Written by Matt Ochs | Layout by John Kimmel
Bergheim – Hall of the Ancients
“Mother,” Worgana spoke into the darkness, “your son has need of you.”
Frankincense and gar hung heavy in the air, billowing out as if to greet her words. The atmosphere inside her mother’s chambers was thick, stale, and stunk of entropy. Even with her keen senses, Worgana struggled to find her bearings and locate the woman that resided within.
There, a slight motion off to her right caught Worgana’s attention, and as she focused she could begin to make out the reclining form of her elder.
“I heard, young one,” came the husky reply.
“Fenris has need of our help, the Empire is threatened by a shadow threat, and war has consumed the western frontier.” The words came tumbling out. She thought she would feel better for having confided them in her gene-mother, but as soon as they left her, Worgana felt all the more helpless for having said them. She was helpless.
“Ah.” That was her mother’s only reply, almost as if she were considering her evening meal or the unfortunate fate of a fly, or anything else without any bearing whatsoever.
Worgana could already feel the rage kindling in her gut, but she tried to quell it. Her mother had wisdom that she desperately needed, this was merely the price she would have to pay.
“Don’t brook that tone with me pup,” her elder snapped.
Worgana’s vision began to swim and she felt distant, like the layers of reality were peeling back to a surreal dream. This had happened too many times before, and she had known it would, but she was as helpless to stop it as any other recurring nightmare.
Worgana took a deep breath and steadied herself before continuing, willing as much calm into her voice as she could manage.
“Mother. These troubles have befallen our house and now I am to lead Hrothgar in its hour of dire need. I cannot do it alone, and I humbly request your counsel.”
There was a silence that lasted long past its welcome before Worgana saw her mother shift again. She had sprawled herself out like an old cat across a divan at the far edge of the room. Cords ran from walls dotted in blinking green lights to where they disappeared into her ancient flesh. One, Worgana knew, even entered through her nostrils like a grotesque parody of a wastelander’s body piercing. There was silence except for the dull drone of life-support servos quietly thudding their nonsense chatter and jostling with the gathered smoke of incense filling the room for the prize of most obnoxious. Worgana did everything she could not to gag at it all – or scream.
“So it has been, and so it will be. Again.” The elder spoke wryly.
Was she really taking pleasure in this? Worgana gritted her teeth, but was careful to keep them hidden behind pursed lips.
“It was Fenris who left me all those years ago, and it was I who took the Wolf’s Mantle to lead our house. And for what? Only to be pushed aside when your brother was ready to lead Hrothgar? And what has he done now? What peril is he in?”
Every nerve and fiber of her being was alight and on fire. Her mother’s words bit deeper than an blade could. Worgana trembled from head to foot, desperately trying to contain the rage that threatened to erupt from her. In the past it had always been a different subject matter, but this exact same conversation had been had before, and from it came nothing good.
“Mother. That is precisely why I need your help. You have confronted these tribulations before, and for years you ruled our house with honor and dignity.”
“Honor and dignity. And for that I was repaid how exactly?!”
The elder Worgana’s voice rose and cracked into a shriek. It must have strained her greatly for an alarming number of the green lights turned an angry red and remained lit instead of winking on and off. Some even flashed with manic speed.
“My brother Fenris died gloriously in battle and for that he was remembered as a hero. All that was left for me was to act as the caretaker of the mantle until his son was ready to take it from me. All that honor and dignity amounted to dust.”
The cloying smoke suffusing the room drew in closer with each of her mother’s accusations and pushed with unnatural weight on Worgana’s shoulders. It dropped onto her chest and invaded her lungs, pulling her to the ground, even choking the very breath from her. It was too much.
This nightmare had been lived before over countless years and she’d be damned if she would be doomed to repeat one more time. Her gene-mother was her clone sire and mentor, and yet, the only one of those things that she had ever truly fulfilled the was the former. Ever since the age of Fenris’s becoming, her mother had indeed withdrawn, and though the Wolf’s Mantle was taken from her, it was given to the rightful heir of House Hrothgar - the progeny of all Fenris’s that had ever been. That was the law of Hrothgar, and a tradition spanning aeons. Even at a young age Worgana had known this, and for all of her mother’s life, so too had she.
And yet here they were, two women of the very same flesh and blood, but doomed forever to never agree. Or cooperate for that matter. It wasn’t for a lack of mentoring that Worgana severed herself from her gene-mother, but rather that her mother had turned her back on Fenris. She had gone so far as to undermine and sabotage him at every opportunity. And for what? Never again would she wear the mantle, so what was to be gained?
“You were afforded a place of honor in our house.”
“A place to rot more like!”
“That, mother, was your choice. Fenris’s father died in battle; and yet, that privilege was never taken from you. You chose your path and it lead you here.”
“I chose to lead our people, you insolent pup. What good would it have done to die ‘gloriously’ and leave our house without a head? What good is anyone to their people when they are dead?”
“There are others,” Worgana said, thinking of Firstang, Gisela, and Brunii, “and fates worse than death.” She knew that must have bit deep, but continued anyway, “Fenris was never one to lead from the back. He died on the frontlines, the same as from where he lead his house, instead of cowering in a high tower or far behind his troops.”
“How dare you!” The bank of lights behind her mother now all lit a lurid red and blinked frantically. A soft whine even came from the bank, an unmistakable warning that whatever was to come next would not be good.
“I speak the truth. You may not have chosen the path of a warrior, but you were always bound by the laws of our house and you knew that then, as well as you know it now. It was your decisions that lead you to your fate. My brother never turned his back on you, even though you had turned yours on him long ago. You should be grateful for that.”
“And now he needs me. You said it yourself. What has this Fenris gotten himself into this time then?”
Worgana clenched her fists, but refused to take the bait. She would only argue where she would have to, and she suspected her point had been made.
“He defied a direct order from the Emperor and invaded Synthien lands and now stands convicted of treason punishable by exile.”
Another silence, and this one long enough that Worgana shifted uncomfortably and looked about. She returned her gaze to where her mother had been, but strained to see her in the gloom.
She jumped as icy fingers wrapped themselves around her arm. They gripped with a strength she could scarcely believe and pain seared where nails dug themselves deep into her flesh. The hand pulled and she felt a face swim close to hers before hearing her mother speak in her ear.
“Just as I was left to bear the burdens of our house, so too shall you. And when the time comes, the wolf’s mantle will be wrested from your shoulders and placed on another’s.”
And with that the bank of lights began pulsing a steady red beat, on and off, on and off while an alarm klaxon blared noisily. Her mother coughed violently and attendants rushed into the chamber, taking the elder by her arms and guiding her back to her recliner. Worgana put her hand to where her mother’s had been and felt a wetness there. She squeezed hard and felt blood well between her fingers. She was not like her mother, and her fate would not be the same. She would lead and be ruler of her house. The Wolf’s Mantle was hers by right and no one else’s.
After she had left her mother’s chambers, no longer was she dogged by hesitation and preparations were made with all due haste for her ascension. In only a day’s time the entirety of House Hrothgar had assembled in the palace throne room and all who called Bergheim home crowded about its gates ready to witness the dawn of their next ruler. Banners bearing the sigil of the Wolf Lord snapped crisply in the wind and the trumpeting call of bone horns bellowed in the air. Gleaming rows of armored warriors stood at attention, their plate polished to a blinding sheen and their weapons held at attention before their faces. Never before had the marble, lapis lazuli, and the great oak of the throne room seemed so rich and lustrous as Lady Worgana sat on the throne. She looked out at the assembled retainers of her house, the faithful commanders of her forces, and the innumerable supplicants awaiting her ascension and felt updraft of stoic pride.
At the foot of the throne lay a stag gutted on an altar flanked by censers of smoldering myrrh. Its entrails had been pulled from its corpse and inspected by an augur who wore the simple robes of a mystic. He went about his work carefully and with the utmost seriousness, for his word would be the herald of a reign – and would speak either of prosperity or misfortune.
Worgana waited patiently through it all, her back straight and her chin held high in regal bearing. The woman who sat on the throne was completely at odds with the brash girl who wished only to follow her brother into glorious battle, heedless except for the thrill of victory. She had quashed that girl. Her people needed a leader, not a unpredictable warrior maiden.
She glanced without moving her head to the Wolf’s Mantle, which rested in pride of place by the altar, recently returned from Golgathar by the generous Emperor Krionos. A smile threatened at her lips, but she quelled it with equal ease. This was a somber moment and composure was what decorum required.
The augurs hands moved skillfully through the carcass, until finally they reached the heart. A swift motion with his knife and the bulbous organ emerged in a fist drenched to the elbow in gore. He carefully placed his knife on the altar before turning the heart over in both hands thoughtfully before his face. He seemed to inspect every millimeter of the heart, and Worgana wondered for what he looked. Was it the number of veins? The coloration of the flesh? Was it the amount of fat, blemish, or abnormality?
Her musings were cut short, for at last he dropped his hands and shouted, “all hail Lady Worgana, protector and ruler of us all!” He thrust the heart into the air to punctuate his sentence and the chamber erupted in gleeful shouts and raucous applause. Worgana rose and descended from the throne, taking each step with sinuous ease. She knelt before the altar just as she had seen her brother do before her, and lowered her gaze to the luxurious blue carpet beneath her knees. She felt the weight of the Wolf’s Mantle before she saw it fall past her shoulders, droplets of blood matting in its fur from where the augur handled it. The bright crimson was beautiful against the somber white and gray. She heard the augur intoning a prayer in the ancient language of her people before commanding her to rise and meet the gaze of her people.
She did, and Lady Worgana rose anew, looking out upon her kingdom for the first time.