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


  Seregil held out his left hand and did the dog trick. As usual, the hounds went from growling menace to happy tail wagging in an instant. Seregil gave them both a good scratching behind their ears, then moved to the door and tapped out a pattern. A moment later a muffled voice demanded, “Who is it?”

  “Luck in the shadows,” Seregil whispered.

  They heard the bar lifted inside. The door swung open to reveal a plump old woman in a nightgown and shawl. “And in the Light!” she whispered back. “I should have known when the dogs went quiet! It’s been years, and you look just the same, you shameless bastard. What brings you here after all this time? And Micum! By the Maker, but you’ve aged.”

  Micum laughed and kissed her on the cheek.

  “And who’s this pretty young thing?” she demanded, looking Alec up and down.

  Seregil fought back a grin. “This pretty young thing is our friend Alec. He’s one of us, so you can speak your mind in front of him.”

  Madlen gave Alec the Watcher sign. When he returned it, she seemed satisfied.

  “Well, I’m glad to meet you, Alec.” Then she caught sight of Sebrahn as he peeked out from behind Alec’s legs. His hood had fallen back, and his eyes and the wide silvery streaks in his hair shone like metal in the firelight. The white patch on his cheek looked pink.

  “And a little one!” Madlen exclaimed before Alec could muffle him up again, not seeming the least put off by Sebrahn’s odd appearance. “Dear me, what have you boys been up to?”

  “Not what you think,” chuckled Micum.

  She gave him a playful slap on the shoulder. “You may be a bit greyer, but you haven’t lost that sparkle in your eye.”

  Seregil gave Alec the nod to unwrap the rhekaro. Madlen’s eyes widened for an instant at the sight of him; then she scooped him up against her ample bosom before Alec could stop her and carried him over to the hearth.

  Seregil caught his breath, exchanging a worried look with Alec, but Sebrahn just settled in her arms and looked back at Alec.

  “The poor little thing is cold as ice!” she scolded. In the firelight, Sebrahn’s eyes didn’t look so unnatural. “Just feel his poor little hands. Whose child is this, if he isn’t yours, and what are you doing with him?”

  “The less said, the better,” Micum told her.

  “We didn’t kidnap him,” said Alec. “He’s mine.”

  Madlen pulled back to look at Sebrahn’s face. “Of course. He favors you. But how did a young one like you come to have a child this old?”

  “As Micum said,” Seregil told her, “the less you know, the better. Can you give us a safe place for the night?”

  “You know you’re always welcome here, though if you stay away this long again, I’ll be in my grave next time you come by. And now, since I have such strong men here, I’m going to take advantage. Can you fetch me in some firewood from the byre?” She pointed to the empty wood box near the hearth. “I’ve got some nice fish chowder I can heat up for you, if it hasn’t curdled.”

  “We’ll do it for the joy of your company,” Micum replied. “But your chowder is always much appreciated.”

  It took several trips, and some explaining as to why Sebrahn had to help, but when they came with the last load of wood, stamping snow from their boots, they found supper laid out for them on Madlen’s polished wood table. Seregil’s mouth watered painfully as he took in the steaming bowls of milky chowder with bits of fried salt pork floating on top, accompanied by mustard pickles, brown bread, and butter.

  Alec used some quick sleight of hand to make it appear that he was feeding Sebrahn bits of bread, then ate a spoonful of chowder with a chunk of fish in it and groaned with pleasure. “We’ve been living on ship’s fare. This is the best thing I’ve ever tasted!”

  Madlen grinned and gave his braid a playful little tug. “Compliments like that will earn you seconds. Now, don’t let your little one go hungry.”

  Seconds led to thirds and Seregil was feeling content and dozy by the time he pushed back his bowl. It was damn good to be back on land and under a friendly roof again.

  Once Madlen was satisfied that none of them could eat another mouthful, she eyed their stained Aurënfaie tunics. “You’ll be needing proper clothes. I’ll go see what I have.”

  She came back a few minutes later with an armload of tunics, coats, and trousers. They sorted through them and found some that fit—even a tunic and a cloak Sebrahn’s size.

  “What news of the war?” Seregil asked.

  The old woman threw up her hands. “According to the heralds, Queen Phoria has the upper hand for now. It’s stretched on far too long, if you ask me. Shortages of everything. The sutlers have bought up meat, flour, sugar, horses, leather, even candle wax! All carried across the sea for the soldiers. From what I’ve heard, the jewelers in Rhíminee can’t find gold to work with anymore, or silver. I don’t imagine the nobles are too happy about that. But the worst of it is the conscription. There isn’t a young man left in the village here, and some of the young women, too—all gone off to war.”

  Micum shook his head. “My oldest daughter, too. This war’s already cost us a good queen. If Phoria’s killed, there’s only that green niece of hers, unless one of the others steps in.”

  “It ought to be Princess Klia,” said Madlen. “First a barren queen, and then a child heir? Mark my words, if—Lightbringer forefend—the queen is killed, there will be some unrest.”

  “That might not be a bad thing,” said Seregil.

  They talked a bit longer about the war, then Madlen bid them good night and retired to a bed behind a curtain at the far end of the room. Seregil and the others climbed up a ladder to the loft and settled in among the cobwebs and mice.

  “That was a nice bit of fooling you did down there,” Micum noted as Alec shook little pellets of bread from his sleeve and shared them around.

  “I had a good teacher.” When he was done, Alec pricked his finger and gave Sebrahn a proper feeding.

  “My heart about stopped when Madlen grabbed him up like that,” whispered Micum.

  “So did mine,” said Seregil. “He seems to have a good sense of who is a friend and who isn’t. Most of the time, anyway.”

  “It’s good to hear that Phoria’s winning,” said Alec.

  “It may be too soon to say that,” warned Micum. “She may have the upper hand, but once fighting starts up again soon, it could go either way.”

  “A stalemate,” Seregil said, shaking his head. “Both sides will come to ruin if this goes on much longer.”

  Micum nodded, looking grim. “And Beka right in the middle of it.”

  Putting their trust in Madlen’s hounds, they all slept the night through, and woke late.

  “Lazy creatures,” she scolded as they climbed down the ladder. “I’ve had your breakfast ready since sunup, and have already been into town to find you some horses.”

  Seregil gave her a kiss on the cheek and sat down to his cold porridge. “I don’t have enough to pay you for the horses.”

  “No matter. I’ve plenty put by. We can settle up when you come through again.”

  They all knew that it might be never.

  Fortunately for Alec, the old woman went out to feed her pigs and chickens, sparing him the need of pretending with Sebrahn. Seregil smiled to himself, imagining Alec trying to hide porridge up his sleeve.

  Madlen had found them three sound geldings, with saddles and tack, too.

  Seregil raised an eyebrow at the old woman. “You’re very generous.”

  “No more than you’ve been to me, in the past. Pass them along to someone who needs them.” She smoothed her chapped hands over the front of her apron. “It’s good to know you two are still about. I’d begun to wonder.”

  Micum hugged her. “We’re lucky bastards, don’t you know?”

  “You’re courting trouble from the Four, bragging like that. Better bite your tongue.”

  Micum laughed and caught his tongue between his front
teeth for her to see. “There now. Safe again.”

  It was only a joking exchange, but Seregil suddenly felt a superstitious chill run up his spine. “Come on. We’ve a long ride ahead of us.”

  They set out with hot roasted yams warming their pockets that would serve as a midday meal later on, when they were cold. Alec was glad of the warmth, as the morning was bitter.

  The sky was clear when they set off, but by noon the clouds began to gather, and by the time they reached an inn called the Drover’s Head that evening, most of the stars were blotted out.

  “I don’t like the look of that,” Alec said, studying the sky. “It will be hard riding tomorrow.”

  “We could just stay put,” Micum suggested. “Thero doesn’t know what day to expect us, if he’s even there by now himself.”

  “We’ll see,” said Seregil. “I’d rather keep moving.”

  The Drover’s Head was a ramshackle establishment, with poor ale and worse food. The only good thing about that was that there were only a few other patrons, and none who stayed the night.

  The dispirited innkeeper gave them a room at the back, off the kitchen, which turned out to be more of a shed, with a few lumpy pallets thrown about on the warped floorboards.

  “Hold on,” Seregil warned as Alec went to toss his bedroll on one of them. He nudged the one closest to him with his boot, then slapped at his pant leg. As he’d feared, these poor excuses for beds they had paid a full sester for were jumping with fleas. And where there were fleas, there were probably lice, too.

  “No,” he said, regarding the room in disgust.

  “No,” Micum agreed.

  “Definitely not,” Alec said with a grimace.

  Gathering their things, they moved into the dirt-floored kitchen and spread their blankets in front of the broad hearth, where the banked coals were still giving off a nice warmth. Their innkeeper and his servants evidently slept elsewhere; the room was empty.

  Taking advantage of that fact, Seregil took a turn around the kitchen and came up with some hard black bread and a jug of sour cider. They sat on their blankets and passed the food around, gnawing a bit of the bread off and taking a swig of the cider to soften it up.

  “Another day to the Bell and Bridle, and another two to Watermead,” Micum calculated.

  “Do you think Beka and Nyal will still be there?” asked Alec.

  “I imagine so,” said Micum.

  “How is it, having an Aurënfaie as your daughter’s husband?” asked Seregil.

  “He’s a good man.” Micum stared into the fire. “They say they don’t mind the fact that he’ll see her grow old and die, but they’re both young yet.”

  “He’ll have their ya’shel children, though,” said Alec.

  “That’s true, but it’s not the same as having your wife. It’s not the way things are supposed to be. You two are damn lucky to have found each other when you did.”

  In every sense of the word, Seregil thought.

  CHAPTER 17

  Snow and Blood

  ALEC WAS the last one on watch and woke the others just before dawn. Seregil left the innkeeper a few coppers for the bread and moldy cheese they took for a saddle breakfast.

  The weather had turned damp and bitter, and dark clouds sealed the sky around the horizon like pastry on a pie.

  “What do you make of that?” asked Seregil.

  Micum eyed the clouds. “Snow before the morning’s gone. Probably heavy.”

  “Then we’d better make good time while we can, if we want to reach the inn before nightfall,” Seregil said. The cold affected him more than the others, and Alec knew he wouldn’t be happy spending the night around a fire in the open.

  Micum’s assessment of the weather was, unfortunately, correct. The first flakes began to fall soon after they started out. By midday it was snowing so hard Seregil could barely make out the road ahead, much less what lay to either side. It was a wet, heavy snow that stuck to their clothes and the horses’ shaggy coats and manes. It was already deep enough to obscure the terrain, and they took turns leading on foot, tramping along trying to tell frozen road from frozen grass. It was open country, but no wind stirred the heavy curtains of snow that surrounded them.

  “How long to the inn, Micum?” Seregil asked, shaking off the snow that had collected in the folds of his cloak and Sebrahn’s hair.

  “At this rate? We’ll be lucky to make it by nightfall.”

  By afternoon it was falling even more heavily, blotting out both sky and the surrounding landscape.

  Alec, in the lead on foot, suddenly held up a hand to signal a stop. “Do you hear that?”

  Micum reined in. “Hear what?”

  “That strange sound.”

  They sat listening. After a moment, Seregil thought he did hear something in the distance—a deep, dull sound with a pulsing rhythm.

  “What is it?” asked Alec.

  “Damned if I know.”

  “I don’t hear anything,” said Micum.

  “Well, whatever it is, it’s too far away to be our problem,” Seregil said, setting off again.

  He couldn’t hear it now, and soon it was the least of their worries as the snow came down harder than ever and the whole world went white—so white and blank that it hurt the eyes. Sound took on an eerie, muffled quality, as if his ears were just a little numb or lightly packed with wool, everything deadened by the soft hiss of snow on snow. The hair on the back of his neck started to prickle, the way it did in a dark room when he was certain there was someone hiding just behind him.

  The rhekaro stirred restlessly, looking around as if he felt it, too.

  Seregil tightened his arm around Sebrahn’s waist and called out, “Wait!”

  Alec turned and called back, “What’s wrong?”

  “I don’t know. Something doesn’t feel right. Sebrahn, keep still!” The rhekaro was pushing at Seregil’s arm now.

  “That’s the way he acts where there’s someone who needs healing nearby.”

  “We don’t have time to—” Micum began, then reined in with a grunt of surprise.

  No one heard them coming, not even Seregil. The white-cloaked figures on white horses were suddenly just there in the road ahead of them, no more than twenty paces from where Alec stood. Their wolfskin hoods were up, and a mask of some sort covered the upper parts of their faces. Seregil couldn’t see how many there were, just the hint of other shapes moving among the curtains of snow.

  “Alec!”

  “I see them!” There was no time to get to his bow, tied on behind his saddle. Mounting his horse, he drew his sword.

  Sharp whistles came from all sides, which meant their would-be attackers were signaling to each other.

  They were being surrounded.

  Tightening his one-armed hold on Sebrahn, who was fighting to get away now, he gestured toward the men blocking their way, signaling break for it!

  They kicked their horses into a gallop and ran straight at them. As Seregil closed with one, he saw that the mask was shaped like the face of a red bird, with black painted eyes surrounding narrow horizontal slits. The man who swung his sword at Seregil’s head had a mask like a wolf.

  With his arms full of rhekaro, he barely managed to duck the blade and keep his one-handed grip on the reins.

  They must have caught their attackers by surprise, because they were able to get through. With Micum in the lead now, they kicked their horses into a hard gallop, hoping to lose them in the snow before any of the horses broke a leg in a hidden ditch or rabbit hole.

  “Bandits?” Alec said, looking back over his shoulder. He was riding so close that Seregil could have reached out and touched him, but his voice was so muffled Seregil could barely make out what he said. That eerie quiet had settled over them again, making the hair on the back of his neck prickle again.

  As they pelted along, trying to keep Micum in sight, Seregil caught motion from the corner of his eye, but when he turned to look there was nothing there.

/>   It happened again to his right, just past Alec, and this time he saw one of the masked riders pacing them. This one wore a fox mask. His horse’s hooves didn’t make a sound, but Seregil heard his whistle, and the answering ones behind them. Micum reined his horse away from the ones they could see, and Seregil and Alec followed hard on his horse’s heels.

  We’re going to break our damn necks, Seregil thought. And Sebrahn was still struggling!

  The whistles started up again, all around them, sounding so close Seregil wondered why he couldn’t see any of them.

  Suddenly Alec lurched forward in the saddle, an arrow protruding from his left shoulder. Micum slowed and grabbed the fallen reins.

  “Damn!” Seregil reined in beside them, intending to make a stand. Before he could dismount, however, Sebrahn opened his mouth and sang.

  The burst of power that emanated from that thin little body nearly threw Seregil from the saddle. It was like being struck in the chest by lightning and being on fire, all at once. The high-pitched cry drove a spike of pain between his eyes, blinding him for a moment.

  Clinging on with his thighs and one hand, he managed to stay in the saddle and follow the others as they dashed away, hoping to take advantage of whatever Sebrahn had just done. He was relieved to see Alec upright again and riding hard, even with the arrow wagging up and down in his shoulder.

  They drove their horses until the beasts were exhausted and they had no choice but to stop. The snow had ceased somewhere along the way, and the wind had come up. Looking back, all Seregil saw was a triple line of hoof marks slowly being scoured away. He reined his gelding around, looking for their pursuers. He hadn’t seen or heard any sign of pursuit since Sebrahn had sung, and he didn’t see them now across the snowswept plain. The masked bastards were probably lying in the snow, dead, just like those slave takers who’d killed Alec in Plenimar. He hoped so, anyway, though he was curious about who they were. They’d been better organized than most bandits he’d encountered. As much as he’d have liked to inspect the bodies, they’d have to backtrack for miles. Without their own trail to follow, they’d end up casting around while it got dark.

 
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