5. The Hollow

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The woods were ominous with trees so high they staved away the rising of the mother moon. Phalanx treaded along a winding path with tired, deliberate clops while Astral squinted into the shadows for things he dared not speak of, with the aid of an active oil lamp fastened to his wheat scythe. The flickering glow brought passing illumination upon the road. Leaves hissed like rattlesnakes. The night wind, a host to shrieking banshees. This made the Keeton Woods all the more dark and fearsome, and only added to poor Regina's dismay.

"Mister Ages, please, we must go back!" she begged. "We must go back for Dwain!"

Astral snorted. "And why are you so certain he awaits your return? Nothing back there but donkey droppings."

"But—"

"Oh, bother. Trust, Regina Lepue. Have trust – and patience – of the wider world as it unfolds all around you. All will be made right. Trust!"

Regina furrowed her brow, confused into silence. She nestled against the small of Astral's back, clinging to his robes so not to fall off of Phalanx's saddle. With each screech and crack and shiver the forest emitted, Regina's stomach knotted into further trepidation.

Dwain ... please come back. Please, oh, please...

She buried her face against Astral's robes and started to hum the Song of the Harvest, like her mama often did, to lull her to sleep. But the cackle of crows from somewhere out in the night frightened Regina, breaking her concentration. She saw their beady eyes flash in the wooded darkness of high-up sycamore branches, like malice-minded vandal-hearts in wait to strike.

"Nothing to fear, child," said Astral. "Phalanx knows these lost roads as well as he does his feeding trough."

They rode further along the deep path until Phalanx nudged through a thicket off the main road. Astral weaved his body around the poking, scratching, tendrils of sycamore branches in an almost automatic manner, unknown even to him. He let out a great yawn, tapped the ashes of his duskroot pipe out into the dirt as they passed along.

The sycamore branches parted to reveal a splintered field gate connected to frail wooden cross fences that went the rest of the way up the hill. They were grey, weathered from the age of many seasons passed. The gate itself was tied shut to a rickety frame with a simple manila rope knot.

"Hold steady a moment, Regina," Astral said. He dismounted Phalanx and sauntered up towards the gate, pushing the long, loose sleeves of his dark blue cloak up his sweaty hog arms. He untied the rope, placed both cloven hooves upon the rickety wood, and pushed with all his might. The gate was slow to move, but it bounced unsteady on creaky hinges and swung inward in a great arc. Astral clapped his hooves of grit and splinters as he shambled back towards Regina.

They rode on through the gate just as it begun to swing back towards them. Regina prayed it wouldn't strike their flank, and as soon as they were completely through, the gate slapped shut with a thunderous bang.

At the top of the hill, several dimly-glowing lights greeted them. Through the dense coverage of sycamore trees, the rotten field fences led towards an old cabin. It was only a single story, with walls made of planked chestnut wood just as grey and unkempt as the cross fences. The roof itself was made with half logs and sagged with rot in places from improper care after many winters past. Several paper wasp nests clung smattered beneath an ailing eaves trough. But great wide rectangular windows looked in on a warmly-lit study under the throb of candlelight.

The smell of carrots and onions and other delicious root vegetables hooked Regina's attention from somewhere on the other side of the property. Fresh hunger pangs tore up her stomach.

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