The shadows claimed her only a little ways from the entrance. Her lantern did little to alleviate the darkness she walked through. The sound of her steps and breathing echoed around her, amplified by the emptiness of the stone walls around her.
Despite hearing every minute sound, Crystal heard nothing to indicate anyone else moved around in the shadows with her. If the blood fae were here, she couldn’t detect them.
She stopped, a little hesitant on the path and soft laughter came to her.
“You return again and again, even despite the odds against you.” Blake’s voice did not echo, which disturbed her more as he stepped into the dim ring of her lantern’s light, letting the amber glow color his features.
“I came to make a trade with Lucinda,” Crystal said defensively.
“I know that well,” Blake said and walked a circle around her. Crystal had to turn to keep him in her view. “Tell me. Do you know the story of the young girl who sought help from the dwarves to break the curse upon her?”
It surprised her that he would ask about a story and had to tip her chin up a little as he came to a stop in front of her. “I know it,” she said. “She was given a curse at birth and sought help from the dwarves to break it. She agreed to seven years hard labor in exchange for an item to break her curse.”
Blake inclined his head. “And yet, time moves differently for dwarves. She served her penance and gained her item, only to find it had not been seven years but seven centuries.”
“It’s an old story,” Crystal said.
“Indeed, but do you know what happened after she learned how long she had truly been serving them?”
Crystal shook her head. “Only that she sought the dwarves out a second time but could never find them.”
“Indeed. You humans like to add ‘happily ever after’ onto your stories. There isn’t always a happily forever after, sometimes it’s only ‘forever’ after.”
Her heart left bruises on her ribs as it pounded in her chest. Try as she might, every breath she took came in meager and shallow.
“I only seek the releases of my brothers,” Crystal said and Blake smirked.
“I know that as well,” he said and motioned. “This way.”
She moved carefully to keep him in the lantern’s light. It seemed as if he led her down one short corridor before Lucinda’s throne room opened up before them. She passed the final two columns, glancing up at each of her brothers, still slumbering.
Lucinda herself smirked. “One bag of snow for one brother,” she said. “Do we have an even trade?”
“We do,” Crystal said and held the bag out to Lucinda.
Lucinda took it and frowned a little as she studied the leather pouch. “This is very small,” she said.
“You never specified a size,” Crystal said and tipped her chin up. “Nor did you offer me anything in exchange for the knowledge of how to make it work.”
Lucinda’s hands clenched. “So I didn’t,” she said. “I will only offer to wake your newly released brother.”
Crystal hesitated. Not doing so could leave her and Flint trapped in the caves, and Clay forever bound to the stone column.
“Agreed,” she said and Lucinda inhaled, clicking her fingers. Flint dropped to the floor with a groan and Crystal gasped before she darted to him.
“Flint,” she said.
“Your information, Crystal Cleary. We have an agreement.”
She’d made a mistake and stood up slowly while Flint continued stirring and sitting up on the ground.
“If you look inside, it will appear empty. It’s only by opening it and turning it over that you’ll find the snow. It cannot be given, only traded and it will only work for a year and a day,” Crystal said.
Lucinda hummed. “A clever piece of work. I do question what other fairy you had to trade.”
“I traded no other fairy.”
Flint had managed to stand up and caught her arm, his expression still dazed. “Crystal?”
“I’m okay,” she said and put a hand to his fingers, feeling how cool and clammy they were. “One final deal, Lucinda.”
“A final deal? What did you do, Crystal?” Flint squeezed her arm in worry and she smiled a little.
“She’s made an agreement with me,” Lucinda said. Her tone had grown icy. “One item for one brother. Six items in total. And now she only needs to retrieve the last item in order to release her brother. Are we agreed, Crystal Cleary?”
“We are,” Crystal said. “Name your last item.”
Lucinda inhaled. “I require a burning coal from a dwarven forge.”
Crystal’s heart sank. Blake’s warning had become clear now. There were two things fairies weren’t likely to cross. Angry spirits.
“You can’t,” Flint said.
“I have to,” Crystal replied.
Blake chuckled again. “These caves are a labyrinth,” he warned. “You’ll only become lost trying to find the dwarves. I will offer my aid to get you to the dwarves.”
She hesitated and looked at Flint. “Can you find your way by yourself?”
“I think so,” he said. “Maybe I should go with you.”
A head shake was her answer. “I know why I have to be the one to do this. Don’t risk yourself.”
“Perhaps I can aid you both,” Blake said. “I do believe the brother carries a gold ring. I will exchange that for delivering him to the entrance.”
Flint hesitated and then nodded. “Agreed,” he said and dug in his pocket to find a small bag, which he emptied to reveal the ring.
A shadow snatched it up and Crystal shivered as the shadow formed into what she thought might be a dog.
“My shadow will guide you whenever you are ready.”
Flint looked at Crystal and she inhaled. “Name your price for aiding me,” she said.
“The ribbon in your hair,” he said. “That and nothing else.”
The ribbon she only wore because Juniper constantly lost them. The ribbon she wore so she’d have an excuse to fuss and play with Juniper’s hair when it needed straightening again. It wasn’t hers to give.
“It’s not mine to give,” she said.
“I’ll accept nothing else,” Blake answered. “The ribbon or nothing.”
“Crystal,” Flint murmured in warning and she inhaled before she reached up to slide the ribbon out of her locks.
“Let the others know I’ll be away a while, and tell Juniper I’m sorry about the ribbon.”
“You can’t be serious,” Flint said.
“I am,” she said and pressed it to her lips for a moment, wishing she had another option before she held it out. “The ribbon for your aid to both find the dwarves and then to leave again.”
Blake grinned and took the ribbon. It slid from her fingers as easily as water ran through a clenched fist, leaving only the trace feel of its silk behind.
“This way then,” he said. “And mind the light of your lantern is low.”
She turned the wick down before she followed him down into the cave, leaving her brothers behind as they descended once more.
Blake turned away from the other paths she’d trodden before almost as soon as they’d properly entered the cave. There was no sound, save for the shuffle of her feet, and his steps.
“This part drops a bit,” Blake warned and Crystal hesitated a moment before she followed him down, easing down the steep turn with some trepidation. There would be no coming back from this, she sensed, and followed down, deeper and deeper into the darkness.
Ahead, the glow of her lantern only offered a few glimpses of the stony walls. It painted her surroundings amber and gold, but she doubted the truth of the colors.
The caves branched, but Blake moved ahead, forever fearless and always just a little ahead. He never slowed, but his pace was easy to match as they ventured farther away from anything familiar and ever deeper into the cool, quiet dark.
Slowly, the tunnels they followed changed. No more were the stalagmites reaching for the sky, instead they were rounded, or flattened at the top. The walls began to smooth, and Crystal became aware of a faint heat from somewhere as they moved ahead.
Blake paused, listening at last before he inhaled. “Cut the lantern, before they become aware of our presence.”
Crystal complied, not certain she wished to find out what he meant by ‘they’ or why it sounded almost as if he was afraid.
The lantern extinguished, but she could still see. The light, she realized, came from somewhat farther ahead, cherry red in its glow.
Silent in his stride, Blake moved around, away from the ruddy light. Crystal followed, and he motioned her down as they approached another opening. They both crouched and she eased around Blake to peer out.
Dwarves, she saw. Not the Dwarven miners she might have expected, but rather the smiths with singed and charred beards who pumped bellows. Though short, they carried hefty hammers, each one easily the size of its bearer.
She inhaled slowly.
“They do not barter as we do,” Blake said. “Time means nothing to them.”
“I need a coal,” Crystal said and considered it. She had nothing to offer them, couldn’t risk giving them her time.
She closed her eyes as she thought. How did she get a coal from a dwarven forge, she wondered?
Once more she opened her eyes, looking about and inhaling slowly.
There were plenty of fires, she realized, and saw one not too far from another opening. “That opening there,” Crystal said.
“It’s possible to reach it,” Blake said. “But reaching the forge would be difficult.”
“I have to try,” Crystal said and slunk back along the tunnel.
Blake took the lead again. The only sight she had of him for part of it as he moved was the faint silhouette against the rocks.
They rounded another corner, and there ahead of them, she saw it. The edges of the cave where the smiths worked. She could hear the ring and grind of their work clearly now.
She crouched, one hand feeling at the rocks under her. They were warm to the touch, perhaps baking in the heat of dwarven fires.
One singed her fingers and she jerked back from it. Her blessing, as always, came to hand.
Carrying it back herself was out of the question. She needed a way to hold it. She thought only for a moment before she pulled her coin purse off her belt. The coins she dumped into the larger bag on her. She opened the pouch to its widest before she once again felt along the floor, fingers tender.
This time when it singed her fingers, Crystal plucked it from the ground and dropped it hastily in the pouch. Blake watched in amazement as she peered in to see the coal was a glowing red stone.
“A dwarven coal,” he said.
“And so it is,” she agreed. “You agreed to lead me out again,” she noted and he smiled.
“Then come,” he said. “This way to my mother.”
His steps were steady and sure as she followed him once more into the shadowy depths, heading up instead of down.