It was like the night before, but the owl was meaner, clearly more angry. Deirdre looked around her slowly, trying to see if the conversations of the past day had a visible effect upon the other ravens. If there were a change, she couldn't see one. All were silent, obedient, careful to show the owl complete attention and respect. He wasted no time.
"It has been suggested to me that perhaps the punishment meted out last night was too severe," he said. Deirdre was instantly cautious: had he a plan to win back those who were turning against him? Did he even know of the dissenters? "But first, a more important matter. It seems there may be a further traitor in our midst, one who knows far more than a puny little imp. Which of you flew south beyond the boundaries given by me? Who passed into the southern reach?"
Deirdre stayed quiet. She had flown there completely by accident and had told no one. She was safe. But still, this line of questioning piqued her interest. Why was the owl protective of the southern reach. There must be some secret, something none of the ravens knew. Since Maxwell's mutilation, they understood the south as a place of exile, although they hadn't an idea of the starfish or ferns.
No one spoke. The owl's last words had been completely absorbed by the ravens' feathers, and a quiet like softly falling snow lay over the clearing.
The owl was beside himself. He fumed below them. His great chest heaved. Since the weasels had come with their information, he'd been obsessed with the thought of betrayal. Which of them was it?
"Listen," he said. "Tonight I was given information that strangers have entered the Outer Lands, are even now at the grave of the ancestors. Does one of you know something about this?"
Deirdre's heart leapt in her throat. They had crossed the river! They were on the Plain of Desiccation. She could hardly contain herself; she felt like cawing jubilantly, like dancing on her branch. They had made it!
"I WANT TO KNOW!" the owl thundered. "WHO ARE THESE THREE?"
Three! Deirdre jumped. Who had they picked up?
"Begging your pardon, sire," a sycophant murmured from a branch directly over the owl. "But if your worship doesn't know, how would we have the slightest guess?"
"Shut your mouth, you imbecile. I don't want sugary words. I WANT SOME INFORMATION."
The raven all but disappeared. Deirdre looked around, but it was clear that no one had a thing to say, out of fear, out of perversity, out of disdain.
"It doesn't matter to me who they are," the owl said, making every effort to regain his composure. "I know what they look like, and how far they'd come. I will keep careful watch over their progress. I will look forward to their arrival in the forest. I will prepare a welcome they won't forget. Do they think I can be beaten at my own game, and in my own territory?" Deirdre shivered. She's hoped this news would frighten the owl, but fear seemed the farthest thing from his mind.
"I await them with great anticipation," he said.
"Now. In the interest of a free and open discussion, let me offer a trade. If whoever flew south without my permission will reveal himself, I will answer questions concerning the justice of my punishment of last night. I am not above reproach. I depend on your good will."
As before, the ravens stirred on their branches, distrustful. None seemed willing to try him again. Maxwell's example wasn't easily forgotten.
"None of you knows a thing about this," the owl said, his body beginning to shake with the tension of keeping his anger throttled. "All are completely innocent. No one flew south; no one knows about the strangers to the east." His breathing became harsher, and his talons dug more deeply into the ground.
"I DON'T BELIEVE IT!" shrieked the owl. "NOT ONE WORD."
The ravens began murmuring to one another. Never before had the owl appeared like this. Always icily cool, always under control, he had made decrees, handed down orders with total aplomb.
"SILENCE!" he screamed. He shivered in his feathers. His eyes, blood-red, matched the crimson of his bib. Apoplexy, Deirdre thought with glee. Angina pectoris. But she was wrong. He was not about to die.
"All right," he said, more under control. "Let's pretend your naïveté is real. But let this be known. I will not stop this inquisition, whether you be here or elsewhere. I will search until I find the traitor. And I will find him. If it means pulling your tongues out one by one, if it entails torturing you in view of the clan, I will discover who stands against me. Nothing can stand against me. You should have realized that years ago.
"I want the moon moved to the southern reach," he said. "Tonight." The groan that arose from the ravens was unmistakable. "I want her taken from her tree and carried south. My falcons will show you where to put her. She can keep that broken-winged toadstool company. Are there any who question my command?"
Yes, thought Deirdre, but she made no sound.
* * *
Whatever hope the moon felt at the disappearance and reemergence of her sister that afternoon was gone. The warmth she'd felt had long since dissipated. She was wretched, underfed, losing her silver sheen. She was trying to keep in shape, but there was nowhere to exercise. And she was very lonely. It seemed she hadn't spoken to a soul since Deirdre had left her the day before. Was that how long ago it was? In the forest, time was endless.
From the distance, she heard a faint thunder which grew louder the more intently she listened. She'd heard that noise before. She'd been floating serenely in the sky, bothering no one, when that roar had crept up behind her. There was no mistaking it; the ravens were coming.
They swooped at her from all directions. The wind made by their wings buffeted her, threw her against the branches of her cage, forced tears from her eyes. They settled around her, on the trees of the forest, on her own oak. And then, like the other day, the owl fell to earth and sat in the clearing below her. He was not friendly; he was not sarcastic. He was enraged.
"You're being moved," he said unceremoniously. "Now. Tonight. And I don't want to hear a word from you." The ravens moved toward her. "No," he said. "Wait." His voice became more mellifluous. "Before they go to unnecessary trouble, I want to know if you've thought about my proposition."
"Your proposition," the moon echoed dully.
"I want to know where your sister sleeps," the owl said. "It is of great interest to me."
Deirdre thought it very bold of him to ask this in front of the assemblage of ravens, for the owl had been at pains to let them know there was nothing he needed toward the completion of his quest except the moon, safely in his grasp. She was not even sure why he wanted to know there the sun slept, or what he would do with that information.
The moon wavered in her cage, and Deirdre wondered if she'd been sufficiently worn down to give in, give up, tell the owl what he wanted to know. His tone became more wheedling. "You are beautiful," he said. "I have always admired you. But you grew weak and wan in your cage. Tell me what I want to know, and you will be freed. Together we will rule the night."
"I cannot tell you," the moon said.
"She has always been brighter than you, always has thought herself better than you. I give you the opportunity to rule over her, and you turn it down?"
"She is not brighter than I, and I am far more beautiful."
"Not any more, my lovely," the owl said cruelly. "You are tarnished and tame. You are like a beautifully groomed animal lost in a briar patch."
"May you bite off your foul tongue at the root," the moon said. "Your breath infects the air."
"I don't mean to insult you," the owl said. "I mean only to remind you of all you would give up. And for what? A sister who despises you, uses you, who all along had thought herself superior to you."
"You miserable bloated bag of feathers," she said. "She may be many things, but she is still my sister."
"You will suffer far worse where you are going than you have here," the owl said coldly. "Take her away from my sight."
The falcons held back the branches, and a host of ravens entered the cage with their net. It was the same gauze, and it wrapped around the moon as though it had longed to return. She struggled against it, doing all she could to make herself more difficult to manage, but it was no use. She was lifted from the cage by the ravens, who now flocked through the opening made by the falcons. They struggled with their burden, for the moon was indeed heavy, and several times she felt herself being lowered, as though they couldn't garner the strength to get her free. But more and more ravens flew to the oak's top, tangled their talons in the net, and slowly she was lifted.
She swung loose above the trees in a hammock of gauze, and the rolling motion as the ravens ascended and headed south sickened her. But she was free of her cage. She took deep breaths, shedding her pale light around her. It illuminated the tops of the Deadwood Forest, those broken branches which now, instead of holding her, seemed to be reaching up in farewell. It reflected off the ravens' underbellies, a sea of feathers.
The journey lasted some time. She was quiet, listening to the harsh rasp of wind on the ravens' throats. They were struggling, tiring. Perhaps they'd drop her and she would float free, up through the clouds, away from all this. But she knew there were too many of them for that to happen, and replacements who flew behind, should and of those carrying her tire too much.
They lowered her carefully at the appointed time, their wings outspread and floating on the wind. She felt herself dropping, and another tree surrounded her. The falcons strained against the branches, holding them, and finally the last raven released the gauze. It was whipped from under her, and she was alone again, listening to the faint flapping as the ravens headed north.
She closed her eyes and listened to her heart. She was breathing shallowly now and her light was dim. Above the sound of her breathing, above the beating of her heart, she heard another noise like the ocean, a faint rising and falling of breath, waves beating themselves against a foreign shore.
Miles to the north, the owl sat in the clearing, alone but for one raven who had left the entourage to return early. It was the withered crone, her black feathers rumpled and dusty. She was breathless, and she thought her old heart would give out on her before she could say what she'd come to say.
"My lord," she ventured.
The owl looked up at her as she hovered in the air inches from his beak. One snap would cut her in half. "Ancient one," he said. "I have never trusted the very old or the very young."
"I would speak with you," she said. "I have some information you will want."
* * *
If you made it this far, thanks for your patience. If you just stumbled upon this page, please find the first chapter and read form the beginning! It won't be hard to find.