One final brother. Her youngest brother. Crystal felt her heart skipping a beat as Blake led her back between the columns. This time, Lucinda stood next to the throne and hummed a little, idly stroking Clay’s long hair.
“One dwarven coal for the release of your final brother,” Lucinda said.
“One coal,” Crystal said and opened her coin pouch. Even now she could feel the heat through the tough leather. She doubted the purse itself would be usable after this, but it worked for what she needed. “For one brother.”
Lucinda laughed and clapped her hands together. A table, with a single metal plate appeared before them. Each stone leg had been carved intricately. As Crystal watched, the rest of the items she’d gathered appeared, though she noted the apple had begun to sprout, the seeds pushing out of its body and creating woody tendrils.
Hesitantly, she opened the pouch and deposited the coal on the plate.
“Done,” Lucinda said and clicked her fingers.
Clay stirred a little. “Where…Where am I?”
“Your freedom has been paid for,” Lucinda said sweetly and he stood, shakily.
“It’s okay,” Crystal told him and held her unburnt hand out as he stumbled towards her. She smiled when he took it and pulled him to stand behind her. “We’re both free to go.”
“Ah, don’t forget. We have one final deal to work out,” Lucinda said.
She’d almost been hoping that with her items, Lucinda wouldn’t need to worry about getting a bride for Blake still. Vain hope, she knew, but squeezed Clay’s hand.
“I need to return my brother home.”
“He is awake and capable of leaving on his own terms,” Lucinda said and then paused and smiled. “Ah, but I suspect you have a friend coming. Perhaps the same fairy who’s been such a help.”
“I haven’t sought any aid from any fairies,” Crystal said and glanced at Blake. Did he count as fairy aid?
“No?” Lucinda said and a faint gasp made Crystal turn.
Juniper, dressed in the plainest of her skirts and holding a lantern. Lucinda laughed and in an instant stepped out of the shadows right behind Juniper. A touch and Juniper scurried forward, away from Lucinda.
“She’s not a fairy,” Crystal said. The sharpness of her tone belayed some of her fear as Juniper gripped her waist with one hand.
“How certain are you of that?” Lucinda asked. “Here she comes, of her own power, to seek out someone who should be damned.”
“Crystal,” Clay said quietly but she shushed him as Juniper pressed closer.
“Flint came back,” Juniper said. “And told me you’d traded my ribbon.”
Crystal hesitated and nodded. “I did,” she said. “I didn’t have anything else he’d accept.”
“Are you certain she’s no fairy?” Lucinda hummed and Juniper looked up, almost frightened. Crystal put a hand to Juniper’s side, wishing she could give her the strength to stand up to Lucinda.
“I’m no fairy,” Juniper said. “But I know what fairies look like. I know the rules they’re bound by. And I know you are no true fae.”
“Oh, you’re clever.” Lucinda said and smiled as she leaned down, her fangs gleaming in the light of Juniper’s lantern. “And if I’m no fae, what am I?”
“You’re blessed,” Juniper said. “The same as Crystal. Only your blessing was to sleep for an eternity, only to be woken by a true prince. You knew. So when you were sixteen, you went searching for a way to break free of the blessing. There’s only one creature no fairy will bother if they can avoid it.”
“Dwarves,” Crystal said.
“Indeed,” Lucinda said. “Seven years of labor to break my curse. But dwarves have very little need of human hands, so they only used a day here and there, over seven centuries. When at last I had been freed of it, I had spent so long in the shadows and under the ground everyone had forgotten me in the land above. My curse was broken, but I was still doomed to life alone.”
“And thus, you went looking for the dwarves again.”
“And found something even better,” Lucinda said. “My curse called for a true prince, and a prince I found. A fae prince.”
“A prince of the dark court,” Juniper said quietly. “The stories and facts get blurred, but I can guess at them.”
“Guess away. I can tell you now. He offered me a kingdom, in exchange for binding myself to him. I would have a kingdom, and he would have a queen. He never told me it would be in the cold, quiet dark of the earth.”
“Then why go looking for a bride for Blake?”
“To make her own agreements work,” Blake said. “If she can find a bride for me, then she goes free, human once more.”
“Indeed,” Lucinda said. “Thus, in exchange for all my power as a fae, you will bind yourself to Blake, Crystal Cleary.”
Juniper gasped. “You can’t!”
Crystal however, smiled. “And that is where you’re wrong,” she said. “You cannot make deals in Blake’s stead.”
“By right of mother’s law, I can,” Lucinda said and Clay leaned forward slightly.
“Crystal, you’re not able to be a bride,” he said quietly. His whispered words pitched upwards and Crystal smiled as she turned to Blake.
“Well then,” she said. “I pose a question to you.”
Blake smiled, almost as if he knew what she would ask. “Ask it freely,” he said.
“What will you offer my wife to make me your bride?”
“Wife?” Lucinda shrieked and Juniper clutched at Crystal.
The smile on Blake’s face grew. “I’d wondered,” he said and bowed. “I am afraid, I can offer her naught, but the ribbon traded earlier, three buttons and a penny.”
In his hand, the tiny items Crystal had traded him for his aid appeared and he held them out to Juniper. “Will these suffice to break your binds to your wife?”
Juniper shivered. “No,” she said.
Lucinda shrieked and Blake closed his hand around them again. “Pity. I have nothing else to offer you.”
“You cannot do this,” Lucinda snarled and Crystal pulled Juniper closer. “You are the perfect bride.”
“Except that I am already married,” Crystal said.
“Which you did not disclose!”
“You did not ask.”
“You wear no ring.”
“On the contrary,” Crystal said and reached into her shirt for the leather tie she wore her ring on. “To protect it from damage, my wedding ring rests with the rings my parents wore.”
Lucinda hissed. “I should trap all of you here.”
“You will not,” Blake said.
“And why is that?” Lucinda demanded and Blake smirked.
“If you do, you break the deals you made with Crystal in exchange for your items. The apple will die, ceasing to grow. The bag of your snow will no longer work, and the dwarf’s coal will grow cold.”
“I will have my freedom!”
“You will not!” Juniper snapped. “You have broken one blessing upon you already. For that reason alone, you are bound to the agreement made with the fae prince.”
“And who will call upon him?”
“No one needs to call upon me. I sense my wife’s distress, and forever dutiful, I go to her aid.”
The lantern on Juniper’s belt flickered out, and Crystal held her tight, glad for the hand she still had around Clay’s fingers. Hard as she tried, her eyes couldn’t see in the darkness.
A faint click and then the lantern relit itself. Blake sighed before he held Crystal’s lantern out to her.
“A pity,” Blake said as he plucked the bag of snow from the table. He opened it and upended it.
“It’s broken,” Juniper murmured.
“No, it’s not,” Crystal said. “Blake just took it. It wasn’t traded.”
“And so it wasn’t,” Blake said. “I do think however, that you will need to be returning. Sun-up is soon.”
Crystal hesitated and nodded. “We do,” she said.
Blake however, held out a hand. “In exchange for taking the three of you to the entrance, I request only a trinket.”
“A trinket,” Clay demanded.
“A trinket,” Blake said. “A piece of thread, a bone and perhaps a spare coin.”
Crystal smiled and opened her bag. She didn’t need to think too much and reached in, pulling each item out easily. The thread caught for a moment, but the mouse’s skull and the spare coin were easily deposited into Blake’s hand.
“One piece of thread, a mouse’s skull and a spare coin,” Crystal said. “We’re agreed.”
“Then allow me,” Blake said and bowed. The lantern flickered out again and Crystal squeezed Juniper.
The light, when it came on again, showed them facing the entrance. “He just…” Clay said and looked around.
“He did,” Crystal said. “I don’t know why though.”
“I can take a guess,” Juniper said and kissed Crystal’s cheek. “But guesses are offensive, and I’d rather not do that if we can avoid it.”
“Agreed,” Crystal said. “Let’s go home.”