As Derin slept , strange noises filled the meadow. The sound of water from the stream stopped, and the whole world of night was changed. Everywhere diurnal animals woke from their sleep. A badger stuck his snout from the mouth of his burrow, hurriedly looked around, and disappeared. A squirrel ran up the trunk of a maple, sat on one of the higher branches, and chattered as though she were dying of cold.
Still Derin slept on. He trembled in the grasp of troubled dreams. In one, his friend Matthew was a great brown bear who lumbered through the clearing on all fours, ripping everything in his path with his curved claws. The animal was not frightening, not even particularly vicious, but he was so unlike Matthew, yet had Matthew's face, that Derin cried out in his sleep.
The squirrel quit her chattering and swayed on the branch. The badger did not reappear. Above the clearing, the sky was dark and thick, a solid cloud. Like a fine rain, dust begun to filter through the air, falling on everything, on the leaves of trees, the stones in the brook, on Derin as he slept.
His cheek twitched as though a fly had alighted on it. Had he been awake and had he the ears of a great horned owl, he might have heard a very distant noise, days distant, faint as fingernails on slate, stopping and starting, very like the noise of a heavy object being raised off the ground with the aid of blocks and tackle.
* * *
The ravens had fastened ropes to the moon's cusps, and she felt ashamed hanging upside down and powerless, a foolish golden bowl. They used the dead trunk of an elm as a weight, and in fits and starts she was jerked into the air. The overhanging branches jabbed at her, but she could make no noise, being tightly gagged. Her usual weightlessness was gone, and she strained as the earth tried to pull her back. She was afraid she might break and crash to the ground in pieces, or if she didn't break, she might bend until her horns were joined and she was a crasy lopsided circle with a hole in the middle.
After what seemed a very long time, the moon found herself hanging opposite the clearing in the oak's branches. Ten ravens flew at her, pushing, and ten more maneuvered the ropes. She swayed into the middle of the cage, and with a crash the branches closed around her. The ravens gnawed at the ropes holding her, and one by one they snapped.
From below her came the laugh she had heard before. The ravens returned to their branches. And then responding to a summon never openly given, the animals came.
From dry bushes among the dead trees, from the recesses of darkness, from the branches of forest hidden from view, they came in double file, quartering the globe, the reptiles, black snakes and puff adders, rattlesnakes and copperheads. Toads and scorpions hopped and slithered into view. Timid field mice followed a band of rats with yellow teeth. Behind them came rabbits and woodchucks, skunks and opossums. She saw deer, squirrels, wolves and foxes and boars. And from the air, like the descent of snow, came the birds.
They'd been hiding since the darkness had fallen and now, gathered at the owl's command, they cowered before the moon. All their lives she had crossed the expanse of night above them; now she was sequestered among them, caged, a symbol of his power.
The owl sat in absolute stillness, his fierce yellow eyes surveying the assemblage. In concentric circles, far beyond the reaches of the clearing, the animals encompassed him. Slowly he turned his head from side to side as if to say, This is good.
"I have been successful," the owl said, "as you can see." With a powerful flick of a wing, he loosed a feather which floated up toward his prisoner. "The moon no longer rules the night. That is my domain now, all of it. Every creature of the Deadwood Forest, every citizen of the Outer Lands, will pay homage to me."
Not an animal made a sound, but even from where the moon hung, it was as though the air had soured. "Does anyone have anything to say?" the owl asked imperiously.
A small band of rats suddenly broke for the forest. Their squealing, the startled noises of the other animals they attempted o push aside, cracked the hush which had fallen over the clearing. The owl puffed up his chest and gave two powerful hoots. From the trees behind him, a squadron of peregine falcons, their talons gleaming, swooped from the sky and surrounded the rats. Each of the birds wore a slit leather hood and out of that darkness their eyes and beaks shone.
The owl stretched his wings until they almost covered the clearing. Under him the animals huddled in his shadow, but the moon doubted they felt protected by that outstretched canopy of feather. Slowly the owl folded his wings. "Bring them here," he said. As if in deep thought, he surveyed the trembling group at his feet. He lifted one of his claws; talons as long as the blade of a boning knife closed around one of the rats. "Do not try that again," he said, and tossed him back to his fellows.
The owl's eyelids drooped, as though he were about to fall asleep, as though the power of the moment had exhausted him or made him drunk, but nothing moved in the clearing around them.
The moon looked down with awe upon that fur and scale. From the air above her, she heard a noise, a faint flapping, like wings. She strained to see, but could make out only a blur in the darkness. What-ever it was was headed east.
A look of pure pleasure shone from the owl's round face. If he had heard what the moon heard, he gave no sign.
"You may show your love for me," he said. "You may prove your fealty."
So, one by one, the animals kneeled and then rolled over, baring their throats and stomachs, their softest, most vulnerable parts.
* * *
More later! Next post will be a rant.