Written by Matt Ochs | Layout by John Kimmel
Bergheim – Throne Room of the Wolf Lord
He walked into the throne room, indulging himself in the spectacle that had become of House Hrothgar. Gloomy at the best of times, the Wolf’s Den was more macabre than ever under its new leadership.
“Lady Worgana,” he said to the shadows, relying solely on memory as to where the throne sat.
Silence stretched across the room, longer even than decorum would suggest, and for the first time in his many years as an envoy Belligos actually felt –
Fear, he thought. This place is rankled by fear. It stinks of it. He twitched his nose as a robust tendril of incense wafted past his head. And that as well.
“The great tactician sends his second,” came the languid reply, “for what do I owe the pleasure?”
Belligos took a breath, deep enough to calm his nerves, but not so much as to show they needed calming. He was a hard working citizen, always had been, ascending the ranks of Skymir leadership thanks to equal measures of guile, skill – and yes, grit – to reach his current station. It would be difficult to find a finer example of Jotune citizenry amongst the empire, he knew that, for he worked hard to cultivate just such a persona. And so he reminded himself that this was but one more situation like all the others that he had overcome to make it here, and that it would pass like all the rest.
Belligos exhaled slowly, and smiled.
“M’lady it is a true pleasure to be in your presence again-“
“Spare me,” came the snapped reply, “such empty pleasantries.”
So a more direct route would need to be taken, it seemed. Some became drunk with power when they claimed it, but this one however, had tasted something else entirely. Something bitter.
“Of course, m’lady,” he said bowing – never a bad idea when encountering hostility from a fretful leader, “I bring word from my lord – and congratulations.”
“Necessary only because Ashgar didn’t deign to it necessary to attend my coronation, and tell me himself.”
Careful now, he thought, there is poison in this wound.
“For that my lord is sorely remiss, the affairs of House Skymir stayed his coming,” excuses wouldn’t do with this one – be direct! – “and the suddenness of your ascension caught him unawares.”
Yes, a dose of humility and a pinch of repudiation should do it. The lady’s ascension had been so sudden, that fact was beyond reproach.
“Get to your point - Skymir.”
There was just a hint of retreat in her voice. Excellent. But now he must tread carefully; for a wolf on the run is far less dangerous than one backed into a corner.
“My Lord Ashgar has news, m’lady. As you know he has been in preparation for a counter-offensive against the Synthien regime. His preparations are still in the making, however, the end draws near.”
He paused only briefly, but he could tell he had her attention.
“Reconnaissance reports state that machine forces are amassing on our north and west border, readying, no doubt, for an attack. Simply put, the Empire has need of House Hrothgar.”
“And the Empire sends you.”
He knew he must tread carefully now. Lady Worgana found her power from the fruit of a poisoned apple, and as such, not only bitterness laced itself through her reign. She was still like most of those who held power; childlike and insecure, to be coddled and scolded in equal measures. The trick was knowing when it was time for one or the other.
“Yes, your lordship. Lord Ashgar Skymir leads the offensive and I am his chosen second.”
“My brother,” she began, “lead an offensive, and for that he was exiled.”
Lean in, but do not bury the dagger.
“With all due respect, your brother lead an errant mission. This bears the seal of our Lord Emperor.”
“And he would come back begging to the same hand he had bitten so?”
One last push, no dawdling now.
“The empire has need of House Hrothgar, your sovereign duty. No more, no less.”
“You presume to tell your better what her duty is?”
Now he must back off, any more pressing and it very well could be his neck hanging.
“I merely endeavor to state the facts - and serve the empire.”
That should do it, both firm and humble. Perfect.
Silence followed from the wolf lord, more than even he had expected. Despite his discomfort it was essential for him to keep his composure, no shifting or fidgeting, especially no scratching of bothersome itches!
Belligos thought he might go on standing there like a statue on the luxurious blue carpet forever, but Worgana’s voice finally echoed across the din.
“I shall act, hireling. And the empire shall have its due.”
“Yes, m’lady,” he said with a bow, waiting for his dismissal.
“Go,” was her only reply.
Belligos had to work to keep his movements slow and deliberate – so stiff all of a sudden! - as he returned to his full height and strode from the throne room. His nerves crackled with nervous energy, and his heart was threatening to leap from his throat.
What was that? The empire shall have its due? Calm, calm, he thought, it’s merely royal hyperbole.
But was it? Worgana’s words were obtuse, angled in such a way as to hide the truth. It all boiled down to what her idea of justice was, and that she was loathe to uncover, especially to him. He thought about her brother, Fenris, doomed already to walk the wastes as an outcast, struck from the memories of the Jotune, and disowned from his family. She was right to be bitter about that. True, he had defied a direct order from the Emperor Krionos, but even so, such measures were not to be taken lightly. Even from a emperial decree.
Belligos whisked down the gloomy hallways of House Hrothgar, scanning the pooling shadows for – what? What did he expect to find? An assassin? It didn’t seem likely. Not in nearly a hundred years had a Jotune envoy died at the hand of another who called the empire home. But now that he thought of it, wasn’t it said that Worgana’s forebear had something to do with just that very same death? He had never been one to skimp on the study of history, and it was supremely frustrating that he couldn’t recall the particulars now. In fact, his head was splitting, and he found it impossible to concentrate on much of anything at all.
Belligos stopped to rub his temples with both hands and caught a hint of movement out of the corner of his eye.
What was that? A guard moving between quarters perhaps? He looked, but couldn’t see anything in the gloom behind him, even straining his sight. Gods, he had better depart from here quickly. Already stretched thin by the errands of his lord, he was in no condition for the intrigues of House Hrothgar – especially in his current state.
He turned to continue to his guest corners, but as he did a wave a vertigo washed over him and he lost his balance, falling to his hands and knees. He looked down and saw a reflection in the polished granite, blurry and out of focus. Something was terribly wrong. His vision swam and the strength left his arms as he collapsed face-first onto the ground. Behind it all Belligos thought heard heard, the familiar click-clack of bootheels on stone.
Impossible, he thought. This is impossible. Then he remembered no more.
Sufi approached what looked everything like a corpse strewn out in the hall. It was alarming yes, but she knew what she would find here. That didn’t keep her gut from churning at the sight of it. Lord Ashgar Bolthorn’s envoy lay face-down, spread out in an unceremonious heap.
But not of his own volition, she thought.
As her lordship’s right hand, she was privy to the innermost goings-on of House Hrothgar, both public and private. She knew about the poisoner’s pill that had been slipped to Bolthorn’s diplomat.
Poison… That was not the Hrothgar way. This was a house of proud warriors, not schemers, and cutthroats. In all her years of service, Sufi had never questioned her lady’s – her lord’s – motivations or actions. If anything, Lady Worgana had only ever been guilty of zeal, never something so insidious as treachery.
And now she was looking at a corpse.
Sufi patted the bulge in her pocket. All this madness might yet be undone if I hurry.
She gestured to the two guards with her, good men, Barl and Gregon, motioning for them to retrieve the body. Barl gave her a sideways glance, but Sufi kept her face stoic. It wouldn’t do to show any emotion other than that of duty. And she didn’t dare expose the contents of her heart to them – that would mean…
Both men lifted the body and held it between them like brothers helping one of their own home after a late night of drinking. But Belligos wasn’t going home, he was destined for the infirmary. There Belligos would lay until morning, when the surgeon would be informed of his condition. By that time all of the poison would have dissolved in the body and not a trace of their treachery would be left.
Their treachery. Those two words echoed in Sufi’s head. She could not lie to herself any longer, she was complicit in all of this. Perhaps just a good soldier following orders, but complicit nonetheless.
This had gone on too long and gone too far. Belligos was an innocent; never had he wronged her lord nor their house. He was merely doing his duty, and for that he was condemned to death. And he wasn’t the only one. Many of House Hrothgar had disappeared in the month since her lady’s ascension to the wolf mantle. To those who had carried out the orders it had all been done under the guise of duty, in the defense of their house’s sovereignty, and Sufi had followed along like all the rest.
She had and now she felt like she was going crazy. The line between right and wrong, friend and foe, had never before been hazy. Now, even those she had looked at as staunch allies only days before, were eyed with suspicion. No one was beyond doubt these days, and it had eaten at her like a cancer.
This isn’t how it should be, she thought, her palm pressed firmly against her pocket. A warrior is meant to fight on the battlefield, to die on the battlefield. I can’t do this any longer.
Sufi watched as Barl opened the door to the infirmary. Neither him nor Gregon bothered to turn on the lumes before they hefted Belligos’s corpse onto the examination table. So many, Sufi thought, have laid there of late. Too many.
The two men left the room, both with faces downcast, not daring to make eye-contact with her. She walked in after they left and let the door close behind her. The scene was ghastly, a single corpse lit only by the ghost glow of service lumes and the occasional flicker of status klaxons. Sufi dug the vial from her pocket and walked over to the surgeon’s bench to find a syringe. She snapped a new hypodermic needle into place and plunged it into the viscous fluid that she had carried with her, sucking up its contents.
She returned to where Belligos lay, peeling away first the folds of his coat, and then his tunic. Sufi smoothed the folds of his clothes until his chest lay bare, and what she saw gripped her chest.
Belligos had the scars of a warrior striping his torso, each a testament to a wound he had taken in practice or battle. She had never thought of the diplomat from Skymir as much of a fighter, but this proved her wrong. He had earned honor in battle and tasted the blades of his enemies, and for that he was as much a warrior as her.
“And so too were the others,” she murmured, raising the needle level with her eyes. “This is for them then.” The needle fell and disappeared into Belligos’s chest. There was no turning back, and so she began her work.