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

Bronar Returns II: The Flesh of Kings

By Patrick M. Tracy

Tahni lay within the circle of fierce heat of the fireplace’s maw, one arm propped beneath her. The last fleeting moisture from her bath cooked away, and the blast of new-stoked fire made her skin feel tight and prickly. As if her body couldn’t quite forget the long lesson of chill. Naked before the flame, she let herself think only of the blessing of warmth, the smell of soap, the low red light against the tall rafters of the room.

Men who had once been king were given grand lodgings, it seemed. At least, among those who knew of their once-august stature. And as that thought returned, the fear, the uncertainty returned. All the long roads reaching into the past. The versions of Bronar she would never meet, never know. What had those men wanted? What meat and mead had tasted best to them then? Would she prove to be enough for him now? She had to be. The only alternative was death. Who’s death? She didn’t want to allow her mind to examine that question too closely, afraid of what it would find.

Tahni rolled back from the fire’s verge as the heat became too much. On her back now, she regarded the rough-hewn boards above, veiled with shadow as the long night pressed in. Whatever pelt formed the rug beneath her, the animal had been tremendous in size. Bigger than any bear or horse or ox, its fur far denser. The softness, after sleeping so many nights upon the frozen earth, seemed a strange and untrustworthy luxury.

The door bound in its casement for a moment, then eased open. The familiar sound of Bronar’s footfall, the slight change in pressure as the heat of the room escaped into the hallway for a moment.

And then he stood over her. The figure of a war god from her low angle. A thousand miles tall, a thousand miles wide across the shoulders. A giant from ancient days. The firelight caught in the droplets of bath water in his beard, tiny globes of molten orange. All his clothes were new. They could only have been Kaldogurn’s own. No other man shared stature with Bronar, not in a thousand legions of a thousand.

“You never told me,” she said. Her voice sounded like wind at the corners of a winter shelter. So ghostly, so chill.

“It was long since done. Not a thing that suited me. I never thought it would matter again. Coming back here was the furthest thing from my mind. If not for the war…if not for many things, I would never have come to the Conqueror’s Hall again.”

“But you were a king. Close on to an Emperor, even. The Voravan is the size of all the other known kingdoms combined.”

He shook his head. Rueful. Dismissive. He let her see into the truth of him now. Or perhaps she had learned the knack. “And with half the people of any one of them. A cursed land, gripped by winter for most of the year. What bragging rights, to have won what no man truly wants? Yes, once, this place was an empire, but it is a half-dead husk now, presided over by a series of warlords and blood-drenched savages. I was just one amongst an ill-favored lot. A tawdry prize, won at sword-point and often lost the same way.”

“It would have been nice to know. What you were then. What you wanted and dreamed of. There aren’t any other grand titles you’ve failed to tell me of? Birthrights and the like?”

“No. Many bloody days. Wars and ill-fated ventures. Oaths sworn and broken, but to little avail and less acclaim. All but a single handful of friends moldering in the earth. Everything but what fits in my pack, taken away by the long road and the need to forever move or be killed by the Old Wizard’s assassins.”

Tahni rose to her knees before him. “And when you are ready to tell me of those yesterdays, I wish to hear the stories of all your triumphs and travails. Everything you curse. Everything you cherish. If it has ever been important to you, it is important to me. Wherever we roam, whatever riches or poverty we discover, you are my king. Let it never be said that I failed kneel before you.”

“My love, you needn’t…” he began. Her hands found the fastenings of his trousers, working loose the knots. She pushed her cheek against the tree trunk solidity of his thigh, hearing his sigh as she touched him so. That sound that, when she had first known him, had been buried too deep to rise to his lips. A thing unearthed with her own hands and labor.

“My king. Which means you belong to me. Now and always.”

“Always,” he whispered back, his fingers caught in her hair.

And then there were no more words, only quick exhalation of breath and the tensing of muscle as she asserted her claim to him in irrevocable fashion.

*****

Kaldogurn, the current Conqueror King, copulated with a thin woman at the foot of his own throne. Her arm, holding hard against the top step of the dais, carried the deep scarring of an old burn, her light hair hanging in her face. The fat king held to her hips, the action of his thrusts slow and desultory. His eyes closed, he turned his head aside, a strange twist upon his lips. Tahni thought she saw the ghosts of old memories in his florid features. He wasn’t here, in this smoky and stinking hall with a thousand antlers upon the walls. He had gone to another time and place, perhaps when he had been a more vital man, touching a woman he loved better.

But these were all guesses. Tahni remembered a time not so long passed when she would not have looked on from a shadow, witnessed the coupling without a sense of violation and guilt. The version of her from those days had died in battle, had been washed away in blood upon her spear’s blade. Perhaps that woman had always been a mask atop her real face, her real fate, before she’d been bold enough to grasp it.

In time, Kaldogurn’s bulk quivered, and he spent himself upon the stairs. The thin woman, sweat upon her brow, sat next to the remainder of the king’s efforts, catching her breath. Even a charitable observer would have never gone so far as to call her beautiful, but a certain strength rested in her features. A sense lingered that one such as she wouldn’t wilt with time or difficult circumstance. And maybe endurance meant more than beauty in this land where winter seemed to last forever.

The king tucked himself away and sunk onto a nearby bench, leaning his elbows against the feast table. No one else stirred, the only sound the low wind against the corners of the structure.

When the thin woman wiped away the king’s seed and retreated, he gave her a fond little pat on the rump. She favored him with a tired smile, nothing more.

“Not so vigorous as in my youth. Nor half as good to look upon. But not so old and fat as to be incapable,” Kaldogurn said. His eyes turned to where Tahni stood, though she couldn’t imagine how he could have detected her.

She stepped out into the vague light of the few candles. “You were far away. Distracted by memories of the past.”

He let breath out of his nose. “Old warmasters like me…we don’t sleep sound, and we are often chased by old haunts. The blood and fire of yesterday tugs at us with a skeleton’s hand. Even when tupping. Do find it so with Bronar?”

Tahni shook her head. “I manage to keep his full attention, often as not.”

“I suppose you do. You must be a rare sort, to have lived long enough to travel hence with him. With the curse of the Wizard upon him, he is a difficult lover to accompany.”

“We belong to one another. The difficulty of our road means nothing.”

Kaldogurn gave her a long glance, probing. “He said you were dangerous, but I wonder how.”

“I’m not a juggler or a fancy dancer. My skills don’t lend themself to idle shows. If there’s killing to be done, you will learn more on that day.”

“Come here. Let me have a closer look at you.” As befit a king, the words didn’t form an idle request.

Tahni approached and stood before him. This near, the smell of sweat and lovemaking hung about him in a pungent cloud. He reached, poking a fingertip against her upper arm, her shoulder, her hip. “Not much fat on you. A bit of muscle, but there must be something else. More than eyes can see. If Bronar thinks you can kill one of the Old Enemy, a vast amount more.”

 

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