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


  The man shrugged. “I will do what I can.”

  Some of the Ebrados scrambled for their bows while Nowen and Sorengil chanced death to drag Rane and Relian to safety. They were nearly there when Relian was struck in the neck. Seregil and Micum ducked out and helped bring them in. Rieser quickly inspected Relian’s wound and shook his head. Blood was pulsing out around the shaft and he was wheezing bloody foam. Sebrahn was with him in an instant, but there was no water for him to use.

  Seregil pulled him away. “Leave him. There’s nothing you can do for him right now.”

  “I wish Alec was here with his bow,” said Micum, crouched beside Hâzadriën and Rieser, sword drawn.

  “So do I,” said Seregil.

  Taegil burst from the woods at their back and ran for cover. “They’re in the trees! I think they killed Kalien!”

  “How many?” Rieser demanded.

  “I don’t know. At least a dozen.” Taegil fell to his knees, gasping for breath. “We heard that awful noise, then suddenly they were there. We both ran but—”

  “You have a bow,” Rieser snapped. “Use it!”

  Seregil looked up at the darkening sky. “Alec won’t wait much longer.”

  It was only then that he realized that Sebrahn was gone.

  Looking around frantically, he saw that the rhekaro had left the shelter of the cart and was making for the pool with the bowl Hâzadriën had dropped. Sebrahn filled it, but as he turned to come back, an arrow struck him in the side. He staggered, but kept going. Another struck him in the leg and this time he fell.

  Seregil dashed out and grabbed him, pulling the rhekaro to safety. Ignoring his own wounds, Sebrahn immediately reached for the bowl and looked up at Seregil, the message plain. Seregil filled it from a fallen waterskin and helped him over to Relian. Sebrahn didn’t have to cut a finger; using the white blood from his own wounds, he made a dark flower and pressed it to the wound in the dying man’s neck.

  “It’s no use,” Seregil told him, but Sebrahn made another, and another. His wounds were still bleeding, and Seregil saw that the rhekaro was taking on a shrunken look; his already thin arms were noticeably smaller.

  He pulled Sebrahn away, and over to Rieser. “Sebrahn needs strong blood!”

  The Hâzad cut his finger and stuck it in Sebrahn’s mouth. The rhekaro latched on to his hand and sucked desperately.

  Then the sound of the oo’lus began again. Dropping Rieser’s hand, Sebrahn jumped to his feet and began to sing again.

  “It’s been too long,” Alec said, watching as the sun sank toward the peaks in front of them.

  “I don’t like it, either,” said Skywake. “We haven’t heard a damn thing. I say we go find them.”

  Alec hobbled Patch and took up his bow. “Come on.”

  “Wait, I hear a horseman,” said Skywake.

  A moment later Rhal burst from the trees, an arrow bobbing from his horse’s shoulder.

  “The camp’s under attack,” he shouted. “I was on my way back for you all and suddenly someone was shooting at me!”

  Just then they heard a distant droning.

  “What is that?” Skywake exclaimed.

  “Oo’lus. Lots of them,” Alec began, then another piercing, unmistakable sound joined it. “And that’s Sebrahn. Come on!”

  “Don’t run off alone,” Rhal called after him. “Your man will never forgive me if I let you get yourself killed.”

  “Then you better hurry up!” Alec called back, sword in his right hand and his bow in the left.

  Running in the lead, Alec was the first to see the body of a dark-haired man lying facedown in the road, two arrows in his back. The clothing wasn’t Seregil’s, but Alec still had to stop and roll him over, just to be certain. It was Kalien.

  “We’re deer in a meadow here,” he told the others as they caught up. “Get into the trees. Rhal, you take that side of the road, I’ll go left.”

  Five of the sailors followed Alec as he plunged through the shadowy wood. In a matter of minutes a small dark form leapt out at him with a long knife. Alec struck him down before he was in reach, and the one right behind him. There were more and suddenly he and his men were in the middle of a melee. From the shouts and ringing of steel nearby, Rhal had met with the same welcome.

  They dispatched the men with knives, only to find themselves targeted by unseen archers. One of the sailors—it was too dark under the trees to be certain which one—was struck in the arm, and another fell.

  “Keep going!” Alec shouted. They could hear more shouting from the direction of the waterfall, and now he could smell wood smoke.

  Illior must have been still pleased with him; Alec reached the edge of the clearing without losing anyone else. A few trees on the far edge of the clearing were in flames, making it easier to see in the gathering gloom.

  The droning started again, and Sebrahn’s answering song rose to mingle with it. Alec gritted his teeth against the sound, watching a violent wind whip up near the waterfall.

  Rieser and some of the Ebrados were just in front of him, hunkered down behind the overturned cart. A few others were in the woods, shooting at the enemy on the high ground above the falls. Micum and Seregil were in the act of chasing after Sebrahn, who stood in the open, singing.

  There were a lot of men up there, and some of them had oo’lus, but they had gone silent when Sebrahn began to sing. “We’re here!” Alec shouted to Seregil, then sheathed his bloody sword and raised his bow, aiming for the witches.

  He struck two of the five in quick succession before the others ducked from sight, then turned his attention to the armed men streaming down through the trees in their direction.

  “Over here!” Alec called over to the others as he took aim at the Retha’noi.

  “How many?” asked Micum.

  “Two score or more, but that’s what I see.”

  There were short arrows scattered everywhere, and the cart looked like a tailor’s pin pillow, but the archers had stopped. They were probably among those coming down after them.

  Then the remaining witches began to play again and Sebrahn answered them with a new, even more earsplitting note.

  Alec staggered toward him, then fell to his knees as the combined sound of Sebrahn and the horns threatened to overwhelm his senses.

  They are going to kill us all, thought Alec. His head felt like it was going to explode and his vision went red. The mingled sounds of the oo’lus and Sebrahn’s song were unbearable, and a sudden wind knocked him flat on his back, making it impossible to get to Sebrahn, who was exposed now, standing beside the cart, pale hair whipping wildly around his head.

  Just when he thought he would die or go mad, the air was suddenly filled with the sound of wings. Looking up, he saw owls—hundreds of them—some swirling overhead while others dove toward the Retha’noi.

  Sebrahn is calling them! His “owl dragons.” Illior’s sign. If only there were real dragons in this part of the world!

  But the huge flock descending on the men on the heights might equal a dragon; the oo’lu song faltered and stopped and there were cries of pain and dismay from the forest to their left, some dangerously close.

  Sebrahn stopped singing and fell to his hands and knees, his hair dull now, and dragging in the dirt. Alec crawled the short distance to him, aware that Seregil was shouting for him to get to cover. He grabbed up the rhekaro and staggered behind the cart with the others.

  Sebrahn clung to Alec, croaking his name. Here in the shadow of the cart, Alec couldn’t see Sebrahn well enough to be sure of any injuries, but he could feel how depleted that little body was. Cutting his finger on the edge of his sword, he fed him and was relieved when Sebrahn sucked eagerly.

  The owls were still diving and clawing at the Retha’noi, looking like avenging demons in the glare of the spreading forest fire. But that didn’t stop more armed men from bursting from the trees and falling on Seregil and the others. Entrusting Sebrahn to Hâzadriën, Alec waded into the fight.
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  The Retha’noi outnumbered them, but certainly couldn’t outfight them. They were all small like Turmay, and were armed with nothing but knives or short spears. Alec cut down four of them, and then lost count. It was horrible, like fighting children, and all the while the owls swooped and tore at their scalps and faces. He could see Seregil and Micum a few yards away, and they both wore similar expressions of dismay.

  But the Retha’noi kept coming.

  The sound of oo’lus behind him startled Alec. Glancing back over his shoulder, he saw Turmay there, with Naba, and another witch he didn’t know. They were all looking at him as they played.

  An icy hand gripped Alec’s heart and froze the blood in his veins. The sword fell from his numb hand and he staggered, vision going dim as Sebrahn began a song that Alec had heard only once before.

  Seregil saw Alec crumpled on the ground and Micum kneeling beside him, pressing a hand to Alec’s chest. Stanching a wound or feeling for a heartbeat? Just beyond, Turmay and Naba stood with another witch, but Sebrahn was there in front of them, singing.

  Dropping his bloody sword, Seregil ran to them and fell to his knees beside Alec, hardly noticing when both songs ceased. He took Alec’s face between his hands and felt blood seeping from the younger man’s ears. More ran like tears from beneath Alec’s closed eyelids.

  “Alec! Alec, open your eyes, talí!”

  After a long terrible moment, Alec’s eyelids fluttered.

  “Alec, can you hear me? Say something!” Seregil pleaded.

  “Stop—yelling—at me,” he mumbled.

  Micum laughed in relief, and so did Seregil, but there were tears on his cheeks.

  Alec reached up and brushed them away with one grimy, bloody thumb. “I’m all right.”

  “I told you no more dying, damn it!”

  “I didn’t, this time,” Alec gasped, then pushed himself up on one arm. “Sebrahn—Where’s Sebrahn?”

  Retha’noi and some of the Ebrados lay scattered like forgotten rag dolls all over the clearing and at the edge of the forest. Hâzadriën knelt in the midst of them, tending Morai. There were bodies floating in the pool below the waterfall and—

  And Sebrahn lay in a heap near the bodies of Turmay and Naba and some other witch Seregil hadn’t seen.

  Struggling to his feet, Alec staggered over to the rhekaro.

  The luster was gone from Sebrahn’s pale hair, and when Alec turned him over and gathered him in his arms, Seregil saw that the color of those open, unseeing eyes was as dull as old lead.

  Seregil drew his poniard and held it out. Alec drove the tip of his forefinger against the point, piercing it nearly to the bone, then put it between Sebrahn’s slack lips. The rhekaro’s whole small body was withered like a pumpkin vine after a frost.

  “Drink, Sebrahn,” Alec urged, squeezing droplets onto Sebrahn’s tongue. “Please drink.”

  “Can’t Hâzadriën do something, Rieser?” asked Seregil.

  Rieser shook his head sadly. “Tayan’gils can’t heal themselves or each other. Only—”

  “Hâzadriëlfaie blood,” Alec finished for him, pressing his thumb against his forefinger to make the blood come faster.

  Seregil put an arm around him, saying nothing.

  “Please don’t die, Sebrahn.”

  Seregil was about to pull him away when Sebrahn’s lips twitched around Alec’s finger and his dull eyes slowly closed. Alec stabbed his left forefinger and squeezed out fresh blood for him. Sebrahn was sucking weakly now; blood ran in a thin trickle from the corner of his mouth.

  Rieser knelt down beside him. “Thank Aura. I didn’t think it was possible.”

  “Maybe you should feed him, too,” said Alec. “Your blood is pure.”

  Rieser nodded and cut his finger, then fed Sebrahn as Alec held him.

  Alec leaned against Seregil, not taking his eyes from Rieser and Sebrahn. “He saved us all.”

  “Not all,” said Nowen, limping over to them, her sword arm bloody to the elbow.

  “How many of us are left?” asked Rieser.

  “Rane survived whatever those witches did with their cursed horns, but he’s weak. Taegil has an arrow through his thigh. Relian is weak but alive, thanks to Sebrahn, though he can’t talk. Allia and Morai are dead and Kalien is still missing.”

  “So many!” Rieser murmured grimly.

  “Sebrahn’s not strong enough to bring them back,” said Alec.

  “That’s just as well,” said Rieser. “It might be a temptation if he were.”

  Rhal came to join them, covered in blood and pressing a hand to a gash on his forearm.

  “How many men did you lose?” asked Seregil.

  “Not a man. There are some wounds, but nothing we need the rhekaro for. But we’d better get out of these woods. The fire’s spreading.”

  The entire clearing was bathed in the shifting red light now, and smoke was drifting over them in a grey pall. The surface of the pool below the waterfall reflected the color of blood; Seregil suspected that it wasn’t just a trick of the light. The wind was to the west, blowing away from the trail, but that could change in an instant.

  “Nowen, get the dead tied on their horses,” Rieser ordered.

  “Is there time for that?” asked Rhal, and got a cold look from the Ebrados captain.

  “Then my men will help,” Rhal told him.

  Rieser looked surprised, but nodded.

  Hâzadriën tended the wounded while the others dealt with the dead. Rieser saw to it that some of the bodies were doubled on one horse so that Alec could ride out with Sebrahn. Rane, Sorengil, and Taegil slumped in the saddle and had to be tied on, but Nowen and Rieser made a quick job of it.

  Meanwhile, Seregil and Micum went to where Turmay and the other witches had fallen. They lay just inside the trees, dead eyes staring up at the night sky, and still gripping the oo’lus. Seregil pulled Turmay’s away and ran his hands over it. “It isn’t cracked.”

  “He failed his destiny,” Micum said.

  Seregil gave him a tilted grin. “So much for fate. I think I’ll take these with us. Thero and Magyana will find them of interest.”

  They left the smoke and firelight behind, moving as quickly as Rhal’s men on foot could, their way lit now by the moon. They stopped only long enough to take up Kalien’s corpse, then hurried on to the edge of the forest.

  There was no question of taking the dead home, or burning the bodies without the proper resins and oil. Instead, Rieser and Nowen cut locks of hair for the families, placed the hunting masks each fallen comrade had worn in life over their face, and sewed them into their cloaks. Hâzadriën joined them as they carried the bodies just inside the forest and buried them side by side in the soft loam while the rest sat on the ground and wept. Seregil and the others had offered their help, but Rieser simply shook his head. When they were through, Sorengil and Nowen built tall cairns on top of each grave, then joined with the others in a keening song of loss.

  Seregil and the others watched from a respectful distance, then headed back to the night’s campsite.

  “Do your people do that, Lord Seregil?” asked Rhal.

  “Yes, but the songs are different. They’re guiding the khi to their next life.”

  “Khi? Is that a soul?”

  “Something like it, but not exactly.”

  “You believe there’s something after this life, then?”

  Seregil nodded. “I didn’t, most of my life, but an oracle showed me glimpses of my lives to come.”

  “Really? And what were they like?”

  Seregil gave him a wry smile. “I always have a weapon in my hand.”

  They set about making the evening meal. Alec had been silent, and he looked thoughtful as he tended the rabbits and grouse spitted over the fire.

  The moon was setting when Rieser and the remainder of his people returned to the camp.

  “Come and eat,” Seregil said.

  The wounded were healed enough to join them, and they all ate i
n silence out of respect for the dead.

  “I don’t think we’ll be able to go back the way we came,” Rieser said at last. “There will be more Retha’noi, and they don’t count us as friends.”

  “There are most likely plenty more of them back in the hills,” said Micum. “I’ve been thinking. It would make your journey home a good deal shorter if you sailed with us. It’s no time at all to cross to Nanta from here, and you can make your way back up the river from there. What do you say, Rhal?”

  The captain looked over what was left of the Ebrados. “As long as they leave Lord Alec alone, I’ve no reason to deny them. What say you, Lord Seregil?”

  “I think it’s a good idea.”

  Rhal offered his hand to Rieser. “Will you clasp hands on it, sir?”

  Rieser took it with a weary nod. “You have my thanks.”

  Seregil exchanged a secret grin with Micum. Rieser’s opinion of Tírfaie seemed to have softened just a bit.

  CHAPTER 35

  Farewell

  THE VOYAGE to Nanta took three days—three all-too-short days for Alec. He spent most of his time tending Sebrahn, and had him in the bed with them every night. Seregil made no complaint, but let him know with a silent nod that first night that he understood. They’d soon be saying farewell.

  Alec grieved in silence; his decision back on the island seemed harder now that he was so close to losing the little rhekaro. Sebrahn wasn’t strong enough to walk yet, and Seregil kept the Hâzad away.

  They reached Nanta in the morning, and the time to part forever came at last. Alec said his good-byes to Sebrahn in the privacy of their cabin, with only Seregil there to see.

  Seated on the bed with the rhekaro on his lap, he stroked that pale hair for the last time and whispered, “This time it’s you leaving me.”

  Sebrahn touched Alec’s cheek. “Leeeeving.”

  “That’s right. But you’ll be with Hâzadriën, and other rhekaros. You’re happy with him, aren’t you?”

  “Haaaaa-zen.”

  “I’m sorry.” Alec was fighting back tears now. “I wish—I wish things were different but—I want you to be safe and—” Overcome, he hugged Sebrahn close, wondering what Rieser would do if he refused to give him up.

 
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