8 May 4493
The damp, earthy scent filled Hallie Walker’s entire being. As she held the front door of her father’s inn open, the sweet rain sprinkled her face with the promise of a warmer season to come lingering in each drop. Winters on the edge of the Narden Range were long and snow-ridden, but they were worth the new spring waiting just around the corner. It was Hallie’s favorite season, and she longed for days of honeysuckles and the tangy taste of her mother’s mazelberry jam.
“Hals, you’ll catch your death out there,” her mother’s voice rang from the inn’s dining room where she swept fallen scraps from the midday meal. “You only have two hours to clean before those city guests arrive.”
Hallie sighed and turned around, pushing wet hair from her eyes. “But it’s the first rain of the season! Can’t I just enjoy it for five more minutes? I can clean after.”
“Hallie Gwen,” her mother said as she leaned the broom against one table and crossed her arms. “I don’t understand why, at fourteen, you still want to play in the rain.”
“Because it’s the first one of spring!”
“Which is the perfect time to clean.”
“Fine.” Hallie shut the door with a snap and grumbled under her breath as she trudged past her mother, who resumed her sweeping.
She wouldn’t understand. Her mother never did, but it wasn’t worth a fight.
Hallie had just begun to climb the stairs, worn leather boots and all, when a screech sounded from the dining hall, chased by raucous laughter. She stumbled back down and peeked around the doorframe.
A boy with hair the color of roasted chestnuts and soft golden-brown eyes grinned up at her mother. Jack, Hallie’s twin. “Sorry, Ma. Pa wanted the stables cleaned, but I didn’t realize I’d bring it all in with me!”
From her vantage point, Hallie could just make out the dark, clumpy tracks marring the inn’s nearly spotless floor. She hid her own laughter behind her hand as Jack got an earful.
“That’s because you don’t stop to think. Now, you’re stuck in here with me cleaning up all that muck. And you’d better do it fast while it’s still wet.” Her mother’s hands were on her hips, but they were quick to grab Jack’s ear as he tried to escape back out the door. “Not gonna happen. You go back to the kitchen and get the mop right now.”
Rubbing his red ear, Jack made his way toward where Hallie hid, but her mother stopped him. “Take off your nasty boots first. Good stars.”
Jack chucked his boots off and trudged toward the kitchen. Before he could spot her, Hallie snuck up the stairs to the guest rooms, laughing to herself. Poor Jack. He’d be scrubbing for hours if Ma had her way – not stopping once he’d cleaned the mess.
For the next hour and a half, or an eternity in Hallie’s mind, she cleaned everything she could in the two vacant guest rooms. Her father had received posted letters a week ago saying two families were traveling from Kyvena, Jade’s capital city, on their way to visit Fort Achilles. The military stronghold was only a day away, but most people liked to see the picturesque mountain town.
She didn’t quite understand the appeal. It wasn’t that special. She’d much rather see the sunken city of Sol Adrid, the leaning pillars of Ruby palace, or the fancy theaters in Kyvena. All places too far away from the quaint, tiny town Hallie called home.
Her beloved books and dreams were the only escape into the world beyond the reach of her worn fingers, and as her future stood, that would be as far as she ever got from Stoneset. Finishing up her chores, Hallie stuffed the cleaning supplies away in the hall closet and set off to find her brother. Hopefully he’d finished his scrubbing, and they could find some game to play. That is if they couldn’t sneak outside in the downpour that hadn’t let up.
Stealing down the back stairway, Hallie peeked into the kitchen. While Ma was famous for her jam throughout the entire Narden region, it was Pa who was the real chef. Hallie’s mouth watered as the scent of onion, basil, and some beef stewed in a large pot on the wood-fire stove. Pa kneaded dough in one corner with a practiced hand.
She smiled as he spotted her. He slapped the dough a little and dusted it with a pinch of flour before he worked with it some more. “Afternoon, love. Did you finish your chores?”
“Yes. Both rooms are clean and ready for the guests.”
“That’s my girl. You looking for your ragamuffin of a brother?”
Hallie nodded and swept into the room, stealing a morsel of chocolate off one counter that had been left over from some sweet delicacy baked earlier in the day. “Surely Ma didn’t let him off too easily for tracking muck halfway ‘cross the dining hall.”
Pa laughed. “He finished up just a few minutes ago and headed out back. Check there first, but don’t tell your mother I let you go out in the rain. She’ll have my hide.”
Hallie mimed locking her lips shut and threw away the imaginary key before scurrying out the back door and into the blessed rain.
The earthy scent hit her nostrils once more, and the rain streaked down her face in rivulets. It was heavenly. Finally, the stupid winter and its freezing rain and snow were gone. The bitter cold weather never smelled like this nor felt like soft kisses against her skin.
She danced through the back garden and into the side lane, keeping an eye out for her partner in crime. After a few minutes of searching, she found him near the baker’s eyeing a pie in the window. On tiptoes, she snuck up behind him. The stars-idiot must not have seen her in the glass’ reflection because he jumped near out of his trousers when she said, “I doubt that pie will be any better than Pa’s cake.”
He spun, clenching his chest. “You rat. Why’d you have to scare me like that? Thought you were Ma for a moment.”
Hallie laughed and hooked her arm around his. “Don’t you know I’m a ninja?”
Jack rolled his eyes as they continued down the near-empty street, the rain seeping into the collar of Hallie’s blouse. Jack scoffed. “I should never have lent you that book. Gracious day.”
“Where’d you get the last one anyway? I know for a fact you spent your allowance on a new hunting knife.”
Her brother pushed sopping hair out of his eyes. “Niels let me borrow it.”
Hallie’s heart stuttered at the mention of Niels, and she hoped Jack didn’t notice her hesitation. “He did? I haven’t seen him since last week’s market day. You didn’t do anything to scare him off, did you?”
Jack’s mischievous grin crinkled his eyes. “Oh, so when do you care about seeing Niels? You’re annoyed he gets all the best parts whenever we put on The Odyssey for the inn’s guests.”
The heat crawled up the back of her neck, and she swallowed. “No reason. It’s just that we haven’t seen him in a while. No big deal.”
“Then you won’t have a problem if we go visit?”
If her heart could have pounded any harder in her chest, it would have flown right out. “No, I don’t have a problem. Let’s go.”
Dragging her by the hand, Jack tore down the lane to the very edge of town. The Metzingers lived just beyond the border, being farmers and all. The fist around Hallie’s stomach tightened with every step toward the rebuilt farmhouse just over the hill.
She hadn’t always felt this way about Niels. No, he’d been Jack’s best friend until the Metzinger’s old farmhouse burned from a wayward candle a year back. Hallie’s family had taken them in until they could build a new one. And that’s when Niels became something other than Jack’s friend. She wasn’t sure what, but whatever it was made her feel as if she were sick to her stomach and fumble her words whenever she tried speaking to him in the marketplace.
Jack marched up the lane, relishing in every puddle in his way, and opened the newly painted wooden gate leading into the front garden. Hallie followed a step behind, pushing her sopping brown hair out of her eyes. The back of her neck and cheeks warmed thinking about how she must look at that moment. Clothes and hair all sodden.
She stumbled and pulled away from her twin. Jack turned. “Hals, you got cold feet now? I thought it wasn’t a problem.”
His grin was satisfied, his eyes alight with mischief. That little stars-idiot knew. And he was enjoying Hallie’s discomfort. She narrowed her eyes. “It’s not! It’s just that I might catch a cold or something being soaked through like this. I’d better go back and – ”
Jack’s laughter rang through the rain. “I knew it! You’re sweet on – ”
Hallie slapped a hand over her brother’s mouth, cutting off the rest of his sentence. His eyes squinted with mirth as he licked her palm.
“Yech! You blasting dulkop. What’d you do that for?” she screeched as she tore her hand away, wiping it on her wet skirts.
“You asked for it,” he said through his laughter.
Before she could think of a good comeback, the front door of the farmhouse opened. Both Hallie and Jack’s heads turned toward the noise, and Hallie squeaked. She tried her best to turn it into a cough, but she wasn’t sure if it was as successful as she’d hoped.
Niels had at least a head and a half on Hallie height-wise, and working the farm day to day had toned his arms. But it was the crooked smile playing across his face that turned Hallie’s legs to jelly.
“I thought I heard you two arguing out here,” Niels said with a laugh as he shut the farmhouse door behind him, stepping out onto the porch. Jack bounded up the stairs and joined Niels, but Hallie stood still, the rain coursing down her burning face. She was sure Niels could see the steam as the droplets evaporated upon touching her skin. How much did he hear? Oh stars. Oh stars.
Jack slapped a hand on the taller boy’s shoulder and grinned. “We’ve come to rescue you.”
Niels looked down at him. “Rescue me?”
Hallie swallowed her embarrassment and made her way to the porch, coming to stand on the other side of Jack. She refused to meet Niels’ light blue eyes. Because that would only make her all the more tongue-tied. Stars, could she not get her emotions under control? Why couldn’t she be like brave Odysseus, unafraid and confident? Or any other hero she’d read about? Anyone would do.
“Yeah,” Jack said, unaware of Hallie’s predicament, “we’re going to play in the rain. You up for a game of some sort? Or would you rather sneak by the blacksmith’s and peek in at his daughter?”
The comment snapped her out of her trance, and Hallie shook her head. “Leave Marly alone, gracious day.”
Jack laughed. “Ah, found your voice, sister?”
She narrowed her eyes and found Niels’ gaze. Her heart skipped a beat. Or three. He ran a hand through his ash-blond hair and grinned. “How about we go beg the baker for a tart? You know he probably has a few that didn’t sell and will toss them anyway.”
“Yes,” Hallie piped, trying to control her racing heart. “Excellent…excellent idea, Niels.”
Jack’s snort was lost in Niels’ laugh. But before they could comprehend what was happening, Hallie leapt from the porch and dashed to the fence gate, water splashing out and soaking through the lining in her boots. “Last one there eats the stale tarts!”
She heard their shouts as she tore down the lane back toward town. She grinned. Her face still burned from embarrassment, but the wind and rain on her face was exhilarating.
She was free.
But it didn’t last long. She turned her head to check on her competition and slid to a grinding halt as she spotted a brown metallic gleam hovering roughly five feet from the ground, roaring toward her. The engine growled like a bear, and all she could do was stare, frozen in place.
Her heart pounded like a drum in her ears. She barely registered the shouts coming from her brother and Niels. Just before the flying metal contraption hit, something else tackled her, sending her crashing to the ground.
She hit the lane hard, her shoulder taking the brunt of the impact, but something soft caught her head before it smashed into the cobblestone. The Hover ship flew a few feet above her. That’s what it was. A real Hover. Good stars. And it had nearly struck her. Killed her. It hadn’t even slowed.
“Hallie,” the person who tackled her groaned, “Hallie, are you okay?”
The Hover had passed, the noise from the engine still burning in her ears, as she looked at her savior. Light blue eyes and rain-soaked blond hair. Niels.
His arm had caught her head in the fall, even if his body now lay on top of her own. She sucked in a quick breath at the tiny space between her face and his. “I’m…I’m…”
“Hallie!” Jack’s shout tore through the air.
Without taking her eyes off Niels, she finally answered, “I’m fine. Thank you. I don’t know…I don’t know what to…”
His crooked smile was bright even then as he climbed off her just as Jack reached them. Niels held out a hand, and after a slight hesitation, she took it. It was rough from his farm work and slick with rain. She clutched it as he pulled her to her feet.
“What did you think you were doing stopping like that in front of the Hover?” Jack gasped as he grabbed her and pulled her into a tight hug.
“I didn’t mean – it was all so fast –”
After a second more, her twin released her, his eyes wild. “I thought I was gonna lose you.”
Hallie bit her lip as Niels put an arm around her shoulders. His voice was on the verge of manhood with its deep undertones. “Good thing I’m quick on my feet. Jack here was miles behind us.”
“That’s not the point,” Jack growled.
Niels’ arm was warm, and the last few minutes were all she could think about. She’d nearly died, and Niels had saved her. And now his arm was around her. Shocks and stars.
She cleared her throat and willed her racing heart to slow. “I think I need a tart after that. And Niels…you deserve two.”
He squeezed her shoulders once before letting his arm fall. “It’s only right. Jack will get the leftovers.”
Hallie grinned up at him through her lashes and turned away, heading toward the bakery. Her brother snorted. “And then I can go give that Hover pilot a piece of my mind. That’s best done on a full stomach.”
Both boys caught up to Hallie as she turned onto the street that housed the bakery. Niels spoke up first, “Who do you think that was? I’ve only ever seen a Hover like that in the books at school.”
Jack wiped rain out of his face. “My guess is it’s whoever reserved those rooms at the inn for the night. Must be someone important if they came in a Hover. If that’s the case, why even bother coming through Stoneset? Why not head straight to the Fort?”
Hallie bit her lip. “Dunno, but I cleaned that room spotless per Ma’s orders. So it must be someone…I wonder if it’s the Lord Kapitan!”
Jack rolled his eyes. “Please, as if the military commander would stop here of all places. My bet it’s a dainty lady who couldn’t bear to come on horseback. I’ll have to comfort her later.”
Hallie elbowed him in the gut.
“Ouch! I’m trying to be a gentleman!”
Niels pounded his fist against his hand. “Doesn’t matter who they are. They nearly killed you, Hals. I’ll give that pilot a stern talking to, no matter who he ferried here.”
Hallie fought the fluttering in her stomach at the words. Why couldn’t Niels go back to being Jack’s friend?
The other two argued the rest of the way to the baker’s, but Hallie was silent, lost in her thoughts.
As it turned out, the Hover had brought some high-born lady and her daughter. They only needed one room, not two. That was only because the lady’s City Councilman husband had stayed behind, pulled into meetings in Kyvena. Either way, they had only wanted to get out of the city for a while and enjoy all that Stoneset offered before visiting their son at the Fort.
Not that there was much to offer in Stoneset. Crazy wealthy people.
After splitting a few stale pastries between the three of them, Hallie began shivering in earnest, so the trio made their way to the inn to warm up. Ma was beside herself at the state of Jack and Hallie and the fact they’d disobeyed her. Not anything unusual.
That still didn’t wipe the grin from Jack’s face. Hallie thought he enjoyed teasing their mother. Her wrath couldn’t go much further than a whispered scolding as the fancy guests were eating at one table in the dining room. Ma sent the three to the kitchen with orders to sit in front of the fire wrapped in blankets to keep from getting sick.
“This discussion isn’t over,” she hissed. “And be grateful we don’t have many patrons with this rain. Get warmed up. And don’t get in your father’s way!”
With a quick salute, Jack led Hallie and Niels to the back. It surprised Hallie that Ma hadn’t twisted Jack’s ear for that, but she was too busy attending to more recent arrivals.
Hallie ran upstairs and grabbed three blankets from the closet and brought them down to the others. They stayed bundled up like that until Pa started closing up the kitchen. Once Hallie stopped shivering, she helped him with the dishes while her brother and Niels played a game of Stars and Blasts in front of the blazing fire. The shuffling of cards calmed Hallie’s frayed nerves as she scrubbed food off the bowls. It wasn’t as large a load as usual. Thank the moons for the rain.
“I’ll go help your Ma out front. You can stop for now, Hals,” her father said as he wiped his hands dry on a cloth and stuck it into his belt. His golden-brown eyes crinkled with his smile. “Thank you for your help.”
She nodded and pushed hair out of her face. She stopped. It was a mess, and Niels was sitting right there. She hadn’t even thought about it. Oh stars, it was frizzy and sticking out every which way.
As her father left, she quickly redid her hair into a tail and smoothed back any stray hairs. She still wore her wet clothes from earlier, but her skirts were nearly dried from her time sitting in front of the fire even if mud laced the hem like the crests of ocean waves. Her cheeks warmed.
“I’ll be right back,” she stuttered as she ran to the stairs and climbed them. Jack and Niels seemed to ignore her as she did. Reaching her room on the third floor, she ransacked her small wardrobe for a dress and ran a brush through her hair. With one glance at the small mirror on top of her writing desk, she made her way back down.
She found Niels sitting alone in front of the fire, and Hallie stopped. “Where’d Jack go?”
Niels turned and smiled. “Your Ma came and commandeered him for something in the stables. Want to finish out his hand of Stars and Blasts?”
He held up a small hand of cards, and Hallie couldn’t help but smile. Of course, Jack was nearly out of cards. He was terrible at the game. “How…how…many times have you blasted him this round?”
For moons-sake! Why can’t I get the words out?!
Niels’ raised a single brow. “He asked for it.”
Hallie smiled and with a deep breath to calm her jittering nerves, she padded over to the card game and took a seat. She grabbed Jack’s hand of cards and grimaced. “Shocks and stars, he’s horrible at this.”
Niels’ laugh was nearly as good as the spring rain on her face. “I’ll bet you can fix that for him. You’re the smart twin, right?”
Hallie was certain it wasn’t the nearby fire making her cheeks this hot. She cleared her throat. “Only because Jack chooses not to use his brain most of the time.”
As they played, they fell into a peaceful rhythm, and Hallie relaxed. She gathered more and more cards without losing them, and after several rounds, she collected enough for a system. “I have a system of stars. That means – ”
The tolling of the bells interrupted her. Hallie counted ten, and Niels flinched. “Stars, I’d better get home. My ma’s gonna be furious with me.”
He leapt up as Hallie’s heart jumped. “Oh, sorry about that.”
He looked down and smiled. “Nah, it’s okay. I’ll just make it up tomorrow by helping her with dinner. I’m her favorite anyway.”
Hallie smiled. “That’s not too hard to believe.”
His eyes sparkled in the fire's light as Hallie realized what she said. She tried to correct it, “Um, what I meant was – um…”
Niels laughed and held out a hand to help her to her feet. Once she stood next to him, he didn’t let her hand go. “Thanks, Hals. I’m glad you agree.”
She tugged her hand out of his and looked anywhere except his face, but her heart sped up at their proximity. “Thank you, though. For today. For saving me.”
His hand shook as he placed his fingers underneath her chin. Hallie’s breath caught in her throat, and her mind went blank. He didn’t speak, only held her there as fire from his touch radiated out from the point of contact. He looked into her eyes, and her stomach flipped as he leaned in close, close enough to feel his breath on her face.
His chapped lips were rough against hers, but they still sent a current through her entire being. Like the new electric lights her father had hung in the dining room. It was over before her brain caught up to the moment, and as he pulled back, she could barely catch her breath.
“See you tomorrow, Hals.”
Hallie brought her fingers to her lips as Niels ran out the backdoor, the scent of earth and rain wafting toward her. Her heart raced, and her stomach clenched as she replayed the kiss in her mind.
There was a reason the spring rains were her favorite.
© 2020 Alli Earnest "Spring Rains"