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

  Turmay played that morning, and took longer at it than usual. When he was done, he looked puzzled.

  “Can you see them?” Rieser asked.

  “They want to go farther east, across the sea to the other great island on your map.”

  Rieser’s eyes widened. “Plenimar?” He pulled out the map and Turmay looked at it.

  “Yes, he said, pointing to Plenimar. “That is where they are going.”

  Every Hâzad knew that Plenimar was where the dark witches of old came from—the ones who’d enslaved Hâzadriël and others to make the first tayan’gils. The name was like a curse on their people. The ya’shel had already been used once, perhaps there; were his companions forcing him back there to be used again?

  Hâzadriën, too, seemed to sense something, as he had when they’d caught up with them in that disastrous ambush. When Turmay hesitated, or Rieser lost the track, the tayan’gil silently reined his horse in a certain direction and Rieser trusted him. He soon led them through wooded hills to the mouth of a track partially hidden in a small pass. Without Hâzadriën in the lead, they’d probably never have found it.

  As they followed it, Turmay suddenly reined in his horse and ran to the nearest tree. “What is it?” asked Sona, who was closest to the witch.

  “Look!” he said, pressing his hand to the trunk.

  Rieser dismounted and walked back to see what had excited the witch. Turmay took his hand away from the tree trunk, showing them a carved, partially overgrown shape: a handprint. Rieser had seen such marks dozens of times, up in the peaks where the Retha’noi lived. “I don’t understand. What is this doing here?”

  Turmay pressed his hand to the design again. “Your people aren’t the only ones who had to leave their rightful homeland.”

  “Retha’noi lived here?”

  “Maybe. It’s a very old mark.” Turmay touched it again, looking thoughtful. “Perhaps my own ancestors traveled this way when the lowlanders drove them out.”

  “I thought your people had always lived in our valley.”

  “My people have lived many places,” Turmay said as he went back to his horse. “We’ve been driven out of many places. Maybe someday your people will drive us out of our villages, too.”

  “There’s always been peace between us. That will never happen,” said Rieser, puzzled by this revelation.

  Turmay only shrugged.


  The Bait

  THE FICKLE WEATHER had turned mild in Virésse. The moist air eased Ulan í Sathil’s lungs a little, but the disease was slowly taking its toll. It was time to take action.

  He was in the garden with Ilar when he broached the subject.

  Sitting beside him on the arbor bench, Ilar tilted his face up to the afternoon sun and closed his eyes, enjoying the warmth of it.

  “I have a favor to ask you,” said Ulan, taking Ilar’s hand to get his attention. Ilar was much better than he had been, but Ulan doubted he would ever fully recover. He was still thin, and shy of other people. He suffered from nightmares, and his mind wandered easily when he was awake. Still, he knew enough to be useful.

  “Listen to me, dear boy,” he coaxed, and waited until he was sure he had Ilar’s full attention. “You’re happy here, aren’t you?”

  “You’ve been so kind to me. I don’t know how I can ever repay you.”

  “Indeed. Now I need you to do something very important for me.”

  “Anything!” Ilar exclaimed. “I will do anything for you, Khirnari.”

  “I hope you truly mean that, Khenir.” He was always careful to call Ilar by his false name, especially when they were in a place where they might be overheard. Several gardeners had come into the courtyard. Ilar regarded them uneasily.

  Ulan leaned closer and spoke softly. “What I require, Khenir, is for you to come with me to Riga.”

  Ilar went ashen and his hazel eyes filled with fear, but he did not refuse.

  Pleased, he patted Ilar’s hand. “You shall go with me. I mean to visit Charis Yhakobin’s widow. I’ve already written Lady Meran, saying I have business affairs to set in order, and that I wish to pay my respects to her on the loss of her husband. I received her answer today.” He showed Ilar a letter written in purple ink on fine vellum, with a pale green wax seal. “An invitation, though I daresay the lady was surprised, given that there was not any particular warmth between her husband and me. I did bring the children little gifts, however, and she seems to think well enough of me to allow me to visit. You shall go with me.”

  Ilar was shaking badly now, and his voice quavered as he whispered, “But she’ll recognize me. I’ll be sold again, tortured!”

  “Ah, but you will be wearing the slave veil and Skalan clothing. We shall cut your hair short and say that you are simply another Virésse slave I’ve ransomed, one who is mute, so your voice doesn’t give you away.”

  “But—but why?”

  “Because I must have the books, Khenir.”

  Ilar went blank. “The books?”

  “Your Ilban’s books in the little tent,” Ulan patiently reminded him. For a moment he feared that Ilar did not remember, or that the books had only been a figment of his ramblings. But then Ilar’s eyes seemed to focus and he nodded. “Those books. Yes.”

  “I shall need you to identify them for me.”

  “But I can’t! What would Ilban say? He’ll have me flogged again and—”

  “Calm down, dear boy.” Fear had unhinged that fragile mind again. “Your master is dead, remember? You saw him lying dead on that plain.”

  “Oh—Oh, yes. But still, it’s forbidden!”

  “You said you would do anything for—” The cough came on again, the first time today. Ilar patted his back nervously as Ulan doubled over, wheezing into his handkerchief. Today there was no blood. “Thank you, dear boy. I’m fine now,” he managed, when he’d regained his breath enough to speak. “As I was saying, you’ve told me more than once that you would do anything for me.”

  Ilar wilted and returned to his fawning manner. “Of course. Yes. Even if it costs me my life.”

  “It won’t come to that, I’m sure. First, you will look to see if the books are still there. If they are, then you will take them just before we leave. By the time their loss is discovered, we shall be long gone and quite safe.”

  “When will we go?”

  “Soon, now that the weather is better. And you know, there is a chance that we might see your friend Seregil again, as well, since I must have Alec, too.”

  Ilar’s demeanor changed in the blink of an eye, as it always did when Seregil was mentioned. Fear was replaced by hope, and perhaps a bit of greed.

  That was a reassuring sign, thought Ulan. Sore joints aside, living long had its advantages. Most people were so transparent, it was easy to read their motives. As long as he could dangle that hope in front of Ilar, the man would do whatever he asked.

  Alone in his room that night, Ilar could not sleep. They would find Seregil. He would see him again! And with hope came desire. This wasn’t the first time he’d imagined capturing and enslaving him, as he had before, possessing him at last. He dreamed of it so often, but each one ended in disappointment, with Seregil always just beyond his reach. In those dreams he chased futilely after him, calling out, trying to convince him … But of what he wasn’t sure. His regret? His aching compulsion to see him, touch him again? Sometimes he was overwhelmed by a simple, sincere desire to befriend him—honestly this time.

  Awake, he dared not hope.


  Noises in the Night

  NO ONE spoke of the feeling of being watched they’d all had since yesterday. They hadn’t had any visitors last night, but Alec could swear he’d caught sight of someone on the high ground to their left, just after they’d set out. There was still no sign of habitation, but the feeling persisted.

  The weather was fair here, but dark clouds and mist hung heavy over the pass they were approaching, promising icy footi

  “We could wait for it to clear,” Seregil suggested.

  Micum studied the sky. “Let’s see how far we can get. I’ll be happier once we’re on the other side.”

  “Wait. Look at this,” Alec said, holding up a lock of Sebrahn’s hair. The color was fading from it in streaks again, leaving it a mix of dirty grey and silver. “It’s happening again, and sooner this time.”

  Seregil leaned over and lifted the rhekaro’s hair away from his neck. “There’s white showing through here, too. Damn!”

  “What do we do now?” asked Micum. “We could contact Thero with one of those message sticks Magyana gave you.”

  “To what end?” asked Seregil. “It would take him days to get here, if he could get through at all. It was a long shot at best.”

  “What are we going to do?” asked Alec.

  “What we were going to do before Thero stuck his nose in. Think of some plausible explanation and keep going.”

  The Ebrados rode hard, trying to make up for lost time, pushing their horses and themselves to close the distance to the ones they sought. Once they were on the mountain trail, it was harder going, but easy enough to follow, and there hadn’t been any discernible side paths. Wherever this trail led, it appeared there was only one way to get there. Rieser’s scouts brought back word that there was no sign of anyone living up here, though they had found the ruins of a small village not far from the trail. Even in the small valleys, they saw no houses, flocks, or fields.

  The occasional sign of a hoofprint with the crooked nail assured him that they were closing on their prey.

  The second night in the pass Nowen found where the others had camped for the night. The marks of footprints and bedrolls were clear enough to read in the snow. The ashes in the blackened fire pit were only a day or two old.

  Casting around, Rieser found the area they’d used as a toilet, and another spot where they’d thrown out the skin and guts of a few rabbits.

  “The half-breed and his bow are keeping them fed, eh?” asked Rane, squatting down to count the skulls. “At least he’s good for something else than breeding tayan’gil.”

  “And maybe something else, besides,” Taegil said with a snicker. “I saw where they spread their bedrolls. One slept alone and two slept together. And come look at this.” He led them back to a line of footprints in the snow where one of the three had gone off by himself, perhaps for wood. “The heaviest one—the Tírfaie—from the depth of the prints. And the one who slept alone I think.”

  “That’s good to know, if it comes to a fight,” said Rieser.

  “Look what I found!” Rane exclaimed as they returned to the fire pit. Stooping down, he picked up a long white feather with a few grey lines. “The feather of a white owl, like the one I saw last night.”

  Rieser glanced down at it. “It might make a good pen, if you cut the shaft right.”

  “That’s the Mother’s bird,” Turmay told the boy. “Keep it safe and it will bring you good luck.”

  “What about this?” asked Sona, squatting beside the fire pit. She held up a lock of hair. It was brown, and singed at the ends.

  “So they cut their hair,” said Nowen. “What of it?”

  “No, smell it, Captain.”

  Rieser took the lock and sniffed at it. It smelled faintly sweet, like a flower, with an underlying taint of some magic Rieser did not recognize. There were a few silvery strands among the dark, too. “They’re trying to hide it, and not very well.”

  As darkness fell they built a large fire and stood around it eating the last of the fresh venison Nowen had provided for them with her strong bow, and munching on slices of turnips stolen from a farm a few days ago.

  When he had eaten, Turmay settled on his bedroll by the fire and began to play. The others had gotten used to the strange music; Rieser had even come to look forward to it, wondering what strange sounds the witch would weave next.

  Perhaps it was that distraction that left him unprepared when half a dozen small men stepped into the circle of firelight. Rieser’s first thought was that they appeared to be unarmed; the second was that one of them carried an oo’lu very much like Turmay’s, and had similar witch marks on his face and hands. They were dressed in loose leather tunics decorated with animal teeth, and their black hair was longer than Turmay’s, and wilder.

  Turmay looked almost as surprised as he stood and bowed to the man with the oo’lu.

  The other man bowed back and said something in a language that sounded very much like Retha’noi. And it must have been, because Turmay smiled and replied in the same difficult accent. They spoke for some time and examined each other’s oo’lus before Turmay began to translate.

  “These are Retha’noi people!” he said, grinning broadly. “Their ancestors stayed here in the mountains, after they were driven away from the sea. And Naba here, their witch man, knew that I would come.”

  The other witch held up his oo’lu for Rieser to see. Like Turmay’s, it was decorated with rings of painted designs and carvings, and the same black handprint, too, though at a different place on the oo’lu.

  “The way the handprint falls across the rings foretells what a witch will do,” Turmay explained. “Mine said I would make a long journey. Naba’s says that he will meet with a stranger who is not a stranger. He says that is me, one of his own blood from far away.”

  “What do they want with us?” asked Rieser, still suspicious despite Turmay’s obvious delight.

  “They heard me playing and came down to find me. They have no concern for the rest of you, except for your tayan’gil. He’s the second one they’ve seen.”

  “They saw the others?”

  “He says three riders came this way, with a white child, though it has been disguised by some sort of magic as yours is. Hâzadriën is ‘white man’ to them.”

  He spoke with Naba again, then turned back to Rieser. “He says that the white child is a thing of evil. Naba is a very powerful witch, but even he did not dare approach it. He says he can smell blood on all of them, and the little one, too. He says our tayan’gil does not smell of killing, and he is glad of that, since I’m with you, too. If he smelled that on me, he would have attacked.”

  “Well, that’s a lucky thing, then.” Rieser had often wondered if Retha’noi witches could kill with their magic; there were stories of that kind of power. He glanced around the clearing, looking for more of them. Who knew how many other witches were hiding out there in the dark? “Ask him how long ago he saw them.”

  Turmay spoke to Naba again. “One day.”

  “Give him my thanks. And ask if he and his men would share our meal with us.”

  The offer was accepted and the Retha’noi offered pouches of food in return. The ’faie knew from experience that it was a serious insult to refuse a gift from a Retha’noi, so they chewed their unexpected guests’ tough berries and nibbled some of the rancid jerky as best they could.

  When the shared meal was through, Turmay and Naba played their oo’lus together. The throbbing, hooting, buzzing drone echoed from the peaks, filling the little valley with eerie reverberations.

  “What if those we are chasing hear?” asked Kalien. “Sound carries a long way in the mountains.”

  Rieser gazed off into the darkness, then gave him a rare, thin-lipped smile. “Let them hear.”

  Rane sat next to him, twirling the owl feather between his fingers. “I wonder why they haven’t cracked?”

  “What hasn’t cracked?” asked Rieser.

  “Their horns. Belan the Ya’shel is my aunt. She told me that when a witch man has done whatever his destiny is with that horn—the thing that black handprint marks—then it cracks. Naba’s hasn’t, even though he met Turmay. Listen. There’s nothing wrong with it.”

  Rieser looked with more than his usual casual interest at the oo’lus. “There are a lot of rings touched by those marks. It’s probably more than one thing they have to accomplish.”

  “Oh. That’s probabl
y right. I’ll ask her when we get back.”

  “Why not ask Turmay?” asked Nowen.

  The witch man paused in his playing. “Rieser is correct. Destiny is made up of many threads.” And with that, he went back to his strange song.

  Alec looked up from feeding Sebrahn. “What in Bilairy’s name is that?”

  “I have no idea,” Seregil replied, pausing as he spread their bedroll on the bare stone of the summit. The faint sound in the distance was like nothing he’d ever heard.

  They’d reached the top of the pass at sundown and had to make a fireless camp when a chill mist closed in around them. The rising moon turned it to silver and gave enough light to see a few yards to either side.

  The damp was worse than the cold, chilling them through their woolen clothing and leaving any exposed skin clammy. Seregil’s teeth were chattering, and he’d been about to coax Alec under the blankets to share what warmth they could when the weird sound wafted up to them on the night breeze. Discomfort forgotten, he listened to the rise and fall of it, baffled.

  “No animal makes that sound,” said Micum. “Could it be a dragon?”

  “They don’t sound like that.” Seregil glanced back at Sebrahn, who was squatting next to Alec, apparently un-fazed by the sound. “And he’d have gotten excited like he did that day in Aurënen.”

  “At least it sounds far away.”

  Micum listened for a moment. “It’s hard to judge sound in the mountains.”

  “I wish to hell we could see something!” Seregil muttered.

  The strange sounds continued, rising and falling on the breeze coming up from the pass.

  “It doesn’t sound like it’s moving,” said Alec.

  “That’s probably a good thing, if the sound of it carries this far,” said Micum. “You two get some sleep. I’ll take first watch.”

  “Thanks.” Seregil unbuckled his sword, but kept it close to hand and his boots on as he curled up under the damp woolen blankets. A little warmer now, he stared up at the sky. Or would have had it been visible. There was nothing to see but more mist and the faint blur of the moon.

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