I had been wandering around for a while, picking up sticks as I went, before I got bored. And of course, being myself, when I got bored, I made up pranks.
“Hey, Kase!” I called, trying to adjust the volume of my voice just enough to reach him.
“Yeah?” I heard rustling leaves stop as Kase stopped moving.
“Could you come over here?” I asked, trying to sound a little scared.
“Uhh… sure?” Kase began slowly walking over to me.
I still had sticks in my hand and Kase’s backpack was open, just as I’d hoped, as he walked over.
“I’m just a little…” I hesitated, “scared?”
Kase looked confused. “you’re… scared?”
I nodded, trying not to giggle. “I think a hug would help,” I managed.
Kase still looked perplexed, but he shrugged. “Okay.”
He came in for a hug and I put my arms around him, having the perfect angle to see right into his bag. I held the sticks over his bag and managed to snag a few nuts before I dropped the sticks in.
“Hey!” Kase pulled back, having felt the weight change.
I grinned, not moving back all the way. “Gotcha,” I said, sprinkling the nuts over his head.
Kase groaned, “It took me forever to get those!” He was restraining a smile as he picked them back up.
“Well, you’re the one that got pranked,” I replied, shrugging, “I think you can be the one to pick it up. After all, I did so much work.”
Kase rolled his eyes and began picking them up.
I thought that he was just picking them up, but when he stood back up, he didn’t throw them back into his bag; he also didn’t take the bag off to get the sticks out.
He looked back at me and grinned. “Payback time,” he said gleefully.
Before I realized that I was probably in trouble, he was throwing nuts at me. My cloak was thick, but it couldn’t block all the impact from the hard shells.
“Ow!” I laughed, dancing away. I picked one up and threw it back, causing him to yelp.
I kept picking up nuts and tossing them at him before trying to dodge his. They still hurt when they hit, but dodging them was better than letting all of them hit me.
“Stop it!” Kase shrieked after a while, laughing too hard to throw anymore.
“Never!” I exclaimed jokingly back, throwing one more for good measure.
For a moment, we both looked at each other, breathing heavily but grinning like idiots. I hadn’t played like that in a long time; something told me that Kase hadn’t either.
“Who’s there?” demanded a voice that wasn’t either of ours.
Our smiles faded in a second, as we froze, trying to figure out who was there.
“Show yourself!” the voice said again.
I turned to Kase and nodded towards the nearest tree. I slowly crept towards it and cupped my hands, motioning for him to step up.
I boosted him up, pulling myself up after him.
“Higher,” I hissed, glancing back.
Kase nodded, slightly pale as he climbed higher.
I climbed up after him, careful not to snap any branches off. Any small sound or falling branch could give us away, and until I knew for a fact that the person wasn’t going to get us in big trouble, I wasn’t taking any chances.
I think at this point, this was a little more than responsibility for Kase; I was starting to like the little guy with his endless information and general happy disposition.
By the time we were a good twenty feet up, I stopped Kase, climbing up to sit on the branch on the other side of the tree.
“You okay?” I asked, noting the strained expression on his face.
He nodded, still pale. “I just don’t…” He looked past my face for a second and paled further. He gripped the tree harder and closed his eyes. “I don’t like heights?”
I blinked. “Oh, uh… that would’ve been a good thing to know before I pushed you up a tree.” I tried to think of something that would calm him down, but I wasn’t coming up with anything.
Comforting little children wasn’t my strong suit, however much I liked them.
“You didn’t push me,” he managed. “I liked the climbing part, I just don’t like looking down.”
I bit my lip. “How thick is your branch?” I asked, trying to figure out something other than the one idea I had. My own father had forced me to get over my fears by giving me no choice but to push through them; however, I didn’t want to do that to Kase.
“It’s pretty thick,” Kase managed, ducking behind the trunk for a moment.
“I’m going to come over there,” I said, momentarily forgetting about the person who might be crossing under it.
I set my foot on a lower branch and bent around the tree, grabbing another branch and letting myself hang for a moment before putting my foot on the next branch. Finally, I pulled myself up onto Kase’s branch.
“Hello, there,” I said, trying to sound calm.
“You looked like a monkey,” Kase said, looking at me, seeming slightly less pale than before. “We used to have those before the other kingdoms cut down all their trees. Now we don’t have them because they don’t live in oak and walnut trees.”
I nodded slowly. “That makes sense,” I said. “What animals do live in these woods?”
“Squirrels,” he said, leaning against the tree and closing his eyes again. “Chipmunks, turkeys. There used to be bears, but the royals were tired of all the people getting injured by an angry bear, so I think they got rid of them all.”
I was horrified by the kingdoms’ willingness to eradicate species off of their land.
“Wow,” I said.
Kase nodded, “Oh, and the walnuts aren’t good until Gliss inspects them. I’m not supposed to pick up the black ones. Only the green ones.”
I nodded. “Okay,” I said. “So you got a lot of nuts?”
Kase shook his head. “Not enough for everyone.”
“We’re not going to be able to feed everyone no matter how many nuts you fit in that backpack,” I told him seriously. “We just have to hope someone else got some food, too.”
I thought of the six carrots that I hadn’t figured out what to do with that were still in my knife belt, but I would sneak those into his bag later.
“You’re going to hate me for this,” I said, changing the subject, “But I need you to face your fear for me. I can’t bring you back down alone.”
Kase was silent for a moment, but he sighed. “I can try,” he said bravely. “Do you think someone is still down there?”
I cast him a wry look, noting that his eyes were still closed. “We have to stop talking to tell, buddy,” I said.
He smiled slightly and we fell silent.
I listened for any movement and looked around the tree we were in. I found a nut nearby and pulled it free, thankful that we had climbed a walnut tree.
“We’re going to find out this way,” I said.
Kase opened his eyes and looked over at me just in time to see me throw the nut as hard as I could.
When I looked back, he was staring at me open-mouthed.
“Did you just do that?” He asked.
I grinned at him. “Nope.”
Behind me, I heard the nut bouncing off branches with dull clunks before landing in the leaves. As I kept listening, nothing happened.
“We’re good,” I said, still grinning.
“You just threw a nut,” Kase began, amazed, “and probably would’ve gotten us caught if it had failed.”
I shrugged, not entirely regretful. “I didn’t get us caught, though,” I pointed out.
Kase grinned, laughing a bit. “I like you,” he said. “But honestly, Kai would kill you for being that reckless.”
“It’s only reckless if you don’t know what you’re doing,” I said, beginning to climb down. I looked up at him. “I need you to try to climb down, okay? I’ll be right here to catch you.”
That was probably incorrect and we both knew it, but to his credit, Kase nodded. Despite his pasty white face, he turned around and began climbing down, gasping for breath occasionally.
The most I could do for him was talk him through it, so I decided to give him the only thing that would keep him focused on me.
“Hey, Kase, why don’t I tell you about how I grew up?”