Here’s my contribution to our 2019 short story challenge. I think I got all the prompts 🙂
Happy Holidays, all!
A Gift Fit for a Queen
“Careful with those crocks, lad.” Ben Wildridge watched hawk-eyed as his apprentice unpacked straw-filled crates containing the finest bee nectar in the northern borderlands. Maybe in the entire kingdom.
“Yes, master.” Fifteen-year-old Toby rolled his eyes, but he lifted out the earthenware jars with care, cradling each one like a priceless bauble.
Which it was. Ben sold his regular honey in the weekly market, but he saved his mountain nectar for Wintersnight. The fragrant, sticky syrup was like the essence of summer, and the high prices of the midwinter holiday made it worth his while to wait.
When the crates were empty he left Toby to set out their stall and drove the cart into the inn yard. In an hour or two the place would be nose to tail, but it was still early and the bored ostlers were more than happy to spoil Silver.
Ben knew all too well that by noon the press of bodies, the gabble of voices, the smell of woodsmoke and fried food, warm wool and unwashed skin would make him puking sick. For now he could take an hour to show the townspeople he was alive and well, and that he knew how to exchange social niceties like a civilized person, no matter what the gossips said about his aversion to crowds. Then he’d sell his nectar as fast as he could and retreat to his mountain lair.
He strolled round the half empty market, exchanging Wintersnight greetings with families he’d known all his life. He’d almost finished his rounds, a warm venison pasty for Toby in one pocket and a flagon of cordial for himself in the other, when he saw an unfamiliar stall, displaying small rock crystal jars filled with something that caught the light and glowed like amber.
It couldn’t be honey. First, he was the only honey seller in Borderbridge. Second, who ever would put honey in rock crystal? Crystal was expensive, hard to find and even harder to work. And third, surely no honey could be that bright, that clear?
He stood rooted to the cobblestones, slack-jawed and blinking, until a small woman uncapped one of the jars and used a crystal dipper to drizzle the contents over squares of fresh bread on a wooden board. His nostrils flared. His mouth watered. It was an invitation, and a challenge. He didn’t realize he’d moved until she held out the board and he popped a syrup-soaked square between his lips.
“Oh!” His sigh was involuntary, an exhale of pure pleasure as the complex taste exploded on his tongue and lit up his body from the crown of his head to the soles of his feet. He closed his eyes and concentrated until he could almost smell wild blossom and hear the hum of happy, healthy honeybees.
When he’d chased every last faint taste he opened his eyes, using a knuckle to flick away unexpected moisture from his cheeks. The woman stared at him, bright-eyed and curious. She wore a dove gray cap above a sludgy green coat and skirt that somehow blended into the shifting shadows. She was slender and brown skinned, with pointed features in a mobile face that could have put her anywhere between seventeen and seventy. He’d never seen an earth guardian, but he’d read the legends. Call him crazy, but he felt no doubt that he had just met a force of nature.
He should have greeted her with respect. Should have wished her the blessings of winter. Instead he heard himself blurt “You make honey?”
The woman grinned, showing teeth as sharp as her nose and chin. “Not me. My daughter.”
She shrugged a bony shoulder. “The usual way.”
He shook his head. “If a person could make this nectar the usual way, I would have done it.”
She sniffed. “Maybe your blossom is wrong. Maybe your bees.”
“No. I live on the mountain. Wildflower meadows. Wild ridge honeybees. Air so pure you could drink it.” He fumbled for his purse. “I have to know. I’ll pay. Whatever—”
“We don’t sell our secrets.” The spirit woman set down the board. Turned back and considered him for a long moment. “Sometimes they can be earned.”
Earned? His heart slammed against his ribs. “Wait. Please.”
He ran the short distance to where Toby was already doing a brisk trade. Waved at the boy and grabbed the biggest pot of nectar, the one he’d hand-painted with his neat house amid the wildflower glade, the handwoven wicker bee skeps, and the valley laid out below following the river to distant Borderbridge.
He carried the jar carefully to where the woman waited, dropped to one knee and offered it to her with both hands. “Blessings of Wintersnight to you and your daughter, lady.”
She took it from him and examined the lovingly decorated surface, looking up to compare it to the distant mountain. Then a knife appeared between her fingers and she broke the seal. She dipped the blade in the nectar. Lifted it to the light. Held it under her nostrils for a long moment and finally touched her tongue to the flat of the blade.
He held his breath as a faint crease appeared between her lowered brows.
“Go, sell your nectar.” She moved to take her place behind her stall. “I make you no promises. But I will tell my daughter of you.”
Ben did as she bid, but his concentration was destroyed. He sat on a crate, lost in a bittersweet daydream as Toby wolfed down his venison pasty, offered Wintersnight blessings to passers-by, cracked jokes and sold every crock of nectar long before the midday bell tolled.
The boy pocketed his pay and chose to stay in town for the bonfire and dancing. It was lucky that Silver knew his way home, because that journey passed in a blur, too. Ben roused himself long enough to stow the cart and stable Silver. Then he took a chair from the kitchen and set it against the wall in the bole house where his bee skeps nestled in their individual alcoves, open to the air but protected from the winter weather. He couldn’t see the occupants but he knew they were there, clustered around their queen, dining on stored honey.
He couldn’t hear them humming, but he fancied he could, and it soothed him.
“Blessings of Wintersnight to you, beekeeper.”
The figure in the doorway was a handspan taller than her mother, with softer features and a gentle smile. She was swathed from head to toe in an earth-colored cloak that swirled around her as she walked toward him and offered him a small hessian bag.
He opened the drawstring, dipped his fingers inside and drew out a hard kernel about the size of his thumbnail. It glistened faintly in the fading daylight. “A seed?” He tested the bag gently with the pads of his fingers. “Seeds?”
“Plant the grove on the first day of spring, a full pace apart, in full sunshine. They will do the rest. I think my sweet blossoms will like your mountain, beekeeper.” She added softly, as though to herself, “I think your bees will like my blossom grove.”
She turned to leave.
“Wait!” He scrambled to his feet. “Will I see you again, lady?”
“Look for me at Midsummer.” She took a deep breath, as though tasting the air. A smile started at the corners of her mouth and grew until it suffused her whole face with joy. “Who knows? Perhaps I shall stay.”