Exploration - archeology and ancient civilizations Fantasy style
Porda Hoight, roused from drowsy meditation, got slowly and carefully to his feet. His back ached, bone grinding against bone, which he could both feel and hear as an internalized, grating scream. His left knee almost gave way under him and he clutched the scarred edge of the table for support and closed his eyes, drawing in breath with a hiss and a shudder. The knocking came again, from two directions, faintly echoing through the house, loud under his window.
“Yes, yes!” he said. “Wait. Only wait.”
He reached for his stick and hobbled with painful steps toward the door, taking up a candle in his left hand and making his way through rooms and passages once grand, but now in an advanced state of dilapidation and decay. He failed to notice that a mosaic depicting the Twelve Virtues had lost a few more tiles, or that a tapestry of the Duke of Thurguard Leading the Ninth Cavalry to Victory at Kalos had fallen from the wall and lay in a mouldering heap of discoloured threads.
The knocking sounded again as he reached the door, an insistent hammering that rattled the rusted hinges and caused plaster to trickle from the ceiling high above. This drifted down and lightly dusted Porda’s gray head and the once-black, moth-eaten wool of his coat. He placed the candle on a side-table and made an ineffectual attempt to brush away the flakes, all the while muttering in resentful agitation.
“Yes, yes,” he scolded the door. “Patience, please!”
He shuffled to the door and wrestled with the bolt, managing to pinch his thumb when it shot home. The key next, he grasped its iron head and wrenched it upward, simultaneously forcing it to turn. The hinges had dropped and the door rested heavily against the stone. In addition, winter damp had swelled the wood so Porda struggled to pull the door open and was eventually assisted in his efforts by those waiting outside.
Two people stood on the step. Porda waited for them to speak, breathless from his struggle with the door. He was short-sighted, and peered doubtfully at the blurred shapes in front of him, further thwarted by the darkness and the thin rain that fell. One was male and the other female, but beyond that he was unsure, even as to their ages. His hand dropped to his pocket before he remembered he’d misplaced his glasses some time during the afternoon. In the library. He’d had them in the library...
“We wish to speak with Porda Hoight,” The man spoke. He had a young voice and his tone was not impolite.
“I am Porda Hoight. What is it you want?” He thought they exchanged a glance of surprise and he felt flustered and shamed. “I have an assistant, a student from the University. He lodges there, in rooms at the College, you know...” he coughed and broke off. The visitors showed no sign of embarrassment, but bowed and introduced themselves as Dav Talbertson and Melia Rowe, of Wending Duchy.
“Sir, we have a message,” the woman said. “Lady Carola Furnival, a representative of our Master, Lord Garolt, Duke of Wendingstone, has travelled to meet with you. She respectfully requests the pleasure of your company at her rooms at the Gatehouse Inn.”
“May I ask,” Porda said, allowing the door to support him to ease the ache in his knee, “why? Why does this lady wish to see me?”
“You were mentioned to his Grace as an expert in your field,” she told him.
Porda was flattered. He fought against the urge to break into a glad smile and frowned in what he hoped was a scholarly way. “Um, well...I hope... that is, I am extremely gratified.”
“Then is it convenient for you to meet with Lady Carola?” the man asked.
“Is this a convenient time?”
“I had imagined... in the morning? My assistant will be here then,” Porda said. The hint of urgency was making him uneasy. His expertise was in the dating and authenticating of ancient historical artefacts, and also in the study of extinct languages. Present time was not usually of the essence. Ancient tablets and manuscripts that had survived a thousand years were not transitory phenomena, to crumble to dust within the space of a few hours. In all Porda’s years of study, haste had only been necessary when he’d been attempting to beat a rival who was about to publish similar work.
The worrying thought struck him that he might be missing some new development. How long is it since I visited the Colleges? He thought. It must be almost a year. Each winter the cold and damp worsened the arthritis in his knee and he suffered more and more from excruciating pains in his back and left hip. He wondered if he was becoming a recluse and decided abruptly that he must make more of an effort to remain up to date. He straightened as much as he was able, ignoring the sharp twinge of pain that stabbed in the base of his spine, and took a firmer grasp of his stick.
“No,” he said. “It’s not so late. I can go with you now. I would not like to keep anyone waiting. Please will you come in while I find my coat?”
Moving much faster now, with a grim determination, Porda located his glasses lying beside an open book in the library and wrapped himself in his coat and a long, woolen scarf. He took some time to fill a case with a variety of small magnifying lenses, pen and ink and some paper to take notes. In a speckled mirror above the mantelpiece in his study, he gazed unenthusiastically at his reflection and removed a smudge of ink from his left cheek, wishing he’d done as he’d intended and sent his coat to be cleaned. He considered writing a note to his assistant, Fernand, but dismissed this idea when the clock chimed in the hall, reminding him of the lateness of the hour.
Dav Talbertson and Melia Rowe were smart but unostentatious in dark fabrics suitable for upper servants. He could see, now that he had his glasses, that they were both young, Talbertson only in his twenties, while Melia was a few years older. She had a pleasant, open countenance though her teeth were a little crooked, and Dav, despite a sallow skin and hollow cheeks, managed to appear cheerful. They were solicitous of his comfort, assisting him into the carriage they had kept waiting, and Porda thought what a comfort it must be to be able to employ good servants. He himself had only a daily woman, who seemed to come and go quite as she chose and who could occasionally be persuaded to cook meals or wash clothes. He seldom spoke to her, had forgotten her name. Sometimes he would hear her in the house, but avoided her as assiduously as she avoided him, locking himself in the library. On the increasingly rare days when she was in a good temper an enticing smell would eventually draw him out of hiding. A plate of hot food would be waiting for him in the dining room, often accompanied by a cryptic note hinting at some new problem. Damp, she’d write, or Mould growing. Porda ignored these most of the time, but now and then a particularly bizarre message would pique his curiosity enough that he’d append the note with a question; Where? or Please elucidate? He was left none the wiser as her answers were generally not helpful. Look, she would scrawl in reply, or Tuesday and, on one memorable occasion, Secret Saucepan Cupboard.
He sat in the carriage, massaging his back and pondering whether, if he ever saw his maid again, he could summon up the will-power to dismiss her. He speculated about why Lady Carola Furnival wished to consult with him, and the strange implied urgency. Maybe the Duke is an amateur historian, he thought, and wishes to publish his findings. Maybe he wants to make a gift to the King himself and wants me to verify the antecedents of the gift! This idea pleased him. He was not an ardent monarchist, but the thought that he might be in some small way be working for royalty was a gratifying one. The gentle rocking motion and the sound of the horses’ hooves made him nod and he caught himself several times on the verge of dropping off to sleep before the carriage stopped.
The Gatehouse was not the most expensive of the City’s inns, but it was the largest, and had a reputation for cleanliness, efficiency and good food. Porda, his knee stiff and painful again from sitting awkwardly braced in the carriage, hobbled along with no attention to spare for the sights and sounds of the inn, or the aromas wafting from the restaurant areas and the kitchens. He grimaced and squinted, forcing his left knee to bend at every step. His hands and forehead were damp with perspiration by the time he was shown into the private sitting-room that Carola Furnival had taken.
It was a large, airy space, supplied with every civilized comfort, yet possessing that impersonal blandness that characterizes the hired room. Melia and Dav withdrew at this point and coming toward him, smiling a greeting, was a woman who had to be Carola Furnival.