The Road To Angkor
June 1st, 1984
Shielding her eyes from the dust, Lara watched the number 60B bus chug back down the hill in a rumble of exhaust fumes. An infinitely more romantic horse-drawn carriage stood waiting to ferry visitors from the Lainzer Tor gate up to the illustrious Hermesvilla, but that was not Lara's destination.
She had splashed her hot face in the fountain by the visitor's centre, double-checked that the letter from Von Croy was still safely folded in her coat pocket, hitched up her bulky travel rucksack and began marching up the winding road that led through the preserve. Planes, trams and buses had brought her this far, but she wanted to get a feel for the countryside before finally meeting the famous archaeologist at his home.
At least, a voice in her head muttered, that was her excuse.
My dear Lara,
I do indeed remember you from one of the lectures I gave at your high school. Although I regret my schedule did not permit me to stay longer, I was most impressed by the conversations we shared and I do feel that you are quite the remarkable girl. I am most honored that you wish to accompany me on my journey as my assistant, and I will be pleased to welcome you at my estate in Vienna, Austria on the 1st of June, so that we can go over some final details before we set out on our adventure.
Werner Von Croy
She remembered standing in her father's office barely three weeks ago, resisting the urge to fidget as Lord Croft scanned the letter and accompanying kit list. He wore his customary charcoal-grey suit and a crisp shirt of finest Egyptian cotton. Not for the first time Lara secretly thought Winston must have used a spirit-level to get the creases so perfect.
The glacier-blue eyes had lifted to meet his daughter's hazel ones.
"Well, everything seems in order. Have the arrangements been made?" Not waiting for an answer he tossed the letter back to her and began rummaging in his desk. It was a handsome barrier to keep between him and the world at large; polished walnut with an antique alabaster inkstand and green leather blotter. "I still expect you to hand your assignments in before you depart. This is not a holiday, but a serious expedition. Kindly do not give Von Croy reason to send you home early, understood?"
"You will follow his instructions at all times."
"Winston will assist with your packing. Take only what Von Croy has specified. There will be few luxuries afforded you out in the field."
"Was that a 'yes, father' or 'no, father'?"
Lara had bitten her tongue, forcing down mounting resentment. Wasn't he even going to say, "be careful, Lara," or, "enjoy yourself, we'll be thinking about you, Lara"?
No, of course not. The habits of sixteen years would not be broken by a mere letter.
"Yes. Sorry, I was agreeing with you, father," she smiled. Behind her back, her fingers crossed themselves.
A kind of explosion was taking place inside her as she left the office, closed the door behind her and leaned against it; swallowing hard. Her father's continual dismissal of her feelings always brought a reddish haze to her vision, but now a tide of unfamiliar, wild excitement was rushing up to wash it all away.
She'd done it!
She was going!
After years of waiting, she would finally be free. And this was no shrink-wrapped child's day trip to the zoo with school, but a real-life expedition to places no one had seen for centuries; perhaps millennia!
And as for her teacher...
The bell of the antique carriage clock perched on the mantelpiece chimed once, twice, four times; echoed by the distant (but still audible) gongs from the Viennese regulator (Gebruder Resch, circa 1890) down in the entrance hall.
"When did you say she was supposed to be arriving?" the older of the two men grumbled, sweeping an errant patch of sand back into place on the scale model. The table creaked under the weight of miniature pyramids and sphinxes, rulers, pencils and reporter's notebooks covered with meticulous handwriting. "Surely the trams are running on time?" His eyes blinked slowly behind thick spectacles, enhancing Werner's mental picture of an ancient spotted toad. The rattle of fine china was broken by slurps as the aged professor gulped his tea.
Milk and three sugars. Yeuch.
"I'm sure she will be along presently, professor." Werner managed, tearing his gaze away from his colleague to scan the mansion's grounds. An ocean of spruce, oak and silver birch lapped against islands of pastured meadows for as far as the eye could see; despite being less than half an hour's drive from the centre of Vienna. The Lainzer Tiergarten teamed with wild boar, deer and wild, big-horned sheep. They roamed freely along the preserve's many tracks and trails; even as far as the mansion itself. As Werner watched, a family of boar complete with miniature stripy piglets emerged from the trees, sauntered boldly across the gravel driveway and melted into the greenery once again.
"I still don't know why you're allowing that young brat to accompany you. This expedition is far too important for you to be wet-nursing a teenager, even it she is Croft's daughter!"
Werner sighed inwardly. "I am sorry if that's how you feel, Guenther. But this argument of yours is becoming tiring. Do you think I have not thought of this myself? How many times must I reiterate: I intend to extend her every courtesy until and unless she proves unworthy of such treatment. We still have time to determine if she is up to our little adventure, do we not?"
"Humph," the man called Guenther snorted, easing his bulk into a padded armchair. "I'm surprised you accepted her request at all. After what happened between yourself and Henshingly..." He shook his balding head, jowls quivering. "Terrible bad business, was it not? But something must have changed your mind. Care to enlighten an old man?"
Werner spun on his heel. An equally poisonous response was forming in his larynx, but with a supreme effort he swallowed it and simply shook his head. Much as he might loathe the man, it would not do for him to alienate him on the eve of such a crucial expedition.
"Forgive me, old friend, but that story will have to wait for another day."
In other words, never. Even if he trusted Guenther completely (which he didn't), there were some things that needed to remain behind closed doors; particularly those concerning shared dreams and their subsequent rejection. Werner stifled a cough, turning away so his colleague would not see the disgust written on his face. "As for Lara Croft, I am keeping my mind open."
The emphasis was not lost on the old professor, but fortunately he seemed to take the hint and did not press the issue further. Clenching and unclenching his hands, Werner returned his gaze to the view outside.
Yes. Something had changed his mind, but it wasn't Henshingly Croft. Nor was it the exceedingly generous cheque that had accompanied the letter requesting that his daughter take part in the expedition.
It was Lara herself.
It had been with extreme reluctance that Werner had agreed to chair the archaeological symposium at Gordonstoun earlier that year. But, as Guenther and many of his fellows had pointed out, it paid to advertise oneself. Only Guenther's professional assurances, coupled to his promise to blow the dust off his family's wine cellar come Von Croy's return, had convinced Werner to attend. Why else should he, archaeologist-adventurer, who had toured the four corners of the Earth facing danger and death at every turn, discoverer of so many historic sites, condescend to lecture to a panel of bored, over-indulged school children and their equally pampered parents?
It just went to show how foolish assumptions could be.
Is it true that the Maya developed a calendar system more accurate than our Gregorian one?
How many languages from the Proto-Indo-European group do you think are represented in the Sanskrit writings?
Did you really help uncover the Xi'an terra cotta warriors? Is it true they're being damaged because of increased tourism?
And so it had gone on for two full hours. Werner would never have guessed that the child, who frankly looked like she would be more at home in a modelling studio than an archaeological seminar, would have a mind like a rapier behind those innocent, chocolate-coloured eyes. It amused him to speculate how many expensive hearts those same eyes would break when she reached adulthood. Nevertheless, he had been astonished by the zeal fuelling her incessant, yet insightful, questions. Werner was used to dealing with fraudsters and charlatans adept at researching enough to fool the uneducated layman; but Lara seemed to harbour a genuine and passionate love of the world and in finding out as much about it as she could.
One can only hope that the daughter will prove more dedicated than the father, Werner had mused on his flight back to Austria. Seeing Lara had brought back an awful lot of memories; some of them still bitter despite his attempts to overlay them with time's sweetness.
Henshingly's decision to abandon his scholarship in favour of starting a family had hurt Werner deeply; as a colleague, as a fellow student, and, mostly importantly, as a friend. While back in England Henshingly bowed to the demands of his aristocratic background, Von Croy had graduated with full honours and accepted his master's degree in archaeology alone. The name of Croft had appeared only as an advisory in the list of Werner's acknowledgements. After the ceremony Werner had washed his hands of his former co-worker; burying his disappointment beneath layers of professional pride. The mindset had served him well for many years, until that fateful letter.
The chiming of the quarter-hour and the smell of freshly-brewing coffee brought Werner's mind back to the present. Guenther smacked his lips as he set down his cup, and then squinted through the leaded glass.
"I say, who's that coming up the driveway? There, skinny girl with a rucksack. Probably a lost tourist."
Werner chuckled, ignoring Guenther's condescending sniff, and clapped the academic on the back.
"That, my friend, is my new assistant."
With every footstep crunching on the gravel, Lara's heart beat faster.
At my estate, in Vienna, Austria, the letter had said. Familiar as she was to the luxurious grounds of Croft manor, she felt suddenly much smaller and less important as she approached Von Croy's home.
Trellises of fragrant ivory roses embraced and rambled across three spacious wings of ruddy-coloured brickwork; with smartly embrasured windows climbing several stories to a steeply-gabled roof of pewter slate. Atop the dome of a miniature clocktower, a handsome weathervane winked golden flashes at the June sun. The time had just passed a quarter-past three. Dreamily lifelike twin female statues guarded the main door. She recognised them as Greek, Late Classical period. Any moment she expected to hear the swish of their togas, the slosh of water from the urns they bore and their laughter as they gossiped. A peacock strutting through the grass a little way off ruffled its tail feathers at her and shrieked a peculiar, strangled squawk that surely did not belong to such a beautiful bird.
She had hardly raised her hand to pull the bell rope when the door was opened by a severely-dressed woman whose face crinkled into a smile.
"Ah, Guten Tag! Sie müssen Fräulein Croft sein? Bitte, hereinkommen."
"Vielen Dank," Lara replied, gratefully stepping into the shade. The woman appropriated her rucksack, bustling off into a side room before Lara could protest. Feeling even more exposed than ever, and hoping that she would at least have the chance of a shower before meeting the man himself, Lara tip-toed across the cold marble floor. A carved rosewood clock, with its typically Austrian, pine-cone-shaped weights, ticked loudly as she took in the hall's details. Tapestries and oil paintings hid the walls. Ornate alcoves set at intervals showcased particularly beautiful or striking sculptures and vases. Everything was of the best possible taste and utterly immaculate.
The woman reappeared empty-handed. Beckoning for Lara to follow, she led the way up to a mezzanine level and down a richly-carpeted hallway. Too late, and with a stab of guilt, Lara noticed the dirty footprints she was leaving behind.
At last they reached a door. The woman tapped on it once, and then turned the handle.
"Mein Herr, darf ich ihnen Fräulein Croft vorstellen? "
"Ah, am besten sollte ich euch jetzt alleine lassen... "
"Nein Professor, lassen Sie uns bitte noch nicht alleine," a familiar voice suddenly brought a measure of comfort to Lara as the woman ushered her into the room. "Ah, welcome Lara. It has been too long my dear. Thank you Hilde, you may go."
Lara gulped. She saw an elegant room, oak-panelled and filled with sumptuous furniture. A three-dimensional model of the Giza plateau, innumerable notepads and reference books, maps and charts plus a silver tea-tray all but smothered the grand mahogany table. A plate of shortbread, some cups and a pitcher of steaming coffee rested upon the tray. The smell made Lara recall how long it had been since lunch.
A hoary old man with vaguely froglike eyes was sitting by the window, supping from a china cup, but all Lara's attention was on the younger and more vigorous gentleman who had risen to greet her. His thick blond hair was only lightly kissed with silver at the temples, and his features were those of a veteran hunter; proud, alert, and accustomed to getting his own way. He wore a turtleneck claret sweater and linen slacks, and a gold ring flashed on the hand he now extended.
"Thank you, professor," she smiled, returning the handshake. "It's good to be here. Thanks for letting me come."
"Bah... This is my home, and you may call me Werner. I am delighted you could make it. Indeed, how could I pass up such an opportunity?" He exclaimed, gesturing absently to his aged companion. "Especially when others lack the time or inclination for field work any more. Lara, I'd like you to meet Professor Guenther Karcoch. He's been studying the sites we are to visit since... before my time."
"And more besides eh, Von Croy?" The old man wheezed, grinning toothlessly. His hand felt cold and clammy, making Lara think unwittingly of drowned corpses. "My dear, an honour to meet you at last. I'm glad Werner finally agreed to my suggestion that you travel with him. Good assistants are hard to come by, are they not?"
Lara did not miss the leap of blue fire in Von Croy's eyes, even though a moment later they were crinkled in apparent amusement. "Quite, old friend," he glanced at her again. "I expected you here an hour ago. Was there a problem at the airport?"
She cringed inwardly. "No, the flight was fine, and the buses were running on time. I just felt like walking the rest of the way. The Lainzer Tiergarten's very beautiful isn't it?"
He closed his mouth, obviously trying hard not to smile. "Quite. You walked here, alone, without anyone to show you the way?"
"Oh yes. I can read the signs easily enough."
"You speak German?"
"And Latin, French and Punjabi. My Arabic is still flaky though."
"Is that so?" he mused; now failing completely to keep the smile from his face. "Flaky I understand is not so good, yes?"
"Shaky, poor, not sound; yes."
"And your reading... Can you read this for example?"
He handed her a sheet on which flowed lines of graceful script. She recognised it instantly.
"It's part of the Rigveda, in the original Sanskrit," concentrating, she allowed her eyebrow to rise playfully, "Would you like me to translate or read it directly?"
He barked with laughter, clapping her on the shoulder. The old man in the corner chuckled so hard he sloshed tea leaves down his jumper.
"Translate. If you please."
Lara cleared her throat, pride swelling in her breast. He was taking her seriously; something her father hardly ever bothered to do.
"They call him Indra, Mitra, Varuna, Agni, and he is heavenly nobly-winged Garutman. To what is One, sages-"
"Enough, enough, I'm convinced! Well, well, I do not think I need fear your lack of intellectual skills, my dear." Werner grinned, returning the paper to its pile.
"Soon be catching you up Werner, if you don't watch your back," Guenther hiccupped, waving a conspiratorial finger. "Archaeology may seem a gentle pursuit my girl, but you'll soon learn you need to have your wits about you! Treachery, death and failure all await the unwary. But do not fear... Werner is an excellent teacher. After all, he's had plenty of experience!"
"Naturlich," Werner answered gruffly, but Lara again saw the blue flames spark in the depths of his eyes. Despite the room being bathed in sunlight, she felt goose pimples race across her skin in a sudden chill. No matter how polite his words, it was clear Von Croy was not a man to cross lightly; and his anger, once roused, would be formidable.
All the more reason not to let him down, she thought.
Despite his considerable self-discipline, Werner found his nails were digging into his palms as he fought to restrain his temper.
Sly old fool. Give Guenther enough wretched tea and a seat at the EAA's annual conference on archaeology and he's happy. Whatever brilliance he might once have shown is now lost. Now he's reduced to sniping and cackling in his dotage while the rest of us risk our necks to pursue the reality behind our theories. Oh yes, our world is indeed full of danger and betrayal; and not least from those we once thought of as friends.
Ahh, this expedition will validate our theories at last, foolish Guenther. But it will be me, Werner von Croy, who will claim the reward.
He shook himself, turning those thoughts aside. There was still much to do before then.
"Lara, would you care to examine this? I think you will find it most enlightening."
Politely the girl came to his side, and watched with interest as he began examining some charts. She wore a comfortable cotton shirt tucked into khaki shorts, well-worn hiking shoes, and a zipped bag was strapped around her slender waist. Patches of sweat stained her clothing and her sun-freckled cheeks, while a single lock of brunette hair kept escaping her loose plait to dangle past her eyes. Every few moments she would reach to brush it back behind her ear; her eyes not leaving the charts.
Werner really had to struggle to see anything of Henshingly in her features; which, he reflected, was perhaps all for the best.
"I had read there was supposed to be some sort of connection between Angkor Wat and Giza," she said eventually. "I didn't realise it was the subject of serious archaeology."
A sound like the gurgling of a blocked drainpipe interrupted Werner's reply.
"Serious archaeology? My dear, it is of the utmost seriousness!" Guenther laughed, taking off his glasses to clean them on his sleeve. "And not simply because of those two sites. There are at least a hundred more across the globe that show this same tendency towards astronomical alignment. As I have predicted in my research, the Iris should finally prove-"
"Yes, yes, I'm sure there will be plenty of time for a more detailed analysis Guenther," Werner cut in. The clocks were chiming again, reminding him that Lara had neither rested nor washed since her arrival. It was as good an excuse as any to get her out of the way. "My dear, perhaps if we reconvened this little chat after you've had chance to rest? I believe Hilde has already taken your bag to your room."
A quick glance in her eyes told him she understood exactly what he meant, and did not take offence; much to his relief.
"Oh yes, of course. Thank you profe... I mean, Werner. I really should get changed. See you later."
Werner nodded, the hint of a smile appearing on his lips as she disappeared through the door. "Don't get lost now."
The breath he had not been aware of holding escaped slowly as her footfalls gradually faded away. Then he rounded on Guenther, his voice almost a hiss. "There will be plenty of time to acquaint her with the details of this expedition when she needs to know them. I will not have you spilling the inner workings of your theories until I've confirmed her loyalty, understood?"
To give Guenther credit, he did not flinch as was usual among people faced with Werner's temper. Instead he calmly placed down his cup and squared his shoulders, though he failed to meet the professor's eye.
"I think we both know where this is going Werner. You're worried she'll turn into her father, are you not? Forgive me for saying, but it's time you put Henshingly out of your mind. This, how do the English say, chip on your shoulder, is dangerous. You're letting it blind you to the here and now."
"Henshingly is in the past, where he belongs," Werner snapped. "I can see perfectly clearly what is in front of me and what must be done. Save the lectures for your undergraduates."
"If you saw as clearly as you think, then you would see the danger you are in."
Werner's eyes narrowed with suspicion. His voice grew even softer, more deadly. "What danger?"
"Isn't it obvious? From the person who just left this room."
Werner scoffed mirthlessly. "Lara Croft? That slip of a girl? Guenther, I grant she's tougher than she looks but be serious. I merely questioned her loyalty, not her ability to cause 'accidents' on our tour. I trust you recall how easily such things can occur?"
Sighing, Guenther shook his head, ignoring the rhetorical question. "Mark my words, old friend. That slip of a girl, as you put it, is already smarter and more determined than you were at that age. She will be your downfall. At the very least she'll eclipse your career, perhaps sooner than you think."
Werner's throat had gone dry. Pride and his own professional judgement fought for supremacy; weighing up the warning for any hint of merit, any breath of suspicion. But there was none. To his surprise Guenther returned the stare without a trace of his usual guile. He really believed what he was saying. Perhaps, Werner thought, his colleague was starting to go senile at last.
"We shall see." He snapped and, with a final contemptuous glance, stalked out the room.
The chair creaked as the old man sat back and began pouring himself another tea, tutting under his breath.
NOTICE: This story is a work of fiction. Lara Croft, her likeness,
and the Tomb Raider games are all copyright of EIDOS Interactive. There is no challenge to these copyrights intended by this story, as it is a
non-sanctioned, unofficial work of the author's own.
Entry for the 4th Village of Tokakeriby Tomb Raider Story Competition, 2009.