Hazel and Holly — Seamless Dreams
Previous: Death Before Dawn
Hazel followed the wooded path back to the cottage she shared with her sister. The sun was well up by the time she returned, the warmth pulling the heady scent of honeysuckle into the air. She eyed the herb patch as she passed through the garden, noting a number of red mites on the hyssop and lemon balm, and she made a mental note to return later with a bowl of soapy water to wash the pests away.
She rounded a corner and found a young man standing near the front door, his back against the wall as Holly, with a broom in hand, stood entirely too close to him than was proper or polite.
“What’s going on?” Hazel said.
Holly turned, and the young man slumped as he let out a heavy breath.
Holly grinned, her round cheeks flushed like apple blossoms. “We have a visitor!” she said, brushing away a few wisps of her honey-golden hair that had escaped from her kerchief.
“I can see that,” Hazel said. “Why is he here?”
Holly blinked. “I… I don’t know.” She turned to the young man, and he cringed back into the wall. “Why are you here?”
The young man held up an envelope sealed with a glob of purple wax. “Delivery for the Witch Hazel Sisters,” he said in a feeble voice.
Holly squealed and snatched the envelope from his hand. She dropped the broom as she broke the seal and opened the letter. The young man, seeing he was no longer the object of Holly’s scrutiny, slinked away and ran out of sight.
Hazel picked up the broom and propped it against the wall. “What does it say?”
Holly held the letter in a white-knuckled grip, her lips moving as she silently read to herself. Then she looked up and beamed at Hazel. “It’s an invitation!”
Holly said nothing, dropping the letter on the ground as she ran into the house.
Hazel sighed. The girl was exhausting. She picked up the letter and peered at the elaborate, scrolling hand, adorned with motifs of rabbits and acorns, birds and trees. It was ridiculously lavish, which made the reading laborious at best. Hazel was tempted to pitch it in the trash heap, but didn’t for fear of not being able to get an answer out of Holly. Ignoring the ornamentation as best she could, she made out the following message:
To the most Excellent Sisters of Witchery, Hazel and Holly,
You are cordially invited the estate of Hawthorn and Hemlock, Brothers Extraordinaire of Warlockery, Sorcery and Intrigue, for a night of Magic, Enchantment, and Fabulous Feasting. Present yourselves in your finest attire, along with this invitation, at the Brothers’ estate at eight o’clock on the 23rd night of Ascending Midren, and brace yourselves for what is surely to be the most ineffable event of your entire lives.
As always: Punctuality is of the essence; lollygaggers will be turned at the gate.
Respectfully and Eagerly,
Hawthorn and Hemlock
Hazel frowned. Warlockery? She was fairly certain that wasn’t even a word. Once again, she was tempted to pitch the letter in the trash heap, but she remained fixed in place. Hawthorn and Hemlock were well respected warlocks, and though she disliked the idea of pandering to such unbridled vanity, it still wouldn’t hurt to pay them a visit and see what came of it.
She walked inside the house and found Holly kneeling on the floor and she leaned into a chest that was nearly as large as she was as she rummaged through her clothes. When Hazel closed the door, Holly poked her head up.
“I haven’t anything to wear!” she quailed.
“You’ve got a festival dress,” Hazel said. “You can wear that.”
Holly’s mouth hung open. “Festival dress? Have you gone mad? I can’t wear that!”
“It’s… it’s rustic!”
Hazel folded her arms. “And what’s wrong with rustic?”
Holly slumped, her gaze falling to the floor. “Nothing, it’s just…” she peered at Hazel with dewy, hopeful eyes. “They said it’s going to be ineffable, Hazel. Ineffable. I can’t go dressed as a rustic to something like that!”
Hazel rubbed her eyes. “Fine. If you want something nicer to wear, then you’ll be the one to make it. I’ll not be burdened with being your seamstress, you hear me?”
A broad smile split across Holly’s face and she nodded. She got to her feet and headed for the door.
“You’d best hurry,” Hazel called after her. “The 23rd Ascending is less than ten days away.”
Holly uttered something unintelligible as she darted out the door.
Shaking her head, Hazel then put a kettle for tea over the fire.
Holly ran out the door and through the garden, coming to the earthen path that headed into the woods. She raced down it, taking off her kerchief and let her hair stream behind her. It felt good to run, to feel the sunlight on her face and to listen to the wind whistle past her ears. She came to a decaying log covered in moss and she veered past it as she darted off the path and into the brush and bracken of the woods. Leaves and sticks cracked and crunched under her boots. She hiked her skirts up to her knees, grinning as the underbrush snagged at her stockings. Hazel would be beside herself. She giggled.
Holly stopped when she came to a great ash tree. She walked around its thick trunk until she found the hole. She put her hand inside it, pulling out a leather bag, its contents softly clinking. She loosened the strings, relieved to see the golden coins gleaming in the sunlight.
A magpie flew past her and into the hole, depositing from its beak another golden coin.
“Thank you very much,” Holly said as she fished it out.
The magpie squawked and flew away.
Holly hefted the bag, judging the weight. There should be plenty there to buy some nice material, and Chester had likely stashed some nice trinkets besides. She would make a fine dress—far better than what she had, anyway, and that was what mattered. She tied the bag shut and ran back to the path.
Hazel was pounding a particularly stubborn rump of mutton into submission with a mallet when Holly stumbled through the door. Her entrance was like a cascade of dried leaves, all rustling and crackling as she held in her arms a heap of a dark, shiny material. Holly had draped part of the fabric around her body and over her head, forming a hood. The rest she clutched in a haphazard bundle.
“What on earth is that?” Hazel said.
Holly peered over the fabric and beamed. “Oh Hazel, have you ever seen such material? The merchant called it ‘taffeta.’ Have you ever heard such a delicious word? It sounds like candy.”
“A dress made of candy? Don’t be ridiculous.”
“It’s not really candy. It just sounds like it. Look, touch it. It’s so shiny and… and smooth.” She presented the heap of fabric to Hazel.
Hazel frowned and pursed her lips. She didn’t want to touch it, but Holly might not leave her alone otherwise. She rubbed a piece of fabric between her fingers. It felt coarser than it looked. Not all that wonderful, in her estimation. “How much did this cost?”
“It’s my money, so don’t you worry about it.”
“You paid too much, in other words.”
“It wasn’t too much; it was worth it. Occasions like this don’t come along every day, you know.”
“You’re right. Mid-Ascension festivals only come four times a year. That’s not counting the Declension festivals, which, of course, last for three days and nights.”
“You know what I mean. Stop being sour.”
“Fine. Go make your dress. Revel in sewing and clipping and trimming.”
“I will.” Holly drew herself up, clutched the fabric to her chest and swished out of the room.
Hazel remained still, watching the door where Holly had disappeared. Then, tightening her jaw, she followed.
She opened the door, finding the tiny bedroom draped with the blue-black taffeta. It hung from the rafters along with wooden charms and bundles of dried herbs and flowers. Holly pushed one of the drapes aside and frowned at Hazel. “Now what?”
“You never asked about my visit with Mother.”
Holly deflated and stared at the floor. “How did it go?”
“Terribly. We had an argument. She’s unconcerned with trying to find a way to undo the geas. She says it can’t be done.”
Holly wrung her hands, her gaze darting off to the side. “Maybe she’s right. Mother always did know best.”
Hazel glowered at her. “Mother never knew best. Ever. Her current situation proves that.”
Holly straightened, her eyes turning misty. “Do not speak ill of the dead.”
Hazel closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead. “I’m sorry. It’s just… I’m at my wit’s end trying to figure out how to fix this, and yet no one else seems to care.”
“I care,” Holly said in a small voice.
They watched each other. Then, letting out a breath, Hazel waved towards the reams of fabric. “You’ll not get this fabric worked into a dress with it draped around like this.”
Holly smiled. “I know, but it’s just so sumptuous, I couldn’t resist. I hope I have some left over for curtains.”
“You have everything you need? Thread? Buttons?”
Holly opened her mouth but hesitated. Then she said, “Mostly.”
She cringed. “I was hoping Chester would have renewed his stash, and he has… partially. But it’s not enough.” She went to a corner of her room and, from a hole in the wall, pulled out a little mouse the color of chestnuts.
Hazel backed out of the room “No.”
Holly followed her. “Please, Hazel.”
“If you think I’ll have anything to do with that filthy little beast, then you’ll be sorely disappointed.”
Holly gasped. “He’s not filthy! I bathe him twice a week.”
Hazel gave a disgusted grunt. “Of course you do.”
“Please. I’d do it myself, but I need all the time I can get to make this dress before the 23rd.” Holly’s clear blue eyes turned liquidy as she stared at Hazel.
Hazel closed her eyes and sighed. “Fine.” When Holly squeaked, Hazel added, “But just this once! You’ll not ask me to do anything like this ever again!”
Holly clamped her mouth shut and nodded. Hazel waited as Holly returned to her room and rummaged around. After a few minutes, she walked back out, mouse in hand, who was now equipped with what looked to be an over-sized vest with pockets.
“What on earth is he wearing?”
Holly beamed. “It’s his fetching vest. It’s got deep pockets so he has a place to stash his spoils. I made it myself.”
Hazel tried to keep the horror from showing on her face, but she suspected she failed miserably. “And what is it I’m supposed to do with him?”
“I need you to take him to Zinnia’s place and… well… let him loose.”
Hazel’s mouth hung open. “You want me to set that filthy creature loose in a fellow witch’s house? You’ve gone mad!”
“He’s not filthy!” Holly closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Zinnia’s house might as well be a museum, what with all the junk she has stashed there. She keeps everything. We’re doing her a favor by relieving her of some of the clutter.” She pet the mouse on his tiny head. “Chester will do all the work. You just set him loose and wait for him to return, empty his pockets, and send him back until you have enough supplies. He’s very polite and well trained, never leaving behind any droppings and he never chews on anything. She’ll not even notice he was there.”
“Except for her missing possessions.”
Holly scoffed. “There’s enough for everyone. Not my fault she doesn’t know how to share.”
“And how much is ‘enough’?”
“Well,” Holly began, looking thoughtful. “As much as you can carry, really.”
Hazel’s mouth hung open.
Holly beamed and offered the mouse on her outstretched hand.
Hazel backed away. “What are you doing?”
“You need to take Chester with you, silly. That’s the whole point.”
“I know, but… I’m not going to carry him… like that.”
“No, of course not. Chester usually likes to ride on top of my head, all nestled in my hair. Or on my shoulder. Or, when he’s sleepy, in my pocket. He’s very versatile.”
Once again, Hazel’s mouth hung open. This conversation with Holly was starting to make her feel like a lackwit. “You’re joking, right? No, I know you’re joking, because I will die a spectacular, frenzied death before I ever allow that to happen.”
Holly emitted a guttural sigh. “Fine.” She returned to her room and, after a few minutes, came back and stood before Hazel. She held out a little wicker cage, the lower portion of which had been woven with strips of colorful ribbons. Chester, still wearing his vest, sat inside, nibbling on a scattering of sunflower seeds.
Ignoring the sickening feeling settling in her stomach, Hazel took the cage. “How am I supposed to get in her house? I’ve not been invited. Unless, of course, you’re going to suggest I wait until she leaves and then break inside.”
“Of course not!” Holly said. “You don’t need to go in. Just let Chester loose outside and he’ll find his own way. He’s very resourceful.”
“And be sure to wait for him! Don’t you dare leave him behind or smoosh him or whatever terrible things you’re probably thinking right now. I’ll never forgive you.”
Hazel sighed. “I promise I won’t hurt or abandon your trained rat.”
Holly gasped. “He’s a mouse. Rats are filthy.”
The day was waning by the time Hazel made it to Zinnia’s house. The shadows had grown long, and the blue sky had shifted to golden. Hazel cursed herself for taking on this fool task, especially so late in the day. But she was here now, so she may as well get on with it.
Positioning herself behind a tree that would, she hoped, provide cover from any unwanted eyes, she knelt down and opened the door on the wicker cage. Chester scampered out and sniffed the air, and then started washing his ears with his paws.
Hazel frowned. “Go on, you foul little thing. Get.” She waved her hands at him, but Chester didn’t move.
“Hazel? Is that you?”
Hazel started and whirled around, finding Zinnia walking towards her with a basket hanging from her arm. “Zinnia… hello!”
Zinnia smiled, though the warmth never reached her eyes. She gazed down at the ground. “Is everything all right? Were you looking for something?”
Hazel’s heart lurched into her throat, but when she looked down at the ground, Chester was gone. “Um… no. Everything’s fine. I was just looking for some herbs. It seems I have a mite infestation that I’m not sure I’ll recover from. I was looking for new cuttings for my garden.”
“Shouldn’t you get rid of the mites first?”
“The mites, you’ll need to rid them from your garden otherwise your new plants will be infested as well.” Zinnia screwed up her weathered face as she looked at Hazel.
Hazel forced a smile, her cheeks growing hot. “Of course. I know that. It doesn’t hurt being proactive, though, in locating new cuttings should they be needed.”
Zinnia nodded, adjusting the basket on her arm while casting another glance at the ground. “What’s the little cage for?”
Hazel grimaced. “Holly seems to have lost her pet mouse. I bring the cage with me should I ever find him while out looking for herbs.”
Zinnia watched Hazel a while and then said, “I see. Well, good evening to you then.”
Hazel stiffened her back. The tone in Zinnia’s voice told her it was time to leave, but she dared not. She promised Holly she wouldn’t leave that miserable mouse behind. So she said, “Good evening,” and then continued her ridiculous charade of pretending to look for herbs.
Zinnia cleared her throat, but Hazel put on a smile and said, “I have a peppermint cordial that works wonders for coughs. I could give you some, if you’d like.”
Zinnia’s face reddened. “It’s getting late, you know. Surely you can’t search for herbs in the dark?”
Surely not, but she couldn’t leave without a certain over-dressed rodent. “Don’t you worry about me. I find that searching for herbs in the dark of night often gives one a new perspective on the world. You should try it sometime, Zinnia.”
Zinnia scoffed and drew herself up. “I should think not, thank you very much.” She pursed her lips and then said, “Well, at least come in for tea. It makes me nervous, having you out here skulking about. Come in for tea so you can’t fault my hospitality, and then you’ll search for your herbs elsewhere.”
Hazel didn’t want to have tea with Zinnia. The woman smelled of dirt and overly perfumed soap. Not to mention she was supposed to wait for Chester. Would he know where to find Hazel if she moved? It seemed unlikely a rodent—bathed twice-weekly though he was—would be self-possessed enough to think on his feet… or paws, as it were. But what else could she do? She couldn’t refuse, not without going straight home. Anything else would be unforgivably rude.
Hazel clenched her jaw, put on the most gracious smile she could muster, and nodded.