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


  Just then Alec slid awkwardly from the saddle and collapsed in a heap, gripping his wounded shoulder with his good hand.

  Seregil dismounted and shoved Sebrahn into Micum’s arms. “How bad is it?” he asked, pulling off his gloves.

  “Shit! Hurts like hell!” Alec hissed between gritted teeth. “Don’t think it went all the way through, though.”

  “Can you move your arm?” asked Micum.

  Alec lifted his left arm and swore again.

  Seregil knelt beside him. “Steady, now. Let me take a look.”

  The arrow had gone in at an angle. Seregil grasped the shaft and gave it the slightest tug. It moved a little and he felt it grate against bone, probably Alec’s shoulder blade.

  “Brace yourself,” he said calmly. “I’ll do this as quickly as I can.” Grasping the shaft in both hands this time, he snapped it off close to the back of Alec’s coat.

  Alec didn’t make a sound, just fumbled one-handed at the bone buttons on the front of his thick coat.

  “Let me do it.”

  When he had the coat open, Seregil reached down the back of Alec’s shirt until his fingers found the arrow shaft and the hot blood soaking the fleece lining and the wool of Alec’s tunic. Bracketing the broken shaft with two fingers, he lifted the coat free of it, then gently pulled Alec’s arm from the sleeve. Most of the blood had soaked into the thick fleece at the collar. If it had been summer, he’d have left a blood trail for their pursuers to follow—if they were still alive. That doubt was going to haunt him.

  Micum handed him his belt knife and Seregil carefully cut the fabric away from the wound. The arrowhead was lodged in the muscle between Alec’s shoulder and neck. A few inches to the right and it would have hit his spine. It was a painful wound, but not a serious one.

  It meant pulling or cutting it out, though, depending on the type of arrowhead and how barbed it was. “You’d better lie down. I can get a better purchase on it that way and get it over with.”

  Alec stretched out on his belly in the snow and rested his face in the crook of his right arm. “Just do it!”

  Micum held down Alec’s left arm and Seregil straddled Alec’s waist. The bloody stump of the arrow was long enough to get a good grip on, but slippery. He grasped it and pulled as Alec stifled a growl against his sleeve. To everyone’s relief, it pulled out clean. Instead of being barbed and triangular, the head had the long leaf shape meant to pierce a stag, or a man, deep into the organs.

  He packed a handful of snow against the wound and showed Alec the arrow. “You were lucky. Your coat must have helped stop it. Micum, would you bring some water and a cup? Sebrahn—” He paused, looking around. A trail of small footsteps in the snow led back the way they’d come. Sebrahn hadn’t gotten far, but he was going as fast as he could through the snow.

  Seregil sprinted after the rhekaro and grabbed him around the waist, swinging him off his feet. Sebrahn didn’t struggle as Seregil lugged him back, but he kept staring off in the direction they’d come from.

  “Where in Bilairy’s name were you headed?” Seregil snapped, puzzled and annoyed in equal measure. Sebrahn just pointed in the direction he’d been trying to go.

  “No, Alec’s over here and he’s hurt! How can you not know that?”

  A cup of water stood ready in the snow, and Micum had wiped the knife clean. Alec was still bleeding, and covered in gooseflesh.

  “Hurry now,” Seregil urged, putting Sebrahn down beside him.

  The rhekaro cut his finger and made half a dozen healing flowers, pressing each to Alec’s wound. It slowly stopped bleeding and closed up, leaving an angry pink circle of flesh.

  “That’s better,” Alec said, still breathing a little fast as he flexed his left arm. Sitting up, he gathered in Sebrahn with his good arm and hugged him. “Where were you off to?”

  Sebrahn just looked over Alec’s shoulder at his own footsteps in the snow.

  Seregil frowned down at him. “What I want to know is what could be more important to him than healing you? He knew you were wounded. That’s why he sang.”

  “Did it sound the same to you as his killing song?” asked Alec as he pulled his bloody clothing back on.

  Seregil shrugged. “I don’t remember, but the power of it damn near knocked me off my horse. It’s a wonder I’m not dead.”

  Alec pushed the tangled hair back from Sebrahn’s face. “Where were you going?”

  Sebrahn pointed again.

  “Yes, but why? Who were you going to?”

  Sebrahn said nothing, just pointed again.

  “Is someone hurt?”

  Sebrahn knew yes and no pretty reliably, but again he just pointed.

  “It doesn’t matter now. We’ve got other problems.” Micum picked up the broken arrow and wiped the head clean in the snow. “This is interesting.”

  “What is?” asked Alec.

  “The shape of this arrowhead, and the way the edges are serrated. It’s a damn lucky thing that you had a thick coat and were nearly out of range. I’ve never seen one like this in Skala, or anywhere else.”

  “I have,” said Seregil, frowning. “Some of the southern clans use arrowheads like that.”

  “You think someone followed us all the way from Aurënen?” asked Alec.

  “I don’t know, but that’s where that arrow came from.” He picked up the other part of the broken shaft. “See, it’s fletched with four vanes, rather than three. I’ve seen that among the Goliníl clan members.”

  “But they aren’t a southern clan,” Alec pointed out.

  Seregil twirled the broken arrow between his fingers. “No, they’re not. So we have a southern arrowhead on a Goliníl shaft.”

  “I’d say someone is trying to look like they’re Aurënfaie, but didn’t get their methods straight,” said Micum.

  “Maybe. Then there’s the question of the masks.”

  “They spooked me a little,” Alec admitted.

  Micum pocketed the arrowhead. “That’s why they wear them, I’m sure, besides hiding their cowardly faces.”

  “Actually, I think I’ve seen something like them, too,” said Seregil. “Not with the animal motifs, but the Khatme who live up in the highest valleys wear some sort of slotted visor to protect them from going snow blind. It cuts down on the glare.”

  Alec stood up and flexed his shoulder. “That makes three clans.”

  “So who in Bilairy’s name are they?” growled Micum.

  “Aurënfaie, or someone pretending to be them,” Seregil said with a shrug. “Which makes me think that it wasn’t just happenstance that we ran across them.”

  “Ulan?”

  Seregil shrugged. “I don’t know how long his reach is, here in Skala.”

  Micum grasped his stick and pushed himself up to his feet. “We’re not going to be able to answer that unless we go back and search the bodies.”

  Seregil considered that. “Assuming they’re dead. None of us knows one of Sebrahn’s songs from another, but that didn’t sound the way I remember the killing one. Whatever the case, either they’re dead, and no problem, or alive and we don’t know how many of them there are, except they outnumber us. I say we head for the inn for now, and reconsider in daylight. Alec, can you ride?”

  “I’m fine. Come on, before they catch up with us.”

  “Then I’d better find the road,” Micum said as he climbed up into the saddle using his good leg.

  Seregil stood, holding his horse’s reins. “Micum?”

  “What?”

  “I don’t think we should go to Watermead. You don’t want us leading trouble to your doorstep. Not after all these years of being so careful.”

  “I know,” Micum said, regret clear on his face. “Let’s find the damn inn before it gets dark, and see if Thero has any news for us.”

  They cast around for nearly an hour before they found the road again, and Seregil was glad to find it well traveled. The frozen mud and trampled snow were marked with hundreds of other hoo
f prints; even Micum would have trouble tracking them here. Hopefully if their pursuers had survived, they’d have given up on them by now. Somehow, though, Seregil couldn’t shake off the feeling that someone was right behind them, even when a look over his shoulder across the flat terrain showed that there was no one there.

  Rieser came to slowly, aware at first of nothing but the stabbing pain in his head, snow on his face, and the taste of blood at the back of his throat. Someone was shaking him and that only made everything worse. He grabbed for the hand and opened his eyes. Hâzadriën was leaning over him, and the sky beyond was full of sunset color. It had been afternoon when they’d found their prey. And lost them.

  “Stop it, my friend. I’m alive.” He sat up and felt blood run down over his lips from his nose. Hâzadriën reached back for something and presented him with a yellow healing flower.

  Rieser pressed it to his face gratefully and the bleeding stopped, but the pain in his head did not. Using the tayan’gil’s shoulder to steady himself, he climbed to his feet and looked around for the others.

  They lay where they’d fallen, covered with a thin layer of fresh snow. Turmay lay next to him in a crumpled heap, his oo’lu trapped awkwardly under his left shoulder. Two horses remained, pawing in the snow for grass; the others were nowhere to be seen.

  Nowen sat up, holding her head in both hands. “What in the name of Aura was that?”

  “I don’t know,” Rieser told her. “Help me check the others.”

  She appeared to be in as bad shape as Rieser, and they moved like invalids as they slowly went from one to another, shaking them awake.

  All of them were hurt to some degree. Rieser came last to young Thiren lying facedown in the snow. When he didn’t stir, Rieser rolled him over and found the boy’s eyes fixed and his face dark with settled blood. His bow lay broken beside him.

  Nowen came to Rieser and rested a hand on his shoulder. Her voice was thick with grief and pain as she whispered hoarsely, “Why didn’t the witch know, if his ‘Mother’ is so—”

  “Mind your tongue,” Rieser cautioned, covering her mittened hand with his own.

  Rane staggered over and sank to his knees beside his dead brother, blood trickling from both ears, and began the death keen.

  “Not here, Rane,” Rieser said, wrapping an arm around the boy’s shaking shoulders. “There’ll be time later to mourn, when we’ve found some safe place for the night.”

  Rane wiped the tears from his face with his sleeve.

  Rieser found his eyes stinging, too. He had lost riders before, but Thiren was his mentor’s son. He was glad Syall í Konthus wasn’t alive to know this.

  Turmay was on his feet now, white and unsteady. He hands shook as he tried to warm himself in his frozen clothing.

  “You didn’t know that one of them was a wizard?” Rieser demanded.

  “Because none of them are,” Turmay replied, sinking down beside him, looking very green and ill. “I—I would have seen such a one. That was not magic; it was—power. This must have come from their tayan’gil.”

  “That’s impossible. They don’t kill.”

  Turmay gestured weakly back at the dead boy, and at the other riders staggering around holding heads and stomachs. Several were vomiting into the snow. “This one can. And your own tayan’gil was the only one of us not stricken by its power.”

  “A lucky thing for us,” said Rieser, watching Hâzadriën minister to the others. “Sona, Taegil, go look for the other horses. Turmay, you come with me. Nowen and Hâzadriën, you take care of the others here.”

  Mounted on the two remaining horses, he and the witch set off to see what direction the ya’shel and his tayan’gil had gone. Three distinct lines of shallow hoof marks dimpled the fresh snow, heading southeast. The horses had been running at a gallop. They were probably miles away by now, but he kept going.

  “What was that sound?” Rieser asked as they rode along, not really expecting an answer.

  “I think that must be the power of the tayan’gil.”

  “I still say they don’t have such an ability.”

  Turmay frowned at him from the depths of his fur-lined hood. “Even so, I tell you this one does. Remember that it was made from a half-breed’s blood. Who knows what that would do?”

  Rieser snorted softly. “That should make it weaker, not stronger. One of the others must be a wizard. They exist among the Tír in the north, so why not here?”

  Turmay shrugged. “Then perhaps it was that.”

  They followed the trail for nearly a mile before it ended; the snow was less deep on the ground here. The wind had swept away all trace of them.

  With a muttered curse, Rieser turned back and kicked his horse into a gallop, retracing his steps with Turmay beside him. The chase would have to wait for as long as it took for his riders to recover.

  And what then, he could not say.

  CHAPTER 18

  A Wizard’s Touch

  SEREGIL and the others were relieved to finally see the glow of firelight through windows in the distance. They urged their tired horses into one last gallop and reached the inn a few minutes later.

  He and Micum knew the Bell and Bridle well; they’d sometimes stayed here when they were out working for Nysander, and Seregil had sung for their supper by the broad hearth a time or two. It was a large, friendly establishment frequented by traders and travelers of all sorts, with a comfortable, smoky taproom on the ground floor and rooms of passable cleanliness above.

  There was a sizable crowd tonight, mostly traders and drovers, with a handful of soldiers mixed in. Few of them gave the newcomers a second look, focused as they were on the pretty young woman plucking a harp by the fire. That suited Seregil just fine, together with the fact that he didn’t recognize the woman giving orders from behind the polished bar. Better not to leave a trail of acquaintances if someone might be tracking you.

  He looked around for Thero as he made his way through the crowd to the bar, but didn’t see any sign of him. “Have you any rooms for the night, Mistress?”

  She gave him a pretty smile. “Have you the silver to pay for it, sir?”

  Knowing he didn’t look much like a sir, much less Lord Seregil of Rhíminee after so many weeks on the road, he gave her a wink and slid two silver sesters across the bar. “Will that do for a private room and a hot bath?”

  She scooped up the coin. “Just right. You can have the small room at the top of the house. The bathhouse is behind the kitchen. I’ll have the cook put some cans of water by the fire while you carry up your gear.”

  Their room looked out over a chicken yard in the back but had a broad, clean, vermin-free bed and no holes in the roof, which was about all Seregil required of a place like this. An oil lamp stood on a small table. A washstand and a single chair stood by the window.

  “Much better than last night, aside from the smell of the chickens,” Alec said.

  Micum sat down on the edge of the bed to test the mattress. “I’ll take that over fleas any day.”

  They stowed their gear and went back downstairs to take turns in the cramped wooden tub, then sat down to a piping-hot rabbit pie, thick with onions and turnips.

  “This was worth the ride,” Alec said around a mouthful, digging in with his spoon for another bite. With his bangs cut long over his eyes, Sebrahn attracted little attention.

  Seregil nodded absently, glancing around at the crowd. There was still no sign of Thero, upstairs or down.

  They stayed, listening to the harper until she stopped for the night, then returned to their room.

  “Now if you don’t mind, I’m going to get some sleep,” Micum said, stretching out on the bed with a happy groan. “Seregil, you can have the first watch, and don’t the two of you get up to any mischief.”

  “That could be taken several ways,” Seregil noted.

  “And I meant all of them.” With that, he threw an arm over his eyes. A few minutes later he was snoring loudly.

  They wait
ed for two days, passing their time as they could. Alec remained upstairs with Sebrahn while Seregil and Micum went out hunting with the innkeeper’s daughters in the early morning. They added considerably to the house larder, for which they got much praise at supper. In the afternoon Seregil played his harp and made a bit of silver, which he parleyed up in the evening as he and Micum gambled with the other guests. They won more than they lost, but not so much that anyone would remember them for it. The second night Seregil had no luck at all, but his looks and charm had made him the darling of the tables. Everyone gave him a bit of their earnings at the end of the night, little guessing that a few miles away in Rhíminee, Seregil was a rich man.

  Thero arrived at sunset on the third day as Seregil sat plucking his harp by the fireside. The young wizard was dressed in ordinary riding clothes and could have easily passed as one of the traders Micum was currently drinking with. His dark, curly hair was pulled back in a black ribbon, and a few days’ worth of stubble darkened his thin cheeks. He caught sight of Seregil and pushed his way through the crowd to clap him on the shoulder. “Greetings, friend! I hope I haven’t kept you waiting too long.”

  “Not at all, friend. I have a room for us. Come. I’ll show you.”

  “Hold on. You can help me first.”

  Thero led the way out to the stable, where Seregil and Alec’s horses were tethered. Cynril nickered contentedly as Seregil leaned over the side of the stall to rub the tall black mare’s nose. Alec’s brown mare Patch and chestnut stallion, Windrunner, were in the next two stalls. Alec would be glad to have Patch back, preferring the scrubby brown mare to Windrunner, even if she did try to eat every bit of leather within reach, including belts and purses, not to mention tack left hanging unwisely in her stall. Seregil crossed to the other stalls and stroked his grey gelding Star’s neck. “Hello there, boy. Ready for a proper journey after all that lazing around?”

  Several heavy packs lay in a heap on the clean straw of another. “I didn’t know what you wanted,” said Thero, “so your man Runcer packed a bit of everything, including this.” He handed Seregil a heavy money purse, then wrinkled his nose at the tunic Seregil had been wearing since they’d left Madlen’s house.

 
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