Winter, he thought darkly, the God-forsaken season.
Sunpriest Kir Dinesh slogged through thick snow to the inn's stables. When he had been assigned (read 'banished') to the Sunsguard as a unit chaplain, he had expected his life would be short and filled with strife, bandits, and bitterly grudging respect from his unit-mates.
He had been right for two out of four. Strife and bandits had been plentiful, but he had managed to survive eight years with the guard and built camaraderie with the commanders at long last. He was even able to sleep at night without worrying that one of his flock might decide to see how they fared without a capitol city Sunpriest slowing them down.
His proudest moment in those near eight years was when the Captain of the unit introduced him to the new recruits as 'Father Kir, our chaplain' rather than 'His Holiness Dinesh, Firestarter.'
It had been one year ago.
He was being a little unfair though, he acknowledged mentally as he struggled to open the stable door just enough to slip through and out of the wind-driven ice crystals that stabbed him in the face like millions of biting knives. It had only taken one year to get at least a little trust with the lower ranks. It was amazing what things like letting comrades give the mercy stroke before paying the battle tithe could do for morale.
But right now, the stable was cold and he had been looking forward to a dinner and drink in a nice, warm inn in Hardorn. And, if they stayed late enough to justify an overnight trip, maybe even a spot of hearth-space to claim before heading back to their base on the other side of the border.
Cross-border raid patrols were a common thing, the towns here were used to it, but they also had very strict rules, necessary when they had two mortal enemy groups appearing in the same bar at times. Basically, leave your arguments at the door or don't come back.
So they'd come up with a system. He'd wait outside and the Sunsguard patrol would enter, make sure there weren't any likely to start a fight (Valdemarans) and then signal it was safe to come in. There had only been two times in this year's patrols where he'd been consigned to the stables for the stop, and he hadn't begrudged them the situation. They would send out food and drink for him, and they'd even pay for it since he was making the sacrifice for them. After the first time, he had learned to keep his own flask and some knot-work in his saddlebags for just these stops.
But both those times had been on pleasantly crisp evenings. Not bitterly cold ones.
Stomping the snow off his boots, he shook his cloak, expertly freeing it from a coat of the heavy white stuff, and sighed.
"I suppose you're not the wait staff?" a voice called in passable Hardornen from the far end of the stables, where there seemed to be a hearth he could only just make out in the dim light.
Squinting as he made his way over to his fellow stable-lurker, he replied in the same, glad he had put the extra effort into gaining reasonable fluency, "Afraid not. I'll be waiting for them too. May I join you?"
"Feel free. My party said my presence might start a fight. We must have just missed each other, I didn't notice any horses coming in. Was out looking for wood for the fire so I wouldn't completely freeze to death," the man said regretfully, waving at the soggy hearth glumly. "Don't suppose you have firestarters?"
Hanging his cloak on a hook next to the strangers, he rubbed his hands together briskly as he sat next to the stranger, a smirk on his face. "Bah, who needs firestarters when you are a Firestarter?"
A horse whinnied in alarm when the flames burst into life at his muttered, "Kya!"
The rasp of steel on leather sent him diving away from the stranger, coming up with a ball of mage-light in his hand and a small boot-knife in the other, eyes wide as he stared at the Herald he had been sitting next to a few short moments ago. The other man, white uniform now obvious in the flickering firelight, had a long-knife drawn and ready, but both were braced to defend only.
Mentally snarling insults at the squad-commander's ancestry, Kir said cautiously, "It is too cold to fight, I think."
Nodding slowly, the Herald said equally slowly, "Truce then? For the night?"
"For the next day as well," Kir offered selfishly, "Just in case."
"… Aye. Aye. I accept your terms, Sunpriest."
"Kir Dinesh, chaplain with the guard," he introduced himself, slowly bending down to re-sheath his boot-knife. "I am going to drop my light," he warned, before banishing the light spell. He was a weak enough mage that he couldn't afford to waste energy. Firestarting was about the only thing he could do without much worry for energy conservation and that was more study of the details than any inherent power.
"Anur Bellamy, Herald with the southern guard," the man said, slowly sheathing his own blade. They stared at one another for a few long moments before Kir mumbled more curses directed at his squad-commander and dropped down onto a low bench before the hearth, grabbing a piece of sopping wood from the stack the Herald had made and carefully drying it with a more detailed piece of work. He really, really wished he hadn't made that firestarter joke now.
Bellamy sat down next to him, slowly returning his focus to the fire. They sat in tense silence for a time, before Kir swore vehemently and aloud in Karsite.
"Bet you coin, I would, reason not allowed in are we," he got out in broken Valdemaran.
The man's brow furrowed before he replied in Hardornen, "It's a common thing – that Valdemaran guard don't raise trouble if there is no Sunpriest, and the Sunsguard raise no trouble if there is no Herald."
"Oh, I know, but if we can come to an agreement, why not can they?" Kir replied with a wave of his now only slightly damp branch, returning to Hardornen with relief. He thought he might as well make the diplomatic effort. "Then warm at least, we'd be."
Anur snorted at that, clearly surprised that he could find something a Sunpriest said amusing, much less find himself agreeing with one.
"Yours sending you food?" Kir prompted. He was a talker, he hated extended silences except in reflective services and even then he got fidgety. When someone else was around and there was no conversation was the worst. Hopefully, this Anur would not make him carry the burden of conversation the entire night.
Hopefully, they wouldn't both be here the entire night.
"Dinner and mulled cider," the longing in the other man's tone was palpable. "Yours?"
"Dinner, maybe cider," Kir replied glumly, before perking up slightly, "Have knot-work, drink in my pack. Will fetch. Here, set it on fire."
He thrust the dry wood at the Herald and went for his horse, who he could just make out in the faint light of the fire. He missed the stunned look on Anur's face as he examined the newly dry wood in his hands and the curious glance he got from the blue-eyed creature he was steadfastly ignoring, at least until he had drink in hand.
Pulling flask and knot-work out of his pack, he checked his gelding for water and food, the horse only snorting idly at him as he passed. He chuckled and patted the tired creature, about to exit the stall when the door to the stables started opening. He paled and ducked down below the stall door, latching it shut. He didn't want to risk Valdemaran guards seeing him – with the Sunsguard he could at least shout orders and have a chance at keeping the truce, but if he was right next to the Valdemarans they might strike first and listen to the Herald later.
If the Herald even objected, he thought sourly, before shaking it off. He'd take the Herald at his word for now. Demons could bargain too.
To his relief, it was just a Hardornen serving boy greeting the Herald calmly in choppy Valdemaran. The Herald returned the greeting in his own tongue and accepted the meal. There were apparently two servings, but the boy was uncurious and eager to get back to the much warmer inn, and scampered away, shutting the heavy doors behind him.
Exiting the stall, Kir walked back over to the Herald, who was watching the fire curiously. In front of him, there was a basket with steam rising from it and two large rough clay mugs, also steaming. Setting the folded fabric that held his knot-work down, Kir dragged a crate over and set the basket near it, pulling the two benches they had been sitting on apart so they had a makeshift table in front of the fire.
Anur dragged his own bench around to face Kir and any attempt at conversation was left until after the warm food was a fond memory. It was a hearty shepherd's pie, still hot but not scalding thanks to the walk from the inn, rich and filled with winter vegetables. The mulled cider that was in both mugs was equally welcome, rich spices warming them completely and alcohol mellowing the tension between two ancient enemies.
"So, why in this town?" Kir asked, after the shepherd's pie was long gone and he had liberally splashed his personal stash into his remaining cider.
"Just wanted to get out on the town," Anur sighed, "Hard to drink with friends in Valdemar as a Herald, people ask you for help all the time."
"Ah, similar in Karse," Kir commiserated, before pausing, "Hard to find friends to drink with too. Worried I condemn for heresy said when in cups, so usually drink alone and seldom. Hardorn nice chance to pretend soldiers drinking with me, because feel safer from my wrath so less stiff."
He cursed his stilted Hardornen, and made a mental resolution to improve it significantly. He felt somewhat inadequate talking to a fluent foreign speaker, though he was at least getting the point across. He'd talk to the men back in the unit – it wasn't exactly frowned upon for Sunpriests to study heretic languages, but not smiled upon either. He'd have to be careful.
"Not as bad, but it took a few months for the guards to realize I wasn't going to preach at them about morals and living rightly," Anur offered, eyeing the flask curiously. "What is that, by the way?"
"Root-bread liquor," he frowned as he said it, knowing it wasn't accurate, before pointing at the empty bowls and saying, "Meat, carrot, squash and root-bread."
"Potato?" Anur supplied hesitantly, and then repeated the word with slightly different pronunciation, probably the Valdemaran word for it. Kir nodded with a smile, mentally filing the word away. "Potato liquor? What – can I try some?"
"Very strong, is," Kir warned, passing over the flask. "Used to be firestarter, before me," he told the old Sunsguard joke, before sighing. The Herald wouldn't get it. And it didn't make much sense outside of the guard anyway.
Bellamy took a hesitant sip, choking it down and gasping, "Wow! That is strong! You drink that straight?"
"Yes," Kir nodded, before hesitating as he took the flask back. "In cider, want?"
"Oh sure!" Anur smiled slightly, Kir putting a generous splash into the other man's mug and then tossing a small amount on the fire before capping the flask and pocketing it again. The flames flared where the alcohol touched, burning brighter momentarily before settling back down again, the increased crackle almost drowning out his murmured prayer to Vkandis. He had skipped the fore-meal prayer as a courtesy to his companion, but he didn't feel right sharing drink without at least offering some to his God.
The smile dropped from the Herald's face and he busied himself with his drink, Kir adding some more wood to the fire, urging it to catch even with the dampness he hadn't bothered draining away. He settled back with his mug and the silence remained slightly awkward for a bit before Anur broke it, asking, "And you? What brings you to these parts?"
"Raid patrol, group preying on both, we part of information swap," Kir struggled to explain in Hardornen, he was too used to Karsite military terms and that was a little technical for his knowledge of the language. "Returning now, thought to get meal, thaw before continue. May stay night," he finished glumly, staring at their little fire. "Cold. Hate winter. God-forsaken season of darkness and snow."
"I rather like snow," the Herald replied mildly. Kir gave him a disgusted look, "Would," he snorted, waving at the uniform vaguely, "Only time blend in you."
That startled an actual laugh out of the Herald, both of them exchanging smiles at that, mutually thinking maybe this night wouldn't be absolutely horrid after all. Both also thanked their luck, for getting a member of the opposite group who was somewhat tolerant.
"Snow not wretched," Kir admitted, "But much nicer when warm and looking out window."
"Now that, I agree with," Anur said fervently, frowning at his rapidly emptying mug, before holding it towards Kir with pleading eyes. The Sunpriest snorted and drained his mug and raised an eyebrow in challenge. The Herald narrowed his eyes and did the same, coughing slightly at the rather large proportion of potato liquor that went down with it, but still meeting his challenge.
"Shared drink we have," Kir said, passing the flask over after a brief swig. "Stories, now, yes?"
"Mine have Gifts, a lot of them," Anur said, newly wary but not refusing the flask and passing it back for Kir to pocket.
"Mine have burning and bad jokes," Kir shrugged pragmatically, "Drunk we are, yes? Matter not. Though flask almost empty."
"Hmm. One moment," Anur stood and walked down the stables to the stalls with the Valdemaran guard's horses, which left Kir staring at the stall directly across from him - the one with the giant white creature that was staring back over the stall's door. He had been able to avoid the beast by focusing on Anur or the food, but now he didn't have his convenient distraction to block it.
Grey eyes darted away from glowing blue as he jerked his knot-work sun medallion up onto the table then found his marker string, nimble fingers starting to work at the design. He mentally recited the short prayers his grandmother had taught him for knot-work, turning each medallion into a blessed piece in the old traditions.
"That's impressive," Anur said, reappearing with two flasks in hand and taking his seat again, blocking those unnatural blue eyes from sight. "Is that just string and knots?"
He nodded shortly, saying, "Grandfather was sailor, whole family ships. Learned from them."
"Well, turns out my group had some flasks too," Bellamy said after a few moments silence, "No idea what they all are, but figure since they're not out here in the cold might as well contribute to those of us that are, right?"
Kir smiled hesitantly, looking up from his knot-work at last. "No objections from me," he said, Anur laughing and passing him a flask.
A few marks later, they had finished off his own flask and were well on their way to wiping out a second, Kir barely managing to speak past his laughter, "and then – of course – we …"
"Set it on fire!" they chorused, collapsing into laughter. Both of them would deny vigorously any claims that it sounded a lot more like they were giggling.
"Right, my turn," Anur, who had already been treated to a long, hand-waving diatribe about why his name was clearly Karsite, managed to pull himself upright long enough to take another swig from a liberated flask, "Oooh, I have a good one. So, on my first solo circuit I was assigned the Holderkin route –"
"Ach, you poor bastard!" Kir interrupted, Anur shoving him good-naturedly for the interruption before continuing his tale with a grin. Between gestures and snickers, he managed to tell a possibly exaggerated tale of sheep-robberies, incestuous affairs (also possibly involving sheep) and dramatic night chases after evil goats through pothole filled fields, all resolved of course, in the face of a Herald's virtuous pursuit of justice.
By the end of it, they were both sitting on the floor in front of the fire, Kir at least never forgetting to restock it, leaning against each other and trying to tell stories over one another, no clear storyline intelligible but by the snickers and giggles, they were at least enjoying themselves.
Anur shivered slightly then grumbled, glaring over at his cloak hanging by the hearth with Kir's, and held out a shaking hand.
"What?" Kir scoffed, "You think it will just fly…"
His jaw dropped as both cloaks flew to Anur's outstretched hand, the Herald's smug expression fading as his logic finally caught up with his thoughts, and he managed to stammer, "Ah – um – you see it – "
Anything he would have said was interrupted when the cloaks, trailing out of his hands onto the floor, caught on fire. "Ah!" they both shouted, Anur scrambling to pat them down but Kir pulling him back, gesturing wildly and the flames going out as he said, "Asch!"
They pulled their respective cloaks away from the fire, staring at the flames blankly, before Kir started snickering. "What?" Anur demanded, "What's funny?"
"You!" he howled, dissolving into full laughter, sagging against the Herald's shoulder. "You worried I set you alight for witchy-powers, but witchy-powers set you alight! You need no firestarter, you firestart yourself!"
Anur blinked for a moment, before a snicker broke his own control and he started laughing too, the pair wrapping up in their warmed cloaks and settling in for the rest of the frigid night.
Kir opened one eye carefully, surprised to find he wasn't completely frozen after a night spent on a stable floor. The snoring next to him told him Anur was still asleep. He didn't have too wretched a headache, but he could tell that if he didn't get some liquids, in particular his special tea blend, he'd be hurting in a few marks. Slowly getting to his feet, he went to his horse again and dug the tea packets out. Stumbling back over to the embers of the fire, he added some wood carefully and prodded it into flames again. He grabbed a kettle on the mantle, well used by the scorch marks on the outside, and then went outside to find the privy and get some snow to melt.
Some minutes later, kettle now packed with enough snow to make two cups of tea by his reckoning, he shut the stable door behind him and set the kettle over the flame. Outside his headache had started growing, the sun just peeking over the horizon and blaring off the snow covering everything.
Rubbing his face tiredly, he stretched carefully. He was still young enough that sleeping on the ground was no great hardship even after drinking a lot, for which he was grateful, but he was stiff nonetheless.
He looked at the sleeping Herald curiously. Anur was completely twisted around in his cloak, neck at a bizarre angle too. Kir carefully reached down and straightened the Herald out, hesitating before adding his own cloak on top of the other man. He felt odd about it, but they had shared drink and tales, and if they hadn't been Demon Rider and Sunpriest, he had a feeling they'd actually have been good friends.
Another friend lost to the priesthood curse, he thought wryly, tightening his scarf around his neck before he went to the middle of the stable, facing east as he treated the denizens to a field Sun-Rising prayer. He tried to keep his voice down out of respect for Anur, but when he finished the closing chants twenty minutes later, he turned to find the Herald sitting up and watching him curiously, wariness only a faint shadow in his eyes now.
"Good morning," the Herald said, offering him his cloak back as Kir sat down on the bench again. "How's your head?"
"Getting worse, but not death," Kir replied wryly. "Yours?"
"Bout the same," Anur grimaced. "Privy far?"
"Not horrid, broke a path," he replied, "Kitchen's warming up, so breakfast might be sent out soon."
"Excellent. I'll pester on my way back," Anur promised, slowly getting to his feet and walking out of the stables. Kir immediately felt his tension increase; hairs on the back of his neck rising as he again felt that otherworldly regard. He focused on the flames, which increased in strength at his attention, water soon boiling. Wrapping his hand in a scorched mitt, he pulled the kettle off the flames and poured hot water into the mugs, dropping a tea sachet in each and putting the water back over the flames.
To distract himself, he counted the progress he'd made last night. After the third or fourth story he'd stopped with his knot-work, but he'd actually made it almost to the end. A few more concentrated minutes and it'd be time to trim the excess. He'd need to get some more cord when he got back to the unit.
Humming hymnals to himself, he set to work, hoping Anur got back before he ran out of things to do. He really, really wanted to keep their truce.
"I've brought sausage rolls!" Anur called cheerfully, Kir jumping and nearly dropping his knot-work. Anur frowned as he walked over, "Are you all right? You look a little pale – "
He caught the direction Kir was carefully avoiding looking and, having no such compunctions, glared at the white creature. Kir said loudly, "Tea's ready," in an effort to distract himself from what was undoubtedly a witch-power driven conversation. The truce, he reminded himself, and you hate the screams, he pointed out, trying to keep at bay the worry he'd forgotten in the chill of the night and warmth of the drink.
"Right. Brought two sausage rolls each, and a few apples," Anur said hastily, sitting down across from him again and shoving the rolls and fruit over at him. "Tea good to drink?"
"Bitter, but it works. Toss the sachet on the fire when it's strong enough for you," Kir replied, regaining equilibrium now that he had someone else to talk to and distract him. He took a sip and grimaced, he'd left his to steep a bit too long, and tossed the sachet onto the fire before taking another stiff swig.
Anur echoed his actions, both of them eating silently. Kir absently pulled his boot-knife out to peel his apple in one whole piece, eating it before he moved onto the actual apple. He and his cousins used to have contests to see who could get theirs off in the fewest pieces. Their knives had been dull things back then, making it more of a challenge, but it was still a fond memory.
One apple was enough, and he left the other one Anur had shoved at him on the crate, returning to his knot-work. A few nimble twists later and it was finished, knife pulled out again to trim the strings, a matter of moments to tuck in the loose ends so it was a polished piece.
"That really is amazing," Anur commented, drinking some more tea and watching him examine the finished product critically. "Do you just make suns?"
"No, they're the decorative pieces, easy to pack," he shrugged, "Depends on what cord and string I have too. I've made reins, jesses – bracelets and page-markers. The suns are easy to justify as prayer meditation though. And my grandmother taught me these."
"Huh," Anur said thoughtfully, "I can't do anything like that. I can barely stitch a straight line. My family are beekeepers."
Kir looked down at the relatively complex design. He'd intended to leave it at one of the small chapels they always ran across on patrols, there were probably some that didn't have one of his Sun-in-Glories yet, and the local priests always liked them as some nice ornamentation to their ceremonial robes. But… maybe it meant something, that he finished it here in the company of a demon rider who really wasn't that bad a person.
He tossed it over gently, the rings making it fly like a discus, lightly smacking Anur in the face. The Herald spluttered around his tea, catching the finished work before it fell. Kir smirked, nodding at the Sun in Glory, saying, "Keep it. Godless heathen."
Anur just snorted, looking at the palm-sized Sun-in-Glory in some awe as he fingered the delicate knot-work. Kir felt a smile growing across his face; it was a joy, showing someone what could be done with some string and some patience. Very few outside the priesthood would dare actually lower their guard around him; with the truce, he actually felt that Anur and he were on equal footing, making conversation and exchange easier.
Getting to his feet, he took his second apple and went to feed some to Riva. The gelding whickered happily, rattling his bucket and Kir chuckled, checking the water levels as he fed apple slices to his grey-spotted gelding. The horse was fine for water, but needed some hay to start him in the morning. Anur joined him in getting a serving of hay, the two of them feeding their four-legged beasts.
"Surprised the stable-boys aren't out and about yet," Anur commented, "It's been a mark since sunrise."
"The inn staff is probably very aware that two separate groups arranged for undesirables to stay in the stables," Kir replied, rust finally off his Hardornen and actually sounding somewhat fluent now. "They don't want to be caught in the crossfire."
Anur chuckled at the pun as they cleaned up their hearth area companionably. Kir had saddled up Riva – it was an established thing, that he would wait for them on the outskirts of town and they would meet between two and three marks past sunrise – when Anur stepped over and held out a sugar-cube to the greedy gelding who slurped it up immediately. Kir chuckled, "You have his undying loyalty, until I find a sugar-cube."
Anur snorted, eyeing the gelding expertly, "He's a fine horse."
"Scout trained, very sure-footed," Kir agreed, "Great endurance and not terrified witless of fire. Very good horse. His name is Riva."
"This is for you," Anur said abruptly, holding out a hank of soft white strands, tied together with twine and coiled so it stayed neat and untangled.
Blinking at it, Kir started to reach for it before he realized exactly what was being offered him and he recoiled, nearly stumbling back. Anur's eyes tightened but he didn't lower the offering, insisting, "It's horsehair, Sunpriest. Soft, clean, white horsehair. Just horsehair. From the tail if you must know. It's an apology, and a 'thanks'. The sun-pendant is beautiful, but I have nothing else to offer in exchange besides the best string I have, for your future works."
Kir hesitantly reached his hand out, Anur setting the hank of hair into it, and he carefully felt it, amazed at how soft it was. But there was nothing truly unnatural about it; it really was just clean horsehair. Unnaturally clean when you considered the conditions it was collected in, but it was just clean horsehair.
He hesitated a moment longer, before giving into temptation and guiltily folding it up in his project cloth, tucking it into the saddlebags.
"Thank you, Herald," he said formally, hesitating before plowing forward, "And thank your… um. Witch-horse. For me."
Anur honestly stared at that, before smiling, "I will. His name is Aelius."
Kir just nodded, really trying not to think about it any further. "It has been an enjoyable evening," he continued, "And I mean no offense when I say I hope we never see one another again."
Anur chuckled, nodding, "Sentiment returned, Sunpriest."
Anur stepped aside and went for the stable door, Kir following with Riva. He was walking out into the snow when Anur staggered and fell to his knees, clutching his head while there was a whinny of alarm from inside the stables. Kir visibly hesitated, torn between helping, as he had always felt was his duty as a priest, and the knowledge this was a Demon Rider, called Herald, who he had already felt a near-friend. Sunhame would burn him, if this ever came out.
Anur groaned, struggling to his feet and Kir swore in sailor's Karsite, pulling the Herald to his feet and dragging him into the stables, witch-horse calming, thankfully. "Herald?" he asked shortly, "What is it?"
Shocked brown eyes blinked up at him, and Anur said feebly, "Hardorn – Hardorn has declared war on Valdemar."
Kir stared incredulously, thinking he must have misunderstood, "What?" he demanded, "You are long standing allies!"
"I know! But – but Ancar… the prince, he… he assassinated his father and killed our ambassadors and – and an army's marching!" Anur gasped, climbing to his feet. "We have to get – I have – leave! We have to leave!"
"Are you certain? Ancar assassinated Alessandar?" Kir demanded, Anur only nodding weakly, rubbing at his head.
"Right," Kir said weakly, reaching into his pocket and pulling out another sachet of headache tea. "Here. Make some more tea. Leave now, I will, so you can wake yours and leave. I – Hardorn and Valdemar at war," he murmured, "Vkandis be merciful. The world turns on its head, yet the sun stays true. Let it be so."
"Well, seems we won't have to worry about crossing paths again," Anur said shakily, accepting the tea sachet.
Kir nodded shortly, the two of them staring at each other. It had been an odd night. A glimpse across the centuries of hatred, to find that the enemy was someone they actually got along with and understood. And now, centuries of precedent turned on its head and the enemy-friend they had just met was now going to vanish, as if the meeting had never happened.
"Vkandis watch over you," Kir said quietly, "Herald."
"Your god watch over you, Sunpriest," Anur echoed formally, the two of them clasping hands briefly before Kir finally turned away, stepping out of the stables into the freezing sunlight, mounting his horse and riding out.
The Herald shut the stable doors behind the departing Sunpriest. He had a war to prepare for.
A/N: Updated 12/2015 after copy-editing with CatsAreCool! Thank them for the smoother and more consistent read :) Hopefully the rest of the story will be worked through too.