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

Bronar Returns: Into Winter, Into War

By Patrick M. Tracy

Bronar stood next to a burnt-down farmhouse, looking at a dead dog. His shoulders hunched, made even more massive beneath the furs against the frigid cold. At least the winter blunted the smell, though a few stubborn ravens still tried to chip away red slivers of the dead.

Tahni reached out with her power. Just gently, like whistling out to a well-trained hound. The ravens croaked, hopping and flying nearer, until obsidian birds surrounded her feet. Their eyes regarded her, their strange intelligence touching her mind. She swayed, understanding them, feeling their sleek perfection, the nature of them that needed only another’s misfortune.

“It’s been almost two weeks, it seems. But they don’t know what happened. Something they just call ‘The Other’ came, and they flew away. The smell of blood and fire brought them back.”

Bronar scratched at his rime-whitened beard. “I didn’t know Death Witches could speak to birds. You’ve never done that before.”

“They’re afraid, even now. Whatever did this, it was uncanny. Not human.”

The huge warrior blew a cloud of steam with his breath. “The war’s started again. No one thought they’d come back this soon. It hasn’t even been ten years. They’ve never returned within the lifespan of a man. Not that anyone remembers.”

“Who?”

He shook his head. “The Old Enemy. That’s what they call it. If there once was a true name for them, no one is left to remember.” His face quirked into a frown. He put his arm around Tahni and drew her close. A raven hopped up and perched on one of his boots, pecking gently at the swaddling of rabbit furs. “I’ve been a fool. It was a mistake to come here. Dangerous enough without a war, but it’s too late to turn aside.”

Tahni pushed her face into Bronar’s ribs and said nothing. What did this mean them? Could they still go where Bronar had hoped? The questions died upon the freezing wind. Perhaps there could be no answers to those muted words. None but the chill that comes for everyone in the end, and the touch of the flame or the carrion feeders.

Bronar found an intact structure, and they rifled it for usable goods. Little remained. Tahni huddled against Bronar’s side, wishing for the comfort of lovemaking. Even burning the last of the standing homes wouldn’t create sufficient heat to allow such luxuries. The night marched with infinite slowness, and sleep failed long before dawn, leaving her to stare into the faint tracery of old ceiling boards and think uncomfortable thoughts. In the morning, they carried on across the rough and inhospitable winterscape of the Voravan Empire. Ravens croaked and called in their wake.

*****

Smoke and the cloying smells of unwashed bodies filled the feasting hall. Remnants of three or four factions, the crushed refugees of fallen towns now in ashes, clung together in sullen eyed groups among the benches. The clamor of talk and noisy eating came to a halt as they walked closer to the high throne at the end of the hall. All eyes turned to them.

No, not them. To Bronar, who had let his heavy furs slip from his shoulders and now wore that bluff and inscrutable face that even Tahni couldn’t read. His warrior facade. Tahni understood its use, the need for it, but something in her heart always ached when she could she could no longer see within him, no longer feel his spirit there at the surface. Her lover, for a moment, was gone. A grim weapon of a man stood in his place.

The fat man on the throne chair rose. Fat, but huge, his arms covered with raised scars, one eye turned down from an axe wound hardened beneath. “You!” he shouted. “If you’ve come seeking your old throne, you ill-gotten bastard, you’ll have to kill your way through my men and take it from me in my death’s blood. Don’t imagine that it will be easily done.”

But for the stray cough and the loud breath of many warriors, the hall shook with quiet. His old throne. Tahni’s heart clenched. His. A king, and he’d never said aught, not even in passing.

“I’ve long since lost my taste for rulership, Kaldogurn. You may sit easy on your throne. However easy it might seem as They return from the frost and rime,” Bronar said in a tone loud enough for all to hear.

“If not the mantle of Conqueror King, what draws you to the land of ice?”

Bronar’s eyes glimmered in the light from the great central fire pit. “It is said, to avoid his doom, a man must himself become a greater doom. That is my business here.”

The fat king sunk back onto his throne. “And why should I countenance your presence, you who left us without a word all those years ago? You, whose mark still lingers upon the Conqueror’s Stone?” The fat king suddenly seemed exhausted, gripped with a certain sadness.

“Because you know that I’m one of a handful of warriors who can kill one of the Old Enemy.” He put a hand on Tahni’s shoulder, pushing her forward into view. “And this one is more potent still. You need us, if you wish to send them back to their rest and survive the long winter.”

Kaldogurn’s thick lips shook for a moment. The gleaming rings on all his fingers caught the light as he fretted with his long and graying beard. “Very well. You aid us, and you will have passage beyond, for I can very well guess where you wish to travel.”

The assembled warriors and refugees eased. The sound of whispered words crawled up the outside walls, just as the wind pounded the building like a thousand fists. Bronar walked forward, his off hand on Tahni’s shoulder, keeping her close. She felt the eyes on her, wondering about her, guessing what the source of her power might be.

At the foot of the throne, Kaldogurn came down, standing before them. He and Bronar were of a size, which was remarkable to the point of surprise. They grasped forearms, leaning in close.

“I’m glad you’re back, you mad man. We’ll need you in the coming days,” the Conqueror King said.

“And if we all live to see the war’s end?” Bronar asked, face still as hard and grim as a frozen mountainside.

“Then you may enter the vault, and travel to the far side of the Thrice-Riven Mountain. Though the gods alone can protect you on that dark road.”

 

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