The fox had followed them, carefully keeping out of sight, from the time they first skirted the marsh. She stayed low, watching them as they slept. She waited. When it was time, she would join them, but it had been enough to see them push their way through the forest and stop on the edge of the swamp.
They were an odd pair, the tall boy with eyes the color of slate, and the satyr. From the distance, when she had first caught sight of them, they seemed identical, two creatures walking on their hind legs, threading their way along an overgrown path. She had watched them stoop and finger the leaves of shrubs, talking in low voices she couldn't hear. But as the fox crept closer, their differences became apparent. The older one had the hindquarters of a goat, and an air of wildness about him; his eyes were vibrant and his head twisted as the slightest noise. While he moved through the underbrush, he was constantly stopping to sniff the wind, alert to danger. He gave the impression of having full knowledge of the woods, as though he were a natural part of them.
The boy had the torso of the other, though thinner, less muscled. His legs appeared stronger than the satyr's, and were streaked with blond hair. He laughed when the satyr turned and talked to him. But when he walked in silence, his expression was fierce, hardening into arrogance. He seemed weightier, his intensity a cloak he never quite removed.
There was a strong yet subtle bond between them, a strange tenderness, a tension. Its surface was rough, full of harsh words, but in its deeper currents, where the two needed no longer to attack each other, it flowed untroubled. It moved her, yet she was disdainful of it. These male creatures would forever place one another in danger and then come to the rescue; they would move in and out of a circle of affection, the perimeter of which they couldn't find. They would clearly need her help.
Vera lived in a lair at the summit of the Mountains of No Return. She knew of the moon's capture, for her home was in the Outer Lands, close to the Deadwood Forest, and the owl held sway everywhere these days.
She was a snow fox, the last of her clan. Her fur was silver and soft as goose down. Her pale eyes shone in the dark, a flicker of flame. Like all snow foxes she was solitary, joining others only when the times demanded it.
And she had other traits which made her different from any animal who lived in the land. She was lightning, the flash of sunlight off a lake in full summer, the ripple of a trout's scales as he swims under cover of a snag.
She was magic.
* * *
Deirdre told them all she knew about the owl. It was past midnight before the three stopped talking and went to sleep. Derin and Matthew wrapped themselves in their blankets and slid among the pine needles as deeply as they could without touching the ground itself, for it was fearfully cold. The raven took up a perch in a pine over their heads, tucked her beak under her wing, and was the first asleep.
Matthew dreamed for the first time in weeks. The moon hung upside down, suspended by ropes from two ravens who flew back and forth across the sky, making a constant night. Sometimes the moon rose in the east and raced across the firmament like a haycart set afire and sometimes she rose in the west and traveled, a mocking grin, toward the place where the sun should rise.
A face coalesced out of the darkness, cruel, without a trace of kindness in it. Its large yellow eyes stared straight ahead, never blinking, surrounded by twin ovals, pale as dawn. A beak, hooked and powerful, jutted over the bottom of the face. And just above the eyes, two horns sprouted.
He twitched on his bed of needles as if the owl had him in his talons. The beak opened, and at the moment he would have been swallowed, Matthew woke. He lay in the dark, huddled under his blanket, sweaty though the air was intensely cold, and listened to the easy breathing of Derin, who slept in the darkness at his side. Above, he could barely make out the profile of the raven hunched on her branch, still lost in sleep.
"Only a dream," Matthew mumbled to himself. But in his half-dazed state, he couldn't shake the prickly sense of dread he'd awakened with. he was about to enter a place he'd never been before, and this antagonist had lodged in his mind before he'd even even left the meadowlands behind. The owl, if Deirdre could be trusted, held power from the Swollen River to the farthest reaches of the Outer Lands. If he could command an army of raven to capture the moon, what chance would they have against him?
Matthew stood and looked toward the swamp, a deeper darkness to the west. He strained to hear some evidence of life there, the throaty bass of the frogs, the hum of insects. But the air was still. It was the swamp he had entered fourteen years ago, alone. He had stumbled in the darkness, seeing the heron's outline before him when lightning crashed across the sky, throwing its white glare down through the trees. Thunder rolled up at him from the dank water. At the river's bank, he could see nothing, swept up in the roar below him. Then the lightning flared again, and the hooded figure stepped from behind the tree, reaching out to give him the child. And had disappeared across the Swollen River, almost spirited away.
He had stood, looking out over the water, visible only through the sky's bolts of illumination, the water which roiled and bubbled like a cauldron, holding the child in his arms, the little boy who, even then, did not cry or scream, or shiver with cold, but looked up at him, eyes wide, no hint of a smile on his face.
Now a thin watery light began to seep from the east, until the upper reaches of the pines and oak were black and stark against the morning sky. While the boy and the raven still slept, he got to his feet and gathered wood for a fire. The pine needles, coarse and dry as dust, made good kindling and soon had a healthy blaze.
He took an earthenware pot from his knapsack, filled it with water, and put it up to boil. He unwrapped some strips of jerky from the pack and slipped them into the water. Matthew brought the pot to his lips and took a sip, but the liquid burned his mouth and throat and he cried out in pain.
Above him, the raven's voice filtered down. "Old family recipe?" she asked.
Startled, Matthew stood up, knocking over the pot of water. It spilled into the fire, and a cloud of steam rose, scalding the satyr's palm He howled and batted at the steam as if it were alive, while the fire hissed itself cold. "You shut up," he said in a voice which surprised him. He glanced up and saw the raven tilted forward, her red eyes peering at him. He was unaccountably angry.
Without thinking, Matthew picked up a rock and heaved it at the raven. He was deadly with bow and arrow, and his aim was true. The rock came close to Deirdre's head, but she hopped deftly to a lower branch.
"What reason?" she croaked in a sore offended voice. "Watch who you're throwing at."
"I see who I'm throwing at," Matthew said, picking up another rock, but he stopped himself just as the raven flew into the air. What was he doing?
Above him, Deirdre landed again and danced from branch to branch, beside herself with excitement. "Blame the bad news, not the messenger," she said. "It's not my fault. I'm only the one who told you."
"I know," Matthew said. "I don't know what got into me." The air hummed around his head.
"Apologies are easy," the raven said. "They're only words."
"I'm sorry," Matthew said. "Calm down."
"Come down?" Deirdre sputtered. "Where you can get your hands on me? Not on your life. All these years I've thought nothing but kindly of you. I don't deserve this. I truly don't. I didn't kidnap the moon, I'm not responsible for the boy's. . . ."
He lost the raven's voice, though she continued to caw about indignity and danger, ungratefulness and salvation. Before him, Derin rose from the ground, unsteady, still half-asleep. The boy shivered, wrapped his arms around himself. "It;s cold," he said. "What's all the noise about? And where's the fire?"
* * *
There, I'm done for the night. More later!