EPISODE FOUR: ONWARDS
My head was buzzing and my ears were ringing as I cast my improvised helmet to one side and took a look around. But it was undoubtedly an enormous relief to finally find ourselves out of doors. It is odd how quickly your perspective on things can change. It was only a few hours ago I was cursing the weather and dreaming of any kind of shelter; now the elements seemed infinitely more benign than anything with walls and a roof.
We were standing on a paved terrace protected by a stone balustrade. A few feet beyond the balustrade the cliff fell away into the gaping hollow of the canyon, which appeared even more awe-inspiring when viewed up close. But turning to our right we saw a small wooden hut behind a sturdy metal tower. From the tower, cables stretched right across the canyon and hanging from the cables, swaying slightly in the breeze, was a small, neatly painted cable car.
When Michael had quite managed to finish chuckling at my coal-dust smudged face we headed over to investigate the contraption. Away from the shelter of the building the wind blew sharply enough to make it an effort simply to stay upright. I tried not to think of the effect it might have on the somewhat rickety looking car as it inched across the canyon. But before we could worry about the strength of the cables in high winds we would have to get the thing started. And that proved to be no easy task.
Considering our party consisted of a writer/student, an actor and a composer we weren’t exactly bursting with engineering expertise. But on first inspection everything seemed quite straightforward. There was a large lever by the tower which operated a brake on the cables above and the car was further held in place by a sturdy rope that had been hooked round one of the legs of the tower. Once these had been released it only required the services of an engine to get the car moving along the cables and this we soon located in the hut behind. Unfortunately this was the point at which our technical advances screeched to a halt. For no matter what we tried we couldn’t seem to get the engine to start at all.
We pushed and we pulled, we turned and we twisted, we pumped and we primed every component that we could get our hands on but nothing it seemed would coax the engine into life. After a good half hour of trying to pummel it into submission I had achieved nothing besides adding a few streaks of engine oil to the pattern of coal dust lining my face.
A dispirited Horace was the first to sink helplessly to the floor. “It would appear Prince Louis’ mood has not lifted,” he remarked unhappily.
I stared at the engine, feeling an irrepressible bubble of frustration welling up inside. I sought to release it by aiming a hearty kick at the centre of the mechanism. The engine remained stubbornly inactive.
“Did that make you feel better?” asked Michael simply.
“Did it hurt?”
I limped out of the door of the hut and looked at the cable car, swaying gently in the wind as if it were purposely mocking us. Every time it seemed we got a little closer to our objective another obstacle was thrown in our way.
“Well I say curse Prince Louis and his stupid insignificant paranoid little castle,” I shouted out to nobody in particular. An ominous rumbling sound began to well up from somewhere deep beneath our feet but I was beyond caring. “It’s ridiculous and pointless and frankly hideously decorated.” Horace came dashing out of the hut, waving his hands to indicate to me to stop but I wasn’t quite finished yet. “He needn’t think he’s clever just because he can make a few walls move. I’ve seen more impressive castles made out of sand on Redcar beach.”
The rumbling sound swelled to a tremendous roar and suddenly the ground juddered and shook beneath us, knocking us all off our feet. The flimsy wooden walls of the hut housing the cable car engine collapsed like a pack of cards. By the time the earth finally stopped quaking Horace was sprawled by the foot of the balustrade and I had rolled perilously close to the edge of the canyon with the cable car swinging violently over my head.
Michael pushed aside a splintered plank from the hut wall and slowly unfurled himself from beneath the engine where he had taken shelter. He fixed me with a piercing glare. “Well that was clever, wasn’t it?”
But I was too busy staring at the cables stretched across the canyon to pay him any attention. From where I lay it seemed to me that their whole angle of alignment had changed. I tentatively poked my head over the edge of the cliff to ascertain that my first impressions were true. They were. The ground had not just juddered from side to side in the earthquake, it had undoubtedly risen several feet.
I hastily scrambled my way back up to a slightly safer footing away from the cliff edge. “That’s it! That’s how we get the cable car moving.”
Michael looked at me doubtfully. “What are you talking about?”
“Hold on tight folks,” I remarked cheerfully. “This is going to be one bumpy ride.” Taking a precautionary hold on one of the legs of the tower, I addressed myself loudly in the general direction of the castle. “Castle Seelisch is puny and pathetic and smells of wee!”
There was another rumbling sound that welled up dramatically from the centre of the cliff on which we were standing. Horace clutched tight hold of the balustrade and began mumbling some kind of religious incantation to himself. Michael ducked back beneath the engine for cover. As I grabbed onto the tower with all my strength I felt the ground lurch up beneath me, knocking me from my feet once more.
“Have you gone mad?” asked Michael, when things had settled once again. “Just what are you trying to do?”
“I’m trying to get us sufficient elevation,” I hissed in reply, struggling back to my feet. “The ground is rising – just look at the cable car. If we can get it high enough we won’t need an engine. Just release the brake and let the car slide down to the other side.”
Michael looked up at the cables that were now sloping at a distinct downwards angle across the canyon and the light dawned. The car was swaying and straining against the rope that held it to the tower, the brakes overhead screeching with the effort of holding it in place. He stood up with a smile on his face. “By jingo, I think you’ve got it!”
“Course I have,” I replied and then raised my voice again in the direction of the castle. “Call that a fitting home for a Prince?” I yelled. “I’ve seen hovels with more character and taste!”
Michael took a firm grip on the engine for support and threw in his own offering. “Elsinore could have your castle for breakfast!”
The ground rocked and lurched for a few more seconds. I glanced across at the cable car.
“Nearly there,” I suggested, really rather enjoying myself. “Your castle is seriously ugly! You wouldn’t know good taste if it sat on your face and wiggled!” As the rumble began to swell once more I glanced over to the balustrade. “Come on Horace, have a go. This is fun!”
But Horace merely squeezed his eyes shut and clung on tighter as the ground jerked upwards once more. This time however, instead of lifting for a few seconds and then settling, it continued to judder and rise.
Michael peered out from behind the engine. “I think you’ve done it now Everingham,” he shouted as rocks crashed and rolled along the length of the canyon.
“Time to go I think,” I called back.
I darted towards the violently swaying cable car and with some difficulty managed to grab hold and wrench the door open. As I did my best to hold it steady Michael heaved the lever to release the brake. The car jerked forward but was just about held in place by the rope attached to the tower. With the ground all around us still shuddering and shaking, Michael and I scrambled aboard.
Holding the door open I looked over to where Horace was still huddled by the balustrade. “Come on Horace!” I cried out. “We have to go.”
Horace tentatively opened his eyes, took one look at the jolting, shaking cable car and violently shook his head.
“You can’t stay here,” I yelled. “Come with us.”
Horace looked up at us again and then turned and looked back at the castle that seemed to loom menacingly over him.
“Come to Stafford Harcourt Horace!” called out Michael. “I’m sure you’ll be able to find work there.”
The mention of work seemed to flick a switch in Horace’s head. With a firm shake of his head he scrambled up over the balustrade and hid on the other side, peering fearfully out through the rails. I could only shake my own head in wonder at whatever it was that went on in municipal orchestras to make Prince Louis seem like preferable employment.
But we had no time to linger. I slammed shut the door to the car. Michael pulled down the window and, with a single swipe of his sword, sliced through the rope holding us to the tower.
The car lurched forward, throwing us to the floor, and suddenly we were sailing across the canyon in the direction of Stafford Harcourt.
Unfortunately, it soon became painfully obvious that I had slightly overestimated the angle required to get us comfortably across the canyon. Rather than gliding serenely to the other side as I had optimistically envisaged, we plummeted across, picking up speed all the way. We were more than halfway over when I realised I had also neglected to consider how we were going to stop once we got to the other side. Peering fearfully out through the window I could see only a thick mass of trees coming towards us at a terrifying speed.
“Oh hell, we’re going to crash!” was all I could think to say.
There was just about time for us to brace ourselves against the sides of the car before we hit the other side. There was a wrenching sound as the mechanism above our heads smashed into the braking system and tore itself free. Our momentum carried us onwards, scraping past the metal tower with millimetres to spare and thudding onto the ground beyond with a crash.
Busily engaged as I was with being thrown about the floor of the car it was hard to tell exactly what happened next but I could swear we actually bounced across the ground a few times like a stone skimmed over a pond before the car finally came to a halt. I lay still for quite some time before I was sufficiently certain that all my limbs were still definitively attached. Only then did I open my eyes.
I found myself staring into the thick leaves of a tree branch that had thrust its way in through one of the windows. Pushing a few twigs to one side I looked across to check that Michael was okay. He was staring with a mildly disturbed expression at his sword which had been wrenched from his hand during the crash and had embedded itself in the wooden wall of the car just a few inches from his head.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“I believe so. You?”
Tentatively, we rose onto aching limbs. It transpired that the door of the car was jammed against the trunk of a tree so we were forced to scramble our way out through one of the shattered windows.
We stood in the midst of a small clearing. Behind us a trail of shattered branches led to the edge of the canyon. In front of us stood a thick wall of tall pine trees. At first glance they appeared to form an impenetrable barrier against further progress but just a little way over to our left I spied a gap in the trees. On closer inspection it appeared to be the beginning of a path cutting through the foliage.
I signalled to Michael and we edged our way over. The dense canopy of branches didn’t allow for much of a view but somewhere in the murky distance there sparkled a few lights.
“Do you suppose…?” I asked Michael as we peered into the gloom.
“Could be,” he replied.
I set off with a smile. My head may be ringing, my stomach still turning somersaults and every muscle in my body ached with a vengeance but somehow I sensed that Sturridge was finally within sight.
To be continued…
Coming soon… Episode Five