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


  Konthus made a blessing over him and took his leave.

  “I hope you do,” murmured Seregil, wrinkling his nose at the foul odor of the wound.

  “Just get me back to Hâzadriën.”

  “Or Sebrahn,” said Alec.

  “No, Hâzadriën!” Rieser gasped, and there was rare alarm in his voice.

  “Why are you so scared of Sebrahn?”

  Rieser stared up at the cabin ceiling for a moment before answering. “Because he’s not a true tayan’gil. Please, honor my request. It could be my last.”

  “Suit yourself,” Alec said.

  They reached Ero Harbor in the morning, and readied to leave. The longboats were packed, and Rhal and his men were armed and ready. They took their leave on deck, shaking hands with Nettles.

  “I’ll expect the ship to be still afloat when I get back,” Rhal said with a grin as he clapped the mate on the shoulder. “And provisioned. It’s hunting season again.”

  “And I’ll expect you to come back safe and sound, Captain.”

  I hope so, too, thought Seregil as he joined Alec and Micum in the longboat and helped lift Rieser onto a pallet spread in the bottom. He wasn’t sure giving up Sebrahn would be enough to satisfy the Ebrados, and Rieser had refused to say one way or the other.

  There was nothing Rieser could do about the sailors who were coming along. He hoped Turmay could handle that many people at once, if it came to a fight.

  He held on in silent misery until they were rowed in, but collapsed as soon as they were ashore. He awoke in a clean bed in a sunny room with no idea how he’d gotten there. His shoulder burned like fire, and stank so bad it was making him even sicker.

  “I think it’s your Hâzad blood,” said Seregil, the only other occupant of the room at the moment. He was sprawled in an armchair beside him, bare feet propped on the edge of the mattress.

  “I think you may be right,” he croaked. “These Tírfaie healers aren’t much good to me. Are there any ’faie?” He was mortified to show such weakness in front of his companions, especially the Tír. It put him at their mercy, and that was something he’d never experienced before.

  “They heal me well enough,” Seregil told him. “But I’m not of your blood. Do you have healers among your people, or do you just depend on your tayan’gils?”

  “Both. What the healers can’t cure, the tayan’gils can.”

  “That must make you a very long-lived people.”

  “No more than you, I expect. We just don’t die young as often.”

  The Bôkthersan was quiet for a moment. “It’s a shame, how they have to be made. In their way, the tayan’gils are a real gift.”

  “Our gift and our curse. It cut us off from your people long ago.” He paused. “My ancestors were Bôkthersans.” Why am I telling him at all? he wondered, even as he said it.

  “So you said, soon after we met.”

  Did I? My mind is wandering. It must be the fever talking. It was far better to tell himself that than admit that he’d come to admire Seregil and his friends—even Micum Cavish. It was hard not to, when you’d fought for your very lives together.

  He was beginning to doubt he’d live long enough to die among his own people.

  Alec left Seregil to tend Rieser at the inn they’d taken for the night and went to the Sea Horse with Micum to see about the horses they’d boarded there. The stable hand had kept his word, or the fee they’d paid had been high enough. Either way, Patch and the others were sound and glossier than they’d been when they left. Seregil had offered to buy Rhal’s men horses, but apart from their captain, none of them were horsemen.

  Patch was glad to see Alec, and gave his belt a good nip before she nuzzled the apple from his pocket.

  “There’s a small cart out in back,” Micum told him. “I don’t think Rieser will make it any other way—What are you frowning about?”

  “When we first met him, he’d have killed you without a second thought. I never expected to see you two friends.”

  “I wouldn’t call us friends, exactly. But he’s a brave man and a good fighter. I was glad to have him at my back when things got tight back at the cottage. What that will count for once we get him back to his people, though? I’m not going to assume too much.”

  “Did Seregil tell you what I decided about Sebrahn?”

  “No, but judging by that long face, you’ve decided to give him up.”

  “Yes. So there’s just the matter of whether they’ll let me go. Rieser won’t give me a straight answer about that, but maybe it’s not completely up to him. It’s a good thing Rhal and the others are coming with us.”

  Micum rubbed a hand over his short beard. “I’ve been wondering that myself. But I figure we’ll have better luck if we show up with their leader alive.”

  Seregil had said the same.

  The cart was cheaply got. Seregil put Star between the traces and saddled Cynril. The long rest aboard the Lady and the drysian’s good care had him nearly mended, and he was able to ride without much discomfort.

  They made Rieser as comfortable as they could with their packs and bedrolls, but every bump and jolt took its toll. Micum drove the cart and Alec and Seregil rode beside it, watchful for trouble. With Rhal and his men strung out behind them on foot, they made a respectable-looking force.

  Rieser lay very still, his sunken eyes closed most of the time. As the day wore on he spoke less and less, and the fever spots in his pale cheeks spread in angry patches.

  They made camp that night beside a stream, but Rieser wouldn’t drink, not even the tinctures Konthus had sent with them to ease his pain. Seregil was sitting in the wagon with him late that night when the man woke with a start and grabbed his arm.

  “Promise me—” he whispered through cracked lips.

  “What?” asked Seregil, leaning down to hear.

  “If I die—I had a dream. Don’t let your tayan’gil bring me back if I die.”

  Seregil didn’t bother arguing with him. There was a good chance the man wouldn’t see another sunrise. “Why not?” he asked, curious.

  “It’s not—not meant to be that way. It’s wrong.”

  “But why wouldn’t you want to live if you could? Alec is no different than he was before.”

  Rieser stared up at him with fever bright eyes and rasped, “Honor this request. That’s all I ask of you.”

  Seregil touched the man’s hot hand. “You have my word, Rieser í Stellen.”

  He wasn’t sure if Rieser heard him or not. Seregil sat with him for some time, pondering Rieser’s words. He’d never questioned whether it was right or wrong to bring Alec back from Bilairy’s gate. All he cared about was that Alec was still with him.

  And let’s not wonder if a tayan’gil’s magic wears off, like Thero’s did on Sebrahn.

  Was there something more than simple superstition behind Rieser’s request? He wondered if Rieser would tell him his dream. Of course, if the man died tonight, then he’d never know.

  But Rieser did live through the night, though he remained unconscious as they set out for the Ebrados camp, rousing just often enough to take water to keep life in his body.

  They approached the forest’s edge late that afternoon and spotted masked riders. Instead of coming to greet them, however, they turned and disappeared up the trail to the waterfall.

  Micum reined Star to a halt. “I guess they can count at a distance.”

  “Or they have a special welcome for us,” Seregil said with a frown.

  “We should ride ahead and explain,” said Alec.

  “Not you, Alec. Rhal, will you come with me?”

  The captain drew his sword with a grin. “I’d be glad to.”

  “You’d better have Rieser with you,” Micum advised.

  “True. All right, you come with us. Alec, you and the rest stay well back from the trees for now. One of us will come back for you, or yell if we’re in trouble.”

  Alec took an arrow from his quiver and set it to the s
tring, resting the bow across the saddlebow. “We’ll be ready, but I’ll only wait an hour. It will be almost dark by then.”

  “Good. See you soon!” Seregil took the lead ahead of the wagon, with Rhal in the rear.

  “I don’t see any sign of archers,” Micum said in a low voice, scanning the forest on either side as they entered the trees.

  “It’s the ones I don’t see that I worry about.”

  No one challenged them until they reached the clearing at the waterfall.

  Nowen and Sorengil came to meet them with swords drawn. Behind them Rane, Relian, Morai, and Allia had bows at the ready, and Turmay stood by the fire, oo’lu in hand. The other four were missing. Seregil wondered how many other bows were aimed in his direction. There was an air of tension here that seemed out of proportion with the situation.

  “Who are those men you brought with you, and where is Captain Rieser?” Nowen demanded.

  “Those men are our bodyguard,” Seregil replied. “We left them behind as a show of good faith, but I’d be happy to go and get them. As for Rieser, he’s here in the wagon and needs your healer badly.”

  The archers he could see lowered their bows and followed Nowen to the side of the cart.

  “Did they do this to you, Captain?” she asked, shocked.

  “He’s beyond hearing you,” Seregil told her. “And if we had, we wouldn’t be bringing him back to you, would we?”

  Hâzadriën and Sebrahn climbed into the cart while the youngster named Rane fetched a bowl of water and a knife.

  Seregil and Rhal dismounted and watched with the others as Hâzadriën drew his knife and slit his finger. He made half a dozen yellow lotus flowers and arranged them in a ring on Rieser’s shoulder. Each one melted away in turn, and their sweet scent mixed with the rank odor of pus and proud flesh.

  “By the Old Sailor!” Rhal exclaimed softly as he watched.

  “But it’s not enough,” said Nowen.

  Sebrahn reached for the knife, but before he could make his dark flowers, Seregil climbed in to stop him.

  “No,” he said firmly, holding Sebrahn by the wrist.

  “What’s this?” asked Nowen.

  “Rieser told me he didn’t want any of Sebrahn’s healing. I gave my word. Let your tayan’gil go on.”

  Nowen motioned for Hâzadriën to continue. At last the flowers began to take effect. The infection began to fade from the flesh, and the wound opened and oozed bloody yellow pus.

  “You’re bringing those men here?” Nowen asked, still suspicious. “If you come in peace, then why do you need them?”

  “They are my men,” Rhal told her. “We’re just here to ensure the safety of our friends. We mean you no harm.”

  “Is Alec with them?”

  “Yes.”

  “Good. Go get your people and bring him with you.”

  Rhal exchanged a quick, questioning look with Seregil.

  “It’s time you went back.” The sun was nearly touching the tops of the peak now, and long shadows were stretching across the clearing. Rhal mounted Windrunner and galloped off down the track.

  A few moments later Rieser came to with a sudden gasp and stared up at Sebrahn crouched beside him with a mix of awe and horror. “Nowen! Was I—Was I dead?”

  “No, but as good as,” Seregil told him. “And don’t worry. It was your tayan’gil who healed you. How do you feel?”

  Rieser flexed his shoulder. More pus streamed from the wound. Rane handed him a cloth and Rieser pressed it to the wound with a grimace of disgust. “Better than I was, except for this mess.”

  Nowen felt his forehead. “The fever’s gone down a bit.”

  Rieser smiled at Hâzadriën—the most genuine smile Seregil had ever seen on the man. “Thank you, old friend.”

  Hâzadriën just looked at him and twitched his shoulders slightly. Seregil could see the outline of the wings press out against the back of the rhekaro’s tunic and wondered what kind of garment he normally wore.

  “The small tayan’gil has great power,” Turmay replied, “but Seregil would not let the little one touch you. Why not, if it can heal, too?”

  “I prefer the tayan’gil who is my friend,” Rieser told him. “Now let’s see if I can hold myself up.”

  He climbed unsteadily from the back of the cart, then gripped it to stay on his feet.

  “Good to have you back, Captain,” Nowen said, helping him over to a log seat by the fire. It was clear he was in no condition to fight.

  “How are things here?”

  “Not good. Some Retha’noi are massing on the heights. I don’t know how many, but more than we have, I’d say. They don’t want us here and we won’t get through without a fight. Kalien and the rest are on guard duty in the woods. That man Rhal has gone back for his men, and Alec. I hope I did right, letting him go?”

  “You did. They only came to make certain of their friends’ safety, which I have sworn to.”

  “Did you find the book?”

  “We did, thanks to Seregil and Alec. Seregil, show them.”

  Seregil pulled his share of the halved, salt-warped volumes from his pack.

  “You have already tried to destroy them,” Turmay said with evident approval.

  “Not quite. We’re splitting them,” Seregil replied. “No one will have a complete book. We take half and the Ebrados take half and they’ll never come together again.”

  “No, they must be burned!”

  “They won’t burn, thanks to the alchemist’s magic. It’s better this way,” Seregil explained.

  “Then cast them into some deep, dark place!”

  “That’s for our khirnari to say, Turmay. You know that,” Rieser said.

  “But the small tayan’gil? You will destroy it?” asked Turmay.

  “No! That was never our intent. You know we honor tayan’gils.”

  “This is not like the others. You know what it can do. It’s already killed one of your people.”

  “We’re taking him back with us, to protect him, like the books,” Rieser said firmly. “You’ve guided us well so far, but you have no say in this.” He gestured at the heights where watch fires were burning. “What is the meaning of all this?”

  “They don’t like outsiders,” Turmay replied, but Seregil caught the hint of untruth in his words, and the way he glanced around at the surrounding forest as he spoke.

  “You’ve agreed to give up Sebrahn?” Nowen asked Seregil, evidently not noticing.

  “It was Alec’s decision,” said Seregil. “It won’t be easy for him, when the time comes, but Sebrahn will be yours.”

  “I see.” Turmay was frowning now.

  “There’s one more thing, though,” Seregil said, turning to Rieser. “You have the tayan’gil and the books, or parts of them anyway. In return, I need your word, on your honor, that Alec will be free to go.”

  Rieser hesitated, then nodded. “You have my word.”

  “Those were not our orders!” Nowen said.

  “I am taking responsibility for that. I’d never have found the books without them. And they saved my life twice over. No, Alec will go his way in peace, and we will not hunt him again.”

  “What will you tell the khirnari?”

  “Just what I have told you. It’s a debt of honor and I take full responsibility. I have seen what these men are capable of. Alec will not be caught and used again.”

  Seregil looked around at the others, watching the different emotions play out there: doubt, anger, acceptance.

  Meanwhile, Hâzadriën had made a few more flowers for Rieser’s shoulder. Rieser waited until he was finished, then reached out and stroked Sebrahn’s hair. “And this little one will be treated with honor and kindness.”

  “He’s unnatural,” said Turmay.

  “Aura’s white road runs in his veins, however mixed. He’s not an abomination.”

  “That’s for the khirnari to decide,” Sorengil warned.

  “No, it has been decided!” cried a voice
above them.

  The witch Naba stood above the waterfall with several other Retha’noi men, all with oo’lus poised to play. Behind him Retha’noi archers were taking aim, and two other witch men were there with their horns.

  “This can’t be good,” muttered Micum.

  “If any of you move, the archers will find you,” Turmay warned. “Rieser í Stellen, you were sent to find this tayan’gil, and to destroy the ya’shel. I was sent to destroy both, and the Mother has given me the means and brought me to my brothers of the south.”

  “This is treachery!”

  “Please, Rieser, you must listen to me,” Turmay pleaded. “I have no desire to see Hâzad blood spilled.”

  “Then you have chosen the wrong friends!” Rieser growled.

  At that moment the witches on the heights began to play. First Rane, and then Relian slumped to the ground, dead or unconscious; it was impossible to tell.

  Micum fell to his knees. Seregil could feel the effects creeping over him as he knelt in front of Sebrahn and shouted, “Sing, damn it! Sing!”

  And Sebrahn did.

  Seregil carefully refrained from touching Sebrahn, but he still felt the rush of power strike through him, banishing the effects of the horns. A swirling wind blew up from nowhere at the center of the clearing, scattering gear and blowing the fire to pieces. Neither the Ebrados nor the Retha’noi fell, and Seregil guessed that the wind must be Sebrahn’s magic colliding with that of the hill folk. He’d never seen anything like it, but the Retha’noi were still on their feet. Ducking a flying branch, he crawled over to Micum and felt for a pulse. He was alive, and woke when Seregil shook him.

  The Retha’noi fell silent first, then Sebrahn. Seregil heard shouting on the heights, and a sudden scream from the trees behind them.

  “They’re flanking us,” said Nowen.

  “Aura’s Light, that sounded like Kalien!” Morai exclaimed even as she took aim and let fly.

  Nowen and several of the others who were still on their feet pushed the cart onto its side to shield them as the Retha’noi shouted what were probably war cries—he hoped to hell they weren’t some new magic—and the Retha’noi archers shot back. Arrows thudded into the bottom of the cart and embedded themselves in the trees behind them.

  “Will you be able to fight, if it comes to that?” Seregil asked Rieser.

 
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