She nodded at her brother, stepped out of the circle, and did not look back. Pointed teeth gleamed in the forest spirits smile. “This way,” it said. She walked into the forest following the sharp movements of her bark skinned guide. She had a small stash of bribes, baked goods mostly, in case she needed to make more bargains. A good cloak, sturdy boots, and her hunting knife. Tall branches blocked out the light of the moon and it sifted down in threads. She wasn’t worried; her guide had made a bargain. Bargains with the spirits were always kept. If she stumbled and fell it would be forced to wait. It did not seem like the most patient of sprites. Mist rose up in the trees and she walked for awhile in a cathedral of trees and shadows with home falling farther and farther behind her.
Her legs wearied, but she pressed on. They needed the name and this was the only way she knew to get it. When the light among the trees warmed to a pale gold glow, she knew what she’d forgotten. She kept her face uninterested, but pulled a raisin out of her pack. “How long will it take to get there and back?”
The spirit grinned and took the raisin. “Two years by the safe roads, less by more dangerous paths.”
“Two years is too long.”
Black eyes glimmered with an old cunning. “Safety was your restriction.”
“Are there ways to make the trip more quickly?”
“For a price, many things are possible.”
For the first time on this journey, Zepporah felt her stomach clench. They were bargaining, she need offer nothing else but she wasn’t in a circle and she needed the guide. If only it were as easy as negotiating peace between her siblings. Heart aching, she pushed thoughts of home aside.
“A combination of the quick and dangerous paths. I want to return to my lands before a year and a day have passed.”
“I cannot guarantee your safety on the dangerous paths. There are places even I could not help you.”
“You are under a bargain.”
“Not all creatures stop to ask.”
“You can inform me of the dangers and I will make a decision on if I want to continue down it.” In the corner of her mind Zepporah thought bargaining with spirits was a lot like training a horse. She’d always been more stubborn, more patient, and had more power. This was a lot the same, except a false step here got you more than cracked ribs and filthy skirts.
“I take you on quicker paths, faster time, maintain the current bargain, and for that, I want blood.” It could not disguise its hunger on the last word.
At least that was honest. Zepporah shook her head. “No blood. I-”
The sprite hissed. “I risk as much as you on the other roads. I keep you protected. I want more than treats and tricks.”
Zepporah took a breath in through her nose and let it out slowly. Blood was a bond a strong one. All her reading emphasized its power. “One drop now and one when I am returned to my lands.”
“Three drops now and one for each day I bring you back before the year is up.”
“Three drops now and one for every month before the year is up.”
Zepporah took her hunting knife and nicked her thumb with the edge. She let three drops fall into the waiting hands of the forest sprite who lapped them up. She thought the black eyes gleamed a little brighter.
“This way.” It turned and walked into the deepening gloom and Zepporah shut home away in her thoughts. She put her thumb to her mouth and tasted the blood. She took her handkerchief out of her pocket and wrapped it around her thumb. It would do for now. She took one long step into the shadow of the trees, then another. And another. And another.