They reached the camp the following afternoon, shouts going up the moment they were spotted and the Captain there to greet them by the time they arrived. Captain Ulrich and Sergeant Greich were both staring at the heavily laden mules and horses incredulously, easily able to tell that they were carrying back far more than they left with.
"It actually worked?" Captain Ulrich asked in surprise, Kir swinging down from Riva's back and pulling a bag off a mule's back, setting it down by the captain and carefully opening it, revealing the entire thing filled with beans. The bag alone would feed the unit for a day or two and there were plenty more like it.
"We have two to three months of basic supplies, supplemented with our own hunting," Kir informed him, "I have a full accounting, and all Valdemaran labels have been removed though some of the goods are somewhat un-Karsite based on differences in climate."
"Thank the Sunlord," Ulrich breathed, staring at the sack of provision in front of him. Sergeant Greich had a grin on his face, and he turned to the staring men of the unit and barked, "Well? What are you waiting for? Get this train integrated with our own supplies! You can gawk later!"
Quickly organizing themselves, the mules were unloaded and things stored with their normal supplies in record time. Kir was only aware of Riva being taken away after he grabbed his personal packs and the wicker cage holding the carrier pigeon, as Captain Ulrich quickly hustled him off to his tent, leaving the Sergeant to oversee supply dispersal.
"How did it go, truly?" the Captain asked anxiously, waving him into a camp chair and passing some water over before he took his own seat.
"Stressful," Kir said wryly, "But it went. I was asked to convey greetings and sympathies, and the hope for a more regular means of communication, so that if this might happen again we can arrange things without hitting the point of desperation."
"Hence the pigeon," Ulrich grimaced, looking at the bird. "We are going to return to barracks, set up the usual patrols, but with the Oriflamme down the border, the Sergeant and I determined it would be best to at least try and get aid from Sunhame. It is also courtesy, to see if they will be stationed here long. Depending on the results of that visit… then we will send the bird."
"Either way, a response will need to be sent, simply so they are aware their supplies made it here," Kir said, the Captain nodding, staring at clasped hands.
"Not heresy, Father? Are you certain?" the Captain asked tiredly.
Kir leaned forward, resting a hand on the Captain's and waiting for tired hazel eyes to meet his. "Yes," he said firmly. "I… I was not. Certain. When I said it before I left. But seeing their soldiers, speaking with their people – they are not witches, nor do they shelter them. King Ancar is using blood-magic against them and against his own people."
"Blood magic?" the Captain whispered, pale. Blood-mages were the witches of old, old horror stories. The ones that were no longer told to children, because Heralds made for less devastatingly powerful enemies. But they were there, in the Writ, if one knew where to look. And Captains in the Sunsguard were carefully instructed in at least the basics of those who they were expected to kill on sight, even if it had been six hundred years since the last hunt in Karse.
"Yes," Kir confirmed grimly. "I would pass it on to Sunhame, but it would raise questions of where I gained the knowledge."
"We cannot fight blood-magic, not without aid," Ulrich shuddered, "Firestarter you may be, Father, but you are only one man. You cannot be everywhere. Blood-magic. Vkandis be merciful."
"Beyond that," Kir smiled wryly, trying to lighten the mood, "I wear a Sun-in-Glory made of witch-horse hair, rode one into Flames to wrench a Herald and Prophet from their grasp, and then again into battle a few days ago. I am far more condemned than you."
"Captain? Father?" a younger scout stuck his head in and saluted before continuing, "The cooks want to know if they can throw a bit of a party with our bounty sir. To make sure they know how to prepare it all."
Ulrich chuckled and nodded, the scout saluting again before darting away. The pair sat in silence, listening to the unit through the thin walls of the tent. Light-hearted banter and dramatic stories seemed to be the order of the hour, far different from the grim silence and determined quiet that had blanketed the camp as they watched their food stores dwindle away under the hot sun.
"Heresy," the Captain mused, "It is the duty of the Captain, I think, to take those burdens from his men. You may be my senior in service, Father, but you are still one of mine. If we are to burn for heretics, I will burn alongside you. I will think on the bird, and on our further course of action. You and the Sergeant will go with a squad to the other company, as a show of respect and courtesy to the bearers of the Oriflamme. Return to us at the barracks, I will have thought it through by then."
"Very well, Captain."
"Now let's see what bizarre concoction the cooks will be forcing upon us tonight!"
Kir understood his duty to the Oriflamme and to the unit, but he still felt tired as they packed up the next day. A single pack-beast carried the gear for himself, the Sergeant and the two Sunsguard accompanying them. The twins actually, it seemed they had fought for the right to accompany them south, particularly after it was decided they would only take two Sunsguard rather than a complement of four.
The quartet rode out by midmorning, keeping an easy pace under the burning sun. Kir had gotten a chance after the Sun-Rising service to use some wash-water to scrub at his field robes, the red color somewhat restored as weeks of dust were washed out, the worst of the stains around his sleeves and hemline not too noticeable. He had considered pulling out the formal set, but had decided against it. The last thing they needed was for him to keel over from heatstroke. Besides, he was a chaplain, they were expected to be a little less ostentatious.
They stopped briefly in the shade of a hill a mark past high-noon to give their horses some water and confer before they reached the company, two marks away at most. Sergeant Greich, having the contact in the Company and the rank, would take the lead, but not much else had been decided.
"So the primary goal is to determine how long this company will be here," Kir summarized, "You two are in charge of determining if they are staying, how much will we have to isolate the men from our less than politically correct components," he indicated the twins, who nodded firmly. "The Sergeant is in charge of sounding out supply train woes and the commanding officers, while I get to deal with my brother priests."
"Have fun sir!" Galen offered, Kir sighing and picking at the hem of his sleeve. "Sunhame," he said woefully, "I hate Sunhame."
"Well, faster we get in, faster we get away," Greich said practically, "Mount up."
The four rode out at once, each eager to get this over with and back to their unit for their own reasons, though they basically boiled down to the sentiments Kir had already expressed.
"Seems we just missed the fun," Sergeant Greich commented when they came in sight of the camp a bare mark before dusk truly set in. Judging by the men still out piling corpses on the battlefield a ways distant, it had only been some marks since the fighting truly stopped.
"Yes. Fun," Kir said wryly, eyes picking out the regiment flag and the Oriflamme flying above it. "Anyone see the Colonel or shall we ask?"
"Seems to be a bright turban by the Oriflamme sir," Balin pointed out, "If that's not him, they'd know."
The four of them dismounted and approached, appearance noted and a runner going towards the Oriflamme, so at least they had been heading in the right direction. They reached the command tents and Oriflamme to find the Colonel, a grizzled Sergeant with a truly horrific scar across his head who grinned at sight of Greich, and three priests. Kir eyed the group of priests curiously – there was an interesting dynamic here. The one red-robe Priestess was standing comfortably with the Colonel and Pikemaster, a few significant steps from the black-robes, who were, for lack of a better word, lurking. They were being avoided and ignored by the soldiers walking past, while the Priestess was receiving nods of acknowledgement, murmured greeting and some awed looks.
Seems they had missed all the fun.
Those significant feet made him aware of the fact the twins and Sergeant were standing within grabbing range of himself and showed no awkwardness at it. It was telling, that radius, and he took the reminder of improved relations happily. He sometimes forgot how isolated the priesthood was, where his own situation was actually surprisingly integrated, as without the comparison it seemed he only noticed the gap between their treatment of him and their fellows.
"Colonel," Greich said, saluting as they halted before him, "I bear greetings from Captain Ulrich of the 62nd, and hopes to coordinate efforts, if you are stationed here for any significant length of time. I am Sergeant Greich, these are Second Scouts Balin and Galen Sescha, and First Order Firestarter Kir Dinesh, our unit chaplain."
"Welcome to the 21st, Sergeant, Firestarter," the Colonel acknowledged the three soldier's salutes with one of his own, introducing his own party. "I am Colonel Tregaron, I believe you are familiar with Sergeant Cogern, and these are Priestess Solaris and Black-robes Havern and Amaril, of the capitol's troika."
Kir nearly raised an eyebrow at that – not even the title of priest? It wasn't an insult or any status statement, but the omission, when Priestess Solaris was not so treated, was even more telling than the few-step gap. What had happened to bring them around to her so strongly? He would admit that she could be viewed as attractive, but she also had the sexless aura of a priest who took her chastity vows seriously so he doubted that was it.
"Your party is welcome to join ours for the night, so we might lay groundwork for future cooperation," the Colonel said, polished words a distinct contrast to Captain Ulrich's often blunt assessments. He was probably more used to dealing with the higher ranking members of the priesthood and less tolerant politically minded members at that, so his more polished words made sense. It was still amusing.
"Certainly, our thanks, Colonel. Is there anywhere you could use our aid?"
"All that remains is the battlefield clean-up, though an exchange of information starting now would be best," the Colonel replied, Kir unable to prevent the raised eyebrow at that, expression echoed in the other three's faces. Not the infirmary? Either they had more than enough medics or something odd happened there.
No one elaborated, and none were willing to ask, so Kir nodded shortly, looking over to the twins and with a quirk of a brow, received their nods. He turned to the Sergeant, who shrugged, and he looked at the Colonel and finally spoke up, saying dryly, "We are quite experienced with battlefield clean-up. Where might we tie our horses before heading over? Sergeant, shall I take your mount?"
Greich mutely handed him the mare's reins and though the Colonel seemed a little shocked by Kir's ready volunteering, he nodded to one of the conscripts who came over to lead them to the lines of horses. The pack-beast was taken by a pair of conscripts to presumably set up their tents.
"We have a wish-list sir?" Balen asked as they groomed their horses, Kir taking care of both his and the Sergeant's.
"I do," he nodded in reply. "Riva's rather tired, either of yours up to play hauler or shall we borrow the Sergeant's?"
"Sergeant's had the least work," Galen pointed out and with that it was decided. The trio walked out to the battlefield, heading for the turbaned officer to offer assistance directly.
The Lieutenant was eyeing Kir as he told them what sections they hadn't gotten too yet. He was clearly surprised when Kir informed him that if they just built the pyres, he would come around and set them alight once they were set up. It wasn't a duty most priests, even with their experience with flames, would volunteer for. They also received some strange looks for the mare following them around placidly.
"Doesn't seem they're looting," Kir observed as they headed for the section they had been assigned.
"They probably get restocked often," Balin observed sourly, "With the Oriflamme and all. Can't have an honored unit going hungry or short on – caltrops!"
He bent over and scooped the iron pieces out of the ground. They all stopped and picked up those nearby, keeping an eye out as they walked through the field. "Could have at least warned us, Sergeant would tan our hides for getting his girl lamed," Balin continued grumbling.
"Hmm. Cavalry," Kir observed as they reached their assigned corpses, "I'll go through the packs while you get the bodies?"
"Of course Father," they chorused, Kir pulling one of the sets of packs off a horse and emptying them so the caltrops could be dropped in them. The sergeant's mare stayed with him as he picked through the personal gear and weapons to find the true gems. After four horses there were two letters and a few nice personal semi-precious stones and adornment in addition to the usual weapons. They had much higher quality equipment than the drafted, but this looked to be a mercenary unit more than Hardornen regulars, so it didn't seem likely they'd find many true grunts in this.
"Merc medallions can be melted down, right Father?" Galen asked, and Kir looked over in surprise, "This lot is guilded?" he asked.
"Some guilded free-lance, sir, not all of them," Galen shrugged and Kir returned it, "Don't see why not. Might not be worth it if there aren't many, though they could be useful for other reasons."
"Right," he nodded, clearly catching the implications and they returned to stripping corpses of anything useful and salvageable.
"Ooh, nice spurs," Balin complemented his current corpse, pulling them off the boots and examining them. "I think these might be my personal claim for the battle."
"Not much use for spurs as trade items," Kir replied, poking his way through a small pouch of semi-precious stones and basic coins. It seemed the stones were a primary form of currency among these mercs. He just wanted to check for enchantments.
"We had a few requests for new spurs," Balin recalled, Kir looking into the distance as he recalled what was on their 'wish-list'.
"Some new spurs, a few helmets, but those would be best to wait until they could try them on themselves. Hostlers wouldn't mind some new equipment – reins and such. No real use for Hardornen saddles, and most of these have been ruined by trampling. Some bridles are salvageable though. Mostly we want military intelligence. Any unbroken bows and arrows, healing equipment, tradable items like money and such of course. We're in luck there, a lot of semi-precious stones and coin with this batch."
"Excellent," Galen said, putting the second set of loaded salvage-packs onto Greich's mare's back.
"Hey sir! Check this out!" Balin pulled a silken sash out from around a still corpse, the color muddy but recognizable a deep crimson when cleaned. "You should take it sir, works with your robes."
Kir accepted the sash and examined it critically before wrapping it around his waist, tying it in a flat knot on his left hip, trailing ends lying over his long-knife.
"Dashing, Father," Galen replied solemnly. Kir just raised an eyebrow at the two, wondering at their continued casualness with him. He wasn't complaining, but it was curious how their relation with him had changed after returning from the supply-run.
They apparently caught it and exchanged glances before shrugging in unison and turning back to him, Galen answering, "We have relatives who've…vanished sir. A lot of them. And we see them occasionally, or at least we did, before we signed on. We're not normally so silent and stand-offish, but…well, eccentric is one thing, tolerant of vanished relatives and friendly relations with them is another. But you don't strike us as a hypocrite sir."
"Oh far be it for me to condemn someone for friends from the north," Kir chuckled, surprised that it was really that simple, but it did make sense. "How many of the unit are like this?"
"Probably an even quarter of us sir," Galen anwered.
Vkandis worked in mysterious ways. If a full quarter was like that, it was very likely that the entire unit, already sympathetic, would very easily be convinced to at least try working with Valdemarans. Considering trying, and the difference with the reality of doing, would be difficult to overcome, but it was a good, and very fortunate, start.
The rest of their picking and piling went smoothly, occasional calls for the others to help with a particularly heavy horse or comments on what they had found. True dusk had started to fall when the battlefield was filled with nothing but pyres. The three of them went to those closest to camp and Kir eyed the field thoughtfully. The distance between pyres was narrow enough he thought he could get this done with flame-jumps from pyre to pyre.
"Sir? Light these two to start it?" Balin asked, Galen and he both hefting torches. He nodded and the duo set a torch on the fuel-and-corpse pyres nearest, hastily stepping back while Kir decided to at least mutter an invocation.
An abbreviated traditional Firestarter invocation and one arm wave later, and the flames roared to life around the two pyres, both arching back to light off the pyres nearest them with a practiced twist of mind and fingers, before long the entirety of the pyres ablaze. Kir stepped back and waited, Galen and Balin flanking him and the Sergeant's horse waiting, entirely unconcerned with the blazing pyres.
By the murmurs of the remaining pyre building crew, they at least were a little surprised by his easy ignition of the pyres. He would bet that they would simply pass it off as a typical Firestarting trick, however, as the Firestarter Order seldom had much to do with the Sunsguard outside of witch-hunts, and if this unit had the Oriflamme they probably hadn't had much to do with internal witch-hunting affairs.
A watch had already been established to ensure they burnt to ash and didn't spread on dry grass, so Kir felt no worry at leaving those soldiers to it and returning the Sergeant's mare to the picket line, thick black smoke boiling up into the darkening sky, blowing towards Hardorn once more.
A runner had apparently been waiting for them, as once they reached the picket-line of horses, one approached and said, "Sunpriest Dinesh, Sunpriestess Solaris wants to know if you would like to join her for the Sun-Setting service."
Kir nodded shortly, "It would be my pleasure. Can you direct me to her?"
"I will escort you, your Holiness," the conscript nodded to the two scouts and then turned to lead him away, Kir walking mostly alongside him as they went through camp. He didn't bother trying to speak to him, the tension in his posture enough to let Kir know that this one fell into the usual category of response to Firestarters. Utter terror.
He kept the usual bland expression on his face. He had mastered that look early on in his studies to be a priest, as a blandly attentive acolyte attracted little attention compared to the fanatic and the rebel. Attention in the priesthood was a bad thing to attract unless you were established and even then it was always a gamble.
"Brother," the red-robed woman greeted warmly, looking up from where she was preparing a basic field altar near the Oriflamme, the black-robes nowhere to be found.
"Sister," Kir returned, smile forming at the clear welcome. Few priests would even welcome a Firestarter, as they were responsible for policing the priesthood for heresy as well as the populace, and it took far less to qualify for burning as a heretic priest than a heretic citizen.
The runner quietly excused himself and left, bowing slightly at Solaris before hastening away. Kir watched him go with interest. An actual bow, given, a slight one, but very interesting. He returned his attention to the red-robe, exchanging quick blessings with her as was the custom before stepping forward to help unfold the altar cloth over the basic plank-stake altar.
"Have you served with the Sunsguard long?" she asked, smoothing the rich orange cloth while Kir dug through the box nearby for the appropriate altar adornments.
"Nine years," Kir replied, Solaris accepting the sun-in-glory idol and staring at him incredulously, brown hair catching the sun and revealing deep golden highlights. "Nine years? With the same unit?" she asked.
Kir smiled wryly, "I was only supposed to be stationed for two or three, but it was deemed unnecessary to move me. I enjoy the work however. Much better than roving Firestarter."
She caught the implications of the first sentence and gave a sad smile at that, nodding at the reality of their stations. Much of it was politics, rather than any true calling into service with the Sunlord.
"And yourself? How long have you been with the 21st?" he asked, setting a silk-lined box of finger bones from a holy figure on the altar, which were probably bones from some convict grabbed out of the drawers of 'holy' relics in Sunhame's vaults.
"Oh this is my first time riding out with them," she replied, indicating the slowly flapping banner above them, "I was sent out along with Sunpriests Havern and Amaril to escort the Oriflamme."
He looked up at the banner, the pair of them now simply waiting for those who would be standing through the official service with them to arrive before beginning the service. "It's very nice," he commented, eyeing the way it was stitched to reflect maximum light off its brightly colored stitching and brocade. He was an inexpert sewer, able to mend and stitch in a straight in a straight line, but he knew high quality work when he saw it. All priests probably did, to assess the value of tithe contributions.
She hid a smile behind her hand, saying in reply, "Just nice?"
Kir looked over at her and quirked his own smile in return, "I'll admit, right now I'm far more inclined to praise medical supplies and quality metal-work and armor than I am glorifications of the Sunlord. It's been a hard year."
She nodded solemnly, "I was taken from my village for this assignment. We have received a few new members moving in with family after they fled the fighting. Is this the first sign of active response to Ancar's movements?"
"Yes. Until now it's been just the efforts of bandit patrolling units like the 62nd, and we are the closest to the Hardorn-Valdemar junction, so we get those attacking Karse as well as the ones fleeing fights with the Valdemarans," Kir replied, nodding at the crowd that had finally assembled and saying, "Care to lead, Sister?"
"Of course," she smiled and turned to lead the service. Kir was content to stand back and assist as though he were an acolyte again, serving as the guest priest. The two black-robes stood off to the side, participating in the service as members of the congregation, but not truly a part of it. Kir didn't feel any obligation to be friendly to them though, by the stiffly condescending expressions on their faces, they found the whole matter beneath them. Glory-seekers then, only after the Oriflamme to head-hunt and gain political strength. Sunhame, in a curse.
The service was surprisingly well-attended. Though services were mandatory for all those not on-duty, it was very easy to get assigned duties varying from truly essential to time-wasters during the service time. Judging by the crowd, only the truly essential posts were being covered tonight. It was doubtless due to who was leading the service, as all eyes were locked on her throughout the service.
The dismissing hymn was beautiful, with so many participating. In barracks, the chapel could only fit half the unit, which was barely a quarter size of this company all-told. He preferred the smaller services for everyday though, he liked to actually personally know the people he ministered to. With a full Company it wasn't really possible.
He was invited to dine with the Captain, the other three Sunpriests there as well, making for a rather awkward experience. He was able to carry a conversation with Solaris rather easily, as she at least made the effort to talk, and it seemed speaking with her was enough to get the Captain talking to him or at least not outright ignoring him, but the other two were quite content to ignore any overtures, so Kir let them sulk. He hoped that Priestess Solaris knew what she was doing, alienating them like this. He doubted two black-robes chosen to escort the Oriflamme were apolitical.
By the time he ducked into the tent he was sharing with the Sergeant, his entire back was knotted up with tension from the black-robes' presence. He was so happy that the 62nd was basically ignored – it led to situations like dire shortages, but at least they didn't have back-stabbing glory-hounds lurking in the wings.
The Sergeant, barely visible in dim light of the moon, raised an eyebrow mutely. Kir just shook his head, none of his conclusions were things that could be spoken of in a tent surrounded by people not of their unit. Even then, they were somewhat tenuous.
It wasn't until the following morning, when he and the Sergeant were packing up in pre-dawn light before he went to see if he could help with the Sun-Rising service, that they had a chance to discuss things in low voices. The beginnings of camp-noise helped cover up their conversation as did their movements.
"Apparently, that priestess healed all their mortally wounded when the black-robes came to pull them for the tithe," Greich informed him lowly as they pulled stakes. "And can I say how grateful I am you've never done a living tithe? Those play merry hell on morale."
"Not just the unit's," Kir shuddered, before continuing, "That would explain the divide I saw, between the black-robes and Priestess Solaris. She was far more welcomed and viewed with genuine respect and awe, while they were viewed in – well. In a manner more typical to Sunpriests."
"Miraculous healing," Greich muttered, tent soon folded tightly and bound to packs to carry to the mule. "I never – never thought it really happened, I suppose. Not anymore."
Kir didn't say anything to that, having felt much the same as he learned tricks and spells to make miraculous happenings appear on command. He had only ever done firestarting remotely, even then not claiming it was any true miracle, rather a talent he had for fire in general.
They split, Greich going to fetch the twins and the pack-mule while Kir went to the altar, unsurprised to find Solaris already there setting it up. She smiled as he approached and they quietly and quickly finished the set-up.
"Are you often ministering solo on this trip?" he asked lowly as those who would attend this service – not as many as yesterday evening, but still a surprising amount – started to form rows.
"Actually these are some of the first times I've had a chance to minister to the unit as a whole," Solaris replied, a rueful twist to her lips, "Brothers Havern and Amaril took the more…prestigious posts throughout the journey north."
Kir hummed thoughtfully before they launched into one of the less common duet services – they had discussed it last night and decided they might as well. Kir hadn't had the opportunity since his acolyte days to do more than witness one, and Solaris enjoyed them.
He enjoyed performing the rites with her far more than he had with his fellow acolytes for practice. The competition amongst Firestarter acolytes had been fierce indeed, so there hadn't been much opportunity for friendship. And when the symbolically everlasting flame (not truly, not in a field altar) ignited with no cue from him, for the first time he didn't wonder how it had been done so subtly. The brief golden gleam in Solaris' eye as they said the final dismissal blessings only firmed his belief.
Watching the attendees file away to their duties, Kir let the rising sun warm his face, saying to her, "It will be interesting. To watch the son's ascent."
The brief surprise on her face, subsiding to a calmly knowing smile, was confirmation enough. She offered more, nodding and replying, "It will indeed."
They looked at each other, neither member of the priesthood needing to speak aloud what Kir now felt to be true deep in his bones. Solaris' smile widened and she asked, "Would you care to strike up a correspondence about it?"
"I would be honored," Kir whispered, honey-brown eyes lightening to gold again as she reached she reached over as if to rest her hand on his metal Sun-in-Glory medallion, but instead slipping her hand under it to rest on his robe, directly over the witch-horse hair emblem of their God.
"Not heresy," she said quietly, "And only temporarily treason. Go with Vkandis, brother."
"Vkandis protect you, sister," Kir replied, the exchange of blessings ending their conversation and the pair going their separate ways, Kir to the horses so he could saddle and get Riva ready to ride, Solaris to her duties to the Company.
Not even a mark later and the four of them rode out, eating a cold trail-ration breakfast as they rode. When they were out of eyesight of the furthest watch, Balin looked over at Kir and asked, "Father? Priestess Solaris, do you think she really performed a miracle?"
He looked over at Balin, jolted out of his almost serene musings, noting that all three were listening intently for his answer. He didn't even try to stop the smile that spread across his face, saying, "I am certain of it. Solaris is the Son Ascendant."