Curian and Sophia backtracked slowly along the path to the Orcish encampment, the sun still exactly where it was overhead.
“Wonder how long we were there,” Curian muttered as she constantly scanned the trees for any signs of movement. Kil’Gronn had warned the Treants were excellent at remaining unseen until they wished to be observed, and that by then it was often too late.
“Keep your wits about you,” Sophia chided.
Sophia replied with a mock salute.
“Soph, your head’s full of knowledge,” Curian said. “Where would we be looking for this ol’ Treefellow’s ashes?”
“Elderbark,” Sophia corrected. “Treant burial mourning and burial practices vary from grove to grove, so I can’t say for sure. Since we’re looking for the remains of one of their leaders, however, I’d say we’ve got quite a challenge ahead of us.”
Curian sighed. “I was worried you’d say something like that,” she said. She paused, holding a hand out to stop Sophia. She pointed to a between two trees flanking the path. A slim branch shifted gently, its motions mimicking a light breeze blowing through.
Sophia nodded. “We’re not alone, that much isn’t in question. What is it they’re waiting for, I wonder.”
Curian stroked her chin. “I’ve got an idea,” she whispered to Sophia. She turned to face the moving branch and offered a silent thumbs-up to Sophia.
“Hey, you! Shady pine over there!” Curian shouted. “What’s your plan for us once you’re done watching?”
“Subtlety isn’t something you pride yourself in, is it?” Sophia asked, eyes fixed on the now-stationary branch.
“When it counts, sure,” Curian said, smiling.
“A question you’ve asked, an answer you’ll receive,” rumbled a voice from among the trees behind Sophia and Curian. They turned around as the trees parted. Two Treants stomped their way into view, their faces worn by the elements but not beyond the point of recognition.
They did not look pleased.
“Crush these intruders now and leave their remains for the Orcs to find,” said the one Treant. It was the slightly shorter of the two, its bark dense and covered in callous-like knots. A dense tangle of vines fell from its canopy.
The other Treant, taller and lanky, its trunk and branches slender and stripped of much of their bark, made a grumbling sound. “These are no Orcs, no, but what curious creatures. An elf and a….”
Curian sighed. “Half-dwarf,” she said.
“Oh, how delightful,” the taller Treant replied. “I used to hear about Dwarven-kind all of the time from my saplings along the mountains.” They turned to the shorter Treant and gestured to Curian and Sophia with a long branch.
“Intruders,” the other one snapped back. “And we watched them go along with the Orcs.”
“As prisoners. Isn’t that what you saw earlier, Gnarlroot?”
A rumble issued from the other side of the trail, and a third Treant stomped into view. It grumbled and rumbled, moss-ringed eyes fixed on Curian as if it were looking through her.
“I do not trust this one,” Gnarlroot said. “She is an abomination.”
Curian clenched her fists and her sides. She inhaled deeply and let her breath out slowly, between clenched teeth. Sophia placed a hand on her shoulder. Curian flinched, almost imperceptibly, and Sophia took a step back.
“You look like a tree that’s seen its fair share of bird droppings,” Curian said. “Birds who like berries, I’d bet.”
The two Treants were silent, their focus fixed on Gnarlroot, whose expression remained impossible to read.
After a painfully long silence, Gnarlroot let out a low, long sound. It was like a persistent breeze dragging fine branches against a cliff wall. The other two Treants joined in.
“Oh, thank the Gods,” Curian muttered. “They’re laughing.”
Gnarl root leaned forward, its face taking up most of Curian’s field of vision. “Why are you free, little ones? What did you give to the Orcs in exchange for you release?”
“They told us a story and let us go,” Curian said.
“Liar!” snapped the shorter Treant.
Curian tensed. “I’m not lying,” she replied, taking a step back only to bump into the towering leg of the taller Treant.
“Then tell the rest of it,” the taller Treant instructed. “We can tell if you’re not being honest.”
Sophia snapped her fingers. “That’s right, how could I have forgotten,” she said. “Treants can detect deception easily as they can sense changes in breathing.”
“Hearts beat faster at the thrill of a lie,” Gnarlroot grumbled. “You’re not lying, I don’t think, but you’re not telling the whole story. Tell, or I’ll let Burlknot punish you.”
“I’d like that,” the shorter Treant, Burlknot, said, clenching and unfurling the thick, dense branches of its hands.
“A question first,” Curian said. “Fair?”
Gnarlroot straightened up, looking skyward for a moment. “Perhaps. Yes, I suppose that would be fair. What is your question?”
“No story has just one way of telling,” Curian said. “What’s the Treant side of how things played out between Elderbark and Kil’Gronn?”
Gnarlroot grumbled and rumbled. “A story our ancestors have passed down, muddied by time,” Gnarlroot said. “The Orcs arrived on the eve of longest day, their numbers few. They paid no attention to our kind, as if they knew not of our presence.”
Gnarlroot waved a mighty branch through the air, and a dense curtain of pollen fell. Shapes moved through it, dark outlines easily visible amid the particles. A line of small figures moved through a miniature representation of the forest. The trees, many of which Treants, watched the Orcs silently. One Treant loomed taller and mightier than the others. It watched the Orcs closely, following after them from a distance.
The Orcs gradually slowed to a stop. They spoke to each other, animated in their gestures but with no words. One Orc stepped forward, a mighty spear in hand, and the other Orcs knelt down and gave him their undivided attention. They began to craft simple huts from mud and fallen branches.
The shapes sped along in the pollen, Gnarlroot waving its branch to add to the pollen occasionally.
The Orcs began to cut down trees.
“The Orcs cut down trees at first, and then they came for Treants,” Gnarlroot said. “Elderbark, the first of our kind to spring forth from the soil of this forest, would not stand idly by. They confronted the Orcs, asking that they simply take no more than they need.”
The Orcs grew darker amid the pollen, outlines of weapons becoming clearer. Some, however, wielded clubs surrounded by pollen with an ethereal glow. The glow spread from the clubs to anything they touched, and soon the pollen was gone.
“The Orcs caused much destruction that day,” Gnarlroot said. “It was only once their foul leader, Gronn the Terrible, was felled that we could find peace. Or so our ancestors had thought.”
Sophia stepped forward. “I’m beginning to think I understand,” she said. “I wonder if there may be a way to help both you and the Orcs, but I suspect it will be no small feat.”
Gnarlroot leaned down, closer once again. “And just why would that be, do you think?” they asked.
“I believe,” Sophia replied, “that your kind and the Orcs would have to work together.”
A rustling sound came from the underbrush. Orcs rushed forth, weapons at the ready. Kil’Gronn emerged, a broadsword held effortlessly in one hand.
“We would sooner die than ally ourselves with these murderous trees!” Kil’Gronn shouted.
Burlknot roared with laughter. “Allow me to make that a reality!”