Shadow of Hope XX

On a rain swept hillock, a lone, stunted figure, enshrouded in a sodden ochre cloak ambled toward the western bank of the winding river, an undulating swath of silver-gray. With every dozen paces, a puff of smoke rose and trailed behind him. He paused, turning at his wide waist to look behind him, and narrowed his stone gray eyes to watch the windblown wisps coil, ever thinner, into infinity. He stroked his red beard and pensively tugged on an intricate plait as he studied the patterns in the dissipating tobacco smoke. His lower eyelids twitched and his gaze grew distant, as if watching more than a billow of smoke in the rain, but rather the very fabric of the universe unraveling before him and tantalizing him with tenuous tendrils of unfathomed secrets.

His upper lip curled with a slow drag on his pipe, and his eyes rolled to one side, as he awakened from a deep, if momentary, trance. Rôhn Roughbuckle turned back toward the river bank, and plodded over the crest of the hill, bringing the splinted anatomy of the bridge works into view.

As he drew closer to the construction site, a large, flat-bed wagon, drawn by twelve russet steeds creaked past him, bearing several large blocks of granite and seven men. A crackling sound emanated from beneath the flatbed and the driver’s head whipped around to assess the left, front wheel. “OFF TH’ BED!” he shouted, “SHE’S COMIN’ APART!” Before he could finish his warning, the six laborers leapt from the wagon moments before the front wheel collapsed, and the flatbed seized, spearing the wet soil first with its leading left corner and then with several, layered slabs of stone.  The bevy of horses tugged backwards a pace or two with surprised snorts and tossed the driver to the ground. Then the slurping beast of muddy ground swallowed the rear left wheel up to its axle.

“Blood o’ Cryos!” the fur-clad driver swore as he rose to his feet, “That’s it! The last o’ our wagons! It’ll take us days to get any more flatbeds ‘ere!” The laborers gathered around the fallen wagon, brushing mud from their coats and looking to each other forlornly.

“Now what’re we gonna do?” one of the laborers queried. There was silence.

Rôhn narrowed his eyes at the pitiful lot and puffed on his pipe as they rubbed their heads or stood with arms akimbo around the great fallen stones. “What foolishness prompted you to cart these blocks over mud?” the Dwarf called out from the hilltop, drawing their bewildered glares uphill in unison.

The driver’s brow furrowed into an angry grimace and he retorted, poking at the air in front of him, “Never you mind, Dwarf! It’d be none o’ yer concern! What would you know about wagoneering anyway?!”

“Not a lick,” Rôhn responded, stuffing more leaf in his pipe, and then added smugly, “But I know a great deal about hauling quarry.” After puffing the newly packed leaf to a glowing heat, he pointed the mouthpiece of his pipe at the blocks, “You need to distribute the weight of these slabs evenly over the soil so there are no isolated points of contact to break under the pressure or sink in the mud.”

The laborers looked at each other.

“Have you axes?” Rôhn inquired.

“Aye,” one of the laborer’s responded.

Rôhn nodded and puffed on his pipe. “Then retrieve them,” he said, and pointed his thumb at a grove of trees a league from the riverside, “And meet me in the wood.” He turned and ambled away, leaving the laborers exchanging confused glances. For want of any better counsel, they slowly turned toward their construction tents, and gathered their axes, heading toward the wooded copse in a silent single file.

When the men arrived, Rôhn was appraising the trees like a stablehand selecting a steed for a cavalry commander. Pointing to tree trunks as he turned, he indicated, “This one. That one. That one. That one, and this one. Let us to work.” The laborers exchanged bewildered glances again, and took their axes to hand, surrounding the selected trees and filling the grove with the dull thuds of their hacking.

Two hours later, Rôhn emerged from the copse followed by a neatly shorn log, two feet in diameter and twelve feet long, hoisted by two parallel queues of men. They marched the timber shaft to the fallen cart and laid it down behind the train of horses. Four more times the Dwarf, with the band of men in tow, returned to the wood and emerged with a shorn log, which they laid parallel, one after another.

After some deliberation, the men and Rôhn removed the pins securing the wheels to the axles. With the driver directing the two lead horses of the train by their bridles, Rôhn and the six others gripped the flatbed around its edges.  The hodge podge team pushed and pulled the stubborn flatbed of stone blocks upward, freeing it from its wheels, which now served as fulcra upon which to pivot the flatbed. Once adjusted evenly in place, the team of horses advanced as Rôhn barked instructions to the men who scrambled around the rolling logs, constantly adjusting them. As the forward moving flatbed left the last log in its wake, the men carried it forward at a jog, and placed it in the path of the moving flatbed, which passed over it smoothly.

Continuing this procedure along the remaining length of the shoreline, the stone blocks were delivered to the construction site with surprising celerity. Rôhn rode the last fifty yards standing atop the blocks like a ship’s scout in the crow’s nest, and was carried to the bridge scaffolding amidst the rowdy applause of the muddy laborers. His lips failed to suppress a flattered smirk as the builders on and around the scaffold curiously watched the spectacle.

Nearly six hours after having been sent by Erellia to inspect the bridge, Rôhn still had not returned. His shield and warhammer leaned against each other under the tent, with his helmet resting by their side on what had previously served as his seat. Rôhn’s absence was curious, to be sure, since it was well known to those who knew him just how quickly his trained eye could appraise any such construct.


Shadow of Hope XXI

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