There was something amiss with Winter’s sister.
With the oldest of Winter’s sisters and the most steady, the most easy-going, the least likely to have things go amiss.
Spring had warned him first, in that way that she did, a riddle tied up in a knot, the sonnets are slanting sideways and the seeds are falling all wrong. Then Summer, just something’s wrong with Autumn.
When their mother had called Winter, do something, he had known things had gotten out of hand. But because it was not he who had seen the problem first but Spring, he went out of character for himself and did things indirectly, looking not for the tangle but for its cause.
He had been young and cocky when he’d taught Spring; it hadn’t occurred to him until much later how much she had taught him.
There were tangles in Autumn’s skein, that much was clear. Knots, and, worse, fraying and snipped ends. But why? She’d always been so ready to flow with the world’s streams, so quick to twine with others and so very slow to actually tie any lasting connections.
Winter spied. He followed lines back from his sister without ever letting her see his presence, he murmured questions at the right people, he followed paperwork trails where they existed. He studied.
When he had a path to walk, he began walking. Literally, in this case: the cause of the snarls was only a few miles away, just a short trip from the Ren Faire where Autumn had set up shop.
Did she know? From the way her lines tangled, Winter doubted it. There was loss and pain in her mess, not immediate intimacy.
Winter made it to the house, or at least the dwelling - three trailers and an old recreational vehicle set up in a square around a loose courtyard, plenty for the mild spring weather - before something stopped him in his tracks.
His sisters and mother had said one word, and, while others had used other names, they had all led back to the same person. Tattercoat.
There were seven people in the compound, and a complex of tangled Strands and intentional knots that spoke of intentional weaving.
There was a knot sitting on the skein of reality, a heavy knot with complex weaving that spoke of intentional tying and tangling.
Winter walked away from the camp of trailers and RV’s, walked to the small town’s corner store, and passed his suit jacket to the old man sitting at the picnic table there.
“That’s a nice coat.”
“Custom tailored. But I don’t need it where I’m going. I need something less obvious.”
The old man’s bleary eyes turned sharp for a moment. “Son, you’re going to have to change more than the coat for that.”
Winter undid his tie and added it to the sportcoat, then pulled the elastic out of his ponytail. He unbuttoned the first two buttons of his shirt and untucked it, so that it hung sloppily over his belt, then ran his hands through his hair until it was no longer tidy.
The old man nodded slowly. “It’s a start, at least.”
Winter nodded. “And a jacket?”
“You wanna borrow mine?”
“Consider the suit coat collateral.”
The old man nodded slowly once more and slid out of the old denim-and-flannel, with its even older veteran patches and the three bike sigils. “You run into someone from the old gang…”
“I understand. I won’t claim those false pretenses.” Winter coughed. “That is, I ain’t gonna pretend to be something I’m not.”
The man squinted. “You do that better than you ought. And with your white hair, might ought to be older than you look.”
“Younger, usually. But I thank you. I should be back within the hour.”
Thus armed, Winter bought a 40-oz bottle of beer and tucked it, wrapped in its paper bag, loosely into a pocket. He scuffed his perfect shoes in the mud and carefully removed, as Spring would say, the poker from his ass.
He shuffled into the edge of the trailer camp, his head down and his shoulders hunched. The lines of the strands were twisted here, the rope-work turning into a complicated macramé pattern.
“Hey! What are you doing about here?” Not the Tattered-coat one, at least, probably not. This was a woman, with dishwater-hair and a jaw that spoke of poor dental work, blue jeans and three flannel shirts.
Winter raised his head slowly to her. “Looking for...” He blinked, blearily. There were panhandlers on the street, on the way to his office, back in the clean city where he lived (so far from Autumn’s raucous world). He imitated the oldest of those on a bad day. “Looking for... someone.”
“Well, you ain’t gonna find them around here. Get on with you. Go.”
Winter shuffled forward, took a messy swig from his bottle, and moved closer. “Looking,” he insisted. The strands knotted and twisted around her.
“And they. Ain’t. Here.” She reached out towards Winter.
He grabbed as if reaching for her hand, “missed,” and stroked his hand through her strands. The knots were tight, but he was the one who smoothed chaos lines straight. “Looking for you. Looking for Tattercoats.”
She froze at the name, then shuddered as he found and untied a knot. “Tattercoats isn’t.... isn’t...” She slumped to the ground.
Winter caught her on the way down and set her, carefully, on the stairs. “My apologies.” He had the scent now, though, in the knot he’d unhooked from her agency. “Sleep calmly.”
Winter himself was... not calm. He grabbed the strand he’d untied from the woman, and pulled
He would be meeting this Tattercoats. Very soon.
Winter was the one who smoothed strands. They each had their strong suit, the four of them, but Winter was the one who made things calmer. Summer, she was the one that actually manipulated the strands, tugged and twisted and knitted. But just because they had their ranges of expertise didn’t mean they were confined there. Even Winter’s love of order did not extend that far.
So he grabbed strands and pulled, twisted his own line onto the existing yarn-of-creation, and read the web the way Autumn would. He grabbed another strand and moved along it, calling down imprecations the way Summer would.
What Spring did, he’d save until he found his target.
There was resistance on the thread he was tugging. It wasn’t as strong as he’d expected; someone like Tattercoat had to be very clever in their strand use, or Autumn would have caught on long ago. It was just enough to let him know-
“Tangles,” Winter swore. He didn’t release the thread - that would show he’d noticed the trap. Instead, he tied it off loosely to another thread. The woman was unconscious anyway. Her dreams might be odd, but he could untangle everyone when he’d rescued his sister’s soul.
He reached into the woman’s knots and strands and, rather than pulling, just Looked. There was that thick strand he’d grabbed, yes, but a thin one ran in the same direction, leading wanly off through - and beyond - the nearest trailer.
Winter moved quickly. Soon, the person who’d set the trap would realize Winter hadn’t fallen for it. He’d need to be in place before that. He smoothed several strands, gave himself a little bit of luck, and slipped between two trailers in a space that didn’t look wide enough for someone half his size.
Behind the trailers, hidden from the road, was a tent. It was made of bright pieces of fabric, no two of them the same, and every piece of fabric sang out with pain - with the grief of loss, with the stab of heartache, with the shudders of PTSD. Every piece of cloth had a story. Winter read the lines grimly and quickly. It was a simple thing to smooth out old memories, so that the pain lessened. Here, someone had done the opposite - tied up the hurt and the trauma so that the victims kept remembering it, over and over again.
Draped over the top of the tent was a rainbow scarf. Winter’s jaw tensed. It wasn’t sewn in - it wasn’t sewn in yet. There were a few small strand-knots holding it to the tent, but that was it. That was... it. He focused on his breathing until he could loosen his jaw.
His sister was in trouble. He was going to smooth out the trouble. He had been smoothing out their troubles since they were in elementary school, settling crisis and calming fights, occasionally getting in between the girls and the people they’d irritated or the people that were harassing them.
This was just like that. He’d promised their dad he’d protect them. Winter walked up to the tent and grabbed all of the strands within reach.
He wasn’t being subtle. Strand-workers within a mile of this place would feel the tug; particularly astute Stand-workers, if they were looking, might notice as far away as four or five miles.
If Autumn was aware enough to notice, if this Tattercoat hadn’t tied her up in knots too tight to pay attention to anything, that might be a problem. Winter would have to wrap this up before she could get here.
Tattercoat indulged him by stepping out to the entryway of his tent. The first impression was of every Ren-Faire attendee and worker ever, a shabby pseudo-historical flair that obscured face and personality.
“Who is this I hear rapping at my chamber door?” He was smirking; his entire body was smirking.
Winter spared a moment of attention to smooth away the glamour. Tattercoat was a striking enough man, with a long nose on a long face, long brown hair he had forgotten to wash in a few days. His smile was a thing out of movies, though: children’s movies, where the villain was so pleased with himself.
“I’m Winter.” It wasn’t the way he normally introduced himself. Nothing about this was normal. And he was rewarded with raised eyebrows from his foe.
“You don’t look like she described you.”
“Neither do you.” Because he was on the side of good, Winter said, politely, “Let my sister go.”
"Everything I have of hers, she gave me freely. Isn’t that what your family says? ‘Every person, all of us, give of ourselves all the time?’“
Winter didn’t flinch. It wasn’t the first time those words had been used against him. “‘We give without diminishing, when we give to those who also give in return.’“
“Ah, but I’ve given your sister such lovely gifts. I’ve written poems for her. I’ve sang for her. Written her love letters. I even proposed to her.”
Winter had given all the warning he planned to.
Every piece of the tent was knotted and tangled with strands, and they all led right to Tattercoat. He raked his hands through the air, once, twice, and then a series of slower, smoother gestures. Autumn and Spring had curly hair; Summer and Winter had straight. Winter had been untangling knots since he was old enough to hold a comb. You got out the worst and then you teased each bit out a bit at a time. It was patient work – but Winter was a patient man.
Tattercoat, on the other hand, was not. He stepped closer to Winter, crowding him, and reached into Winter’s personal strands. “You’re handsome enough. Is there anyone you’ve ever loved? Anyone who’s ever hurt you? Anyone you’ve ever hurt?”
He was a tangler, then, was he? Winter raised eyebrows and smiled slowly.
“I may be Winter, but I love deeply.” If he had any intent of letting the man touch him, that would have been a stupid thing to say. But he was Winter Roundtree, and his little sister was the best tangler in the business. He’d been practicing since Spring snarled her first Strand at the tender age of five.
He raised his chin and smiled, both because he was pleased and because it had a good chance of irritating his foe. And he stood, implacable, untangling snarls.
“Nobody is that untouched.” Tattercoat took a step back and pulled on threads, beginning to twist some sort of charm.
But Winter’s middle sister was a luck-witch, and Summer had gone through a period where she cursed things every time she stubbed her toe. Winter let his smile grow, and held his own Strands calm and smooth, untouched and unbent, while he worried out the knots of Tattercoat’s tangling. “You have to have SOMETHING that shakes you,” the other man snarled. He began to draw charms and designs in the air between them, his fingers moving like calligraphy, his jaw set.
But Autumn had been nosy -- curious, their mother called it -- from the moment she knew how to read a Strand, and Winter had long ago learned how to not show anything he didn’t want to. He grinned at the awful man, and worked out the last tangle. And then he set his jaw, the smile gone. “You hurt my sister. You hurt many people, but you hurt my sister. And for that, I will hurt you.”
Spring tangled. She made things a mess. Winter preferred things calmer, normally. But the technique was easy enough, if you’d spent your life blocking it.
He reached into Tattercoat’s Strands, and he tied knots. Little knots, big knots. The man kicked and punched, but Winter kept knotting. He grabbed for Winter’s hair – and found his violence all tied up in a loop of self-doubt. He reached for his minions’ Strands – and found his tangling abilities were, themselves, too tangled to work. He swore – and the words that came out were backwards and upside down, nonsense and whispers. Finally, Winter stopped.
He picked the rainbow scarf up from the top of Tattercoat’s tent – what had been his tent, at least, and was now a pile of rags. “If you stay away from anyone I share even the sixth degree of connection with, eventually, your tangles will calm. If you think to prey on those I care about again, I will tie you into a knot so tight even Alexander could not untie you.”
There was nothing more to say here, so he walked away. The family would tell him how Autumn was, and she need never know what he’d done. She need never know what Tattercoat had done, either. It was over.