"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.