 

Carefully concocted, her potions had been brewed, refined over the centuries. Bottled in slivered crystals, hand blown glass, or beaten silver, sparkling flacons lined shelves and neatly slotted into carved brackets. Some were too volatile for sunlight, or easily ruined by warmth. These she stored in the farthest reaches of the cave.  As Corrinine’s work lamp fell on vials, fractal patterns and rainbow colours danced and sparkled, her magical rainbow.

 

On her workbench lay vials and ingredients for those potions she had yet to perfect - ones that could bring unlimited wealth, fortune, and even defy death, as well as ones she had yet to imagine.

 

While Veronina chrysalised, Corrinine tended a stream of customers. When it quietened, she set about replenishing low stocks, humming softly to herself.  A pinch of stardust and moonlit water mingled with juniper to form Elixir of Youth. Summer sunflowers crushed and mingled with waters from the babbling brook to cure Depression. She blended lavender, laudanum and camomile for Restful Sleep. Moonflax and shadow drops blended with fragrant oils to relieve pain.

 

It was mid-afternoon before Veronina awoke. She carried a pile of oversized clothes, but still wore her blouse, now fitted as a dress. She’d tied a cord around her slender waist, and pranced out of the cave. “Thanks Corrinine. You’re a life saver.”  The wolf whistles that greeted Veronina’s exit made Corrinine smile. Another satisfied customer.

 

Stirring a love potion, Corrinine remembered the lover she’d lost, and how he’d lived on briefly in her growing belling. Then, days of agony produced a lifeless child. Again, she knew what she had to do. She was a healer; this too should be in her power. She’d vowed no other woman should share her experience.  So, she’d created a pessary that eased childbirth to minor discomfort, reduced mortality.

 

That evening, Corrinine sank with a sigh into plump cushions, resting her aching feet on the table. The pink cordial would restore her energy, soothe the aches but there was honesty in feeling rare pain that she liked, and satisfaction in knowing she could stop it.

 

Smiling, she remembered the transformation she’d brought about in Veronina, the old man who’d carried away a potion ensuring the happiness of his young wife. Theirs was a happy, satisfied society, every need and whim catered. She was known, and respected. She had done it all. She had accumulated enough wealth that she need never work again, but she loved her potions Corrinine smiled with satisfaction at her reflection in the mirror at 871 years old, she was still smooth-skinned, her figure sylph-like all thanks to her skills.

 

Corrinine was experimenting with a euphoria inducing potion when the screams shattered the silence. Startled, she ran to the entrance of the cave, peering out onto the cobbled streets. Soldiers came into view, and the icy hand of fear clutched her heart. The drumbeat march of feet was punctuated by howls of pain. She knew those uniforms. The Gabervany were back. There had been peace for centuries. Why were they attacking now, when Alvaron did not expect them, was unprepared?

 

People ran, doors slammed only to be splintered by soldiers. Blood poured onto the cobbles. Screams pierced the air. She saw Veronina pressed against the wall by a rutting soldier, her beautiful face contorted with pain as he pounded into her. Then silence, as he slit her throat.  Bile rose, and she vomited on the floor. A young man fell in front of her, arms outstretched empty eyed. She recognised the customer who’d bought heartsease. It couldn’t help him now –death, the one ill she’d been able to delay, but not defeat. One by one, she watched as the streets flooded with blood. This wasn’t a battle. It was a rout.

 

They hadn’t seen her yet. She could hide in her den. If she could remember where how to find it? She moved to the darkest reaches of the cavern, searching for the entrance. Stomping feet grew closer. She found the stone, where was the lever? The thump of boots was outside her door. The lever was covered by shelves. She swept them clear, reached in, pulled. The stone ground back slowly. A voice at the door: “you three, clear that store. No survivors.” As soon as the gap was large enough, Corrinine slipped into the den tugging a lever to roll the stone back into place. The voices receded. She paused to listen, struggling to hear them over the pounding of her heart. Her work lamp lit the narrow passage, dusty and webbed. She’d been young the last time she’d been in here.

 

 “Search every space. I want no one left alive.”

“Wow, just look at this place! All those vials.”

 

“I heard about this. They have a healer who makes potions which can do anything you want.”

 

“Anything? You sure about that?”

 

“Yeah, she’s over a thousand years old, and she can cure anything. I heard about someone who came here when the doctors said he had cancer, gave him only weeks to live, and she gave him one vial, and he lived another hundred years.”

 

“For real?”

 

“Yeah, for real.”’

 

“Sarge, should we gather these vials? They’re worth a lot of money. I mean, look at this stuff. These potions are legend. We could be rich, live forever.”

 

“Don’t you understand? This is what killed them. They used this lot to take away all pain, any difficulty.”

 

“‘I kinda like that idea, sarge. These boots are killing me.”

 

“Look around you. Look how easily we won this battle. These people had no idea how to fight. Do you really want to be like them, weak, pathetic, easily beaten? They grew too soft, their lives too easy. All we had to do is wait, keep the truce long enough for them to weaken themselves, then come back to defeat them. There is nothing here that we need. Destroy it all. These aren’t potions, they’re poison.”

 

And in those words, Corrinine heard Truth. A life without struggle had made them weak. She had killed them, weakened them, removed the need to fight, their immunity and the ability to defend themselves. The air grew dense, hard to breathe, Corrinine gasped as the room spun around her, piercing chest pain felled her. Breathe, she urged herself, lying crumpled on the floor. Calm down and breathe. Corrinine wept as darkness gathered.

 

Corrinine woke, cold and stiff, disorientated. She stood gingerly, pressing her ear to the stone, listening for sounds, soldiers. She heard only silence. She pressed the lever, allowing the stone to roll away. Gasping, she surveyed the damaged crystal, broken shards ground to dust. Not a single vial remained intact. Her ingredients had been reduced to shards and embers.

 

But in her mind, she held the recipes, the ingredients in the woods and world around her. It would take her years to rebuild, but she would do it. She stood tall; her mind focussed. This time her potions would be more wonderful, more beguiling, more potent. 

 

She’d start in the land of the Gabervany.

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Denice Penrose is a freelance writer, who has a patchwork of jobs on Academic Research Projects. She lives in England with her husband, and kowtows to the six cats, who are their furry children.

 

Follow her on twitter @denicepenrose or through her blog: the-write-link.webnode.com/