The sound of crickets chirping and the slight change in light told Kestrel the sun would soon rise. She sent to Snowfall from the top of the trees, alerting her lovemate that it was time to leave the Den's Creek. Snowfall's response let her know that she and Rill would meet her by the Craft Trees. Kestrel brushed windblown strands of hair back from her face as she made her descent from the treetops to the ground below.
She didn't have to wait long for Snowfall. Her lovemate walked serenely through the trees, carrying a very tired Rill. The two had been watching Snowfall's grandson that night while Quick Fang was out hunting and Suddendusk mended nets by the river.
"Seems he's pretty worn out," Kestrel commented in a soft voice, stroking the young one's hair affectionately.
Snowfall nodded as she fell into step beside her lovemate. "We had a very busy night. This cub is full of energy, but even he has to slow down sometime," she responded with a smirk.
"It's too bad. Since we're near the Craft Trees, I had been thinking that maybe we could take him to see what Beetle's been working on. Willow's been telling me a bit about it," Kestrel said mysteriously, glancing at the den where Beetle was working. Willow's descriptions of Beetle's latest project sounded a lot like some of the tall, tapering candles they had spied some of the dark-skinned humans with. Kestrel wondered if Beetle had decided to see if she could duplicate them.
Just then, Beetle ran out from her work den carrying a large-mouthed pot of water. She smiled at them, hustled to the nearest point of the creek and returned with a filled pot. She was breathing heavily, but smiling. "I just wanted to get the water so I could try out... Oh, wait! Do you want to see?"
Snowfall's look told Kestrel she was thinking about Rill, whose head now rested on his grandmother's shoulder, and whose breathing indicated he was almost asleep. At the same time, there was a light of curiosity in Snowfall's eyes.
"Well, I am pretty curious..." Kestrel said with a grin, which Snowfall returned. Both elves turned back to Beetle and answered affirmatively. The younger elf seemed happy to be able to show off her newest creation, and motioned for them to follow her back to the den. Brushing through the hide in the entrance, Beetle led her tribemates inside.
As she looked around the room, Snowfall wondered aloud how much Rill would have enjoyed looking around if he were awake. Shelves lined almost every wall, and Beetle had a stone worktable in the middle of the room. There was a small pit in the center of the table designed for fire.
The scent of smoke told Kestrel that Beetle had been burning something. The scent reminded her a little of honey-wax bowl candles... but there was also a scent of burnt leather, and of burnt wrapstuff. Kestrel wondered what Beetle had been up to.
"What's that smell?" Rill's sleepy voice asked aloud.
Kestrel watched as Snowfall gently set Rill down so that he could stand on his own. "We're in the Craft Trees. This is where Beetle does some of her work," Snowfall explained.
The child's eyes widened as he took in the sights around him. Both elders made sure to keep a close eye on him, but they found it hard not to be distracted by the myriad objects around the room and on the shelves. What caught their attention most, however, was that the floor and table were soaked with water.
"Why's everything so wet?" Rill asked his grandmother. Snowfall and Kestrel both looked to Beetle expectantly.
Beetle was moving around quickly, arranging items on the shelves. Finally, she slowed, and moved toward the table, items in hand. "They're ready. Finally." Beetle's response seemed cryptic, and Kestrel and Snowfall watched as Beetle set four long, tapered objects onto the table. "See! I did it. I made the long candles that the Amber Hunters have in their Holt. I've been trying to get it right, but the wax was either too soft, or it melted too fast, or sometimes it would fall over. That's why everything's so wet. I have the water jugs here to pour over the fire if the candle falls over and lights something."
So that explained it.
"That's amazing, Beetle," Kestrel told her, looking at Beetle’s newest creation. They looked like sticks made out of yellow beeswax, as long as Beetle's forearm.
Rill moved forward to get a better look at the objects. Snowfall followed him, making sure he didn't touch anything. Kestrel moved to his other side, leaning her arm against the stone table. Suddenly, a strong gust of wind blew in from outside, causing Beetle to grab her candles to make sure they didn't roll off.
"The wind's really picked up overnight," Snowfall commented in slight irritation.
Kestrel nodded in agreement. "I'm pretty sure a storm's coming in."
Beetle's eyes lit up at Kestrel's statement, though she didn't explain why. Kestrel didn't ask. Sometimes, when Beetle got an idea in her mind, it was better to wait for the results than to know what she had planned. Another gust of wind blew through the window, damping the light of a bowl candle. Another, on the table, still burned.
"Look," Beetle said, taking one of the tapered candles in hand and putting its wick to the flame that still burned. The candle lit, and the light from it seemed brighter than that of the candle on the table – similar to the light given by a candlefish, though not nearly as smelly. Beetle handed the candle to Snowfall and said, "Be careful of the dripping wax, it's hot!" Snowfall nodded, and held the candle away from her.
Beetle took two more candles from the table, lit them, and handed one to Kestrel. Then Beetle re-lit the bowl candle near the window.
Kestrel couldn’t help but notice that the light from these candles was brighter. Maybe it was because the flame was higher and not concealed in the deepening pit of liquid wax like the bowl candles. Or maybe Beetle had come up with different materials for wicking.
"It's so bright," Rill commented, interrupting Kestrel’s thoughts.
Kestrel moved to a ledge where there were pouches of herbs. She picked them up, one by one, sniffing at them and identifying the item inside. One by one, she handed them to Rill, who sniffed as well. Snowfall joined the lesson, and Beetle worked quietly at her table, trying to get the candles to stand up on their own.
She managed to get two candles to stand on the table, using the melted wax to keep the candle upright. Kestrel observed it without comment, but her attention was drawn back to Rill and Snowfall, who had finished identifying the herbs on the shelf. Rill looked tired, and Kestrel guessed that if the child was kept up much longer, he might get fussy. "We should be getting back to the Dentrees."
Snowfall agreed. This time, Kestrel set her candle upright on the table, the same way she'd seen Beetle do it, then picked up the child, who rested his head on her shoulder. Kestrel and Snowfall paused, backs to the table, to talk for a moment longer with Beetle.
"Ummm... Kestrel," Rill said quietly.
"Shh... sleep now, child," she said absently, stroking his back.
Kestrel was confused by Beetle's sudden movement to reach for the water jug. Before Kestrel knew what was happening, Beetle had thrown water over her, Rill, and the table.
"Sorry," Beetle said apologetically. "The candle fell over and would have burned your hair."
Kestrel, knowing the dangers of fire all too well, thanked Beetle as she moved herself and Rill away from the table. She set Rill down, and Snowfall took Rill's soaking shirt off of him.
"That was close," Snowfall said, "Too close."
Beetle, still looking apologetic for the near-miss, quietly said, "I should ask mother to shape some candleholders, like the ones the Amber Hunters have. The long candles are a good source of light, and they last longer, but I think they're too dangerous the way they are - we don't want the Dentrees, or anything else, to get burned if they fall over.”
Kestrel smiled at her then. "It wasn't your fault, Beetle. We all know the dangers of fire, and we all know we need to be careful."
Snowfall quietly said, "If your hair had caught fire, you'd have had to cut it."
Kestrel pulled her braid around and stroked it in a subconscious gesture. "You know, I'd been thinking of a change for a while. I would have had a reason to cut it, then."
Snowfall stood up and moved to take Kestrel's hands. "Dear one, you know you don't need a reason for a change in style. And... I think shorter hair would suit you."
"Really? You think you and True Edge would like it?" Kestrel asked, a hint of doubt in her voice.
"There's only one way to find out," Snowfall said with a smile. "Let's head back now."
Kestrel picked Rill up as she and Snowfall said goodbye to Beetle. She felt a bit nervous about what she was going to do, but she was also excited.
Sitting on the sleeping furs in her den, Kestrel looked rather forlornly at the long braid she now held in her hand. "It's been a long time since my hair has been this short... probably since before you were born," she said to Snowfall with a wry smile.
Coming over to sit beside her lovemate, Snowfall ran her fingers through Kestrel's newly shorn hair, which now ended just above her shoulders. "I like it this way. It frames your face nicely," she said. "You were due for a change. Sometimes we elders get comfortable with how we look and forget to switch it up every once in awhile."
"I think you're right. Maybe I should go one further and have Nightstorm make me some new leathers, too," Kestrel responded half-jokingly.
"Of course! I can't believe I didn't think of that," Snowfall said to Kestrel's surprise. "We can go ask her as soon as the storm's over." She settled into the furs next to the sleeping Rill.
"I wonder what True Edge is going to think when he gets back," Kestrel thought aloud, chuckling in amusement at the thought of his expression upon seeing the change.
"Well... he'll certainly be surprised."