March 21, 2012 by JRD Skinner
Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode two hundred and fifty-three.
Tonight we present, The Tightened Braid: a Blackhall Tale, Part 5 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, suffers a sudden reunion.
The Tightened Braid: a Blackhall Tale, Part 5 of 6 – Come Hell
From his forgotten post in the barren oak, Thomas Blackhall watched the unnatural melee unfold.
Below, the Fitzhugh doppelgangers had fallen onto their training and assembled into a tight firing line, as if facing a continental army. Their squared shoulders knocked snow from the surrounding brush, and their boots were steadfastly planted, but the dozen men seemed to constitute a meager formation to oppose the uncounted stumbling dead that flowed from the depths of the wildwood.
Still, their muskets cracked, and reloaded, at a tenacious speed.
For her part, Thomas could see that the crone, who stood well behind her mystically resurrected wall of writhing flesh, did naught but grin at the soldiers’ efforts.
The approaching cadavers were a motley lot: Some were clad in funerary finery, and some had had their clothing so badly beaten by the exposure of their endless trek that they were now unrecognizable as anything but rags – yet others wore only their own molding skin.
Blackhall, whose mouth remained brimming with the water he’d gained through patient persistence, lay a hand on The Green Drum, and leaned further from his roost. His focus had caught upon a familiar form drifting through the dim, amid a small cluster of flanking corpses.
Mairi’s gaze was unseeing, and the cream gown he’d buried her in – the same she’d worn on the day of their joining – was tattered, but he could not resist the opportunity to be near to her.
Catching his occult instrument securely in his Baker rifle’s strap, Blackhall hung both across a stout limb, and began his descent.
It required great attention to not unwittingly sip at his jaws’ payload, but, once on the ground, Thomas moved as if in a dream.
The stiff carcasses made no effort to step high, over the white drifts, but, instead, left their feet to drag through the resisting powder, slowing their progress. Overtaking the group was a simple enough process, but, as Blackhall reached the ambush party, he was unsure what greeting he might expect.
With a kick which sent an unwanted trickle of liquid down his throat, Thomas toppled the nearest shambler, a curly-haired man, in a mud-stained set of suit trousers, whose scalp had been increasingly torn-wide by unyielding branches. Never pausing, the empty-faced straggler paid no attention to the affront, but only worked to regain his footing, so that he might continue his ponderous assault.
Releasing his saber, Blackhall gave in to the temptation of scrambling to his Mairi’s side.
Beyond his prize, the Fitzhughs had drawn into a close circle, and were holding what ground they could with muskets turned to clubs, or naked blades. The weapons appeared of scant use in turning back the press of animated bodies, although many fleshy scraps of the deceased lay separated from their owners, and motionless on the frost about the defenders’ feet.
Thomas reflected, briefly, that the authentic Fitzhugh – standing at the midpoint of the ring, and anxiously waving the bone-handled, silver-bladed, dagger – would be without trouble in
maintaining the flow of blood necessary to keep his force under their current enchantment of transformation, but, after a last closing step, Blackhall’s considerations were carried off by the chill blow of the winter wind, as it pulled at his wife’s knotted hair.
Her rites had been said below a weeping sky, both an ocean, and a lifetime, away.
The vigil and liturgy had taken place on his father’s estate, where the family preserved a long history of consigning their cherished dead. Too clearly he remembered the cavernous room that had held her exhausted form, reposed in preparation for internment. The painted clutter of some forgotten ancestor climbed the green and gold loops of the wallpaper, in a pale imitation of floral gaiety, and the ornate box at the room’s center, in which his beloved had been laid, seemed over-large for her tiny frame.
Under his scrutiny, the soft lines of her wedding dress stood stark against the red velvet of the coffin.
Not far down the hall, his daughter had mewled, occasionally, from within her swaddling, but, beside those infrequent complaints, the newborn had slept rather than face the day.
It was Thomas’ decision to negate the pomp and circumstance so often given death, and he had received no few ill-intended stares, from the damp eyes of his theatrically-minded cousins, at his demand that the room be cleared.
As the infuriatingly constant grandfather clock marked the short hours before her burial, he spoke to Mairi of the existence they had promised each other, and of the grand life he intended to make for their Elizabeth. He wept, and laughed, and screamed.
Spent, he eventually made his best effort, with unpracticed hands, to plait her hair, as was her preference. It was a rough result, as her lolling neck gave no help, but his vision was greatly clouded by the project’s completion, and he knew there was little more he could do.
Despite the outrageous abuses her remains had suffered in the interim, Thomas’ approach now made clear that the braid had held.
He offered no attempt to speak to his wife as he swept aside a pine branch to allow for a better view of her ashen grimace. Her lips had withered, revealing gaps between her once pristine teeth, and her left ear had been lost to some unknown trauma.
Time and distance had hardened the frontiersman, and yet the sight was enough to drive his heart to agony.
Unable to release his tongue, he silently cursed the hag, and Fitzhugh, who had robbed him of the equipment necessary to destroy the old woman, then, with an unexpectedly steady grasp, he held Mairi’s trailing mane, and raised his sword.
His arm’s motion was firm, but true, and, once separated from her tress, his wife continued on, unheeding, towards her grisly objective.
Thomas did not linger, as he sheathed his weapon and stuffed the captured hair into a deep pocket of his greatcoat.
It was as he was mid-ascent, and almost returned to his materials, that the crone noted his presence.
Fresh instructions rolled from her hollow scowl, weighed by the snarl of command, and the rotting procession wheeled, focusing instead on Blackhall’s nest.
He no longer cared.
Frustration, as Thomas had not felt since first taking in the news of his beloved’s defilement, and further stoked by his restricted ability to let fly his voice, blazed in his chest as he retook his lofty station.
The memory of his graceless fingers, on the day of Mairi’s requiem, came to him then, and drove his conduct before reason could halt the useless action: For, there were other skills his appendages had since learned as instinct, and a rare marksmanship was amongst them.
Nonetheless, while his shot landed as intended, passing through the harridan’s right lung and theoretical heart, she only laughed at the insult.
Unhesitating, Blackhall slung his empty rifle, and let a portion of his precariously transported liquid dribble atop the freshly stretched skin of The Green Drum. His opening strike upon the surface of the viking relic cut short the witch’s merriment.
Too late did she realize that the bare oak he’d scaled was not a last resort, but an escape.
Each booming impact let fly a spray of water, and, as the droplets settled over the chilled bark of his temporary sanctuary, the timber commenced to sway with a terrible rhythm. There came bursting, from every point of moisture, a new sprout, and from every new sprout, a bough. The growth, however, did not advance without purpose. As if guided by a master shipwright, the leafy spurs surged and became struts, then broadened and intertwined, weaving a flat-bellied dragonboat about Thomas’ cadence.
Though his supply of liquid had long run out, as Blackhall maintained a galley’s beat, his rough seat fattened to a level bench, and the tool of his enchantment became solidly affixed to the floor which had formed beneath him.
Below, the clumsy ghouls had gained some purchase in their climb, but they had not yet achieved half their goal when the structure had completed knitting itself into a whole.
No longer was it Blackhall’s tree alone which roiled at the sound of the drum, for the forest now seemed to rise at its tips, and bend in an otherwise unfelt gale. As pine and cedar bowed with equal fervor, there came to Thomas’ ear a sound like scraped shoals. With a series of creaking snaps, the vessel was separated at the dozen points which held it to the tree of its origin, and the craft lurched forward.
Finally, held aloft by the grasping woodland which had been roused to convey it, The Green Ship sailed.
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