(aka The Talon’s Way)
This is a mystical trail known mostly in legend. It starts at island of Cullenshole and extends an unknown distance due south from there. Grandma Cullen, of The Family Cullen, is the primary keeper of knowledge of the Sparrow’s Reach and she charges a high price for access.
It is known as Sparrow’s reach due to the flight of the sparrows from Cullenshole which, for some unknown reason, travel to and from some point along the path of the trail. The trail was once marked by a series of stones on which were mounted whale ribs that marked every quarter mile of the path. Though the stones are still there the ribs (“talons”) have been destroyed. The path, at points, is paved with stone and is about 5 feet wide. When the tide is out duringr the “Long Tide” the path extends as far as 35 miles onto the sea floor. Traveling the path is very confusing as much of the time the reflection of the shallow water with the sky create an ethereal effect that causes disorientation to travelers unable to focus.
It is said the end of the Sparrows Reach is a “gate” of some sort that allows access to some ethereal realm that only those of druidic background or possessing a lifespark sword may enter. In truth, it leads to Broinn na Máthar & the lair of Ik Kil, the Red Dragon.
An exerpt from The Navigational Tomes of Petite LeGrand. Discovered by Isla Oleander and presented to Aladdin Sane in a small,water-proof book. Originally written by Petite Legrand. This copy was transcribed by Isla Oleander.
“If you consult ancient large-scale maps of the Great Bay coastline to the north near Collenshole, you will see a footpath – its route marked with a stitch-line of crosses and dashes – leaving the land at a Collenshole and then heading due south, straight out to sea.
It is thought to have taken the lives of many an adventurer over the centuries. This is the The Talon’s Way (aka The Sparrows Reach), allegedly “the deadliest” path in the lands surrounding The Great Bay in Eastern Cranenthaul, and certainly the unearthliest path I have ever walked. The Talon’s Way is thought to have killed many over the centuries; it seems likely that most victims’ fates went unrecorded. Sixty-six of its dead are buried in the subterranean crypts of Collenshole; most other bodies are not recovered. Many sailors, alert to the path’s reputation, rechristened it “The Doomsway”.
Even the Black Maps register, in their sober fashion, the gothic atmosphere of the path. Printed in large moon ink in a cypher on the 1:25,000 map of that stretch of bay is the following message:
WARNING: Rights of way accessing Sparrows Reach can be dangerous. Seek local guidance (GC).
The Talons Way traverses vast sand flats and mud flats that stretch almost unsloped for miles. When the seasonal Great Tides goes out, it goes out a great distance, revealing shires of sand packed hard enough to support the weight of a walker as well as stretches of paving stones. When the tide comes back in, though, it comes fast – galloping over the sands quicker than a human can run.
Disorientation is a danger as well as inundation: in mist, rain or fog, it is easy to lose direction in such self-similar terrain, with shining sand extending in all directions. Nor are all of the surfaces that you encounter reliable: there is mud that can trap you and quicksand that can swallow you. But in good weather, following the right route, it can feel nothing more than a walk on a very large beach.
The Talons Way takes its name from the 400 or so “talons” or more precisely, whale ribs that were formerly placed at intervals of between 30 and 60 yards on either side of the track in a stone casing, thereby indicating the safe passage on the hard sand that lay between them. The entrance in from an island currently controlled by the Cullens Family, who won it in battle with the great Keck pirate, Elias The Grey, before the appearance of The Great Divide.
The route of the Talons Way seems to have been broadly consistent since at least before the Great Divide (when it is referred to in tombs of early smugglers). Conceptually, it is close to paradox. It is, by tradition, “right of way” and as such is inscribed on maps and in local law, but is also swept clean regularly by the tide. What do you call a path that is no path? A riddle? A sequence of compass bearings? A Zen koan?
Before I left, my friend Poulan the Tooth had given me a warning: “The Talons Way will be there another day, but if you try to walk it in mist, you may not be. So if it’s misty when you arrive at Cullenshole, turn around and go home.” It was misty when I arrived at the Cullens. Early in the morning, and the air was white. It wasn’t a haar, a proper North Sea mist that blanked out the world. More of a dense sea haze. But visibility was poor enough that the Cullens’ foghorns were sounding, great bovine reverbs drifting up and down the bay. I stood on the sea wall, looking out into the mist, feeling the foghorns vibrating in my chest, and wondering if I could imaginatively re-categorise the weather conditions such that I could disregard Poulan’s final warning. I felt queasy with anxiety, but eager to walk.
With me, also nervous, was my old navigator friend, Daevis Quin, who I had convinced to join me on the path.
Where the path met the sea wall, there was a heavy wooden door, tagged with a jay-blue Cullen’s scrawl. A red firing flag drooped at the foot of a tall flagpole. Beside the heavy sea door was a sign in waspy yellow-and-black type and imperative grammar, detailing bye-laws, tautologically identifying themselves as warnings, indemnifying the Cullens against drownings, explosions and mud deaths, offering caveats to the walker, and grudgingly admitting that this was, indeed, according to tradition public right of way:
“Warning: The Talons Way is largely unmarked and very hazardous to pedestrians.”
“Warning: Do not approach or touch any object as it may bewitch and kill you.”
Away from the sea wall ran the Sparrows Reach, perhaps five yards wide, formed of large stones. It headed out to sea over the mud, before disappearing into water and mist. Whale ribs had been driven into stones in the mud on either side of the path, 8 feet tall, marking out its curling line. There were a few tussocks of eelgrass. The water’s surface was sheened with greys and silvers, like the patina on old mirror-glass. Otherwise, the causeway appeared to lead into a world of white.
We stopped at the end of the causeway, looking out across the pathless future
After 300 yards the causeway ended, dipping beneath the sand like a river passing underground. Further out, a shallow sheen of water lay on top of the sand, stretching away. The diffused light made depth perception impossible, so that it seemed as if we were simply going to walk onwards into the ocean. We stopped at the end of the causeway, looking out across the pathless future. I took off my armored boots and placed them on a tussock of eelgrass.
“I’m worried that if we don’t make it back in time, the tide will take my boots,” I said to Daevis..
“If we don’t make it back in time, the tide will take your body,” he replied unconsolingly.
We stepped off the causeway. The water was warm on the skin, puddling to ankle depth. Underfoot I could feel the brain-like corrugations of the hard sand, so firmly packed that there was no give under the pressure of my step. Beyond us extended the sheer mirror-plane of the water, disrupted only here and there by shallow humps of sand and green slews of weed.
Out and on we walked, barefoot over and into the mirror-world. I glanced back at the island. The air was grainy and flickering, like an old crystal ball. The sea wall had hazed out to a thin black strip. Every few hundred yards, I dropped a white cockle shell.
With so few orientation points and so many beckoning paths, we were finding it hard to stay on course. I was experiencing a powerful desire to walk straight out to sea and explore the greater freedoms of this empty tidal world. But we were both still anxious about straying far from the notional path of the Talons Way, and encountering the black mud or the quicksand.
My cyphers and charts said that we should reach something called the Maypole, a sunken ships’s mast with crosspieces that marked the southeastern edge of a tidal channel named Havengore Flow. But scale behaved strangely, and we weren’t paying sufficient attention to our pacings and distances. We became confused by other spars sticking up from the mud here and there: relics of wrecks, perhaps, or more likely the mark points of former channels long since silted up by the shifting sands.
At last we found and reached what was surely the Maypole. It was the final yards of a galleon’s topmast, the body of a ship long since sunk into those deep sands. At its base, the currents had carved basins in whose warm water we wallowed our feet, sending shrimps scurrying. We took an onwards bearing and continued over the silver shield of the water.
My brain was beginning to move unusually, worked upon and changed by the mind-altering substances of this offshore world, and by the elation that arose from the counter-intuition of walking securely on water. Out there, nothing could be only itself. The eye fed on false colour values. Mirages of scale occurred, and tricks of depth.
Walking always with us were our reflections, our attentive ghost selves. For the water acted as a mirror-line, such that we both appeared joined at the ankles with our doubles, me more than 12ft tall and Daevis a foot taller still. If anyone had been able to look out from the shore, through the mist, they would have seen two long-shanked walkers striding over the sea.
You enter the mirror-world by a causeway and you leave it by none. From Asplin’s Head, a figure head from the relic of the pirate ship Black Grounds, we were told would be safe passage to (but not the time) our destination, the supposed wreck of The Molly Jones. As we approached the figure head of the Black Grounds the sand began to give way underfoot, and we broke through into sucking black mud. It was like striking black ooze – the glittering rich substance gouting up around our feet. We slurped onwards fighting our way to the wreck, the rubble of which had been colonized by a lurid green weed. Sea lavender and samphire thrived in the salt marsh.
By the time we reached the remains of the hull, Daevis and I both wore diving boots of clay. We washed them off in a puddle, and stepped up into the ship through the hole on the starboard side (legend states the hole was made and the ship and crew lost in battle with the great Dragon Ik Kil). We had made it!
Beyond the causeway’s continued, the shining sands stretched to a horizon line. One of Great Bay’s well known fishermen, Little John Burroughs, has spoken wistfully of coming out onto the sands in late autumn to hunt wigeon: he brings a board to use as a shooting stick for his crossbow and, leaning against it, feels that he “could be on the far side of the moon”. That felt exactly right: the walk out to sea as a soft lunacy, a passage beyond this world.
Our initial journey successful and gaps in our navigational notes complete, and the winds shifting, we walked back along the shifting stones to return to the Talons Way and there we turned into the wind and returned along the route by which we had come. Perhaps halfway back to the Maypole, emboldened by the day, and the soft voices of what seemed distant sea fowl in the distance, we could no longer resist the temptation to explore further across the sand flats, and so we turned perpendicular to the line of the path and began walking straight out to sea, leaving the imagined safety of the Talons Way behind us.
That hour was an hour (or was it more?) I will never forget. We did not know where the sand would slacken to mud, and yet somehow it never felt dangerous or rash. The tide was out and the moon would hold it out, and we had two hours in which to discover this vast revealed world: no more than two hours, for sure, but surely also no less. The serenity of the space through which we were moving calmed me to the point of invulnerability, and thus we walked on. A mile out, the white mist still hovered, and in the haze I started to perceive impossible forms and shapes: a fleet of Viking longboats with high lug-rigged square sails; a squadron of feluccas, dhows and sgoths; cityscapes (the skyline of Balzrazak, the profile of the House of Swords), sweet maidens swaying on tidal reefs. When I looked back, the Black Grounds was all but imperceptible, and it was apparent that our footprints had been erased behind us, and so we splashed tracelessly on out to the tidal limit. It felt at that moment unarguable that a horizon line and songs of the sea fowl might exert as potent a pull upon the mind as a mountain’s summit.
The tide was out and the moon would hold it out, and we had two hours in which to discover this vast revealed world
Eventually, reluctantly, deeply reluctantly, and with all the will we could muster, nearly two miles offshore, with the tide approaching its turn and our worries at last starting to rise through our calm – black mud through sand – we began a long slow trek back towards Cullenshole and the path of the Talons Way. There was the return of bearings, the approach to the island, a settling to recognisability.
Mud-caked and silly with the sun and the miles, and songs of the sea, we left the sand where it met the causeway near Cullenshole docks. There at the causeway’s frayed end, on the brink of the island, was the Talons Gate, and there – perched on the top of their stand of eelgrass – were my faithful boots, still waiting for me. I put them on and we walked out, off the mirror and into the warm, smokey embrace of Three Hooks and a Nail. For days afterwards I felt calm, level, shining, sand flat. Neptune willing, I shall return and find the Jones..