Willow sighed as she dangled her legs off the branch she was sitting on, leaning back against the Mother Tree’s wide trunk. She was bored, but despite the sun beginning to rise, she did not feel like going to bed yet. Most of the others were turning in, though, so she guessed she would not have much time left before Finch or Bowflight would call her to come to the den.
Voices underneath made her perk up, and she looked down, spotting Cloudfern and Starskimmer passing underneath her vantage spot, deep in conversation. “So the salve helped?” Cloudfern was saying right now.
Starskimmer nodded. “It should relieve the itching enough for Spidersilk to be able to sleep. And I guess she won’t go near that itchleaf spot again!”
Cloudfern chuckled and answered something she did not understand while they were continuing their way, but Willow no longer was listening anyway. The six-year old cub sat up straight on her branch, eyes alight with mischief – a brilliant idea had just come to her, aided by the herbal healers’ words. Really, why had she never thought of using itchleaf for a prank? It was right there in the name! She needed to get her hands on it! Well, it wouldn’t be too hard to find out where Bearheart and Dreamberry’s daughter had been tonight, would it? After all, the weaver never went far, so if she was lucky, there was some growing close to the Dentrees…
**Willow,** her mother’s sending reached her just then, and the young elf rolled her eyes. Just when she had found something to distract her and she wasn’t bored any more… But the itchleaf would not run away, she supposed. **Coming!** she replied and dropped off the branch onto the steps formed along the tree’s trunk while her mind was buzzing with possibilities already.
“Hey, Spidersilk!” Willow let herself drop to the floor next to the young weaver and gave her a smile, not deterred at all when the friendly greeting was met with only a curt nod. Spidersilk did not take lightly to interruptions when she was working, and though she was the closest agemate Willow had, at twenty-three summers she was already grown and had little patience for cubs a quarter her age. So Willow plunged on without waiting: “You found some itchleaf yesterday. Where was that?”
Spidersilk gave her a puzzled look. “Why do you ask?”
Willow gave her an innocent look out of big blue eyes. “So I know where not to go?” she ventured hopefully.
“Ah.” Spidersilk hesitated but finally shrugged. Maybe it was her desire to have the cub out of her hair so she could continue on her task, but in any case she did not question her any further. Instead she told her: “It’s right next to the big broken oak near the top of the stone weir, you know, in the direction of Laughing Creek. But don’t worry, Cloudfern said he'd do something about it anyway.”
Willow suppressed a wince. Oh no, that meant she would have to hurry! She gave Spidersilk a serious nod. "Thanks,” she said and got up again. “I’ll let you work in peace, then.”
Spidersilk looked at her a bit suspiciously but finally only replied: “Thanks,” and returned her attention to her work. Within moments it seemed she had forgotten the cub, and even the conversation they'd just had.
With a grin, Willow left her. She had hoped for this – the spot Spidersilk had indicated was close enough that she could go there without any noticing her absence, at least if she was lucky. She knew there was enough growing a bit farther around the Dentrees but she might draw attention if she went that far.
She found her den empty, thankfully. Her mother was on the hunt and her father maybe at the river or with Kestrel or something. Right now Willow was more interested in his absence than in where he was, anyway. She pulled out the carefully wrapped winter things Finch had put away more than a moon ago and dug through them until she found her gloves, not caring that she was scattering the rest of them around her. After all, she was not stupid – the purpose of the exercise was making someone else itch, not herself. So just moments later she was ready to take off again, eyes alight with mischief and hands protected by sturdy leather.
It wasn’t hard to find the spot Spidersilk had indicated, and Willow was delighted to see that Cloudfern hadn’t removed it already. Taking care not to get into contact with it too much, she picked the leaves roughly, stuffing them into a bag while keeping an ear perked up for any sounds of someone, whether Cloudfern or anyone else, approaching. But she was lucky again, and no one happened upon her until her bag was full and she turned back towards the Dentrees, satisfied.
She had almost reached them when she heard steps, right before an elf came into view. For a moment she felt the urge to toss the bag behind her into the brushes – she could possibly retrieve it once the elf she now recognized as Snowfall had passed. However, she chose not to but walked on, keeping her face as neutral and innocent as she could. Not acting as if there was anything to worry about was probably best, she reasoned. So she just greeted the huntress with a nod and brushed past her.
“Willow?” Snowfall’s voice behind her made her stop and look back at her.
“Yes?” she asked simply.
The huntress stood and looked at her pensively. “Are your hands cold?” she finally asked with a little glint in her eyes that could be a smile but wasn’t quite.
Willow looked at her, puzzled, until she realized what she meant. Looking down, she saw that she was still wearing her gloves. Oh no! She should have pulled them off after gathering what she needed – no one walked around with gloves on at this time of the year. What a stupid mistake!
Thinking quickly, she replied: “No, but I was gathering some berries at a spot I know, but there are thorns there. So I thought gloves were a good idea.”
Snowfall’s inquisitive expression did not change, and Willow cursed the storyteller for her curiosity. “I see,” she replied. “Very rationally thought, dear. Those must be some delicious berries to be worth such a risk.”
Willow shrugged and grinned. “No one picks them, so they grow very well. They’re pretty good.”
“And I guess they are growing close to something even more unpleasant than thorns?” Snowfall asked. At Willow’s puzzled glance she went over to her, took her arm and held it up. “There,” she pointed out a strip of reddened skin, running across Willow’s arm above the glove’s edge. “Looks as if there was some itchleaf growing nearby.”
Willow’s eyes went wide – she hadn’t noticed the itching consciously though she had been scratching her arm absent-mindedly. Well, it was a risk you had to take. Still, it was unfortunate that Snowfall’s sharp eyes had spotted it. “I didn’t notice that,” she said and rubbed across the red mark. “Well, it just itches a little.”
Snowfall’s piercing blue eyes still did not leave her face, and she began to feel seriously unsettled. “So you didn’t see any itchleaf?” Snowfall asked again. “You know, since you asked Spidersilk about it earlier tonight, I would have thought you would know where not to go.”
Willow bit her lip. High Ones, why had Spidersilk mentioned that to her sister? “I wasn’t paying attention,” she replied with a shrug.
“Oh, I think you did.” Snowfall shook her head. “I bet this bag is full of itchleaf. So, who did you want to prank?”
The cub sighed and gave up. She had been caught – Snowfall obviously knew and wouldn’t let her off easily. “I hadn't decided yet …” she mumbled. Actually she had been so preoccupied with getting the itchleaf, she had completely forgotten to think about what to do once she had it. “Maybe on Beesting?” she said the first name that popped into her head and looked up at Snowfall, almost hopeful that it was all the huntress wanted to know and she would let her go, until she realized it was Snowfall’s grandmother she was suggesting a prank on. Without noticing, her hand went back to the red mark on her arm, scratching it.
“Don’t scratch it.” Snowfall seized her arm and pulled it away, holding it for a moment.
Willow stared at her, surprised at the sudden act. “What?”
Snowfall let go of her arm and explained: “When you scratch it, you spread the poison further – it’s lucky you wore gloves at least, or your hands would suffer.”
“Oh,” Willow's eyes widened. She hadn’t known that – or maybe she had, remembering many past warnings, but she hadn’t thought of it. With the single-mindedness of a cub that knew it was in trouble, she returned to the most pressing matter right away, though. “So, what are you going to do now, tell on me to Mother or Father?”
Snowfall gave her another long, serious look. “No,” she finally said. “But I think you need to tell them yourself. But let me ask you first – how did you get the idea to get the itchleaf?”
“What?” Willow protested. “Why should I tell them about it?!”
“Answer the question, please,” Snowfall requested mildly.
Willow scowled but reluctantly answered: “I heard Starskimmer and Cloudfern talking about giving Spidersilk a salve for the itching.”
Snowfall nodded. “What do you think? Why that was necessary?”
Willow rolled her eyes. Snowfall had this annoying habit of asking too many questions instead of just saying what she had on her mind, she had noticed before… “Because it itches and she couldn’t sleep?”
“Yes. But do you know why she couldn’t?” Seeing Willow’s annoyed look, she gave in and answered her question herself. “Because it not only itches a lot, like it does on your arm.” She pointed at Willow’s hand that had just wanted to resume scratching, and Willow let her hand drop down again, embarrassed. “I’m sure you remember that your parents warned you about it. It’s nothing harmless. It not only itches – it hurts and can do a lot of damage. Do you want to see what Spidersilk’s leg looked like yesterday before Starskimmer came with her salves?”
Willow swallowed. Somehow she didn’t think she would like to see it. “It’s that bad?” she asked, her voice rather small. She had thought nothing of it that Spidersilk had needed the attention of the herbal healers … But now she realized that if it was only a bit of itching, she wouldn’t have needed help with it, or if the itchleaf was harmless, Cloudfern wouldn’t have told her he would remove it. And yes, she remembered that her parents had told her about the itchleaf – but somehow she hadn’t thought too much of it. Willow was the kind of cub who had to touch the flames before she believed that fire was hot, so warnings often were taken notice of but not necessarily taken seriously.
“Well, it is certainly nothing to use in a light prank,” Snowfall replied seriously. “And it’s also better for sure that I take you to see Cloudfern now, so that spot on your arm gets treated. If we do something about it right away, you might be lucky and get away with only the itching.”
Willow nodded, her eyes downcast. She felt rather stupid now. “I’m sorry …” she mumbled. “I didn’t want to hurt anyone.”
Snowfall gave her a half-smile that was more sympathetic than reprehensive. “So far you didn’t,” she pointed out, “apart from yourself, so there’s no real harm done. However, the reason why I think you need to tell your parents is that you wore your gloves – that was smart of you, but as it is, the juices of the itchleaf are very strong and hard to remove, and they are all over your gloves now. It is impossible to get them out without destroying the leather. So, you’ll need to explain to your parents why your gloves are ruined. Though,” she added more strictly, “if you don’t tell them, I will.”
Willow made a face. All right, Snowfall had a point – her parents would notice if her gloves were gone, and it would be much worse if they found out later. So maybe it was best to come clean right now. And it would certainly be better if she told them herself than if Snowfall did! “Do you think they will be very angry?” she asked, almost thoughtfully.
Snowfall shrugged and replied: “I don’t know. You’ll have to find out yourself. I hope that at least you learned your lesson about itchleaf now. And I think the next time you plan on pranking someone you will be more careful – or just test it on yourself again?” She winked at her.
Willow snorted and shook her head. “The next time I won’t be so careless,” she promised. And while her hand went back up to scratch her arm again, she smiled up at the elder, knowing that she had found a victim for her next prank.