Vance stopped at the high wrought iron gates and looked up the path at the old three story house that loomed up the hill. It looked old and gloomy, squatting on the hill waiting for the end of days. The day was getting on into early evening and it was a testament to the sense of humor of the gods that it was also overcast with occasional flashes of lightening in the distance. Adjusting his satchel and heaving a sigh, Vance pushed the gate opened. It creaked ominously because it had to.
He passed between the mossy stone walls covered in vines. Taking a brief look at the house before him he courteously closed the gate behind him. He came unarmed. Mostly. He didn’t carry his sword but he still had a fair assortment of knives on him. He hadn’t lived into his forties by being careless. He followed the path up the slight hill and arrived at the large wooden door to the house. The porch creaked beneath his boots. Vance looked at the wood surrounding the door. It looked like, at one time, the house had been painted blue. Now it was more of a gray color and the paint was flaking off, giving the impression of tree bark.
There was a large brass doorknocker that he grabbed. After a moment of fighting corrosion and dirt he lifted the ring and then let go. After the ring declined to fall back down he forced it down making a loud booming noise. And he waited. He wrestled with the ring again and created another booming knock. Then he waited again. He turned to survey the surroundings behind him. A huge sweeping lawn was laid out before him, filled with trees of some sort or another. Or, at least, Vance imagined that’s what it may have looked like at one time in the distant past. Instead, patches of bare dirt were interrupted by patches of green-brown grass. Twisted stumps and stunted dead trees dotted the landscape. The place hadn’t so much as fallen into disrepair than leapt head first into a well of decay.
He was about to try his luck with the knocker again but the great wooden door creaked open half an inch. An old shaky voice from within said, “Yes?”
“Good evening, good sir,” said Vance with a courteous nod of his head. “I have been summoned here by the master of the manor. Lord Hemtile, I believe, is expecting me. My name is Vance Toronado.”
The door opened further showing an ancient man dressed in a butler’s uniform. He wheezed back, “I’m no sir. I’m just Haldred.”
They stood there a moment. Haldred showed no signs of moving or inviting the adventurer in. “I see,” ventured Vance. “Well then, good si- Haldred, may I see the lord of the manor?”
Haldred nodded, although Vance wasn’t sure if he was assenting or just being old. Eventually Haldred moved aside letting Vance into the large hall and then pushed shut the door behind him. It closed with a boom despite Haldred’s feeble attempts at movement.
“The master is,” Haldred paused gathering breath, “expecting you. Please follow me.”
The hall was large and dimly lit with standing candelabra surrounding the tiled floor. In the gloom Vance could see a large staircase leading upwards into darkness. High above he could make out huge chandelier, dark and covered in cobwebs. He wondered how long it had been since it had been lit. Then he wondered how it could be lit. He imagined kitchen boys being lowered from the ceiling with tapers. Meanwhile, Haldred had shuffled forward towards the stairs. Vance walked a couple of steps forward and then paused letting the old man creep ahead of him. He began to worry that they would have to take the stairs. That could take an eternity. Thankfully, Haldred had veered off to the right towards a hallway, lit with lanterns set into the walls. Even with the light the hallway was a gloomy passageway filled with flickering shadows.
They continued at a slow pace. Halder’s shuffling forward and Vance taking a few steps before stopping so he wouldn’t run the old fellow over. He thought about just pushing past the butler or picking him up like a valise but that didn’t seem like the polite thing to do.
After a while they both entered a large room, an office of sorts, which was lit by candles and a large fireplace, which had a large inferno blazing within it. It cast quite a bit of light and Vance could see the entire wood paneled room.
In front of the fire sat an old man in an old chair. To Vance’s surprise he looked even older than the butler. He didn’t turn his head but spoke in a strong, clear, voice.
“Ah, Mr Toronado. I’m glad you could make it. Please, have a seat.” Lord Hemtile gestured towards another chair. “Haldred, please bring us tea and then leave us to talk.”
Vance took the offered seat, sitting gingerly in case he roused a cloud of dust. It was old, but quite comfortable. Both chairs were set rather near the fire making Vance a little uncomfortable. The blaze didn’t do much to show details of his company, though. An old face, lined with wrinkles and a sharply hooked nose. The shadows from the wrinkles and creases caused features to be more obscured than highlighted. Silently, he wondered how long the tea would be as Haldred shuffled back into the darkness.
“You are probably wondering why I requested your presence, Mr Toronado.”
Vance nodded. Then, because he couldn’t be certain that the old man had seen him since he didn’t look over to him, he said, “Yes sir. And, please, just Vance.”
“When I was a lad, years ago, there was another house on these lands. It’s still there, but it’s mostly ruins. My great grandfather lived there. Later, this house was built by my father since he couldn’t stand living with his father or grandfather.
“Anyhow, he didn’t get along with them but I did. Long ago, my great grandfather had a necklace that he would wear.” He paused. “For special occasions.” He coughed a dry hacking cough. “It was, I believe, a silver chain with a ruby in a silver setting.” Hemtile paused again. “It’s been a very long time and my memory isn’t what it used to be. Please, help yourself to the tea.”
Startled, Vance looked down at the table between them. It had been there before, but it had been empty. Now there was a silver tea set, still steaming. Two cups had been poured. He took one by the saucer and sipped it. He didn’t recognize the taste, but it seemed safe enough. It bothered him, though, that he hadn’t noticed the old butler shuffling his way into the room to deliver the service.
Hemtile continued his story without taking his tea. “My days are coming to an end, Mr Toronado, and I would like to see my great grandfather’s necklace again. Being young when I knew him, that article of jewelry is a strong remembrance of him. I’ve inventoried the things in this house but the necklace is not among the things brought over from the old house. I suspect it got left behind. I would like you to find it for me.”
Vance took another sip of tea. “You want me to go through the old house and find this necklace. Are you sure your great grandfather wasn’t buried with it? Perhaps that’s why it wasn’t brought here.”
“Oh, no,” replied Hemtile. “I’m quite sure he wasn’t. I believe it was kept down in the cellar, where the treasury is.”
“I see,” said Vance. “And, if I may ask, why me? It sounds like a fairly simple assignment.”
Hemtile wheezed a short laugh. “I’m afraid years of abandonment and disrepair may have made the place a haven for wildlife. There are bears about, you see, and wild boar. Probably other creatures as well. The house was built a long, long, time ago when secret entrances were in vogue. It’s entirely possible animals have gotten in from numerous places. I met someone a few years ago. A Mr Greenwood. We talked and he mentioned your name as an adventurer who might be interested in such a job.”
“Franklin Greenwood?” Vance asked. “I haven’t seen him in,” he tried working out the years,” a very long time. Where is he now?”
Shrugging, Hemtile said, “I don’t know. He said he wanted to sail to the Green Isles. Evidently there was some war starting up there and he thought he could contribute.”
“He’s quite the mercenary,” Vance said. “If he’s still around.”
Hemtile gestured behind him, to a desk with rolled up parchments laying on it. “I have plans to the house and partial plans to the cellars. The treasury is shown on the maps. I would suggest taking your crew.”
Vance had set down his tea and walked over to the desk, glancing at the parchments and trying to see them in the flickering light. “Oh, I don’t have a crew anymore. They either retired or died. If I were to take this job I’d have to hire some people. On that point, how much are you paying?”
“Three thousand gold, Mr Toronado. Plus, a few things from the treasury if there’s anything still down there.”
Vance whistled. “That’s a lot of money, Lord Hemtile.”
“I can afford it. And I am old. And it’s a small price to pay for the remembrance of a beloved family member. So, will you take the job?”