We have always been men of obsession, my brother and I. Even when we were young, left to wander the dark and stony halls of our ancestral home by parents who were disinterested and distracted by turns, we dwelt in our single-minded worlds. We rarely spoke in those days; I had already embarked on my calling, learning the alchemical arts from my father's long-abandoned laboratory, but Georg flitted between painting, horsemanship, and weapon training, like a butterfly in a field of succulent wildflowers. My brother was a child of the light, a cruel irony that is never lost on me during these annual pilgrimages to his cave. I often wonder if he still remembers the sun.
The knight is beside me, as he so often is these days, still pleading his helpless case. (His battle must be long-forfeited, but I can only assume he is beyond caring.) We have not exchanged names; he has never thought to ask for mine, and I would prefer not to know his, lest the rolls of the doomed grow any longer in my mind. With luck, this errand shall convince him of the fate of those who unwisely accept my potions. We speak rarely on this journey, and only to say when our mounts need rest or it is time to make camp, because I am ill-disposed to listen to the endless prattle that would fall from his mouth were I to let him open it needlessly. We ride in silence. Perhaps the knight thinks this is another test; I do not care.
At midday on the fifth day of our silent journey, we emerge from the forest and into the foothills of the Black Mountains. My donkey knows the twisting trails well, but the knight's courser balks, and progress is slow. Nonetheless, we reach the mouth of my brother's cave by twilight. I tie the donkey to the sturdiest of the dead trees near the cave mouth, and the knight has enough sense, at least, to follow my lead. He lights a torch -- I do not need one -- and I step into the cave to announce my arrival. "Georg? Midsummer has passed. I am here."
"Come in, brother," he calls back in a voice like old parchment. "Who carries your light?"
"One who needs it."
I enter, and the knight follows, as I knew he must. My brother's chamber lies far back in the cave, and I navigate the twisting passages and slick stone by long practice more than my senses; it is almost a surprise that the knight can match my pace. (I had entertained the thought that, were he to stumble and dash his head in, it would resolve the problem quite neatly. I am not a kind man by nature.) The chamber itself is small, easily missed for the average spelunker, and I shimmy in by the narrow crack in the wall that serves as its doorway. The knight must slouch and contort himself to follow me; how he keeps hold of his torch, I neither know nor care.
Inside, my brother huddles in his nest; he has not risen to meet his visitors, and I did not expect him to. His constant hunt keeps him still, save for the swift motion of his hands to capture the prey... and, of course, his mouth. When he speaks, it is with the slurred, crunching sound of his taking his constant meal. "Already midsummer? Time goes so swiftly these days. You have the tincture?"
"Of course," I say. "Have I ever failed you? Drink well." I pull the waterskin of tincture from my side, open it, and step forward to place it in his hand. He drinks greedily; he may have pretended not to know the season, but I can see he held the ache for the potion in his bones. Wavering of the torch-shadow and the sound of faltering steps tells me that the knight, too, is edging closer.
I step away from Georg to regard the night, and I note with some satisfaction that he finally bears the expression of queasy awe that he should have worn from the beginning of his potion investigation. (I am not a kind man.) He speaks not with the voice of the headstrong knight-errant I know, the one who expects his orders to be obeyed, but with the voice of a shaken boy. "S-sir Georg? The hero of Alvar's Bridge?"
"Alvar's Bridge was a long time ago," my brother replies, his weary and cracking voice returning to its more comfortable mutter. "I am Sir Georg no longer."
"But you live! Sir Georg, the court believes you dead. Even now, Lady Elena plans her remarriage! You must return and correct her error!"
"Why do you think she errs, young knight? When this affliction came upon me, she agreed to honor my memory and live as a hero's widow. Do you really think I would imprison her as a madman's wife? If she and the children are happy, all is well. Are they well, brother?"
"They fare well," I say. "Kaja continues her studies at the Royal Academy, and Olev is learning the trade routes from Lord Laurits and his company. Elena's intended is the Royal Astronomer; I have not met the man, but if he mistreated her or the children, our cousins would have slit his throat."
"But what is your affliction?" cries the knight. "What sickness could drive you to such a dark and dreadful place? There are many fine physicians at the capital; you need not find succor from this knave's potions! He has surely deceived you!"
"He is my brother," says Georg, at a whisper now. "Even were he not, only he can help me, for it is his potions that caused the affliction. The imbalance of humors means that I must feast on spiders' ichor, as much as I can swallow, and the mitigating tincture that sustains me. Kuningalinna is a fine city, but unless it is much darker and dustier than I remember, all its physicians could not catch enough spiders to feed me!" He laughs dustily, and the effort makes him cough, which sprays oily droplets of tincture and unchewed chitin onto the floor of the chamber.
The knight turns on me now, rage in his eyes. "So this was your doing! You ruined your own brother, a hero of the realm, with some foul poison! You craven, wretched creature -- is this why you would not sell me a potion? Would the ruination of another brave knight have brought you the justice you only too clearly deserve? I would run you through here and now, you filth, if it would not doom Sir Georg!"
"Silence, young man!" My brother has risen to his feet, and in that moment, I can see his youthful strength again. Perhaps the tincture has done its work well this season, or perhaps the spiders more ably sustain him than any could have known. "Without the power of his potions, I would have died at Alvar's Bridge, and the kingdom with me! I would have gladly died to hold the bridge, and living, however rudely, is good enough. That reminds me -- did you bring any new books, brother?"
"A few." I rummage through my bag and withdraw the bundles, wrapped in oilcloth to protect against the mold and damp. "The capital's presses favor poetry and natural philosophy at the moment. Pigments are very dear this season, but I brought you charcoals and board. Will that serve well enough?" I stack my parcels in the pile of oilcloths and rubble that serves as Georg's library -- a crude one, but supplied as best I am able along with my tincture deliveries. I am not a kind man, but I am a man who pays my debts.
"Charcoal will suit. I ought to sketch again; it has been a season or two. Thank you, brother. If there is nothing else, young knight?" George retrieves one of the new bundles of books before returning to his seat, one hand reflexively returning to the eternal hunt. These visits always take time away from the cruel schedule he must keep; with the tincture, there is little chance a stray kindness might kill him, but the volatility of his humors must always be considered. The knight has nothing more to say, by some strange miracle, and he lets me lead him out of the cave and back towards our mounts.
His silence is too fine an opportunity to neglect, and I speak before he can break it. "Do you see, knight? This is the power of my potions! Even the mighty Sir Georg is now the man you see -- a lesser man would have fallen dead when the first drop hit his tongue! Do you understand, now, why I cannot sell them to any wandering fool with some silly jousting match to win? Let the charlatans sell you their herbs! I will not disrespect my art by allowing it to kill you."
"It is always your art! It is always your potions! Is there nothing in the world that you can imagine being above them? My quest is not 'some silly jousting match'; my family's land and honor hang in the balance!" The knight meets my eyes, and in his gaze, I see a familiar and unexpected fire. Long ago, when I first compounded the Infusion of Russula from my father's abandoned notes, I saw the same fire in the eyes of my reflection in the laboratory glass; years later, in the encampment north of Alvar's Bridge, the flames smoldered behind Georg's stoic expression as he asked me for my strongest and most efficacious potions. Perhaps this knight has a spark of true obsession in him after all.
"Affliction is a nigh-certainty, young knight," I say, holding his gauze to test just how true that spark of obsession might be. "Death is a possibility. You would risk this for the sake of the finest potions in the kingdom?"
He is stolid, unwavering, a man utterly consumed. "Yes! I would risk it a thousand times! How often must I tell you?!"
"Very well, then." I untie my donkey and prepare to follow the winding trail once again. "We have a long ride ahead of us. If you truly think yourself worthy, tell me of your quest, and perhaps we will reach an agreement." He has scarcely mounted his courser before he begins to speak.
Perhaps I have doomed this man to an agonizing death or a lifetime of spider ichor. Perhaps I have doomed myself to a long, boring return journey and the inevitability of further dissuasion once I return to my workshop. But perhaps, perhaps, I have found myself a new customer at last.