Cora’s eyes pop open and she stares up at the rafters. Her eyes are dry and her body is restless. Four weeks ago today, she woke up around this time to hunt. It was there, in the forest, that she ran into Adam Spruce in the woods, and they shot each other. Her wound has healed nicely, though it is still sore and Papa won’t let her work. She chews the inside of her lips. She’s been doing that a lot lately, so much that she’s chewed ragged sores into the soft flesh. She can’t seem to dislodge Adam Spruce from her brain. She thought that four weeks would be more than enough time. She thought that, by now, she’d be completely settled with the idea of marrying Lucas Kayde. She thought things would return to how they were. She thought so, but that was not to be.
After Adam left and Cora couldn’t work, she had to fill her time with something. She began doing what Papa first suggested—helping him with housework, fixing things, caring for the streams. She has also spent many afternoons with Alexia. With Lucas and all the other men busy with work, Alexia has been the only one, besides Papa, Cora could turn to for company. The first visits were decidedly awkward, as they realized how little they knew each other, but recent ones have been more stimulating. She’s a much more pleasant girl than Cora had thought, and she really enjoys their friendship. Cora’s afraid she’s not as pleasant as Alexia, so she doesn’t know why someone like Alexia would want to spend time with her. But their friendship has saved Cora’s sanity.
Even as Cora turns her thoughts to Alexia, Adam’s face is still in the background. She grinds her head back against the pillow, so frustrated she could scream. She bites her hand and groans into it, to let out at least a little bit of her frustration. She can’t deny how much she’s been thinking about him. It’s been weeks since he’s left, and still she can’t seem to get her mind off him. It’s annoying having a stranger’s face and voice and scent assaulting her mind every waking, and sometimes sleeping, hour.
But he’s not a stranger anymore.
It’s true, no matter how much she tells herself it isn’t. He’s not a stranger. That moment on the cliff proved it. He’s something else...but what?
Everything became so bland once he left. She went back to the cliff once, but climbed the hill, unable to ascend the cliff face alone. The view was still spectacular; however, something was missing, and that fact made the experience terribly hollow. She didn’t go again.
Nothing feels the same anymore. Whenever Cora catches herself in a routine, she thinks of his voice, telling her to change something. To do something that seems silly or wild. To explore and find adventure and learn and laugh out loud no matter who’s listening. To live.
Her most reoccurring thoughts of him tend to be what Lucas said about him wanting the chance to “win her heart” and “change her mind.” Could he have really said such things? If so, why hasn’t he come here to prove it?
Ah yes, her mind will tell her, after such thoughts occur, Lucas told him that, if he ever spoke to me again, Lucas would kill him. He told him to have some respect for me.
But right now, she doesn’t want respect. She wants to know what he’s thinking, what he’s doing, what he wants to do. She wants to see him again. She can’t help it anymore. She can’t lie to herself anymore. She must see him, or she think she’ll die of this overwhelming frustration.
So Cora rises. She gets right out of bed and puts on her shirt and trousers and boots. She starts to braid her hair, then stops and loosens it. She supposes he likes it loose. He took out her braid on the cliff and she never asked why, but that must be the reason. Her heart skips a beat at the thought, and she falls onto a chair in the main room, staring into the beam of moonlight coming in through the window until she sees it even when she blinks away. What am I thinking? I want to travel to a strange town in the early hours before dawn to see a man? What will that do to Papa? To Lucas? To me? Indeed, what will Adam think of it? He may shut the door in my face, claiming I’ve gone mad. Perhaps I have.
Cora drops her face into her hands. She can’t go on the way it is. She just can’t.
So what can I do?
Her own sense of logic prevails. She will work. She will tell Papa that she’ll be the one to slather tallow and beeswax onto the ends of the logs, no matter how degrading the job might feel. She’ll drive the wagon down to the cliffs. That won’t strain her arm and, more importantly, will keep her mind occupied. She has to do something, or she will certainly go mad.
Cora lays her head on the table in her arms, and stares back up at the moonlight. Her eyes feel suddenly very tired, and she unexpectedly falls to sleep.
She wakes from a tap on her shoulder, and looks up into Papa’s smiling eyes.
“Is your bed so uncomfortable?” he wonders.
Turning her head to see him produces a terrible pain in her neck. Cora rubs the spot to try and relieve it.
“I thought I might hunt, but this chair and table looked so comfortable...”
“You can’t hunt until your arm is better,” Papa tells her, going to the water basin to wash his face.
“It is better,” she replies with an absent wave of her hand.
Grogginess infects her mind. She must have been sleeping here a few hours, judging by the pain in her neck and Papa having just gotten up. It must be an hour or so past dawn.
Papa hands her a cup of water and she drinks it down.
“What are your plans for today?” he asks her, expecting the usual: adjusting the weights on the waterwheel, sweeping the floors again,spending the afternoon with Alexia.
But she surprise him. “I’m going to work today,” she announces.
“No,” he immediately says.
Cora raises her hands, having already predicted that reaction.
“I’ll seal the ends of the logs or drive the wagon down to the cliffs. I won’t strain myself.”
“You know how badly that will tempt you. That’s why I haven’t allowed you all these weeks. You’ll seal maybe one or two logs, then hop onto the sawmill platform and work the saw.”
She stands, her body stiff and sore from the awkward sleeping position. “I won’t. I promise I’ll adhere to the easy jobs.”
He’s still shaking his head. Being stubborn again.
“Papa,” Cora says very softly, taking his hands. This always works.“Please. I can’t stay in another day. I must work. That’s what you taught me. How do I even deserve to eat your food if I don’t?”
“You’re my daughter, that’s how,” he says quietly, his eyebrows lowered.
She sees his resolve breaking down. “Well?”
She places her hand on his face, bringing his eyes back to hers. “Please? Just today?”
He sighs. “All right, but I’ll have the men watching you closely. If you so much as lift a single twig with your arm so sore, you’ll be right back here and won’t be allowed to leave for a month.”
Cora knows he’s being dramatic, but still, the thought sends a pang of fear through her. “I won’t lift a twig. I promise.”
He nods. “Good.”
She wraps her arms around his neck and squeezes him tight.
“Thank you,” she breathes.
Then she’s outside before he has a chance to say another word.
The men are already in the swing of things out here. Lucas is debarking like usual, and Gideon is working the saw. Papa was right. She istempted to push Gideon aside and go back to her normal job, but she promised Papa she wouldn’t. She stiffens her resolve.
“Morning, Cora,” Lucas says she passes by. He stretches over and plants a kiss on her cheek.
“Morning,” she replies, to him and the rest of the men there.
“On your way to Alexia’s again?” wonders Gideon.
“Not today. I’m going to work,” she declares triumphantly.
Gideon is already stepping aside.
“Really? What about your arm?” Lucas inquires.
“I’ll seal the logs or drive the wagon, for now at least,” she adds, and watches Gideon step back into place.
“That’s great timing. Terrence left a little while ago with the first load, so you can switch with him. He’s been itching to get off that hard seat for weeks now,” Lucas informs her.
“Perfect,” she says, and hops off the platform.
She’s in a brighter mood than she’s been in for weeks. She’ll finally be productive!
Almost on queue, Cora sees the wagon rolling up the hill toward Sawmill Cabin. Terrence pulls it in front of the wood pile and men already begin loading new logs into the back of it. She marches up to the driver’s end.
“Terrence,” she says, “I’m taking over for you.”
“Really?” he gasps, a big, crooked smile on his skinny face.
She nods and he sighs with relief and jumps down.
“Wonderful. I’ll help load,” he says.
She climbs into the driver’s seat and takes the reins.
Then the waiting begins. At first it isn’t so bad. Cora takes deep breaths of the fresh, warm air and lets her mind wander. Viridis is always a pleasant month. They didn’t have any snow in Ortum Solis like she’d worried, and by now, the threat is gone. Spring is officially here, and it’s beautiful.
The bi-monthly courier walks by with his satchel of letters. With a smile and a wave, he greets her.
“Working again, huh Cora?”
“Indeed,” she replies with a smile. “Won’t be long until I’m back behind the saw.”
“Good to hear. Well, have a nice day!”
“Thanks, you too.”
As the time ticks by, boredom sets in. Cora hears the activity behind her and watches the men load for awhile, but can’t bear the desire to join them. So she turns and faces straight ahead again, trying to make herself just sit still and be patient. She eventually leans her head back to take in the sunshine, sure that it will multiply the number of freckles already on her pale face, but she doesn’t care. Papa’s always liked them.
“Cora!” she hears to her right.
She turns and sees Alexia stroll down the lane, a basket of new flowers on her arm.
“You’ve begun working,” Alexia observes.
“Yes. Papa has me driving the wagon for now, until my arm is totally healed.”
“Does that mean you won’t visit anymore?”
“No, I’ll still come over sometimes. I’ve really appreciated your company.”
Alexia smiles a very soft, bright smile. “As I have appreciated yours. Winifred has even noticed my increase of enthusiasm since we’ve been talking. She says the house has become a better place since you’ve entered it.”
“I’m so glad,” Cora says genuinely.
It’s been nice to have female friends. They’re much more understanding than men, if a tad more theatrical at times.
“Take it away,” calls someone at the back of the wagon.
Cora’s heart leaps at the prospect of finally doing something. “Oh, I’d better get these down to the wood piles. I’ll see you later, Alexia.”
“Come for dinner,” she encourages. “I’m making soup from that rabbit you gave me last week.”
Cora remembers trapping the animal in a snare Papa taught her to build. She’d made Alexia try meat a few weeks back and she loved it so much that she’s requested some kind of animal each week. The snares have also kept Cora busy for awhile.
“That sounds wonderful. I’ll be there,” she promises.
“So will I,” someone behind her jokes.
Alexia laughs and waves goodbye, then makes her way back down the lane.
“Unloaders, climb aboard,” Cora shouts back to the men. She feels the wagon wobble with the added weight, then hears their voices:
She clucks to the horses and they rumble forward.
When Cora backs up in front of the wood piles at the cliffs, the waiting starts all over again. This time, it’s heavy with the smell of drying tallow and beeswax. She taps her fingertips against her legs, shifts back and forth in her seat, and, of course, chews her lips incessantly. There must be something more she can do!
She looks off at the distant view to distract herself. Her lip-chewing halts a moment when she thinks of Hale, somewhere buried there in the ribbon of trees near the mountains, invisible from this point. He isn’t far away...
Cora grips the reins tightly. No. No. I’m here to work. I can’t abandon the men and just ride down to Hale. Papa would lock me up for sure.
However, after two more seemingly endless and hopelessly boring trips, Cora finds her own determination crumbling, her logical reasoning dissipating. She sways and wriggles and taps both hands and feet. She can’t do this. She can’t just sit here anymore. Adam Spruce is so nearby. It wouldn’t be such a bad thing to go and see him. Just once. Then she’d be satisfied. She’d come back and maybe snooze while the men loaded and unloaded. She’d be a better worker if she could only satisfy this one craving.
“Back to Sawmill Cabin,” one of the unloaders calls to her.
Cora runs her thumbnail into the groove she’s already marked in the leather reins. Her heart is pounding, but she knows what she must do.
“Everybody off for a moment. I need to quickly run down to...Dirstwich...for personal reasons. I have important things to purchase.”
“What?” they call to her, but Cora is already speeding away.
Coraleth’s heart is flying faster than the wheels as she races down the trail. She laughs involuntarily. I’m going to be in so much trouble...
But she doesn’t turn back. She doesn’t stop like she knows she should. She doesn’t even slow down. She loves the sensation of the wind sweeping into her face. She never bothered to braid her hair this morning, so it flies about wildly, as free as she feels inside.
This isn’t just a thrill ride, though. Cora has a mission. She needs to see Adam again. She just needs to ask him if he really said those things to Lucas, about wanting to win her heart. She needs to know if he meant it, and, if he did, she wants to ask why he hasn’t followed through. She needs to go on another adventure with him. She needs to feel alive again. She craves that more than anything right now.
Cora comes quickly to the bottom of the mountain trail, where the path splits into the different roads. She takes the road to Hale, still moving fast. If she comes home in good time, perhaps Papa won’t lock her in for the rest of her life. The horses snort and whinny as she whips them again, urging them to move faster.
Cora sees the bend in the road too late, and veers sharply to make it around. All at once, she senses the left wheels of the wagon leave the ground. Her stomach drops out of her body as the entire wagon swings violently over, throwing her from the seat.