Then Corlant left, and Gretchya was instantly back on her feet. She towed up Iseult while Alma darted for the basement hatch.
“We must hurry,” Gretchya whispered. “Corlant clearly knows what Alma and I have planned. He will try to stop us.”
“Planned?” Iseult asked, but at that moment, there was a sudden slash like the shears through Iseult’s hair. In an explosive spiral, everything that bound the three witches to the village slammed into their chests.
The Threads that bound had broken.
Iseult could not see it, but she felt it. A sudden lurch in her heart that almost knocked her off her feet.
Alma shoved Iseult toward the door. “Run,” she hissed. “To the gate—run!”
Something about Alma’s panicked, green eyes pierced Iseult’s brain. She bolted through the door … only to stumble, arms windmilling to keep her upright.
For a mob waited outside. With lanterns and torches and crossbows. The four hundred Nomatsis who had missed the Greeting had gathered on silent feet, their Threads hidden by Corlant’s magic.
And there was Corlant himself, slithering through the crowd, a head taller than everyone else and Threads writhing with purple hunger.
People scattered from his path. Faces leered in the shadows—faces Iseult recognized, hateful faces from her childhood that made her knees buckle and chest hollow out.
She flung a glance behind her—but the house was empty. Only Scruffs remained, growling with raised hackles.
Iseult waited, breath held, as Corlant raked her with a ravenous gaze that sent purple across his Threads. Then, with deliberate slowness, he crossed his thumbs at Iseult. It was the sign to ward off evil.
“Other,” he said softly, almost inaudible over the evening crickets and the breaths of the crowd. “Hang the other.” Then again, louder. “Other, other. Hang the other.”
The tribe took up the chant. Other. Other. Hang the other. The words slid off tongues, venomous and building. The people packed in. Iseult didn’t move. She tried to thrust herself deep into the logic of a Threadwitch. There was a solution out of this—there had to be. But she couldn’t see it. Not without Safi beside her. Not without time to pause and plan.
The people swarmed her. Their Threads erupted with life, as if suddenly set free—a thousand shades of terror-stricken white, and bloodthirsty purple bore down on Iseult. Then hands crushed against her. Fingers grabbed and poked. Her head snapped as her hair was yanked. Tears sprang from her eyes.
Other, other, hang the other.
No one even spoke the words anymore—they were too busy whooping their war cries to the night and screeching for Iseult to die. But their Threads hummed with that same rhythm as they shoved and kicked and groped. As they forced her to shamble one agonizing step after another toward the largest oak in the settlement.
And beneath that four-beat rhythm—Other, other, hang the other—was a rapid three-beat vibration. Puppeteer. Puppeteer. A frightened bass beneath an already violent descant.
Corlant had truly convinced the tribe that Iseult was the Puppeteer, and now she would die for it.
Then the oak loomed before Iseult, a mass of jagged lines against a bright moonlit sky. A man grabbed at Iseult’s breast, his Threads erratically shaking. A woman raked her nails down Iseult’s cheek, her Threads starved for violence.
As spots of pain flecked Iseult’s vision, her heart finally hardened into the stone it was meant to be. Her pulse slowed; her body temperature plummeted; and all the sights, sounds, and pain of the moment vanished behind a wall of objective thought.
This attack was fueled by Corlant. By fear. The people were afraid of the Cleaved and the unknown Puppeteer … and therefore afraid of Iseult.
With your right hand, give a person what he expects—and with your left hand, cut his purse.
“Sever.” The word boiled up in Iseult’s throat, hissed out with spittle. “Sever,” she repeated again, the same hiss. The same thoroughly blank expression on her face. “Twist and sever.”
Then again. “Sever, sever. Twist and sever.” It was the same rhythm as the crowds’ strumming Threads, their pulsing fear. Iseult latched on to that four-beat song and three-beat bass …
Then she gave them what they wanted to see.
She gave them a Puppeteer.
“Sever, sever. Twist and sever. Threads that break. Threads that die.” The words she screamed were gibberish. Iseult couldn’t touch these people’s Threads and she certainly couldn’t control them. But the Nomatsis didn’t know that, so on she chanted: “Sever, sever. Twist and sever. Threads that break. Threads that die.”
Louder, Iseult shrieked until there was enough space for her to straighten. For her to inhale and yell all the more. Until at last the bloodthirsty Threads began to drown beneath the blinding white Threads of fear. Corlant was nowhere to be seen.
Then a new distraction arrived: a firepot flew through the air and Gretchya’s voice lashed out, “Ignite!”
The pot exploded. Iseult dropped to the ground as flaming shards whistled down. Her mother hadn’t abandoned her.
People ran; Iseult ran too. Toward her mother’s voice—toward her mother’s house. Yet as her feet pounded the dirt and exploding pots flashed on other houses, ignited thatch rooftops, and sent the Nomatsi into panicked flight, Iseult felt the Threads around her shift once more.
It always happened—that moment when a mark realized he’d been cheated—and it was happening now. The people were noticing they’d lost their Puppeteer, yet their taste for blood had not been sated; it had only grown.