FP312 – The Long Haul: a Blackhall Chronicle, Part 1 of 3
Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode three hundred and twelve.
This week’s episodes are brought to you by Glow-in-the-Dark Radio
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, finds himself transporting a pair bound for a new life – if they can stay warm long enough to see it.
The Long Haul: a Blackhall Chronicle, Part 1 of 3
Written by J.R.D. Skinner
Art and Narration by Opopanax
and Audio produced by Jessica May
Leaving behind many troubles, Thomas had been forced into a long journey with two companions who were unprepared for the wintery undertaking. The warm air brought in by a passing blizzard had abandoned them, and the temperature had begun a treacherous descent. To pause even briefly under the snow-heavy pines would likely mean their end, but Blackhall was a man of no ordinary means. With some effort of coordination he’d been able to seat his charges within the confines of the Green Ship, an arcane relic whose driving engine was a drum empowered to form the barren branches above into a rolling sea of greenery, and a vessel to carry them.
The longship’s soaring transit offered little shelter from the wind and drifting precipitation, however, and the Bells had just each other and a set of blankets to fight the encroaching chill.
Thomas knew that if the couple were to avoid the loss of fingers, toes, or worse, it would be by spotting a smokey column on the horizon.
Conversation was their last ward against shivering, but thanks and amazement only carried the Bell’s discussion so far. Soon, despite the fantastic events they had left behind, talk sank to the mundane. Still, James and Clara, their tongues greased from their narrow escape, seemed to chatter endlessly as Blackhall worried himself with the rhythm.
He’d been fatigued well before their sudden departure, and his shoulders still ached with his inbound voyage, but the frontiersman, understanding all too well the perils of such an underprepared excursion, considered that the alternative was likely silent fear, and, as such, did his best to encourage the waste of energy while providing as scant input as possible of his own.
After ranging over likely sources of assistance once civilization was re-achieved, the conference lapsed into a broader debate regarding the status, both marital and financial, of various friends and cousins. The topic of relations was much on Clara’s tongue, and it was with that hook which she attempted to more-fully draw out Thomas.
“- and what of you, sir? Have you a wife awaiting your return?”
Blackhall’s mind drifted to his capering Mairi and her own trek. He was forced to remind himself that even this damnably slow passage was yet another aspect of his chase, then he banished the image of his dead wife from his thoughts.
His drumming slowed, and the swell and sway of the limbs that carried the ship grew calm.
At a speed better suited to a summer afternoon’s fishing expedition, he said, “my arms tire, but disembarking is a trick I’d rather only attempt once. Let me tell you a tale of marriage and fidelity, while I briefly savor a slackened pace.
“Not but two years ago, in the fall, I met an old man named Erikson, a scrawny necked plow-wrangler living at the edge of a place barely known as Clifford, some miles east. The community consisted of perhaps four dozen souls, at maximum, and the timing of my appearance found them all in great sadness over the death of Mrs. Erikson.
“There was not a fireside in the place that was not made dimmer by her passing, and, though most were quick enough to ladle me a spoon of broth or share an end of bread, there was no joy to be had in the lake-hugging village.
“It wasn’t an easy thing to behold, those leaning huts and moping children, and nature itself, in its autumnal glory, seemed to feel the same: The leaves fell from the maples as if fiery tears.
“Now, I’d come not for its hospitality, mind you. I’d set out on word that a pair of huntsmen, fellows by the unlikely names of Hargo and Muse, had intention to ply their trade in the area.
“You see, I’d just arrived from the nearest town of Mikleson, which too had had a recent death. There they’d seen to the final rest of a boy of eighteen, and, once paid, they’d quickly struck out for fresh soil to churn. So survive vampire hunters and their ilk – even in these enlightened days.
“Clifford’s plans to improve their meager cemetery were often on the lips of the locals, but death is an inconsistent, and unfortunate, reminder, and I suspect they wanted as little to do with the patch as necessary when they might forget its presence.
“There were no more than twenty plots laid out in that strange garden, but all without stone markings, so that the engraved wood that had been used gave better indication of the age of the burial, by its rotting nature, than the hardly legible carvings indicating names and dates.
“With the populace in mourning black, their heads covered and their faces long, I’ve no doubt that Hargo and Muse thought their luck bright. Their profession is not one conducted any longer in open air, but instead relegated to secret dealings with grieving family or concerned community members.
“It was not long before rumour of midnight returns and mysterious illnesses had shot through every keyhole and passed over every supping table.
“Hargo and Muse required three days of haggling to convince Erikson to pay over their fee, and at no small tithe to his whiskey.
“The first time I’d met with the old man his eyes had been dewey and his fingers prone to trembling at the mention of his wife’s name.
“By the time negotiations were complete his gaze was clear and his hands steady.”
Thomas’ own fingers had grown numb from the unceasing blast from the north, but the lessened pace, and remembered anger, had eased the knots that had gathered about his neck and spine.
His palms fell with renewed purpose as he continued.
“It’s an easy enough trade, if you’ve the stomach to lie to the recently bereaved and mutilate the dead – beyond that it requires little more skill than ditch digging.
“I can but imagine that Mrs. Erikson – the only surviving image of which portrayed a woman of sharp nose and boney countenance – provided something of the perfect archetype of their profession.
“On the final night of the business, when every home’s lamps had been extinguished and the bairns lay deep in their dreams, the entrepreneurs lifted high the shaved spruce that acted as gate arm to the small cemetery and carried in their tools.
“The moon, unwilling to pay witness to the sight, had pulled a swath of cloud across its gaze, and the meager lantern’s work was made all the more difficult in their liquored grasp. How many sanctuaries had they crept into under such pretence? I can not say, but certainly enough that the thought of cutting out the heart of a grandmother did not cap their levity.
“Hargo was a blond man of medium stature. I believe he intended his suede coat to provide something of the air of a gentleman, but its poor patchwork and mismatched thread colourings did nothing to sell the notion. Muse stood taller by a head, a thin-faced man whose lips were far too close to the termination of his chin. It was he who spoke loudly of a fair-limbed daughter of the village, a girl who would one day certainly be beautiful, but who was, in truth, too young to be mentioned in such a tawdry dialogue.
“Still, they quieted when it came to squinting at the poorly-chiseled placards, and, by the time Hargo was preparing to raise high his shovel and begin the process of disturbing the bed of decaying foliage that lay across Mrs. Erikson’s slumbers, dread had clearly descended.
“The spade’s plunge was halted by the whispers and moans.
“Again, I can not say how often the pair had carried out their commissions, but I can assure you it was the first occasion in which the leaves upon each mound began to writhe and leap.
“Then there was no reason for the men to dig, for it seemed that the dead had saved them the effort by rising from their graves to meet them.
“I doubt either will ever return to their craft, but I had little chance to quiz them on the topic as that was the last I, or any of the people of Clifford – most of whom were by then wiping the mud from their pants and the mirth-filled tears from their eyes – saw of the scoundrels.
“It was the widower himself laughing loudest.
“They had underestimated Mrs. Erikson’s playful nature, but I had sat and listened to the tales. When her love of mischief was plainly clear I drew up the plan and proposed it to her husband, who thought it would be exactly the sort of tomfoolery that would have left his beloved cackling – and exactly the sort of tomfoolery that had drawn the woman so close to the hearts of the townspeople.
“Though the pair of charlatans had failed to settle any lingering dead, or even collect their supposed reward, it was their efforts that inadvertently slew the keening air that had lain so heavily over the hamlet.”
The reminiscence had left Blackhall craving the taste of tobacco and Spanish paper, but he knew he’d rested too long in the telling. The grins upon his passenger’s lips carried him some warmth, but it was the frosty prodding at the collar of his great coat, and the unnatural whitening about the edges of his passenger’s ears, that brought up his cadence.
The craft began to rock and buck under the renewed beat, leaping ever towards the crisp, empty, horizon.
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