"What is your usual work, Thomas?" Kira asked. "Mine's the robe, of course. But what have they set you to do?"
"The Singer's staff. It's very old, and his hands — and the hands of other Singers in the past, I suppose — have worn the carvings down so it must all be recarved. It's difficult work. But important. The Singer uses the carvings of the staff to find his place, to remind him of the sections in the Song. And there's a large place at the top that has never been carved. Eventually I'll be doing that, carving it for the first time, making my own designs." He laughed. "Not my own, really. They'll tell me what to put there.
"Here." Shyly, Thomas reached into his pocket and handed her the gift. He had made her a small box with a tight fitting lid, its top and sides intricately carved in the pattern of the plants she was beginning to learn and to know. She examined it with delight. She recognized the tall spikes of yarrow and its dense clustered blossoms; around them twined the flopping stems of coreopsis, above a carved base of that plant's mounded dark and feathery leaves.
She knew instantly what she wanted to place in the exquisite box. The small scrap of decorated cloth that she had carried in her pocket on the day of the trial and that comforted her loneliness when she held it before sleeping, was hidden away in one of the drawers that contained supplies. She no longer carried it with her because she feared losing it during her long walks through the woods and her long days hard at work with the dyer.
Now, with Thomas watching, she fetched the scrap and laid it in the box.
"It's a lovely thing," he said, seeing the small cloth.
Kira stroked it before she closed the lid. "It speaks to me somehow," she told him. "It seems almost to have life." She smiled, embarrassed, because she knew it was an odd thing and that he would not understand and could perhaps find her foolish.
But Thomas nodded. "Yes," he said to her surprise. "I have a piece of wood that does the same. One I carved long ago, when I was just a tyke.
"And sometimes I feel it in my fingers still, the knowledge that I had then."
He turned to leave.
That you had then? No more? The knowledge doesn't stay? Kira was dismayed at the thought but she said nothing to her friend.
Though there was still so much information she needed to acquire from Annabella, Kira was forced to make her learning time at the dyer's cott shorter because it was important to begin to work on the Singer's robe and she needed the daylight. She was glad now of the tiled bathroom that had caused her such confusion at first. The warm water and soap helped to rid her hands of stains, and it was vital that her hands be clean when she touched the robe.
She still had her small frame, the one that Matt had saved from the fire, but there was no need of it. Among the supplies provided for her was a fine new frame that unfolded and stood on sturdy wooden legs so that it was not necessary to hold it in her lap. She placed the frame by the window so she could sit in a chair beside it while she worked.
She spread out the robe on the large table to examine it carefully and select the place where she should begin her work. Now, for the first time, Kira began to perceive the vastness from which the Singer created his song. The entire history of the people, culminating with the horrifying story of the Ruin, was portrayed with immense complexity on the voluminous folds of the robe.
Kira could see pale green sea, and in its depths fish of all kinds, some larger than men, larger than ten men together. Then the sea blended imperceptibly into sweeping areas of land populated only by the figures of animal life unknown to her, hulking creatures grazing on tall tan grasses. All of this was only one small corner of the Singer's robe. As her eyes moved along, she saw that out of the pale sea, near the grazing land, rose other land, and on this land appeared men. The tiny stitches created figures of hunters with spears and weaponry, and she saw that little knots of red (madder for red. Just the roots) had been used to color blood on the figures of fallen men, those taken by beasts.
She thought of her father. But this scene was long ago, long before her father, long before any of their people. The lifeless men dotted with the red knots of blood were still an infinitesimal section of the robe, a blink of an eye, forgotten now except for the once-a-year Song, the time that the Singer reminded them of the past.
Looking at the robe, and smoothing it with her washed hand, Kira sighed and realized that she did not have time for such study. There was important work to be done, and she had noticed Jamison's increasing sense of urgency. Again and again he came to her room, checking, making certain that she was attentive to her job and would be meticulous in the work.
Identifying a place on one sleeve that badly needed repair, Kira moved that section of the robe into the frame, which held it taut. Then, carefully, using the delicate cutting tools she had been given, Kira snipped away the frayed threads. There was a small stain across an intricately threaded flower in shades of gold, part of a landscape that portrayed rows of tall sunflowers near a pale green stream. Someone long ago — someone skilled in the art — had made the stream appear to flow by stitching white curving lines that gave a sense of foam. How gifted the earlier threader had been! But those stained threads would need to be replaced.
The work was painstakingly slow. Her mother, though her fingers had not had the almost-magical knowledge that Kira's had, would have been more experienced, more deft, and faster.
She held the new gold threads to the window and examined the subtle shifts in hue, choosing just the right ones for the repair.
When the late afternoon light began to dim, Kira stopped work. She looked at the few inches in the frame, assessing what she had accomplished, and decided that she was doing well. Her mother would have been pleased. Jamison would be pleased. She hoped that when the time came to don the Robe, the Singer would be satisfied as well.
But her fingers ached. Kira rubbed them and sighed. This was not at all the same as her own threadings, the small pieces she had done throughout her childhood. It was certainly not like the special one that had begun to move of its own volition in her hand beside her mother's deathbed, to twist and mix the threads in ways she had never learned, to form patterns she had never seen. Her hands had never tired then.
Thinking of that special scrap, Kira went to the carved box, unfolded the bit of cloth, and put it in her pocket. It felt familiar and welcome there, as if a friend had come to visit.
It was almost time for her evening meal to be brought. Kira covered the spread-out robe with a plain cloth to protect it. Then she went along the corridor and knocked on Thomas's door.
The young carver was also just finishing his work. When he called "Come in!" Kira entered and saw that he was wiping the blades of his tools and putting them away. The long staff lay across his worktable, held in a clamp. He smiled when he saw her. They had begun to eat their evening meal together each night.
"Listen," Thomas said, and pointed to his windows. She could hear noise coming from the central plaza below. Her own room, facing the forest, was always quiet.
"Take a look. They're preparing for a hunt tomorrow."
Kira moved to the window and looked down. Below, the men were gathering for the distribution of weapons. Hunts always began early in the morning; the men left the village before sunrise. But this was preparation. Kira could see that doors had been opened in an outbuilding beside the Council Edifice, and from the storage place long spears were being brought and placed in piles in the center of the plaza.
Men were lifting the spears, testing the weight, looking for the one that felt right. There were arguments. She saw two men with their hands grasping the same spearshaft, each determined to hold on. They were yelling at each other.
In the midst of the noisy chaos, Kira saw a small figure dart in among the men and grab a spear. No one else seemed to notice. They were all absorbed with themselves, shoving and pushing. She saw that one man was already bloodied from a spear point, and it was clear that others would be injured before the disorganized distribution was complete. No one paid any attention to the boy. From her place in the window, Kira watched as the figure, holding an undisputed spear, moved triumphantly to the side of the crowd. A dog scampered by his bare feet.
"It's Matt!" Kira cried in dismay. "He's just a tyke, Thomas! He's much too young for a hunt!" When Thomas came to the window, she pointed. He followed her finger and finally saw Matt where he stood to the side with his spear.
Thomas chuckled. "Sometimes boy tykes do that," he explained. "The men don't care. They let them follow along on the hunt."
"But it's too dangerous for a tyke, Thomas!"
"What do you care?" Thomas seemed genuinely curious. "They're only tykes. There are too many of them anyway."
"He's my friend!"
He seemed to comprehend then. She saw his face change. He looked down toward the boy with concern. Kira could see that now Matt was encircled by the pack of mischief-makers who were often at his side. They were admiring him as he brandished the spear.
Kira felt a startling sensation — a throbbing in her hip. She reached for it, intending to rub it away, thinking that perhaps she had leaned too hard against the windowsill. Then her hand went instinctively to her pocket. She remembered that she had placed the scrap of cloth there. She touched the fabric and felt tension, danger, and a warning from it.
"Please, Thomas," Kira said urgently, "Help me stop him!"
It was difficult to get through the crowd. Kira followed Thomas, who was taller than she, as he pushed to make a path through the shouting, raucous men. She recognized some: the butcher was there, cursing as he argued with another man, and she could see her mother's brother too, in a group comparing the weights of their weapons with loud bragging comments.
Kira had not been much in the world of men. They led very separate lives from those of women. She had never envied them. Now, as she found herself jostled by their thick, sweat-smelling bodies, as she heard their muttered angry comments and their shouts, she found herself both frightened and annoyed. But she realized that this was hunt behavior, a time for flaunting and boasting, a time for testing each other. No wonder Matt, with his childish swagger, wanted to be part of it.
A light-haired man with blood smeared on his arm turned from a shoving match and grabbed at her as she hurried by. "Here's a trophy!" she heard him call out. But his companions were preoccupied with their argument. Using her walking stick as a prod, she pushed the man away and wrenched her wrist free from his grasp.
"You shouldn't be here," Thomas whispered when she caught up with him. They had almost reached the side of the square where they had last spotted Matt. "It's always only men. And at hunt time they act brutish."
Kira knew that. She could tell from the smell, the coarse quarreling, and the noise that it was not a place for girls or women, and she kept her head lowered and her eyes on the ground, hoping not to be noticed and grabbed again.
"There's Branch!" She pointed at the little dog, who recognized her and wagged his crooked stub of a tail. "Matt will be nearby!"
With Thomas beside her, she pushed her way through and found him, still prancing with his spear. Its sharp point was dangerously close to the other tykes.