"Please, do you have a well? Might I have a drink?" she asked.
"And Branchie too? He been looking for a stream but found nought." Matt's voice piped beside Kira; she had almost forgotten that he was there.
Annabella led them to her well behind the cott, and they drank gratefully. Matt poured water into the crevice of a curved rock for his dog, who lapped eagerly and waited for more.
Finally they sat together in the shade, Kira and the old woman, Annabella. Matt, gnawing his bread, wandered off with Branch at his heels.
"You must come each day," Annabella repeated. "You must learn all the plants, all the colors. As your mum did when she was a girl."
"I will. I promise."
"She said you had the knowledge in your fingers. More than she did."
Kira looked at her hands, folded in her lap. "Something happens when I work with the threads. They seem to know things on their own, and my fingers simply follow."
Annabella nodded. "That be the knowledge. I got it for the colors but never for the threads. My hands was always too coarse." She held them up, stained and misshapen. "But to use the knowledge of the threading, you must learn the making of the shades. When to sadden with the iron pot. How to bloom the colors. How to bleed."
To sadden. To bloom. To bleed. What a strange set of words.
"And the mordants too. You must learn those. Sometimes sumac. Tree galls are good. Some lichens.
"Best is — here, come; let me show you. See you make a guess to its birthplace, this mordant." With surprising agility for a woman of four-syllable age, Annabella rose and led Kira to a covered container near the place where a large kettle of dark water, too huge for cooking food, hung above the smoldering remains of an outdoor fire.
Kira leaned forward to see, but when Annabella lifted the lid, she jerked her head back in unpleasant surprise. The smell of the liquid was terrible. Annabella laughed, a delighted cackle.
"Got you a guess?"
Kira shook her head. She couldn't imagine what was in the foul-smelling container or what its origin might be.
Annabella replaced the lid, still laughing. "You save it and age it good," she said. "Then it brings the hue to life and sets it firm.
"It's old piss!" she explained with a satisfied chuckle.
Late in the day, Kira set out for home with Matt and Branch. The bag she carried over her shoulder was filled with colored threads and yarns that Annabella had given to her.
"These'll do for you now," the old dyer had said. "But you must learn to make your own. Say back to me now, those you keep in mind."
Kira closed her eyes, thought, and said them aloud. "Madder for red. Bedstraw for red too, just the roots. Tops of tansy for yellow, and greenwood for yellow too. And yarrow: yellow and gold. Dark hollyhocks, just the petals, for mauve."
"Snotweed," Matt said loudly with a grin and wiped his own runny nose on his dirty sleeve.
"Hush, you," Kira said to him, laughing. "Don't play foolish now. It's important I remember.
"Broom sedge," she added, still remembering. "Goldy yellows and browns. And Saint Johnswort for browns too, but it'll stain my hands.
"And bronze fennel — leaves and flowers; use them fresh — and you can eat it too. Chamomile for tea and for green hues.
"That's all I remember now," Kira said apologetically. There had been so many others.
Annabella nodded in approval. "It's a starting," she said.
"Matt and I must go or it will become dark before we're back," Kira said, turning. Looking at the sky to assess the time, she suddenly remembered something.
"Can you make blue?" she asked.
But Annabella frowned. "You need the woad," she said. "Gather fresh leaves from first year's growth of woad. And soft rainwater; that makes the blue." She shook her head. "I have nought. Others do, but they be far away."
"Who be others?" Matt asked.
The old woman didn't answer the boy. She pointed toward the far edge of her garden, where the woods began and there seemed to be a narrow overgrown path. Then she turned toward her hut. Kira heard her speak in a low voice. "I ne'er could make it," she was saying. "But some have blue yonder."
The Singer's robe contained only a few tiny spots of ancient blue, faded almost to white. After her supper, after the oil lamps had been lit, Kira examined it carefully. She lay her threads — the ones from her own small collection and the many others that Annabella had given to her — on the large table, knowing she would have to match the hues carefully in daylight before she began the repairs. It was then that she noticed — with relief because she would not know how to repair it; and with disappointment because the color of sky would have been such a beautiful addition to the pattern — that there was no real blue any more, only a hint that there once had been.
She said the names of the plants over and over aloud, trying to make a chant of them for easier memory. "Hollyhock and tansy; madder and bedstraw..." But they fell into no comfortable rhythm and did not rhyme.
Thomas knocked at her door. Kira greeted him happily, showed him the robe and threads, and told him of her day with the old dyer.
"I can't remember all the names," she said in frustration. "But I'm thinking that if in the morning I go back to where my old cott was, maybe my mother's garden plants, the ones she used for colors, will still be there. And then, seeing them, the names will mean more. I only hope Vandara —"
She paused. She had not told the carver about her enemy, and even saying the name made her apprehensive.
"The woman with the scar?" Thomas asked.
Kira nodded. "Do you know her?"
He shook his head. "But I know who she is," he said. "Everyone does."
He picked up a little skein of the deep crimson. "How did the dyer make this?" he asked curiously.
Kira thought. Madder for red. "Madder," she recalled. "Just the roots."
"Madder," he repeated. Then an idea occurred to him. "I could write the names for you, Kira," he suggested. "It would make the remembering easier."
"You can write? And read?"
Thomas nodded. "I learned when I was young. Boys can, the ones who are chosen. And some of the carving I do has words."
"But I can't. So even if you were to write the names, I couldn't read them. And it's not permitted for girls to learn."
"Still, I could help you in the remembering. If you told them to me and I wrote them, then I could read them to you. I know it would help."
She realized he was probably right. So he brought pen and ink and paper from his quarters, and once again she said the words, those she could recall. In the flickering light, she watched as he carefully wrote them down. She saw how the curves and lines in combinations made the sounds, and that he was then able to say them back to her.
When he read the word hollyhock aloud with his finger on the word, she saw that it was long, with many lines like tall stems. She turned her eyes away quickly so that she would not learn it, would not be guilty of something clearly forbidden to her. But it made her smile, to see it, to see how the pen formed the shapes and the shapes told a story of a name.
Very early in the morning Kira ate quickly and then walked to the place where her mother's color garden had been. Few people were up and about yet, at sunrise. She half expected to encounter Matt and Branch, but the paths were mostly empty and the village was still quiet. Here and there a tyke cried and she could hear the soft clucking of chickens. But the noisy clangor of daytime life was yet to come.
Approaching, she could see the pen that was already partly built. It had been only a few days, but the women had gathered thorn bushes and circled them around the remains of the cott where Kira had grown up. The encircled ground was still ashes and rubble. Very soon the thorned fence they were building would enclose the area completely; she supposed they would create some kind of gate, and then they would shove their chickens and their tykes inside. There would be sharp wood pieces and jagged fragments of broken pots. Kira sighed, seeing it. The tykes would be scratched and splintered by scraps of her own destroyed past, but there was nothing she could do. She edged quickly past the wreckage and the half-built fence, and found the remains of her mother's color garden at the edge of the woods.
The vegetable garden was completely stripped, but the flower plot remained though its plants were trampled. Clearly the women, dragging their bushes to build the pen, had simply walked across the area; yet the blossoms continued to bloom and she was awed to see that vibrant life still struggled to thrive despite such destruction.
She named them to herself, those she remembered, and picked what she could, filling the cloth she had brought. Annabella had told her that most of the flowers and leaves could be dried and used later. Some, like bronze fennel, should not. "Use it fresh," Annabella had said of the fennel. You could eat it too. Kira left it where it grew and wondered if the women would know that it could be harvested for food.
A dog barked nearby and now she could hear arguing: a hubby shouting at his wife, a tyke being slapped. The village was waking to its routine. It was time for her to go. This was not her place any more.
Kira gathered the cloth around the plants she had collected and tied the edges together. Then she slung it over her shoulder, picked up her walking stick, and hurried away. On a back path, avoiding the central lane of the village, Kira saw Vandara and averted her eyes. The woman called her name in a smug, taunting voice. "Liking your new life?" she called, and followed the question with a harsh laugh. Quickly Kira turned a corner to escape a confrontation, but the memory of the sarcastic question and the woman's smirk accompanied her home.
"I'll need a place to grow a color garden," she told Jamison hesitantly a few days later, "and an airy place for drying the plants. Also a place where a fire can be built, and pots for the dyeing." She thought some more then added, "And water."
He nodded and said that such things could be provided.
He came each evening to her quarters to assess her work and to ask her needs. It seemed strange to Kira that she could make requests and to have them answered.
But Thomas said it had always been so for him, too. The kinds of wood — ash, heartwood, walnut, or curly maple — each had been brought when he asked. And they had given him tools of all sorts, some he had not known of before.
The days, busy ones, tiring ones, began to pass.
One morning as Kira prepared to go to the dyer's hut, Thomas came to her room.
"Did you hear anything last night?" he asked her uncertainly. "Maybe a sound that woke you?"
Kira thought. "No," she told him. "I slept soundly. Why?"
He seemed puzzled, as if he were trying to remember something. "I thought I heard something, a sound like a child crying. I thought it woke me. But maybe it was a dream. Yes, I guess it was a dream."
He brightened and shrugged off the little mystery. "I've made something for you," he told her. "I've been doing it in the early mornings," he explained, "before I started my regular work."