A foulness lurked within the western Threads, marring them with the seep of death soon to come. Tahnner’s vision flooded with gold as he followed the beasts entwined in the Threads of two days hence. Three of them skulked down the mountain, their skeletal bodies protected from the snowy peaks by the shabby furs and broken feathers they garb themselves in. Bones belonging to Threads only knew what, clattered like the initial onslaught of an avalanche with every stride the wrogen took. At first, he had mistaken them for lyda, since the beasts each cloaked themselves in the shaggy, tawny pelts of one, rotting limbs sullying as they trailed in the dirt and snow.
The Threads of the western mountains were thick woven bands, as unchanging as any he had ever seen. If he traced them back thousands of years then little altered. The mountain’s future Threads were almost as ageless as those of its past, except for the fainter, gossamer thin Threads surrounding them, those belonging to the wild creatures that traversed the rocky terrain.
For over a year, he had focused on the lofty peaks of the Crag Lands at every Setting, alongside the other second floor Craggers, watching where the steep mountains rose in jagged peaks which only birds and beasts dared traverse. The other novices were always eager to progress from the Craggers and onto the upper floors, to the Seasoners or the Threaders, where the work was less monotonous. He doubted any were keen to leave the second floor today though, not when they had witnessed the first glimpse of a wrogen any raveller had seen in over four years.
Whilst the lyda only ventured down from the Crag Lands to snatch a meal from one of the few farms still attempting to make a living in the shadows of the mountains, wrogen were another matter. Ravellers had watched the western Crag Lands since the beasts had first swarmed the mountainous city of Stonesfall, over four hundred years ago. From the reports of the other ravellers, wrogen only threatened Ilyia once in every handful of years, but even then, the extent of their atrocities never approached that of Stonesfall.
It was said that the bodies of the wrogen’s dead were often left untouched. Tahnner had often wondered why even the scavengers would fear picking the meat from the bones of a wrogen’s victim. Whatever drove them to kill, it appeared to be more than hunger alone.
Tahnner stared at the wrogen making for the farmsteads on the gentler slopes at the base of the mountains. He heard the mutters of the other novices and he felt their minds in the Threads alongside his, staring at the gruesome sight of monsters buried beneath the rotting carcasses of their kills.
He was almost glad when Setting faded and he was forced to return to his own Threads. He followed the others back inside as Fedan raced to warn a raveller of the imminent attack, as eager as always to impress. His enthusiasm to prove himself was sickening, especially since Fedan’s skills with the Threads were mediocre at best, Tahnner doubted he would ever be raised from the ranks of the Craggers.
He trailed behind the others on the stairs as they joined those from the upper floors. It was easy to disappear into the crowd of black robes, even though he felt as different from them as he could be. By all intents and purposes, he should be the same as most novices. Many had grown up in families of equal, if not greater standing than his own. They had been sheltered from the Threads for most of their lives and looked upon the indentured classes as beneath them, although the ravellers were exempt from that stigma. Yet their comments made him uncomfortable. Their manners too abrasive, their natures too demanding. For those training in a guild that watched and learnt, they lacked curiosity. Nothing the ravellers learnt was ever utilised, besides the occasional warnings to the farmers and the Seasoners periodic predictions about the weather.
The wasted potential infuriated him. When he had complained about it to Senara, she had pointed out that the Threads were as visible to everyone else as much as they were to the ravellers. She might be more skilled at reading them than most, but a fear of the Threads was one thing she had never been able to understand. He wanted to tell her that most Ilyians were too afraid to even look at them, let alone attempt to read them. Ravellers guarded their knowledge of Thread Lore as a mother lyda did her cubs, they were unwilling to share the secrets which gave their guild so much power in the empire. He didn’t say anything though, not wishing to remind her of the time when he had been just as afraid and ignorant as the rest of Ilyia.
“You’ve got that look again,” Senara said, her voice breaking through his musings as she sidled up beside him, separating herself from the other Seasoners. “It’s the same look as when you said we should trace the guild’s Threads back, looking to see if any raveller techniques had been lost over the years.”
“At least we would have learnt something by doing it,” Tahnner muttered, keeping his voice low so as not to attract the attention of others nearby.
“Like you could ever defy orders and read Threads you weren’t instructed to.” Her eyes were alight with her usual teasing smile, the one which made his heart flip in his chest, as if he had just somersaulted from one of the balconies. She shot him a sidelong look, full of mischief and the promise that if he ever attempted anything so foolhardy as defying orders, then she would be right beside him. “Anyway, speak for yourself. You might not be able to see anything of use unless it’s as predictable as the sun’s rising. I, however, just saw evernal beginning in forty-one days with vernal arriving nineteen days after.”
“What?” Tahnner said, Senara’s announcement about the onset of the seasons jolted him out of his musings. “Hibernal was only announced two days ago. No raveller can see two ahead with any accuracy.”
Senara pulled a face. “They can’t,” she agreed, scowling at the backs of some of her fellow Seasoners as they strode down the corridor ahead of them. “But just because they’re incompetent twits doesn’t mean I have to be one too.”
Tahnner laughed, enjoying the earnest way her eyes widened as she made her point. He often wondered how Senara had avoided losing her mind in the years she had studied the Threads without the raveller’s lore as guidance. Unlike the rest of them, Senara seemed to create her own rules for reading the Threads.
“Well, this incompetent twit just saw three wrogen, so-”
“I know, I overheard some of the other Craggers as I passed them upstairs. Do they really have teeth hanging from their mouths which are longer than Varian’s arm?”
Tahnner exhaled a laugh. “Trust Varian’s incompetence. I had thought that even he would be able to distinguish pelt from beast. The wrogen were wearing the bodies of dead lyda. I guess the furs must help protect them from the cold.”
“Eww,” Senara said, looking more curious than repulsed. She had never glimpsed the wrogen during her short time as a Cragger and he knew it still galled her. He had a suspicion she would be defying her Seasoner’s orders tomorrow in order to hunt out the wrogen herself.
When they reached the large round dining room on the ground floor, they joined the back of the queue and waited to fill their plates. They were standing behind Fedan, but despite the many furtive glances he shot Senara, he never spoke to her. She kept her back to him the entire time, for which Tahnner was glad. He was still uncertain what issues lay between them, but as long as it resulted in his getting to spend more time with her then he was not about to complain.
Once their plates were filled, they sat at their usual table, a little removed from the others. He started to say more about the wrogen but she shushed him, her eyes unfocused and a mouthful of food forgotten hallway to her lips. He scowled at her, but then his ears heard what had caught her attention.
“-carriage’s Threads. It’ll be here any moment anyway, so you can eat your own words when it arrives,” one of the other novices said to his companions sat at the table nearest them.
“You couldn’t see future Threads of a falling stone, let alone a carriage,” another novice said, causing shouts of laughter from the others at the table.
“You won’t see my fist coming if I punch you in the face at Rising,” the first boy grumbled back, causing Senara to snort.
“Behold- Ilyia’s finest Threads readers,” she muttered, returning her attention to her food. “Being a raveller used to be a privilege, but you wouldn’t guess it now would you?”
“Oh?” Tahnner asked, his mind more focused on the food before him than what Senara was saying.
“I saw the other day when I was following the third floor balcony’s Threads, went back a few hundred years and Thread jumped to this novice’s –”
“What?” Tahnner interrupted, his cutlery clanking on the table as he dropped it in surprise, splattering boiled vegetables everywhere. “You Thread jumped? You’re not serious? How didn’t you get stuck?”
Senara shrugged, looking as if she had not made a casual mention of the fact that she had managed something which even the most skilled ravellers only attempted when they must.
“No big a deal,” she said, diverting her attention back to the rapidly cooling food on her plate, “do it all the time.”
“But it’s dangerous! Your mind could have become lost.”
Senara stared at him as if he was the idiot. It was worrying. Every time she looked at him in that way, she would soon say something which proved how much more adept she was with the Threads than he. She was good enough to be sent to Girona’s Thread Court once her training was complete. All the major cities across the empire had Thread Courts, but Girona’s was by far the best, picking only the elite ravellers to join their ranks. If she was sent to Girona, then he hoped it would be easy enough for him to see her in-between his readings for the king. He hated the thought that once their training was complete, they might not be able to spend much time in each other’s company.
Perhaps it was Senara’s influence, but he seemed to find reading patterns in the Threads easier than other novices. Their experiences appeared more akin to wading through a pool of golden mud twice a day than the sense of exploration he felt. Even so, compared to Senara, he was as useless as his brother Rhaner had been every time he used to challenge their uncle Jareck to a sparring session.
“Novices follow the same routines every day,” she said, explaining as if she were talking to a small child. “I just followed the balcony’s Threads then jumped back to my own. It was easy enough.”
“Of courses, great mistress of the golden weave… easy.” Tahnner shook his head as he tried to let her words sink in. Somehow Senara always seemed to find simple ways to circumvent what everyone else considered the utmost of complexity. She was either fearless or mad. He was certain that, had he tried it, Senara would currently be searching for a way to extract his mind from wherever he had lost it in the Threads.
“Anyway,” she continued, dismissing his fears over her becoming a raver as if no more than his wondering whether it would rain, “believe it or not, ravellers used to read potential recruit’s Threads before even considering indenturing them. They used to seek them out too, rather than waiting for them to be indentured. It’s a shame they’ve stopped doing that, really. I wouldn’t have to spend my time answering your stupid questions had they still bothered. You’d have never been let in.”
Tahnner mimed flicking his food at her. Without thinking he said, “If they wouldn’t let me in, then you wouldn’t be here either since Fedan has nowhere near enough skill to have been admitted.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” The laughter disappeared from Senara’s eyes as she stared at him, even the reflection of the torches lining the walls failed to warm the icy stare.
“Just that you’re only here because Fedan’s father indentured him- ow!” He rubbed the painful spot on his leg where she had kicked him. “What was that for?”
“I came here for me, not for him.”
Tahnner grunted in noncommittal agreement, devoting his attention to the remainder of his food. He knew he should have learnt by now to hold his tongue about anything concerning Fedan.
They ate in silence for the rest of their meal. He had almost finished when a loud reverberating knock from the front entrance, rang out through the dining chamber. From the far side of the room, the same wizened raveller who had answered the door the day Tahnner had arrived, rose from where he dined with Haret and the other fully trained ravellers and shuffled towards the entrance. He was the one who took care of the paperwork for all new novices, corresponding with the guild keepers in Girona, informing them of the latest indentures and requesting a keeper be sent to Pelston to mark the new novices with the symbol of the ravellers guild.
“Looks like there was a carriage after all,” Tahnner murmured as the old raveller disappeared from view.
“Haret won’t like having three illiterates stuck with him on the first floor,” Senara said, her attention fixed on scraping the last morsels from her plate. Even though hers was always fuller than his, she somehow always managed to finish first.
Since his indenture, seven others had arrived to be trained, two of whom were still stuck on the first floor balcony, proving to be even more incompetent with Thread reading than Tahnner had. He had yet to discover what Haret had done to deserve the most tedious task the guild had to offer, and that included Tahnner’s current chore of sweeping the floors of the lower levels.
“I hope this one’s not as bad as the two with him now-”
Senara stopped speaking as the entrance to the dining room darkened with the older raveller’s return. He was flanked by a scowling man dressed in black robes, but Tahnner didn’t recognise him. He knew the look of superiority which the man wore though as he strode into the room.
“Raveller?” he asked Senara, “Where do you think he’s-”
“Tahnner Turro?” the man asked, his words reverberating through the dining chamber like a command. “Make yourself known and don’t keep me waiting.”
Tahnner winced as all eyes in the room turned to him. He had no need of announcing himself since all the staring faces pointed him out well enough. When he made no move to stand though, Senara’s foot kicked his leg under the table again, spurring him up. The stranger’s eyes turned to him and all of a sudden, Tahnner was reminded of all the times he had displeased his father before he had been brought to Pelston.
“Come with me,” the stranger said, leaving the dining chamber again without waiting to see if Tahnner followed.
He shot Senara an uncertain glance before following the man, his mind flying through one idea after another as to why a raveller might have come to Pelston to seek him out. Wherever he had journeyed from, the man must have missed Setting at least in order to reach Pelston at this hour. A fully trained raveller’s time was worth a small fortune, so whatever the reason for his journey, it had to be serious if it warranted missing a reading.
As Tahnner hurried from the dining room, heavy footsteps echoed upon the stone slabs behind him. Half-turning, he spotted Haret, a dark scowl on his face as he followed Tahnner down the corridor. Haret shot him a reassuring smile before gesturing for him to hurry after the stranger.
The man was young, perhaps in his mid-twenties. He seemed to know where he was going though, leading them up to the sixth floor without waiting for anyone to direct him. Perhaps the stranger had once trained in Pelston.
Since he had never been allowed past the third floor before, he felt his eyes go wide at seeing the rooms frequented by only the fully trained ravellers and the more experienced novices. Four desks faced each other in the centre, positioned around a single large torch which illuminated the room all the way to the reams of yellowed papers lining the outer wall, stacked and arranged in neat rows as far from the open flame as was possible.
“Some Threads never change,” the stranger said, staring around the workroom.
Humbled by his surrounding, Tahnner stared at the years of knowledge accrued by the ravellers. How much of it had been rendered useless by the passage of time? Surely there must be better uses for it other than being stored in an old tower on a hilltop?
“Still here Haret?” the stranger asked, jerking Tahnner from his musings. “Either they’ve forgotten about you or they’ve decided the empire is best served by your drifting into obscurity? I know which one I hope to be true.”
“Why are you here Kheelan? The boy has a long way to go before his training is complete.”
Kheelan dismissed Haret’s comment with a wave of his hand. “I’m not here about his indenture. The king has plenty of ravellers at his disposal, he’s no need of another, despite Lord Rhanick’s incessant reminders. Besides, I’m certain the king will have no use of one trained by your incompetence.”
Haret’s eyes took on a hard glint which Tahnner had never seen before, not even on the day he had almost caused them both to be lost in the stone’s Threads. They were filled with a rage Kheelan seemed determined to stoke.
“Why are you here? Last I remember, you swore never to deign to set foot in Pelston again. It was the one perk of my banishment here. I would prefer you not to take that from me too.”
“Believe me, your company is even less appealing,” Kheelan drawled, turning from Haret. “You, boy? You are Lord Rhanick Turro’s son, are you not?”
“Do you communicate with your father?”
“Yes, Sir,” Tahnner answered again, uncertain of the direction of the questions.
“And your uncle?”
“I –what?” Jareck? What had he to do with anything? He had not seen his uncle since he had left for Pelston.
“Jareck Turro, your uncle, second in command of the palace guards,” Kheelan said, speaking the words as he closed the distance between them, only stopping when he towered over Tahnner. “Have you heard any news concerning him recently?” Kheelan scrutinized Tahnner as he spoke, his gaze scouring over him, leaving his skin feeling raw in its wake.
“I’ve not heard from him since I came here.” He glanced to Haret for support but the raveller’s gaze was fixed on Kheelan. “Isn’t he in Girona?”
Kheelan stared at him, but said nothing. Tahnner felt as if the raveller was trying to read his Threads even though it wasn’t Rising or Setting.
“We don’t know,” Kheelan said after a long moment, releasing Tahnner from his fixed stare and heaving a tired sigh. He turned his back on them and paced to the far side of the room then trailed his fingers along the papers arrayed upon the wall. “He disappeared on the night of the attack, accompanied by Councillor Berlioz, the captain of the guards and a choice few of his men.”
“What attack?” Haret asked, his voice sharp as he frowned at Kheelan.
The raveller’s head whipped around until he faced Haret, his eyebrows raised in incredulity. He looked as if laughter was on the verge of spilling from his lips.
“You can’t be serious?” Kheelan’s gaze darted between Haret and Tahnner as they exchanged puzzled glances. “I knew Pelston was a forgotten backwater, but I had thought that at least this news would reach you.”
“Kheelan?” Haret growled. “If you want the boy’s help then you need to explain-”
“Yes, yes. Thank you, Raveller Haret,” Kheelan shot back, silencing him with a glare. He took in a deep breath before turning to address Tahnner. “Six days ago, there was an attack upon the king, the prince and princess. The king survived, but both the prince and princess were killed. I am here because the task of discovering the identity of the culprits has, naturally, fallen to the ravellers.”
Killed? The word rang through Tahnner’s mind. The boy and girl he had seen the day he met the king? What could they have done to merit being murdered? Had it been a Daenan plot, an attempt to throw the empire into chaos?
“You have the bodies, don’t you?” Haret asked, resting one hand on Tahnner’s shoulder. “Why come here to bother our novices. I’m sure there are plenty of other ways you can find the murderer’s Threads from Girona.”
“Not when the king has banned all ravellers from half the palace,” Kheelan grumbled. “Besides, what with the fire, we have no idea what’s become of the bodies.” He sighed, pulling a sheet from the top of a pile and blowing off a layer of dust before examining it. “He has decreed the throne room and all of the private residences be out of bounds of Thread exploration, including the royal chambers and the guard’s quarters. Any raveller caught breaking the law is to be hung from the palace walls. Any unsolicited reading of a royal’s Threads will be met with the same penalty.”
“What?” Haret’s fingers dug into Tahnner’s shoulder without him seeming to realise it. “He can do that? Why would he even want to? He must know it will hinder the attacker’s identity being discovered?”
“The king has been… unwell. There is talk his mind is lost but…”
Lost. A raver’s mind was lost, doomed to wander the empire, unable to see the world around them because of the reality they lived in their heads. Most stumbled into their own deaths soon enough, but for the king to be a raver… Tahnner had never even considered that it was possible, after all, that was the reason the king had others to read the Threads for him.
Tahnner had learnt in his lessons about why people lost their minds in the Threads. For some it was an accident, caused by incompetence when reading, being unable to return to their own before the Threads faded. For others though, it was deliberate. Tahnner had not been able to believe it when the raveller had told him. He still remembered the confusion and fear from when he had almost lost his own mind in Itrantus. He couldn’t understand why someone might voluntarily seek out the chaos of it.
The raveller had only looked at him with distant eyes and asked, “Have you never lost anyone? I think there are many people in this world willing to sacrifice sanity for the relief of being lost in the memories of loved ones.”
Kheelan replaced the paper and turned back to face Tahnner. “Your uncle and the others fled the palace on the night of the attack. We can only assume they played some role in the events that night. It was well known that Councillor Berlioz was a Daenan sympathiser, the connection to your uncle can therefore not be ignored.”
Tahnner wanted to interrupt, to protest that Jareck was no Daenan sympathiser, the Turro’s were not like Fedan’s family. The bite of Haret’s fingernails in his shoulder kept him quiet though.
“Since we have been banned from examining their Threads,” Kheelan continued to say, “we have been left unable to track them down. What’s more, they have demonstrated an … alarming ability to avoid our readings.”
“That still doesn’t explain why you have come here, Kheelan. Wherever Tahnner’s uncle has gone, it isn’t to Pelston.”
“No, but perhaps there is something here which might explain how the councillor and Jareck Turro have been so skilled at avoiding being found by their Threads? It would take someone with training to manage what they have-”
Tahnner felt a cold shiver ripple through him despite the lack of windows in the guild. Kheelan’s eyes bored into him, his head cocked to the right as he studied Tahnner. Should he tell them what his father had told him about the Draemans being Daenan sympathisers? If anyone had been sharing information about the raveller’s secrets then it was Fedan. He was always so eager to learn more about Thread lore, always asking questions.
“More likely they learnt it from the councillor,” Haret interjected. “There have always been rumours he was as good with the Threads as any raveller-”
“Let’s leave out the ten year old gossip shall we?” Kheelan snapped. “I doubt you learnt much of use in the season before you were banished from Girona. Now boy, is there anything you can think of that might help us find your uncle? Anything to help us track his Threads? Any secrets you might have shared with him?”
“No, Sir,” Tahnner said, loyalty to his family surging through him as he tried not to let his guilt show over the letters he had written to his father over the last year.
Kheelan bent down, close enough for Tahnner to smell the faint remains of the sickly perfume which lingered about the older raveller. “Think harder, young novice,” he said, tugging one side of Tahnner’s robes straight. “If you don’t, then I’ll have to drag you out to the balcony at Rising and go through your Threads until I find what I need.”
“Make all the threats you want, Kheelan, you’ll do no such thing,” Haret tugged Tahnner back and positioning himself between them. “As usual, you’ve overstepped your authority. You might have some power in Girona, but you’ve no right to threaten anyone here.”
“My orders-” Kheelan began, but Haret cut him off.
“Come from who? The king? It doesn’t sound like he’s on the best of terms with the Thread Court at the moment. Your influence ended the moment you stepped outside Girona’s walls. What do you care anyway? If the king doesn’t want the culprits found, then it’s no concern of ours. Unless you’re making a move to become head raveller in Girona and need the recognition?”
Kheelan said nothing, the only sign that Haret had hit the mark was how the other raveller’s eyes narrowed as he glared at Haret.
“Ah, that’s it, isn’t it?” Haret chuckled to himself. “Look Kheelan, I realise you’ve come here prove something, but there’s nothing we can help you with. You’ll have to find someone else to use in your quest for power this time.”
“You always were too narrow-minded. You never could understand anything other than what you saw in those damned Threads.” Kheelan was a little taller than Haret, a fact he used to full advantage as he stepped closer to him. “You’ll end up making your own noose with them if you don’t open your eyes to the world around you for once.” With that, Kheelan left, his black robes billowing behind him, the pounding of his feet reverberating through the halls as he stormed down the stairs.
“You should go and join the others,” Haret said as the footsteps faded away. “Don’t let him catch you alone. I’ll see to it that he’s removed from Pelston by Rising.”
“Yes, Sir,” Tahnner said, making to leave but turning back to face the raveller as a thought occurred to him. “Sir? Why are you in Pelston?”
It seemed obvious to him now that Haret was too good a raveller to be wasted here, he wondered why he had not thought to question the raveller’s presence before. Harte was better with the Threads than most of the others. The skills he had demonstrated in rescuing Tahnner proved as much. Even Senara had been impressed by the feat. Why someone with so much skill was being wasted in Pelston was anyone’s guess. Tahnner had heard stories from the other novices about the luxuries Thread Court ravellers lived, their expensive quarters were a far cry from modest old Pelston, where they worked for everything they had.
The corner of Haret’s mouth twitched into a small smile, dying in almost the same moment it formed. “Ravellers are entrusted with a great responsibility, Tahnner. Never forget that people rely on you to read the truth from the Threads, but sometimes it isn’t the truth they want. Now go on downstairs. You shouldn’t be up here. I’m sure Senara is awaiting your report.”
“Yes, Sir,” Tahnner said again, turning to go but finding himself unable to. “Sir? Isn’t there a better use for all of this?” he asked, gesturing at the papers piled high around the room.
Haret said nothing, he only rubbed at the tired lines on his forehead. He suddenly looked a lot older than the twenty something years Tahnner guessed him to be.
“There are a great many things in this world for which there are better uses, but don’t delude yourself into thinking anyone is interested in them. Now go downstairs, before I change my mind and let Kheelan pry into every secret you’ve ever had.”