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

Oct
20

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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Oct
13

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.

Oct
06

By Patrick M. Tracy

Nosira held a ewer filled with water, watching them with flexed jaw muscles. Tahni’s ability to pick up heavy stones had become frightening. She’d never been weak for her size, but this new strength told her things she didn’t wish to face. The iron of her arm, now spread past the cap of her shoulder, had penetrated to the deep places within her. It was knit within the bones and sinew. The stress of reacting to that one limb of deific power pushed protean energy into every vestige of her being now. These trials only sped the process, bringing her closer to whatever the fruition of her change might be.

Having carried a stone a full twice her weight across the field, she dropped it near where Bronar sat. His face seemed less gaunt. He could walk on his own power now, but his energy wouldn’t sustain the efforts of training yet. Just eating solid food again, being able to sit up more than an hour without the sweating shakes starting…it felt like true progress at last. Nevermind that she could see a tendril of iron-like material at the juncture between his neck and shoulder, like the reaching legs of a spider within him.

Tahni turned from Bronar and watched Vandrid finish her carry. The keen, pained sound of her handmaiden’s effort came to a crisis, and she dropped her own stone next to Tahni’s. Less than half as large, but respectable for one so slim of arm. Vandrid collapsed to the turf and held herself, running through a litany of curses between gasps.

Her handmaiden let the exertion pass over and into mild laughter as she mocked her own tendency to let her pride ruin her. Bronar nodded, approving. When they’d first traveled together, he’d told Tahni that the occasional loss of consciousness or sudden regurgitation wasn’t anything to worry over. Just part of the process.

“I’ll take that water…” Tahni started, but Nosira’s face quirked in horror, and she dropped the ewer, spilling its contents all over Vandrid. 

“Hey!” Vandrid complained, but all of their eyes turned to the evening sky, where a fiery missile hurtled toward them like a falling star.

Her instincts told her to try and jump for cover, but they stood in the middle of Doom Harrower’s Field, a hundred paces from any shelter. The burning projectile screamed as it neared, the sound like a tormented scream from living flame. Agape, they stood frozen, flinching only as it slammed into the ground a slim few paces away.

The heat and impact toppled Tahni to her back. Shuddering there with the remnant of its weird energy, a spear as tall as a flagpole transfixed the earth. The fires of its flight rose away from it and disappeared into the darkening sky, leaving plumes of smoke to follow. That smoke, rather than waft upward, coalesced into a towering figure, equally as tall as the spear. The sense of runes that hurt the eye swirled within the half-real figment. 

Tahni had always imagined a wooly beard and the lined face of an old man, but this magic-made portrayal of their great nemesis had the face of a youth, smooth and handsome, with the cruel turn of lips that bespoke of getting one’s way in all things.

“Arvodeth,” Bronar called out, his voice still not as commanding as it had been in his full health. He struggled to his feet, unarmed and without armor as he was. “At last, after you deplete the world of assassins, you finally choose to speak. What taunts and bluster do you spend your spell upon in this tardy hour?”

“There are a thousand things you do not know, Bronar Val Brannison. And never will know or understand. I am older now than any man has ever been or will ever be, and you are the one living person on the face of the world who yet vexes me. But nevermind that. I know of your plan, and welcome it. I will dispense with my habit of sending you visitors. You survived the poison that kills all, and you have earned a small modicum of respect.”

“If you could evince the respect due to an enemy, you would have long since faced me yourself, Old Wizard. You wouldn’t have made a cruel game of my life and wasted the lives of hundreds in your petty antics,” Bronar shouted, somehow becoming more himself than he had been in a long time. 

“I would expect no better than that from you, who began as a buffoon and rose not much higher. As ever, I am surprised you lived. Some strange fate must protect such fools as you,” Arvodeth said, mildly enough and with an offhanded gesture of his smoke-made hand.

Bronar raised his arms to shoulder height, still built as mighty as any man, even in his depleted state. “I survive. Perhaps only to make those greatest of the grand feel the annoyance of sharing their world with one so prosaic and without artifice.” 

Arvodeth’s smokey avatar gave an impatient shake of the head. “Perhaps. Or perhaps the kings of fate are amused by you in some way. It matters not. Regain whatever powers you might. Gather what forces you will. Dare the halls below the mountain, if you think that will aid you, but come to me. You will find that I have rebuilt the home that you and your friends destroyed. It is grander and finer than it ever was. And the doorway is also nearly prepared. All your efforts, and all the pain they garnered you…all small detours on my long path. Come to me, and I will take the burden of the living from you myself. As you have enjoined.”

With that, the great cloud of smoke came apart upon the breeze, the mighty spear falling to ash, the whole thing passing from sight. Tahni could hardly be sure it was ever there. She looked to Bronar, her mouth containing no words, but only the ghosts of a hundred questions.

“He knows. Somehow, he knows all. Even though I never spoke it aloud, not even to you. Arvodeth, damn him, knows all that I planned. And yet, what else can we do?”

“We could stay. We could run,” Tahni said in a small voice. A voice that gave her no pride to evince.

“For a while. But I have trudged along that road, and it leads nowhere. No, we must go on. A brave action, even without much hope, is better than surrender.”

Tahni nodded. She felt Nosira’s hand upon her left shoulder. Vandrid laced her arm behind, touching Tahni’s hip. They would go, then, and do one last battle. They’d try to kill a wizard, perhaps the last remaining one of his kind. If they were to die…at least they would die together.

*****

Tahni wondered if this was how Bronar felt. To be the strong one, the one so mighty as to have to school himself to gentleness at every touch. But when she thought of it, she would have always been gentle, regardless. Always cupped herself carefully around another, if they were in need of it. The occasion had simply never arisen. She touched her lips to the upper sweep of Vandrid’s ear in the dark, her hand finding the delicate V of her ribs. Her handmaiden made a small, pleased sound. 

“How is it that you came to love me, Vandrid?”

“How, or when? I cannot explain love. You’d need a poet for that, I suppose. But I can tell you when I began to fall, and that might answer something.”

Tahni smiled, only for herself and invisible in the dark. It had ceased to feel strange. She treasured Vandrid’s mix of need and scars and hope. Her spates of blue curses that befit a mercenary more than a queen’s assistant. Her thin and clever fingers that knew their way to her every sensitive place. “The when of it, then.”

“You had just arrived. You came down the stairs when Kaldogurn was tupping me on the stairs of the throne. Neither you nor him knew, but when I left, I stayed just out of the circle of lights, and I heard your words. I saw Kal’s face as you stared into his eyes and gave back not a single inch at his questions. How, instead of being intimidated, you put a seed of fear into the Conqueror King. With just words. That was the beginning of it. But when you returned, having slain one of the Ancient Enemy, and sat so stoic that no one knew of your hurts…when you showed the bruises across your side, fierce even as you could hardly walk to your room…I began to fall for you then. I began falling, and I never stopped.”

Tahni thought about the story. “So soon, and I had done so little.”

“So little? Only the impossible.”

“Others had killed them in the past. Bronar and heroes whose names I don’t know. Kaldogurn proved his might and did so.”

“Perhaps they did, but you were made to do it. You killed them all. And even if you had done lesser deeds…it wouldn’t have mattered to me.”

“I don’t know that I will ever understand, but all right.” Tahni reached, moving her iron hand in a way that made Vandrid sigh, then shiver, and finally call out in a soft, high wail. 

“I shouldn’t ask but…” Vandrid said, her breath still labored.

“When did I begin to cherish you? The moment I opened my eyes after the great battle, and knew you’d taken care of us, almost alone. That you’d put aside your grief and sat a vigil over our deathlike sleep. When I could see that you’d been left alone, and could have fallen apart, but held steady. It sounds impersonal. I had no inkling that it would be thus between us. I am blind to many things. I didn’t know how deep your feelings went, only that you needed me, and I needed you. I hope that is enough, and I am not an uncaring monster. I hope I treat you well.”

“All the stars in the night…you needn’t hope, my queen. I know that, soon enough, Bronar will be hale enough to take you abed. I know that this is soon to end.”

Tahni squeezed her thin shoulders. “Don’t say that. I won’t cast you aside. I am not made that way. I can’t promise that any of us will live long. We go to tempt the most dangerous wizard there has ever been, and immortal mage with one foot in the swirling world of a nightmare realm. I may lead you unto your demise, but I won’t leave you alone.”