Jonathan and Gillian
Clenching her jaw to hold back tears, Gillian gently swept a stray hair from her mother's forehead. She forced herself not to recoil at the clammy skin, so frail she worried her fingers might leave a bruise. Her mother was rapidly losing color and breathing shallowly. She didn't have much time.
"I won't fail you, Mom," Gillian promised, forcing herself to turn to the door. She walked out, head bowed.
Outside, her brother Jonathan prepared the horses. "Ready," he asked, his dark eyes determined and focused.
Gillian nodded. "Let's go, Jack."
They always knew this day would come, when they would summit Mt. Prile. Legend told of a mythical pool, filled only by the mountain top clouds, that had the power to heal.
When they were younger, they dreamed of adventuring up the jagged cliffside, but few travelers survived. Those that did, didn't return the same as when they had left. Shattered men, they were, heads clouded delusions and hysteria.
But the siblings knew there was no other option. They needed water from the pool for their ailing mother.
Gillian threw a leg over the saddle of her chestnut quarter horse, and Jonathan did the same to his dappled gray. The mares were getting on in years and not very fast. But, the old girls were reliable and would get the siblings started on their journey. Time passed slowly and all too rapidly. The siblings rode quietly, their minds consumed by thoughts of Mother. Gently trotting on horseback, they were safe. But Mother needed the water, and a challenge faced them ahead.
The black sand underhoof turned to pebbles, then rocks, then eventually boulders. When the horses had gone as far as they could, the siblings dismounted.
"Together?" Jonathan asked, dipping hands into a chalk bag.
"Together." Gillian agreed, also coating her palms. She tied a rope around her waist as her brother did the same. They knotted the ends together then each started to rock climb up the mountainside.
The terrain was treacherous and each slipped more than a few times. Gillian attempted to anchor into the cliffside when she could, but that slowed them down considerably. They didn't have the luxury of time. Or safety.
Trusting each other, they pinched, stretched, and leapt their way up the mountain's face until they emerged at a small meadow covered in Indian paintbrush and other wildflowers.
Jonathan sighed, tears brimming his eyes. "Mother would love these," he breathed. Gillian nodded in agreement, but they didn't have time for flower picking. She urged her brother onward, but the grief of weeks of watching his mother waste away bore into Jonathan. His limbs felt leaden. He knew she wasn't gone yet, but the realization that she may never get to see beauty like this again weighed heavily on him.
"Jack!" Gillian stressed, trying to get her brother's attention. She grabbed his shoulder. Jonathan yelped and jerked away. Gillian noticed Jonathan's tunic cling under his arm to his ribs, where a dark stain was forming. He had cut himself on the ascent. Jonathan turned away, looking more morose and defeated than ever.
Gillian examined the wound. It was small and mostly superficial, rugburn most likely from scraping past some particularly sharp basalt. Jonathan would be fine. His mental health on the other hand, she wasn't so sure about.
"Why don't you stay here for a bit, bud" she soothed. "Pick some Indian paintbrush for mom?"
Jonathan sniffed and shrugged agreeably with his good arm. He wouldn't be much help climbing farther. Jonathan set to gathering flowers while Gillian chalked her hands. Past the field, the cliffside jutted up at an acute angle. It wasn't much farther, and atop the overhang would be an ideal place for nature to form a pool.
Gillian focused on her breaths as she swung hand over hand, creeping up the side of the overhang. Footholds were few, and for most of her ascent, her feet dangled. Finally, at the lip of the cliff, she squeezed her feet into small gaps in the rockface, creating toe holds.
She strained with her legs then pulled herself onto the overhang. There, surrounded in mist, was the pool! She pulled a sun-aged, ceramic canteen from her belt and submerged it in the still waters.
As soon as her fingers brushed the water's surface, all the scrapes and burns from rock climbing disappeared. She splashed some water on her throbbing legs, blistered feet, aching shoulders, and biceps. She immediately felt as refreshed as she'd ever been.
Gillian quickly stoppered the canteen, returned it to her belt, and made the descent back to her brother.
Jonathan was amiably sitting in the field, having woven his freshly picked flowers into a crown. Gillian smiled at her brother. "Mom will love that," she said motioning to the arrangement.
Jonathan beamed. With their mother's vision going, he wanted to ensure the flowers would be near enough to her that she couldn't miss them. He was quite proud of the crown himself, and it smelled divine. He popped it on his own head.
Gillian opened the canteen and dabbed a few drops of water onto Jonathan's wound and palms. He stretched his fingers nimbly, abrasions gone, and leaned to the side. His ribs no longer hurt. "Ready, Jill?" Jonathan asked for the second time today, this time with a gleeful glint in his eye.
"Ready." Gillian responded, equally excited. They had done it! They had the cure and were returning to Mother.
The pair descended the cliffside like mountain goats, no ropes, no cares. They scampered over the boulders at the cliff face, realizing how fortunate they were. The rest of the way was easy. The horses had wandered, but that wasn't unusual. Gillian and Jonathan whistled for their mares. They were feeling so good the pair decided to run until the animals could catch up. They didn't want to lose a moment of time.
They ran over the small rocks and pebbles. They ran on the black sand. All was well until Jonathan, whose soles had not been splashed with the healing water, caught his toe under a ripple in the sand. He careened forward, flapping wildly, but wasn't able to catch himself. Jonathan fell face first into the black mountain sand, his flower crown scattering to pieces.
Attempting to catch her brother, Gillian also toppled, landing hard on her hip. The canteen shattered, every last drop of water quickly absorbed into the thirsty sands.
"NO!" both siblings cried. But it was too late. Alerted by the noise, the mares cantered up, tossing their manes and whinnying. The horses stomped at the ground. Gillian and Jonathan had failed. And by the looks of the horses, this was it. Mother was dying.
With Gillian's help, Jonathan grabbed fistfuls of his decimated flower crown. He choked back a sob. They say smell is the last sense to go. If they hurried, at least he could give Mother something.
The siblings mounted their horses, clutched their flowers, and rode home.
Mother never looked so gaunt. Jonathan and Gillian approached her bedside. "For you, Mother," Gillian said, laying the soft Indian paintbrush on the dying woman's forehead.
"We picked them special," Jonathan said. "On Mt. Prile, just for you." He held a flower lightly under her nose. Gillian squeezed her mother's hand. With her other hand, she gently stroked her mother's forehead.
The skin was warm to her touch. Not hot. Just warm. Like skin should be.
Mother inhaled deeply. Her nose was gaining color again. And her head.
"Mother?" Gillian asked.
Jonathan gasped. "That's it!" he snapped. He pulled the yellow tip from the Indian paintbrush, and there, in its petal, was a single drop of nectar. He squeezed it into Mother's mouth.
"Jack, what are you--" started Gillian. "That's not water."
"What do you think grows the wildflowers, Jill? How do they get their moisture?"
Gillian gasped. Of course! The mist. Evaporation from the pool would sustain the meadow. Mother squeezed her hand.
"My smart children," Mother said, pulling them both into an embrace. The siblings suddenly no longer cared how the pool or the flowers worked. They were just happy to have their mother healthy again.
They also didn't care about how the story of their adventures became distorted by the town after numerous retellings. Perhaps you've heard it:
Jack and Jill
went up the hill
to fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down
and broke his crown
and Jill came tumbling after.