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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8. Chapter 7 - Mistletoe

“You have news?” Wormwood threw down her pen eagerly to listen to Mistletoe.

“I do.” Mistletoe confirmed, dampened her thumb, and leafed through her notes until she reached the day’s date. “I wrote this down after a meeting of my mother’s with guests.”

“The Astera family?”

“Unfortunately not.”

Mistletoe felt almost disappointed in herself to see the slight droop in Wormwood’s posture.

“But connected.” She quickly added, just to see Wormwood brighten. “You’ll remember Foxglove? She’s taken her father’s position in the Chapel of Law.”

“Wonderful.” Wormwood’s elatedness was forced, her smile tight, “I wasn’t aware the Astera and Plantagina families still had connections. And when did the Visca family start paying attention to the Plantaginas?”

“Most Rose families are trying to connect nowadays.” Mistletoe explained. “Multiple other family names were mentioned in the discussion as well.”

Wormwood was still for a moment, except for the irritated tapping of her pen on the battered desk. Eventually her mouth twisted in thoughtful focus.

“Perhaps we should act.” Mistletoe suggested, closing her pad. “They’ve been debating, but despite 8 years already having passed since the Messiah’s appointment, beliefs still seem to be at odds. A distraction may prevent further agreement- and further action - at least for a while.”
Wormwood’s pen stopped. She placed it on the desk, and then stood.

“A distraction would be perfect. Is Oleander around?”

Mistletoe let a knowing smile creep onto her lips. Wormwood saw it, and breathed a laugh.

“Okay, that was a stupid question.” She admitted, “Could you find him before dinner? Ask that he goes to the thieves as soon as is safe tonight. I want their best lock picks and sneaks inside as many Rose houses as possible. We need more information about why the houses are trying to connect further.”

“Should I send a translator?” Mistletoe hid the reminder in a question.

Wormwood’s seemed to twitch in embarrassment, but then beamed, clearly grateful.

“Poppy. Please.” Wormwood said.

“Will we be okay without our doctor?”

“For one night. We’ve enjoyed our dormancy, she’s had nothing to do. She needs a distraction from her chemicals.”

“Alright.”

“But I want her back as soon as possible.”

“Of course.”

Mistletoe noted Wormwood’s requests in her pad.

“Anything else?”

Wormwood flattened her lips in contemplation – her eyes a flicker of guilt and worry. Eventually, they settled.

“I don’t want the thieves taking unnecessary risks. This is just information gathering, I want no one sent to the Hand.” She declared, palm flat on the desk. She lowered herself slowly back into her chair. “Have Oleander tell them to get out of sight if they even so much as think they have been heard.”

Mistletoe’s smile was compliant as she added to her notes.

From the corner, the shadow shifted and a scabbed young man came into view, brows knitted closely, thick and dark. His black, upturned eyes settled on Wormwood in clear disappointment.

“You can’t be so soft.” His voice was deep and rasping, only a hint of his parents’ accent apparent, “They’ve agreed to follow you, they know what’s at stake. You can’t have them running at the slightest sound!”

“It’s merely caution.” Mistletoe tried, catching him with a steady glare.

“It’s not caution, it’s fear.” He growled. “A leader shouldn’t be afraid to send her men to do what they must.”

“There is no must, Medlar.” Mistletoe insisted, but couldn’t put as much force as she would like into her voice. She couldn’t entirely disagree with his concerns – since the appointment of the Messiah the laws of the Garden had grown stricter and crueller, prejudice growing under the claim it was the Lord’s justice and will. More people than ever were at risk, but so were more of those at risk finding their way to the Serpent.

“If there were a time for must, this would be it!” He cried, “Cruelty and prejudice are increasing every moment! People are being taken, without pretence, for their sexuality or origins! We must act against the Gardeners now. Send in our men on the offensive!”

“I will not send our allies to risk capture whilst we sit here idly.” Wormwood’s voice was quiet, patient, but her eyes were shielded.

“Any good soldier should be willing to risk capture, or death, for their cause, and for their leader!”

With a boom of fist on wood, Wormwood was on her feet again,

“They are not soldiers! This is not some kind of war!” She boomed, eyes hot on Medlar, “And I will not send willing allies on the offensive, without provocation, without full proof that the result will be better than what we have now.”

For a few electric seconds, the two stared each other down. Mistletoe looked on in silence, feeling the tension pressing on her.

This was not the first time Medlar had demanded that Wormwood attack, and not the first time she had refused. Mistletoe felt like a stranger to their debates – she toed the line, seeing both perspectives and trying her best to mediate, but neither of her companions were quiet in their personalities, and getting a word in once the arguing began had been hard since the day Medlar had first forced his way into Mistletoe’s daily meeting with the leader.

In an instant he had Wormwood enraged, demanding he be privy to discussions of strategy, even as he was told there was at present no such thing in the Serpent, a small community built to keep those at risk from the prejudice that chased them. Since then, he had haunted Wormwood’s steps, and Mistletoe’s as a by-product.

As many times as Mistletoe had tried to turn him away he had given her a reason to attack – to turn this small community of vulnerables into an army and tear down the Garden and it’s evils once and for all.

Mistletoe hadn’t needed convincing, really. Her patterned skin had invited a fair share of cruelty – she had been called a changeling, a cow in human guise, an abnormality.

Her own experiences had opened her eyes to those of others, those that her parents never saw.

That was why she had come to the Serpent.

To help stop people suffering like that.

But she could not force a girl’s hand – and that was what Wormwood was. She was 18 and new to leadership. Mistletoe could not bring herself to add lives to that burden.

“The more we wait,” Medlar gritted his teeth now, “The more people are getting hurt just for being who they are.”

Wormwood was still, her eyes vacant, her mind clearly busy searching for an answer.

Medlar held her gaze a few moments longer, and then strode to the door, slamming it in his wake.

Mistletoe glanced from his wake to Wormwood, still frozen in her place.

Her heart almost tore in two – She knew Wormwood had her own heart set on the rescue of rejected individuals, perhaps even on the reshaping of the Garden, but as much as Wormwood debated the idea, off-hand, to Mistletoe, there had never been a true plan. Every now and again she would call for action: spy, steal, trick.

As time went on, the acts became more infrequent, and Mistletoe began to further realise Wormwood was avoiding the required action, and fear really might be the reason.

“There could still be a way.” Wormwood bit her lip. “A way without violence. We could use the political system. There could be a route-”

Mistletoe couldn’t hold her tongue any longer.

“I fear there isn’t.” She couldn’t hold the girl’s gaze, “With the Roses becoming so tightly knit there is no room for new individuals, and certainly none like us.”

Wormwood looked lost, and Mistletoe’s heart shattered entirely. For a moment she recalled the little girl at tea in a summer dress, made of sunshine, toying with the yellow roses. The little girl wore that same lost look when her mother hit her for tearing the petals apart.

Mistletoe continued nonetheless,

“He’s right.” She confessed, an arrow striking her chest with every word, “The longer we leave it the more people get hurt. But also, the less likely it is that there is a peaceful way in.”

Wormwood frowned deeply, her chin creasing. She turned to her papers, pen in hand once more.

“You said you want to reshape this town,” Mistletoe raised her chin high, forced herself to look at Wormwood, “Sometimes that requires some destruction.”

With one last, imploring glance at Wormwood, Mistletoe turned towards the door.

Her chest felt tight, pained, her mind spun with the adrenaline of releasing the words.

She grasped the cold of the door handle.

“How is Ragwort?” Wormwood’s voice was rushed, a failed attempt at feigning casualness.

Mistletoe paused at the door.

“He seemed well.” A small amount of warmth spread back into Mistletoe’s chest, “He likes the calico cat best.”

With that, she left the office.

 

Outside, she found Medlar waiting for her, leaning against the wall twisting strands of his long, thick black hair into plaits with his fingers.

He almost startled as she emerged.

“Did you convince her?”

Mistletoe grimaced at him, and whirled away.

“I told you to get off her back.” She growled.

He trotted after her.

“But you know I’m right!” He pushed.

“Whether you’re right or not doesn’t mean you should push it on her! She’s just a girl!”

“She’s the person in charge!”

“She’s eighteen!

“And we’re hardly older!”

He was walking by her now, head only just above Mistletoe’s shoulder though she refused to look at him, letting her white-blonde hair shield him from her sight, even in the corner of her eye.

They strode down the corridor together, each trying to outpace the other, to gain the lead, or to lose the competition, until finally they had nowhere else to go but their rooms – 312 and 317.

But Medlar didn’t continue to his own, instead lingering by Mistletoe’s door.

“Please, Mistletoe.” He pleaded, not his first attempt at begging, “I know she’s afraid. Of violence, or loss, or something, but we both know there’s no other option.”

Mistletoe hesitated reaching for the door knob – this was the first time he had tried to recognise Wormwood’s fear beyond cowardice.

“She has the facilities – the farmers, the priests, the thieves!” He listed them off, “Heck, I bet most, if not all, the Weeds would join her in an instant if she only asked.”

With a sigh, she turned to face him, letting her hand drop away from the door.

“I know.” She admitted, “I know she could do so much with this town if she only tried, but she doesn’t have the confidence, not where other people are concerned.”
Mistletoe knew Wormwood would race into danger herself as and when it was needed, but the lives of others were something she was unsure how to bear – they meant something far more to her.

And Mistletoe knew she had Khat on the other side of the argument every time Wormwood even attempted to think about a violent path. They would have to have firm evidence or something very extreme would need to happen in order to dislodge Khat’s words from Wormwood’s mind.

“So let’s give her the confidence.” He said, voice suddenly low, glancing around and moving into a more conspiratorial position, closer to Mistletoe. “She said she had no good reason, let’s give her one.”

“Give her a reason?”

“A goal, something to move towards!” He exclaimed in excited whispers, “She’s been idle too long, all she needs is cause to move!”

 

~

Mistletoe would have stayed at the Serpent’s Nest forever once she’d handed out Wormwood’s orders, but she knew her family wasn’t so blind to her existence as to overlook an all-night absence without prior warning.

After all, they had need for her in their own way.

More importantly, Wormwood needed her back in the centre of the Garden, finding out what she could.

But what for?

She was not the only pair of eyes in the city, and the Rose Garden wasn’t where the bulk of those at risk had to spend their lives.

If they weren’t going to mobilise against the tyranny of the Messiah and his Gardeners, then could she not run away tomorrow? The Serpent would go on.

Except without the purpose they were promised the farmers would withdraw their own promises and therefore the bulk of their food supply, the priests would have to put their focus back into the town and the Thieves’ Guild would grow impatient and might start acting on their own.

Mistletoe was the only thing stopping them from doing that– the only one whose job in the town was based solely on benefitting the Serpent.

Bluebottle frequented the Rose Garden, but she came to be a nanny. Her purpose was ultimately the children, the information a bonus.

Khat was a nocturnal worker of a brothel, but most of her information was limited to the Weed Pit, and Mistletoe suspected there was only so much information one could extract from a Rose whilst fucking like a pair of mad dogs.

Mistletoe was the only one whose focus was information alone, the only one Wormwood exchanged information with, the only one that seemed to be doing anything for the Serpent that kept their allies appeased and kept everyone healthy and fed.

Mistletoe rubbed at her eyes with the heels of her palms, then blinked the stars from her vision.

The ceiling above her was plain grey concrete, like the rest of the house. Like most of the town, like the Chapel of Law, the Chapel of Knowledge, like the bunker where the Serpent laid it’s head.

She turned over, settling her eyes on her bedside table – dark wood – counting every stripe, wondering how old the tree had grown before it had been cut down.

Beneath her night gown, she could feel the cool press of her notepad between her breasts. The ink was dry, but she felt like it was printing itself onto her, Wormwood’s orders becoming her.

Mistletoe loved Wormwood. She liked to think she knew her better than anyone – they had been like sisters as children. Mistletoe would take Wormwood to the market when their parents were busy, they would share fruit whilst sat on the rocks in front of the Chapel of Knowledge. They’d share books, share secrets, share everything.

Until everything changed.

Mistletoe turned again and relieved her bosom of the pad so she could finger the pages.

Maybe that was where Wormwood’s fear had come from.

But Mistletoe could never understand that, even as she wished she could – she wasn’t the eldest child, and had never been destined for power like Wormwood.

Once again, she found herself staring at the ceiling.

She loved Wormwood, but maybe Medlar was right, and maybe his plan would work.

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