Penumbra was a powerful mage and seer of gypsy descent. She lived in Moonglow for over two hundred years – living the transition between the Age of Enlightenment and the Age of Armageddon in Britannia.
One of her lesser known traits was that she was also a great artist; deep within her household, in a magically locked chamber, she kept hundreds of art pieces made over the years.. fragments of time frozen over canvas.
One such piece of art was the portrait of a man on weird garment, probably a visitor from another dimension. On his hands he held strange apparatuses never again seen in the lands of Britannia.
Some years after I found the hidden chamber, while delving deep within the library at the Lycaeum, I found some scrolls that belonged to Penumbra. Observations about meteorite showers, drawings of people with fish-shaped hats, even bread recipes; along with that, a short account of someone who could very well be the person depicted in the painting.
He told me that when he was a boy, they called him ‘Flaco‘, skinny. The other kids didn’t mean anything bad by it, but he always felt it hinted ‘weak’. ‘Rickety’, ‘Flimsy’.
He once went to his father. “Papa, I don’t want to be skinny!” His father said, “Bah. God made you this way. You’re healthy. What more do you want?” But Flaco kept complaining.
His father said, “I’ll ask the blacksmith if he will take an apprentice.” Papa paid the smith eighty-two silvers and Flaco went to work for him.
After only three days, his body hurt all over. His legs ached from hauling buckets of water from the well for the quenching trough. He held the tongs while the smith hammered, and his arms ached. He pumped the bellows, and his back ached. He wanted to go home so bad. But “done is done”- the Prentice Contract must be fulfilled. Two more years to go!
Some months had passed; Iosef, the blacksmith, poured a strange liquid onto the polished breastplate, destined for some noble. Fumes came, like smoke, and wherever the beeswax was etched, it ate into the steel. The slender apprentice watched, eyes wide, fascinated. Iosef said, “There it is, boy. The only thing that metal must respect. Even silver, even gold. Aqua Regia.”
All the youth could think was, ‘then I must have this power in my hands, too.’ He asked the smith, “Where did it come from?”
“Deep in the earth,” said Iosef. “They say it’s the breath of the dragon who lives at the bottom of the sea.” He smiled through a spark-chewed beard. “But I get it from the old Apothecarist. Nona Tilda, she’s called.”
When the contract was finished– Flaco was still as skinny as ever. But he was also much stronger… and he had learned to make things. Useful things. Beautiful things. And he had tamed a new friend: fire.
“I’ve come to learn how to make Aqua Regia,” the youth announced.
Nona Tilda (whose village titles ranged from ‘Meddling Crone’ to ‘Angel of Healing’) looked at Flaco with open skepticism. She said, “That’s the last, not the first, of the products of my art. The first is a salve for burns.” He knew of these; the blacksmith always had it in plenty.
“I’ve finished working for Iosef. I can work for you now. Sweeping up. Bringing you reagents from the city.”
“Oh, can you now?” Tilda wiped her hands on her apron, which was made of some kind of scaled red leather. “Iosef does speak well of you. I can take you– on but this is a journey of five years. And many oaths go with it.”
Oaths? This was new. Oaths were for knights and brides. What did they have to do with apothecarists? Flaco said seriously, “What oaths?”
“Part of what I teach is the ‘healing’ arts. To know how to heal, is to know how to harm. I am sworn to do no harm to good people. And there are secrets I am sworn not to divulge to those outside the craft.”
The young man nodded impatiently. “Every craft has its secrets.” The lore of healing– and the knowledge of poisons. Men paid good coin for such things. This was looking better every minute. “Teach me. Please.”
“Come and learn, then.” She led him into her workshop, up very steep wooden steps, to the upper part of the stone shop. “Where,” said Nona Tilda, “do you guess this all begins…?”
“Memorizing the formulas? Gathering roots and herbs? Crushing the salts?”
“No, my boy.” She took the bottle of something pinkish and poured a little into a quartz bowl. Then she took a small wooden stirrer from a box of them. She stirred the liquid. The end of the stirrer promptly dissolved. She held it up to show him. Then she picked up a cloth bag. “It begins with this.” She handed it to him.
Flaco opened the bag carefully. Cautiously, he sniffed it. “Sand?”
The elderly woman nodded and said, “Ordinary sand.” There was a device of metal, with a flue above and a firepit underneath it. “Make a fire there,” she directed.
With ease, Flaco struck flint to tinder, kindled a flame, led it from the twigs to the charcoal. The bottom of the apparatus began to glow from the heat. Nona Tilda directed him to stand well back. She put on goggles and poured the sand into a funnel at the top. It melted.
The lady moved it away from the flames. When the lady opened a spout, it came out slowly, forming a perfectly straight stream. A stick of glass. With gloves, she broke it into segments, and, with tongs, held the tips in the heat so they would round off again. .
Then she showed Flaco some of the glass flasks she had made, with bulbous ends and slim necks for corking. Some of them were colorful. Some were the size of his head. He asked, “These are beautiful. How…?”
“There’s wonderful gimmicks to it,” said Nona Tilda. “Oils, mineral salts, precious resins, and so on.”
Flaco said, “Will you show me this, too?”
The Apothecarist nodded. “But there’s a serious oath that comes first.”
Wary, Flaco said, “And that is…?”
Nona Tilda held up a finger. “‘I shall always wear eye protection when working with hazardous materials.'” Flaco grinned, relieved it was not something far more dire.
Tilda looked up at her glass wares. She picked out a large globe with an iridescent exterior. Using a tool tipped with a crystal that glowed blue, she scratched out two circles. When she hit the glass firmly with a hammer, it resisted breaking. She took down a bronze hammer with runes engraved on it, and tapped the bottle again. Two circles of glass popped out.
She handed them to the lad. “Take good care of these. See that they’re fashioned into a pair of goggles.” He held them up and looked out through them in wonder.
The use of alembics and crucibles, the esoteric preparations and distillations, the healing salves and sleeping draughts, the poisons as well as the antidotes, that knowledge would all come to Flaco, in time. But, long before he mastered acid, he learned how to master glass.
The scroll said no more, there are no other accounts of this person’s visit to our land.