Laurel, as usual, took far too long to prepare, and it didn’t leave Dogwood much time to clean up. Luckily he had not trained that afternoon, and most of the dirt Laurel had gotten on him could be brushed off.
Though the meeting ahead was a type of battle, it was not one for his leather armor or sword. Dogwood undressed, took a quick shower, and proceeded to pick out his best clothes. As much as he would prefer his armor to the smooth silk, battle gear was not allowed in the meeting hall.
He ran his fingers through hair that was as white as the flowers of his namesake, and lay in a thick curly mat on his head. Brushing it would be a disaster.
Scanning the mirror to make sure everything was in place, tired eyes that were the color of newly grown grass stared back. His tanned skin was the color of bronze from long hours in the sun, and it complemented his burgundy clothing. His wings were beating in time with his heart at the air behind him, and were the same color as his eyes. Underneath the fancy trappings was a strong, lean body sporting many scars—testament to his time in battle.
I look ridiculous.
For Pixie men, formal outfits in the summer months consisted of only a vest, and loose breeches that gathered at the knees. Most men went barefoot, though some wore slippers. Dogwood preferred being barefoot to feel the earth and grass beneath his feet. The outfit had been a present from his late father-in-law, and to this day was still only one of two sets of good clothes he owned. The other set Rosemary had sewn for him to wear at their wedding, which had been in the winter.
When he looked out his window, the sun was getting low in the sky. Moving down the stairs, he called out to Laurel.
“Hurry up, Laurel, or we’ll be late.”
“I’m coming! You don’t have to let the neighbors know,” Laurel said, as she came down the stairs. She wore the dress Dogwood had gotten her for her most recent birthday, and she was a beautiful sight.
The gown was the same honeysuckle color as her eyes and made her glow. The under portion was a silk slip, and the outer portion was a diaphanous material so light it floated. It whispered around her ankles, and the slippers that matched peeked out intermittently from beneath it. The sleeves of the gown were off the shoulder, and made of the same airy material as the outer layer. She had pinned her hair up in a style that looked both elegant and artfully messy, with long, curly locks spilling down her back. He was in for some trouble with the boys of the Clan, and he was not looking forward to the courting.
“Yes, well, I usually have to call for you a few times before you hear me. I figured if I did so loud enough the first time, I wouldn’t need to more than once,” Dogwood said, laughing. Laurel rolled her eyes and tossed her hair behind her back.
“Let’s go and get Snowdrop before she thinks we’ve forgotten about her,” Laurel said, and left out the front door.
Dogwood followed her into the front yard, and the soft noises of the insects in the distance greeted him. As the light faded it gave the world a soft look, and the warm air was enough to make Dogwood cozy and a little sleepy. When they reached Snowdrop’s house, Laurel knocked on the front door. No sooner had she finished, Snowdrop opened the door; she had been waiting right next to it for them.
“We didn’t keep you waiting too long, did we?” Dogwood asked.
“No, of course not,” she said, smiling. Her dress for the night was a flowing white gown that stopped at her knees, showing off her long, tanned legs. The strap of the gown was a halter, and it complemented her slender shoulders. On one side of her head, the fine, short strands of hair were held back by a clip, while the hair hung free on the other side.
All in all she was stunning, and Dogwood smiled to show his appreciation. Snowdrop blushed in return and lowered her lavender eyes to the ground.
“Don’t just stand there like a bump on a log, dad, offer her your arm!” his daughter said, irked that she had to say as much.
Dogwood gave Laurel a stern look found on many parental faces, only to be met with her stubborn one. He knew a lost battle when we saw one, though he did tug on a lock of Laurel’s hair as he passed. She gave an indignant sputter, and Snowdrop chuckled nervously.
She was looking at him again in that pondering way she had earlier. Dogwood held out his arm, palm facing downward, and she laid her own on top of his. In general, Pixies did not travel arm-in-arm while flying. Laying an arm on top of one another was practical in case the pair needed to part.
The three of them took off into the air, and went on their way toward the meeting. They passed other Pixies heading to the meeting. The closer they got to the center of the Clansland, the houses became more frequent and the gardens smaller.
As they neared the town center, the multicolored balls of light Pixies used, much like humans used electricity, shone brighter. They were made from different sorts of magic the Pixies had bartered for, and were held inside little glass spheres. If a Pixie wanted the light brighter, they could shake the orb and the light would become more luminous. To dim them, the Pixie would fog their breath on the outside of the glass. Most of all, they helped make sure to keep the land pure by not having humans come in and put up electrical lines.
For meetings, the entire Clan was expected to show, minus any children not close to their coming-of-age. The older kids watched the younger ones, though not all of them. Many times the town center guards would catch children sneaking peeks at the meeting; especially recently, with all the activity and fuss brought about by the Beigads.
The younger adults of the Clan were the noisiest about going to war, because they had never been in one. Having been through many himself, Dogwood was happy to keep the times peaceful. Though he might not get his wish. They were like so many hens, all squawking and making a lot of noise; not knowing what they were making a clamor about. Just like the young men and women of other races, they all wanted to see action. Among the loudest of all the hens was Nettle, who held a seat on the council.
Pixie councils varied from Clan to Clan, but in general they were all structured the same. There were three elder council members, six younger council members, and then the oldest and wisest was the head council. The head council ended up being the tie-breaker if needed. The three elders’ votes were worth two points a piece, while the six younger only had one point per person. Things could still end up in a tie, especially if it was a polarized topic—like war.
When the eldest council member dies, a new one is elected from the three older ones by a majority vote from the Clan. Just as the eldest member drew from the three, the three older members drew their replacements from among the six younger. The three had the choice to retire whenever they pleased, or they could keep their office until their death, just as the head council did.
Anyone could be elected into the junior council, whose size varied from fifty to a hundred. The six ‘younger’ council members were elected from among them, and a person did not have to die or retire for someone to take one of those positions. The six seats were up for re-election every ten years. Nettle held one of the six, but everyone could see he had his eyes on the greatest political prize a Pixie could get: head council.
“Are you okay?” Snowdrop asked Dogwood with a touch of concern in her voice. Without realizing it Dogwood had clenched his fists, and was even grinding his teeth a little. He tried his best not to let the scheming little man annoy him.
He took a deep breath and forced himself to relax. He unclenched his fists and rubbed at his jaw with his free hand. Dogwood turned to Snowdrop with a wan smile, and tried his best to be in a better mood.
“I’m fine, it’s just the meeting ahead,” he said, as her face showed the worry he had heard in her voice.
“The meeting itself, or a particular council member?”
Dogwood turned his face away. It was no secret how he felt about Nettle, and the feelings were reciprocated. They’d rubbed each other the wrong way from the minute they’d met.
“It might have to do with a certain council member,” he admitted, still not meeting Snowdrop’s gaze. Laurel had wandered a little ways ahead of them, out of ear shot, trying to give them privacy.
“I hope that wing duster meets with an unpleasant and untimely end. The world would be a better place without him around to muck it all up,” Snowdrop said, the disgust evident in her voice and on her face.
Dogwood’s head snapped around in shock. He had never heard a hateful or unkind word leave her lips before. Then to hear her say one of the biggest insults a Pixie could use to describe another Pixie was beyond startling.
Wing duster implied a Pixie was willing to do the most atrocious and vile acts to get whatever they wanted. It sprouted from a time when Pixies would actively hunt Pixies from other Clans. They would then remove the delicate wings and grind them to dust to sell on the black market. They were believed to have a variety of ‘powers,’ and it could be quite a lucrative business.
Of course, when it came to supply and demand the world could not get enough. This ended in a lot of Pixies being killed or becoming flightless. The flightless ones usually ended up killing themselves.
It was a major turning point in the history of the Pixies when it was declared the dust had no magical properties. However, the derogatory name stuck around, and soon was used to describe a variety of acts, not just the act of dusting a Pixie’s wings.
“I’m surprised you would even say such a thing!” Dogwood said, still looking at her in disbelief. For the first time that night, Snowdrop looked him head on and did not blush or flinch away.
“And I am just as surprised that you wouldn’t. He is a flesh eating fungus on this Clan, and it galls me to see so many follow him blindly,” she said, saying out loud what few Pixies dared to. Nettle could be a nasty piece of work when he wanted, though no one could prove anything outright. Dogwood’s position allowed him a little protection, but Snowdrop had no such luck.
He thought about telling her to be more careful, but seeing the look in her eyes he knew another losing battle when he saw one. Funny how he was seen as one of the most courageous men of the Clan, yet the two women in his life could cow him into submission with a look. The thought made him laugh, and it surprised Snowdrop.
“Are you laughing at me, sir?” she asked, indignant. Dogwood smiled at her, and once again she was back to the blushing woman next door, instead of a fierce lioness calling out one of the most dangerous men of their Clan.
“Maybe a little, but in a good way,” he reassured her. She looked skeptical, but didn’t have time to say much more. They reached the town center and Laurel had waited for them to catch up.
Dogwood and Snowdrop were attracting some attention, but he had expected that. Of all the women in the Clan, he knew that anyone outside of his close circle of friends would be surprised at his choice of companion. He was only worried about how Snowdrop would act for a few seconds, but she had been stared at throughout her life. A rare amount of Pixie women grew to the same size as the males. The attention bothered her no more than it bothered him, so he let it slide off his back.
He had to take up his place near the council soon, and he bid Laurel and Snowdrop farewell until after the meeting. They flew off to find a couple of seats, and Dogwood headed off to the bottom of the tree. The inside bottom portion, of the biggest tree, was gutted out in the same fashion as a domed coliseum. The floor was where the head council, the nine council members, the heads of the different guilds, and Dogwood sat. While the rest of the Clan took up seats around the floor, or sat on swings that hung from the ceiling.
A normal sugar maple would not be able to fit their entire Clan, so this tree had been grown using the magic of the tree-growers. It was four-times the normal size at its base, and had taken a lot of magic and many years to grow. Pixies tried to use as little magic as they needed to alter the state of their natural surroundings, since they held nature in the highest regard. So an undertaking like that was done with extreme care and caution. Sometimes nature would retaliate if things were not done gently, and that was never a pretty sight.
Above the coliseum was where most of the businesses of the Clan were housed. Each business was run by a guild, which were led by one person voted in every ten years by the people of the guild. The guild leader would be that specific guild’s voice during the council, and also during negotiations for taxes on their wares.
Dogwood was not the head of a guild, but he was the Captain of the Thorny Guardians, which equated to the Clan’s border patrol. There was another group that was charged with policing inside of the Clansland, and they were known as the Thistle Guardians. Dogwood got along with their Captain, Wood-Sorrel, well enough. Lastly, there was a shadowy group of operatives that were said to do the dirty work of the Clan, known as the Nightshades. It was one of those things that a person either believed in, or they didn’t, since their existence could never be proven.
Through the crowd, Sage was standing on the ground, waving his arms to try and get Dogwood’s attention. He was wearing an outfit exactly like Dogwood’s, but the color was a deep purple almost bordering on blue. Sage did not sit on the ground floor like Dogwood, so something was amiss. Dogwood landed a couple feet away, and walked over to Sage, who was wearing a look on his face Dogwood didn’t like.
“I hope you have better news than your face is letting on, Sage,” Dogwood said, throwing Sage’s words from earlier back at him. He knew it was a poor attempt to lighten the mood, but it did get a wan smile from his vice-captain.
“And just as I read you correctly earlier, you read my face rightly now. Nettle stopped by for a little chat not too long after you left,” Sage said, bitterness evident in his voice. Dogwood bristled at the news, but it was not a complete surprise; the man was always sticking his nose where it didn’t belong.
“What did he have to say?” Dogwood asked, and feared the answer.
“He said he just dropped by to try and confirm the reports of another Beigad attack on the Clansland.”
“What did you tell him?”
“I told him I was not allowed to discuss the matter with him, and he would have to take it up with you. When he asked where you were, I told him you had gone off to the other side of the Clansland to check on the new recruits stationed there,” he said, with a little bit of mischief in his voice. Dogwood laughed and Sage grinned.
“Thanks for the heads up. It will put him in a foul mood, but I’ll happily take responsibility for that,” Dogwood said, and clapped Sage on the shoulder.
Not two seconds later, Dogwood heard “PAPA!” in a loud screech. Then Sage’s arms were full of a squirming, miniature version of him. Dogwood laughed but Sage had a pained expression on his face.
“I see that Jonquil has learned how to fly rather well,” Dogwood said, humored, as Sage attempted to untangle himself from the child.
The little boy was having none of it, and stayed firmly clasped to his dad. Sage gave up and stood there looking helpless, while the child continued to hang there.
“I swear, none of my children were ever this excitable. I’m finally getting paid back for the hell I caused my parents at his age,” Sage said and looked down.
“There you are, you little devil,” said a voice Dogwood recognized. Snapdragon, Sage’s wife, came strolling up to them. This caused another ear-piercing screech to be emitted from the tiny Pixie, this time in the form of, “MAMA!” He let go of his father, bolted over to his mother, and found a new person to cling to, albeit gently.
Snapdragon was one of the most stunningly beautiful women in the Clan, and everyone wondered how she ended up with Sage. Her hair flowed in a loose wave down her back, thick, and the color of burnt orange. With a petite frame, she stood around eight inches tall. A heart-shaped face that could put fear in the non-existent souls of demons, or put the kindness of a saint to shame, she was one of the most steadfast friends a person could ask for. Eyes in the shape of almonds lent an exotic quality to her face, and were the color of raspberries. She wore a dress like Laurel’s, but hers was the color of her eyes, and it set off her bronzed skin nicely.
She said hello to Dogwood, then turned her eyes to her husband. “Laurel and Snowdrop are trying to save us seats, which is getting difficult with all the people crowding in,” she said in a voice that brooked no argument.
Sage nodded at his wife, then wished Dogwood luck. He and Snapdragon took off into the night with Jonquil. The new recruits thought Sage was a hard-ass, but Goddess forbid they ever meet his wife. With that, Dogwood walked a short distance to one of the archways that led to the coliseum floor.
The noise in the enclosed space was almost deafening as he took his seat. If the layout of the seats corresponded to a compass, Dogwood and the guild leaders would be taking up the southwest, south, and southeast portions. The younger council members were to the west, the older ones the east, and the head council sat at the north. Almost immediately after Dogwood sat down, the head council called the meeting to order. All he had to do was raise one age-spotted hand, and the place fell silent almost instantly.
“Good evening, Hemlock Clan. We have gathered here for our bi-annual meeting to discuss all matters pertaining to the health and prosperity of the Clan. I have one comment before we begin.
“I know many of you are eager to jump to the more entertaining portions, but we will keep with tradition and hear the guild leaders first,” the head council stated, in a voice the boomed through the night. Only a few groans came from the crowd, and even those were barely audible.
The head council was old, but not so old he wasn’t willing to dole out punishment himself to those who deserved it. He was a strong old man who looked like nothing more than a harmless grandfather, but angering him brought out a wrath that was almost beyond comprehension. He had been the head council of the Hemlock Clan for many years, and it was largely due to him that the Clan was so prosperous.
His eyes were a sparkling jade that held a keen intelligence, and an iron will. The hair on his head was white from age, but he still kept it short after the fashion of the Guardians.
Thus the meeting started with the guild leaders, who voiced their concerns about regulations, taxes, and trade. There were not too many complaints, as their Clan was well off and taxes were reasonable. Usually the biggest issue was the restriction on how many apprentices a guild could take from outside or inside the Clan.
As the last guild leader finished, satisfied his issue was resolved, a hum of excitement filled the air—the kind that always held an undercurrent of fear to it. The head council gave a hard look around to those gathered in the coliseum, and the noise level dropped away again. Still, Dogwood’s skin still tingled from the nervous energy of the crowd.
“Dogwood, Captain of the Thorny Guardians, please step up to the podium,” the head council said, and looked at him. Sometimes it was like the head council could see straight through to a person’s soul, and a sudden thrill of fear passed through Dogwood. His tidings would not be welcomed with open arms.
The podium stood in front of the guild leader section, and faced the head council. This way, a person could look straight, right, and left to see all the council members. As Dogwood stepped up to the podium, Nettle stood, and Dogwood felt the urge to grind his teeth.
Nettle’s hair was a light mint green, and he kept it in the long fashion of Pixie men, which meant it was about the length of Snowdrop’s. His eyes were steel blue, just as unyielding as the metal itself, and just as pitiless and cold. Dogwood usually equated his unsavory nature to the fact he was rather short for a Pixie man, only eight inches tall, which caused him to be made fun of much like Snowdrop had been. Of course, trying to blame others for his ruthless nature would be unfair; Snowdrop hadn’t turned out to be an ass, bent on ruthless ambition.
With a face like a sharp-edged triangle, and a long, hooked nose, he could almost be compared to a Goblin in appearance. Though no one would ever say that to his face. Nettle looked at Dogwood, and gave him a feral smile.
“I, as a council member, ask to exercise my right to present my own statements to the head council and those in attendance at meeting—before our dear Captain,” he said, in a voice that further grated away Dogwood’s nerves. It was high, nasally, and haunted Dogwood’s nightmares.
Half the coliseum cheered at the notion while the other half booed. The head council raised his hand, and the room fell silent once again. Giving Dogwood an almost apologetic look, the head council nodded at Nettle to continue. Acting as if triumph was already at hand, Nettle shot Dogwood a smile of pure malice.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the council and the Clan, it has come to my attention that yet another attack on our Clansland occurred last night while we were all resting peacefully in our beds, including most of our so-called Guardians.” A murmur broke out from the crowd, to the delight of Nettle, though it settled down quickly enough as the head council turned the full force of his gaze on them.
“I have long been expressing my concerns to this council about the Beigad threat, and it has time and again fallen on deaf ears. We appear weak when we should appear strong. We have the capability to annihilate the Beigads if we so desired, yet those in charge of our forces wish to sit on their respective swords and do nothing! Why should we, one of the greatest Clans on the east coast, sit back and let our lands be ravished by the idiotic forces of those pigs?”
The crowd was becoming more and more energized at each word. Some in anger about his accusations, with others in agreement with what he was saying. Dogwood felt he would have no teeth by the end of this meeting if he kept grinding them, and tried to relax a little. He could do nothing at the moment but bite his tongue and wait his turn.
“What I propose to you, my fellow Clan members, is to raise your voice in indignation that this has been allowed to go on for as long as it has. Maybe we need to start taking a closer look at those in charge of our well-being, and realize that maybe they don’t keep it as close to their heart as they profess,” Nettle finished, and looked directly at Dogwood. Not only had Nettle implied he did not care about the Clan, but that he also might have some nefarious business with the Beigads, and the comment made his blood boil.
The room exploded into action. Some people were yelling threats at Dogwood, others at Nettle. Some were even fighting each other in coliseum which was expressly forbidden. Then the head council did something he had not needed to in a long time.
When a person rises to head council, they are granted a certain amount of power that comes with the position. One of the powers allowed them to clap their hands and emit a small concussive force, like someone having all the wind knocked out of them. Dogwood braced for the impact before it happened, but it still knocked him for a loop when the head council brought his hands together. It caused everyone to cease what they were doing and catch their breath. The head council was supremely displeased. While Nettle, trying to regain his own breath, was like the cat who ate the canary.
“This behavior will not be tolerated, especially when you call yourselves adults,” the head council said to the assembled Clan, who were all a little embarrassed at needing to be scolded. The head council turned to Nettle, but even the hard look the head council gave him could not fully wipe the grin from his face.
“Your words have been heard, council member, sit down so that the Captain may speak.”
With that, Nettle went to sit among his fellow council members.
Dogwood cleared his throat. “It is true we were once again attacked in the dead of night. Measures have already been taken to ensure it will not happen again. Additional night shifts were posted this afternoon, and are to start immediately,” Dogwood said. This got some reassured murmurs from the crowd, though the majority of them were still angry, so Dogwood continued.
“I would like to remind all of you what the cost of going to war with the Beigads would be. Not just the lives of Guardians, who are brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, children, or friends to just about everyone here. It will also cause the taxes to rise, to help fund the war. Not only does our magic work poorly against their tough skin, but they are roughly seven to ten times our size, and easily more than that in weight.”
The effect of his words on the crowd was instantaneous, and at the announcement of raised taxes many of them quieted down. No matter what race a person was a part of, they did not appreciate their hard-earned money taken from them.
“I am not saying we should not come up with a plan to combat the attacks. I will agree on that. But outright warfare would be a huge mistake, and it would also draw attention from the human Rangers. Nobody here wants humans poking around in Pixie business,” Dogwood said. He tried to gauge the reaction of the crowd, but it was still split down the middle.
“Despite what others think, who have never been through a war, held their best friend while they died, or seen their Clansland ravaged to the point where not even weeds would grow, I do have the best interests of this Clan at heart. If there is only one thing to know about me, know that much at least. Maybe the people we actually need to look at are the ones who want us to experience the ravages of war, over finding a better option,” Dogwood said, and stared right back at Nettle.
Nettle jumped to his feet, as if he could see his words sliding out of their minds. “Let us take it to a vote then,” he said, and glared at Dogwood. Just like it had at the last meeting, the vote of the council split down the middle, and the mood of the crowd became uneasy. Everyone wanted a solution to the problem, but they did not want to see their family members and friends killed, or their money taken away.
“Well, head council, what do you have to say on this matter?” asked one of the elder council members. The entire Clan turned their attention to the head council, and it was so quiet it seemed as if everyone was holding their breath.
Standing up, the head council stood taller than most at fourteen inches tall. He looked around at those gathered there, and finally spoke.
“I agree with both sides,” he said. The room once again became noisy, with Nettle as the noisiest.
“You cannot agree with both sides! It is either one or the other!” Nettle exclaimed. When he turned his head to look at Nettle, the head council silenced everyone, including him, with a scathing look.
“I can agree with both sides, if it is not our Clan who goes to war. I propose that we ask for the help of an outsider. Many of you have heard of him, or seen him around. I propose that we send an envoy to Sorren, the vervloekt,” the head council said.
There was an uneasy murmur in the crowd. Sorren was well known on the Great Smokey Mountain Reserve, and he had been here for longer then even the oldest beings could remember. A vervloakt was a cursed Supe.
Sorren was a were-snow leopard who, according to the stories, had been cursed to remain in his shifted form for eternity by an enchantress. He had spurned her love in favor of his mate’s, and when he killed the enchantress for what she had done he sealed his fate. No one knew what happened to his mate, and no one ever dared to ask.
“Why should we call on an outsider, who will want payment, to take care of a Pixie problem?” Nettle asked, and a few people cheered. It seemed to Dogwood, though, that Nettle’s support group had shrunk. By the look on his face, Nettle realized it as well.
“A one-time payment sounds better to me than a possibly years-long tax spike,” said Wood-Sorrel, Captain of the Thistle Guardians. When Dogwood looked back at him, Wood-Sorrel gave him a quick wink.
“Let us take it to a vote then,” Dogwood said, and mimicked Nettle from earlier. Nettle shot him an acidic look that Dogwood reveled in, though Dogwood knew it was petty. Some things were just too satisfying to pass up on.
“All in favor of contracting Sorren to take care of the Beigad problem, raise your hand,” the head council said. Two of the elder council members raised their hands, which meant that only three of the younger ones had to raise their hands to pass. When he looked over, Dogwood let out a cheer in his mind: four hands were raised among the younger council.
While Dogwood may not be in favor of airing the Clan’s dirty business to an outsider, he was in favor of having no Pixies die.
“It is settled then. Tomorrow, the Captains of the Thorny and Thistle Guardians will accompany my private advisor to negotiate a contract with Sorren. I believe that concludes the Clan business for the evening. Fare thee well, and good night to the Hemlock Clan,” the head council said. As he stood, every Pixie in the room stood with him.
Once the head council left, the rest of the Clan filed out of the coliseum. Dogwood looked past the streaming crowd, and saw Nettle shooting daggers from his eyes in his direction. If looks could kill, Dogwood knew he would have been dead ten times over, possibly more, that night.
He didn’t let it bother him too much, though, and Dogwood exited the tree to find his friends and daughter. They would be bursting to talk with him, and for once he could almost look forward to the conversation. Maybe the Clan finally found a solution that would work, and not cost them countless lives. If that wasn’t something to be happy about, Dogwood didn’t know what would be.