Hazel and Holly — Hallowed Hearts
Previous: Bones and Blood
Hazel bolted out the door, clutching a handful of her skirt in a throbbing, stinging fist. She kept her gaze ahead as she hurried through Baern’s weather-worn yard, refusing to look at Holly or Hemlock, who now trailed behind her.
“What happened?” Holly said. “Are you bleeding? Why are you bleeding?”
Hemlock said, “Hazel, what happened?”
Hazel ignored them. She left Baern’s yard and turned onto the stone-cobbled street, to the right, as there were no people or houses that way. They were at the edge of town, close to the wall surrounding Sarnum that cast a shadowy pall over the pale, wispy grass that grew wild in untended fields.
“What did he say?” Holly said as she trailed behind her. “Did he tell you where Father is?” When Hazel said nothing, Holly grabbed her arm.
Hazel rounded on her. “For once in your miserable life, Holly, shut your mouth and leave me alone!”
Holly’s face went slack with shock, and in that moment Hazel hated herself. She turned around and kept on walking. At least Holly and Hemlock didn’t follow.
The air grew colder the closer to the wall Hazel got. The sun was out. It was supposed to be summer, but maybe that didn’t mean anything in a place like this. Maybe the laws of nature meant nothing to the people of Sarnum, and so the laws themselves had abandoned them.
The grass rustled against Hazel’s skirt, grasping at her like boneless fingers. A stunted pear tree stood nearby, it’s gnarled, knobby branches laden with tiny hard fruit that likely would never ripen. Hazel sat down underneath it, into the tall grass that, she hoped, eclipsed her from view. She let go of her skirt, wincing as the fabric stuck to her wound before pulling away. Blinking, she stared at the cut, red and ugly that still trickled a thin stream of blood. She put her fingers to it and pressed, gritting her teeth at the pain, her stomach twisting in a nauseating way as the blood came faster.
Is that what her father had become? Living alone with writing scrawled on the walls, blood and spirits his only companions? Is it what he wanted her to be?
The grass rustled and Hazel looked up, finding Hemlock walking towards her.
She frowned and looked away. “Leave me alone, Hemlock.”
He stopped in front of her. “What happened in there, Hazel?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“What happened to your hand?” His voice took an angry edge. “Did he hurt you?”
Hazel took a breath, struggling to keep her voice even. “I said I don’t want to talk about it.”
He crouched down in front of her and tried to take her hand. “Let me see.”
Hazel clenched her hand shut, letting the pain fuel her anger. Then, it was like the anger within her snapped, and suddenly she didn’t care anymore. “You want to see?” She thrust her wounded palm near Hemlock’s face. “Bastard cut me. Threatened to cut my wrist but I settled for the palm. I let him do it, Hemlock. Let him hurt me and draw blood so he could invoke his cursed spirits—all so he could give me this!” She threw the blood-stained bone at him. It struck him in the shoulder before falling into the grass.
Hazel laughed—a low, mirthless sound that sounded maddened even to her own incensed ears. “That’s the best part of all. After everything we’ve done, after letting that monster put his filthy knife blade to my skin, I am then informed that I must somehow perform necromantic magic in order to find my good-for-nothing father. Only by becoming like him, will I find him. You have to appreciate the irony.”
“Don’t,” she said, her voice low. “Don’t tell me you want to help. Don’t tell me I’m not alone. Don’t sit there and pretend you don’t want something from me when we both know that’s not true!” She got to her feet. “You’re all the same—men, warlocks—you all want the same thing: a woman for your pleasure and children for your legacy. Yet even when you have those things it’s not enough, and you wander the world looking for something else, never once looking back at what you left behind. At who you’ve hurt in your wake.”
Hemlock’s brow knitted into a frown and he shook his head. “What are you talking about? Who have I hurt? Who have I left behind? Not you. You’re the one who’s always leaving. You’re the one that refuses to look back no matter who you hurt. And for what? So you can do all this yourself? So you don’t have to feel vulnerable and ask for help? How’s that working so far for you, Hazel?”
Hazel raised her chin. “It’s working just fine.” A dismal lie that even she didn’t believe, but what was the alternative? To say she needed him? The thought terrified her.
“Really? My mistake.” He picked up the bloodied bone from the ground and handed it to her. “Good luck finding your father.”
Hazel’s stomach sank as she took the bone, the sight of the blood sickening her more than it had before. And as she watched Hemlock’s back as he walked away, an old hurt bubbled to the surface—a helpless sorrow she had forgotten ever feeling, when someone she loved walked out of her life and never returned. Before, she had remained silent. Before, she let it happen without so much a protest. Not again. She wouldn’t be silent again.
“You don’t get to leave!” she shouted to Hemlock.
He turned around and spread out his arms. “You don’t want me here, Hazel.”
“That didn’t stop you before, back at the inn. You came along anyway. Why?”
His arms went limp and he stood there in the field, the grass brushing against his legs as it swayed in the breeze. Then he walked back to her. “Why?” he said, his voice low. “Why do any of us do anything? Why are you here searching for your father? Why are trying to undo your mother’s curse? Why have you looked after your sister for all of these years, when no one asked you to do any of these things? Why do you do it, Hazel?”
Hazel frowned, swallowing. “They’re my family.”
“Family is just a word. You’re doing it because you love them.”
Hazel’s mouth worked soundlessly a long while and she shook her head. “You don’t love me.”
Hemlock gave a wry laugh. “I’m afraid, my dear woman, I do. I’ve loved you the moment you walked into my house and insulted my brother. From that moment, I knew you were a woman I wanted in my life. An intelligent, sensible woman capable of coherent conversation—one not taken by shiny baubles or fooled by the illusionary preening of warlocks who think too highly of themselves.” He looked down at his hands. “I had hoped, in time, you would come to love me, too. But even if you never did, I still wanted to help you. I wanted to see you happy, because if you were happy, then a part of me could be happy too. And maybe that part would have been enough.”
The wind rustled the grass and the leaves of the pear trees above—a coarse, whispering reply that Hazel wished she had the voice to give, but her voice seemed to be gone.
Hemlock shook his head. “Foolish, I know.”
Hazel swallowed. No, not foolish, but even those words failed her. And, as if from a great distance, she watched as Hemlock once again turned to walk away. In that moment she saw, almost as plain as the skin on her hands, that this time he would not be back. That any words spoken by her next week, next month, next year, would be too late, the hurt inflicted by her dumbfounded silence too much to bear. And the idea of never seeing him again filled her with such an intense sorrow that her vision blurred as tears filled her eyes and he faded entirely from view as she covered her face with her blood-stained hands.
Her mouth felt parched, her tongue swollen. Was this love? This uncomfortable, terrifying feeling as if she balanced on the edge of a knife? Would she slip and fall? Would he pull the knife out from under her, cutting her open? She didn’t know, and Hazel didn’t like not knowing. How could you protect yourself from danger—from heartbreak—if you couldn’t see it coming? Her mother hadn’t seen it coming, and look what happened to her?
She thought of Willow alone in her tumbledown cottage, her once melodious voice taking on a more bitter edge with each passing year. Hazel had sworn she wouldn’t let that be her fate and yet, in that moment as Hemlock turned his back on her, she could see it already was. She was a prisoner of her fear, destined to be alone because she refused to trust, to let someone in.
Hazel’s body shook as she watched Hemlock move through the field. She felt heavy, paralyzed by the words she was so afraid to speak.
“Stay,” she whispered, barely audible over the rustling leaves. She could say that to him; maybe he’d stay. Maybe it would be enough. She cleared her throat and, louder, said, “Stay.”
Her voice must have carried, for Hemlock turned to look at her. “Why?”
Hazel swallowed and shook her head. “I don’t want you to go.”
Hemlock’s features softened as he returned to stand before her. “Why?” His voice was quiet; he sounded tired. “What’s the point, Hazel?”
Hazel narrowed her eyes. Was he trying to be cruel? Wasn’t it enough that she wanted him to stay? “I can’t love you, Hemlock. Because if I love you then I don’t know who I am anymore. What is my life if it’s not mine alone?”
He took her hands in his, even the bloodied, cut one that he held with care. “You didn’t answer the question.”
Her eyes filled with tears again and she looked away. “I’m afraid to love you, Hemlock,” she whispered. “I’m afraid I won’t recognize myself if I do.” She swallowed. “I’m afraid you’ll crush my heart, and I won’t have the strength to stand it.”
“Hazel.” He touched her cheek and gently turned her head to face him. “Why do you you want me to stay?”
She closed her eyes and shook her head. “Because I’m afraid that it’s already too late, and if you leave, then you’ll take my withered heart with you, and I don’t know if I can bear that.” She took a heavy, ragged breath. “I’m afraid of what my life will be, if you’re not there.”
Hemlock put his arms around her and Hazel, unable to hold back any longer, clutched onto him as she wept on his shoulder. Years of anger and resentment, tension and fear, it all seemed to pour out of her in a continuous stream of tears. Part of her felt like she shouldn’t be there, crying like that—that she should pull herself together. But another part of her wanted it out, it felt good letting it out, just like it felt good standing in the warmth of Hemlock’s body, feeling the weight of his arms as he held her close.
He said nothing as they stood there, he just let her weep and weep until, after an eternity, Hazel finally calmed and pulled away. She couldn’t look at him, so she kept her gaze fixed to the ground. She wiped at her face and eyes, ignoring the throbbing pain in her hand. “What you must think of me,” she said, no longer comfortable with the silence between them.
“I think you’re beautiful,” he said, handing her a kerchief.
She looked up at him, and he gave her a crooked smile that pulled a small smile from Hazel’s own lips.
He pushed back strands of her hair that had become plastered to Hazel’s fevered cheeks. He looked into her eyes as he held her face—just for a moment—and then he kissed her.
It wasn’t an impassioned, desperate kiss; it wasn’t tenuous or meek. It was steadfast, sturdy, almost matter-of-fact as if this moment had never been in doubt. It was a kiss to endure life’s turbulent throes; it was a kiss to comfort and ease the pain away. It was a kiss of love, pure and simple. And it… was perfect.
Next: Finding Forgiveness