Hazel and Holly — Elder Night, Part One
Previous: Fasting Friendship
Hazel glanced at the others in the carriage as it rattled down the dusty road. Somehow, the mood inside seemed less heavy than it had the previous day. It was a wonder, given everything that had happened. But Hawthorn and Holly no longer seemed so miserable and uncomfortable around each other. And Hemlock seemed, well, like Hemlock. It was both comforting as well as puzzling. She didn’t entirely trust him or his motives, and yet she was glad he was there.
Tum sat outside with the driver, and every now and then snippets of his voice would carry over the horses and carriage.
“Strawberries!” Tum shouted. “I smell like strawberries!”
“It’s true,” Holly said, “he does.”
“Doubtful,” Hawthorn said. “It’s more likely you’re associating his sweet, sickly, unwashed stench with that of fruit.”
“You saying I don’t know what a strawberry smells like?”
Hawthorn arched an eyebrow. “If you’re insisting that that little man smells like one then, yes, I am. It is an affront to all fruits, and to those who eat them.”
Holly opened her mouth but then snapped it shut. She slumped in her seat. “Well, that’s probably true.”
The journey to Sarnum stretched on. As the day faded, the forests of the Grove thinned, until they, too, were gone along with the light. The driver stopped as he and Tum hung lanterns on the sides of the carriage. Holly pressed her nose to the glass as she looked out the window.
“It’s so dark out there,” she whispered. “And empty. Why is it so empty?”
Hemlock squinted as he peered out the window. “I think it’s a field. That pale patch there, I think that’s grass.”
“Creepy grass,” Holly whispered.
“Indeed,” Hawthorn said. “‘Hair of the dead,’ Father used to call it.”
Holly shrank back into her seat. “What?”
Hemlock said, “Father drank too much.”
“True,” Hawthorn said, “but he did have a way with words.”
Thankfully, the coach started moving again.
“Did your father come out this way often?” Hazel asked.
“On occasion,” Hawthorn said.
He waved a hand, all murky and shadowed within the gloom of the carriage. “Why does anyone go anywhere?”
She shook her head and looked out the darkened window, but all she could see was the wavering light from a lamp as it swung to and fro.
The carriage slowed, men shouted, and there was a grinding of metal gears. They passed through a gate into an arched tunnel lined with torches, before coming to a city of brick houses and stone streets lit by tall iron lamps with flickering blue and green flames.
“Is this it?” Holly said. “Sarnum?”
“I certainly hope so,” Hawthorn said. “Otherwise it’s a wasted trip.”
“Why is there a gate?” Holly said. “Who are they trying to keep out? Or who are they trying to keep in?”
No one said anything.
“And why do those lamps have green flames?” she said.
“Alchemy,” Hawthorn said. When everyone stared at him, he added, “Or so I’ve heard.”
“How do you know so much about this town?” Hazel asked.
He shrugged. “Father spoke of it from time to time.”
“He never spoke of it to me,” Hemlock said.
“That concerns me how?”
Hemlock tightened his jaw and looked away.
Even though it was summer, the night held a chill, and the people on the streets wore long dark coats with the collars pulled up against the wind. They walked hunched over, hurrying to get to wherever they were going, never looking up at the carriage as it passed, or even to each other.
The carriage turned onto a narrow street, and then another, zig-zagging through the darkness as the horses’ hooves rang on the stones. Hazel clasped her hands in a tight grip, tensing even more as the carriage slowed and, with a final turn, stopped.
Everyone remained still. From outside, the sound of the driver’s boots hitting the ground as he jumped from the carriage. Then the door next to Hazel and Holly opened. The driver smiled.
“I… I suppose we’re supposed to get out now?” Holly said.
Hazel swallowed. She wished she didn’t feel as unsettled as Holly sounded. She clenched her hands a little tighter and stepped from the carriage.
They had come to a great stone house flanked with hedges, the corners sharply trimmed. On each side of the great black door were a pair of sconces with blue flames flickering behind pristine glass.
The others left the carriage and stood around her.
“This is it, isn’t it?” Hazel said. “Elder’s home.”
“It should be,” Hemlock said.
“It’s awfully late,” Holly said. “Shouldn’t we wait until morning?”
“Probably,” Hazel said. “But I don’t want to stay in this city longer than we have to. Do you?”
Holly swallowed and shook her head.
Hazel took a breath and walked up to the door, grabbed hold of a heavy iron knocker in the shape of a lion, and gave it a few solid raps. She tightened her hands as she waited, and then harder still as the knob turned and the door swung open.
A little old man about as tall as Hazel’s shoulder and with a round face blinked up at her. “Yes?” He wore a red flannel robe over matching pyjamas, and white bunny slippers on his feet.
Hazel said, “We are looking for someone named Elder.”
The man smiled. “Well, you found him. What can I do for you?”
Hazel frowned and looked at the others, but everyone remained silent. Turning to Elder, she said, “Perhaps we could come in to talk?”
Elder chuckled. “Of course. How rude of me.” He backed away and swung the door wide open. “Please, come in.” As everyone filed inside, he tottered down a carpeted hallway lined with wildflower portraits. “Abby! We have company! Best put on the tea!” He returned to them and beamed. “Please, follow me.”
He led them down the hallway into a wide and well-clothed room. That was really the best description of it. Tapestries hung from the walls and carpets covered nearly the entire floor. Plush pillows padded the sofas and knitted blankets were thrown over the backs of upholstered chairs.
Elder herded them over to a pair of sofas by the hearth when he turned around and nearly collided with a little old woman wearing matching apparel with her red flannel night gown and white bunny slippers of her own. She held a tray of sandwiches.
“Ah, there you are,” Elder said. To Hazel and the others, he said, “This is my wife Abby. Abby, this is… Well, I don’t know who they are, but I’m sure we’ll find out.”
“I’m Hazel, this is my sister Holly. That’s Hemlock and his brother Hawthorn.”
Hawthorn smiled and nodded. Holly studied the floor. Hemlock blinked a few times and murmured, “Pleasure.”
“So many H names,” Elder said. “Have you all banded together? Going to take on the L names by force? Or perhaps the B’s. The B’s can be so uppity, don’t you think?”
Hazel stared at him. “I-I beg your pardon?”
He waved his hands. “Never mind.”
Abby set down her tray on a table. The sandwiches were made with fat rolls of floured, crusty bread. She beamed at them. “Tea will be out in a moment.”
“Abby bakes the bread herself. Don’t you, Abby?”
She giggled. “Oh, you,” then poked her husband with a sturdy finger. He grabbed hold of her and tickled her ribs. Abby yelped and laughed, wrenched herself away, and slapped at his hands before running from the room.
Hazel stared down at her lap. Maybe they should have waited until morning.
Elder dragged over a chair and sat down. “So. What can I do for you fine folks?”
“I apologize for calling so late,” Hazel said. “But our business is pressing and we didn’t want to wait.”
“Oh. Sounds serious.” Elder grabbed a sandwich a took a bite. “Better eat up. Serious business needs serious food, I always say. And nothing’s better for serious business than Abby’s liver pate and pickle sandwiches.”
Hawthorn brightened. “Don’t mind if I do.”
Holly seemed to shrink back into the sofa.
“No, thank you,” Hazel said. “The matter is we are looking for our father, a man named—“
Holly screamed, leapt from the sofa and darted behind it.
Hazel started and turned around, and she also got up when she saw a waist-high beast — something between a monkey and a bear — with bat-like wings and a long scaly tail. It carried a tea pot in its disturbingly human-like hands.
“Ah,” Elder said. “You found Augustus.”
“What… what is it?” Holly said.
“Friend. Manservant. Bearer of tea. He is so many things it defies description.” Elder took the teapot and shouted, “Thank you!”
Elder sighed and waved an arm at the thing. “I said thank you. Shoo, now. Shoo!”
Augustus squawked and half-flew, half-ran from the room.
Elder shook his head. “The lad’s useful, but a bit dense on the language front. We’re working on it, though.”
“Hazel…” Holly whimpered.
Hazel swallowed as her stomach sank. “You’re a necromancer.”
Elder beamed. “Of course. Why wouldn’t I be?”
Hemlock cleared his throat and adjusted his glasses. Hawthorn stopped chewing his sandwich as he glanced between Hazel and Elder.
Hazel clenched her hands as she struggled to keep her breathing even. “Why wouldn’t you be? Perhaps because it’s an atrocity? An affront to everything that is good and natural in this world?”
Elder chuckled and shook his head. “You must be from the Grove. Yes, I should have seen it sooner.” He waggled a finger. “It’s been so long since I’ve been there, I had nearly forgotten of the closed-minded superstition that plagues the region. I see nothing has changed.”
Hazel squeezed her eyes shut just as Hemlock got to his feet and put a hand on her shoulder.
“Hazel,” he whispered. “Please breathe.”
She clenched her jaw and took a deep breath. It didn’t help. “Superstition?” Somehow, she managed to keep her voice calm. At least calmer than she felt. “You are telling me my mother is trapped in a geas by superstition? That my father did nothing? That it’s all in my head?!” Now she was yelling. She had tried, but some things were beyond her control. She pushed past Hemlock and stood before Elder and glared down at him. “Where is he?” she growled.
“Who?” Elder said.
She grabbed him by the collar of his flannel pyjamas and gave him a shake. She wouldn’t be toyed with, not by him. “Ash!”
Elder intoned a series of words and the lamps in the room extinguished. The air chilled, and a coldness wrapped around Hazel’s arms. It was like a pair of serpents, twining up around her limbs and toward her head. The chill sank into her skin, almost to her bones. She had felt that kind of cold before—at every new moon in a ramshackle cottage overtaken by briar and ivy. Hazel let go and staggered back.
Her breath turned shallow and rapid; her palms began to sweat. She needed to get out. Out of this house, out of this town. But the icy darkness continued to press on her, threatening to crush her until nothing remained.
Next: Elder Night, Part Two