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

Bronar V: With Cruelty Paid

By Patrick M. Tracy

“I am not interested in baubles,” the wizened creature croaked. He flicked his spidery fingers, throwing the emerald back to Bronar in the most dismissive of gestures. “I grow aged, and riches do not buy me anything I want.”

Bronar’s face remained as expressionless as a frying pan as he put the emerald back in his pouch. The old crone with gold teeth behind them radiated hatred, her eyes on the pouch, the tips of her claw-like fingernails lifting, almost calling out to the wealth held within the gem. Tahni imagined the tawdry glamour of precious gems would never fall from that one’s favor. Nor, perhaps, would any lizard hunger abate while she clung to the grimy straws of her life.

“You’ll make a counter offer, then?” Bronar asked, the tone of his voice so flat that Tahni couldn’t understand how a living human could produce the sound. The the words of dead men, staring up at the leaden sky of the Warhells. She had never seen him this way, not even as the black breath of deadly combat was upon him. All gates closed, all windows filled with brick and mortar, every torch of his humanity shuttered. It frightened her a little, but a part of her clenched in pride at that control, the ability to make himself that way.

The Elf, his bowed back rendering him nearly chin-level to the table, watched them like a malevolent toad. Tahni had imagined that his moniker had simply been that – a name given to a slim man of sharp features. But here was a true elf, a cast-off of their underground realm. The writing of a thousand years scrawled in deep wrinkles across his face, his skin the color of old iron. The smell of fresh-turned earth wafted out of him as he moved.

How old was he, to only come out at night? Incalculably ancient, she guessed. Old enough that his only food was blood and salt, the full light of the sun like poison and acid upon his flesh. Not that she knew any more than the stories from a book her mother gave her as a girl.

Tahni wondered if, having walked far enough across the world, she would find out that all the tales held a kernel of the truth, all pointed to something real below the gilded words. Every scrap of knowledge became the whisper of enemies in the dark, it seemed. Myths made true, and perhaps less for their truth.

As if sensing her attention, the Elf’s red-tinted eyes slewed in her direction, pinning her in place like a traitor is pierced to the side of a barn in the North.

Without his mouth moving, she heard his croaking voice inside her head. “No one knows you. No one looks, and sees the truth within you. Not even the great heap of a warrior here. Will you tell him of your secrets, witch?”

Tahni felt herself break into shivers all over at the invasion of that voice, at its knowledge of her, at that name. The name she’d never uttered before another. The badge worn by her fear, turned inward. The person she had tried so hard not to be.

The Elf turned to Bronar again, releasing her from the pain of his attention. “There are many still living whom I owe a debt of vengeance. I would like them to precede me into the grave.”

Bronar blinked once and waited, his slabbed hands resting at his sides, heat cooking off his skin in the gloom and smoke of the rogue’s gallery. Tahni knew that many mistook his silence for stupidity, and he used that as a lever to open them and make them speak too much. She knew that he used that bull-thick neck and the arms as big as a grown man’s thigh to mask his intentions. She wondered if the Elf could reach inside his mind, or if all those doors were closed, battered shut by all the horrors he’d seen.

“Well?” the Elf rasped. “What say you?”

“Do you have it? The amulet of Karadanosh?”

“You don’t want to know about my enemies?”

Bronar flexed his jaws, muscle pushing out like hard triangles against his bearded cheeks. “I don’t see the purpose in that. They are to die, and are the payment you wish. That is enough. I am here for the amulet.”

The Elf’s spindly hands played upon the stained and blackened desk surface. “I have heard of your predicament. The old wizard wants you dead. You, the last of those who dared oppose him in his demesne. I can see how an amulet that hides you from scrying would be of great worth to you.”

“Killing his assassins has come to bore me,” Bronar said, hooking one thumb into his wide belt.

“And you have a woman to think of now,” the Elf said, favoring Tahni with an unwholesome grimace.

Bronar’s shoulders twitched with muscle. “She has herself. She knows the location of my wealth. If I die, she grows rich enough to buy a kingdom.”

The Elf didn’t look convinced, but let the matter drop. He pushed a single sheet of parchment across the desk. “Deprive these people of their blood and breath, and we will have an accord. You will have your amulet, and we will both have a little peace.”

Bronar gestured at the parchment with his chin, as if he had no use for it. Tahni picked it up, holding it to her chest for reasons she couldn’t name. Up close, the aspect of the Elf grew all the more repulsive, the blots of broken veins across his skin like spiders who had died within him and turned to shards of amethyst.

“He doesn’t know you at all, does he? Only thinks of you as some soft place to sheath himself of a night, a woman to stitch the leather and read him the letters he never learned.” The Elf’s awful voice echoed inside her mind.

It wasn’t true. They had more than that between them.

And yet.

Just enough of what he thought to her rang true. Just enough to feel like lightning sparks bursting in her heart and the onrushing pall of a woolen sack pulled down over everything she wanted to hope.

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