The trees looked normal enough. Not that Elle was paying close attention to them since she was, in fact, busy running away from the sheriff, but nothing seemed odd about the long, thin trunks or the even thinner branches garbed with thick green leaves that bumped against her face. She slapped another one away before it could obstruct her vision and tried not to slip on any of the smooth stones lining the path.
No monsters. Maybe the legend was a lie.
“Thief!” Sheriff Remington shouted behind her. A gunshot split the air, and the tree to her right splintered, shooting jagged shards of wood into its surroundings.
She turned on her heel and moved to the right, slipping through long, wavy grass that looked like it belonged in a prairie rather than a forest. The grass squished beneath her feet, and she almost tripped. Strange. Most grass made a crunching noise, especially prairie grass.
Well, the grass did bear a strange bluish tint . . .
Oh, come on, Elle. You’re seeing things.
“Just turn around, and we’ll go easy on you.” The sheriff’s voice sounded like it was farther away than the last time, at least. Maybe she’d been able to throw him off her trail. “You know you can’t beat the Wooded Sea.”
Sure she couldn’t. It was just some dumb forest, not a sea-turned-forest like the locals claimed. You heard a lot of weird tales in each town you went to, but this was definitely the weirdest. At least soon she’d be out of this nuthole with thirty gold coins to call her own.
“You can’t hide!”
Even farther away than last time. She slowed to a walk and pressed her hand against her satchel, feeling to make sure none of her precious cargo had escaped. No time to count the coins, but the weight seemed to indicate that they were all present.
Her lungs burning, she leaned against a tree. Her elbow practically sank into the moist wood, and she jerked away with a start. Bark wasn’t supposed to do that.
No, it was just a trick of the imagination. But she couldn’t rest for long––not because of strange monsters but because of a very real monster, Sheriff Remington. Why couldn’t she have been more careful with the robbery? She’d gotten too cocky, blown the banker a kiss, lingered in the shop a little too long, and some bystander had the nerve to call the sheriff. Well, she’d get out of it, just like she always did. No gunslinging sheriff could stop her.
“You appear to be lost.”
Elle almost jumped out of her sweat-soaked skin. When had he gotten here?––he being a tall, shirtless young man with deep-set, piercing eyes. Hold up––was his hair silver? How old was he, anyway?
That didn’t matter. What mattered was getting away from the stranger as quickly as possible. She sprinted in the other direction, only to hear Remington yell, “There you are!”
Elle swore under her breath and ran faster through the mess of trees and thick, strangely slick leaves that she kept having to bat away.
She slammed right into the same man she’d been running away from. Swearing, she whipped out her gun and tried to catch her breath. How did he get here so fast––?
“Tree teleportation,” he said. “Yes, it’s real. No, you can’t do it. Only the Arbren can.”
Her desire to run dissipated. “What did you say?” He was––an Arbren? A person of the trees, rumored to inhabit the Wooded Sea, possibly immortal.
No. They were just a part of the legend.
Footsteps crunched leaves behind her. A loud thump, and then swearing––someone must’ve slipped on one of the smooth stones lining the path. “I have to go,” she blurted, but her feet stayed planted on the leaf-ridden ground.
The Arbren, or whatever he was, nodded in the direction of the footsteps. Did his hair have a bluish tint, or was that a trick of the light streaming through the leaves? “If you want to get away from them, you might want to follow me.”
Because of course following a stranger into strange woods was a good plan. Elle fingered her satchel, feeling the gold coins that had put her into this predicament. Remington and his men would arrive any moment.
“Fine,” she said. “Just to get me away from the sheriff––and get me back to civilization too.” She waved the gun at him just in case it wasn’t clear what would happen if he didn’t keep his word.
“Of course.” His lips curled in a slow smile. “But what’s in it for me?”
“I don’t know. Can’t we figure this out later?” Any moment now, the sheriff would burst through the trees and arrest her.
“If you insist,” he said. “But the price may be steeper than you realize.”
What was that supposed to mean?
The man practically melted into the trees. Hadn’t he said something about tree transportation, whatever that was supposed to mean? No, now she saw––he was just farther into the forest. Shoving her gun back into its holster, she raced after him and away from the sheriff.
This might just be the dumbest thing you’ve ever done, Elle Uriah. But what other choice did she have?
He spoke without turning around. “The name is Coryn. And yours?”
She just kept moving. You couldn’t be too careful with who you shared your information with, especially if that person claimed to be a magical tree-man. Could the Arbren turn into trees? She couldn’t remember. Not that Arbren existed, but the legend––what did it say about the Arbren? She hadn’t been in Aisling long enough to know.
“If you don’t tell me, I will either be forced to call you random names or refer to you simply as ‘girl.’ I don’t think you would wish either.”
She scowled, though he couldn’t see because his back was turned. I’m twenty, thank you kindly. “I’m Elle.”
“Like the letter?”
She rolled her eyes. “No, like the name.”
“You humans have strange names.”
Humans? He was taking this too far. “Okay, listen up. I’m done with your magical-being act, so you’d better quit or you’ll be tasting a bullet.”
The way he said it was so nonchalant, so straightforward that she almost stopped. “Well. You can’t actually be an Arbren because they don’t exist.”
“Is that so? Then how did I get to you so quickly when you fled?”
Well. There was that. She scowled deeper. “You’re quick, I reckon. Arbren––they don’t exist.”
“So you think I’m a figment of your imagination?”
“Not that. Just––the Arbren are part of the legend.”
“Who says it’s a legend?”
“Of course it is. Seas are seas, and forests are forests. They can’t become the other.”
“Perhaps in your mortal mind.”
Could he actually be serious about having immortality? “If you’re immortal, then can I shoot you?”
Now he stopped to level her with his pale, piercing eyes. “What a ridiculous question.”
So he could be killed.
“We have more important things to do, such as figuring out the price of your request––”
A rumbling split the air, and Elle scrambled to grab her gun. “What was that?”
“Oh, that’s just the buck’s mating call.”
Her eyebrows tugged together. “Deer have a mating call?”
“Formerly whales,” he said. “Harmless, don’t worry.”
“I wasn’t worried,” she snapped. “Now would you––?” The words died in her throat.
A creature emerged from the trees, its legs the size of one of the trunks around it, mussed gray fur covering its enormous torso. Its dark eyes, the size of plates, peered down at them.
“Formerly whales.” Her mouth wouldn’t shut. It did look like a deer––an enormous gray deer that was capable of crushing her beneath its hoof.
“They’re harmless,” Coryn repeated.
This time, she clung to that assurance. “If you say so. Why is it staring at us?”
“It’s staring at you,” he said. “They’re not used to seeing humans here.”
“Ah. Good to know I’m the endangered species.” Giant deer. Okay. Squishy bark, people who used the trees to travel . . .
Was it really a sea?
The giant deer shrieked and bounded in their direction. Elle froze. The hoof almost clipped her in the head as it leaped onto the grass behind her. She tried to breathe. Now you calm down. You’re alive. Don’t go overreacting in front of the stranger. “I reckon the deer was afraid of us,” she said. “My reputation travels farther than I thought.”
Coryn didn’t answer, just took off after the deer. Frowning, Elle ran after him. “You could give me some warning, you know,” she called. “And why are we following the deer?”
“We’re not.” He branched off from the deer’s path.
The gold-laden bag thumped against Elle’s side. “Then why are we running?”
“You run when you are being chased,” Coryn said.
She whipped her head around. A large slate-gray wolf followed her, close enough that she could see its pale yellow eyes. Adrenaline shot a new burst of energy into her legs, and she sprinted after Coryn. Swears tumbled through her brain. Curse this wood. Curse this town. If she ever made it out alive, she was getting out of Aisling as soon as possible.
Coryn made a sharp turn and disappeared. She kept running. Maybe she could find her way back to Aisling herself––
An agonized grunt caught her attention, and she turned. Coryn and the wolf were crushed against each other. Then a root snagged her foot, and she toppled forward, the pliant wood a pillow for her stomach. Grunting, she scrambled to her feet in case she had to run––but instead, the wolf hobbled away, favoring one of its paws.
We’re alive! She moved back toward the still-seated Coryn. “Not harmless, huh?”
“No. Former sharks,” he said. “Not the nicest creatures in the wood. I’ve known them for centuries, and still they won’t behave.”
“Did you say centuries?” How old was this guy, anyway?
His eyes found hers for a moment before they flicked away. He looked pretty good for someone who was centuries old––silver hair, yes, but flawless skin. If that was what immortality did to you, she wanted it.
He got to his feet with a barely hidden grimace. Claw-marks on his bare stomach spurted a silver substance––was that blood?
She swore. “Are you going to die? Should I get a healer?” Not that she cared much about the Arbren, but he must have doubled back so he could attack the wolf––to save her. Which was greatly appreciated. Didn’t mean she didn’t want to be back in civilization as soon as possible.
He shook his head. The wound kept dripping and dripping––she’d seen a wound like that before. On a soon-to-be-dead man. Though, of course, the blood had been red. “Coryn. You need a healer.”
“Don’t worry about it.” He walked forward smoothly, as if he didn’t have a mortal wound. “Let’s just get you back to Aisling.”
“But––you should be dead.” Her mouth gaped.
“Immortality, Elle,” he said.
“But you wouldn’t let me shoot you!”
He rolled his eyes. “I don’t wish to be shot. That’s why I refused. I have never felt a bullet and have no wish to do so.”
“But you wouldn’t die!”
“That’s not the point, Elle.” He shook his head and began walking. Out of habit, she followed.
Where is he taking me now? After he’d saved her life, she almost . . . trusted him. Huh. The wood must be doing something strange to her brain.
The satchel thumped against her side, reminding her of the reason she was here in the first place. Hopefully Sheriff Remington had given up on finding a simple thief like her.
She smirked. Simple. Right. But that was what others believed.
They walked back through the Wooded Sea without much difficulty––a few animals here and there, but they seemed normal and friendly. “A former fish,” Coryn said about a rabbit. “I don’t know the exact kind.” The long wavy grass, he revealed, had been seaweed. The remains of a house lay at the end of the trees––The end of the trees! Civilization! Now she could escape this strange little town and find somewhere else to rob.
“Hey, thanks for the help, but I have to––”
“Elle.” The word dropped from Coryn’s lips with a strange impact. She gazed up at his ancient face. Pale eyes pierced hers. “I have done more than enough for you,” he said. “Time for you to pay the price.”
Right. She’d almost forgotten about that. “All right. What do I owe you?” Her stomach clenched. Not her coins.
Elle backed away swiftly, looking toward the treeline. He was quick, but could he beat her out of the forest? Why had she agreed to a deal with a magical tree-man?
“I don’t mean that I’m going to kill you.” He shook his head slightly. “I saved your life. Why would I want to kill you now?”
Her heartbeat started to slow.
“I mean that I want your mortality. Your limits. Your end.”
“You mean––you want to die?” Should she be concerned?
“Eventually,” he said. “Not at this very moment. But I want to have an end. It makes you live differently.”
Why? Sometimes Elle dreamed of every person she’d ever cheated surrounding her in a throng, arguing over who got to kill her first. A different person won each time. She always woke up streaked with sweat and made sure she held her gun close for the rest of the night.
“Elle, when this happens, you will become an Arbren and take my place as guardian of the Wooded Sea.”
Yeah, once she got away from him, she’d be out of here. She’d outworn her welcome in Aisling. Hold up . . . “So I’ll be immortal? I won’t be able to die?”
He gave a swift nod.
If she were immortal, did that mean that she couldn’t be killed by Remington––or anyone else, for that matter? Would she even need to eat? Would she ever have to steal again? Well . . . even if she didn’t have to, it was too much fun to give up. No one would be able to stop an immortal.
“How do you know you can take my, uh, mortality? Have you done this before?”
“Because someone took my mortality from me.”
Her mouth clamped shut.
“I was drowning,” Coryn said. “A Merden saved my life and in return took my own mortality.”
Drowning? Hold up. So he was saying that this happened when the forest was a sea? Her eyes lit. If he was a person of the trees, he must’ve been a person of the sea before––if the forest had ever actually been a sea. “You mean you were a merman?”
He scowled. “You humans have such demeaning terms. The term is ‘Merden.’”
A merman. Elle couldn’t help but smirk. “Do you miss your tail?”
“No matter. Tail or legs, they only take you so far.”
What a strange man. He needed to get out into civilization. “Why would you want my mortality? You live forever. That’s pretty darn good.”
He got a faraway, haunted look in his eyes. “I am ready to end.”
Maybe she should be concerned for him.
“Do you accept the terms?” His eyes bored into hers.
“It’s not like I have any other choice, I guess.”
He tilted his head in acknowledgment. “What is your surname?”
“Repeat after me. ‘I, Elle Uriah, gift my mortality to Coryn Tsai.’”
The words slid off her tongue with a tingle. Magic?
“‘I hereby take the form of an Arbren and swear to uphold the Wooded Sea.’”
He didn’t need to know that she wasn’t staying in this forest. So she repeated the words, trying to look as sincere as possible.
“‘I swear this upon the gold that is in my possession.’”
Huh. Strange. She said the words.
Something squeezed her chest––a pinch, though no one was touching her. She frowned. “Coryn––?” Then it was no longer just a pinch but a tearing, like she was losing something precious, something vital. Gasping, she fell to her knees, the satchel swinging. Coryn also winced but stayed in place. His hair darkened to brown, though his skin kept its pale sheen, and his body thinned.
Then strength filled Elle’s limbs, gushing into her like a river, healing the wounds the tearing had left. She pressed her shaking hands against the grass. She felt as though she could do anything––tear one of those trees from the ground, lift a giant deer with one hand. Her braid flopped against her shoulder––silver instead of gold, and she shrieked. Would she now look like an old woman? Then again, Coryn had looked young despite his silver hair.
Still, maybe she could pretend to be an old woman. That would help her gain sympathy from those around her. They wouldn’t expect a weak old woman to steal from them.
Or . . . maybe she didn’t look weak. She gazed at her body, now rife with muscle where there once had been litheness. So that wouldn’t work.
But now . . . I’m one of the Arbren. The realization thrilled through her. I will live forever.
Coryn truly had made a terrible trade. What the bullets did he want mortality for? She would rather not die, thank you very much.
Elle stood, wobbling on her newly-muscular legs. “Thank you,” she said.
Coryn nodded. She almost didn’t recognize him with his dark hair, but the piercing eyes were the same. Silver residue still smeared his bare stomach, but what oozed from his wounds now was red. “The Wooded Forest is now your home,” he said. “I would suggest you take care of it rather than destroy it.”
It wouldn’t be her home for long, but he didn’t have to know that. So she smiled. “Sure thing.”
At the sound of footsteps, she instinctively hid behind a tree. Thief background.
“’Scuse me, kid.”
The voice made her flinch. Sheriff Remington.
“Have you seen a girl, real tall and thin, with a brown satchel?”
He had come for her. She pressed her hand to the satchel, preparing to run––
But wait. She was one of the Arbren now. He couldn’t hurt her.
“No,” Coryn said. “If she went in here, she might never come out. You know what they say about the Wooded Sea.”
“Then why are you in here, son?”
Elle almost snorted. He’s centuries older than you, Remington.
“I thought I’d take a look,” Coryn said. “But I’ve had enough.”
“Looks like you’ve got a real bad wound––”
“Headed to the healer. Sorry, sir. I hope you find her.” Leaves crunched beneath Coryn’s presumably-departing feet.
To see the look on Remington’s face if she stepped out––to see if he recognized her––to see him realize that he couldn’t kill her––now that would be something. Her nails pressed against the squishy bark. Should she do it? Remington’s footsteps joined Coryn’s. Soon he would be out of her reach.
So she stepped away from the tree and held up the satchel. “You looking for this?”
Sheriff Remington whipped out his gun, and she flinched out of habit. “What?” he sputtered. “Who are you? You look––you ain’t natural.”
Coryn, several trees ahead, turned around.
“You don’t recognize me?” Elle jingled the bag full of coins. “You don’t recognize this?”
Coryn shook his head. Why? She couldn’t get––
A bullet slammed into her stomach, and she grunted. White-hot pain sparked and spread throughout the rest of her torso. She clutched the wound. Wasn’t she immortal? It wasn’t supposed to hurt; was it?
Remington kept his gun pointed straight at her. “I don’t know what you are, but I’m going to kill you.”
Coryn slammed into the sheriff from the side––how had he gotten there?––and knocked the gun from the Remington’s hands. Remington howled curses. “I will find you, boy––”
Coryn pressed a knife––who had one of those anymore?––to Remington’s throat, and the sheriff let out a hiss. “I don’t want to hurt you,” Coryn said, “but you need to get out of here. Don’t ever come back to this wood.”
Remington swore again.
“I’m going to take that as a no,” Coryn said.
Elle knelt. When she moved her hands from her wound, they came away smeared with silver. Her eyes widened. Immortal, she reminded herself. You’re immortal.
Maybe this was why Coryn didn’t want her to shoot him.
Coryn slammed the hilt of the knife into the sheriff’s head. Remington slumped.
“He’ll be out for a little while,” Coryn said. “But you do know what this means, don’t you?”
It meant that immortals could still feel pain. They could feel all the agony of bleeding out without the sweet release of death.
Coryn stood. “He will never stop hunting you and our––your––kind.” With that, he moved toward the town.
Elle struggled to her feet. More silver blood gushed from her wound, but it would heal. Coryn said it would. Now dizzy, she stumbled after him. Her stomach screamed with every step. Did she need to remove the bullet? “Hey! You can’t just leave me like this––”
“You did this to yourself, Elle.”
“I didn’t think––you didn’t tell me––”
“You needed to make your own choices. Now, find the others. They will help you.”
“The other Arbren? Uh uh, mister. I’m––” She slammed into a wall, rigid and unmoving––and unseen. Just across the wall was grass, housing, civilization.
Centuries. He said he had been trapped here for centuries. Her mouth dried. No. It’s a dream. I’ll wake up, and I’ll be in my own skin instead of the skin of this strange silvery creature.
She body-slammed the wall, but her newfound strength did nothing. Kicking, yelling, shoving––all she got was bruises and tears. She whipped out her gun. The bullet slammed into the invisible wall and ricocheted, falling to the grass harmlessly.
“You can’t do anything, Elle,” Coryn said from the other side of the wall. “The Arbren cannot leave the forest.”
“Can’t leave––?” Elle kicked the wall again and swore viciously. “You could’ve told me this before you took my mortality!”
“You didn’t ask.”
“It’s not fair! I want it back!”
He didn’t answer. No gold would buy her out of this one. No bribery, no tricks, no games. She, Elle Uriah, had been outwitted.
She pressed her face against the wall and let tears slide against the invisible pane. “Please,” she whispered. “I want it back. I want to be human again.”
“I’m sorry, Elle.” Coryn gazed at her from the other side of the wall. “But you have given me a chance to live.”
Then it was just Elle and the Wooded Sea.
Are you sad yet? The story took a different turn than I was expecting, and I’m assuming it did the same for you. But there will be later stories about Elle as an Arbren. Perhaps she will learn to be selfless. Eventually.
Sometime soon, I’ll post a prequel story about Coryn and the day the sea turned into a forest. I’m excited to share it with you all.
If you want to see a different interpretation of this prompt, go on and check out my friend Laura’s post.
So, what about you? Can you come up with a story, five sentences or less, based on this prompt? Leave it in the comments!