Hazel and Holly — Of Mushrooms and Men
Previous: A Star Enshrined Heart
Holly gave silent thanks that they never found a corpse on the road. She had spent a fair amount of time holding her breath in anticipation, but nothing ever arose—either in the air or on the road ahead of them.
“Ravens aren’t always a sign of death,” Norman said, perhaps noticing her relief. “They are the world’s oldest messengers, before pigeons and owls and other such birds became more fashionable. They are the eyes of the gods, keepers of gateways and of memories.”
“Eyes of the gods?” Holly said. “Is that why you were so nervous when one appeared on the road? Do you think the gods are watching us?”
“The gods are always watching, we just do not always notice it.”
“So, what does it mean that we saw one? If it didn’t mean there was something dead on the road?”
Norman looked her right in the eyes with an intensity that unsettled her. “It means that, for good or ill, something is about to change.”
Creepy necromancers and their creepy omens. Holly turned back around and kept her gaze straight ahead.
Night bloomed into day. They stopped from time to time to drink from a stream whenever they found one, and to rest the horses. They didn’t have any food, though, and the pain in Holly’s stomach grew sharper as the day wore on. She let Chester roam free during these moments, hoping he’d be able to find food for himself. Hawthorn complained frequently, of course. But both Holly and Hemlock refused to stop longer than necessary. They needed to find Hazel. After they did, then they could eat.
Day faded into night. The once distant mountains now loomed closer—so close that Holly imagined she could feel the cold air rolling off its high peaks, sharp and pristine and smelling like juniper.
The gibbous moon rose low in the sky, golden and swollen as if filled with honey. Stars sparked into the night above them and, in the surrounding field, stars bloomed in the grass like ghost-lit lanterns.
“Where are we?” Holly said, though she spoke so quietly she doubted anyone heard her. Nobody answered.
Had Hazel gone this way? Had she also seen this field that mistook itself for the night sky? Holly hoped so—not only because she hoped to find her sister—but because she hoped Hazel had gotten to see such beauty and wonder. Everyone should be able to see this.
A rider approached on the road ahead. An orb of blue flame followed him, illuminating his black robes and black horse far better than a plain lantern ever could. Hemlock and Hawthorn slowed the horses and the rider stopped before them.
Silver embroidery adorned his sleeves and the hem of his robe. In the light of his orb, the thread almost looked alive, like snakes writhing in black soil, or mist twining across a night sky.
The man pushed back the hood of his robe to show a young and handsome face. Yet his black robe declared him as a necromancer. That didn’t sit right with Holly—necromancers had no business being handsome.
He bowed from atop his horse. “I bid you good evening, and hope you have had fair travels upon the road.”
Holly didn’t know how to react. His politeness unsettled her.
Silence lingered among the party until Hawthorn said, “If you don’t account for us being boxed up, left for dead on a broken-down wagon, having to keep company with a truculent necromancer, and freezing atop a smelly horse while slowly starving to death, then our travels have been most pleasant, thank you for asking.”
“I am sorry you’ve had troubles. It’s why I’m here. I’ve come to escort you to safety and warmth, where you can avail yourself to as much food and rest as will please you.”
“You’re about fifteen hours late, by my reckoning, but better than never.”
Hemlock said, “It’s awfully convenient, you coming by with promises of food and safety, just as we need it. How did you know we were here?”
“It wasn’t convenience. We share a common acquaintance, and it is by his request that I am here.”
“Common acquaintance?” Holly said. “Who?”
The young man turned his gaze on her. “Your father, Ash.”
Everyone turned silent.
“How…” Holly began but her throat caught and she had to swallow. “How did he know we were here? Is Hazel with him?”
The young man smiled—kindly, not condescending as Holly would have preferred so she could have a reason to dislike him. “Your father is a great man, it would be best if he explained such things as I would not be able to do it proper justice. Please, the night grows colder as you’ve undoubtedly noticed. There will be mulled wine at home, and if we hurry might be able to get some while it’s still hot.”
“Home? Where’s home?”
He smiled again and nodded toward the mountain, then turned his horse and started down the road at an easy pace.
Holly stared at the mountain shrouded in shadows. It didn’t look at all homely. But then, that was probably too much to ask for in a necromancer lair. “Well, I guess we’re visiting the necromancers’ home.”
“As long as it’s warm,” Hawthorn muttered.
Once they caught up to the necromancer, they increased their pace. There was too much jostling and noise from the horses to have any real conversation, but Holly had managed to ask for his name and he had given it—Verrin.
The night wore on as they galloped down the road. Holly’s muscles stiffened in the cold and turned achy from the horse. After a while, she no longer cared that they were headed towards a creepy black mountain. Well, not as much, anyway.
Strangely, the closer they got to the mountain, the less scary it became. Lights shone in small square windows—warm lights from countless candles or fires in hearths. At least in some. Other openings emitted blue lights like the ones they had seen in the Shrine. Great pillars emerged from the mountain face, carved from the stone itself. They were rough, more utilitarian than decorative, but even these helped lend a more homely feel to the hulking, formidable structure. Outside, paths of stairs switched back and forth up the mountain, illuminated by lanterns that cast a ghostly blue-green light.
Verrin stopped at a columned portal and dismounted from his horse. Holly and the others did the same, while Hawthorn helped Norman down. Verrin noticed the necromancer’s bound hands, but said nothing about it. A pair of lit lanterns hung from the columns. He took one and handed it to Hemlock. Then he headed down a dirt path overgrown with tall grass.
Hemlock indicated for Holly to go first, so she did. She relaxed a little at having Hemlock at her back, yet she would’ve rather kept well away from Verrin. Though, she supposed he was an improvement over Norman.
Strands of moonlit grass swayed over the path and brushed against the skirts of her dress. The hushed, swishing sound might have been soothing if the grass itself didn’t look like unearthed worms.
Verrin came to a black door set within the base of the mountain. He pushed it open and stepped inside. Holly and the others followed.
The air was thick and musty, smelling of earth and decaying leaves. The cramped room—little more than a cave—had solid stone walls and a ceiling so low that Holly could stand on her tip-toes and brush the cold rock with her fingertips. Boxes littered the bare earthen floor, all filled with soil, sawdust, and straw, within which different varieties of mushrooms grew.
Verrin extinguished his glowing orb. But there was another light nearby—a lantern of golden, living flame that flickered near the feet of a man who knelt next to one of the boxes. He cut a mushroom with a small paring knife and placed his harvest in a nearby basket. Then he stood, stretched his back, and turned around.
Holly’s breath caught. It was the same man she had seen in her vision when she drank Odd’s potion. The man that looked an awful lot like Hazel. “Father?”
Ash smiled. “You remember. You don’t know how much that pleases me.”
Holly shook her head. She didn’t remember him, she only guessed who he was by his strong resemblance to Hazel. But she remained quiet, not knowing what to do.
“Is Hazel here?” Hemlock said.
Ash’s smile faded as he shifted his gaze to Hemlock. He stared at him a long while, his eyes narrowed and lips quirked into a pensive half-smile.
Holly stared between the two men. “You two know each other, don’t you?”
“More like a passing acquaintance, really,” Hemlock said.
“You’re Lupinus’ boys, aren’t you?” Ash said. “How is your father? I always found him a more reasonable man than most.”
“Dead,” Hemlock said.
Ash gave no reaction. “Pity.”
“You didn’t answer his question,” Holly said. “Is Hazel here?”
“Are you familiar with cultivating mushrooms?” He waved a hand towards one of the boxes.
“They grow in filth,” Hawthorn said. “Frightful things.”
“True,” Ash said. “Filth and darkness. But that is one of the things to be respected of mushrooms. People always go on about the sun and the life it brings to the world, but they rarely speak of the things that grow despite the sun’s absence. Mushrooms are like sparks in the void, life out of lifelessness. That commands respect.”
“I’m very fond of mushrooms,” Holly said. “They’re especially good on toast. But we need to talk about Hazel now. Is she here? Have you seen her?”
Ash walked over to a box filled with a mound of soil dotted with delicate mushrooms with stalks so long and thin that Holly wondered how they were able to hold up the papery, umbrella-like caps.
“Such wondrous things, mushrooms,” Ash said. “With limitless possibilities. They provide everything from humble sustenance, like you said, to the most treacherous poisons. And there are more varieties than we can count.” He turned towards Holly. “Did you know that mushrooms take well to magic?”
He looked at her in a way that suggested he expected an answer. She shook her head.
He returned his attention to the soil. “Some say that because mushrooms thrive in the dark, they belong to the realm of the Shapeless One, and that, due to this, they are especially receptive to magic. While the former could be debated among scholars, of the latter there is no doubt. Mushrooms thrive under careful ministrations tempered by magic, which can lead to new and fantastic varieties never before seen upon this earth. It’s quite magnificent, don’t you think?”
Holly didn’t think it sounded magnificent—not if he was using necromancy to create new, freaky mushrooms that wouldn’t at all taste good on toast. “Hazel,” she said, trying to put a firmness in her voice but didn’t quite succeed.
He kept his gaze on the mushrooms. “Your sister’s a clever girl with great potential. But she is fragile. She has not yet found her way. And until she has, I’m afraid any distractions will likely prove harmful. I’m very sorry.”
“Sorry? About what?”
Verrin spoke a spell that extinguished the lamps in the room and plunged them into darkness. From the boxes of earth, mushrooms glowed pale and blue like moonlight on ice.
Holly stiffened and, behind her, Hemlock gasped. She started a spell to summon a flame, but before she could a glittering blue dust fluttered through the darkness like wind-borne pollen. It floated around her head, tickling her nose and smelling oddly like sandalwood and fish. Holly sneezed, and then she knew no more.
Next: Tormented Love