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

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.”

Advertisements
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.

 

Sep
22

By Patrick M. Tracy

“Notice where her spear point touches you,” Bronar said.

The night had no clouds, starlight and the silver half moon overcoming the pall of the broken city’s luminance enough to show the alley’s lines and angles. The man on the ground, a fringe member of the Elf’s crew, reached, as if to grasp the gleaming spear blade. Thirteen inches of steel, sharpened to a bitter edge. His hand hovered near the point, but never touched, as the pressure against his belly increased, just enough that a trickle of blood welled in the cloth of his grubby tunic.

Tahni felt the Night Wolf now. Felt him with every moment, hungry for the fruit of death. She could simply apply her weight, and the man’s flesh would give way. Easily. Compliantly, as if the blood and muscle urged the steel to do its work. But no, that was all within her.

Even the Night Wolf.

Her.

The dark incantations written indelibly upon her soul. Everything she had fruitlessly denied all these years. Of the many things one could flee from, the shadowed architecture of her own soul could not be abandoned. Inescapable, its streets ran in circular patterns through the moonlight world within. All her efforts had been for naught. For so long, useless striving to not be herself.

Some thought Bronar a stupid man, but he had always known himself, his place, his strengths. Or so it seemed. Perhaps a thousand storms raged within the calm surface of his leathered skin and impassive features. Just beginning to understand her own mind, how could she know his?

Bronar presented one blunt finger, as if the prone bandit needed any help in focusing on the dire nature of his position.

“You see, the big vein runs there, at the middle, right down from your heart. The red line, as some call it. She pierces you there, you have but a handful of breaths before you go. It’s a quick way. The way a warrior hopes to go. In blood and glory, face up to the sky as the spirit goes hence. But that isn’t where she’s got you pinned. No. She pushes down now, and it goes through the pipes of your gut, and all of the foul works pours out into your blood. Your own filth pollutes you unto death. You die feverish and slow, a smell wafting out of you that even the carrion birds can’t abide.”

The man shivered all over, tears leaking from the corners of his eyes. “I swear to you, I don’t know where they went. I only know that the Elf and his circle fled two days hence. Just he, the crone, and the crippled boy. The rest of us, what few the two of you didn’t murder, are out of a job.”

Bronar squinted at him for the longest of moments, then nodded to Tahni. A flicker of disappointment coursed through her, chased by a terrible guilt. She had come to this. The taste of blood upon her tongue had revealed the savage creature within. A Death Witch. For a moment, she pictured herself pushing down, then wrenching the spear blade sideways, tearing the man open like a fish upon the gutting table. The moment of satiation it would yield. The sense of power it would give her to deprive him of everything he’d ever be.

No. No, she couldn’t allow herself to be so far gone. There was yet some humanity left to her, some control. She eased the spear away from the brigand and he rose shakily to his feet.

“Leave Evaldr. Go to the country and work an honest job for the rest of your days. Never return to these streets, or I will know, and I will make your death last eleven days,” she told him, her voice like the hissing of a snake.

He turned and ran. Hard running, his shoes slapping the trash-strewn pavement like a man fleeing for his very life.

Bronar looked at her, the beginnings of pride on his face. When he understood that none of what she’d said was a lie, that she meant every word, his eye changed. Not pride. Acceptance. Respect.

“The Elf left without the strong arms of his crew. He’s alone, and wouldn’t have gone by sea. There are only so many roads to choose from,” he said. He reached out, touching her shoulder, her cheek, the back of her neck. The Night Wolf eased. There would be a time for killing and blood upon the ground. Just not this day.

Tahni leaned against Bronar’s bulky side and let him push his fingers through her hair.

“We’ll have our vengeance, my love. I promise that we will.”

His love.

A part of her caught upon the word and held still, awaiting the silence or the repudiation. His love. Afraid to ruin it, she said nothing, just holding him harder for a moment before they exited the starlit alley and merged with the night crowd.

*****

Tahni watched their faces change when they entered the roadside tavern. All eyes turned to them. By their expressions, she could tell that news of Evaldr had spread this far. Whispers of what they might have done, the uncertain shadows of portent. Many looked away as quickly as they recognized who had come, growing fascinated with the surface of their ales and the crumbs upon their plates. A few let their gaze linger, as if to prove to themselves that they were not afraid.

How would they know? How would they know when someone had a kernel of knowledge about the Elf and his circle? She’d wondered, but the truth was easy enough. She’d know when someone ran for it. A table upset, bowls and tankards crashing to the boards. The loud clack as a chair overturned, then the thump of the back door as a man escaped through.

Her eyes flicked to Bronar’s and he nodded. Tahni sprinted after the chubby alehouse regular, kicking through the back door and closing with him before he could reach the stables. She swept his legs from beneath him and he rolled through the dirt awkwardly, tearing his pants and releasing a gout of nervous flatulence.

Tahni kicked him in the side, and rolled him to his back, wincing at the stink rising. He’d done worse than releasing gas. The shifting, shivering look of terror crossed his face. The insignia of her power. More than a suit of mail or a heavy shield, the ability to unhinge another with overarching fear. The Night Wolf howled within her, at odds with all her hopes of kindness.

“The Elf. How long since he was here?” She hovered her spear point just above his eyes.

“Hey! Leave him be, you wench!” someone shouted. A young man, in his teens. Perhaps the man’s son. He took an aggressive step forward, out of the stable’s dimness. He had a notched old knife in his hand and a wild look in his eye.

“Drop the blade, or I make a new hole in his face,” she said. Her face felt blank, as void of emotion as the statues of the ancient gods.

A war between passion and logic warred within the young man, but he saw reason and threw down the knife. Tears welled in his eyes.

“Sit down, back up against the barn, and don’t talk unless I ask you a question.”

He complied, all courage leaving him.

“Now. The Elf. Tell me all you know.”

The fat man told her all, his boy filling what few gaps he couldn’t recall. She let him up, and he limped into the stable, head hung low, shit in his trousers.

Tahni returned to the tavern. Bronar pushed a tankard of ale and a bowl of stew at her. She took a long drink and wiped away the froth. “We’re three days behind them. He’s hired guards, at least four. Best I can tell, they’re amateur toughs and town goons. They’re on horseback, but have no spare mounts. The guards are on sway backed nags and old plow horses. The crone couldn’t manage more than a few hours at a stretch in the saddle.”

“Then we’ll get a good rest here, buy horses in the morning, and try to catch them before they get to Mount Avariad. Outcast or not, his people won’t let us murder one of their own.”