March 25, 2012 by JRD Skinner
Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode two hundred and fifty-four.
Tonight we present, The Tightened Braid: a Blackhall Tale, Part 6 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 6 of 6 – The Beginning
Before he could bring his occult ship fully under control, Thomas had moved well beyond the knot of Fitzhughs, and the crone, and his beloved Mairi.
Beneath his northward-bound hull, the trees rolled ever onward, allowing ample latitude with which to practice the control of his strange tool. The forest, he found, rose and fell like any sea, though the crests were determined by the vagaries of sunlight and soil, rather than wind and gravity.
For some time there were but the sounds of creaking timber, and his steady pounding.
Eventually, Blackhall rode over an ocean of pines, which seemed, in the moonlight, to stretch outside his reckoning. He understood by then that his speed was determined by the meter of his drumming, and that his direction was readily alterable by aiming his impacts towards the edge of the instrument’s head, and so, thus confident in his course, Thomas allowed himself a moment of consideration, as the wildwood bent to meet his bow.
It had been his intention, until that point, simply to escape. Once free of pursuers, he’d reasoned, he could devise a method of extracting his stolen gear, for, without his equipment, he had no doubt as to the outcome of a confrontation with the witch – just as he had no doubt as to the inevitable result of the current contest.
He did not look forward to someday overtaking the dead column, and encountering the gaunt face of his former comrade. Would Fitzhugh’s likness be duplicated a dozen times along the parade of cadavers?
There was also the matter of the dagger. Misuse of the arcane blade had obviously drawn the crone, and it was a surety that its ownership would pass into her hands. Despite the carnage it had caused, though, Thomas knew it would be far from her most powerful talisman.
He took some small comfort in the fact that Fitzhugh had discovered the proper use of only one of the charms, and, yet, he worried that even the captain’s unsuccessful experimentations would be enough to bring the hag to Perth.
It was this thought, and the realization that he faced a shrinking opportunity to regain his relics, which shook Blackhall from his revere. His hands had become numb from cold and use, and his coat had taken on a layer of snowy frost, but he now set about redoubling his tempo.
The witch would not dare approach the settlement, Thomas knew, if he were once again in possession of his tools – and so it was a race.
There were few landmarks, at his great height, to reckon how close he returned to the battle site, but his staccato carried him wide of the mark. It was only as the trees thinned, at the cusp of civilization’s assertion, that he realized he was under-trained in the mooring of his ship.
His rhythm slowed, and so, too, did the vessel. Judging his rapidly diminishing momentum, he aimed for a final colossal maple, which marked the boundary of a farmer’s field. With measured arms, he let his craft brush the bulky limbs, then ceased his tattoo. As if a Sunday cruise encountering a friendly jetty, his sprouted-boat came to a bobbing stop.
There was little time to enjoy the victory, as the bench which had held him immediately commenced to crumble. It required quick action, and steady feet, to exit with the drum before The Green Ship’s leafy planks became fully unglued, and fell away to the ivory turf below.
Once firmly on the ground, however, there remained some distance to walk until Blackhall would encounter the lopsided shanties that marked Perth’s furthest outreaches, and, as he progressed over the drift-covered croplands, the enormity of the task ahead began to weigh at his mind. It was not a mystic problem, but one of mundane logistics.
There would likely be at least a pair of burly sentries – innocents – at the captain’s quarters, and who was even to say that Fitzhugh would be fool enough to store the artifacts where they might so easily be reclaimed?
Possibly even more pressing, Thomas was unsure of his status in relation to the bloodied corpse he’d left on the floor of his rented room.
Was he a wanted man?
The question guided his course upon re-entering the town’s limits, and his initial destination was a lingering stroll past the darkened windows of his former place of lodging, The Bucking Pony.
It was there that he received his last surprise of the evening.
Leaning against the public house’s rough planks, with a satchel at his feet, was a figure whose upturned collar, and low knit cap, prevented immediate identification.
When the form detached himself from the structure and approached, Blackhall allowed his right hand to drift to his sabre’s chilled hilt. As the distance closed, however,Thomas recognized the stranger as the quiet lad who’d driven the sleigh for himself, and Wesley Shea, but a few hours earlier.
“Come, come,” said the youth, and so the frontiersman did. As they stalked the empty boardwalk that lined the street’s shops, the boy’s feet and tongue moved with anxious energy. “I waited too long to follow, and I must apologize. I did run, but, by then, you were well gone. From a distance, I watched a band of Fitzhughs flow from between buildings, and gather in a sleigh brought round by yet another. If they noted my presence, they paid me no heed.
“After they were gone, all was silence. It was as if I were forgotten.”
Despite the pace, Blackhall seized the excuse to retrieve, from the depths of his coat, his Virginian tobacco and fine Spanish papers.
“I am certain,” he replied, “that your captain would have had a well-sharpened word with you when he returned, if it were not for the delays he encountered.”
With white-filled eyes, the private nodded. “My duty in acting as spy has been marked, officially, as leave, so, when I reappeared, I wasn’t much noticed. I ventured to my bunk, to try and sleep, but I was left feeling as if matters were unconcluded, and rest was elusive.
“It was while lying there, with my nerves being worn away by the lack of resolution, that your damnable tale came to me. For whatever purpose, you’ve revealed to me a world I couldn’t have known existed – a world beyond this colony, beyond home, beyond the entirety of the blessed empire. The power you have shown me is too much to rest in the hands of those with so narrow a goal as world domination, and, as such -” The speaker halted at the entrance to the town’s meager post office, and turned a squint on Blackhall. “No, first, tell me: What designs have you with the tools you have carried here?”
Thomas, who had completed the construction of his vice, raised a brow at the question, but answered honestly. “I wish only to retrieve the roaming corpse of my wife, so that I might lay her body to rest, and her spirit as well.”
The response brought a smile to his companion’s lips. “A romantic, eh? I wouldn’t have guessed it. I’ve long held that anyone desiring a position is likely not the best candidate for it. Here, then, are your goods.
“I played my last card with my chum, telling him that Fitz himself had asked for the retrieval. The blokes watching the door knew his face, and didn’t think hard on the move, as he’d been doing it for weeks during your comings and goings.
“They’ll be plenty displeased to find the lie of the thing, though, so it’s probably best they are not allowed an opportunity to inform us of such.”
Blackhall had thought the boy was bound to suggest a partnership; that the satchel had held supplies necessary for their imminent departure. He hadn’t expected this turn of events, and, as he accepted the extended gift, he found it necessary to clear his throat before he could provide his reply.
“Considering the efforts you have undertaken on my behalf, I feel quite beggarly in admitting I do not recall your name. Shea made it known to me, when we hired you on, but it has been lost in the chaos.
“Furthermore, if I am truthful, you may be my only living, human, friend in this bedeviled land.
“Worse, I have favours I must ask, favours which will draw you nearer to the types of uncanny danger that have thus far hounded our association.”
Little did Blackhall realize the import of his words, nor the nature of the remarkable partnership he had just proposed.
“The Queen likely won’t have me back, so I can’t see that I’ve anything better to occupy myself with,” replied the youth, as he buried his hands in his jacket pockets. “I feel bound to help, and will do so happily if it might sate the curiosity my mother long warned would be the death of me.
“Oh, and the name she gave me was Montgomery – Montgomery Smith.”
They spoke on in the hush, forging plans, then, at dawn, they began their journey north.
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