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


  “The innkeeper doesn’t do laundry,” Seregil said ruefully. Even though he’d bathed again last night, his clothes were getting rather ripe.

  “Your hair has grown quite a lot since I last saw you,” Thero remarked as they hefted the bags and carried them inside.

  Seregil grinned and ran his fingers back through his dark hair; it was a bit past his shoulders now and not so ragged as it had been, thanks to Alec’s careful trimmings. Between that and the daily attention to Sebrahn’s ever-growing hair, Alec could probably set up shop as a barber when they got back to Rhíminee. Assuming they did.

  Micum met them and insisted on taking one of the small bags as he stumped up the two steep flights behind them.

  Alec was on the bed with Sebrahn, pitching cards at the washbasin and looking very bored. He brightened up at the sight of Thero. “You made it! Any news?”

  As Thero bent to set his packs down under the window, however, he caught sight of Alec’s bloodstained coat, thrown into a corner and forgotten. He looked around at the rest of them in surprise. “Who’s wounded?”

  Seregil held a finger up to his lips and waited until Micum closed the door.

  Thero cast a ward on it to keep out prying ears. “What happened? Who’s hurt?”

  Alec pulled down the back of his shirt to show Thero his latest scar. It hardly showed, after Sebrahn’s healing. “We were ambushed and one of their archers hit me in the back, but I’m fine.”

  “When did this happen?”

  “A few days ago,” Seregil told him. “There were a dozen or so and they caught us by surprise.”

  “Bandits?”

  “I don’t think so,” said Micum. “The arrow that struck Alec was of Aurënfaie make.”

  “Why wait until then to ambush you? And why would ’faie attack you, anyway?”

  “We aren’t sure about any of that.”

  “They wore animal masks,” Alec told him. “Ever hear of anything like that?”

  Thero shook his head. “Not that I recall. Where did you get the Skalan clothing, by the way? Steal it from some poor cottager’s clothesline?”

  “We spent a night at Madlen’s.”

  “Ah, good. I hope you found her well?”

  “Same as ever.”

  “I’m glad to hear it.”

  Thero opened one of the packs and took out a leather tobacco pouch wrapped in string. “I thought you might need this.” Grinning, he tossed it over to Micum.

  Micum pulled the string loose and lifted the flap to sniff the contents. “Oh, that’s good! Many thanks, Thero. That was kind of you.”

  “Nothing for me?” asked Alec.

  Thero took out a small cloth drawstring bag and handed it to him. “Hundred Year Plums. I guessed you hadn’t had any for a long time.”

  Alec eagerly opened the bag and offered the sweets to Seregil, who declined. They were made in Rhíminee, where a particular small, tart plum grew. Once harvested, they were pitted, stuffed with ground pepper, then packed in salt for months, until they were wizened and black, and looked as if they were a hundred years old. The combination of salt, tart, and hot wasn’t to Seregil’s taste, but Alec loved them.

  Thero sat down on the bed next to Sebrahn. “So you saved Alec again, did you? You’re a useful little fellow.”

  “But a conspicuous one,” said Seregil. “Your transformation is wearing off.”

  “So I see,” said Thero, taking in Sebrahn’s piebald appearance.

  Seregil turned Sebrahn’s face to the light, then pushed up his sleeves, showing the wizard the patches of blotchy white showing through the tan skin. There was more silver than blond in his hair now, too.

  Thero passed his hands over Sebrahn’s hair and shoulders. “It’s as if it’s worn off, like paint. I’m afraid all I can do is reset the spell and hope it lasts as long as the previous one. So, what will you do now? I assume you’re still going to avoid Rhíminee?”

  Seregil exchanged a look with Alec, then said, “We’re going to Plenimar.”

  Thero stared at him in disbelief. “You can’t be serious. Why?”

  “We have reason to believe that Yhakobin had books on how the rhekaros are made. If we can get those, it will not only tell us more about Sebrahn and how to handle him, but also keep any more from being made.” It had sounded better when they’d come up with the plan.

  “I don’t suppose I can talk sense into any of you?”

  “No,” said Alec.

  “Well then, how do you mean to go about it?”

  “I know a good man with a good ship, who happens to be at my beck and call.”

  Alec grinned. “Captain Rhal. I hope he still has that sighting charm nailed to the mast.”

  “He does,” the wizard told him. “I dined with him a month ago, aboard the Lady, and he had me make certain the magic was still in place on it.”

  “So tell me, Thero, where is that ship of mine?” asked Seregil.

  Micum and Alec shared an amused look. Seregil knew it was at his expense.

  Thero climbed onto the bed and sat cross-legged in the middle of it. “Give me a moment.” He closed his eyes and pressed his palms together, pointing away from him. After only a moment he opened his eyes. “He’s in Nanta harbor.”

  “Damn,” muttered Seregil. “It will take him a month or more to get here, this time of year.”

  “Indeed.” Thero paused a moment. “There is another route you could take, though it’s not an easy one. Do you know of Tamír’s Road?”

  “I know the queen’s name, but I didn’t know she had her own road.”

  “It goes through the central mountains of Skala from near Rhíminee to Ero,” the wizard explained. “It’s said to be the route Tamír the Great and her army took to outflank her usurper cousin for their final battle. Rhíminee was built on that same battlefield.”

  “And it still exists?” asked Micum.

  “It’s actually more of a trail than a road,” Thero explained. “The mouth of it is hidden, but I can show you. I’ve been down it with Magyana.”

  “And it comes out at Ero?” asked Alec. “I thought that city was destroyed back in ancient times.”

  “The city was,” Seregil told him. “All that remains of it are some ruins up on a hill, and bits of the city wall. There’s still a little village down at the harbor, though, called Beggar’s Bridge. I’ve been there a time or two. Rhal can meet us there.”

  “Is the trail even passable this time of year?” asked Alec.

  “It should be. The passes aren’t that high,” Thero explained.

  “I’ve heard that some strange folk live up in the mountains,” said Micum.

  “Yes, though you’re not likely to see any along the road. They avoid travelers.”

  “How long will it take us, do you think?” asked Micum.

  Thero thought a moment. “Ten days—maybe two weeks to Beggar’s Bridge, if the weather doesn’t slow you down.”

  “All right then. Tamír’s Road it is!” said Seregil. “Send word to Rhal to meet us there.”

  Thero cast a message spell and a little point of light sprang to life in front of him. “Captain Rhal, Lord Seregil sends word that’s it’s time to honor your bargain again. Please be at Ero Harbor by the first day of Klesin.” He looked up at Seregil. “Anything to add?”

  “Wait for us there and have someone we know keep watch for us at Sea Horse Tavern.”

  Thero nodded and sent the light speeding off to the east. It disappeared through the window and was gone. “That gets you to Plenimar, but how can you take Sebrahn there? You three might be able to blend in, but he won’t.”

  Seregil nodded. “I haven’t worked that out yet. Do you have any suggestions?”

  “Not that I can think of. And what about you, Alec?” the wizard asked, reaching out to tug the end of Alec’s braid. “This hair of yours is like a beacon.”

  “Do it.”

  “Red or brown?”

  “What? Oh—brown.”


  Seregil gave Thero a strand of his hair and Thero performed the transformation spell, leaving Alec’s the same dark brown, then did the same to Sebrahn’s and used the pouch of brown powder to restore the color of his skin. “There. It makes you both look almost full ’faie. I only hope it holds long enough this time for you to do what you need to do.”

  Alec held up his braid. “Changing the color may not be enough. I think it’s time to cut it.”

  “I’m afraid so,” Seregil said with a pained look. “I’ll ask the innkeeper for a pair of shears.”

  Thero shook his head. “I don’t know why I’m helping you. It’s pure madness.”

  “There’s no help for it. Aside from Ravensfell—where we would most assuredly be killed—where else are we going to find out how to manage Sebrahn?” asked Seregil. “I assumed you’d be the most interested in such knowledge.”

  “I assume you know where to look once you get there?”

  “Well, I know what it looks like,” Alec told him. “Yhakobin had all sorts of books lying around in a workshop.”

  Thero shook his head. “And you’re assuming that the one you want is still there, with its owner dead?”

  “If it isn’t, then we’ll find out who took it,” Seregil said with a shrug, though the more he tried to convince the wizard, the worse it all sounded, even to him.

  “Assuming we don’t all get killed,” Thero noted dryly.

  Seregil arched an eyebrow at that. “Who said anything about ‘we’? You’re not going.”

  “And who are you to tell me that?”

  Micum laughed at that.

  “It’s going to be dangerous enough for ’faie to go in with a magical creature like no other in tow,” Seregil explained as patiently as he could. “Your wizard blood and magic as strong as yours is? They would make you shine like a torch to any necromancer we encounter. Maybe alchemists and Plenimaran wizards, too. You’d be more liability than help.”

  “Liability?” Thero looked like he was about to launch into a lengthy retort, but he stopped instead and nodded. “That’s probably true. But I’ll take you as far as the beginning of the road and show you where it is.”

  “I didn’t mean to insult you about the rest of it, Thero,” Seregil told him. “I never doubt your skills, or your bravery.”

  Thero raised a dubious eyebrow. “Thank you.”

  “Now, about that slave mark?” said Micum.

  “Slave mark?”

  “The slavers branded us on the arm and leg. Every slave bears the marks,” Seregil explained.

  Alec took out a small bit of parchment and showed Thero the design he’d created. “Yhakobin’s mark was round, but I saw some square ones like this, too. This is the size.”

  “And I’m to be their new master.” Micum said, grinning at Seregil. “I’m rather looking forward to it, too.”

  Thero sat down by the room’s single lamp and held the design to the light. “Yes, I think I can do that in a way that won’t leave any traces of the spell. Who wants to go first?”

  Seregil pulled his right sleeve back. “Right here, on the underside of the forearm.”

  Thero pressed his hands together under his chin, chanting softly, and Seregil felt the air around them begin to crackle and warm. He clenched his teeth against the sudden pain as Thero closed his right hand over Seregil’s arm and gripped it tightly. The pain only lasted a moment, but it felt like a hot iron had been pressed to his skin again.

  When Thero took his hand away, the others leaned in to see the square outline of the slave mark just where the old one had been. It was slightly raised and had a faded look, pale against Seregil’s fair skin.

  “Will that do?”

  “It’s perfect!” Seregil smiled as he ran a thumb over it. “I take it this doesn’t have any magic clinging to it, either?”

  “No, it’s just a transformation spell, like Sebrahn’s hair. I altered your skin. I’ll change it back when you’re done with it.”

  “Did it hurt?” asked Alec.

  “Yes, it did.” Seregil gave him a crooked grin as he pulled off his left boot. “But it was still much nicer than the way the slavers do it. I need one on the back of my left calf, as well.”

  Thero invoked the spell again and laid a hand on the back of Seregil’s calf. The fleeting pain took hold and the mark appeared. Thero made the brands on Alec’s arm and leg, then turned to Sebrahn. “What about him?”

  “Why not let him be my son?” Micum suggested. “He won’t be much use as a slave.”

  Alec shook his head. “Sooner or later we might end up having to stay in someone’s slave quarters, away from you and Sebrahn. And you know what happened last time we tried that.”

  “What happened?” asked Thero.

  Seregil described Sebrahn’s “tantrum” and its aftereffects. “It will be hard enough to keep him from seeing every Plenimaran as an enemy.”

  “Are you certain that a necromancer won’t sense him?” asked Alec.

  “Certain? No, but we don’t have much choice at this point. Thero, will you try that spell on Sebrahn?”

  Thero approached the rhekaro again with obvious trepidation.

  Alec pulled Sebrahn into his lap and held the rhekaro’s right arm out to the wizard. “This will hurt a little, but it’s all right.”

  “Hurrrrrt.”

  “Go ahead, Thero.”

  The wizard carefully laid his hand on Sebrahn’s arm, and to everyone’s relief the spell took effect without incident. The faded-looking brand stood out against his brown skin. Thero placed the last one on his leg, and it was over.

  “I suppose you’ll need slave collars, as well.”

  “We’ll just have to find a blacksmith who won’t ask any questions,” said Micum. “I know a man over in Riverton who could do the job, and he’s only three days from here. It’s a bit out of our way, but he’s got the craft and the sense to keep his mouth shut if anyone comes asking.”

  “I don’t like it,” said Seregil. “What more obvious crumb could we leave in our trail than having someone make Plenimaran slave collars all the way over here?” He turned to Thero again. “Nysander was pretty handy with metal. Do you know any of that magic?”

  “He did teach me some, as one type of the transformations. I only mastered it on gold, silver, and iron, though.”

  Seregil weighed his purse in one hand. “Not enough gold or silver, and Micum probably doesn’t look rich enough to have slaves of that quality.”

  “Rather you don’t look like you’re good enough quality,” Micum shot back with a grin.

  “Indeed,” Thero said with a dry smile. “As for the collars, if I’m to work metal, I’ll need some rest first. You lot are very demanding!”

  Seregil chuckled at that, then disappeared downstairs, returning a few minutes later with a pair of kitchen shears. With a resigned sigh, he cut Alec’s braid off just below the nape of his neck, then trimmed up the ragged ends. “It’s shorter than mine now. But you’re right, it would have gotten you noticed.” He paused and yawned. “You three get some sleep. I’ll take the first watch. I have some thinking to do.”

  He wrapped himself in his cloak and made his way downstairs to the mostly deserted taproom. Sitting by the hearth nursing an ale, he waited until the servants and the few lingering rum pots had gone to bed, then pulled a chair over to the west-facing window. Snow was falling again, and clouds covered the moon, making it too dark to see much. He kept watch, anyway, as his thoughts turned again to the strange masked riders and that arrowhead.

  I hope we did kill you, you bastards, whoever you are!

  CHAPTER 19

  Useful Magic

  THERO WOKE at dawn to find the others already awake. A sooty fire poker and a rusty crowbar lay on the bed beside him.

  Seregil was sitting near the window with his bare feet propped on the sill and his fingers laced around a steaming mug, looking pleased with himself. “These were the best I could find, unless you can work with a sack of
horseshoe nails.”

  “I could do with some tea first,” Thero grumbled, sitting up and combing his fingers back through his disheveled curls.

  Micum handed him a mug and Thero gratefully inhaled the steam, which smelled of a passable quality leaf. “So, can you tell me exactly what you want them to look like?”

  Seregil smoothed a square of stained blotting paper out on the bed. On it were drawn two fairly detailed collars, each open on one side, with flattened ends and rivet holes, presumably where the thing would be fastened around the unfortunate slave’s neck. Seregil was a more than passable artist, and Thero could make out the simple patterns he’d decorated them with. “I didn’t know they could be so fancy.”

  “The type of collar speaks to the owner’s means and taste,” Seregil explained. “A rich man’s favorite could have a gold or silver collar, decorated quite nicely. You almost forget it’s not just jewelry.”

  Setting his mug aside, Thero picked up the poker and ran his hands over it, familiarizing himself with the metal. Iron was less malleable than gold or silver, but not as resistant to magic as silver. He continued stroking the poker as he closed his eyes and began to visualize what he wanted. He imagined it becoming a long roll of beeswax, and felt the heat under his fingers as the iron responded, beginning to bend. He pulled back a little, not wanting to melt it. Checking the drawing again, he broke off a usable length of it and gently curved it around into an open circle.

  Seregil let out an impressed whistle. “I didn’t think it would be that easy!”

  “It’s not,” Thero muttered, concentrating to keep the metal workable. It was a small matter to pinch the ends flat and fashion a hole through them large enough for a rivet. With that done, he ran his hand over it again, smoothing the surface, and laying down a vine-like pattern as if it had been incised by some talented artist—which, as it happened, he was. Finished, he passed it to Seregil for inspection.

  “Very nice. Do you have it in you to make the other two, or do you need to rest?”

 
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