Authors: Emma Barron
“He knows what a terrible gambler you are! He only suggested it because he knew he could add your losses to what you already owe him!”
Gregor waved off Anja’s interruption. “I almost had him! I was up almost double what I owed him after several hands of cards. I almost settled our debt, Anja. And then I had a run of bad luck … it was just bad luck.” Gregor turned to the window again, then grabbed Anja and tried to move her toward the door. “He threatened me then,” Gregor’s words came even faster now, “telling me the horrible things he would do to me … and to you. I was afraid—you know what Werner is capable of—and I was desperate. I shouldn’t have done it, shouldn’t have said it, but it was the only thing I could think of…”
“What did you do?” Anja stiffened, frozen in place. “What did you say to Werner?”
“I told him…” Gregor looked at her, then away, appearing ashamed. “I told him you had been studying alchemy—everyone knows how clever you are—and that you had had a breakthrough. I told him you had found a way to turn base metals into gold, and though it was a difficult and unpredictable process, if he would give us a bit more time, you could provide Werner with all the gold he needed. More gold than we could ever owe him.”
A mad laughter bubbled up in her throat. “But he couldn’t have believed that! He couldn’t have possibly thought I could turn metal into gold. It’s impossible … absurd…”
“I was drunk, foolish, and the thought just came to me. I wasn’t sure he would believe me, but you know how superstition runs deep here, how the people still believe in the
. Werner believes in them, and his greed makes him want to believe what I told him. Think about it. If what I said were true, he would have access to nearly unlimited gold.”
Anja stared mutely at her father, unsure how to respond.
“But, Anja, please, you must flee. You must run to the—” Gregor broke off, jerked his head toward the cottage door.
Anja heard it then, the jangle of horses’ reins, the creak of a carriage wheel, and the sucking sound of a booted foot alighting in mud.
“Werner,” she said, the sound little more than an exhaled breath. “He’s here.”
Gregor nodded, looking stunned. He gulped. “He’ll want to take you to his manor, keep you there until you deliver the gold.”
Anja’s hand flew to her throat as if from its own volition. “But you know I can’t do it. What shall I do? What do I tell him?”
“I’ll make this right, Anja, I’ll explain…”
The door to the cottage banged open then, cutting of Gregor’s hasty promises. Werner entered, removed his hat, then shook himself like a dog exiting the river. Droplets of water flew off him, hitting Anja and Gregor, making the fire crack and hiss. Gregor grabbed Anja and pulled her back, away from the door and Werner. Roulf, who could only be described as Werner’s henchman, appeared by his side.
“Gregor,” Werner said, though he looked at Anja rather than the miller. “I have come to collect on your promises.” His gaze raked up and down Anja’s frame. “I’ve come to get what you owe me.” His voice was calm and even, but Anja sensed a thrumming malevolence just under the surface of what was surely a calculated demeanor.
“I spoke hastily earlier,” Gregor said, pulling Anja back farther. “I shouldn’t have said what I did. I shouldn’t have implied that Anja could make gold.”
“Nonsense!” Werner said, his eyes narrowing, just the barest hint of aggression creeping into his voice. “No use trying to keep the girl’s talents to yourself. I’ll have what you owe me, and the
will give it to me, I’ll see to it.”
Gregor stood straighter and puffed out his chest, trying to make his slight frame appear bigger and more menacing. If Anja hadn’t been so frightened, she would have found the gesture amusing. Werner was a head taller than Gregor, and his square, bulky frame so much bigger, his character so much more sinister, he made Gregor look like an innocent boy trying to intimidate a bloodthirsty ogre.
“I’ll just take the girl up to the manor. I’ve got a cottage on the grounds prepared for her. She’ll have everything she needs to make my gold, and when she’s done I will return her to you,” Werner said. He nodded to Roulf, who stepped forward with a hand outstretched, ready to take Anja and lead her from the cottage.
Anja drew back from Roulf as Gregor yelled “wait!” and stepped between the henchmen and her. Roulf stopped advancing, and looked uncertainly from Gregor to Werner.
“You can’t take her,” Gregor said, his apparent confidence belied by the slightest tremor in his voice. “I won’t allow it.”
“Oh?” Werner asked, and it was apparent from his tone that he was ready to drop all pretense that he had come to the cottage to make a polite request. “And what will you do to stop me?” Werner took a threatening step toward the miller, his hands fisted at his sides.
“I’ll … I’ll go to the law…”
Werner laughed, a sharp bark that made Gregor jump and Anja tremble.
“The law?” Werner scoffed. “You forget, miller, that I own most of this village. I own your mill. I own your cottage. I own most of the land from here to the next village, and almost all the buildings. And I
even own the law
.” He spat out the last sentence as if it were a threat. “Now I’m done talking to you about this. It’s getting late and I’m tired, wet, and hungry.” Werner eyed Anja as if she were a morsel tempting enough to sate his appetite.
Her blood ran cold at the look.
“Roulf,” Werner said. The single word was explanation enough.
Roulf stepped forward again and grabbed Anja roughly by the arms. Suddenly, there seemed to be a flurry of motion. Anja’s heart thumped wildly as she tried to pull out of Roulf’s grasp. Gregor tugged ineffectually at Roulf’s coat, trying to force him to release her. Werner snarled with impatience and grabbed Gregor around the neck with one hand, shaking him roughly before punching him with his free fist. Anja watched her father crumple slowly to the ground, as if it were happening under water. Though she couldn’t tell if the motion was truly as arrested as it seemed, or if it were only her horror that made it seem so. She tried to scream but found no sound would escape her throat.
Roulf pulled her toward the cottage door while Anja kicked and struggled against him.
“Feisty one, this chit,” Roulf said to Werner with a laugh. He pulled Anja out into the rain, and when he was tired of dragging her, he picked her up and dumped her unceremoniously into Werner’s carriage. Werner climbed in and shut the door, the sound of it like the lock of a prison door clicking into place.
* * * *
Anja crossed her arms in front of her, hugging her chest. She looked out the window of the carriage as it bumped and slid along the muddy road to Werner’s
. She pressed herself tightly against the wall of the carriage, trying to inch away from Roulf as he encroached upon her. His breath was on her, and she smelled the dank odor of sweat and alcohol that clung to him.
Her skin crawled.
She hated being in that carriage with Roulf pressing against her and Werner leering at her from the opposite bench.
“I only want what’s mine,” Werner said.
Anja tore her gaze from the window, reluctantly looked across at Werner, though she said nothing.
“I only want what your father owes me. I
get what is owed me.”
“And then?” Anja asked, wincing as she heard the way her voice trembled.
“And then I will let you go,” Werner said casually, “or not.” He looked her up and down. “Perhaps I will keep you for myself.” His voice was calm, nonchalant, and utterly chilling. “You really are quite … delectable. I find you to be a rather tempting sight—the wet tendrils of hair curling about your face. The droplets of water sliding down your neck, across your bosom, disappearing into your gown—how that wet gown clings to you…”
Anja shuddered under the weight of Werner’s gaze, and the violating nature of his description of her. Next to her, Roulf’s breathing became heavier, and he pressed up against her again. She wanted to scream and throw herself from the carriage. Instead, she took a deep breath, steeled herself. “And if I can’t make the gold for you?”
Werner’s expression darkened, turning instantly from licentious to malicious. “Do you anticipate a problem making the gold?” The threat behind that simply stated question was clear, unmistakable.
“No,” Anja said softly, hugging herself tighter. She turned to look out the carriage window again. She knew it was no use trying to stand up to Werner now; she would only provoke him to violence. She told herself it was better to go along with him, to pretend she was, indeed, capable of giving him the gold he wanted. She would wait until Werner put her in the cottage on his grounds. Once she was safely out of his presence, she would plan her escape.
No one spoke for the rest of the carriage ride. The only sounds were the rain against the carriage roof, the
of the horses’ hooves being sucked into the mud of the sodden road, and Roulf’s panting and snorting beside her. Finally, they rode through the gatehouse of the estate, and Werner’s manor loomed before them, dark and huge and uninviting. The carriage brought them behind the manor and stopped at one of the cottages lining the far end of Werner’s grounds.
Roulf grabbed Anja roughly by the arm, dragging her as he followed Werner into the tiny cottage.
“You will find everything you need here,” Werner told her. “I have had food brought up and fresh clothes. And of course you have all the equipment necessary to make my gold,” Werner gestured toward the fireplace where a small table stood covered with flasks and jars and vessels. “If you do find you require something else, I will have it brought to you immediately.”
Anja licked her lips nervously. Her mouth and throat were dry and raspy. “I … I’ll need time. It’s a difficult process … and I…”
“You will have until tomorrow afternoon,” Werner said. “No longer.”
“I’m not sure that will be enough time. I—”
Werner slapped Anja hard across the face, cutting of whatever explanation she had been hoping to give. “No. Longer.” He stared at her for a moment, his black-eyed gaze boring holes into her. Anja desperately wanted to hide her fear from Werner, but she couldn’t stop herself from shrinking away from him.
She nodded slowly. “Tomorrow then,” she said.
Werner turned and stalked out of the cottage, Roulf at his heels. The heavy wooden door shut, and the lock clanged into place.
Anja stood rooted in place for several minutes, her cheek throbbing where Werner had slapped her, her heart pounding. She felt hopeless, defeated, frozen. Then she shook her head as if to physically wipe away the fear and indecision. She needed to find a means of escape.
Once her eyes adjusted to the dimness, Anja took stock of her surroundings. The cottage was a single room. There was a small bed in the far corner with a threadbare dress laid out upon it. Above the bed was a tiny window, placed high in the wall, with several bars across it. Anja climbed atop the bed, stretching to reach the window, and shook the bars as hard as she could. They were iron, thick and strong, and showed no signs of giving even when she hung from them with all her weight. This would not be her way out.
Across the room, there was a table with two chairs. There was a small plate of food and a single candle on it. There was a fireplace, an armchair on one side of it, and the table cluttered with equipment on the other. There were no other windows or doors, and a thorough inspection of the walls showed no holes or weaknesses. There was simply no way out of the cottage that Anja could find.
She walked to the table that held the alchemy equipment. She had read several texts on alchemy—she read everything she could get her hands on—and recognized most of what was there from the drawings in the books. Among the glass and earthenware she saw a circulating vessel, a subtiliation flask, and an alembic still. There were crucibles, funnels, a mortar and pestle, and a myriad of other tools. She glanced over the glass jars lined up neatly along the back of the table. She picked one up, ran a finger over the faded label marked “Ferrum.” She opened the jar and peered at the smooth, dark chunks of iron packed within. There were other jars marked “Cuprum” and “Zink” and “Nickel,” filled with jagged red nuggets of copper and the bluish-white chunks of zinc and nickel.
She stared at the table as a sort of mad giggle bubble up in her throat. Chemists, philosophers, and charlatans alike had searched for the secret of alchemy for centuries, and so far no one had discovered how to transmute one element into another. And yet Werner believed Anja, a poor miller’s daughter from a small village buried in the Hessian woods, had succeeded where countless others had failed, and would turn his jars of metal into gold. Except she couldn’t, and when the morning came and Werner saw that his jars of copper, zinc, and nickel were still just that, he would vent his rage on her and her father.
Anja shivered. The night was cold, and her dress was still damp. She needed to start the fire, and when she was warm, when she could think clearly again, she would formulate a plan. She
escape the cottage and then she would find a way to free her father and herself from Werner’s grasp forever.
Anja lit the fire and knelt before it. Slowly warmth returned to her limbs. She was utterly exhausted—from the long day spent at the mill, from the panicked realization that her father had squandered all their funds, from the terrifying encounter with Werner, and the utter despair at the impossible situation in which she now found herself. She lay down, telling herself she would only rest for a few minutes, just until she was fully warmed and her head had cleared a little, and then she would think what to do. “Just a few minutes to rest,” she murmured to herself as she slowly drifted off to sleep.
Tillz pulled his hat lower on his face, his fingers brushing the scar that ran a jagged line from temple to jaw. He walked along in the shadows of the street, as was his habit, although it was hardly necessary on such a night. It was still raining, the sky inky black, except for the occasional flash of lightning, and few people were about. He imagined them home, warm, and cozy by their fires, their children on their lap. He shook the mental image from his head, told himself to focus on his business, and continued on his way.