They called the place Hillport, because it was exactly that. It was a port built on a hill, a cityship that clung to the sea-rock like an ugly whelk. Save for one gravel causeway that was the city’s only lifeline to the shore, the city was an island unto itself, building up layers of architecture over the generations. At one point it had been a seafaring city, but their fishing practices left much to be desired and now the bay around them lay as bare as the face of the moon. Struck by such ugly serendipity, they sidestepped the obvious conclusion and invested themselves elsewhere: tallow. The city rendered the tallow from butcher’s blocks for miles around, with such skill and industry the smoke from their fires painted the sky black at times.
They called the place Hillport, but that was not the proper name. The given name to the rock on which the city was built was Swallow’s Crouch, owing to the little birds that flitted in and out of the seaside caves on the far side of the island. The birds were the only thing left uneaten within arm’s reach of the city, owing to their nests being build on sheer cliff-sides (and sometimes on the ceilings of sea caves) that no man-made ladder or crook could reach. What they ate was anyone’s guess. The cityfolk hated the chattering they made and set out poisoned bait, perpetually untouched.
What makes the swallows remarkable is the very thing that kept the city alive. Tallow. The fat from animals does not entirely burn up in a fire, you see, and year-round tallow frosted the roofs and windows of the town. The swallows daubed the fat into nests and by some unknown alchemy the fat became hard as stone in the sea air.
The city of Hillport grew rich, because tallow was quite valuable. The rosy fat from a bull, the white bounty of a whale’s skin, the delicate oils necessary for perfume making, Hillport traded in them all. They grew wary of hubris, because they had grown so skilled at dodging consequence. So when a stranger came along at low tide, picking his way along the sharp rocks, they knew they looked at no mere man. They hauled him up in chains, scraping him against the sheer cliffside until his scholarly glasses broke. The city’s Autarch was unamused at the sight.
“I suppose you’re here to warn us of some great calamity,” he said, “or to beg us to mend our ways.”
“I am not.” The young man reeked of sea mud and his features were raw from scraping against rock. He proffered one of his books. “I am a man of the sciences. I’m taking stock of this countryside. I heard about your swallows from another town.”
The Autarch snorted. “Do you think me a swaddling babe? You’re here on some divine errand, here to hold a mirror up to our city.”
“No, no!” the man protested, throwing a few books at the Autarch’s feet. Pen-and-ink sketches of seabirds and snails spilled out. “I only want to see and to know! Your city is entirely your business, I care only about the swallows.”
The Autarch put a hand to the ripple of flesh at his chin. He prodded a book with his toe. “The swallows?”
“Yes.” the man smiled in relief. “I only care about observing them. So unique are they, I’ve never found a bird like them.”
The Autarch nodded. “That sorts it, then. You’re here to find the true nature of the swallows, and once this purpose is fulfilled they’ll depart. And once they’ve departed on their own terms, some calamity will befall the city.” He nodded to a guard. “See to it that he meets an unglamorous end.”
The protesting young man was pulled from the Autarch’s chambers and to the city square, where a vat of tallow had been heated to the smoking point. In he went, and afterwards they strained him out in bits. No reason to waste good tallow.
The Autarch waited for some sudden, symbolic comeuppance, but none came. The young man did not appear in the smoke of the rendering fires, his bones were tossed unceremoniously into the sea and that was that. That year they rendered five times the fat they normally did, and every inhabitant of the city grew rich with tallow.
It was not that year or even the next, but a brief enough interval of time that certain folk could make the divine connection if they wished, that the weight of the swallow’s nests pulled Hillport in half. The city cracked and slid into the waters, the sea hissing as it was deluged with hot fat. The rock lies bare today, even the swallow’s caves are now deserted, but globules of fat still roll on the tide, some say. Impacted and magicked by sea, they are hard as ice.