Hazel and Holly — The Edge of Winter
The lead necromancer took a moment longer to express his displeasure at Holly, Hemlock, and Hawthorn. Then he handed the tapestry to the younger necromancer behind him.
“Get that to the laundress. Keeper only knows what’s been done to it.” He turned to Holly and the others and thrust a finger at them. “You stay here.” He and the other necromancers backed out of the room and he slammed the door shut. There was a scratching sound near the knob, then a slight click.
Holly tested the door once the necromancers’ footfalls had faded, but it was locked.
“Well, now what?” she said.
“Now I regret never having taken up Weaving magic,” Hemlock said.
“Please,” Hawthorn said. “Things are hardly as desperate as that.”
Hemlock folded his arms and fixed his brother in a steady gaze. “How do you figure?”
“That we are standing here having this conversation proves that things aren’t so dire.”
“Somehow, the notion of you being unable to speak doesn’t strike me as a dire situation.”
“Stop bickering, you two,” Holly said. “Honestly, you’re worse than me and Hazel.”
Hemlock shuffled his feet. “Sorry,” he murmured.
“You should be,” Hawthorn said. “Weaving magic. I mean, really.”
Holly pinched him and he cried out.
“You knock it off and start looking for a way to get us out of here,” she said.
Hawthorn lifted his chin and smoothed his hair. Then, with an air suggesting it had been his intention all along, he walked over to the sofa and started poking around the cushions.
Holly tested the door again. Still locked. Not that she had expected a different result, but it would have been nice. She reached into her pocket and brushed her fingers against Chester’s soft fur. She could send him out scouting, maybe he’d find something that could help them. Then again, what if he couldn’t? Sending Chester out gathering in Zinnia’s house was one thing, letting him loose in a necromancer club-house was quite another.
Hemlock came up behind her. “You could always burn down the door.”
Holly nodded without looking at him. “It’s so unpredictable, though, fire. Not that I’d care if we burned the place down. But… what if Hazel’s in here somewhere? What if we couldn’t find her before that happened?”
“Most of the building is stone, so I doubt that’d happen.”
“There’s the tapestries, though, and all the furniture. That’ll go up fast. And then all the smoke it’ll create. How are we supposed to find Hazel in a smoky building?” She rubbed her forehead and then took a deep breath. “I don’t know. I’ll do it if I have to. But I’d rather we find a different way first.” She glanced over at Hawthorn rummaging around the sofa. “How’s it going for you, Hawthorn?”
“Disgustingly abysmal, thank you for asking. You’d think these necromancers would animate a corpse or two to do the cleaning for them. But so far I’ve found a petrified biscuit, two copper pennies, and a note with sloppy handwriting making a dodgy attempt at poetry.” He shivered as if spiders crawled up his spine. Then he looked at Holly with a pleading expression. “Don’t make me go back.”
Hemlock raised an eyebrow at her and nodded towards the fire burning in the hearth. Maybe he was right. Maybe burning the place down was their only option.
Just as Holly was about to speak a spell that pulled fire from the hearth to hurl at the door, a faint scratching sound came. Then the door knob turned, the door swung open, and Tum stood on the other side, grinning.
“Well, well,” he said as he rocked on his heels. “Look who’s needing old Tum now.”
“How’d you open the door?” Holly said.
Tum tossed up a key and caught it again. “Did you know that one key will open up all the doors in this place? Mighty handy, that. And they got keys all over. This one I got from a desk drawer that I convinced to open with a fire poker.” He peered around. “You got a fire poker here?”
“I think so…” Holly said then shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. We don’t need a poker. We need to find Hazel.” She poked her head out the door as Tum walked inside. The corridor was empty.
“What happened to the necromancers that were after you, Tum?”
Tum scampered over to the sofa and sniffed the stale biscuit Hawthorn had dropped. “What’s that?” he said.
“The necromancers. Where did they go?”
Tum waved a hand towards the door as he continued to scrutinize the biscuit. “They’re a few corners back. Didn’t see me dash under a table and into the linen closet. Was looking for the cellar, but I don’t think they got a cellar here.” He blinked at Holly. “What kind of people don’t got a cellar?” He nibbled on the biscuit and winced.
“Did you see Hazel at all?”
Tum tossed the biscuit on the ground and started to root around the couch cushions. “Miss Hazel? No, no. Miss Hazel’s not here.” He found a penny and pocketed it.
“What? How do you know she’s not here?”
“Heard one of the necromancers talking while hiding in the linen closet. Said something about a witch that had gone to some ocean. Figured it must’ve been Miss Hazel, right?”
It did sound like Hazel. “We need to check here anyways, just to be sure. And if she’s not here, well, we need to find out how to get to this ocean.”
“Whatever we’re doing,” Hawthorn said as he watched in horror as Tum rooted around the couch cushions, “we’d better do it quickly before the black-robed brutes return.”
Holly nodded. “All right, let’s go.” Then an idea came to her. She turned to Tum. “Can you take us to the linen closet first?”
Holly, Hawthorn, and Hemlock, snuck down the dim hallway as they trailed after Tum. The gnome darted around corners and through chamber doors, giving no perceivable concern that they might run into necromancers who would be rather displeased to find them lurking where they didn’t belong.
Holly got distracted by a shadow further down the hall when Tum darted around a corner and disappeared. Holly rounded the corner after him, but he was gone.
Hawthorn nudged her and nodded towards a door that had been left ajar. She snuck towards it, inched it open a touch more, revealing a spacious closet full of blankets and linen.
“This closet is bigger than my room at home,” she breathed.
“You and your sister should really find better living arrangements,” Hawthorn said. “This closet isn’t that remarkable.”
Holly ignored him. It looked remarkable to her. All these towels and blankets, curtains, napkins, and… yes, there they were. Spare robes. Grinning, she grabbed an armful from the shelves and dumped them on the floor before she began sifting through them.
“What are you doing?” Hawthorn said.
She held up a robe, looked Hawthorn up and down a few times, then tossed the robe to him. “Give that one a go.”
“This… this sack?” Hawthorn said, dropping the robe back onto the floor. “You’ve clearly lost your mind.”
“You don’t put that on, I’m going to lose it on you.” She tossed a robe to Hemlock. He caught it and started unbuttoning his jacket to change. She sifted through the pile a bit more and found one that looked likely to fit her, even though it was crudely made. These necromancers really needed better seamstresses.
Hawthorn’s protests turned to incoherent mutterings as he and Hemlock removed their jackets and pulled on the robes over their shirts and trousers.
Holly’s dress was too full in the skirts to wear the robe over it, so she shooed the men out, took off her dress, and pulled the robe over her shift. She then took their discarded clothes and hid them behind stacks of towels and bed sheets.
When she walked out, the two men flanking the door in their black robes gave her a fright until she realized it was Hemlock and Hawthorn. She scrunched up her nose as she eyed the elder brother.
“What’s that?” she said, pointing at a crudely fashioned white rosette pinned near Hawthorn’s collar. “Is that lace? Where did you get lace?”
“He tore it off one of his handkerchiefs,” Hemlock said.
“It’s completely ruined now, I’ll have you know. But it’s worth it if it keeps me from looking like a rejected night soil shoveler, like the rest of this…” he waggled his fingers towards the empty hallway, “necromantic rabble.”
“I don’t look like a night soiler!” Holly said as she looked down at herself. “Do I?”
“I’m pretty sure night soilers don’t wear robes,” Hemlock said. “It’s far too impractical. And messy.”
“Whatever they look like,” Hawthorn said, “I will not be counted among them, you can be assured of that.”
Holly felt a momentary pang of envy at Hawthorn’s rumpled rosette. Why did he always look so much better than her? It wasn’t fair. She was about to ask him if he had any left over lace when she remembered why they were there.
“Come on,” she said. “Let’s go see for ourselves if Hazel’s really here or not.” She headed down the hallway. Hemlock and Hawthorn trailed after her. Tum was, of course, still gone. But Holly couldn’t be bothered about that and needed to focus on finding her sister.
“Perhaps we should split up,” Hawthorn said. “We’ll cover more ground.”
“No,” Holly said. “Nobody’s leaving anybody behind. We stay together.”
They carefully navigated down the hallway, briefly checking rooms and chambers but found them all empty.
“This is entirely too convenient,” Hawthorn said. “Where is everyone?”
“Perhaps they’ve all gone out,” Holly said. “Do necromancers have picnics?”
“Or maybe they’ve all gone wherever Hazel’s gone,” Hemlock said.
Holly frowned. She didn’t much like the sound of that. They continued on.
The Shrine had confusing, winding corridors. They didn’t seem to have an end, and each hallway looked just like the next. Even the rooms they checked were starting to look the same.
“Are we going in circles?” Holly said. “I can’t tell.”
“This is ridiculous,” Hawthorn muttered. “We’re wasting time.” He spoke a spell, but nothing happened.
Hemlock and Hawthorn both sucked in sharp breaths.
“What happened?” Holly said. “What did you do?”
“Nothing,” Hawthorn said. “I can’t do magic here.”
“They must have wards in place,” Hemlock said.
“We need to leave.”
“Not without Hazel,” Holly said.
“She’s not here,” Hawthorn said.
“You don’t know that. Not for certain.”
“We’ve checked everywhere. She’s not here. Hemlock, tell her.”
But before Hemlock could say anything, the blue flames in the sconces on the walls flickered and died, plunging the corridor in darkness. The air turned sharp and cold, as if they stood outside in the midst of winter.
“What’s happening?” Holly whispered, but Hemlock and Hawthorn didn’t reply.
The cold air coalesced around her, taking a shape she couldn’t see—but she could feel it. It passed her right arm, making her skin tingle from the chill. Then it came and stood in front of her. Holly’s eyes watered in the stinging, cold air. She reached out, and her hand passed through a cold so intense it almost felt like it had burned her. She yanked her hand away and stumbled back.
But the coldness was also behind her, and then to her sides. It surrounded her, and Holly’s heart hammered so hard it was all she could hear.
“Hawthorn?” she said, but there still was no reply.
Then, a warm breeze fluttered by. It brushed against her face, smelling like sweet grass and sun-soaked pine. It made her relax, just for a moment, so that when the coldness consumed her, she didn’t have time to scream.