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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4. Chapter 3 - Mistletoe

AN: Chapter needs refining! Any suggestions would be a blessing > _ <

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The new morning was cold, and breakfast colder. A rap on the door, an apple on the table. Bread optional.

No word of conversation.

Mistletoe alone.

In silence she cut her apple into slices and laid them on the bread in an attempt to make it more interesting. The taste itself, at least, was saved by the quality – only the best for the Viscas, a renowned family of Gardeners.

Later, her mother’s guests would arrive, and be presented with home-woven baskets brimming with these apples. If one tumbled out it was all for the better, as it would show the wealth and faith of the Visca family; the Nameless God granted the greatest yields to His most faithful.

Mistletoe didn’t mourn what her family didn’t let her have– she looked forward to seeing those apples spill onto the table where they would bruise against the hard wood, out of her reach as soon as the baskets left her arms. From her arms the guests would look to her face, take in her skin, her clothes, and see exactly what she wanted them to see – risky beauty, something they shouldn’t want but inevitably did.

She knew she was a display item, another piece of furniture for her mother and older sister to show off when they needed it, but that reality never agonised her. She was kept thin, clean, pretty, and when she was sent into conversation in the parlour she was beautiful.

In her cupboard were kept the most detailed dresses – pleats, flowers, skirts hiked up above the ankles, wrists on show so that her bracelets of holy charms could be seen.

Sure, she was a plaything, a joke, a show of her mother’s blessings, a contrast to her sister’s, all to better their names and grab the attention of the white-skinned competition to the Visca name.

Names were nothing to Mistletoe – beauty was everything.

Beauty and knowledge.

In the parlour, in her God-hated fashion, she was in her element; she was a negotiator, a beauty and a spy for the organisation that wanted to tear her mother’s position from her hateful talons.

So she could cope with the breakfast. She could cope with the isolation. She could cope with the gasps of alarm at the distorted pigmentation of her skin.

She would have it all paid back in full.

Not that her family had ever been outwardly cruel to her. The names, the fear, the disgust, they never came from her father or mother or sister. She had never been bruised or bloodied by a family member’s fist.

It was their eyes that did the most damage, that told her she was not quite a daughter to them. It took a glance, and Mistletoe could see that whatever affection they showed her was faked, meant to appease her into staying around, continuing the charade to help the Viscas stay afloat.

Her skin had been thought of as a divine gift. Physical disabilities and abnormalities were signs of power and magic, granted by the Nameless God and inevitably won favour amongst the Roses – favour which the Viscas were lacking now more than ever, more than a decade after their Messiah ancestor had died.

Mistletoe had brought hope back to the family when she was born.

There had been times, when she was younger, that it had angered her. Even her own parents had looked at her like she was something distant to admire and use, a gift from God, a prize for their piety.

Now her parents looked at her as an object, still useful, but not a divine gift.

If piety meant modest and sin was arrogant, then anything that accentuated beauty was a sin, but that wasn’t the case for those with physical abnormalities. For those people, dressing to distract from their abnormality meant they weren’t bragging about it, and was therefore modesty.

But Mistletoe wasn’t magical.

The visitors need not know that – for them, Mistletoe really was a sign that the Viscas received blessings from the Lord – but her parents did.

The dresses, beautiful and distracting as they were, were a mockery. Such things were typical of magic-less prostitutes and heathens, and Mistletoe understood her parents’ true reasoning for putting her in those dresses.

But, no, she wasn’t angry about the dresses, not in themselves.

She was angry about how little they expected of her, how badly they viewed her.

When her parents realised she had no magic, when they stopped expecting greatness from her, was when she started to push for it of her own accord, and when she had started to realise her own potential and pursue it.

Mistletoe was witty, persuasive, and stunning.

Her first step to becoming who she really was was realising that, and the second was mastering it.

 

~

“May I go for a walk?” She asked her mother as they both untied their aprons and went to close the cupboards where they had returned the plain white plates.

“Of course, darling.” Her mother said, hanging the grey sack apron on it’s hook by the door.

With a brief flick of her hand, she left the room.

Mistletoe was alone again. She carefully placed her apron by her mother’s, and hooked the pen and pad from it’s pocket.

Pen moving in a blur of black ink, she noted down every detail from her mother’s talk with the visiting family – the names mentioned, who moved first, who dominated conversation, and the topics of conversation – then tucked the pad down the front of her dress, in between her breasts, and folded the pen back into it’s pocket.

In a few short steps, she took to the garden, past the red roses climbing the trellises, the summer flowers starting to wilt in their beds, and out of the gate.

Up the cobblestones she walked in great strides, heart pumping elatedly as she approached her next point of call.

Rose houses rose up around in natural splendour. The buildings themselves were made of repurposed concrete blocks, kept tight with mortar and gravel. The dull grey was just beginning to show as summer faded and the flowers wanted to crawl back to their beds, but most of it was still disguised by a rainbow – roses of all colours, dog daisies, geraniums, ivy, fuchsia, rhododendron, sunflowers hung above every door and window in golden glory. Well-kempt flowers of all kinds purposefully poured from their beds, curling up oak frames and house walls. The gifts that God had given man were displayed in all their wonder, shaped and cared for by man as He intended.

For Mistletoe, the idea that any plant life needed man to achieve it’s full beauty was absurd. Priests told her that only man could create Eden, but her whole life had been spent watching the ruins of the Old Civilisation from her window and seeing how nature had moved in after man left, growing itself into a massive, luminous green marvel.

The priests and Gardeners preached that the Old Civilisation was a reminder of what the world could become if man neglected what God gave them, and proof of the Nameless God’s ability to save something thought lost to the Waste, whilst the constant green showed He could not create a perfect Eden on his own.

Nearly a millennia after the Waste War and the abandonment of the Old City, the terror still lingered that the Waste would come again: It was there bearing down on them in the distortion of the sky, a great purple hole to nowhere haunting them always from the horizon; It was there in the blaze of the sun as it blistered the skin and in the fluctuating temperatures; It was there in the towers crumbling in the Old City.

The Old City was terrifying, but thrilling – Legend made life. Mistletoe could only dream of the life the Old Citizens led in their concrete and glass towers before the Waste came crashing into their streets in toxic waves and incinerating heat. How differently had they lived? What had they known? If they could build towers that touched the sky, what else could they create?

The priests and Gardeners called them sinners.

Mistletoe hurried along on her path, one eye on the highest tower blinking over the sun as she rose and fell on her path.

“Ragwort?” She called, at last reaching her goal- a Rose house woven with yellow roses. “Are you here?”

Mistletoe knew better than to expect a reply. Instead, she entered through the gate into the garden, knowing her presence wouldn’t be entirely unwelcome.

A woman with deep auburn hair watched her from the kitchen window, eyes slitted.

Mistletoe gazed back, until the woman finally closed the curtain.

“Ragwort, it’s Mistletoe.” She called again, turning from the house down into the garden to where a collection of wooden buildings stood, entrances shaded from the sun by overhangs.

She found her quarry inside a low, square building filled with cages.

He sat on the straw-covered ground as far from the door as he could be, murmuring sweet words to a calico kitten curled in his lap, enjoying the feel of a gentle hand over it’s back.

Several other cats rubbed against his legs, mewling and meowing for attention, but the boy was entirely focused on his calico.

Mistletoe felt affection loosen her muscles, and closed the door. Slowly, she lowered herself to the floor and sat cross-legged, her back against the wall, watching the joy sparkling in the boy’s eyes.

Eventually, he spoke,

“The calico is my favourite.” He all but whispered, with a voice as soft as the fur between his fingers.

Around him, the other cats meowed louder, as though protesting. A white tom cat launched itself from the floor, pushing off the boy’s shoulder and onto his head, where it kneaded at his golden curls.

“White doesn’t like it.”

“Of course not,” Mistletoe scolded, though not cruelly, “You confessed you like another cat better than him.”

“But I do.” The boy’s sandy brows knitted.

“It’s not fair on the other cats. They might not feel as wanted.”

The boy’s eyes widened.

Very carefully, he scooped the calico from his lap, and brought the white to it’s place, massaging his large fingers into the skin of it’s neck.

The cat’s eyes closed in ecstasy, and the other cats pressed closer.

“I hope you’re looking after them well, Ragwort.” Mistletoe said, slightly stern.

“I am.” He smiled lovingly at the white. “I am.”

“Good.” Mistletoe nodded. With a small grunt, she stood. “I best be gone before Daisy chases me off.”

“Mum doesn’t like you very much.”

Mistletoe sighed exaggeratedly.

“I know.” She rubbed at her eyes to mimic crying, but the action was lost on Ragwort, so she dropped the false frown, taking in the boy’s figure in full before she turned to leave. “Be kind to yourself.”

She swung the door open.

“Bye.” Ragwort farewell-ed briefly.

Mistletoe left him to his cats, and hurried back to the cobblestones of the street.

 

~

The entrance to the Serpent’s Nest was no more than a hole in the ground. All that hid the rusted doors from sight was undergrowth and the dead the Reaper summoned to litter the path.

It was crude and dirty, but Mistletoe could deal with some dirty to get where she wanted to be.

She could imagine the food already – the crust of a potato pie brimming with butter sauce, the sweet steamed carrots, a great towering pile of mash.

Her saliva gland was working on overdrive after her brief breakfast. With newfound strength, she heaved open the doors and dropped into the bunker’s first stairwell, closing the entrance behind her.

She took the steps in threes, skirts scrunched into her fists.

Beauty and knowledge were everything, but food was food.

The Serpent wasn’t just a way to get back at her family – it was companionship, and it was indulgence.

Within minutes, she rounded the corner to the dining room, almost skidding as she forced herself back to a walk.

“Give me a minute.” The cook cried from the kitchen, “It’s almost done.”

“Wonderful!” Mistletoe felt her joy must be palpable, “Laburnum, I love you!”

A minute later, a stout girl emerged from the kitchen, plate in her gloved hands. She was wrapped from head to toe in black thermal clothing, covered to her knees over the bottoms by thin cotton trousers. Her black hair was cropped too close for sheen, and was flattened further by a simple net to prevent escapee hairs. Her skin was the colour of milky coffee– another indulgence Mistletoe was only aware of thanks to the Serpent, which brought it in from the black market. The only produce allowed in the Garden were those God provided in the country but, despite strict trading laws, other countries and the braver, or lower-born, citizens knew how to get what they wanted.

“A nut and boiled vegetable cake with mashed potato and carrots.” Laburnum declared, accent thick, small, moss green eyes dead of any pride or joy in her creation.

Mistletoe made up for it plenty, instantly tearing into the cake with her fork.

Laburnum watched her, nose wrinkled. Mistletoe knew she had stumbled into her position by accident, being the only one with real experience cooking meals. Laburnum had been an accidental immigrant to the Garden years before. She had travelled to the town from the great plains of the east carrying her family’s produce for trade. As she approached the village, her cart had been ransacked by black marketers hunting for valuable produce to hock to luxury-loving Gardeners. She’d sought out the Serpent of her own accord after overhearing talk of it in the alleys she took refuge in. Working on raw vegetables and bad cooking, The Serpent had accepted her into it’s ranks eagerly, Laburnum having cooked frequently for her large family.

With every forkful Mistletoe thanked goodness for Laburnum’s existence.

Halfway through chewing a mouthful, as Mistletoe started to fork up another, Laburnum sat down across from her at the table, peering at her intently.

“Have you heard anything of Catmint?” Her voice was a whisper, barely legible mingled with her accent, but Mistletoe had been expecting the question.

With a soft tink and a loud gulp Mistletoe put down her fork and swallowed her food. She creased her brow.

“Nothing. I’m sorry.” She said, voice also quiet, regretful.

For a second, Laburnum’s eyes sparked with anger, and Mistletoe prepared herself to take a rollicking. But it never came.

Instead, the other girl laid her head on the desk with a deep, weary sigh, arms folded under her forehead. Defeated.

After a moment’s deliberation, Mistletoe placed her hand on top of the cook’s.

“How have you been sleeping?”

Laburnum’s only reply was a tired whimper. She slipped her gloved hands out of sight beneath her arm pits.

“I need him back.” She seemed on the brink of tears, her voice hoarse.

“We’ll get him back.” Mistletoe reassured her, “You know Wormwood is doing everything she can.”

Laburnum didn’t reply, but started to raise her head from it’s perch.

It was then that the doors opened and a young girl with tatty auburn hair rolled into the room in her wheelchair.

Instantly, Laburnum spun to standing and rushed back to the isolation of her kitchen.

“Mistletoe!” The girl cried, eyes glittering with joy. A towering stick of a boy followed her, releasing the door and letting it bang closed behind them. He grabbed the handles of her chair and began to push her towards Mistletoe. “Have you heard anything about my brother?”

Mistletoe forced a softer sorry look to her face.

“I’m afraid I’ve not heard anything about Catmint, Pennyroyal.”

“Oh.” Pennyroyal’s face dropped. But she quickly shook herself and put on a positive attitude. She glanced to the kitchen. “Is Laburnum okay?”

Mistletoe smiled brightly and nodded.

“Just a little tired.”

“If Catmint came back…” But Pennyroyal trailed off as the boy accompanying her put a hand to her shoulder. Instead of finishing her sentence she spun herself to look at him better, an easy feat in a seat when you have nubs instead of legs.

His hands moved fluidly, making shapes that Mistletoe knew meant something but that she had never been able to memorise herself. Here and there she caught a few words – ‘ask’ or something like that, some mention of Wormwood.

“Right!” Pennyroyal cried, and turned herself back to Mistletoe. “Oleander reminded me!”

She glanced back at him with a beaming smile. His mouth seemed to move involuntarily when he smiled back. As soon as she turned away again, it dropped.

“Does Wormwood need me to do anything? Grow anything?”

It took Mistletoe a moment to register that the girl had asked a question, so enraptured was she with the glee that lit up Pennyroyal’s face, rosying her cheeks and making her bounce slightly in her chair.

She blinked, thinking.
“I haven’t spoken to Wormwood yet.” She shook her head, “But Poppy mentioned she wanted some rue.”

“What for?” Pennyroyal’s tone became sceptical. She clearly knew what for, but her sweet nature made her allow people the benefit of the doubt.

“She didn’t say, but she was in her lab flicking empty syringes when she said it.”

“Then tell her I say no!” The young girl harrumphed with a defiant nod. The movement sent a breeze into the hair hanging over the right side of her face, revealing the extensive scar tissue creeping from ear to nose. Quickly, it was gone.

Mistletoe didn’t let the sadness reach her lips.

“She didn’t ask, but Henbane mentioned that it might be nice to have mint in the corridors.”

Pennyroyal beamed again.

“I heard her last night at dinner!” She spoke almost like the two were sharing a secret, her eyes twinkling as though she had committed some harmless mischief. “I’ve already planted the seed. I’ll have mint in every corridor by tomorrow evening!”

“Then that’s everything.”

Pennyroyal nodded again, and turned back to Oleander.

At thirteen, Pennyroyal was the youngest real member of the Serpent. A child, but not a farmer’s child, or a Street Rose that Wormwood had brought in from starving in the forgotten alleyways of the Weed Pit.

Even so, she had her fair share of trauma. Both of the younger members sat at the table did. Mistletoe knew that the scar on Pennyroyal’s face wasn’t the only place she’d been burnt in the Hand. And Oleander’s lips were still white with scars from the knife that cut out his tongue in the same dungeons.

As Mistletoe contemplated their faces and grieved their stories, she heard her name called from the kitchen.

She asked the kids to excuse her, and pushed through the kitchen door.

Laburnum waited for her with a tray in her hands, carrying two bowls of soup, one with generously buttered, fresh bread.

“Will you take these to them?” She asked, voice low, glancing at the door as though she was afraid Pennyroyal might be listening.

Mistletoe allowed herself one short laugh at the cook’s foolishness, and then took the tray back to the children. Pennyroyal rejoiced at the bread, tearing it into little bits, and scattering them in the bowl.

Oleander lifted the soup quietly, and drank it.

Quickly, Mistletoe excused herself.

“I have to go and see Wormwood and get something from my room before I leave.”

The little girl waved her out.

Oleander just watched until the door swung closed behind her.

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