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

Bronar Returns 11: Symbolic Surrender and the Building of Armies

By Patrick M. Tracy

There had been fifty-nine on the first day. The sacrifices, whose young spokeswoman called herself Nosira. At the high balcony that let out from one side of her royal apartments, Tahni looked down on them now. Easily a hundred. The first crop of them looking stronger every day, while the new ones stood, gaunt and road-weary, watching from the periphery. 

Tahni could see Gegulon shouting, gesturing, showing the best of them how to hold a spear, how to draw back a bow. Others did the rigorous system of movements Bronar had taught her in their first months together. Lifting stones. Carrying weighted packs while sparring with padded sticks. Wrestling one another. Climbing the knotted rope. 

They had come as sacrifices, as those who had resigned themselves to die for their queen. To die for her. Tahni still couldn’t fully grasp it, but perhaps, bereft of everything they’d known by the ravages of the war, they’d thought that their lives could be lent some form of meaning if a Death Witch could slake her darkened thirst upon them. 

“But that is not at all how these things work,” she said to no one. She stood upon this high vantage alone, hands folded at the railing. One of flesh, the other weirdly animate iron, a limb forged with the blood and dying power of the gods she’d laid to rest.

These girls, these war orphans had come to her, entrusting their fate to a woman who wore a crown she had never sought. Wanting death and release, they’d come. But she didn’t have that to offer them. Her power didn’t yearn for such things. It wished to deal death upon the battlefield, to stand ascendant over a world of the slain, but it had no taste for innocent flesh, given free.

No, she had given them a crueler and more durable thing. Purpose. Others could see them as worthless remainders of towns made forever silent, but Tahni saw in them an army she could use. And she hated the voice within her heart that would ask for that eventuality, and see such a thing done. 

But it would be done. 

Her army of maidens would be trained by autumn, and she would use them as she saw fit.

As if she knew all of what Tahni thought, Nosira, having just knocked a bigger girl down during a drill, turned her eyes upward, holding up a hand. Tahni waved to her. The activity of the drills pulled her back into motion, leaving the Conqueror Queen again alone, unseen in her high place atop the feast hall’s reaches.

She turned away, watching Vandrid, her handmaiden, gently washing Bronar’s bare torso. He looked just the faintest bit better today, the pallor and shivering of the poison beginning to leave. It would give way to a long road of recovery, the healer said. Months, before he really felt himself again. Months before…no, that bore no thinking. She told herself that she did not need the comfort of another’s arms. She could be sufficient unto herself. She had been thus for many years, in her life before. 

Sighing, she knew that whatever she imagined her strength to be, it would be soon rendered a lie. Every night formed an unending span of desolation. Sleep wouldn’t come. She burned and fidgeted beneath her covers, alone in the bed she wished to share with her man. Tahni couldn’t trust herself the proximity.

Looking up to the ceiling, she remembered the days when she’d prayed to the Lighthammer. Such different times. Prayers would avail her little now. Being what she was, she would be well beyond the mercies of such gods. She could speak these worries to the Night Wolf, but he would only laugh at her. He would only tell her that she should do whatever her strength and will would dictate.

And so it was. Tahni, alone with her power, looking on as the two who loved her in all the world shared a small word. A flicker of a smile passed across Bronar’s face as Vandrid said something befitting a crude warrior more than a handmaiden. She rested her palm against his chest, and he eased back, letting out a big breath and looking content.

Strange, but she didn’t want them to turn to her. She wanted simply to watch, hoping she could make herself worthy of their trust.

*****

“You seem better,” Tahni told him. 

Bronar, propped up with pillows, made an obscure gesture with his chin and shoulders. 

“Is it not so?”

“Better? Yes. But also stranger. The…whatever it is that happened to us, it’s spreading.” He gestured toward her iron arm, his mouth quirking. He pushed his covers down and revealed his bare chest. What had been a few lines across his skin now spread like dark hands grasping at the surface of him. The wound he’d taken looked like a welded seam of iron now, and the outer sweep of his chest had darkened into that animate iron as well. 

Tahni lowered her face to his skin, pressing the gentlest kisses against his transfigured scars. “It flows into us where we are broken, where we are hurt. Like mortar between the stones of a wall.”

His hand cupped her neck. “If mortar were steel, and our bodies the masonry. We don’t know what it means, what it will bring.”

“We live. It’s enough,” she said between kisses.

“Remember…remember the healer’s words,” he whispered.

Tahni drew back. The pain in her heart, the desperate need sizzled with agony. “I know. I will abide, and leave you unharmed. But it is so hard.”

He caught her hand. “If I could speed the healing and be all that you need, I would do so. I think this poison – I think that no normal man, no simple mortal could have withstood it. It’s only the remnant of the Ancient Enemy in me that kept me a breath away from doom. I will mend, and be different than before, but I still feel the cold hand of the grave on me.”

“I should not be…should not be hungry as I am.”

“True, you shouldn’t. Not when there is one who could see you comforted.”

Tahni closed her eyes, then covered them with her iron hand. 

“But you are your own. Do as you see fit. No one can tell you what is best.” Bronar found her other hand, holding it to his slow-beating heart, the skin above it somewhere between heavy muscle and armored iron. “I will love you regardless of anything.”

“I want…to surrender to it. But I promised myself that I would only ever be yours.”

“Will you be less mine somehow?” 

Tahni looked into his eyes. She had no answer to that question.

*****

She stood at the half-hidden doorway, a portal that passed between a small sleeping chamber and her own voluminous royal suite. Her heart beat too hard, and Conqueror’s Hall’s deep-night silence did nothing to hide that frantic drum beat. Tahni made herself breathe. 

Pushing the door open softly, she went to Vandrid’s bedside. She watched her sleeping form for an uncounted span. Vandrid grasped her blankets as if they’d be ripped away, a look of tension and discomfort written on her features. The look of an animal after long years of errant kicks and a dearth of kindness. Tahni felt that familiar sensation fill her. That hot, insistent need to heal Vandrid’s old wounds, from all the years before they’d met. To shelter her somehow. Carrying the freight of death as she did, Tahni wondered how long such tender thoughts would remain hers to feel. She couldn’t know. All she could do was use what days of empathy remained. To reach out in tenderness until the last.

“Vandrid,” Tahni breathed.

Her handmaiden’s eyes opened, at once aware and lucid, the hallmark of one who has had to run and fight and survive.

“My queen,” she said, her voice careful.

“I must apologize to you. I have been blind, and uncaring of your feelings.”

A look of alarm settled on Vandrid’s face. “No one has ever been so kind to me as you.”

Tahni’s mouth worked, trying for words that wouldn’t seem to form. “Then…”

Tears stood in Vandrid’s eyes. “Just tell me. If you’re going to send me away, please tell me now.”

“Send you…no. No, never.” Tahni grasped Vandrid and pulled her to her knees in the narrow bed. She put her palms against Vandrid’s cheeks. “I didn’t know how you felt, not until Bronar told me. I don’t know what it means for us, how it will be, but…”

Tahni embraced the thin handmaiden, feeling the bones beneath her skin, feeling her ribs give slightly as her new strength impressed itself upon the woman’s frame. “I’m afraid. I need you so much, and simply being near me is like a death warrant.”

“My beloved queen. I never thought to live this long. I belong to you now. Moreso even than those maidens who came to die. Ask anything, I will give it. If you ask it, I would swim the bitter seas of hell for you.”

Tahni couldn’t imagine a response to such words. She brought her face close, covering the lips that had uttered such an oath. An unfamiliar draught, but she had such a thirst.

 

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