[[ Prompt: A story that takes place entirely inside a vehicle.]]
“Best hurry, Lady Danforth,” said the doorman, opening the carriage door. “It’s raining something fierce.”
Large drops pattered heavily onto her woolen travel cloak, and the heavy clouds promised much more to come. A little rain never bothered Marjolaine, though it’s true she would rather not ride all the way out to the countryside soaking wet. She settled onto the plush velvet cushion as the footman tied her trunks outside. There were only two small ones, along with her small bag; she wouldn’t need any fancy gowns or shoes back at the farm. The footman gave the ropes a final tug and he came around to close the carriage door. “Travel safe,” he said, with a tip of his hat. “Hope that storm doesn’t catch you.”
Marjolaine heard the snap of the whip and the horses’ hooves scuffling on the gravel as the carriage began to move. She took off her shoes and got more comfortable on the seat; the countryside was a long ride from here, even in good weather. Her husband had called for the carriage, though she hadn’t expected it to arrive quite so late at night. He and the other gentlemen had lost track of the hour during their card game, as they often did, and she’d finally had to go and remind him. She hadn’t been back to see her parents since the wedding. How much had it changed? Or more importantly, how much had she changed? It was a fancy carriage at least, with real glass windows, which she appreciated especially given the foul weather. Gusts of wind pushed against it now and then, the rain lashing the roof in sheets. Marjolaine was glad she wasn’t the one driving tonight.
The gentle rocking of the wheels and the steady patter of rain made her drowsy, and she dozed off for a time beneath the warm blankets and furs. When she woke and checked her watch, it was well past one o’clock, which meant she still had some distance to go. It was too dark to read within the carriage, so she watched out the windows into the darkened forest. But were they near a town? Marjolaine saw dim lights in the distance. There weren’t any villages along the road, but perhaps there were houses back in the woods? It was possible. But she still thought it strange that their lamps would be burning so late into the night. They weren’t the warm golden glow of a lamp, either, but a cool bluish white, like the moon on cold nights. The storm had not relented, and rain seemed to pour down upon the carriage roof as if from a barrel. She could not hear the thunder over the din, but she saw lightning flicker on the horizon every now and then, illuminating the dark forest for only a moment. She hoped they would not need to stop due to the storm; there were no inns along the route, either. Sleeping in the carriage all night did not sound very appealing, nor did she wish to be out in these woods alone. Stories of bandits and worse, wild animals, were common. Marjolaine dismissed these as spooky tales meant to frighten children, but now that she was out here, she did not wish to test whether or not this was true.
Perhaps the horses and driver sensed it too, because the carriage kept a quick pace over the muddy roads, and Marjolaine worried that it might be dangerous to drive so fast in such poor conditions. She did not wish one of the horses to slip, or the carriage to tip over around a sharp curve in the road. She leaned forward and rapped on the front panel. “Driver? Driver!” She waited several long moments, but he did not open the panel. Likely he couldn’t hear her above the noise of the carriage and the storm. Marjolaine knocked again, more insistently this time, but he still did not hear her, it seemed. She settled back into her cushion, looking out the windows again. Surely he knew the route well, and would not push his horses into danger — or at least this is what she told herself for reassurance. Even above the din of the storm she could hear their hooves pounding the ground. Tree branches reached ominously out of the darkness like black spindly fingers, scratching the sides of the carriage as it rushed past. Shouldn’t they be close to the village by now? At the very least, the crossroads. At such a pace, they should arrive a bit ahead of schedule, yet Marjolaine saw nothing familiar outside. A fearful thought occurred to her; had the driver taken the wrong road in the darkness? If they had already passed through the crossroads, it was possible. But she knew from the map in Lord Danforth’s study that there were villages along the other roads; they would have come across one of them by now. Someplace she could stop and sleep for the night and get dry, have a little something to eat, perhaps a hot bath. It sounded nice, but at the same time so far away.
Where were they, then? She looked out into the darkness again, and as if in answer, the horses increased their pace yet again. The carriage jostled and bounced over the road, and Marjolaine feared they would certainly crash. It seemed that the horses now ran in a blind panic, how else could they keep such a pace? “Driver!” She shouted, pounding on the panel with her fist now. “Slow down!” The road curved, and the carriage leaned into it. Marjolaine had to scramble to keep from sliding along the bench. She pried open the front panel. Maybe he just couldn’t hear her. “Driver–”
The driver’s perch was empty. At first, she thought she just could not see him in the darkness, but a flash of lightning revealed the truth — he was gone. Panic rose in her, had he fallen off somewhere back on the road? How long had the driver been missing? How did the horses know where to go? She knew how to drive, she’d driven the farm horses around in their old wagon since she was a small girl. But there was no way to get up into the seat without climbing out the door, and that was impossible at the pace the horses now kept. They must tire soon, she assured herself, and she could guide them then. Or maybe she could pull herself up, it wasn’t very far but it would be difficult in the best conditions, nearly impossible in the dark and rain, with the horses at a full gallop. The last thing she needed was to end up stranded on the road as well, without any of her things in the middle of the dark woods. Still, she convinced herself to look. Marjolaine leaned as far as she could against the door, but she could not see to the front. She would have to open the door and lean out. The wind pushed back against it and the rain felt like a waterfall rushing against her. There weren’t any hand-holds that she could see. The carriage jolted suddenly to one side, and Marjolaine gave a little cry of surprise. Thankfully she did not fall, but she pulled the door closed after her quickly. Had they hit a rock? Probably–
The carriage rocked again, now the other direction. It felt like something large had hit the side of it, but she could not think what it could possibly be. And again, this time it seemed that the wheels teetered an instant off the ground before deciding whether to fall again. They would tip over, especially if it happened as they rounded a curve. The road was never this bumpy, what could be causing the carriage to rock so violently? Marjolaine pressed close to the glass, looking down at the road. There was something there. Something large and dark, darker even than the surrounding woods, and it was hairy. Her hands shaking, Marjolaine fumbled for her travel bag. It had fallen off the bench in the commotion, but she found it now. She’d thought her husband absurd when he insisted that she bring along one of his pistols, but now she was grateful for it. Had he known? She didn’t have time to consider that now. She prayed the powder was still dry enough, it had been inside the entire trip so it should be. She dropped one of the lead balls into the barrel and readied the shot. She couldn’t fire through the door. At best, it would make a hole and ruin a fancy carriage door, at worst it would simply bounce back at her. She would have to open the door again, and fire with the other hand. Marjolaine was not sure her aim was so good, but she’d fired pistols before. Just never in a moving carriage in the dark. But the thing — the animal, whatever it was, was only feet away. It had to be keeping pace with the horses, she realized in horror. What animal could run as fast as a horse at full gallop?
Holding her breath, Marjolaine inched open the carriage door. She could see the thing there still, hear its panting breath as it ran. She pulled the trigger, and smoke poured into the carriage. She heard the thing outside cry out — she’d hit it! But it was still there. A moment later, the carriage rocked again as it hurled its body against the side. Too far, Marjolaine realized, but it was already too late. She heard the loud snap of the wooden tongue as it broke, and the horses fled into the night without her. The carriage lay on its side in the mud, the wheels still spinning. The beast closed in.