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


  “Does it still hurt where Sebrahn healed you?” asked Micum.

  “A bit. His flowers work wonders, but it’s not an instant cure.”

  Micum was quiet for a moment, looking pensively at Sebrahn. “Do you think he could do something for this game leg of mine?”

  “Probably,” said Alec. Someone had left a cup of water on the righted night table. He handed it to Sebrahn. “Show him the scars, Micum.”

  Micum stripped down his leather trousers, showing him the ropy mass of scar tissue the dyrmagnos had made of the back of his thigh and calf.

  “Go help him, Sebrahn,” Alec coaxed. “Can you heal his leg?”

  Sebrahn slipped from the bed and squeezed blood from his cut finger into the cup. It took a lot of flowers.

  “I wonder why he didn’t try to heal him sooner?” said Seregil.

  “I don’t think he notices old wounds,” Alec replied, holding out his left palm, the one with the round shiny scar in the middle. “He’s never paid any attention to this. That first girl he healed had an infected foot, and you were covered in blood tonight. I don’t know—maybe he knows by smell. Is it working, Micum?”

  Sebrahn sat back. Micum flexed his leg, then stood up. “By the Flame, sprout, that’s a damn sight better!” The scars remained, but it was clear that Micum had more use of that leg than he had before. He picked Sebrahn up and kissed him on the nose, then put him back in bed with Alec. “Well, I’m past sleeping tonight. If you two don’t mind, I’d like to sit here for a while.”

  “You’ll get no argument from me,” Seregil said with a yawn. “I’ve had enough excitement for one night.”

  The following day Seregil and Micum went out with Riagil’s men to continue the search along the waterfront. Just after midday they found an abandoned longboat at the far end of the beach to the west of town. It was of Skalan make. Leaving the Gedre men to make inquiries in the area, Seregil and Micum walked back to the clan house, sunk in thought and frustration.

  “Well, what do you think?” Micum asked as they neared the house.

  “The boat could have drifted off from any Skalan warship or trader that’s dropped anchor here. Or it could be like the clothing—something to throw us off.”

  “I still think the assassins are from Plenimar.”

  “So do I, but how did they get here? Fly?”

  “Never mind that. Who sent them?”

  “Someone who knows about Sebrahn, obviously. The alchemist’s kin? The Overlord?”

  “The Overlord? If that’s true, my friend, you’ve really put your foot in it this time, and deep!”

  “Then let’s hope I’m wrong. Still …” He rubbed at the healing wound on his side. “Yhakobin knew the secret of making them. What if he’s not the only one?”

  “And that person would know what Sebrahn really is.”

  Seregil walked on in silence, hands clasped behind his back. It looked like they hadn’t quite escaped, after all—which made their presence here a continuing danger.

  CHAPTER 4

  Visions

  IT TOOK Seneth ä Matriel Danata Hâzadriël, khirnari of the Hâzadriëlfaie people, and her escort several hours’ steep riding to reach the Retha’noi witch man’s hut, which stood in an ash grove near the edge of his mountain village. Seneth had started after an early breakfast, and now the midday sun was glinting harshly on the distant crags framing Ravensfell Pass.

  The hut was a small, round structure made from sticks and withy, and covered in stretched deerhide. There was no sign of Turmay, except for a thin plume of smoke rising from the hole in the center of the roof.

  “Stay here,” Seneth ordered the other riders. Going to the low door, she pulled the long fronts of her coat and tunic back from her trousered legs and crawled on hands and knees into the dimness of the witch’s hut. The change from light reflecting off snow left her nearly blind for an instant, except for the column of light shining through the smoke hole and the glow of the fire beneath.

  “Welcome, Khirnari,” the witch greeted her, and now she could make him out, sitting cross-legged on the far side of the fire, wearing nothing but a crude loincloth.

  “Thank you for word of good news, my friend.” It was hot and close, too. She shrugged off her fur-lined coat and sat down on a pile of furs across the fire from the witch. Turmay’s eyes were closed, his stooped body so still that he appeared not to even be breathing. His grey curls hung motionless over his shoulders.

  She’d seen the witch marks on his hands and face the night that her friend, Belan ä Talía, had brought him to her after both had seen visions of a tayan’gil—or “white child,” as he put it—far away in the south. Someplace where a tayan’gil had no business being made.

  Half naked as he was, she could see the elaborate witch marks that covered his shoulders and chest. Other marks circled his shins like the patterns on the oo’lu lying silent across his lap. Seneth had known generations of Retha’noi over the course of her long life. Only the male witches used the oo’lu—a long, intricately decorated horn made from a hollowed-out sapling. Each had a unique pattern of decoration, except for the black handprint somewhere along its smooth polished length. Turmay must have been playing it quite recently; the tingle of Retha’noi magic hung in the air, enveloping her like a scent.

  Which was better than the smell of the hovel: sweat and hides, sour milk, pungent smoke-dried meat, and a body that would not see a proper bath until spring.

  “Did you find the ride difficult, Khirnari?”

  Seneth started as Belan ä Talía leaned forward into the circle of firelight. “What have you learned, my friend?” she asked them both. Belan was a seer, a rarity among their kind and probably due to her mixed blood. The rare intermarriage with the Retha’noi had gradually become tolerated, since the hill folk had proven to be staunch allies and kept to the valley as jealously as the ’faie, if not more so. Breeding with an outsider, though? That was unthinkable, and strictly prohibited.

  “The tayan’gil is in Aurënen,” Belan replied. Belan and Turmay had been searching together ever since they’d had their first visions of the tayan’gil.

  “Aurënen? Are you telling me that the Aurënfaie would create such a creature?”

  “Who can say, Khirnari? We only know that one is there.”

  “Where in Aurënen?”

  The witch opened his eyes at last, and she saw that they were red-rimmed and bloodshot. “I can show you, though I don’t know the name of the place.”

  He lifted the wax mouthpiece of the oo’lu and settled his lips inside it. Puffing out his cheeks, he began to play. This horn was almost four feet long, and he had to shift to keep the end of it out of the fire.

  It was not music, though the strange buzzing, hooting, booming drone produced by the oo’lu was not unpleasant. If you listened attentively, you could hear the sawing song of summer cicadas, the bellow of a bull, the peeping of tiny marsh frogs, and birdcalls. The patterns were complex, when played by an expert. It was impossible for those not trained to it to get more than a breathy farting sound out of it.

  Turmay played a soft song this time, with the hiss of wind over snow and owl calls mingled with the slow drone.

  “Close your eyes and touch the oo’lu,” Belan told her.

  Seneth did so, and the horn, smooth and warmed by the witch’s breath, vibrated against her palm.

  Light flared behind her closed lids as if she’d stepped outside again, then she had the dizzying sensation of flying up through the smoke hole.

  Confused images tumbled across the surface of her mind—the blurred glimpses of brown steppes, mountains less jagged than those that protected her fai’thast, and the flash of sunlight across a great broad expanse of water.

  The Great Lake, near the Tírfaie town called Wolde. Years ago she’d ventured from the valley as an Ebrados rider, and they’d stolen through the sleeping town. She could still remember the reek of the place, and the filth. But that lake! Standing on the shore under a f
ull moon, she’d never seen anything so beautiful.

  Yet Turmay’s magic carried her on, farther and farther from anything familiar, over forests and grasslands, and over a body of water that made the lake seem no more than a puddle.

  The sea, the witch whispered in her mind through the droning of the oo’lu. My people once lived all around its shores, until the light-skinned people drove us into the mountains. We were fishermen and sailors, and the cries of the gulls are still in our bones. The oo’lu song shifted to a strange, high-pitched call, like that of the white birds she’d seen circling the lake. Beyond, and beyond again lies your true homeland, Seneth, daughter of Matriel.

  They passed over a mountainous island, and then over the sea again to a land unlike her own except for the spine of mountains bleak against a dark blue sky.

  “Aurënen,” Belan told her, sounding very far away.

  The swath of land between the mountains and the sea was pale and dry like a bone. Turmay’s magic carried her to a town on the shore. The tiny houses along the water looked like nubs of white chalk set in sand, with familiar domed roofs.

  The white child is here.

  Can you show it to me?

  I cannot see it, but I feel its presence like a canker in my mind.

  “I can’t see its face in my dreams, Khirnari,” whispered Belan. “It has some magic about it that I can’t break through. But it is small like a child, and it has no wings.”

  “But you’re certain our blood runs in its veins?” Seneth murmured. The blood of the First Dragon, the one from whose blood the ’faie had sprung, ran deeper in her people, giving them strong magic. Since coming here and marrying among themselves, a few children had even been born with tiny appendages like wings on their backs, or eyes the color of moonlight on steel. Somehow the Tírfaie dark witches in Hâzadriël’s day had discovered the secret of their blood and found a way to use it to make tayan’gils, whose powers of healing surpassed anything seen before. Rumor had come down through the centuries of other uses the witches made of the creatures and their white blood—the White Road, as they called it—to create elixirs with great powers, though no one knew what, exactly.

  “Yes, there is no doubt,” Belan told her. “But it’s not pure. It’s not right.”

  Not pure. Seneth’s heart quickened at the possibility that those words embodied.

  “It will take months to reach Aurënen,” Seneth mused, concerned. Who knew what disasters might happen by then? There was no way of knowing what the power of this strange tayan’gil would be, but the uneasiness that had plagued her since Belan had first come to her was stronger now. If a tayan’gil born of impure blood somehow harmed an Aurënfaie, the shame would rest with her and her clan. The gulf of centuries that had opened between them and their Aurënfaie ancestors could not change that. Atui could not be circumscribed by time or place.

  This tayan’gil must be reclaimed and so the Ebrados would ride—no matter how long the trek, no matter what the risk. It was the way of her people—one that had preserved them down all the centuries since Hâzadriël had brought the chosen to safety in the north. It was the honor and the burden of the Ebrados, guarding the White Road and there was no other way.

  Slowly, the vision faded, and the hot, heavy air closed in around her again.

  “Thank you, my friends,” she said, anxious to get outside again. But something had been niggling at the back of her mind since the first night Belan had brought the witch to her.

  “Turmay, why did you see this ‘child’? It’s nothing to do with the Retha’noi.”

  The old man shrugged. “The Mother sends the visions. I follow them.” His fingers moved over the oo’lu, tracing a patterned band. “It’s written here, in the journey path. So I will go with your seekers.”

  Seneth regarded him in surprise. As far as she knew, the Retha’noi never left the valley. Then again, they kept to themselves and did not answer to her. Who knew their comings and goings? Moreover, she reasoned, a witch with such powers would certainly be an asset for the search. “Thank you, my friend.”

  Emerging from the hut, she pulled on her mittens and shielded her eyes for a moment against the glare off the snow, inhaling deeply. The sun had moved less than an hour across the sky.

  The unpleasant odor of the hut clung to her hair and clothes. Mounting her shaggy mare, she led the way down the trail and through the Retha’noi village, then took the steep, packed snow road beyond at a gallop, enjoying the rush of sharp, clean wind against her face.

  Turmay sat staring into the fire for some time after Belan and the khirnari had gone, running his fingers around the journey band; the balance must be kept. The length of the journey between the doors of life and death was for the Mother to decide, and those journeys—like a river—flowed in only one direction. The white child changed this. The Mother was angry.

  He regarded the oo’lu sadly. It was a fine instrument. He’d woven many healings with it, many births, as well as other, less kind magic when necessary. He’d had this one almost ten years, and waited for the time its patterns foretold.

  No witch made his own oo’lu. No, you searched for a hollow branch or sapling large enough to play well, preferably one hollowed by ants. Then you took it to the oldest witch you could find, for him to make it and sing it into being. It was the old one who had the visions and painted them into the rings of the oo’lu, and he who sang the fire song and tossed the new horn across the campfire for you to catch and mark the part of your destiny that would happen next. When the destiny of that oo’lu had been fulfilled, the instrument cracked. Then it was time for a new oo’lu, a new path. On this oo’lu, the old witch Rao, long dead now, had painted one ring that had never been painted before in Turmay’s lifetime, perhaps never before ever. This was one of the ones his handprint had spanned, together with Wanderer, Uniter, and Father of Many. Not even Rao had known what this other ring was called, or why the Mother had put it into his dreams.

  “You will know when you know,” the old witch had said with a shrug.

  So far only Father of Many had come to pass; not only his own, but the babies he played into men’s loins and women’s bellies at the moon festivals. He had not wandered nor united anyone in a way that had cracked this oo’lu, but ever since he’d dreamed the white child, he didn’t expect to carry it much longer. But the Mother had not yet shown him how to accomplish her purpose—to destroy the white child.

  Seneth arrived home to find the captain of the Ebrados riders waiting for her in the hall. Rieser í Stellen, who was also a carpenter when the Ebrados were not needed, rose from his seat by the hearth and bowed respectfully. Tall Rieser he was called, for the fact that this lean stork of a man stood half a head taller than anyone else in the clan, and favored dark clothing, which made him look even taller. He was also known as Rieser the Grim, for reasons just as obvious; he was not a joyful man. All the same, his keen grey eyes betrayed his anticipation as she handed her coat to a servant and sat down by the fire to pull off her boots.

  “What news, Khirnari?” he asked.

  “It’s time to gather your riders, my friend. I know where you must go.”

  “We can be off at dawn.”

  Seneth leaned forward to warm the chill from her hands. “Sit with me, and I will tell you the route. And you’ll have a guide, one whom I think will prove most useful. Do you know a Retha’noi named Turmay?”

  “I do. He’s an honorable man—and a powerful witch, by all accounts. But how will he guide us?”

  “He and Belan have worked out where the tayan’gil is. It is in Aurënen, in a town on the northern coast.”

  “Really?” He looked at once surprised and uncharacteristically pleased. “It will be good to see that land. I still have my grandmother’s green sen’gai.” He absently touched the blue-and-white sen’gai all Hâzadriëlfaie wore: blue for the sky, under which Hâzadriël and her people had wandered for so long, banded with white for the White Road they’d traveled, and which ran in the
ir veins. It was time to follow that road again.

  He paused, then said, “Could it be her child who’s behind this?”

  “Or the White Road blood has appeared again in Aurënen, but I think it more likely that you are right.”

  Rieser shook his head with a grim smile. “If I am, what should I do with the ya’shel?”

  “Bring him back if possible. If not, then kill him.”

  Rieser rose and bowed with a hand to his heart. “I’m honored to ride again, Khirnari.”

  Seneth smiled up at him. “You have never failed me, Rieser í Stellen. I wish you a safe journey and a successful hunt.”

  For as long as the followers of Hâzadriël had lived in this valley, there had been Ebrados—the Hunters of the White Road—and for the past fifty-eight years Rieser í Stellen had been one of them. The Ebrados weren’t called upon often anymore; the generation that had settled this valley was long dead, and most of the people now didn’t look past the mountains that guarded them for anything they wanted. Occasionally a few adventurous youngsters tried to sneak out through the pass. If the guards didn’t see them, the Ebrados went to bring them back. There had been only a few serious cases in the last hundred years, and all but one successfully hunted down.

  Ireya ä Shaar had been the exception; her name was a bitter taste on the tongue of the clan. She had lain with a Tírfaie, a fact revealed at the child’s birth; no ’faie child had yellow hair and eyes the color of dusk on a winter’s night. No one knew how she’d met the man, or why she had betrayed her own people to bear a forbidden half-breed son, only that she had given him to his father to save. Her own brothers had killed her, and the Tír man had killed them. He and the child had never been found.

  Syall í Konthus had been captain then, and they’d spent the whole summer trying to track down the mysterious Tír and the baby, but to no avail. Month after month, Syall rode out, even after the khirnari called off the hunt and none of the other Ebrados would go with him, until one spring day when his horse found her way back to the clan stables riderless. The dried blood crusted on her withers and the saddle were evidence enough to guess that he might have found his quarry, after all, or some other misadventure in the outer world. Whatever the case, he never came back. Scouts went out periodically, but none had found a trace of him, or the half-breed child, who must be nearly man-grown by now, in the way of mixed bloods.

 
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