Hazel and Holly — Heart Fire
Previous: Fastened Friendship
They waited a few more days to allow Hemlock time to recover, then made the journey back to the Grove. Hazel had mixed feelings about it all. On the one hand she was glad to be returning home, but on the other she was afraid she wouldn’t recognize it—or herself—once she got there. Other than undoing her mother’s geas, nothing had gone the way she had expected. She hadn’t ever thought she would turn to necromancy—she especially never thought she’d find beauty in what was supposed to be a grim, dreadful discipline. She didn’t know what to think anymore, and so she didn’t know what to expect when returning home.
Both she and Holly had their noses to the windows as the carriage rolled up in front of their cottage. They both got out and remained on the road as the driver unloaded their luggage from the rack up top.
“It looks so small,” Holly whispered. “Was it always so small?”
“I think so,” Hazel replied.
Holly rubbed her arms. “I don’t,” she murmured.
Tum hopped down from his perch next to the driver and bolted towards the cellar door.
Hemlock said, “Hawthorn and I are going to head home and take care of some affairs. We can stop by later, if you’d like.”
Hazel said, “That would be nice. Wouldn’t it Holly?”
Holly continued to stare at the cottage, but she nodded.
He smiled. “All right. Until later, then.” The carriage rolled away and Holly, taking a deep breath, headed inside. Hazel followed.
The air inside was musty and stale, but everything looked as it should. Only dustier.
“Definitely smaller,” Holly muttered and went into her room.
Hazel went to the kitchen. She had left a jar of flowers on the table that had since withered and browned. Purple columbines. Her mother’s favorite. Hazel’s too.
She put her hands over her face and cried.
The cottage was the same, yet different. It was like ghosts had taken up residence while they had been gone. So Hazel and Holly gathered all the candles they could find and lit them in an effort to keep the ghosts away.
“I bet Tum’s got some candles stashed away,” Holly said as Hazel tried to prod a fire to life in the hearth.
“More than likely.”
“I’ll go get them.” Holly hustled outside.
Hazel blew on the feeble flames until they grew and caught the wood and burned on their own.
There was a commotion outside, then Tum came stumbling through the door, wearing red fuzzy pyjamas with matching cap and slippers. He scowled up at Holly who followed him in, carrying a crate of mead and a few candles.
“Why do I need to come in here? I was perfectly comfortable where I was. Or hadn’t you noticed?” Tum looked down at his body, as if to reassure himself of the obviousness of his comfort.
“It’s our first night back,” Holly said. “You shouldn’t be spending it alone.”
“Nobody’s spending it alone!” Holly took a deep breath, set down the crate, and took out a bottle of mead. She handed it to Tum. “Here. Drink this.”
“I don’t…” Tum began, but when he saw Holly’s expression he just said, “Right,” took the mead, and sat on the sofa.
Despite the fire and candles, there was a gloom in the cottage the light couldn’t dispel. Tum sniffed at the mead and grimaced and continued to stare into the fire, while Holly poked around in the kitchen, looking for food.
“There’s nothing here!” she called out. “Wait… Oh.” She sounded disappointed. “A jar of green beans.” She poked her head around the corner and held out the jar. “How old is this?”
“I don’t know,” Hazel said. “So, probably pretty old.”
Holly muttered something Hazel couldn’t hear.
“We could go to the Green Man,” Tum said. “I bet they got food.”
“They don’t have food,” Holly said.
“But they got beer. That’s a kind of food.”
“I don’t want—” Holly began, but was interrupted by a knock at the door. She ran over and opened it. Hemlock and Hawthorn stood on the threshold. Hawthorn carried a crate while Hemlock carried a wide basket.
“Come in!” Holly grabbed Hawthorn by the jacket and pulled him inside. Hemlock followed.
“We brought refreshments,” Hawthorn said and thrust the crate at Holly, undoubtedly to get her to unhand him.
“Oh?” Holly said. “What kind?” She lifted the lid to the crate and found several dark bottles nestled among handfuls of straw.
“Wine, of course.”
“We also brought food,” Hemlock said as he set down his basket and began to unpack it.
“Oooh!” Holly hustled over to help him. There was a braided loaf of bread, a roasted chicken, several apples, a wedge of cheese, a jar of brined olives, and two small honey cakes.
Holly ran into her room, pulled the blanket from her bed, and spread the blanket on the floor in front of the fire. She and Hemlock lay the food out on the blanket, while Hawthorn rooted around in the kitchen and came back with four glasses.
“You didn’t bring a glass for Tum,” Holly said.
“Tum doesn’t drink wine,” Tum said and continued to stare forlornly at the fire.
“Exactly,” Hawthorn said. He went over to the crate and pulled out a smaller, dustier bottle and handed it to Tum. “Besides, I figured he’d rather drink his beer from the bottle.”
“Beer?!” Tum said. “You got beer?”
Hawthorn shrugged. “I found it in the cellar. Could be Merrick’s. Or maybe it belonged to Father. Who knows. But I figured better to get it out of the house.”
“And into old Tum’s belly!” He grinned as he broke off the wax stopper and took a swig. He cackled. “Oh ho! It’s horrible!” He took another drink.
“Where did all this food come from?” Hazel said.
“One of the many benefits of having a fully trained staff waiting for one’s inevitable return,” Hawthorn said as he looked around. “You should really consider hiring a maid.”
Hemlock took the glasses and poured some wine, and everyone sat down on the blanket and started to eat.
“This is cozy,” Holly said as she nibbled on some olives. “Don’t you think, Hazel?”
It was. Somehow, the tiny cottage had gotten too big for her and Holly, and they alone could no longer light its dark corners with the candles of their lives. Perhaps they never could, only Hazel had never realized it. She smiled and nodded and raised her tumbler of wine. “To family, new and old.”
The others clinked their glasses to hers. Even Tum toddled over and clanked his dusty bottle against her glass.
And so they passed that first evening at home in the company of each other, making plans for the future, and of the orange tree Holly planned to grow for Elder. As the candles burned down and the night grew darker, the room inside grew warmer as they all lay down on the floor, talking and telling stories before drifting off to sleep.
Hazel awoke in the night. She lay there listening to the breathing of the others as they slumbered. She clenched her eyes shut, telling herself to sleep as well. But sleep wouldn’t come.
She got up, found a lamp, and lit it from the embers of the fire. Then she grabbed some uneaten honey cake, put it in her pocket, and walked outside.
The clear, crisp night smelled like rain and leaves and rotting wood. She shivered, but she dared not go back in for a shawl. She hurried down the road, the handle from the lantern slightly creaking as it swayed to and fro.
The shadows receded at her advance, shrinking back towards the trees like beetles from an upturned rock. When she came to the wrought iron gate, she spoke a Weaving spell that undid the lock, and another that removed the rust from the hinges. Why hadn’t she thought of that before?
She walked to the tumbledown cottage, the tangled vines barren against the sterile stone. She slipped past the waterlogged door, and went to the hearth and built a small fire from the pile of sticks and twigs in the corner. Rainwater that had leaked through the roof overflowed from the ewer. Hazel poured some of the water into the bowl, then took the cake from her pocket and crumbled it into the liquid.
Hazel held her breath, listening, but there was only the cry of a distant owl, and a scratching and rustling of leaves out in the brush. Everything else remained frightfully silent. Yet still, she waited.
But Willow didn’t come.
Hazel exhaled. Was she relieved? Disappointed? She didn’t know. All she felt was… empty. Like her heart had deflated, and nothing had rushed in the void to fill it. She stared at the crumbs in the water, her mind working over spells, over possibilities, delving deep into her shadowy thoughts as she looked for a way to fix the emptiness. But then she closed her eyes and stopped herself.
It didn’t need to be like this–slinking off in the dark like a fox from the hen house. Hiding, ashamed. Looking for answers that perhaps didn’t exist. She had chosen this path, but who could say what would come next? Not her, and certainly not her father.
She had the love of her sister. Of Hemlock. Even after everything she had done. That meant something. That could give her strength, if she let it. She wanted to let it.
Hazel extinguished the fire with the cake water, and tidied the ewer and basin on the table. She lingered a moment, not wanting to leave, feeling as though she would never return. But then, with a single look back, she left the cottage and returned to let the hearth fire of her home–of her family–warm her hollowed heart.