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

May
11

By Patrick M. Tracy

Bronar stood next to a burnt-down farmhouse, looking at a dead dog. His shoulders hunched, made even more massive beneath the furs against the frigid cold. At least the winter blunted the smell, though a few stubborn ravens still tried to chip away red slivers of the dead.

Tahni reached out with her power. Just gently, like whistling out to a well-trained hound. The ravens croaked, hopping and flying nearer, until obsidian birds surrounded her feet. Their eyes regarded her, their strange intelligence touching her mind. She swayed, understanding them, feeling their sleek perfection, the nature of them that needed only another’s misfortune.

“It’s been almost two weeks, it seems. But they don’t know what happened. Something they just call ‘The Other’ came, and they flew away. The smell of blood and fire brought them back.”

Bronar scratched at his rime-whitened beard. “I didn’t know Death Witches could speak to birds. You’ve never done that before.”

“They’re afraid, even now. Whatever did this, it was uncanny. Not human.”

The huge warrior blew a cloud of steam with his breath. “The war’s started again. No one thought they’d come back this soon. It hasn’t even been ten years. They’ve never returned within the lifespan of a man. Not that anyone remembers.”

“Who?”

He shook his head. “The Old Enemy. That’s what they call it. If there once was a true name for them, no one is left to remember.” His face quirked into a frown. He put his arm around Tahni and drew her close. A raven hopped up and perched on one of his boots, pecking gently at the swaddling of rabbit furs. “I’ve been a fool. It was a mistake to come here. Dangerous enough without a war, but it’s too late to turn aside.”

Tahni pushed her face into Bronar’s ribs and said nothing. What did this mean them? Could they still go where Bronar had hoped? The questions died upon the freezing wind. Perhaps there could be no answers to those muted words. None but the chill that comes for everyone in the end, and the touch of the flame or the carrion feeders.

Bronar found an intact structure, and they rifled it for usable goods. Little remained. Tahni huddled against Bronar’s side, wishing for the comfort of lovemaking. Even burning the last of the standing homes wouldn’t create sufficient heat to allow such luxuries. The night marched with infinite slowness, and sleep failed long before dawn, leaving her to stare into the faint tracery of old ceiling boards and think uncomfortable thoughts. In the morning, they carried on across the rough and inhospitable winterscape of the Voravan Empire. Ravens croaked and called in their wake.

*****

Smoke and the cloying smells of unwashed bodies filled the feasting hall. Remnants of three or four factions, the crushed refugees of fallen towns now in ashes, clung together in sullen eyed groups among the benches. The clamor of talk and noisy eating came to a halt as they walked closer to the high throne at the end of the hall. All eyes turned to them.

No, not them. To Bronar, who had let his heavy furs slip from his shoulders and now wore that bluff and inscrutable face that even Tahni couldn’t read. His warrior facade. Tahni understood its use, the need for it, but something in her heart always ached when she could she could no longer see within him, no longer feel his spirit there at the surface. Her lover, for a moment, was gone. A grim weapon of a man stood in his place.

The fat man on the throne chair rose. Fat, but huge, his arms covered with raised scars, one eye turned down from an axe wound hardened beneath. “You!” he shouted. “If you’ve come seeking your old throne, you ill-gotten bastard, you’ll have to kill your way through my men and take it from me in my death’s blood. Don’t imagine that it will be easily done.”

But for the stray cough and the loud breath of many warriors, the hall shook with quiet. His old throne. Tahni’s heart clenched. His. A king, and he’d never said aught, not even in passing.

“I’ve long since lost my taste for rulership, Kaldogurn. You may sit easy on your throne. However easy it might seem as They return from the frost and rime,” Bronar said in a tone loud enough for all to hear.

“If not the mantle of Conqueror King, what draws you to the land of ice?”

Bronar’s eyes glimmered in the light from the great central fire pit. “It is said, to avoid his doom, a man must himself become a greater doom. That is my business here.”

The fat king sunk back onto his throne. “And why should I countenance your presence, you who left us without a word all those years ago? You, whose mark still lingers upon the Conqueror’s Stone?” The fat king suddenly seemed exhausted, gripped with a certain sadness.

“Because you know that I’m one of a handful of warriors who can kill one of the Old Enemy.” He put a hand on Tahni’s shoulder, pushing her forward into view. “And this one is more potent still. You need us, if you wish to send them back to their rest and survive the long winter.”

Kaldogurn’s thick lips shook for a moment. The gleaming rings on all his fingers caught the light as he fretted with his long and graying beard. “Very well. You aid us, and you will have passage beyond, for I can very well guess where you wish to travel.”

The assembled warriors and refugees eased. The sound of whispered words crawled up the outside walls, just as the wind pounded the building like a thousand fists. Bronar walked forward, his off hand on Tahni’s shoulder, keeping her close. She felt the eyes on her, wondering about her, guessing what the source of her power might be.

At the foot of the throne, Kaldogurn came down, standing before them. He and Bronar were of a size, which was remarkable to the point of surprise. They grasped forearms, leaning in close.

“I’m glad you’re back, you mad man. We’ll need you in the coming days,” the Conqueror King said.

“And if we all live to see the war’s end?” Bronar asked, face still as hard and grim as a frozen mountainside.

“Then you may enter the vault, and travel to the far side of the Thrice-Riven Mountain. Though the gods alone can protect you on that dark road.”

 

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Nov
14

By Patrick M. Tracy

The deep heart of the night arrived, and Tahni trailed after Bronar’s footprints. The broken twigs where he’d pressed his mighty shoulders through a narrow game trail made it easy. And the smell of gore. Those tales the bards told, of chaste maidens and heroes without stains or sins…all those imaginings of those who had never seen the fury of steel and its brutal remainder. Children’s stories. The truth of combat wouldn’t fit within those tidy strictures. Neither the bright burn and rush of the moment nor the doldrums and shivering of the hours after. The bards didn’t wish to pedal the truth, because only the mad would wish such a life. Only those doomed to it, regardless of their refusal.

Tahni had washed and changed before going to find him. No outward sign of her blood red deeds remained. The fury of the Night Wolf left marks only on the hidden places and shattered cliffs of her soul. Anyone looking into her eyes could see that she was no maiden, that every fragile edge had been crushed to dust, leaving her sullied, darkened, only vaguely recognizable as the same person she’d been before a spear’s haft had touched her palm.

The ground fell away, and she walked downhill into a place of wide-spaced trees the like of which she’d never seen. The leaves shimmered like silver coins in the moonlight, the sound of the canopy hushing in the slight breeze tearing away the shields on her heart. The deeper into this strange unknown valley she went, the less she could hide from what she’d done, what she’d become. Wet cheeked, she leaned against the moss-covered trunk of a tree, outside the grace of all she’d ever hoped to be. When she closed her eyes, she saw blood. The screams of the dying echoed in her ears.

“That is how it must be for you, Witch. Yours isn’t a kind power, but dark. A sanguine river that runs across a battlefield of the damned.” The Night Wolf, close to her as as her own skin, whispered the words she knew to be true. The words that shackled her to the shadows forever.

“It is who I am. The architecture of my spirit. And woe to the world that I am built this way.”

All tears burned away, an aching acceptance gripped her by the time she found her lover. Bronar’s back hunched as he sat at the edge of a small stream, watching its quicksliver gleam with his chin resting on his fist. She pushed her shoulder against him, and he took her into his arms, holding her against him. The dried sweat and boiled leather, the hint of death scent that lingered from their earlier battle. These things mixed with all the clean and verdant smells of the forest and water.

Tahni buried her face in the roughness of his neck, pressing her cheek against the place where his pulse beat, even as the pain of beard burn arose. Close as she held him, he felt a thousand leagues away, distant as clouds upon the horizon.

“There is no amulet. All that killing, Evaldr in smoking ruins behind us, and for nothing. No magic can hide me from the Old Wizard’s vengeance, and perhaps I always knew that. Having you, not being alone, I dared to hope.”

The edge of pain and disappointment in Bronar’s voice made her heart clench. Tahni moved, putting her lips to his ear. Not that she could say any words that would make him feel better, that would remove the doom upon him. Nothing could do that but the Old Wizard’s death. And his magic rendered him all but immortal.

“Then what shall we do, my love? What road do we walk?”

He put his slab hands on each side of her head. The strength of him, now a thing she had come to need so badly, made itself manifest. Her life depended upon him, both his might and his tenderness. For so long, she’d imagined that his touch would always hold a hint of pain, but the only ache she now feared was his absence.

Bronar put his forehead against hers, so their hair mingled and they were both blind to the waning night. “I had a plan, and it relied upon the amulet. Now…I am lost, the curse upon me weighing me down. And I have brought you into this, Tahni. Made you heir to all my woes. A better man would ask you to leave, and save yourself, but I don’t have the courage.”

“I wouldn’t leave if you commanded that I go. It will be the two of us, until the last darkness falls.”

She felt him return. He held her high and pushed the side of his face into her chest. She gathered her hands at the back of his neck and pressed him into her until it hurt. This and every moment. They had to be enough. They could be enough.

The breath caught in her throat. Enough? They would have to be. From every angle, silent, tall figures appeared, clothed in armor that looked like tree bark and rock shale, blades of their spears made from shimmering crystal shards.

Elves. Not fallen and ruined like the creature she’d left in a dozen pieces. Grand, strange beings, with powers reaching like roots into the deep earth.

She felt Bronar’s muscles ease, air going from his lungs as he understood their fate. Utterly hemmed in, spear points touching her from every side, Tahni closed her eyes and prepared to die.

*****

Every heartbeat sounded like a hollow drum down an echoing canyon. The touch of their spear points chased all other thoughts away. Weight would come against those spears, and onward a sudden rending pain, each wound a gateway new-built in her body. A place where blood and life could escape. Tahni thought of it, of how it removed all hopes and fears, of how it removed every burden from her spirit. She would die in Bronar’s arms, and she accepted that.

Almost serene, she relaxed into him. “For a moment, we were mighty on the earth,” she whispered.

“For a moment.” He slid his palm down her backbone, and every shivering spark of her life glistened in the darkness of her closed eyes.

“It is sad that we didn’t find you, strangers. For we would have liked to kill you, as we did the assassins who came in your wake.” A female voice. Strange, like the sound of flutes where you would only expect a war horn to ring out. The spear points withdrew, and the quiet sound of footsteps receding into the brush breathed upon the air.

Tahni looked back. Only one figure remained in the forest’s gloom. A female elf, here above ground. No folk tale ever spoken said that her kind tread the surface lands. Queens of the deep caverns, they sent forth warriors and messengers, but never tread a wooded path beneath the stars. Tahni felt the power of her eyes, the danger of them. She didn’t flinch her gaze away, and felt the slice of the elf woman’s mind as it went into her, into her thoughts and dreams and hopes just like a keen-edged blade. In the moment spitted on her pure power, Tahni knew every tale was wrong, every wisdom incomplete.

“So. I can’t stretch so far as to call what you did justice, but it kept us from the trouble of that twisted creature’s presence. We didn’t want him back, if you wondered. He ceased to be one of us a long, long time ago. Cast adrift in the unmerciful sun, rotting within, he putrefied everything he touched. You annihilated his prison of flesh, and now his suffering is ended, as is our embarrassment. And for that, we will say that you escaped our attention and went back to the lands beyond the border. Do you understand?”

The female elf knew all. How they had killed her exiled kin. How they had come to trespass upon their land. Every step they’d taken from that first day in the tavern.

Tahni nodded, her words fallen into a void of awe within her. The elf woman reached, touching her brow. Viridian flame burned in her vision for a moment, fading to an orange halo as it passed.

“You do not know half of what you are yet, child. Your great purpose still lumbers in the dark of future nights. Go, now. Many remain for your culling. The soil yet aches for the blood you spill.”

Tahni took a breath, but the instant passed, and deep black shot across her, darker than any night. Dark as caves far below the earth, where pale and groaning mysteries dwell.

*****

Bronar stood at the verge of a road just wide enough for a single cart, the center swath grown tall with sporadic use. He looked one way, then the other. A different road, arrived at by overland travel of nine days. Ragged and footsore, they had spoken little, as if silence were their shield against the hostile world. As if, unspoken, many things would remain only half-real.

Tahni put her hand on Bronar’s hip, and he covered it with his own. He pointed west, where the road climbed up into tall foothills, then into the teeth of mountains that kept their winter snow, even in the hottest days of summer.

“A hard climb, and into a land where I have many enemies. Not the way I’d choose to go, if things were not as they are.”

“But a hard warrior walks a hard path.”

“You remember my words, from all those months ago?” A shadow of pride touched his features.

She nodded. “Always.”

“And so we will choose danger and privation. We will act when others would idle, decide when others would hesitate.”

“And where does this road take us?” she asked.

“Somewhere the Old Wizard will not expect. A destination no one has lived long enough to dare.”

Nov
03

By Patrick M. Tracy

The foliage of the vine-choked thicket killed the starlight. What little showed through caught no reflection from Tahni’s soot-blackened spear blade and charcoal-smeared face. The Elf’s hired guard came to within a few feet of her, seeing nothing, hitching at his trousers, whistling a harvest tune. No more than a town bumpkin with a long dagger. Fool enough to imagine he’d live to spend the gold in his purse. Tahni surged up, the butt of her spear catching him beneath the chin as he stopped to spray his urine.

His teeth clacked together and he went down with no more than the faintest scratching of the nearby brush. Tahni swarmed atop his still body, took his dagger, and rolled him onto his stomach. Placing the dagger’s point against the protuberance at the back of his neck, she pressed her weight down. A sound like two rough stones beneath shallow water arose. Blood bloomed from beneath him. The guard’s body shuddered for a moment, then lay still. The Night Wolf howled within her, relishing the feel of a spirit freed, of vengeance applied.

Sitting atop the dead man, she listened for sounds of alarm. None arose. She wiped the blade free of its crimson stain and tucked it into her belt. With no more than a whisper of sound, she patted the dead man down, finding a boot knife, a few coins, and a hunter’s sling. Scanty remainders for a life. Crumbs fallen to the dusty floor next to a feast table.

“Leave nothing useful. Carry it if you can, hide it if there’s time, destroy it if you must,” Bronar had said. One of his first lessons, many months ago. The cruel way of wandering warriors, mercenaries, and sell-swords.

And of Death Witches. She knew that now.

Tahni felt sweat roll down her face as she moved the body below a low-hanging bush. Once hidden, she eased through the brush to where one of the other guards bathed. This one, a woman with bluff features and wide hips, floated in the water, just below a rock outcrop in the stream. The starlight winked upon the water. Her soft and pendulous breasts wallowed in the current.

Tahni appeared, just long enough that the female guard could take a single breath, then struck down with her spear, slashing across her throat. She stabbed a second time into the woman’s upper chest, holding her below the water as she thrashed her last moments of life away. In the dark, the color cloud of her blood couldn’t be seen. Even the coppery smell failed to rise above the slightest whiff. Using the spear like a push pole in a swamp canoe, Tahni moved the woman’s still corpse out into the center of the stream. She paused on the rock outcrop for just a moment, watching the body go away with the current.

All things grasped and held, every moment and monument, every hard-won victory and all ignominious defeats went thusly. They each would ride the cupping hand of the river one day, out into moonlit water and gone into oblivion.

A short bow and a dozen hunting arrows lay with the dead guard’s gear and clothing. The feeling of the Night Wolf touched the inside of Tahni’s skin. Its mouth red with the stain of death, it urged her on. It whispered for her to keep bringing the gift of nevermore to her enemies, until not a single one drew breath.

*****

The boy screamed as an arrow pierced through his stringy arm. He fell, flopping in the dirt in agony. The crone and the Elf hid behind the body of a dead guard, riddled with arrows from Tahni’s unschooled archery. Her quiver empty, the guard’s back looked like a beginner’s target. If such things bled and died, moaning to the gods for protection.

The fourth guard, morale broken, had run into the wood at the far side of the clearing. The sound of shattering bone meant that Bronar had intercepted him.

Tahni let the bow drop to the loam of the forest and hefted her spear. She could see the crone’s hand holding the dead man upright, that bundle of stick-like bones beneath her withered skin.

“Yes. Strength and might. They are yours,” the Night Wolf growled. “The time to strike is now.”

She settled her feet, turned her hip, and her arm whipped forward. The spear streaked through the pale light, a moving shadow upon the dark. The wet sound of flesh accepting the blade, then the keening shriek of pain as the crone felt the bite of death come through in the freight of a dead man’s blood and shattered ribs.

The dead man, the crone now inextricable from him in her grave-ward journey, sagged to the side, the smell of gore and freed bowels in the air. The boy fell quiet, his eyes glazing with the shock of the pain. The arrow, passing through the bone, had given him a deathly wound. The smallest of fires lit the Elf’s sallow face as he cowered amongst the fallen. Tahni approached him, her shield now upon her off hand, her short sword hidden behind her thigh.

He sprawled on the ground, a sickly toad of a creature, age weighing heavy upon him, the doom of a thing soon to die pressing him to earth. His mouth worked upon putrid gums, his teeth grown black and rotten in his jaw. The appearance of a century of torment had grown on his face since last time she beheld him, and he had already been a revolting sight.

“You knew what I was. Knew it better than I, and yet you turned your hand against me,” she spoke. Her voice held no anger now. Only power and certainty.

The Elf turned his face away, looking to Bronar where he stood, a mountainous figure in the gloom, his mallet dripping with bone fragments and brain matter.

“Save me from her. I…”

“You owe me something. If you had paid when you aught, all this death could have been averted. You named your price. We gave you your veangeance. You had only to deliver. But you chose the way of betrayal, and your actions put a city to ruin. Give me the truth of it, Elf. Before the end, you must.”

“I lied! I…never had it. The Amulet was lost hundreds of years ago. Sunk in the sea or smashed on an anvil. No one knows how to hide you from the wrath of the Old Wizard. No one can. I hoped you would die in your mission, or that you would die by my soldier’s hands, but you wouldn’t. Neither of you would do your duty and feed the hungry ground. Though the Warhells shreik your names, you will not perish.”

“You never had it.” Bronar’s face wrenched in the gloom. “Every word a lie, then. I see.”

He turned, walking back into the clinging scrub. The Elf’s screams arose as Tahni cut him. Shallow, and a hundred ways.