Nasty, Brutish, and Short
Evil Flash Fiction by Patrick M. Tracy

Bronar IV: Deeds Bereft of Glory

By Patrick M. Tracy

The boy and his mother lay dying in the alley. The stink from whatever plague raised bloody welts upon their flesh made Tahni’s gorge burn at the back of her throat. She jammed the back of her hand against her mouth, looking away. She touched her shoulder to Bronar’s for some support, and he glanced in her direction, his mouth hard, his eyes like chips of stone below his brow. The look that any stranger would take for anger, but was truly the sadness of a powerful man who could do nothing but walk away from the hopeless. No mighty feat of arms could wrench the city up out of its grotesque state.

The paving stones swam in filth, every building decrepit, the smoke of burning offal wafting down the street. They were dressed in simple layered furs, nothing but their weapons marking them, but the abject poverty of every person they passed made her feel like she had never known deprivation or struggle. The hollow of their eyes, the sallow sickness of their cheeks. The fact that, even in the mild chill of the coastal winter, they shivered in worn sack-cloth, their withered limbs reaching, begging silently for some mercy.

Tahni understood why they’d left their horses in a town a day away, paying a vast, kingly sum for their upkeep and leaving all but their necessities behind in a locked chest ringed with heavy chain. The sight of draft animals among this starving squalor? They would have had to brandish steel at every street corner to keep the starving hordes from dragging their ponies down and gnawing at their flesh. Alone, she wondered if they’d have rushed her. Bronar’s war mallet, scarred and stained with the blood of both men and monsters, told them there would be nothing but death to find here.

After the best part of an hour of walking, they left the abject slums for a stretch by the dockside where corsairs lazed atop cargo crates and hard-eyed longshoremen touched their daggers at everyone nearby.

“They say that Evaldr is the richest city in the known world, but I’ve seen naught but filth and despair and the lowest reaches of human suffering,” she whispered.

Bronar didn’t look at her, but kept his eyes on the movement of all the ill-favored characters lingering just near enough to rush them if they looked weak. “There’s riches, but not here. When we’re clear of this, look out across the harbor, and you’ll see a tall island. That’s where the finery and gold remain, caught like insects in drying tree sap. What little flows over here is money stained with blood and the grubby hands of brigands.”

“Then why are we here?” she asked.

“Not now. Don’t say anything, where we’re going. A word is more dangerous than viper’s fang in there. Meet no one’s eyes, and be ready to put your short blade to work. It may come to bloodshed.”

The doorway loomed there, like a dark void in a rotten tooth. Rough men with hard eyes stood athwart the path, hands on the pommels of their blades. Most of of them had pale and sallow faces, the look of rogues who ran down benighted streets and avoided honest work like a sickness.

A fat man whose eyes glowed with jaundice pointed toward a weapon rack. Bronar leaned his mallet in the stand but kept his dagger and short blade. Tahni followed suit, her shield and spear resting in the dry-rotted wood. The scent of old, rotted fish clung to every surface, mixed with the ugly smell of low tide. They followed a boy without his left foot, whose copper-ended cane clacked against the boards in rhythmic counterpoint to his bare heel. Tahni knew that she would think about the hundreds of whip scars that spread out from the over-loose sleeves of his tunic for as long as she lived. Scars traced across his one intact leg, and had swept across his face, leaving an empty eye socket.

In a fetid backroom swirling with smoke, they found a sharp-faced woman whose front teeth had been replaced with wedges of gold. Tahni thought she had perhaps been pretty once, but age and whatever narcotic swirled about the place had long since stolen all that.

The gold-toothed woman grimaced. “What?” Her voice sounded like the muttering from up out of an open grave.

“I’m here to see the elf,” Bronar told her, looking as ill-tempered as Tahni had ever seen him.

“The elf don’t see people.”

Bronar fished out a large emerald, uncut and worth the whole building and all its occupants. The whipped boy made the noise of indrawn breath, received a hard glance from the gold-toothed woman, and left the room, closing the door behind him.

“He’ll be here after night falls. Only you, though. Leave the girl and come back alone.”

Bronar shook his head. “She will be with me, crone. My voice is as loud as that.” He pointed to the gem to make his point.

“That’s not how the elf does business.”

“It is today. We will come back at moonrise.”

Bronar turned away, headed for the door. “We could just take all you have,” the gold-toothed woman rasped.

“That has been tried.”

No one impeded them as they walked from the den of villains. When the late winter’s light touched them again, Tahni felt like she’d emerged from below the shadow of the gallows.

Twenty minutes of walking down the dockside brought them to where the legitimate cargo came ashore, the ships larger and better maintained. The dark had fallen and the sound of roistering emerged from every quayside tavern. Still rough and dangerous, this quarter, at least, didn’t stink of the lowest degradation, of people devolved to rabid rodents.

They turned into the golden light of a bar called The Treacherous Reef, sat at a table in the dim far corner, and awaited their meal and ale. Tahni reached, taking Bronar’s hand in both her own. “What is this about?”

His face settled, looking older than its years for a moment. “I met you. I can’t simply accept my own death as a certainty now. I have to…take certain steps.”

“You met me…”

He squeezed her hand. “When you look into the open jaws of death for a long time, it gets hard to find a reason to fight it. I found a reason.”

Tahni felt blood rush to her face. Bronar didn’t engage in romantic talk with her. All his assurance came in a moment of touch, a quiet look. She wasn’t sure how to respond.

“So this elf, he has something you need?”

“I hope he does. I hope I won’t have to kill my way through a hundred thieves to get it.”

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