Branch wasn’t always a tree, but he couldn’t remember a time when he wasn’t a tree or a treeman at least. He wasn’t a Floran, no no! He wasn’t one of those mindless nitwits that babbled incessantly about Mother Tree and frolicked in the forests straight to the slave markets of Tyrantium. No, he was a treeman and he was more than willing to remind people that there was a difference. Branch had been alive for hundreds of years and killed more people than he had seen days. He wasn’t proud of it, but it was the kind of treeman he was. Well, maybe he was a little proud of it. Hell, it was the reason Mirella had hired him and that was why he’d decided to come. It wasn’t every day that you got to kill a titan.
Well, that had been the reason to begin with.
Mirella had changed that, all of it.
She was pale skinned and idealistic, not in a noble and altruistic way, but the surefooted, determined kind of way that was so hot to Branch. The way she flipped her maple colored hair and her green eyes burned with just enough magic to truly make her seem otherworldly and not gaudy. She was the kind of sorceress that made his special places tingle without shooting lightning at him. His beating heart might have stopped long ago, but when he placed his fingers to his bark coated chest, he swore he could feel something deep down inside of him.
That was why it hurt so much to tell her that she was being a damned fool. They had sailed around that island and they had gotten their asses handed to them and that was with a ship full of Forlorn Centurions with their ornate, silver armor with white wings flanking their heads, and beaks on their pauldrons. They’d looked so damn cool until the blood started to gurgle out over their fancy armor and the screams started filling the air. They’d barely gotten out of there and she wanted to go back.
“Mirella, listen to me,” Branch said—no, it was pleading territory that they were in now. She was so squishy with her creamy skin, spattered with those adorable freckles and he’d already seen blood run over those pink, pouty lips of hers. He didn’t want to see her die, even if she never saw him as anything more than a spruce with a bad attitude. “You. Are. Going. To. Die!” He emphasized the words, framing them with his hands.
“Don’t get in my way, Branch,” she said angrily.
“Just listen to me for a second!” Branch grabbed her hand. She recoiled at the feel of his bark covered palms on her wrists and she turned around, pointing her wand at his chest. Branch let go of her and took a few steps back on the shore of the beach while the others were dressing their wounds and pretending like they weren’t watching the love struck tree trying to help the beautiful Magician find reason. “Just hear me out,” Branch said softly in his strange voice that almost sounded human.
“We are going back and finishing the mission,” Mirella shouted.
“Okay, we could do that,” Branch said. “Or, we can cut our losses and head back to Illythia and fight the greater good there, do the whole Forlorn Centurion thing there. I don’t want to see you die.”
“Branch, don’t,” Mirella shook her head at the softness of his voice, of the unspoken feeling that was swirling through his cocky, sure-fool voice. “Don’t make this about something it’s not. We vowed to see the mission through or death. You were paid to assist. If you find the risk outweighing the payment you were promised, then you’re free to stay. I’m sure you’ll find a way off this island eventually.”
“I’m not here for the money,” Branch said. “Well, I was, but can’t you realize that I’m not here for that anymore.” Branch saw the look in her eyes, her eyes that had been so fierce and so fiery seconds ago melted into something like embarrassment, discomfort. She blinked and her eyes darted over to the lifeboats rested and the Centurions were pretending not to be fully engulfed in the shouting match. Branch felt like an idiot, a big, stupid, wooden idiot as he blinked himself and took a step back.
Of course she didn’t find him attractive. She didn’t find the glowing moss that made him feel like a lantern at night alluring. She didn’t like the moss that armored his body or the way his eyes were a burning green or that moss that got lodged in the back of his throat and caused his mouth to glow as well. She didn’t want him the way he wanted her. How could she? He was a tree, more so than he was a man. For hundreds of years, Branch had avoided this feeling, this lure that lurked in his mind, but Mirella had been different. She had matched the fire that was inside of him, threw back as good as he gave, and made him feel like there was a decent human out there after all. He should never have looked for more.
“Branch,” Mirella said. She shook her head, the look on her face twisting the dagger that he’d already plunged into his own gut. “You are a really great person, you’re funny, and witty, and you’re one hell of a killer, but no.”
“Forget it,” Branch said. “Forget I said anything. The point is, you take us back there, all of you are dead and probably me too. It’ll be beautiful, but that was a lot of Vark. Plus, look at Johan! Huh? Look at him! He’s not leaving this island.”
“No, he probably won’t,” Mirella’s fire blossomed in her voice again.
“What?” Johan cried from the palm tree he was under.
“Stay out of this, Johan,” Branch shouted. “Mirella, drop this hero thing and do what’s right. You’re not destined by the gods or sealed by fate, you’re just a stubborn girl who is going to get all of her men killed.”
“Hey, let’s settle down,” Berrus started walking toward them, always the voice of reason in a group of hotheaded killers.
“Stay out of this, Berrus!” Branch and Mirella shouted in unison.
Berrus froze and shook his head before heading back down the island’s lone hill to the shore.
Branch looked at Mirella and met her scowl with one of his own. “I’ve seen a lot of people die, Mirella. You don’t have to be one of them.”
“We will kill the beast and we will return home because it is what must be done,” Mirella answered.
“And they’ll throw flower petals and call you a hero back in your comfy court,” Branch waved his wooden fingertips. “Wake up, Mirella. This is the real world. This is the price of all those fancy poems and ballads. They’re all written in blood of men who stuck behind a stubborn leader and never saw tomorrow. Being remembered as a hero is overrated.”
Mirella was silent, her arms wrapped around her ribs where the thick leather bodice had already been pierced once. It had been so sleek and fashionable when they set sail on their voyage, but it was now scratched and cut all over. Her boots were muddy and caked with the blood of men that had believed in her. Her wand tapped the belt at her hip with an empty dagger sheath.
“Your services are no longer required, Branch,” she said sourly.
“Like hell they’re not,” Branch smoldered with rage. She could run to the ends of the earth, but Branch would be hot on her trail. She could try and leave him on this island, but wood could float. He’d just swim all the way to the island and save her ass a second time before they all died. There was nothing that could stop him. If she wouldn’t see reason, then he would make her. “You’re coming—”
He reached out his hand to grab her and barely saw the flash of the wand before everything went dark.
They left Branch on the island, frozen with his hand stretched out to grab her, to stop her from making the most foolish decision of her life, the decision that would end her life and the lives of all the men that Branch had gotten drunk with, had laughed with, had faced horrors with, and had shared a peaceful silence of the journey with. The tide came in and the tide went out, Branch’s dark eyes staring out to sea as they sailed back to the ship and raised the anchor, making their repairs and readying for a final assault.
The island was silent, except for the wind and the waves lapping at the sandy shores as the treeman stood on the sandy hill next to a pile of stubborn stones that slowly shrank as the sun rose and the sun set endlessly. The few trees that he looked over rustled their fronds and Branch kept silent as the wind howled and it was on a few occasions that the Wind itself would come to the island and sit under the shade of the treeman as saplings grew from his shoulders and back, from his outstretched arm and from the top of his head. Wayward visitors would sometimes find themselves on the shores of the tiny island, gathering coconuts and marveling at the treeman before returning to their islands to tell of his life. While the years rolled by, Branch stayed there, frozen as he tried to save the woman he had loved.
And the woman never returned.