Tales of Aranea: Of Sage and Mist

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The Tanned Hunter

Cora leans back, much more relaxed. “So how far is this place?”

“Not much farther,” Alexia says. She plucks a bud off a tree as they pass beneath its branches and twirls it in her fingers.

This morning Cora would have never thought that she’d be taking Alexia Beauton to Hale, asking her forgiveness, hoping they’d start being friends again. The new events are making her skin tingle. What more could the day hold?

“Here,” Alexia says, her finger pointing to the sharp curve in the road. Cora turns and immediately sees their destination.

The town is spread over the crest of a hill. The focal point of the town is its Sanctuary’s bell tower, a tall beacon among the short houses, much taller than the tallest building. Partial fences mark off gardens and animal pens; narrow dirt pathways wind up between shops and homes. The whole town is an oblong circle of dirt roads and smaller paths, with a tall building at the centre that might be an inn. The sound of a smith’s hammer against his anvil rings out at regular intervals. As they enter the arms of the town, Cora hears the laughter of children, the mumble of conversation, life itself.

She parks the wagon out of the way of the streets.

“I won’t be long,” Alexia says, and descends the side. Cora affirms her statement with a nod and hops down to tie the horses on a nearby post.

“Welcome to Hale, sir,” a woman says grandly behind her. "I you need a place to stay, we can surely accom--" Cora turns, bewildered, and faces a pudgy woman with her thick fingers wrapped around a broom handle. Her round eyes widen in surprise. “Oh! Begging your pardon, madam. I thought—”

“It’s fine,” Cora lies, pulling on a fake smile.

The woman smiles awkwardly, then resumes sweeping her porch. Cora turns away and flips her copper braid over her shoulder so it hangs down her back. Clenching her thumbs in her fists, she mounts the wagon again. Alexia is already in conversation with someone Cora assumes to be a potential buyer. Cora struggles to keep the tears back, but she feels that quiver in her chest and the burn in her eyes and knows they’ll come anyway. A deep humiliation upsets her stomach. No one in Atherton has ever mistaken her for a man. Never before has she not been considered a woman.

It’s too public here. Everyone suddenly seems to stare at her. Aloft in this wagon, she’s exposed and horribly uncomfortable. She tumbles off the wagon and slips in the opposite direction of the main thoroughfare. Then, Cora finds herself before the blacksmith’s shop and dives inside the door, wishing she could bury herself beneath a blanket and never show her face again.

Her breathing only slows when she’s leaning against the inside of the door of the blacksmith’s shop. Why am I here? What am I doing? Why did I leave Atherton? Regret and anguish boil together in her gut, and all she desires is to leave this horrid town now. She has no need for such adventure ever again.

“Looking to purchase something, madam?” comes a voice across the room, startling her. She glances up at the counter across the short room, behind which stands a middle-aged, burly blacksmith. He must have just come inside when she approached.

“No,” she replies shortly, then turns and dashes out.

Cora has nowhere to run. A woman clutches her child close as she stares at her. Cora can feel her eyes judging her. A ruddy man glances curiously her way as he walks by, a game bag on his shoulder. She starts back to the wagon, wanting nothing more than the familiar faces back home and the sheltering embrace of the forest. She had hoped the day would only hold more excitement, but this is the kind she never wanted to experience.

The wagon appears around the corner, and Alexia hasn’t returned. Dread floods Cora as she considers seating herself back up there for this critical town to stare at. She slinks back into the shadow of a tree and digs her fingernails into its bark. If only she could transport herself back home this instant. But she can’t, so she must find a way to bear this trip. Perhaps if she could find the jeweller’s shop, she could stay with Alexia until she’s ready to go home. That would ease her discomfort, despite having to be compared with a much prettier, much more feminine friend.

Cora seizes the end of her braid and rips off the leather string, then runs her fingers through her hair to loosen it. She finally shakes out her loosened hair. There. Who will mistake her for a man now?

She suddenly senses someone staring at her, and turns, searching for the culprit. The ruddy man who passed her only moments before now leans over a barrel of water near the blacksmith’s door, splashing his face. She furrow her brows. Was it him? Or was she mistaken?

She walks toward him, and he splashes his face again, not seeing her approach. “Could you point me to the jeweller’s shop?” she asks him.

The man straightens and turns to her. She notices his game bag is missing. Water drips down his deeply tanned face. She wonders if the skin colour is natural, since there hasn’t been enough sun for him to be so tan already. For a long moment, he inspects her face.

“I’ll take you there myself,” he finally says as he wipes the back of his hand across his forehead. Then, he turns down the lane she hasn’t travelled yet. “Visiting?” he asks as they walk.

“Yes. I drove a friend here,” she tells him.

“Ah. What’s your name?”

“Coraleth Mae Albrynn,” she replies, “but everyone back home calls me ‘Cora.’”

He grins. “What a name,” he breathes. “Coraleth Mae Albrynn.” Then he laughs.

“What’s wrong with my name?” she demands to know.

“Nothing at all. It’s quite beautiful, really. Coraleth Mae Albrynn...”

She’s uneasy listening to his repeated use of her name. It sounds bizarre on a stranger’s lips. “And what’s your name?” They turn a corner.

He puts his hands behind his back. “It’s quite boring after hearing yours.”

“Come on, just tell me. I promise I won’t laugh at it.”

He smiles faintly. “Adam. Adam Spruce.”

She nods. “That’s a fine name,” she says. “It reminds me of home.”

He raises an eyebrow and eyes her strangely. “What do you mean?”

“I live in Atherton, up in the mountains, among all the trees. Fir, pine, spruce...” she trails off, hit by a wave of homesickness.

“Oh! Isn’t Atherton where we get our lumber?”

“Yes, that’s us.”

“I’ve never been there, but I’ve hunted near it,” he says. “There are a lot of streams in that area.”

“Yes, and if you’re looking for a good hunting place, you can’t find anywhere better than the forests of Atherton. Rabbits, deer, foxes, squirrels—they all flock to the streams. If I ever go during logging season, it’s always before dawn, before we start work for the day at the sawmill...”

He holds up his hands. “Wait. You hunt and you work at the sawmill?” he questions, shocked.

They turn again. How far away is the jeweller’s shop?

“Well, yes,” Cora replies. “We need every available worker during logging season so we don’t fall behind. I’ve been doing it my whole life.”

“Huh. Well that explains the outfit.”

She stiffens and turns to him. “Excuse me?”

He chuckles. “I’m sorry, but it’s not every day I see a woman in trousers.”

She crosses her arms and continues walking. “Why is it so bizarre? It’s just clothing. If you lived in Atherton, you’d see it every day.”

“Do many women work at the sawmill?”

She hesitates. “No. Just me. I mean you’d see me wearing them every day,” she returns hastily. A buxom woman passes them, reminding her of the woman earlier who mistook her for a man. She crumbles inside.

“No woman in Hale would ever have the confidence to wear trousers,” Adam comments.

Cora laughs aloud. “‘Confidence’? I wear them out of necessity, not as some act of defiance or style. I haven’t a single hair of confidence,” she finishes with a mutter.

“You must have some, if you’re able to approach a complete stranger and ask for directions.”

She waves her hand. “That’s different.”

“How so?”

She peers sideways at him. “I don’t know. It just is.”

“You don’t even speak to me like we’re strangers. It seems you have more confidence than you’d like to believe.”

Cora looks around for the jeweller’s shop, but she’s completely turned around. She has no idea where they are, and she now regrets taking her hair out of its braid. It keeps blowing around in the breeze. “Is the jeweller’s shop much farther?”

“Not much. Would it make a difference if I was a woman?”


“Well, you said that you were the only woman who worked at the sawmill, so, obviously, you’re used to dealing with men. You asked me for directions and not Lady Vepper across the street.”


“So you’re more comfortable around men than women,” he concludes. “And it seems you like to remain comfortable.”

“Doesn’t everyone?”

“Of course, but where’s the thrill in always remaining comfortable?”

His statement strikes her and she pauses. “There is none,” she says quietly. It does make sense, but she’s getting annoyed with this man. She shakes his statement from her mind and straightens her shoulders. “I don’t enjoy having my mind analyzed.”

“Perhaps there’s another reason for you choosing to speak with me,” he goes on, completely ignoring her comment. He looks straight at her, and his woodsy brown eyes seem fathomless.

She raises an eyebrow. “Like what?”

Then he smiles mysteriously. “You tell me.”

Not understanding the game, she sighs in frustration. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Just kindly tell me where the jeweller’s shop is so I can find my friend and leave.”

His face softens and he straightens. She didn’t realize until now that he was leaning over her. He points straight ahead. “There,” he says.

His finger directs her to a small building across the dusty street with an overhanging sign that has a necklace roughly painted on it. She’s surprised to see her own wagon sitting not far from its doors. Wasn’t the blacksmith’s shop just around that corner? Had Adam Spruce made her follow him in a wide circle around the town instead of walking a short distance to the shop itself?

She steps forward and she can almost feel him standing smug behind her. “Taking advantage of an outsider isn’t very cordial,” she informs him in an icy voice. She turns to give him a cold glare.

“You’re welcome,” he says with a crooked smile. She rolls her eyes and walks toward the shop. “So long for now,” she hears behind her, “Coraleth Mae Albrynn.”

Without turning around, she continues to the shop.

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