“Did you see anything yet?” Haret asked, staring out over the eastern balcony as the Threads faded with the dawn, his voice emotionless as he asked the same question he did every Rising and Setting.
He had tried lying to Haret for the first few days, pretending he had seen something in Threads. He had tried every place he could think of, but none had been the answer Haret wanted.
Estervan was almost over and Tahnner had still not seen anything in the Threads. He had stopped running from them though, but he doubted Herat considered that much of an improvement. At least his lessons on Thread Lore had taught him what they were and what they were supposed to show. The Threads were a library, a history of everything that had been or could ever be.
Not that any of that made a difference since he was deliberately avoiding seeing anything when the Threads were out. He had hoped that if he proved useless at reading them, then the ravellers might release him from his indenture. Senara thought it unlikely though, considering the guild mark already inked onto the left side of his chest. The mark of the ravellers. It resembled the Threads at Rising, a half sun with gold lines reaching outwards, marking him forever.
He was a failure to his family. It was his turn to do his part, to be like his uncle Jareck. He wanted to become the raveller his father desired him to be, but he was too afraid of losing his mind to the Threads to try.
“Nothing,” Tahnner answered, stifling a yawn as he scowled at the stone in front of him. Even late into estervan, Rising still meant the ravellers must awake at a cursed time of the morning in order to be on the eastern balconies in time for the Threads. He had never been so excited for the colder seasons of autumnal and hibernal. At least then he wouldn’t be dragged from his bed before even the birds had bothered to rise.
“In that case,” Haret said, his gaze still fixed on some point in the distance, “you’d best hurry along downstairs and get started on your chores.”
Tahnner made to leave, but stopped, needing to ask, “What if I never see anything? Has that ever happened?”
Haret turned to face him, his black robes a stark contrast to the warm estervan dawn behind him. “If it has, then it’s a secret only the Threads know. There is, however, no Thread which will show you becoming the king’s personal Thread reader if you don’t master them. There are a lot worse positions for a raveller too. You might want to remember that next time you waste a reading, even your father might not be able to pull enough strings to save you from being stuck in some backwater place like this. Now run along. Every moment you slack off from your chores is one someone else will have to make up for you.”
His words rang in Tahnner’s ears as he hurried downstairs. When he reached the dugout pools of rainwater at the back of the guild, he found Senara already hard at work washing a dirty set of robes. He was glad he had been placed on robe duty with her, it made up for how much his arms ached at the end of each day from all the scrubbing he did. He had thought it exciting on the first day, he had never had to wash clothes back in Turro so enjoyed the novelty of the job. His hands had been soft to touch then. The soap had long since dried them up just like his enjoyment had.
Different tasks were assigned to other novices. Some of the oldest had the privilege of journeying down the hillside to the town of Pelston each day, fetching letters and whatever supplies the guild was unable to produce. Others tended to the animals, cleaned the guild or cooked the meals. It all felt a lot less glamorous than what Tahnner suspected most people imagined the life of a raveller to be like. Had he known that whilst in training, novice ravellers spread manure on crops, he doubted he would have been quite so intimidated by the ones he had seen in Turro.
Senara beamed at him as he reached her side. He mumbled back a greeting as he knelt beside her, folding the sleeves of his robes back to keep them from getting soaked in the water as he wondered what the chances were they would be moved to another chore before the colder seasons set in. He didn’t fancy the task of washing clothes in an icy outdoor pool.
“Still nothing?” Senara asked, rubbing soap into the armpits of a set of robes. “You tried focusing on just one Thread this time?”
“It’s Haret’s fault,” he muttered, pulling the next unwashed robe from the basket and submerging it into the cold water. “He just stands there. It’s not like he even tries to help.”
Senara’s large brown eyes flickered up to watch him as her hands stilled, soapy bubbles dripping from her fingers. The look she gave him was solemn, making her look older than she had any right to be.
“It’s not like there’s much he can do,” she said, returning her attention to the robes. “It’s sort of up to you.”
“Just because a bird has wings doesn’t mean it knows how to fly,” Tahnner muttered. That was an expression his mother had favoured, often saying it after he had done something particularly stupid, like when he had assumed that riding Rhaner’s horse would be just like riding his pony. This time though, it would be his mind that would break and not his arm.
He had used to wonder why ravers were the way they were, why they wandered the streets oblivious to everything around them. Now though, he wished he was still oblivious, wished he didn’t know what held them captive. How was he supposed to willingly throw his mind into reading the seething mass of Threads when he could get lost in them and never find his way out?
He had finished with the first robe and was reaching for the second when he noticed Senara’s hands had stilled again, white suds pooling in the water below. He glanced up to see what had caught her attention and was unsurprised to find Fedan Draeman walking to the vegetable plots with a couple of other boys.
“Have you ever actually spoken to him?” Tahnner asked, envy prickling at him as he wondered what it was about Fedan which always captured Senara’s attention.
She blushed, returning her attention to the robe as she shook her head without saying anything. He often caught her watching Fedan. The two seemed engaged in some strange dance of avoidance, always going to great pains to stay as far from each other as possible.
“What do you expect? He’s a Draeman. My father says the Draemans are a cruel house. They can’t be trusted.”
Senara’s eyebrows shot up. “He can’t know them then. They were always kind enough to me.”
“You know Fedan’s family?” Alarm prickled up his spine. He had never thought to ask what family Senara belonged to. Was she a family friend of the Draemans? Did she know of the animosity between his own and Fedan’s house?
Some of the plumpness in Senara’s lips disappeared as she pressed them together. “Used to,” she said after a moment, her gaze fixed on the robe. “Grew up on his family’s lands.”
“My parents died when I was five. Black pox. The Draeman’s charity was all that kept me alive when the other townsfolk had enough of me. Thought I’d bring the plague back down on them.”
Tahnner frowned. He had seen beggars before. Turro was overrun with people displaced by the war, their clothes filthy and their faces haggard from years of struggling to stay alive. Senara’s face was too full to be one of a beggar, though. She laughed when he told her so.
“I’ve Fedan to thank for that, I guess,” she said. “He used to sneak out most days to bring me food. We had this place down by the river. No-one knew about it. Used to play there all the time. He used to say I was more fun than his brothers.” Laughter filled her eyes as she spoke and Tahnner longed to see it there more often, even if it was memories of Fedan which caused it. He liked the way it made her dark brown eyes sparkle and her freckles scrunch up.
“How did you end up here then?” he asked, holding back the question he really wanted the answer to because he didn’t want her smile to fade.
What he really wanted to know the answer to, was why did the ravellers take in a beggar? He was glad they had. Senara was the only person in Pelston whose company he enjoyed, especially since the other boys still mocked him for being stuck on the first floor after half a season. They were all second or third sons of Ilyia’s great houses just like he was. So why had the ravellers purchased the indenture of a girl living on the streets when they already those who came from families of influence?
Senara glanced up at where the sun climbed through the sky, its yellow light scattering through a wispy cloud. Without looking at him she said, “Read it in the Threads.”
He was so shocked that the soapy robe slipped through his fingers and splashed into the pool.
“Lord Draeman sent for a Pelston raveller,” she said. “I read his Threads, knew he was indenturing Fedan and I asked the raveller if he would take me too. Haret tested my ability, then brought me here. Not much to it really.”
“Haret? Wait-? You mean you could read the Threads before you came here?” He could already imagine how his father would scold him if he learnt that a beggar girl had been better at reading the Threads than he would ever be.
“Course I could,” Senara said, her voice light again with the girlish laughter which suited her so well. “You tend to get woken by Rising when you don’t sleep with a roof over your head.”
“I wish I had been a beggar,” Tahnner muttered without thinking. “At least that way I might be able to do something right around here.”
“No, you don’t. Same way you don’t wish you grew up with your stomach aching for food you’re afraid will never come.”
“I guess not,” Tahnner said, an embarrassed flush heating his neck as he stared at the sudsy robe, unable to meet Senara’s eyes.
They finished the rest of the washing in silence before heading inside for their mid-morning meal. When they reached the ground floor dining chamber, one of the older boys pulled him aside, handing him a letter before hurrying off to join his friends as they piled food on their plates.
He had never received anything at Pelston before. He took the letter to the nearest torch bracket, out of the way of prying eyes. Breaking the seal of House Turro, he unfolded it, hoping to find his mother’s handwriting within. His heart sank when he realised the letter was from his father, wanting to know what Tahnner had learnt, of the progress which he had none to report back. How long might he go without answering it before his father grew angry?
“Does it still itch?”
He jolted at the sound of Senara’s voice. She stood in front of him holding two plates laden high with food. She gestured with one of the plates to where his fingers absentmindedly scratched at the gold ravellers mark on his chest.
“Hmm? Oh, no.” He dropped his hand from his collar and screwed the letter up, stuffing it inside a pocket in his robe.
“You shouldn’t scratch it,” she said as she sat down at the table next to him, pushing one of the plates in his direction. “It’ll blotch and they’ll only have to redo it. The ink costs a fortune too, so they won’t be happy with you.”
“I’ll stop,” Tahnner murmured as he sat down, unable to wrench his gaze away from the amount on Senara’s plate. “Are you afraid the ravellers will put you back on the streets?” he asked, gesturing at the small mountain of food. Senara ceased shovelling forkfuls into her mouth and glowered at him. “Sorry,” he said quickly, “Sometimes I talk without thinking. My father always tells me off for it…”
His words trailed off as he realised Senara was laughing, the sound peeling off the walls of the cavernous dining chamber, drawing the attention of the other ravellers. An answering chuckle bubbled up in his stomach as he smiled back at Senara, liking the way the light of the torches danced in her eyes as she threw her head back to laugh.
“Guess I am,” she said after a moment, still chuckling as she stared at her plate.
The rest of the day passed in the usual haze of lessons and chores, the letter weighing heavy in his pocket. When Setting approached, he reluctantly set off for the first floor whilst the other boys, Fedan Draeman included, continued up to the upper levels.
“I hope you’re in the mood for perusing the Threads, Master Turro,” Haret said, waving for Tahnner to position himself behind the stone once again. “If you don’t start proving yourself, your position with the king will be given to another. I hear that more ravellers are always needed at the war front.”
Tahnner said nothing, trying to ignore Haret’s threat. He focused on the green stone atop the pedestal on the western balcony. Waiting.
The sun dipped below the horizon and the Threads burst into life, masses of gold infiltrating everything around him. He might not be as afraid of them as he had been, but he still flinched at the sight. The difference this time though was that he was unwilling to let another reading pass without making it to the next balcony. He needed something to report to his father, needed to prove that he could help their house.
He fixed his attention on the stone’s Threads, trying to grasp individual strands in his mind, picking at random from the uncountable, seething mass of gold belonging to the stone alone. Each time he thought he held one in his mind, it would slip away like water between his fingers.
Anger surged through him and he was filled with a familiar sense of disappointment, the same feeling he could feel seeping from Haret. He knew it was only in his mind, but he thought he felt a prickle from his father too, wherever he might be.
He threw his concentration back into the stone’s Threads, hunting for something, any hint which might help him glean useful information from them. He could try another guess on Haret, but even if he happened upon the right answer, what good would that do? He wouldn’t be able to be the king’s raveller by using guesswork alone.
Images flashed through his mind. The shock caused his grip on the Threads to falter. He scrambled with the strands, trying to grasp them again but each image was more fleeting than the one before. There were too many of them. They swirled around him in a confusing tangle of gold. Each time he thought he grasped one, he only lost it again.
Countless. They stretched further than his mind could grasp. He tried to focus on the patterns, enjoying the way they grouped together. Suddenly he found his mind staring at ropes of Threads, all bound together, individual strands amplified and bursting into his mind with sudden clarity. For the first time, he experienced the sense of duality the ravellers taught in the lessons on Thread Lore. He understood the feeling of both being able to see with your eyes whilst also seeing the images held within the Threads. It was as if he would still be able to see even if his eyes were shut, so clear was the image in his mind.
In the Threads, he saw the western first floor balcony, exactly as it was in the present. He could even see himself, but it was as if he was watching someone else. He moved his hand and laughed as he saw himself repeat the action in the Threads.
“Aha,” came Haret voice, trickling into his consciousness with a strange echo. “Some progress at last. Now, can you trace the stone’s Threads back? I want you to tell me where it’s come from.”
The instructions finally made sense. As well as being able to see the present, he became aware of more, a Thread of images, one he could follow in either direction. He instantly knew which direction contained the images of the future. If the Threads of the present were like a rope for his mind to grasp, then those of the future were like a single strand of silk fraying into a thousand more, each too difficult for him to hold in his mind. He focused on the past instead, working his way back along the rope of Threads, revelling in how irreversibly entwined they were. How easy it was for him to hold them in his mind!
Time dissolved as he traversed the Threads, watching as he disappeared and reappeared as he had been yesterday at Setting. It was as if he watched time itself backtrack, each image filling his mind recording a moment after the next.
His confidence grew and soon he peeled back through the months at a dizzying speed, too fast to notice much about the images filling his mind. At one point, he thought he glimpsed Fedan being tested on the balcony by Haret, but the image was gone too quickly to be sure.
“The stone belonged to a raveller who came here from Tarnac,” he announced as the images suddenly shifted. Instead of being on the western balcony, his mind was dragged from Pelston, reversing the journey the raveller had made to reach the guild.
“It was given to him by his mother. She bought it from a travelling peddler. The peddler purchased it from a sailor who stole it from a man in Itrantus-”
“You’ve seen enough, Tahnner,” Haret said, a slight waver in his usually commanding tone. “You’ve passed the test. It’s time you return to your own Threads, the sun’s already over halfway set-”
“The Itrantian dug it up from within the mines. It was bigger then, before he broke this piece away with his pick. There are more Threads here, so many more, all tangled up together-”
He couldn’t understand Haret’s panic. His mind was filled with images of faraway places, of Threads far removed from his own. Why had he been so afraid? The Threads should be celebrated! Through reading them, he had already glimpsed more of the world than he would have in the rest of his life. He could see that which no-one living knew of. How could he have been afraid? They were a gift!
“You will stop this now! Tahnner! You’ve gone too far. The sun is almost set! You have to get back to your own Threads or you’ll be trapped there.”
He didn’t respond, barely even aware of Haret any more. The crack of a hand across his face dragged his attention back though. Haret’s slap broke the trance the Threads held over him, also breaking the hold he had on the Threads.
His mind fumbled, losing its grip on those he had followed into the mines of Itrantus. Even as his eyes stared at Haret, he could feel the part of his mind still buried in Itrantus a hundred years ago. He couldn’t focus on his surroundings, not with his mind trapped as it was. Was this what it was like for a raver? Reality felt insignificant in comparison to images of the mine filling his head. He could barely focus on the small segment of sunlight lingering just above the horizon on the western balcony.
Panic filled him as he recollected the warnings. Don’t get too entangled in the Threads. Don’t entwine yourself so deeply that you won’t be able to return to your own Threads. He would be fated to spend his days with his mind trapped, unable to focus on anything in his surroundings if he couldn’t get back. All too acutely, he was aware of how far he would have to travel before the last of the sun vanished below the horizon, and he had lost the Threads he had followed there in the first place.
“I can’t. Haret-I can’t. I’m trapped-!”
The words tumbled from him as his mind fumbled with the countless Threads, searching for the ones he had followed. There were too many, all too similar for him to distinguish between them.
If he was a raver, he would never be able to do his part for his family. His brother had told him once that they locked ravers in the prisons to stop them from hurting themselves and others. Would they lock him away when he failed to return to his own Threads?
Haret’s voice was calm as he spoke. His hand gripped Tahnner’s wrist as the awareness of another mind entwined with the Itrantian mine’s Threads. Without understanding how, he knew Haret was there with him, his mind enmeshed in the same Threads, but where Tahnner’s mind flailed like a drowning man, Haret’s held the rope.
“Follow them back. Hurry now, we don’t have long.”
He flung his mind at the Threads Haret held, speeding through them so fast he could make out nothing in the blur of gold. He almost overshot the present, entangling himself in the future Threads. It was only Haret’s warning to slow down that stopped him.
He found his own Threads as the gold began fading away around them. As they disappeared, he refocused, feeling dizzy from the overload his mind had been subjected to in such a short period of time. He glanced up and winced at the scowl Haret shot him. He could recognise trouble when he was already halfway buried in it.
“By all the Threads… what were you thinking?” Haret’s shout echoed off the balcony walls loud enough for the ravellers on the upper floors to hear every word. “What’s the first rule of Thread reading? You’ve been here a month, I would have thought you would have learnt it by now.”
“Always ensure you have a way back to your own Threads before they fade,” Tahnner muttered to the floor.
“So you’re not an idiot then,” Haret muttered. “Just a fool. Have you ever seen a raver? That’s what you would have become if I hadn’t gotten you out!”
Tahnner said nothing. Ravers drew attention like dung drew flies, everyone in Ilyia had seen one. They were everywhere, walking through life oblivious to everything about them, always muttering conversations incomprehensible to any but themselves.
Haret raked his hands through his hair, his fingers curling into fists around the strands. Tahnner tensed as he waited for Haret to hit him like his father sometimes did, but the blow never came. All Haret did was squeeze his eyes shut and forced in a deep breath before warning him not to do anything so stupid again.
“Go to bed Tahnner,” Haret ordered, running a weary hand over his face. “Get some sleep and let the consequences of your actions sink in.”
“Yes, Sir,” he murmured, turning away, his mind still reeling from everything he had seen in the Threads. Itrantus was weeks south of Ilyia by ship, yet his mind had travelled there and back within the time it had taken the sun to set. The concept boggled him, but he already understood the consequences well enough. Haret had risked losing his own mind in order to save Tahnner’s.
A thought occurred to him and he turned back to where Haret stood, staring at the stone with an unfocused gaze. “Since I found out where the stone is from, does that mean I passed?” he asked. “Can I join the others tomorrow?”
Haret rubbed his fingers across his forehead as he shook his head, giving Tahnner the same look his mother had every time he injured himself chasing after his brother.
“Alright,” Haret said after a moment. “Join those on the second floor, but only if you promise not to let the Threads draw you in so deeply again. I might not be there to guide you out next time.”
“Thank you!” Tahnner called over his shoulder as he raced inside, eager to share his news with Senara and his father.