Hazel and Holly — Aggravated Acceptance
Previous: An Unadorned End
A chill settled in the room—wintery, just like the silence that accompanied it. Hazel didn’t know what to say, and so she said nothing, standing stiff and unyielding like a frozen tree.
Holly fell to her knees and into tears. Hazel told herself to go to her, to comfort her, yet she couldn’t bring herself to move. Instead, Hawthorn walked over and gave Holly a handkerchief, put an arm around her, whispered words that Hazel couldn’t hear. They must have been comforting, for Holly nodded and gulped down gasps of air as her sobs lessened. She rested her head on his shoulder, so Hazel turned her attention to Hemlock.
He sat on the ground, cradling his head in his hands. Hazel knelt down next to him.
He looked up at her, then surveyed the room. Some of the color had come back to his face, though he still looked like he had been washed and wrung out by heavy, unforgiving hands. “So, it’s done then?”
Hazel swallowed and nodded, unable to say anything, even to him. Especially to him. After everything that had happened, after everything she’d done… It was all too much, so she fixed her gaze at a point beyond his shoulder. Looking near him, but not at him. She couldn’t bring herself to look at him, not anymore.
He put a hand to her cheek and pulled her gaze to him. He smiled. “You did it.”
Hazel’s lips trembled. How could he smile at her? How could he offer her kind words when she could find none for herself? Her body shook. She was tired, so unbearably tired. So she let herself rest against Hemlock, and she cried.
The room had warmed in the countless minutes that had passed, though the silence lingered. Hazel sat next to Hemlock, across from Holly and Hawthorn. Between them lay Ash’s prone body, unmoving yet alive, according to Holly.
Hawthorn spoke first. “You know I hate to be rude, but is it really necessary to sit here and stare at your father’s prone form for an unbearable length of time? I know decorum calls for such things, but surely we’ve stared sufficiently long enough and can get on with the pressing business of leaving this place.”
“We can’t just leave him!” Holly said.
“Why on earth not? You yourself said he’s not dead. Leaving while he’s still unconscious sounds like the perfect time for us to make an exit.”
“I have to agree,” Hemlock said. “Your father was rather adamant about us staying. We should go before he tries to stop us. Again.”
“Yes,” Hazel said, though she made no move to get up.
“But…” Holly said.
“But what?” said Hawthorn. “But you can’t figure out the best way for us to get out of here? But you can’t understand why you’ve all not been listening to me sooner? But my brilliance has not diminished for suggesting such a base and obvious idea? Surely that’s what you meant to express.”
Holly pursed her lips and fixed him in a level stare. “But we can’t leave!” She got up and poked at a collection of jars scattered on one of the tables.
Hawthorn threw up his hands. Then he squinted at Hazel and thrust a finger at her. “She’s becoming more like you every day!”
Hazel rolled her eyes. “Not nearly enough if she’s still putting up with your nonsense.”
They all remained sitting while Holly wandered around the room to examine whatever jars and bottles she could find. From time to time, Hawthorn would sigh, loudly, but when that didn’t elicit whatever response he hoped for, he contented himself with poking at Ash’s unresponsive face instead.
Holly returned with a few jars. “What are you doing?”
“There are different degrees of unconsciousness. I was wondering on which degree your father had settled.”
“Well?” Holly said, then shook her head. “Never mind, it’s not important. I found some tinctures that I think will help revive him.”
“What?” Hawthorn said as he got to his feet. “You’ve lost your mind!”
“That’s probably not a good idea, Holly,” Hemlock said.
“No, but he’s my father—our father—and I’m not leaving him like this.” She raised her chin at Hazel, as if challenging her sister to stop her.
But Hazel just nodded. “Do it.”
Hawthorn threw up his hands and moved away. He walked over to a bookshelf and pretended to examine the tomes, but kept stealing glances over at Holly and the others.
Holly leaned down and unscrewed the lid on one of the jars and held it up to Ash’s nose. His brow twitched, but he lay still. She removed the lid of another jar and held that up to his nose and, after a few seconds, Ash’s eyes opened and he started coughing.
Holly helped him sit up as she patted his back. “That’s some nasty smelling stuff you’ve got there. Would probably wake the dead…” She shifted her weight and looked uncomfortable. “Though I’m sure that’s not why you have it…”
Ash rubbed his eyes, gave Holly a feeble smile, and put a hand on her shoulder. “Thank you, my dear.” His gaze shifted over to Hazel and Hemlock and his smile faded.
“I’m not staying,” Hazel said before he could say anything. “So don’t try to keep me here.”
He winced and rubbed his chest as he looked around the room.
“She’s gone,” Hazel said.
Ash winced again, though Hazel was unsure if it was from pain in his chest, or from a different kind of pain altogether.
“It’s what she wanted,” she said. “It’s what was right.”
He fixed her in an intent, cool gaze. A long, tense moment passed between them before he said, “You should leave before the others get to talking. I’ll show you out of the mountain. Arrange a carriage.” He tried to get up from the floor but couldn’t manage it. Holly took his arm and helped him to his feet. He gave her another wan smile and patted her hand.
“Come,” he said, and shuffled out of the room.
Hazel helped Hemlock off the floor, and he leaned upon her as they followed Ash out.
Nobody said anything as the walked through the stone hallways. Occasionally they would meet another necromancer. Ash would nod and the necromancer, though eyeing Hazel and the others, would nod back and move on.
“Aren’t you going to get in trouble?” Holly said after such an encounter. “You’re not supposed to let us go, are you?”
“It could be argued I wasn’t supposed to bring you here, either. Yet I did, with no great harm to my reputation. There will be talk and complaints, but I doubt anything serious will come as a result. Besides, one can’t live beholden to rules.” He gave Hazel a knowing smile. She looked away.
They continued on, eventually following a set of stairs that led downwards into a stable. The air was sweet and cloying, but not as unpleasant as an indoor stable could have been.
A black-robed acolyte came up to meet them, while another one lingered behind near a table.
“Hitch up the carriage and prepare to take my daughters back to Sarnum.”
The acolyte lingered as he eyed Hazel and Holly. “But, sir—”
“Now,” Ash said, his voice turning harsh.
The acolyte clamped his mouth shut. Then he gave a slight nod, and he and the other acolyte got to work.
While they waited, Ash led them outside where the sun shone and gave a gentle warmth to the crisp, autumnal air.
“It would be best to leave the carriage at the Shrine,” Ash said. “Not for me, but you’ll provoke the others less this way.” He gave Hazel a level look. “You don’t want to give them more reasons to come after you.”
“And what about you?” Hazel said. “You’re really going to let us go? After everything? Just like that?”
He squinted against the sunlight towards a vast, flat field. “You made your choice, as did your mother. I will respect that.”
“Is that so?”
He looked at her. “Just promise me one thing. Promise that you won’t decide now how your life will always be. You are young, Hazel. Promise me you’ll let your life be whatever it wants to be, no matter what anyone else thinks of it.”
He gave a half smile and exhaled a sharp, short breath. “Including me.” He paused and his smile faded. “I couldn’t go back, you know. Not after… this” He waved a hand towards the mountain. “I didn’t fit anymore. But maybe you will be different. Perhaps… we are different.”
Hazel looked down at her feet. “Perhaps.” She wanted it to be true, but at that moment she felt more like her father than she ever had. After everything she’d done, how could she say she was different?
A gate opened from the nearby stables and out rolled a black lacquered carriage.
“Ah,” Ash said. “Time to go, then.”
Hazel nodded. She wished she knew what to say to him. She wished she didn’t feel so sad at this parting, especially when she thought she should be happy. She had done what she had set out to do. She should be happy, right?
Ash turned to Hemlock. “Sorry about that bit of business back there. Nothing personal. But I take the welfare of my daughters most seriously, however unconventional my approaches. I’m sure you understand.”
Hemlock regarded Ash with a stony expression. “Of course.”
Ash gave a tight smile. “Splendid.”
Holly stood nearby, wringing her hands. Then she threw her arms around him and gave him a quick hug before she ran into the carriage. Hawthorn held the door open, and Hazel helped Hemlock climb inside.
Before she could pull herself up, Ash said, “I will always be here, you know. Should you ever be in need.”
Hazel froze in place for a moment. Then, without looking at him, she climbed inside and sat next to Hemlock. Hawthorn followed her, and then the carriage pulled away.
Next: A Future Found