A slice of light shifted places
with a sliver of darkness
clouds unwrapped a storm
in the unwalled meadows of air
~Cora Vail Banks
It's only her second day at Caer Dallben, when it rains the first time.
Not the first time in her life, of course. She's well-acquainted with rain: that cold, grey, miserable substance whose frequency had made the cheerless interior of Spiral Castle even more chill and damp, its clammy breath impossible to bar out by shuttered casements or drive away with hotter hearthfires. It was the goad that had driven away what few rays of sunlight had crept past the walls to wink timidly within the fortress's unfriendly courtyards. It was the unbidden traveling companion on their journey to Caer Dathyl, chasing them all from open meadows to the dismal cover of dripping trees, turning the ground to slippery, squelching muck beneath their feet, their clothing to sodden, dragging weight at their backs.
So it is unwelcome now, so soon, just when she's getting used to working in the garden. She's been happy, blissful even, surrounded by the sharp smells of sap and root, the green, light-filtering rows of leaves, the fluttering butterflies and droning bees. It's hot work, but satisfying, and now this: this spotting of the bare earth at her knees, a warning message from the woolly gray smudge obscuring the summer sky, which up until now had been a sea of calm blue. Straightening from her task, she looks around, sees it coming: a curtain of haze blotting out the green hills to the southwest, its surface striped with darker streaks. A damp breeze lifts the sweaty strands of hair from the edges of her face like caressing fingers, but she feels nothing but resentment.
"Rain's coming," she announces, preparing to rise and dust off her skirts, but her companions, working in the rows nearby, only glance up mildly. At the sight of the oncoming shower, Coll smiles, his brown face creasing like the wrinkles on a drying apple.
"Ah," he says, "good. Days overdue, that is. It's good luck you are, lass. Must've brought it back with you." His hoe ceases not in its movement, a series of pulling slices so rhythmic and gentle that they seem unconnected to the weeds scraped root-bare at the end of his blade. Taran rolls his eyes, bemused at the comment, but, seeing her watching, flashes his lopsided grin at her before returning to his work.
She waits, expectant, but there is no indication of imminent departure. "Shouldn't we go in?"
Taran glances up again, surprised. "Go in, why?"
She's almost too astonished to be indignant at such a foolish question, but a little ire does seep into her retort. "Because of the rain." The spots on the earth are now joined by others, freckling the dirt; a muted percussion like hundreds of tiny footsteps has begun to tickle at her ears, layered over by the warm gravel of Coll's sudden laugh.
"We don't stop work for rain, love - not unless it's coming down like old-women-and-sticks! We'd get little done, else." He grounds his hoe for a moment, and bends his back at a reverse angle, working out the kinks. "Summer rain's a gift. Cools us down, and brings life to thirsty crops. You mark it, now - smell the air as it comes on. You'll see."
"But," she stammers, "we'll be soaked."
"We'll dry off," Taran grunts, "nothing to fuss over. You've got spare clothes." He glances her way again, looking somewhat askance at her confusion, and his mouth twitches wryly. "Come, Princess, you who are so proud of your ancestry. No one who claims kinship with the entire sea should be put off by a bit of rain."
He's called her "princess" for the last two days whenever she's complained or gotten upset about something, a subtle dig that irritates her beyond speech, and stings, too, somewhere deep. She scowls at him and he shrugs, chuckling, grasps the handles of the wheelbarrow and trundles off toward the barnyard for a fresh load of manure, unconcerned with the rapidly-increasing sprinkle.
Somewhat bewildered, she returns slowly to her task of turning over the spent and chopped beanstalks, raking them into the topsoil, mixing and tamping it down. The top layer is damp now, beneath the pattering drops, as are her garments and hair and her bare forearms and feet. Rain mingled with sweat makes her skin salt-sticky, and she feels herself shrink small, trying to avoid the sensation. She works doggedly, swallowing further protest in embarrassment.
But she mutters to herself as the sprinkle turns to a drizzle and the drizzle to a steady pelting, and the water skims from the curls at her temples and down her cheeks, droplets quivering at the end of her nose, at the ends of her braids, washing the salt from her skin and down, carrying it into the earth.
The smell of her own body cooling, of the upturned soil, wet and glistening, rises to her face, fills her nose and mouth and lungs, and she pauses, presently, thoughtful. Smell the air as it comes on. Well, here it is, and the air is...is...oh.
She inhales, sudden and deep, conscious of the change, her fingertips tingling. What is it? Something rising up from the quivering turnip leaves or the rich loam, or condensing itself from the very air. Something rich, and deep, and vital; if green had a smell, if good had a smell, and sprouting and beginning and growing, it might be this thing shimmering savory upon her breath right now. She shuts her eyes, turns her face up toward the giving sky, and smiles without knowing it, sensing the pulse of life in the space around her, the fluid, ripe current of the rain mingling into the open warmth of the ground.
Sweetness fills her mouth in a gush of warmth, as though she's just crushed a ripe berry in her teeth, and for just a moment, a suspended, heart-pounding second, she can feel every raindrop, not "the rain" as a formless mass of broken water, but each individual drop, as unique and perfect as if they were solid diamonds, or bits of crystal cut from the stars and fallen to earth. It's a rush of sensation, a glimpse of something beyond her reach, and the glittering delight of it makes her open her eyes with a gasp, swept with a perception of something somehow familiar. The droplets on her arms and hands cling like tiny sentient creatures, unwilling to be separated from her.
Coll is watching her curiously from his row, and nods when she notices. "You see," he says simply, with a knowing smile.
"What makes it happen?" she demands breathlessly. "Is it magic?"
He laughs again. "Bless you! It's just earth and water and sunlight, mixed up and doing what they were meant to do. But together they forge life itself, so I suppose that is magic, of a kind."
Water and sunlight, she thinks to herself wistfully, watching a droplet tumble from her fingertip. I am fire and water. I should know these things. I should...be able to.... Another drop gathers, its bottom edge swelling and rounding and dangling, and she tries to wrap her mind around it, to recapture that tingling moment of ecstatic awareness. The sweet fluidity teases at the edges of her mouth, but she does not know the words to give it form, and the drip falls, releasing its broken fullness to the earth. To forge life. She sighs.
Taran is returning with the wheelbarrow, his wet clothes sticking to him like plaster, his dark head sleek and shining —as drenched as though he'd been drowned, yet looking elated, brimming with energy. He dumps the barrow and shakes his wet hair out of eyes glowing green in his sun-brown face and he's all brown and green, she thinks suddenly, just like the garden, and something in her chest twists and expands open with a warm and wistful ache.
He grins at her, that crooked streak of white. "Not washed away yet, I see."
She forces herself to make an impudent face, because it's what he expects, and because it's more comfortable, by far, than the face that had almost been surprised out of her, which scuttles away and buries itself behind her consciousness, not ready to be seen by anyone.
"You need washing," she retorts, "after carting all that manure. We could smell you before we saw you, so thank goodness for rain."
He laughs, and throws a clod at her, earning a mild reproof from Coll.
Overhead, a ray of sunlight rips through the clouds, turning the tumbling drops into stars.
Petrichor-inspired musings spawned during my own bout of gardening in the rain. This is a companion piece to First Snow, from my drabble collection, which I'll pull over here in its proper time; there'll be four shortfics in all here, and hopefully not too long in coming.