The night is heavy around Cora as she trots down the hill on foot, clutching her arms around herself. The fresh, warm air is silk against her skin. That’s all she can really think about. If she thinks too hard on what she’s done, she’ll lose her mind. She’ll turn back, and that will be more painful than leaving, she’s sure.
Cora’s muscles tense at every sound in the night. Why must it be so dark? Why didn’t she take a torch with her? She stumbles and loses her balance, hitting the ground on her palms. She lets out a sob when she lands, one she didn’t even know was waiting to be released. She covers her mouth and tries to work beyond the inner pain. I have to keep moving. I have to be strong.
She gets up and continues down the hill. Her heartbeat quickens with each careful step in the darkness. She feels so alone out here, with the wind whispering through the trees like a phantom coming for her. She tenses up completely when she hears something scamper into the bushes. She takes out her bow, just in case.
Finally, Cora reaches the base of the mountain and the fork in the roads. She knows which way to go, even in the dark. She turns right toward Hale. More doubt creeps through her mind. Will Adam even remember her? What if he doesn’t? What if he’s completely forgotten about her and moved on with his life, while she’s unable to move on with hers? Even if he does remember her, what will he think of her now? Will his father even let her in?
Cora freezes when she hears something move in the trees. She’s nearing the bend where she crashed the wagon, and she remembers the forest stretching and thickening in that direction. Adam hunts here, so there must be animals. So either she heard prey, or the predator.
A faraway bark makes her jump nearly out of her skin. Cora strings an arrow and brings her bow up as rapidly as she can, pointing it in the direction she heard the sound. If a wolf so much as peaks its nose through that black bush, they’re dead. But the wolf doesn’t come.
At least, not through that bush.
An impact from her left sends Cora sprawling sideways, screaming in terror. Dozens of sharp teeth sink into her left arm as she awkwardly angles her bow toward the beast that seizes it. Glowing eyes pierce into hers as the growling reaches her ears. She releases the bow and snatches the arrow, stabbing it frantically into the wolf’s neck. She still hasn’t stopped screaming.
Cora feels the jaws loosen on her arm and pulls away, backing over the dirt road on her elbows. She loads the arrow into the bow and shoots the wolf once, straight through the eye. After a few convulsive motions, the creature lies dead.
Shivering violently, Cora pauses to catch her breath, then sobs again as she inspects her arm. Rows of holes riddle the skin of her forearm, oozing blood. Her blood. Suddenly, she feels faint. She shakily tears the sleeve of her shirt and wraps the cloth around it, then stands. She must get to Hale. She’ll die out here.
Clutching her bow against her chest with one arm while clumsily holding her wound, Cora stumbles around the bend and sees Hale in the distance. Then she hears another growl behind her, and terror trickles down her spine like icy water. She swings the bow onto her back and breaks out into a frenzied run, wild with fear. She moves as fast as her legs can take her, even faster when she hears another bark behind her, then another, getting closer. They’re after me.
“Help!” she shouts, so someone from Hale will hear her. “Help! Someone, please!”
She enters the town and runs straight toward the blacksmith’s shop. All happiness and excitement to see Adam is drowned by fear for her life. She slams her body against the door and knocks loudly.
“Help!” she shouts again. There is no answer.
She turns and sees the wolf pack enter the town. Those woken by her shouting rush outside, then rush back in upon seeing the pack. She tries the doorknob, trapped out here for the pack to feast upon, but it’s locked. Two of the wolves careen around the corner of a building and sprint toward her. The blood drains from her face.
Cora hears a door open, but she can’t seem to move. She’s jerked backward and the door is slammed back into place. An impact is heard when the wolves hit the door. They scratch and growl outside it, angry with the obstruction. She lets her breath out heavily.
“Thank—” she begins, but is cut off when someone bumps hard against her.
She watches Adam’s father jostle toward the door, a greatsword in his hand. He swings open the door and shoves the beasts away, then charges into the night, slamming the door closed behind himself.
Someone catches her. She supposes she was falling. She turns and sees she is in his arms. Adam’s. He stares down at her in confusion.
“Coraleth! What in Herus’ name are you doing here?” She winces when he accidentally brushes against her wounded arm. He looks down and sighs. “You just can’t stay out of trouble, can you?”
He lifts her to her feet, but she doesn’t let go of him. “You have to help me. I’ve run away,” she blabbers.
“What? Why?” he asks, pulling her to a chair and sitting her down.
“Papa just...and I...and Lucas!” she stutters out. She can’t seem to collect her thoughts. Everything is so jumbled up. Her heart is still racing so fast.
“Here,” he says, and hands her a bottle.
She tips it to her lips and cringes as she tastes strong ale. “Agh!”
“Drink it,” he commands.
She manages a few swallows before her mouth burns so badly she has to stop. She feels the confusion settling in her mind, or, rather, clouding. Everything begins to feel light.
“Thank you,” she breathes, and, after a moment, she tips the bottle back again and smiles. “Must you always greet me by handing me strong drink?”
He laughs softly, and she desperately studies every aspect of his face, wanting to retain the beautiful picture of his smile. He looks a tad different from the last time she saw him. The sun has deepened the colour of his skin, and his hair is longer, curling just past his ears. The rich, brown colour of it reminds Cora of rain-soaked earth.
“I must if you can’t even get out a straight sentence. I must if you don’t cease hurting yourself.” He fetches some cloth and a healing potion. “Now, explain,” he says, handing her the potion.
“I just ran away,” she tells him, then tips the potion back.
The thick, sweet liquid puddles on her tongue for a moment before it saturates her mouth. She doesn’t even have to swallow. It’s as if her body just absorbs it. The throbbing in her arm dies away.
“My father was still mad at me from when I crashed the wagon and refused Lucas so—”
“You refused Lucas?” He pauses in wrapping her arm.
“Oh. Yes. Well, he refused me. We were halfway home when he started yelling at me, then he took one of the horses from the crashed wagon and rode away.”
“Oh,” Adam says, “I’m sorry.”
“You are?” she asks, a little disappointed.
Cora drinks from the ale again, as many swallows as she can handle before the burning causes her nearly to gasp. The bottle’s getting lighter. So is her head. She can feel herself slowly lose control. It’s a disquieting sensation, but eerily blissful.
He eyes her strangely, and that’s when she really realizes that she’s here. She’s here with him. With Adam. He finishes wrapping her arm with a final tuck of the cloth.
“You should get some sleep,” he says. She almost finishes the ale when he takes the bottle from her and sets it on the counter.
“Where? I ran away,” she mumbles, and reaches for the ale again.
He stops her hand. “No more of that,” he scolds gently.
“Where should I sleep? Here?”
“No,” Adam says. “At the inn.”
She’s hurt. It’s silly, she knows, but she is. “Right,” she agrees, nodding and standing up. Her head spins and she laughs, a tad giddy. Maybe more than a tad. “The inn. I can’t stay here. That’s ludicrous.” She laughs again and rubs her eyes. She wonders why her fingers are wet.
“Come on, I’ll show you where it is,” he tells her.
“Good. Thank you. I have no money.”
“Oh, good. Thank you.”
He takes her arm and leads her out. It feels cold outside, although she tells herself it isn’t. It’s almost Solem, and they’re in the plains. It’s never cold in the plains. Is it?
The wolves all lie dead, a number of men standing around with weapons.
“Who led them here?” one man asks.
Adam’s father looks at Coraleth darkly, and she shrivels, the odd giddiness she felt dissipating into fear and embarrassment. Her stomach suddenly turns. She bends over and vomits on the ground. The exertion makes her whole body ache horribly.
“I’m sorry,” she mutters when her stomach is empty.
Adam scoops her up and carries her. “Father, she’ll have to stay with us.”
“Not a chance,” she hears him snarl.
“Someone needs to be with her when she wakes up, or she might have no memory of where she is,” Adam argues.
Cora cries quietly against his shoulder, her head and stomach rolling and aching. She feels so alone, even surrounded by people. “I want my Papa,” she mutters out through her tears.
“She’s obviously not well,” she hears Adam’s father say.
“Obviously. Which is why someone should stay with her,” Adam replies.
“Fine. If you want to stay with her, that’s your choice, but she isn’t coming into her house again. That’s final.”
Somewhere far away she hears a door slam, and that’s the last thing she hears.