Softly and swiftly, the bright sun slinked down the sky and settled down for the night behind the forest canopy. Young Sweetvine sensed the changes in the forest even in her sleep. She awoke just as the last streams of light were still pulling their fingers from her snug den home in the base of the Father Tree.
She opened her wide green eyes and rose only slightly on one elbow to peek at the still forms of her parents sleeping nearby. She grinned with satisfaction when she saw the gentle rise and fall of the furs that indicated they were still deep in sleep.
Dark red unruly curls spilling in her eyes, Sweetvine moved out from under her furs as slowly as possible so as not to awake her parents. It wasn't completely necessary; her parents weren't the sort to insist on watching her every second. At nine turns, she was old enough to go on her own as long as she stayed reasonably near the Mother Tree. Still, it was fun to sneak about and try to get out of her den before anyone else awoke. Plus, she had particular plans for the day and she didn't want anyone, especially Mother or Father, to ruin them by insisting she do other things.
With patience unusual in a child, Sweetvine moved her limbs incredibly slow until they slipped out from under the furs. When she was finally free of the heavy fur, she scooped up her boots and clothes and slipped out of the den doorway, a giddiness bubbling up from her throat.
It was still quite warm from the sun's rays, with just a hint of the evening coolness on her naked skin. Just outside the doorway and just as quietly as before, the elf pulled on her long green pants, tossed her short brown top over her head, then pulled on her boots and hastily tied them tight. Time was of an essence if her plan was to work. She left her hair a bit disheveled, running her fingers through the long red locks just before starting her climb up the branches of the intertwined tree homes.
Closing in on her destination, Sweetvine bit the lower lip of her grin and stopped just outside a den and listened intently. When she heard slight rustling, her grin curved up into a smile of triumph. She clenched her fists in silent celebration, then pulled herself up to a higher branch. Crouching low behind the bright green leaves, Sweetvine watched the den opening, barely breathing for fear of being noticed.
Inside her den, Willow opened her eyes and lay still in those limbo-like few moments between sleep and wakefulness where the body was relaxed and the mind was numb. Slowly, the wakeful world presented itself to her. It was warm; she shouldn't have crawled under the furs last night. It was dark but not yet too dark; the light coming in from outside still seemed to glow golden.
‘Time to check and reset the traps’, her mind whispered. Moments later, her body agreed. She rose from bed to find her clothes and dress. She decided the sleeveless tunic and shorts should do nicely. Then, after tucking loose bits of hair back into what was left of unkempt braids and slipping on her soft shoes - she stepped outside into the slightly cooler eve.
Willow emerged from her den and took a moment to stretch. It was much too confined in the den to do so properly. While in the middle of that routine, she felt the hairs on the back of her neck prickle; something didn't feel quite right. But what? She sniffed the air and paused. Someone was here, but who? She had the suspicious feeling she was going to fall into a trap if she wasn't careful. But who could be hiding here, and why?
‘Perhaps I'd best play along’, she decided, and as if she had detected nothing out of the ordinary, she made her way down the tree.
Suppressing a giggle, Sweetvine watched Willow from her perch. When the older elf seemed to pause, the cub stiffened. She held her breath and didn't dare move. When Willow finally moved away, Sweetvine's whole body quivered with relief. She tapped each of her eight fingers to her open palms to count the passing of time, then hopped down from the branch.
The sight of the open den behind caused her to turn in curiosity. She thought about sneaking inside, just to look around, but then felt her stomach tense in knots. If she were caught in there, she'd probably be in big trouble. Blinking the idea away, Sweetvine started down the tree after Willow, making sure to keep some distance.
Willow continued moving to the forest's edge, her mind trying to put what little clues she had been given together. A distinct memory seeped into a mind somewhat clouded by the NOW – memories of her little brother trying to follow her wherever she went. But Pathmark was older now, and not so much a tagalong anymore.
So who was following her now? The scent of whoever was near her den had intermingled with those of others who frequented her sleeping space and she couldn't quite pinpoint who the 'visitor' might be.
That memory, those signs, told her it must be a cub. Surreptitiously, she bent down as though she were picking up a rock just perfect for her slingstone pouch and glanced the way she had come. She didn't see anything, but that didn't mean her wary feelings were unfounded.
As she neared the line of trees on the outskirts of the holt proper, she quickened her pace. As she rounded the thick trunk of a large tree, she quietly leapt up into some of the low-slung branches and lay in wait.
Sweetvine followed Willow's trail, remembering all the things she'd learned from her mother about tracking and keeping quiet. She kept her footfalls light so that barely a crunch could be heard. The cub felt a pang of self-doubt as the trail led to the outskirts of the holt proper... especially when the trail abruptly ended! She stood in place, a hand going to her mouth as she surveyed the scene with confusion on her face. It was almost as if Willow had flown into the air... or...
With a start, Sweetvine twisted her neck to look into the trees above. Her bright green eyes quickly switched from panicked surprise to what she hoped looked like sincere innocence. "H-Hi, Willow!" She waved weakly, her thin fingers waggling in the warm air near her slightly whiter than usual face.
Willow's brows lowered and the corners of her mouth shifted to a frown.
"Sweetvine," Willow said flatly, fixing a stare at the youngster below her. Her hunch had been right – a cub had been on her trail. Willow didn't like cubs. They asked too many questions, felt like they were capable of anything – even dangerous things - and were underfoot when you least needed them there. She tried her best not to growl, and sighed instead. "I don't suppose you were following me, were you?"
"Oh, no!" Sweetvine answered, shaking her head and feigning surprise as if she would never think of such a thing. In the back of her mind she gave herself a swift kick. She hadn't planned on lying if caught, but now it was too late. The little words sprung from her lips like frogs. What excuse could she give for being out here, so close on the heels of the older wolfrider? Her little mind whirled.
"I was just..." She looked around, feeling sweat bead on her brow. Her eyes caught sight of a plump mushroom at the base of the large tree in which Willow sat. "...gathering mushrooms for mother!" She said, quite satisfied with the answer. As if to demonstrate, Sweetvine bent and snatched up the fungus along with a few of its grey companions.
As she often did when trying to avoid a subject, she tried to push the conversation past her possible wrong-doing. "What are you doing?" she asked innocently.
Willow quickly changed the subject back to the matter at hand. She didn't appreciate being lied to. "I don't think your mother would want those unless she wanted to be sick." She looked sternly at the youngster peering up at her from the forest floor below. "You head on home and stop following me. I don't want company."
Without waiting for a reply, Willow pulled herself to the branch above her, and then the branch above that. She normally wouldn't take the treetop route to get to her traps, but she didn't want to give Sweetvine any ideas about what she was doing or where she was going. For all she knew, Sweetvine would be waiting for her by her traps the next time she went to check them. And, High Ones, the last thing she wanted was for Sweetvine to get ideas about raiding bee trees. How many times had Pathmark been stung trying to imitate his older sister?
Sweetvine looked at the mushrooms with dismay, then looked even more crestfallen when the older elf dismissed her and dashed away like a squirrel. The cub dropped the mushrooms and chased after Willow from below, stumbling over roots and bushes.
**But wait! I can help! I'm smart and I can carry things for you!** She struggled to follow, having to keep her eyes on Willow and the ground at the same time.
When Willow became a bee charmer, and thus the Holt's most successful elf at gathering honey, she likely didn't expect to attract cubs like flies. Everyone wanted some of that honey, Sweetvine especially! But she wanted more than just to smell its cloying scent, touch her fingers to the sticky substance, and savor its sweet flavor; Sweetvine wanted to see where it came from, how it was gathered, how Willow kept the bees from stinging her. But Willow would have none of it.
Sweetvine had tried asking to join her several times, to no avail. This was the first time the cub had tried deception. Perhaps had she been older and more skilled, she would have succeeded. But she was, after all, just a cub. ‘Still’, Sweetvine thought as she leapt over a fallen stump, ‘ I'm not useless! I have skills to offer! If only Willow would give me a chance!’
When it was clear Willow would not slow down and Sweetvine could not catch up, the small cub finally stopped and sat on a fallen tree. She pouted out her lower lip and made a silent pact with herself. ‘Someday I will go honey gathering with you. Just you wait and see! ‘