No one visited the old graveyard after sundown for a reason. The dead remained silent, but the groundskeeper didn’t like visitors and only tolerated mourners because it meant there were fresh bodies in the ground.
The groundskeeper’s hut was off to the side of the front gate. Immediately through the gate there stood a bell, only rung when someone was interred. The rest of the fenced-in six-acre plot held only grave markers and flowers for the departed.
There were four trees, one in each corner of the graveyard. Ropes hung from the branches, though none of them had been used in years.
Even with that however, Crystal knew hanging trees had a particularly nasty power to them.
Mica crouched next to her. “If he hears you, he’ll come running.”
“I’m counting on it,” Crystal said and bent, plucking a stick from the ground. “You’ll want to throw rocks if you can find them. Aim for the ground between the graves, you’re less likely to disturb anything else.”
“You want me to what?” Mica looked up at her and Crystal turned her head slightly to look at him.
“I want you to make noise and attract his attention for me,” Crystal replied. “I need to collect that dew and I can’t do that and run from him.”
“You don’t have a better idea?” Mica demanded as he took the stick.
“Dew only lasts for a few hours,” Crystal said. “And dawn isn’t far off.”
A strangled noise escaped his throat and he exhaled. “This is only because I love you,” he said.
“I’m sure. Go that direction.”
He grumped a little more, the half-audible words sounding suspiciously like he thought she was bossing him about, but did as he was told. With the stick in one hand, Crystal saw him bend and stoop a few times, picking up other implements.
She knew when he’d thrown the first stone, if only because it clanged against the bell. Almost immediately, a door slammed open.
“Who’s out there?”
The bell clanged again and in the fading light of the stars, Crystal could just make out the broad shoulders of the groundskeeper. A glint of dirty metal told her he’d picked up a shovel.
The stone must have missed because it thunked against something this time, instead of ringing the bell.
“I’ll hang you!”
The groundskeeper sprinted in the direction the stone had come from and Crystal scurried down. There was only a short, wrought-iron fence and she pulled herself over the intricate curves easily, dropping down to the other side easily.
Already, the tree’s lowest leaves were covered in dew and she took care, tipping them into her vial and letting the drops fall in. From the other side of the garden she could hear the groundskeeper screaming obscenities.
She almost felt sorry for the poor man. No one else dared live too close to a place where dead and their spirits rested. It was an undeserved torment.
One to correct at a later date, she decided. She knew what kind of potions he could use. A few would do well for him.
With the vial three-quarters full, Crystal slid a waxed cork in it and climbed back over the gate. She needed to get to Mica and get him out of here.
She went around the front, tucking the vial into the pocket in her bag and hurrying as she went.
Mica was already running the other direction, hurrying to get around and passed the groundskeeper. Crystal grabbed his hand and he yelped.
“I hear you!” The bellow indicated the groundskeeper’s approach and Crystal yanked on her brother, hurrying him along with silent tugs as they ran back towards where she’d left Juniper’s horse.
By the time they reached the horse, they were both panting and Mica glowered at her. “You’re going to get us killed.”
“If we die, so do our brothers,” Crystal replied. “Now, take the horse back to Juniper.”
“You’re not coming with me?”
“I need to get this back to Lucinda and get Coal free,” she said.
Mica considered it. “At least let us get you to the road,” he said. “Juniper will have a fit if I don’t at least make sure you’re alright for that far.”
He was right and Crystal nodded. “Alright,” she said.
Mica mounted first, and Crystal swung on behind him. She was tired, she realized as she pressed against her brother’s back, one hand holding to his belt to keep from falling off. It would have been too easy to close her eyes and sleep.
She knew she dozed a little because Mica had to jostle her to get her to stir again. “Here,” he said and she nodded before she swung down. “I should come with you.”
“Your price has already been paid,” Crystal said. “Don’t tempt them to seek a second one.”
He scowled at her, but nodded. Fae were not meant to be trifled with.
Crystal lit the lantern and hooked it to her belt before she stepped in the cave. The path forward was no easier, but at least with a little lamp light coming in, she had the chance to look about. It seemed no different than any other cave she’d stepped into.
That didn’t give her much in the way of reassurance, not knowing there were blood fae somewhere in here.
Slowly, the light vanished until the only thing illuminating the space around her was the dim light of her lantern.
She needed to raise the wick, she realized, and paused for a moment, turning the wick up before she looked back up.
The sight of Blake’s face made her jump and he smirked. “Hello again,” he said.
“Hello,” she said.
“This way,” he said simply and turned, leading her.
This time he turned at some point, leading her down a narrower tunnel. Crystal could reach out and touch each side, but it let out to Lucinda’s throne room faster, and Blake brought her between the columns. She still had to pass her five brothers to reach the fae queen.
Lucinda smiled. “One vial of hangman’s dew,” she said. “For the release of one brother.”
Silently, Crystal withdrew the vial and held it up. Lucinda smiled, and stood from her throne.
She was face-to-face with Crystal before she clicked her fingers. The soft thump of a body falling told Crystal one of her brothers had fallen and she tensed, wanting to go to him, even as Lucinda held out an expectant hand.
Carefully, Crystal placed the vial in Lucinda’s hand. Lucinda smiled at that.
“One item, one brother. Are you prepared for your next task, bride?”
“I am no bride,” Crystal answered. “But I am prepared.”
Lucinda smiled. “In the mountains, a little west of here, you will find a pool which perfectly reflects both the sun and the moon. And at the bottom of that pool, you will find a piece of glass the color of the noon sky. Bring me a piece of fallen sky at least as long as your hand and I will release the next brother.”
Crystal wanted to disagree, to argue, but she only nodded once. “One piece of fallen sky for the release of my next brother.”
“Then we are agreed.” Lucinda inclined her head and stepped back, using one hand to motion at Crystal’s brother.
Coal, rather ironically, was one of her shorter brothers. And yet, as she checked his pulse and found it strong and steady, Blake was still there.
“I can offer my aid,” he said.
She hesitated. She could get Coal out, but she didn’t know the way. “I have little to offer,” she said.
“Are you willing to offer a lock of hair?”
Dangerous, and she knew it. Not doing so might leave her struggling to get Coal out and find the way to the entry.
“One lock for your aid to the entry,” Crystal said and Blake smiled, reaching out and touching the single curl that grew right below her ear.
Crystal’s knife was sharp as she slid it out, reaching up and twisting the lock for a moment before she sliced through it. Blake smiled a little as he took the hair.
“An even exchange,” he said, and the lock vanished from his fingers before he bent and picked Coal up.
She wasn’t sure she liked the way he said that, but she’d have to ask Juniper. A lock of hair was a pricey thing to give.
As they approached the entrance, she remembered then it was daylight. Blake hadn’t been able to go all the way to it the last time. Ahead she saw a little light, indicating where she needed to go.
“I can get him from here.”
“We have an even exchange. This is not the entrance,” Blake said and Crystal reached out, putting a hand to Coal’s shoulder.
“I absolve you of any debt you owe me,” Crystal said gently.
He looked at her and she tipped her chin up. “Agreed,” he said, and let her take Coal, much the same way she’d helped Mica out.
The sunlight was stronger this time and Coal stirred faster. Even a few feet from the entrance, his face lifted. “Crystal?” he murmured.
“Yes, it’s me,” she said as she kept pushing them forward. “I’m going to get you home.”
“Where’s everyone else?”
“Mica is home, and now so are you,” she said.
At least he wasn’t arguing with her, though he managed to stand up. “I thought I was dreaming,” he said. “Something about apples and hangman’s dew.”
“Not quite a dream,” Crystal said. “Let’s get you home, I need to speak with Juniper.”
“Home,” he agreed. “And then I want the whole accounting.”