The meeting ended early in the evening, and the Clan took the opportunity to make merry and enjoy themselves despite the tension. No one lived particularly far away from each other, but as with any other race they didn’t always get to see each other as much as they liked. Dogwood visited with various acquaintances, and though he was off-duty, he found himself answering a multitude of questions concerning the Beigads. Exhausted from work, the meeting, and the merriment, he, Laurel, and Snowdrop bid farewell, and made their way home.
Laurel flew ahead of them, again, as unsubtle as before. The night was warm and close around them, and lent a lazy quality to the air. Dogwood was drifting closer to Snowdrop, and she to him, as the lights of the town center faded behind them. When his arm brushed hers, his heart sped up and he glanced her way. She met his gaze, and it surprised him that he was the first to look away. Fighting a war was easier than this.
Needing something to do with his eyes he turned them toward the sky. Being so far away from the light pollution of human cities, the sky was a blanket of the tiny lights. Clouds drifted across the sky, periodically obscuring the light of the half-moon, and deepening the shadows.
A touch as delicate as a butterfly’s brushed across his hand. He looked down to see the back of Snowdrop’s fingers touching the back of his. It wasn’t as bold a move as taking his hand, but more of a gentle offer—one that could be ignored as an accident, or taken as something more.
His mind touched on his memories of Rosemary. With Snowdrop at his side the pain in those memories softened, like the light of the moon behind the clouds. It was still there, but not glaringly so.
Though the inside of him quivered, his hand was steady when he took Snowdrop’s in his. He didn’t know what he would see in her face if he looked, and he wasn’t sure if he was brave enough for that—yet.
Snowdrop gave his hand a gentle squeeze, to say she understood, and they continued on in silence toward her house.
They landed noiselessly at her front door, though their wings stirred the grass on either side of the pathway. She went to take her hand from his, but he closed his hand just enough so she stopped.
Nighttime mutes colors, or steals them completely, but Snowdrop had a Fairy light affixed above her door. The white light swirled inside the glass globe, and gave enough illumination for Dogwood to turn and see the lavender of her eyes.
Despite her being the one to take his hand earlier, she was hesitant. His heart pounding once again, he raised his other hand and brushed a wisp of hair from her cheek, and tucked it behind a delicately pointed ear. Her breath hitched, and she exhaled shakily.
“Laurel will be wondering where you’re at,” she said quietly, her eyes not leaving his.
Dogwood gave a wry smile. “I doubt that, considering my daughter’s machinations as of late,” his reply just as faint.
Snowdrop laughed, the sound as gentle as the night breeze. An amused twinkle replaced the uncertainty in her gaze.
They fell into silence again, and Dogwood slowly rubbed his thumb across her knuckles.
“Dogwood, I don’t…” she began but stopped, unsure of how to word what she was thinking, but he understood.
“Me either, but I think we can figure it out,” he said, and her smile was shy again.
Dogwood leaned forward, and brushed his lips across hers in a tender, chaste kiss. She smelled wonderful, like the beginnings of spring, but he leaned back and found her expression a little dazed.
“Would you mind if I stopped by after my errand tomorrow?” he asked.
She shook her head, and reluctantly took her hand from his. “Not at all. Goodnight, Dogwood,” she said.
“Goodnight, Snowdrop,” he said in return, and watched as she made her way into her house.
He lifted off the ground and flew the short distance over to his house, and saw the curtains twitch as he approached. When he walked in the door, Laurel was nonchalant as she sat by the empty fireplace with a book.
“You’d be a terrible spy,” he said and teased her a bit. She laughed and got up to give him a kiss.
“Goodnight, Father,” she said, and skipped up the stairs with barely contained excitement.
Dogwood shook his head and made his way to his bed. He tried to settle down for the night, but his mind was racing with a million thoughts. They alternated between concerns about work, about Nettle, and more pleasant ones with Snowdrop.
Once he was able to drift off, his sleep was fitful and sporadic. He woke up many times during the night until finally, exhausted, a deeper slumber came over him. Still, when he woke the next morning his eyes were grainy, and difficult to open against the early morning light. Laurel had already gone off to the gardens for her work, but she’d left him some tea on the stove.
Dogwood ate a sparse breakfast, and downed as much tea as he could manage before heading to his office.
Sage was waiting for him there with an expression of annoyance. Nettle was in his office as well, a sneer on his face as he examined Dogwood’s office. The room was sparse, as Dogwood spent more time outside of it than in. Nettle was one who tended toward opulence.
“To what do I owe the pleasure, Nettle?” Dogwood asked, and went to the locker in the right corner behind his desk. He put his back to the aggravating presence and unlocked the locker.
“The Head Council has determined that I should accompany you to visit the vervloakt, since I represent the interests opposite of yours,” he replied. His voice grated on Dogwood’s nerves, and made him want to grind his teeth.
“Do you have proof of such an order?” Sage asked, insolent.
Dogwood pulled his armor and weapons from the locker, and began putting everything on. Though the large wars were all but eradicated, small skirmishes could happen outside of the Clansland. It was better to be safe rather than sorry.
“As a matter-of-fact I do,” Nettle replied, and pulled a parchment from the front of his almost blindingly yellow robes.
The color did nothing for the Pixie’s complexion, and made him look more sallow than usual. Dogwood was no authority on fashion, but even he could see the color was the worst possible choice for the man. Not to mention it would make him an easy target for anyone looking for such a thing, Dogwood thought.
Sage tried to take the parchment from Nettle, but Nettle tossed it past him, onto the desk. The muscles in Sage’s jaw tightened, but he said nothing, just reached over to Dogwood’s desk and took the parchment. His scowl deepened as he read the paper, and when he finished he looked to Dogwood.
“It seems to be legitimate: he is to accompany us to visit Sorren,” Sage said, and put the paper back on the desk.
“So be it,” Dogwood said, and looked at Nettle. “However, once we are outside the Clansland you need to follow my orders. We may not get along, Nettle, but I’ll not have your death on my hands. Agreed?”
Nettle sniffed imperiously, but nodded. It was too cooperative for the prickly man, and it made Dogwood wary.
He’d learned over the years to listen to his instincts, but there was nothing he could do for it at the moment. Unfortunately, it was one of those wait and see situations.
“We’ll be off then,” Dogwood said, and the three of them left his office and headed north. Once they approached the border of the Clansland, two more Thorny Guardians joined them. They didn’t want to attract too much attention, but leaving their borders with only three men—one not a fighter—would not have been wise.
“We’ll avoid confrontation if at all possible, and use glamour,” Dogwood said, keeping his voice low. Everyone nodded, even Nettle, and Dogwood’s wariness went up another notch.
Fay, or Faery, glamour was a common trait amongst the Fay; though just like anything else the degree of expertise varied from person to person. Dogwood was fair, as was Sage and most of the Guardians. Nettle, providing more irritation, was abysmal at it. Dogwood cringed even more at Nettle’s yellow robes.
Glamour allowed for the Fay to blend in with their surroundings. It was a subtle magic, and its use was second-nature to most Fay—as easy as pulling on a cloak. The magic settled down around Dogwood, like a thin veil, and the edges of his vision blurred. It was more than just blending in the environment; it also sent out an inconspicuous signal to avoid seeing the user of the glamour. The better a person was, the less likely they would be found.
The group continued north toward the more mountainous portion of the reserve, where Sorren was known to live. A touch of nervousness settled in Dogwood’s stomach. Sorren wasn’t known for being hostile, but neither was he known for his hospitality. He hoped the Head Council had made the correct decision in this situation, and that Sorren could actually help them.
As open fields gave way to trees and more forested areas, the ground continued to rise, and grass fell way to rocks, leaves, pine needles, and other natural debris. It took just under forty-five minutes to get there, and luck seemed to be on their side—the group encountered no one between the Clansland and Sorren’s cave. There had been some strange shadows along the way, but the presences had come and gone, and Dogwood wanted no trouble so he did not seek out whatever it had been.
When they got to the entrance, and before they dropped the glamour, a deep voice rumbled from inside the cave.
“It is rare for me to get visitors, and even rarer that said visitors are Pixies,” Sorren said, and emerged from the cave.
Sorren’s fur was thick and soft. The grey on top matched his eyes perfectly, then brightened to white on his underbelly. The spots running over his head, body, and tail were black, interspaced with rosettes of the same color. His wild counterparts, real snow leopards, would grow to only about three or four feet in length, whereas Sorren was almost double that. It was intimidating.
“Ah, Dogwood. Famed Captain of the Thorny Guardians. Why have you come to call on me this fine day?” Sorren asked, and settled down on an outcropping of rock.
When Sorren said Dogwood’s name it sent a jolt through Dogwood. Sorren could see through their glamour, and sent a chill down his spine. Though Pixies didn’t live even the full lifespan of a human, there were beings thousands of years old who didn’t know Sorren’s age. It put him on guard, though he did drop the glamour, and the others followed suit.
“We have come to ask you for a favor, or for a service if you wish for compensation,” Dogwood said, and tried to put some confidence in his voice that he didn’t feel in his mind.
“A favor, though we are not friends or even acquaintances? Or compensation, though I doubt there is much the Pixies have I would desire,” he said mildly.
Dogwood couldn’t tell from his tone if he was playing with him, or if he was bored and wanted no part in any of it. His expression was even less helpful.
“Yes,” Dogwood replied, “we have issues with the Beigads as of late, and we were wondering if you could intervene on our behalf. I want to avoid war for my Clan, as well as the attention of the Rangers.”
“Intervene? You wish for me to kill them?”
Dogwood hadn’t thought of it, but that didn’t feel right, either.
“I don’t want them dead. I want them to return to their range, and leave our land alone.”
If Sorren had eyebrows, Dogwood imagined they’d be raised.
“The Beigads aren’t known for their intellect, Captain. I cannot imagine what I can bring to the table that you could not.”
“Size,” Dogwood said. “Your size is your advantage. Where no one will take us seriously because of how small we are, they will listen to you out of respect for who, and what, you are.”
Sorren shifted at the ‘what’ of Dogwood’s words, and a stab of guilt made Dogwood cringe.
“I did not mean it in that way,” Dogwood said by way of apology.
Sorren gave a mirthless chuckle. “No one ever does.”
“Well, vervloakt, what say you?” Nettle interjected.
Though that was the technical term for what Sorren was, it was still a type of slight. A reminder of what had happened to him. Dogwood had blundered into it by accident, but Nettle was mocking him on purpose.
Sorren’s intense gaze swept over to Nettle, who stilled under the scrutiny. Sweat began to pop up on Nettle’s forehead as he grew increasingly uncomfortable in Sorren’s silence.
After a time, Sorren turned back to Dogwood, never having said a word to Nettle. Nettle let out a sigh of relief, then realized what he had done and scowled.
“What are you prepared to offer me, Captain?” Sorren asked.
Before Dogwood could formulate a reply, a shout rose from behind the group. “Captain!”
Dogwood turned to two Guardians flying toward them as though an Orc were on their heels. They were disheveled, smoke-stained, and out of breath from the long flight. They landed in a heap at the feet of the group, barely able to breathe let alone talk.
Dogwood knelt by one, Sage the other, and they made the two Guardians drink water and catch their breath before explaining.
“Captain, you must come back, now! The Beigads have raided again, this time with Pixies leading them!” one of them cried out in anguish, and grabbed the front of Dogwood’s leather armor.
Dogwood unlatched himself from the man and looked toward Sorren.
“It seems our negotiations will have to wait, for now. Will you at least come with us back to our land to discuss it further while I take care of things back home?” Dogwood asked, grimly.
Sorren nodded. “I guarantee no aid, but I will follow behind you back to your home. I will not try to keep up with the speed of the Pixies, but I promise I am right behind you,” Sorren said.
Dogwood nodded to Sorren, and then looked to everyone around him.
“Let’s go!” he commanded, and though they were exhausted, the two Guardians who had just shown up went to the air with them.
“Could you tell what Clan they were from, Persimmon?” Sage asked as the forest blurred past them. They didn’t bother with glamour, as haste was more important now than stealth.
“They flew no banner that we could see,” said Persimmon bitterly.
“Rogues,” spat Sage, disgusted.
Pixies that held to no Clan were known as rogues. They were outcasts, though some did choose the lifestyle. Bound to roam, they were never allowed to settle, as punishment for whatever crimes they committed. No one knew how many rogues were on the reserve. Though there were enough to give the Guardians problems from time to time.
“Casualties?” Dogwood asked, fearing the answer.
“Minimal, and limited to the Guardians. They are burning houses, but not gardens or crops, so it looks like they are trying to take the land. The two of us barely managed to get past them,” the other Guardian, Silverbell, replied, her voice grief-stricken.
“Fools! They know the other Clans would not allow them to settle. They would raze the Clansland to the ground before allowing that,” Sage said, incredulous.
“They seem to be working with the Beigads, though. I can’t imagine a Clan would want to go up against the rogues and the Beigads. Relations between the Clans aren’t so well that they would band together to help take back our land,” Persimmon said, out of breath still.
They let his words sink in for a minute. What was disturbing was how quiet Nettle was through all this. He wasn’t exactly the sort to not chime in on just about anything.
“This happened after we left, which was just planned last night. It’s not as though anyone outside of the Clan would have known of this,” Sage said quietly, right next to Dogwood.
Dogwood nodded, but kept his eyes off of Nettle.
“That isn’t the worst news, Captain,” Silverbell said, hesitant.
A stone dropped in the pit of Dogwood’s stomach, and he didn’t want to hear what she would say next.
“I was doing my patrol around the gardens, and, well…” she paused, and took a deep breath. “They took Laurel and Snowdrop.”
The words rippled through the group, and fear raced through Dogwood like wildfire. Instead of letting that fear overcome him, he used it to harden his resolve.
He didn’t say a word, but he flew faster than he ever believed possible. He didn’t know if everyone behind him kept up, because his focus was solely on getting back home.
Please, he begged anyone, any god, anything that might be listening. Please don’t let me be too late. He hadn’t prayed to the Goddess since Rosemary died, but he did so now with the desperation of a condemned man.
It was an eternity before the Clansland came into view, and there was smoke on the wind. He could see the flames, the skirmishes, the attempts of those trying to battle the fire, and those trying to flee.
Please, let them be okay.