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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13. Chapter 12 - Catmint

“Panic in the streets,” The big man sang, “Makes more work for us.”

Catmint grimaced, narrowing his eyes at the big man’s black-robed back.

“It’s not a good thing.” He spat.

The man adjusted his white collar, and then folded the black collar of his robes down over it.

“Depends on your perspective of work.” He turned to Catmint, grinning and running his hand over his combed-back grey hair, flattening the wires of it.

“Or your perspective of murder.” Catmint mumbled, bending over on the bench to fasten the simple string laces on his dull black shoes.

His whole life seemed to be seen in black and white.

Or, wait… no, not just black and white – there was plenty of red as well.

His clothes – black, top and bottom.

The man before him wearing black and white.

The underground floors spreading out beneath them – black as night until they entered and activated the glits.

And the people down there.

Red.

Red, red, red.

Still leaning down over his tied shoelaces, he brushed his cheek with his fingers, feeling the edges of his eyelids, so tightly closed and damaged that he may as well have been blind in that eye. No eyelashes, no eyebrow, no worth in letting people see it.

Or so he believed, anyway.

The big man had other ideas.

“Agh, stop brushing your hair over your eyes!” The big man grunted, batting Catmint’s hand away from his face. “It’s more intimidating if you let them see your scars. Maybe you’ll inspire a few of them, too!”

In defiance, Catmint flattened his hair back over the burnt side of his face and made a point of making sure his sleeves and pant-legs covered him fully, too.

He wouldn’t show the people here his scars, not even a single bruise, because they didn’t deserve it.

He knew that.

The big man knew it.

But the big man didn’t care. This was his life, and what he was paid for. This was what kept the big man from the Weed Pit.

Catmint didn’t get paid in cash like him. Catmint’s payment was warm meals and staying out of the cells. More importantly, he was paid in knowing his sister – his poor, leg-less sister – was not trapped in the Hand.

And that made it worth it.

Still, it was torturous just being made to watch. He wasn’t a torturer, no. For that, he realised, he could be grateful – since he had nothing much else to be grateful for.

Catmint was the one who carried out the final sentence, and in the five years since he’d been appointed executioner, he realised that he wasn’t nearly as hated as the big man and his other colleagues were.

Because, to the tortured, death – Catmint- was relief. Catmint’s axe was an end to their pain.

It was little comfort. Catmint wished they’d not been put through the pain in the first place.

“So, what’s on the rota?” Catmint grumbled, shoving his hands into his pockets as they strolled down the corridors, passing cage after cage, flicking the glits alight as they went.

Catmint still cringed as the prisoners hissed at the light.

“Oh, it’s an exciting day today!” The big man cheered, “A big old barrel of information is just sitting in a cell, waiting for us to take it!”

Catmint could feel his head pounding as he gritted his teeth again for the hundredth time that morning. His jaw stung, but he’s couldn’t stop – there was so much to grit his teeth over, not least the big man’s glee over dehumanising his prisoners.

“Isn’t that amazing, don’t you think?” He marvelled, “We’re truth seekers, you and I! Well, I am. You just sit around!”

The big man laughed a big belly laugh.

Catmint noticed the prisoners nearest to them shy away, pressing themselves as tightly as they could into the damp, shit-stained corners of their cells.

It’s a cruelty, Catmint glared holes into the back of the big man’s robe, that this monster has an angel’s laugh.

After hearing that laugh, after being under the man’s finger, you learnt the utter evil that must have gone into his entire design. Catmint didn’t doubt that whatever god presided over the people of this town had made the big man to be the ultimate nightmare; he was heavy, strong, built in body to crush everything that made you up physically, and built in mind to crush everything that made you up mentally. He would saunter into your cell speaking words so softly like a saint sent to release you, and stride out singing your wounds down the corridors like the Stranger himself.

 

Lost in his hatred, Catmint almost smacked right into the big man’s back, stopped before a cell two layers below the surface.

The cell poured forth a rancid stink of something metallic. The walls were black stone spread with faeces and moss and red, red, red.

For a moment, Catmint panicked, heart leaping into his throat.

“Should we call a priest?” He gasped, running forward to clutch at the bars and get a clearer look.

The occupant of the cell was splayed across the floor, skin so pale it was almost grey, eyes covered by a greasy spread of knotted brown hair.

Water dripped from the ceiling onto their un-clothed side. They didn’t flinch, despite how cold it must have been, but that wasn’t what convinced Catmint this person must be dead.

On the person’s side, where the droplets slowly splashed, a white lump had begun to form – hardly visible against their horrible pale skin, but at closer inspection the lump was more a curdled white against the person’s corpse white.

A stalagmite was forming on them…

They mustn’t have move for days…

What a fate! Catmint grieved, chest tight in anguish, What an awful, awful fate!

But the big man said nothing, and pushed Catmint out of the way with a meaty hand to get to the lock.

He found the right key on the ring in an instant, and shoved it into the lock.

The person didn’t even flinch.

Even as the big man moved in and grabbed them by the wrist and lifted them into the air, they didn’t respond.

“Ready to speak, Miss Ruta?” The big man asked, voice as courteous as though he was asking if she would like a drink, maybe an apple.

And suddenly the person – a woman, he could see the breasts hanging loosely from her chest now – twitched.

A single, sudden movement, and spit trailed from the big man’s black eyes to his bloodless lips.

“Go fuck yourself, Darnel!” The woman’s aggression was nearly lost in her physical weakness, still she managed to make a growl.

Like casting a leaf over his shoulder, Darnel Loa cast the woman into the wall, and left her crumpled on the floor of her cell.

“Grab her, would you, Cat?” He sighed, patting Catmint on the shoulder as he left the cell.

For a second, Catmint was unable to move, horror ringing through him.

He should be used to this by now – how Darnel treated people like toys, like they were just information on flesh pages, to be torn open and read – but this woman was almost dead!

Except she mustn’t be… Darnel knew well enough how to keep people just on the brink of death.

Somehow that made it worse. He knew she wouldn’t die, he’d just add to her pain.

Catmint hurried forward, crouching by the woman’s side.

“Miss Ruta?” He called, voice shaking, “Miss Ruta, can you hear me?”
No response.

Catmint could hear the blood pumping through his ears. He reached out a hand to check her pulse.

“Come on, Cat!” Darnel called, already leaving, “A strapping boy like you – surely one woman can’t be causing you trouble!”

Like she was cargo… a crate to be carried…

A pulse!

But her being alive only made Catmint feel worse. Invisible insects crawled under his skin. He felt like he was going to be sick.

But he had to move, had to take her.

In one swift movement he lifted her into his arms, cradling her like a baby, as gently as possible, and followed Darnel down the corridors to this woman’s next trauma.

He couldn’t do anything else.

He had to, to protect his sister’s freedom.

 

~

“Good work today!” Darnel clapped Catmint’s back again, “You didn’t vomit!”

He laughed.

Catmint did not.

“You did look away, though.” Darnel shrugged, “I’ve told you, you’ll never step up in the ranks if you keep looking away.”

Darnel started to wash his hands.

Catmint did not.

Catmint could not.

He sat on the bench in the resting room for the Hand’s torturing cultivators and stared at his hands.

White dust mingled there with red from carrying the woman. White calcite, red blood, brown hair.

He couldn’t get up, couldn’t wipe it off, or wash it away.

“Oh, come on, Cat!” Darnel sat down beside him and wrapped a dripping hand, still streaked red with blood, around Catmint’s shoulders.

Catmint tensed.

“You do this every day, you really ought to be getting used to it, now!”

Catmint was not getting used to it.

“You’re a Cultivator, Cat!” Darnel spread a hand before himself, as though framing some great scenery, “You’re helping fulfil the Nameless God’s commands for us! You should be proud!”

Catmint did not feel proud.

Darnel sighed, and reached down one fat finger to turn Catmint’s face up to him.

“Crying?” The big man frowned sympathetically, and wiped a tear from Catmint’s eyes. Catmint couldn’t pull away, he held so tightly, even though he wished to, “So talk to me.”

Catmint narrowed his eyes, horrified at the difference in treatment.

It wasn’t just what Darnel had done today – what Catmint had been a part of doing today – it was what he’d done in the past, to Catmint himself, to little, disabled Pennyroyal.

How did Darnel see people?

Were they only people if his higher-ups told him they were people?

And otherwise – just dolls?

So what was Catmint to Darnel?

“Tell me what’s wrong, Cat.” Darnel seemed almost pleading, “Tell me what’s wrong. I hate to see you like this, you’re like a son to me, you know?”

That was it.

Catmint tore himself from Darnel’s grip.

“No!” He cried, disgusted. “Don’t you say that! Don’t you say that!

“Catmint, sit down! I just want to know what’s wrong!”

Catmint froze in place, disbelieving.

“What makes me different?” He managed to croak, eventually.

Darnel knitted his brows in confusion.

“What makes me different from them?” Catmint motioned to the barred door of the resting room, beyond which lay the cells, “I was down there once, you tortured me! So how…?”

He couldn’t finish the sentence, cut off by a choking sob.

Darnel seemed almost stunned.

But then, Darnel Loa was never really stunned, sometimes things just happened before he’d fully had chance to think of how to respond to them.

“You lived.” Darnel shrug, spreading his great hand wide, “And now you’re here to pass on the message.”

He rose, taking a step towards Catmint, hand out-stretched, pleadingly.

“You’re not them, Cat,” He nodded towards the door, the cells, voice like what he was saying could comfort someone, “You’re a survivor! A martyr! I saw you in that cell thinking you were pathetic like the rest of them, but you proved me wrong! You lived, you got out. God sent you, Cat. He sent you to me. I know it. That’s why you’re different.”

Catmint’s legs had turned to lead. He couldn’t run, couldn’t move.

Alarm rang in Catmint’s veins, but when Darnel wrapped him into an embrace… Catmint didn’t pull away.

 

~

Like a son to me.

Catmint rolled over in his bed – a hard thing barely softened by the straw spread in clumps across it.

Like a son to me.

He drove a palm angrily into his forehead, trying to block out the words.

He’s a trickster, Catmint hissed to himself, A devil.

The world was full of devils. His parents’ religion had devils, and so did the religion of the Garden.

But if Darnel was a devil, he was a deluded one.

His faith was inexplicable, unusual even amongst the ranks of the torturing Cultivators, who served the Nameless God and ‘benefitted’ the Garden by extracting information about enemies.

The Garden had a broad range of enemies – from foreign gods to foreign people.

In recent years, the number of people held in the Hand had gotten greater, the range of skin colours and religions broader.

Before the Edenist messiah came to power, the Garden had been more inclined towards Gardenist equality, even as the centuries had swung politics and law closer to Edenism.

When Catmint first arrived at the Garden with his parents, they lived on the outskirts, going in and out as they pleased. They were foreign, there was no hiding that – it was clear in their accents – but as long as they didn’t show that they were of a different faith, they were safe.

Discrimination against faith was Edenist, but acceptance of nationality, at least, had still followed Gardenist policies.

But the new messiah was brutally Edenist – a strong believer that anything ‘imperfect’ must be torn down to form an Eden pleasing the Nameless God.

Catmint didn’t know where the Edenists got their definition of perfection. His idea of perfection was a cave on a small hill not far from the Garden.

It was a girl with the shortest black hair, and eyes the colour of dewy moss in the morning sun, telling stories of the Eastern plains to his little sister sitting wide-eyed on a stone floor.

It was gloves-on-hands fear, and Serpent’s Magic fingers that were out of bounds, and self-hatred that ran so deep Catmint couldn’t see the bottom of it, and it was love so deep Catmint swore he would drown out her self-loathing if it was the last thing he did.

He didn’t know where she was.

If he thought about her hard enough, could he dream about her, too?

Like a son to me.

Catmint growled, and turned again.

He wouldn’t dream of her, or his sister. He already knew all he would see all night was Darnel Loa, the torturer wearing Edenist black-and-white priest robes, saying,

You’re like a son to me,

Whilst a brown-haired woman turned to calcite at his feet.

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