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

  “This is a dry land,” Rieser observed. Dust rose around their shoes with every step.

  “It’s said it was forested here before the Plenimarans came. It still is in parts of the north,” Seregil told him. “But they’ve been here a good long time and cut it all down for their ships.”

  “They have to trade in the north for mast timber now,” Micum added. “Even where they have forests, there aren’t enough old trees large enough to make a mast.”

  Rieser shook his head. “It’s a large, strange world you live in. I miss my valley already.”

  “What’s it like?” asked Alec.

  Seregil listened with half an ear as the Hâzad extolled the beauties of his mountain fai’thast. It sounded a lot like Bôkthersa. He was more interested in the interplay between the two. Alec had been hostile to Rieser in the beginning, and with good reason. But that had been somewhat tempered during the time they’d spent in each other’s company.

  For his part, Seregil had considerable respect for the tall, grim man. He was made of stern stuff, and brave to a fault. How else could he have offered to go with them like this, strangers sailing to the most dangerous place a Hâzadriëlfaie could possibly go?

  Rhal waited until Seregil and the others were gone from sight, then set sail for open water. They’d left the coastline far behind when Nettles emerged from below, dragging Morthage by the arm.

  “What’s this?” asked Rhal.

  “I found a traitor, Captain,” Nettles told him as more of the crew gathered around. He held out his free hand, showing them a painted stick that had been broken in two. Rhal had seen enough message sticks since he’d met Seregil to know what this was.

  “And just who are you sending word to?” he demanded.

  Morthage was pale and trembling, but said nothing.

  “Caught the last of what he said,” the mate told him. “He said, ‘to Riga, my lord.’”

  “A lord, eh? A Plenimaran?” Rhal growled.

  “No! I swear!” Morthage cried, finding his voice.

  “Who then?”

  Morthage went down on one knee. “Please, Captain. It’s only the Virésse lord, Ulan í Sathil! I meant no harm.”

  “Bilairy’s Balls, you didn’t. By the Old Sailor, man, what were you thinking? Don’t I pay you well enough? And it’s Lord Seregil’s money!”

  The knave was thoroughly cowed now. “I—I beg your forgiveness, Captain.”

  Rhal wasn’t in any mood to forgive, and hanged the blackguard with the full approval of the crew, but it was already too late to get word to Seregil. He and the others were long gone.

  Just beyond the beach Seregil and the others struck a rutted road and followed it. They soon reached a crossroads, with a marker that told them they were twenty miles out from Riga and only six from a town called Rizard.

  “I hope they have a horse market there,” Micum said, sitting down heavily on a large stone.

  Seregil knew Micum would ask for help if he really needed it, and that pride would keep him from need as long as possible. Despite the grey in his hair, Micum was still tough as an oak bole.

  Not long after that they came upon a prosperous-looking farm with a corral full of fine-looking horses.

  “Even better,” said Micum. “It will be easier convincing people that I’m a horse trader if I have some horses.”

  They approached the house cautiously, but there were no dogs about, though they could hear barking from one of the outbuildings.

  Micum went to the door and knocked.

  A servant girl answered and looked him up and down. “What do you want here, sir?”

  “I want to buy some good horses. Will your master sell a few, do you think?”

  She left them there and went to inquire. The master of the house, a plump clean-shaven man, soon appeared.

  “Good morning, sir,” said Micum. “My name is Lornis of Nanta.”

  “And I’m Digus Orthan. So you like my horses, do you?” the man replied, smiling as he clasped hands with him.

  “That’s a nice-looking herd you have. Would you part with any of them? I can pay you a good price.”

  “That’s my trade, sir. Let’s go have a look, though you flatter my stock. The best have all been taken by the army.”

  The man spoke the truth, but the horses he had left were good enough. In short order Micum picked out a spirited piebald mare for himself, a pair of chestnut geldings, and three cheaper mounts for the slaves. He paid in silver.

  “You’ll be needing a saddle, too,” Digus noted. “I have one that might do for you, if you don’t mind it being used.”

  “Not at all. Do you have just the one, though?”

  “You put your slaves on horseback?” Digus asked, surprised.

  “I’m a trader myself, sir, and travel long distances. These three are good, loyal slaves and I work them hard. They need steady beasts for that.”

  “Well, I don’t have any saddles for them, but I can spare a few blankets and bridles.”

  The bargain was struck, and Micum parted on good terms with the man.

  “Always good to make a friend here and there,” Seregil told Rieser as they rode on. “You never know when they’ll prove useful.”

  At the next crossroads, they overtook a drayman with a load of turnips, heading in the same direction they were going.

  Seregil and the others pulled up the hoods of their cloaks. Between that and the veils, only their eyes were visible. The sharp, dangerous look in Rieser’s was enough to warn Seregil that the Hâzad might find the role of slave harder to play than he’d bargained for.

  “Lower your eyes!” Seregil whispered in Aurënfaie. “And stop looking like you’re about to kill him.”

  They rode forward until Micum came abreast of the man.

  “Where are you headed, friend?” Micum asked as the farmer reined in his dray horse.

  “Rizard market, if it’s any of your business,” the man replied.

  “Why, so am I!” Micum exclaimed. “I don’t suppose you’d mind us riding along with you?”

  The man scowled up at him, taking in the long sword at Micum’s hip. “I might, or I might not. You speak my tongue well enough, but with that red beard I don’t think you’re a countryman.”

  “No, but I’ve been a trader here nigh onto twenty years now.”

  The man turned to look at Seregil and the others. “Are you heading in to sell these?”

  “Are you looking to buy?”

  Seregil was glad that Rieser didn’t speak the language.

  “They any good for field work? I got no use for any fancy house slaves.”

  “Ah, you’re right. You’d be throwing your money away on this lot for field work,” he scoffed good-naturedly. “But Sakor’s Flame, I wish I had three more just like ’em. They’re loyal as hounds. I hardly ever have to beat them.”

  The farmer was still sizing Micum up. “What is it you do?”

  “I trade in horses, friend. I’ve sold most of my string, as you can see. I’m here for more, and then sailing north. Can you recommend an honest trader?”

  “There’s a man in Rizard, but his stock is nothing to speak of. You’ll have better luck among the rogues in Riga, if you want better.”

  “Riga it is, then.”

  “So, you’ve been up north? What news of the war?”

  Seregil rode behind the wagon with the others, leaving Micum to trade lies for gossip with the drayman. In no time they were laughing together like old friends.

  “He’s good at this,” Seregil whispered to Rieser.

  “So I see. A useful skill.”

  They were nearly to Rizard when they were met by half a dozen riders in brown coats, all carrying whips and cudgels as well as long swords.

  “The damn slave takers!” the farmer muttered under his breath. “They’ll be stopping us on your account. I want to be off the road before sundown.”

  “Halt in the name of the Overlord!” their leader ordered. “What’s a di
rt farmer like you doing with slaves?”

  Meanwhile his riders had surrounded Seregil and the others.

  “They’re nothing to do with me,” the drayman told them. “This red-bearded fellow’s the one you want for that.”

  “Lornis of Nanta,” Micum replied, extending his hand.

  The slave taker ignored it. Turning instead to Seregil and the others, he ordered sharply, “Take off those hoods, all of you.”

  When they quickly complied, the one closest to Alec grabbed him by the hair. “Look at that, will you? Soft as a girl’s! You a girl?”

  “He’s pretty enough. Look at those eyes!”

  “What does it matter what he is?” another said with a crude laugh. “‘When whores are few, a boy will do,’ right, Zarmas?”

  Alec kept his gaze averted, but his hands were curled into fists on the reins. He might not understand much Plenimaran, but he clearly got the gist of it and none of his experiences with Plenimarans had been good ones. If nothing else, he wouldn’t like strangers manhandling him.

  Rieser’s eyes gave nothing away, but Seregil suspected he understood well enough, too.

  “You’re a northlander, aren’t you?” their captain asked Micum. “We don’t see many of you this far south these days.”

  “I’m a horse trader, and these three slaves are mine,” Micum replied, relaxed and friendly. “I have their warrants.”

  “I need to see them.”

  Micum took the packet of documents from inside his coat and gave it to him. As the man read through them, Micum turned and locked eyes with Seregil for an instant. He was ready for trouble if it came.

  But the captain just handed the documents back. “Sorry to trouble you. We’ve had a lot of runaways this past winter and I’ve got my hands full trying to find them. There was one slave in particular, a blue-eyed one like this one of yours, but he was a blond.”

  “Can’t be this boy,” Micum said. “I’ve owned him since he was just a little thing. The dates are there in the warrant.”

  “So I see. I’ll just check their brands and you can be on your way.”

  “Show him,” Micum ordered. Seregil was the only one who understood the words, but Rieser and Alec both pushed back their sleeves as he did and showed the fake brands. This satisfied the captain. He waved them on and continued on his way.

  When they were gone, Micum heaved a deep sigh of relief. “That always takes a few months off my life, getting stopped like that!” he told the drayman. “Sorry if I’ve caused you any trouble.”

  “No trouble for me, friend. This happens all the time. Sakor help the man who forgets to carry his warrants. The markets are full of seized slaves these days.”

  “More than usual?”

  “So I hear. Seems some escaped from a nobleman in Riga, and when he went after them they killed him. The widow has offered a good bounty for them, but it will be the Riga Master Slaver who gets them in the end.”

  “I almost pity the ones who end up like that.” Micum was fishing for information.

  “I don’t, sir. Slaves who kill their masters deserve to be tortured to death in the market square.”

  “I’ve never seen it myself.”

  “Oh, I have! Their hands and feet are cut off, and their guts are pulled out and burned in front of them while they’re still attached. And then their eyes are gouged out and their head cut off. But even that’s too good for murdering slaves, if you ask me.”

  Seregil was very glad Alec and Rieser didn’t understand any of that. He and Micum and Alec had courted grisly deaths before, but not one like this.

  They reached Riga late that afternoon and were stopped and searched again at the city gate. Once again, Seregil’s forgeries stood up under scrutiny.

  The harbor was thick with warships sporting the striped sails. There were Virésse vessels moored there, as well.

  Seregil shaded his eyes, brow furrowed above his veil. “I suppose that’s not unusual, given the trade agreements. Still—Oh, no.”

  “What?” asked Rieser.

  “See that Virésse ship flying the red-and-black pennant? That little flag isn’t flown unless the khirnari is aboard.”

  “Ulan í Sathil is here?” Alec exclaimed softly. “He might know about the book, too, if he was in league with Yhakobin.”

  “Who is Ulan í Sathil?” asked Rieser.

  “The khirnari of that clan,” Seregil replied.

  “A khirnari that treats with makers of tayan’gils?” The man looked truly shocked.

  “We don’t know that for certain,” Seregil admitted. “But it’s possible.”

  “What now?” asked Micum.

  “I guess we’d better go see if the book is gone or not.”

  “Even if it is, it doesn’t necessarily mean Ulan has it.”

  “No,” Seregil replied, “but it gives us a place to start.”

  “I can ask around the docks and see what he’s been up to,” said Micum.

  But Seregil shook his head. “No, we’d better not do anything to get you remembered just yet. We know where he is, and if he leaves we know where he’ll go.”

  The horse market was several streets on. The pickings were slim; the war was taking its toll here, too.

  The others hung back respectfully again while Micum bargained for four horses and some used saddles, telling the trader he’d sold his slaves’ saddles during a slack time.

  “Buying saddles for your slaves?” the man asked as he sat down at a small table to write out the bill of sale.

  “I have a long way to go and I expect them to work. They can’t do that sliding around on nothing but a blanket,” Micum explained.

  “Ah, well then. Where are you headed?”

  “I mean to make my way to Nanta, and then up the river from there to the outposts to sell my horses.”

  “What about the fighting?”

  Micum laid a finger to the side of his nose. “I’ve got my routes, friend. No one bothers me. And it’s still winter up there where I’m heading. Skala’s whore queen is probably still snug in her palace for now.” He spat on the ground. “This will be her last year, I say. Death to Skala!”

  “Death to Skala, friend!” The trader slapped Micum on the shoulder.

  “Say, can you tell me if there are any rich nobles around here, who might have special stock to sell? Some with a bit of ’faie blood in ’em? Not that your beasts are inferior.” He stroked the neck of the ordinary bay he’d just purchased. “Fine animals! But if I should meet up with some officers along the way in Mycena, it’s ’faie beasts they want. It’d help me along, if I could put a bit more gold in my pocket going north.”

  “Well …”

  “And I’ll put some gold in yours, too,” Micum assured him. “Steer me right and I’ll give you a gold sester for every horse I find.” With that he spit in his palm and held it out to the trader. The man did the same, and they clasped on it.

  Leaning at ease against the corral, the trader rattled off half a dozen names, none of them Yhakobin’s. “They might have a few horses left. But you’d better have a lot of gold in your pocket, if you mean to trade with them. The richer they are, the tighter the purse strings.”

  “Isn’t that the truth! Any widows among them? They’re likely to not deal so sharp.”

  “That would be the Lady Meran. You’ll want to keep your slaves on a short tether, though, if you go near her.”

  “Why’s that?”

  “Because her husband was killed by escaped slaves a few months back. It was the scandal of the city.”

  “I’ll keep that in mind, friend.” Micum dropped another coin in the man’s hand. “And where would I find this grieving lady?”

  “You want the east high road. You’ll find yourself on it if you go to the second slavers’ square and take a right turn at the barn with the sun and moon sign above the door. You can’t miss seeing it. From there you ride out to the second crossroad and turn right again. By and by you’ll strike a lane lined with
tall trees. That’s the way to the estate.”

  “Thank you, friend. One last thing, though. Can you tell me the name of the dead husband?”

  “You could ask anyone in Riga that and get the answer. He was Charis Yhakobin, alchemist to the Overlord himself and the richest man in the duchy—even richer than the duke himself.”

  “Does the duke have horses to sell?” Micum asked.

  “No, but if you find any ’faie ones, he’s likely to be a good customer for you.”

  Micum clasped hands with him again. “You’ve been a great help, my friend. Give me your name and I’ll come to you first with northern stock, and make you a special price for whichever ones you want.”

  “Ashrail Urati. And yours?”

  “Lornis of Nanta. Look for me in the fall.”

  Ashrail glanced up at the sun. “You won’t get to that house before nightfall and she’d not likely to welcome you then. My house is just in the next street over. Be my guest tonight and take supper with me, why don’t you? I’ve a slave cupboard in my stable, so you needn’t worry about them.”

  “Very kind of you. I believe I will!”

  Ashrail left the market with them and took them to a large house in a respectable street. Micum was ushered in the front door, while Seregil and his fellow slaves ended up barred in a cramped, windowless room hardly bigger than the aforementioned cupboard, with one small flyspecked lantern for light. It reeked of stable muck, and there was no source of heat except for the lamp and their blankets and cloaks.

  “This reminds me of our last visit to Plenimar,” Alec said in Skalan, whispering in case of any prying ears outside. “Cold all the time. At least we can take these damn things off, though.” Alec pulled his veil off and tucked it inside his coat.

  “At least it’s not raining.”

  Sometime later they were given a hot supper of stew and bread and let out once to use a stinking privy, for which they had to put on their veils.

  “We might as well be horses!” Rieser muttered when they were barred in again.

  “I think the horses get better treatment,” said Alec, running a finger along the inside of his slave collar.

  Rieser pulled at his. “And this is what you escaped?”

  “What we escaped was worse,” Seregil told him.

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