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


  The older man smiled. “Such a dark birth for a child of light.”

  “How do you mean, Uncle?” asked Alec.

  “He was made from you. And there’s nothing evil in you or in ’faie blood. So how can there be evil in this little fellow?”

  Only Adzriel’s admonition kept Seregil from telling him the whole truth. Even he didn’t think of Sebrahn as evil, but his innocent appearance was deceiving and he hated lying to his uncle. “There’s more to him than meets the eye.”

  “I don’t doubt that,” Akaien said with a knowing look. “Otherwise, why would you be going to Tyrus? Would you like me to come with you? No, that’s all right. I see the answer on your face, Haba.”

  “I’m sorry, Uncle.”

  Akaien looked at the three of them and smiled sadly. “Your sister hopes you’ve come home for good. That’s not to be, is it? The Tír world has claimed you.”

  “I’m an exile, remember?” Seregil reminded him. “I’m not Bôkthersan anymore.”

  Akaien passed Sebrahn back to Alec and took Seregil by both shoulders. “You will always be a Bôkthersan, no matter what anyone says. Never forget that, Seregil. Perhaps—if I hadn’t taken you with me all those times when you were so young—”

  “No, Uncle,” Seregil told him with a heartfelt smile. “You saved my life.”

  “That’s good, then.” He kept a hand on Seregil’s shoulder and put the other on Alec’s. “Let’s walk some more before our feet freeze to the ground. Alec, you’re a quiet one. Tell me more about yourself. I want to know the young man who put the light back in my nephew’s eyes.”

  Later that night, as he lay in bed with Alec with the scents of the sea and night air still clinging to their skin, Seregil gazed around the familiar room and let out a long sigh of contentment, remembering Alec’s admonishment earlier that day and his uncle’s words. This was more than just somewhere he’d once lived. It was the first place he’d ever thought of as his own. And now? He laughed softly.

  “What?” Alec mumbled, already half asleep.

  “This is the first time I’ve ever had a lover in this bed. I feel a bit wicked.”

  Alec snorted softly. “Don’t you always?”

  CHAPTER 10

  Snowbirds

  TO ALEC’S SURPRISE, and Seregil’s too, Seregil was summoned to Adzriel’s chamber to meet with the clan elders the next morning. Adzriel had the authority to bring Sebrahn here, but she’d chosen to meet with the elders, as well, and fully apprise them of the situation. Seregil was part of the council. Alec and Sebrahn would be called in later.

  Left to his own devices, Alec decided to do a bit of exploring, since Adzriel had kept her promise and not shut them up in their room; he fingered the bedroom key lying in his pocket like a talisman. Alec deeply appreciated the risk she was taking, both for herself and her clan, knowing what she did about Sebrahn’s powers.

  The clan house had seemed like a maze last night, and it was no different in daylight. Since he had no particular destination in mind, he just wandered around with Sebrahn, meeting a few people and finding a kitchen and several large halls. At last they found themselves on a long covered porch that overlooked the lake.

  It had snowed again last night and the mountain air was biting cold, but it was a fine day. Too fine to stay indoors. Hoping he could find his way back, he hurried with Sebrahn back to his room. Mydri had found a warmer coat for him than the one he’d been given in Gedre, sheepskin with the fleece on the inside, and a hat to match. They were bulky but warm, like the garments he and his father had worn. She’d given him mittens, as well, knit in intricate patterns of green and white yarn. There was a fleece coat for Sebrahn, too, and mittens that he wouldn’t keep on his hands any more than he would keep shoes on unless Alec tied them tightly, as he had today; no matter how Alec tried to explain the rhekaro’s lack of needs, women were always fussing over him, and it wouldn’t help anyone to accept Sebrahn’s strangeness to see him walking barefoot in snow.

  He did manage to find the porch again, though through a different door. Here, little bells tinkled overhead, hung from the eaves. Their clappers were tied to long cards that spun in the breeze, bearing prayers and wishes in elegant ’faie script. Seregil had put one up this morning. Its card read simply, WISDOM.

  There were chairs here and there along the porch, and benches built into the wooden railings. It was easy to imagine a crowd out here on a summer’s eve, enjoying the bells as they watched the sun set over the mountains, painting the lake with gold. The lake was silver-grey today, and frozen along the shoreline. Out in the middle wild geese and ducks bobbed among the whitecaps, diving for their breakfast.

  He chose a chair and propped his feet up on the rail. Sebrahn immediately took his place on Alec’s lap. A lone raven called from the forest, followed by the bright trill of a willow tit. Sparrows, doves, and a little green bird he’d forgotten the name of pecked at the crusts scattered on the ground for them. A few tiny brown dragons scuttled among them, too, and more scrambled and chirped for the red and yellow boiled millet and honeyed milk set out just for them. Several fluttered up to perch on Sebrahn and Alec’s hands. Sebrahn patted them, and one curled up in the rhekaro’s lap and went to sleep. Alec shook his head, smiling. Maybe Sebrahn was a “dragon friend,” like the man Seregil had mentioned?

  There were more dragonlings here in the mountains than at Sarikali, according to Kheeta, and it certainly appeared to be true. He spotted several in the rafters overhead, and more perched on the railings and chairs. It was for that reason that no one in Bôkthersa kept cats. He hadn’t seen any in Sarikali, either, though cats were common enough in Gedre. Now that he thought about it, he’d never seen a dragon in Gedre.

  The fingerlings didn’t disappear during the winter, either, like a lizard or snake. The one he held at the moment was warm to the touch, perhaps from the fire in its belly. Or maybe they were like Sebrahn, and just didn’t feel the cold at all? Or Sebrahn was like them.

  Just then he heard laughter, and a gang of small children came running through the snow toward him. Stopping near the porch, they set about trying to make snowballs with the dry new snow. Grinning, Alec slogged out to help, with Sebrahn trailing along behind.

  “You won’t have much luck with this,” he told them, scooping up a handful and letting it blow away on the breeze.

  A little girl pouted up at him. “We wanted to make a family.”

  “Of snow people? It’s just too dry. How about making snowbirds?”

  “How do you do that?” a little boy demanded, wiping his runny nose on the back of an already crusty mitten.

  By way of answer, Alec fell over onto his back and fanned his arms and legs, making the wings and tail as Illia and Beka had taught him during a winter visit to Watermead.

  The children were delighted. Soon there was a large flock of snowbirds on the slope and everyone was dusted with snow.

  Everyone except Sebrahn.

  “How come your little boy doesn’t play?” the girl, whose name was Silma, asked. Sebrahn was standing where Alec had left him, looking down at the first bird Alec had made.

  “He doesn’t know how,” Alec replied. “Maybe you can show him?”

  Silma and her friends gathered around the rhekaro, then fell back and flailed around, crying, “You, too! Like this!”

  Sebrahn looked to Alec, who smiled and nodded. Sebrahn immediately fell on his back across one of Silma’s birds and slowly imitated what the others were doing.

  “He ruined mine!” Silma cried, offended.

  “He didn’t mean to.” Alec pulled Sebrahn to his feet and directed him to a patch of smooth snow. “There, do another one.”

  Sebrahn fell facedown this time, but made a passable bird.

  “Very good!” Alec picked him up and dusted the snow from his coat and leggings, then helped the children make more up and down the hillside.

  He’d assumed Sebrahn was doing the same, until Silma asked, “Why doesn’t your l
ittle boy have any boots?”

  Sure enough, Sebrahn had gotten them off when Alec wasn’t looking. There they lay, up the slope, and there Sebrahn was, barefoot again.

  “My mama would be angry if I went barefoot in the winter,” another chimed in. “She says your toes can break off just like icicles. How come his mama didn’t give him any boots?”

  “He doesn’t have a mama,” Alec told her, and the words seemed to stick in his throat. Seeing Sebrahn among real children like this, he could no longer hold on to the fantasy that Sebrahn was anything natural. Sebrahn was something else entirely, and no more Alec’s kin than the clouds in the sky.

  He trudged up the slope to get Sebrahn’s boots, blinking back sudden tears he didn’t want the children to see.

  He picked up the boots and knocked out the snow that had gotten inside them.

  Sebrahn had followed him. He stared up at Alec, and then the boots. “Bad.”

  “No, they’re not!” Alec growled. Sitting down heavily in the snow, he pulled Sebrahn into his lap and wrestled one boot back on, tying it tightly.

  Sebrahn looked up at him and said again, “Baaad.”

  Alec understood this time and let out a soft, bitter laugh. “You’re not bad. You’re not anything, except … Except …”

  “Are you crying?”

  He forced a smile as he looked up at Silma. “No, I just had something in my eye.”

  He got Sebrahn’s other boot on and quickly distracted the children by proposing a contest to see who could do the most somersaults to make the longest path in the snow. Sebrahn copied them, and once he’d mastered the basic movement he was off, rolling like a wheel, blond braid flying. Faster than any natural child could go. The others looked slow and clumsy compared to him. The thought filled Alec with a mix of revulsion and guilt. What did he feel for Sebrahn, really? Was it love? Could you love such a creature? Or was it just neediness on his part? Pity? Duty?

  Silma came back and squatted down beside him. “You’re sad.”

  Alec wished the child wasn’t quite so perceptive. “Maybe a little.”

  She reached out and took his hand in her snowy mittened one. “How come you and your little boy has yellow hair? Are you Tírfaie?”

  “I’m half Tír. My mama was ’faie.”

  “Is she dead?”

  Alec nodded.

  “Did you cry when she died? Mynir cried and cried and cried when his mama died, and his father cried, too.”

  “Uh, yes.” He’d cried after the vision of her death.

  “What clan was she?”

  Alec was spared answering when a woman in a shawl came hurrying down toward them. “Silma, you come in now.”

  “But I’m playing!” the girl whined, still holding Alec’s hand.

  The look her mother gave him made Alec gently free himself and stand up. “You’d better do what your mama says,” he advised.

  “Can we play with your little boy again?” asked Silma.

  “That’s enough of that, Silma,” her mother said firmly. “The rest of you, come with me. There’s hot honeyed milk for you in the kitchen, and apple tarts.”

  Sebrahn came up the hill with the rest of them and started to follow them to the house.

  The woman cast a meaningful look over her shoulder at Alec, half frightened, half warning. Alec wondered what she’d heard, and how.

  Alec sighed, sitting there in the midst of the birds and paths the children had made with him. “Sebrahn, come here.”

  Sebrahn squatted down next to him.

  “It’s all right. We don’t need any hot milk, do we?” But it would have been pleasant to join the others in a warm kitchen with women bustling around, fussing over them. He missed Kari Cavish, maybe even the way he would if he really were her son. He wished again, more strongly than before, that Sebrahn was really the sort of child who got invited into warm kitchens.

  He was sitting there, just staring out at the waves on the lake, when he heard the crunch and squeak of boots on snow behind him. Looking over his shoulder, he saw Seregil coming toward them, bundled up to his chin and carrying a steaming mug in each hand.

  Alec relieved him of one and took a careful sip. It was honeyed milk, with a generous lashing of rassos. He gave Seregil a grateful look. “Are you done with the elders?”

  “Yes. They want to speak with you next.” Seregil paused. “I saw what happened with the children. I thought you could use a little company first.”

  “You thought right.” Alec held the cup in both hands, watching the reflections of clouds drift across the milky surface.

  “Don’t take it too hard, talí. People are protective of their children.”

  As I am of Sebrahn, he thought. But if he’s no child, then I’m no father.

  It made his head hurt. Taking another long sip, he asked, “So, what are the elders saying?”

  “So far I’ve done most of the talking. Some of them aren’t convinced there’s no risk, having him here.”

  Alec’s heart sank a little lower. He’d felt accepted by many of Seregil’s kin last night, and thought he might make a few friends here, too. He was going shooting with Kheeta and some others later that afternoon. “I thought we were going to be welcome here.”

  “We are, for now. But some rumors are spreading already.” He pointed at Sebrahn, who’d already worked his way out of one boot again. “We have to be more careful. The more ordinary we can make him seem, the easier it will be.”

  “Ordinary? He never will be that. Not ever. He’ll always be exactly as he is.”

  Seregil gave him an odd look.

  Alec set his cup in the snow and lashed the boot more securely onto Sebrahn’s foot. The rhekaro didn’t resist, but he began to pick at the laces as soon as Alec was done.

  “No!” Alec told him sternly. “Just sit there.” He retrieved his cup and downed the last of the milk, glad of the bite of the rassos burning his throat and belly. “What about Micum? He said he’d go home when we were somewhere safe.”

  Seregil took a swallow of his own drink and licked the lingering drops from his upper lip. “He hasn’t said yet.”

  “It will be snowing in Skala before long. He’d better make up his mind.”

  “About what?” Micum asked, coming down the slope to join them. “I’ve been looking all over for you, Alec.”

  “We were just talking about you,” Seregil told him, passing him the cup. “We’re here. We’re safe. You need to go home.”

  “Let me be the judge of that, eh? They’re waiting for you three inside. Adzriel sent me out to fetch you.”

  Seregil stood up and pulled Alec to his feet. “Don’t worry, talí. They just want to see him.”

  They shucked off their fleece coats in their bedchamber and Seregil led the way to a part of the house Alec hadn’t seen. He braced himself as they entered a sunny room, expecting a stern gathering glaring at him from behind a long table. Instead he found himself in a pretty room with warm pine wainscoting, pale green velvet furniture, and polished tea tables. Two ancient-looking women and two equally ancient-looking men were reclining at ease with Adzriel and Säaban, sipping tea and talking quietly together. They all looked up as Alec and Sebrahn came in, and some of the smiles faded.

  Adzriel stood and took Alec’s hand. “I present my brother’s talímenios, Alec í Amasa of Kerry, and of the Hâzadriëlfaie line. And Sebrahn, his rhekaro, foretold by prophecy at Sarikali.”

  “There’s no need to be so formal,” one of the women chided lightly. “Come here, Alec Two Lives. Don’t make an old woman get up, there’s a good boy.” She extended her hand, and after a moment’s hesitation Alec went to her and took it. “I am Zillina ä Sala, a great-aunt of the khirnari and her family. And this must be Sebrahn. May I touch him?”

  Sebrahn was clinging to the edge of Alec’s tunic, but he didn’t flinch as Zillina stroked his hair and cheek.

  “Well!” she said, sitting back and absently rubbing her hand. “I can see the dragon in h
im.”

  The other three did the same, with varying reactions. Trillius í Morin yanked his hand back as if he’d been stung; Ela ä Yhalina sniffed Sebrahn’s hair and smiled; Onir í Thalir just shrugged.

  “I see that he’s made of flowers,” Ela ä Yhalina told them. “Could you show us how it’s done?”

  Alec pricked Sebrahn’s finger over a goblet of water and made one of the dark lotus blossoms. The rhekaro scooped it out at once and brought it to Ela, placing it on her knee.

  It sank through the soft wool of her long tunic and trousers, and she let out a startled little cry as she flexed her leg. “By the Light, it’s true. It’s eased my rheumatism.”

  In the meantime Sebrahn had made a second and placed it on her other knee. She flexed both legs, then leaned forward and kissed Sebrahn on the top of his head. “Thank you, dragon child of flowers, for your lovely gift.” She turned to the others. “There is power in him, and great danger, but there’s a kindness there, as well. From what Seregil has told us, he even seeks out the ill to heal them.”

  “He does,” Alec assured her.

  “That may be so,” Trillius í Morin said doubtfully, “but all I felt was death. And it’s still blood magic.”

  “I felt nothing at all,” Onir í Thalir said, shaking his head.

  “Perhaps each feels what he or she needs to feel, or perhaps expects?” wondered Zillina ä Sala. “I see the dragon in his eyes, but I see the child in the dragon, too. I’ve never heard of such a being in any of the writings.”

  “Zillina is our greatest scholar,” Adzriel explained. “She’s studied at Sarikali and with the Khatme, as well.”

  “Do you know anything about the Hâzadriëlfaie?” Alec asked, then politely added, “Great-Aunt.”

  “Less than you, it would seem. The old story is that Hâzadriël had a vision and gathered only certain people from across the land to take away with her, never to be heard from again. As far as I know, they took their secret with them. But now, in this child of magic, I think I see their reason.” She took Alec’s hand in hers. Her skin was smooth and dry as vellum, but her eyes were warm. “What was done to create this child was evil, unnatural. This alchemy Seregil told us of sounds like some lesser type of necromancy. What happened to you, dear Alec Two Lives, was an abomination, and this rhekaro is an abomination—No, my dear, don’t give me such a scowl. You know in your heart that it is true. Such beings, the homunculi, are not natural. They are not meant to exist.”

 
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