When Count Ladislav Cernik died in the Crusades, his son Karel inherited his title and the remains of his fortune. He sold what he could, bought a tall new house near the town clock, and considered his options. He began collecting every alchemical text he could lay hands on, assembling arcane instruments and rare substances in the broad attic chamber.
Karel intended to become wealthy again. He devoured bulky tomes and spent hours toiling over alembics and retorts, struggling to turn lead into gold. Nights spent hunched over smoking crucibles proved rewarding enough to encourage him. He hired a succession of pretty young peasant girls to care for his needs.
As he grew older, he realised the true wealth of the alchemist lay in the accumulation of knowledge. He widened his studies, and took to hiring widows who would tend the house and prepare his meals without bothering him overmuch. He found the answers to questions lesser men never thought to ask.
One day Karel noticed he was older than the crone currently looking after him. No wonder alchemical writers paid such attention to the quest for immortality! Feverishly he worked, growing ever more hoary and stooped, until at long last he tasted the elixir of life. Finally, he was free to pursue knowledge without limit.
In time, his housekeeper died, forcing him to seek a replacement. In the marketplace, an astonishing, radiant girl caught his eye. Marieke was an orphan desperate for honest work, more than capable of meeting his simple needs. She proved quick and intelligent, so he began training her to assist him.
Before long, Karel depended on her so much he permitted her to sample the precious elixir. Many years later, rumours spread of his impossible age. It was Marieke who noticed and stopped them. She talked of a family resemblance, and the perseverance of a traditional name. No one ever saw the Count much, or gave much thought to him, so her story was soon accepted.
Girls came from the country to find work all the time, so no one took much notice of Marieke, either. She was careful, whenever she went out, to dull her beauty to no more than an unremarkable prettiness common to most girls. No one save the Count could have said how long she had worked for him, anyway.
Even he couldn't have said how much time she spent poring over the pages of his fragile books, or pottering by herself in his laboratory. He knew she did these things in her free time, but it kept her happy, so he saw no reason to interfere. Unlike her master, she also spent time in the streets and coffehouses, listening to talk there.
Eventually, she found her way to the public library. Her tale of a master who dispatched her to borrow textbooks for his studies was easily accepted. Who had ever heard of a servant girl bothering to read? If a noted scholar chose not to waste his own precious time doing little more than run errands, that was his own affair. So Marieke read what she pleased.
Things might have gone on like this forever, if the Germans had not come. The day they came goosestepping over the cobbles, the Count's ancient house exploded. Some said it was a stray shell from a panzer. Others blamed the planes overhead. Marieke quietly announced the old man was dead, as the last of his books crumbled to ash in the flames.
While everyone else stared at the fading embers, Marieke vanished. Later, when the Germans came with their papers and their questions, asking for the Count by name, they seemed dismayed to find his house destroyed. No one mentioned Marieke. No one even knew her name. Certainly, no one suspected she had understood they would come.
No one guessed that from the moment she knew it was inevitable, she dreaded the use they might make of the knowledge the Count had accumulated. Only Karel ever knew of her efforts to persuade him to stand against them, or flee. And surely he had no idea when he refused how far she would go to keep that information out of their hands. For all his faults, he trusted her.
I'm hoping to write more about Marieke one of these days. She intrigues me; when this vignette popped into my head, I couldn't rest until I set it down on paper. I also know one or two things about her that aren't clear from this story, which should make her an interesting character to work with.