Death Before Dawn
Hazel peered at the twilit sky as she wandered along the wooded path. She clutched her lantern, even though the way lightened with the approaching dawn. She quickened her step. It would be a brief visit this time. She knew she’d been too liberal with the valerian tea. She wasn’t one to oversleep, but restfulness had eluded her lately. Too much on her mind.
The skirts of her dress rustled against the brush and bushes, a rasping whisper as if the woods themselves hushed her ungainly approach.
“I won’t be long,” she said. No one was there, but one never knew when out in the woods.
She came to a cast iron gate set within a crumbling stone wall. It wouldn’t be long before the gate was rendered useless and one could just hop over the stones. But it wasn’t today. She reached into a pocket and pulled out an iron key nearly the size of her hand. She put it in the lock and, using both hands to turn it, unlocked the gate and pushed it open.
The rusty hinges screeched and Hazel clenched her teeth, cursing herself for forgetting, yet again, to bring a pot of grease. She returned the key to her pocket and, leaving the gate open, followed the wall until she came to a little stone cottage nearly overtaken with ivy and brambles of sweet briar. The water-warped door stood propped against the door frame into which it no longer fit. Hazel slipped passed it and stepped inside.
The room was gloomy within, but Hazel knew the way. She walked to the hearth and, fetching a handful of sticks from a corner of the room, used her lantern to ignite them. She blew on the gentle flames, prodding with a poker until the cold coals flared alight.
Hazel lingered by the fire. It was always so damp in this place; she felt like she could feel the chill in her bones as soon as she stepped over the threshold. But she was late, and it wouldn’t do to tarry too long.
She walked to a table at the other end of the room, upon which sat an ewer and basin. Water from a hole in the roof had filled the ewer, and Hazel poured some of the water into the bowl. Then, from another pocket, she pulled out a piece of honey cake wrapped in cloth. She untied it and crumbled the cake into the water.
She looked out the window and at the lightening sky, but the sun still hadn’t risen.
“You are late.”
Hazel turned and found Willow warming her pale hands by the feeble fire. “I overslept.”
Willow smiled, turning her back on the hearth and sauntering over to Hazel. She reached out to touch Hazel’s hair, but Hazel moved away. “Still frightened, daughter?”
“I’m not afraid,” Hazel said. “I just prefer not to be touched by the dead.”
Willow waved a hand and then leaned over the bowl. She took a deep breath, opening her mouth as she lingered over the water. She straightened. “Honey cake.” She smiled. “What did you used to call it? Sunny cake?” Willow laughed. “You always thought it made the day brighter.”
“That was a long time ago.”
“Not that long.”
“We don’t have much time. The sun will soon be up.”
Willow sighed. “Very well.” She put on a serious expression, clasped her hands together and, in a stern voice, said, “What is your progress?”
Hazel frowned. “I’m doing this for your benefit, you know. I’m not the one with her soul trapped in a geas. One would think you’d care more about your own wellbeing.”
Willow gave a short laugh. “Wellbeing? My dear, I am dead. I am not a being at all, well or otherwise.”
“So, you’re happy, then? Is that it? You’re happy to haunt this decrepit, rotting heap, waiting with each new moon for me to come by with a crumb of cake and to stir the fire? Because that’s all you’ll ever have, and when I’m gone, you won’t have even that. That doesn’t concern you?”
Willow tightened her jaw and closed her eyes. “Leave it alone, Hazel.”
“I will not leave it alone! He did this to you—your own husband! My father! Was this part of your arrangement? Is this what you bargained for? What was it you used to tell me? He’ll come when needed? Well, where is he now?!”
Willow stood there, her body trembling and her eyes clenched shut, but she said nothing.
A cold wind gusted through the room, extinguishing the fire and knocking the air from Hazel’s lungs.
Willow bared her teeth and grabbed Hazel’s chin in an icy grip. “The geas cannot be undone, whatever you might think. It is done, and I will not give him the satisfaction of my misery!” She let go of Hazel’s chin and put her hand over her eyes.
Hazel rubbed her jaw, working warmth back into her chilled skin. “There is a way, Mother. I will find it.”
Willow gave a mirthless laugh. “And what is your progress, daughter? What have you found so far?”
Hazel opened her mouth but hesitated. “I will find it.”
Willow turned away and walked to a window with ivy growing through the glassless panes. “The sun is rising, Hazel. Give Holly my love.”
“Do not bring honey cake next time.” She slipped out the door just as sunlight streamed through the shattered windows.
Hazel stood there, watching as the dawn chased away the gloom, lessening the damp that hung in the air. Outside, birds began to chirp, but their melody did nothing to soothe the sorrow that had settled in her heart. She picked up the basin and threw the water and cake crumbs out a window before returning it to the table. Then, casting a single look behind her, Hazel slipped out the door.