Posted in Stories

Short Story: Under Her Own Power

Inhaling brought cool air to her lungs as she stood outside the parliament chamber. Exhaling dispelled some of the internal heat, but did nothing to calm her anger.

“Are you ready, Your Majesty?”

Sola lifted her face. She didn’t have a choice. Either she stood out here all day or she walked into the parliament knowing full well they would want their demands met. If it was merely a waiting game, she had no end of patience.

Her people did not.

“Open the doors. Please.” She added the please perhaps a little hastily, remembering what she’d been told just that morning. She was queen, and though she’d spent seven years locked away, manners were just as important to people as they were to spirits.

The gilt doors swung open and Sola strode forward, letting the lace cape hanging from her shoulders flutter in the wind created by her passage.

“Queen Sola Diem. Hail the Queen!”

“Hail the Queen.”

The hundred voices of the parliament annoyed her, more than having her presence announced in every bloody room she entered. Sola took another slow breath as she stepped up into the empty, central pedestal, looking at the gathered faces of parliament.

Silence for a moment, and then the head of Parliament cleared his throat and shuffled his papers.

“Your Majesty—”

“You will speak only when spoken to.”

Her voice cut him off. Shock and surprise coated the room and Sola drew in another breathe, taking the air deep.

Roses, she realized. She could smell roses. A hateful, sickly smell that told her there were greater forces at place than one queen and one kingdom.

Smartly, one of the smaller members of parliament raised his fan. “Yes, Councilor?” She didn’t bother looking at the nameplate in front of him, didn’t bother acknowledging him beyond that. These men had plenty of acknowledgement from the people. No need to give them more. They needed a reminder of what their job was.

“In regards to today’s meeting, we’ve asked Your Majesty why you’ve refused to reclaim some of the private lands currently left abandoned or otherwise unused.”

“No, you’ve not. You’ve demanded my presence to try and cow me into submission. My answer remains as it has been. No. Those lands do not belong to the Crown.”

Several annoyed grumbles and once more the Head of Parliament cleared his throat. “Those lands—”

“Have I spoken to you?” Sola turned her gaze on him directly and he sank back.

“Ah…permission to address you, My Queen?”

“If you must.” Her temper won over her patience.

“The lands did originally belong to the Crown. It’s merely a matter of reclaiming the titles, which you do have the power to do as you are Queen of the First Kingdom.”

“They belonged to the Crown until they were purchased by their current owners. As they have not been sold back to the Crown or deemed forfeit by any competent official—”

“Several officials have deemed them forfeit.”

“Excuse you.” Sola’s attention moved to the unexcused speaker. The stench of roses grew, permeating the chamber. “I was not finished speaking, do not interrupt me. No competent official has declared those lands forfeit. Several incompetent and heavily bribed officials have and I will be rescinding those declarations effective immediately.”

Outcries. Rage. Several parliament members stood up.

What little remaining control over her temper snapped, not unlike a thread.

Silence!

Roses erupted out of the wood of the podium. Several bloomed on the tables in front of the parliament. Petals exploded into the air and drifted to the floor, leaving a crimson carpet all around.

The effect was immediate. The gathered members of parliament froze, recoiling from the roses in horror and fear.  Sola inhaled again.

“Let me remind you of something. Your jobs are to serve the people of the First Kingdom. You have been given your positions because you were educated enough to qualify for them. That does not mean I cannot find a replacement for all of you. Continue to harm the people of the First Kingdom and I will do exactly that.”

“We are—”

“Did I give you permission to speak?” Already formed, the rose thorns grew bigger. Sola glowered down at the petty men still cowering back from the flowers. Anger trembled in every limb.

“You are all the same men who allowed a weakling king to lock his daughter away for seven years. You are all the same men who left a princess to the care of spirits. Unfortunately for all of you, princesses have a habit of becoming queens. I am that queen now and my time away has reminded me of who I serve. I owe no loyalty to any of you. Your attitudes towards both me and my subjects are only adding black marks to the pages of loyalty you owe me.

“The lands do not belong to the Crown and that is final. Remember that there are rules to dealing with a spirit and remind yourselves that you’ve allowed your Queen to be raised by those same rules.”

She turned, steps kicking rose petals up into the air again. One or two clung to her as she exited. The doors closed behind her and Sola had to inhale, closing her eyes. The weight of the traditional diadem pressed on her.

“Your Majesty?”

“Yes, I’m sorry.” Sola shook her head to chase the thoughts away and looked at one of the doormen. “Kindly ask the housekeepers to leave the roses be. I’ll take care of them once the parliament chambers have been cleared.”

“I can have the gardeners brought in, my lady.”

Sola smiled. “That’s very sweet of you, but it will have to be me. As I said. I’ve been raised by the same rules as a spirit.”

The doorman smiled and bowed. “If I may?”

“May what?”

“Thank you,” he said and smiled. “My father owns some of the lands they’ve been trying to get you to reclaim. He’s too old to farm it anymore so it’s supposed to be my sister’s dowry. Without it, we’d have lost an entire orchard. So thank you for standing up to them, but if it’s all the same to you, you’ve done a good favor to us and it’s a small price to get you some help cleaning up those roses.”

For the first time that morning Sola laughed. The sound surprised her and she brought a hand up. “My thanks,” she said. “But it’s not a concern about having help. Rather, those roses are from a fairy’s blessing.”

“Then if it’s all the same to you, may I request we leave them? Can’t be messing with fairy’s magic now and might serve as a good reminder to the parliament about not crossing spirits of any sort.”

Sola considered it and looked back at the doors. She couldn’t hear anything and smiled. Perhaps parliament needed a reminder of several things.

“You know, I think you’re right. Perhaps just have the gardeners do a little trimming to keep them healthy, if you don’t mind?”

“My pleasure.”

“My thanks.”

After all, there were rules to dealing with spirits and people alike.

_________

If you enjoyed this short story consider checking out my short stories page! For even more shorts including exclusive shorts, notes and early access, you can support me Patreon

Posted in Stories

Short Story: Blessings and Gifts

“There is a difference between fairy blessings and gifts, child. Both can be equally dangerous, but one binds the recipient in ways worse than death.”

Juniper paused in her sweeping to look up at the old woman. “Blessings are supposed to be given when a child is born, aren’t they?”

That earned her a chuckle “They are, but that’s not what makes them different from gifts. Blessings bind a person to a fate. A role in destiny.”

“That seems like some blessings would make people terrible.”

“People can always be terrible. A blessing of beauty does not give you a good heart, and a good heart does not protect against misfortune either.”

Juniper smiled a little. “I think I’ll be happy I don’t have any blessings then.”

Before her mentor could respond, someone knocked on the door and Juniper jumped a little. The old woman chuckled as she began shuffling towards it. “No blessings, but perhaps just enough bravery to see you through.”

If by bravery she meant the terrible voice in her head that screamed she was doing things wrong, Juniper didn’t want it. She returned to her sweeping as the door opened.

“Ah. Miss Cleary. Come in, come in. What do you have today?”

Juniper usually kept her head down, not wanting to draw attention to herself, but still glanced up at the girl who came in. She couldn’t have been much more than seventeen. Deep shadows underscored her velvet brown eyes and her raven-black hair had been tossed into a messy braid.

“Some carrots. Fennel and anise. A few mouse bones. A yard of spun wool.”

“A yard isn’t much.”

Juniper returned her attention to the floor, sweeping the dust towards the door where she could sweep it out. That would be a sign to anyone looking at they were open for business, for requests for this or that charm or fixed pot, pan or box.

A soft hum came from the girl. “No,” she said and suddenly there was a hand thrust in front of her. “You dropped this.”

The ribbon Juniper had strung in her hair earlier stood out against the sun-graced bronze. Gently, Juniper took it. An odd tingle went through her as her fingers brushed that palm and she pulled back a little sooner than was really polite. “Thank you,” she murmured.

The girl, who Juniper only ever heard as ‘Miss Cleary’ studied her for a moment before she nodded and turned. “I only have a yard for you this week.”

“I suppose I’ll make do. Any twigs?”

“A few.” Miss Cleary reached into her bag and withdrew several. “Apple and pecan.”

“Those will do nicely. It’s almost autumn you know. It’s a season of preparing.”

“For some,” Miss Cleary answered.

The usual rattle of coins as they were counted out filled the small room. Juniper had only just opened the door when Miss Cleary approached again.

“Sorry,” Juniper said. She stepped aside, expecting their visitor to pass by. Yet, the girl paused for a moment, tilting her head a little before she reached in her bag and pulled something out.

“Here. They’re fresh.”

Blackberries. They were all contained in a little glass jar which Juniper took reverentially. “I don’t—”

“They’re a gift,” Miss Cleary said and nodded only once before she stepped out. Juniper stood there, a little shocked before she turned and looked at her mentor, who only grinned.

“I don’t understand,” Juniper said.

“That’s Crystal Cleary. She’s the third generation seventh child of the Cleary family.”

“Seventh children are powerful,” Juniper said as she held the glass jar with its treats a little closer.”

“That they are. And Crystal herself got a fairy’s blessing. She always finds what she needs at hand.”

Juniper was silent a moment before she came around to put the jar on the sideboard nearest the hearth. Perhaps she’d make some tarts later, she decided.

“If she’s fairy-blessed, isn’t she bound to a fate?”

“Of course she is. That is between her and the fairy that blessed her however.”

“What about fairy gifts? Don’t they bind someone?”

“Not at all. A gift from a fairy is freely given, and that is what makes it dangerous. Wrong a fairy, and you may find yourself gifted with something nasty.”

Juniper smiled a little as she looked out the door. “Would it be alright if I made some tarts for her?”

“For Miss Cleary?”

“Yes. She gave me the blackberries, I can at least give her something to say thank you.”

The old woman studied her a moment before she nodded. “I suppose you can. Besides, I know you do love your blackberries.”

Juniper smiled. “It’s a very nice gift.”

_________

If you enjoyed this short story consider checking out my short stories page. If you’d like to get early access as well as additional exclusive shorts, consider supporting me over on Patreon. Thanks for reading!

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.”

___________

If you enjoyed this short story check out my short stories page. You can also support me and get exclusive short stories over on my Patreon.

Posted in serial, Seventh

Seventh Part Twelve

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six | Part Seven | Part Eight | Part Nine | Part Ten | Part Eleven

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.”

Posted in serial, Seventh

Seventh Part Eleven

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six | Part Seven | Part Eight | Part Nine | Part Ten

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.

And Dwarves.

“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.