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


  Rane and Thiren, Syall’s eldest sons, had been elected to the Ebrados for this trip, and they were the only ones among all his riders about whom Rieser had any concerns, suspecting that theirs was a duty born of vengeance. Emotion had no place in this work.

  The rest—Nowen, Sona, Taegil, Morai, Relian, Sorengil, Kalien, Allia, and Hâzadriën—had ridden with him for years. They were among the best riders, swordsmen, and archers of the clan, chosen for their prowess and bravery. Hâzadriën was the exception, but this old friend had other skills. There wasn’t a man or woman among them about whom Rieser had the least doubt.

  The trail they were to follow this time was two decades cold, and retraced that journey five centuries ago. Rieser liked a good challenge.

  He gathered with the others in the main courtyard of the clan house the following morning. The khirnari and Turmay were already there waiting for them. The Retha’noi was dressed in thick sheepskin garments, his coat decorated with animal teeth sewn on in patterns like beads. Turmay’s horse had a ’faie saddle and one small bundle hanging from it, and he carried his oo’lu strapped across his back. Rieser had never seen any witch man without one.

  Rieser nodded to him. “It’s good to see you again, friend. So you’re to be our guide?”

  “Yes. Together we will ride your white road, and find the white child.”

  Rieser blinked in surprise. The white road was never spoken of to outsiders. Then again, Turmay was a witch—a hard person to keep secrets from, it seemed.

  Seneth gave them her blessing, and Rieser led his riders out of the courtyard and down the river road at a gallop. Turmay rode beside him, as at ease as any of them in the saddle.

  Sledges had packed the road smooth, making for an easy ride down the long slope of the valley to the mouth of the pass. There they all dismounted to drink and bathe their hands and faces at the sacred spring, and touch the stony head of the dragon above it for luck. It had died long before they’d come here and turned to stone, as the old dragons did. Most of the body had crumbled away, but the huge head was perfect, down to the sharp spines on its muzzle. Even in winter it was still warm to the touch, as was the water. Hâzadriël had taken this as a sign that the valley was to be theirs—they who had the blood of the Great Dragon in their veins, their gift and their curse. That heritage was proven through the tayan’gil, made from some evil distillation of Hâzad blood, who had dragon’s wings and great powers of healing, as the dragons of their homeland were said to.

  The Retha’noi people had been here already, but they kept to the heights with their herds and witches, and welcomed the lowlanders when the Hâzad proved to them they meant no harm.

  Turmay didn’t drink, but instead sprinkled spring water on his oo’lu.

  “Why are you doing that?” asked Rane.

  Turmay rubbed his wet hand up and down the long horn. “So your moon god will help me find the white child, too. My Mother doesn’t mind if I pray to your Aura for guidance, since it is one of your kind that we seek.”

  “You call it a child. Why?”

  Turmay shrugged. “Because it’s small like a child.”

  “You can tell what it is, even without the wings?”

  “The Mother knows and she tells me.”

  This was very strange. The last tayan’gil they had hunted down had been tall and winged, like all the others.

  The younger riders talked excitedly among themselves as they began the long ascent. This hunt, their first, would lead them far beyond the world they knew, perhaps all the way back to Aurënen. Rieser himself felt a thrill of excitement at the thought of seeing that lost homeland, even if their purpose in going there was a grim one.

  Rieser glanced over at Hâzadriën, riding to his left as always. The glamour was a good one; he looked as normal as the others and would be safe while it held. “Ready for the hunt, old friend?”

  It was habit, of course. Hâzadriën never answered or smiled, or showed any emotion for that matter. He just twitched his shoulders, settling pale, leathery wings more comfortably under his loose tunic. The glamour hid the rest.

  CHAPTER 5

  Luck and Deep Water

  THE DAY of their departure from Gedre, dark rumpled clouds hung low on the horizon and the cold wind promised rain and swift sailing. The wind whipped their cloaks around their legs and pulled at their hoods as Alec and the others said their farewells to the khirnari. It had been a week since the assassins’ attempt, and there had been no trouble since.

  “Thank you for the chances you’ve taken, harboring us here,” Seregil said, pressing a hand to his heart. “And for the care and friendship you’ve extended to my talímenios. If ever you need our help, we’ll be here like the wind.”

  “If you can manage not to get yourselves killed in the meantime,” Riagil said.

  Holding a closely bundled Sebrahn by the hand, Alec managed a grin. “We have so far.” The khirnari seemed happier today; Alec suspected Riagil was glad to see the back of them. “And thank you again for this,” he added with genuine gratitude. Riagil had given him a bow and quiver when he learned that Alec’s famous Black Radly had been lost to the slavers. It was a flat bow made of lemonwood from southern Aurënen and backed with vellum. It was as fine a one as he’d ever handled, well balanced and as light as it was strong. The limbs pulled evenly and true, with nearly the same weight as the Radly.

  With the last of the farewells said and gifts given, they boarded the ship and soon got under way. The salt-laden breeze caressed Alec’s face and pulled little tendrils from his braid as he stood at the prow with Seregil, Sebrahn between them, savoring the familiar tug of excitement as the clustered white houses and then the harbor slid away into the mist behind them. The start of any journey filled him with anticipation, and this time he was going to Bôkthersa.

  Seregil covered Alec’s gloved hand with his own and leaned close. “Deep thoughts for deep water?”

  “Not really. I’m just excited to finally be—”

  “Don’t say it!” Seregil exclaimed, grey eyes going comically wide. “You’ll jinx us.”

  Alec grinned. “Well, I hope Astellus will smile on this voyage. How’s that?”

  “I wouldn’t tempt fate.”

  “You don’t believe in fate.”

  Seregil stared out at the flock of red-winged terns winging along beside them. “Maybe I’m changing my mind about that. I’ve been thinking a lot about what happened in Plenimar.”

  “It’s over, talí,” Alec murmured, raising Seregil’s hand and kissing the back of it—a bold move for the reticent northerner, here on deck where anyone could see.

  “Not the enslavement and humiliation, Alec; how we got there in the first place. A man I knew nearly five decades ago, the man who changed the entire course of my life—and there Ilar was in Yhakobin’s house, at the center of the web that caught us!” He plucked one of Sebrahn’s long hairs from Alec’s shoulder. “And the bastard has changed my life again, hasn’t he?” He let the wind take the strand. “And yours.”

  “I’ve been thinking about Ilar a lot, too. The first time you ever told me about him, you swore you’d kill him on sight, but in the end you took pity on him instead.”

  Seregil rested his elbows on the rail and heaved a weary sigh. “Are you still jealous? Do you think I was weak for saving him?”

  “Weak? No, you were merciful. I know I was angry at the time, talí, but looking back, I’m glad.”

  Seregil raised a skeptical brow. “So you’re not jealous anymore?”

  It was Alec’s turn to stare out across the waves. “That pathetic eunuch? What is there to be jealous of?”

  “As I recall, you weren’t so philosophical at the time.”

  “Not when I caught him trying to kiss you down there by that stream. And he betrayed me, too, just like he did you, after making me trust him all that time in Yhakobin’s house.”

  “But before you knew the truth? What did you think of him when you still thought he was ‘
Khenir’?”

  Alec looked away, suddenly uncomfortable. If he was honest with himself, he had to admit that he had liked the man. But only because Ilar had been kind to him—a seeming friend in a friendless place. “He was still lying,” he said, stubbornly shaking off the thought. “So what do you think? Is he alive?”

  “Maybe.”

  “Maybe he died with Yhakobin and the others when Sebrahn sang. He couldn’t have gotten that far away.”

  Seregil looked down at Sebrahn thoughtfully. “Maybe. We still don’t know what Sebrahn’s range is. Either way, I doubt we’ll be seeing Ilar again. Let it go, talí.”

  Alec turned and looked landward. The mist was thinning, and he could make out a line of jagged, snowcapped peaks. The Ashek range followed the northern curve of Aurënen, embracing the deep blue Osiat like a giant’s necklace. Bôkthersa lay deep in the mountains to the west, a fai’thast of green valleys and sweet water. The sen’gais Adzriel and Mydri wore were that same green, the long tails of them fluttering in the wind.

  “How many tries does this make?” Micum asked as he joined them at the rail.

  “This makes three,” said Alec.

  Micum grinned. “Three’s a lucky number. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to make an offering. A coin over the right shoulder for Astellus should do the trick.”

  Alec fished a sester coin from his purse and held it a moment on his open palm, letting the sunlight catch the finely stamped design. A crescent moon with five rays cradled a flame: moon and fire; Ilior and Sakor, the patrons of Skala and the royal family. The first time he’d seen one of these was soon after he and Seregil had met, and Seregil had taught him some sleight of hand. He smiled to himself as he rolled it expertly across the backs of his fingers, then palmed it and shot it up his sleeve.

  Micum chuckled. “No wonder you are such a terror at the gaming tables.”

  Alec cast the coin over his shoulder into the water.

  Seregil produced a small owl feather from his purse and let the wind take it. “Luck in the shadows.”

  “And in the Light,” Alec murmured.

  The Old Sailor was on their side this time. They sailed through a few small squalls and were pelted with sudden hail, but the wind remained at their back. Alec loved the storms, the wind, the pitching of the ship. It was exciting. But even on clear days, the Osiat was rough and they had to put in near shore each night. Alec, Micum, and Seregil sang for the crew as the ship rode at anchor, and listened to the others tell tall tales and old sorrows.

  They passed the time at cards and dice and bakshi, too, and the money washed back and forth between the travelers and the sailors. Seregil was particularly lucky, and narrowly avoided a fistfight one night when a crewman accused him of cheating, which—for once—he wasn’t.

  In the quiet of their cabin another night, Seregil’s thoughts turned to home and he spoke of old friends there, including his childhood friend, Kheeta í Branin.

  Alec had met Kheeta in Sarikali and liked him well enough, once he got past wondering if Seregil and he had been more than friends. Seregil referred to Kheeta as “cousin,” but that was common within a clan, especially among social equals; it seemed everyone was addressed as “cousin,” “aunt,” “uncle,” “brother,” or “sister.” It was hard sometimes to figure out if it was to be taken literally or not.

  Seregil chuckled warmly. “I wonder what my uncle Akaien will make of you?”

  “I hope he approves.” Alec was only half joking. Akaien was one of the few family members Seregil had ever mentioned in their early days together. This uncle, a swordsmith by trade, had also been a smuggler. Under Aurënen’s Edict of Separation, Virésse had been the only legal port for trade with the Three Lands. However, that hadn’t stopped clandestine trade, and Akaien had brought his young nephew along. Seregil had told him stories of sailing out under a dark traitor’s moon to meet and trade with Skalan ships. The fondness in his voice made Alec think that this Akaien í Solun must be a very different sort than his brother, Seregil’s father.

  It was then that Seregil had first met Tírfaie foreigners and learned something of the wider world. Seregil also joked that it was this early criminal behavior that had shaped his character.

  “He will approve, talí. Of that I have no doubt,” Seregil assured him. “But my other sisters? Well, I’ll make you no promises there.”

  Sebrahn was as insistent as ever about staying with Alec. Since there was simply no way Alec could remain cooped up in the cabin, it wasn’t long before the crew got a look at what lay under the voluminous cloak and hood. Even Seregil couldn’t come up with a plausible explanation for Sebrahn’s silver eyes, and many warding signs were made in the rhekaro’s direction.

  Alec found himself alone with Adzriel one day as they both stood at the rail, watching porpoises leap along beside the ship. She was still keeping her distance from Sebrahn, he noted.

  “If you’re so scared of Sebrahn, why are you letting him come to Bôkthersa?” he asked at last.

  Adzriel said nothing for a moment. Alec had always marveled at how much she resembled her brother, both in looks and in being tight-lipped as blue mussels when the mood took her. When she spoke at last, her voice was devoid of its usual warmth. “As I said in Gedre, he is our clan’s responsibility. And if you cannot destroy a dangerous beast, then it is best to know where it is.”

  “A beast.” The word hurt.

  “A dragon, but not a dragon. His outward appearance is so deceiving. You know better than I how dangerous he really is.”

  “So you’re going to lock him up somewhere forever? You’ll have to lock me in with him.”

  “No, of course not.” She took his hand between hers. “Little brother, I would not harm you for all the world, or any that you love. It’s my hope to find a way for your little one to somehow find a safe life, harming none and free from harm. Or as free as he can ever be.” She turned Alec’s palm up and looked at the stippling of pinpricks across his fingertips. “Can you spend the rest of your life like this? What sort of nightrunner carries a child about on his back?”

  “I don’t like to think about that, but—”

  “But you and my brother must have your lives back,” she finished for him with a kind smile. “I promise you, I will use all my power and influence to seek out some solution to this. Are you certain he cannot drink the blood of another ’faie? It’s such a tiny little bit that he needs.”

  “Seregil tried, but Sebrahn just spit it out.”

  “Well, then we must discover something else.”

  Late-afternoon shadows stretched across the water to meet them as they sailed into Half Moon Cove. Thick pine forest encircled it and spread to the feet of the distant mountains. Somewhere beyond those mountains, thought Alec, lay the place of Seregil’s birth.

  “So this is where you and your uncle plied your trade, eh?” asked Micum, standing with them at the rail.

  “Yes,” Seregil murmured. “Just like the old days, except it’s daylight.”

  Gazing at the green mountains, the words of Seregil’s haunting song of exile came back to Alec once again, and he began to hum the tune. Seregil gave him a sidelong smile, and then sang it aloud. This time it was a love song, filled with warmth and joy.

  My love is wrapped in a cloak of flowing green

  and wears the moon for a crown.

  And all around has chains of flowing silver.

  Her mirrors reflect the sky.

  O, to roam your flowing cloak of green

  under the light of the ever-crowning moon.

  Will I ever drink of your chains of flowing silver

  and drift once more across your mirrors of the sky?

  When he was done, Alec saw Adzriel and Mydri both dabbing at their eyes.

  CHAPTER 6

  An Unexpected Guest

  ULAN Í SATHIL, khirnari of Virésse, was at work in his study when his kinsman Elisir í Makili came in and closed the door softly. He was still in his salt-stained cloa
k and boots, and his red and blue sen’gai was a bit awry.

  “Ah, you’re back,” Ulan said, laying his pen aside by the crumpled handkerchief on the desk, and extending a hand. “I fear I sent you on a fool’s errand. Your quarry turned up in Gedre a week ago.” No one needed to know that he’d sent another pack of well-paid Plenimaran assassins after them there—an unsuccessful venture, as it turned out.

  “That’s good news, Uncle! I thought I’d failed you,” the younger man told him. “I did bring you someone, though. Thanks to Soran í Brithel and his long-sighted magic, I found Ilar í Sontir of the Chyptaulos clan out in the wilderness east of Riga. He was half dead and he’s quite mad. He cowered in the cabin the entire voyage and wouldn’t let anyone near him, but I got enough out of him to think that he knows something of the disappearance of Yhakobin.”

  “Excellent, nephew! Bring him to me at once.” Ulan would much rather have had the rhekaro, but this was better than nothing.

  Elisir returned with a slight, hunched man bundled up tight in a ragged wool cloak. The hood was pulled down almost to his chin. He stopped just inside the door, trembling violently. Ulan could smell his unwashed odor and hear his labored breathing. The khirnari rose slowly, trying as always to ignore the pain in his joints and chest, and went to him. Ilar’s hands were wrapped in the folds of the cloak so tightly, Ulan could count his knuckles through the cloth.

  He took Ilar gently by the elbow and led him to a chair. “Welcome, Ilar í Sontir. Come and warm yourself. Elisir, has he eaten anything?”

  “A little bread and gruel during the crossing. The cook judged that’s all he could hold down in his condition, and he had trouble with that. The skutter boy was kept busy, cleaning up after him.”

 
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