“And bring animals for slaughter, for my colleague in Krumlov can make any worldly treasure from base materials, but even he hungers for steak.”
I went home at once. I tied a rope around Hnedy, my one good cow. I went inside and kissed Jana on her burning forehead. She slept, sweaty and pale, with a book across her belly. Even in delirium, she devoured texts. Two of my neighbors, knowing of the trials of my family, retrieved their best cows and joined me by the road.
“My friends, I told you before, you don’t have to do this for me.”
Jiri snorted. “We can’t let you go to the alchemist with just one cow, Marek. What if it isn’t enough? Will you come back to town and fetch another and hope your little one can wait?”
“Besides, I too should like to meet an alchemist. Think of the stories for my grandchildren.”
“I would like to see the home of a man who can spin gold,” old Drahomir said. “I’m certain it’s worth the trip.” He walked with a limp from the Third War, but with his walking stick he kept pace.
I smiled and nodded weakly, thinking of the alchemist’s balance and my Jana.
We stopped for the night at a small guesthouse in Holubov. The paint peeled from the walls and it smelled like old fish soup, but it was cheap and there was a yard for the cows. The others retired to their beds; I watched the precious cows, huddled under a rough blanket as the first chill winds of autumn blew through me.
In the morning, Jiri watched the cows while I ate breakfast. It was dark inside the cramped den; where the light did successfully pierce the heavy curtains it glared in narrow, angry beams of illuminated dust. Drahomir sat at the bar, his walking stick leaning against his chair. The barkeep attended him and dusted the bar and glassware, preparing for lunch. Another man sat in a dark corner; his corroded and well-used boots stuck out into the light.
I took a seat next to Drahomir at the bar, and the keep laid out my food. “It’s only another 8 miles to Krumlov,” I said, “so we will arrive by daylight.”
Drahomir smiled, “I’m not sure I’d want to meet an alchemist at night.”
“Beware the alchemist,” the man in the corner said, his voice rough and deep. Beyond his crumbling boots, I could see only the glow of his pipe.
“We have business with the alchemist,” I said. My breakfast felt queasy in my stomach, hearing a second warning about the alchemist of Krumlov. “Matters of life and death.”
“Don’t mind me, then.” He leaned forward. I expected gruffness, a man who’d lived a harsh life. His skin was smooth and pale, without beard or even stubble. Across one eye socket there was a deep, old-looking scar, and a painted marble where the eye ought to be. His good eye peered out at us. His brows were drawn up into a curve of worry.
“Boy, I’ll dance if you’re more than 20,” Drahomir said. “Stories to frighten us—I suppose you’ll tell us he took your eye—or your beard!” He laughed and swigged his beer.
“You’re mistaken,” the man said gently, “I’ll be 80 next month.”
“Lies!” Drahomir shouted, laughing.
I glanced at the barkeep, who would surely be wise to local tall-tales. The barkeep looked away and polished glasses he had already polished. His hands shook slightly, and his face blanched to the ecru of the wall.
“The alchemist took my age from me, as sure as the Second War took my eye.”
“I’d like such a theft,” I said with Drahomir’s glibness, but feeling sick. I tried to picture Jana, lying in bed, so pale and still, to steel my courage. I only felt sicker and more helpless.
“Well then, take yourself to the alchemist.” He stood and walked out the entryway, with the gait and pace of my grandfather.
We settled the bill and departed. Drahomir eagerly told Jiri about the “young trickster”. The road to Krumlov was dusty and rutted, surrounded by fields of shorn wheat divided by rows of trees. We each walked next to our cows, noting the early colors of fall or the unusual garb of a fellow going the other way on the road. Krumlov and its high castle came into view. My neighbors’ pace quickened and I struggled to keep up, as though there were lead in my boots. I imagined sweet, clever Jana and how she must feel.
The alchemist’s keep was near the city center. The towering castle loomed over me like a damned spirit—perhaps it was another of the alchemist’s customers. We wended through the narrow steep streets, travelling single file with the cows. The streets bustled with tents and chickens and ducks and coins. Strange words rustled in the air, piling and swirling like the leaves of autumn. No one paid our party of men and cows any mind.
The commerce left bare one block of the lane. The alchemist’s home stood in the middle of the block, with a small red door and a line of neatly kept flower boxes, between two other clean white-fronted homes. The shutters were closed on the street level. I took a deep breath and knocked on the door.
The door opened itself, no doubt bewitched. We tied the cows and left them outside. I had little doubt that they would be undisturbed. Beyond the door was a room like no other. Bohuslav told me well when he said not to bring jewels; the moldings were coated in gold leaf and a chandelier of bones and emeralds hung from the ceiling, candlelight casting odd shadows and prisms on the wall. I shuddered. They were human bones. The door closed with a whine behind us. A finely carved staircase rose into the shadows.
“Hello?” I called out. “We have business with the alchemist. We bring good cows to offer as payment.”
“Dobriy den, gentlemen.” The rough voice echoed down the stairs. I tried to imagine its owner, but I could see only blackness. “Have a seat on the couch and we may discuss your business.” I could swear I would have noticed the ragged couch, standing apart from the grandeur of the rest of the room, but I hadn’t until now. My eyes must have slid over it and stuck to the fineries, I decided. We sat.
“Now, good men of Dubne, what is your business?” I could hear a smile in the words, as one imagines a cat smiling when it sees a lame old bird. I suspected the alchemist already knew our business, if he knew our town. What was I to do but play along?
“Great alchemist, my little daughter Jana is deathly ill. She will surely die if you do not agree to help us. She is a sweet girl who is good to her brothers and a source of joy to her parents. She reads and has a keen mind.”
The room was utterly silent for a long time. I could hear only the beating of my own chilled heart and the soft rattling of the bone chandelier. I didn’t dare demand anything of the alchemist. I wondered if this was a refusal of services. I would stay until he said no, even if it took days.
“What payment would you give?” The rough voice said at last.
“As I said, I brought fine cows. But I would give anything, great alchemist, even my life.” I swallowed hard, remembering Bohuslav’s warning that alchemy is an operation of balance.
Jiri sat next to me. We met eyes, waiting for the alchemist’s response. He looked as grim as I felt. Drahomir gazed around the room, transfixed by the odd splendor.
“Fear not, good Marek, I do not require your life. I require only your daughter’s youth.”
I went cold and my vision faded. My daughter’s youth? Although if she were to die, her youth would not matter. “Please, great alchemist, do not make an old woman of Jana. She is my only daughter, her life should be long and sweet.”
Chuckling echoed down the stairs. “I said her youth, and I meant her youth. She would be a woman in her twenties. She would have many sweet years ahead.”
I didn’t like the sound of that. But I had no choice. “I do not understand your ways, but I understand my options. I will give my daughter’s youth for her health.”
“Excellent!” The voice cried. I heard the sounds of footfalls on the stairs. The chandelier twinkled, shaken by the steps. A figure, shrouded in blackness, emerged from the shadows above, swaddled in shimmering black cloth, capped by black corroded boots.
“Those boots!” My shock overwhelmed my fear. “It was you at Holubov!”
Youthful hands rose from the black robes to draw back the hood. The youthful, beardless face smiled back at me. “Very observant, Marek.”
“Wh-what did you want with Jana’s youth? Haven’t you already too much of it?”
“Yes, but there are certain things that must be balanced.”
“You would use her youth to heal her sickness?”
The alchemist smiled serenely. “The transaction is complete. Oh, and leave the cows.”
My companions and I left out the red front door. Two cows stood where we left them. The third lay dead on the ground, foamy spittle trailing from its mouth. Was it killed for Jana? Then why take her youth as well? The ways of alchemy are shrouded indeed. I sighed and we went to find lodging for the night.
We journeyed home. A lovely, healthy young woman greeted me at the door of the cottage. She walked like a child, bouncing and bopping, but always holding a book. I worried what life would hold for someone like her. But she was strong and sweet and frighteningly clever. In her first week, she constructed a device to collect and filter the rainwater and distribute it for the animals. She drew designs for a better plow, and spoke of traveling.
Several days later, there was a knock on the door. There stood the alchemist of Krumlov, the autumn winds billowing his black robes.
“Alchemist, I thought our business complete,” I said, stunned.
“It is,” he said. “And thank you again for the fine cows. Your village should be proud.” I said nothing. Jana came to the door.
The alchemist smiled. “I’d like to offer Jana an opportunity.”
“You leave her alone,” I said severely, imagining I could threaten this man.
“Good Marek,” he said sweetly, “your daughter is a young woman now, capable of making decisions for herself.” He turned back to her. “Would you like to be my apprentice?”
I could feel my face grow hot. “No!” I said. “No, you healed her, and we’re done with you!”
“Why do you think I took her youth?” The alchemist asked, genuinely amused. “There is balance in the cosmos that even I must obey.”
“I-I thought it was to heal her.”
“No, that’s why I killed the cow.”
“Long ago, my master alchemist took my age. In turn, he knew that someday I would take someone’s youth. That is how masters and apprentices bond, through their balanced defiance of balance. Somehow, the transformation of one’s life through alchemy endows far greater abilities. This is why I am more powerful than your village’s alchemist.”
I stared at him. Jana watched the alchemist of Krumlov with hungry curiosity in her eyes. He smiled absently, lost in thought, apparently reflecting upon his power and greatness. “Please go,” I said.
His strange light eyes withdrew from the clouds and fell upon me. “I could tell your young daughter had an exquisitely fine mind, so I decided to offer her this opportunity.”
“What if she says no?”
“Then I’ll restore her youth and seek another candidate. But Jana, you would have opportunities few ever have. Weigh your choices carefully.”
“You can’t!” I said. The alchemist had restored her only to take her.
She pondered with adult seriousness. “Father, you must see that I hunger for learning. My adulthood may have arrived early, but I must assume this is the mind I will have regardless.”
I nodded, dreading the direction of her reasoning.
“Can you imagine a better way to satisfy my desires? I think I could live five lifetimes have not get another such offer.”
I shrugged, but the winds of autumn cut me apart. “Come back and visit us.”
“I will.” She hugged me, awkwardly for she was still used to reaching up for my arms. Jana turned to the alchemist. “Yes, I will be your apprentice,”
The alchemist smiled. “Then follow me, I have all you’ll need.” Jana and the alchemist receded down the dirt road, two young adults with impish smiles, walking like a little girl and an ancient man.
© November, 2013 Karen Blaha
Karen Blaha is a doctoral candidate in chemical engineering studying chaos. As a child, she told classmates she was from outer space; she has since learned some things are best kept to oneself. In her free time, she plays water polo, draws, and binds books. She blogs about science, art, and scifi/fantasy at www.vironevaeh.com.