Chapter Four: The Battle Over London
"I don't understand why this is necessary," Thurston said as he was led along. Cumulonimbus was at his side, holding the end of a thin rope that was connected to the shackles on his wrists. "I didn't intend any harm."
"Whether you intended it or not you may well have caused harm. The Moon is dangerous."
"How can the Moon be dangerous?"
"In many ways that you do not understand."
Thurston was about to say that maybe if somebody would take the time and explain to him why the Moon was dangerous, or why he could not walk there as he wished, but before he could open his mouth he was pushed through a wall of cloud. He stumbled and tripped over, falling on his side as his umbrella slipped off his arm. Thankfully it was soft, and he did himself no harm, but the shackles were still upon his wrists, making it difficult to rise. When he had got back to his feet he saw that the cloud before him had reformed to take on the shape of a prison cell, with a small window through which he could see, though there were thick bars of cloud that prevented him from reaching through. Cumulonimbus stood on the other side, turned so he could see only the dull grey of their helmet.
"Well then if you won't tell me about the Moon then why not tell me about London. Why is it such a cause of panic among your people?"
"Do you honestly not know?"
"I didn't even know that this land existed before today."
Only silence. He turned to look at the confines of his cell, seeing that they had at least provided him with a bed that sprouted directly from the wall, forming a gentle looking shelf he could lie upon.
"What do you know of coal smoke?"
"Coal smoke. It forms a thick fog when it is concentrated so much in one place." There was a sigh from outside the door. "Have you ever been to London?"
"A few times, yes."
"Then you have seen the thick smoke that covers it?"
He frowned. Yes there had been a bit of a pea-souper some of the days he and his mother had visited, but that was nothing strange or unusual. "I mean it is a bit foggy," he said.
"What you think of as only fog has a more far reaching impact than you know. When the coal smoke climbs up to the clouds it twists them, changes them. Makes them into something unclean. And in that smog hideous beings spawn." He moved slowly to the door of the cell, leaning against it and trying to look out to see Cumulonimbus' face. "Ever since you had your Industrial Revolution we have faced the Smog that came with it. And they have waged war on us."
"That is horrible."
"London is the centre of the worst cloud smoke that can be found. Whenever we pass over it there is a battle. And now will be no different."
There seemed very little that Thurston could say. The sadness and resignation in Cumulonimbus' voice was plain to him, but he could find no words of comfort. He rested his cheek against the door and spoke softly. "I am sorry."
Before there was any response he heard a loud chattering from a short distance away, more of that strange cloud language he could not understand. Cumulonimbus responded in the same way, then moved away from the cell, replaced a moment later by a heavy-set cloud person with the same black face. A shock of white hair came out from underneath their helmet, curled into a thick braid.
"What's happening?" Thurston asked.
The cloud person's face twisted into an ugly smile. "Battle is happening. And I am stuck guarding the Englishman." He had heard that word pronounced many ways already, but this one sounded most like a curse. "I am not as nice as she was."
Discussion seemed to be at an end, so Thurston stepped back from the bars and went to sit on the cot. As soon as he sat he felt a great weariness seep into his body. It dawned on him that it was now very very late, and he had yet to sleep. There had been a great many revelations this day, and he had the feeling that there were more to come. Assuming he was released from his prison. He could hardly believe that he was only to make it this far in his quest.
But it would do no good at all to turn to despair, he told himself firmly. He was an Englishman after all, and in the face of adversity the Englishman did not break, he stood firm and tall. Or at least so his mother had always told him. Thus resolved to find some way to escape his captivity he laid his head down on the downy softness of the pillow and closed his eyes to sleep.
Thurston's awakening was rather rude and unpleasant.
He had been dreaming of something, though he could not remember, when all of a sudden the bed was swept out from under him and he was wakened by a tremendous banging. His eyes flew open to see that the cell was falling beneath him, and he was rising swiftly towards the ceiling, bouncing off it and falling back down as the floor suddenly rushed up to meet him again. He sank a short way into the floor before springing back up. He pushed himself to his hands and knees and tried to stand before another lurch sent him flying into the wall, where he rebounded again. This time he was able to get up and snatch his umbrella from the floor before the room shifted again, flinging him forwards into the door. He grabbed hold of the bars to steady himself, realising as he did that his wrists were no longer bound.
"What's happening!" He shouted.
There was no answer from outside, and indeed when he looked out he could see no sign of his jailers at all. The cloud palace around him had changed in colour he realised, from soft creamy white to a muted grey. And through the walls he could see electric sparks travelling. The booming around him continued, and he realised at once that it was the unmistakable crash of thunder. So this was how the Cloud People made war! It was certainly an impressive display.
If there was ever going to be a chance for his escape now was surely it, if only he could find a way to push through the cloud that was now before him. He stepped back and took his umbrella, prodding the door with the tip. It gave a little, maybe a centimetre or two, but then became solid and unyielding. And no matter how he pushed he could not force his umbrella all the way through. He switched his attention to the bars, threading the handle of the umbrella through and hooking it around the bar, then pulled hard. They didn't give at all.
Huffing in frustration Thurston scratched his temple and thought about the predicament. Clearly there was some way to push through the clouds and shape them, because otherwise he could not have come through in the first place. Maybe it was not a question of strength but of persistence. To this end he pressed both hands against the door and began to very slowly push at them. His hands sank in the first few centimetres, then stopped. He kept on pushing, trying not to force the door as he might with a door of wood or metal back home.
Unfortunately what Thurston had not realised, which was rather silly of him, is that only Cloud Fairies can manipulate the clouds. Perhaps he can be forgiven for his lack of understanding, for the rules of magical kingdoms are often very different from the laws of nature you are taught in English public schools. He may well have tried to push his door down forever, had fate not intervened. As he pushed he looked at the outside wall, and began to realise that it was darkening in colour, and the electricity beneath it was growing denser, then all at once streamed away. The hairs on his arms stood on end and he jumped back away from the door.
Not a moment too soon, as it turned out, for with an ear-splitting explosion the clouds before him entirely disappeared as a bolt of lightning struck them. The outer wall had an enormous hole blown through it, but the remnants of the bolt continued a little further and punched a hole into Thurston's cell, turning into nothingness before it reached him. With a shaking hand he reached up to rub his neck, and was surprised when a static shock jumped from his finger to his neck. He jumped a little and stared at the offending digit, before reaching again to smooth down the hair of his head, which was all standing on end. His hat had fallen off, so he snatched it up quickly and rushed to the hole.
It was just about large enough for him to climb through, so climb through he did, sliding the umbrella out first and then his arms, pulling his chest and hips and legs all out afterwards. His natural instinct was to make for the bigger hole in the outer wall, but he stopped very quickly when he got closer.
Far below. Far far far below. He could see the city of London. Or at least he supposed it had to be London. The dim glow of street lamps was all he could see, though even they were obscured behind a dark fog. Lightning crackled and jumped from somewhere beneath him, streaking down into the fog below. And as he peered closer he saw shapes in the fog. They flew here and about, almost too fast for him to even see. But if he looked very carefully he could see the armour-clad Cloud Fairies, sitting astride gusts of wind that were in an instant mighty stallions, then pouncing jungle cats, then multi-limbed monsters, and all throughout the Cloud Fairies rode them and lashed out with weapons formed from the same dense cloud-stuff.
And what they fought against, when he had finally trained his eyes to see what beings they were, made him pale with fear. He had imagined a war against other Cloud Fairies, but these things were not even close to the human-faced folk he had met. They were monstrous. In size ranging from a large dog right up to one monster cloud that moved slowly as he watched to reveal it would have stood taller than Big Ben's Tower were it on the ground. With too many and too few limbs, too many and too few heads and eyes and mouths and all manner of horrific disfigurations that twisted and moved formlessly in battle. The Cloud Fairies remained human shaped as they fought, and only their steeds changed, what they fought against changed and reformed at their very basest levels. Thurston couldn't imagine the horror of fighting such a creature.
Gulping he nervously straightened his hat and hooked his umbrella once more over his arm. He would not be able to leave through the wide hole in the castle wall, but he might be able to make his way back through the castle and find another way out while everyone was engaged in battle. For certain he was not going to remain a prisoner. He marched briskly back the way he had been led, finding not a soul on his walk. Unfortunately he had not been paying very much attention to their path from the throne room, and when he came to the first intersection found himself immediately quite lost.
A handy piece of advice, should you ever find yourself trapped in a maze (as I am sure happens all the time in your day to day life, as it does in mine): place your hand on either the left or the right wall, which one does not matter. Keep your hand on the wall at all times, when an opening appears you turn into the opening, when a corner presents itself follow the corner without taking your hand from the wall. It may take a little while, especially with the trickiest of mazes, but you will always find your way out. Thurston knew this as well, and so confidently placed his right hand upon the wall and began to walk, following the path it led him down.
A handy piece of advice, should you ever find yourself lost in a house or castle (as I am sure happens only very rarely to you): houses and castles are not mazes, and by following only one wall you may indeed find yourself outside, or you might find yourself walking into someone's bathroom, or up the stairs and changing your predicament from 'quite lost' to 'very lost indeed.'
Thurston stepped out onto a higher level of the cloud castle, where the billowing shapes opened out to open air, and realised he had managed to ascend quite a height, and was now some thirty feet above the clouds, looking down on them from some sort of balcony. Looking down he fancied that the clouds looked soft enough that jumping would be like landing on a pillow, but the solid mass beneath his feet put a lie to that assumption. And besides, there were events much more deserving of his attention as he stood there.
Below him, climbing steadily up the castle wall, were two of the Smog monsters that he had before only glimpsed from afar. As they drew closer he could see that they were even more horrifying than he had previously thought. They seemed to be formed out of cloud stuff, but it had been corrupted in some way. Something had crawled beneath the skin, making it pointed and jagged. Their eyes were a sickly yellow-green, their bodies a greenish-grey that reeked of sickness and pollution. Thurston backed away from the balcony as they continued to climb, covering his mouth with his hand and swallowing hard.
The two monsters reached his balcony and pulled themselves over the edge, surveying him with an animal curiosity. One towered over him by nearly a whole head-span, the other was slightly shorter than him, though much bulkier in the chest and arms. Both cocked their heads to one side like dogs as they looked him up and down. Before Thurston could decide between running or fighting though they walked to the castle wall and continued to climb on, leaving him there alone. He breathed out a long deep breath, and turned to go back into the castle.
From above there came a loud crack, and a flurry of water splashed down onto him. He looked up to see that the two Smog monsters had engaged a Cloud Fairy in battle. As he peered closer he realised that he recognised the form they clawed at. Cumulonimbus was astride a current of wind that for a moment seemed to have the form of a large fish, then of a horse, stamping at the Smog. Cumulonimbus herself was lashing at the monsters with a whip that sliced chunks of their bodies apart to blow away in the wind. Thurston could see that she was a very capable fighter, but even still she was overwhelmed.
One of the Smog monsters sliced through the air current she rode upon, sending her tumbling up into the air. The other monster lashed out and snatched her ankle, bringing her in close and opening its mouth wide. She waited until her head was almost inside the thing's jaws before her arm flashed and its entire lower jaw disappeared in a gust of wind. The monster screamed and bashed her against the castle wall three times, until her body was limp in its grasp. Then it threw her out and away from the castle.
There are moments when you have only a very short time to decide things. And it is in these moments that people often find the true measures of themself. For Thurston his moment went something like this:
He saw Cumulonimbus' body being tossed away
As she fell he thought he saw her move, alive though barely conscious
He found that he had suddenly left the comfort of the balcony and was moving through the air
Not that he remembered jumping, or even making the decision to jump. But nonetheless he found himself sailing through the air with his arms outstretched, reaching for Cumulonimbus as she fell. His umbrella was still over his arm, and as he soared through the air it bashed against his ribs. His hat spiralled off and away from him, and the wind pulled at his clothes, sending icy fingers down his shirt. They collided in mid-air, and all at once Cumulonimbus' weight began to drag them down to Earth. With a very little time to decide what to do, Thurston settled on seizing his umbrella and opening it over his head.
I fear I must take another moment to impart some wisdom to you dear reader. Opening an umbrella above your head will do very little to slow your fall. Please do not try to leap from the roofs of your houses with only an umbrella, such things do not normally work out very well.
But of course Thurston was not an ordinary Englishman with an ordinary umbrella falling through the air. He was an ordinary Englishman with an ordinary umbrella holding tight to a magical Cloud Fairy. And though Cumulonimbus was a little unsure about how she had ended up in his arms she quickly threw a gust of air upwards into the umbrella, where it did a far better job of slowing their descent. It was still a very rough landing for both of them, but they crashed into the cloud before the castle relatively unharmed.
As she got up Cumulonimbus elbowed Thurston in the ribs. "What are you doing!"
"You were falling," he said, propping himself up and feeling for his hat.
"Do you really think the air currents would let me fall?"
"Well." Thurston felt rather silly at that.
Cumulonimbus looked up, frowning. "I think we are past the worst. The current has carried us beyond London now."
"What about the Smog?" Thurston said, getting to his feet as well.
"It never ventures too far outside of London's borders."
"That is a small mercy."
"Small mercies are all we have had for a while."
She suddenly seemed to realise the fullness of the situation. "How did you get out of your cell?"
"Oh the battle knocked a hole right through it."
"And you decided to make your way to the King's balcony instead of running for your life?" Cumulonimbus' eyebrow was steadily rising up her forehead.
Thurston rubbed the back of his neck. "I got a little bit lost."
"Clearly." She reached to her belt and took out a long rope that crackled and sparked with static energy. Thurston recognised the shackles at once.
"Oh no you don't madam!" He backed away, trying to raise his hands, but his still-open umbrella caught on his trousers. "I am not going to be escorted back to a cell again."
The raised eyebrows swiftly became frowning eyebrows. "The King's orders were very specific. I am not going to defy them."
"He isn't my King."
Cumulonimbus rubbed her forehead, squeezing her eyes shut in a way Thurston found oddly reminiscent of his mother trying to stave off a headache. However that notion was quickly pushed to one side when he realised that one of the Smog monsters who had climbed the castle walls still remained, and now threw itself from the walls, heading directly for Cumulonimbus, who with her eyes shut was quite unaware of it. He threw himself forwards at once, and rugger-tackled her out of the way. The monster fell right where he had been standing, crashing right through the clouds and disappearing from sight.
They rolled apart, both staring at the hole in the clouds.
"You saved me," she said slowly.
Thurston shrugged, not quite sure of anything he could say without sounding pompous.
"Please follow me back inside. Let me talk to the King. I can at least keep you from a jail cell."
"As you wish." They stood and Thurston straightened his jacket and waistcoat. He reached to check for his hat before remembering that it had blown loose in the rescue attempt, and was now quite lost. His hair blew in the stiff wind that came off the castle and swept along the surface of the clouds. "Lead on."
And together they marched back into the castle.