The owl called the congregation of ravens for the early hours of the day, past midnight. As the darkness grew in intensity, the owl seemed to bloat. His golden eyes bulged and took on a reddish tinge, as though the beating of his heart had become so frantic that the blood moving through his veins had nowhere to go but into his eyes. He puffed in the clearing, his feathers bristling, until the bulk of his body was overpowering.
In small groups, the ravens arrived. Word had gone out that afternoon that the owl wished to speak with them, and the place and time were transmitted with a flick of wing, a blink of a red eye.
The meeting was held in another clearing, several miles from where the moon hung caged. Deirdre arrived late, but she was not the last. The owl sad dead-center, silent as an idol, and the glossy birds landed on trees and bushes around him, even in the edges of the clearing, all eyes intent upon the horned tyrant.
Deirdre was grateful she'd gotten there at all. When she returned from the swamp, she'd fallen asleep, in plain view, a silly mistake, but one she could do nothing about. She's been awakened by a rustling in the limbs above her, and when she opened her eyes, she saw a small group of ravens perched above. It was already dark and their eyes shone down at her like live coals.
"Sleeping late," one of them said.
"Yes," she said, "I overslept," although she'd gotten barely six hours of rest.
They flew off, one after another, and when all had abandoned her, she flew after them. Now they sat, surrounding the owl, waiting for him to speak.
He was waiting as well, but Deirdre didn't know why. A few ravens straggled in late, and the owl fixed each one with his glassy bulbous stare, as if to question their right to remain alive. Deirdre began to get edgy; the encounter was eerie, like a showdown. When she thought she'd burst, two weasels came slinking through the underbrush and entered the clearing, remaining some distance form the owl. He looked down at them imperiously as they sank to earth, their eyes to him.
"You're late," he said, his voice conveying his displeasure. "You've kept us waiting."
One of the weasels spoke in a quavering voice. "We're sorry, my lord. We received your summons late, and we, as you know, cannot fly."
"I know you can't fly," the owl thundered. His gaze left the cowering weasels and slowly took in the ravens. He thought how they looked like a night sky, those blinking eyes like thousands of read stars. Not a raven moved as he surveyed them. Paranoid, Deirdre thought he stared too long at her, and did her best to appear inconspicuous.
"My friends here have something of interest to say," the owl said, nodding to the weasels.
"We are just poor weasels from the Outer Lands," the second weasel said. "We live on the plain to the east of the mountains."
"They can see what you are, you sniveling fool," the owl said. "Get to the point."
"Yes, my lord," the weasel said, shaking with fright.
"We've seen a raven fly out over the plain where we live, headed for the Swollen River," the second said. "And later we've seen him return."
"So you think it's a 'he'?" the owl asked, interested.
"We don't know for sure," the first weasel replied.
"Go on," the owl ordered.
"Twice in the last two days," the second hastened to add. "Since the moon was stolen."
"What else?" the owl asked.
"There's nothing else to say," the first weasel said. "That's all we know."
The owl was exasperated. "Look around you. Do you see the raven who flew east?"
The weasels were a model of concentration. Deirdre thought they were stalling, but still tried to shrink into her feathers, to disguise herself. They took forever, looking closely from the clearing to the bushes to the tree limbs. Finally the second one spoke.
"It's no use, my lord. I can't tell the difference between them."
"May your bones rot in darkness," the owl said. "Get out of here." With great haste and equal relief, the weasels slunk from the clearing and disappeared.
"So," the owl said, frowning. "There seems to be a traitor in our midst. I have given strict orders that none of you should leave the Outer Lands. The Swollen River and the meadowlands beyond are alien territory. According to these weasels, someone has disobeyed me. Which one of you was it? I won't deal harshly with you if your explanation is fair and true."
None of the ravens moved for a minute or two, and then all heads began to turn, each bird glancing at his neighbors with suspicion. Deirdre looked right and left as well, trying to appear as unruffled, as critical as her fellows did. Ah, self-righteousness, she thought. Has there ever been such a concentration of it?
She was alarmed by this turn of affairs, but not particularly frightened. She felt she'd done nothing to give herself away. True, she was an outcast of sorts, having no particular companions among the other members of her clan and thus was vulnerable to suspicion. No other raven would defend her is she were called to account; none could say, "No, my lord, the raven Deirdre is your good and faithful servant. She was with me at the time in question." And since Deirdre could not offer this to any of them, she felt herself alone. But aside from the small group who had caught her sleeping earlier that evening, she was sure there were none who could accuse her.
Out of the darkness behind her and slightly to her right, the voice of a very young raven filtered past
"My lord," the raven said, his voice shaking badly. "Perhaps it was I."
"Come here," the owl ordered, his voice as heavy as lead.
A flapping emerged from the night, and a small handsome raven flew past Deirdre. He landed some feet from the owl, doing his best to square his wings and face his master.
"What is your name?" the owl asked.
"Maxwell," the raven said bravely. In the deepness if the night, Deirdre thought she could see blue highlights flashing amid his feathers.
"No, my lord. They both perished in the ice storm of the winter."
"Have you any neighbors or companions who can vouch for you?" the owl said severely.
Maxwell looked behind him for assistance. "There are some I fly with," he said. "Bingor and Tera."
"Are you here?" the owl roared, his voice coming back at him, echoing off the tall dead trees.
There was no reply, only he deepest silence in which Deirdre could feel her blood pulsing in her throat.
The owl looked down at Maxwell, a strange gloat in his eyes. They seemed to have become more red, almost as red as the ravens' eyes, "No one will speak for you," he said. So, Deirdre thought, it has come to this.
"Bingor," the little raven implored, turning to look behind him at the hosts of his people.
"Silence!" the owl ordered. "You flew east?"
"Yes, my lord." The raven had lost his composure. He shivered in the darkness until Deirdre thought the earth picked up his fright and began trembling in empathy.
"Against my orders?"
"No, my lord, I did not disobey you. I was visiting the graves of the ancestors," he said bravely, "the ones who died in the great wind."
The owl's chest swelled. "You crossed the Swollen River?"
"No, my lord. I visited the graves on the Plain of Desiccation, the graves of those who dropped form the wind when it passed over the river. My mother and father often took me there, and since they died. . . ."
"An act of filial devotion, then?"
"Yes, my lord."
"I don't believe you," the owl said harshly. "Why was it never reported to me before?"
"I don't know," Maxwell said. "I didn't know I was doing anything wrong."
"You flew with this Bingor?"
"No, my lord, I went alone. I could find no one who would go with me."
"They were wiser than you, my son," the owl said. He called, and from the darkness behind him, three falcons swooped from the highest branches of a very tall oak. "Take him to the southern forest," the owl said. He paused for effect. None of the ravens knew of this place, except Deirdre. She shuddered on her branch, drawing herself tighter.
"And break his wings," the owl said.
Deirdre cried out in alarm.
"Who was that?" the owl shrieked.
"It was nothing, my lord," Deirdre said. "I have a cramp in my claw."
"Take him away," the owl said. "Take him from my sight."
Deirdre heard a soft noise in the distance, like weeping. Whoever grieved had not grieved enough to speak on Maxwell's behalf, but still Deirdre felt great pity. And she was beside herself with indecision. If she spoke up, if she offered herself in his place, she knew the owl would not spare the young bird. She would be killed, and he would still be banished and mutilated. And she would be abandoning the satyr and the boy.
The falcons bound the raven and took off, each of them holding a rope. They hovered above the clearing, displaying their captive, before heading south.
"Let that be a lesson to you," the owl said.
"But my lord, if I may humbly ask a question," a raven said from a branch to Deirdre's right.
"You may ask," the owl said.
"The young one did not cross the Swollen River, if what he said was true."
"But who would speak up for him?" the owl asked. "Not one of you. NOT A SINGLE ONE. You are a cowardly flea-infested lot, and it makes me sick to look at you."
There was total silence. The raven who had spoken did not speak again.
"Now leave me," the owl thundered. "All of you."
As Deirdre rose in the air, it was like the whirlwind which had carried her west. Thousands of ravens surrounded her, and she was buffered by fierce currents. All was wing and beak and flashing eye. The sky reverberated with harsh breathing and cawing. Ravens collided in the air and fell away from each other, screaming. Feathers torn loose from their wings drifted below them. Bruised and battered, all left the clearing, Deirdre with them. She remembered the night she had been taken by the wind. Her parents lay below her on the ground, broken and bleeding, calling her name.
* * *
In the morning's dim light, Derin stood with Matthew and Vera, looking down at the Swollen River. By day, the water was molten rock, not mud. Blue-grey, like the hottest part of a fire, it laughed at them. A few boulders jutted from the water, their sleek black backs like seals. Around the rocks, the river churned, flinging spray high into the air. There were no islands, no sandbars, nothing but the deep channel.
Derin walked down the rise. His ankle was completely healed, good as it had ever been; even the bruise had disappeared. He knelt by the river's side and put a hand in the water. It felt like swiftly flowing ice. Down the bank, cedars gave way to tall firs which crowded to the river's edge. Across from him, Derin could make out the thin line of the opposite shore, marked by a rise of trees.
He climbed the bank again and pointed to what he'd seen.
"It's swamp at first," Vera said, "just like this side. But it's much more narrow. We'll have some wading to do when we get across. From here on there's nothing like the meadowlands again. You're in for a geography lesson."
"You said there were mountains," Derin said.
"That's right," the fox said. "That's where I live. They're at least two days away. After the swamp, we'll get to the Plain of Desiccation. Dry, dusty, hot and nasty. Not much lives there. I've seen a few weasels, and scorpions of course. Wild board. They're all in league with the owl, so we'll have to be careful. And there are other pitfalls. Like getting lost in the sand, Just one hill after the next, nothing to even give you the sense you're moving."
"Sounds like fun," Matthew said. "I can't wait."
"After that, we'll get to the mountains, a bit more hospitable terrain, I promise. And I know them backwards and forwards. They're beautiful, but of course I'm prejudiced."
"And then?" Derin asked.
"Then you're on your own," Vera said. "I'll take you as far as the mountains, but I won't go into the Forest."
"The Deadwood Forest," Matthew said.
"That's right," the fox said. "A vast tangle of dead trees and bushes, the most desolate place you could imagine. Nothing grows there. It used to be full of oaks and maples, before the owl came to power. I wouldn't go near it."
"We'd better get started," Matthew said. "It's going to take time to build the raft." Long into the night, they had talked about how to cross the river, and Matthew had convinced them his was the best solution. They would need logs, and vines to lash the logs together, and a bit of luck.
The three of them left the overlook and descended to where they'd slept. The only logs they'd found were fallen cedars, big around as Matthew's armspan, heavier than he and the boy could even lift. "The firs will be better," Matthew said, rummaging in his pack for the ax head. "They'll float higher in the water. Derin, go south along the bank and look for vines we can use. They should be old and weathered, nothing too young or they'll snap. I'll find a handle for this and get to work on the logs." Derin stood and watched as Matthew honed the ax head with whetstone, found a piece of cedar to use as a handle, and bound the head to it with rawhide. "Go on," Matthew said. "Get going."
Derin walked along the rise, the river on his left rushing much faster than he was walking. Firs rose around him. He looked for vines which matched Matthew's instructions, but there were none, nothing but the straight druidical presence of the trees, their needled branches drooping toward the ground. The light under the firs was like the swamp's, a mottled green.
As Derin walked, he peered across at the other side, trying to imagine it. From Vera's description, it was unlike anything he'd even dreamed about, a harsh and forbidding landscape over which the owl brooded like a malevolent cloud. Crossing the river seemed impossible. He thought of the three of them, huddled together on their flimsy raft, buffeted by those waves which even now rose and fell like the foaming backs of stallions, flinging spray sky-high. Behind him, he heard the first crack of a tree. The satyr's voice rang out, and then Derin listened to the slow crunsh as it fell, breaking the branches of other firs, the slam it made as it hit the ground.
He shaded his eyes with his hands. There, above him, he saw what looked like a tangle of vines. It festooned the upper branches, hanging down toward him, taunting.
Derin shrugged and rubbed his hands together. He took a few steps back, approached the fir, and jumped. He wrapped his arms and legs around the trunk and inched his way up, raising his knees, hugging the fir, and grabbing above him with his arms. The rough bark scratched his legs, but he kept climbing until finally he could reach up and hold onto a branch. His legs let go, and he hung there by both arms. The branch creaked, bending downward, but it held. Kicking against the trunk to gain some leverage, he managed to swing a leg over the branch, and wrestled into a sitting position.
He started upwards, breathing harshly. The vines still hung above him, up where the fir broke open and gave way to the sky. When he'd rested, he crouched on the branch, close to the trunk, holding on to other branches above him for balance. He climbed quickly, the fir providing an awkward ladder. Matthew would have to be satisfied with these. He wasn't going to climb another tree.
The closer he got to the vines, the odder they looked to him. They were smooth and shiny, grey and black. He was five feet from them when he realized they weren't vines at all. The entire tangle began to writhe above him, and the snakes' tapered heads appeared, waving in the air, their eyes red pinpricks of light. Derin pulled away, crouching on the branch he'd been straining to leave. He grabbed it with both hands and swung free, reaching with his toe for a safe hold below him. He found the branch, let go and tottered, lost his balance. He crashed against the trunk and fell, but he managed to grab a branch, and he hung there, almost wrenching his shoulders from their sockets when the tree ceased to give.
He looked above him. The snakes had made no move toward him, and he hurriedly let himself down from branch to branch, until he hung from the lowest one and let himself fall. He sprang to his feet, ready to run. Above him, the snakes were motionless, their heads hidden, looking again like a tangle of vine.
He caught his breath; for him, the owl was everywhere. Perhaps the snakes had not been threatening at all, simply a nest of tree vipers disturbed by his ascent. But he wasn't about to climb again to find out. The menace in their twisting heads had not been imagined, and whether they belonged to the owl or simply to themselves, they meant him only ill. He made his way back up the riverbank toward the place where the heave of Matthew's ax was again audible.
The river leapt to challenge him, and his face was wet with salt spray. "We're crossing you," he said. At his feet, the ground rustled. Sand grains and tiny stones rose from the earth and bounced off his legs. The river continued in its deep channel from north to south, ignoring his threat.
* * *
Sorry for not working on this for so long. More = later!