Alchemist's Gift

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End Game

They left her chambers and made their way through the gray stone rooms and hallways that led to an out-of-the-way balcony overlooking the parapet. They saw the archers, who were crouched behind the wall, and beyond to the road that led to the front gates. A line of dark figures approached in the gloaming.

Duke Gunter rode at the head of the column. He was glad to see Adler Kralle. He and his men were cold, tired, and hungry. His servant, Dieter, a lad of sixteen and Clotilda’s brother, rode just behind the duke. He carried Gunter’s shield and sword. “Where is the greeting? No torches are lit. Do they not know we are returning?” Gunter addressed his boy.

“I am sure my cousin got your message to Lady Rosanera.”

“Yes, I am sure he did. He is a loyal soldier.”

The column of soldiers stopped before the gates. Their horses were uneasy and nervously snorted.

Gunter leaned back and shouted up at a shadowy figure on the parapet.

“Open the gates. Open up, let us in.”

Sergeant Lutz stepped away from a battlement. “Duke Gunter, I cannot open the gates. Lady Rosanera will not allow it. She says to take your mighty army and return to your damnable war. “

“What? Open this gate immediately or I will have you broken on the wheel. Now, Lutz! Now!” Gunter was livid.

Sergeant Lutz spoke apologetically. “I am sorry, sire; I cannot.” Lutz looked up at Herrmann. The general stood a little bit behind Rosanera. He nodded and tapped the side of his nose with his index finger. Lutz nodded back. He gave the signal. The dozen-plus archers stood and pulled their bow strings back and leveled their sights on the returning soldiers. Gunter’s servant Dieter rushed to the duke’s side and handed him his shield and sword. Gunter threw his shield on the ground in disgust.

“What is the meaning of this? I am your duke and lord of Adler Kralle castle. Open the gates, man.” The men in the column looked at one another.

“Please, sir, leave here now.”

“What is that idiot doing? Why have the arrows not found their marks?” Rosanera asked Hans angrily. Rosanera and Hans stepped out of the shadows.

The general spoke in a loud voice. “Archers, discharge your arrows at will.”

As per the plan between the general and the sergeant and his archers, the arrows that rained down on the duke’s men were all wide of their marks.

The men toward the rear of the column bolted and headed in different directions. The duke wheeled his horse around and ordered a retreat. He turned back and jabbed the air with his sword to punctuate his words. “I curse all of you--especially you, Rosanera… you witch… you devil’s consort. I curse you all. And you, Hans--you are a disloyal, honorless pawn. To hell with you all.” Gunter and his men crossed a field and disappeared into the darkening woods.

“It is done,” he said flatly to Rosanera. “Men, stand down, return to your quarters.” The archers left the parapet. Sergeant Lutz looked up at the general and bowed. He, too, quit the parapet.

Rosanera was seething. “Done? Those are our best archers? Clotilda could do as well.”

The general held back his impatience and spoke calmly and deliberately, the way one might speak to a petulant child. “He will not be back. He has nowhere to go.”

“He is alive! Where does that leave me?”

“Do you not mean ‘us,’ my dear?” The general’s subtle sarcasm was lost to Rosanera’s momentary irrationality.

“Of course I meant ‘us.’” After a few reflective seconds, Rosanera collected herself. “You are sure he will be captured?”

The general ventured his arm around Rosanera’s shoulder. “Oh yes, do not worry. It is just a matter of time. When whoever captures him learns that no one will pay a ransom, they will make short work of our dear Gunter.”

Rosanera ducked out of Hans’s arm and took his hand. They left the balcony and retraced their steps back into the castle. “Is an army still possible?”

Hans shook his head. “I am afraid not. There just is not enough time. Even if ten ox carts full of gold appeared at the gates, there just is not enough time or men or supplies to stop Van Eyke. We must accept what will happen. We should draw up our surrender agreement to present Van Eyke.”

“What of Cardetti and our three hundred pieces of gold? He might bring back enough men to meet Van Eyke before he has Adler Kralle in sight.”

Hans felt a jolt. “I do not think the good sergeant will be of much help to us. I hoped to spare you this, but he was found hanging by his feet from a tree a little ways in from the western road. He was stripped naked and pierced by at least ten arrows. His ten men escort and the gold are gone.”

“Gone? I thought you said any man he chose was loyal to you.”

“I was wrong. Loyalty seems to be a fickle thing.”

“If we stay?”

“If we stay we are at the mercy of a conquering army. Van Eyke is fair and equitable, but he, too, is controlled by powerful men who have tried to rid Germany of the papacy. Those men may install you to govern. They do not blame you so much as Gunter and the Pope.”

“And they may not recognize me as duchess at all.”

“It is hard to say.”

“And to think, all I did for the orphans and the poor goes for naught. What a foolish waste of time, trying to win over this ignorant and dirty rabble.”

By now they stood in front of Rosanera’s door.

“We must talk with the chancellor.”

“Hans, I sent for him earlier. Clotilda went to his chambers and then to his house. He was nowhere to be found. Even the servants and his dogs were gone.”

“I am not at all surprised.” He shook his head and gave an involuntary chuckle. “Not surprised at all. We should plan for ourselves now. I must take my leave. Do be ready before sunrise. I will return then.”

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