She had obviously suddenly recalled that he was bonded with a gull. But Web smiled at her kindly and said, “We of the Wit know that when life is done, what remains is empty. None, I think, know better than we do. We sense the presence of all life, with some burning brighter than others. A plant is not as vital in our senses as is a tree. And of course a deer outshines both, and a bird most of all.”
I opened my mouth to object to that. With my Wit I could sense birds, but had never found them particularly brimming with life. I recalled something that Burrich—the man who had all but raised me—had said to me, many years ago, when he had declared that I would not work with the hawks at Buckkeep Castle. “They don’t like you; you are too warm.” And I had thought he meant my flesh, but now I wondered if he had sensed something about my Wit that he could not then have explained to me. For the Wit had then been a despised magic, and if either of us had admitted to possessing it, we would have been hanged, quartered, and burned over water.
“Why do you sigh?” Patience abruptly demanded of me.
“Your pardon. I was not aware I had done so.”
“Well, you did! Witmaster Web was just telling me the most fascinating things about a bat’s wing and suddenly you sigh as if you find us the most boring old things in the world!” She punctuated her words with a tap of her fan on my shoulder.
Web laughed. “Lady Patience, doubtless his thoughts were elsewhere. I know Tom of old, and recall his melancholy streak well! Ah, but I have been keeping you to myself, and here are others of your guests, come to claim you!”
Was Patience deceived? I think not, but it pleased her to allow herself to be drawn away from us by the charming young man that doubtless Nettle had dispatched to allow Web to speak to me privately. Almost I wished she had not done so; Web had sent me several letters and I was sure I knew the current of the conversation he wished to draw me into. It had been long since I had been bonded with an animal through my Wit. But what Web seemed to equate with a sulking child I felt was more like the solitude of a long-married man who is suddenly widowed. No one could replace Nighteyes in my heart; nor could I imagine such a connection with any other creature. Gone was gone, as he had just said. The echoes of my wolf within me were enough to sustain me now. Those vivid memories, so strong that sometimes I felt I still heard his thoughts in my mind, would always be preferable to any other joining.
So now, as Web ventured past banalities about how I had been, and if Molly had been keeping well, and had the harvest been good this year, I deliberately diverted a conversation that would lead us, inevitably, to the importance he placed on my learning more of the Wit and on discussing my solitary status. My considered opinion was that as I was unpartnered and intended to remain so for the rest of my life, I needed no more knowledge of the Wit-magic than what I had now.
So I tipped my head toward the “musicians” still standing by the door and told him, “I fear they’ve come a long way for nothing. Patience has told me that redheaded singers are for Winterfest, and she will save the blondes for summer.” I expected Web to share my amusement at Lady Patience’s eccentricities. The strangers had not ventured into the hall to join the merriment, but remained by the door, speaking only to one another. They stood as longtime companions do, closer together than one stands near an acquaintance. The tallest man had a weathered, craggy face. The woman at his side, with her face tilted toward him, had broad cheekbones and a high, lined forehead. “Blondes?” Web asked me, staring round.
I smiled. “The strangely dressed trio by the door. See them? In yellow boots and coats?”
He swept his eyes past them twice and then, with a start, stared at them. His eyes grew wider.
“Do you know them?” I asked at his look of dread.
“Are they Forged?” he asked in a hoarse whisper.
“Forged? How could they be?” I stared at them, wondering what had alarmed Web. Forging stripped a man’s humanity from him, tore him from the network of life and caring that enabled all of us to care and be cared about. Forged ones loved only themselves. Once, there had been many of them in the Six Duchies, preying on their families and neighbors, tearing the kingdom apart from within as the Red-Ship Raiders released our own people as a foe among us. Forging had been the dark magic of the Pale Woman and her captain Kebal Rawbread. But we had prevailed and driven the raiders from our shores. Years after the Red-Ship Wars had ended, we had taken ships to her last stronghold on Aslevjal Island, where we made an end of them forever. The Forged ones they had created were long gone to their graves. No one had practiced that evil magic for years.