Hazel and Holly — Homeward Heart
Previous: The Tiresome Trail
Holly sat on a fallen tree trunk, twining together fern leaves into a wreath as Chester scampered in the brush. She’d like to make a matching wreath for him to wear, but her fingers weren’t nimble enough for such tiny weave-work. Maybe Odd had some tools she could use that would help her make such a thing. She’d have to remember to ask him when they returned. If they returned. Holly put down the leaves, staring at the darkening sky that seemed on the verge of swallowing her in its shadow.
She turned and found Hemlock approaching her.
“Are you all right?” he said.
Her throat clenched as she tried to answer, so she nodded instead.
He sat down next to her. “It’s getting dark. Wouldn’t you like to come inside?”
She shook her head. “I don’t like it here. It’s dark and depressing, and that’s just outside. I don’t want to see what it’s like inside.”
“It’s actually not that bad. And that wreath you made is lovely, so it can’t all be so depressing, can it?”
She shrugged. They sat in silence for a while, and then she said, “Do you miss it?”
“Well, I…” he glanced at her out of the corner of his eye and then let out a breath. “No, not really.”
Holly slumped. “Oh.”
“I envy you, though, for missing it.”
Holly frowned. “Why?”
“You have a place you have given your heart, a place where you belong. You have a home, Holly. I just have a place where I live with an annoying brother. There is a difference, and I envy yours.”
“You could have a home, if you wanted.”
He gave a wan smile. “Maybe, though I wouldn’t know how.”
“Hazel would know.”
Hemlock looked down at his hands.
Holly studied him a while before saying, “Did she ever tell you what happened to our mother?”
He shook his head. “I know she passed away. I have gathered, given your father’s tampering in necromancy, that maybe he had something to do with her death. Or… maybe with something that happened afterward.”
“He trapped her soul in a geas. Hazel’s been trying to figure out how to undo it.”
Hemlock swallowed. “That is terrible. I’m sorry.”
Holly looked down at the ground and nodded. “I went to go see her–our mother–the other night. Right before we left. It was the first time I went since she died.”
“How did it go?”
“Terribly. I couldn’t even look at her, and then I left. Now we’re here. I can’t go back and tell her I’m sorry.” She wiped at her eyes. “I might never get to tell her.”
“I’m sure you will.”
Holly stared at the back of her hands as they rested on her lap. “If you have something you want to tell someone, you shouldn’t wait.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Hazel. She likes you, and I think you might like her, too.”
Hemlock cleared his throat and adjusted his glasses. “Well, yes, but it’s complicated.”
“I know. Hazel always makes everything complicated. But you need to figure it out. She needs someone like you, though she’ll never admit it.”
Hemlock shook his head. “I’d like to believe that, but I’m not sure I do.”
“Did you know that when I was six, our mother left us once?”
He blinked. “I… no, I didn’t know that.”
Holly nodded. “Just up and left, didn’t say where she was going or why, or when she’d be back. Hazel was around twelve then, and she was furious. I remember her yelling and she threw something–a plate, maybe, I don’t remember what–and broke it. I cried. Hazel grew really quiet, and then she walked into the kitchen and grabbed a jar of honey. She took my hand and led me outside and we walked to a pond nearby our cottage. We sat on a log together, kind of like this one, and ate the honey with our fingers until the sun set. Then we stayed out and watched the stars. It’s one of my favorite memories, and I sometimes forget that it’s only because our mother left that we did that at all.”
Holly peered at Hemlock in the gloom. “Despite her rough edges, Hazel’s always looked after me–after Mother, too. It’s who she is. I just hope that someday, someone will come along who can look after her. I hope she can find someone to watch the stars with.”
Hemlock looked down again. “I hope so, too.”
Holly nodded. “Well, all right, then.” She put her hand to the ground and waited until Chester scampered onto her palm. “Just don’t wait too long.”
She started to walk away when Hemlock said, “Hawthorn would be lucky to have you. If he doesn’t see that, then he’s a fool.”
Holly smiled. “Thanks, Hemlock.”
He rose and offered her his arm. “May I escort you back, Miss Holly?”
She giggled and linked her arm in his. “You may.”
They strolled back towards the inn as the first stars of the evening sparked into the sky and the crickets began to chirp.
“By the way,” Hemlock said, “Tum has locked himself in your room. I thought you’d like to know.”
Holly nodded. “I thought he might.”
The inside of the inn was both creepy and cozy, if such a thing were possible. Racks of antlers hung on the walls, some with candles affixed to them that served as sconces. There was even a great big mess of antlers hanging from the ceiling of the common room that served as a chandelier. The wooden walls were painted black, yet the curtains were warm and plush, and several paintings hung on the walls that depicted wildflowers and pastoral scenes. A single bookshelf boasted a modest library, and a fire crackling in the hearth helped chase away some of Holly’s unease.
“I told you,” Hemlock said, “it’s not so bad.”
Holly pressed her lips together. “We’ll see. If there’s any of those antlers in my room, I’m tossing them out.”
She walked to a counter and rang a little bell. After a moment, a thin man with a thinner mustache and ears nearly as big as his head walked out of a door and stood behind the counter. He beamed at her.
“We’re going to need some beer,” Holly said.
The innkeeper pointed at an open ledger on the counter.
Holly glanced at it and shook her head. “I don’t understand. Did you hear what I said? We need beer.” She raised her voice. “BEEER.”
The man, still smiling, lifted a pen next to the ledger and handed it to her.
“I think he wants you to write it down,” Hemlock said.
The innkeeper nodded and tapped the ledger one more time.
“What on earth for? He seems to have heard you. So why can’t he hear me?”
“I don’t know, but maybe just humor him?”
Holly sighed and wrote down: Beer. Three. (Yes, three and no they’re not for me.) She then put down the pen and scowled at the man.
The innkeeper smiled and, with a flourish, ripped the paper from the binding and stuffed it in his mouth.
“Hey!” Holly said. “That’s my order!”
He scampered through the door from which he came and disappeared.
Holly stared at the door and then at Hemlock. “Is… is he coming back?”
“What kind of place is this?” Holly said.
Hemlock gave a sheepish grin. “The only place between Sarnum and The Grove, I’m afraid. It’s just for one night.”
A bell rang, and Holly froze. “Where did that come from?” They both kept still, and Holly held her breath as they waited. It rang again.
“There!” Hemlock said and walked over to a wall. He slid open a door to a little hatch, showing three mugs of beer sitting upon a shiny silver tray.
“Where did that come from?” Holly said.
“It’s a dumb-waiter,” Hemlock said. “We have one in our house, though we rarely use it.” He took the tray and handed it to her. Then he poked his head back into the hatch. “Intriguing design, though. I wonder how they got a bell to ring…” He rapped on one of the inner walls and waited, but nothing happened.
Holly blinked at the foaming mugs. “Well, all right, then. Which room is mine?”
Hemlock continued to poke around.
“My room? Which is it?”
“Oh, uh, room six.”
Holly shook her head as she made her way upstairs.
She wandered down a hallway of doors, all painted black like the surrounding walls. She found the door with a brass “6” nailed to it and pounded on it with her foot, but there was no reply.
“I know you’re in there, you little beast. I’ve got beer here, so unless you want me to drink all of it, you’d better open the door.”
The door cracked open and Tum poked his head out. “What kind of beer?”
“Does it matter?”
“It might. You should try lodging yourself in a cramped trunk full of dresses of middling quality for an entire day and then see how you like drinking substandard beer as a restorative.”
“This isn’t supposed to be a restorative. It’s supposed to be your weekly wages so you don’t rob us all blind. And I told you before, you’re not burrowing in with my good dress. I’ve only got the one, and I don’t trust your grabby little fingers.”
Tum’s mouth fell open as he shrank back. “My fingers aren’t grabby!” He stared at his hands, as if unsure.
Holly walked in the room and set the tray down on a table. “Just drink your beer.”
Frowning, Tum shuffled over to the tray and took a mug. He sipped some beer and glanced at her out of the corner of his eye, but said nothing.
Holly sighed. “Well? How is it?”
Tum shrugged. “Perfectly adequate. Utterly unremarkable.”
Tum sniffed. “After the glories of beer from The Green Man, ‘adequate’ is so much harder to bear.”
Holly rolled her eyes. “I’m sure you’ll manage.” She sat down on the floor, resting her back against the bed. Tum sat down next to her.
The room was brighter than the rest of the inn, with walls that had been papered with a butterfly pattern. It was actually kind of lovely. Especially the way the candlelight caught some of the wings, she could almost see the texture of them and… Holly narrowed her eyes as she tried to focus. Were they casting shadows?
She got up and walked to a wall. To her horror, it was filled with scores of butterflies, all pinned to the plaster, their wings preserved in colorful splendor. She cried out and staggered back.
Tum poked his head up from his mug. “What’s that?”
Head down, Holly bolted out the door and ran into Hawthorn in the hallway.
“I-I’m sorry,” she said. Her vision blurred as her eyes filled with tears. Oh please, not now. Don’t cry now. It’s just butterflies. Who cares about butterflies? But that only upset her more, and she covered her face as a sob escaped her.
Hawthorn put a kerchief into her hands, and Holly cried into it. He stood there—she knew he did even though she dared not look at him. What he must think of her, running into him like that and then bawling for no reason like a crazy woman. She gulped down some air and clenched her hands until she managed to calm.
Hawthorn shuffled his feet as he glanced around. He looked uncomfortable, like he wanted to leave. “Are… you all right?” he said.
Holly nodded, probably more vehemently than was proper. “Yes, sorry. I mean, thank you. It’s just… my room. It took me by surprise.” Her lips trembled and she bit them to keep herself from crying again.
Hawthorn frowned. “What’s wrong with it?”
Holly bit down harder and shook her head. After a while, she managed to say, “I can’t stay here. This place, it’s awful. I want to go home.” Tears rolled down her cheeks again, and she hastily wiped them away.
Hawthorn cleared his throat and said, “You could take my room, if you want. It’s number eight, over there.”
“What’s in your room? Dead bears?”
Holly sniffed and blinked at him. “Lilies?”
He nodded. “Lilies.”
“But… where will you sleep?”
“In your room, I suppose. Or with Hemlock. Though, whatever is in your room is probably less horrific than putting up with Hemlock’s feet.”
A short giggle escaped Holly and she nodded. “All right. Thank you.” She remembered the kerchief and held it up. “I think I’ve ruined this.”
Hawthorn waved a hand. “Not to worry. I buy them by the case.” He gave a short bow. “Good night, Holly.”
She smiled and clutched the kerchief to her chest. “Good night, Hawthorn.”
He walked into her room and shut the door. Then, after a moment, it reopened and Tum came stumbling out, holding a mug of beer in each hand. He turned back towards the room just as the door slammed in his face.
“Hey!” he shouted. “I was in there, you know!”
“Come on,” Holly said. “Hope you like flowers.”
Next: Haunted Heart