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


  Seregil heard the sound of fighting before he was in sight of the cottage. At least it wasn’t over, which meant his friends weren’t captured yet, or dead.

  It was easier to approach than it had been to leave, now that it was dark. Or mostly so; Ulan’s men—he knew them by their tack and coats—had very helpfully lit a few torches, making it a simple enough matter to knock down four men from a distance with the lovely rounded beach stones he’d collected in Quentis’s shirt. Several of the men were Plenimarans—Ulan’s hired dogs were relatively loyal, it seemed. He wondered which one of the bastards had been the one to spot them leaving by the city gate. Seregil sincerely hoped he’d brained him.

  He slipped away in the shadows before anyone could tell where the stones had come from, dashing around to the other side of the house where he found half a dozen men all trying to get in through the same window. There was no sound of his friends inside except the clang and thud of a fight.

  “I think they have enough people in there. Why don’t we stay out here in the fresh night air?” Seregil called to the men, drawing the sailor’s sword. They turned on him like a pack of wolves. Seregil could see chain mail glittering at the necks of their tunics. In a fight like this, you struck to break bones, not cut flesh.

  “Micum! Alec!” Seregil shouted as he held off two swordsmen at once. “Rieser!”

  “All here!” Micum shouted back.

  Two men went down with broken pates, and a third with a shattered arm. The other two rushed Seregil at once, trying to bowl him over. He ducked, throwing one over his back, and vaulted in through the open window.

  With his help, they managed to clear the last of Ulan’s men from the room and prop the broken door back into place.

  “About time you got here!” said Micum. He sounded winded.

  “Did you find it?” asked Rieser, not sounding the least bit tired.

  “Fight now. Talk later,” Seregil gasped, locking blades with another swordsman who’d come through the open window. Alec took on a second man who’d come in at the far end of the room, bringing him down with a blow to the head with the hilt of his sword.

  He doesn’t want to kill them, either, thought Seregil, swinging his left fist at an unwary swordsman. He misjudged, striking him in the forehead instead of the nose, and felt the long bone in his middle finger snap. The pain gave him strength and he surged forward, taking another man in the face with his sword hilt and kicking him backwards out the window. Micum and Rieser tossed out the last three stragglers and slammed and barred the shutters. Alec wedged the table up against the door.

  Thoroughly winded, Seregil took a drink from the waterskin he’d brought and handed it around. He wouldn’t admit it, but he was exhausted, and he could see that the others were, too. “Rhal was delayed by the tide. He should be sailing in about now.”

  “If we run, they’ll cut us down,” Rieser whispered back, “but we’ve thinned them out. I count only eleven men left.”

  “Are you ready to stop this?” someone called.

  Seregil went to the side of one of the front windows and looked cautiously out. A man with the look of a captain sat on horseback beside a hooded man. Almost a dozen men were still in front of the house, nearly all of them archers. As he watched, two more staggered out of the shadows, clutching their heads.

  That’s what I get for being merciful, Seregil thought—though he had rather assumed he’d killed them with his rock throwing.

  Just then the mounted man next to Ulan pushed his hood back.

  Seregil laughed. “Ilar! I didn’t expect to see you again.” Even from here he could see the dark, swollen bruise on his jaw.

  Alec stepped in beside him, and for an instant Seregil was afraid he was going to charge out after him. Instead, he regarded the other man coldly. “You’re worse than a stray cat at supper time. Always turning up when you’re least wanted.”

  Seregil studied Ilar’s face and the way he sat his horse. The library had been dark; now he had a better look at him, though, and it simply confirmed his impression. This was not the gloating man who’d made Seregil wash his feet and taunted him with fleeting glimpses of Alec during their captivity. Nor was this the same man who’d tried to seduce him once again during their escape. Even at this distance, Seregil could see fear in his face, and his stoop-shouldered, cringing posture. As their eyes met, however, he also saw the hunger in him. Ilar was Ulan’s creature now; no doubt certain promises had been made, which almost certainly did not involve letting Alec or him go.

  “Well now, where are we?” he asked, leaning on the window frame.

  “Surrender, and I assure you, none of you will be killed,” their leader replied.

  “Those are your terms? Not very enticing.”

  “You’re as foolish as your friends. Very well. The khirnari only wants Alec. You have his solemn word that he will be well treated. The rest of you can go.”

  “Even worse!”

  Micum, who’d been standing just behind Seregil, disappeared for a moment.

  “Well treated?” Alec laughed hoarsely. “Then he’s either lying or he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. It’s an abomination. How in Aura’s name can you support this, Captain Urien?”

  When Micum returned his face was dark with fury. “Rieser is gone, and so are the books. All of them.”

  Seregil kept his expression neutral and his attention on the captain.

  “I was ordered to catch a thief and return what was stolen,” Urien told him. “These are the terms I was given. Whatever my khirnari asks of me, I know it is for the sake of Virésse.”

  “Even if it means he becomes no better than a necromancer?”

  “He’s lying to confuse you!” Ilar told him angrily. “Remember your honor, Captain. And the khirnari said to bring Seregil, as well. He’s one of the chief thieves. The others can be killed.”

  Just then they heard a low whistle from behind the house.

  Micum went to the window and looked out between the shutters. “Well I’ll be damned,” he whispered. “Rieser’s back, and he’s brought horses!”

  “Captain, please grant me a few moments with my companions. They may take a bit of—convincing,” Seregil said.

  “Take all the time you like,” Urien replied.

  Seregil closed the shutters and went with the others to the back window. Outside two men lay on the ground, dead or senseless, and Rieser stood over them with four saddled horses and the bag of books slung from one of the pommels.

  One by one they climbed out and took a horse, then began leading them away in the direction of the cove. They hadn’t gotten more than a hundred feet, however, when someone shouted, “There they go! They’re escaping!”

  Seregil gave Micum a quick leg up onto his horse, then leapt into the saddle on his own and followed the others as they galloped for the cove, their starlight shadows coursing like pursuing dra’gorgos beneath them.

  They had a head start and the element of surprise, but Urien and his remaining men were hard on their heels.

  Rounding the headland for the second time that day, Seregil let out a victory cry at the sight of the ocean lapping at the high tide line and the Green Lady riding at anchor. Longboats were skimming in across the glassy surface of the cove, lanterns casting long spears of light toward the beach.

  “Keep going!” Micum yelled as his horse lunged into the water.

  Alec was close behind. “Look out! Archers!” he cried as he slid off his horse into the water, still clutching the pommel.

  Seregil, for once in his life, was too slow. Something seared across his back like a hot whip, and then something heavy struck him in the side, knocking him off his horse into the water. His ankle caught in the stirrup and suddenly he was being dragged as the horse churned on, an arrow grinding between his ribs and water going up his nose. He wondered vaguely if he’d bleed to death or drown first. And oddest of all, someone was screaming something about him. It was hard to tell if it was a man or a woman,
with his head bobbing in and out of the water, but they sounded hysterical.

  Then a hand was gripping his arm so hard it hurt and another was pulling his caught foot free of the stirrup.

  “Hold on,” Alec said against his ear. “The boats are coming. They’re almost here.”

  Seregil coughed up salt water and gagged out, “Rieser—” He had the books.

  “Micum went back for him.”

  Back?

  Arrows were still coming down in the water around them, but now others were whizzing back the other way from the boats.

  Then rough hands and strong arms were hoisting them both up into a boat, and the arrow was catching on everything until a ham-fisted sailor snapped it off and Seregil allowed himself to scream just that once.

  The voice calling his name was still carrying across the water. “Seregil! Seregil, don’t leave me here! Please! Come back. Take me with you! You know what they’ll do to me!”

  Propped up against Alec’s chest, Seregil saw Ilar pacing back and forth at the water’s edge, wringing his hands and wailing. And that was the last thing Seregil remembered before he fainted.

  CHAPTER 31

  The Green Lady

  “THINGS went wrong, did they?” Rhal asked as Seregil and Rieser were lifted aboard the Lady.

  “We ran into a bit of trouble,” Alec told him, following close behind. “I hope your healer is a good one.”

  “He is.” Turning to the crewmen gawking at them, he snapped, “Get these men below and find Konthus! Nettles, Skywake. Prepare to hoist anchor.”

  Rieser and Seregil were put to bed in their respective cabins as the ship got under way. Seregil was conscious now, but was having trouble breathing.

  “Prop him on his good side,” Micum advised.

  Alec positioned several pillows behind Seregil’s back to keep him lying on his unwounded side, then carefully began easing his wet, bloody shirt off. Seawater mixed with blood spread in a widening stain on the silk coverlet. In addition to the arrow in his side, Seregil had a thin, deep gash across his back where another arrow had clipped him, which would take sewing up. Seregil lay there, panting, but managed to push himself up enough for Alec to get the shirttail out from under him. Meanwhile, Micum rummaged through the clothes chest at the foot of the bunk and found a clean shirt. Alec pressed it around the remains of the arrow shaft to staunch what he could.

  Seregil grimaced. “Missed my lung, but I think I have some cracked ribs.” He held up his right hand, showing them his swollen middle finger. “This hurts like hell, too.”

  “You’ll have plenty of time to heal up, my friend,” Micum said, patting his foot. “We’re bound for home now, and well earned.”

  Presently a young man in a brown robe hurried in, the bronze serpent lemniscate of his profession swinging against his chest on its chain. “Lord Seregil, I’m honored—”

  “Rieser first,” said Micum. “He’s hurt worse than Lord Seregil.”

  “Are you sure, my lord?”

  “Go!” Seregil gritted out.

  “I’ll go sit with him,” said Micum. He limped away after the healer, leaving the door open behind him.

  Alec wrapped blankets around both of them and sat down on the edge of the bed. “How are you doing?” he asked, smoothing Seregil’s wet, tangled hair back from his face.

  Seregil grimaced, but it was mostly a smile. “Been better. Been worse. What happened to Rieser?”

  “Shot in the chest. He saved our lives back there, not to mention the books. I have to admit, I thought he really had run off.”

  “So did I.” Seregil closed his eyes, shivering. “It’s a good thing for us he didn’t. I wouldn’t want to go back to the Ebrados without him.”

  “No. You’re chilled.” Alec got the rest of Seregil’s wet things off him and got him under the covers, then found dry clothing for himself among the things they’d left on board.

  Seregil was dozing when Micum and the healer returned.

  “How is Rieser?” asked Alec as Konthus set to work looking Seregil over.

  “Not well, I’m afraid,” the young drysian replied. “The arrow struck under the left collarbone and went through to break his shoulder blade. It’s a painful wound, and will be a slow one to heal.”

  “Konthus had to cut out the arrowhead, but Rieser never made a sound,” Micum told them.

  The arrow in Seregil’s side had lodged between two ribs, breaking one but not penetrating to the lung. Seregil gritted his teeth as the drysian worked the arrowhead free and packed the wound with herbs and salved linen. When he was finished, he had Alec help Seregil onto his stomach and deftly sewed up the gash across his back with linen thread. He bandaged both wounds, then splinted the broken finger and said several healing spells over Seregil.

  “That’s all I can do for now,” he said, washing his hands in the basin and going to the door.

  “Thank you,” Seregil murmured, relaxing as the magic took hold.

  “Send one of your friends for me if you need help with the pain. Maker’s mercy on you.”

  “Rieser wouldn’t let the fellow magic him,” Micum said when he was gone. “Wouldn’t say why, but I suppose it was too Tír for his liking.”

  “No doubt.” Seregil pulled weakly at the collar still around his neck. “This off. Now.”

  Micum drew his knife and carefully slid it under the edge of the collar at the flanges. Holding the collar steady, he sawed through the lead rivet and pulled the collar open far enough to slip it from Seregil’s neck.

  “A free man at last!” Seregil said with a hoarse laugh.

  The metal had chafed a bit, Alec saw, leaving a band of reddened skin on Seregil’s neck. It made him think of Ilar, who’d worn a collar so long the skin under it was worn white. They’d left him there in Plenimar without a collar, or any slave marks, but his scars would surely give him away.

  You know what they’ll do to me!

  Alec knew. “Maybe we should have gone back for him,” he muttered aloud.

  “Ilar, you mean?” Seregil asked. “It would have been suicide. Why didn’t he stay with Ulan? Or ride out after us?” He closed his eyes again, but not before Alec caught a fleeting look of regret. “I thought he’d be safe with Ulan.”

  “Perhaps he still will be,” said Micum, but he sounded less than convinced.

  CHAPTER 32

  Curious Allies

  RIESER had left Nowen in charge. It should have been easy duty, watching Sebrahn and looking out for anyone traveling this way.

  The last of the Tír magic had worn off; Sebrahn was as pale as Hâzadriën, with the same silver-white hair, neatly cut and braided now. She’d shaken her head over the ignorance of the ya’shel, to feed him every day. He was a beautiful little thing, but for the lack of wings, and seemingly devoted to Hâzadriën, as the older tayan’gil was to him. The two were inseparable. It was not uncommon for tayan’gils to flock together, but this one called Sebrahn was almost childlike in his manner. He climbed into Hâzadriën’s lap whenever he sat down, and curled up next to him with his head in Hâzadriën’s lap at night, saying “Sleeping,” in his strange raspy voice. If anyone tried to make him leave the tayan’gil’s side, he said, very distinctly, “No.” It sent a shiver up Nowen’s back every time he spoke.

  Tayan’gils were—apart. Or they should be. Back home she seldom saw them, and when she did they were little more than a curiosity unless a healing was needed. The Hâzadriëlfaie valued them deeply for that ability, knowing the price. Every one of the creatures had been born of suffering and servitude, and no Hâzad liked being reminded of that. The fact that Sebrahn acted more like a real living being only made this more obvious.

  But she had other, more troubling concerns right now.

  “Did you see any of them?” she asked Rane and Sona, who’d just come back from a hunting expedition.

  “Yes, and there are more today.”

  Day by day, the answer was the same. Nowen had never had any bad experie
nce with the Retha’noi; they kept mostly to their peaks, and when they did descend to trade and barter, they were usually friendly and bothered no one. Turmay and Naba had been instrumental in their success so far, enlisting the aid of a local clan to fell those trees. But something had changed since Rieser left; Nowen was too experienced a tracker not to know when she was being tracked herself.

  Naba had remained with them after the capture, and so had those he’d summoned. Now others were appearing on the heights. The smoke from their cooking fires rose against the sky by day, and the light of watch fires sparkled along the ridges through the night. Day and night they could hear the distant sounds of oo’lus; many oo’lus.

  What could they possibly want? The Hâzad didn’t carry more than they absolutely needed, which left little worth stealing, except for the horses, and these southern Retha’noi didn’t seem to have any use for those.

  Turmay came and went between the two camps freely and kept assuring her that they were in no danger, so long as they stayed down here by the waterfall.

  “What do they want?” Nowen asked.

  “They distrust outsiders and they want us to be gone. That’s why they helped you, so that you would go away sooner.”

  “But they accept you.”

  “I am Retha’noi.”

  Turmay went to his southern brothers each night and played the oo’lu in the great circle while the witch women danced their magic around the fires. He made love to their women under the moon to put babies with northern blood into their bellies and shared his food and his healings with all who asked. Their two peoples might have been parted for more years than they could count, but the ways of hospitality still held strong.

  The Mother spoke to them when they played and danced, repeating what she had told Turmay of the small tayan’gil and Alec Two Lives, of life and death and the immutable gate between the two.

 
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