Hazel and Holly — Harvest Home
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The following day, Hazel, Holly, Hemlock, and Hawthorn were back on the road in the rattling carriage. Tum sat with the driver. He had made quite the fuss in leaving the comforts of the cellar of the Backwards Buck. But for all his howling, he didn’t want to be left behind.
Ada had directed them to the nearest township she knew of, though she had warned them to be on guard. No one she knew ever traveled to the few scattered towns outside of Sarnum, and she didn’t know what to expect. She had heard rumors though, even though she refused to repeat what she had heard. She just warned them to be wary, and that was it.
They had left at dawn and now midday approached, yet the carriage still rattled on down the dusty road as the sun glinted at them from behind fluffy white clouds. The fields of pale wispy grass had cleared and Hazel watched as patches of farmland and orchards passed by, interrupted by long stretches of untamed hills of wild sweetgrass and great gnarled oaks. Some of the green leaves were beginning to turn, signalling the beginning of autumn. It gave Hazel a twinge of sadness. She missed her garden and her bees. She wished she was home, harvesting and canning and preserving, but instead she was here. She needed to get this ugly business with her father sorted. Then she could go back.
They stopped alongside the road for a short while to stretch their legs and eat a simple meal of bread and marmalade that Holly had brought along. Grasshoppers and cicadas chirped and buzzed from the surrounding fields, and the light alternated from sunny to shadowed as dark, towering clouds threatening rain and thunder passed momentarily across the sun.
“How much further is it?” Holly asked.
“Ada said it was a long day’s journey,” Hawthorn said. “So I imagine we have a few hours yet to go.”
“But what if there’s nothing there? Then we’ll just have to come back this way all over again.”
Hazel said, “Do you have any other ideas?”
“So it won’t hurt visiting this town and seeing what it offers.”
Holly frowned and pursed her lips, but she said nothing.
Hemlock remained silent. Ever since his argument with Hawthorn, he seemed distracted. He hadn’t bothered with reading as he usually did while riding in the carriage. Instead he had just stared out the window, letting the scenery fly by without any discernible reaction. Hazel wished she could cheer him up, but she didn’t know how, so she just left him alone.
The sky darkened again as foreboding clouds shrouded the sun. In the distance, a faint boom of thunder rolled in from beyond the hills. Holly put away her marmalade and they clambered back in the carriage just as cold, heavy raindrops started to fall.
The downpour that followed chased them into the night. Rain dripped in through cracks along the doors and windows, and they all sat cramped together as they tried to avoid the moisture. The rain disallowed any lanterns to be lit, so they continued on at a crawling pace. By the time they reached something resembling a town, it was well into the night. Hazel was exhausted, cold, and, despite her best efforts, damp from the rain the carriage couldn’t keep out. Looking at the expressions of the others, she suspected they felt the same.
She climbed out of the carriage and landed in ankle-deep mud. The town looked tiny, with only a few houses that Hazel could make out in the gloom. She squelched her way through the mud to a house with a shadowed sign swinging from the eaves, hoping it was some kind of inn or a place they could stay out of the rain, but it was too dark to tell.
She knocked on the door, but when no reply came, she tested the knob instead. The door was unlocked, so she carefully eased it open and poked her head inside, but she saw only darkness and heard a distant tock-tocking of a grandfather clock. The air smelled sweet and fragrant, like a summer-time field.
“Hello?” Hazel said, quietly. She couldn’t bring herself to raise her voice any higher—it was the middle of the night. This was all beginning to feel like a great big mistake. What if this was a necromancers house? She shouldn’t be walking in uninvited and unannounced.
The others crowded behind her, and she looked to them for help, though it was likely too dark for them to see her pleading expression.
“What’s happening?” Holly whispered.
“No one’s home,” Hazel said. “Or they’re all asleep. I don’t know what to do.”
“We go inside, that’s what,” Tum said as he pushed his way past them and toddled right into the darkened room.
“Yes, please,” Holly said as she followed him in, shadowed by Hawthorn, until it was just Hazel and Hemlock left standing on the doorstep.
Hazel sighed. “I guess we’re going in.”
“It looks like it,” Hemlock said.
She tried to study him through the gloom, but it was too dark. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” he said and followed the others in.
He didn’t sound fine, but Hazel said nothing as she walked inside, gently closing the door behind her.
“Someone got a lamp or something?” Tum said, his voice carrying cringingly loud in the quiet night.
“For the love of the Lady,” Hazel whispered, “keep your voice down.”
A little flame bloomed in Holly’s cupped hands, illuminating her face in a flickering orange-yellow glow that pushed back some of the darkness.
The room looked unremarkably ordinary. A long shadowed form of a sofa stood before the even darker shadows of an open hearth. There was narrow table behind the sofa, upon which sat an unlit lamp. Everything else remained in shadows. Holly walked over to the lamp and lit it with her flame, and the darkness receded a little more.
In one corner of the room sat sheaves of wheat and straw. Rows of shelves lined the walls–nearly from floor to ceiling–upon which little shadowed figures sat. Hazel picked up the lamp from the table and walked over to a shelf. The shadowed figures were dolls, made out of woven wheat and clothed in roughspun dresses. Most were faceless, but some had been given expressions fashioned out of blacked beads for eyes and strips of red string for mouths.
Tum grabbed a doll then scampered down a darkened hallway with it.
“Tum!” Hazel hissed, but Tum had already gone.
Wooden floorboards creaked overhead, and Hazel froze as she listened. She thought about extinguishing the lamp, but then decided against it. If they were going to be discovered, better that they get discovered in the light rather than skulking in darkness.
From the hallway where Tum had disappeared came a wavering glow of candlelight. It dimly illuminated a set of stairs, and then a pair of slippered feet appeared with bony ankles peeking out from underneath a long nightshirt.
“Hello?” Hazel called, thinking it best to make their presence known. “The door was unlocked so we let ourselves in.”
A thin, birdlike man in his elder years descended the stairs and blinked at her from underneath an oversized nightcap that slouched over his wrinkled brow. “We? Is there more of you?”
Hazel waved the others into the hallway and they all filed in. Hawthorn gave a slight bow, Hemlock a slight nod, and Holly seemed transfixed with the man’s knobby ankles and unable to look away.
“Goodness me,” the man said, pushing back his cap and raising his candle as he blinked at them some more.
“I apologize for our intrusion,” Hazel said, “but the weather turned dreadful and we didn’t know where else to go.”
The man nodded. “Yes, of course. You had to come in. I heard the thunder booming out there and I thought to myself, ‘Francis, you take your two coppers and chuck ’em out the window, ’cause you’re not going to get any luckier than this.'”
Hazel glanced at the others, but they all looked as perplexed as she felt. “Um, yes. Exactly.”
Francis beamed at her. “So what brings you to our humble little town? And in such a mysterious manner?”
“I’m afraid the mysterious manner was unintended, as the weather delayed us. But we’ve come for… well, it’s a long and complicated story. But the short version is we’re looking for someone.”
“And you think this someone came here?” He shook his head. “No one comes here. Why, I don’t think we’ve had a visitor since… well… the crop blight some 20 years ago. Sad business, that. But nothing a good tar and feathering won’t fix.” He beamed at her again. “Am I right?”
Holly pulled her gaze from his ankles and stared at him in horror. “You tarred and feathered someone?”
Francis chuckled. “Goodness, me, no. That was Emmond, our mayor.” He put a hand to his chest. “I was merely in charge of collecting the feathers. Had to raid Martha’s chicken coop for all it was worth, but we got a nice feast at the end of it, so all in all, a good day.”
The grandfather clock ticked and tocked in the silence as everyone stared at Francis.
“You folks hungry?” he said.
Holly screwed up her face. “That depends. You got any creepy servants lurking around here?”
Francis blinked at her as his mouth hung open. “Creepy servants? Lurking? Goodness me, I hope not. I’ve not paid any servants wages, so if they’re lurking, I’d rather not find out what they’re planning.” He turned and headed further down the hallway, leaving Hazel and the others to trail after him.
He led them to a kitchen where an extinguished lamp sat on a table. He lit it with his candle, turned up the wick, then took it with him–leaving the candle behind–as he went to go rummage through the cupboards.
Strands of wheat littered the table and floor. From the ceiling hung a legion of dolls among bundles of herbs, braids of garlic, and nets of cured ham.
“You sure have a lot of dolls,” Holly said as she stared at the ceiling.
“Of course I do. I’m a dollmaker.”
“Do you manage to sell any dolls out here?” Hazel asked. “Wouldn’t you be more successful selling them in Sarnum?”
Francis pulled a stack of plates from a cupboard and then blinked at her. “Selling? Goodness me, these dolls aren’t for selling. They’re for protection.”
“Protection? From what?”
“Oh, the usual. Pox and blight. Stillborn babies and calves. You know how it is.”
“You need protection from all of that?” Holly asked.
“Our town does, yes. Had to step up production after that blight 20 years ago, but we haven’t had one since, so it must be working.” He set the plates on the table along with a loaf of bread. He then grabbed a long knife and, climbing atop a chair, teetered on his tiptoes as he cut down a cured ham among a thatch of dolls and bundles of dried sage.
“What utter nonsense,” Hawthorn said as he poked at a doll hanging over his head. “Wheat dolls don’t do anything other than produce mold and invite in moths and vermin.”
Francis dropped the ham onto the table with a resounding thud that made the plates clatter. “What did you say?” His knuckles gripping the knife began to whiten.
The air turned tense, and everyone shifted their gazes to Hawthorn. He opened his mouth, but instead Hemlock said, “I think what my brother means to say is that we’re not familiar with such forms of protection. It is undoubtedly most effective, and I’m sure we could learn much from our most gracious host.” He turned to Hawthorn. “Isn’t that right, Hawthorn?”
Hawthorn glanced between Hemlock and Francis and then inclined his head. “Of course that’s what I meant. Apologies if I was unclear.”
Francis beamed and hopped off the chair with a sprightliness that was unexpected for his advanced years. He waggled his knife at Hawthorn. “I knew I liked the look of you folks. Coming in with the turn of the weather like that, good omens, I say. Good omens. But you can never be too careful nowadays.”
“I’m not disagreeing with you,” Holly said, “but how is us coming in with the weather a good omen? The weather’s horrible. Seems like it’d be a bad omen to me.”
Francis pointed the knife at her before using it to cut away the netting encasing the ham. “I can see why you’d think that, and I know some folks that’d agree with you. But not me. Oh, sure, foul weather can be frightful and unpleasant, but ultimately it’s a good thing. The water nourishes the ground and keeps the crops thriving. And I don’t care what that old crank Robert says, if your barn gets struck by lightning and catches fire and burns down, then I say it’s ’cause you did something awful and had it coming. I don’t got anything to fear from lightning, let me tell you.”
“That’s good,” Hawthorn said as he sat down at the table, “because with all this straw and wheat in here, the house would likely go up faster than a harlot’s skirt.”
Francis cackled as he sliced the ham. “Don’t I know it!” He put slices of ham and bread onto a plate and set it out for the others, along with a pot of mustard that he fetched from the cupboard.
“Do you have anything else?” Holly said. “Something without meat?”
Francis looked crestfallen as he blinked at her.
Holly shifted in her seat, but then Francis brightened and hurried to a door on the other end of the room and disappeared behind it.
Hawthorn helped himself to the food. Hazel and Hemlock did the same. Holly nibbled on a piece of bread.
After a while, Francis returned with a jar of pickled eggs. He set the jar on the table and, leaning towards Holly, said, “I think I found one of those unsavory servants you mentioned. A short little man was lurking in the cellar while changing into a pair of pyjamas. He ran me out, clearly displeased over his lack of wages. I… I’m not sure what to do.”
Hazel had to bite her lip to keep herself from snickering. Holly just looked at Francis with the utmost severity and said, “Beer. Give him lots of beer.”