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

  As they spelled their horses at a freshet by the roadside at midday, Alec noticed that Micum dismounted a bit awkwardly and stood clutching the horse’s mane a moment. Alec had noticed signs of his leg paining him when they’d stopped earlier, too. Riding without a saddle or stirrups put a strain on anyone’s legs. When Micum led his horse to drink, he was limping noticeably, but he didn’t say anything, so neither did anyone else.

  Rieser walked over to Seregil and held out his hand. “I want to see the books.” Seregil unshouldered the bag and undid the strings. Three large leather-bound books slid out. Seregil, Micum, and Alec each took one. Seregil’s shirt hung awry and Alec saw an angry red line where the string had rubbed Seregil’s skin raw during their ride.

  The slimmest of them was bound in worn brown leather and stamped with faded gold. It was written in Plenimaran, but Seregil and Micum could make it out. Seregil paged through it to a picture of what looked like a winged naked being, sexless like Sebrahn. “It talks of various elixirs you can make with different sorts of blood, including rhekaro, but I don’t see any recipes.”

  “That’s probably in this one,” said Alec, holding up the largest, bound in red leather, with a whole page filled with drawings of winged rhekaros. “This is the book I saw.”

  Rieser leaned over Alec’s shoulder and traced a line of text with one grimy finger, not quite touching the page. “So this holds the means of the making?”

  “So does this one,” Micum said, holding up the third, to show them another engraving of a rhekaro. “Where were they? How did you find them?”

  Seregil looked up at him and sighed. “Ilar. Again.”

  “Him?” Alec felt a sinking feeling in his belly. “How did he turn up here?”

  “I don’t know. He’s under Ulan’s protection now, but he betrayed him to help me.”

  “Why would he do that?” asked Rieser. He might know nothing of Ilar, but betraying a khirnari was a serious matter.

  Seregil and Alec both ignored the question.

  Instead, Alec raised a skeptical eyebrow. “He told you, and then just let you go?”

  “I told him he could come with me. He told me where the books were. I knocked him out and left him to explain himself to Ulan.”

  “He’ll just lie his way out of it.”

  “Probably. But he’s not our problem now.”

  Alec turned his book to show them elaborate engravings of alchemical equipment in various arrangements—flasks, athanors, crucibles, and the like. “I recognize some of these. I saw them being used in Yhakobin’s workshop.”

  “It will be useful to someone,” said Seregil.

  “No, it will not!” Rieser snapped. “I am taking those back to my people, and no one will use them.”

  “We only have your word for that, don’t we?” said Seregil. “I have a better idea. Micum, lend me your knife.”

  Taking it, he opened the brown book halfway through and sawed through the binding, splitting it into two parts. “You can have your pick of which half you want, Rieser, but you can’t have it all. I get to pick the next one, and Alec the third.”

  Rieser watched in silence as he cut the others, then sighed. “I suppose it’s as good a solution as any.”

  “Why not just throw them into the sea?” asked Micum.

  “Because things like these have a way of surviving,” Seregil told him. “Let’s try something.”

  He gathered enough twigs and dry plants to start a small fire. When it caught, he held the corner of one page to the flame. It didn’t catch fire. None of the books would. “As I expected, you don’t keep such important information in an ordinary book.” He put them back in the bag. “Half of these are yours. We won’t fight you for them. But you know what we want in return.”

  Rieser gave them no reply, just walked off down the ledges.

  “That was your best solution?” Micum whispered.

  “It’s better than fighting over them, assuming that the other Ebrados agree,” said Alec.

  Seregil gave them both a crooked grin. “I may not be able to read the code, but I can tell where one chapter ends and another begins. I wouldn’t say I cut each one exactly in half, and I made sure we got what looked like the best parts. They may not be enough to tell us the whole story—”

  “Assuming you figure out the code,” said Micum.

  “How many times have you seen me fail at that sort of thing?”

  “Not often,” Micum admitted.

  “And if you can’t, then perhaps Thero can,” said Alec. “He’s handy at that sort of thing.”

  “He should be,” said Seregil, giving him a wink. “We had the same teacher. Let’s go.”

  “Wait.” Alec cut a piece from his saddle blanket, folded it into a sort of pad, and put it between the bag’s strings and Seregil’s shoulder.

  “Thanks, talí,” Seregil murmured.


  The Cottage by the Sea

  BY LATE AFTERNOON they’d struck the highroad and Alec’s belly was complaining loudly again.

  Micum pointed forward to a familiar headland as they stopped by a spring. “I believe the cove is just beyond there.” It was no more than a mile on.

  “Good.” Seregil yawned widely.

  “Don’t start that,” said Micum, then succumbed to one of his own. “We don’t have that much farther to go.”

  “I just hope Rhal is actually—” Suddenly Seregil went very still, head cocked slightly. “Do you hear that?”

  The soft breeze carried the distant sound of riders—more than a few and coming on at a gallop.

  “They couldn’t have tracked us through the city,” said Rieser. “Someone must have seen us at the gate. Micum Cavish is a hard man to mistake in this land.”

  “Too true,” said Seregil. “Rieser, you ride with me for now, and give Alec’s horse a rest.”

  Alec went to Micum’s horse and laced his fingers into a stirrup. Micum’s limp was more pronounced now, and a stiff leg could mean a bad fall.

  Micum set his foot there and Alec boosted him up onto his horse’s back.

  “Can you ride hard?” Alec whispered to him, not wanting the others to hear.

  “Of course I can,” Micum scoffed softly, but his smile was tight.

  Seregil mounted his own sweating horse. The Hâzad jumped lightly up behind him and gripped the back of Seregil’s shirt.

  “We don’t know for certain it’s them,” Alec pointed out as they forced their tired horses into a last gallop. “It could be the man we stole the horses from.”

  “It could be slave takers,” said Micum.

  “I’d rather not wait around to see!” Seregil replied, taking the lead.

  Whoever it was, they couldn’t be too far behind if Alec could hear them over the surf. Sure enough, when he looked back over his shoulder, he caught the glint of afternoon light on metal. “Damn!” Whoever it was behind them, their horses must be fresher, for they were steadily gaining. There were too many to be the horse breeder and his men, unless he’d raised the countryside against them.

  “They’re gaining!” shouted Micum, though it hardly needed pointing out.

  Their pursuers were close enough now that Alec could make out the pale ovals of faces, but not features yet. Still out of bowshot, hopefully. He didn’t fancy getting shot in the back again. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

  And still the riders gained on them.

  “We’re not going to make the cove!” Micum shouted.

  “No, but we can make it there.” Seregil pointed to a nearby cottage above the ledges, one of the abandoned ones they’d passed when they’d first arrived here.

  It wasn’t the best of redoubts. The roof thatching was rotting away on one end, and several shutters were hanging on by a hinge. The remains of a fishing net hung sun-rotted over a drying frame. But there was nothing better in sight.

  “Rieser, take the horses around to the back and tie them up somehow,” Seregil ordered.

door was blocked on the inside, but Seregil and Alec climbed in through one of the windows that flanked it and lifted the warped bar from the rusty staples. A table still stood at the center of the room, and there was one broken bench and an overturned sideboard. A rotting pallet lay in one corner close to the stone chimney.

  They let the others in and barred the door again, then set about using the broken furniture to block the windows with broken shutters as best they could. The shutters still on their hinges were warped by the salt air and wouldn’t withstand much of an assault, but they’d be enough to shield them from archers, if it came to that.

  “Look what I found,” said Rieser, brandishing a rusty axe.

  “Good man!” exclaimed Micum.

  Rieser nearly smiled.

  Seregil looked around, taking stock. “So, one bow—”

  Alec settled the quiver strap over his shoulder.

  “I hope you’re as good as he says you are,” Rieser told him.

  “He is,” said Seregil. Micum had one of the front windows half open now. “How many, Micum?”

  “I’d say twenty at least.”

  “Closer to twenty-five,” said Rieser.

  “Damn, I don’t like those odds, not the way we’re armed,” Seregil said.

  “What about this ship you keep talking about?” asked Rieser. “Can’t one of us go for help?”

  Seregil exchanged a look with the others. “It’s not that far. Half an hour round trip, at most.”

  “Longer, getting out to the ship to gather the men and get them organized,” Micum pointed out.

  “You’re the fastest runner, Seregil,” said Alec. “And the least likely to be seen.”

  He was right, of course, and there was no time to quibble.

  “Give me the knife,” said Seregil.

  Micum handed it to him. “No lollygagging, you.”

  “Luck in the shadows,” added Alec.

  “And to the rest of you.” Seregil gave him a quick kiss and ducked out the back window.

  Seregil could have taken one of the horses, but that would have called too much attention, and at this distance he couldn’t outrun the riders. He could hear them more clearly now, and could tell by their shouts that they were making for the cottage. Crouching as low as he could, he kept the house between them until he reached a shallow gully that took him toward the headland and down over the lip of a rise. Out of sight of the cottage at last, he fixed his eye on the distant beach and ran for all their lives.

  As he rounded the base of the small headland, however, he found the cove aglow with late-afternoon light, and quite empty.

  “No!” He sank to his knees in the dry bladder wrack at the tide line and stared incredulously out across the empty water. Had they gotten the day wrong? Worse yet, had something happened to the Lady?

  “Lord Seregil?” One of Rhal’s crewmen—Quentis, Seregil thought—emerged from a patch of bushes, brushing twigs and dead leaves from his jerkin. “Where’s the rest of ’em? The captain set me to watch for you—”

  “Where’s the ship?” Seregil gasped, pushing himself to his feet and noting that Quentis was wearing a sword.

  “It’s the tide, my lord.” The man hooked a thumb at the water, and Seregil cursed himself for a fool. The tide was out. “It’ll be another hour before there’s draft enough to float the Lady through the shoals.”

  “An hour? We don’t have an hour!” The sun was sinking toward the western horizon. Squinting into the glare, he looked for some sign of the ship, but there was none that he could see. “Bilairy’s Balls, man, the others are trapped. Besieged!”

  “What are we going to do, my lord?”

  Seregil walked down to the waterline and washed the dust from his face and neck, trying to collect his thoughts. Quentis appeared at his elbow with a waterskin. Seregil rinsed his mouth, then took a sparing sip and slung the skin over his shoulder; you couldn’t run on a bellyful. “Do you have a boat?”

  “Yes, hidden over there.”

  “Good. I need your sword.” He glanced down at the smooth, egg-shaped rocks he was kneeling on. “And your shirt.”

  “I’m coming with you!”

  “No, you’re going to row out and signal the ship any way you can. You saw the direction I came from? If we don’t come back, have Rhal send a force up the road to a little cottage over that rise, on the seaward side of the road. He can make up his mind what needs to be done once he gets there.”

  Quentis watched unhappily as Seregil buckled on the sword. “What are you going to do, my lord?”

  “Whatever I can.”

  “How many do you make it now?” Alec asked, leaning against the barred door.

  “Closer to thirty, and there are archers among them,” said Micum, peering out. Their pursuers had reined in on the road. Some dismounted and came running forward with swords drawn. They made easy targets.

  “All right, then.” Alec threw open one shutter at the other window and set an arrow to his bowstring. He took down three before the rest retreated, and two more still on horseback. A moment later, an arrow sang past his cheek and embedded itself in the wall behind him. Others followed, and Alec stepped back into cover. Picking up a fallen shaft, he looked at it closely.

  “What do you make of it?” Micum asked.

  “’Faie made, I’d say. That’s a relief of sorts,” Alec replied. “If we are captured, I’d rather it be by Ulan.” The head was chipped, but he sent it speeding back the way it had come anyway. His range was longer than they’d guessed. Another man fell. “That’s six, but not a kill.”

  Micum grinned over at Rieser. “How does it feel, fighting beside a Tírfaie?”

  Reiser hardly spared him a glance. “Necessary. They’re flanking us.”

  He was probably right. There were more missing out there than Micum could account for by the dead. The archers were apparently well supplied, for they continued for quite a while. Alec finished the last of his arrows and those he could salvage, then slammed the shutter closed and barred it again. In the midst of it all they heard a commotion in back of the house.

  “There go the horses,” said Micum, checking through the shutters.

  “Now what?” Rieser asked.

  “Attack or parley, I expect,” said Micum.

  “Yes, here comes a man holding up a white scarf,” Alec told them. “It’s a parley.”

  A moment later a man called out to them, “You in the house. We outnumber you and have no desire to kill you. Surrender now.”

  “Who are you and why should we?” Micum called back.

  “My name is Urien, captain of Ulan í Sathil’s personal guard. I speak for Ulan í Sathil of Virésse.”

  “What does this Ulan fellow want with us?” Micum drawled back, stalling for time, trying to estimate if Seregil could possibly be on the way back yet. Most likely not. “We’re just humble travelers making our way, until you lot put Bilairy’s wind up our ass.”

  “If that is so, then you should have no fear of showing yourselves.”

  “No fear?” Micum scoffed. “With more arrows around us than sprills on a hedgehog’s back? Oh, no! You’ll kill us first and make certain of us afterward.”

  “If you are innocent, then why did you run?”

  “Where I’m from, the only men who ride around in gangs are bandits and soldiers, and they can both be trouble to travelers. As you have only just proven, I might add. It’s an outrage! And what, may I ask are Aurënfaie doing gadding about the Plenimaran countryside?”

  “That’s no concern of yours, if you are what you say you are,” Urien retorted, sounding a little amused now. “You have some things that belong to the khirnari and he wants them back. Three books and a boy with blue eyes. Give those over and you’re free to go.”

  “Books!” Micum feigned disbelief. “Who in their right mind busts into the house of a—what do you call it—Keer-nair-ey, and steals books? Don’t tell me you mistook us for scholars, too? And boys?”

ss was falling and torches were being lit.

  “Send out Seregil the Bôkthersan!” a different, slightly higher voice called out.

  “No one here by that name,” Micum called back. “Really, this is getting damned tiresome.”

  “I know that voice,” Alec whispered, looking out through the shutters to be sure. “That’s Ilar!”

  “The traitor who fancies your lover?” asked Rieser.

  Alec turned to him with a shocked, slightly chagrined look.

  Rieser shrugged. “You think I haven’t been paying attention?”

  Micum took a peek himself, wanting a look at this mysterious man from Seregil’s past. He didn’t look like much—a thin, trembling man with a coward’s eyes. “Well then, Captain, since you don’t believe me, and I don’t believe you, I’d say we’re at a bit of an impasse.”

  Meanwhile, Rieser and Alec made the rounds of the room, peering out through the shutters.

  “Well?” Micum whispered.

  “We are surrounded,” said Rieser, “but they’re thinly spread, unless there are others still out of sight.”

  He was proven right in less than a breath. The shutters of the single window in the wall to their right cracked and groaned on their hinges and several swordsmen leapt in. Throwing the bench aside, they lunged at Micum and Alec. Micum had the sword at hand so Alec grabbed the rusty axe. Unarmed, Rieser kept behind them, awaiting his chance.

  The house was a small one and didn’t leave a lot of room for swinging weapons around. Aware that more men were in the process of kicking the door in, Micum caught his opponent’s blade with his hilt and lashed out with his left fist, hitting him squarely in the face. The man dropped his sword as he fell to the floor. Rieser darted forward and grabbed it as Micum jumped over the fallen man and took on another who’d come in through the window, ending up back-to-back with Alec. He could hear the crack of splitting wood as the brackets holding the bar across the door began to give way.

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