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


  Retha’noi had come from many miles away, answering the oo’lus’ messages, and they came for their own reasons, as well. There were at nearly forty men now, and five of them witch men. They met around the fire and talked of the small tayan’gil and the man with two lives. Turmay listened and said little, but he taught them the song the Mother had given him.

  Two days out from Plenimar there was no sign of pursuit, but Alec and Micum still walked the deck, looking back over the Lady’s wake. Ulan í Sathil could probably guess where they were headed, if he chose to pursue them. But the sea was empty again today.

  Seregil was healing quickly enough to be restless, and they found him in Rieser’s cabin, chatting with Konthus while the drysian tended to the Hâzad’s wound. Rieser appeared to be tolerating both of them with an effort.

  “I don’t understand it,” Konthus was saying. “This is infected, in spite of all my efforts. It must be from the shattered bone, or some bit of arrowhead left in the wound.”

  “I’ve suffered worse,” Rieser told him. “Just do whatever you can, healer, and leave me in peace.”

  The drysian frowned but went about draining a little pus from the wound and packing it with fresh herbs and honey salve. “I’ll give the cook the makings of a posset for the pain. That’s all I can do for you, friend. And now for you, Lord Seregil.”

  After a quick look at the splinted finger and Seregil’s back, he set about unwrapping the bandages from Seregil’s ribs and probed the wound hard enough to make Seregil hiss in pain. “This is healing well.”

  “I guess I just heal more quickly,” Seregil gasped.

  “You can thank the Maker for that. If the arrow had gone any deeper, you’d not be sitting here now.” He wrapped fresh bandages tightly around Seregil’s ribs to keep the bones stable, then placed his hands on Seregil’s head and spoke a spell.

  “Thank you, brother,” Seregil said. “That’s the best I’ve felt in days.”

  “I only wish I could do as much for your friend.”

  As soon as the drysian was gone, Rieser opened his eyes and rasped, “I want to see the books.”

  Alec went to his cabin and returned with them. He kept them wrapped in a cloak during the day, and spread out on the cabin floor at night to dry them. The pages were rippled and curling at the edges, and the writing in the halves of the red journal was smeared in places beyond recognition. The other two, the ones in code, were otherwise undamaged.

  “You were right about not throwing them in the sea,” Micum remarked, trying to smooth the pages of the brown book. “Who knows whose hands they might have washed up into.”

  “I haven’t thanked you for saving these, and us, Rieser,” Seregil told him. “But you have my gratitude. I’m in your debt.”

  “And me,” said Alec.

  “And I, and my family,” added Micum with a half bow. “You’ll always be welcome at my door.”

  Rieser looked up at him, face betraying little. “I’m told it was you who pulled me from the water after I was struck.”

  “That’s right.”

  “Then we are even and there is no debt on either side.”

  Micum shook his head, grinning. “Well, you’re welcome at my door anyway.”

  After a few days, Seregil’s side still hurt badly enough by nightfall to keep him from lying down flat to sleep, but Rieser was in worse shape. His broken shoulder blade was a constant source of pain, and the arrow wound was still infected, the skin around it a swollen, angry red. Rhal’s healer dressed their wounds several times a day and used his healing spells and potions, but they only slowed the infection spreading through Rieser’s shoulder without curing it. The fever from it kept him in his bunk for the duration of the voyage. The others looked in on him through the day, though he didn’t welcome their attentions.

  “You’ve caught yourself a strange one there,” Captain Rhal observed over supper one night. “Not a real friendly sort of fellow.”

  “Not really,” Seregil agreed with a wry grin. “He’s an interesting man, though, and a good fighter.”

  “What’s going to happen when you get him back to his people?”

  “We’ll see, won’t we? I’m prepared for a less than warm welcome, especially if Rieser dies on us before we get there.”

  “Sounds like you could use some help,” said Rhal.

  Seregil raised an eyebrow. “I was thinking the same thing. Could you spare me ten men? I’ll do my best to get them back to you in one piece.”

  “Will ten be enough?”

  “I think so. It will give us some protection without looking like we’re declaring war. If it does take a bad turn, your crew are seasoned fighters.”

  “So are the Ebrados,” said Alec.

  “We don’t know that,” Seregil pointed out. “They used magic and trickery on us, not force.”

  Rhal scratched under his beard and thought a moment. “Well, I guess I’ll come along with you. We’ve had some slack months and I don’t want to get out of practice. Nettles, you’ll be in command while I’m gone. Skywake, go ask for volunteers. And Dani isn’t to be one of them.”

  “I’m going to enjoy having the odds more in our favor for a change,” Alec said with a dangerous grin.

  “Do they have any wizards we should watch out for?” asked Rhal.

  “Rieser is the only one I know of, and he doesn’t seem to have much power beyond simple transformations,” said Seregil. “But there’s a witch called Turmay who uses a long horn for his magic. If we can get that away from him, he may not be able to do any harm.”

  “Can he kill with it?”

  “We don’t know,” Micum replied. “But he can put you to sleep better than a nursemaid’s song, and that could be just as bad in the long run.”

  CHAPTER 33

  Hard Choices

  RHAL STOPPED at the same island to change sails. From here it was less than a week back to the waterfall encampment.

  Alec hadn’t slept much better than Seregil for the past few nights. In the dark, the thoughts that had been lurking at the edges of his mind since they’d burgled Yhakobin’s workshop could not be kept at bay.

  When they dropped anchor in the little cove, Alec turned to Seregil suddenly and said, “Are you up to a walk?”

  “Yes.”

  “Let’s go ashore. Just you and me, this time.”

  Alec was grateful that Seregil asked no questions as he rowed him ashore in one of the boats and put in at the same beach where the four of them had skipped stones together.

  Alec was in no mood for that today. Taking the lead, he walked up the short beach and over the ledges beyond. Great flocks of grey-backed gulls rose with raucous screams of protest and circled stubbornly. Thick forest lay beyond, and as they made their way along a deer path that wended between the tall pines and oaks they found themselves stepping around stick rings of last year’s gull nests, some still holding shards of speckled brown eggs in a bed of matted white down.

  It wasn’t curiosity or the pleasure of being off the ship that drove Alec deeper and deeper into the woods. The words he wanted to say were burning his heart, and once he began, there would be no taking them back. So he walked on, and Seregil followed in silence.

  Birds chirped and sang overhead, and somewhere nearby an osprey was defending its territory with harsh cries. In the distance the gulls croaked and argued as they returned to their nests and ledges.

  Alec had to remind himself to go slowly. Seregil didn’t complain, but Alec caught him holding his side. Alec thought he’d pushed him too far when Seregil paused at the foot of an ancient oak and bent over, but it was only to pick something up. It was a long barred owl feather. He twirled it between his fingers, then presented it to Alec. “You have something on your mind, talí.”

  Alec took the feather and stared down at it. “I’ve been thinking about Sebrahn.”

  “I thought you might be.”

  This was more difficult than he’d feared. He sat down on a log and took
a deep breath, owl feather clutched, forgotten, in one hand. His eyes stung and his throat felt tight as he said, “I think—I think you were right. We should let Rieser take him back to Ravensfell. He’ll be safe there, and there are others like him and—” He fought back tears as Seregil sat down and put an arm around him. “If we keep him, he’ll always be in danger. We’ll always be looking over our shoulder for someone trying to take him.”

  “You’re right, talí. I know you think I’ve been wanting to get rid of him—Oh hell, you know I have, but when the time comes, it’s not going to be easy for me, either, if you can believe that. Whatever else he is, he’s a part of you, and I owe him everything I have in the world for saving you. But it will be safer for him.”

  Alec took a shuddering breath as he struggled with what he had to say next. “Since we left him? I’ve missed him, but—well, we couldn’t have done all we did with him there, could we?”

  “No, talí.”

  “And that’s what we’re meant to do. When I met you and you brought me into your world, that’s where I wanted to be. I still do.”

  “I’m glad.” The emotion behind the words spoke volumes.

  “And once it’s over and we’re back in Rhíminee, I want to stay there. I want the Rhíminee Cat to hunt again, and visit your whores in the Street of Lights and play the nobles in Wheel Street and—”

  “We will, talí,” Seregil assured him, then laughed softly. “And I promise you, I’ll never complain of boredom again!”

  Alec managed a weak smile. “I doubt that.”

  They sat in silence for a little while with the sunlight streaming down through the branches all around them, listening to the sound of the birds and the breeze and the distant sigh of the ocean. Finally Alec stood up and said resolutely, “I’ll tell Rieser when we get back to the ship.”

  Seregil gave him a sad smile. “I’m glad you came to it on your own, Alec. It had to be your decision.”

  Alec held up the bent feather. “Should we burn it?”

  Seregil took it and tucked it behind Alec’s left ear, then touched the dragon bite there. “No, let’s save it. A gift from the Lightbearer. I think Illior must be pleased enough with you for now.”

  Alec’s heart felt a little lighter, now that he’d voiced his decision. “I’m going to miss him,” he said as they started back for the ship.

  “I will, too. But who knows? Maybe he was meant to be with the Hâzad all along.”

  Alec mustered a shaky smile. “Are you talking fate again?”

  “If I am, we’ll never know what else might have happened. And I know what this means for you; I don’t think the Hâzad are going to change their attitude toward uninvited guests in their valley. It’s too bad, really, to come so close but not get to meet any of your mother’s people.”

  “Why would I want to? I saw enough of them at Sarikali.”

  “You saw the ones who killed her. You don’t know that they’re all like that.”

  “They’re Hâzad. They wouldn’t welcome a half-breed like me.”

  “It doesn’t matter. You’re Bôkthersan now, and well loved there.”

  And I’ll get a warmer welcome, next time, if I don’t bring a threat with me, Alec thought. But right now that wasn’t much comfort.

  Aboard the ship again, Alec went straight to Rieser’s cabin and found him awake.

  “I have something to tell you,” he said, standing just inside the door.

  Rieser’s eyes were dull with pain, but he lifted his head and beckoned him closer. “What is it?”

  “I’ll give you Sebrahn when we get back.”

  “Of course. But it’s better that we aren’t forced to take him from you, Alec Two Lives.”

  “But you would have, if I didn’t give him up?”

  Rieser closed his eyes. “What choice do I have? Can you get me some water, please?”

  Alec filled the cup from a waterskin hanging on the wall and helped him drink. “I don’t want to fight you, Rieser, but I’m not going to go with you.”

  “You could be with Sebrahn.”

  “Until someone sticks a knife in my back.”

  “I would present you to our khirnari. She’s a wise woman, and would see your worth, as I have come to. You and your companions could have killed me at any time, or abandoned me after I was wounded. You still could, but I don’t think you will. You have great atui, all of you.”

  Alec’s eyes widened at the unexpected compliment. “Even Micum?”

  Rieser actually managed a strained smile. “Even Micum. If there were more Tír like him …”

  “And me? I’m half Tír. I was raised among them. There are more like us, whether you want to believe that or not.”

  “But too many of the bad ones. Would you wish on any of my people what happened to you?”

  “Of course not.”

  “Then believe me when I tell you that things are best left as they are. So far we have held our valley. If the Tír move north again, though? I think this time it will be war. Our valley is too precious to us.”

  Alec thought of the clan house at Bôkthersa, of the lake and the village and the people who lived there in peace and prosperity. “If it comes to that, you should fight. But then people will know for certain where you are.”

  “We’ve grown in number since those early days. We could take your town of Wolde with ease.”

  “I hope it never comes to that.”

  “So do I.”

  “But I’m still not going back with you.”

  Rieser sighed and would say nothing more.

  As soon as the sails were changed, Rhal had the sailors hoist all canvas and pounded on for Skala. Rhal either shared their concern over Rieser or was anxious to have him off his ship; it was bad luck for a sick man to die on board. In the meantime Rhal’s shore party made their preparations, grinding swords and cutlasses to a razor edge and checking the buckles of their cuirasses and chain. Chain mail shirts were found for Seregil, Alec, and Micum, as well. This time they were prepared to meet the Ebrados.

  Nowen had stopped sending scouts into the hills behind the waterfall. Turmay had made it clear that it was an intrusion into Retha’noi land and that the number of people up there had increased, though he could or would not say how many, only that it was more than the number of Ebrados. All he would say was for them to stay out of the hills.

  Owls hunted and hooted in the darkness close by. There were so many here, for some reason. One little one had come down and perched on Sebrahn’s shoulder the other night. It had even let him stroke its back and wings. When it flew away, he followed it with his eyes, then pointed after it and said “aldrakin,” whatever that meant. Some Tír word probably.

  She looked around the fire that night, listening to the owls hunt and counting her people. Rane and Sona were on watch at the edge of the forest; the Retha’noi hadn’t circled around there—yet. With Thiren dead and Rieser gone, that left only eight of them: Taegil, Morai, Relian, Sorengil, Kalien, Allia, and Hâzadriën, who did not fight.

  And there was Sebrahn. He’d used his song magic against them once; would he do the same to the Retha’noi? She doubted it, after the conversation she’d had with him that afternoon.

  Kneeling before him, she’d taken his hands and he did not resist. He just stared up at her.

  “Will you sing for us, if we need you?”

  “Hurt?” he replied with no hint of expression.

  “Hurt those who hurt us.”

  “Baaaaad.”

  “Yes, they are bad. Will you help us?”

  “Help. No. Bad. Ahek no bad.”

  Whatever that meant, it didn’t sound like a yes.

  She scanned the heights, counting fires. There were six visible, and she could see dark figures crossing the firelight.

  How many of you are there? How are we supposed to get back through the mountains when the time comes?

  And then there was Turmay, who came and went between the two camps, and seemed trouble
d. But he still would not speak of what was going on. Nowen began to think of killing him in his sleep. She wished Rieser were here to make such a decision. The Ebrados did not take killing lightly.

  Manab, an elder of Sky village, ran a hand down the length of his oo’lu. “I say we kill them all now.”

  “No, we must wait until the ya’shel returns,” Naba replied. “And this book Turmay speaks of.”

  “What do we care for books?” Orab, chieftain of the Blue Water Valley village, scoffed.

  “They are powerful things, books. So Turmay says,” Naba told him. “This one tells how to make the abomination, and the ya’shel with two lives carries the blood of abomination in his veins. Turmay says to let the Retha’noi kill the ya’shel. He says that the tayan’gil can kill, but only a few. Let it kill them. Then we will strike.”

  “Turmay does not want any killing,” the witch woman, Lhahana, reminded them. “They may be outsiders, but they do not wish to stay, any more than we want them to. Why spill blood on our soil unnecessarily? Do you want their ghosts to take this sacred place? Bad enough that the lowlanders use our road. They do not come that often and they do not stay. Ghosts will.”

  Naba nodded. “Better to see what the Hâzad people will do. Turmay says they want the two lives dead, too. Let them take the wrath of his ghost.”

  And so the talk went on, into the night.

  CHAPTER 34

  Mistrust

  BY THE TIME the Green Lady made anchor at Beggar’s Bridge, the flesh around Rieser’s wound had turned dangerously dark and taken on a sickly sweet odor. Alec and Seregil sat with him while the drysian changed his dressings one last time before they went ashore.

  Konthus shook his head. “You should be well healed by now, with all the broths and magic I’ve poured into you.”

  “You did the best you could, and I am thankful,” Rieser replied, his cheeks pale except for the red fever patches. “At least I will live long enough to return to my people.”

 
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