The two men who were sitting on the box seat of the twospan that ventured through the lonely forest road, looked both truly miserable.
"Are you sure you're holding that map right?" Greybeard commented.
Audemar gave his companion a foul look. "You're saying I am too stupid to read a map?"
"I am saying that we've been traveling up north for four consecutive days now. I haven't seen a town or castle or even a dilapidated dung farm on the way. We were heading to York from Ravenspur, which should have been a two days ride. Three if we were really slow." Greybeard paused, fixing his gaze on Audemar.
"Do you see the great city of York any where near here?" He waved wildly with his hands. "Or perhaps it's hidden from our view behind these barren twigs and we are just standing right in front of the city gates?"
"Maybe it's around the next bend?" Audemar tried.
Greybeard sighed and snatched the scroll from him. "Here." He scolded, giving him the reigns. "Take this, and let me look at the map."
To be fair, road maps in the Middle ages were not clear cut and precise. They often only depicted a straight road on which the landmarks were drawn with a rough estimate of miles scribbled in between. No junctions were indicated. Similarly, the map these two fine gentlemen of enterprising spirit had for guidance, was only showing a straight line between London and the villages and cities of the north. It was up to Greybeard to guess at which exact point during their journey they had diverted.
"Blasted! We should have passed three towns by now if we were still on the right track, but we haven't seen any one of them." Aggravated, he crumbled up the scroll and tossed it back into the carriage.
"Could we have missed it?"
Greybeard sucked in air through his nostrils and exhaled slowly, blowing steam.
"Yes, we could have, if we were sodden blind! We took the wrong turn you simpleton! The last time we were on the right track was near Alnwick. That's a three days ride away."
"Then what, are we going back?"
Greybeard paused for a moment to think.
"How is he?" He nodded with his head at the covered cage in the back of carriage.
Audemar shrugged. "He was still alive this morning, but he made a bloody mess again. I don't think we should feed him for a while. It's all coming back out as soon as you put something in. It's no use."
"We have to find a local leech to treat him. Otherwise he's not going to last long."
"Don't you think it's a waste of coins anyway?" Ademar asked.
"What would you otherwise suggest?"
"Oh I don't know. We could just dump him in a ditch nearby." His companion opted, rather hopefully. "Let the poor bugger die by himself? He has already made us a good profit. We could split the gains and head back to the south. Go into a first town we come across and find some nice ladies to warm our beds. Perhaps have a good hot meal for once and not the vile porridge we've been having for days."
"We can do all of that later, if he gets better, we can yet make much more profit." Greybeard reminded him.
"Do you believe so?" Audemar cocked an eyebrow at him. "The current state he's in I fear not even our good lord Jesus himself could cure him. Admit it, he is one step away from turning into a cold corpse, and I for one am sick of spending every waking hour on the road like this. To be frank, I would rather stick my nose up the crotch of a syphilis whore than to go smell that disgusting stench that comes from his rotting wounds again."
Audemar reigned in the horses as they approached a crossroad. At the exact junction point, amid a growth of young oaks, stood a wooden scaffold. From its sideway pole dangled a rusty metal cage no larger than a coffin. Locked inside, sat in upright position, the stiff frozen skeletal remains of a man. His bony legs and feet were dangling out from the bottom, and swung lightly in the cold northern breeze. It was a most gruesome sight to which both men did not wish to pay too much attention. When the cart came to a full stop, they contemplated their options. To the east, there was a narrower pathway diverting from the main road that meandered up the slopes.
"Which way now?" Greybeard finally asked, breaking the silence.
"I say we stick to this road. Go straight on."
"We have been on this blasted road for three days. We haven't seen any recognizable landmarks."
Audemar pointed out the unlucky dead man. "I would call that a landmark. They usually hang criminals close to villages to scare off thieves and cutthroats from coming in. We should be near one." He added, convinced of his smartness.
"Yes, but it doesn't mean that the village is straight ahead of us, does it?"
The wind suddenly picked up and wildly rocked the hangman's cage, making the bony knuckles rattle against the rusted bars.
"Can we make a decision with a bit more haste? I don't fancy staying here for very long." Audemar muttered, spooked by the scene.
"It's just a dead man in a cage." Greybeard snorted. "As you have so cleverly pointed out, we have one soon enough in the back of our cart. I say we pick the narrow road east."
"And I say we stay on the main road. That mountain path looks dangerous. It's much narrower and much steeper. Our carriage could slip."
"I am not going to let you decide. You've chosen the wrong turn last time. That's why we are in this sodden mess in the first place!"
"I did not…"
A strong sudden burst of wind swept the snow from the branches and rocked the hanging cage so violently that it made the ropes that held it snap. The cage with the skeleton swung to the ground, bones rattling loudly as it rolled down hill. It came to a halt again, right in the middle of the main road.
"Don't look so startled, you wet infant." Greybeard commented, noticing the paleness on his companion's face. "That was just the wind."
Audemar opened and closed his mouth, mimicking a fish on dry land, as he pointed with a trembling hand at the unnatural sight in front. The cage with the skeleton slowly rose upright, emitting a faint ghostly light. The jaw of the skull dropped open. Then it began to snap open and shut repeatedly, chattering its teeth as if it had a furious hunger to bite the living.
"Lord save us." Greybeard muttered, his voice muted by shock.
"It's the ghost of the villain hanged!" Audemar cried out. "He is coming for us!"
Greybeard rushed to take over the reigns into his shaking hands. "This place is cursed! This road is cursed! Quickly! We have to get away from here!"
He whipped the horses hard. The carriage wheeled around in such haste that it almost keeled over, and at great galloping speed, the horses bolted up the narrow winding side road, away from the haunted junction.
The cart suddenly shook wildly, and I was flung to the back. Landing hard with my stomach pressed against the bars, I heaved up all the fluid what was left in my stomach, before a second jolt sent me tumbling on my side.
The light of my nephew shone brightly through the canvas that covered my cage. As it passed through, it soon took the form of a human child again.
"What's happening?" I asked most frightfully, while the violent motion continued, shaking me around in the tiny space if I was set adrift in a wooden box at sea.
"Hold on uncle. I have frightened these men so that they went off the wrong path. They wanted to take you to York, but we are now too far up north to go back."
"Where are we going?" I pushing my head against my chest, hoping it would steady the whirling inside my head.
"We are heading for a small village nearby. I found it as I searched the area, hovering high above the forest. It's not far away and we will reach it before nightfall. Uncle? Do you hear me? Don't fall asleep."
Feverous and delirious, I shut my eyes to stop my blurred vision from making me sick.
The carriage finally stopped, but the swirling inside my head did not.
"We have made it uncle."
I opened my eyes and saw a dim light doubling, then tripling, and so on, till it had multiplied in to a swarm of tiny lights, dancing in my vision.
"Where are we?" I murmured, tasting bile in my mouth.
"We have arrived at the village. There will be help soon, you'll see. Hold courage."
To my relief, the swarm of confusing lights began to fuse, reducing in numbers till I saw only two, then one. Slowly, the world took some recognizable form again. Still lying on the floor, I held my head back to look over my shoulder. Through a gap in the canvas, I saw a row of hovels, small and crooked, heavily leaning into each other of old age. The windows were boarded up. Large white crosses had been painted across the dilapidated doors.
"Oh my dear nephew." My heart filled with dread when I recognized the tell-tale signs from my many travels during my brother's military campaigns. "I don't think there will be any help."
"This place is a plague infested hell hole." I heard Greybeard declare. He had dismounted and walked into my view. "Just our luck to ride right in here after dark."
"Do you believe it is completely abandoned?" Audemar asked.
"Not a living soul I've seen on the road leading to town, and no-one out in the streets." Greybeard answered, spitting on the ground and looking around with his hands on his hips. "There is no smoke coming from the chimneys. No light shining through the cracks of the doors and shutters. No watchers assigned to guard the pest folks." He kicked at something large that was lying in the mud by the road side. "No one to take care of the rotting carcasses of the dead farm animals. I say everyone is gone, and for a good while too."
"I don't want to spend the night here." Audemar replied, sounding quite anxious. "Let's move out of this cursed place. Set up camp back in the woods for tonight."
Greybeard did not respond but gazed thoughtfully at the boarded hovels, then turned, and looked back at the road from which we came. He took out his dagger and said; "Not so much haste. There may still be something worthwhile here for us."
"Are you mad? I am not going in there to loot! These are houses marked with the warnings for pestilence. The families who lived here were locked inside by the king's army to keep the disease from spreading. If we go in there, there is a chance we will get infected too."
"If those poor buggers inside are still alive, yes then we can get sick, but everyone knows you cannot get the plague from the dead. If so, all the gravediggers whose job is to bury them will all soon be six feet under."
"I've heard plenty of tales in the taverns that gravediggers do perish too."
"That's just a bunch of old wives tales! The plague comes from dirty air, from the breath of the sick. Corpses don't breathe." Greybeard took a crowbar from the back of the cart. "Come on, give me a hand instead of just standing there, crying like a hysterical maid. We could be out before midnight if we do this fast!"
Audemar reluctantly started to help pull the boards away from the windows, removing them nail by nail with the warped end of a hammer. Both men were still busy breaking into the hovels, when a sudden noise was heard, coming from a narrow alleyway between the buildings. The two ceased their devil's work immediately, and spooked, they glanced around for the source of that strange sound.
A black shadow flew out from behind a stack of firewood. Although there had been plenty occasions when it was the other way around, I had never heard Audemar scream in terror before. He was quite good at it when a monstrous large wolf with a coat as black as midnight and a pair of piercing green eyes took hold of his throat. He kept screaming till the beast silenced him by chewing through one of his vital arteries, spraying a mist of blood into the air.
"Help me!" He slurred, gargling blood, but his frightened companion had already fled. What followed was an incomprehensible muddle of pitiful utterances that finally died when a second wolf, silver coated and as monstrous as the first, took Audemar's head inside his maul and bit down, crushing skull.
Having by now scrambled back up the box seat, Greybeard took the reigns and struck the startled horses. I was propelled to the back of the cage as we rushed through the streets at neck-breaking speed.
This sudden commotion drew the attention of the two wolves. They abandoned their bloody supper and directly went in pursuit. As we rushed over the frozen muddy path away from the damned village and back into the forest, more wolves appeared, almond eyes shining behind the black trunks, and their shaggy coats glistening with ice crystals in the pale reflection of a snow moon. Joining the pack in their hunt, they snapped at a flapping corner of the canvas, hanging on to it with their full weight till it tore off. With the top of my cage now exposed, and the star lit sky flying by above my head, I cast a frightened gaze at the front of the carriage.
Six of the wolves were attacking the horses, biting at their legs and flinging themselves on their hinds to reach the necks. Two others were gaining from the side and made several attempts to jump on the cart. Meanwhile, we reached a track of the road that wound steeply uphill, and became then narrower and narrow, with the corners sharpening with every turn.
We were going much too fast. The back wheel hit a fallen branch, the wooden structure groaned and croaked, and the cart flung on its side with its wheels spinning. The upturned vehicle slowed down the horses almost to a standstill. The wolf pack made good use of this, and flung themselves onto the animals' soft bellies.
Greybeard found himself trapped under the box seat. While he screamed for Jesus and the saints to save him, one wolf took his right, and another his left arm, and a third grabbed his head. Then the three of them twisted and pulled savagely, each in a different direction, till they managed to rip him apart.
Frightened out of my mind, I crawled as far away from this horrific scene as my tiny prison allowed me to, hoping fiercely that the beast would have their fill with these savage kills and let me live. But then the black wolf cast his green eyes on me and warily, he approached. He pushed his muzzle between the bars and opened his maul wide, but was not able to reach me from any side as long as I stayed in the center of the cage. Angry to be kept away from his next meal, he gnawed ferociously at the wooden bars, pushing the cage away from him, making it glide towards a steep drop at the side of the road. As the structure continued to slip over the snow, I observed with growing dread how we were edging closer and closer to the abyss, till the cage was balancing right on the edge.
Desperate, I tried to shift my weight to the front, but I had been starved and did not weigh much, and the beast kept attacking. Worse still, the wooden bars now began to dent inward, then splintered, granting the wolf a wide enough gap in between to push his muzzle further inside. His snapping jaws just about missed my face by an inch, when the cage tipped and went crashing down the hillside. As it tumbled down, the cage hit several stones, breaking it apart. I was flung out of the wreckage, and kept falling, the snow and the bare bushes in the undergrowth slowing down my speed, till I finally came to a full stop on a narrow slope.
I tasted blood and snow on my lips when I raised my head from the frosty ground. The black wolf was standing in front of me, his heavy panting passing steam clouds into the air. Drops of dark crimson dripping from his opened maul onto the pale white of the virgin snow. Too exhausted, too weakened and too much in pain to fight or flee any longer, I shut my eyes and pray to God that it would be over soon. I already felt the wolf's hot breath and the weight of his paws on my back when an arrow flew through the air. It pierced through the creature's cheek, sending him howling. A second show followed swiftly, and the arrow pierced the animal's side.
The wolf swerved around, as black-clad figure approached. He was arching his bow while lighting his path with a torch in his hand.
The injured but still infuriated beast came running at him, but the archer remained unnerved, and kept stepping forward in a determined pace before shooting another arrow, which went straight between the wolf's eyes.
The monstrous beast collapsed.
Growls and howls came from the surrounding woods. Many pairs of eyes lit up in the dark, drawing narrowing, threatening circles around us. The hooded figure waved his torch at the remaining wolfs to keep them at bay. From his backpack he took a phial of green liquid, and poured it over the brittle sticks that he picked up from the forest floor. When he held them in the flames they flared up most violently.
"Get away from him!" The voice that came from the stranger was light, not like a man's. He flung the burning sticks at the beasts. As soon as the flames hit their coats it immediately caught fire. The blaze became so thick so very rapidly, that the burning animals soon resembled open fire braziers, swerving between the trees on stumbling legs. Panicking, the pack ran back into the forest, setting fire to the lowest branches during their flight to safety.
I was close to losing consciousness when the archer stepped towards me through this strange mirage of blood drenched snow and burning ice. Just when he removed his hood to reveal his face, my eyes rolled back and darkness claimed me.