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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28. Chapter 27 - Catmint

Miss Ruta had a cell mate.

The fact was more peculiar in that she only had one, than that she had one at all, though that was surprising, too.

Catmint had already figured there was something about her that made Darnel treat her differently, not that he knew what it was.

There were soldiers in the cells. Catmint didn’t think they’d done anything wrong, and Darnel mostly left them alone, but they filled up the Hand with the sound of anger and fear, overlapping the pain and despair that was more familiar.

Whilst the other cells had filled to bursting with them, Miss Ruta had remained alone.

But now she had a cellmate – a figure, curled up against the wall, facing the corner.

Not moving. Not speaking. Eating, but not when anyone watched.

In the couple of days since they had arrived, Miss Ruta had begun to look stronger. At the very least, she was able to sit up, though she had to use the wall to support herself.

Catmint didn’t really want to look at her. Her skin was crusted with filth – faeces and calcite. Grazes and bruises and gashes ran up and down her arms and legs.

Her cheeks and eyes were sunken.

She watched him sullenly as he crouched at the bars, lowering himself to her eye level.

“Miss Ruta?” He asked, voice soft.

“Catmint.” Hers was sharp. Of course, she couldn’t trust a soft voice.

But he didn’t know how else to talk to her.

He wasn’t surprised she knew his name – Darnel said it enough.

“I…” He hesitated. “I was wondering if-”

“Is this a new method of interrogation?” She didn’t sound defensive, just weary.

“N-no!” Catmint blurted, then, quieter, “No.”

“Then what do you want?” She asked, “What does that monster want now?”

Suddenly, fear flashed in her eyes. She glanced briefly towards her cellmate.

“Please don’t take him again.” She breathed, hoarse, trying to struggle to her knees. She fell, and dragged herself forward on her chest, until she could reach to pull herself up against the bars. “He can’t handle it. He’s suffered enough. Please.

“I’m not here to take… him.” Catmint scratched awkwardly at the bandages on his arms, “I’m not here to take anyone.”

“Then what?”

“I wanted… to ask about you.”

She recoiled. She squinted at him, looking him up and down, though her head shook with weariness.

“What do you want to ask?”

“You don’t have to reply.”

“I’ve heard that before-!”

“I promise. If you don’t want to reply, you don’t have to. I won’t do anything. I’ll just leave, I promise.”

Again, she hesitated, sizing him up.

Then, slowly, she nodded.

Catmint dove straight in.

“What’s your name? I mean, other than-”

“Wait, why is he not with you?”

Catmint scratched at his bandages again, and reached to rub his nose with his finger.

His finger wouldn’t bend.

He pushed it across his skin uselessly.

“I can’t work right now, so I’m supposed to be ‘scouting new sources of information’. It’s not really what Darnel wants, he already has people, but I can’t lift anything so he gave me other work.” He held his bandaged arms forward.

“What happened?” She asked, reaching a shaking hand through the bars to brush the cloth.

“Oh… Um… A man…” Catmint’s voice caught in his throat, “In… In the… the… Darnel’s… work…”

The woman’s eyes filled with sympathy. Naturally, as though it were a reflex, she held his arm gently and rubbed a thumb across the veins in his wrist.

Despite the chill in her skin, there was an encouraging warmth to the action.

“A man… on the table…” Catmint took a shaky breath to steady himself, “He was… alive… and his inside were… out… I tried to put them back in… he… his nails in my arms… and… well, he died… and I can’t put a lot of weight on my arms.”

“It must be painful.” She didn’t speak softly – why would she, with all she’d been through?- but she sounded kind. Far kinder than Darnel’s softness could ever be.

“Not… Not really.” He shook, “No, it is… I don’t want to… I don’t really want to-”

“My name is Rue.”

“Rue.” Catmint repeated, using it to beat away his tumultuous thoughts. “Rue Ruta.”

Rue nodded. Her brown hair hung in thick, damp strands around her grey face.

She tried to smile. Her lips cracked.

“Why are you here?” Catmint implored, seeing the almost-parental care that still shone through in her eyes – and in the defence of her cellmate, even over herself.

Her shoulders dropped, she rattled a sigh.

“Officially… I continued to run an orphanage when the Gardeners told me to shut it down.” She explained, staring at the wall across from the bars. “When they came to take the children, I fought. They didn’t like that.”

“And unofficially?”

“Off-record… I’m acquainted, or I was, to a few people Darnel has connections to.”

“What?” Catmint drew back, “That’s why he’s torturing you? Because you know some people?”

“Oh, they’re very important to him.” Rue huffed, “But I can’t tell you anymore than that.”

He must be waiting for her to confess who they are, Catmint thought.

“That’s okay.”

“Anything else?”

Catmint looked to Rue’s cellmate. He started to take in his appearance- brown hair, tall, thin but not starved-thin. Just thin. His spine was vivid under his skin, pressing as though it was trying to escape.

His face remained hidden.

“Who is he?” Catmint nodded towards him.

Rue looked, too. Pity flooded heavily into her face.

“He came in two days ago, but I don’t know.” She admitted, “Either he can’t talk, or he won’t. And I wouldn’t blame him if he just didn’t want to. He’s been with Darnel for most of these last two days.”

Catmint remembered his own days in the cells. He remembered the terror that clamped his mouth shut and set horrors beating against the inside of his skull.

No, he couldn’t blame Rue’s cellmate, either.

“So, I don’t know who he is. I don’t know his story.” She turned back to Catmint, pressed her face closer to his against the bars, gripping the bars as tightly as she could with her hands. “But he’s young.

“Cat.” A jovial voice boomed down the corridor.

Rue leapt from the bars as best her weak body could manage, and dragged herself back to the wall. She sat against it, and stared, as though she had never moved at all.

Catmint stood, and turned to Darnel.

He didn’t talk. Darnel joined him looking through the bars.

“Oh, yeah.” He turned and called someone who was only a few steps behind him. He directed them to Rue’s cellmate. “Grab him.”

A large brute of a soldier bustled through unlocking the door and entering the cell.

“No!” Rue screamed, arms flailing in useless desperation in the direction of the man, who was picking up the other prisoner from the ground.

He started to squirm, clearly going into a state of panic, pushing against the man, who gripped him as though he were no more than a lump of timber.

His face strained, mouth opening and closing soundlessly, night-blue eyes wide and swimming with distress.

“Wait, Darnel…” Catmint rasped, hardly able to make a sound. “Darnel, wait, he can’t-”

He really was young.

He was really young.

He had to be younger than Catmint, and Catmint wasn’t even 20 yet.

“Darnel-” He tried again, but still he couldn’t find his voice.

And the whole time, Rue was crying.

“No! No, he can’t take it! Please! Please!” She screeched, voice hoarse from the start and growing grittier. Her throat strained, “Take me! Take me, he’s just a boy! He’s just a boy! Please!

“Take him to the table.” Darnel instructed, ignoring her pleas.

Slung over the big soldier’s shoulder, the boy was hefted away from the cell and down the corridor, growing smaller as his silence turned to shapeless wailing.

It echoed back towards them.

Rue was at the bars again, reaching after him with skeletal fingers.

“You beast!” She spat, “You monster!”

Darnel took her hand, enclosing it softly inside his two meaty palms. He crouched to her level, and looked imploringly into her eyes.

Catmint stepped back – had he not done similar a few minutes ago?

“Am I the monster?” He asked, voice ringing with that poisonous false kindness he was so well-practiced in, “If you would tell me what I want to know, this wouldn’t have to happen.”

She couldn’t tear her hand away, though she tried.

Catmint heard a bone crack as she wrenched it backwards.

“No, please…” Her voice was barely a whisper.

When she turned to Catmint, her eyes were pleading like she was a mother who had seen her son taken from her.

Please!” She sobbed, choking on each breath.

Darnel let Rue’s hand fall.

“Come on, Cat.”

He walked after the boy and the soldier down the corridor.

Catmint hoped Rue could see how sorry he felt as he turned to follow.

 

“Why them?” Catmint was almost afraid to ask the question, was almost too tired, but what Darnel had just done to that boy-

Just a child-

What he had done to that boy for most of the past two days-

Catmint was angry.

“Why who?” Darnel asked, absentmindedly. He wiped gore from his hands with a damp towel.

They sat in the break room, Darnel at the water bowl set into the wall, Catmint sat on a bench.

He sat close to where he had with Mezereon the other day.

“The two in the cell. The boy from today, and Ru-… Miss Ruta.”

“She told you her first name, huh?”

“Why are those two special? Why is their cell the only one not full? Why do this to them every day? You don’t do it to anyone else every day.”

Darnel squeezed out the towel. Red-tinged water dripped from the scratchy brown rag back into the bowl.

“Why is it not full?” Darnel hmm-ed. “Because it’s my cell.”

“Your cell…?” Catmint echoed. He tried to imagine Darnel as a prisoner in a cell, but the image didn’t sit right.

“Don’t get the wrong idea, Cat.” Darnel chuffed, “I was never a criminal.”

And I was? Rue was? That boy was? How many of the people you torture are really criminals? Catmint rumbled internally.

“No, it’s my cell because it was my reward. For excellency in my field.” He straightened his collar, puffed up his chest slightly, and grinned with pride back at Catmint.

Catmint replied to his grin with a sneer.

“What, Cat?” Darnel came closer, stooping almost in what could only be a mock-up of a caring-fatherly posture. “What’s that face for?”

It had to be mock-up – Darnel wasn’t capable of fatherliness.

He wasn’t.

Catmint forced the look to stay.

“You didn’t answer all my questions.” He said.

“I didn’t.” Darnel smiled, amused, and sat down next to Catmint with a long breath out. “Okay, let’s see…”

He wrapped an arm around Catmint’s shoulder, affectionately.

False affection, Catmint reminded himself.

Catmint didn’t pull away from Darnel, but he looked away.

“You already know Rue’s name, it seems,” Darnel started, “And the other one is called Oleander. I imagine Rue didn’t tell you that?”

Catmint pressed his lips tight, delaying his answer.

“No.” He replied, eventually.

“No. That’s ‘cause she wouldn’t know.” Darnel explained, “He can’t talk you see. Well, he can, but it’s not easy with no tongue.”

Darnel laughed. His vibrations shook Catmint, too.

“Not easy when you’re being traumatised.” Catmint hissed.

“Oh, Cat, come on.” Darnel almost seemed pleading.

Like a father trying to win back the affection of a child.

Catmint stomped down that thought.

“This wouldn’t have to happen if they’d just tell me.”

“So, what? It’s their fault they’re being tortured?”

Questioned.” Darnel corrected, slightly forcefully.

“Questioned with saws and nails and hammers and scalpels. Questioned, sure.”

Darnel sat back a bit, arm no longer wrapped around Catmint’s shoulders, but clenching the shoulder closest to himself.

He was losing patience.

Catmint felt his stomach turn at that, with a mixture of feelings he didn’t want to even think about.

“It’s not the good people we do this to, Cat. This doesn’t happen to everyone, just those with something to hide. Anyone with something to hide is damaging to the structure of the Garden. It’s not healthy for them to be like that, Cat. It’s not healthy for anyone for them to be like that.”

“So you torture people just for knowing someone, and justify it by saying they’re not the good people?” Catmint spat, eyes ablaze.

Darnel sat forward again, tension vanishing. He gazed intently into Catmint’s eyes.

“You got her to tell you about it?”

“What?” Catmint leant back, his own anger vanishing, too, in his surprise. “No, that’s all I know.”

“Damn.” Darnel bit his thumb, “Well, it wouldn’t have meant anything if she told you who while I wasn’t there.”

“If she told me who?” Catmint pressed his lips tight, wondering whether it was safe to continue his enquiry, “Wouldn’t… Wouldn’t it be useful if she told me?”

“Ah, see, Cat! You’re better at this than you thought!”

Catmint recoiled again. He clenched tightly at the fuzziness glowing softly in his stomach and imagined beating it into the dust of the Waste.

“I don’t want to be better at this!” He cried.

Darnel ignored him, and continued.

“Do you want to know? Do you want to know why they’re in there?”

Darnel’s eyes were wide and excited on him.

Catmint didn’t answer. Not to say yes. But not to say no either.

“It is because they know people. Very important people. Two people – One, Hellebore Ranuncula, is the daughter of my betrothed, Bugbane Ranuncula, and Bugbane would very much like Hellebore home so she could take care of her.” He explained, voice speeding in a thrill of words, “I explained to her, of course, that it’s likely Hellebore is either dead, or otherwise a member of this rebellion that’s been stirred up, so of course I couldn’t just give her back. She’s actually been there. Imagine how much she knows!”

His excitement was infectious – but it wasn’t excitement that Catmint caught.

It was panic.

Panic gripped at his chest like one of Darnel’s meaty fists.

Because Darnel wasn’t just speaking fast – his voice roiled like a psychotic wind, capable of tearing a town to shreds.

And Catmint was afraid – not for himself, but for others. For this Hellebore…

Hellebore…

He knew that name!

He could remember her, just about – a soldier with hair as red as sunset across the clouds and just as soft-looking.

She took her sister from the cells nearly 6 years ago now, she took her sister to care for her. She wasn’t allowed to take Catmint, too.

Hellebore was the one who had Pennyroyal.

Catmint held his mouth tight shut.

“The other,” Darnel shuddered with thrill, “The other, and this is good, this is good, Cat – the other, it’s rumoured, is the leader of this whole rebellion. The one who took the Weeds! Wormwood Astera.

Catmint didn’t know of a Wormwood – but he knew the name Astera. He’d heard it echoed on the lips of Roses walking through the canteen.

Astera was a name with a reputation that preceded it.

The Asteras were one of the highest ranked families in the Garden’s whole class system – close to nobility.

What was an Astera doing leading a rebellion?

“The best thing, the most delicious thing, Cat.” Darnel’s tone suddenly grew serious, “She was my student.

“Your student…?” Catmint could hardly whisper the words, “In what…?”

“In this!” He spread his arms wide, encapsulating everything – the Hand, the prisoners, the torture. “I taught her how to be a Cultivator. She was going to be a Gardener! I watched her tear open wrists, pour hot oil on living skin. I watched her accidentally kill a man when she was 12-years-old, and then move right onto the next prisoner like nothing had happened!”

He breathed deeply, filling his lungs.

Catmint’s head swirled with these ideas – a torturer, a torturer out there leading a rebellion.

And Hellebore was with her?

What about Pennyroyal? Hellebore promised to keep her safe!

But if this Wormwood was bred to torture-!

If she was anything like Darnel-!

Darnel breathed out slowly.

“And then she gave up.” He spat, disgusted, “She disappeared, ran off into the woods, and now she’s pretending to be so righteous by leading a rebellion against all this! Like it never happened!”

His eyes were evil slits when he turned them on Catmint.

They seemed to pulse with cruel amusement.

“I could tear her down with a few words.” He hissed.

Catmint shook. He swallowed. For a few moments, his mouth opened soundlessly as he struggled to form words.

“Why don’t you?” He got out eventually.

“Because, Cat,” He moved closer. Catmint felt his chest constrict. “I’ve dreamt for years of punishing her for this wrong! She was doing so well, and she threw away all the skills God gave her!”

In an instant, Catmint slid out from where Darnel had leant over him, and bolted for the door.

The cruelty melted from Darnel’s face.

“Tell her, Cat!” He called, voice ringing with pride again, “Tell Rue that I already know! The boy needn’t be tortured if she’d just confirm it!

Catmint slapped his hands over his ears, focusing on the pain as it shot up his arms.

 

~

 

“I’ll do it!”

It was all Catmint could do to not crash into Meze as he hurried through the darkened corridors of the Hand.

“What?”

“I’ll-!” Catmint started to repeat, but Meze slapped a hand across his mouth with a glance down the corridor, and led him deeper into the prison, until they reached a door right near the bottom.

Behind the door stretched a long corridor. At the end, the tiniest bead of light shone.

Meze ushered Catmint along it, glancing frantically behind them every few seconds.

As they continued, the dark, mossy walls closed into around them, forcing them to bend over more and more until, eventually, they had no choice but to crawl.

And then Meze put an arm on Catmint’s back to stop him.

Catmint fell back onto his heels with a sigh of relief – his arms were screaming with the pain of having had to hold his weight.

Meze muttered a sorry, and then met Catmint’s determined gaze with his own.

“Are you serious?” He gasped, voice hushed, “You’ll really do it?”

“Yes! We have to get these people out of here. I have to get out of here. Away from Darnel, and I’m not leaving anyone behind for him.”

Meze practically jumped for joy.

“That’s incredible!” He cried, and then glanced about, drawing closer to Catmint and lowering his voice, “Thank you. Thank you so much.”

Catmint shook his head to indicate that there was no need to thank him.

After all, he wanted to do this.

He wanted to tear the Hand apart.

And once it was in ruins, he would go and find this rebellion, and he would free Pennyroyal from it.

He would free her from Wormwood Astera, whose clutches he had unknowingly sent her into.

“What’s the plan?” He asked.

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