Rain was falling. Again. Mercilessly. Like a gray winter's tide. Like a lost child's tears. Like her failing hopes, or the dying of a dream for warmth. Bundled in her winter fur wrap, Chicory sat in the curve of her den-window, arms about her knees, gazing miserably out into the rain. She felt each gray drop as if it were a stone bouncing off her soul.
There was a spatter of laughter and the scatter of footsteps – Notch, Foxtail and Willow were on their way up the hometree's core, heedless of the winter rain. Their vitality wafted back over her like a gust of breeze, or a tantalizing scent, to be breathed in and gone again the next moment, as insubstantial as a memory.
Footsteps followed, hesitated, stopped. Then a shadow drifted into chicory's den, a bit of tawny smudge at the edge of her vision.
Pathmark drifted closer into the silence that followed. He settled on the edge of the window burl next to her feet and gazed at her, his hazel eyes earnest.
“It's raining. Again.” Her voice dripped heartache like the bare branches outside. “Summer's gone. Autumn's faded away. Nights are longest and grow colder. All the colors are gone. Her throat seized, and she went mute with the dreariness. ‘I'm winter-sick; cold and gray inside; my heart's gone to sleep. Like an old bear, it'll sleep for the winter; waiting for the sun to return and for good green to break through again. Winter-sick and nothing to keep me warm.'
She hadn't spoken or sent those last words, but Pathmark seemed to read something of it from her eyes. “Poor Chicory. You're all cold and sad.” He reached out and chaffed her bare feet until he had warmed the skin, then carefully tucked the edges of her fur wrap around them protectively. "Don't be so gray. You know the rains won't last. It'll snow soon enough, and then the whole world will be bright and moon-bathed. Think of that, and don't be so sad.”
Earnest Pathmark. Kind-hearted, sweet-souled Pathmark, whose heart was as soft as duckling-down. He hated to see anyone or anything in pain. No hard-hearted hunter was he, not Pathmark. Chicory gusted a sign from the deepest part of her graying soul, and gazed back miserably out of the window, having nothing left in her to say to the young tracker.
Pathmark lingered for a time, but she felt too distant to listen to his concerned voice when he spoke again. Chicory felt so numb, she hardly noticed when he had left. The winter-rain-gray had consumed her, and she was helpless beneath the crushing weight of melancholia.
Chicory was blind to Pathmark's return until the tracker had physically climbed up onto the window sill and was nudging her to make room. She leaned forward and he fitted himself into the curve of the round window burl, then drew her back against him, her shoulders resting against his chest. He tucked the folds of his bearskin coat around her as well, drawing her close so that his own body-warmth began to seep into her. There was something hard and round between her shoulder blades; he pulled that stone-like weight away, and she heard the tap of a stone knife against egg-shell thin clay. Then the bottled neck broke under Pathmark's deft assault, and a perfume bloomed about them both.
It was the scent of high summer – earthy and sweet and pure. Chicory moaned and closed her eyes, breathing in deep to let the fragrance fill her.
“Take this,” Pathmark urged her, pressing the small stone bottle into her hands. “Taste it.”
Chicory did as she was told, as obedient as a child. The taste of sun-rich honey and summer-fat dandelions exploded on her tongue, so fresh and sweet that the color yellow was left dancing against her eyelids. Chicory drank deep, letting the dandelion wine fill her. It was bubbly against her tongue, light and sparkling and invigorating.
“Starskimmer picked the flower heads,” Pathmark said. He shifted his weight, settled in, and held her nestled against his chest, her head resting against his shoulder. “She boils them and adds honey and I'm not sure what else, and then seals them up. If she doesn't check the containers in time, sometimes they explode. Dandelion wine tastes of summer. It always warms me up when my heart feels cold.”
The potent tonic was doing its job. Chicory realized she did feel warm, even down to the tips of her toes. She took another swallow of the wine, then offered the small jug back to Pathmark. He took a swallow and offered it back.
“Is it working?” he asked; Chicory could not see his eyes, but she knew the look that would be on his earnest face, matching those hopeful words.
“I can taste summer,” she said. “I can feel sweet grass and hear frogs singsonging.” She took another sip, delighting in the small bubbles that exploded against her tongue. “Light and airy, like fresh dew.”
Pathmark sighed – a happy, content sound. He nuzzled her ear and leaned his cheek against the top of her head. “Let's just sit awhile, then. Until the wine's gone and you're warmed all the way through.”
Chicory took another sip of the dandelion wine, wondering now at the golden hue that had suddenly been cast on the world around here. Things were still gray, yes, but it was a warming shade, less blue and more honey-tinted. There were promises yet in the season. She could see that now. The melancholia was being lifted away from her by each little bubble that popped against the roof of her mouth. She gazed out into the rain, marveling at how, so suddenly, it looked so very different to her, less depressing and more full of promise.
And then, in the next moment, the rain really did change. A few feather-like flakes floated down at first, and then within one breath and the next, it had all transformed into gentle, drifting flakes of white down.
“Look,” Pathmark breathed against her ear. “It's begun to snow.”
“And it's beautiful,” Chicory said, finding her own heart thawed enough now to appreciate it. She snuggled back into her friend's embrace, and raised the jug to her lips for another welcome taste of honeyed summer.