March 19, 2012 by JRD Skinner
Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode two hundred and fifty-two.
Tonight we present, The Tightened Braid: a Blackhall Tale, Part 4 of 6
This week’s episodes are brought to you by Groggy Frog Thai Massage.
Flash Pulp is an experiment in broadcasting fresh pulp stories in the modern age – three to ten minutes of fiction brought to you Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.
Tonight, Thomas Blackhall, master frontiersman and student of the occult, is unexpectedly held up by a surprising arrival.
The Tightened Braid: a Blackhall Tale, Part 4 of 6 – Of Partisans and Parades
As Thomas made his way north, his lungs complained at each intake of frosted night air. Farmers’ axes had pushed hard at the forest, but, in this fresh land, the wilderness still stood ever on the horizon, and it was towards the shelter of those thick-limbed pines which Blackhall drove his legs.
His focus had contracted into naught but a single line, which projected from the distant trees, passed over himself, and continued on to the panting duo who chased at his heels.
He had long given up praying, but, as he urged himself on, he gave a small thought to his Mairi. Was this not simply a continuation of the mad race he’d been running since receiving word regarding the fate of her haunted corpse?
Under the pitiless brilliance of the winter stars, his mind briefly settled on a moment, some years earlier, beneath a soft June sun, in which he’d watched his beloved unfurl her plaited braid as she bathed in a crisp hill spring. The world had seemed clean, and full of light, and endlessly filled with affection.
The promises he’d made to his dead wife came to Blackhall then, whispered back to him in Mairi’s voice, and his boots were carried onward.
The pair of trailing Fitzhughs were unable to match this restored stride, but their mired tempo was quickly corrected by the arrival of a two-horse sleigh, bearing in its bed another half dozen of the captain. The doppelgangers were swift in extending helping arms to their brethren, but, with no room to be spared, the lagging twins were forced to take up stations standing atop the skids.
It was only Thomas’ choice to vault a homesteader’s ambitiously constructed rock-wall which bought the time necessary to move out of the broad fields, and into the close smell of timber – and yet, although his chest cramped and flamed with exertion, he dared not rest.
Thick underbrush meant the conveyance’s advantaged was lost, and its occupants disgorged into the wildwood. No more did they call Blackhall’s name, nor curse his heritage, nor offer soothing lies – all that could be heard of their approach was the huff of their effort.
Amongst the evergreens, the gloom was universal. Nonetheless, the frontiersman scrutinized the blackness, hoping to find an expedient escape. The search slowed his progress, and he was soon forced to lay a hand heavily onto the cheek of the nearest Fitzhugh, but, even while he laid the man low, Thomas’ gaze touched on a fat set of barren branches, ascending in a nearly ladder-like fashion. With the awkward bulk of the drum beneath his arm, and his Baker rifle bouncing at his shoulder, he stooped for a mouthful of snow, then took to the tree at a squirrel’s pace.
As he hoped, rather than make a hurried assault towards his prodding saber, his attackers began to circle his perch. The air grew thick with the coppery musk of blood, but, before the predators might settle on a modified course of action, a second party arrived.
There was no difference immediately visible in these new, yet identical, Fitzhughs, except for the muskets they bore – at least, until one of the newcomers stepped forward.
“Ho, Blackhall,” said the apparent leader, who stood somehow more firmly than his compatriots. “You look as if a frightened tom cat, caught wooing an estate’s mouser. Descend and we will discuss this matter – lest I send my friends to shake you down.”
Thomas did not respond, but, instead, worried the increasingly slushy mass he held astride his tongue.
Despite the thirst he’d created in his flight, he dared not swallow a drop of the meager water supply.
“I understand your distrust. I am sorry for the death of Shea, I find myself excitable these days. That said, really, I shouldn’t be blamed: Consider the nature of what you were hiding!
“There have been losses, yes, but, in sum, your cache has been an enormous boon to the settlement.
“In truth, I did not mean to hold on to the tools quite so long – but, well, there was an incident, in which a Lieutenant Green found his hand quite badly bitten by the blade of the silver dagger. After calming myself as to the implications of my suddenly transformed twin, I realized the use of such a talent. If a thing is easiest done by oneself, then surely it is even better done with an army of selves.”
Above his waggling moustache, the true Fitzhugh’s eyes smoldered with an arcane light, and Blackhall damned the man as a fool.
Thomas himself had once been caught up in the same thrill of dominion. The energies which flowed in this pristine territory were a flood in comparison to the dying flicker of their homeland, and, not long after his landing, he’d been eager to press the limits of his untested education.
He’d learned the nature of his mistake once he’d fallen under the keen noses of the fairytale menagerie which, hungry for just such occult potency, stalked the land.
“I do admit that errors were made,” continued the captain, “It is no easy thing to balance my progeny’s well-being against the constant bleeding necessary to keep them in their superior state. One day the graves that I have dug will be commemorated as the resting places of heroes, but, regardless, you must weigh the deeds their sacrifices have accomplished against how many die, daily and without purpose, in the muck of the backwoods.
“The productivity I have offered our community will save lives, many more than it has done under. Was this not the equation we lived by in the war against the tiny emperor? Was this not the logic which pressed our shoulders together in the Spanish streets, and which propelled our bayonets into the bellies of the French?
“You can not imagine the service I have rendered these last weeks. Each new collaborator – each new confederate who knows my thoughts and holds my drive for accomplishment – means another dispute arbitrated, another barroom conflict interrupted, another roadway undertaken.
“Better yet, it means another rescue party successfully lead, another supply of medicine reaching the sick, or another marauder brought to justice, and I am but a mere captain. Imagine what I might do with the men beneath me when I am made general.
“We must be allies again, you and I. While I have mastered the dagger there have been – mistakes – made with certain of the other artifacts. Without your guidance, I’ve had no option but to discover their use through trial and unfortunate error – but we will talk. You will teach me, and, together, we will bring the king’s rule to this land of rustics and drunks.”
Realizing it was only a supposed familiarity with The Eremite’s relics – knowledge he did not have – which had kept him alive thus far, Thomas was content to again refuse a reply. He was sure, anyhow, that his considered retort, indicating his reason for taking up arms against Napoleon had much to do with excessive influence concentrated in one man, would do him little good.
Blackhall’s jaws were close to holding plain liquid, and he moved to reposition The Green Drum. Until now he’d but read of its purpose, though he depended fully on its legend holding true.
Before he might begin the short ritual, however, a ghastly parade appeared.
The shuffling column of intruders did not advance with the sharp purpose of the duplicates; their gait was staggering, and their flesh was rotted. At their head stood a hag, her taut lips pulled into a skull’s grin.
The great witch, whom Thomas had hounded through the wilderness, had arrived to claim the power she’d scented upon the wind.
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