The ax fell through the air and bit deeply into the fallen fir. Matthew wrenched it loose, swung it back over his head, and down again. A wedge of wood bigger than the boy's foot jumped from the v-shaped cut. Derin scraped resin into the earthenware pot, added some water, and put it over the flames. The amber resin bubbled and boiled down into a darkened syrup. Off the fire, it thickened still more.
Together, the two carried the logs Matthew had cut until there were seven of them side by side near the riverbank in a small declivity level with the water. Vera watched as Matthew lashed the logs together with the leathery vines she had found lying on the ground while Derin was off on his own search to the south. "I didn't have to climb a tree," she said. "They were waiting for me." "Lucky for you," Derin said. The satyr wound the vines until the logs were as tight as he could make them, and then Derin caulked the spaces between them with the resiny tar.
At last, the tar hardened and, when Matthew splashed water between the logs, it stayed in glistening ponds.
"Looks watertight to me," Vera said. "Let's go."
Matthew looked out over the river, and shrugged. "It's the best we can do," he said. He gathered together the belongings he'd flung from the pack, dismantled his makeshift ax and placed the head back in its sheath.
The river was even rougher than it had been that morning. As the day moved toward its zenith, the water rose in higher and higher waves which crested and broke as the river swept from north to south. "It's a tidal river," Vera said, "salty as the sea. It cuts across the whole land connecting the ocean's halves. But there aren't any tides since the moon's been gone. Why is it so rough?"
They maneuvered the heavy raft until a corner of it dipped into the water. The river met the obstacle and flew apart into spume, drenching the three. Matthew and the boy shouldered their packs, and the satyr told Derin and Vera to board the raft and stay together in the center. When they were ready, he heaved at it. It budged an inch and stuck fast.
"It's digging into the bank," Matthew yelled, trying to make himself heard above the river's noise. "Get off there. Help me push."
Even with the three of them, it was difficult. The harder they shoved, the deeper the firs sank into the mud at the river's edge. "We'll have to pick it up," Derin screamed.
"Be careful of your backs," Vera said.
Derin and Matthew braced themselves and pulled upwards on the raft. The mud didn't want to let go. "At least it's holding together," Matthew said.
"What?" Derin yelled, cupping a hand behind his ear. The satyr shook his head and waved a hand.
They pulled again, and the bank began to relinquish its grasp. From where Derin stood, he could hear the pops and sucks as the logs ripped loose from the mud. Suddenly, Derin felt the resistance lessen, and with and enormous slap, the raft came free and Matthew and the boy fell forward as the water tugged at the raft's corner, pulling it into the current. "Quick!" Matthew screamed. "We'll lose it." Derin was on his knees in the mud, the raft several feet in front of him, gaining ground. "Jump," Matthew said. "Both of you."
In a graceful arc, Vera leapt to the raft and hunkered down in the middle. Derin scrambled to his feet, thrashed through the water and threw himself onto the closest loge. His legs scissored, he pulled, and he crawled to the middle and turned to look back at Matthew.
With a groan which seemed to come from the timber's interior, the raft gave up its hold on the land. For a moment, Derin didn't know what was happening. He and Vera lay flat, trying to balance the logs, but they tipped landward in a precarious slant. Matthew clung to the far corner, his legs in the water, trying to climb the slippery logs to where the others were. Derin crawled away from the satyr to equalize the weight, and hung with his hands to the edge jutting over the water. "Grab my leg," he screamed and he felt his body being stretched as the satyr pulled himself toward the raft's center.
Spray flashed above them, drenching them with brine. The raft took off like a frightened animal. It reared and plunged, rising to the crest of a wave and plummeting to the trough beneath. Derin hung on; he grabbed the ropes which bound the raft together, wedged one foot under some vines at the other end. "Don't do that!" Matthew screamed. "If this thing turns over, you won't get loose." The boy jerked his leg free and began to slide. As the raft pitched forward, covered with icy water, there was little to hold him.
For the boy, the ride was exhilarating. The wild torrent required every ounce of his energy, and his concentration was taxed to the fullest. He felt equal to the river's demands as the raft was tossed into the air and thudded down again on the back of a cresting wave.
The boy looked behind him. Vera lay played on the logs, her eyes glazed. Her white fur was saturated with water. The satyr had assumed the same position; all three of them clung to the raft, trying to burrow into the crevices between the logs as the land sped by in a dizzying rush. The river took the raft, spinning it so Derin alternately saw the water rushing at him and before* him. He had lost all sense of direction.
They were enveloped in mist, the land dropped away, and the exhilaration the boy felt changed to fear. He was swirling in a vortex whose only coordinates were noise and cold. Waves towered above them and crashed, trying to wrench them free. The roaring in his ears grew so loud he could no longer hear his own screams. A cold and brutal wind howled around him, attempting to rip the shirt from his back.
When the edge of the raft hit the rock, the log which took the blow splintered. For a moment, the whole raft stood almost on end, and then feel back with a mighty crash, sending a wall of water upstream. It met the oncoming waves, and the two waters thundered into the sky and splashed down, inundating the raft. Derin saw the splintered log tossed skyward where the wind hit and threw it like a matchstick. Something slapped his leg; he saw a vine unraveling, whipping through the air.
"Matthew!" he screamed. Matthew looked at him oddly, but the expression in his eyes was frozen there, as if he stared into a dead face. Then the boy noticed how far away Matthew was, and what he had feared had already happened. Matthew clung to a few logs which pitched forward, upended, and disappeared. He thought he heard a scream, but he couldn't tell if it was a voice or the commotion of the river. He looked behind him, but Vera was gone as well. Was that a paw he saw sticking from the water? It could be foam, or a skinned stick. It could be anything.
And then the small solidity beneath him disappeared. The logs tore apart, the vine washed away, and the pitch ripped from end to end. Derin was flung into the air like so much flotsam, his pack lopsided on his back, unbalancing him, and he fell ten feet from the crest of a wave into the valley of water which lay beneath him, beckoning with its furious icy arms.
* * *
Matthew clambered to shore, bone-tired, nearly frozen, his brain dulled by the cold. Twice he had been thrown by the water towards submerged rocks, but he had lunged to safety. Blindly, he let himself be taken by the current until he had a clear sense of its direction, and then he struck out toward the shore they had set from not much earlier.
His pack felt unnaturally heavy on his back. He threw himself on the bank, panting, and attempted to calm himself, but waves of hysteria rose in him, threatening to engulf him as the river had the raft. Shaking, he stood up, shaded his eyes with his hand, and looked out over the turbulent water. He saw the rocks, the rearing waves, but not a trace of his friends. He stopped himself from yelling their names, knowing it would only be wasted breath.
How far downstream had he been taken? Here too, firs rose from the riverbank so it seemed to the satyr he'd never left the land. But he knew he'd been swept further south. Still wobbly, he took off downriver. Maybe Vera and Derin had been washed ashore as well. He tried to be hopeful, but there was no reason for hope. Matthew knew how cold the water was, how it robbed him of breath, paralyzed his hands and feet. The river had two levels. A deadly calm, a slow suck downward, like gravity, lay under the furious rushing surface. In that lower stratum a body had no buoyancy, little hope of escape. The boy might be held in that calm now, or else he'd been dashed on the rocks. And where was Vera? Was her magic not enough in the face of this raging river?
He began to walk more slowly, as these thoughts sapped what little energy he had left. Across from him, the opposite shore appeared and disappeared through the mists the river flung into the air. Matthew stopped, shaded his eyes again, and looked. In the middle of the water, he thought he saw Derin's body rise and fall with the waves. Was it really the boy or only a log, a floating branch? He thought again of the temperature of the water, and realized that if it were Derin's body, it would be dead.
He stopped walking, he stopped looking, he stood on the riverbank, barely breathing. He knelt on the bank, raked his hands through the gravely mud. Without thinking of the dirt, without thinking of anything but the boy, he put his face in his palms and howled.
* * *
* I'm pretty sure the word should be "behind", but "before" is written on the paper. Is this a mistake, or intentional? No idea.
Well, as always, more = later! (hope later would come soon)