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


  They avoided the little Tírfaie hamlets they passed, but weren’t above stealing from sheepfolds and root cellars, and finding oats for the horses in unattended barns. They took shelter where they could, in deserted byres or cottages when they could find them, but more often in hastily made branch huts. Hâzadriën was very skilled at their construction, and Turmay knew a song to keep out the snow and wind.

  As the weeks drew out, Rieser was proud of his riders, especially Thiren and Rane, the youngest. So far they hadn’t complained or shirked, though they and the others were a good deal leaner than they had been when they left the valley.

  As ’faie, they stood out in this part of the world, and drew curious looks from the Tír they met when deep snow forced them onto the highroad. It was best to keep their hoods up and their mouths shut, and they did just that, though the two brothers couldn’t help looking at the women.

  The glamour hiding Hâzadriën’s true features was holding well; he appeared to have dark hair and ordinary blue eyes, rather than his true silver. Silent, ancient, and bone-pale, he was neither male nor female, but since he had no breasts, it had been the custom from Hâzadriël’s day to call him “he” and “him.” Clothed, and cloaked in the khirnari’s magic, there was nothing remarkable about him.

  The land around the lake called Black Water was more heavily settled, and avoiding the Tír was no longer an option. The deerskin map, which Seneth had commissioned from the clan archivists, began here. Following it, and Turmay’s visions, they forged ever south and west.

  As captain of the Ebrados, Rieser had learned the Tírfaie tongue and studied their ways. He’d even spoken to a few, when the hunt for wayward ’faie had taken him to some remote village near the pass. So he was able to barter in the markets of the small towns they passed through, south of the huge lake. He got by well enough in the towns, exchanging game for vegetables and dried fruits.

  In the smaller villages, however, people hunted their own dinner and weren’t interested in any bartering, so he used some of the silver coin he carried, though he kept his gold well hidden. The small silver pieces were made like Tír money, blank and rectangular, and valued by their weight. Farther south the money changed to round coins stamped with designs, but the shopkeepers still took his silver gladly.

  It was here that he first overheard people talking of some war to the south. The countries of Skala and Plenimar were shown on his map as two large islands separated by a sea called Inside, and seemed to be waging perpetual war, judging by what he was hearing in the marketplaces.

  Beyond the lake, they entered a thick forest and followed a road leading in the right direction. Exhausted and filthy from sleeping rough, they finally gave in and stopped for the night at a lonely inn. Hopefully they wouldn’t draw too much attention to themselves. He wondered what the local folk would make of Turmay.

  The inn was built of timber, with a thatched roof. The sign hanging over the door showed what was apparently meant to be a dragon, painted a garish red.

  Ducking his head under the low doorway, Rieser entered a large room with a broad hearth and half a dozen tables. A handful of fellow travelers were scattered around the room, eating stew and bread, and drinking from large clay cups. Everyone was talking loudly and he found it hard to understand them. He caught a few familiar words, but the accent was very different from what he’d learned.

  At the back of the room a thin, grey-haired woman stood behind a sideboard, serving up mugs of some drink—probably turab, judging by the smell and the state of inebriation of some of the patrons. A harper sat by the fire, plucking out a lively tune, while a young boy carried out food from a kitchen beyond. The room stank of sweat and smoke and ale, but he and his little band had no room to brag on that account. It had been weeks since they’d had a chance to bathe in anything more than an icy stream. He and the others stomped the snow from their boots by the door, but they didn’t attract much attention until they pushed back their hoods. The room went quiet and suddenly all eyes were upon them.

  The old woman came around the board to greet them, smiling wide. “Welcome!”

  As for the rest of it, he was fairly certain she was saying that no ’faie had passed through here for many years, and that they were to go warm themselves by the fire.

  “Thank you, old mother,” he said, bowing. “Your hospitality is much appreciated.”

  The silence was finally broken by loud laughter, apparently at what he’d said, or how he’d said it. More likely the latter, given the difference in accent.

  She gave Turmay a curious sidelong glance as she urged them toward an empty table by the hearth. Turmay’s witch marks weren’t visible now, of course, the way they were when he played his oo’lu; it was more likely his short stature, strange clothing, and the long horn he refused to be without even for a moment. He even slept with it by his side.

  The woman called out shrilly at the open door at the back. Moments later, the boy reappeared with a tray of mugs. It was turab, and a fine brew, too.

  “It’s good!” Taegil whispered in surprise.

  Turmay took a sip. “Yes. And I smell venison.”

  The food proved good, as well. The venison stew was thick and well seasoned, with chunks of carrot and onion among the meat, and the bread was sweet and hot from the oven.

  As they were eating, one of the other patrons sauntered up, thumbs hooked in his sword belt, and looked them over. “Where are you from, brothers?” he asked Hâzadriën in passable but strangely accented ’faie, though he certainly was not of that blood.

  “My friend is mute,” Rieser explained tersely. “We are from Aurënen.”

  “I don’t know your accent. Which part of Aurënen?”

  “The far south.” Rieser went back to his food, hoping the fellow would go away.

  “What clan?” the man persisted, appearing genuinely pleased to encounter so many of them at once. “You’re the first I’ve ever seen not wearing any sen’gai.”

  “We’re from a small clan in the south. How do you come to speak our language so well?” Rieser asked, hoping to steer him clear of where they were from, in case he’d been there himself.

  “My wife,” the man said proudly. “She’s what you people call a ya’shel, from Skala. Pretty as the morning sky and as good a woman as ever trod the earth.”

  “Is that so?” Rieser suppressed an inward shudder at the thought of this malodorous Tír—or any Tír, for that matter—rutting with a ’faie woman, even if she was only a Tír-begat half-breed.

  “Where you headed? Up to Wolde?”

  “No, we’re going south.”

  The man laughed. “South’s a big place.”

  “We are going home,” Rieser told him.

  “By land or river?”

  “River?”

  Their inquisitor seemed surprised by his ignorance—not a good thing. “The Folcwine. Part of what we call the Gold Road up here, though a good stretch of it is the river. It’s been a mild winter, and last I heard there was still open water all the way to Nanta. By the last reports, the Skalans were garrisoned there, keeping the peace.” He gave Rieser another curious look. “The river’s your fastest way south.”

  “We took a different way.” This was something he didn’t know before, though he’d seen a river marked on his map. A boat would mean close contact with these people, but he could probably stand it if it meant getting to their destination faster. River travel would save them weeks, if not months this time of year. It might be worth the risk and discomfort.

  The man directed him to a town where they could find a boat south, then said, “If you came up from the south overland, you must have seen something of the armies, eh?”

  Armies? Was there no end to this man’s curiosity? “Only from a distance,” Rieser replied.

  “Which side? Skala’s or Plenimar’s?”

  “I don’t know. We were too far away.” Rieser clenched his left fist under the table, resisting the urge to shout at the man. He was st
anding too close, making Rieser tilt his head back to look him in the eye.

  “Well, it will be better if it’s Skala, friend. You don’t want to run afoul of any Plenimaran marines. They’re a rough lot.”

  The man talked on, but Rieser’s increasingly brief answers finally got the message across and he left them alone, as did the others, though there was much staring. Perhaps it was because of Turmay, who was dipping his stew up into his mouth with his fingers, or of Nowen and the other three women of his company. They were comely, he supposed, and Sona and Allia looked young enough to be of interest. He was glad of the weight of his sword against his thigh under the table, in case things turned ugly.

  But the night passed without bloodshed and they pressed on for the river.

  The river town turned out to be a fair-sized place, no doubt because of the trade that went through it. The waterfront was a warren of warehouses and long wooden platforms that extended out from the shore. He saw stacks of wool bales everywhere, and tufts of the stuff blew about on the ground.

  There were also soldiers. There was an encampment just outside the walls, and there were many uniformed men—and women, too—in the streets. They wore chain mail under tabards emblazoned with the shape of a red bird in flight, and many were armed with long swords.

  Rieser paused at a stall where a man was selling roasted chestnuts. “Who are these soldiers?” he asked.

  The man gave him much the same look as the Tír back at that tavern had. “Why, the Skalan Red Hawk regiment, of course.”

  According to the man back at the tavern, this was a good thing. Encouraged, Rieser led his company down to the waterfront.

  Boats were tied up beside the long wooden platforms, many of them little more than huge rafts, like the ones children played with on the lakes back home.

  After some confusion he was directed to someone called the dock master. This turned out to be a friendly man with dishonest eyes whose palm had to be crossed with silver before he would take them to something called a “flat boat” that could carry their horses. Rieser paid the captain in gold for passage on one of the larger ones, what the master called a “barge.”

  For the next week they kept to themselves as much as possible, but it was difficult. The bargemen picked up other passengers along the way, and stopped to let others off. Some of these people felt it necessary to pester Nowen and the other women with unwanted attentions, and Rieser and the rest of them with pointless questions. Young Rane and his brother Thiren were excited and curious, and a few times Rieser was forced to act as their interpreter, but he soon made it clear that they were to keep to themselves.

  They began to see signs of the war now. Some of the villages they passed had been burned, and dead sheep and horses floated at the river’s edge.

  “Who has done this?” he asked the barge captain.

  “Damn Plenimarans, of course!” the man replied. “You’re in Mycena now, and they’ve always been Skala’s friend.”

  “What are they fighting about, these two lands?”

  “This river, for one thing. Surely you’ve heard it called the Gold Road? What do you think we carry down from Boersby, eh? It ain’t all Wolde cloth and apple wine.”

  “They don’t have gold in the south?”

  “Damn little of it, and they’re not content with silver.” He grinned and put a finger to the side of his nose. “But then, who is?”

  This made sense. The mountains surrounding the North Star clan’s fai’thast were rich with metals, and some gems and rock crystal, too.

  Just then Rieser caught sight of a large camp in the distance on the western shore. There were hundreds of tents and shelters, and what looked to be twice that in horses and men.

  “There’s some of the Skalans, in winter camp,” the captain told him. “A good thing for us, too. The Plenimarans raid our boats whenever they can when they’re this far west.”

  “How do the Skalans feel about the Aurënfaie?”

  The man gave him a surprised look. “You ought to know better than me, what with the ’faie trading with them for horses and all the rest.”

  Rieser cursed himself for breaking his own rule of talking too much. “We’re from the south. I don’t pay much attention to such things.”

  “Ah, well, that’ll be why you don’t sound like any ’faie I’ve met, then,” the captain said, not looking entirely convinced. “As for the war, Skala still holds Nanta, so I won’t have to put you ashore before that. At least that was the last news I had. By the Old Sailor, it can change in the blink of an eye! You’ll do well to find a ship to make the crossing, rather than going overland. The two armies will start up again pretty soon and you wouldn’t want to get caught in the middle of that, believe me.”

  “I thank you for this knowledge,” Rieser said. For once, a talkative Tírfaie had proven useful.

  There had been no question of Turmay playing the oo’lu during the voyage, or in the teeming city of Nanta, when they docked at last. None of them had seen a city of this size before, or a body of water as large as the Inside Sea, and the young ones drew smiles from passersby as they gawked.

  The harbor was full of huge ships with red sails—Skalan warships, the captain said—and there were soldiers everywhere, wearing long tunics with different emblems on their chests. A good many wore the sign of a white horse and walked with the swagger of horsemen.

  As soon as their horses had been unloaded, Rieser led his people away from the city. They camped in a small copse overlooking the sea. It was much warmer here than in the northlands; there was hardly more than a dusting of snow on the frozen ground.

  The map showed this sea, but being beside it was far different. The water stretched west to the horizon, covered in whitecaps in the evening breeze, and was undrinkable, as they soon learned. The waves surged against the rocks below their camp, sending up clouds of white spume. It smelled different than lake water, too. There was a sweet tang to it, and he could taste salt on his lips as the wind carried the spray up to where he stood.

  As soon as the moon was up, Turmay took his place by the fire and began to play. The song was rich and deep, nuanced with sounds like the calls of birds and croaking of frogs. Tonight it also growled like a mountain bear.

  The witch stopped suddenly and looked across the fire at Rieser. “The tayan’gil has left the place where it was. It journeys west, with many companions. One of them is a ya’shel with your blood.”

  Rieser nodded. It made sense. The half-breed infant he’d pursued with Syall would be a young man by now. Somehow the dark witches had found him and made the tayan’gil. How they had gotten all the way back to Aurënen was as much a mystery as why the tayan’gil existed at all.

  “Can you see their faces, Turmay?”

  “Not yet. I just know that he and the tayan’gil are still together.”

  Rieser gave him a rare smile. “Thank you for your help, my friend. Without your visions, we would not have come so far so quickly.”

  “Thank the Mother,” the witch replied with a grin.

  Turmay lay awake after the other ’faie had gone to sleep. The tayan’gil Hâzadriën did not sleep, and the witch suspected that Rieser had ordered it to watch him at night.

  Turmay had not lied to Rieser. He just hadn’t told him the whole truth.

  Curled up by the fire, he clutched his oo’lu close and silently prayed to the half-moon above.

  Beautiful Mother, giver of life and death, shine your face on me and guide me to this white abomination. Guide my hand to kill it before it acts again!

  CHAPTER 9

  Home

  SNOW was falling gently as Alec and the rest reached the mouth of the home valley.

  Seregil had tried to describe his home to Alec, but when they finally reached it just before sunset, Alec found it more vast and beautiful than he’d imagined. The lower end of the valley was rolling and broad, with plentiful water from several rivers. Acres of meadow promised lush hay in summer.

  T
he valley was dotted with horse farms that reminded Alec of Watermead, and others raising sheep, goats, and chickens, and still others that looked like they were tilled for grain and vegetables in summer. Farther up, the valley narrowed and the sides grew steeper, but Alec could make out the dark shapes of herds there, too.

  Seregil kept his hood up as they neared the final crossroad. His kin and the escort riders greeted friends by name. Four decades weren’t a lot in a ’faie lifetime, and he recognized quite a few people. Some of them were his age, and it was bittersweet to see how young they still looked compared to him.

  Though he kept up a cheerful façade, he felt an increasing inner turmoil as they reached the final turn onto the steep road that led up to the town of his birth. To their left he could already hear the roar of the lower river churning in the gorge below. The Bôkthersan clan house and central town lay on the eastern shore of a large mountain lake. The Silver River cascaded down from the peaks to feed it, and then continued down the valley in a rushing torrent.

  The sigh of the breeze in the boughs soothed him a little, as it always had, and the deep snow brought back happy memories of snowball fights and ice fishing on the lake, and hot drinks around the bonfires afterward as the feeling came back like pins and needles to cold fingers and toes.

  To be riding up this road again was gift enough, but to be in the company of Alec and Micum and his kin brought a lump to his throat.

  He wondered if his other two sisters, Shalar and Illina, would be there to greet him. They’d shunned him since his first exile, sending no words of comfort and staying away from Sarikali when he’d been there. According to Adzriel, there were others among his kin and clan who would not welcome him warmly, either.

  Nudging his horse up beside Seregil’s, Alec gave him a knowing look as he said quietly, “That’s not a very cheerful expression, talí. Aren’t you happy to be back?”

 
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