Standing high atop the castle battlement, the two figures made an odd couple. Half-Giant and Stoneborn, side by side. The former towered over the latter by at least three feet. Each was clad in black plate armor of similar design. An onlooker might assume relative size determined who was in charge. An onlooker would be wrong.
“What of it?” spat the dwarf irritably.
“Means the siege will start,” said the Half-Giant, staring down across the plain towards the eastern horizon. The first glints of sun flickered off the lances of the surrounding army. They looked like hundreds of red sparks in the gloom.
“Not with an Elken in charge. Especially Bedlam…that rotten shank of venison.”
The dwarf spat again.
From the tower stairs behind came the sound of a door opening. Then hurried steps. A human rushed in panting and knelt before them.
“Pardon, my Lords. A messenger has arrived.”
“See?” sneered the dwarf. “They haven’t even blockaded us yet.”
The dwarf turned to the kneeling man.
“We’ll, who is it? Bring him up!”
“No need - I am here,” answered another voice.
A sharp-nosed man in a robe stepped forth.
“Well, I’ll be damned!” exclaimed the dwarf. He elbowed his Half-Giant companion. “A visitor from The Devoted. Eamon no less!”
“Eamon? The same Eamon who used to be in the Order of Chaos but then found religion?” replied the Half-Giant.
“I don’t know…that Eamon was a thief and layabout…I don’t think The Devoted would let his kind in,” remarked the Dwarf.
“They would if he donated a lot of gold to the Church…in exchange for protection from angry husbands,” smirked the Half-Giant.
“Enough!” waved Eamon angrily as they burst into guffaws.
He waited for them to subside. He glared at the still-kneeling messenger, who took this as his cue to hurriedly depart.
“Baruk Stoneford. Ogram Head-Splitter. I weep to see the Order of Chaos has fallen into the hands of such leaders.”
“Lord Baruk Stoneford, if you please. So, what’s this about? Be quick! We are busy!”
“So, I see,” nodded Eamon, gesturing at the far-off glints of spearpoints. “I will be brief. My Lord Anaxis sent me.”
The demeanor of Baruk and Ogram changed to serious in an instant. Anaxis was not only a Devoted, he was one of the highest ranking. A force to be reckoned with among the Elder Crows and that was saying something.
Eamon smiled inwardly at their reactions.
“I come from a Making…someone you knew I believe,” continued Eamon.
“Beryl,” intoned Baruk. “He was a good man. We’ve both ridden with him.” The dwarf and half-giant each made solemn holy gestures.
“Times grow dire,” said Eamon. “The Hunger advances. The Making keeps pace only so long as enough volunteers step forward. Crows willing to end their existence so that a new world can be created. Order, Balance and Chaos united to fend off the common threat. But what happens if we cannot keep pace?”
Baruk and Ogram exchanged looks. Eamon had touched on a well-known question. But the search for an answer had split not only the Devoted and the three Orders, but every guild in the Kingdoms. Some wanted to keep the status quo, using only Crows who volunteered for The Making. Others wanted some type of lottery. Others pushed for more brutal solutions – forced conscription, culling those deemed weak and unworthy.
The divisions were widening. The reason was an open secret. The Making was losing ground. Each year, at a growing pace, the Hunger advanced closer and closer to The Kingdoms.
“We know all this,” said Baruk. “Why did Anaxis send you?”
“My Lord Anaxis sees that Order and Balance, for all their disputes, remain intact. Chaos however has fall into civil war. He has two requests for your consideration. First, he offers to mediate an end to your conflict.”
“Good luck with that,” said Ogram. “We’ve tried to reason with Bedlam and his followers. They are extremists.”
“Yes,” nodded Eamon. “They want The Making fueled by the sacrifice of captive Crows. But perhaps there are other possibilities they haven’t considered.”
“Well, if he wants to try we won’t stand in his way,” said Baruk. “What’s the other request?”
“He needs your assistance in an investigation.”
“Of what?” asked Ogram.
“Of whom,” corrected Eamon. “You have both heard of the newest Crow, the so-called Bride of Valkyn?”
“The girl who says the All-Father talks to her?” said Ogram. “We don’t know much except they say she’s a real looker.”
The Half-Giant elbowed the dwarf beside him.
“Perhaps,” said Eamon. “But we need more information. Our problem is that a follower of Malekai keeps her under close watch.”
“If you’re asking us to kidnap her from Kitaara Red-Hand, no dice. We’d need an army and ours is busy right now.”
“No, nothing like that…we just need someone placed in her retinue whom she will trust.”
“Why do you care so much about a batty girl?” asked Baruk, a note of suspicion in his voice.
“Lord Anaxis knows that often what matters most is not what is true or false – but what is believed. The unity of the Devoted and the Orders, the glue that holds together the hundreds of guilds and their countless followers, the very foundation of the Kingdoms, rests on shared belief. Undermine belief and you create cracks that, over time, will widen to shatter all.”
Baruk and Ogram looked at each other again. Lowering their voices, they whispered for a minute. Then they turned back.
“Alright - tell Anaxis we’ll do it. We know one of the Crows who helped her ascend.”
Eamon started in alarm, his eyes widening.
“Yuki?” the priest exclaimed. “No! That won’t do! Lord Anaxis would never accept that! Are you both mad?”
“No, not Yuki. Don’t worry. Let us handle this. Go back to the Temple and – do whatever it is you do.”
Eamon huffed and straightened his vestments. He bowed stiffly.
“Very well, I will deliver your answer. Good day.”
Baruk and Ogram watched the priest depart. Once he was out of earshot, they turned back to each other.
“Well?” asked Ogram.
“Well what?” said Baruk. “This stinks to high heaven. Anaxis is up to something. But for now, we play along. He helps us broker a peace with Bedlam. We help him with this mind-addled girl. Fair exchange.”
Ogram nodded. He shouted for the messenger to return. In a moment, the servant was kneeling before them again.
“Go find Two-Ton.”