Kiol was silent with disbelief and bewilderment. When he had no inclination to say anything, Nirin continued.
“I helped Tori get them out of the tunnels to safety. We couldn’t let Ruadhan or the other rebels know, so I couldn’t tell you.”
“Except we’ve been out of the city for weeks,” Kiol signed slowly.
“I know. But by then… it had been so long, I didn’t—”
“Didn’t what? Think you could tell me? After that whole night I spent telling you what a failure I am?” Kiol scoffed and turned away. “Well, that’s still true, isn’t it? I didn’t fail any less just because you succeeded.”
Nirin bit his lips, eyebrows pulled together. “I’m sorry, Kiol.” The boy wouldn’t look to read his hands. He held on to his anger to stop himself from feeling hurt, but Nirin felt both simmering inside him.
“Let’s just keep going,” Kiol muttered, and stomped off without even seeming to notice the snow. Nirin stood for a moment, thinking that he should have insisted they return to the cottage instead of tell the truth. It was too late now. He slowly followed. It was exhausting tramping through the snow, but following Kiol’s trail made it easier.
He thought he couldn’t go another step when there were lights in the distance. The warm glow between the white horizon and the dark dusky sky gave him the energy to continue. An end in sight.
The town was large, though not one Nirin recognized so they must have been very far north. He should have guessed as much from the heavy snow. Kiol’s grumpiness didn’t usually last long and exercise was the way he let out anger, but even with the exertion of plowing through knee-deep snow for hours he was as furious as when he started. Nirin knew how much Kiol had taken his failure to heart, had personally felt the boy’s grief. Kiol had blamed himself, hated himself, thinking those families had died horrible deaths because he had not been able to save them. And Nirin had let him believe it.
Children playing in the street stopped to stare at them as they walked closer. Most people seemed to be inside, the warm light from their windows making orange circles on the dusk-shadowed snow. But they were vigilant, and as soon as Kiol and Nirin approached, doors opened and hushed voices called the children inside. Two strangers walking into town late in the evening was not just unsettling, it was ominous.
Nirin finally caught up to Kiol to grab his arm and stop him, but Kiol yanked away and kept going. He walked up to one of the houses and knocked on the door. The man who opened it saw the two boys and his welcoming smile faded to confused displeasure.
“Who are you?”
“Travelers. We need a place to stay,” Kiol stated grimly.
“We’re not a temple or a charity.” He shut the door in their faces.
Kiol clicked his tongue in annoyance. “Superstitious idiots.”
Nirin wasn’t so sure it was the number of their persons as it was their countenance. Or Kiol’s countenance, rather. Nirin didn’t want to say anything about that.
“Maybe we should try the temple,” he offered tentatively when Kiol turned around. He received a scowl in return.
“Fuck no. I’d rather sleep on a bed of ice.”
“We’re very far from the capital. I don’t think they would recognize us.”
“That’s not the problem.” Kiol stomped off. He tried another door, and got the same response. The boy’s annoyance was escalating, but since Nirin was the main source of it he didn’t know that he should do anything about it. It might have only made Kiol more angry to try. Nirin stayed a few steps behind and hoped Kiol would realize that his steely face and matter-of-fact tone would not encourage anyone to want to help them.
The cold felt like it was eating away at his bones, even with several warm layers on, and Nirin’s head grew heavier and heavier until he wondered how it was still upright on his neck. It wasn’t until Kiol noticed him cough that he finally stopped marching from door to door, startled out of his sour mood.
“I’m fine,” Nirin insisted, though at that moment he gave a badly-timed sniff. He sighed inwardly and let Kiol scoop him up, carrying him to the center of town. At least it had dispelled Kiol’s resistance to sleeping in a temple.
Like all temples, this town’s was painted red with rune-decorated paper lanterns hanging from its eaves. Snow drifts sparkled cleanly under their white glow until Kiol plowed through them to reach the steps and knock on the door. He shifted between his feet a few times before knocking again, then again even louder, practically pounding on it. The volume reverberated around Nirin’s head, hammering his senses. It was too painful to even ask Kiol to stop, he could only suffer silently through it. Finally a priest opened the door, doing her best not to look as disgruntled as she felt at being woken so late. She cast a wary glance over them, not having expected to see one boy holding another on the doorstep.
“My friend is sick,” Kiol said without waiting for the priest to say anything.
“Not very,” Nirin signed, even as he was still cringing from the headache. The priest blinked a few times, then stepped aside.
“Come in out of the cold, then. I will heat some congee.”
Nirin smiled at Kiol’s inward disappointment, but surely he knew that was what temples gave beggars.
“I can walk,” Nirin signed. Kiol obstinately ignored him and continued carrying him through the temple halls to the kitchen. Once there, he set Nirin down and the priest began kindling the fire.
“I will make a healing tea as well,” she said, digging through the drawers in the room. There was not much else to be done, so Kiol and Nirin sat and waited as the congee warmed and the water boiled and the priest mixed an herbal concoction. When they had eaten and Nirin had drunk the entirety of the tea under Kiol’s insistence, the priest lit a lantern and brought them to another room. The buildings were connected by the usual open-air corridors, which Nirin thought strange in a place with such winters. Between the buildings and framed by the corridors were courtyards that likely held gardens or ponds, but at the moment were simply flat plateaus of blue-shaded white snow.
The priest stopped at the very back building, one of the smaller ones that held only three rooms.
“It’s too cold here,” Kiol complained.
“It is our guest quarters,” was the woman’s answer. “Since no one else is here, you may have extra blankets.” She set the lantern down and took bedding from a wardrobe. “We wake at fifth bell and worship at half past. You are expected to be there. Breakfast is at sixth bell.”
“I know,” Kiol grumbled. She glanced their way, keeping a pleasant look on her face, but Nirin knew what she assumed. That they were temple-drifters, vagrants who wandered between temples for their charity without wanting to contribute to any of the work. But she said nothing and set out the last blanket with a smile.
“I will see you then. Good night.” She dipped her head and left them with the lantern.
“Fuckin’ priests,” Kiol muttered when she was gone.
“Why do you speak when you can sign?” Nirin asked. Kiol frowned and looked away. He wouldn’t answer. Nirin accepted Kiol’s anger and settled in to a futon. It was certainly more comfortable than a cave. And with any luck, Kiol’s anger would be abated by the next day.
It wasn’t. They washed their faces and hands in silence, then Kiol set off down the corridor with no warning. Nirin ignored his stuffed-heavy head and followed. The worship hall was not as big or grand as the one in the capital, not that anyone could expect it to be. It still had a statue of Creator set at the front of the room overlooking all the seated disciples. Two cushions had been set out for them behind the rows of everyone else. Nirin managed to lower himself without shaking too badly, a feat given how weak his muscles felt after even a short walk.
As they sat in the worship hall in silence, Nirin had to focus more and more on Kiol’s body beside him, but he could not will away the growing suffering. When worship ended and Kiol stood, Nirin stood automatically with him, not even realizing he had done so until his vision closed in on itself and the next thing he knew he was in Kiol’s arms.
He looked up at the grey eyes staring down, somehow finding them stable and solid despite the rest of the room whirling around.
“Why didn’t you say anything?!” Kiol demanded almost as soon as he’d opened his eyes. Nirin tried to blink the heaviness from them but it remained.
“Did not want you to worry,” he signed clumsily with Kiol’s arms under his own.
Kiol set his teeth, then glared at the priest who came over. “He needs help, not prayers,” he growled.
The priest blinked mildly, likely used to all kinds of different characters and unperturbed by Kiol’s roughness. “You should rest,” she said to Nirin. “I will bring breakfast to your room.” Before Nirin had a chance to get upright, Kiol scooped him up in his arms and with another annoyed glance at the priest, carried him away.
Kiol set him down and rolled out the futons again, this time stacking them and adding his own blanket to the pile. He pushed Nirin into it.
“It’s not the priest’s fault,” Nirin signed, closing his eyes in attempts to quell the dizziness.
Kiol scoffed and looked away, crossing his arms. “Worship is bullshit in the first place,” he muttered. “We shouldn’t have to get up so early to talk to a deity that isn’t even around.”
Nirin reached out to pat his arm consolingly, but his head hurt too much to remain sitting up. He gratefully sank onto the futon. Kiol tugged the blankets up to his chin and tucked them around his sides, but that was the last Nirin knew of the world.
He woke a few times, each time feeling worse than the last. He ate a few spoonfuls of the congee someone tried to give him, and a few sips of tea before he had to lay down again. He turned over and ignored any further attempts to get him to eat.
He was intermittently too hot then too cold. Time blended together. One moment stood out. He woke so unbearably cold despite the mound of blankets over him. He forced himself to look around the room. Kiol was propped up against the wall close by, asleep without a single blanket over him. Even if he wasn’t sick, it was too cold in the room to not have any covering. In a strange sickly delirium, Nirin was determined. He rolled himself off the futon and with weak, tired arms he dragged the blankets with him as he crawled across the floor. The mats that covered the ground were rough on his sensitive skin, digging into his muscle like rock more than straw.
Kiol sensed his presence in his sleep and woke with a start. He sat up, but Nirin was so close to him at that point it was useless to get up. “What are you doing?” Kiol asked blearily.
Nirin crawled into his lap, clumsily bringing the blankets with him. Kiol was shocked, but he opened his arms and let it happen. Usually Nirin would find some mischievous way to get what he wanted, but this time the only thing he could think of was warmth and comfort, for both him and Kiol. He settled into the boy’s chest and felt him pull the covers the rest of the way over them. Then his two strong arms rested awkwardly around him, and Nirin fell back asleep to the sound of Kiol’s steady heartbeat right next to his ears.
“Thank you for your kindness,” Nirin signed as he accepted the bowl. He wasn’t sure how long it had been, but they’d been there at least a few days and the same priest continued to bring them the things they needed.
“No kindness,” she rebuked. “It is part of my duties. You seem better.”
“Yes, thank you.”
“Perhaps you can come to the evening worship, if you are able.”
“I will try.”
The priest gave them both a bow before she left. Kiol’s face was dark and fed up.
“We are not,” he signed.
“It is good to show appreciation,” Nirin said, and Kiol crossed his arms and turned his face away. But he didn’t verbally disagree and when Nirin stood, he followed.
It was thirty minutes of sitting in silence, there was no need to truly worship. Kiol could do it easily, but the fact that he was supposed to be worshipping was all he could focus on, and as each minute dragged on his annoyance festered. At the end of the thirty minutes, the head priest who had been sitting in the front stood and turned to the disciples.
When Nirin saw the priest’s face his insides seized and his throat clenched, choking his own breath from his lungs. He had not thought he would ever see that face again. But here he was, staring at his past for the first time in eight years.
Chapter 38<< >>Chapter 40