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

Bronar Returns 16: Through Blood and Into Fire

By Patrick M. Tracy

The flying serpent’s guts showered down on Tahni, pale and glutinous. The revolting smell of the creature’s inner workings bloomed like acid and rot and burning hair. Her eyes watered, but she had no time to wretch, no time to freeze or run. 

All around her, the cavern shook with their terrible screams, that sound that shook the darkness like broken-legged horses inside a firestorm. A serpent struck from out of the shadows, snapping one of her maidens in half with a single gnashing shake of its jaws. The girl, Tahni hadn’t ever learned her name, succumbed without a cry. The monster’s jaws simply erased her life from the world. Her spear and shield clattered to the rocks below as her legs still stood, the phantom of nerve impulse keeping them upright for an awful moment.

Vandrid gave out a high, ululating scream, leaping and catching a serpent around the belly. She clung to the beast with her feet and one arm, plunging her short blade between a chitinous plate. The serpent, Vandrid still attached, smashed through one of the tents and left Tahni’s vision. Whether she lived or died, no one could say.

In the next moment, Tahni was forced to sidestep, hewing the head from another hundred fanged creature in a single swing. Anointed with the blood of fallen gods, her half-spear’s blackened blade could bring death to anything that walked for flew or dug through the deep veins of the earth. The weapon of a Death Witch, of a Conqueror Queen, of a Harrower of Doom. She could kill until the fires burned out, bathing in the blood and viscera of the dying world, but how did that protect the ones she loved? Her powers could only subtract, could only cut away at the edge of reality. They could never add. 

Another serpent swam through the press, suddenly there and at her flank, all wicked teeth and smooth, eyeless horror. A thing without remorse or thought. A monster of dark hunger. It snapped, and Tahni had to raise her iron arm to shield herself. The deathly maw snapped down on the transfigured limb, made more of godflesh than human. Tahni closed her eyes as the serpent’s teeth shattered upon the obdurate material of her new skin. Using every ounce of her new strength, she threw the serpent to the rocks and thrust her half-spear through its head, just behind the bloodied mouth. It died in a spasming snake thrash that she barely leapt away from. She felt, even amongst the desperate energy of battle, the bleakness of the broken dragging at her like hooked chains.

Tahni turned, seeing the living members of her Maiden’s Army, shields up and bristling spears. Within their phalanx, Bronar stood within a knotted pile of dead earth serpents, so awash with gore that none of his features could be seen. Just a juggernaut of annihilation, busy at the task he was made for. Many of the serpents flew away, their screams fading, even their unthinking ferocity knowing that only death existed for them now.

One remained though, a last attacker up in the cavern’s shadowed heights. Falling like a high-flung arrow, a flying serpent dove straight down at Bronar. His great maul described a circular path, and the sound of its impact shook the air with a cracking thunder. 

Its whole head shattered into shards, it splashed to the ground, the curdled-milk material of its lifeblood draining out in a torrent.

In the silence, Tahni could yet hear ringing after-echoes of the serpents’ screams. The shaking suddenness of it all overcame her. Going from the beautiful embrace of her lovers, from warmth and pleasure to the stand-or-fall finality of the fight threatened to break her apart inside. Her body, perhaps, could altogether stand it, but her spirit recoiled. 

She had to turn aside, walking away from the insectile gore of the battle’s remainder, kneeling down on clean stone, head low, trying to get her heart to fall back to its resting pace. Trying to put the momentary images away. The images of girls dying, of monstrous beasts no human should ever see, of violence so profound that most couldn’t imagine it. Of her own part of it. Of the truth of her condition. A force of destruction upon the face of the world. These tore through the darkness of her mind like falling shards of broken mirrors.

A hand fell on her shoulders. A body next to her. A slim arm around her shoulders. Vandrid. She could easily tell. So she lived, and was unhurt. A thing she would have once thanked the Lighthammer for. A blessed boon. But the distance between her and the gods she’d once held in her heart could never be walked in a thousand years of travel. It was only her now. And darkness, and the Night Wolf.

“Are you hurt, my sweet queen?” Vandrid whispered.

“I will be well. In a moment. But don’t let the girls seem me thus. They wouldn’t understand.”

“Wouldn’t they?” Vandrid asked. “I think you give them too little credit. More than anyone else, each of them knows what surviving costs. And they know what currency you’ve paid to keep them safe.”

“We have all paid. I am just…much as death should be my meat and mead, this is not always easy.”

“And I love you more because you do it, nonetheless. Within the iron and the magic, your heart is still a beautiful jewel, darkened by nothing.”

“I wish it were thus.”

Bronar’s massive hand cupped her iron-black shoulder. “Believe her, my queen. It is as Vandrid says. When the bloodletting and mayhem becomes utterly effortless, when no more tears will fall with the loss – that is when your heart has scarred over and become ugly. You are still whole, and the pain proves it.”

Tahni put her face against Vandrid’s neck, the reasons for her tears grown complex enough that she couldn’t quite explain them. Not that anyone would ask.

*****

“Seven dead,” Nosira told her. She stood there, favoring one leg, eyes blackened, one arm tucked into a makeshift sling. Fatigue hung upon her like a mantle of lead.

Tahni sighed, nodding. It could have been worse, but the bitterness of losing her girls burned in the back of her throat. Nosira was perhaps as close as she would ever have to a daughter, and she had trained her to kill and put her in harm’s way. Harm had shown its ugly face to them, doing its characteristic damage. Aching to put her arms around the girl, she didn’t. Foul ichor covered her yet, and Nosira’s hurts were too recent and too tender. So they simply looked at one another, within the gyre of sadness for a long moment.

“Another two will likely succumb before a day’s out. Two maimed, a handful that will have permanent scars and need a few weeks to be ready for another fight.” She looked down at her own injuries. “I suppose I can be counted as the walking wounded, myself.”

“Thank you, General,” Tahni said.  It seemed so impersonal. She wished that some term of endearment sprung to her lips, something that would let Nosira how much she meant. Tahni had made these girls, none of which had more than twenty summers, into fighters. Fighters took wounds. Fighters died. Thus was the world made. But that didn’t assuage any of the guilt. “Tend to them the best you can. Tell them that I saw their bravery, and am proud of every spear in the army. What you have made of them is a strong and brilliant thing.”

Nosira studied her for a moment, pensive, her face pinched with emotion. “I will tell them, but…”

Tahni’s jaw clicked together hard. The thought of concocting some fitting speech caused her vision to pulsate and her legs to weaken. Like as not, she’d burst into fresh tears at the second word. “I can’t. I mustn’t talk to them now. The battles, Nosira. They have costs that no one can truly calculate. These interior scars we take. They grieve me now, and I am not fit for anyone to know.”

The young general’s face filled with hurt, then determination. “You are always fit, my queen. In the darkest moment of your worst day.” She turned away, fading into the dimness of the caves.

At the very back of the huge cavern, a deep and swift river ran, disappearing into a foaming fall and going down into the depths. They washed up, bandaged everyone who had a wound, and moved the tents away from the clinging filth of the dead serpents. No one wanted to consider eating their stinking flesh, so Bronar had taken it upon himself to haul their carcasses out into the snow, helped by the strongest of the Maidens. 

The dead lay in state, arrayed in one of the tents. The best honor that could be managed had been done, but they had no capacity for burial or pyres at present. They would have to cast about for an unused catacomb or burial vault. It seemed that such a place as the holy mountain would have space for such things. Until then, the grim reminders of lives lost would be with them.

Now, with the terror departed and the shock fading, with the aching in the ears only a memory, Tahni sat at the earth-warm river’s edge, her feet in the fast flow, her body feeling hollow and strange. She couldn’t tell whether she should feel tired or hungry. Dumbness clung to her. Most things she’d ever done in her life seemed wrong, seemed foolish.

Vandrid pressed a bowl of stew into her hands and made her eat. Subsequently, she drank some sort of tea. Vandrid took her to their relocated tent, holding her, saying nothing. Among everything she had to feel thankful for, Tahni relished the lack of words the most. That, and the slim arms around her.

Bronar came later, when Tahni hovered on the verge of sleep. Her hooded eyes looked into his, and she understood so much. The long silences that couldn’t be breached by anything. The moments, in the gray light of morning, when he would bend around himself, stricken by some clawing remnant of the past. The terrible distance that would sometimes creep into his eyes. It was always the faces of the dead that haunted you. Always the holes in the world where their brightness had been. The world had seen fit to change them. Something allowed them to stand when all else fell. And after a time, survival didn’t seem like a blessing anymore. More a burden, a weight of a thousand stones across their shoulders. Again and again, to play a game that had long since failed to make sense.

But at least she did not play this wicked game alone. At least there were three to whom she did not have to make an accounting of her sorrows.

Without any useless talk, Bronar pulled her free of her garments. He asked for nothing, but put his lips upon her in all the places that could take her mind away from the invincible pull of the grave.

*****

The blast of elemental heat forced Tahni’s eyes closed. Closest to the edge, she turned her cheek aside, then retreated from the heat of the mountain’s open veins. The glimpse, hundreds of feet below, of the blood red molten stone, still lingered in her mind. 

Retreating, she joined the others. Even well clear of the shear of the blistering wind, she still felt the burn and sting on her face. Bronar reached out, bringing her to his chest, his blunt fingers in her hair. 

“This is a good place for them. Better than tombs. Better than slowly mouldering to bone and rot. We’ll feed the fallen maidens to the earth’s maw. All that they contained will enter the great mechanism once more. Only their spirits will rise to the places beyond. It is a good place.”

Tahni felt Nosira’s hands on her back, Vandrid’s slimmer fingers touching her hip. All that was broken within her would be a long time healing. She had no words to let them know this, but they knew it. They knew it and did not recoil from the cracked vessel of her. An overwashing tide of grateful emotions surged within her.

“You aren’t ready for what comes next, my love,” Bronar whispered. No indictment of her, only truth. 

“I want to be, but I have deferred payment on too many debts. For too long.”

“I know.” Bronar scooped her up into his arms, carrying her as easily as a roll of fabric. They left the excruciating heat of the lava vein behind, going into dimness and down a winding corridor that would lead back to the great cavern. “Arvodeth set no date upon our arrival, no time limit before he would send further assassins. We will give you the time you need, and the care. Vandrid and I will be with you, as you were with me in my time of weakness.”

“We all will,” Nosira added.

Tahni tried to form words to thank them. They escaped her, taken by the memory of earth fire. Taken by the pulling blackness she fought with every hour. The fear that whatever had made her the woman she’d always been had been ablated away to nothing. She could only cling tighter to Bronar’s chest, trying to burrow within him for a safety she so desperately needed. This terrible final phase of their quest had just begun, and already, it seemed far too much, a pinnacle to which she couldn’t climb.

*****

 

Bronar, Tahni, and Vandrid will return in the third story arc, the third “season” of this episodic tale.

 

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