EPISODE FOUR: ONWARDS
The side door opened onto a long, snaking section of corridor. We set out in procession; Horace led the way, pressing himself edgily against walls and stopping occasionally to wield his piece of piano lid in a vaguely threatening manner; I came next, doing my best to chivvy Horace along; finally Michael brought up the rear, limping along wearily. We had turned two corners and were in the middle of a narrow, straight section of corridor when we heard it. An ominously low rumble that seemed to circle us several times before dying away.
Each of us froze in place and squinted up and down the narrow space, trying to locate the source of the danger. My head was turned back when I heard the second noise. It came from that end of the corridor; a pained creaking sound, as though the masonry itself were straining against the foundations. Then, as we held our breath and continued to stare fearfully, there was a sharp crack and the two walls along a short section at the end of the corridor snapped shut.
The shockwaves from the impact swept right past us along the remaining stretch of wall and several pieces of masonry were shaken loose from the ceiling. As I stood and gaped, open-mouthed, a small chunk of plaster rolled along the floor and landed at my feet.
“That’s not good,” I murmured.
As another anguished creaking welled up, a little closer this time, Michael gave me a shove. “I think we need to move!”
Horace, it appeared, didn’t need telling twice. Displaying a quite unexpected turn of speed, he hared off up the corridor.
There was another crack and as I set off after him the next section of corridor snapped shut with a horrifying smash.
I could feel a rush of wind sweep past me as Horace located an open door up ahead and disappeared through it. Glancing behind me though I could see that Michael was struggling with his shattered ankle.
As I paused to grab Michael’s arm and lend him my weight for support the next section slammed shut barely a foot behind us. Horace’s face appeared in the doorway up ahead, beckoning us frantically forward. “Hurry!” he called out, glaring fearfully at the corridor walls.
Doing our best to ignore the lumps of masonry tumbling from the ceiling and the floor juddering beneath our feet, Michael and I stumbled towards the door. The creaking noise began to rise again either side of us. With the doorway in touching distance I closed my eyes and hurled myself and Michael forward.
Just as we stumbled through, the final section of the corridor smashed together, the force of the blast throwing us onto the floor of the room beyond. I lay there for a second or two, breathless and exhausted.
Then, for what seemed like the umpteenth time today, Michael and I gingerly untangled ourselves from the heap on the floor which we had formed. Sitting up, I turned and stared at the doorway through which we had just passed. Immediately beyond the door there was now nothing but a solid lump of masonry.
Horace sighed wearily and swung the door shut on the wall of stone. “I told you we should have stayed put,” he murmured.
Sitting up and dusting off the remnants of the corridor from my clothing, I looked around to see which part of the deranged castle we had pitched up in this time. To my surprise I discovered we were back in the grand hall where our first fatal encounter with Prince Louis had taken place. Somehow I found it supremely dispiriting to find that after all the danger and excitement we had merely got back to where we started. “Bloody hell, not here again,” I muttered, slowly scrambling to my feet.
Horace was busy twirling his piece of piano lid in what I assume was intended to be a menacing manner. He paused and said, “Oh, so you know the hall?”
“Intimately,” I replied, recalling Prince Louis’ detailed lecture with a shiver.
“Then you’ll know that the cable car is just on the other side,” said Horace, pointing down the hall. “Through that door and across the terrace.”
The sudden nearness of the cable car provided an instant lift to the spirits. “What are we waiting for then?” I said, ready to stride forth.
“Just steady on there a minute, Gung-ho Gertie,” remarked Michael, leaning on his sword with a pained expression on his face. “We don’t want to go charging into any more traps.”
I had to concede the wisdom of his words. We all paused for a moment, scanning the room anxiously and listening carefully for the slightest rumble. All seemed still and quiet. But then, when you’ve recently been attacked by something as innocuous as a wooden floor, it’s hard to assess just what poses a genuine risk.
“If we take it slowly…” I suggested, aware of an irresistible urge to keep moving. Horace and Michael cautiously nodded.
So we set off haltingly up the hall. Within a few steps we had instinctively spread out, uncertain which part of the fixtures and fittings might be the first to take a swipe at us. Horace edged up the left hand side of the hall. Every few paces he would pause to adopt an exaggerated defensive pose at what he considered to be a disturbing noise but these inevitably turned out to be nothing more than the sound of his own footsteps. Michael hobbled slowly up the centre, tentatively poking at the floorboards now and again with his sword to ensure they remained dormant. I strode carefully up the right hand side, ears pricked for any hint of moving masonry.
In this fashion we had travelled about half the length of the hall when I was distracted by a hint of movement on the wall beside me. Finding myself alongside the fireplace, my eyes immediately strayed to the trio of boar’s heads who looked down from above. Catching sight of their dark eyes and long, curling teeth I stopped and clutched my brolly a little tighter.
As I peered curiously at him the central boar of the trio slowly wrinkled his long snout in an unhappy fashion. Decapitated and fixed to a wooden board, he was somehow shorn of any sense of menace and I stood transfixed, suffused with the odd sensation that the boar was trying to tell me something.
Slowly he raised his eyes to the ceiling before looking back down at me and shaking his head. I stared back with a puzzled frown, entirely mystified. With the expression of an exhausted teacher dealing with an especially slow pupil, the boar looked to the right, then to the left. Slowly, all three of the boars together raised their eyes to the ceiling before looking back at me and shaking their heads. I could only offer up a baffled shrug in return.
What could have been a painfully lengthy process of inter-species communication was abruptly cut short by something sharp and shiny which plummeted from the ceiling with some considerable force. It crashed to the floor just inches from my feet. I looked up and instantly I realised the boar’s warning. High up above me the carved cherubs and angels that had hitherto posed serenely around the ceiling were swarming menacingly across the beams. They were gathering in small clusters here and there to prise free the painted stars and hurl them viciously down below. Wrenched from their decorative platform the stars flew to the ground as tiny rocks of molten fire. I stepped aside just in time as another plunged down and left a devastating scorch mark almost exactly where I had been standing.
“Look out above!” I called out hastily to my companions.
There was an alarmed screech from Horace and a weary groan from Michael as more stars hit the floor with a loud ping. Horace backed himself up against the far wall and tried to fit as much of himself as he could beneath his piece of piano lid. I backed into the relative safety of the fireplace. Unfortunately, stuck in the middle of the floor, Michael found himself somewhat isolated. Using the flat of his sword in the style of a cricket bat he managed to send one falling star pinging back in the direction from which it had come but, sensing blood, the cherubs and angels were now swarming malevolently in his direction.
I don’t consider myself to be a particularly heroic person by nature but at that point something instinctive took over. Catching hold of a couple of pieces of coal from the grate I took a step out of my fireplace and flung them upwards with all the strength I could muster. They crashed into the ceiling, shattering on impact. Just for good measure I followed it up with a cry of, “Over here you celestial bastards!”
The ploy proved devastatingly effective. Instantly every carving in the roof turned their heads towards me with a fierce glare. Trust me when I say that you have never seen a truly terrifying sight until you have been confronted with a dozen delicately carved cherubs scowling at you with all the venom they can muster.
There was just about time for me to call out to my companions, “Head for the door!” before a succession of scorching stars were launched in my direction. I scrambled back into the shelter of the fireplace just in time.
When the torrent of stars had died down momentarily I summoned up the courage to peek out for an assessment of the situation. On the one hand, my ruse had worked perfectly. Both Michael and Horace had managed to escape to the door at the end of the hall unharmed. On the other hand, I was beginning to see the drawbacks of not thinking a scheme through fully before putting it into practice. My rash enterprise had now brought every carving in the ceiling into a threatening semi-circle around the fireplace from where they glowered down aggressively.
It was clear that I was going to need a new plan for there seemed little hope of my getting to the door myself without some form of protection. I glanced around helplessly for a minute before I realised that I was still holding tightly to my brolly. Ignoring my mother’s frequent invocations against the perils of putting an umbrella up indoors, I opened it out and tentatively stretched my arm out from underneath the fireplace.
A shower of stars were immediately launched and ripped through the canvas covering with distressing ease. By the time I retreated to the back of the fireplace my brolly bore more resemblance to a sieve than an umbrella. Reluctantly, I returned the shattered remnants to my bag and looked for an alternative means of protection.
I was just beginning to despair when my eyes fell on the coal scuttle at the side of the fireplace. In an ideal world I should have examined the item carefully and thoroughly assessed its protective capabilities but by now I was rather running out of options. So I simply tipped out the few chunks of coal that lay in the bottom, said a small prayer to any deity that might have been listening and, tipping it upside down over my head, launched myself across the room.
Immediately I could feel burning stars crashing into the floor all around me. Every now and then a direct hit was scored on the upturned scuttle but the burnished metal was equal to the task and they bounced off with a painfully loud ping. Unable to see where I was going, I paused and peeked out just long enough to fix the doorway in my sights. Spotting Michael and Horace standing therein, beckoning frantically, I put down my head and ran for it.
With coal dust falling into my eyes I’m afraid my aim must have been ever so slightly off because after twenty or so paces I hit something with a painful thud. It turned out to be the doorframe. Fortunately I bounced off sideways, enabling Michael and Horace to reach out and drag me through the doorway. I heard the door slam shut, felt the breath of fresh air and realised with an enormous sense of relief that somehow we had made it out of the castle in one piece.