(This story is a sequel to "For the Last Time, No!".)
Too high. Willow frowned up at the old tree and the familiar bee-hole at the top. She'd raided this hive many a time, but the usual footholds up the side had been long dead and had become increasingly brittle as termites and fungus had invaded. Since she'd last been here, one had broken off completely, and the other was too fragile to step on. No, this hive had to be considered off-limits. As much as she loved honey, and as much as everyone else loved her to get honey, it wasn't worth breaking her neck just to climb the tree.
Unless... Willow's mind raced with thoughts as she continued to gaze at what was out of reach. Would it be too hard for a shaper to fix the broken branches, or to make some other way to the top? The tree wasn't completely dead – even now, green leaves at the top of the tree rustled in a slight breeze.
Her eyes wandered back to the hive-hole about halfway up the trunk. Small black shapes darted around the entrance. It was up high enough to be safe. Bees wouldn't bother anyone at the base of the tree - at least she hoped not. It would be worth a try.
And she had the perfect person in mind - someone who had often pestered to go on honey gathering missions in the past.
Willow hurried back to the holt.
In her den, Evervale swept a delicate hand across her forehead to move long red curls away from her face. Large green eyes looked up from the task of helping her father. The large knotted net they were working on was nearly repaired. It was draped across her lap as well as her father's, who sat an elf-length away. Suddendusk was so involved in what he was doing, he didn't even notice his daughter had stopped working.
The young elf straightened her back and squinted at the starry sky in curiosity. She wondered why Willow would be sending to her. Immediately, she tried to conjure up some ideas, but came up with none. The quickest way to find out, of course, would be to answer!
**Yes, Willow?** she sent, her friendly sending conveying a hint of that curiosity.
**I was wondering, would you be interested in helping me get some honey?** There was a hint in the sending that this wouldn't be just a simple honey gathering outing. But were they ever?
Evervale just about pulled apart the knotted fibers in the net she had been holding. Her eyes widened and Suddendusk looked up when the net jerked slightly. "Something wrong?" he asked with concern.
She shook her head, slightly embarrassed. "Nothing, father. Just got startled by something." Suddendusk smiled and looked back to his work. He assumed an insect had crawled up her arm or something similar. Evervale didn't gravitate towards bugs like her little sister did.
Though her first reaction was to enthusiastically agree, Evervale found herself suspicious. She'd tried to convince Willow to take her along on a honey hunt many times in her cubhood. She'd pretty much given up several seasons back. Why the sudden change of heart?
She quirked an eyebrow. It hadn't been so long ago that Notch had played a trick on her. Harmless as it had been, she didn't want to fall for something so easily again. She knew how close he and Willow were - and what pranksters they were! Well, Notch would be disappointed his trick didn't work this time!
Composing herself, she answered carefully. **Help you gather honey? I thought you never needed help!**
**I don't usually need help,** Willow replied, then got directly to the point. **But I don't know how to shape branches to get to a tree.**
Evervale smiled, not one of suspicion, but of pure delight. Her new plantshaping powers were being recognized as something useful! Finally Willow could see she WOULD be a help! She dropped the net entirely now and clapped her hands together in excitement.
Then she paused. Could it still be part of a larger plan to trick her? Willow's explanation sounded plausible enough. She would proceed with caution.
Meanwhile, Suddendusk had looked up at his daughter again, a look of amusement on his face. "Get the bug?" He asked.
Evervale stared at him. "What?" Utter confusion colored her face and distracted her from her excitement. At the mention of bugs, the first insect that came to mind was a bee. For an unreal moment she thought her father had read her mind.
Suddendusk realized his mistake and laughed. "I thought a bug had been bothering you. I figured you'd just killed it with that slap of your hands together."
His daughter laughed gaily, her light voice filling their little section of the holt. "Oh, Father. As if I'd kill a bug! Crackle wouldn't let me hear the end of it." She grinned, "No, I'm not bothered by anything. In fact, I'm going hunting... for honey!"
Setting the net off to the side and rising to her feet, Evervale sent her response to Willow. **Ah! That makes sense. I'll help you." She was tempted to make a sarcastic remark to remind Willow of all the times she'd refused her help before. But it wasn't Evervale's way to be rude, even to someone who'd been that way to her more than once before.
Willow's response was a wordless one, perhaps an over-confident one, letting the younger elf know that she would be waiting at the holt's outskirts, to the south.
After affording her father a quick explanation, Evervale excused herself and hurried to her den in the Father Tree. She didn't know what she would need, if anything, but just to be safe she tied a sheath to her belt and tucked a simple knife within. Her spear came along, too, almost as an afterthought. Her clothes should suffice, she decided. She wore her usual green pants and dual-colored top. A thin length of leather was always available for a hair tie in a little pouch in case her long curls got in the way.
Feeling prepared, the young elf made her way to where Willow's sending indicated. She smiled as she approached the other elf, all the while her ears extra alert for a trap. She still hadn't dropped the idea that this could be a trick, but she sincerely hoped it wasn't!
While Willow waited, she took one last look at the baskets she'd brought, ones she had specially made for the task of raiding bee trees. The thick leather straps had been securely tied to the loops near the top of the basket; they would not come untied during the upcoming task. She slung the strap over her shoulder so the wider, softer piece of leather she had affixed to the top of the strap would keep the band in place. The set up made for convenient climbing.
Everything seemed secure. And once the tree issue was taken care of, this would be honey gathering as usual, as far as Willow was concerned.
Willow smiled at Evervale as she spied the young plantshaper approaching. She looked over the items Evervale had chosen to bring on this excursion, and almost teasingly questioned about some of them. Why bring a spear when raiding a bee tree?
But, after a few silent moments of thought, Willow decided to remain quiet. Maybe a spear was a good idea. How many times had she had to give up some, if not most, of the beesweets she had gathered because bears had sniffed her out on the way home? Maybe, just maybe, that spear would come in handy.
"C'mon, this way," Willow said abruptly, then turned on her heel and led the way into the forest. "It's not too far."
The younger elf thought she detected some mirth on Willow's part, but if she'd had something on her mind, she didn't voice anything. It made Evervale all the more suspicious and as they walked to their destination, she continued to monitor the winds for any scent or sound of a hiding Notch. Slowly, a loud buzzing distracted her until she was concentrating largely on that, instead.
"There," Willow indicated, pointing to the tall, half-hollow tree on the other side of the clearing. The top of the tree seemed shrouded in a greyish haze of bees, but Willow wasn't concerned about that. She drew Evervale's attention to the base of the tree.
"It's old. Mostly dead," she began. "But you probably already know that." She looked over at her young companion. Plantshapers could probably tell the age of a tree from half a forest away, right? What things did a plantshaper know about trees?
She pointed again at the old bee tree across the clearing. "All the branches I used to use to climb up are too brittle or have already fallen off. I'd break my neck for sure if I tried to climb up there now. Do you think there's anything you could do to fix them?"
When they approached the tree in question, Evervale's eyes were pulled to the swarming dark mass at its top. Any concerns about Notch were quickly replaced with a dread that seemed to crawl over her skin. She was reluctant to approach the bottom of the tree for fear the bees would become angry and come down to engulf her.
From this distance, she could sense many of the living vegetation around her. The grass under her feet was quite healthy and the towering trees not far behind had a musky feel to them, indicating their immense age. Distantly, if she concentrated, she could pick up a dim impression coming from the honey tree. Even if she hadn't seen its ruined state, she could have told Willow she was right; the tree was almost dead. It always filled her with a kind of sorrow to sense the strength ebbing from a plant or tree. She knew it was a natural cycle that all living things were destined to experience one way or another. She consoled herself with the knowledge that the tree had lived a long time and had served as a home to bees and probably other living things.
Evervale's eyes were wide in amazement. "How close can I get to the tree?" She asked, taking in the situation. If the tree had any life left in it, she knew she would be able to shape it.
Willow's brows lowered in thought. She couldn't begin to count how many other times someone else - usually a cub - came screaming back to the holt because they'd gotten too close to a beehive and had been stung a few times. Bees could be deadly, she knew that much. Too many stings were as bad as some spiders' bites.
After weighing the situation heavily, Willow answered, "I think they'll let you near the bottom, since the hive is closer to the top. Move slowly, though. And if a few come to buzz around your head, don't swat at them. That just makes them upset."
Evervale worried the inside of her lower lip with her teeth, her brows were slightly lowered. She looked up and down the tree again. She'd never expected a hive to have THIS many bees. And Willow's answer didn't calm the younger elf much. 'You think' they'll let me near the bottom?' She wondered to herself.
Still, since childhood she'd wanted to learn the mystery of how Willow gathered honey. Now, she would be able to witness the deed, plus help in some way! She straightened her shoulders and steadied her mind.
**All right.** She switched to sending, worried that as they moved closer, even the sound of their voices could upset the bees. **The tree is largely dead, but I think I sense a spark of life still left. I'll have to get up close to tap into it.**
Willow confidently led the way to the tree, and when they reached the massive trunk, she stepped back a bit to give Evervale room to do what she needed to do.
**Really, the most important part is at the bottom. There are plenty of handholds up top still, from what I can see. If you can give some way for me to get up to those, I should be fine.**
As Willow spoke, two bees skimmed down from above and began circling around both elves' heads.
Evervale tried to follow just as confidently, but inside her nerves were on edge. When the bees flew near her head, she looked at them sidelong with wide eyes. Normally, one or two bugs wouldn't bother her. But knowing that hordes of their comrades were only a tree's length away...
The younger elf knelt, happy to move her head further down from the buzzing bees, and set her hands near the very bottom of the tree trunk. Once her plantshaping powers seeped into the wood and found a life source, Evervale calmed considerably. Now her attention was largely on the tree itself. She was glad to find there was still some life in the old girl.
**It does have some life.** She told Willow with a smile. Evervale closed her eyes and mingled her magic with the tree's life source. It took some coaxing, but in time she was able to expand it and move it up the trunk.
Evervale opened her eyes and looked up the side of the tree, judging where to put the handholds. Soon the first new sprout of wood appeared at knee level. Another appeared within easy distance of the first, then another, and another. Evervale smiled, feeling pride in the simple task.
Willow found herself grinning as Evervale made the old tree sprout new handholds. From the looks of it, this might be one of the easiest climbs ever!
She was so tempted to touch one of the handholds, just to test and see if they really were as sturdy as they looked, but she waited. Evervale had come into her powers not too long ago, and she didn't want to do anything that might disturb the shaping process. The last thing she wanted to happen was to fall and break her neck!
So, she tried to be as patient as possible and waited - looking expectantly at Evervale - for some indication that the shaping was complete.
After several handholds had formed in the side of the tree, Evervale looked up at Willow. **That should be enough, I think. Just send if you need more.**
Evervale sat on the ground and exhaled quickly. It had been hard to coax growth from the old dying tree, but in the process she had learned a great deal. Now she wanted to rest and watch Willow in action. She still watched the few bees buzzing around her head with a wary eye. So far, though, they weren't causing any harm.
Willow grinned at Evervale. "Perfect!"
Saying little more, the older elf shouldered the strap that held the baskets she'd brought for the task. When she was sure the baskets were secure, she placed a hand on the first of the handholds. It felt smooth, but there was enough of a bite to the wood to make climbing easy.
She turned to Evervale one last time. "I'll be down soon."
Then, Willow carefully began her climb. Even though there were now numerous, secure footholds, she moved carefully, slowly. She made sure her feet were secure on one foothold before she moved to the next. It looked effortless.
As she drew nearer to the hole in the tree, more and more bees seemed to become interested in Willow's ascent. They buzzed out of the bee tree, circled around the elf's ears, eyes, and mouth. They landed on her shoulders, on her arms, and in her hair. Willow just kept climbing as though the bees weren't even there. By the time she had reached the entrance to the hive, it was hard to tell where the bees ended and where Willow began.
Willow was calm, in a relaxed state she had entered countless times before when she had raided honey from a tree. Though bees swarmed around her, she could see comb dripping with honey inside the tree within easy reach. She reached into the tree slowly, careful not to disturb the bees on her too much, and carefully plucked a hunk of comb from within the hive. Amber liquid dripped from it as she deposited the treat into one of the baskets she had brought just for the occasion.
Meanwhile, Evervale watched with fascination below. Eyes wide, the young elf leaned further and further back in order to watch Willow, until finally she just laid on the ground. She scarcely blinked, afraid she would miss some gesture by the other elf that would reveal how she performed her feat. But all the while, it simply seemed that Willow had a natural talent for bee charming. Perhaps it wasn't something that could be taught or learned. Evervale mulled this over as she continued to watch and wait.
Willow stole a third bit of honeycomb, dripping with honey, and carefully placed it into her basket. She took a quick look at the contents of the woven container and decided that this was enough. The pieces were large; it was a very productive harvest.
Then, carefully, she began her descent, being careful not to drop her carefully-acquired treat. With Evervale's new footholds,it didn't take her long to reach the ground at all.
When she finished climbing down, Willow shook the last of the bees from her hair and cast the young plantshaper a grin. Without hesitating, she reached into the basket, pulled out the largest piece of honeycomb and held it out to the younger elf.
**Here. This is for you, for your help.**
Evervale stood and smiled with wide, appreciative eyes when the bee charmer offered her the biggest chunk of honeycomb. She took it with a nod, "I'm glad I could help." Perhaps the word "finally" hung in the air, but in a good-natured way. The important thing to Evervale, now, was that she was appreciated.
She tasted the honey and made "mm" sounds, all the while regarding Willow with new eyes. In the past, she'd had all sorts of questions about how Willow did her charming. Now that she had witnessed the act, she no longer wanted to ask them. It was like a magic talent you didn't have - it could never be described sufficiently. And perhaps, Evervale pondered, it was all the more beautiful for its mystery.
The pair walked away from the magically-shaped old tree and back to the holt, leaving the bees to make more honey for the next visit.