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

Bronar Returns 8: Accolades and Titles

By Patrick M. Tracy

“I didn’t ask for this,” Tahni said. 

Vandrid pushed her lips together and said nothing. This conversation had already come around to that twice. To the fact that it was not a matter of asking, but what was right. Carefully, she’d told Tahni these things. This time, she simply touched her shoulder and gave her a sympathetic look. 

Tahni sunk to the chair of the dressing table, looking at herself in the silvered glass. Her dark eyes spoke of all that she’d seen. They made her unrecognizable to herself. Moreso even than her arm of black metal, or the royal apartment spreading out behind her. More than the fact that, like it or not, she had a handmaiden. And she had saved the empire. More than that, perhaps. The Ancient Enemy had been a hungry mouth, attempting to eat the world. Even just a ten-day after the battle, though, it all began to seem unreal. As if her deeds were simply a story that someone told her in vivid words. 

The respite from the rough living of the road allowed her skin to recover, allowed her to put on those few pounds of weight between slim and gaunt. Her reflection, that stranger there, reminded her that some had once found her pretty.

But the pretty stranger in the mirror had no answers, no possible escape from what had come to pass. “What do I do, Vandrid? Where do I go from here? All this…I am supposed to be the one following, a trailing flag behind Bronar as he goes to his destiny. No one is supposed to know my name, or care if I am here or gone.”

The yellow haired woman pressed the new-made dress into her hands. “I’m not one to speak to you about destiny, but I can tell you about today. You wear this, and walk down the stairs to meet your subjects. This and the crown. Do what you must, and maybe the road to what you ought to do will present itself.”

“So I simply go along, pretending that my brow is a place where a crown can sit rightfully?”

Vandrid reached, holding Tahni’s iron hand in hers. “You deserve it more than others who have sat this throne. A long line of manslayers with grime beneath their fingernails and mead dried within their beards.”

“But Kaldogurn…he cared for you.”

Vandrid blew air out of her nose and looked sadly into the corner of the room. “He was old, and his heart broken in two. Kal was good to me, in his way, but I was little more than a warm body who would ask nothing from him. I knew better than to try to lift him from the long melancholy of one who has outlived all his friends.”

Tahni stepped into the dress, Vandrid helping her to fasten the many stays that held it snug. Warmer than she’d thought, warm enough for winter in a drafty mead hall. She reached, touching her iron fingers to the crown. It was built to be massive, fit for a thick-necked barbarian to wear. Elk antlers wide as her arm span rose above it. Within the circle of the crown’s brim, they’d sewn a ring of heavy felt so it would sit properly on her head. Despite weighing a scant third of what Kaldogurn had, they’d made the raiment and symbols fit, only she near enough to see the artifice of it all. 

“I’ll place it upon your brow at the head of the stairs. There’s no easy way to get through a doorway or cramped space with it on,” Vandrid told her. “Be at ease. You don’t need to give any special words or do a ceremony. It has already happened. It’s decided, and you can just preside over a feast tonight. Nothing more than that. The king-that-was will be at your side. You will be before your people. Those who are only alive because of your courage and magic.”

“My people,” Tahni said, testing the flavor of the words.

“A rough-hewn gang of killers and hard men. Rugged farmers and those who fled here from across the world, far beyond the reach of laws and customs they couldn’t abide. A good quarter of them have death bounties on them in the lands beyond. Whatever wealth and fame they have, they’ve scraped a blade at the skin of the world to get it. They won’t expect you to be more than you are. Even half as much as you are.” Vandrid put her hands gently on Tahni’s hips, a wry turn upon her lips. “And the dress fits you well.”

Tahni brought the yellow haired woman close. “Hold me for a moment until the shivers in my belly subside.”

Vandrid relaxed into her arms, putting her cheek against Tahni’s shoulder. “It’s strange.”

“What?”

“That you would fight men and uncanny creatures with hardly a moment’s pause, but this seems to shake your courage. This, a thing that so many spend their every effort chasing.”

*****

They’d found some way to fill the feasting benches of Conqueror’s Hall. All these eyes, eight of every ten different and unknown from their prior feasts. So many of those she half-remembered had been given to the pyres. Strangers, then, these who had named themselves hers. Tahni reached the bottom of the stairs somehow, the heavy, awkward weight of the savage crown making her feel that she’d tip over at any moment. 

A crier, a young man shorn of his legs at the knees, crouched on the highest step of the dais. His face was florid, his eyes shimmering as if he’d already been at the mead. “And now I present to you, our new leader. Tahni Iron Arm, Harrower of Doom, Conqueror Queen of all the Varovan Reaches!”

Fists and mead cups banged upon the table. Shouts and raucous cheers shook the rafters. A few stood and saluted. A few others knelt, their hands to their hearts. The cheers lasted but a moment. Such were the wounds in the land that celebration could only stave off the grimness for a handful of moments.

No speech seemed necessary. The rumor of many voices had already risen to the level where she would have to shout to be heard. As Tahni mounted the dais and stood before the rough hewn throne, she felt words boil up out of her chest, needing to be said. She gestured to the crier, just now using his arms to lever himself down the steps, to call for the crowd’s attention.

“I…I never hoped or imagined that I would be here today. Power and acclaim always seemed things for another woman.” She shook her head. “But never mind that. You have given me this honor. I am duty-bound to accept. If it is within my power and wisdom, I will find a way to heal this empire. And if some among you find the hunger for the throne yet strong in your breast, know that I will not keep and covet this honor overlong. I will repair what I can, rule as fairly as I might, and then step aside, so that another may bear the weight of this crown.”

Just a few words, and ill considered, but she felt better having said them. She went to the throne and sat. Bronar, sitting upon her right, reached to hold her hand. Only he knew how desperately it shook, or could see the gleam of unspilled tears in her eyes.

*****

“Those weren’t idle promises,” Bronar said. 

The night’s shadows smeared and smudged in her vision, Tahni across Bronar’s shoulder and being carried up the stairs. There had been a great amount of mead. Her legs failed her, but her mind yet spun and burned with too many cares. “It isn’t what we hoped, but…we have burned cities trying to get what we need, and that didn’t work. We have left ash and tears and curdled blood in our wake. For what gain? We…”

Bronar set her down easy on the bed. She sprawled out, looking up to the high, dim places where the firelight wouldn’t reach. “You needn’t take everything onto yourself, my love. There are many broken places in the world that we can’t mend. Many people we can’t help. Whatever those chieftains, elders, and lords might expect from you, they don’t expect a savior.”

“We have to try, Bronar. We must save this one place, these ravaged people. Not from all that ills them, but at least from this booming silence and the claw hands of the grave. I know we can’t stay, but we can tarry here a while. Until spring, at least. If only to see them settled, and give us a short respite from the road.”

He snuggled next to her and she held him fiercely. “Until spring, then. Perhaps we have seen the last of the assassins for that long.”

“Thank you.” She ran her iron fingers through his beard, eyes half closed, finally relaxing that aching fist of fear as sleep threatened.

“You needn’t thank me, Tahni. You said that I am yours, and it is true. If you wish to stay, I will be at your side. But answer me this: why the sudden and awful fear? Why the drinking until your legs can’t hold you?”

Tahni put her forehead against his lips, hesitating before she spoke. “I accepted my power, accepted the grim responsibility of it. But it wasn’t the same when we were off, far from anyone, without ties, without roots. It was just we two against the world. I knew you had some blessing, some proof against the death I wield. When I heard they wanted me to lead them, to stay here within the light of their fires, it scared me so much. The power…will it lead me ever darker? Will the magic of death leech all the goodness from me, until I am but little different from the Ancient Enemy?”

Bronar turned her, holding her back against his chest, his arms so thick against her, so sure. “If you fear it, then it hasn’t happened. The bravery of your kindness seems stronger now than ever. I won’t lie to you. This life of ours doesn’t afford one the advantage of moral perfection. We find ourselves required to do many lamentable deeds. But there is still great kindness in you.”

As the remainders of the mead slowly pushed sleep into her mind, Tahni felt Vandrid and Bronar releasing the stays on her coronation dress. They eased her out of the garment, too warm and heavy for the temperature of the royal chamber. 

She felt the touch of a kiss against her cheek, too gentle for Bronar, the mouth too soft. “Those who love you know the goodness in you,” Vandrid whispered. 

Those who loved her.

 

No Responses to “Bronar Returns 8: Accolades and Titles”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: