Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode one hundred and seventy-one.
Tonight we present, The Conjurer: a Blackhall Tale, Part 1 of 1.
This week’s episodes are brought to you by The Bothersome Things Podcast.
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, encounters a practitioner of dark artifice while awaiting transportation.
Flash Pulp 171 – The Conjurer: a Blackhall Tale, Part 1 of 1
At the edge of an Eastern District dock sat three men awaiting the craft they’d been assured would arrive to take them further westward, out of the civilized portions of Upper Canada, and past the expanses labeled only as “Great Tract of Wood Land” on even the most recent of the new Queen’s maps.
The traveller who’d introduced himself as Mister Philips, a rough-faced farmer who tended a plot of land deep in the shadows of the black spruce, was winding down a protracted telling, and wiping a rag across the damp slick at the base of his neck.
“Despite that I’d suckled it from the day my musket knocked down its mother, the beast ate up my swine. Energetic from its meal, and free of its leash, it mightily walloped the interior of my barn, then, collapsing the lumber, it made its way into the bush country.
“You can see, sir, that raising a bear is no light business.”
His companion in conversation, a heavyset gadabout, whose groomed sideburns stretched to meet his masterfully crafted moustache above a strong, but barren, chin, harrumphed before responding.
“While your point is certainly well taken, I’ve a long history of probing the improbable and producing anything which was thought impossible. That is not, certainly, to imply I have any intention of cultivating a cub of my own, but I do dare say that the act would be well within the capabilities of Abraham Warwick, conjurer, exorcisor, and archimage.”
He bowed slightly at the completion of his delivery, but not so far as to upset the position of his towering beaver-pelt top hat.
“A man of supernatural knowledge?” replied the homesteader, “Surely, you banter idly.”
“Then what of this?” riposted the claimant, tapping his head-wear with a flourish, then sweeping his arm to display its empty state to his pair of audience members. Replacing it upon his pate, he drummed at its surface a second time, and once again removed it, bowing low.
From the interior brim peered three white mice, whose red eyes dodged about keenly and whose pink noses worked vigorously at the breeze.
Atop the stout barrel he’d been utilizing as a resting place during their shared vigil, Thomas Blackhall found he was no longer willing to maintain his silence.
“It’s been my experience,” he said, “that those who practice magic are oft like politicians – it’s a rare thing to meet an honest one, and most accomplish their goals not through the truth they attempt to present, but instead with nimble fingers and deft lies.”
“Well,” replied Philips, “I thought it was quite extraordinary.”
Thomas waved off a persistent black fly.
“He’s obviously trained the vermin to nest in his hair.” Blackhall paused to bite at his thumbnail, and temper his language. “Think how long the hush lasted, in this swampy heat, before you finally told us of your departed bruin. Consider, too, where those beasts must be, uh, marking their business.”
“Tis no concern if the beauties are conjured from a realm beyond,” huffed Warwick.
The farmer nodded agreement.
“Seems a shoddy mystical dimension to be infected so greatly with rodents,” replied the still seated frontiersman.
The self-proclaimed warlock leaned forward, saying, “- and what of this then?”
With a snap he seemed to pluck a twelve-pence piece from just behind the ear of the ploughman.
“Well, goodness!” exclaimed Philips.
Warwick pocketed the coin.
“Surely -” began Thomas, but the cropper rounded on him.
“You speak quite rudely to a man who’s shown us not one, but two, great works, and only since our approach to this shoddy jetty. Might I trouble you for what credentials you claim in impugning this sage’s proofs? For if you are more than some deserting rabble from the continental army, it is not apparent from your stained appearance or grizzled words.”
The heat had shown no mercy to Blackhall’s public countenance, and he knew it. Still, the reality was that he’d had plenty of opportunity to witness Warwick’s slight of hand, upon the porch of The King’s Inn, and he’d already run short of patience for the showman, who he considered little better than a vagrant sharper.
Swatting at Philips’ ear, as if to shoo a fly, the magician produced another shilling.
“It only seems fair that we split the profits of our encounter, good sir,” he said, placing it in his supporter’s palm.
“I will show you something truly fantastic, but first we must make a trade. You are flush with coinage, mayhaps from a local card table? Whatever the case, I ask you to entrust it to me. I promise I will not move beyond your sight.”
After a moment’s hesitation, Philips complied.
Blackhall quickly stripped off his coat and sword, laying all in a great heap aside his travel sack.
“I request, also, that you keep this scoundrel well from my supplies while I am below the surface.”
He knew the simple mention ought to be enough to guard against the potential thief, who would fear suspicion upon himself.
Without waiting for reply, Thomas grasped the sack of currency tightly in his off-hand, and jumped into the cool waters,whose depth covered his own height by some two feet. As he descended, he placed the stone, which he wore upon a rawhide strand about his neck, under his tongue.
The occult charm left him breathing easily, and he was relieved to be away from the conversation and swelter.
He gave an approving hand sign to his spectators, who motioned a reply, and he made ready to wait as he was gently rocked by the languid current.
Finally, when his eyes made contact with the churn of the approaching barge, he surfaced.
“I agree that you too have talents for which I have no explanation,” said the farmer, tucking away his returned bounty as the swimmer dried himself and the boat drew near, “but, in truth, you’ve both shown me things which, until today, I would have thought not possible. Who am I to say that a never-ending stay within the river is somehow better than an unending supply of wealth?”
As the man spoke, Blackhall retrieved a small vial from within his wares.
“Fine,” he said.
Warwick took on a look, as if he were preparing to present yet another trick, but, before he could act, Thomas threw down the glass tube, shattering it upon the wooden planking. As a small pop emanated from within, the hurler uttered three guttural consonants.
The hat of the conjurer, exorcisor, and archimage, was suddenly aflame.
There was a brief panic as the width of the landing was crossed twice, then the blazing apparel was cast into the stream – amongst its former wearer’s singed strands, the mice chittered, scurrying furiously about their limited plateau.
Thomas finished dressing.
As the transport secured its riggings, its passengers waited a time in silence; one puzzling, one frowning, and one suppressing a rare smirk.
“Excuse my curiosity, by why did you require my funds?” asked Philips, as they boarded.
“Partly as collateral to secure my own belongings against theft, but also to keep your limited fortune from subtle pinches. It’s not an inexhaustible income if its source is the pocket of the same baffled admirer from behind whose ear the tender seems to be produced. Worry not, however – you’ll have plenty of opportunity to count your claim and even the tab as we go. I doubt Warwick has much choice about awaiting a later berth, as its likely the townsfolk will soon be considering the state of their own purses.”
The red-cheeked hustler made no interjection.
It would be a slow crawl up the river, but Blackhall found himself quite amused throughout.
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