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


  The boy pulled away. “Where’s Rieser’s atui? The honor of the Ebrados? Why are these bastards still alive?” he snarled, and strode off into the trees.

  A young woman spat in Alec’s direction. “You honor your parents little, backing down from a blood feud.”

  “I’ll have a blood feud with your kin, Allia, if you don’t watch your tongue,” snapped Sorengil.

  Alec pulled away from the men holding him and smoothed down his coat. “My father was a good man, not a kin killer.”

  “If your mother had let us have you and your father, she might be alive now, though her shame would have followed her to the grave,” Sorengil told him.

  “Alec, maybe you should calm Sebrahn,” Seregil suggested with a look that said let it go for now.

  No one tried to hold Alec back as he lifted Sebrahn in his arms. “It’s all right, Sebrahn. Don’t hurt anyone, understand?”

  “Huuurt,” the rhekaro whispered, eyes still dangerously dark.

  Kalien and the others stared at them. Even the tall rhekaro seemed to take notice.

  “It talks?” one of the riders gasped.

  “He’s not like yours,” Alec growled, “and you’ll do well to remember that. The next time you lay a hand on me or any of my friends, I won’t hold him back.”

  The threat didn’t win him any sign of respect, but no one taunted him after that.

  It took four horses to drag away the huge firs that the Retha’noi had felled for them. Rieser could see several more of the small hill folk watching from their heights. Not knowing how many more there might be made him uneasy.

  When the sections of the great trees were finally moved to the side of the trail, Rieser sat down on a log and wiped his forehead on his sleeve. He’d taken off his wolfskin coat, but even so he’d worked up a sweat. Nowen did the same as she sat down beside him.

  “The others asked me to speak for them,” she said without preamble. Nowen was always direct. “We don’t like you going off with these men.”

  “Do you think you could convince the ya’shel to come with us and bring his tayan’gil?”

  “No.”

  “And what do you think that tayan’gil will do, if we try to take them by force? Do you want another taste of its power?”

  “Of course not.”

  “Then what would you have me do?”

  “They will kill you, the first chance they get.”

  “That would mean abandoning their tayan’gil. The ya’shel will never do that. He still mistakes it for a child, one that can feel and love.”

  “Perhaps it can. It’s so different from Hâzadriën.”

  “It is, which makes it all the more imperative to bring it back to the valley.”

  “Yes,” said Turmay, who’d been eavesdropping. “You must take it back. You must! Perhaps you could let your people take it away when you and the ya’shel are gone? You could find your way back, yes? I could wait with you and guide you.”

  “That would leave the ya’shel behind.”

  “Once you’re away from his tayan’gil, you can kill him.”

  Rieser mopped his brow again. “I’ve thought of that, but you said yourself that he is something new, too. He died and came back to life. I believe our khirnari would rather have him brought back than killed. Besides, there’s always the chance that this Sebrahn is connected to the one he was made from, as Hâzadriën and the others were to their ’faie. If I kill Alec, then Sebrahn might know and attack you. From a distance he killed one of us. What do you think will happen if he’s in your midst?”

  “So you’re going to trust them?” asked Nowen.

  “No, but I will go with them. If they attack me, I can defend myself. But they won’t.”

  “You believe the Bôkthersan?”

  “I do.”

  “But why? For all you know, they are going back for the book so that they can make tayan’gils for themselves!”

  “I watch Seregil as he watches the little one. He won’t make any more. And he would not do that to his talímenios.”

  Nowen gave him a frustrated look. “I have followed you all these years, and never known you to be a fool. I pray to Aura this isn’t the first time.”

  Rieser chuckled. “So do I. I will keep my word to them and you will stay here. When the time comes, we will find a way to bring them both back.”

  “I think that would mean killing the other two.”

  “We’ll see. We owe nothing to the Tír. The other is a problem.”

  “I wonder what Khirnari Seneth ä Matriel would make of that, bringing a stranger into the valley?”

  Rieser pondered that for a moment. “We can deal with him, once we have him there.”

  CHAPTER 23

  Unwelcome Companions

  RIESER kept his word. When the road was clear, he gave them back their horses. Seregil had, with some difficulty, managed to convince Alec to let Sebrahn ride with Hâzadriën rather than try to carry him on foot for a day’s march. If a chance to escape presented itself, Seregil wanted Micum and Alec both mounted and ready. Their weapons were bundled away on one of the packhorses; if they made a break for it again, they’d do it unarmed, but that might still be their best hope.

  Someone had masked Hâzadriën’s true appearance again. Seregil hadn’t seen the witches do it, or heard them play the oo’lu horns, which meant that there must be a proper wizard among the company, as well as the witch. Even with normal coloring, though, Hâzadriën was hard not to notice, the way his face remained expressionless. He might as well have been still wearing one of those animal masks.

  Their captors were not a friendly bunch. They talked and laughed among themselves, but ignored Seregil and the others, except to keep an eye on them. Micum might as well have been air for all the attention anyone paid him. The youngster named Rane looked like he’d go after Alec again without much provocation, but Alec kept to himself and rode beside Hâzadriën, more at ease with the tall rhekaro than any of its companions.

  What will you do when the time comes to part from Sebrahn? Seregil wondered. His own doubts were exacerbated by guilt; if it had been up to him, he’d have been very tempted to tell Rieser to take Sebrahn and go. He was not proud of that, but knew it would probably be better for everyone concerned, including Sebrahn. If it was true that the Hâzadriëlfaie kept tayan’gil safe, then it was the best place for him. If Hâzadriën was anything to go by, then the tayan’gils were treated with respect. The others sometimes spoke to him and it was clear that they considered him their equal.

  The witch named Naba had left them after breakfast, but Seregil caught the occasional glimpse of other Retha’noi on the heights. Rieser and his people were keeping a watchful eye in that direction, too.

  “Think they’re going to drop another tree on us?” Micum asked in a low voice.

  “It would open up certain possibilities if they did, but I suspect they’re just making certain we keep going out of their lands.”

  “You see them?” asked Turmay, coming up beside them. “Those are Retha’noi people, too.”

  “The ones who blocked the road?” asked Seregil, though he had no doubt of it.

  “Yes.”

  “That’s what you meant by your oo’lu having a long voice, then.” The painted horn slung across Turmay’s back apparently had many uses, including putting one to sleep at the most inopportune moments, as demonstrated yesterday. “You signaled ahead. Or was it magic?”

  The witch just smiled.

  “Why did they help you? Because you are of the same people?”

  “I’m no kin of theirs. They helped me because they want you to go away.”

  “Are they frightened of Sebrahn?”

  Turmay shrugged. “They want all of you to go away. They don’t like strangers in their mountains.”

  “Tell me, Turmay, are you frightened of our tayan’gil?”

  “It is not a tayan’gil,” the witch said softly. “It is a monster.”

  They rested their
horses by a stream at midday, then set off again as the way sloped down more steeply before them. The snow was fast disappearing and the meltwater turned the trail into a muddy stream in places.

  The forest grew denser, closing in around them and blocking out the sky. As they rode along in the pine-scented twilight, Seregil nudged Star up beside Rieser’s tall white horse.

  “That’s a fine-looking animal you’ve got there, Captain.”

  Rieser spared him a brief glance.

  “Do you really mean to go into Plenimar with us?”

  “I said so.”

  “You do realize that you’re going to have to pretend that Micum is your master?”

  That got the man’s attention. “What?”

  Micum overheard. “You didn’t think three ’faie could waltz into the Riga slave markets and tell them you’re only passing through, did you?”

  Rieser scowled at Seregil. “And you will allow this? To play the slave to this Tír?”

  Seregil gave him the crooked grin. “You’d be surprised, some of the roles I’ve played. And I might point out that the risk to Micum is just as great. Those caught with wayward slaves aren’t treated well, either.”

  “And you think you can fool these Plenimarans?”

  “Certainly. When you searched our baggage, you must have seen the metal slave collars. Those are one sign.” Seregil pushed back his sleeve and showed him the fake brand. “And this. More Orëska magic. Too bad our wizard isn’t with us, to fix you up properly. That’s going to be a problem.”

  Rieser snorted softly, then pushed his own sleeve back and passed his left hand over his forearm. An identical mark appeared on the underside. “I have no need of your magic. I have my own.”

  Ah ha! Got you. That explains who is maintaining Hâzadriën’s disguise. This man might actually prove useful in a pinch. “No amount of magic is going to hide us from a necromancer or slaver’s wizard. Sometimes a bit of lying works better. So with Micum as our master, we should go unnoticed.”

  “And then what?”

  “Then I steal that book for you, we all come back, and you let us go.”

  Rieser just gave him a smug look and kicked his horse into a trot.

  “Now I trust him even less,” Micum muttered in Skalan.

  “Me, too, but he knows if he double-crosses us and tries to hurt Alec, Sebrahn will sing again. Maybe Sebrahn could kill a few more of them, in close proximity.”

  “Then all we have to do is get Alec to pick a fight with that surly young fellow Rane and we’re home free.”

  Seregil had been thinking the same thing, but for later, not now. It had been madness to think that they could take Sebrahn back into Plenimar without someone noticing him. Thero’s disguise was fading away more rapidly now. In the morning light Sebrahn’s skin was blotchy and his hair was more silver than brown. If the Hâzad wanted to look after him while they were gone, he couldn’t think of better caretakers—if Sebrahn let Alec leave. He glanced at Sebrahn ahead of them, riding contentedly on Hâzadriën’s saddlebow. “Maybe he won’t be so quick to defend Alec anymore, now that he’s found another of his own kind.”

  “Don’t let Alec hear you say that. I think he’s heartbroken already.”

  Seregil sighed. “Bilairy’s Balls! Why does he have to love the damn thing so much?”

  “Wouldn’t you if it had your face?”

  “No, I would not!” Seregil whispered.

  “Can you love Sebrahn, who has Alec’s face?”

  “I wish I could. I care for Sebrahn, but keeping him is simply impossible for so many reasons. Alec knows that as well as I do. He just can’t admit it to himself yet.”

  “He’s softer hearted than you.”

  “Soft headed, more like it,” Seregil muttered. It wasn’t the best trait in a nightrunner, but Seregil had to admit it was one of the things he admired about Alec. Still, it wasn’t going to make things any easier when they came back with the book and had to face the inevitable.

  That night they camped beside a small waterfall. As Alec scavenged for firewood, he noticed that there were handprints carved into the trees here, as there had been at the western end of the trail.

  “This must mark the end of Tamír’s Road,” Seregil said.

  Alec’s heart sank lower; this meant they were that much closer to parting from Sebrahn. He knew Seregil was right about the risk of taking him, and the thought of Sebrahn being torn apart by another alchemist made him sick.

  But what about when we have the book and come back? Of course Seregil would barter Sebrahn for him; Alec even felt the pricking of guilt. He’d had to choose between the two of them once before; he’d chosen Seregil. He believed he would again, but hoped to hell he didn’t have to.

  They reached the edge of the forest early the following morning. Rolling foothills fell away to a plain, and Alec could just make out the thin blue line of ocean on the horizon.

  “We’ll reach Beggar’s Bridge by tomorrow,” Seregil told them.

  “It’s a Tírfaie town?” asked Rieser.

  “That’s right.”

  “Then my people will go back to the waterfall and make camp there.”

  “We’ll be needing our weapons back,” said Seregil.

  Nowen and Rieser exchanged a look, and the captain nodded.

  Their weapons were returned. Alec smoothed a hand along his bow’s smooth limbs, checking for damage. It was sound, as were the arrows, thank the Light.

  Alec stole a glance in Seregil’s direction, looking for any sign that they were going to fight their way out of this or make a break for it. He’d stayed close to Hâzadriën and figured out half a dozen ways to get Sebrahn away from him when the time came.

  Instead, Seregil turned in the saddle and offered Rieser his hand.

  “Will you keep our bargain now, Bôkthersa?” asked Rieser, ignoring it.

  “We will if you will,” Seregil replied.

  “The tayan’gil will be kept safe, and my people will be here when we return. I swear it by Aura, and so do they.”

  Seregil turned to Alec. “Well?”

  It was tempting to refuse. He even thought of letting Seregil and Micum go without him, but he couldn’t bring himself to do that, either.

  “Alec?” Seregil gave him an apologetic look.

  There didn’t seem to be any way out. Dread settled in the pit of Alec’s stomach. “But if they aren’t here, if Sebrahn is gone, then I’ll kill you, Rieser í Stellen, and I’ll track down the others, too. I swear that by Aura.”

  Rieser smiled, almost as if he approved. “I know you would, Alec í Amasa.”

  “You should take off your sen’gai here,” Seregil advised. “Aurënen ships often put in at Beggar’s Bridge. Your pattern isn’t one anyone will have seen before. And if you’re caught with it in Plenimar, there’s bound to be trouble.”

  The man unwound the long length of blue-and-white cloth and handed it to the woman named Nowen, who carefully tucked it away in her saddlebag.

  Seregil gave Alec a look that said clear as words, There’s no help for it, talí. We’ll take this one step at a time.

  But there was still the matter of what Sebrahn would do now.

  “At least let me say good-bye.” Alec dismounted and went to Hâzadriën’s horse. Sebrahn came willingly into his arms. Alec hugged him close for a moment, his heart like a stone in his chest, then he set the rhekaro on his feet and knelt in front of him.

  “I’m leaving, Sebrahn.” His throat went tight and he had to clear it before he could go on. “Seregil and Micum and I, we’re going away for a little while.”

  Please, throw a fit. Sing this away!

  But Sebrahn just looked up at him with those wide silver eyes. “Leeeeaving.”

  “Yes, leaving. You’re staying. Staying? With Hâzadriën.”

  Sebrahn looked at him for a moment, then turned and held his arms up to the tall rhekaro.

  “It’s time to go,” Seregil said quietly. “Come on.”
<
br />   Alec’s heart ached as he lifted Sebrahn back up into Hâzadriën’s arms. “Take good care of him.”

  The tall rhekaro said nothing, and his expression did not change as he shifted Sebrahn in his lap.

  Going back to Windrunner, Alec swung up into the saddle and looped Patch’s lead rein over his pommel. Looking back over his shoulder, Alec saw Hâzadriën and the other ’faie ride off without a backward glance.

  Sebrahn did nothing.

  And Alec’s heart broke a little more.

  Rieser braced for an attack as soon as they were out of sight of the other Ebrados, but his traveling companions appeared to be ready to keep their word, at least for now. If they slipped away from him, he would hunt them down. If they murdered him, Turmay would know and there would be nothing to stop his riders from heading home with the small tayan’gil. Either way, he would have accomplished his mission.

  All the same, he couldn’t help noticing how Alec bit his lip and looked away as they went on.

  “Sebrahn will be safe. I’ve given you my word.”

  Alec spared him a black look and rode to the head of the line.

  Seregil admired Rieser as they rode away from his people. The man might not trust them, but he trusted in their honor. It was astonishing, really, and so ill-founded.

  “We have a day or two of riding ahead of us,” Seregil told him as they set off down through the foothills toward the coast. “We might as well pass the time pleasantly. Why don’t you tell us about this ‘white road’?”

  “Haven’t you guessed?”

  “Tayan’gil means ‘white blood.’ The white road leads to them?”

  “Yes, and the white road we followed when we left Aurënen. But the tayan’gils themselves are sometimes called ‘white roads.’ It is their blood that heals us, and the same blood that made us exiles.”

  “I see. And am I correct in assuming that Hâzadriën was made from your ancestor, Hâzadriël?”

  “Yes.”

  “That was more than four generations ago. He’s really that old?”

  “That’s correct. She is dead, but he still exists. No one knows if they ever die.”

  “How do you feed him, if the person he was made from is dead?” asked Alec, breaking his silence at last.

 
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