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


  It was true, and Alec knew it better than any of them. And yet he could not condemn Sebrahn as an abomination. It would be like cursing himself.

  “Imagine if Hâzadriël’s followers had remained,” said Adzriel. “How many would have been taken and used to make these creatures for the benefit of their masters?”

  “Or to be sold!” said Onir. “If these creatures can kill with a song and grant life to a corpse, then they are more valuable than gold or horses.”

  Ela sighed as she rubbed her knees. “If only it stopped at healing. Perhaps then—But to bring back the dead?” She shuddered. “I mean you no offense, Alec Two Lives, but such a thing isn’t right, either. What was done to you goes against the flow of the world. What if some evil person had one of these creatures at his disposal, and would never die, but go on accruing power?”

  “Are you saying I shouldn’t be alive? That I’m an abomination?” Alec asked, feeling a cold lump forming in his belly.

  “No, not at all,” Ela replied, “but you have done something no one should do—come back through the gates of death.”

  Seregil put an arm around Alec’s shoulders and a hand on Sebrahn’s. “No one asked Sebrahn to do that to Alec. Neither of us had any notion that his power could be that strong! Sebrahn just did it.”

  “And it almost killed him, too,” said Alec. “If I hadn’t been alive to feed him, he would have just wasted away.”

  “Ah yes, the feeding. It eats only blood?” asked Onir í Thalir.

  “Only mine,” Alec explained.

  The old man considered this. “If that’s the case, then I don’t see how these alchemists could create herds of them to sell, since they cannot be parted from their progenitor. They must have been the property of a small elite.”

  “But there’s also the matter of Alec’s mixed blood,” said Zillina. “He’s not pure Hâzadriëlfaie. Who is to say that this rhekaro is exactly like one produced from a pureblood?”

  “The alchemist did say that the two he made didn’t turn out as he expected, according to some book,” Alec explained. “They were supposed to have wings, and no voices. Sebrahn can’t fly, but he can speak.”

  “Can he?” said Onir í Thalir. “Let us hear.”

  Alec picked up a cup and held it out to the rhekaro. “What is this?”

  “Cuuuuup,” Sebrahn rasped, barely loud enough to hear.

  “And this?” Alec held out his dagger.

  “Kniiiiiiiife.”

  “Who am I?” asked Alec.

  “Ahek.”

  “And me?” asked Adzriel.

  “Asreel.”

  “You see?” she said to the others. “He speaks. He learns. He’s clearly very attached to Alec, and to Seregil, as well. And as far as we know, he is the only one of his kind. If he can be taught to use only his healing powers, then I say he will be an asset to this clan.”

  “That is a very large ‘if,’ honored Khirnari,” mused Trillius í Morin. “I know what I felt, and it was death. He has killed before, and he will kill again.”

  “And yet he heals, too—Uncle. Isn’t there balance in that?” asked Alec.

  “The greater questions are what he is, and if someone can make more of them. If so, they must be stopped!” Onir insisted. “I think that only you two can find these answers, and you must!”

  “You’re right, of course, Great-Uncle,” Seregil said. “We’re going to visit Tyrus í Triel.”

  Zillina nodded approvingly. “That is a wise decision. Go quickly, and may Aura the Lightbringer protect you both.”

  “Thank you, Great-Aunt.” Seregil bowed to her, then looked to Adzriel.

  Adzriel nodded. “That is all, brothers.”

  Alec bowed low, and Sebrahn copied him, drawing a few chuckles from the onlookers.

  Once outside, Alec let out a gasp of relief.

  Seregil threw an arm over Alec’s shoulders. “If they were going to throw us out, I’d have known it ahead of time. You did well.”

  Alec was relieved, and glad, too, but his earlier revelation about Sebrahn continued to haunt him. It had been so much easier, before. Shaking off the sadness that came with it, he asked, “Where is this dragon man?”

  “‘Dragon Friend,’ Alec. It’s a title of great honor. He’s a hermit, and lives up in the mountains.”

  “Then let’s go!”

  “It’s a day’s ride in good weather. We’ll go tomorrow, with an early start.”

  They started back to their room but were waylaid in the great hall by Kheeta and three young men Alec recognized from the feast. All were dressed for the outdoors and had bows and quivers decked with shattas. The tallest was carrying an axe.

  “What’s all this?” asked Seregil.

  “It’s time for our new cousin to prove his mettle,” Kheeta announced, clearly meaning Alec.

  “This fellow is Ethgil í Zoztrus,” Kheeta told him, and the tall one with the axe nodded, smiling. Kheeta then ruffled the hair of the youngest. “This little one is Korit í Arin.” That earned Kheeta a scowl.

  Seregil’s father had been named Korit. Alec wondered if this was another one of Seregil’s kin.

  “And I’m Stellin í Alia,” the third youth told him. He was clearly a ya’shel like Alec, but his eyes were dark brown and he had curly black hair, like the Zengati slavers who’d taken him and Seregil to Riga.

  “I’m glad to meet you all,” Alec replied, bowing a little.

  The others laughed at that.

  “Go fetch your bow before the light goes on us,” Kheeta ordered, clearly in charge of the younger ones, including Alec, it seemed.

  “I’d like to see this,” Seregil said, grinning.

  They retrieved their winter clothing, and their new companions led them through another unknown part of the house, gathering a small crowd of onlookers along the way.

  “Your reputation precedes you, cousin,” Kheeta told Alec with a wink.

  They left the house with their entourage and made their way out to a level stretch of land at the edge of the forest. There, Ethgil used his axe to cut an X into the bark of a large pine. “There. Let’s see if you’re as good as we’ve heard!”

  Alec just smiled. He’d had plenty of time during their journey here to accustom himself to the lemonwood bow. He stood to one side, waxing his bowstring, while Korit paced out thirty yards from the target and drew a line in the snow with his heel.

  Winking at Seregil, who stood with the little crowd with Sebrahn on his shoulders, Alec set his first arrow to the bowstring, then raised the bow as he pulled and let fly at the target. He’d been too cocky, and missed his mark, but still hit the tree. Frowning, he scooped up a small handful of snow and let it filter through his fingers, testing the direction of the breeze, then he nocked another arrow and took a bit more time. This one flew straight and hit the center of the X dead-on, earning him some respectful whistles and murmurs of “Well done!”

  “That’s one, but can he do it again?” Stellin challenged.

  “Let’s see,” said Alec.

  His next shaft struck the upper left arm of the X.

  “Oh, so close!” Korit exclaimed, as some of the others laughed.

  Alec ignored them all and sent another shaft into the upper right arm of the X—then the lower left, and lower right. His fifth shaft found the center, shaving a bit of fletching from the arrow that was already there.

  “How did you do that?” Stellin exclaimed.

  Seregil grinned, “Didn’t Kheeta tell you? He’s good.”

  Alec shrugged nonchalantly.

  “Stellin, you try!” Korit said, giving him a shove forward.

  “Yes, defend Bôkthersa’s honor!” Kheeta urged.

  Korit retrieved Alec’s arrows from the target and handed them back with a respectful nod.

  “Thanks, cousin.” Alec decided this wasn’t a bad way to introduce himself. After all, it was what he was best at.

  Dark Stellin took his place at the line and tried to match Al
ec’s pattern, but aside from the center mark, three were only close and one missed the tree entirely.

  “That wasn’t too bad,” said Alec as they waited for Korit to bring Stellin his arrows.

  “But not good enough,” the young man grumbled. “I bet you can’t do that again.”

  Alec’s blood was up now, and he gave him a cocky grin. “Let’s see.”

  And he did, duplicating his earlier feat with ease.

  After that, the challenges were inevitable. Kheeta had taken up a collection of shattas for Alec to pay his debts with when he had to, which turned out to be not all that often.

  They used the X for a while, then set up wands in the snow and did clout shooting, firing arcing shots to come down on a handkerchief on the ground.

  Alec’s father had taught him to shoot this way, and he quickly began rebuilding his lost collection, to the point that the others began to grumble a bit.

  “Are you a wizard?” asked tall Ethgil, who’d lost three good shattas to Alec. “Those arrows fly like magic!”

  “I grew up with a bow in my hand,” Alec told him, a little insulted. “If I didn’t shoot straight, I didn’t eat. Hunger was the only magic I needed.”

  Kheeta smoothed it over, and they all stayed friends and went back to shooting. Alec thought fleetingly of aiming off the mark on purpose, but knew it would hurt their pride if they figured it out.

  By the time the light failed and they headed back to the house with promises of hot tea in the kitchen, Alec felt almost at home. He liked his companions and they seemed to like him. Inwardly, though, he wondered what they thought when they looked at Sebrahn.

  CHAPTER 11

  Dragon’s Friend

  DAWN WAS just a hint of gold over the eastern peaks when Alec set off with Seregil and Micum through the bitter cold to take Sebrahn to Tyrus Dragon Friend.

  With Seregil leading once again, they followed a road deep into the thick forest beyond the town, and up into the mountains. It had snowed in the night, and the towering firs were clad in white below a clear blue winter sky.

  It’s all so familiar! thought Alec again, breathing in the sweet, cold air as the way grew steeper.

  “Except for the dragons, this place is a lot like the forests around Kerry,” said Micum, echoing Alec’s thought.

  “And I always thought the forests around Kerry were a lot like here,” Seregil replied with a smile.

  “I can see how you would miss this place,” Micum said, looking around. “And your clan.”

  “It is good to be back.” He and Alec still hadn’t discussed how long they would stay.

  The forest was quiet, but not silent. Small birds sang among the branches, habas chattered as they scampered across the road with their bushy black tails curved over their backs, and hawks cried to one another as they circled against the sky. There were dragons here, too: dragonlings, and others as large as rabbits. Alec and the others gave those a wide berth and the creatures paid no attention to them, more intent on hunting for unlucky mice in their tunnels in the snow, and tiny dragonlings, too. Alec saw one of the larger ones gobble down two at once.

  “They eat their own,” Micum noted, surprised. They’d seen foxes and hawks, even ravens, devour a few, but never this.

  “So will a pig,” Seregil said. “I think that’s why little dragons are so common and huge ones are so rare. You need a lot of young to start with, so at least a few survive. If all the little ones grew up, there’d be nothing but dragons left. They’d have eaten the rest of us.”

  Sebrahn pointed to the dragons constantly and tried to squirm out of Alec’s arms, presumably to go to them.

  It was midafternoon when they turned aside onto a trail, or what seemed to be a trail. The blanket of snow was smooth between the trees, but Alec soon spotted the hatch marks cut into tree trunks along the way. They were old, the bark long since healed around them. The snow was deep for a man, but the horses fared well enough. More than once, they saw larger dragons circling far above them.

  “Are they likely to come down here?” asked Micum.

  “You never know,” Seregil told him. “Just keep an eye out for them.”

  But none did, and as the shadows lengthened across the trail Alec suddenly caught the scent of smoke—cooking smoke.

  “Would that be from your Dragon Friend’s chimney?” asked Micum.

  Seregil nodded. “He’s the only one up here. Well, the only person, anyway.”

  They came across horse tracks, and signs where a man had dismounted and gone into the trees. They were dusted over with snow—at least a day old, Alec judged. Very soon, however, they struck fresh tracks and came out in a clearing. The ground sloped down, and the large cabin that stood here was built into the hillside. It was crafted from large logs chinked with clay, and had a porch much like the ones at the clan house, except that this one was built on long posts, with what looked like a stable underneath. The smoke was coming from a large stone chimney on the far end of the building, carrying the aroma of grouse and onions.

  The dragonlings were so thick here that Alec and the others had to dismount and lead their horses carefully to avoid trampling any in the failing daylight. Alec held Sebrahn tightly by the hand as the rhekaro tried to stop and pick them up. A few fluttered up to land on his shoulders.

  Focused as he was on Sebrahn and not treading on any of the little creatures, he didn’t notice the man who’d come out on the porch until he called out to them.

  “Who comes to my house?” He held a lantern in one hand and a long sword in the other. A dragon the size of a cat crouched on his shoulder, its tail wrapped around the arm holding the lantern.

  “Seregil í Korit,” Seregil told him. “Is that any way to welcome an old friend, Tyrus?”

  “Korit’s boy?” Tyrus lowered his sword. “And you’ve brought friends.”

  “May we come in? It was a long ride.”

  “Of course. Take care of your horses and come up for supper.” He started back into the cabin, but paused long enough to add, “Remember, boy, if you hear anything stirring in the shadows down there, or a hiss, back away slowly and come get me.”

  With these less-than-encouraging words, he disappeared inside.

  They managed to get the horses settled and fed without incident. There were two others there—a white and a bay—and they nickered quietly to the newcomers.

  Climbing back up to the porch, they stepped inside and found a table laid for supper and their host stirring a pot on the fire in the hearth.

  The flowing hair beneath his faded green sen’gai was grey as iron. His eyes were a lighter shade, like Seregil’s. Somehow Alec had half expected them to be gold, like a dragon’s. Tyrus’s hands were covered in lissik-stained dragon bite marks, some large enough to encompass his wrist. There were more on his neck, and a few small ones on his face.

  “It’s been a long time since you visited me, Seregil í Korit,” Tyrus said, straightening up.

  “Too long. I’ve missed you and your friend.”

  “He’ll be glad to see you. And who have you brought me this time?” Tyrus asked, nodding at Alec.

  “My talímenios, Alec í Amasa—”

  “A talímenios at your age?” Tyrus shook his head, then looked Alec up and down. “And a ya’shel. Golden hair and blue eyes, but I see the ’faie in you, and that little bite on your ear shows a dragon’s favor. Welcome, cousin.”

  “Thank you,” Alec replied.

  “And this is my friend Micum Cavish, a good and honorable man, accepted by the clan,” Seregil told him.

  “A Tír?” Tyrus’s eyes narrowed a bit. “Not a Plenimaran, I hope?”

  Micum grinned. “No, sir, I’m a northlander by birth and a Skalan by choice.”

  “Ah. That’s all right, then.”

  Tyrus squatted down to look at Sebrahn, who only had eyes for the dragon on the man’s shoulder. “Who’s this little one?”

  “This is Sebrahn,” answered Alec.

  “
Silver eyes and yellow hair? Odd for one called ‘moonlight.’ What is he?”

  “That’s what we’d like to speak to your friend about, if we may,” Seregil explained.

  “Of course! But sit down and eat something first. You’ve had a long, cold ride.”

  Alec looked around curiously as he took his place. The long room was furnished in typical Bôkthersan style, with graceful furniture fashioned from light woods, and colorful hangings and carpets, and appeared to serve many purposes. The broad stone fireplace doubled as the kitchen; several pots were steaming on hooks and iron stands. The dining table was long enough to accommodate a dozen people. That was odd, thought Alec, for a hermit. Beyond it there were a few comfortable-looking chairs, and walls lined with books and scrolls. Broad glazed windows looked out over the valley below. Outside, the last of the daylight was fading.

  The grouse and hard bread were tasty. There was no wine or turab, just mugs of cold springwater. Alec glanced around as he ate, expecting more dragons, but aside from the one that had fluttered from Tyrus’s shoulder up to a perch in the rafters, there weren’t any in sight.

  When they were done with the meal, they moved to the chairs at the other end of the room.

  “When are we—” Alec began, but Seregil caught his eye and shook his head slightly; apparently there was some sort of custom to this.

  Tyrus lit lamps and closed the shutters, then took a long clay pipe and tobacco bag from a shelf. “Do any of you smoke?”

  “I do, on occasion,” said Seregil, although Alec had never seen him take more than a few puffs from Micum’s pipe.

  “As do I, sir,” said Micum, producing his worn old pipe.

  This seemed to please Tyrus, and he shared his tobacco with them.

  The others smoked a moment in silence, while Alec tried to hide his growing impatience.

 
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