"Who's this 'un?" he asked when he saw Hazel clinging to Alex's back. "Pretty little mite, ain't she? Yer sister?"
"No. She's an orphan, like us." Alex put Hazel down, and she went straight to the window boxes, where the flowers drooped miserably. She touched one, and it became vibrant again.
The stablemaster, watching, looked sharply at the boys. "A magi? What's she doin' runnin' with the likes of ye?"
"She got thrown out," Alex admitted. "Her father said she'd be killed for her magic."
"That's the biggest stuff and nonsense I've ever 'eard. Who's the father?"
"We don't know," Kyle said. "We should get to work on your stables, mister."
"Yer right. Take the little 'un with ye, mebbe she can help ye."
Hazel followed the boys to the stables, where white bell and chain elk and unicorns stood amongst the regular horses. "Kyle, you take the animals out to the yard and chain 'em up. We can do five stalls at a time, no? Alex, find the wheelbarrow, wouldja?"
Hazel stood, watching the huge mounts, her mouth open in awe. As Kyle flung open a door, the animal inside, a large white elk, whinnied shrilly, afraid of this stranger and his rough handling of her door. She bolted, dashing out of the stall and almost crashing into Kyle before galloping towards the courtyard. Hazel screamed and jumped out of the way, landing against the door of a female earth unicorn, who stuck her head over the door and looked down curiously at the little noisemaker.
"Are you all right?" Alex asked, crouching next to her.
Hazel sat quietly for a minute, staring blankly into space before snapping out of it. "I'm okay. It's just…"
She shook her head. "Nevermind." She picked herself up and patted the unicorn's nose before trotting quietly into the courtyard, peeking cautiously around the stable door. She sidled her way to the door of the inn attached to the stables and disappeared quickly inside, watching the elk the whole time.
"Wonder wa's wrong with 'er?" Kyle murmured, leading out the next elk.
Alex looked after Hazel while James shrugged. "Prolly just scared of things bigger'n her."
"She had an illusion magi living in her house. Maybe that's one of the illusions, only it was real this time."
"What's an illusion magi?" James asked, sighing as he asked. Here we go again, he thought. More lectures.
"They're usually a light or air magi that creates realistic pictures. Good ones can scare you to death." For once, Alex didn't keep talking, leaving to hunt down the wheelbarrow.
"What bit him?" James muttered.
"An elk?" Kyle suggested.
"It was a rhetorical question!" James snapped, leaning against the wall and drumming his fingers against the wooden stall.
Hazel sidled into the inn, away from the elk. She hadn't realized there'd be elk here. Nani loved elk, and they'd all hated Hazel…chased her through the house, bit her, danced around her head, butted her and poked her with their horns…one had stood and blocked her way as she tried to run from another of Nani's illusions. She could never tell what was real and what wasn't until Nani stopped or she was out of sight.
"Hey, lass. What's goin' on?" the stablemaster asked kindly. His wife, a thin woman with bright red hair, looked contemptuously at Hazel's threadbare dress and turned away with a sniff. "Don't mind 'er," he murmured to Hazel, blushing. "She doesn't like street urchins like ye and the boys."
Hazel just nodded. "Is there…is there anything I can do to help?" she said quietly.
"What, the boys don't need ye in the stables?" he ejaculated.
"I…I'm scared…of…of…" Hazel looked down, twisting her fingers together.
"Of what, love?" He crouched down until he was more or less at her height.
He chuckled. "Yer such a small slip of a thing, it ain't surprisin'. I never caught ye name, but mine's Harold."
"I'm Hazel," Hazel said softly.
"Lessee here…tell ye what, we've got a veggie patch in the back o' the inn, an' it ain't doin' too good this year. Wouldja take a look at it, Hazel?"
Hazel nodded happily. She could do that. Harold lead her through the kitchen, grabbing a pasty from a basket and handing it to her. "Ye look like ye could use a square meal or two."
"Thank you." Hazel bit into the pasty, cherry juice staining her lips red. At the sight of the garden, she almost dropped the pasty. Besides vegetables, flowers of every color imaginable bloomed, bees buzzing about from blossom to blossom. "Wow," she breathed.
"Well, I'll let ye to it then, shall I?" Harold asked.
"Okay," Hazel said, stuffing the rest of the pasty into her mouth before quickly trotting amongst the rows of vegetables, looking at the labels at each row. She couldn't read them, but she could guess what they were by looking at the plants in the row. The carrots were wilted, the cabbages ravaged by slugs, the peas drooping on their thin supports. Caterpillar bites marked almost every plant, and she found several jackalopes among the plants.
Hazel spent the rest of the morning there, happy and secluded in the garden. When she was done with the vegetables, she wandered among the flowers, sniffing them, growing her own here and there. Around lunchtime, the stablemaster called to the boys to eat, and went out to look for Hazel. He couldn't see her, and when the boys joined him, they couldn't see her either.
"She might be asleep somewhere, there're plenty of places for a little girl to take a nap," Harold said calmly. "Take a look around, I'm sure ye'll find 'er.'
A whole hour of searching later turned up no sign of the little magi. Harold joined the boys, and at length, James yelled, "I found her footprints!"
They congregated by the pansy bed, where, indeed, the girl's footprints were clearly visible in the mud of yesterday's rain. She'd taken a step, and…the last footprint was very distinct, and a toe dragged through the dirt for the next step, which would have taken her into the gravel.
"She couldn't have bin…kidnapped, could she?" Kyle asked.
"Naw, nobody knows she was 'ere," James said, rolling his eyes.
"Hold. We don't know that. Look here, she was goin' off the path. Maybe she's in the flower beds somewhere," Alex pointed at the footprints.
So they hunted among the flowers. After meticulous searching, they found several claw marks in the mud, but Harold identified them as a direwolf. "I'm pretty certain this doesn't have anything to do with her. Prolly a stray."
Alex's intuition told him it was important, but he had nothing to back it up, so he let it go. Running a hand through his hair, he saw several other tracks, among which were a man's large footprints. They were mainly on the gravel which surrounded the plants, but a toe had strayed into the mud. "It's not a stray – there're lots of them. And there was a man with them."
"How is it connected to Hazel?" Kyle asked, a little slow, as always, on the uptake.
James breathed in sharply. "Did she know anyone with direwolves, or did somebody hire this person?"
"Her father kept several, she said. But why would he want her back?"
"P'raps he wants to exploit her," Harold suggested, looking more closely at the tracks.
"Harold! Harold? Where are you and those boys?" He winced as his wife's voice pierced the air. "Your lunch is getting cold!"
"I'll be righ' back," Harold said, pushing through the sea of flowers.
Kyle sighed in frustration. "Is anybody going to tell me what's going on?"
"Somebody with a pack of direwolves hunted down Hazel and presumably took her," Alex said, peering into the bushes. "Hey, wait a minute!"
He reached into a patch of azaleas and pulled out a golden-haired girl. "Huwhat?" Hazel murmured sleepily.
"Hazel!" Alex shook her. "You scared us! We thought you got kidnapped!"
"I'm sorry!" Hazel whimpered, tears pooling quickly. "I was just so tired…"
"Hazel, do you recognize these footprints?" James asked, pointing to the muddy prints.
"They were there earlier." She sniffed, dashing away tears.
"There are a bunch of direwolf prints, too," Alex informed her.
Her eyes opened wide, and she wriggled out of Alex's hold. She crouched by the footprints, running fingers over them lightly. "I don't recognize them."
The three boys let out a sigh of relief. "So it probably isn't anybody looking for Hazel, then," Kyle said, relaxing.
"Come on, you," Alex said, yanking Hazel to her feet and picking her up again. "Next time, make sure somebody knows where you are, understand?"
Hazel nodded repentantly. "I'm sorry," she said again.
"Harold, we found her!" James called, pushing into the kitchen. The innkeeper's wife, Isla, glared at him, raising a wooden spoon threateningly before turning back to the soup with a sniff.
"What?" The innkeeper lurched to his feet from the table where he'd been obediently eating his lunch. "Where?" he asked, frowning.
"She was asleep in some bushes. She says those prints were there when she went to sleep, so it can't have been anybody looking for her," Kyle said.
Isla dished out four more bowls. They all sat down around the small table. There weren't enough chairs in the kitchen, so Hazel sat on Alex's knee. She seemed fondest of him, maybe because he was the one who found her in the first place.
"You boys are doing a swell job," Harold said, dipping crusty bread into his soup. "Almost done, are ye?"
James nodded. "This is really good soup."
"Almost as good as—" Alex glared at Kyle, and he shut up. No need to tell them that they could make their own food, or they'd want payback. "Nothing."
Isla softened a tad at that, placing four cookies on the table before sweeping out into the bar.
"I jus' want t' know who that was. Can't have direwolves tramping all over the garden, Isla'd have a fit."
"Oh! I finished the garden!" Hazel said, accidentally knocking Alex's arm as she sat up excitedly. "Oops!"
He'd dropped soup on the table and the front of his shirt. "It's okay. What's that?" Alex asked suddenly, pointing to a gold chain around Hazel's neck.
She pulled it out, looking down at the pendant. "I dunno. I've had it since I can remember." It was an emerald green gemstone, smooth and polished, shot through with milky white swirls, set in a gold wire cage. Tiny flowers dotted the wire here and there. On the flat back was a disk of gold, engraved with tiny words.
"Names," Alex whispered, taking the pendant and peering at the engravings. "These are all names of women of the Dakhir line."