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

Bronar Returns 13: Far More Than Two

By Patrick M. Tracy

The Speaker of the Year came to the foot of the Conqueror’s Throne and told Queen Tahni Iron Arm that the first day of winter had arrived. The old woman hit her ornate spear against the floor a dozen times, one for each of the wind’s twelve quarters, and faced precisely in each of the fractional cuts at the world. Everyone in the hall had known the day. The place bristled with the last of the visitors, the ones marked brave enough to travel as grim chill clutched at an empty and pitiless land.

The speaker gazed upon Tahni without fear, eyes bright in her lined, brown face. She gave one last thundering spear hit to the floor, tilting the spear toward Tahni. All seriousness and ceremony faded, and she grinned at her queen, revealing old gums bereft of a single tooth. But as aged as she was, she spun the spear in a quick flourish, driving it into the first step of the dias with enough force that it stood against its own weight.

“And with winter, things sleep, so that the world may dream of what comes next,” the Speaker said, only loud enough for her queen’s ears.

Tahni arose, turning to Bronar at her right and Vandrid on her left. They had changed the throne platform so all three could be seated. Her lovers knew what must be, as did Gegulon, who had been her reliable counselor and keeper of the hall. 

“I thank you, Speaker,” she said to the assembled warriors and visiting chieftains. “Winter comes, then, and it has been close onto a year since I first arrived in the Varovan. When we came to just there, where the Speaker of the Year stands now, we promised, Bronar and I, to help you in the war against the Ancient Enemy. As all here know, we have honored that pledge. In subsequent months, I have done my best to wear this heavy crown and help the Varovan to recover from its many wounds. Now, though, it is time for me to pass that burden to another. If my words mean anything to you, I will recommend that the worthy Gegulon be given the honor. But that is not my affair now. I will merely dine with you, on this Winterday feast, and tomorrow, we will put our feet upon another path.”

The hall came alight in murmurs and groaning. Some shouted to Tahni to stay, to remain queen for her natural life. Others developed canny and veiled expressions, planning for their play at gaining the throne. Gegulon’s eyes, shocked and sparkling with emotion, met her gaze before turning his attention at making sure no fights broke out before the feast. Ten of her Maiden Army bristled at the foot of the dias, armed and armored, ready for any sudden violence. 

Tahni, now almost an afterthought, walked back to Bronar, giving him her hand. He arose, again in his full powers. Through the transfiguration that had touched them both, he was more than he ever had been, even. They were both a mixture of iron and flesh and broken god-spirit. The only alloys of that sort to have ever been. And now, with the passing of the last of the dethroned gods, such ore was needed had all been expended. For good or ill, whatever it might mean for them in the future. Bronar reached, easily sweeping her feet from the floor, holding her pinned to his chest and kissing her until tempest sparks flew behind her closed eyes. Vandrid joined them, clinging against their sides. Perishable, worn at her edges, no less treasured for those qualities. Escaping from the tumult, they took the narrow and unseen stairs behind the throne. 

On the landing above the hall, they stood for a time, looking down on the controlled fervor as many sued to be considered for the throne. It would be twice in a row that the monarch would be chosen, rather than winning it in blood. A rarity in this savage land, but Tahni hoped it was better. She hoped that whoever came after would carry on her work, the healing of a barren and broken-backed empire, long outside its time of glory.

Nosira, the general of the Maiden’s Army, appeared to give her report. Still no more than sixteen, the combination of her great grief and sudden responsibility had turned her eyes to steel. “We are ready. All preparations have been made, my queen.”

Tahni took the girl’s hand. “Not your queen for much longer.”

“It will always be. You don’t need a throne or a crown to prove it.”

Tahni shook her head. “However you wish it. Enjoy the feast, but stay together, watch each other. Tensions and lust will run hot tonight. And don’t indulge so greatly as to have a bad head tomorrow. All of us have let the blisters on our feet heal for too long, and it will be a rough first day or three.”

*****

In the deep dark of the morning, a booming knock came upon the door. As one, Tahni, Bronar, and Vandrid’s eyes snapped open, fully alert and ready. The knock came again, more insistent. The door shook in the casement, such that only the heaviest hand could be without. Silently disentangling, they grasped their weapons, not bothering with clothes or armor. Bronar pointed to the far side of the door, himself taking the nearer, his mighty hammer at the ready. In the ashy gloom of twice-filtered starlight from the high windows, they nodded, set and ready for whatever ill news or violence might come. Vandrid’s lips peeled back, the smallest grind of her knuckles as she gripped her daggers tighter. 

Tahni, nominally still the Conqueror Queen, opened the door, her half-spear of bone and hunger hanging in her hand, ready to drink someone’s very existence. 

Beyond the threshold, Gegulon stood, splashed with such volumes of blood that it appeared he’d been working in a slaughterhouse. He stood firm, though, his hand upon the sheathed hilt of his warblade. He blinked for a moment, taking in his queen’s naked form. He dragged his eyes to the side, taking his lip between his teeth. 

“Are you hurt, Gegulon?” Tahni asked, just above a whisper.

He shook his head. “The blood…it isn’t mine. Some of the others, who wanted to be king…”

Tahni stepped back, allowing him entrance. “I’ve put you in this position, and without knowing if you even wished for such things. I should have asked you. It was thoughtless. I abused my fiat.”

“I wouldn’t say so, Queen Tahni. You have always been better than we deserve.”

Geglulon came forward, still struggling not to gaze upon her. He became aware of the others as they came from their positions of ambush. Vandrid went to the wash basin and filled it with water, putting aside a cloth and a towel. Without words, she indicated such to the blood-smeared warrior. 

The three lovers sat upon the bed as Gegulon washed the worst of the gore from his face and hands. “Had they come in concert, I would be upon my journey to the lands beyond the horizon’s end. But they each crawled about the sleeping rooms and tents without, daggers for all but themselves. I had some inkling that this would happen, and so I pretended at drinking for most of the night, stumbled like one sodden, and only feigned sleep, fully geared beneath my blankets. It’s harder to slit a man’s throat when he expects it and has made countermeasures.”

“I had hoped it would end without bloodshed,” Tahni said after Gegulon’s words had run shy.

“It rarely does in the Vorovan. Not when things are not so…clear cut as with you. As it stands, at least twenty are dead this night. Five by my own hand. The chieftains will make sense of things in daylight, I suppose. I will either be crowned or shunned, as they see fit.”

“I’m glad you live,” Vandrid said. “You’ve always been good to us. You are a good man.”

Gegulon laughed. “Opinions on that vary. And whether good men are worth a slim copper coin in times like these is an unanswered question. I suppose I’m clever and cautious enough, and I don’t much mind killing men from time to time. As to any concern you have over putting me in harm’s way, my queen. You needn’t. Perhaps I wouldn’t have asked for such a thing in words, but the thought of sitting upon the tall chair doesn’t disagree with me. Everything I’ve had in my life – all those things have slipped through my clutching fingers until now. Perhaps this will be something I can grasp, something I can keep. And for the opportunity, I thank you. I only came in case some further adventure befell me. To say goodbye, and say that all three of you have made me feel differently about my life here. Better. And finally, to warn you to be on your guard, in case the vying for the crown spilled over into your plans for departure in mere hours.”

Tahni rose, Bronar and Vandrid following her lead. She gave Geglulon a gentle kiss on his stubbled cheek. Vandrid did the same upon his other, while Bronar gave him a stout handshake. 

“I would send the blessings of the Lighthammer with you, were such boons mine to give,” Tahni told him.

Gegulon shrugged. “He would likely find it distasteful to bless one such as I.”

The door closed behind him, and the three lovers knew that sleep would not come again that night. But those slim few hours left in the warmth of Conqueror’s Hall could be used in other ways. Ways that involved the celebration of being alive, not yet joined in that unending march of the dispirited dead.

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