Unless I am. Unless I can be.
Iseult would drift asleep with those thoughts to warm her.
Today, though, was the first time Threadstone had ever flashed—a sign Iseult was truly in danger. She just hoped that, wherever Safi might be right now, she wasn’t panicking at the sight of her own blinking stone.
Iseult also hoped that the stone flared only for her, for if it glowed because Safi was also threatened …
No, Iseult couldn’t worry like that. All she could do right now was run.
To think, it had been only two weeks since all hell-fire had broken loose in Lejna. Since Iseult had lost Safi to the Marstoks, had rescued Merik from a collapsed building, and had decided she would go after her Threadsister no matter what.
Iseult had scoured the ghost city of Lejna after that, until she had found Mathew’s abandoned coffee shop. There’d been food in the kitchen, and clean water too. She’d even found a sack of silver coins in the cellar.
When no one had come for her after eight days, though, Iseult had been forced to assume no one ever would. Dom Eron had likely heard of Safi’s kidnapping by the Empress of Marstok; Habim, Mathew, and Eron were likely headed after her now.
Leaving Iseult with no choice but to set off at a steady pace northeast, sleeping by day, traveling by night. For there were only two types of people in the forests of the Witchlands: those who tried to kill you and those who got you killed. Both camps were best avoided.
Yet in the darkness that Iseult traveled by, there were other things waiting. Shadows and breezes and memories she couldn’t lock away. She thought about Safi. She thought about her mother. She thought about Corlant and his cursed arrow that had almost taken her life. She thought of the Cleaved from Lejna and the teardrop-shaped scar they’d left behind.
And she thought of the Puppeteer, who tried endlessly to invade Iseult’s dreams. A Weaverwitch, she called herself, all while insisting Iseult was just like her. But the Puppeteer cleaved people and controlled their Threads. Iseult could—would—never do that.
Mostly, Iseult thought about death. Her own. After all, she had only a single cutlass and she traveled toward a future that might not exist.
A future that could end very soon, if the Cleaved behind finally caught up. When they caught up, for Iseult was no good at this. It was why she relied so deeply on Safi—the one who could intuit with her bounding feet, escape with only instinct to drive her. Iseult was her own worst enemy in these breakneck situations, and she was letting fear drown out her Threadwitch reason.
Until she caught sight of the morning glories. A carpet of them alongside the stream. Seemingly wild. Seemingly harmless.
But not wild. Not harmless.
Iseult was out of the stream in a heartbeat. Her numb feet tripped her as she scrambled up the stream’s side. She fell; her hands caught her, wrists snapping back.
She didn’t notice, didn’t care, for there were morning glories everywhere she looked. Almost invisible in the mottled shadows, but unmissable if you knew how to look. Unmissable if you were a Nomatsi.
Though it looked like an innocent deer path cut into the pines, Iseult knew a Nomatsi road when she saw one. Meant to protect the tribes from outsiders, these trap-lined trails were certain death for anyone the caravan had not invited in.
Iseult had certainly not been invited, yet surely, as a fellow Nomatsi, she would not be deemed “outsider.”
She kicked into a stiff march away from the stream. No more running, for a single false step would trigger the Poisonwitched mist these morning glories were meant to hide.
There. She spotted the branch in the ground, wishbone shaped, with one kinked prong aiming north and one aiming south.
The way out of the Nomatsi road. Or the way deeper into it.
Iseult slowed her pace even more, easing around pine tree after pine tree. She crouched over a mossy stone. She tiptoed, she stalked, she scarcely breathed.
The Cleaved were so close now. Black Threads curdled and strained into her awareness, hungry and foul. In minutes, they would be upon her.
But that was all right, for up ahead was the next branch hammered into the earth, seamlessly woven into the forest. Clawed bear traps ahead, the branch alerted.
To the Cleaved, though, it would alert nothing at all. Not until their legs were trapped in iron teeth too strong for any man to pry apart.
The urge to sprint shook through Iseult’s legs. To bolt past these bear traps tucked in the fern-frilled clearing before her. She grabbed her Threadstone, squeezed tight, and kept her pace steady. Stasis, stasis, stasis. She counted six traps before she reached the other side.
Then she was past, and now she could run. Just in time too, for behind her, the Nomatsi road awoke. Poisonwitch mists erupted, a heated charge rising in the distance. It juddered through the air, scratched down Iseult’s spine.
The Cleaved had triggered it, yet the mist had no effect. The hunters were still coming.
Iseult pumped her legs faster. Her breath came in punctuated gasps. If she could get just a bit farther, then maybe she could escape entirely.
The bear traps snapped to life, clanging like midnight chimes. A howling burst out, torn from depraved throats. Four sets of Threads snapped and fought against the steel holding their legs.
Iseult did not slow. She had to get ahead while she could, for this lead might be short-lived. Ferns and pine needles crashed beneath her feet. She had no idea where her heels would plant next. All she could see were the masts of pine trees. Saplings, trunks, roots—she sprinted around them. Twisted her ankles and jammed her knees.
Speed was a mistake. Nomatsi roads weren’t meant to be crossed quickly. They demanded time. They demanded respect.
So it should have come as no surprise when Iseult reached a clearing and the solid ground abruptly gave way. It should have come as no surprise when a net snapped up to yank her high into the trees.
She yelped. Then flew straight upward, only to stop, dangling and swaying.
Iseult’s breath sawed in. Razored out. At least, she thought vaguely, I still have my cutlass. Though little good it would do her when she was hanging twenty feet in the air.
Or when a Cleaved strode to the center of the clearing, black blood trailing behind. His posture was bent. He was missing half his foot, and his skin roiled with whatever magic had erupted within to cleave him. Yet he moved with unusual focus. None of the mindless, frenetic violence typical of a Cleaved.
Then Iseult realized why. Severed Threads drifted lazily above him, stretching into the sky. Almost invisible.