Like a hunter who had flushed its prey from hiding, the gory maiden let out a horrid screech and burst into a run towards the carriage. The terrified Greys screamed and tossed their heads, bolting forward into the darkness. Charlie’s top hat took flight as the cold breeze turned to a freezing gust under the burst of horsepower.
“What in God’s sacred Creation was that creature?” Earl Baumgart shouted above the deafening rumble of the carriage as it bumped and rattled away at full speed down the rugged road. The spooked horses were at a full sprint now.
“I don’t know, sir,” Charlie replied, fighting to regain control of the petrified team. “But we’re safe away!”
Charlie twisted his head and looked down the path, seeking reassurance that the wild girl straggled far behind them in the growing distance. Earl Baumgart also turned round in his bench seat but the road behind them was nothing more than a gaping black void in the night.
“Yield, my lads!” Charlie pulled firm on the lines.
But the horses did not give.
Charlie arched his back and threw his whole body behind the reins once more. “Yield, boys! Yield, I say!” The team ignored his order and, instead, returned his efforts with a fresh burst of speed. A second flash of panic sparked in his gut.
“Verdammt!” Baumgart shouted.
Charlie’s head whipped around. The breath whooshed from his lungs. There was the girl, clinging one-handed to the wheel’s mudguard, scratching and clawing her way up the side. Her legs dragged limply over the speeding ground under her, shredding the skirts and skin into bloody, tattered swags of flesh. To his surprise, pain was not the expression on her face. It was hatred and hunger that burned from her gnashing teeth and mad eyes. She possessed a strength and voraciousness that he had never witnessed before. The true harm she might be capable of struck down on Charlie like a bell hammer. The Earl’s life was in jeopardy.
The girl’s slender, pale arm grappled over the back of the folded canvas cover, inches from Earl Baumgart’s head. Wrapping the reins around one hand, Charlie unhitched the shotgun from under his bench.
“My lord!” Charlie shouted, struggling to keep steady against the bucking carriage. “Move away!”
Baumgart caught sight of the weapon. “Charles! No! You can’t kill this girl!”
The maiden’s other hand slapped over the edge, her flayed fingers catching a firm hold of the Earl’s arm.
“Back!” Charlie ordered as he cocked the hammer.
“Miss, please!” The Earl struggled to free himself. The girl rose over the side, blood-streaked strands of blonde locks lashing and whipping about her lacerated face.
“I’m warning you!” Charlie narrowed his aim.
She opened her mouth wide and snapped her teeth inches from Baumgart’s forearm.
“Mein Gott!” Baumgart exclaimed. Then to Charlie, “Shoot her! Shoot her!”
Charlie sucked in a breath and pulled the trigger. The shot exploded the ridge of trapezius muscle between her throat and collarbone. Blood sprayed through the air, her shoulder bucking backward, arm flinging out behind her. Baumgart shouted in horror. The Greys screamed again.
But still she remained. Dumbfounded, Charlie paused, his aim wavering. That wound would have stopped even a battle-hardened soldier. The girl slopped her limp arm back over the seat and this time, grabbed Baumgart’s shoulder. Her shattered clavicle bristled bright white above the wash of fresh blood that poured down her chest. Charlie gritted against the violent rattle of the carriage. Tucking the butt of the gun under his tethered arm he ejected the spent cartridge.
Baumgart wriggled and squirmed, trying to slide out of his coat. “Let go, you demon!”
Returning the shotgun up to aim, Charlie braced himself for the kickback but paused and eased his finger off the trigger. The girl had slithered closer, her mouth agape and eyes flared. Red drool poured over her chin and onto Baumgart’s shoulder. A clean shot without harm to the Earl was impossible.
Earl Baumgart struggled out of his overcoat, peeling his arm and shoulder free of her grasp. He dove to the front quarter seat behind the coachman’s bench at the same instant the front wheel struck a large rock, sending a violent impact crashing through the landau chassis. His footing slipped and he struck his temple on the edge of the carriage door. Baumgart crumpled into a heap. Charlie’s hand smashed against the cold guardrails. The gun clattered to the coach floor as the maiden pitched backward off the side of the landau.
“My lord!” Charlie called again. “Are you all right?”
Baumgart held his bleeding head and brought his back to rest against the carriage door, too dazed to reply. His eyes rolled back and his body melted under the weight of unconsciousness.
Charlie cradled his throbbing fist under his arm. Assured that such a sudden shock through the vehicle would have sent the girl tumbling onto the ground, he glanced back to the rear canvas cover. Instead, he saw a single bloodied hand firmly anchored over the same door that Earl Baumgart now lay slumped upon.
Then, with a lurch and snapping of wood, the rear axle cracked.
Calculating the risks, Charlie whirled back to the wild, squealing Greys. Frightened into a mindless lather, they dragged the coach without concern, bashing it over every pit and rock, like careless boys running with a toy wagon. Loosened, broken spokes flew from the wooden wheels like spears. In a last desperate attempt, Charlie wound his hands down the leather reins, braced his feet on the iron front-board and pulled with all the might he could muster.
“For the love of Mother Mary, yield, you bloody beasts!” he screamed. “Yield!”
The panic in his voice was all the team heard. Their alarm confirmed the horses thundered blindly onward. Shaking, Charlie’s arms drooped with exhaustion. His eyes darted back to the unconscious Earl sprawled on the floor of the carriage. Above him, the maiden had pulled her torso back onto the ledge side. She was nearly inside the coach.
Leaping to his feet, Charlie pulled in the reins, knotted them tight around the whip socket and snatched them up the long, leather switch. He swung a leg over and straddled the coachman’s seatback, one hand on the iron railings the other poised to deliver a firm lash of the whip.
“Oy!” Charlie shouted to avert her attention.
The girl’s head jostled violently but her eyes snapped up at his voice.
Charlie secured his balance and released a nasty crack of the whip against the girl’s arm. “Back, you devil!”
She flinched from the noise but was undaunted by the new wound on her purple skin.
Charlie raised the whip and gave her another swift, discouraging snap across the side of her neck. The thin flesh burst apart with a mist of blood but still, she continued. Charlie released a few more cracks across her arms and chest but the girl had now gained a leg over the side. He tried a final time, across her head. The whip slapped at the soft, fleshy cut on her cheek, enlarging the wound into a flap of skin that hung limply from her face. At this, she inhaled and let out an ear-splitting scream.
“C’mon then!” he challenged.
Charlie straightened, stepping down into the carriage when something hard struck his back, tossing him onto the back of the rear bench. In a blur, a low-hanging branch swept over the open carriage, just missing the maiden’s head. Charlie lolled low and dangerous over the ground. Dust and small pebbles kicked up from the broken rear wheels pelted his face. He yelped in pain, squeezed his eyes tight and forced his body back into the carriage.
Winded and blinded, Charlie realized the whip was no longer in his hand. Tears flooded his gritty, burning eyes. He swiped a coat sleeve over his face and rolled over just in time to catch the maiden as she launched herself onto him. They landed flat on the seat and she opened her mouth wide for a large bite of the soft pulsing flesh near Charlie’s jugular.
Charlie caught a handful of her blood-stiffened hair and yanked her head backward. With his other hand, he caught her shinning, red jaw at the throat, pinning her arm’s-length above him. The girl wriggled and thrashed with rage, nails raking at his hands. He blinked back his blurred sight as she gurgled, frustrated, her teeth working the air behind the exposed tendons in her jaw. Fatigue burned down his arms, the muscles yearning for release. Adrenaline flooded his brain as he deliberated.
By: Erica Ruhe
Check in next Thursday for the final installment!