Kira wondered, smiling, whether Matt had been there during the workday that had just ended. Assigned to cleaning-up chores, he had probably been underfoot with his mates, making trouble and stealing food from the women's lunches. From her place at the window, she couldn't see any sign of him or of his dog. She hadn't seen them all day.
She waited there with Thomas until long past dark, until the tenders had taken their food trays away. At last the entire building was still and the clamor from the village had subsided as well.
"Thomas," Kira suggested, "take your little piece of wood. The special one. I have my scrap with me."
"All right, but why?"
"I don't know exactly. I feel that we should."
Thomas got the small carved piece from its high shelf, and put it into his pocket. In his other pocket was the wooden key.
Together they went down the dimly lit corridor to the stairs.
Ahead of her, Thomas whispered, "Shhhh."
"I'm sorry," Kira whispered back. "The stick makes a noise. But I can't walk without it."
"Here, wait." They stopped beside one of the wall torches. Thomas ripped a length of cloth from the hem of his loose shirt. Deftly he tied it around the base of Kira's walking stick. The cloth muted the noise of the wooden stick on the tiled floor.
The pair made their way quickly down the flight of stairs and to the door of the room where Jo slept. They paused there and listened. But there were no sounds. Kira's hand, in her pocket, felt no warning from her scrap of cloth. She nodded to Thomas and silently he inserted the big key and turned it to open the door.
Kira held her breath because she feared that a tender might be sharing the room to guard the tyke at night. But the room, illuminated only by pale moonlight through the window, held only one small bed and one small fast-asleep girl.
"I'll stay by the door to watch," Thomas murmured. "She knows you — or your voice, at least. You wake her."
Kira went to the bed and sat on its edge, propping her stick beside her. Gently she touched the small shoulder. "Jo," she said softly.
The little head, long hair tangled, turned restlessly. After a moment, the tyke opened her eyes with a startled, frightened look. "No, don't!" she cried out, pushing Kira's hand away.
"Shhhh," Kira whispered. "It's me. Remember, we talked through the door? Don't be afraid."
"I want me mum," the tyke wailed.
She was very small. Much smaller than Matt. Hardly more than a toddler. Kira remembered the power of the singing voice that she had heard, and marveled that it had come from this tiny, frightened waif of a thing.
Kira picked her up, cradled her, and rocked her back and forth. "Shhhh," she said. "Shhhh. It's all right. I'm your friend. And see over there? His name is Thomas. He's your friend too."
Gradually the tyke was soothed. Her eyes opened wide. Her thumb slid into her mouth and she spoke around it. "I be listening to you at the hole," she said, remembering.
"Yes, the keyhole. We whispered to each other."
"You know me mum? Can you bring her?"
Kira shook her head. "No, I'm afraid I can't. But I'll be here. I live just upstairs. And Thomas does, too."
Thomas came nearer and knelt by the bed. The tyke stared at him suspiciously, and clutched Kira.
Thomas pointed to the ceiling. "I live right above you," he said in a gentle voice, "and I can hear you."
"You hear me singings?"
He smiled. "Yes. Your singing is very beautiful."
The tyke scowled. "They always be making me learn new ones."
"New songs?" Kira asked her.
Jo nodded unhappily. "Over and over. They be making me remember everythings. Me old songs, they just be there natural. But now they be stuffing new things into me and this poor head hurts horrid." The tyke rubbed her tangled hair and sighed, a strangely adult sound that made Kira smile sympathetically.
Thomas was looking around the room, which held many of the same pieces of furniture as the rooms above. A bed. A tall wooden chest of drawers. A table and two chairs.
"Jo," he said suddenly, "are you a good climber?"
She frowned and removed her thumb from her mouth. "I be climbing trees sometimes in the Fen. But me mum, she hits me when I do because she say I be breaking me legs and then they take me to the Field."
Thomas nodded solemnly. "Yes, that's probably true, and your mother didn't want you to get hurt."
"Once draggers take you to the Field, you don't never come back. Beasts take you." The thumb popped back in.
"But look, Jo. If you could climb up there —" Thomas pointed to the top of the chest of drawers.
The wide eyes followed his pointing finger, and the tyke nodded.
"If you stood very tall up there, and if you had some tool, you could hit the ceiling and I would hear you."
The tyke grinned at the thought. "You mustn't do it just for fun," Thomas added quickly. "Only if you really needed us."
"Might I be trying it?" Jo asked eagerly.
Kira lifted her down to the floor. Like a limber animal the tyke scrambled from chair to tabletop, and from the tabletop she climbed to the top of the chest. Then she stood triumphantly. From below her woven nightdress emerged two bare thin legs.
"We need a tool," Thomas murmured, looking around.
Remembering something from her own quarters, Kira went to the bathroom. As she had guessed, a thick hairbrush with a wooden handle lay on the shelf beside the sink.
"Try this," she said, and handed it up to the tyke.
Smiling broadly, the little singer reached up and thumped the brush handle on the ceiling.
Thomas lifted her down and put her back into the bed. "That's it, then," he said. "If you need us, that's the signal, Jo. But never just for fun. Only if you need help."
"And we'll come to see you too, even if you don't thump," Kira added. "After the tenders are gone." She tucked the bed covers around the tyke. "Here, Thomas. Put this back, would you?" She handed him the hairbrush.
"We must go now," she told Jo. "But do you feel better, knowing that you have friends up there?"
The tyke nodded. Her moist thumb slid into her mouth.
Kira smoothed the blanket. "Good night, then." For a moment she sat there on the bed, feeling a vague memory of something else that should be done. Something from when she was a small tyke, like this, being put to bed.
She leaned down toward the little girl, intuitively. What was it that her mother had done when she was small? Kira put her lips on Jo's forehead. It was an unfamiliar gesture but felt right.
The little girl made a small contented sound with her own lips against Kira's face. "A little kissie," she whispered. "Like me mum."
Kira and Thomas parted in the upstairs corridor and made their way separately back to their own rooms. It was late, and as always they were expected to work in the morning and needed sleep.
As Kira prepared for bed, she thought about the frightened, lonely tyke below. What songs were they forcing her to learn? Why was she here at all? Ordinarily an orphaned tyke would be turned over to another family.
It was the same question that she and Thomas had discussed the day before. And the answer seemed to be the conclusion they had reached: they were artists, the three of them. Makers of song, of wood, of threaded patterns. Because they were artists, they had some value that she could not comprehend. Because of that value, the three of them were here, well fed, well housed, and nurtured.
She brushed her hair and teeth and got into bed. The window was open to the breeze. Below, she could see the half-completed constructions that would soon be her dyeing-garden, firepit, and shed. Across the room, through the darkness, she could see the folded, covered shape on top of her worktable: the Singer's robe.
Suddenly Kira knew that although her door was unlocked, she was not really free. Her life was limited to these things and this work. She was losing the joy she had once felt when the bright-colored threads took shape in her hands, when the patterns came to her and were her own. The robe did not belong to her, though she was learning its story through her work. She would almost be able to tell the history now that it had passed through her fingers, now that she had focused on it so closely for so many days. But it was not what her hands or heart yearned to do.
Thomas, uncomplaining though he was, had mentioned the headaches that afflicted him after hours of work. So had the little singer below. They be stuffing new things into me, the tyke had whimpered. She wanted the freedom to sing her own songs as she always had.
Kira did too. She wanted her hands to be free of the robe so that they could make patterns of their own again. Suddenly she wished that she could leave this place, despite its comforts, and return to the life she had known.
She buried her face in the bedclothes and for the first time cried in despair.
"Thomas, I've worked hard all morning, and you have too. Would you take a walk with me? There's something I want to see."
It was midday. They had both eaten lunch.
"You want to go down and look at what the workmen are doing? I'll go with you." Thomas set aside the carving tool he had just picked up. Kira noticed again, with admiration, how intricate the work was on the large Singer's staff. Thomas had been smoothing the tiny rough spots from the worn, ancient carvings and reshaping the infinitesimally small edges and curves. It was very similar to the work that Kira herself had been assigned, the repair of the Singer's robe. And the entire top of the staff was undecorated; it was smooth, uncarved wood, in the same way that the expanse across the shoulders of the robe was untouched cloth. Kira's work was approaching that unadorned expanse. So was Thomas's, she realized.
"What will you carve there?" she asked him, pointing to the undecorated part.
"I don't know. They said they'd tell me."
She watched as he carefully laid the staff across the table.
"Actually," she told him, "if you want to look at what the workmen are doing, I'll go there with you later. But that's not what I had in mind. Will you go with me first where I want?"
Thomas nodded good-naturedly. "Where's that?" he asked.
"The Fen," Kira told him.
He looked at her quizzically. "That filthy place? Why would you want to go there?"
"I've never been there. I want to see where Jo lived, Thomas."
"And Matt does still," he reminded her.
"Yes, Matt too. I wonder where he is, Thomas." Kira was uneasy. "I haven't seen him in two days. Have you?"
Thomas shook his head. "Maybe he found another source of food," he suggested, laughing.
"Matt could point out where Jo lived. Maybe I could even bring something back for her. Maybe she had toys. Did they let you bring things when you came here, Thomas?"
He shook his head. "Just my bits of wood. They didn't want me distracted."
Kira sighed. "She's so small. She should have a toy. Maybe you could carve her a doll? And I could stitch a little dress for it."
"I could, I guess," Thomas agreed. He handed Kira her walking stick. "Let's go," he said. "We'll probably find Matt along the way. Or he'll find us."