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

Bronar Returns 15: The Riches of the Underworld Below

By Patrick M. Tracy

The entrance to the holy mountain lay beneath an overhang of dark stone, like a brow of some dim titan long passed from the world. Bronar stood there, looking into the impenetrable gloom, saying nothing, tapping his palm against the haft of his maul. 

“We shouldn’t bring the maidens beyond the threshold. And again, without the shelter and warmth of the caves, they’ll likely perish. So it’s a dark bargain. Freeze out here, or dare the perils of the imperial tombs. Regardless, we can’t take them where I mean to go. I’ve seen the way these things end. In some ventures, numbers are more a hindrance than a help. Just more bodies to carry when they die. Too many young ones…taken suddenly, blotted out from the world in an instant. For your girls, we have to find a way to find a better way.” The huge warrior’s face quirked, old and bloody days passing once again within him. Of all the things he had survived, all the wars and wounds, he could not altogether escape from the empty faces of the dead. 

Tahni leaned against his hip. “I follow you in this. You indulged me in my want to heal the Voravan, to sit a throne and try my hand at such leadership as such a wild place could abide. But that is done now, and you know best the ways of war and adventury.”

Bronar shrugged. “Do I? The further I drag myself across the broken skin of the world, the less I am sure of anything. When I look back at all my decisions, I’m certain of a precious few of them. Often, I can’t even remember why they seemed like a reasonable course. As to indulging you…”

“Allow a girl her conceits, will you?”

“Girl.” He crinkled his brow at her. A half smile flickered, and he tousled her exposed hair. “As you would have it, my queen. Any conceit you choose.”

Tahni remembered when he had held himself so aloof, so emotionless amongst everyone. At least around her and Vandrid, all that hardened stone and steel had been shattered. She had battled to within his walls and battlements. She reached up, scraping at her lover’s beard with her iron hand. That transfigured hand, still shaped just as it had ever been, now always sung with warmth. Even in the frigid winter of the Voravan. Even thrust into a snowbank. It clicked at Bronar’s neck, meeting the supernatural godflesh that crept in dark rivulets across his flesh. Neither of them was quite so human as they’d been. 

Only in heart. Only in mind. For the time being, anyway. 

Human enough to love, and to crave that small warmth in a callous world. “All my foolishness aside, I agree. We’ll take the Maiden’s Army just far enough to find a good place for them to settle in. Provided such a place can be found. I took their lives into my hands, and I mean to hold them dearly. I don’t aim to spend a single drop of their blood unless I must.”

“Nosira won’t like it,” he said. “She’ll want to be with us, every step.”

Tahni blew air out of her nose. “I know. But she’ll heed my words. That is enough.”

Vandrid came behind the two of them, then envigled herself between their bodies. “You won’t leave me alone, though, will you? You wouldn’t cast me aside when you go into the depths of the mountain?”

“I expect you wouldn’t have it,” Bronar said gently, giving her backside a little squeeze. One of his mallet-sized hands covered her narrow flank, lifting her up onto her tip-toes with the merest fraction of the power it held.

Vandrid’s eyes closed, her breath coming out in a rush of cloudy vapor. “Whatever you would have of me. I am the luckiest woman in the world. I give you everything, in hopes to be worthy of the fortune you two have granted me.”

Bronar swept her up, pushing his bearded face into her neck, holding her pinned to his chest with one hand. She called out, almost a hopeless sound, before he put her unsteady feet back on the stony ground. “The days are gone when we can blithely order you about, Vandrid. And our love doesn’t measure you and squint at a set of scales. It simply is. Not because of what you might do, simply because of who you are.”

Vandrid put her hand to her mouth. Tears touched her cheeks. “I never knew to dream of this, of having so much as I have today.”

It seemed strange that it had not always been thus, the three of them wound about a single axis. Strange that the world seemed to always count in twos, when this arrangement felt so right. But counting a year backward, Vandrid had been King Kaldogurn’s woman. That old war master, perhaps not able to love her as she deserved, had been fond of her. At his death, she’d become Tahni’s handmaiden when she had succeeded him on the throne. And now, so much more than that. The owner of a third of her heart. It was as Bronar had said. Every word. And again, she felt as Vandrid did. Like she had found far more than she’d ever known to look for.

And here this mighty mission rested. Upon a barmaid, a kept woman, and the son of a stonecutter. Three who had never known the sound of two gold coins rubbed together until blood and bravery and battle brought them such riches.

*****

Veins of glittering ore shot through the stone all around them. The tents set, the fires lit, they crouched within less than a third of the massive underground vault. This single towering room could house a whole village, and by some of the works and musty remainders, it must have done so in some distant time. With the sheer scale of the excavations, the place would have had to play host to a city’s worth of miners. Likely for the span of hundreds of years, if the rumors of the depth of the tunnels were to be believed.

The earth heat cooked out of rock, making them strip out of their heavy gear as quickly as they could accomplish it. The fires were lit simply to cook and to cut the ever-present gloom of a place where the sun had never shown. 

“I wonder who lived here. They must have come and gone even before the days of the empire,” Nosira said. She’d taken the news that she and her maidens would be staying here better than Tahni imagined, only folding in on herself a little and nodding. Still, she had been clingy ever since, rarely beyond twenty feet from Tahni.

Tahni shook her head. “I know precious little. Most of what passed, even in the true imperial age, is fading from anyone’s remembrance. What came before…perhaps there are books with such wisdom, but they weren’t at Conqueror’s Hall. Outside the Voravan, even the current state of things is all but unknown. Before Bronar said we were coming this way, I never knew what lay beyond the mountains. Just a blank place on the maps, just a place where anything was possible.”

“Anything…” Nosira said, a wistful look crossing her face. She seemed twice her actual age, as if she were older even than Vandrid, who bemoaned the grey hair that no one could see inside her blonde. As if she and Bronar cared about such things.

Tahni reached, squeezing Nosira’s hand with her softer, safer extremity. “Even orphans, bereft of their homes, finding a place again, building a community great enough to withstand all the rigors of this savage place.”

The young general let her breath go, a small smile making something very like a surprising sunrise, transfiguring her face completely. “Even that. Though my heart seems to have no sense of shame, for it wishes for ever more. What you and Vandrid and Bronar have. That family above blood.”

“You can find such things. Life is filled with doors, filled with gates you can force open and walk through. For so many years, I thought that nothing would ever happen to me, that I would never come nearer to living my true life, being my true self. I was too afraid. I couldn’t imagine confronting all the obstacles. But Bronar came. And somehow, I had the bravery to reach out to him. Everything else followed.”

“Everything? Surely…”

“I may well have lived and died, meaning nothing to anyone, no one knowing my name, had I not, for just a moment, overcome my terror of what might be. You have already done that. In the decision to come to me, even when you imagined that you would be put to a bloody death, you did it. In bringing others with you, you deepened it. In taking a lead and becoming the general of this army…” Tahni enumerated. 

“But you did that. You named me as such,” Nosira objected.

“I merely observed what already existed and put a name to it. You were always the leader, always the force behind the group.”

They stood there, looking at one another, the words suddenly run dry. Tahni put her iron hand over Nosira’s, letting them both exist in this good moment. She didn’t wish to think about the fact that it might be their last. That the hazards of the mountain could easily kill them all in an hour or a day. If any great wisdom had devolved to her in all her deadly adventures, in fighting men and gods and ghosts, it was that you only had the moment in which you existed. That was the one true thing, floating between a memory and a dream. And it was enough.

“Will you go…I don’t know if it is tonight or today. Time seems to leave you the moment the earth swallows you up. Will you go soon?” Nosira’s face turned pensive, brittle with the fear of their separation. Whatever sweet togetherness they enjoyed shrugged aside, replaced by logistics and duty. 

“Setting up camp has been more taxing than I thought, and it will take all of us a time to get used to the heat in here. After the weeks of chill, to be suddenly sweating is a shock. We will eat and rest before we depart,” Tahni told her. She watched as Vandrid pulled Bronar into their tent, holding him by the belt, her eyes flashing in the firelight. Her first impulse was to catch up with her two lovers, but she knew there would always be enough of them for her, regardless of any delay. While they all lived, no jealousy befit them.

Nosira deserved her full attention now. The young general would have to hold here, regardless of unknown dangers. Tahni needed to make her feel cherished, trusted, and comfortable. In a way, she hated that she could think so clear-eyed about it. With such nominal intent, rather than a more organic regard. But, once seated upon a savage throne and hailed as a queen, her thoughts had forever been clarified, hardened.

“My queen, I have a question. I have been thinking of it, and some of the other girls have also asked.” Nosira seemed to study a twinkling river of pale stone as it wound near her feet. 

“Ask it. Remember that the only dominion I hold on any of you is voluntary. I would force none of you to this ancient and deadly place against your will.”

“We won’t turn aside. You are our queen forever. But we are called the Maiden’s Army. What if some of us have known a lover’s touch? What if…we perhaps wished to? Would we have to return to the dust and ash of our homes?”

Tahni put her hands on the girl’s shoulders. Nosira was a fair bit taller and bigger than she, but that simple touch brought her to her knee, her head bowed, black hair spilling down over her face. “It’s just a name, Nosira. Love as you choose, with whomever moves your heart. My only directive in this is to keep yourself and your sisters safe. Don’t bring an enemy or a cruel heart into the circle of your fires. I think the wicked world has taught you that already, yes?”

“It has, my queen. My heart needs to trust before it loves. I will make sure all of the girls know that this is the rule.”

Tahni hauled her back to her feet, tilting Nosira’s chin so she could look into her eyes. “Good. A life without love is a barren thing. Your heart is of good soil. See that something takes root there, general. I would sooner see you parted from me and joyous than miserable in my service.”

*****

The sound of them froze the blood. Like the screams of dying horses. A whole herd of horses dying in torment. But somehow worse even than that. With a strange chill and note of horror that had no parallel in Tahni’s experience.

The pleasure of another’s touch shattered against such hard and keening noise, and Vandrid’s face swam out of the gloom, the flush of lovemaking quickly turning to the pallor of shock.

Bronar touched Tahni’s shoulder, saying nothing, and burst from their tent. Naked and armed. She and Vandrid rolled out into the flickering firelight of the underground camp, finding that the Maiden’s Army had encircled the camp, shoulder to shoulder, spears and shields foremost. 

But their enemy wasn’t bound by the land. It flew, and screamed. Tahni’s mind recoiled from the look of them, like sea serpents with wings, wide mouths with a hundred jagged teeth their entire faces. Where their eyes should have been, shimmering obsidian smoothness shimmered. A spear reached up for the foremost of the dozens of flying horrors, and its blade skittered ineffectually off the chitinous armor. 

Only the first of their obstacles. That was what the ghostly emperor had said. Only the first of the dangers of the holy mountain. Here flew the terrible second of their bloody tests. Here, they proved their worthiness of receiving the treasures left by the dead.

“Don’t die, my love,” Tahni whispered to Vandrid. 

“I won’t if you won’t, my queen.”

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