"Matt!" she called in a scolding voice.
He saw her, waved, and grinned. "I'm Mattie now!" he called.
Exasperated, Kira grabbed the spear shaft just above his hand. "You won't be two syllables for a long time, Matt," she said. "Thomas, take this." She removed the spear from Matt's grasp and handed it carefully to the Carver.
"Yes, I be!" Matt said, laughing and proud. "Looky here! I've got me a manly pelt!"
The little boy raised both arms above his head to show her his joke. Kira looked. His underarms were thick with some kind of growth. "What is that?" she asked him. Then she wrinkled her nose. "It smells terrible!" She touched it, pulled some away, and began to laugh. "Matt, that's swamp grass. It's awful stuff. What do you mean, plastering yourself with it?" She could see that he'd smeared it on his chest as well.
Thomas handed the spear to a man who grabbed it eagerly. He looked down at Matt, who was wiggling under Kira's hands on his shoulders. "You look like a beast-boy! What do you say, Kira? I think it's time we showed Matt the bathroom! Shall we clean him up and wash his second syllable away?"
At the word wash Matt wiggled harder, trying to get free. But Thomas and Kira both held him and finally he allowed Thomas to pick him up and carry him on his shoulders, towering over the crowd.
Now that the dangerous fascination of the spear was gone, Matt's group of young admirers dispersed. Kira could hear Matt calling from his perch above the noisy, shoving men, "Looky here at the beast-boy!" No one looked, or cared. She found Branch underfoot and picked him up to keep him safe from so many trampling feet. Carrying the dog tucked under her free arm, Kira leaned on her stick and followed Thomas; they edged their way around the crowd and back into the quiet of the building's corridors.
Kira listened, laughing, to the wails and whimpers as Thomas mercilessly scrubbed both Matt and Branch in his bathroom tub. "Not me hairs too!" Matt howled in protest as Thomas poured water over his tangled mop of hair. "You're drownding me!"
Finally, with Matt pink-faced and subdued, his washed hair toweled into a halo and his clean body wrapped in a blanket, they shared their meal. Branch shook himself briskly as if he had just played in the stream, then settled himself on the floor and nibbled at scraps they handed to him.
Matt sniffed warily at his own hand and grimaced. "That soapie's horrid awful," he said. "But I like the food," he added and filled his plate again.
After dinner Kira brushed his hair while he complained loudly. Then she held a mirror for him. Mirrors had been new to her too when she came here to live, and they gave an image different from the stream reflection that had been all she had known of herself. Matt examined his own image with interest, wrinkling his nose and raising his eyebrows. He showed his teeth, growled at the mirror, and startled Branch, who was sleeping under the table. "I be so fierce," Matt announced smugly. "You would've drownded me but I fought so fierce."
Finally they redressed him in his raggedy clothing. He looked down at himself. Then he reached suddenly for the leather thong around Kira's neck.
"Gimme," he said.
She pulled back, annoyed. "Don't, Matt," she told him and pulled her necklace loose from his hand. "Don't grab. If you want something, you should ask."
"Gimme is an ask," he pointed out, puzzled.
"No, it isn't. You should learn some manners. Anyway," Kira added, "you can't have it. I told you it was special."
"A gift," Matt said.
"Yes. A gift from my father to my mother."
"So she'd like him best."
Kira laughed. "Maybe so. But she already liked him best."
"I want a gift. I never be having one."
Laughing, Thomas and Kira gave him the smooth bar of soap, which he tucked solemnly into his pocket. Then they turned him loose. By now the men and the spears were gone. They watched from the window as the small figure followed by his dog crossed the deserted plaza and disappeared into the night.
Alone with Thomas, Kira tried to explain the warning that had come to her from the cloth. "It creates a feeling in my hand," she explained hesitantly. "Look." She took it from her pocket and held it toward the light. But it was still now. She could feel a kind of comfort and silence from it, nothing like the tension that had stirred it earlier. But she felt disappointed that it now seemed no more than a scrap of cloth; she wanted Thomas to understand.
She sighed. "I'm sorry," she said. "It seems lifeless, I know. But there are times —"
Thomas nodded. "Perhaps the feeling is for you alone," he said. "Here, I'll show you my bit of wood." He went to a shelf above the table where he kept his tools and took down a piece of light-colored pine small enough to fit into the palm of his hand. Kira could see that it was intricately decorated with carved designs that interwove around it in complicated curves.
"You carved this when you were just a tyke?" she asked him in surprise. She had never seen anything so extraordinary. The boxes and ornaments that were on his worktable, beautiful in their own way, were much simpler than this small piece.
Thomas shook his head. "I began to," he explained. "I was learning to use the tools. I began to try them on this small chunk of wood that had been discarded. And it —"
He hesitated. He stared at the piece of wood as if it mystified him still.
"It carved itself?" Kira asked.
"It did. It seemed to, at least."
"It was the same for me with the cloth."
"It's why I understand the way the cloth speaks to you. The wood speaks in the same way. I can feel it in my hand. Sometimes it —"
"Warns you?" Kira asked, remembering how the cloth had seemed to tense and tremble when she saw Matt holding the spear.
Thomas nodded. "And calms me," he added. "When I came here so young, sometimes I was very lonely and frightened. But the feel of the wood was calming."
"Yes, the cloth is soothing at times too. I was fearful here at first, the same as you, when everything was so new. But when I held the scrap, I felt reassured." She thought for a moment, trying to picture what this life in the Edifice must have been like for Thomas, brought here very young.
"I think it's easier for me because I'm not alone, as you were," she told him. "Jamison comes every day to look at my work. And I have you just down the corridor."
The two friends sat silently for a moment. Then Kira replaced the cloth in her pocket and rose from her chair. "I must go to my room," she said. "There's so much to do.
"Thank you for helping me with Matt," she added. "He's a naughty tyke, isn't he?"
Thomas, returning his carved piece to the shelf, agreed with a grin. "Horrid naughty," he said and they laughed together with affection for their little friend.
Kira, trembling, hurried into the clearing where Annabella's small house stood.
She was alone this morning. Matt still accompanied her occasionally, but he was bored by the old dyer and her endless instructions. More often he and his dog were off with his friends, dreaming up adventures. Matt was still annoyed about the bath. His mates had laughed at him when they saw him clean.
So this morning Kira made her own way down the forest path. This morning, for the first time, she had been frightened.
"What's wrong?" Annabella was at the outdoor fire. She must have risen before dawn to have the fire so hot by now. It crackled and spat under the huge iron kettle. Yet the sun had barely risen when Kira set out.
Catching her breath, Kira limped past the gardens to where the old woman stood sweating as the heat from the flames pulsed and shimmered in the air. There was an aura of safety here, Kira felt. She willed her body to relax.
"You have a fear look to you," the dyer observed.
"A beast followed me on the path," Kira explained, trying to breathe normally. The panic was beginning to subside but she still felt tense. "I could hear it in the bushes. I could hear its steps, and sometimes it growled."
To her surprise, Annabella chuckled. The old woman had always been kind to her and patient. Why would she laugh at her fear?
"I can't run," Kira explained, "because of my leg."
"No need of running," Annabella said. She stirred the water in the pot, which was beginning to show occasional small bubbles at the surface. "We'll boil coneflowers for a brownish green," she said. "Just the flower heads. The leaves and stems make gold." With a nod of her head, she indicated a filled sack of flower heads on the ground nearby.
Kira picked up the sack. When Annabella, testing the water with her stick, nodded, she emptied the massed blossoms into the pot. Together they watched as the mixture began to simmer. Then Annabella laid her stirring stick on the ground.
"Come inside," the old woman said. "I'll give you tea for calming." From a nearby, smaller fire, she lifted a kettle from its hook and carried it into the cott.
Kira followed her. She knew the flower heads would have to boil till midday and then remain steeping in their water for many hours more. Extracting the colors was always a slow process. The coneflower dye-water would not be ready for use until the next morning.
The dyeing yard, affected by the fire, was already sultry and almost oppressive. But inside, the cott was cool, protected by its thick walls. Dried plants, beige and fragile, hung from the ceiling rafters. On a thick wooden table by the window, piles of colored yarns lay ready for sorting. It was part of Kira's learning to name and sort the threads. She went to her place at the sorting table, set her stick against the wall, and sat down. Behind her, Annabella poured water from the kettle over dried leaves that she had placed in two thick mugs.
"This deep brown is from the goldenrod shoots, isn't it?" Kira held the strands to the window light. "It looks lighter than when it was wet. But it's still a fine brown." She had helped the dyer prepare the shoots for their dye-bath a few days before.
Annabella brought the mugs to the table. She glanced at the strands in Kira's hand and nodded. "The goldenrod be blossoming soon. We'll use the blossoms fresh, not dried, for brightest yellow. And the blossoms boil only a short time, not as long as the shoots."
More bits of knowledge to grasp and hold in her memory. She would ask Thomas to write them down with the rest. Kira sipped at the strong hot tea and thought again about the ominous stalking sound in the woods.
"I was so frightened on my way here," she confessed. "Truly, Annabella, I can't run at all. My leg's a useless thing." She looked down at it, ashamed.
The old woman shrugged. "It brung you here," she said.
"Yes, and I'm grateful for that. But I move so slowly." Kira stroked the rough side of the earthen mug, thinking. "When Matt and Branch come with me, nothing stalks me. Maybe Matt would let me bring Branch each day. Even a little dog might scare the beasts back."
Annabella laughed. "There be no beasts," she said.
Kira stared at her. Of course no beasts would come to this clearing where fires glowed. And the old woman seemed never to leave the clearing, never to walk the path to the village. "All I need be here," she had told Kira, speaking disdainfully of the village and its noisy life. But still she had lived to be four syllables and had acquired four generations of wisdom. Why did she suddenly sound like an ignorant tyke, pretending that there was no danger? Like Matt, beating his chest with bravado and pasting it thick with swamp grass that he called a manly pelt?