As the fox watched from a copse of pine, the boy and the satyr packed their belongings. Deirdre continued to hover above them, still petulant. "Deirdre," Matthew said. "You're carrying on like a flustered child. That rock had nothing to do with you. You don't understand."
"What's to understand?" the raven asked. "I don't take kindly to slurs on my intelligence."
Matthew stood up and faced her, and she flew higher into the air as if he might try to do her more damage. "He's the one with the temper," Matthew said.
"Couldn't prove it by me," Deirdre replied.
"Listen," Matthew said. "Enough's enough." He stuck his arm out, turned his hand sideways. "Come here."
"Why?" the raven asked, suspicious. "Why should I trust you?"
"Because of all those kind thoughts you had about me. Because of all those times you rode on my shoulder."
Deirdre peered at the satyr, could discern no ulterior purpose in his expression. Cautiously she fluttered down and perched upon his finger, ready to fly off at a moment's notice.
"There," Matthew said. The raven was silent, her expression still peevish.
"Well," Deirdre said, turning her beak away. "If you can't trust your friends, who can you trust?"
The satyr laughed. He brought his arm around until he forced the raven to look at him. With his other hand, he reached up and stroked the sleek top of her head. "All right?" he asked.
"Just be careful," Deirdre said. Remember you're about to enter the Outer Lands. Who knows what outposts the owl has there?"
The three of them, two by ground and one by air, approached the first wall of cedars at the swamp's edge. "Good-bye." the raven called. "I've got to go. I'll get back when . . . whenever I can." She left them, flying west. She dabbled in the wind above the swamp, did a loop-the-loop, and took off toward the Deadwood Forest in a straight line.
The fox crept closer, staying near the ground, keeping herself hidden from them. She thought of the trouble they would have in the swamp, for even the satyr had no idea how things have changed since the owl's power had penetrated east. She darted behind the cedars and approached them from their dark curtain.
"Stay behind me, now," the satyr said. "Can't tell what we'll find in there." He shielded his eyes and tried to peer into the gloom, but all he saw was water, the fallen cedar trunks, and the ooze gathered at the water's edge before the earth heaved itself into moss-strewn hummocks.
Matthew looked up at the towering cedars before him. "Did you see anything in there yesterday?" he asked the boy. "Did you hear any noise?"
"No," Darin said. "Nothing but water."
The cedars stretched their tall grooved trunks so far above Matthew they made him dizzy. He contemplated their lacy reticulated tops. They were strange trees, without needles or leaves, with a network of thin green fingers which touched one another like feathers and filtered what little light there was until it fell around him in a dense web. The light was refracted as if through droplets of water, prisms suspended in the air.
The world was about to swallow them: they would pass through this curtain of cedar and the life they had known would close behind them. From this point, the future would be a series of doors leading from one strange room to a stranger one which lay beyond. It was like part of that dream–"A dream," the satyr said aloud–and the sound of his voice in that stillness heartened him.
"What?" Derin asked.
"I said, 'What are we waiting for?' We might as well be walking, as standing here."
He took a step and passed through the outer ring of cedars into the water. He left the solid ground behind, its outer bank a heap of dead leaves and matted dirt, held together by roots. Under the water, which was insufferably cold, lay the ice. His hooves slithered away from him, threatening to throw him, body and pack, flat on his back in the icy wetness.
Derin followed. He held his arms out to either side to give him better balance. There was no sound in the swamp but their sloshing. They didn't talk, using all their concentration on the task of staying upright. After a fifteen-foot passage which seemed to congeal his blood, Matthew reached a moss-covered hummock and climbed from the water.
"Look at my legs," he shouted, his voice too loud. Derin was astounded to see ice on the fleece above the satyr's hooves. "We're going to have to move fast," the satyr said, "or we'll freeze in here. One step and our feet will hold fast to the bottom and we'll end it all, waving our fool arms and yelling at the sky."
He was about to strip branches from a fallen cedar when he saw her. She appeared from behind a very large trunk, a hundred yards ahead of him. Her skin was white as milk and her soft silver hair thrown back from her shoulders revealed the most spectacular collarbone he had ever seen. He was galvanized, standing there in the icy water. His eyes widened and he involuntarily grabbed for her, but she was so far away he smiled at the ludicrous move.
"After all these years," he whispered, letting his breath drain from his body. "I'm more deranged than I knew."
But what an apparition! She was lovely, pure grace, with a flirtatious pursing of her lips which made Matthew shiver with pleasure instead of cold.
He forgot the ice in his fleece; he forgot the treachery of the water beneath him. He was transformed. He took off after her like a bee in search of pollen. His legs sprouted wings. He danced above the surface of the swamp like a madman. Derin was astonished.
"Matthew!" he screamed. "Wait for me!"
* * *
As good as his word, the owl had sent three falcons back to gag the moon before nightfall of the previous day, and they came again at dawn to ungag her. They were respectful, and they left her alone after completing their errand. She sat in her cage, surveying the forest, the grey sky, the stark black trunks of the trees. How much longer could this go on?
The moon was beginning to feel slightly crazed. She had talked, for these past two days, only to the owl, and she had been cooped up here when before the wide expanses of sky had been her domain. She ached with disuse and (she had to admit it) with loneliness. She even would have welcomed another conversation with the owl, but she had not seen him since he had left her the day before.
The section of forest in which she hung was deserted, except for those unseen presences the owl had warned her about. But she wouldn't talk to an unseen presence; it would be like talking to herself, and she couldn't allow herself to slip like that. Not so much as a mouse had crossed the clearing below her. The air was silent, untouched by mosquitoes or flies, and except for the thin arrow of an occasional bird passing overhead, the moon was completely alone. So she was pleased when the three ravens descended from the sky and settled around her on the branches of her cage.
"Good morning," she said civilly, trying to keep her pleasure in the visit absent from her voice.
Two of the ravens looked at one another and back at the moon. The third, whose red eyes glittered with a wicked fire, flew to the ground and returned with a pointed stick. He circled the cage once and came up behind her. She whirled to face him, and the other two immediately began to chatter.
"Good morning," one of them said.
"A beautiful morning," the other said. "Wind from the southwest. Makes you glad to be alive."
The raven jabbed his stick through the oaken branches and feinted at the moon. She retreated to the furthest reaches of the cage until the harsh bark scraped her. The other two were breathing down her back, and for an instant, she thought one of them might try to peck at her, but instead their mindless chatter came pouring into her ears.
"The cage a little too close for comfort?" one asked, and the other answered, as if the question was addressed to him. The one with the stick jabbed repeatedly and flew around to join the others, and so the moon retreated again, more aware each instant of the closeness of her quarters.
There was no escape if they decided to take her on in earnest; she would have no chance if all three grabbed sticks and came at her. But they seemed to be enjoying the situation as it unfolded, and neither of the two who spat their inanities on the morning air were inclined to arm themselves, preferring to sit there and watch the third, who uttered not a word.
She tried to think of something clever to say, to alarm them or distract them, but her mind was such a jumble of fear and anger that nothing coherent formed.
She concentrated on the stick. It came at her from every interstice of branch until it was a blur and she was sick with dizziness. Just when she thought she wouldn't last another minute, the ravens began to tire of their game; the one who had taunted her dropped the stick. The three flew off, drifting in the air above her, throwing down a few more insults before they disappeared from view.
By the time the moon had regained her composure, and the knot in her stomach had reduced to a small displeasure, she was in an ugly mood. She raged at the empty forest, and is she had gotten her wish, destruction would have rained down around her. She called brimstone and fire, thunderstorms, tornadoes, every disaster weather could deliver. But the placid greyness of the sky did not change, the ground beneath her gave no evidence of a beginning rumble, and she finally fumed herself to silence.
She had reached the point of despair when the other raven arrived, wheeling in the air above her, dropping down like a silent black feather. As she saw the bird descend, she felt the words well in her throat again and she spewed forth venomous diatribes against all winged and feathered creatures, against all beasts which crept or galloped or slithered on the earth. The raven sat, patiently waiting for her to stop, but the very calmness of the bird further incensed the moon.
"You scurrilous, lice-ridden, winged contraption," the moon seethed. "You cowardly piece of fluff and bone. Wait until I am free of this cage. Pestilence will be visited upon this forest from that day until all ages have passed, and not one of you shall ever raise a brood again; worms will shrink from your beaks and you'll fall dead from hunger and thirst. Streams will dry up at your approach, and the other animals will kick your dead carcasses with disgust. You will be less than the rocks; you will rot to form leaf mold. . . ." The moon gasped for breath and reeled in her cage. She was so red of face the raven thought she might explode, and jumped to get a word in before the torrent of frustration continued.
"If you will hold your tongue for a moment. . . ." Deirdre said, but the moon ran ramshackle over her imploring voice. "Your bones will be used to pick the teeth of weasels and vermin, annd therever you die, ratsbane will rear its head. You will be known. . . ."
Deirdre fixed the moon with a deadly look, a gaze compounded of such long-suffering patience and slowly building violence that she stopped her ranting and waited for the bird to speak.
"And not a moment too soon," the raven said. "I'm not one to lose my temper, but you were sorely tempting me. I would have given you another minute before I flew away and left you to disintegrate in this forsaken place."
"Who are you?" the moon asked. "What do you want?"
"My name is Deirdre–not that it;s of any use to you–and I am attempting to extricate you from this abominable situation. Now, no more questions, there isn't time."
"No, no," she said. "This is too much. I can bear your taunts and jibes, but please, I beg you, don't torture me with this. Just go in peace and leave me be." The moon drew a long deep breath and let it out so quietly it was like a breeze which ripples the highest branches of the firs at sundown. And the turned her back on Deirdre and closed her eyes.
Deirdre lost her temper. She flew into the air and made such a racket clattering her wings that the moon opened her eyes and looked at the bird. The raven seemed to be having a fit. Her eyes rolled in her head, her neck jerked, her wings beat unevenly in the grey silent air. But she landed again, close to the moon, and her voice had no patience left in it.
"I can't take this whimpering prattle. Self-pity infuriates me. I don't yet know how your rescue will be accomplished, but I'm determined that you shall be liberated. Right now, two . . . uh . . . collaborators–a boy and a satyr–are on their way to this forest to engineer your escape.
"I tell you this to build your courage. You're not alone in wishing for your freedom. You must take heart. I'll come again if I can. At the moment, I'm playing the role of a transcontinental carrier pigeon, and I have an entrance very soon somewhere else. So I haven't time to stay and chat. Just remember who you are."
The moon was astonished by this speech. No one had ever spoken to her so familiarly, without the slightest trace of respect. Even the owl in his hyperbolic poetical speech gave her some measure of her stature. But here this stranger sat and bid her keep her chin up.
"Do you have anything to say?" the raven asked. The moon could do no better than to shake her head. "Well, maintain your strength. Stay as cheerful as possible. Keep an ear open for anything you think might be helpful," Deirdre said. "And please. Don't talk to me again as you did a while ago. It has a vanquishing effect upon my determination to help you."
She was gone before the moon could offer apologies or thanks. But in the afterglow of Deirdre's visit, she practically beamed with joy. It was not even the possibility of her freedom which affected her so; it was more complicated. Never before had she needed the help of anyone, and now when she did, she felt a new emotion at the knowledge that there were creatures out there working on her behalf.
She felt both bigger and smaller than herself, as though, for the first time, she understood the outlines of her silver form when viewed from the earth. There was great value in that, and great misunderstanding. She knew that when the falcons came again to gag her she would offer no resistance, but submit, as sweetly as possible, to their hooded smiles.
* * *
Apologies for a late submission again. If I were a better person, with a stronger will, and better at managing time, I would post at least 3 chapters a week. But I just aren't any of that. Which is a shame :(