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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14. Chapter 13 - Bluebottle

It was a bizarre situation, everyone out in the woods like this.

Bluebottle was used to being awake at the crack of dawn walking the woods, it was familiar.

The people, they were familiar.

Together, that was just disconcerting.

“Sheep!” Bluebottle called again, standing off to one side of a small clearing alone, “Come!”

He trotted back a moment later empty-mouthed. He was supposed to be playing fetch with her but she knew very well he’d never gotten to grips with the idea of bringing the thing back.

It was just a distraction – from what was going on in town, from the chill that had rushed full-force back into the air and, most of all, a distraction from the people she’d once called friends.

They huddled elsewhere muttering to one another and, no doubt, also wondering what in the Waste Wormwood had gathered them all outside for when some important guest was supposed to be bringing them information.

“She’s like a fairy,” Wormwood had shrugged when they asked, “She won’t come if you’re watching.”

So, what, they were out gathering firewood?

For what fire?

Fires were unnecessary with the almost-endless light of the glits, and smoke would suffocate in the bunker and attract enemies outside.

Henbane approached slowly, another person not really putting much effort into gathering sticks.

For a while neither of them spoke, just stared off into the trees as Sheep bolted after another stick he wouldn’t return.

“I don’t think I have ever seen a fire.” Henbane shrugged. “I’ve seen smoke from the Weed Pit, but never a fire itself.”

“It’s hot. It burns.” Bluebottle mumbled, wishing she were elsewhere.

Across a table, child in her lap slowly reading a book… Blue, blue eyes…

He says you’re a blessing from the Lord…

Bluebottle buried her face in her scarf to conceal the blush that filled her cheeks.

“Do you know what a fairy is?” She asked, to distract herself.

Henbane blinked at her, and then looked up at the icy blue of a cloudless sky, huddling herself closer to block out the chill.

She shook her head.

“I’ve never heard the word.”
Bluebottle sighed. She had asked to make conversation and to not think about Alder, but in truth she was curious.

She understood the concept of staying away and then falling on a person unawares, but she couldn’t tell the relationship between that and what a fairy was.

“I’ve been in the Chapel of Knowledge, and I’ve never even seen it written.” Henbane glanced back at Wormwood. “I wonder who told her about it.”

“Maybe it’s something forbidden.” Bluebottle mumbled, offhandedly.

Henbane shrugged. Bluebottle thought she’d never seen Henbane shrug before - Henbane being both very verbal and higher class, always having to turn everything that could be expressed simply into eloquent speech.

“But, then, why would Wormwood be aware of the thing?” Henbane sniffed momentarily and then fumbled for a handkerchief from her pocket, remembering her manners.

Bluebottle watched her warily, realising this girl didn’t know about Wormwood.

But, then, why would she?

Looking back at the others, Bluebottle wondered how many amongst them knew much about Wormwood, really.

Few, she thought.

And so, if Wormwood hadn’t told the new girl much, then it wasn’t Bluebottle’s right to change that.

“Why don’t you go ask her what it is?” Bluebottle suggested instead, and pulled a small, damp branch from Henbane’s loosely-held tiny bundle to throw for Sheep.

Henbane bit her lip, and then, suddenly determined, nodded.

Like Sheep, she trotted away.

Bluebottle watched her approach Wormwood, pulling back slightly when Wormwood turned to her with her signature bright smile. Henbane talking. Wormwood seeming to startle slightly, embarrassment pulsing in her face. Wormwood asking a bothered question back. Henbane nodding, with a ‘don’t worry’ shrug. Wormwood sighing relief, and then talking again.

By this point Bluebottle was distracted. Other eyes were on her, she could see them looking her way in the corner of her own dark brown eyes.

Hellebore’s lime green gaze and red cloud-puff hair, Poppy’s scraggily hair-netted brown hair – near as dark as her skin – and metal-cold stare.

Approaching.

Bluebottle forced herself to look away, well-aware that this may have been the first time she’d spent a significant period near them with no other distractions since… well… since Tea left, she guessed.

Since everyone left, and it was just Bluebottle and Rue at the Orphanage with too many kids.

“Hi, Bluebottle.” Hellebore’s voice was soft, and almost apologetic.

She didn’t mean to, but Bluebottle couldn’t help but cringe away from this skeleton that had once been Hellebore.

Hellebore withdrew the hand she’d been out-stretching.

She dropped her gaze, barely managing to whisper a ‘sorry’, and guilt flooded Bluebottle’s chest.

She quashed it.

She had nothing to feel guilty for.

“Y-you’ve been avoiding us.” Poppy jumped right to the point. She always did. Bluebottle had to smile – as bitterly as she could.

She did not turn to them. Could not let them see.

“We’re sorry.” Hellebore blurted, and Bluebottle swivelled, startled by the apology, knowing exactly what it was for.

Hellebore shied away again, but Poppy caught her in place with gentle, shaking fingers.

“We’ve been talking about it.” Poppy caught Bluebottle’s gaze and held it with steely determination, “For a while. We should h-have come back.”

“I was a coward.” Hellebore was shaking, almost violently, “I was, and I am. I let so many people down…”

Bluebottle noticed her lime-flesh eyes flicker to the younger members almost concealed just beyond the closest trees.

Pennyroyal was clutching a couple of smaller sticks, that forever-light joy in her eyes. Oleander was close by, carrying a much larger bundle on his shoulder, and smiling softly every time Pennyroyal spoke.

“And I let you down.” Hellebore breathed out, slowly, “I’m tryin’ to be better. I… don’t know about forgiveness, but, Bluebottle, if you could… if…”

But she cut off, she couldn’t speak anymore. Bluebottle could see she was tired – worn out from the anxiety of saying this?

Bluebottle didn’t want to feel sorry for her, but even she knew what Hellebore had been through overseas, had been through upon returning to the Garden.

“Just talk to us!” Poppy scowled, but her eyes had already started to fade back to dreaminess, “We’re y-your friends. We weren’t th-there for y-you th-then, but we can be now.”

Bluebottle didn’t know if she could reply, hadn’t been prepared for this, hated this whole endeavour of wandering off into the woods to collect sticks for some imaginary fire, that was almost undoubtedly Wormwood thinking everyone needed to bond before everything started to happen.

But she had to reply. There was no withstanding the devastation in Hellebore’s eyes.

They’d lived together once, at the Orphanage. Bluebottle two years older, clinging to Tea, and Hellebore the ever-law-abiding baby of the group. She would worry about every consequence, scold them when the bad came to pass, but was never the way she was now. Then, she had been full, and bright, and confident enough to not shrink away from a little bit of anger.

Now she was broken.

What if Bluebottle could help that…?

“I-” She began, but was cut short, as Henbane bounded back to her.

“I found out what a fairy is!” She declared cheerfully, breathless.

Only then did she seem to notice the other two.

“Good morning, Hellebore.” She nodded her head courteously, and, warily, went to do the same to Poppy.

“P-Poppy.” Poppy introduced herself, simply. “Doctor.”

Bluebottle couldn’t help herself then.

She snorted.

“Hardly. I seem to remember you dealing in some unsavoury chemicals.”

Poppy seemed almost surprised by the reaction, but a flick of a smile crept onto her lips when she saw it was a jest.

I seem to rem-member you doing th-the same!” She protested, hand on hip. “And I discover n-new cures, I h-heal p-people!”

“Is that what you do?” Hellebore dared to joke, voice quiet, but a shy smirk bent her mouth. “Don’t you do that by accident when a drug turns out to not make you high?”

“I p-prefer to th-think of it as being insp-pired.” Poppy turned up her nose in a feigned huff.

Bluebottle noticed everyone had been drawn to their noise from the previous semi-silence. Oleander and Pennyroyal had come back into the clearing to listen; Medlar dared a glance their way from his lonely spot off in the trees; Mistletoe strolled her way towards them, eagerly curious.

Hemlock loped over, positively enthused over the chance to gossip.

From her spot besides Khat, Wormwood glowed.

Khat came closer to the group as laughter began to build, letting her hands slip from Wormwood’s when she shook her head to say she would stay where she was.

Pennyroyal had Oleander wheel her closer. Even Medlar inched towards them, close enough to hear well.

Somehow the conversation had veered back round to Bluebottle.

“H-how big’s your kid collection n-now?” Was jeered, and Bluebottle blushed furiously.

“Oh, my goodness!” Mistletoe cried, scandalised, committing in an instant to the conversation, “You have children?”

“I don’t!” Bluebottle exclaimed, batting away the curious eyes. “I’m a nanny!”

“You’ve thought about having children of your own, though!” Hemlock prodded, “You’re certainly old enough to have had a few by now!”

“I-!”

“You are!” Hemlock squealed with joy, “Who would you choose to be the father?”

“I know who.” Hellebore glanced at the ground, treading the water, clearly wondering if it was an okay subject to breach.

Bluebottle pushed the subject away.

“Definitely not.” She realised it came out stern, but tried her best to soften it. “How could I?”

“Who with then?” Medlar asked, voice very matter-of-fact to hide his curiosity. His attempt failing, Hemlock grabbed his arm to pull him in closer, watching him as though he was the most adorable puppy she had ever seen.

At the edge of the group, Oleander moved his hands.

“O-Oleander says h-he’s sp-pied y-you m-making sweet eyes at a certain G-Gardener y-you nanny for.”

“Really?” Pennyroyal gasped, voice dreamy, “You’re in love?”

Bluebottle felt bombarded, but heavy with nostalgia.

It felt warm, and homely, like she was reliving a memory from the Orphanage.

 

On the other side of the clearing Wormwood watched quietly, smiling warmly.

 

 

~

The Reaper’s hut came back into view quickly, looming in all it’s warm ramshackle glory.

But warmth wasn’t what the members of the Serpent were eager for – only curiosity filled them now.

Who was the insider that would help them get through the Chapel of Law and reach the Messiah?

Medlar was the first to the door, pushing it open and bustling inside ahead of the rest of the group.

Slowly, almost nervously, the rest followed, Wormwood trailing 20 metres behind the bulk, all silent in anticipation.

Henbane gripped tightly to Bluebottle’s arm.

Bluebottle had an idea of what she was expecting – what everyone was expecting – a Gardener. A Gardener of questionable trustworthiness – because who could ever really trust a Gardener?

I could, Bluebottle admitted.

Blue, blue eyes over a book and a bowl of steaming vegetable soup.

He says you’re a blessing from the Lord.

If Bluebottle was going to blush again, the almost-artistic scene that greeted her upon entering the hut washed it away.

There, at a mossy, splintering table in the very centre of the building, a small white-haired girl sat sipping tea with the Reaper.

So comfortable she seemed in the situation that Bluebottle wondered if she was aware of it.

Her skin was the bronze-brown of peat, and her nose long and flat between baby-fat-rounded cheeks. There was a hint of bloatedness to her, barely visible, as though she had been soaked in water for too long, though this did not detract from her overall beauty.

Henbane’s eyes were wide and dazzled, watching the little girl lifting the tea-cup to her lips as though she had never seen anything prettier than this child.

Bluebottle saw, though, the minute she looked at the girl’s gaze – this child was anything but coquettish. Her glare was that of a killer – cold stone borne in an innocent guise.

“Your lodgers return.” The girl spoke succinctly, softly, without looking away from her teacup.

When she was ready, she placed the tea-cup on the flower-printed saucer before her with barely a chink, and surveyed the intruders – for that was what they felt like under that gaze – at her leisure.

Bluebottle wondered if she knew this girl. The voice… the hair… the petite body that did not reflect the full truth…

Several of the others seemed to be feeling it too, their eyes equally narrowed in thought – Hellebore, Poppy, Oleander tapping his forehead in an attempt to remember. Hemlock was frozen to the spot in what was so clearly fear Bluebottle could have believed she was a different person.

Henbane did not react at all, except for a brief shiver, nor did Mistletoe, Medlar or Khat.

When the girl’s eyes turned back to the Reaper, Bluebottle felt herself release a breath she didn’t realise she’d been holding.

“Yew, I shall take my leave. I have done what is needed of me.”

Her gait commanded the reverence of the group, and each of them stepped almost instinctively aside to let her pass, excepting Hemlock and Wormwood, who both waited at the rear.

Hemlock stood with terror shivering through her right in the girl’s way, but quickly gave in to the impulse, and stepped aside, shame painted on her cheeks. She fiddled with her bright skirts.

For a second, as the girl passed Hemlock, Bluebottle caught a glance of a vine-like pattern crawling up the girl’s neck. Then her luminous white hair swayed back into place, and the sight was gone.

But Bluebottle knew she wasn’t the only one who saw it. Hemlock’s hand had released her skirts, and was fingering her own pattern over her shoulders.

If Hemlock had faced the girl in fear, Wormwood seemed almost delighted to see her.

“Snowdrop!” She greeted the girl like a family friend, to the astonishment of all standing by.

Then Bluebottle remembered – the girl in the green cloak, white hair pouring from beneath the hood, caramel-coloured skin and a snowdrop pressed into Bluebottle’s hand.

So, was this the girl who had led Bluebottle to the Orphanage?

It couldn’t be – it had been two decades since that time, and Bluebottle had been very, very small. Yet this girl was the same height, and her voice rang the same.

She looked barely thirteen.

Bluebottle felt the world spin.

“Wormwood.” The girl’s – Snowdrop’s – voice now almost seemed to hold a hint of warmth regarding the young girl before her, “You have grown.”

And you haven’t! Bluebottle screamed in her head.

But Wormwood just laughed.

“Of course! It has been several years since last we met. I was but a child. I have aged since.”

That was almost more startling – Wormwood using her Rose voice in a casual conversation, a sign of a drop in confidence.

What kind of respect did this girl command?

“Yes.” The girl sighed sadly, “I am sorry.”

This creased the brows of the majority of the group, including Bluebottle. Hemlock scowled at the ground.

In the background, the Reaper slurped it’s tea.

And Wormwood’s ever-brightness faltered.

Quickly it was covered by a mask-like smile, and a wave, but she turned her back to the group to watch Snowdrop disappear into the trees.

She lingered on Snowdrop’s trail a second too long before she turned back to her colleagues.

A real smile was back, but Khat had moved to stand like a shield at her shoulder.

“Alright, team!” The commoner’s voice was back, “Everything’s in place and underway. Take a nice long rest and we’ll meet again tomorrow morning to discuss the information we’ve been given.”

At the door to the stairwell, she paused and graced them with one last beaming smile.

“Good bonding today!”

Bluebottle felt herself bristle.

“I knew it was a bonding exercise!” She growled after Wormwood as the young woman seemed to almost run down the stairs.

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