Hazel and Holly — Crossroads Conundrum
Previous: Roadside Meeting
Holly and Hemlock rode atop one of the horses, while Hawthorn and the necromancer rode on the other. The necromancer had refused to give his name, so Holly had taken to calling him Norman. Norman had tried to run for it before they could lift him up onto a horse, and Hawthorn had re-summoned his goose to terrorize the man for a solid ten minutes. Holly knew it had been ten minutes from Hemlock’s watch that the fairy held as it fluttered about. The whole scene might have gone on longer if Hemlock hadn’t said that time was running out—a funny choice of words, really, considering his watch had just swung past his head. After that whole incident, though, Norman became wary around Hawthorn. So they shared a horse hoping it would keep necromancer quiet.
The long, flat road stretched through a grassy field bordered by shadowed forests. A mountain range loomed on the horizon. Holly had never seen mountains like that before. She wanted to say they were beautiful—perhaps during the day they were. But now they looked like a portion of the night had been cut away, leaving only a deeper, starless darkness that the moonlight couldn’t touch. Nobody spoke as they rode. The clip-clop of the horses’ hooves, the wind stirring the grass, and the occasional hoot of a distant owl were the only sounds to accompany them.
They came to a crossroads. Hemlock and Hawthorn brought the horses to a stop.
“Well, which way is it?” Holly said. “Do you know, Norman?”
Norman sighed. “Would you please stop calling me that? It’s a terrible name.”
“Well, you won’t tell me your real one. What else am I supposed to call you?”
Norman thought a moment. “Maldovar? That’s a splendid name.”
“No, you’re definitely not a Maldovar.”
Hemlock said, “We could split the difference and call him Malman.”
“Maybe.” Holly said.
“No!” Norman shrank within himself a little. “Norman’s fine…”
Hawthorn said, “While it’s all very charming the two of you trying to name your pet necromancer, could we please choose a direction and get on with this journey? Riding a horse is terribly uncomfortable, smelly, and having to share the experience with Malman isn’t helping at all.”
“Norman,” said the necromancer. “We decided the name is Norman.”
“We might decide your name is Daisy unless you tell us which direction to take.”
Norman set his jaw and straightened his back, though his eyes didn’t look as confident as his posture. “Do your worst.”
“Maybe we should split up,” Hemlock said. “Hawthorn and Norman will take one road, Holly and I will take another. As soon as one pair realizes they’re on the right track, one from that pair can take the horse and ride back to find the others.”
“That might work if we had two roads to choose from,” Hawthorn said, “but we have three. Not to mention that I’m not at all encouraged by the prospect of teaming up with Malman here.”
Holly said, “I agree, I don’t think we should split up. We need to pick a direction that we all agree on.”
“Preferably before we all die in this cold,” Hawthorn said.
Holly gave Norman a pointed look. “Well?”
Norman avoided her gaze a long while. “Left.”
Holly blinked a few times. “Really?”
Hawthorn said, “If he said left, then we can assume that the roads straight ahead and to the right are the correct ones, so that narrows it down.”
“Unless he knew we’d think that,” Hemlock said, “and it’s actually the correct course.”
“My head hurts,” Holly said. “So, which one do we take?”
Nobody said anything.
Holly sighed, her gaze returning to the mountains in the distance. “Which road will take us to those mountains over there?”
Norman frowned. “Why would you want to go to the mountains?”
“It seems as good a destination as any, don’t you think?”
Norman shrugged and seemed bored with the question. “The road straight ahead looks like the most direct route.”
“Where does the road to the right lead?”
“I couldn’t say. I’ve never taken that road.”
“Because you’ve only ever taken the one on the left.”
It made sense, what he was saying. Holly had no idea what a sea of stars or souls would look like, but whatever it was, a mountain didn’t seem like it would fit. Of course, there was no telling what might lay beyond the mountain, but there was nothing to indicate that it was the right direction over any of the others.
“I think we should turn right,” Hawthorn said. “Norman claims to not know what’s in that direction, so obviously that’s the one he’s lying about.”
“Unless he’s lying about all of it,” Hemlock said. “Or none of it. Either way, I think we should leave Norman’s opinion on the matter out of it.”
It wasn’t supposed to be this hard. Choosing which road to take shouldn’t be the deciding factor on whether or not they would find Hazel. What if they made the wrong choice? They would travel on, looking for something that wasn’t there, possibly not ever realizing they had made the wrong decision. Not until it was too late, at least. The importance of this decision pressed on Holly. Her breath turned shallow and her palms began to sweat. How would she ever be able to live with herself if she made the wrong choice?
She looked at Norman and found him staring at something further down the road. His brow was knitted, his expression puzzled. She followed his gaze and, at first, saw nothing. Then, just like the shadowed mountains looked like missing parts of night, a smaller shadow that looked like night itself bobbed along the road.
“What is that?” Holly said. When she turned back to Norman, his puzzlement faded and he had resumed his unconcerned expression.
“I believe it’s a raven,” he said.
“Raven?” said Hawthorn. “Wonderful. It probably means there’s a corpse on the road ahead. More reason to turn right.”
“There would be more than one if there was something dead on the road,” Hemlock said as he squinted at the flitting shadow. “And I only see one. I think.”
Holly didn’t turn to see if it was actually a raven on the road, or whether or not there was more than one, or whether or not there was something dead their noses would have to contend with. She kept her gaze on Norman. The way he had placed his bound hands on the horse in front of him, the way he carried his shoulders, the expression that had settled over his features suggesting bored disdain looked, when Holly looked closely, a little too carefully placed. He looked like a man who didn’t care—who wished to get on with the journey because sitting there was only growing increasingly intolerable. Yet his gaze, every now and again, would return to the raven on the road, as if his eyes had a will of their own. And at those fleeting moments, Norman looked… uncertain.
“I think we should go straight,” Holly said.
Norman glanced at her, but then quickly looked away.
“Are you certain?” Hemlock said.
Holly continued to study Norman, but he had fixed his gaze on a distant point and refused to look at her again.
“Yes,” she said. “I’m certain of it.”
“All right,” Hemlock said, and he flicked the horse’s reins and the animal resumed walking.
Hawthorn brought up his and Norman’s horse alongside them. “If there is a corpse on the road, then Norman has volunteered to clean it up.” He clapped Norman on the back and the necromancer flinched. “Right, Norman?”
Norman said nothing, keeping his gaze fixed ahead. Holly did the same.
Next: A Star Enshrined Heart