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

Bronar VII: Through Fire

By Patrick M. Tracy

It always hurt. Not because he meant it to, not because he was cruel. Bruises from his blunt and heavy hands would bloom upon the corners of her like the shadows of birds in a misty sky. Tahni was tougher now, the strain and deprivation of a warrior’s life rarifying her tissues. Still, when she clung to him, her sweat mixed with Bronar’s, in a crisis of breath, the shimmers of pain called warnings to her from every quadrant.

In a different life, when she’d run from everything she feared about herself, Tahni hadn’t understood what the pain meant, the many voices in the chorus of her flesh. She hadn’t wanted to believe that the pain could teach her so much, revealing whole vistas heretofore unknown. This wisdom couldn’t be carried by a breath of air or told by a written word. It had to be earned with a furrowed brow and clenched jaw.

They lay, her whole form curled around one of Bronar’s mighty arms, the cool of the early morning drying their skin, the quiet before the carts and hawkers and the cries of the beggars filled the street below surrounding them. A kind, soft place. Perhaps the only such place in Evaldr, a city wracked with terrors and fire and death. Much of which they had perpetrated. The two of them, running red-handed across the night, sewing mayhem and murder.

The faces of the dead, the outlines of all their broken limbs and the growing crimson that was born out of their shattered lives – these images lived inside her. She had eaten of the dark table of madness. Did she feel so different? It seemed, perhaps, that she wasn’t. She’d always been fated to be the taker of lives. Ever since the day of her birth, from what the old crone once said. Tahni’s fate had been wound in such a way as to make her thus.

If, in fact, such a thing even existed. Fate. A convenient thing, if it explained the darkness creeping up inside her soul. If it forgave her growing skill for violence.

She held Bronar’s arm harder against her, his torso too much to easily encompass with her hands. He watched her, letting her into his eyes, the portals so often holding her away. Only in looking at him, his broad, scarred face, did she know that she’d been crying. Tears like rain on a hot night, the same temperature as the humid air and with but little relief to give.

“Should I have left you where you were? This is an ugly road we are upon.”

“This is where I belong. Before…I was just hiding. A wasted life.”

“The people in these towns. Maybe one in a hundred of them really know the swoop and slam of combat, of the feel inside your throat when you’ve bought your life with steel, at least for one more hour upon the earth.” A sudden roughness changed his voice, old pain flashing in his eyes.

She pushed him and he gave way so she could climb atop his chest. Not with any intention now, but for nesting closer. Her cheek pressed against the V below his sternum, next to a long, raised scar from some enemy’s blade. A wound Bronar had been lucky to survive.

The feel of all their ghosts trailing behind you like incomplete dreams. They don’t know how those chains drag upon you,” she said into his leathery skin.

He cupped the back of her head, his fingers sifting into her hair with the slow care he always used, when his blood wasn’t wild with passion. “They can’t know. They shouldn’t.”

“We’ve finished with them. Killed them all and left their houses awash with blood. I want to stay here all day. Just like this. The Elf won’t be out until after dusk, so there is nothing much for us to do.”

“There will be something,” Bronar said, but he didn’t lift her off of him. Simply reached back, assuring that his mallet lay within easy reach.

“We can make love again, if you wish to. I’m not so frail as I was.”

Tahni knew that Bronar had some vague foreboding, though. She could feel it in his skin and the workings within him. Since her denial of her own nature had shattered, a thousand small signs swam up from the shallows of each day, each moment. Like the hush that fell, just as the street vendors had begun calling out their wares. Like the faint sound of shattering and the smell of lamp oil. In a moment, she looked forward, and knew.

“We are betrayed,” she whispered to Bronar. “They come with fire and crossbows. It has already begun.”

He wasted no words, putting her on her feet, pushing his own into untied boots and slinging his mail atop bare flesh. Tahni found her hands steadier than she had dared to hope. By the time smoke rose to their window, she was armed and armored. But few of their belongings could not be replaced. She followed Bronar as he bounded down the stairs, smashed the kitchen door from its hinges, and kicked a cook down, trampling over him.

“Fire,” she whispered to him as she vaulted the downed man, gasping for air as his eyes rolled wild.

And as if summoning it, as if she were a wizard, flames burst at the closed kitchen window. All of life blurred into a passing flash, a fire seen from the corner of her vision as she kept tight behind Bronar. He destroyed the door, sending it in pieces back into the alley.

Archers, not entirely ready, loitered at both entrances to the alley, but they turned toward the short stub, the one that let onto a warren of haphazard structures, all made with no square or seeming skill. Bronar smashed one man to his knees, bursting his skull like a melon, as Tahni took the other one low in the belly, wrenching the spear blade sideways to spill his lunch pipes to the dirty ground. Bronar coughed in pain as a crossbow bolt smashed against the heaviest of his armor, and she saw a second shaft skitter across the building, no more than a few inches from her.

And then they were out, into the tangled slough of jagged alleys and narrow places. With fire towering behind them, spreading from hovel to hovel like the hand of a cleansing god, they ran, and no one stood brave enough to slow their steps.

Half the town rose into the sky as acrid smoke. Tahni ran until she coughed flecks of blood from the exertion and the befouled air. At the far, seedy end of the dockside, they found a fishing boat, compelled the drunken fisherman with the point of the spear, and huddled in the smelly hold as the vessel wallowed and slapped upon the stale wind. She watched the fisherman’s hungry eyes fall to her, and to their rich wares, as the craft made slow progress out into the deeper water. He grinned, his rotted teeth and purple gums as foul as the entrance to the netherworld.

Evaldr yet burned at dusk, and lay with a belly of ashes as night gave way to morning.

“Maybe it’s better.” Bronar studied his scuffed knuckles.

“That isn’t a decision I ever wish to make. But this…we were not the authors of this madness. In his efforts to avoid a fair payment, he has brought wholesale slaughter to his own home. You were correct. No one here is innocent, few enough worthy of any human sympathy.”

He watched her for a moment, then knitted his hands together, sinking back into the gloom of the hold to rest a bit longer.

Tahni went to the topside of the vessel, squinting into the red sunrise and the smoke that lay thick upon the bay. She would have to come to grips with the workings of the boat and get them back to shore somehow. The fisherman, who had grown bold and cruel in the night, when he thought them both to be sleeping, floated on the calm face of the sea.

She remembered his face, the shocked, strangled noise when her blade went through his throat. Bronar had simply opened one eye, nodded, and left her to the grim work of pushing him over the rail.

Fate. The crone had been right. The sign of death held tight, woven into the skein of her life, and all those years trying to deny it only made its expression more grandiose now, like the crack and rush of a poorly made dam, finally giving way to the will of the water. But water it was not. Fire and blood, and the noise of the dying. Like she had carried hell within her all this time.

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