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


  “And yet you come back here. You’re either very brave or just plain mad.”

  “Bit of both,” Seregil said with a grin that was hidden.

  “And all for the sake of the tayan’gil?”

  Alec nodded. “We don’t want more of them made, any more than you do. And whatever is in that book may help us understand him better.”

  “To what end?”

  “To make sure he doesn’t hurt anyone else.”

  “That won’t be a problem, among my people.”

  “You’re not taking him,” growled Alec.

  “You can’t stop us.”

  “Hush, both of you, before someone hears,” hissed Seregil. “Nobody is to mention any of that again until we’re well away from all this!”

  CHAPTER 26

  Scouting the Ground

  ONE OF THE horse trader’s servants roused them early the next morning and brought them into the kitchen for a hot breakfast. Alec rubbed the sleep from his eyes as they entered the warm, steamy room to find bread trenchers already set out for them on a side table. The kitchen girl even gave them a smile as she brought them a platter of crisp turnip cakes fried in bacon grease and a pitcher of fresh milk. Micum must have made a good impression on his host.

  Micum and the horse trader came in and ate with them, talking and laughing like old friends. When they were done, Micum kissed the serving girl to make her giggle, then the four of them set off toward the slave market.

  “I wish there was another direction to go,” Alec said when they were away from the house.

  “Actually, I’d like to see it this time,” Seregil replied.

  “So would I,” Rieser murmured, eyes hard above his veil.

  The markets were as Alec remembered, but he had more time to look around than he’d had before. Slave barns, money houses, taverns, and inns surrounded a series of squares. Each barn had a raised platform out in front, and already a few slaves were on display to small clusters of bidders. At this hour it was mostly children; the poor things were half naked, with heavy chains attached to their little collars.

  The sights and smells brought back bad memories and made Alec’s stomach hurt, but he didn’t recognize anything until they reached one of the larger squares, where he caught sight of the maimed slaves chained along a wall with filthy bandages where limbs had been.

  “By the Light!” Rieser gasped softly behind his veil. “What happened to them?”

  “Punishment.” Alec made himself look back at them again. “Run away and lose a foot. Be rude to your master and they cut out your tongue. Steal and—”

  “I understand,” Rieser replied. Even whispering, his outrage was obvious.

  “Quiet, you lot!” Micum ordered sharply, giving them a meaningful look over one shoulder.

  Alec obeyed, then turned to find Seregil looking up at a handsome young Aurënfaie man on one of the platforms. He was naked, hands shackled behind his back so that he couldn’t cover himself. Pale with cold, he stared out over the crowd, eyes devoid of hope.

  Seregil turned to Alec, telling him with narrowed eyes that this place should be burned to the ground with every slaver locked in their own barn.

  They came at last to the barn with a moon and sun sign done in gilt work hanging over the door, and the street they were seeking. Turning right, they left the market and continued up a busy thoroughfare, following it to the east gate.

  Alec had been made to kneel in Yhakobin’s carriage and hadn’t been able to see anything more than the tops of houses and trees out the open window. It wasn’t much help to them now; they left the city behind and rode through rolling farmland, following the horse trader’s directions.

  It was greener here than on the coast, and they rode past horse pastures and fields of winter wheat and turnips that had been left in the ground through the cold season. At last Alec spotted a sprawling villa on a wooded hilltop half a mile or so in the distance.

  “That’s the place,” he told the others.

  “Are you sure?” asked Seregil.

  “Yes. It’s the right shape and I recognize the tree line behind it, with the dead oak.”

  “You don’t know the place?” Rieser asked Seregil.

  “I was kept inside more than Alec, and it was dark when we escaped.”

  “And we’re going there now?”

  “Not yet.”

  They reached the tree-lined lane the trader had told them of, but continued past it. The road was less traveled here, and the farms spaced farther apart.

  They stopped at last in a copse of trees at the edge of a field.

  “Micum, you and Rieser can wait for us here. The farm should be within a mile of here.” He looked up at the sun; it was coming to midafternoon now. “I think we have time to find it, just in case we end up having to use the tunnel. Alec?”

  “I think it was—” He scanned the horizon. “Northish.”

  “Northish?” Rieser looked less than impressed.

  “Don’t worry. He has a fine sense of direction,” said Seregil, but as soon as Rieser looked away Seregil raised a brow at Alec. Northish?

  They continued up the road, blending their horses’ tracks with those of all the riders who’d been along this way since the last rain. As always, Alec’s sense of direction stood them well. Within the hour he spotted a little horse farm with an apple orchard and an onion field. “That’s it.”

  “Smoke is coming out of the chimney. Someone’s home,” noted Micum.

  “Last time we were here, there weren’t any dogs,” said Alec.

  “Well, just in case.” Seregil held out his left hand to Rieser, the fingers curled against his palm except for the first and last. “I know you have a bit of magic, at least. Do you know how to do the dog charm?”

  Rieser mimicked the hand gesture. “Soora thasáli, you mean? Of course. What do we do now?”

  Micum gazed off at the house. “I’d say we should have a look while we have the chance, just to see what’s what.”

  The farmstead was just as Seregil and Alec remembered—a small, well-kept place with a large corral, a barn, and a good-sized stable.

  Micum approached first, with the others well behind him, but this time a snarling dog appeared from the open barn door and ran at him. Micum had to rein in his piebald before she could buck.

  “Hello in the house,” he called out over the barking.

  A man in a leather apron came from the barn, wiping his hands on a grimy cloth. “Brute, come!” The dog retreated grudgingly, still growling as he went to sit by his master’s feet. “What do you want?”

  “Water for our horses, and to see if you have any you’d part with,” Micum replied. “Do you have any to sell?”

  The man brightened at that. “I do, sir, if you’ve got gold to pay for them.”

  “I do.”

  “Well, then. Have your slaves water your mounts while we look over the herd. Are they safe to leave on their own?”

  “Oh, yes. No worries there.” Micum turned to the others and curtly ordered them to see to the horses.

  Seregil and the others bowed and led the string over to a long trough beside the corral. They stayed there, hooded and silent, while Micum and the man headed up into the meadow beyond the house.

  “Yhakobin’s widow must be selling off her herd for capital,” murmured Seregil.

  “I don’t understand. Why are you doing this in broad daylight?” Rieser asked.

  “Micum is finding out how many people live here, so we know what to expect if we come back tonight. This place is part of Yhakobin’s estate.”

  “Where is the tunnel?”

  Seregil pointed to the stable. “It comes up in there.”

  Micum and farmer returned and went into the house together. Micum came out again after a time, smiling and smelling of beer and sausage. He’d brought them some of the latter in a napkin. A woman and a young girl with dark braids stood by the open doorway, smiling as they watched the men go back to the stable.
<
br />   “Oh hell, a child!” Seregil muttered under his breath.

  Micum? Alec signed.

  Seregil gave him a slight nod. The girl looked to be the same age as Micum’s youngest daughter, Illia.

  “If the time comes, I will kill them,” Rieser whispered.

  “Because they’re only Tír?” hissed Alec.

  “We’re not killing anyone unless it’s absolutely necessary, and leave out the girl and the woman,” Seregil told him. “We’re not murderers.”

  “And yet you kill?”

  “Only when necessary. This lot shouldn’t be any problem. I haven’t seen anyone else around.”

  “There was a drunken stable hand the night we escaped,” Alec reminded him.

  “Let’s hope he hasn’t improved his habits.”

  Micum struck a deal for three fine Aurënfaie horses and parted on the best of terms with the master of the house. Alec tied the new ones into the string they already had, and they set off the way they’d come.

  “Well?” asked Seregil when they were out of sight of the house.

  “It’s just the family you saw, a hired man, and a stable boy,” Micum told them. “There’s a front room as you go in, with a kitchen on the left and the bedchamber at the back. I assume the hired man sleeps in the front room or the barn.”

  “Good to know. Hopefully it won’t come to needing it, though,” Alec said.

  They reached the thick stand of trees and took their horse string to the heart of it, tethering them there. Then they waited for night to fall, watching the bow of a waxing moon sinking in the west. Seregil took a spare shirt from his pack and cut it into strips with Micum’s knife, then wrapped them around the iron hooks of the grapple, to deaden the sound of it when he used it on the wall.

  “I guess it’s time,” he said when it was full dark. He tied the neck of his cloak more tightly to cover his collar. “We should be back by sunrise if everything goes according to plan. If we’re not and you don’t find us between here and the farm, ride into the city and see if they’re burning our entrails and gouging out our eyes.”

  “You shouldn’t joke about such things,” warned Rieser.

  “He jokes about everything,” Alec explained.

  “It’s better than worrying,” said Seregil. “Micum, if we’re not captured, go to an inn by the south gate and we’ll find you. Come on, Alec. We’ve got risks to face and books to steal.”

  CHAPTER 27

  Nightrunning

  SEREGIL and Alec were doubly careful as they rode back toward the villa, keeping well away from the road. It was a clear night, and the stars cast enough light for them to be seen. If they were caught now, with no master and no papers—not to mention the bag containing the grappling hook and the rope slung from Seregil’s saddlebow—then they would find themselves back in the slave market pretty damn quick.

  But Illior’s luck was with them; they reached the villa lane without encountering anyone. Avoiding that, too, they flanked the hill. It took some searching, but they found the mouth of the gully that ran behind the villa. It lay at the end of a farm road, and the mouth of it was choked with rubbish. From here they could see a bit of the villa and torches burning there.

  Picking their way over discarded crockery, broken tool handles, furniture, and a few rotting bed ticks, they led their horses as far in as they could, then left them tethered when it grew too narrow. As hoped, the gully brought them in back of the house directly behind the workshop. They stayed there, watching the stars wheel an hour’s time and talking in signs. Sounds came to them on the still night air—the banging of pots being washed in the kitchen, guards talking in the courtyard above their heads, the flittering of bats and yipping of foxes on the hunt.

  Seregil wondered who was tending the children now. Their nursemaid, Rhania, had killed herself while helping him escape, and he still felt the loss. He’d known her for such a short time, but she was a brave woman who’d deserved better than dying with a collar around her neck.

  A little after midnight, Seregil climbed the side of the gully and pitched the muffled grapple up with practiced ease. It caught on the first try with only a small scratching sound. He and Alec grasped the rope together and put their weight on it to be sure. It held.

  “Here we go, then,” Seregil whispered, then caught Alec by the back of the neck and gave him a kiss.

  “Just in case?”

  A chill ran up Seregil’s spine. “No, talí. For luck. Wait for my signal.”

  “Luck in the shadows,” Alec whispered after him as he started up the wall.

  “And in the Light,” Seregil whispered back, though he hoped light wasn’t going to be a factor.

  He made it easily to the top of the wall; from there it was a short jump to the low-pitched roof of the workshop. Fortunately, one of the shuttered skylights was on this side of the ridgeline. If he could get it open without alerting the entire household, it was a safer way in than climbing down to the front door.

  Lowering himself onto the roof tiles, he climbed up to the ridge to scan the courtyard. There was no one there that he could see but a sleeping watchman.

  He crawled back to the skylight. The shutter was six feet high and about half that across. Fortunately it was lifted by means of a pair of pulleys mounted on a post on the hinge side. The thick rope that operated it passed through an opening in the roof, and there was enough space around the rope for Seregil to see that no light was coming up from below.

  He went back to the wall and hissed softly for Alec, who climbed nimbly up. Seregil signaled silently and together they hauled on the shutter rope. It opened smoothly on well-oiled hinges. The workshop below was pitch-dark, so he took a lightstone from his tool roll and dropped it in. It bounced off something and rolled under something else, but they could still see the glow of it. As far as they could tell, the place was deserted.

  Alec pulled up their rope and reset the grapple so they could climb down into the shop. Seregil slid down first and retrieved the stone. Going to the cellar door, he opened it enough to see that there was no light there, either.

  Alec came down and took out a light of his own. “Look,” Seregil whispered.

  There were footprints in the dust around the bookcases and a chair beside a lamp stand. A few others showed that people had walked around the room and gone to the small tent at the far end. It was painted with rings of what were most likely alchemical symbols of some sort. The dust was disturbed in front of it, showing where someone had knelt down, presumably to investigate its contents.

  Curious, Seregil went to the tent and pulled back the flap while Alec began searching the bookcases. In addition to a few leather bags and a gold chalice, there was a locked casket that looked large enough to hold a book like the one Alec had described.

  The lock was a large one. These were often the most dangerous, being large enough to hide a nasty surprise, like a poison needle on a spring. After a close inspection, however, Seregil slid a pair of slender picks from his roll and went to work. A moment later he heard the click of several tumblers. He grinned as he raised the heavy lid, but the casket was empty.

  “I don’t see it in the bookcase,” Alec whispered, joining him. “It’s not on any of the tables, either.”

  Seregil showed him the empty box. “Would it have fit in here?”

  “Yes.”

  “Damn!”

  They spent some time searching the room, but it was no use. Nothing like the book Alec recalled was to be found.

  “Bilairy’s Balls,” Seregil hissed.

  “Maybe some other alchemist took it.” Alec looked around. “Then again, everything else is just as I remember it. Nothing appears to have been moved.”

  “Except books.” Seregil went back to the cluster of footprints in front of the bookcases. There were no empty spaces between the volumes. “Whoever it was knew what they were looking for, to the exclusion of all else. They paid no attention to anything else here, except books and that tent. You’re certa
in the book you saw would fit in that casket?”

  “Yes.” Alec stared around into the shadows. “Wait. What about the cellar? And that locked room they kept me in down there?”

  But once again, there was nothing like a book anywhere; everything was just as Alec remembered.

  “Ulan?” whispered Alec.

  “We’ll see. Come on.”

  Seregil went up the rope first. As his head cleared the roof, however, he heard an outcry in the distance. It was coming from the direction of the gully. From what he could make out, someone had found their horses and raised an alarm.

  “There, in the workshop!”

  Seregil looked around to find a man balanced on a ladder placed against the garden wall to his left. He must have gone up to see what the fuss was about.

  “Guards! The workshop,” the man shouted, disappearing down the ladder. “Fetch the key, someone!”

  Seregil quickly climbed down the rope and found Alec already struggling with the heavy anvil. He hurried to help and they heaved the trapdoor up. People were at the door now, and someone was not waiting for the key. The door shook on its hinges as someone tried to break it down.

  “Go get the lower door open,” Seregil whispered.

  Alec disappeared down the rickety wooden ladder bolted to the side of the narrow shaft.

  Seregil took a deep breath and grasped the ring on the underside of the trapdoor. It was tricky, pulling the heavy door in such a way as to not get brained by it. The only way was to throw all his strength into it, then hang on tight to the ring as the whole thing crashed back into place. If the ring came loose, it was a long way down.

  But it didn’t, and he found the ladder with one foot and clambered down after Alec.

  Alec was at work on the large iron lock with two of his heaviest picks and had it open as Seregil’s feet touched ground. Dashing into the tunnel beyond, they closed the door. Alec jammed one of the picks into the workings of the lock, then bent the long end flush with the door. “That should slow them down a bit!”

  They set off down the dank passageway at a run. By the time they reached the ladder at the far end of the tunnel, they were both winded. Seregil climbed, gasping, up the ladder and pushed the trapdoor up just enough to peek out into the stable. He barely noticed the horseshit that fell down around him, though he heard a muffled curse from Alec below.

 
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