EPISODE FOUR: ONWARDS
When my jelly-like legs had solidified sufficiently to enable me to stand I got up and walked gingerly across the room. I put a hand on the door through which Prince Louis had exited and took a deep breath. On a nod from Michael I swung the door open and instinctively stepped back. But this time I found myself looking out onto a short stretch of corridor leading to a flight of stairs.
“What do you reckon?” I asked cautiously.
Michael shook his head unhappily. “Well, we can’t stay here. We’ll have to give it a go.”
I trod lightly forward, half expecting the floor to give way beneath my feet, but everything appeared still and quiet. It seemed that the castle, having flexed its powerful muscles, had now gone back to sleep.
We continued along the corridor and began to move cautiously down the stairs. I had managed about three steps when I became aware of the sound. I could almost feel it before I could hear it, a great dense rumble rising up from the bowels of the castle. I instinctively reached out to grab the banister, bracing myself for the worst, but it was too late.
Without warning, there was a sharp crack and the stairs suddenly flattened themselves into one long slippery slope.
I was pitched forward, slamming painfully down onto my right shoulder and proceeded to slide and spin uncontrollably all the way down to the foot of the stairs. It was only by the most unlikely of miracles that I somehow managed to avoid slamming head first into the wall directly opposite. Instead it was my backside that painfully took the brunt of the impact.
My colleague, careering down close behind, completed a full somersault before coming to an ungainly halt with his head tucked into his shoulders and his legs high in the air. We both lay there for a moment, exchanging pained groans, before I felt confident enough to attempt to sit up.
“Are you alright?” I asked warily.
Michael gingerly turned himself the right way up. “I think so.”
There was an odd sort of chortling noise and the walls shuddered slightly as though the castle itself had just giggled mischievously. Reluctantly realising that it would be pointless to try and punch a building I stood up instead with all the dignity I could muster and surveyed the way ahead.
We were faced with another fairly anonymous stretch of corridor that had several blank doors set along it. Once I had reset my bag on my shoulders and Michael had straightened his bow tie, we set off with one aim in mind – to find a way out.
Unfortunately, the first five doors we tried refused to budge. The sixth opened into a plain, square wood-pannelled room with no windows. There was nothing inside the room save for a lavish candle-lit chandelier hanging from the middle of the ceiling but there was another door directly across from us.
“Do you think this is the right way?” I asked Michael.
“I don’t know. It’s rather difficult to keep your bearings in a castle that keeps moving.”
We looked at each other uncertainly for a moment and then Michael took a step over the threshold. The room remained silent. Michael shrugged and began to stride across towards the door opposite. I followed.
We were almost directly in the centre of the room when our footsteps were halted by a rustling noise coming from one corner. “What is that?” I whispered in some alarm.
We both peered intently into the corner but it was difficult to make out anything in the dancing light of the candles above us. There was a sudden creak and a ripple in the floorboards snaked swiftly across from one corner of the room to the other.
Before I had time to contemplate what could have caused such an extraordinary effect the floor rippled back towards us. This time the ripple disappeared somewhere near our feet. There was a moments pause, then came an angry growl and suddenly a great, gaping mouth opened in the floorboards beneath Michael’s right foot and clamped it’s fearsome wooden teeth round his ankle.
“Aagggh!” Michael cried out in pain as the floor tugged menacingly at his leg. He struggled to shake the thing free but the more he pulled, the tighter the floor gripped him.
I was about to throw my weight in on the human side of this strange tug of war when I was distracted by a creaking sound from another corner of the room. I turned to see another ripple in the floorboards snaking its way at great speed across the room. As it disappeared somewhere in the region of my left foot I was struck by an urgent need to get my feet off the floor at once.
Unfortunately, the room being entirely devoid of furniture, the only thing I had to climb onto was Michael. I heard a disturbing growl from somewhere down below and scrambled up onto his back just seconds before another gaping mouth opened up in the floor. Having missed its prey by a millimetre the mouth stayed where it was, angrily snapping its vicious wooden teeth in frustration.
There was no time to stop and congratulate myself on having outwitted the floor. With Michael still busy trying to extract his right leg from the grip of the other set of teeth, I’m afraid he didn’t provide a particularly stable platform.
“Watch it!” I cried out, almost pitching head first over his shoulder.
“You’re not helping,” he muttered through clenched teeth in reply.
We seemed to have hit something of an impasse and its impossible to say how long we might have been stuck in this uncomfortable struggle had the flickering patterns of the candlelight across the floor not given me a plan.
“Hold still, I’ve got an idea,” I said.
Michael grunted in a manner that may or may not have been intended to indicate acquiescence. Regardless, I scrambled my way a little higher up onto his shoulders. Swaying precariously there, I reached up and grasped a candle from the chandelier.
Then, still clinging to my reluctant bearer with my left hand, I leant down and with my right waved the naked flame as close as I could to the second mouth that was still snapping ferociously behind us.
The floor growled aggressively for a few seconds but eventually the mouth reluctantly retreated to a corner of the room. It stopped there, snapping sulkily from a safe distance.
“It’s working!” I cried triumphantly. I slithered down from Michael’s back and planted my feet once more upon the floor. Then I leant down and swung the candle towards the mouth that was clamped implacably around his ankle.
“What the hell are you doing?” called out Michael in concern, as the flames licked dangerously close to his trousers.
“I’m frightening it away,” I told him. “Don’t you see? Wood burns.”
“So do I!” he yelled in alarm as my arm swung back and forth.
But the tactic was working. The floor yelped in anguish and suddenly the teeth parted and Michael was able to pluck his leg free.
As the mouth backed off with an unhappy growl I cried, “Let’s go!” Still waving the candle menacingly as I went, we staggered towards the door. The wooden teeth gnashed and growled but kept their distance from the flame. Somehow we managed to lurch through the exit and I gratefully slammed the door shut behind us.
Having swiftly ascertained that the new floor upon which we were now standing was tiled and not wooden, I allowed myself to sink down upon it with relief. Michael collapsed beside me and I turned to check on his injured ankle. At first glance the combination of shredded trouser and bloody flesh did not look good. But a closer inspection revealed that the damage was not quite as extensive as I had feared. None of the bite marks were too deep and, after I had carefully removed one or two splinters and graciously applied one of my own damp socks as a bandage, Michael consented to stop moaning in quite such a dramatic fashion.
It was only once this duty was completed that I felt able to direct my attention to examining our new surroundings. It seemed that we had pitched up in some sort of music room, for the place was dotted with instruments of all description. As my eyes scanned the room I was startled to note that it also contained a fair-haired man of about 30 who was regarding us with mild curiosity. I was equally startled to note that the grand piano at which he was seated was smashed in two.
“Er, hello,” I said, scrambling to my feet.
“Hello. I see the floor got you,” he replied, nodding casually towards Michael’s patched up ankle. “You did well to get away. That room can be very tenacious once it gets hold.”
“Do you live here?” asked Michael as we both cautiously approached the stranger.
“Not exactly. My name is Horace William Hart, I’m Court Composer to Prince Louis. I come here to make music.”
“What happened to your piano?” I asked.
“Prince Louis and I had a slight disagreement over the third act of my latest opera.”
“Prince Louis smashed your piano in two?” said Michael incredulously.
“Not directly. But, well, things do tend to get a bit messy around here when he gets upset,” replied Horace with a rueful grin.
“It’s not really Prince Louis’ fault,” insisted Horace. “He’s just not very good at expressing his emotions. The castle sort of feeds off that. I blame his upbringing personally.”
“Brilliant,” I murmured. “We’re at the mercy of an emotionally stunted aristo with a passive aggressive castle.”
“What did you two do to upset him anyway?” asked Horace. “I could hear some ferocious rumbling from down here.”
“We didn’t really do anything,” asserted Michael. “But he seemed to take it very badly when we told him we couldn’t stay to see the sun rise through his stained glass windows.”
“Oh dear,” Horace shook his head mournfully. “He doesn’t take rejection very well.”
“So how do you deal with his moods?” Michael asked.
“The only thing you can do is keep your head down and wait for things to blow over,” replied Horace. “He’ll calm down sooner or later.”
“How much later?” I asked with a frown.
Horace thoughtfully tinkled at the keys of his shattered piano for a moment. “Well, given that he was already on edge about the opera, I would say we’d better stay put for at least forty-eight hours.”
“Forty-eight hours?” Michael and I spluttered in unison.
“Oh, don’t worry – Jenkins will see that we get fed,” replied Horace breezily. “He’s the butler. He’s been with Prince Louis since he was a child, he’s pretty much immune to the effects of the castle.”
“But we have to get across the canyon as soon as possible,” I said. “We need to get to Stafford Harcourt.”
“We had hoped we might be able to use Prince Louis’ cable car,” added Michael.
“Oh, I shouldn’t trust the cable car to work when he’s in this sort of mood,” said Horace.
I slumped dejectedly against a cello case. “I don’t believe it,” I muttered. “All that and it looks like we’ll still have to hike to the bridge. I guess we can wave goodbye to Sturridge for good.”
Michael, apparently having nothing comforting to offer in reply, sank onto a nearby stool and rubbed unhappily at his wounded ankle.
Horace tinkled again for a moment or two at his piano keys. The notes rang hollow against the splintered wood. “Is it really so important you get across the canyon?” he eventually asked.
“It’s our only chance of catching up with our friend,” I replied earnestly.
Horace sighed unhappily. His eyes flicked from me to Michael to his shattered piano. He seemed to be considering whether anything was worth the risk of ending up in the same condition as his wrecked instrument.
“Is there nothing you can do?” asked Michael plaintively.
“What about the butler – Jenkins, was it?” I suggested. “Couldn’t he get the cable car working?”
Horace shook his head uncertainly. “He tends to keep his head down at times like these too,” he said.
“Why do you put up with this?” I asked him wearily. “There must be easier ways of making music.”
Horace glared miserably at his piano. “You try composing for the municipal orchestra. Then you’ll see that a wealthy patron is always welcome, no matter how capricious.”
“Look at the state of your piano. That’s not capricious, that’s psychotic!”
Horace shrugged glumly. “A true artist must be prepared to suffer for their art.”
“It’s all very well giving everything to your art,” added Michael in a more gentle tone. “But you have to stand up to bullies, no matter what.”
Horace stared intently at his piano keys.
I sensed a weakening of his resolve.
“Come on,” I coaxed. “If you could just show us the way to the cable car…”
Horace shook his head uncertainly.
“Perhaps what Prince Louis really wants is someone who is prepared to stand up to him.”
“Imagine what you could achieve with a wealthy patron who shows you some respect,” added Michael.
Horace’s eyes gleamed momentarily. “Alright then,” he said slowly.
I peeled myself away from the cello and stood up straight. Michael unfurled himself from the stool and gingerly hobbled forward on his bad ankle. Horace got up from behind the piano and took a deep breath. He pointed out a side door that was obscured behind a set of drums. “If we go that way we can avoid any more wooden floors,” he suggested.
We all moved forward. However, Horace had taken no more than three steps towards the door before he darted back to the piano.
“Oh come on Horace,” I complained. “You can’t give up before you’ve even started.”
But Horace simply buried his head into the midst of the shattered remnants of the grand piano. There was a loud crack and he emerged holding a snapped-off piece of piano lid which he brandished as a makeshift weapon. “Ready now,” he said and stepped towards the door.
Michael laid a reassuring hand on his sword and followed after him. I stopped and looked around for a moment, feeling suddenly rather exposed. Then I remembered my umbrella. I pulled it out of my bag and scurried after them. My brolly may not be much but right now it was all I had between me and a psychotic castle.