In the gray morning drizzle, Hans Hermann and Lady Rosanera rode side by side. Mario with his bad complexion and attitude rode behind along with an equally unsavory soldier named Ebert, who smelled of swine. These men were the only two soldiers the general could readily find to accompany them to the Hermes farmhouse.
Hans and Rosanera dressed in lepers’ rags: the oversized hat, the full dark cloak, the mask on the face, the begging bowl and the gloves. The soldiers dressed in their uniforms. Out of consideration, Hans sent them to knock on the front door. Mario gladly used his weighted club. He beat on the door and purposely made several ugly dents in it.
Below in the workshop Sofia and Roland were awakened by a loud banging. They were still in their crumpled embrace. Roland awoke first. He looked at Sofia, who was just beginning to stir and gave her a kiss on the cheek. She opened her eyes. The sun had not yet come up, and the only light in the workshop came from the embers that glowed in the hearth.
“She must be here,” he said. Both had a hard time getting to their feet. Roland stretched and rubbed the small of his back. Both were stiff and sore.
“I will go to them.”
Sofia nodded and yawned. She rubbed her eyes and when she was sufficiently awake and aware, collected all of the notes and workbooks and hid them in drawers and on shelves in all parts of the workshop. Roland wiped his finger over his teeth and raked his hair into some semblance of order with his fingers. He straightened his clothing and wiped the sleep out of the corners of his eyes.
“Will you return to Adler Kralle with her?” Sofia asked.
“I do not know yet.”
She found his noncommittal answer confusing.
Roland quickly made his way up the stairs, through the back of the alcove and into the main room. He lit a candle, unbarred and opened the front door. Ebert followed Mario’s lead as he pushed Roland aside. General Herrmann and Lady Rosanera emerged from the darkness. Roland held up the candle and was unsure what to do.
“Roland, it is me.” Rosanera took off the floppy hat and the mask.
The general did the same. They entered before Roland could extend an invitation.
“Why are you dressed like that?”
“Is everything ready for us?” Rosanera countered with her own question.
“Follow me.” Holding the candle up high, Roland led them across the room to the alcove and threw back the tapestry. Roland, using his foot, pushed, and the false wall pivoted open onto the landing and to the stairs to Rene’s workshop.
The five descended the stairs. Rosanera raced ahead of the others and stopped before the gleaming pyramid of ingots on the work table. She picked one up and was surprised at how heavy it was.
Roland stood out of the way next to Sofia.
“They did it, Hans, they really did it.” Rosanera’s eyes were aglow. The usually serious general could not hold back a smile. He picked up one of the ingots and turned it over in his hands.
Rosanera went to Roland. “You did it.” She freely threw her arms around Roland and pulled him close. When she saw the concerned look on Sofia’s face, Rosanera gave Roland a long passionate kiss on the lips.
Roland stood passively; his arms were at his sides. When Rosanera let go of him, he stepped back. He ran his fingertips over his lips. “I could not have done it without Sofia.” He tugged Sofia to his side.
Rosanera looked at Sofia, and a smug smile came to her lips. She turned her gaze to Roland, “To think…what silly notions I had when we first met.”
“Notions? What do you mean?” Roland looked at Sofia and winked, and then back to Rosanera.
“Nothing of any importance.” She put her hands on her hips and looked at the pile of gold. “This is all of it?”
“Yes. Every last piece of lead has been transmuted.”
General Herrmann cleared his throat. He addressed the two soldiers.
“Hitch one of your horses to the cart and load it with those ingots. Be quick about it.”
When the soldiers were out of the room, the general turned to Roland.
“So, I can only imagine you two worked through the night. No chance you left the house?” His manner was genial.
“No, sir. I think we had worked into the early morning before we finished.”
“No visitors or neighbors?”
“Not a soul. With the rain, why would anyone come out?” added Sofia.
Roland looked at Rosanera. “Lady Rosanera, we must figure a way to get the food and medicine to the people.”
Rosanera immediate interest was in the stack of gold ingots. At the moment, she was stroking one of the ingots as one might show affection to a small pet. “Oh yes, the poor people, of course, of course, yes, you can organize… anything you want…” She did not bother to look at Roland.
“Should we talk with the chancellor, or maybe the exchequer? He handles the monies, does he not?”
The mention of the exchequer pricked Rosanera’s soul. “No, both men are unable to help.” She found the irony bitter.
Roland turned to General Herrmann, “Could we not use the soldiers, general? They could gather the people together in the square. We can tell them the good news.”
Rosanera did not try to hide the incredulous smile she gave General Herrmann. “Hans, do you think that would be wise?”
“Seriously? No, I do not think that would be wise.”
Roland tried once more. “What about the servants at the castle? We could use them to spread the word.” When Lady Rosanera did not answer, Roland pressed her. “I will get ready and return to Adler Kralle with you.”
Rosanera waited until Mario and Ebert were back up the stairs and out of earshot. “Why would you be returning with us?”
Roland had no intention of returning with Rosanera. He hoped she would expose herself and put any doubts Sofia might have to flight. “You told me that if I did this for you, I would be vice chancellor and have chambers adjoining yours. You said you had feelings for me. Are we not doing this to help the people?” Roland took a step toward Rosanera.
General Herrmann stepped in and stopped Roland by putting his hand on Roland’s chest and shoving him. Roland took a step backward and stood next to Sofia.
Rosanera spoke through a piteous smile. “Roland, we spoke of so many things. Feelings? Of course I have feelings toward you, though I am sure they are not the deep feelings you have for me. After all, you have no title, no gold, nor do you have land.”
“You told me I was your right hand.”
The general raised his eyebrows and gave Rosanera a surprised look.
Rosanera shrugged. “I may have said something like that.”
“What about love?” Roland asked for Sofia’s sake. He was not prepared for Rosanera’s vehemence.
“Love? What about love? Poor, poor Roland. How could I possibly love you? You are someone who has his hands in the black arts, an alchemist. You are someone who conjures up the darkness, a sacrificer of children and birds and toads. You are a pagan, an antichrist with such conceits… trying to undo God’s mysteries. Your kind is always lost. You search for something that does not exist in this world. You must take what you want when you can before someone else takes it away from you.” Rosanera had to take a breath. She gave a mocking little laugh and held her hand out toward the stack of ingots. “Do not despair. I will always remember you.”
Roland nodded and remained silent. He gently took Sofia’s hand. The last ingot, barely a quarter of the size of the others, was left on the table. Mario and Ebert, each slightly out of breath, returned and looked at the general for final instructions.
“Everything is ready? The gold is secured in the cart and covered?”
“Yes, sir,” said Mario. “What do you want me to do with these two?” He ogled Sofia and glared at Roland.
Rosanera spoke. “You will do nothing to them. Heretic or not, he did keep his promise.”
General Herrmann nodded in agreement. “You heard Lady Rosanera; there is nothing more to do here.” He flipped a gold piece to each man. “Good workmen. Return to Adler Kralle and wait for us there. We shall return in three days. Speak of this to no one.” He pointed to Mario. “In the name of Duke Gunter the Cruel I make you a sergeant”--he looked over to Ebert--“and you a corporal. There are more rewards to come. But if I hear one word of this from anyone else, it is the wheel.”
Both bowed. “Thank you, sir. Thank you.” Corporal Ebert squeezed the gold coin until his hand hurt. He bowed several more times and before he started toward the stairs, he looked at Mario. “Are you coming?”
“I will be along.”
Rosanera and General Herrmann were intrigued by the equipment, and the many containers of different minerals and powders, and the like. They took a quick survey of the workshop. Rosanera held her palms over the open fire pit to warm them. Hans looked into the crucible that hung on the tripod.
When Mario was satisfied that the general and Lady Rosanera were occupied, he went straight to Roland and pushed his shoulder once and then again. Roland held his footing and stood in front of Sofia. Mario put his hand on the handle of his dagger.
“No,” hissed Roland. Before Mario could get the dagger out of its sheath, Roland backhanded his attacker across the cheek. Mario staggered back. His dagger came out, and he slashed at Roland’s face. Sofia quickly looked about and grabbed a bronze mortar off a shelf and threw it at Mario, hitting him in the forehead. Mario went down. Blood ran down his face. Roland took Sofia’s hand and guided her away behind a storage case. He turned around just in time to duck when he saw the bronze mortar fly toward his head. The mortar hit the Alchemist Cabinet and left an ugly dent just above the door.
General Herrmann saw the row and quickly stepped up to Mario and grabbed him by the hair. “What is the meaning of this? I told you to leave. Now, return to Adler Kralle before I have you flogged for disobeying an order.”
Mario rubbed the knot on his forehead and wiped away the trickle of blood with the back of his hand. “Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.” He put his dagger back into its sheath and bowed several times. He avoided eye contact with Roland and Sofia, mounted the stairs, and was gone.
Roland and Sofia sat at the workbench. The early morning excitement had given them a burst of energy that was quickly fading. When Hans returned to Rosanera’s side, she whispered into his ear. “Hans, as soon as your heroic sergeant is out of sight we must leave. Your men will meet us on the south road?”
“They will be there. It seems God has smiled down on us. I have two brothers among my soldiers who came from a family of goldsmiths. They need only fire and a forge and they can mint our gold into coin.” He smiled and patted the pouch he wore at his side. “I borrowed Gunter’s molds and die to stamp the coins. He may be of no value when it comes to ransom, but his seal and Papal crest are invaluable. The brothers assure me they can do the work in less than a day. Our ingots will become shiny gold coins, and then we will be away to Casa Bella.”
“Very good, my love. Let us attend to those two now.” Rosanera approached Sofia and Roland. “I am not ungracious, so I leave you this scrap of an ingot for your reward.”
General Herrmann stepped up and held his hand out toward the partial ingot. “So much?”
“Cara mia, we have enough to buy or build our own kingdom. Let us away.” Rosanera and Hans ascended the stairs and were gone. In a moment, Roland and Sofia heard the horse neigh. The shadow of the cart played on the wall behind them and then all was quiet.
After a moment, Sofia took Roland’s hand. She kept her gaze on the floor. “Were you really going to go with her?”
A wisp of a smile crossed his lips. He put his other hand on top of Sofia’s. “No.” Roland brought Sofia’s hand to his lips and kissed it.
“Why did you go through with everything when you knew her reasons were selfish?”
He pressed the back of her hand on his cheek. “Something I learned from you. I gave her my oath. I could not break it. Besides, I did not know what she would do if I failed. I had to see this through, for both of our sakes and for the sake of the people I hoped to help.” Sofia rested her head on Roland’s shoulder. Roland continued, “When I first met your father, he asked me to protect you. I knew I had to. From that moment we met in the barn, I could feel there was something very deep between us. I was tempted and almost lost my way until I found you. You are why I am here. I am here to be with you.”
Sofia blushed, took Roland’s hand, and pressed his palm to her heart.