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


  “No, let’s proceed.” There was enough of the poker left to make a little collar for Sebrahn, but he had to work with the crowbar to make the third. This iron had been more crudely refined and took more concentration, but the others were quietly cheering him on and it was surprising how much that helped. Even Sebrahn seemed mildly interested.

  The third collar was heavier than the others, with a double line of arrowhead designs. When he was done, Seregil took it and weighed it against the first. “It’s not as fine.”

  “It’s the best I can do with the quality of that metal,” Thero told him, at the end of his strength for the moment.

  “I’ll wear it,” Alec offered. “After all, I’m a little bigger than you are, Seregil.”

  “Stop bragging,” said Seregil, with what might have been a hint of pique. “It’s only an inch of height, and you still have that baby’s face of yours.”

  Alec smoothed two fingers over the barely discernible fuzz on his upper lip. “You won’t say that when I’m shaving.”

  “I hate to disappoint you, talí, but you’re no more likely to sprout a beard than I am.”

  “Are we leaving, or are you two going to stand around preening yourselves all morning?” asked Micum, who was sporting a respectable scruff on his chin and cheeks this morning, in addition to his bushy moustache. Seregil made a rude gesture in his friend’s direction.

  Thero watched with amusement and, if he was honest with himself, a bit of affection, as well.

  Micum stowed the collars away in a pack while Seregil and Alec dressed in clothing Thero brought from the Wheel Street house. The surcoats they chose were plain but stylishly cut, and the breeches of soft doeskin were just loose enough to ride in. He’d forgotten about boots, which would have been unwieldy to conceal, but those they’d worn from Aurënen were close enough in cut not to be remarked on, especially since the men who wore them were unmistakably Aurënfaie themselves. Thero studied Alec’s face in the morning light; his dark blue eyes gave away his mixed blood, but he still retained the heightened features that had resulted from whatever strange magic the alchemist had put Alec through to purify the strain of Hâzadriëlfaie blood in his veins. At this point Thero was quite sure the change was permanent. He hoped the people who knew him as Lord Alec in Rhíminee would put the change down simply to him growing toward manhood.

  “Come on then!” Seregil said, slinging a pack over his shoulder. He’d buckled on his sword, and Thero could see the slight bulge on the outside of Seregil’s right boot, where he always carried the wickedly sharp poniard. Alec had somehow come out of Plenimar with his black-and-silver-handled dagger, too, and wore it in his belt, in a new sheath worked with a ’faie design.

  They had breakfast in the tavern, paid their bill, and set off in good spirits, leaving Madlen’s horses with the innkeeper with instructions to sell them and hold the money for their return. Both Seregil and Alec were as delighted to be reunited with their own horses as if they were long lost friends. Thero even caught Alec letting Patch gnaw on a leather wrist guard when they stopped to water them at a roadside spring. But he also saw how watchful Seregil and the others were, constantly checking behind for their masked pursuers. The weather was clear and the terrain flat, allowing them to see for some miles, but still they looked.

  “Let me see that arrowhead,” he said at last.

  Micum reached into his belt purse and handed it to him. The bloodstains on the broken bit of shaft still attached to it had turned black.

  Thero clasped it in his left hand and looked over at Seregil. “This should work.”

  “Good. I’m getting a stiff neck looking over my shoulder so much.”

  Thero looped the reins over the saddlebow, pressed the arrowhead between his hands, and closed his eyes. The first thing he saw was Alec, thanks to the blood, which he was adept at reading. Things would be much simpler if some of the original archer’s blood was on it, but no such luck. Instead he had a brief, vague impression of a tall man on a tall white horse, traveling across a snowy field. Thero set free the wizard eye and experienced a moment of dizziness as his perception changed to that of a bird, flying high above the surrounding terrain. He saw the inn behind them, and the muddy roads. Moving west, he scanned left and right for signs of riders, but the only ones he found were clearly Skalans abroad on business.

  “Nothing, I’m afraid. No sign of pursuit,” he told them, massaging his forehead with two fingers to ease the dull ache there. “They could have given up, or you killed them.”

  “Or they’re holed up somewhere, licking their wounds,” Seregil murmured, looking back over his shoulder again as they set off again.

  The Ebrados had found refuge in an abandoned cottage. Rane and Morai were still ill and Hâzadriën tended them as best he could, but the magic that had struck them down didn’t leave wounds on skin or bone.

  Turmay had been very quiet since it happened, not speaking or offering to play the oo’lu, but Rieser often caught the witch with a distant look in his eyes, as if he could see far, far beyond this miserable redoubt. Still, for four days he said nothing at all.

  Then, on the morning of the fifth day, Turmay suddenly stood up and went to the door, oo’lu over one shoulder and his little bundle over the other.

  “What is it?” Rieser demanded, looking past the little man for signs of trouble.

  But the witch just glanced back at him and said, “Time to follow them,” as if they’d been talking about it all morning.

  As they set off, Turmay was suddenly talkative again. “This tayan’gil you seek? It is not like this one with you. Yours has a different feel, less powerful magic than the little one. The other tayan’gils your clan guards are the same as this one, mute and harmless. But this other?”

  “You mean he’s not a real tayan’gil?”

  “I don’t say that, only that he’s not the same as Hâzadriën or his brothers. He is something different.”

  “Either he is or he isn’t!”

  Turmay looked up at him, black eyes suddenly bottomless. “No. And you must catch him.”

  “Of course! That’s why we’re here, leagues from our valley, with a man dead,” Rieser snapped. “This is no time to talk in riddles!”

  Rieser waited impatiently for the witch to explain himself, but Turmay lapsed back into his frustrating silence for the rest of the day and refused to answer any questions.

  Alec had seen Skala’s long mountainous spine many times, but only from a distance. Now he felt a thrill of anticipation as they neared the head of the trail named for the famous queen. He’d seen her statue in the Cirna Canal—a grim and determined figure in gown and breastplate, sword raised in protection of the ships passing before her. He tried to imagine Tamír as she must have looked going to war, and no older than he’d been when he first met Seregil. The thought of seeing her ancient capital made his heart beat faster, even if the place was nothing but a ruin. But it wasn’t only that. Riding along with his friends, on their way to new places and new dangers—he lived for this. All those desultory months knocking around Rhíminee, he’d longed for this kind of freedom. Of course all he’d gotten was a stint in slavery, but at least they’d gotten out of the house.

  It took a day and a half of uneventful riding to reach the foothills where Tamír’s Road began, and it was a distinct relief not to have to keep Sebrahn hidden anymore. Thanks to Thero’s reinforced magic, he looked even more like a skinny little boy—or girl, for that matter, with all that hair. In his weaker moments Alec could almost imagine taking him back to Wheel Street or the Stag and Otter, thinking how they might explain the sudden appearance of a child. But then Sebrahn would look up at him with those empty silver eyes and the daydream ended in thoughts of Queen Phoria and what she would do to obtain such a weapon as this.

  Following a faint trail, they rode up through an ancient forest of towering, snow-covered fir trees. The way grew steeper and the forest more dense as the day went on, but Thero led the way without hesita
tion.

  “Here it is,” he said at last.

  This part of the forest looked pretty much like what they’d been riding through all afternoon, until Thero pointed out the faint carving of a handprint on one of the trees. Alec could tell it had been made a long time ago by the way the bark had grown in around the edges, obscuring the thumb. He brushed his fingers across the mark, then pressed his hand to it. It was made by a smaller hand than his.

  “Is that an Orëska mark?” he asked.

  “No. It’s something to do with those hill folk,” Thero told him. “Nysander said that they lived down here, before we Skalans came.”

  “And took their lands,” Seregil added.

  “Unfortunately, yes. These marks lead to the head of the trail.”

  The handprint carvings, few and far between, led to the bank of a small, rushing river, and then upstream into the mountains. The snow was old here, icy and dirty. Spring was not far off.

  “This is the start of it,” Thero told them. “Just follow the stream to the trail. It goes between some cliffs for a while, so there’s no missing it.”

  “Then I guess it’s time we say our farewells,” Seregil said.

  “All right, then. But let me cast another wizard eye for you, to look for trouble ahead.” Closing his eyes, Thero murmured the spell and sat very still for a moment. “There are people up in the hills, but they live there and they’re well back from the trail. When Magyana and I passed through, we never saw any.”

  “Thank you.” Seregil clasped hands with him. “For all you’ve done for us.”

  “Don’t make it sound so final! Just be sure to bring that book to me. I’ll keep it safe and secret.”

  “A Guardian,” said Alec.

  “I suppose so. Good luck to you all. Luck in the shadows.”

  “And in the Light, my friend,” Seregil returned.

  Alec missed Thero immediately, but there was an added sense of urgency with his departure that he couldn’t quite explain, as if the parting marked the passing of some boundary.

  The way grew narrower as they went on, threading between steep rock faces that barely left enough room along the ice-edged riverbank to pass. In places they were forced to ford through uncertain waters, and all the while the sun was sinking behind the trees. There was fresh snow here, but it was not deep. It leveled out to a windswept span of rock and dead grass. There were a few conies nibbling there and Alec took two with his bow, shooting from the saddle.

  Stars were showing overhead when they reached a little pocket valley between steep, snow-clad peaks.

  “I’ve had enough, and so have the horses,” said Micum, stroking his mount’s neck. “This is as good a place as any.”

  There was no sign of habitation, so they made camp in a copse of young firs. Dead grass and weeds stuck up through the snow, and they left the horses to forage while they scraped out a fire pit. There was plenty of wood to roast the rabbits, and they’d sleep warm that night, bundled close together around the fire.

  Alec was just about to settle down for the night when Sebrahn suddenly jumped to his feet and ran across the clearing, pointing up at something. Micum and Seregil had already drawn their swords, but Alec saw what Sebrahn was excited about and waved them off.

  A large white owl sat blinking down at them from a bough.

  Sebrahn held his arms up to it and rasped out, “Drak-kon!”

  “Now, why would he think that?” said Micum.

  “Owls are as much Aura’s creatures as dragons are,” Seregil explained. “And since there aren’t any dragons around here, maybe he’s making do with what he has.”

  “You’re not suggesting that owls are really dragons, too, are you?” Micum asked, skeptical.

  “No, just that they both belong to Aura.”

  Suddenly Sebrahn began to sing, as he had with the great dragon, but this song was softer. The bird swiveled its round head to look down at the rhekaro, then shook its wings, sending a few tufts of fluff drifting down onto Sebrahn’s upturned face. When Sebrahn kept singing, it gave a loud hoot and fluttered down to perch on his shoulder. The bird was too big and ended up clinging to his arm, digging its talons in hard enough to draw white blood. Tiny dark blue flowers formed where drops fell like jewels against the snow.

  Sebrahn stroked its snow-white breast. The owl hooted again, and a third time before taking wing into the darkness.

  “Drak-kon!” Sebrahn called after it.

  “Look, Alec,” Seregil said quietly, pointing up at the trees. Four other white owls perched there, their gold coin eyes fixed on Sebrahn.

  “They’re solitary hunters,” Micum murmured. “Did he call them here?”

  “Maybe,” said Seregil. “I didn’t notice them before.”

  Alec knelt by Sebrahn and pointed up at the birds. “Owls. Not dragons. Owls.”

  “Drak-kon.”

  “No. Owls.”

  Sebrahn looked confused. “Aaaaals?”

  “Yes. Ow-els.”

  “Aaaaaals.”

  Seregil chuckled. “Close enough.”

  “Drak-kon!” Sebrahn pointed up to the birds again.

  “It’s not a dragon. It’s an owl,” Alec explained again.

  Sebrahn sounded almost sulky as he whispered, “Aaaaaal.”

  They traveled like that for the next two days through stony divides, winding stretches of open, ice-slick rock, and small valleys where herds of elk wintered. Eagles and sharp-winged hawks soared against the clear blue sky and dazzling peaks by day; at night owls hooted as they hunted on the night air and came to visit Sebrahn in answer to his song.

  Alec was carefully turning a spitted rabbit over the fire that night when he heard a high-pitched, familiar call. A tiny saw-whet owl sat on a branch almost over his head. It was a lucky sign; of all their kind, these little buff-and-white birds, no longer than his hand, were considered the Lightbearer’s most sacred emissary, and seeing one always brought good luck.

  Sebrahn held up his hand. Even without a song to draw it down, the bird fluttered down to perch on his hand, preening. “Drak-kon aaaaaaaal.”

  Seregil put down the armload of firewood he’d gathered and gave the bird a respectful nod. “Whatever he wants to call it, we’ll need all the luck we can get before we come back this way.”

  “You think we’re being followed again?” asked Micum, looking up from the rabbit he was gutting.

  “I just have a—”

  “Wait.” Alec’s hand stilled on the spit as he caught sight of movement from the corner of his eye. Something or someone was there between the trees, just beyond the reach of the firelight. “To the left,” he whispered.

  “And behind you,” Micum whispered back, reaching for his sword. Seregil tossed Alec his bow and quiver and pulled Sebrahn to his feet. Together, they all backed slowly out of the circle of light that made them an easy target. Keeping the rhekaro shielded among them, they waited.

  As Alec’s eyes adjusted to the darkness, he saw more movement. Whatever it was, it didn’t make any noise. It felt like a hundred eyes were staring at him from all directions.

  “What do you think?” Micum murmured.

  “They could have surprised us if they’d wanted to attack,” Seregil pointed out.

  “Maybe,” said Micum. “I don’t see anything now. You, Alec?”

  “No.”

  They stood like that for some time, but nothing happened.

  “I think they’re gone,” Micum said at last.

  With Seregil in the lead and Alec holding Sebrahn by one hand and his bow in the other, they made a circuit of the copse and beyond, finding half a dozen odd trails in the snow.

  “Looks like they used a brush tail,” Micum said, inspecting one of the marks. Their visitors had brought boughs with them, dragging them behind themselves to cover their footprints. There was no telling how many of them there were, if they’d walked in lines.

  “How could we not have heard them?” Alec whispered, wondering how fa
r their visitors had retreated, and if they could still see him and the others.

  “Do you think it was our friends in the masks?” Micum whispered.

  Seregil stared down at the brush marks. “If it was, then why didn’t they attack? It’s a lonely place, and they got close enough to shoot at us before we even knew they were there.”

  “Sebrahn didn’t react, either,” Alec pointed out.

  “It was someone who knows how to move around up here, and how to cover their tracks. They were on foot, too.” Seregil rubbed absently at his chin. “Which means that they’re probably from around here somewhere.”

  “There hasn’t been so much as a woodcutter’s shack since we started up here. Where would they have come from?”

  Seregil exchanged a look with Micum. “Hill folk?”

  “Damn!” Micum looked sharply around. “If so, then this might be exactly what they wanted us to do. I’ll go back to see if we still have horses.”

  Seregil and Alec circled the copse again, trying to discover where the tracks came together and which way they led, but each one snaked away into the darkness in a different direction. They cast out farther, but there was no sign of convergence.

  They gave up at last and returned to find their campsite untouched and the horses still tethered.

  “I think someone was just having a look at us,” said Seregil.

  “You’re probably right. They didn’t leave any sign in camp,” said Micum.

  Alec knelt down in front of Sebrahn. “You don’t feel anything like those riders who hurt me?”

  Sebrahn cocked his head slightly. “Aaaaal drak-kon.”

  “Another owl dragon.” Seregil ran a hand back through his hair as he looked up at the little saw-whet on a branch over his head. “Well, if that’s the only thing he’s concerned about, maybe we’re safe, after all.”

  The owl stayed with them, but no one slept again that night.

  Tense and bleary, they set off again at dawn in a light snowfall. Everyone kept an eye out for pursuers, but there was no sign of them, just a few game tracks and the broom-straw marks of sparrows and crows.

  Even after Rieser’s people were fit to ride again, it took several more days to pick up the trail. Once they had it, however, it wasn’t hard to follow: One of the men rode a horse with a crooked nail in its right front shoe.

 
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