I hardly tasted my remaining food as Father told the tale of the evening's patrol. It was not a particularly riveting tale, as it hardly differed from any other patrol I had heard him describe, and his descriptions were dry and unexciting. Nonetheless, I had no room in my thoughts for food. Only two facts mattered: my life was saved, and something dreadful had occurred involving the railway.
The railway was the pride and joy of Forrester's Crossing. That applied to all of civilisation, but our town in particular was truly fanatical about our safety record. Nowhere else had lasted ten thousand days without an incident, while we had expected to reach forty thousand. I was no less excited than a typical citizen. In fact, I had known without being reminded that today was day 39,859. That was one hundred and nine years, two months, and thirteen days. Astounding. But now the question of whether I would live to see Forty Thousand Day was answered: I would live, but to not see it. This was simultaneously a relief, and a disappointment.
As the story wore on, I was peripherally aware of Chalice and Chastity escorting our younger siblings through their nighttime preparations and off to bed. No one asked me to leave the dining room table. It was understood without saying that I would remain to hear every detail. The same went for Channing and Champion, being young men, not boys.
There was a brief pause as we helped Chalice collect the empty dishes. These would be kept in a tub with a lid until they could be washed by the light of the morning, so they would not attract bugs or animals. With that out of the way, we turned to Father and he continued his report in a voice perfect for selling a crop of vegetables at a marginally higher price.
"Where was I? Ah yes, I saw someone on the footbridge and someone in the signalling tower made a sound indicating surprise. I then announced to the patrol that something had gone wrong, as that was obviously the case. The nature of the problem immediately became clear, so I instructed them to follow me closer to the scene."
Tomas Friche, our visitor and a member of the patrol, interjected with significantly more colour. "Actually you yelled, 'By The Great Maker's bronze gears! Runaway train! Quickly, follow me!' and ran down the ramp.
"Quite. The two of us ran beside the inbound line. I heard a clatter behind me and glanced back to see that Shenks had succeeded in dropping his bicycle. There was no time to worry about that as the train was our utmost concern. Friche meanwhile gained an appreciation of the situation." Shenks was the junior member of Father's patrol. I had trouble remembering his given name, but I knew that Father found him frustrating. Despite that, he kept Shenks on the patrol because he was good at repair work, and was an excellent shot with a crossbow.
Friche interupted again to elaborate. "I swore, 'Ninety-nine nightwalkers!' and asked you what that madman of a signalman had done this time."
"Yes, yes. I explained that someone or something had distracted Yen at a critical moment. It has happened before but it never ended in such a disaster, thank the Maker. But this was a routine shunting job which no signalman would ever rust over in ordinary circumstances."
Obviously the circumstances were far beyond ordinary, but Father refused to hint at what had caused the distraction. This left me and presumably the other listeners in a frustrating state of bored suspense. I wanted to rush to the end but I knew better than to interrupt or show my impatience.
"We were still running," Father continued. "Ahead, engine LEML-1212 and its first lumber carrier came to a clean stop, then began to reverse. The remainder of the train continued onwards. Friche asked whether I was implying sabotage and asked who would do such a thing."
"It was rhetorical. I could not believe any civilised person would do such a thing," Friche said.
"Of course, neither could I. The railroad is both sacred and vital, and it was already in a bad state. I suggested that was one possibility, or it could be a distraction for something worse, so we had to be on our guard."
"There was nothing like this when Nearton's Bend fell, so I started to wonder if..." Friche began, but Father cut him off.
"Shenks finally passed us on his bike, though he was still on the other side of the rails as he never crossed the footbridge."
I'd been interested in what Friche had been saying and really didn't care which side of the rails Shenks was on. As Friche had hinted, this did not seem like the start of a demon attack - obviously it was not, as we would know if it was - and there were not many alternatives.
Friche continued the story. "I saw that Lu could catch up to the runaway part of the train and started encouraging him." Lu, right, that was Shenks' given name.
"You were mostly yelling, 'Go!' at him a lot like you were some kind of raider chieftain.
"When have you ever met a raider chieftain, Wilison?"
I didn't think Father had. I knew he'd been briefly exiled once as a young man, but he surely would have mentioned meeting raiders.
Father shook his head. "Perhaps like one of my boys, then. In any case there was a lot of yelling. I slowed down, realising that there was nothing Friche or I could do. Shenks passed the train's engine, which was slowly backing over the crossover switch. I saw the engineer lean out with his face all red and yell that Shenks had to stop the wagon before the bridge."
Calling it a bridge was somewhat misleading, as it was not like the bridge outside the town with its ramps. Much of the town existed on two main layers. The railway was on the lower layer. Here at the edge of the city it was crossed by bridges suited for horse-drawn wagons. There were no ramps, as the bridge stayed at street level. Deeper into the town, the tracks vanished into a tunnel and the railway was only heard, not seen. The exception to that invisibility was occasional bursts of steam leaving through an air duct when a train passed under.
"It was more lip reading and it being obvious what he would be saying," Friche put in. "Maybe he said wagons, plural, as there were two runaway wagons but only one of them mattered."
For all their explaining I still had little idea what was actually going on in this allegedly dire situation. The signalman, runaway wagons, the bridge, what did it all add up to?
"True enough. Thanks to Yen's unintended signal flag, and the blind obedience of some idiot yard-worker, the middle wagon's rear half had not followed the front wagon's transit from the inbound line to the outbound line. The resulting extreme bends in the middle of the train had snapped the couplings between all three wagons, but had failed to derail them."
Friche nodded. "We ended up with the worst of both worlds: the engine and the wagon on one line, another wagon on the other line, and the middle wagon free to coast crab-wise through the town."
I could picture the track layout in my mind. There were no switches between the runaway wagon and the next bridge. If Shenks could not stop the runaway wagon, the central pylon holding up the bridge would. While it was coasting slowly enough that Shenks was overtaking it, the mass of the logs was more than sufficient to bring down the bridge, including the high-pressure steam pipes running along the underside. Had that happened? Even if they had stopped it, the incident was already likely enough to reset our town's safety record.
While I was considering the situation, Father explained his estimation of it, which was essentially the same. He and Friche were left helpless while Shenks was the only one with a chance at saving the bridge from destruction. His best option was to drop one or both of the sides of the carrier, allowing its cargo of lumber to spill out. That might be enough to save the bridge. The difficulty was that he would need to access the levers at either the back or the front of the wagon. The back was closer, but it was also on the wrong track for Shenks to reach without losing speed. While he might reach the front of the wagon in time, the levers were secured against accidental operation. Even if he was fast enough, his best chance of saving the bridge was to release the forward-facing side, which would surely cause the wagon to derail - while Shenks was on it. At best, he could hope for a fast death. The alternative was the more drawn-out process of dying from his injuries.
"I could not think of any better alternatives," Father said, gazing through the wall of the house into the distance. There was nothing to see there, just darkness. "I wanted to yell that the bridge was not worth Shenks' life, but we all knew it was our duty as the town patrol to protect the town and its infrastructure."
"And I doubt he would have heard you," Friche added.
"That did not stop you from yelling something at him. What was it again?"
"Remember Grundtalson. Perhaps he heard me, or else he had the same idea."
Grundtalson. Friche spoke the name with such respect, but it meant nothing to me. I hoped he would explain who or what that was. But only after I heard how the incident ended.
"Shenks skidded his bicycle to a very sudden stop, leapt off, and jogged diagonally over the track, and crouched in the middle of the down line," Father said. "I do not know what he hoped to achieve."
"He had the right idea," Friche said. "And he made a perfect shot too. Hard to miss at that range, especially for Shenks. He was aiming for a weld in the bogie's swivel mechanism, which had to be under a lot of extra stress. If it had been weaker it could have taken the whole bogie clean off. A second shot might have done it but I doubt he had time."
"We were all sure the bridge was doomed at that point, but then came the... the..." Father was struggling for words. I was struggling to sit still and to keep a proper demure countenance.
"It was like a bolt of lightning. An eye-searing flash of otherworldly brilliance, and a thundercrack, from the runaway wagon. When I could see again, the rogue wagon was on its side, grinding to a graceless halt just short of the bridge, as its logs spilled out haphazardly. The rear bogie was wheel side up between the two sets of rails."
"Otherworldly, yes. That is the right word for it. And something else seemed out of place too. When I looked very carefully, I realised that in the general area of the derailment, the iron rails were unnaturally bent both inwards and upwards, just enough to see the difference."
Friche nodded. "Right, and the wagon was slightly misshaped too. Then the smell hit us. A burnt, acrid smell."
"The scent of something arcane. Forbidden." Father's words were solemn, with a kind of dark poetry to them. I began to understand what had occurred.
"Yes. I have never seen the like of it. Not even... then," Friche forced out.
"It was something we have only read of. But the proper response was clear. I declared a level three quarantine to Friche and he made the signal."
Friche withdrew a wooden whistle from a holster on his belt and held it where we could see it by the dim, soft lighting. "Three long deep notes for a level three quarantine. Yen in the tower echoed it and then the other signalmen throughout the town. Then I waited for the clerics to arrive and Wilison scouted for the perpetrator. And that was about when Lu freaked out."