Derin woke at what should have been dawn. The sky was a milky grey. The trees circling the meadow were ragged and badly in need of water. Their lowermost branches almost touched the ground, and the leaves were parched and dusty. The air was curiously still, as though it had never moved, had always hung heavily, pressing the earth.
He knew, even before he was fully awake, that everything was wrong. All the sounds he was used to, bird song and river song, the low sweep of wind across the meadowgrass, were missing. He sat, rocked to his knees, and hunched down, peering around to see what was threatening him. But he was totally alone.
Seeing nothing to make him flee, he stood up. His movements were quick and angular, and his thick blond hair was matted with burrs. His eyes stared out of a face marked by an expression almost feral, as though he had been hunted all his life.
The grass ebbed around his knees, the only movement in sight. Still cautious, he waded through the meadow to the creek. Water, brackish and warm, hung between its banks as though suspended, more like a puddle than a stream. A dead lizard lay belly-up on the bank. Derin splashed some water in his face and wished he hadn't. It felt slippery, left a slimy film on his hands.
From across the meadow, Derin heard a familiar noise, the faint grumbling morning song of the badger as he made his way through the thick grass. Most days Derin avoided the lumbering slow-witted animal, but today his approach felt like a gift. The boy could see the meadow part and close as the badger made his way toward the stream. But well before he reached Derin, he went underground, burrowing. Finally he arrived at the edge of grass by the water and surfaced again.
"Morning, badger," the boy said, but instead of the rough greeting he expected, Derin heard what sounded like the clicking of tiny teeth and the animal stuck his head from his burrow only long enough to motion to him. Puzzled, Derin walked closer. "Get out of there," he said. "I like to see who I'm talking to." But all he got in reply was the click of the badger's teeth. He got down on his hands and knees and peered into the burrow.
"That's better," the badger whispered. "I don't want anyone to hear us."
"Who can hear us?" Derin asked, quickly looking behind him. "There's no one around but the two of us. Where is everyone?"
"I don't know," the badger replied. He hunkered further down into his hole so that Derin could hardly see his snout. "Something is terribly wrong, Derin," the badger said. "Something is terribly wrong." The blond hairs on the back of the boy's neck twitched. For all his faults, the badger was not an alarmist. "It's been this way for two hours now," the badger said. "Grey as doom, grey as a wolf's coat in winter."
"The sun will be up soon enough," Derin said.
"I'm not so sure," the badger said. "She should have been up hours ago. It's later than you think."
Derin looked at the sky suffused with this unfamiliar light. He thought of the trees, drooped and dusty, of the brackish water in the brook.
"I had the weirdest dream last night," he said. "A sheet slipped over the moon and a wind put my fire out."
"A sheet of what?" the badger asked.
"I don't know. I thought I was asleep and awake at the same time."
"I wouldn't know anything about that," the badger said. "I never dream. I never hoped to dream. But now, today, for the first time in my life, I hope this is a dream and that I'll wake, come out of my burrow to find the sparrows fluttering in the maple by the pond and the sun hot and silky on my coat." He slunk still deeper into his burrow until Derin couldn't see him at all. The boy had never known him to go backwards, and it seemed a bad sign.
Without waiting to see if the badger would return, he got up from the ground, started to run, and soon reached the woods at the edge of the meadow. The trees were silent as he passed through, and he thought of the soughing they made when the wind aroused them. The woods were dark and quiet. None of the animals seemed even to have awakened. If they had, they'd gone back to their nests or burrows to wait for the true day to begin, not this false dawn.
He had to find Matthew. Matthew would understand the silence in the meadow and forest, the badger's paranoia, the prickly sense of dread he'd awakened with. The satyr slept under an overhang of rock, a granite ledge about a mile from the clearing. Derin made good time. Today there was no one to stop and talk with, and the trail was well-tramped and clear.
Matthew was still asleep when Derin found him. Out of breath, the boy stood over him with clenched fists, stared down at the body which changed so suddenly from man to goat. He had expected the satyr to be awake, but Matthew lay unconscious, one arm thrown over his eyes, blocking out what little light there was. "Get up!" Derin said urgently. He knelt and shook the satyr's shoulder. Matthew stirred, groaned, rolled on his side. "Wake up, I said," the boy repeated, shaking his friend again.
The satyr uncovered his eyes and looked at the boy. "Stop yelling, damn it," he snarled. "You sound like something bit you."
"What's going on?" Derin demanded.
"I'm trying to get some sleep, you fool. Go away, will you? Come back this afternoon."
"It's late, Matthew. Something's wrong."
"I know something's wrong," the satyr said. "My head feels like it's coming apart."
"Were you drunk again last night?" Derin asked.
"What business is that of yours?" the satyr asked. "If you think talking to you is what I want to be doing. . . ."
Derin felt a tide of panic rising in him. He stood and gave Matthew as kick which almost raised the satyr's hindquarters off the ground. Matthew howled in pain and instantly was on his legs, his face twisted in rage. "You monster," he yelled. He swung at Derin, missed, howled again. He sunk to his hocks and cradled his head in his hands. "There are bats flapping in my skull," he said. "Termited destroying whole forests."
Above Matthew the branches parted and a dark shape filtered down, across the edge of Derin's vision. It was a bird, unlike any he had seen before, black as midnight, its beautiful glossy wings outstretched. Without making a noise, without a flick of wings, it landed above them, light as a milkweed seed, disturbing not a single leaf.
Derin was startled. Even Matthew was amazed enough to remove his head from his arms and stare at the bird.
It sat on the limb, slowly folding its wings, until it was still, its red eyes intent on the two of them. "Corvus corax," it said, simply. "I have come from the Deadwood Forest, beyond the Outer Lands."
* * *
It was not, of course, the first time Matthew had been drunk, nor the first time Derin had struck out at him. As the boy had grown older, he'd become more silent and withdrawn, would erupt in flashes of anger which Matthew didn't understand. He would suddenly pick up a rock from the ground and dash it into a lake, throwing a rainbow of water high in the air. He smashed his fist against the trunks of trees. And occasionally, for no apparent reason, he struck out against his friend. The satyr was prankish, sly, given to perverse twists of humor–ha trampled the first leaves under his hooves, he stole from the nests of birds–but he was neither vicious nor vindictive.
Derin had known Matthew all his life, and the satyr was the only creature in the meadowlands even vaguely like him. The boy had grown up learning the language of hawk and deer. He'd swin in water so sold his toes had turned grey. He'd climbed to the top of the highest tree in the forest and stayed there all day, watching night fall over the country like a flat hand. He had grown tall and thin and muscled, fierce, strong-willed, silently proud. His body was scarred, impervious to weather. His skin was darkened by the sun and wind, his feet crusted with calluses.
And though he was now Matthew's size, he knew he was not yet Matthew's equal. The satyr's power in the forest was unimpeachable. Too many times the boy had seen the respect given the satyr by the other animals, a respect he'd never known from them, being too foreign, too strange. Matthew bridged the gap between him and the animals; he had his hooves in two worlds at once, and though the boy would never have admitted it, he was in awe of the fluid grace.
So why wouldn't Matthew tell him who he was? There could be no reason for holding that back; it seemed another of the satyr's jokes. Why was there no one around like him–only badgers, opossum, skunks, that impossible satyr? Derin had the growing sense that the answers to his questions lay elsewhere, not in the meadowlands. And then the bird dropped down like a blessing, a sign from another place.