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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27. Chapter 26 - Mistletoe

The showers seemed like a gift from God – well, everything seemed like a blessing in the past few days.

Most of the Weeds were safe, and her conscience was clear.

The clutter of the bunker was nothing – a slight hindrance at most, and more so a blockade between she and Medlar.

Every time she entered the corridor, the showers were between her room and his, and the showers were always busy with a mass of Weeds who had never experienced warm running water before.

So busy had it become in just a day, that already Wormwood had decided to set a rota, in effect starting today.

And finally, as evening was setting in outside, Mistletoe got her opportunity to use the Serpent Nest’s showers before she had to return home again – to ease suspicion.

The room was tiled evenly in gradient squares running through ugly shades of orange. The whole room tilted slightly forwards, with the door set higher that it’s opposite wall, so that the water could flow down the drain.

“How do you suppose the showers are kept so tidy after so many years of desertion and then use?” Mistletoe asked  no one in particular.

“Someone suffers from sleeplessness.” Laburnum mumbled from her left. She was an entity that bred weariness – it radiated from her. Just a glance at the purple growing and growing beneath her eyes was enough to cause Mistletoe to yawn.

“And because of a good trade set-up.” Hellebore added. To look at her was painful – she was a skeleton with skin, and with no clothes to hide herself whilst she washed.

“It’s not like all this is 1000 years old.” Khat scoffed. “It’s all from abroad. We had to arrange for someone to be sneaked in just to get the pipes to work. They took most of our first lot of supplies as payment.”

Mistletoe forgot that Khat had been with the Serpent since the beginning – well, she wasn’t exactly the pure-intention organisation type, was she?

“It must have taken Wormwood a lot of work.” Mistletoe hummed, turning back to the warm water, satisfied as Khat glared daggers in her direction.

Showering in the Serpent had never been a private affair. Without doubt, you would walk into the shower room and find someone else was already there, standing naked beneath a head.

It was a group activity, even before the Weeds had moved in.

The only difference now was that the group part was compulsory – all female Serpent members would shower together.

“Outside is freezing, this is marvellous!” Mistletoe crooned, rubbing hot water through her hair. “And, for once, no man to peer in on us at any moment!”

She thought of Medlar, and shuddered.

“Women can peer, too.” Khat muttered from where she stood on the other side of the room.

“Oh, yes, I forgot you were into women.” Mistletoe tutted.

“As is Wormwood.” Khat spat back.

Mistletoe blanched, and turned away again.

“Besides,” Khat continued, “I like men, too. They’re pretty, anyway. I woudn’t want to get romantic with one, but if they fancy a little-”

“That is enough!” Mistletoe gasped.

“We’re all naked, anyway,” A voice sang from behind a very damp red curtain strung up in the corner, “Now is the best time to get intimate.”

A flick of pink hair shot up over the railing.

“Sharing is healthy.” Hemlock peered briefly around the edge of the curtain, head visible only, “Personally, I would take anyone to bed if their looks appealed to me, but romance is simply not my thing.”

“That’s just crude.” Mistletoe grumbled.

“Says the Rose, when hardly any Roses marry for anything more than to have sex and make children.” Khat argued.

“The sex is never the important part, the child is!” Mistletoe protested, “But it doesn’t hurt to be attracted and want it, you just don’t let it show.”

“I agree on it not hurting to be attracted and want it.” Khat’s smile was slim and sly.

“Do you ever want to be married?” Pennyroyal piped up from her chair where it sat beneath a shower head. Hellebore and Poppy stood on either side of her. Her joyful attitude wasn’t quite so bright, but she continued to try.

Mistletoe couldn’t help but be endeared by the child.

“I suppose it might be nice.” Khat replied, short. Her response implied she didn’t want further questions.

“Well, I think marriage would be wonderful.” Mistletoe sighed dreamily, “When all this is done, perhaps I can find a lovely gentleman and we could marry for love.”

“I’d like to marry for love.” Henbane chimed in, a similar dreamy look in her eye.

“But to who?” Hemlock asked.

Henbane paused, pursing her lips.

“I’ve never really thought about it.” She shrugged, and returned to washing herself.

“I would!” Pennyroyal beamed, then it faltered. Quickly it replaced itself, “But that’s far in the future.”

“I hope so.” Hellebore mumbled, casting a parental look down towards Pennyroyal.

“Why have you never gotten a lover, Hellebore?” Mistletoe asked, “Surely you’re of an age to be married. You, too, Bluebottle.”

“It’s never worked out.” Bluebottle replied, keeping her voice light and her gaze averted, but there was a hint of irritation to her tone.

“Marriage?” Hellebore shook her head, “I couldn’t. Sure, people are pretty, but since… everything… I’ve never really felt that kind of attraction.”

“P-people are p-people.” Poppy shrugged, face twisted in confusion, “It doesn’t make sense to m-me, th-this at-traction th-thing.”

This confused Mistletoe in return.

“No one’s ever… taken your fancy?”

“Wh-what does th-that even m-mean?” Poppy scowled, “I don’t g-get it. Wh-when I was a k-kid, m-my d-dad – wh-when he w-was being n-nice – s-sometimes t-told m-me about m-my grandad’s lover. Th-they couldn’t h-have ch-children. I th-thought relationsh-ships like th-that were only f-for h-having ch-children.”

“Well, that’s understandable, I suppose, with our society.”

“Y-You don’t understand. I sp-spent m-most of m-my life around p-people who c-could m-marry for l-love. It sh-should make s-sense, it just doesn’t.”

That made the room grow quiet and still, but Hellebore and Poppy continued washing as normal.

Shower water splashed against the floor, missing bodies.

The steam in the room swirled.

“Won’t you get lonely?” Mistletoe asked, eventually.

Poppy looked almost surprised at the follow-up question. She glanced at Hellebore. Hellebore glanced back.

In sync, they turned to look at Mistletoe.
“I h-have H-Hellebore.” Poppy said, simply. Hellebore nodded, nonchalant.

The room returned to washing.

 

~

The streets had grown dark – well, that was winter, Mistletoe supposed.

The days grew shorter, the night longer, the cold tighter.

Sometimes Mistletoe enjoyed it – from higher up the hill, if she looked across the naked trees to where the moon sang with brightness at the edge of the hole in the sky, the Old City shone like silver.

It was a myth sitting on the horizon – glowing white and shaded at the same time. From here, in the moonlight, the City could be the Stranger himself, watching.

Yes – It was the Stranger sitting on the edge of the world, waiting until the time came to send the Waste to destroy the sinners again.

Maybe that time was soon.

The thought didn’t scare Mistletoe, it didn’t even cause her to shudder.

She was confident – whatever the priests and Gardeners taught, she was doing the right thing.

With a brief nod, she stepped on along the cobbles.

Should she be scared, walking alone in the dark like this?

Despite the scuffles and footsteps that echoed from the alleyways about her, she didn’t feel afraid at all.

Not of man, not of the Stranger.

For one moment, she stood still, admiring the power she felt filling her.

She had done the right thing – she had saved people.

She smiled triumphantly, not caring whether the darkness covered it.

Then she continued.

Her house was dark, except from one window on the upper floor which hummed blue. The concrete of the walls was now bare for all to see. The flowers had died with the last grasp of Summer, and left the whole world grey. The trellises up the walls that once held weaving ivy glistened.

Frost.

It swirled along the cobbles on the road ahead, too. It branched and swirled, reaching with glistening fingers for every still thing around it.

Mistletoe steadied her feet as she continued past her home, further up the hill to a house that would always be familiar, regardless of whether the flowers were growing or not;

This was Wormwood’s house.

As she pressed her palm against the gate, pushing it slowly open, the scent of yellow roses seemed to rush into her nostrils – though the roses had long since died now.

With it came memories of childhood. She pushed open this same gate when she was 10, and watched a 7-year-old Wormwood bound towards her across lush green grass, clutching petals in her fingers. Her hazel eyes gleamed, her face was the sun. Her simple yellow sundress swirled about her ankles.

“Mistletoe!” She’d cry in delight whenever Mistletoe arrived, “Mistletoe, you’re here!”

Another memory, a more recent one, shot to the surface, crashing into the pleasantness of her childhood with a slight tang of metal.

“Mistletoe.” A bleary-eyed Wormwood, 19-years-old, raising her head from her desk. “Why’re you here?”

And perhaps it was the glits, but she’d almost looked like her skin was blue. Really blue.

And the light that had been in her eyes… was just gone.

Mistletoe shook it away, and pulled an enveloped piece of paper from a fold she’d made in her dress.

“Ragwort?” She called, voice hushed.

No reply. She started across the grass to the small outhouse where the Ragwort kept his cats. The horses in the stable nearby whinnied at her approach, she hushed them but they didn’t settle.

“Ragwort?” She tried again, at the door, but before she could push it open to find him, a voice came from behind her,

“Is it from Wormwood?”

Mistletoe startled, spinning so fast she almost fell.

Ragwort stood between her and the house, dressed in bed clothes.

His eyes had never glistened the same way Wormwood’s did – but for some reason, tonight she found herself uncomfortable under his gaze.

She looked away, composing herself.

“Yes.”

“Is she okay?” He asked, so quickly she had hardly finished speaking when he said it. “Is she coming to see me?”

“Yes.” Mistletoe replied, “And… I don’t know. Did she say she would?”

Ragwort shook his head, his golden curls flying.

“I just hoped.” He shrugged, and stepped past Mistletoe to the door of his small cattery. “She brought me two cats this week.”

Mistletoe followed him inside, where he flicked a glit on the wall and went to sit down.

She held out the letter.

“She told me to bring you this.”

He glanced at the letter, briefly, as though not really taking it in, then looked back to his cats, now mewling around him.

“She brought me two cats this week.” He said again, grabbing two specifically from his admiring audience, “Two golden ones. They have green eyes.”

Mistletoe looked down at the letter held out uselessly in front of her.

She hid in back in the folds of her dress, tucked a piece of blonde hair behind her ear, and crouched down near him.

“They’re beautiful.” She smiled at him, but he was looking at his cats, “Can I stroke them?”

She started to reach a finger out to them, stopping just before she got to them so they could smell her – this was something Ragwort had told her that they prefer.

“I think so.” He nodded.

She ran her fingers over their heads and across their backs, which rose as she rubbed across their spines, in turn. They rumbled as she scratched the underside of their chins.

One had thicker fur that knotted slightly between her fingers, the other had shorter, sleeker fur.

But there was no mistaking their relation.

“Do these ones have names?” None of the other had names, Mistletoe knew, not real names. But with these two… she had a feeling.

“Worm and Wort.” Ragwort replied, simply. “Wormwood called them that when she got here.”

He held up the one with thicker fur.

“This is Worm.”

And then the smoother one,

“And this is Wort.”

“I wonder if they like those names?” Mistletoe rubbed her calves, straining under the effort of crouching.

Ragwort looked at her, narrowing his eyebrows.

“They don’t know them.” He said, matter-of-factly.

“So Wormwood brought you two cats. What else?”

“What else?” Ragwort echoed, confused.

“Did she do anything else?”
Again, he looked at her, like he’d never seen her face before.

“Why?” He asked.

The question took Mistletoe aback. Ragwort wasn’t often the one to ask – he wasn’t fond of conversation, after all, and questions continued conversations.

“I’m just curious.”

He gazed at her a moment longer, and then returned his eyes to his cats.

“You’re not usually curious.” He mumbled, his tone almost uncomfortable. He pressed his lips tight, fiddling cat fur between his fingers. “She said hello to Absinthe.”

Absinthe was Wormwood’s horse – a beautiful, dappled grey mare that grazed at the bottom of the garden in the day with Ragwort’s own horse, Rag.

“I bet Absinthe misses her.”

Ragwort frowned.

“Sometimes, maybe.” He muttered, growing smaller. Mistletoe could tell he was started to grow uncomfortable. He wasn’t used to talking to Mistletoe for this long. He wasn’t used to having to answer questions like this. “She asked if our father was in.”

“She asked for your father?” Mistletoe sat up, shocked.

“No. She asked if he was in.” Ragwort’s voice grew short. “He wasn’t.”

Mistletoe wanted to push, to ask more.

But she was getting nothing more out of Ragwort.

He was tired. He simply didn’t want to talk anymore, she could tell from the tone of his voice.

“Okay.” She stood, and turned to leave. “I’ll see you soon, Ragwort.”

Just as she swung the door open, she remembered-

“Oh.” She pulled the letter back out, and held it towards Ragwort again.

Without looking up, he took it from her.

Mistletoe left the little building in silence.

But it was not silence that greeted her outside.

Wind rolled silently through the leaf-less trees at the end of the large garden.

Somewhere in the forest, a night bird screeched.

But these were not the sounds that so offended her ears-

“Mistletoe.” Came a muffled cry.

She recognised that voice.

“Mistletoe, come here!”
She looked longingly at the gate.

I could just leave. I could just go. She thought, and stretched out her arm to the wood.

“Mistletoe!” The cry again, indignant this time.

But what is he doing here?

She turned on her heel and crept down the garden, glancing warily back towards the house as she passed Ragwort’s small outhouse and the stables. When she was far enough from the house that she believed the dark would mostly shield her from view, she sped up, until she finally met the tree line that rose up to meet the garden – just a small patch of trees growing in the Rose Garden that was disconnected from the rest of the forest below.

“Medlar!” Mistletoe nearly snapped, “What do you think you’re doing here?

A thousand images flew through Mistletoe’s head of all the stupid things he could be doing – attacking Roses, stealing, attacking Ragwort.

Mistletoe didn’t know, and she didn’t like it.

“Important stuff.” Medlar shrugged, with a sly grin. He gestured behind himself, “Meet my weapons dealer.”

From the shadows, and man stepped into view. His skin was pale in the same was as Medlar’s, and his face even more scarred – though his seemed more like the remnants of wounds, as opposed to Medlar’s pockmarks.

Mistletoe smacked Medlar’s hand back down, startling him.

“Why here?” She hissed.

Medlar pulled his face in irritation.

“This was where we agreed to meet.” He sneered.

“Oh, really? You agreed to meet a man giving you weapons in an exposed copse of trees at the bottom of a Rose’s garden?” Mistletoe catechized him, “I won’t buy it, Medlar.”

Medlar huffed out a laugh, and the grin returned.

It grew.

Mistletoe recoiled, but her mind reached out in curiosity.

“Do you really want to know?” Medlar challenged.

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