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

Bronar Returns 7: Writ Large Upon the Flesh

By Patrick M. Tracy

She’d been carried from the field, but little different from the dead. Washed and tended, brought to rest here in the quarters of the Conqueror King, now gone more utterly than any body burned upon a funeral pyre. Kaldogurn had asked them to help with his war, and they’d done so. Now, still half dead from their fight, funeral quiet settled over the whole of Voravan Empire. The Ancient Enemy’s gloomy hand had darkened the eyes of thousands. In a sparse land, more a freehold now of united bandit lords than what it had been five hundred years hence, that toll reduced even Conqueror’s Hall and the city at its ankles to place of muffled emptiness.

But all those things were beyond the windows and the walls, out in the stark weather of midwinter, a whole different world from where Tahni and Bronar lay. Hands had tended to them, yes, but what could heal them, their injuries the aftermath of grappling with enemies made from the ghostly fabric of unquiet gods? What but time?

How many days? Tahni lay in the dark, her body strange and foreign to her in some way she couldn’t articulate. 

She and Bronar, struggling at the borders of all that had been, and all that might be. Tahni wanted to reach for him, but the impulse seemed to die between the thought and the deed. Her eyes would flick open just long enough to see a wisp of yellow hair, a concerned eye, the sharp brightness of a winter morning, but then she’d dive deep within the inky sea where even the Night Wolf couldn’t find her.

Within the umbral black and the after-echoes of dying gods, Tahni knew the healing had come to an end. She knew that, much as anything, she hid behind these new scars. Or waited, perhaps. Something would soon happen. Without knowing how she knew, or what it meant that the feeling suffused her as clearly as the smell of roasting pig wafting up from the kitchens below…

A step, quiet, furtive beside her. The old boards of the Conqueror’s Hall would not hold quiet for any but the mice and the spotted cats who stalked them. A breath. The sound of a blade coming free of a soft sheath.

Tahni’s eyes snapped open as the dagger plunged down. Her shield arm, the one shattered to useless gelatin by the king of the dethroned gods, interposed itself without thought. The dagger’s point chipped against her palm. Tahni saw the re-annealed hand and arm for the first time. No longer the color of flesh, but the dull black of cold-hammered iron. 

The assassin struck again, and she grasped his wrist. Her shield hand squeezed, and she felt his bones give way and break in spiral patterns beneath the skin. The foreshortened remnant of her spear, still there beside her in the bed, sprang to hand, and Tahni spilled the killer’s innards against the sheets and down onto the floor. 

Another sound caught her ear, and she saw a second assassin, grappling with Bronar. All across his back, in a place where his adversary in the fight had opened him to the muscle with its claws, was now sealed and hardened, like her arm had been. A strange scar made of iron now decorated her lover from shoulder to spine, and down across his side. He threw the assassin back, but the man drew out a second blade, and tensed to leap once again. Bronar’s hammer leaned against a chair, far across the room.

Tahni saw all this in but the time it took to draw breath. The stub of a spear spun in her hand, and she threw. The night-dark blade smashed through the killer’s sternum and lodged there. A sound like a hollow drum came from him, and dark light burst from his eyes, nose and mouth. Tahni watched over Bronar’s transfigured shoulder as her spear reduced the assassin’s dying body to powder. She reached out for it, and rather than clattering to the floor, the weapon sprung back to her palm, warmed like it had been before an open flame.

“Are there always two?” she asked.

Bronar blinked at her, perhaps inured now to the supernatural ways of her magic. “Always.”

Tahni rose, plunging her now-carnivorous weapon into the eviscerated and dying killer. It devoured him as it had his cohort. In so doing, the rough, splintered end of the haft mended itself, smoothing and becoming as much like polished bone as wood. It would always be shortened now, a strange and solitary weapon. In some vibration and whispered tongue, it told her this. Hers. Rendered unique by magic and trials.

“Your arm has become iron, my love, and your weapon filled with angry dweomers.”

She went to Bronar, standing there in the deep red firelight, made thinner by the many days abed. Tahni touched him, finding that she could still feel with her transfigured limb, still employ it with tenderness. “And you now bear flowers made of metal, as well, places where god’s blood flowed into us as they died.”

A sudden breath. “God’s blood?”

“I will tell you all that I’ve kept hidden. But I am alive again, and need food, and all the other things that prove that we still exist in the vital world. We have survived, for there is no winning in these moments. Not with the faces of all the slain still lingering in now-silent halls.”

***** 

The dust of the dead yet hung in the air when Vandrid burst in, breathing hard, her face pale. She looked older, careworn. She’d been Kaldogurn’s woman, and now perhaps she was no one’s. All Tahni knew is that she had been at their side, their nurse in their days of convalescence. Some faith, some hope kept the woman here when all other ties had been severed.

She blinked at them as they stood, nude by the bedside. Though the spear had put paid to the larger remnants of the assassins, a fair bit of blood still splashed across the bed, their own skin, and the floor. 

“I heard the sounds of battle,” Vandrid said, looking down now at a place on the boards somewhere between her and Bronar’s bare body.

“There were killers. This is a thing that often happens,” Bronar told her.

Vandrid looked horrified. “They…they got in here, beyond every guard.”

“The Old Wizard doesn’t buy them cheap. They know their business. It is well that Tahni slept shallow and is mostly mended of her wounds.”

Regardless of Bronar’s words, Vandrid sank to the floor, holding onto herself. “When I heard, when… How can you be so unmoved? Someone just tried to kill you. Someone we should have stopped. Someone I should have seen.”

Tahni left Bronar, who busied himself with slipping into some trousers and finding a shirt. She knelt next to Vandrid, and touched her shoulders. “I remember that you were there, caring for us when we had been overcome by the wounds of battle. This is not your fault. Not anyone’s fault. Killers follow us, biding their time and waiting for the worst time to strike. I am thankful for you, and will not cast you aside, Vandrid. I know…I know that you have lost much. We can act as your people, your family, if you wish it.”

Vandrid looked into her eyes, her mouth opening, her lip quivering with words she wished to say, then closing again. A tear fell from the corner of one pale eye. Tahni found herself wondering why she’d said so much, promised a thing she’d never imagined. Could she even keep that promise? Would they not be going soon, on roads no less dangerous than the one they’d walked before? But it didn’t matter, she supposed. She took Vandrid’s thin shoulders in the circle of her arms and held her. It felt good, at least for a moment, to know someone who had not been dragged down into the dark waters of death.

“I will care for you. I’ll see to everything. You’ll need food and water for bathing, someone to comb your hair…”

Tahni stopped Vandrid’s sudden outflow of words with one iron finger. “Just food will do for now. And I am no royal lady, needing great handwork done to me. In my time I have cleared away plates and scrubbed floors, served beer and cooked stew. Since I left that life, I often as not sleep rough upon the ground and drink at the river’s edge like a beast of the forest.”

“But…” Vandrid began. 

Tahni rose, pulling Vandrid up with her. She had named her, in essence, lady in waiting. Was it so strange that she’d wish to serve in that way? “Just food. We will see about all the rest.”

Vandrid went to fetch such victuals as the kitchen currently had, and Tahni sagged to the bed, leaning on Bronar’s arm. “I should dress.”

“You needn’t if you don’t wish to. It’s only me here, and Vandrid, who has already seen us both. I only did because I seemed to cause her a level of discomfort.”

Tahni found there was still a laugh within her. “Or something altogether not discomfort.”

Bronar put his thick hand upon her thigh. “Or that. Does it not anger you? The thought of another intruding between us?”

“Call me a fool, but I trust that I have your heart. I need no pledges from you, nor special fidelity. I simply need to know that, until we are reduced to the dissolution of death, we are together in our journey.”

“Until that time, and beyond, if such things are within my power to grant.”

Tahni essayed the task of removing Bronar’s recently-donned shirt. She needed to know the new and living scars upon him. The feel and touch and taste of those iron seams against his skin.

 

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