When Next the Rains Come
Peri L. Fletcher
A crowd of sorghum farmers and ranchers from the upslope villages waited for Ara Torrens to step down from her horse-drawn cart. She sat with her mother while her father negotiated her fee, turning her head away from the dust and chaff carried across the fields by the scorching wind. After a few minutes her father nodded and shook hands with the headman. As Ara jumped from the cart she glimpsed a flash of scarlet at the edge of the soberly-dressed crowd. Only the dreaded Royal Guards wore such a color. Before she could be sure, the milling crowd surged towards her, cutting off her view.
Her father pushed through the crowd, calling for silence as the air temperature dropped suddenly and people began to scream. Ara moved away from the horse, who pawed at the ground, and closed her eyes to shut out the curious glances of the farmers. A burst of light seared through her eyelids, followed by the crack and boom of thunder. Then came the fat drops of rain that would keep her parents out of debt for another season.
Salty tears poured out of her eyes as the rain fell harder. It always happened this way, as if she wept along with the sky. Finally, her father told her to stop and wrapped a blanket around her when she leaned against him, cold and exhausted. She'd be blind for an hour or so.
"Come on, Ara," her mother said, pulling on her elbow and guiding her to the cart. Someone watching might have thought it an affectionate gesture. Ara was the family money-spinner, after all, but Ara could feel her mother's resentment coursing through her fingers and into Ara's bones.
"You did well today," her father said when they were settled in the cart. "You'll have to rest when we get home. Maybe your mother will make supper tonight."
Her mother shifted in her seat and said nothing.
Ara's vision returned as the cart followed the winding trail down the rocky escarpment from the highlands into the little valley, which, thanks to Ara, grew green and lush. They bounced down the rutted lane towards their farm, and she saw Anton standing in front of the gate. Forgetting her exhaustion, she jumped out of the cart before it stopped and raced towards her brother, arms open wide, her heart expanding with happiness. When she saw the stranger next to Anton, observing her with golden-brown eyes, she stumbled. The stranger leaped forward to catch her. His hands felt like fire, like the tingling before lightning. She thought he must have felt it also, because he let go once she was upright, looking surprised.
Her mother kissed Anton on the face. Lorenza loved her son fiercely even though he was the opposite of a money-spinner. His school tuition plus the exorbitant fines the family paid to keep him out of the army cost almost half the fees Ara earned. Her father paid his gambling debts more than once. But no one held it against Anton. Ara didn't mind the extra work, or that there was never money left for her to have new clothes or books. She loved him, despite his careless use of her affection.
"Who's this handsome young man?" asked her mother.
"Soren Baptiste," he bowed and pressed his dark fingers against her pale hands. He wore his black hair Northerner style, long and loose to his shoulders. "I study at the same college as Anton."
There was something else about Soren that Ara sensed. Soren had a talent, but it wasn't polite, or even safe, to ask about it. Not when the wrong kind of talent could get you sent down the Marvre in a basket with no opening, a basket woven right around you.
Ara stood in front of the sink, drying the supper dishes, when Soren walked into the kitchen. The kitchen suddenly seemed warmer. "You look so tired," he said. "Is it from making rain?"
Ara nodded. Her talent wasn't a secret. It was too valuable, although she knew her parents hoped her reputation would stay local. They didn't want to pay taxes on her earnings, or worse, have her conscripted into the king's private army of talents.
"Sit." Soren reached for the towel.
As she handed him the towel, their hands touched and she felt it again, the slight shock. She wondered what it would feel like for their bodies to touch, skin on skin, his hands running over her body.
"Tell me about the rain," he said as he dried the dishes. "Did you have to learn how to control your talent?"
She'd never tried to explain it. No one had asked. "I pull the rain from the sky. But it also comes from inside me. When I was young I couldn't help raining whenever I felt something strongly, but I learned to hold back my feelings and rain on command." She couldn't tell him the rest, the true source of her talent. She hardly understood it herself.
Ara let Soren pull her off the stool and out into the velvety night. He put his arms around her, lifting her heavy hair in his hands, and kissed her neck. She led him into the small shed where the oats and hay were stored. They made a nest in the sweet-smelling hay and lay down. When she put her arms around him, she could feel his heat right through the linen fabric.
"Your fingers are so cool." He put her fingers against his cheek. "You make me think of a morning after the rain. When the world is new again. Sometimes I feel like my talent will burn me up."
"What is your talent?" She could just see Soren's golden-brown eyes in the lantern light.
"Nothing useful. It might be dangerous for you to even know. They come, the Royal Guards, looking for illegal talents."
"I know. My mother's sister, Elana, had a talent. She could see through the eyes of birds flying overhead."
"That was illegal?" asked Ara.
"I'm not sure. When the Guards found out about her, they conscripted her for the border wars. She was supposed to serve for five years, but they never released her."
"They say the king is collecting as many talents as he can. Even in Riverton, all talents have to register. Maybe you shouldn't rain in public."
"It's how we make our living." Ara said. "Will you tell me about your talent?"
"I make things warm."
"That's it? Doesn't seem very dangerous." She laughed, imagining Soren sitting on a nest of eggs.
"My college mates like having me around in the winter, but they've never spent a summer with me. My talent hasn't developed. Maybe it has no use, but for all I know it could be illegal. I haven't registered. I'm trying to figure out a way to put it to good use."
"Oh. I'm sorry I laughed."
"I don't blame you."
Soren stayed on to help with the wheat harvest, claiming he would rather spend the summer in the fresh air of Marvrea than in the city. At night, he and Ara would slip away to the shed. Finally they lost all caution and pulled away the last bit of clothing separating them. The sensation of his skin on hers felt stronger than lightning. They were cold marble and sunlight together. His flesh seared into hers, and afterwards steam rose in the air above their nest.
Underhill was drier than any place Ara had seen. Far below the terraced fields, the Marvre River sparkled in the sun as it meandered through a patchwork of irrigated farmlands. Away from the river, though, the hills were tawny with dead grass. Giant cracks spread through the earth, and brittle leaves drooped from dusty trees. Even the weeds were dead. Children with stick arms stared at her without blinking as she followed her parents to the center of their fields. Ara wished she could give them her rain for free, but her parents would never permit it.
At least she could give them a long, soaking rainfall. Closing her eyes she willed the clouds to darken. Nothing happened. Fists clenched tighter, she tried to summon the darkness inside her, the barely acknowledged anger and fear that lay at the heart of her talent, the loneliness that had evaporated the day she met Soren. The air was getting warmer, though, not cooler, and her skin, usually cold before the rain, felt feverish. The crowd let out a small collective gasp of surprise. She opened her eyes and saw the vapor haze, thick as smoke, enshrouding her.
The hungry children hung their heads while her father talked in a low voice to the Underhill farmers. No one helped her into the cart or wrapped her in a blanket, and she closed her eyes to avoid her mother's venomous glare.
Once they were home Ara ignored her mother, who angrily listed the chores she needed to do, more than usual because of her failure in Underhill. Shivering with cold, she went to find Soren. She found him hoeing weeds behind the barn. He smoothed her hair back from her face, running his warm hand down her arm, and she went into his arms. Minutes later they were in the shed sliding into the hay.
The shed door banged open. Ara's mother stood in the doorway, her slender figure illuminated by the glow of the setting sun. "What have you done?" she screamed. "You're no better than your mother!"
In a quick movement Soren reached for his longcoat, covering Ara's nakedness. Steam billowed out the open door as her father and brother ran down the path towards the shed. Her mother continued screaming until finally her father pulled her back down the path to the house.
Later, after Soren was sent to sleep in the barn and Anton had given Ara one last hard look, she sat with her parents in the small front room. Her father absently slapped a leather rein against his leg while her mother paced.
"How dare you go off with a boy?" said her mother. "You've no right to risk your talent."
"I'm nineteen," I said. "Did you think I'd never marry? Never leave and have a family of my own?"
Her father at least had the grace to look down. Maybe he felt ashamed, or maybe he just hadn't given it much thought.
Her mother obviously had given it a lot of thought. "After everything I have done for you, you owe me."
Ara frowned. Her mother must have seen to her needs when she was a baby, but from earliest memory Ara had done the housework, fed the animals, and made the rains come, while her mother drifted through the house, stopping only for a few words of criticism.
"We knew this day would come, Lorenza," her father said.
"Well, she's not going to just walk out of here and leave us with nothing."
"Don't talk about me like I am not here." Ara felt an uncomfortable anger welling up in her. "What did you mean, I'm just like my mother?"
Her mother glared down at her. "You will stop this thing with Soren and continue your work. Unless you want Soren to be taken by the guards."
"I just want the truth," Ara yelled, "or I won't rain for you again."
Her father looked down at the reins, which he had completely unbraided. Ara followed her mother through the door and found Anton standing outside.
"You want the truth?" he said. "Elana, my mother's sister, is your real mother. Elana was pregnant with you when the guard conscripted her. You were sent back here to be raised by my mother."
"And father? He's not really my father?" Ara asked, her voice ragged. Steam seeped through her arms. I could make it rain right now, she thought. It would pour and pour and never stop.
"Yes, he's really your father. He married my mother when he realized Elana wasn't coming back." Anton looked at her steaming arms and sweaty face, not bothering to hide his disgust as he turned away.
She didn't know what to believe. Anton was only a year younger. If he was telling the truth, Lorenza got pregnant when Ara was an infant, her sister gone for less than a year.
Ara tossed on the stray pallet in her tiny attic room. She had not been allowed to see Soren, and Anton refused to talk to her or even meet her eyes. Finally she slept, besieged by disturbing dreams of a world deluged by rain, children with enormous hungry eyes, wicker baskets woven shut around their human cargo, drifting down the river.
She woke to a hot and windy morning. The house was silent, but she heard the whinny of a horse, and she flung open the front door. A black carriage with barred windows straddled the lane in front of the house.
She pulled the door shut and ran out the back of the house. The barn doors were open. She looked in each stall and up in the hayloft, whispering Soren's name, knowing he was gone, already taken. The Guard was there for her.
She circled the house and sat on the front steps, waiting. There was no point in running. "I will never rain again," she said when Lorenza walked out of the house behind a scarlet-uniformed Royal Guard, who appeared monstrous in his face-covering helmet topped with a feather plume.
"She'll rain, don't worry." Lorenza took an envelope from the masked exchequer who accompanied the guard. "A few days without the young man and she'll rain for the king."
"Not until I see Soren."
"Soren's illegal talent is the reason you can't rain. Five years and then you'll both be free."
Five years, just like her mother, Ara thought, seeing the small smile on Lorenza's face. Had Lorenza informed on her sister?
Ara sat alone in the carriage for two uncomfortable days on the road to Riverton, stopping only for brief meals in rough roadhouses and changes of drivers and horses. She looked out the barred windows, her heart grieving for the people plowing fields behind emaciated oxen, their listless children sitting along the road, hands out.
The road dipped steeply towards the river, and in the distance the brick buildings of Riverton rose on a promontory jutting into the far side of the river. The driver, who had not spoken once, stopped the cart and called to her through the window grate. "Look down there, see the baskets? Maybe they'll put you in one of those."
Ara ignored his cruel laughter and leaned forward until she could see the two large wicker baskets turning in circles as they bobbed along in the swift water. She thought she could hear the cries of the doomed cargo joining with the cries of the kestrels flying overhead.
The Royal Guards forced Ara to stand in Riverton's town square for three days in a row, taking her in the late afternoons to a cell on the second floor of the town hall to sleep. Even if she wanted to, she couldn't make it rain. She felt sick, feverish, and empty of emotion. On the third day, the guard who took her to her cell threatened to bring her in front of the military tribunal if she didn't rain the next day.
She sat on the floor, sipping the tepid, greasy broth the guards gave her, when the door opened and Anton walked in. She stood but did not move towards him.
"Ara," he said. "I'm sorry. I should have tried to stop my mother, but I was so angry at you, at Soren. I didn't know they'd take you away. Or do this to Soren." He looked at her with green eyes, Lorenza's eyes.
"Do what? Where's Soren?" The metal cup fell from her hands.
"He's been sentenced to death. They say his talent is illegal, dangerous, that it destroys useful talents like yours."
"When?" She wanted to crumple to the ground, but she stood still in front of Anton.
"Today. Now. Listen, Ara, I paid off the guards. Walk through the door, go left and you'll be on the portico above the square. They're building a pyre to burn him. It's barbaric. Can you do something?"
"I don't know. I'll try. Will you help me?"
He unbuckled his belt, slipped off his leather scabbard, and handed it to her. Ara pulled out the knife, a well-honed steel blade set in a carved bone handle. Anton's most prized possession. When she looked up he was gone, the door left open.
The scent of smoke tinged the air when she stepped out on the portico. It smelled like autumn, like the hearth, not disaster and death. Crowds of people milled about the town square. A pyre had been set up across from the market stalls. Black smoke billowed up from the bottom where the logs were already starting to burn. At the top of the pyre Soren stood lashed to a pole, his head lolling forward into the smoke.
Ara's feet slipped on the stairs, which were wet from the steam billowing out from her body. People ran in all directions, pushing and screaming, as steam filled the square. By the time she reached the pyre, flames were jumping from log to log. She grabbed at the logs with slippery hands. Soren was dying, or already dead and all she could do was send out clouds of useless steam.
She closed her eyes and let anger and hatred course through her. Hatred for the Royal Guard, for the King and the nobility. Hatred towards Lorenza, the terrifying, destructive hatred she'd always felt and always denied. Memories sparked more anger. Asking Lorenza why they celebrated Anton's birthday and not hers, Lorenza shrugging, saying birthdays were for boys. Remembering how as a young girl she rained in the house after fighting with Anton and Lorenza dragged her outside, screaming at her like she was a dog who'd urinated on the carpet. Lorenza saying Anton was the true son. Now Ara understood, and a hot anger at her family swept over her. Anger at her father, if he even was her father, for not standing up for her. Anger at Anton for being the favorite. Irrational anger at Soren for turning her rain to steam so she couldn't save him, at herself for letting it happen.
At the thought of Soren the anger vanished, replaced by grief, and she began to weep as she climbed the pyre. She barely heard the screams of the crowd when lightning hit the North Tower, followed by a thunderous boom that rolled on and on. Then the rain came, drumming onto the cobblestones. The city banners flapped in the wind and market umbrellas cartwheeled across the square.
No one noticed as she scrambled the rest of the way up the pyre and cut through the ropes binding Soren's feet. Sheets of water blew across the square. Soren's hands were bound behind his back, out of reach. Her vision darkened at the edges. She screamed his name again, refusing to believe he was dead, his clothes weren't even scorched. She reached up and slapped her hands against his chest, hard.
Soren coughed, spitting black phlegm. "Ara?"
"Hurry," she yelled.
Soren squatted to let her reach the ropes around his wrists. The edges of her vision went dark while she slipped the knife between his wrists and the rope. Her hands were wet and slippery, but the rope fell away under the razor sharp blade.
"I'm losing my vision," she said. "Can we get away?"
"I think so. There are only two Royal Guards standing out of the rain under the portico." He guided her by her arm as they slithered and stumbled down the pyre.
"Oh, hell, there's a line of city militia at the open end of the square." Soren said. "I don't know another way out."
"Let go of my arm." She concentrated on the image of Soren on the pyre, flames licking at his feet. The rain fell harder. She could feel it lapping against her legs. She could flood this town, this valley, this nation with her rage.
"I know these militia men," said Soren. "Most of them have families here in the town. They'll go home if it keeps raining. I don't see the guards anywhere anymore."
Raising her arms above her head, Ara spun blindly, pulling the rain with her in a maelstrom of air and water. She'd never done this before and was on the verge of collapse from the effort.
"The militia men are gone, come on." Soren pulled Ara as they ran, stumbling across the cobblestones.
When she felt mud under her feet she knew they were out of the town, but Soren continued to run, dragging her uphill for what felt like miles. Finally they stopped, sinking to the grass, Ara panting and shivering. Soren wrapped his arms around her, enveloping her in warmth, and she fell asleep immediately.
When she woke, she could see again. They were on a bluff south of the town, high above the river. The storm was over, patches of blue showed in the sky. Water flowed everywhere, coursing downhill in muddy rivulets and gushing waterfalls, the river below surging, brown and angry.
"Thank you for saving my life," Soren said.
"Anton brought me the knife."
"Good. Sometimes he gets things right. I'm sorry to have gotten you into this, and for ruining your talent."
"You didn't ruin my talent. The rain comes from somewhere dark. I didn't realize how dark until today. Maybe I can learn a new way, but I don't want to live like that anymore, saving my bitter feelings, my anger and grief, to make it rain. So, what are we going to do?"
"If you're willing, we can go across the border. Since the persecutions of illegal talents increased, people are finding refuge there. I have names of people who will help us along the way."
"How will we get across the river?"
"Not the bridge. The Royal Guard has a sentry at each end. But, look." He pointed. Five rainbows spanned the river, like bridges of color and light. They appeared as solid as stone.
"We can't walk on rainbows, Soren."
"I know. The rainbows reminded me of something. How the combination of light and water makes something new. Together, you and I make something new."
"Steam. What's useful about steam?"
"I've been thinking about it ever since we first made steam together. Steam is a source of power, of heat. Across the border they'll certainly appreciate our talents, and right now, steam will be our deliverance."
Ara crouched in the bottom of the small boat while Soren untied the rope securing the boat to the jetty. He used a long oar to move them out of the small cove. Immediately, the river's strong current grabbed the boat, spinning it until Soren planted the oar as a rudder.
"Ara, you're making it rain," he yelled. "That won't do it. They'll be able to see us."
"I'm too scared."
"I know. Think about good things, about us. How much I love you."
Ara threw her arms around Soren, trying to spin out the right emotions, to hold back the fear that was bringing the rain. She leaned against him, feeling his fire, then glided her hands up under his shirt to the warm muscles of his back.
The bridge came into view downriver. She could see the feathered helmets of dozens of Royal Guard lining the stone span and imagined them with their crossbows, waiting for their prey.
"Soren, I'm sorry."
He turned towards her, one hand on the oar, the other on her shoulder and kissed her forehead. When she looked up she realized they were engulfed in steam, the bridge barely visible. The banks of the river were hidden by a veil of fog floating above the river. As the boat passed under the bridge, Ara heard shouts, boots on stone, and then they were on the other side, the shouts muffled by the fog as the little boat carried them away.