"I brung him all the way from yonder!" Matt said, turning to Kira and Thomas. "But then at the end he wanted to feel his way alone. I be telling him he can keep Branchie for a helper, but he want to do it all alone. So he gimme the scrap for the first giftie. See?" Matt pulled at the man's shirt and showed Kira the hem, at the back, from which he had torn the piece of cloth.
"I'm sorry," Kira said politely to the man. She felt awkward and uncertain in his presence. "Your shirt is ruined."
"I have others," the man said with a smile. "He wanted so badly to show you the gift. And I felt a need to find my way by myself. I have been here before, but it was a long time ago."
"And look!" Matt was like a toddler or a puppy, dashing about in excitement. He picked up a bag from the floor beside the chair and pulled its drawstring open. "Now we be needing some water," he said, lifting several wilted plants out gently, "but these be all right. They be perking up when we give them a drinkie.
"But you never be guessing what!" Now he turned to the blind man again and tugged at his sleeve to be certain he was paying attention.
"What?" The man seemed amused.
"She gots water right here! You probably be thinking we gotta take these plants to the river! But right here, iffen I open this door, she gots water that squirts out!"
He pranced to the door and opened it.
"Take the plants, then, Matt," the man suggested, "and give them their drink."
He turned toward Kira and she could tell that he knew how to feel her presence in his darkness. "It's woad we've brought you," he explained. "It's the plant that my people use to make blue dye."
"Your beautiful shirt," she murmured, and he smiled again.
"Matt told me that it's the same shade as the sky on a sunny summer-start morning," he said.
Kira agreed. "Yes," she said. "That's it, exactly!"
"Much the same as the blossom on a morning glory vine, I would think," the man said.
"Yes, that's true! But how —"
"I haven't always been sightless. I remember those things."
They could hear the sound of running water. "Matt? Don't drown them!" the man called. "It would be a very long trip back to get more!"
He turned back to Kira. "I would be happy to bring more, of course. But I think you won't need that."
"Please," Kira said, "sit down. And we'll have a meal sent up. It's time for dinner anyway." Even in her confusion, she tried to remember the basic courtesies. The man had brought her a gift of great value. Why he had done it, she couldn't begin to comprehend. Nor how hard it must have been to come a great distance with no eyes and no guide but a lively boy and a bent-tailed dog.
And at the last of the journey, when Matt had run ahead with his treasured scrap of blue, the blind man had come alone. How was it possible?
"I'll call the tenders and tell them," Thomas said.
The man looked startled and concerned. "Who's that?" he asked, hearing Thomas's voice for the first time.
"I live down the hall," Thomas explained. "I carved the Singer's staff while Kira did the Robe. Maybe you don't understand about the Gathering, but it's just ended, and it's a really impor —"
"I know about it," the man said. "I know all about it.
"Please. Don't call for food," he added firmly. "No one must know that I'm here."
"Food?" Matt asked, emerging from the bathroom.
"I'll have them bring our dinners to my room down the hall, and no one will know," Thomas suggested. "We'll all share it. There's always more than enough."
Kira nodded agreement, and Thomas left the room to summon the tenders. Matt scampered behind him, alert to the prospect of food.
Now Kira found herself alone with the stranger in the blue shirt. She could tell from his posture that he was very tired. She sat down, facing him, on the edge of the bed and sought in her mind the right things to say to him, the right questions to ask.
"Mart's a good boy," she said after a moment's silence, "but he forgets some important things in his excitement. He didn't tell you my name. I'm Kira."
The blind man nodded. "I know. He told me all about you."
She waited. Finally, into the quiet, she said, "He didn't tell me who you are."
The man stared with his unseeing eyes into the room, beyond the place where Kira sat. He began to speak, faltered, took a breath, then stopped.
"It's beginning to get dark," he said finally. "I'm facing the window, and I can feel the change in daylight."
"It's how I found my way here after Matt left me at the edge of the village. We had planned to wait and arrive at night, in the darkness. But there were no people about, so it was safe for us to enter in daylight. Matt realized it was the day of the Gathering."
"Yes," Kira said. "It began very early in the morning." He is not going to answer my question, she thought.
"I remember the Gatherings. And I remembered the path. The trees have grown, of course. But I could feel the shadows. I could feel my way along the center of the path by the way the light fell."
He smiled wryly. "I could smell the butcher's hut."
Kira nodded and chuckled.
"And when I passed the weaving shed, I could smell the fabrics folded there, and even the wood of the looms.
"If the women had been at work, I would have recognized the sounds." With his tongue against the roof of his mouth, he made the repetitive muted clacking sound of the shuttle, and then the whisper of the threads turning into cloth.
"And so I made my way here all alone. Matt met me then and brought me to your room."
Kira waited. Then she asked, "Why?"
As she watched, he touched his own face. He ran his hand over the scars, feeling the edges; then he followed the jagged skin down the side of his own cheek, along his neck. Finally he reached into his blue shirt and pulled forward the leather thong that hung there. As he held it in his hand, she saw the polished half-rock that matched her own.
"Kira," he said, but he did not need to tell her now, because she knew, "my name is Christopher. I'm your father."
In shock, she stared at him. She watched his ruined eyes, and saw that they were able, still, to weep.
In some hidden place to which Matt had led him in the night, her father slept. But before he had left her in order to sleep, he had told her his story.
"No, it was not beasts," he said, in reply to her first questions. "It was men.
"There are no beasts out there," he said. His voice was as certain as Annabella's had been. There be no beasts.
"But —" Kira began to interrupt, to tell her father what Jamison had told her. I saw your father taken by beasts, Jamison had said. But she waited and continued to listen.
"Oh, there are wild creatures in the forest, of course. We hunted them for food. We still do. Deer. Squirrel. Rabbit." He sighed. "It was a large hunt that day. The men had gathered for the distribution of weapons. I had a spear and a sack of food. Katrina had prepared food for me. She always did."
"Yes, I know," Kira whispered.
He seemed not to hear her. With his blank eyes he seemed to be looking backward in time. "She was expecting a child," he said, smiling. He gestured with his hand, making a curve in the air above his own belly. In a dreamlike way, Kira felt herself, small, inside the curve made by his arched fingers, inside the memory of her mother.
"We went in the usual way: together at first, in groups, then separating into pairs, and eventually finding ourselves alone as we followed tracks or sounds deeper into the forest."
"Were you frightened?" Kira asked.
He shook himself loose from the slow measured speech of his memory, and smiled. "No, no. There was no danger. I was an accomplished hunter. One of the best. I was never frightened in the forest."
Then his brow furrowed. "I should have been wary, though. I knew that I had enemies. There were jealousies, always, and there were rivals. It was a way of life here. Perhaps it still is."
Kira nodded. Then she remembered that he couldn't see her acknowledgement. "Yes," she told him. "It still is."
"I was soon to be appointed to the Council of Guardians," he went on. "It was a job with great power. Others wanted the post. I suppose it was that. Who knows? There was always hostility here. Harsh words. I haven't thought about it in a long time, but now I recall the arguments and anger — even that morning, when the weapons were assigned —"
Kira told him, "It happened again recently, at the beginning of a hunt. I saw it. Fights and arguing. It's always that way. It's the way of men."
He shrugged. "So it hasn't changed."
"How could it change? It's the way it is. It's what tykes are taught, to grab and shove. It's the only way people can get what they want. I would have been taught that way too, but for my leg," Kira said.
He didn't know. How could he?
Now she felt embarrassed, having to tell him. "It's twisted. I was born that way. They wanted to take me to the Field but my mother said no."
"She defied them? Katrina?" His face lit and he smiled. "And she won!"
"Her father was still alive, and he was a person of great importance, she told me. And so they let her keep me. They probably thought I would die anyway. "
"But you were strong."
"Yes. Mother said pain made me strong." Telling him, she was no longer embarrassed, but proud, and she wanted him to be proud, too.
He reached out, and she took his hand.
She wanted him to go on. She needed to know what had happened. She waited.
"I don't know for certain who it was," he explained when he continued. "I can guess, of course. I knew he was bitterly envious. Apparently he approached silently behind me, and as I waited there, watching for the deer I'd been stalking, he attacked me; first with a club to my head, so that I was stunned and dazed, and then with his knife. He left me for dead."
"But you lived. You were strong." Kira squeezed his hand.
"I woke in the Field. I suppose draggers had taken me there and left me, as they do. You've been to the Field?"
Kira nodded, then remembered his blindness again, and said it aloud. "Yes." She would have to tell him when and why. But not yet.
"I would have died there, as I was supposed to. I couldn't move, couldn't see. I was dazed and in great pain. I wanted to die.
"But that night," he went on, "strangers came to the Field.
"I thought at first that it was diggers. I tried to tell them that I was still alive. But when they spoke, it was with the voice of strangers. They used our language, but with a different lilt, a slight change of cadence. Even as desperately wounded as I was, I could hear the difference. And their voices were soothing. Gentle. They held something to my mouth, a drink made of herbs. It dulled my pain and made me sleepy. They placed me on a carrying litter they had made of thick branches —"