Tales of Aranea: Of Sage and Mist

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The Challenge

Coraleth sits at the dining table with an empty dish in front of her, listening to Papa and Adam Spruce talk on and on about smithing. Apparently, Adam’s father is the blacksmith she saw briefly during her trip to Hale. She’s so bored she might die right now and enjoy it.

“Twice through,” Adam is saying, “That’s my father’s trick. He runs it twice through the fire before he hammers it. He says it makes it exceptionally soft.”

“Doesn’t that make it fall apart?”

“He treats it a special way. He hasn’t even told me his secret. That’s why Hale’s got the best iron in Tempesco.”

“Are you going to take over the shop someday?”

The pause in conversation causes Cora to raise her head from nearly falling asleep on the table. Adam is running his fingernail into the grain of their table. He shakes his head and shrugs. “No actually. I have other plans for my life.”

“If you don’t mind me asking, what kind of plans?” Papa wonders.

A light comes into Adam’s eyes then, transforming him, and his eyes find Cora’s for one split second. Just for that second, his eyes are a window to an erupting effervescence. Just for that second, he’s a new creature. A person she’d actually stand to be around. Because that excitement, that visible hunger for life, for adventure, for danger, is absolutely beautiful to her.

“I have no idea,” he says with a smile.

Cora turns away, disturbed at herself, and stands. “I’m going for a walk,” she declares.

At the door, as she awkwardly swings her cloak around herself one-handed, Cora waits for the conversation to pick back up again. When Papa begins asking if Adam had seen the waterwheel, she takes the opportunity of their distraction to grab her quiver from the corner and tuck it behind her cloak. Assuming her bow is still where she left it in the forest, she leaves them.

Outside, Cora looks away from the activity at the mill and walks quickly down the trail into the forest. Each step is powered by inner frustration. She wants to turn back time to last Mordie, the second week of logging season, when they were just getting into it. When logging became the centre of their thoughts. Before all of this nonsense happened.

The mid-morning air is still cool and fresh. She strolls where she ran yesterday, away from Lucas. She wishes she could have known then that things were only changing more. It would have been easier to bear the weight of Lucas’ proposal without the addition of her injury, Adam’s sudden appearance, and her stupid inability to work.

Cora’s bow lies where she dropped it before, exactly where she expected it would be. She picks it up and shakes off her sling. Then, gingerly, she raises her left hand to hold the bow. As she slowly pulls the string back, pain cramps her shoulder and she gasps and drops the weapon. She waits for it to subside before she leans over to pick up the bow again. This time, she hardens herself against the pain She knows will come, and holds tightly to the bow as she strings an arrow. Then, raising it, Cora draws the string slowly back. Her stomach tightens and her arms shake. She pulls the string all the way back.

“You shouldn’t overdo it,” she hears behind her.

Startled, Cora releases the arrow and it disappears into the bushes in front of her. Her shoulder throbs incessantly. She whips her head around and finds Adam Spruce standing in the trail, a smug expression on his scruffy face.

“What in Herus’ name are you doing here?” she spits viciously, and replaces the bow on her back.

He raises his hands. “Let’s be civil, now. Your father just asked me to watch out for you so you won’t strain yourself. Clearly, he knows you well.”

Cora rolls her eyes, adjusting the sling back over her arm. “Not just here in the forest. I mean here, in Atherton. What made you come here? Why were you in the forest this morning? Why haven’t you left yet?”

Adam shrugs and slips his hands into his trouser pockets, taking a few nonchalant steps toward her. “You said there was good hunting here. I thought I might as well check it out.”

“At dawn? When I told you I’d be here?”

He smiles crookedly. “What are you implying? That I came to see you?”

Cora looks away, feeling heat climb her cheeks and hating it. “Maybe I am,” she replies haughtily.

“I don’t even know you.”

“Does that matter?” she wonders, looking back at him. His rich eyes and wry smile throw her off guard for a moment, but her own irritation is strong.

“No, it doesn’t,” he says. Then he walks past her. “I think you need some adventure in your life.”

“Why?”

“You just seem a little...” he trails off, plucking a leaf from a nearby hanging branch.

“A little what?” she insists, glaring at him.

“Just a little sheltered, that’s all.”

He twists the leaf around in his fingers. She’d imagine the hands of a blacksmith to be rough and calloused, but his look smooth. Strong. His fingernails are even clean. He must not work with his father.

Cora rips her gaze from his hands, noticing she’d been staring at them, and laughs humorlessly. “What’s wrong with being sheltered?”

“What’s not wrong with being sheltered?” he exclaims, and tosses the leaf away.

“Being sheltered means being safe.”

“So what? If you’re never searching, you’ll never find anything new or exciting. It’s like choosing to bump around in the darkness instead of just lighting a candle.” He steps closer, his eyes lighting with excitement. “Don’t you want to feel your heart race? Don’t you want to feel scared and exhilarated and elated all at once? Don’t you ever want to run outside during a rainstorm rather than staying in and just observing? Don’t you want to experience things?”

Cora stills beneath his impassioned stare and words. “I...I don’t like change,” she stammers out.

He steps backward. He’d gotten so close she could see the flecks of bright colour in his dark eyes. “It isn’t change, Coraleth. It’s life. You can’t just refuse to live it.”

Coraleth. No one ever calls her that. “Do you suppose I’ll take life advice from you?” she laughs, trying to break the sudden emotion between them.

He smiles and steps back again, sensing her discomfort and wanting to ease it. “No, but I want you to let me show you. Let yourself really live just once. If you hate it afterwards, you never have to do it again. And if you still hate me, I promise I’ll go back to Hale and you’ll never have to look at me again.”

His expression changes when he speaks that last phrase. She glances down at his extended hand, the one not in a sling, then back up at him.

“I don’t hate you,” she says quietly, her eyes flitting back down to his hand. Could I take it?

He spreads his fingers. “Just once, Coraleth.” Please.

She draws a deep breath. I must be crazy, she thinks. Then she takes his hand, and it’s warmer and softer and stronger than she thought it’d be. Her heart involuntarily turns over. I must be crazy.

He smiles, a mischievous glint in his eyes. “Let’s go.”

He suddenly begins to run and she follows, their uninjured hands gripping each other. Already her heart is pounding.

“Where are we going?” she asks. What thrill can we experience when we’re both injured?

“You’ll see,” he says.

He steers them away from the trail and into the trees. Cora’s familiar with this entire forest, so she knows they’re heading in the direction of the cliffs, where the mountain peak will suddenly rise up far above their heads. She’s never been beyond that point, since the only way to proceed is to climb.

The warmth drains from her face. Is that where we’re going? How would he even know about it?

“I noticed this when I was here early this morning,” he says suddenly, as if he was reading her thoughts.

“The cliffs?”

They finally stop where the trees taper off behind and the bare cliff face rises in front.

“Yes,” he breathes.

Cora pants from exertion and leans back. She can’t even see the top.

“Adam, we can’t go up there.”

The corner of his mouth twitches when she says his name. “Why not?”

“We’re both injured. How will we get to the top without hurting ourselves? And even if we did, how would we get down without hurting ourselves?”

Adam shrugs out of his sling and drops it on the ground. A ball of cloth soaked in a healing potion is firmly pressed against the puncture in his shoulder and held tight with bandages under a shirt borrowed from Cora’s father. Gently, he lifts the sling off her shoulder and tosses it onto the ground, leaving her in almost identical bandages. Her arm already aches without the support of the sling.

“We can’t do this,” she tells him, her heartbeat already frantic. She knew she was crazy to agree to his scheme.

“Just once, Coraleth. Trust me,” he says softly.

Then he links his injured arm through her injured arm. If they had not hit each others’ opposite arms, they wouldn’t have been able to do this. She’s still not sure they can.

“We’ll act as one,” he begins to explain. Then he gestures to the cliff face in front of them. “The grooves and dents in the rock will act as footholds and handholds, and, together, we’ll climb to the top.”

“I don’t think this will work. We could fall and break our necks. I don’t think dying is a means of ‘really living.’”

“If there was no risk, there would be no thrill,” Adam says with a shrug.

“That’s ludicrous! This is ludicrous!”

She looks at Adam and he’s grinning. The expression is so free and hungry for adventure.

“Yes it is,” he agrees, then steps forward. “All right, so we’ll have to work together. I’ll start.”

He grips one dent in the wall and lifts his left foot. Cora follows suit, and raises her right foot to the closest dent.

“Keep your left leg close to mine,” he instructs. “Good. Now, lift it to that mark there.”

Cora steels herself and lifts her foot with his, leaving the ground. He’s out of his mind, and I’m following him, so I must be out of my mind too.

“Good! Now, shift your right foot up to that fissure there,” he continues, and she does so, her right foot moving as well. He lifts his too, and they move like a spider up the wall, slowly, steadily. She can hardly believe it, but it’s working! He continues speaking instructions to her as they climb higher, higher, her heart fluttering in her chest like a trapped bird. Each time she leans a little back, her stomach lurches with fright. We’re going to fall. We’re going to fall.

Yet, each time, Adam steadies her. He seems to have no fear. “Keep going. We’re nearly there.”

Slowly, step by step, they ascend. The more exactly Cora follows his directions, the more fluidly they move. She doesn’t dare to look around or down, for fear of stiffening and falling to her death. She just focuses on the next step, the next handhold. Then, she sees the summit come into view, and involuntarily stretches to see it. She senses herself lose balance and tenses, her foothold slipping slightly from beneath her. A short scream escapes her throat.

“Easy, easy,” Adam hushes, tugging her against the wall. “Hold to the wall until you regain your balance.”

Cora’s bad arm screams with pain as he coils his arm around her, holding her. His must be hurting as well, on the other side of him, bracing the wall.

“I can’t do this,” Cora whimpers as she squeezes her eyes shut.

“Yes you can,” his voice breaks through. “You think you can’t because you’ve never tried, but you can.”

Cora tries to believe it, but she’s so scared. So terribly scared. His grip on her arm grounds her, keeps her from losing herself completely. She nods and grinds her forehead against the cold stone. I can do this.

“Are you all right?” he wonders quietly.

I can do this.

She nods. “Let’s keep going.”

And they move again. Upward, upward. Until, at last, they reach the summit. Cora pulls herself up onto a flat stretch of stone and lies, panting, for a long moment, both from exertion and from fear. We made it. We’re alive. She lets her eyelids fall closed and just concentrates on breathing.

“The adventure’s not over,” she hears Adam say. “Look.”

Cora opens her eyes and sits up, but Adam raises a hand.

“One second,” he says, and sits down behind her.

“What?” she wonders, trying to turn.

“Don’t move. Just...” She feels her hair loosen. He’s taken out her braid. Cora can feel his fingers against her scalp, gently loosening each kink. “There,” he says after a moment. “Now look.”

Cora rises and trails her hand back into her hair, facing east from the direction they’d climbed. The side of the cliff drops off almost endlessly, and a waterfall spouts from somewhere below. The wind whips her now loosened hair as she surveys the view and gasps.

Before her is spread out a ruffled blanket of hills dotted with trees and edged with faraway mountains. Rivers flow down from the mountain and shimmer in the sunlight. The sky is endless and brilliant blue, crowned with fluffy, white clouds. Even living on this mountain, she’s never been up so high. No view she’s ever seen has been so incredible.

Coraleth’s stomach is turning and tightening. Her muscles are trembling. Her heart is racing. She is scared, exhilarated, elated. She is free. She is empowered. She is unstoppable. She could take a breath and swallow the sky. She could pick up the tiny, distant mountains. She could trample the trees. The earth is hers and she is the earth’s.

I am free.

Laughter bubbles out of Coraleth with no warning. She spreads her arms and shouts, filling the infinite air with her voice until it echoes around her: “I am free!”

Her skin tingles with excitement and she laughs again, turning to Adam next to her. He beams with joy. She is the most beautiful creature he has ever laid his eyes upon.

“What do you think?” he asks.

Coraleth is so drunk on ecstasy that she acts on impulse. She casts her arms around his neck, despite the objection from her injury, and embraces him tightly. She laughs again. “I love it. I love it,” she giggles.

His arms curl around her, drinking in her scent. “I thought you would.”

Cora comes to rest on earth once again and realizes where she is. She is in Adam Spruce’s arms. His body is warm and new, uncharted by her own. She can feel the firm muscles beneath his shirt. Her hair winds around them as if its intent is to tangle them together. She inhales his aroma, the scent of spices and leather and something else. Something she doesn’t know. The smell is intoxicating in the best way.

Cora releases him and steps back, forgetting for a moment where she is. Her mouth is dry and she gnaws on the inside of her bottom lip. She sees then, behind Adam, a hill gradually leading back down to the forest floor. She hadn’t seen that earlier.

“Why didn’t they take that way up?” she asks him, pointing.

He turns, a little disoriented too. “The reward was much more fulfilling this way,” he answers, and she’s not sure if he means the view or the hug.

They walk down the hill. “So that’s why you try dangerous things? Because they’re exciting or fun?” she asks Adam.

He smiles, but shakes head. “No,” he says, his eyes on the sky, “not only that. The way I see it, the most important knowledge is found in mysterious places, and we can only reach those places when we explore. Now, in every exploration, there’s a degree of risk, but the knowledge, whatever it may be, and the excitement found there, is always worth whatever risk it involves.”

She nods, touched by his words and by the eloquent way he puts them together. She wishes, for a moment, that she could study his mind and learn what experiences have taught him that.

“Aren’t you afraid of anything?” she wonders.

He laughs and his eyes crinkle when he does. “Yes. Many things. But I’m not going to let them get in my way.”

Coraleth smiles. “I’ve never known anyone like you, Adam Spruce,” she says.

“Good,” he replies. “Then you won’t forget me.”

She’s silent until they reach the forest floor again. “I should be getting home. I don’t want Papa to worry,” she tells him.

To be honest, her emotions at the moment are a bit of a mess, and she’d like time and quiet to rearrange them.

Adam nods and she turns away, wishing the silence wasn’t so awkward. He stops her with his voice. “Coraleth,” he calls, and she turns back to him, “does this mean I’m staying for a little while?”

She slowly smiles. “Well, I didn’t hate it.”

“No, you didn’t.”

“Doesn’t your father need you back in Hale?”

“He can live without me for a few more days.”

“So can I,” she replies with a playful tilt of her head.

“But do you want to?”

Her smile grows and he knows the answer. “I’ll see you later, Adam Spruce,” she says, and walks back toward Atherton.

“Until then, Coraleth Mae Albrynn,” she hears behind her, and almost feels as if her heart, too, is smiling.

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