Fifteen minutes later, Coraleth lies, totally relaxed, in steaming water up to her collarbones. Milo and Rain promised they’d watch the doors so she wouldn’t be disturbed. They even lit a few candles in the room for added luxury, but the smell of the melting wax reminds Cora of what they spread on the ends of the logs in Atherton, and she’s struck with a strange, dull homesickness.
The water is wonderfully warm and comforting, and Milo lent her a change of clothes while Cora’s dry. Rain washed them for her and hung them by the fire in the kitchen. Cora is very pleased to have met them. They’re much more exciting company than even Alexia had been. Milo has the free spirit that Adam has, and her similarity to Coraleth connects them in a very personal way. Rain is so kind and lovable, Cora already likes her. She’s even thinking of inviting the two of them to Bannerford, even though they probably won’t be able to go. It won’t be such a great loss if they can’t come. Cora would still like to spend the time alone with Adam.
Cora rinses and rinses in the warm water, then enjoys it for a moment longer before climbing out and drying off with the very rough piece of cloth Milo gave her. When she glances back at the water, she cringes with disgust, for it was quite a different colour when she got in.
The clothes fit quite loosely on her, since Milo is of stronger build, but Cora doesn’t mind. The skirt is a little too long and she doesn’t enjoy wearing them in the first place, but Milo doesn’t own trousers. It’s strange that even she doesn’t wear them. She seems so similar to Cora and still she works in these confining, swishy things. Cora hates them. The only other time she’s worn them was for a funeral in Atherton. She finishes dressing by pulling on her own boots.
Cora exits the room and finds Rain drying off the dishes. “Milo’s out helping her brother with something. How was your bath?”
“Lovely, though the water’s an unsightly colour.”
“At least you’re not an unsightly colour. I thought you had darker skin,” Rain says with a giggle.
“No. That was just dirt.”
“Where did you get so dirty?” she wants to know.
“I slipped down a mountain and was attacked by a wolf pack,” Cora tells her, picking up a cloth and helping Rain dry the dishes.
Rain’s eyes widen. “A wolf pack?”
“Yes. They found me in the forest and chased me all the way here.”
Rain suddenly looks distraught. “You were the one that led them here?”
Her look matches how Cora feels. “Yes, but I didn’t mean to,” she says quickly. “I was running for my life.”
“My brother was almost killed by those wolves,” Rain whispers, her eyes glazing over.
Cora’s heart wrenches and she drops the cloth. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to,” she repeats. Suddenly, she hopes Rain can’t come with them to Bannerford.
Rain lays a hand on her shoulder and offers a sad smile. “I know you didn’t. It’s fine, Coraleth.” She goes back to her work, but Cora still feels terrible.
“I suppose I’ll go back to my room for some rest. I hope I’ll see you later, Rain.”
She smiles again, a hesitant one that appears only on her lips. “I hope so too. Feel better, all right?” she says.
“Thank you,” Cora returns, and ascends the stairs. When she’s at the top, Milo is just walking in the front door. Her face is smooth of expression, but her eyes are dark and telling. She looks desperately sad. “What’s wrong?” Cora asks her.
Her eyes meet Cora’s in agony, but she just says, “Oh nothing.”
“Please, Milo. Tell me.” She couldn’t bear it if their delicate friendship broke too.
Milo sighs and looks down. “My brother’s leaving again. Bannerford this time.”
Cora goes cold. “Oh,” she breathes, not knowing what else to say.
Milo curses softly, her eyes filling with tears. “He doesn’t listen. He just wants to waste time on frivolous ‘adventures.’ He never keeps his eyes on what’s important.” Though her words are angry ones, her voice is hurting, pleading.
“Come upstairs to my room. Let’s talk there,” Cora suggests, not wanting their conversation overheard by the turned ears of those still lounging about. Milo nods and follows her up to her room. Only when the door is closed and they’re both seated on the bed does she tell Milo to continue. Coraleth braids her damp hair as she listens.
“Our father is getting older,” she tells Cora. “He can’t keep smithing by himself. With no one to buy his wares, he’s spending more money than he’s making. He needs help. I’ve been doing all I can to earn money here, but it isn’t enough. Adam is the one bringing in food from hunting. If Adam leaves, Father might have to sell the smith to buy food. He’ll have to move into the inn too. He’ll lose everything he’s worked so hard for. This is a farming town. There’s no more work for him here, not the kind he wants to do. He’ll have to do dishes with me in the kitchens if he doesn’t want to farm.” She curses again, trying to keep herself together.
Cora’s heart breaks. “Well, perhaps he could move up to Atherton. There’s plenty of work there for men willing to cut, stack, or even drive. He could even help maintenance the waterwheel and the streams.”
“Isn’t it hard living in Atherton too?”
“It’s hard living anywhere, I imagine. However, in Atherton, there’s a woman who runs a boardinghouse for the men who work. She doesn’t charge them anything but what they’re willing to pay, as long as they work hard at the mill. Her husband is the owner of the only shop, so he’s better off than most. Your father could live and work there during the logging season, and maybe even be able to return here during the other seasons.”
“What are the workers paid?”
Cora pauses. She’s never thought about it before. “I suppose they’re paid in food and fuel for the winter.”
Milo grimaces. “Father won’t work without being paid.”
“Well, perhaps he could bring supplies from his shop here and build a forge. He could build his own smith shop there! Think of it. He’d be the first to bring the blacksmith’s trade to Atherton!” she says, excited at the idea herself.
Milo remains skeptical. “I don’t know. Would he get enough business?”
“He could maintenance the saw blades and even make mining tools and weapons. There’s a number of mines up in the mountains. Your father could be the one responsible for expanding Atherton’s resources!”
“It’s an interesting idea, Coraleth, but my father has lived in Hale his entire life. What if your father just left the town he’d lived in all his life? What do you think that would do to him?”
Cora tries to ignore the stab of pain to her heart. “My father would stay in Atherton until it burned to the ground,” she says a tad bitterly.
“See? And without him here, there would be no one to run the blacksmith shop. And as sporadic as it is, the town needs someone to make and repair the farming equipment from time to time.”
“But does he really want to stay in a farming town where he might be needed every once in a while? Or does he want to come to a growing lumber and mining town, where his workload could be doubled and he could be busy and thriving?”
“Well...he would like to be busy. He’s going mad, making swords and axes just to hang on the walls...”
“Talk to him about it. Adam’s leaving doesn’t have to be such an acute loss.”
Milo touches her arm and smiles. “At least you’re here,” she says. “I’m glad we met.”
“Yes, I am too.” Cora’s excitement dies at what she knows she has to tell her. “But Milo, I’m afraid I can’t stay long. You see...the trip Adam is making...well...I’m making it too. I’m going with him.”
Surprisingly, Milo smiles and, after a moment, asks, “Why do you think I hesitated before telling you I was his sister?”
“What?” Cora asks, confused. “I don’t know.”
“When we met earlier. Remember? I babbled on about my name before telling you I knew of you already.”
“You knew of me?” she questions, thrown off.
Milo nods. “Adam’s mentioned you many times since he first left to visit you. I knew that, when he did, you were someone special.”
Cora’s heart flutters and her mind races with possibilities. But along with the possibilities are questions. “You pretended you didn’t know me then?”
“I didn’t know you. We’d never met. I just knew about you. I wanted to see how you’d react if I hesitated telling you I was his sister.” She wipes the last bit of moisture from her eyes and smiles. “And I know now that you do indeed like him.”
Cora’s cheeks burn. Was I so obvious?
There’s a string of questions she would like to ask, but she avoids them. She doesn’t know either of them well enough to ask what his intentions were. But there’s a safe enough questions that pops into her mind.
“If you don’t mind me asking, why were you so upset about his leaving if you were so pleased to have met me?”
“I thought you’d make him stay here,” Milo explains, her smile turning sad. “I thought that, if you moved here, he would stay. I didn’t know you were both leaving in the morning, together.”
“You should come with us,” Cora suggests. “Tell your father to move to Atherton and give the forge here to someone he can trust. Then, you and Rain can come with Adam and me.”
Milo laughs a bit at the idea, but then shakes her head sadly. “We can’t. Delbert would be without his kitchen workers. I’d love to, though. I’ve only ever been to Bannerford once.”
“Then it’s settled. You must come. There are other women who can work in the kitchens until you get back. And don’t think of it as leaving forever; think of it as a bit of leisure time. He’ll have you back soon.”
She hesitates still. “I’m not sure how keen Father would be to just leave.”
“Someone can run this smith for him. Someone who doesn’t have ambitions like your father has. With the amount he makes in Atherton, he can pay the owner. What do you say? Will you at least talk it over with him today?”
After a long moment, she sighs and smiles. “Yes, I’ll talk about it with him. And Rain. She’ll want to know about these plans.”
Cora smiles back as she gets up off the bed. “Good. I hope you both will be able to come.”
“Me too,” she says. “Thanks Coraleth.”
“Cora. Everyone calls me Cora.”
Milo hesitates, studying her face. “Can I call you ‘Coral?’ I like it better than ‘Cora.’”
Cora shrugs. “‘Coral’ is fine too,” she says.
“All right. Thanks Coral.” She smiles again, a big, bright one that lights up her eyes. “Farewell for now,” she says, and departs.
Coraleth considers the whole ordeal. She’s sure it will be awkward if they all come with, but it’s for the better. These two girls deserve an exciting trip to Bannerford, and she’ll enjoy their company. She knows she will. As much as she’d like to go alone with Adam, that could be more awkward than with all the girls. And it would be so good if she could help their family in some way. If everything runs smoothly, then Adam’s father might approve of her. She was the one who came up with the idea for him to move to Atherton. Maybe at some future date he’ll thank her for it.
Cora is aware that some of this could get back to Atherton, if Adam’s father does indeed move there. He could tell her father or anyone else that she had suggested him going there. Then, more than just Papa would know she’s gone to Bannerford. Alexia could find out she’s gone with two other girls and might get jealous. As these troublesome thoughts enter, Cora lets them pass through. It doesn’t matter if the entire town knows where she’s gone or what she’s done. All that matters is what she does with her life.
It’s mine to live, isn’t it?