The Alchemist’s First Rule

Once upon a time there lived a soldier, and a great hero he was.  They say he had killed so many fae that the Sidhe cursed his name. He was as fine a man as any, wealthy and set to be given honours and titles by the king.  But when his wife died in birthing their only child, he turned to strong drink and gambling to numb the pain of his loss.  By the time the child reached womanhood, they were disgraced and in great debt, and it was down to her alone to care for her broken father.  The girl was hard-working and comely enough, but not so quick of wit nor deft of hand. She would try a little of this and a little of that to make what coin she could.  One week she’d take in clothes to mend, but her stitching was uneven and her knitting unravelled quickly. The next week she tried her hand at dairy work, but the butter she churned curdled, and she knocked over the milk churn and the farmer chased her off without giving her so much as a mouthful of bread for her day’s work. But no matter what she did, her father would praise her drunkenly, and say that for sure next time she would find her calling in life, and that soon they would be moving up in the world again.

Well, it came to pass that she was trying her hand at alchemy. She was good with the reagents, but had no knack for rhyming.  And of course, when her father was in his cups, he was boasting about his pretty daughter, and how she was so good at finding this herb and that, why, he was certain she’d be brewing up a potion to bring in the gold in no time.


These grand claims made it to the palace. Now the King at this time was not a young man, but only recently crowned after the death of his father.  And he had two secret problems to solve, and solve quickly. The old king had been a great one for wars and building fortifications on the edge of the wild woods, and through these he had drained the palace coffers until they were emptied of gold altogether, and the silver left behind was barely enough to fill a purse.  Furthermore, the new king was the last in line for the throne, and needed to get an heir, and that right quick, for fear the kingdom would be plunged into discord with no ruler, and easy pickings for the fae.  But the King was not a man who found enjoyment in the company of women, though this was known by none but his closest friend and companion, Jack.  Still, the gossip at court would surely out if he took a noblewoman to wife, and came to her bed only for the purpose of getting an heir and not for the pleasure in the act.  And, too, she would be sure to discover the kingdom’s lack of money, for he could not buy the finest tailors and silks and jewellery with naught but copper!


So when he heard of the girl who could, as the rumour had become, turn common herbs to gold, this seemed the answer to both his problems. He would marry her, and thus get both the child and the gold, but not risk the courtly gossip. For she was a common girl, unwise in the ways of the world, and not like to take it amiss if his lovemaking was rare and unenthusiastic, or her dresses not of the highest quality.


Thus it was that the King contrived to meet with her, invited her to the palace, and pretended to be much taken with her.  And it did not take long for the girl to be, in truth, much taken with him, for what girl’s head is not turned when a king, no less, pays her court, no matter his age?


So when the King asked her to show him her skill with alchemy – to brew for him a potion to turn things to gold – she naturally wished to do as he bade her. Off she went, looking to pick some herbs and thinking hard to find some words to rhyme.


And as she walked, she came to the edge of the wild woods, and saw some heart of oak growing just out of reach.  As I said before, she was not quick of wit, so she stepped into the woods.


As she gathered the herb, she muttered to herself, trying to find a rhyme for oak, but to no avail, until at length, in despair, she flung herself on the ground, tearful at her failure.


“Why not try: “Oaken heart, picked at noon” my dear?’ said a sly voice behind her.


She span around to see a small faery watching her intently.  For a moment, her blood ran cold with terror but then he smiled at her, and said: “Easy now, trust me, there’s nothing to fear.’ And although his smile showed teeth as sharp as daggers, she suddenly felt nothing but gratitude for his help, and a strange sense of trust for this kind little fellow.


She curtseyed awkwardly. He shook his head and said:

“Such courtly manners you can keep,

But tell me, sweet, why do you weep?”

and before she knew it, had confided all her cares in him: her father, sick from wine and woe; her suitor – a king no less – and how she feared to fail him, just as she felt she was failing her father.


“Dry your tears, my child, for all is not lost

I can rhyme you fine rhymes, for a trifling cost.’


Eager though she was, she hesitated still.  “What is this cost?’


“One full year after you be queen,

‘I’ll take one small thing that you’ve never seen

It shall be mine, which is not yours yet

And without my help, you’ll never get.”


“Then – I am to give you something I won’t have in the first place unless you help me?  And not until I have been queen a year?”


The fae smiled once more, and nodded.


“Then I would be a fool to decline” She announced.  And so the first bargain was struck.


* * *


That night, as she brewed her potion, with the King watching her fondly, she spoke the words the fae had told her.


“My own blood, on a thorn of rose;

A hair plucked from a wild boar’s nose;

Oaken heart, picked at noon;

Stirred clockwise with a silver spoon.

Drink this down, and you shall hold

The power to turn all things to gold.’


With trembling hands, she gave the potion to the king.  ‘My dear’ he said ‘If this works, I shall know you are as skilled as you are pretty, and I swear I shall marry you.’


And he toasted her health, and drank it all.


The next day, before it was even fully light, she went back to the place where she had found the heart of oak.


The fae was waiting for her.


“Is your fiancé not well-pleased?

Now that his money woes have eased?”


“No, he is bloody well not!  You KNEW, didn’t you? Everything and everyone he touches turns to gold, like it or no.  He is furious, and yet he has sworn to marry me, because the potion did work, though not as we hoped. And now he says he will not break a vow, but marry me tomorrow, and once we are wed, he will kiss me and have a golden wife.” And she fell, as before, to the ground, sobbing.


“Dry your tears, my child, I’ll help you twice

There’s an antidote – but there’s a price.’


Desperate though she was, she hesitated still. “What is this price?’


“On the day your son is born,

‘I’ll take one thing that you’ve never worn’

It shall be mine, which is not yours yet,

And without my help, you’ll never get.”


“I am to have a child? Perhaps he will forgive me this blunder, if I give him a son to rule after him. And all for the price of some dress or trinket made for a queen?”


The fae smiled once more, and nodded.


“Then I would be a fool to decline” She announced.  And so the second bargain was struck.


That night, she brewed her potion in private, in the king’s own bedchamber, the frozen golden eyes of Jack seeming to follow her every move.  She spoke the words the fae had told her.


“Royal blood, from the king’s left toe;

A feather from a one-eyed crow;

Oaken heart, picked at dawn;

Stirred clockwise with a spoon of horn.

Drink this down, it will restore

You to the way you were before.”


With trembling hands, she gave the potion to the king.  Wordlessly, he drank it.


* * *


It was nearly a year before she visited the place where the oak heart grew, and this time, she went in secret, at night, a shawl wrapped around her protruding belly.


The fae was waiting for her.


“Is your husband happy now, in truth

Since he has regained his youth?”


“Regained his bloody youth, you call it?  I am carrying the child of a child! ‘Restore you to the way you were before’? Entirely true, I suppose.  He’s growing younger at such a rate, he will be a baby before ours in born!  And then what will happen to him?”


“As to that, I can only guess

I suspect that it will make a mess.”


The fae smiled, as if the prospect excited and amused him in equal measure.


“And what shall become of me? If it were not for the child in my belly, they’d have killed me for treason already!” And she fell, as before, to the ground, sobbing.


“Dry your tears, my child, I’ll help once more

But this time you won’t be so sure.’


She had no choice, but she hesitated still. “What is it this time?’ she asked with a sigh.


“Just one hour before you die,

‘You’ll give me what will make you cry.

It shall be mine, though you’ll regret it,

Without your help, I’d never get it.”


She stepped back and placed her hands over her belly protectively. The fae laughed derisively.


“No, not your son – he’s already cursed

For he was what you gave me first;

Nor your crown,  though that is hexed

For that is what you gave me next;

This time you’ll give what I want best

Your father’s heart cut from his chest!”


“I shall not!” she announced hotly.


“For true, the choice is yours, King’s wife –

I cannot make you wield the knife.

But…if you do, I’ll make a deal:

If my true name you can reveal

By the time you drop your whelp

The brat shall live, and with my help.

I’ll let your child stay alive

As a changeling, he will thrive…

But if you cannot find my name

His fate will be the very same

As your father: I shall dine

Upon his heart, his blood my wine.

And you shall watch me as I feast.

Your son has some small chance at least.”


And so the third and final bargain was struck.


The truth of how it ends is lost, as the kingdom is lost, somewhere in the wild woods.


There are some who say she found the name by wresting it from the memory of her father.  She had him tell her all the names of fae he had killed, and their families, before plunging the knife into his chest and butchering him. Some short time later, the fae had his gruesome banquet as she laboured nearby, her lifeblood draining into the earth as she brought into the world the child who would grow up to be the fairy king of the dying kingdom, before it was consumed by the wild woods.


Others say that for all that she begged, pleaded, and finally tortured her own father to find the name, it was never in his power to give, for the fae guard their names more carefully than the most grasping of misers guards his gold. And that she guessed, frantically, at all the names she had ever heard, and many she had not, as the fae calmly devoured her father, piece by piece, organ by organ, in front of her very eyes, and she tried to ignore the labour pains that tore through her body.


They say that the last thing she saw was her infant son’s heart, impaled upon the needle-sharp teeth of the fae, who wore her crown, perched jauntily upon his head, as the kingdom burnt outside.  And the last thing she heard was his mocking laughter,  and these words:


Your words are like your own true name

For another they won’t mean the same

Never trust those who would sell

Words so freely, wrought so well.


To bind with the alchemic flame

Only your own words you claim

There can be no one else to blame

Your words are like your own true name.


Your words are like your own true name

Not for another soul to tame.

Never give your words away

Or there will be no more to say.


To bind with the alchemic flame

Only your own words you claim

There can be no one else to blame

Your words are like your own true name.


By Nicky Lawrence