Not a Deer
Coraleth’s eyelids pop open and she wakes, gasping, from her dream. She was being buried alive under a pile of boiled potatoes. When her heartrate slows down, she covers her forehead with her hand and laughs softly. She was so afraid in the dream, but now it seems so silly.
A glance to the window tells Cora it’s not yet dawn. However, the sky is no longer pitch black. Dawn will be here in about an hour, and that potato dream will keep her from falling back asleep, so she might as well get up. It’d be nice to get some hunting done this morning before work. The mornings she puts effort into hunting lead to evenings not eating boiled potatoes. Frankly, after that dream, she could go without seeing another boiled potato for a long time.
Cora swings her legs off the bed and quietly changes into her shirt, trousers, and boots. Her dagger sheath is tied to her trousers but she adjusts it so she can reach it at any time. Snatching the leather string from the end table next to her bed, she slips from the room to comb and braid her hair. In the main room, she sees the bowl of potatoes on the counter and scowls at it as she braids her hair back. Then she ties the end with the leather string and wraps her warm cloak about herself. Finally, she takes her bow and quiver from behind the door and she’s off.
A cool gust of air shoots down the collar of Cora’s shirt as she walks out and closes the door behind her. She steps off the far right edge of the porch, toward the trail into the forest. It is cooler this morning than yesterday. She hopes her speculating about the snow coming back yesterday didn’t encourage it to return.
The forest is very quiet and peaceful, still drenched in pre-dawn shadow. However, Cora’s eyes quickly adjust to the darkness and she peers around for any game. She passes a tree that she and her friends had carved into as children and stops. Rapidly, she brings an arrow to her bow and raises it. Before her lurks a tall shadow, behind a cluster of trees, too far for her to make out what it is. She edges around a tree, squinting. What more is the cluster of trees hiding? Could it be a deer?
Cora’s heart races with anticipation. She steps closer soundlessly, and kneels to make a clean shot through the top of whatever it is. She hears its slow breathing, and inches to the side to see around the cluster of trees it’s hiding in.
Suddenly, it whips around and another loaded bow appears. She startles and her finger shakes loose of the string, sending the arrow flying sloppily forward. At the same moment, a burst of pain explodes across the front of her left shoulder. His cry of pain and hers mingle together and sound out of place in the sweet serenity of the forest. Cora flies backward and lands hard on her back, her arms outstretched, a long arrow protruding from her left shoulder. Her eyes follow it upward in horror and the pain eats at her like a wild beast.
“Good shot,” a man’s voice growls.
“You too,” she returns somewhat bitterly.
She hears a hesitant laugh, then: “Coraleth Mae Albrynn!”
Cora freezes. She recognizes that voice—a deep, smooth voice with slightly rougher edges. She especially recognizes the use of her full name. “Adam Spruce?” she manages, the pain making her stomach clench.
“You hit me,” she hears him say.
“You hit me!” she returns.
Her heart pounds faster as she feels hot blood soak through her cloak. I can’t panic. “Shoulder.”
“You got my shoulder too. My right one.”
“I should have aimed for your left one?” she grounds out through her teeth.
“You shouldn’t have aimed for me at all! You could have killed me!”
“You could have killed me!” she yells.
“It was a reflex. I didn’t mean to. I am sorry.”
It sounds sincere enough, but it’s hard to concentrate on anything. Shakily, Cora sits up, the arrow hitting the ground in front of her as she does so and pressing harder into her flesh. She gasps raggedly and spits a curse. Upon looking up, she sees him standing there, as tanned and rugged as he was yesterday. The only difference is the arrow sticking out of his shoulder. He’s pale as a summer cloud. So is Cora, probably.
“I thought you were a deer,” she tells him.
“Not the most insulting thing I’ve been called,” he returns with a half-smile as he leans back against a tree.
Anger heats her blood. “I can’t imagine someone calling you an insulting name,” she hisses. She tries to stand, but her head gets so light that she slumps back down. She shuts her eyes. What do I do?
Cora hears Adam murmur a curse and glances up to see him holding his white-knuckled fist against the hole in his shoulder, the bloody arrow lying on the ground next to him. The hint of panic in his eyes ignites remorse in Cora. She gestures to the ground in front of her. “Instead of trying in vain to help ourselves, let’s help each other,” she says.
He sighs and sits cross-legged, facing her. “I’ve never treated an arrow wound before,” he admits.
“Neither have I, but I suppose excess bleeding is bad. We’ll need something to tie around ourselves until we get back to Atherton.”
He nods. “Tear strips from my shirt,” he tells her.
She furrow her brows. “Why don’t you do it?” she snaps. He glances pointedly at his own left fist pressed against his wound. Her arrow is staunching the blood flow in her shoulder, so her hands are free. She rolls her eyes. “Fine.”
Gripping the hem of his rough-spun wool shirt, she twists until a tear forms, then draws away a wide strip across the bottom of the shirt, pulling all the way around so the strip is long enough. Then she tears away another, revealing the hard, sculpted muscles of his stomach. She peels her eyes away and focuses on tearing the next one, and the next, until there’s so little left of his shirt that he just pulls it off and quickly replaces his fist on the bloody wound.
Cora turns away from his bronze, muscular torso and feels heat climbing her face. Blush! I’ve seen dozens of shirtless men swimming in the streams in the summertime. Why should this be any different?
He balls up a strip and struggles to hold it steady while haphazardly tying the band around himself. “Here,” she says, unable to watch his pathetic attempts any longer. She takes the cloth from him and ties it tightly around his body and over the wound, holding in place the ball of cloth on the wound. Her fingers slide across his warm skin despite her endeavours to avoid doing so.
“I should have done yours first. You look close to fainting,” he says, his dark eyes probing her face.
Pain licks across Cora’s body each time she moves her left arm. “I’m all right,” she replies. Even as she does, she can feel her head getting lighter. Her breathing becomes laboured as she struggles against the clouds in her mind. Oh no...
The moment she finishes tying, Adam takes the rest of the strips from her and holds her arm. “I’m going to pull it out on count of three,” he tells her, getting a grip on the arrow.
Cora nods and grabs his arm with her right hand, his muscles taut under her grasp. She strives to focus on his face as she braces herself for the agony that will come. “Do it,” she says.
“One,” he says, then rips it out.
A hoarse cry grates out of her throat as pain shatters across her shoulder. Her body is pulled forward from the unexpected extraction and her forehead hits his chest. She curses through her teeth, fighting to remain conscious. She must distract herself from the pain.
“I’m not taking my shirt off,” she informs him, trembling.
He laughs once, then leans her back so he can press the cloth against the wound. Quickly, he winds another strip around her body. Only when he pulls his arm away from her grip does she open her eyes, and she sees that her fingernails dug so deep into his arm she drew blood. The sight of the bloody spot where her thumbnail dug in riddles her with guilt, as if nothing more important was damaged. All she can think is: You helped me and I hurt you.
“Sorry about your arm,” she says quietly as he finishes tying.
“You mean the arrow wound?”
“No,” she says, then points.
He glances at it. “Oh,” he says, then checks the tie to make sure it’s tight. He eyes her strangely. “So you’re not sorry that you shot me?”
“No, I am. I just meant...” She stops there, unsure of what to say.
“Apology accepted. We should get to Atherton for some healing potions.”
“Don’t you have any?”
“I didn’t think I’d need any!” he exclaims, then he stands and offers her his hand.
She slaps it away and pushes herself up. The blood rushes from her head. “Oh,” she moans. A black tunnel encloses her vision, and everything suddenly gets very warm. She doesn’t even feel herself hit the ground.