"I know." Kira sighed again. In the past there had been sicknesses that spread from one cott to the next, with many deaths. When that happened, a huge burning would take place, followed by a rebuilding that became almost festive with the noise of workers smearing wet mud over the fitted wooden sides of new structures, methodically slapping it into smoothness. The charred smell of the burning would remain in the air even as the new cotts rose.
But today there was no festivity. There were only the usual sounds. Katrina's death had changed nothing in the lives of the people. She had been there. Now she was gone. Their lives continued.
With the boy still beside her, Kira paused at the well and filled her container with water. Everywhere she heard arguing. The cadence of bickering was a constant sound in the village: the harsh remarks of men vying for power; the shrill bragging and taunting of women envious of one another and irritable with the tykes who whined and whimpered at their feet and were frequently kicked out of the way.
She cupped her hand over her eyes and squinted against the afternoon sun to find the gap where her own cott had been. She took a deep breath. It would be a long walk to gather saplings and a hard chore to dig the mud by the riverbank. The corner timbers would be heavy to lift and hard to drag. "I have to start building," she told Matt, who still held a bundle of twigs in his scratched, dirty arms. "Do you want to help? It could be fun if there were two of us.
"I can't pay you, but I'll tell you some new stories," she added.
The boy shook his head. "I be whipped iffen I don't finish the fire twiggies." He turned away. After a hesitation, he turned back to Kira and said in a low voice, "I heared them talking. They don't want you should stay. They be planning to turn you out, now your mum be dead. They be set on putting you in the Field for the beasts. They talk about having draggers take you."
Kira felt her stomach tighten with fear. But she tried to keep her voice calm. She needed information from Matt and it would make him wary to know she was frightened. "Who's 'they'?" she asked in an annoyed, superior tone.
"Them women," he replied. "I heared them talking at the well. I be picking up wood chippies from the refuse, and them didn't even notice me listening. But they want your space. They want where your cott was. They aim to build a pen there, to keep the tykes and the fowls enclosed so they don't be having to chase them all the time."
Kira stared at him. It was terrifying, almost unbelievable, the casualness of the cruelty. In order to pen their disobedient toddlers and chickens, the women would turn her out of the village to be devoured by the beasts that waited in the woods to forage the Field.
"Whose was the strongest voice against me?" she asked after a moment.
Matt thought. He shifted the twigs in his hands, and Kira could see that he was reluctant to get involved in her problems and fearful of his own fate. But he had always been her friend. Finally, looking around first to be certain he wouldn't be overheard, he told her the name of the person with whom Kira would have to do battle.
"Vandara," he whispered.
It came as no surprise. Nonetheless, Kira's heart sank.
First, Kira decided, it made sense to pretend she knew nothing. She would go back to the site of the cott where she had lived with her mother and begin to rebuild. Perhaps the simple fact of seeing her there at work would deter the women who hoped to drive her away.
Leaning on her stick, she made her way through the crowded village. Here and there, people acknowledged her presence with a curt nod; but they were busy, all of them at their daily work, and pleasantries were not part of their custom.
She saw her mother's brother. With his son, Dan, he was working in the garden beside the cott where he had lived with Solora and the tykes. Weeds had gone untended while his wife had neared her time, given birth, and died. Then more days had passed, more weeds had flourished, while he sat in the Field with his dead wife and infant. The poles that held beans entwined had toppled, and he was angrily setting them upright as Dan tried to help and the younger tyke, the girl named Mar, sat playing in the dirt at the edge. While Kira looked on, the man slapped his son hard on the shoulder, scolding him for not holding the pole straight.
She walked past them, planting her stick firmly in the ground with each step, planning to nod if they acknowledged her. But the small girl playing in the dirt only whimpered and spat; she had tried tasting some pebbles, in the way of toddlers, and had found herself with a mouthful of foul-tasting grit. The boy Dan glanced at Kira but made no sign of greeting or recognition; he was cringing from his father's slap. The man, her mother's only brother, didn't look up from his labor.
Kira sighed. At least he had help. Unless she could enlist her small friend, Matt, and some of his mates, she would have to do all of her work — rebuilding, gardening — herself, assuming she was allowed to stay.
Her stomach growled, and she realized how hungry she was. Rounding the path past a row of small cotts, she approached her own location and came upon the black heap of ashes that had been her home. There was nothing left of their household things. But she was pleased to see that the little garden remained. Her mother's flowers still bloomed, and the summer-start vegetables were ripening in the sun. For now, at least, she would have some food.
Or would she? As she watched, a woman darted out of a clump of nearby trees, glanced at Kira, and then brazenly began to pull carrots from the garden that Kira and her mother had tended together.
"Stop it! Those are mine!" Kira moved forward as quickly as she could, dragging her deformed leg.
Laughing contemptuously, the woman sauntered away, her hands filled with dirt-encrusted carrots.
Kira hurried to the remains of the garden. She set her water container on the ground, pulled up some tubers, brushed the dirt away, and began to eat. Without a hunter as part of their family, she and her mother had not eaten meat except for the occasional small creature that they could catch within the boundaries of the village. They could not go to the woods to hunt, the way men did. Fish from the river were plentiful and easy to catch, and they felt no need of anything more.
But the vegetables were essential. She was fortunate, she realized, that the garden had not been entirely stripped during her four days in the Field.
Her hunger satisfied, she sat down to rest her leg. She looked around. On the edge of her space, near the ashes, a pile of saplings stripped of their branches was arranged, as if someone had been preparing to help her rebuild.
But Kira knew better. She rose and tentatively picked up one of the slender, pliable saplings from the pile.
Vandara emerged immediately from the nearby clearing where Kira realized she had been waiting and watching. Kira didn't know where the woman lived or who her hubby or children might be. Her cott was none of those nearby. But she was very much known in the village. People whispered about her. She was known, and respected. Or feared.
The woman was tall and muscular, with long, tangled hair pulled back roughly and tied with a thong at the back of her neck. Her eyes were dark, and her direct look pierced any calmness that Kira might have felt. The ragged scar that marked her chin and continued down her neck to her broad shoulder was said to be a remnant of a long-ago battle with one of the forest creatures. No one else had ever survived such a clawing, and the scar reminded everyone of Vandara's courage and vigor as well as her malevolence. She had been attacked and clawed, the children whispered, when she tried to steal an infant creature from its mother's den.
Today, facing Kira, she was once again preparing to destroy someone's young.
Unlike the forest creature, Kira had no claws with which to fight. She gripped her wooden cane tightly and tried to stare back with no hint of fear.
"I've returned to rebuild my cott," she told Vandara.
"Your space is gone. It's mine now. Those saplings are mine."
"I will cut my own," Kira conceded. "But I will rebuild on this space. This was my father's space before I was born, and my mother's after he died. Now that she is dead, it's mine."
Other women emerged from surrounding cotts. "We need it," one called. "We're going to use the saplings to build a pen for the tykes. It was Vandara's idea."
Kira looked at the woman, who was holding the arm of a toddler roughly. "It might be a good idea," Kira replied, "if you want to pen your little ones. But not on this piece of ground. You can build a pen somewhere else."
She saw Vandara lean down and pick up a rock the size of a tyke's fist. "We don't want you here," the woman said. "You don't belong in the village anymore. You're worthless, with that leg. Your mother always protected you but she's gone now. You should go too. Why didn't you just stay in the Field?"
Kira saw that she was surrounded by hostile women who had come from their cotts and were watching Vandara for instructions and leadership. Several, she noticed, had rocks in their hands. If one rock were thrown, others would follow, she knew. They were all waiting for the first.
What would my mother have done? she thought frantically, and tried to call wisdom from the bit of her mother's spirit that lived on in her now.
Or my father, who never knew of my birth? His spirit is in me, too.
Kira straightened her shoulders and spoke. She held her voice steady and tried to meet the eyes of each woman in turn. Some lowered their gaze and looked at the ground. That was good. It meant they were weak.
"You know that in a village conflict that could bring death, we must go to the Council of Guardians," Kira reminded them. She heard some murmurs of assent. Vandara's hand still gripped the rock, and her shoulders were tense, preparing to throw.
Kira looked directly at Vandara but she was speaking to the others now, in need of their support. She appealed not to their sympathy, because she knew they had none, but to their fear.
"Remember that if conflict is not taken to the Council of Guardians, and if there is a death..."
She heard a murmur. "If there is a death..." she heard a woman repeat in an uncertain, apprehensive voice.
Kira waited. She stood as tall and straight as she could.
Finally a woman in the group completed words of the rule. "The causer-of-death must die."
"Yes. The causer-of-death must die." Other voices repeated it. One by one they released the rocks. One by one each woman chose not to be a causer-of-death. Kira began to relax slightly. She waited. She watched.
Finally only Vandara still held her weapon. Glaring, Vandara menaced her, bending her elbow as if to throw. But at last she too dropped the rock on the ground, with a slight harmless toss toward Kira.
"I will take her to the Council of Guardians then," Vandara announced to the women. "I am willing to be her accuser. Let them cast her out." She laughed harshly. "No need for us to waste a life getting rid of her. By sunset tomorrow this ground can be ours and she will be gone. She will be in the Field, waiting for the beasts."
The women all glanced toward the forest, deep in shadows now: the place where the beasts waited. Kira forced herself not to follow their looks with her own eyes.
With the same hand that had held the rock, Vandara stroked the scar on her throat. She smiled cruelly. "I remember what it was like," she said, "to see your own blood pour upon the ground.