ROSES AND WEEDS
Black as tar and fitted with knots and skeletal twists, the tree on Umrilda hill was far too wrought with death to ever produce a wink of green, though it was thick enough to house a man and his family. Six men on horses rode by it, not one of them daring to spare it a glance. The squire, who was last in line, paused for a moment, the tree at his back. “Sir!” he said. The other men whipped their heads to look behind them, giving the squire tight-mouthed scowls. The squire gulped but squared his shoulders. “Might someone be hiding behind or in the…the tree, Sir?”
“Fool!” Sir Falden said. “There is no life to be found there! Yah! Onward!” He dug his heels into his horse’s sides, and while the other men followed suit, the squire lingered for a moment longer. “We ride, Squire!” The fifth in line’s barking voice forced the squire forward.
When the sound of men and horses had faded, a girl and a boy emerged from behind the tree. The boy backed her against the blackened bark, its rough exterior holding her in place as he pressed his lips against hers. Her bare feet dug into the tender earth as she tasted his kiss, and their love pulsated throughout the atmosphere. Life stirred within the tree; it groaned with respite and wonder, never knowing what it had been missing.
“This tree saved us…it is our sanctuary,” the boy said, giving a slanted grin. The tree’s essence glowed with delight—if it were a younger tree, it would have grown another six inches. “It will be ours, forever,” the boy breathed into his lover’s ear. Her familiar scent of wild roses consumed him, beckoning him into her.
The girl clasped her slender fingers with that of the boy’s, pressing her palms against his. She looked up into his eyes. “I love you, Thatch.”
Thatch pulled her into his arms. He smirked as strands of her hair tickled his cheeks. He kissed her forehead. “My Sonoma, I am yours.”
Past the village that lay below the hill, in a towering castle adorned with trickling ivy, King Colstrad grew enraged. The hunter named Thatch had stolen his intended bride, and he could bear the incompetence of his men no longer. He saddled his horse, and rode unaccompanied into the night, his red cloak whipping furiously in the wind.
At the stroke of midnight the tree cradled the lovers affectionately in its roots. And when they heard the thump of the horse’s hooves drumming into the earth, the tree concealed them and kept them safe.
Days passed, and the King, unable to find his stolen bride or the boy, called for a bounty hunter. “Capture them and return to me. I will deal with the boy myself,” the King said. The hunter bowed, and left from the castle without a horse, intending to track the two on foot.
The periwinkle sky blinked with a timid star as the lovers talked of marriage. Thatch slipped a ring made of weaved grass and heather onto her finger. “My love, we are without altar, priest, and witness,” he said, as he stroked the ends of the wavy hair adorning his lover’s face.
“Our tree will be our altar, the branches our priest, and let all of heaven be our witness,” Sonoma said. They embraced, and the tree’s heart was filled with boundless joy. It didn’t notice as the hunter crept up from behind. The tree’s limbs became numb with shock as the bounty slipped a burlap sack over the Thatch’s head. Its scream was but a whispered groan as the bounty used the handle of his sword to bring Sonoma to her knees. She swayed twice, and her eyelids drooped shut before she met the ground. Thatch’s throat swelled and went raw with pain as he screamed his lover’s name. He was left, blinded and staked to the ground, laying feet above the ending tendrils of the tree’s thick roots.
The tree focused all its energy, attempting to jerk its roots and twist its trunk, willing itself the ability to scream as human, but it could do nothing to help the lovers. It spoke to the earth, begging it to not let anyone take his beloved companions away.
The bounty wrapped his calloused hands around Sonoma and made to lift her, but to no avail. “Ah! …Cursed, wretched ground, this is! Demons dwell here, or the girl is a witch!” Grunting his displeasure, he staked the girl to the ground as well, and left the scene. Minutes passed, and the tree shook with dread as the King approached on his horse. He dismounted, and with a sneer, he drew near to the boy, his stride fashioned with mocking deliberation. Sonoma’s heart still beat, but the blow had rendered her still unconscious. Thatch’s body raised and lowered, but he already wished he was dead, not knowing what had become of his Sonoma. King Colstrad spared no words for the boy before plunging his sword one, two, six times into his back. Thatch’s blood seeped into the ground, and the tree groaned and swayed, its branches weeping as the sour smell of death wafted through the air. The tree’s roots soaked up the blood, striving to preserve even an inch of the boy’s life essence.
Sonoma stirred, and the King dragged her to her feet. She gasped and scowled, thrusting her elbow into the King’s armored chest, bruising her tender flesh upon impact. Colstrad laughed. “You won’t get away from me this time, my love.”
Sonoma scowled. “I am not your love! Where is my Thatch, what have you done with—?” As her eyes met the bloodied lump on the ground, her words cemented in her dry throat.
Colstrad brought his lips close to her ear. Sonoma flinched. “There is no reason for you to run any longer, you see,” Colstrad said.
Sonoma jerked her body away from him. “I will never be yours! My blood will dampen the earth with my lover’s before I will ever agree to be your bride!”
“Then so be it!” Colstrad said, as he lifted his sword.
Sonoma leaped and clutched onto the King’s arm, shaking as she fought his might. “I WILL NOT DIE AT YOUR HAND!” she shouted, as she sank her teeth into the King’s hand, piercing the skin.
“Yeaghh!” Colstrad shouted. His sword slid an inch ftom his sweaty palm. Sonoma pivoted her body and hurled the King over her shoulder, and his sword slipped from his fingers. Thunder clapped as the King’s body thudded to the ground.
Sonoma collected the sword and thrust it towards the King’s neck, its tip kissing his skin as she panted, hovering over him. “I cannot taint this sacred ground with your blood, Swine.” The tree stood still, waiting, watching, and hoping. Sonoma’s eyes widened with shock as she felt pain exploding from her chest. She looked down to see the bounty’s arrow protruding from her heart. The King growled and smiled as her body collapsed to the earth.
All was silent, at first. With a great turn of despondency, a low creak sounded from the tree’s trunk. It amplified to a guttural cry of pure agony and the tree’s misery lifted to the skies. The clouds became dark and torrents of bitter rain pelted across the land. The King laughed into the storm, and the tree felt as a tender sapling, helpless, small, and finite. Sonoma’s blood soaked into the ground, and with woeful spite, the tree drank it up, uniting the lovers again, forever.
Seasons came and seasons went, and he King continued his evil ways. In the spring, wild orange roses bloomed at the tree’s base, and the scent of passion fruit loomed within its branches. In the summer, children played by the tree, and when the children grew, they fell in love and married by the tree. Though the tree still mourned for Thatch and Sonoma, it felt a burst of bittersweet ecstasy with each embrace beneath its boughs.
At harvest time, King Colstrad overtaxed the village below the hill, causing a great famine. The village joined forces with neighboring villages, and an army was formed. Battle broke lose throughout the land, men were slaughtered and their wives wept. The flowers by the tree became as dust, trampled and left to die. The tree had no waking soul to love. The battle continued, and a man named Borsoe had cornered the King on Umrilda Hill. The tree shook, filled with rage at the sight of the wretched King. Its branches groaned to the skies, waking the sleepy air. Borsoe hollered a warlike cry to the wind, and knocked the sword out of the King’s hand.
“Your children will weep when they find they have a coward for a father!” the King said, as he lay at the mercy of Borsoe’s sword. “…Killing an unarmed man? They will be ashamed!”
“My children are no concern of yours, King!” Borsoe cried, as the wind howled around him. The scent of passion fruit danced beneath his nose, and it seemed to urge him, strike now!
“That is why I had no trouble killing them,” the King said, a malicious grin spreading across his face. A shafow fell across Borsoe’s face. He took in a wavering breath, held it and dropped his sword. He did nothing to stop King Colstrad as he reclaimed his sword and pushed him to the ground.
“I was merciful. A clean blow and their heads rolled to the ground,” the King said, as thunder crashed around him. “But I will see to your suffering.”
The tree groaned and swayed in the storm, calling to the sky, pleading for help to avenge the treasured lovers that had brought him back to life. The sky obeyed; lightning struck its thickest branch, and the tree was set ablaze. The branch tumbled downward and met the King’s head with the tenfold force. The tree burned through the rain, but it bore its anguish with pride, disregarding each searing lick of flame.
Borsoe watched until the last ember gave way to the black. He sneered at where the tree had been, spitting on the mangled mess of charcoal left behind. “Good riddance, ugly beast!”
At dawn, Sir Falden sent his men to gather the King’s body. They brought with them the squire, and claiming such a unpleasant deed was not fit for men of higher rankings, they forced him to go the tree alone. With his arms crossed and his gait rigid, the squire climbed the hill. At the top, his arms fell from their folded form as fear gave way to awe. The King’s body was nowhere to be found, and except for one speck of blazing foliage, the land where the tree had once been was bald with desolation. The squire shook his head. Several inches above the charred, dampened earth, an orange rose stretched its petals to embrace the coming dawn.