THE FIRST TIME Fleet Captain Helena Blackthorn saw the Bee Charmer was in the park of the fountains. Blackthorn sat, as she nearly always did, at the top end away from the main concourse. Her chosen spot the fountain where water cascaded from an urn held between the breasts of a mermaid with an enigmatic smile.
It was the movement out the corner of her eye that caught her attention. She had just closed the com-link on her wrist, cutting off the last few words of a disembodied voice. Head bowed in frustration, she ran her hands through short cropped hair and, turning, saw an image in white touched off with a halo of summer gold.
Something flashed in the sun’s bright light. A woman stood perfectly still some way off, her hands raised before her, as if beseeching someone or something. Then Helena saw why. Noticed the tiny flashes of iridescent colour. Small brightly coloured butterflies fluttered about the woman’s hands.
Any thought of the heated argument she had just been having vanished at the sight that held her mesmerised. Sucking in her breath she quietly watched the performance unfolding. The moment was broken when her com-link beeped insistently. Turning her attention away, she keyed the receive button and had to restrain herself from snapping out the words, Captain Blackthorn.
When the voice on the other end wasn’t that of Admiral Cairns but of her First Officer, Marin, Helena glanced to her left to see if the woman was still captivating more than just butterflies.
She was gone.
In what had only been a fraction of a second, the woman had vanished. Ignoring Marin’s entreaties, she stared at the spot once occupied by the white and golden-haired vision. Then pulled her attention back to the tiny image on the view-screen.
Marin had a troubled look about her. It wasn’t good news then. Admiral Cairns had obviously been quick off the mark. This was going to be a day in Hell. She could already feel the fire licking at her feet, like Joan of Arc, someone wanted to burn her at the stake.
* * *
The second time Helena saw the Bee Charmer was some days later. She had made a very conscious effort to return to the same spot at the same time. Which was by no means an easy task. The last few days had taken a toll on her psyche. She needed this—a moment’s diversion. And she had to admit she was intrigued.
In an endeavour not to think about what was happening, where the Board of Inquiry was leading, she’d spent time thinking about this woman and the tiny-jewelled butterflies.
Now she watched and waited without interruption. Her com-link was on terminal standby. Only an emergency coded message would reactivate the unit. Fiddling with the lockout sequence she glanced up and caught sight of the woman. Once again she had appeared seemingly from out of nowhere.
Without a moment’s hesitation, or thought, Blackthorn rose, and drawn like the butterflies, made her way to this unusual woman. When she reached the second bench Helena heard the soft sound of singing. The woman’s voice wove a spell. Words drifted on the light breeze toward her, however, Helena didn’t recognise the language despite the haunting familiarity of the words.
A frown creased her brow but when she checked her pace to come and stand a few feet away, all thought of asking her what language she was singing in vanished, as the last note rose and faded on the air.
It was heart-achingly beautiful.
“Hello Starfleet.” Soft honeyed tones drifted in the breeze. A warm smile enlivened the woman’s face as it turned to greet her.
“Hello yourself,” Helena heard herself say and almost cringed.
“They come because of my singing. It breaks their hearts.”
Helena didn’t doubt it. Then, taking a step closer, she saw something that made her shiver, and not with any perceived cold. The woman’s hands didn’t support just a number of butterflies, but what seemed to Helena a colony of bees. Twenty or thirty, she couldn’t be sure, tiny black and gold creatures massed so that she only saw patches of pink skin beneath the movement of the tiny bodies. The faint hum in her ears, Helena saw, was coming from the bees and not, as she had first thought, some sudden aural defect.
“Don’t…don’t they sting?” She took step closer and stood mere inches from the woman’s back. A frown found its way onto her face.
“Sting?” The word rang with surprise and was accompanied by a soft snort. “Now why would they sting me?” The woman mocked light-heartedly.
Helena ignored the challenge and watched the bees with fascination. They seemed wholly unaware that the woman’s hands were not flowers. She moved closer.
The Bees suddenly scattered.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to frighten—” Helena stopped her apology mid-sentence. Her right hand had gone up in reaction. She now held it very still, very still indeed. A tiny furry creature had alighted on her upturned palm. She felt the bee’s movement across her hand. It tickled. She was less than charmed at the idea of this thing being there, and carefully avoided wincing. The quiet sound of laughter made her turn and look down at the diminutive figure of the woman stood close to her.
“Well, Starfleet, I think you just made a friend.” The woman’s eyes danced with obvious merriment at her discomfort. Helena watched then as the woman moved her hands toward her own, and wondered in mild panic what she intended doing. She didn’t have long to wait and find out, as her hands were clasped lightly between that of the woman’s. Bees moved freely about their hands, though some departed at this apparent intrusion into whatever it was they had been doing.
The normally stoic Captain stood still, mortified. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, calming herself. How could she a Captain of the line, quite happily face down pirates and come out unscathed from the Battle of the Line, to cope with being under the direct scrutiny of a Board of Inquiry headed up by Admiral Cairns. And feel nervous at having a few bees scurry across her hands? She almost laughed out-loud.
Life had no simple answers.
A few more bees departed, meandering towards the shrubbery.
“Looks like the show’s about over for today.” The woman sighed quietly, and then suddenly relinquished Helena’s hands. Blackthorn couldn’t help herself; she spread her fingers wide and began looking for tell-tail marks. Not that she had the faintest idea what she was looking for, never having been stung by a bee before. She turned and looked sheepishly as the melodious sound of the smaller woman’s laughter teased her. Then, remembering herself, Helena arched a brow but to little effect.
“No damage, Starfleet?”
Helena let her hands drop to her side and opened her mouth to snap out a retort but was brought up short when the woman grabbed the sleeve of her tunic. With the ever seemingly present smile, the woman pulled at her arm and led them both towards the nearest fountain.
“Better wash your hands, just to be on the safe side.” The grin grew wider, while blue eyes danced. Helena let her self be led and sat on the edge of the cold stone lip. The woman began to wash her hands in the clear water. Helena ran her thumbs across her fingertips and felt something faintly sticky there.
“The secret ingredient in every successful bee charmer’s arsenal.”
Again she cocked a brow, this time in query.
“What is?” She asked as she rinsed her hands in the water. She didn’t receive a reply, as the woman rose at her side and from out of nowhere, produced a small white hand towel and begun drying her hands. The smile was momentarily replaced by a studied look of concentration.
“For you…hmm, yes, I think the command performance.” The woman spoke to herself, before a slow soft smile once more spread itself across her face. Helena blinked at the transformation. The woman’s face was quite ordinary, unremarkable in fact, till that smile appeared, then it took on a wholly different look. It radiated.
Blackthorn found herself on her feet, as the woman took a step towards an opening in the shrubbery. “I’ll show you another of my secrets.” The woman offered her the towel and turning, strode purposefully toward the small gap in the hedge. Helena had little choice but to follow. The towel dangled in her hand.
What the hell am I doing? She wondered.
What she was doing, she concluded, was following a complete stranger into the bushes.
Helena knew the moment she passed through the gap she was leaving her own world behind and about to enter something surreal. Unprepared, but nonetheless curious, more at her own behaviour than what she would find beyond the shrubbery, she stepped into a small clearing and blinked with surprise. She grinned as the woman turned to face her.
“Ah, now that’s an improvement.” The soft round face beamed back, and taking a step closer, the woman indicated a large square blanket by the hedge.
“Sit, please, just sit quietly.”
Blackthorn nodded, casting about her as she did so. In one long sweep of the clearing, she took in every detail. They were enclosed on all sides, hidden from view. Sat almost square in the middle of the tiny clearing stood a stump of some long-since dead tree, it also seemed to be the centre of the woman’s attention. Then Helena saw why. It was also the centre of the bee’s attention.
Carefully crossing her long legs Helena sat, noting a carry sack, some glass jars, and a small bundle she couldn’t identify. It all sat to one side of the rug. She quickly turned her attention back to the woman, who suddenly knelt in front of her. The woman’s eyes flashed a mischievous gleam. A hand reached out and took up one of the jars and brandished it at her.
“For you.” The woman contemplated her for a second. Helena found herself frowning, as the woman’s features turned all too serious. “What I want you to do is just sit here, under no circumstances are you to do anything else, do you understand?” Again, the mischievous look. “Well, unless I drop to the floor writhing and screaming, that is.” The woman smiled, rose and turned to face the tree. Helena cocked an eyebrow at the straight back, puzzled.
The hum of bees filled the air.
With a sharp intake of breath, Helena registered what was about to take place.
She almost stood. Almost.
The woman approached the tree without a backward glance. Helena watched as the woman’s arm went up, and as the sun bounced a shaft of light off the glass, she unscrewed the lid and then standing on her tiptoes, reached into a small hole in the trunk. Helena felt the muscles along the back of her neck tense. She had to remember to breath and did so, exhaling quietly.
Bees began to appear from every direction and converge in profusion round the slight figure of the woman, many covering her clothing, so that Helena had the distinct feeling she would disappear beneath a sea of tiny black and gold jewels. She shuddered, partly in dismay, partly in some strange excitement the act brought out in her. The women’s word repeating themselves over and over, in her mind.
This is for you.
Just why this woman was committing such a foolhardy act for her had to wait a moment longer, as the figure turned and clothed in a living carpet, walked towards her with small even steps. With each passing step the tiny creatures began to take flight. All Blackthorn could see was the jar carefully held tight between two hands, and the golden viscous liquid taking up the sun’s glow.
This is for you.
The woman was almost at the edge of the blanket. The bees had all but departed, though one or two continued to dot the woman’s white cotton blouse. At her approach, Hel rose to her feet slowly her face clouding with concern. Though the face before her held an all-together different look, one she couldn’t quite discern.
The jar and its precious contents were proffered up to her. With a blink, Helena made to take the jar. Her hands clasped round those of the woman’s. She felt the soft, sticky liquid on the woman’s hands squeeze between her fingers and, for a moment in time, that’s where they stood.
The woman held out her hand toward Helena, “have a taste.” She looked at it for a split second, then, without hesitation, Helena took it and much to the obvious delight of the smaller woman, she let her tongue curl round a number of fingers and lick sensuously at the sticky golden liquid.
Helena felt a heady rush of something she hadn’t felt in far too long. An eruption of emotion, and then a strange warmth spread out from somewhere deep inside her. She withdrew the woman’s fingers from her mouth a little too abruptly and stared into eyes the colour of the sky. They said they knew exactly what had happened. The face before her flushed.
Nothing but the sound of bees humming filled the clearing for a number of heartbeats, as the two women locked eyes. The jar and its contents were momentarily forgotten, held between them.
The smaller woman ducked her head but came back up smiling.
Blackthorn was at a loss to explain, even to herself what she had just done. “I don’t know why I did that?” She began, more by way of explanation to herself than to the woman, whose name she still didn’t know. The smile before her said otherwise, Sure you do, it teased. And from somewhere deep inside, Helena conceded she probably did.
She laughed. “I think I’ave just been charmed, just as surely as you charmed those honey bees, and I don’t even know your name.”
TO BE CONTINUED …