“They feel Forged to me. My Wit cannot find them. I can barely sense them except with my eyes. Where did they come from?”
As a Witmaster, Web relied on that beast-magic far more keenly than I did. Perhaps it had become his dominant sense, for the Wit gives one a tingle of awareness for any living creature. Now, alerted by Web, I deliberately extended my own Wit toward the newcomers. I did not have his level of awareness, and the crowded room muddled my senses even more. I could feel almost nothing from them. I dismissed that with a shrug.
“Not Forged,” I decided. “They huddle together too companionably. If they were Forged, each would be immediately seeking what they most needed, food, drink, or warmth. They hesitate, not wishing to be seen as intruders here, but uncomfortable not knowing our ways. So not Forged. Forged ones never care for such niceties.”
I suddenly realized I sounded far too much like Chade’s apprentice assassin in how I analyzed them. They were guests, not targets. I cleared my throat. “I do not know where they came from. Revel told me they came to the door as musicians for the feast. Or perhaps tumblers.”
Web was still staring at them. “They are neither,” he said decisively. Curiosity blossomed in his voice as he announced, “So. Let us speak to them and find out who and what they are.”
I watched as the three conferred with one another. The woman and the younger man nodded abruptly at what the taller man was saying. Then, as if they were herd dogs set to bringing in sheep, they abruptly left his side and began to move purposefully through the crowd. The woman kept her hand at her hip, as if her fingers sought a sword that was not there. Their heads turned and their eyes roved as they went. Seeking something? No. Someone. The woman stood on tiptoe, trying to peer over the heads of the gathered folk who were watching the change of musicians. Their leader faded back toward the door. Did he guard it lest their prey escape? Or was I imagining things? “Who do they hunt?” I heard myself ask softly.
Web didn’t respond. He’d already started moving toward where they had been. But as he turned from me, a lively drumbeat was suddenly joined by uplifted voices and a trilling pipe, and dancers surged back onto the floor. Couples spun and hopped like spinning tops to the lively tune, and blocked our path and my view. I put my hand on Web’s broad shoulder and tugged him back from the hazards of the dance floor. “We’ll go around,” I told him, and led the way. But even that path was fraught with delays, for there were guests to greet, and one could not hurry through those conversations without seeming rude. Web, ever engaging and garrulous, seemed to lose his interest in the odd strangers. He focused his attention strongly on each person he was introduced to, and convinced them of his charm simply by his intense interest in who they were and what they did for a living and if they were having an enjoyable time tonight. I watched the room but could no longer locate the strangers.
They were not warming themselves at the big hearth as we passed it. Nor did I see them enjoying food or drink, or dancing, or watching the fest from the benches. When the music ended and the tide of dancers retreated, I firmly excused myself from Web and Lady Essence’s conversation and strode across the room to where I had last seen them. I was convinced now that they were not musicians and this was not a random stopping place for them. I tried not to let my suspicions escalate; my early training did not always serve me well in social situations.
I didn’t find any of them. I slipped out of the Great Hall into the relative quiet of the corridor outside it and looked for them in vain. Gone. I took a breath and resolutely let my curiosity go. Doubtless they were somewhere in Withywoods, changing into dry clothing or having a glass of wine or perhaps lost in the crowd of dancers. I would see them again. For now, I was the host of the gathering, and my Molly had been left alone too long. I had guests to attend to and a pretty wife to dance with and a lovely feast. If they were musicians or tumblers, they would soon make themselves known, for doubtless they would hope to win the favor and the largesse of the gathered guests. It was even possible that I was the person they were looking for, as I controlled the purse that paid the entertainers. If I waited long enough, they would approach me. And if they were beggars or travelers, then still they were welcome here. Why must I always imagine danger to my loved ones?
I plunged myself back into the maelstrom of merriment, danced again with Molly, invited Nettle to join me in a jig but lost her to Riddle, interrupted Hearth seeing how many honey-cakes he could stack into a tower on a single plate for the amusement of a pretty Withy maiden, overindulged myself in ginger cookies, and was ultimately trapped by Web near the ale keg. He filled his mug after me, and then nudged us toward a bench not far from the hearth. I looked for Molly, but she and Nettle had their heads together, and as I watched they moved as one to stir Patience from where she was dozing in a chair. She was protesting feebly as they gathered her up to take her to her chambers.