FP286 – Grip: a Blackhall Tale, Part 2 of 3
Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode two hundred and eighty-six.
This week’s episodes are brought to you by Subversion.
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, master frontiersman and student of the occult, Thomas Blackhall, finds himself witness to a murder, and a mystical metamorphosis.
Grip: a Blackhall Tale, Part 2 of 3
Nestled within the rasping branches of a squat blue spruce, Blackhall considered if perhaps holding palaver with the dead sleigh-man might have been a more fruitful course. There had been little time for the decision, as the storm overhead unleashed a thickening volley of wind and snow, and the loss of the tracks marking the five remaining passengers had seemed the greater threat in the moment.
Now, with his vision reduced to the edge of his hat’s brim and the land quickly flooding with ivory, Thomas doubted he would be able to locate the Frenchman’s corpse if he did somehow managed to stumble back to the main trail.
He could only wait out the flurry and hope that continuing generally westward would be enough to determine where the party had been headed. Given the weather, he guessed it could not be far, but, with his confidence in his navigation stymied by the mind-clouding impact of his sudden descent, and without sky or landmarks to guide him, he’d just as likely wander into Peking as locate his stolen goods.
In the meantime he was left to wait; to ruminate on his lost pouch – and his lost wife.
At dusk, as he dozed lightly beneath his layers of wool and lining, the wind dropped to a gentle nudge, and the downfall lessened to a persistent dusting.
Once he’d cracked the powdery shell that had grown around his hasty refuge, Blackhall cursed the dipping sun and pressed hard west before winter’s early dusk could fully rob him of his search.
An hour passed, then two, and yet, despite the night’s arrival, a pregnant moon rose through the spent clouds, offering a small boon to ease Thomas’ chilled frustrations.
It was as he broke from a stand of frozen birch that he spotted the woman.
She had rested an arm on a nearby branch, and her ebon skin stood fully exposed to the harsh cold. If the unlikelihood of the encounter had not set Thomas back, then her stature certainly did, as such a lush physique was a rare sight for the widower.
If she had not collapsed, he reflected afterward, he might have been tempted to briefly linger.
Instead, with a sigh of “damnation,” she toppled forward into the powder.
Blackhall was relieved to find her yet alive as he lay his knee beside her, and he was quick to unfurl a blanket about her nearly-frostbitten form. As he did so, however, he discovered the sear and tear that he’d seen too often in his time fighting the little dictator.
“Is this a musket wound?” he asked.
As she replied the newfound warmth seemed to bring some relief.
“Fear carried me far and fast – in all honesty, I did not even realize I’d been wounded until I’d cleared a deadfall in five leaps. I haven’t held such alacrity since I was a child, but I suppose, as my husband used to say, being shot at is a strangely motivating experience.
”Still, though I look twenty, I remain a ragged fifty. My hip hurt even as I grew sure of my freedom, and my breath seems to slowly escape me.”
With numb fingers he unbuttoned his greatcoat and wrapped its ends about her blanketed shoulders, so that his heat might be added to her own.
It was a poor shelter, he knew, but Blackhall was just as aware that it was not the cold that would end her. There was naught he could do for her wound but provide comfort and conversation in her final moments – though the lung seemed hardly punctured, it only meant it would be a slow, painful, end.
“Though I do not wish to burden you in your current state,” he said, “I must admit, I understand little of what you’re saying.”
“You are the man in the treetop ship, are you not?”
“They were spooked at your passing. With some desperation they waved their pistols, and told us to proceed into the woods.
“Oh, I see your doubt, but I did not look like this then. I looked as myself – white certainly, but also an aging mother with sagging face and body, proudly showing the signs of babies past and a skill in the creation of sweet cakes. Were Horatio alive to see me, he would think his pillow talk fantasies had come true.
“Anyhow, Arseneau declared a stand, saying that they could have our coin and even his sleigh and team – though it likely meant a death by exposure for the lot of us – but he would not be marched into the weald to be executed and forgotten in the shadow of an unnamed hill.
“Without a second concern the elder of the two, he in the well-tailored suit, let fly with his weapon. Before the echo had left our ears, the dandy had moved on to berating his brother – yes, once clearly seen they were unmistakably of the same horrible lineage – for overplaying his hand, for pressing his act as an inebriate to the point of risking their safe operation.”
She pointed as she spoke. “They’re not far off, squatting in a former logging operation. It seemed I was running forever, but surely it could be no more than a mile of this frozen landscape.”
“The pox camp?” asked Blackhall. Her breathing was becoming increasingly ragged, and his impatience for details warred with his sympathy for the dying woman.
Nearly panting, she replied, “though I’ve no doubt it’s what drove the original inhabitants from the place, if there was pox, it is not there now. During Senior’s tirade it became apparent that the younger man has a knack for vomiting on command, and that it’s a talent intended to be used to deter any unexpected visitors who stumble across the grounds.
“We were apparently lucky he did not utilize the trick while enacting his false drunk.”
“Yes,” said Thomas, “but how did you come to your current state?”
“The third. The eldest.
“There are four long houses left standing in which they shelter. Three are left always cold, while the final is where they slumber. In the one in which we were housed – in which I was intended to be housed – they’ve left a dead family of four. The bodies have frozen to the walls, but the brothers insisted loudly that earth is too solid for a burial, and the unused cabin is required in case they should be taken to – visit with us privately.
“They’ve driven iron spikes into the beams beneath the floor of the last shanty, deep teeth of steel, and they’ve affixed thick chains to those anchors. The manacles are so cold my skin stuck to their rim as they applied them.
“The ritual was conducted on each captive in turn, though the configuration of our prone bodies was such that we could not gain clear view of one another – at least, that was my case.
“I had suspected a perverse indignation, but I did not know exactly what to make of the screaming until the needles began to pierce my own skin. The world seemed filled with searing, and I wept at the constant pressure of the pinpricks.
“The work seemed to last forever, but, though I can not say what pattern was created, it was clear from the mix of blood and ink that saturated the floorboards that I was being marked.
“I know not the source of his power any more than I know how you sailed the timber, but, when he completed his design, my body – changed. Took this form.”
“They spoke as I howled. Their greatest reassurance is that they have business associates arriving on the morrow. I have no confirmation, but it’s my guess that their impending company would have shipped me south for sale to a plantation lord, well outside the reach of family and any mind who might believe my tale of unlikely misfortune.”
“So you ran at the earliest opportunity?” asked Thomas. It felt a thick question, but it was all he could think to do against the transformed matron’s fading tone.
“Look beyond the change in my skin. My bosom has never been so supple, my hips never so suggestive. No, it’s not from the horrors they intended tomorrow that I ran – it was those they intended tonight.”
It was the final statement the woman would make, though her moist gasps spun increasingly fragile strands in the chill air until dawn. As light filled the land, so too did the last of it flee from her glazed eyes.
Pushing away the blanket they’d shared, Blackhall stood.
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