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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31. Chapter 30 - Khat

Wormwood was just sleeping.

It had become too much, and she had fainted.

And now she was sleeping.

Every time Khat looked away, even those brief moments, she forgot that was all it was and had to reach out a hand to feel the rising and falling of her partner’s chest.

Because it wasn’t that it had become too much. Khat knew it wasn’t.

There was more to it than that. More to it in Wormwood.

Something was wrong, more wrong than Khat had expected.

Not what Khat had expected.

Nothing Wormwood liked to talk about.

Nothing Khat wanted to think about anymore.

Beneath her hand, Wormwood’s chest rose and fell, steady again.

“She’ll be fine, my Khat.” Khat’s mami hummed from a chair she had pulled from the desk to the other side of the bed. “She will be fine.”

Khat didn’t reply. Rather, she tensed.

She lifted her hand from Wormwood’s chest and placed it on the side of her head, brushing sandy hair away from her forehead with a thumb.

She was pale. So pale.

“Mami, can I have some time?” Khat barely managed to rasp.

From the corner of her eye she saw her mami glance at her, and then at Wormwood. She pursed her lips.

Then tucked her chair back beneath the desk it came from and left.

Khat released her breath in one long sob, curling over on the bed where she sat beside Wormwood.

She moaned into the silence, keening as she cried, rocking back and forth, back and forth, watching her partner lying pale as the grave.

“Help her.” She gripped tightly to Wormwood’s hand, pressing it into her own forehead. Praying. Praying. “Oh, Lord, I have always been faithful, and you have been so kind, please help her.”

Khat’s prayers had always been private, and very often along the same lines, but now she was afraid He had never heard her.

And this time, He needed to.

In her heart, she knew the Nameless God was a kind god, a benevolent god. He would not create beings to be hated, would not create some to love the opposite sex and some to love the same and some none, would not put some in a position where they had to steal or fight or sell themselves to survive – he would not do that if it was to challenge them to win his love.

If he were a cruel god, all would struggle with these things.

But not all did.

He must be kind.

And she needed that kindness now.

“My Lord, I have said your prayer every night, I have studied the Holy Book, I have only ever spoken with love about you even as loved ones have denied you,” She gasped in a breath, “Please do this for me. Help her. This time I’ll try harder.”

She prayed and she prayed.

And Wormwood slept.

And she rocked and she prayed and she cried.

Until, eventually, she fell asleep, too.

 

Wormwood on the cobbles, chest scraping against the stone.

Wormwood lay face up, in Khat’s lap, bloody and cold.

Wormwood stinking of piss and metal.

Wormwood crying and begging.

Wormwood whispering, the very first time,

“Khat, I love you.”

 

Khat woke with a start to a familiar feel of fingertips on her forehead.

Her eyes stung from dryness. They felt swollen – burning with every movement.

She swivelled her head.
Where was she? This room was unfamiliar.

No. No, this was Wormwood’s room.

But everything was different – she hadn’t noticed before. It was subtle, but there was a greater paleness to the room, where before the grey of the walls had been broken by patches of green.

Khat blinked blearily.

“Khat, I love you.”

Khat looked up.

Wormwood smiled wearily down at her. Her hazel eyes swam with affection.

She was sat up in the bed.

Awake.

Alive.

“Thank God.” Khat muttered and reached out her arms to grip Wormwood’s waist. “Thank God.”

Wormwood sighed at Khat’s gratitude, but affectionately.

She made no further comment.

“I was afraid-”

“I was just tired.”

“Just tired!” Khat huffed, sitting up and snatching Wormwood’s arm in one swift movement. Wormwood cringed. “Just tired, my ass, Wormwood!”

Wormwood struggled weakly, and eventually Khat released her arm.

“This doesn’t usually happen…”

Usually? Usually! You said you’d stopped!” Khat pushed herself from the bed, flailing her arms in exasperation. “And I knew you were lying then, but this! Wormwood, now is not the time to lie to me, I’ve seen you recently, even if you haven’t!”

“Khat-” Wormwood started.

“Wormwood!” Khat stomped a foot, demanding silence, and Wormwood flinched. “You’re tired all the time, you won’t shower with us, you won’t even meet my eye in the corridor half the time. You think anyone can’t tell that something is wrong?”

“Well, I suppose fainting won’t help.” Wormwood tried to smile ruefully.

“This is not the time for joking, Wormwood!” Khat breathed deeply through her nose and blinked furiously, but not to stop the tears. Just to make Wormwood see clearly how much she was hurting.

She wanted Wormwood to hurt for trying to divert the conversation again. She wanted her to hurt for trying to lie. She wanted to hurt her for being tired. She wanted to hurt Wormwood.

And she wanted to hurt herself by making Wormwood hurt. Because what other good would hurting Wormwood do now?

“I’m sorry.”

In her raging fluster, this took Khat by surprise.

“Khat, I’m sorry.” There was a genuine regret in Wormwood. In the slump of her shoulders, the downward curve of her mouth, the dampness of her eyes. “I’m sorry.”

Khat felt her tension release slightly.

Maybe she was sorry, and maybe that meant something.

But it didn’t change anything.

“I’ll get you some food.”
Turning to exit, Khat saw Wormwood sink to the pillow, exhausted and disappointed.

 

Wormwood picked at the bread roll and vegetable cake Khat had set before her.

At first she had made a show of scarfing it down, but had almost immediately choked so hard that it came back up.

Now, she made no pretences.

She clearly didn’t want to eat.

“You need to eat more.” Khat said, again.

“I know.” Wormwood sighed, trying hard to smile around her weariness, “I know I do. I am.”

Khat looked at the food on the plate again – most of it already chewed. A big, damp, chewed mess.

She reached for the plate.

“I’ll get you something else.”

Wormwood swung the plate away.

“Oh, don’t bother, Khat. We both know I’m not going to eat it.”

She placed it on the bedside table without looking-

It fell short, clattering to the ground, where the plate shattered. Food splattered against the nearby furniture.

Khat saw Wormwood’s spirit drop, and felt herself drop, too.

Wormwood started to push the covers back on the bed to get up and clean, but Khat pushed her back down.

“Leave it, you need to rest.”

“I’ve been resting for most of a day.” She huffed, “No. I… I need to keep the room clean.”

“Why?”

“Why?” Wormwood repeated, seeming uncertain of what would follow. “Because… It’s not good to leave food lying around. It’ll go bad.”

“Or because you don’t want to ruin the new furniture?”

Wormwood twitched, and lay back, defeated.

“It’s for Ragwort.”

Wormwood’s little brother. Khat knew that name well from Wormwood’s protective gushing. If more opportunities had presented themselves – certainly, if she hadn’t been being so discrete about her Rose origins – Wormwood would have told the entire Serpent all about him.

It was natural that she loved him so much – he had been put down by his mother his whole life for his difficulty fitting in, and Wormwood had sympathised, taken him into her heart in his entirety.

Khat knew Wormwood had struggled with that, at one time. At one time, she’d all but abandoned him.

“I won’t do it again.” She had confessed in whispers one night as she lay by Khat’s side at the Belladonna. They had been 15 and 14 and weren’t quite bold enough to attempt spending a night together. Their love was more innocent then. Wormwood was still reeling from her childhood teachings, and Khat longed for a love that went beyond the physical things so familiar to her from the brothel’s visitors. “I won’t abandon him again.”

Khat placed one hand on her hip and glanced around, taking in again the new paler colours of the room. White and grey, with dots of black. Khat walked around to see more detail.

In general, the room wasn’t very different to how Wormwood had kept it, but there was a new smell, distinct to unused, dusty furniture.

She wandered to the cupboard and swung open the door. It was empty, apart from a few woven, square baskets laid side by side on the bottom.

“Where are all your clothes?” Khat tried to keep her voice light, but she could feel the tension creeping back in again.

“In my study.”
“How many of them did you trade away to be able to get all these new things?”

Wormwood didn’t reply.

Khat moved along to a set of drawers and knelt to open each one individually.

Most she found empty, but the top one was filled with sheep paraphernalia.

Khat ran her fingers around the edges of a small, white, wooden sheep.

“Wait, don’t. He won’t like that you’ve touched it.” Wormwood sat up and started to move from the bed again. “Put it back where it was.”

“Why? Did he put it here?” Khat asked, refusing to look at Wormwood.

Wormwood dithered, sat on the edge of the bed.

“No…”

“Then how will he know?”

“Khat-”

Khat put the sheep back and stood. She pulled the chair out from under the wooden desk, studying the pattern of the cushion – a grey background, with bouncing black-faced white-woolled sheep on it. The cushion was attached to the chair, and a sheep-themed blanket hung over the back.

“How many times did you fold the blanket?”

Wormwood hesitated again.

“Three times. First length ways, then width-ways, then length-ways again.” She confessed. “That’s how he likes it done.”

“How would he know?”

“He-”

Khat strolled across the room again, getting closer to Wormwood.

On the other bedside table, still clean of food, a pile of books stood, each pristine. Khat reached to pick one up.

Wormwood grabbed her hand.

“You can’t.” She sounded pleading, “He will know if you touch these.”

Khat wrapped her hand around Wormwood’s. Wormwood sat back, as though this surprised her.

“They’re his favourites. He needs copies of them.”

“Did you get him anything else?”

“New bedding. Another blanket. A soft sheep toy.”

Khat sighed, squeezing Wormwood’s hand tighter.

She sat down beside her on the bed – a double, where Wormwood’s own had been a single.

“When did you do all this?” She implored, finally letting herself give in and gaze into Wormwood’s eyes.

Wormwood squeezed Khat’s hand back.

“At night.” She admitted. “Laburnum helped me take mine apart, and I borrowed a cart from a farmer to transport everything.”
“Does Laburnum know why?”

Dead silence.

Then,

“No.”

Khat took a steadying breath and put her head down on Wormwood’s shoulder.

“I just… want him to be comfortable. When he gets here.”

“And when is that?” Khat breathed, unable to speak louder.

“I don’t know.” Wormwood said vaguely, but her shoulder shook slightly, “Maybe as soon as next week.”

Khat swallowed the lump in her throat.

“As soon as that?” She heaved.

“As soon as that.”

“You’ll need to free up your schedule so you can be here to greet him.”

Wormwood leant her head against Khat’s, and Khat’s heart seemed to stop, her thoughts stopped, everything stopped. They were too heavy.

Their hands gripped each other’s so tight their knuckles were white, though Wormwood was so pale it was difficult to tell.

“I love you.” Khat rasped. “I’m sorry I’ve been… I was just so mad about… I wish you’d stopped.”

Wormwood’s hand was cold on Khat’s cheek as she lifted her partner’s face to her own.

“I love you, too.” She tried to smile, but it trembled, “I get to love you forever.”

 

Khat woke in her lover’s arms, tangled in a set of single-bed covers that Wormwood hadn’t yet replaced.

She pressed her hand against Wormwood’s chest, and felt her heart beating there.

When she took her hand away, she put her forehead in it’s place.

She would remember this moment, this heartbeat, forever.

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