“I can’t tell you how grateful I am. Mikael is so very warm...I just hope that nothing happens to him,” Alexia says, still twisting the sash of her dress around in her fingers.
Cora turns the horses toward the road winding down the mountainside. “Why didn’t you just go yourself?” she asks Alexia. At her immediate silence, Cora knows the words were too harsh. She bites her lip, wishing to withdraw them.
“We don’t have a wagon," Alexia says finally, "and Winifred didn’t want me to go alone. She wanted one of the men to go with me, but...” her voice trails off.
Cora pointedly taps her dagger sheath on her left hip. “We’ll be all right,” she says.
It’s quiet for a little while. They rattle on down the mountain road, the rickety old wagon creaking and squeaking from lack of use. Cora won’t need help with directions until they reach the bottom of the mountain. She’s never gone past there before. Not once in her life.
“How do you do it?” Alexia asks quietly.
“Work with all those other men. Wear...trousers!” She laughs—a soft, dainty thing compared to the laughter Cora's accustomed to.
Cora shrugs. “I don’t know. I've always done it. And I certainly can’t wear skirts when hopping on and off of the sawmill platform!” She laughs too, but it dies quickly when she hears herself. She sounds so brash and coarse after hearing Alexia's almost melodic laughter. Suddenly, Cora feels very small. Very out of place.
“No,” Alexia replies. “I suppose you can’t.”
Cora brushes her fingers back across her scalp, where she feels her braid wound tightly at the nape of her neck. Tiny hairs escape all over the place, making her hair feel coarser than it is. She glances at Alexia, with her rich brown locks wrapped elegantly into a twist on her head. She absently swipes at the stray curl inching over her temple. Cora turns her eyes back to the road as reality suffocates her. Perhaps the reason she avoided Alexia all this time was because she couldn’t bear the knot of jealousy uncoiling in her stomach at Alexia's pure, feminine beauty.
It’s quiet for another while. The wagon bumps along the road, gradually descending. They emerge from the outcroppings of rock and thick trees that hide them from the view of the plains. When Cora sees them, she nearly gasps out loud. The plains-folk towns look so small from here, caressed by rolling, yellow hills desperately drinking in the spring sunshine. Not many trees dot the immediate plains, but farther away, dark forests line the horizon, followed by higher hills that eventually slope into mountains so distant that they look like little navy-blue tents. Cora doesn’t see this view often, and every time she does, it steals her breath away.
“I could never take such risks as you, Cora,” Alexia says softly.
Cora sinks back into her seat. There’s an uneasy tremor in her chest. She’s not a risk-taker. She never has been. She does what she’s always done. She’s never exited beyond the reaches of her own comfort. As she gazes at the endless blue sky, swept with wispy, white clouds, for a second, she wonders what it must be like. Adventure. Danger. What must the world really look like up close?
She shakes her head, dislodging the thought, and focuses back on the path in front of her. Alexia suddenly yelps and she yanks the reins. Cora's eyes search frantically for the cause of her fright. Alexia's slender finger is raised and pointed to something in front of them. Cora's heartrate slows again and she laughs heartily as she watches a little rabbit scamper into the bushes. They must have almost hit it.
“It’s just a rabbit,” Cora says around her laughter.
Alexia lays a delicate hand on her chest. “We nearly ran it over,” she sighs.
“Why would it matter if we did? We’d have a free meal without you having to sell your jewellery.” Alexia cringes as if the thought disgusts her. Cora gets the horses moving again. Why should she be disturbed at rabbit for supper? “What? Don’t you eat rabbit?”
“We’ve never been able to afford meat.”
“So you’ve never had it?” she asks, shocked. She can still see her out of the corner of her eye. "Ever?"
Alexia shakes her head. “And the thought of eating an animal seems absurd to me.”
Cora had always wondered why she and her family were so terribly thin. They must have only received grain and vegetables when trading. They move along in silence for another short while, when Cora feels inclined to make conversation again.
“How did your family run out of food this quickly?”
“We haven’t totally run out. Truthfully, we’re more in need of medicine than food.”
Cora thinks of the entire bowl of potatoes Papa gave them, and a twinge goes through her. Those potatoes could have been eaten by the men, or saved for tonight’s supper. She tries to tell herself that Alexia’s family needed them more than she did, but Alexia's words still bother her. She changes the subject. “What kind jewellery are you selling?”
“Oh, you know, just some old pieces we’ve had sitting around for years. Heirlooms, mother’s old necklaces, gems we found exploring as children. That sort of thing.”
“You think they’re valuable?”
“I know they are. In a way, it pains me to part with them, but if Mikael were to get worse, I don’t know what else to do.”
Cora thinks back to the jewellery she’s owned in her life. There’s only one piece that comes to mind: Mother’s ring. Papa gave it to her when she was twelve, when it fit properly on her finger. But her hands grew stronger and larger than Mother’s had with all the work she did, and she could no longer wear the ring. So, Papa bought a metal chain for it, and she could then wear it around her neck. One hot summer day, when she was about fourteen, she took off the chain with Mother’s ring and laid it on a rock before going swimming with some of her friends. It wasn’t until she was back at the cabin that she noticed it was missing. She went back to the stream, but couldn’t remember which rock it was she had set it on. All the rocks near the stream were covered in water from their splashing, and she realized with sinking dread that it must have fallen into the water. She searched for hours, but her precious ring was nowhere to be found. Cora still feels a pang at the loss three years later.
“Beautiful day, isn’t it?” Alexia comments, raising her face to the sunlight. “I'm so glad the snow melted early this year.”
To Coraleth, it never felt like the snow melted early. “Don’t speak too soon,” she remarks. “Ortum Solis is known for its unpredictability. It could snow yet, especially in the mountains.”
“Well, I hope it doesn’t...” Alexia returns as she looks away. Realizing she’s dampened her sunny attitude, Cora presses her lips together, hoping that will keep her from blurting out other pessimistic possibilities. Even with the violet in her pocket, she still considers the chance of the snow returning.
Finally, they rumble down the bottom of the mountain path. The view isn’t much different than that visible in the mountains. Many hills block their eyes from observing the entire expanse of the plains. They approach the end of the path, where it branches off into three different roads. A tall sign rises up between the forks of each road. Starting from the left, they read, “Bannerford,” “Dirstwich,” and “Hale.”
Cora now feels a little silly for telling Alexia earlier that she needed directions. She forgot that these signs existed. She’s only been here once, with Papa. Never before had they gone beyond this point. Her heart begins to pound at the unfamiliarity waiting for her.
Despite the obvious signs, Alexia gestures to the one furthest to the right. “Hale,” she says.
“I know,” Cora snaps, trying to hide her sheepishness with pride and getting a bitter taste in her mouth as a result.
They turn onto the road and Cora anxiously digs her fingernail into the leather rein in her hand. What am I doing here? Why would I agree to go somewhere I've never been before? Granted, Hale is the closest town to Atherton, but I've still never been there.
Every bend in the road, every rock, every bridge—it’s all new to her. The nature around her is even strange. So few trees, and all so thin and spindly.
“So you’ve never left Atherton?” Alexia guesses.
“No,” Cora retorts. “Is that a bad thing?”
“Of course not,” Alexia replies passively. “Atherton is your home. There’s been no need yet to leave it. I understand.”
Cora clenches her gut. Why must every word I say to her be so sharp and cold? Her lips seem to reply to Alexia's innocent comments with senseless cruelty before her mind can even process it. Is it her subconscious jealousy of her that makes her words so biting? The worse part of it is Alexia's own attitude toward her. She treats her jagged tone and pessimistic words with soft-hearted kindness. Guilt turns Cora's stomach, and she sighs deeply, frustrated with herself. She must be the one to set things right again between them.
“Alexia,” she begins quietly, her pride hurting already, “I didn’t mean to snap at you like that. I keep answering you too quickly, too sharply. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Forgive me, please.”
“Maybe it’s because we don’t know each other anymore,” Alexia muses. “I accept your apology.”
Cora nods in thanks, a weight lifting off her shoulders. “Well, I want to start fresh. I want to be friends like when we were young.”
Alexia smiles gently. “I'd like that," she replies, and gives Cora's knee an affectionate squeeze.