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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26. Chapter 25 - Henbane

‘Developments of the 23rd Century’.

And a century was 100 years.

And the Waste War happened at the end of the 22nd Century.

And so what did that make the present?

Henbane tapped her pen against the table. She chewed at her thumb.

Her education had been hazy at most – book- and self-taught only, which meant she had focused on what interested her.

Business sums, the counting of the crops, the counting of the harvest, the sharing of the harvest – these were not things in which she was well versed.

Still, 100 twice was like 1 twice but with two more zeroes.

Right?

And if 1000 was 100 ten times, then…

“The 32nd Century?”

Or, perhaps, the 33rd. After all, the Waste War was approximately one thousand years ago.

But the Garden hadn’t been in the habit of counting time or months for many years now. Seasons were the focus. Seasons were what was important.

And whether the season cycled over twelve months or twenty months was of no concern as long as the crops grew well and were cut down at the right time.

“The 33rd, probably.”

“Or your calculations are wrong, probably.” They sneered. “You’re no historian, go back to your fantasy books.”

Henbane batted the words away and sighed heavily down towards her book so as to place her forehead against it.

The dust danced into her nose, making it twitch.

The myth book she had been working on had been discarded – rather, flung. It was somewhere in the room, no doubt, but Henbane had been so irritated after the proceedings of the meeting that decided last night’s actions over saving her brother that she had done her very best to lose it.

Now her attempts turned to ‘Developments of the 23rd Century’ in spite. Bored though she was, she persisted to spite Wormwood.

Wormwood who built up her hope by visiting her the morning before the meeting, but who also questioned the Nameless God and hid meanings from her, Wormwood who in the meeting decided something else was more important than saving her brother, Wormwood who forced her to take part and talk to the Weeds and cluttered them into every room and every corridor just to get them away, Wormwood who did everything without explanation – hiding and lying and pretending that she was not keeping secrets in every word she spoke.

And Wormwood who left her brother in the Chapel of Law, probably more vulnerable to the demons than ever with this new provocation.

Henbane could have fought, could have screamed or cried, but she wasn’t a fighter. She’d admitted that to herself already.

No, she was a translator. At best.

So she did what she did best, and she began to translate the very book that would prove Wormwood wrong.

If magic was returned to mankind, then that must prove the existence of the Nameless God!

“But you’ve not found anything.” They hissed laughter into her ears, “Useless. Useless.”

Again, she batted at them, trying to chase them away.

If she could only focus…

Then… there it was!

As she came to the end of an overwhelmingly thick chapter about the shift of the economy from physical-cash-based to trade-based, it appeared!

The heading of the new chapter read ‘The Emergence of Magics and Adapting to Them.’

Or something like that.

Thrill rushed into her like a flash flood into a valley.

She pressed her finger against the lines, putting all her energy into taking in the words.

As she read, as quickly as she could translate, and scribbling ferociously as she did, she mumbled the words.

“Supernatural phenomenon…” Henbane shaped the sounds very slowly, easing them out slowly to save her tongue the soreness of the pre- and post-Waste War’s long vocabulary.

That was one thing that makes these books so difficult, Henbane huffed in response to the thought, their words were so needlessly long!

“Result of natural disaster… shock… po-tent-ially result of nuclear ex-pos-ure.”

Henbane crinkled her nose. Nuclear exposure?

“Science.” They chuckled, “Not magic.”

Henbane gritted her teeth and turned to the book, but they nattered in her ears with their discomforting words.

Science.They hissed.

“Not necessarily.” She hissed back, “I don’t know what ‘nuclear’ means and neither do you.”

But the word wasn’t going away, on and on, through pages and pages it repeated.

“…And as such it was found most appropriate to refer to these new developments as ‘magic’.” Henbane slapped the book closed, barely half way through the chapter. “There is no mention of the Nameless God anywhere, and the magics are hardly recognisable!”

“Science.” They still whispered.

With a huff, Henbane ran her fingers through her short hair, digging her nails into her itching scalp, and felt grease cling to them.

She rubbed it between her fingers and felt a sob rise in her throat.

This was not something she was used to – this frustration, this dirt.

There had been things about life in the Chapel of Law that had been less than ideal – the seclusion, for one, the situation with her brother, for another – but at least she could clean herself when she wanted rather than having to wait until a certain designated time.

At least she had spent most of her life with no need for anger.

Of course, she saw now she should have been angrier – there were injustices in the Garden that she’d never been aware of.

No, maybe she was aware, but they seemed so far beyond her then.

Now she knew of the prejudice, of the scale of class separation, of everything that had made everyone else miserable whilst she had continued in contented isolation.

And she knew Wormwood was trying to fix that, no matter how her opinions of other things differed from Henbane’s own, and so she couldn’t really hate her.

Henbane sighed again, and put down her pen. She brushed the book to one side and stood and stretched.

“You won’t get the answer you want.” They chided, as she strode to the door. “They don’t care what you want.”

Henbane pushed them away, trying to imagine the breeze from the door opening beating them back farther into the room.

“Wormwood doesn’t care what you want.” Teeth chattering in her ears – the door had done nothing, they were so close, “She’ll let your brother die – no, she’ll kill him herself.”

Henbane pressed her hands to her ears and hurried towards the stairs, speeding into a jog.

“She’ll be sending someone there right now.”

In great steps she leapt down the stairs, feeling them tugging at her heels.

“In fact – I bet that’s where Oleander is.” They cackled, pulling at her fingers, and nipping at her hair.

Down the next corridor, to the thin stairway that led further down.

“We heard her say she wished your brother had killed you.”

Henbane stopped in her tracks, breath catching in her throat.

They descended.

Claws in her back, tearing open her skin to burrow inside, hanging on her ribs and grabbing at her heart.

Squeezing into shapes small enough to pour into her veins, replacing her blood, reaching up to her brain.

Reaching, reaching, reaching…

And everything swirled.

Round and round. The floor came up to meet her, the air grew tight.

She was trapped.

She was trapped with nowhere to go. She couldn’t move. Every movement she attempted burnt like a fire – like the dry heat of the Waste. It scraped against her skin, tearing away at her.

“Help me. They’ve got me.” She whispered, but she heard no sound from her throat, “Help me, please.”

God. She thought, God, please.

Faint warmth took her hand.

“Henbane?”

A blue light blooming at top of her clouded vision.

“Henbane, no one’s got you.” A voice, soothing, like the Nameless God himself speaking to her. “Henbane, can you hear me?”

A voice, difficult to filter out around the snapping of them, but breaking through like the blue lie casting away the darkness.

And there she was – golden curls glowing.

The glit light cast against like water. From the ground, she was surreal, otherworldly.

It was as though Henbane were at the bottom of a deep well and she had come down to save her.

To stop the demons from taking her mind.

“Henbane?” She smiled. It was weary, but the purest smile Henbane had ever seen – relief, care.

Henbane burned again with guilt over doubting her.

“Wormwood.” She managed to rasp, and she heard her voice.

Wormwood smiled again, and then looked away as though shocked by something.

“Khat…” She started, but nothing followed.

Wormwood disappeared, and another pair of arms was wrapping around her, leading her away from the corridor, and into the warmth of a bed and blankets.

 

~

 

 

“Henbane.” Khat called, slight impatience in her tone.

“Khat.”

“Try to focus on me.”

Henbane frowned.

“I am focused on you.”

“No, you’re not, because it just took you far too long to reply.”

Henbane blinked her eyes tightly, trying as hard as she could to keep them on the brown of Khat’s.

Her head felt fuzzy – her thoughts were hardly there at all, and at the same time were everywhere.

“Okay.” Khat breathed out, “Breathe deep for me.”

Khat exampled what she wanted, taking in a lengthy breath, holding it momentarily, and then letting it out again.

Henbane copied, following Khat’s instructive nods.

“It’s something my mother taught me – in Romania they have better health care, you see.” Khat’s words came out sharp above the din. “Not as good as other countries, she says, but alright.”

She gestured to Henbane to keep breathing.

“This is an old technique, though. For calming down.”

“I am calm.”

“No, you’re shaking, and your shoulders are tense. Keep breathing.”

Henbane did as she was told.

“Where’s Wormwood?” Henbane started to look towards the door, but Khat readjusted the blankets around her shoulders to bring her attention back.

Henbane saw that they were in Khat’s room – the mauve, red, black, brown colouring was unmistakeable.

“Busy.” Khat scowled.

Henbane felt the warmth of the blankets sink into her skin, feeling drowsiness come with it.

Khat gripped each of her shoulders with one hand.

“Stay awake.”

“I’m awake.”

Khat pursed her lips.

“Wormwood’s planning a speech.” Khat huffed with her shoulders. “To boost morale.”

“I imagine that would help.”

“Probably.” Khat mumbled. “Maybe.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. We’re not talking about me, we need to talk about you.”

Henbane didn’t like that, she didn’t want to.

“Wormwood’s saved me twice now.”

Khat looked at her curiously, then fiddled again with Henbane’s blankets.

“Is that a good thing?” She asked, semi-joking, “I can’t read you at all.”

“Why?” Henbane furrowed her brow.

Why?” Khat mimed Henbane exactly. “Because you’re face is all blank! Your shoulders are shaking, but your face looks like… well, there’s no emotion there, anyway.”

“Is that an insult?”
“What?” Khat gasped, “No!”

She huffed again.

“Keep breathing!” She almost snapped.

“What’s wrong?” Henbane asked again.

Khat pulled a blanket from around Henbane and started to fold it beside her.

“Are you ready to tell me what happened to you?” Khat asked, tone light to deflect Henbane’s question.

Henbane sat back slightly on the bed, gripping the blankets that remained tight around her. Her fingers felt icy and not quite under her control.

“I got mad.” She started, trying to sound idle, “The demons came.”

Khat blinked.

“We need to save my brother.” Henbane forced, and then tried to make herself smile, “Anyway, Wormwood saved me.”

Khat pressed her hands against the folded blanket.

“Do I really look emotionless?” Henbane pressed her fingers into her face. “My head is all… blurry.”

Khat unfolded the blanket.

“Tell me again.” She bit her lip, “Because that made no sense.”

Henbane understood what she’d said perfectly, but her thoughts were racing.

“The demons-”

She started again.

No.” Khat wheezed. “First: What made you leave your room? What were you doing?”

“Reading.”
“Reading what?”

“ ‘Developments of the 23rd Century.’” Henbane answered, “Chapter on magic.”

Khat paused.

“Did it upset you?”

“No. I got confused.” She thought again. “Yes. Well, no, but there was a word, a couple of words, and-”

“What were the words?”

“Nuclear exposure.”

“I don’t know what that means.”
“Neither do I.”

“Why were you reading something like that?”

“Wormwood said…” Henbane paused. Her thoughts were going to fast. She felt as though she had to catch them quick or lose them. “Wormwood said… the Nameless God wasn’t there… wasn’t there to give magic back after… after the Waste War.”

“So…” Khat coaxed.

“I was proving her wrong.” Henbane felt the inexplicable urge to laugh, though she knew she should be upset. She forced the urge down. “But it said they thought magic was due to ‘nuclear exposure’ and the demons said that was science. But they don’t know anything about science.”

“The demons.” Khat repeated, questions filling her words.

“The demons.” Henbane confirmed. “And I got mad, and I let them in, and that was why I was in the corridor.”

Khat paused. She blinked. She sat back on her heels on the bed.

“Psychotic episode.” Said a new voice from a chair by the bed.

Another woman Henbane hadn’t noticed before was sat on a simple wooden chair by the side of the bed. She looked a lot like Khat, though faint lines under her eyes, and at the very edge of her mouth, betrayed her age.

Henbane looked back to Khat.

Khat looked to the woman, glancing back towards Henbane briefly, filled with uncertainty.

Perhaps, also, a slight wariness.

“My mami was a doctor, my Khat, I know some of these things.”

“I know, mami.” Khat replied, and turned back to Henbane.

“Is she your mother?” Henbane asked, looking back at the woman, comparing the curve of her jaw to Khat’s, thinking of the similarities between the colour of the two women’s eyes. “What does that mean, what she said?”

“It’s a head thing. A mental health thing.” Khat explained, shaping each word with care. “Mami thinks you have a mental illness.”

Again, Henbane didn’t understand. But whatever she meant, Henbane knew she wasn’t ill – she wasn’t safe, she wasn’t fine, but she wasn’t ill.

“I’m not ill.” She drew away from Khat, “I’m possessed.

“You’re not possessed.” Khat sighed, the impatience sneaking back into her voice.

“Well, not in my head. Wormwood stopped them from getting into my head.”

“Wormwood doesn’t have that power.”
“She does. She did it for me.”
“She doesn’t.”

“She does.”

“If she did, she would have used it on herself a long time ago!” Khat heaved, and then realised the tone of her voice and rubbed it away with a thumb on her forehead. “You’re not ill, you’re not possessed, okay? But you’re not well.

They sat in silence. Khat throwing out waves of emotion in silence, and Henbane buzzing inside.

“What’s wrong, Khat?” She asked one more time, forcing herself to mimic the gentleness Khat had used with her before, dropping her head closer to Khat. “Tell me. I don’t want to talk about me, my head is loud. Distract me, tell me what’s wrong.”

“I’m not sure it will make you feel better.” Khat mumbled, dabbing at her eyes with her thumbs.

“It will distract me from my own problem, and that’s as good.”

Khat met her eyes. Henbane tried to look steely, determined, ready to help.

She didn’t know if it worked, but Khat sighed, shoulders releasing, and pulled herself up against the head of the bed.

“Wormwood’s starting a war with the Garden.” Khat confessed, “When we go to save your brother- and we will save him, Henbane -,” Khat looked firm, truthful, “we go in with guns and swords. We destroy the establishment.”

“Oh.” Khat’s mother’s scowl was clear in her voice, “Faceţi dragoste, nu războaie.”

“Mami.” Khat scolded.

“You don’t seem overly concerned.” Khat’s mami put in.

“Of course I am!” Khat protested, then pulled back again, “But not as much about the Garden as I am about Wormwood.”

“Iubire.” Khat’s mami mumbled.

“Wormwood isn’t built for violence!” She steamed, blowing air out through her nose. “A city can be rebuilt, but a person is not so easy!”

She scraped her hand through her hair.

“I don’t want people to die – I don’t want Roses or anyone to be killed.” Khat’s tears were openly flowing.

Henbane didn’t know what to do, how to respond. She had asked, but this was not what she was expecting.

And Khat was upset – but Henbane could not shake the feeling that, if this was what Wormwood had chosen to do, it must be the right thing.

She could not say that.

“More than anything…” Khat gasped, “More than anything, I don’t want Wormwood to destroy herself with this.”

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