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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22. Chapter 21 - Oleander

He was waiting for the signal.

Poppy fidgeted beside him, itching for another shot of whatever drug she had pumped into herself this week.

As the moon began to pass it’s peak, the thieves began to get brave enough to voice their doubts.

Oleander wasn’t a leader. He was no authority figure. He’d thought the Thieves Guild had been wiped out with his family five years ago when he and his parents were taken to the Hand, and only recently had he discovered them again thanks to the Serpent.

The only reason he was in a place of leadership in this instance was because he was the only one with history in the Thieves’ Guild who was a member of the Serpent.

He had no dedication to the Thieves’ Guild, no true loyalty, but much of the Thieves’ Guild still remembered his mother’s reign as a Thief Lord.

That was the only thing that kept them listening to him in her and Wormwood’s absence.

But now as the signal was overdue they were becoming rebellious to that.

Come on. He would have forced the words though his gritted teeth if speaking came naturally to him. But it didn’t – that had disappeared five years ago, too, after Darnel Loa had cut his tongue from his mouth.

He didn’t need his voice, though.

“H-Hold.” Poppy translated to the thieves as he raised a clenched fist over his shoulder.

It would come soon. He knew it would come soon.

Then – not a sound, not a light, not even the feeling of Death’s Weight or any sign of it. A movement, a flash of alarming colour from the woods.

In anticipation, all who’d seen it froze, gazing intently at the space.

A luminous creature stepped in the moonlight shining onto the edges of the forest.

Clad all in flowing pink the creature stood tall, outstretching it’s cloak as though it were a pair of wings to either side. The cold wind rolling through the streets set it’s peach-coloured hair into a looping, swaying dance.

Rather than show it’s face, it wore a mask of leaves and bark.

Oleander knew this must be a new signal. He knew he needed to act fast to set the first group moving before they panicked at this unrecognisable figure and ruined the plan, but he found himself overwhelmed by confusion.

Why was Hemlock here instead of Yew?

Yew said no. Hemlock’s hands said, and she shrugged. I’m the signal. Go.

When he looked back, Poppy awaited his signal with steely eyes.

Go. He repeated Hemlock’s movements. Hemlock disappeared once more.

Poppy translated in a hushed voice, and the thieves began the process of spreading the message amongst themselves, fanning out as they did.

Oleander and Poppy began their own race to their positions in the woods.

The thieves, along with priests and other thieves known and trusted by the Weeds at the front, would hide short distances from one another, creating a safe path for the Weeds to follow into the trees and onwards to the Serpent’s Nest. The Serpent members who had accompanied each group to stop them from deviating from the plan would take up positions in the woods closest to the Serpent’s Nest. Hemlock would be patrolling the border as the strongest force they had against attack. Oleander would help, and so would Medlar.

Bluebottle was no fighter, and would join Poppy and Hellebore in guiding the Weeds the last stretch of the way.

At the Serpent’s Nest, Khat and Pennyroyal would be waiting to welcome them and ease their fears.

Upon entering the Serpent’s Nest, they would be immediately taken to the dining room to eat a meal made by Laburnum.

When they finished eating, Mistletoe and Henbane would be on hand to note down special needs and family relations so that the Weeds could be appropriately grouped into rooms.

Throughout this, Wormwood would be in the hut tracking the plan and making executive decisions if anything were to go wrong.

Each participant in the plan – the thieves, the priests and the Serpent members – donned green strips of cloth sewn to their tunics or tied into their hair for the Weeds to recognise them as people to trust.

In the days to follow, the Weeds would be settled into their temporary housing, and introduced to the arrangements of both the bunker and events within the bunker.

In the meantime, Medlar, Hemlock and Oleander would continue to patrol in case soldiers with Weed family members tried to follow. They would be led to safety.

In one week, the patrol would stop. Any soldiers who chose to desert the Garden’s forces late would either be unfortunate, or guided by Yew to where they wanted to be.

That was just how it had to be.

The Serpent had other things to do.

 

Oleander’s route to his position led him through more back alleys as he wound towards his starting point.

He passed Weeds on his way, and others wearing the green cloth. As he rushed through, Weeds startled. Some of the allies tried to talk to him, but he didn’t stop to reply. He had a large space to cover in his patrols, and he would have to think quickly and be entirely alert to his mission to fulfil that to the best of his ability.

Not long ago he never would have imagined himself being devoted to anything so much as he was to himself and his own survival. But he needn’t question why that had changed. He knew.

As he came to an abandoned part of the Weed Pit, he thought of her.

There was a house in this part, right at the border of the trees and at the very end of a now-overgrown dirt road that dwindled as it dove deeper into the forest.

The house wasn’t really a house. It was a hut, and broken now. An attack on the Weeds five years before had been particularly brutal here. The concrete that had stood for a thousand years had been weakened by it, and had now begun to crumble.

But it still held traces of his time here with Poppy and Hellebore, and Pennyroyal. Growing into a window he himself had smashed in his rage when he returned after the attack, was an oleander tree. Pennyroyal, at just 8-years-old had grown it for him and he and Poppy had replanted it outside when it quickly got too big for Pennyroyal to grow it in a pot. Inside, just visible now through the gaps, were the words ‘The Serpent Take You.’

It was what he said to Darnel on their last encounter, and to Hellebore too as she cowered behind him having betrayed Oleander and Pennyroyal and left them to be captured and tortured again.

He had been angrier then. He was 12 and alone when he carved those words hoping Hellebore, or even Poppy, would see it.

But he was better since then. These last few months had done that. As he spent his days with a purpose beyond survival, as he spent his days with Pennyroyal – the sweetest thing in his, and everyone’s, life. It had become clear to him that the dreadful actions he had taken to avoid arrest and live in the Garden after the attack were no longer necessary, but that he didn’t need to cause himself grief over them.

Pennyroyal was thirteen, but her kindness was a wisdom all of it’s own, and it had healed him.

Briefly, he pressed his hand into the oleander tree.

With a breath he released a wish for success – if only for Pennyroyal’s happiness – and ran to his next assigned area.

 

~

He found himself mouthing words in the woods.

The dawn was blooming late behind a thick smog of grey cloud, and Oleander felt something niggle it’s way up his spine and across his skull.

“The Serpent take you.” He whispered, mouth aching as he shaped the words. At the very back of his mouth, the small amount of muscle remaining of his tongue twitched helplessly. “The Serpent take you.”

He didn’t need words. Not most of the time. He had his hands, and he had his silence, and he was content with that.

But now that niggling, nibbling feeling seemed to say he would need these words. He would need to be able to say them very clearly.

He tried to shake it off, tried to remind himself it was well into dawn now and most of the Weeds would already be at the Serpent’s Nest eating and recovering from a stressful escape.

And nothing could go wrong now. His boredom proved that.

Quietly, he watched from his hiding spot as what must be the last of the Weeds coming along this route trickled by.

Safe and sound.

He turned away, yawned, and pull the knife from his pocket to pick at the rust spreading at the base of the blade.

With a precise nail, he chipped of a scrap of orange.

Which was when the first scream echoed through the streets.

Instantly, he was on his feet, brandishing the knife without a second thought.

The eyes of the Weeds nearby were wide in terror. They stared at the green cloth pinned to his lapel, as though it could give them an answer, or some comfort.

For once, Oleander wished Poppy were with him. Without her, Oleander had no comfort to give.

But, he nodded decisively to himself, he could at least take the knife to where it was needed and away from these innocents.

As best he could he beckoned them on, and was grateful for the few who understood and kept the queue moving.

He ran on, quickly finding himself joined by Hemlock, whose pink robes fluttered behind her. Despite the drag, she ran as fast as him.

It didn’t take long to find the source of the cry.

Dust burst into the air, crowding into a great cloud above the collapsed building. Oleander held a sleeve to his mouth so as not to breathe it in.

The building had been long, packed in amongst other smaller buildings. The Weeds must have been using it as a short cut through to the main road leading out of town.

Behind it, as the cloud dissipated, scared faces were just visible.

Oleander looked to Hemlock, who scowled, head tilted sideways like a confused dog.

He followed her gaze to the rubble.

From a small gap, a hand protruded, waving for attention.

Oleander looked up the cobbled road, following it up the hill, right up to where the Weed Pit stopped, and the path twisted into the Herb Garden. Above it, the clouds were beginning to thin and their escape was being illuminated more and more with every minute they stood here.

With a grunt, Oleander rushed to grab the block closest.

He would have to be fast.

“That won’t work, my sweet.” Hemlock tutted, already clambering over another section of collapse to where the Weeds waited.

Hemlock wasn’t looking, but Oleander gave her a burning look even so.

Help me, then! He raged.

“There isn’t the time.” Hemlock huffed, now only visible beyond the collapse by her sunrise-pink hair. “Forget the few to save the many. Come, help me.”

The first Weed began to appear over the rubble, fingers clasping weakly, sweat beading on their brow. Another followed quickly. And another.

And beneath the rubble the waving of the hand grew more and more feeble.

I will get you out. Oleander bit his lip to stop his frustration showing. I will.

With all the force he could muster, he jumped to try to remove another block, fingers grazing on the concrete.

He heaved until his arms screamed in pain, and heat flowed from his cheeks.

But it wouldn’t move.

It won’t move. He choked on his breath, I’m not strong enough.

“Try this one first.”

A man had removed a block from above the hand, though many more lay beneath it.

But one was gone.

Oleander’s heart twisted with gratefulness.

Weeds continued to flow over the rubble – many more than Oleander thought there would have been, many more than there should have been, way too many – and Oleander blinked.

They all walked past, paying him no heed.

And the man didn’t look like a Weed.

He was short – the top of his head hardly reached Oleander’s shoulder -, with a broad chest and shoulders, and an intense gaze the colour of freshly beaten metal. His skin was a clean and even tan, and his hair was the colour of strong tea.

“Come on, help me with this one.” He was already grabbing for another block. This time a larger one that would definitely require two people to move, “If we remove the ones from the top that are most likely to fall, we can work our way down until we can lift the person out.”

Without replying – how could he reply, besides – Oleander took the other side of the block, and together they lifted it off.

It took painfully long, way too long, whilst the sky grew lighter and the crowd of Weeds just didn’t seem to end – but eventually the person was freed. The man lifted an elderly gentleman from the gap they had made. He was bruised and weak, but still able to stand.

The steel-gazed man looked at Oleander as though expecting something, or studying him, or scolding him – the intensity of his gaze was distracting and Oleander couldn’t tell what it meant.

Then, without another word, he was leaving. He hardly had to bend for the elderly man to wrap his arm about his neck, and together they began to hobble away.

With the arm around his neck, the steel-gazed man’s shirt pulled down slightly. Beneath it an intricate pattern curled in vine-like swirls from the top of his spine downwards, a white that contrasted with his skin so as to appear like scars.

Oleander blinked again, and he was gone with the crowd.

The world had seemed to go quiet as he stared after the man, the thought finally coming to him that he should have perhaps tried to thank him.

When Hemlock pushed him, her nails caught the skin on his back, causing him to yelp and bringing him back to reality.

Hand reaching to his back, he looked to her for an explanation, but it seemed she had no time.

“Run!” She bellowed, panicked, and raced towards the woods.

Still coming out of his daze, Oleander struggled to make himself move.

He looked around, searching for her source of panic, but all he found were a group of frantic Weeds heaving at the other side of the rubble, yelling and looking ahead so intently it was as though looking back would be too horrifying.

Oleander looked where they wouldn’t.

And wished he hadn’t.

He leapt onto the rubble, grabbing at the clothes on peoples’ backs, trying to drag them across the collapse as he had with the concrete blocks.

It wasn’t helping. It wasn’t helping.

They began to spread, clawing across the rubble wherever they could, sparing no heed for Oleander where he stretched towards them.

He soon found himself suffocating beneath their mass.

And despite himself his heart thundered with panic.

He shouldn’t have tried to help. He should have left. Hemlock was right, he should have run.

When had he become like this? When had he forgotten to put himself first?

It’s because of her. He wept, struggling desperately to free himself from the mass which only seemed to grow. It’s because of her. She saved me. She saved me, and she’s doomed me.

But he couldn’t be mad.

He couldn’t be.

Not at Pennyroyal. Not against all the doom in the world.

Not against the memories of the Hand, the memory of his tongue being severed, and hot hot blood pouring down his chin, or a rag that tasted of chemicals being jammed into the space his tongue had left.

Not against the Pesticide storming down the hill to stop the Weeds from leaving, to stop everything, to destroy everything – and how? How did they know?

Not even against the threat of being back there again, in the Hand with Darnel Loa picking at his body parts and holding his parents over him.

Help me. Moving was getting him nowhere. Rocks and feet and nails beat into his skin. Save me.

He thought of the steel-gazed man.

Help me.

He thought of Hemlock.

Help me.

He thought of his parents.

Save me.

He thought of Poppy.

Save me.

He thought of Hellebore.

Save me.

Hellebore as she was. Strong and stern and kind and kind and kind, who saved him from the Hand, from Darnel. Hellebore who got him out.

Save me save me save me!

Hellebore who left him and Pennyroyal to be taken back.

He stopped struggling.

No one was coming to save him. No one.

 

~

 

 

It was dark. It was dark and dark and dark.

Except for him. Except for his face, glowering down at his prize.

Oleander knew he shouldn’t look. Wouldn’t look. Couldn’t look.

It was dark dark dark. Thickly dark with dank and blood and shit.

Except for him, in his clean, wrinkle-less robes.

“Little Oleander,” His grin could curdle, his teeth were too white. White like his skin, white like his hair and the priest’s collar he wore. “It’s been far too long.”

He made circles around Oleander, each footstep sending shocks through Oleander’s spine. Oleander was not ashamed of his fear.

It was him, a force no one could shame you for being afraid of.

“Did you miss me?”

Dark and dank and rank and cold. Way too cold.

“Nothing to say to an old friend?”

Cold and dark and dank and rank and fear so thick it was palpable.

“What’s wrong?”

Coming closer.

“Tongueless?”

Closer and closer.

“I recall you saying something to me, before you vanished.”

Closer and closer and closer.

Tears pricked the corner of Oleander’s eyes. Cold and fear set his whole body to shaking.

“What was it again?”

He was right in front of him. Towering over him. Meaty hands reaching for him, taking him by the shoulder. Tight. And even if he had had the courage to fight, his arms were tied behind him. He was helpless.

“Say it, little Oleander.”

But he couldn’t even begin to speak, could not even breathe without the air rattling as it came from within him.

“Nothing? Then let me remind you.”

Calloused hands, nails thick with redredredredred, coming for him, coming wide to grab him and crush him and crush him and crush him to dust.

To take something from him again.

A monster’s hands taking his hair in clumps and raising him from the floor quick enough to make him cry out.

“The Serpent take you.” He whispered into Oleander’s ear. He whispered into the room. He whispered into the town. He whispered to the Nameless God himself.

“And so the Serpent will,” Monster’s hands driving his face into the concrete, where his nose shattered instantly, and he lay, defenceless. “When they find out you’ve told me everything.”

Oleander could not even speak to protest, to fight, to do anything, could only twitch as Darnel Loa slid on his gloves, flexed his fingers, and hissed,
“Let’s begin.”

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