FP334 – Moderation, Part 3 – Sour Thistle's Lament
Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode three hundred and thirty-four.
This week’s episodes are brought to you by Black Flag TV
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 we conclude our tale with a story of romance and death amongst the ancient pines.
Moderation, Part 3 – Sour Thistle’s Lament
Written by J.R.D. Skinner
Art and Narration by Opopanax
and Audio produced by Jessica May
Things changed with time – it was one of the few truths of Sour Thistle’s experience – but, for that moment at least, the stones upon which the preternaturally large wolverine sat were truly her favourite place in existence. There was something to respect in the swell and push of the river in which the flat boulders were set, and yet here, mid-stream, the protrusions offered a sort of roaring peace.
She did not think of Garou often, she could afford herself little opportunity for reflection when the matters of her kingdom were at hand, but here, with no disputes to settle and no grievances to amend, she found her mind circling the memory of the massive gray wolf’s rough mane.
They had met in combat. A plague of dead men had come pouring from a large Abenaki settlement south of her lands, and, though it was beyond her borders, she had some thought that stemming the flow at its source was a preferable solution over allowing it to stagger into her domain as a larger problem
It did no harm, as well, that the response would also curry her the favour of the Elk Lord who ruled the territory, and grease the conference she intended to hold regarding a drought that had kept her subjects short of supplies to store against the winter.
She would later learn that it was this same motive that had called Garou to the wildwoods about the infected village. It was messy work, but not such that she would ask another to do without dirtying her own claws. Besides, the air had begun to reek of chill, and she needed no goading to take on a final hunt ahead of the impending snows. The Queen had brought only her troop of weasel-faced fishers and a single black bear, an old boar named Honey who accompanied her simply because he enjoyed the slow nature of the prey.
They’d come across a cluster of a dozen dead, as sighted for them by a ruffled white owl. The bird had seen the shambling carcasses chase and devour a boy of twelve, and even to its animal mind the scene had spoke of corruption.
Spotting the moaning cannibals had been easy enough, but, before she might storm amongst the trees and call down her warriors, the sound of panting broke from the east. It was Garou, and, behind him, a canine mirror of her own honour guard. The pack of gray wolves were but a shadow of their leader, however, as the black-eyed forest lord seemed to shoulder aside the very oaks. He was the first to set teeth to a corpse, and to shake its skull between his jaws until it twitched no more – but Sour Thistle was not far behind.
The two royal parties had made fierce sport of the remaining search, a competition she won with a tally just three greater than her opponent’s. As they traveled again north, together, she used her victory to torment him to no end, and each night of their trek was spent exchanging increasingly grandiose tales of battle and cunning.
She told of the eastern dragon who had once roosted within Broken Leg Crag, intent on driving her from her kingdom so that it might feast endlessly on fat wild venison, and of the madman who’d become so enraptured in the study of the arcane that he’d contracted lycanthrope.
“What could I do?” she had said, “the wolf-man refused to believe there was no cure. I didn’t say that slaying the beast would do as much, but it didn’t take much implication.”
Garou had grinned and scratched at his ear with a lazy hind leg.
“At least I supplied him with a trinket I’d collected,” she’d continued, “a jagged little dagger imbued with the ability to hack through nearly anything. It did manage the job of dispatching the monster, but, unfortunately, the lizard had carried the fool well into the clouds beforehand.
“Still, I suppose his hard landing was a cure of sorts.”
“Well,” her companion had replied, “I too once knew a man who suffered the wolf plague. I believe he sought me out in the hopes that our commonality meant I might have secret knowledge regarding his condition, for he had trekked some distance from the west.
“I had no answer either, of course, but I offered him a place in my pack. He suffered greatly from the guilt of having eaten his father while under the influence of the full moon, and so he accepted.
“He lived with us for many years. For the majority of the month he would fashion us shelters or use his monkey arms to create delicacies over flame, and, on the nights of his change, he would roam the snows at our sides and fill his belly with caribou.
”There were even occasions on which we would send him briefly amongst his kind so that he might exchange game meat for tools.
“Yes, it was nice to have a pet.”
– and so the tales had continued till they had come to be standing in the small creek that was their agreed upon point of separation.
Their good byes were short, and she did not turn as she moved on. She did note, however, that there came no sound of a splashing departure before she was beyond earshot. It had taken some will to resist sending her winged spies to follow his progress.
Instead, she filled her time by fattening against her coming rest. Earlier in the season she’d commissioned a cave, intent on a long nap. It was not her habit to sleep the full winter, but it was difficult to avoid the lulling calm of the falling white and the calling comfort of a well-chosen fellow snorer, and doubly so after a satisfying hunt.
Once thoroughly sated, she had settled in for a week’s dreaming – only to find her rest broken, on the first night, by the knowledge of a presence.
She’d found Garou at the foot of her little hill, his eyes bright.
He’d said, “I need your presence. Upon my return home I realized it was the one thing I lacked. I will wait here until you will have me,” then he’d howled.
Though Sour Thistle had at first been enthusiastic to see his form, this rolling pronouncement served to remind her of the duties of her office and pressures of her title.
“Do not assume of me, I am not some mindless bitch to mount,” she had replied, and then she’d laid her claws across his nose. She’d seen him take much worse from reluctant meals, but she’d also known the wound would sting.
He’d bled, but not moved, as she’d wheeled to return to her bedding. There, when not convincing her that the suitor was in actuality at hand to cheat her of her crown, her mind’s voice had reminded her that she had no place for courtship. Despite her best efforts, she was unable to smother such thoughts with sleep.
Upon the following morn, her mind clouded with fatigue and rage, she’d returned to the waiting intruder.
“You will never rule these lands,” she’d said.
“I never want to,” he replied. There was something in the grin he’d worn that irked her, and she’d raked her nails his chest, taking away hair and flesh while leaving a flowing trauma.
He’d remained still, a tactic she would later regret mistaking as an insult to her strength. She had not been familiar with utter subservience, and so had confused it for insolence.
From the tree branches she’d felt the eyes of the gathering jays, their side-cocked heads no doubt judging if their ruler would stand idle at these grievances, or if perhaps she had grown weak and lost her heart to another.
She’d attacked him then. He did not defend himself, not even to the extent that any child of the wilderness must be able to manage if it is to survive, and she had nearly accidentally slain the Lord of the Snows before she might compensate for his lack of response.
“If I do not last the night, you must take my territory as yours,” he’d told her through a mouth full of his own blood.
Then he’d gone limp.
She’d summoned the best of supplies from her storehouse, but even as the raccoons laid out their surgeries it had taken every aspect of her occult knowledge and power to pull flesh and sinew together, and it would be months till he was fully recovered.
Finally, when she had returned him to the state she’d found him, she broke from their usual conversation and brought herself to ask: “Why?”
He’d replied, “you must understand, once I know what I want, I will not cease until I have it. I want you. Or, at least, I want you to tolerate me enough to allow my company. There was no other way.”
She’d smirked at that, and they’d bedded for the first of their hundred slumbers.
That was a century past. The dead who walked the earth, of any kind, were increasingly rare, and there was no longer enough of the occult in the world to sustain unfettered eruptions. Should she have met Garou in such a ruined condition again, she knew she would not be able to summon the rites to save him.
It was not the draining of the arcane from the world, however, that had forced her to summon Blackhall, some two years previous, to slay her consort – though, in their quietest moments, the lovers had both lamented its passage. It had been the knowledge that the great wolf could never lay aside his obsessions, and that she could no longer deliver the killing blow that was the inevitable end to their fascination.
His passions, she supposed, gave him much in common with Thomas.
She knew why the man had undertaken this new excursion, and what he intended to ask in exchange for the service he had rendered. It was obvious to all but the humans themselves when their burdens had grown to be too much. Her falcons had carried a letter to her, written in his hand, detailing as much; at least, she thought, if her reading of the unnecessarily vague and verbose language of the day was correct. Was even this matter with the slavers not the fault of the tools he bore? She would hold the mystic trinkets he had collected so that he might continue his chase. She would also divine their purposes and provide them up when the occasion was right – and not just to pay the debt she owed him.
What if the knobby-knuckled man was right? What if he might pull the breathless back from beyond?
The last of her reverie was broken by a sudden landing, and she shook off the hypnosis of the rushing water.
The finch sniffed at its watery surroundings and did a short hopping dance of greeting and subordination.
The Queen noticed, though, that its steps kept it at a careful distance to guard against its becoming a brief meal. She smiled.
From the bird’s hooked beak came songs of a place, a man, and the albino squirrel who’d whistled the urgent missive into its ear.
This was not the first messenger of the day – she had already heard of the slavers’ grudge, of their hounds, and – more worryingly – of their guns.
It was now time to come to the aid of the only living being who had done her a favour that she’d been unable to complete for herself.
She rose, and so too did her retinue.
Along the banks to her left lifted high a thousand racks of deer and moose, the ursine faces of sixty black bears, and the dozen members of her fisher honour guard. She nodded to the generals amongst the gathered, and the honoured dipped their heads in veneration. It was no longer possible to recall which of these short-lived mortals had been birthed upon her own soil, and which had sprung from the lands once belonging to Garou: She knew just that she was pleased to hunt with them all.
The fire of her awakening spread on, through the underbrush, and ignited a pack of wolfen howls to the west.
Yes, things changed, and someday even such low intruders would be beyond her power to rebuff – but this was not that day.
With a clearing of her throat, she went to war.
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