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

Bronar Returns 4: Feasts and Lamentation

By Patrick M. Tracy

The feast in Conqueror’s Hall had long since ended. Servants cleared away the spilled mead and discarded pork joints as quiet descended and revelers found their beds. As seemed to always be the case, those who had seen the greatest danger were the least interested in a celebration. The noisy toasts of victory served those who had not been there far better than those whose weapons had been pulled free and used in anger.

Tahni sat on the stairs, attempting to think of nothing and failing to do so. The details of the ancient enemy slid from her mind, leaving only a grey place, an abstraction that would have to suffice for the face she’d beheld but not fully understood. Human minds couldn’t long hold such a vision without madness taking over. But the sound, the darkening of the day, the sense of an utterly alien mind…those things remained, a chill that wouldn’t be warmed by the fires. Doom had come for them, and she’d killed it. In so doing, a part of her soul broke away and drifted into the void. Lessened, darkened, she carried on. Or hoped to.

What would happen now? Everyone seemed to think that the war would end, though it seemed impossible that slaying a single foe could accomplish such a feat. Tahni couldn’t imagine it being over in this way. But perhaps her fatalism spoke these thoughts. Even if this unlooked-for conflict came to an end, she and Bronar had battles to fight, uncharted realms to brave. At the end of all of them, an old and vindictive wizard to slay. A mage so great in his powers that he’d lived a thousand years, some claimed. In that moment, she felt exhausted and unequal to it all. Even faking a single smile seemed far too great a burden.

A step on the stairs. Tahni touched her dagger’s hilt, but the face approaching in the gloom held no threat. Though they’d never shared a word, she knew the woman by sight. Kaldogurn’s consort. Not his queen. Tahni imagined that she’d know a queen when she met one. Queens, she supposed, were not narrow-waisted and scarred, with eyes like houses where ghosts lived.

The thin and yellow haired woman sat on the stairs next to her. For a time, they said nothing, just existing above the quiet expanse of the hall. A functionary came and put new logs on the central firepit. As they caught and snapped, the light increased. The hundreds of mounted antlers on the high walls created spider-shaped shadows and glimmers in the firelight. Something in those shapes resonated with the animate darkness of the ancient enemy, bringing back a bare verge of what her mind rejected as impossible.

Tahni’s hands began to shake, and she pressed them between her knees to hide her frailty. Looking again, the shadows moved just as echoes thrown by the light. No more than natural darkness. All hurts couldn’t be seen in the skin and sinew. Some cut far deeper. Even one such as she could not count herself immune.

“They say that you were the one to slay the creature of darkness,” Kaldogurn’s woman said at last.

“I had a hand in it. These deeds are rarely done alone.”

“Even the mighty Bronar, the king that was, came back pale of face and skaken. Yet here you are, unhurt.”

Tahni turned to face the other woman. Her face felt hot and compressed. “Unhurt? Is that what you think?” 

She stood, pulling her shirt and tunic over her head. She raised her linen undergarment and showed the livid bruises across her torso, the swelling of her elbow and forearm where her shield had shattered. Many hurts beyond these remained, and all paled before the lingering horror of facing a thing that should not exist. And all those marks upon the flesh were as nothing. They could be explained and understood.

The sudden movement after a time of idleness caused the pain to crest, and Tahni had to catch hold of the wall at one side of the stairs or fall from the sudden weakness. Still mostly unclad, she sunk to the stair again, sudden sweat upon her brow. She couldn’t hide her shaking hands now, the nearness of collapse. The sound of blood in her veins sounded like sharp wind in her ears.

“You never betrayed it on your face. I would have never known your hurts.”

“Tonight, the crowd needed to feel that a great victory had been won. They needed me to be well, and so I gave that illusion. With courage, one can pretend at cheer for an hour or a day. This, I have done. Tonight, my injuries grieve me, and weakness has stolen upon my limbs. Despite the cheer of a feast, I remain desolate and wounded.”

Kaldogurn’s consort reached for her cautiously, summoning a wan smile that seemed out of place on her. She helped Tahni put her outer clothes back on, and levered her up to a standing position again. A sound like a hurt animal crept from Tahni’s lips, despite her hope that it wouldn’t.

“I am Vandrid. I…the king sometimes…”

“I know, Vandrid. When I saw you before, he was thusly engaged. It doesn’t commend me that I watched you two in a moment better shared with only two.”

Vandrid brushed the words aside with a slight shrug. “Kaldogurn treats me gently. He could pick from many, but perhaps I am more comfortable than those still in the flower of their beauty.”

Tahni pushed a strand of yellow hair behind Vandrid’s ear. “I think he is fond of you. His heart is likely a scarred old thing, and he gives to you what he is able.”

“It is enough for me. I don’t need all the many dreams of the younger girls. I wouldn’t know what to do with romance and love poems, after all the hard roads I’ve walked. Just a strong hand against me sometimes in the night.”

Tahni put some of her weight on Vandrid’s shoulder and managed to climb the stairs. She had to put her back against the wall and gather herself for the walk to her room, but she’d be able to make it unassisted.

“Thank you. I sat too long, and should have sought my bed long hours ago. I should have kept the bleakness of my mood to myself.”

Vandrid nodded abstractedly. “How did you come to…be such a woman as to fight and slay uncanny monsters? What paved that road?”

“A wolf made of night lives inside me. For many years, I denied him. The truth of what my power meant frightened me, and so I stifled it. But one can only run from her power so long. When Bronar and I met, I knew that I couldn’t put off my fate another day. I knew that his was the strong hand I needed in the dark, and that I could only come by his heart if I knew my own in full.”

Tahni turned aside from the further questions as they bloomed upon Vandrid’s face. Skimming a steadying hand against the wall, she made her leaden legs move, made the thudding ache in her body merely a detail in her mind. Victory. The bards failed at the task of telling its bitter taste.

By the low red luminance of the fireplace in their room, she crawled into bed, burrowing in behind her lover. She turned her cheek against Bronar’s wide, warm back, and let the tears she’d been suppressing for days finally fall. 

*****

“Wake him up,” the Conqueror King ordered. 

The healer looked between the dying man and Kaldogurn, whose frown let it be known that he would have his will. The healer sighed, went to the side table, and mixed a powder into vinegar. Foul vapor arose. When he held it beneath the man’s nose, he coughed and roused from his comatose slumber. Both his legs had been cut away, the stumps tourniqueted. He’d somehow rode his horse three days with shattered leg bones, but his death sat upon him like a stone now. 

“My…king,” he managed. His breath sounded like a burial spade scraping across rock and wet soil.

“Tell me of Jatarthion.”

“That city…fell, and but few survived. The enemy. They sent…many. More than we thought could possibly exist.”

Kaldogurn attempted to learn more, but all his further questions were directed at a corpse. Those few words had been the last the bellow of the man’s lungs could create.

The Conqueror King turned to Bronar. “It has always been one. You know this. And when we managed to slay a single dark vanguard of them, they would recede. Not for a day, or a week. For a decade at least.”

Bronar clicked his back teeth together. “It is not that way this time.”

“But why? What drives them forward that did not in the years of the past?” Kaldogurn gestured to the healer to take the body away, and slumped his bulk into a chair that could narrowly withstand such burdens.

Bronar shook his head. Both he and Kaldogurn turned to Tahni, as if she might have the answer.

“I am only just come here. I know even less than you.” She looked up into the high corner of the room, at the angle of the roof. They stood in Kaldogurn’s own quarters, at the apex of Conqueror’s Hall. Would that she could change herself into a raven and fly away from this frigid and cursed place. But no. She couldn’t leave Bronar to this. In her heart, wordless, she’d sworn to always be with him, until the very death.

“What are you thinking of, my love?” Bronar asked. 

“Of the meaning of ‘many’, and how impossible our odds have become.”

“Jatarthion was a city of thousands. It had a garrison. Many experienced warriors. Few men between knee-high and their dotage lacked for an axe or a spear.”

Tahni considered Kaldogurn’s words. Thousands. “But we have seen the enemy. All three of us have seen it and felt the shiver of its call upon our skin. Would one warrior of any hundred be so brave as to stand against that? Would they have whatever dark gift that is required to slay that which is made from doom itself?”

Kaldogurn seemed to pull in on himself. The bulk of fat upon his once-mighty frame seemed to hang from him with all the weight of a ship’s anchor chain. “We have but few who could do such a thing. Even my best, those I sent with you, came back shaken. I like to imagine that, in the power of my youth, I could have been counted among those august ranks, but much has slipped from my grasp. After a season’s forced march, and short rations, and the grueling days needed to harden the calluses upon my palms…but perhaps not even then. The hunger in my heart and fire in my blood is not the same as it once was. I’ve grown old and useless.”

“It is beyond any of us, the march of time. Our glory, on its brightest day, is already slipping from our hands. So it will fall to us to lead the fight. And more than that. It will fall to Tahni. After this last battle with them, I am more convinced than ever that the time I killed one in the past – that was simply a matter of luck.”

Tahni felt the strength leave her legs. The thought of being the only defense against the horrors from beyond the darkest horizon overwhelmed her. She sat down on the side of the bed a mere hand’s breadth from the dead man. “One…one was too much. Looking into the living darkness of it, surviving its touch…”

Bronar moved to her with the surprising, sudden speed that had saved him so often. His hands found Tahni’s waist, and she came free of the bed, free of the ground, and draped against his chest. Bronar held her as easily as normal man would hold a folded blanket. For all his strength, perhaps the greatest warrior in all the known world, he depended upon her in this. Fire bloomed inside Tahni’s chest. She wished to call it pride, but it might well have been fear.

“Your spear hurt it. Hurt it unto death. Unlike anyone in the whole history of this war, you could hurt it from afar,” he told her. 

“But I can’t hurl a spear more than twenty paces. Not far enough for safety. It nearly killed both of us before succumbing to its wounds.”

“The spear and the short blade aren’t the only weapons I can teach you, Tahni. I believe, whatever killing tool you grasp, it is your magic that will allow it to kill the ancient enemies. We have had many allies in the past. Holy men and wizards, blessed warriors and madmen, but we have never before had a Death Witch.”

Held as she was, Tahni saw Kaldogurn’s eyes widen when Bronar spoke the truth of her power. He put a heavy hand across his mouth. 

“You do have me, and the Night Wolf within. And I will only stop fighting at your side when the breath forever leaves my body.”

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