If a tree falls and you cannot hear it for the noise of the machinery, did it happen?
The problem with working in some small towns is that if you kick one of the inhabitants, they all limp! Thus and so you have to be very careful because at times half the town seems to be related to the other half; but there again half the town appears to be in a state of feud with the other half.
I mention this in passing because it seems vaguely relevant to any honest account of my time at Lannan Crossroads. This small town is where the roads from Muckleport and Mughole meet the Port Naain to Stone Harbour and Sweethaven road. I walked into the Crossroads Hotel early in the evening, looking for a meal and a bed, and ideally the work that would enable me to pay for them. The lady behind the bar disabused me of any hopes I had in that direction. It was the evening of the Autumnal Dinner Dance. Everybody who was anybody in the town would be there but of course they had a superabundance of musicians so they didn’t really need a poet as well. Yet my evening was rescued by the arrival of Donnas Floon and Miat Blort. These two gentlemen I knew from Port Naain. Donnas had studied law at the university, Miat had studied engineering. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, engineers are similar to alchemists, but produce a really superior explosion in a modern and cutting edge manner by overheating steam in crudely manufactured receptacles. Miat had some project underway and Donnas, like all lawyers, awash with funds but short of excitement, was in some way sponsoring it.
Seeing them, I returned to the bar and spent the last of my money on a bottle of decent white wine. As more and more people entered the bar, shed their coats and made their way through to the dance floor we shared a second bottle, then a large Hotpot, followed by a third bottle. By this time the bar was empty, whilst from the dance floor came the sound of music. They had finished dining and had started dancing.
Miat made his way to the bar that served the dance floor and purchased a fourth bottle. It was at this point we started reminiscing about various pranks and tricks we’d played in Port Naain over the years. It was Donnas who mentioned the flying coats.
This had been a complicated prank which a group of us had played on the drinkers at the Sattir’s Drop. It’s simple; you just need plenty of dark cord. Stretch two cords across the street about two spans apart. Fasten one end of the two cords just above the bar door, and the other ends a lot higher up the wall of the house opposite.
Then place a borrowed coat over the cords, fastening it so it doesn’t fall off, but make sure it’ll still slide along the cords. Finally take your third cord. Feed it down one sleeve and back out the other. This cord you’ll use to pull the coat across the street. At the Sattir’s Drop there’s a porch above the door so it was a simple matter to sit on that.
So in the dark, when a befuddled drinker steps out into the street, the person above the door pulls on the cord that goes through the two sleeves. The coat appears to swoop down on the drinker, raising its arms as if to pounce on him. If the drinker flees, faints or retreats, you can pull the coat back to the other side of the street and get ready to pounce on the next person to come out. Ironically it’s almost impossible for the coat to hit the target, but in their drink fuddled state they don’t seem to notice this. Indeed next day rumours circulated through Port Naain about some foul creature that was swooping on folk as they left the bar. Indeed I talked to two people who swore blind they’d seen somebody carried off by the beast.
Well after four bottles of wine, it seemed clear that we ought to play the prank on the good folk of Lannan Crossroads. Obviously it was somewhat improvised. We had to borrow a coat one of the dancers had left in the bar. Similarly we had no black cord, but did manage to acquire plenty of knitting wool. This we doubled, and got to work getting everything set up.
All in all we were lucky, the dancers took a break. This is probably because musicians needed refuelling. As an aside having worked with musicians my experience is that you’re better just letting them drink slowly throughout their performance rather than stopping and giving them a break to drink in. Whilst music is playing they seem to feel the need for moderation. Once the music stops, all restraints are cast aside.
Still, when the first guest, a rather portly gentleman, stepped outside, we unleashed the monster. He was almost in the middle of the road when the coat swooped on him. He glanced up, saw it and turned to run back into the bar. Unfortunately he tripped and fell flat on his face in a puddle. At the same time the knitting wool broke and the coat landed on him. His screams brought everybody off the dance floor.
Regrettably we were spotted and the more intelligent of the bystanders rapidly worked out who was responsible. Hence we were bundled into the town lock-up to await the judgement of the magistrate the following day.
Next day, face to face with the magistrate, we discovered several things which were not to our advantage. The magistrate had been present at the evening and had witnessed everything. Secondly she was thalically challenged, having no sense of humour whatsoever; and thirdly the portly gentlemen who regarded himself as the victim was her husband. It was obvious that we were not going to get a sympathetic hearing.
Still it came as a shock when she fined us ten alars each. That’s more money that I reckon to earn in three or four months. I pleaded for leniency on the grounds that it had been a piece of performance art. The magistrate was adamant. As we hadn’t the money to pay the fine, she announced she would sell our indentures for ten alars apiece.
Here we were lucky that Donnas was, after some fashion, a lawyer. He pointed out that we were citizens of Port Naain, and that it was illegal for anybody to sell citizens into indentured servitude except in Port Naain under the eye of the authorities. (This is probably so that the authorities get their cut, rather than because of any tenderness towards we lesser breeds.) Donnas pointed out that if we were indentured then he would get word to his partners back in Port Naain and within days a band of Men-at-arms retained by the city would arrive to rescue us. Personally I was not entirely convinced that the city would go to that extent to rescue the leading poet of my generation, but Donnas stated it as an absolute certainty.
We had an impasse. Between us we hadn’t the money to pay any sort of fine, and the magistrate would be damned before she saw us walk away scot-free. Then Miat decided to join the discussion. He knew from talk he’d heard the previous day, that the town wanted a tree felling. We would cut the tree down for them and that would count as a fine. After some thought, the magistrate agreed. Donnas and I went back to the lock-up and Miat made preparations for cutting the tree down.
Next morning we were escorted to the tree to find Miat already there. He had some sort of infernal engine belching smoke and steam whilst he and his assistant rigged up a blade to the foot of the tree. Instinctively Donnas and I put the tree between us and the steaming monstrosity and watched carefully. Miat got the blade arranged to his satisfaction and gestured to his assistant to switch power through to the blade. With a roar it tore into the wood.
Now admittedly I am a poet, I haven’t cut a lot of trees down but I’ve done a bit and I’ve seen it done by experts. I gestured frantically to Miat to stop the machine. He did so.
“What’s the problem Tallis?”
“You’re cutting horizontally. The tree will just settle and trap the blade.”
He smiled patronisingly at me. “You underestimate the power of steam Tallis old man. Watch and learn.”
He gestured to his assistant and the young man fed power to the blade. It continued to rip through the tree at a tremendous rate. I was impressed. It was perhaps three-quarters through before the tree settled and trapped it immovable.
Donnas and I remained behind our sheltering tree-trunk. There are times when it is not wise to appear correct. Miat disconnected his blade, set up a second blade against the other side of the trunk and connected that blade to the engine. It tore into the tree in a most satisfying manner, but was still some way from the first blade before it too was trapped.
Cautiously Donnas and I joined Miat, and the three of us stared at the tree that was still standing. Tentatively I said, “Well you’ve done all the work, we merely need an agile child and a rope to finish it off.”
Miat looked at me, “Suddenly everybody is an expert of felling trees.”
“Well I’ve done my share.”
I found a suitable child in the audience who were watching from a safe distance. For a cash inducement he scampered up the tree and tied the rope to the trunk as high up as it was safe for him to climb.
By the time he had arrived down I’d acquired a hammer and some wedges from the local blacksmith. “Miat, you’ve done all the work, so obviously the honour of bringing it down should be yours. You hammer the wedges in here and Donnas, your assistant and I will tug on the rope and make sure it comes down in the right direction.”
Even an engineer could see the sense in that, so as we pulled, he hammered in the wedges. Actually, if you pull rhythmically and get the tree swaying so that its weight is working with you it’s not too difficult a job. The tree collapsed almost gracefully at our feet and Miat and the audience came across to congratulate us. As I was shaking hands with the blacksmith and thanking him for the loan of hammer and wedges I heard a piercing whistle. Miat’s assistant pointed at the engine, now standing unattended some distance away. “It’s about to blow.”
Immediately everybody threw themselves to the ground or behind suitably sturdy trees. The resulting explosion was deafening, shards of brass stuck quivering in a tree behind me. As people slowly started picking themselves off the ground I bade my goodbyes to Donnas and Miat and disappeared quietly into the trees. Port Naain called me and I felt that it ill became a poet to get too involved in complicated technical discussions which might become heated.
At this point it seems pertinent to mention that the story of Tallis’s escapades continues on other blogs. They will be reblogged in what may one day be accepted by biographers as the chronologically correct order on his own blog. Thus and so you can easily follow his gripping adventures.
Also, as an aside, the reason for this whole performance, (aside for being ‘Art’ with a capital ‘A’) is that another volume of his anecdotes has been published. Containing some work that has never appeared on the blog, this is available at ;-
Tallis Steelyard. The Monster of Bell-Wether Gardens and other stories.