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

Bronar Returns 14: Where the Old Kings Went to Die

By Patrick M. Tracy

The snowfall obscured all vision, drawing a veil across the winter’s light. This near to the Forgeheart Mountains, every flake liquefied as it touched the rocky ground. From liquid to steam, rising back into the air, until visibility fell to nothing, and they were forced to stop the expedition. 

The horses remaining to them stared into the muffled silver, making sad, small sounds. Nosira set the Maiden’s Army to making a camp, as there would be no further safe progress. The sounds of tent stakes being hammered into the hard ground, the occasional small spark as the iron cracked against the shale. The feeling like they had all become ghosts here, all closer to the realms of the dead than that of the living. Those thoughts filled Tahni’s mind. She clung to Vandrid, unsure if it was condensation from the storm upon her cheeks, or if her eyes bled tears for some unknown reason.

“I feel it too,” Vandrid said, her voice muffled and further distant that it should have been. “No one comes here. Since the first fall of the Varovan…we all fear this place. It’s been so long since the Imperial Caravans would come here, the aged and outgoing rulers adjourning to beneath the mountains, along with their immediate family and close advisors. No one remembers why they came here, or what happened to them once they entered the mountain. We only know that they brought their magic, their riches, and their wisdom hence. The things they didn’t want to pass on to the next emperor. Secret and special things, all down there for the taking, but no one dares try for those whispered riches. Even desperate brigands wouldn’t see shelter in the caves beneath the Forgeheart Range. No story exists in which someone walks out after having known the shade of those ancient tunnels.”

“Then that is a story we must live, a story we must survive to tell, my sweet.” Tahni caught her hands in Vandrid’s hair and kissed her with gentle thoroughness. When Bronar’s mighty form appeared out of the soft, billowing gloom, she passed Vandrid to him. She climbed up into his arms, her slim legs astride his hips. All the questions had fallen aside now, the rhythms of their concordance becoming a new natural state. Three felt just as natural as two, perhaps even more so. Her face in Vandrid’s back, Tahni reached to put her palms against Bronar’s ribs, together with both of them. Safe as it always felt, and warm, it didn’t altogether banish the unease of this ancient place. Nothing could, not even the knots of love between them.

“The tents are set,” Nosira said from nearby. Tahni knew she’d been watching them for a time. “And one of the horses is flagging badly, these past few days.”

Tahni broke away from the embrace, feeling the heat of it still in her cheeks and deeper places. She went to Nosira, taking her hands. “Thank you, General. We took the oldest and weakest of the horses on the journey, knowing full well that few of them would live out the winter. Do you need help putting the beast down and butchering it for the fires? As grim and strange as this place is, a hot meal might spark our spirits a bit.”

“No, my queen. Most of us are farm girls, who know the way of such things. We’ll put the old fellow to his last rest easily, and bleed him so the meat isn’t tainted.”

“It’s a hard task, but we are so many now, and the winter will be long, with precious little forage. When we first thought to go this way, it was only Bronar and I. Two vagabonds, alone in the world, specks lost in the storm of dust upon the long plains. Things had a certain desperate simplicity then.”

Nosira frowned. “I am…”

Tahni brought the girl’s hands to her heart. “Never say you’re sorry. I am honored to have you here. I wish I had more to offer you than the grim winter road and the haunted shadow of these mountains. Bloody, thankless tasks and a dinner of tough old horse meat. I wish that every road I walk didn’t hide a thousand dangers. Were I all you deserve, I could somehow cut a new town out of the face of the Varovan. A place where you could live and flourish, plant seeds and see them grow. But my skills are not for such things.”

Nosira couldn’t meet her eyes. “That isn’t how we see you. You saved us. All of us. You did make something new. You planted the seeds of hope within us, and they have grown. Whatever happens now, we have become part of something we can be proud of. None of us thought we would find that again.”

“You found it in yourselves, Nosira. I had but little to do with it.”

The young general’s eyes finally turned upward. “But you did. In all ways. A Conqueror Queen? There’s been perhaps one other in memory. And you wore the crown with wisdom and kindness. Aside from the mighty powers you have, you show us that we can be as we feel. We can reach out for things that bring us joy. Whatever lines others have drawn, we do not have to always follow those for our lives to have purpose.”

Tahni gave Nosira’s hands a small squeeze, then let them go. “We are not all built of the same boards as the average. Some of our hearts are shaped with many doors, some with none at all. I spent so long being afraid of myself, afraid of all the thousand differences within me. But if, in seeing me as I begin to step free of those chains, you are emboldened, then that is a fine thing.”

“It is.” Nosira eased within the circle of Tahni’s arms. “It is.”

In that moment, she learned why everyone feared this land, why no one dared venture here. All sound stopped. Nosira’s body froze, solid as ice. Out of the steam-cloud warmth of melting snow, the spirits of the dead appeared, eyes as dark as ink stains.

*****

Tall and gaunt, the specters of ancient emperors stood in their ruined finery, no more or less real than anything in the soft charcoal of the dying light. There may have been ten, or perhaps a thousand. Tahni couldn’t tell, and perhaps it didn’t matter. Their eyes, devoid of light in their faces, drew her in, but unlike everyone else, their presence couldn’t mute her, couldn’t freeze her in a moment of stopped time. The power of the Night Wolf burst within her, a torrent coming up from the strange recesses of the world like a secret spring. Whatever was of death and whatever was undying, these things were hers to grapple. 

“You have come,” the leader of them rasped, voice like cloth billowing on the wind. “We didn’t know if you would. Always him, the fated one, but your path was hidden from us. Until just now.”

Tahni slipped free of Nosira, now no more alive than a sculpture in the presence of the kings of old. “We did come. Not knowing what we might fight, or if it would aid us, we came, for there was no other hope left to us.”

She unsheathed her half spear, spinning it in the air and bringing it to rest, blade held out and at the ready. “Among our host, there are two Conqueror Regents. Perhaps that doesn’t give us the same warrant as the emperors of old, but we have made the journey.”

“To die?” the spectral liege asked. “Brave as you stand…yes, we will allow it. We would welcome you, Conqueror Queen, into our eternal ranks.”

“No. That long rest is not yet for such as we. We came for victory, for the spoils that lay beneath the mountain. To find a weapon against a wizard who has made himself deathless.”

The emperor’s ghost chuckled. “Then we will be just the first of your obstacles.” He unsheathed a ghostly great sword, burning with sickly yellow light. “One that has stood a thousand years, never yielding.”

Tahni grasped her power, but as her spear’s blade turned aside the burning sword, the strength of it shook her to the very soles of her feet. The blade came down again and again, moving effortlessly through the falling snow. Only her new strength and the fact that she’d sparred with Bronar for so many long evenings allowed her to weather the assault. Tahni danced aside, iron arm held along the axis of her short spear for leverage. She took the minimum amount of the impact, doing her best to dodge away from the swing, rather than challenging it with her full force. 

From out of the gloom, she could see that her opponent was slowly consolidating all the other ghosts in the fog. With every swing, another of them merged with him, making him a bit grander, a bit more real. An instinct deep inside her spoke with the Night Wolf’s voice. “Keep him fighting, force him to pull in every vagrant spirit, every pale king. Only then…”

Breath coming so hard that her vision pulsed, arms aching, legs threatening collapse, there remained just a single emperor, now hardly glowing with translucence, but pressing his heavy footprints into the muddy ground. The sickly yellow fire burned bright and full across his shoulder plates now, falling snow sizzling upon its fire. The mighty blade moved like a viper in his hands, weightless until each strike landed. Then – bearing all the thundering force of a falling boulder. 

Too slow, her footing imprecise in her fatigue, Tahni caught the full power of his swing. The half spear slipped from her hands, spinning into the night, and she flew back, knocked to earth with the mighty blow. 

Slowly, savoring his victory, the ghost emperor came to stand over her. “None of the thousands I have killed have fought so hard.  None have made me draw every king’s strength unto me in order to gain victory. It is no shame to die, witch. From you and your retinue, my thirst will be slaked, and I will rest easy within the shadow of the stones again. I, the first and greatest of all, Varovan the Uniter.”

The lambent blade arose, and Tahni relaxed. What more could she do? This wasn’t where she’d hoped to end, wasn’t what she’d wished for all those who loved her, but one could not win every battle. One could not always prevail. “I was close, old ghost. Close to the killing strike.”

The cracked and empty-eyed face grinned, long and yellow teeth inside leather lips. “And yet…”

Varovan’s sword began its downward arc, so huge and potent that it would cleave her in half. But another small sound revealed itself, another presence in the darkness.

Out of the shadows, a metal-barded maul swung, connecting with the ghostly emperor’s shoulders in a downward arc not unlike that of his sword. And at the bare second of the hammer’s touch, the specter exploded into uncounted fragments, flying through the air as yellow gems, falling as sharp hail all around her. 

And as the emperor’s form disjoined, time started its count again, Vandrid and Nosira shouting in surprise as everything shifted from the last moment they’d experienced before the freeze.

Tahni lay on her back, looking up at Bronar, who leaned upon the haft of his maul and gave her a grim little smile. “You know why I had to wait, do you not?”

“Of course, my love. There was only ever one chance to finish him cleanly.”

“But you didn’t believe anyone would be there to help you,” he said, kneeling. “You thought you were alone. Even after all these miles, you imagined I would leave you in your hour of need.”

Tahni covered her eyes with two knotted fist, knowing it was true. Even together, even within the perimeter of her lovers’ arms, she had a hard time not feeling that all would slip from her, that all would be taken by cruel fate. She had yet to altogether escape the old stories and their power over her. Even a witch, a harrower of doom, and a queen, she still sometimes felt the fears of a powerless barmaid in a dead-end town. Of all the things she could do, all that she could defeat, she couldn’t banish that old version of herself. That original enemy stood an implacable and deathless monster, always just behind her eyes.

“You were there, despite my fears. You were there, and it meant everything to me, Bronar. Not because of living, not because we found victory, but only because I couldn’t face myself alone again.”

 

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