Crystal’s blessing allowed her to find the things she needed, sometimes in places they shouldn’t have been. And yet, as she looked at the bare trees stretching below them about a day’s ride south of their little town, she couldn’t help but worry that she’d been, perhaps a little too hasty in deciding this was a good idea.
Harpies flocked twice a year, once in spring and once in fall. With the summer underway, the majority flew out to hunt over the sea, unconcerned for who whatever fool came to disturb their nesting sites.
Most did, at least. There were always a few who were old or sick who would remain behind to scavenge what they could.
Even from a hill at the top of the valley Crystal could see the signs of harpy roosting. The trees were all bare, branches scraped and scratched up. Bones littered the ground, some snapped in half to get at the marrow inside.
Next to her, Coal lifted his telescope, scanning the valley a little more thoroughly. “I’m not seeing any movement,” he said.
“That only tells me there’s no harpies right now,” Crystal said.
“That should be a good thing,” Coal decided.
“For now,” she said and turned to look at Mica and Jasper, both of whom lifted a brow. “I hope you two are ready.”
Mica nodded, hefting his axe. “Let’s go find a harpy’s branch,” he said.
There were two things Crystal knew about harpies. The first was that they were aggressive. The second was that they were masters at ambush. In spring, the empty branches provided camouflage for their natural tan, white and brown feathers. In the fall their plumage changed to reflect the golds and reds of the leaves they stripped from trees to make their nests. Juniper had explained once why their colors changed, but Crystal hadn’t understood it.
They eased down the path, keeping their eyes peeled. Here and there, Crystal reached down, plucking up a stray flower or two, or else a tiny bit of something she knew she could use later. Twice her hands found little field mice, who she picked up and gently set aside.
Finding mice in a field that should have been otherwise empty did little to ease her nerves. Few things wandered into a harpy nesting site.
Fewer things wandered back out.
“Here,” she said. One old tree had been split into three. The bark had been scraped away, and claw marks showed where talons had once been. An entire branch hung only by the barest sliver of wood, shearing a section away from the trunk.
Mica nodded as he tested the edge of his axe out of habit. He looked around once more before he took a stance. Next to her, Crystal heard as Coal readied his bow. Jasper only looked around, one hand resting on the large knife he had on one hip.
She didn’t like how quiet and tense it was as Mica lifted his axe.
The first thud of the axe against the wood made her jolt, and the second resounded across the empty trees.
Another thud and the branch creaked and fell, rattling and smacking other branches on the way down. It was easily the right size.
And yet, the movement of its fall didn’t cease. Crystal’s gaze moved upwards, to something brown and white as it shifted away from the trunk of another nearby tree.
Her shout alerted her brothers and Coal turned, firing as the owl-feathered harpy leapt from its branch with a shriek.
She dove to the side, one hand grabbing whatever she could. A rock, she saw and she sprang up again as Jasper unsheathed his knife. Coal’s arrow had caught one wing, but the harpy swept over again and then turned, using her teeth to pluck the arrow out of her weather. A jerk of the harpy’s jaw and she snapped the arrow shaft.
Crystal flung the stone. It connected with the harpy’s temple and the harpy shrieked again before it dove for them. This time, Coal’s arrow sank through a leg and the harpy yelped as it fell.
Mica’s axe was quick, cleaving down towards the neck. Another shriek, and the harpy leapt up, blood leaking down its leg and dripping over feathers from a shoulder. Crystal grabbed something else from the ground and threw it, not realizing until it actually smacked into the harpy’s chest that she’d thrown a skull from some poor creature.
The harpy however, didn’t seem to notice as Coal notched another arrow. She screamed again and this time dove for Jasper.
His knife sank deep and he ripped it out again even as her talons clawed at his side. She shrieked, spiraling upwards into the heights and then twisting. This time, Crystal’s grasping fingers found only the empty egg shells of hatched young.
Coal’s arrow pierced the other leg and the harpy shrieked again before she turned, flying off with cackles and screams of fury. They sat there for a long moment before Crystal stood.
“Jasper,” she said.
“It’s a scratch,” he said.
“From a harpy,” she said and opened her bag. The potion she needed to ward off infection came to hand easily, followed by a roll of bandages.
“I’ll haul this back up,” Mica said. “Coal, you keep an eye out for anything else.”
Coal only nodded once. Crystal said nothing as she doused a cloth with the potion and gently wiped the blood from Jasper’s side. He grunted a little, but made no moves to pull away. At least, she decided, the cuts weren’t deep.
The bandages wound around his waist, though she wasn’t pleased with how little protection they offered as she secured the ends. She’d only brought the one smaller roll for basic first aid. An oversight for certain.
And yet, Jasper made no complaints as he squatted for a moment to help Mica pick up the branch and carry it back upwards to the horse and cart they’d brought with them. Even with the wood loaded into the back, none of the siblings stopped, pushing forward.
The afternoon sun dipped low, and reluctantly they made their stop by the side of the road.
This time Crystal took a little longer to tend the wound on Jasper’s side. It wouldn’t need stitches, but she didn’t like taking the chance it would fester.
Coal insisted on cooking and prepared a simple soup. Afterwards, Crystal sat by the fire, staring at the flames while Coal and Jasper both tried to sleep.
“You’re clever, you know,” Mica said.
“Cleverness doesn’t seem to help much,” Crystal said.
“Two brothers left, and after tomorrow, it will be only one,” Mica said.
It wasn’t the sort of thing she liked to hear and she inhaled slowly. “If something goes wrong, it could be only you six,” she said.
“We’ll find a way to rescue you,” Mica said and glanced at where Coal and Jasper were. “Without having to resort to trading ourselves.”
“I should hope you don’t need to trade yourselves away after all the work I’ve put in to get you back,” she said.
That got a laugh from Mica and he fell silent for a long moment. “What will you do about the final trade? The one for Blake’s hand?”
“I’ve already solved it,” Crystal said.
“How?” Mica questioned and Crystal smiled.
“You’ll see,” she said. “I just have to get the harpy’s branch back to Lucinda and find out what her next item is.”
“Any idea what that is?” Mica questioned and she considered it before she shrugged as she reached out, brushing the dirt away from something off-white. It took a moment before the object she’d found revealed itself to be a mouse’s skull.
“No,” she said. “But if I know anything, it won’t be something I can pick up from the market.”