The Apple Cart

Chain Border

November 3, 1777

I regret, Your Eminence, the tardiness of this correspondence but the unceasing rain of the last few weeks has made travel and communications all but impossible. I write to you this evening from the village of Sfintu Gheorghe on the brow of the Carpathians. A more dismal and unwelcoming place is hard to imagine, though the chill of this particular night has been somewhat softened by a small glass of orahovac and a rather smoky fire.

How can I begin to describe to you the events of the past few days? Even the act of laying pen to paper conjures anew thoughts that I would rather let fade into the dust of memory. Yet that would be an abrogation of duty, I fear, and a failure on my part to carry the light of The Society into the darkest of corners where it is needed most.

As I indicated in my last report from Bucharest concerning the Affair of the Green Well, my intention was to set off first to Pitesti. Thence I thought to make my way by foot or fortune to Rimnicu Vilcea and the Hurez Monastery for the celebration of the Easter Masses. Alas, the Lord does not always allow that the weather should accommodate the plans of men. By mid afternoon on my second day of travel I had barely passed the road to Tirgoviste when the morning's light mist turned into a drizzling grey rain. I noticed with some concern that the already dark clouds had now assumed an even inkier shade. At almost that instant, a horse and cart appeared on the road ahead, the driver cloaked against the elements and hunched down in his seat. He reigned in his horse when he saw me, apparently surprised to find a man on foot trudging through the dripping forest, and warily drew to a halt. As you know, the peasant folk in these parts are deeply superstitious, and in order that I not unduly frighten the wretched fellow I hurriedly explained who I was and the purpose of my journey, which seemed to satisfy him at least a little.

Imagine my dismay when he told me that the road ahead was completely impassable, flooded by the river Arges which had been swollen to overflowing by the mountain rain. It seemed that the cart driver had himself been thwarted by the rising waters and had resolved to make a detour to Tirgoviste in hope that a day's wait might see some change in the weather. From what I considered politeness rather than a sincere desire for company he indicated that I might join him, saying that I should arrive quicker and drier in Tirgoviste than I would back at Bucharest on foot. I could hardly disagree.

The road that climbed up through the old forest toward the town was serpentine and uneven and soon the light was failing rapidly. Although we made steady progress the deepening blackness of the storm clouds and the dense overhanging trees contrived to bring the night ever closer. My traveling companion was taciturn though not unfriendly and my attempts at conversation lasted no more than a few sentences. I did learn that he was taking apples from his farm near Ploiesti to the Rimnicu Vilcea Easter markets and that he did this every year. He was by evidence familiar with our path and his great horse seemed confident and sure on the treacherous road. For that at least I thanked the Lord.

When the night finally descended upon us a single lantern served to light our way, though to say that it was a comfort would be untruthful. Instead it cast odd and wavering shadows ahead of us, and made the branches above flicker and twist in a most unsettling manner.

Presently the rain eased to a damp wind but my spirits were not much lightened by this. In fact, for no accountable reason a certain uneasiness began to descend upon me. You will recall, Your Eminence, that I have at other times spoken of this sense of dread and the difficulty in bringing the feeling into words. It is sufficient to say that from my past experience of this sensation I had the wits not to merely ignore it, for oftentimes as you know it has saved my very life.

The Cart

It seemed to me also that the driver now urged his beast onward with a little more haste, and I felt a small cold pluck of fear at my heart as the creaking wooden wheels bounced heavily through the mud and rock of the path. A flock of birds, large and black but I know not of what kind, burst from the low branches just above our heads, their iridescent red eyes flashing with alarm. The sudden movement frightened the horse into a full gallop and, sureness of foot or no, I began to fear for our safety. The cart plunged forward into the darkness, swaying and pitching. Wet branches whipped my face and the cart wheels flung up stones that clattered off the steep path, smashing down into the forest below. The frenzied dash brought the driver to his feet with a cry, but to my great consternation, instead of drawing his beast to a halt he wielded the crop high and lashed the horse's sweating flank with brutish heavy strokes.

"Stop or we shall be killed!" I cried, but the man was in the grip of a mad panic. He struck the horse harder and then harder still and we careened wildly through the trees. And then, as he turned toward me, my very blood became chill, for I saw that it was not terror that had overcome him but something far worse - for he was laughing. The coarse woolen cowl of his cloak had fallen back and his long black hair was streaming in the wind as he howled into the night. And it came to me that along with this laughing he was calling, summoning something from the night. Sheer dread fell upon my soul.

"In the Name of Our Lord stop!" I shouted, drawing my crucifix from under my robes, but to no avail. The symbol of The Christ seemed merely to goad him on and it came to me again what a Godless and unforgiving place these wild mountains are. All the while the man kept at his calling and the hideous laughter, and soon I became sure that we were being pursued; that as rapid as was our headlong flight through those loathsome woods some nameless abomination was now hard on our heels. But, as you can no doubt understand Your Holiness, in that pitch black forest I could not see anything. My frantic glances into the darkness behind revealed only a gaping maw of wet nothingness that swirled and eddied in our wake.

And then as we crashed and shuddered along that rutted track, the cart driver cackling and wailing out his keening cry, I felt truly that we would at the next bend pitch over a precipice. I called on The Lord for strength and unsheathed the dagger that I now carry always. With the certain knowledge that some unspeakable evil was at any moment about to come upon us from the shadows behind, I made my determination to defend myself spiritually and physically from whatever foul thing the driver was summoning from that haunted wilderness. And then looking back once more I felt a coldness and dread seep into the very bones of my being. I saw now that it was not to the depths of the forest that the driver called at all for there was something moving under the sacking on the cart behind me. Some abominable thing had been woken from its slumber on the very wagon upon which I had traveled this past day and which I had thought to contain merely apples. Words cannot describe the fear that rushed down upon me. I became aware of a snuffling slathering low growl from the cart behind me. Then I saw with drear horror a great pale hand, hairless and bloated, emerge from the hempen covering and grope blindly toward where I sat.

All the while, Your Eminence, you must imagine the mad driver beside me, laughing as one who has lost his wits and driving on his frenzied beast with greater and greater fury.

In that flash of clarity that comes only to those in dire peril, I knew then what I must do. As terrifying as was the thought, I prepared to jump from that hurtling wagon. I rose to my feet and leapt. Too late! The hideous creature that had now risen up from the back of the cart lunged forward with the speed of a snake and grasped my wrist. I felt an overpowering weakness come upon me and I knew at once that the fierce brute's unwholesome grip was far too strong for me to break. I could feel its damp breath all around me and in the wild flickering of the lantern light I could see an evil neediness in the eyes that peered out from under its dank matted hair. With a slow and deliberate certainty it drew my hand toward its face and then I felt I should surely swoon, for it began to lick my fingers with a thick black tongue.

What terror I felt, what unspeakable and unholy terror!

Then, with what was undoubtedly my last grain of courage I called on all the strength I could find, and with a loud cry drove my dagger into the white dead flesh of the thing's arm. I know not whether it was the might of my blow or merely just good fortune but for an instant the monstrous creature's grasp loosened. It was all I needed. With a desperate lunge I threw myself backward into the night.

As I crashed heavily down into the dank undergrowth I could hear the grinding smashing progress of the cart as it sped away down the road. All at once the night was filled with an eerie and evil wailing that stood my hair on end. It came to me that it was like the sound of a wolf cheated of its prey or the wind howling through the rigging of a doomed ship.

I shivered, Your Eminence, but not from the cold.

In the darkness I could see nothing at all. The mournful cold cry faded away into the forest and soon I could hear only the drip of water from the wet leaves. I lay still for an eternity, terrified that any movement might bring some new monstrosity from the shadows. Even so, after a time the dampness of my robe roused me to my feet and I found my way, stumbling, back onto the muddy path. You can no doubt understand the oppressive weight of dread that had settled upon me at the thought of spending even one more minute in this evil wood. It seemed to me that every hollow tree might be hiding some new horror! So it was with great relief, and not a few whispered prayers of thanks, that I spied dimly lit windows on a craggy ridge not more than half a mile away. Tirgoviste!

I shall not assail you with the morbid fancies that filled my thoughts as I trod that lonely path to the village. Suffice it to say that I feared at every moment I would be set upon by that mad cart driver, or worse, his unholy passenger, but of them there was no further sign. It was if they had vanished into the chill forest mist.

What a wild and frightening vision I must have made for the poor innkeeper at Tirgoviste. Indeed, he would not even open his door to me until I showed my crucifix at his window, and kissed it in his sight. I cannot describe the relief with which I hurried into that tiny warm room.

The half dozen local people who were gathered around the fire stared at me warily. My robes were sodden and covered with mud and I was still shaking with fear. Nevertheless, as I have mentioned before the simple folk of these small towns are, for the most part, virtuous and charitable and so I was brought a dry garment, some food and drink and ushered to a place by the hearth. Soon the cold began to leave my bones, and with some fine dark bread and a small cup of ale in my belly my teeth finally stopped chattering. I thought it only proper that I should warn these innocent folk about the strange and terrible apparition that had beset me upon the mountain road.

As they gathered around I told them my tale. They listened in grim silence. "Strigoi - a ghoul!" said one fellow under his breath, making the sign of the cross. "Moroi!" said another. All the while I spoke, I noticed an old man in the corner was nodding knowingly to himself. When I came at last to the end of my account he arose from his seat and shuffled over into the circle of firelight. In a feeble voice he began to speak.

Father Canis

"You are a very lucky young man" he said, "for a vedenie has desired your soul and you live even so. Few can claim the same." He paused, as if considering his words carefully. "You are not the first to be offered passage through the forest. Many years ago there was another traveler who told the same tale as yours. He too, through fortune or favour, escaped the embrace of the strigoi. But for others the story has ended rather differently I fear, for there have been many who have set out on that path and never arrived here in Tirgoviste."

There was a murmur of low voices and several of the men crossed themselves.

"But from whence come these foul spirits," I cried, "and why do they plague innocent travelers so?"

The old man moved closer to the fire. "It is said that a certain farmer lived in Ploiesti many many years ago, and made his living selling apples in Rimnicu Vilcea and Buzau. He and his simpleton brother set out one day for the markets, but bad weather overtook them. A fierce storm had fallen across the mountains. They were forced to travel by night on the forest road to seek some shelter in Tirgoviste." His eyes looked off into some far distance. "Misfortune came upon them, for they had neglected to tie red ribbons to their cart to ward off the Evil Eye. A strigoi possessed them, and, it is said, under a spell they sped along the mountain path, galloping faster and yet faster still. Not far from the town the road gave way and they plunged down the mountainside onto the rocks below. Their bodies were never found, for they in turn had become strigoi, cursed for all time to seek the souls of men."

He moved forward suddenly and pulled up the sleeve of my robe. "See, there!" He cried, "The mark of the Morai!"

I looked down at my arm, and there, plain for all to see were five brutish finger marks, livid and ghostly where the simpleton brother had seized my wrist. It was as if the very colour had been leached from my skin!

Eminence, as I write to you now several days hence, the imprint of that loathsome hand is still there. Even so, I fear it shall stay with me always, a grim remembrance of my fearful journey on that dismal mountain road. As I further the mission of St Ignatius in this distant province it shall serve as my constant reminder: tu ne cede malis sed contra audentior ito (yield not to misfortunes but advance all the more boldly against them).

I remain,
Your humble servant
Canis, S. J.

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