The weasels, out of breath and frantic from their travel, returned to the owl that night and told him what they'd seen. He was still in the clearing he'd awakened in earlier, still in a foul mood at the disappointment he'd felt when the sun's light returned to earth.
They crept from the underbrush, staying as close to the ground as possible so they seemed to the owl, who had been aware of their proximity long before they thought he was, like two furry snakes whose bellies dragged leaves and twigs behind them. "You're back," the owl said, his voice as closeto a growl as was possible for him. "You bring good news. No more ravens flying west, I trust."
"Sire," one weasel said in a quaking voice. "It's worse than that." The owl's eyes opened more widely. "Three strangers approach the western reach."
For a moment, the owl ceased to breathe. His eyelids drooped, and then they flew open, and their red fire blazed out at the weasels. He spread huge wings and beat them so that a cloud of dust rose from the ground, blinding the two frightened animals.
"You come to tell me this?" the owl thundered. "Better it had been news of a reigning darkness. Better for you to have discovered where the sun spends her nights!"
"We are sorry, my lord. We can only tell you when we know to be true." The weasel's voice was almost a whisper. "Today a fox, white as snow, and two strange creatures who walk upright, like bears, have reached the grave of the ancestors. One is slim and young, and practically hairless, a male. The other is older, with the hindquarters of a goat. Above the hips, he most resembles the other creature. They are very strange."
"That's impossible," the owl said. "You're lying." He gave a cry and a volley of wings stained the air of the clearing. The falcons descended, thudding into the dirt around him.
"They lie to me," the owl said to the falcons' leader. "They're perverse. It displeases me. Take them away."
"My liege," one of the weasels said desperately. "Three creatures have arrived at the grave of the ancestors. I swear to you." The other weasel scuffed in the dirt, wildly looked around, and made a break for the forest. He thrashed in the underbrush, but the falcons were too quick for him, and his screams for mercy grew weaker.
"Your friend seemed eager to depart," the owl said. "What did he have to fear, if you do not lie?"
"You, my lord."
"And are you frightened of me as well?" the owl asked.
"T-t-t-terrified," the weasel stammered. "My lord, if I might say one thing. . . ." He stopped, asking permission, but the owl didn't say a word, just fixed him with his gaze. "I know this news angers you. And there is nothing I would not do to avoid your anger. Why then, if this were a lie, would I put my life in danger?"
"What do you think?" the owl asked the assembled falcons, but as usual, none said anything. He turned to the weasel. "Perhaps you are telling the truth. Your logic is persuasive. Get out of here." The weasel disappeared, taking it as reward enough that he had escaped with his life.
"Gather the ravens," the owl ordered. "Now. Be quick about it."
As one, the falcons ascended and dispersed. They flew east and west, north and south, spreading the word of the owl's command.
The owl remained where he was. His solitude did nothing for his mood. He seethed there on the forest floor, his breathing harsh and rabid, almost convulsive, wild thoughts racing through his brain. "A boy," he thought. "A BOY. It's impossible. No one has escaped the Keep." He would wait until the ravens were gathered. And then he would find out what they knew. His breathing grew harsher and deeper until he thought he would burst.
* * *
"It's true," Deirdre said. "I couldn't agree with you more. I didn't like the way he talked to us one bit."
She's grown considerably more outspoken since the sun had disappeared that afternoon, had begun to talk to the other ravens, edging around them cautiously to find out what they thought. She wasn't taking too large a chance in this, having overheard some conversations which gave her a great deal of hope.
Many of the clan were upset by the owl's punishment of Maxwell, peremptory and vicious as it had been. For years, they had managed to maintain an image of the owl as just and fair, but his coldness, his insults of the night before made some begin to question him. Camps formed among those who were angry with the owl and those who blindly followed him. It was with a group teetering between these choices that Deirdre settled. She masked her voice, her ardent feelings, and tried to appear dispassionate.
"Of course he has a right to say anything to us he wants," she said. "And to do anything he wants. He could torture each of us, one at a time. We're his, aren't we?"
"It's not fair," a young raven named Condor said. "Not fair at all."
"But what in this world is fair, young one?" a withered crone asked from a branch some distance away below Deirdre. "The idea of justice creates false hopes. There is only strength."
"Wait a minute, wait a minute," another raven said. "What's this talk about torture?"
"I asked whether you'd submit to torture," Deirdre asked.
"Red herring, red herring!" the old crone cawed, hopping on her branch.
"Are you hungry?" Condor asked solicitously, but the crone stared at him disdainfully.
Deirdre was flustered and she backfeathered for a minute. The crone had a subtle mind and would bear watching. Deirdre had not expected to be called on her illogical leap. "I mean only this," she said. "Until now, we've been content with our part in the owl's general plan. He wants to rule the world, am I correct?" They nodded. "But would we still owe him our allegiance if we had reason to believe that in so doing we would contribute to our own demise?"
"What?" Condor asked, baffled.
"She meant would we follow him if we knew we'd die."
"I hope not," Condor said. "I don't want to die."
"Yes," the crone said, her voice deadly, deep, serious. "He is our lord and we must follow him, regardless of the cost. We bow before his power. He is stronger than we."
"But strength on the part of another does not diminish the power of personal choice, even in those who are weak," Deirdre said. "And I believe–due to no fault of his–that the owl, from the beginning, was doomed to fail."
"Would you say that again?" another raven asked, and Deirdre took a deep breath, and calmed herself. Nothing would be served by her impatience.
"Let me put it another way. The world is changing," Deirdre said, and waited for a moment to see if she'd be contradicted, but nothing was said, and she continued. "It's laws are not set. But we know one thing for certain. There is balance to our lives. Now tell me if I'm wrong."
Around her, the ravens turned to one another and argued. What, she thought, is this all about? She hadn't said anything the faintest bit controversial. When they quieted, the crone said, "Of course there's a balance. Of power."
"What do you mean?" Condor asked. Deirdre was afraid she'd lose the attention of the group, which swung between her and the old witch, if she didn't move quickly.
"We are ravens," she said.
"Go on, go on," the crone said crossly.
"And we are not alone in the world. There are other animals besides our clan."
"Of course, you stupid cluck," the crone said.
"My dear," Deirdre said harshly, letting her anger show for the first time. "Keep a leash on your runaway tongue, I listened to you when you delivered up your apothegms. Kindly do the same for me. Or I will take umbrage at your rudeness."
"What?" Condor asked.
"She'll get mad, you fool."
Deirdre looked at them imperiously. "As I was saying. There is a balance. On one side there is sleep, and on the other, wakefulness. We fly and we sit. We eat and we void. These activities balance each other. Can you imagine a life of endless flying?"
"We'd get pretty tired," Condor ventured.
"Shut your crooked beak," the crone screamed, and she hopped on the branch and flapped her wings.
"Likewise," Deirdre continued, "other things balance each other. We have friends and we have enemies. The jay is our friend, the hawk our enemy. And though many of you may be too young to remember life anywhere but here in the Forest, I am not. When we lived in the meadowlands, many years ago, there were things called seasons. Spring was a time when earth came alive, flowers bloomed, trees put out new leaves, we raised our broods."
"What are flowers?" Condor asked, for he had never seen one.
"Please, Condor," Deirdre said. "Let me finish. And later came a season called fall when the leaves fell from the trees, the flowers withered, and the earth came to rest. Those seasons oppose each other."
"Like life and death," Condor said.
"Exactly," Deirdre said. "It is the way things are. East has its west, and north its south; everything is defined by its opposite. And finally, if you will allow me to finish, there is night, and there is. . . ."
"Day," Condor blurted, as if it were the most important thing he'd ever said. Deirdre was pleased. She'd gotten through to the dumbest raven in the group, and if he understood, surely the others did as well.
"There are those who rule and those who follow," the crone said. "Do not mistake your station."
There was general unrest for a minute, and then the group quieted down. They seemed not to have heard what the old crone said.
From the air above them all, a great whoosh was heard, and like a thunderbolt a falcon fell and landed with a slap against a thick branch. His hood was black as the night, and his eyes shone, beady and evil. "The owl orders you to the clearing of last night's meeting," he said, his voice steady as rock. "What were you talking about?"
No one said a word, and Deirdre felt fear seep from the group like a rank odor. "We were speaking of the sun today," she said, "and how it dimmed. We were saying how soon it would be that the sun was gone completely."
She's telling the truth?" the falcon asked.
"Yes," said Condor. "We umbrage the sun's demise."
Everyone hushed, and the falcon looked at Condor keenly. "What is your name, young one?" he asked.
Condor quaked on his branch. "He means nothing," Deirdre said. "He doesn't even know the import of those words. He heard them in our conversation this evening and he lacks the ability to use them correctly."
"That's right," the crone said. "He doesn't know what he's talking about. He's stupid as a stone. All of them are."
"Old one," the falcon said. "May your wizened heart fail if you lie to me."
"In that case, I have nothing to fear," answered the crone, and she flew in a huff into the sky.
"Be off, all of you," the falcon said, and he rose and headed east, looking for other ravens.
"Thank you," Condor said to Deirdre when the falcon had gone. "You saved my life."
"It's nothing," Deirdre said. "It is I who should thank you. Your felicitous questions aided the successful conclusion of my argument."
"What?" Condor said.
* * *
Apologies for not posting anything for 2 months, but I promise I will make this up to you!