The shopkeepers from the Halcyon Fold tell a fearsome tale …
RISE OF THE TREANTS
The megadillo squeaked when she yawned.
“Wake up,” snapped Tor, leading the pack beast through the thick jungle. The monsoon storm had given way to a hot sun that weighed the humidity down and made sweat itch under his fur. There was only time to sap a few trees before the day’s air shipment landed and with it, mercenaries and thrill-seekers dead-set on killing each other.
“No good being in the way,” Tor announced to the megadillo as he drilled a shallow hole into the trunk of a twisted tree and hammered a spile inside. The healing crimson sap turned the tube red and dripped into the jug. “The only way to win a war is to profit from it. Those self-proclaimed heroes sink all their gold into shattery glasses, bows, guns, armor, shields and pointy blades, then splat! face-down in the red mud.”
The megadillo sneezed and flumped her weight down, rattling the merchandise on her back.
“You break any potions, you pay for them,” he lectured, and the megadillo opened one big moony eye. “These are my biggest sellers and I’m saving up to retire. Somewhere far north, I think. Never sweat again.”
A crashing thump startled him out of his one-sided conversation. The jungle splintered apart as another megadillo crashed through, leaves sticking to her horns, red dirt kicking up under her claws. It slid to a halt by Tor’s packbeast and dug, slopping red mud everywhere. On its saddle was Koot, Tor’s brother, pulling hard on the reins with one paw, holding his cap aright with the other. Tor’s spile shook loose from the hole, spitting sap onto the ground.
“Imbecile!” squeaked Tor, yanking the jug up before it tips. “That’s a hundred gold that just spilt everywhere.”
“Trees!” gasped Koot, pointing over his shoulder, heaving for breath.
“Yes, ingrate, these are trees,” said Tor, shoving the spile back into place.
A second crash came from the other direction. Tor flinched as Dak’s megadillo clawed to a halt. “The trees!” he shouted.
“The two of you have gone blathering mad,” said Tor. “Mother always said you two couldn’t handle this island. It’s high time I took over this enterprise.”
“TREES!” yelped Dak, this time pointing one long claw, and a tree appeared… walked! up behind Koot, its roots trailing behind. Another tree moved up behind Dak, its branches swiping through the air, a stained spile dangling from its trunk. A ball of terror formed in Tor’s throat. His dreams of a cold white north faded.
Koot kicked his heels into his megadillo’s sides to no avail; she had her head underground up to the neck. Dak wailed and yanked the reins, but megadillos don’t corner fast. Tor watched in horror as his youngest brother was scooped up by what had been a tree branch but was right then… a hand.
“Drop him, you crazed tree-beast!” cried Tor.
A great yawning sigh sounded behind him; he turned in slow motion horror. A thin twig from his tree curled round his dripping spile and yanked it out. With painful-sounding cracks, the branches of the tree wound together to form arms. Eyes and mouths opened wide, spilling out green energy; a roar sounded from its glowing maw.
A whistle, a thud, and a blinding flash surprised the tree. It swung its branching head long enough for Tor to roll away, his tongue thick and dry with panic; he swung up onto his megadillo by her horns and looked back. Koot, howling with murderous delight atop his pack beast, shot another flare from a mounted contraption. The nearest walking tree grabbed up Koot and roared in his face.
Tor leaned hard on the megadillo’s reins, kick-kick-kicking at her for his life.
A snore and a dream-shudder rumbled up from the exhausted pack beast.
“Wake up!” screamed Tor, and the three mutant trees who’d been poked their last turned their glowy gazes square onto him.
Stupid Dak! Stupid Koot! Useless! Wiggling like helpless caught fish. Tor rummaged in a panic through his merchandise, tossing out boots and clanking pauldrons and handfuls of candy until, just as the yap of the treant blew its sickening hot breath on him, he felt the sharp teeth of the bonesaw, and then the pull-cord …
“…That’s not how it went,” says Koot, his arms crossed.
Dak pokes his marshmallow-laden stick into the campfire, then blows out the sticky flame. “Let him tell it. Nobody believes he killed three treants with a bonesaw anyway.”
“They believe him!” Koot waves toward the crowd of minions, their ears perked, shoulders hunched, wide eyes on Tor, gnawing on whole bags full of raw marshmallows in their terror.
Tor shakes his head at his rapt audience. “My brothers do not like to admit that I saved their lives.”
“It was I who shot them through the eyes with the Tension Bow,” insists Koot.
“Ludicrous!” shouts Dak. “You held the bow backwards and the Bonesaw is twice Tor’s size. I threw down the Fountain of Renewal…”
“…and you all ran.”
Minions and brothers alike swivel to look to the deep, rumbling, slow voice that creeps in from the dark where the firelight doesn’t reach. A treant, tall as the moon, shuffles into the circle a safe distance from the fire. “They ran and ran, crying like willows. Even left a poor ‘dillo behind with her head stuck in the ground. I dug her out good as new.” He curls his twig fingers around a handful of marshmallows and drops them into his mouth. His sticky chewing and the popping fire are the only sounds while the minions peer with disappointment at the three brothers.
“I didn’t cry,” mumbles Dak.
“Me either,” mutters Koot. “I never cry.”
“I might’ve cried a bit,” says Tor, shoulders sagging with shame, and the treant rests one comforting branch on the merchant’s shoulder, and the minions fall into sugary, snoring dreams one by one.