Chapter 25 (Cora)

An awkward silence fell over the group as they stood outside the room. Cora looked at Dellan. The boy couldn’t have been older than eight. When she made eye contact with him, he took it as his cue to speak.

“What happened to Tress that he got so beaten up?” He looked between her, Everin, and Ford.

It was Edoll who answered. “Nothing that you should be prying into, Dell. Tress just ran into some trouble in the Elderwood Forest.”

Dellan’s eyes widened. “Woah! You guys went into the forest? I’ve always wanted to explore but mother says it’s too dangerous.”

Cora smiled at Edoll, who had an apologetic look on her face. “She’s right, the Elderwood Forest is a dangerous place to travel across,” she told the boy.

Instead of appeasing the child’s curiosity, her statement only intensified it.

“Across? You mean you three crossed the entire forest? You’re from southern Allomoria?”

Ford nodded. “That’s right.” He knelt down and slung off his pack. He dug around inside until he pulled out the map of Allomoria. He folded it so that McCarthy’s written instructions were hidden from view and held it open so Dellan could see. He pointed at a small dot near the southeastern edge of the Elderwood Forest.

“You see that? That’s Greenshadow Village. It’s where Cora, Everin, and I are from. We followed this path all the way through the forest until we reached Thistleton.” He trailed his finger up a winding line than ran upward through the trees and let it pause at a point close to the northern edge of the woods. “We ran into Tress right around here. He’d gotten hurt, so we took him with us to Thistleton so that he could see your mom and get better.”

Dellan ate up Ford’s words, alternating between looking at the map and looking at him, an awed expression on his face. Cora couldn’t help but smile as she watched how quickly Ford endeared himself to the boy.

“Why did you travel so far away from your home?” he asked.

Ford faltered for a moment. “Oh, we uh…”

Cora spoke up. “We’re seeking a meeting with a man who works for King Valen in Doronhine.” She looked over at Edoll, who was frowning. The smile on Cora’s own face quickly dropped.

“You’re telling me that three kids, all of military age, just happened to travel halfway across Allomoria at the same time that King Valen is enlisting troops into his army? Maybe you three identified with Tress because you’re all fellow deserters?”

Cora tensed, ready to bolt, but Edoll didn’t make a move toward them. She inhaled a long, tired breath and slowly let it out. “It’s okay. I won’t report you. I’m no fan of King Valen or his eagerness to sacrifice the lives of his people for his ambition. However, I cannot risk being caught harboring deserters. Tress is an exception because he’s a family friend, and he’s injured. I’m glad that you three were able to bring him to safety, but I can’t be turning my clinic into a shelter for deserters. You can stay here tonight, but you need to leave first thing tomorrow morning.”

Cora looked down and saw Dellan staring upward at her, a stunned look of betrayal on his face. She gulped and nodded. “Of course. Thank you.”

Edoll pointed at the other door in the hall. “You can sleep in there. When I wake up in the morning, I expect you three to be gone.” She looked down at her son, who rose to his feet and took a slight step away from where Ford knelt. “Come on, Dellan.”

The boy turned to look at Ford, who offered a weak smile. Dellan smiled back. Then, Dellan turned and hurried to his mother’s side. Edoll and her son left the trio to themselves.

“Do you think she’ll change her mind about reporting us?” Ford asked.

Everin responded before Cora could. “She won’t. Her aura was only a faint shade of green. It didn’t look like she was lying or like she was that scared of being caught helping us. She was just being smart. It is a risky move to illegally house deserters, especially four of them.”

“Okay,” Cora said. “So, I guess we’re leaving tomorrow.”

“We could ask Tress’s mother to let us stay at her place,” Ford said.

“No,” Everin said. “There’s no reason to stay here longer than we need. We should leave quickly.”

“Are you sure?” Cora asked. She pointed at his shoulder. “You haven’t even gotten any treatment for the injury Kyzella gave you.”

Everin rolled up the sleeve of his shirt and examined the white cloth wrapped around his upper arm. He shrugged. “I could ask Edoll to look at it. If she isn’t willing to help me, then I’ll keep treating as I have been and hope it doesn’t get infected. It’s way too risky to look for another healer and risk getting exposed and arrested.”

Cora frowned. She didn’t like the idea of leaving without getting treatment for Everin. The wound wasn’t too bad, but she wanted to be as prepared as possible for their confrontation with McCarthy.

There was nothing else to discuss, so the trio waited anxiously in the short hallway for a few minutes until the door to Tress’s room slowly opened. His mother stepped outside and carefully closed it behind her. Cora could see that her eyes were red.

“Thanks again for helping Tress get to safety,” she said. “Your names are Everin, Cora, and Ford, right?”

There were quiet nods of agreement from the group accompanied with a quiet, “Yes, Ms. Grant.”

She smiled. “Good, wanted to make sure I had them right. Please, none of that Ms. Grant business. My name’s Thatcher.”

Ford lit up at that. “Like the iron goddess?”

Thatcher nodded. “There’s no nobility in my family – we just like to stick to tradition. I see that you were also named after one of our gods, Ford.”

Ford nodded. “My parents still keep the faith, even though it’s on the decline in southern Allomoria.”

“Not just the south,” the woman said wistfully. “People are becoming disillusioned with the old gods everywhere.”

A thought struck Cora as she observed the conversation. “Excuse me, Thatcher. If your family believes in the old gods, why wasn’t Tress named after one of them?”

The woman sighed. “I still believe in the old gods, but my husband didn’t. He wanted our son to have a new name, free of the influence of an old faith. I gave in, and we agreed to name our child Tress.”

“Your husband?” Cora asked. “Would that be Jorian?”

Cora didn’t need Everin’s power to know that she’d ventured into a sensitive subject. Thatcher winced. Cora could hear her inhale sharply.

“Yes. Jorian was my husband. I’m assuming Tress mentioned him to you.”

Cora struggled to remember their conversation with the old fisherman several days ago. What had he said? He lived alone in the woods after his wife had left with their son? She looked at Everin. They briefly made eye contact. Cora was sure that Everin was seeing all kinds of emotions stirring up within Thatcher from whatever had happened between her and Jorian, but he couldn’t share with her what he was seeing while the woman was present.

Ford responded. “Actually, we met him. He’s been living in the Elderwood Forest since you and Tress left.”

Thatcher glowered at him for several long moments. “Is that what Jorian told you? That Tress and I left him?” There was a bitter edge in her words.

Cautiously, Ford nodded in response.

“Of course!” She griped. “Of course, that’s what he would tell you. Going for your pity, was he? Somehow I’m not surprised.”

There was a pause before she added, “I’m sorry. We weren’t on the best of terms when he left.”

Ford was silent, not wanting to say anything to further anger the woman who’d agreed to help them. It was Everin who responded. His voice was surprisingly detached, unafraid of Thatcher’s rage.

“He cheated on you, didn’t he?”

The woman froze where she stood. Cora could hear her inhaling hard through her nose. Slowly, Thatcher turned away from Cora and Ford and wheeled on Everin.

“How did you know?” she demanded.

Everin paused only for a moment before answering. “Well, it was clear that he’d done something terribly emotionally harmful to you. The cheating was…uh, a lucky guess.”

Thatcher squeezed her eyes shut and screwed up her face. She took a breath, attempting to calm herself, and slowly let it out. When she spoke again, the rage was in her tone wasn’t as sharp.

“Yes, your guess was right. Jorian did cheat on me. It was with multiple women, and it went on for several years before I found out. Tress was only nine, so he doesn’t know that I chased his father away and told him to never come back. He only knows that his father left when he was young.”

Cora reached up to put a hand on Thatcher’s shoulder. The woman didn’t move away at the contact. “I’m sorry,” Cora said. “That must have been terrible.”

“If it’s any consolation,” Everin spoke up. “Jorian isn’t happy without you. When we ran into him in the woods, I…uh, I could sense that he was really miserable. I think he genuinely feels bad for what he did.”

Thatcher shook her head. “Good. He doesn’t deserve anything less. Maybe he’ll get a taste of the kind of pain he’s put me through for the past decade.”

“It still hurts? After all this time?” Everin asked.

Thatcher let out a weary, deflating sigh. Cora glanced at Everin, worried that he might be prying to deeply.

“The day it stops hurting is the day I stop holding him accountable for his actions. And if I don’t, nobody will.”

“Have you forgiven him for what he did?”

Thatcher frowned at Everin. “No. I could never. That’s the same as acknowledging that what he did to me was okay, and it absolutely wasn’t.”

Everin tried again. “You don’t have to tell him that his actions were acceptable. They were wrong. Incredibly, awfully wrong. But you’re still clinging on to this pain that he inflicted on you, as if hurting yourself is the only way you can punish him. I don’t mean to lecture, but until you can let that go, I don’t know if you’re going to truly move on.”

“Who do you think you are?” Thatcher barked at him. Cora hurriedly pulled her arm off the woman’s shoulder. “You’re just a kid. You don’t even know what it means to love someone. Don’t tell me what I should or shouldn’t do about my former husband.”

Everin took a step back. He stammered but couldn’t find any words to say. Cora prepared to jump in and apologize for Everin’s words.

Thatcher sighed. “No. Sorry. You’re probably right. As much as I hate what he did to me, I still can’t stop thinking about it.” She crossed her arms. “I guess I need to do something. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life like this. Not right now – Tress needs me, but maybe someday in the future when I can find the strength, I’ll try to forgive him, or at least, I’ll try to truly put that part of my life behind me.”

Everin tried to give her an encouraging smile. “That’s all anyone can ask of you.”

Worried that one of the two boys would say something else to set the woman off, Cora quickly stepped in. “I know you’ve been through a lot already, Thatcher, but we really need to be on our way to Doronhine by tomorrow morning. Are you still able to loan us a horse?”

Tress’s mother took a moment to return to the present. “That’s right, you three need to continue your journey. Yes, I’ll help. I’ll bring my stallion here first thing tomorrow morning. He’s getting a bit old, but he’s still in fine shape for a trip to the capital.”

Everin, Cora, and Ford thanked the woman. Cora let her return to the room where Tress was recovering. She grabbed Everin and Ford by their wrists and dragged them into the room Edoll had set aside for them.

“Ford, you’re an idiot,” she hissed.

Ford gave a nervous grin. “Is that an endearing ‘you’re an idiot,’ or an angry ‘you’re an idiot’?”

“It’s an angry one,” Cora snapped. “Why’d you have to ask those questions about Jorian and set her off like that?”

He offered a weak shrug. “I was just curious. Sorry.”

“And what about you, Everin? Why’d you keep prying into her personal life? If you’d made her angrier, she might’ve taken back her offer to loan us a horse.”

Everin looked uncomfortable under Cora’s glare. “She wasn’t going to get angry. She was never really mad,” he said.

“Are you sure about that?” Cora asked. “She seemed pretty enraged for that entire conversation.”

Everin quickly shook his head. “She wasn’t mad. Her aura was all blue. I think the anger is just an act. It’s easier for her to be mad at Jorian than it is to focus on her own sadness.”

“Okay, but why did you keep insisting that she put Jorian behind her? Why couldn’t you just leave it alone?”

“Because I thought I could help her,” Everin said. “Usually when I look at someone’s aura, I feel like I’m sharing something intimate with them. Nobody can really know what they’re feeling except for them and me. Thatcher was different, though. Her actions didn’t match her aura. It looked like she was trying to fight it – trying to ignore what was really making her unhappy. Instead of addressing her own feelings, she only let herself think about Jorian and what he did.”

“Why would she ignore her feelings?” Cora asked.

Everin shrugged. “It’s easier to be angry than to be sad. Anger hurts, but it’s tied to action. The hope that, if you lash out or hurt someone, you can fix what was wrong or at least get revenge for it. Sadness isn’t like that. There’s no hope that anything you can do will make things better. You just have to suffer and endure it until the pain goes away. I think that, for a lot of people, it’s easier to stay mad than to ever reckon with their sadness.”

“So, you took it upon yourself to fix her?” Cora demanded.

“No,” Everin said. “I can’t bring a permanent end to her suffering, only she can do that. I just thought I could set her on the path to doing that by helping her confront exactly what she was feeling.”

Cora nodded. “Alright. Well, I guess it’s a good thing she was receptive to you trying to help. Just, be careful when confronting people about their emotions. Please.” As she spoke the words, she almost grimaced at how overprotective she sounded – like she was talking to Crista. Even after Everin had been given such powerful abilities, she still felt like she had to look after him in the same way she had to look after her sister.

“Okay, I’ll be careful, but I also want to help people if I can,” Everin said.

Cora sighed. “That’s fair. Just don’t get us killed or caught by angels in the process, okay?”

For the first time in ages, Everin cracked a smile.

“Hey, only one angel attack in a week isn’t so bad.”

Cora gave him a disapproving look, but she couldn’t keep the corners of her mouth from twitching upward.

“I think one angel attack is enough for a lifetime,” she retorted.

Everin shrugged. “I can’t disagree with that. If we keep it like this, we’re undefeated when it comes to fighting angels.”

“Yeah, between Kyzella and the ghosts, we beat everything that the Elderwood forest could throw at us, and we made it out in one piece,” Ford added.

Cora felt her stomach twist as she remembered feeling Galimus’s dead body. She looked up at Everin’s grinning face and smiled back at him. It would be cruel of her to give her friend another reason to be unhappy when moments like these were so hard for him to find.

“Although if I’d known the forest was going to be so dangerous, I might’ve recommended we take the long way around instead,” Ford said.

“But then we couldn’t have helped Tress or his mom,” Everin jumped in. “I’d say that made it worth the danger.”

“Yeah, you’re right, Everin. I guess some really good things came out of our trip through that that forest,” Ford said. He turned to smile at Cora as he spoke.

She exhaled and put on her own smile.

“Yeah, I guess they did.”

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