We’re delighted to present a brand new short story by recently-signed Angry Robot Author Emma Newman.
Emma has been writing and releasing a series of completely free short stories set in The Split Worlds, as part of the build-up to the release of her Angry Robot debut, Between Two Thorns, which we’re publishing in March 2013.
This is the twenty-seventh tale in a year and a day of weekly short stories set in The Split Worlds. If you would like Emma to read it to you instead, you can listen to a recorded version at SoundCloud.com.
Every week a new story is released. You can find links to all the other stories, and the new ones as they are released, at www.splitworlds.com/stories/ where you can also sign up to receive each story free in your inbox every week (starting at the very first one).
The Alchemist’s Friend
Karl wormed a finger under his helmet and scratched at his scalp as he tried to listen through the door. The King’s visits to the dungeon always made him tense.
He shouldn’t have got attached to the alchemist. Karl hadn’t told a soul – not even his wife – about the conversations they had in the small hours. When he called out from his nightmares, Karl would lock himself in with Johann and sit on the stool next to his bed like a priest. Tonight would be the same; he was always distraught after the King visited.
Karl stood to rigid attention when the King and his escort emerged. They went straight up the stone steps to the castle above, restoring the dungeon’s dank silence.
The alchemist called soon after. “Guard? I need to speak to you!”
Karl unhooked the ring of keys from the wall and unlocked the door.
The bottles and strangely shaped flasks no longer made him nervous, nor did the strange smells wafting from charred remains in the crucibles. The alchemist was in a clean shirt, having been dressed for the visit, and was sitting on the edge of the thin straw pallet in the corner. His face was the same white as the residue in the glass flasks. Karl locked the prison door behind him and sat close enough for them to speak in a whisper.
“The King is losing his patience,” Johann trembled as he spoke.
“Then just give him the secret,” Karl replied.
“But all of Saxony knows you’re the greatest alchemist alive!” Karl twisted round to look at the chunks of lead piled on the table. “Why be so stubborn? The King will kill you if you don’t-”
“I know!” Johann rubbed his hands over his face, leaving grimy streaks on his cheeks. “You think I want to stay in this godforsaken place?”
Karl knew he would go mad if the same were done to him. No windows, no sunlight, no fresh air? Perhaps the alchemist was losing his senses. “The only way-” Karl stopped, realising what was really causing his despair. “God in heaven, you don’t know how to do it, do you?”
The alchemist’s eyes shone with terror but he didn’t deny it.
“But where did the rumours come from?” Karl asked.
“If I tell you,” Johann grabbed Karl’s sleeves, “and you help me, you’ll have more gold than you could ever wish for. But it must be our secret, understand? The King must never know.”
Sweat prickled across Karl’s scalp again. This was treason. He could learn the secret and take it to the King instead, but what would he get in return? Would the King imprison or kill him too to keep the secret? No, it would be better to have the gold to take his wife and son to France and live in luxury.
“I’ll help you. It would be better for both of us to keep it from the King.”
Johann’s relief escaped in a long sigh. “I need to write a letter, you need to take it to a lodge in the woods south of the city, I’ll draw you a map. There’s a woman there… a…”
“A witch? Is that where you got your gold?”
“No, no,” Johann was unconvincing. “Not a witch… an alchemist. She knows the secret and she’ll help me; we were lovers. She gave me the gold I boasted about. I was drunk and a fool. Now wait whilst I write to her, and please, tell no-one, otherwise she’ll be hunted down and the Lord alone knows what they would do to her.”
As soon as his shift was over Karl borrowed a horse, the letter and map tucked safely inside his coat. He said he had an errand to run for a sick friend and left the city at a gentle trot so as not to draw attention to himself. The last part of the map had to be followed on foot over difficult terrain, but by the time the sun was at its noon peak he saw a woodcutter’s lodge through the trees.
He recalled the tales his mother had told him as he approached. It must be a witch. No woman practised alchemy. Johann must have been seduced by her, perhaps to give her a child, like in the stories. What a fool indeed. Karl felt for the crucifix under his shirt and whispered a prayer for protection.
No smoke rose from the chimney and the shutters were closed. Weeds had crept in amongst over-ripe vegetables. Perhaps she’d fled when she learned of Johann’s imprisonment. Karl knocked on the door but there was no reply. He cupped his hands and peered through a gap in the shutters but it was too dark inside to see anything.
He tripped as he headed towards the back door and looked back to see an iron ring partially lifted by his boot. It was the handle to a trap door hidden artfully beneath a few inches of soil and wildflowers. Only close inspection revealed its outline.
Karl lifted it, expecting the door to be locked, but it opened and a golden glow escaped. He lost his grip on the ring in his surprise and the door dropped back into place with a thud. The witch would know he was there.
The memory of the glow gave him the courage to open it again until the door tipped back and rested against the side of the lodge. The flowers and dirt didn’t slide off; a sure sign of witchcraft.
Steps carved into the earth reached downwards at a steep angle, illuminated by the divine glow of candlelight and gold.
“Hello?” Better to not creep up on a witch, lest she turn him to a mouse if he frightened her. “I’m a friend of Johann Böttger, I have a letter from him.”
“Come down then,” said a woman. Her voice was light and pure with youth, not the harsh rasp of a crone.
He fished the letter out as he descended, hoping the sweat on his hands wouldn’t smear the ink. He braced himself for a hideous face and more warts than on a toad’s back but when the cellar came into view he forgot everything.
The gold. The gold! Shelves carved out of the earth covered the walls, every single one filled with jewellery, ornaments and tableware made from solid gold. All he could do was stare at its splendour.
“What’s your name?”
Only then did he focus on the woman. She was dressed in simple clothes, well-made but not extravagant. Her hair was the same colour as the treasure around her and her face was that of an angel. He wanted to weep when he looked at her, he wanted to fall at her feet and promise his soul to her.
She was standing next to a table filled with tools and molds and clamps. He recognised some from the alchemist’s collection. “You… you made all this?”
She smiled and nodded. “Yes. But none of them are right.” She held out her hand for the letter and he gave it to her. Had the stories lied about witches? Or was she a spirit, an angel perhaps? He noticed a basket next to the table filled with nuggets large and small, just one of them would change his life.
She read it and sighed. “Poor Johann.” She looked back up at his face and searched his features. “He trusts you, even though you’re his jailer?”
“The King imprisoned him my lady, not I. I’m just a soldier. A poor one.”
She raised an eyebrow at the last comment. “Will you take something back to him for me?”
He nodded and when she asked him to wait outside he did so without any complaint. He only had long enough to sit down and wipe the sweat from his neck with a handkerchief before the trapdoor opened and she handed a letter to him. “This is what the man needs to know.”
Karl ran back to the horse, stumbling and falling and picking himself up again like a man running away from his lover’s husband. The mare was where he’d left her and it was when he reached for the reins that the thought hit him.
He could open the letter. He could have the secret. He could sell everything, buy the equipment, change the lead into gold himself and not have to worry ever again.
Karl pulled it out of his pocket and broke the seal. There was a single sheet of paper inside, folded once. He expected arcane symbols but there were only words, and not many at that.
I knew you would open this. This is what man needs to know; your greed will never be satisfied. You want everything; money, power and control of our sex. I will not give up my secret.
Before you decide to steal my gold and any other treasures I possess, know that I have left already and you will never find me.
Tell Johann his impurities are too many for my art and that he should take up pottery instead of alchemy.
– Lady Gold.
“Bitch!” Karl shouted and the horse whinnied in fear. “Foul witch, I’ll… I’ll…” He crushed the note as he took a step to go back, but he knew she would take the gold with her. Johann still faced death, he wouldn’t become rich and his wife would scold him for not coming home at the end of his shift. He spat. “Women,” he muttered and set off for home as poor as when he’d left it.
Don’t forget, you can sign up for weekly Split Worlds short stories, and read the twenty-six that Emma has already written and posted, at www.splitworlds.com/stories/.