Written by Matt Ochs | Layout by John Kimmel
The Emperor’s Palace - Golgathar
Worgana had flown into a rage ever since the Emperor had spoken that word, and her world had shattered. Exile. Her brother Fenris was to be cast out of Jotune society and sent into the west – to wander and die alone. From henceforth no Jotune was friend to Fenris Hrothgar, and the penalty for aid to an outcast such as he was death. Her brother was no longer hers; and he was dead in all but the flesh.
A bitter sting trembled up from her fist and pounded in her elbow, but she kept her hand planted firmly in the marble railing which stood guard at the edge of the terraced outlook. Her eyes swam as she looked out over the Valkan Highlands below. Rolling hills plummeted into deep ravines that created natural barriers in the land. Jagged outcroppings of rock jutted from the ground and dotted the landscape in a maze of monoliths that had always looked like monuments to her glorious ancestors when she was in her youth. Now they only looked like a heart-broken memorial to the dead.
“Fenris is the mightiest warrior amongst all the Jotune, and the most loyal. Exile is no fit punishment for him!”
She said the words hunched over the railing, her shoulders shaking. Never before in her life had she felt so lost, so alone.
Sufi, her shield maiden and personal guard; she had almost forgotten about her.
“The might of House Hrothgar stands ready.”
Always the good soldier, Sufi was ready to fight. But was that their only course of action now? The situation was dire.
Henceforth Fenris would be cast into exile, and forever more remain an enemy of all the Jotune. His name struck from all records and his progeny remade in another likeness. It was a fate beyond death.
“Sufi, thank you.” Worgana said, turning to address her thain. The words caught in her throat as she saw a man behind her captain, lurking in the shadows.
Without hesitation Sufi recognized the expression on her mistress’s face, and whirled about with weapon drawn, ready to strike down any intruder.
“Hold thain!” Worgana commanded. Sufi was so fast that Worgana’s command only reached her after she had drawn her mace and held it high above her head. “Sufi, at ease.” Her shield maiden lowered her arm without hesitation and bowed to her lady in deference before withdrawing to a respectful distance. Worgana’s eyes never left the man. “Belligos.”
“Lady Worgana,” he replied, cracking the smallest of smiles and sketching a small bow. “The warriors of House Hrothgar continue to earn their distinction as fierce fighters. That much has not changed.”
Worgana held his stare and only waited, and so did he, with that little smile teasing at his lips. Gods, if the little man had something to say, he best get it out, she didn’t have time for this.
“What does House Skymir want? And why would they trouble themselves with the strife of Hrothgar?”
“My lady, as for all of that I cannot say. I am but a humble servant of my Lord Ashgar, and he wishes for me to deliver this message to you.”
Worgana raised an eyebrow, but her curiosity was piqued. Her only course of action was an armed revolt. Whatever Ashgar had in mind might turn out to be a better alternative.
You’re beginning to see the hunt from all angles, Worgana, Fenris’s voice echoed in the halls of memory, prey never runs in a straight line. A knot welled in her stomach. This was all for Fenris. If she failed, she would lose him forever, and so too would the Jotune.
“Then what does Ashgar wish me to know?”
Belligos’s smile vanished. “There is trouble afoot my Lady. A serpent dens in the royal chambers and its venom threatens the very stability of the empire.”
Metaphor. Only Ashgar would veil his message in something as obtuse and cryptic as word play. Luckily for Worgana, she had already seen the serpent with her own eyes.
“You speak of Titus then.”
Genuine concern seemed to cross Belligos’s face, “I cannot say more, my lady. Only that. If you will now excuse me –“
Sufi stepped to cover the doorway which lead back into the palace and placed her hand on the hilt of her mace. “You are at the leisure of my mistress, and it is for her to dismiss you.”
“That is true,” Worgana said, taking a step forward, darkness crossing her eyes.
She thought she saw the smallest crack form in the man’s utterly calm veneer and it pleased her.
“Lady Worgana,” he paused, collecting himself, “need I remind you that an assault on the emissary of a lord carries with it the weight of an assault on the lord himself?”
Worgana narrowed her eyes, “who said I was planning on physical violence, I merely said you were not free to leave.”
“It is all the same, lady. Besides I had come in friendship from my lord, with counsel, and this is my treatment?”
Belligos had a point. Nothing dictated the assistance of House Skymir in this matter, no matter how small that assistance was, and to treat them as enemies without so much as a provocation was beyond unfair.
Worgana softened her stance and waved a hand to Sufi to stand down. “You are right, of course I meant you no harm or ill will, and I apologize. My blood runs hot in my veins, and my temperament is more suited for battle. I release you, Belligos, go where you please.”
Relief seemed to wash over the man and the tension he had hidden so well vanished. “It is understandable, my lady, and of course I understand House Hrothgar would not wish harm upon a friend.”
He sketched the same slight bow and began to turn, before something seemed to get the best of him.
“Lady Worgana –“
She cocked her head and regarded him with a look of true inquisitiveness, was he going to betray his own convictions and speak freely?
“To raise arms would be foolish, certainly there is another way.”
And with that, Belligos of House Skymir was gone without another word.
Worgana was lost in thought when Sufi delicately broke the silence.
“Mistress, your orders?”
She knew what Sufi was asking, should she send word to Hrothgar to rouse the Wolf’s Guard and the rest of their warriors? Belligos’s words echoed in her head, ‘to raise arms would be foolish.’ Foolish why? Because it could bring about the ruin of Hrothgar, that which had started with her brother? Because civil war could not be afforded at a time when the Synthien has just been provoked and were surely mobilizing for war?
It was now more than ever that she needed Fenris. She wasn’t ready for this, the fate of their house, the leadership of their people – it had all been thrust upon her. She needed –
Realization dawned on her like a gift from the heavens. There was someone yet alive that could help her, and she couldn’t waste another moment for her brother’s sake.
“Sufi, we are returning to Bergheim at once.”
“Yes, mistress,” her thain snapped.
“And we will not be rousing the Wolf’s Den, not yet.”
Was that disappointment in Sufi’s eyes? Worgana nearly laughed, her thain was itching more for a fight than even she was.
“Yes, mistress, I will make preparations to leave at once.”
The gilded door swung shut with a bang and Worgana was left alone for the first time in what felt like an eternity. She looked out and saw much of the Jotune Empire spread before her. The lofty heights of Aesir in the east, and the craggy peaks surrounding Bergheim on the south and west. It was beautiful, and now she saw it was more fragile than she ever knew before, like a dew drop teetering on the edge of a blade of grass. She didn’t have much time, but she knew it would take Sufi at least a quarter of an hour to arrange for their departure; and some part of her wanted to slow down. That surprised even her. Not once in her life had she ever seen the value in taking a measured approach. She had always met her challenges head on and with the full fury of her rage. But it was different now. The hunt is more than the running down of prey, it is the watching and the waiting as well.
She had begun hearing his voice in her head, repeating the lessons he had taught her all those years ago, after their father had died. It was after he had taken up the Wolf’s Mantle and had himself changed. Maybe that was what she felt now; the weight of leadership and the burden of responsibility, the same that had been passed on to him with their father’s passing. Now it was hers to bear.
To see the hunt from all angles.
There were so many now; Krionos, Titus, Belligos, Ashgar… and what about those she hadn’t seen?
A serpent dens in the royal chambers…
Was that Titus, with his weasel face and beady eyes? Or was it someone yet unseen to her?
“Dammit!” She slammed her fist down into the unyielding marble. Disgusting cracks of pain radiated out from her knuckles and swam up the nerves of her arm. She pulled away her fist and saw dots of bright crimson where her fingers had been and a crack in the marble.
She clenched her fist against her chest. She yearned for battle, honest and true. Be it against the Emperor or no, she needed the clarity of the battlefield more now than ever before. It was Krionos who had condemned her brother, so that made him her enemy.
She scowled, her lips rising to show two pronounced canines.
A serpent dens.
Those words again, Ashgar’s words. Lord Ashgar Skymir was an accomplished tactician, the best the Jotune had ever seen, but his skills at outmaneuvering his foes on the battlefield were rivaled by his competency in navigating the politics of imperial society, and that could not be overlooked. He had drawn Worgana’s attention to a threat that lay hidden in the royal house. If she were to wage war upon Krionos, then that could be the move this “serpent” was counting on. But to what end? The fall of House Vanir and Hrothgar could possibly benefit who? Vassad, Skymir, someone else entirely?
Games within games, and still she did not know who she could trust.
“Mistress, preparations for your departure are ready.”
“Very good, thain, let us return to Bergheim then.”
It took the better part of a day to return to their homeland, but at last they had made it as the sun descended beyond the western reaches. Worgana glanced over her shoulder and back towards the north where Fenris waiting in a Golgathan dungeon. They would dump ashes over his body before they sent him into the west and brand the mark of the traitor onto his forehead for all to see. He would be cast into darkness to wander and die alone, a bitter memory to be forgotten by the Jotune. That was unless she did something about it.
As Worgana marched up the steps to her home a fury kindled in her belly. There was only one person for her to turn to, and as she threw open the doors to the darkness that lay within, her heart pounded in her chest
“Mother,” Worgana spoke into the darkness, “your son has need of you.”