EPISODE FOUR: ONWARDS
The rain was streaming down harder than ever as we headed back out along the muddy path that we hoped would lead to Castle Seelisch. After forty-five minutes we got our first view simultaneously of both the Castle and the canyon we would have to cross, looming out of the mist ahead of us. The Castle stood on a rocky outcrop on the very edge of a dizzying drop that seemed to make Bernard’s estimate of 500ft seem rather conservative.
If the location alone was dramatic enough, then the Castle made a sterling effort to live up to its situation. The bright sandstone walls stood out starkly against the gloomy clouds that circled around. A sturdy base spiralled up into a twisted tangle of turrets and towers; rather like a German Expressionist take on a Disney classic. Beneath the slanting rain and enveloped by the swirling mist it presented a somewhat foreboding appearance. But if the alternative was a hundred mile round trip to get to the bridge across the canyon I was prepared to take my chances.
We turned up the path that led along the edge of the gorge before arriving at the foot of a pair of enormous wooden gates. To one side hung a thick rope above a small neat sign marked, ‘Castle Seelisch; Ring for Attention’. Michael pulled on the rope.
We had almost given up hope of a response when a small door within the gates opened and a short, round figure in a tailcoat stepped out. His plump, red face bore the expression of someone who has long since ceased to expect anything good to come of life.
Before either of us had chance to speak he directed his unhappy glance upwards. “It’s raining,” he remarked glumly.
“Yes, it is,” I replied, unable to think of anything better to say in response.
The butler (for I suspected this must be him) fixed his grey eyes upon us. “I suppose you’ll be wanting to come in then.”
“Yes please,” said Michael eagerly as the rain continued to drip remorselessly down on us.
The butler sighed loudly. “I warn you, His Highness is in a bit of a mood,” he announced.
“What kind of a mood?” I asked.
“He’s been sulking in the West Tower for the best part of the morning.”
“Does that mean we can’t come in then?” asked Michael disappointedly.
The butler sighed again. “I’d not turn anyone away when it’s raining,” he said. “But you’ll have to take your chances.”
“That’s fine by us,” I replied quickly. I could feel large drops of water sneaking surreptitiously down the back of my neck and my jeans seemed to have absorbed so much moisture they had almost doubled in weight. Under such circumstances I didn’t feel inclined to concern myself unduly over a moody Prince.
“Please yourselves.” The butler shrugged his shoulders and gestured for us to follow him through the door in the gates. So, after a certain amount of awkward stooping, most notably on the part of Michael, we entered Castle Seelisch.
We followed the butler as he waddled across a sheltered courtyard, up a seemingly endless flight of stone steps and along a series of snaking corridors before he finally deposited us in a grand hall.
“If you wait here I’ll see if His Highness will stop moping long enough to come down and see you,” he announced with a sniff before waddling out again.
I gazed around the room in awe. It had been clearly designed to impress. The ceiling was almost impossibly high and was dotted with an assortment of carved angels and cherubs gambolling amongst painted stars. There was a minstrels gallery at one end and above the large fireplace a trio of boar’s heads looked down with oddly apprehensive expressions.
I suddenly felt remarkably self conscious about my rather bedraggled appearance. Glancing across I noticed that Michael was busy brushing flecks of mud from the sleeves of his jacket and smoothing back his damp hair. I tried to distance myself from the small puddle that seemed to have gathered at my feet only to discover that a new one rapidly appeared wherever I chose to stand.
I was just wondering whether I might have time to hastily wring out my dripping socks into the burnished coal scuttle by the fireplace when the doors were flung open and in strode Prince Louis. He was about forty, tall and lean, wearing an exquisitely tailored three piece suit. Everything about him was immaculately groomed, from the inch perfect parting in his slick hair to the perfectly manicured fingernails on each hand.
He marched directly into the centre of the room and stood perfectly still while he inspected us intently. For an awful moment I thought he was going to turn up his nose and march straight back out again but eventually he relaxed his features into something approximating a smile.
“Welcome to Castle Seelisch,” he announced grandly. “I am Prince Louis Wilhelm Edward the Third, Crown Prince of Westerstein and heir to the Duchy of Monoravia.”
Michael bowed smartly and introduced us both. I couldn’t decide whether I ought to bow or curtsey and so ended up making a move somewhere between the two which I rather fear gave the impression I had been struck by sudden stomach cramps. Prince Louis took no notice.
“It is always a delight to welcome visitors to my Castle,” he said grandly.
“It’s delightful to be here,” I replied gratefully, thinking primarily of the rain which was no doubt still falling in bucketfuls outside.
Prince Louis began pacing regally around the room. Michael and I shuffled uncertainly after him.
“Castle Seelisch was designed and built to my very own specifications,” the Prince declared proudly as he walked. “It stands on the site of the ancestral home of the Westerstein Princes but it is all my own work. I have always felt that a residence should reflect the personality of its Lord and master.”
“Most commendable,” interjected Michael.
“Indeed,” said the Prince. “It is a project that has consumed my working life every day since I took up my inheritance and it continues to develop even now. You might call it my life’s work.”
“Fascinating,” I said, wishing my feet didn’t squelch quite so much as we walked.
“This fireplace, for instance, has been constructed using only the finest local sandstone and very expensively imported marble. It was modelled on a design of my own which was inspired by a local fairy tale.”
We all paused to admire the grandiose fireplace. As Prince Louis looked up I could have sworn that for just a moment the three Boar’s heads mounted above the mantelpiece actually cowered beneath his gaze. The prince nodded with a benign satisfaction at the beauty of his own creation and moved on.
“The minstrel’s gallery,” he continued, turning towards the end of the room, “is a tribute to the folk songs of my childhood…”
And so it continued. Prince Louis conducted us around every inch of the room, commenting on each aspect of design and decoration. Almost everything it seemed had its roots in some recollection of his childhood; the sculpted cherubs were based on images from a picture book, the Boar’s heads were mementoes of the first hunt he had been taken on. Even the polished finish to the floor was designed to evoke an ice rink at a local fair. All the way round I searched for an opening in which to bring up the urgency of our mission to get across the canyon but the Prince barely paused to draw breath. Even Michael was flummoxed by the uninterruptible flow of talk from our host.
I thought our chance had come when Prince Louis led us out of the door and into the corridor. But he found enough to discuss in the architecture of the corridor to keep us occupied until he had turned into a door on the right which introduced us to the library. After the library came a drawing room and after the drawing room another, slightly smaller, hall. And all the while I felt time slipping inexorably away and Sturridge receding gradually into the distance.
Eventually, with Michael and I throwing one another increasingly desperate glances, our tour brought us to a gallery in the East Tower. It was a thin, narrow room that, in common with much of the rest of the castle, was decorated in a schizophrenic mix of styles. The lower half of the walls remained a bare sandstone, while the upper were painted with a succession of swirling patterns in a stark mix of red and green. There was not much in the way of furniture but the main feature of the room was undoubtedly the three stained glass windows set within the right hand wall, decorated with a hodgepodge of brightly coloured heraldic symbols.
“Now this is my latest master work,” announced Prince Louis, striding proudly along the length of the gallery. “These windows were installed by the finest local craftsmen working to my own design. You must come up close to see the full majesty of the pattern – you won’t see a finer finish anywhere in the landscape.”
I gazed with what I imagined was the appropriate air of reverence at the nearest window. There was certainly no doubting the skill involved in its construction; I just couldn’t fathom why anyone would want to apply such craftsmanship to such a hideous design.
“Of course, it requires the sun to get a complete picture of the beauty of the windows,” continued Prince Louis regardless. “You will doubtless get a better view when you catch it at sunrise in the morning. The light throws the most extraordinary patterns on the floor of the gallery.”
Prince Louis calmly moved on whilst Michael and I gaped in bemusement after him.
“Excuse me?” said Michael.
“Sunrise?” I said.
“Of course, the design is such that it really is at its best first thing in the morning. I appreciate it can be a chore to draw oneself away from the bedclothes so early but it truly is worth the effort,” announced the Prince benignly. “Now, the design on the walls…”
“Just a minute!” I burst out.
Prince Louis whipped around and stared at me with an astonished indignation. Just at that moment there came a violent crack of thunder directly overhead which unnerved me even further. But somehow I managed to regain my composure.
“We can’t stay here till tomorrow,” I said.
Prince Louis’ look softened ever so slightly. “Do not concern yourselves,” he replied dismissively. “Jenkins can set up one of the guest bedrooms for you. He’ll even dig you out some suitable attire for the evening.” His eyes passed momentarily over my still sodden jeans and muddy Converse before he turned back to the garish patterns on the walls. “Now, this design…”
“I’m sorry.” Michael stepped forward with a look of determination. “But we just haven’t the time to stay overnight.”
“To be perfectly honest we shouldn’t have stayed this long,” I added in what I hoped was a suitably regretful tone. “We have to get across the canyon to Stafford Harcourt as soon as possible.”
Prince Louis whipped round again. He now stood with his hands clasped tightly behind his back as though he were afraid of what they might do if he let them loose. “But you came for a tour of the castle,” he said in an ominously quiet voice.
“Actually, we just came to ask if we could use your cable car to get across the canyon,” Michael explained ruefully. “We are in a bit of a hurry.”
The Prince juddered for a moment as though someone had just sent an electric charge through him. “How dare you?” he began with an evident effort at self-control, “Come to my castle pretending an interest in the art and architecture…”
“To be fair, your highness, we never expressed any such interest,” I replied as reasonably as I could. “If you’d have let us get a word in edgeways we would have told you why we here straight off.”
There was another crack of thunder, followed almost instantly by a flash of lightning.
Michael held up his hands in an effort to smooth things over. “I’m very sorry if we gave you the wrong impression…” he began.
But it appeared the Prince had risen rapidly to boiling point. He now resembled a can of fizzy drink that had been violently shaken and was waiting to explode upon the slightest release of pressure. “Of all the ungrateful…” he spluttered. “When I think that I was about to illuminate these delicate patterns for you in all their detail.”
I’m afraid my expression may have given away just exactly what I thought of his delicate patterns.
Prince Louis juddered and glared for another moment. Then he cried out, “Philistines!”, did a sharp about turn and marched out of the gallery through the door at the opposite end.
Once the door had slammed shut behind him the gallery was filled with a stunned silence.
Michael slumped into a nearby chair. “So much for tact and charm,” he murmured.
“What did I say?” I protested. “I was politeness itself. It’s not my fault he went off like that.”
Yet another crack of thunder seemed to roll right around the exterior of the castle.
Michael gave me a pointed look. “Well, it doesn’t matter whose fault it is, the result is the same,” he complained. “A long trek to the bridge.”
I stared for a moment at the stained glass windows and a thought gently seeped into my brain. “Prince Louis didn’t actually say that we couldn’t use the cable car though, did he?”
I looked at Michael. Michael looked at me. Slowly his eyebrow raised.
“I suppose…” he began before stopping himself. “Though we don’t even know where it is. And I’m not sure running after Prince Louis and asking him would be a good idea.”
I thought for a moment. “We could always try the butler,” I suggested. “He seemed helpful enough – in a depressed sort of way.”
Michael sat and considered for a moment. “I suppose he must be still about downstairs somewhere. It can’t hurt to have a quick look for him,” he eventually said as he stood up.
“And it sure beats sitting here, staring at these hideous walls,” I added.
As I turned towards the door the room was hit by the most extraordinary rumble of thunder that I had ever experienced. It seemed to shake through the entire building from top to bottom. I stood frozen for a moment until my body stopped shaking and my ears stopped ringing. Then, more determined to get out of this extraordinary place than ever, I stepped forward and grasped the handle of the door by which we had entered.
If I hadn’t been so focused on getting out as quickly as possible I might have noticed that, after making an initial move to follow me, Michael had stopped and was staring around the room with a puzzled expression. But I had already swung the door open and taken a step forward by the time he darted after me with a cry of, “Wait!”
That step should have landed safely on the floor of the corridor from which we had entered the gallery. But somehow the corridor had contrived to disappear.
I was struck by an icy blast of wind and I found myself swaying precariously over a dizzying drop of a hundred feet or more, the vertiginous castle wall plunging away to a rocky gully down below. I scrabbled frantically in an effort to grab hold of the door or the doorframe or anything to stop my fall, but my momentum was carrying me forward.
Just as I was approaching the point of no return, where gravity would take over and drag me to a very messy end, I felt a sudden tug at the waistband of my jeans.
Michael had just managed to grab a hold of my belt and, with a desperate heave, he yanked me backwards. We swung precariously in the doorway for just a moment before collapsing in a heap together back into the room.
It took a few moments before I recovered my breath sufficiently to disentangle myself from my rescuer. I sat up and stared, open-mouthed, at the void into which I had very nearly disappeared.
“What the hell?” I eventually managed to splutter. “Who stole the rest of the castle?”
Michael stretched out one of his long legs and used it to push the door shut. “I don’t think it’s gone,” he said slowly. “It’s just moved. Look at the room, it’s completely changed shape.”
I turned around and saw that, from being a long, narrow gallery, the room in which we were sitting had somehow mutated into a square box-like shape. All the features and decoration appeared to have accommodated themselves around this adjustment; the stained glass windows had bunched up together on one wall, whilst the painted patterns had spread out on another.
“So, that thunder…?”
“Wasn’t thunder at all,” suggested Michael. “It must have been the castle moving.”
I looked around the room again, half hoping this could be just some kind of extraordinary optical illusion but there was no doubting the proportions of the room had changed utterly.
“Did you happen to notice,” Michael continued in a thoughtful voice, “how the thunder only started when Prince Louis began to get annoyed?”
I cast my mind back. “You think he did this?” I asked incredulously.
“Who else could have caused it? And everyone did try and warn us that he was a bit temperamental.”
“Jesus, that’s one hell of a mood!”
Michael merely shrugged.
“What do we do now then?” I asked.
“Find another way out of the castle, I guess,” replied Michael.