EPISODE FOUR: ONWARDS
“We’ll have to go up and take a look.”
I gazed up the narrow shaft at the hatch which hovered about fifteen feet above our heads. “I’m not going up there. It’s dangerous.”
“We’ll just take a quick peek then.”
“It only takes a second to get your head shot off.”
“Well, how else do we work out which way to go?” demanded Michael.
I glanced along the grey, dank tunnel in which we were standing and sighed. That was not an easy question to answer. About ten feet from where we stood the tunnel forked, heading off in two different directions. There were no signposts, no markers, no notices. Just two bare passageways heading off into darkness.
This was what came of trying to play it safe. Following Sid’s instructions the journey from Havana had run pretty smoothly for two days. Until we had come to The War Zone.
To be strictly accurate it was actually a Zone of Several Wars, with a number of disparate battles and scraps being carried out in close proximity. The landscape of the imagination being home to a good number of conflicts, it was apparently quite common for them to cluster together in such fashion. It meant that by and large the fighters could get on with their squabbles without getting in the way of more peaceable landscape dwellers. Unfortunately, as our journey took us slap bang through the heart of the zone, it posed a not inconsiderable hazard.
However, a helpful battle surgeon thoughtfully took time out from patching up the casualties of a Napoleonic skirmish to point us in the direction of a series of tunnels that ran beneath the whole zone. This seemed to be the ideal solution for getting from one side to the other in one piece.
But then we had hit this fork in the road. Having trudged through dark, mouldy passages for the last few hours we had pretty much completely lost our bearings. And consulting Sid’s directions had offered no assistance as his notes related only to what was going on above ground. So now we were stuck. The only way to figure out which way to go would be to stick our heads above the parapet.
“After you then Redgrave,” I eventually said, nodding towards the ladder which ran up the side of the shaft to the hatch above.
“Why do I always have to go first?” complained Michael.
“Because I imagine it will be slightly less of a trauma for you to get your head blown off, given the fact that you are already dead.”
“You know you can really overplay that ‘I’m still alive’ card,” grumbled Michael. Nonetheless, he reluctantly grasped the lower rungs and slowly began to climb. I cautiously mounted the ladder behind him.
It took a hefty shove from Michael to get the hatch to open but eventually it gave way with a low groan. Immediately the dank smell of the tunnel gave way to a welcome breath of fresh air. Michael hesitated for a moment then warily poked his head up through the opening and looked around.
“It’s all clear,” he called down with just a hint of disappointment in his voice. He wriggled his shoulders up through the slender gap and then hauled himself through onto the ground beyond. I followed suit.
We found ourselves standing in the centre of a lush green valley, the ground sloping gently up to a blind ridge on either side. All that could be seen was a vista of cloudless sky and damp grass. No landmarks, no features and, indeed, no combatants anywhere in sight.
“Well, I’m glad that turned out to be a worthwhile climb,” I muttered.
Michael, though, was gazing thoughtfully up the slopes. “Shhh – can’t you hear something?”
I stared at the summit with a concentrated frown and listened carefully.
Suddenly, there it was. A low, steady rumble sweeping towards us from both sides, growing louder every moment. I found myself holding my breath as the ground beneath our feet began to tremble and shudder with the approaching storm. Then, just as the noise had reached almost deafening proportions, over the hill to either side stomped two massive armies. Each came to a halt at the top of their respective ridge, a vast impenetrable phalanx of chain mail, helmets and wooden shields glowering across the valley at one another.
“Now they don’t look too friendly,” I said, warily eyeing the vast array of swords, axes and blades glinting in the sun.
“But they should give us a clue to where we are,” said Michael. “Just let me check Sid’s notes.”
“Quickly, if you don’t mind,” I entreated, somewhat alarmed by the strident yell which issued from somewhere to our right.
As Michael reached for the leather map case in which he had tucked away the directions from Sid there was a rustle of movement, another shout and, with an almighty swoosh, a swathe of arrows launched from the rear of the army to our right and swept over our heads toward the opposition.
Whilst I was gazing upwards in awe there was an uncomfortably close twang and I turned to discover that a single arrow had fallen short and embedded itself in Michael’s map case just as he was in the process of opening it. He paused to examine his pierced case with a puzzled frown.
As a reciprocal volley of arrows flew overhead in the opposite direction I leaned over and pulled out the offending missile.
“You could have someone’s eye out with that,” I remarked, inspecting the deadly point with dismay. I tried to ignore the howls of pain that were now issuing from those unlucky enough to have been struck in the flesh by such a point.
With a shake of his head Michael finished opening the case and pulled out the map on which Sid had jotted his plan.
“So, where are we then?” I asked anxiously as Michael studied the paper.
“The Battle of Hastings, 1066,” he finally announced.
I tossed aside the arrow. “So which are the Saxons and which are the Normans,” I asked curiously, gazing along the serried ranks of disparate troops.
“They’re all mixed,” explained Michael. “This is an artistic dispute. William of Malmesbury’s account versus the Bayeux Tapestry.”
“Although Sid also noted that there are surrealist guerrillas operating in this area.”
“That’ll explain the pink giraffes in the cavalry.”
Just then both sides began to bash out an ominous drumbeat with their swords and axes on the back of their shields. I was immediately struck by the perilous nature of our current location.
“So, which way do we go then?” I asked urgently.
Michael continued to stare at his notes with an air of concentration.
The thudding drumbeat of axe against shield grew faster.
“I don’t want to hurry you but…”
“Got it!” exclaimed Michael. “If we take the right hand tunnel we should pass beneath two different versions of the Trojan War. Then take a left beneath the Battle of Agincourt from Henry V and that should bring us up just beyond a remote outpost of First World War poets.”
“Brilliant, let’s go then.”
My last words were drowned out by a succession of ear-splitting battle cries. Suddenly two thunderous sets of feet were charging down the slopes towards us.
As Michael hurriedly tucked away his notes, I hastily slid back down through the opening. I struggled for a second to find my footing on the slippery ladder. Once I was through, Michael passed down his map case and slithered down after me. He was halfway down the ladder before I remembered; “The hatch!”
He scurried back up and pulled it down. It clanged shut a mere millisecond before we were treated to the most almighty crash as the two armies thundered into one another directly above our heads.
I paused and breathed an enormous sigh of relief before sliding down the last couple of rungs to the floor beneath. Michael dropped down behind me and I passed him back the map case.
Affecting a cool that seemed quite inappropriate given the closeness of the shave, Michael wiped a single bead of sweat from his brow before marching off down the tunnel. “Right then, onwards!”
The ground beneath our feet had been rising almost imperceptibly for some time before a sudden turn found us unceremoniously ejected from the network of tunnels. We paused on the open ground, listening anxiously for any signs of trouble. But although there was a rumble of what appeared to be distant artillery the prospect ahead was mercifully free of combatants. So we struck out along the path with confidence.
Our mood was soon dampened though as the bright sunshine that had graced the Battle of Hastings had now given way to a persistent downpour. I may have been armed with an umbrella but it did little to keep me dry. The rain, denied an opportunity for direct attack from above, merely consoled itself instead with penetrating slowly from below, seeping into my shoes and soaking my socks. To be fair, my battered Converse were not perhaps the most appropriate footwear for the muddy track down which we were obliged to trek.
“Don’t worry, we shouldn’t be far from Stafford Harcourt now,” insisted a stoic Michael, consulting his notes once more. “Down this path for a bit and over a small stream and there we are.”
“Thank goodness for that,” I replied, wondering just how long it usually took for trench foot to set in.
Mist and low cloud hung all around us, obscuring any kind of view and filling me with a sense of claustrophobia far beyond anything I had experienced in the tunnels. Trudging endlessly on whilst the fog grew denser soon began to have a vaguely alarming effect on my mind. I started to fancy that we had stepped off the edge of some invisible map and were surrounded by a vast swathe of nothingness. The relentless drum of rain on my umbrella and the squelch of mud beneath my shoes combined into a rhythmical dirge, an appropriate accompaniment it seemed to me for a march to nowhere.
Under such circumstances then it was an undoubted relief when a row of battered cottages appeared alongside the track. All throughout our journey from Havana we had been conscious of Sid’s warnings about the ephemeral nature of the Explorer’s Club we were trying to track down. It never remained in one place for too long, it was prone to vanish without warning, once it was gone it would be nigh on impossible to pick up its trail. So all along we had been determined to keep on the move, hitching lifts wherever we could, snatching the briefest of naps and eating on the move. But now the thought of getting out of the rain for just half an hour was almost too much. I found my feet dragging slower and slower and my eyes staring hopefully in at gloomy windows.
I might still have resisted had I not spotted a faded sign above the door of the last cottage in the row which read, Bernard’s Imaginary Emporium – General Stores. I turned and looked inquisitively at Michael.
“I guess it wouldn’t hurt to stock up on a few provisions,” he eventually conceded. He pushed open the door to the satisfying jingle of the shop bell.
Inside I paused to shake out my umbrella, inadvertently stirring up an impressive cloud of dust in the process. The interior was oddly familiar, wearing that ‘junkyard after a hurricane has passed through it’ look that I recalled from Edward’s store back on the other side of Salzburg.
Michael cleared his throat. “Hello?” he called out.
A selection of crashes and bangs were audible from somewhere within the deepest recesses of the shop. “One moment, one moment,” a voice replied and then suddenly a figure burst out from behind a curtain that was hanging across a rear doorway.
For a moment I thought we must have fallen through an imaginary wormhole for my immediate reaction was that the figure that greeted us was in fact Edward, of Edward’s Imaginary Emporium. But a closer inspection revealed one or two subtle differences. Whilst they both had the same shock of white hair and faded green apron, this version was clean shaven and peered at us over a pair of half-moon spectacles.
“Customers!” he exclaimed with relish. “A most remarkable young couple. What can I get for you? Food? Drink? A towel?”
Michael brushed back his damp hair and shook his head. “We were just hoping to pick up a few provisions,” he explained.
“Provisions, certainly,” replied the shopkeeper, who I assumed must be the Bernard of the title. “You’ll find we cater for travellers of all descriptions here.”
“I guess you must,” I said, eyeing the rows of oddly assorted jumble with a raised eyebrow.
“Well, our location dictates that we should very rarely find ourselves marking the terminus of anyone’s journey,” remarked Bernard earnestly. “Therefore we must rely on passing trade. It is the hallmark upon which the Imaginary Emporium brand has been founded.”
“The Imaginary Emporium brand?”
“Ah yes, we have stores the length and breadth of the landscape,” said Bernard proudly.
“I think we must have visited one of your sister stores earlier,” I said. “You do look an awful lot like the shopkeeper we met there.”
“Ah, that’ll be the uniform.” Bernard smoothed out his apron with an air of satisfaction. “Now then, if I put you together a mixed bag of provisions, will that do you? You’re not too fussy, are you? Have you far to travel?”
As Bernard was firing out these questions he had already begun rummaging purposefully along the shelves.
“Not too far we hope,” replied Michael. “We’re trying to track down a friend. He was spotted at an office of the Explorer’s Club in Stafford Harcourt.”
Bernard sharply withdrew his head from deep within a box of battered tins. “The Explorer’s Club? Well, well, well. They haven’t been seen this far out for a long time. I’d advise haste in that case, they won’t stick around for long.” He immediately plunged his head back into another pile of assorted goods with renewed vigour.
“Surely they can’t really disappear completely without trace,” I countered hopefully. “Not if they have a whole office there.”
Bernard shook his head solemnly. “Oh, The Explorer’s Club are experts at covering their tracks, believe me.”
“Why?” asked Michael. “Just exactly what tracks do they need to cover?”
Bernard paused in contemplation of a dusty tin of pilchards. “Now, that I’ve never cared to find out. No concern of mine really.” He finally threw the pilchards into the bag with the other supplies he had dug out. “I tell you what I’ll do, I’ll knock you something off the tinned fish as I can’t speak for its freshness.”
Bernard delved beneath a desk in the corner and dug up an enormous dusty ledger. “Now, if you’ve visited our stores before I’m sure you’ll have already started a tab. What names is it?”
I told him our names and he flicked hastily through the pages of the ledger. “Ah, here we are,” he finally announced and began writing up the goods he had packed for us and their prices.
Once he had finished Bernard handed the bag of provisions to Michael and we prepared to leave.
“So, how were you thinking of getting across the canyon then?” Bernard casually asked when we were almost out of the door.
I turned around sharply. “Canyon?”
“Why, yes,” replied Bernard in surprise. “That’s quite an obstacle to get across before you come to Stafford Harcourt.”
I turned my gaze to Michael. He hastily dug out Sid’s instructions once again from his map case. “I swear there was nothing in the map about a canyon,” he muttered. He laid out the notes on Bernard’s desk and examined them with a furrowed brow. “Oh,” he said after a moment.
“Well, I suppose that could be a canyon,” Michael confessed doubtfully. “But it looked more like a stream to me.”
“You mistook a canyon for a stream?”
“It looks a lot smaller on the plan.”
“Of course it looks smaller on the plan,” I spluttered. “That’s called scale.”
“No but that perspective is all wrong, don’t you think?”
I turned to Bernard. “Just how big is this canyon exactly?” I asked.
“Oh, I’d say it must be about 500ft deep and at least 300ft wide.”
“I don’t suppose it has a bridge, does it?”
“Oh yes, of course there’s a bridge.”
I breathed a sigh of relief.
“It’s about fifty miles that way.”
I slumped against a shelf full of odd shoes and gazed hopelessly at Michael. But he only turned his attention back to Sid’s plan, shaking his head and muttering unhappily.
“There is always the cable car that runs from the castle,” said Bernard slowly.
“Castle Seelisch. It’s the home of Prince Louis, the chief local landowner. He has a private cable car that runs from this side of the gorge to the other.”
“How far is it to the castle?” I asked suspiciously.
“Oh, no more than a couple of miles.”
“Do you suppose there’s any chance we might persuade this Prince Louis to let us use his cable car?” asked Michael tentatively.
Bernard breathed in slowly. “Well, I dare say the Prince won’t turn you away straight off. He lives alone, with just his butler for company, so I do believe he’s quite welcoming of visitors.”
“But…,” Bernard coyly flicked at the dust on his ledger. “From all I hear he can be a touch temperamental. He’s very particular about his castle. He designed it himself, you see.”
“Then we’ll be sure to tell him just how wonderful it looks,” I suggested. “We can be very charming when we want to be.”
Michael threw me a dubious look.
“Alright, you can be very charming when you want to be,” I corrected myself. “Thank goodness your social skills are an improvement on your map reading skills.”
Michael raised a haughty eyebrow but chose not to rise to the bait.
“Well, if you’re certain you want to give it a try…” said Bernard hesitantly.
“I don’t think we have a choice if we want to get to Stafford Harcourt before the Explorer’s club disappears,” I replied. “But thank-you for your help.”
With a sigh and a shrug Bernard followed us out of the door to see us off.
As we trudged off into the mist I glanced back one last time and saw him muttering to himself in the doorway. I fear at that point though the rain must have got into my ears for I could have sworn I heard him murmur, “Such a lovely couple – what a shame.”
I shook my head to dislodge any excess water and ploughed on.