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

Bronar XI: All These Darkened Roads

By Patrick M. Tracy

The deep heart of the night arrived, and Tahni trailed after Bronar’s footprints. The broken twigs where he’d pressed his mighty shoulders through a narrow game trail made it easy. And the smell of gore. Those tales the bards told, of chaste maidens and heroes without stains or sins…all those imaginings of those who had never seen the fury of steel and its brutal remainder. Children’s stories. The truth of combat wouldn’t fit within those tidy strictures. Neither the bright burn and rush of the moment nor the doldrums and shivering of the hours after. The bards didn’t wish to pedal the truth, because only the mad would wish such a life. Only those doomed to it, regardless of their refusal.

Tahni had washed and changed before going to find him. No outward sign of her blood red deeds remained. The fury of the Night Wolf left marks only on the hidden places and shattered cliffs of her soul. Anyone looking into her eyes could see that she was no maiden, that every fragile edge had been crushed to dust, leaving her sullied, darkened, only vaguely recognizable as the same person she’d been before a spear’s haft had touched her palm.

The ground fell away, and she walked downhill into a place of wide-spaced trees the like of which she’d never seen. The leaves shimmered like silver coins in the moonlight, the sound of the canopy hushing in the slight breeze tearing away the shields on her heart. The deeper into this strange unknown valley she went, the less she could hide from what she’d done, what she’d become. Wet cheeked, she leaned against the moss-covered trunk of a tree, outside the grace of all she’d ever hoped to be. When she closed her eyes, she saw blood. The screams of the dying echoed in her ears.

“That is how it must be for you, Witch. Yours isn’t a kind power, but dark. A sanguine river that runs across a battlefield of the damned.” The Night Wolf, close to her as as her own skin, whispered the words she knew to be true. The words that shackled her to the shadows forever.

“It is who I am. The architecture of my spirit. And woe to the world that I am built this way.”

All tears burned away, an aching acceptance gripped her by the time she found her lover. Bronar’s back hunched as he sat at the edge of a small stream, watching its quicksliver gleam with his chin resting on his fist. She pushed her shoulder against him, and he took her into his arms, holding her against him. The dried sweat and boiled leather, the hint of death scent that lingered from their earlier battle. These things mixed with all the clean and verdant smells of the forest and water.

Tahni buried her face in the roughness of his neck, pressing her cheek against the place where his pulse beat, even as the pain of beard burn arose. Close as she held him, he felt a thousand leagues away, distant as clouds upon the horizon.

“There is no amulet. All that killing, Evaldr in smoking ruins behind us, and for nothing. No magic can hide me from the Old Wizard’s vengeance, and perhaps I always knew that. Having you, not being alone, I dared to hope.”

The edge of pain and disappointment in Bronar’s voice made her heart clench. Tahni moved, putting her lips to his ear. Not that she could say any words that would make him feel better, that would remove the doom upon him. Nothing could do that but the Old Wizard’s death. And his magic rendered him all but immortal.

“Then what shall we do, my love? What road do we walk?”

He put his slab hands on each side of her head. The strength of him, now a thing she had come to need so badly, made itself manifest. Her life depended upon him, both his might and his tenderness. For so long, she’d imagined that his touch would always hold a hint of pain, but the only ache she now feared was his absence.

Bronar put his forehead against hers, so their hair mingled and they were both blind to the waning night. “I had a plan, and it relied upon the amulet. Now…I am lost, the curse upon me weighing me down. And I have brought you into this, Tahni. Made you heir to all my woes. A better man would ask you to leave, and save yourself, but I don’t have the courage.”

“I wouldn’t leave if you commanded that I go. It will be the two of us, until the last darkness falls.”

She felt him return. He held her high and pushed the side of his face into her chest. She gathered her hands at the back of his neck and pressed him into her until it hurt. This and every moment. They had to be enough. They could be enough.

The breath caught in her throat. Enough? They would have to be. From every angle, silent, tall figures appeared, clothed in armor that looked like tree bark and rock shale, blades of their spears made from shimmering crystal shards.

Elves. Not fallen and ruined like the creature she’d left in a dozen pieces. Grand, strange beings, with powers reaching like roots into the deep earth.

She felt Bronar’s muscles ease, air going from his lungs as he understood their fate. Utterly hemmed in, spear points touching her from every side, Tahni closed her eyes and prepared to die.

*****

Every heartbeat sounded like a hollow drum down an echoing canyon. The touch of their spear points chased all other thoughts away. Weight would come against those spears, and onward a sudden rending pain, each wound a gateway new-built in her body. A place where blood and life could escape. Tahni thought of it, of how it removed all hopes and fears, of how it removed every burden from her spirit. She would die in Bronar’s arms, and she accepted that.

Almost serene, she relaxed into him. “For a moment, we were mighty on the earth,” she whispered.

“For a moment.” He slid his palm down her backbone, and every shivering spark of her life glistened in the darkness of her closed eyes.

“It is sad that we didn’t find you, strangers. For we would have liked to kill you, as we did the assassins who came in your wake.” A female voice. Strange, like the sound of flutes where you would only expect a war horn to ring out. The spear points withdrew, and the quiet sound of footsteps receding into the brush breathed upon the air.

Tahni looked back. Only one figure remained in the forest’s gloom. A female elf, here above ground. No folk tale ever spoken said that her kind tread the surface lands. Queens of the deep caverns, they sent forth warriors and messengers, but never tread a wooded path beneath the stars. Tahni felt the power of her eyes, the danger of them. She didn’t flinch her gaze away, and felt the slice of the elf woman’s mind as it went into her, into her thoughts and dreams and hopes just like a keen-edged blade. In the moment spitted on her pure power, Tahni knew every tale was wrong, every wisdom incomplete.

“So. I can’t stretch so far as to call what you did justice, but it kept us from the trouble of that twisted creature’s presence. We didn’t want him back, if you wondered. He ceased to be one of us a long, long time ago. Cast adrift in the unmerciful sun, rotting within, he putrefied everything he touched. You annihilated his prison of flesh, and now his suffering is ended, as is our embarrassment. And for that, we will say that you escaped our attention and went back to the lands beyond the border. Do you understand?”

The female elf knew all. How they had killed her exiled kin. How they had come to trespass upon their land. Every step they’d taken from that first day in the tavern.

Tahni nodded, her words fallen into a void of awe within her. The elf woman reached, touching her brow. Viridian flame burned in her vision for a moment, fading to an orange halo as it passed.

“You do not know half of what you are yet, child. Your great purpose still lumbers in the dark of future nights. Go, now. Many remain for your culling. The soil yet aches for the blood you spill.”

Tahni took a breath, but the instant passed, and deep black shot across her, darker than any night. Dark as caves far below the earth, where pale and groaning mysteries dwell.

*****

Bronar stood at the verge of a road just wide enough for a single cart, the center swath grown tall with sporadic use. He looked one way, then the other. A different road, arrived at by overland travel of nine days. Ragged and footsore, they had spoken little, as if silence were their shield against the hostile world. As if, unspoken, many things would remain only half-real.

Tahni put her hand on Bronar’s hip, and he covered it with his own. He pointed west, where the road climbed up into tall foothills, then into the teeth of mountains that kept their winter snow, even in the hottest days of summer.

“A hard climb, and into a land where I have many enemies. Not the way I’d choose to go, if things were not as they are.”

“But a hard warrior walks a hard path.”

“You remember my words, from all those months ago?” A shadow of pride touched his features.

She nodded. “Always.”

“And so we will choose danger and privation. We will act when others would idle, decide when others would hesitate.”

“And where does this road take us?” she asked.

“Somewhere the Old Wizard will not expect. A destination no one has lived long enough to dare.”

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