I can remember my first sight of the estuary road. It’s a short length of cobbled road, the cobbles laid between timbers and the timbers held in place by great piles driven into the mud. There’s not much left of it nowadays, and the older shore-combers will tell you that they can remember when there was more. Perhaps another century or so will see its final disappearance.
Across the mud
The passing traffic
The route decided
Drew them seawards
Elucidation not provided.
I suppose that like everybody else who saw it occasionally I didn’t think much about it. After all, it was just there. But like everybody else, I’d never walked along it. Somehow you just didn’t.
Then I mentioned it in passing to Ranni Quelart and he asked for more details. Ranni is a Sinecurist. He’ll never see seventy again, but in spite of everything he’s a decent chap and is almost ferociously loyal to his friends. He also seems to inspire loyalty in others, so because Ranni asked, obviously I had to find out more.
Firstly and I suppose obviously, he wanted to see the road. I wondered if he’d want to take a cart out there, but no, when I arrived on the Old Esplanade, Ranni was standing there, barefoot, waiting for me. Like him I left my footwear with Shena and we set off, following the retreating tide. Travelling with the old man was always fascinating. He’d tell tales of other expeditions he’d made in the past. He would exchange greetings with a lady shore-comber and explain to me later that she was the grand-daughter of his father’s coachman. Finally we splashed across the Old Channel and picked up the Estuary Road, and followed what little remained of it until it disappeared into the New Channel.
Ranni pulled out a compass, took bearings on various landmarks, and we made our way back. Then as we dried our feet and put on our shoes and stockings, Ranni thanked us for a pleasant day and invited Shena and I to dine with him that evening.
When we arrived we were shown immediately into the dining room. Ranni had been a keen huntsman, and whilst he didn’t hunt much now, he had younger friends who kept his larder well supplied. So we dined on the heartiest of stews; well hung dart marinated in the strongest of red wines, herbs and vegetables, thick with mushroom. With Ranni there was no stinting with regard to portions, we both got a basin rather than a bowl and fresh bread and butter were placed within easy reach of everybody. A day out on the mud of the estuary can give anybody an appetite and the three of us fell to with enthusiasm. There was no conversation until Ranni finished using the last of his bread to clean the final traces of stew from his basin. Then with the shy smile of somebody who has a treat in store he took us through to his study. There waited coffee and cakes, placed on a side table. In the middle of the main desk sat a great book of maps.
Ranni opened the book reverently. “There are advantages to being a Sinecurist, Tallis my boy. I requested this from the Council Archive and it was sent round immediately. Two centuries ago one of my ancestors paid to have every map in the Archive copied and then bound together. Some of the originals are nearly two thousand years old.”
He started at the back and we slowly turned the pages forewards, watching the city regress in front of our eyes. Occasionally maps marked short lengths of the Estuary Road, but we’d looked back nearly a thousand years before the road was marked in its entirety. It reached out as far as the New Channel and just stopped.
Ranni glanced at me, his eyes mischievous. “I’ve the advantage on you; I looked at them before you came. Now what do you make of this?”
He turned back and the next map, dated eleven hundred years ago, showed no road, but it did mark ‘Torrat’s Shoal’.
Both Shena and I studied the map. “I did check the bearings as well as I could, Torrat’s Shoal is nicely placed to be at the end of the Estuary Road.”
Shena looked up from the map. “My guess is that the New Channel now runs where the Shoal was.”
“Yes. My thought entirely. So it struck me that there might be a story here. I wonder if Tallis would like to spend a couple of days at my expense going through the Council of Sinecurists’ yearbooks? I checked, they exist but documents so old are not allowed out of the building.
“I’d be delighted to.” It was true, I was at a loose end, Ranni is never less than generous, and between ourselves, I was intrigued as to what I might find.
So next morning I presented myself at the Council Building. Ranni had obviously made arrangements because I was taken down into the brick-lined cellars beneath the building. Here there was at least two thousand years worth of yearbooks. Some of the older ones had been recopied at some time in the past, but the originals still sat in their proper places on the shelves. I took the year book for eleven hundred years ago and started to go through it.
I confess that after a while I found the cellars were starting to prey on my mind. It was as if the unquiet spirits of a host of Sinecurists were clustering around me, peering over my shoulder to see what I was reading. Indeed at times I would catch sight of shadows out of the corner of my eye, yet they couldn’t have been cast by my lantern. Finally I took the yearbooks twenty at a time up into the clerks’ reading room and settled there.
Slowly a picture emerged. The story was never told as a story, but various significant incidents were either recorded or hinted at. Perhaps a thousand years ago, one Vilingsthorne had acquired the ownership of Torrat’s Shoal. Apparently it was only covered by water at high tide. The name Vilingsthorne gave me pause, it was a Partannese name, I hadn’t realised it was so old.
There was a note in another document stating that he had been given permission to build a road out to the shoal. However he was strictly enjoined to ensure that the road was not raised up above the current estuary surface so it didn’t become a hazard to the passage of small boats.
This seems to have taken some time because there was nothing in the next yearbook, but in the following year it mentioned that Vilingsthorne had started to build a tower on the shoal. There was quite a voluminous correspondence with the Council stressing that nothing must be done that would impede navigation. Vilingsthorne seemed keen to keep the Council favourable to him. He pointed out that the shoal, hitherto an unmarked hazard, was now well marked with his tower acting as a lighthouse. There was even a sketch, perhaps done by his own hand, showing a sturdy tower, four stories high, surmounted by a short square spire which had windows facing the four cardinal points. Apparently the plan was to have a light in the spire so that the windows were illuminated. Vilingsthorne stressed that he didn’t want ships running into his home.
The next spate of correspondence arose after the tower was completed. It seems that Vilingsthorne, or at least his workmen, were tipping soil of some sort around the base of the tower. The Council pointed out quite sternly that Vilingsthorne could not make his shoal any larger. Indeed they did ask where he was getting the soil from in the first place.
Vilingsthorne replied that he was digging out a basement. He also promised to ensure that any spoil was cast on the retreating tide so it was washed clean out of the estuary. This seemed to mollify the Council and the correspondence lapsed.
Two years later the correspondence re-started. The Council noted with concern that Vilingsthorne seemed to be buying a lot of brick. They estimated that he had purchased thirty thousand to build the tower, but wanted to know why he had purchased a further hundred thousand.
Vilingsthorne’s reply was so fulsome it was effectively evasive. He congratulated them on the accuracy of their calculations. He stressed that he was casting any spoil on the falling tide, normally during the hours of darkness so it didn’t worry people. He also said that he’d decided to strengthen the foundations of his tower. Hence he was buying the extra bricks.
It is obvious that the Council decided that Vilingsthorne had to be watched. The following years produced a series of reports from a small team of dedicated watchers. The Estuary Road was too narrow for horse drawn vehicles, so everything had to be transported by wheelbarrow. It seems that every day, labourers with their wheelbarrows shifted at least three hundred bricks along the road to the tower. Given that this amounted to over a hundred thousand bricks a year, the statement produced incredulity in those who read the reports and the agents were instructed to be less fanciful and to ensure the accuracy of their reports.
The watchers, doubtless a little hurt, took to stopping the wheelbarrows and counting the bricks. They reported that their estimate of three hundred bricks a day was entirely accurate.
There was also a rather dry note from Vilingsthorne himself asking if it would be possible for the Council to employ agents who could count more rapidly. He pointed out that the full length of the road was only accessible at low tide and thus there was only a limited period during which deliveries could be made. This letter does not seem to have received an answer but there was a curt record on file, where the watchers had been told not to delay those transporting bricks.
Alongside the correspondence with regard to the bricks, one of the watchers noted that, once a month, a wheelbarrow carrying a chest was pushed from the tower, along the road to the Old Esplanade. The watcher was obviously someone of reasonable resource because he’d followed the wheelbarrow and discovered that the chest it contained was loaded onto a vessel bound for Prae Ducis, far south along the coast of Partann. Once the chest was loaded the vessel always sailed on the next high tide.
This obviously provoked interest. The watcher was asked if he could discover what was in the chest. The watcher pointed out that the wheelbarrow carrying the chest was pulled by one burly man, pushed by another equally burly, and two more impressively muscular gentlemen accompanied it, seemingly to spell the other two off so the work was more fairly shared. Also the chest was obviously heavy because even with two men on the wheelbarrow they had to stop and rest occasionally. So whilst the watcher had no ethical problems with investigating the chest, he wanted assistance.
Who knows what would have happened but suddenly the matter was taken out of the hands of the Council. Added into the file was a letter which came from somebody who had been dining at an alehouse just above the Old Esplanade. It seems that a storm had been blowing in from the open sea. It was apparently a bad one because it had lasted three days and three nights already. I remember with dread a storm which must have been similar, several ships floundered and there were bodies being washed ashore for days afterwards.
In this case the eyewitness claimed that he saw a great gust hit Vilingsthorne’s tower. The eyewitness also claimed he saw some great creature in the waves that were breaking over the spire. Given that by his own admission, it was night, dark, and the tower would have been nearly three miles away from him; I beg to doubt that he saw much.
The eyewitness also claimed to have heard the screeching of a million demons. From my own memories of a really great storm, I agree that the wind does scream and howl. Whether it does so with the same authority as a million demons is a theological matter that I am not qualified to pontificate upon.
Between ourselves I suspect that eyewitness dined well and drank deeply. Still, next morning the tower was no longer there.
The final report was from the next day. A group of men had walked out along the Estuary Road to Torrat’s Shoal. At low water they arrived at the shoal to discover that there was no longer a shoal. What we now know as the New Channel blocked their path. Greatly daring, one of them went out on a rope and claimed that there might well be a depression a couple of feet lower that the rest of the channel. But of the tower, Vilingsthorne, and his score of workmen nothing remained. Indeed I would estimate that more than a million bricks were wheeled along the road to the tower. Yet I have found no record of anybody ever finding so much as a single brick.
So? What to make of it? Ranni organised a get-together of friends and Shena and I once more dined with him. This time, in company, the menu was more exotic, but still excellent. Then we adjourned to the evening room and Ranni asked me to tell the story.
This I did, to a room full of people who grew both more thoughtful and more silent as I told the tale.
Finally I came to the end of my story. There was silence until Ranni asked, “So what happened Tallis?”
I had been expecting this question and Shena and I had discussed various possibilities. Shena had talked to those amongst the shore-combers who remember the old stories and who keep the old legends. None of them had ever heard of a tower build on Torrat’s Shoal. Indeed even the shoal was forgotten.
“Well Ranni, I’ve talked it over with my lady wife, and we make the following suggestion. For some reason Vilingsthorne was digging below his tower. We haven’t a clue what he was looking for, but it wasn’t bulky given that it amounted to one wheelbarrow load a month. The excavation would explain the spoil he was tipping into the estuary. He was obviously doing a lot of excavating because of all the bricks he used probably as shoring. Then when the storm hit, the tower and everything connected with it collapsed into the hole beneath it. The storm, creating the New Channel, would have plenty of mud to dump into the hole to bury everything permanently.”
Somebody else asked, “Have you considered any other options Tallis?”
I smiled at him. “I’m a poet not a contriver of mechanisms so of course I have. The eyewitness could have been right. The tower might have been carried off by a million demons.”
“Right,” said Ranni with cheerfulness which seemed a little forced. “The tower collapsed into its own basement.” Then he smiled at me, “Poets are at their best when they describe the world. We shall let mere contrivers of mechanisms worry about the details of the world’s construction.”