War of the Wee Ones, Chapter Three

Chapter Three

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.

“Captain!”

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.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Final Chapter

War of the Wee Ones, Chapter Two

Chapter Two

The Hemlock Clan didn’t have the biggest of all the Pixie Clanslands, but neither did they have the smallest. It was just the right size to support the Pixies there, and a little more for a touch of growth. It was a rough circle about three miles around the perimeter, and just under a mile across. The edge was ringed by the wooden-built guard towers and the practice grounds for the Guardians. Just past that on the outer edges were the farms and fields. Moving further in were houses with small gardens for private use, and homes for those who didn’t want to live in the town center. Dogwood and Laurel lived in one of those houses just beyond the fields.

The main population of Pixies were in the town center, and it consisted of four sugar maple trees. Most of the Pixies lived and did business within the trunks and branches, and the Pixie magic allowed them to shape the trees as they pleased without harming them. The meeting hall was the largest space located at the base of the largest of the trees. When the town meetings weren’t taking place, the space was used for vendors and the like. The main portion of Pixie magic was plant-based, and even their battle magic had quite a bit to do with plants. That did not stop some Pixies from learning a trade craft they didn’t possess the magic for, like weaving or forging swords for the Guardians.

 

The Clans were not rigid in how their populations were controlled, unlike other Supe races. If a Pixie didn’t like the Clan they were born to, they were allowed to travel to other Clans and go through a probation period. Clans would also send out some of their newly come-of-age’d Pixies to apprentice in other Clans. The Hemlock Clan was known for their prowess in battle, so they often received petitions from other Clans to have their youngsters train under the Thorny Guardians. This would either involve some kind of monetary payment to the Clan they were sending the Pixie to, or an equal exchange of training.

Dogwood’s daughter was going to be involved in an exchange soon. Laurel had some of the best growing magic seen in the Hemlock Clan in years, so she was heading to the Larkspur Clan. As Hemlock was known for their battle magic, the Larkspurs were some of the best gardeners and farmers in all the American Clans. The exchange and training programs lasted a period of two-three years, then the newly-trained Pixies would go back to their original Clans. To ensure that the Clans would benefit from the training they paid or exchanged for, the trainee would be required to reside at their original Clan for a period of at least five years before they could petition to go elsewhere if they so desired.

Dogwood was nervous about sending his daughter away. Most Pixie families had three or four children, but Dogwood only had Laurel. He never remarried after Rosemary was killed, even though the Elders urged him to do so. Instead, he devoted all his love to his only daughter. Dogwood smiled thinking back on the last couple years, even though at the time they seemed anything but funny.

Drifting through the outer fields reminiscing, Dogwood couldn’t believe his daughter would be having her own coming of age ceremony the following year. Laurel just missed the most recent one by a few months. Coming of age for a Pixie was at 15 years, during the summer solstice, Litha. Pixies had a lifespan a couple decades under that of humans, so they reached adulthood a touch sooner. His daughter always brought out the bittersweet memories of his wife Rosemary, and for the second time that day he felt a pain lance his heart.

Dogwood was originally from the Hollyhock Clan, which no longer existed. They had battled alongside a few other Clans against the Hemlocks and their allies. In the end a few of the smaller Clans had been broken down and integrated into the larger Clans, because their numbers were no longer adequate to take care of their Clanslands. Dogwood was praised for his superior skills as a warrior, and invited to join the Hemlock Clan. This was when he met Rosemary.

Dogwood was on the Guardian training grounds when his Captain’s daughter came in from the fields to join her father for lunch. Her hair was the light pink hue that the dawn sometimes held when clouds were there to soften the colors, and it fell in a thick braid to her waist. With a face that always held a ready smile, its shape was a heart with prominent cheekbones. Her nose was turned down at the end, which always gave her the look of a cat in Dogwood’s opinion. She was short for a Pixie, only seven inches tall, and her body was slender like a reed. Eyes the color of honeysuckles always held a kind light, but could harden in a second if something she loved was threatened.

Saying it was love at first sight would be an understatement to Dogwood, but unfortunately the feelings were one-sided. Rosemary wanted nothing to do with him, no matter how hard he tried. He and many others courted the attractive young woman, but she spurned all advances. That was, until Dogwood found her soft spot.

One evening he had been on patrol when he saw a Pixie leave the perimeter with a woven basket in hand. Curious as to what they were doing, he followed them out into the night. Keeping a safe distance back, he soon realized it was Rosemary. Dogwood caught up with her just as she was set upon by a hungry fox. He fended off the fox, and was going to kill it when Rosemary begged him to let it live. Doing as she asked, he let the fox go and it ran off into the night.

Rosemary thanked him, and asked if he would stay with her until she returned to the Clansland. Dogwood agreed, of course, and followed her to the home of an injured mink. Many of the smaller animals in the lands trusted the Pixies, since they did not eat meat. Even if one of them was starving and attacked a Pixie, like the fox had, it was rare for a Pixie to be eaten. Pixies were very foul tasting little creatures, despite their colorful and sweet appearance.

There was a small portion of the Pixie population that could use the healing magic in plants, and Rosemary was one of those few—as well as the best. Her tender yet firm attitude toward her patients made her one of the most sought after healers on the Reserve, by all manner of Supes. Once she was done tending to the mink, they headed back to the Clansland. Dogwood requested that if she needed to leave again, that he go along with her.

The rest, as they say, is history. Their bond together formed slowly, but was rooted deep. When they were finally married, the whole Clan turned out and celebrated the joining. It was not long after Rosemary became pregnant with Laurel.

He stopped, and Dogwood took a moment to collect himself. It was a dark day in his and Rosemary’s father’s life. Soon after her death, he left this world as well, mad from grief. Rosemary’s mother had died in childbirth, and all her siblings were scattered to the winds or killed in wars. Dogwood and Laurel only had each other, and memories of a mother gone too soon from the world.

Dogwood cleared his throat and continued on to his home. It was the traditional house of the Captain of the Thorny Guardians. When Dogwood appointed the new Captain, he would be moved to a new home of his choosing. Hopefully that would not be for many years. Dogwood moved in with Rosemary and her father after they were married, and when her father died Dogwood was appointed Captain. So he had been living in the home for many years, and it was the only home Laurel had ever known.

Many Pixies lived in trees, like those who chose to live in the Town Center. Others, like Dogwood, lived in houses that were fashioned using Pixie magic. It was an interesting sight for any who had never seen a Pixie-made house before. Taking multiple saplings, Pixies grow and weave them together in such a way that they form the floors, walls, furniture, and so on. It was another branch of their plant magic. The better a Pixie was at the tree-forming magic, the better the houses were.

The Captain’s traditional house was formed from the same kind of tree as the town center: sugar maple. It was two stories high, and generously spaced. The living quarters were on the top, big enough to fit a family of ten. Common areas like the living room, crafting room, kitchen, and so on, were on the bottom. It was surrounded by a fence made from fallen sticks lashed together with dried and twisted grass. The garden was off to the side, and it was where Laurel spent most of her time.

Dogwood heard her singing to the plants in the garden, and it made him smile. Her voice was as sweet as the first rains of spring, and it warmed his heart to hear her so happy. He headed around the house to where she would be working, up to her wrists in rich soil.

When he rounded the house he saw their neighbor, Snowdrop, just as she joined Laurel in her song:

You’re fair as the spring, oh my darling
Your face shines so bright, so divine
The fairest of blooms in my garden
Oh lily white rose, you are mine

I love the White Rose in its splendour
I love the White Rose in its bloom
I love the White Rose so fair as she grows.
It’s the rose that reminds me of you.

When Dogwood clapped, Snowdrop and Laurel turned to see who was there. Laurel’s face broke out in a wide grin, and Snowdrop laughed.

“Are you spying on us, sir?” Snowdrop asked, as the two women stood and brushed the dirt from their hands and gardening trousers.

Snowdrop had white hair like Dogwood, but where his was curly and thick, hers was fine and straight. She kept it in a braid while gardening, as did most of the Pixie women, though she kept her length shorter than the rest. The ends of her hair barely brushed the top of her shoulders when loose. Her features were a touch plain to some, but her smile was bright. She had a friendly and caring personality giving her beauty more divine than those born with gorgeous looks. Like many of the Pixies who worked the land her skin was tanned, though some Pixies tanned darker than others. Snowdrop’s was the color of butterscotch.

Pixie women were usually around eight or nine inches tall, but Snowdrop stood eye level with Dogwood at eleven inches. This made her unattractive to some, and she had never married though she was of the same age as Dogwood. In some ways she reminded him of Rosemary, but in others she was vastly different.

“I would gladly spy on two of the most beautiful Pixie-women in all the land,” he replied as Laurel ran over and jumped into his arms for a hug. Snowdrop blushed at the response but Laurel laughed.

“You are shameless, father.”

Laurel had taken most of her features from her mother, except for her nose which was upturned at the end like Dogwood’s mother’s. In everything else she was the spitting image of Rosemary. It was a kind of balm on his soul to see so much of his wife in their daughter—like a part of her would live on forever.

“You make it sound like a bad thing,” he replied, and set her back down on the ground.

“Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Either way the two of us need to get cleaned up for the meeting,” Laurel said, and gave a rueful glance at her dirty clothes.

“Yes we do. I’ll be heading off then,” Snowdrop said, and smiled at Laurel.

Snowdrop had moved in next to them a few years ago, after her Clan had dispersed into the larger ones. There had not been any war, like with Dogwood’s clan, but they didn’t have enough of the right magic in the Clan to grow what they needed to support everyone. Integration wasn’t as common as it used to be, but it still happened from time to time.

After she moved in, she and Laurel became fast friends. In a way, they both provided something the other didn’t have: Snowdrop a daughter and Laurel a mother. Snapdragon, Sage’s wife, had been there to help, but she had her own brood to take care of, and they lived on the other side of the Clansland.

“Did you want to go to the meeting with us?” Laurel asked, in that innocent way children do when they think they are pulling one over on their parents.

Snowdrop looked over to Dogwood and raised an eyebrow in question. “I don’t mind if your father doesn’t.”

Dogwood was surprised. To his knowledge she had never shown any interest in him, but on the other hand he didn’t spend too much time at home.

Laurel looked at her father expectantly, and he knew there was only one correct answer.

“Sounds like a plan,” he said. Laurel jumped up in delight and hugged her father again.

“This is great!” With that comment she bounded off into the house, and left Snowdrop and Dogwood in the garden.

The silence grew around them, but neither made a move to leave. As the sun beat down it gave the day a warm and lazy feeling, but never grew too hot. Insects buzzed in the distance, and it lent a kind of drowsy lullaby to the afternoon air. Dogwood looked over and found Snowdrop’s lavender eyes staring at him, and when he caught her at it, she lowered them and blushed.

“I am sorry if I put you on the spot with Laurel. I didn’t mean to,” she said, eyes still downcast. A strand of hair had fallen loose from her braid to rest near her cheek, and drifted in the light breeze. Dogwood suddenly felt the need to brush it back from her face, and the thought caught him off guard.

He cleared his throat and looked away. “Don’t worry about it. You know how Laurel can be. We’ll come around to your house in an hour or so, if that time is okay with you?” he asked, and took a quick glance back at her. Her face seemed to be pondering more than his question, but she nodded in response.

“I’ll see you then,” she said. With that she took to the air and headed next door to her home. Dogwood looked after her for a minute, and then headed into the house through the back door. When he opened it he found his daughter, grinning like a fool, just inside the doorway.

“Not a word out of you, girl. Now go and get cleaned up so I can as well. All your hugging covered me in dirt.”

Laurel laughed and skipped away, like she had been given the best Yule present ever. It left Dogwood wondering if he could really find someone to spend his life with again. He rubbed his temples and put the matter out of his mind until later. Personal quandaries would have to wait as the meeting loomed ahead of him, along with a potential war threatening the current peace of the Clansland.

He muttered darkly about the youthful naiveté of the younger people in the Clan, and prepared for the impending disaster at the meeting tonight.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Chapter One
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Final Chapter

Mention: The song Laurel and Snowdrop are singing is a Cornish Folk song, and you can read the full version here, on the right-hand side of the page:

http://www.cornishculture.co.uk/songs.htm

War of the Wee Ones, Chapter One

Chapter One

The Beigads, the damned scrounging thieves, had come in the night-time and raided the garden. It was enough to make Dogwood chew a rock in frustration. The Thorny Guardians had already doubled the amount of sentries during the day, and had added a night shift not long ago. Now it seemed as though he’d have to add more sentries at night, as well. It would not go over well in the meeting tonight.

As Dogwood floated along the garden rows to inspect the damage. His wings moved so quick they blurred and made a low humming noise. There was a broken fence here, trampled vegetables there, and pot holes of earth where the Beigads had dug up some of the food. His lips set in a thin, angry line as his mind raced to calculate whether they’d have enough food for the winter. It seemed as though they would, but the farmers would know better. They had been lucky of late, with their crops, but luck could run out at any time. They might have to trade with other Clans, which was never ideal—even with their allies.

When Dogwood landed on the ravaged earth, he followed the Beigad tracks to where they entered the garden. It was coming from the direction of the mountain and not the forest. It was strange. The Beigads normally stayed in the forested sections of the Reserve. The Reserve was nestled in a section of the Appalachian Mountains, and it was a haven for the kind of Supes—Supernaturals—who were either not readily accepted into human society, or didn’t want to give up their cultures to adapt.

Beigads, being boars who could somewhat speak, and had just below average human intelligence, were more suited to the Reserve. Though they were much larger than Pixies, Beigads were not fast enough to defend against swarms of Pixies.

They were difficult to distinguish from common wild boars, or even feral hogs in some cases, until they spoke. Even then it was difficult, because the snorting and squealing could mask the words. Especially if a Beigad was scared or excited.

The situation was also made more difficult by the fact Dogwood and the Thorny Guardians could not kill the damned intruders. As fellow Supes they were protected by the laws of the Reserve, and if they killed the Beigads, they would be exiled. They would also face criminal charges to boot. If the Rangers found out, that is. Unless massive amounts of bodies were found, Rangers tended not to find out about any skirmishes. However, with Beigads being so much larger than the Pixies, they were difficult to kill and dispose of the bodies.

Dogwood sighed. Sometimes it did not pay to be the size of a human child’s doll.

Most on the Reserve were willing to trade with the Pixies, who tended to grow excellent food. The Beigads either didn’t want to use or learn the concept of trade, or they didn’t give two figs. The larger races on the Reserve were willing to trade odds and ends to the smaller folk for their sweet and delicious food. They knew not to try and steal the Pixie food, since Pixies had nasty and mischievous natures about them when wronged. It was in their best interest to just trade.

The only ones who didn’t seem to realize this were the Beigads, who were lucky not to still be slaves, or meals. Some humans and Supes would use them for labor, and others didn’t care the Beigads could talk with them. A pig, was a pig, was a pig, to them. That all changed with the Accords, though. The Preternatural Peace Accords of 1876 deemed that no race will enslave another while on American soil, among other things. Once freed, they used most of their time to fight amongst themselves and pester other races the same size or smaller than them. Right now Dogwood’s clan, The Hemlocks, were the ones being pestered.

Dogwood was the Captain of the Thorny Guardians, and he had to report this incident to the elders at the meeting tonight. The information would only fuel the younger ones’ want for a war against the Beigads, and Dogwood was hoping to avoid that. War with the vermin would only attract unwanted attention from the human Rangers. Most Rangers tried their best to keep peace between the growing populations of supernatural creatures on the Reserve. None of them truly understood, though, since they were human. Some hate and some beliefs run too deep for a piece of paper to cure.

As the human world advanced toward more technology, more Supes were balking at the change, and retreating to the Reserves set aside by the government for all their kind.

Dogwood sighed again, as though he could sense defeat on the horizon, and made his way back to the outpost they built when their Clan had first shown up. As he passed by the gardens of fruits and vegetables, it made Dogwood smile in spite of the foreboding feeling in his gut. Only Pixies knew the secrets of growing whatever they pleased wherever they wished. Even with the Beigads raids, his Clan was flourishing and it was a wonderful thing to behold.

The main outpost came into view a little ways beyond the gardens. It was the headquarters of the Thorny Guardians, and the largest fortification beyond the meeting hall. They had other smaller outposts ringing the entirety of their Clansland, and Pixies manned each one and patrolled in-between. Night patrols tended to work as more of a skeleton crew, but that would have to change.

Being the Captain, Dogwood would most likely see a greater share of the night shifts than the rest, which was fair. However, this meant more time away from his daughter, Laurel, and he felt his heart sink even further. The day had his emotions bouncing around inside him like a ball, and the start of a headache curled its claws behind his left eye.

The clashing sounds of training greeted his ears, and he shook away the dark thoughts crowding his mind. Now is not the time. A Pixie, who stood a touch shorter than Dogwood, barked out commands at some of the new recruits. They were all clad in the same garb as the instructor: leather armor made from the skin of local animals. It was hot and uncomfortable to train in, and not a few scowls and curses were thrown at the instructor.

The instructor’s coloring was the blue of a sage flower, and thus his name: Sage. Their variety of Pixie stemmed from the Dragonfly, and their wings shimmered like gossamer. His were a blue like a summer sky that flashed like sunlight caught sapphires, and his skin tan from long hours in the sun covered corded muscle. Hands down, Sage was one of their best fighters and trainers. His face was triangular, like a cat’s, and it showed no signs of tiring—unlike the recruits’. Roughly cut and short, his hair matched his wings and eyes. His nose had seen its fair share of breaks, and had a knob in the bridge and was crooked. Thin, pursed lips looked on as the recruits struggled with the most basic of maneuvers.

“Don’t do that, you dimwit, or you’d chop your own foot off with a real weapon!” He shouted in a voice that carried across the whole training field without issue. Since it was their first day, the new recruits were training with wooden swords. Dogwood suspected Sage would not keep them from the real thing for long.

Due to its prosperity, the Hemlock Clan had no shortage of recruits. When a Pixie reached puberty, they were tested for what role they would take in helping the Clan. The newest batch of youngsters just had their coming of age ceremony. Now they would see just how much work it took to help protect their homes and gardens.

Dogwood caught Sage’s eye and motioned for him to come over. Sage barked off one last order for them to continue with the exercise and darted over to Dogwood.

“I hope you have better news than your face is letting on, Sir,” Sage said as they both moved off to the building.

“Unfortunately you have read me correctly, old friend. I fear the problems these new tidings will bring,” Dogwood said, finally able to voice his concerns to another.

Sage snorted and looked over at the new recruits. “All the young ones shouting for the blood of the Beigads, and not knowing what real battle is like.”

Dogwood could only nod at the observation as they passed the guards outside the door to the outpost. The guards jumped to attention as the two moved by into the cool interior. They made their way back to Dogwood’s office, which overflowed with complaints about the current Beigad issue. Dogwood sighed yet again, and sat down behind his desk to read the latest dispatches from the Elders. Sage closed the door behind them and sat down in the chair at the front of the desk.

“So, what did you find this morning that has you so depressed?” Sage asked as he chewed on dried cranberries he’d pulled from a pouch at his belt.

“The Beigads have begun night raids. We will have to add extra shifts through the night until the new recruits are trained.”

Sage grunted at the news, unperturbed. He took such things in stride, having the mind set of; ‘What’s done is done. No use in complaining about it.’

“I am trying to decide how I will present the news in such a way that it will not create a huge uproar from the younger ones out for blood,” Dogwood said. He leaned back in his chair to ponder the situation.

“Well, I would say just don’t tell them, but you’re too honest for that. Those pansies don’t know the pointy end of a sword from a daffodil,” Sage said around some cranberry in his mouth.

Sage was right on both counts. The younger ones didn’t understand what was at stake, nor the logistics of the issue. Dogwood and Sage had seen their fair share of battles before the Rangers had cracked down on the fighting some years ago. Those were days neither of them longed to revisit.

“I agree they don’t understand, but I still have to make my report. Do you think you could take care of the night shift rotation schedule for me?” Dogwood asked.

Guilt crouched in his belly like a demon prodding his insides with a pitchfork for asking Sage, but he had so much work to do. Writing out the schedule would take up the time he needed to decide on how to present the newest issue, as well as take care of all the usual reports.

Sage looked over at Dogwood and laughed. “You look like you’re staring down into the gullet of a hungry dragon, friend. Of course I can write out the schedule, if you’ll promise me one thing.”

Dogwood chuckled at the imagery and looked up at Sage from the stack of papers in front of him. “What would that be?”

“Go home and spend some time with your daughter, Dogwood. I know you both miss each other sorely, especially since Rosemary—” He cut himself off abruptly.

A stabbing pain filled Dogwood’s chest, even though it had been almost two years since his wife, Rosemary, was killed in a Fay war. Laurel, their only child, had been fourteen then. Dogwood and Laurel both would have been lost without his friend, Sage, and Sage’s wife, Snapdragon.

“Laurel understands that my work here is impor—” Sage cut him off mid-sentence by waving a hand through the air.

“She might understand but I am sure she also misses you something fierce. We can survive one day without you doing paperwork. I’ll send in one of the new recruits to you tomorrow to become your assistant. Goddess knows you need one,” Sage stated.

“Are you sure you won’t need me?” Dogwood asked, as he ran a hand through his short, white hair. A nervous gesture his wife had teased him about.

“Yes! The place won’t catch fire because you aren’t doing paperwork. Now off with you, before someone comes in here with something that urgently needs your attention. I’ll see you at the meeting tonight,” Sage said. He got up from the chair and moved toward the door. Dogwood followed behind him and they left his office.

“Alright then, I’ll see you tonight. Don’t work the new recruits too hard, okay?” Dogwood joked as they exited the building, and saw the new recruits slacking off in the warm sunlight. Sage gave a wicked smile.

“I’ll only work them until they can’t lift their arms then, since you asked nicely,” Sage replied, and darted back over to the recruits, spouting orders as he went.

Dogwood laughed and headed toward the village.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Final Chapter

Hell Bent for Leather, Part Two

Part Two

The address was for a news station, and while they weren’t exceedingly difficult to sneak into, it was still wise to be cautious. Most important of all: make sure you look as if you belong, and no one really questions you.

I drove back home to throw on the only suit I owned, and ran the plan by my roommate, Sorren, as well as the price for the job.

“You mean we’ll actually be able to eat something besides Ramen for the first time this month?” he asked, somewhat joking and hopeful.

He was a Half-Fae himself, and since our kind were not looked on with anything but contempt, we tended to congregate amongst ourselves. We formed our own little families, since our blood relatives didn’t want us, and if our other half was mortal we tended to outlive that half of our bloodline. Sorren was a couple hundred years older than me, give or take fifty years. After a while you don’t keep track of the specific number. Essentially, he was the brother I never had.

I punched him lightly on a well-muscled and tanned arm. His handsome face was a shadow of the awe-inspiring beauty some of the Fae possessed, and his hair was the color of night spun into soft curls.

“Yes, hopefully,” I said, and grabbed my purse. He gave me a quick hug, and opened the front door.

“Just be careful,” he replied back, concern lightly coating his tone.

“I’ll be fine.” I threw him a half-smile to reassure him, and got into my car to drive to the news station.

I grabbed two cup holders full of coffee on my way to the station, completely for show. Personally, I hated coffee. Juggling my props as I walked toward the back door, a guy on his smoke break was kind enough to let me in with a swipe of his card. It was always easier to sneak in the back than the front, I’d noticed.

Moving my way toward the dressing rooms, I began my snooping. Whenever someone asked me what I was doing, I feigned confusion, and stammered a different room number, and implied I was an intern of some kind. I’d even snitched some dry cleaning, that I swore I’d return, from a random rack to support the cover. Most rolled their eyes and pointed vaguely toward where I could find the room.

Then I came across a room that made me stop for a moment, wondering. No, it had to be too obvious, right? Sure, Thor’s powers to create thunder and lightning were limiting in concerns to weather, but the jacket was something special.

I had heard a rumor about the jacket a few years ago. It was a gift from Coyote, a well-known Native American trickster god, to Thor, after Thor managed to best him in some game of chance; a game that Coyote was rigging. Coyote was so impressed he presented Thor with the jacket. No one really knows how Thor managed it. I mean, look at how many times Loki, a trickster from Thor’s own pantheon, had gotten the better of him.

Coyote told Thor that the jacket was from Alignak, an Inuit weather and moon god. The word ‘from’ might make it sound like the jacket was a gift or some such. In all likelihood, Coyote stole or tricked it away from Alignak. Coyote told Thor the jacket had a limited version of Alignak’s powers, making Thor more powerful by being able to manipulate and create weather. Augmenting Thor’s powers over lightning and thunder. Thor accepted, and has had it ever since.

Opening the door with the meteorologist’s name on it, there was the jacket hanging on the back of the chair. Interesting concept, I had to admit: a weatherman using Thor’s jacket to help create weather and accurate predictions for his news station.

Slipping the jacket onto a hanger I found in a small closet, I stuck it between two of the dry cleaning outfits and headed out of the room.

Then, of course, my luck ran out.

“Hey! What were you doing in my room?”

When I turned to look, a man was walking hurriedly over to me. He was short, average height and weight, nondescript brown hair set in an atrocious comb-over, eyes to match, and plain features. I could have turned around and forgotten his face seconds later. That was how some gods and goddesses preferred to travel—incognito. Not all of them of course, but since their religions have hit the back burner some of them are attempting to live normal, human lives.

So I made a logic jump.

“Alignak, right? You’re pretty far from the Arctic.”

He stopped a few feet from me, as if someone had jerked him by the back of his shirt. The surprise at hearing his true name caused the illusion of his current form to shimmer, giving me a quick glance at his godly visage. His face was wide with high cheek bones and young. However, a closer inspection showed fine age lines at the corner of his eyes and mouth. Instead of the typical dark brown eye color that borders on black, the eyes that gazed back at me were a light gray. His matte black hair was cut surprisingly short, and his skin was the color of cinnamon.

Once I knew what he was, his aura of power enveloped the immediate area. While it wasn’t imposing, it wouldn’t be easily brushed off, either. There was a tense moment when he was trying to decide what to do about me, when a coworker walked down the hall and hailed him. That broke the staring contest between us, and I relaxed a bit. It wasn’t like I could run off and not cause a scene.

Alignak replied back and said he would be right with them. Turning away from the coworker, he looked back at me, raised an eyebrow, and gestured toward his dressing room; Easy way, or hard way?

I considered my options for a moment, and decided to head into the room like a rational person. It never hurt to be reasonable first, and violent later if necessary.

After a few tense moments of sizing each other up, we settled into a hesitant truce. While talking with Alignak, it became clear he wasn’t the one who stole the leather jacket from Thor. In fact, he was just as surprised to see it back in his closet one morning as he had been when it had disappeared from the same closet a few years ago.

Coyote was the one to steal it in the first place, and in spite of Alignak having the jacket for many years and liking it, he didn’t deem an article of clothing worth getting upset over.

“Do you think Coyote gave it back to you to stir up trouble?”

I asked him while sipping on a bottle of water he so generously offered. I was sitting down in a brown fold out chair from the stack against the wall, and he pulled up one not too far from me. If I lunged, it would be just far enough out of my reach to give him time to react. Trusting bunch, supernaturals, weren’t we?

“It is possible—he has been growing bored lately. People just don’t believe in us the way they used to. Even though they’ll shake hands with various supernatural creatures, believing in gods and goddesses is still a little much for them.

“So, the only way for Coyote to get his kicks is by tormenting those who do believe in him—other gods.”

He continued with this line of complaining for a while. There’s nothing like getting someone in the room who believed, and understood, what you were going through. I confirmed a couple of my suspicions, asked to borrow the jacket with a promise to return it, and headed out to see if it was possible to trick a trickster.

****

I called my roommate, running my suspicions and plan by him for the second time that day.

Hearing the sigh on the other end of the line, I couldn’t help a twinge of guilt that twanged in my conscience. What I had planned meant we wouldn’t get paid, and the fridge was running a bit lean—while of course the bills were running high. We had recently moved to Jacksonville, so we were still trying to find real jobs while we did these odd jobs in the interim.

“Don’t worry about it, Kella—we’ll get by like we always do,” his deep voice grumbled over the phone line.

“That doesn’t mean I don’t feel bad about it. Who knows, though, maybe we’ll still get paid,” I said, trying to keep a note of hope in my voice. Judging by the snort I heard on the other end of the line, I hadn’t succeeded in reassuring him.

“I’ll call a few ‘people’ up—just be careful,” he said, hanging up the phone. No goodbyes for us.

I was back at the restaurant where I met the demon Thyla earlier. There were only two other people on the porch this time, both of them older gentleman hunkered behind their newspapers on opposite ends from each other.

Paying them no mind, I settled down with a margarita watching the sky darken as the sun dipped below the horizon. It was sending streamers of oranges, reds, and yellows across the clouds in a last ditch attempt to make sure we’d miss it once it was gone. Fat chance of that, I thought, fanning myself with a menu.

I didn’t have to wait long for my guests of honor to show up, though, and they didn’t look particularly happy with my choice in tablemates. The two of them stopped about seven feet on opposing sides from where I was sitting, and began a staring contest that would have done the Wild West proud. All we needed was a tumble weed rolling behind us on the beach and pistols at their hips. Cowboy attire need not apply—I wasn’t into chaps.

My voice broke the silence that had settled over our little corner of the world, and I had to bite my cheek to keep from laughing as they turned identical annoyed frowns my way.

“Loki, Coyote, will the two of you join me, or does a girl have to dine alone?”

Thyla quirked a pleased smile, and her features dissipated like smoke in the breeze, leaving behind an equally pleased Loki.

Loki was certainly a handsome deity, with the difference between this form and Thyla’s being minimal. Everything was paler, and more masculine and mischievous. One glance at Loki and I could understand where the phrase, ‘roguish looks’, came from.

Falling into a chair on my right and laughing, he slouched into the same position I sat in earlier and gave me his best smile.

“You’re always looking for an excuse to wear women’s clothing, Loki,” I said teasingly.

“Guilty as charged. Plus, you caught us at our game. However did you figure it out?”

“I was suspicious about the job, and it wasn’t too hard to figure out once I phoned your friends over there,” I said, nodding my head in deference to the older gentlemen on the porch. Behind Loki, Odin nodded back with a serious expression on his face, but an amused glint in his one eye.

Meanwhile, the other man, Amotken, was plainly showing us how entertaining he found the situation on his age-lined face. He was a creator god, and having been the one to set Coyote on the world supposedly, I guess I could expect no less. He tilted his head in response to me, and the two elder gods went back to reading their papers.

Coyote sat on my left, across the table from Loki. He was the one I had encountered at the news station, not Alignak, and he had also dropped the illusion of his alternate form. Alignak was the real weatherman at the station.

“I’m assuming you called in the parents to make sure we behaved ourselves?” Coyote asked, with a glint in his eyes to match Loki’s.

“Yes, and to make sure you both leave Alignak alone after this. I gave him his jacket back, by the way,” I said to Loki, who shrugged.

“I was only getting it back for Thor to be honest.”

“And I was getting it back for Alignak, since Loki cheated,” said Coyote, shooting a look to Loki. Whether it was admiring or annoyed, I could not tell; mayhap it was a little of both.

Apparently, when Coyote thought he was playing Thor in a game it was actually Loki in disguise as Thor. Loki had heard about Coyote’s plans and was not pleased that a trickster from another pantheon was meddling in his, so he decided to play a trick of his own. Loki gifted the jacket to the real Thor, but Coyote found out. Coyote then duped the jacket from the real Thor, and Loki hired me in turn get it back; because Coyote would be on the lookout for Loki.

“What made you suspicious?” Coyote asked, curiosity threading through his question.

“Loki coming in demon form did. None of them would ever be caught dead with me, and if they were caught, in all likelihood they would be dead,” I said, giving a small smile to Loki. He just laughed and nodded.

“Ah well, I guess the game had to come to an end. Truce?” Loki held out his hand to Coyote and the two of them shook.

“Will I still be paid?” I asked as I looked over to Loki again, but no one was there. All four of them had vanished like food near a hungry seagull.

I sighed, finished my margarita, and headed to my jeep. It was probably the last little splurge I could do while I waited for another job to come in. Good deeds never go unpunished, especially by the gods.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Hell Bent for Leather, Part One

Hell Bent for Leather, Part One

Part One

The start of a headache pounded behind my eyes, and I looked over at my companion. The sensation was not going away—and neither was she.

Graced with a natural, All-American girl beauty that conjured images of a preacher’s daughter, she was average height and slender. She wore jean cut-off shorts, sandals, and a sheer peach tank top with a white bikini top underneath. The outfit cost more than four of my own combined; all to show off a nice, even tan she likely paid too much for. Who pays for a tanning bed when you live in Florida?

She had a heart-shaped face, button-cute nose, deep dimples, and needed almost no excuse to flash a white smile that showed teeth belonging in an orthodontia commercial. To top it off, her hair was a natural golden wheat blonde with just enough curl to give a bouncy appearance, and her eyes were the blue of cornflowers. Just gag me with apple pie now.

We received our fair share of glances from both genders. Correction, she got the appreciative glimpses with a double-take. When they saw me, they likely wondered what this girl was doing hanging around with someone so below her class.

That is not to say I’m hard on the eyes, but compared to what was sitting across from me I’d go out on a limb and say I paled in comparison. Almost in a true sense of the word.

My jeans were a faded dark wash, ragged, and torn in places. Not through design, but work, play, and the lack of caring to go shopping for new ones. Worn flip-flops graced my feet, and a faded black t-shirt that had a few holes advertised a café I frequented. It hung a little loose from my frame, sure, but these days loose consisted of anything not skin-tight.

Where her hair had the blonde that most chased in a bottle, my hair color could not be mistaken for anything but white as the driven snow. It stayed pulled back in a braid to keep it from spazzing out in the humidity, and the tip brushed right between my shoulder blades. Given the chance, and freedom, I could look like a walking dandelion inside of five minutes out my door.

My own tan wasn’t half bad, though I would assume the word golden comes to mind instead of brown. It was a pale gold that echoed the skin color of my human mother. It was the only thing I inherited from her, along with just enough mortal blood to put a target on my back.

I was more athletic than slender, so my body wasn’t soft like hers. My eyes are the same light blue as a husky’s, set in a triangular face that doesn’t smile enough—or so I’ve been told.

However, if people look below the aesthetics for more than a couple minutes, they might be able to sense something wrong with the woman across from me. Of course, that was the whole point in looking the way she did, wasn’t it? People weren’t likely to look beyond the gorgeous exterior. It worked for models. Most of them were some kind of supernatural or another, like Succubi, and no one cared a whit.

The breeze rustled the palm trees not twenty feet away, but didn’t seem to reach the porch of the restaurant. The air sat stagnant around us, as if we were in the swamp instead of a stone’s throw from the beach. Some of the other patrons were fanning themselves with their menus.

A perpetual cloud hung over us, and it left the area in more shadow than anywhere else on the sunny afternoon. The other people were also sitting as far away from us as they could manage, and they likely did it without realizing. Certain supes—supernaturals—tend to have that affect over their surroundings and normal humans. The more powerful the supe, the more powerful the effects. I was betting the lovely girl across from me was one of the nastier kinds.

Her evil aura pushed out anything good for a certain radius, and it was all contained in that cute little unassuming bundle. Once a person knew what to look for, that shining smile had more sneer than cheer, and her bright eyes held a cold sheen of cruelty. Mayhaps Little Miss All-American was a demon. I didn’t run into those too terribly often.

There were two ways a demon came to walk around on Earth: inhabit the body in conjunction with a corrupt soul, (which wasn’t too hard to come by these days), or manifest their own body. I could not sense anything in her that indicated there was a soul hanging about, shoved to the side, so I grudgingly had to admit that she was a powerful one. Only demons of a certain level could manifest their own bodies.

When she spoke, her voice was happy, upbeat, and completely insincere.

“Well aren’t you just the prettiest little half-Fae this side of the Abyss, Kella? Who’d have thought you’d have the looks to go along with all that yummy power? Despite, of course, from what I hear on the grapevine about you being half-human.”

I didn’t even bother glaring at her—it wouldn’t do me any good, and it would only make her happy. However, I couldn’t help rolling my eyes.

“Before you continue your insincere and snarky observations, Thyra—if that’s even your name—keep in mind that you called me here, and I have no qualms walking away.” My voice was calm, unconcerned, and bored as I reclined back in my chair. I crossed my legs at my ankles, and folded my hands across my stomach with my elbows resting on the arms of the chair.

What I said was mostly true; I could just walk away, but of course I was curious. Demons didn’t usually look me up for a couple of reasons. Despite what mainstream media believed, Fae and demons didn’t usually mix. We intermingled about as well as oil and water. For me there was another reason entirely.

Thyra pouted, even sticking out her lower lip for effect.

“You’re just no fun, you know. I thought the half-Fae ballsy enough to lay waste to the Demon King would be more interesting,” she said, leaning forward and putting her chin in her hand. I could see the expectant look in her eyes, as she hoped her words would provoke a reaction. They did, but none I would let her see.

It was a fluke that’d I won out over the Demon King. He’d been trying to sacrifice me to gain the attention of my father—who couldn’t summon a fatherly feeling toward me if someone held an enchanted object to his head that was capable of killing him. No one was likely to save me, and I wasn’t into the whole damsel in distress thing, so I snagged the knife he was about to use on me. Not thinking me a threat, he’d left it on the table next to me. Who knew that daggers made to kill Fae worked just as well on demons? The only thing that saved me as I escaped, was that no one had believed what I’d done.

I could tell by her words she was a juvenile when it came to her race, and thought she was hot stuff coming to visit me. I was like a bogeyman to young demons. Which was silly—I hadn’t killed any demons before, or since, the King; and all this happened a couple hundred years ago, give or take.

“If you’ve come here to hash out grievances that are older than you, then I really am leaving. If you have actual business, state it.”

I leveled my gaze at her, and kept my face unsmiling. Her pout deepened for a moment and then vanished into a smile that said, ‘geez, I was just kidding’. Mentally shaking my head, I wondered who they were breeding down there to get demons like this.

“Fine, down to brass tacks then. I want you to find Thor’s leather jacket and bring it to me. I have a buyer lined up and ready for the purchase. It disappeared a few days ago, and I’d like to get it before Thor finds it again. I’ve heard you are, at times, willing to…creatively acquire objects.”

It took a second for my brain to catch up, and I did a long blink trying to process the information. She was hiring me for a job. Interesting, and not at all what I was expecting. I generally kept my services on the legal side of the tracks. There were times–when I was broke–that I’d take a little walk on the proverbial dark side.

“Last I heard Thor was spending his time running around with a biker gang in Montana, having a grand ole time. While I don’t mind traveling, that’s a bit outside my range. Is the jacket here in Jacksonville?” I asked, and took a sip of my cold water. The condensation left a thick ring of liquid on table, and I ran my fingers through it, thinking.

Deities, also known as gods and goddesses, existed in this world. They weren’t as powerful as what ruled above us, but most of them were still fairly spunky for beings that hadn’t been worshiped in a while.

She nodded at my question, tossed me an address written on a piece of paper, and continued to explain.

“When a deity wears a certain article of clothing for a long time, it creates a connection with them. If a person puts on the clothing, they are able to use some of the powers of the deity.”

“So your buyer has a death wish then? I can’t imagine Thor will be happy to know someone has his favorite jacket,” I said, musing aloud.

She only shrugged and glanced away, inspecting her manicure. Demons with manicures—the state of the world really was going down the toilet.

“I don’t care what happens to the client after I get my money and hand off the jacket. That’s their problem. I will, however, take advantage of acquiring it from a less resistant target than Thor himself. Are you going to get it or not?”

“Sure, I’ve got nothing else on my plate right now.” Not to mention, as I said, I was curious and broke. A deadly combination, if any.

“Good, I need it by tonight. Think you can handle that?”

“I’ll try my best, but unless the address is where the jacket currently is I make no promises,” I said, and shrugged.

“That was the last place I heard it was at. If you can’t get it, my buyer walks, and this is an item I’d prefer to sell with discretion. I’ll make it worth your while if you manage to get it.”

We spent a few minutes, haggling on the price. I had a few numbers in mind that included potential hazards to life and limb for the job, as well as the difficulty level. She had a few numbers in mind as well, and of course they were well below my numbers. Once we reached an agreeable amount, in cash, we rose from the table and shook on it.

“Ciao,” she said, tossing her hair back and walking away. I looked down at the address, and wiped the condensation off on my jeans.

Well, this is going to be interesting.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Hell Bent for Leather, Part II

It Ends with a Teardrop, Part Two

Part Two

Conlan paced around his room in the Guard barracks, running a roughened hand through his curls; a gesture from his childhood. The echo of his mother’s words float to him in his mind.

You are going to lose all of that beautiful hair if you keep doing that, Conlan.

He dropped his hand to his side, and gave a ghost of his usual lopsided grin. I faded as the present situation returned to the forefront of his thoughts.

“What would you have done, mother? Father?” His voice was hushed in the sparse quarters, and no answers came from the bare stones.

A knock sounded at his door, and when he opened it, it took all he had not to curl his lip in disgust. There were some soldiers who followed the King’s cruel orders because it was their duty. Then there were those, like this one, who did so with glee.

“Your brother has requested your presence in the throne hall, Captain.”

A knot of fear and anxiety twisted around his heart, but he kept his visage smooth and unworried. His brother summoned him to the throne hall all the time, he reasoned. No need to jump into trouble before it found him.

“Lead the way,” Conlan said. Despite the rationalization on his part, the cold look of malice in the guard’s expression kept his heartbeat in his throat all the way to the throne hall.

When he entered the short hall through ancient, double oak doors, he stopped dead in his tracks. The guard who brought him shoved him in the rest of the way, and closed and barred the doors.

The Queen knelt on the floor next to the throne, shackled, face bloodied and bruised, and with a guard holding her at swordpoint from behind. Rage danced in the Captain’s eyes and belly as he looked around the room at the other guards. Some lowered their eyes, while others met his gaze brazenly. He noted which ones were which, but in the end none of them had done anything to stop this.

Finally, he looked to his brother. They were mirror images of each other: tall, golden curls, wide-shouldered, strong in body, and with handsome faces. Their features were unique to a kingdom of darker shades in hair and eyes, and it marked them as being descended from the royal line.

“May I ask why you have put your Queen in shackles, my King?”

While they may have shared the same features, most knew the sneer adorning the King’s features would never have found its way to Conlan’s visage.

My Queen, is she? From what I have been told, she is no more than your whore.”

Conlan had to clench his teeth against the fury and succeeded—barely.

“What has the King heard on such matters, and from whom?”

The King slammed a fist on the arm of his throne, made from the same giant oak as the doors, and spittle flew from his mouth with his next words.

“It does not matter who I have heard this from! A bastard child rests within the Queen’s belly—your bastard!” the King yelled at his brother, and stood. His words echoed through the hall, the accusation seeming to ring against his armor and in his ears.

No one moved or made a sound, and the King sat back down, calm once more. His anger, like lightning, was quick to appear and leave, but left devastation in its wake at times.

“I know I am not loved by the people of this kingdom, and they would readily rally around your banner and bastard. Your attempt to overthrow me will not work, however,” the King stated, and his eyes gleamed with a malicious light.

Then Conlan heard it, distantly–the sound of screaming.

“What have you done?” the Captain whispered.

“I have ordered the capitol, and its people, destroyed by whatever means amuse the guard.”

No one in the room seemed surprised at the King’s words, and Conlan’s heart sank.

“There was no plot to overthrow you, brother. Your madness has taken you completely, I fear.” His words were sad, but only seemed to enrage his brother further.

“You dare to call me brother while consorting with my wife? Seize him!”

Guards circled around and forced him to kneel. The King descended from the throne, and between the legs of the men Conlan watched as the Queen wept.

Parting like water as the King finally reach him, Gerhard grabbed Conlan by the hair and jerked his head up.

“Make sure she is watching this,” the King said to the guard behind the Queen, who grabbed her hair in a similar manner as the King, and forced her to look to Conlan. The King stepped to the side, so they could both watch what was to come.

Unsheathing the sword at his hip, it passed close enough to the Captain’s face that he saw his own sorrowful reflection. As he let the sword hang at his side, Gerhard looked between the Queen and his Captain.

“Let us play a game, hmm? I am going to run you through with my sword while she watches.”

At his words, the guards grabbed Conlan’s shoulders, undoing the armor and padding, and then forcing them back to give the King the best target. Conlan could not struggle while this was taking place; there were at least twenty guards around, and the one holding the Queen would likely slit her throat before he could get very far.

The King brought his sword back with both hands, their father’s sword as the previous king. Conlan kept his eyes on his Queen, willing her with them to look nowhere else. She gave a small nod as his Gerhard shoved at least twenty inches of sharp steel through Conlan’s stomach.

The searing pain took his breath away, and it hissed through his teeth, but he never took his gaze from hers. Even then, a small sob escaped her lips, and tears mixed with blood as they ran down her damaged face.

Kneeling down, the King whispered his next words in his brother’s ear.

“Nice and painful? Good. Now you can watch as the same thing happens to her.”

Conlan’s head snapped around to meet his brother’s gaze, and in it the void that was his brother’s insanity. The men who held his shoulders had let go after the King ran him through.

There was one last action he could do, and he prayed to all the Gods that would listen, that it was the correct choice. He collapsed backward, chin to his chest, feigning defeat. His brother’s joyous laughter was harsh in his ears.

As quickly as he dared, he pushed his mind past the pain and slid the dagger in his boot out. It would have been too noticeable to go for his sword at his side, and he needed all the time he could get. The fools had not disarmed him when he entered the room, and he thanked the Gods for that small bit of luck.

Fast as lightning, Conlan threw his right shoulder into the King, knocking him off balance and to the floor. Before anyone could react, Conlan jumped on his brother, plunged the knife upward into his brother’s chest, beneath the ribs, and sought his heart if one still beat there.

As the world darkened around the edges of his vision, his brother coughed blood. He had hit more than the heart, and he hoped it was enough.

The silence broke around them as everyone began yelling.

“I knew you wanted me dead,” the King choked out.

“You brought this on yourself, brother, I did not want this end—for any of us,” Conlan whispered back, and fell down again, this time next to his brother.

“Liar,” his brother said softly, and with that final word he was no more.

Conlan’s eyes dropped closed for what felt like an eternity, but they jarred open once more when delicate fingers brushed the curls from his forehead. With a groan, he rolled as much as the sword on his hip, and the sharp pains taking his breath away, would allow.

The Queen was crying softly. Instead of screaming or sounds of battle, there was a profound quiet in the room. Then, the soft patter of rain on the windows found his ears. The drought finally broke.

He tried to lift his hand to wipe her tears as he had earlier, but there was no strength left in him. She caught his hand in both of hers before it hit the ground, and placed it against her cheek for the final time.

“How did you…?”

“The guards began to fight each other after you stabbed the King. The one who held my chains tried to kill me, but was struck down by another guard, who then released me.”

“Ah, I see. Then you are safe?”

Nodding, because the words could not find their way past her throat, Conlan sighed in relief and smiled.

“Thank the Gods for that.”

“No. Thank you, my love.”

*****

“One brother left the world full of hate, while the other left it with a smile. He knew the one he loved most was safe.”

Amazingly, her inquisitive child had remained silent through the entire story. It did not last long.

“What happened to the city? What about the Queen and her child?”

“The guards who had fought and won in the throne room sent out messengers to detain any guards that prevented the citizens from saving their city. Much of it was razed because of the summer drought, as some guards had chosen fire to destroy the city. The sudden rainfall helped, and people used the water they had been saving to put out the larger fires the rain could not douse.”

She paused, but her daughter pressed her further.

“I know the Queen did not stay. The throne is currently held by a Seneschal.”

The mother nodded.

“Correct. The Queen fled the capital and has not been seen since. The Seneschal holds the throne until she can be found, and the royal line reinstated with the Captain’s, Conlan’s, heir.”

Her daughter gave her a considering look well beyond her years, but said nothing. As her daughter turned her face upward to the stars, the mother knew she was seeking the brightest one.

“I think the brightest star is Conlan.”

The mother could only smile.

“Me, too. Now it is time to sleep.”

Lilliana lay back on her bed, yawning.

“Good night, mother.”

“Good night, child.”

Her daughter closed soft blue eyes, the color of spring. The mother kissed the golden curls on the crown of her daughter’s head, and left the room.

The mother walked out the front door, and leaned against the stone of the cottage. As she found the brightest star in the sky, her smile held less sadness than it had on other nights like this. Though tears still streamed down her face, they were happy, and she knew he was watching.

“Thank you, my love.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It Ends with a Teardrop, Part One

It Ends with a Teardrop, Part One

Part One

The quiet countryside was still warm from the summer sun, though night had settled over the land a turn ago. A small cottage was tucked against a copse of trees. The wooden shutters were open to allow the light breeze through, and leaning out one of the windows was a small girl.

Standing on a mattress filled with straw so she could reach the sill with her elbows, a tiny chin rested in the palms of her delicate hands. This was how her mother found her: serious eyes turned toward a sky the color of pitch, and gazing at the cold, white light of the countless stars overhead.

She shook her head with a small, secret smile mothers discover after they have children. The one where they know a child is misbehaving, but they still find amusement in the child’s actions. She moved into the room and tucked the folds of her skirt beneath her as she sat on the bed, and crossed her ankles loosely.

“You were sent to bed half a turn ago, Lilliana, so why is it I have found you still awake?” The mother smoothed her skirt over her legs as she spoke, but the sound of her voice did not turn the child’s gaze from the heavens.

“What are stars, mother?”

The question did not catch her off guard the way it might for others; she was used to her daughter asking such things out of the blue.
“An old soul, that one is,” the healer who lived in the village told her once. “Just like her Da.”

The healer was the only one in the village whom the mother had confided in about her daughter and herself. Though she suspected the others in the village weren’t fooled.

The memory sent an ache through her chest, and though she knew it would never fade, she welcomed the pain and the memories that came with it. Such was life. Sorrow and happiness, locked in a dance as eternal as the sky her daughter surveyed.

“The Academias say stars are made of rocks that burn for hundreds of years, until the flames consume them completely, or they fall to the earth.”

Saying nothing for a few heartbeats, Lilliana finally shifted her eyes to look at her mother over her shoulder.

“That is not what you believe.” The insight sent a slight shock through the mother, and she could only answer with the truth as she believed it.

“No, I do not. I believe the old Sages; that stars are made from the souls of our history’s greatest warriors, heroes, and kings.”

A sudden grin spread over the child’s face, like the sun breaking through rain-heavy clouds.

“I think so, too.”

The girl jumped around and landed cross-legged on the bed beside her mother, and the sudden shift in behavior made her mother laugh.

“Who do you think is the person who made the brightest star?”

Pursing her lips, the mother frowned down at the child. “You have had your sleep-time story for tonight, Lilliana Constance. It is time for you to put your head to pillow and rest.”

The pensive child in front of her a moment ago was gone, and instead she had one closer to a normal youth of seven years.

“Please, mama, please!” Lilliana begged, clasping her hands together in front of her in supplication.

The mother laughed softly once more and acceded. “Alright, but after this you must go to your rest for the night.”

“Promise!”

Lilliana settled down for a story, but as her mother began the words held a weight of sadness to them.

“You wish to know who the brightest star in the sky is? Then I shall tell you what I believe. Do you know why the coming Summer Solstice is a day of solemn reflection for the morning, and celebration at night?”

“Because of the mad King, Gerhard, who ruled the land through insanity, fear, and misery, was struck down by his Captain of the Guard, Conlan, on the Summer Solstice of the year I was born.”

Her mother gave a solemn nod. The words were rote, recited back to the mother as though they were in a schoolhouse.

“Yes, that is true. What people forget, though, is that Conlan and Gerhard were brothers. The older one the King, and the younger one the Captain.”

Lilliana’s eyes widened. She had never heard this before.

“He killed his own brother? Was it not hard for him to do?”

“It was the hardest decision he ever had to make, and he did not come to it lightly. The day he killed his elder brother was the day the King set the guard to destroy the capitol by any means necessary—along with all the people living there.”

The child’s face grew stricken, and her voice distressed as the next question came. “Why? Why would the King do such a thing? And why would his guard go through with it?”

The mother had known this question would come some day, but wishing for more time before having to answer was foolish. Taking in a deep breath, she looked out to the stars and said nothing for a moment.

“Tell me the story, please?”

“You are up far beyond when you are supposed to be, so I shall only tell you of the Burning Day.”

“Sounds fair,” Lilliana agreed. The mother shook her head at her daughter, but began the story.

“It all started in the afternoon…

The royal gardens were usually a lovely place to sit in the summer, with the dappled shade from the trees dancing on the stone benches and grass. This particular summer, on the other hand, seemed to have spawned from the fiery abyss of the Underworld.

Leaves that were usually lush and green hung dead and brown from the branches. Instead of making sweet music in the cool breeze, they rustled ominously in the hot wind. Like whispers of the long-ago royal dead who used to walk the very same paths.

The Queen sat on a bench beneath one of the larger trees in the garden, near the back, southern wall. She was attempting to read a book, but was stuck with the same line repeating meaninglessly in her mind. In her state of deep contemplation on matters other than the book, she did not hear the approach of heavy boots crunching dried leaves beneath them.

“I thought with my dear brother’s suspicions growing more noticeable, you wanted to cease contact for a time.”

The Captain’s kind, soft voice startled the Queen out of her thoughts, and she spun toward the man she had grown to love.

As the unhelpful breeze blew through the parched grasses, it moved the golden, sweat-soaked curls on Conlan’s head. A subdued smile played on the Queen’s parched lips, and she scooted down the bench to make room for the Captain.

“Yes, and I still believe it to be a wise decision. However, something has come up and I fear it cannot wait; not even another day.”

Conlan slid onto the bench next to the Queen, and uneasiness began to slide through his stomach.

The Queen closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and opened them to look at his breathtaking blue eyes. The King’s were a pale, cold imitation of his younger brother’s; with no feeling left to them except malicious desires. Conlan’s were the hue of the first warm spring sky after a harsh winter.

“I have not had my bleeding time in three moon cycles.”

Her words sent a flurry of emotions running through the Captain’s mind and heart that took his breath away.

“Truly?”

She bit her lip to try and restrain the relieved smile, but it was having none of that. Lifting his hand to cup the side of her face gently, the Queen held it in place and turned so she could breathe in the scent of him. Leather, sweat, polish for his armor, and beneath it all the scent that had no words but ‘his’. Combined, they could comfort her even at the worst moments.

“Yes.”

He knew his brother had not been to the Queen’s bed in some time, except to exorcise his anger upon her flesh. The child was Conlan’s, for sure.

The sudden rush of joy was soon tempered by sadness, followed quickly by fear.

“He is going to have us both executed if he discovers this,” he said, voice quiet. A sick feeling making its way to his heart as he thought of the King.

Bitter tears welled in her honey brown eyes, and as a single tear fell he shifted his hand to wipe it from her cheek.

“I know,” she whispered, and her voice held so many emotions it seemed impossible.

There was no other choice for them now.

“We must find a way to leave this place.”

Her words were simple and true, but he knew there was more to it than that. With the madness taking more of his brother’s mind each day, he would not rest until they were both dead. The entire kingdom would suffer for this.

Then there was the fact he was torn between his love for the woman next to him, and his King. No matter what, he was still his older brother. Even though his hope that his brother would someday return dwindled each day.

“I need a few days to think on this,” he said, moving his hand away from the Queen, fingertips lingering on her cheek.

She nodded. “We have a few days, yet, but not many.”

“I understand.”

Taking her hand in his, he bowed and brushed soft lips across the back of her hand. With that, he turned and left the gardens, his Queen watching him leave. Both wondered how they were going to do this.

Not far from where the Queen sat, a malicious shadow slipped away, and all but skipped directly to the King.

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It Ends with a Teardrop, Part II