22. The Changing of the Seasons

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Early morning rays stretched cross-fence shadows across dewy blades of grass, that shook and danced by the touch of an everlasting, howling, wind. The gate up to the Hollow rattled on golden hinges, kept firm to its frame only by the power of a large hook-and-eye that restrained the wind's attempts to knock it wide open.

Up the hill and along the dirt path towards the cabin, a cassowary crop guardian stared with glass eyes into the deep of the forest, having been since turned around in its spot to keep guard against thieves and crows of the unknown beyond the glow of recently-stained perimeter fences.

A small barn that resembled a castle for only the most kingly of mules took root where a once vulnerable and lopsided hooded stall attempted to survive rains, snows, and hellacious storms driven by the scrutiny of the Goddess.

Adjacent to the barn slept a single-story cabin, whose windows showed only darkness from within. Walls made of planked sycamore stood tall, varnished, and proud. A roof and porch overhang made of sturdy overlapping stone slates protected those who lived inside from invisible giants and the threat of flaming arrowhead.

A mid-pitched hum cleaved the morning air. Several shadows appeared over the treetops, eclipsing the Hollow for but a slow minute. They belonged to great ships that could swim through both the sea and the clouds.

These ships were of the Alliance's military forces – the Ministry of Peace. But their protection over the lands and the skies that stretched beyond sight knew not of the Hollow, nor of those who happily lived there.

The sky-vessels cruised across the KeetonForest, each carried through the air by tireless horizontal-aimed propellers and great flapping sails attached to vertical masts, as though the cloudless skies were an ocean. Their shadows seeped into the folds of the sycamores, below. The mid-pitched hum faded into the distance.

And then they were gone.

~

Regina Lepue awoke to the distant drone of Alliance airships outside her bedroom window. Across from where she slept, Regina saw what looked like about a dozen birds migrate south over the high trees beyond the Hollow's perimeter fences. The young skunk wondered in partial wakefulness if all the skies in the world were purring.

Summer morning air gusted in through the window, called to her. She could hear the exterior shutters shiver against hooks that held them open to the outside wall. Slowly, Regina crawled out of bed and started to cross the dimness of her bedroom.

Her footpad slid against something on the floor. A warm gale tousled the fur upon her face and brought her drowsy skunk mind to dull awareness.

She found her pair of wire spectacles laying to one side of her night table and put them on. Natural blurriness focused into unnatural clarity that revealed a piece of folded parchment that had fallen from her grasp during the night. Regina picked the parchment up off the spotless hardwood and pressed it to her chest.

...Father's map...

Icy warmth bloomed between her lungs. She sighed and took in the fading aroma of lavender and duskroot before slipping the parchment back beneath the safety of her pillow.

~

"Come along, Master Astral, it's time to wake. Breakfast will be ready soon."

Radiant dawn pierced the stuffy darkness of the cluttered study from now open louvers. Regina cleared away the books and scrolls that acted as a surrogate pillow to her mentor, where he slept at one of the research-laden harvest tables. He snorted awake, used a cloak sleeve to shield squinting, bloodstained eyes from the onslaught of wretched morning. "Oh ... Oh, bother ... let me sleep 'til then, will you?"

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