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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17. Chapter 16 - Henbane

Knock knock.

Henbane leapt from her seat.

A visitor so early?

She glanced back at her book, stroking it’s pages with her thumb, feeling for the connection she had felt just a moment ago.

It was gone.

She felt as though she’d been torn from it.

Knock knock.

“Weird.” Was all they had to say.

She couldn’t disagree.

“One moment.” She called. She thought about closing her book, but it felt like doing so would severe the focus she had entirely. She couldn’t do it. The risk of it hurt too much.

The door opened to a sway of golden curls.

“Wormwood!” Henbane startled, amazed that the leader could be knocking at her door.

“Good morning!” Wormwood sang, “Do you mind if we talk before everyone meets to talk about the Chapel of Law?”

Henbane could only blink. Her heart was in her throat.

What could Wormwood want to talk to her about?

Nothing good… She was a translator, at best, not a strategist. What useful information could she offer?

So - nothing good.

“Y-Yes” She stepped out of the doorway to let the other girl in, sweeping a hand aside to usher her through, “Come in.”

Wormwood’s eyes settled on the hand as she entered, and she laughed.

“Like a door guard.” She muttered, amused, but her voice seemed weak.

Henbane frowned at her back as she went to sit down on the bed.

“Are you well?”

“Quite.” Wormwood went tense on the word, then turned with a beaming smile, “I’m a little nervous about, you know, leading a mission.”

“You’ve never done that before?”

“No. Not a mission like this.”

“Really…”
Wormwood patted the bed near herself, encouraging Henbane to sit down.

With one last glance into the corridor, wishing Bluebottle was there for moral support, she let the door swing closed and sat down on the bed, a good distance from Wormwood.

She could feel her heart beat in every breath.

“You lived in the Chapel of Law, didn’t you?”

A cheeky thought crossed Henbane’s mind, and she felt her mouth flicker at it.

“You’re asking questions?” She rubbed her tummy near her belly button.

Wormwood smirked, and breathed a short laugh with a roll of her eyes.

“I’m confirming what I already know.”

“I did live in the Chapel of Law for some time.”

“Right.”

Wormwood paused, glancing about the room, before returning her attention to Henbane.

“Answer my questions.”

It wasn’t a request, but it needn’t be- Henbane would have done so anyway. She owed Wormwood her safety. Henbane nodded firmly, ready to answer anything Wormwood asked with absolute honesty.

Wormwood took a moment to think.

“Did you leave much?” She asked, eventually.

“Just to go to the Chapel of Knowledge.”

“How would you get there?”

“The normal way. Through the Hall of Repent and the big white double doors.”

“How did you get out when you escaped?”
“Through the Hand.”

Wormwood pressed her lips into a tight line.

Henbane’s brow creased.

“Are you sure you’re well?”

“I am!” Wormwood nodded, a little too quickly. “You got out through the Hand?”

Henbane nodded, too, and explained her route.

“Do you have the key? Do you think you could get back in through the same entrance?”

“I’m not sure…” Henbane was wary. Every word seemed like it could be another step across a shaky bridge. “I have the key, but I don’t know if they’ve changed the lock, or if they’ve replaced guards… and it was blocked from the inside by a large sleeper.”

She twiddled her fingers, avoiding Wormwood’s eyes, suddenly feeling very ashamed of herself for being so unhelpful. She was going to fall into the river as soon as Wormwood spoke…

“Thanks.” Wormwood said, cheerily, patting Henbane on the back as she stood up. “Soon, we’re going to be looking at a map Snowdrop has drawn for us. It should be up to date, but can I rely on you to point out anything you think is relevant? I mean, like guards, regularly locked doors, busy corridors. I imagine living in the building you get used to things more than if you just worked there.”

Henbane stood, too. The bridge was intact. She had been helpful!

“Of course!”

Wormwood smiled, and Henbane felt pride flood through her in place of shame.

She had been of use. She clung to the feeling it brought.

Then Wormwood saw the book and diverted her route from the door to where it sat on the desk.

Henbane scurried over to gather up her papers.

“You’ve managed to translate them?” Wormwood asked, in awe.

Henbane felt fit to burst from pride.

“Yes. Some of this one, anyway.” She leant in to better see the book, tapping the page she was on vaguely, “It is peculiar – it’s not quite the same language as the leaflet, but by the using the leaflet as an in-between, I was able to translate it to some extent - I think it’s a book of myths.”

“Myths?”

“Made-up stories.”

Wormwood’s eyes went wide, but then she pulled back.

“Like the Holy Book?”

Henbane bristled and huffed.

“The Holy Book is not made up!” She protested.

She expected Wormwood to laugh, but she didn’t.

“So tell me what you’ve read.” She said, instead, shifting her weight onto the other foot and avoiding Henbane’s eyes.

The pride rushed away.

“A-Anyway, it’s not religious. Or not so far as I can understand it. The language is very similar to that of the Holy Book, though less…” She fluttered her lashes on the thought, trying to find the right words to explain, “…like scripture.”

She flicked back a few pages to the start of the first story, and gestured to the title,

“‘Cinderella.’”

Wormwood mouthed the words, feeling the shape on her tongue and twisting her face in confusion.

“I don’t know if it means anything on it’s own…” Henbane jumped in, “However, in the story itself, it appears to be a name of some kind.”

“I don’t know any plant called Cinderella.”

“Nor do I.” Henbane shook her head, and started to turn back through the pages, explaining what she understood, “There was a girl who was mistreated by her late father’s second wife and her daughters.”

Wormwood wrinkled her nose.

Henbane continued,

“There was… some event… a holiday… a ‘festival’, the book says, hosted by the ‘King’ – like a Head Gardener, as far as I can tell.”

“A festival…” Wormwood repeated, slowly, “A king…”

“It was so that the Head Gardener’s son – a ‘prince’, but destined to become a ‘king’, unlike the children of actual Head Gardeners – it was so that he could find a wife. The girl really wanted to go, but she was restricted from doing so by her father’s second wife-”

“Her step-mother.” Wormwood suggested.

“I didn’t know there was another name for that.” Henbane considered it.

“There is.” Wormwood grumbled, glancing away.

Henbane wondered what her tone meant, but continued to explain.

“Her step-mother said she could only go if she finished her house-work, but as far as I can tell it must have been cruel, because Cinderella becomes quite hopeless about going. So her step-mother and… step-sisters? They leave. And Cinderella is alone. She still really wants to go to the festival, and she wishes and wishes to go.

“Then a fairy appears.” Henbane beams, “I didn’t understand the idea of the character until you told me about fairies, except that they make wishes come true. The phrase the book uses is actually ‘Fairy God Mother’.”

Wormwood tilted her head thoughtfully, staring at the book as though she could discern the meaning of the words if she saw them at the right angle.

“A god mother is supposed to be a friend or family member committed to protecting a child. In theory.” She said, slowly, “But fairies are evil. They’re considered helpers of the Stranger in every book I’ve read.”

Again Henbane wondered just what books she’d read this information in; Henbane had never found any such writings, and she’d spent most of her life in the library!

“But they’re magical.” Henbane was perplexed. “Magic is good, isn’t it? It’s a gift from the Nameless God.”

“Good…?” Wormwood’s mouth twisted. “Sometimes…”

She shook herself slightly, and tapped the book.

“I’m not sure whether I’d say it’s a gift.” Wormwood shrugged.

Before Henbane could pursue the line of discussion, Wormwood again motioned back to the book.

Henbane ran back through what she’d said already, and shuffled through her translation to find the right point.

“So… Yes, the fairy appears.” She started, “And uses magic to make Cinderella a dress for the festival – not out of leaves! A real dress! I’ve never heard of such a magic, so that’s one reason why I believe this is a made-up story. Anyway, the dress! And a pair of shoes made out of glass!

Wormwood drew back.

“I know! Glass surely isn’t strong enough!” Henbane couldn’t help but laugh at it. “Right, dress, glass shoes, and she turned a pumpkin into an extravagant carriage, and mice into horses and people.

“This is ridiculous!” Wormwood chuffed, amusedly flustered, “It doesn’t really say that! No magic exists that can do that!”

She glanced back at the page, then at Henbane, then back at the page.

“It does not say that!” She repeated, “No way!”

Henbane pointed it out in her translation, and then in the book.

Wormwood rubbed the corners of her eyes with her fingers.

“Wow.” Incredulity lost, she now seemed fascinated, “They were creative!”

“That’s what I was thinking!” Henbane exclaimed, excitement building, “So I was wondering if they even knew much about magic.”

“I know the Holy Book says that the Nameless God took away magic when humans neglected His world and gave it back when we returned to Nature, Henbane, but come on… Magic has always been here.” She shook her head, disbelieving, “They probably just didn’t use it much. Maybe not many people had it.”

“Maybe…” Henbane faltered, glancing back at her notes, “I’ll read more of the books. Maybe then I’ll get a better idea. There’s one…”

She shuffled amongst her pile, stumbling between scattered books placed at random on the floor.

“A-hah! Found it!” She exclaimed, clambering back to her guest, “It’s a history book. I think. I meant to mark it to translate first, but then I found the myths, and I’ve never read anything like them, and well-”

She stuttered off, realising she was going off on a tangent.

“My translation of the title and description need revising, but it’s something like ‘Developments of 23 Cent-ur-ies’, or… maybe, ‘… of the 23rd Cent-ur-y.’ A cent-ur-y is probably a date, I’m just not sure where that stands in history, but it definitely mentions something about discovering magic!’

For a moment they were quiet. Henbane wondered if her enthusiasm had been overwhelming.

Had she lost Wormwood’s attention?

Eventually, Wormwood spoke, “If magic really was gone, then… I mean, there isn’t some God there to take it away!”

In place of worry, a small spark of rage flickered in Henbane.

“Of course there is!” She cried, “Why would you say that? The Lord is hope, He’s joy, He’s our reason to live and strive!”

Wormwood frowned, and leaned away.

“I don’t know, Henbane…” She murmured, “He’s never given me much reason to live and strive…”

“What do you mean?” Henbane pushed.

Wormwood pressed her lips tightly together again.

For a time, silence reigned.
Henbane wasn’t sure what to do – to ask again, to continue reading, to sit back down and translate and let Wormwood leave as she pleased?

She wasn’t sure, but she couldn’t smother the alarm over Wormwood’s doubt in the Lord. For Henbane, the Nameless God was a constant, a comfort, and a light keeping the darkness of the demons at bay.

Without the Lord, she was lost.

Who stopped Wormwood from being lost?

“Finish the story?”

Henbane was pulled from her thoughts. She settled Wormwood with a pitiful gaze, but Wormwood didn’t seem to acknowledge it.

She was looking at the books.

Henbane followed her stare.

“Right…” She nearly whispered, then swallowed and tried to be more cheery again, “So, Cinderella goes to the festival, but the Fairy God Mother tells her that she has to leave by midnight or her dress will turn back into the rags she was wearing, and everyone would see.

“At the festival, Cinderella dances, and talks and has the most amazing time – though it all seems somewhat blasphemous to me. She ends up dancing with the prince… though she doesn’t know who he is… and they fall in love. Just from a dance!”

Henbane sighed dreamily. She could admit the idea of romance, a concept that was until recently a mystery, seemed wonderful. One day, could she dance with a beautiful stranger and fall so deeply in love?

“But then midnight strikes. In a rush, Cinderella runs from the prince before she even finds out who he is. She runs and her dress turns to rags, and all that’s left is one glass shoe, because it felt off as she ran away… and that’s all I’ve translated.”

Wormwood was quiet, thoughtful, but the light in her eyes seemed soft, loving.

“I see. There’s more?” She asked.

“Just a small bit. As far as I can see, all the stories are brief.”

Wormwood placed her hand on the book, ran her fingers across the pages, tracing the words written – typed! They typed more often than wrote back then! – in the language of the Old Civilisation.

She turned the pages very slowly, rubbing the paper between her fingers to feel the yellow roughness of them.

It was an old type of paper, very thin. Modern books were made of thicker paper, to last a life time without tearing. Though the truth was that the trees couldn’t be cut thin enough anymore.

Henbane had asked about how paper was made for books once.

With a very fine knife, someone had told her.

She had brushed the answer off as nonsense and asked again, and eventually, to scare her away from pestering them again, an old librarian had told her of great monsters from the past, as big as the Chapel of Law, filled with metallic innards that ate and burnt and churned towering trees into sheaves of paper as thin as a leaf’s skeleton.

Wormwood was feeling that thin paper now.

Henbane longed to ask her what she was thinking. Did she think the way Henbane did? Did she trace those edges and feel the fingertips of her ancestors?

But she couldn’t ask.

And Wormwood didn’t say.

“This is good.” She said, smile softer than Henbane had ever seen it, eyes very steady and careful where her finger rested against the very end words of ‘Cinderella’ – two larger words typed (or written?) in some kind of cursive. Already, Henbane was delighted to realise, she could translate them – THE END. “Keep translating.”

And then, suddenly, she seemed awake again, alive, like her usual self.

“After the meeting!” She added, glancing at the door, “We better go, it must be time by now!”

She hurried to the door and held it open for Henbane to follow.

“The two most important people for the meeting! We can’t be late!” She laughed.

Henbane took one last look at her book, the words THE END staring up from the page.

In a moment’s decision, she closed the book, and rushed to follow Wormwood out.

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