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

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.”

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Sep
05

By Patrick M. Tracy

That screaming. Her own voice, echoing off the scorched walls between burned out buildings. The wreckage of Evaldr, burned in the attempt at killing them and burned for naught. Tahni’s spear-haft smashed against a scrawny manchild’s knee and burst the bones out the inside of his thigh. His pain cry joined the chorus as he crawled through wispy ash, his foot turned the wrong direction and dragging like a piece of him had died. Fatigue muted everything, even the pain. Her ears, deafened by the clang of weapons, gave her only vague grasp of the battle now.

In the screaming of the iron, her shocked ears could still hear the louder tones. Enough. Enough to hear Bronar’s groan as he took a blow across the back and fell into the dust. The image of him, of his massive arm buried in the blackened remnants of a consumed hovel, fire-cracked bones still there where fire had killed the vagrants, glimmers of copper pieces warped by the fire. Tahni felt like someone reached into her chest and smashed her heart with the tongs of a blacksmith’s shop, then drove a hammer strike into her gut. Seeing him there, the mightiest of men she’d ever known, motionless on the ground…

Time clamped down to a quarter of its pace. Tahni whipped her spear across her body. Deep inside, she felt that nameless something bloom and burn. Her power. The killing magic she had run from all her life. The only reason she yet lived. Was she a good enough fighter to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with a near-unkillable legend? No. Not without inviting something dark and carnivorous to join the fight. And she had. At need. And now…now the need was not just for the life it might buy, but the feel of it inside her skin. The burn and sting of power, better than any wine.

Blood burst from the stringy rogue’s side, and his legs buckled. The spin of her weapon reversed, and she caught the injured brigand across the face. The shock and give of his bones breaking. Crimson and ivory flew as he fell across Bronar’s still form.

There were more. Always more, as if they belched up from some hellish netherworld, each one as ugly as the last. They’d been on the verge of running before, but with one to face, a woman a third of Bronar’s size, they bristled and found their courage. They yelled taunts at her, grabbing at their stinking crotches. An old message. She’d die, yes, but it would be a long time coming, if they had their choice of it.

But they wouldn’t have that choice.

Tahni set her feet, her heart beating so hard that her vision swelled and shivered with every pulse. The tip of her spear dipped, then she made herself hold it steady, watching the three cretins who still drew breath. She looked into their eyes, screaming again. Words had long since become irrelevant.

That bloom of dark magic. She reached out to it. Grabbed at it in desperation, deeper than she’d ever dared. Flares of ice and sparks shot through her tissues. So weary, but she found herself rushing at them. Every tissue flexed, infused with the external madness, that doorway within her kicked all the way open and flooding her with killing rage.

All human thought faded. Tahni tasted blood in her mouth. Chasing. Rearing back to throw her spear. The looks from a shadowed door of a burnt out building…normal people who flinched away from her wild glance as she wrenched her weapon from the dying man, a sickly looking oldster with greyish skin.

Not wanting to, she hissed at them, making the displaced refugees of the wild fire retreat further into shadow. Still in a bestial crouch, she probed the street. People fled from her presence, as they would a ravening wolf. She was but little different from one now. Perhaps worse, bereft of the clarity of purpose an animal would have. She wanted to kill again. Not because of the threat, or the anger, but simply to carry on letting blood upon the ground until there was no one left.

But there remained no one else. No legitamate threat. No one who would stand against her steel. Only shocked survivors and starving vagabonds now. Her pulse slowed, the red insanity of battle washing from her eyes.

The last quiver of magic died. Tahni went to a knee, hair hanging in her face. Blood dripped into the ash on the broken paving stones. Not her own. If she’d taken a wound, it ripped deep, somewhere inside her soul. An interior scar that only she could feel, the price of which she could not yet guess.

But her own darkened interior couldn’t be her only burden. There was something. Someone she had to help, but thought eluded her. All rational feelings and emotions fled.

Bronar.

Likely dead, her mind told her as it regained its words. Her mind told her she’d be alone again, as it had been so long, and she recoiled from that dark idea. She battered against it, like someone fighting smoke in the locked room of a burning house.

It took her a dozen tries to find her feet. She had to rest and lean on her spear with every few steps. Pain screamed from every muscle and joint from her hands to her shoulders. One cost of hitting far harder than she ought to be capable of. Her feet dragged upon the filthy street, legs numb and leaden.

The alley had grown to be a thousand years long, a whole eon of toil to walk.

Tahni let herself fall across Bronar’s body. She couldn’t tell if he yet breathed. Blackness swirling behind her eyes, she wondered if the price of her magic would snuff her own candle.

Pushing her face against Bronar’s hip, she set free all her regret, all her dreams of other lives. A life was an easy enough price to pay. In that moment, in the tomb of a city with its heart burned away, death did not seem so bad.

“This is enough,” she whispered as the bell black ocean swallowed her.

*****

A lean-to shelter built into a rock outcrop kept the sun from her eyes when she awoke. Tahni had no idea where she was, or how long she’d been insensate. She pulled air into her nostrils. Not Evaldr. None of that wretched city’s scent came to her. Nor did the wet ash of its fire damage.

She flexed her hands, wincing at the new pain and swelling in her wrists. She couldn’t close her hands into a fist yet, but nothing felt broken. Hunger and thirst muttered inside her, making themselves known. Tahni tried to sit up, but it proved more than she could do. She settled for rolling to her side, ignoring the flare of fire in her shoulder as it bore her weight.

Naked below a roughspun blanket, someone had cared for her. Someone. Tahni’s voice stuck in her throat, too dry to make a sound. She couldn’t call out. Should she? Where was she and what manner of folk had taken her away? Taking an inventory, she couldn’t find any unexplained injuries.

A woman she didn’t recognize drew back the animal pelt that closed the lean-to’s end and peered in at her. Lines etched the woman’s face, but it was hard to tell if that weathered look came from years, care, or the harshness of the wind. The stranger gave her a gentle look, then came in and knelt by her.

“Suppose you’re thirsty, eh?” The woman’s words had the inflection of the coastal villages, her voice as rough and worn as her face.

Tahni nodded, feeling the strained muscles and cords in her neck.

The woman left, coming back with a wooden mug filled with liquid. Water, cool and sweet. Country water, from a free-flowing stream. Tahni made herself drink it slowly, and found she could speak after the dust and blood washed from her voice.

“Where am I? How long has it been? Who are you? Bronar?” Everything tumbled from her lips in half-made questions.

“I’m Darva. You’re a ways down the coast. I’ll let the man himself tell you the rest, eh?” She brushed strands of hair from Tahni’s face and smiled before exiting the lean-to.

Tahni’s ears had recovered themselves, and she heard quiet words some distance from her, and the muttering of the sea beyond that. The brushing of tree limbs in the forest, and but little more than that.

Bronar came through the hide opening, filling the space and dwarfing the whole enclosure. He moved carefully, as if pinned together at the corners. His eyes were blackened, his nose a few degrees askew, but otherwise looked whole.

“I thought you were dead.” Tahni chided herself for such a stupid thing as her first words to him.

“I would have been. But for you, the Elf’s work would have been done. And the Old Wizard’s for that matter. You fought until the breath barely moved in you, Tahni. I have not often seen that. I thought that, like the others, you would die, but you didn’t. You are different.”

“If, by different, you mean that I’m cursed with the powers of a Death Witch, yes.”

He rocked back and sat down. He looked at her for a long time, saying nothing.

“Well?” That fear. The fear that had haunted her every day since the old crone’s reading. Everyone would leave her. If they knew her curse, they would cast her aside. And now…

Bronar nodded. “It makes sense.” A flicker of a smile passed across his battered face. “And it changes many things.”

“What does it change? Tell me what you mean.” She tried to speak forcefully, but didn’t have the energy yet to do so. Fear froze her stomach as she waited for his repudiation.

His heavy hand rested upon her brow. “First, we finish what the Elf began. For a thousand reasons, he cannot live beyond a week from now. Once that’s done, our real task will start. Something I should have done a long time ago.”

“You aren’t…going to leave me behind?” Her voice sounded so small in her ears.

He picked her up into his arms, as easy as one would pick up a child. “Why would I do that?”

“I…”

“We’ll heal up. Then, revenge. Perhaps justice, even.”

Relief washed over Tahni. Relief and a feeling she couldn’t name. A thing she’d never even dared to hope for. Acceptance. Another word she didn’t dare utter, even within smallest, darkest room of her mind.

“I don’t know how much longer I’ll be like this, Bronar. I hurt myself, deep into the bone and gristle.”

“It will pass with food and rest. These things always do.”

“Can you…”

He tangled his fingers in the hair at the base of her neck and cradled her skull in his palm. “What do you wish?”

She felt the vibration of his words through the rough fabric of his tunic. It shimmered through the bones of her face where her cheek rested upon his chest.

“You must only ask,” he breathed into her ear.

Bronar had never been so tender with her. Gentle, yes, but not like this. Things had changed. Perhaps to a man like him, a battle as they’d just survived meant everything. “I just need to feel you near me. Not…that way. I’m too hurt. But holding me against you.”

He said nothing, tucking her back below the blankets. He kicked his boots off and drew his tunic over his head. The profusion of bruises, scrapes, and healing wounds across his torso made her wince, but he only shook his head, nestling close to her. Tahni relaxed into the heat of his flesh and the smell of his healthy sweat.

Her eyes closed again. Whatever grasp on the waking world she had faltered and tore away. The ocean of her dreams now gleamed like still water beneath the moon. A beast like a winged wolf that walked upright on its hind legs paced at the edge of the still waters, eyes flashing in the silvery light.  

It howled, and within the howl were words. “I am awakened in you, Witch, and I must be kept ever sated. You know the nature of my hunger. That which can feed my belly will fill a thousand graves.”

“I’m not going to run anymore, Night Wolf. You will taste the blood upon your tongue, and I will have your power,” she swore.

Whatever the cost, she would hang onto what she’d found for herself.

Aug
05

By Patrick M. Tracy

It always hurt. Not because he meant it to, not because he was cruel. Bruises from his blunt and heavy hands would bloom upon the corners of her like the shadows of birds in a misty sky. Tahni was tougher now, the strain and deprivation of a warrior’s life rarifying her tissues. Still, when she clung to him, her sweat mixed with Bronar’s, in a crisis of breath, the shimmers of pain called warnings to her from every quadrant.

In a different life, when she’d run from everything she feared about herself, Tahni hadn’t understood what the pain meant, the many voices in the chorus of her flesh. She hadn’t wanted to believe that the pain could teach her so much, revealing whole vistas heretofore unknown. This wisdom couldn’t be carried by a breath of air or told by a written word. It had to be earned with a furrowed brow and clenched jaw.

They lay, her whole form curled around one of Bronar’s mighty arms, the cool of the early morning drying their skin, the quiet before the carts and hawkers and the cries of the beggars filled the street below surrounding them. A kind, soft place. Perhaps the only such place in Evaldr, a city wracked with terrors and fire and death. Much of which they had perpetrated. The two of them, running red-handed across the night, sewing mayhem and murder.

The faces of the dead, the outlines of all their broken limbs and the growing crimson that was born out of their shattered lives – these images lived inside her. She had eaten of the dark table of madness. Did she feel so different? It seemed, perhaps, that she wasn’t. She’d always been fated to be the taker of lives. Ever since the day of her birth, from what the old crone once said. Tahni’s fate had been wound in such a way as to make her thus.

If, in fact, such a thing even existed. Fate. A convenient thing, if it explained the darkness creeping up inside her soul. If it forgave her growing skill for violence.

She held Bronar’s arm harder against her, his torso too much to easily encompass with her hands. He watched her, letting her into his eyes, the portals so often holding her away. Only in looking at him, his broad, scarred face, did she know that she’d been crying. Tears like rain on a hot night, the same temperature as the humid air and with but little relief to give.

“Should I have left you where you were? This is an ugly road we are upon.”

“This is where I belong. Before…I was just hiding. A wasted life.”

“The people in these towns. Maybe one in a hundred of them really know the swoop and slam of combat, of the feel inside your throat when you’ve bought your life with steel, at least for one more hour upon the earth.” A sudden roughness changed his voice, old pain flashing in his eyes.

She pushed him and he gave way so she could climb atop his chest. Not with any intention now, but for nesting closer. Her cheek pressed against the V below his sternum, next to a long, raised scar from some enemy’s blade. A wound Bronar had been lucky to survive.

The feel of all their ghosts trailing behind you like incomplete dreams. They don’t know how those chains drag upon you,” she said into his leathery skin.

He cupped the back of her head, his fingers sifting into her hair with the slow care he always used, when his blood wasn’t wild with passion. “They can’t know. They shouldn’t.”

“We’ve finished with them. Killed them all and left their houses awash with blood. I want to stay here all day. Just like this. The Elf won’t be out until after dusk, so there is nothing much for us to do.”

“There will be something,” Bronar said, but he didn’t lift her off of him. Simply reached back, assuring that his mallet lay within easy reach.

“We can make love again, if you wish to. I’m not so frail as I was.”

Tahni knew that Bronar had some vague foreboding, though. She could feel it in his skin and the workings within him. Since her denial of her own nature had shattered, a thousand small signs swam up from the shallows of each day, each moment. Like the hush that fell, just as the street vendors had begun calling out their wares. Like the faint sound of shattering and the smell of lamp oil. In a moment, she looked forward, and knew.

“We are betrayed,” she whispered to Bronar. “They come with fire and crossbows. It has already begun.”

He wasted no words, putting her on her feet, pushing his own into untied boots and slinging his mail atop bare flesh. Tahni found her hands steadier than she had dared to hope. By the time smoke rose to their window, she was armed and armored. But few of their belongings could not be replaced. She followed Bronar as he bounded down the stairs, smashed the kitchen door from its hinges, and kicked a cook down, trampling over him.

“Fire,” she whispered to him as she vaulted the downed man, gasping for air as his eyes rolled wild.

And as if summoning it, as if she were a wizard, flames burst at the closed kitchen window. All of life blurred into a passing flash, a fire seen from the corner of her vision as she kept tight behind Bronar. He destroyed the door, sending it in pieces back into the alley.

Archers, not entirely ready, loitered at both entrances to the alley, but they turned toward the short stub, the one that let onto a warren of haphazard structures, all made with no square or seeming skill. Bronar smashed one man to his knees, bursting his skull like a melon, as Tahni took the other one low in the belly, wrenching the spear blade sideways to spill his lunch pipes to the dirty ground. Bronar coughed in pain as a crossbow bolt smashed against the heaviest of his armor, and she saw a second shaft skitter across the building, no more than a few inches from her.

And then they were out, into the tangled slough of jagged alleys and narrow places. With fire towering behind them, spreading from hovel to hovel like the hand of a cleansing god, they ran, and no one stood brave enough to slow their steps.

Half the town rose into the sky as acrid smoke. Tahni ran until she coughed flecks of blood from the exertion and the befouled air. At the far, seedy end of the dockside, they found a fishing boat, compelled the drunken fisherman with the point of the spear, and huddled in the smelly hold as the vessel wallowed and slapped upon the stale wind. She watched the fisherman’s hungry eyes fall to her, and to their rich wares, as the craft made slow progress out into the deeper water. He grinned, his rotted teeth and purple gums as foul as the entrance to the netherworld.

Evaldr yet burned at dusk, and lay with a belly of ashes as night gave way to morning.

“Maybe it’s better.” Bronar studied his scuffed knuckles.

“That isn’t a decision I ever wish to make. But this…we were not the authors of this madness. In his efforts to avoid a fair payment, he has brought wholesale slaughter to his own home. You were correct. No one here is innocent, few enough worthy of any human sympathy.”

He watched her for a moment, then knitted his hands together, sinking back into the gloom of the hold to rest a bit longer.

Tahni went to the topside of the vessel, squinting into the red sunrise and the smoke that lay thick upon the bay. She would have to come to grips with the workings of the boat and get them back to shore somehow. The fisherman, who had grown bold and cruel in the night, when he thought them both to be sleeping, floated on the calm face of the sea.

She remembered his face, the shocked, strangled noise when her blade went through his throat. Bronar had simply opened one eye, nodded, and left her to the grim work of pushing him over the rail.

Fate. The crone had been right. The sign of death held tight, woven into the skein of her life, and all those years trying to deny it only made its expression more grandiose now, like the crack and rush of a poorly made dam, finally giving way to the will of the water. But water it was not. Fire and blood, and the noise of the dying. Like she had carried hell within her all this time.