He had underestimated the distance, Riva and he both exhausted by the time the familiar walls of the barracks came into sight in the early morning light. "Oh thank the Sunlord," he muttered, Riva plodding determinedly towards the gate, Kir barely able to keep from swaying in his seat like a drunkard.
"Identify you- Your Holiness?!" an incredulous voice came from the top of the wall, shouting down to his comrades, "Open the gates! And get a medic!"
The gates slowly swung open, and Riva trudged through, stopping on the other side when the gates could shut behind him and refusing to take another step. Kir didn't blame him, and swung out of the saddle slowly, holding onto Riva's neck to keep himself upright. The corpsman came running up along with one of the men in charge of the horses, both blanching at the site of them.
Kir focused on the hostler, handing the reins over and saying, "Treat him like a high priest. More than earned it."
Riva whickered pleasantly, realizing his work was over, and followed the worried hostler with plodding hooves.
"And yourself Your Holiness?" the corpsman, Neivan Janner, asked. "Can you report?"
What he wanted was to sleep, but if the Captain requested a report, then the Captain requested a report. Technically he wasn't in the man's chain of command, and this last mission had nothing to do with him, but they were on shaky enough ground he wasn't willing to compromise that for a report that would take all of twenty minutes.
"Very well," he agreed, dredging up his last energy to straighten up, "His office?"
"Ah, yes sir," the corpsman blinked at him in surprise. Kir nodded shortly and strode off, blood, dirt and ash stained robes flaring in his wake. He probably looked utterly disgusting. He felt it too, but his quarters had a private bath, with heated water even, so after this report, he could clean off a week's grime and get a truly restful sleep.
Rapping on the door, he opened it and stepped into the Captain's office, Captain Ulrich looking up from the reports he was reading and flatly staring at him. "By Vkandis Sunpriest, you look dead on your feet, sit, do you want some water?"
"If I sit, I won't be able to stand," Kir reported bluntly. "What do you want to know?"
"I – what?" the Captain stared at him incredulously. "You do not report to me, Sunpriest."
"I was informed you wanted me to report, I thought in the interest of future cooperation I would allow the request," Kir said stiffly, not liking the feeling of someone scheming around him.
"I – well, I suppose I would like to know the outcome of the summons, I also am hoping to speak with you regarding your future use on the battlefield, if you are agreeable, but both those can surely wait until you actually get some sleep, and maybe some food," the Captain informed him rising to his feet and guiding him back to the door.
Blasted corspman, probably had been testing him for reasoning ability or something equally medical sounding. "There was no burning, they escaped the day before I reported in," Kir said, leaving the Captain staring after him wondering at the specific wording and exactly what had happened to the Sunpriest to leave him in such a state.
Looking over his shoulder before he exited the building to hit his own quarters, thankfully only one building over in the back of the chapel, he said, "If anyone wakes me before noon, I will set their hair on fire. Good day Captain."
He turned around and managed to walk all the way to his quarters and shut the door behind him without stumbling. He blessed whatever kind, kind soul had already poured water into the rough tub he had access too, even setting the whole thing to warm. Stripping out of his truly filthy clothes, he prodded the flames higher to heat the water faster and gladly tried to remove all evidence of his truly wretched long week. Pulling loose, clean trews on, he collapsed onto his bed, muttering thanks to Vkandis before he was out.
"Right, before the Sunpriest wakes up, does anyone have any ideas what happened?" the Captain asked his seconds in command, the Sergeant scratching his jaw idly as he eyed the small chapel. The three of them were standing in the Sergeant's cramped office, where he could see clearly the chapel and the often mucky parade grounds in front of it.
The corpsman, a lifer Lieutenant of twelve years in the guard, four with their unit, cleared his throat. "He was completely exhausted. According to the hostler, his horse showed signs of at least four days hard travel with little breaks. He's apparently very impressed that the priest managed to get that much work out of the beast without hurting him. Good horseflesh can only do so much when an idiot rides, I think were his exact words."
"Sunpriest Dinesh has always been a decent horseman," the Sergeant replied dryly, "Does no one pay attention to the man's actions? He has never sent living wounded to the tithe, he came to us with knowledge of horses and decent wilderness survival skills, he was hailed as a Firestarting prodigy until he was sent to us in a permanent posting of the truly temporary type when all rumors about him basically died."
"You are the only one of us who was here when the Sunpriest was first assigned," Captain Ulrich pointed out diplomatically, and Greich snorted, "Nine years and I never caught on the man didn't need his hand-waving. He kept that under his hat and for good reason, with how the men reacted."
"Scout Beltran started the rumor about him setting his letter on fire in rage," Janner supplied, "Beltran admits that the letter simply started smoking, and when he pointed it out His Holiness Dinesh thanked him and it stopped."
"Well setting orders from Sunhame on fire would probably count as heresy in itself," Ulrich snorted, the other men agreeing mutely. "So the orders weren't something he was happy to receive. He doesn't enjoy the witch-burnings then?"
"Were either of you there for that village with the traitor?" Greich asked abruptly, receiving the expected responses, a negative from the Captain and positive from Janner. "The man was selling information on defensive measures to bandits so they would go after people he wanted hurt," he explained bluntly, "He was sentenced to death by flames, and it was the only time I've seen Firestarter Dinesh administer flames to a living person outside that battlefield. And they were not similar in the least – those flames behaved normally, if burning a little stronger and hotter than if they had been set with simple torch and tar. The flames that struck the Hardornens – I have not seen flames that hot outside a forge."
The three sat silently, considering that, before Ulrich said, "His wording is what bothers me. It struck me as odd, that he said they escaped the day before he reported in. Why not just before he arrived? It seemed oddly specific."
Janner shrugged, he dealt with blood and medicine, not word-play. Greich, master of the motivational dressing-down, smirked after a moment, chuckling softly before he said, "Because he did not arrive before they escaped of course."
The other two caught on quickly, paling and staring out at the chapel as if they could see the Sunpriest through the walls. "He would burn for that," Janner said shakily, "If he was lucky, they would set him alight immediately."
"And who would burn him?" Greich pointed out, "The man can control flames with a glance, which I doubt is common knowledge. Any who tried to set him alight would be in for a nasty surprise. He is counting on that, or was before he let everyone in the blasted unit see it."
Ulrich nodded thoughtfully, before saying, "He's lost his trump card, stepping into the battlefield with his flames, hasn't he?"
Neither responded, realizing it was a rhetorical question given how obvious the answer was. Ulrich nodded and looked over at his two main assistants in leading this unit, small and under-supported as it was. "Sunpriest Dinesh was unfortunate enough to arrive the day after witches escaped, being forced to pursue by those who failed to hold them. He chased them all the way to the border, when they were attacked by Furies sent to do Vkandis' will. He was close enough to be caught up in their frenzy, which allowed for the witches to escape to the North," he informed them, both knowing immediately what he was asking and knowing that though this was the official stance and story, rumors of what their priest had really done would spread, inevitably.
"See what you can do to shut down rumors of his abilities. Paint is as a trump card against our enemies, not wanting to lose him to Sunhame politics and power-plays, even the truth if that would work best. But with an undeclared war and us all that stands between an army, bandits, Furies and our people, we need all the help we can get. And, well," Ulrich smiled wryly, "I have family near Sunbeam Brook."
"Never cared for witch-burnings. Evil should be destroyed, but why they could not be killed and then burned I never understood. And children – well. I didn't think my niece was evil, but the red-robes say that's the trick of demons, being likeable," Janner traded that dangerous admission for one of his own, couched vaguely enough that he couldn't truly be condemned for it.
Greich smiled grimly when they looked over at him and responded in kind, "I served under the Great Traitor in my first years in the Sunsguard. Man had uncanny luck at finding bandits and detecting ambush. The Sunpriest said it was witch-powers, but the Captain had never done anything but do the best he could to bring us all home and protect the people of Karse. I was glad he escaped, and even gladder to hear he had survived, even with the White Demons."
All three of them sat in silence, contemplating heresy and treason, before bidding one another farewell and going their separate ways. The three most influential men in the unit had come to a decision. The Sunpriest was theirs, and they would not lose him to internal politics and a priesthood they increasingly felt was filled with falsehood.
Kir, when he awoke and started reentering the unit's daily life, was surprised by the report Ulrich gave him on what he had done in the week and a half he was gone, but pleased. And even more surprised and pleased to find that Asher's optimistic belief that he might return to find the unit less terrified witless of him was actually somewhat accurate. He had work to do yet, but it wasn't as hopeless as he had thought.
Who would have thought?
Anur nearly wept when he caught sight of the Guard post he had been stationed at for the past three years. It had been a mark since they left Kir after their exchange of signals, and Aelius had only slightly slowed from his pace fleeing the Nightstalkers. He was finally home.
Judging by the way the watch called out and more torches were lit as soon as he caught sight of the place, Aelius had alerted his replacement and they were waiting. The Companion only slowed when they reached the gates, halting on the other side as Healers, medics and Heralds swarmed, taking the two riders down and Aelius led to be pampered as he deserved. He just gave up to their whims, barely managing to get out just who Asher was before they were swept into the infirmary, Asher quickly drawn into an assessment and conversation, occasionally reaching out to Anur mentally to seek reassurance.
Anur had been pulled into a private room after confirming Asher wouldn't panic if he were out of sight, other Herald a woman he recognized from a few years above him, Lenora from out by Ashkevron Keep. She just sat beside his bed as the healer's examined the wound treatment, a solid, friendly mental presence.
"This is very neatly done," the Healer commented, "You had assistance I presume?"
Anur nodded weakly, adrenaline rush of the past days finally winding down and leaving him ready to drop.
"My Glenn can get the story from Aelius," Lenora said gently when he looked over at her wearily, ready to force himself to stay awake and report.
:Aelius?: he called, wanting to make sure his Companion was getting rest too.
He should have known better, Aelius immediately gave him the mental equivalent of a hug, saying easily, :Chosen, rest. Please. I will tell them the story.:
:Kir? He – I don't – don't let them call him vicious,: Anur finally said, still bothered by Alberich's summation of the order of Firestarters. :He's a good person. A friend. Not vicious.:
:I know Chosen. I know. Rest. Please. We're safe now. We're home.:
"Home," he said softly, Lenora pulling him into a hug, the healer leaving as he collapsed against her, crying in relief. He was finally home.
Two Companions stood in their loose-boxes, to all appearances asleep. In a layer of existence slightly removed, two middle-aged men dressed in Whites from different eras sat in front of a roaring fire, playing hounds as they discussed the recent developments. One of them had a rested, contented air about him, though marred by concern. The other looked as if he had only just recovered from a bout of sickness and should really be asleep, not sitting by a fire chatting with a friend, no matter how comfortable.
"So this Sunpriest, you'd met him before?" the rested, known in both lives as Glenn, prompted.
"Yes, the night before Ancar declared war we were stuck in the stables of an inn in Hardorn, since Sunsguard had just rode into town. It was the usual story," the eagle-eyed blonde shrugged, "Apparently the Sunsguard have a similar policy and we were joined by the Firestarter. I can't read him well, he blocks his mind, and only get a vague sense of what he's feeling, so I didn't realize what he was until he made some crack about being a Firestarter, so not needing any firestarters. They negotiated a truce and exchanged stories and drinks, somehow winding up vague friends by the end of it."
"Your Herald can make friends with a rock, I swear!" Glenn laughed, Aelius smiling wryly. That was part of the reason they were partners, Aelius alienated a lot of people with his forceful personality, a more easy-going person like Anur balanced him out.
"The Sunpriest was part of it too, the only thing I could get from him, when he wasn't terrified of me, was loneliness," Aelius explained, moving a piece thoughtfully, "It was part of the reason I had Anur give him some of my hair. I wanted to see what he would do, how desperate for some friendship he really was. He took it, made a Sun-in-Glory pendant out of it, actually."
Glenn flatly stared at that, before saying, "You really found one. A real Sunpriest. From Karse itself."
"I know," Aelius shook his head, "I can hardly believe it myself. But he is. Wary of witch-powers and a true believer in burning out evil and all, but a real, honest to Vkandis Sunpriest."
"Amazing," Glenn shook his head, "And he saved your Chosen?"
"I was scared of my wits," Aelius shuddered, "They tortured him for four days. After the first two he broke and told them he was a Herald, then they healed him and tortured him again until the day before the fire was to be held."
Glenn grabbed the suddenly present bottle of alcohol and poured two large glasses, passing one to his comrade before tossing some of his own back. "He begged me to leave," Aelius whispered, curling in on himself, knuckles white around the glass. "I told him I would, if he sent a letter by Fetching to the Sunpriest first. It was the longest shot I'd ever made, but by some miracle it actually made it to him and he came Glenn. He came. He came and had a base set up in an isolated chapel no one had visited in years, had it all set up for medical treatment and then went to the village to observe from the tree-line. He talked to me Glenn, demanded I keep out of his mind but he talked to me! And dressed as a Herald and saved them both from the flames right as they were being set."
Aelius chuckled weakly, "And as we rode off, he set the flames on the Sunpriests and shouted, For Valdemar!"
Glenn snickered at that, mental image being presented to him at the same time and still as viscerally enjoyable for Aelius the second time.
"He treated him, and tolerated our obvious use of mindspeech, and he – he barely tensed when the boy discussed it blatantly. He was uncomfortable but he wasn't hateful, Glenn. I think with time, he'd get used to it. I think – I think there's some prior experience there, there's some fear or old memory that isn't for the witch-powers but is for something associated. It's mostly the mind ones that he seemed frightened of, I don't think Farsight or even Foresight would alarm his as much, they're so close to scrying and he's mentioned mages knowledgably."
"Very few are truly comfortable with mindspeech and mind-arts," Glenn pointed out, "Even I don't like the idea of someone seeing into my mind without my consent, which is essentially what Gifted can do to non-Gifted with the right training. Without knowledge of our ethical code, and even with it, knowing we're long-standing enemies would leave anyone nervous of our abilities."
"It's not uncomfortable though, it's honest terror. And he's clearly aware that Anur is a Herald, and calls him such or by name, but persists in calling me Witch-horse. There's something there," Aelius worried over the idea, Glenn calling him back to the main issue with a simple, "Well he's not your Herald, he's a friend of him. It doesn't really matter, what's hidden away in his head, does it? You need to focus on your Herald first."
Aelius smiled ruefully, acknowledging that he was tearing into an unrelated problem just a little too heartily, and continued, "So after giving medical treatment to Anur and helping Asher cope, we had one restful day before the village's black-robe arrived. I hid, Anur nearly panicked but Asher went out happily and distracted him by his own survival. Dinesh had gone hunting and when he arrived he immediately went to get the two of them out, outlining a plan that involved us getting away while he risked his life. When it turned out the black-robe was genuinely happy they had escaped, he brought our supplies out and escorted us to the border."
"And that was it?" Glenn raised an eyebrow and Aelius snorted, "Is it ever? Nightstalkers found us, of course. A few leagues from the border. I broke whatever sort of truce we had to thank him directly," Glenn rolled his eyes at Aelius' notorious hard-headedness, "then the nightstalkers attacked and I bolted. He kept them focused on him and we were able to escape."
"Did he survive?"
"I think so," Aelius shrugged helplessly. "We waited in eyesight, and saw a flare of flame. I reared up and did a battle-cy to try and get a response, and another spout of flame shot straight into the sky. I think they made it. Of course there's no telling if he'll be discovered as aiding us and get executed for that, but from what he told Anur his ability with flames is one of the best in Karse, and not something known by many. So if those who tried just went to burn him, he'd probably be able to at least take them with him."
"Which would make poor comfort indeed to your Chosen, but would be something," Glenn sighed. "Everything hinged on that letter making it."
"It really did," Aelius shuddered, "It was a miracle that it worked. His target was the nearest mail carrier to sunpriest Dinesh."
"Miracle indeed," Glenn murmured, and the two sat in silence, scene eventually fading as they truly fell into sleep.