Derin reached the edge of forest and entered the clearing. No one, not even the badger, was there. He looked to the sky but it was grey and empty. The raven had disappeared from view. The boy thought about the past twelve hours, wondering what had brought him to this point. He felt he had the beginning pieces of a puzzle, only the vaguest outline, and it nagged him as a splinter does when it slips more deeply into a finger.
He gathered his few belongings and put them in his knapsack. His woolen blanket. The carved stone, his talisman; his leather boots. He pulled the knife out of its deerskin sheath and ran his thumb along the finely edged bone of the blade, wondering if he would use it in ways he never had before. He picked up the two gourds he had played with as a child, the rattles Matthew had made for him, and he smiled as he let them drop. They would be of no use to him where he was going.
Where was he going? He knew as much about the meadowlands as anyone who lived there, but only recently had he given any thought to what might lie beyond. Beyond lay the Outer Lands. From what Matthew had told him, they were nothing like this. But had the satyr ever been there himself?
He pushed the last of his shirts into the knapsack and took off for Matthew's granite ledge. When he arrived, the small clearing was empty, though the smell of goat hung in the air. Where was he? Above the boy, the day seemed a well-worn piece of cloth he could put his finger through. The light was furred almost, feathered.
He though of Deirdre headed out over that dismal landscape, tried to imagine it for himself. There were mountains, he knew, and a long stretch or arid waste, but these were things which had only been described to him, and they were as unclear in his mind as the owl was. Tell me that again after you've seen him, Deirdre had said. He remembered the wind of the previous evening, how it had surrounded him, rushing toward the center of the meadow from the periphery of trees, how it had left him in total darkness, blinded. He sat there, waiting for his friend, as the day seeped away entirely, and he imagined, his skin tingling, the faraway sound of a whirlwind churning across the forest, sweeping birds and animals, trees and bushes, into its hollow fist.
* * *
Matthew plunged through the forest wildly. His headache was gone, and this impetuous rush made him forget the raven, the boy, the journey before him. He was agile, graceful, dodging branches which loomed suddenly out of the air, threatening to brain him. Leaves whirled by, a tunnel of green. He loved to run like this, unfettered, with no destination, through the obstacle course altered by each change of direction. He was used to surprising the animals of the woodlands, but today he saw no other creature, not even a squirrel or bird.
He stopped, exhausted, and leaned heavily against a hickory, rubbing his back on the coarse bark. Sweat streamed down the sides of his face. He lowered himself onto the expanse of moss at the hickory's base, flung his fleeced legs in front of him, and closed his eyes. The only sound he heard was his own panting. There was no wind, no chatter, no song. He felt the muscles in his neck tense; the silence was odd indeed.
Suddenly sure he was being watched, he drew his legs back under him and crouched, one hand on the hickory for balance. He looked up into the overhanging branches, searching the receding trunks for a movement, a shadow, but he could see nothing.
Everything had changed. He took a deep breath. The sweet fragrance he had reveled in the previous evening was missing; the air itself was stale. Even the moss below him seemed rougher, its sheen tarnished. If the raven were telling the truth, there would be no escape from this degeneration. All the running in the world would only bring him full circle, back to this realization.
Who was this feathered braggadocio, wanting to rule the world? Matthew ruled the meadowlands—everyone knew that. The thought of its decline filled him with fury. But the owl was strong enough, perverse enough to kidnap the moon. He began walking back toward the granite overhang. Though he knew he had no choice, the idea of the journey he was about to undertake, necessary as it might be, angered him. He hated responsibility.
It had been fourteen years since the hooded creature had forced the baby upon him, a burden he neither wanted nor graciously accepted. He'd known nothing of infants, their squalls of rage, their sudden fevers, and he'd resented the attention the little creature needed. Fascinated by its grasping hands, its toes, its hairless skin with a smell like sun ind windblown water, he'd still felt cramped, walled in by its relentless demands.
He'd been given no choice—either abandon the infant to a certain death, or attend to him the best he could. Derin had thrived, had grown as tall as Matthew, and sullen. Now, as the stranger foretold, a messenger had arrived from the Outer Lands, calling the boy home.
He walked until he reached the Rock, a protrusion of granite and shale, its natural steps leading to a pinnacle which cleared the highest branches of the forest. He scrambled up the Rock's side until he stood at the top. The wind was strong there, and he faced it, a lone figure brooding over the trees. If someone had seen him, they might have mistaken him for a natural outcropping of the Rock itself.
Matthew stood until the wind pulled water from his eyes. The sky overhead was dense and wooly, like the backs of sheep in winter, and clouds could could be seen moving toward the west, unrolling in a single thick sheet from horizon to horizon as the air darkened. He remembered the stormy night he'd been summoned by a great blue heron from the swamp, who had guided him back to the banks of the Swollen River where the cloaked stranger had handed him the baby. He remembered Derin's first illness as he lay, bundled in furs by the fire, the flames throwing orange wraiths against the treetrunks. He thought of how he'd wished the baby would die so he'd be freed of its hold over him, and then his relief, a surprise, when the fever broke. The memories flooding him were all of Derin's anger; the time he'd broken through the thin ice on the pond; the day he'd fallen from the elm.
The years had gone swiftly, running into one another like creeks in a spring thaw, until they roared along, a river which was today. The cold wind whipped from him any last vestige of illusion. The time has come for Derin to leave.
It begun to rain, a fine rain which slanted from the east and struck his chest and legs like thousands of needles. Meager and cold as it was, he took it as a sign to go. He had hoped for something more particular, but he was not in a position to quibble. In leaps and bounds he reached the forest floor and headed for the overhang.
* * *