There had been no word from Poppy for nearly a month, and Oleander hadn’t dared to share what he experienced in the woods. He felt he wouldn’t even be able to begin describing the chill through his whole body, the abject terror that had washed over him; there was no way to explain the appearance of the figure that would do it’s intimidating and deathly nature justice.
So he pretended, for the sake of Pennyroyal, that there had been no need for fear.
Pennyroyal had very quickly become her normal self - smiling brightly by the time the sun set on the same day. Despite that, Oleander was sick with worry over the possibility of her being provoked again.
Whatever she’d experienced had been enough to turn the happiest little girl into a screaming wreck.
At that time he spared only a moment to wonder whether he’d been through something similar, but now it seemed glaringly obvious that he had: he’d found a mirror.
That morning, Hellebore was there when he woke up, which he had discovered was unusual - usually she was around very late at night, putting food away in the cupboards and then disappearing again - but today she had woken them both up early to announce that she was taking them out of the house.
Pennyroyal was overjoyed, and Oleander discovered, upon asking, that she’d been in that house for three months, and never left before.
For hours, they traversed the markets, stall after stall of mundane, necessary objects - food, furniture, building materials, large containers of water, medicine - squashed amongst far too many people searching for nothing in particular.
He heard one customer asking a man about a dragon egg. Oleander knew nothing about such a thing, but Pennyroyal giggled, fascinated by the request, and Hellebore grumbled quietly and urged them on:
“Stupid Roses should be with the Weeds if they can’t even separate fantasy from reality.”
Oleander glanced at Pennyroyal to see if she’d heard, but she was too busy staring in wonder at every stall they passed.
Hellebore had kept a close eye on Oleander, but as they got closer to the Rose Garden, and the mass of people got thicker and louder, she struggled more navigating Pennyroyal’s chair amongst the clusters of well-dressed people.
Luckily, Oleander noted, people seemed willing to make a bit of space for her, though not nearly enough to get through easily, and she didn’t seem to notice when Oleander slipped away to a stall filled with strange, unnecessary objects.
They were all at least three feet tall, made of a golden metal that was flecked and stained with black, and were intricately decorated with images of various types of flowers that Oleander could name. There was one thing that caught his eye as odd, though barely noticeable at all - a small hand mirror. The circular mirror section was barely bigger than his hand, and, though the metal was the same, it wasn’t decorated at all.
For the first time he had an intense need to see his reflection - it had never crossed his mind since he’d woken up with no memory, but it suddenly struck him that he couldn’t recall his own features. He was also fascinated by the idea that he might have scars - other than on his tongue - that could prove he’d been through some kind of awful ordeal in the apparent dungeon hidden beneath the Chapel of Law.
He wanted the mirror.
Inconspicuously, he glanced around, edging to the edge of the stand by the mirror, and melted back into the crowd, just out of the view of the stall’s owner. Then he waited.
For ten minutes the owner declared his ‘wonderfully priced luxuries, perfect for fine Roses’, before he finally reeled a bite.
As an elegantly dressed customer held the merchant’s attention, Oleander leapt forward and lifted the mirror from it’s position, carefully but efficiently pulling it back into the crowd with him before he moved on.
The stall-owner didn’t even yell; he hadn’t noticed, and neither had anyone around- they were too busy going about their business. As he walked, he slid it beneath his shirt.
A smug feeling of pride crept through his body, and for the briefest moment he felt more alive than he had all month...
Until someone gripped his wrist and heaved him down an alley, and his heart flew into his throat.
He was spun around winding streets until he was dizzy, and a thought flowed into him of his dream... and then something more realistic... a place like a sewer...
With a final tug he was face-to-face with a small, hooded figure. Peeking out from the edge of the smooth green hood were the tips of long strands of white hair. The figure’s hands were the colour of the toffee he’d seen a sweet stand selling. She seemed small, but she gave off a feeling of wisdom.
When the figure spoke, her voice was quiet, but confident, like she had be around long enough to be absolutely sure.
“Be wary of who you’re with, child.” She warned. “What good intentions one may have can easily be overshadowed by fear.”
She let go of his wrist and turned to walk away.
“We would be enemies, and yet we are bound by Death and on these terms we have become allies.” She started to slip away, footsteps silent, and demanded one more thing, “Show your so-called guardian my symbol, and speak of this brief meeting to no one.”
In a simple side-step around a building she was gone.
“Oleander?” A panicked voice called, and there was Hellebore again, right where she needed to be to guide him back, hair loose from worry. “Where did yo- What do you have there?”
Oleander hadn’t realised that he had removed the mirror from under his shirt, but now he held it out in front of him in one hand, and a small, simple white flower in the other.
In the mirror he saw himself reflected - dusty brown hair, just like the trunk of the oleander tree, eyes the colour of a night sky, but with no stars to light them. Pale skin, slightly sunken cheeks, freckle-spattered nose, white lips obscured by a mess of tiny scars. A flash of a memory pecked at his mind for attention, but he was too focused on Hellebore as her face contorted, like she didn’t know how to respond.
At first, Hellebore raised her voice to him, glaring at the mirror,
“What did you do?” She exclaimed, but she didn’t seem angry - she seemed afraid, tears were building at the corners of her fresh-bud-coloured eyes. “You stole it. Oleander... What have you...done...”
Her eyes widened at the flower, fear so fervent that her entire body began to shake and her breathing quickened, so that even Pennyroyal noticed, innocently questioning Hellebore about what was wrong.
In a rush of movement, Hellebore smacked the mirror out of his hand, suddenly unconcerned about scolding him for his theft. She lifted Pennyroyal out of her chair, the little girl yelping in surprise, and shifted her weight onto a single arm, grabbing Oleander’s wrist with the other, and started to run, not even slowing to check if Oleander was keeping up, not responding to Pennyroyal’s cries of pain at the position she was being held in, or the pain in her hips.
They hurried back down the hill, Hellebore’s tears of panic flying away into the noisy crowd.
In the alley, they left behind a cracked mirror and a sullied snowdrop.
Hellebore practically broke the door down to get inside, and then slammed it quickly shut, flinging Oleander into the room and dropping Pennyroyal into a chair.
I’m sorry. Oleander signed, panic starting to seep into him, too, I’m sorry.
“I’m sorry.” He tried to cry out loud, because Hellebore wasn’t looking. “I’m so sorry.”
She wailed loudly, and started to rummage through drawers, pulling out small tools and materials - planks of wood, nails, a hammer, a screwdriver. It looked like she’d been prepared for a while, by the green rot covering the wood.
“Hellebore?” Pennyroyal sniffled, strongly affected by Hellebore’s actions. “What... What is happening?”
“I’m protecting you!” Hellebore gasped, desperately trying to seal up the windows with wood, but obviously not very skilled with this kind of thing, and getting even worse because of her flying emotions. “I have to protect you! I can’t... I can’t let them...”
She was screeching, rushing around the room in a storm, searching for more nails to replace the ones she’d broken, or perhaps for anything to board up the windows easier.
As she swung open another cupboard a small envelope fell out - the one that had been used as a book mark in that small red book; Oleander picked it up, and slipped it open. Pennyroyal watched him quietly, glancing at her guardian every now and again.
She’d been teaching him to read, but it was difficult, struggling through every word.
He could understand the numbers in the top right-hand corner, though - the date was a month old.
“At the bottom!” Pennyroyal grasped at the air for the letter, “That is my brother’s name! Oleander, please! Can I read it, please?”
Hellebore had frozen, and glanced over her shoulder.
“Don’t read that...” She tried, but her voice came out hoarse. “Please don’t read that...”
Pennyroyal’s brow creased, and she read aloud, but Oleander barely listened, he was watching Hellebore carefully.
Slowly, he lifted his hands, and the woman suddenly seemed to shrink to the size of a mouse.
Do your job, soldier.
From the way her face dropped in despair, he knew she’d understood. She’d been learning, too.
“No... Please, listen to me. Please, I’m going to protect you. I love you both, I won’t let them take you, I promise.” She begged, sounding so young, and suddenly Oleander realised that Hellebore, despite her mature and confident daily appearance, really couldn’t have been an adult for very long herself.
“I said I would make sure that you both didn’t do any more harm.” She looked specifically at Oleander, “I begged them to let me take you, protect you, raise you. Raise you not to be a thief, Oleander, like your parents.”
Oleander’s mouth dropped open, and he suddenly saw his parents’ faces clearly, he recognised their voices leading him down winding streets, and then loud, violent yells, screams. He’d woken up in a cell, the large man stood over him, screaming at him. He asked for something... showed Oleander... there were fingers inside a small wooden bowl...
... Or I’ll bring back more than your parents’ fingers...
“Raise you like you were of the God of the Garden’s religion, Pennyroyal.”
Pennyroyal wasn’t listening, she was reading.
“He is not an executioner!” She sobbed, “They are making my brother kill people! You should have saved him!”
“I saved you! He asked me to! Please, be quiet! They’re going to find out about the thievery... somehow. They don’t know where I’m keeping you. Please be quiet. Put the letter down.”
She started fumbling with the thin slat of marble on the worktop, and eventually managed to pull it out.
From within she pulled out a long silver blade. It was red-handled, like it had been stained with blood - the blade had turned copper from something.
“I have to go out.” She said, voice flat. “I’ll... try to persuade them nothing happened.”
Before she slid out of view behind the door, she glared sternly at Oleander.
“Bolt this door.”
I’m sorry. Oleander signed, expression stoic, though twitching into a rage, but the door was already closed.
Hellebore was gone.