Hazel and Holly — Meeting the Mayor
Previous: Witnessing Trouble
“He’s not really going to tar and feather you, is he Hazel?” Holly asked.
“Perhaps we should think about leaving,” Hawthorn said, “before we find out.”
“Would someone please tell me what’s going on?” Hemlock said. “Why am I the only one not in on this?”
Holly told him of the morning’s events while Hawthorn continued to glower at Hazel.
“What I don’t understand,” Hawthorn said, “is why you must purposefully aggravate the man. Why have Holly sneak out to the shed only to tell him you were out there? What was the point?”
“I don’t know!” Hazel said. “He was just so… so smug talking about how ‘natural’ necromancy is that I couldn’t help myself. This certainly wasn’t how I thought the morning would go.”
“You do have a gift for the unexpected,” Hawthorn said. “So well done with that.”
Hazel glared at him.
“What’s done is done,” Hemlock said. “We need to figure out what to do next.”
“I think we should leave,” Holly said. “We’re leaving, right?”
“I should think so,” Hawthorn said.
Hazel said, “We’re not leaving.”
“Has anyone ever told you you have the most dreadful sense of humor?” Hawthorn asked.
Hazel narrowed her eyes. “Yes, as a matter of fact. But we’re still not leaving.”
Hawthorn put up his hands and then, shaking his head, returned his interest to the pot of beans.
“Hazel,” Holly said, “be reasonable.”
“No, I will not be reasonable because this is an unreasonable situation. Where else can we go? To say that coming here was a long shot in finding Father is being overly optimistic. But right now, it’s all we have, and I am not giving up!” Hazel’s voice had risen and she cleared her throat as she tried to regain her composure.
“Leaving’s not an option,” Hemlock said. “So we need to focus our attention on how we’re going to keep Hazel–and quite potentially all of us–from getting tarred and feathered.”
Everyone grew silent.
“Anyone?” Hemlock said.
Hawthorn sighed and rubbed his forehead. “I really need new friends,” he muttered.
Francis returned to the kitchen, his wrinkled face flustered. He flapped his hands at Hazel. “Time to go. I got the wagon ready, so we better be off. The rest of you… ah…” He flapped his hands some more. “We’ll figure it out later. But you and me,” he said to Hazel, “we’re going into town.”
Hazel got up from her chair. “I’m doing no such thing.”
Hemlock got up with her. “She’s not going anywhere.”
Holly and Hawthorn remained sitting, blinking up at everyone.
“I must insist,” Francis said. “You saw the Witness. Isn’t anyone supposed to see the Witness unprepared.”
“I don’t even know what this Witness is.”
Francis thrust a finger at her. “Exactly! Come quietly, or I’ll have to get the rope and branding irons from Norris. And you don’t want to be on the poking end of Norris’ branding irons! The man hasn’t had any cattle for years, so he’s itching somethign fierce for some skin to burn.”
Hazel drew herself up, even as she struggled to keep the horror from showing on her face. “If you think I’m going to make it easy for you to inflict whatever twisted form of punishment you have planned for me, then you’re sorely mistaken.”
“Punishment? Goodness me, I don’t decide any punishments. I just need to get you to Emmond. He’s the one that does all the deciding. I’d prefer if you came quietly, but I’ll fetch Norris and his irons if that’ll help motivate you.”
“And what is it you think Emmond will decide to do? Can I expect to be tarred and feathered?”
Francis blinked at her a few times. “Well, I suppose that depends on whether or not he decides to run you out of town. At times like this, it’s always better to come in nice and quiet. The more trouble you make… well… we don’t like trouble.”
Hazel sighed. She looked at Hemlock, but he just shrugged. She turned to Francis and raised her chin. “Very well. I will accompany you to meet this Emmond.”
“I’m coming with you,” Hemlock said.
“Me too!” Holly said.
“I’ll wait here, then,” Hawthorn said.
Holly kicked him under the table.
“You wanted to be included,” Hemlock said. “Well, this is being included.”
Hawthorn glanced at them all, then pushed his plate of beans away. “Very well. We’ll all go.”
Holly squeaked and clapped her hands.
Hazel said, “We’re not going on a picnic, Holly.”
“I know, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have fun.”
Hazel shook her head as they all filed out of the kitchen and followed Francis outside to a wagon he had hitched to a couple of horses that stood waiting near the barn. Hemlock’s and Hawthorn’s driver was there, brushing his own horses and watched, rather forlornly, as everyone crawled up into the back of Francis’ wagon. Except for Hawthorn, who seemed to reconsider his display of solidarity when he saw the filthy wagon bed. But when Francis crawled in the driver’s seat and flicked the reins, he hopped up and joined the others just as the wagon started to roll away. He tried brushing a clean patch next to Holly, but the wagon jolted and, losing his balance, he groped at Holly to keep himself from falling face-first onto the grimy wood.
“Hey!” Holly shouted as she pushed him away. “Hands off, mister… handsy!”
“Honestly, Hawthorn,” Hemlock said, smirking. “You could at least bring her flowers first.”
“That’s funny,” Hawthorn said. “I don’t recall you ever bringing Hazel flowers.”
Hemlock’s cheeks reddened.
“All right,” Hazel said. “We’re changing the subject. Right now.”
To Holly, Hawthorn said, “Apologies, madame, for my unsolicited forwardness. It was not my intention.”
Holly looked him up and down and said, “Well, all right, then. Just sit down before you grab something else.”
Hawthorn sat next to her, and the group fell into silence as they watched the countryside ramble by. It was a lovely area. Wooden fences and rough stone walls divided farm fields, orchards and untended, overgrown meadows. They passed an apple orchard where people were already harvesting the fruit from atop long wooden ladders and stowing the apples in canvas sacks slung over their shoulders. Hazel wished she was out there with them rather than sitting in a rickety wagon rolling towards some unknown fate.
The wagon turned up a narrow dirt road flanked on either side by a low stone wall that bordered wild, grassy fields. Their pace slowed as the road led them up a long, steady hill. They rounded a bend, and, further up the hill, the wide and flat slats of a windmill came into view.
Hazel held her breath. This was purely coincidental. It couldn’t possibly be the mill she had been searching for, especially since she’d never been certain it was a mill she’d seen in the first place. But there it was, a mill at the top of a hill, just like she thought she saw after drinking the necromantic potion.
She looked at the others and found everyone watching her. Holly looked stunned and frightened, Hawthorn critical, and Hemlock concerned.
“I’m sure it’s just a coincidence,” she said. But everyone kept staring at her, apparently unconvinced.
“Do you think Father’s here?” Holly said, her eyes growing wider.
Hazel shook her head. “No, absolutely not. Why would he be?” But the more Hazel thought about it, the more uncertain she became. She wasn’t ready to face her father. What would she say to him? What would she do? Her stomach twisted with her nerves and so she just gave another resolute shake of her head. “Just, no.”
Next to the mill was a tiny cottage, smaller than Hazel’s and Holly’s cottage back in the Grove. They stopped in front of it, and Francis hopped down and opened the back of the wagon. Once everyone had clambered out, he stuffed one of his dolls into Hazel’s skirt pocket, winked at her, then headed inside.
Hazel stiffly followed him, willing herself to leave the doll alone and not wrench it out of her pocket and throw it away. Or, worse, at the back of Francis’ balding head. Hemlock, perhaps noticing her struggle, took one of her clenched hands and gingerly held it. She gave him a feeble smile just as they stepped over the threshold and into the cottage.
It took a moment for her eyes to adjust from the brightness outside, but once they had, she was pleasantly surprised. Bundles of herbs and flowers hung from the rafters as they dried, filling the air with a pleasant aroma. A black potbelly stove stood at one end of the room, near a sofa with cushions embroidered with flowers and leaves, resting on a woven carpet that depicted a forest scene. At the other end of the room sat a polished wooden table, decorated with a beveled glass bowl filled with apples, and surrounded with high-backed chairs with embroidered cushions that matched the sofa. The room truly was lovely–a cozy space in which Hazel would have liked to spend her time. She didn’t know how to feel about that, given the circumstances.
A single door along one wall opened, and in walked a stout man that looked more square than round. He had greying black hair and a thick neck, and he walked up to Francis as he peered at the others.
“What’s this?” he said as he clapped Francis on the back with a meaty hand. “Visitors?”
Francis nodded. “Came in with the storm. Normally that’d be a good thing, you know? But these have gotten into some mischief.” He blinked at Hazel a few times before turning back to Emmond and whispered, “She saw the Witness.”
Emmond’s broad, smiling face darkened. “Well now, that’s serious.”
“It’s just a mask,” Hazel said. “I don’t see what the fuss is all about.”
Emmond studied her. “Just you, then? No one else?”
“I–” Holly began.
“Just me,” Hazel interrupted. “No one else.”
“It’s fine, Holly. You don’t need to worry.”
Holly frowned and pressed her lips into a thin line, but she remained silent.
Emmond nodded. “Come with me, then.”
Hemlock said, “I saw the mask, too.”
“So I need to be included in this,” he added.
“He’s lying,” Hazel said. “He didn’t see anything.”
Hemlock shrugged. “My word against hers, and she’s just trying to look out for me. I’d not take any chances though, if I were you.”
Emmond nodded again. “All right, the both of you, with me.” He peered at the others. “Anyone else?”
Holly’s mouth hung open as she stared between Hazel and Hawthorn.
Hawthorn glowered at Hemlock a long while, but Hemlock just glowered back at him. Hazel thought she saw Hemlock give a slight nod towards Holly, but she couldn’t be sure. Then Hawthorn let out a long breath as his expression calmed. He turned to Emmond and said, “No, it was just them. We didn’t see anything.”
“You two wait here then.” To Francis, Emmond said, “You bring Norris’ irons?”
Francis wrung his hands. “No, they came quietly enough. I didn’t think they’d be needed.”
“Well, there’s a poker near the stove there. You start a fire if you want and get the poker nice and hot.”
Francis grinned. “Yes, sir!”
And with that, Emmond led Hazel and Hemlock through the door from which he had come. It led to what looked to be a tincture room. Shelves of bottles and little pots lined the walls, except for where a great wooden cabinet stood. There was a little round table tucked into a corner along with a couple of chairs. Emmond indicated to them to sit, so Hazel and Hemlock did.
Emmond leaned against the cabinet and ran a hand over his face. “So, you saw the mask. What is it you’re expecting to happen right now?”
Hazel and Hemlock glanced at each other. Hazel said, “Honestly, I don’t know. I suspect your man Francis would enjoy a good branding. Either that or we’ll be tarred and feathered.”
Emmond chuckled. “I knew I should’ve never tarred and feathered that man all those years ago. But I was recently made mayor and, well, wanted to make good with the townsfolk. Francis talks about that incident far too much. He’s a good man, but a little touched, you know?”
Hazel was inclined to agree, but she feared it might be a trick. “So, what do you have planned?”
“I’m not sure yet. I’m hoping we can figure something out together.”
Hazel narrowed her eyes. “I don’t understand.”
“Truth be told,” Emmond said. “I hate that mask with its lumpy wax skin and vacant eyes. It’s creepy. But Francis, see, he’s a bit old fashioned. That mask represents an old way of thinking, back when it was used in rituals to pray for healthy crops and children. I’ve been encouraging Francis to focus on his dolls, hoping he’d forget about that stupid mask. But instead he’s latched onto both.” He shook his head.
“Why do you go along with him, then? What was all that nonsense about the hot poker just now?”
Emmond scratched the back of his head and winced. “Yeah, sorry about that. But, see, Francis isn’t the only one with that way of thinking. There’s plenty of folks around here who are of a similar mind, and Francis is well respected. It won’t do to go flaunting these beliefs. Not if I want to live here, and definitely not if I want to be mayor. So we got to play along.”
“Even if it means branding my sister?”
Emmond scoffed a waved a hand. “Francis is mostly harmless. He won’t do anything unless provoked.”
“Mostly harmless? Is that supposed to make me feel better?”
“Let’s get down to business,” Emmond continued. “We need to come up with a punishment for you two, and it’s better if you help decide. We can please everyone that way.”
“You’re as touched as Francis if you think I’m going to be pleased with devising my own punishment for a ridulous and made-up offense.”
“All offenses are made-up. And for Francis and the like, it’s as real as daybreak. So you play along or I’ll come up with one all my own. We both know Francis has been itching for another tarring and feathering. I think he’d be real happy to see another one.”
Hemlock leaned towards Hazel and quietly said, “Maybe we should just come up with something so we can move on and focus on why we came here.”
Hazel shifted in her seat and raised her chin. “I suppose I could apologize.”
Emmond chuckled and shook his head. “Apologizing’s just good manners. It’s not a punishment. I’m not sure you grasp the severity of this. Do you know that in the old days, they’d put out a man’s eyes for looking upon the Witness uninitiated?”
“You can’t be serious,” Hemlock said.
Emmond put up his hands. “Now, I’m not suggesting we do that. I just want you two to understand how fortunate you are to be sitting there having this conversation with me right now. The alternative could’ve very easily been a lot more grim.”
“So what are you suggesting?” Hazel asked.
Emmond made a show of scrutinizing them under heavy brows as he rubbed his chin. Hazel struggled very hard not to roll her eyes.
“Thing is,” Emmond said, “the folk love a good show. Especially Francis. That’s really all they’re looking for, I reckon. So I figure that’s what we need to give them.”
Hazel frowned as she studied him. “What kind of show?”
“The base kind, unfortunately. You know, with whips and chains and all that. It’s utter rubbish. But the folk, see, they love it, and it’s been some time since we’ve had anything of the sort. Don’t get too many visitors passing through these days.”
“I can’t imagine why,” Hazel muttered.
“It’ll all be for show, though,” Emmond continued. “I’ll rattle some chains and you’ll scream for a bit, the folks’ll be appeased and then we can have a good laugh about it later.” He smiled. “What do you say?”
Both Hazel and Hemlock just stared at the man.
Seeing their lacking enthusiasm, Emmond shrugged. “I’m open to other ideas if you’ve got any.”
Hemlock leaned over to her and whispered, “We can still make a run for it if you want.”
She shook her head. To Emmond, she said, “And it’ll all be staged? You won’t actually flog us or anything?”
Emmond shrugged. “I can’t guarantee you won’t get a welt or two. I’m handy with a whip, but sometimes it gets away from me, you know? But a little welt never hurt anyone, I always figure.”
“Are you serious? Of course welts hurt! That’s why they’re welts.”
“I don’t know where you’re from, but out here, we take our lumps and welts with a measure of pride. Sounds like you could do with a few.”
Hemlock rubbed his eyes. Dumbfounded, Hazel could only stare at Emmond. Seemed like Francis wasn’t the only one touched in the head.
“If we do this,” she said. “Then I want something from you in return.”
Emmond’s eyebrows shot up. “Something other than you walking out of here whole and hale for looking on the Witness when you shouldn’t have?” He stared at her and Hemlock. “You’ve got gumption, my friend.”
“I’m looking for my father. If we agree to this, then I want your word you will do all you can to help us find him. If not, I’m walking out of here and telling Francis you’re a fraud and taking my chances out there with him.”
A slow smile stretched across Emmond’s face. “You’ve got a bit of fire in you, don’t you? I like that. All right, I’ll help you with what I can. Just don’t be upset if it turns out to be less than you’d like.”
Next: Disastrous Discipline