Hazel and Holly — Milled Messages, Part One
Previous: Through the Keyhole, Part Two
Holly ran over to Hawthorn as he lay on the ground. She fell to her knees and scrabbled at his coat and gently patted his cheek.
“Hawthorn? Wake up. Please, wake up.” She looked up at Hemlock, who had also hurried over, and felt a pang of panic at Hemlock’s distressed expression.
“How do we wake him up?” she said.
Hemlock shook his head as his mouth hung open. “I… I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know? Do something!”
Hawthorn groaned and put a hand to his head.
Holly helped him sit up. “Are you all right?”
Hawthorn stared at her and mumbled something incoherent.
“He’s cooked his brain!” Holly said.
Hemlock said, “Just… give him a minute.” He squatted down and put a hand on Hawthorn’s shoulder. Looking into his eyes, Hemlock said, “You’ve ruined your best jacket, brother.”
Hawthorn’s expression remained vacant as his jaw slackened.
Hemlock tightened his grip on Hawthorn’s shoulder. “Not to worry, though. I’m sure Holly can sew you a new one out of the curtains.”
Hawthorn continued to stare at his brother for several heartbeats when his brow finally furrowed. “Curtains?” he murmured, his voice raspy and strained. “On me?” He let out a sharp wheeze that might have been an attempt at laughter. “Only if you put it on my cold, turgid corpse.”
Hemlock smiled and gave Hawthorn’s shoulder another squeeze. “He’s fine.”
Holly wrapped her arms around Hawthorn and hugged him tight. Then she shoved him. “You stupid idiot! What were you thinking, doing a spell like that?”
Hawthorn grinned. “I was magnificent, wasn’t I?”
“No, you were creepy. Don’t do it again.”
“Creepy because I was magnificent. You’ve never seen anything like it before, have you?”
“No, and I don’t want to. So promise you won’t do it again.”
“I’ll do no such thing.”
Holly grabbed one of his ears and twisted it.
“Ow!” he cried. “Let go, you torturous harpy!”
“Fine, I promise! Now unhand me.”
Holly pursed her lips and let go. “Well, all right, then.”
Hemlock hid a smile behind his hand.
Hawthorn smoothed his hair and attempted to brush his jacket clean, but he gave up and sighed.
“Come on,” Hemlock said as he clasped Hawthorn by the forearm. “Let’s find you some clean clothes.” Hemlock helped his brother to his feet and led him inside the house.
Hazel walked out of the little tincture room with the latest drawer-full of bottles as Hemlock and Hawthorn walked in. Hawthorn was filthy and he dragged his feet as they moved towards the sofa, his head hanging as if it were too much to bear.
“What happened?” she said. “I heard commotion out there. I’ve been trying to pack up everything I can find so we can leave.”
“Resplendent victory happened,” Hawthorn said in a sudden display of renewed vigor. “Victory!” He stumbled over his feet and fell onto the sofa.
“Is he drunk?” Hazel said.
Hemlock chuckled and shook his head. “He just cooked his brain a little, but he’ll be fine.” At Hazel’s perplexed look, he added, “I’ll explain it all later, but the townspeople have gone and I don’t think they’ll be coming back. So we should have some time.”
Hazel let out a long breath as she set down the drawer of tinctures on the floor near the door along with two others. “I can’t say I’m not thankful for that. I have no idea what I’m looking for here. My only plan was to grab everything not nailed down to take with us and sort out later. I could really use the extra time.”
Hemlock smiled. “Well, you have it.” He nodded towards Hawthorn. “I’m going to go find him some new clothes. I’ll be right back.” He walked out the door as Holly walked in. She started for Hazel, but then noticed Hawthorn curling up on the sofa, and headed towards him instead.
Holly pushed Hawthorn’s legs aside as she sat next to him and started prodding his arm. “I don’t think you should lie down, in case you fall asleep. You probably shouldn’t fall asleep so soon after cooking your brain.”
Hazel said, “Why does everyone keep saying he’s cooked his brain?”
“Well, he didn’t actually cook it, but it’s not like he didn’t give it a good go.”
Hazel opened her mouth to reply when Hemlock came back in with a bundle of folded clothes. He took them over to Hawthorn, which roused him out of his half-asleep stupor.
“What took you so long?” Hawthorn murmured.
“Sorry,” Hemlock said, “but I’m unable to summon your cherished vestments with a snap of my fingers.”
“Do work on that.”
Hemlock rolled his eyes.
Hawthorn got to his feet and swayed as he began to unbutton his coat. Hemlock reached out to steady him. Holly just stood there, looking on.
Hazel said, “Holly, I could use some help searching the mill outside.”
Several moments passed before Holly started and turned to look at her. “What?”
Hazel sighed. “Come help me outside. Hemlock can help Hawthorn get dressed without you looking on like a creepy window-lurker.”
“I wasn’t lurking,” Holly said as she headed towards the door, casting one quick glance back at Hawthorn as he peeled off his dirty jacket.
“No, but you have the creepy part covered well enough.”
Holly opened her mouth again, but Hazel said, “Oh, just come on.”
Once they were outside, Hazel said, “I thought you said you weren’t interested in Hawthorn anymore.”
“I’m not, but,” Holly lowered her voice to a whisper, “he’s still very pretty.”
Hazel shook her head as she opened the door to the mill. Inside, the few narrow windows were shuttered and the room stood dark. Holly spoke a spell and a little flame blossomed in her cupped hands.
The darkness receded to show a cramped circular interior that was dominated by a pair of great millstones, one stacked atop the other. A great wooden shaft that turned the bottom stone—when the mill was functional—disappeared into the low timber ceiling that also served as the floor of the second level, accessed by a narrow set of stairs along one part of the wall. The air smelled stale and dusty, but also slightly nutty in a way that wasn’t entirely unpleasant.
“Well,” said Holly, “what are we looking for?”
“I don’t know,” Hazel said. “Let’s just see what we can find.”
Holly ran a finger along a hopper that fed grain into the stones and frowned. “Why would Father come here?”
“I don’t know, Holly. The reasons why Father has done anything in his life are well beyond me.”
The two sisters poked around the ground floor of the mill, searching for anything that looked out of place. But all they found was dust and remnants of old flour and various tools of the milling trade hanging from pegs. They took the stairs to the second floor, but didn’t find anything there, either.
“There’s nothing here, Hazel,” Holly said as they ascended to the third, and final, floor. The space in which they had to stand was narrow and cramped as the low ceiling arced to a point a few feet above their heads. They had to keep near the wall, as the great wooden shaft that came through the floor was capped at calf-height by a great wooden gear, perpendicularly connected to an even greater gear pinioned by a smaller shaft that led to the windmill sails outside. Holly peeked through the little window that accommodated the shaft connecting to the sails.
“It’s starting to get dark outside,” Holly said. “Are we going to spend the night here? Because, you know, I’d rather not.”
Hazel said nothing as she looked around the cramped chamber. There were no tools or cupboards or anything else that looked out of place. There wasn’t even so much as a scuff on the floor to indicate their father had ever come here. Hazel sighed as she peered out the tiny window alongside Holly. What was she supposed to do, now?
The sun sank towards the horizon, turning the sky golden and sending the shadows from the trees to stretch across the wild, untended grass. As the fading light slanted across the windmill sails, a small, box-like object cast a little shadow of its own.
Hazel narrowed her eyes as she tried to get a better look. “What is that out there?”
“What’s out where?” Holly said as she craned her neck and brought her head closer to Hazel’s. “I don’t see anything.”
“There’s something on one of the sails.”
“On the uppermost one to the right.” Hazel pointed. “There, near the edge.”
Holly wrinkled her nose as she squinted out the window. “I don’t see it.”
“Never mind about that. How do we get that sail down within reach?”
“Um, I don’t know. Get it to turn. With some wind. We need wind.”
A slight breeze stirred outside. Hazel spoke a spell that intensified it, but the sails remained still. “They didn’t even budge.”
“Try it again.”
Hazel did, but with the same result. She sighed and turned around to eye the machinery in the mill. “Is there a brake that’s keeping the sails from turning?”
She and Holly poked around the gears and shafts.
“Here’s a lever,” Holly said, and before Hazel could stop her, she pulled on it. There was a clanging sound, and a wooden band raised up from the great gear that joined the smaller one just above the floor. Outside, the sails lazily rotated about an arm’s length before they stopped again.
“Closer,” Holly said.
“But not close enough.” Hazel summoned more wind, but the breeze was sill too gentle.
“You need to step it up a bit.”
“I thought I was,” Hazel said. “Obviously the nuances of conjuring wind intensity is a skill I’ve yet to master.”
“Go get Hemlock,” Holly said. “Maybe he can help.”
“Help with what?” Hemlock said as he walked up the narrow set of stairs into the tiny little loft.
“Hazel needs help conjuring up some wind.”
Heat crept into Hazel’s cheeks and she straightened her back. It was silly, feeling so defensive about such a trivial matter, but she couldn’t help it. “I can conjure the wind just fine. I just need more of it.”
“There’s a little box or something on one of the sails,” Holly said. “I can see it now, right there.” She pointed.
Hemlock adjusted his glasses and nodded. “All right. Sounds simple enough. Go outside and get ready to grab whatever’s on that sail as it goes by.”
“If they get going too fast,” Holly said, “here’s the brake.” She patted the iron lever.
“Good to know.”
Hazel and Holly made their way outside the mill and positioned themselves inside the sails’ arc. The sails themselves were massive—the bottom-most ones ended just above the knee-high grass.
The wind kicked up, and, after a few moments, the sails eased into motion. The joints of the sails creaked and groaned. After a few seconds, the one with the box swung low to the ground. The sail wasn’t moving particularly fast, but even so it swung by and out of reach before Hazel had a chance to grab the box.
“It’s moving too fast!” she shouted up to Hemlock.
“Right!” came Hemlock’s distant reply.
She waited for the sail to come around again. Holly hunkered down as she readied herself. The wind died down, but the sails kept on at the same speed. When the sail with the box made its way back down, a groaning sound resounded from within the mill, and the sails shuddered before slowing to a stop.
The box on the sail was about as wide as a ring box but twice as long. It looked to be built into the wood of the sail itself and didn’t want to come off.
“I can burn it off,” Holly said.
“Not when we don’t know what’s in it,” Hazel said.
Hemlock left the mill and joined them outside, but he remained silent as Hazel poked around the box.
There was no way in, not that she could tell. The sails were massive slats of wood, and the little box looked to be a natural part of that.
“Maybe it’s not supposed to come off,” Holly said. “Maybe it belongs there.”
Maybe she was right. Hazel’s stomach sank. She had been so certain that she would find something here.
The sun continued its descent and sank below the horizon, lighting the sky on fire in brilliant shades of orange and red.
“We should go,” Holly whispered.
Hazel shook her head. “Where? We’ve nowhere to go.”
Holly said nothing. She put a hand on Hazel’s shoulder, but Hazel couldn’t bring herself to meet her sister’s eyes. Then Holly turned and headed back inside the house.
Hemlock stood next to her but remained silent, for which Hazel was grateful. She just needed a moment to clear her head.
The fire in the sky faded, cooling to a deep, pristine blue. A few stars winked into existence, studding the fabric of the young night like luminous pearls.
On the box, a faint, silvery script began to glow. Hazel drew closer to it, squinting her eyes as she tried to make out its meaning.
“What is that?” Hemlock said.
She shook her head. “I don’t know. It looks like a symbol of some sort.” It was a circle intersected with a cross and topped with a tiny star. “Have you ever seen anything like it before?”
What could it mean? Did it mean anything? Maybe it was like the Witness mask—a relic from a bygone age that only held superstitious significance for those who cared to remember it. Was it a mark of protection? Or maybe a spell to bring bountiful harvests?
She stared at the symbol, fixating on the cross that separated the circle into four parts. Four was a significant number in magic. There were the four elements of fire, water, air, and earth. There were four Divinities—the Ladies of the Sky and Sea, Lords of the Trees and Sun. Yet if Hawthorn was to be believed, there was also a fifth element, a fifth divinity. Was that what the little star meant? Outside the realm of nature yet still belonging. A Lord of Ether. A Lady of Night and Stars. A siphoner of souls.
A chill crawled up Hazel’s neck. This couldn’t be a coincidence—finding a symbol that referenced necromancy in a place similar to what she had seen in her vision. Once again she tried to remove the box, but it remained immovable. Growing frustrated, she spoke a Weaving spell that altered the sail behind the box. The wood cracked as it softened, but the box itself began to darken as if it had taken to rot. The glowing symbol began to fade. Fearful she might destroy it—and whatever it might contain—Hazel stopped her spell, and the symbol regained its muted glow.
Necromancy. Leave it to a rotten art to rot perfectly sound wood. She tried her spell again, only this time she altered it, souring the wood herself, twisting it into something ugly, something dark. She focused her spell directly onto the box. The circular symbol glowed brighter, and the box fell to the grassy ground.
Hazel picked up the box and opened it. Inside was a lock of golden hair, tied together with a stiff white ribbon. Underneath it lay a slip of paper. Hazel took the paper and unfolded it, but it was too dark outside to read.
Hemlock summoned a glowing moth that fluttered around her hands, illuminating in its soft light the following message:
It is time.