The report from the power plant is correct. There's a real castle up there looking down on us. Don't imagine a fairy-tale castle. This is a deadly serious looking fortress. There's also a bit of a village there, or at least half of one. The village and the castle are both named Schwarzburg. We need to make friends with whoever runs the place, because they're guarding our southwest flank very nicely. And, if their cannon are even mediocre, I doubt there's much we could do to stop them from wiping out the power plant.
As you come around the bend in Buffalo Creek, about a mile out from Grantville, what you see is a wall of black rock, streaked with red, green and brown. This castle sits on a hill dead center on top of it, right above the power plant. The cliff has a mirror polish on it that reflects the sky when you get close enough. We guess that from the bottom of the Buffalo Creek valley up to the floor of the valley above, it must be three hundred feet. Our ridge tops are about four hundred feet above the valley floor, but the hills of the land we've been plunked into are much higher. We guess about twice as high, which means eight hundred feet up from the valley floor. The German hills aren't as chopped up as ours. They seem a bit rounder, but the valley walls are steep enough.
There's a stream in the valley we cut into. They call it the Schwarza, and where it flows over the cut edge, there's quite a waterfall. We'll call it Schwarza Falls. It's hard to guess how high it is, because it's pounding down on what was a steep slope and washing quite a bit of that slope downhill. We figure it's a clear fall of at least fifteen feet, but then it tumbles down at least two hundred feet before it flows into what used to be Spring Branch.
If it hadn't been for the fact that the Schwarza valley is offset a bit from Buffalo Creek valley, there'd be no hope of getting a road up that cliff. As things stand, though, the Schwarza had a loop to the northeast that got lopped off by the disaster. (We're starting to call it the "Ring of Fire," by the way, since that seems a pretty good description of the disaster—"RoF" for short.) The ridge to the north of Buffalo Creek just manages to come up to that part of the Schwarza's stream bed. Also, just southwest of Schwarza Falls, there's a little knob on our side that just goes up to the level of the rooftops of some houses nearby. It's all that's left of the ridge that divided Spring Branch from Buffalo Creek.
One thing is real clear. That little village at the top of the falls is in big trouble. Half the place is gone. Calling it a village may be too generous; it was a cluster of houses and barns built beside a bridge across the Schwarza. In a few places, the ground collapsed as far back as thirty feet from the edge, taking houses and barns if they happened to be there. There's quite a mound of muck and rubble along the face of the cliff below those places. There's one barn, though, that's standing right on the edge and hasn't moved an inch.
The cut-off chunk of the Schwarza northeast of the castle must have dumped its entire contents and a good part of its riverbed over the cliff in one great gush. There's a flow of debris from there down along what used to be Spring Branch Creek. It looks like what was left of Spring Branch Road inside the ring of fire was pretty well buried or washed out within a few minutes on Sunday. The culvert over Spring Branch Creek on the main road looks like it survived that first gush, but it was never intended to take the flow of the Schwarza river, so the road is acting like a dam. The water was over the road when we got there. It's a few inches deep and running fast, but the road is pretty flat so the overflow is spread over quite a distance. It's eating at the road, and we think it'll wash it out unless we dig up the culvert and put in a proper bridge.
We waded across and took a hike up what's left of the ridge that divided Buffalo Creek from Spring Branch. It's the steep but direct route into what's left of the lower Schwarzburg village. They were watching us the whole time, and there's no doubt that they were as nervous about us as we were about them. By the time we got up the hill, a guy named Franz was there to meet us, with two others who stayed back a bit and whose names we didn't get. Franz seemed to be an officer in the guard of the castle. As near as we could make out, his boss is the graf of Schwarzburg and a town named Rudolstadt.
Franz turned out to be a decent fellow and pretty quick witted, but he had some big pistols in his belt and a sword. We were careful not to put our hands anywhere near our holsters those first few minutes. We'd better send someone official to Schwarzburg quickly, someone who knows German!
We read Franz the message you wrote for us in German about wanting to open the road connections across the border of the "ring." After we gave him the letters you gave us, we tried to have a conversation. I wish we knew more German, but the stuff you gave us helped a lot. With lots of mistakes, hand gestures and an occasional picture on a notepad, we managed to get by.
He told us that the Ring of Fire destroyed the road from Schwarzburg to Rudolstadt where, as near as we could make out, his boss lives most of the time. It also destroyed the road to the town of Saalfeld. As a result, it seems that we're in agreement about trying to open up a road connection.
The bridge across the Schwarza at Schwarzburg is right at the lip of the falls. It's in serious danger of collapse because of all the dirt that's been washed away from the foundations. If the bridge goes, the farmhouses that are left on the southeast side of the Schwarza will be cut off, so they're already working on a temporary wooden bridge upstream from the old one. Timber is one thing they have plenty of. The roads here are mostly grass and packed dirt, with cobblestones only where erosion is likely to be a problem.
Northeast from the falls about two hundred yards, the road is almost cut off with half of it slumped away. It looks like it was right on the riverbank there, at the southeast end of the loop of river that the Ring of Fire sliced off. Beyond that, to the northwest, the road is in good shape, with stone retaining walls in places as it takes a long switchback up the slope to the castle gate.
We didn't go into the castle, but we did go up to the square by the gate where there's a bit of an upper village. The castle sits along the crest of a knife-edge ridge with the Schwarza river wrapped around the west, south and east sides. You couldn't ask for a better defensive position, but it's not all that big. The castle must be a quarter mile long but the ridge isn't very wide anywhere.