Crystal hesitated at the cave entrance. “Are you sure you want to go alone?” Coal asked and she looked over at him.
“I can’t leave Jasper waiting,” she said and Mica snorted.
“We’re a little more concerned with you getting trapped,” he added.
She smiled. “I’ll be back by sunrise.”
The lantern didn’t illuminate nearly enough of the shadows. Even with the wick fully raised, darkness filled the cavern. Crystal continued downward, not daring to call out and knowing at least one of the blood fae had to be lurking.
It was at the same point where she’d tripped for the first time that she paused finally, looking about.
“Others have come here, you know.”
Lucinda’s voice came out of the shadows and Crystal turned, trying to locate where Lucinda would be. In the empty blackness with the noise bouncing around, it was impossible to pinpoint anything.
“They usually get lost though,” Lucinda said, and a soft rustle made Crystal spin as Lucinda appeared at last. Her lips were darker today, as if freshly painted. “Caves like this are a labyrinth, and you still dare to walk them without asking for aid.”
Crystal couldn’t be sure if it was a threat or not. “I don’t have much to offer you for your aid,” Crystal said and Lucinda smiled a little as she came closer.
“And yet you come still. You will soon make this your home, your offerings will diminish.”
“Until they do, I will not ask for more than I can offer.”
Lucinda hummed. “Did the fairy who blessed you give you such advice?”
“I’ve gotten no advice from any fairy.”
“Clever then,” Lucinda said and smiled. A faint motion and the sand in the cave pushed back, revealing the sleeping form of her brother. Jasper’s head rested on one side and Crystal felt her heart catch at how still he lay. She’d never in her life known him not to snore. “You have the Fallen Sky?”
“Yes,” Crystal said and withdrew it from her bag. She held it out to Lucinda. “One piece of the Fallen Sky for the release of my brother.”
“And he has been released,” Lucinda said and plucked it from Crystal’s palm. “This is beautiful,” she said and held it up, smiling a little. “Truly a perfect piece.”
Crystal said nothing but inhaled deeply. The softest sigh escaped Lucinda’s lips and she motioned to Jasper, lying on the sand. “Your brother is yours. Next I will require a harpy’s branch.”
“A harpy’s branch,” Crystal repeated. Already her thoughts were turning it over.
“Yes. At least as long as you are tall,” Lucinda said and smiled a little. “In exchange I will release your next brother. Are we agreed?”
“Agreed.” That single word chased out all other echoes and Lucinda smiled, openly displaying her fangs.
The lantern flickered for just a moment and Lucinda was gone in that faint shadow, leaving Jasper lying on the floor next to Crystal.
Crystal inhaled slowly and then bent, hauling Jasper up. She just had to get him to the entrance.
The entire time she hauled him through the cave, letting the faint light of her lantern lead illuminate the rocks around them, she tried to think of how she might be able to get the harpy’s branch. There were only a few places to look, each one posing its own perils.
Jasper’s weight pulled on her. He was half a foot taller than she was, and where she hunted up herbs and dried plants most of the day, he worked the soil and wrestled sheep for shearing. The difference in their physiques made dragging him through the cave an exhausting task.
A few steps from the entrance her legs shook and threatened to give out. The shift of starlight told her someone had come to the entrance. “I see them,” Mica said.
Crystal pushed forward, her legs aching and burning. As soon as she was close enough, Mica pulled Jasper from her arms and Coal caught her in a hug. Mica lay Jasper down, tapping at his forehead and shaking his shoulders. Jasper slept on, oblivious to his brother’s attempts to wake him.
“He won’t wake until the sunlight touches his face,” Crystal said. Weariness seeped into her voice, rendering it raspy.
“That’s not for hours,” Coal said.
“Crystal, you’re the smallest, you’ll have to sit on the horse with him and keep him on until we can get him down to home again,” Mica said and Crystal nodded as she rubbed at the shoulder she’d had Jasper leaning against.
Home, she decided. Home and then in the morning she would need to hunt up a harpy’s branch. Home to where Juniper would be.
Her thoughts wandered over what she knew of blood fae, and then to what she knew of harpies. She was only vaguely aware of how much work it was taking to keep her slumbering brother on the horse.
“Let me take him,” Mica said and Crystal jerked, nearly losing her grip on Jasper. She realized she’d spent the entire time lost in thought as the cottage door opened, letting her see Juniper in her nightgown.
“What’s happened?” Juniper asked.
“We’ve got him,” Mica promised as Juniper hurried down. With a grunt, Mica and Coal both managed to slide Jasper off the saddle. His one foot smacked Crystal’s thigh, but she only sort of winced while the horse snorted under her.
She patted the horse’s neck before she slid down and turned, wanting to explain it to Juniper.
She couldn’t. The words failed her and Juniper’s worried face broke the last of Crystal’s resolve. She knew Juniper had recognized it too because she tossed her arms around Crystal, letting Crystal bury her face against one shoulder, trying to breathe around the tears.
“Crystal?” Coal’s voice sounded panicked. She felt Juniper motion her brothers off.
“Let’s get him inside and then we’ll get the horse,” Mica advised.
“Thank you,” Juniper said. Crystal didn’t bother looking up, still trying not to let her tears fall.
The door closed for a moment, and then opened again. The horse snorted as it was led off and Crystal sniffed. “Sorry,” she managed.
“There’s no need for you to apologize,” Juniper said gently and pulled back a little to lift Crystal’s chin. “You’ve slept so little and badly, not to mention I know dealing with fairies can be stressful anyways, never mind when you’re bargaining with others’ lives.”
Crystal hiccupped and Juniper smiled. “I—I have to get—”
“Some tea, and at least half a night’s decent sleep before you get anything else,” Juniper said firmly and looped her arm around Crystal’s waist. “I’ll get the kettle on, you can just sit at the table a bit. Maybe a bite or two will help.”
Crystal wasn’t sure she’d put much support in that theory, but then as Juniper led her up the stairs and then to the kitchen table, being home again made it a little easier to stave off the tears.
Listening while Juniper puttered about their kitchen and made a cup of tea and buttered a biscuit from supper, Crystal’s breathing quavered and she dropped her head, looking at the woodgrain of the table in front of her.
A plate clinked as it was set in front of her and she jerked her head up to look at Juniper. “What was I thinking?”
“That you love your brothers,” Juniper said and settled to the seat next to her. “It’s alright to be scared.”
“I can’t—I can’t do this,” Crystal said. “The apple wasn’t hard, but the glass could have drowned me and the if the groundskeeper had caught Mica or I—”
“He makes a lot of threats, but he’s harmless,” Juniper said. “And I know you well enough to know you’ve probably already got a basket planned for that old grump.”
“She wants a harpies branch as long as I am tall.”
Juniper stayed silent a moment before she inhaled. “There’s a few places they roost and it’s summer now.”
“That doesn’t mean they’ll all be gone.”
“No, but there will be less of them.”
The door creaked open and Juniper looked over as Mica poked his head in. “We’re—”
“Going to come in and stop leaving my door hanging open is what the two of you are going to do,” Juniper said. Crystal smiled as she looked down at her tea while she considered her options.
“I’ll need to leave early tomorrow,” she said.
“For what?” Coal asked and Crystal lifted her head again.
“The nearest harpy roost is at least a day’s ride away,” she said. “Do you mind if I borrow the cart?”
“Yes, I mind,” Mica said. “At least I do if you think you’re going after something in a harpy’s roost without my help.”
“Our help,” Coal corrected. “Can you wait until Jasper’s awake? Or at least half-awake. He’ll take an hour in the morning to get anywhere near functional.”
“I don’t want you to risk yourselves.”
“And we’re not risking you,” Coal said firmly. “What do we do first?”
“I think the first thing we need to do is get some hot tea in Crystal. You two need to get in the trunk at the end of the hall and find some blankets for yourselves. You want an early start, so you can just spend the night here,” Juniper said firmly and made a little shooing motion.
Looking a little bit like shamed children, both her brothers sauntered off towards the hall. Crystal looked at her tea.
“I don’t know how this is going to help.”
“It’s going to help you sleep. You’re tired and stressed. You need some rest or you’ll make a mistake,” Juniper said. “And fae like that will capitalize on anything they can.”
“Even if I don’t make a mistake—”
“You’re also exhausted and that’s making it harder for you to think,” Juniper said and tipped Crystal’s chin up. “A cup of tea, a little bit to eat and some rest will help.”
“I just don’t know what I’m going to do,” Crystal said.
“It would help if you’d listen to me,” Juniper said and Crystal managed a smile.
“I’m whining, aren’t I?”
“A touch,” Juniper agreed. “We’re not finished yet, thank you.”
Crystal smiled a little and pulled the tea closer. “I can’t do more tonight anyways, I suppose.”
“You can’t,” Juniper said. “Let me make up the bed while you at least sip that.”
“I promise. The fattest, sweetest blackberries I can find.”
“I believe that,” Juniper said and smoothed a stray lock of hair back behind Crystal’s ear. “Believe me when I tell you there’s always a solution.”
“I hope you can come up with one because I don’t have one.”
“Three for three isn’t bad,” Juniper replied. “Now get some tea in you. You’re terribly grumpy when you’re exhausted like this.”
That earned a soft chuckle and Crystal finally picked up the cup. She inhaled the steam before she took a sip and smiled. “Lavender and chamomile,” she said.
“You keep telling me those two are the best for calming,” Juniper said loftily as she stood. “I suppose we’ll see how good they are.”