Fibers hang in the air, invisible, gossamer thin. Antioch feels like the barest breath, the slightest disturbance of air, will tangle them irreparably.
“What do you want, Antioch?” Ignotus doesn't even look up from his work. His fingers twist in a quick, complex rhythm. The threads hum in time.
“Who says I want anything, Ig?” Antioch replies with his best charming smile, even though he knows it won't make a difference. Both of his brothers have long since become immune to his charm. “I might just want to see my baby brother.”
Ignotus snorts, still not looking at Antioch. “That would require you to have ceased trotting along at Aethelred's heels like a dog. Have you, brother?”
Antioch forces down the urge to turn his wand on his brother and snarl out a curse. He reminds himself that Ig is his brother, and he needs his help, and honestly, attacking a thread mage in his own home, under his own wards, and surrounded by his own threads is the height of folly.
“No,” he bites out, “and I won't until the filthy Normans have been pushed from our lands.”
“It's been 200 years or so,” Ignotus remarks mildly. “You still think we can't come to an agreement?”
Antioch snarls, stepping forward - right into a tangle of thread. “Goddammit, Ig, get this off me!” His heart pounds against the cage of his ribs. He can feel the ghosts of other fibers wriggling against his skin - under it, through his veins...
Ignotus hums, his fingers still dancing along invisible fibers. “Don't disturb my work then, Antioch. Understood?”
His voice is mild and serene. Antioch knows the danger lurking under it. “I promise,” he says with all the sincerity he can muster. After a moment, the threads loosen their grip and he steps away, back towards the door. He shakes off the phantom touches, the memories.
“Don't talk about my Lord like that,” Antioch demands in return. He thinks it a fair enough request. He ignores how his voice shakes. “Not after - Don’t talk about him like that.”
Ignotus barks out a harsh, bitter laugh. “I'll say what I like in my own house, brother. If you don't like it, you're welcome to leave.”
Antioch remembers Ig as a sweet, gentle child, slow to anger and quick to love. He would always mediate between Cadmus, who was easily angered, and Antioch, who could never resist rousing his temper. He wonders what that gentle child would think if he could see the three of them now.
He would wonder what had happened to that child, what had turned him hard and bitter, but - he knows. And he doesn't like to dwell on it.
“How’s Cadmus doing?” he says instead, in a clumsy attempt to change the subject.
“Not well,” Ignotus replies. Over, under, twist, under, over, his fingers slip on invisible lines. “Grieving still, I presume. I haven’t heard from him in, oh, six months now?”
That is a surprise. Cadmus won’t talk to Antioch for anything less than a life-and-death situation - Antioch had even learned about the death of Cadmus’ childhood love from Ignotus - but Cadmus clove to Ignotus in a way that Antioch had once compared to a baby seeking comfort from its mother’s breast. Cadmus had cursed him for that one. Or, well, he had tried to at least. Antioch had demonstrated why that was a poor idea.
There’s a reason that Cadmus and Antioch don’t talk to each other.
“Six months? And you’re not concerned?”
“Of course I’m concerned,” Ignotus bites out, and for the first time, he looks up at Antioch. There are bags under his eyes and new lines creasing his face since the last time Antioch had seen him. Exhaustion drags on his features, weighing down the corners of his mouth. “I’m always concerned for you both. But there’s not much I can do about either of you, is there?”
Antioch had walked out of this house when he turned 17, his mother screaming behind him, Cadmus and Ignotus clutched in her arms. He’d cut himself out of her threads and dragged himself, bleeding and wild, to a man who he could follow, who he could believe in. Cadmus had never forgiven Antioch for leaving him behind. Ignotus had never forgiven him for leaving.
“I can take care of myself,” Antioch tells his youngest brother. “You should worry about Cadmus. And yourself.”
“You’re good with that Roman magic of yours, but that -”
“Roman magic?” interrupts Antioch, amused despite himself. “You’re still calling it that? It’s been ours for generations, Ig. And it's getting more and more common. Someday, it’ll just be Saxon magic, and traditional Celtic knot-magic will be dead and gone. You’ve got a wand too, don’t you?”
Ignotus shrugs, looking back down at his weaving. Up, over, under, over - “I suppose. It’s somewhere in the house, collecting dust.”
“What was it?” Antioch muses. “Unicorn and yew?”
“Ah,” Ignotus hums, drawing the sound out. “That’s why you’re here, brother? I can’t help you with your wands, you know that.”
Antioch had declared, sticks clutched in his hands, leaves and dirt stuck in his curly hair, that he would be a wandmaker when he grew up. His mother had scoffed at him - “Weak Roman magic,” she’d said, her voice sharp as her thread, and she’d snatched the sticks from him. “Good for firewood,” and she’d smiled at him with an expression that was as cold as the winter winds that howled at their cottage windows.
Ig had found him later and shoved a bundle of sticks into his arms. “I tried to get a bunch of different types,” his sweet baby brother had said, and they spent the evening quietly naming them to each other.
“I don’t need your help with wandlore, Ig,” Antioch tells his brother now. “I doubt you’d know more than I do. No, I need your help with… threads.”
Ignotus looks up sharply at this, stunned silent. Antioch doesn’t blame him.
It had taken hours for Aethelred and his men to dig the fibers from Antioch’s skin. They couldn’t give him a potion for the pain - they didn’t have supplies or the time to brew, not with their continuous skirmishes against their Norman “overlords”. They drew out the threads clumsily under Antioch’s delirious direction and Aethelred’s half-remembered thread lore.
If you pitted a wizard with a wand against a witch with threads - on an unfamiliar battlefield, with no advantage to either dueler - the wizard with a wand would win every time. That was allegedly how the Roman wizards had routed the Celtic thread mages when they had invaded, before the Romans purged wizards from their ranks half a century later. But if you gave the thread mage time, if you let them knot and tie and bind, well… the outcome would be a little different.
Antioch had 17 years worth of shackles under his skin, 17 years of bindings in his blood. He’d screamed himself hoarse under their silencing spells. After he woke, free and unbound, he’d sworn an oath to his Lord - the only thread magic he’s ever done by choice.
Antioch doesn’t know when Cadmus had left, if it was before or after she had died, and he’s never been able to ask. There are scars on Cadmus’ arms, he knows, long, ropy, angry lines from his fingertips to his shoulders. He doesn’t know if Cadmus pulled them out himself or if Ignotus had done… something. He’s never asked.
He knows that he doesn’t want the answer.
“What are you trying to do?” Ignotus asks. “Antioch, you vowed -”
“I know what I vowed,” Antioch snaps. “Does it matter?”
“You’re not this stupid. Yes, of course it does.”
Antioch sighs, dragging a hand down his face. He’s overcome by a swift surge of weariness. He has all the components, everything he needs, and then he’ll have it, a wand that will best any that the Normans can put on the field. And then they’ll be able to drive them back, out of England, and Antioch’s oath will be fulfilled.
And then he’ll be free again. The thought feels illicit, traitorous. He shoves it away.
“Can you break it?” he asks his brother. “The vow. My vow never to perform thread magic. Can you do it?”
Ignotus studies him for a long moment. His fingers never cease their movement. Finally, he nods. “A single bound looped oath. Simple enough.”
He opens his mouth and his tongue darts out, looping over an invisible string and tugging it between Ignotus’ teeth. A snap of the jaws, and Antioch is free. Well, more free than he’d been before, at least.
“Could you do that with my other oath?” he asks, morbidly curious.
Ignotus snorts. “You swore an triple-bound three-fold oath, brother. Nothing in heaven or earth that could break that.”
“Are you really interested?”
Antioch shrugged. “It does bind me.”
Ignotus stares into his eyes, searching for something. Antioch forces himself not to look away.
Finally, he huffs out a laugh. “Sit down, big brother. We're going to be here a while.”
Antioch lowers himself to the floor, making sure not to step any closer to Ignotus and his work. Ignotus doesn't offer a chair, and Antioch doesn't ask for one.
“Three is the number of stability,” Ignotus explains. “And the number of fate - of truth. Three of anything invites a sort of greater influence, a bit of the universe bound to your purpose. Three Norns, three Fates, in the Greek, and even the Christians have their three-in-one God.”
“Three brothers,” Antioch contributes cynically, and Ignotus flashes the ghost of a smile.
“Three brothers,” he agrees, and continues, “To the question of your oath: there were three, yes? Three promises and three participants - you, Aethelred, and the bonder?”
“Three of three - a triple bond of three. Stability and fate, done three times over.” Ignotus smiles, but it doesn’t reach his eyes. Under, over, twist, over, twist - “You’ve bound yourself more to fate than each other, if that comforts you at all.”
“A question you should have asked before you swore it,” Ignotus snarls. Antioch flinches back from his brother’s sudden rage. “Yes, you fool, the amount of power that it would take to break that kind of oath is impossible. You can’t interfere with fate, not when you’re bound to it three times over.”
“That’s fine,” Antioch says, flashing a smile at Ignotus. He hopes it doesn’t look as fake as it feels. “I wouldn’t want to break it anyway. Aethelred is a good man, with a good cause.”
“Of course,” Ignotus murmurs softly. His fingers never pause, but their motion becomes sharper, jerkier, for brief moment. They soon smooth back into gentle movements. “Is this what you came here for? A discussion of your oaths?”
Antioch shakes his head. “No, I came here for advice on this.” He removes a folded cloth from his pack with gentle fingers. He deftly unfolds it to reveal a length of elder wood and a hair.
Ignotus peers at the wood and hair with curiosity. Up, down, twist, over - “That can’t be unicorn hair.”
Ignotus’ eyes widen in surprise. “You can use thestral hair as a wand core?”
“No,” says Antioch, “you can't, and that's why I need your help.”
“Oh,” Ignotus breathes, “oh, you need to bind them together.”
“You've always been quick, little brother.”
The issue is, of course, that wands use a core of a magical creature that resonates with a wood, which then resonates with the caster. The core cannot be inimical to the wood, but the combination of the core and the wood must be dissimilar enough that the result is still usable by wizards.
A dryad hair and wood, for example, would create a magical object only usable by those with dryad blood and magic. A kelpie hair and wood would never bind, since kelpie are creatures of the sea.
A good medium is unicorn hair, since unicorns are tied to the forest, yet have an aspect of light, or fire. Dragon heartstring is both more volatile and more powerful - a consistent inverse relationship - since dragons have a stronger connection to both fire and the air, but they raise their young in forests, and the heart never forgets.
Thestrals are creatures of death. Every kind of wood, no matter how associated it is with death, has rejected the hair. Antioch has pondered the question, night after night, but his thoughts keep returning to scars and knots and threads, so he has returned to his littlest brother, who could never come to him.
Ignotus stands up, his fingers still pulling under, over, twist, under, to get a closer look at the materials. He moves as if through pine sap, every limb burdened by the shimmering strings that exist even after their mother's death.
It takes an age for Ignotus to reach Antioch and then sink to the floor.
“Don't pity me,” he says suddenly, his eyes still roving over the wood and the hair. “It won't be this way for long.”
“It's been almost seven years since I left,” Antioch says with a touch of disbelief. “And four of those, she was still binding you. How do you define long?”
“What do you think I’m doing?” Ignotus retorts, pointedly holding up his hands as he weaves the invisible strands.
“I don’t know. What are you doing?”
Ignotus huffs. “I’m making a null cloak.”
“And that is?”
Ignotus stares at him wonderingly. “You didn’t listen to her at all, did you?”
“I tried not to,” Antioch replies, his words sharper than he meant them to be.
Ignotus is silent, but gives a sharp shrug in acceptance.
Ignotus was the good son, the one who listened to their mother and who wove the threads with even more deftness than she did. When he was younger, Antioch was terrified of him. Antioch would dream of his brother’s cold, tiny fingers tracing the paths of fate into the soft skin of his arms. Some days, he hated Ignotus, hated the way that he listened to their mother, hated the way that Ignotus fit into their aching, broken family in a way that Antioch never could.
Antioch still dreams of cold fingers and the rasp of thread against his skin. He tells himself that he’s not scared of his youngest brother, not anymore.
Some days he even believes it.
“A null cloak,” Ignotus tells Antioch, “is a cloak through which neither light nor magic can pass.”
Antioch's eyebrows shoot up towards his forehead. “A powerful artifact.”
Ignotus nods, a wry smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “Yes, if it existed.”
Antioch frowns. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“That's how a null cloak works in theory, but no one has actually accomplished the task of weaving one. The theory is too complex for all but the most accomplished thread mages, and the physical and mental demands too great for even those that understand the knots.”
“So how do you expect to do it?”
Ignotus smiles at Antioch, a small, cynical thing. “Because I must. Because when she was alive, I trained my fingers to unweave her knots in my sleep.” He shrugs. “It was pointless, in the end. But I can weave the threads in my sleep now, and that's what the null cloak requires - ceaseless weaving, done entirely under one's own power.”
Antioch stares at Ignotus’ fingers - over, under, twist, over - and notices the redness on the pads of his fingers, the swelling around his joints. “For how long?”
“The basic structure is a series of 17 knots. I start with a threefold loop, repeated twice, and then a five-leaf knot. I repeat this sequence five times, and then add two more threefold loops to close the structure.”
“Sounds reasonable?” Antioch is already lost.
Ignotus huffs out a sharp breath in frustration. “The point is that the knots add up to 66. Six is the number of structure and perfection, but six takes properties of the knots that comprise it. In this case, fate and stability from the threefold knots, and power and openness - in this case, a sense of freedom or separation - from the five-leaf knot. And then, of course, there is a duality of six - 66 - and this elevates this to an ultimate sense of a structure of fate and freedom, before and behind.
“And then I must weave this pattern of 66 over and over, first 66 times, then 33, then 100… on and on, until, well, the arithmancy isn't important. Until it converges. And that's a single row of the cloak. So, to answer your question - a long time already, and a long time more.”
“How does it work then? Does it break your bonds?”
Ignotus shakes his head. “No, some of my bindings are too powerful to be broken. But she tied them to this place - at least, the ones that she didn't tie to herself. The null cloak will hide me from them. So I can put it on, walk out of this house, and then when I take it off, I'll be free of the bonds, as long as I never again return to this place.”
“And… this is the only way? The only way to free yourself?”
“Do you think that I haven't tried everything else?” Ignotus snarls. “I can't rip myself out by sheer force like you did, brother. She wanted to bind you and Cadmus, yes, bind and keep you, but me? Me, she loved.”
A silence falls, broken only by the soft brush of Ignotus’ fingers. Antioch feels the urge to apologize, to explain to Ignotus…. It's a foolish impulse, useless. Ig knows his reasons, and none of them excuse Antioch's decision to leave his brothers behind.
Antioch suddenly can't stay here a moment longer. There's an itch under his skin and a heavy weight of guilt in his gut. Ignotus’ rhythmic weaving is unbearable.
He folds the cloth again briskly, concealing the thestral hair and elder wood from view. “I'm sorry,” he says, voice strained. “I shouldn't have come.”
“No, no, wait,” Ignotus says, slowly leaning towards Antioch. “You had a question-”
“It's fine. I'm sure I'll -”
“No, Ant, really -”
The use of his childhood nickname stops Antioch in his tracks, and Ignotus takes advantage of his shock.
“I'm sorry,” Ignotus says. “I didn't… We hurt, all three of us. We're a threefold tragedy, Ant, and sometimes when I weave I see the shape of it. We echo - our sorrows have the weight of fate behind them. But in the here and now - not the future, not the past - you're my brother, and you need my help, whatever else has or has not been done.”
Antioch slowly sinks back to the floor. “Always the peacemaker, Ig.”
Ignotus smiles, but there's no humor in it. “Better to make peace than to fight a war, brother.” Before Antioch can reply to that, Ignotus continues. “But you were here about a wand, correct? Why thestral hair?”
Antioch shrugs. “Wands always have a character influenced by their components. Of course, there are many other factors that influence a wand's temperament, as there is in all magic. The maker's magic, the phase of the moon that the components are combined, the tools used to harvest the components and to carve the wood - but the nature of the core and the wood are the elements that will set the tone for the character of the wand.”
“And you want that to be… death?”
Antioch nods. “It’s almost like there's a sense of destiny to it, Ig. Fate, I guess you'd say. Those that wield a unicorn hair wand leave peace and stability and healing in their wake. Dragon heartstrings are harbingers of change. A thestral hair wand… well, if I were to be fanciful, I'd say that Death would walk beside the owner of such a wand.”
Ignotus frowns. “Is that safe?”
Antioch laughs. “Nothing in this world is safe, Ig. But I'll be safer with a wand that deals death than without it. There's a fair few Normans that would love to see my head on a pike.”
Ignotus still looks dubious, but he doesn't raise any objections. “What sort of qualities are you looking for in a binding, then?”
“Perfection and structure,” Antioch replies immediately. “So that would be… six, I suppose?”
Ignotus smiles, pleased. It's been a while since Antioch's seen one of his little brother's truly happy smiles, and he'd forgotten how it lights up Ignotus’ whole face. “You’ve been listening! Yes, I'd recommend an overall structure of six if you're concerned about the strength of the binding. Six knots, then. Remember, the character of the knots influences the quality of the six.”
“I suppose,” says Antioch, meditatively running his fingers along the elder wood, “fate, and truth. Threefold knots.”
Ignotus’ fingers stutter for a brief moment before resuming their weaving. “You would weave fate into death, brother? Is that wise?”
Antioch nods. The hair seems to hum under his hand, and he knows that this is the correct path. “Death is fate, Ig. Or perhaps, the deaths from this wand will be fated. Six threefold knots.”
When Antioch had been in this house, his hands had been bound from violence. One day, locked in his room because of one of his many offenses, there had been a fly, buzzing and buzzing, round and round his head. Half-dead, it traced a drunken path through the air, until it alighted on Antioch's head. The buzzing burrowed into his skull. It drove him into a frenzy, and he screamed just to cover up the sound. He flung his limbs around in a crazed seizure of movement, but he'd been unable to just reach out and squash the fly.
On his 18th birthday, he had killed a man who had been trying to kill his sworn liege. It had felt like freedom, like righteousness, like he had been fulfilling a purpose that he had been born to.
It had felt like fate.
“No, no, brother,” Ignotus argues, worry in every line of his body. “Six threefold knots would read as a secondary structure of two sets of three threefold knots. A triple binding to fate, done twice. A duality of the marriage of fate and death. Death would not walk beside you - Death would walk before you and behind you. Such a wand would be an instrument of fate, and its wielder would walk in the shadow of Death.”
“Would it bind?”
“Please, brother,” Ignotus pleads. “If you did an alternating pattern of threefold and fourfold knots, you could -”
“Would that be as powerful?”
“No!” cries Ignotus, “but Death would not follow behind you. He'd not be a shadow that fills your footsteps and dictates your path. Please, Antioch, think better of this.” His hands move as if to reach out to Antioch in supplication, but his fingers can't stop their weaving.
Antioch used to dream of threads and fear and containment, of binding, but now his dreams are filled with the scent of flesh and viscera, the ozone burn of magic in his blood, the buzzing of violence in his skull. Death already dogs his steps.
He was careful not to lead them here, the men that are hunting him. Whatever else may be between them, he loves Ignotus. He won't lead the wolves to his door.
But he's separated from Aethelred's forces. And he hates the thought, but it's undeniable that they're losing. The muggles have long ago fallen to Norman rule. Antioch hasn't told Ig, but Exeter burned a fortnight ago. The muggles didn't know why the area around their cathedral caught fire, but that had been the pyre of three-score Saxon wizards and their families.
This wand is Antioch's last, best hope. Without it, he's a dead man. With it, he could turn the tide of battle. Maybe it will be bound to fate, to death, but Death's an old friend.
“I'm sorry, Ig,” he says, folding the cloth and stowing the wand components away. “But I've never been any good at peace. And I've got a war to fight.”
“Fine,” Ignotus says, blinking away a sheen of tears. Antioch wants to reach out, to promise Ig that he doesn't need to cry for him, but Ignotus wouldn't like the gesture and Antioch doesn't like to lie. “Fine. Take care, then, brother.”
“Take care, brother,” Antioch echoes. He watches Ignotus’ fingers - up, over, twist, under. “And when you're free, come find me.”
Ignotus huffs out a laugh. “I'll find you someday,” he promises. “The three of us will see each other again, one way or another.” The promise is heavy with the weight of fate, or irony.
“One way or another,” Antioch promises in return, and then leaves, Death before and behind him.