Disclaimer: The following story has been written with no intention of claiming ownership or solicitation, nor does the author claim the movie character(s) as his/her own. The movie character(s) have been borrowed solely out of a love of the particular movie and is not intended for any other purpose but amusement and entertainment.
Before her little blue Nissan truck slid and skipped to the bottom of the ravine, Chloe Navratil’s very last thought was not the regret that she had put off replacing the tires for another month, or the last flailing invocation of a Supreme Power to stop all time and action, nor an angry, bitter curse that she would, indeed, be very late to her destination. No.
It was: “the clouds look like dragon’s breath.”
That was all. Just admiration for the puffs of light gray trailing across a black-rimmed sea of clouds in a downward-dog to the horizon, which her trajectory seemed to follow with no resistance. And then, virulent gray pounced on her with a sharp gasp.
When she opened her eyes again, the gray still sat on her with its full weight, no sign of any dragon to breathe it away. Her chest felt like one big muscle caught on a limb, twitched in pain every time she tried to draw in air. Sharp whispering cut through it all, to her side, and she tried to turn towards it, but her head hurt too much.
“Is he coming?” was the one phrase that she could make out, while another voice shushed him in low tones. “We’ll have to move her if…”
“He’s coming, now be quiet,” said a second voice. She tried to open her mouth to speak. The gray fuzz wouldn’t let her.
“But the others, they need to know…” continued the first voice.
“It’ll happen. She’s out of danger now.”
A crow cawed. Eventually, Chloe could make out two shapes beside a small fire. She had the impression of two children, one taller than the other. The gray fuzz melted at the the snap and pop of wood in the flames. She smelled the smoke. Something about the voices…what did they remind her? When they spoke again, she realized distinct accents.
“And what of her metal beast?” asked the first, worry rounding his tone. “How will that be explained? Should she even return to it?”
“It’ll be obvious enough, don’t you think, Pippin?” replied the second, replete with the patience of a big brother.
She must have made a sound after all, because the two figures turned in sudden interest. Seconds later, they were hovering over her.
“That’s a good sign,” one of them said, cheerfully. Chloe felt his fingers brush her cheek and she tried to focus on the face – was it really true? Is that who she thought it was…?
“Fetch the bowl,” the other commanded. When it arrived, Chloe took another breath, this time to drink in the sudden herbal fragrance wafting from its rim. Basil, wintergreen…grassy vanilla? The more she breathed it in, the more complex the notes became, a perfume of green fields, sun, and earth. It lingered without fading, and Chloe began to feel a little sharper in consciousness.
“See? The athelas will do you right.” When the speaker sat back in satisfaction, Chloe found she could see his clothing – a deep black tunic with a silver tree embroidered on it. “Merry says…”
“Shhhh!” The other figure scolded, glaring at Pippin for a moment, then relenting with a sigh. “There come people who will be better able to take care of you,” Merry said to her.
“You’re…” she croaked. Even with the bolstering athelas, she spent energy saying just one word.
“…not important. Not as important as what’s to come,” Pippin replied. “Merry is all business, but do not be afeared. Let the athelas do its work.”
She didn’t even protest when they began smearing the herb treatment on her forehead and cheeks, rubbed it on the pulse points of her wrists, and left the bowl to rest at her shoulder, while they tamped out the fire. Then, they stood close together, heads bowed as they appeared to debate. Pippin returned and knelt at her head once more.
“You must not move, lass,” he whispered. “Athelas is refreshing, but it will soon bring you sleep.”
He met her gaze, his 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.
“Look at me,” he said, and held up a round white object. A pebble? Chloe stared at it in puzzlement and then, understanding dawned.
“No…no…don’t do it…” she rasped, tried to reach for it, to take it away from him. How could she get him to see what flashed before her eyes?
Pippin’s green eyes held her gaze, all seriousness.
“I am giving it to you,” he said and pressed it into her palm, wrapped her fingers around it.
“You want me to throw it down…?” she asked, completely horrified now.
“I want you to keep it with you, until we speak again. Do not toss it away,” he told her.
She felt herself relax and they spent the next several moments staring at each other.
“Pip, he’s almost here,” Merry warned.
Chloe tried to speak again, to tell them not to leave just yet, but Pippin laid a finger over her lips. The benevolent hymn of the salve had changed. Instead of bracing, the fragrance was now morphing into a lullaby, leading her back into forgetfulness.
“Pippin, what are you doing?” she heard Merry demand and her eyes popped open again..
“Farewell, lass.” She could see Pippin’s eyes lit with mirth, but before she could ask what was so funny, he pressed his lips to hers in a firm kiss. When he rose to his feet, he added, “remember: do not be afraid and have faith. It will be as real as the pebble in your hand.”
When she knew she was alone, Chloe still felt pain, but it was far away, like drifting clouds. Her final impression before oblivion was of soft cushioned ground beneath her and carved wood braces above in the dark.
Like Rivendell, she thought, and then, nothing.
Consciousness pulled at her until she lay blinking in the full bore of sunlight as it streamed through a tall wood-framed window and warmed up the room with soft amber. A deep covered porch lay outside the window; rough-hewn columns inside led her eyes upwards to the brace of rafters above. The thick woolen blanket that covered her looked like ones imported from Mexico and sold in El Mercado in San Antonio, drawn to her chin. As consciousness continued to make her more and more aware of her surroundings, she realized she was on her back, head propped up with a cushion; at her feet, the curvature of an overstuffed leather arm of a couch. The air smelled of juniper and stone and a bit of smoke. She lay very still, taking it all in, unwilling to move.
She was told not to move…wasn’t she?
But she was on a couch, right? The more she blinked, the more the dream faded away, until it was a vague mixture of panic and confusion, resolved in comfort. This was the second time she’d opened her eyes to something strange and unexpected. Was this real? She’d been driving to see her friend, Tina Biebe, and taken an unfamiliar road…
“Oh, thank the Lord. You’re awake.”
Chloe burrowed beneath the blanket, startled by the sound of the voice, a deep voice, male. She knew instantly it wasn’t the voice from the dream. When she ventured a peep, the owner of the voice came into view. Nope, definitely not a hobbit. He was much taller, more grounded in his demeanor, with broad shoulders and the plain dress of a man who had been birthed in the country: long sleeved shirt the color of butter and blue jeans, with braces instead of a belt. He had hair past his chin but not long enough to touch his shoulders and green eyes that were both sharp and kind. He had a faint shadow of a beard and the features of his face were very well known.
Something flaky fell from her forehead and blinded her. She reached up to touch and more flaked into her palm. Athelas. It was real. Her forehead was coated in athelas.
Horrified at the thought of what she must look like, Chloe groaned and buried herself deeper under the blanket. To her dismay, she heard the man giggle.
Oh, yes, she knew exactly where she was now.
“It’s all right,” he assured her, stepping closer. “I figured you took a roll in the pasture. Wouldn’t mind findin’ out why, though,” he added. “Are you hurt, miss? Is everything all right?”
“Am I at the Point?” she asked in the closed air of her shelter.
She poked her head out again, her cheeks burning.
“Am I at the Point?”
Please say yes please say yes please say yes…
“Is that what you were aimin’ for?” he asked.
“I’m looking for my friend, Tina Biebe,” Chloe went on, unable to meet his gaze. If this man was one of the Brothers, then she was beginning to think that maybe she shouldn’t have come. It was hard to contain the sudden well-spring of response inside. Something in his voice made her want to choose his arms as a blanket instead of the scratchy, multicolored serape.
“I’m Chloe Navratil, from San Antonio,” she finally said, her throat dry. “She’s expecting me.”
“Oh yeah, she mentioned that. Gotta tell ya, wasn’t expectin’ you to show up here.” He gestured at the room they were in. “You mind tellin’ me what happened? And you never answered if you were hurt.”
“I’m fine,” she replied, feeling a little defensive at the moment. His gaze was straight and steady and all she could think about was crawling to a bathroom somewhere to wash whatever remnants the bizarre dream had left from her face. “I guess I had a wreck. The weather was nasty, but I’d promised I’d come today…yesterday. I think. And my tires slid…I slid off the road…into a ravine! I know I crashed my truck but I can’t remember anything after that…not much.”
“So you do belong to it. I found the thing upside down, just down the road.”
“It was horrible,” she concluded, feeling a sudden drain in her spirit. She wanted someone else to explain what happened, because she sure couldn’t.
“It’s a thing of wonder you found your way here, inside. I thought I’d locked the place.”
Chloe very nearly said “I apparently had help,” but kept it to herself. Athelas aside, it had to have been a hallucination of pain.
“It’s not what I was expecting either,” she replied, instead. “The way Tina described the hotel, I was expecting something more…grand.” She wanted to sit up but wasn’t quite sure if her clothes had made it through the wreck. She cleared her throat as she tried to make up her mind.
“This isn’t the hotel. Just our guest ranch. I can see you’ve been through somethin’ awful and if you need first aid…”
“I’m fine,” she repeated, after she sat up and wiggled her toes. “Apart from my dignity, I don’t think I have any issues.”
“Then…are you thirsty? I have cold water and coffee.”
“Actually, I’d like to know your name,” Chloe said.
“You haven’t…” he began, a little surprised, and then sat down on the couch opposite of hers, thoughtful. “My name. Of course. My name is Cort. Usually, I use the last name of Thompson, but that’s only for the Outside. All anyone ever says around here at the Point is Cort. Preacher Cort.”
He was right: she had not seen the movie from which this particular character hailed, but Tina had spoken of him plenty of times before, often in glowing terms. Chloe had been so focused on the prospect of meeting the Royal Navy Captain, Jack Aubrey, and Maximus that she’d not absorbed much detail about the other movies represented at the Point. The image she had made up in her mind was of a much older Creator, one a lot more subdued and meek than this young man. He practically bristled with life and humor. Apparently, Chloe mused, she also missed the part where Tina described him as gorgeous.
“Preacher Cort, I’d like some water,” she said, with a small grin. Do I have broken teeth? I hope I don’t have broken teeth!
“Water it is,” he said, cheerfully, and strode away to a door at the far end of the long hall.
That gave her some privacy, at least, to peek under the serape and find out if she’d be nominally decent. Using her right hand to lift the blanket, she found to her relief that she was fully clothed. She ran her tongue over her teeth: none missing or chipped. However, evidence of the hobbits’ herbal poultice was everywhere. Well, nothing to it now but to go retrieve her suitcase if it was still there in the truck and get a new set of clothes.
It wasn’t until she pulled out her left hand from the blank to find it still formed a fist. She turned and put both feet on the ground to steady herself and opened her palm.
In the center was the smooth white flattened round of a pebble.
“Won’t take but thirty minutes to…you sure you’re alright?” Cort asked her as he returned.
Chloe shook herself out of the reverie. The sight of the pebble had brought anew a whole range of emotions that might have had something to do with the dream. She wanted to leave it, forget it now, but something held her back. He stood over her, looked down in concern, water bottle in hand, which she took with a nod of gratitude. The chill of the bottle and the expression on his face made her feel a bit weepy for some stupid reason.
“Can you call Tina and tell her? I’m really confused,” she said after a few sips. “I’m really sorry for all this. I don’t have a good answer right now for how I got here or why I’m covered in this gunk. If I can’t get to the Point, then I’ll just go back home.”
“I don’t think that’ll be necessary,” Cort replied, hastily. “Did you bring anything with you?”
“My suitcase, which is probably strewn all over kingdom come, now,” she laughed in slight bitterness.
“Give me a few and I’ll drive you to the truck. We can get what you need and I’ll take you to Tina. Just sit tight.”
While he disappeared once more, ostensibly to lock up, Chloe stood to check herself. For someone who’d seemingly been in a violent car crash, there was little to no evidence of bruising or scrapes or concussion or any other sign of trauma.
Which left her with the annoyance of the athelas crusting on her clothes and skin. And her shoes were missing. Not her socks: those were still on her feet, a greyish pair of sports socks. The jeggings and long tunic she wore weren’t high fashion by any means, but they were her most comfortable clothes. She didn’t want to know what state her hair was in. It would only make her more anxious.
The only place to put the pebble was a breast-pocket on her shirt, which she did.
To her surprise, the water gave her a boost in energy and she took a few steps to see if she was able to keep her balance. Those steps brought her to the tall window where she could get her first look at this new environment.
It was as if she hadn’t left her home in the southern stretch of the Balcones Escarpment, where the limestone hills had been carved into craggy mesas and gentle valleys. A chamfered hill or two rose up from a basin of prairie like the hunchbacks of subterranean creatures and a river wound its way nearby, its limestone filtered water glittering in the sunshine. It reminded her of several swimming holes on the Rio Frio she used to frequent growing up in the Texas hill country.
“Truck’s just outside,” Cort said when he returned.
“Can I use the bathroom before we go? I know I must look awful!” She asked, suddenly realizing that they were going to see other people now.
In the mirror in the very large and beautifully tiled room, Chloe found that she didn’t look quite as bad as she expected: her dark curly hair looked relatively unsoiled and it took just a few passes of a wet paper towel to clear the herbal remnants away. For all intents and purposes, she looked more as if she had spent a day running around in the wild than lying in painful convalescence.
When she was done, she followed Cort through a very large and well appointed kitchen and out onto the carport.
His truck was an old green beat up Ford, with a grill that reminded her of her grandfather’s truck, and rickety well-worn leather seat that spanned the length of the cab. The roar of the engine didn’t give her much time to wonder if she was still in her dream. Cort threw the shift into gear and they were trundling down the road before she could get her seat belt on.
“That was the main guest house that we just came from,” Cort said, elevating the volume of his voice a bit over the sound of the engine. “Built it last year. Been spendin’ a lot of our time getting bunk houses ready and stables and all the other things that people are gonna want to do around here. We’re ‘bout a thousand acres of ranch land, lots of trails to explore. That river down there has some good spots for boating and fishing. We’re just about ready to open it.” He flashed her a grin that went straight to her heart. “Feels like that sales pitch is about all I say these days,” he added with a laugh.
“And your church services,” she said.
“Actually, that changes week to week,” he replied. “Only thing that stays the same is the Good Lord’s providence and love. So you’re just in time to see it all blossom.”
They rounded a bend in the road and she could see blue metal poking out of brush at the bottom of a tall limestone cliff. It wasn’t until Cort came to a halt several yards away that Chloe realized she’d been bracing herself against the door, as if to slow down the approach.
“I’m afraid it’s in bad condition,” Cort told her in apology as she climbed out of the cab.
It lay on its side like a forlorn little dragon, its front end crunched and wheels askew. The safety glass from the windshield lay scattered all around, little shards of shattered diamonds at their feet.
Chloe opened her mouth to speak and a sob escaped. She spent the next few minutes with her back toward Cort and gulped down air to keep herself from falling apart. When she heard movement, she turned back around to find that Cort had pulled out her suitcase. It looked as if it had stayed closed the whole time and not suffered a scratch.
She took her tunic and wiped her nose.
Great. Snot all over me now. Give me back the athelas.
Stupid thunderstorm. Stupid truck.
“Might could look around and see if anything else got thrown out,” Cort suggested gingerly. His expression was surprisingly accepting and sympathetic, instead of the usual discomfort men had around weepy women.
She shook her head in denial. What good would that do? She had no way of going home now and whatever was in the suitcase was all she had at the moment. But Cort started a scan on one end of the truck and she followed suit at the other end. Apart from the suitcase, there wasn’t anything she expected to find. She’d cleaned out pretty much everything a few days ago, except for…
There it was: a small white box that had been delivered to her a few evenings ago, an unexpected gift from Tina. Chloe had taken it as a sign and encouragement to toss aside doubt and try for the Point. It was standing open to reveal a necklace, a beautiful net of clay and glass beads from Africa, something that Tina knew would please her for her birthday. That, and a picture of her with husband, John Biebe, and a few of the other Brothers, had been the deciding factor.
Chloe’s plan had been to wear it once she got to the Point. She bent down to pick it up and hell erupted.
Somewhere behind her, Cort shouted, but she could not turn or respond. A dense tunnel enveloped her and pulled at the hand with the necklace until it and her arm was stretched. A detached part of her thought of black holes and event horizons – the vortex was taking her someplace she would never be able to leave – but she became too concerned with the lack of air. Her lungs screamed. She was drowning in a tube of liquid fire. The necklace popped apart and the beads were slurped into the void.
The air around her began to cavitate. She became vaguely aware of being pulled in two different directions. Would she stretch and grow thin, two-dimensional? Unexpectedly, she felt a sudden yank, and she was face down in the grass. A heavy weight lay on top of her. Air rushing back into her lungs felt nearly as painful as the deprivation.
It was Cort, his arms around her waist. A flight or fight reflex made Chloe wriggle away from him, shouting that she was fine. He let go and rolled to the side.
“I don’t mind close calls, darlin’,” he told her, breathing as if he had lost air as well, “but that’s a little too close!”
Cheeks burning, Chloe sat up.
“Did I kick you?” she asked, embarrassed as hell.
“No, no. I’m fine.” He sat up as well. “Are you all right?”
Chloe turned to see where the necklace had fallen. It was gone, but scorch marks were in the grass as if it had left a distinct swath of fire in its wake. The box had been ripped to shreds and scattered like confetti. She crawled to examine the burns more closely. Smoke still wafted from singed grass.
“What was that thing?” He pursued his line of questioning after he got to his feet and helped her up.
“I don’t know…” she stammered. “The thing was a necklace Tina sent me.”
“What happened?” He sounded as bewildered as she felt.
“I don’t know. I’m not a magician,” Chloe grumbled, then regretted her remark. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Cort replied. “Look…I grabbed you because you were….” He pulled his description up short, as if he suddenly realized how crazy it was. “I hate to sound like a fool, but you were fading. In and out. Like you were gonna get sucked into something.”
She considered that for a moment. “That’s what was happening,” she replied, which seemed to disturb him more.
“I’ve seen some weird things here at the Point, but that was, by far, the strangest.” He focused his green eyes on her in concern. “Hey, I landed on you pretty hard. Are you hurt?”
“No,” she said. “I’m just glad you’re a fast thinker.”
“Fast enough, I suppose,” Cort replied with a wry smile. “What a way to be welcomed by the Point!” He added with a laugh.
“I guess we have everything,” Chloe said as she stepped over to the wreckage. She suddenly wanted to put as much distance between herself and the remnants of the disaster as she could. Cort grabbed her by the arm before she got two steps.
“Don’t touch anything else,” he warned when she looked at him in surprise.
“What about my suitcase?”
“Well…” he pondered. “I guess it’s fine. I touched it and nothing happened.”
“That doesn’t seem to mean much,” Chloe said, darkly.
“I have a feeling it was all in that necklace,” he replied. “But we’re gonna need to tell Tina about it, at least. C’mon, daylight’s burnin’ and we have a lot to do.”
Okay Johnny…Yeah, yeah…Well, I appreciate it. I know Chloe appreciates it too…Of course I’ll tell her. As she said this, Tina Biebe smiled over at where Chloe was sitting. Okay then. I’ll see you later! Oh Johnny! Yeah, call me if anything comes up…Sure…Bye now.
Sighing, Tina’s elegantly appointed finger tapped the red button on the smartphone to end her call to the Point’s garage.
“Well, you heard my side of the conversation. Johnny, Dom, and Colin are taking their equipment out there in a little bit. They’ll retrieve your truck; get it back to the garage, and…Look, I know it’s hard to believe right now, but they’ll have it better than new. I’ve seen them take absolute piles of junk and turn them into enviable cars. You’ll see. It’s insane, but you’ve given them a great challenge. They’re going to stay at it until it’s perfect, okay?”
Seeing Tina again, plus the generous cup of chamomile tea, helped to cheer Chloe up. It seemed to have her friend’s brand of extra magic in it, relaxing and kind. As a final punctuation to a very harrowing day, news that her vehicle would be returned to a workable condition brought tears to her eyes.
“Ok, thank you,” she replied with a smile and took a long sip to hide behind the brim.
“Cort, how do you like the coffee?” Tina asked. The preacher sat in a stuffed armchair, fully at ease, sipping a brew that filled the room with plummy richness.
“Different from the last time I was here, and just as good,” he said with a genuine full smile. “It’s not a visit to your house without the coffee.”
Tina’s mood switched as she turned back to Chloe, her brown eyes filling with pain. “Hun, I don’t even know what to say. You have no idea how sorry I’m feeling right now…I mean it happens sometimes…”
“Taking a long dive off a longer cliff is what happens sometimes?” Chloe asked jokingly. She knew what Tina meant, but her natural mode of sarcasm was filling in where the shock wore off. Before her friend could reply, she went on. “Don’t feel sorry. I should have waited until the storm passed. It’s just once I’d made up my mind to come, I didn’t want to wait. I guess I also hoped it wouldn’t take me long to find the right turn-off…or the right passage way. The storm came down fast.”
“But the Point threw you into a ravine!” Tina exclaimed, sitting on the couch next to her. “I mean, it’s not like the Point to just let you get tossed into a ravine like that. This place can get weird, but I’ve never heard of anything like this before.”
Chloe glanced at Cort, who nodded in silent agreement, then looked down into her tea. She hadn’t considered that maybe the Point itself might have activated a response to her coming. Remnants of what Pippin had said in her dream tried to remind her of something important, but she couldn’t think about that right now.
“Maybe it’s me, then,” she proposed with a light laugh, but the possibility made her feel cold.
Cort leaned forward at that, on the verge of saying something, when Tina said it for him.
“Maybe it’s…no, it’s not you! Get that out of your head right now!” She chided gently and shook her head. “No, something’s off.” Her crooked right index finger and thumb eased to her lips as she thought. Tina’s eyes searched the space in front of her, the way she might have done on a crime scene, as if the evidence were right in front of her or hidden away and she couldn’t see it right away. “Something’s not right, something’s not right.”
“I think so, too,” Cort intoned.
Chloe thought about the pebble in her pocket. Should she mention the strange “dream” she’d had before waking up in the guest house? Cort caught her gaze and she decided against it at the moment. Her intuition told her he saw things that most took for granted, but she couldn’t bear the thought of looking crazy in front of him. Dreams weren’t proof of sanity, pebble or no.
With the perception of many years as a crime scene technician, Tina caught the shared look and asked with trepidation, “What? What’s up?”
“We were just getting to what happened when we were collecting her things from the wreck,” Cort said.
“It was a necklace,” Chloe stammered. “You know the one you sent me a couple of weeks ago? You said you got it when you were visiting me in San Antonio and that you wanted me to have it. I had it in my back seat and I guess it got thrown out of the truck when it fell. Cort and I, we were walking around to make sure we got everything when I saw it and I bent to pick it up when it…”
Chloe faltered because Tina was shaking her head emphatically.
“You can’t have forgotten! That necklace I saw in that shop on the Riverwalk?” She pressed. “You wrote that you bought it when I wasn’t looking and wanted me to remember your visit…”
“Chloe…I…I don’t know what…Chloe, I never sent you a necklace,” Tina said, perplexed. “I mean I do have your birthday gift for you, but I was waiting until your visit to give it to you. The only thing I’ve sent you were directions on how to get here, and I did that through my email. I haven’t written a handwritten letter in…oh my God, it’s been forever.”