Lorrenz sat alone and unseen. He looked out over the fields of frost covered grass that spread down through the shallow, wide valley below Castle Argostine. The sounds of drinking and shouting forced their way up to his solitary perch in the attics above the great hall. He couldn’t bring himself to join them. What was there to celebrate? The whistling winds that fell from the mountains above helped him block out the sounds of merry making but neither could distract him from the dark shape he watched on the horizon. The winds danced and slipped between the walls, towers and halls of the great squat castle at the head of the valley. He had spent much of his youth in these less frequented reaches of the castle, trying to avoid the constant work that his father forced upon him. The King siring a bastard was bad enough, but an idle bastard was a recipe for disaster. Far in the distance great dark shadows grew as they snaked their way over the crumbling roads that lead up the valley. He wouldn’t have long before he would be forced out of his father’s stronghold. He had been found out.
Despite all the care he had taken they had discovered the truth about his rise to the throne. He paced back and forth over the creaking, splintery floors of the attic. How much the lords knew he couldn’t tell, but they knew enough to have already rallied their bannermen to war. Their first real action since the succession wars that saw his grandfather crowned. The lords of the Argos valley were not skilled diplomats nor feared warriors, their long peace was born out of having been forgotten by the wider world. Their pettiness and division kept them out of the thoughts of greater powers. Perhaps his false prophecy about the beast that stalked their lands had set the groundwork for this union that they now brought against him. He shook his head in frustration and the crown shifted out of position slightly. He knew that they would blame him for everything. They would ignore their own part in crippling the kingdom. They never learned. They refused to.
The King, Lorrenz’s reluctant father, had raised him out of a half hearted guilt that he felt towards Lorrenz’ common born mother. Who knows what his bastard fate would have been if she hadn’t saved the King some embarrassment by dying so soon after his birth. Occasionally out of some vague paternal instinct the King would drunkenly pass on useless advice but always followed it quickly with a boot or a cuff out of instinct. Beyond that their relationship was purely one of king and subject.
Lorrenz looked at the large, brass hand-bell that rested on the floor of the castle’s attic. He couldn’t sound the alarm yet. If he did, the mercenaries he had garrisoning the castle would grab what they could and run for the mountains. No. He could only wait until it was too late for them to escape. He wouldn’t give them the choice. They only stayed for his promises of more gold. They drank and celebrated in his name and yet he couldn’t bring himself to join them. Years of thankless service in the shadows and the one feast at which he was welcome seemed so hollow. He didn’t deserve it. But none who wore this ill-fitting crown ever had. Lorrenz had watched his father let power slip through his fingers; he watched the lords grow bold and the land fall into disrepair out of laziness and greed. All this they simply ignored as long as their bellies and beds stayed full. The dark columns of their drab uniformed soldiers inched slowly closer over the crumbling roads, past empty unworked fields.
Perhaps a second prophecy could cement his rule. If only he hadn’t strangled the ragged priest he had brought down from the mountains to deliver the first. He wasn’t proud of what he had done, but he had no regrets. Sebastine had been the man’s name. He had walked the streets announcing the prophecy of the beast for three days and three nights before Lorrenz put an end to him. He couldn’t have the foul tempered old man wandering freely, knowing that there was no beast dwelling in the woods; he would have sparked questions about Lorrenz’ half-brother’s death. The nobles had all wanted the bitter old man’s story to be true. It was kinder to them than the truth that they caused the kingdom’s sorrows. Sebastine had been consumed by his resentment for the world that had forgotten him up in the mountains. Tending to his shrine that none ever visited. He had jumped at a chance for revenge. A bag full of gold and a chance to fool them all… he had looked so scared when he realised that Lorrenz was going to kill him. That was how Lorrenz knew it was right. The priest had lived a bad life. He feared his death because he knew his soul would be found wanting. His disappearance had just added to the mystery of it all, which suited Lorrenz perfectly.
Those long dark nights out in the fields dragging animal carcasses around to leave evidence of the beast, the risks taken sneaking gold out of the keep to pay the mercenaries to be ready to support him when his time came and the endless hours of mixing and testing poisons to find the right one for his father. It had all been with the people’s best interests at heart– he hadn’t once thought of himself. Things couldn’t go on as they had; someone had to take action. The beast had been the story that the lords had wanted to hear. They just shut off and ignored anyone who blamed them for mismanaging the lands and not planning for harsh winters. The people died and they waited in their holds, warm and merry. The beast deep in the woods spreading pestilence and corrupting the earth around it was the convenient tale; it aligned with the lies they told about their ancestor’s heroic deeds and they saw their chance for glory that the painfully long peace had deprived them of. When the true prince, his half brother, brashly jumped at the task of hunting the great beast, their own sons were spared. No-one examined the situation too closely. They had no interest in seeing the truth. It had all gone perfectly. Yet here they were, that grim host that should know no master but him, come to clumsily grind him into the dirt to repay his regicide. Maybe he should go and enjoy the fruits of his horrible labours, even just for a few hours. Was that so wrong?
He once more adjusted the crown that sat awkwardly atop his head, always weighing heavily upon one or other of his jug handle ears. He removed the gloves he had taken to wearing to hide the burns and sores on his hands from exposure to his own vile concoctions. He pressed the cool metal of the crown against them once more, to dampen their constant pain. He was shocked by how grotesque they had become. It must have been penance for the cowardice of his actions. He hadn’t even been there to watch his father die, he had gone to lay an ambush for the returning prince rather than bring him back to be crowned king. He was sure that his vile younger brother watched him now from his shallow grave deep in the woods. The crossbow bolts in his back twitching from the shudders of his dry corpse laugh as he saw Lorrenz’ hard work come to nothing.
He couldn’t deny, even to himself, that his brother’s death wasn’t a more personal matter. He may have gone on to become a good king. But Lorrenz didn’t have it in himself to forgive the brat who tormented him daily knowing that his bastard status forbade any retaliation.
For so many years Lorrenz’ only focus was the throne and what he could do for the people once he was there. But what had he done? What was his legacy? To have bled the coffers as recklessly as his father to keep his mercenary muscle loyal and ready. Emptied the larders, even taking from the villages to keep his army strong. He told himself it was only for a season, but what end was there in sight? Nothing had changed. Maybe time wouldn’t be enough. He wasn’t enough. So far he had preyed upon the people just as much as those who came to dethrone him.
The columns of soldiers were now clearly visible, bristling with ranks of rusty spears and surrounded by their scattered horsemen who scoured the valley for resistance. He deserved whatever fate they felt was just for his crimes. Noone else should have to suffer for what he had done.
He rang the bell as violently as his thin arms would allow, his body vibrating as its peals echoed through the stone towers and high walls before letting it fall out into the courtyard below, clattering and bouncing off slate roofs and cobblestones. He wandered numbly down the winding staircases in the wake of this sound. The merry making turning to panicked shouts as awareness dawned on the mercenaries. They still had a small window of time to try to grab what they could and run for the mountains. They dashed to and fro below him trying to decide what would be worth taking but the effort was farcical. Once Lorrenz was among his mercenaries they continued to rush past him in their mad scramble. He was as invisible as he had always been in this castle, just part of the furniture. The crown askance, his hands raw and throbbing, Lorenz stumbled through the halls of chaos to the mighty oak doors of the entrance. He took the crown, now robbed of meaning, and hurled it so that it bounced along the pavers ringing with long loud notes; quickly snatched up by one of the mercenaries before it had come to a stop.
Lorrenz crossed the shadowy courtyard that the sun could not yet reach over the walls and made for the still half open front gate of the castle. No-one had taken the time to close it: they had no interest in a siege. Once out in the open beyond the walls he was bathed in the pale light of the autumn sun through a thin screen of clouds. He could hear the faint rumble of hooves striking the hard ground over the soft crunch of his boots on the frosted grass. A few minutes passed as he walked onwards between the sparsely scattered trees in front of the castle. Their branches well on their way to wintry nakedness, only holding onto the occasional red or brown leaf. How could he think that he could truly be king?
The column of soldiers crested the shallow rise before him, their hollow cheeks and tired eyes filled Lorrenz with pity. At the column’s head sat Count Orlands with his many chins poking out over his ill fitting chest-plate. His displeased look lingered on Lorrenz for several seconds as he grasped at foggy memories of the boy. None came to mind as he had spent his time at the castle feasting with his back turned towards the bastard prince, except shake his silver goblet above his head rather than verbally demand more wine. He couldn’t waste time emptying his vast and busy mouth.
‘Come to do the right thing have you?’ Orlands asked with surprising nonchalance.
‘Yes.’ he said solemnly, knowing that he was signing away his life. He had gone too far.
‘Good, can’t have a bastard running about when the king and heir are dead. Could have a bastard on the throne if we’re not careful. It’d be an abomination… Go’on string him up.’
They didn’t know about any of what he had done. He was being killed for being born. Lorrenz was dumbfounded. The crowd of soldiers before him showed no interest in his death. Only a handful bothered to watch as he kicked and thrashed, hung from a straggly birch barely able to hold his weight. They could at least have hated him, the way they had hated his beast. But no. Instead they would remember the beast that was never there and continue to kneel at the feet of monsters.
Brendan Hore-Thorburn is an emerging writer who focuses on otherworldly fantasy and science fiction. He is studying a bachelor of arts majoring in ancient history and minoring in creative writing, has published in Macquarie University’s The Quarry and has been highly commended for the Future Leaders Writing Prize.