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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24. Chapter 23 - Hellebore

The room was full, and yet incomplete.

From wall to wall, floor to ceiling, along every bench along every table people sat. People ate and spoke with relief and joy in their voices, and they looked up, as though they could see the sky even through the layers of concrete piled above them, and they prayed thanks to the Nameless God.

Hellebore did not sit. She did not eat. She did not pray.

Oleander was gone.

Like a chisel at her heart, the thought that it was ultimately her fault picked away at her. She took in the pain, and let herself suffer it.

Her pain wasn’t important, except in that it was punishment for what she’d done – she was supposed to have been taking care of him, that was the condition she set herself when she begged to have him freed from the Hand when he was 10, but as soon as he showed signs of being out of control she ran straight back to the authorities to be rid of him before blame could come back to her.

And now he had been captured – yes, because he was amongst the Weeds left behind when the Pesticide descended on the Weed Pit, but also because she had reported him all those years ago. There was no doubt in her mind that the instant Darnel Loa saw him, he would have claimed him for his own. Like a prize.

Three people she had failed to save from the clutches of the Hand – Rue, and Pennyroyal’s big brother, and now Oleander.

He was her responsibility. They were her responsibility.

She let him down.

Pennyroyal choked beside her, floodgates opening despite her efforts to stay cheery. With tiny fists she rubbed at her eyes, wiping away tears that never stopped until she finally could do it no more and let them run trails down her cheek. They dripped slowly into her soup, and still she wailed.

Hellebore couldn’t reach out. She could only watch.

Then Poppy was there, folding the girl into her arms, lifting her from her seat and wobbling as steadily as she could out of the cafeteria.

Hellebore was left with a wheelchair, and an entire room staring in her direction.

Amongst the crowd, others began to sob as they recalled their own loved ones who had been taken.

Hellebore couldn’t stand it anymore.

She wiped her own eyes and hurried after Poppy with the wheelchair.

In the corridor, Poppy rocked with Pennyroyal in her arms, not speaking, and Pennyroyal continued to cry like the tears would never stop.

“I’m sorry…” Hellebore’s voice was a rasp, inaudible beneath the noise of the girl. She tried to speak louder, “Pennyroyal, I’m sorry. It’s my fault.”

For just a moment, Pennyroyal stopped crying. Though her lip still trembled, and her eyes filled, she merely sniffled as she studied Hellebore. And then a rare looked of rage crossed her features, taking both the women aback.

The young girl tore her arm from where it wrapped around Poppy’s shoulder, tears pouring over her lower eyelid as she threw her arm in Hellebore’s direction.

Your fault?!” She screeched. Her violent movements challenged Poppy’s ability to hold her, “Your fault?! You didn’t do anything!”

She wriggled in Poppy’s arms as though she could simply step away from her, as though she could storm directly up Hellebore and stare her down.

She couldn’t, but Hellebore felt her thunder anyway.

The downpour flooded into Hellebore’s heart, thundering at it’s borders, pushing at them until they began to swell.

She could hardly breathe as the torrent continued,

“You did nothing!” The young girl cried, “What are you sorry for?! Stop apologising to me! You don’t need to apologise to me! You need to save him!”

It swelled and swelled and swelled, breaking it’s banks until the flood was pouring into her lungs, rising to her throat, into her skull.

“You need to save him! Save him like you never saved him before!” The girl flailed, “And if you fail, then you can apologise to me! You can apologise for my brother, or leaving us, or Oleander being with D...” She hesitated on the name, biting her lip hard enough to draw blood, gathering courage, “with Darnel Loa! You can apologise when you’ve at least tried!”

Her tears caught up with her, and her arm fell limp against the wracking of her sobs.

But Hellebore felt her tears dry as the water rushed from her, and left behind a brand new determination she hadn’t felt in a very long time.

A brand new courage.

She rushed forward.

She wasn’t strong enough to lift Pennyroyal as she once had been, but she drew close, placing her forehead on the young girl’s shoulder and her arms gently around her.

“I will.” Hellebore whispered, hoping Pennyroyal could feel this new feeling emanating from within her, could feel that she was speaking the truth, “I will save him. I will fight to save him. I will fight even if everyone else tells me not to. I will fight.”

Hellebore drew away, feeling her back align straighter, her arms lie stiffer by her sides.

She met Poppy’s eyes. She saw them fill with a twinkling beyond the haze of the drugs.

Then she turned, taking Pennyroyal’s storm into her footsteps, and raced it down the hallway to Wormwood’s office.

 

~

 

Yelling seeped under the door to Wormwood’s office, making Hellebore stop in her tracks.

It was Wormwood yelling.

“You were with him?!” She asked, incredulous and angry, “You were with him and you didn’t save him?”

“I told him to run.” Hemlock replied nonchalantly.

You told him to run?” Exasperation now. “And you ran and you left all of them behind, left Oleander behind?”

“There were Pesticide officers-” Annoyance was creeping into Hemlock’s voice. Anyone else would buckle under her irritation, but not Wormwood.

“Pesticide officers, yes, against whom you were supposed to be our first line of defence!”

“And you would rather I had been captured?” Hemlock’s own voice was rising.

“I would rather you had fought before you ran!”

“I-”

“I don’t care what excuse you have!” Wormwood growled, “Get out of my office.”

The door swung open so hard it slammed into the wall, and Hemlock pushed carelessly past Hellebore, eyes a raging fire in her skull. But even she was powerless to resist when Wormwood gave such a determined command.

Hellebore breathed deeply as Hemlock disappeared up the stairs, and stepped into the room.

“Wormwood?” She started, as the young woman rubbed the stress from her forehead, shielding her eyes.

“What?” Wormwood snarled, teeth bared like a dog threatened.

Hellebore did not flinch.

Seeing who she had snapped at, Wormwood collapsed into her chair behind the desk with a great breath out.

She looked tired. Bruise-like purple stained the skin beneath her eyes, and her complexion was pallid.

“I’m sorry.” She rubbed again at the tension in her forehead. “I just…”

She caught whatever words were going to come out in her throat, and she readjusted herself, though she still looked weary.

“Did you want something?” She asked, finally, “I’m kind of busy.”

Hellebore should have doubted, should have stopped and turned around and come another day.

If she were thinking about Wormwood, she should have.

But she was not. She was thinking of Oleander, and of Pennyroyal.

“It’s about Oleander-” She began, but cut herself off as Wormwood scrunched her eyes closed as though in pain.

“I know.” Her voice squeaked, as though the air was struggling to escape from her windpipe, “I know. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry I let this happen.”

Hellebore blinked. She took in the apology, thinking such emotion to be strange of the ever-positive Wormwood and thinking to the conversation she’d just had with Pennyroyal.

“If… If you’re sorry,” She spoke the words carefully, her bravery still too new for assertion, “If you’re sorry, then fight to make it better. Fight with me to get him, and the Weeds we lost, back.”

Wormwood opened her eyes, took in the woman standing before her.

And leant back into her chair, averting her gaze to the floor.

“I can’t.” Her lips twisted, “I can’t, I promised Khat-”

“There are lives at risk, Wormwood!” Hellebore clenched her fists tightly, “Khat will forgive you, but lost lives are lost forever!”

“I know that!” Wormwood’s fist mirrored Hellebore’s against the desk. “I know that, of course I know that!”

“If there was ever a reason to fight, this would be it.” Hellebore pushed, “There’s no way we’re getting in and out of the Chapel of Law with one messiah and several dozen people from the Hand without being seen!”

“So we attack!” A new voice put in, thrill ringing clear in it’s tone.

Medlar sidled into the room like he was celebrating a victory.

“We attack, and we free ourselves from the tyranny that would lock people up and torture them as part of the curriculum!”

Wormwood glare grew cold upon him, but he did not back down. He only drew closer, eyes aglow with hope.

The room was deadly silent, except for the heavy breathing that emanated from each of them for all different reasons – thrill, or despair, or weariness.

The brown wooden-effect walls pressed as though the gravity acting upon them was aware that right now a decision would be made.

Hellebore could feel it – this was a moment where the future of their society would be chosen, and she herself may have played a role in provoking it.

She did not regret it.

Wormwood sat forward, lips twisting as though tasting something unpleasant, but the chill in her eyes eased.

“What do you have in mind, Medlar?”

Medlar pumped his fist in triumph, and rummaged in his coat, revealing from a pocket folded plans he must have had prepared for a long time from the dirt and tearing of them.

He lay them flat against the smooth dark wood of the desk.

The pencil sketching was rough, but clear.

“A bomb.” He said, simply, and then as he was met with alarm, “Well, a series of small bombs. Smoke bombs only, to distract.”

He pulled another piece of paper free and spread that, too.

This one showed a long blade, and a curved item that looked more like a toy than a weapon.

“I have contact to a group of traders from abroad that my parents worked with before they were taken into the Hand.” He explained.

Hellebore thought that the group was no doubt the reason his parents were taken to the Hand, but she let him continue.

“They supply swords, like these,” He tapped his finger over the long blade, “And guns, too.” He pointed to the curved object.

“Guns?” Doubt struck in Wormwood’s voice, “Like those used in the Waste War? I thought they were banned from the Garden.”

Guns. Hellebore knew about them from being abroad. The thought of bringing them to the Garden… frightened her beyond belief.

But she needed to save Oleander, by any means necessary.

“No, nothing as powerful as that.” Medlar shook his head, seeming uneasy himself at the thought, “And, yes, but so is coffee, and soft towels.”

Hellebore had tasted coffee. It was bitter and reminded her of dirt, and yet was addictive. Abroad, when she had been captured by the enemy, one of the men would sneak her a cup of coffee once a week. It was her only joy in a nightmare.

Until it stopped coming, and so did the man.

“Guns in the waste war were packed with toxins and spores, made to wipe out not just the person hit with the bullet, but potentially harm those around them, too.” Medlar continued with a tight voice, “Nobody wants to relive that, not even overseas.”

Overseas life was very different. Even just across the channel at the bottom of the country, once you had crossed the desert, life continued to develop, whilst her country had come to a standstill.

Other countries weren’t as small as the one Hellebore was living in. Others hadn’t suffered so completely. In some countries, there were cities that shone, reaching up to the sky like buildings from the Old Civilisation, made almost entirely of glass. People used electricity from colossal white windmills and running water. They would sit for hours in front of flat screens that emanated light so bright it seeped right through their eyes. They produced the same item of clothing in the thousands.

It was very foreign. Perhaps her curiosity was why she was caught.

More likely it was her skill, or lack thereof.

She forced herself from her past, and focused on Medlar again.

“These just use regular old bullets.” Medlar assured Wormwood, “They kill with a good shot, not with tricks.”

“In and out, and they’re dead?” Her voice rang with something almost like longing.

“Well, no. I mean,” Medlar shifted uneasily, glancing from Wormwood to Hellebore. Hellebore showed no sign of noticing. “They don’t usually come out again. They can kill, or injure.”

Wormwood pressed her lips tightly, and put her forehead against her raised knuckles, trusting her weight to her elbows that sat on the desk.

Hellebore could see the argument running in her mind through her eyes – how they flickered, how they winced and widened and closed.

Eventually, she leant back in her chair again, placing one hand flat on the table and picking at an invisible spot of dirt with the other. She feigned disinterest.

Hellebore wondered if pretending not to care was one way Wormwood dealt with difficult situations. It was how she had dealt before, when she was young and she and the other orphans found out about Wormwood’s home life, and they’d told her they’d rescue her.

Her eyes had been dead, and her skin pale and she swore in monotone that she needed to get back to the house because she had work to do.

And where did that lead her? Hellebore didn’t know. Her mum had found her when they were on the way to the Rose Garden, and taken her away to be a soldier.

Invisible dirt apparently gone, Wormwood tapped a chewed finger against the desk.

It made a dull, quiet thud.

Thud. Thud. Thud.

“How quickly can you get hold of these items?”

Medlar’s shoulders rose in delight.

“Within the week.” He gasped, then reconsidered, unable to hide the excitement from his voice, “No, three days! Give me three days! I’ll get more than enough for every Serpent member, and more.”

“You have three days.”

“Thank you!” Medlar exclaimed, backing out. “Thank you!”

His running footsteps echoed down the corridors, still audible as he thumped up the stairs.

When Hellebore turned back around, Wormwood looked even more tired than before, and there was an uncomfortable sparkle in her eye.

“Wormwood, are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” She slid open a drawer, watching her hand rather than meeting Hellebore’s eye. “I’m tired. Sorry, but could you leave?”

“Yeah… Okay.”

Wormwood was rummaging in the drawer as Hellebore closed the door behind her.

Poppy hurried over, Pennyroyal now nowhere to be seen. Hellebore assumed Poppy had taken her to her room whilst she had been with Wormwood and Medlar.

“Wh-what h-happened?” Poppy stuttered, eyebrows raised, “M-Medlar just r-ran p-past like someone h-had given h-him a goat.”

“Not a goat.” Hellebore heard her voice ring with heaviness, “Wormwood just gave him a war.”

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