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

  “Thero did say the magic might not last on him,” Seregil reminded him. “The hair’s not so bad, but we don’t want people thinking he’s a leper.”

  Alec found another white patch on Sebrahn’s right calf. “Maybe it’s another sign.”

  Adzriel was still flushed with dancing when she tapped at their door again a few hours later. “Oh, brothers! To miss Alec’s first—” She stopped in the doorway, looking at the packs lying on the bed. “What’s this? Oh. Did Sebrahn do something?”

  Seregil took her hand and drew her into the room. “Nothing serious. All the same, we have to go before something worse happens.”

  Adzriel sank into a chair, all traces of merriment fled.

  “I warned you in Gedre that something like this could happen,” Seregil pointed out.

  “Yes, you did. I’d just hoped it wouldn’t.”

  “At least we got to talk to Tyrus,” he said with a sad smile.

  “I’m so sorry, Khirnari.” Alec said the title with the deep respect that he truly felt for her.

  Seregil held out a hand to his sister. “We’ll stay in this room tonight and leave tomorrow. Everything’s ready.”

  Adzriel stared at them in silence, and Alec was certain he saw a fight between her roles as sister and khirnari in those clear grey eyes. “I thought perhaps—You seemed so happy here.”

  “I told you’d we’d have to go, sister.”

  “Very well. But you must make your farewells before you go, and not sneak away like thieves in the night.” She looked sadly at Sebrahn. “He’s been so good, all this time.”

  Seregil made his sister a deep bow. “I give you my word, Khirnari. You’ll have no more trouble from us.”

  “If you have no objections, I’d like to stay with them,” said Micum.

  “Of course.” She glanced at the packs again. “You will promise me you’ll stay here until tomorrow?”

  “Of course, older sister.” He kissed her on the cheek. “And we were sorry to miss the dancing.”

  “Oh, Haba. You always were the one to get into trouble.” She stood to go. “Good night, all of you. May it be a peaceful one.”

  Micum followed her out. “I’m going to go find us some supper. We can enjoy that much, anyway. I won’t be long.”

  When they were alone, Seregil rummaged in his pack and pulled out a worn pack of cards. “I don’t think we’ll be sleeping much tonight, do you?”

  Micum came back with a large plate of cold meats and a jug of turab. They sat on the floor to eat, then passed the jug around.

  Micum lit his pipe and took a long puff as Alec shuffled and dealt the cards for a game of Blue Goose.

  “Well, I guess we’d better let Thero know we’re heading back.” Going to his pack again, Seregil took out one of the painted message sticks the wizard had given them and snapped it in half. A tiny message sphere appeared in front of him. “Thero,” Seregil said quietly. “We’re leaving Bôkthersa for Skala. I’m not sure how long it will take to get there, so I will send another message when we make landfall. When you come, please bring us some Skalan clothing and our horses. They’re at the Wheel Street house.” He touched the little orb with a fingertip, and it sped away. A moment later another appeared. Seregil touched it.

  “I understand,” they heard Thero’s voice say. “Magyana and I haven’t found anything of use, I’m afraid. Do try to stay out of trouble, won’t you?”

  The light winked out, and Seregil gave the others a rueful look. “I’m glad he wasn’t here tonight.”

  Mydri came to fetch them early the following morning. “Everything is ready. Adzriel insists you two make use of the baths and take breakfast with her. Come to the morning room when you’re ready.”

  Seregil would rather not have prolonged the process, but he could tell Mydri was heartbroken to see him go.

  Breakfast was a quiet affair, just Adzriel, Akaien, Mydri, and Säaban. Seregil was glad; they didn’t need any great send-off. Adzriel graciously put Alec on her left, but Seregil saw how she kept an eye on Sebrahn, crouched on a chair between Alec and Micum.

  “I have something for you,” Akaien said as they were finishing. Going to the sideboard, he lifted a long bundle wrapped in a tapestry and unrolled it to reveal two swords in plain leather scabbards. “I hadn’t intended for these to be a farewell gift.”

  Seregil recognized one at once; it was a twin to the one he’d lost. The tapered quillons were curved just enough to catch an opponent’s blade; the round pommel was set with a round disk of green Sarikali stone.

  The other was similar to the one Seregil had bought for Alec soon after they met. The curved bronze quillons ended in finials shaped like tightly coiled fern heads. The detailing was exquisite; each tiny leaflet peeking out from the coiled heads cast in sharp relief. The blade was longer, too; Akaien had taken account of Alec’s growth.

  Alec stared at his in amazement. “But—how on earth did you know?”

  Akaien smiled, obviously pleased with his reaction. “Weapons came up in conversation one day when Thero was still with us, and he mentioned yours. He greatly admired the design, and I sketched it to his description. Micum helped with the final details. I hope it pleases you.”

  “Oh, yes! Thank you! But I have nothing to give in return, Uncle.”

  Akaien smiled and patted his shoulder. “No need for that among family, my new nephew.”

  “By the Light, Uncle, thank you!” Seregil said, stepping away from the table to draw his. The steel was polished so fine he could see himself reflected. And like the last, it had a grooved fuller down the center of the blade, making it both strong and light. Alec’s was the same. He felt a lump in his throat, holding it and feeling the perfect balance. Akaien had made his very first sword for him, too.

  When they went out to their horses, they found Kheeta and his mother, as well as Alec’s three friends waiting for them.

  “You didn’t think you’d get away without saying good-bye, did you?” Korit chided. “Here, take this to remember me by.” He handed Alec an agate shatta.

  “We’ll miss you, but at least some of us will have a chance of winning again,” said Stellin, giving him one made from a white stone with a hole through it.

  “And we’ll have a chance to win them back when you return,” added Ethgil, gifting him with a shatta made of bone carved in the shape of a dragon’s head.

  Alec’s voice was a little hoarse as he thanked them.

  Kheeta clasped hands with him. “I’m beginning to think the only way to see you is to go with you.”

  “Another time, maybe,” Seregil replied, pulling him into a hug. Aunt Alira was in tears beside them.

  A tear spilled down Adzriel’s cheek, and her voice trembled as she bade them farewell. Seregil went to her and embraced her. “Don’t cry, sister.”

  Adzriel wiped her cheek on the front of his tunic. “You’re always having to go away.”

  “I know.”

  “When will we see you again?”

  “I can’t make you any promises,” he whispered against her hair, fighting back tears of his own.

  Stepping back, he motioned to Micum and Alec, who were finishing their own good-byes. “Time to go.”

  Alec mounted his shaggy horse. Micum passed Sebrahn up to him, then climbed into the saddle and fixed the long rein of the three packhorses to his saddle. Seregil allowed himself a backward look as they rode slowly out of the courtyard. Adzriel was weeping in her husband’s arms, and Mydri was already heading back into the house. Akaien waved. Seregil’s vision blurred for a moment, and he wiped away the tears before they could freeze.


  Closing In

  AS THEY moved farther south and the map grew more vague, Rieser found himself relying increasingly on Turmay and his moon goddess. But if the oo’lu visions were true, then their quarry were unexpectedly coming their way like charmed rabbits, almost as if the witch was luring the tayan’gil ever closer.

  In Nanta, Ri
eser’s gold had bought them and their horses passage on a large ship bound for the place on the map that Rieser had shown the master of the ship.

  “You want to go to Cirna?” the stupid Tír had asked, speaking slowly and tapping the map as if Rieser were an idiot child. “Cirna?”

  Rieser gave him a narrow-eyed scowl. “If that is what that place is called, then that is where we want to go.”

  The crossing was more difficult than the trip down the river had been. Great waves buffeted the ship and threw water onto the deck like rain. Young Rane and Morai fell sick the first day, but the master of the ship just laughed and called it “seasick.” Apparently it was nothing to worry about. By the second day the others were well again, if a bit pale. Once again, Turmay could not play for them, and Rieser prayed to Aura and the spirit of Hâzadriël that their prey would not slip away in the meantime.

  They reached their destination after a few miserable days, and Rieser was surprised to discover that—if this was indeed where they’d been meant to go—this Skala land was no island. A land bridge connected it to the mainland. Cirna lay at the bottom of a huge cliff that extended as far as the eye could see on either side. At the head of the bay was a great dark channel called Canal, flanked by soaring columns carved into the rock, with huge watch fires burning at the top. The captain claimed it had been made by a wizard called Orska, if Rieser had understood him correctly. He doubted the story; what man could have such power?

  The city itself climbed all the way to the heights above.

  They put in at the large harbor. There were more warships here, and the waterfront was teeming with soldiers, many of whom appeared to be drunk.

  The captain directed them to a precariously steep road that led up to the larger part of the city. Reaching it at last, even Rieser let out a whistle of amazement. The city that spread out in every direction was larger than Wolde or Nanta, and it straddled the Canal. A long bridge wide enough for several wagons to pass crossed over it to the other side. Rane and Thiren walked out a little way on it, until Nowen noticed and shouted for them to come back. Both boys were pale but grinning. Rieser went to see for himself; the bottom of it was lost in darkness, but he could hear voices and the creak of ropes echoing up from the depths as some ship passed through.

  Yet even with such a wonder, Cirna was still nothing more than another filthy Tír city. The crowded streets were strewn with garbage, and dirty children, roving dogs, and pigs ran wild through the midst of it all. Vendors carrying ring-shaped bread, hats, painted bladders, or bunches of ribbon on tall poles moved among them, crying their wares. Rieser had never been surrounded by so many Tír at one time and it was making him nervous, especially with half his riders gawking at everything like children. As always, Hâzadriën was a calm, silent presence at his side. The glamour still held, and no one gave the tayan’gil a second glance.

  He caught sight of a few Aurënfaie among the throng as they rode south through the city. They looked just like his own people in their long coats and sen’gai, but the head cloths were all different colors and patterns. They even wrapped them differently, in complicated ways unlike the simple wrap and knot of his clan. He counted four different clan patterns as they continued on.

  He was sorely tempted to stop and speak with some of them, but when he overheard them talking and could barely make out what they were saying, he held back. He couldn’t reveal what clan he was, even to his own kind. It was strictly forbidden.

  So they continued on through wealthy streets, and then impoverished ones at the edge of the city, overrun with dirty people on every corner and around each public fountain. Sly-looking beggars called out unintelligibly to them as they rode by, some of them even holding out bowls, as if they expected Rieser to feed them. It was disgusting. Any ’faie would kill himself if he were brought so low.

  Safely outside the city that night, Turmay played again, then shook his head. “They won’t come to this place.”

  “I thought you said they were coming right toward us,” said Nowen.

  The witch shrugged. “This is a big land. Bigger than I expected from the marks on your map. But I do see them. They are on a boat coming to this land.”

  “Can you narrow it down at all?” asked Rieser.

  Turmay played again for a few minutes, mingling owl sounds and catamount cries into the booming drone. When he was done, he lowered the oo’lu and pointed. “They will be that way.”

  “That way” was south, and the witch was right about this being a large place. From here, the land stretched to the horizon, much of it mountains. How in Aura’s name were they going to find one ya’shel and something the size of a child out there?

  The journey thus far, he realized, had been a general following of a direction. Turmay had been a good guide, assuming he was leading them the right way, but the map had become less trustworthy the farther south they went, perhaps because Hâzadriël and her followers had not come this way during the long trek north.

  They made camp on a windswept plain above the sea. Looking around at his riders shivering in their cloaks, Rieser felt great pride. None of them had complained or shown doubt through all the long weeks it had taken to get this far, not even the young ones. Rane and his brother Thiren were joking with Sorengil about something, and Kalien and Allia had their heads together. Love might be budding there, he thought disapprovingly. That would be a needless complication. Nowen, Sona, and Morai had been with him longer and were old enough to know better, as was Taegil. Rieser was not bothered by such feelings any more than Hâzadriën; not when he was on the hunt.

  Turmay played while they ate around the fire, then said, “Yes, this is the way.”

  Rieser was secretly growing a little uneasy about their dependence on the witch, and this city had unnerved him. The khirnari’s seer had seen the tayan’gil and its keepers going to Aurënen, not here. Now Turmay said otherwise.

  He looked up to find that the dark tracery of witch marks had appeared on Turmay’s hands and face, which was all he could see of him. “You doubt me?” the witch demanded quietly.

  An unpleasant chill ran up Rieser’s back. “You didn’t tell me you could read thoughts.”

  Turmay held up his oo’lu and looked around the circle of suddenly distrustful faces. “I can’t. I don’t need this, or any other magic, to read faces, Rieser, and yours is full of doubt. I see clearly when I play. I promise you, we are very close now. A few days at most.”

  Rieser sensed no duplicity in the witch; from the start he hadn’t, and it occurred to him now how odd that was. He was not a trusting man when it came to outsiders. Had some of Turmay’s “songs” been responsible for that?

  Still, he gave Turmay a grudging nod. “I meant no offense. It’s been a long journey, and an uncertain one. I’m grateful that you have led us in safety this far.” It was true. They hadn’t encountered so much as a bandit along the way, and the closer they had come to this land, the less any attention was paid to their ’faie looks.

  A few days. He held on to that. Once they were that close, he could rely on his own skills and Hâzadriën’s once more.

  “They’re coming on a boat,” Turmay said again. “If we ride south, I will know the way to find them. The Mother will not fail us.”

  Rieser sighed inwardly. “Well, it’s a start.”


  Old Friends

  THE BÔKTHERSAN SHIP glided safely into Silver Bay as twilight painted the western clouds gold and pink. A tidy little town spread out around the harbor, with rolling hills beyond. Firelight glowed warmly from a hundred windows, gleaming across the water and making Alec feel a bit homesick for Rhíminee, less than a day’s sail away.

  Seregil used one of the remaining message sticks to alert Thero to their arrival, and tell him to meet them at an inn called the Bell and Bridle in a few days. It was on the highroad north of Rhíminee. Magyana knew the place and could direct him.

  “It’s been a while since we passed this way,” Micum not

  Seregil nodded. “Ten years? Twelve?”

  “Something like that.”

  “I could do with a clean room and a decent bath,” Alec put in hopefully. “It’s too late to keep going, anyway.”

  “I’m of the same mind,” said Micum, glancing up at the first stars of the night. “Where shall we put up? The Codfish?”

  Seregil thought a moment, then shook his head. “That will do for our trusty sailors. I’d rather take leave of them here and stay with Madlen, if she’s still around. Sorry, Alec, the bath will have to wait.”

  Micum laughed. “I never thought I’d hear you say that!”

  They said their farewells to the captain, carried their packs down the gangway to the torchlit wharf, and set off through the dark streets.

  “Who is Madlen?” asked Alec.

  Seregil held up his hand and made the Watcher sign—left thumb curled over his forefinger. For centuries Watcher members had been scattered all over Skala and Mycena, and some in the northlands beyond, too: wizards, merchants, innkeepers, even drysians, all of whom were well paid through various channels to keep their secrets from all but their leader, and some of them had no idea who that was. Since Nysander’s death, it was Thero. In spite of Phoria’s orders, the organization was still in place. The queen had no idea of the breadth of it, assuming it was just Seregil and a few others in Rhíminee.

  Seregil paused in a tiny market and looked around. “I don’t remember this being here.”

  Micum scratched at the thick, greying stubble on his cheek, looking thoughtful again. “I hate to think we’ve lived long enough to forget our way.”

  After some casting about, Seregil got his bearings again and led the way down several muddy streets to a little back lane near the forest’s edge. There were only a few houses here, and they continued on to the last one, which stood apart from the others. Alec was heartened to see firelight through its two windows. As they approached, two huge hounds emerged from the shadows, growling with their heads lowered and hackles up.

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