Disclaimer: I make no profit off this story and all rights to the characters belong to Lloyd Alexander.
The First Apple Blossom: Eilonwy
They were idling about in the orchards that golden afternoon after a laborious day of helping Coll plow the fallow field, the one left to rest uncultivated for the year. The apple blossoms began to sprout in her second spring at Caer Dallben. The trees were full of tiny pink buds, but on one tree, resting on a high branch, a premature blossom glowed pale against the broken green and brown. Eilonwy stared with rapt fascination at the creamy white petals and the rosy tinge at their base. For some strange reason this made her want to lick it. It looked sweet. She wouldn't actually do such a silly thing, but a closer look and perhaps a pleasant sniff would definitely be worth climbing up to such heights. She placed her leather clothed foot firmly on the trunk to propel her and jumped.
"What are you doing now?" shouted Taran's agitated voice from below.
"What does it look like I'm doing," she answered rather piqued. After a year, she had drawn a mental map of his quirks and knew she treaded in his valley of carks and cares – of which there were many. It wasn't fair that he never listened to reason but demanded that she act with some decorum. "If you're going to ask questions you already know the answers to, you might as well remain silent and sound less addle-pated; and if you don't know what I'm doing – because it may be too much to ask of an assistant pig-keeper to know someone's climbing a tree just by looking at them – then…"
"Quite blathering! I know what you're doing, but why – oh, never mind! Will you come down from there?"
There, he said it. Did he have to go round about with blundering questions just to get to his point? Not that it mattered. His chiding made no difference. She wanted a closer look at the first apple blossom of the spring without having pesky assistant pig-keepers needle her about it.
Eilonwy ignored him.
This is fairly easy, she thought as she clambered up another branch. Some of the stubs and twigs bit into her palms and her skirts got in the way, but other than that it was quite fun. The blossom dangled from a swaying branchlet directly above the young bough she was carefully venturing to stand on, minding her balance as she reached up to grab hold of the branch overhead.
"What are you doing!? You're going to fall! And you call me addle-pated?! It doesn't take much wit to know that branch won't hold your weight. Come down now!"
"Oh, quite making such a fuss, will you? You sound worse than a wasp trapped in the foils of a curtain when one is trying to sleep… or read… or keep to themselves all together. Your incessant buzzing won't let me have a peaceful moment. I will come down when I please!" Eilonwy would have said more, but she didn't want to spend more time speaking to Taran than she needed to. Bending the thin sprig to her face, she took a whiff of the sweet scent and gazed at the blossom closely. It looked like a white rose with yellow stamens springing from the center, surrounded by a few, deeply rose-colored baby sprouts and leaves with jagged edges. And the feel of the petals were much softer than she had imagined. For just a moment, Eilonwy forgot everything else, even Taran pacing anxiously below, as she caressed the petals with an enchanted smile on her face.
The moment was broken by a horrendously loud crack and Taran's fear-laden cry, and the next thing she knew, her feet were no longer supporting her. Her stomach gave a few violent jolts and practically rose to her throat. She squeezed her eyes shut, fearful of the inevitable pain. It was over quickly. Except, she had landed on something softer, and warmer, than the hard ground she had expected. Something constricted harshly against her back and she soon realized it was Taran trying to dislodge her.
Gasping, she hastened off him and looked his body over, prone and writhing. On the grassy turf, Taran wept silent tears and gestured at her frantically, almost slapping the base of his throat. That's when she noticed he wasn't breathing – couldn't breathe. Eilonwy panicked and was about to call for Coll when Taran stilled. His lips were pale and his eyes stared up at the canopy of leaves, unseeing. An icy grip ensnared her and she released a single shrilly cry before stopping herself. As she gathered her bearings, she noticed her hand resting on his chest and there was a heart beat underneath. Notwithstanding the idea of leaving him alone, Eilonwy called out to him frantically, shook him roughly and slapped his pasty cheeks. His only answer was the stillness in his eyes.
Eilonwy forced the numbing sensation that threatened to wrap its frigid arms around her mind. She needed to use her wits. He was alive, just… literally winded. A thought struck her: she could force breath into him. Under the veil of desperation, the idea was not completely amiss. She quickly opened his lips, puckered her own and blew into his mouth. No, that wasn't quite working; the air seemed to rebound as she felt it puff against her face. So she sealed his opened mouth with her own and blew again, making sure none of the air escaped from their joined lips. She felt a twitch and was pleased to note that his lips were quite warm and alive and surprisingly soft, like plush strips of silk against the sides of her mouth.
She found the sensation quite pleasant, surprisingly enough, barely surfacing the frantic dread in her marrow.
That was short-lived when soon he coughed into her mouth, mumbling something. She pitched herself back, sputtering in disgust and feeling quite peevish. As he sat up with a groan, eyes glittering and color returning to his face, Eilonwy felt quite pleased with herself. Her efforts had been fruitful. She had controlled her fear, reasoned, and acted successfully.
But her pride was quickly squashed.
"My chest hurts," he hissed, and that was all that was needed to sweep away her relief and her pride in a windstorm of guilt.
That stupid branch! All she wanted was to look at the first apple blossom, and not only the first of the season, but the first she ever laid her eyes on. Eilonwy noticed her nose felt like it'd been thawed and realized she was crying.
Taran had warned her, had worried about her, and now he may have a broken rib or two and it was entirely her fault. Eilonwy looked at the cool, green blades of grass jutting out from underneath her smock, unable to look him in the face. She fully expected for the boy to say he'd told her so, but as time rolled by all Taran said after he regained his breath was, "Are you hurt?"
Eilonwy shed a few tears before wiping them off her cheeks with a self-allaying sigh. "No, you caught me. Did… is anything broken?"
Taran shifted on his hunches and probed his chest, before replying, "I don't think so. My back hurts terribly though," he coughed. "My lungs took a hard hit but I'm fine…" he stopped short as something seemed to dawn in his boyish face. "I… was your – that is…I mean… I thought I felt your mouth…"
Eilonwy felt her face turn into a furnace and looked away. Fortunately, so did Taran. "Oh! Yes, well, I was t-trying to… blow air into you. You had stopped breathing."
She didn't – couldn't – look at him but knew he was equally embarrassed by the barely audible "Oh…" Honestly, she chided herself, there is no reason to be embarrassed. What I did was a perfectly reasonable action to revive someone.
At least he is well… she thought comfortingly. Just then, she remembered what he croaked out as he stirred from his air-deprived swoon and smiled to herself. He must have been dreaming. She'd tease him about it later and in the meantime wondered what a sick snake looked like.
That mid-spring, they began to wake to light showers and so Coll had them start plowing the fallow field. Eilonwy had done considerably better than last year, though spring had almost finished then. Taran thought back to last year's events that had allowed Eilonwy to live with them and it seemed to him like a long time had passed since their adventures. Her presence had brought much solace to his boring farm life, and Taran would wake every morning with an eagerness for the day he had never felt before. Eilonwy was almost his age and he had someone with which to frolic in the pond and caper in the forests.
After several hours of helping Coll, the stout farmer winked at Eilonwy and mentioned the beautiful buds that would be growing in the orchards by now. She expressed a childish excitement at the prospect of seeing apples grow from flowers in the autumn, and announced to visit the orchards regularly as she pulled Taran along.
The canopy blocked the sunlight but it streamed through the furrowed trunks from the west. He watched it light Eilonwy's red-gold hair, like a fiery cascade. Her profile was upright and her mouth slightly ajar as she admired a single blooming flower. He admired her much like the blossom; her face had a blush painted over pale skin. Her rosy cheek was as soft looking as a petal and he had an urge to run his fingers against it. He was pulled out of his captivation when she suddenly lunged herself up the tree.
He wondered, what sort of ideas spun about in her head to make her act so spontaneously?
"What are you doing now?" His voice came off a little annoyed as she showed no sign of stopping her ascend.
"What does it look like I'm doing," she snapped.
Oh no, Taran thought, and sure enough, her mouth ran before her. Her criticisms rarely dampened his spirits – she was one to talk! If he was unreasonable then she was absolutely scatterbrained, but her incessant chatter did tend to get the better of him when there was no end to it in sight. "Quite blathering!" he cut her off. "I know what you're doing, but why – oh, never mind! Will you come down from there?"
Eilonwy was too far up the tree and a fall from such heights would indubitably break something in her body, and that could lead to an infection and even a fever. Even as his mind screamed for her to stop, she kept climbing. Eventually, Eilonwy shimmied up a thin, ashy-brown limb. It bended under her weight as she began to stand on it and Taran's heart beat quicker. The stupid girl! "What are you doing!? You're going to fall! And you call me addle-pated?! It doesn't take much wit to know that branch won't hold your weight. Come down now!"
She railed at him about somewhat – did she just call him a wasp? – and finally declared she would do what she pleased.
When have you ever stopped doing what you please? he thought wryly, but was too worried to argue with her.
His irritation with her, however, was soon lulled into affection when he saw the gentleness with which she explored the first blossom of spring. He could make out the delicate jut of her nose touch the pale flower as long brown lashes dusted her flushed cheeks. A charming smile lifted her eyes as she caressed the creamy petals tenderly. Taran was so enraptured that he had forgotten about his anxiety.
Until he heard the dreaded sounds of a branch snap from above.
His heart felt like it plummeted to his stomach as he felt his tingling feet move, long arms upraised. The next thing he knew, there was a horrible pain in his chest as her body landed on his. Taran could barely feel his feet give in, but the sharp throbbing that shot through his back as he hit the ground was acutely noted. There was a second he was short-winded, mouth agape and ready to let out a pained groan... which never came. He couldn't breathe!
Eilonwy's body felt like a steel beam against his chest and he desperately tried to lift her but his arms were bereft of strength. She seemed to have come to her senses and quickly scooted off. Even still, air would not enter his lungs. He couldn't even feel its fresh rush brush the walls of his throat – nothing. Taran motioned to Eilonwy, whose blue eyes were laden with fear, the ruddy color all but gone from her face. His head buzzed as his mind slipped away...
He jolted awake. Gold hues filled his sight, confusing him, and warmth tingled on his lips pleasantly. The solid heat was gone soon as air rushed like a turbulent river down his gullet and he choked on it with anguished greed, gasping and coughing into a body's face, which he soon realized was Eilonwy's. He was momentarily confounded before a surge of memories returned. Eilonwy had fallen from the tree and he had caught her. There was pain on is back and chest, and his lungs had cried for air. Then, he had fainted.
Taran groaned as he sat up, a little relieved he wouldn't be making horseshoes again and that it had been just a hazy dream, and hissed from the sudden acute ache in his chest. "My chest hurts," he heard himself croak. His throat was raw, wringing a few coughs. After the throbbing ebbed away a little, Taran looked up to find Eilonwy's pale cheeks glisten with tears, her head bowed. Concern wrapped a sudden chilly grip around him, thinking she might be badly injured. "Are you hurt?"
She composed herself with a sigh. "No, you caught me. Did… is anything broken?"
He was unsure himself, given the dull throbbing in his chest and back, but he appeased her concerns regardless. He didn't want to distress Eilonwy more than she was. Her eyes softened in relief under the unruly strands of gold that fell over her sullen face.
That's when he recalled those very locks grazing his own face upon waking, and the soft, tangible warmth on his lips. Taran felt his ears and cheeks burn at the memory. He ventured to ask without thinking but soon regretted it. Abashed, he ended up sputtering like a fool, "I… was your – that is…I mean… I thought I felt your mouth…"
His face must have looked like a bright red plum.
Luckily, Eilonwy never looked at his face. "Oh! Yes, well, I was t-trying to… blow air into you. You had stopped breathing."
That… sounds… reasonable, he thought. "Oh…"
He almost thought he'd been roused by a kiss.