Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode three hundred and eighty-four.
Tonight we present The Scarred Man: a Blackhall Tale
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 we join Thomas Blackhall, master frontiersman and student of the occult, as he encounters an undying combatant by a lonely northern lake.
The Scarred Man: a Blackhall Tale
Written by J.R.D. Skinner
Art and Narration by Opopanax
and Audio produced by Jessica May
Blackhall met the immortal on the edge of a lake known by the few who occasionally wandered its shores as the Blue Sip. He’d seen naught but the intermittent chipmunk in his last three days of journey through the heavy undergrowth, and, in his stop, he’d been seeking nothing more than a moment of cool respite from his westward campaign to retrieve the dancing corpse of his dead wife.
The immortal, however, had been seeking nothing more than Blackhall.
Thomas had been considering the state of his preparations to break the hold of the hag who led Mairi through the shadowed wildwoods when the lumbering titan arrived.
He had dealt with giants and their ilk in the past, but never while standing naked in three feet’s water. Still, though the man was tall, and his musculature so over-large to be almost a caricature of human form, Blackhall soon realized he was no giant.
The stranger wore a cloak and carried a shotgun at his shoulder, which Thomas felt likely to be heavy and hot gear for the depth of the timber and harshness of sun. The interloper was in apparent agreement, as his first action upon arrival was to drop both.
“I was born as Nikanor, some three millennia past,” he said as he laid aside a sheathed blade too big to be a knife but too short to be a modern sword.
The sight of the weapon, even in being set aside, did little more than remind Blackhall of the distance to his own silver-edged sabre, which lay among his gear on the shoreside. It was too far – and the shotgun too close – for the frontiersman’s liking.
“I was born Thomas some few dozen years ago,” was the best the could find for an answer.
For a moment Nikanor looked puzzled, then a slow smile came to his ground sausage lips. His face appeared to have suffered and survived a half-dozen cleavings, and his skull was roughly misshapen with the scar tissue that had grown across the wounds.
“I know who you are, shaman,” he replied. “I have marched from the coast to meet you. Funny that it should be here, for my journey began, in many ways, in a very different bit of water – the Styx. My mother was a proud strumpet and a glory of her age. She was also a genius at the bargaining table. The gods of the time on the other hand, were naught but letches, and there came a day when Zeus himself came to our door.
“She turned him away a full three times, then offered herself up under two specific conditions.
“That is how her only child, a lowly army footman of sixteen, came to find himself dipped, much like Achilles, in the Styx – but Mother was well aware of the tales, and so demanded I be held by my hair. I have been bald since, but my heels are in grand order.”
As he spoke, the Greek had stripped back the loose cloth of his shirt to reveal a form that reminded Thomas most of a picture book knight. Instead of the gleam of full plate, however, the man was a mass of cratered sinew and flesh grown deep from the brutality of ten thousand traumas. Wound had healed atop of wound until the layering was so thick it stood tall from the bone and took on the aspect of a natural leather armour.
The thick cords of his neck, though still showing signs of damage, were considerably less worn, and it was to a long white defect that Nikanor pointed as he sat upon a fallen tree and said, “this was one of my first, a battle with a raiding warlord coming in over the northern border. I laughed every moment of the march, thinking I was invincible. Not quite – I am perhaps immortal, but I am still penetrable. I’d caught a ragged sliver of metal the rabble were calling weapons before I realized the difference. It hurt too – enough so that I killed at least fifty on the field as my reply.
“It healed in a day, but that day was agony.
“We patrolled again that spring, and for many seasons on – until we met the Laconians on in open meadow and I learned that I alone could not turn the tide of battle. Every man I had admired or dreaded, every friend I’d made in my brief career, every idiot I’d bickered with, was wiped from the Earth in a single encounter.
“Left for dead, my butchered body was only capable of standing two days after the scavenger birds had arrived to pull their dinner from my comrades’ cheeks.
“I could not return as the sole survivor of a massacre without being accused of cowardice, but I knew just one life. It did not take me long to create a new identity and reenlist, and the evidence of my wounds acted as all the biography I required. The cycle has repeated itself many times since.
”Every pot of boiling oil, every flight of arrows, every dagger gash acted to toughen my skin. By the time I fought with the Scots against your countrymen I needed little more protection than to leave my flesh bare, for it took a man with a true arm of steel, and a clear opportunity, to pierce my scarred disfigurement.
“I rarely met the first, and I was too well practiced to allow for the second.”
No longer was Blackhall concerned about the proximity of his blade. The turn of the tale had set his mind casting ahead in search of its conclusion, and he did not like what he’d found.
The tone was too heavy, the setting too inevitable. He had killed before, and would again in self-defense, but his own time under the King’s command had long washed a taste for violence from his mouth.
“Niko,” he asked, “what was the other condition?”
Turning his gaze from a cloud on the horizon, the deathless man answered, “the other what?”
“You said your mother had two conditions, and that your immortality was but one of them.”
“Oh – the other was that Zeus remain human in shape. She was well read and had no interest in the legends of beasts and fowl.”
“The gods of antiquity truly were perverts.”
That got another smile from the old soldier, but it could not stop his momentum.
“None of the kings I helped rise to the throne remained,” he continued. “Their names are as forgotten as their kingdom’s borders. The maps shift like sands, and my travels have proven to me there is little more difference between peoples than the foods they have at hand and the god they pray to before eating it.
“Yet I’ve killed them all.
“Many things happen in such a span as mine. Many mistakes are made in rage or fear or a moment’s reaction. My condition allows no release from those errors, simply more opportunity to compound them.
“I have lost count at points – I am sure I have lived more than three thousand years – but it is in just these last twelve months that my agony has taken hold. Hired on to lay low some sheep thieves while waiting for the summer’s march, I set my shot into a figure in the dark and killed a boy of sixteen. It was meant to be just another victory, but – well, perhaps it is only because I have come so far from my youth that I can no longer remember its exact image, but I swear his face was my own at that age.
“Even before the arcane began to flow from the world I had come to the realization that there was little point in continuing. There is no end to the fighting, and all I’m left with is confusion. Please, do you have a method by which to end my misery?”
The words moved over the water with the weight of a voice that had seen the worst of three thousand years, and Blackhall found the damp suddenly all too chill.
Thomas’ mind landed in the streets of Ciudad Rodrigo, then flew to the death of his own wife, and finally came to rest on his growing guilt at the distance between he and his child.
If he was ever to be forgiven, could not, too, the evils of a being whose mettle might achieve so much good?
“Could I end you?” asked Blackhall, “yes, probably.
“Will I? No.
“I’ll instead come ashore, and we shall plan you a new life between mouthfuls of jerky. This existence I promise will provide remittance from your guilt if you are strong enough to manage it.”
“To what purpose?”
“To what purpose any birth? You say you are confused, well, so too are all bairns. I will say, though, that what I have in mind will be a truly great purpose – but, to begin, you will construct and stock a homestead of some size.”
“I have no idea how to farm.”
“Well, we are in luck in that regard, as your condition allows us plenty of time for you to learn.”
The conversation carried well into the night, and it would be but the first of a long acquaintance.
Flash Pulp is presented by https://www.skinner.fm, and is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.
Intro and outro work provided by Jay Langejans of The New Fiction Writers podcast.
Text and audio commentaries can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org – but be aware that it may appear in the FlashCast.
– and thanks to you, for reading. If you enjoyed the story, tell your friends.