Julina of Blackstone - 021 – Small Pond, Widened Horizons

Julina gets a taste of travel and learns even more about the extremes of the valley

Julina of Blackstone
Her Chronicles

by Julia Phillips

021 – Small Pond, Widened Horizons


The original characters and plot of this story are the property of the author. No infringement of pre-existing copyright is intended.
This story is copyright © 2013 - 2018 Julia Phillips. All rights reserved.

It uses some of the associated characters and situations that arise from the world called ‘Anmar’ created by Penny Lane, whose stories
are also copyright © 2010 - 2018 Penny Lane. All rights reserved.

Julina of Blackstone
Her Chronicles
021 – Small Pond, Widened Horizons

Another day started much as many before it. This time of course Papa was with us, and I was surprised when, over breakfast, he praised me for my forethought and told the children in no uncertain terms that they should no longer walk about alone, saying that I had been right to introduce that rule and to try to remember it at all times.

'Kin and Kord had been a little put out the previous evening when Kissa stole all the attention by demonstrating her sewing skills, so Papa made a point of paying them extra attention this morning.

Which left poor Julu lost somewhere in the middle, so I took her into the kitchen and let her make some honey cakes. As soon as she had one of her frequent breaks to go and use the facilities, I had to throw her horrible mess of a dough away and make some to replace it – fortunately I had experienced this before, so I had been busy doing some when she was concentrating on her own efforts. I told both Kords and Swayga to tell everyone tonight that Julu had made them.

Papa had of course spoken to Swayga about having guests for dinner that night so Kords, Swayga and I planned the meal while Kissa sewed on the dining table and Julu got flour and water and fruit peelings and cubes and spoons of honey all over every surface, not excluding her face and clothes and hair.

I particularly wanted to do a Ganifil for dinner that night, to my recipe, and Swayga graciously allowed me to do so, saying that she would be pleased to learn how to do it. Kords jumped at the chance as well, as that was her (current!) favourite meal. I wanted to use the leftovers of this to make a soup afterwards, which, if successful, would be the starter at The Dinner. I told them about the planned menu for The Dinner in the Salon, and Swayga promised to show me how to do the Foti, agreeing that as it was a four-course meal, a half fish per person would be more than enough – assuming always that we could get the fish sent up.

A look crossed her face as a thought passed through her brain. We kept quiet as she thought it through. After maybe a moment, possibly two, she slowly said: “You know what we should do? We should find somewhere to have a big pool and stock it with live fish from downvalley. Then we could have a supply of the larger fish like Foti, rather than the tiny ones we can get up at the dam. Maybe we could also get some other fish types from somewhere else and have several breeding up here.”

What a brilliantly simple idea, so I told her to mention it to our guests this evening. - but to say absolutely nothing about serving a fish dish in the Salon, not even give them an idea that it might be possible. Between us, we came up with a story using Swayga's background and making it a suggestion to help with feeding an expanded town in the new year.

Once Julu's (!) honey cakes were done, it was time for me to disappear. I would have to go to Pomma's to change so I and the two girls would take the track to the campingplace again.

But this plan was changed when Papa said that he wanted to accompany me. He found he required a first hand experience of what I was up to.

So he and I walked across to the campingplace, where he was surprised at the number of people. I was starting to recognise some of the faces by now, and the fussy little man we had seen supervising several of the construction projects was busy packing up his belongings and loading a wagon with his stuff.

“Good morrow, Master! You seem in a hurry to depart this town?”

“Well met, Master! No, I am not leaving. I doubt I could, there is something wondrous about the projects going on here that I find I need to stay and observe them all. Somehow this place has got under my skin. We had a draw amongst the supervisors here and I have been one of those selected to be the first to live in the new homes built yonder, by the coal quarry. We are testing them out to check for problems before the mass building takes place. I confess I am looking forward to it. I fear my old bones are no longer too suited to a camping existence.”

“Ah. Well then my daughter and I wish you a happy home.”

“I thank you. Er ... if I may say, Mistress, I recognise you from several places ...?”

“We met, Master, when you showed me how our new house was progressing behind the Claw.”

“Ah, indeed. Then you, Master, must be of note in this town. Street maintenance, I deem, was your speciality. You are in an allied trade as it were. My responsibility has now been given to the new Loop Road, although my levelling crews have been taken from me. It seems that Master Bezan must need change his priorities quite bewilderingly frequently.”

“Indeed, Master, I deem the town is choking with its traffic problems, so that new East Road is urgently required. I have been away for nigh on a week, on a project for Master Bezan, and am astounded by the developments that have taken place in that short space of time.”

“Quite so, Master. Why, I can recall very recently, that …”

I tugged on Father's arm to remind him of my appointment, and he nodded in acknowledgement.

“Please excuse us, Master, we are a little pressed for time. We have an appointment mere moments away. I would be fascinated to talk with you far more. Perchance we might meet in the Bell at the first bell after the Noon Hour announcement?”

“Why 'twould be my honour, Master. But maybe the second bell after noon, that would be the Sixth Bell, I have to see someone else at noon and I fear that will be quite a long session.”

“Until then then, Master.”

They half bowed to each other, I dropped a short curtsey, and then we scurried on.

… … …

“Might I suggest a short excursion, Mistress Sukhana? I deem our lady companions to be comfortable enough now with their mounts to be led out of this paddock. Master Parrier is welcome to ride Trumpa, and Judd and I are accustomed well to each other. We would be pleased to escort you further afield, and I happen to know that Mistress Julina is all agog to see this new bridge. We could travel down there to view it, now that construction has moved on. And it would be a pleasant excursion that would take a mere couple of bells. The weather is set fair, and I'm sure Wiget in particular would like to see something other than the town, having been cooped up here for a good few weeks now.”

“What a splendid suggestion, Master Kordulen. Let me just go and inform someone of our plans, and then we can go.”

Oh Maker! The expansion of my horizons was suddenly brought home to me. With an animal between my legs, I could range far, far wider and see much, much more. Quite why I had not fully appreciated this beforehand was beyond me. My brain was fizzing with possibilities all of a sudden.

And so we travelled much further than I had ever done in my life since I was able to walk around on my own, and then travelled back – all before lunch. What an amazingly glorious feeling that was.

I found the new bridge fascinating. We had followed the normal road south out of town, travelling noticeably more swiftly than the dranakh-drawn wagons. As we overtook some of the wagons, or some wagons passed us going in the opposite direction, we heard some expressions of surprise at women riding, but nothing nasty occurred.

Soon after we passed the first roadstone, which meant we were one mark from the Steward's house, we passed abreast of the bridge. I expected us to turn off the road and go cross-country, but Papa kept going. The road that connected to the bridge, which was about a mark distant at that point, was easily seen, to both sides of the bridge, which seemed to have something, or things, on top of it. But Papa held us to our course, leaving the bridge over our right shoulders.

And we kept going after the next markstone as well!

By this time, we could see that new road, to the right of course, gradually coming nearer to us, curving gracefully somehow. It joined the main road just a cast or so north of the third markstone. Anyone travelling towards town could choose to keep straight and use the road we had come down upon, or make a very slight angle to the left to head towards the new bridge. The turn for us to join the bridge road was far sharper but was a steadily curved connecting road, making a sort of triangle at the junction, a triangle with a very sharp point and a curved top edge.

As we progressed closer and closer to the bridge, I was aware of Papa studying the road and the rain ditches either side. I knew him very well, of course, and could tell that he was impressed and approving of what had been done. I doubted anyone else would have noticed this though.

This road was wide enough for two wagons AND OUTRIDERS to pass each other and the surface was very smooth. I was very impressed.

By the time we reached the bridge, we had travelled probably five marks in total – all in less than a bell! I was however, beginning to feel some strain in muscles that I hadn't used before. Pomma and I whispered to Sookie that we were grateful to be wearing a bra, the more usual bodice would have added far more discomfort. She grinned in agreement.

Papa insisted on dismounting to inspect the bridge from below, so we all swung down and led the beasts to the water for a welcome drink.

The bridge itself was not as wide as the road, so we could see immediately that traffic could cross it only in one direction at a time. Papa pointed out to us some blocks downstream from the bridge, saying that he suspected these were the foundation blocks for a second bridge, so that eventually there would be no hold-ups at this narrow point. He also pointed out that the road on the far side had been built-up so that the roadbed flowed onto the bridge with no upramp, so wagons wouldn't have even the slightest upslope to negotiate.

But to me, the most impressive thing was that there were four heavily laden wagons parked on top of the bridge. They were in two pairs, side-by-side, but had to be so close together to fit into the width, leaving no spare room whatsoever. When I asked why they had been left there, Papa explained that it was a weight test – if the bridge could support 4 wagons at a time, then there would be no problem with one wagon and a dranakh.

I could see the basis of the bridge was two of those thingies I had seen on the back of the wagon in town. What had the Sheriff called them? – not tresses … trusses, that was it, trusses. Papa was surprised I knew the word. I noticed a grudging respect from Parry as well.

Further upvalley, we could plainly see the route of the new road. It was complete and surfaced for at least half a mark up from the bridge, and we could see dotted patches as it went uphill, patches where the ground had been built-up, and, in a couple of places, dug in, all to keep the slope even. We could also see that the curves were made gentle and started some hundreds of strides before any hindrance. None of this go straight up to the problem and then veer off sharply. Papa's trained eye followed the route and he nodded appreciatively.

He turned and carefully went down the bank of the stream just by the bridge support. After a brief inspection, Papa said that the under-bridge arrangements were first class, with overflow channels provided as well for the excess waters of the rains. I think he would have spent more time down there, but Sookie reminded him that she needed to get back to town and he apologised profusely, before swinging himself back into the saddle at the same time as we all did. I giggled, as it reminded me of a formal dance – the five of us all swinging our legs around in unison.

Papa led us back across the normal ground to rejoin the road where a stream crossed under it, just south of the first markstone. I estimate that we travelled about a mark off the road, and Papa and Sookie made us go faster than just a gentle walk. Pomma and I were nervous at the increased speed, and the consequently altered gait of Wiget and Dralla, but only for a little while. We could feel the animals enjoy the increased speed, and soon we settled into a surprisingly comfortable rhythm. This was fun – so much so that I felt I might want to explore going even faster.

But maybe on another day, when my muscles had had a chance to recover!

We got back to the Claw just as the Fifth Bell announcement was rung, that being the first after the Noon Bell. Papa asked Sookie if he could pay her for a light lunch for us all, and they came to some agreeable arrangement. By the time we had put the animals back into their accommodation, the food was on a table in the corner of what was the Common Room. We got some curious stares from the other occupants, but they relaxed when Sookie joined us and we ate in a companionable group.

I wanted Papa to accompany me to Epp's house so he could witness my discussions with her, but I also had to get busy in the kitchen at home, so we broke up our little lunch group sometime just before the three-quarter bell and said our good-byes. Pomma promised to get an urchin to return my clothes to me at home.

It didn't take long at Epp's, she agreed with me about the composition of our group, and Papa added his endorsement. I had spoken to the relevant mothers who were happy knowing that Mousa was going with us as well.

The group we ended up with was:

Molly's Mum Mousa,
Gyth, and

We left Epp's and popped into the Bell, so Papa could let them know he was some quarter of a bell delayed. We then hurried back home, reaching there at the same time as the urchin brought my bag from Pomma's. Papa turned to go back to the Bell as I went indoors.

I then had an awkward few moments having to show the girls my riding skirt and breeches and yet wanting to get on with the cooking. Bless Kords, she had done a lot of preparation already, showing Swayga as she went, so I wasn't under an enormous amount of pressure. I went and swiftly changed, then swung back into cooking mode.

I put a large pot of water on to boil, and then I plunged my freshly washed hands into the innards of the ganifil, and pulled out all the bits that weren't actually meat. Mama had shown me which bits of these could be used and which couldn't so I repeated what she had told me, and dropped the discarded bits into a bucket. We would later take those bits some three or so casts upslope to a little piece of ground in the centre of a rough circle of stones, where we would leave them for the wildlife to feast on should they so choose.

Most of the usable bits I then dropped into the pot on the range – this would be the base for my soup. The rest of those bits, I would use to make things to keep for the week.

Once the ganifil was cleaned and washed out, then I prepared it with my blend of herbs and spices and could then slide it into the hot oven in the range. I set a sanddropper going, telling the others that when the sanddropper came to the end, then the ganifil would need to be transferred to the low-temperature oven. Meanwhile I roughly chopped a bunch of vegetables and popped them into the soup pot, which was by now simmering nicely.

Something occurred to me, and, since I had a few moments just at that time, I went out to talk to Papa. Only to find out that he had yet to return. I also found out that he had sent an urchin requesting that Julu and Kissa join him wherever he was now.

I was sort of shocked at myself. Normally I would be aware of all comings and goings. But I had so easily allowed that responsibility to be taken over by Swayga, without even discussing it with her.

… … …

“Welcome Masters Bezan and Yarling.” Papa said as he ushered both men in, taking their coats as they passed him. “Master Bezan you know everyone, but Master Yarling, allow me to introduce my family. This is Mistress Swayga, my intended. And ranging down in height, and age, are my children – Julina, Kordulet, Kordulissa, Jululet, Kordulkin, and Korden.”

“Master Kordulen, I thank you for this invitation. I have been jealous for some time of the reports my colleague Master Bezan here has given me of the standard of cooking that Mistresses Julina and Kordulet have produced. I am honoured to have been invited and I'm sure that Mistress Swayga has added her touches too. I have rarely been so anticipatory.”

“So we'll be in trouble, if the meal is not up to expectation, then?” said Swayga with a twinkle in her eyes and voice.

“Oh! Forgive me. I didn't mean to add any stress!” said Yarling, with an apologetic and slightly panicky tone.

We all laughed, as the gentle teasing worked on a guest for a change. He visibly relaxed as he realised that we weren't being nasty or anything like that.

Swayga then made a point of informing everyone of the fact that five of us had been involved this evening – all the womenfolk, including Julu. She then offered Julu's honeycakes around, explaining whose they were.

And so the evening commenced.

The conversation was kept fairly light to start with, but we all knew that the men were here to receive Papa's report of his investigations downvalley.

'Kin was going to be upset, but that report was going to wait until the four younger ones were off to bed.

So we discussed the town developments first, which led onto the new house, which led onto the new water supply which led onto the new Community Hall.

Papa asked about the new roads, not too bothered about the lack of surfaces at this moment, but the fault he had found yesterday, he brought up now.

“When the rains come, those new roads will need to have a run-off shape and quite deep ditches either side to cope with the surface water. The slopes here about produce a lot of water that has to be channelled away, we actually have channels running down Main Street under the sidewalks which cope with the rainstorms on all but the very worst of days. I don't think we had a rain problem this year – other man-made problems certainly, but not rain problems.”

“Thank you Master Kordulen for your input. I will check into that. As it happens, I have a small temporary problem with the construction crews. One of the new team leaders and three of his chargehands have been banished from the town, just a day after arriving. They had stolen construction supplies, wood to be specific, breaking up some of the pre-built modules, to burn to keep warm at night, not believing that they could quote 'burn rocks' unquote. Then they compounded the problem by calling the Baroness a whore and a harlot …”

“And me!”

“What? Were you involved also? How? Why?”

And so I told my story a little more fully than I had done yesterday to much amazement from all, particularly from my siblings when they learnt I could now ride a frayen. I saw Papa and Kissa exchange a glance then, so I guessed that Papa had promised her some riding lessons too.

We then explained to Papa some more of the changes that had happened during his absence and we all spoke in glowing terms of the brilliant change to the townsfolk's coal quarry. Both our guests were emphatic that the Steward was the one to be congratulated.

Which led on to me seizing an opportunity by asking Master Yarling about the third. We were all fascinated at his explanation.

Which began by us being amazed at the first question he posed as he started: “Have any here at table seen the Stone Sea?”

“You mean there really is something with that strange name?”

“Why, certainly Mistress Julina. It is called that because it stretches for hundreds, maybe thousands of marks. It is a huge area of split, twisted and tumbled rocks totally unsuitable for humans or animals with feet. Avians can live there unworried about any other than avian predators. The Palar river cuts through it which enabled the road to Tel Botro to be built, but that is the only crossing that anyone has ever mentioned.

“Hold! I have just realised something. Let me just fetch the sketch I made, naturally only of a tiny bit of it – I drew the basics when I was up there with the Guildmistress, and then coloured the details in once we returned.”

He left his seat and fetched his over-the-shoulder carry bag, which hangs down his back from two shoulder straps. He called it a 'backpack' which we all thought was a good name for it. He rummaged in it for a few heartbeats, then extracted a sheaf of parchment and papers, held in between a stiff covering both front and back, and tied with cord at the top and bottom and also at the sides, to prevent the sheets from sliding out. He loosened the cord and removed one of those covers.

As he was leafing through the many sheets in there, he kept talking about what was to be seen up there in the hills above the Bray valley head. Suddenly, he came out with a very surprising statement: “Tell you what, one day I will take you and your riding companions up there to see it.”

This was the wrong thing to say, as the entire brood of children all loudly demanded to be taught to ride.

It was again chaos for several moments, until Papa firmly told them off, and apologised to Master Yarling for interrupting his account. Master Y just smiled understandingly in response.

“So – the Stone Sea.” He paused as he garnered our attention once more. “I spoke with Mylady Garia, I suppose that maybe her title as a Guildmistress could be more appropriate right now, and she explained that it is the way it is because of the type of rock it is made of.”

He had found the sketch he wanted, but kept it to himself for now by holding it against his chest.

“Anyway, this type of rock sort of melts when it rains, only a tiny little bit at a time, but nevertheless it melts – just like Irris Bean spice is melted in a soup or sauce. Alternatively, you can think of it as the water washing away parts of it, if you like a different description. Anyway, after years and years of this, some parts are worn away more than others. Here, this is what it looks like.”

He laid the sketch on the table, and we all crowded round to see it.

It wasn't very obvious what we were looking at, at first.

But Master Yarling put it into perspective when he said: “That flattish bit that comes in from the bottom right and then turns to go straight up, with the whitey-greeny top surface? That is about as wide as one of my feet is long. The little growing bush-like thing at top right is about as big as my fist.”

Now we had an idea of scale, the picture became far more meaningful.

BCTS S E E Stone Sea.png

“So when we have the rains, where does that water go? It must go somewhere. Our Guildmistress explained that this type of rock is in fact a rock layer. Like a coal seam is a layer. So at the bottom of that layer, the water must collect. Of course, if the harder layer that makes up the base is sloped, then the water will try to flow away.

“Now, it has become quickly apparent to us that we have insufficient water supply here for the town to grow much bigger. There is a finite amount of water we can take from the dam, and once we start taking more than nature can supply, then we are in trouble. So we must find some more water from somewhere.

“I have thought hard about this and also observed the ground around the spring where the Bray bubbles up. The spring is the largest source of water there, but I have discovered that it is not the only one. I have in fact been able to identify more than twenty separate places where water appears out of the ground. Based on what the Guildmistress said, and using my observations, I have a theory that this limestone rock extends down from the surface where we can see the Stone Sea, to the same height where the Bray bubbles out of the ground. I believe the Bray itself is where the harder layer under the limestone has directed the water that drips down onto it. That in turn leads me to believe that we might find a further water supply there under the rocks of the bowl that forms the head of the valley.

“So I have started further coal extraction at what you referred to as the 'third quarry'. I can use the extracted coal as a contribution to our overall coal output, but now I also have a tunnel making its way through the mountain towards the Stone Sea. I have started it high up and made the tunnel slope down slightly so that, if we do find water then it is less likely to flood the tunnel we have made. The miners in this tunnel know that the priority is to advance as far as the Stone Sea levels rather than be a major contributor to the coal output. So this tunnel is barely taller than a man and wide enough only for two or three men to work at the face and have a railed wagon to haul the coal out. As a result of the more limited size, we are advancing much quicker than at the other quarry, the second one. So far, our best advance has been over 15 strides in one day, when we found a pocket more loosely packed. Our worst was just five strides.

“Even so, I estimate that it will be late summer next year before we break through into the limestone. I make it just over a mark's distance to get to below the edge of the Stone Sea. Secretly, I am hoping that the limestone slopes towards us to make the distance shorter. But the town needs water as a priority and this is my best guess as to how to get it. There are other sources we could use, but that would be much more awkward to bring to the top of the town.”

I think we were all amazed at the amount of thinking and exploration that was going on under our very noses, and we not being aware of the true depth of it!

Suddenly we heard a loud hissing from the kitchens, and Kords gave a little gasp and ran off, waving away my, admittedly half-hearted, offer to help. So I was there with the men when Swayga asked HER big question.

“Talking of water,” she started, “I have had an idea and wondered what you gentlemen might make of it. I believe you are aware that my background is from the sea, and that my parents were fishers. I have heard, from various conversations around town, that there is also a potential problem with feeding all the anticipated bodies that might settle here. My brother still works down to the Forest Roadhouse, and I have heard from him that there is a fine-tasting variety of fish called a Foti that abounds in the lake down there. If we could bring some up here and introduce them into some sort of pond or lake, then we could have another source of food to help with sustenance for the population. The fish require running water, so this would have to be fed from one of the streams, and have nets or something to stop the fish from swimming away. Maybe we could also import other varieties and breed them as well.”

“Mistress Swayga, that is a very sensible idea, I shall investigate if there is anything we could do with the Blackstone River below the dam. I have to go there tomorrow, so can scout possibilities as I do so. Thank you for a most sensible suggestion.”

Kords called to us older women which served as a reminder to all that it was time to serve the food. The close group that had been hanging on Master Yarling's every word broke up quite quickly, as Master Y gathered together his sheets. I for one was wondering at some of his other drawings that we could half see, but was now required in the kitchen so would have to forego the opportunity.

… … …

The meal passed off very successfully, and we three main cooks, and our helper Kissa, were all proud of the satisfied grin on the men's faces. Julu had already forgotten her pride when everyone congratulated her on her honeycakes earlier.

Again, the conversations had been lively and intelligent, and I particularly appreciated the way both our guests included even the younger children, and listened to their replies most attentively.

There was a down side to this however as it made the usual battle to get the kids to bed even more awkward. The protests were particularly loud that evening and it took four of us, Swayga, Kords, Papa and I, to get the other four to bed, particularly Kissa who felt she should be able to stay up as she had helped with the cooking.

But, at long last, the three grown men sat with Swayga, me and Kords.

All of us were fully agog to listen to Papa, to whom the floor had been given by unspoken agreement.

He started off by doing something I can't describe too well. The original word that sprang to my mind was complain, but that would be wrong. Moan doesn't do the job I want. The best I can do is to say that there was a mixture of contentment and complaint in his voice as he explained:

“Those new saddles are a thoroughly excellent innovation, I must say. My frayen, Judd, and I have had a far more comfortable week than any of the many that we have had before. There was, however, a slightly negative side that I experienced. The need to employ unfamiliar muscles took a lot of getting used to. I could not believe that I ached in places I didn't know I had – and this for a goodly number of days. Why, I needed a hot bath every evening until my body became accustomed to the new strains. It was difficult on two or three of the mornings to force myself up onto the beast's back. But now, I would never return to the old way. They are, quite simply, an excellent innovation. Something else for which I understand our Baroness should be both thanked and congratulated.”

The two men nodded their agreement and they all laughed when I said how much I enjoyed it too, but agreed about the muscle aches, which I was now feeling particularly fully.

I shrugged an apology to Papa for interrupting his moment in the centre of attention. He acknowledged my apology and indicated that it was nothing.

Papa was aware that there was an important and official aspect to our evening and as a result of that, he then continued by actually making the announcement that it had now become the time for serious business.

He switched from his more normal mode of being a relaxed and chatty host into his, to us, rarely seen 'responsible official' mode. I looked on in not a little amazement as his whole body posture changed, which made him seem suddenly several thumbs taller, and also made him seem far more imposing; far more than I for one had ever seen him. I have reason to think that Swayga was also particularly impressed. I could see her looking at him with a sort of admiring and wondering expression on her face. My sister Kords, not to be outdone, was also most noticeably impressed – as a result, I must therefore suppose that my own face might also have conveyed the same approving and encouraging message. The two men, being just guests of course, did not know him quite as well as we did and so couldn't fully appreciate the apparent change.

Papa took a drink from his water mug and then cleared his throat. He made sure that we were all ready before he restarted. I find I must mention here in passing that the following passage proved very important to me. This was because I learned a very valuable lesson at that moment; he started by repeating the instructions he had been given. I realised that this simple action set the tone and the perspective for all that followed, and I made a mental note to use that technique, when appropriate, for my teaching sessions once they got under way in the new year.

“My task was given to me by Master Bezan here. He stated that the objective was that of attempting to find a route down to the Tranidor area that would remove the need for the road to climb as it does, where it goes up to join the Chaarn road. As far as I can recall, Master Bezan used these words: 'That uphill climb to join the Chaarn trade route makes it so we cannot fully load the wagons. This then requires us to use more wagons and animals and also more time. Before this incline, the route is all downhill. After the road joins the Chaarn road, it is also all downhill.' Now, that may not be exactly word-perfect, but it is close, I deem.

“Master Bezan then continued by saying: 'The route must eventually be wide enough for three wagons, but in the first instance we could make it so that traffic going downvalley only is able to use the new road, the old road can be used exclusively to service the upvalley traffic, at least for the time being. Therefore, we could start with a way large enough for just one wagon and sideriders. What is very important is that there must be no sharp bends, but, having said that, it does not have to be straight. Any bends would have to be sweeping ones.' He then went on to describe the degree of sweeping by comparing the curves to parts of circles that would be not less than a tenth of a mark across, gentler curves being preferred if at all possible.”

Master Bezan nodded and murmured his agreement that those were indeed the instructions that he had given and that Papa had not therefore misunderstood the task.

“My report tonight could be very detailed, however I think more of an overview is called for ...

“First I shall state that the project is, in my opinion, feasible, but with one major problem - but which I do not feel to be completely insurmountable. However, this is not within the scope of my knowledge and expertise.

“The full details should be held back maybe until we have a scribe with us, but my report tonight will be of what I did, and of what information I was able to glean. I hope to provide sufficient detail to be understandable, but not the full details which might serve to obscure the overall picture - things like the fact that there were six strides and two feet between this and that rock, or that that tree would have to removed from that particular position.”

The two men sat back, making a pleasant nod of agreement to each other and to Papa, but obviously waiting to hear some more, confined to that level of detail that Papa had indicated.

“I must also say that I expanded my task slightly, based on one assumption. That assumption being that the brief I was given would actually eventually apply to a roadway that would go all the way from Blackstone itself down to Tranidor, if not even further. I could see no reason that the curves would have to be gentle solely in this eight or so mark stretch. Thus I assumed that I should consider the entire way, not just the few marks required to get round the incline problem at the Chaarn junction. I fully appreciated that that had to be a priority, and its logical extension to find some way to integrate the 'by-pass' route, if I may call it that, to link in with the existing route.

“So it was with these thoughts in mind that I set out upon my task.

“I began by investigating the foresters' tracks that abound in that part of the forest between the road and the river.

“I would estimate that it would take very little work to widen some of these tracks and to cut through the trees to make some connections to the road that exists. At the north end of this stretch, there is an easy access track which leaves the main road at the bend where the slope down from the junction ends and the road starts going upwards again. This track slopes gently downhill as it heads towards the river. After a little more than a mark, there is a steep canyon carrying a tributary stream only a little wider and wilder than the Blackstone where it joins the Bray just down there.” He nodded in the direction of where our two waters joined.

He continued giving his report in such a way.

The major problem that he had come across was an area where two tributary streams almost converged, maybe a cast or at the most two apart as they reached the river itself. One had a far greater flow-rate than the other, but there was the high cliff of an intervening peak between the two as they tumbled from deepish canyons into the Bray. He felt that a tunnel could maybe be driven through the 'nose' of the peak and a bridge constructed on either side to span each of the canyons, but would require someone more expert to make that decision.

He began to end his report by adding just one more aspect: “This investigation of that area had taken me two full days, following up and down the banks of those two tributaries, so I overnighted at the first roadhouse below the Chaarn junction and returned to 'our' roadhouse, the now-called Forest Roadhouse, for the third night.

“I was tempted to make straight back here but, as mentioned earlier, I had had another thought, so I went to the Forest Roadhouse instead and did some investigation around there. I was unfortunate enough to be there as Mistress Sandara, the widow of our ex-shoemaker, was making life most unpleasant for just about everybody. She was complaining bitterly about having to pay extra for the shuttle as her belongings were of such a quantity that they exceeded the terms of the shuttle contracts. She had wanted to persuade the shuttle to leave early, but then she herself caused such a fuss that apparently the shuttle had to leave a full half a bell late, and the other two passengers were most put out. As was the driver.

“However, this was not my concern and I made some quick observational trips into the forest around there. I must also confess that I was intrigued by the workers building something up on the top of the Strettalm. They told me it was a semi-four station, whatever that is. Ah, I see you both know, so perhaps you would explain later, if it pleases you. For now, please let me finish my report.

“As you are aware, the road from Blackstone goes straight downhill with some undulations until it 'hits' the side of the Strettalm. There it takes a sharp right turn and descends quite steeply diagonally down the face of a rock-fault until it reaches the roadhouse. It occurred to me that maybe I should investigate the backside of the Strettalm to see if a gentler, more gradual descent could be made round the back of that peak. I discovered some almost surprising things round there.

“There is a river/stream that runs down the south-east of Strettalm and curves quite sharply to the west, almost as soon as it reaches the valley floor. It works its way, first west, then south again and then west again, down to the Bray river itself which it joins just south of some falls. These falls are themselves about 3 marks south of the roadhouse.”

“Yes, we know them. We overnighted there on our way up.”

“Although the ground behind the Strettalm is quite broken, I estimate that it would be possible for a roadway to be constructed round there that fulfills the terms of my task. It would require some cutting and filling, and at one point, it would require being split to pass either side of a tall rocky outcrop, but yes, it could be done – and has the advantages of both cutting out another bridge across another waterway, and also getting round a steep part of the existing route. I can, however, see why the Chivans didn't build a route through there – it is certainly not as obvious as the route up the rockface must have been, and it requires a certain amount of construction by cutting away rock here, and filling hollows and the like there.

“The drawback I see is that it would completely by-pass the existing Forest Roadhouse, such that a new roadhouse would have to be built. That is not my decision, but seems to me to be a factor against.

“So to summarise, I believe that, with the exception of that one problem area with the two canyons and the peak, it would be possible to construct such a roadway down the east side of the Bray, from Blackstone all the way down to the Tranidor bridge and beyond.

“I do have something further to add, and I confess I might be influenced by Swayga's brother here, but, as I was riding back up here to Town, an additional thought did occur to me. The loneliness of the forest does tend to induce much thinking.”

He grinned engagingly as he said that, before continuing: “It occurred to me that the problem of dealing with the incline is that full loads are not feasible on the route. So I asked myself what other ways are there of getting goods downvalley without having to climb that incline.

“It suddenly hit me that even if the required works take a long time, or indeed prove impossible, and I'm referring to getting past the twin canyons and the peak area, then the envisaged gently curving and sloping route could actually end at those problem canyons and peak. Loads could be transshipped to river traffic at that point, there being no more rapids from there downstream. There would, of necessity, be required an arrangement of some sort to create a tow path beside the river there, but otherwise there is no difficulty.”

I noticed the two men have a thoughtful look settle on their faces as Papa made that suggestion, but they still kept quiet until Papa officially ended his report.

“There is a natural rocky ledge just there that could form the basis of some sort of wharf, should that prove to be an advantage. An extension from that across the north canyon could be made and a base for tunnelling or excavating through the peak could be constructed quite simply. There is in fact a shallow cave in the face of the opposing cliff some two or more strides higher than the near bank. But I am untrained in the details of moving stones and ore. Nor am I certain of the disbursement of water during and just after the rains. I would be happy to take someone down to my problem area for a second opinion.”

He took a deep breath before continuing: “Thus ends my official report.”

“Phew! Now hand me that wine bottle. All that talking certainly produces a thirst.”

With that, Papa returned to being the cheerful host.

We continued to talk about what we had heard and thought during Papa's report, and what it all might mean. Master Bezan explained that our Baroness had suggested a new mode of transport, and that with it we could get to Tranidor and back in a day. We all gasped at that vision, but he was being very serious – he even said that with development of that method of travel, a day return to Haligo, or even Teldor would become possible. He hastened to say that this was some years away yet, but that it would be sensible to set some of the groundwork in motion as soon as possible.

Both men thanked Papa for his work and his report. They then turned to us women and thanked us for their meal.

“Master Bezan did not exaggerate. It has been an absolute delight and I thank you all for your outstanding abilities.”

We all three blushed.

And so it was that our home settled down for another night. I used the wake hours to write down my notes of the day I have just described, and it was no difficulty to return to sleep afterwards.

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