Thomas began to laugh. "Well, I can answer that. He's up to finishing my breakfast. He arrived early this morning, dripping wet. He said his mother threw him out because he was noisy and troublesome. I think he just wanted breakfast though."
"Branch too. Of course."
As if in response, they heard the tap-tapping of the dog's feet in the corridor; then Branch appeared in the doorway, his head cocked, ears up, bent tail wagging exuberantly. Kira knelt and scratched behind his ear.
"Kira?" Thomas was still staring through the window at the rain.
"Hmmm?" She looked up from the dog.
"I heard it again in the night. I'm certain of it this time. The sound of a child crying. It seemed to come from the floor below."
She looked at him and saw that he was concerned. "I wonder, Kira," he said hesitantly, "would you go with me? To explore a bit? I suppose it could be just the sound of wind."
It was true that outside the wind was relentless. Tree branches lashed the side of the building and torn leaves whirled away. The sound of the storm, however, was nothing like the sound of a crying child.
"Maybe an animal?" Kira suggested. "I've heard cats yowling so that they sound like babies with colicky bellies."
"Cats?" Thomas repeated dubiously. "Well, maybe."
"Or a young goat? They make a crying sound."
Thomas shook his head. "It wasn't a goat."
"Well, no one ever said we couldn't explore," Kira commented. "Not to me, anyway."
"All right, then, I'll go with you. The light's not good for working this morning anyway." She stood. Branch wriggled with anticipation. "What about Matt? I suppose we should take him along."
"Take me where?" Matt appeared in the doorway, damp-haired and barefoot with crumbs on his chin, jam on the edges of his mouth, and wearing a too-large woven shirt belonging to Thomas. "Shall we be having an adventure?"
"Matt?" Kira remembered her intention to ask him. "Have you ever seen a beast? A real one?"
Matt's face lighted. "Billions and billions." He made a beast face, teeth exposed. He roared and his dog jumped away from him in alarm.
Kira rolled her eyes and looked at Thomas.
"Here, Branchie." Matt, his beast disguise abandoned, squatted beside the dog, who came forward and sniffed him. "Some smearies for you." He grinned as the dog licked breakfast remains from his face.
"Yes, we'll have ourselves an adventure," Kira told him. She laid the protective cover over the robe. "We thought we'd explore a bit. We've never been on the floor below this one."
Matt eyes widened in delight at the idea of an exploration.
"I heard a noise last night," Thomas explained. "Probably nothing, but we thought we'd go take a look."
"Noise don't never be nothing," Matt pointed out. Quite rightly, Kira thought.
"Well, it's probably nothing important," Thomas amended.
"But maybe it be interesting!" Matt said eagerly.
Together, followed by the dog, the three started down the corridor toward the stairs.
Usually Branch scampered eagerly back and forth, leading the way, then circling back. This morning he was more cautious and followed behind. The thunder was still grumbling outside, and the hallway was dimly lighted. Thomas led the way. The dog's toenails clicked on the tiles. Matt's bare feet moved silently beside him, and the only other sounds were Kira's walking stick, which made a muted thump with each step, and the dragging of her twisted leg.
Like the floor above, where they lived, this was simply an empty corridor lined with closed wooden doors.
Thomas turned a corner. Then he jumped back as if he had been startled by something. The others, even the dog, froze.
"Shhhh." Thomas gestured for silence with his finger to his mouth.
Ahead, around the corner, they heard footsteps. Then a knock, the opening of a door, and a voice. The voice and the inflection of the words — though the words themselves were not clear — sounded familiar to Kira.
"It's Jamison," she mouthed silently to Thomas. He nodded, agreeing, and peered around the corner.
It occurred to Kira that Jamison had been her defender, had been the one responsible for her being here at all in this new life. So there was really no reason to huddle here in the dim hallway, hiding from him. Yet she was oddly fearful.
She tiptoed forward and leaned beside Thomas. They could see that one of the doors was open. An indistinct murmur of voices came from within. One voice was Jamison's. The other was that of a child.
The child cried briefly.
Then the child, surprisingly, began to sing.
Its clear, high voice soared. No words. Just the voice, almost instrumentlike in its clarity. It rose, leveled at a high note, and hovered there for a long moment.
Kira felt something tug at her clothing. She looked down and saw Matt beside her, wide-eyed, pulling at her skirt. She motioned to him to stay silent.
Then the singing broke off abruptly, and the child cried again.
They heard Jamison's voice. It was harsh now. Kira had never heard him speak in that way.
The door slammed shut, and the voices were muted.
Matt was still tugging at her, and Kira leaned down so that he could whisper what he had to say.
"It's me friend," he said urgently. "Well, not really me friend 'cause me and my mates don't like girl tykes none. But I knowed her. She lived in the Fen."
Thomas was listening too. "The one who was singing?" he asked.
Matt nodded enthusiastically. "Her name be Jo. She always be singing in the Fen. I didn't never hear her cry like that none."
"Shhh." Kira tried to quiet Matt but he had a difficult time whispering. "Let's go back," she suggested. "We can talk in my room."
Branch led now, happy to be retreating and enthusiastic about the possibility of more food back where breakfast had been. Stealthily they climbed the stairs and returned.
Safe in Kira's quarters, Matt perched on the bed with his bare feet dangling and told them about the girl who sang. "She be littler'n me," he said. He jumped briefly to the floor and held his own hand level with his shoulder. "She be about this high. And all the peoples in the Fen? They get so happy, hearing her sing." He climbed back onto the bed; Branch jumped up beside him and curled on Kira's pillow.
"But why is she here?" Kira asked, puzzled.
Matt gave an exaggerated shrug. "She be an orphan now. Her mum and pa, they died," he explained.
"Both of them? At the same time?" Kira and Thomas looked at each other. They both knew loss. But had it happened again? To another tyke?
Matt nodded importantly. He liked being the messenger, the bringer of information. "First her mum gets the sickness, and then when draggers take her mum to the Field? And her pa go to watch the spirit?"
Kira and Thomas nodded.
"Well," Matt said, making a dramatically sad face, "her pa be so sad at the Field, sitting there, that he taken a big pointy stick and stab hisself through the heart.
"That's what them all said, anyways," he added, seeing the shocked looks his story had produced.
"But he had a tyke! He had a little girl!" Kira said, finding it unbelievable that a father would do such a thing.
Matt shrugged again. He considered that. "Maybe he didn't like her none?" he suggested. Then after a moment he frowned and said, "But how could he not like her none when she sing so good?"
"And how did she get here?" Thomas asked. "What is she doing here?"
"I been told they give her away to someone who had a craving for more tykes," Matt said.
Kira nodded. "Orphans always go to someone else."
"Unless —" Thomas said slowly.
"Unless what?" Kira and Matt asked together. He pondered that. "Unless they sing," he said at last.
Jamison came to Kira's room, as he always did, later in the day. Outside, the rain still fell. Matt, undaunted, had gone off with his dog to find his mates, wherever they might be in such weather. Thomas had returned to his own quarters to work, and Kira too with extra lamps lighted by the tender, had settled to her task, stitching carefully throughout the afternoon. The interruption when Jamison knocked on her door was welcome. The tender brought tea and they sat companionably together in the room while the rain spattered against the windows.
As usual, he examined her work carefully. His face was the same creased, pleasant face she had known now for many weeks. His voice was courteous and friendly as together they scrutinized the folds of the outstretched robe.
Yet the memory of the harsh sound of his murmured speech in the room below prevented Kira from asking him about the singing child.
"Your work is very fine," Jamison told her. He leaned forward, looking carefully at the section she had just completed, where she had meticulously matched the subtle differences of several yellows and filled in a background area with tiny knotted stitches that formed a texture. "Better than your mother's, although hers was excellent," he added. "She taught you the stitches?"
Kira nodded. "Yes, most of them." She didn't tell him how others seemed simply to come to her untaught. It seemed boastful to speak of it.
"And Annabella the dyes," she added. "I'm using many of her threads still, but I'm beginning now to make my own when I'm at her cott."
"She knows all there is, the old woman," Jamison said. He looked at Kira's leg with apparent concern. "The walk is not too hard for you? One day we'll have the fire pit and the pots here for you. I'm thinking of preparing a place just below." He gestured toward the window, indicating an area between the building and the edge of the woods beyond.
"No. I'm strong. But —" She hesitated.
"Sometimes I've been fearful on the path," Kira told him. "The forest is so close all around."
"There is nothing to be afraid of there."
"I do fear beasts," she confessed.
"As you should. But stay on the path always. The beasts will not come near the path." His voice was as reassuring as it had been the day of her trial.
"I heard growling once," Kira confided, shuddering a little at the memory of it.
"There is nothing to fear if you don't stray."
"Annabella said the same thing. She told me there was nothing to fear."
"She speaks with four-syllable wisdom."
"But, Jamison?" For some reason, Kira hesitated to tell him this. Perhaps she didn't want to question the old woman's knowledge. But now, feeling reassured by Jamison's interest and concern, she told him the startling thing that the old dyer had said with such certainty. "She said that there are no beasts."
He looked at Kira oddly. The expression on his face seemed a mixture of astonishment and anger. "No beasts? She said that?"
'"There be no beasts,'" Kira repeated. "She said it just that way, several times."
Jamison laid the section of robe he'd been examining back down on the table. "She's very old," he said firmly. "It's dangerous for her to speak that way. Her mind is beginning to wander."