Up, up, up they climbed, winding around the mountain. The bees had built their hive at the very top, clinging to the bare cliff face.
Monkey tried not to look down. He’d never climbed this high before, nor joined in on a honey-gathering. Both made him feel like bees buzzed around inside his stomach. But Clay had mocked him, called him a coward. He couldn’t back down now, not against the dizzying heights, not against bees the size of his fist. He would prove his bravery.
Ginger held up a hand. They’d reached the end of the trail. Everyone behind her stopped and began to unpack their supplies: wood, fire bundles, tinder, and bags for the honey.
Four would scramble up the rock face: Ginger and Bobcat to wave the fire bundles with their smoky, slow-burning herbs; Monkey and Clay to reach into the hive itself and pull out whole walls of waxy honeycomb, with their little pockets of honey.
This honey meant even more than just sweetness. Below, in the valley, grew a very special flower. It held a magic so potent that no human could taste it and survive. But the bees could. The bees took its nectar, digested it, and spat it back up as honey. When people ate this honey, its magic would bear them into the other world.
But could Monkey get it? He looked up at the hive and shuddered.
Behind him, Ginger woke up the fire. Great, billowing clouds of smoke wafted up to the hive, helped along by snaps of Bobcat’s rug. Ginger gave thanks to the bees for wizarding so well, for making more honey than they needed, for letting the humans take some of their house and honey. She offered up the sacred smoke that made the bees feel pleasantly sleepy (bees, after all, enjoy intoxication as much as humans do). She hoped this high would serve as adequate compensation for the honey they would take, and promised not to take more than their own wizards needed.
Monkey looked up at the bees. If they accepted the smoke as payment, they wouldn’t sting the humans who came to collect their honey. But he knew that just like humans, intoxication made some bees mean.
The fire-bearers lit their bundles, Monkey and Clay strapped their bags to their backs, and the flour climbers got to work.
Monkey had earned his name from his climbing skills. For as long as he could remember, he loved climbing trees. He climbed plenty of rocks, too, but he’d never climbed so high, or while risking the sting of angry bees.
Monkey took deep breaths and focused on the cliff face in front of him — the next handhold, the next foothold, the puzzle of it, trying to forget the buzzing hive as big as hit hut. The fire below and the torches beside him kept reminding him with smoke that burned his throat and stung his eyes. But he made progress.
Soon the fire-bearers had eclipsed him and Clay — as they needed to — and now perched just below the hive, holding their bundles up, letting the smoke do its work. Bees circled, slow and increasingly wobbly.
Monkey looked down at Clay, who nodded. With a deep breath, Monkey reached out and dipped his hand into the hive.