Pretending didn't keep you safe.
"I heard it growl," Kira said in a low voice.
"Name the threads," Annabella commanded.
Kira sighed. "Yarrow," she said and set some pale yellow next to the deep brown. The dyer nodded.
She examined a brighter yellow in the light. "Tansy," she decided finally, and the dyer nodded again.
"It growled," Kira said once more.
"There be no beasts," the dyer repeated firmly.
Kira continued to sort and name the threads. "Madder," she said, stroking the deep red, one of her favorites. She picked up a pale lavender near it and frowned. "I don't know this one. It's pretty."
"Elderberry," the old woman told her. "But it don't stay fast. It don't linger."
Kira folded the lavender threads in her hand. "Annabella," she said finally, "it growled. It did."
"Then it be human, playing at beast," Annabella told her in a firm and certain voice. "Meaning to keep you scairt of the woods. There be no beasts."
Together, siowly, they sorted and named the threads.
Later, walking home through a silent forest with no frightening sounds from the thick bushes on either side of the path, Kira wondered what human would have stalked her, and why.
"Thomas," Kira asked as they ate together, "have you ever seen a beast?"
"You've seen a dead one, then?"
"We all have. When the hunters bring them in. The other night, remember? They brought them in after the hunt. There was a huge pile over by the butcher's yard."
Kira wrinkled her nose, remembering. "What a smell," she said. "But, Thomas —"
He waited for her question. Tonight for dinner they had been brought meat in a thick sauce. Beside it on the plate were some small roasted potatoes.
Kira pointed at the meat on her own plate. "This is what the hunters brought. It's hare, I think."
He nodded, agreeing.
"Everything the hunters brought in was like this. Wild rabbit. Some birds. There wasn't anything, well, anything very large."
"There were deer. I saw two at the butcher's."
"But deer are gentle, frightened things. The hunters bring nothing with claws or fangs. They never catch anything that could be called a beast."
Thomas shuddered. "Lucky. A beast could kill."
Kira thought of her father. Taken by beasts.
"Annabella says there be none," she confided.
"Be none?" Thomas looked puzzled.
"That's the way she said it. 'There be no beasts.'"
"She speaks like Matt?" Thomas had not met the old dyer.
Kira nodded. "A bit. Perhaps she grew up in the Fen."
They ate in silence for a moment. Finally Kira asked again. "So you've never seen a real beast?"
"No," Thomas acknowledged.
"But probably you know someone who has."
He thought for a moment and then shook his head. "Do you?" he asked.
Kira looked at the table. It had always been hard to talk of it, even to her mother. "My father was taken by beasts," she told him.
"You saw it?" His voice was shocked.
"No. I was not yet born."
"Your mother saw?"
She tried to remember her mother's telling. "No. She didn't. He went on the hunt. Everyone says that he was a fine hunter. But he didn't return. They came to my mother with the news, that he'd been attacked and taken by beasts on the hunt."
She looked at him, puzzled. "Yet Annabella says there be none."
"How could she know?" Thomas asked skeptically.
"She's four syllables, Thomas. Those who live to four syllables know all there is."
Thomas nodded in agreement, then yawned. He had been working hard all day. His tools still lay on the worktable: small chisels with which he had been meticulously recarving, reshaping the worn, smooth places on the elaborate staff that the Singer used. It was painstaking work that allowed for no error. Thomas had told her that often his head ached and he had to stop again and again to rest his eyes.
"I'll go so you can rest," Kira told him. "I must put away my own work before bed."
She returned to her room at the other end of the corridor and folded the robe that still lay on her table. She had worked on the stitchery throughout the afternoon, after her return from the forest. She had shown it to Jamison as she did each day, and he had nodded in approval. Now Kira was tired too. The long walks to the dyer's cott each day were exhausting, but at the same time the fresh air made her feel cleansed and invigorated. Thomas should get outside more, she thought, and then laughed to herself; she sounded like a scolding mother.
After a bath — how she enjoyed the warm water now! —Kira put on the simple nightgown that was provided clean for her each day. Then she went to the carved box and took the scrap of fabric with her to her bed. The fear of the thing in the bushes by the path lingered with her still, and she thought of it as she waited for sleep.
Is it true, that there be no beasts? Her thoughts framed the question, and her mind responded in a whisper to herself as the fabric lay curled warm in the palm of her hand.
There be none.
What of my father, then, him taken by beasts? Kira drifted into sleep, the words gliding slippery from her thoughts. She dreamed the question, her breath soft and even against the pillow.
The fabric gave a kind of answer but it was no more than a flutter, like a breeze across her that she would not remember when she woke at dawn. The scrap told her something of her father — something important, something that mattered — but the knowledge entered her sleep, trembling through like a dream, and in the morning she did not know that it was there at all.
When the bell for rising rang, Kira awoke with a sense that something had changed: she had an awareness of a difference, but had forgotten what the difference was. She sat for a moment on the edge of her bed, thinking. But she could not grasp whatever it was and finally stopped trying. Sometimes, she knew, lost memories and forgotten dreams came back more easily if you put them out of your mind.
Outside, it was stormy. Wind shook the trees and blew a sheet of heavy rain against the building. The hard ground below had turned to mud overnight, and it was clear that Kira would not go to the dyer's cott today. Just as well, she thought; there was much work to do on the robe, and autumn-start, the time of the Gathering, was approaching. Recently Jamison had been stopping by sometimes twice a day to see the progress she had made. He seemed pleased by her work.
"Here," he had said to her just the day before yesterday, smoothing his hand across the large underrated place, "is where you will start your own work. After this year's Gathering, after you've finished with the restoration, you'll have this entire section to work on for years to come."
Kira touched the place where his hand lay. She tried to determine whether her fingers would feel the magic there. But there was only emptiness. There was a feeling of unfilled need.
He seemed to sense her uncertainty and reassured her. "Don't worry," he said. "We will explain to you what we want pictured there."
Kira didn't reply. His reassurance troubled her. It wouldn't be instruction that she needed, it would be the magic to come to her hands.
Remembering the conversation, Kira thought suddenly, Jamison! I can ask him about the beasts! He had told her that he had been part of the hunt that day, that he had seen her father's death.
And maybe she would ask Matt too. Wild little thing that he was, Kira had no doubt that Matt had crossed the boundaries often and had gone to places tykes were not supposed to go. She laughed quietly, thinking of Matt and his mischief. He spied on everything, knew everything. Had she and Thomas not stopped him, he would have tagged along with the men on the hunt and put himself in danger. Perhaps he had done it before.
Perhaps he had seen beasts.
When the tender came with the morning meal, Kira asked that the lights be lit. The rainstorm made the room dim, even beside the window where she sat to work. Finally she settled herself with the outspread robe and placed the frame around the newest section waiting to be repaired. As she had often done, she followed with her eyes and fingers the complex story of the world portrayed on the robe: the starting point, long mended now, with the green water, the dark beasts on its shore, and the men bloodied by the hunt. Beyond, villages appeared, with dwellings of all kinds; curving stitches of smoke from fires were threaded with dull purplish grays. It was fortunate that it needed no repair because Kira had no threads to match. She thought they had been dyed with basil and Annabella had told her how difficult the basil was and how badly it stained your hands.
Then complex, whirling patches of fire: oranges, reds, yellows. Here and there on the robe these fires appeared, a repetitive pattern of ruin, and within the intricately stitched patterns of the bright destructive threads of fire, Kira could see figures of humans portrayed: people destroyed, their tiny villages crumbling, and later even larger, much more splendid towns burned and ravished by fiery destruction. In some places on the robe there was a feeling of entire worlds ending. Yet always there would emerge, nearby, new growth. New people.
Ruin. Rebuilding. Ruin again. Regrowth. Kira followed the scenes with her hand as larger and greater cities appeared and larger, greater destruction took place. The cycle was so regular that its pattern took on a clear form: an up-and-down movement, wavelike. From the tiny corner where it began, where the first ruin came, it enlarged upon itself. The fires grew as the villages grew. All of them were still tiny, created from the smallest stitches and combinations of stitches, but she could see their pattern of growth and how each time the ruin was worse and the rebuilding more difficult.
But the sections of serenity were exquisite. Miniature flowers of countless hues flourished in meadows streaked with golden-threaded sunlight. Human figures embraced. The pattern of the peaceful times felt immensely tranquil compared to the tortured chaos of the others.
Tracing with her finger the white and pink-tinged clouds against pale skies of gray or green, Kira wished again for blue. The color of calm. What was it Annabella had said? That they had blue yonder? What did that mean? Who were they? And where was yonder?
More unanswered questions.
Great sheets of rain spattered against the window, distracting her. Kira sighed and watched the trees bend and sway in the wind. Thunder muttered in the distance.
She wondered where Matt was, what he was doing in this weather. She knew that ordinary people — those who lived near the place where she and her mother had shared their cott — would be indoors today, the men sullen and edgy, the women complaining loudly because weather kept them from their usual chores. Tykes, confined, would be fighting and then wailing in response to swift backhanded slaps from their mothers.
Her own life with her soft-spoken widowed mother had been different. But it had set her apart too and made others, like Vandara, hostile.
"Kira?" She heard Thomas's voice and his knock at her door.
He came and stood by her window, eyeing the rain. "I was just wondering what Matt's up to in this weather," Kira said.