Chapter 8

Porda had never before travelled so comfortably. Lady Carola's carriage was luxurious, fitted with wide seats upholstered in rich red velvet, the floor carpeted and the walls covered with padded cream silk. The wheels were fitted with a mechanism of the latest design which ensured that however bad the road, inside the carriage it was almost possible to believe they were not moving at all. The horses where quiet and well-matched and Lady Carola's servants unerringly polite and although the seats of the carriage were long and spacious enough to make excellent beds, they stopped every evening at the best inns where Lady Carola unfailingly commandeered the most expensive rooms. Porda ached, but not as much as he'd feared and often suffered more discomfort from the large, delicious meals he found set before him than from his back and knee-joints. He was, he thought contentedly, putting on a good deal of weight.

His travelling companion was also a source of pleasure. He enjoyed hearing Lady Carola's amateur theories and opinions on various aspects of Laetic culture for the great satisfaction it gave him to guide and correct her. He listened to her with the indulgence of a father to a favourite child and was highly gratified to observe his assistant's resentment and disbelief.

His assistant, Frederick, had been very quiet and miserable most of the way. He vaguely recalled the boy making some objections to the trip, something about a family occasion. Porda had dismissed this as unimportant. He could not visit nobility without an assistant - it might harm his reputation, and worse, hint at shameful poverty. He'd been forced to threaten the boy with instant dismissal, trying to disguise his fear, appalled at the thought that Frederick might not back down. But the boy had agreed - had apparently believed him. Now however, Porda was beginning to regret bringing him. He would not enter into any discussions, his note-taking was slapdash, he pulled faces and rolled his eyes at so many of the things Lady Carola said that Porda became terrified she would notice and be offended. He longed to banish Frederick to sit in the second carriage with Dav and Melia, but did not see how he could do this since it was Lady Carola herself who had generously allowed Frederick join them.

But if he was a source of irritation in the day, Frederick was a boon at night. In addition to making up the sachets for Porda's arthritis, he was become quite expert at brewing a concoction of wormwood, caraway and aloe - an excellent aid to digestive trouble.

It was on the fourth morning that the travelling caught up with Porda. He thought he must have slept cramped somehow, turning in the night. The pain in his leg on waking brought tears into his eyes and he bit his tongue, biting back a scream and whimpering. It was as much as he could manage, for several minutes, to lie still and not break into angry, bitter sobs. The pain was centred in his knee, clawing and tearing agony, as if an animal had seized him and was biting down with all its strength. Like the flow of a fast stream this pain shot itself up into his hip, lacing hot circles around his joints and spine.

When he moved it was inch by agonizing inch. Hissing between clenched teeth he manoeuvred himself to the edge of the bed and sat up, pulling up his night-gown while fumbling for his glasses so he could look at his leg. For all that it felt as if it was about to burst into flames his knee was only slightly more swollen than usual. Porda cursed it. Irrational anger made him want to attack it, tear out the pain even if it meant cutting off his leg. He reached for the dregs of last night's sachet and drank, then sat with his eyes closed, his hands curled into tight fists. Finally he grasped his stick and stood, stiff and aching, wincing with every movement. He managed to don his clothes and shoes though the effort left him panting and damp with sour sweat.

He mixed up another sachet, took it cold with the water from the ewer and waited until the pain receded to a more manageable level and he was able to think. According to Lady Carola they should arrive today at the Duke of Wendingstone's Estate. Porda clung to that knowledge. Another day of travelling and he would be unable to move at all, he thought. The pain was still very bad when they set off. He sat in the carriage awkwardly, trying to seem as usual, unaware his smile often slipped into a grimace.

Lady Carola, who had been talking with increased excitement - now they were almost at their destination - about the antiquities on display, paused mid-sentence.

"Are you feeling well, Professor Hoight?"

Her question roused him. "Um, thank you my Lady, quite well. Perhaps a little travel-weary - but please, it's of no consequence."

"We will be at Dorellin House by late this afternoon," she said. She smiled sympathetically. "I am sure the Duke is eagerly awaiting our arrival and he will see to your every need."

"There is no need, I assure you."

"Oh, his Grace is always most attentive to his guests. Dorellin House is famed for its hospitality and comfort."

Porda, uneasy with the topic, sought to bring her back to discussing the Duke's museum. "My Lady, you were saying? About the later pieces?"

"Of course, the stone. The later pieces - the stone they used differs from the earlier artefacts. Why do you think they did that?"

"Customs change over time...a quarry was emptied... there could be any number of reasons...most likely linked to their mysticism and what they named Alath-Emain - the Ruling Road or in some translations the Narrow Way. It is all linked to their religious rites. Their beliefs evolved - so too did their carvings and artworks."

"His Grace believes - we believe - it is linked to what is referred to in one text as the Rite of Transference. "


"What did the Rite of Transference involve?"

"My Lady, no one knows. Nothing survives that describes it. All we have are conjectures drawn from dubious sources and the artefacts themselves. It was one of their most scared rituals, and the most secret. It was performed by only a handful of the most senior priests and the only witnesses were the ruling family - the Emperor or Empress and his or her immediate kin. Not only that but it was in use for little more than two centuries and then was abandoned for reasons we cannot guess. All references to it cease quite suddenly. The secret is lost forever I fear."

"Perhaps," she shook her head and laughed. "Or perhaps, Professor, you will discover something in our collection that will be the key to its understanding!"

"I hope that it may be so," Porda said, nodding politely.

Frederick shifted in his seat. He was twenty, slightly built without being thin, with thick copper curls teased into the unkempt style currently in fashion amongst the more impoverished young scholars. He would have been handsome if not for the perpetual sulky pout of his lower lip, which gave him a look of a spoiled little boy who had just been punished. Porda glanced at him irritably.

"They stored magic in the stones," Frederick said.

"Indeed..." Porda began. He was about to put his assistant in his place when he became aware Lady Carola was leaning forward, her eyes shining.

"Yes, that is exactly what I believe," she said fervently.

Frederick looked sideways at Porda and the corner of his mouth twitched as he turned back to Lady Carola. "It is thought to be a special quality of the stone," he stated authoritatively. "Professor Lomar made it the subject of his book Memories of Stone."

"A fanciful title," Porda sniffed.

"Yes, but a riveting theory," Lady Carola said, beaming at them both.

Lady Carola and Frederick then plunged into an enthusiastic debate, praising the brilliance of Professor Lomar's work. Porda seethed. His only comfort was that Lomar had been dead for thirty years. He'd never liked the man. Professor Lomar had been one of his tutors and had once thrown a book at him. It had been a heavy, leather-bound volume entitled Aspects of Galbeyian Culture and Society: The Ry-Aalaba Dynasty and the Development of Modern Warfare. Porda had borne the mark on his brow for a week. He wished he had a book to hand so he could do the same to Frederick, but the knowledge that even if he had he would never dare to do such a thing, angered him still more.

When the two finally paused to take a breath Porda coughed. "Hmm," he said. "Rumour and legend do not make for a valid theory. Lomar's downfall was his inability to provide any concrete, unbiased proof of his wild ideas. Oh, he might have spent half a century gathering old wives tales and listening to exaggerated, unsubstantiated anecdotes, but his methods were unscientific at best. At worst, he was a fantasist. A more biased account is not to be found! His name was made because this is precisely the kind of thing that appeals to the mind of a layman."

Frederick scowled and was silent. Lady Carola flushed, but eyed Porda closely.

"Then it is his methods you abhor?" she asked.

"Of course my Lady," Porda said, bowing his head slightly.

"But not his ideas? However, wild?"

"My Lady," Porda said with great dignity. "A true scientist always strives to keep an open mind. The more he learns, the more he is convinced only of the breadth of his ignorance. What is known today is often disproved tomorrow." His knee gave a twinge and frowned at Frederick. "This is but one of the things my assistant must learn if he is to make any successes in this field."

"Not to leap to conclusions," Frederick intoned sourly. "Yes, Professor, but..."

"My Lady," Porda said, interrupting. "May I ask if you are swayed then by Lomar's theories? Do you subscribe to his beliefs?"

"I..." she hesitated. "Well of course I can't be certain, but..." She stopped again, frowning, gathering her thoughts. "Yes, I do believe. And... No, perhaps not in all of his assertions, but as you say - he is giving accounts of tales told, and often to a third party. But if the legends are so widespread - as they are - the beliefs so long-standing, does not that very longevity give some credence to the theory? Have we not learned that before we were able to write such things down, histories and the details of real events in the world were passed on by word of mouth? That they were made into ballads and tales as an aid to memory?"

Porda wondered briefly if she'd had more to say but thought better of it. She was tense, watching him, half in hope, and half in doubt. "But where is the tale that does not grow in the telling?" he asked. "The natural bias of an orator will lead him to give greater weight to some parts of a history, while reducing others. Details will be added, subtracted, events exaggerated to give greater effect. And any storyteller will also take into account the prejudice of his audience. It is like the whisper that travels across a large room - it can change out of all recognition. If one sentence cannot remain intact in the hands of only a dozen people, what hope has an old tale, which has had centuries in the growing and has passed through the hands of hundreds?"

Lady Carola leaned back and smiled. "Again I find myself thanking heaven you agreed to come to Dorellin House. I will say no more now, than that I have hopes our collection will shed further light on this mystery - and that you Professor, will be the one to guide us. Your methods are precisely what we lack. The painstaking gathering of evidence can only lead us to the truth, whereas conjecture and assumption can only lead us astray."

"I don't see..." Frederick began.

"There is a lot you don't see," Porda snapped, losing his temper.

Lady Carola tactfully changed the subject, asking Frederick how he liked his studies and whether he belonged to any clubs. Frederick was hampered in this topic by the fact that Porda sat at his side. Depending on who asked, Frederick could make his life and work sound the most appalling drudgery in which he was constantly belittled and overlooked, or a fascinating and thrilling round of parties, at which he met and was praised by a never-ending succession of extremely important and influential people. He was forced now to relate something nearer the truth. Long before they reached their destination he had lapsed into silence.


The End

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