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


  “Nephew, have I ever given you cause to doubt my judgment?”

  “No, of course not. I was simply curious.”

  “I understand. However, I must rely completely on your trust in me, and your best discretion. Now, where do you think they’ll go from Gedre?”

  “Bôkthersa, or perhaps back to Rhíminee? According to my Skalan spies, there’s no love lost between him and the current queen, so it’s more likely he’ll go to ground among his own.”

  “I cannot afford to take any chances. Rally your spies in Skala, as well. Capture them if they are in Skala, but simply send word if you find them in Bôkthersa. We can’t risk making Adzriel ä Illia our enemy. Seregil may be teth’brimash, but his sister will never consider him so.”

  “As you wish, Uncle.”

  Ulan waited until his nephew was gone, then had the servants help him out of the water. His body moved more easily now; the bath had eased his swollen joints, allowing him to sleep tonight, but the pain would be waiting for him in the morning.

  Ilar was sitting up in bed when Ulan entered and took his seat the following morning. Ilar looked no better today, still haunted and gaunt, eyes wild and filled with distrust, but he seemed a bit more lucid.

  “Good morning, my dear fellow. And how are you today?”

  Ilar glanced nervously around the room. “Am I really in Aurënen?”

  “You are indeed. If you’re feeling up to it, can you tell me more of what happened in Plenimar?”

  Ilar closed his eyes as if he was in pain. “It was Seregil. He escaped somehow—and he saved me. People died—Ilban was going to sell me, flogged me—”

  Ulan waited patiently, trying to piece together what he was hearing. Clearly Ilar’s memories from that time were still painful and disjointed.

  “Seregil came back—not for me … I don’t know why. Alec hates me, but he—And Ilban … He’s dead.”

  “How did they kill your ilban?” Even free, Ilar still called Yhakobin “master.” Some of the slaves Ulan had ransomed back from Yhakobin never lost the habit; their very souls were crushed. Many of them killed themselves soon after their return. Only the ones who hadn’t been in captivity more than a few months ever really recovered. “What about the rhekaro?” Ulan prompted.

  “Stole it, stole me.”

  “Who did? Seregil?”

  But Ilar did not seem to hear him. “I showed the way. I did!” he cried angrily. “We walked for days and days.” He subsided as quickly as he’d angered, and his gaze began to wander, taking on that vague, glassy look tinged with panic. “It rained so hard! There was no …”

  Ulan quelled an impatient sigh. “The rhekaro, Ilar. What does the rhekaro look like?”

  Ilar shuddered. “The moon. A bone … No, the moon. Alec called him that …”

  “And the wings?”

  Ilar shook his head.

  This was not good news. Yhakobin had been concerned about the first rhekaro he’d made and its lack of wings. It had apparently been useless, and he’d destroyed it. “Tell me more.”

  “It eats Alec’s blood,” Ilar whispered. “And the magic flowers—” He shuddered again as he held out his arm, the one where the brand should have been. “It … Sebrahn! He hurt me!”

  “Sebrahn? Is that his name?” It was the Aurënfaie word for “moonlight.” “The rhekaro, Ilar. Tell me more of it.”

  Ilar closed his eyes, as if remembering was an effort. “Silver eyes.”

  “He certainly fits his name,” Ulan said with a smile. “Now, can you tell me how your ilban and his men died?”

  “I don’t know. I ran away and only heard the noise.”

  “What noise?”

  Ilar shook his head. “I don’t know. It was a terrible sound.” He went silent, and Ulan could tell that he’d lost the thread again. “There are always slave takers. Always, and I didn’t have my brand. And they stole my collar, too. I had to wait, then I went back to see.” He paused, eyes brimming with sudden tears. “Like they’d fallen asleep … Just—lying there … Except Ilban. I suppose it must have been Seregil. He—” Ilar paused and wiped his eyes. “Did you really say last night that Seregil is alive, or did I dream that? It’s so hard to tell.”

  “Yes. He and Alec are safe. Why did you think they were dead?”

  “Everyone was dead …”

  Had Seregil and Alec managed to kill Ulan and all of his men? It seemed so, and that they must have been badly wounded. Yet Ilar kept insisting that they looked “beautiful.”

  Ilar wrapped his arms around his chest and rocked miserably. “The birds! I should have known. I should have stayed.”

  “And what about Sebrahn? What happened to the rhekaro?”

  But Ilar just picked at the scabs on his arm, whispering, “I should have stayed. I should have stayed, I should have—”

  “Calm yourself, Ilar. They are still alive, so you might meet them again someday.”

  That got his attention. “Would they come here?”

  “Perhaps.” Not willingly, of course. “We’ll speak more when you are stronger.”

  Ulan left him to rest and made his way out to the balcony overlooking the harbor. Already the heat of the morning bath was fading away, and the pain creeping back. A cough shook him and he sank into a chair, handkerchief pressed to his mouth.

  If all went well, that would cease to be a problem.

  CHAPTER 7

  Bôkthersa

  THE BÔKTHERSAN FAI’THAST encompassed a broad swath of mountains and foothills in the western spur of the Ashek range, and forests that swept from the heights right down to the sea. It was two weeks’ ride to the Bôkthersan capital, but Alec looked forward to it—in part because it was his new homeland since he’d been accepted into the clan by bond, and partly for knowing that Seregil and his uncle had ridden these roads and mountain trails together years before.

  They’d seen no signs of habitation since they’d left Half Moon Cove, and their only road was a succession of twisting game trails. It was just the sort of place to meet up with bandits. Adzriel assured them that there was no cause for worry, but she had brought an escort of twenty men from the ship.

  Seregil’s exile song had truly captured the beauty of this land. There were sweet cold springs along the way, and tumbling cascades that glittered in the sunlight. The forest was a mix of tall evergreens, oaks, beeches, and trees Alec didn’t recognize. The few remaining leaves still clinging to branch tips—gold and yellow, and fiery orange and red—stood out against the dark firs and clear blue sky.

  Seregil was their guide. They slept rough in clearings, singing and drinking around the fire as the moon rose overhead. During the day there was little to do but talk and hunt. And if their escort was anything to go by, the Bôkthersans were a friendly, easygoing people, though most of them remained a bit leery of Sebrahn.

  Smuggler’s Pass was a narrow track between two towering stone faces, barely two horses wide in places.

  “What did you smuggle through here anyway? Snakes and candles?” Micum grumbled, sweating in his heavy coat and hauling on his horse’s reins to get her through one of the narrower spots. Sebrahn was perched on the saddle, holding on to the pommel with both hands as Alec had taught him. Given his nature, the rhekaro would cling there until Alec told him otherwise.

  “Leather goods, swords, and horses, mostly,” Seregil replied, walking just ahead of him.

  “What happened if you were caught?”

  “This is our fai’thast. No one has authority here but the khirnari, and my father turned a blind eye. We did have to watch out for other clans near the coast—and pirates.”

  They emerged at last onto a high plateau strewn with boulders and scattered, wind-twisted pines. If there was a trail, it was covered with snow, but Seregil knew the way, using boulders of different shapes as way markers. The peaks in the distance were stark against the cloudy sky, and the only life they saw here were the flocks of small ravens, which circled them now and then, calling out
in their croaking voices.

  It was much colder now, and the wind cut through their clothing. Their skin chapped and Mydri handed around a vial of beeswax and goat fat salve to keep their lips from splitting and bleeding when they smiled or yawned too widely. Alec kept Sebrahn bundled under his own cloak; the rhekaro might not feel the cold, but it was possible that he could freeze.

  They made camp that night in a circle of huge boulders Seregil referred to jokingly as the Sky Inn. As they carried their gear in from the horses, Alec saw that there were names, short messages, and crescents of Aura scratched all over the face of the rocks, from the snow line to as high as a man could reach. Seregil showed him his own name there, and Akaien’s, etched close together. From the difference in height, Seregil had been a child when these marks were made. Alec added his name near Akaien’s and had Seregil put his there, too.

  Alec went around reading more, and saw dates that went back centuries. Suddenly his toe caught on something and he went sprawling, arms sinking up to the elbows in snow, filling his mittens.

  “Ah, I see you’ve found the woodpile!” said Seregil.

  While Alec and Micum dug out the pile of twisted pine branches and small logs, some of the others dug down through the snow at the center of the circle and uncovered a large stone fire pit. The haunches of venison they’d brought on one of the packhorses were frozen solid, so they shaved off thin slices with their knives and either cooked them over the fire on a stick or, like Alec, just ate them raw. They passed around the dwindling bags of hazelnuts and dried apples, and boiled snow for water, since the last of the tea had been used up. As always, Alec found a moment away from the others to feed Sebrahn and trim his hair.

  Even in their heavy clothing, the cold sapped strength away. They bedded down early around the fire on cloaks spread across packed snow, and everyone shared blankets with someone.

  Alec lay awake for some time, looking up at the night sky. The stars looked as big as half-sester pieces up here, so bright they cast shadows among the boulders. That, and the crackle of the smoky fire, made him think of his father again, and the winters they’d spent trapping in the Ironheart Mountains. When he fell asleep, he dreamed of his father—a tall, taciturn figure striding confidently on his long snow-shoes, the varnished rawhide webbing leaving a pattern like serpent skin for Alec to follow. In the dream his father never turned around, but Alec knew him by the ragged blond hair sticking out under his fur hat. Sometimes they’d gone on like that in silence for hours—or all day, if the traps were empty. Then the vision he’d had of his parents and his mother’s death crept into the dream, and he saw his father through his mother’s eyes—a handsome young hunter whose dark blue eyes were filled with anguish. In this dream, his mother turned into a dragon and flew away, only to be brought down by the arrows of her own kinsmen. Drops of her steaming blood fell on the snow, leaving a line of red spots like trail markers, leading north. Grief-stricken, Alec watched her fall in the distance, then turned to find her faceless murderers leveling their bows at him.

  The sky was overcast at dawn, and large, fluffy flakes of snow began falling as they ate their cold breakfast. It fell more thickly as they set off, capping the rocks with white and muffling the world in that eerie quiet that only snow can create.

  It got colder as they went on, though they were going downhill gradually now, and into sparse forest. Snow lay thick on the ground and crunched under their horses’ hooves as they rode slowly down a steep, winding trail only Seregil could see.

  As they rode today, Seregil told funny stories about his exploits with Alec and Micum, including how Alec’s first test as a nightrunner had been to break, unsuspecting, into Seregil’s own villa in Rhíminee.

  Alec ignored the laughter at his expense and lifted his face to the pale white sun showing dimly through the clouds. Some memories of his father didn’t hurt; fresh snow had always meant easy tracking.

  “Spotted cat,” Micum said beside him, pulling him from his reverie.

  Sure enough, the unmistakable pattern of paw pads and tick marks of the claws crossed their path in a wandering line. For the rest of the afternoon they made a game of identifying tracks in the snow to break up the monotony. They saw the spoor of rabbit and deer, great Aurënen stags, bear, and mice, along with a strange pattern Alec thought he recognized. It was a sort of hand-and footprint combination, and always appeared in great numbers, seldom far from a stand of trees. It looked like a whole family of tiny people had crawled along on all fours. Tiny people with tails.

  “Are those porie tracks?” he asked, surprised to see them this far north.

  “Red ones,” said Mydri. “They’re on their way to the lowlands. They come down to forage in the winter. The village children coax them in to eat from their hands.”

  “Not just the children,” Adzriel said with a chuckle. “I watched your grand wizard sit outside for hours with apple slices and bread crusts.”

  “Thero had them climbing up on his shoulders by spring,” Mydri added. “There aren’t many who can do that! He swears he didn’t use any magic on them, either. But it takes considerable patience and gentleness.”

  Seregil raised an eyebrow in mock surprise. “I can imagine the first, but gentleness?”

  “The children loved him,” said Adzriel. “He did little magics for them, too. Mydri, remember the time he made a pastry rabbit get up and run around the table while the dishes floated around in circles?”

  Seregil looked over at Alec with a smirk. “Thero?” It was the sort of playful magic Nysander had delighted in at feasts, especially if there were children present; the very sort that a younger Thero had held in such disdain.

  Adzriel shook her head, smiling. “One time I said I looked forward to his next performance at some feast. He went a bit stiff and told me, ‘I don’t perform, I entertain.’ But you could see the twinkle in his eye.”

  It wasn’t long before Alec heard a familiar rustle and chirping in the branches overhead. Not all the pories had gone south yet, he was glad to see, just as he was glad that none of his companions considered them game. These had reddish brown fur rather than grey, like those in the south, and were the size of a large cat. Otherwise, they had the same clever little hands, golden eyes in blunt-nosed faces, and long, bushy ringed tails they used like rudders as they leapt among the branches overhead, or ventured cautiously down to snatch away bits of bread the riders held up for them.

  While they were at it, Alec spied a small black squirrel on a branch overhead. It froze for an instant, then decided it had been seen and darted away up the trunk.

  “Haba!” Alec exclaimed. It was the first one he’d seen.

  Mydri smiled. “Are you speaking to Seregil or the squirrel?”

  “The squirrel. Seregil doesn’t like being called that.”

  “Why not?”

  Alec shrugged and said nothing. The fact that Seregil could only associate it now with Ilar was no one’s business but his own.

  They were riding along through a stretch of forest the following day when Seregil suddenly reined in. “Look what I’ve got!”

  He held up his left arm, showing them the tiny fingerling dragon clinging to the sleeve of his coat. It scuttled up to his shoulder, switching its tail and fluttering its tiny brown wings.

  “First dragon! Little brother’s the luck bringer,” said Adzriel, leaning over to touch her brother with mock reverence. According to custom, Seregil was the luck bringer until they reached their destination.

  Sebrahn leaned out from Alec’s saddle to see it.

  Seregil held out his arm so the rhekaro could have a better look. The fingerling immediately took flight to land on Sebrahn’s knee.

  Sebrahn pointed to the little creature and looked up at Alec. “Drak-kon?”

  Seregil sidled up to Adzriel and asked something in a low voice. Adzriel looked at Sebrahn for a moment, then shook her head.

  Sebrahn touched the dragon’s spiny head with one finger as two more fingerlings
fluttered down to his shoulders, tangling their tiny talons in his hair. A fourth and fifth joined them.

  “Sit still,” Alec warned, but suddenly all five dragons took flight like flock of ducks on a lake.

  Sebrahn held out his hand as if to stop them. “Drak-kon!”

  “Maybe he’s the luck bringer,” said Micum, shaking his head.

  “I’ve never seen them do that before,” said Adzriel. She gave Alec a meaningful look.

  “They probably want some of his hair for their nests.” Several of them had flown off with long blond strands clutched in their claws.

  She nodded as she watched the rhekaro hold out his hand for another little dragon to land on. “Maybe he really is one of their own.”

  The fingerlings became a common sight as they went on, scuttling through the snow and up trees, darting across the road and startling the horses, and crawling into the warmth of bedrolls that night. Since it was taboo to kill a dragon in anything but outright self-defense, everyone was careful not to slap at any sudden itches or step on a fingerling on the way to take a piss.

  Sebrahn showed a surprisingly childlike interest in the little creatures, squatting down to watch them scuttle around, even picking one up.

  “Sebrahn, no!” Seregil said quietly, so as not to startle rhekaro or dragon.

  But the dragon just perched on the back of Sebrahn’s right hand with its tail wrapped around the rhekaro’s thin wrist.

  “If it bites him, do we put lissik on it?” Alec wondered.

  But as before, the fingerling flew away without nipping Sebrahn. The rhekaro followed it with his eyes as it fluttered into the trees.

  CHAPTER 8

  Following the Oo’lu’s Song

  TURMAY PLAYED his oo’lu every night. It could set wet wood on fire, charm rabbits from their holes into his snares, and who knew what else? All Rieser cared about were the nightly visions of their quarry, but by the time Rieser and his Ebrados reached the great lake called Black Water, the answer was always the same—south—and vague enough to make the captain wonder how they would find them in a whole region—especially one in which they were almost certain to be recognized as outsiders.

 
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