Dead Of Winter
As his wagon skids out of control, caught on the treacherous Pank's Peak, how will Keffyn save his life, his wagon and, most importantly, the expensive ornaments he's transporting?
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The wagon’s rear end swung out over the cliff-side with a crunch of gravel. In the front, Keffyn screamed in panic as he yanked on the reins. In the wagon’s bed, crates slid into each other with a crash, throwing the balance out even further. The oxen groaned as they strained against it, hooves scrabbling at the shale.
His shout of surprise and fear billowed into the freezing night sky. As his stomach dropped out from under him he lurched forward across the wagon’s tongue; the wagon stilled as he lay there, nose-to-tail with one of the oxen.
Time seemed to stand still. Flakes of snow drifted down, mingling with the deep drifts that already piled the cliffside road. Keffyn’s heart thudded in his chest, and he licked his lips nervously.
“Whoa now,” he murmured, as the oxen began to stamp. They couldn’t look back, yoked as they were to the wagon, and it would only take a single step backwards to pull the whole thing own off the road. He chanced a look back; the cliff was sheer, dropping away into a dark blue abyss. He closed his eyes briefly, ignoring the creaky voice of his grandfather in his head that shouted after him. “You’ll die up there, lad; no-one passes Pank’s Peak in the dead of winter!”
The snow under one of the iron-shod wheels shifted slightly, sending a ripple of movement through the wagon; the crates shifted again, the little ornaments inside tinkling slightly. Packed in hay, they were for sale in the city, midwinter decorations for well-to-do families. “Stupid rich folk,” Keffyn muttered. “Should come to us, not the other way around.” It suddenly occurred to him that this was a stupid way to die, shepherding glassware to make sure they had more than the bare minimum of food and firewood over the snowy nights to come. No great, heroic death; just another mad fool tempting fate.
The reins, still clutched in his hand, were thick leather. He gave them an experimental tug; one of the oxen looked back a little, ear flicking, but didn’t move.
“Now then,” he began to mutter. “Don’t move, that’s right. Stay there, don’t look back…” He kept up the burbling, the words flowing out of him in one long torrent, as he clambered forwards in slow motion. The leather creaked as he pulled on it. Inch by aching inch, he moved along the metal tongue of the wagon and leaned his weight forward even further.
The wagon creaked again, like the last exhalation of a dying man. Keffyn froze.
“Go on,” he said, voice trembling. “Get. Walk. Go forwards.”
The oxen stubbornly refused to move. One of them snorted, steam rising from its back, and he scowled. He looked back at the crates, hard up against the backboard now and still suspended over the chasm, and shook his head.
With one hand, he reached down between the oxen and began to prise the locking pin out. The tongue connected the wagon’s body to the oxen, a single piece of metal fastening it in place, and as he worked numb fingers around it Keffyn hissed a steady stream of curses. It was no use. The pin was held in place by the force of the wagon’s weight pulling back against it; it would take the strongest man in the village to even work it loose, and Big Daffyd wasn’t here.
Keffyn hung his head for a moment. Despite the cold, sweat had beaded on his brow, gellid and slimy, and when he huffed out a breath a few droplets caught on his nose.
He breathed in sharply, the winter air stabbing at his lungs, and shouted, “Go!”
The oxen responded, finally, a shuffling step that only served to swing the wagon sideways along the edge of the cliff. He scrabbled for purchase, trying to ignore the rattling from the crates.
“I said GO,” he snarled, and before he could even stop to think about the stupidity of such an act, raised one hand and slapped the nearest oxen’s rump.
It snorted, finally taking two or three stumbling steps forward. The wagon tipped under him again, the nails tearing at the planks as they flexed, but it was enough. The oxen dragged the wagon back onto the road.
There was a heart-stopping moment as Keffyn looked back to see one of the crates tipping. The forward motion of the wagon had sent the smallest crate back on one edge. He bolted around, pushed off the tongue and flew across the wagon bed. He slapped a hand down on the crate’s top, one on its side, and held on for dear life as the oxen came to a stop.
Only then, gently, did he let the crate settle again.
It was many minutes before he was able to sit back in the driver’s seat and take the reins again. As he turned the treacherous corner, Keffyn breathed a sigh of relief; the glow of the city’s lights lay ahead, dim and fuzzy in the storm.
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Music for the podcast is provided by Kevin Macleod:
Teller of the Tales Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com) Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/
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