Hazel and Holly — In the Midst of Midnight, Part Two
Previous: In the Midst of Midnight, Part One
Holly and Hawthorn zigged-zagged their way through town. Darkened forms shambled along the shadowed streets, following flickering lights that flitted around like spring time swallows. Holly and Hawthorn avoided them easily enough, but it was time consuming, and so their progress was slow. It felt like dawn should be approaching, but the sky remained dark and devoid of stars save for a few of the brightest that managed to wink through the alchemical haze of light emanating from the lamp posts lining the streets.
“Are we almost there?” Holly whispered as they crouched behind a collection of leafy, thorny shrubs. A shambler a stone’s throw ahead of them made wet, rasping sounds as it breathed through its mouth. Holly cringed and resisted the urge to clench her eyes shut. She needed to know if the thing decided to come towards them.
When it finally moved away, Hawthorn whispered, “It shouldn’t be much farther.” He rose and started walking.
Holly reached into the shrubs and poked at Tum. “Come on, we’re going.”
Tum poked his head out through the leaves. “Isn’t right, being out with the shamblers. If you and Miss Hazel had any sense, we’d all be drinking beer in the cellar.”
Holly didn’t much care for beer, but she had to admit it sounded more appealing than being on these creepy darkened streets.
They followed Hawthorn and soon came to a tall stone wall adorned with snarling gargoyles perched along the top. They followed the wall until they came to a massive wrought iron gate, over which arched the words, “In Morte Divinitas.”
“What does that mean?” Holly said.
“In death there is divinity.”
She screwed up her face. “What kind of saying is that?”
Hawthorn shrugged. “I make no claims over the quality of such slogans. But that is what it says.”
Holly continued to frown as she studied him. “You know an awful lot about this town, with all its creepy streets and creepy sayings in weird creepy words. More than you ought to from stories alone.”
He pushed the gate open–it didn’t so much as squeak–and gave her a flat look. “Well, we’re here. Shall we go in? Or have you reconsidered?”
Holly pressed her lips together. “We’d better go in and look around.” She passed through the gate, followed by Tum. Hawthorn quietly closed the gate after them.
Holly cast him an alarmed look.
“We don’t want to raise suspicions should anyone pass by,” he whispered.
Holly stared at him. It made sense, what he was saying, but she suspected there was a lot he wasn’t saying either, and that concerned her. She had enough to worry about without worrying about him too.
Holly walked along a stone walkway that wended over grassy hills among shadowed tombstones and mausoleums with lanterns of flickering blue flames that hung near thick, iron-studded wooden doors. Statues of various sizes and designs dotted the cemetary and lined the walkway. A woman in a full dress looked off toward the horizon; a baby lay in an intricately carved crib guarded by a sleek dog. Winged grotesques stood crouched while showing snarling, toothy faces; and a pensive man stood perusing a book.
“Are these all people who died here?” Holly asked as she eyed the statues.
“Probably,” Hawthorn said. “Except for the grotesques of course. I imagine those are there more for protection than remembrance.”
“Protection from what?”
Hawthorn shrugged. “Whatever these people might fear after death.”
They came to an empty, open grave with a shovel resting against the lichen-encrusted tombstone.
“Or maybe they fear whatever they dig up,” Holly said.
Tum tottered over to the grave and hopped down into it.
“Tum!” Holly hissed, trying to keep her voice low. “Get out of there!” She couldn’t even see him down in the shadows of the hole.
“It’ll be all right,” came Tum’s voice from the darkness. “Closest thing I’ll find to a cellar here, and a cellar is where old Tum belongs.”
“You’re supposed to help us find Hazel.”
“I’ll keep an eye out. Stand guard, see? Makes more sense to have eyes in many places than all in one place.”
“Well, I… I suppose. Will you be all right here alone? What if whoever dug this grave comes back? Or a shambler?”
“No shambler’ll see me down here in the dark. And anyone else, well, old Tum will give him what-for, that’s what.” He flung some dirt up into the air.
Holly backed away from the flying soil. She didn’t want to leave him, but she didn’t want to stay there, either. There was a bent shadow silhouetted against a distant lamp near one of the mausoleums. Holly wasn’t sure if was a statue or… something else. She didn’t want to find out.
“Well, you come find us if there’s any trouble, okay?”
“Right!” Tum shouted as he flung more dirt.
Holly hurried on. She glanced behind her but the shadowy statue-thing didn’t look to be following. Hawthorn walked alongside her, seemingly at ease, which, strangely enough, did nothing to settle Holly’s nerves. It didn’t feel right, him being so calm.
They passed under towering great oaks that cast mottled, moon-lit shadows along the path before coming to a great stone building that looked like a mausoleum only much bigger. Great wooden double doors adorned with intricate iron scrollwork served as an entryway, flanked by a pair smooth stone columns around which twines of ivy grew. It almost looked lovely.
“The path ends here,” Holly said. “I… I guess we should go in, then.”
Hawthorn walked up to the doors and, grabbing hold of a great iron ring, pulled one open. The door creaked and groaned on its massive hinges, and Holly cringed. She glanced around the graveyard and the multitude of shadows that lingered there, hoping beyond all reason that they weren’t overheard. She hurried inside, feeling strangely grateful when Hawthorn pulled the great door shut.
Silence settled around them. Holly turned and found herself in a great chamber with a high ceiling that disappeared into darkness. In the center of the chamber stood a great alabaster statue of a woman shrouded in a long veil. A circle of lit candles surrounded her on the floor, washing her in a warm, gentle light. Her hands were outstretched, and in one she held some dried flowers, in the other a few sprigs of wheat. The veil, despite being carved from stone, looked sheer, showing the outline of her closed eyes, her shapely nose and delicate mouth.
“She’s beautiful,” Holly whispered. How could something so beautiful exist in a place like this?
“Mother of the Lost,” Hawthorn said. “She is said to guide wayward souls to rest, and offers protection to those buried without proper rites. She is often revered by the lonely–those without any family to speak of, who have no one to care for and, in turn, have no one to care for them.”
“I suppose. Not everyone is blessed with a loving family. Such people normally have no one to turn to. At least they can turn to her.”
Holly studied him as he looked up at the statue. “How do you know so much about this place, Hawthorn?”
He said nothing for a while. Then, still looking up at the statue, he said, “I lied earlier. I’ve been here before. Several times.”
“Why would you lie about that?”
“Father used to bring me here, to Sarnum, though to this graveyard as well. He thought it an important part of my worldly education to learn of this place. Of the customs here, both good and bad.”
“But why lie about it?”
“Father always favored me, in his way. I was the eldest, heir to the estate. He… never took much interest in Hemlock, and Hemlock envied our relationship.” He shook his head. “Perhaps I shouldn’t have lied, but I feared Hemlock wouldn’t understand.”
Holly stared at him. “You’re looking out for him. You care about his feelings.”
Hawthorn frowned and glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. “You needn’t sound so surprised. I am his brother. Of course I care.”
Holly smiled. “It’s nice of you.”
Hawthorn turned to look at her and, before she knew what she was doing–before Hawthorn knew what she was doing–Holly kissed him.
“I-I…” Hawthorn stammered, his cheeks turning red.
“Sorry!” Holly said as her own face turned hot. “I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“N-no, it’s fine. Really. You just took me by surprise is all.”
“Y-yes. Of course.”
Holly nodded, trying to feel reassured, but it eluded her. She never felt so mortified in her entire life. Well, except for that other time she made an utter fool of herself in front of Hawthorn.
So it was almost a relief when the great double doors swung open.