"Who were they?" Kira asked, fascinated, unable to keep from interrupting.
"I didn't know. I couldn't see them. My eyes were destroyed and I was almost delirious with pain. But I could hear their comforting voices. So I drank the liquid and gave myself up to their care."
Kira was astonished. In her entire lifetime in the village, she had never encountered a single person who would have done such a thing. She knew no one who would be willing to soothe or comfort or aid a grievously wounded being. Or who would know how.
Except Matt, she thought, remembering how the boy had nursed his little damaged dog back to life.
"They carried me a very great distance through the forest," her father went on. "It took several days. I woke and slept and woke again. Each time I woke, they talked to me, cleaned me, gave me water to drink, and more of the drug to ease my pain.
"Everything was blurred. I didn't remember what had happened or why. But they healed me, as much as I could be healed, and they told me the truth: I would never see again. But they told me also that they would help me to make a life without sight."
"But who were they?" Kira asked again.
"Who are they, you should say," he told her gently, "because they still exist. And I am one of them now.
"They were just people. But they are people like me, who were damaged. Who had been left to die."
"Who had been taken from our village to the Field?"
Her father smiled. "Not only from here. There are other places. They had come from all over, those who had been wounded — sometimes not just in body, but in other ways as well. Some traveled very long distances. It's astounding to hear of the difficult journeys.
"And those who had reached this place where I found myself? They had formed their own community — my community now, too —"
Kira remembered what Matt had described, a place where broken people lived.
"They help each other," her father explained simply. "We help each other.
"Those who can see? They guide me. I am never without helping eyes.
"Those who can't walk? They are carried."
Kira unconsciously rubbed her own damaged leg.
"There is always someone to lean on," he told her. "Or a pair of strong hands for those who have none.
"The village of the healing has existed for a long time," he explained. "Wounded people still come. But now it is beginning to change, because children have been born there and are growing up. So we have strong, healthy young people among us. And we have others who have found us and stayed because they wanted to share our way of life."
Kira was trying to picture it. "So it is a village, like this one?"
"Much the same. We have gardens. Houses. Families. But it is much quieter than this village. There is no arguing. People share what they have, and help each other. Babies rarely cry. Children are cherished."
Kira looked at the stone pendant that rested against his blue shirt. She touched her own matching one.
"Do you have a family there?" she asked hesitantly.
"The whole village is like a family to me, Kira," he replied. "But I have no wife, no child. Is that what you mean?"
"I left my family here. Katrina and the child to come." He smiled. "You."
She knew she must tell him now. "Katrina —" she began.
"I know. Your mother is dead. Matt told me."
Kira nodded, and for the first time in many months she began to cry for her own loss. She had not wept when her mother died. She had willed herself to be strong then, to decide what to do and to do it. Now hot tears stained her face and she covered it with her hands. Her shoulders shook as she sobbed. Her father opened his arms, offering her an embrace, but she turned from him.
"Why didn't you come back?" she asked finally, choking on the words as she tried to stop crying.
Looking out through the shield she had made with her hands over her eyes, she could see that the question pained him.
"For a very long time," he said at last, "I remembered nothing. The blows to my head had been intended to kill me, though they failed. But they took my memory. Who I was, why I was there? My wife? My home? I knew nothing of any of it.
"Then, very slowly, as I healed, it began to come back. I remembered small things of the past. Your mother's voice. A song she sang, 'Night comes, and colors fade away; sky fades, for blue can never stay...'"
Startled by the familiar lullaby, Kira murmured the words with him. "Yes," she whispered. "I remember it too."
"Then very gradually, it all came back to me. But I could not return. I didn't know how to find the way. I was blind and weakened.
"And if I did find a way back, it would be to meet my death. The ones who wanted me dead were still here.
"Finally," he explained, "I simply stayed. I mourned my losses. But I stayed and made a life there, without your mother. Without you.
"And then," he went on, his expression lightening, "after so many years had gone by, the boy appeared. He was exhausted when he arrived, and hungry."
"He's always hungry," Kira said, smiling slightly.
"He said he had come all that way because he had heard that we had blue. He wanted blue for his special friend, who had learned to make all the other colors. When he told me about you, Kira, I knew you must be my daughter. I knew I must let him lead me back."
He stretched slightly, and yawned. "The boy will find me a safe place to sleep when he returns."
Kira took his hand, and held it. There were scars even there, she saw.
"Father," she said, feeling her way uncertainly with the word she had never used before, "they won't hurt you now."
"No, I'll be safely hidden. And after I'm rested, we will slip away, you and I. The boy will help us pack food for the journey. You will be my eyes on the way home. And I will be the strong legs you lean on."
"No, Father!" Kira said, excited now. "Look!" She waved her arm, indicating the comfortable room. Then she paused, embarrassed. "I'm sorry. I know you can't really look. But you can feel how comfortable it is. There are other rooms like it along the hall, all of them empty except the ones where Thomas and I live. One can be readied for you."
He was shaking his head. "No," he said.
"You don't understand, Father, because you've not been here, but I have a special role in the village. And because of it, I have a special friend on the Council of Guardians. He saved my life! And he looks after me.
"Oh, it's too much to explain, and I know you're tired. But Father, not very long ago, I was in great danger. Someone named Vandara wanted me to be put to the Field. There was a trial. And —"
"Vandara? I remember her. That's the scarred woman?"
"Yes, that's the one," Kira acknowledged.
"It was a terrible thing, her injury. I remember when it happened. She blamed her child. He slipped on wet rocks and grabbed her skirt, so that she fell and gashed her chin and neck on a sharp rock.
"But I thought —"
"He was only a small tyke, but she blamed him. Later, when he died, from the oleander, there were questions. Some people suspected —" He paused, and sighed. "But there was no proof of her guilt.
"She's a cruel woman, though," Kira's father said. "You say she turned on you? And there was a trial?"
"Yes, but I was allowed to stay. I was even given an honored place. I had a defender, a guardian named Jamison. And now he looks after me, Father, and supervises my work. I know he'll find a place for you!"
Happily Kira squeezed her father's hand, thinking of the future they would have together. But it was as if the air in the room shifted. Lines in her father's face tightened. The hand that she held stiffened and withdrew from hers.
"Your defender. Jamison?" Her father touched his own scarred face again. "Yes, he tried to find a place for me before. Jamison is the one who tried to kill me."
Alone in the dim pre-dawn moonlight of not-yet morning, Kira went down to the dyer's garden that had been so carefully created for her. There, gently patting earth around the moist roots, she planted the woad. "'Gather fresh leaves from first year's growth of woad.'" She repeated the words that Annabella had said. "'And soft rainwater; that makes the blue.'" She carried water from a container in the shed, and soaked the soil around the fragile plants. It would be a long time until the first year's growth. She would not be here to gather those leaves.
When the plants were watered, she sat alone, knees to chin, and rocked herself back and forth as the sun began to rise, a faint pink stain creeping up the eastern rim of the sky. The village was still silent. She tried to put it all together in her mind, to make some sense of it.
But there was no sense, no meaning at all.
Her mother's death: a sudden violent, isolated illness. Such things were rare. Usually illness struck the village and many were taken.
Perhaps her mother had been poisoned?
Because they wanted Kira.
So that they could capture her gift: her skill with the threads.
And Thomas? His parents too? And Jo's?
So that all their gifts would be captive.
Despairing, Kira stared through the early dawn at the garden. The plants glimmered and shifted in the breeze, some of them still in autumn-start bloom. Now, finally, woad had been added to give her the blue she had yearned for. But someone else would harvest the first leaves.
Somewhere nearby, her father slept, gathering strength to return with his newfound daughter to the village where healing people lived in harmony. Together he and Kira would steal away and leave the only world she had ever known. She looked forward to the journey. She would not miss the squalor and noise they would leave behind.
She would long for Matt and his mischief, she thought sadly. And Thomas, so serious and dedicated; she would miss him, too.
And Jo. She smiled at the thought of the little singer who had waved so proudly to the crowd at the Gathering.
Thinking of Jo, Kira remembered something. In the confusion and excitement of her father's arrival, it had disappeared from her mind. Now the awareness and the horror came back, and she gasped.
The muted clanking sound that had puzzled her during the celebration! She could almost hear it again in her mind, a dragging of metal. She had glimpsed its cause at the beginning of the second half of the Song. Then at the conclusion, after the Singer had acknowledged the people's applause, after Jo had scampered happily down from the stage, he moved toward the steps to descend and walk down the aisle. He lifted the robe slightly at the top of the steps, and from her seat at the edge of the stage Kira saw his feet. They were bare and grotesquely misshapen.
His ankles were thickly scarred, more damaged than her father's face. They were caked and scabbed with dried blood. Fresh, bright blood trickled in narrow rivulets across his feet. It all came from the raw, festering skin — infected and dripping — around the metal cuffs with which he was bound. Between the thick ankle cuffs, dragging heavily as he made his way slowly from the stage, was a chain.
He lowered the robe then, and she saw nothing more. Perhaps, she thought, she had imagined it? But watching him as he moved, she heard the sound of the scraping chain against the floor, and she could see behind him a smeared, darkened trail of his blood.