Tales of Aranea: Of Sage and Mist

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The air fills with the sounds of the horrible crash and the frightful squeals from the horses. Cora hits the ground hard on her right side and yelp as pain lacerates her body. She rolls uncontrollably until she hits a tree, which knocks the breath completely out of her.

Absolutely terrified, Cora tries to sit up and immediately drops again. The right side of her abdomen is livid with pain, including the healing arrow wound in her left shoulder. The hair she thought so wild and free is now wound tightly around her face and throat, strangling her. As she gasps and chokes for air, tears blur her vision and stream hot down her temples and into her ears. She can’t get air into her lungs. She can’t breathe. She tears off the hair from her neck and still can’t suck any air in. She manages a short scream that turns into a sob. She’s right on the road that will take her to Hale, but is much too far to be heard by them. Her panic rises and she sobs harder, making her body throb. She struggles to drag air into her lungs.

The excitement of only moments ago crashes down on Cora and buries her. If only she hadn’t followed the urge to leave. If only she hadn’t been so stupid and wouldn’t have driven so fast. If only things would have returned to the way they were before Adam left.

If only, if only...

Hopelessness strangles her like a tangible power. She rasps loudly and manages to fill her lungs slightly. She coughs and sobs, her whole body trembling. This is it. She can’t move. She can only lie here until she dies, of pain or lack of air. Fear shreds her sanity and she sobs harder, pushing whatever air she can inhale back out forcefully. Somewhere far away, she hear the horses whining.

I’m such a fool. Such a fool.

Coraleth shuts her eyes, trying to hold onto something she knows was good. She thinks of Papa holding her, of the heady scent of fir, of the sound of the waterwheel lulling her to sleep. That sound rolls through her brain and sedates her. The pain fades away, and an icy hand slithers into her heart, possessing her, flooding her with unbearable cold.

She’s standing suddenly on the brink of a cliff, with a waterfall somewhere far below that she can’t see. What she can see is an incredible view. The sky is bright lavender, with gold flecks scattered all around. Vibrant, pink clouds reach for the sun, trying to conceal it, but it shines a brilliant pale yellow, glowing round with flames. The sight is too bright for her eyes, and she tries to lift her hand to shield them, but she cannot move it. She cannot move at all.

Cora’s hair is whipped about so sharply that it hurts her scalp. And she hears a voice. A distant, male voice: “Coraleth?”

Is it Herus?

Cora slowly advances to the edge of the cliff. She can sense her insides twisting and tightening with terror as she moves. But she’s not controlling the movement. She’s just aware of it. The edge drops off from beneath the tips of her toes, then her soles. She looks down and the ground isn’t even visible from this height. Her spirit seems to have dropped out of her already.

Then, all at once, she’s falling. Plunging downward so fast that she can’t make out any shapes around her. Daylight seems to have been sucked out of the world. She knows nothing but fierce, unyielding trepidation that swallows everything else. And right before she hits the ground, Cora simultaneously hears her name and wakes with a violent start.

She’s gasping so hard that her throat burns. Then she looks up into woodsy brown eyes. Adam’s.

“Oh thank Herus,” he sighs, his eyelids closing for a moment.

Coraleth glances around and finds herself still lying at the base of a tree on the ground. Then her eyes turn to his again. She opens her mouth to speak, but is so overcome that a vacant sob escapes instead. He gathers her gently into his arms and stands, holding her against himself. She covers her face and cries, ashamed and relieved and scared and hurting all at the same time.

Adam doesn’t say anything. He walks along in silence, letting her cry for awhile, until she has no tears left. She lays her head against his shoulder then, her back and side aching horribly.

“The horses,” she mumbles, then wipes her mouth. She’s such a mess.

“They’re all right. A little bruised and scraped, but they’ll make it,” he replies.

“Where are we going?” Cora asks, too weak to even turn her head and find out for herself.

“Hale. It’s closer than Atherton and not uphill.”

She relaxes against him. He’s so warm. He smells so good. He must be strong to carry her all the way there. Her eyes fall closed. “I’m so sorry about this,” her voice wobbles quietly.

He hushes her, and she drifts in the sound and also to the rhythmic swaying of his movements.

Cora wakes in a soft bed and a strange room. Her body is stiff and she makes no attempt to move it. She hears the measured, shrill beats of a blacksmith’s hammer on iron, and knows she’s in Adam’s house, perhaps even his bedroom. The thought makes her cheeks hot.

The door opens and Adam enters, holding a wooden cup. He smiles.

“Nice to see you awake,” he says. “Can you sit up?”

“I think so,” she replies without enthusiasm, then pushes herself up. She groans as pain rips up and down her back and side, and settles herself back against the wall. “Just a little sore.”

He hands her the cup.

“Strong mead,” he tells her, and she downs the whole thing in a few swallows, cringing at its strength, but letting it soak into her strained body.

“Thank you,” Coraleth breathes, giving him the cup, “for everything.”

He nods and looks down into the cup for a moment. Then his eyes find hers again.

“Why are you here?” he asks her quietly.

Coraleth gnaws on her lip anxiously. She’d been awaiting this moment—well, not exactly this moment—for so long now. She’d planned what she would say to him. She’d formulated precisely what she was going to do. Yet, now that they are together again, she can’t find words. The things she’d wanted to say now seem far too lofty for our still embryonic relationship. He could not have told Lucas those things about wanting to win her. It’s just not possible.

Cora can’t think of anything else to say. She blames her empty mind on the wagon accident, even though, deep inside, she knows that isn’t the entire reason.

“I don’t know,” she mutters lamely.

“Oh,” he returns, and the silence is terribly heavy.

So this is it. This is their reunion. All these weeks she’d daydreamed about him catching sight of her from across town, running to her, lifting her in his arms, and telling her to jump off a cliff with him. All that time she’d hoped that he’d been pining for her, wishing she’d break it off with Lucas, thinking about her as much as she’s thought about him. All of that was pure fantasy. Instead, this is it. She’s faced with the reality of their relationship—that they truly know nothing about each other, and that a moment’s excitement had made her believe in a daydream. He’s just as human as she is.

And yet, as Cora turns her eyes once again to him, her logical evaluation of him sort of disappears, and all she can think is that his nose is slightly crooked and she likes it that way.

“How’s your shoulder?” he asks, a wry smile curling one side of his mouth.

She smiles. “It was getting better. Actually, Papa let me work this morning. He allowed me to drive the wagon down to the cliffs to unload wood.”

He raises an eyebrow. “It must have been a good morning then, if you had something to do.”

She sighs. “It was, I suppose...

Then Coraleth realizes that he noticed and remembered that about her, that she always needs something to do. She’s touched.

He must have thought she was going to say something else, because his next words seem to finish her thought: “...until I came and saved your life?”

“Frankly, yes, but not because you saved it. Because I jeopardized it.”

“Coraleth, really. Why did you come here? I mean, you could be working. And you must have been hurrying, at least, hurrying too fast around the bend. That’s how the wreckage looked. Why were you in such a hurry?” His eyes search hers as if he can find the answer there.

She would really despise saying “I don’t know” again, so she doesn’t. Instead, she takes a deep breath and tells him what she doesn’t often tell anyone else: the truth.

“All right. I...I came to ask you something.”

His eyebrows rise slightly. “Well, go on,” he insists.

Nervousness knots her stomach and she begins hesitantly: “Lucas...told me something you said when you left last time.”

Her awkward wording causes him to consider what she said for a moment.

“All right, but that’s not a question,” he says.

Coraleth laughs hesitantly. “No, it isn’t. I was just wondering if you...if you meant—”

The hammering that Coraleth grew accustomed to suddenly stops and they both hear shouting outside. Cora’s blood goes cold when she recognizes Lucas’ voice, and even more so when she hears another familiar voice. Papa.

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