“How high does it go?” Coraleth calls upward, her voice lost in the roaring of water.
“A little higher. Don’t worry. We’re almost there,” Adam replies from above her.
Cora isn’t worried. The cliff face is not difficult to climb. Years of explorers ascending and descending have worn tracks, handholds, and footholds in the rock. Adam made them take the way up that concealed the Falls themselves, so Cora would have one incredible reveal when they reached the top.
And anyway, while she’s running on the high from this morning and last night, it’d be hard for Cora to be worried about anything at all.
At last, Adam disappears above her, and Cora reaches the summit and crawls over the edge. Immediately, cold spray from the Falls dampens her face and loosened hair. She stands with Adam, mouth open, staring at the stretch of waterfall that seems to split the mountains and disappear deep inside. The white torrent plummets downward hundreds of metres, into a valley far below and eventually breaking off into multiple river. The sight of the drop is enough to make Cora dizzy.
“It’s amazing,” she laughs, wondering at the sight.
“I knew you’d like it,” Adam says, then gives her another moment to enjoy the sights before he turns her into his arms and kisses her.
Cora smiles and lets the wind whip them and the spray soak them. Kissing seems so natural now. And the feel of him against her is so much more familiar.
Adam pulls back and whispers, “I’ve wanted to do that since the day I first showed you a cliff sight.”
“Why didn’t you?” she asks.
With a smirk, Adam answers her, “You can’t just go kissing anybody. Rejection is scarier than approval, a lot of the time.”
“And that night in the rain? You didn’t seem very worried about rejection then.”
“I already knew you liked me as well. Added to that, there comes a point when a person just can’t help themselves.”
Cora moves closer to him, so her lips are right in front of his. “I’m glad you helped yourself.”
“I hope so. Otherwise, last night would have been very confusing.”
Cora laughs and kisses him again. Then they turn back and sit on the rocks, watching and listening to the rush of the water. After a little while of that, Adam shows her the city from this view.
“There’s the Briar,” Adam informs her, pointing to a regal sort of place with arching balconies and polished windows. “That’s the living quarters, the centre fountain, and over there is the common marketplace.”
“Are we going to see all that up close?”
Adam presses his lips together. “We might, though I’m not sure how exciting a marketplace would be to you.”
“Anything busier than Atherton interests me,” Cora says blandly. “It didn’t even have a market at all.”
She’s struck with the fact that she talked about her birthplace in the past tense, or even that she talked so dryly of it at all. Once, Atherton was all she loved. Now, it was a simple, almost dull place with no beautiful inns, fountains, or cobbled roads. It was just a plain mill town.
“Are you hungry yet?” Adam wonders.
“I could eat,” she remarks. The only thing she’d had since all that wine last night was a bit of bread earlier this morning.
“There’s a butcher’s shop down by the living quarters that roasts pieces of beef and vegetables specially for a few of its prized customers.” Adam brushes his shirt in a dramatic way that makes Cora giggle. “I think you’d really like it.”
“Let’s go!” Cora agrees.
When they’re safely down from the cliff and entering the city again, Coraleth notices Adam glancing quite a lot at Garnet Manor, which they must walk past to get to the butcher. Finally, she asks,
“Do you know what kind of secrets Garnet Manor holds?”
“Not exactly. I’ve heard rumours though, and I, as well as many others, have had my share of theories.”
“Go on then; list them,” Cora prompts.
“Well I’ve compiled what I’ve heard and narrowed it down to one main theory now. I believe the lord, Master Cordax, to be the main source of mystery. He isn’t from here: I know that. He just sort of ‘showed up’ about ten years ago. I believe he was the bastard child of a wealthy Talparian aristocrat and his human maid—his light hair and eyes a product of their union—and he gained his standing by collecting secrets from the Talpa elders and divulging it to the rebels.”
“What rebels?” Cora cuts in.
“Talparian rebels. Those who forsake the ways of their ancestors.”
“Oh. Go on.”
“Anyway, eventually the aristocrat must have banned Cordax, sending him here, where, with the little gold he had, he began working at the mill here. You see, at this time, Bannerford was hardly worth talking about. It was called Cladeston then, after the Falls. It was no bigger than Atherton.
“Then came the day Cordax found the garnet mine. Suddenly, with all those gems, he became richer than the lord of Cladeston. He started telling the inner workers of his royal blood, and, somehow, he came to power.”
“You haven’t filled that part in yet?” Cora wonders.
“No. How an outsider could become a ruler, I haven’t come to understand. And how Cordax even got here so quickly...I mean, he’s young. Around our age. There’s still mystery about him. No one in Bannerford seems to know for sure, but they certainly have fun speculating.”
By this time, they’ve arrived at the butcher’s. Everything in Bannerford looks royal to Cora. The streets are so straight and they seem to glisten with the sunlight. Shops and homes are taller, wider, and decorated with carved edges, trimmed siding, and crystal-clear window panes. It must cost a fortune just to live here.
The butcher’s shop itself is elegant. What Cora expected was a small shop inside which a lumpy old man chopped up piles of bloodied meat turns out to be the widest (and cleanest) display of pork, beef, all kinds of poultry, and mutton that she’s ever seen. And the butcher himself is a clean and well-dressed gentleman who showcases his craft as dramatically as would a performer. He holds up a rod-iron skewer and sticks it through a row of sliced pork, then spins it into the open flames with a lively flourish. Cora is surprised that more people aren’t watching him.
Then he recognizes Adam. “Master Spruce!” he calls out, his voice lightly accented. “It has been too long.”
Adam clasps hands with the man. “Indeed, Rufus. Too long. How is business?”
“Same as always,” says Rufus, turning the meat in the fire. “Never enough.”
Cora wonders how, in a place as busy and exciting as Bannerford, any business would be unsuccessful.
“Well we’re here to offer some. Two specialty skewers, please.”
“Right away. With extra peppers for the lady as well?” Rufus looks at Cora with a crooked, good-natured smile and Cora notices one of his teeth is missing.
“Yes, please,” she says.
“What’s keeping you busy these days, Spruce? Still hunting?”
“Indeed. Someone needs to keep food on the table.”
“Your father slacking again?”
“No, but the forge is withering away. Not enough business, just like you.”
Rufus chortles as he slices up a long, yellow pepper. “I’d hardly say I’m withering. I’ve always been able to manage.”
Adam goes on about the forge and Cora takes the opportunity to look at the beautiful city around her. The lit streets. The interesting people. Cora spots Orcs, mages, and almost gapes when she sees her first Talpa, blending into a cart of fruit and casually reading a book that seems to be floating in mid-air.
Cora pauses when she looks into the alley between the butcher’s shop and the building beside. A small group of women are gathered, all looking at her. They point. Speak amongst each other. Giggle. Cora steps closer to Adam, uncomfortable under the ladies’ perusal, but he’s occupied with the conversation, which has shifted to deer hunting and how quickly the deer are dying off.
The women still stare, then, suddenly, they back up and disappear into the alley. Cora would have ignored the situation and focused on the delicious smells around her, until she sees a child chase after his little wooden cart, right into the alley. For some reason, Cora thinks the child unsafe in the clutches of those women. For some reason, they strike an uneasiness in her.
“Excuse me for a moment,” Cora says to Adam, and he nods and continues with his conversation. Cora rushes to entrance of the alley and stops.
It’s empty. Not a child in sight. Nor a woman. Just a few tattered sheets of parchment and some rotten vegetables. Slowly, Cora proceeds, pushed onward by fear for the child. The alley continues being empty, so she rounds a corner, and another, losing herself in the labyrinth of alleys.
Finally, she hears voices. After rounding another corner, Cora finds herself no longer alone.
The child is there, pressed into a corner by the gaggle of women who lean over him, making extremely inappropriate comments, such that Cora feels the heat of both fury and disgust burn in her face. She approaches them, ignoring her own uneasiness.
“Excuse me! I think the boy is too young for that kind of language, don’t you?” Coraleth declares once she’s upon them.
One woman, an ugly one with messy black hair and a very low dress, calls her a derogatory name. Then a few of them leave the child and walk to her, like crows encircling an animal carcass. Cora backs into the wall.
“You’re a pretty thing, aren’t you?” a woman drawls, reaching out to touch Cora’s face.
Cora flinches and slides back toward the alley that will lead her to Adam, her heart pounding fiercely.
“Get away from me, you vultures,” she cries, squirming. “Adam!”
One hits her hard across the face. Another seizes the front of her dress and tries to tear it open. Cora moans and tries to scream again, but it’s cut off with another strike to her face. She spits blood from a rip inside her cheek. Through starry vision, she sees one of the girls take out a knife.
Behind the demons, Cora hears the boy whimpering. Desperately she wishes she’d too brought a weapon. The woman of the knife shoves the blade into the front of Cora’s dress and begins slicing open the fabric. Cora wants to stop them, but struggling might cause her more injury. Instead, she just starts sobbing.
And then Adam is there, shouting angrily, cursing, waving them off. But Cora expected them to scurry like sewer rats when he came. All his presence does is shift their mindless hunger. Onto him.
It would have been easy to shove them away and leave the closeness of the alley, if there wasn’t so many of them. There seems to be a pasty arm at every exit, and a soulless pair of eyes at every turn. Cora is pinned to the wall by them, held tight by her throat and chest, which is now almost bare. But only a couple of girls are focused on her now. The rest want Adam. They comment on his looks, his body, in ways that fire Cora’s blood like nothing else. They talk about him like he’s a piece of meat Rufus is skewering for the fire.
There’s too many. They lay hands on him and hold him down with much effort. He twists and growls at them, calling them as many derisive names as they call him. He even hits one right in the jaw. Tears form in Cora’s eyes. Desperate tears. Between all the awful sounds—the names, the grunts, the horrible words, and the hapless crying of the little boy—it’s hard to bear. Fear and anger mingle in her heart as she struggles.
But they’re too strong. They bring Adam to the damp ground and hold him there by their knees and arms. Then one tears open his shirt and rubs her hands all over his bare chest, sighing and cooing.
“You look like a god,” she purrs.
He bucks against them like a beast trying to get free. The sight is infuriating and horrific to watch.
“Stop struggling,” she demands, raking her fingernails along his chest, hard enough to tear furrows in his bronze skin.
Suddenly, the girl with her hands on Adam screeches and recoils.
“He burned me!” she cries. The other girls begin to cry too, flinching wherever their skin touches Adam’s. The upset is enough to let Adam wriggle out from beneath them, swinging his fists into faces, ribcages, whatever they can find.
Then there’s a tangle of bodies. Cora is struck alongside the head, yanked this way, that way, and jerked hard enough to tear her dress and undergarments enough to expose her. Adam takes hold of her and somehow the little boy is there too and together they run. Away from the alley but not toward the butcher. Away from the women. Away from everything.
Cora isn’t aware of where they’re going. She’s aware of Adam’s hand, hot as tried iron, searing into her arm. When they stop inside an abandoned little shack, she jerks out of his grasp, out of breath, trembling, and still crying.
“What—” she begins, but Adam puts his hand to her mouth and presses her against the wall, hushing her. The heat of his skin burns her face so that she struggles in his arms.
“Be silent!” he hisses, and removes his hand, stepping away from her.
Far away, they hear the women whimpering. Then it fades. Fades. Until it’s gone.
Cora breaks down into horrified sobs, disbelieving every second of the last fifteen minutes. She tries to piece her dress and undergarments back together, but it’s a mess. It barely covers her. Adam leans his head against the wall, silent and shaking violently. The child, somewhere in the little room, is still whimpering softly. After a few long moments, Adam reaches out to pull Cora into his arms, but she backs away.
“I won’t burn you,” he whispers, his voice more dead than Cora has ever heard it.
Though the marks around her lips and on her arm are still raw, Cora trusts him and falls into his arms, unable to keep upright alone. He was right. He no longer burns her, but his skin is still very warm to the touch.
“I’m so sorry,” she tells him.
The event must have been equally awful for him, if not more. Cora hates those women. She wishes all kinds of dark and horrible things to fall upon them for what they did to Adam, to the little boy, to her. What disgusting creatures. What monsters!
“You shouldn’t be apologizing,” he says solemnly, pulling back and inspecting her face. There’s more pain in his eyes than physical pain in Cora’s pounding head. “Your lip is bleeding.”
“No. When they hit me, my cheek hit my teeth.”
Adam cringes at the statement. “I should have stayed with you.” Then he looks closer, brushing his thumb along her lip. “No, your lip is bleeding too.”
Cora turns her swelling bottom lip into her mouth and runs her tongue along it. The tip of her tongue finds the cut and she flinches at the sting. “Oh,” is all she says.
But he isn’t looking at her lips anymore. He’s looking at the marks he’s left around her mouth from his hand.
“Coraleth...words can’t express...” Adam moans, embracing her once again.
“It wasn’t your fault. It was my own.”
“Thank you,” comes the voice of the little boy.
Adam and Cora turn to him. He doesn’t look much older than eight, dressed in shabby clothes now torn and dirtied. Cora wonders if they looked like that before the attack.
“You didn’t have to come after me, but you saved my life,” the boy continues.
Cora and Adam are silent, watching him, unsure of how to respond. Cora’s thankful that their sacrifice had meant something for someone. The boy stares up at them for a long moment, the air tense with emotion. Then, suddenly, he scampers out of the building and disappears.
It’s quiet in the shack for a few long minutes, and Adam and Cora fall into each others’ arms again, staying like that for too long to keep track of. Eventually, they head not for the butcher’s shop, but for the Marsh where they can just relax. Neither of them has any appetite anyway.