Welcome to Flash Pulp, Special Episode 13.
Tonight we present Another Rescue, Part 1 of 1
This week’s episodes are brought to you by Strangely Literal.
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 return to The Hundred Kingdoms, and the perils that lie within its fantastic borders.
In the depths of the Ogre King’s inkiest cave, Duchess Lilian Mildred was weighing the stench that filled her nostrils against the idea of enraging her guards to the point of shortening her life – and thus her current captivity.
It was not a serious thought, but her imprisonment amongst the brute lords had been nothing if not dull, and her mind had begun to wander.
She’d stood in the cell some twenty hours, with arms pulled high by hanging chains affixed to the rock wall.
Despite the ache in her limbs, she considered the accommodations melodrama implemented only to heighten the price of ransom once a remote seer was engaged to determine the veracity of her captors’ demands.
This was a frustration, as her uncle, Archduke Mildred, was something of a miser, and would no doubt hold the debt against her till she repaid it or died.
She had not intended to have her caravan hijacked – there was no other route home from the capital but the Queen’s highway, and there was no choice but to take it when the court season had ended. Her party had been no different in size or composure than the Archduke’s own daughter’s, though she’d made her way north to tour instead of heading directly to her father’s keep.
Lilian sighed at her fate, but it simply forced her to draw in another lungful of her watchers’ reek.
The tedium ceased, however, when another of the twisted-faced ruffians approached. This one was little more than a youth, and, though she could not translate his grunts, her two ripe guardians departed briskly at his words.
Within moments, the sounds of bragging and clashing steel could be heard from the corridor beyond.
A man appeared, leading a band of stout-armed warriors. The newcomer wore a patch over one eye, and his hair swept back in a tight top knot. The chain-mail across his belly had been breached, but his mouth carried a wolfish grin.
His blade dripped with the tale of his handiwork.
“Duchess?” he asked.
“Yes,” she replied. “The Archduke sent you?”
She rattled her chains gently as she spoke, with the notion that her saviour might free her as he explained – his reply was, “not quite.”
She could see he had the key in his hand, and yet he stalled.
It’s meaning was clear to the bound woman: Whoever had financed her rescue – whoever would garner the praise for her heroic recovery – would only enter once the area was proven safe.
As she waited, she set herself to hoping that the impending Prince, or Duke, or – Gods forbid – Merchant Lord was seeking reputation and renown, and was not of an appropriate age for marriage. The Duchess had come by her title by inheritance, and, regardless of her recent waylaying, she looked forward to wearing away some of its shine before she was forced to carry its full weight behind the tall stone walls of Baldenkirk, her home.
Finally, a thin-faced boy in velvet garments entered the room. It was obvious he made some attempt to mute his trumpet’s note, but, in the tight space, its sounding still left a ringing in Lilian’s ears.
It was to this accompaniment that Prince Cornelius Galen filled her view. He now held the cuffs’ key in his palm.
“Milady,” he said, “even under the duress of this terrible calamity, you are striking.”
Cornelius was but one of the thousand younglings that stood within the shadow of the crown, and Lillian’s few interactions with his house had left her cold – and yet she knew that, even now, he likely had minstrels, out of sight, composing odes regarding the perils he’d faced to win her.
It would be her own people who would pay highest coin for the swollen tales of his gallantry, and she knew the songs would likely arrive at her borders before she did. She would have to weight the purses of many crooners if she hoped to counteract his nuptial narrative.
“It seems your uncle has claimed his coffers are bare,” continued the prince, “but, do not fear, your peasants have gathered quite a bounty in their temple bowls.
“That said, I’m not here for the silver – I hope to collect a greater reward.”
Lilian could not deny her gratitude at the rescue, and it was this, and the fact that she remained chained, that kept her tongue steady.
“Truly this is too rough a place to speak of love, milord, “ she replied.
He hadn’t spoken of any such thing, of course, but she was released from the wall nonetheless.
The Prince and Duchess’ ascent was a stroll behind a threshing screen of steel, as the hired arms made short work of any rotund brute who was sleepy-eyed enough to stumble from the burrows that branched from the shaft’s main column.
A second force of mercenaries and balladeers greeted them at the tunnel’s mouth while scanning the surrounding hills and fingering the tools of their occupation.
All were soon mounted, but the ride was a harried one.
The Ogre King had hastily mustered his troops, and their legs held fury enough to them keep apace with the fleeing stallions.
It became plain that combat was imminent by the time they made Cannibal’s Hollow, a mountainous protrusion at the bottom of a wide rimmed valley that was known largely for its desolation.
As Lilian climbed the path to the bottleneck that marked their only chance of organizing a defense, she took some solace in the knowledge that a premature death would at least save her from a premature marriage.
Dying a martyr would also make for much better songs.
The patch-wearing captain strode the line, slapping shoulders and lifting spirits, as Lilian and her unwanted Prince watched from a nook above. Their perch also gave them a clear view of the approaching horde, although she found their battle chants more than sufficient warning.
She guessed them at ten leagues – then five. Then two.
Her husband-to-be’s voice became like sugar, and the duchess soon realized he sought a kiss to lessen his sense of peril. She’d bussed worse, and yet she withheld her lips with indignation – her greatest danger in her cell had been her escort’s stench.
“I am pleased, at least, that my last sight shall be of you,” he said.
Wincing, she replied, “ease your words, it’s more likely we’ll both be soon held against ransom.”
He coughed. “Well, I might, but your uncle has already turned down the offer, as I’ve mentioned. Still, I will stand and fight for you – should it be necessary.”
“Oh, certainly not – the cost would be too high.” Lilian’s gaze held on the writhing mass of clubs and poorly concealed flesh. They were no further than a half-league.
Cornelius smiled. “Perhaps you might make some down payment then? With an embrace?”
His brazen phrases were cut short, however, by the shadows of a hundred kites breaking over the vista’s edge: They were frames of the Royal Contrivers, the Queen’s engineers.
Under their gliding shade came on a host so immense it stretched the horizon, and at its lead cantered the warhorse Gwelmere, who had once pulled straight the crooked tower of the sorcerer Al’Min.
On the beast’s back rode the woman who’d broken him: Sofia Esperon, Queen of the Hundred Kingdoms.
Though not but the fury in her eyes was visible behind her plate and mail, it was obvious she was displeased.
With a raise of her onrushing hand, the wicker and canvas structures let loose from the marching strings that made up their only earthly bonds, and, catching the wind, their creaking and pondering passage carried them into the ranks of the surging ogres.
Each impact delivered an explosive wrath.
Holding high her ebony spear, the queen summoned ten thousand arrows, then ten thousand more.
Behind her, the roar of the Royal Guard’s war-bears was enough to drown the wild drums and chorus, which had now shifted to a rhythm of retreat.
As the savage multitude moved up, and beyond, the distant crest, Sofia Esperon did not follow.
Instead, she turned her attention to the prince, and his supposed prize.
Removing her helm, the monarch strode through the untested line of hired swordsman.
For the first time that day, Lilian felt true relief.
Cornelius only smiled and waved at his regent.
Sofia Esperon’s voice easily cut the distance to their airy post, and the hired singers and sword-arms averted their smirks to avoid risking their pay.
“Oh,” said the queen, “quite pleased that you’re out of danger, are you?”
The prince ceased his greeting.
“Has he made overtures?” Sofia asked the former prisoner.
“I did not come,” continued Esperon, “to deal with those foul-mouthed gluttons. I unfurled my banners because I knew such blue-blooded scoundrels would be skulking about, looking to capitalize on a hostage’s distress.”
“What sort of man seeks to bind the hand of a woman while her wrists are still aching from the manacles of her kidnappers?”
It was the duchess’ turn to grin – and well she might, as the queen’s poets would be profoundly inspired by her tenacity for months to come.
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