Alchemist's Gift

By mark giglio All Rights Reserved ©

Humor / Thriller

The Feel of Gold

Chapter 63

The Feel of Gold

Hans found an abandoned barn and collected the two brothers who were goldsmiths from his escort bivouacked a few miles away. The brothers would render the gold ingots into coins. While Hans looked on and made sure the two men remained honest, Rosanera occupied herself with a walk in the adjoining fields and considered what the future would be.

She had not been at Casa Bella in over fifteen years. In her grandfather’s will, her mother’s cousin, Benedetta, had been made caretaker after their deaths. By all rights, through her mother’s inheritance, Casa Bella would be hers and hers alone. Her thoughts went to that time when she had been a little girl living there. It seemed so long ago. She remembered being happy, and she wanted to feel that again. Rosanera would use her gold to bring that happiness back. Her salon would be made of smart and witty and pretty people. Her formal garden would be a rival to none. She would have the best of the best to add to the beautiful things she remembered had graced Casa Bella.

Apollo’s journey across of vault of Heaven was almost complete when the last of the gold was struck, counted, put into the thirteen heavy canvas sacks and the drawstrings were sealed with beeswax. When the sacks were stowed in the cart, Hans covered them with a layer of straw and manure for good measure. The two brothers waited to receive their rewards.

From the beginning, Hans Herrmann considered slitting both of their throats. Working with them all day and listening to their teasing banter and their glowing talk of home and family made him think twice. He liked them. And there was so much gold. He did not discuss his thoughts with Rosanera, and she had no idea how the day would end.

Franz and Karl Adenaur stood before General Herrmann and Lady Rosanera. Their faces were black with soot, and their arms and shoulders glistened with sweat.

“Now, men, remember your oath to me and Lady Rosanera. Not a word of this to anyone. Not one word.” General Herrmann handed each of the men a pouch containing five gold pieces that were kept out from Adler Kralle’s coffers. “If anyone asks you how you came about your coins, tell them you found them when you were digging a latrine.” Everyone smiled. “From this moment on, you are dismissed from my service. Go where the four winds take you. May you fare well, and may we never see each other again.”

Both men bowed and thanked the general and Lady Rosanera several times before they left the barn and headed into the twilight.

“Two fine young men.”

Rosanera looked at Hans. “Can they be trusted to keep their mouths shut?”

“I believe so.”

“You felt that you could trust Cardetti and the men he chose to lure back the troops with the last of our gold.” Rosanera’s lips were tight, and there was a hard look in her eyes.

“Would you have me slit their throats?”

Her soul flinched at the mention of the act. Rosanera would always be haunted by the frightened look in the exchequer’s eyes right before Cardetti led him away.

Hans saw her inner darkness. “I am a soldier. You are Lady Rosanera d’Benevita-Testaoro. We do what we must to survive.”

“We do what we must to survive,” Rosanera assured herself.

“Now let us put on the rags of the unclean and follow the setting sun.”

Rosanera and Hans arrived at Casa Bella two weeks after they left Adler Kralle castle. The castle and Adler Lager were gently liberated by General Van Eyke. The fighting was finally over. Van Eyke’s scouts returned with such a dismal report as to the condition of the inhabitants, an outbreak of cholera and dysentery and the lack of any valuables to sack that his victory turned into a mission of mercy. He sent in his surgeons and foodstuffs. The grateful citizens were not molested and for the time being, those who remained faithful to the Catholic Church were allowed to worship as they always did.

Rosanera talked with Hans about the fond memories of her childhood home. When they turned at the crossroads, she became concerned. The road to Casa Bella was in terrible disrepair. All the land that was drained turned back into a green, scummy marsh again, and the mosquitoes swarmed to the point both Hans and Rosanera donned the black leper’s rags, masks, and gloves again for protection. They passed crumbling outbuildings and beautiful orchards that had gone wild and had not been tended in years.

The beautifully trimmed shrubbery that bordered the drive was long dead and brown. The sentinel poplars that surrounded the main house fared a little better. More than half had been cut for firewood. Most of the windows were boarded up. The fountain was broken and toppled.

Cosimo Testaoro’s illicit empire built on piracy, bribery, and strong arm loans quickly dissolved with his passing. As per the will upon Ursula Testaoro’s death, Rosalba’s second cousin Benedetta was made caretaker. It was a poor choice, but the family lawyer could not talk the dying woman out of it.

Hans slapped the reins, and the horse quickened its pace to the main gate that opened onto the courtyard. He turned in and stopped at the steps of the main entrance.

“From what we have seen so far are you sure this is what you want?”

Rosanera said very little since they turned off the main country road and down the private lane to Casa Bella. “I must see the inside of the house. Everything we passed can be restored. It may take a few years, but it can be done.”

The two stood before the massive door. Hans worked the heavy, lion head knocker. He did so five times before they heard scurrying and a woman’s voice. An elderly white-haired woman slowly opened the door.

“Bishop DiMars? Is that you?” The old lady saw the black clothing, smiled, and curtsied.

“No, I am not Bishop DiMars,” Hans said. He gave Rosanera a quizzical look.

Hans and Rosanera took off their large floppy hats and let their black cloaks fall to the ground. “Benedetta?” asked Rosanera.

“Rosalba, you have come home.” Benedetta’s eyes widened, and she embraced Rosanera.

It became immediately obvious to Hans and Rosanera that Benedetta was demented.

“May we come in?” Rosanera asked.

“Your mother and father are away right now. They have not returned for such a long time. Yes, yes, come in; we can wait for them.” Benedetta looked at Hans. “Who are you? You are not Conte Emilio.”

“No, madam. I am General Hans Herrmann.” Hans clicked his heels together and bowed his head. Benedetta giggled and held out her hand for Hans to kiss. After he had done so, they were admitted to the great hall. Rosanera was pained when she looked around the empty room. The walls were dingy and bare.

“Benedetta, where are the paintings and tapestries and furniture?”

“The nice men came to take them away. They told me they were going to keep everything safe for when Uncle Cosimo and Aunt Ursula return.” Benedetta stood a little straighter, smiled, and nodded.

“I see. Where are the people who take care of the orchards, and the staff?”

“I sent them all away.” A confused look came over her face. “I think I sent them away.”

“What of Il Signore’s papers and records?” Hans asked.

“In the library, but Uncle Cosimo does not let anyone in the library. If we go in he will be angry.”

Their footfalls echoed on the marble floor as they crossed the empty room to the double doors of the library.

“Better not,” called Benedetta.

Rosanera pushed the unlocked doors open. The room was a dusty mess. Every book had been pulled from the shelves and tossed to the floor.

“Well, there is a fortune in books anyway.” Hans bent down and picked one up. He inspected the cover and binding. “Beautifully made.” He opened the book and found the pages were blank. He let out a groan. Hans picked up another and found the same. He opened several more books to be sure as Rosanera looked on. “The old rascal. The library was a sham. I suppose not so much a fortune in books as I thought.” He tossed the book down onto the floor with the others. “Shall we look at the rest of the place?”

The house was sound, and Rosanera decided to use her gold to restore Casa Bella. She wanted people to envy her beautiful gardens. She wanted people to see her lovely paintings and furniture and tapestries. She was going to have the best and brightest and the most beautiful men and women in her salon.

For the next year, she called on craftsmen and gardeners and other skilled people to do the work. She only hired those who would take their pay after all the work was completed. She figured that would give them all an incentive to work quickly.

Most workers settled on a place to live and food to eat as partial payment until they received their final payment in gold. Early on she called all of the workmen and women together. She broke the wax seal on one of the bags of gold coins and bid each one of them to file by to look at what awaited them when they finished. Her plan was a success.

On May 22nd, Feast day of Saint Rita of Cascia, a mere six months after Rosanera’s return, forty-six faithful workmen and women waited in the great hall and looked on as the last piece of furniture, an exquisite upholstered chair, was brought in and installed in front of the fireplace. As instructed, the craftsmen and women had their bills ready to present. Rosanera sat at a beautiful walnut desk. The sack of gold coins was next to her ledger, and the quill was in the inkwell.

Tinto Arberghetti, a corpulent man with a red face, pushed his way to the front of the line. He paid a crew of four men out of his own purse to repair cracks in the plaster and paint the interior of the house. He had finished three months ago, and his patience and credit were all but used up. Tinto added another ten percent for his troubles onto the already inflated bill.

Hans stood next to Rosanera. He moved his sheath and dagger from his side to the front of his sash and placed his hand on the dagger’s handle.

She looked up at Hans and smiled. “Finally we will use this beautiful gold to pay for our wants, great and small.”

Tinto bowed and presented his bill for six gold pieces. Rosanera found his name on the list and wrote paid in full next to it. She handed the quill to Tinto so he could make his mark beside his name. Though he was illiterate, he was proud that he could scribble his name.

Rosanera reached into the sack and pulled out a handful of coins. Touching the gold gave her a thrill. Just for the smallest part of a second she thought of Langfinger, but time allowed her to reconcile her action as something that had to be done.

Tinto bowed and held out his hand. A smiling Rosanera laid the coins in his waiting palm. As soon as the gold touched Tinto’s hand the coins turned to lead. Tinto’s mouth dropped open. He held his hand a little closer to make sure he saw what he saw. He showed the lead coins to Rosanera and Hans.

“What is this?” he whispered. He dropped the coins on the table and wiped his hands together.

Rosanera took six more coins out of the sack and handed them to Tinto. Again the gold coins turned to lead.

“What is the meaning of this? What black craft is at work here?” He held the leaden coins up so the other could see. “Look, her gold is lead.”

The others crowded around the desk. Hans moved in closer to Rosanera.

Tinto dropped the coins on the desk and made the sign of the cross.

When Rosanera held her hand over the lead coins to pick them up, they turned back to gold.

Confusion followed. Some of the crowd ran out of the hall. Rosanera left her seat and stood behind Hans, who was shocked and sickened. Others crowded up to the table and poured the coins out onto the desk to see for themselves. Anyone who picked up a gold coin watched it instantly turn to lead.

“They are demons,” shouted the furniture maker.

“She is the devil and he is her consort!”

Later that morning a cadre of soldiers from Terra Sanctus arrived and took a bound Rosanera and Hans Herrmann before the bishop. There was no lack of witnesses.

Rosanera stood before her nemesis Bishop DeDeo. He was given the very recently vacant position when the doddering Bishop DiMars died in his sleep.

“Our Lord works in mysterious and wonderful ways, does He not, duchess? Oh, I mean, Rosanera.” DeDeo did not try to hide the smug smile on his face.

Their trial and torture lasted three weeks and was the talk of the region. Hans was declared a wizard and Rosanera a witch. The execution was on a beautiful June morning. The piazza was packed as it had been twenty-four years earlier, when Rosanera’s mother presided over the ill-fated witch burning-turned-miracle.

Two chopping blocks facing each other were set on the straw-strewn execution platform. As a final insult, both were stripped naked and paraded on all four sides of the platform to the cheers of the excited and impatient crowd.

Monsignor Eduardo Silva gravely asked both of them if they renounced Satan and accepted our Lord Jesus as their savior. They both nodded and tearfully looked into each other’s eyes. The executioners led the condemned to the center of the platform, made them kneel, and guided their necks to rest on the blood-blackened wooden blocks. The last thing either of them heard was the ringing cheers of the crowd.

Four Years Later

Hermes’ Ancestral Home

It was the sixth of May and spring was felt and seen everywhere. Roland had little Rene on his shoulders and Sofia held Bella’s tiny hand in hers. They stood overlooking an emerald meadow that shimmered with the heat. Grazing cattle dotted the meadow. The trees were in bloom with fragrant pink blossoms. Birds sang with joyous abandon in concert with the tiny clicks and hums made by a myriad of beetles, cicadas, and other insects.

The sun was high, and the family headed back to the house for the midday meal. Roland put Rene down on unsteady feet. The little boy took his sister’s hand, and the two toddled ahead of their parents down the iris-and-tulip-lined path. Roland and Sofia stopped at the short fence around the family plot.

“Just over two years since he has been gone.” Roland looked down at Rene’s gravestone. “I do miss him.”

“So do I, but he did get to hold his grandson and granddaughter.” Both smiled as they reminisced.

“I am so glad we gave that ingot to the orphanage and the hospital. They had so little, and we have so much.”

Roland nodded in agreement. “Yes, we do.”

Sofia took Roland’s hand. “Do you ever wonder?”

“About?”

“Whatever happened to them. Rosanera, the general, and everyone, all of those people?”

“It is hard to say,” he said casually. Roland’s thoughts were on repairing the gate on the lower corral.

“I wonder what would have happened if you did go with her?”

“Well, I did not go with her, did I?” he said with a smile. Roland put his arm around his wife. “I knew the first time I saw you that day in the barn you were the one. But if I did not choose to help Rosanera, who knows where life would have taken us?” Roland kissed Sofia. They held their faces up to the sunny sky and enjoyed the warmth.

Epilogue

It was a little after eight o’clock in the morning on Tuesday, two days after the breakup. Liz went through her apartment three times, collected Roland’s things, and put them into a black plastic garbage bag. On the drive over she thought of what she was going to say to him. Liz parked her Ford Focus in the alley behind Roland’s granny flat. His car was there. He had not answered the phone or her texts. She was more perturbed than worried.

She grabbed the black plastic bag and squeezed past his car and to the back door. She ceremoniously took his key off of her key ring and put it into the lock. The door was open. The place stunk.

“Roland, Roland, are you here? I have your things.” Liz left the bag next to the kitchen table. All the cupboard doors were wide open, and there was a jar of peanut butter left out on the counter. She shook her head, put the lid back on the jar, and put it away. There was an empty cereal box on its side on the table. The refrigerator hummed loudly. The door was ajar, and condensation had formed on its bottom and dripped onto the floor.

“Roland. Your car’s out there. You’ve got to be here. I had breakfast at the Edelweiss, and I know you weren’t there. Get up! I’ve got your things.”

She walked into the living room and saw a whirlwind mess on the floor and the Alchemist Cabinet with its doors wide open. “Wow, where did you get that?” She walked over the papers and scrolls on the floor, careful not to step on them, and ran her hand down the curved side of the piece.

Liz heard a noise come from the bedroom. She looked in and saw the bed covers move. Someone was curled up in the fetal position with the sheet wrapped tightly around them. Whoever it was, he or she was too small to be Roland.

Liz sat on the bed and gently touched the shaking shoulder. “It’s okay, it’s okay,” she whispered. Liz pulled the sheets away, and they were pulled right back in place even tighter. “Come on now, don’t be afraid.” She gently tugged the sheet away and uncovered a boy. He was eleven or twelve. He was thin, and he had dark hair and skin and beautiful, large brown eyes. He looked at Liz and hugged her tight.

“It’s okay, little guy.” Liz put her arm around the boy and held him. They stayed that way for a good long time. Every few seconds the boy would look up at Liz and then grab on to her a little tighter. Liz finally broke the embrace. She stood and looked the boy over. He had on a T-shirt and sweatpants. Liz remembered Roland wearing those very same clothes when he got out of bed the day they were supposed to go to the Adams Avenue Street Fair.

“Do you know Roland?”

The boy tilted his head and shrugged his shoulders.

“What’s your name, sweetheart?” Again she was met with a plaintive stare. Liz tapped her chest. “Liz. My name is Liz.” She tapped the boy on his chest and crooked her eyebrows in a quizzical way.

“Stefano. Stefano.” The boy finally smiled.

“You must be Mexican. Habla ingles?” No reply. “Mamma? Papa?”

“No. No mama, no papa.”

Liz thought for a moment. She took her cell phone out of her pocket to call Child Protective Services. It rang twice, and she slowly closed the cover on her phone. She looked at the lost little boy and smiled. Liz put her hand on Stefano’s shoulder. “Mi casa es su casa.” By his smile and appreciative look, she was sure that he understood.

They both were startled when they heard a loud rustling noise, like a strong wind blowing throughout the little house. A bright flash, brighter than the sunlight, illuminated the bedroom and hallway for an instant. Liz and Stefano shared a frightened look. Liz put her arm around Stefano, and they peeked around the corner into the living room. The Alchemist Cabinet and all of the papers and scrolls that were scattered about were gone.

“Oh my God,” Liz whispered. She summoned all of her strength and courage, held onto Stefano’s hand tightly, and lowered her head. They ran through the living room and the kitchen and out the back door.

Once outside, Liz let go her grip on Stefano’s hand. The boy quickly looked all around him and clung onto Liz’s waist. She walked him around to the other side of the car and opened the door, and he got in and sat wide-eyed in the passenger seat. He watched her every move as she got in and buckled his, and then her, seatbelt. Liz looked at the granny flat and shook her head. “Well, whatever might have happened here, I do hope you’re okay,” Liz whispered.

Liz started the car. She looked over to Stefano, patted him on the knee, and smiled. “Come on, sweetheart. Let’s get out of here. I’m going to get you some nice new clothes and something good to eat. Then we’ll go home.”

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