Kir looked over the burning fields grimly. A year and a half since war had been declared between Ancar and Valdemar, and Hardorn had just started throwing official bodies against Karse. And in the height of summer, it was a foolish commander indeed who marched reinforcements across the highlands at a brisk pace.
That meant his little unit of bandit patrols, barely fifty men counting commanders and himself, was responsible for an entire corner of disputed territory. The majority of the civilians had already evacuated, the ones who hadn't – well they seldom lasted past another raid, either dead or finally leaving.
"Cursed soft-bellied doe-eyed wretch!" he heard the sergeant curse, no longer bothering with keeping his voice down around the priest. It had taken a moon of field practice and raids with his flames taking active part in the battle for the men to actually stop flinching when he made a sharp gesture. When he occasionally messed up (and occasionally 'messed up') he could turn the air blue with shipboard curses and frequently did, leaving him not much of a leg to stand on.
"That's His High Holiness doe-eyed wretch to the likes of you," he called over, snickers running through the cremation crew that was standing with him. The men rotated in fours through what was fondly called the pick-and-burn detail under his direction.
The officers of Ancar were burned alive or dead. The grunts were granted mercy and then given to the flames. In all cases they were stripped of valuables and orders, what animals they could save added to their train and eventually sent off with their loot to merchants and the refugees who had fled.
"What did he do this time?" Kir asked tiredly of the sergeant, the grizzled man at least ten years his senior and one of the first to willingly approach him and ask for details about his skill with fire. He had also been the first to formally request he join them for drills so his flames could be incorporated into their regular battle tactics.
The grin Kir had given him after that request had gone down in the annals of unit legend as the thing that finally got rid of the last black in the long-suffering sergeant's hair.
"Reinforcements are being sent, a full company with a supply train following… ten leagues downriver," he snarled. "I know the regiment too, if they knew what sort of straits we were in they'd gladly split supplies with us, Colbern is an old friend. But no, we are clearly more than adequately supplied with the money we keep sending back to the refugees instead of to Sunhame's coffers, so we won't be getting any support until the scheduled supply train at summer's end!"
"How long can we last?" Kir asked lowly, dismissing the squad too carry their loot to the sorting station with a look. They didn't need to hear this. Everyone knew they were in a tough situation, they didn't need to hear the details.
"A month at three-quarter rations, no more fights. We're nearly out of wound-treatment poultices, but we should be able to ride towards Rethwallen and find some midwives to bargain with if we set aside some of the silks and gems, maybe some mules," Greich said, "Commander's already authorized it. But there isn't much food that way, the lush lands are further in and only accessible by supply train for us."
"Not due for six weeks at least, probably two months," Kir reiterated. They both knew the due date of the train and the likely arrival date by heart; they bled and sweat by the supply train schedule.
"When is this Colbern's train due in?" he asked.
"They're due at the border in a week and a half at forced march, supply train follows by a week," Greich hesitated, unusual for him, before he continued, "Colbern will understand, but they have the Oriflamme so – "
"Sunhame priests," Kir spat on the ground in disdain, "Right. We'll be lucky to get anything after their preaching."
Greich didn't say anything. No matter how much he might agree and didn't curb his tongue much around Kir anymore, there were still the bounds of heresy and he wouldn't cross them too blatantly in front of him. Habits of a lifetime, tough to break.
And the only solution he could see broke the habits of generations. Sunlord, was there no other way?
Looking over the killing field, wind blowing choking black smoke towards the dying land of Hardorn, he sighed. He knew the answer: the Sunlord gave no direct answer, merely speaking to the heart. And his heart was pulling northwest, to a land he'd been within spitting distance of and hoped he'd never get closer to.
"Split the train. We send nothing to the south this round," Kir said quietly. "Take what you need to go towards Rethwallen for medical supplies and what food you can. Send another group to this Colbern when he arrives, so they at least know of our situation and can see about splitting the train."
"And where are you heading, Father Kir?" Greich asked with a raised eyebrow. He followed Kir's gaze north and he paled, "Not – you're going to Valdemar?"
"They have food," Kir said bluntly, "They have trains coming south constantly to feed their armies. They hate Ancar. We need this Greich, there will be more raids, especially if this new batch of the army meets resistance and wins, sending the detritus running straight at us. Eight weeks, Sergeant. Eight weeks, supplies out in four. We have no other choice."
"Yes they hate Ancar, who doesn't hate ruddy King Ancar, but they hate us to! Sunpriest, this is madness. You'd be sent to the flames for this!" the Sergeant hissed, eyes wild as he stared at him.
Kir snarled, demanding "And who exactly do you propose will set me on fire, Sergeant?"
He drew back, shaking his head incredulously, "You're insane. You have – you've lost your mind, Father."
"Get the train ready. I'll take a pair of scouts, leave them south of the border and cross on my own. If I'm not back in two days, they come back with the train and you go for Colbern, cutting everyone's rations to last just in case. You lose nothing, and cannot be accused of heresy, that will fall on my head alone. Say I was possessed by evil or something and you barely managed to drive me off with your virtuous faith."
"No, we just lose our best firestarter!" Greich snarled. "Father, you are an important part of this unit, you cannot just throw your life away on a fragile hope that you won't get shot full of arrows the moment you cross!"
Kir hesitated, before realizing if this succeeded his secret would be out anyway, so he might as well reveal the card to get the sergeant to back him. "You remember the Sunbeam Brook summons? I am well aware of what you think actually happened."
Official tales spoken to outsiders was one thing. In-unit rumors were far different, even if they were closer to the truth (Kir refused to comment on the very common rumor he'd burned a black-robe and laughed, it sounded far too tempting).
Greich nodded, reluctantly showing his interest in what had actually happened. Kir had never said anything beyond his one sentence to the Captain, everything had been drawn from that and the Captain's logical cover-story.
"A Herald was one of them," he said simply. By the pallor that came over the Sergeant's features, that was all he needed, as when he seemed to recover from the shock he was clearly reluctant to agree with his idea, but by his nod, he'd support it, no matter how reluctantly.
It was worth confirming though. "Does that answer your objections?" Kir asked calmly, crossing his arms, uncomfortable in the heat, even wearing standard scout gear with only a few ornaments to signify his status as a Sunpriest instead of the heavy formal robes of tradition.
"The Captain is not going to like it," Greich pointed out weakly, before sighing. "Very well. Let's go and convince him, you suicidal fool."
Sergeant Greich stormed off, trusting Kir would follow to the Captain. Kir would, but he took a moment to look north, fingering the intricate Sun-in-Glory he wore under his breastplate, silky white horse-hair still as clean and soft as it was when he first held it. "You'd better be alive, Herald," he muttered, "Or this whole thing is doomed."
The argument was long and fierce, but not loud. It was actually the dinner brought to them by a nervous assistant cook that finally resolved it. The cook presented the simple trail ration meal and stammered apologies that they were long out of any form of beer or wine that was usually offered.
Captain Ulrich raised a hand to stop the stammering, running a hand down his face. He and Kir were actually the same age, but Ulrich looked older, starting to grey at the temples. He'd had jet-black hair and only the barest beginnings of crow's feet when the Ancar conflict started. It had aged them all. Kir had escaped it physically, but he felt the weight of the years deeply on his soul, gulf between the men and himself both widening and narrowing as they grew less formal with him because of his status as priest and grew more respectful of him due to his abilities on the battlefield.
He had a knot-work page marker in his packs he'd been working on for seven months now that would have once taken him a week or two at most.
"Very well," the Captain finally said, but added, "You take four men. We cannot risk those goods. You go across the border alone, as planned, and have four days to find this contact of yours and get a message back. Two days is relying too much on luck. You visit the quartermasters and get lists of the supplies we need, checking with the cooks and medics to make sure it is accurate. Prioritize food. You leave day after tomorrow."
"Thank you, Captain," Kir said, inclining his head.
"Do not thank me," he said tiredly, dismissing the cook, "If you fail, I have condemned you to death. If you succeed, I have condemned us all to heresy."
"Not heresy, I believe," Kir said quietly, "Merely treason."
Ulrich looked up at him with exhausted eyes, smiling as he caught the distinction easily. "Speaking as a Sunpriest now?"
"Rare, I know," Kir smiled, "Now the Blessing."
The three men bowed their heads and Kir lead the Blessing, all three of them unknowingly giving the same private, fervent prayer.
Please, Vkandis Sunlord, let this work.
Two days later, Kir said the Sun Rising and then mounted up, having two mules already loaded down with goods trailing him. Three of his four companions were similarly burdened, the last being the lookout. Despite their vague attempts at secrecy, by the morning after Ulrich's agreement, the rumors had been all over camp (mostly accurate, surprisingly) and Kir had been approached by four men individually asking to join his group.
One had family in Sunbeam Brook. The second was Devek of second squad, who had given mercy to his friend the day he first set Hardornens on fire. The third and fourth were a pair of twins, northern sheepherder's sons, and very good scouts. There were very hushed rumors of their family producing an uncommon amount of 'vanished' children.
It had been truly surprising to him, how much more welcoming the unit had become when rumors of his disagreements with Sunhame policy had become more widespread and steeped into their lore. Surprising and almost discouraging, that so many Karsites genuinely feared the loyal Sunpriests who were supposed to protect and guide them as beloved shepherds.
It was two days' hard ride from the border, Kir planned to stop the train a half-day out where he knew there was a spring, and proceed alone from there. He had reviewed it with 'his' squad and they had agreed that it was as good a spot as any.
The next day they arrived at the spring in late afternoon, and set up their camp. Kir checked his own packs and loaded five days of trail rations and extra water. He also took some of the more militarily valuable letters they had decided to send along after making copies, along with some of the gems and money. He had a tally of the total offerings as well as the wish-list. All that remained was finding people who would listen to him without shooting.
He had managed to find some white fabric from deep in the stores, fashioning a truce flag of sorts. The white fabric had been a true challenge to find.
That night, the squad listened to him explain his plan of action as they ate.
"I'll be heading straight across. When I find a road, I'll head towards Hardorn, they must have patrols along the roads. When I get to one, I'll ask for a Herald, under flag of truce," he grimaced at their twitches when he said Herald. "You have to know – if I come back, the Herald will probably be coming with to at least see the train, if not accompany the entirety of our supply run back to the squad."
"We will not shoot the Demon-Rider," the archer twin, Galen, assured him, the others nodding grimly, "Food is more important."
"Yes – ah, I would recommend calling them Herald. And Witch-horse, if you must acknowledge them," Kiv suggested.
"Father, you said – well, it sounds… ah, it sounds like you will be asking for a particular De- ah, Herald," Devek, the highest ranking soldier in this little makeshift squad, pointed out delicately, and hopefully. He clearly hoped for some confirmation to the rumors.
Kiv smiled wryly. He was counting on that for this whole plan to work. Without meeting Herald Anur, he'd have never considered making a desperate run north to feed his people.
"You remember the runs into Hardorn where we would stay in inns for some drinks?" he asked instead, and Devek and Malak, of Sunbeam Brook, nodded. The twins were too new for that, only joining after Hardorn was a no-zone.
"Custom had it that if Valdamaran guards were in and there was no Herald or Priest, there would be no problems," he explained to the twins, who nodded in understanding. "So when priests were sent out, as I often was, we had a system worked out. The squad would go inside and see if there were any Valdemarans, and if there were, I would stay in the stables and they would send me food and drink from the kitchens. The inns were quite happy with the arrangement, as they got just as much business and didn't have things set on fire any more than usual."
"Unfortunately, the winter before the war started, on a damned cold night, there was such an inn," Kiv smiled wryly, "And the Valdemaran's apparently had a similar set-up with their Heralds, so when I arrived at the stables to try and get a fire going so I didn't freeze, I found someone already there. The poor lighting and soaking wood meant there was no fire so I couldn't recognize him immediately, and until I lit the fire as I do," he indicated the crackling flames in front of them, "We didn't realize just who we were sitting next to."
All four of them were snickering at this point. Meeting between enemies it might be, but it was still a rather ridiculous story. In fact, it was probably all the more ridiculous for it.
"We decided it was too cold to fight, so we made a truce for the night and following day, and sat and ate the food sent out to us. We swapped drinks, each of us having our own stash, and then stories. As I'm sure you know, enemies can become allies rather quickly with warm food, good drink, and amusing stories, ancient prejudice or no."
Shrugging, he passed over the exchange of gifts, witch-horse hair pendant hanging heavy over his heart, and wrapped it up, "We parted amiably. He was permanently stationed with the southern guard from what I understood, so I hope he is still alive, and still stationed here so I might find the same Herald again. If not, I hope he reported a mutually tolerated encounter so I don't immediately get hit full of arrows when I find one."
He knew that, while insightful and amusing, it wasn't what they had wanted answered, so he indulged them in an oblique way. "There were rumors of a Herald being one of the witches I was supposed to burn in Sunbeam Brook this past autumn. Since I never actually captured the witches, I cannot comment on the rumors."
All of them clearly understood what he was really saying and their eyes widened. The twins exchanged gleeful looks, and he almost rolled his eyes. Whoever got to add this to the rumor pot would be drinking for free for a while. It'd be a race then.
"It's lucky it was you who was at the inn Father," Devek said wryly, "I have known far too many priests who would have set alight the whole town for one Demon-Rider."
"Oh as have I," Kir returned the smile, a sad tint to it as he continued, "But I always hated the screams."
Malak opened his mouth, hesitated, then continued after some encouraging looks from his comrades, asking, "Always, sir?"
"Truly skilled Firestarters can set a flame strong and hot enough to burn without giving victims time to scream," Kir informed them calmly. Let them think he had been planning his heretical existence from the time he was an acolyte. If it got them to trust him more, he might as well. The entire unit was going to burn for heresy if they were ever caught at this point. They were just lucky that those who were sent to them as reinforcements were sympathetic.
And those that weren't, well. They were in battle depressingly often.
That seemed to resolve everything they needed to discuss, and he banked the flames before retiring, Devek taking the first watch. He had not been assigned a watch, the others insisting he be fully rested for his next day's mission.
He woke early anyway, conducting a brief Sun-Rising service before riding out, Riva confidently heading into the no-man's land between the two long-standing enemy nations. The gelding had made it through all their fights, helped by Kir setting fire to most of his targets from a distance and some more thorough cavalry training.
He fingered the prayer beads knotted into the cord holding his witch-horse Sun-in-Glory as he rode north, reciting prayers mentally as he scanned the horizon for observers. There were probably few, and if there were any they were undoubtedly focused on the enemy in Hardorn more than Karse, after a year of nothing from their southern neighbors.
He estimated he'd been in Valdemar about a mark when he finally hit a road, running towards Hardorn. Dismounting, he gave Riva some water and drank some himself, gnawing on smoked meat before he mounted up again and headed northeast, white fabric draped across Riva's neck now.
It was the most nerve-wracking mark and a half of his life, going down that road waiting to hit someone, preferably who spoke Hardornen or Karsite, or at least would be patient with his deplorable Valdemaran. Any learning of that heretic tongue had fallen far by the wayside as he worked to improve his Hardornen in response to the war.
He spotted the armed group first. They were focused on their meal and the scouts were focused on the area towards Hardorn. He waved in response to their finally seeing him, not within earshot just yet. He had tucked his Sun in Glory under his breast-plate, but even without the turban of a Karsite officer, his coloring and the cut of his clothes would give away his country of origin soon enough.
He could tell when he'd gotten close enough, as there was a shout of alarm and a scramble for weapons. He stopped Riva and raised his hands palm up to the sky, scanning the group to find the commander of the patrol. "Truce!" he called, glad he'd learned that supposedly useless word in Valdemaran, a woman making her way to the front of the group. He kept his surprise back easily. His mother, grandmother and sister had been captains of their own ships, so women in authority positions, even somewhat militant ones, were not completely unheard of to him. But it was surprising that the first batch he ran into was led by a woman.
"Karsite," she said in Valdemaran, stopping a few meters away from him. "What business have you with a truce?"
"Know you a Herald Anur?" he began cautiously in the same, sighing in relief and murmuring thanks when she nodded, clearly surprised at his knowing a Herald's name.
"News for him, I have. Stationed in south, still he is?" he managed, last sentence coming out somewhat mangled and he winced.
She nodded reluctantly, clearly debating if she dared bring this Karsite before someone as valuable to the country as even a single Herald.
"We will send a messenger to him," she said finally. "They will ride ahead, and you will ride with us as we escort you. We are heading to the guard station which Herald Anur is assigned now. Your name, Karsite?"
"Kir Dinesh," he replied promptly, figuring saying he was a Sunpriest was just going to ask to be skewered by one of those particularly sharp halberds pointed at him or a few crossbow bolts. "I put out the fire."
Having some obscure sounding message had been a gamble to make her think he was a long-term undercover operative working for Anur or something along those lines. Thankfully it paid off as she noticeably relaxed, nodding to a smaller man and he darted off to a horse, within moments pounding down the road.
"Are you in any rush?" she asked, "You may put your hands down. Have you eaten?"
"Yes. I must return within three days, if at all possible," he replied promptly, even a quick glance showing they had far better trail rations than he and his had. That was promising for the chances of a supply run.
"Good, we're only a few leagues out. You ride alongside me," she informed him, everyone already putting their weapons away and clearing the brief stop. In moments they were riding out after the messenger at a brisk trot.
They were within sight of the walls when Kir heard familiar laughter, a figure in white riding out to greet them, the Herald crowing, "Sunpriest!" the moment he was in earshot.
"Herald," he sighed heavily, pinching the bridge of his nose as the soldier's surrounding him tensed and went for their weapons, continuing in Karsite, "Still trying to get yourself set on fire, I see."
"Hmm?" Anur said, Witch-horse pivoting to pace next to Riva, responding in kind, "What? No, they wouldn't set me on fire, they don't have fire-arrows."
"You'd get in the way of the arrows, which I would set on fire," Kir replied dryly, and Anur paused, looking between the now relaxing soldiers and Kir for a moment before smiling sheepishly, "Point."
"So, how have you been? Quitting the priesthood? Set black-robes on fire? Managed to assassinate the Son of Sun?" Anur prompted, hands waving wildly as he came up with more outlandish ideas.
"No, though my unit is getting rather creative with regards to the last," Kir replied dryly. It was actually a popular drinking game at this point, coming up with 'clever' ways to get a new Son of Sun in office.
"No way, they're not scared witless of you anymore? Ha! Asher was right!" Anur beamed as they came into the actual station, the patrol escorting them dispersing.
"How is Asher?" he obliged, pulling his saddlebags over his shoulder after dismounting, witch-horse leading a happy Riva away to be tended to.
"Good, good. He's studying at the Temple of the Lord of Light in Haven, seems to want to be a priest himself," Anur shrugged, "Said he wanted to help bring the true faith back."
"Well he doesn't dream small," Kir mused, before shrugging, "Good to have goals I suppose. Is there somewhere we can talk?"
"Course. Let's hit my room, get you some food first though, you look exhausted."
"You weren't injured by those Nightstalkers, were you?" Anur asked as they raided the mess hall for sandwich materials.
"By the what?" Kir asked, staring at him askance.
"Oh what did you call them… Furies? The things that attacked right before we got to the border," Anur shrugged, "We call them Nightstalkers."
"Nightstalkers," Kir repeated the strange word carefully, before replying to the question, "Furies, and no, I was not. A few scratches, but nothing serious. Riva and I were both fine, though exhausted by the time we got into barracks that morning."
"So the universal answer works on them, good to know."
"Very few things survive getting set on fire," Kir replied dryly. "It's sort of the point."
They arrived in Anur's small room, the Herald opening the window's shutters to let light stream in and dragging the table and chair over so he could sit on his bed and Kir could sit across from him. Sighing tiredly, Kir dropped into the chair and let his saddlebags clunk onto the floor, sandwich and apple on the table with a mug of clear spring water.
Anur raised an eyebrow but the silence held as they ate, each of them sitting back with their water once the sandwiches were a memory. "So, what brings you?" Anur asked.
"I am with a unit of fifty men. We have been left to deal with the rogue bandits that are actually Ancar's army in the district we had before the war. Sending back money and supplies liberated from corpses means Sunhame thinks we don't need the help, particularly since we send it to refugees rather than to the Son of Sun's coffers, may he freeze eternally," Kir swore, Anur clearly jolting in surprise at his cursing of his country's religious leader, even after the assassination jokes.
"You're running low."
"Desperately. We have a month's worth of food with strict rationing and very few medical supplies. We have a line on medical supplies in Karse, but food – the next supply train will come, at the earliest, in six weeks. More likely two full months. There is a train coming to support a stronger unit a few day's march south of us, which will arrive in two weeks or so, but that would be intended to support them, so whatever we would be able to get would be their surplus," Kir laid everything out, looking up at Anur now so the man could see his sincerity and use his witchy powers to detect it if he had too.
"We have the loot from the latest raid," he said, reaching into his saddlebags and pulling out gems, coin and letters. Judging by the way Anur's eyes lit up when he saw the Hardornen text on those documents, the military intelligence had been a very good idea to send along. "I brought a sample. Eight mules worth is waiting a half-day from the border, mules included, they'll be there for three more days before they've been instructed to give me up for dead and try their luck with Karsite merchants."
"Why isn't that your first choice?" Anur asked, the question clearly hurting him as he tried not to snatch at the documents. Kir smiled and handed them over, the Herald taking them eagerly, giving him a rueful look at Kir's chuckle.
"Because we've had a bad year for harvests, and the majority of Karse's foodstuffs are grown to the south, where we have to go past Sunhame to get it. It's not worth the risk of getting the entire train snatched in tribute to the Sunlord and seeing maybe one week's worth of supplies out of it," Kir slumped tiredly. "What I have with me, mainly those letters, is yours no matter what in thanks for hearing me out. We have copies."
Anur opened the letters and read through them hungrily, Kir finishing his water and eyeing the rooms curiously. The ones he had at barracks were bigger, but with the mementos scattered around these rooms were more comfortable. He was surprised to find a Karsite-Valdemaran dictionary on one of the few bookshelves alongside a copy of the Writ. Both looked well-thumbed.
There were a few letters scattered on the small desk, most in the same hand, and he would bet, by the uneven script, they were from Asher. There was a small charcoal stove in the corner, though it stood cool and empty now as the summer was a hot one.
Anur interrupted his inspection by saying, "I can get a lot out of them for these letters. You're not leaving here empty handed if I have to buy you the goods myself. You have a list of what you need?"
Kir slumped in relief, handing over the list of what they needed and what they offered, written in precise Hardornen since he knew most of Valdemarans would at least know the basics of that tongue.
"I need to go confer," he said, eyeing Kir worriedly and saying, "Come on, you can steal my bed. Get some sleep, rest, something. You'll be getting lots of questions later."
"Thank you, Anur," he replied, switching places with him and sitting down tiredly as the Herald prepared to leave.
The Herald hesitated, before rubbing the back of his neck sheepishly and asking, "What are friends for? And, um… I'd recommend staying here until I come for you, privy I share with another Herald is through that door, but Griffon is out right now so it should be fine. But word's probably spread you're a Sunpriest and, well… yeah."
"I'll keep my prayers quiet," Kir shot back, startling a laugh out of him, who grinned, "It's good to see you made it safely. I'll do my best for your people Kir."
"Thank you, Anur," he said quietly, Herald smiling one last time before leaving.
He stretched out on the surprisingly comfortable bed and smiled. Even knowing Anur would probably welcome him, it was a pleasant surprise how easy it had been to make the request. What are friends for indeed.