Julina of Blackstone - 077 - What Is The Point?

Julina learns much and teaches some, in a matter of mere Bells.

Julina of Blackstone
Her Chronicles, Book 2

by Julia Phillips

077 – What Is The Point?


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 © 2017 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 - 2017 Penny Lane. All rights reserved.

Julina of Blackstone
Her Chronicles
077 – What Is The Point?

“And just what are you laughing at, Mistress Julina?” the Countess demanded in fierce and accusatory tones.

“You, Milady.”

“And is it your wont to mock the afflicted?”

“Not at all, Milady,” I replied, just barely managing to suppress further giggles.

“Well I find it most disrespectful.”

“As you say, Milady!”

Which was then followed by a sort of “Sssppplllllltttt” that I didn't quite manage to suppress entirely.

We were in the front family room at Em's. Our group consisted of Milady Merizel, the three maids, Davvy and I along with the healer, Mistress Twaite who had come with her assistant, Kanasta.

Mistress Twaite looked shocked and frowned somewhat disgustedly at me. Kanasta was bewildered, judging by her face. Davvy had gasped, and started to look worriedly at me, but experience brought about by her slowly getting to know me suggested that maybe I had something up my sleeve, so as to speak. The Einnlander maids remained neutral, there being no expression across their faces at all.

Everyone in other words doubted me - except for Tandra, who, like her mistress, had eyes that were sparkling with mirth, a look that all the others had not managed to detect.

The Countess tried to frown and glare at me all at the same time. I clamped my mouth shut, but a bubble of giggles made my lips quiver and produce a sound more often associated with animals' rear ends.

That was the final thing that broke through Countess Merizel's demeanour, and she laughed out loud – at last.

“Maker! 'Lina, I can no longer pretend to be annoyed. But I would fain understand what made you giggle so, when my wrist is now sorely damaged, liberally belotioned and so fastly bandaged. Maker! I can scarce bend it.”

When Davvy, Surtree and I were returning from the railroad workers place to the Salon, we saw the Countess and her maids inspecting the area that was to be rebuilt into the new VMS building. I told the bac driver to stop, we would dismount here and I called across to the party of women. In whirling round, the Countess somehow tripped over a stone or one of the marking sticks there. She fell, using her right hand to break her fall. In doing so, she hurt her wrist, for she immediately cried out and grasped it with her other hand. The tears were trembling on her lids as she sat there and the maids all fussed around her.

“Surtree, take the bac and find a healer. Quickly now! Davvy, go and prepare the family room at Em's for the Countess to be able to recline on the couch there. 'Tis the nearest room we can all fit into and have the healer work her wonders too.”

As my assistants were flying about their new tasks, I went over to the injured woman and persuaded her to show me the injury. It was already quite swollen and tender to touch, but I made her try to move her hand around – a task she managed, but with much grimacing.

“I deem you have but sprained that wrist, Merry – Milady, I mean. My brothers have done that often enough in their childhood. Come, let us away down the street to the Salon. There is a day bed in the family room there, upon which you may recline. 'Tis but five houses distant.”

I let Odgarda and Geska support her as we made our way slowly down the sidewalk of Main Street; more people clustered around her would just have engendered uncomfortable crowding, bumping and much other chaos. Quite quickly, surprisingly, Surtree and the bac returned. I dismissed the bac driver to other duties, knowing that he knew that he'd be paid by the company and get his coin from Kulyer. He respectfully saluted me as he pulled away. I worried about that, for he obviously recognised me but I could not reciprocate. Blackstone Wagons now employed more than two dozen drivers, counting them both up here and downvalley.

Just as I was about to ask, Surtree beat me to it: “We found Mistress Twaite just up by the Town Coal Quarry. She and her assistant shall be here ...” He broke off and gestured up Main Street. At that heartbeat we were just one house away from Em's so I could see these two familiar women approaching quickly, but in an unfamiliar fashion.

“Surtree, run over to the barracks to inform them that the Countess is in Em's, that she has been injured, but just a suspected sprained wrist. You had better make it clear 'twas an accident, and not some enemy attack. Then you had better see what you can do to help around the Salon.”

He gave me his funny little salute and scampered off. I turned my attention back to the approaching women, or at least some my attention. I required to make sure I did not fall off the boardwalk of course and I would soon also have to open the street door.

What was unfamiliar about the two oncoming women, though, was that they were both mounted on frayen! Given Mistress Lendra's complaints of the other day, this was a sensible move on the healers' parts, I wondered if they had all now learnt to ride. My thoughts flashed back to that Assembly Meeting.

Which is when I got the fit of the giggles.

And they carried on erupting all through Mistress Twaite's examination of the patient and the production of the lotion and the bandaging. And which led onto the Countess' mock anger.

“So then, wretched girl, out with it. What is quite so amusing?”

“I just thought of the last Assembly Meeting, and the complaints levelled by the Healers of this town. As a result of those, there is to be a Healers' House, a central office, if you like, for them. We should have just left you where you were, Milady. For all you had to do was wait a few weeks, and you would have been sitting upon the floor of the Healers' office.”

She laughed outright at that, and then everyone else at least smiled – even the Einnlander girls.

“And then I imagined us bringing you your meals there. And tucking you in at night ...”

Eight women laughing aloud was bound, I suppose, to bring someone else along to see what the fuss was about. And then we had to explain it all again to Kelly and Kassama.

By and by, the conversation moved on.

First we learnt why her Ladyship was walking around town on her own (the guards were all at a muster at the new barracks, the principals were there too, and the Countess wanted to have a small walk while it was relatively quiet in Town).

Then we learnt that indeed the Healers had all availed themselves of the riding lessons we had set up down at the Claw all those weeks or months ago; the demands the Healers were now receiving meant that indeed they had to be more mobile than earlier.

It soon became time for me to explain why we were travelling on a bac, rather than on frayen.

“... so Sookie took the animals down to the Claw. I had some conversations that were necessary about future staffing and also to reassure Davabet's mother who was of the impression that I, and now Davvy, work too hard.

“Knowing my schedule, which nowadays I must own seems to be some part of a wonder, I deemed we had just time to go along and see what those railroad people were doing behind their curtains, curtains they had erected to reduce the number of interruptions they got from passers-by. I had several good reasons for being there and I chose the explanation that I had heard there would be an influx of workers in their area soon and did they think they might need some sort of lunchtime catering? I will readily confess amongst us here that that wasn't really the truth, or at least not the whole truth, for I was simply curious to find out what they did in there all day – and I knew that young Surtree was consumed with inquisitiveness as well. “

They all laughed out loud at that.

“Well, we popped into that area, where they are doing some testing, ...”

“Hold just a second! Ah! The green curtains up near the head of the valley?”

'Second', Milady?” asked Mistress Twaite hurriedly, lest my reply should drag the conversation away from this new topic.

“Forgive me. I meant heartbeat. Down in the Palace we have these new clocks which show the time in both bells and in Earth measurements.”

I felt the need to swiftly tell them all that: “We also have one now in the Salon just across the corridor from here, and the Steward has one too. But I confess I had forgotten about 'seconds'. I have been having difficulties enough understanding the hours and minutes.”

“You have one here? How … oh, Senidet, I presume?”

“As you say Milady. With her assistant Sigsten.”

“Excuse me, Milady,” interrupted Mistress Twaite, “and you too Mistress Julina. Earth measurements? I fear I am floundering.”

“Ah, Mistress Twaite,” began the Countess, “you are aware that Her Highness does not come from …” she looked around at us and narrowed her eyes slightly as she thought furiously “... anywhere in Alaesia, but from somewhere else entirely, from an area called Kansas which is located on … er, in ... a place we now call Earth.”

Everyone seemed to nod affirmatively, so she continued: “Anyway, they measure the time differently there. Very differently. Most of our Questors, who by the way, since the beginning of the year, have now been called 'Scientists' or 'Professors', whenever anyone remembers to do so that is, and also many Guildmasters, or 'Engineers', actually now recommend that we adopt that time system here as it allows for more accuracy, which is very important to nearly all of them.”

Mistress Twaite turned to me: “And you know of this, Mistress Julina?”

“Not the full details, Mistress. I am but … Hold! May I suggest we go into the Salon itself and look at the clock? 'Twill make explanations easier with the very thing there in front of us.”

“Of course! What a sensible idea, Mistress Julina,” said Milady.

So we all trooped into the Salon, where Frowka and Venket were setting up the tables and the sideboards and so on.

“Don't worry girls, we will move out of here in just a moment or two. I simply wish to show them the clock dials.”

“You maids can go back to that other room, as you have all seen these already! Then we shall be fewer here in these girls' way!”

“If it please you, Milady, may we stay? For I, we, am un-so-sure of this subject, and Mistress Julina does gives very clear lessons.”

I blushed at that, but still made sure my eyes thanked the Einnlander girl.

“Very well,” said the Countess, “I find I must agree with you, Odgarda, regarding 'Lina's lessons. Mistress Julina, would you carry on?”

“If it pleases you, Milady.” I positioned myself below the clock, my heart thumping, for I knew I did not understand the subject properly; so I chose the Bells dial to start with. “This side of the display,” I said whilst pointing up at it, “this 'dial' as they name it, shows the current time in Bells. This little picture is of the sun, which tells us that we are in the day Bells period. The picture changes to a moon for the other period of the day, the night Bells that start at the Dusk announcement. This number … oh! I assume you can all read Palarandi numbers?”

I glanced around and all indicated that they could. I saw Frowka and Venket listening attentively too, and I suddenly realised that I had not explained this to all the girls either. I mentally slapped my wrist.

“This number tells us then which was the last Bell announcement we heard. And this little numbered thingy down the bottom tells us what quarter of the Bell we are in; see here, the pointer shows us 'tis betwixt the second and the third quarters. So we are coming up to the quarter before the seventh.” I paused then, before putting on a complaining voice. “No wonder my tummy is rumbling!”

As hoped, the others all laughed and I felt the mood lighten somewhat. But I also gulped a little, for I now had to explain that other dial, the one I was convinced I didn't understand, and I couldn't put it off any longer.

Nevertheless, my brain suggested a way I could gain a few more heartbeats.

“Now - do you all also know the Garian numbers Her Highness introduced to Palarand?”

Alas, I got no respite for they all indicated that they did, even the maids.

“So I must now tell you that, in the so-called Earth system, their day is divided into twenty four periods called 'hours', and all these hours are of equal lengths, twelve of them between midnight and noon, both of which match exactly to our midnight and noon. This first period of twelve hours, half of twenty four, of course, they call collectively the 'morning hours' (even the ones that occur in the dark!) and then there are the other twelve between noon and midnight. I deliberately chose to call the morning hours the first period, for their day starts actually at midnight; unlike our periods which start at dawn or dusk and which further means that the last Bell of one of our periods is sometimes not exactly the same length as the other Bells that there have been since that period started.”

I broke off to take a breath, aware that I was waffling slightly as my brain raced. And furthermore to attempt to give the lead of the conversation back to Countess Merizel, hopefully; but she waved a hand and nodded at me encouragingly to continue, so I couldn't escape my fate that way.

As I may have mentioned before, one sure way to learn about something is to try to explain it, or teach it, to someone else. I felt a big 'Ding!' in my head and abruptly I understood those 'Earth' times that I had up to now been struggling with. So, suddenly, I could continue my explanation with a lot more confidence in my voice. And with a big smile.

“So you will readily understand that each of these hours is shorter than one of our Bells, as there are more of them in a day. But, for that accuracy that Her Ladyship mentioned, these hours have to be divided into even shorter time periods. So the people from Earth chose the number sixty to do the division of the hour. I know not why they chose that number, I must confess ...” I flung a glance at the Countess but again she waved me on, “... but nevertheless that is what they do. So their hour is divided first by sixty to produce what they call 'minutes' and then these are divided for a second time by sixty, to produce what they call 'seconds'.”

“Ah!” breathed Her Ladyship, “that must be why they are called 'seconds'. Because of dividing for a second time. I had never thought of that, I had just accepted Her Highness' terminology! Fascinating – and annoying that I had not worked that out for myself. So, Mistress Twaite, a second is very close to what we call a 'heartbeat' and a 'minute' is very close to what we call a 'moment'. Mistress Julina, I'm sorry! I interrupted your lesson.”

With an acknowledging nod, I continued: “Now observe this other dial, the non-Bell dial, the Earth dial I suppose would be a good name for it. First you need to understand that the start position for these long things that point towards the numbers round the outside is straight up. The big indicator which is almost as long as the dial is wide from its centre, well that big indicator jerks forward like it does at the end of each second. You can see that indeed the jerks come just about each heartbeat. Now, one half of sixty is thirty, and one third is twenty and one quarter is fifteen ...” I had another 'Ding!' moment then. Maybe I DID understand why they chose the number sixty after all! “... so you can see that the seconds pointing thingy has just passed the twenty second mark and is approaching half way round the circle. You can also see that there are a hand of … divisions … between each of the twelve numbers that surround the dial. Twelve times five is sixty.”

“If I might briefly interrupt, Mistress Julina?”

“Of course, Milady.”

“When we wish to indicate something at some distance from us, then we use our fingers to point to the object. Like those bread sticks over there.”

Of course, we all followed her pointing finger and looked at the innocent and unmoving sticks of bread. Frowka frowned as she looked for something wrong with them.

“And we then move our hand to point to something else, like the bottles of that rather nice wine at the other end of the sideboard.”

We all murmured our agreements, all of us a little confusedly.

“Well I use my fingers to point, the fingers on my hand. The clock uses these pointer thingies to indicate the relevant number on the outside of the circle by pointing at the numbers. They move, these things, and so they have therefore been termed 'hands'. We have the 'second hand', look it is just about to get to the top, to the end of a minute, and the 'minute hand' is the middle-sized one, whilst the 'hour hand', the short but stubbier one, is the one that travels slowest around the dial.”

After murmurs of understanding from her audience she gestured for me to continue.

“Thank you Milady. I knew that not. Today is therefore not wasted, for I have learnt something. And now back to my explanation.

“So we can see the Earth time just by looking at the clock. The hour hand was pointing straight upwards at noon, but is now just between the first and the second mark on the outside of the dial. So we know immediately that it is between one and two hours later than noon. The minute hand, the middle one, is pointing down and a little bit to the left. So we know that it is just after the half hour, because the minute hand does one circle of the dial every hour. And the second hand does one circle of the dial every minute.

“And there we have it, the second hand goes round the quickest, the minute hand is the next quickest (but not quick enough for us to actually detect any movement) and the short, stubby hour hand is the slowest. I find it a pleasing simplicity of showing us the time. A quick reminder for you – the second hand goes round once every minute, the minute hand goes round once every hour and the hour hand goes round once every half-day. I hope that is now clear?”

“Indeed! Well presented Julina! Very clear, concise and eminently understandable.” Everyone there nodded their agreement with the Countess' words.

“Thank you, Milady.” (Wretched blushing!)

“So,” the Countess continued, “in Earth terms, we call this time one thirty two and seventeen seconds. Eighteen seconds. Nineteen seconds. Note that we don't bother saying the words for 'hours' or 'minutes' because everybody understands that is what we describe.”

“That has confused me, Milady,” said Mistress Twaite.

“We know from the hour hand, being between the one and two, that 'tis after the first hour has ended and before the second hour has ended, so the stated time starts with a one – meaning one completed hour. If the hand was pointing say here, then that would be after eight hours had been completed.”

She paused until everyone had nodded at her. “The minute hand is between the six and the seven down there, slightly nearer the six. So we know 'tis after the thirty minute mark – remember, sixty minutes in an hour so just thirty in half of that – and the second hand is now overtaking the minute hand. So it is now, one thirty two and thirty seven seconds.”

Everyone puzzled at that for a little while and then came the 'Ding!' heartbeat, starting with Mistress Twaite and soon reaching everyone.

“Come along you all. We must keep out of the way of these poor girls who have to work.” The Countess called for all of us to return to the family room, but I stopped them there.

“Hold for just a SECOND or two, if you would.” They all smiled at my usage. “Shall we have some pel? And who is hungry, should we perchance have some pastries, pies, honeycakes?”

“Would we be able to sample one of those peet-zer things?” enquired the Countess. I was astonished at the fervent nods that agreed with her.

“Indeed we could!” I turned to Frowka, one eyebrow raised. She nodded and raised her own eyebrow queryingly. I mouthed 'Cheese' at her and then added 'Two large'. She bobbed a quick curtsey in acknowledgement and we went back to the family room even as the two girls scurried off to the kitchens.

Once we were all settled, the Countess said: “I deem I recall correctly when I say you were about to tell us some more about the railroad works at the head of the valley. Hidden behind their green curtain there. That is where you went?”

“So is it, Milady. Anyway, we made our way towards there, and met Senidet and her maid returning from inspecting the underground lake. When I mentioned where we were going, she expressed a desire to accompany us. And so, eventually, we got there ...”

… … ...

“Well met, Goodman Hobil. I am here to discuss some things with your team leader and with Master Pyor. I promise I shall not disturb the work too much.”

Hobil returned my grin as he said: “Welcome Mistress Julina. As it happens, Master Pyor is even now discussing things with er ... Master Ryteet. I shall take you to them, but must warn you all to watch where you step. There is much loose wood lying around.”

I made the introductions of those who did not know all present and we set off across the work site, led by Hobil, with myself next to him.

He lowered his voice such that only I could hear. “I must tell you that the 'Master' is currently a courtesy title for Journeyman Ryteet, but he does a good job and I daresay he shall become a full and proper Master sooner rather than later.” I grunted a reply so he knew I had heard.

His voice rose once more: “If you would step this way, I shall guide you. When we get to the sample rails on the ground, please take care not to kick them or anything. They are mostly firmly secured, but some are just currently being positioned with an absolute precision so they are yet to be attached in the same fashion as all the others.”

Surtree scampered up on my other side. He said, in shocked tones in an aside to me, intending it for private consumption: “Look at all the wood they have here. They could build the whole town all over again, I deem!”

Hobil heard however – and fortunately he simply laughed: “Quite right, young Master. If not three times over.”

Surtree's face split into a wide grin as his boyish exaggerations were flung back at him. There was an instant respect from the lad to the man.

“Most of the wood you see here is split though, or crushed, or torn.”

We all looked at him in surprise.

He shrugged and simply said: “We break a lot here.”

I think all our mouths dropped open.

He laughed uproariously then. “In all truth, I must say that actually, because of some of the things we do, we have had a great number of broken and crushed bits of wood. We tried to find somewhere to get rid of this no-longer usable wood but 'twas most difficult. Then Master Torin, and later Master Haldik, made a highly sensible suggestion. We have soon the newly 'invented' Longest Day town feast. Master Torin had the idea to have a huge bonfire round which we can all dance and so on, a sort of 'good news' pyre if you like, rather than a sad occasion. And for that we shall require to burn wood. Which is better for that occasion? Freshly cut wood that could be used for building or wagon construction, or discarded, broken, crushed, split rejects? So this has now become the Town's waste wood depository.”

We all understood suddenly why there was quite so much wood around.

He led us across to 'Master' Ryteet who was indeed speaking with Pyor. Deeply and seriously.

Pyor had his back to us so whirled round in surprise when his opposite number broke off in the middle of a sentence, with widening eyes and a frown. He muttered something, inaudible to us, which made Pyor do his sudden about face. Then Pyor's face took on an even more surprised expression when he recognised us.

Pyor led the introductions of course, being the one who knew everyone. And, as we were the 'intruders' so as to speak, 'twas I who had to explain our presence as the first subject. Pyor's eyes were laughing at me as I used the excuse about possible future catering. He knew we were just being nosy.

“Mistress Julina, that is indeed a splendid thought, and I fully understand why you wish to have as much advanced notice as possible. We believe there shall be between a dozen and four hands of extra railroad workers arriving in the next week, so mayhap we will indeed require some catering facility here. Up to now, we have been repairing to the Miners' Hall which is not used so much of a lunch period, most workers being considerably farther away than ourselves or the dwelling builders ...”

I flashed a triumphant glare at Pyor, who just winked and twinkled back at me, showing he wasn't fooled for a heartbeat.

“... We are unaware of just how many shall arrive at this moment, but Master Bezan shall be able to inform us soon, just as soon as he receives the appropriate semaphore.”

“Does Master Bezan then also know about the railroad details?” I asked in some surprise.

“Indeed so, Mistress. Her Highness caused him to be sent a full and detailed description of all parts of this enterprise apparently as long ago as the turn of the year. 'Tis from him that we up here have our knowledge.”

“Maker! Do you tell me? That is near to a half-year!” Inside I was cursing myself for not asking him about this in all those intervening months and weeks.

“As you say, Mistress. But the works could not begin immediately, neither here nor down near Teldor. The last of the winter had to pass, and then various tests had first to be made. I am told that Master Pyor's idea for the sliding points works well, the design of which we both semaphored down AND sent a detailed letter with diagrams via the VMS.

“Let me be clear here, in the Exclusivity Licence, the name given was 'points' – presumably because Master Pyor here said that they point to the destination that the railroad train is to take. But some people prefer the term 'switch' or 'switches', since they switch the set of rails upon which the train is travelling. I personally have got used to hearing 'points' so this seems to be the word that springs most readily to my mind.

“Whatever 'tis to be called, this is something that has actually helped a lot with the works downvalley. Her Highness had specified a different way to split the paths of the rails, but everyone has found it, so far, to be beyond their skills. 'Tis one of the things we must test up here, in wood first, before the steel version can be made. The Pyor Points can be far more easily constructed in the metals, and they have been used extensively now.”

“Master Ryteet, you should be aware that Mistress Julina was present when I designed those simplified railroad 'points' as they have now been called up here. 'Twas she who made me take out the Exclusivity Licence.”

Surtree and Hobil both nodded their confirmations. Ryteet for some reason looked a little shocked.

“So Blackstone is not the only test centre for the railroad?” I continued.

“Indeed not, Mistress.” He slightly stammered his reply. “Much of what they now term 'industry' is being constructed and/or expanded down near Teldor. Most of it being on the west bank of the Palar 'twixt Teldor and Haligo. I was told only yestere'en that they have now successfully constructed a sturdy enough bridge across the Telar some three marks upstream of Teldor and can thus start laying railroad route and track between there and Dekarran, just as they have already started doing in the direction of Haligo.

“The three marks upstream was necessary in order to access a narrower stretch of the Telar, with high enough banks to allow the barges to still move on the water, so actually, once this railroad gets started, then traffic shall leave Teldor, travel for six marks and appear just across the river from Teldor once more! Now six marks is quite a long way for dranakh and not quite so long for frayen, but to this railroad traffic, 'twill be a half bell only, mayhap even less, if Her Highness' descriptions are accurate.”

“Kallisthena!” I said, really quite loudly. (By the way, I have come to the conclusion that that word I learnt was somehow more 'feminine' than the others.)

Pyor laughed out loud, while Master Ryteet looked again shocked at first, before grinning in a very attractive way.

“So what means all that for the development of the railroad as a whole?” I managed to ask him to bring him back on track, so as to speak.

“The rails on their beds shall be built from each end, rather than just from one end. From Teldor the rails extend both north and south, Haligo as well. And I daresay from Dekarran they shall also spread in both directions. We up here can only go in the one direction of course.

“We also have a problem up here in that the agreed lengths of steel rails are immensely difficult to transport, that rock face by the Forest Roadhouse and up to the Strettalm being the most awkward part. But the length of the rails upon which they have agreed are so much longer than a wagon that some alternative way of doing it must be found. Down near Teldor is where most of these rails are now being produced, so there they have far fewer difficulties, with the gentle slopes of the river bank being all they have to cope with. There they have now determined how best to attach the rails to the supports under them and so on. But here alas, we have none of the actual steel rails. We use wooden ones for our testing, and sometimes the weight of the load we test with has crushed the wood, or split it. Master Brydas has managed to provide some metal plates to help us reinforce crucial bits and he is struggling to produce reliable usable rails for us.”

I felt an idea start a'bubbling in my head.

Pyor took over from Master Ryteet at that moment, for Ryteet was struck silent by me, a female, asking such technical questions, and using wagoneers' expletives whilst doing so: “And as we have wagons, railroad wagons and barges all involved in transporting stuff, it occurred to me that maybe we should have a standard size of load. So a wagon would become simply a base for carrying around one unit of load, mayhap some wagons would also have seating available, but my vision is that all bellies shall be the same. Then a railroad wagon would have two or three standard sizes as its load capacity, and a barge say eight or so.

“The authorities down in Palarand have agreed and we have now established the exact dimension of one of these 'containers' as they now deem them. With load lengtheners and dranakh we have managed to lift a new standard unit up from one wagon, then draw another wagon up under the suspended load and lowered that load onto the fresh wagon. So it shall be almost child's play to do that with the use of steam engines, which get ever more powerful as more and more steel sheet is being produced.

“I am proud to say that my suggestion has been accepted, and that all wagons in Palarand shall be converted to accept the standard container. That conversion to Blackstone wagons shall be easy for I have selected a size that means most will already be able to accept the containers once simple guiding pins have been affixed.”

“There are many associated threads in those statements to be considered. So please don't think that I have selected just one and will not ask the others later!”

Pyor nodded while Ryteet still looked thunderstruck. Hobil grinned in appreciation as he accepted the evidence of his eyes and ears a lot more readily than his boss. Mind you, Hobil had met me before, so I deem that might well have helped. I inwardly grinned at what would happen with Ryteet when Senidet opened up; she was just observing, thinking and analysing at the moment.

“Her Highness specified a way for the rails to split, and yet you say Pyor's idea is the one that has been accepted?”

Ryteet shook himself and began again: “Indeed. Insofar as that goes. The reason is simple. Indeed simplicity is the watchword here since the splitting methods are very simple too – in theory. Her Highness' design requires some shaping of parts of the steel required. As we have yet to test it properly, we have yet to determine the exact lengths of steel required, thus we have no defined requirement for the shaping.

“One integral part of the design is something Her Highness declared was named a 'frog', I know not why she named it so, 'tis the first time I ever heard that word, but this is a triangular lump of steel. When we have attempted to test this with wooden samples, then our wooden 'frogs' have soon been crushed. Having the sharp point of the triangle is important for this design. So we are somewhat restricted at the moment. At least, with the Pyor Points, we have the ability to split rails and test curves and the like.”

“Hmmm. That seems quite logical, I suppose.”

Pyor responded, with only a little hint of sarcasm: “Why, thank you, Mistress!”

“So what about this problem you had with the gap in the rails, and wheels dropping into it?”

Another raise of the eyebrows from Ryteet as he yet again decided he needed to re-evaluate me. “Well Mistress, our wheels are made of two parts ...”

“Indeed, Master Ryteet. The wheel and the lap.”

“Maker! How know you that?”

I just gestured to Hobil who made a mock bow.

“Very well, I shall get a little more technical then. The width of the lap we very rapidly realised was a factor in our problem, and Master Pyor here confirmed that when he arrived to join us. The thicker the downhanging part, the lap, then the wider needs be the gap in the rail to be crossed.

“But the lap must be present and must be sturdy for at some point the entire weight of the wagon shall be brought to bear upon it. So we needed to come to a compromise 'twixt sturdiness and thinness.

“The wider the gap, then the more likelihood of the wheel dropping into it. So we need to minimise the gap, or find some other method of controlling this weakness in the system.”

“Excuse me Master Ryteet?”

His eyes went to Senidet, a person he appeared to have forgotten was present. “Mistress … Sendit?”

“Senidet. Surely then you just make the circumference …” Ryteet's eyebrows shot up at her use of that word, “... of the wheel larger, for then the outside portion of the wheel covers more length of rail?”

“Indeed, Mistress Senidet. Indeed. But ...”

He looked so shocked at that point that I jumped in again: “Ah! But Senidet dear, I deem the railroad wagons' bellies shall be wider than the spread of the wheels, which means such wheels will therefore be running UNDER the belly and so those wheels cannot be so very large.”

“Ah! Thank you, Julina. I was unaware of that part of the design.” She fell back to thinking.

Meanwhile Ryteets' eyes were out on stalks as he looked from me to her and back again. Often.

Pyor smothered a grin and took up the conversation again: “So you see we have many factors here to consider and try to test as best we might. We really need some of the steel rails, but only the Maker knows how to get them up here.”

“How many of these rails can be carried on a wagon and still be hauled?” asked my friend, a very calculating look on her face as well as in her tone.

“Well we need two wagons actually, Mistress Senidet, which adds to the complications and to the weight to be hauled. But on a normal road, with a normal slope then we could get over a hand underway, but not as many as two hands of them. But there are two other factors that are denying us as well. The steep slope up the rock face from the Forest Roadhouse, and the sharp turn at the top of that slope. We would needs reduce the load to maybe just a pair, which is wickedly wasteful for the transport of such a load all the way from Teldor. And then these rails are so long that, when the first wagon makes that turn, the second wagon is still sufficiently far behind it that the rails themselves would bang into the rock wall on the inside of the bend at the top.”

“How heavy are the rails? And how long are they?”

“Why they require maybe a hand of men for lifting just the one. And they are as long as about four wagons.”

“Then I may have a solution for you!”

“Maker, Mistress! Do you tell us?” The three railroad men were all staring at Senidet now, an excited interest in their eyes and faces.

“When we came up here, I saw some foresters dragging a felled tree. That giant tree was longer than your rails. They had one end of the trimmed trunk sticking up into the air above the driver's head, with the trunk itself resting on the tailgate of the wagon, firmly attached there; meanwhile, the other end of the trunk was riding on a little but sturdy metal trolley, a metal frame sitting atop a small axle. You could use one of those, or something at least similar. That would reduce the weight to be hauled from two wagons to a wagon and a trailer trolley. And would reduce the trailing length somewhat too.”

“Maker! Of course! That would work.”

The joy in the men's faces was short-lived though, as Ryteet realised something.

“But Mistress Senidet there remains the steep slope and the too-sharp turn.”

“Then I would suggest that you use your normal transport method all the way up to the foot of the rock face, and then take a smaller number of rails, maybe even single ones, up the rock face trail and stack them at the top. A hand or more of men could surely remove a single rail from the load and manhandle it round the turn? Then the normal transport method could once again be used to get from the Strettalm to here? You need reduce your loads only for that one stretch of road, not for the whole journey! You can even leave a stack of them at either end of the rock face stretch, for its is not as if anyone shall steal something that requires a hand of men to lift!”

DING! My bubbling idea sprang out into my consciousness, but I kept quiet for a moment as the men were all busy congratulating Senidet.

Before I could open my mouth, though, Senidet asked another question: “I see over there a pair of wheels fixed to a joint axle. Is that the size of the wheels that shall be used?”

“Indeed Mistress. The distance between the two wheels, or, more accurately, between the insides of the two rails, is set to be exactly one and a half strides. The wheels and axle assembly is fixed such that bearings support the axle and those bearings shall be fixed to the above structure, something for which we have yet to find an appropriate name. For now we refer to them as being 'tables'; they shall be fixed above the axle; the frame of said table being then attached to the wagon base.”

“I see,” said Senidet, “so there shall be one of these towards each end of each railroad wagon?”

“That is the idea, Mistress.”

“Let us say the wagon is less than a cast long then, fifteen or sixteen strides in other words. How far in from each end do you expect the axles to be set?”

By this time, the men had lost their awe of discussing such matters with a woman. I genuinely felt that they had been so taken up by the argumentations that they had forgotten the gender of those with whom they were discussing such matters.

“We thought that maybe four strides would be a sensible maximum. That would leave eight or so strides in the middle and four at each end.”

“What about having extra axles. Is that an option?”

“Not really, since we feel that that would make negotiating curves really difficult.”

“Talking of curves, why have you decided upon a fixed axle/wheel arrangement? On any curve, the outer side wheel would have to travel farther than the inner side wheel. How is this possible with a fixed axle? It would surely work only if the table to which the axle was attached was able to swivel? Or the outside of the curve, the rail on that side, would be under great pressure. Or maybe the inner wheel, upon which there is less pressure would actually have to zoom over its surface to compensate. I'm sorry. These things have only just occurred to me and I am really just thinking aloud.”

“Mistress, you amaze us. It took us far longer to see all that you have just seen in a matter of moments!”

“Well Master Ryteet, that is really what my job entails. I must see as complete a picture as possible as swiftly as possible. I am somewhat in demand for making technical drawings of others' ideas, or of translating such drawings into more plain speak ...”

“You, Mistress? How came this about?”

“If you will excuse me, Master Ryteet.” I stepped firmly into this conversation at this point. “I should draw your attention to this lady's chest area! For that is indeed a Guild brooch she is wearing. Guildswoman Senidet is the daughter of our Smith here in Blackstone and she travelled down with Her Highness when the Royal Party departed from here late last year. She has continued her education downvalley and has returned to us not only to see her father, but also to install some needed equipment along with her assistants. She has ...”

I stopped at the hand signal from the blushing Senidet. Ryteet's jaw had dropped open and again he was struck dumb.

I hastily continued with a small change of thread: “Now I too have a question for you all. Well several actually. I understand the problem with the long and heavy rails being delivered up here. And I understand that the lack of them is holding back a certain amount of development. But, as I understand it, you are up here to test some things out for the entire Palarand railroad system. And others are probably waiting upon your reports of your results. Do you require always full length rails for your tests? Could not some be of a shorter length – say a half, or a third or even a quarter? Then these could be used for some tests and if you really require a full length then they could be combined somehow to create one full length when you needed it? So you could actually have shorter lengths conveyed up here? Most of the wooden rails I see around me here are considerably shorter than a cast.”

Even Pyor was looking thunderstruck as well as the other two men. Senidet looked at me and then slapped herself before saying only just audibly: “You can be such a ked sometimes, Senidet!”

“Aye!” said Ryteet. “And so can we. Keds the lot of us. Such a simple solution had just never occurred, we were all taken up with fulfilling Her Highness' specifications exactly. Yes, eventually, when the railroad is built, then we shall require full length ones, but until then there is much we could do with shorter lengths. Thank you Mistress Julina! Are you too a Guildswoman?”

I laughed at that: “No Master Ryteet, I am merely a girl who cooks!”

“Now, Julina, that is unfair. You ...”

“Stop right there, if you would! I have no more time now, I must away to my kitchens. Come with me please, those who would travel with me. Senidet, you and Maid Molly may stay of course, but Davvy, Surtree and I are now late. We must depart.”

… … …

“... and that was why we were on that bac. And I caused you to stumble, Milady.”

She laughed and said: “You see, you really ARE to blame, you wretched child!”

We all smiled at that just as the door opened and Frowka poked her head around it. “Are you all finished with the peet-zers? And would anyone care for some more pel? Oh! Excuse me, Milady, I meant no disrespect when I failed to mention your title.”

The Countess waved an uncaring hand before she answered her: “More pel? Of course more pel. 'Tis impossible for there to be such a thing as too much pel. But the food was actually delicious in its simple way, although these two ...” she indicated the two Einnlander maids, “... did not find it to their tastes, the rest of us did. We thank you most heartily. The girls here will clear away, if you would be so kind as to show them where they should bring it. Perhaps we should all have a 'natural break' and then when we come back, I can tell you some more information about the railroad and also tell you where that strange word 'frog' comes from; you will scarce believe it, I deem.”

“I fear we must depart,” said Mistress Twaite of herself and Kanasta, “even though I deem I would dearly like to learn more.” Kanasta nodded her agreement. “There are several patients we must visit to check up upon. Milady, Mistress Julina, we thank you for a most informative and entertaining lunch pause, an extended lunch pause I deem. And also for the introduction to these peet-zer thingies.”

So there was a large kerfuffle as those two took their leave and we others went to take our relief.

Afterwards, when we regathered, it was more intimate somehow, even though two people had left the quite small room we were in, making the space seem larger.

The Countess settled in and we all attended for her to start with her explanations. She pondered for nearly a whole … minute, during which we all seemed to almost hold our breaths.

“Her Highness, as you are aware, comes from somewhere else entirely and in that place, for thousands of years, the preferred method of transport was something they called a horse. These horses are of differing sizes and different strengths, much as we humans are. Some of the most powerful were used for tilling, ploughing and so on, for drawing barges, wagons and coaches and for operating hoists and the like, much actually as we use our dranakh. And yet horses are also used for riding, as we use our frayen. Even the smaller horses are larger than frayen, though.

“And their feet are also very different. Look now at the ends of your fingers, your nails pointing to your eyes, like this.” She demonstrated. “You see that any one nail covers maybe a quarter of the distance all round a finger, maximally a third. However, on a horse, the nail goes almost all the way round, three quarters or more of the way. And that nail is very thick. In fact, horses' toenails are very important, for they bear the weight of the animal. By having quite long nails, the pads of their feet are protected from damage from the ground. The thickness and the sheer quantity of the nails mean they grow very slowly and they need trimming only every month, approximately.

“And now we get to the main point of my explanations. The pads of their feet, when looked at from below. These pads are just about circular, with an almost flat surface inside the nails. But in the gap between either end of the nail is a fold of more sensitive flesh which tapers towards the centre of the circle. This forms an elongated triangle. I hope you can all visualise this?”

Her description was so clear that I had no difficulty whatsoever picturing this part of the strange animal.

“Those triangular pieces of flesh are called frogs.

“The frogs are then elongated triangles – which is exactly the shape required to be made in steel for a part of Her Highness' design for the rail splitting, the points or switches as they are to be called on the railroad.

“I confess that this explanation may be a little rusty for 'tis almost a half-year since I sent all this stuff from the Palace up here to Master Bezan, but I deem I have the main topics here duly, and reasonably accurately, reported.”

I thanked her for her explanation, on behalf of the three of us. I had thought that now we would part, but she had more information to give us.

“Then there is the route of the railroad. This is almost as complicated as the design of the 'points' and so on, fraught as it is with all sorts of physical, geographical as well as political implications. Simple? Hah!” she snorted with a sort of frustration and a sort of indignation as well as a sort of amusement.

“Dekarran is Palarand's second city and sits on the west bank of the Palar; most of the new factories and so on are also on the west bank of the Palar, between Teldor and Haligo. So it makes sense to have a railroad line there. But Tranidor, the largest city in terms of area in Palarand at this moment in time sits on the east bank of the Palar. And downstream from Tranidor, there is one major river that pierces the west bank, the Sufen. 'Tis below the mouth of the Sufen that Palarand's principal steel works is planned, and indeed is being constructed as we speak. All the other steel works are far smaller enterprises.

“But that is not the only problem with Tranidor. For it sits on the WEST bank of the Bray. If any railroad was to actually be in Tranidor town itself, then there would needs be at least one more major bridge to be built. So the current thinking is as follows: The east bank of the Bray and Palar is unencumbered by tributary rivers, and thus makes building the solid railroad track far easier all the way down to Haligo. There are places at Haligo where the two cliff tops are quite close together and a bridge can be easily constructed to span the gap and still be high above other buildings. So that has been chosen as the 'crossover' point. Such a bridge COULD be used for traffic in both directions of course. But this high-level crossing is above the level of the planned west bank route. Eventually and somehow, the two tracks must come together.

“But nowadays we must add in another factor. The jointly-ruled region dubbed 'Ptuvilend'. This, as you are aware, is to be controlled by a sharing of administration 'twixt Palarand and Vardenale. There are no over-mountain routes to Ptuvilend from Brankane and so their best and easiest route is along their coast of the Sirrel estuary to the mouth of the Palar and then all the way up the east bank.

“The almost certain decision now is that Tranidor shall have two railroad connections, but that the main part of that town shall have no direct railroad routes through it, the castle part of the town that is. West and South Tranidor will be the hosts to the railroad 'line' (as Her Highness referred to them) that runs down the west bank of the Palar; possibly eventually arriving all the way from Tel Botro!

“There, in South Tranidor, to liken this railroad to a tree, the trunk of which is formed by the main lines down each side of the Palar, then a branch line that serves the Sufen valley can easily join in with this previously mentioned west bank line. A branch line in this context means a line that serves the Sufen Valley which branches off the main line, the trunk line if you prefer. Trains using that branch line would leave or join the trunk line in order to get to other destinations.

“Meanwhile, Blackstone shall provide a line down the east bank of the Bray and then the Palar valleys, which shall split at Haligo to cross the Palar there. The line will however also continue to the mouth of the Palar and sweep along the coast to first Viridor, the port, and then on from there to the capital at Brankane. As far as Tranidor is concerned, for them to use that line, then the connection shall be on the east bank, near the current Tranidor East semaphore tower. 'Twill be less than a mark for the citizens and transporters to get to it, and much coin shall be saved by keeping the railroad lines where fewer bridges have to be built. That same trunk line will continue north into Ptuvilend, making the Blackstone line become a branch line. This trunk line may, who knows, eventually reach as far as Chaarn.”

She paused then, just at the right moment for me to take all that in and chew it over a little in my head. When she remained silent, however, I determined to ask another question: “I thank you, Milady, and would ...”

“Come, 'Lina. We are effectively alone. Merry will do under these circumstances. 'Twas good enough down in the Retreat, 'tis good enough for now.”

“Thank you again.” I replied, as I shot warning glances to Davvy. “Merry, is there more you can tell me about this Ptuvilend? I am aware that the Vardenalers that came up here with all of you in the first instance have scarce slept here in all that time.”

“I can indeed give SOME information, but not everything – and that is not because of secrecy or anything. I know far less than the whole story myself. We shall all be departing here next week and I shall have my husband back again once we reach that Brayview place. For Terry is gone off with those from Vardenale once more, to look at Ptuvilend in some greater detail than the first scan they took soon after arriving here. They even looked down on it from the top of the Blackstone Vale during those 'Hunter Games'. It seems there is a wildlife track the other side ...”

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