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The Kingdom - Clare B Dunkle - Hollow Kingdom 01 - The Hollow Kingdom

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Clare B Dunkle - Hollow Kingdom 01 - The Hollow Kingdom
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The Hollow Kingdom

Hollow Kingdom 01

Clare B Dunkle

Prologue

Part I—Starlight

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Part II—Lamplight

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Part III—Darkness

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Publication Info

Front Flap

Rear Flap

Version Info

This book is respectfully dedicated to

Lloyd Alexander, who gave the world Eilonwy

and brought Gwydion back to life.

Prologue

She had never screamed before, not when she overturned the rowboat and almost drowned, not when the ivy broke and she crashed into the shrubbery below, not even when Lightfoot bucked her off and she felt her leg break underneath her with an agonizing crunch. She hadn’t even known that she could. Screaming was Lizzy’s job, and Lizzy was terribly good at it. But now she screamed, long and loud, with all her breath.

“My dear,” came a mild voice from beneath the black hood. “Do you mind? You’re hurting my ears, and I’m surprised at you. You’ve always been so brave.”

She hushed up then, her pride roused, and instead put all her efforts into breaking free, thrashing and writhing in the grip of the black-cloaked figure. It did no good. He carried her steadily and unhurriedly through the deep evening gloom of the woods, and she could see as she twisted about that those others, those bizarre things, were still all around them, following.

The strange crowd broke from the forest and stopped a few feet from the steep bluffs of the Hill. “This is what you’ve been looking for,” remarked the hooded one. “Our front door. You wanted to walk right in, as I recall, and here’s your chance.”

He set her on her feet, his arm still around her waist. She immediately tried to slide to the ground, her feet scrabbling on the loose dirt. Doubled over, kicking and clawing, she felt him drag her forward. “There, you’ve walked in, more or less.” She straightened up to find herself in a broad, dimly lit corridor of polished black stone. “You’re inside now. You don’t see anywhere to run, do you?” She shook her head. “So you’ll stop this scrambling around. You shouldn’t have come looking for us, my dear, if you didn’t want to find us.”

The tall figure released her and unfastened his cloak, stepping back a pace to study her gravely. She stared at him openmouthed, unable to look away. His eyes were beautiful, large and black, like the eyes of Christ on her father’s Greek icon. His face was broad, with high cheekbones, and his smooth skin shimmered in the lamplight with a strange silvery gray color. He had no hair on his head, no beard, not even eyebrows. His mouth was a little too wide, and his ears were long and narrow and rose to sharp points. She was tall for a girl, but he was half a head taller than she, and his broad shoulders and thick arms explained how he had been able to carry her away so effortlessly.

He saw a very young woman of sturdy, athletic build, her lean, pretty face very pale, black hair straggling about it rather wildly. Her green eyes glared desperately at him. No tears were on her cheeks yet, but the trembling lower lip indicated that they weren’t perhaps too far from falling. He gazed at her for a long moment and then gave her a smile.

“You see what a lucky girl you are,” he said in a low voice. “I’m very handsome for a goblin. And you were going to catch a goblin, weren’t you? With your bare hands.” He reached out and laid one of her trembling hands on his muscular silvery gray forearm. “You’ve caught a goblin, my dear, all for your very own.” The hand ended in what looked like well-kept dog claws, and she tried to pull away. He chuckled quietly, and she glanced up to discover that the teeth in that gray face were the color of dark, tarnished silver.

“Where’s your spirit of adventure gone?” he said encouragingly. “You wanted a goblin, remember? And you wanted to walk right in here, too, didn’t you? Is there anything else you’d like to do?”

“I want to go home,” she whispered, and the first tear escaped. He watched it thoughtfully. She was doing pretty well, all things considered.

“I’ll take you home,” he promised. “Come with me now.” Comforted, she let him keep the hand he held and lead her down the polished corridor. They came to a broad, high iron door, which swung open as they approached and then clanged shut behind them. She stopped and looked around in startled wonder.

“Here you are, my dear,” he said quietly. “My kingdom. And your home. It’s been a long wait, but it’s over at last.”

“No!” she gasped, her eyes searching that inhuman face for some other meaning. The monster smiled at her warmly.

“Indeed,” he assured her. “You haven’t seen me, but I’ve watched you since you were a baby. I’ve watched over you, too. I tightened your teeth back up when you knocked them loose tumbling out of the snow sled you’d tied to the pony’s tail. I fixed your knee after you fell from the ivy when you were eight, and I healed your leg the night you broke it getting thrown from the horse.” His smile broadened. “I was glad the doctor didn’t know about that, though. Eight weeks’ rest was something we all needed at that point.” She stared at him in bewilderment.

“It was good for you to grow up outside.” His voice was kind. “You certainly enjoyed it. But you were always intended for here, and now you’re finally old enough. Barely, but old enough.” He chuckled. “I’d have left you outside for another year or two, but you showed such a lively interest in us. You just couldn’t wait to meet goblins. So you’re home now. In all the years you live here, this door won’t ever open for you again. You’re underground with me until you die.”

“No!” she cried, jerking away from him and flinging herself at the door. “I want out! I want to go home!” She pounded on the iron with fists and forearms. She kicked the door and threw herself against it. The goblin watched all this with a fond forbearance, but when she tried to claw the door open, he intervened.

“Now, now,” he said gently, capturing her wrists and surveying her bruised hands. “Let’s not break off all those pretty nails, my dear. We’ll need at least three for the ceremony.” And arm around her waist, he led the sobbing, stumbling girl away.

Seventy years passed over the land, and they passed underneath it, too. Anguish and grief faded to a dull throb, and finally only the mysteries themselves remained, forgotten by all but a concerned few.

Part I

Starlight

Chapter 1

“It’s so nice to see new faces at Hallow Hill, isn’t it, Prim?”

Gracious and white haired, Celia Whitaker beamed across the dinner table at her great-nieces, and Kate and Emily Winslow smiled shyly back. The girls were grateful to find a smile at the end of their journey. It had been a hard two months. Their father had died suddenly. By scrupulously legal tradition, his house and lands near Coventry now belonged to his nephew, the next male relative, and this man had refused to become their guardian. The Hallow Hill estate belonged to Kate from her late mother, but she had never visited it. It had been rented to another branch of the family for generations. Now Kate and her younger sister were coming home to land and relatives they had never seen. Hugh Roberts, a bachelor cousin of their mother’s, had become their legal guardian, and the two great-aunts, Celia and Prim, had agreed to raise the sisters.

Excited and exhausted, Kate and Emily tried to eat their meal. They had arrived only minutes before. Days of bouncing along in a carriage, nervous and bored, had carried them from their father’s tame green meadows to this remote country. Last night they had stayed in a little village on the shore of Hollow Lake. The innkeeper had pointed across the great oval lake to the forested hills beyond. A high, bald promontory faced them on the other side, and cliffs and bluffs tumbled haphazardly down to the smooth surface of the water.

“That’s Hallow Hill land, miss,” he had said to Kate. “The tall rocks there, that’s the Hill itself. But it’ll take you all morning to get around the lake and the forest. No roads go through the woods by the Hill. They’d not dare to put a road there.” My land, thought Kate in surprise. She hadn’t expected it to be so wild.

“And what a beauty you are, my dear,” Aunt Celia said to Kate. “You favor your mother, doesn’t she, Prim? She was slender and small boned, too, such a graceful woman. She had the pick of the men in her day.”

Kate tried to smile at these kind remarks, but she found them rather embarrassing. She didn’t think of herself as a beauty, although she knew her mother had been one. In fact, Kate was uncommonly pretty. Her long blond hair formed small curls around her face, and she had a dignity and poise unusual for her age. Perhaps this was because she had spent so much time with her father. That lonely gentleman had lavished hours each day on her education. He saw a strength in her gentle nature that he openly admired, and this strength had carried the quiet Kate bravely through the last two months without him.

Rawboned and large handed, Primrose Roberts didn’t smile as often as her sister Celia, but this didn’t mean she was ill-tempered. She studied the blushing Kate, noting her fair skin and large, dark blue eyes.

“Now, you know Kate’s mother was dark, Celia, with that black hair. I think you’re like your mother in your build, though; such a little thing she was.” Kate sighed. She hated being so short. No one but her father seemed to take her seriously.

“I think you must favor your father, dear.” Aunt Celia had turned to Emily. The younger sister frowned by way of answer. Thin and dark, Emily certainly possessed her sister’s strength of will, but she didn’t always use it quite as sensibly. Her narrow face was very expressive, and her conduct often unexpected. Lively, intelligent, and quite immature, she usually burst out with exactly the comment that summed up the situation beautifully and therefore could never in politeness be said. It is true that she had her father’s plain brown hair and brown eyes. It is also true that it is annoying to live with a real beauty if you yourself are not one. Emily thought that she would have loved being a beauty and breaking men’s hearts. Kate just didn’t appreciate what she had.

Hallow means ‘holy,’ doesn’t it?” asked Emily. “Why is this place called Hallow Hill? Is there a church nearby?”

“Oh, Hugh can tell you about that,” Aunt Celia said. “Hugh’s quite a scholar, you know. He’s writing a book of family history, all about Hallow Hill.”

Their legal guardian was a large, corpulent bachelor with a round face and ink stains on his hands. Emily kept staring at him because he wore a curled white wig. No one but lawyers and grandfathers wore wigs anymore. Except for the barest pleasantries, he had been silent since their arrival. He had brought a book to the table and was reading it as he ate, his spectacles resting low on his nose. Now he raised his pale eyes from the pages and glanced dismissively at Emily.

“I don’t suppose someone of your age and gender is going to sit through a linguistic analysis,” he remarked. Kate saw her little sister’s face darken and spoke quickly to prevent a catastrophe.

“We’d love to hear about Hallow Hill’s name,” she protested with a bright smile. “Place-name etymology is so fascinating. The words come out of Old English, don’t they, so the name can’t date back to the Roman times, but it could certainly predate the Norman Conquest.”

Hugh Roberts fixed Kate with a critical stare. She noticed an ink stain on his nose and hoped her sister wouldn’t mention it.

“So we’ve read a book or two,” he commented dryly. “Yes, the word hallow is Old English, but we don’t know that hallow, or holy, is what was intended at all. Perhaps hollow is what was meant. Some early documents call the bald peak behind this house Hollow Hill, and there certainly are caves throughout the area. And ‘Hollow Lake’ may just be a short way of saying the ‘lake by Hollow Hill.’

“However, we aren’t even positive that is the original Hallow Hill. Near the Lodge house is a smaller hill with a flat, circular crown, and around this crown is a double circle of ancient oak trees. The site was obviously an important druidic center. There are those who say that is the real Hallow Hill, but probably to the early inhabitants this whole region was sacred. It has never been mined, the forests haven’t been logged, and the locals retain to this day a tremendous superstitious lore about the area. Calling something hallow for hundreds of years has a way of making people treat it as holy whether it really is or not.” He picked up his book again. “It’s a fascinating human phenomenon, the tenacious preservation of ignorance,” he remarked caustically and ignored the conversation around him for the remainder of the meal.

In another half hour, Emily and Kate found themselves back out in the sunshine, facing another carriage ride. Their guardian lived in this large estate house, the Hall, but the girls were not to live here with him. They were to go on to the smaller house, the Lodge, where their great-aunts lived.

The Hall faced a large, open green that was not in the least interesting. It contained rigidly geometric pebbled walks, square garden beds, and bench seats set primly by the straight, tree-lined borders. But the ground to the sides and back of the house began rising at once into small, tumbled hills, and through the windows of the dining room the girls had seen tantalizing views of a shady terrace, moss-covered rock walls, and paths disappearing into the dim forest that reached down and enclosed the Hall on three sides. Kate and Emily were wild with delight at the thought of those secret paths winding through primeval woodland. They could hardly bear to climb into the carriage for the sedate jog over to the Lodge.

The ride proved more satisfying than they had expected. The gravel track passed the front of the Hall and rapidly left the depressing tidiness of the green behind. It skirted the very edge of the forest and rose and fell with the unevenness of the landscape, providing a view on the one side of windblown meadows full of wildflowers and on the other of those gloomy, green-dappled forest depths that they already longed to explore. The track passed through a grassy orchard as it climbed a steady slope, and the Lodge house stood before them, shaded by large, well-trimmed trees.

Kate and Emily stared up at the big white house. Emily was surprised by its size; hearing that she was to live in the “small Lodge house,” she had expected to see a two-room hut. The Lodge had three stories, the top one peeking out through small dormer windows tucked under a steep gray roof. The front door was exactly in the middle, and all the tall windows up and down were perfectly matched and symmetrical. Over their heads and over the house swung the thick boughs of the great shade trees, casting an ever-changing net of shadow and sun on the ground below. Kate listened to the gentle rush of the wind whispering through leaves and branches. She felt it settle into her soul and fill some lonely place there.

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