“Has anyone seen a young woman? She was wearing trousers. She might have been a tad bruised,” Papa's voice asks loudly. Cora hears the worry tinged therein, even from Adam’s room.
She gasps and swings her legs out of bed no matter how much it hurts. Adam holds a hand in front of her.
“Don’t move,” he urges, then stands and leaves the room.
Even though her body protests, Cora must get out of here. If either of them knew that she was here, in what seems to be Adam’s own bedroom, they’d kill him, and her. She stands and catches her breath sharply at the pain in her body, but limps to the door.
Cora stops dead when she hears Adam say, “I brought her here. She’s in my room.”
“How did you find her?” Lucas yells, furious now. “Were you waiting for her at the fork in the roads? Did you climb on with her and tell her to drive at suicidal speeds?”
“I was hunting,” Adam tries to explain, but Lucas cuts him off with more shouting.
“Out of my way!” Papa shouts.
Cora cringes at the volume and ferocity of their voices, and she steps back from the door as it bursts open. Papa stares open-mouthed at her, an awful mixture of worry and rage on his face. He looks over her quickly, then catches her in his arms and holds her tight, eliciting a whimper of pain from her lips. His grip loosens and his anger seems to dissolve into relief and concern.
“Are you all right? Are you hurt?”
“I’m very sore,” she tells him. She hears Lucas screaming at Adam in the next room and aches to go and defend him. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t think. I just had to get away.”
“But why did you come here?” he demands, his anger returning. He still hasn’t let her go.
“Papa, please,” she begs, trying to wriggle from his arms.
“Where do you want to go now?”
“Just tell Lucas to quit yelling. He’s going to—” At that moment, Lucas does quit yelling, and she hears another sound—the sound of a brawl. Cora looks desperately into Papa’s eyes. “Please, Papa. I didn’t tell him to save me. He just found me. It’s not his fault.”
“We’re going home now, Coraleth,” Papa says firmly, his concern seemingly gone.
“What about Adam? Lucas said he’d kill him if he ever—”
He silences her with one icy look, and tugs her through the door. She stumbles along behind him, held tightly by the arm, and cringes as she watches Adam’s father tear Lucas off him.
“Enough!” the man shouts, glaring at Papa and Lucas. “My son has done nothing wrong here. He left that woman alone like he was told. You have no right to punish him for her error.”
Cora drops her head at his sharp words, her insides twisting.
“Now you listen here...” Papa growls.
“I told him never to speak with her again...” Lucas interrupts.
Cora raises her head just slightly. The men still argue loudly around her, but all of that seems to fade when she sees Adam dabbing at his nose with the point of his knuckle. His eyes find hers and his hand drops, like he wants to show her what her future husband did to him.
She grimaces and mouths, “I’m so sorry.”
A sad, gentle smile brightens his face. He nods, accepting her apology, and shrugs, as if things like this happen to him often.
“Get out of my house!” the blacksmith finally shouts, his massive arm raised to the door. “And never enter it again.”
“Don’t worry about that happening,” Papa retorts, casting a poisonous look at Cora.
She gulps dryly. He’ll never let me leave the cabin again...
Papa pulls her outside and she twists around to catch one last glimpse of Adam before she leaves forever. Papa now holds both arms, almost dragging her back to Lucas’ wagon. Her whole body screams in pain. She sees Adam looking up at his burly blacksmith father, then watches his eyes move to hers. Then the door slams closed. Shutting him in; shutting her out.
Lucas lifts her onto the wagon between himself and Papa and seizes the reins. Their fury is more tangible than the breeze blowing across her face.
“I can’t believe you, Cora,” Lucas seethes, whipping the horses. The wagon rolls along forward.
“I was just bored. I’m sorry,” she groans, distressed.
“You were working!” Papa exclaims. “You finally had a task, and you abandoned it. When the men came and told me you just drove off, my heart nearly stopped.”
“Why here? Why did you come to Hale?” Lucas asks with pain in his voice.
Cora’s heart flops into her stomach. She knows that he knows the answer. What other reason would there be other than to see Adam? Yet, even though she’s aware of this, she still tries to reason it away.
“Like I said, I was bored. It was the closest city.”
“And Adam Spruce just happens to live here,” Lucas continues, his voice deepening. “And he just happened to find you.”
“Yes!” she defends herself. She crosses her arms, but even that hurts her side.
“I’m so disappointed in you, Coraleth,” Papa agonizes. “You know better than to drive recklessly. You could have killed yourself.”
“I know,” she says.
“I can’t believe this,” Lucas mutters darkly.
They drive along in strangled silence for awhile, each minute an eternity. They round the bend where she crashed. The wagon is there, overturned, some planks broken off. The wheels are bent. The sight of it makes Coraleth’s stomach rotten with guilt.
The horses are tied to the tree. Adam’s game bag rests at the bottom of the tree where she must have been lying. Her heart burns when she sees it. He forgot it there. He took her to his own house, knowing the risk, and forgot his game bag at the tree.
Lucas parks the wagon nearby and gets out to untie the horses. Cora’s eyes focus on the game bag until she’s shifting to the side of the wagon and climbing down. Papa grabs her arm.
“Where are you going?”
She rips from his grasp. “I’m just getting something,” she snaps.
Coraleth walks away and he doesn’t stop her. The hole in their relationship tears into a canyon, and she senses its depth and emptiness deep inside. She notices the path that her rolling body took over the grass, and bends over the game bag abandoned at the base of the tree. She lifts the soft leather satchel and peaks inside. A fat partridge lies dead at the bottom, and a small knife is strapped on the inside. He didn’t just leave his game bag, he left his game. A desire to return this to him burns to life inside her, but she knows she can’t. She turns and walks back to the wagon, slipping the strap over her shoulder. As she does, she catches a scent, and raises the edge of the leather to her nose. A tiny smile creeps onto her lips. It smells like him.
“Is that his?” Lucas wonders with a grimace, eyeing the bag like it’s a vile thing.
“It’s mine now,” she muses, stroking the leather fondly. Beautifully crafted.
He stops, one hand on the wheel of the overturned wagon.
“Don’t you understand what you’ve done?” he questions her softly. Despite his quiet tone, his words are harsh and loud with meaning.
“Of course I do,” she returns, settling the bag comfortably around herself.
He shakes his head and looks away. “No you don’t. You don’t understand.”
“Then tell me,” she demands.
“All this time...I was lost,” he begins, resigned. “Lost in my love for you. I was blind, sure that you felt the same way. You convinced me you did. You convinced your father you did. But your words were hollow. The ringing of their emptiness comes back to me now like a sour note. It disgusts me that I fell so obliviously.”
Cora lets out her breath as she comprehends his meaning.
“Lucas,” she whispers, but he holds up a hand.
“But now I see. It’s all coming clear. You hardly knew him a full day and you gave yourself to him. I tried to tell myself it wasn’t true, but this day, this event proved to me that you never forgot him.”
“Lucas, he’s a stranger,” she tells him, and even she can hear the hollowness of her own words.
She suddenly hates herself. Hates that she lied to him. Hates that it’s all coming clean now. Right after a traumatic event.
His eyes bore into hers. “Obviously, that makes no difference to you.”
She pinches the skin of her palm with her fingernails.
“Lucas...” she croaks, tears working into her eyes. No. No.
He looks down. “I’m going to stay until logging season’s over.”
“And then what?” she mumbles. She feels so small, so weak. She can’t defend herself against anything he’s said. It was all true. She just never thought that everything would fall apart. Not like this.
“I’m thinking Ardellon. There’s lots of work for builders to help construct a city there.”
“Ardellon,” she repeats. “That’s so far.”
“Far enough,” he says.
“What about your parents? Won’t they worry?”
He cuts her with another piercing look. “What worse thing could happen that hasn’t happened already?”
She staggers as if he struck her. A sob breaks from her lips and she walks past him.
“You’re so cruel,” she mutters, a strange fire burning within her. “It’s not as if I took him to bed with me.”
“How should I know? Anything could have happened before we got there.”
Cora spins on her heel and faces him again, furious now. “What? You know me!” she informs him loudly. “You know I’d never do something like that.”
“Do I? I thought I knew you. I thought you agreed to marry me because you loved me, but it turns out you just did it to spite Adam Spruce.”
“I didn’t do anything!” she cries in desperation.
“You lied to me. You lied to your father. You lied to yourself. You’ve wanted Adam since the day he came here.”
Coraleth stomps her foot, stepping closer to him.
“I did not!”
That’s true at least. She didn’t know she wanted him until much later. Until she made herself confront her own emotions. Even then she hardly knew for sure. How is a person supposed to understand their mind when it seems like even it has multiple opinions?
“Stop it!” he shouts. “Stop lying to me. Just stop. It’s not going to make me change my mind.”
“I don’t care,” she spits. “I’m relieved we’re not getting married. I just want you to believe me!”
Silence falls. Lucas stares at her, unbelievable hurt flickering over his eyes, and Coraleth is forced to swallow the vomit she just spewed.
I’m relieved we’re not getting married. She threw his proposal back in his face. Along with his love, devotion, kindness, and patience...
I just want you to believe me. She practically told him that all she really wants is his approval so that her reputation won’t be ruined.
What an absolute abomination I am...
Her hand slaps over her mouth, as if scolding her lips for speaking. She shakes her head, more tears wetting her face.
“No no, I didn’t mean that,” she whispers. She bites so hard on her lip that she draws blood. She can’t say anything more. She must only watch him and wait for an answer.
He nods, takes a deep breath, then says, “I would say I believe you, but believing you would be as stupid as asking you to marry me was. And I’m not stupid anymore.”
He walks over to one of the horses he’d untied from the tree and mounts it.
“Stay, please,” Cora moans, running to his horse and gripping the bridle. “Please. Just until the season’s over.”
“Why? You think I’ll forgive you if I stay?”
She shakes her head, her heart lacerated. “Forget me. Your family—”
“That’s what I intend to do. And I’m sure my parents will understand why I’m gone, but if others don’t, you can make up a story that makes you sound good. You enjoy doing that.”
He turns his horse to the road and gazes at it for a moment. Cora’s hand slips off the bridle. No amount of her strength can keep him here. He looks back at her, and a ghost of the Lucas she’s always known suddenly appears.
“I do want you to be happy, Cora.” His eyes darken. “Just don’t get lost in love. It isn’t not worth it.”
With those parting words, he leaves, driving off in a random direction away from any roads. And Cora is certain at that moment that she’ll never see him again.
Mad with pain, Coraleth crumbles to the ground and curls onto her aching side. She is hollow. Empty. It’s not even about the love or the romance that appeared in the last month. It’s about her best friend. It’s about the boy who tugged her braids when she was five and slipped a live fish down her shirt one summer when she was eight, who tagged along on hunting trips and made so much noise she almost shot him, who she loved like a brother since she was thirteen. It’s about the boy who started first at the sawmill, who was part of the reason she wanted to start too. It’s about the fact that this boy, Lucas Kayde, her best friend, is gone. Forever.
Those words. Those horrible, truthful words. He’s never spoken to her so viciously. He’s never sounded so full of hatred. She thought he was her friend first. She thought that those years of friendship would strengthen them against this kind of trial. She thought he’d forgive her. But instead, he gave up. And why shouldn’t he? She isn’t worth the effort to stay.
Coraleth weeps heavily into her arms, and Papa stays in the wagon, just watching. Today’s not the day to comfort her. Today’s the day to let her suffer for her mistakes. She lied to Lucas and Papa for an entire month. She left to see another man. Her intentions weren’t necessarily wrong, not at first, but she gave it no clear thought. Her spontaneous decision cost her her best friend. And even now, she can feel her relationship with Papa tipping over the brink. Why must everything come crashing down at once? Why because of this?
Sorrow mingles with bitter self-pity. She knows that she made a mistake. Can’t they just forgive her? Can they not just move beyond this? Was it really so heinous? She never meant to hurt anyone. She never thought her uncertainty could cause so much damage. Can’t they just get up and keep going?
Coraleth lifts her swollen eyes to the horse disappearing in the far distance, its rider cold with hatred for her, and she has her answer. No, they can’t forgive me. No, they can’t move beyond it. Yes, it was really that heinous. And no, they can’t get up and keep going. The damage is too deep. The scars will never fade.
Coraleth’s head hits the ground again, right on top of the strap of Adam’s game bag. She rips the bag off and flings it away.
“I wish I’d never met you, Adam Spruce!” she shouts at it. “You ruined everything!”
Papa catches her eye as he sadly shakes his head.
“No, dear,” he says, “you did.”