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

Bronar Returns 10: Survival, Inclusion, Sacrifice

By Patrick M. Tracy

Everyone the assassin’s blades had given so much as a scratch had perished. All but Bronar. Weeks later, and he still lay abed, no more than half alive, barely able to drink down enough broth to sustain him. 

“He will mend, though I don’t know how. I have at last come to some understanding of this poison. No one should be able to survive its touch. A wizard’s work, no doubt. None else could craft something so deadly.” The healer steepled his bony fingers and looked out a high window onto the spring grass in Doom Harrower’s Field. “It will be a long road, likely one of many months before he has his full strength back. Though he wakes, though he can speak and rise for a moment from his stupor, I urge you not to press him for anything more than that for a long while.”

Tahni met his gaze. “What are you implying? You needn’t use veiled language with me, Desogahnd.”

He looked away. “It…it will be some time before he is fit enough to satisfy the appetites of the flesh.”

Tahni touched the healer’s shoulder with her iron hand, turning him so he would face her again. “Do you think me so ruled by passions that I would harm Bronar for the want of pleasure?”

Desogahnd looked down at the place where her transfigured hand touched him. She wondered if she had squeezed too hard. It could happen. The advent of that power was new enough that she could sometimes forget that her iron arm had a dozen times the strength it once had.

“No, my queen. I think that you would never do such a thing purposefully, but I know that, being acquainted with the pleasures of the bedchamber, it is no easy thing to see them withheld from us. The wise can be rendered fools for the want of a lover’s touch.”

Tahni let herself breathe for a moment. Her heart twinged with the truth of what Desogahnd said. After the initial terror of Bronar’s infirmity passed, she had begun to ache for things he wasn’t ready to give her. She hadn’t admitted it to herself until just now, but she needed him so much, not just the fact of him, his small and secret smile that no one saw, the knowledge that he loved her in a way she’d never imagined…no, she needed him in a tangible, physical way. After much of her life had been spent alone, she now had cravings that could only be slaked in the tender embrace of a lover.

“Thank you, Desogahnd. I will keep this in mind, and treat Bronar gently until his fortitude returns.”

As the healer departed to his chambers, Vandrid came to her. Whatever walls had once been between them had fallen. Tahni’s handmaiden had become so vital to her, the one person she could speak freely with. With Vandrid, she could lay her burdens down for a moment, without fear of seeming weak or maudlin.

The thin, yellow-haired woman slid into her arms and held her. “I am sorry, my queen. Your man will heal. You will know the comfort of his touch again. He lives, and will mend. Unlike…”

Tahni squeezed her a bit harder. Vandrid, who had been a consort of sorts to the old Conqueror King, had seen him perish in the battle with the Ancient Enemy. To Tahni’s knowledge, she had sought no other lover since then. Maybe no other lover would suffice, after having been with Kaldogurn, that old master of war. Or perhaps she simply suffered the pangs of an empty bed. Tahni had never felt like she could ask such a thing.

“How do you cope, Vandrid? How have you traveled across the barren nights alone?”

Vandrid, still holding her close, shivered a little. “I have found my ways, but I would never be so brave as to tell you how. I…I find other things to occupy my mind. Other boons in my life that I can consider.”

Tahni held her at arm’s length. Vandrid looked away, lips a thin line, wash of golden hair hiding much of her face. The roughness and the scars of her old life, still mostly unknown, decorated her. Not, as Tahni’s first consideration had said, detracting from what she was, who she was. No, all those distressed places at Vandrid’s edges told her story, making her more, and better. Again, another thought she had never allowed herself to think. “Is it so shameful as that?”

Vandrid sank to her knees. She pressed her face into Tahni’s belly, holding her at the narrowest place on her hips. “I hope you wouldn’t think it so, but I’m too afraid to find out.”

From beyond the door to the royal apartments, Tahni heard Bronar’s soft movements. She took another moment to run her fingers through Vandrid’s hair, but knew that any further digging into her handmaiden’s mysteries would have to wait. “I would listen with understanding. If there comes a day when you want to tell me, I would never judge you harshly.”

*****

The fevered fight against the poisoned wound and the inability to eat anything solid for weeks had cooked every vestige of fat from Bronar’s body. He sat on the edge of the bed, elbows on knees, and Tahni could see every striation of muscle, every rib and bone in his spine. She slid next to him, not quite touching. He made a deep interrogative in his chest, saying nothing. 

Tahni reached, laying her iron arm atop his thigh, just brushing her hair against his bare shoulder. Oh, but the healer had been right. The gnawing need suffused her. The hunger in her skin. She had needed telling, needed the warning that she couldn’t prevail upon her man for that service. Not yet. Not for a while.

Bronar leaned lightly against her. “Must have been quite a poison. The Old Wizard outdid himself this time. The nightmares while the fever held me were as bad as I’ve ever known.”

“You lived. That’s all that is important. You’ll heal up, and we will decide what to do then.”

Bronar turned, kissing her brow. “I suppose he gave you the speech.”

“Which one is that?” she asked, knowing very well.

“No tupping until I’m recovered.” He gave a rye little laugh, almost a cough within his throat. “And I have to admit, I’m not hale enough for it yet. My legs will barely hold me long enough to walk across the room, and I sleep all but a few hours of every day.”

“I…did get that speech. But I don’t want you to worry about such things. There is plenty to occupy me, playing at being Conqueror Queen.”

“You, perhaps of anyone who’s ever sat that rough old throne, aren’t playing at it. Most of your antecedents, even me…we were just warriors strong enough to capture the crown. We had no idea what to do with it. You actually care. You truly deserve the honor. And I will worry about leaving you without anyone to see to you in the night. How could I not?”

“I’ll get by. Your strength will return. We both need to be at our best when next the assassins attack. Who knows what the Old Wizard will send against us next time?”

“Whatever it will be, we won’t like it. Something has changed, and this is well outside the old grudge from my younger days. This has an urgency we haven’t seen. Preparing for whatever is next is like looking into the dregs of a tea cup and imagining we can know the future. There is nothing but live every day and hope we are strong enough for the next attack. As to your lonely nights, I would have no objection if you let Vandrid have what she so desperately wants.”

Bronar levered himself and walked slowly to the washing table, a hand on the wall the whole time. He relieved himself, washed his hands and face, and turned back around.

Tahni, her innards ringing like a drum, finally managed a word. “Vandrid?”

“Has she not told you of her love? Held you close and kissed your cheek?”

“Yes, but…”

“You know that she doesn’t follow you for your power, or because you are her queen, or even because you’ve been kind to her.” Bronar sat heavily next to her on the side of the bed, looking exhausted from that smallest ablution. 

All the hesitant moments when Vandrid had touched her, held her, knelt before her. All those began to add themselves together in Tahni’s mind. Love. Not just the love of a friend or a subject.

“Tuck me in, will you?”

Tahni, still ringing with the thought, helped Bronar back beneath the covers and kissed his cheek. 

“You see that she is with us now. She won’t stay behind when we leave. Whether we recognize all that it means or we choose not to, what was two has become three,” he said, eyes already beginning to eclipse.

“And you aren’t angry at her?”

“What would be the point?”

*****

On many days, being Conqueror Queen was deadly boring. As the weather warmed, reports and contingents appeared from the more far flung parts of the empire. Each of these demanded Tahni’s attention. Sometimes, her jurisprudence, such as it was. The news from the far fringes of the Voravan still trickled in. Some had escaped unscathed, some whole cities had been rendered as silent as Jatarthion had. Refugees and broken-hearted survivors littered every corner of the Voravan Reaches. 

Late as these bits of news came to her, Tahni could do little but offer condolences and hints of what the nearer locales had done to re-integrate the dispossessed. She stood, stretching her legs and cupping her palms against her lower back. From just after the noon hour until well beyond dark, she’d been busy untying the mystery of a dispute between four different large townships, one that threatened to break out into open fighting at the foot of her throne if she didn’t handle it well. 

She’d had to kill one of the petitioners herself to establish control over things, and for that, she was in no way proud. But seeing their friend, a pale-cheeked man named Edrik, eaten to powdery sand by her carniverous spear had been enough to prove that they had best heed her words, and not rush the throne with daggers.

Now, though the final agreement had been signed, and no one was terribly happy about the result, there would be peace. And perhaps, she may even get to eat her dinner before she fell into bed in exhaustion. 

“Someone fetch me a cup of mead,” she said to no one in particular. 

Vandrid, sitting in the chair that Bronar would typically occupy, nodded to one of the kitchen workers, and a cup appeared in a flurry, given to Gegulon to taste. Vandrid watched the stout man for the better part of a minute, and when he didn’t quail or fall into spasms, she delivered the cup to Tahni’s hands at last.

“Yes, better to have had poison early in the day, so that I could have skipped that last tiresome proceeding.”

“Please, jest not about such things, my queen,” Vandrid begged. Neither of their voices had carried down to the room at large.

Tahni took the mead down in a few quick pulls and pressed the cup back to her handmaiden. It had been a handful of days, and she still lacked the courage to address what Bronar had told her about Vandrid. She would have to. But not today. Not yet.

“Is there anyone else?” 

“Just one more. And she…has been waiting for many days for the smallest gap in the schedule,” Vandrid told her.

Tahni sighed. “Well, let us hope that her business can be dispatched quickly. Bring her in.”

Seated on the throne, face made to be neutral once more, Tahni watched as a few of her rough warriors marched a girl of perhaps fifteen summers toward the throne. Her clothing looked ready to fall apart, her hair hanging slack. She’d tried to wash up, but still looked in stern need of a bath, a good meal, and a safe place to sleep. 

“She says her name is Nosira. She is from Kedden Reach, come all this way afoot somehow,” Gegulon said, just loud enough for Tahni and Vandrid to hear. 

The girl threw herself to the boards, pressing her forehead to the floor. Such prostration wasn’t required or expected before the Conqueror’s Throne. Only a bow or salute.

“Nosira?” Tahni asked after the low bow had become rather long in duration.

She continued her overdone obeisance, her shoulders shivering.

“They say you have come from a great distance. Tell me of your need and aim.” Tahni was always surprised when she could open her mouth and spill forth words that made it seem truly a leader, and not some errant bar maid that somehow found herself masquerading as such.

Nosira looked up, her dark eyes filled with tears that traced lines in the dirt upon her face. “I come this long way, my queen, as an offering and a sacrifice. They say you are a Death Witch, and you saved the empire with your dark powers. Such magicks as that must have their feed of blood and tears. I have nothing in the world, no purpose for which to live. All who I loved are gone. I come to give my life to you. I am yet a virgin. So are many of the girls I found. We are all prepared to die upon your whim.”

Tahni rocked back in the throne chair, paralyzed for a moment. She looked to Vandrid, who shrugged and had no helpful word. Gegulon looked flummoxed. 

“You came here, then, to die in whatever way I devise? Came with many others, all refugees and orphans?”

Nosira smiled. “Yes, Queen Tahni. We are at your disposal.”

“Take me, then, to see the rest of your host.”

Tahni arose. Vandrid motioned to a dozen burly guards, who formed up around Tahni, armed and armored. That vanguard followed Nosira, waif of a girl that she was, into the anteroom, and finally outside. Near the border wall, a ramshackle group of tents huddled. As they arrived, perhaps fifty girls, all between twelve and maybe twenty, stood together. All of them looked road weary, half-starved, and utterly bedraggled. 

Tahni looked on. In her heart, a heat as bright as new coals upon the brazier grew. The feeling, something she had only felt a few times in her life, suffused her. Strange, terrifying, but also wonderful. “It is said that you all came to present yourselves to me as sacrifices. Is this true? You have not been compelled or tricked into this pledge? You are all here of your own will and choosing?” 

Her voice carried down to all of them, and they all made signs or comments that this was true. 

“Very well, then. I cannot promise you death, but I do have a use for all of you. My love and rule are demanding things. Leave the easy release of dying to others, my Maiden Army. Yours is a harder road. Your queen needs you, and something will be made out of the sorrow you carry in your hearts. This I promise. For now, do as instructed, and more will be revealed to you in time.”

Tahni turned, in a quiet voice, and addressed Gegulon. “Give them all the means with which to bathe. Give them a place in a nearby building, or the Hall itself, if there’s room. Feed them all they can eat. Have the healer look them over, and make it absolutely clear that the guards are to leave them unmolested.”

She left Gegulon there to discharge those duties, walking back with her bristling escort.

“What will you do with them?” Vandrid asked.

“Not at all what they hoped.” 

 

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