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Waiting in the Weeds

Andrew Kaye is a writer, editor, and cartoonist from the suburban wilderness of Northern Virginia, where he lives with his wife, his four children, and a large empty space in the basement that should probably be filled with a robot or something. You can find him lurking in his usual haunt on Twitter @andrewkaye.
Ambrose had pressed another bulb into the freshly turned soil when the ground shuddered and sent a fresh ache through his gnarled fingers. The heliocentric dome of tinted glass that covered the palace's garden rattled overhead, and the cries of soldiers on the outermost walls had enough shrill panic to send the dome rattling anew. Then came the jangling alarm of the gatehouse bells. Ambrose pulled himself upright with another ache--knees this time, and lower back. He set aside his trowel and pulled the faintly glowing sword from his wheelbarrow.
"Rouse the gardener!" came a shout from the walltops.
The weeds had come early this year.
"You must take up my sword and my trowel," the Precursor had said. "The garden is the heart of the kingdom, and you must be its champion." Ambrose could remember the calm of the Precursor's voice but nothing of her face, which had crumbled from his memory like dried leaves, lost forever on the wind. It was the calm he remembered, and it was the calm he would need now. He was not the strong young man he had been when the sword and the trowel were pressed into his hands. The aches had come. Grew stronger every year. He took a deep breath. "You must be its champion."
The garden was older than the kingdom itself, older than the palace walls that had grown up around it like a stone-hewn hedgerow, older than the towns and farmhouses that speckled the countryside like tile-roofed toadstools. And just as a heart of flesh and blood must always beat to keep its body alive, the kingdom's heart needed to remain in perpetual bloom.
A story perhaps. A fairytale. But what of the Precursors, the long line of gardeners that had come before him, keeping the blooms bright day and night, regardless of season? What of the weeds that appeared every spring and summer? The scholars wrapped it all in metaphor and the priests in magic, and the rest of the kingdom was content to knowing that this was how it always was and always would be.
At least, it would as long as there was a gardener. As long as Ambrose did his job.
The guards wasted no time shutting the gate behind him as he stepped into the open field. The rumbling underfoot had become constant now, an earthquake set to simmer. And Ambrose could see a single large weed as it made its progress underground, splitting the lawn and churning the earth above. It was fast. Faster than he expected. He'd have to cut it off before it got too close.
He winced, broke into a run. With a shout, he stabbed at the mound and felt the weed shudder at the blade's touch. Tendrils erupted from the earth on either side of him--mottled green-brown things, tough and banded, dirt clinging to the moist flesh. They whipped at him, fierce, not attacking him but trying to swat the sword aside, recoiling each time one came into contact with the glowing metal.
Ambrose gritted his teeth. What manner of weed was this? Not soldier moss or armored elderthorn or even briarmarrow. He was expecting a thing of thorns and bristles, of weeping pustules and muscular leaves. Certainly not this lithe, skinny thing, no better than an oversized beansprout. But the ground still rumbled, and more tendrils broke through, and with a groan an enormous seed pod of darkened plant matter rose from among them like the head of a giant snake.
The guard shouted again. Ambrose stole a look behind him, saw several figures pointing out toward the distance. More lines of turned earth appeared, thicker this time. Ambrose could see sharp rows of thorns protruding from the mounds--a different weed entirely, and while he could at least identify this one it offered little comfort. It was constricting ridgethorn.
"Damn it all," he muttered, running to intercept this new threat.
But the ridgethorn didn't attack the castle walls. It burst from the ground around the bulbous green vine and began wrapping itself around it. The tendrils of the mystery weed clutched at the thorns, pulling at them. The thorns bit into the soft flesh of the other weed, and Ambrose caught the strong scent of dandelion milk. The seed pod trembled and began to glow, and for a moment he braced himself for whatever fresh horrors this unidentified weed would unleash... but the glow was warm and nonthreatening, and his unease melted away with the realization. There was only one weed out in the field today.
Ambrose charged at the ridgethorn, swinging and hacking. The weed's flesh parted easily under the enchanted blade, and the thorns were cleaved from its back. Yellow-orange ooze flowed freely from every cut and tear, smoking as it came into contact with the air and turning the ground brown wherever it touched. But still the ridgethorn squeezed and squeezed at the other plant, creeping slowly up toward the pod. Slowly, slowly... but too late.
The pod shuddered and fell to the ground. It split down the middle, and Ambrose gave one last whack at the ridgethorn before running toward the pod. He stuck the sword point-first into the lawn and pried the pod open with his hands. When the pod parted, a brilliant light poured out, and the ridgethorn slackened and collapsed lifelessly to the ground.
Inside the pod, Ambrose found a baby girl with skin of golden green. He smiled at her. Understood.
Ambrose reached the gatehouse bent and withered. A young woman stood beside him, one hand holding his, her other hand holding the sword.
"Do not be alarmed," Ambrose assured the awestruck guards. "This is my Successor." And he turned to her and said, "You must take up my sword and my trowel. The garden is the heart of the kingdom, and you must be its champion."
And Ambrose collapsed to his knees, his body disintegrating and blowing away in the breeze.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, August 23rd, 2019
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