Dogwood and his fellow Guardians had carefully scouted the area, and now they waited for the others as close to the edge of the clearing as they dared get. The rogues and Beigads had set up in a small cave, and cleared the surrounding trees away so no one could sneak up on them. Even with the low light from the torches the enemy would still easily see their approach. There was a lot of commotion going on inside the cave, if the amount of noise and yelling coming from it was any indication. He wasn’t sure if this boded well, or bad, for them.
Anger still burned hot in Dogwood’s blood and mind, and the time they spent waiting on Sage did nothing to abate it. Logically he knew he should approach this tactfully, as they were holding hostages and an attack could trigger them to kill said hostages. Dogwood gripped the hilt of his sword hard enough that the worn leather bit into the skin on his fingers and palms.
Calm down, my love, and think of our daughter, the sensible voice of his wife rang through his mind, and he was so shocked he almost fell from the branch he was perched on.
Rosemary’s laugh, like the sound of wind moving gently through tiny bells, sounded at his reaction. Dogwood felt the warm presence of his wife like a fire being lit from within.
I am not surprised at your shock, but I am surprised at your anger. Will you truly risk the life of our daughter, and that of your budding new love, simply because you are angered by the Gods?
Her question brought his mind to a stuttering halt, and he came close to sputtering out loud. I…you know about Snowdrop? He asked, as guilt welled up inside of him.
Hmph, leave it to a man to focus on that first. Yes, I know of Snowdrop. Who do you think has been guiding the two of you close together? I want nothing but yours and Laurel’s happiness. Snowdrop contributes to that, as I am not able.
Before he could reply, or apologize, she continued.
That is not what is important, at the moment. Your actions now can either prevent or start a war. If you go in brandishing your weapon and trying to kill every rogue and Beigad in sight, you will do more than cost your daughter and Snowdrop their lives; you will trigger a reaction that could be the start of many a bad thing. As in, everyone in the Clan dying, and all manner of supernatural being kicked from the reserve.
Shock raced through him again, but this time he kept his place on the branch. Not much could shock him more than hearing the voice of his dead wife, but what she revealed certainly came close. He closed his eyes and he could almost picture her nod at his comprehension.
The impact of what you do today will reverberate in either a positive or negative way to many more than just the rogues, Beigads, and those of our Clan. This is why the Gods permitted us this contact.
The words he spoke earlier toward the Gods rushed back, and chagrin washed through him.
The Gods are forgiving beings, dear one, but don’t worry overlong on that now. My time here is almost done, as my message has been delivered. Make the correct choice, as I know you can. Also, live and love, husband. It is what I want for both you and Laurel. Goodbye, handsome, she said, and finished with her nickname for him. It almost made him weep to hear her say those words, and picture the smile that went with them.
The presence of Rosemary’s spirit left him, and the urge to murder every rouge and Beigad in the generally vicinity melted away. The young ones would be upset, but if what his wife had said was true there would be worse things to happen if he proceeded. Revenge would be bittersweet in more ways than one.
As though his timing was set by the Gods, and maybe it had been, Sage drifted down to where Dogwood knelt on a branch and joined him.
“I have the full force of the Guardians here, save for a skeleton number guarding everyone gathered in the town center. How are we going to proceed?” Sage asked, carefully, not quite knowing what mood his Captain was in.
“I got a little message from…someone, and was informed that there would be dire consequences if we go to war with the rogues and Beigads,” Dogwood said, and Sage raised an eyebrow.
“Well, I had not expected us to go in hot-headed and kill everything in sight. They’d kill the hostages that way,” Sage commented wryly. Dogwood was thankful that it was dark where they were perched, or Sage would have seen him blush, embarrassed.
“That’s too bad; I would have rather had a good fight. I hear you’re one of the best, Sage. Seems a shame to waste such talents,” said a brash voice from the entrance to the cave.
All the Pixies hiding amongst the trees froze, followed by an angry buzzing as they gave voice to their rage, and their wings beat fast.
“Hold your positions,” shouted Dogwood, and all but a low murmur of voices continued.
Dogwood dropped from his perch, and flew to the edge of the clearing, followed by Sage. As they broke from the tree line, only two rogues were halfway into the clearing, with the remainder of the rogues and the Beigads at the mouth of the cave. Dogwood held his arm at a ninety-degree angle, with his fist closed, and indicated he wanted the rest of the Pixies to continue to hold their positions.
He and Sage came up to where the two rogues were, though they stopped with enough distance that the rogues could not easily get the jump on them.
“Do you truly wish for a fight?” Dogwood asked, and kept all emotion from his voice. His wife’s words remained present in his mind, and if he showed anger here it could provoke everyone into doing something regrettable.
The one he assumed was the leader, as he stood a little in front of his companion, tilted his head. Green locks of hair, made darker by the firelight and shadows, shifted across his forehead.
“We have attacked your lands. I am surprised you do not appear to want a fight,” he cajoled, and his face broke out in a roguish grin that befit his title. Though his face spoke of laughter, his cranberry red eyes conveyed nothing but seriousness. It gave Dogwood hope.
“Yes, and though it has angered us, I had hoped to find a peaceful resolution to our problems. Then you took hostages, and that angered me beyond measure, but I do not want anything catastrophic to happen if we make war. I would avoid that if I could,” Dogwood said, and tried to gauge the reaction of the Pixie in front of him. “What is your name?” Dogwood asked.
“Mistiltan, and you are Dogwood—famed Captain of the Thorny Guardians,” Mistiltan replied, with neither mockery or admiration; as though he were simply stating a fact. Almost in the same way Sorren had earlier.
Dogwood gave a small bow, as one would to an equal, and Mistiltan, surprised, responded in kind.
“What are we to do, Mistiltan? We would like the return of our Clanspeople, and for you to cease all hostile actions toward our lands,” Dogwood said, and continued as Mistiltan’s raised an eyebrow, “so what would it take for such a thing to happen?”
“We wanted land, and your land was promised to us by one of your Clan—if we got rid of all the annoyances to that one,” Mistiltan said.
Anger washed through Dogwood once again, but he restrained it with as he ground his teeth.
“And just who might that ‘one’ be?” Dogwood asked.
“Ah, now you have asked for three things, but have offered me nothing. Why should I give into any of your requests?” Mistiltan asked in turn, and crossed his arms over his chest. The Pixie was built in much the same manner as Sage and Dogwood: a trained fighter.
Dogwood thought for a moment, unsure of how his offer would be taken by those behind him; but in light of what he’d learned he had to try.
“What kind of…Pixies are you? Why are you not with Clans?” Dogwood asked in turn, and made sure to avoid saying ‘rogues,’ since he didn’t know how Mistiltan would react.
“Most of us came from Clans that were dispersed into others, but we did not want to integrate with them. I do not tolerate any vile offenders within my group,” Mistiltan responded, and shrugged.
“How did you come to be allied with the Beigads?”
Mistiltan laughed. “Well, they are not precisely smart on their own. With our direction they have been able to prosper in ways that would have been impossible otherwise. They are hard workers with the right incentives,” he added.
Dogwood thought for a moment, then looked at Sage, who nodded. They were usually of similar thinking, and this time was no exception.
“Then if you would kindly bring the head council out here, I think we can come to an arrangement.”
The town center was alive with activity as everyone prepared to be addressed by the council. They had all been crammed in there for the majority of the day and night, and they were all cranky and ready to be home.
Dogwood knew, and agreed, with how they felt, but he also knew there might be trouble. Not everyone was going to be happy with the ways things had turned out, but in the end it was the best decision they could come up with.
“Nervous?” Sage asked Dogwood, as he landed next to him.
“Of course—this could still turn out badly,” he replied, and took a shaky breath.
“Well, that is why we took precautions,” Sage clapped him on the shoulder, and looked out of the window in their alcove to the bottom of the tree.
Dogwood looked as well, and Sorren dipped his head in recognition to them both. Sorren essentially equated to the human version of an atomic bomb. If things went to the Abyss in a hand basket, Sorren was there to ensure that nothing remained to alert the rangers and jeopardize all those on the reserve.
Dogwood pulled his head back in through the window, and peeked through the curtain at the alcove. No one in the assembly had noticed the guardians, carefully weaving their way unarmored and hooded through the sleepy residents. This happened just before one of them made the announcement the assembly would be addressed.
Dogwood searched around until he spotted the Pixie he was looking for. His lip curled in disgust, and it took everything in him not to pummel him for endangering everything he loved: the Clan, his daughter, and now Snowdrop. It was the last two that kept him in check, as he did not want any harm to come to them.
The signal for the head council to arrive sounded through the town center, and everyone quieted down for a moment before exploding into sound. They knew he had been one of the taken, and to see him return was a joy—for all except two.
As the one of the Pixies tried to make his way through the crowd toward an exit, he found his way blocked by Guardians who had stood in the shadows up till that point. They grabbed the Pixie, and made their way to the assembly floor.
Some saw what was happening, and shock came over them. Everyone else who did not notice quieted down as the head council called for silence. Dogwood and Sage stepped from the alcoves far above the assembly floor, as did most of the rogues from various other alcoves.
“It seems we have a traitor or two in our midst. They attempted to destroy our Clan, and in turn rule with the might of the Beigads and the rogues to keep everyone in line,” the head council stated, and motioned for the Guardians to bring the struggling Pixie before him. “What do you have to say for yourself, Wood-Sorrel?” the head council asked quietly, though it was so silent in the room all could hear him.
No one had been quite as shocked as Dogwood when they found out it had primarily been Wood-Sorrel manipulating things behind the scenes, with Nettle following along like a good lackey.
“You give the honored position of Captain of the Thorny Guardians to an outsider, leaving me with the scraps of the Thistle Guardians, and you expect me to be content?” Wood-Sorrel spat at the feet of the head council, and one of his men jerked Wood-Sorrel’s arm and the two holding him forced him to kneel.
“You sought to destroy everything because you were passed up for a promotion?” someone yelled incredulously from the audience. Voices rose in outrage, but the head council motioned for silence once again.
“I will not argue or defend ourselves and our decision to you, Wood-Sorrel. And where is your accomplice—ah, there he is,” the head council said as two more guards brought Nettle forward, still wearing his atrocious yellow outfit.
It had been the signal to the rogues and Beigads that it was time to attack. Wood-Sorrel thought with Dogwood and Sage gone, and him gumming up the protocols, he’d be able to stage a coup.
When that didn’t work, he ordered some of the rogues to take hostages to ensure Dogwood’s and Sage’s cooperation. They were not able to get Snapdragon, Sage’s wife, because she had been out that day with the children; to keep their mind off their father visiting Sorren, as they had been frightened for him.
Wood-Sorrel did not count on the rogues being able to kill Dogwood and Sage, and thought to coerce them into cooperating, instead. In the end, his fear of Dogwood and Sage had been his undoing.
The guards brought Nettle to the assembly floor, and had him kneel next to Wood-Sorrel.
“Before I sentence these two, I have an announcement to make, and I want no hard feelings from anyone. As part of the arrangement for discontinuing hostilities, releasing all hostages, and providing the names of the traitors, the Beigads and the rogues will be settling on our land,” the head council announced, and for a second time that night the assembled Pixies were shocked into silence.
A few grumbles followed, and Dogwood held his breath. He knew from his earlier thoughts that hard feelings and bad blood could be difficult to overcome. But the hard look from the head council quelled most objections.
“They have agreed to a probationary period, whereupon they will decide if they wish to remain, or leave, but also to see if they are allowed to remain. They understand their status as rogues, and their attacks on our land, can cause distrust and difficulty in forgiving. However, I do ask we all try our best,” the head council concluded with a look to all the Clan members, old and recently acquired. There were still some grumbles, but most nodded.
Wood-Sorrel and Nettle looked stunned at the–mostly–acceptance by all those around them. Dogwood let out the breath he was holding, and went back into the alcove to lean out the window and give Sorren the ‘all-okay’ signal. Sorren nodded again, and trotted off for the edge of the Clansland to await the next announcement by the head council.
Dogwood made his way out of the alcove again. While he knew it was not good of him to relish the decision of their punishment, all he had to do was think back toward all the chaos these two could have caused. It made him okay with his ruthless thoughts.
“As punishment for your indiscretions, you are forthwith banished from the Clansland,” the head council stated. At this, people murmured angrily and Wood-Sorrel gave a satisfied sneer. “However, there is a certain someone waiting for you on the edge of the lands, and once you are released your lives are in his…paws,” the head council concluded. The mocking smile was wiped from Wood-Sorrel’s face and Nettle fainted.
Ah, good times, Dogwood thought, as he watched the two of them being dragged from the assembly, one still dumbfounded with disbelief and the other out cold.
“Think Sorren will be able to catch them?” Sage inquired as he, too, watched the condemned Pixies being taken away. Pixies were fast, to be sure, but no one can run forever. There was no time limit on the decree.
“I think the better question would be; how long will he toy with them before finishing them off?”
The two men shared smiles of grim satisfaction, and as the head council dismissed all those assembled they made their way to their families.
Maybe it was because Dogwood had been through this before, but he felt unnaturally calm. Or maybe it was because the day was so bright and beautiful it commanded nothing but happiness for today. Or maybe he was just too old to be nervous.
Dogwood chuckled to himself and looked over his formal outfit one last time. Not because he was anxious, but because he knew he’d be scolded by Laurel if anything was out of place.
He looked out at those assembled before him: the old friends and even some new ones, and nodded to each in turn. Mistiltan winked, and Snapdragon beamed. It hadn’t been an easy transition for the former rogues and the Beigads. Everyone had expected a few bumps and incidents, but with the help from practical people like Snapdragon and Sage, things had gone better than expected.
In the months gone by, the Beigads had proven useful in helping with the crops instead of destroying them, and most of the former rogues had found areas of work that suited them. Some decided to leave, to continue being rogues or find places amongst other Clans with the Hemlock Clan’s recommendations, but most stayed.
Mistiltan had found a place among the Thistle Guardians, and it looked as though he might be on his way to Captain some day. A far more appreciative and better one than Wood-Sorrel. As expected, Wood-Sorrel and Nettle had not lasted long outside the Clansland. Merely long enough for Sorren to find some amusement, and the two to reflect on what had led them to their fate.
Dogwood shook his head and cleared it of such thoughts. Today was not the day for his mind to think on that.
“Not nervous, I see,” Sage said next to him, and reflected Dogwood’s thoughts from a moment ago.
“I think I’m too old to be nervous,” he replied.
Before either of them could say anything else, music swelled from the small band off to the right, and everyone assembled stood.
Laurel came up the aisle first and spread rose petals along the path. When she came to the dais with Dogwood and Sage, the music changed.
When Snowdrop turned the corner, Dogwood’s breath hitched in awe. She was a glorious sight in a spider silk gown. The hair she had been growing for some months now was in beautiful white waves down her back. She left her delicate feet bare, and they peeked out from underneath the gown as she walked on the vibrant green grass. A veil covered her face, though the material was sheer enough that he could see the smile there. The one that made him take note of her in the first place.
When she stood beside him everyone sat down. Dogwood leaned forward to lift her veil. As he placed it behind her he whispered in her ear, “You look radiant.”
Snowdrop blushed, but her smile widened. The two of them joined hands and turned to the officiator.
Live and love, the memory of the words echoed through his mind. As he looked at the two women he cared most for in this world, he smiled.
That was a request he would be more than happy to fulfill.