The day had barely begun, as the young man saddled up his donkey in the warm, dank comfort of his barn. The air outside was cold as hate, and lashed at the unprotected with invisible picks, slicing through skin as a warm knife through butter, chilling the bone to the core. Moonlight streamed down on the sleeping town, providing equally frigid illumination. The few who dared venture out this early were brisk of step. Wrapped in layers of fur and leather, frost laced their eyebrows, like fragile curtains framing the glassy windows that darted furtively around, searching for shelter. Their breaths took form, hung and disappeared with every laborious pant. The echoes of their boots against the icy cobblestones lining Main Street made a racket that sounded like an invasion of a thousand horses, all galloping full tilt down the deserted marketplace. The local watchman was curled up in his little hut by the gates, kettle on the stove, trying not to freeze to death. There was barely a light to be seen in all directions, most of the townspeople being late risers. And it was on nights like this, swore the older folk, that the Devil makes Himself a cup of cocoa and waits patiently for Hell to thaw out.


The young man was gaunt, stout and fairly dark for someone who lived so far north. Square cut features, a slightly protruding jaw and eyes like a cornered rat’s hinted at a slightly obstinate character buried beneath a face that otherwise radiated good nature and eagerness to share a joke. His father got himself flung out of the back of a cart when our young man was only two, and little if any memory remained. Twenty two good years of his life he shared with Mom, his only pillar of support for a good part of it. She worked the looms with a god-given skill few could match. The cloth didn’t sell for much, but at least it put bread on the table and coffee in the pot till the young man was old enough to do a couple of odd jobs around the town to help make ends meet.


He grunted as he heaved the last of the bales of cloth over the back of his donkey. It was going to be a good day’s journey through the mountains, and bed of roses it wasn’t. He had to set out soon, he knew, or risk arriving late at the next village tomorrow morning. He had been eyeing a spot at the impending bazaar for some time now. It was quite prominent, with adequate shelter and located comfortably close to the village square. If he was got it, then he could be sure of earning ten, maybe twenty florins an hour, no problem. The villagers knew their stuff, and paid good money for quality fabric.


With deftness of touch uncommon in those who worked the hammer and hoe, he extinguished the gas lamp with a quick twist of the fuel knob. The small barn instantly went dark, visibility aided only by the bluish-grey light of dawn, which seeped through the crack between the huge, timber doors. He stuffed the lamp into a large oilskin bag, which he threw over his shoulder with a muffled groan. It wasn’t light, and contained, among other things, enough food for himself and the animal, a bag of spare change, extra clothing in anticipation of colder weather, and his trusty, weather beaten cooking pot. He flung himself against the doors and they creaked open with long, drawn out wail. The numbing, icy wind made its point by slamming into his bare cheeks, raising colour in them, and flash-freezing his eyeballs as they nestled in their sockets. There was a sudden onslaught of baying from behind him, and it was a good fifteen minutes later that he finally managed to coax the stubborn creature out into the open.


The young man reached the town gates, donkey alongside, and pounded a heavy fist on the watchman’s door. There was a brief period of cursing, and the old bloke hobbled out, keys in hand. Finding the lock frozen over, he once again lapsed into a barrage of vulgarities that puffed out into the air around him and formed rude shapes. He left, returning a moment later with his kettle, from which he poured a generous amount of boiling water, leaving the rusty keyhole steaming in the early morning light. Gates breached, the young man led his donkey from within the security of the town’s solid stone walls out into the vast, yawning plains bordering it, turned north, and headed straight for the pass through the mountains. He was no stranger to the route, having taken it not less than four times before, and he was confident that with such an early start and a steady pace, he would get to the next village soon… oh yes he would.


As the day went on the young man began to feel the strain of the journey. It wasn’t easy navigating jagged rocks slippery with the thawing of last night’s frost. Add to the equation a heavy load and a donkey laden with cloth and he found himself stopping for a much needed break every few miles or so. Water from the numerous creeks draining the mountains provided him with refreshment while he munched on the crusty homemade loaves of goodness his mom purchased from the local bakery every couple of days. He had travelled close to twenty miles when dusk cast its eerie shadow across the broad valley. He was close to his favourite camping spot, which was a small alcove set into a rocky cliff known locally as Hangman’s Rock. It wasn’t much of a home, but it did shield many a weary traveller from the ravages of the northeastern winds, especially during this time of the year. The young man pressed on, his eyes keenly scanning the horizon for the landmark, when suddenly a cold wind rose, howling through the half-dark valley like a thousand spirits set loose. He felt his heartbeat quicken, and a tiny voice inside his head whispered words of worry which flushed his cheeks and made him increase his pace, stumbling over the treacherous route in the fading light.


It was cold. Bloody freezing cold and he knew he was in trouble. An hour ago when the first snowflake fell, it fell with certain deliberateness that spoke of impending calamity. The mountains had gone all silent, and the clip-clop of the donkey’s hooves recreated the echoes of the night before… when he was still safe and warm in his barn. Slowly but surely the storm started, covering everything with a thin layer of white, beautiful at first, then thicker and thicker till he found himself trudging through a layer of slush just to keep moving. He had somehow missed Hangman’s Rock, and this puzzled him. It didn’t matter now. Night had taken over and the storm was now in full force. The mountains were merciless, staring down at the tiny figure determinedly pressing on in the dark, aided only by the feeble glow of his gas lamp. With stiff fingers he fumbled around in his oilskin bag till he found the thick overcoat he always brought along, but never had opportunity to wear till tonight. He unrolled a bale of his mother’s thickest woolen cloth and draped it over the donkey, which, by this time didn’t seem all too pleased with the state of affairs. The wind tore at his face, and he pulled up his collar, in a feeble attempt to shield it. It worked somewhat, and staring into the darkness ahead, he moved on.


Morning broke, and the young man awoke under a small rock shelf that jutted squarely out of the cliff face. The storm last night had ended as abruptly as it began, leaving man and animal knee-deep in snow in the dead of night. He was about to give up any hope of finding shelter for the night when the glow of his gas lamp, which had seemed so powerful in the barn the night before, picked out a small strip of rock that stuck out perpendicularly from the rocky wall, as if Fate had had enough fun with the pair for the night. Sleep came swiftly and easily for both, and it was nearing noon that the man finally stirred from his dreamless sleep. Limbs numb from the cold, he lay there on the makeshift mat fashioned from his mother’s cloth, unable to move for a few minutes. As the sun beat down on him, he felt the heavy leaded feeling in his legs melt away, allowing certain degree of movement. He sat up, surprised at the amount of effort it took. Dragging himself to his feet, he stumbled over to his porter, which was happily licking the ice off the cliff surface, and searched for his oilskin bag…


Which was gone. And he was so certain he tied it fast to the animal last night. In fact, he made doubly sure that it was secure, before dragging the donkey through the last two hours of his journey. And now it was gone. Lost. He stared in disbelief at the frayed cotton twine, which once held his hopes of survival. The tattered ends wriggled mockingly in the breeze, taunting him with Fate’s trump card.


Nightfall, and the young man plunged valiantly on through the darkness. He had found his bearing by watching the sun on its unalterable course through the sky, and had found Hangman’s Rock a mile and a half to the east. He had spent the day headed towards the village, it being closer than turning back. Hungry and fatigued, the donkey had given up on him earlier on, and had simply refused to budge from his seat. The young man was forced to leave it behind, its forlorn eyes staring vacantly at the master who once fed it well. It pained him to see his donkey go. Eight years it had served him, wind or rain, day or night. Even more heartbreaking was its precious cargo of cloth, bearing the sweatstained labour-mark of his mother. For a moment he wondered if he would ever see her again.


He fell more than once that night, but picked himself up and carried on, in the knowledge that death was certain if he had to spend another night in the cold with no food or shelter. His boots had started letting in water a few hours ago, and now his toes were freezing in the damp. His vision played tricks on him. He once thought he saw a group of old men standing in the snow ahead. They looked on silently, then vanished. He felt his strength wasting away as the night wore on, his fingers as good as non-existent, and his eyes hurting from the dry wind.


He didn’t suffer very long. They found him the following morning, cold, stiff and lifeless, just 400 yards from the village where he was to have hawked his wares. Three of his fingers had snapped off as he fell, for the last time, face down into the ice and snow. They sent him back to his cozy little town, where he was buried alongside his mother, who had passed on in the bitter cold of the first night. And as they laid to rest a gaunt, stout, and fairly dark young man with a slightly protruding jaw and eyes like a cornered rat’s], the wind started to howl once more.

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