The weasels saw them coming and ducked out of sight. They slithered through the underbrush, bellies flat to the ground. They'd seen foxes before, but the other two creatures were unfamiliar to them. Through the network of reeds and rushes, the weasels watched the three pass, the strange white fox, the slim hairless one, the last with the hindquarters of a goat. They looked at one another, uncertain what to do, and crept toward the swamp.
On its bank, they stopped and stared across the watery waste, searching the thickets for a glimpse of red eyes, the surface for a ripple. One of them crouched low and snarled, a rough invasion of the stillness, like wood cracking.
They saw them before they could hear them. The swamp was disturbed by a low wave and then the eyes shone, reflected in the opaque water, doubling their number. The frogs looked like slowly moving scraps of log worn down by the ravages of weather, bulbous, dark, water streaming from their backs. They stopped several feet from the bank, but the wave continued until it lapped at the weasels' feet and washed back again.
Silently they contemplated the shore, their underbellies pulsing like little hearts. "Have you seen them? The intruders?" one of the weasels whispered and the frogs shut their eyes once, together, so they glared out the water with fierce affirmation when they opened again.
"What should we do?" the weasel whined. The frogs stared at them and the weasels shivered deep inside their coats. They knew the frogs would not harm them, but the vision of these specters filled even them with dread. The frogs felt nothing, no fear, no hurry, no anger. They glided undisturbed through the water of the swamp.
"Should we tell the owl?"
As before, the frogs blinked their eyes, once, red as freshly drawn blood. The weasels got out of there. They had tracks to make.
* * *
It was a formidable sight. The sand stretched before them, level as calm water. In the distance, a slight undulation was visible, rolling sand hills broken only by an occasional tuft of sharp grass. Behind them, the cattails and reeds, the low shrubs fell away until there was nothing but desert. It slithered up over Derin's feet, around Matthew's hooves as Vera padded along on top of it.
"Was it always like this?" Matthew wanted to know.
"No," Vera said. "At one time the river spilled over the marsh and onto these plains in spring, and there were lakes and ponds like the ones in the meadowlands. But that was many years ago, before the owl. The animals who lived here have been taken west. It's desert almost all the way to the mountains."
"And how far is that?" Derin asked.
"We'll reach them tomorrow."
Matthew groaned. "I hate the sand," he said. "I can hardly walk." He struggled along behind the others, stopping to dislodge the grains which wedged in the cleft of his hooves.
For Derin, the walking was not much easier. The sand dragged him down. With each step, his feet disappeared, sinking into the desert, and his calves soon ached with the effort. "Can we stop soon?" he asked. "I've had it."
"At least we can see who's watching us," Vera said. "There's nowhere to hide."
"How much further are we going?" Derin asked again.
"Just a little," Vera said. "I have something to show you."
Matthew said nothing, but he silently agreed with the boy. He, too, was exhausted, and his head throbbed from the blow he'd taken in the river.
Just when Derin thought he couldn't go any further, he heard the fox say, "Up ahead. Can you see it?"
In the dim light of the failing day, the boy thought he could pick out something rising off the plain before him. It looked like a grove of trees, maybe a pond? Derin imagined fresh fruit bursting from the trees, a place to swim, a clear sky, the moon and stars hanging in equilibrium in the dark field of night. But as they drew closer, none of them speaking, he saw that what stood before them were rocks, not trees, irregular boulders arranged in an awkward circle. They looked like the bodies of large animals hunkered down on the plain, sleeping.
After trudging through the flat, dimensionless sand, the boulders were a shock. Something mysterious about the place stopped Derin from asking questions. The stones had been placed here, that was clear, but by whom and for what reason? The tension between their monstrous shapes and their careful placement awed him.
"It's the grave of the ancestors," Vera said. "When the wind took the animals from the meadowlands, it whirled them up in a large black funnel. But over the river it lost its center, and as it crossed the plain, animals rained from the sky, thousands of them. From the river to here and beyond, the ground was choked with bodies."
"How do you know this?" Derin asked, in wonder.
"All the animals west of the river know of the grave," Vera said. "Every snow fox who was taken by the whirlwind died. My children are buried here."
"I'm sorry," the boy said. "I didn't know."
"It can't be helped," the fox said. "It was years ago." She paused and looked west across the sand as if she could see over the mountains and into the Forest. "I hate him," she said. "I lost a brother and sister as well."
What could they say after that? Matthew and Derin stood silent, waiting for Vera to speak again.
"The owl did not take our sorrow into account," she said. "The animals who survived were of no use to him. The Deadwood Forest was filled with their keening. Not an animal was taken who did not lose some of her family. There was nothing he could do. And so he allowed those who wished to return to this place to bury the dead. None crossed the river; that was forbidden. They came, mourning, to this spot, and gathered the bones of our families and buried them here."
"Deirdre told me of the wind," the boy said, "but nothing about this place."
"The raven," Vera said absently, her mind elsewhere.
"Yes," Matthew said. For the first time that day he thought of their frantic friend. He hoped she was getting some rest.
"What I don't understand," the satyr said, "is why the owl was not destroyed long ago. If there was such sorrow, such anger, why do the animals follow him?"
"An interesting question," Vera said. "One I wondered about for years." She looked older suddenly, as though this place aged and saddened her. "He's very powerful, you must never forget that. He caused the win to blow to bring them west. And they were so broken down. They had no families to retreat to. Most had no friends. Each was isolated from the others of his kind.
"And the owl promised a new world where all would live peacefully together. They believed him. Perhaps they had no choice. There were confrontations, but the instigators disappeared and were never heard of again. Over the years, most of the animals taken by the wind died, of old age, disease, of grief. And the children seem to have forgotten. The owl and the Deadwood Forest are all they've ever known."
Derin cleared his throat, and Vera and Matthew looked at him. He stared at his feet, and he kicked the sand so it sprayed in front of him.
"I wondered. . . ." he said, and cleared his throat again.
"What, Derin?" Matthew asked.
"Are any of my family buried here?"
The fox looked away from them toward the west. Matthew's eyes suddenly burned. "No," he said.
"I just wondered," Derin said.
The three of them were silent, and the night came on. It was different on the Plain, sudden and swift., like the advent of a storm. There was no intermediary between earth and sky, no trees or rocks or water. And so it seemed to Derin, as he stood in the deepening chill, that one minute there had been light, and the next minute none.
"Are we sleeping here tonight?" he asked.
"Tomorrow night," Matthew said. "Tonight we're sleeping with the frogs in the swamp."
"I can hear them croaking," the satyr said. "They're calling your name."
Vera crouched by one of the largest rocks. She was silent and motionless, like a stone herself. The boy shrugged, took off his pack, and sat down. The air was cold, but still, the silence was immerse. The earth rose up to the sky, and the sky reached down so that Derin felt enfolded by enormous arms. Around him, in the dark, the thought he saw thousands of animals gather. In this magic circle of friends, they would be safe.
* * *
More = later! Reminder once again to tell me if you want me to work faster.