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

Bronar Returns 9: Gone Where We Cannot Follow

By Patrick M. Tracy

Jatarthion lay within a folded seam of land, home now to the carrion animals. Before coming against them at Conqueror’s Hall, the Ancient Enemy had ravaged the city, killing all but those who could flee on horseback or hide so well as to escape notice. The solemn few who escaped scattered to the winds. A handful returned to the place of their ruin on this day. Most, Tahni imagined, could not bring themselves to come back here and face what the broken gods had done to them. No matter how many years might pass, she knew there were some places she never wanted to see again. Places that shook with ghosts. Not the true spirits that moved the flesh of people and escaped to somewhere beyond at the moment of death. No, the echoes of cries that never quite stopped ringing off of empty hallways and broken-roofed buildings. The ghosts she carried with her, always. 

Tahni sat her horse at the edge of the valley, a few hundred behind her. The crew whose task it would be to salvage what could be saved from this now-frigid and empty place. Where possible, they’d chip the dead from the ice and feed what remained of them to the pyres. Some would need to wait until spring. 

“There may be a day that people will come back, but not today.” Bronar told her. He’d climbed down, stretching his legs, massaging one knee that didn’t like to be bent so for as long as the ride had lasted.

“I understand, for the ones who witnessed Jatarthion’s fall. But it seems a shame to let such a large town fall into ruin. I see many fine buildings and homes.”

“Nevertheless.” Bronar held her leg, casting his gaze upward to her. “Such are the casualties that many homes and farms will stand empty. Not just here. All across the Voravan. Even with the many gathered refugees at Conqueror’s Hall, we are far from full. We won’t know how many towns the Ancient Enemy attacked until the passes open in the spring. Some of the far-flung reaches of the empire are near a thousand miles from here.”

“That far? How is it even practical for a king or queen to preside over such a distance?”

Bronar, who had once been Conqueror King himself, shrugged. “The most distant places bring in their taxes, their squabbles, and their trade goods at midsummer. It’s their only contact. Some will come, perhaps, to see if they can win the throne for themselves. I wonder if we will still be here to see such times.”

Tahni stepped down off her horse and leaned close to Bronar. “I don’t know. We will go as soon as my conscience allows. I need to be here for them until they can stand on their own. I wish…I wish that I could do something about the empty places where so many once lived, but my powers can’t give life, only take it away.”

Bronar hoisted his massive hammer to a shoulder. “I know. It has always been thus for me. The ability to kill and survive, but never to mend.”

“There’s nothing to do, I suppose, but to gather what can be useful. We’ll carry the best of it back, collecting the rest in some large hall or building. The smaller treasures will go for plunder, and a few coins from the treasury to each salvager.”

Tahni, as befit the Conqueror Queen, gestured to them to begin the work. Vandrid, appearing near her, placed the smaller, traveling crown on her head. The Stag Crown, as it was called, for the spiked antlers arising from the circlet.

A rugged man named Gegulon got the expedition started and moving down into Jatarthion. The cold hung so great a weight upon every action that their progress happened in hushed sounds. In a handful of minutes, only a sparse retinue of a few fighters, a horse master, and Vandrid still lingered on the taller plains above the city. Once a large dwelling had been cleared and warmed, Gegulon would give them the signal, and they’d descend into the ruined city. For now, they stood close and huddled against the incessant, frigid wind.

“You needn’t have come, my queen,” Vandrid told her. The thin woman had swaddled herself with the clothes of three, to the point where the layers made her almost rotund. For all that, she appeared to be the most comfortable of all, save perhaps Bronar.

“I had to see this. I had to do honor to the dead,” Tahni said. “And I will do so with every town made destitute of people in this war.”

“There are many.” Vandrid reached, almost touching her, but letting her hand drop. This had happened increasingly over the last many days. That strange, fleeting look of hunger in her handmaiden’s eyes. The ache that did not give in to the hope of satiety.

“Then we will be busy.”

*****

The Old Wizard had sent four assassins. Tahni stood in the field they’d named Doom Harrower’s Square, the spring still new enough that coats could only be stripped back at the noon hour. The sun, hanging pale and indistinct behind the high clouds, slanted toward afternoon now. 

“So. You come as much for me as Bronar now.” He sat the warlord’s throne, hearing the reports from the distant towns and cities, letting her take a walk. Not that she stood alone. No, never that. Vandrid crouched, pulling free two long knives, covering her flank.

And then there were the hundred ravens, their liquid black eyes and obsidian beaks pointed outward toward the threat. They chuckled and called to one another, carpeting the ground with their number. Tahni found that there were always a handful of them, waiting for her. Ravens, crows, and magpies. All the clever tricksters, all those who would peck the eyes from the battle slain. Those who needed no crowns or thrones to see her as a queen.

“And you are greater in number than before. Arvodeth must grow tired of his long and fruitless game.”

All of these killers had taken pains to dress as Varovan travelers, but their purpose and origin hung upon their souls like tavern signs, clear to Tahni as the shimmer upon their swords.

“You are dear to him, so you die first,” one of them said, just as he reached to his belt to grab a throwing knife.

Tahni squinted, sending her command to the ravens. A quarter of them flew at each killer, filling their vision with black wings and beaks as long as table knives.

Three of them fell back, all plans of attack preempted, but one man, the quickest and smallest of them, shrugged free of his cloak and parted the shield of carrion birds. Tahni caught his sword swing against her iron arm, shucked behind him, and stabbed through his lower back with her spear. With a sound like wind screaming against a whole desert of sharp stones, the weapon devoured the assassin, until nothing but black ash fell to the early grass. Sudden heat bloomed within the bone-like handle, a stub where it had once shattered and since healed into its new, foreshortened length.

Vandrid, her mouth in a fierce grin, stabbed her blades into a killer’s thighs and danced back, leaving him to bleed as he fought the shifting mob of ravens. 

And thus it went. In a minute’s time, far before anyone could hear the clamor and come to their aid, the assassins decorated the grass with their dusty remnants, leaving Tahni with sudden sweat upon her brow and a thundering heart.

Vandrid, all caution abandoned, threw her arms around Tahni and held her, half-crying for relief. “My queen. My beloved queen,” she whispered. All around their feet, ravens snapped and squabbled. “How will you ever rest easy?”

“Only when the wizard Arvodeth has been shown the road to oblivion.” She could tell why Bronar so rarely said the old mage’s name. The feel and sound of his name shook the air around them. A name of power, plucking at the harp strings of the world. A name never said for an idle purpose.

“How? How will you do such a thing?” Vandrid asked, her lips so close to Tahni’s ear that the words felt like a kiss.

“I don’t know. Some say that he is immortal, and cannot be killed. He has tasted from the Well of Madness, has seen beyond the horizon’s end. I must believe that we will find a way.”

A moment after that, the runners came for them. One of them had blood on his clothes, and another held a mangled arm close to his side, his face made pale with blood loss.

“There were a dozen assassins, Queen Tahni,” Gegulon, one of the host, reported. “The king-that-was killed half of them, and we have secured the hall, but some are dead, others hurt.”

“And Bronar?” Tahni’s threatened to lose their strength. “He lives?”

Gegulon nodded. “He is not much hurt. A cut along his side. The healer said their blades were not poisoned.”

She released her breath. Strong. She had to be strong. “Take me there. Tell me all that transpired.”

“My Queen?” Gegulon asked. “Were you also attacked?”

“There were four,” Vandrid told him. 

Gegulon looked around for the bodies.

Tahni shrugged. “They will require no burying. They are of no concern now. I need to see my man.”

*****

Tahni sat by the bed, holding Bronar’s hand as the sweat of fever wracked him. All of the wounded had been so afflicted, and some of them had already breathed their last. Whatever poison and venom had been upon the assassin’s blades, it remained unknown and without remedy. 

“I…will not die of this,” he said to her, his eyes only open a small fraction, the pain of his affliction clear on his features. “I have known worse. Worse and more.” Soon after, the fever took him again, and they could do little but mop his brow and replace the cool rags upon his burning skin. 

She stormed from the royal apartment, kicking the door to the healer’s room open harder than she had meant to. He looked up from his medicine bench and his apothecary’s weight. “Queen. I have done all that can be done. I apologize, but this is beyond my powers. Bronar, the king-that-was, must fight this poison on his own. I wish my arts were more potent, but this is the work of wizards, I think. Some accursed oil I’ve never seen before.”

Tahni flexed her iron hand, shaking it at nothing in particular, and everything the sun had ever touched. With great difficulty, she got a hold on herself. “It is not your fault. I am angry, but not at you, Desogahnd. We have stayed longer than we ought. Too long, and still only half as long as we must. It seems that Bronar’s great nemesis has at last tired of toying with him, and will now exert all his energies to the venture. Next time…next time…” Tahni found herself on the verge of falling to pieces. She turned, making herself walk with the utmost of care, closing the door to the healer’s rooms. She kept her stately bearing until she returned to the royal apartment, then fell onto her dressing couch, holding her face in her hands. 

“Please. You mustn’t leave me alone.” she breathed. 

“He won’t. I won’t either. No matter what happens.” Vandrid went to her knees, holding close against Tahni’s legs. “I never knew why I was born, why I lived when only strange luck would make it so. It was for you, my queen. In every fiber and every drop of blood, in heart and brain and spirit, I belong to you.”

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