EPISODE TWO: THE SOUND OF SCREAMING
Barely an hour later the three of us stood on the first floor landing of the castle, admiring our new creation. It was not perhaps the most elegant of models; the somewhat rickety frame was mostly composed of slats of wood that had been wrenched from the underside of one of the four poster beds and it rolled unevenly around on what had previously formed the base of a drinks trolley. But it looked just about sturdy enough to cope with the large lumps of meat we had hauled up in several sacks from the larder and that made it beautiful in my eyes. Fritz, though, was having concerns of an entirely different kind.
“I think we should not have taken items from my mistress’s private chambers,” he announced sombrely.
I knew in an instant to what he was referring. It had taken us quite some time before we had located something with the appropriate elasticity for launching our meat. It was only when I’d taken to rummaging through Madam Von Schuster’s underwear drawer that we had found the answer. “I’m sorry but it’s not like she’s going to need them again,” I explained gently.
Fritz glared defiantly at me. “It is not right to have ladies undergarments on display like that.”
“I’m sure Mrs Von Schuster would understand,” coaxed Michael.
Fritz folded his arms and lowered his head. “This is very wrong,” he muttered to himself.
“The more important question,” Michael continued regardless, “is whether it will work or not.”
“There’s only one way to find out,” I replied. “We’re going to need some kind of open area from which we can launch. But somewhere we can remain hidden from view of the sisters. Fritz?”
Fritz continued to glare sulkily at the floor for a moment or two to ensure his protest was registered before replying. “There is a flat area of roof over the west wing that will be best,” he eventually said. “It overlooks the main gates but there are battlements to keep us hidden from view.”
“Excellent,” said Michael. “And how about our exit strategy?”
“The porter’s gate opens onto the Himmelstrasse,” replied Fritz. “The narrow streets there will offer us some cover.”
“How long to get down to the porter’s gate from the roof though?” I interjected. “We can’t rely on the meat to distract the sisters for long.”
“I estimate no more than two minutes from roof to gate,” announced Fritz confidently.
“Well then gentlemen,” I said with a sharp intake of breath. “Let’s get this thing rolling.”
The instant we opened the broad sash window that overlooked our chosen section of roof the groans of the sisters and the rattling of the gates floated up to us on the breeze. All three of us were stopped momentarily in our tracks by the increasingly desperate moans and howls that assaulted our ears. This was no time for cold feet though and with a deep breath we carried on. It took a brief struggle to heave the catapult up over the ledge and onto the roof, all the time trying to be as quiet as possible for fear of alerting the sisters to our presence. The sacks of meat followed a little more easily and then we hastened to assume our positions.
While the guys tried to position the catapult for maximum elevation I crept towards the battlements protecting the edge of the roof and cautiously peered over. I had been nominated to act as spotter for the operation and, armed with a pair of binoculars snaffled from the castle, I attempted to make a hasty assessment of the situation. The bulk of the nuns were still clustered around the main gates, blindly pushing and pulling at the ironwork in their desperation to get through. It seemed fairly obvious that the gates would not hold out much longer against such concerted punishment. There were one or two stragglers who roamed aimlessly beyond the gates, occasionally flinging themselves hopelessly at the stone walls on either side, but I could see no sign of the Reverend Mother amongst them. I could only imagine that, having set her charges after their dinner, she had retired to a safe distance.
“How’s it looking?” hissed Michael, having taken up his position behind the catapult.
“It’s not a pretty sight down there,” I replied but did my best to indicate what I thought would be the most suitable direction for launching.
“Okay, let’s have the meat then Fritz,” Michael whispered.
Fritz began poking his nose into each of the sacks of meat. “I have venison and wild boar from the estate,” he announced in a low voice. “There is also some salted beef – not so fresh but still very good quality.”
“I really don’t think they’re all that fussy about the quality,” hissed Michael.
“Very well,” said Fritz, sounding rather disappointed. “Then we start with the venison. A strong smell to catch their attention.”
Michael took the proffered chunk of meat from Fritz and nestled it into the catapult sling. Then, whilst Fritz held the base as steady as possible, Michael heaved the missile as far back as he could and let go. The catapult frame creaked, there was a twang and a whoosh as the meat arced high into the air. It cleared the outer wall with a few feet to spare and landed with a thud just behind the gathering of sisters.
“They’re going for it!” I announced in hushed tones. Through my binoculars I watched as the nuns swirled around in confusion before several of them pounced on the offering. “Keep ‘em coming!”
We quickly fell into an efficient rhythm, a constant cycle of twangs and thuds as meat rained over the battlements. In between flurries I commanded the occasional adjustment to pick up a straggler or maintain elevation. It was certainly a strange spectacle, watching a group of ragged nuns scrapping over lumps of raw meat, but I managed to maintain my concentration until the moment came when Fritz urgently murmured, “this is the last piece.”
I watched as it sailed over and beaned an unfortunate nun, sending her sprawling amongst her comrades. There was no time to applaud the shot though as we scrambled back through the window and followed Fritz down the stairs towards the rear of the castle. In less than two minutes, as promised, we were peering cautiously out of the slender wooden gate that served as the porter’s entrance. The distant murmurs of the nuns were still audible but there was not a wimple to be spotted as we filed out into the narrow streets and headed off to what we hoped would be safety.
We slipped soundlessly through the streets under the direction of Fritz until we had left all sounds of zombie flesh-eating far behind us. As we left the buildings and alleys of the city behind we began to climb, following a barely discernable pathway that led up towards the mountains. Without the cover of the tall Salzburg houses it was hard not to feel exposed out on the green pasture but, despite several anxious glances behind, no signs of pursuit were evident. Still, it seemed prudent to keep conversation to a minimum just on the off chance that any speech might echo back down the path to reveal our whereabouts.
Before long it wasn’t just a fear of detection that dulled conversation. The path climbed more and more steeply, the lush green pasture gave way to more rocky inclines and the only sound I was capable of making was a rhythmical heavy breathing as I laboured my way onwards and upwards. Fritz seemed less certain of his way up here also, occasionally pausing to recce the ground ahead and sometimes slithering over rocks in unexpected directions. Eventually he stopped altogether and stood, peering unhappily up ahead.
“Lost your way?” asked Michael in trepidation.
Fritz turned with a look of disdain. “I know exactly where we need to go,” he announced haughtily, “but whether we can get there is another question. Just ahead the glacier crosses above the mountain path. I do not like the way the ice glistens.”
I followed his eye-line to where our chosen pathway appeared to burrow its way into a dark recess of the mountain, disappearing from view. Overhead a thick slab of bright ice did indeed sparkle brilliantly. “That’s bad, is it?” I clarified, rather too taken with the spectacle to contemplate any dangers inherent.
“It means the ice is melting,” Fritz explained. “If the glacier cracks before we reach the top we could be washed away down the side of the mountain.”
“Oh, I see. Quite bad then.”
Fritz scrambled up the rocks to the left of our path and balanced precariously for a second while he gave the section a better look. “There is a ledge to the right,” he finally announced. “If we can get up there, we should be safe.”
He didn’t sound entirely convincing but, lacking a viable alternative, I was prepared to put my faith in Fritz’s judgement. We carried on, treading our way more cautiously than ever. The path grew progressively narrower, cut into a gully through a rocky incline, and a strong breeze swirled ominously around our heads. It became increasingly tricky to maintain a footing on the slippery rocks and more than once we each stumbled and slithered back down the track.
“Careful here, the ice must be very thin,” cautioned Fritz as the route became darker due to the overhanging glacier.
“What was that?” I called out sharply as a distant groan seemed to travel up the gully from somewhere beneath me.
“What?” Michael looked back at me blankly.
I strained my ears but there was only the whip of the wind across the rocks interspersed now with a dripping sound as small streams of water trickled down the mountain-side. “Nothing,” I conceded. “Must be just the wind.”
We were almost within touching distance of the ledge now and Fritz paused to assess the best way of climbing up. After careful consideration, he was able to slither up a narrow crevice, grasp an overhanging rock and haul himself up.
But then there came the sound from below again and this time it was unmistakable – a familiar collective groan carried up on the wind. Michael and I both turned and stared fearfully back down the path. A moment of unbearable stillness and then suddenly it appeared. A vast horde of undead flesh, swathed in black and white and scurrying up over the rocks with preternatural speed. And in the centre, harrying, cajoling and directing them, was the gaunt figure of the Reverend Mother herself. Her eager eyes scanning over the mountain soon came to rest upon us and her face lit up in a ghoulish smile.
“Oh bloody hell!” was my probably under the circumstances rather restrained response.
“Now there you are,” called out the Reverend Mother in an eerie sing-song tone. “Your little distraction proved quite effective but we found your scent again soon enough once I realised where you must have gone.”
“Oh, leave us alone!” I called out rather hopelessly.
“And now there are three of you,” cried the Reverend Mother, eagerly spotting Fritz hovering on the ledge above us. “Much more to go around.”
“Just a minute,” called out Michael desperately. “You really don’t want to do this. Physical violence against another individual is morally wrong.”
“So says the man who tried to set me on fire,” retorted the Reverend Mother.
“Damn,” muttered Michael.
Any further argument was curtailed by a gigantic crack that rang across the mountain like a sharp peal of thunder. All parties hesitated uncertainly for a moment. Fritz, who had a better view from the ledge than any of us, was the first to react. “It’s the glacier! It’s breaking up – come on!”
A steady stream of water was now flowing down the gully and over the mountain.
“After them!” yelled the Reverend Mother and the nuns swarmed forward with a succession of ear-splitting howls.
Michael was up and heaving himself forward in an instant, making the most of his long reach. I tried to scrabble my way up the narrow crevice but my foot slipped on the soaking rocks and I slithered back down.
Another crack pealed across the mountain from above.
As I staggered back up, Michael’s arm reached down towards me and I saw his desperate face leaning over the ledge. “Everingham – grab hold!”
There was a greedy wail just beneath me and I glanced down to see the foremost of the nuns grasp out at me. I kicked away her outstretched arm with all my strength and reached out and clasped the offered limb. In an instant I was swinging upwards. As I felt Fritz’s arms grasping me around the shoulders there was a final loud retort which seemed to run along the whole length of the mountain. A mere second after Michael and Fritz’s combined efforts enabled me to scramble my legs up over the ledge, the stream of water burst into a torrent.
Collapsing breathlessly onto the ledge I rolled over and peered down just in time to see the Reverend Mother and all her zombie sisters swept helplessly off the side of the mountain by a cascade of icy water.
Fritz, Michael and I sat, winded and speechless, while the flood of water gradually eased away. Eventually the mountain was silent once more. “Now that,” I announced once I was certain my voice had recovered sufficiently for speech, “is what I believe is known in the trade as a close shave.”
From the top of the mountain we faced a tricky but manageable descent followed by a laborious walk across green meadows before we came across the nearest town. Our first action was to present ourselves at the large inn on the main street and, whilst Michael and I did our best to calm our shattered nerves with a couple of large brandies, Fritz was assigned to explain our story to a group of local worthies. Up on the mountain I had been convinced I would never be able to relax again but it was surprising how quickly the crackling fire and gently chattering voices round about served to soothe my weary bones. In fact, if it wasn’t for the delicious smells wafting across from the next table which were prompting my stomach into increasingly noisy growls, I might have fallen asleep then and there. My food reverie was interrupted by the approach of Fritz.
“So?” asked Michael. “Did they believe you?”
“The townspeople are naturally a little unsure about such an extraordinary tale,” conceded Fritz. “But they have agreed to gather together a party to accompany me back to Salzburg to investigate further.”
“Are you sure that’s entirely safe?” I asked.
“I do not think even the sisters could survive a fall from the mountain like that. But we will be well-armed just in case. This time we will be prepared.”
“Very wise,” I murmured.
“Therefore I must bid you farewell and thank you for all you have done for me. If ever you should find yourselves in Salzburg again you may be sure of a warm welcome.”
“Surely you’re not going so soon?” protested Michael. “At least stay and have a brandy first.”
“I must return to the castle as soon as I can,” insisted Fritz. “We left the catapult on the roof. It must be dismantled right away.”
“You’re not still worried about Mrs Von Schuster’s underwear, are you?” I said incredulously.
“There are some things no man should see,” insisted Fritz firmly. “Farewell. And thank-you once again.”
We offered him our best wishes and watched as he marched determinedly out of the inn followed by a gang of thickly dressed men sporting a fearsome array of hunting rifles, pistols and knives.
“So, Everingham,” Michael said when the heavy tramp of boots had subsided. “What about you?”
“Me? I’m not afraid of anyone’s pants.”
“No, I meant what now? Do we go on or…”
“I just thought, back in Edward’s shop… well, you didn’t sound too certain about going through with this quest.”
I swirled my brandy thoughtfully. “It’s not that, it’s just… I mean, this can’t go on forever. After all, I’ve got a critical evaluation that’s due in next week.”
“But… I suppose Sturridge has to be out there somewhere.”
“Assuming he hasn’t been eaten by ravenous nuns himself.”
“We can but hope.”
I looked at Michael blankly for a moment and then finished off my brandy in one mouthful. “Do you really want to know what I think?” I demanded.
“I think the venison stew here looks really good.”
Michael smiled. “I think you might be right there.”
To be continued…
Episode Three Coming Soon