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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7. Chapter 6 - Hellebore

As usual the room had been left in a clutter. Hellebore patrolled the classroom picking up sheaves and notebooks, pencils and chalk, for what seemed like forever until she was satisfied it was clean.

Or clean-enough for a classroom forced to accommodate thirty-six children.

As she organised the notebooks and papers on her desk at the front of the classroom, she thought of their faces looking back at her.

It wasn’t like when adults looked at her; this was easier. Children were innocent of any crime, any real hatred, and desperate for knowledge.

Most of them. And if they weren’t, they were quiet.

Sometimes, Hellebore wished they wouldn’t be so quiet. In her crowded classroom on the first floor of the bunker children from all walks of life came together – the children of wealthy allied farmers, disbelieving of the Garden’s rhetoric and wanting their children to get a non-religious education; the children of thieves, arriving blind-folded from the centre of the Thieves’ Guild, guided by their parents so that they wouldn’t fall but would be able to say truthfully that they didn’t know the location of the Guild if caught; and the Street Roses.

Hellebore’s heart bled most for the Street Roses. They were quiet, except when something she taught or something they saw would make them whimper. Sometimes they would flee the classroom in a fit of terror, and Hellebore would be forced to give chase. She would most often find them curled into corners, covered in whatever they could find – cloth, cardboard, trash. They wouldn’t talk to her, but she would talk to them, sing to them, until finally they would take her hand and return to the classroom, or be convinced to rest in their rooms.

And it was all the more painful for their age.

No child that she taught was over the age of twelve.

Hellebore realised that she’d gotten distracted and wiped the tears from her eyes. She went back to organising her papers, but quickly became aware that there was nothing else to do but put them away in a drawer.

So she did.

And then she sat.

And she thought of the Street Roses again. And she thought of Wormwood.

Wormwood scoured the alleyways of the Garden by herself on a weekly basis, finding Street Roses and coaxing them with utmost care out of danger and to safety, to the Serpent, where they could rest, have good clothes and good food and be warm.

Where they could be at peace. That was what drew them in most – the idea that maybe they could be at peace again.

Hellebore couldn’t claim to understand Street Roses like Wormwood did, but she understood some of what they had been through.

They had been Rose children once, relished and educated to one day take their parent’s place as a Gardener. But that security had been stolen from them because they couldn’t do one single task-

Torture another human being.

Hellebore was not a Rose child. She had never been a Street Rose. She’d done a lot of her growing in an orphanage until her mother had found her again and made her a soldier. But she’d never been made for that life, for the killing. She was strong physically, but never in her head.

She’d betrayed trust, run away from old friends, lied. Heck, to avoid meeting any of the people who had known her, she’d volunteered to go to a foreign land and spy.

And when she had, she’d been caught by those foreigners for a stupid mistake.

She was no spy. No soldier. No savant or noble or saviour.

In the moments she was being tortured, she was nothing at all. Just pain. Everything she had been became pain.

At her desk again, she curled tightly into herself, arms around her chest, knees against her shrivelled breasts.

She knew the unshakeable fear that could send someone running from a room. She knew the flashbacks like they’d always been there, the nightmares like the Stranger looming over her.

She buried her face in her knees.

“H-Hellebore?” Came a breathy voice from the door.

Hellebore hadn’t even heard the door open.

In stumbles, the person made their way to the desk, and then she was wrapped in comforting arms.

Her lip shook.

“It’s o-okay.” The person whispered, as soothing as they could be around their lilting voice. “It’s gone. You’re h-here. In th-the classroom at th-the Serpent’s Nest.”

Hellebore felt herself breathe, felt the first tear on her cheek, and tilted her head back into the person’s chest.

“Y-you’re H-Hellebore. Y-you’re th-the teacher of th-thirty-six children, giving th-them a great education, and y-you’re th-thousands of miles from th-that country.”

Hellebore breathed deeply. Four seconds in, hold for two, six seconds out.

“Y-you’re h-here.”

“I’m here.”

“Y-yes.”

“In the bunker. In the Serpent’s Nest.”

“Y-yes.”

“I’m a teacher.”

“A great one.”

Hellebore breathed again.

“Thanks, Poppy.”

“No p-problem.”

Poppy pulled away in small jerks, and Hellebore turned to face her, letting her legs return to the floor, forcing herself to stretch out her arms.

Poppy was tall. Nearly the tallest person in the Serpent. When they both stood, the top of Hellebore’s fluffy red hair hardly reached Poppy’s breast.

The dark skin of her face had a sheen to it in the watery light of the classroom’s glits – residual sweat, Hellebore knew. The rest of her skin was covered by cloth, but Hellebore was well aware of what was underneath Poppy’s rainbow-stained lab coat-

Pock-marks, burst veins, the remnants of blood and chemicals.

Of her steel grey eyes, the left was the palest, nearly milky with blindness. It had long been so, since before they had met as young teens. Her father had made it so.

But the stumble and the extensive stuttering was her own doing.

Hellebore didn’t understand it, even now, not fully – if she had been so mistreated by her father, so afraid of what he did to her, of his experiments, then why, in the years that followed her freeing herself from him, had she begun his experiments anew?

“You need a new guinea pig.” Hellebore commented, glancing away to the drawer where she had put her papers.

“I won’t u-use y-you to test m-my m-mixtures.”

“Your chemicals and drugs are destroyin’ you.”

“I’m not going to die.”

Hellebore pouted. She had no knowledge to argue. Poppy’s biology was something of an enigma, and her relationship with death was complex. She had come close to experiencing it many times, described the feeling of dirt piling onto her chest and the roots of yew trees trying to squeeze into her skin, but every time she had survived, dragged herself back to the world of the living, or been pushed.

And no one knew why.

“I know.” Hellebore whispered, “But you’re only human.”

Poppy smiled, a wink of hope in her eyes as Hellebore came back to herself, but sadness, too.

“I h-have to get science going again.” She whispered back, patted her friend on the back, and then, in wobbling strides, left the room.

Hellebore curled her fist, and bit her lip to force the tears away.

 

~

 

 

Hellebore was half way back to her room when she heard the scuffling, and hurried round the corner to see a small group of children at each other’s throats.

“Hey!” She called, storming towards the swarming mass, throwing arms into the gaps to pull them apart, “Hey, stop that!”

They broke apart, rubbing their bruises guiltily, throwing dirty glances at each other, and avoiding Hellebore’s eyes.

“What in all the Waste is goin’ on?” Hellebore demanded to know. But as she said it, she saw the child on the ground by the wall. “What happened?”

The other children shrunk under her stern gaze.

She crouched down to the child by the wall. He seemed very small wrapped up in a foetal position.  His skin was pale, with great shadows under his eyes and in his cheeks. His brown hair was a tangle of rat’s tails across the floor.

“Teasal.” Hellebore started, softly. The child flinched. “It’s okay. They’re not goin’ to be mean to you anymore.”

Teasal’s eyes were wide in horror. Hellebore realised he wasn’t hearing what she was saying.

“They were giving Teasal a hard time.” Another boy, a lot like the one on the floor but somewhat tidier, said. Looking between them, they might be twins, but that wasn’t the case. Teasal was four years older, but still looked so young. “I was trying to stop them.”
“What were they doin’, Scabious?”

“Punching him. Calling him names.”

Hellebore turned her practiced teacher’s glare back on the other children – two boys and a girl – towering above them despite not being very tall herself.

“Not me, miss!” Insisted one of the boys, “I wuz tryna stop ‘em, too.”

He pushed his black hair from his face, and puffed him chest out defiantly.

“‘Stop bein’ mean’, I said, but they wasn’t listenin’, miss.” He continued.

“Is that right?” Hellebore crooked an eyebrow. She knew the boy well, as she did all the farmers’ and thieves’ children. He was a thief child, and not one for doing what he was told, though that didn’t mean he was badly behaved.

“He was helping me, Miss Ranuncula.” Scabious tugged her sleeve lightly.

“Well, that’s very good of you, Jack.” She smiled at him, “Could you help Scabious take his brother back to their room, please, while I deal with these two?”

Jack nodded quickly, and together they encouraged Teasal up from the ground.

Behind her, the other two had frozen. They were the children of farmers and were no doubt thinking of what their parents would say if they heard what they’d done – it was no secret that the Street Roses were very dear to the Serpent’s leader, even if it wasn’t fully understood why, and all allies feared the consequences of testing that.

The twins looked back and forth from one another to their teacher.

“Toadflax.” She addressed the boy, then the girl, with an angry frown, “Mullein. Explain to me what happened.”

They looked to each other, taking turns to encourage the other to explain.

“Toadflax.” Hellebore made the decision for them.

He looked at her with blue eyes swimming with the kind of terror only a teacher can instil.

“He… He wasn’t helping enough in Crafts.” He huffed, “We were doing all the work, me, Mull, Jack and Scab, and Teasal was just sitting in the corner not doing anything or talking or anything.”

“So you decide to bully him?”

“No! We just thought…” The girl started, stepping in to the defence of her brother, “If we shook him up a bit...”
Hellebore sighed, and lowered herself to meet their eyes.

“Y’know Teasal and Scabious are Street Roses?” She asked, voice quiet, “Do you know what that means?”

Hellebore knew they didn’t know the full extent of it, both of them being only nine years old.

They both curled their mouths downward, guilt suddenly striking them.

“Their parents didn’t want them, so they didn’t have a home.”

“That’s right.” Hellebore confirmed, “The streets are very dangerous so they were always scared, and there’s not a lot of food so they were always hungry. Could you imagine living like that?”

They both shook their heads quickly.

“Now, don’t you think Teasal has been shaken up enough?”

They cringed, and lowered their heads.

“Sorry.” They mumbled.

“I think there’s someone who needs to hear that more tomorrow.” Hellebore smiled as gently as she could, “Let Scabious know you’re sorry, and try to give Teasal some room. Okay?”

They agreed.

“Now, shouldn’t you be gettin’ home?”

And off they ran down the corridor. Once they were out of sight, Hellebore could hear them jeering at each other until they were beyond ear shot, too.

She started down the corridor to the room that the Dipsa siblings shared on the third floor. With a light knock, she entered the room. Scabious sat next to his brother against one bed, hair fluffed on the blanket he had wrapped around Teasal’s head and shoulders.

Jack sat on the other bed, scratching snot from his nose.

As Hellebore entered, he sat up, startled, and push his latest catch into his mouth.

Hellebore swallowed a retch.

“Thanks for helpin’ ‘em, Jack.” She said, once she had composed herself, and he bloomed with pride. She turned, pity in her eyes, to where the brothers sat. “How is he?”

“He’ll be fine.” Scabious’ voice was very soft near Teasal’s ear. He had long since learnt how best to act to ensure his brother’s comfort. “He just needs some time. I’ll sit with him until he feels better.

Hellebore swelled with affection at the boy’s dedication to his brother, and yet the situation was so tragic. At 8, Scabious was far too young to have to shoulder such a responsibility. Hellebore felt her rage at Rose parents rush back into life; parents should take care of their children as best they could – and Roses should be able to better than most as the most well-off in the Garden.

And yet, here were two children – 8 and 12, with many more like them both on the streets and living in the Serpent’s Nest – unloved by their birth parents, forced to suffer and starve.

Teasal had been the one cast out. 12 years old and thrown away because hurting another human being and seeing them tortured by others traumatised him – as it would anyone. Scabious had left just to be with his brother.

Hellebore couldn’t imagine what their home life had been like, or what they’d suffered on the streets.

“Teasal.” She said, voice soft but loud enough to reach the older boy. “Rest for as long as you need. Don’t worry about class or Crafts tomorrow, you can come back when you’re ready.”

With that, she bid them farewell and closed the door.

Jack followed her into the corridor.

“You’re real nice, miss.” He grinned, “I’m real glad you’re our teacher.”

Hellebore blew out air disbelievingly.

“No, really.” He insisted, “Cuz if you wasn’t, there wouldn’t be no one t’ teach us ‘bout all this stuff, and I’d not have any education at all, would I?”

Jack was 11, a black-haired beauty with skin the colour of fertile soil, and Hellebore didn’t doubt he could charm people out of their homes if he wanted.

“Do you have magic, Jack?”

He scrunched his face, confused by the change in topic.

“Nah, not a single one.” He shrugged, eventually, following Hellebore down the corridor, “Else I woulda been boss o’ this place by now.”

Hellebore laughed, and the boy flushed with pleasure.

“Listen, I could do Teas’ bit at Crafts tomorrow. I don’t got nowt better to do.”

“Your parents don’t need you?”

“Not like I get to thief nothing proper yet anyway.” He complained, “‘Sides, I like making the candles and stuff, dun’t I? I like playing with the wax ‘n’ making it different shapes. An’ I’d do anythin’ to help this place keep goin’. I like it here. It’s real good for people like Teas.”

They had reached the stairwell up to the fourth floor which then led to the exit.

“You’re a good boy, Jack.” Hellebore patted him on the head, “You’re goin’ to grow up to be great, I know it.”

Jack blushed and looked at his shoes.

“Now, I imagine your parents will be waitin’ for you.”

He smiled coyly, and rushed up the stairs with a wave.

Hellebore’s heart, for once, felt very light.

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