Posted in Stories, writing

Short Story: Holiday Cheer

The one thing that pained him about Sadie was how expressive she was. Even without saying a word, Charles knew when his ten-year-old wasn’t enjoying the meal prep. It came across in the way she kept her head ducked and inspected her task with care before she actually started it.

“Why so glum?” he asked and she looked up from where she’d been carefully crimping a pie as instructed.

“What’s glum?”

He laughed. “It means you’re unhappy. Something bothering you Sadie-bug?”

She considered it while she turned the pie one last time. “We’re making a lot of food,” she said.

“Yes,” he said.

“But it’s just you and me,” she said and looked at him. There was trouble in her earth-toned gaze. “Not even Uncle Marshall this year.”

It surprised him. She was a social butterfly, as evidenced by the fact that at ten, her list of phone numbers was more than double his and her weekends were rarely ‘free’.

“Well, it’s a holiday for family.”

“Uncle Marshall is family,” Sadie said.

“Yes, but he has other family.” He had to be careful about that. She was by no means an unintelligent child and if she started asking how closely related they were to her ‘uncle’ she was going to uncover a whole other set of problems.

“Family we don’t have?”

Time to head off that conversation. “Honey, what’s going on with you? Why are you so concerned with it?”

She shrugged a little as he came to sit in the chair next to her. “It’s just, this is supposed to be for families, right? So…where’s the rest of my family? I don’t have grandparents or…or aunts or anything. Just you and Uncle Marshall.”

Expressive as her body language could be, getting actual information out of her verbally sometimes felt like panning for gold. It was all in the tiny things.

“What’s that ‘or anything’ you’re so concerned with?” Charles questioned. Sadie didn’t look at him. She’d finished crimping the pie, and the fork she’d been using showed him only a warped reflection when she turned away. “I can’t fix a problem if you don’t tell me about it.”

Another moment of silence. “Where’s my mom?”

That was a blow and Charles had to inhale a little. He’d been hoping she wouldn’t ask, even while he knew eventually Sadie would. Explaining what had happened with her mother was an involved tale.

Even for a ten-year-old that could and did pick up on things she shouldn’t have.

Especially for a ten-year-old that had told him before which kids in her class weren’t getting enough lunch and which ones were being hurt at home.

He must have taken too long to respond because she sighed. “You’re not going to tell me, are you?”

“Hold on, a minute,” he said. “You surprised me, that’s all. Come on, turn and face me.”

Sadie obliged but he could tell by her face she wasn’t happy about something.

“You’re smart enough and old enough to know that sometimes moms and dads don’t stay together,” he said. “And sometimes when that sort of thing happens, there’s a lot of nastiness involved.”

“They get divorced,” Sadie replied, almost matter-of-fact. There was an underlying question in her tone that indicated she wasn’t sure where this was going.

“That’s only when they get married,” Charles said. “I…I never married your mom. I asked her a couple of times, and we were going to, but we ended up not.”

“Then where is she now?”

“Well,” Charles said and had to pause before he exhaled slowly. This was the one thing he hadn’t ever wanted to tell Sadie. “The truth of it is honey, your mom fell in love with someone else, and she decided he was a little more important to her than you were,” Charles said.

He could tell she was processing it, but the look of shock on her face broke his heart. “She didn’t want me?”

“She…no. She decided she didn’t.”

Sadie was silent for a long moment. “I’m going go play in my room,” she said.

“Okay.”

His heart squeezed, painted as she wandered towards her room and closed the door softly. He couldn’t do anything to alleviate the pain of knowing that at least one parent had abandoned her.

Reminded of the whole mess, Charles sighed and looked over the dishes still in the middle of prepping. He knew there were others in the fridge, waiting for tomorrow when they would start cooking. These were the ones he wanted prepped ahead of time—the cheesecake, and the pies, mostly, but also Sadie’s favorite cheesy potatoes.

He took time putting everything up. The pies were stacked on wire racks, repurposed from their usual cookie-cooling days so he could more on the shelf. The casserole sat on the shelf below that, covered in tinfoil already. The turkey and the ham were similarly ready, though both still packaged up and waiting to be prepped for tomorrow.

There was plenty of other items—fruits and veggies to be displayed as snacking foods, potatoes for more mashed. Eggs, cooling from this morning and waiting to be deviled or mashed into egg salad.

In fact, the only thing they seemed to be missing for tomorrow’s feast, was ice cream to top the pie.

Ice cream, he decided, and maybe something to cheer up Sadie. It wasn’t much, but maybe she’d perk up once she was able to look over the holiday decorations.

“Sadie?” He knocked on her door softly and it took her a moment to open it. He could tell she was still upset and smiled. “We forgot something when we did the shopping.”

“Like what?”

“Can’t have apple pie without vanilla ice cream on top, now can we?”

It was such a tiny smile. “I need to get my shoes.”

The drive was a short one, and with a holiday station turned on, Charles was glad to see a little more cheer as it spread over Sadie.

Finding the ice cream wasn’t hard to do, and Sadie ranged down the aisle a little while Charles lingered near the ice cream bars. He knew they really did have enough food at home for the rest of the week, but an ice cream sandwich sounded like a perfect reward for all the work they’d put in to prepping today.

From the corner of one eye, he saw Sadie as she opened a freezer door to reach up for the ice cream. It must have been farther back on the shelf and he saw her step back, the door slapping shut in defeat.

Time to go rescue her from a too-high shelf, he decided.

Someone else had seen her plight though. He couldn’t have been more than fourteen, but grinned as he opened the door and fetched it down. “That the one you need?”

“Yes. Thank you!”

“Alec, I already told you no.”

He knew that voice and turned, startled to see someone he was certain wouldn’t have been in town: Marshall’s sister.

“Hi, Lila,” he said.

Lila blinked and looked at him before she laughed. “Hi! I didn’t even recognize you for a minute. I see I’m not the only one leaving the holiday shopping to the last minute.”

He laughed as Sadie came over, her prize in hand. “Yes and no. We got most of it done the last couple of days, but needed just a couple odds and ends.”

“Who’s this?” Sadie asked and Lila laughed.

“I’m Lila. I helped Charles with the landscaping for the restaurant.”

“You’re the one who put in the gardenias! Hi! I’m Sadie.”

Charles laughed as the boy sauntered over to half-glare at Charles. “This is my girl.”

Lila beamed. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Sadie. This is Alec.”

The boy responded with a faint nod. “’Sup?” It earned him a faint sigh from Lila and Charles laughed.

“Thank you for helping Sadie, Alec,” he said.

“No problem.” He said and half-smiled at Sadie. “She almost had it. Just needs another inch or so.”

She beamed and looked at Charles. “How long is going to take for me to grow an inch?”

“With my luck? You’ll grow an inch the week after we get you a new jacket for winter,” he said.

Lila laughed. “That’s how it always works,” she said. “We’ve got just a few things left to get, so we’ll get out of your hair.”

He noted the shopping list in the front of the cart, how short it was. A tight budget, perhaps? Or just a very small celebration. His gaze traveled to her hands, noting the lack of a wedding band.

“You know,” he said and glanced at Sadie. “Sadie and I are doing the holiday with just the two of us. You guys are welcome to join us.”

“Please do,” Sadie said. “Daddy made four pies and both turkey and ham.”

Lila laughed and glanced at Alec, who shrugged. “I like pie,” he said noncommittally.

“Then…I think we’d love to,” Lila said. “If you’re certain. It’s just Alec and I this year as well, but we don’t want to impose.”

“You’re not imposing. You’re invited,” Charles promised and glanced at Sadie. “Besides. Sadie’s right. I may have gone a little overboard on cooking.”

Lila laughed. “We can probably help with that.”

Maybe it wasn’t her mom, but Charles smiled as Sadie grinned, immediately launching into a detailed accounting of everything they already had and asking how Alec liked his turkey—what kind of gravy did he prefer? Did Lila like apple pie or cherry?

No, he couldn’t replace her mother. But maybe, just maybe, he could prove to Sadie that there were more people who wanted her around than the one who’d abandoned them both.

_________

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this short story you can find more over on my short stories page. Alternately, you can get exclusive stories and early access by supporting me on Patreon. 

Happy Holidays!

Posted in Stories

Short Story: Gingerbread

“The end.”

“Momma,” her daughter said. “There’s not really a house made of candy in the woods, is there?” Concern made her eyes wide.

A laugh escaped. “It wouldn’t last very long if there was, now would it?”

“No.” Her son cut in matter-of-factly. “All the animals would come and eat it.”

“Indeed they would. There’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s only a story meant to pass a little bit of time between supper and bed. Which is where the both of you need to be.”

“Already?” Her son’s smile faded into a pout.

“Already,” she said and stood up. “Kisses and then into bed. I’ll tuck you both in shortly.”

They sighed but accepted a hug and a kiss. Already she could tell her son was sleepy, his steps shuffling over the floor. He might protest bedtime the most, but he rarely stayed awake more than a few minutes passed it.

She tucked him in first and wasn’t surprised when he was almost immediately asleep. “Good night my gingerbread boy,” she murmured and then crept over to his sister’s bed.

Her daughter lay awake, staring at the ceiling. “You’re sure there’s no house made of candy?” her daughter asked and she chuckled as she sat on the bed.

“I’m sure. Did the story scare you too much?”

“I’m not scared. Not much.”

She laughed and bent down, pressing a kiss to her daughter’s soft hair. “I promise. No houses made of candy and no greedy bakers looking to gobble up sweet children, either. Besides. You know I’m a baker. Do you think I could make a house out of candy?”

Her daughter smiled and relaxed a little. “Maybe,” she said and rolled over. “Your baking is always so tasty.”

“And that’s why it never lasts long around here. Good night my gingerbread girl.”

She slipped out, looking at them for a few minutes before she closed the door.

A sigh escaped as she moved to the kitchen. All too soon it would be time to get up and start the morning’s baking.

For now however, she moved to the ancient brick oven and looked in at the ball of dough she’d left rising.

“Perfect,” she said as she pulled it out. “You don’t need to be all that sweet, but just a little bit of cinnamon and some sugar.”

She worked with care, her hands folding and pulling the dough into the perfect shape. Skill and practice made it possible to form ears and a tail

Finished, she smiled as she opened her cabinet for one last tiny bottle. It was nearly empty, and to anyone else it looked like plain sugar. There would be just enough left to sprinkle over a single baked good.

Just enough for a cinnamon roll.

The last few sparkling grains tipped out onto the cinnamon roll before she eased the sheet into the ancient oven to bake.

Her boy had wanted a pet for so long and her daughter had loved seeing the butcher’s cat.

The problem was, she had to be careful what she allowed them to be exposed to. As her son had pointed out, some animals would happily gobble down candy and sweets. She knew more than a few people would.

A faint meow from the oven and she looked in seeing the cat as it began rising properly and turning golden brown. It would still be a while, but in the morning she would have a perfect cat for her sweet children.

“A cinnamon roll cat for a gingerbread boy and a gingerbread girl.”

___________

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Posted in serial, Seventh, Stories, writing

Seventh Part Eight

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six | Part Seven

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.

“Harpy!”

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.”

Posted in serial, Seventh, Stories

Seventh Part Six

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five

“Juni,” Crystal pleaded as they walked. “I’m sorry.” 

“Sorry? Sorry! Crystal, you’re going to get yourself killed. That pool is deep and made of snow melt.” Juniper spun around, the loose ribbon in her hair threatening to slip the rest of the way out. 

“I don’t have to swim in it,” Crystal said. “I just have to be able to get the glass out.” 

“Correction,” Juniper said and put a finger to Crystal’s chest. “You have to get a piece of glass the appropriate size out. What were you thinking agreeing to that?” 

“That I need it for my brother,” Crystal replied. 

For a moment Juniper said nothing before she exhaled, her anger melting away. “What am I going to do with you?” 

“Hopefully answer a question for me.” 

“I’ll try, but I promise nothing else,” Juniper said and crossed her arms. “I’m very put out with you.” 

“I know, and I’ll make it up to you,” Crystal said and smiled. “I know where to find those blackberries you like so much.” 

Juniper let off a gruff little snort as she tipped her chin. “What’s your question?” 

“The son of the blood fae queen, he carried Coal to the entrance in exchange for a lock of my hair.” 

“Crystal!” 

“I know,” Crystal said. “You’ve said it a hundred times. Blood and hair are the two most powerful things to offer. But, he called it an even exchange and was determined to carry Coal all the way to the very entrance as part of that even exchange. I don’t understand why.” 

Juniper considered it for a long moment. “Well,” she said. “I don’t know everything about them, but all fairies are bound by certain rules. An even exchange means once both ends have been met, no further offers can be made on that. If he did however, and he is a blood fae as you say, the sunlight would have weakened him.” 

“I absolved him of all debts when I realized that,” Crystal said. 

“Smart,” Juniper said. “But I can’t say for certain. I don’t exactly have anyone I can ask for more details.” 

“It’s alright,” Crystal said and slid her hand into Juniper’s. “It was just something curious for me.” 

Juniper chuckled a little and tugged Crystal closer as they walked a little farther up the path and then around an outcropping to gaze at last at the pool. 

A bowl of white quartz formed the majority of the pool’s basin. A little higher up and she could see where the stones had worn smooth by the spring cascades. Now in the heat of the summer, the cascade had devolved into a melodic trickle. 

“And the glass is in the bottom?” 

“It should be,” Juniper said as she pulled the walking stick she’d brought with her out of the loop on her back. She hadn’t used it once, and yet as Crystal watched, Juniper went to the edge, holding it out as far as she could and dipping it down. As it went deeper, Juniper had to lean forward a little. 

“There’s the bottom,” she said as she withdrew it. All but a half-foot portion had been submerged. “It gets deeper.” 

The glass would be all the way at the bottom. Too deep to dive. 

Crystal approached, looking down into the pool. The water wasn’t murky, but the backing of the quartz made it hard to see passed the glittering reflection of the sun. “Alright,” she said. “Too deep to swim in. We’ll need a raft.” 

“Where are you going to find the things to build a raft with?” Juniper asked and Crystal smirked as she looked at her before she moved, clambering up and over the rocks to find what she needed.

A sigh escaped Juniper as Crystal began finding long sticks and the like. “I should know better to ask by now,” Juniper noted as she spread out the blanket Crystal had insisted on bringing with them out. 

While Crystal found the sticks she needed, Juniper worked carefully, using a roll of twine from her bag and a spare ribbon or two to make the raft. 

It was only big enough for one person and Juniper looked at it, a little concerned while Crystal lashed several longer sticks together and secured a bag to the one end of her new staff. “Are you certain about this?” Juniper asked.

“I’m always certain of your handiwork,” Crystal answered. “It’ll take me a bit to get there and back, but I can do it.” 

Crystal grinned and slid out of her shoes and left her bag behind. As an afterthought, she tugged out of her shirt. “Just in case,” she said.

Juniper harrumphed but offered nothing else as Crystal eased the raft onto the water. Once it was halfway into the water, she slid onto it, letting her weight and movement push it the rest of the way into the water. A glance back let her see that Juniper had taken to nibbling on her lower lip, a sign of her stress. 

All the same as she carefully lowered the sack into the water and used it to push herself along, the raft continued floating. As always Juniper’s work remained steady. The only concern Crystal had was tipping herself over into the chilled water. 

Peering over the edge Crystal could see some of the glass shards. The water grew into a clouded blue as she pushed herself along. The silt she raised with her movements obscured the bottom.

Most of the glass was out in the middle of the pool, but Crystal knew she wouldn’t be able to get that far. Though the raft was holding up, it wasn’t intended for a long trip and the more she moved, the more she felt it tip and shift. 

Some of the water touched her toes and she froze on instinct before she looked behind her. She needed to get back. She had plenty of pieces in her sack now, she hoped. One of them would suffice. 

Turning herself required a larger movement and water sloshed over the side, dampening her pants. She took a slow breath in as she pushed on the makeshift paddle. As the raft turned, the ripples of water spread out and away from her, crashing into the remnants of other ripples and movements. 

Inching her way back towards shore she could see Juniper on the bank, body tense and expression horrified. 

As soon as she was close enough, she reached out. Juniper caught her fingers and pulled, helping bring both raft and Crystal back to the shore. Crystal hauled herself up, one hand clenched around the staff. The bag came out, dripping and heavy. 

“Absolutely insane,” Juniper said and tossed her arms around Crystal. Laughing, Crystal returned the hug, holding Juniper close for a moment and relishing in the smell of faint lavender from her clothes. 

Letting go, Crystal smiled and reached up to tip Juniper’s chin a little. “You split your lip.” 

That got a wry smile. “I was worried. I wasn’t sure it would hold up.” 

“As always, I have your work to thank.” 

“My work would have done nothing without your usual resourcefulness,” Juniper said and moved, carefully up plucking stones out of the bag. Some she turned and threw back into the pool.  Wavelets moved across the water as she tossed the rocks back. Others she set aside, giving Crystal a chance to look at the so-called glass in the light of day. 

It wasn’t quite opaque, and tinged blue. She picked one up, feeling the water polished surface. 

“It’s quartz,” Crystal said. 

Juniper nodded as she finished sorting the rocks. “Supposedly a grand castle stood here once. It fell to ruins.” 

“And it was made of quartz?” 

Juniper shrugged. “I don’t know what happened. I can only tell you there was supposed to be a castle, and that the princess had been blessed.” 

There was a pause while Crystal pulled her shoes back on. Juniper turned, skipping a shard across the water. It sank somewhere in the middle.

“What was she blessed with?” 

Juniper had to think a moment. “If I remember, she was blessed with beauty. It’s said she was supposed to have been accidentally put under an enchanted sleep, only to be woken by a true prince.” 

“Did she ever wake up?” 

“You know how those stories go,” Juniper said. “There’s dozens of versions of them. If she never woke up, no one knows where she sleeps today to try and wake her.” 

  Crystal was silent a moment. “The fairies,” she said. “They say their blessings are always a warning.” 

“They are,” Juniper said and looked up. “I can tell you that firsthand. A blessing of resourcefulness only means you’ll face challenges that need a lot of wit. A blessing of fortune only means you’ll have both good and bad luck. Blessings of beauty attract people of greed.” She paused, reaching up to touch the locket around her neck. Crystal knew there would be a broken ring inside. “Are you alright?” Crystal asked.

“I’m fine,” Juniper replied and smiled. “These should be all the right size.” 

“It has to be at least as long as my palm,” Crystal murmured. 

“Take your pick then,” Juniper invited. 

Carefully, Crystal held her hand over the two longest. She dismissed both. It only had to be at least as long as her palm. The less she gave Lucinda, the better. The items were obscure, and Crystal wasn’t sure putting them together would do anything good. 

Then again, blood fae weren’t known to be ‘good’ fairies. 

“This one,” she decided at last and Juniper nodded as Crystal took it, tucking it carefully in the pocket of her bag.

“Then the only thing left is to put these all back,” Juniper said and Crystal laughed. “Never take more than you need.”

“I know,” Crystal said and picked up another one. “But you know I’m terrible at skipping rocks.”  

Posted in serial, Seventh, Stories

Seventh: Part Five

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four |

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.”