Tales of Aranea: Of Sage and Mist

All Rights Reserved ©

New Friends

The day passes slowly until Coraleth finally falls asleep. When she wakes up again, she’s groggy but her head doesn’t hurt as bad. She drinks the rest of the water and the ache gradually fades. Then she’s left lying in silence, silence so dull she has to fill it. So she hums a tune to herself that her father hummed to her when she was too young to work at the mill and helped him down by the streams. It’s the pretty melody of a quite whimsical song whose lyrics she can’t remember. All she knows is that it talks something about a man whose bride forgot her slippers on their wedding day, and so she went barefoot. That’s the only part she remembers.

However, no matter how joyful the tune or happy the memories, the song leaves Cora with a very empty, sad ache inside, and the tune gradually dies in her throat. She clutches the blanket around her arms and tries to relax, but every position is uncomfortable. Finally, in frustration, she throws off the blanket and gets out of bed, trying to ignore the stab of pain and dizziness in her head as she rises. She stumbles toward the window, accidentally knocking over her bow, and fiddles with the lock, then pushes both sides out and inhales a deep breath. The fresh air is life-giving.

Cora finds herself in a two-storied building in the middle of town, with a perfect view over the town centre. This view overlooks the area she found when she first came here. To the left is the jewellery shop and the apothecary, the blacksmith’s is behind this building to the left, out of sight, and the rest of town curves around to the right, with little squat houses and shops all arranged in rows and clusters. The Sanctuary is right across the way, built with sturdy, vine-covered cobblestones. Its tower pierces the blue sky, and, from this height, Coraleth can see the stained glass panes in the tall windows high on the walls. The Sanctuary is beautiful, much more elegant than the little wooden chapel in Atherton. Coraleth can only imagine what the Sanctuary in Bannerford must be like.

Excitement roars through her again. She still can’t believe she’s going on a two-day trip across the plains with Adam Spruce! What an adventure! She wonders what they will do and see. There’s no telling the escapades the trip will entail. She can hardly hold still just thinking about it!

Cora’s eagerness dies a little when she thinks of her father. What if he comes looking for her, only to find she’s run off to Bannerford with none other than Adam Spruce? What would he do? Would she be breaking his heart more than she already has? Guilt turns her stomach. Perhaps she should write him a letter, telling him of what she will do and wishing him her best.

No matter how hard it will be, Cora knows she has to do it. She checks the drawer in the end table and is pleased to find the necessary tools for the letter. Seating herself at the table with her quill in hand, she is ready to compose.

Papa, she begins in her usual, unrefined hand, I’m going to Bannerford. I don’t know when I will return. Please know that I am safe and in good hands. I hope everyone is well. I hope the streams are well. Tell Gideon he can have my traps, and tell him to bring Alexia meat once a week. She really likes it. I hope the rest of logging season goes well. Don’t let them fall behind.

Then, I love you.

Pain squeezes Cora’s chest. She wants to sign it “Cora-Mae” since that’s what he always called her, but he hasn’t call her that for awhile. She doesn’t know if she can. So she just signs “Coraleth,” and rereads the letter. It’s so emotionless, up until she says “I love you.” But she wants him to know that she does, and she always will, even if he doesn’t love her anymore.

Her mind repels against the thought. Of course he loves me. He just hasn’t forgiven me.

And I haven’t apologized...

Cora folds the letter and signs her father’s name on the outside. A knock at her door startles her.

“Adam?” she asks, but a woman’s voice replies.

“I was told to check if you wanted a bath,” she says in a bored voice.

“Oh, yes please.” Cora sighs in gratitude at Adam’s thoughtfulness, and walks to the door. She gasps as she recognize the same buxom woman from her first visit to Hale—the one who mistook her for a man. “Oh, hello again,” she stammers out.

The woman’s round eyes widen with recognition. “Madam,” she articulates, finishing with a slight curtsy. Her entire being drips derision and Cora’s immediately repulsed. “Welcome back.”

Cora nods, hating the awkward silence. “I’d like to send this along with the next courier to Atherton,” she says, handing her the letter.

The woman glances at it once before stuffing the letter into her apron pocket. “Very well.”

“Do I bathe in my room?” Cora wonders.

The woman shakes her head. “Downstairs. They boil water in the kitchens and have a tub in the storage room,” she informs her.

“That will be fine. How much does it cost?”

“It’s been paid for already.” The woman turns and begins down the flight of creaking wooden stairs. Quite an abrupt departure. Strange. She acted quite apologetic when Cora first visited. What has caused her to be so abrasive?

It suddenly dawns on her that she has no other clothing than the shirt and trousers she’s wearing now, and they smell in desperate need of a wash. They also bear a few mysterious stains that she hasn’t noticed until now.

“Excuse me,” Coraleth calls as she rushes out of her room. She stands at the top of the stairs, and the woman stops on the bottom step to look up at her. “Where could I get another change of clothes?”

“At the clothier,” the woman says, as if it’s obvious.

Cora has no money to pay for new clothes. She changes plans. “Where can I wash my clothes?”

“In the tub you wash yourself in,” the woman snaps, seeming annoyed now. “This isn’t Garnet Manor. We don’t have maids and menservants catering to our guests and tending washing rooms.”

Cora raises her hands in defense. “Fine. I’ll just wash them in my tub. I was just asking.”

It seems the woman has realized her own outburst and clamps her thin lips shut. With a curt nod, she turns and disappears downstairs. Coraleth squirms in irritation. What an odious sow.

She slips back into the bedroom to collect the money off the table, then descends the steps to the main level of the inn. It’s a shabby place, but at least it’s clean and doesn’t smell. People dine around her, which tells her it’s about midday. She asks the proprietor behind the counter for directions to the kitchens, and he points to another staircase behind her, disappearing into the ground.

That’s what the woman meant by “downstairs.”

Cora descends and a skinny kitchen maid bumps right into her, accidentally scraping the edge of a cast iron pot against her upper arm. The iron is hot and burns her skin. She jumps back and yelps.

“Oh! I’m so sorry,” the girl apologizes, her huge brown eyes pleading. “Is your arm all right?” She inspects it, holding the pot far away from Cora.

“It’s all right,” she sighs, her heart slowing down. “You startled me, is all.”

“Oh, it looks awful. I’ll be right back.” She shuffles past her and trots up the stairs.

Cora takes a moment to look around. The kitchen is cluttered and sweltering hot. Filthy dishes pile up in the washbasin. The only cook is a strong-looking woman with a very angular face. She reminds Cora of an eagle. Her black eyes dart to her, then back to her pot on the stove. She stirs some kind of brown soup rapidly, then crushes a sprig of what looks like parsley into the pot while giving it another quick stir.

“You’re the girl Adam carried in last night,” she says, her words precise, her voice deep.

“Yes,” Cora squeaks, intimidated by the woman. “He gave me a little too much ale.”

“If you need something for the aching, there’s a tonic in the cupboard.” She gestures across the room with her dripping wooden spoon.

“Oh,” Cora says, surprised, glancing to the cupboard. “Thank you.” She crosses the room and opens up the doors. “I really just wanted a warm bath and a place to wash my clothes. Which bottle is it?”

The eagle-like woman leaves her pot and is beside Cora in a moment. Reaching her muscled arm across Cora, the woman selects selects a small, brown bottle from the collection of other unfamiliar bottles. She hands it to Cora.

“This one. Take a spoonful and you’ll feel better. And you can bathe in the storage room.”

Cora nods. “That’s what the other woman told me.” The eagle-like woman hands her a spoon and Cora swallows some of the dark purple tonic. The thick, oddly sweet concoction makes her shiver. “It tastes like mead and blueberries...with this strange, grassy aftertaste,” she says.

“It’s a special brew I made. It’s cured my drinking aches many times. Although, mine never come after only one bottle of ale.” She laughs, and reminds Cora of her own laugh. This puts Cora much more at ease. The woman puts the bottle back into the cupboard. “What’s your name?” she asks.

Now that they’re fully facing one another, Coraleth realizes this woman has most unusually attractive features. Her eyes are the colour of charcoal and laced with full, curling lashes. They’re set in skin the colour of wood flesh, hinting at brown but not really getting there. Her wide, almost childlike eyes don’t seem to match the rest of her face. Her nose is straight, her cheekbones prominent. Her most outstanding features, besides her eyes, are her eyebrows, thick and elegantly curved. They’re even manicured in the centre so they don’t meet, a practice that isn’t terribly common in the area, at least not in Atherton. It is Cora’s own personal taste that they be manicured, too.

“Coraleth,” she says.

“That’s a beautiful name,” comments the kitchen maid upon returning to the kitchens. She moves past Cora and takes a fist-sized covered container from the cupboard. “Let’s see that arm.”

“Oh, I’ll put salve on after my bath,” Cora says.

“No, this will take away the sting so you can enjoy the warm water. Trust me.”

She uncovers the container and spreads a liberal amount of some sticky ointment over the burn. It hurts at first, then cools. Cora sighs as the pain abates, then presents her with her other arm, the one wrapped in bandages. The little kitchen maid gasps as Cora unwraps it and shows her the bite wounds now ringed with purple and black bruises. Quickly, the maid slathers on ointment.

“By the way, I’m Milo Spruce,” says the first woman, “and this is Rain Volber. It’s nice to meet you.”

Cora looks up at her. “Milo Spruce?” she questions. Her first thought is that this is Adam’s wife, but that couldn’t be. Right?

“Yes, I knows it’s a boy’s name, but Father wanted another boy. I guess he wasn’t so disappointed. I work as hard as any man.” Milo studies Cora’s expression for a moment with a twinkle in her dark eyes, then smiles gently as she says, “I’m Adam’s older sister.”

Cora laughs lightly, inwardly relieved. “Oh, good. It’s nice to meet you both.” She then looks in question at the kitchen maid. “Rain?”

Rain smirks. “Mama said she had me during one of the worst rainstorms ever to come to Hale, and she thought it’d be perfect. It was also her great grandmother’s name, and her mother named her that for the same reason. This town does see quite a bit of rain at times.”

“So your family has been here long?” Cora inquires as Rain closes the cupboard and pulls open the double doors into the storage room.

“Ages. My great great grandfather started the town. He and my great great uncles built the Sanctuary. Are you a child of Herus?”

“Yes,” Cora tells them.

“Me too. I suppose I have to be, because of my lineage and all, but it was also my choice. The gods of the human race are simply too limited. Herus is a God of true power and love. I’d be lost without Him.” Rain drags the tub—a large barrel cut in half—to the middle of the little room, in front of a shelf overflowing with cabbages, leeks, potatoes, and gourds. “This is the bathtub,” she informs Cora.

She moves to the next room and takes a big pot from the counter. A circular stone structure that looks like a well sits in one corner of the kitchen. Rain dips the pot into the water and sets it over the fire to boil. Cora peeks into the “well,” which is really just a large container with the same floor as the kitchen itself, and she supposes it must be refilled from time to time with water from an actual well outside. It’s an ingenious idea.

“This water container is very convenient,” she says.

Milo steps beside her. “It is. I thought of it when we first started, and were forced to carry in water by the bucketful for cooking and washing. This makes it much easier.”

Cora nods, and watches Rain take the pot Milo was stirring earlier up the stairs. “They need their refills,” she murmurs in explanation as she disappears.

“Do just the two of you feed the patrons of the entire inn?” Cora wonders.

“Yes, but it isn’t as difficult as it sounds. I cook a few meals a day, and Rain brings the food to the customers. The proprietor, Delbert, pays us well and includes room and board. He’s a good man.”

“Don’t you live at your own house?”

Milo shakes her head. “The blacksmith’s shop doesn’t have room for me anymore. And besides, we start before dawn here. It’s just more convenient.”

“What about that other woman? The large one?”

Milo smiles, and Cora notices she is missing an upper back tooth. “Mallory, or ‘The Great Mammoth,’ as we like to call her. She’s Delbert’s wife.”

Cora laughs. “‘The Great Mammoth’?”

Milo raises a finger. “Quick-tempered and a heavy eater,” she explains, then laughs.

“She yelled at me for wanting to bathe and told me to wash my clothes in the tub,” Cora gets out through the laughter.

“That sounds just like her,” Milo snickers.

Cora’s stomach cramps and she wipes away a tear. “And the first time I came to Hale, she mistook me for a man.”

Milo snorts, waving her hand. “She thought I was a man the first three months I worked for her. She finally realized I was a woman when she dressed an arrow wound for me. And I’ve grown up here!”

“An arrow wound?” Cora asks, her laughter dying down.

“Yes. My brother accidentally shot me when we were hunting together in the forest. He got me right in the back of my shoulder. Can you believe that?”

Cora hooks her thumb into her collar and pulls her shirt off her shoulder, revealing the pocked skin where her own shoulder wound is healing. “I actually can,” she tells Milo, pleased with her expression of shock.

“Adam did that?” Milo gapes.

Cora slips the cloth back over her shoulder and nods. “I got him too, in the other shoulder.”

Milo lets out a whoop and claps her hands, almost strangled with laughter. “That’s too funny!”

Cora chuckles, realizing she hasn’t had this much fun in a long time. “It was quite the morning,” she muses.

“I’ll bet,” Milo agrees, dabbing at her moist eyes with her thumb.

Rain descends the stairs and eyes the two of them. “Why are you two giggling like little goslings?” she asks.

“Adam shot her in the shoulder too, and she shot him back!” Milo tells her.

Rain’s eyes widen. “Really?”

Coraleth nods and pulls down her shoulder sleeve again. “Wow!” she exclaims with a giggle. “That’s quite the scar.”

“And I told her about our fond name for Mallory,” Milo continues.

Rain grins and spreads out her arms. Then she takes a few slow steps and puffs out her cheeks. “The Great Woolly Mammoth,” she scoffs in a deep, gravelly voice. “She’s coming for your happiness. She’s going to eat it with her potato skins.”

They all burst out laughing. Milo’s next. She adopts the same mocking stance and raspy voice. “She’s going to forbid bathing and force everyone to wash their clothes in their own soup!”

Cora joins them, widening her arms and grunting. “Welcome to Hale, sir! I can’t really tell if you’re a man or a woman, but don’t be insulted. I might be a ‘sir’ myself!”

They’re practically on the floor, laughing so hard they can’t even breathe. Cora wheezes and wipes her sleeve over her face.

“Very funny,” they hear from the door. They all look in horror to see Mallory standing at the bottom of the stairs, a pile of dirty plates in her hand. Her expression tells them that she heard. Everything. Their laughter dies instantly, but it still tickles in Cora’s chest. Now even the silence is funny.

Mallory tosses the plates to the counter, not caring that they don’t make it all the way and crash to the ground. With an disgruntled hmph! she ascends the stairs again. No sooner is she out of sight do they all break into laughter again, even more than before.

“That was perfect,” Milo says.

Continue Reading Next Chapter

About Us

Inkitt is the world’s first reader-powered publisher, providing a platform to discover hidden talents and turn them into globally successful authors. Write captivating stories, read enchanting novels, and we’ll publish the books our readers love most on our sister app, GALATEA and other formats.