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)


20. Chapter 19 - Catmint

The cells were full, and still they insisted on bringing in more prisoners.

Catmint wished he didn’t understand what they were thinking, but what they were thinking was obvious.

Some rebellion was rising, and it’s source hid somewhere in the Weed Pit. If you take enough of them into the cells, if you get information from them… then the source can be found quickly and destroyed.

The Gardeners were horrible people, but they knew how to lead, and they weren’t stupid.

Yes, their process was understandable. There would always be better ways, kinder ways, but they took time. That didn’t mean their actions were excusable.

Catmint knew he didn’t know the whole story. How could he? Most days, he only spoke to Darnel, and Darnel couldn’t care less about any detail unrelated to his job.

“An unknown amount of members!” He’d cried, as though glory was upon him, “It could be the whole of the Weed Pit, Cat! Imagine!”

Catmint could imagine it – cells fit to burst, shit clogging the spaces between their bare bodies, and no space to fall when at last rampant disease took them.

It made his stomach roll. He felt bile turning to rock in his throat.

In front of him, his porridge turned stone-cold grey. More mush than food.

He pushed it about disinterestedly.

Nearby, the other Cultivators talked and joked over their meal.

“It’s going to be busy, soon, eh?” One said.

“Busy as the Waste, you can bet!” Another replied, cheerful.

“It’s a shame, though.” A different voice added, sadly. Catmint couldn’t help it – his ears perked up. He found himself turning just slightly to hear better. “All those people…”

“Arr, you’re just afraid of hard work!” The group laughed, but the tone had dulled. “Anyway, it keeps food on our tables.”

“Think of it like that,” Their voices had all lowered, “Your daughter gets a good life. Just thank the Nameless God you’re not a Weed.”

Catmint twisted to see them better as they began to move, wooden trays clattering off the table.

“Another working day.” The guard at the door greeted them with a nod of his head.

“You know it.” One of the men grinned.

As they left, one of the men noticed Catmint watching them leave. He smiled briefly, and was gone.

“Ready to go to work, Cat?” Catmint jumped as the big man stepped up behind him. “Never seen you interested in other cultivators before.”

“I wasn’t.” Catmint pushed his spoon deeper into the hardening porridge. “There was nothing else happening in here.”

Without looking at Darnel, Catmint rose to return his tray to the stack, ready for a demoted Herb helper to wash.

“Unfortunately,” Darnel fell into step with him again, “They’re all Roses. Low-ranked Roses, but Roses. Best steer clear. They don’t mingle with the likes of us.”

“I said I wasn’t interested.”

“Of course,” Darnel snickered, “But just so you know.”

“Anyway, ‘the likes of us’? You’re miles above me.”

“I’m not a Rose, though, Cat.”

That gave Catmint pause.

Of course, Catmint must have known that – Darnel was far too robust for a Rose, too loud, too rude almost – but it had never really registered.

Darnel was a big man, he carried himself like he meant something more than anyone else.

It was just… easy to forget he came from nowhere and no one beyond the Hand really knew his name.

He was like Catmint.

Catmint shook the thought away.

“We’re nothing alike.”

Darnel stepped back, hands up in mock retreat.

“Well, Cat, I never said that.” Darnel chuckled, returning to Catmint’s side and slinging his arm across the younger man’s shoulder. “I mean, I actually do work, after all!”

“Bugger off.” Catmint mumbled, head turned away.

The steps leading down to the break room quickly slid away, and before long the air was damp and warm. The blue light of the glits turned the break room into the underside of a watery bog.

Darnel set to preparing himself. Just from his clothing, Catmint could tell it was going to be a different kind of day than usual – rather than his regular black robes, Darnel pulled on a sterile white robe. Where his hands were usually bare, he now stretched a cork-bark leather glove over one of them.

Curiosity tugged at him, but Catmint wondered if he would feel better knowing what was happening, or discovering it upon arrival.

“We’ve got some clearing out to do today.” Darnel grinned, throwing a similar outfit in Catmint’s direction.

Catmint caught it thoughtlessly.

“Clearing out?”

“You know,” Darnel waved dismissively, looking around for his other glove, “Bodies piling up.”

“So, why the outfits…?” Catmint creased his forehead.

A booming cough of laughter exploded from Darnel.

“Well, we may as well use them, Cat!” He said, as though it should be obvious.

Catmint felt his stomach roll again.

“Who…?” He dared to ask, the word barely managing to pass his lips.

Darnel shrugged and swung open the door to the cells.

“Whoever we find.”



The day had been brutal to Catmint’s nerves. Hour after hour he’d stood aside whilst Darnel tore into freshly-dead or weeks-dead corpses. The acid in his stomach clawed agony into his throat as he had swallowed bile and followed Darnel’s orders.

“Pick that one up for me, will you?” The big man had said, and “Keep your eyes on it Cat, this is an important process.”

Catmint couldn’t say how many hours it had been. He felt liked the frayed end of a rope. His eyes felt too bleary to see to pick apart and analyse each piece. His head had become the Old Civilisation being blasted by the coming of the Waste.

His eyes had been fluttering closed – horror and fatigue drawing them shut- when there was a knock at the door.

Darnel planted the blade he had been cutting with into the examination table with a sharp thunk.

Blood pooled into the cracks it made.

The body twitched.

A searing cold flooded into Catmint’s head from his spine.

“They’re alive!” He squeaked, rushing to the person. It was man. Brown hair and blank brown eyes strained with red staring in horror at the grey space above him. He wasn’t like the other prisoners – he still appeared well-fed, if bruised and bloody in some places.

Catmint didn’t even remember picking him up.

“He’s alive!” He bawled again. “Darnel! He’s alive!”

“What?” Darnel scowled from the door, and waved to the person outside, “Come in, Mezereon.”

Someone entered with Darnel. They both stood by the side of the body.

The man on the table was starting to move more. As his fingers twitched, his face contorted more. Eyes squeezed shut and open again.

Catmint’s breath was tight in his windpipe, blocked by dry thirst and vomit. Adrenaline pumping through his veins, he found himself looking to Darnel for what to do.

Darnel watched on with a face of casual curiosity.

“Help him!” Catmint screamed at the two other men. He had no time to register the new man’s face – the man on the table was about to fully awaken and realize his intestines were hanging from his bare chest.

Gasping desperately for breath, Catmint leapt to return them to their rightful place. Everything was growing fuzzy. He couldn’t tell what he was grabbing – was it thin air, or did he really have someone’s entrails in his hands.

How did they sit in a living body?

The man on the table was starting to groan, grasping for air as he choked on the pain.

Catmint brushed his fingers over the incision in the man’s stomach in an attempt to pull it open.


The man was starting to scream.

Catmint felt nails drive into his arms, tearing great welts into his skin.

The tears grew, but there was no wiping them away – the man was going to die.

Someone besides himself was shouting – actual coherent words, but Catmint found himself unable to register their meaning.

All sound was coming to him as though from beyond a screen.

“I’m sorry…” He realised he was muttering. He blinked sweat and tears from his eyes. “I’m sorry…”

His hands wouldn’t do what he wanted them to... Every finger seemed as though it was being controlled by someone else.

With one last desperate exclamation and a bout of force Catmint heaved the great winding tissue back into the cavity, where it bulged unnaturally under the man’s now-pallid skin.

The screaming had stopped.

For a second, Catmint’s exhausted mind allowed him the belief that he had done it – he had saved the man from being in pain. The man was going to live!

But as he tried to step back, he realised that wasn’t the case.

The man’s fingers had grazed so deep into his arms that they had not fallen out on their own when the rest of the man’s body had gone limp.

Vomit overflowed from his throat, pouring into his mouth.

Unable to move, Catmint could not stop the flow as it spewed from him, trickling down his chin at first before gushing in a torrent across the corpse.

Then hands were on his shoulders. Dread swelled as a thick red entity before him. Growing and folding and growing again, until it formed a mountain blocking his escape.

His first thought was that the Stranger had come to take him.

As the eyes formed – black stains in a squared head – he realised he was wrong.

Suddenly he was a young boy again. A man with grey streaks running through his brown hair was hulked over him. He adjusted his black robes. In the corner his sister was screaming. The man responded with a bucket of hot oil. She screamed harder.

Catmint felt rawness in his throat as he howled, kicking and protesting as one assistant gripped his arms and another one held down his legs. The man loomed, face twisting like that of a devil.

Hot oil hissed across his skin.



The cell dissipated around him.

The burnt skin of his face and chest fizzled with phantom pain. The new gashes on his arms screamed, but they had already been tended to and wrapped.

He reached to wipe sweat from his forehead, but someone stopped him.

“I’ll get it, don’t worry.”

A cloth dabbed gently across his forehead and beneath his eyes, and down to his neck.

Catmint was lay down across a hard bench. A folded cloth was tucked under his head.

“How are you feeling?” The voice asked.

“Where am I?” Catmint croaked.

“The break room. Darnel told me to bring you here after you went crazy and vomited everywhere.”

As Catmint tried to rise, warm hands held his shoulder to help. He was glad for it when the pain made him swoon.

Finally, Catmint turned to look at the person beside him.

He was young, with a dark, freckled face and a bright white grin beneath plump lips. His hair curled in a mass on his head, spilling across his forehead.

Catmint recognised this young man! He was the one who smiled at him in the dining room earlier.

“You’re-!” He started to exclaim.

“I’m Mezereon.” Mezereon put out his hand to shake, but then thought better of it. “Call me Meze.”

Catmint reached to take it anyway, wincing at the pain in his arms.

However, when he tried to grip, his fingers barely twitched.

“Catmint.” He introduced himself briefly, confusion swirling in his brain.

“Don’t worry about your arms too much.” Meze said quickly, “You should still be able to work, your mobility just won’t be as good. That guy managed to sever parts of the muscle.”

Catmint creased his brow.

“Are you okay, by the way?” Meze’s brow furrowed to reflect Catmint’s. “After that guy, you…”

The vision of the screaming man flooded back into his head, but a soft feeling in his hand brought him black.

Meze had taken it when he saw him start to panic.

“Sorry.” The other man glanced at the floor with a coy smile. “I won’t mention it. It’s just rare to see someone of your age so… disturbed by that kind of thing.”

Catmint tore his hand away, gritting his teeth against the pain shooting into it.

“Not all of us have the training.” He spat bitterly, “Or the… disposition.”

Meze’s eyes widened. He sat back slightly.

“You’re not a Rose.” His mouth fell open. “You’re not even here by choice, are you? Sorry, I didn’t know.”

Catmint refused to meet his eyes.

“I am! I’m really sorry.” Meze tried again. When he didn’t get a reply, he stood as though going to leave. “I’ll just… Sorry.”

“You’re a Rose.” Catmint was alarmed to realise he didn’t want this man to leave. Not yet.

Meze dropped his shoulders in relief, and smiled softly.

“Kind of. Not properly.” He sat back down again, now allowing a metre of space between the two. “My mum and dad used to have a better spot in the Chapel of Law, but since the new Messiah nobody really trusts us as much. And, of course...”

He caught himself, looking down at his hands curling together in his lap.

“Well, I mean,” He started, “I’m not exactly liked in the family.”

“But you’re the oldest child, aren’t you? If you’re here.”

“I am! My parents just want to keep me out of the way, though, really.” He explained, “They’d probably have my younger brother in here training if he wasn’t too old to start.”

Catmint didn’t understand. Rose politics was complicated. How did they decide who was ranked higher in a group of high-ranked people?

How did a first child come to be seen as lower than the second?

“Why?” Catmint asked before he had chance to think.

“Why? ‘Cause he’s 14, and he’s already training to be a Pesticide officer.”

“No!” Catmint huffed, “I meant, why do they want to keep you out of the way?”

“Oh.” Meze’s lips tautened. “That.”

He fiddled with his fingers, and ran them through his hair. Hmm-ing in consideration.

Suddenly, he seemed to come to a decision. He rifled in his pocket and pulled out a stiffly folded scrap of paper.

“It’s my daughter.” He grinned so brightly on the word that his joy seemed to flood into Catmint’s edges, too, “She’s two. She’s the most beautiful thing in the world.”

The scrap of paper, unfolded, showed a rough charcoal sketch of a little girl with plump cheeks and dark curly hair. She smiled with glistening lips and glittering eyes.

“Wow.” Catmint breathed.

“Good, isn’t it? Her mum drew it.” Meze cradled the paper as though it was physically his daughter, and gazed upon it with eyes so soft Catmint almost believed it would go up in flames if he looked too hard. “She caught our baby’s cuteness just right.”

Something in what he said caught Catmint’s attention.

“Her mum? Not your wife?”

Meze shook his head, gently folding the paper away.

“No, my lover – Crocus. She’s a Weed. So, obviously my parents don’t approve, and they think our daughter brings shame on the family.”

“Your lover – Crocus – she didn’t keep the baby?”

Meze’s smile grew rueful.

“She couldn’t. A couple of months ago, I met with her to wish Daphne – my little girl – happy birthday. We were seen and reported.” He sighed. Catmint could hear his teeth grind against one another. “She’s somewhere here. In the cells.”

He rubbed his eyes with the tips of his fingers, fighting away the tears.

“On that subject…” Meze’s tone had lowered, so it was almost inaudible. Catmint was fixed with a firm, dark gaze. “You seem to like this place’s practices even less than I do.”

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