Derin had no idea what time it was, morning or afternoon. The sky looked wet as a soaket blanket, and as heavy. The boy tried to figure out how many hours of daylight lay before them, but he had no point to start from.
They had long since left the granite overhang behind; they had crossed the meadow with its brackish brook. The jay had chattered madly at them from the elderberry bush near the oxbow lake, berating Matthew, but when he saw the boy and satyr would not be dissuaded, he wished them luck and let them go, giving Derin a touchstone to keep him safe.
They entered a section of the meadowlands Darin hadn't seen. It wasn't meadow at all. "Matthew," Darin said. "Have you been her before?"
"Not in a long time," the satyr replied. "Not since you were a child. Had no reason to."
The earth grew spongy under their feet as the trail began to descend. The decline in elevation excited the boy, gave him the first sense he'd had that his imagination's landscape might be met. They were readying to enter a new zone, and Derin, in the first flush of the journey, stared ahead with expectation.
"Do you know where we are?" he asked.
"We are nearing the Swollen River," the satyr said. "Still several miles off, I think, but we're getting there. If I'm remembering right, we're close to the swamp which borders it."
As they left behind the more familiar woodlands crowded with hickory and oak, the boy realized how little he usually saw of the world. Yes, he had seen–the maples by the oxbow lake, the beech whose leaves turned yellow as goldenrod in fall–but he'd become so used to them, he had ceased to look carefully. He simply captured them in his mind's eye, as if through peripheral vision, and moved absently on. But here, with so much of the vegetation unfamiliar, his eyes were cleansed. The world began to emerge from the fog which shrouded everyday life.
They passed through the edges of a marsh. Its tall thin reeds, bleached as weathered wood, were specked and streaked with black. Cattails, brown and spindly, poked through the reeds. The dried empty cases of milkwood jutted in clusters from the ends of their thin stems. And there were other, stranger plants that Matthew knew–chokecherry, bullbriar, and sheep laurel. The air was filled with the rustle of their passing, a scratchy rasp like sand on rock, broken only by the ooze of displaced water which filled the little pockets their feet made. Derin bent and put his finger in the water. It was warm and silty, and tasted faintly sweet, of mud and peat. The ground before him held two distinct holes, like half-moons, from Matthew's hooves.
Beyond the marsh, the ground rose slightly, became drier. They entered a forest of pine and oak. The soil was sandy, a flecked black which skittered under Derin's feet. The sand was blanketed with pine needles, and their resilience made the boy want to leap in the air, but the tree's branches hung only a few feet over his head. They passed bear oak and black oak. The pitch pine seemed stunted, reaching a height of only eight feet. It grew in stands of five or six trees, its dark split bark covered with lichen. Many were grotesquely twisted, pruned and pinched in fantastic shapes. Black huckleberry, broom crowberry, and barberry, all new to Derin, grew under the tree cover. Sphagnum moss was everywhere, its tiny furred stems reaching up at the boy.
It was an autumnal forest. Derin had the feeling he had entered a different time. It was summer in the meadowlands, the trees lush with large green leaves. Raspberries and blueberries made bushes droop under their weight. Before the moon was stolen, the land had been coursing with life. But here, a few miles from where they'd started, the leaves were brown and dry. The conifers still held their thin green needles, but the oaks were largely bare, except for the few ragged leaves still clinging to the branches.
As the trail fell again, the trees grew taller, sending their slender trunks higher into the grey air. It was the two of them who were descending, as though entering an excavation. The light dimmed as they continued. Derin, walking in silence, had the odd sensation of going backwards. The change in seasons was compounded by what he took to be a change in history. Matthew had explained to him the stories of the earth's beginning, and now he half-expected to see it for himself. His eyes were wide; every strange noise put him on edge. He looked above him, to the distant reaches of the pines and oaks, waiting to see a bird of prey eyeing them. But the forest was empty, the only noises natural, wind in the upper branches of the trees, the soft padding of their feet.
"It's very strange," Matthew said. almost to himself. "This forest was filled with birds. Swallows and goshawks, tanagers and kingfishers, every manner of bird lived here together. All day the trees were heavy with song, and the air was threaded with their flight from branch to branch. Where could they have gone?"
"Maybe the wind that took the ravens took the other birds as well."
"No, I don't think so. It's impossible that every member of every clan was either taken by that wind or died because of it. They must have left this forest for some reason; maybe there was danger here and they were frightened away. Or they chose to leave. But why would they do that? This fo
rest. . . . Derin, it was as if music had been given a place to live forever and it lived here."
"But nothing lives here. It's not just birds. I haven't seen even a salamander or toad."
"It's the birds I miss," the satyr said.
"Have we passed into the Outer Lands?" Derin asked.
"Not yet. Not until we cross the Swollen River. Still, this seems what like the Outer Lands must be. It's as though they had a life of their own, a sickness, which leapt the river and poisoned the forest."
They walked in silence for several minutes as the trail fell below them. In the distance, Derin saw a wall of darkness rise from the forest floor. He sucked in his breath so sharply that Matthew whirled around in alarm. "What's the matter?" he hissed. Derin raised an arm and pointed.
"What's that?" he asked.
"It's the swamp," the satyr said. "Hurry. It's getting darker by the minute, and we don't want to be trapped there when the night comes on."
Derin hung back. "Maybe we should stop here for the night, before we get there," the boy said.
Matthew thought for a minute, stroking the side of his face. "You're right," he said. "We got a late start."
He unslung his pack and put it on the ground. "But I can't say I like it much here either," he said. He quickly looked around for something which might serve as shelter, but forest stretched as far as he could see. No rocks, no possibility of caves. He shrugged. "We'll have to make do," he said. "Help me gather pine needles for our beds before it gets too dark to see. At least we can get a good night's sleep."
But when he looked at Derin, he realized the boy hadn't heard a word he'd said. Derin stared ahead of him at the place where the cedars rose like a fortress and the darkness began.
"Derin," the satyr said calmly. "I'm talking to you."
* * *
Deirdre flew east again, searching for Matthew and Derin. When she reached the meadowlands, it was close to nightfall. She had given up trying to be in two places at the same time, had decided simply to do what she had to do. For weeks, it seemed, she had flown madly here and there and back again. Now she was so tired she didn't care if the other ravens noticed she was gone.
With a thump, she landed on the granite overhang and tried to catch her breath. "I'm going to . . . uh . . . croak if this continues," she gasped to the thinning air, but nothing answered her. "I'm going to drop dead in midflight." It was crazy, crazy, crazy: from the Deadwood Forest to the meadowlands and back, and back to the meadowlands and back again, like a shuttle, a yo-yo, a spinning top. Just this morning, she had been in the southern reaches of the Deadwood Forest, and the thought of those starfish clinging to her claws made her shudder.
The forest was quiet. Derin and the satyr were nowhere to be seen. The ground below her still held the imprint of their bodies, but it was cold and damp. Hours, at least, had passed since they had been there. The scattered remnants of the fire were clearly from the previous night. So they had taken off, after all. They were on their way.
She smiled. "I've always thought I was a good judge of character," she said, and no one argued with her self-assessment. She flew to the meadow, thinking she might catch them there. But she couldn't find them anywhere. As she hovered in the light breezes blowing from the east, she saw the grass part below her and come together again. An animal was moving through the meadow. Perhaps it had some news.
Swooping down toward the moving grass, Deirdre landed in front of a badger who looked exceedingly alarmed at her swift appearance. He took off in another direction as fast as he could. "Wait," Deirdre said. "I just want a word with you." The badger didn't slow down. She flew again at the frightened animal who began to burrow with all his might, his claws flailing at the dirt. "I mean no harm," Deirdre said. "I only want some information." The badger stopped, half into the ground, backed out and stared at the raven.
"I'm looking for two friends of mine," the raven said. "A young boy and a satyr."
"You're a friend of Derin's?" the badger asked. "Why didn't you say so in the first place?" For the moment, he seemed to let down his guard. "He's gone, I'm afraid."
"Do you know where?"
"West," the badger said. "He's gone west with the goat-man. Messengers in the night. The moon caught in a tree. Nothing good will come of it, I promise you. They've headed for the Swollen River."
"Thank you, badger," Deirdre said. The badger looked at her with suspicion and a faint return of his previous alarm—how had she known his name?—and as he watched, she rose in the air and headed west. Who was that black bird?
"I hope you find them," the badger said glumly. "Nothing good will come of it, I promise. Not to any of you, I'm, afraid."
But Deirdre didn't hear the badger's voice, nor did anyone else.
* * *
Matthew lay on one of the two pine-needle beds he and Derin had made. Soon he'd build a fire and see what was in the knapsack to eat. For the moment, he thought he'd rest. He took his panpipe out of the knapsack, sat up, and began to play. He imitated bird song and water music. He played until the melancholy forest echoed with the sound. And then he broke free on a flight of his own fancy, the notes cascading through the pine and oak like little stars.
To Derin, the distant music sounded more glorious than anything he'd heard all day. It was like light, like sunshine. It cut through the deepening gloom, a knife of pure feeling and release.
He had gone by himself to the edge of the swamp, leaving Matthew behind him. "Be careful," the satyr had cautioned before he started. "Don't go in." The advice wasn't necessary; Derin had no thought of venturing into that tangle alone. Behind him, the music rose and fell, but as he got as close as he dared and peered into the darkness, it seemed the swamp sucked all the music from the air, all the air from his lungs.
There was little light in the forest and less in the swamp. The cedars ascended before him, their tall straight trunks covered with a green bark, grooved as if by a chisel. Around them lay the water of the swamp. It looked cold, colder than it should have been, even in autumn, and Derin stared at the water covering a thin casing of ice.
"Everything's upside down," Derin said, and his words came back to him from the swamp's interior. They would have to walk through the water, their feet on the ice below. Hummocks of moss rose from the swamp's surface, but they couldn't spend their time jumping from one to another. They would have to grit their teeth and plunge in.
He stood looking into the swamp until the darkness was total. Behind him, Matthew should be making a fire, but when he turned to look, he could see nothing at all. He stumbled back in the direction he's dome. All around him the pines and oaks stood, looming out of the darkness when he was almost upon them. "Matthew!" he cried, but there was no answer. The silence oozed out of the earth. "Matthew, where are you?"
Could he have gotten himself lost in the few minutes he'd been apart from the satyr? He turned again and tried to retrace his steps, back toward the swamp. He'd expected the wall of cedar to jump out at him, a vantage point he could be sure of. But he had no such luck. He ran forward a few steps and stopped short. The ringing in his ears could only be his own footsteps. He called the satyr's name again, his voice rising in terror.
Wait, a small voice inside him said, just sit down and wait for Matthew to find you. So Derin sat and immediately stood up again. The sodden ground of the forest had seeped into his skin. He stood in the dark, his heart beating so quickly blood pounded in his ears.
And then he felt the hand on his shoulder. But it wasn't a hand; it had claws and the claws gripped him tightly, not sinking in, but fastening around him. He grunted in horror, jerked his shoulder, and fell to the ground, rolling away from whatever it was. He screamed, got to his feet, and began to run. He hit a bush, its branches tripping him, wrapping around his legs. And so he lay there in the darkness, breathing hoarsely, afraid to move.
"Derin!" Matthew's voice sounded behind him.
"I'm over here!" the boy screamed, relief flooding him.
"Derin," another voice said from the air above.
"Who's there?" the boy said, almost in a whisper, shielding his face with his arms.
"It's Deirdre," the raven said. "You almost broke my back with that inconsiderate stunt of yours."
Matthew came crashing through the underbrush to find the boy on his back, the raven perched in the branches of the bush in which Derin lay tangled.
All this the fox saw, but she never made a sound.
* * *
Well, that's it for now! Remember, positive feedback is always appreciated; may make me write faster...