“Easy! Easy, I say!” Charlie commanded and cajoled the four Windsor Greys to an amble with a firm pull on the reins. The bridles clanged and rigging groaned as the team clambered over each other in confused panic. “Steady, boys.”
The open-top landau creaked and slowed, halting in the middle of the dark forest road. Dusk had slipped away to a heavy indigo of evening, the small oil lanterns on either side of the carriage offering little beyond their stunted diameters of golden light. Charlie squinted into the surrounding shadows, searching for the source of the team’s unease.
“Is there a problem, Charles?”
Charlie turned to the passenger behind him with a respectful tip of his top hat. “No, sir.”
“Then why have we stopped?” the Earl asked the tone in his German accent as weary as his blue eyes.
The bitter October breeze carried an unusual quiet through the trees. Charlie shivered.
“I’ll get them back on their way.” Eager to dismiss the anxiety growing in his gut, Charlie snapped a smart nod of his head and turned back to the Greys. Assured all was under control, Earl Baumgart angled his book back to the lamplight and returned to his reading.
Charlie’s leader horses pawed at the spongy earth, grousing and chewing at their bits. Behind them, the soft, pointed ears of the wheelers twitched, straining to hear beyond their clinking tack. Charlie gripped the thick leather reins, digging frigid fingers into his palms to fight off the numbing fatigue.
“Alright, boys.” He clicked his tongue. “Be on, now.”
Defiant, the horses tossed their heads and snorted, refusing to move.
“Stroll on,” he gave a good snap on the straps, his patience waning. A few hours travel still lay ahead before they reached the Earl’s brother in Coburg. Every moment standing here in the autumn cold was another moment of delay from a full belly and a warm bed.
“Oy!” Charlie slapped the reins now. “I said get!” He gritted his teeth, pulling the riding whip from the socket.
The sudden snap of a twig and crunch of dry leaves halted Charlie, whip held above his head. On their guard, the horses remained rigid, listening. Charlie stuffed the whip back into the socket, unlatched a lamp from its post and stood, peering as far into the darkness as he could manage. Only emaciated shadows of barren trees swayed in the wind.
“Charles,” the Earl whispered and thumped his book closed, “is someone lurking about?”
Charlie wrapped the reins in a loose knot around the whip socket and disembarked from the coach bench. With the lamp in hand and caution in his feet, he stepped to the front of the team.
“Perhaps it’s only a small animal, sir.” He hunched his shoulders against the night chill and exhaled, cold vapor billowing over his unshaven face. A long moment passed. Nothing stirred.
“What is it, Titan?” Charlie muttered, patting down the wheeler’s broad neck and shoulder, breathing in the familiar, earthy scent of cold, damp horse. Titan blew a heavy gust from his large nostrils and tossed his head away, annoyed and distracted. His wide eyes roved toward a dark corner in the forest ahead.
Then, on the soft breeze, came a deep, guttural sigh.
Again, velvet ears snapped forward, this time with unnerving precision. Charlie eased further into the darkness, certain his mind wasn’t playing tricks.
“Hallo?” the word scratched in his throat as he raised the lamp. Pierced with the pungent odor of kerosene, the night air smelled sharp and inauspicious. Charlie swallowed. Crisp, naked branches creaked in the wind. “I say, is anyone there?”
Charlie held his breath. Fear seeped its way down his taut back. His heart thrummed in his ears. The whooshing of his blood blurred his senses. The miserable chill settled deeper into his bones.
A ragged moan flowed down the path in answer, low, monotonous.
“Sh-show yourself!” Charlie demanded through numb lips. Shielding his sight from the glare of the lamp, he tromped a few feet ahead of his team. His eyes snagged upon a curious shadow wading through the shrubbery.
“You there!” Charlie’s voice broke in a most unflattering manner.
The figure inched forward. She was an odd girl. Seventeen, perhaps, but her footing was awkward and unsure like a babe’s first step. Her head hung low, the lower half of her face shrouded in the shadows. Her eyes were sunken; merely two, dark pools reflecting the lamplight. Jagged branches teased and pulled at her disheveled blonde braids as she neared. She was the frail silhouette of a beggar girl. His courage restored, Charlie lowered the lamp and planted an authoritative fist on his hip.
“Do you get a jolly out of spooking travelers and their horses?”
The girl did not answer.
“You should get a good wallop on the backside for a prank like this! And what, in God’s name, are you doing out here in the forest at this late hour? What kind of a father would allow his daughter to wander about unescorted? And have you a coat? You haven’t—.” Charlie trailed off at the observation, appalled. “You haven’t even a coat,” he muttered to himself, strangely and suddenly compassionate. “You poor creature.”
He took notice of her red dress, the thin fabric torn and muddy. She remained silent as she shuffled forward into the outer reaches of the lamplight. It cast faint upon her visage, revealing her pitiful state. Her face was soiled, a cut stretching across her forehead. She inhaled and exhaled with effort, the raspy sound suggesting fluid in her lungs. Charlie’s tone softened as he realized she was hurt.
“I say, are you alright, miss? You must be freezing in this cold.”
She sucked in a laborious breath and dragged another foot forward, emerging from the brush and onto the edge of the road. Her head twitched to the side, revealing a large tuft of hair that had been ripped out of her scalp. The horses groused again. Her wide, glossy eyes stared, emotionless yet transfixed. Charlie’s compassion melted back into unease.
A smell hit him.
It was illness, and yet, something grotesquely viler. He swallowed down a gag and reached for a handkerchief to cover his nose. She stank of death.
“Gott in Himmel!” Earl Baumgart exclaimed, opening his carriage door and kicking down the metal folding step. “Come! I have a warm blanket. We’ll give you a ride to town! Where is your family?”
“Sir?” Charlie tried to control the rising alarm in his voice as he stepped back toward the coach. “I think we should be on our way.”
“And leave this unfortunate soul to freeze to death out here alone?” Earl Baumgart continued down the carriage step, flabbergasted. “Have you gone mad, Charles?”
The young girl raised her head with a renewed strength and sniffed the air. Charlie’s heartbeat broke into a gallop. He dropped the handkerchief from his face. An eerie, tight breath gurgled past her blood-covered lips. Thin, delicate fingers curled into trembling, stiffened claws.
Charlie squelched the rising urge to turn and run for fear of startling the horses. Instead, he continued his slow retreat back to the landau, choking down a gasp of terror. A splash of bright red cascaded down the girl’s chin and throat. It was as though she had bit her tongue right out of her mouth. The Greys blew strong gusts of air from their flared nostrils, catching wind of the horrid stench. They shuffled their heavy hooves, jostling the carriage. Charlie felt for the lantern hook and slipped the lamp back on to its rung.
“Sir,” Charlie urged, anchoring a foot onto the coachman’s step. “She appears to be,” he faltered, not knowing how best to describe her condition, “ill.”
Baumgart paused, a peculiar expression creeping across his face.
Charlie glanced back once more. Rivulets of blood stained the girl’s bruise-dappled arms. A shred of white ribbon hung tangled in the end of a loosened braid. Rouge smudged her cheek. The glint of a golden locket flashed bright around her neck. Charlie noticed her tattered, red dress once more.
He felt his breath catch in his chest.
Halfway down the skirt, it shone of fine white silk. The top was completely dyed red with blood. This was not a common beggar girl. She did not seem to be in pain. She did not seem to be coherent at all.
“We’ll…send someone back for you,” Earl Baumgart managed in a whisper, back-peddling to the landau.
The girl turned her head toward the sound. Her jaw went slack, arms reaching out as if to embrace him. Blood bubbled into froth around her mouth.
Charlie looked back and the two men nodded in unspoken, wide-eyed agreement. They scurried aboard, Charlie nearly missing a step and Earl Baumgart clapping the superfluous carriage door closed with a loud clack of the latch. Snatching up the reins and snapping a hard crack against the team’s backsides, Charlie cried out a desperate plea, “Run on!”
To be continued. Look for part two, next Thursday!
By: Erica Ruhe