1634: THE BALTIC WAR – snippet 56:
Coming around the bend, Leebrick saw one of the coachmen lying on the side of the road, holding his head in both hands. Thrown off, apparently. Or perhaps he’d simply jumped, figuring he could claim he was thrown. Under the circumstances, Anthony couldn’t blame the man.
There was another bend, perhaps seventy yards farther. To Leebrick’s dismay, it looked to be a much sharper one. That matched his memory, also.
His own horse almost went out from under him as he neared the bend. He spent a minute standing still, simply calming the poor beast. He’d been transmitting some of his own anxiety, he realized. Under these conditions, that was utterly perilous. As heavy an animal as it was, with this sort of icy and unsteady surface all four of a horse’s legs would tend to go in separate directions. Left to its own devices, in fact, the horse wouldn’t willingly move at all.
The problem was that horses simply weren’t very smart, they were herd animals—and they considered their human masters to be the leaders of the herd. So, once let panic seize them, they’d go from unmoving stolidity to a blind and bolting runaway pace. That was dangerous enough on a good dry road in mid-summer. On this road on this day in mid-winter, it was…
Leebrick’s head came up from speaking soothingly to his mount. He thought he’d heard a scream, coming from around the bend.
He set his horse back into motion, not trying for anything faster than a walk. As imperative as it was to find out what had happened, there was no point in adding himself to whatever havoc had occurred.
Before he got to the bend, he hear the sound again, and it was definitely a scream. Not a scream of fear, either, for it came from no human throat. That was the sound of a badly-injured horse.
When he came around the bend and could finally see down the next stretch of road, his worst fears materialized. Some thirty yards beyond, the royal carriage was a shattered wreck. He could see a deep rut in the road ten yards ahead of him, and what was left of one of the carriage’s wheels.
He was aghast, but nor surprised. Having a wheel or axle break on a carriage, especially a heavy one, was a frequent occurrence. Adventuresome young men in taverns would make bets that they could make it from one city to the next without a broken wheel or axle—and the house odds were against them.
That was in midsummer. Nobody laid bets on the matter in wintertime, not even drunken young carousers.
To make things worse, the royal carriage was of the new “Cinderella” design. [NOTE: Would that term have been used at the time?] They were fancy looking things, but their suspension was even more fragile than that of most carriages. They were particularly prone to having the rear axles break.
Leebrick had no trouble figuring out what had happened. Coming around the bend as fast as it had been going, the carriage must have started to slide on the slick surface. Then, either from panicky movements of the team, or too sharp a correction by the driver, or simply a minor obstruction in the surface—any or all three put together—the axle had broken. That, in turn, had simply splintered the wheel.
Within a few yards, the carriage had spilled on its side—and then, on this surface, it had slid right into the wall of a building. One of the horses had been killed outright, and at least one—the one screaming in agony—had suffered a shattered leg. Two others were lying on the road. One appeared to be just stunned but the other was clearly dead. A great jagged piece of wood had been driven into the creature’s belly.
They were the only horses in sight. The harness had come to pieces in the accident. The pole holding the doubletrees must have shattered—that would be the source of the wood that had killed the one horse—and the four lead horses must have continued their panicked race around the next bend in the road. At a distance, Leebrick could see the body of the coachman who’d been riding the near lead horse. He, too, might either be dead or simply stunned.
But he’d have to wait. Anthony needed to find out what had happened to the king and queen. He still had hopes they might have remained uninjured—or simply bruised, at least. They’d had the protection of the carriage body and all the cusions and blankets within.
But as he came nearer, Anthony’s hopes started fading. He’d thought at first that the carriage had struck the side of the building and then been upended from the impact. But now he saw that the situation was far worse. There was apparently a sunken stair into which the carriage had plunged. Instead of the weight of the carriage’s body protecting the occupants, the body had caved in on them.
He brought the horse to a halt, got off, and clambered onto the carriage. The first thing he saw was the driver. His body, rather, for there was no question whether this man was dead or stunned. He’d been thrown into the stairwell and part of the carriage had landed on top of him. The front axle had crushed the poor man’s chest like a great blunt spear. His sightless eyes staring up at the sky were already half-covered with sleet.
Almost frantic now, Anthony reached the carriage’s door and tried to pry it open. Finding it jammed, he drew his sword and used it as a lever. Thankfully, it was one of his everyday swords, not the expensive one he kept at Liz’s lodgings for ceremonial occasions. He was quite likely to break it, since swords were not designed to be tools for such use.
Indeed, it did break—but not before it finally snapped whatever obstruction was keeping the door jammed. Anthony tossed the hilt onto the ground and, using both hands, pried the door the rest of the way open.
Peering in, he couldn’t determine anything at first. It was a dark day because of the overcast and very little of what light there was made its way into the carriage. To make thing worse, the interior of the carriage was in a state of sheer chaos. The trunks must have been flung open and had scattered their contents everywhere. At first glance, the interior looked like nothing so much as a huge, half-filled laundry basket.
Then something pale moved, coming up from under the blanket that had been covering it. A face, Anthony realized.
The king’s face.
“Help me,” Charles whispered. “My leg…”
Hearing a call, Anthony looked back. To his relief, he saw that Patrick had arrived with his Irish skirmishers.
“Just a moment, Your Majesty, I’ll be right there,” Anthony said hurriedly. Then, to Patrick: “I need three of your men up here. Have the rest tend to whatever else they can—but don’t shift the carriage about yet.”
Hearing the horse scream again, Leebrick winced. “And put that animal out of its misery, would you?”
That done, he lowered himself into the carriage, being careful not to step on the king’s body. Wherever that body was, since all he could see was still just the royal face, staring up. He had no idea at all where the queen had wound up.
Once he got to the king, he slid his arm down into the tangle of blankets and cushions to cradle the man’s shoulders and lift him. But the moment he did so, the king started to shriek. “My legs! My legs! Stop, damn you!”
Anthony left off immediately. He’d thought from the king’s first plaint that he’d suffered a broken or wounded leg. But “legs” probably meant something worse. He didn’t dare move Charles at all until he could see what the problem was.
One of the Irish soldiers was at the window, now.
“Come down,” Leebrick ordered. “But make sure you put your feet over there.” He pointed behind him, to a part of the carriage that seemed safe enough. He still didn’t know where the queen was.