Hazel and Holly — Dark Deeds, Part One
Previous: Dark Decisions
The wooden stairs creaked as Hazel made her way downwards. She kept a hand to the wall, trying not to dwell on what made the rough stones feel slick underneath her fingers. Behind her, Hemlock followed, but Hazel kept her gaze ahead. The moth flickered and flitted through the darkness, like a wayward star lost in a vast night sky.
They came to a landing before the stairs continued down at an adjacent angle. Once on the landing, Hazel looked back at Hemlock. He was frowning, but when he saw her looking at him, he gave her a crooked smile. Hazel tried to smile back, but the effort felt beyond her and her expression probably looked more pained than she intended. She continued on.
Before long, they reached the bottom. The floor was made of irregularly shaped flagstones that caused Hazel’s steps to echo mutely against the walls that remained hidden in shadows. The moth’s light was feeble down here, and Hazel resisted the urge to ask Hemlock to summon his fairy. She didn’t know why, exactly. The extra light would be welcome. But, at the same time, it also felt… wrong.
She rubbed her sweating palms against her skirts, wishing she didn’t feel so nervous. Worried that perhaps she wasn’t nervous enough. The air was cold down here, feeding into her nerves a strange kind of energy. Part of her felt… excited. And beyond that, a faint and terrible understanding.
Thoughts and images came to her mind, unbidden and unknown, but there was truth beyond them. Like when Hazel knew that on each new moon at the tumbledown cottage near her home, if she made a fire and crumbled cake in a water-filled basin, she’d see her mother again. She had that same kind of feeling now. She knew what to do to push back the darkness beyond the little moth Hemlock had taught her to summon, only she wished that she didn’t. Especially now, with Hemlock there. She didn’t want him to know that about her.
Hazel reached into her pocket and wrapped her hand around the bone that now felt warm against her cool, clammy skin. Then she spoke a spell–similar to a Weaving spell of Transformation, but with altered pronunciation and harder consonants. And into that spell she wove another one similar to a Wyr Conjuration, but also with the altered pronunciation and a longer drawing of the vowels. When she finished, blue points of light flickered in the darkness. They moved and wove around each other, surrounding Hazel and Hemlock as the lights found numerous sconces on the walls. The lights then erupted into flickering flames, burning from tapered candles behind pristine glass, and the darkness receded.
Standing before Hazel was a long rectangular table. On the table was a simple silver goblet, a mortar and pestle, and a wooden box about the size of a thick book onto which intricate designs had been carved. There was also a bottle of wine, a thin narrow knife, an unadorned ceramic bowl, and a clean white cloth that had been folded into a neat little square. It occurred to Hazel that there was no dust down here–the cloth looked freshly pressed, and the dark glass of the bottle gleamed in the flickering blue light as if it had been polished.
Everything looked deliberately placed, each item so carefully arranged. And the absence of dust could only be the work of magic. Someone wanted to keep this place just so. But why? Did they plan on returning? Or had they known she would be there–that someone would be there–and if they had, then what did that mean?
She stepped closer to the table, staring at the items. There was a pattern among them–a symmetry in their arrangement, an evenness of the space between them. And as Hazel looked, it was like the items fitted into her mind like pieces of a puzzle, and she knew what to do.
She took the bone from her pocket and put it into the bowl-shaped mortar. Hemlock came to stand next to her, but Hazel kept her gaze on her work. All her previous nervousness was gone. Now she only felt excited, her mind energized with a potential solution she was eager to prove right.
Picking up the heavy stone pestle, she ground the bone into dust. She then tipped the powder into the goblet, using her fingers to scrape the mortar clean. Moving onto the wine bottle, Hazel picked up the knife and frowned. The knife had to be there to open the bottle–there was no other use for it, if she was right. Puzzled as to why a corkscrew hadn’t been left behind, she handed the bottle and knife to Hemlock, murmuring instructions for him to open it.
He stood there, knife and bottle in hand as he gaped at her, but Hazel returned her attention to the table. She opened the wooden box, finding stalks of dried herbs and plants bundled together with pieces of twine. There was lavender and mugwort, marigold, jasmine, anise, and vervain. There was even some ash bark, some yarrow, and a few withered deadly nightshade berries, dangling from a stalk along with dried leaves. Hazel sifted through them, running each plant’s properties through her mind, finding for the way each one fit into her puzzle. Not all of them did. There was more than what she needed here.
She took some mugwort and jasmine, and broke off some of the fragile, flowering fronds of the anise and crumbled them all between her fingers into the goblet along with the bone dust. Her hands hesitated over the ash bark. She wanted to reach for it, grind it up in the mortar like she had the bone. But it didn’t quite fit. Not as well as the yarrow, and so Hazel took some of the dried flowers from that instead and ground them with her fingers and added it to the goblet.
She turned toward Hemlock. He had gotten the cork out of the bottle, his expression a mixture of puzzlement, fear, and concern.
“What are you doing, Hazel?” he said as she took the bottle from him.
“Finding my father.”
But Hazel just shook her head. There was no time to explain, not if she wanted to hold onto this idea long enough to see if it worked. She poured some wine into the goblet and stirred it with the handle of the knife. Then she sucked in a breath, realizing she had almost forgotten an ingredient. Hazel returned to the box and plucked a nightshade berry from its stalk and ground it into a jammy paste with the mortar and pestle. She mixed it with some wine, then poured the slurry into the goblet. She gave it another stir, then brought the goblet to her nose and sniffed. Smelled like wine, mostly, but more earthy, with hints of jasmine and anise coming through. Not all that unpleasant, really.
“Nightshade is poisonous,” Hemlock said, his voice nearly a whisper. “Please don’t tell me you’re thinking about drinking that.”
She turned to look at him again, feeling as if a haze had cleared now that she had done what she wanted to do, and felt a twinge of shame. But there was no turning back. Hazel still hadn’t gotten her answer, and she wouldn’t be able to rest until she had.
This time, she didn’t look away. There was no hiding anymore, and Hazel held his gaze as she brought the goblet to her lips and tipped it back.
The liquid was thick and sludgy, tasting like chalk and ash and iron. She downed it quickly, not wanting to dwell on the taste or let the sediment settle to the bottom. She almost laughed. Sediment. As if it were some natural occurrence in the wine, and not ground up bone that had been slathered with her own blood. The thought almost made her retch, but instead she coughed and managed to keep it down. The chalky taste faded, replaced by sweet, floral notes from the wine and jasmine, before giving way to the aromatic sharpness of the anise, and then to bitterness that she could only assume came from the nightshade.
Hazel’s heart quickened and sweat beaded across her brow. She put a shaking hand to her head, not wanting to think about how foolish she had been, or what a terrible mistake she had undoubtedly just made. This was the only way. It had to be.
Hemlock stood in front of her, grabbing hold of her shoulders as he studied her face. His knees were bent, bringing his eyes level with hers, and she realized his eyes were hazel. Green flecked with brown—colors of the earth. The color of her name. Why hadn’t she noticed that before? He must not have noticed the similarity either, or he wouldn’t have been frowning like that. She giggled, wanting to tell him, but her laugh came out sounding gurgled and foreign, as if strangled in her throat. She sobered, suddenly very aware of her racing heart, and the shadows that had gathered around her vision.
Her legs buckled, but Hazel hardly noticed. The shadows grew, turning white and wispy as they took over her vision. They gathered around Hemlock, pulling at his skin and eclipsing his face, but the stillness in his body indicated he didn’t notice. Hazel closed her eyes as they throbbed with a dull and distant pain that made the world shiver. When she opened them, Hemlock had gone, and all that remained were the pale, wispy shadows, as if all life had been leeched from the world, leaving behind only a smoking, pallid husk.
Next: Dark Deeds, Part Two