From a hundred feet above, Julian stood watching from his private échaugette.
The projecting turret on the South East corner of King’s Tower hung like a gleaning gargoyle, upside-down, feeding on its crumbling mass.
Julian stared intently at all that was beneath and beyond him, into the starless night. The terrible luminescence of the waning moon searing his Empire of Waste.
This land, his land, before him. Black abandoned infertile mounds of dirt, stripped and raped by war, sodden with blood and bone, defiled by the darkest thaumaturgy.
His father’s country no more.
Once upon a time in Julian’s boyhood, the lush, verdant greens and yellows of farmland, woods and produce and life stretched inconceivably for miles towards the horizon.
“All this and beyond, my son,” Julian’s father had said to him then, “will be yours one day to tend and care and nurture. It will feed you as it has fed me and had fed my father and his father before him, and so forth for countless generations, our lineage descended from the ancient Gods.”
But now this. Death and despair and disease all around him.
Julian sighed deeply, his loose onyx and silver-damasked breastplate rising with his chest, lifting his ebony doublet and white shirt with it.
He was naked waist down, having just taken yet another maiden from his dying kingdom. She snored loudly now in her mess of hair on the four-poster oak bed, her sex encrusted with Julian’s seed.
It won’t matter, Julian thought. It’s no use. We have betrayed the Gods. We can produce offspring no longer. I will have no heir. I will be the last of my line. My people will grow old, never to hear the laughter of children again.
He turned away from the ghastly, ungainly sight of his fiefdom. Castle walls now used to keep his own hungry, barren subjects without and to protect Julian’s small coven of thaumaturgists within.
He found his hose and codpiece amongst the pile of maiden’s clothes. A black woolen two-headed snake and brass lion’s head burrowed deep inside the dense green gown… like an infection poisoning from within.
Julian slipped them on, laced on his leather boots and snuck out of his own bedroom.
He trod quickly down the spiral staircase on the far side at a dizzying pace. Anybody else but Julian would’ve tumbled and fell and shattered every bone in their body.
But not Julian. He descended these steps as if knew every crook, chip and crevice. But he didn’t.
It was the careful craftwork of his imprisoned half-brother, the Stutterer. He had personally enchanted each and every one of these four-hundred and fifty-five steps.
Julian could not slip nor stumble even if he were to try. One of the cornucopiate rewards of his sterile realm.
We have exchanged the potency of a quintillion seedlings for a fool’s motley patchwork of excessively needless conveniences.
We have lost every single battle, but somehow won the war. We are victorious, but have become unransomed prisoners trapped in cages of our own making. We have spilling spoils in our treasury, but the last of our children will have irreparable debt.
What have we done? What have we done?
Down and down and down Julian flew. He had to see him tonight. His brother. Perhaps he will have new answers. Or perhaps not.
He leapt from the top of the final flight of stairs. Instead of falling precariously to injury, Julian landed feet first on a cushion of air just a hair above the stonework, and slid gracefully to the ground floor, like soft slippers on polished parquet.
Tomorrow, he will try from a higher step. And the next night, even higher. He will test fate and the Stutterer’s magik until they failed him. And perhaps, one day it will. And when that happens, he will finally fall into the sweet lofty bosom of death.
But tonight, Julian lives. His rule continues. The decaying disease of his subjects persisted and demanded his attention.
At the bottom of the tower, Julian exited through the arched doorway and stalked across the courtyard towards the barracks. The scent of burnt flesh, scorched crops and lingering black dahlias assaulted his nostrils, jamming itself in.
As Julian approached the looming structure pregnant with his men-at-arms, two surprised guards shifted ready and hailed their liege, pounding their right fist twice against their heart and then extending their arm with a straightened hand towards the night sky.
They were young. Ten or eleven winters, Julian supposed. They wore makeshift helmets the overworked smithies wrought together hastily. The heft of oversized armour and weapons weighed on them.
Their brothers, uncles and fathers were probably dead from the war. Men who would have left land to them to sow, till and harvest. But the cost of a thaumaturgical war… it had left nothing. So the army was now their only home. A chance for survival. A refuge to receive food and shelter.
The last of the strongest. They will never father children. Do they know that yet? What will they do when their urges come in a few years? Will they still couple? Will they marry? What would be the point?
Julian ignored the two boys playing soldier and walked into the barracks.
He headed straight for the ninth room at the end of the cobbled hallway. It was guarded by a rough-hewn quebracho wood door, reinforced with rose-vine hinges made of the blackest steel, spellbound with the Stutterer’s own magik.
Julian was the only one who could open this door. The Stutterer made it this way. Julian went inside.
There was a round rosewood table with the Thorbjørn crest carved in the center of it. It stood solemnly, silently by itself. The frieze on the great table’s edge, encircling it, depicted the innumerous victories of his lineage.
There, Stellen the Saviour protecting his land from Saxons. There, Valter the Vanquisher, breaching the walls of the Danes. There, Ossian the Opportunist, capturing the heart of the Frankish queen.
What legacy will I leave? Julian the Jinxed, the last of the Thorbjørns, forever remembered as the one who led his people to their final demise.
Julian trudged to the west wall of the room, found the secret lever and pulled. The table sank and broke apart into eight geometric shapes, revealing a hidden staircase. Another four-hundred and fifty-five steps down, and many more steps to the Stutterer’s cell.
Reluctantly, Julian began his descent into the dungeon bowels. ☣
This week’s Garage Fiction prompt was provided by Nicholas Brack…
Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he. – Proverbs 29:18
These weekly scenes & stories are part of an ongoing project codenamed “Garage Fiction”. Since January 2015, three writers (Nicholas Brack, Dogwood Daniels and I) have committed to writing a flash fiction or scene each and every week. We post on Fridays and dissect on Tuesdays via podcast.