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

Jul
15

By Patrick M. Tracy

The boy and his mother lay dying in the alley. The stink from whatever plague raised bloody welts upon their flesh made Tahni’s gorge burn at the back of her throat. She jammed the back of her hand against her mouth, looking away. She touched her shoulder to Bronar’s for some support, and he glanced in her direction, his mouth hard, his eyes like chips of stone below his brow. The look that any stranger would take for anger, but was truly the sadness of a powerful man who could do nothing but walk away from the hopeless. No mighty feat of arms could wrench the city up out of its grotesque state.

The paving stones swam in filth, every building decrepit, the smoke of burning offal wafting down the street. They were dressed in simple layered furs, nothing but their weapons marking them, but the abject poverty of every person they passed made her feel like she had never known deprivation or struggle. The hollow of their eyes, the sallow sickness of their cheeks. The fact that, even in the mild chill of the coastal winter, they shivered in worn sack-cloth, their withered limbs reaching, begging silently for some mercy.

Tahni understood why they’d left their horses in a town a day away, paying a vast, kingly sum for their upkeep and leaving all but their necessities behind in a locked chest ringed with heavy chain. The sight of draft animals among this starving squalor? They would have had to brandish steel at every street corner to keep the starving hordes from dragging their ponies down and gnawing at their flesh. Alone, she wondered if they’d have rushed her. Bronar’s war mallet, scarred and stained with the blood of both men and monsters, told them there would be nothing but death to find here.

After the best part of an hour of walking, they left the abject slums for a stretch by the dockside where corsairs lazed atop cargo crates and hard-eyed longshoremen touched their daggers at everyone nearby.

“They say that Evaldr is the richest city in the known world, but I’ve seen naught but filth and despair and the lowest reaches of human suffering,” she whispered.

Bronar didn’t look at her, but kept his eyes on the movement of all the ill-favored characters lingering just near enough to rush them if they looked weak. “There’s riches, but not here. When we’re clear of this, look out across the harbor, and you’ll see a tall island. That’s where the finery and gold remain, caught like insects in drying tree sap. What little flows over here is money stained with blood and the grubby hands of brigands.”

“Then why are we here?” she asked.

“Not now. Don’t say anything, where we’re going. A word is more dangerous than viper’s fang in there. Meet no one’s eyes, and be ready to put your short blade to work. It may come to bloodshed.”

The doorway loomed there, like a dark void in a rotten tooth. Rough men with hard eyes stood athwart the path, hands on the pommels of their blades. Most of of them had pale and sallow faces, the look of rogues who ran down benighted streets and avoided honest work like a sickness.

A fat man whose eyes glowed with jaundice pointed toward a weapon rack. Bronar leaned his mallet in the stand but kept his dagger and short blade. Tahni followed suit, her shield and spear resting in the dry-rotted wood. The scent of old, rotted fish clung to every surface, mixed with the ugly smell of low tide. They followed a boy without his left foot, whose copper-ended cane clacked against the boards in rhythmic counterpoint to his bare heel. Tahni knew that she would think about the hundreds of whip scars that spread out from the over-loose sleeves of his tunic for as long as she lived. Scars traced across his one intact leg, and had swept across his face, leaving an empty eye socket.

In a fetid backroom swirling with smoke, they found a sharp-faced woman whose front teeth had been replaced with wedges of gold. Tahni thought she had perhaps been pretty once, but age and whatever narcotic swirled about the place had long since stolen all that.

The gold-toothed woman grimaced. “What?” Her voice sounded like the muttering from up out of an open grave.

“I’m here to see the elf,” Bronar told her, looking as ill-tempered as Tahni had ever seen him.

“The elf don’t see people.”

Bronar fished out a large emerald, uncut and worth the whole building and all its occupants. The whipped boy made the noise of indrawn breath, received a hard glance from the gold-toothed woman, and left the room, closing the door behind him.

“He’ll be here after night falls. Only you, though. Leave the girl and come back alone.”

Bronar shook his head. “She will be with me, crone. My voice is as loud as that.” He pointed to the gem to make his point.

“That’s not how the elf does business.”

“It is today. We will come back at moonrise.”

Bronar turned away, headed for the door. “We could just take all you have,” the gold-toothed woman rasped.

“That has been tried.”

No one impeded them as they walked from the den of villains. When the late winter’s light touched them again, Tahni felt like she’d emerged from below the shadow of the gallows.

Twenty minutes of walking down the dockside brought them to where the legitimate cargo came ashore, the ships larger and better maintained. The dark had fallen and the sound of roistering emerged from every quayside tavern. Still rough and dangerous, this quarter, at least, didn’t stink of the lowest degradation, of people devolved to rabid rodents.

They turned into the golden light of a bar called The Treacherous Reef, sat at a table in the dim far corner, and awaited their meal and ale. Tahni reached, taking Bronar’s hand in both her own. “What is this about?”

His face settled, looking older than its years for a moment. “I met you. I can’t simply accept my own death as a certainty now. I have to…take certain steps.”

“You met me…”

He squeezed her hand. “When you look into the open jaws of death for a long time, it gets hard to find a reason to fight it. I found a reason.”

Tahni felt blood rush to her face. Bronar didn’t engage in romantic talk with her. All his assurance came in a moment of touch, a quiet look. She wasn’t sure how to respond.

“So this elf, he has something you need?”

“I hope he does. I hope I won’t have to kill my way through a hundred thieves to get it.”

Advertisements
Jul
13

By Patrick M. Tracy

Cold wind screamed down the valley, bearing something not so much snow as sharp shards of ice into their faces. Tahni led the string of three pack animals, who were ill-pleased at having to approach the pass as the daylight faded, and with such a windstorm stripping heat from them with every second.

Shivering, unable to feel her feet, she looked down at the furs that covered her, masking any feminine curve. The fatigue and misery had become like shouting in her ear, and the scant few inches of her face the wind could abrade felt both frozen and flayed of their skin. Still she plodded on, giving the draft ponies a tug when they tried to slew from the road and take shelter in the roadside thickets, just beginning to go brown and turn to their winter sticks.

Bronar, rendered even mightier of breadth in his furs, walked several yards ahead, a war mallet over his shoulder, his eyes nervously scanning in all directions. He flicked his glance to her, his face and head steaming in the oncoming chill. A tiny tick of his mouth, now half-hidden behind a growth of beard, was his only encouragement.

“Why don’t we have riding horses?” she called out.

“Because we are infantry. Our legs have to be strong, our feet armored with healed-over blisters. Where I am asked to go, you don’t often have the luxury of a steed.”

Tahni reminded herself that she’d asked for this. Asked to go with the huge warrior and learn the ways of a mercenary, an adventurer. She just hadn’t known it would hurt so much. Between the exhausting hours on the road, the many hard lessons with spear and shield, and the privation of rarely sleeping in a bed, she wondered if all softness would burn away from her, leaving her as skinny and sinewy as a boy.

“Not yet. Not yet,” she said to herself. Bronar turned his eyes back to her, but the snapping of a stick at the roadside caught his attention, and the war mallet came to the ready in an eyeblink. Tahni’s heart clenched. She reached for the foremost pony, grasping her shield.

An arrow flew past her, just above the withers of the pony. Another slammed into a saddlebag no more than a hand’s breadth to her side. It hit a filled coin pouch, frightening the pony, but not doing it any real harm. It made a horse sound and danced to the side. Tahni barely got her short spear and shield off the animal before the whole string startled, smashing through the brush at the trailside and disappearing into the twilight of the forest.

Time seemed to change, everything moving out of rhythm and at strange speed. Tahni slid her arm into the loops of the shield and fitted her spear into the notch at its upper right, making herself small, turning in the direction of the arrows.

Another missile came. She felt it pluck at the skins on her thigh, then a burning pain. Not deep, but bright as fire against her skin. All thought left her. All experience sharped down to a fine point, only fear and the hope to live. Everything narrowed. Another arrow. She flinched her face behind the shield, and felt the wooden shaft shatter on the iron center.

The sound of bones breaking. She saw Bronar catch the war mallet back to his guard position, and two brigands lay dead in the road nearby him. Their purple skin and brackish blood marked them. Veldennun. She’d never seen one, and thought them to be a myth, or something so far off as to never be made real in the seeing.

But was she not far off, now? Further than she’d ever imagined going? Her home lay an ocean away, and fortnight’s walk after that.

The fall-brown foliage parted, and the screaming face of another Veldennun appeared. He wore little more than a leathern tunic as armor, but held aloft a short, curving sword of blacked iron. Spittle flew from his knife-gash thin lips. His mouth bristled with brown, jagged teeth.

The sound of more fighting, most of the bandits trying to take Bronar down first. One of them flew across her field of vision, blood coming from the smashed remnant of its head.

Tahni bore down, on her own. She would die, like the others. That’s what he’d feared. Steel clashed against her shield, and she gave back a step, then another. The Veldennun had twice her strength, and no seeming fear. Tahni could feel the slight berm at the edge of the roadway, and knew that she’d be afoul of the brush if she gave back one more step. Hemmed in by foliage, she’d go down into blood.

She peeked above the shield, and its iron edge rang with the enemy’s sword.

“You have good, quick feet.” Bronar had told her that once. “Sometimes, that’s enough.”

Tahni pivoted, driving the spear forward with every bit of her strength. Impact, nearly jarring it from her grasp, and she pulled back, eyes just above the line of the shield again. The bone and sinew of her arm felt strange, wrenched below the flesh.

The Veldennun lay in the road, blood foaming out of a massive wound in the center of his chest. He tried to rise, but weakness took him, and he lay back, the slurping sound of air rushing into his internal places filling her ears.

Looking to Bronar, he stood at the nexus point of the violence, bleeding from a wound on his arm. Air whistled into him like a hard-run horse, but he stood strong, eyes still scanning the forest. Five or six Veldennun piled about him, bodies broken as if from a fall from a cliff. The face of his mallet was spattered with crimson bits of blood, bone, and flesh.

Everything lay quiet now, only the thundering of her heart and the singing of blood in her ears. Tahni knelt, the vision swimming in her eyes for a second. Her hands shook fiercely, and a strange taste spread across her tongue. She let free the shield, and it clattered in the dust. She felt like a heavy chain had been tied about her guts, but put her fist into the dirt and willed the fugue to pass.

“See,” she said in a shaky voice. “I lived.”

Bronar helped her up, holding her to him for a moment. “Now you know a thing you didn’t know before.”

“Not…not a kind thing.”

“No. Not at all. Now come on, darkness is drawing down. We need to find the ponies and bind our wounds.”

“What about,” she muttered, gesturing toward the dead.

“We’ll drag them out of the road and take whatever might be useful. They don’t need it anymore.”

Jul
08

By Patrick M. Tracy

Tahni watched the muscles move in his back. The early sun coming in the window made everything so stark. All the scars. A patch of mottled skin low on his hip. A burn, perhaps. Bronar sat on the edge of the bed, elbows on knees, head low. At first, she had called it prayer, but she’d come to doubt that conclusion. No, she didn’t want to put a name to it. Whatever happened within him made her feel as if just lying next to him assumed too much, pierced whatever walls he’d built up around his heart.

“You’re always like this in the morning,” she whispered.

Bronar straightened, taking a big breath. He let himself collapse back into bed with her. Tahni burrowed into his arms, her face against his ribs, hearing the workings within his chest.

“I’ll have leave. Soon. Maybe I’ll never make it back. The emissaries of Arvordeth will prevail one day, and he’ll have his revenge on me. I’ll precede him into the grave. That’s what he swore when we destroyed his temple and closed the rift to the Well of Madness.” Bronar’s body tightened, on the point of shivering for a moment before the spell faded. Tahni could feel something in the room with them, like shadows haunting at the verge of the light. Echoes of all the pain of many years bounced from the raftered ceiling and sat, cackling like crows upon the window sill.

“I don’t know that tale.”

He turned his face away, but held her so tight. Tahni reached, her fingertips against his clenched jaw until it eased. “No one does. I don’t talk about it.”

“Maybe you should. At least to someone.”

He shook his head, making a sound she didn’t have a name for. “I’m the last one. We lost most everyone in the venture, and the few survivors, well, he never let us rest. One by one, they fell. It just takes one bad day, one tough break. It’s just me left now, and there’s always an assassin on my trail. No one gets lucky every time.”

“Those dark-swaddled killers in the tavern? I watched you with them. That wasn’t luck.”

Bronar kissed the top of her head. Something he didn’t always do, that moment of stillness as he touched her scalp with the rough-stubble feel of his mouth. Tahni had never met someone so lonely, a man whose every friend and ally had been taken from him. The sole survivor of all his exploits. The bards never told that tale, not even late in the night, when everyone was in their cups and tears were as close as a plaintive strum upon a lute. No one knew the mystery of this road but her, and she ached with it. She tried to think of kind words, something to assuage the hurt in his heart, but no platitude fit, no happy face could be drawn upon the loss.

“Doesn’t change anything. I still have to go.” He lay, wordless, for a long time. “And I don’t want to. This life makes me weary, but I know no other. I just…” Bronar touched his fingertips to the top of her chest, just between the V of her collar bones.

“I…I’ll go with you,” she said, the words escaping before she knew what they might mean.

His eyes softened. “You’ll die. Everyone always dies. You deserve better than that. Better than me.”

She could feel the rumble of his voice through the places where their bodies pushed together. “What if I live? What if this is what we need, and deserving doesn’t enter into it?”

Bronar reached, tilting her chin toward him and meeting her eyes. His face held no answer, but somewhere deep behind the hurt, there lay hope.