“Are they coming?”
A dark weight pushed Chloe out of a chasm of unknowing, letting her rise up into a twilight of consciousness over the ridge, pulled her toward the voice. It sounded nearby, but she couldn’t place it.
Something wasn’t as it should be.
“Do you hear that?” the same voice asked anxiously.
Chloe tried to lift her head and regretted it. Her neck and shoulders hurt, as if all her muscles were on fire and that shook off whatever stupor remained. She heard feet patter on the ground nearby, coming toward her.
“Yes, they’re coming. We can’t dally.”
“But how much? She took such a nasty blow…is it enough?”
Chloe turned her head in the direction of voices. A viscous sort of blaze roared with pain, threatened to drag her back into unconsciousness as she moved. A crow cawed. She blinked and a small fire lay just to the left of her. Fuzz became the snap and pop of wood in the flames. She could smell its smoke. Straining, she saw two figures next to it, one of them bent over its glow. She had an impression of two children, one taller than the other, their forms misshapen and bulky, as if they had raided their mother’s kitchen and installed varying degrees of utensils to their person. Both of them had distinct accents and her brain went into extra duty trying to think of the name that would define its origins.
“And what of that metal beast?” the taller one asked. “How can we explain that?”
“They’ll know soon enough what happened.”
“We can’t leave her! She’s not in a good way.”
Chloe focused and emitted what she hoped would be a word. It came out as a croak.
They turned toward her and she caught a flash of silver on the chest of one and the sloping crest of a helm on the other.
“She’s awake!” Silver Chest declared. “Good. That’s a good sign.” With backs to the fire, their faces were in dark shadows. Twisting weakly against the firefly lights dancing in her eyeballs, Chloe tried to speak, tried to respond, to let them know she needed…just needed…
“Time…mustn’t…am…” she rasped. “Why…?”
Silver Chest knelt down, a bowl of something steaming in his hand, and Chloe sensed his concern.
“Shhhhh, lass! Be at rest,” he said, and brushed her cheek with a couple of fingers, soothingly. “We’re only wanting to help. Merry says…”
“Pip! Oh drat…” Merry cut him off. “Look, do as he tells you and all will be well,” he added, bending over her. “There are others coming who will be more able to take care of you.”
“Merry is all business,” his friend countered, “but do not be afeared. We will not abandon you.”
Chloe’s nostrils caught a sharp pungent smell, like that of eucalyptus and thyme and amber and other fragrances she could never name, and her intake of breath was sharp: the very particles of scent tingled and opened the passages as they slid toward her lungs. Pip’s hand wiped her forehead and neck with a small cloth soaked in the substance in the bowl. She tried to lift her hands to touch the salve, to solidify in her mind that it was more than just a hallucination, but he gently put them down by her side.
“Let the athelas do its work,” he said.
She stared up at him, the name finally registering. Pippin! And the other was…Merry? Pip shifted and she could see his features limned by the firelight. The color of his eyes were green glass.
“You must not move, lass,” he went on, as if she had been talking with him the whole time. He met her gaze, eyebrows ticking upwards in a tacit question for her understanding. She willed her head to give the slightest nod in agreement. She could smell sweet tobacco and old leather wafting from Pippin’s clothes, mingled with a thready tinge of apples and leaves. Her head was lifted and the scent that bathed her trickled sweetness into her throat. The viscous haze turned cottony.
She heard the two of them whisper fiercely to each other.
“Look at me.”
She fought to open her eyes again, and found Pippin kneeling down once more. His gaze was intense as he held up a pebble for her to see.
A pebble. Oh, Pippin…no! Don’t do it! She tried to shake her head, to warn him; tried to reach for it.
For one brief second, she saw long fingers position the pebble in the air and then, with a quick flick of his wrist, Pippin tossed the pebble into a frightening black to her right. She opened her mouth to admonish him, but one of his fingers landed crossways on her lips.
A stony clack…taptap…tap……tap! sounded from the abyss.
Chloe stared up at him, astounded. You shouldn’t have, couldn’t have, don’t you know they’ll hear…?
“Lass, don’t move that way.” Pippin’s burr was full of warning. “Did you see the pebble, the way it fell? Did you hear the way it bounced?”
She got angry, lifted her head to scold him. Of course I did, you…
His hand cupped her face.
“Chloe, lass, you’ll fall the same way if you move much further,” he told her, their gazes fixed. “Be still and they’ll come to you. Do you understand it now?”
She stared up at him, understanding at last. She would fall. He gave her a small smile.
“Yes,” she whispered back. “Yes, I understand.”
“Pip…” came Merry’s voice somewhere in the dark behind the green eyes. “Pip, they are not coming the way they should. We must hurry.”
Pippin looked up at his companion. “A beacon, then?”
“It will have to be. You’re the expert, you know.”
Chloe tried to follow Pip’s gaze as he looked towards Merry, but the scent of the salve was morphing into a lullaby, beckoning her to a deeper forgetfulness.
“Pippin!” Merry’s voice jarred her awake, a little sharper than before. Eyes swinging rapidly, she found that Pippin still hovered over her, his expression wistful. “What are you doing?”
“I’m coming, Merry. Just…”
Chloe tried to speak. Pippin’s finger laid across her lips. She needed to tell them…something…the benevolent hymn of the salve was getting stronger by the moment…
“…a good-bye kiss,” she heard Merry conclude and she frowned, jarred slightly into consciousness by the rumble of laughter. She widened her eyes, startled. What had she been saying?
Something amusing, because the anxiety in Pippin’s green eyes had been replaced by mirth.
“Do you, now?” he asked, a smile spreading over his face. Before she could confirm or deny the question, he bent down and pressed his lips to hers. Then, with a whisper, “remember, don’t move!” he popped upright and disappeared into the cold gray mists.
She still felt pain, but it was far away, like the drifting clouds that passed above her, extant, removed…she closed her eyes, heard a sweeping pass of wind…she opened her eyes again, turned her head: gone was the fire and smoke, the smell of tobacco and cider. The only things that remained were the high sodden clouds.
The ground beneath her trembled and she fell into a final wash of oblivion.