The Poison Garden

In the dead of night a girl flees all she's ever known, fearing for her life and seeking to save that of her brother.
Far into the forest, beyond yew trees grown on human flesh, she seeks the Serpent, a small community of individuals secretly thriving away from the pious eyes of the Garden.
If she's lucky, their interests might just align.

Follow Henbane, Bluebottle, Mistletoe and others as they seek to tear down their old lives in order to build them anew.

(Cover by WinterSoldier)

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2. Chapter 1 - Henbane

AN: Chapter one is a little long and dull! I'm sorry, please bear with me!

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“The Garden is proud to declare itself a completely self-dependent and equal city, under the watchful eye of the one true Lord, whose judgement upon the land is nought but fair and just.

In every morning sermon, the people of the land rejoice at their fortune to be so blessed by the Lord to live in such a prosperous city, where evil cannot exist, and upon which He has granted the gift of his guidance.

This is the home of the Messiah - the one who will guide each and every righteous follower of the faith to a world where all evil is vanquished, and where everyone is saved.

The Messiah receives the word of God through the angels - glorious beings of light who within them are unable to hold any cruelty, and whose voices, so it is said, ring in a tone more sweet than the Sunday choir at their best, far more beautiful than anything the mortal imagination can conjure.

 

Within the city, workers of all kinds flourish, from bakers and florists, whose sweet scents fill the air with excitement and joy, to politicians and priests, whose palms are open and welcoming to all good people, prepared to lead them into a positive future.

The Garden is vast, stretching on for miles around the acropolis:

On the outer planes, just outside the boundaries of the Old Civilisation, farmers’ fields paint a portrait of a healthy, happy land, riddled with rows of apple trees, wheat and tubers. The animals here live long lives, offering the use of their produce – wool and milk – to the citizens. In return, the citizens of The Garden treat the animals with care, and never once does it cross their minds to bring a knife to their throats.

 

In The Garden, all runs well, for this is the new Eden.”

 

It was an old leaflet. Barely legible under the fading. Even so, Henbane had put the time into reading and translating it into a more modern language.

All Henbane seemed to have was time anymore.

Time and a Lord-only-knew-how-old leaflet she’d fished out of a book the last time she’d visited the library, before she’d run.

The language of it had been archaic, older than the book it was in she didn’t doubt, and yet it preached only what she had always known.

Or, well, what she had always been told.

She sighed deeply, and leant heavily against the back of her chair, letting the wood dig into her skin. She ran a weary hand through her hair, and closed her eyes, pushing the chair back and forth on it’s hind legs.

Why had she believed that library would tell her anything new?

She had wanted to learn more about this town she’d spent her whole life in. It was her project, to fill the time and occupy her ears, and it had started before she had ever arrived at the Serpent’s Nest.

From the very moment the Gardeners led Mandrake from their home for the last time, Henbane had had nothing but space to fill – in the room, in her hands, in her head.

And time.

The library had been her haven; that was where she first found the leaflet. It had caught her eye, peeping at her from beneath the door that read ‘FORBIDDEN’. She had scooped it up not knowing what it was, but young enough and daring enough to be curious, and continued to search for a book on Garden lore.

The search had been hopelessly slow, and the leaflet had seemed so foreign and thrilling – a burst of colour here, an unfamiliar word there – and Henbane was fixed on it.

She had picked up any random book – she didn’t remember what it was now – so she could read the leaflet more discretely.

And hadn’t understood more than a few words.

It had been vexing. She still felt the frustration in her fingers, as she stretched them out, of leafing through dictionary after dictionary, book after book, searching and searching and searching with so little luck until suddenly her chances had run out.

She frowned at her small desk.

That night sometimes seemed thrilling; time had seemed to shrink, whereas now it seemed only to grow.

“Everything okay?”

Henbane sat forward with enough force to wind herself.

“I wasn’t expecting guests!” She cried, setting herself to sorting the papers scattered before her in fumbled grasps. Her fingers were shaking from the shock, so fixed had she been on her leaflet. “Give me but a minute!”

“Don’t hurry on my account.”

Sandy curls bounced into view by Henbane’s face and scooped up the leaflet.

“What’s this?”

Henbane blushed furiously, and spun to look at her visitor.

The woman before her was a fuss of gold – mousy blonde hair and hazel eyes, shining, beaming against her pale skin.

Hardly was she tall, or thin. Nor could she be called distinctly beautiful, but she radiated confidence and courage and comfort.

She reminded Henbane of Mandrake when he was younger and still her brave older brother.

“A leaflet, nothing more.” Henbane reached for it hesitantly, fingers fluttering about the sheaf, afraid to damage it. “I would greatly appreciate it’s return!”

Wormwood smiled, and warmth spread through Henbane despite her fluster. Very gently, she returned the leaflet to the desk.

“It’s old.” Wormwood commented, simply. “What’s it for?”

“A personal project.”

“A project?” Wormwood’s brows rose in curiosity. “What kind of project?”
“A translation project.” Henbane spurted, “I merely wondered if it said anything yet unbeknownst to me about The Garden, as it is archaic.”

Wormwood nodded sagely.

“And seeing that all I have is time to fill, I did not see the harm.” Henbane added, muttering, and instantly regretted it. Wormwood had furrowed her brows. Henbane steeled herself for a retort, for scolding or rejection, her lungs tight in her chest.

“Sounds interesting.” Wormwood replied, thoughtfully, “Maybe useful even.”

Henbane blinked slowly once, twice.

“Useful?” She squeaked, but her lungs released, filling with air and almost sticking out with pride.

“Sure.” The other girl grinned, “Anything like this could be useful. Speak to Hellebore, she might have something you can take a look at. Or she could point you to it, anyway.”
Wormwood patted her shoulder, turning to leave again. Despite only being a year younger than her, Henbane’s heart seemed to spin with joy, as though her own brother had complimented her.

“The bunker used to be full of old books. I couldn’t read a word of them.” Wormwood smiled from the doorway, “Maybe you can.”

With that, she was gone.

Henbane found herself flush, but as the excitement dwindled she felt almost weary. Any time Wormwood appeared in to break her focused quiet it was like a storm passing through – a moment of thrill in the calm that left Henbane feeling all over the place.

“You know she doesn’t think so much of you.” They whispered into her ear.

“She thinks I could be useful.” Henbane argued, batting at the air by her ears.

The Serpent’s leader was something else. At 18, she already directed a small community with ease. What she had created wasn’t quite comfort, but it was safety, and Henbane could only be grateful for that.

 

~

 

 

 

“Old books about the garden?”

Hellebore was a skeleton of a woman, her voice wavering and quiet. Skin hanging off her bones only hinted at memories of when she had been fuller, bolder.

Henbane hadn’t had the opportunity to meet her before, but she had heard stories and rumours. Hellebore had once been a soldier for The Garden, until she was sent on a mission abroad and found herself captured. She’d suffered as a prisoner of the ongoing war, and ended up brittle and rejected by the comforts she’d once experienced upon her return.

Now she taught the children of those allied with the Serpent. Her long-standing access to the Chapel of Knowledge had granted her a sufficient education to be a teacher, and despite all she had gone through she found peace near books.

“I have been passing time translating a near-ancient leaflet from the Chapel of Knowledge to find out more about the Garden in it’s infancy.” Henbane explained, “Wormwood said it might prove useful, and suggested I present my enquiry to you.”

A brief smile seemed to brush Hellebore’s lips.

“You spent time in the Chapel of Knowledge?”

“Certainly, many months.”

“I do miss that library.” Hellebore sighed, wistful. Her eyes seemed to shine, but the spark was quickly snuffed. “And nothin’ else of it.”

She shook her head as though it could loose her memories.

Henbane wondered whether she should offer help. But could she do anything?

In the month since she had arrived, she learnt the names of all of the Serpent’s members, and each of them seemed to have their own trauma gnawing away inside them.

Some liked to talk about it. Others didn’t.

Henbane thought maybe Hellebore was the kind who wanted only to forget.

She said nothing, and waited for Hellebore to continue when she was ready.

At first, Henbane had been pushy. Sure, she had her own issues to deal with, but her curiosity seemed to seek to drive her wild puzzling over the various problems that had forced these people to take up residence in a relic of a bunker almost a mile from the town.

Her curiosity had gotten the best of her. She had been ignorant, insistent.

She had demanded her curiosity satiated.

12 bruises and one bite-mark that still showed as light scabs had knocked the ignorance from her.

For some, Henbane had learnt, speaking about the memories could make them come alive.

She knew now, having gained enough trust to know more about the people around her, that fists to her stomach had been nothing compared to her questions in their heads.

“I don’t have any of the old ones in here.” Hellebore shook her head, “I could never read ‘em.”

Henbane’s shoulders drooped. She started to say goodbye and turn to leave, but Hellebore continued-

“I think Wormwood put ‘em in storage.”

Henbane perked up again.

“In storage?” She pressed.

“Book storage was room 324.” Hellebore put a pondering finger very gently to her chin. It shook where it lay, almost grey in it’s paleness.

Henbane pursed her lips.

“It certainly isn’t room 324.” She huffed, “That’s my room.”

Hellebore shrunk slightly, blood-shot lime eyes affixed on Henbane’s folded arms, but her voice was no more cowed than it had been before.

“Wormwood must’ve had ‘em moved. Sorry.” Hellebore shrugged apologetically, “I don’t know where they are now, but she wouldn’t’ve thrown ‘em out. They’ll be in one of the spare rooms.”

Throwing Hellebore a brief thank you, Henbane hurried from the room into the corridor of the second floor.

The second floor was the second to the bottom of four floors in the large spread of the old concrete bunker, and the most luxurious. Unlike Henbane’s room on the third floor above, each room on the second floor had it’s own adjoining bathroom. The wallpaper and paint stubbornly clinging to the walls was ancient, but clearly luxurious for the circumstances the winding underground corridors had demanded. It had held on for a long time, protected by the dark dryness of the bunker, and only showed recent signs of bleaching and ware under the blue-green glits Wormwood had had placed in the halls.

Henbane thought of the multitudinous rooms stuffed within the bunker’s boundaries – 66 in total – and despaired.

Should she go around attempting every door and seeing where her luck lay, her only aid being the twenty or so rooms with identifying labels?

Any of the other 46 could hold any number of crates, any of which could have the books in them!

Henbane huffed again and glanced at the names on the doors. On the one in front of her, the name ‘HELLEBORE’ was written in small, uniform capitals, red against the black door, as all the names were. There were only two more in this stretch of corridor – Khat and Hemlock.

Henbane wasn’t sure whose door she was most afraid to knock on.

Khat was tall and fit, for her own purposes. She was sharp-tongued, emotional, and fierce. She was ginger and freckled and gorgeous. Henbane had watched her from across the dining room, curling her painted lips and berating Wormwood. She often seemed to be critiquing the leader’s steps, but Wormwood would only ever laugh and retort, wearing the most charming of grins. Her room was no.201, by the narrow stairway twisting down to the fourth floor, where Wormwood’s office and room were.

Henbane was yet to fully understand their relationship, but Khat’s confidence to berate Wormwood, her history, and the memory of a bruise on Henbane’s arms scared Henbane into avoiding her.

Khat was one of the members who worked beyond the Serpent’s Nest – the bunker – in the town. Every morning she’d drift into the dining room, fatigue drawing anger on her face, reeking of belladonna from the pleasure house.

Henbane knew that she should not judge a person by their history or work – the fading bruises proved that – but her years amongst the pomp and proper of the Rose Garden had drilled a prejudice into her that was still deep.

Hemlock was an entirely other step in her un-learning of that lesson. She was also strong and heavily painted. Her shoulders were broad and squared, and decorated – Henbane assumed they were also painted – with vines, pale like scars against otherwise smooth skin of a foreign brown. They curled around her nipples, and across a chest that had never born breasts.

Her hair was long and beautiful, stained the pale pink of a waking sky.

Hemlock was every kind of unusual to Henbane’s sheltered up-bringing – she was proudly female, despite her body, unblinkingly proud of her foreign-born, illegal parentage, and a criminal.

Even hidden away in the luxury of the Rose Garden, the rumours of the murderous horror Hemlock Apia radiated, bringing with it the fear. First came the alarm of a convict, escaping from divine execution, the fear of such a criminal stalking the streets, who their next victim might be. Later, curiosity came up from the Weed Pit into the Herb Garden, and then to the Rose Garden, that Hemlock Apia had been spotted with a young man, a Weed, prowling the town. But then the rumours faded.

When Henbane first met Hemlock she had been slow to remember the name. When she did, her whole body had loudly recoiled. Her bruise for that was around her naval, and Wormwood had given it to her.

Hemlock stayed in room 203, the second closest to Wormwood, and closer to Hellebore, who seemed gentle enough, than Khat.

Deliberation overcome, Henbane strode determinedly to room 203, and forced herself to knock before she could rethink her decision.

A minute later, she knocked again.

When the door swung open, she was greeted by a startling purple mass hanging from the door.

“What?” Grumbled the mass.

Henbane’s voice caught in her throat, her eyes baffled by the brightness in front of her, struggling to find human in it. She realised that the person was not dressed in purple - that was just an effect of the light - but in blinding pink.

A neat brown hand rose and brushed hot-pink nails through pink hair, revealing a sharp, square-cut jaw, flat-set nose and mismatched eyes of blue and green ringed by smudges of black.

Henbane almost breathed a sigh of relief to recognise a person in the mass, terror abating.

Hemlock shook out her hair, neatening the tangles with her pointed nails, and readjusted her alarmingly pink flower-print robe on her shoulders, such that the patterns over them down to her nipples were still visible.

“My dear, what time is it?” Hemlock asked, now fully awake, retying a glimmering sash around her waist.

Henbane realised the woman had been sleeping in the cumbersome outfit. It trailed down to the ground, and clumped thickly. In the warmth of the bunker, Henbane could feel sweat dripping down her back just looking at it.

“I-I don’t know.” She managed to squeak, “I haven’t been upstairs in a while.”

“Oh.” Hemlock grimaced, and started to rub the black from around her eyes, “You should, you know, my sweet, the fresh air and sunshine can be good for you.”

“Yes.” Henbane managed, and felt her mouth opening and closing, trying to form the question she wished to ask.

“Mentally and physically.”

“Sorry?” Henbane blinked.

“The sunshine, my sweet.” Hemlock explained, wide-eyed.

Before Henbane could stop her, Hemlock’s soft hand was cupping her chin, long thumb rubbing over her cheek.

“Your freckles are all faded,” She pursed her lips, then dragged her other hand through the tangles of Henbane’s hair, “And your hair is going darker and darker, you really should let the sun bleach it some. Was it ever pale blonde?”

“Sorry?” Henbane stuttered again, “W-When I was younger-”

“Have you ever thought of growing it long?”

“When I was younger-” Henbane started to say again.

“You could grow it out and dye it.” Hemlock now had her hands on either side of Henbane’s face, turning it from side to side and up and down. “Blue, to match your eyes – if we found the right flowers. Oh, you would look wonderful in a real, sky blue. More vibrant than the white thing you’re wearing.”

Henbane’s mouth opened and closed, attempting to get a word in, but they kept getting washed away in the whirlpool of Hemlock’s analysis.

“Not that what you’re wearing now isn’t fine, I’m just saying, dear, you would look very good in blue.” With a pat on Henbane’s head, the door started to swing closed, Hemlock on the other side, unquestioned, and still talking, “With your size, you should ask Wormwood, she may have something.”

The door closed with a soft click.

Henbane was left baffled and blinking before it, ‘Hemlock’ blaring at her from the door’s flat face, circled by crudely drawn flowers.

In a flurry of movement, Henbane spun away from the door and started rubbing make-up marks from her face, patting down her dusty blonde bob with her palms, letting the chills of being touched so suddenly ring through her body.

Never in her life-!

What in the world-!

The Nameless God himself would never allow-!

“But he did allow it.” They chuckled.

Henbane had no response for that.

Her cheeks sang in a ruby shade of red, burning as tears built in her eyes.

She blinked them away and promised herself to never knock on Hemlock’s door again.

It was only as she turned towards the end of the corridor to climb the stairs up to floor 3 that she noticed the door to room 201 was ajar, and Khat stood between the two staircases –one up and one down-, hazelnut eyes squinted at Henbane.

“Come in.” She frowned, and went into her room, leaving the door wide for Henbane.

 

~

“She’s a handful.” Khat mumbled, voice distant as she focused on rubbing at the make-up now smeared across Henbane’s face. “Try not to hold it against her.”

Henbane glanced up at Khat around the damp cloth the girl was wiping with. She appeared to have been mid-way through application – one eyelid vividly purple while the other remained blank around her lengthened black lashes. Any blemishes were hidden, loose hairs plucked, stray-lipstick removed.

On her top lip, Henbane could see the faintest of scars.

“That could apply to both of them, I’m sure.” Khat grumbled.

“Both of them?”

“Hemlock and Wormwood.”

“Wormwood isn’t a handful.”

“You don’t know her like I do.”

Henbane hesitated.

“How do you know her?”

Khat stopped rubbing, and smiled into the near-distance. A warm, nostalgic smile.

“We met as children.”

“As simple as that?”

Khat huffed a laugh and started rubbing Henbane’s other cheek with extra force.

“No.” She huffed again, “Not as simple as that.”

Henbane knew not to ask further, though she yearned to.

Instead, she glanced around the room as much as she could. The walls were an auburn red, cast brown in the light of the glits. The cupboard and drawers were made of some dark wood, and spewed clothing of red, brown and black onto the floor.

Across from the bed they sat on was a vanity of the same wood, with what Henbane thought must be the biggest mirror in the whole bunker reflecting herself back. She was drawn to her hair, mussed thanks to Hemlock’s intervention. Spotting them in her reflection, she tugged at looped strands to straighten them.

Khat’s hair was a ginger more on the orange side of red, short like Henbane’s, but long enough to be curled into ringlets. She was wearing a black-and-white striped corset that covered her stomach and breasts, pulled tight by black laces at the back, and a knee-length brown skirt. The rest of her body was bare, pale skin smattered with freckles, up her arms and down her thighs.

With a deep breath, Khat sat back on her heels on the bed and peered at Henbane with scrutinous eyes.

“Good.” She nodded, satisfied. “You okay?”

Henbane found herself blinking again, nearly alarmed by the concern in Khat’s voice after the grumpiness and fatigue she so often saw her wearing.

“Perfectly okay.”

“Good.” Khat said again, and rose to study herself in her vanity. “Try not to let them bother you. They’re dealing with their own problems in their own way, and that means they can get rowdy.”

“I’m not bothered by them.” Henbane said, chin raised, also standing.

“Yes, you are.” Khat laughed, “All you’ve known is everything other than most of the people here.”

Henbane couldn’t deny that.

“You’ll adjust. They’re not bad people, really.” The ginger girl’s voice was absent-minded again as she began to colour her other eyelid.

“Are they good people?” Henbane mumbled.

Khat laughed,

“They’re just people.”

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