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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11. Chapter 10 - Hellebore

“There are four known types of magic.” Hellebore held the chalk aloft between the thumb and forefinger of her left hand, and with her right showed four skeletal fingers. “Can anyone name ‘em for me?”

The children were restless and fidgety – the absence of the Street Roses had hardly gone unnoticed, but no one asked.

Rather, Hellebore suspected the twenty remaining children had already heard the reason why their peers were absent.

Word, Hellebore had found, passed between children in such a way that adults could never hope to grasp it.

She had known it herself once, but in growing up it had long since eluded her.

As such, she found herself un-bothered by questions anyone else might have expected. They knew - she could only assume, since children were also very good at keeping secrets - that the Street Roses were absent because hearing magic spoken of might hurt them.

Whether they had any notion as to why that might be, Hellebore didn’t know.

A sweet, dark hand shot into the air.

“I know wun, Ms Hellebore!” Jack waved his arm back and forth, eyes wide and bright and eager.

She called on him, unable to hide the soft smile that played across her lips.

“The God’s Magic!”

“Yep! And can you tell me about the God’s Magic?”

“You can grow plants?”

“That’s right.” With the chalk, she wrote it on the black board, and then turned back to face her class. They watched her expectantly on their stiff wooden seats, eyes flickering every now and again to the empty spaces around them. “The God’s Magic is magic that lets the possessor grow various plants. They can speed up growth, even to the point that a fully grown oak tree can sprout straight from the ground before your eyes! Some can produce the seeds from thin air with the right hand motions. It’s a rather marvellous magic.”

She thought of Pennyroyal in a little, run-down concrete hut not far from the woods. Hellebore could see her there, scruffy and tiny in an improvised wheel-chair clutching tightly to a grubby grey pot of soil, and beaming.

It seemed ridiculous to Hellebore that it had been six years since she had saved Pennyroyal from death in the Hand and tried to raise her with Poppy. She’d done the same for Oleander, too.

She’d been a stronger woman then, but not a better one.

Better women don’t abandon children to the Pesticide because they’re scared of their mother’s and her fiance’s wroth.

She liked to think she was a better woman now.

“Anyone else? Another type of magic?”

Another, tentative, hand rose barely above the child’s dusty hair.

“Carragheen? Can you tell me?”

The child was nervous – Hellebore knew she was uncomfortable about her accent, adopted from her more northerly-originating parents. She was so small, but the dirt on her face and clothes spoke of a life spent working in the fields. Whenever Hellebore saw her she never seemed quite awake. Often, she fretted about Carragheen; she wouldn’t be the first farmers’ child Hellebore had known that was being pushed to an adult’s limits.

But she couldn’t be sure if that was the case.

“The… The Angel’s Magic.” She shook out, voice wearily quiet, “You can control people with voice commands.”

“Yes, you can, that’s right.” Hellebore beamed at her in an attempt at comfort, but the girl showed no response. Hellebore wrote the magic on the board, “By commandin’ someone, or even just by speakin’ certain phrases, someone with the Angel’s Magic can persuade another person to do what they want. However, if someone realises they’re bein’ controlled, the magic usually stops workin’.”

A voice rose amongst them,

“My big brother had that!” Another young girl, Tamasisk, cried, “He was really good at it, too! He’d get the workers in the fields to dance for him and give him money!”

Her brown eyes sparkled with pride. Hellebore wanted to tell her that such things aren’t right, but she couldn’t.

It was two years since the Thuidia family had returned from the market and found their 15-year-old son hanging by a grass rope from a timber in their barn.

If Hellebore would shut down a young girl’s love for her lost brother, what kind of a person would she be?

“He must’ve been very skilled.” Was all she said, pushing her upset deep down inside her, “Can anyone name any other kind of magic?”

No hands rose now. The room was swamped with thoughtful silence.

One by one, the children frowned and shook their heads.

“That’s alright.” Hellebore nodded, and turned back to the board, writing out the names of the two remaining types of magic, “the two we’re missin’ are The Serpent’s Magic, and The Spirit’s Magic.”

She waited a moment to see if they recognised the names, but none seemed to, so she continued,

“The Serpent’s Magic is a difficult type of magic. A person with The Serpent’s Magic can control others.”

“I’n’t that just like The Angel’s Magic?” Jack’s face was scrunched in confusion.

“Not quite.” Hellebore shook her head shortly, “The Angel’s Magic can be overcome quite easily. It’s about persuasion. The Serpent’s Magic is about forcin’ control, and once under the effect of the magic, the person bein’ controlled can’t escape it.

“It’s a very tragic type of magic,” She sighed deeply, thinking of Laburnum most likely wide awake in her bed, attempting to sleep, “Y’see, being controlled by this magic causes people to see scary things that aren’t really there, and in the end, usually… they die.”

The room was deathly quiet.

Hellebore had purposefully chosen to explain this magic first, knowing that the other would take the fear instilled within then and turn it in to excitement.

“The Spirit’s Magic is all about communication.” She forced her own voice to rise so the children would know that all is well, “A possessor of this magic can understand animals – creatures that can’t speak like we can – and be understood in return.”

“They can speak to animals?” Eyes glimmered at her from her students, all clearly fascinated as she had anticipated, “I want to speak to animals!”

Unfortunately, this was as she had planned as well. To fully teach them about magic, she would once again have to turn this conversation back around to the negative…

“Do you?” She asked. She stepped aside from the board for a moment, looking to where she had written the names in a row, followed by their descriptions. “Whilst very excitin’, magic comes at a price. Magic possessors suffer for their talents.”

First, she gestured to The Spirit’s Magic.

“Spirit’s Magic users are often very nervous, and don’t experience the world like you or I do. As far as we can tell, Spirit’s Magic users are overwhelmed by things we don’t even notice – for example, walkin’ through the market can be a really scary experience. Somethin’ you just about hear might sound deafenin’ to them. It’s not just sound, either. Spirit’s Magic users often are victim to sensory overload, making it difficult for them to be out in society.”

“That’s because of magic?” One child asked, incredulous.

“We think so.” Hellebore nodded, “Though, not everyone with those symptoms has The Spirit’s Magic. On the other hand, everyone with The Spirit’s Magic has those symptoms.”

“Isn’t it good to have the symptoms?” The same child wondered, “Then people can see you have magic  and then they’ll love you and be happy.”

“If it’s good or not depends on how the person with the symptoms feels, I guess.” Hellebore shrugged, “Sadly, a lot of people only pretend to love people with those symptoms in public, and make them very miserable in private.”

The children had no response to that. Hellebore didn’t really know how to respond to what she was describing, either. She’d never met anyone with the The Spirit’s Magic, or the symptoms that came with it, and was basing everything she said on studies written down in books. She wished she had more information.

Breaking the silence, she continued with her lesson, describing the repercussions of the different types of magic.

Serpent’s Magic causing nightmares and sleeplessness, God’s Magic affecting the growth of the possessor’s body, and the deadly Angel’s Magic that so often caused insanity or such extreme miserableness that possessors very rarely lived long lives.

The children left in small groups, whispering about the lesson to one another as they traipsed to the exit.

Hellebore clutched her heart as it panged painfully.

She had dreaded teaching this lesson from the moment she had been asked to.

 

~

The lukewarm water pouring over her hair was calming. She listened with eyes closed as it clattered against the floor.

She didn’t need the water to be hot like others did. Lukewarm was enough to fill her cold bones with heat. For a while, at least.

“It was awful.” She grumbled. “They looked devastated!”

“Th-they’ll be fine.” Poppy shook under the showerhead, steam rolling off her dark, soapy skin. “It’s not like th-this affects them p-personally. Y-you’re just t-telling th-them so th-they know.”

Hellebore knew that. She did. Still, she hated to see the children upset.

Even more, she hated magic.

As far as she could tell, it had only ever caused problems. Big problems, small problems, sometimes problems that ended well, but more often problems that ended badly.

People died from the problems magic caused.

She really envied the people of the Old Civilisation in nothing, except this – they hadn’t suffered from magic.

All the preachers preached that the Nameless God had taken magic from humanity as punishment for ruining His Earth.

If magic before the Old Civilisation had been like the magic of the Garden, Hellebore could only see it’s removal as a blessing.

“Th-they don’t have m-magic.” Poppy reassured her.

“We don’t have magic either,” Hellebore huffed, “But it affects us.”

For once, Poppy was taken aback, hesitant about answering.

“Y-Your m-mother’s fiancé-” She began.

“Not just him!” Hellebore bristled. In a rage, she turned off the water and snatched her towel from the wall, resisting flinching as the scratchy material dragged across her bones.

“I’m sorry-”

“I know!” Hellebore exclaimed, “I know, but you brought him up! I don’t see him anymore, I’m out of there, I don’t want to think about him, either!”

“Except-”

“Except Rue’s probably up in the Hand being torn to bits by him right now, like Oleander was, like Pennyroyal and her brother were, and I do think about him!” She was almost howling now, “But I don’t need to think about him more that that!”

Perhaps the Orphanage was a warm memory, buried in her history, but Rue was not.

Or she was, she used to be, but now every time Hellebore thought of the girl she had forever looked up to, she saw a broken bloodied figure in a cage waiting for further interrogation.

Rue had been more than a friend. She was practically a sister - or a mother - to Hellebore, as she was to everyone who had lived in the Orphanage when Rue played house mother. Hellebore didn’t need to ask to know Poppy thought the same way, and Bluebottle and Khat, and Tea was beyond reach no matter what he thought.

Neither woman had anything more to say. In stiff silence, they dried themselves and dressed, returning to their rooms on the second floor without continuing their conversation.

At Hellebore’s door, Poppy waited.

“I’m s-sorry, Hellebore.” Her voice was low, “I w-wasn’t th-thinking.”

“It’s okay.” Hellebore relented, feeling suddenly exhausted, “You were trying to comfort me.”

Somewhere below, steady banging rang up the walls.

Hellebore didn’t wonder what it was. She stretched out her arms and wrapped her friend in them.

“Good night.” She pulled away slowly, subconsciously lingering on the warmth of another person’s body that had long since left hers.

Then Poppy was gone.

Hellebore was alone in her room. 

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