FP314 – The Long Haul: a Blackhall Chronicle, Part 3 of 3
Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode three hundred and fourteen.
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, confronts another ending in his journey.
The Long Haul: a Blackhall Chronicle, Part 3 of 3
Written by J.R.D. Skinner
Art and Narration by Opopanax
and Audio produced by Jessica May
Blackhall did not recall his first two attempts at waking.
The world gathered some substance in the third, however, even if it was of a spidery sort and prone to throwing snow flakes into his eyes.
He was surprised to find he was already speaking.
“…while I was wandering the Austrian mountains,” he mumbled to completion.
From somewhere beyond the shards that slid across the night sky, James Bell said, “fully understandable, given the circumstances. How could you have known?”
Thomas did not know.
As such, he asked, “apologies, what was I saying?”
It was Clara who replied. “You were telling us of the disappearance of Mairi.”
Blackhall tried hard to lift his arms, suddenly convinced that if he did not manage the task he and his companions would tumble to the earth below.
Despite his lack of success, his ears picked up the familiar drumbeat and he relaxed.
“Yes – yes,” he said. “When word of my missing wife reached me, I relented my arcane studies and made immediately for home. It was an anxious trip, and I’m certain the horses that carried me were little impressed with my passage – though they were likely thoroughly grateful to see me aboard a ship and away from their backs.
“Hmm – have I explained the circumstances of the discovery?”
“No, sir,” replied James. Thomas noted concern in his voice, and spared a thought in hope that the man was not too cold in his journey.
Surely they would encounter civilization soon?
Attempting to soothe his passenger, Blackhall continued, “of course not, of course not, for in those first moments none understood the depth of what had happened.
“When Jessamine Cooper’s grave was opened, the eyes of accusation turned towards her husband, Leander. The people of the community would trust him to sharpen their blades and mend their barrel hoops, but not with a debt over ten pence. The man had a knack for converting his family funds into wine, and Jessamine’s death was almost seen as a release for the poor woman.
“She was buried with the single item of worth she’d been able to retain, and her children – grown, broad shouldered, and with no more faith in their father than a stranger might have had – stood vigil at her burial to ensure the engraved silver cross about her neck was laid into the ground with her.
“You can understand the confusion then, when, some eight months later, the relic was found amongst the churchyard hedges.
“An abrupt exhumation took place, with Leander on hand and flanked by the local sheriff, but the results simply deepened the trouble.
“Not only was Jessamine’s jewelry disturbed, her grave was empty.
“Concerns regarding theft turned to fear of a more sinister perversion. Rumours flew that the estranged husband had wandered off with his wife’s corpse, but those close enough to see the man’s reaction had little doubt that he was just as surprised as the rest gathered around the gulf.
“That’s when my former playmate, Dewhurst, set fly his missive. He knew of my interest in the occult, and assumed it might be an instance in which my assistance was required.
“He could not have understood how pressing the summons truly was.”
Thomas’ sigh brought in what he hoped was a whiff of smoke. Perhaps it was an end to his journey? Somehow the ache in his arms had transferred to his ribs and skull, yet he pressed on.
“I was months late to discovering the whole yard opened by the townsfolk, and not a grave still full. They hadn’t bothered to fill the open pits that marked the missing dead. Not a corpse with meat on it was left to lie.
“I knew all too well the reason.
“Her name was lost well before we walked the earth; her years have been extended by artifice. I encountered her by accident, earlier in the year, having come to test a ritual I would later find was useless. We were in the cemetery of a hamlet, a town only notable for a spate of cholera deaths that had laid low a sizable portion of its population.
“It was raining. I’d chosen the storm to cloak my rite, assuming that my business would not be welcome if discovered, but, when I arrived, it seemed as if the place were alive with manic gardeners. They paid me no mind as I passed between them, and, though covered in mud from their planted knees to their blank-eyed faces, the crowd of mayhaps five hundred moved in near silence and with careful precision. It was while watching this process that I realized most were in a state of decay, and some were moving despite missing limbs and maggot-ridden wounds.
“They used just bare hands and their lack of pain for their tools, but with that many labourers what matter was it? They extracted the sod carefully, digging below the wormy dirt with wriggling fingers, then shifting the grass in wide patches. Once the soil beneath was exposed, however, their restraint was lost. With flailing arms they attacked the muck, pulling away great heaps in an effort to release their fellow corpses.
“Stumbling into the hag was an accident – striking her, doubly so. I had expected another slack jaw as I approached her back, but, when she turned about, not a foot from myself, and opened her mouth to release the beginning of an incantation better forgotten, I reacted – er – with force.
“Panicked, I ran.
“I had not considered the ramifications of the incident until my summons and return.
“Maybe it was simple pride that propelled her – I have no doubt, though, that most who’d encountered her in the past had moved to swell her ranks, so perhaps it was a desire to maintain the secrecy of her march.
“How she transported her legion across the channel I can not say, but I knew what I would find upon returning to my father’s estate – for it is there that the Blackhalls have long buried their dead. The hag would not be content to rob the local boneyard and miss her prize: My wife.
“I did the work myself, every stroke seeming to pound as does the drum. Would it have been worse to find Mairi still there, with rot having set in to those so fine features?
“Each shovel-full carried tears with it to the surface, and the further my boots sank beneath the turf the surer I became.
“The coffin remained, its lid shattered, but within there was naught but loose dirt.
“My Mairi had not waited – could not wait – for my return, so now I follow.”
It was only then, with his tale told, that he realized the drumming he was hearing was in fact the passage of horses, and the creak of the Green Ship really that of a sleigh.
Clara seemed to read the surprise on his face. She said, “it was a fierce job, hauling you through the woods as you babbled, but your navigation had held true, and we were lucky to come across a lumberman along the route you’d traced. He claims we’re not far, and that there’s a doctor in camp who will either fix you or give you whiskey enough to ignore the pain.”
She leaned close before continuing.
“We collected your drum and travel goods – they act as your pillow. I have but an inkling of what makes your baggage so heavy, but I do not wish to know more than that.”
Scooting back, she placed her hand over James’, and the travellers fell to silence.
Despite the physician’s prognosis of a six week recovery, Blackhall returned to his chase in one.
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