Chapter Eleven

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Nemeth crouched thoughtfully by the base of the tree, adding small twigs to the pile of dried moss-fuzz and half-dried bark pieces. He pulled some brownish-green leafy-looking bundles and some sprigs of herbs out of his pack, and added them to the top of the pile.

"What are those?" asked Farinka.

"Hops and valerian. Makes them sleepier than just smoke alone."

"Does it work?"

"Pretty well. I'm hoping it will, anyway, as it's me that's most likely to catch it if it doesn't." Tarke and Sherath returned with armfuls of fresh green grass and moss which they placed over the top of the pile. Nemeth tented over the top with an old sooty deerskin, tying it round the trunk of the tree so that it reached just over the wide crack where the root-buttresses met. He struck a spark into the base of the pile, blowing until it sprang into flame, and then weighted the deerskin down with stones, leaving a small drawhole at one side.

"The whole tree is hollow," he explained to Farinka. "It acts like a chimney. Pulls the smoke right up between the combs. The bees are pretty dozy at this time of day anyway. A lot will fall down inside the tree, and whatever's left crawling on the combs will be fairly easy to handle." He sat back on his heels, looking up the trunk of the tree. "See up there? That's the top of the chimney."

Smoke had already started to come out in thin wisps from a big hole about twenty feet up the tree; the wisps turned into a steady stream as they watched.

"Keep right away from the tree, Domina – don't even touch it. The whole trunk would amplify even the smallest vibration – and that would wake the bees up quite quickly. Noise doesn't bother them much – vibration does."

"How are you going to get the combs out?"

"From the top. That hole's quite big, and the combs are likely to be within easy reach."

"Won't climbing up cause vibration?"

"It would. Which is why I'm going up the horse chestnut there and then across. They don't expect to be raided from the top, and any movement up there would be like wind movement rather than honey-raider movement." He stood up, picking up two hide sacks and tying them round his waist with a long coil of thin rope, then headed over to the horse chestnut tree.

Four pairs of eyes watched him climb – Moondust's nose gradually tilting upwards and his ears pricked. The branches of the two trees intermingled about thirty feet up from the forest floor, and Nemeth walked out along one, catching hold of one of the honey tree's branches with his hands and transferring himself first hand-over-hand and then swinging his legs up and over the honey tree branch until he could crawl along it. The climb ten feet down the honey tree was easy, and Nemeth came to rest astride the branch next to which the top hole of the chimney opened. He wafted smoke away from his face.

"Okay," he called down softly, "open that deerskin up so I don't get smoked out as well."

He tied the hide sacks to the branch with the rope, pulled a belt knife from its sheath, and reached carefully into the tree, linking his feet under the branch for added security.

The first sack took about ten minutes to fill, with Nemeth carefully brushing bees from each wedge of comb he pulled out and letting them fall back inside the tree. A soft humming sound was becoming audible.

"Better give them some more smoke," Nemeth called. Farinka and Sherath tented the fire again, and Nemeth edged back along the branch, tying the first sack shut and lowering it on the rope.

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