The Piebalds always claimed only to want freedom from the persecution that has been the lot of the Witted folk of the Six Duchies for generations. This claim can be dismissed as both a lie and a clever deceit. The Piebalds wanted power. Their intent was to mold all of the Witted folk of the Six Duchies into a united force that would rise up to seize control of the monarchy and put their own people into power. One facet of their ploy was to claim that all kings since the abdication of Chivalry were pretenders, that the bastardy of FitzChivalry Farseer was wrongly construed as an obstacle to his inheriting the throne. Legends of the "True-hearted Bastard" rising from the grave to serve King Verity in his quest proliferated beyond all common sense, ascribing powers to FitzChivalry that raised the Bastard to the status of a near-deity. For this reason, the Piebalds have also been known as the Cult of the Bastard.
These ridiculous claims were intended to give some sort of legitimacy to the Piebald quest to overthrow the Farseer monarchy and put one of their own on the throne. To this end, the Piebalds began a clever campaign of forcing the Witted to either unite with them or risk exposure. Perhaps this tactic was inspired by Kebal Rawbread, leader of the Outislanders during the Red Ship War, for it is said that he drew men to follow him, not by his charisma, but by fear of what he would do to their homes and families if they refused to fall in with his plans.
The Piebalds' technique was a simple one. Either families tainted with the Wit magic joined their alliance or they were exposed by public accusations that led to their execution. Itis said that the Piebalds often began an insidious attack on the fringes of a powerful family, exposing first a servant or a less affluent cousin, all the while making it clear that if the head of the stalwart house did not comply with their wishes, he too would eventually meet such an end.
This is not the action of folk who wish to bring an end to persecution of their kin. This is the act of a ruthless faction determined to gain power for themselves, first by subjugating their own kind.
--rowell's "the piebald conspiracy"
The watch had changed. The town watchman's bell and cry came thin through the storm, but I heard it. Night had officially ended and we were venturing toward morning and still I sat in Jinna's cottage waiting for Hap to return. Jinna and I shared the comfort of her cozy hearth. Jinna's niece had come in some time ago and chatted with us briefly before she sought her bed. Jinna and I passed the time, feeding log after log to the fire and gossiping of inconsequential things. The hedge-witch's little house was warm and pleasant, her company congenial, and waiting for my boy became an excuse that allowed me to do what I wished, which was simply to sit quietly where I was.
Conversation had been sporadic. Jinna had asked how my errand had gone. I had replied that it had been my master's business and that I had but accompanied him. To keep that from sounding too brusque, I added that Lord Golden had acquired some feathers for his collection and then chatted to her about Myblack. I knew Jinna had no real interest in hearing about my horse, but she listened amiably. The words filled the small space between us comfortably.
In truth, our real errand had had nothing to do with feathers, and had been more mine than Lord Golden's. Together, we had recovered Prince Dutiful from the Piebalds who had first befriended and then captured him. We had returned him to Buckkeep with none of his nobles the wiser. Tonight the aristocracy of the Six Duchies feasted and danced, and tomorrow they would formalize Prince Dutiful's betrothal to the Outisland Narcheska Elliania. Outwardly, all was as it had been.
Few would ever know how much the seamless continuation of their normality had cost the Prince and me. The Prince's Wit cat had sacrificed her life for him. I had lost my wolf. For close to a score of years, Nighteyes had been my other self, the repository of half my soul. Now he was gone. It was as profound a change in my life as the snuffing of a lamp makes in an evening room. His absence seemed a solid thing, a burden I must carry in addition to my grief. Nights were darker. No one guarded my back for me. Yet I knew I would continue to live. Sometimes that knowledge seemed the worst part of my loss.
I reined back before I plunged completely into self-pity. I was not the only one who was bereaved. Despite the Prince's briefer bond with his cat, I knew he suffered deeply. The magic link that the Wit forms between a human and an animal is a complex one. Severing it is never trivial. Yet the boy had mastered his grief and was stalwartly going through the motions of fulfilling his duties. At least I did not have to face my betrothal tomorrow night. The Prince had been plunged immediately back into his routine since we returned to Buckkeep yesterday afternoon. Last night he had attended the ceremonies that welcomed his bride-to-be. Tonight, he must smile and eat, make conversation, accept good wishes, dance, and appear well pleased with what fate and his mother had decreed for him. I thought of bright lights and skirling music and laughter and loud conversations. I shook my head in sympathy for him.
"And what makes you shake your head like that, Tom Badgerlock?"
Jinna's voice broke in on my introspection, and I realized that the silence had grown long. I drew a long breath and found an easy lie. "The storm shows no sign of dying, does it? I was pitying those who must be out in it this night. I am grateful that I am not one of them."
"Well. To that, I'll add that I am thankful for the company," she said, and smiled.
"And I the same," I added awkwardly.
To pass the night in the placid companionship of a pleasant woman was a novel experience for me. Jinna's cat sat purring on my lap, while Jinna's hands were occupied with knitting. The cozy warmth of the firelight reflected in the auburn shades of Jinna's curly hair and the scattering of freckles on her face and forearms. She had a good face, not beautiful, but calm and kind. Our conversation had wandered wide this evening, from the herbs she had used to make the tea to how driftwood fires sometimes burned with colored flames, and beyond to discussing ourselves. I had discovered she was about six years younger than I truly was, and she had expressed surprise when I claimed to be forty-two. That was seven years past my true age; the extra years were part of my role as Tom Badgerlock. It pleased me when she said that she had thought I was closer to her age. Yet neither of us really gave our minds to our words. There was an interesting little tension between us as we sat before the fire and conversed quietly. The curiosity suspended between us was like a string, plucked and humming.
Before I had left on my errand with Lord Golden, I had spent an afternoon with Jinna. She had kissed me. No words had accompanied that gesture, no avowals of love or romantic compliments. There had been just the one kiss, interrupted when her niece had returned from marketing. Right now, neither of us quite knew how to return to the place where that moment of intimacy had been possible. For my part, I was not sure that I wished to venture there. I was not ready even for a second kiss, let alone what it might bring. My heart was too raw. Yet I wanted to be here, sitting before her fireside. It sounds a contradiction, and perhaps it was. I did not want the inevitable complications that caresses would lead to, yet in my Wit bereavement, I took comfort in this woman's company.
Yet Jinna was not why I had come here tonight. I needed to see Hap, my foster son. He had just arrived at Buckkeep Town and had been staying with Jinna. I wished to be sure his apprenticeship with Gindast the woodworker was going well. I must also, much as I dreaded it, give him the news of Nighteyes' death. The wolf had raised the lad as much as I had. Yet even as I winced at the thought of telling him, I hoped it would, as the Fool had said, somehow ease the burden of my sorrow. With Hap, I could share my grief, however selfish a thing that might be. Hap had been mine for the last seven years. We had shared a life, and the wolf's companionship. If I still belonged to anyone or anything, I belonged to my boy. I needed to feel the reality of that.
"More tea?" Jinna offered me.
I did not want more tea. We had already drunk three pots of it, and I had visited her backhouse twice. Yet she offered the tea to let me know I was welcome to stay, no matter how late, or early, the hour had become. So, "Please," I said, and she set her knitting aside, to repeat the ritual of filling the kettle with fresh water from the cask and hanging it from the hook and swinging it over the fire again. Outside the storm rattled the shutters in a fresh surge of fury. Then it became, not the storm, but Hap's rapping at the door. "Jinna?" he called unevenly. "Are you awake still?"
"I'm awake," she replied. She turned from putting the kettle on. "And lucky for you that I am, or you'd be sleeping in the shed with your pony. I'm coming."
As she lifted the latch, I stood up, gently dumping the cat off my lap.
Imbecile. The cat was comfortable. Fennel complained as he slid to the floor, but the big orange tom was too stupefied with warmth to make much of a protest. Instead he leapt onto Jinna's chair and curled up in it without deigning me a backward glance.
The storm pushed in with Hap as he shoved the door open. A gust of wind carried rain into the room. "Whew. Put the wood in the hole, lad," Jinna rebuked Hap as he lurched in. Obediently he shut the door behind him and latched it, and then stood dripping before it.
"It's wild and wet out there," he told her. His smile was beatifically drunken, but his eyes were lit with more than wine. Infatuation shone there, as unmistakable as the rain slipping from his lank hair and running down his face. It took him a moment or two to realize that I was there, watching him. Then, "Tom! Tom, you've finally come back!" He flung his arms wide in a drunkard's ebullience for the ordinary, and I laughed and stepped forward to accept his wet hug.
"Don't get water all over Jinna's floor!" I rebuked him.
"No, I shouldn't. Well. I won't, then," he declared, and dragged off his sodden coat. He hung it on a peg by the door and peeled off his wool cap to drip there as well. He tried to take his boots off standing, but lost his balance. He sat down on the floor and tugged them off. He leaned far to set them by the door under his wet coat and then sat up with a blissful smile. "Tom. I've met a girl."
"Have you? I thought you'd met a bottle from the smell of you."
"Oh, yes," he admitted unabashedly. "That, too. But we had to drink the Prince's health, you know. And that of his intended. And to a happy marriage. And for many children. And for as much happiness for ourselves." He gave me a wide and fatuous smile. "She says she loves me. She likes my eyes."
"Well. That's good." How many times in his life had folk looked at his mismatched eyes, one brown and one blue, and made the sign against evil? It had to be balm to meet a girl who found them attractive.
And I suddenly knew that now was not the time to burden him with any grief of mine. I spoke gently but firmly. "I think perhaps you should go to bed, son. Won't your master be expecting you in the morning?"
He looked as if I had slapped him with a fish. The smile faded from his face. "Oh. Yes, yes that's true. He'll expect me. Old Gindast expects his apprentices to be there before his journeymen, and his journeymen to be well at work when he arrives." He gathered himself and slowly stood up. "Tom, this apprenticeship hasn't been what I expected at all. I sweep and carry boards and turn wood that is drying. I sharpen tools and clean tools and oil tools. Then I sweep again. I rub oil finishes into the completed pieces. But not a tool have I had in my hand to use, in all these days. It's all 'Watch how this is done, boy,' or 'Repeat back what I just told you' and 'This isn't what I asked for. Take this back to the wood stock and bring me the fine-grained cherry. And be quick about it.' And Tom, they call me names. Country boy and dullard."
"Gindast calls all his apprentices names, Hap." Jinna's placid voice was both calming and comforting, but it was still strange to have a third person include herself in our conversation. "It's common knowledge. One even took the taunt with him when he went into business for himself. Now you pay a fine price for a Simpleton table." Jinna had moved back to her chair. She had taken up her knitting but not resumed her seat. The cat still had it.
I tried not to show how much Hap's words distressed me. I had expected to hear that he loved his position and how grateful he was that I had been able to get it for him. I had believed that his apprenticeship would be the one thing that had gone right. "Well. I warned you that you would have to work hard," I attempted.
"And I was ready for that, Tom, truly I was. I'm ready to cut wood and fit it and shape it all day. But I didn't expect to be bored to death. Sweeping and rubbing and fetching . . . I might as well have stayed at home for all I'm learning here." Few things have such sharp edges as the careless words of a boy. His disdain for our old life, spoken so plainly, left me speechless.
Copyright 2003 by Robin Hobb