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.

 

 

Posted in serial, Seventh, writing

Seventh Part Nine

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

It was evening by the time they reached the cave. With the evening shadows falling on the rocks, two pale faces stood out, clear against the pitch of the cave behind them. Lucinda chuckled a little as they pulled the cart to a stop.

“The family reunited,” she hummed a little and Crystal drew herself upright, trying to ignore the tension in her neck and shoulders. “One branch of harpy wood, for one brother.”

“One branch, one brother,” Crystal agreed.

Lucinda hummed a little and lifted a hand. Her fingers clicked and instantly, Jet fell forward, dropping onto the ground. Mica and Coal both jerked, as if going to him, only to have Jasper stop them. His gaze however, remained on Lucinda’s face as though he could burn through her with his glare alone.

“We are agreed,” Lucinda hummed and Crystal nodded, motioning to the branch.

“The branch and the branch alone are yours,” she said.

Another click, and the branch vanished, replaced by Jet’s sleeping form. “As agreed,” Lucinda said. “The next item I require is a bag of snow.”

“A bag of snow?”

“Unmelted,” Lucinda said. Her smile displayed her upper fangs. “I’m not picky about where it comes from, but if it proves too hard do remember I can only convert one of your brothers should you choose to skip an item.”

“I’m not leaving any of my brothers behind,” Crystal snarled and jerked towards Lucinda. Jasper’s hand on her shoulder kept her from going too far.

“That’s up to you,” Lucinda said with a shrug. “I’m only giving you options. A bag of snow.”

With that, both she and Blake vanished into the shadows again, fading as the last of the evening sunlight did.

Crystal ground her teeth together and jerked away from Jasper to climb into the back of the with Jet.

“It’s too dark already,” Mica said as she tried to lift Jet up. “There’s not enough sunlight.”

Her jaw tightened until she felt her teeth might break. Forcing herself to inhale, she had to drop her head.

“Let’s get him home,” she said.

The others only nodded once. The horse snorted when Coal clicked his tongue, and started forward again, pulling the cart behind it as they wound down the path.

Years of use had made the road smooth though she could see little divots from other traveling carts. The sun had faded from the horizon by the time they reached town, with the sky truly blackened when they reached the cottage.

A few lights had been left on, but Crystal still jumped out into the darkness, mulling where she could possibly get a bag of snow from. It was summer, none of the mountains would have any.

The door opened, the rattle of the handle jolting her out of her thoughts. Juniper stepped out onto the porch, holding the door as Mica and Jasper worked to pull Jet from the cart and then to haul him up the stairs.

“I’ll get the cart and the horse,” Coal said and nudged Crystal. “I’m sure you want to talk to her.”

Crystal nodded, just once and came up the porch, inhaling a little as she took Juniper’s hand.

“Are you…?” Juniper left it hanging and Crystal smiled.

“I’m alright,” she promised and reached up to retrieve the ribbon falling from Juniper’s hair. “I’m more upset that I keep having to wander off while you’re here.”

“I don’t mind as long as you come home again,” Juniper said and Crystal smiled at that. “You’re peeved.”

“I’m not sure how to solve this one,” she admitted. “She wants a bag of snow.”

“A bag of snow?”

“Yes. Unmelted. There won’t be snow around for miles and even if there was, getting it back before it melts could be impossible,” Crystal explained.

A faint sigh escaped Juniper, and from the candlelight seeping through from the door highlighted the thoughtful pursing of her lips. They stood in silence a moment before Juniper shook her head and squeezed Crystal’s hand. “We’ll think of something,” she said and tugged gently to get Crystal moving up and into the house again. “Did she say how big?”

“No. Just that it was to be a bag of snow.”

“Then tomorrow we’ll need to figure out where to find snow, and how to get a bag of it back.”

 

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, writing

Seventh Part Seven

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

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.”