Written by Matt Ochs | Layout by John Kimmel
The Emperor’s Palace - Golgathar
The sound of her boot heels rang a hollow tune as she quickly made her way down the cavernous halls. She passed before the gaze of her forebears, an unending procession of bronze and marble busts, and colossal murals depicting their heroic deeds. Not too long ago she had done one of her own, it hadn’t been a glorious victory for the Jotune, but her warriors had fought valiantly to save their lord and bring him home.
Worgana’s fists clenched. It had been two long months since she had broken the siege on the Algol plain and now she was about to see her brother for the first time, but this wasn’t going to be a happy reunion.
Her footfalls hastened and she felt a trickle of cold sweat race down the length of her spine.
Fenris, she thought, what have you gotten yourself into this time?
No sooner had they escaped Synthien forces and returned to Bergheim than a contingent of Royal Guard barged into her brother’s throne room and demanded his presence before the Emperor. Fenris received this news calmly, slumped on the Wolf’s Throne, his head resting on his two strong fists. She had moved to stop him, suggesting that they slay the intruders for their insolence instead, but Fenris simply shook his head and told her to back down. ‘No, Worgana, that would only bring ruin to our whole house, and more trouble than what has already been caused. Stay here and lead Hrothgar in my absence, I will return shortly.’
That had been over two months ago, and not a word had reached Worgana about her brother until now. She herself had been summoned before Emperor Krionos just as he had, but instead of an armed contingent of guards, the command had come via messenger as a royal written decree.
She had had half a mind to assemble the full might of house Hrothgar and march upon Golgathar and take her brother back by force if she had to. Fenris was not to blame for any wrong doing, he had fought valiantly for the glory of his house and the whole of the Jotune Empire. If any blame was to be placed, it wasn’t that he had gone to siege the Synthien capitol city, but that he hadn’t taken more troops!
Worgana gritted her teeth and remembered the day he told her he was going off to battle the traitorous machines in the west. He had refused her aid were a tone that brooked no argument. ‘Stay here,’ he said, ‘and look after our birthright.’
Anger flared within her. If she hadn’t disobeyed his order, his bones would be decorating those dreary plains even now.
Worgana stopped, her head lowered and her shoulders shaking.
“Mistress, are you alright?”
Sufi. She had almost forgotten about her thain, the captain of her shield-guard and right hand, following only a few steps behind her. Worgana raised her head and saw that Sufi still kept a respectable distance. A flush of pride whelmed within her, and she thanked the gods she had such a capable warrior at her side.
“Yes, thank you, thain,” she said offering a cocksure smile. “It’s this formal wear that’s the problem. Too restrictive.”
Sufi laughed and so did she.
“Ah, you must be jealous of my ceremonial plate then,” her captain joked.
It was true, she was envious of the bright silver and gold plate that Sufi wore, even if it didn’t suit her taste in combat. Anything was better than the wrapped scarlet robes and gilded finery she wore now, those that befit a noble of her station. She had wanted to attend the Emperor equipped for battle, but her advisors had begged her not to. Feckless cowards they were, still she had listened. They had appealed to her sense of reason, pleading that a show of force would not do after her brother’s rash actions. ‘Regret and remorse were the honey needed to placate the dragon,’ they had said, ‘not another wolf with its fangs out.’ Worgana scoffed, but perhaps they were right.
“Aye, anything other than a gown, more fit for sipping tea than wielding a blade.”
Sufi chuckled and Worgana turned to face her, honesty and concern creasing her face, “thank you, Sufi, I mean it. There’s no one else I’d rather have at my side.”
Sufi’s eyes flashed and a smile spread across her features. “I would do this and more for you, Lady Worgana.” She clenched her fist and bowed her head in solemn salute.
Worgana returned it by placing a hand on her adamantine encased shoulder, “let’s get going then.”
They continued until the corridor curved back on itself and rose in a grand staircase of marble steps draped in luxurious gold and purple carpet. Worgana gathered the folds of her robes and hiked them above the toes of her boots as she made her way up the procession, silently cursing the damned dress she wore.
At the top, two lines of ordered palace guards stood facing one another across the hallway. They stood completely silent and at attention, but as the lady of House Hrothgar mounted the top step, they clattered their polearms into the ground in salute. Two moved to open the throne chamber’s massive gilded doors, resplendent in reliefs of the glory of the Jotune and House Vanir, slowly swinging them open to the vaulted chamber beyond.
Worgana strode forward with her head held high and her shoulders square, showing not an ounce of weakness or worry. She willed her nerves to calm, but her heart raced. She had no idea of what she would find inside, or what the Emperor would command of her. The message had said only that she was to come before the Lord of the Jotune, and that she would be reunited with her brother. That had been enough to bring her here, to see Fenris again, and her heart pounded all the harder to him again alive and well.
She had barely crossed the threshold into the chamber room when the guards behind her crossed their polearms behind her and blocked Sufi from entering. The doors swung shut with a speed that was hard to believe and settled with boom of finality. Worgana spun to see Sufi reach out an arm and call her name just before they were cut off, but the doors’ closing had drowned out her cry of warning, and now there was only silence echoing through the throne room.
Worgana pulled in a breath and set her brow with all the determination she could muster, and turned to face those who were waiting for her.
The chamber was lined with a double row of royal guardsmen around its periphery, quietly standing vigil in full battle gear. Worgana’s vision traced their ranks to the throne at the center of the room, where five figures stood about the huge golden chair that crouched there. Her eyes shot to the sixth figure, facing her, kneeling at its base.
“Fenris!” Worgana cried. She couldn’t contain herself any longer and ran as fast as her robes would allow to be at her brother’s side.
“Stand as befit your station before your Lord!” A booming voice rang out and she slowed, coming back to herself. “… and kneel.”
Worgana grimaced. She had always loathed the Emperor’s head councilor. Titus was his name, and he was nothing but a simpering servant to men greater than himself. Decorum dictated that she show deference to her Lord Emperor, but she’d be damned if she were commanded to do so by that rat masquerading in a man’s skins. She turned to face the throne as the other retainers about it of lesser and more renown tittered and murmured at her apparent outrage, making uninterrupted eye contact with the man who sat there, completely ignoring the sycophant to his left.
“Lord Emperor Krionos, Lady Worgana Hrothgar, your humble servant at your request.” She placed a fist against her chest, bowed, and bent a knee.
“Rise Lady Worgana, heir of House Hrothgar, and be at ease.”
Worgana’s heart skipped a beat as she listened to the calm voice of her Emperor. Heir of House Hrothgar, that could only mean…
“Sire, I am at your pleasure,” she worked to keep the tremble from her voice, “but as to my brother.”
“That traitorous scoundrel?!” Titus spat.
The Emperor turned slowly to regard his councilor. A mere look was more than sufficient, and the canary quit its squawking immediately. Emperor Krionos held his gaze until the man looked towards his plush velvet shoes, red blossoming at his cheeks. Krionos continued to hold his gaze, long enough that Worgana felt Titus would lose his color and wither like a springbloom under summer sun. Finally he turned to regard her again, and Titus slumped in relief.
She met the Emperor’s eyes and then at the man kneeling beneath the throne. Fenris looked terrible. His garments were in tatters and his hair and beard were an uncut and unruly mess. Thick shackles braced his wrists and stout chain ran between them. He looked like he hadn’t showered, eaten, or slept in all the days he had been gone from House Hrothgar. She willed him to lift his head and look at her, but his gaze remained fixed on the marble floor before him, and his shackled arms didn’t so much as flinch.
“Sire…” she repeated.
“Yes. Fenris,” Krionos spoke, eschewing her brother’s title as lord of their house. Worgana’s stomach tightened. “My esteemed councilor misspoke before, but he was not incorrect. Fenris Hrothgar is a traitor to the throne of the Jotune Empire and has made himself an enemy of all, and for that he must be punished.”
Worgana’s feet felt like they had been cast in iron, she wanted to take a step towards her brother and cover the distance between them; to be at his side, but she couldn’t will them to move. Surely this was a dream, it had to be. Not in nearly eight-hundred years had a lord of one of the great houses been stripped of their dominion, and that had been an extreme measure, a different time.
“Lord Emperor –“ Worgana could see Titus smirking now and it kindled a fire in her chest. Gods be damned if this sordid affair would bring that wretched excuse of a man amusement. “I invoke the right of Heimsdahl.”
A cacophony of murmurs and whispers erupted from the council members around the throne at the mere mention of the ancient right. Krionos only stared at her, curious and unmoved.
“Worgana, no!” It was the first thing she had heard her brother say since he left two months ago and bid her lead their people in his absence. For a wonder, his voice was clear and strong, and the sound of it was just like old times. So unchanged was it that Worgana thought surely this must be a trick, that things would return to the way they had always been. That the nightmare of the past months would end.
The sound of Fenris’s chains rattling faded and he stared out at her from behind matted locks of hair, his eyes resolved.
“The right of Heimsdahl,” Krionos repeated the words as though he were swirling them about in a decanter, regarding them - contemplating their flavor. “That has never been invoked for the crime of high treason.”
Worgana knew as well as the rest of them that the crime of high treason had only ever been meted out once, and no, no one had stepped forward to claim the punishment of death.
“Yes, I wish to assume my brother’s place and the charge of high treason. After all, I wished to accompany him upon the battlefield and only remained at Bergheim as long as I did to satisfy his command not to do so.”
Titus looked dangerously close to letting his serpents tongue loose, but held it at the last moment. A pity.
“The storm cares not where the lightning crashes, only that it does,” Krionos said. “You committed no crime because you did not go against my will.”
“All the same, if my intent does not make me culpable, then I may invoke the right.”
“Yes, you may, but it is at my discretion that it is granted. Krionos leaned forward on his throne, one palm on a gilded armrest, the other on a knee. “But you know not what punishment you accept.”
“I will gladly accept any if it means the rightful Lord remains at the head of House Hrothgar.”
Krionos leaned back and steepled his fingers before his chin. “And so your daughter would never know your face, or the wisdom of your teachings. She and Hrothgar would lose much.”
Worgana didn’t care about some daughter that still slumbered in a cryovault, yet to be born. Her brother was here and now before her, and he needed her. Even if it meant the sacrifice of her life.
“The penalty is exile, Worgana.” Her brother’s voice again.
“Quiet, traitor!” Titus screamed, shrill enough to ring in the ears.
“Yes, exile,” Krionos said, unmoved. “Into the west he so desired to lay siege. He may do as he pleases there for the rest of his days, so long as he does not return or cross paths with any Jotune. He will forever remain an enemy of our people.” He paused, before continuing, “and that includes you.”
Worgana lowered her head and bared her fists. Such a fate was worse than death.