“Full moon.” Leon Hunt sat back on his hands atop the jostling wagon, staring up at a sky laden heavy with thick clouds, swollen fat with rain. Ranger, and Lee, their two ram hounds rested with their heads buried in his lap.
“Blood moon. Always an interesting sign.” Caitlin added, comforted by the familiar weight of her twin Colt Navy 1851 revolvers which dangled at her side. As she spoke the words a phantom of gun smoke, distant in memory haunted her, the bitter taste on her tongue. Her grip tightened on the wagon reins, damp to the touch recalling the comforting kick of the weapons—a recoil she knew, and loved. The last time she’d seen a blood moon had definitely been an interesting course of events. She’d have sworn the tips of her revolvers almost matched the glow of the moon before her ammo had been spent, and the body of the wendingo convulsed a final time.
She stared up at the crimson body that watched down upon them tinting the frame of clouds red and lighting the trail where it forked a few yards ahead. She regarded the paths which cut through tall grasses, swaying to the periodic breeze. The left-most path continued on over the only hill they’d come across in the past hour, to presumably more flat expanse of Texan wilderness. The other pathway veered right, shadowed by twisted canopies of birch trees which grew from the hillside stretching off toward the northern horizon. Through slits of moonlight Caitlin caught the glittering surface of a river which flowed black through the wood, labored groans of the wagon which groaned beneath its full load nearly overpowered the low, heavy rumble of water. Where’s the source? Caitlin squinted through the trees to no avail. However odd the river’s presence was, its origin didn’t really matter right now. Water was water, its origin was probably deep in the wood known but to the sprites and other fay who possibly called the region home.
“Which way?” Leon’s words pulled her from her thoughts.
“Water’s right. So we go right.”
“I’m sure we’re only a mile or two from the next town.” He sounded almost pleading, hastening to unfolded a table map he’d picked up in one of the last towns before she could guide the wagon down the path Caitlin would claim to be too narrow to turn around easily.
“Don’t be a baby.” Caitlin guided Bitty to the right, the large blue roan horse responded quickly. She glanced at the map in Leon’s lap, the markings he’d made of their presumed course all but invisible as the trees began to block out the moonlight’s full glow. From where they sat perched on a seat the formed the first two feet of a stowage notch cut into the wagon’s roof, the threat of an errant branch was almost enough to make her want to walk alongside Bitty, but the threat of being further exposed to the unknown dangers down below convinced her to take her chances with the branches. She slumped slightly lower. It’s warmer here with the hounds too. “Is my canteen over there?” They plunged fully into the shadowed path, the rumble of the black river grew.
“If I could see, I would tell you.” She heard Leon’s searching hands thumping around the smattering of supplies secured against the hand railing and anchor bolts that lined the roof.
“It is pretty dark.” Caitlin managed to slump even lower. She was already shorter than Leon, a mere five six to his six two or so, at this angle she was level with the top of his elbow, nearly laying flat. Her back pushed into Lee who snuffled a protest and shifted away, taking his precious warmth.
“Can’t find it.”
“Well shoot.” Caitlin scowled. The path snaked gently through the woods a few turns before straightening, the river running alongside a few yards off, moonlight revealing a dense thicket of skeletal tree limbs and brush separating them. “Well, once we find a nice spot to stop and fill up I’ll check in the wagon. I think I see the end of the wood up ahead anywho. Rather quicker than I expected.” Much too quick. She’d not noticed any breaks in the swathe of trees from where they’d been. A pang of unease grew within her, she cast wary eyes to the edges of the dirt path. The air felt normal, any thickness or static that could possibly give away the presence of sorcery or a concealing enchantment conspicuously absent. Reckon you just weren’t in the right position. Yea, that’s it.
“At least we’ll have some light again.”
The pathway leveled and widened as they neared the end of their forested tunnel, Caitlin sat upright, awash in returned moonlight. The small forest of birches was actually a ring around a small valley, the flat horizon they’d been treated to on their journey so far had vanished, replaced by by the bristling uneven peaks of trees and domed clusters of birch leaves. The shadowed arboreal crowds looking more like a crowd of onlooking giants staring down into the grassy vale.
And the tumbledown ruins that inhabited its center.
“We can find water in there.” Caitlin felt the snares of curiosity seize her, excitement welling up within. The caution stoked by the peculiar wood all but vanished. “Yes, I think that’s where we shall look.”
“The river is—” Leon began.
“River be damned, I want to look in that overgrown sprawl Leon. Who knows what secrets it keeps.” The space below was a grand mess of courtyard walls, turrets, and colonnades. A manor house inhabiting the central courtyard, its windows black and porches empty. It was more a fortress than the typical plantation house or countryside dwelling. A conservatory stretched along one side of the manor, vanishing around a corner. Through the moonlight Caitlin could see the silhouettes of vegetation within, pressed against the glass. The glint of moonlight accented a few panes which were shattered along the roof, thick vines reaching through the breaches as if some leviathan plant was trying to hoist itself free.
“That’s what I’m afraid of Cait’.” He sighed, then grabbed her by the wrist and pointed.
Caitlin startled at his sudden movement, but kept quiet following the direction he indicated to where a short red brick wall jut up from the dirt angled slightly backward as it toyed with the idea of collapse. “Lost Grove Halfway Home.” She looked at Leon who stared with apprehension at the sprawl below. "Which area should we poke around first?"
Caitlin hopped down from her wagon, unlocking the drawers and storage compartments along its side where she stowed extra ammunition, holy water, silver, and all manner of items meant to rebuff the vilest of the vile monstrosities the fay world could throw at her.
“Is no area an option?”
“’Fraid not.” Caitlin frowned and shrugged, checking the satchel on her right side, it was full holding four small vials of cattlemantic brews. “Pick one.”
“Can I stay with the wagon?”
“And leave me to go poking around all by myself?” Caitlin scowled, Lee hopped down from Leon’s side and pattered around her feet. “What happened to chivalry? Protecting your lady folk ‘n what not?”
“It ended when my lady folk—” Caitlin smirked at the awkwardness of the words, “wanted to go poking around a clearly abandoned halfway home. Which, might I be adding, is not marked on the map here. Or, any other map I can recall seeing of the area. For what is probably good reason.”
“Probably.” Caitlin conceded, then turned to head down the path toward the courtyard.
“Is that all you’re going to say?” Leon asked.
Caitlin waved him on. “I want to know why it's not marked.”
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