Dawn was breaking. Roland shared the seat with Sergeant Lutz as the cart jogged along the country road. The lantern that was mounted on a mast swung to and fro, feebly illuminating the way. The cart contained all the loose scrap lead in Adler Kralle castle and the town of Adler Lager. A single horse was tethered to the rear of the cart and two mounted soldiers followed behind.
The horses’ hooves echoed on the packed clay road, and the only sound was the lulling song of the wheels. An owl swooped low in front of the cart and screeched startling the horses and the men. The sun broke through the steel gray dawn and poured over the hills and into the misty hollows. Roland was heartened to see the silhouette of the farmhouse.
Sofia was unable to sleep. Her mind was occupied with Roland and her father. Rene had had one of his breathing attacks, and had taken to his bed in his hidden bedroom. Only by sleeping in a sitting-up position could he breathe without wheezing.
At the moment, Sofia was in the kitchen. The swaying lamp on the cart caught her eye. She hurried to the front door, slipped outside onto the front steps, stood behind the leafy trellis, and watched the cart and the soldiers ride in. Sofia saw Roland and the sergeant talking. Though she could not hear them, she could tell something was not right by Roland’s hand gestures and posture. He guided the cart to the side of the house. She stayed hidden and prayed that all would be well.
Roland and the sergeant quit the cart. The two soldiers dismounted and stood next to the shuttered opening to Rene’s cellar laboratory. The sergeant kicked in the wooden shutter splintering it. The others unloaded the lead and tossed it through the opening to the cellar floor.
“We will be back. For your sake, and for those who might care about you, I hope you are successful in whatever this endeavor might be.” The sergeant turned to the other men. “Unhitch the team and let us return. Every man is needed.” The soldiers were gone in moments.
Roland walked around to the front of the house. He sat down on the top step, slumped forward, and cradled his chin in his palms. Sofia stepped out from behind the trellis and sat down next to him.
“It is so good to be here,” he said with a sincere, relieved sigh. “So good to see you.”
“Yes, to be with you too,” whispered Sofia. She gently leaned against him.
Roland closed his eyes and put his head against hers.
“Did they feed you at the castle?”
“I ate, but it did not sit very well.”
“I will make you something good. Come.” She stood and offered Roland her hand. He gladly took it and followed her through the dawn lit front room into the kitchen and sat on a stool at her worktable. Sofia lit a few candles and poured some hot cider. She put bread on a plate, fixed a bowl of ripe raspberries, and set out a pitcher of wildflower honey. She pulled up the other three-legged stool and sat next to him.
“Thank you, Lord, for our food and returning Roland to our home. Amen.”
Roland spoke. “I do not know what to think. Rosanera seems so different from when I first met her. All she talks about is gold.”
“Is she so different?” Sofia saw the concerned look on Roland’s face. “Is that what the soldier meant by you only have two days? What was in the cart?”
Roland drank a few swallows of cider. “You overheard? Yes, I have two days to get Lady Rosanera the gold I promised. And the cart--that is all the lead they could find at Adler Kralle and Adler Lager. It was as if Lady Rosanera knew that it was alchemy. She had the cart ready before I even got there.”
Sofia asked cautiously, “You did not mention Pater, did you?”
“No, no, no. Only his books, that is all. I do not even know how alchemy came up, but somehow it did.”
Sofia reached out to Roland and patted his hand. “All will be well, but first let us see Pater. He is not well; always so tired. More than not he calls me Bella. I worry about him.” Sofia lowered her head and summoned her courage. “I am worried about you too.” She quickly glanced up to see Roland’s reaction.
He met her eyes with a smile and touched her cheek. “I thought of you yesterday. Once when I closed my eyes, I saw you. It was like you were there with me.”
His words warmed her from head to toe. “You did? When was that?”
“Oh, when I ki…” Roland stopped in mid-breath, and in an instant he continued,”… was getting ready to eat.”
They left the kitchen and entered Rene’s hidden chamber. Embers glowed in the fireplace, and a few candles flickered giving off a pale yellow light. Rene sat up in his bed. His breathing was labored.
“Filio meo, you have returned.” He held up his arms.
Roland went to Rene, bent down and hugged him. “Of course I returned. You are not well?”
“This will pass. You two have a great deal to do. I am afraid I cannot be of much help.” He patted Roland’s arm and smiled. “You are clever enough. If you are true of heart, you will succeed. Everything you need is before you.” He glanced at Sofia, and then back to Roland.
Sofia came to Roland’s side and adjusted Rene’s blanket. “You should rest, Pater. Is there anything I can do for you?”
“No, child. Now, your place is at Roland’s side. Be selfless in your actions, and that will bring happiness to you both.”
Sofia and Roland kissed Rene on the forehead and left the room.
Roland and Sofia descended the stairs to the workshop. She pushed the workbenches into one long table. She set out all of the jars and containers of minerals and powders, several mortars and pestles and three small but heavy iron crucibles.
She went to the fire pit and stirred the embers.
Roland stood, wide-eyed. “You did all of this?”
Sofia placed a log in the fire and smiled at Roland. “Yes, I did.”
Roland went to her, joyfully picked her up, and gave her a long rocking hug. He set her down, took both her hands, and looked into her glowing face. “Thank you, thank you. I could kiss you right now.”
“Do not wait too long,” she said with a twinkle in her eyes.
They ever so slowly leaned in closer and hesitated just before their lips touched. Roland felt a profound peace enter him. Sofia trembled with anticipation. They closed their eyes, and their lips met. This was not like the frivolous kisses they shared on their way to the marketplace those weeks earlier.
During these eternal seconds with Sofia in his embrace, Roland felt the true depth of her soul, and he took it in as one’s inhales that first breath after breaking the surface of the water.
Their kiss heightened Sofia’s longings and her hunger to be loved. Sofia’s heart felt so light. She felt beyond the confines of her body, beyond the limits of her sheltered life. They held their kiss just long enough, and when it was over, neither could say a word. Finally, Sofia tugged on Roland’s hand.
Roland felt energized and confident. He hefted a heavy crucible onto an iron hook and swung it over the fire, and tossed in a few pieces of lead.
Roland poured over Rene’s notes. He was unable to make any sense of a passage. “Sofia, I need your help.”
She looked up from the yellow sulfur crystals she measured into a glass cup. “Yes Roland.” In a moment, she was looking over his shoulder at the text.
He pointed at the page and underlined the passage with his finger. “This part here and here and here they make sense.” He shook his head. “I am finding my Latin is terrible. These lines here I have no idea even what the words are. Look.”
Sofia smiled when she saw the passage. She pulled a hand mirror out of the drawer at the front of the worktable and held it up to the passage. “Pater sometimes would write the words in reverse. The words are: truth is a transitory perception guided by self-delusion.”
“Yes, yes it is but, how might that help us turn lead into gold?”
“You must understand things may not be as they seem.”
Roland let out an exasperated sigh. “There must be some formula to follow?”
“There are many things to understand to discover the process, the order of the steps. Are there any other words you need help with?”
Sophia looked at the sentence. She was surprised he needed help, but she read them out loud. “Love creates itself from itself each day anew.” They looked into each other’s eyes for a few seconds. “Pater says love is a mystery we can only experience, not understand.”
Roland crossed his arms then cupped one hand in front of his mouth while he pondered what Sofia just said. “So, truth does not exist and love is a mystery.” He scratched his head. “Pater said something about the Alchemist Cabinet. He said I would find the answers there.”
“The cabinet,” she whispered. Sofia glanced at the faded tapestry that hung on the wall and then back to Roland. She left his side and pulled the tapestry back. It had been there all the time hidden not more than a step away in a deep alcove.
When Roland looked at the piece of furniture, he almost lost his balance. His mind swarmed with fractured images of his childhood, his asocial father, his disabling mother, the passive and needy Liz, even his disastrous night with Lila. After that split second of clarity, his memories scattered without the slightest trace that they ever existed. “I think I remembered something from before, but it came and went so quickly like it was only a dream, and now the memories are already gone,” Roland said with a bewildered grin.
Sofia took his hand. Roland could not take his eyes off of the Alchemist Cabinet.
“Something seems so familiar about this cabinet. I just know I have seen it before,” he said with a laugh in his voice. Roland guided his hands over the cabinet’s smooth feminine contours. He traced the round cartouche and the bronze sunburst.
Sofia’s smile faded. “Roland, you could not have seen the cabinet before. It has always been here ever since I was a little girl. In fact, Pater says he found me inside of it. When it came to him, so did I.”
“Yes, but that is a story I will tell you another time. As I said, the cabinet has always been here.”
Roland’s excitement waned. He was confused. “This is the only thing from the past I thought I was sure of.” He looked the cabinet over again and softly asked, “It has always been here?”
“Yes, it has always been here.” Sofia gently reassured him and patted Roland’s hand. “What else did you remember?”
“I can only remember waking up and meeting you.” He held onto her hand a little tighter.
“When I was a girl I used to close my eyes and put my fingertips on the little bronze scales. The people and the suns and the moons on the scales would tell me picture stories in my mind.” Sofia knelt in front of the cabinet. She looked at the field of shield-shaped scales. Each had a different sign or symbol.
Roland knelt next to her. Their shoulders touched.
Sofia held her fingertips over one of the scales embossed with a moon. She closed her eyes. When she touched the scale, she was engulfed by a warm breeze that blew through her hair and made the gossamer dress she wore cling and flutter against her legs and torso. A full moon illuminated the cobalt sky above and the verdant earth below. Hundreds of firefly specks swirled around her feet, lifted her into the night sky, and whisked her to the highest peak of a golden mountain. Sofia stood there on that mountaintop and put her head back. She framed the moon in the open arc of her raised arms. A shaft of silver moonlight poured down on her. Everywhere she looked, she saw the light. It was above, below, and to her every side. Sofia became the sky and the moon. She was the warm breeze. She was the fluttering dress. She was the golden mountain. She became one with the light. Every heart that ever beat now beat with hers; she knew every joy and every sorrow that ever was or ever would be.
Roland saw the blissful look on Sofia’s radiant face. He found a sunburst on one of the scales, closed his eyes, and gently touched it. In an instant, Roland was racing across that same living sky. He wore golden armor and rode on the back of a winged war horse also clad in shining golden armor.
In the nearing distance, a swirling sun sent forth a fiery bolt that tore the sky in two. Light poured from that trembling tear and caressed the pale silver moon in its white halo. And the moon took that gift of light and sent it in an ever-narrowing stream down through the clouds to the mountains of the earth. Though the earth looked no larger than his closed fist, Roland could see Sofia standing on the golden mountaintop with her hands raised to the sky.
His willful Pegasus carried him to that place, to that living column of light. Roland found it useless to pull the reins left or right; the horse would not obey. Unable to change his course, Roland surrendered. He let go of the reins and opened his arms wide. As he came closer and closer, his golden armor fell away; his Pegasus faded into sparkling dust that trailed behind him. Roland plunged into the never-ending river of light and into Sofia’s waiting arms.
They drank in the nectar of that embrace until a clap of thunder and the hissing rush of a rain shower brought them back to the moment.
Sofia fell back on her heels. She still had her eyes closed, but the vision was gone. Roland fell forward against the cabinet. They both were giddy and with unsteady, almost drunken movements got to their feet.
Sofia had to speak. “You too?”
Roland took a deep breath. “Oh yes, me too.”
They helped each other back to the worktable.
“How could we be in the same dream?” she asked.
“I do not know. But we were. It happened.”
“This is something that cannot be explained,” said Sofia.
“This could only be experienced,” Roland added with a slight grin. He held out his arms and Sofia came to him. She held him close and put her cheek next to his. They stood there, unwilling to move. He felt at peace and secure in what he was doing and whatever he would do. Sofia felt the earth beneath her feet. She knew this was where she belonged.
Sofia was the one to pull away. She petted Roland’s hair and ran her closed hand down his cheek onto his scruffy beard.
“We have much work to do.”
“Yes, we do.”