The townsfolk of Cheerydale weren't particularly put out by the clanging gongs and general sounds of alarum filtering down to the town from Castle Dalemoor at first. It seemed like something was always going on up there; Baron Dalemoor was an excitable sort, prone to calling out his guards for the tiniest of matters, but such ructions rarely extended to the town itself.
This time, though, the browsers on the upper part of the high street, just outside the castle's curtain wall, got a surprise, in the form of an open-topped wagon that hurtled out just ahead of the closing of the gates. People scattered for their lives as the wagon, drawn by a pair of snorting, wild-eyed black horses, came barreling down the high street at a speed that was patently unsafe for in-town driving, narrowly avoiding market stalls and slower pedestrians.
To those few who were quick-witted and sharp-eyed enough to get a good look as it went past, the wagon's driver made for an even more arresting sight than the vehicle itself: a figure swallowed up in a voluminous black robe, his face entirely hidden by the shadow of its hood. Only his black boots on the footboard and his long, pale hands on the reins could be seen as he guided the wagon deftly through the obstacle course of the high street.
At the very back of the wagon, a burly man in chainmail and tattered tabard brandished an iron-bound wooden kite shield—one which was just in the process of getting a fair number of arrows stuck into it by the archers up on the curtain wall as the wagon racketed away from the castle. In front of him, an elven woman in leather and red silk crouched, not quite cowering, in the shield's lee, her hands over her head.
"Apart from you and canned cling peaches," observed Sir Thaxton, "I cannot think of a single thing so lacking in sense as to do that with the baron's daughter, Reinette."
"She said she was of age!" the elven woman protested, a bit lamely, ducking again as more arrows thudded into the paladin's shield.
The shadowy figure at the reins chuckled, his voice hollow and resonant in a way that seemed entirely inappropriate to the situation, and urged the team to still greater speed.
"That's hardly the only problem," Sir Thaxton grumbled.
Behind Sir Thaxton, a dwarven woman in far more utilitarian leather armor than her elven colleague's succeeded at last in the task she had been attempting to perform since they had set off from the inner courtyard: lighting the fuse on a black iron grenade from a cigar.
"Aha! Finally!" she declared.
Sir Thaxton glanced back over his shoulder and saw what she was up to. "Oh no," he said, his face going slightly pale. "Herlod, don't you dare—"
"Too late now!" Herlod replied cheerfully, then wound up and hurled the bomb in their wake like a baseball. It clattered to the cobbles at the feet of the pursuing detachment of guards, then went off with a brilliant flash of light and a thunderous BANG, knocking down most of the front rank and leaving the rest dazed.
"Oh, well, at least it wasn't one of the fire ones," Sir Thaxton sighed fatalistically.
"What sort of maniac do you take me for?" Herlod asked, grinning around the stub of her cigar.
"What?" asked Reinette in a loud voice.
"Hold on back there," the driver intoned in his sepulchrally resonant voice. "Going to have to take a bit of a detour."
"What?" Reinette repeated.
Sir Thaxton faced front and saw what the driver was talking about. Word of the situation had clearly reached the guards at the city wall; he could see them up ahead, busily closing and barring the gate.
The gate toward which the wagon was still hurtling as fast as two horses could pull it; and indeed, having issued his warning, the driver snapped his reins and urged the team on still faster.
"Oh, gods," said Sir Thaxton with audible dread, and without further ado he sat down on the wagon floor, slinging his arrow-studded shield on his back, and mirrored Reinette's former hands-over-head posture. Seeing him do it, the elven woman reassumed the same position, squeezing her eyes shut.
Herlod, for her part, did no such thing. Instead, she hurried—all but scampered—forward and vaulted the back of the driver's bench, alighting next to the black-robed figure with a still wider grin on her face.
"All right, Marco," she declared, flipping a pair of dark goggles down over her eyes. "Let's do this thing."
Marco's only response was to chuckle again, hunching over his reins.
As the wagon sped toward the gate, far too fast now to stop in the distance remaining, the guard captain on duty there witnessed a thing he would remember with a shudder for the rest of his life. The captain thought the wagon's black-robed driver's face was hidden in his hood—but as the wagon approached, he suddenly raised his head, and the wind caught his hood and blew it back, at which point the captain saw that he had no face. Even with his hood fallen down onto his shoulders, the driver's head was a mere shadow, faceless and indistinct, marked out only by two balefully burning points of silver fire where his eyes should have been.
Before the guard captain's horrified eyes, the horses changed to match, their muscular forms attenuating into angular, almost skeletal, and weirdly depthless black shapes, their staring red eyes transmuting into silver-flame coals. The thunder and clatter of their hooves on the cobbles muted into a formless, directionless thudding sound, like distant drums or the heartbeat of some vast but invisible animal—
—And just as the hurtling wagon and its suddenly spectral horses and driver reached the city wall, the whole rig disappeared, plunging not into a splintering, body-hurling collision with the gate, but rather a fathomless abyss of shadow that the astonished, terrified guards felt the presence of more than they could be said to have seen it.
In an instant, the whole thing was over, and the guards were left standing in an empty street before their barred gate, half-wondering whether they had imagined the whole thing.
Thick hoarfrost steamed directly away to vapor from the sides and iron wheel rims of the wagon as it stood in the afternoon sunlight atop a hill, its two black horses munching contendedly from feedbags while the black-robed figure of Marco brushed and fussed over them.
"Good girls, Magda, Inge," the spectral figure intoned, and then, in response to a whickering head-toss from one of them, he cajoled, "Oh yes you are."
Up on the box, Herlod sat with her feet up, peeling an apple with a large folding knife. "Y'all right there, hero?" she called into a nearby copse of trees, from which the only immediate response she received was the sound of someone being violently ill. Presently, Sir Thaxton emerged haggardly from the trees, mopping at his face with a handkerchief.
"I hate you so much," he said, though without any heat in his voice, and then he sat down to pry the arrows out of his shield.
"And after I went and peeled you this apple," the dwarf replied. She tossed him the fruit (which he caught without looking up), then leaned over the back of the seat and inquired of the huddled bundle on the wagon floor, "And how about you?"
"Please let me die in peace," Reinette whimpered, drawing her blanket tighter around her shoulders.
"Just no gratitude at all," said Marco gloomily, to an evidently agreeing head-shake from one of the horses.