Matthew waded behind the fox, trying to put his information together. He and Derin had entered the swamp; the water was freezing, ice formed on his fleece and then, as in a dream, he'd seen the nymph. How long ago had that been? Where was he now? He'd lost all track of time and direction. He knew for sure only that he was still in the swamp, heading back where he'd come from, looking for the boy.
Vera moved through the water with a power and grace that seemed otherworldly. The cold didn't bother her, and she never tired. For Matthew, it was much more difficult than he remembered. But then, he thought, he remembered only the image of the nymph. The cold returned to his legs and worked its way up his thighs and into his chest until his teeth were shattering, and he walked, hugging himself. He fumbled in his pack for the blanket, but he had drenched himself in his pursuit and now, in the slower going, he paid for his carelessness. Icicles hung from his hair; he stopped from time to time, lifted his legs from the water, and removed the small pieces of ice which formed in the cleft of his hooves.
Where was Derin? Ahead of Matthew, the swamp continued, drifting into the distance, and endless morass of pools and hummocks. Lichen grew on the cedars' trunks, turning the bark a deep green. In fact, everything looked green. The fox's white fur had taken on a pale sickly sheen, his own hands were stained, and the water eddied around his legs like an algae-laden much.
It was the light. It bounced off the swamp, reflected up to the cedars' tops and back again, a continuous mirroring of green.
They splashed through the water without speaking, or rather Matthew splashed; Vera cut through it smoothly. But he couldn't stop thinking of what had happened. If the fox could change her form, what else could she do? For the first time since he had began to retrace his steps, he thought about what lay ahead. They had to get out of this swamp; they had to cross the Swollen River. And maybe, if the fox would go along with them, they would make it.
"Derin!" he yelled again, and this time thought he heard a thin voice raised in the distance. "Was that him?" he asked the fox. "Did you hear that?"
"I don't know. It could have been the boy. It could have been an echo."
They plunged in the direction of the noise, but when Matthew called his name again, there was no answer. "How long has it been?" Matthew asked the fox.
"Since we started back."
"It's very hard to tell," the fox said. "Time's so slippery."
"How long has Derin been out there?"
"Perhaps you should have thought of that earlier," the fox replied mildly.
"But it was you fault," Matthew said, his voice sharp. He felt a hot knot rise in his throat.
"Now now," Vera said. "Let's not point any fingers."
They found the boy on the hummock, surrounded by the frogs. Matthew and Vera saw him from a distance and stopped short. "What are those things?" the satyr cried.
The frogs sat silently, guarding the boy, their bellies pulsing, their red eyes brilliant in the gathering darkness. When they heard the thrashing of the fox and satyr coming toward them, they slithered back into the water and disappeared under its opaque skin.
"Derin," Matthew yelled, spraying water in front of him as he ran.
The boy's face was a slight blue, tinged with the green light of the swamp. There was ice and mud in his hair, and his clothes were stiff with frost. His lips were tightly shut, thin as dried reed, and his ankle was twisted sideways. The satyr knelt and took the boy's head in his hands, but Derin did not open his eyes. Wildly, Matthew looked to the fox for help, but she hung back as though what went on between the satyr and the boy was of no interest to her.
"What were they?" he asked again. "Where did they come from?"
"The owl," Vera said. "They belong to him."
"Derin, wake up," Matthew said. But if it were sleep which held the boy, it did not let him go.
* * *
The sun stared down at the clouds moiling beneath her and wondered what had happened to the world. For three days, she had risen in the east and looked down upon the same alien view. Gone were the meadowlands with their blue glints of lakes and streams. She could see nothing, not the wide river which cut the land, nor the tall snow-streaked mountains to the west. All was grey turbulence, a fleecy mask of smoke.
She shone brighter, but the clouds did not disperse. Instead, they sent soft streamers toward her, tentacles of mist. It was so odd. She had seen bad weather before, days of it, when the world disappeared beneath an impenetrable blanket of cloud. But this was different. She felt cut off from the world by these clouds, and she was growing weaker.
The sun did not understand exactly, but she knew how she felt. And where was the moon? She was used to being awakened in the morning by her sister, finished for the night, who would rouse her and send her into the sky. But for three mornings now, she had awakened alone, and late, and she was worried.
Without her sister, the sun felt her power dimming. They nurtured one another. She was afraid the moon was in trouble, but she didn't know what to do. The sun floated over the cloudy sea and racked her brain for an answer. There was nowhere her sister could be. The moon was so haughty and fickle, so impressed with herself, it was possible she had gone off somewhere–but where? There was nowhere to go.
The sun remembered the time when the world was forming, and the meadowlands seethed with mud, before the green sprouts of trees emerged. Then her sister had disappeared for several days as well. When she'd returned, she had said she was tired of shining and tired of being the same. Where had she gone? the sun asked, and the moon had said, "I traveled among the other suns to find another way."
And she had found one: elsewhere, she told her sister, there were places where the sources of light changed form. Sometimes they were round as a perfect circle, and sometimes thin and curved. She found great beauty in that, and fascination. "You may keep that dull round shape," she told the sun, "but I will be forever variable."
The sun, always the more steadfast of the two, had thought, "How vain!" But she'd consented to the new arrangement, and her sister had been happy after that. What was happening now? Had the moon grown discontent again, and traveled off in search of some new possibility?
If so, the sun wished she would get back son. Even though she hated to admit it, she missed her sister. The sun forgave the moon her vanity, her haughtiness, with a condescension natural to older siblings. The moon would never catch up to the sun, would never be as bright. It was her lot to lag behind, to be paler, more beautiful.
But without her sister, the sun was incomplete, only half of what she was. The moon took great pride and some spite in saying she was the better half. Halves were just halves, and so the sun ignored the jibe. Now she was worried. Without her sister around, they were both in trouble. She, for one, was losing her light.
* * *
More = later! Thanks for being patient and tolerating my lack of productivity.