Alchemist's Gift

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Darkest Fate

Summer was on the wane during those first cooler and wet days before the equinox arrived. September thirteenth at midmorning, Cesare was with Giovanni Bellini on their way to Casa Bella to deliver the cabinet made for Conte Emilio. Marcella was outside in the garden. Sofia was on her mother’s back in a carrier Marcella had fashioned out of the leg she cut off from a pair of Fausto’s worn-out old trousers.

Marcella knelt down on the soft warm earth and pulled out small weeds, neatening up the row of late vegetables. She did not hear the horse until it and the rider turned the corner and spied her at her work. She looked up too late to hide. Marcella remained motionless, hoping the rider had not seen her.

“You! Stand and be seen.” It was Antonio Gardetto, Bishop DiMars’ witchfinder.

Marcella stood and faced the man.

“May I help you, sir?” She put her hand up to her brow as if to shield her eyes from the sun and cast her gaze to the ground.

“Who are you?” Gardetto dismounted and walked to Marcella.

“I might ask you the same sir.” Marcella stood straight but shook inside.

Antonio Gardetto held the bronze badge up and let it drop back onto his chest. “I am an agent for the bishop. What is your business here?”

“I am visiting my brother, Cesare Lippo.”

Gardetto looked at Marcella more closely. Every time he moved his head to get a better look, Marcella would move her head in the opposite direction to hide her face. “I know you, you are not Lippo’s sister. You are that Andano woman. You are that witch who killed her mother. That is who you are.” He chuckled out loud, “My lucky day.”

Gardetto reached out for Marcella’s arm. She pulled it away and took a step back. “You cannot get away from me,” he said smugly.

Marcella looked all around her and quickly plucked up a wooden stake that of late supported a scarecrow. She held it up like a sword.

Gardetto could not believe his eyes. He shook his head in disbelief and laughed out loud.

“Stay back,” Marcella warned.

“Or what? You will hit me with a stick?” He rubbed his hands together in anticipation of the unbalanced fight. He advanced again. Marcella swung the rod at his face. Gardetto put his hand up and swatted the stake away.

Sofia began to cry. Gardetto momentarily lost his focus looking about for the baby. Marcella took the advantage and swung the stake again as hard as she could. She heard a pop. She broke his nose.

Gardetto grabbed his bloody nose. He was blinded bis temper. “Curse you bitch! I will kill both of you.” He pulled out his dagger and lunged at her. Gardetto’s attack was feeble and off balance. He fell to his knee. Marcella hit him again, this time across the back of his head. He dropped his dagger and grabbed his head. Gardetto was directly in front of her, face down at Marcella’s feet. She immediately knelt down with her knees on his shoulders and squatted on his head. All during the attack Sofia was bawling.

Gardetto lifted his head up and turned it to the side. All he saw was a little bit of sunlight sneaking under the hem of Marcella’s skirt. He had to spit dirt out of his mouth before he could speak. “I will kill both of you,” is all he could muster as he tried to push himself up.

Marcella saw the dagger, picked it up and stabbed Gardetto in the back. The blade only went in an inch or so. He screamed. She lifted the dagger up and stabbed him as hard as she could. Using both hands and with all of her strength and weight she pushed the dagger through the muscle; she felt the blade scrap between his ribs and reach its mark. She felt the dagger pulse in her hand with each beat of Gardetto’s punctured heart until it finally stopped.

Marcella stood up and backed away. She swung Sofia around in front of her and took her out of the carrier.

“Dear God, forgive me.” She looked at the dead man at her feet. “What have I done?” Marcella burst into tears and held Sofia tight against her breast. She ran back into the cottage and bolted the door.Cesare and Giovanni returned right before dusk. Cesare took a cow as part of his payment from Conte Emilio. The beast was tied to the cart and made the going slow.

“Marcella will be pleased with your beautiful cow,” said Giovanni.

“Yes, I just wish we could have taken her and Sofia with us. Today would have been such a pleasant outing.”

They turned up the pathway and started the ascent to the cottage. Cesare saw Marcella’s motionless silhouette at the head of the path.

“Your queen waits for you, I see,” Giovanni joked.

It seemed an eternity to Marcella for the cart to finally reach the top.

Cesare waved. “I brought you a cow,” he said with a wide grin. He was puzzled why she stood there quietly. Her face was pale, and when Cesare jumped down from the cart she burst into tears.

“Is it Sofia?” A cold panic snaked through his body.

She shook her head no and grabbed on to Cesare as tight as she could. Her whole body shook. “Marcella, what is it? Tell me.”

Marcella dropped her embrace and, trancelike, took Cesare’s hand and led him to the garden. Cesare saw the handle of the dagger sticking out of Gardetto’s back. He knelt. The witch hunter was cold to Cesare’s touch.

All three went inside the cottage. Marcella regained herself enough to tell the terrible story. The plan was simple. Giovanni would take Marcella and Sofia east, leave the Republic of Venice, and find lodgings in Bavaria. They would take Gardetto’s horse with them and let it loose three of four leagues down the road. Cesare would bury the body and wait for Giovanni to return; then he would join Marcella and Sofia.

He gave Marcella the gold piece her aunt had given him those three years ago along with two more from his payment for the cabinet. She packed, and they said their goodbyes. Giovanni, Marcella, and Sofia left that night.

Part II


Ancestral Home of Rene Hermes

Outside of Adler Lager, Bavaria

On the path between Rene Hermes’s house and barn, a red rooster with iridescent green tail feathers scratched up a few kernels of golden corn, eyed them, and ate them one at a time. Above in the hayloft, the morning sun came streaming through the vertical boards and lay in yellow stripes across Roland Hughes, who lie there in the hay, asleep. He was on his back and the journal he had found in the Alchemist Cabinet the night before was open, face-down on his chest.

The rooster crowed, and Roland stirred. A breeze passed through the openings between the boards and rustled a single blade of straw that tickled his forehead. With his eyes closed, Roland brushed it away. Again the breeze blew, and again the straw teased him. He ran his hand over his forehead and face and brought it to his side. He grabbed a handful of straw, held it up, and opened his eyes.

Roland looked past the straw in his hand. Directly above was a jagged hole with charred edges in the roof. He grabbed onto a massive hand-hewn wooden upright, pulled himself up, and stood. His hands were shaking. He was naked, and he had a terrible headache. Roland looked around and determined that he was in a barn. Where? He had no idea.

Roland went to the near wall, knelt down, and looked through the slats. He spied a stone country house with a thatched roof, a front porch with a flower-laden trellis, and smoke curling out of the chimney. Roland left the loft by climbing down a ladder. On the barn floor next to the ladder was a wooden workbench with bellows, a pair of pincers, and something that looked like a leather lab coat, quite stained and smudged with soot. It was stiff and cold. He put it on.

On the far wall was a stacked cord of hand-cut firewood. Wooden farm tools hung from pegs. There were barrels and casks, sacks suspended on ropes from the cross beams, wooden buckets, and a wooden bin with a lid. Roland heard neighing. In the far corner of the barn, there were two stalls with a horse in each. Roland wandered toward the horses through an obstacle course of boxes, barrels, broken tools, and an unsteady pyramid of what looked like bird cages or traps.

He was drawn to a carriage covered with a large canvas. Roland pulled the canvas back. Deep scratches ran the length of the body. The brass lamp was broken and bent over. The spokes and wheels were caked with mud. There was a crest painted on the door. He looked in on the sumptuous leather interior.

Roland froze when he heard a young woman’s voice just outside the barn door. She was humming and singing a pretty tune. He pulled the canvas down and hid behind the carriage.

The young woman lifted the iron latch and pulled. The door opened with a long, low creak. Roland shifted his position to see better. The sun poured in and formed a halo behind her silhouette. She stopped, brushed her strawberry blonde hair away from her face, and tucked a few of the longer strands up under her kerchief.

Her eyes were hazel and large, and her nose was straight and fine. She had full lips and a very distinctive dimple in her chin. Her neck was slender, and her complexion was pale with a healthy blush. She wore a white, loose- fitting blouse that covered her soft shoulders and bosom, and a light blue medium-length skirt. She was barefoot and carried a shallow basket filled with oats.

One of the horses whinnied. “Be patient, Zeus, and you too, Nero.” She filled their troughs with oats. The horses snorted their thanks and ate while she petted their muzzles. “What were your dreams, my handsome princes?”

Roland brushed against a wooden pitchfork that fell against the poorly stacked pyramid of bird cages, causing the stack to fall to the floor. The commotion caught the young woman’s attention. The young woman set the basket down and took a few steps toward the tumbled pile of cages. She saw Roland’s legs, snatched a sickle whose blade was wedged in a crack of one of the uprights, and bravely brandished it. “Who is there? Come out, show yourself!”

Roland sheepishly stuck his head out from behind the carriage and stepped into view. He was a ridiculous sight in the filthy leather smock, hair mussed up, bleary-eyed and with an unsure but hopeful smile on his face. “It is only a stranger.” He knelt and started to re-stack them.

“Leave those and come over here.” There was authority in her voice, and she brought the sickle up a little higher.

Roland stood and took a few steps closer.

“Who are you?” She followed his every movement.

He had to think. “My name…my name is…is Roland.”

“Why are you in my barn?” She was quite serious.

He rubbed his forehead hoping to clear his mind. “I…I don’t know.” Roland looked all around him. He could not hide his bewilderment. “I really don’t know.” He dropped his gaze, and his shoulders involuntarily slumped.

“Are you a smithy?”

“Smithy?” He patted the dirty smock. “I have no clothes.”

“Do you always enter someone’s barn and take what you want?”

Sofia’s hand holding the sickle slowly fell to her side.

Roland shrugged. “I can honestly say this is the first time.”

“And what were you doing over there by the carriage? The duke did not send you, did he?” She leaned in and looked at him intensely.

“The duke? No, no one sent me. I’ve never seen an old carriage like that close up. I just wanted to look at it.”

“Old?” She was taken aback. “Duke Gunter had that carriage made for Pater only a few years ago.” She pushed the sickle blade into the crack.

“A few years ago?” Roland was afraid, but he asked anyway. “And what year is this?”

The young woman put her hands on her hips and wrinkled her brow. “Do not make light of me. You know very well what year. The year of our Lord and Savior, 1523.”

“1523” was the last thing Roland said before his sight surrendered to a black void swimming with red and gold specks.

When he opened his eyes, he looked into the young woman’s concerned face. She cradled his head in her lap. He felt her soft, warm hand on his cheek. He reached up and gently touched her hand. His eyelids fluttered, and before he passed out he whispered, “Liz, is that you?”

“No, poor stranger. I am Sofia.” His vulnerability and the situation touched her heart. Sofia wondered what had brought this man to her. Sofia dared to gently touch his face and softly traced his lips with her finger. She leaned her face close to his, so close she felt the warmth of his breath on her cheek. Sofia stroked the stubble on his chin with the backs of her fingers and watched the vein pulse on his neck. Roland blinked. She patted his shoulder until he opened his eyes. “Are you able to stand?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.” Roland sat up with a little tug from Sofia. He was dizzy and weak. He put his head back in her lap. “Let me rest for a minute.” The last thing he felt was the gentle touch of her hand on his forehead. Roland closed his eyes and slid back into his shadowy world.

Sofia stood before the hearth. She had just built up the fire below, and the iron top was beginning to warm. She set a clay pot of barley and onion soup on the iron to heat. The sun cast a golden glow on the whitewashed kitchen walls in front of her. To her right was a worktable where a few of her knives were laid out. Below the table was a simple rack that held her other utensils. Bunches of dried herbs and small glass jars holding her spices were set off to the side. A dead rabbit and a few grouse hung head down from pegs on the wall above. There was a covered tray of rolls on the worktable that she was going to bake. Sofia lifted the cheesecloth to see how they were rising.

Roland woke up in bed. He grabbed up the sheets in his fists. He opened his eyes and grimaced and moaned when he saw nothing familiar. He was in a heavily draped four-post bed. Roland propped himself up against the dark wooden headboard and sat there in the muted light that filtered through the brocade cloth. At least his headache was gone.

He had on a worn but clean shirt and a tattered pair of baggy pants.

Sofia opened the side curtain and looked in.

“Ah, I see you are awake. You slept the morning away. Do you feel any better? Are you rested enough to eat something?”

“Where am I?” Roland asked. He pressed the back of Sofia’s hand.

“Do not worry; I am real enough. Can you get to the table?”

“Who are you?” Roland took Sofia’s hand and searched her eyes.

“I am Sofia Hermes,” she said gently, “and you are Roland.”

“Yes, Roland Hughes. Where am I?”

“You truly do not know where you are?”

“I could barely remember my name.” Roland was frightened.

Sofia sat on the bed. “You are in the home of Rene Hermes. I am his daughter, Sofia. We live in the countryside outside of Adler Lager, in Bavaria, under the protection of Duke Gunter the Cruel.” Sofia cocked her head a little and waited to see if Roland understood what she was saying.

“And it’s 1523,” he added. “How?”

“You need to eat and drink. Come along.” She tugged on his hand and led him out of the bedroom across the main room to the walnut table and bid him sit. Sofia went to the kitchen and finished preparing the meal.

Roland took in his surroundings. The room was spacious. The walls were whitewashed. He looked up at the open beam ceiling. A rustic, round chandelier hung directly over the table. The room was appointed with tall, wide windows. The windows were made up of a lead latticework and the pieces of glass in each pane were small, bluish, and wavy.

A large, brightly colored tapestry of a unicorn in a pen and a virgin offering it a rose hung on the adjacent wall to the right of the windows. A shoulder-high fireplace and raised hearth dominated the wall to his left. The heavy mantle was supported by soapstone uprights decorated in a rope motif. There was a matched set of very ornate silver candelabras on either end of the mantle, and a large round mirror with a gilded frame in the center.

Sofia brought in two bowls of the hot barley and onion soup, set them on the table, and returned with a few rolls and spoons and sat across from Roland.

“I hope you like it,” she said.

He picked up the roll and was about to bite into it when he caught the shocked expression on Sofia’s face.

“You are not going to say the blessing?”

Roland put the roll down. “I’m sorry, I was just so hungry.” At a loss, he continued, “Maybe you could say the blessing?”

“Me? Pa…” She cleared her throat and continued. “If you like.” Sofia reached across the table, took Roland’s hands, and closed her eyes. “Heavenly Father, we thank you for this sustenance. May it keep us from temptation and give us the strength to do your will and to serve others in your name. Amen.”

Roland watched Sofia with reverent curiosity as she said the blessing. Her simple sincerity and trusting way touched Roland. He felt very much at peace. Sofia drank in Roland’s appreciative look. They unconsciously held onto each other’s hands until they noticed and slowly pulled them away. “Eat while the soup is hot,” she said.

Roland ate the soup and two rolls. “This is so very good.”

“Thank you.” His compliment brought a radiant smile to her lips.

“Thank you for the clothes and food. About these clothes… and how did I get into bed?”

“I helped you from the barn. Do you not remember?”

“No. I don’t.”

“You were like a drunken man. It took a while, but we made it.”

“And the clothes?”

Sofia felt a flash of heat start from her stomach and rush to her face. “Must I tell you?”

Roland smiled. “Yes,” he said playfully.

“I took off the leather smock…” She shrunk. “I dressed you, and put you to bed.”

He hesitated at first but finally spoke. “Something about you seems so familiar. I don’t know why, but I feel I’ve known you for years.” He took her hand for no other reason than to show his sincerity.

Sofia thought for a moment. “Who is Liz?” She pulled her hand away.

“That name is familiar. I should know that.” The harder he tried to remember, the quicker his personal memories rushed away like so much flotsam disappearing over a waterfall. Roland clung to his name and what had happened since he had awoken in the barn. He didn’t know whether to be angry or to cry.

Sofia’s simple life had been disturbed by this intriguing soul who aroused a part of her that so far had had little chance to blossom. His sincerity allowed her to make the difficult decision. “On the blood that flowed from the wounds of Jesus Christ, swear to me you are not from Duke Gunter.”

“I swear I don’t know anyone named Duke Gunter.”

“Please say the oath,” Sofia insisted.

“I swear on the blood that flowed from the wounds of Jesus Christ.”

“Swear you will not repeat what I am going to tell you.”

Roland was a bit overwhelmed. “Yes… yes, I swear.”

Sofia sat back and began. “Duke Gunter believes Pater was killed when his carriage went into the lake.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Pater is…” She leaned in closer and almost whispered. “An alchemist. He is a good Christian. He is not a heretic.”

A shadowy flash of Rene’s journal and the Alchemist Cabinet appeared and fell back just as quickly into his subconscious.

“Not long ago, Pater was a loved member of the court. At that time, the duke ruled justly; he was happy, and was like a father to us all.” Roland sat up and leaned in closer. “The dark times came, the plague; so many died. So many died the fields lay fallow. When the fields were sowed, blight ruined the wheat and barley. For three winters, the snow came early and stayed to May. It was so cold. The sky was always gray.” Sofia quickly made the sign of the cross. “Then the worst happened. The Duchess Rosalba left us to abide in Heaven. There was so much sorrow. After the duchess died, the duke changed so. Everyone was weak and poor and desperate.”

“The Reformist and the other cults were always arguing with the faithful. They are always ready to insult our Holy Father Pope Leo. They went to our churches and tore the cross from the altar, stole the chalice, broke our holy statues and stained glass. They beat the priest and did awful things to the nuns.

“Now more noble houses have joined the Reformist lead by that Judas, Luther, first in the north and now at our borders. The plague and the famine made us weak and losing the duchess made us weak. Now the other dukes and barons are here at our borders. Pater said they made an armed camp on our land and just took what they wanted.”

“Didn’t you fight back?”

“Our knights won many battles. They drove out the invaders. They even captured nobles whose ransoms would have restored our wealth. But Duke Gunter is much changed. He is no longer just. He is always angry. With his own hands, he killed his cousin and his brother-in-law.

“Pater saw the change in Duke Gunter and stayed on in hopes to give him wise counsel. Gunter became suspicious of everyone. He always thought Pater was an alchemist. He pressed Pater to tell him the secrets of the art. The duke was obsessed with having gold to continue making war, and he thought that Pater could change lesser metals into gold.”

“Can that be done?” Roland picked up a second roll and took a bite.

“Pater knows the secret. The duke wanted it. First it was all honey and friendship, and then it was gall and hate.” Sofia pointed beyond the door. “The horses and the carriage in the barn… those were gifts, along with casks of the best wine, wheels of cheese, even a barrel of Dutch ale.”

“Why does your Pater want the duke to think he is dead?”

“Gunter wanted Pater to make gold so he could make war. He wanted revenge on those who attacked us. I think he wanted to strike the sky for sending us the cold and snow, and the wheat and barley for withering in the field. He lost his faith. He blames God for taking Duchess Rosalba, and he blames himself. He takes his revenge when he wants, even on us. What he does is not right.”

“Did your Pater actually change the lead into gold?”

“No. He said he needed more time. He needed to do the steps in the right order. He needed one more ingredient. The duke pressed and pressed. Pater resisted. His friends at court warned that Gunter would put me in the dungeon until he got his gold.”

“What happened?”

“When Pater discovered the duke’s plan, he sought him out to plead for more time. The duke was dispassionate. They had a great argument and Pater left the castle angry. He had the driver go very fast. It was October and the rains mired the roads. The carriage slid and turned on its side and went into the lake. The coachman, God rest his soul, was unlucky. Pater was able to wade to shore, and he walked home in the dark and rain. The horses knew the way and were still in harness, waiting at the barn door before Pater returned.

By midmorning, the duke knew of the accident. He and his men came asking for Pater. I rode in the duke’s carriage to the lake. Some men had long poles, and they looked in the rushes. Others were in boats. They threw large hooks on the ends of ropes into the water and dragged them back to the shore. They did that for two days.”

“What happened to your Pater?”

“The night of the accident Pater shorn his beard and donned those same clothes you are wearing. He took our cart and headed north. He returned before dawn with the corpse of a hanged man.”

Roland was repulsed by the thought. “A hanged man?”

Sofia frowned. “Do not make sport of me. Yes, a hanged man. You speak as if you never heard of such a thing. The poor wretches are at every crossroad.” Sofia softened her tone. “It was as if Heaven had bestowed a gift upon us. The dead man, in age and size and even beard, was very much like Pater. The weather and the sun and the birds had left very little of the poor man’s face. We stripped him and dressed him in Pater’s clothes. I put Pater’s rings on the dead man’s fingers. Pater put his court medallion on him as well. At first light, Pater and I drove to the lake. We said a prayer and put the poor soul into the water. The wind blew him to the center of the lake, and the hand of God held him there until he sunk. They found him two days later. “

Roland was entranced by the movement of her lips and the glow in her eyes, by every word she spoke, by the sincerity of her expression. “What a story.”

“It is no story. I am an honest woman. It truly happened.”

Roland quickly shook his head to reassure her. “I certainly believe you. I find what you did extraordinary.” Sofia glowed. “Didn’t you find it unsettling to handle the corpse?”

“Of course, but Pater’s life was at stake, and I love Pater. I will do anything for someone I love.”

In that captivating moment, Sofia’s words opened Roland’s heart to the extraordinary and deeply sincere person who sat across from him. “That makes you very special,” he said softly. Even though he had no recollection of his former life, Roland knew he had never felt such an inexplicable and overwhelming attraction to someone. It frightened him. It was more than a physical attraction. It was an attraction that took him beyond his understanding, beyond the moment, beyond his rationale. She glowed with grace and goodness and strength, and he wanted those things--and her--in his life.

Sofia felt the deference and admiration emanate from Roland and surround them both. She knew he was of a good heart. She could feel it; she knew it. Neither spoke nor noticed the time pass as they were swept up in the same joyful feeling as a wondrous energy rushed around them.

When the intensity of the moment ended, both were left breathless and smiling because they both experienced the same feeling at the same time. Sofia reluctantly broke the spell. “The duke was very remorseful. I believe he was truly sorry to lose Pater. He continues to give me a yearly stipend until I marry.”

“You must have had many offers of marriage,” Roland said hoping she didn’t.

Sofia’s eyes saddened. “It would be good for you to meet Pater.”

Sofia quickly grabbed Roland’s hand, squeezed it and led him over to the unicorn tapestry. She pulled it back exposing an alcove. Sofia pushed and the back wall of the alcove that pivoted enough for them to squeeze through to a landing where they stood in the dim light before a door. Sofia repeated the same distinctive knock three times. “Pater, Pater may I enter?”

Rene Hermes, a man of fifty-eight, sat at a worktable grinding sulfur and saltpeter together. A brimless hat covered his disheveled hair. His face was furrowed, and he wore spectacles that were in thick, black, wooden frames. His beard was thin and white. He wore loose dark clothing. Rene Hermes was surrounded by all types of small containers, boxes, beakers, and bottles. He wrote in his workbook and when he heard Sofia he closed the book and put it in a drawer. “Yes child, you may come.”

“It is with a friend.” She had broken a precedent and waited for her father’s reaction.

“Who?” Rene picked up a small blue bottle off the table and opened a painted wooden case with the bright yellow Star of David painted on the lid. He put the bottle in a cloth lined cutout, closed the box and locked it.

“He calls himself Roland Hughes. I feel him trustworthy.”

“Do you now? You may come.” Rene was upset with Sofia’s naiveté. He arose and crossed the room as Sofia and Roland were descending the stone staircase. He met them halfway. Sofia fell behind Roland and studied her father’s face to see if he was upset with her. He smiled at Roland and gave Sofia an impatient glare.

Roland extended his hand. Rene took it and held it as Roland talked.

“It’s an honor sir, to meet you.”

Rene smiled and nodded. Then he looked at Sofia. “Child, bring us refreshments, cider from the summer pantry.”

Sofia turned and ascended the stairs. At the door, she looked down at Roland and Rene and smiled.

When they were alone, Rene grabbed onto Roland’s shirt front and pulled him very close to his face and demanded, “Tell me, who are you and why are you here?”

Roland was surprised at Rene’s strength and fierce attitude. “My name is Roland Hughes. I don’t know why I’m here. I don’t even know where I am or how I got here.”

“Do not play me the fool, young master. If you are from the castle, you will meet your end right now.” Rene raised a dagger up and touched the point under Roland’s chin.

Roland was in a panic, and he spoke quickly. “Please, sir, I swore to Sofia this morning that I don’t know the duke. I’ve never met him, and I have never been here before.”

Rene let go of Roland’s shirt front and took a step back. “Did you come in a carriage, or did you ride a horse here? Did you walk?”

“I woke up in your hayloft this morning.” Roland shook his head as he spoke.

Rene knew Roland was telling the truth but was still suspicious. He managed the slightest smile and relaxed. “We are the sum of our memories. Try to remember.”

Roland closed his eyes. He took his time and forced himself to try and find some glimpse of a memory. Finally, he saw his hands holding a strange book. “I had a book… a very old book, handwritten in Latin.”

Rene motioned that they sit at the worktable. “Try to remember.”

Roland closed his eyes and rested his forehead in his hands. Pinpoints of light came from the void of his memory, flickered in front of his mind’s eye for an instant, and fell back into the darkness. He felt Rene’s hand on his shoulder. Roland opened his eyes. “I found the book in a cabinet, a very strange piece of furniture. It had curved sides and hooves for feet.” Try as he might he could remember no more. He became impatient with himself. “Everything that happened before this morning is so dreamlike.”

“You must try.”

Roland closed his eyes and concentrated. “There was a woman. We argued. I remember a gold coin rolling on the ground.” The image disappeared. “It’s strange, but I remember the Latin phrase perfectly.”

Rene’s curiosity was piqued. “The Latin?”

“Per aqua sacrum regenerate ad novo animus ante locus novo ad tempus novo cum intent genero flamma aeternus.”

Rene stood, grabbed Roland’s arm and pulled him up out of his chair. “Come here, my son. Those are my words. No one could know those words except me. Now I understand. I understand quite well. My words have brought you to me.” He hugged Roland and kissed him on both cheeks.

Sofia saw the two embrace as she descended the stairs carrying the jug of cider and the cups. She was relieved and delighted. She set the jug and cups on the worktable. “I am glad you accept Roland as a friend, as do I.”

“More than a friend.” Rene took Roland’s and Sofia’s hands. “This young man has come a long and dangerous way. He is part of our family now. He will be a son. He will be a brother. Sofia, embrace your brother as I do.”

Sofia and Roland shared a bewildered smile and willingly stepped into an embrace. Roland slid his hand down to the small of Sofia’s back for a second or two. She felt an unknown thrill, pulled back, lingered for just a few seconds more, and then dropped her arms.

“Let us celebrate.” Rene filled the cups. They toasted and drank. “I have many things to show you, filius.” He looked over to Sofia. “Drink, daughter! Prepare the old sewing room for your brother.”

“Yes, Papa.” Sofia looked between the two men, and left.

The men sat next to each other at the worktable. “She is a wonderful child… or I should say, woman. She will need a protector someday.” Rene took Roland’s wrist. “Will you be that man?”

Without doubt or thought of consequence he knew he must do this, be her protector. The words came forth with ease but also conviction: “Yes, I will.”

Roland’s words were like a tonic that charged Rene’s soul. His mood lightened; he felt playful. He rubbed his palms together. “What do you know of alchemy?”

Roland thought for a second. “Somehow, I know something about it. I suppose it’s about turning lead into gold.”

“When I was younger I turned to alchemy for my own selfish ends. Gold is a childish pursuit. Alchemy is a discipline of the self, of the soul.”

“Sofia said you knew the secret to make gold.”

“Oh, that? It is possible, but only when the motives of those involved are selfless and pure. And only when those involved have transformed the self through dismemberment and putrefaction and rebirth and attained a higher spiritual level can one meet with success. Filius, alchemy is a transformation of the soul from something base to something pure. The symbol for gold is a circle with a dot at the center. That is also the symbol for the sun as well as the symbol for light.”

“I don’t quite understand.”

“The lot of the alchemist is to strive for illumination. Some interpret the same symbol differently and find themselves on different paths. We are the gold; we are the light, and we are our own illumination.”

“Our own illumination?” Roland was confused.

Rene chuckled and affectionately mussed Roland’s hair. They stopped talking when they heard neighing and the clatter of horses’ hooves and a loud banging on the front door of the house. Rene and Roland made out an argument between Sofia and at least two men.

“It has come to this. Thank the Lord you are here. Go to Sofia, now.”

Roland stood so quickly that he knocked his stool over. He ran across the floor and up the stairs. He flung the door open, pushed on the corner of the false back of the alcove, squeezed through, and stepped out from behind the tapestry.

Sofia was across the room being manhandled by a greasy haired soldier. He had Sofia by the wrists and was easily and cruelly jerking her around. She was crying and trying to pull away. Roland ignored a spark of doubt and ran across the room. Roland was unseen, and he came from behind. He grabbed the soldier by the shirt collar and kicked his feet out from underneath him. The soldier let go of Sofia as he fell face first on the floor. Roland gave him a few good kicks to the backsides and pinned him down with his foot on the middle of his back.

“You, stand away,” shouted Sergeant Leo Cardetti, who watched from in front of the fireplace. He was clumsily trying to put one of the silver candelabras into a linen sack that was just a little too small. Cardetti abandoned the confiscation. His soldier wiggled under Roland’s foot but could not get up. Roland felt a chill when Cardetti approached him with the sword drawn.

Roland put his arm around Sofia to comfort her. She had tears in her eyes and was holding her blouse together at the shoulder where it was torn.

“What in God’s name is going on?” Roland asked him in a voice that was just on this side of breaking.

“Let him up.” The sergeant looked at Sofia and Roland and sighed. He put his sword back into its sheath. “Let him up.”

“You’ll call him off?” demanded Roland.

The sergeant agreed and gave his downed soldier an incredulous look. “Mario, get up and wait over by the door.” Roland picked up his foot and the soldier slowly stood up. He glared at Roland and Sofia and dusted himself off. Roland had seen that face before, that terrible complexion and those crooked teeth and cold, ruthless eyes. Sofia snuggled closer to Roland and put her cheek against his chest. The soldier rubbed his buttock and took his weighted club from his belt and hit an iron candle stand sending it to the floor. The candles went rolling.

The sergeant spoke calmly. “God’s name is not associated with this business. We are here in the name of Duke Gunter to collect those things of value that he needs.”

“Those candelabras are a gift from the duke. We are under his protection,” Sofia protested.

“That may be so. He knows they are here. That is why he sent us. He wants them. Give them up willingly and you will enjoy his protection. If not, my friend here just might come back in like company, and I can assure you that bunch will take anything they want.

“Take them and go,” Sofia said with defiant resignation.

“That’s not right. Why should he steal things out of your home?”

“We live here at Duke Gunter’s pleasure,” Sofia said with a disappointed sadness. “Render unto Caesar what is his.”

“Listen to the girl, my friend,” Sergeant Cardetti said amiably. He returned to the mantle, picked up the candelabra that he had already bagged, and put the other one under his arm. He bowed to Sofia and the two left. Sofia and Roland watched them pass by the window on their way back to Adler Kralle Castle.

“Did he hurt you?”

“Only a little. Hold me, please, hold me…”

Roland gently pulled her against his chest. Sofia closed her eyes and clung to him. She had to take several deep breaths before she stopped trembling. Even after she regained her calm Sofia and Roland did not give up their embrace.

Rene slipped from behind the tapestry and joined his daughter and Roland. He put his arms around both of them. “Tell me, daughter… did they do you harm?”

Sofia looked at her torn blouse. “You see that?” She held up her arm. “And I will have bruises on my wrists for a few days.”

He examined his daughter’s wrist and nodded. “What possessions will give me no worry now?” There was a twinkle in his eyes.

“They took the silver candelabras,” Roland offered.

Rene shrugged and gave something of a smile. “No loss. Those were given out of greed, not friendship. They were lovely, though.” He let out an airy sigh. “Oh, children, what has become of our world? I am a ghost. You, dear daughter, are a prisoner here tending to this ghost. Et Filius meus, you have come such a great distance; for what reason, no one knows. Let us ask our Heavenly Father for guidance.”

Roland joined them to make a triad. They held hands, bowed their heads, and closed their eyes.

Rene began. “Dear Lord, forgive our duke his sins. Show him your divine mercy. Bless his daughter Lady Rosanera for feeding the poor. Though a foreigner, let those she helps accept and love her as they did our duchess. Thank you for guiding Roland to us. Help us to stay on our paths, so we may always do your will. Amen.”

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