The trees were dying.
Tawny trunks peeling curled fragments of uneven bark, dropping in scattered patches in between the exposed roots. Each leaf, once emerald green, was rapidly losing vitality as they shriveled darker and darker into fragile amber, where only the whisper of a wind could rip them from their stems. There was a stillness in the air of the garden, except for the silent moaning of death, that seemed to come from the very earth itself, wet and heavy from the toxic rains.
I stood on the gray pebble stone pathway, my leather boots carefully avoiding the soggy earth, staring in dismay up into the skeletal trees’ outlines. I set down the heavy burlap sack of tools I carried. It settled onto the stones with a faint clank. Water ran in rivulets along the sides of the path, reflecting the eerie red hue of the building storm clouds overhead.
More rain was coming.
I slowly turned, reaching out one gloved finger to touch the nearest lifeless branch. One of the leaves disintegrated into powdery dust, floating down to rest on the black soil below. I covered my mouth, holding back a cry.
Why was the rain bringing death? I quickly hurried down the stone pathway, inspecting each tree as I went, eyes blurring with tears. It was almost as if their lifeblood had been sucked out of them into the earth itself. I shivered as I reached the end of the trees and pulled my cloak tighter. A bone-chilling wind was coming from the north. I could see the distant trees on the mountains shaking.
I sank down to sit on the old black iron bench, nestled under the largest tree at the end of the garden. It was cold and hard against my skin. I blearily stared back through twisting branches and decay. There was nothing that could be done. I kicked angrily at the nearest pile of rotting bark.
There was a crack of thunder and through the trees I could see the indigo banners on the stone fortress turrets, waving crazily against the gusts of wind coming down from the mountains. I jumped to my feet, hurrying to pick up the bag of tools and ran for the shelter of the fortress wall. I couldn’t be caught in the rain.
The King was just opening the the right side of the front gate as I rushed up breathless, tears still wet on my cheeks. He caught my arm to steady me as I pulled to a stop, dropping my bag against the gate. The tools clanged loudly.
“Everything is dying..” I gasped.
His brow wrinkled in concern as he glanced over my head towards the garden, “Even the trees?”
I nodded, trying to catch my breath.
Several rain drops hit the ground. The king pulled me back through the gate into the safety of the courtyard.
“What does it look like?” He inquired
“Black. Falls apart at a touch. Rotting…” my words trailed off before continuing,” What does it mean?”
“It is in the rain,” The king crossed his arms, staring back over his shoulder through the still open gate.
His ocean-wide eyes gazed out past my head and he turned to push both oaken gates powerfully open. The iron handles shook as the gates hit either side of the stone walls. He stopped out staring up at the skies. I crept up behind him peering out.
“Why is the rain doing this?”
He slowly turned around gaze steadying me.
“The earth is groaning.”
Silence fell between us as neither of us moved. My lip quivered and I bit it to calm down. His eyes softened and he held out his hand.
“Don’t be afraid…” He waited patiently until my fingers touched his and clasped,” We are safe inside this fortress. Look…” he pointed back into the cobblestone courtyard where emerald ivy and ivory morning glories trailed up the rocks of the walls inside.
“Death cannot touch us here.”
Then he pointed out the gates,” Death itself though is only a step back into life. This rain will not last forever.”
We both stared up at the darkening sky line. The wind whipped our hair against our cheeks.
“Are you sure?” I asked tearfully.
He smiled softly and peace washed over me like warm water spilling over my head down to my feet.
“Lets go to the watch tower together, eh?” He gripped the iron handles and pulled the gates shut once more.
I quietly followed him across the courtyard, noting that not a drop of rain was falling. We climbed up the steps to the front watch tower, where the signal fires burned.
The tower was warm and the windows opened in every direction. No wind blew inside. I kicked off my muddy boots and hurried across the richly carpeted floor to the nearest window. Lightening cracked in valley floor to the west and the thunder shook the trees. Yet not a stone on the walls rattled. The garden I had only just vacated sat black and haunted to the north. I could see the forest was losing its color too.
The king leaned his forearms against the window sill beside me, peacefully looking down.
“Stay here with me,” he turned, his eyes more serious than I had seen them in a while,” Do not leave this place.”
I swallowed, as more thunder echoed across the castle,” How long?”
He reached out to gentle press my hand that lay on the window slay beside me.
His touch was warm and strong.
“As long as it takes.” He said in a low voice.
Natasha is a short story writer who has been blogging for the past decade. She is currently raising four kids in the midwest United States and married to her wonderful husband of 10 years. They both work with YWAM and media missions.