Kira followed his pointing finger with her eyes and found the same gaunt woman who had eyed them suspiciously from the squalor of the cott. Today she was washed and tidy; beside her, holding her hand, was the tyke who looked so much like Matt. The two stood waiting as a family. But there was no second child. No Matt. A wave of sorrow swept through Kira, a feeling of loss.
Looking down at the sea of faces, Kira gradually recognized people here and there: the weaving women, separate from each other, each with a hubby and children; the butcher, clean for a change, with his large wife and two tall sons. The entire village had gathered now, only a few stragglers still hurrying up the lanes.
A small surge of movement began and she could see that the people were shuffling forward. The crowd rippled like water moving on the riverbank when a log floated by.
"The doors must have been opened," Thomas said, leaning forward to see.
They watched as the entire village, person by person, entered the building. Finally, when the crowd outside was almost entirely gone — and now they could hear the murmur of voices and the shuffle of footsteps from below, inside the building — a tender appeared in Thomas's doorway and beckoned.
"It's time," the tender said.
Except for a quick peek through a cracked-open door when she looked for Jamison one afternoon, Kira had not seen inside the Council of Guardians hall since the day of her trial months before. The circumstances had been so different then, when she entered the cavernous room and limped alone down its central aisle hungry, lonely, and fearful for her life.
Today she still leaned, as she had that day, on her stick. But now she was clean, healthy, and unafraid. Today she and Thomas were brought through a side entrance near the front, so that they saw the faces of the village watching them.
The tender pointed, directing them to a row of three wooden chairs on the left, just below the stage, facing the audience. Kira could see that there was another, longer row of chairs on the opposite side, and she recognized the Council of Guardians members who were already seated there. Jamison was among them.
Quickly, reminding herself of the custom, she bowed her head toward the Worship-object on the stage. Then she followed Thomas, and together they took their places in two of the chairs. A murmur passed through the audience and Kira felt her face flush in embarrassment. She didn't like being singled out. She didn't want to sit here at the front. She remembered the derisive voice of one of the weavers only a few days before. "She don't need us no more!" the woman had called.
It's not true. I need all of you. We need each other.
Gazing at the crowded audience, Kira remembered the many past years when she had come dutifully with her mother to the Gathering. Always they sat in the back where she couldn't see or hear, and she had endured the event bored and restless, sometimes kneeling on her seat to try to peer around the spectators' shoulders and get a glimpse of the Singer. Her mother, she remembered, had always been attentive and had gently restrained her when she wriggled in the seat. But the Gathering and the Song were long and difficult for tykes.
The people in the crowded audience, who though respectful had been shifting in their seats and whispering, quieted completely when Kira and Thomas entered and took their places. Everyone waited. Finally, in the silence, the four-syllable chief guardian, whom Kira had not seen since the trial and whose name she still could not recall (was it Bartholemew, perhaps?), rose from his seat on the other side. He walked to the space at the front of the stage and began the ritual that always opened the ceremony.
"The Gathering begins," he announced.
"We worship the Object," he said, gesturing toward the stage, and bowing. The entire audience bowed respectfully toward the little crossed construction of wood.
"I present the Council of Guardians," he said next, and nodded to the row of men which included Jamison. As a group, they stood. For a nervous moment Kira couldn't remember if the spectators were supposed to applaud. But a hush had fallen and the crowd was silent, though some heads seemed to nod toward the Council of Guardians in respect.
"For the first time I present the Carver of the future." He gestured toward Thomas, who looked uncertain.
"Stand," Kira whispered under her breath, knowing intuitively that it was the proper thing to do. Thomas stood awkwardly, shifting from one foot to the other. Again, heads nodded in respect. He sat back down.
She knew that she would be next, and she reached for her stick, which was leaning against the chair.
"For the first time I present the Robe-threader, the designer of the future."
Kira stood as straight as she could and acknowledged the nods in her direction. She sat again.
"For the first time, I present the Singer of the future. One day she will wear the robe."
The eyes of the villagers all turned to the side door, which had opened. Kira could see two tenders push Jo forward, pointing to the unoccupied chair. The tyke, dressed in a new but simple and unadorned gown, looked confused and uncertain, but her eyes found Kira's and Kira beckoned to her, smiling. Jo grinned and hurried forward toward the chair.
"Don't sit yet," Kira whispered. "Stand and look at the people. Be proud."
With a shy grin, with one foot nervously rubbing the ankle of the other leg, the Singer of the future stood and faced the crowd. Her smile, hesitant at first, quickly became both self-confident and infectious. Kira could see the people smile back.
"Now you can sit," Kira whispered.
"Wait," Jo whispered back. She raised one hand and waggled her fingers at the audience. A ripple of gentle laughter ran through the large crowd.
Then Jo turned and hoisted her small self, knees first, onto the chair. "I be giving them a little wavie," she confided to Kira.
"Finally, I present our Singer, who wears the robe," the chief guardian announced, when the people had quieted.
The Singer, wearing the magnificent robe and holding the carved staff in his right hand, entered from the other side. The crowd gasped collectively. Of course they saw him, and the robe, each year. But this year was different because of the work that Kira had done on the ancient embroidery. As the Singer moved toward the stage, the folds of the robe glistened in the torchlight; the colors of the threaded scenes glowed in their subtlety. Golds, light yellows deepening to vibrant orange, reds from the palest pink to the darkest crimson, greens, all shades, threaded in their intricate patterns, told the history of the world and its Ruin. As he turned to mount the few stairs to the stage, Kira could see the broad blank expanse across the Singer's back and shoulders, the blank that she had been picked to fill. The future that she had been chosen to create.
"What's that noise?" Thomas murmured.
Kira had been distracted by her awareness and appreciation of the robe and all that it meant. But now she heard it too: a dull, intermittent metallic noise, a muted clank. Now it was gone. There; she heard it again. A scraping clank.
"I don't know," she whispered back.
The Singer turned, at the center of the stage, after bowing slightly to the Worship-object, and now faced the audience. He fingered the staff like a talisman but did not need its guidance yet. His face was impassive, expressionless. Then he closed his eyes and began to breathe deeply.
The mysterious sound had disappeared. Kira listened carefully, but the muted scrape had subsided. Looking at Thomas, she shrugged and settled back to listen. She glanced at Jo and could see that the tyke's eyes were closed too, and she was forming the first words silently with her mouth.
The Singer held up one arm, and Kira, from her knowledge of the robe, knew that he was displaying the sleeve with the scene of the world's origin: the separation of land and sea, the emergence of fish and birds, all of it in the tiniest stitches around the border of the left sleeve, aloft now with his arm outstretched. She could feel the awed admiration of the audience as they saw the robe displayed for the first time in a year, and she felt pride in the work she had done.
He started in a strong, rich baritone voice. No melody, yet, really. The Song began with a chant. Gradually, melodies would enter, Kira recalled; some slow, soaring lyrical phrases, followed by other harsher phrases with a quick pulsating beat. But it emerged slowly, as the world had. The Song began with the origin of the world, so many centuries before:
"In the beginning..."
Thomas nudged her and gestured with his head. Kira glanced over and smiled to see Jo, so eager and squirming earlier, now sound asleep in the big chair.
It was late morning and the Song had continued for several hours. Probably many of the tykes in the large hall were dozing, as Jo was.
Kira was surprised not to be bored and drowsy herself. But for her, the Song was also a journey through the patterned folds, and as the Singer sang, holding up the related parts, she remembered each scene and the days of work, the search through Annabella's threads for exactly the right shades. Though she remained attentive, occasionally her mind wandered to her own task that loomed ahead. Now that the old dyer's threads were almost gone — and the woman herself was gone too — Kira found herself desperately hoping that she would be able to remember and to create the dyes alone. Thomas drilled her again and again from his written pages.
Though Kira had told no one, not even Thomas, she had realized recently, to her surprise, that she could read many of the words. Watching his finger on the page one day, she had noticed that goldenrod and greenwood began the same way, with a looping downward curve. And they ended the same way too, with a little twiglike upright line. It was like a game, to find the marks that made the sounds. A forbidden game to be sure, but Kira found herself puzzling over it often when Thomas wasn't watching, and the puzzles had begun to explain themselves to her.
The Singer was in a quiet section now, one of those times following a great world disaster in which ice — white and gray sheets of it, made with small stitches so that it had no texture but instead an eerie, glistening smoothness — had engulfed the villages. Kira saw ice very seldom, only occasionally in the very coldest months when sleet struck the village, breaking tree branches, and the river froze near its banks. But she had remembered the fearsomeness and destruction of it when she worked on that section and had felt glad when beyond the edges of the ice disaster, green seeped in again and a quiet, fruitful time ensued.
He slid into the singing of the green part now, melodic and soothing, a relief after the frigid destruction that had made his voice harsh and forbidding.
Thomas leaned over and nudged her again. She glanced at Jo but the tyke had not moved. "Look down the aisle on the right," Thomas whispered.
She did, and saw nothing.
"Keep watching," Thomas murmured.
The Singer's voice continued. Kira watched the side aisle. Suddenly she saw it: something moving stealthily, slowly, stopping now and then, and waiting; then creeping forward again.
People's heads blocked her view. Kira leaned slightly to the right, trying to see around them, trying not to let the Council of Guardians know that something disruptive was happening. She glanced at them but they were all attentive and focused on the Singer.
It moved again in the shadows, and she could see now that it was human, a small human, on all fours like a stalking beast. She could see too that people sitting on the edge of the aisle were beginning to notice, though they kept their eyes toward the stage. There was a very small stir; shoulders turning slightly, quick glances, expressions of surprise. The small human crept forward again, inching stealthily closer to the first row.