The walls were thick, the archers keen, and if the Bloodwitch could somehow navigate this far, he would find a chest full of barbed arrows awaited him.
Yet, just as the Midenzis fought to keep outsiders away, they also fought to keep their own people in. If you left the settlement, you were deemed other, and other was the one thing a Nomatsi never wanted to be—not even Iseult.
When the telltale oaks masking the edge of the settlement’s walls finally appeared, black and menacing in the night’s darkness, Iseult stopped. This was her last chance to run. She could turn around and spend the rest of her life without ever seeing the tribe again—though a short life that might be with the Bloodwitch hunting her.
The moon was rising east of Iseult, illuminating her for all to see. She’d wound up her braid and tied it beneath her headscarf. Nomatsi women kept their hair chin length; Iseult’s fell halfway down her back. She needed to keep that hidden.
“Name,” a voice called out in the guttural Nomatsi tongue. A hostile steel Thread flickered at Iseult’s left along with the faint shape of archers in the trees.
She lifted her hands submissively, hoping the bindings on her palm weren’t too obvious. “Iseult,” she shouted. “Iseult det Midenzi.”
Oak leaves rustled; branches creaked. More Threads shimmered and moved as guards scooted over their trees to confer, to decide. The moments slid past with aching slowness. Iseult’s heart beat against her lungs and echoed in her ears while the mare tossed her head. Then stamped. She needed to be rubbed down.
A shout split the night sky.
Two sparrows took flight.
Then came another shout from a throat Iseult knew—and she felt like she was falling. Plummeting off some mountain peak, losing her stomach as the earth closed in fast.
Stasis, she screamed inwardly. Stasis in your fingertips and in your toes!
She didn’t find stasis, though. Not before the scrape of the huge gate hit her ears. Then footsteps hammered on the ground and a figure in Threadwitch black came sprinting toward her.
“Iseult!” her mother shouted with tears streaking down a face almost identical to Iseult’s. False tears, of course, since true Threadwitches didn’t cry—and Gretchya was nothing if not a true Threadwitch.
Iseult had just enough time to consider how small her mother seemed—only up to Iseult’s nose—before her mother yanked her into a rib-snapping embrace and Iseult’s mind filled with only one thought. A prayer, really, that the Bloodwitch stayed far, far away.
* * *
Iseult found that walking through the moonlit Midenzi settlement was both easier and harder than she’d expected.
It was easier because although little had changed in the three years since her last visit to the tribe, it all seemed smaller than she recalled. The timber walls surrounding the village were as weathered to gray as she remembered, but now they didn’t seem so insurmountable. Just … tall. If not for the Nomatsi trail and the archers in the trees, the wall would be a mere inconvenience for that Bloodwitch.
The round homes built from stones as brown as the mud on which they stood looked like miniatures. Toy homes with narrow, low doors and shuttered windows.
Even the oaks that grew halfheartedly throughout the fifteen-acre settlement seemed scrawnier than Iseult remembered. Not large or strong enough for her to scale into the branches like she’d once done.
What made trekking through the tribe harder than Iseult expected was the people—or rather their Threads. As she followed her mother to her home at the center of the tribe, shutters popped wide, revealing curious faces. Their Threads were strangely dampened, wrung out like old towels.
Iseult flinched every time a figure rounded a corner or a door banged wide. Yet, every time, Iseult would also find she didn’t recognize the moonlit face scrutinizing her.
It made no sense. New people in the tribe? Threads that were faded to near invisibility?
When Iseult finally reached her mother’s round home, she found it as strangely tiny as everywhere else. Though Gretchya’s hut wore the same orange rugs over the same wide plank floors from Iseult’s childhood, it was all so small.
The worktable that had once come up to Iseult’s waist, now only reached her mid-thigh—as did the dining table beneath the window on the eastern side. Behind the stove was a hatch that led to a dug-out basement. It looked so compact that Iseult wasn’t sure she could even brave it down there.
The two times she’d come back—for only one night each visit—the cellar had felt terrifying and enclosed compared to Mathew’s open-aired attic. And, after having had a bed of her own, the single pallet Iseult had always shared with her mother had seemed cramped. Inescapable.
“Come.” Gretchya gripped Iseult’s wrist and towed her to the four low stools around the stove that were customary in a Threadwitch’s home. Iseult had to quash the need to wrench free of her mother’s fingers. Gretchya’s touch was even colder than she remembered.
And of course, her mother didn’t notice the bloodied wrapping on her daughter’s palm—or maybe she noticed but didn’t care. Iseult couldn’t gauge her mother’s emotions because Threadwitches could neither see their own Threads nor those of other Threadwitches. And Gretchya was far more skilled at masking her feelings than Iseult had ever been.
In the guttering lantern light, though, Iseult could at least see that her mother’s face had changed very little in three years. Perhaps a bit thinner and perhaps a few more lines around her frequently frowning mouth, but that was all that was different.