11. Vandal-Hearts

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She heard Dwain snort. "Good crops ain't got nothing t'do wit' no wizardy tricks, then. Aye, that's just the luck of the harvest, that is. On toppa everything, ye either know what yer doin' in the field, or ye don't. Simple as that. Just 'cause ye wanna grow some corn don't mean ye actually can grow some corn without any know-how."

"Oh, no, that I do concur," Astral replied. "But, believe it or not, Life and Mana play a greater role in this world than any of us knows. Mana Energy is what aided your wounds to heal, allowed your Life Energy to replenish so quickly."

"I'm as tough as leather, I am, yeah," said Dwain. "The Goddess's blessin' – all 'round."

It was Astral's turn to snort – a deep porcine rumble, at that. "And how do you think the Goddess divvies up her blessings?"

"She blesses those who've proven themselves worthy, yeah," said Dwain.

"Hmm. And what divides a mammal who is worthy from a mammal who is not?"

"Servitude, o'course."

"Hah. Radical devotion, you mean?"

"If'n that means the same thing, yeah."

At that moment, a familiar huckleberry scent tickled Regina's nostrils, perking her from a slowly drifting state. She sat upright, taking sweeping gazes around where sycamore trees rustled in the wind, guarding over shrubs and berry bushes. The path before them started to peter off in favour of an old fallen oak tree that spanned across what would seem like a great chasm to any tiny skunk.

We're at the old culvert, she realized. "Mister Ages, are we nearly there?"

"Whooaaa now, Phalanx. Take care, old boy." Astral reeled on one of the reins and started to guide their caravan across the culvert with slow and cautious clops. "Soon, my dear. This fallen tree has been a bridge to KeetoTown for an elder's age, but I worry of the day when it shall splinter beneath my very robes..."

Regina swallowed hard and peered over the edge of the narrow armrest to listen out for if the bridge groaned and creaked beneath their wheels.

Astral grabbed at the hem of her poncho in fruitless attempts to pull Regina back into her seat. "Don't go falling out of your seat now! Last thing any of us needs. Oh bother, stop that, you'll go right over the edge!"

"We nearly there then, yet, yeah?" Dwain asked. Regina couldn't tell whether it was the vibrancy of impatience in his voice that was making the cart vibrate, or the woody knots and crevices of ancient-old tree bark that their wheels rolled over.

Astral didn't answer, now too focused on getting them safely across to the other side of the culvert. Regina looked behind her, past Dwain's scrutinizing gaze, and watched as the road became swallowed up by the forest the farther their cart went along.

Dwain brushed past her to tug on Astral's shoulder. "Oi, then!"

"Ack, stop that!" Astral swatted at him without looking back. "We're very nearly there, but if you don't mind, to keep me from toppling us over the edge, I suggest you get your spines away from my ears, lad!"

Dwain grumbled and drew away from him slightly. "So how far, then?"

But Astral ignored him until the horrid racket of wood creaking jittery across dead and weathered bark eventually faded against new sounds of crunching gravel. Astral let out a deep sigh of relief and let his shoulders relax. "Just a little ways, now. Not far. The father sun will sift among the clouds another thirty minutes before we reach KeetoTown. We will arrive at the city gates by noon, I promise you."

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