Hazel and Holly — Disastrous Discipline
Previous: Meeting the Mayor
“Have you gone mad?!” Holly shouted as she and Hazel stood alone in the main room of the cottage. “You’re going to let him flog you?!”
Hazel flinched. Holly wasn’t usually one to shout. “Pretend. He’s going to pretend to flog us.”
Holly folded her arms. “Right. And I’m going to sprout wings and fly around the sun. You can’t possibly believe him!”
“He has no reason to lie. If he was going to flog us, he’d just do it without the pretense. So, yes, I do believe him. And he’s promised to help us find Father. We need this, Holly.”
“No, we don’t. We’ve gotten this far on our own, haven’t we?”
“Yes, and the path we’ve been following has been getting exceedingly narrower. Where do we go from here, Holly? Can you tell me that?”
“You don’t even know if he can help us. You could be doing all this for nothing!”
“And what would you suggest we do instead? I don’t see you providing any ideas.”
Holly frowned and pursed her lips. “We still have the potions,” she murmured.
“The potions Odd gave me. We should drink them. They might help us.”
Hazel had completely forgotten about the potions. “What good will they do?”
“I don’t know. Maybe more good than whatever potion it was that you drank.”
“I–” Hazel began but was interrupted when Hemlock and Hawthorn walked in.
“They’re here,” Hemlock said as he walked up to Hazel. “We need to go.”
Francis hurried into the room, brightening when his gaze fell on Hazel and Hemlock. “Ah, there you are. The wagon’s ready to take you to the town square. We best get moving, the folk don’t like to be kept waiting, eh?”
Hazel wanted to say something to Holly. Something to reassure her and let her know everything would be fine. But the words seemed to die on Hazel’s tongue, and Francis’ impatient prodding only jumbled her thoughts. Before she knew what was happening, Hemlock was gently leading her out the door and into the back of Francis’ wagon that had been strewn with fresh straw. Strings of dolls had been nailed to the outside of the wagon, and the two horses each wore a wreath of the things around their necks.
“Why so many dolls?” Hazel asked. “Surely you don’t mean to protect us?”
Francis looked offended. “I always offer protection to the condemned. It’s only polite. Best sit down so you don’t get jostled from the wagon and break your neck.” He skipped up to the driver’s seat, flicked the reins, and the wagon started moving.
Holly and Hawthorn walked out of the cottage. Holly took a few steps forward, as if to follow Hazel and Hemlock. But then she clenched her hands and remained still, watching until the wagon rounded a bend and fell out of sight.
Hazel sighed and put a hand over her eyes. Maybe Holly was right. Maybe she was being foolish and this whole show would be nothing but a terrible mistake.
“She’ll be fine,” Hemlock said. When Hazel looked up at him, he added, “So will we.”
Hazel wanted to believe him, but a sickening weight had settled in her gut, keeping her from feeling anything but a heavy dread.
The ride to the town square was long and quiet. The sun gleamed in the clear blue sky, shining upon a renewed world after the storm. They passed wheat and rye fields, the stalks long and golden and rippling in the wind. The even passed a field of sunflowers. The great yellow flowers had withered and browned, and their blackened faces drooped towards the earth rather than watching the sun. Through the fields and orchards was an occasional house. Sometimes a person would be standing in front of the house, shouting something incoherent as the wagon rolled by. Probably curses, given the circumstances.
After they passed a few of these houses, people started to follow them. Some carried bulging burlap sacks as they hurried after the plodding wagon. Others carried long walking sticks as they briskly kept pace. Then, on the road behind them, a rickety wagon came into view and the people who’d been falling behind scrambled up into it.
But one man with a sturdy walking stick kept pace with Hazel and Hemlock’s wagon. He drew close to them and said, “So, did you see it?”
“What?” Hazel said.
“The Witness. Did you really see it? Or was it all just stories?”
“Why else would we be here if we didn’t see it?”
The man shrugged. “I’d always heard a man’d get smited to ash if he ever looked upon the Witness unprepared. You’re not smited, so I’m wonderin’ which story is false.”
Hazel rolled her eyes. “Use your imagination.”
“See, now, I’ve been tryin’ for that. But my ‘magination can’t fathom much when it comes to the Witness, you get me?”
“I’m sure I don’t.”
“So… did you see it or not?”
Hazel fixed him in an intent, level gaze. “What would you say if we didn’t see it? That this whole display was a ridiculous sham? What would you say to that?”
The man blinked at her a few times then scratched the back of his head. “Well, now… I’m not sure what I’d say to that.”
“Best news I’ve heard all day.”
The man stopped walking and simply stared at them as the wagon pulled away and he soon fell out of sight.
“Do you think that was a good idea?” Hemlock said. “What you told him?”
Hazel shook her head. “I don’t know. I just wanted him to leave us alone. So I guess that worked at least.”
By the time Hazel and Hemlock reached the town, there were two wagons filled with ogling passengers following them as well as a pack of onlookers on foot that had managed to keep up the entire way.
The town was small, boasting only a handful of buildings nestled between a pair of sloping, grass-covered hills. Signs in front of a few of the buildings identified them as a notary, a general store, and a barber. The rest were signless, so maybe they were just houses. In the middle of it all, a wooden platform had been erected, draped along the edges with colorful ribbons, braids of woven wheat, and more of Francis’ dolls.
“You have a hand in that?” Hazel said, nodding towards the platform when Francis came around to help them out of the wagon.
He beamed at her. “You’ve got a good eye. Benjamin did the woodwork—I’m useless with a hammer, see?—but the dolls will look out for you in your time of need.”
“You seem awfully concerned for our welfare, considering what we’ve done.”
“I don’t wish you ill, if that’s what you mean. I figure it was plain stupidity and ignorance what made you search out the Witness like that, rather than any sort of malice.”
“But we got rules,” Francis continued, “and you broke ‘em. So, you get a good learning here, and then we can all have a good laugh and a picnic and then go home.”
Hazel thought his reference to a picnic was just his addled wit, but then she noticed people sitting on blankets out in the grass while fishing goods from baskets and parcels. One of the wagons that had been following them slowed to a halt in the town, and the people clutching bulging burlap sacks hopped off, ran to the grass, and set up little picnics of their own.
“Looks like we’re the day’s entertainment,” Hemlock muttered.
“I guess we should be glad they’re not throwing anything at us,” Hazel said.
Francis looked affronted. “Wasteful to throw perfectly good food away, either for men-folk or the pigs. Now, you two get up on the platform there and wait for Emmond.”
“You mean he’s not here yet?”
“He likes to make an entrance.”
Wonderful, Hazel thought, but remained silent. Francis was eyeing her, so instead she said, “Let’s get this over with,” and she and Hemlock walked over to the platform and ascended the set of wooden stairs.
Hazel fiddled with her skirt, feeling awkward at standing there on display. More and more townspeople were taking notice of them, and some left left their blankets and food on the grass as they came to get a closer look.
Emmond arrived riding a mule. The animal had been adorned with a wreathe of wheat and wildflowers crowned around its long, twitching ears. Some of the townsfolk cheered, and he smiled and waved as if he were in a mummers parade.
“Good grief,” Hazel muttered.
“He knows how to charm a crowd, at least,” Hemlock said. “Let’s hope that works in our favor.”
Emmond hopped off the mule as the animal wandered off to graze in the grass. He was dressed in a finely tailored brown vest and linen shirt with the gold chain of a pocket watch glinting in the sunlight. He joined Hazel and Hemlock on the platform and raised his arms.
“Friends!” he shouted as more of the crowd came forward. “We gather here on this fine day not for companionship, nay, but to right a grim wrong. This man and woman,” he pointed at Hazel and Hemlock, “I fear have committed a grievous crime. You may have heard rumors. You may have suspicions. Let me say it now: this man and woman have looked upon the Witness.”
Murmurs and gasps rustled through the crowd. Hazel had to focus very hard to keep her expression neutral and to not roll her eyes or do anything else inflammatory.
Emmond nodded. “Yes, it is so. No one in the past hundred years has looked upon the aspect of the Witness unprepared, and it pains me greatly to relay this most unfortunate news.”
“Put out their eyes!” a man shouted from the crowd. There were a few nods and murmurs of assent.
Emmond nodded again. “We could do that, yes.”
“What?” Hazel began but Hemlock put a hand on her shoulder and she bit the inside of her cheek and forced herself to remain silent.
Emmond cast her a quick glance before turning back towards the crowd with his ready-made smile. “But are we not more civilized than that? Are we not more illuminated and restrained?”
The crowd members glanced at one another with questioning looks. Someone coughed.
“Are we not more merciful?” Emmond added.
“Yes?” a woman said.
“Exactly, good wife Beatrice!” Emmond exclaimed and Beatrice donned a smug smile as she looked around the crowd.
“We are indeed more merciful,” Emmond went on. “The putting out of eyes is well beneath us, and I put it to you good folks to find a better form punishment for these two wayward, yet repentant, souls.
“Throw them in a pit!”
“Tar and feather ‘em and run ‘em out of town!”
“Cover their heads with sacks of bees!”
This last suggestion came from a squat man in the middle of the crowd and, judging by the aghast looks of his neighbors and his reddening cheeks, he had gone too far. He shuffled his feet and wrung his hands and, in a meek voice, suggested, “Flog them?”
Emmond smiled and pointed at him. “You always had a nose for justice, Ernie, along with the oddly dramatic.” This elicited a few chuckles among the crowd and Ernie’s blushing cheeks reddened even more.
“Yes, good folk, I put forth that these two make amends with a proper, honest flogging.”
“Except it’s not honest,” came a man’s voice. The crowd parted, and Hazel’s heart sank when she saw it was the same man that had been pestering her on the way over. “The whole thing’s a sham.” He pointed at Hazel. “She told me herself!”
Emmond put on his smile and forced out a stiff chuckle. “What nonsense. Have you been spending your nights in the cider cellar again, Sid?” He grinned around at the crowd, but only one or two managed to chuckle feebly along with him, the rest were frowning as they scrutinized Sid, Hazel, Hemlock, and Emmond.
“Did she not really see the Witness?” one lady asked.
“Are you making fools of us, Emmond?” a tall, burly man asked, his ham-like hands balled into fists. “You know I don’t like being made a fool.”
Emmond’s syrupy smile faded and he put up his hands. “Nobody’s making a fool out of anyone, Dennet. You know I wouldn’t do that. I swear to you, they confessed to me they saw the Witness. Why would they lie about that, knowing it would bring repercussions?”
“But they haven’t been smited into ash!” Sid said. “They must be lying!”
The murmurs surrounding the man grew louder, and beads of sweat began to collect on Emmond’s brow. He put up his hands again. “Friends, please!” But then someone lobbed an apple from the crowd that thunked against Emmond’s head.
The crowd grew eerily silent for the span of a breath. Then chaos erupted. People started shoving each other. Those who came near Dennet soon found themselves face-down on the ground. Ernie scuttled away and hid behind a tree. For a moment, it looked as if everyone had forgotten Hazel and Hemlock. Then Sid cried out and started towards them and, in doing so, drew the attention of the others. Hazel and Hemlock backed away. Emmond hesitated, glancing between Hazel and Dennet, who was now advancing on him. He gave a quick bow, then hurried to his mule grazing in the grass and made a hasty retreat.
Hazel went for the stairs but Beatrice–her face flushed and eyes glinting with an feverish fervor–blocked her way.
“What do we do with them?” Beatrice shouted to the others.
“Cover their heads with sacks of bees!” Ernie shrilled from behind his tree.
“You’re a freaky little git, Ernie,” Dennet said.
“Get out of my way,” Hazel said as she tried pushing past Beatrice.
But Beatrice grabbed hold of her arm and, as Hazel struggled to free herself, Dennet came up behind her and put a thick, heavy hand on her shoulder.
Hazel froze and peered up at him.
Dennet smiled a broad, gap-toothed grin.
Hemlock murmured a spell and, in the middle of the crowd, a towering man shimmered into being. He was head and shoulders taller than the tallest man there and wore a long black cloak that covered the narrow frame of his body. The face that peered out of the hood was sallow and lumpy with a fixed, vacant expression and empty blackened holes for eyes.
“It’s the Witness,” someone said. A woman gasped and fainted. Ernie bolted from behind the tree and ran down the road until he was out of sight. Everyone that remained froze in place and stared at the Witness in wide-eyed wonder.
The Witness raised a hand and pointed a long, pale finger at Beatrice.
“She’s been marked!” Sid shouted. Half the remaining onlookers charged at Beatrice, the other half followed Ernie’s lead and made for the hills. But Dennet remained unfazed. He tightened his grip on Hazel’s shoulder, and so Hazel summoned a sharp gust of air and hit him square in the gut with it.
He staggered back, arms flailing as he struggled to keep his balance.
Hemlock grabbed Hazel’s hand, and then they ran.
Next: Chester’s Field Day