It begins with a bargain, under crystal and stone. A betrayal. And, of course, a sacrifice.
The Skeksis are told to bring a strong Gelfling, and they do so. In their arrogance they choose a princess, one of the family they believe they made great. In their affront they choose their most defiant prisoner.
Foolish as their reasoning may be, they are not wrong in their choice.
They will be given cause to regret it—but the Arathim will not.
This is the role of threaders: to bind the Arathim together, to communicate over distances that make other voices fall silent.
When threaders ride spitters, they link in gestalt, becoming one. When they ride other creatures, it is something else entirely: control, overriding the other’s will.
They learned, long ago, that they could do this. It is easy with Gelflings, with podlings; harder with other creatures. Thoughts make it easier, give them something to thread to, make it a little more like threading with each other.
(Thra’s peoples are all of them more alike than any wish to admit.)
Still, it is a strain: moving limbs the wrong shape, struggling to hold a mind that fights against them.
A threader always wavers, eventually. Voices stammer. Bonds fall slack.
They count on their prisoners making mistakes. In the first moment of freedom, of awareness, since being trapped—they are always startled. They panic. Struggle. Waste their chances.
Tavra, though, makes a different use of that brief time.
As threading is the gift of the Arathim, so dreamfasting is the gift of the Gelfling: to join hearts and minds and memories, to share what words cannot.
Tavra has heard stories, legends, of Gelflings who dreamfasted with beasts. Her sister Brea loves them; her sister Seladon scoffs at them. She had never tried.
She has never heard of anyone trying it with a podling—but they are so far below that few would bother—nor with one of the lords—but they are so far above that none would dare.
She has certainly never heard of anyone trying it with an Arathim.
The threader is already touching her; not her hand, which would be best, but she can make do with her face. The first time it falters, she thinks of it; the second, miles distant—walking in the opposite direction—she is ready.
She opens mind, opens memory, and reaches out.
It works, and it does not.
This is not dreamfasting, not exactly. Words and memories are jumbled out of order, then recombined, dreamlike, as two minds (far more than two) try to make sense of them.
This is not threading, not exactly. Threading binds all Arathim: this echoes between two, and from the second on and on and on.
This is something new.
This is memory: the caves of the Arathim, which they will never call the caves of Grot. Not dark, but glowing with life, motion, thought.
This, also, is memory: high Ha’rar, open to the winds. Those winds, holding Gelfling wings aloft.
Racing faster than flight on a landstrider’s back, clinging to it. (This is almost familiar.)
Climbing rock, digging deep into each crevice. Falling, and taking to the wind; falling further, and being caught in friendly silk.
Old pain in her sisters’ voices. (Older pain in their thoughts.)
A mother’s chambers, chrysalises glowing bright from the ceiling, eggs sheltered beneath—and both of those details are right, even if there is something strange in the whole.
The two—the many—tangle together.
As a single Arathim’s memories would mix with the memories of the Ascendency.
This has not happened before, and it does not happen with the others.
The Arathim do not hold them so long; hold them more tightly, as they walk to their deaths.
They required strength: perhaps they did not reckon with Tavra’s.
And when the Ascendency makes their second bargain, when the caves are theirs (theirs to share, and what will that mean? Will they join with the Grottan Gelflings, learn some manner to do so other than threading?)—then, they dare to relax their hold.
But they cannot let go of Tavra, though they try. They loosen their grip—and can only loosen it so much.
They cannot leave her behind any more than they can leave a spitter behind.
Never have they held so fast to a Gelfling, so long.
(Never has a Gelfling reached back to them, held tight and made of fetters a web, a net, a harness with which to climb—and those metaphors are hers as much as theirs, traded back and forth until the distinction collapses.
As it does when Arathim talk to each other, when spitters lend threaders their legs, when threaders lend spitters their voices: when they become one another’s legs and voices.)
So does Tavra become their voice to the Gelfling, who they so nearly used her to destroy. It isn’t even an offer. She thinks of it, they consider: all make a decision.
The Arathim are many, and they are one. All feel each pain, each death. All know that their death is not truly the end.
When one dies, all die. Yet each lives forever in the Ascendency.
They share this certainty with Tavra, as they share their eyes as hers dim.
It is good to see her sisters together, in accord. (The Arathim share this happiness, though they do not fully understand: how can kin not be in accord? Her memories of strife are as alien to them as the softness of Gelfling skin, as the loneliness of a single Gelfling mind.)
She cannot promise her sisters that this is not the end. She will not say she is not dying. And she cannot even promise to be with them always. (A promise no Arathim would ever think to make.) So the truth she tells them is, “Even death cannot break the bonds of sisterhood.”
She does not tell them how very Arathim that sentiment is.
Instead, “We wish you could see each other the way I do.” See each other through her threader’s eyes, through her loving memories. “You’re so beautiful.”
Tavra dies, and the Arathim die with her. As they always do.
But the Ascendency is eternal. And so, perhaps, is she.
When a threader dies, or a spitter, or any of the others, egg-mother or nest-tender or great guardian—they are gone, and they are not. Memory continues to exist. Thoughts remain. Voices, even, remain.
But a threader, voice of the Arathim, has no voice that Gelflings can hear.
The threader leaves Tavra’s sisters behind, to their grief and their understanding of death.
It does not leave Tavra.
When any part of the Arathim dies, the Ascendency remembers them, forever: remembers their memories, just as they did, retains their skills. But these are stilled memories. Inert. The dead think no new thoughts.
Tavra is part of the Ascendency. But she is not Arathim. It is different, for her.
Her thoughts still move.
Perhaps it is that she dreamfasted with her threader, she suggests, and the Ascendency puts aside their surprise at her (living) voice to consider: yes, that could be why.
She is one of them, now: their kin and their self. They will provide what she needs, share their bodies with her as she, in the end, willingly shared hers.