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


  “I’m glad you’re alive!” Alec whispered to Seregil.

  Seregil laughed softly. “So am I, talí.”

  “And Micum?”

  “He’s breathing.”

  “What happened?”

  “Damned if I know,” said Seregil, bracing his elbow against Micum’s hip to sit up a little more. “Can’t say I like the flavor of their magic.”

  Micum grunted and sat up. “So far I don’t put much stock in Hâzadriëlfaie hospitality, either,” he said in Skalan, glancing over at their guard. “They could do with some lessons from their southern cousins.”

  “So you heard?”

  “About the dark witches? Yes. He must mean alchemists. And where do you suppose he got his rhekaro? Do ’faie have alchemists?”

  “Not that I know of.”

  “Maybe that’s why they want Sebrahn, if they can’t make them for themselves.”

  “That’s enough,” the woman growled in that thick ’faie. “Speak in our language or don’t speak at all.”

  They sat in silence for a while, listening to their captors moving around outside. A large fire was burning, and the smells of cooking and tea drifted in with the smoke. Someone was speaking loudly and angrily now, something about revenge.

  At last the woman went out, taking the torch with her, and a much smaller man with a wild mop of curly black hair came in to stare at them. Enough light came in through the doorway to see that he wore a jacket stitched with animal teeth and held an ornate staff over one shoulder. Alec had never seen anyone like him.

  Half obscured by shadows now, Seregil spoke to him in a language Alec had never heard him use before.

  The man shook his head and said in passable ’faie, “I do not understand you. That is not my language.”

  “You’re not Dravnian?” Seregil sounded surprised.

  The little man hunkered down just out of arm’s reach. “I do not know ‘Dravnian.’ Who are they?”

  “They’re a people from my land who look very much like you.”

  “Do they have oo’lu?” The man held out his staff, and Alec saw that it was actually hollow.

  “No,” Seregil replied.

  The man laughed. “Then I am certainly not a Dravnian!”

  “Who are your people, if you don’t mind me asking?”

  “I am Turmay, witch man of the Retha’noi of the far valley.”

  “Retha’noi? You live in the mountains?”

  “Where else would a Retha’noi live?” Turmay replied with a shrug.

  “Here in Skala, in these mountains?”

  Turmay shook his head and pointed out the door. “No, many, many days that way, to the north.” With that he turned his attention to Alec.

  Alec held his breath at the rank smell of him as the little man grasped him by the chin and turned Alec’s face this way and that, looking intently at him. He made a thoughtful noise deep in his throat, then moved away and set one end of the hollow, painted staff to his lips. Alec saw the beeswax mouthpiece and realized that it must be some sort of musical instrument even before he began to play—if you could call it that.

  The witch settled his mouth inside the wax ring, puffed out his cheeks, and proceeded to make a series of noises that were nothing like music, but exactly like what they’d heard in the pass. It throbbed and buzzed and squealed. The sound of it made Alec lightheaded, and his eyes fluttered shut. Images began to dance behind his closed lids: hanging facedown in that cage in the cellar of Yhakobin’s workshop with his blood dripping into the dirt below; Ilar’s face; the flight from the slave takers; the moment he faced down the archers who’d killed him …

  The witch abruptly stopped playing and looked at him for a long time. Finally he nodded as if satisfied about something and went outside.

  “That’s what we heard that night, up in the pass, wasn’t it?” Micum whispered in Skalan.

  “I think you’re right. How are you, Alec?” asked Seregil, looking him over with concern. Even being on the edge of this latest magic had made him a little queasy.

  “Fine.” Alec paused, blinking. “I think he read my mind, though.”

  “We’ll do well not to underestimate this witch. He’s probably the one who knocked us off our horses, and put us to sleep, too.”

  “I remember hearing a strange noise,” said Micum.

  “Yes. They must have gotten close to us, for him to do that.” Seregil gave them a wry grin. “If they weren’t probably going to try and kill us, I’d have to admire them. However …”

  He held up his right hand, showing them it was free. He’d worked it loose before the man in the wolf mask had come in, then kept it in his lap, feigning sleep. He hadn’t even had to dislocate his thumb this time, a fact he was very thankful for. He’d done it often enough over the years that the joint ached in cold weather, as it did now. Instead he’d simply folded his hand in on itself enough to work it out of the bonds.

  “Now we start playing by our rules.”

  Rieser stood by the fire with Naba, waiting patiently for Turmay as they sipped their tea. A whole pan of it sat hot by the fire, sending up a sweet aroma. They’d run out weeks ago, but their captives had several pouches of it in their packs. It was good, too, strong on the tongue. A bit of milk would have been nice, but he wasn’t complaining. One of the captives carried tobacco and a pipe, which Allia and Taegil were presently attempting to smoke. The stuff smelled vile, and they already looked a bit green.

  “Stop that!” he ordered. “It’s a filthy Tír vice. Have some tea.”

  Allia tossed the pipe away down the hill, and the pouch after it, then went to join the others, who were examining their captives’ weapons and the rest of the contents of their packs. Judging by their clothing and boots, these were men of substance, even the Tír. And the man’s sword had seen much use, Rieser acknowledged grudgingly. The other two swords were new, finely made by some expert smith but with little sign of use. The Tírfaie is probably their protector, he thought with a sneer.

  Rane was still pacing angrily, saying nothing to anyone since his outburst. He would have to wait to avenge his brother until Rieser was satisfied he’d gotten all the information from these strangers that he could.

  Naba had found them a good site for the night; a few of the stone huts of this deserted village still offered some shelter. Naba’s people had once lived close to the trail; it had been theirs. Then the Skalan Tír came, and at some point the Retha’noi people had moved farther up into the mountains to avoid them.

  Turmay came out of the ruined hut at last.

  “What is it? Did you learn something from them?”

  “The boy,” Turmay said slowly. “I sensed something strange about him, and now I know. He died, and now he is alive again.” He turned and said something to Naba, who took up his own oo’lu and went in to the captives.

  “How is that possible?” asked Rieser as Naba began to play.

  “It should not be. The Mother gives life and the Mother takes it away,” Turmay said, rubbing a hand over his oo’lu. “It must be the tayan’gil’s doing.”

  Naba emerged a moment later, looking perplexed as he spoke with Turmay.

  “My brother says the same,” Turmay told Rieser. “This is a great evil!”

  “Are you saying their tayan’gil somehow restored him to life?” asked Nowen in disbelief.

  “I don’t know how, but that is what we saw in this Alec.”

  “The small tayan’gil can take life. Why not the reverse?” said Rieser.

  “Is the boy an unnatural creature now?” asked Sorengil, making a sign against evil.

  The witch nodded as he dipped up a cup of tea. “He is alive when he should be dead.”

  “So this little tayan’gil kills and gives life,” Rieser murmured, astonished. “Thank you. I’ll deal with them.”

  When he reached the darkened hut, however, he found it empty except for three hanks of rope lying where his captives had been.

  “They’ve got
ten loose!” he snarled, striding back out to the others. “Find them. Now!”

  Whoever had tied Seregil up had been either considerate or careless enough not to tie his hands too tightly. He’d almost gotten caught undoing his other hand when the second witch came in and played his horn at them, but fortunately the man had been focused on Alec, rather than the two of them sitting across the hut in the shadows. As soon as the witch was gone, Seregil had gone back to work on the ropes.

  Once he had both hands loose, it was a simple matter to get himself and the others untied. Alec picked up Sebrahn as Seregil carefully peered over a low place in the broken wall at the back of the hut.

  Just as he’d expected, there was a masked guard posted there. The man’s sword was in its scabbard and he was chaffing his arms against the cold. Seregil bent down and felt along the ground inside the wall until he found a couple of palm-sized stones. He was a better shot with a rock than with a bow; Alec often joked about making him throw arrows rather than shoot them. Even in the dark, he hit the guard in the head on the first try. The man dropped without a cry.

  Seregil led the way over the broken wall and caught Sebrahn as Alec passed him over. Micum came next, then Alec.

  They could hear the Hâzadriëlfaie on the other side of the hut, talking and moving about. Keeping just inside the edge of the forest that ringed the ruined village, they hurried down to the picketed horses and found only one man on guard. Their horses were tethered among the others. That was good. Seregil had owned Cynril for years, and Alec would be heartbroken to lose Patch or Windrunner, who’d been a gift from Micum’s family.

  Stripped of his sword and knife, Seregil made do with another rock. Sneaking up behind the guard, he gave him a good knock on the head. The man went down with a pained grunt. Praying none of the horses would shy, Seregil and the others untied the whole string and led them away into the trees, moving downhill, hoping the trail was that way. They had no weapons, no food or water, and no way of making a fire, but at least they were free.

  They struck the trail at last and untied the horses, leaving the Hâzadriëlfaie’s to wander off on their own. Seregil held Sebrahn while Alec mounted Patch and handed him up to him, then jumped lightly up on Cynril’s back and set off after Micum with Star trailing after him on a lead rein. He could hear shouting from the camp now.

  “Go!” he hissed to the others, and they kicked their mounts into a gallop.

  The ya’shel and his companions had been clever enough to steal all the horses. It took some time to whistle in enough of them to give chase.

  The moon was on the rise by the time they did. The snow was sparse on the ground and the mud was frozen, but Rieser managed to determine which way they’d gone after a little casting around. He cursed himself for a fool for leaving the small tayan’gil with them. There was more to these strangers than he’d given them credit for. Either the crippled Tír was craftier than he looked, or the other ones weren’t quite as helpless as their shiny new swords suggested.

  Seregil and the others rode hard through the remains of the night, expecting at any moment to get an arrow in the back. They left the trail when they could to confuse the chase, wending up wooded hillsides and riding down ice-rimmed streams, spelling the horses as long as they dared, which wasn’t long. The way grew steadily steeper, forcing them back to the open trail. They stopped to change horses when the moon set.

  “Do you hear that?” asked Alec, looking back over his shoulder.

  Then they all heard it, the distant sound of the horn the witch had called an oo’lu. But this time it was more than just one, and seemed to be coming from different directions.

  The sound of them sent a nasty shiver up Seregil’s spine. “Come on, let’s go.”

  He took Sebrahn to give Alec’s arm a rest and they set off again. As they rode, Seregil hoped it was just a trick of the wind that made it seem like the oo’lu sound was coming from in front of them now.

  Just before dawn, they entered a narrow divide—only to find their way blocked by several huge trees across the trail.

  “They didn’t just fall,” said Micum, reining his horse in close to the nearest. “They’ve been cut down with an axe.” He reached down to touch one of them. “The sap is still running.”

  Behind them they could hear the sound of hooves on stone, and the jingle of harness as their pursuers came on at a gallop.

  “If they’re behind us, then who the hell did this?” Alec wondered.

  “Most likely whoever was playing those horns,” Seregil muttered, looking around frantically.

  There was no question of riding around the obstruction; steep stone faces penned them in on both sides.

  When Seregil dismounted to look for a way over, an arrow whistled close to his ear and embedded itself in one of the massive trunks. It was short and crudely fletched; not ’faie work, that was certain. Taking cover behind Star, he stared up into the shadows above them and thought he could see someone moving about at the top of the rock face. The sound of the horns was getting louder, too.

  “Here they come,” Micum said, looking grim.

  Unarmed and trapped, there was nothing they could do but wait under the brightening sky.

  The man in the wolf mask was in the lead. As soon as he saw Seregil and the others, he signaled a halt and dismounted, holding his hands wide to show that he wasn’t armed. Behind him, however, Seregil saw several archers with arrows ready.

  “You’re not going any farther, no matter what you do,” the man shouted to them.

  “You know what will happen if you attack us,” Seregil retorted, jerking a thumb at Sebrahn, who was now peering out from behind Alec. Or that’s where he thought he was. Instead, Sebrahn had darted out in front of him and was hurrying back toward their pursuers.

  “Sebrahn, no! Come here,” Alec shouted. Micum caught him by the arm as he started after him. The strange rhekaro came out to meet Sebrahn and hoisted him up in his arms.

  “No!” Alec cried. He pulled loose from Micum, only to be grabbed and held by Seregil.

  “You see?” the man in the wolf mask called to them. “The call of his own kind is too strong. So long as we don’t directly attack you, we are as safe with him as you are.”

  “That leaves us at a bit of a stalemate,” Seregil shouted back. The sun was coming up, and now he could clearly make out a number of people on the rocks above them. At least one had a long horn. Turmay and the other witch were with the masked riders, both with oo’lus in hand.

  “Bilairy’s Balls,” he muttered, then, to the man in the mask, “What now? Are you going to stay there until we starve?”

  “That was not my plan. Give us the ya’shel and you and the other ones can go.”

  Seregil tightened his grip on Alec’s arm. “You know we’re not going to do that.”

  “And we can’t let you go, Aurënfaie. Not with him.”

  Seregil folded his arms and gave the man a crooked grin. “Then I guess we all stand here and starve.”

  The masked man turned to the archers and said something. They lowered their bows. “That won’t suit any of us. Will you parley?”

  Seregil looked at the others. “Anyone have a better idea?”

  “We’ve got no weapons and no food, and someone up there is taking aim at us where we stand,” said Micum.

  “I just want Sebrahn back!” whispered Alec, his dark eyes burning with anger and betrayal. “Why did he go to them like that?”

  Seregil squeezed his arm apologetically. “I’m sorry, Alec. I think he’s been trying to all along. Stay here.”

  “No! He’s my—”

  “I said stay!” Seregil ordered, then, more softly, “I don’t want you within arm’s reach of any of them. If they get you, then Micum and I are as good as dead.”

  Alec quickly stepped back.

  “Thank you. Stay close to Micum.” With that, Seregil walked halfway up the trail toward the others and stood waiting.

  After a moment the man in the
wolf mask came to meet him. Drawing his sword, he leveled it at Seregil’s heart.

  “If we’re going to talk, then we should probably exchange names,” said Seregil. “Mine is Seregil í Korit Solun Meringil.”

  “I am Rieser í Stellen Andus Orgil. You wear no sen’gai.”

  “And I don’t recognize yours. Blue and white?”

  “We are the North Star people. Do you have a clan?”

  “Bôkthersa.”

  “My grandmother was a Bôkthersan.”

  Seregil grinned. “That makes us kin. Can’t kill me now, can you?”

  “Don’t presume too much.”

  “I won’t, I assure you. So, what do we do now?”

  “Do you know why we’ve tracked you down, Bôkthersa?”

  Seregil pointed to the two rhekaro, watching placidly from a small distance. “I assume it has something to do with them.”

  “And with your talímenios. If you have a tayan’gil, then you must understand already.”

  “That it takes Hâzadriëlfaie blood to make them? Yes, and I’ve also heard it said that your people hunt down half-breeds and kill them. I’m afraid I just can’t allow that. Look, could you take off that mask now? I feel ridiculous talking to a wolf.”

  Rieser gave him a humorless smirk and lifted the mask from his face. It was a grim visage, to be sure, but now that Seregil could look him properly in the eye, Rieser struck him as a man who might be reasoned with. “So, what shall we do?”

  “You say you are going to stop more tayan’gils from being made. How do you intend to do that?”

  Seregil saw no point in lying. “The dark witch who made Sebrahn used a book, some sort of alchemy magic text.”

  “You mean to destroy this book?”

  “Certainly.” It was one option, though probably not the one Thero would prefer.

  “How will you get it?”

  “The usual way you get something someone else doesn’t want you to have.”

  “Steal it?”

  “Yes.”

  “You are thieves?”

  Seregil grinned. “Something like that, and we’re very good at it.”

 
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