Gilvelle Marser wished he could wave his arms in mystic circles, waggle his fingers in arcane gestures, and utter words of power that would all result in the barge beneath his feet moving faster. He looked up at the mid-morning sun for what he figured was the sixth or seventh time in the past ten menes. He knew he was an architect, not a mage, though; he had no control over the forces of nature. Already, the transit upriver had taken twice as long as normal.
He scowled and looked down at the water surrounding the barge. The Coldwell River, swollen by a sennight of late summer storms, flowed swiftly around the flat-bottomed craft, retarding its progress. A team of horses on the riverbank, connected to the barge by a trio of thick hawsers, strained against their harnesses to fight the current.
“You’re worrying again, Gil,” the barge captain, Yollen Carru, said as he came to stand at the architect’s side. “If it’s any consolation, our float back down the river will be considerably faster than usual. Although the current will likely make the barge a little tricky to moor.”
“I’ve already waited a sennight to get out here. You’d think I could wait another half a bell to get a look at the damage. I had expected to be repairing the cracks by now.” Gilvelle turned his gaze down towards the barge’s captain, nearly twenty years his senior and two hands shorter, and scowled about the whole situation. Days earlier, on one of his regular inspections as Duke Clifton’s chief architect, Gilvelle had spotted a large fissure in a central pylon of Dargon’s ’causeway’, so-called despite actually being a bridge connecting the two sides of the city by virtue of a historical quirk. The steady rains had made it impossible for a barge to navigate safely up to the causeway to assess the severity of the damage, until the sky had cleared the previous night.
“We’ll get there in due time. Events don’t always move at the pace we’d like. I know your da’ taught you something about patience.” Yollen grinned, showing his jagged teeth yellowed by time.
Gilvelle could not help but smile at the joke and hear the subtle barb. Yollen had been a friend of Tarell Marser, Gilvelle’s father, since before Gilvelle was born. Tarell had passed away five winters back, but Gilvelle had found himself regularly using Yollen’s barge as a platform from which to repair damage to the causeway after a few harsh winters.
Gilvelle ran his hand through his brown, wavy hair, which was just beginning to gray at the edges. He shrugged. Before he’d taken this job, there hadn’t been any trace of white. “You’re right, my esteemed barge captain. I just wish I knew how bad this crack is.”
“It’s been a rough year on the river so far,” Yollen commented. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen as bad a spring runoff, never mind this summer flood.”
“And if it’s not the summer floods and spring thaw, and the tree trunks, and rocks and such that they carry, it’s the winter ice working at the stone.” Gilvelle scowled. “One of these days the damage to the causeway is going to be more than cosmetic.”
Before Gilvelle could respond, the barge lurched beneath his feet and he was tossed in the air. The breath exploded out of Gilvelle’s lungs as he landed. For a moment, the architect lay on the deck, laboring to draw air back into his body.
“Gil, are you hurt?” Yollen entered into his line of sight. At first, Gilvelle was surprised to see the barge captain still on his feet, but then he remembered that the man had spent nearly his whole life on the rolling surfaces of ships and barges.
Gilvelle took stock for a moment and rose to a sitting position. He found that none of his joints protested any worse than they had when he had stepped from bed that morning. He shook his head and found it clear. “I think I’m fine. What happened?”
Yollen shrugged, the creases on his forehead easing up. He looked around the barge. “One of our hawsers slipped. We’ve been having trouble with them all morning,” Yollen said. The older man pointed to one of the thick ropes that had suddenly gone slack between the barge and shore and was dipping into the reeds at the water’s edge. “You sure you’re alright?”
“Yes, yes. I’ll be fine.” Gilvelle wasn’t completely sure, but took his friend’s proffered hand and rose unsteadily to his feet. “Yollen, I’m fine. Really. Is everyone else alright?”
“They seem fine.” Yollen motioned towards Gilvelle’s three masons, who were picking themselves up off the deck and dusting themselves off. Adjarn, the leader of the trio, waved reassuringly when he saw the two men looking his way. Yollen returned the wave. Turning back to Gilvelle, he said, “I’m going to see what we can do with those ropes. Cjan needs to do better work than that. I won’t have Dargon’s chief architect maimed on my barge, if I can help it. That wouldn’t be very good for business.”
“No, I guess it wouldn’t,” the architect chuckled. “Just don’t be hard on the lad.”
“Don’t worry, he has only been with me for three fortnights; the current today is a new challenge for him. He just needs some encouragement and a gentle reminder.”
Yollen strode off towards three of his crewmen. Gilvelle watched the barge captain’s progress, giving himself time to collect his wits.
As Yollen approached the barge men, who were talking amongst themselves, the youngest of the three, probably not twenty winters old, pointed at the line which snaked over the bow of the boat and wound around a stout post. As the young man gestured, he said something to Yollen that Gilvelle couldn’t hear. The youngster brushed back the blond hair that fell over his eyes and glanced quickly in Gilvelle’s direction.
While Gilvelle watched, Yollen dismissed the other two crewmen and cupped his hand around the back of the youngster’s neck and leaned in to talk. Again, Gilvelle couldn’t hear anything that was said, but he could tell from the crewman’s posture that his captain was giving one of his typical speeches, likely the one on the importance of details. Many times over the years, Gilvelle had heard him present different versions of the same speech.
After a mene of discussion, Yollen gave the sailor a strong pat on the back and the two began inspecting the loose hawser, tracing its length back towards the bow.
Gilvelle considered his friend. Yollen had a reputation at the docks for taking crewmembers that few other captains would have and molding them into competent sailors. He was known to be tough but fair with these perennial losers. Few of them had betrayed his trust or misused the opportunity he gave them. When it came down to it, Gilvelle could be sure that the young man would do his best to ensure that the hawser would not slip again.
The chief architect turned back towards the causeway to run through the steps they’d take for assessing the damage to the pylon and the steps they’d take to repair it. Gilvelle liked to plan for every contingency.
“What’s that, in the reeds?!” Yollen yelled.
Gilvelle spun in response to the shout. He was in time to see the barge captain, with remarkable agility for a man of his age, take three quick strides to reach the port side.
Yollen waved at the teamsters on the riverbank and pointed at an indistinct shape drifting in the thick weeds along the water’s edge on the commercial side of the city, close to where the hawser dangled. As Gilvelle watched, one of the men crossed behind the horses and carefully ascended the muddy slope to the shoreline.
The man stopped abruptly at the water’s edge. He stood staring at the shape for several moments then backed up unsteadily. “Ol’s balls, it’s a body,” he yelled. Another of the teamsters approached and looked into the reeds.
“He’s dead, that’s for certes. Looks to’ve been floating in here for a while. Captain, what do we do with it?”
Even from the barge, Gilvelle caught a scent of the decay. He fought back the gag reflex with a strong swallow.
“Send one of your men for the guard,” Yollen called back. “It’s not our problem to solve; it’s theirs.”
The man nodded at the advice, but looked at the body one more time before he departed. “He’s only got one arm.”
Gilvelle’s breath caught in his throat and he glanced up to see the same shock registering on the barge crewmen’s, his masons’, and the teamsters’ faces.
A young bargeman, his face ashen, came to Gilvelle’s side. “The duke’s been away from the city for more’n a sennight. Could this be –?”
“He can’t be dead. It couldn’t be him. A one-armed body in the river means nothing.” Gilvelle and Yollen stood at the stern of the barge, which was now moored inside one of the central arches of Dargon’s causeway.
In the bell that followed, Yollen’s barge crew had anchored the barge and Gilvelle’s three masons had begun to assemble a low scaffolding on the footing of the bridge’s pylon.
“Aye, probably, but people like the sensational.” Yollen pointed up.
A murmur from the crowd on the causeway above reminded Gilvelle that the barge crew and the masons were not the only ones who were interested in the body. With a sigh, Gilvelle tilted his head to get a glimpse of the throng that had assembled on top of the causeway. He could see a few of its foremost members leaning over the stonework edges, raising their fists in excitement. Behind them, he suspected he would have found other, more fearful souls wringing their hands with anxiety. He was glad that he could not hear their actual words. There was little worse than doing your job with an audience. “This mob isn’t helping,” Gilvelle said.
“Quite a scene.” The barge captain nodded. “You’d think this was the Melrin festival, with all the people who’ve come out. Can you blame them, after a sennight of rain?” The captain waved to the throngs above. “And a crowd is what you’ll get when people think there’s a chance Duke Clifton might be dead.”
Gilvelle looked up again to see some of the crowd wave back. Happily, most of the spontaneous gathering was focusing on the guardsmen half a furlong upriver, but a few found the work on the barge equally interesting.
Turning his own gaze upriver, Gilvelle saw a trio of guardsmen leaning out of a small boat, trying to fish the body from within the dense reeds on the commercial side of the river. As had been consistently happening for the past twenty menes, when the men tried to lever the corpse into the boat, it became snagged in the plants and was pulled from their grasp by a strong eddy. Beyond the three men, another guard stood on the river bank, his hands on his hips. His disgust was clearly evident.
Gilvelle grumbled again. “They’re not making my job any easier. If they’d finish what they’re doing, we’d all be better off. This distraction is putting us further behind schedule.”
“Have you ever tried to pull a bloated corpse from a raging river?” Yollen grinned. “At least Sergeant Cepero had the good sense to send a half dozen of his men up to the causeway to try to keep some order.”
“Don’t try to make light of the situation. This is your fault, old man. Your eyes are too sharp for your age.” Gilvelle shook his head in frustration. “How long do you think it’ll take them to identify the body?”
“I suspect it would be difficult to tell who the person is. He has likely been dead for a day or more. It’s up to the guards to figure all of that out,” Yollen shrugged.
“I talked to Lansing last sennight when I reported this damage.” Gilvelle said. Lansing Bartol, a bard and Duke Clifton Dargon’s good friend, was overseeing the city in the duke’s absence. Gilvelle thought of his patron and silently hoped for the best. “He said the duke would be away for some time, but didn’t mention why.”
The barge man raised his eyebrows at Gilvelle’s comment.
Gilvelle decided not to pursue the subject any further. “Yollen, I’m going to check on Adjarn. It’s about time we take a look at the cracks.” Gilvelle finished speaking and strode to the pylon side of the barge.
The younger pair of the masons were standing on the scaffolding, fastening boards to the uppermost of the two tiers. Adjarn supervised from the barge’s deck.
Gilvelle gently grabbed his chief mason’s arm. “How does it look?”
“Still not sure, chief,” the stout man said, turning to the engineer. “Why don’t we hop up and take a look?”
Adjarn used the wooden slats of the assembly as steps and began hoisting himself off the rolling surface of the barge. The thick mason, just a few years younger than Gilvelle, moved his bulk up the two levels seemingly without effort. Gilvelle quickly mimicked the man’s motions. The workspace, made of roughly hewn boards, only shook slightly as they climbed. Gilvelle was pleased with the workmanship and also happy that his job as the city’s main architect kept him active enough so that the ascent did not wind him.
“Good work so far,” Gilvelle said to the two apprentice masons as he reached the lower platform. The two were standing at the outside edge of the scaffolding when Adjarn and Gilvelle arrived. Byale, a tall and gangly blond man, and Emmela, a dark-haired and dimpled girl, smiled at the compliment. The apprentices waited until the older men stepped out of their way and then descended back to the barge, likely to get the masonry tools.
Gilvelle surveyed the pylon, looking over the damage. He saw that there were three cracks, not just one. The highest fissure was also the largest and the one he had seen on his survey. “What do you think?” he asked his chief mason after a moment.
“The two smaller cracks should patch easily.” Adjarn gestured at a pair of two-to-three cubit long gouges in the masonry, both nearly level with the floor of the scaffolding. “The top one looks deeper and we don’t have a great angle to see from here. I can’t tell.”
Gilvelle followed Adjarn’s gaze up to the crack a cubit above their heads. It was over twice as long as the two smaller slits and ran nearly halfway across the bridge support. He could tell from where he stood that it sloped downwards.
“That crack is pretty high up,” Gilvelle commented, as much to himself as to the stonemason. Most scrapes in the masonry appeared lower, where barges regularly hit the supports on their travels to Dargon’s docks.
“I know, Gil. It’s likely a frost crack we didn’t see during our spring inspection. The waters have been pretty high and could have been working at it. The floods have been carrying an incredible amount of debris, too. The rainwater pouring off the causeway could have washed away damaged stone and widened the opening. You know it’s hard to say exactly what causes any crack.”
“Aye.” Gilvelle nodded. He didn’t always need to know the causes; his job was to treat the results. “Do you think it reaches the fill in the middle?”
“I don’t know.” The stout and swarthy mason shrugged, flexing his bull-like neck and huge arms with the motion. “It’s one of the biggest cracks I’ve ever seen, but I think I’m going to have to go up another level to get a good look into it.”
“If water gets into the fill and begins to erode the mixture we could have a serious problem on our hands. The spans on either side could be putting their weight on an increasingly empty chamber.”
“Gil, why do you always have to consider the worst prospects in any situation?” Adjarn smiled lopsidedly at him.
“You know that’s my job. Duke Clifton has given me the responsibility of keeping all his holdings in good shape.”
“I do know that, but the pylon collapsing isn’t too likely.” Adjarn smiled again warmly and began mounting the rungs to the next level. “You know, chief, when I told my little ones I would be working on the causeway today, they were worried about me. They’re convinced that an uayab lives under all bridges and that it’d steal me and eat me for dinner.”
Gilvelle pursed his lips. He could not understand why anyone would want to deal with the kind of uncertainty and confusion that having children brought to someone’s life. He knew Adjarn was a dedicated father who loved his three small children dearly, though, so he humored his friend. “What did you tell them?”
“I told them the truth. I told them …” Adjarn stopped speaking for a moment as he lay down on the planks to slide his hand into the crevice. From where Gilvelle stood, he could only see him get his fingers halfway in. “… that there was no uayab under the causeway because the river is too deep for uayabs to live in. I explained that uayabs only live under bridges that cover small streams. They like to be able to reach their tentacles from the shallow water onto the bridge top.”
Gilvelle shook his head in wonder. He was glad he wouldn’t have to deal with children of his own. Long ago he’d decided that he would remain committed to his job. To do it right, he needed to devote all of his time and energy.
“It’s deep, chief. I can’t find the back edge. It is rough enough that mortar should hold well, though,” Adjarn said after a moment.
“How long will it take to repair?”
Adjarn was quiet for a moment. “It’ll take us about a bell to patch the smaller ones. Probably another one or two to fill this gap. I’ll do it myself. We should be back to shore in less than three bells,” he said.
Gilvelle scowled. That would take them well into the afternoon. He probably would still make it to down to the docks before dark, but it would be late before he could reach the keep and give a report. “Alright, do what you can,” he told the mason.
In response, Adjarn leaned over and began instructing Byale and Emmela about the mortar and tools they would need to fix the crack.
Leaving Adjarn to his job, Gilvelle stepped over and put his hand against the uneven surface of the pylon. The stone was rough to his touch, some of the texture from its original quarrying, while other pockmarks showed the handiwork of the seasons. It was cold under his palm. He pulled his hand away. “Too bad,” he thought. “It would have been nice to know if the bridge was worn out or still strong and vital.”
“Chief, a Bit for your thoughts,” Adjarn said, patting Gilvelle’s shoulder. The chief architect had not heard the mason descend.
“Sorry. I was just wondering how many more years this bridge will stand.” Gilvelle turned away from the pylon.
“Plenty more, if you and I have anything to say about it. It’s weathered uncountable days and likely will see many more after both you and I are gone.” Adjarn laughed.
“I know,” Gilvelle turned to his friend. “But nothing lasts forever. What, finally, will bring the stone and the magic of this bridge crumbling down into the river?”
Adjarn opened his mouth, as if to give one of his regular jovial replies, but looked at Gilvelle and stopped. Then he became pensive. “That’s a tough question, chief. It’s like asking what happens to us after our time on Makdiar is done. How can we know? I know some of the religions think there’s a better place after this. I’m not so sure. I’d love to just end up having some of my pieces become part of stone like this.” Adjarn patted the causeway pylon.
The two men stood quietly for another mene. Gilvelle watched the two apprentices passing tools up to the lowest level of the scaffolding. He could hear the whole array of human noises from the causeway over their head: calls of greeting, grunts of assent or dissent, coughs of annoyance. Emmela called up that they were ready to begin patching.
“Adjarn, I’ll leave you to your work,” Gilvelle said. “I’ll be down on the deck if you need me.” Gilvelle turned around and climbed down from the scaffolding.
Once he was standing on the barge surface again, his job done for the moment, Gilvelle looked upriver. In the distance he could see a number of good-sized barges carrying goods and passengers down the river towards the causeway.
“How does the work look?” Yollen asked, approaching and breaking into Gilvelle’s thoughts. “With the water running so high and fast, I’d expect that the daily barge rush will be beginning soon. That could make the work here a little trickier for you.”
Gilvelle nodded in agreement. “What’s one more complication among many? Besides, barges passing by while we work is at least a complication we’re well used to,” the chief architect said, trying to sound cheerful. The afternoon was the busiest time for traffic to Dargon. If they were close enough, most barge captains would sail into the evening and land in Dargon for a night at its taverns. If they couldn’t make it by dark, the river barges tied up outside of Dargon at one of the camps and arrived the next day. “Adjarn says at least two bells or so of work. That last crack is deep.”
“If it’s any help, the guard finally fished the body out of the river while you were up with Adjarn,” Yollen said. “They took it away, likely to the guardhouse.”
“Did Sergeant Cepero seem worried when he left?” Gilvelle asked.
“Couldn’t say, really. Seemed his normal self, but left with a pair of his men with the cart fairly quick,” Yollen replied, looking up.
Gilvelle followed Yollen’s gaze to the brilliantly blue sky, seeing a flock of screegulls wheeling aimlessly overhead, occasionally passing between them and the glowing orb of the sun. As the two men looked on, a wayward bird flew into the side of the causeway, offered a confused cry, and limply plummeted thirty cubits to the water below. “You don’t see that everyday,” Yollen said.
The chief architect grunted a noncommittal response. He was watching the bird’s body carried away by the swift running river. It did a single spin in a small eddy before sinking beneath the surface.
“Look out!” Yollen said. Gilvelle turned to see the man still looking up. The barge captain stepped back nimbly. The movement was just in time, as a watery mass from above landed where he had been standing and soaked Gilvelle. The architect sputtered in confusion, using his sleeves to wipe the mess from his eyes. When he was able to look down at himself, he found his left shoulder and arm soaked with a lumpy and watery mixture that disturbingly resembled vomit. The warmth was disgusting and the cloying smell even worse. Gilvelle’s fears were confirmed when he looked up to see that a green-faced man was sheepishly waving what looked like an apology down at him.
“Let me get you some rags.” Yollen ambled over to the small shack situated on the port side stern of the barge and went in.
Gil sighed again and looked back down at his clothing. He splashed water on himself from the river in an attempt to clean off the vomit and wished the day would end. A short distance upriver, the large barge he’d seen earlier turned slightly so that it would pass beneath one of the arches of the causeway.
The fifth bell of day rang out from the Harbormaster’s Building. Between the loud rings, Gilvelle heard the bleating of a flock of sheep, along with a change in smoothness of the river water flowing past their barge. A heartbeat after these things registered in his mind, Adjarn shouted, “Chief, we’ve got trouble!”
Yollen, leaving from the shack with an arm full of rags, yelled. “Ol’s balls! She’s gonna hit, and fast.”
Gilvelle looked up and gaped at what he saw. The incoming barge, men and women scrambling all over its deck, was sliding sideways towards the pylon on which they worked. Gilvelle saw that the unwieldy craft was reinforced at the corners with stout brackets of metal. The crew were working hard to keep it away, but Gilvelle could already tell from its speed that it was too late.
“Adjarn, get down!” Gilvelle jumped towards his masons. He could hear Yollen bellowing orders to his crew.
The barge struck the causeway support with a tremendous crash. The thunder of splintering wood and the shriek of metal scraping against rock echoed off the causeway. Gilvelle was thrown off his feet.
He landed on his hands and knees. He could tell that both his palms and legs earned serious scrapes from the fall. As he caught himself, his analytical mind took in the sights around him.
The wayward barge was doomed. The front end stopped suddenly, while the back end continued its forward thrust. The middle was forced upwards, buckling the barge and tearing it into two pieces.
The collision was even more catastrophic for the causeway. Gilvelle watched the pylon shudder with the impact. The initial concussion caused the stonework of the support to bulge and shake, destroying the scaffolding attached to it. Adjarn and his two apprentices were tossed into the churning river water. Gilvelle tried to watch where they went after that, but lost track of them in the chaos. They were not the only debris in the air. He turned back to see the damaged arch cracking at multiple points, disintegrating. The upriver half of the stone pylon toppled. Gilvelle realized the causeway was going to collapse. He rolled over and hopped to his feet.
He immediately saw that Yollen had come to the same conclusion. He and one of his men hastily sawed at the lines that held their anchor ropes in place. One anchor released easily, but the other resisted. The final ropes began to split, but not before the toppling pillar destroyed the integrity of the arch over their heads. The bridge fell around them.
The architect started to run, but quickly realized there was nowhere to go. He looked around to find a wake caused by the crashing debris approaching. It threw the inward side of their barge into the air. He was tossed and landed on his back again. He saw chunks of stone descending towards him.
He covered his head, but felt the barge beginning to spin around the remaining front anchor. The wake that threw him to the deck must have set them in motion, he realized. The first stones crashed into the river where their barge had been only a moment earlier. Rocks plunged towards the river and barge, one of the pieces of masonry smashing the starboard side of the craft. It shuddered with the impact and the sound of splintering wood peppered the chief architect. “We’re not moving fast enough,” Gilvelle thought.
He found himself rolled against the port side of the barge, crashing into the gunwale and then into the small cabin. His shoulder ached from the impact, but the pain was secondary to his fear. There was so much noise that Gilvelle could not pick out any one sound to focus on. He could see more stonework, pulled down as pieces of the span fell, striking the water in huge plumes of spray, seemingly all around them. He tensed as he saw the front half of the pillar topple over sideways, landing on the remains of the bow of the other barge, shattering it even further.
At that moment, Gilvelle felt sunlight on his face again. Yollen’s vessel had pivoted around the one last down-river anchor rope, coming out from under the rain of rubble. Gilvelle tried to stand, but found he could not as the barge continued its wild spin. From his prone position, Gilvelle saw moving shapes within the falling stonework.
“The crowd on the bridge,” he remembered. “Oh Stevene, they were trapped in this!” He saw people plummeting with the rubble, others hanging and calling loudly, panic coloring their voices as they dangled, and some scrambling on the edges of the gap created in one of the center spans in the bridge.
Where were the others? Gilvelle looked around frantically for Yollen. He was amazed to see the old man, legs spread wide to compensate for the barge’s jarring motion, still yelling orders at a pair of the boat’s crew. These two scrambled on their hands and knees to finish cutting the last anchor line. Downstream, he saw heads bobbing in the water, clinging to a piece of wood from one of the barges. He hoped they were his masons.
The last anchor rope finally separated and the barge slid away from the wounded causeway. Gilvelle rolled again at the new motion. He braced his prone form between the wall of the shack and the side of the boat as it bucked beneath him. After a few moments, the craft steadied. Gilvelle caught his breath, checking his body for serious damage. Relieved to find that he didn’t have any injuries worse than cuts and bruises, he began to lever himself to his feet. He had only partially completed this maneuver when he heard a resounding crunch as the barge struck something solid. The sudden stop flipped Gilvelle onto his back, the pain causing him to exhale sharply. He felt as though he’s been pounded in the back with a great hammer and he gasped in short bits of air.
Catching his breath once again, he looked up to find that the current paired with the eddies caused by the bridge collapse had sent the barge off towards shore, where it had struck a sand bar and beached on the commercial side of the city, well below the causeway, near the swamp. Gilvelle leapt to his feet, ignoring the protests of his not-so-young body. He saw that Yollen was still standing and he and his crew were working to secure the barge.
The engineer found himself frozen in place. He didn’t know what to do. A thousand courses of action ran through his mind. He couldn’t decide on any one of them. All he could feel was shock and disbelief. How could this have happened? Was it his fault? What could he do to help? He realized immediately that he was just one of many people caught up in this tragedy.
“Gil, are you alright?” Yollen called, coming over to stand next to him.
“I’m in one piece, at least,” the chief architect said, trying to shake the confusion out of his head. “I need to find Adjarn and the others.” He looked downriver.
“There’s nothing you can do. The river’s running too fast. You’ll never be able to catch up with them on foot before they reach the harbor. We can only hope that someone down at the docks sees them and helps.” Yollen rubbed his beard. “I’ll send a man down to try to find them.”
Gilvelle nodded. Yollen was right. As the man turned and called to one of his crewmen, Gilvelle realized that he still didn’t know what to do. He started forward and, then stopped.
“I’m going back to the causeway,” he said to the barge captain. This time he started forward and didn’t stop. Gilvelle jumped over the side of the barge and began running the furlong back upriver.
The riverbank soil shifted under his feet as he ran. At one point, it caused him to stumble, his bent knee leaving an impression behind in the beach detritus. He could see the panicked crowd, the mass resolving itself into individuals as he got closer. Most surged away from the broken spans straddling the middle of the bridge, while others, mostly guardsmen, fought against the tide of people. Some of the city guard had already been present when the crash had happened.
Gilvelle reached the end of the causeway, where the crowd was still milling about. He turned sideways to move by an old man making a gesture of supplication to Ol. He passed a woman who turned in slow circles calling out for her husband or son, tears streaming down her face. Gilvelle slid through more breaks in the chaos to reach the edge of the bridge. Jumping up on the raised, narrow stonework that lined the side of the causeway, he increased his speed again, starting to struggle for breath. An errant elbow almost took him out at the knees, but like a young swordsman, he jumped over the offending limb and kept his forward progress. He didn’t know what he could do to help, but the blood surged through his veins and kept him moving.
The crowd began to thin after only a dozen cubits and he leapt from the stonework back onto the bridge spans. It took him another thirty or so strides before he reached the gathering at the edge of the damage. As he approached, he could tell that in the ten menes since the crash, the guardsmen had already been hard at work.
Gilvelle grabbed the one of the guard. “What can I do?”
“You can tell us if the rest of the causeway is stable. We’ve already got a lot of rescuers up here and down below,” the man said.
Sensing the urgency in the other man’s tone, Gilvelle immediately went to work, surveying the scene. The crash had left a gap of thirty or forty cubits on the upriver side of the bridge. He studied the span across the way. The stone had broken halfway between two of the pylons and left a large hanging ledge. The exposed side of the causeway surface was rife with cracks, and pieces fell off as the chief architect watched. The support behind it looked secure, though, showing no major surface damage.
Gilvelle turned his attention to the near edge, under his feet. It was cracked and jagged in places, but had crumbled close to another support and hardly any dangled over the gap.
What remained in between, a quarter of the original width, at the most, was cracked and looked none too secure. As he watched, a guardsman carefully moved out a few cubits onto the strip, cautiously navigating the broken stone as he tugged the end of a rope along.
He made his report to the guardsman he had spoken with earlier and finished with, “I can’t tell the state of the pillar beneath our feet. I will need to look.”
“Will the remaining causeway hold someone’s weight?” the guard asked.
“That’s hard to say. Long term, I don’t think it’s secure, but I think it could hold people for now.” Gilvelle made his best guess, hoping that he wasn’t wrong.
“I’ll get my men to clear the other side.” He grabbed one of the other guardsmen, a slender young soldier, wide-eyed at the situation, and explained what needed to be done. The boy saluted, hopped up on the remaining span, and nimbly loped across, taking care to keep his balance on the damaged roadway. Gilvelle held his breath the entire time it took the man to cross the gap.
“I need to go out there, too,” Gilvelle said.
“Be careful. We’ve lost too many already today.”
Gilvelle paused at the jagged end of the causeway, remembering it as it had been: a masterpiece of stonework. It had stood for centuries as a testament to the effort that its construction had taken. It had been his job to maintain it. He forced the thought away.
He looked over the edge at the chaos below. He knew that in this section of the river the water was deep, but not so deep that the debris would be completely submerged. The causeway had been located here in order to take advantage of the gradual slope of the shore. In the middle, though, the bottom was over twenty cubits down.
Stone blocks were scattered around the remaining half of the former pylon, likely resting on the edges of its footing. Gilvelle knew that the base of each pillar sloped down towards the bottom, leaving enough clearance for shallow-draft vessels like barges.
Amid the piles were trapped townspeople, some waving frantically. Around them climbed the first rescuers. Already the guardsmen had commandeered another barge that had been coming downriver, and were positioning it as a platform for rescue operations. Some of the rescuers even swam around, diving under the surface. They seemed to be looking for people trapped underwater. Gilvelle tried to ignore the screams for help and tense commands of the rescuers. The workers moved with a definite intensity and economy of motion. Gilvelle reminded himself that another falling section could injure searchers as well as the already trapped.
The chaos felt surreal to Gilvelle. Not a half bell ago it had been just another normal day in Dargon, albeit an ill-fated one. Now, it was anything but normal.
Gilvelle decided he needed to continue his work, taking a tentative step onto the damaged bridge span. He took another stride, avoiding a deep crack in the stone. Inhaling deeply, he decided he needed to move faster; there could be lives at stake, both those below and those above. Focusing on the task at hand, he moved out ten cubits and looked back at the support. He became worried immediately. From where Gilvelle stood, he realized his initial assessment had been wrong. He could see stone crumbling from a partially hidden crack at the top of the supporting pillar. He got even more worried as he watched a larger chunk begin to slide from the top of the support.
Gilvelle jumped into action, running back towards the guards trying to manage the crowd. “Get them back! Move back!” he yelled as he ran, waving his arms frantically.
A loud pop echoed from the top of the bridge support. Another large chunk of upriver roadway slid off. Below, he could see rescuers jumping into the water or scrambling over the pile of rubble from the fallen support to get out from under it. That was when Gilvelle saw his own danger. He was approaching the edge when the rock began its plunge, shaking the bridge as it let loose. The causeway groaned and rocked beneath his feet and Gilvelle was tossed into the air. He desperately grabbed the stonework rail in order to keep from pitching off the side of the bridge. His fingers and feet found purchase and he held himself in place with tensed muscles. After a huge splash from below, the architect was able to raise himself back up and peer into the gap. He was pleased to see that while the support had taken more damage, it seemed to have retained most of its integrity. The falling piece had left a jagged, but less damaged edge. He saw cracks near the b ase of the support, but above the water line. None of them seemed exceedingly deep, but they would require attention before too long.
“I think it will hold, at least for now. It will need repair, but as long as it isn’t hit again or we don’t get another bad storm in the next few bells, we’re alright,” the chief architect said as he returned to the guardsman.
Gilvelle and walked off the causeway. He felt like he was walking through a dream as the calls of the rescuers and the shouts from the city all faded into the background noise. He found himself walking on the small, sandy beach that he’d run across earlier. The area was now being used to treat the first injuries from the crash. He stopped next to a healer who was wrapping the discolored ankle of a young man, who looked like a drowned rat. The healer offered the architect a small, sad smile, barely a lifting of one corner of his mouth. Gilvelle moved on.
Gilvelle could see Yollen’s barge beached downstream, near the end of Dock Street. He walked by a number of people sitting or lying on the sand. One of them was a mother holding a baby’s body tenderly, crying. Another healer came over and put his hand on the baby’s forehead and then shook his head at the woman. The woman opened her mouth in a silent shriek. Gilvelle turned away.
Gilvelle found himself looking back towards the remains of the causeway, where not even a bell earlier he had been standing on the barge. As he watched the rescue effort on the river, a survivor crawled out of the rock pile, a half dozen men prying up a boulder that had pinned him in the rubble. Collapsing after only a few feet, the man was quickly lifted and passed to a barge for treatment by healers.
“Hey, can you help me carry this guy?” A guardsman grabbed Gilvelle’s arm, motioning to a boat pulled up on the sand. A man’s body was draped over the gunwale.
Gilvelle nodded and came around the side of the small craft, sloshing through ankle deep water. He realized immediately that the man was beyond help, his chest crushed and bloodied. Gilvelle and the guard carried the man to the back of the beach and onto a strip of grass. They had started a pile that would grow as the afternoon continued.
Nearly two bells later, Gilvelle was back on the roadway next to the causeway when Yollen called to him. The engineer had been staring at the reflection of the bridge in the rippling water of the river when he heard the familiar voice.
“Gil,” Yollen came to stand beside him. “I’ve been looking for you. “I’ve got something you need to see.” As the barge captain put his hand on his shoulder, Gilvelle realized that he smelled terrible. His clothes reeked of a mixture of sweat, stone dust, blood, and bells-old vomit.
Gilvelle looked around slowly, finding himself too exhausted and sore to do much else. “Where?”
Yollen pointed up to a small, horse-drawn cart waiting further up the roadway. Yollen began walking towards it and Gilvelle followed behind. He could see an indistinct shape covered by a blanket in the back.
They were still a dozen cubits away when Gilvelle realized what it was. “Who is it?”
“I’m sorry, Gil.” A tear trailed down Yollen’s cheek. “It’s Adjarn. I thought you’d want to be the one to bring him home to his wife.”
Gilvelle stood still. He knew he should cry, but he felt nothing but the same emptiness he’d felt all afternoon. Finally, he walked over and put his hand on the blanket. At the same time, he realized that in a few days thoughts of the good-natured stoneworker would bring grief as well as emptiness.
“His body turned up a short ways downriver and was picked up by one of the boats that came to help. He likely never felt a thing when the stone crushed him,” Yollen said, putting his hand on his Gilvelle’s shoulder.
“What about Emmela and Byale?” Gilvelle knew he needed some good news. “And your crew?”
“The two apprentices were pulled from the river by the docks. I made sure that they found a ride into town. After their ordeal, I didn’t want them walking home,” Yollen answered. “Only one of my men was hurt. Cjan was thrown overboard, but swam ashore. His arm was broken, but a healer splinted it and he will be mended in a few months time. He fared much better than a lot of people.”
“If only there hadn’t been a crowd on the causeway when it was hit. How many people do you think were lost?”
“Many dozens, likely … but it’ll be some time before we know the full count.”
“I don’t know.” Gilvelle felt confused by all the events, but knew that the accident should not have happened. “I’ve been working with stone for decades and I’m telling you that support shouldn’t have split like that. It was weak, yes, but not that brittle.”
“Aye, I’ve seen plenty of barges hit her, maybe even one or two of my own, and I’ve never seen anything like that. Maybe conditions were just right. Maybe there was something more going on.”
“Like what?” Gilvelle looked at the old man questioningly.
“I don’t know. That’s for the priests and soothsayers to say, but all my old bones tell me is that this wasn’t something natural.”
“You can’t know that, old man.”
“No, I can’t, but I see in your eyes that you suspect the same thing. All your experience as a builder tells you that this shouldn’t have happened.” The old barge master turned to look at him.
“My background as an engineer tells me that it had to have natural causes.” Gilvelle paused for a moment. “In which case, what if I could have prevented this? What if we had started the repairs earlier?”
“‘What ifs’ do no good. I don’t think there was anything you could do. I suspect this was out of your hands, as skilled as they are.”
“Straight. Understanding is not as important as acceptance. We may never know what happened.” Gilvelle crossed his arms across his chest. “We need to move on from here.”
“What are you going to do, Gil?”
“What I can. I’m going to take one step at a time, my friend. I already sent out a call for masons and any mages that are interested in trying out for the job.” Gilvelle turned to see his friend studying him with a quizzical expression. “I already have a barge and captain in mind.”
“Aye, lad, I would be honored, but I think you’ll need more than one barge. Mine will need a lot of work before it’s ready to ply the river again.” Yollen rubbed his beard. “Barges are going to be at a premium. I have already contacted a few friends about leasing theirs and their crews. Every one that can be spared will be needed to keep trade flowing between the two sides of the city until the causeway is repaired. When do you want to start planning?”
“Tomorrow. Sergeant Cepero says the guard is going to keep men at both ends of the causeway tonight. Let’s take Adjarn home and then find ourselves a quiet inn in which to toast to our friend.” Gilvelle felt the first tear slide down his cheek.