Alchemist's Gift

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Echoes of Echoes

Rosanera took over Gunter’s den. The room seemed smaller to her than it had when she was a girl. She had the heavy curtains taken away, and the light poured in and washed over the desk. Rosanera ran her hand over the spot where she and Gunter had conducted their strange ritual. It took her over a year to heal in body and mind after he was through with her. She tried to bury that young girl with her naïve notions under the stratum of the minutes and days and months and years that passed.

Rosanera called a meeting with Waldherz, Herrmann, the exchequer Audo Langfinger, and Monsignor Ciecorbo. The chancellor and the exchequer were already there waiting on General Herrmann and the monsignor.

Exchequer Langfinger was a thin man with a sharp nose and a fine beard and moustache. His shiny bald head sat on a set of narrow, stooped shoulders. His eyes were small and constantly moving. Langfinger held the castle ledgers in his bony red hands against his chest.

Rosanera was occupied with writing a note and did not bother to look up when she heard the two men talking.

“Audo, I hope everything is in order.” Waldherz nodded his head and raised his eyebrows.

“Yes, dear chancellor, everything is in perfect order.” The exchequer smiled at Rosanera. She did not look up and so his smile was for naught.

Waldherz stood with his hands behind his back and rocked back and forth on his heels. “What is keeping the general and monsignor? Do they have no concept of time?”

“They will be along,” said Rosanera. She sprinkled some pounce on the ink. “Clotilda, come.” The handmaid entered and presented herself. “Take this and give it to any of my court. Make haste.”

General Hermann and Monsignor Ciecorbo entered as Clotilda left.

Ciecorbo was next in line to become bishop. He was tied to Duke Gunter’s success. Ciecorbo was neither a patient nor pious man, and his future was at risk as the church lost territory and followers. He carried his disappointment poorly and was generous with blame.

“Gentlemen, you all know why you are here.”

“If I may, Lady Rosanera…” The exchequer bowed to her but directed his question to General Herrmann. “Is there any way we can avoid a siege and the pillaging that follows?”

“Van Eyke will not be bribed, if that is what you mean. Oh, maybe some of his captains, but we cannot count on that. Other than for the contents of the castle and the altar pieces at the chapel and the church, there is little left to take. We may have enough time, though. Some troops have come back, a small garrison worth, but not near enough.

“With gold we could get the Swiss back and enough of our men and arms to stop Van Eyke before he gets too close. Remember, he dismissed more than half his army. With luck and surprise, we could defeat him before he can regroup his men. Better to meet the enemy in the field than at the castle gates.”

“Gold,” echoed Rosanera. She looked at Langfinger.

“The coffers are all but empty; less than four hundred gold pieces.” He put the ledger down on the desk and untied a pouch from his waist. “Here are the three hundred gold florins you asked for.” He put the pouch in front of Rosanera. She opened it and poured the gleaming coins out. “Certainly enough to buy our passage to Italy,” Langfinger said with a hesitant grin. His jest fell short. He looked from face to face and gave a nervous laugh.

Rosanera had never liked Langfinger. “Let us not entertain such thoughts, even if they were made in jest,” she said dryly.

Waldherz watched his associate wilt. He thought to change the subject. “Have you lately noticed the people walk about like ghosts?” He looked at General Herrmann. “Maybe it is all these years of war.” He looked over at the monsignor. “Then God has sent us the plague and the famine.” He looked at Langfinger. “And these endless taxes.” He rubbed his hands together and looked at Rosanera. “I believe it is the duke’s doing. He should be here to govern instead of being absent from the beginning of spring to the first days of winter every year for the last six years. I have never noticed before, but the people seem tired and hopeless. I am afraid they might welcome anyone who comes through our gates with the promise of peace, or more likely, a piece of bread.”

Monsignor Ciecorbo stood silently with his arms crossed. He cleared his throat until everyone looked at him. “God is punishing us for our weakness and transgressions.”

The men nodded. Rosanera sat back in her chair and crossed her arms. “We are punishing ourselves with our stupidity. Pope Leo has abandoned us, all of us. We must look to ourselves to save Adler Kralle. I have lived here well over half my life. My mother is buried here. I have lost so much, and so many things have been taken from me, that I demand my right to be duchess.”

The men looked at Rosanera and remained silent. Herrmann made a quick survey of the situation. “A very noble sentiment. We do need a leader, but you are not the duchess; we owe our fealty to Gunter.”

Herrmann’s statement shocked Rosanera. She could barely hide her surprise and anger. “Fealty to Gunter? He has led us to this, to this disaster.”

“Our battle for Adler Kralle and Adler Lager is not lost; it has not even begun. There is still time.”

“If we just had the means,” Langfinger sighed.

“Yes, the means. Maybe we should ask the honest exchequer where all of those taxes and levies have gone. Where are all of those gold coins sent by the pope?” said the general.

Langfinger picked up the ledger and held it in front of him like a shield. “State your meaning, Hans.”

Waldherz made a calming motion with his hands. “Now, now, there is no need for such discord.”

Langfinger continued with sharp words. “There is an accounting of every half-penny spent. And general, you must know that the duke and your soldiers have taken the lion’s share and most of the lamb’s share.” He took a step toward the general and all but shoved him with the treasury books. “Would you care to go over the ledgers? I can call for my scribe, and you and he can spend the next day and night going over them if you like.”

Rosanera stood. “That is enough! Enough! Van Eyke is six days away. Six days. He will need no army to defeat us. The general does not trust the exchequer; the exchequer plays the fool with his intimation we flee to Italy. Our astute Chancellor Waldherz is just now aware that our people are suffering and desperate. Least we forget the monsignor. According to his logic, God is punishing us for our sins, but also rewarding the Reformist with one victory after another.”

Monsignor Ciecorbo entered the discussion. “Our Lord works in mysterious ways.”

Rosanera went on, “Does He? How? By striking down a kind and gentle man like Fra Benito for doing the Lord’s work here on earth?”

“Dear girl, you cannot fathom this great mystery.”

“Nor can you. There is nothing left for you here. I do not doubt that you will follow your cowardly bishop back to the open arms of the Vatican, where you both can settle in safe and sound.”

Herrmann, Langfinger, and Waldherz were speechless. To-a-man, they turned toward the monsignor.

After a few false starts, Ciecorbo addressed Rosanera. “I forgive you; you are young and of the weaker sex. At this moment, you risk saying things that you may later regret.”

“Dear monsignor, these are dangerous times. I am sure Rosanera is sorry and will weigh well her words before she speaks again. We are all upset and anxious,” said Chancellor Waldherz.

Rosanera uncrossed her arms. She spoke softly but with defiance in her tone. “Yes, chancellor, you are quite right. I hope I deserve your forgiveness, monsignor.”

General Herrmann took command of the situation. “We must speak to the point. We need gold. It is that simple.”

“Roland Hughes has promised me gold. He told me he coud raise a goodly amount. I have sent for him. It is in our best interest that he believes the gold will be used to feed the peasants and care for the sick.” Rosanera shrugged and a faint smile crossed her lips, “It is true. Some of the gold will go for that.”

Ciecorbo spoke. “A sin of omission such as this is easily forgiven.”

There was a sharp knock. Sergeant Cardetti opened the door and entered. Cardetti bowed to his superiors. He approached Rosanera. “Your lady, Roland Hughes has been brought here. He waits in the great hall below. He is in the company of your lady-in-waiting, Signora Cecilia.” Cardetti’s eyes were fixed on the pile of gold coins in front of Rosanera all the time he spoke.

“Very good, sergeant. Tell me, Cardetti, would you like to regain your rank of captain and have your pension restored?”

Cardetti was floored by the proposal, “Very much so, Lady Rosanera. Very much so.” He could not control the smile that crossed his face.

“You will be able to redeem yourself, Cardetti, as any real man given the choice would,” added Herrmann.

Cardetti threw his shoulders back and stuck out his chest. “How can I serve you?”

“We need you to collect as many troops as you can. Gunter’s or I should say our men are out there. Many good men will turn to brigandry. They will destroy the countryside. Many will wind up at the end of a rope at some crossroads. None of us want to see that happen, do we?”

“No, sir. That is not a worthy fate for any soldier.”

“We all agree, do we not?” General Herrmann looked around the room. Everyone nodded and gave Cardetti reassuring smiles.

“Sir, may I ask how? How am I to raise an army?” His glow of confidence quickly faded.

“You see that pile of gold on the table in front of you? That is the first installment on the back pay owed. Of course, we do not expect you to lure back an entire army out of the field yourself. Give out a few gold pieces to trusted men. Tell them to show their comrades; that will speak louder than anything else. Gold awaits any man who returns to his post. As an incentive, a silver florin for every ten men a soldier convinces to return.”

“Yes, general.”

“There are enough men who have returned already. Take ten, twenty, whatever you need. Take the most trustworthy. You do this, sergeant, and you do it well, and you will be restored to captain, your full pension, and maybe even a promotion.”

“I am to take this gold here?” Cardetti pointed at the pile of coins. Langfinger winced at the thought.

“Yes, this is the gold you will take,” said Rosanera. She had been making stacks of ten coins each while the general was explaining the plan. This was the first time she had access to so much gold. She loved the way the coins sparkled. She loved the dull tinkling sound they made when she raked her fingers through them. As the coins disappeared into the stacks, the tally came up short fifteen florins. “Explain yourself, Langfinger. There are only two hundred and eighty-five florins.”

Langfinger approached the desk and looked at the piles of coins. “Impossible, impossible… are the stacks equal in amount?”

“Count them for yourself,” suggested Rosanera.

All eyes were on the exchequer. He extended his hand to one of the stacks and slowly withdrew it. “There must be some mistake, my scribe must have miscounted. I am at a loss for words.”

On General Herrmann’s nod, both he and Cardetti flanked Langfinger and took him by the arms and held him.

“What is the meaning of this?” the exchequer protested. He tried to wrench his shoulders free.

The monsignor and Waldherz backed away from the two soldiers and their captive.

Herrmann pulled the dagger from his belt and put it under Langfinger’s chin. “This is my meaning. Our days are numbered. We need every resource, every weapon, every piece of gold at our disposal to survive.” He jerked Langfinger’s arm and pressed the tip of the dagger into his captive’s neck right above the Adam’s apple.

“There has been a mistake.” Langfinger was shaking. He frantically looked to Rosanera and over to Monsignor Ciecorbo.

Rosanera held a coin between her thumb and index finger and tapped it on the desk. “Yes, there has been a mistake. Where are the florins?” Rosanera looked at the sergeant and Herrmann and nodded.

The general pressed the dagger until he broke the skin. Langfinger felt a warm trickle run down his neck and disappear into the folds of his collar.

“Hans, please,” said Waldherz. “This is insane, let Audo go. I am sure there is an explanation for this. Must we shed blood?”

Herrmann spoke through clenched jaws. “Give up the gold or give up your life.”

Langfinger pulled his head back as far as he could to try to ease the pressure from the dagger. He spoke in a raspy whisper. “It is here, I remember now, the pouch on my belt. Yes, that is where it is.”

Cardetti saw the leather pouch that hung from Langfinger’s belt and tore it off. The pouch ripped open and gold coins spilled out on the floor.

Herrmann took the dagger away. They released Langfinger. “Pick them up. For your sake pray they are all there,” said the general.

Audo Langfinger knelt before Rosanera. He held one hand over the minor wound on his neck and swept the coins into a pile and set them on the desk one and two at a time. When he finished, he peered up over the edge of the desk with his dark little eyes. She was busy making the remaining stacks. He watched her eyebrows raise and a tiny grin subtly turn up the corners of her mouth. “My, it appears you have made a mistake. I count twenty-one more florins, thank you Audo. General, have the sergeant escort this man away.”

As the exchequer was occupied getting to his feet, Rosanera nodded to Herrmann. The general in turn nodded to Cardetti and drew his index finger across his Adam’s apple.

“I am so sorry for the oversight Lady Rosanera. Please forgive me?” Langfinger asked as he got to his feet.

“Monsignor, would it not be better if our Lord forgave this thief. It was the thief Gestes, I believe, who shared the last minutes of his life at the left hand of our Savior. Was he not?”

“You are correct.” Ciecorbo looked from Rosanera to Langfinger. “If you are truly sorry, my son, our Lord has already forgiven you.” The monsignor gave his blessing.

Cardetti took Langfinger by the arm and pulled him along. The exchequer looked into the chancellor’s eyes. Waldherz stepped back and watched the two men pass. When the door closed, those in the room heard something akin to the muted yelp of a dog. They heard Cardetti call out, and then shuffling footsteps and the hushed voices of three or four men outside the door. “Get rid of him,” said Cardetti.

After a moment, Cardetti re-entered the room. He was pale and had a vacant look in his eyes. He looked from face to curious face. “He is on his way,” was all he said. The dagger blade was veined with blood. He ran it through his forefinger and thumb, wiped his fingers on his pants leg and put the dagger back into its sheath.

“Come now, sergeant, be of good cheer, you dispatched a traitor. I do not believe that he was the kind of man to languish in a dungeon waiting for the axe. You did him a favor.” Herrmann patted Cardetti on the shoulder.

“You have committed no sin, my son.” The monsignor reassured the sergeant.

“Thank you, Cardetti. We all have known for years that he was a cheat and a thief. I commend you.” Waldherz added his tepid congratulations.

“Sergeant, give his home a good search. Take some men. Confiscate anything of value. Knowing him, he has sacks of coins hidden away.”

“Clotilda! Come.” Rosanera clapped her hands.

Clotilda entered the room. She was wide-eyed at seeing the exchequer get his throat slit. She held her hands together to stop them from trembling.

“Collect Roland Hughes. He is in the great hall. Be quick about it.”

The girl stood there and shook. There were tears in her eyes.

“Go, you little fool.” Rosanera picked up the empty pouch, threw it, and hit her in the face. Clotilda burst into tears.

The monsignor looked at Rosanera. “Lady Rosanera, please, the girl has had a shock.” He picked the pouch up and put it back on the desk.

“What of it? There was no one there for me when I was her age. Was there? No priest or monsignor or bishop to give me succor.”

Monsignor Ciecorbo furrowed his brow. “I am sure I do not know what you mean.” He turned his attention from Rosanera, approached Clotilda, put his hand on her shoulder, and guided her to the door. “There, my child, go in peace and do what your mistress bids.” He quietly closed the door behind her.

Waldherz broke the heavy silence that followed. “Quite a morning so far.”

“Quite,” said Rosanera. “Now, Sergeant Cardetti, take this gold, and a dozen armed, trustworthy, good men, and use it to bring back enough soldiers and cavalry to meet Van Eyke.”

“Keep a sharp eye for that detachment of Swiss mercenaries. I’d like them back,” General Herrmann added. “Do not forget to search Langfinger’s house first. Send what you find back to us. Do what you have to.”

“Do not squander any coins. Understood?”

“Yes, Lady Rosanera. I will be judicious.”

Rosanera invited Cardetti to take the pouch with the three hundred florins. “Here. I hope to be calling you Captain by tomorrow at this time.” She kept the six unexpected florins back.

“You will find most of the men to the west. God’s speed to you.”

“Go with our prayers,” said Waldherz.

“May the Lord be with you.”

Cardetti bowed and left the room. He stepped in Langfinger’s blood,just outside the door. The sack was heavy. Once down the stairs he crossed the great hall. Roland was sitting there talking with Cecilia. He approached and waited for them to conclude their conversation.

“Roland Hughes, did the little handmaid come to you?”

“Clotilda? No, she just ran to the scullery,” said Cecilia.

“Lady Rosanera will see you now. She is in Duke Gunter’s study.” He turned, and the pouch hit the table edge. The sound of coins being jostled was unmistakable. “Good day.” Roland and Cecilia exchanged quizzical looks.

Roland ascended the stairs and entered duke’s den. Everyone gave a welcoming nod. Roland wanted to kiss Rosanera. He checked his smile when he saw the dark and serious looks on their faces.

“Roland, finally!” Rosanera stood and gave him a very loose hug and the non-touching kiss on each cheek.

Waldherz bowed and followed Rosanera’s lead. The monsignor gave a smug smile and the general held Roland by the shoulders, looked him over, and gave him a cool nod.

“Blessed are those who offer themselves to good works in the name of our Lord,” said Ciecorbo.

“Lady Rosanera tells us you are here to help,” said Waldherz.

“Because of you, we can feed and care for our people,” Rosanera said.

“And protect them as well,” added Herrmann.

“Let us bow your heads and thank our Dear Savior for sending Roland Hughes to aid us in our time of need. Our Lord works in mysterious and wonderful ways, does He not, Lady Rosanera?” The monsignor made the sign of the cross over Roland. The church bells tolled for nones. “So late. I must return to my duties and our people. Bless you, bless you all.” The monsignor reached the door and looked over at Rosanera. “Goodbye, my dear.”

“Yes, we all have a duty to our unfortunate brothers and sisters. I have opened my home to those in need of food and shelter.”

Roland was turned away from the general and Rosanera. He faced the chancellor and nodded respectfully. Herrmann and Rosanera exchanged incredulous looks at the preposterous lie.

“It is so difficult to decide where to spend what little funds that are left after the duke and the troops take what they need.” As an afterthought, Waldherz added, “To protect us, of course.”

“And that protection will be paramount,” Herrmann said thoughtlessly.

Roland and did not see Rosanera shaking her head no and frantically putting her raised index finger to her lips.

“Roland and I have much to discuss,” said Rosanera. “Is there anything more you would like to say, Chancellor Waldherz?”

“With your permission, I too must return to my duties.” Waldherz bowed and left the room. General Herrmann stood between Roland and Rosanera.

“Are you finished with me too?” Hans did not like Roland’s relaxed and familiar posture or the inviting look Rosanera gave this interloper.

“Roland, be a dear and wait on the balcony. Close the door. The general and I have things to discuss.”

Roland headed for the double doors that led out to the balcony and closed the doors behind him. Birds were chirping, and the air was spicy with the scent of pine. He leaned against a column and enjoyed the crisp air.

Hans took Rosanera by the wrist and pulled her to him. “I should have known.” His tone was petulant.

Rosanera pulled her hands away and gently stroked Hans’s cheek with her fingertips. “You should have known what, cara mia?”

He pulled his head back. “The way you two look at each other.”

“Hans, do not be a goose; you are my right hand. He is nothing. He is a means to an end. Our end.” Rosanera slipped her arms around him. “I thought the others would never leave.” She kissed him on his lips and dropped her hands to his hips and pulled him close. “You were magnificent last night, like a stallion.” She pressed herself against him and kissed his lips again. “Make sure Cardetti gets the men back here.”

Her kisses eased his jealousy. “Do not worry. Cardetti is loyal to me.”

“When the duke returns, he is not to enter Adler Kralle. Understood?”

“Understood. Shall I come to you tonight?”

“No, come to me after matins tomorrow. Until then, my love.” She kissed him once more. “Until tomorrow.”

After they ended their embrace, Hans bowed. “Yes, until tomorrow.” He clicked his heels and left the room.

Rosanera fell into Gunter’s chair and sat at his desk. She poured his brandy and drank from the duke’s etched tumbler. She idly opened the pouch and emptied the six gold florins out. When she touched them, she felt a shiver. She could see Langfinger’s dark, frightened eyes imploring her for forgiveness. Now he was dead at her bidding, and over what, a handful of gold? She did not share the expedient rationale of the men for his death. Rosanera steeled herself against the wave of guilt. When it receded, she was understood better who she was. In a moment, she was ready to face Roland.

Rosanera stood at the glass panel doors and watched the late afternoon breeze muss Roland’s hair. He did not notice her until she tapped on the glass.

Roland turned and smiled. He opened the door. The breeze blew in behind him. He quickly picked her up and swung her a half turn and set her down gently. “It is so good to see you.”

“Amore, I have missed you so much.” She held him in a tight embrace, kissed his lips several times, laid her head on his chest, and stood there with her eyes closed. For an instant, she felt secure and at peace. She returned to the moment, dropped her embrace, stepped back and took his hand. As they headed for the door, she stopped by the desk, plucked the pouch of gold up, and slipped it into her bosom.

True to her duty, Clotilda stood outside the room, leaning against the wall. The handmaid fixated on the spot where she saw Langfinger meet his end. Even though the blood had been wiped away, that part of the floor had a different sheen to it.

“Clotilda, be a dear and tell Helga to prepare food and drink and have it brought to my chamber. Quickly now, sweetheart.”

The girl gave her mistress a confused smile and was on her way.

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