The harsh weather had relented from the night prior, revealing a timberline outside the castle walls, and a clear day out east, where the cliffs gave way to the forest that Sigi had tracked earlier. A few of the workers were up early, the goats were out of their pens, moving to shake off the cold that was still biting. Though the winds of winter had passed, the chill of it remained. As the sun peaked out over the treetops to give some warmth to the small courtyard, the Lord of the near-fortress had studied it a bit more briefly before finishing his morning meal.

A few pounds of a fist came to his heavy door. He set down the goat milk that he had taken a few sips of. “What is it?”

“There’s a man here to see you, m’Lord. He stayed the night last night at the inn down near the gate.” This immediately raised flags with him. No one came during the winter months. And last night was particularly harsh. And then he felt it… this presence at the door. Goosebumps raised the hair on the back of his neck. He knew.

“Send him in.” After a few moments, the Lord stood up, putting on his formal pelt around his shoulders. He was aged, with white hair adorning his face and shaping the sides of his jaw as it stopped short of his shoulders. He stood slowly, shaking, but stood firm like any proud man would.

He turned to the wardrobe to get his gloves, and as he did so, the heavy door to his bedroom opened, shutting shortly thereafter. He turned his head ever so slightly while putting on his gloves. “I was wondering if you were ever going to show up again. I thought I’d be able to live out my final days in peace.”

Sigi moved in further from the door. His sword had been left outside, but he maintained his presence. The sun refused to let any features hide him. He was younger, in his 30’s perhaps. That much could be told. “I told you I would visit you out one more time before you left to take your place in the halls, Rothgard.”

“Yes,” returned the elderly man’s reply. He turned around to examine Sigi slightly, before returning his attention to his gloves and moving back to his meal table. He gestured for Sigi to join him, motioning to an adjacent chair. When Sigi sat, Rothgard showed a gentle smile. His body language showed defensiveness, but he was able to continue eating without issue.

“Please, have some. I bet you’re hungry.” He looked at Sigi, before giving another nod to some of the food present. After a few moments, Sigi took to some of it, pouring some water and grabbing his own plate of food to eat slightly.

“So Sigi, still working out of the capitol?”

“Yeah, I was for a while. I haven’t been in the capitol for over a year though. I’ve been out tracing some rumors.”

Rothgard chuckled slightly. “Yeah? Tracing rumors, or chasing girls?” Rothgard let out another chuckle before eating some more bread.

Sigi looked up slightly as he took another sip, eating some of the red meat set on the table. He looked back down, taking another bite before responding. “Tracing rumors, old man.”

Rothgard looked up. “What’d you find? Anything of interest?” He dug a bit more into the bread.

Sigi nodded once, swallowing his mouthful of food. “I had received word in the capitol of some combat going on further north. I figured some of the clans had been at it again, but the rumors had it that there were no claims of victors. No news at all, as it were.”

Rothgard looked up, perking an eyebrow. “That’s odd. The clans always boast about their victory over another. I’m guessing you went up to investigate yourself.”

Sigi nodded his response, swallowing another bit of food. “I left the capitol and headed up there, but I found nothing.”

Rothgard looked at Sigi for a moment. “Well, that’s a bit disappointing. I’m sure you were looking to swing around that ridiculous hunk of metal at something again.”

Sigi looked up at Rothgard, finishing the food on his plate before grabbing for more. “I mean quite literally, I found nothing. Where there had been sieges laid on clan villages, there was nothing left. No buildings, no bodies, no mills, no food storages. All that was left was a crater in the forest where a village, or even town once stood.”

Rothgard stopped eating for a moment, before finishing his mouthful. “It had been uprooted, like a tree?”

Sigi nodded. “This was the same at other places I had visited where there were reports of combat. I visited six of them. I found something of importance finally, and so I returned to the capitol to alert the council. But they did not want to hear what I had to offer, particularly when I told them it was time to muster an army.”

Rothgard stopped completely this time, setting down his food and drink, leaning forward on his elbows against the table. “Muster an army? The clans up there are feeble, fledgling. Any one of them aren’t anymore than a few years old at any given time Sigi. Why would we need to muster an army?”

“Because, the clans were not fighting each other. They were fighting someone else.” Sigi became deadpan, looking directly at Rothgard. After a few moments, Sigi reached into his pocket, momentarily setting Rothgard on the defensive until he saw it was not a weapon he was reaching for. He pulled his hand out of his pocket, and placed a small idol on the table. Rothgard’s eyes widened as he stood up from the table, a mixture of anger and bewilderment on his face.

“By the nine worlds…” Rothgard stared at the idol on the table. A red river stone had been sculpted and made to have a swirl on what appeared a belly, with no limbs or a head, but a small protrusion coming from the neck, like a spine.

“Where did you find this idol, Sigi? It can’t be real. It has to be a falsity. The Goron haven’t existed for at least two centuries.”

“And the council thinks it only fairy tales. I found this at the last village that I had visited. It must have been left behind by one of the careless Goron. When I told the council that this threat should at least be investigated, they scorned me and said I was trying to rouse chaos to unsettle the capitol. They began blaming Loki for the appearance of the idol. But you and I both know, Rothgard, that no one would dare make one of these.”

Rothgard regained some of his composure. “These… these actions, are not like what I’ve heard. Even my own grandmother recounted simply slaying and feasting, mercilessly. No honor amongst them. But for them to lay siege to something and then simply leave nothing behind… this is different.”

“The nature of man changes to meet the condition which he is placed, Rothgard,” Sigi countered. “They were the only true threat to the capitol then, and they may have refined their tactics to adapt.”

Rothgard continued to stand, and paced about for a moment, allowing things to slowly set in. “The clans aren’t honorable. Maybe one of them planted this.”

“They have no red stones like this. You know that.” Sigi reached for the small idol, placing it back in his pouch. He watched the old man quietly, measuring his response.

“The capitol is hiding their fear behind their decision. We need to go back together–”

“I’ve been thrown from the capitol, Rothgard. Bringing you back with me will not help you out either. There’s a reason why I came by foot. I would have been here much sooner if I had at least been allowed to leave with a horse.”

Rothgard looked at Sigi. “Why come here then, if you don’t have the support of the capitol? Surely I cannot sway their opinion if you cannot.”

Sigi looked sternly at the old man. “I need gold to raise an army.”

Rothgard looked at Sigi in return for a few more moments, before looking around his stone bedroom. His eyes wandered to the fire, staring at it for several moments, trying to find any sort of comfort there from the conflict that had suddenly been placed in his lap.

“Sigi, I cannot give up what I have at the drop of a rumor that yields a single idol. There is no point in pushing forward–”

“Dammit, old man!” Sigi interrupted, slamming his fist on the table, cracking the solid wood slightly. “You may not last through the end of this coming year, war or not. You have born no heirs, your wife has died and you refuse to marry another. You’re likely too impotent to have any other children at your stubborn age. At least give something to this empire that will stand for time. Others will know of your deed when this is all done. If you do nothing, your castle here, its surrounding lands and all of your holdings will default to the capitol. Do something!

Rothgard stood there for a few moments, the harsh and true words taking weight and resting upon his shoulders. He gritted his teeth as he stared at the fire a bit longer.

“How long has it been since we fought side by side, Sigi?”

After a few moments, Sigi responded. “Nearly forty years.”

Rothgard turned to him. “And you haven’t aged a single damn day, Sigi. I am taking the toll of life, and its price is death. Yet you strive on each day, age and decay seemingly unable to find you. You just might be the son of Odin, or born of witchcraft, but you murdered your brother. That has always weighed greatly in my mind with anything preceding you.”

Sigi looked at Rothgard for a moment before looking back at the water, and taking another swig of it. The death of his brother always haunted him, in every step. No matter what he had done to try and recompense from it, it stayed at his heels, closer than death itself.

Rothgard took a deep breath, and turned to Sigi. “You won’t get the gold. At least, not yet. I want proof.” He waited a few moments. “I want you to take fifteen of my men with provisions and horses, and I want you to ride north and find more proof of this. Share it with my men and come back here, and if you provide proof, I will fund your army.”

Sigi finished the water, standing up. “This is acceptable.”

“Another thing. Bring the men you select to me. I want to know who they are, tell them why they are going and tell you who is and is not to be trusted.”

Sigi nodded once, beginning his walk to the door.

“And Sigi.”

Sigi stopped just short of the door, turning his head slightly.

“You may be my elder, but you are in my house and lands. You will respect my decisions. I don’t care how strong you are, or how adept at combat you’ve become. I will kill you if you disrespect me.”

Sigi turned back towards the door, opening it and shutting it, leaving Rothgard to his thoughts.