The death and the death of Emperor Severin  A folk tale of Middenheim

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The death and the death of Emperor Severin

A folk tale of Middenheim

Middenheim is a grim, forbidding place, and its citizens have a reputation for unfriendliness that is quite justified. Nevertheless, when provided with a large enough quantity of ale they become enthusiastic tellers of stories. As a rule, they prefer tales with a strong basis in reality. This particular example is a mythologized account of the passing of Emperor Severin I, and is as interesting for the facts it gets wrong as for those that are correct. -JWG

The days are gone now, but there was a time when Middenland held itself apart from the other dominions and territories that Sigmar, the son of Ulric, had once brought together, and Middenheim lay at the very heart of things[1]. For only in Middenland did the Empire truly endure; elsewhere, thieves and bandits dared call themselves Emperor, squabbling endlessly over each scrap of land. Thus the Imperial throne at Middenheim, blessed and preserved by Ulric, Father of All, was the only source of true majesty and authority in those corrupted times.

Upon that throne sat Emperor Severin I, often called 'the wise.' For nearly sixty years he had ruled The Empire in Ulric's name. The Emperor had brought unity where there had been little before; also, protection of law, and prosperity. These things were achieved by Severin's strength of character, and by his astuteness, and yes, by his great wisdom. Yet time had worn heavily on his mind, causing sharp edges to become dull.

So it was that the Emperor was made the victim of those sworn to protect him. The members of his own court abused Severin's lost judgement and failing memory, to increase their own power and wealth. Soon the palace was divided into warring factions, each rising and falling in influence according to their degree of private access to the Emperor.

At last Waldemar, the Ar-Ulric, stepped in to become the Emperor's chief advisor - for the good, so he claimed, of The Empire. By restricting the access of the factional courtiers he was able to steer The Empire as he wished. And he steered it to war in Ostermark. For Ostermark had become the battlefield of the three great powers: of the Empire of Middenland, of the fanatical Otillians, and of the craven Stirlanders. All sought to claim that land for their own.

The war in Ostermark is another story[2]. Let us say only that Martin of Stirland was driven away in defeat and killed, and that the Otillians of Talabecland took possession of Bechafen, Ostermark's capital, for a short time. Middenland had seen some success in battle, but as the war drew to a close the army was recalled home. Emperor Severin was dead.

Now, Severin had been married to a virtuous woman called Agnethe, but she had borne him no children. The late Emperor also had a mistress, by the name of Theresia, and she had a son who had but recently reached manhood. As the Empress, the Ar-Ulric, and the entire court of Middenheim assembled at the bedside of the dead Emperor, Theresia brazenly presented her son, also called Severin. Here, she declared, was the heir to the holy throne of Ulric.

Instantly, there was uproar in the palace. As many of the courtiers shouted support for the Emperor's bastard as angrily denounced him. Empress Agnethe ordered the guards to arrest Theresia and young Severin, but the guards were as divided as the courtiers, and it seemed inevitable that violence would result. Just as the first swords were drawn, Ar-Ulric Waldemar demanded silence in the name of the Father of All, his voice reverberating like the midwinter bell. The Empire, he said, required stability above all else. The boy Severin was his father's son, legitimate or not, and must be made Emperor.

So it was. Agnethe and her supporters departed at once for Carroburg in the south, promising to return with an army. Severin was installed upon the holy throne of Ulric, the golden crown of Artur[3] upon his head.

No sooner had this been done than Waldemar began to have doubts. He had acted in the belief that the new Emperor would maintain the peace, but already there was talk of gathering a new army to face that of Agnethe. The day after the completion of the wearying coronation ceremony, Waldemar went to where the old Emperor's body still lay in state, and knelt in prayer. For many hours he remained there, seeking the guidance of Ulric.

When he at last arose to stretch his aching legs, the candles that lay all around the Emperor's body had burned low. One by one they went out, leaving a single candle to burn near the Emperor's head, at the level of his mouth. Waldemar marvelled at this candle, for the flame was as blue as the sacred fire of Ulric that burns in the high temple. But a moment later he perceived a greater wonder - the flame was flickering with the steady rhythm of human breath! On examining the body of the old Emperor more closely, Waldemar discovered that there was a faint but steady heart-beat, and all other signs of life that had previously been absent. The Emperor lived.

In the course of the next few minutes the Emperor revived as though waking from a deep sleep. At first, he could barely keep open his eyes, and could do no more than moan softly in response to questions. But gradually his strength grew, and his voice became firmer than it had been in many years.

"Waldemar," said Emperor Severin I, "you have betrayed me. You have brought my Empire to ruinous war through your duplicity and pride. You knew of my many sins, of which my love for Theresia was the greatest of all, but you must know also that her son is not mine. The new Emperor must be elected from among the nobles of this land, with the consent of all as ordained by Father Ulric. Assemble my court at once, so that I may address them with what remains of my breath."

So it was that the nobles of the city came together before the Old Emperor, with the new Emperor and his mother foremost in the crowd. The Emperor's body made no move at first, continuing to lie in apparent death. But then Severin spoke, loud as fate, denouncing the new Emperor as the son of a whore and a fraud.

Young Severin was seized with a terrible passion, crying out that this was a work of the most blasphemous necromancy, to put such words into the mouth of a corpse. Taking up the heavy, symbolic axe of Ulric from the foot of the Emperor's funeral slab, he chopped the body into a dozen pieces.

Thus began a civil war that lasted three years, and ended only with the ascension of a tyrant to the holy throne of Ulric[4]. As for the bloody fragments of the twice-dead Emperor Severin, they were gathered up and carefully sewn back together. Before the reconstituted body was entombed with due ceremony, a mould was taken of it in plaster, and a bronze statue cast. This statue stands to this day in the grounds of the palace in Middenheim[5], its ghastly appearance an eternal reminder of the horrors of the past.

[1] The Empire of Middenland, known to its own citizens simply as 'The Empire', lasted from 1547 to 2304.

[2] The War of the Ostermark Succession, as it is generally called, has been studied in great detail and many contemporary accounts survive. The curious reader is directed to the works of Oskar Breytenbach, recently republished under the imprint of Haltforst of Wissenland. Note also that two of the stories in this very book - those entitled 'Ghost-Dance' and 'The Difference' - concern themselves intimately with the events surrounding the war.

[3] The semi-mythical leader of the Teutogen tribe and founder of Middenheim.

[4] Adalbert IV, formerly the commander of the armies of Middenland during the Ostermark war.

[5] The statue does indeed still exist. However, its cracked and distorted appearance is certainly due to damage incurred during the great earthquake of 2298. The tale of the dismemberment and reassembly of Severin I is simply too fantastic to be factual.


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