Hazel and Holly — Elder Dawn
Previous: The Long Dark
The following morning Hazel and Holly ventured downstairs and found a little sign with a drawn arrow pointing down a hall off the main room. They followed it, coming to another little drawing that led them into a dining room within which a monstrous wooden table took up most of the space. Sunlight streaming in through the windows did little to help brighten up the place.
“What… what do we do?” Holly whispered.
Hazel shrugged. “Sit down, I suppose.”
They lingered a while, then Holly took a deep breath and said, “Okay.” She walked over to one of the high-backed chairs and screwed up her face. “Well, these chairs are ugly.” Numerous grotesques had been carved into the wood, snarling among bunches of grapes and thatches of fig leaves. The arms had been shaped into two long lions, their bared wooden teeth pricking Hazel’s finger when she touched one. At least the seat of the chair was cushioned, and relatively comfortable, all things considered.
Holly sat down next to her, her back as straight and nearly as rigid as the chair itself.
“Try to relax,” Hazel said, hoping her words didn’t sound as hollow to Holly as they did to her. She had to remind herself to breathe, and to unknot the tension in her drawn-up shoulders.
“I’ll relax when we’re home,” Holly said.
Hazel couldn’t help but agree, though she remained silent.
Augustus came in carrying a tray covered with a silver cloche. He stood on his tiptoes as he hoisted the tray up over his head towards the table. Holly kept her eyes shut, her hands clenching around the long bodies of the lions.
Hazel cringed as she watched Augustus teeter on his tiptoes before he finally managed to slide the tray onto the table. He chittered and then scampered out of the room.
“What’s taking Hawthorn and Hemlock so long?” Holly said.
“Hawthorn said he needed to freshen up. Your guess is as good as mine how long that’ll take.” Hazel nodded towards the cloche on the table. “What do you think’s under there? Should we look?”
“I don’t know. What if it’s pickled eyeballs?”
“I doubt it’s eyeballs.”
“You never know. Last night it was liver paté sandwiches. That’s almost as gross as eyeballs.”
“Now you’re just being dramatic.” She jabbed Holly with an elbow. “Go on, look.”
Elder walked into the room and Holly stiffened her back again as Hazel fixed her gaze ahead.
“Good morning,” he said. “I hope you slept well.” He pulled out a chair at the end of the table furthest away from the sisters and sat down.
Hazel hadn’t slept at all, but somehow it seemed insulting admitting it, and she didn’t want to cause any more trouble. “The room was lovely. Thank you.”
Elder quirked his mouth to the side but he said nothing. He reached for the cloche, and Holly sucked in a breath as his hand lingered on the handle before lifting it up, exposing a row of sliced brown bread. Holly exhaled.
Elder frowned. “Augustus!”
Augustus hopped through the door. Elder waved a hand at the tray. “Augustus, my lad, have you forgotten something?”
Augustus wrung his little hands and chittered.
“That’s right,” Elder said. “The relish plate. Rel-ish.”
Augustus squawked and ran from the room just as Abby walked in carrying a tray of six tall glasses filled with a murky dark beer. She set a glass each in front of Hazel and Holly, one to Elder and to herself. The last two she left in the empty places where Hemlock and Hawthorn would undoubtedly sit, should they ever come downstairs.
“Beer for breakfast?” Holly said.
“Of course,” said Elder. “Nothing invigorates the constitution in the morning like Abby’s bitter dark. Isn’t that right, Abby?”
Abby giggled and waved a hand. “Oh stop.”
Holly leaned towards Hazel and whispered, “Tum would love it here.”
“Where is he, anyway?” Hazel whispered back.
Holly shook her head and opened her mouth to answer, but Elder interrupted her.
“No whispering over there. It’s rude, you know. Honestly, did your parents never teach you any manners?”
Hazel tightened her jaw and fixed him in a level gaze. “No, as a matter of fact, they didn’t.” She and Elder stared at each other for a long while until, thankfully, Hemlock and Hawthorn walked in.
“Sorry we’re late,” Hemlock murmured. “It seems Hawthorn had a mishap with his clothes.”
Hawthorn drew himself up, smoothing his red and black brocade jacket in the process. “It seems your… assistant… never fetched my luggage. And the driver was asleep in the garden shed.” He fixed Elder in a pointed gaze. “The garden shed.”
Elder scoffed and waved a hand as he took a sip of his beer. “Not my fault the lot of you arrived unannounced, and that your help doesn’t know how use a knocker. Maybe he wanted to sleep in the shed, you ever think of that?”
“Want to? Don’t be absurd. He—”
“And Augustus doesn’t fetch luggage,” Elder continued, “so don’t you go blaming him. You’ve got hands and legs of your own, it wouldn’t hurt you to use them.”
Hazel snorted and then composed herself by taking a swig of beer.
Hawthorn drew himself up even more, but before he could say anything, Hemlock said, “Perhaps it would be best if we sat down. We’ve kept everyone waiting long enough.”
Hawthorn frowned at Elder, fidgeting with a button on his jacket before finally nodding. Hemlock sat across from Hazel; Hawthorn sat next to him, across from Holly.
Augustus returned with another tray, this one wider than the last. He scampered up to Elder and held it out.
“We have company, Augustus,” Elder said. “Ladies first, you know that.”
Augustus walked up to Holly and held out the tray.
Holly whimpered and squinted her eyes shut. “Hazel,” she whispered.
Hazel swallowed. She didn’t want anything to do with Augustus either, but it wouldn’t do to show fear. Or be rude. Taking a breath, she held out a hand and said, “I’ll go first.”
Augustus wobbled over to her, struggling under the weight of the tray. She lifted the cloche, finding a selection of pickles in various bowls and jars. There were pickled onions and pickled beans; pickled beets and radishes; pickled herrings were packed in a juniper-spiced brine, and a wedge of white cheese floated in oil among sprigs of rosemary and flowering thyme.
Hazel dished a little of everything onto Holly’s plate—except for the herring—and did the same for herself. Augustus chittered and made his way around the table as everyone helped themselves to the proffered fare.
“Be sure to take some bread,” Elder said as he took a slice for himself. “It’s baked with the same beer as Abby’s brewed, and is particularly good with the pickled herring and onions. Isn’t that right, Augustus?”
Augustus chittered and hopped and nearly dropped the tray on Hawthorn’s lap before righting himself again.
Elder chuckled. “This is his favorite time of day. He loves the pickles, you see. The brine tickles his nose in a pleasing way.”
Augustus made little chirping sounds that almost sounded like music. Once everyone had been served, he scampered back out the door.
“Do you always eat pickles for breakfast?” Holly asked.
Elder heaped some herring, onions, a couple slices of beets and some cheese onto a piece of bread. “Oh yes. Like the beer, it’s good for the constitution. The salt and brine is cleansing, you know. I haven’t been sick in twenty years, and I owe that to the pickles.”
Holly poked at the cheese with a fork and tasted a crumb. She seemed to relax a bit; she even reached over and grabbed a slice of bread.
“Perhaps we should discuss why we’re here,” Hazel said, “and then we can be on our way, which I’m sure you are awaiting with great anticipation.”
Elder eyed her a moment as he chewed his breakfast before chasing it down with a swig of beer. “You want to find a teacher in necromancy.”
“And why should I tell you anything? What assurances do I have that you won’t go to this teacher’s house and drag him into the street and flog him?”
“I’m not in the habit of flogging people. Not to mention that, if necromancy isn’t rare here like you say, then I doubt such a flogging would be tolerated by the townspeople. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Elder narrowed his eyes and took a bite of his food. “I might.”
He seemed unconvinced, so Hazel continued. “Look, I don’t like you. I don’t like necromancers. I think the lot of you are abominations that this world would be better off without. But I’m not here for you or any of your cretinous colleagues. I’m here for my father and no one else. The sooner I find him the sooner I can leave, and I think we can both agree that the sooner that happens, the happier the both of us will be.”
Elder chewed his food a while longer and then chuckled. “You’re a miserable woman, but I can’t argue with the logic. Very well. I’ll give you the address of a man named Baern. Talk to him and see where that leads you.”
Hazel exhaled as she looked down at her plate. “Thank you,” she said, unable to look at him.
Elder snorted. “We shall see.”
Next: Fountain of Sorrow