The diligence had broken down coming through the Korkenzieher Pass. One of the wheels had come clean off and bounced away, dropping over the precipice and smashing to smithereens and splinters hundreds of feet below. There was no hope, therefore, of effecting a repair.
The driver ordered his passengers to continue on foot. They didn’t have much choice – in fact they had no choice at all. The night was closing in and the mountain peaks were shrouded in mist. They had to leave their luggage too, the driver said, or they would never make it to the inn afore moonrise.
The passengers kicked up a fuss, like passengers do, threatening to dash off sternly-worded telegrams as soon as they got within a sniff of civilisation. The driver told them it wasn’t his fault and, rather than biting his head off, they ought to be making tracks while they could still see where they were going.
Off they set – they numbering four. The driver elected to stay behind. “I’ll be all right,” he assured them, taking a bite of a bulb of raw garlic. “The horses get spooked without me. I’ll keep an eye on your belongings.”
The four passengers were a couple of newlyweds from England, a man of the cloth (by which I mean a clergyman and not a tailor) and a cantankerous old man who walked with a stick.
“I think it’s romantic,” tittered the young bride, earning herself yet another kiss from her amorous husband. The clergyman looked away but the old gentleman was not shy in grunting his disgust.
The sun was setting behind the tallest mountain in the range, painting the sky orange and purple. The first stars were visible and the full moon hung over the scene like a watchful eye, baleful and cold. Somewhere, behind the passengers, something howled.
They had not gone far when the clergyman muttered to the old gentleman that he needed to answer nature’s call. He was, after all, made of clay like the rest of us mortals and a slave to his bodily necessaries. He nipped off the path and behind a tree. The old gentleman called to the young couple ahead, telling them to wait in order not to separate the group.
They waited and waited but the clergyman did not emerge. The young man volunteered to investigate and so, despite his new wife’s protests, he stepped off the path and disappeared among the trees.
He returned a moment later with a face as white as milk and his hands as red as poppies, dripping with blood. At first he was too shocked to utter a word.
“Torn…” he managed to say and, “…to pieces…”
The young woman gasped. She would not allow her husband near her with those hangman’s hands.
They resumed their walk in a horrible silence. Every rustling of the leaves gave rise to terrible imaginings.
The young man reached out to his wife, offering the warmth and protection of his arms but she ran from him; she did not want the clergyman’s blood to taint her. She rounded a sharp corner and tripped over a stone. Nearby, the grasses moved. The young woman screamed: a pair of red eyes was looking directly at her.
She scrambled to her feet and found she had sprained her ankle in the fall. She tried to flee but did not get far. Her husband and the old gentleman turned the corner just in time to see a shaggy-haired beast all teeth and claws pounce on the young woman. With an almighty snap of its jaws, the beast took the bride’s head off. The head dropped over the edge, eyes and mouth wide open in terror, and was lost in the gaping darkness below.
“Stand back, my boy!” the old gentleman pushed the young man aside. He lay into the ravening beast with the silver tip of his walking stick. The beast snarled and roared. With a swipe of its paw, it sent the old gentleman flying, walking stick and all, over the edge of the cliff.
The young man fell to his knees beside his wife’s decapitated body. Without her he did not want to live. He closed his eyes and surrendered himself to the beast’s insatiable bloodlust.
It was a quiet night in the inn at the end of the Korkenzieher Pass, but then it usually was. Business was very slow and the innkeeper had laid off all of his staff. He looked up from the tankard he was polishing as the door opened and his old friend, the coach driver came in.
“Usual?” he offered. “You look like you could do with it.”
“Usual arrangement and all,” said the coach driver, watching thirstily as the innkeeper poured the ale. “Come first light, take your cart to fetch their belongings. We split the proceeds fifty-fifty.”
The innkeeper grinned. “On the house,” he pushed the foaming tankard toward his friend. He peered closely at the coach driver’s face.
“You need a shave,” he said.