If Kir had known the thought that ran through the Herald's mind while they enjoyed the beautiful weather, he would have smacked him, injuries or no. One never tempted ill-luck like that. Never. One would think a country as filled with different faiths would have at least heard of that superstition.
He had set snares as the scouts had once taught him years ago, and gone out the following morning to check them after performing a brief Sun Rising ceremony with Asher participating and Anur watching curiously. When he came back, he found the witch-horse lurking in the trees, Riva nibbling at some scrub calmly, and a new mule tied up to a hitch post, trough filled with water.
"Priest?" he asked the witch-horse, who bobbed his head, then seemed to hesitate and shake it. Kir shook his own head, he didn't have time to try and interpret things, not when the other priest might already be calling for aid with a scrying charm.
Leaving the carefully field-dressed rabbits in a bush, he readied his knife and ran in a low crouch to the chapel, staying out of line of sight of the few windows, all high and narrow except for the one in the sacristy. Working his way around to the sacristy window, still a little open, he heard faint laughter, sounding as if it were further in.
Hesitating, he peered over the edge, finding a pale-faced Anur sitting up on the cot, staring at the window with a death-grip on his sword. The Herald caught sight of him and shook his head wordlessly. Kir snarled, like hell was he leaving after all the work he'd done, and he sheathed his knife, boosting himself up into the window, carefully pushing it further open so he could step down, easing it mostly shut so no increased draft alerted anyone in the main chapel.
The door itself was shut, so he felt no need for caution when he walked over to Anur's side and murmured in his ear, "How many?"
"Just the one," he muttered back, "Asher recognized him, the village's eldest priest. Black-robe, don't know what kind."
Kir carefully extended his senses and grimaced, "Mage," he murmured, Anur flinching both in memory and in pain at the sudden motion.
"He, he doesn't sound like he's in any danger," Anur pointed out doubtfully.
"Yes well, more flies with honey than vinegar," Kir pointed out quietly. "Now hush. Your witch-horse is in the trees, you call him and get out that window. I'll send Asher after you and deal with the priest. It will be…messy, if he's a summoner. Go north. Get across the border and to safety. I'll catch up if I can."
"We'll wait," Anur said, "By the brook from yesterday. We'll wait until high-noon or detecting pursuit not you, whichever comes first."
"Right. Does the priest know you're here?"
"Asher hasn't said anything, and Aelius got out of sight before he arrived," Anur replied, slowly standing and making his way to the window. Kir bit the inside of his lip briefly, before nodding, "Call him, tell him to run towards the sacristy, on my mark."
"Right," Anur said, a brief look of concentration coming over his face even as the Witch-horse appeared in the window, untacked of course. The saddles were in the chapel. Blast it. They should still make it, if they moved fast and didn't do anything stupid, but if this was a black-robe then he had probably already sent word to summon Furies and send them after.
Well. He'd just have to win, wouldn't he?
"Mark!" he shouted, slamming the door open and flaring every candle in the place to roaring heights, Asher turning on his heel and bolting past him, door slamming shut behind him and he heard chiming hooves pound away. The elderly man got to his feet, power glistening in his eyes as he said, "There is no need for that, my son."
Kir stayed in a slight crouch, circling the edge of the chapel warily, flames leaning towards him as he moved, burning through their wicks almost immediately and running entirely on his will, only strength of mind keeping the walls from catching alight.
"I placed wards on all our abandoned chapels, simple line wards, to alert me when someone crossed the boundaries. It allowed me to meet pilgrims, and keep people undeserving from taking advantage of the supplies held here," he explained calmly. "Imagine my surprise when I get an alert that someone has occupied the chapel long-unused as it is close to Hardorn, a mere day before someone on a White-Demon bursts through my village to rescue a Demon-Rider and one of my children from the Purifying Flame."
"What a coincidence," Kir replied coolly, internally berating himself for not checking for ward lines. "Your plans, Black-Robe?"
The man let his eyes shut, bowing his head, whispering, "You may not believe me, but I felt nothing but joy when I realized one of the children I'd watched grow from a babe had escaped such a fate. It is a common problem, the Firestarters say. They blame it on the cunning of the demons causing such witch-powers, but I cannot help but find that these dangerous witches are the same children I taught basic counting and reading to, no danger to anything but their parents' remaining hair-color."
"All very well and good," Kir snapped, "You have not answered my question, Black Robe."
"I plan," the man snapped back, eyes blazing as he stared at Kir challengingly, "I plan to finish my prayers, inspection of the stores as they are probably low, and return to my village and help the Selig family grieve the loss of their brilliant, bright child."
Sighing and losing what fire he had, the priest said defeatedly, "I realize you will likely not stay here another night, much less trust me in the presence of Asher again. Please, I ask you, take this to him. It was his favorite text to hear stories from. I hoped to find him here, you see," a faint smile was on his face as he placed the worn book on the pews. "I will pray at the altar."
With that the man turned his back to him and knelt at the altar to pray. Kir cautiously let the flames die, unwillingly taking his eyes from the man to return to the sacristy and quickly pack their bags and roll the bedrolls. He roughly tidied the space before exiting, two packs tossed over his shoulder and he went to where he'd place the tack, whistling Ravi over and saddling him up quickly, he walked over to the book lying on the pew and hesitated briefly, before picking it up and stuffing it in Anur's pack.
"Tell them both I am sorry," the priest said, an old, tired grief in his voice and Kir nodded mutely, balancing the witch-horse's saddle on his shoulder and setting the hackamore around Riva's horn, starting to walk towards the brook. They'd fill their waters there, he didn't want to stay here a moment longer than necessary.
Chiming hooves approached after he was in the trees for a few minutes, Riva trailing obediently. He looked up and was unsurprised to see Anur and Asher both mounted on Aelius. The stallion went down on his knees to let the two dismount and Asher ran over to hug him fiercely around the legs, Kir resting a hand on his hair briefly and surprised when Anur pulled him into a rough hug as well, awkwardly avoiding the saddle he still balanced on one shoulder.
"Yes yes, I'm happy to see you too. Can I get this saddle on the witch-horse please?" Kir said, the other two pulling back sheepishly, Anur smiling and saying, "Sorry Kir, just happy to see you're all right."
"Was Father Bertrand really going to hurt me?" Asher asked sadly.
Kir saddled the witch-horse as he answered, saying, "No. He was happy you escaped. But it is not safe to return, he might have been followed himself. The most common suspect in an escaped witch is the local priest or local person of authority, particularly if they deal with children regularly."
"Great," Anur grumbled, "at least I grabbed my boots."
"I packed everything and some travel rations for you two, more than enough to get us all to the border," Kir informed them, deciding to leave the book for them to discover when they were safe. They needed to get moving.
Helping Anur mount and passing Asher up so that he was sitting perched on the bedroll behind the saddle, he reminded him, "Don't hold too tight to Anur, the witch-horse will keep you from falling so long as you don't squirm around, and he does not need his wounds aggravated."
"Will you be coming with us?" Anur asked hesitantly as he swung up into Riva's saddle after checking the cinches.
"To the border. They may yet send Furies after us, and fire is the best defense," Kir replied grimly. "After that I will back-track to my unit's headquarters and weave a tale of escaped witches and failed purifying flames. How tragic."
"Maybe they'll realize you didn't want to set them either," Asher chimed in, "Then they'll know you're a good priest and not fear you."
Kir just snorted quietly at the youthful optimism, and they rode in grim silence north.
Camping that night, he, Aelius and Anur split the watch amongst them, Asher exhausted and immediately falling asleep after a cold dinner of ration cakes and jerky. Kir lit a small fire and let Arun take first watch, instructing him to wake him the moment he got a sense of something lurking out in the night.
Aelius took the middle watch, under the same instructions, Anur sharing his bedroll with Asher, and Kir was woken for the dawn watch. It gave him time for a quick Sun-Rising ceremony at the conclusion of the watch, otherwise uneventful. He didn't like it. It was too easy.
They were a little over a day's decent ride to the border. Anur and he mutely agreed to push on, keeping a demanding pace for as long as Riva could bear safely. Kir murmured praises to his gelding near constantly that day, stopping frequently for brief breaks and occasionally switching with Asher so he carried less weight since the witch-horse Aelius didn't feel the burden as much.
They were staying far off the open roads and in the dead-zone made by frequent raids from the Hardornen border. A few stubborn sheep and goat herders might eke out a living yet, but they also knew to keep their mouths shut about just who they saw riding through their lands, and if they were ever glimpsed their observers quickly turned around and went the other way for a day's grazing.
They made a longer stop for supper, giving Riva a chance to get a second wind, Anur assuring him the gelding would be fine. Apparently witch-horses could work some magic on regular horses too, and Kir was too tired and tense to care much at this point. He just wanted these three across the border and no longer his problem.
So when he remounted for their last evening push to the border, he barely flinched at Riva's renewed liveliness and the reminder from Anur that the gelding would need an easy couple days after this work, but otherwise he'd be fine. This far in the dead-zone it wasn't just bandits to be worried about, Furies roamed these lands with very little obstruction and attacked just about anyone they came across, no matter they were supposed to go after heretics alone.
"If Furies attack us, get out of here," he said as darkness finally fell. Anur took one look at his face and nodded mutely, understanding that the priority was in getting Asher to safety. The exhausted child was sleeping, held in front of Anur now, one arm firmly wrapped around his waist.
Glowing blue eyes looked over at him and he flinched violently when an unfamiliar masculine voice said, :You saved my Chosen. I owe you an immeasurable debt.:
"Thank me by never speaking to me in that manner again," Kir snarled, knuckles white on his reins and any response by the three witch-powered cut off when he heard the high-pitched chittering border-people feared. At least they were only two leagues or so from the border.
He drew his long-knife and sword, taking a flask of old firestarter and dousing the blades. He tossed it to Anur with a wry grin for the Herald, pushing aside his brief fear and anger at the witch-horse's presumption, flash of teeth barely visible in the moonlight, "Drink me a toast when you get to safety. Run!"
He shouted the last, Riva whirling on his back legs at his signal, Aelius launching forward in a blur of white, running impossibly fast towards the marginal safety of the border. A few angled dark blurs headed for them and Kir howled a challenge, blades lighting on fire with a twist and those blurs igniting with ear-piercing screeches of rage and pain, returning the monsters' focus to him.
"Come to me killers!" he shouted the challenge, Riva dancing in place as they spun, flames lashing out and sending the now teeming mass of razor black teeth and fierce cold and death into brief retreats. "Come to me and burn!"
Lashing out with a whirl of flame, he slashed at one that went for his leg, feeling a tear of razor cold run down his shoulder as he over-extended but Riva kicked out with a scream, sending them back for a moment. "Vkandis Sunlord, giver of life," Kir recited, two vague shapes igniting in white hot flames as he focused, Riva and he trying to burn and slash their way clear of the mass, night sky and moonlight barely visible between the gaps in the monsters.
"Defender of faith, protector of innocent, burn away these enemies of life, light and warmth with your strength," he chanted, a traditional Firestarter chant that he had never been able to use; he couldn't bring himself to use an old psalm against witches, not when they were so often pitiful or unworthy of death.
But for these, he felt no such restraints.
Flames on his blades snuffing out, Riva stood at his kneed command, rock steady as he had been trained to allow Kir to do his work. Looking up at the moon, only occasionally visible through the chittering mass, he waited three long seconds for them to gather courage, and right before they struck, he raised his sword straight up and shouted, "Burn!"
White hot flames burst around him, leaving Riva and he untouched in a scorched circle as it whirled in a fierce firestorm before shooting up into the sky where it lost fuel and faded, Furies vanished, either fled from a stronger foe or truly vanquished. Arms trembling, he sheathed his sword and long-knife, looking across the leagues to Valdemar. Standing just barely visible was a white horse-like shape on a hilltop.
The white horse reared up, a screaming battle-cry barely echoing back to him. Kir smiled, raising one hand and sending a brief shot of fire into the sky. The horse settled on all fours and kept moving, down the hill and out of sight. They had made it. He chuckled, then laughed, long and loud, feeling a huge weight drop from his shoulders. They had made it. He had saved someone from the burning.
"Come along Riva, back south old friend," he murmured, taking up the reins and turning Riva to the southwest. A bed and stall, warm and clean, beckoned.