Chapter 26 (Cora)

Cora sat on one of the empty beds that Edoll had offered to them. Ford sat in a bed across from her. Edoll had let them use her small washtub to clean themselves and had given them a dinner of hot vegetable stew. Ford had offered to pay the healer for her hospitality, but Thatcher had insisted before leaving that she pay for their accommodations. Once he’d finished eating, Edoll had asked Everin to give her more details about how they’d found Tress and their journey out of the forest. Cora could hear the quiet murmur of their voices through the thin walls of Edoll’s home.

Cora used her wooden spoon to scoop the last of the broth out of her bowl. She carefully set it down on the table beside her bed and looked up at Ford. They made eye contact, and he smiled. He raised his arms, gesturing at the room around them.

“This feels nice.”

“What? Being out of the forest? Getting to bathe and sleep in a real bed?” Cora asked.

“Well, that too,” Ford said. “But I really meant how we got to save Tress and reunite him with his mom.”

“Yeah,” Cora agreed. She rose from the mattress she sat on and crossed the room to sit on the bed next to Ford. She let herself lean into his shoulder, and she felt him lean back into her.

“This feels nice, too,” she said.

“Yeah,” Ford replied. “It does.”

They stayed like that for a while. Cora listened to Ford’s slow, even breaths. It was oddly soothing after days of constantly being on edge. She tilted her head to look up at him.

“Tell me about your name.”

Ford gave her a look.

“My name?” he asked.

“Yeah,” she said. “Your parents believe in the old gods. Why did they name you after Ford?”

She felt Ford’s shoulder rise and fall as he sighed.

“Do you remember any of the stories about Ford from the time of the old gods?” he asked.

Cora shook her head. “Not really.”

Ford bit his lip as he thought. “Well, there’s a few, but the most well-known one is the story of how he earned his reputation as the god of circumstance and forgiveness.”

Cora gave him a sheepish smile. “Can you tell it? I never got to hear much about the old gods growing up.”

Ford gave her an admonishing look before smirking in return. “It’s okay. Most people haven’t. Back during the old days, one of the major gods was Nixon. He ruled a large corner of the world, and he was pretty ambitious. He wanted to overthrow the other gods and rule the entire mortal world by himself.”

“Well, obviously he didn’t, otherwise even I would have heard of him.” Cora interjected.

Ford moved his hand a few inches over so that it rested on hers. She didn’t shy from the contact.

“You’re right, he didn’t,” he said. “Nixon had a son named Agnew, who probably would’ve grown up to be another powerful god, like his dad.”

“Probably would’ve?” Cora asked.

Ford nodded. “Yeah. The other gods didn’t know about Nixon’s plan to destroy them, but a wise minor god spied on Nixon, and she found out his plan. She summoned a spirit wolf, which snuck into Nixon’s palace, killed Agnew, and replaced him with her own child, a young godling named Ford. The spirit wolf cast a spell on Nixon so that he couldn’t tell the difference between his real son and Ford, the replacement child.”

A thought crossed Cora’s mind. She squeezed Ford’s hand as a chill ran through her.

“Do you remember the wolf we saw outside the ruins? The one with three eyes? Maybe that was a…”

“A spirit wolf?” Ford asked, laughing. “Don’t tell me you believe in all this stuff about the old gods now.”

Cora felt herself blush slightly, but she didn’t mind looking embarrassed in front of Ford. She let her grip around his hand relax.

“No,” she said. “I don’t believe in it, but you can’t think of a better explanation for what we saw back there, can you?”

Ford shrugged. “Honestly, I don’t have any explanation for what that was, but a spirit wolf seems pretty unlikely,” he said. “Anyways, the wolf isn’t the important part. Ford grew up and sabotaged Nixon’s weapon that he was going to use to destroy the other gods. When Nixon tried to use it on them, and it didn’t work, they realized what he’d tried to do. Nixon was cast down from his throne. Since Ford was his only son, he became the king of Nixon’s entire domain. It also meant that he was allowed to decide Nixon’s punishment. The other gods were angry, obviously. They wanted to throw him off the side of the earth, but Ford refused. He forgave Nixon instead. He took Nixon’s power away, but he gave him protection from the wrath of the other gods and a small part of the world to spend the rest of his existence.”

Cora frowned. “Why did Ford forgive him? He didn’t have a reason to.”

“Nobody really knows,” Ford said. “But because of how he came to be in a position to expose Nixon and because he chose to pardon Nixon’s crimes, he became known as the god of circumstance and forgiveness.”

“And why did your parents choose to name you after Ford?” Cora asked.

Ford turned away to stare at the wall across the room.

“That’s…” he paused as he struggled to find the words. “That’s a story that I don’t tell many people. Actually, it’s a story that I haven’t really told anyone.”

“I’m sorry for prying. You don’t have to go into it,” Cora said.

He shook his head. “No. I’d like you to hear it.”

Cora’s heart skipped a beat. She tried hard to keep a straight face.

“Thank you for trusting me,” she told him.

Ford gave her a weak smile. “I figure if there’s anyone on earth that I can trust after all we’ve been through this week, it’s you.” Cora felt him squeeze her hand. Then he continued. “My parents both were blacksmith’s apprentices. They trained under the same master, which meant they weren’t supposed to be romantically involved.”

Cora noticed that a bitter edge had crept into Ford’s voice. “Of course, that didn’t happen. My mom realized she was pregnant, and when she told my dad, he urged her to visit the local healer for a potion to end the pregnancy. She refused and had me several months later. My parents’ relationship was discovered, and their master sent them away without completing their training. Without the proper skills, and no master in any nearby towns willing to take them, my parents struggled to find a place to work. It wouldn’t be until a few years later that they settled in Greenshadow Village. My dad was furious at my mom for forcing him to abandon his training to raise me. My mom chose to name me Ford, both to reflect the accidental nature of my existence, and because she hoped that being a father to me would help my dad and heal the damage between them, and that eventually he’d forgive her. Sixteen years later, I still don’t think he has.”

For once, Cora felt like she didn’t know what to say. She’d counseled Everin through his own hell for the past year, but this felt different. Of her two companions, Ford had always been the strong one, the confident one. She felt painfully unprepared to handle this revealing of his weakness.

So, she didn’t say anything. She wrapped her arms around him and hung on tightly. Ford hugged her back.

“It’s okay. I’m used to their fights by now. If it were that bad, Everin would’ve seen it in my aura. Honestly, I’ll be happy to see them again after this is over and we can return to Greenshadow Village without being arrested as deserters.”

“Alright. If you say you’re okay, I’ll believe you,” Cora said.

Ford looked down to give her an encouraging smile.

“I am. I promise.”

Cora nodded, but she didn’t let go of him. They laid in the bed that way for a long time – arms around each other with her head resting on Ford’s chest.

Cora had plenty of questions that she still wanted to ask, but she didn’t speak for fear of shattering the peaceful silence that had descended upon them. It wasn’t until a while later that Edoll appeared in the doorway, summoning them to join Everin and Tress and help them recount the events of their journey. After a long night of questioning from the healer, Everin, Cora, and Ford were allowed to retreat to their quarters to sleep and prepare to leave at daybreak.

*

The next morning, Cora was shaken awake. She blinked hard and squinted. As her eyes adjusted to the morning light streaming in through the window, she recognized the woman before her as Thatcher.

“Cora, you and your friends need to go. Now,” she whispered.

Cora pushed herself up in bed. Snapping into alertness.

“Why? What happened?”

“It’s the royal procession. They’ve rounded up all their soldiers, and they’re heading south the engage Meronne. That means that they’re passing through Thistleton soon. You three need to get out of here before this town is crawling with Valen’s troops.”

Cora nodded quickly. She pushed himself out of her bed and ran across the room to where Everin and Ford slept.

“How soon is soon?” she asked.

“The advance guard has already arrived,” Thatcher said.

Cora shook Everin and Ford awake and hurried to explain the situation. As fast as they could, the trio grabbed their belongings and followed Thatcher outside. Behind Edoll’s house, a white horse stood with the two that they’d stolen from the Elderwood ghosts.

“The east exit of town is the busiest at this hour. You’ll have the best chance of blending in if you go that way,” Thatcher said.

Cora nodded as she, Everin, and Ford all climbed onto horses. They guided the animals down the city streets. Dozens of men and women walked up and down the roads on foot. Some also rode horses. Even at this early hour, the city of Thistleton was far bustling with energy.

The horses moved at a brisk walk. Any faster, and they would’ve caught the attention of the soldiers patrolling the city. Cora noticed that there were many more than there had been just yesterday. They were miles and miles away from Greenshadow Village. Nobody here should have been able to recognize her. Regardless, she kept her head down and hoped that she didn’t look too suspicious.

They were about halfway to the city exit when Cora heard shouting from one street over.

“Wait. Stop.” It was the first time Everin had spoken since they’d left.

Cora turned around to face him.

“What is it? Is something wrong?”

Everin pointed in the direction of the shouting. “Someone’s afraid.”

“Well yeah, we’re all afraid,” Ford interjected.

“No, not like that,” Everin insisted. “Their fear is so bright I can see it from here. Someone’s going to die.”

“What do you me…” Cora started to ask, but Everin was already climbing off his horse. He stuffed the reigns in Ford’s hands and began running down an alleyway toward the source of the shouts.

Cora looked at Everin as he disappeared between the buildings. This wasn’t good at all.

“Go after him,” Ford said. “I’ll hold on to your horse.”

Gratefully, Cora handed her horse’s reigns to Ford. She jumped off the animal and ran down the alleyway that Everin had vanished into.

It wasn’t hard to find her friend. He was at the end of the alley, crouching behind a pile of trash. Cora wrinkled her nose as she knelt down next to Everin.

“Everin, what’s going on?”

Everin didn’t answer her question. Instead, he raised a finger to his lips.

“Look,” he whispered.

Cora looked. There was a small plaza that spread out before them. A few dozen citizens stood, transfixed, as they watched the center of the plaza. Several soldiers stood in the center around a large stone block about the height of a table. Cora hadn’t seen one before, but she’d heard enough stories to know what this was: an execution block.

A middle-aged man, not dressed in uniform, stood at the center of the plaza. Several soldiers stood around him, hands resting on the pommels of swords at their hips. A woman stepped in front of the block. She wore a polished alumin breastplate that bore the bright yellow feather of King Valen’s insignia.

“Attention, citizens of Allomoria,” she called out. The murmurs in the crowd died down.

“I am Captain Dulles Foster, leader of the advance guard of King Valen’s second royal procession. As many of you know, we passed through this town just a few weeks ago to enlist soldiers for our king’s great army.”

The murmuring in the crowd flared up again.

“We’ll be stopping here in Thistleton again as we move our soldiers south. My advance guard just arrived last night to prepare the way, and I must say, we were disappointed.” Captain Foster held a long pause before continuing.

“The city guards reported finding several deserters from our draft. Not only is desertion from King Valen’s army a cowardly and shameful act, but it is also forbidden.”

Cora could sense Everin’s thin frame shaking next to her.

Captain Foster gestured to the man behind her.

“We’re here this morning to give this city a public reminder of what happens when you break one of our king’s most important laws.”

She nodded to the soldiers standing around man. Two of them stepped forward and grabbed his arms, wrestling him forward and down into a kneeling position.

Cora felt sick. Next to her, Everin began to rise. She grabbed his wrist, pulling him back down.

“What are you doing?” she whispered.

“She’s going to kill him,” Everin insisted frantically. He had a wild look in his eyes. Cora realized that he’d probably already been trying to siphon the man’s fear away.

“What are you going to do? Kill all ten guards? Even if you could, would you want to be responsible for killing ten people to save one?”

Everin’s glance darted back and forth. “I have to do something. This isn’t fair. He doesn’t deserve to die, and he doesn’t deserve to suffer like he is.” He was begging her at this point.

Cora only tightened her grip around his arm. Her palm was slick with sweat.

“Everin, I know you want to help, but there’s nothing you can do for him.” She tried to keep her voice calm, but tremors snuck into her words at the end. The spectacle was hard for her to watch, too.

Out on the plaza, the soldiers had forced the man down so that he kneeled before the stone block. They pushed his head down against the smooth surface and held it in place. Captain Foster gave him a disapproving glance as she slowly stepped forward, sliding a long sword out of its sheath at her hip.

Cora felt Everin jerk his arm away as he broke free from her grip. His thin forearm escaped from her slippery palms, and he began to rise from behind the pile of trash that hid them. Cora could hear panicked breaths escaping his lungs. She knew what his intention was.

“No!” she screamed, lunging forward towards her friend.

At the sound of her shout, the entire plaza froze. Everin stopped rising, and Cora nearly ran into him. An eerie silence settled over the plaza. Captain Foster paused, standing over the man on the block. Her eyes scanned the crowd.

“No? Who said that?” She barked. “Who dares challenge the laws of your king?”

One of the soldiers standing with the crowd approached where Everin and Cora stood, no longer hidden by the trash. He pointed at Cora.

“It was this one!”

“Bring her up here! This dissenter will face her punishment today, too,” Captain Foster ordered

The soldier closed the gap between himself and Cora in a few long strides. She felt frozen. The only sound she could hear was the pounding of her heart in her chest. He pointed at the sword hanging from her hip.

“Drop it,” he commanded.

Numbly, Cora fumbled with the straps at her waist. The sword and sheath clattered to the cobblestone at her feet. Out of the corner of her eye, Cora saw Everin. He was breathing like he’d just run ten miles, but something froze him in place. Cora realized what it was. She was too close to the soldier. If Everin tried to use the fear he’d absorbed, he’d hit her as well.

The man reached forward and grabbed her upper arm.

“Let’s go,” he grumbled.

He half-led, half-dragged her towards the center of the plaza. As they approached, Cora began to find her breath.

“I d-didn’t mean to challenge her orders. I-I was just trying to help my friend.”

Fear clenched her throat shut, and she wasn’t even sure if the soldier heard her. If he did, he chose to ignore what she said.

The soldier with a hand around her arm stopped just a few yards from Captain Foster.

“So, this is the one who objects to King Valen’s justice?” She crowed.

“I wasn’t trying to…”

“Enough!” The captain cut her off. “I don’t want to hear your excuses. By publicly challenging this execution, you’ve committed treason against the military of your country.”

The captain nodded to the man holding Cora. “I’m tired of the dissent in this city. I think it’s time to make a statement about what happens to those who don’t support their king. Put her next to our deserter. This is going to be a double execution.”

Cora felt her stomach drop. She felt another pair of hands grab her and begin forcing her toward the execution block. She tried to dig her feet into the ground and resist, but the soldiers were too strong. They pushed her towards the smoothed stone platform. Now that she was close, she could see streaks of blood stained onto its surface. She opened her mouth to scream, but the air wouldn’t come out.

That was when Everin acted.

The entire sky flashed green as his lightning bolt streaked skyward. An earsplitting roll of thunder shook the entire plaza. Cora felt the soldiers’ grip on her ease as they turned their attention to the boy stepping out of the alleyway. Green sparks crackled and jumped around his hands as he walked towards the middle of the plaza. The crowd of onlookers parted around him, giving a wide berth.

Some of the soldiers around Captain Foster drew their swords, angling them at Everin.

“Stop,” he commanded. He raised a hand threateningly, and the brightness of the sparks intensified.

The soldiers lowered their blades.

“What is this?” Captain Foster demanded.

Everin halted his approach and turned to look the captain in the eye.

He spoke. His voice was eerily calm.

“My name is Everin, and I am the fourth angel of Allomoria.”

Gasps and nervous murmurs exploded in the crowd gathered around him. Even the soldiers looked rattled.

“I am here on a mission for King Valen. I ask that you release both my friend and this man before you,” he continued.

“I’m the captain of the advance guard. You don’t rank above me,” Foster replied.

Everin paused to exhale a long breath. He let the sparks flare up around his hands again. Even Cora found herself shivering at her friend’s emotionless visage.

“I’m acting directly under King Valen’s secret orders. Do you really want to challenge me, Captain?”

Captain Foster looked Everin up and down a few times. Finally, she shrugged. To her soldiers, she said, “Do as he commands. I’ll bring this up to my superiors when the main company arrives.”

Everin nodded, letting the sparks die out around his fingertips. “Thank you, captain. We’ll be returning to our mission now.”

Cora felt the hands that had been holding her let go. Nervously, she approached Everin. She found the crowd parted around her in the same way as they had for him. Everin looked her in the eyes, and she saw that his pupils were as dilated as wide as silver coins. He was still feeling the effects of channeling all that terror.

“Thank you, Everin,” she said.

He nodded and turned. She and the man from the execution block followed him back through the alleyway they’d come from. Nobody followed.

As soon as they were out of earshot of the crowd, Everin collapsed to the ground. The transformation was so sudden, Cora didn’t have time to catch him. He curled into a ball and began to hyperventilate. His panicked wheezes were choked with the threat of sobs. The man next to Cora looked at Everin and back at her.

“What’s happening?” He asked.

She shook her head. “Just get out of here. Don’t tell anyone about this.”

When the man hesitated, she repeated, “Go!”

He turned and hurried off down the rest of the alleyway, quickly vanishing from sight. Cora knelt down beside Everin and put a hand on his shoulder.

“That was really brave of you back there,” she said quietly.

“I…I…” Everin couldn’t get the words out past his panting and coughing.

“It’s okay. You’re going to be okay,” she tried to reassure him. “You did it. You saved that man, and you saved me, too.”

She waited, and Everin finally replied, “I almost let them kill both of you. That was the scariest part of all. Not the fear I absorbed from the man, my own fear.”

“It must’ve been hard. But it worked. We all made it out. Now we just have to let the effects of that fear wear off.” She patted him on the shoulder.

They stayed like that in the alleyway for a few minutes. Cora could feel the rate of Everin’s breathing slowly come down. Finally, wordlessly, he pushed himself to his feet. He leaned on Cora as she helped him through the rest of the alley.

The relief on Ford’s face when they emerged was palpable.

“What happened?” he asked. “I saw the lightning and heard the thunder, but I couldn’t leave the horses to come help. Oh, thank every single one of the old gods you guys are okay.”

Cora gave him her best attempt at a smile.

“We’re fine, but we should keep moving. I’ll explain the details while we ride, but Everin basically announced his presence to a dozen of King Valen’s soldiers. We probably don’t have long before word gets back to McCarthy, and he sends Kyzella after us again, or worse.”

Ford looked like he had even more questions after that, but he didn’t ask them. He handed Cora the reigns to her horse.

“Are you able to ride?” He asked Everin.

Everin didn’t look up at Ford, but he nodded, so Ford handed him the other horse’s reigns. They climbed on to the animals and continued their ride out of Thistleton. There was no hiding it now, Cora thought. Word would spread from the city like a wildfire. McCarthy and whoever he’d sent after them would no doubt hear about what happened today. The fourth angel had just introduced himself to the world.

Next chapter: https://sorrowandlove.home.blog/chapter-27-mccarthy/

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