Hazel and Holly — Bones and Blood
Previous: Fountain of Sorrow
Hazel’s fear of meeting Baern ebbed as the carriage once again rattled down the street on their way to the necromancer’s home. Instead, a certain disquiet had settled over her, a troublesome discomfort that disallowed any other feelings to take hold.
What was she doing there? Hazel had thought it was to save her mother’s soul, but now she wasn’t so sure. Maybe that was just a story she told herself, a noise to block out the quiet and keep the calm at bay. No one had asked her to do this—Willow herself refused to discuss it. And yet here Hazel was, charging ahead and doing what she declared needed to be done, regardless of what anyone else thought of it. She had been so certain she had been doing the right thing, but now… maybe she was just afraid of the quietness in her life. That, once everything was settled and done, she would realize just how empty her life was—how empty it had always been. Without trying to save her mother, and without looking after Holly, Hazel was just an empty husk, waiting for the summer sun to turn her to dust.
The carriage slowed and came to a halt in front of a modest home, one made from timber rather than the dark stone that seemed so popular in Sarnum. This home had no groomed hedges surrounding it. Instead it bore only a few outcroppings of the same pale grass they had seen in the field surrounding the town.
“Well, this doesn’t bode well,” Hazel murmured when she saw the grass.
Holly leaned close as she wrung her hands. “It’s just grass, right? It doesn’t mean anything.” Her voice sounded faraway, as if trying to convince herself of the truth of her words.
Hazel smoothed her skirt as she took a deep breath. Then, straightening her back and squaring her shoulders, she left the carriage, marched up to the door, and gave the simple iron knocker three quick raps. She clasped her hands tightly together as everyone stood around her in silence. Then, from the other side of the door, came the shuffle of footsteps, and the door cracked open.
A single eye peered at them from the narrow opening. “Yes?” said a man’s voice. “What do you want?”
“Are you Baern?” Hazel asked.
The eye narrowed. “Who wants to know?”
“My name is Hazel, this is my sister Holly and our associates Hemlock and Hawthorn. We’ve just come from Elder’s house, he seems to think you know our father, Ash.”
“And why would he think that?”
“You are a teacher in necromancy are you not? My father has taken up the discipline. Someone must have taught him. We’re wondering if that someone is you.”
Baern was quiet a long while as he looked her up and down. “I don’t like visitors.”
“I quite understand. I myself am not terribly fond of visiting the homes of necromancers. But it’s important we find our father. If you could tell us where he is, or, if you don’t know, point us to someone who does, then we’ll happily go on our way and leave you to your… business.”
He remained silent and then the door swung open. The man was thin and spindly, with greying tufts of hair that were unsettlingly similar to the pale grass outside. He wore an old suit, rumpled and patched, that seemed to have once held color but had since turned a wan greyish-brown. Without a word, he turned and walked down the shadowed hallway and disappeared into a room.
Hazel, Holly, Hemlock and Hawthorn remained huddled on Baerns doorstep.
“Perhaps we should go in,” Hawthorn said.
Hazel’s throat caught. She swallowed and nodded. Then, taking Holly’s hand, she stepped inside.
It took a moment for Hazel’s eyes to adjust to the gloom. The only light came from the open door. When Hawthorn closed it as he and Hemlock stepped inside, there wasn’t even that. She and Holly stood there until, from the walls, pale etchings of script came into focus.
The script scrolled across the walls and onto the floor and ceiling in a fluid, even hand. The writing was white, almost like chalk or paint, yet it caught the light in tiny pricks of glitter, as if Baern had ground up the stars and turned them into ink.
Gripping Holly’s hand, Hazel slowly made her way down the darkened hallway. She kept her gaze ahead, not wanting to look at the script too long, afraid of what she might find if she did. They came to a door that she believed was the one Baern disappeared behind, and Hazel pushed it open and stepped across the threshold.
Inside the room smelled dusty yet pungent and slightly metallic with the odor of herbs and meat, ink and wet fur, and a host of other scents Hazel couldn’t place. Strings of bones hung from the rafters tied together in oddly-arranged bundles. Baern sat at a table amid a mess of papers and a stuffed raven that looked out on the room with vacant glass eyes.
Baern motioned to an empty seat at the table. Holly tightened her grip on Hazel’s hand. Hazel gave her a final squeeze and then let go and sat in the chair.
Baern blinked at her, then at the others. “Tell them to leave. What we discuss here is not meant for outside ears.”
“Holly’s my sister. She’s not an outsider.”
“Then she can take your place and you may leave. I will speak with only one of you.”
Hazel nodded at her. “Wait outside. It will be all right.”
Hawthorn shrugged and sauntered out the door. Holly’s frown deepened, accompanied by a similar frown from Hemlock.
“I want to stay,” Holly said.
Baern said, ”Either one of you stays or all of you leave. Decide now, or leave me be.”
“Wait outside,” Hazel said. “It will only take a moment, I’m sure.” She met Hemlock’s gaze. “Please.”
Hemlock glanced between Hazel and Baern. Then his frown collapsed, replaced by resignation. He put a hand on Holly’s shoulder. “Come on. We’d better go find Hawthorn before he wanders off.”
Holly pressed her lips into a fine line as she wrung her hands. Then she turned and hurried out the door. Hemlock, casting a final worried glance at Hazel, followed her.
Baern got up and closed the door and returned to the table. Hazel swallowed. There was only a single window in the room, covered by heavy drapes that let in only a thin stream of light around the edges.
Baern turned up the oil lamp on the table next to the raven and shuffled through a pile of papers. He looked at her from under his brow and back at the papers again. After an excruciatingly long silence, he pushed the papers away, got up, and walked to one of the strings of bones hanging from the ceiling. He untied a bone before dragging his chair over to sit next to Hazel.
“Give me your hand,” he said.
Hazel remained still and he raised his eyebrows. He put out his hand and Hazel, licking her lips and setting her jaw, put her hand in his.
He took her by the wrist, his skin cool and clammy. An untrimmed fingernail scraped against her skin as he traced a line along her palm. “When was the last time you saw Ash?”
“Why does that matter?”
Hazel took a breath. “When I was a girl. Around seven or so.”
“What was it like when he left?”
Hazel gritted her teeth at the thought of sharing intimate information with such a man as Baern. But she didn’t know of any other way. She fixed her gaze past his shoulder, staring at a dried flower pinned to the wall. “It was quiet, except for Mother’s weeping. She locked herself in her room, and I was left to tend to Holly who was little more than a baby.”
“Did he break your mother’s heart?” Baern asked as he continued to run a finger along her palm, almost like a caress.
Hazel suppressed the desire to cringe and looked him in the eyes. “I don’t know. She never talked about it with me.”
“Not even now, trapped as she is?”
Hazel narrowed her eyes and tried to pull away, but Baern tightened his grip, his fingernails digging into her skin.
“What would you know about that?” Hazel said.
“Ash took great pride in speaking of you. Hazel, his clever little daughter. Bound for greatness.”
“He doesn’t know a thing about me.”
Baern inclined his head. “Perhaps.” Still holding onto her hand, he used his other one to root around the papers on the table until he pulled out a short curved knife. Hazel tensed and got to her feet, struggling to pull away, but his fingers and nails only dug deeper into her skin.
“Let go of me,” Hazel said, her voice barely above a whisper. “Now.”
But Baern just fixed her in a level gaze and held up the knife in front of him, pinching the hilt near the blade between a pair of long fingers. “I am going to cut you, but do not cry out. Whatever you do, do not cry out.”
Hazel tried to yank her arm free, but his grasp was firm. Breathless, she spoke a spell to knock over the lamp, but nothing happened.
Baern waved the knife towards the walls. “Your magic will not work here, not with these glyphs on the walls.” He pulled her hand closer and Hazel clenched it into a fist.
“Open your hand or I will cut your wrist, which is prone to profuse bleeding. I cannot guarantee the cut will be shallow. This knife is very sharp.”
She kicked his leg and swiped at him with her other hand, but he leaned back out of her reach, and then she felt the cold, stinging edge of the blade against her arm.
“The hand or the wrist,” Baern whispered. “You decide.”
“You’re a madman.”
“You want to find your father. It’s the only way I’m offering you.”
Hazel’s breathing grew heavy and ragged as her racing heart thundered in her chest. She glanced at the door as she sank back onto her chair. Biting her lip to keep it from trembling, she opened her hand.
“Remember,” Baern said as he put the blade against her palm. “Not a sound. We are invoking spirits, and your screams will only call forth the unsavory ones. Do you understand?”
Hazel blinked several times and nodded.
A sharp pain lanced across her hand, followed a warm rush of blood. Hazel bit harder on her lip, and an iron tang filled her mouth that matched the metallic smell in the air. Struggling to keep her breathing even, she again fixed her gaze on the flower on the wall. It looked like a cornflower, but she couldn’t be sure in the dim light.
Baern pressed something hard against the wound on Hazel’s hand and she winced, but she kept silent. He intoned a spell, and the script on the walls seemed to grow a little brighter, just as the flickering light from the lamp seemed to grow a little darker.
Then he let go of her hand and rose from the chair. “We are done. You may leave, now.” He held out the small bone he had untied earlier, now stained red with her blood.
Hazel grabbed a handful of her skirt and used it to staunch the bleeding. She glared at Baern as she struggled to get her breathing under control. Anger settled over her, pushing all words out of her head, and all she could do was sit there and fume.
He waggled the bone as he held it out to her.
“I don’t want that disgusting thing, you sick piece of filth,” she hissed.
“You will need it, if you want to find your father. You two are bound by blood, and so by your blood will you find him.”
“I’m not a necromancer. How am I supposed to use that to find him?”
A corner of Baern’s thin lips twitched into a smile. “That will be for you to puzzle out. We shall see if you are as clever as Ash has made you out to be. Now leave. I am no longer feeling hospitable.”
Hazel continued to glare at him, her mouth working soundlessly as she chewed on empty words that would not come. But she didn’t want to be there anymore, so she grabbed the blood-stained bone and marched down the darkened hallway, wiping the stinging tears from her eyes before she walked out the door and into blinding daylight.
Next: Hallowed Hearts