“You can’t be serious.”
Juniper spun from where she’d been digging in her cabinet for whatever it was she needed. As always her workspace had half a dozen odd implements—ribbons, twigs from giving branches, a few leaves soaking in cold water.
“I am,” Crystal said. “That was the agreement.”
“You’re a bigger fool than I thought,” Juniper said. “How are you going to get an apple from that tree?”
“I have an idea,” Crystal said. “But please, Juniper. Do you have a charm for good luck or not?”
For a moment she thought Juniper might protest again. Most others described her as timid and quiet. Part of that came from the wide, doe-like eyes the fact she didn’t tend to ask many questions.
Crystal knew her better than that. She’d learned that the pout on Juniper’s lips wasn’t one of fear, but of annoyance. Juniper didn’t ask questions as a general rule.
Unless she knew something was a bad idea.
A sigh escaped and Juniper’s shoulders dropped. “I do,” she said. “But they’re finicky. You’re lucky it’s not autumn, you know.”
“I’d be happier if it was. There would be more apples to pluck.”
“You’re a damned fool,” Juniper said and came around her counter to put her arms around Crystal. “What are you going to do to get out of it?”
“I’m not sure,” Crystal answered as she put her head against Juniper’s shoulder. “I really truly don’t know.”
A sigh escaped. “Listen,” Juniper said and pulled back just enough to reach up and lift Crystal’s chin. “There’s guaranteed to be at least one spirit there. Be careful and polite.”
“Always,” Crystal said.
“As soon as you have that apple, go straight back to Lucinda,” Juniper advised. “Carry it in a cloth bag but don’t let it leave your hands until your brother’s been released from the stone.”
“I will,” Crystal said and Juniper sighed.
“And please. Come back home.”
“For your smile, I will.”
That got at least a tiny smile on Juniper’s face, and Juniper leaned forward slightly to kiss Crystal’s cheek. “And a kiss for extra luck,” she said and then turned, opening the cabinet door and finding a yarn-wrapped trinket.
“Your luck charm?” Crystal asked and Juniper smiled a little.
“A four-leaf clover in rabbit-fur yarn,” she said and slid it over Crystal’s wrist, tying it in securely. “Are you sure you’re ready?”
“Waiting until I am isn’t an option,” Crystal answered and Juniper sighed before she took a step back and smoothed a hand down her apron.
“Have care with every word and every step.”
They headed outside. Juniper’s horse stood by the porch, saddlebags loaded with the supplies Crystal would need for a six day journey. Crystal’s pack sat at the back and she hesitated a moment before she swung on. This part she was used to. Sometimes the things she needed to collect were days away and weeks of travel.
“I’ll come home,” Crystal promised.
“I’ll be waiting for you,” Juniper said.
With that, Crystal smiled and turned the horse, heading off. She knew where she was going, but she saw a few windows close as she passed.
Everyone had heard she guessed. A blood fae was hiding in their mountain, in the old mining cave they didn’t tread in for fear of collapse and injury. Tapped out of resources, the mine was a perfect place for a fae.
A blood fae who had set her sights on something.
Crystal had only told them she needed six items, one for each brother. She hadn’t told them why it had to be her, but she knew they were whispering about it the way they always did. The Cleary family had always been talented. Her mother had been an amazing cook, always able to whip up something to suit any taste. Her grandmother’s weaving and needlework had survived two generations of laborers, including three of her sons becoming miners.
They might not know Crystal had a fairy’s blessing, but they knew when it came to magic, it was the Cleary family that would handle it.
Travel was easy for her. She knew the map well, and had passed the valley she needed before. The mountains around the area ranged in sizes. Her town was at the base of a medium sized mountain, extending down into the valley. Her brothers’ farm sat at one end, and Juniper’s cottage sat in the middle of the town, amidst laundresses and dressmakers.
The mountains however, had several valleys, one of which had been formed into a narrow pass. That pass could become blocked over with ice on one end in the spring when the snowmelt began to slide off the mountains. Summers tended to flood it.
A solitary tree grew in the valley between the mountains. Wind howled around it, branches thrown back and forth in erratic patterns by the unseen forces of air.
Looking at it from one end of the valley, Crystal studied the tree. They called it the restless tree because that’s what it was. A single tree, in the middle of a valley that never ceased to move.
A single apple tree.
How it had managed to survive when even as a sapling it had been buffeted by the winds and its branches and boughs had been yanked on by gales, Crystal didn’t know. Either it had paid a high price to continue growing and thriving there, or it was simply a miracle.
Either way, continuously buffeted by winds, getting close enough to pluck an apple from the branches wouldn’t be easy and Crystal knew it. Though plenty of apples had been thrown off the branches, they were bruised or split open by the force with which they hit the ground.
Crystal didn’t trust Lucinda not to take the tiniest reason to withhold her brother.
Crystal reached up, holding her hand out and letting the wind pass over it. Fairy-blessed, her mother had told her. The seventh child born a daughter three times over. The fairies had of course been paying attention.
Which was how Crystal knew that no matter what she grabbed, it would help her in some way. Things came to her hands easily. Be that a spare coin she needed for the market, or the right ingredient for a medicine or potion.
Now however, she only held a hand out, letting the air brush through it. It pulled and yanked on her and she nodded. “Shelter,” she decided at last and moved.
She got as close to the tree as she could. She could see some of the apples still hanging from its branches and she bent, setting a bowl on the ground and filling it with milk. “an offering for you to stop blowing so harshly,” she said.
The wind took a moment before the bowl spun, and it died down a little. At the least, it no longer threw the stray locks of her hair into her face and bit at her cheeks.
The tree’s swaying reduced a little, perhaps for the first time in its life. Crystal moved a little ways away, reaching up and finding a particularly curly lock of her hair. Her little knife cut the lock off easily and a twist allowed her to knot the hairs together.
“An offering for you to calm the wind,” she called, and held the hair out on her palm.
The wind took it, catching the hair up greedily and then vanishing all together. As she’d thought, there was a spirit in the wind.
There always was.
With the wind stilled however, it gave her what she needed and Crystal inhaled as she approached the tree, her little knife still out.
It would be easy enough to pluck an apple from the tree, to say that giving it a moment of rest from the wind was her payment for doing so.
Angering or cheating spirits was never a good idea however and she smiled a little as she pulled a small bottle from her bag, filled with clear water.
“Water from my well, in exchange for one apple,” she said, and uncorked the bottle.
The water splashed on the roots, and a branch creaked overhead. Crystal looked up, spotting the perfect apple there. It gleamed still, alone on its branch. She smiled and reached up, twisting it so it came off gently in her hand.
“My thanks,” she said and stepped away.
The branches creaked again, but with the wind picking back up, it was hard to say what was the wind and what had been the tree’s response. It didn’t matter, Crystal decided as she picked up the now-empty bowl of milk. She had the apple in her hands, and that was the only part that mattered.
She’d hitched the horse a little farther down the valley, where the wind wasn’t as bad. A little grass grew around the base of the rocks and she smiled as she patted the horse’s neck. “Home,” she said. “We have a brother to rescue.”