The White Road: The Nightrunner Series, Book 5 by Lynn Flewelling


  Seregil forced a smile, not wanting to spoil this first visit for Alec in any way.

  Alec’s heart beat faster as they approached the town. The houses here were very like those in Gedre, square and solid with domed colos on top, but built of timber and dressed stone, and decorated with intricate carvings.

  The valley was breathtakingly grand, bathed in the golden light of the setting sun. The frozen lake was nowhere near as large as the Blackwater, but it was large all the same. There were little islands out there, too, and Alec could imagine camping out on one of them some summer night.

  People waved and called greetings as they headed down the main street toward the clan house. Alec was thrilled to see so many green sen’gai in one place. Everyone wore the graceful traditional clothing here; men and women alike wore trousers and boots or slippers. The main difference in the tunics, which were split from hem to belt on either side, was that the women’s were longer. They were made of soft wool, and dyed in every color for everyday use, with patterns of embroidery at the neck and cuffs.

  The clan house stood on a hill overlooking both town and water. Beyond it, the forest closed in again, thick and dark. Protected by water and mountains, the rambling clan house sprawled across the high ground, windows glinting and smoke rising from scores of chimneys.

  “Welcome home, Haba,” Adzriel said, leaning in the saddle to clap Seregil on the shoulder. Alec was the only one who noticed the brief flash of pain in his lover’s grey eyes before the forced smile appeared again. The closer they came to this place, the more tension Alec felt along the talímenios bond, though Seregil was keeping up a bold front, as usual; he’d said next to nothing about his feelings about coming back here. Even after all this time, Alec had to rely on the bond and intuition. Fortunately he could read Seregil like a scroll. He might not always know the cause, but he knew what Seregil was feeling, especially when he was unhappy or fearful. The latter was a rare occurrence, but that’s what Alec was picking up now. He caught Seregil’s eye again and gave him a reassuring smile. Seregil gave him a nod and a hint of a smile, then turned his face for home.

  Word spread and people shouted and waved to their returning khirnari from rooftops and street corners. Adzriel led the way through the central square, where the ancient temple of Aura stood, its walls brilliant white against the darker buildings, its carved lintel painted silver and blue.

  As they neared the outer gates of the clan house, it looked to Seregil as if the entire household had turned out to meet them. Adzriel’s husband—tall, plain Säaban—was in the forefront, and another tall man was with him, the sight of whom made Seregil’s heart beat so hard it hurt and his eyes sting. It was his uncle.

  Adzriel waved to her husband, eyes bright and cheeks flushed.

  “And mind you call him Säaban, and not by his formal name or ‘sir,’ as you did in Sarikali,” he overheard Mydri reminding Alec. “He’s kin.”

  “I don’t imagine he liked me dragging you away from home again, sister,” Seregil said to Adzriel, adding with a small grin, “Unless you two are already a settled old married couple.”

  “I still know how to cut a switch, Haba,” she retorted without so much as a sidelong glance.

  Micum burst out laughing. Seregil actually blushed, but suddenly his heart felt lighter.

  Alec let out an ill-concealed snicker and whispered, “Sorry, I was just imagining her chasing the Rhíminee Cat around with a switch.”

  “I can count on one hand the times she made good on that threat,” Seregil retorted with a grin.

  Adzriel laughed. “I’ve always said I should have beaten you more.”

  “You’re probably right.”

  To his surprise, old friends and relatives crowded in around his horse as soon as they reined in at the gate. As he’d expected, his other two sisters weren’t among them. But his uncle was, and Akaien smiled and waved to him as if he’d only been gone a few days. He hadn’t changed much. He was tall and dark like Seregil’s father, but with a ready smile and warmth in his grey eyes that Seregil had seldom felt from Korit í Solun.

  Kheeta’s mother, Aunt Alira, was the first to embrace him when he dismounted. “It’s about time you came back, you rascal!” she cried, tears rolling down her cheeks. She made a show of feeling his arms and shoulders. “And skinny as ever!”

  “You haven’t changed a bit either, Auntie,” he replied, hugging her tight.

  “And this must be the golden-haired lover I’ve heard so much about,” she said, looking Alec’s way just as he lifted Sebrahn down, then staring as she saw the rhekaro’s eyes. Her fingers twitched as if she resisted making a warding sign.

  Alec hitched Sebrahn up on one hip. Sebrahn clung to him like a porie, his large eyes alert and darting from face to face.

  Not an auspicious beginning.

  And what if he starts singing?

  But then Akaien was right there in front of him and all other thoughts fled as he grabbed Seregil in a fierce hug. For just an instant Seregil was surprised that he was nearly as tall as his uncle. Akaien’s arms were as hard and wiry as ever from his smithing work, and his large hands scarred and stained. Seregil could smell lingering traces of smoke in his hair.

  “Uncle!”

  “My boy!” Akaien pulled back and looked at him. “Look at you, Seregil, still the image of your mother.”

  “Just the thing a man wants to hear,” he replied wryly as Kheeta í Branin claimed him for an embrace. He was Seregil’s age but looked younger, even with the distinctive white streak in his dark hair showing under his sen’gai.

  “You look better this time around, except for this mess,” his friend said, roughing Seregil’s ragged hair. “Is this some new Tírfaie fashion?”

  “Plenimaran, actually,” Seregil told him with a laugh, then noticed that Alec had hung back, still holding Sebrahn, while everyone else was greeting friends and loved ones. “Alec, talí, come meet our uncle. Uncle, I present to you my talímenios, Alec í Amasa of Kerry.”

  “I’m glad to meet you, Uncle Akaien,” Alec said, setting Sebrahn on his feet and clasping hands with the older man.

  Akaien smiled as he looked Alec over. “Well, I like your braid better than my nephew’s style. Apart from the color of it, you look as ’faie as Seregil. Adzriel said you looked more Tír but I don’t see it.”

  No one but Seregil caught Alec’s slight wince; Alec was as sensitive to that well-meant observation as Seregil was to his own old nickname. Some effects of the alchemist’s purifications still lingered. Alec had looked completely ’faie when the man was done with him, and although the magic or whatever it had been had faded a bit, he still looked more Aurënfaie than he had.

  “Who is this little one?” asked Akaien.

  “This is Sebrahn.” Alec pulled back Sebrahn’s hood. The rhekaro’s hair had grown out halfway down his back since the last trimming, and he was dressed in a white tunic and trousers of ’faie cut that Yhali had given him. He was still barefoot, though, refusing all efforts to make him wear shoes.

  “Well, now.” Akaien held out his hand, showing no surprise at the color of Sebrahn’s eyes. “Greetings, little stranger.”

  Sebrahn slowly reached out and brushed his fingers against Akaien’s, and Seregil breathed a sigh of relief. Akaien was a highly respected member of the clan; if he and Adzriel accepted Sebrahn in front of the others, then perhaps this would be an easier stay than he’d expected. Indeed, others were already crowding around quietly to get a better look, as if Sebrahn were a newborn babe being presented to the clan.

  Seregil waved Micum over. “And this, Uncle, is my oldest friend in Skala, Micum Cavish.”

  He watched in amusement as the two men sized each other up. They were of a height, but where Micum was heavy-boned and ruddy, Akaien was wiry and fair-skinned, his hair long and dark brown like Seregil’s. All the same, there was a similarity about them that Seregil hadn’t really put together until now: at once highly honorable but not above stretching
the laws for a good cause—or when it suited them.

  “Well met, Micum Cavish,” Akaien said in Skalan as he clasped hands with him. “Adzriel speaks warmly of you. You have my thanks for your family’s hospitality to my wayward nephew. I’ve felt easier in my mind since I heard about you. I hope he hasn’t been too much trouble.”

  “We’ve gotten into our share of scrapes over the years, but we got each other back out, too,” Micum replied in Aurënfaie.

  Säaban released Adzriel at last and greeted Micum. “Welcome, Micum Cavish.”

  “And you, sir.”

  “I hope they have a proper feast prepared,” Adzriel said with a laugh, putting an arm around Alec’s waist and pulling Seregil by the hand. “The one who was lost is with us again, and brings his talímenios and—this little one. Now, come along out of the cold!”

  The crowd parted, but many people reached out to pat Seregil on the back and shoulders as he passed, and their warm greeting loosened the knot of tension in his chest. All the same he kept close to Alec and the rhekaro, who was looking back over Alec’s shoulder now, those black pupils still a bit wider than Seregil liked to see. He was aware of Micum at his back, too, and grateful for his friend’s presence.

  Inside the gates, the gardens were buried in snow and the mossy old fountain silent for the winter, but the great double doors were open wide, spilling out firelight like a carpet for them. As he passed under the lintel carved with Aura’s crescents, he was startled to find both of his estranged sisters waiting for him by the hearth.

  Shalar, the older one, favored their father, right down to the lines of disapproval around her mouth. She wasn’t smiling, but Illina, who could have been his twin, came forward and took his hands in hers. “Welcome home, brother.” And she kissed him on both cheeks.

  Seregil hugged her close, swallowing around the new lump in his throat. “Thank you, sister.”

  Shalar was somewhat warmer with Alec, taking his hand and admiring Sebrahn’s strange beauty. “What unusual eyes. But bare feet in winter?” she chided as she chafed the rhekaro’s feet between her hands. “Why, he’s like ice!”

  “He doesn’t like to wear shoes. And he doesn’t feel the cold,” Alec explained, and got a look of disapproval equal to any he’d seen from Mydri.

  Turning away, he saw that Akaien í Solun had his arm around Seregil now, laughing about something with Kheeta. Seregil had always been closemouthed about his past, especially in the early days. Since they’d become talímenios, he’d talked more, but not a lot. It was just his nature, and Alec had long since given up wishing he were different. Still, meeting this uncle at last, and witnessing the deep bond of affection between them, he wondered how Seregil could have put him out of his mind for so long.

  After seemingly endless introductions to kin and friends, Seregil led Alec through a warren of corridors to his old room, which Mydri had assured him was still his to use. It took a moment to remember the way, but he found it at last. Setting his pack down by the door, he looked around, trying to see it through Alec’s eyes. The bed was the same, with its golden oak headboard carved with pinecones and rabbits, and neatly made up with the colorful silk counterpane, a bit faded now and sweet with the scent of lavender and cedar. The same blue pitcher and basin were on the washstand, below the mirror he’d cracked playing a forbidden game of ball here with Kheeta one rainy day.

  Outgrown toys were gone from the top of the clothes chest and windowsills, but his books and scrolls were still on their shelves, and the sword rack stood under the window, holding the wooden blades he’d used, tutored by his father, Akaien, and various older cousins. They ranged from the first tiny one that had been put into his hands when he’d only just learned to walk, up to the scarred, deeply notched wooden long sword with which he’d beaten nearly every challenger. From the very beginning it had felt right and good to have a sword in his hand, and swordsmanship had become his first passion. His quick reflexes, determination, and rapidly developing skill had earned him the respect of his elders. All except for his father, of course.

  Alec closed the door and hugged Seregil. “Bilairy’s Balls, we finally made it!”

  Seregil laughed softly. “It’s certainly better than where we ended up last time.”

  Sebrahn was already at the window, standing on tiptoe to see out past the sword rack. Seregil picked the rhekaro up so he could see the empty garden outside, and the leafless trees that cast lacy, dancing shadows across the far wall over the bed at dawn. Seregil sighed, remembering himself being held the same way, in the strong loving arms of his sisters or uncle, when he was very small. That felt like someone else’s life now, and he supposed it was. Then strong arms embraced Seregil and Sebrahn together, and Seregil knew that Alec wouldn’t let him go until he was sure of his mood. Seregil turned and kissed him. “I’m fine. Lots of good memories here. I was a happy child, believe it or not. I had good friends, and kin who loved me.”

  “They still do and so do I, talí,” Alec said, looking far too serious. “This is your home.”

  Seregil shook his head with a soft laugh. “Home is wherever you are, talí. This is just someplace I used to live.”

  Alec’s arms tightened. “Don’t say that. I never had anyplace like this. It was just one inn or camp or tent after another, just my dad and me. You shouldn’t take any of this for granted.”

  “Duly noted.” Which was why they weren’t going to be staying here long; not while they had Sebrahn with them.

  When everyone was bathed and dressed in clean clothing, Seregil led them to the great hall at the center of the house, holding Sebrahn’s hand on one side and Alec’s on the other. Adzriel had made certain even the rhekaro had proper feasting clothes, and Alec had trimmed and braided Sebrahn’s hair and his own.

  “With his hair like that, you can really see the resemblance between you two,” Micum noted.

  “That’s why I did it,” Alec replied. “I want to see if it helps people accept Sebrahn more easily.”

  The feast was laid out, and Seregil found himself in his old place at table with his sisters and Akaien. Sebrahn knelt on a cushion on the chair between him and Alec and paid no attention to the courses as they came.

  But Seregil did, recognizing many childhood favorites. There was spiced pear cider; venison roast with wine sauce; and a huge galantine pie thick with lamb, chukka, currants, and bog berries. There were beets with marrow, toasted hazelnuts, chestnut pudding, and turnips mashed with carrots, all served up with fragrant brown loaves of Aunt Alira’s wheat bread and sweet butter still cold from the well room.

  Ilina, who was quite taken with Sebrahn, eyed him with concern. “Why isn’t the little one eating?”

  “Alec fed him a little while ago,” Seregil told her, which was true.

  Just before the sweets course, Uncle Akaien looked down the table and waved to Seregil, motioning for him and Alec to join him. Micum had been given an honored place at his side.

  “How does it feel to be home, nephew?” asked Akaien.

  “Good, so far. It’s been so long.”

  “I noticed that you weren’t carrying the sword I sent to you at Sarikali.”

  Seregil gave him a rueful look. “I’m afraid I lost it—”

  Akaien shook his head. “Another one!”

  “It was in a good cause. It shattered while I was fighting a dra’gorgos. Not successfully, unfortunately. Alec lost his the same way. The ones we have now we stole in Plenimar.”

  “I see.”

  “I lost my bow, too,” Alec added. He wasn’t sure which had been the more grievous loss.

  “Damn, and I wanted another match!” Kheeta said, overhearing, as he and several other young men and youths joined them.

  “I’d hoped to see that Black Radly, too,” said Akaien. “Kheeta’s bragged up your prowess. But maybe we can find you another until you can replace it.”

  “Actually, the khirnari at Gedre gave me a new one,” Alec told him.

  “You’ll
have to start your shatta collection all over again, though,” Kheeta pointed out. “It’s too bad, too. You had a lot.” Among the Aurënfaie, most of these match prizes were little figures or shapes carved from wood, bone, glazed clay beads, feathers, or coins with holes punched through, though some were made of precious stones or metals. “We’ll have a match tomorrow.”

  “I’m in for that!” one of the young men exclaimed, and others joined in, crowding around to introduce themselves.

  Seregil smiled, pleased to see Alec already making friends, as he always did, and so easily.

  As soon as the meal was finished, the tables were carried away and musicians struck up dancing music.

  Seregil felt the pull of it, but he was too tired to dance. Instead, he borrowed a harp and coaxed Alec into joining him for a few songs.

  As the night wore on, people gradually drifted away to bed or other pastimes.

  Akaien, who’d been talking swords with Micum, came over to Seregil and Alec. “I fancy a bit of fresh air, nephews,” he said, with a meaningful look at Sebrahn, who was leaning back against Alec’s leg.

  A servant fetched their cloaks, and Akaien led the way out to a path by the lakeshore. Seregil inhaled the cold, fir-scented air gratefully, still trying to take in the fact that he was here, and walking with his uncle under the stars as he had so often, and with Alec, too.

  “Adzriel told me a little before dinner,” said Akaien, stopping to admire the view of the starlit islands. “Alec, she says you were given some sort of prophecy about a child at Sarikali. But this is no ordinary child.”

  Alec looked to Seregil, who nodded. “I trust him as I trust myself.”

  So Alec told him of the prophecy and the making, but not of Sebrahn’s true powers. They’d agreed with Adzriel to keep that a secret. Sebrahn’s appearance was enough of a hurdle.

  Akaien listened in thoughtful silence, then held out his arms. “Will he come to me?”

  Sebrahn allowed himself to be passed over. He sat calmly in Akaien’s arms, gazing up at him, eyes shimmering in the darkness.

 
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