ANAN EASED into bow range. He’d been hunting for a fingercount of days and stalking this daggerhorn since the early gray of predawn. He waited until the animal turned away before rising to a crouch. The lethally armed grazer would feed him and his mate for days. He brought his bow up slowly and drew the bowstring to his cheek.
His body convulsed with pain that felt as if he’d been stabbed with a red-hot iron blade, and his arrow shot several lengths above his quarry, which disappeared into the deep grass.
In the next instant, Anan knew. His mating-bond with Silbre had snapped. Agony filled him, sending him to his knees as the bow slipped from his numb hands. Gasping for air, he dropped forward onto his hands as waves of loss and pain overwhelmed him.
I have to find Silbre. What happened? Our mating-bond can’t be broken. Unwilling to believe the horrible truth, Anan had to find his mate.
He staggered to his feet, looping the bow over his shoulder as he took the first stumbling steps toward home. The surety of his pace came back to him, and he gained speed until he was sprinting toward the clan’s encampment. Time became irrelevant. He walked when his legs refused to run and ate when his body demanded it.
Dusk came on him stealthily, but he refused to stop. Silbre can’t be gone. We’ve been together since our adult velvet. Anan’s chest tightened at the thought of losing his mate. His mind swirled with fear, horror, and anger. If their teachers hadn’t sent him on yet another hunting trip, maybe he could have saved Silbre. No, he refused to believe he’d lost Silbre. There must be another explanation. He pushed down the rush of emotions and focused on the run as night deepened. With the rise of the moons, he picked up speed, desperate to reach home.
Anan neared the last of his endurance when he saw the familiar featherleaf trees that lined the river bend where the Kuri clan spent its summers. He topped the river embankment and dropped to his knees at the sight before him. Complete devastation. The warm morning breeze carried the scent of death. The raucous voices of carrion birds as they fought over bits of his clan reinforced his horror.
He struggled down the steep embankment to splash through the shallow river that circled most of what had been the Kuri’s summer encampment. As he waded to shore, he found the eyeless face of a childhood friend. Anan stumbled to one side and emptied his stomach. He retched again and again as he surpassed the limit of his emotional endurance until each twist of his stomach yielded nothing.
Silbre! Where’s Silbre? Anan renewed his headlong flight to find his twining mate.
He ran through the devastation, sending flocks of birds into the air. With each heartbeat his desperation grew as he ran to their tent. He has to be alive. I can’t survive without him. He rounded a pile of debris and found the familiar woven pattern of their summer lodge. His world died. Entangled in the remains, Silbre’s body bristled with a fingercount of crossbow quarrels. Varas slavers. Those are their bolts. The iron heads and spiral fletching left no doubt. But they had never come this far into Talac territory.
Anan dropped to his knees and pulled Silbre tight against him. Anan’s breath rasped between clenched teeth, his chest tight with grief as he rocked with his mate in his arms. A freshet of tears rolled over the plush hair covering his face. The dull drone from hordes of green burrowing flies and the cries of carrion birds surrounded him. But grief paralyzed Anan.
His sorrow merged with anger, and he screamed toward the implacable sky. “Why have you let this happen? Why did you cut his threads so short?”
Anan dropped his chin against his chest and sobbed. He rocked his mate slowly, tracing the tips of his fingers along the swirls of a spellweaver created in the short tan and brown hair covering Silbre’s face while he fought to ignore the fatal wounds. Anan’s throat tightened as more tears rolled down his cheeks. He lowered Silbre gently, as if he were sleeping.
The aftermath of the attack must be dealt with. He had no choice. He steeled himself to the carnage around him and struggled to understand. How did the Varas unravel the protective web that surrounded the village? Especially those of the Kuri clan, who have some of the most skilled spellweavers of the Talac people. Even if they had broken the spell, a warning would have been felt, and people would have boiled out like stingers from their nest. Something in the web of Anan’s reality shifted as he wondered how the Varas were able to decimate a Talac village.
Anan called on his spell vision and tried to trace any threads, but they were gone. If there were survivors, they were no longer connected to the village weaving. He began moving in a haze of disbelief.
All the people he’d grown up with were gone. Saritua who taught him his first weavings, Trebea who knew the perfect day to harvest wood for bows that wouldn’t wrack in the fall rains—gone. He’d never hear Poza talking with her imaginary friends as she toddled from one rug to another pretending at grownup, or her wonder when the spring gliders migrated across the savanna.
He’d seen the carrion birds pecking the flesh from their lifeless bodies. The horrors no longer registered, as his surroundings became part of an unending cascade of atrocities. At some point he would break and mourn. But not now; he was too numb, too overwhelmed. The bits of his being that weren’t focused on what he had to accomplish in this moment hid in the corner of his mind, gibbering in near madness. Silbre couldn’t come to the rescue this time. The task fell on his shoulders. There was no one else.
Screaming birds took off and revealed the burned arms of a spellspinner. With this final revelation, the last warp threads of Anan’s reality snapped. All the Kuri spinners would be dead. When spellspinners in battle ripped the matama from the attackers, they condemned themselves to death. Akhir gave their attackers a painful end, but the backlash left the spellspinners burned and dead. He moved closer and saw the velvetless skin that marked them from birth as spellspinners. But the curse, or gift, of akhir created the final separation between the Talac spinners and weavers.
Anan’s questionable skill at spellweaving didn’t matter any longer. Without a spinner, there was no one to take the deathspinner eggs and harvest silk for the matama threads he needed for his weavings. Only the spinners knew how to combine matama with silk harvested from the most feared animals of the savanna. Without spun threads, Anan’s years of training didn’t matter.
Lucid thought came to an end with yet another gruesome discovery. His mind rebelled, and the final threads of his former life broke one by one. He locked away his emotions to sort through them when he could take the luxury.
Anan recognized the end of his second day when the sun’s deep red orb rested on the treetops, covering his world in the color of fresh blood. Darkness would come soon and with it the possibility of larger predators. With the clan spell webbing gone, nothing would keep them out.
He knew his duty. He must gather the dead and perform the most sacred of weavings. He would create the final unraveling ceremony for most of the village.
Anan struggled to his feet and began his task. Taking Silbre first, he carried his mate’s body to the center of the camp. He ran the back of his fingers over his twining’s face, the cold ache of loss constricting around his chest until his breath came in gasps and tears rolled down his cheeks again.
Hesitant at first, Anan carried the remains of each member of his clan and laid them side by side. Lastly he moved to the spellspinners’ tents. He understood their importance in the clan, but their aloof manner and vanity over their birthmark velvetless skin had been reason enough for him to avoid them in the past. But his duty was to the village, and his personal disdain had no place. Following the sense of duty hammered into him by his parents, he afforded the spellspinners the same reverence as the other lost.
As he moved toward the final dwelling, and its content, he couldn’t help but note the remains of Varas attackers littering the encampment. Some resembled colorless grubs, the sign of a spellspinner calling akhir. The pale Varas bodies also meant there would be a burned spellspinner close by. Akhir extracted a horrible toll. Only in the legends of First Spinner and First Weaver did anyone survive calling akhir.
He grabbed the wrists of a spinner and found the touch of bare skin against his palms… odd. Anan had never touched a spinner before. There had never been a reason to do so. They didn’t encourage contact. After steeling himself, he squatted to gather the last of the bodies, when he heard a moan.
Anan spun, knife in hand. When he realized the sound didn’t come from attacking Varas, he sheathed his knife and waited, listening for signs of life. A few heartbeats later another barely audible sound leaked from the wreckage. Anan dug through a pile of tent cloth and found a storage cache. Another groan drifted from inside the partially exposed opening, followed by rustling as if a mouse ran across a stretched kuri-skin drum.
Anan eased himself forward, peering into the opening. At first he could see nothing but darkness, but then two brilliant blue eyes peered up at him.
He waited, recognizing the color of a spellspinner’s eyes. How did this spinner survive? Why did he hide? Compassion returned to Anan. Regardless of how this spinner survived, he is also Talac.
“You hurt?” Even to Anan’s own ears, his words sounded brittle and desolate of emotion. He waited for a response, but when none came, he reached inside.
“Here. Let me help.”
Smooth skin slid under Anan’s palms, the first time he’d touched a living spinner. Surprise raced through his system when he found the contact… pleasant. As he helped the slender figure, he recognized this spinner, but not for a reason he might have hoped. The spinner standing before him was the most reclusive. He always avoided contact with any of the Talac who were normal. Who were velveted.
He studied Anan with the suspicion of a young night-hunter, complete with the twitch of his nose. He took the offered hand and scrambled up the side of the cache.
The tension between them grew as their gazes locked. This isn’t about my feelings for the spinners. I must perform the unraveling. He waited a moment, took in a breath, and calmed himself.
“Can you walk?”
The spinner wiped a grimy arm over his forehead, leaving streaks of filth as he tucked his dark hair behind his ears. An instant later he nodded silently.
This time the young man trembled. “Terja. I am a spinner.”
Anan’s brow lifted. “Yes. I see you.” He considered asking the questions swirling through his mind, but waited.
Terja shuddered again and turned his head slowly. He seemed lost, but Anan granted him time to adjust and waited until the spinner’s focus returned. “Where is everyone?”
“Dead. Or taken as Varas slaves. I found only a few bodies from Kuri our age.”
Terja’s eye’s widened. “Slavers? The screams. I heard… it was….” He stared at Anan.
Anan wondered if this spinner still functioned or if the trauma had overwhelmed Terja. Regardless, he continued. “Varas slavers attacked the village. Everyone is either dead or captured. I don’t know why the web didn’t sound an alert. The herds are scattered. All the Talac clans are in jeopardy.”
“Our kuri and herdweavers? Gone?” Terja’s voice broke at the news.
Anan stared at him. The herds were the least of his concerns. The herdweavers had either died fighting or were captured. But he knew they hadn’t deserted the kuri. They took their role as guardians seriously. But he needed to finish his task, and Terja acted too overwhelmed to help.
Though he moved toward the nearest body, Anan couldn’t stop staring at Terja. The irrelevant question wiped out the last of his restraint. “Why were you hiding? The Varas attacked. Why’d you do nothing?”
Tears flooded from Terja’s eyes. With his breath coming in gasps, he tried to explain. “I tried. Had my staff. People dying. Father put me—” Terja broke into inconsolable sobbing. Anan knew he would get no more information from the spinner.
“At nightfall we’re doing an unraveling for the dead. You’re helping.”
Terja looked shaken, as if it had never occurred to him a spellweaver would address him in that manner. He began to speak, but when Anan glared at him, Terja pressed his lips tightly together.
Anan motioned to the body of one of the older spinners, and Terja moved to stand at its feet. He clamped his eyes shut as he groped for the ankles, shuddering when the tips of his fingers made contact, and hesitated. Anan allowed him what time he could, but before he had to jar him into motion, Terja clenched his teeth and grabbed the dead man’s ankles.
He opened his eyes and glared at Anan, but Anan was far past being affected by anything so minor as the anger of a young spellspinner. With Terja’s help, the last bodies were gathered. Exhausted mentally and physically, he still refused to allow Terja to perform any of the ceremony.
“We need to make a final check. It’s close to nightfall. I don’t want to leave—” Anan stopped and swallowed hard to regain his control. “I want to be certain we’ve taken care of everyone. We can go opposite directions and meet back here. Hopefully, there’s nothing to find.”
Anan waited for Terja’s nod, then started through the encampment. Hesitant at first, he covered the area with speed and resolve. I don’t know how many more victims I can deal with before my mind snaps like a weak warp thread. As he worked through the smoldering remains, he began to think they’d recovered all the bodies.
He returned to the center of the encampment and found Terja hadn’t arrived. Anan moved to locate the spinner. Close to the spinner’s lodges, Anan found him, crumpled into the dust, holding the body of a small child.
His heart cracked when Terja’s eyes met his, tears running down his red cheeks. He held the broken body like a precious jewel, cradling the kit who was long past the issues of this world. The spinner ran his fingers over the deep brown velvet covering the kit’s face as if he were sleeping. He reached down to touch Terja’s shoulder.
“He’s gone, Terja. Add him to the ceremony so his strands can rejoin the others in the Great Weaving.”
Past reason now, Terja’s sobs echoed across the scene of desolation. The darkness flowed over the pair, its edges seeming to ripple in response to Terja’s grief. “You don’t understand!” he yelled, his face contorted with anger. “Akra and I were friends. His father died when a longtooth pack attacked him. We broke fast together each morning. Why would they kill a kit?”
Anan hardened. “You know why. Akra was nothing more than an animal to them. They don’t follow the teachings of First Twining, and we are nothing more than mating slaves to feed their addiction.”
“Akra was a sweet kit. Just a toddler.”
Anan squeezed his shoulder. “Come. It’s time.”
He forced Terja into motion. They came to the central area, and Terja turned to Anan. “Clean him. Please. I know it will take some of the spinnings you have, but please. I cannot stand to think he’s going to the Great Weaving like this. He worried so much about how he looked.”
“Please. I’ll replace the spinning. The spell panels on your kilt are close to full. You have enough matama to do this.” Terja turned ashen. “Please. This will be the last thing I ask of you.”
Anan sighed and ran his hand over the complex matama patterns stored on his kilt. Although his state of exhaustion diminished his focus to the point where he had to touch the threads. He deftly created the weaving in the air from the matama stored in his kilt panels. Soon he had the simple weave completed. Once he did, Anan struggled through the ritual steps drummed into him to release the spell and clean the lifeless body. The small weaving dissipated, and Anan let his vision slip away.
The kit before them now could have been sleeping. Anan normally would have refused to use a spellweaving on someone beyond its reach, but he admitted, if only to himself, this final visage of the kit was much preferable to the blood- and gore-splattered toddler that had lain before him a short time earlier. He stared at the kit, then at Terja.
“It’s time to do the unraveling.”
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About the author:
Jon Keys’s earliest memories revolve around books. Either read to him or making up stories based on the illustrations, these were places his active mind occupied. As he got older the selection expanded beyond Mother Goose and Dr. Suess to the world of westerns, science fiction and fantasy. His world filled with dragon riders, mind speaking horses and comic book heroes in hot uniforms.
A voracious reader for half a century, Jon recently began creating his own creations of fiction. The first writing was his attempt at showing rural characters in a more sympathetic light. Now he has moved into some of the writing he lost himself in for so many years…fantasy. Jon has worked as a ranch hand, teacher, computer tech, roughneck, designer, retail clerk, welder, artist, and, yes, pool boy; with interests ranging from kayaking and hunting to drawing and cooking, he uses this range of life experiences to create written works that draw the reader in and wrap them in a good story.
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Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Cover Artist: Paul Richmond
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