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Taking the Train to Echoff

by Ásgrímur Hartmannsson

The stewardess had vertically slit eyes like a cat. Otherwise, she looked normal. She resembled one of my co-workers; both were about middle age, slightly overweight, blonde. But my co-worker didn’t have vertically slit eyes. I tried to ignore her as best I could. I just drank my coffee in peace, and tried to enjoy reading the Saga boutique brochure. It was colourful, but the plot was sorely lacking.

I landed in Vienna and stayed the night. Beer and hotdog country. I didn’t go for the breakfast-included deal, so that was basically my breakfast at some hole-in-the-wall place. It was either that or kebab but, in my mind, kebab is hangover food. Or something one eats while actually drunk. I cannot for the life of me tell you how it tastes. They say the rattier the kebab place is, the better the kebab. I can’t say.

I went and bought a pocket knife, mainly to open bottles and other things. I always do, I find it necessary to have a knife on me, and officials don’t like them on planes. I have quite the collection now. Then I went to the amusement park to see the Ferris wheel. You can’t just drop into Vienna and not ride the Ferris wheel; that borders on sacrilege. The spirit of Arnold Schwarzenegger will haunt you if you skip it.

I took the train to Graz, to look that place over for a couple days. It is an ornate city, full of beer and kebab. Had pizza at some Turkish place. The owner was sitting outside when I arrived, drinking beer.

I headed to Innsbruck next, but with one stop. I had been told to check out a place called Echoff; it was somewhere in the Alps on the way there. I had the directions all written down in my notebook and would have referred to it now, but I had lost it. I’ll get to that later.

My co-travelers looked normal enough: an older couple with hiking gear. I felt a stab in my toe all the time they sat across from me, so I checked under the table, and saw they had bird feet with some talons that were stabbing through my shoes. I moved my feet closer and examined them better. But other than their feet, all seemed normal.

I had traveled through Chocolate box-art country for a while when I came to the train station. I hopped off and had a look around. Sure enough, the track to Echoff was there, away from the regular tracks. I couldn’t see any castle in the hills. I guessed it was farther away than I’d been led to believe. And there wasn’t anybody else there but myself and the guy I had bought the ticket from. He had little to add to my knowledge.

The train was an old and rattly thing; three cabs and a rusty old diesel electric engine. Some of the windows had cracks in them. The entire cabin where I sat had cracks in it. I was the only passenger. That was interesting.

The tracks led in between the trees, where they were hidden from view, and into a tunnel, where it took a rather sharp turn before emerging on the other side, now going the opposite direction. It headed up a steep incline, into a valley high in the mountains, and rattled on until I finally saw my destination: Castle Echoff.

I hadn’t been told it was a castle. I’d been led to believe it was a small town. But then, no one never told me what was supposed to be there, just that it was interesting. And I’m all for interesting things. But it was a large castle, not just some mountain outpost. It was a proper walled fortress with a few lookout towers and battlements that looked like they were made of Legos.

The train rattled inside though a gate and stopped right in front of “Hotel Echoff.” That was convenient. I jumped out and had a look around. The hotel was quite a structure: five storeys high, as far as I could tell, as high as the castle wall, and situated at the end of the castle. I thought the view from the other side would be great, which it turned out to be.

I got a room on the top floor in the otherwise empty hotel, and I could see far into the empty valleys. I was rather surprised to see the trees, as I had expected this to be a ski resort, considering the size of the hotel structure.

About a foot below the window was a carved rock gutter for channeling rainwater. I figured that I could use it to sneak from my room to the next one or wherever else it would lead, if I were completely mad. The room was large and adequately equipped, but the furnishings were of a medieval sort. I left my luggage there, what little I had, and went outside to have a better look at the Castle Echoff.

There was a a fairly roomy, Gothic-looking chapel and a restaurant, where I later had some hotdogs that I suppose were made of beef; they tasted like they were. And accommodations for those who took care of the place; a dining hall and the usual castle stuff. The top of the walls could be accessed via some stairs; I counted three of them, one was wooden. Of course I, an acrophobe, had to take that one. A glutton for punishment, me. But the view from there was worth the climb. I walked around the entire edifice, occasionally looking down between the battlements.

After dinner, night fell and I retreated to the hotel to read something before sleep. I may have hit the lager a bit too hard, or maybe it was the blue stuff — Gletcher something or other — that I had after dinner. Anyway, the room insisted on rotating slightly as I lay there and just couldn’t sleep.

I decided to go for a little walk in the moonlight. It was chilly in the night. I got my jacket on, which I hadn’t needed since I landed in Austria, and exited the room.

The plan changed as soon as I came to the stairwell; I heard some voices and scurrying below. I had a look, and there I spotted a couple of gargoyle-looking figures coming around carrying spears. They looked pretty militant to me, so I headed back to the room. And they came right after me, with an unnerving spring in their step. I closed the door and locked it, wondering what was up with that. The pink elephants didn’t show up that soon, could they?

Pink elephant-related or not, they were rattling the door handle. Then they proceeded to bang on the door. It was a flimsy door, and I thought they would soon be inside. I looked around for a weapon, but there was only that chair, and I didn’t want to use only a chair to fight a couple of evil-looking, spear-carrying gargoyles.

I decided to flee. Out the window I went and onto the gutter. I couldn’t see the ground below in the dark, and that was marginally better. I could imagine the ground being just a few feet below. I leaned against the wall and slowly stepped away from the window.

The creatures broke through and entered the room. It didn’t take them long to realize that I wasn’t in there anymore. Then they looked out the window. First down, then to the sides. They spotted me. I grinned at them and tried to move away faster. The first gargoyle climbed silently out to the sill and advanced on me, dropping the spear in the process. It disappeared into the dark. I could hear it clanging some vast distance below.

The other gargoyle vanished. I thought it would try to get at me through another window, so I hurried. Luckily the gutter was wide enough to provide footing. Sure enough, the other gargoyle appeared in the next window, poking its spear out. But it had underestimated my speed and emerged between me and the other one. The other gargoyle hissed, and grabbed at the spear that poked out just in front of it. It lost its footing and disappeared into the dark. That was less comforting than it sounded.

I came to a corner where the gutter ended. I peered into the dark and saw a platform below. It was a balcony for some residential apartment. Maybe the prince who used to live there, or the baron or whoever. I made the jump, and came down on a table. I rolled off it rather clumsily, and limped to my feet. There was just something about being in a dark castle castle full of monsters that made me averse to sitting still. Now, how to get from the balcony?

There was a door. It was either that, or climb down the wall like Spiderman, and I wasn’t equipped for that. Luckily, the door was unlocked. I crept inside. It was nearly pitch dark, and I could barely see more than the outlines of the furniture. On the bed, I could see a couple of red orbs glowing, leering at me. And nothing else.

A gravelly voice from the orbs’ direction: “Wer bist du?

We looked each other in the eyes. Then I fled. Luckily, I did not have to unlock the door. I guess the occupant wasn’t scared of gargoyles.

I followed the wall and moved as fast as I could, half-limping. I arrived at some stairs just as I heard whoever was there emerge from their room and come after me. Unfortunately, the stairs led upwards, but it was either that or go and chat with some guy with glowing red eyes, and I just wasn’t in the mood.

I found myself on top of the wall. I hurried along it, found one of the stairs leading down, and was about to climb down when I noticed a couple of oddly-jointed creatures start climbing up it. I hurried away. I seemed to remember some flagpoles by the gate. I headed there. And sure enough there were two flagpoles, complete with some thin rope. I took out my trusty pocket knife that I had bought in Vienna and cut the ropes. I quickly tied them together and threw the end over the balcony, tying the other to the battlements. One has to appreciate battlements.

I seem to have managed to climb over unnoticed because, when I was over the battlements, I could hear the gargoyles pass by slowly. I carefully lowered myself down, my hands burning more and more. Then I ran out of rope. I looked up, and saw the gate above. Below was quite black. I wondered how far it was down. I let go.

The ground was less than a couple of meters below me. I came down feet first and landed on my back. I assumed the gargoyles had heard me. I hurried to my feet and headed into the woods. From there I headed downhill.

I could hear them sometimes, skulking about somewhere around, looking for me as I moved from tree to tree, careful not to fall into some ravine. The sun was coming up when I found the train tracks, and I followed them to the nearest stop. Which was where I’d gotten off the day before.

I didn’t go back for my luggage; nothing in it but clothes. And they were worthless, at least in monetary terms. I had my wallet and travel documents in the jacket, so I was set.

I don’t know why people recommended going to Echoff. Did they not like my looks? Or had they never spent the night there? Are you avid for some Alpine scenery? At Echoff, red-eyed haunts and spear-toting gargoyles are included in the tour.

Copyright © 2020 by Ásgrímur Hartmannsson

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