195 – Support: a Blackhall Tale, Part 3 of 6
Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode one hundred and ninety-five.
This week’s episodes are brought to you by View From Valhalla.
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, master frontiersman and student of the occult, Thomas Blackhall, tells the story of an unlikely race, to a prickly, and improbable, audience.
Flash Pulp 195 – Support: a Blackhall Tale, Part 3 of 6
A further two days of slow travel found Blackhall sitting on the shore of a nameless lake, with the sun strong overhead, and his gear resting just above where the gentle slope broke from grass to sand. Tossing a flat stone, he watched it skip once, lose its equilibrium, and disappear below the still surface.
His companion, who he’d encountered at the water’s edge, swatted aside a horsefly as she awaited an answer.
“Yes, Layton was a bit of an odd duck,” said Thomas, “- but you’ve got to understand, we do things differently. My thrust though, isn’t so related to his flamboyant pursual of Ms. Russell, as it is to your point regarding awe in the world. I agree that the dying time is no pleasant business, and it does my heart violence to see your like fading and twisted – but there remains much to find wonder in. The day I departed the Laytons’ farmstead, for instance, the boy asked me to partake of an odd ritual with the intention of soothing his mother, who is ill with the long sickness, and complains bitterly of the heat.”
Trying another cast, Thomas lost count of the hops before his platter exhausted its speed and sank. The wooded approach to the shore had been burnt low some seasons previous, and a meadow had appeared in the timber’s stead. At the treeline, which Blackhall guessed to be a hundred yards off, a row of sentinels, their weasel heads bobbing and weaving, kept careful watch on their queen’s temperament.
He did not relish the idea of irritating the half-dozen sharp-toothed fishers, that constituted her honour guard, and he made firm effort to demonstrate his relaxed posture.
“We tromped over the fields and through the forest,” continued Blackhall. “Layton had grown up amongst those stands, and, as we trekked, he explained that he was but a lad when his father had come across our destination while hunting deer meat against an approaching winter. Two hours work brought us to a hillock, and an increasingly sharp climb. Near the apex stood a black opening, and within, a cave. It was a slippery navigation, largely downward, but, as we came to a point where I thought we’d lose the last of the light filtering in from the mouth, he stopped. We’d come to a branch in the tunnel, and the main body of the shaft became vertical in orientation, so that it was impossible to explore it further without rope, lantern, and courage. Fortunately, our objective lay in the other possibility, a gently sloping portal of perhaps twenty feet in length, which terminated as neatly at its end as if it had been pressed into the rock with a chisel. Even in the dim, the floor glittered.”
Thomas paused to let fly with another projectile, and to attempt to gauge his audience’s level of interest. It was difficult to judge the disposition of such an entity, but, as wolverine or forest spirit, Sour Thistle’s attention seemed to be firmly upon his recounting.
She nodded at him, and he finished the story.
“It was cold below – an extended stay would have lost me my nose – but it was certainly not mystic in nature. It was the simple work of dark and stone and depth. After some time, and clever consideration on how to utilize the frosty cavern, they had taken to carrying out buckets of spring water, to fill the pockmarked divots in the slab floor. At first as a novelty, and then, when Mother Layton fell ill, as a method of easing the woman’s pains.
“Handing me a canvas sack, he located a hammer they’d left for convenience, and started pounding at the icy pools. Soon we were both well weighted, and young Layton gave me a broad grin.
“”Usually,” he said, “I manage to chill a pitcher large only enough for Mother. Perhaps, now that I have your assistance, Father might also find relief from the heat – although, given your aged legs, he may only get enough for a sip or two by the time you arrive.”
“With that, the boy made off running, leaving behind the echo of his laughter.
“Hell, I was grinning too when we broke from the entrance and onto the hill side. I’m a man who, by his nature, must move through the bush with a careful eye. My belly depends upon it. I’d forgotten what it was to stretch my limbs and test my reflexes against the blur of suddenly rearing spruce, and stony outcroppings.
“My boots felt as if they were moving faster than my feet, and while rampaging down the rugged slope I knew I might up-end for a rather brutal descent, but it did little to slow my pace. Layton had youth and familiarity with the route, but I’ve seen my share of turf, and our chase was a good one. He’d taken us in at a leisurely pace, and I realized then he’d been saving our muscle for the challenge of the return. By the end of the marathon, my focus was naught but branches, cramping thighs, and a spreading chill across my back, where the load had rested for the majority of the endeavour.
“Half the haul melted, and went to slake the thirst of the plants along the way, but it is a difficult thing to describe the reward I found in the pleasure which overtook Ma Layton’s voice as she accepted her ice water. The thought of the woman, dying there in her little room, but so overjoyed at a chill on her throat, was a satisfaction – and a wonderment – which moved me, and had naught to do with the unnatural.”
Sour Thistle nodded, her eyes alive with an intelligence which seemed, to Thomas, eerie against the savage form in which she’d manifested.
“I see your point, Mr Blackhall,” said the wolverine, in guttural, dancing, tones. Sour Thistle scratched at her ear. “Who won the race?”
“It was a near thing, but I’d say our contributions were equal.”
“Come, come,” chuckled the beast.
Thomas snorted at his own pride.
“He made first fall on plowed field, but I was but an arm’s length behind.”
Sour Thistle snapped her snout twice, and assumed what appeared, to Blackhall, to be a smile.
“You have been honest with me, sir,” she said, “and I hold your actions in honour – although I somewhat lament the loss of a quality meal. You’ve obviously strayed far to find me here, so ask now what you-”
Her rasping words were cut short by the descent of a broad-winged harrier, which landed on the grasses near to its mistress and commenced trotting on its clawed feet as it squawked its news. It’s message delivered, the bird again took flight, heading rapidly eastward.
Blackhall saw the sentinels on the hill begin running then, moving to be by the side of their queen even if they did not yet have orders. It was all a loss, however – as they decamped, a roaring hum filled the air.
A buck burst from the forest edge, swathed in a layer of damp, writhing, ebony.
As Thomas watched, it seemed to first shrink, then collapse in a skeletal heap.
For a moment, he longed for the dark of the cave to hide in.
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