The fire blazed higher. Vera piled twigs and leaves from a fallen cedar, and strips of bark. Matthew knelt on the hummock, shaking the boy. Derin's arms hung backwards from his shoulders as if disjointed, and his legs bent at the knees and fell limply to the side. "Derin," he said harshly, and when the boy did not respond, the satyr cuffed his face. "You're not leaving me alone in this," he said. "Not after all this time."
He put the boy down and began to massage his chilled body. He worked up Derin's arms, beginning with the fingers, and then rubbed the boy's neck and chest. Vera took the earthenware pot from Matthew's knapsack, filled it with water from the swamp, and put it beside the fire to warm. When a faint mist drifted from the top, she brought it over to where the boy lay. Matthew rummaged in his pack for a piece of cloth and found the flask he had forgotten.
"Of course," he said. "Just the thing." He drenched the cloth in the warm water and wiped the boy's face. Then he lifted Derin's shoulders, tilted his head back, and gently opened his mouth. Derin's face had lost its blue tinge, and when Matthew put his ear to the boy's chest, he heard a steady heartbeat.
He poured a few drops from his flask into the boy's mouth. Derin's throat contracted, and the boy jerked forward, couching. The satyr hit him on the back until the coughing ceased. Derin sat up and wildly looked around him. He threw his arms in front of his face, knocking Matthew backwards.
"Get away!" he screamed. "Get away from me."
Matthew struggled back to his hooves. "Derin," he said. "It's me. Cut it out."
The boy's eyes were full of terror. "Stay away," Derin screamed. "Get out of here."
It's all right. Derin. Listen to me. They're gone. The frogs are gone."
The boy caught his breath and looked around him at the hummock, his arms still threshing the air. He calmed down by degrees, his head twisting until he was sure they were nowhere to be seen. The air stuck in his throat in little hiccoughs, until he covered his face with his hands and started to cry. "You did a job on this ankle," the satyr said. "You might have broken it." He pulled Derin's hands away and gathered the boy in his arms. Derin did not resist. He buried his face in Matthew's shoulder and sobbed. It had been years since the boy had allowed himself to be held, and Matthew felt the burden of all that time. His throat tightened. "You should have been more careful," he said gruffly. "You've got to take care of yourself."
"They came out of the water," Derin said. "I couldn't stop them. They were all around me."
"They didn't touch you," Matthew said.
"How did you know?" the boy said, wresting himself loose from Matthew's hold. "You weren't even here."
Vera, who had been watching everything, came forward. "Let's take care of his ankle," she said. "We've got to get back to the river."
"Who are you?" Derin asked in amazement. "Where did she come from?"
"Her name is Vera," Matthew said. "She's the reason I left you like that." He turned to the fox. "Can you get some wild sarsaparilla?" he asked.
Vera disappeared among the cedars. "She can turn herself into a nymph," Matthew said when she was gone. He shrugged his shoulders. "I ran after her."
* * *
By the time the fox returned, Matthew had told Derin all he knew of their strange companion. He made a poultice of warm water, wild sarsaparilla, and rotting cedar and put it on the boy's ankle, binding it with the cloth he'd used earlier. The boy winced, threw back his head. "So it hurts," the satyr said. "It's a bad sprain. You'll have to stay off it for a while. You're lucky it's not worse."
"Let me help," Vera said. "Just lie still." She sniffed Darin's ankle, took her tail and brushed it four times, rhythmically, over the boy's leg. She sniffed again, brushed her tail four more times, and then licked the ankle. "There," she said. "That should do it. How does it feel?"
"It doesn't," Derin said, amazed. "I don't feel a thing."
"Good," Vera said. "Then it worked. I deadened the pain to let the ankle heal. It's the least I can do." She looked at Matthew. "I led your friend on that wild chase. I thought I'd get the two of you through the swamp more quickly that way." She sighed. "Unfortunately, you can't always tell how things will turn out. Sometimes the best intentions. . . ."
"Well, thank you," Derin said.
"It was nothing. I'm a snow fox. I have the power of healing."
"And the power of transformation," Matthew said.
"Limited," the fox said. "Very limited."
"What about the real nymphs?" Matthew asked. "The ones who used to live in the meadowlands."
Vera smiled at him. "There were no real nymphs," she said.
"You're razzing me," Matthew said, laughing. "No wonder I never caught one. There were a lot of foxes, now that I think of it.
"Until the wind destroyed the clan," Vera said. "The wind the owl sent to bring the animals west. Many survived that night. But snow foxes are delicate creatures, sensitive and high-strung. The only ones who lived were those not taken by the wind. Eery snow fox in the whirlwind perished. And soon after that the ones who remained left the meadowlands to live in the upper regions of the mountains to the west. I think I'm the last one."
"The last of your clan?" Derin asked.
"Those things most beautiful perish first," Vera said proudly. "There are no unicorns left."
"But how did you know about us?" Matthew asked.
"I knew about the owl," she said simply, "and about the moon. It seemed only a matter of time before someone headed west to try to rescue her. I am wiser than I may appear. Snow foxes–if I might brag for a moment–are not ordinary creatures."
Derin looked at Vera, and she sighed and complied with his silent request. Before him stood a nymph, so radiant she dispelled the green gloom of the swamp. It was as though the sun had reappeared. The boy groaned, amazed. The nymph disappeared, and the fox was before them again. "I hope that did some good," she said. "It's a strain on me."
* * *
The fox gathered the knapsacks and gave them to the boy. Matthew bend down and Derin hobbled over and climbed on the satyr's back. It grew noticeably darker as they sloshed west, the fox cutting a single sliver in the water's skin, the satyr stumbling behind. "Slow down," he called. "I'm not as aspired as I was before."
Under Derin's hands, the satyr's shoulders rippled like the water below him. He was remembering the brief image of the nymph which had burned into his mind. He was lost in her radiance, in the memory of his fall, the frogs and their silent pulsing throats, aware now of a pull to the west toward the owl; it was as though he'd been hypnoyized, and was being drawn more tightly into a net.
As they struggled through the swamp, night came, clamping down around them like the lid of a box. The Satyr had to rest occasionally. During one of these stops, he untied the cloth around Derin's ankle and reapplied the poultice. The swelling had gone down, and Derin's foot had regained the color of living flesh, but an ugly bruise spread from the ankle and discolored the boy's instep.
The fox never spoke. She seemed intent in getting out of the swamp. She knew her way, even in the dark, as easily as Derin knew the way to Matthew's granite overhang, and they both agreed her presence was a rare stroke of luck.
Derin was beginning to nod when he heard a noise which brought him fully awake. It was like to roaring of a wind gathering far off. But there was no wind. The air was still and very cold. It was a rumbling undertone of sound, a solid sustained bass which never varied. The noise seemed to be coming from the swamp beneath him, filtering up into the highest branches of the cedars. It had strange gurglings and pauses in it, little sucks and moans.
He bent over and whispered in Matthew's ear, "What's that?"
"If my guess is right, we're near the Swollen River."
"Yes," the fox said. "That's the river. Don't let it worry you. We'll stop along its banks. Wouldn't think of trying to cross it tonight."
The swamp became more shallow, the ice gave way to solid ground, and as they came to a slow rise, the rumbling increased and Derin felt the earth tremble. When they were near the top, the satyr put him down. Derin held his right foot off the ground, stood on his left, and steadied himself by holding onto the satyr's arm.
"Careful now," Vera said. "It will still be tender."
The boy put his foot on the ground and applied some pressure. It held him. "It's not as fine as it seems," Vera reminded him, "but it looks like it's doing all right." And she was gone, up the rise overlooking the river. Matthew helped him hobble up after her. The fox looked out over the turbulence of river. Matthew stood by her side, his arms crossed on his chest.
The immensity of what lay before the boy took his breath away. True, it was difficult to see anything in so little light. The sky was a solid leaden sheet, and under it the river came rushing from his left and passed away to his right. Here, on its brink, the water made unearthly noises. It sounded like a storm coming out of the earth instead of the sky. Perhaps by daylight the boy would see the far shore, but as he stood there, he felt as he had when he'd made a trip with Matthew to the ocean. Its power humbled him. They were to cross this water? It seemed not like water at all, but like a stream of mud. It was thick and slippery, churning below him.
"I don't remember it like this," the satyr said uneasily.
The fox huddled between them in the dark. "The river is much wilder and broader since the owl took the moon. We should get some sleep. I'll gather wood for a fire." She set off down the rise they had recently climbed.
Derin stood close to Matthew. "There's something I have to tell you," he said. The satyr stiffened, ready for the rebukes he thought the boy had been hoarding all afternoon.
"I had the strangest vision back on that hummock," Derin said. Matthew looked at him and frowned. "I was racing after you, but you were so fast and I was falling behind. I got tired of having to run around things, so I tried to vault this cedar. That's when I fell and sprained my ankle. I was lying there and I opened my eyes and the frogs came. They just sat there in the water staring at me, and I started screaming, started talking to keep them away. They belong to the owl, don't they?"
"That's what Vera said."
"I don't remember anything else until you came back. I must have passed out. But U had this vision. I sank deeper and deeper into this hole and then I was a bird and I came flying up, into this clear sky. The sun was there and the moon, and I was the only bird around. I flew and flew. It must have been west because the sun was setting. And then I flew south. And I found this large thing that looked like a prison."
"Who know what dreams mean?" Matthew said. "Not me. I've had them myself, but they never make sense." The boy stood silent at his side. "That's not much of an answer, is it?" he asked.
"If it's the best you can do," the boy said.
Matthew looked out over the river. "Years ago," he said, "fourteen years ago, I was awakened in the middle of the night and brought to this bank, to the edge of the river, the only other time I've been here. A creature wearing a dark cloak, I couldn't see the face, handed me a blanket. I know it may be hard to believe, but. . . ."
"Me?" Derin asked.
"Yes. of course," the satyr said. "So I brought you back to the meadowlands."
Derin stood, stunned by this information he'd waited so long for. "But where did I come from?" he wanted to know. "Who was the stranger?"
"He could have been your father. He could have been someone else. I don't know. And where he, or you, came from is a mystery to me, I'm sorry I can't tell you anything else."
Derin shivered in the damp ait. He looked to his friend for reassurance, but Matthew was lost in thought. "Why didn't you tell me this before?"
The satyr looked at him and then reached out and touched the boy's shoulder. "What good would it have done? He said you'd be sent for. And you have been."
Derin said nothing. Below him, the river bubbled: a cauldron, a tempest. It's happening, Matthew thought, as the stranger said. It's happening, and I can't do a thing to change it.
"You're tired," he said, but the boy wasn't listening to him. He was off somewhere, thinking of the crazy twists his life had taken. "I don't have any more answers for you," the satyr said, almost harshly. "Leave me alone for a minute. Go warm yourself by the fire. And get off that ankle."
"Matthew," Derin said. "I'll be all right. I can take care of myself."
"I think you can," the satyr said. "You'll have to."
The boy limped down the slope. Matthew stood alone, watching the river pass below him. He shook his head in wonder. And how am I changing? he thought.
* * *
End of chapter 3. More = later!