Hazel and Holly — Witnessing Trouble
Previous: Early Ambitions and Ablutions
Holly could only stutter incoherent half-protests as Hazel herded her out the barn door and prodded her towards the house.
“All right,” Hazel said in a low voice once they reached the steps of Francis’ home. “You wait here while I go inside. If I’m not back in five minutes, you come inside too. Otherwise, I’ll come back out and let you know it’s safe to go investigate the shed.”
“Why? What’s going on?”
“There’s no time to explain. But we need to make sure Francis doesn’t catch us poking around. He already caught me once this morning.”
“But why are we poking around?”
“Because I don’t trust him, that’s why. I want to know what we’re in for here, and I feel like he’s hiding something.”
Holly frowned and pursed her lips.
“Oh, don’t give me that look,” Hazel said. “You’ve talked me into more ridiculous schemes that you’ve come up with. You owe me this one.”
Holly let out a heavy sigh and rolled her eyes. “Fine. I’ll wait here.”
“Remember, if I’m not out in five minutes, you come inside.”
“And do what, exactly?”
“Nothing, just come in. Don’t make a bigger issue out of this than it needs to be.”
“Right, I’m the one making a big issue out of things.”
Hazel ignored her and disappeared into the house.
Holly lingered by the steps, poking at her skirt and kicking at rocks. How long was five minutes, anyway? She didn’t have a watch. Was she supposed to be counting? Because she hadn’t been counting. So was she supposed to start counting now, or was it too late? Would she need Chester with her? She thought about running back to the barn to fetch him when Tum appeared from around the house. When he saw her, he smiled.
“Pretty good digs we’ve got here, eh? Not much in the way of beer, but that Francis fellow piled up a bunch of those dolls around the cellar door. He must want me to have them. Not too shabby a payment.”
“He’s probably hoping they’ll ward you away. The dolls are supposed to be for protection.” Holly screwed up her face. “And what do you mean, ‘payment’? You’re our cellar gnome, not his.”
Tum thrust a finger into the air, “Never refuse a payment, I always say. Even ones not owed.” He looked her up and down. “Besides, your payments have been a little lacking.”
“We’ve been busy traveling! You’ve nabbed more than enough beer and goods on this trip, and you only got those because we brought you along, so you can’t complain.”
He drew himself up. “We’ll see about that.”
Holly rolled her eyes.
Tum squinted up at her. “Why’re you standing out here?”
“I’m waiting for Hazel. She wants me to go poking around some shed, but she told me to wait here first.”
“A shed, you say? I seen a shed. I’ll go look.”
“No, wait!” Holly said, but Tum had already run off around the house and disappeared.
Well, now what? Should she go after Tum? Should she wait for Hazel? Had it been five minutes yet? She imagined Hazel sitting inside silently fuming at Holly for botching up what should have been a simple plan. It must have been at least five minutes, right? Holly was fairly certain she was supposed to go in now.
She eased open the door and stepped inside. Voices carried from the kitchen, but the main room was empty, except for all the shelves of creepy dolls. She hastened across the room and passed through the threshold into the hallway, and nearly collided with Hazel.
A fork clattered to the floor from the plate Hazel held in her hands. On the plate was more pickled eggs along with a wedge of lumpy-looking bread that had a look of solidified porridge.
Hazel’s expression tightened, but before she could open her mouth, Francis appeared in the hallway behind her and beamed.
“Ah, Holly,” he said. “Feeling better, I hope?”
“What?” Holly said.
“You said you weren’t feeling well,” Hazel said, giving Holly a weird look. “So I was going to bring you breakfast out in the barn. But you seem to be feeling better, now. Right?”
Holly’s mouth hung open as her mind reeled at what she was supposed to do, how she was supposed to act. What was she supposed to say? She’d never been any good at thinking on her feet, not like Hazel.
“Of course she’s feeling better,” Hawthorn said as he walked out of the kitchen and took Holly’s arm. “Why else would she be here? Though, with you crowding her as you are, I wouldn’t be surprised if she needed more air. I’ll take that.” He took the plate from Hazel and, with Holly’s arm linked in his, led her back outside.
“What just happened?” Holly said once they left the house.
Hawthorn kept on walking until they reached the barn, and then he handed her the plate of food. “I just salvaged whatever plot you and your sister have been scheming.”
“We haven’t been scheming.”
Hawthorn folded his arms and cocked an eyebrow.
“It was Hazel’s idea! I was just going along with it.”
“What is she up to?”
Holly told him of Hazel’s plan to get her to the shed unnoticed.
“How ridiculously complicated,” Hawthorn said. “Why don’t you just walk over there and look inside?”
“I don’t know! She told me to wait, and then I lost track of time. And then Tum… who knows what Tum is doing!” Holly shook the plate of food at him.
Hawthorn put up his hands, backing away from the plate as an egg wobbled over the edge and fell to the ground. “It’s fine. We’ll go look together. All right?”
Holly nodded and took a deep breath. She poked at the lumpy bread as they walked past the house. “What is this stuff anyway?”
Hawthorn shook his head. “I have no idea. I don’t think I want to know. You can thank me later for saving you from that as well.” He took the bread from her plate and pitched it into a nearby field enclosed in wooden a fence. Next to the fence in a corner was a little shed.
“That must be it,” Holly said, squinting. “It doesn’t look special.”
“What did you expect?”
“I don’t know, something more grand for all the fuss Hazel’s making about it.”
As they approached, Tum slipped out of the shed and then froze when he saw them.
“Well?” Holly said. “What’s in there?”
Tum rubbed his hands on his shirt. “Isn’t anything in there. Not anything that concerns you, anyway.”
Holly frowned. “And it concerns you?”
Tum drew himself up. “I’m a cellar gnome, most everything concerns me.”
“I should hope not,” Hawthorn said. “I’d rather rats take in interest in my affairs than a grubby gnome.”
Tum looked offended. “I’m not grubby! Rats are grubby.”
“What’s in there, Tum?” Holly said.
“Told you: nothing.”
She reached for the collar of his shirt but he darted out of the way, straight into Hawthorn who grabbed him instead and hoisted him off his feet.
Tum howled in protest and flailed his arms and legs as Hawthorn swung him away from the door, which Holly opened. A pile of Francis’ dolls were heaped upon a table, with some scattered on the bare earthen floor.
Hawthorn dropped Tum on the ground outside the shed and wiped his hands on a handkerchief.
“Those are mine!” Tum cried. “Don’t you touch ’em!”
“What are you doing with all these dolls?” Holly said.
“They’re mine! He gave them to me!”
“You mean you took them.” She scrunched up her face. “How’d you get them out here so fast? You didn’t even know about this shed until just a little while ago.”
But Tum just darted past her and Hawthorn’s legs into the shed, grabbed a couple dolls, and ran away with them until he disappeared.
Holly shook her head and returned her attention to the shed. Other than the dolls, she couldn’t tell what was so special. There was a table and some tools hanging from the walls. And there was a crate covered with a grimy cloth. She pulled it aside and gasped and jumped back, stumbling into Hawthorn.
“What is it?” he said.
“I… I’m not sure what it is. But it’s looking at me.”
Holly ventured another peek into the box and, just like before, a disembodied face peered back at her. Yet as she looked closer, she could see that there were only holes instead of eyes, and that the skin was really molded wax.
“It’s a mask,” she said. “A creepy, horrible mask. Why is it out here?”
“I certainly don’t know, but now you have something to tell Hazel.”
Holly nodded. “I guess we’d better get back.”
They returned to the house and rejoined the others. Holly still had her plate with the eggs and Francis, seeing her missing bread, supplied her with a new slice while beaming at her and complimenting her appetite.
“Well?” Hazel whispered as Holly sat down next to her.
When Holly told her, Hazel just gaped at her. But she couldn’t ask any more questions, because Francis took to talking instead.
“So, you mentioned last night you were looking for someone. This person got a name?”
“His name is Ash,” Hazel said. “He’s my and Holly’s father. And we’re not sure if he came through here or not. We’ve only come here on the basis of a far-fetched theory.”
Francis perked up. “Oh? Those are the best ones. What’s your theory?”
Hazel glanced at the others and then, folding her hands on the table, said, “Our father, unfortunately, has involved himself with some rather unsavory magical practices.” She studied Francis as she spoke, but Francis just smiled as he spooned some beans onto a plate and handed the plate to Hemlock.
Hemlock sniffed the plate and, with a look that said he was throwing caution out the window, he started eating.
“I’m speaking of necromancy,” Hazel said.
Francis waved his spoon at her. “Not sure I follow what’s so unsavory about necromancy.”
Holly sucked in her breath as Hazel clenched her jaw and stared at Francis in the same way she usually looked at Holly when she was trying really hard not to yell at her (but usually did anyway).
“It’s an atrocious practice,” Hazel said, her voice tight. “It is manipulation of the dead for one’s own personal gain. How can you not see the unsavoriness of that?”
“Death is a part of life. I don’t see how manipulation of dead things is any different than manipulation of living things. You a worker of magic? You ever manipulate living things?”
“Well, yes, but–”
“But there you go. We’re all in the same boat. All magic is is finding different ways of steering that boat. But we’re all going to the same place, regardless of how we get there.”
Hazel’s mouth worked soundlessly, but words seemed to have abandoned her.
“How do you know so much about magic?” Holly said. “You a warlock?”
Francis chuckled. “Warlock? Goodness me, no. I’m a simple dollmaker. But as a dollmaker, I understand that there are forces in the world beyond us, and that sometimes we can talk these forces into working for us.”
Hazel narrowed her eyes. “Is that what the mask is for? Out in the shed?”
“Hazel!” Holly hissed.
Francis paled. “You saw the Witness?”
“No, she didn’t– Ow!” Holly said when Hazel dug her nails into her hand.
“I saw everything.” Hazel said, raising her chin.
“Oh, no no no,” Francis said. “This changes things. This changes everything!” He got up from the table and flapped his arms uselessly a while, then ran from the room.
“Well, that can’t be good,” Hawthorn said. “Pass the beans, Hemlock.”
Hemlock blinked at him and then at Hazel as he pushed the pot of beans over to his brother. “What just happened?”
“Hazel just got us in trouble!” Holly said.
“We don’t know that!” Hazel snapped. Then she straightened her back and folded her hands on the table. “Let’s just see what happens before we jump to any conclusions.”
Hawthorn pointed a spoonful of beans at her. “I think you’d better hope old Martha is clean out of chickens.”
Next: Meeting the Mayor