They arrived back at barracks and found grumbling and worries had resumed. The twins took the four horses while Kir and Sergeant Greich went straight for the Captain's office. They had left everyone in high spirits! Some orders or message from the capitol must have come down and ruined it, and the Captain would be the person to know.
Captain Ulrich looked up from his desk, a map and paper scraps scrawled with charcoal notes spread across it, relief clear. "Good news from the 21st, I hope?" he said, "I'm afraid I have none."
"What is it?" Greich demanded bluntly, orders tossed at his head for him to read through while Kir explained that while the 21st wouldn't be offering direct aid, as they wouldn't be stationed on the border long, there was a reason for their relatively high spirits after all.
"That thrice-poxed wretch!" Greich swore, "May he freeze eternally! How does this make any sense? How could this have made it past the Generals?"
Kir took the orders this time and read through them, expertly skipping over the irrelevant pieces, usually ecclesiastical praise and long, long lists of titles and mystical sounding justification. It boiled down to their neighboring bandit-border patrol unit, the 103rd, was being transferred to guard the fatlands from Hardorn, even further east than the 21st's current position. That left the management of the Valdemaran border and the bandits which resided in the region to two units, their own and the 54th Lancers, placed closer to the Rethwallen side.
And of course, any roving units that the Son of Sun, in his eminent wisdom and vision-based leadership, would deem necessary to send to support them. Right. If they could not even be sent food in a timely manner, he doubted they would be sent reinforcements in any time to help.
"We are in the midst of the high-season, both for banditry and for Ancar's armies, and we're supposed to cover fifty-leagues of Valdemaran border and twenty leagues of Hardornen border line with barely fifty men?" Kir asked, hoping someone would tell him he had read the orders wrong.
"Apparently, His High Eminence is fully confident in our ability to do so," Ulrich growled, waving them to seats while Kir tossed the orders onto the desk.
The three sat in silence for a while, before Greich sighed, "Very well. How are we going to manage this impossibility then?"
"I have maps of the 103rds standard patrols and their full region, as well as the 54ths. I've received a message from the 103rd's Captain, apparently he and the 54th will be meeting on Solsday to try and make this transition smooth. I will be going, so we can try and hash out a decent plan. My hope is that the 54th will be able to take on the bulk of the 103rds district, but as they are foot and not Cavalry I have my doubts," Ulrich rubbed his eyes tiredly.
"Blast it," Greich grumbled. "We'll have to get keys to the barracks, have a semi-permanent posting there if we can manage it."
"Activity has been down in our area due to the Hardornens, but I'll bet it's higher closer to Rethwallen, as more scum is driven that way. Curses we don't have the resources for this!"
"We've taken care of quite a few Hardornen groups and bandit groups that would have moved on to threaten Valdemar," Kir pointed out thoughtfully, "If we inform them that we won't be able to keep that standard now, being overstretched, we can at least arrange for an intelligence swap, like we had with Alessandar's troops. That will at least keep us from running ourselves ragged chasing rumors."
"Will they be open to something like that, you think?" Ulrich asked, "Without us selling out Karsites?"
"Continuing to send any intelligence we gain from the Hardornen salvage operations would be more than enough, apparently Ancar's group can block their witch-powers, which eliminates a lot of their long-distance reconnaissance capability, excepting spies of course, but those cannot often get out information in a timely manner," Kir replied with a shrug, exaggerating slightly, "For the letters I sent, they would have given us the supplies. The rest I insisted they take, in order to keep that door open."
"Not like we'd have done anything with it," Greich snorted, the two officers sinking into thought for a moment before looking over the map and routes sketched out and starting to plan how such an arrangement would be best utilized.
Kir let them manage that, he was no tactician, and simply sat back to think on his own problems. Solaris' coming was welcome, welcome indeed, but he doubted that the transition of power would be smooth and bloodless. The fact that she had easily revealed her purpose to a Firestarter, so early in the game, meant that she would need his expertise at some point, and Firestarters were not known for their abilities in diplomatic ally-soothing.
Unless it was his connection to Valdemar that she needed, but he doubted that would be useful until after she had solidified her grip on Karse. Any foreign aid in her Ascent would discredit her reign badly, and those sorts of doubts would be common enough without implying Vkandis could not raise His chosen Son to power without Valdemar's help. If that was all she had needed, she would have no reason to reveal her purpose to him so early, making it unlikely that had been her sole motivation.
He had not burned a priest before – not to ashes. Taking on some black-robe summoners would be a nice challenge, should he be called to.
Maybe he would even get to pursue the Son of Sun himself! Wouldn't that be a pleasant task.
No, setting him on fire would not be dramatic enough. The Son of Sun's death and Solaris' Ascension would have to be accomplished with clear, powerful displays of Divine might, not common flames, even if unnaturally fast.
Beyond that, he doubted Solaris would keep the Fires and Witch-burnings around, not in their current form. So building her reign on the Firestarter burnt ashes of her predecessor would not give the appropriate image. No, better that he vanish screaming in a sunbeam, or get struck by lightning from a clear sky, than burn.
Though it would have been very satisfying to watch that fat bastard go up in flames.
"Ah… Father Kir?" Ulrich interrupted his thoughts, and Kir found the pair watching him warily and he realized that his face had twisted into a smile that he doubted was anything reassuring. He quickly dropped the expression and replied, "Apologies. Simply musing on how Priestess Solaris will be Ascending, and just how her predecessor will be eliminated."
"Now those are pleasing diversions," Greich mused, and Ulrich's mouth twitched suspiciously before he continued, "You are certain then? About Priestess Solaris?"
"Yes," Kir replied simply, words not able to relay the simple, bone-deep truth he had found at her side. Even if somehow he had found room for doubt, Asher's second accurate prediction held none of the vague optimism of a child and all the vaguely specific characteristics of a true Prophecy.
"It will be some years," he cautioned. "She needs to gain support, and she has that core loyalty in the 21st, and if I'm right she has connections throughout the pastoral red-robes who would support her. Now that she has been assigned to a troika, she will be moving on to Sunhame, where she will have to search out allies in that pit. Assembling the support she needs subtly enough that no one can try to eliminate her will be time consuming. And even then, she will probably wait until the right moment."
"The right moment?"
"Drama," Kir shrugged, "Drama is everything. It won't be some shadowed transfer of power, it will have to take place in front of a large crowd, filled with both her supporters and those she is not certain of, at high-noon, with unmistakably Divine intervention. Anything less than that and there will be too many naysayers and doubters for her to make any significant changes."
"But in our lifetimes," Ulrich whispered, sitting back and staring at his desk blankly, not seeing the maps and scribbles he'd slaved over, "Sunlord be thanked, we might just live to see it."
"I'll do all I can to ensure we do," Kir promised, and the two soldiers nodded, before shaking off their mood and beginning to outline the plan they'd come up with.
By the time they needed to head to the mess for food or risk going hungry, they had gotten the plan and it's details pinned down, exactly what the limits were, and potential routes. The Captain was going to be leaving for the 103rd tomorrow and Kir was going to ride out with him, simply splitting ways once they were out of sight. None of them really thought their men would strenuously object, but there was no reason to risk it. Kir did not want to have to silence the men he'd come to know and respect.
They had written out a note and location for a meeting with Anur and sent it off with the pigeon. They included a basic understanding of what the meeting was going to be about, but they didn't think the Valdemarans would want details getting out to just anyone either. This agreement was going to be dancing along the lines of their enmity as it was, there was no reason to make a fuss over it and risk drawing unwelcome attention.
Kir doubted that they would have much luck concealing this entirely from the men – having too specific locations, planning on Valdemaran patrols being nearby – it wouldn't take long for them to have suspicions. But so long as they were only suspicions, no one would act on it. Priests had a tendency to burn the messenger as well as the heretic after all.
"Good luck, Father," Ulrich said, clasping his forearm in a greeting common to Karsite soldiers. Kir returned the gesture and smiled, "Thank you, Captain. To you as well. I will meet you here in five days."
"Until then," the older man nodded, the pair heading their separate ways. Kir urged Riva into a lope, wanting to get into the dead-zone as quickly as possible to avoid any interceptions by people who would be problematic to burn.
At this rate, he would know the dead-zone like the back of his hand.
The next morning he crossed into Valdemar and by the afternoon he found the location they had selected as a meeting point. The stream indicated was still there and drinkable, so he unsaddled Riva and settled in to wait for Anur's arrival, keeping half his attention on detecting any new arrivals and the other half on the page-marker he'd been working on for so long. Maybe he'd actually be able to start a new project after this trip.
Chiming hooves came within earshot and he looked up, freeing one hand from his cord and resting it on his knife. If it wasn't Anur, he doubted a Herald would react calmly to finding a Karsite Sunpriest in Valdemar.
"Kir!" his friend smiled as he rounded the small slope and swung down off Aelius, briskly removing his tack and letting the witch-horse wander as he sat down next to him, leaning back to rest on his elbows, grass not too scraggly this close to a spring. "Surprised to see you so soon!"
"Unfortunately, it isn't exactly a pleasant reason this time either," Kir replied dryly, finishing off his current knot-series and taking the formal request and map, as well as a copy of Sunhame's orders for confirmation, out of his nearby saddlebags and handing them over to the Herald.
He read through the orders first, eyebrow rising higher and higher as he got further into it, before unrolling the map to examine their new responsibilities. Letting out a low whistle, he said rhetorically, "Doesn't ask for much, does he?"
Kir didn't bother responding, as Anur had finally opened their formal request and proposal. If his eyebrows had been raised before, now his whole face went into slack shock.
"You're serious about this?" he asked quietly.
"Yes," Kir replied grimly, understanding his disbelief.
They weren't certain about the structure of the Valdemaran border guard, but they knew there were at least some units responsible for bandit patrolling. The proposal was that one such unit, preferably somewhat geographically close to their own barracks, be selected as their contacts. The Captain of that unit, and whoever they might trust, but preferably as few people as possible, would be open to a dialogue with Captain Ulrich with the express intention of exchanging intelligence regarding bandits and Hardornen raids which would affect both countries. It left open the idea of organizing mutual raids, which would be played off as coincidence, though those would have to be few and far between, and preferably not until this information exchange had been in operation for a few moons at least.
Kir had volunteered himself as messenger, since his station as priest gave him flexibility in leaving the unit, and his station as a Firestarter gave him a very good, and unlikely to be questioned, reason to be haunting the dead-zone. Some of his brethren were… extremely enthusiastic about their duties, to the point that they would go out of their way to find victims. If any outsider noticed he spent a lot of time lurking near Valdemar, the assumption would be that he was hunting for witches to burn and they wouldn't even question it. They would simply be grateful he had the decency to hunt Outlanders instead of good faithful Karsites.
He didn't put that in the request, figuring, again, that rubbing their noses in his duties as a Firestarter would not be conducive to any sort of trust. He just mentioned that he was the only one to speak decent Valdemaran, and also as a priest had flexibility in his schedule that soldiers did not necessarily have.
"Well," Anur breathed, sitting up and looking thoughtful, "We'll have to wait a bit, for people to discuss it, but I should have an answer for you soon. I even have an idea for the unit. You remember the Captain you ran into?"
Kir nodded, recalling the sharp-eyed woman and her wary soldiers. He ignored the reference to their mind-speaking. At this point, so long as no one tried to speak in his mind, he would let it go entirely. If this was going to work out, he'd have to get used to its use eventually anyway.
"They're one such unit, and stationed pretty much exactly opposite you lot on the border, though a bit closer to the Hardornen end. Since they already know about you and know your face, if my proposal doesn't go through you'd at least have some familiarity going for you."
"Your proposal?" Kir asked, fairly certain he could guess what it was, and trying to keep the hope he felt from his voice.
"That I be transferred to primarily support their unit and serve as your counterpart of course!" Anur laughed, bumping shoulders with him, "Don't be ridiculous, you didn't think I'd let you do something this ground-breakingly dangerous without me, did you?"
"Well so long as you don't get yourself caught and set on fire again, it should work out fine," Kir replied dryly, Anur rolling his eyes at him. "Has Griffon made any progress?"
"Hasn't set his eyebrows on fire yet, but he's gotten close!" Anur reported cheerfully, easily grabbing onto that topic change and letting it ramble into some series of stories and reminisces while they waited for his superiors to make a decision.
Kir just relaxed and listened with a small smile on his face, starting work on his page-marker again. It was something of a relief to sit here in the sun with his friend and let his worries about his unit's morale, their potentially continuous supply woes, Solaris' Ascent and the new treason he was about to undergo just fade away. There would be plenty of time to worry himself sick over them later, after all.
Anur could not believe this was happening. Honestly. This entire scenario just defied any sort of reason. He was sitting here with Captain Mecal reading a bundle of willingly handed over Karsite dispatches and collaborating them with their own information.
Willingly handed over Karsite dispatches, and only the first of many hand-offs. It was incredible.
The first meeting with Kir had been spent exchanging news and stories in the sun, and he was glad his friend hadn't had to listen to the increasingly violent debate going on further north. Ironically, Weaponsmaster Alberich was all for it, which was very out of character for the man who had all the reasons in the world to be suspicious of Kir, while some of the more "understanding" Heralds were knee-jerking "No!"
Aelius had gone to bat for them though, since Anur was a little distracted and unwilling to be so rude to his friend a second time and leave him sitting in silence while what was essentially the fate of his people was debated. Words like 'sensibly cautious' and 'timid whelps' were tossed around, with more of the latter starting to pour out as the debate got more heated.
He had not expected Queen Selenay's colorful diatribe to cut across the debate, silencing everyone before she announced her decision. They would ask Captain Mecal if she was willing to be part of such an operation, on the understanding that if it were discovered on either side of the border, and such a discovery were made public, both she and Anur would be disavowed as acting entirely independently of the Crown's authority.
Of course, saying a Herald would be disavowed was one thing, actually disavowing said Herald without them being repudiated by their Companion was another. He'd probably be set on dull placid circuits for a while, until the border heated up enough that all able hands were needed in the south. So if they were discovered, he'd get more of a brief vacation than anything.
To his surprise, the Captain had agreed almost immediately. Bandits taking advantage of the animosity between the countries had always been a problem, but apparently since Hardorn had started warring with them it had gotten much worse. Now they had three sets of uniforms to set up after all.
Anur would give the Karsites one thing. Having Nightstalkers on their side of the border definitely made the bandits warier of sleeping over there, especially in the zone constantly under siege between Hardorn and the monsters of the priesthood.
The Captain's quick agreement had lead to his own worried and slightly guilty questions about her plan should they be discovered. The woman just snorted at his concern and waved it off, saying everyone had a back-up plan, hers just didn't require an honorable discharge. He had been very careful to not ask after details, but he had passed that information onto Aelius, just in case it ever did become something worth pursuing at a higher level.
He doubted it, he really liked her and had worked with her for quite a few high seasons without any trouble, but he'd been wrong before.
"So that's how they pulled that off," Captain Mecal, who had gotten exasperated with his constant use of her title and insisted he at least refer to her as Captain Naomi, muttered, reading through a dispatch containing a sampling of the tactics they had found most effective.
"What bit?" he asked.
"Oh just a raid they did a couple years ago on a nest that straddled the border. One scouting trip it was there, the next, scorch marks and blood. No one ever did figure out exactly how the attack went down. It's a nice piece of work. I was wrong, but nice piece of work."
"You think this is actually going to help?" he asked after a few more dispatches were worked through, Captain Naomi's rough Karsite enough to get the gist of the ones she'd drawn out of the stack.
"More them than us, at first, but yes. I really do," she sighed, cracking her back before returning to her papers, "This enmity between our nations has given those bastards far too many chances to escape across one border or the other. It'd be nice to really clear them out."
It actually took Anur a few moments to realize that 'those bastards' referred to bandits, rather than Hardornen or Karsite regulars. He supposed that made sense though, the Tedrel wars were a couple generations ago now, and there wasn't any constant poisonous rhetoric against Karse pounded into people's minds and daily lives. People were always more concerned with those who actively harmed them now than those who had done so years ago or might do so in years to come.
And Mecal had been stationed here for years, since before the Ancar conflict began, so her long-standing enemies were these bandit groups. That sort of grudge wasn't just going to be let go because a new enemy came into play, it just wouldn't be the focus of her entire attention.
"There's an old camp here, it's been used a fair amount," she pointed it out on Anur's now personal copy of the Valdemar-Karse border region (called the dead zone on both sides of the border amusingly enough). "But it has a straight shot path to Karse. Think they'll be up for some route blocking in, say, twelve days? That would be… four days after the new moon."
"I'll pass it on," Anur promised, their third bi-monthly meeting coming up soon. This sort of route-blocking operation was a good one for their first attempt at an actual joint venture. Easy enough to pass off as coincidence on patrol, or at the least not make obvious their sources across the border, but filling an important gap in the bandit-catching net.
A success on this one would make it much easier for him to convince them to expand their range of influence further towards Rethwallen. Right now they were restricting the aid agreement to the twenty leagues closest to Hardorn, leaving the 62nd to manage the remaining thirty leagues of Karsite border alone. With aid and overlap from the 54th, Kir had said they could manage it, but Anur had his doubts as to how smoothly that would go.
Even another ten leagues would help immensely, and be easy enough to justify after just one successful sweep of a nest that had been a bother for some time. Anur scrawled notes to that effect in shorthand on a roughly bound bundle of scrap papers. It was his personal shorthand, so difficult to interpret out of context and simple enough for him to transcribe in. Besides, Kir often wrote his own notes, then they burned their old ones. No records could exist after all.
Anur had a suspicion that a lot of that tradition had been borne out because Kir still found it a novelty that he didn't flinch away when things spontaneously burst into flame around him. He had that traumatizing experience in Karse, but when he knew he was around Kir that fear was easily shoved aside, knowing as he did just how well controlled Kir's flames were.
"That time works perfectly," Kir commented, looking at his own notes and handing Anur a spice-cake to try. "We were planning on a larger patrol going out that way, it would be easy enough to increase the force a bit."
"These are amazing," Anur mumbled around his mouthful of spice-cake, Kir just chuckling at him as he copied the nest location onto his own map, smaller than Anur's for subtleties sake.
Anur washed them down with spring water and asked, "Those twins, you said they were scouts, right?"
"Right," Kir asked slowly, "Why?"
"Well they seemed really at ease with Valdemarans, they might have been acting of course, but it might be useful to have more people in the know as it were, on your side. And scouts would be immensely useful to keep people from getting suspicious about coincidental discoveries of routes. They could just say they'd seen evidence of traffic, not herders, and then a larger group would be sent out in response," Anur suggested, shrugging and waving a piece of jerkied venison under Kir's nose.
The priest rolled his eyes and snatched at it, biting some off and chewing the idea over at the same time. "It might work," he allowed, "The twins admitted to me they have relatives across the border they met with and were friendly with before they enlisted, but we send out patrols of four, even with scouting, so those two wouldn't be enough. And the squads rotate pretty frequently, so it wouldn't be as un-coincidental as you're thinking."
"Hmm. Well, how'd the dispatches go over? The handwriting legible enough?" Anur asked.
Kir sighed, "I'm the only one who reads Valdemaran at all, so it's not going very quickly. Greich at least is picking it up fairly quickly, but Ulrich – he can speak it much better than the Sergeant, but something about reading it is giving him trouble. They're very useful," he hastened to add, "Answered a few questions they've had, and given us some ideas for our own strategies, but difficult to get through quickly."
"Didn't think of that," Anur frowned, "Our officers were always encouraged to learn some Karsite, when they were stationed down here. Why aren't yours?"
"An educated populace is too likely to ask uncomfortable questions. The last thing the Sunhame crowd wants is for their Sunsguard, armed, trained, and dangerous, to start asking uncomfortable questions about exactly how evil those demon-riders are," Kir shrugged, "Reading Valdemaran would not be much of a risk, I don't think, but then, I am not in Sunhame."
"Thank your Sunlord."
"Thank my Sunlord indeed."
"Blood-mages," the chaplain for the 54th, a pastoral red-robe transferred in a year ago out of duty rather than politics, muttered, "Unbelievable."
Kir raised an eyebrow and the older man nearly tripped over himself as he hastened to restate that, "Not that I doubt you, Firestarter, it is simply – incredible, I suppose, that Hardorn has sunk to such depths."
He inclined his head slightly in acknowledgement of the point, saying, "I am afraid that your own contacts within the priesthood will be less… inclined to believe you are exaggerating. The word needs to be spread about the enemy, and if I do it it will be seen as a gathering of political support."
"I understand, Firestarter," the man nodded, in his mid-thirties or early forties Kir would guess, rather old to be put out into the field as a chaplain but the 54th had been something of a cushy posting before Ancar's war had driven all the bandits into their patrol area.
The commanders had agreed to meet up and exchange news and check in on the sustainability of the current patrols, as it had been two moons since this new split of the Valdemaran border had been initiated. Kir had come along, both because Captain Ulrich and Sergeant Greich requested his presence and because he wanted to use the other chaplain's connections with the priesthood to spread the word about the new threat from the Hardornens.
He had also hoped to maybe get news of Solaris' efforts in Sunhame, or even just the priesthood in general, but he doubted anything this man would tell him would be approaching accurate. He was too terrified of the Firestarting robes he wore.
"Is there anything else? Only some of my men asked me to attend them in the chapel," the other priest, named Tahan, asked, Kir not needing the near invisible flinch to know that the entire scenario was either a lie or a scheme on the part of the 54th to get their chaplain away from Kir as quickly as possible.
He was tired of lying all the time.
Sighing, Kir said tiredly, "Do not bother to construct a lie for me. Just spread the word to watch for blood-magic, please."
"Your Holiness," Tahan nodded, eyes wide and face pale, before striding off too quickly to be his normal pace but not quick enough to be counted as running away just yet.
Of course, it also meant the other priest would likely be in the chapel for the next mark or so, at least so he could claim he hadn't been lying, should Kir follow him. The commanders were in the mess so they had tables to spread maps out on, and the soldiers who had accompanied them to rotate out with those currently stationed at the 103rds barracks were probably either listening in or exchanging rumors and gossip somewhere.
Riva was stabled with the other horses, probably perfectly content to hang around with fellow Sunsguard mounts rather than constantly go off on independent solo runs. He truly felt bad for the sort of life Riva had ended up with, though it was better in a cavalry unit like the 62nd. At least he had something of a herd to run with.
Rather than risk disturbing a group and watching almost imperceptible flinches he had gotten so used to not seeing anymore, Kir wandered off to the walls, climbing up to sit on the path used by sentries patrolling and waiting. From here he could see the main areas of camp and would easily be able to see when the 62nd's group was getting ready to leave.
Maybe when Solaris came into power, after some time of course, people would stop flinching away from him.
He doubted it.
Anur accepted the bundle of headache tea satchets gratefully, crease between his brows betraying his own current headache. He had been practicing with his Fetching gift apparently, and overdone it without realizing it until afterwards, the headache a lingering one.
"Thanks Kir," Anur sighed, putting the satchets into his saddlebags and accepting the flask of now hot tea Kir passed him, "Sorry I'm not going to be much company today."
"Yes, because the purpose of these meetings is clearly for us to simply enjoy one another's company and exchange personal news," Kir replied dryly, "It is no worry, Herald. There will probably be days where I am rather useless due to exhaustion too. It is simply good fortune that so far my extensive labors have fallen far outside our scheduled meetings."
"Well, technically speaking these meetings are for that," Anur shrugged, holding the hot flask to his head while he waited for it to be cool enough to drink quickly. "I mean, if we didn't want to exchange news and enjoy hanging out, then we could easily get these meetings done in a mark or so, rather than these half-day long things we've made our usual."
"Valid," Kir acknowledged, "But I am grateful for these half-day long things, as you call them."
Anur looked over at him sharply, before asking, "What's bothering you?"
"I forget, sometimes, exactly how terrifying I am," Kir replied finally, "We visited the 54th in this past block, to make sure our current patrols were working out. They are, by the way. It's in the summary we wrote. I decided to pass onto their chaplain the fact that Ancar had blood-mages and maybe even get some news as to how the rest of the priesthood was faring in this conflict. Five years my elder, at the least and utterly terrified of me. He fairly ran. And called me Firestarter, or Your Holiness, the entire time."
"And you'd forgotten about that?"
"The 62nd doesn't anymore. They treat me like an ordinary chaplain or priest, and a friendly one at that. It's – it's nice," Kir admitted, for some reason looking ashamed of the admission. "And here in Valdemar – true, I only regularly see you, but when I made that request the only person who was afraid of me was your Herald Alberich, and he was more wary than afraid."
"I was afraid, until you explained the witch thing," Anur admitted, "Some of the guards were, after you went for those mages. But… afraid in an awed way at your abilities and afraid of you are different. I'm guessing that in Karse you're getting both."
"Yes," Kir said shortly. "And even if by some miracle, Karse changed leadership and we became a true priesthood again, my robes would keep me on a terrifying, fire-soaked pedestal."
"Well, you could always just ditch the black trim," Anur pointed out, "Didn't you say something about how Firestarters are expected to do undercover work every once and a while?"
Kir chuckled, before shrugging, "I am a Firestarter Anur, it's part of who I am now. If I introduced myself as a simple red-robe, even a black-robe, I would… whoever I befriended or allied under that illusion, I wouldn't feel like they were actually befriending or allying with me. It wouldn't be real."
"So even if for some reason the Fires and all were declared over, you'd keep the title Firestarter?" Anur asked, hypothetical scenario an interesting one.
"Yes. Even with no Fires, Firestarters are still needed," Kir said, surprise in his voice, "There is still evil in the world to burn, Anur. It is just not the evil that Sunhame declares worthy of it."
Anur decided to just drink his tea and let that go, even though he was deeply interested in just what Kir would classify as evil enough to burn besides the obvious blood mages.
"What?" Herald Alberich asked in Karsite, the steel-haired man raising an eyebrow at him. When this arrangement had been set up, Anur had already been in regular correspondence with the weaponsmaster about his friend and ally, since he often had questions about Karse that didn't feel appropriate to ask Kir. Once it had gotten going, they had arranged to actually have private meetings whenever Herald Alberich came south, this being his last trip down south before winter.
"What counts as evil enough to burn?" Anur repeated, sitting cross-legged on a chair in the weaponsmaster's semi-permanent quarters, boots off and by the door. "Kir talked about blood-mages, and how his order was founded to fight them, but what else counts? Why were the Firestarters made?"
The older man sighed and sat back in his chair, watching Anur consideringly before he began, "Understand that much of the priesthood's secrets are contained solely within the priesthood, particularly tales of the days before Valdemar became an enemy. The stories that I do know are just that – stories. There may very well be some truth in them but they are told as tales."
"Well if I'm really confused I'll ask Kir, I just thought it might be something of an awkward question to get an answer to," Anur shrugged, not wanting to admit to the fact he was worried that there would be something in Kir's answer that he would find seriously wrong.
"It has a chance to be, I suppose," Alberich sighed, "The story of their founding is not a common one anymore."
The man kept his silence for a while, and Anur let it rest, letting Alberich tell the old story at his own pace. He probably hadn't told this story in decades, his mind had been picked over for information on Karse of course, but old stories about the priesthood probably hadn't been something asked about.
"In the earliest days of the Shepherds, there was a mighty war waged between Sorcerers so powerful some called them gods. Lands were obliterated, monsters created and set against each other, and peoples massacred. Finally, the two most powerful were the only ones left, and the honorable Sorcerer realized the power they wielded was not meant for mortal hands, so he ensnared the Marrer and let death have them both.
"But their power was so great, the world itself was torn by their passing, shattering spells and enchantments colliding in chaos and sending all the lands to an era they had thought long passed, when nothing but their gods and their own hands could be relied upon."
"The Marrer's headquarters was closer to the Shepherds than the honorable Sorcerer's, and though he was dead his army of monsters and monsters in human guise was still lurking to the north. They scattered, spreading chaos and fear even further now that any semblance of a leash was destroyed and all they knew was greed and killing.
"One of the old generals, a mage of great power himself, was furious at his overlord's death. Not out of loyalty, but out of jilted power. When the world was torn asunder, the magics were only bare traces of their former strength. So the mage who relied upon that power to make himself great was left with barely a trace of his former glory.
"It was as he watched the group he attached himself to destroy a town which refused to give them all their food that he realized there was power there. The pulsing lifeblood of the former village strongman gave him power. The sluggish movements of a struggling girl gave him power. The panicked screams of dying children gave him power.
"He realized this, and took it into himself. Spreading the word amongst like-minded mages, they realized that this secret would put them back at the top of the magical hierarchy, as no one else could draw on near the power they could extract with the magics of the world slumbering so deeply. Deciding to begin where their lord had left off, they proclaimed themselves God-Kings and drew in all the remaining monsters and men of the Marrer, who were happy to gather power for their new commanders.
"They marched south, burning, enslaving and killing on the way. At some point, they realized keeping people alive meant they could drain off power day by day and have a constant source, making slaves more valuable than the dead.
"So they would give villages they found a choice. Either accept their leadership and send three of their healthiest youths to the God-Kings, or be destroyed. Many accepted, and many refused.
"They reached the town of Sunhame, no glorious capitol then, merely a fishing and farming town with a modest temple and priesthood. They had received word from their fellows and warning from their God of the fierce force which was approaching, but did not know what to do.
"A young acolyte, called Ari, was one of the healthiest youths, marred only by his dumbness. His inability to speak led many to treat him as far younger than he was. But he had heard stories and seen his people scared and afraid, so he decided on the best course of action alone and carried it out."
"Reluctantly, they had decided to accept the God-Kings for now, and send their three contributions. Three healthy youths were chosen, and sent out with the cruel messengers who had come to deliver their demands."
"On the way to the God-Kings' camp, one of the soldiers saw Ari, humming to himself as he walked along picking herbs by the roadside. 'Priest,' the man barked, recognizing his robes 'You will serve the God-Kings'."
"Over the objections of the three youths, which were quickly silenced by violence, Ari meekly joined their group and followed along, the three sacrifices bitterly sad to see the innocent acolyte joining them in their fates."
"The new slaves were sent to their wretched quarters, while Ari was taken before the head God-King, the first mage to taste the wicked power. His name was Witach."
"We have brought you a priest, God-King most high,' the soldiers said, kneeling before the false God while Ari stood between them, basket still in hand. Witach found such insolence amusing, and sent the soldiers away to introduce the new slaves to their current lives. Ari simply waited. Standing from his throne, carried by slaves when they moved, he said 'you do not fear me, little priest? A god?'"
"Ari, of course, said nothing. He could not. He waited."
" 'You are amusing' Witach declared, 'I shall break you myself, and then you shall be my priest. Not your foolish peasant God's.'"
"Still he waited. Witach stepped across the ward lines in, but Ari waited. Waited, waited, until Witach the False-God-King was standing in front of him directly, towering over him and leering down as he described exactly what he would do to extract every ounce of power and will from the priest."
"When Witach paused, and asked what he thought of the plan, Ari smiled, and tipped his basket. Prodka, the liquor of the peasants and farmers, spilled out of the basket which had been holding clay pots for poultices filled with the liquid. The pungent smell and eye-watering fumes enraged Witach, but before he could do anything, Ari had grabbed a golden oil-lamp, stolen from another town's temple, and tossed it on the man, heavy robes soaked in prodka going up in flames. But Ari knew it would not be enough to kill the God-King, and that this would not be enough to kill the God-King's army.
"So he took the small power he could access as a mage, and stepped into the flames.
"They licked at his flesh, and he took his own pain, his own blood, and twisted it into power as the God-King did, devoting all his agony and blistering to the simple purpose of destroying the God-King and his fellows.
"The guards entered, not suspecting anything, and saw their God-King screaming in pain on the floor, unable to cast his own enchantments because he was too overcome in agony and weak of mind and will when it was his own blood that was being spilt. Ari, consumed by flames and barely visible through the haze of the flames he had called, turned to them and smiled again.
"The entirety of the God-King's followers and fellows died in flames, only the slaves who had been dragged with them left unburned. Sunhame had seen the flames on the horizon and as many as could came racing out, on foot, on mules, on horses – anyone who could be spared raced for the camp, armed with whatever they could use, hoping that their sacrifices had not been crushed by the roaring flames they could hear even from their own temple.
"They found an ash-stricken wasteland, metal molten and warped on the ground all that remained of armored soldiers, a few gleaming white chunks of bone all that remained of monstrous creatures. But stirring in the ashes, rising from the ground, were all the slaves. The three sacrifices from Sunhame saw their people and cried out in joy, running to their families and loved ones.
"It was a joyous reunion, until one of the sacrifices looked around and asked, 'where is Ari?'
"The priests were confused, their young acolyte had been out for herbs today, they had sent him down to the lake's plains to keep him hidden from the God-King's forces. They grew horrified as the sacrifices explained that Ari had not been there, he had been on the route to the God-King's camp, and had been taken before the God-King himself.
"Racing towards the center of the camp, the head priest, an old man named Kantoris, saw a molten, gleaming mound of gold and gems that he was certain had once been an impressive throne. He could see scattered remnants that would have made a crown, a piece of deeply charred pottery from one of their local kilns, but no sign of the acolyte.
"He fell to his knees in his acolyte's ashes, and wept, charred pottery cradled in his hands."
"Gathering the freed slaves, they took what melted precious metals they could and headed to Sunhame, mourning the loss of one of their own even as they could not help but rejoice for the God-Kings had been destroyed."
"Kantoris prayed late into the night, as celebrations and mournings went on around the chapel, he was left alone to pray for his acolyte's soul and peaceful rest. His prayers were only disturbed by a new arrival, but that arrival kneeled beside him, merely saying his own prayers in a quiet, unfamiliar voice."
"His prayers done for now, Kantoris looked over to identify the new arrival. He had not realized any of the slaves had been followers of the Sunlord. It was not until he looked over that he realized he had been correct, because looking over at him with a peaceful smile he knew well was Ari. Clear-eyed and healthy, wearing brilliantly crimson robes the color of fresh blood, it was the acolyte he had mourned as dead."
"He rejoiced, pulling Ari into his arms and weeping with joy that the acolyte had been returned to them, and had even been healed of his dumbness evidenced by his spoken prayers. His joy was damped by Ari's explaining what he had done to kill the God-King's people, and he was horrified at what his acolyte had been through. But all was not lost, Ari assured him. The Purifying Flames had cleansed him of the stain of blood-magic, had cured his dumbness, and in the Sunlord's Mercy and Goodness he had been restored to continue to protect the people from blood-mages, as not all the God-Kings fellows had been present in the camp to burn."
"Kantoris took this news with sorrow, and this sorrow was echoed in Sunhame, even as they wildly rejoiced in the returning of one of their own from the dead and from his disability. The three sacrifices, two young men, sons of a farmer and a blacksmith, respectively, and the healer's daughter approached him and decided to become Ari's acolytes, and learn all he had to teach about the Purifying Flame and destroying the evil that had touched them."
"And so were born the first Firestarters. The God-King achieved the immortality he desired, his name, Witach, synonymous with blasphemous evil in Karse to this day, and no matter how dispersed and small the Firestarter Corps has become, it is known and loved that should one of Witach's descendents in ideals appear, they will unite once more to burn them to ash."
Anur stared at Alberich, who settled back in his chair and waited for him to say anything. Anur couldn't, he was completely shocked. The amount of history, of things that were explained or hinted at in the tale, was incredible and something in it rang true in him, even though he had no way of really knowing just how true the tale really was.
Apparently Alberich understood that, and they sat in silence for the rest of their meeting.
"…Herald?" Kir asked, Anur having lunged for him and hugged him fiercely as soon as he arrived, Kir left awkwardly supporting him since he had been sitting on the ground before the oddly emotional Herald had shown up.
"You're not allowed to burn yourself alive, ever," Anur declared passionately, "I don't care if you run into a new God-King, you're not allowed!"
"God-Ki- you've heard the story of Ari and the Witach?" Kir asked, surprised, "How?"
"Herald Alberich," Anur admitted, "I asked how the Firestarters were founded and what other evil you burned. He didn't answer the second bit, but that's not important right now because you are not ever allowed to burn yourself alive!"
"I do not plan to allow that to happen," Kir assured him, Anur finally releasing him and sitting on the ground, still watching Kir intently.
"Your order was considered heroes," Anur murmured, wrapping his arms around his knees, "It was horrible to think about what must have changed."
Kir smiled sadly, "That's the reason I find the story hard to tell. It is not the only one like that. There are not a lot, not as many as there are of Firecats for example, but there are quite a few heroic tales of Firestarters."
"I'd like to hear them, someday," Anur said quietly. "It'd be nice to know your people's history."
"And maybe you can tell some positive stories from your own history?" Kir asked hopefully, "I doubt you called him Vanyel Demonrider, for example."
"He's called Demonsbane over here, actually. There's a whole song about it," Anur grinned, "And yeah, I'd like that."
"It's a bargain then. So how were the Herald's founded? One founding tale for another."
"Ah! Well, the Baron Valdemar was fleeing with his people from a tyrannical ruler – "
"Father Kir?" Greich said, "A letter for you."
Kir looked up from the chain mail shirt he was fixing with relief. Knotwork was all well and good, but this linking of metal circles was truly mind-numbing. Taking the letter with murmured thanks, he cracked the seal curiously, he didn't recognize the handwriting.
Skipping to the signature at the end, his eyes widened slightly and he jumped back to the beginning, reading the letter hungrily.
I hope you and your allies are finding the autumn mild. The 21st has since left the border, as I'm sure you're well aware, which has brought the troika I've joined back into Sunhame.
It is such a beautiful city, Brother. I have not been here since my own days as an acolyte, preparing for an apprenticeship. Much longer ago than I would care to admit to, of course. I believe you arrived after I did, if I'm not mistaken you were conducted into the initiate ranks when I was in my second year as acolyte, almost ready for my own apprenticeship to a pastoral mage. I remember rumors of a Firestarting prodigy.
I wonder if you've spoken to any of your brethren recently? I ask because there have been rumors of a hunting party being started, since some of Witach's kin have been found to work for Ancar. You are the only Firestarter I know who would have the opportunity to notice such a thing, as the remainder of your Order are strictly for internal affairs.
I will keep you posted on the hunting party. It shall be interesting how His Eminence deals with such a fiercely eager bunch.
Rumor has it he's taken to hiding away in his private chapel when a Firestarter enters the High Temple! I, of course, doubt His Eminence would act in such an ignoble fashion. Clearly his detractors are spreading malignant lies about His Most Gracious.
Be careful Brother. You are in one of the more dangerous posts for our type, and I would enjoy having a brother at my side in the years to come. I have a feeling that Ari's folk will have work to do yet, even if the criteria of witch is honed.
May Vkandis watch over you,
Solaris, Red-Robed Priestess-Mage, 2nd Order
He read the letter a few times over, a quiet joy bringing a smile to his face. He had not expected her to actually write him unless his services were needed. A simple update, something that – well, something a friend would write when they hadn't seen one another in a while. That was not the sort of letter he had expected from Solaris. From anyone, really, but especially not from their Ascending Son.
He traced a finger over the repeated instances of 'brother'. One was uncapitalized, and he doubted she was the sort to be inconsistent unintentionally. The lower case brother – declaring she'd enjoy having a brother at her side in the years to come. It meant something.
Kir folded the letter carefully and went to put it in his personal copy of the classical Writ, written on and heavily notated over the years. The letter would serve as a good page-marker for now, and he would take the chance to reread it often. It was a good reminder of their country's hope.
He then pulled out some paper and his own ink, thinking on what he might include in his reply. She had called him a brother, and not just in the priesthood. He understood better than most the loneliness that came with power and prestige, and while she was just another red-robe now, he doubted that would last long. If she wanted a brother, well. He had missed having a sister.
"You, are suspiciously happy," Anur declared, watching Kir mock-warily, his own smile belying the statement.
"I have received news from Sunhame," Kir's smile became something sharp and almost malicious, "My brethren have heard of Ancar's witches, and are insisting a hunting party be sent out. The Son of Sun is apparently most distressed by their constant demands."
"Really?" Anur raised an eyebrow, and Kir actually laughed, "Apparently, he hides in his rooms the moment a Firestarter enters the grounds!"
Anur snickered, wondering if the hunting party would ever be approved, and if so, how badly they would affect Ancar. It was probably too much to hope that they would only go after Ancar, if they were given a blanket permission to leave Karse's borders to burn witches.
"Do you think it will get approved?" he asked instead.
"No," Kir shook his head, "Ancar does not set blood mages against us, meaning it would be taken as an act of territory-gaining war, rather than defensive measures. And no matter how afeared the Son of Sun may become, he won't set Firestarters on a country he isn't ready to conquer. Not when Ancar is a blood-mage himself, from what you've said."
"Well as helpful as it would be to get some of those blood mages eliminated, I have to be grateful," Anur admitted, "I doubt all Firestarters would confine their attentions to Hardorn."
Kir hesitated, before nodding reluctantly, "You are right. Once they received permission to leave the borders, there are a few who are so fanatical they would not care what direction they went in, so long as there were people to burn."
"How many Firestarters are there? Is there a ranking system, like with the mages?"
"Nothing based on pure power, like mage-rankings," Kir replied, "It is a mix of ability with flames, number of successful burnings, and politics. Our Order is seldom more than twenty, historically speaking. Now I think – there are only eleven of us. I think there might be a few acolytes being trained up to Firestarters, but no more than fifteen Firestarters now."
"Do you keep in touch with any of them? Is that how you got word about the hunt?" Anur asked.
Kir shook his head, "No, that was a letter from a village priestess I'd met in the course of my duties. She was in Sunhame and heard the rumors, thought I might appreciate them. I don't keep in touch with my fellows. At first it was because the 62nd was meant as a death-sentence, then it was because I offered them nothing in return, as far as political or even Firestarting power goes."
"But… you're a really good Firestarter," Anur said, clearly confused.
"Until I got involved with the 62nd's fights, the people who knew I could control flames without invocations numbered exactly three," Kir said dryly, with a significant look at Anur. "As far as my brethren are concerned, I am a prodigy who failed to live up to his reputation and burnt out before accomplishing anything truly great."
Anur looked deeply bothered by that, and Kir shook his head with a smile, "Do not worry about it Herald. There are far worse things to be than a disgraced Firestarter of the First Order."
"First Order? Isn't that good?"
"My mentor, he was in charge of a group of acolytes, there were four of us," Kir shrugged, "He chose me as the one to enter the First Order because of my potential. He probably suspected I was better than I pretended, he was a sharp man."
"What happened to him?"
"Hmm? Oh. He died of old age," Kir shrugged, before smiling bitterly, "Or one of my fellow acolytes poisoned him so we would be promoted sooner. We had been with him for years and he hadn't promoted us, so with him dead we were promoted for lack of anywhere else to send us."
"That's horrible," Anur said flatly, appalled at the matter of fact way assassination and poisoning was being taken in the priesthood his friend had grown up in. "I'm glad you're far away from anyone like that!"
"I am too," Kir sighed, looking up at the forbidding slate sky. "I really am."
It was another lull-time, Anur left without much to do. So he had taken the dispatches he was going to be sending to Kir next and got to work translating them. There was no need for his friend to have to translate all of the blasted things himself after all.
"Herald?" Captain Naomi raised an eyebrow at him, standing in the doorway, "What exactly are you doing?"
"Translating. Kir speaks and reads Valdemaran pretty well, but military terminology is a little obscure for him to have gotten his hands on. And the only people who are really working with him on this are the Captain and Sergeant, who have other duties and don't read Valdemaran very well. They didn't know more than a few words before this whole thing started," Anur explained.
"Huh," Naomi frowned, looking at the stack of papers in front of him, before shrugging and looking over her shoulder, shouting, "Anders! Get in here!"
Her second in command, Anders Corith, came up and asked, "Yes Captain?"
"You get to help us with some translating," she smirked, "Improve your Karsite."
He groaned, but didn't object, the two Guard members pulling up chairs and grabbing some pens and ink, grabbing a report to start translating. They had been written with empty space between the lines, so it was easy enough to add the translation under the sentences they referred too. Anur hoped that would help speed the learning process for the two officers Kir was working with.
"A fair number of our men at least know the basics of Karsite curses," Naomi said idly, "Maybe you can hold some form of language sessions? Karsite, Hardornen, Rethwallen – we can use them all now. Focus on the first two of course, but it should be simple enough to make them translate these things as practice after a few sessions."
"If we only have them translating this in Karsite, they'll notice something is up," Anders pointed out, "The lack of transfers has been noticeable enough, even if they are only starting to wonder. There won't be any true suspicions until spring thaw and the restart of the Hardornen season."
He was referring to a decision made when Captain Naomi had accepted the proposal on behalf of her unit. Rather than risk word of collaboration with Karse spread, as the longer this went on the more likely it was that something would be found out by the lower ranks, they had put a freeze on all transfers out of the bandit-patrolling unit. It was not a great burden, as transfers were relatively rare, but after a few moons of none getting an order to leave for different posts it was noticeable.
"The earlier we get them thinking about it the better," Anur opined, "I know Kir is hoping to ease his unit into considering it. With the three joint raids we've done, he was saying there is at least some suspicion in it, but no one has mentioned anything in his hearing or the commanders. It's probably a good few moons more before any of them are ready for a face-to-face."
"Start thinking about it," Naomi ordered, "I want to meet this Captain Ulrich I've been writing to. Maybe the spring thaw? It'd be a good time for it, before things really pick up speed again."
"I'll mention it at some point," Anur shrugged, another idea coming to him and he asked, "You don't happen to know where there might be some extra Karsite-Valdemaran dictionaries, do you?"
"I think we have a reprint of an old one, with Herald Alberich's more militaristic corrections and some of our own," Naomi frowned, "No one's really using it. You want to pass it on?"
"I think it'd be a good gesture."
"Agreed. We'll find it after we get a few more of these finished."
"I have a gift for you!" Anur cheered as Kir rode up, earlier than the priest for once. Kir raised an eyebrow mutely and dismounted, unsaddling and grooming Riva before he dropped down onto the ground next to his friend and accepted the packet of dispatches in exchange for his own, a book resting on top of the stack.
"A… Karsite-Valdemarn dictionary?" Kir asked in amazement, flipping through the text, clearly a recent reproduction of an older one.
"It's a little archaic, according to Herald Alberich, but should serve as a decent primer," Anur explained. "He's added some more modern terminology, especially military terms, in the back. It's a reprinted edition, common in the guard down here. Not an original, old text. Those edits are why we had it reprinted. Well, and so Herald-Chronicler Myste wouldn't kill us all for risking one of our only such dictionaries and grammars on the front-lines."
"Herald-Chronicler Myste?" Kir repeated doubtfully, "Heralds have their own Chronicler?"
"Well yeah, it makes it easier," Anur shrugged, "You know, to write things from a Herald's perspective. Even in Valdemar people sometimes have trouble realizing that a Companion isn't just a particularly clever horse, for example. Or understand the real limitations of our gift. Or even understand that we have human flaws. Having a fellow Herald around to write that stuff in keeps future generations from thinking they need to be perfect superhumans."
"Interesting," Kir murmured, returning to flipping through the dictionary. "We… there are personal diaries, in the Sunhame library, of the ancient priests. The Sunhame library – there is so much knowledge there, so much history, just left to rot because it doesn't agree with current politics," he sighed heavily, "It is honestly a miracle they haven't simply burned that section."
"Those must be some really old texts," Anur said mildly, and Kir shrugged, "Copies of copies. Few originals can last that long, even with preservation spells. But our library-scribes aren't chosen for their abilities to think about what they read and write, they're chosen for their strict adherence to copying down everything word for word, smudge for smudge."
"That's good though, at least you can be reasonably certain that the translations and such are as accurate as possible," Anur pointed out, before saying, "It'd be interesting, to see what was written about Herald's before – well. Before this whole conflict started. I mean, no oral tales have survived from what you said, but maybe some written ones have?"
"It was such a long descent," Kir sighed, before quirking a smile and setting the dictionary aside, "I thank you for the gift, Herald. Now, what news have you?"
"Well I got another letter from Asher last week – "
Kir only just glimpsed the blue-clad riders, the final volley of arrows from the Valdemaran's hitting the fleeing bandits right as they reached the 62nd's ambush. This was their fourth such set-up, there had been two where the 62nd sent the scum fleeing into the Valdemaran's waiting arms and one against Hardornens which hadn't been more than a notice that there were some heading their way.
He was on foot for this one, wearing his usual armor and robe tossed over it. It was too much a part of his uniform for him to feel comfortable without it, and it was old and faded enough that the red color didn't make him any more of a target than the rest of the Sunsguard, particularly not now with fall colors coming in on the hills.
Now that his talents were acknowledged as useful in combat, he wasn't so easily left behind to do nothing but burn pyres. The current strategy was for him to burn those he could before they got in close, since he wasn't able to completely keep flames from touching Karsites. When they were mixed in like fights inevitably ended up, he ran the risk of lighting his own people on fire, which was unacceptable, particularly given his quick-burn method to avoid any screams. It also meant there was no chance for him to realize a mistake and stop before they were critically injured.
A fire arrow hit the bandit furthest out from them and he flared it, flames spreading from the one hit to the four nearest him and devouring them and their horses. He wasn't able to prevent the horses from getting off terrified screams, but he did his best.
Shouts of alarm and terror in a mix of tongues rang out as they realized they hadn't escaped across the border as they'd hoped to, Kir smiling grimly and snagging another three with his flames before their lines collided, steel on steel ringing out as archers kept firing. He had his own blade out and ready even as he killed the flames, everyone too mixed together for his methods to be worthwhile now.
He only watched now, waiting for anyone to get far enough away from the mixed together mass for a fire to be worth sending, but it happened rarely. The horses and men were so busy trying not to trample or slice at their brethren that they couldn't get away from each other enough to get some breathing room. Kir was content with that, he was at least more useful than he had been.
The sergeant had also delivered some truly fantastic diatribes on the necessity of not overly risking himself. After all, he wasn't just some firestarting priest anymore, he was an essential part of a cross-border conspiracy, and the only one who spoke and read decent Valdemaran, even with a dictionary to help out.
"That dictionary is fantastic," Kir said after they plotted out another mutual-nest raid on their maps. "And thank you for translating those extra reports, it cut my work in half easily. Who helped you with it, there were a few hands."
"Captain Naomi and Second Lieutenant Anders, for that batch," Anur grinned. "Seems the good Captain thought her men could use some language practice as the raids slow down a bit, so there're a few new hands in that stack you have now. We're doing Rethwallen, Hardornen and Karsite practice, so that's the result. I checked them, they're all accurate."
"They won't get suspicious? About translating reports into Karsite?"
"The hope is that they'll get sort of suspicious, like yours are, so when something inevitably sends this whole thing crashing into chaos we won't be automatically trying to kill one another. Suspicions without confirmation, they're just as good as confirmed reports most of the time."
"Valid," Kir sighed, "A few glimpsed blue uniforms this last round, I've heard murmurs about it. Nothing concrete, and no one's come to speak to me about it. It might be brushed off as coincidence this time."
"Honestly I think as long as there's no real contact between us, it should be okay," Anur frowned, "What do you think?"
"It should be," Kir smiled wryly, "But I know as well as any that what should happen doesn't always. We're probably the best unit to be trying something as mad as this though."
"Yeah. Yeah you probably are."
"Ah, I forgot. I have some monographs for Griffon," Kir smiled, handing over papers written in his carefully cramped hand, "You mentioned he was practicing, thought these might be interesting reading for him. You too, I suppose, but they're a little technical. Amounts of energy for lighting different materials, the proper ratio of kindling to corpse, things along those lines."
"Excellent!" Anur grinned, taking them happily, "He did have a few questions for you actually, mostly on the details of that buzzing method, he's been having some trouble 'hearing' it, or whatever it is you guys do."
Anur pored over the copies that had been sent to him, cross-referencing between different documents and dictionaries and trying not to get a wretched headache doing so. He'd spent the day doing drills and then translating some of the dispatches to be sent to Kir into Karsite with the language practice group.
Even with that dictionary and the now half-translated dispatches, he didn't doubt that most of the translation work fell to Kir just by virtue of his schedule being a bit more flexible. That was the reason he ended up doing most of the translations on this end, even with more than one officer being reasonably fluent in Karsite and the new practice arrangements.
This current project was something that had come to him after his last meeting with Kir, when he had relayed some of Griffon's questions. A lot of Griffon's insight into firestarting before Kir had come along was pieced together from old records of Lavan Firestorm's instructor, Herald Pol. Even those didn't really help, since Firestorm had never actually explained the real mechanics of what he was doing to the man, or if he had, it hadn't been recorded in the chronicles.
Griffon had taken to writing out his own manual of Firestarting, with trials, errors and insights mixed in with personal comments and concerns. He had tried making it dry, but Herald Myste had quickly set him to rights and informed him a personal journal of the most powerful firestarter of the age, including plenty of technical details, would be far more useful to future generations than a dry manual.
It was also a lot easier to write, so Griffon hadn't objected.
Anyway, it, and their translation woes, had given Anur an idea he wanted to work on a bit more before presenting to Kir, because as good as Griffon was, Kir was simply better. Also, from a purely selfish standpoint, Anur wanted future generations to remember Kir Dinesh, Firestarter who didn't start Fires, as a firestarting master. Griffon was already a hero of song and tale thanks to the war with Ancar, but Kir would quietly slip away, considered some sort of failed prodigy, and it wasn't fair. Convincing him to create a manual for future firestarters was the easiest way to remedy that in his mind.
Leading to his current project, because that sort of knowledge couldn't be given away for free. Initially an attempt to compile everything in the Chronicles about the firestarting Gift, it had turned into a ridiculously massive project to compile the Gift, the Order of Firestarters (and hadn't that been a surprise to find), and the presence of the Sunlord's people in Valdemar (thanks to Asher's bizarrely timely letter).
So with the weekly batch of orders and letters came a thick stack of copies written on the backs of other documents, scraps, and in one amusing case old essays on Rethwallen's historical politics. Myste had found apprentices, bored scribes and students needing help with research methods and penmanship to sic on her library and hunt for the information.
In payment, he got to make two of the things, one for Kir and one for the official library, which made his job doubly long and half as enjoyable. At least with Kir's he was able to insert personal asides and comments, with the official one he didn't quite dare. This was supposed to be a compilation, not a personal Chronicle like Griffon's, and she had made it very clear that they were two entirely different genres.
She had always been intimidating to him. When he realized that she and Weaponsmaster Alberich were romantically involved? Terror was a better word.
"Herald! A letter for you, not just those papers," one of the runners grinned, dropping the letter on his stack of papers spread out over a table in the mess.
"Thanks Gil," he said, happy to set his pen aside. He recognized that handwriting.
"We're going to have to be more careful this next moon," Kir said, stretched out on the ground to stare up at the clear blue autumn sky. "Reinforcements are coming in and we'll be busy integrating them and making sure there aren't any lurking traps for us."
Anur mumbled something, half-asleep in the sun, day unusually warm for the harvest season. Kir snorted and nudged the Herald with his boot, "Wake up Herald! Your witch-horse won't be memorizing everything for you!"
"Bah," the Herald flapped his hand at him, but didn't drift back into a stupor, continuing, "Valdemaran Harvest Fairs take place pretty soon, that sort of season and the travel surge before winter hits is a popular time to strike for bandits. Summer is just too cursed hot half the time."
"You will receive no argument from us," Kir sighed, fingers laced behind his head. "Even if some escape across the border, give us a heading and we can at least track them from there. Those sorts of missions would be a good test of abilities for the new arrivals."
"So how big is your unit going to get now? Enough to let us off the hook, as it were?"
"Of course not," Kir replied sardonically, "That would be too sensible. Our numbers will top off at sixty-one, if all the arrivals show. Since half of them are going to be raw recruits just spat out of training, it will probably drop down under sixty after one or two raids."
"How encouraging," Anur said dryly. "Not much for optimism, are we?"
"I have no need for optimism," Kir retorted. Indeed, he didn't. Instead, he had a rock-hard certainty that things would get better for his people as Solaris' Ascent approached. But those matters were still too close to his heart, to close to Karse's heart, to be bandied about in front of foreigners, even one as trustworthy as Anur. The easy mental connection between all the Heralds would make political matters told in strict confidence alarmingly easy to spread around. They couldn't afford that.
"Think they'll give you any trouble? Integrating the new ones into the less-than-orthodox 62nd?"
"I doubt it. The truly orthodox are few and far between."
Kir dusted the altar in the chapel, as he often did when he needed to think and couldn't sit still to work on his knots. The entirety of the sacred area was gleaming by now. He'd been thinking for a while. The reinforcements he had told Anur about had finally arrived, swelling their numbers to sixty, but as he'd guessed, a few of them were so fresh that he doubted they'd last one hard raid against bandits, much less the more organized enemy to their north-east.
The 54th had been similarly reinforced, but even with those numbers the decreased mobility inherent in a foot unit made it difficult for them to cover their half of the border sufficiently, much less aid them in their own troubles. It was just as well they'd come to this odd arrangement across the border, otherwise they'd truly be in dire straits by now.
And some of their men were noticing. He wasn't a confidant of anyone, by any means, but he was so used to unobtrusively making himself part of a group – as that was the only way he would ever be part of a group, before this Hardorn business unified them – that between that experience and the men's gradual desensitization to his presence he was able to overhear a significant amount of their musings and mutters.
No one was truly objecting, thank the Sunlord, nor were they willing to complain. He just wished he could be more certain if it were because they understood they were working with Valdemarans and at least abstractly approved, or if they were just terrified of trying to report heresy when they all damn well knew priests burned their messengers more often than not. Well, that and the fact that he highly doubted his own connections across the border had gone unremarked and remained secret, not after that supply train run.
The door to the chapel, always unlocked but seldom used outside of services, opened and an unfamiliar voice called, "Your Holiness?"
If the unfamiliarity hadn't given it away, the title surely did. One of the new arrivals then, seeking his counsel? Strange, strange indeed. One would think they would be the most jumpy and unlikely to trust him in anyway.
"Yes? You are one of our new recruits, correct?" Kir asked, the dim light of the moon and dusk-stained sky filtering through the high windows and aided by his oil lamps and, of course, the Ever Burning Flame.
"Yes, your holiness. Leif Gero, of Ruby Lake region," the young man, probably in his early twenties, probably one of the ones fresh from training, came forward, bowing at the appropriate distance to the altar before approaching Kir respectfully.
Kir watched him come, something about Gero's stance and expression making him uneasy. The expressions of faith and respect should be heartening, that someone could find Light in the priesthood and the Faith even in these times, but there was a flicker of doubt, a seed of concern, that this was not just an exceptionally faithful soldier –
"I am afraid that I have found wickedness, Your Holiness," the man said, the fire-light gleaming in worried dark eyes and Kir felt his heart nearly stop. He hid his sudden start by folding his arms, white knuckles now safely hidden in his sleeves as he returned the traditional challenge to such a claim, "Wickedness? In my flock?"
The relief that flickered across Gero's face after his answer was a terrible thing to witness. The traditional witchcraft accusation was a formulaic, formal thing, tightly regulated by ritual and ancient tradition. It was something seldom used now, even though witch-burnings were so much more common than when the tradition began. Perhaps because it implied the priest had missed signs of wickedness, or perhaps because the meditation and ritual investigation which was to take place afterwards took too long for those accustomed to setting all those who came against them on fire without delay.
Either way, the boy (and what else could Kir call him, this baby-faced fellow from down by the lake of his home, so ardent and true to the Sunlord as he had been raised) was happy to continue the traditional exchange of accuser and priest.
"Even the most watchful shepherd can be tugged by mercy," Gero said, and Kir bowed his head. Both because ritual demanded a brief pause and meditative silence and because he did not want the boy to see his grief. Mercy. If only he could afford to be tugged by it now!
"Tell me of this darkness that seeks to poison my people," he said quietly, Gero now dropping to his knees before the altar and placing a hand over his heart to attest to the solemnity and seriousness of his accusation. Kir was free to move about at this point, and he did, pacing slowly and deliberately behind, around and in front of him. The tradition held that if he did this while the accuser recited the evil they'd found, they would be shaken and unable to tell a mistruth.
The rock in his gut grew heavier as he heard the report, knowing that in this case, the ritual was not needed. Every word the boy was going to say was true.
"I have heard words, spoken in support of our enemy, the Demon-Riders of the North," Gero began. "I have heard words, spoken against our most Holy Eminence, the Son of the Sun himself. I have heard plots, detailed against our most Holy Eminence, the Son of the Sun himself. I have seen bitterness, against those who serve our God. I have seen insult, offered to the Furies who cleanse our lands."
Kir could probably name exactly who had offered this evidence, where he had seen these things. It was too common. He had been too soft with them. Letting them grow used to speaking their minds freely and without excessive concern for burning. Ach! At least he was paying the price for his own carelessness.
Gero's voice did not raise in volume, but grew increasingly strident and determined as he delivered the final lines of the accuser's traditional plea, "I have heard, I have seen, I have witnessed heresy and wickedness under the bright Sun, Your Holiness, and I beg you, drive it from this flock that we might be freed!"
Kir stood behind Gero, waiting in silence as he stared at the flames, unwilling to look down at the bowed head of the man before him. Tradition called for his thoughts to be mulled over completely, for him to consider and carefully determine if this accusation was worthy of further investigation. Tradition also demanded that Gero not move from his spot until he had been given an answer. Both the affirmation and the denunciation were formalized.
Kir could not lie. Not here. It was the one thing he would have left.
"I have heard your claims. I have seen your sincerity. I have witnessed your Faith," Kir said quietly, still clearly audible over the silence of the chapel. "And I, and the Sunlord, have found them pleasing to us. Wickedness shall be pursued."
Gero slumped to the ground, dead.
Kir stared at his hands for a moment, blankly appalled at the ease with which he had snapped the boy's neck. He had not done that in years, but it seemed some things would never leave him.
Dropping to his knees beside the soldier's corpse, he gathered him to his chest and felt his heart break, tears tracking down his face as he shut the peaceful eyes. Somehow he had made it quick and sudden enough that there was no expression of alarm or concern straining that face. The boy had probably not even known what had happened before the Sunlord collected him.
Collected him from His own House by the One God, what had he done?
"Kir – are you all right?" Anur asked, resting a hand on his shoulder. He had arrived to find Kir staring blankly at a half-completed sun motif, barely even twitching at his arrival.
"I am so tired, Anur," the whisper was barely audible, and Anur couldn't help but flinch at the expression on his friend's face. He was immensely glad, in that moment, that he was no Empath. That much wretched exhaustion and guilt was not something he would ever want to catch an echo of, much less feel.
He couldn't bring himself to ask what had happened either, or even if there were any raids in the offing. Not right now, while the now truly autumn sky threatened and the chill was biting and his friend sat in the cold sounding like he would like nothing more than to just fall asleep and never wake.
All Anur could think to do, was sit down and press against his side, arm draped over his shoulders and tucking cloaks around them to keep out the bite of the cold breeze.
When he returned from the meeting, holding only paper reports and no verbal relays or messages, the Captain had taken one look at his face and accepted them mutely, with no scolding for the lack of extra information.
They had sat the entire time in silence.
:I don't understand Aelius, what could have happened to make him like that?: Anur fretted, pacing his quarters in the barracks and quite probably driving the men in the meeting room below him to distraction.
:I don't know Chosen. I am no heart-reader,: Aelius replied with a heavy sigh. It had been six days since that disturbing meeting with Kir and they'd already gone over all five words he'd said with a fine-toothed comb, before shaking them up and going over them again.
:Tired. Tired. I am so tired. Why tired? Tired of what? Not of life, too broad,: Anur started mentally mumbling to himself, Aelius subsiding to listen to him rant and ramble as he tried to make sense of the strange incident yet again. :Tired of Karse? He loves Karse. His unit he would rant about, his men he would grumble, tired of what?:
:Chosen, what would make you so tired? What could drive you to despair like that?: Aelius finally asked.
Anur froze mid-step, before shaking his head sharply and replying curtly, :You know the answer to that, Aelius.:
:And does it work for him as well? It wasn't tiredness that drove you, Chosen.:
:Loneliness. Despair. Betrayal from one I thought trustworthy,: Anur recited quietly, :I had broken my brother's heart and with it mine – he's hurt a flock-member.:
:A flock-member, he feels responsible Aelius, that's it! He feels responsible for some horrible grief, something awful that no one can say he is not party to! You said it yourself! He's a true priest, he'd make a good Herald. A true priest cares for their people, what if caring for the flock meant hurting one or more? Like… oh I don't know. Culling a sick animal before it dragged down the herd?:
:Lovely image, Chosen, thank you,: Aelius replied dryly, before continuing more solemnly, :That seems the most likely scenario. He's been balancing on that rope for some time. Having to choose between his people and what he views as right… yes. That would hurt.:
:Right. That settles it then,: Anur pulled his packs out from under his bed and started packing, stripping out of his Whites and changing while he was at it.
:Chosen…?: Aelius asked warily, not yet seeing what his plan was.
:We're going to Karse. And I'm posting that letter.:
"Coz – agh!"
Kir stared at the man who'd been sprawled in a chair in his quarters, his locked quarters, as he frantically patted out a burning sleeve. Recognizing him in the bright morning light, now that he had a moment to think, he couldn't bring himself to put out the flame by virtue of shock.
"Herald?" he heard himself ask faintly, as though from a far distance.
Finally the sleeve was out, brown quilted coat scorched but no skin burning, and Anur, the ridiculously out of place man, turned to smile at him slightly, "You expecting other visitors today?"
"I was expecting no visitors. It is Solsday Herald, I just got out of a long Sun Rising service and all but those with the most essential duties are spending the day resting!" Kir ranted, Anur laughing and pulling him into an embrace. Kir returned it, patting him on the shoulder awkwardly, "So I am not hallucinating," the Sunpriest muttered to himself.
"No! Of course not! Your hallucinations could not be so dashing!" Anur insisted, pulling away but leaving an arm draped over Kir's shoulder and tugging him over to the crackling fire, pressing him into one of the chairs and busying himself with mugs of tea for a few moments before handing one to the priest, who accepted it still in shock.
"Is there some emergency? Shall I get the Captain?" he asked finally, starting to get to his feet but Anur glared at him so fiercely he sat back down, sipping his tea quietly.
The Herald smiled and said, "No, no emergency. Not on my end. Just wanted to see you is all. You know, without having nothing to do but business."
"…So you sneak into an enemy nation and risk the entire enterprise to – what. Catch up on gossip? I've told you all there is to know when we see each other! You ridiculous -" Kir began to rant, and Anur just shook his head, sitting back to watch with a smile.
When Kir wound down, Anur's smile broadened and he said, "Can I not just want to see my friend? We're friends Kir. I had some down-time. I wasn't caught, it's fine! And if I was, you could set my hair on fire again and Aelius would get me out, and you could say the evilness of my witch-magic was keeping you from fighting me effectively in this blasted cold! Or you know, something."
"Yes, or something," Kir snorted. "How helpful."
But he wasn't completely able to hide the fond relief lurking in his expression, and Anur counted it as a win. That awful weariness was still there, shadowing him, but it was not so bad now, with company and a reminder of friendship to at least ward it off for the moment.
It was no more than a temporary solution, he knew that much, but until Kir was willing to really let him help, he could do no more.
Though with any luck, that acceptance of help would happen before he had to do this long-term, because Aelius hadn't been particularly pleased with the idea of them being separated by walls, sentries, and leagues of cold, slumbering land. Only a few pointed reminders and pleas had gotten him to go along with this in the first place.
Leif Gero had vanished easily enough, he had only just arrived and not with any truly close friends from the group he'd arrived with. They'd been pulled from all different training groups and current commissions, so there were only few-day-old acquaintances to deal with and then the paperwork necessary to inform his next-of-kin he was dead.
He had burned the body, slowly deposited armor and weapons back into the common armory, where they weren't noticed as unusual in the mismatched jumble they had collected in lieu of regular resupplies. The Sergeant and he had easily spun a tale of him going outside the walls for a moment and vanishing, which, in the border-zones, meant he was dead by Furies most likely. To his mixed relief and shame, no one questioned it and some of the men had actually approached him and tried to tell him that there was nothing he could have done, it wasn't his fault that he hadn't cleared out the Fury nests responsible.
Captain Ulrich, responsible for writing the letters of notification, had a policy for such incidents. All border-guard officials did. There were a few standard stories of ambush and tragedy, with a dash of heroism or character thrown in so those left behind did not feel they had died in vain, or, worse, cold, alone and terrified as they were torn to shreds by monsters.
Or warm, relieved, and unknowing as a trusted authority snapped their neck from behind.
"Father Kir, your visitor made it out safely?" Greich asked lowly after the Sun-Rising service the day following Anur's surprise visit.
Kir raised an eyebrow, surprised the man had been found out and relieved no alerts had been called, and nodded. The Sergeant hesitated, appearing to be about to say something, before shaking his head and leaving to harry his victims in drills.
Frowning slightly, he let it go and finished clearing the chapel and sacristy before he went to conduct his own drills with the archers. With autumn finally making that turn towards winter, the bandits would be making their last, more desperate raids soon to hold them over for winter itself. Then they'd enter the dull times.
He was dreading those times. He didn't think meditation and flames would be enough to keep young Gero's face, and those of his other victims, at bay for much longer than a week, and the dull season often lasted an entire moon, if not longer.
Was it wrong for him to wish for some excuse to leave?
"So what are you making now?" Anur asked, the two of them standing between their horses for warmth today, their mounts serving as windbreaks in the cold.
They had already swapped dispatches, nearly done with sending relevant old ones along with the more recent news, and now were just standing around, neither really willing to cut their visit shorter than necessary even with the poor weather. Kir looked up from the rounded, fancy-knotwork rope he was making and smiled, eyes crinkling over his scarf to give the expression away, "Your midwinter gift, Herald."
"Really?" Anur beamed, staring at the slowly forming rope with fierce concentration, wanting to figure out what it would end up being, besides a nice rope. "What's it going to be?"
"You'll find out later," Kir chuckled, before sighing, "Will these meetings continue into winter? Snow here does not make it impassible, but inconvenient, certainly."
"You have to travel two days just to get here, Kir, it's a bit more than inconvenient in snow," Anur pointed out, noticeably hesitating before he continued, "But – ah. Do you get any leave?"
"In winter?" Kir shrugged, "Of course. Chaplains receive two weeks off of personal leave per year, not that there is much to do with it. I haven't taken mine in – well. I've only taken a few days. Besides that, there are few who would stop me. I need to be present for High Holy days or arrange a replacement, that is the only real limitation."
"The only High Holy day coming up is Midwinter itself, right?" Anur asked, "I know some faiths have multiple days around Midwinter as important…"
"No, just Midwinter itself. The vigil, of course, which might actually be attended this year besides me, a nice change," Kir muttered the last, before continuing, "Have you got plans?"
"Not for Midwinter itself," Anur shrugged, "Depends on what the guards are doing I suppose. Griff is heading up to Haven to take advantage of the off-season, a lot of the guards are doing the same or at least getting a week or so of leave. I'm taking two weeks to visit my family – they live further west, three days from here by the East Road, within range of Evendim weather."
"Sounds nice," Kir commented idly, picking at a knot which had twisted the wrong way to correct it.
"…Would you like to come?" Anur asked.
Kir froze, looking up slowly and whispering, "What?"
"Would you like to come?" Anur repeated, elaborating, "There's plenty of room, I asked if they'd mind an extra head and horse and they don't. If you won't be missed for two weeks, I'm to return the week before Midwinter, so there would be plenty of time for you to return for the vigil service. I just thought – well. I thought it might be nice."
"When are you planning on leaving?" Kir asked after a long silence.
"I was going to leave right from our next meeting," Anur replied, "Shaves a half-day off my route."
His sheepish grin when Kir raised a brow at him spoke to a not entirely practical explanation. Doubtless he wanted to make the offer as appealingly simple to carry out as possible.
"I will inquire," Kir allowed, Anur whooping in glee. "I haven't said yes yet Herald!" he laughed, Anur ignoring him and launching into claims of how fantastic this was going to be.