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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30. Chapter 29 - Henbane

“I’m concerned.” Bluebottle muttered, washing her hands at the sink. “Wormwood’s being stupid. We were counting on the soldiers abandoning and coming to us, but there’s no sign of them.”

Sat on Bluebottle’s bed, Henbane pressed her hand into the coarse white fur of Sheep’s chest. He changed his target – licking her arm now rather than her face.

“Stop, Sheep! Stop it!”

“We could stop, we could wait and change our plans!” Bluebottle huffed, rubbing her towel roughly between her hands. “But she’s still insisting we move in three days! And with weapons! This wasn’t the plan! We don’t have any armour, never mind experience!”

Sheep pushed against Henbane’s hand – for something under half her height, he was strong.

“I mean, what? Is she going to send civilians in to fight in place of soldiers? To fight soldiers?”

“The plan isn’t exactly the same.” Henbane reminded Bluebottle, “We’re not doing a frontal attack at all now. The Weeds won’t fight.”

“No, they’ll just cause an uproar and be killed.

Bluebottle fiddled with the towel in her hands.

“And are we really taking weapons?” She asked, not expecting an answer, “It’s just… I mean, are we going to kill Roses?”

Henbane had to admit, she trusted Wormwood’s plan entirely, but the idea of using weapons against Roses discomforted her.

If it came to it, could she really… hurt someone?

“No.” She said, firmly. “No, she wouldn’t encourage that.”

Bluebottle looked unsure.

“You’re probably right.” She mumbled. “I still don’t understand why she’s getting us to move so soon. I mean, in three days? This isn’t a good plan, it needs more thinking about.”

Henbane pushed at Sheep again, rubbing slobber off herself with her other hand.

“Sheep, down.” Bluebottle called, distracted.

The dog jumped down onto the floor.

Bluebottle looked at Henbane.

“Are you ready?” She asked, “We best go.”

Together, leaving Sheep in Bluebottle’s room, they made their way up the stairs and into Yew’s hut, where everyone waited in a huddle.

“Bluebottle, Henbane!” Hemlock piped from where she sat, cross-legged, in the corner. “Did you see Wormwood as you came up?”

Henbane thought it was unusual to see Hemlock distressed, but the look on her face seemed almost natural, well-practiced.

“Wormwood? No. She’s not already here?” Bluebottle furrowed her brow, looking around.

Hemlock fidgeted, her face screwing up. In one swift movement, she was on her feet and rushing to the door.

“Khat already w-went to l-look, H-Hemlock.” Poppy stuttered out. “M-Maybe she’s just n-nervous for th-the sp-peech.”

“Wormwood doesn’t get ‘hide in her room’ nervous!” Hemlock cried, exasperated, and flew through the door back into the bunker.

No one in the room tried to protest what Hemlock had said, and Henbane couldn’t imagine that of Wormwood either.

What’s wrong with her? Henbane thought.

“Is she okay?” She said.

“Who knows.” Laburnum yawned, “She’s been like that since she got here.”

“Is Wormwood okay?” Henbane asked further.

“As far as we know. She’s just running late.”

“She shouldn’t run late.” Medlar huffed, “There are maybe more than a thousand people out there waiting for her. She’s going to look bad if she’s late.”

He crossed his arms, and looked through the grime of the hut’s windows.

Outside, a crowd waited. It was the largest disorganised group of people that Henbane had ever seen – made up of Weeds and allies. The two were easy to tell apart.

Farmers and priests stood out, clean and well-dressed in colourful finery for the occasion. It was no tradition to dress in colour for events in the Garden, unless dressing a child; adults preferred more sultry colours – grey, black, brown, white – which gave stark contrasts to the brightness of the plant life gifted by God.

Here, however, at the heart of discontent towards the Garden’s establishment, the space between the hut and the trees bloomed with all the colours of a rainbow, and more, some that Henbane couldn’t name.

Further, and occasionally mixed in with the crowd, thieves and Weeds waited, thin and dirt-covered, in darker colours. Whilst thieves preferred dark greys and browns, some Weeds had attempted to add variation to their regular black and white.

Many of the Weeds had dug out green items of clothing, and were wearing them as a show of respect for the group that had saved them, as a response to the strips of cloth that they had worn during the process.

And, no doubt, because it was the colour that Wormwood always wore.

 

For the past few days Wormwood had made little conversation with the other Serpent members besides what was needed to plan, but their Weed guests had been another matter entirely.

Every waking hour had been spent moving up and down through the bunkers, greeting and encouraging.

Henbane had peeped from her room whenever she heard Wormwood’s voice echo down the hallway, and each time she saw Wormwood wearing a smile that shone with the benevolence of a deity.

As the Weeds asked after her health, after the plan, after their own safety, she smiled.

And by the time she finished speaking, they smiled, too.

Whenever Khat entered the corridor she was not smiling.

Henbane knew Khat had a lot of concern over this plan, over any of what was happening, and that was why she had invited her into her room midway through the day yesterday.

“There are no soldiers!” Khat had almost screamed, much like Bluebottle would the morning following. “You know I don’t encourage even the idea of this turning into a fight, but there’s no way this will succeed without the soldiers.”

She rubbed her forehead with her thumb and forefinger.

“And why are they not coming?”

“Maybe their loyalty was just greater than we thought.” Henbane shrugged, though she was concerned herself.

Until recently, she would have stayed behind the shield of the Garden and the Chapel of Law no matter whether she had received a better offer or not.

Cooped up in the Chapel of Law – sure, it was lonely, but a comfortable loneliness – she’d never needed to think of the problems faced in the world outside. The world outside could have fallen into ruin and she’d still feel she was safe.

That was, of course, until her brother was going to kill her.

That’s strange. She had paused. She had thought about saving her brother, absolutely – he was her brother after all, and for many years her only friend and dearest companion – but she hadn’t thought about the threat on her life for a while.

“Or, maybe,” Khat broke her train of thought, “the Gardeners are more aware than we were counting on, and had already stopped them from being able to leave.”

“What! Imprisoning them?”

“Yes, by imprisoning them.” Khat nodded gravely.

“No.” She’d shaken her head, “They’re still soldiers after all. What good is a soldier when locked away?”

“Good in that they can’t fight for the rebels when they come.” Khat bit the nail of her thumb, eyes intent on the wall ahead, “And what does it matter if a few low-born soldiers are out of use? They still have a bigger fighting force than we do.”

That was true, Henbane knew. She’d seen them through her window training on the acres of land that stretched behind the back of the Chapel of Law. Every day, before she started reading, or left for the Chapel of Knowledge to get more books, she watched them march out in squadrons. She had once spent the entirety of seven days watching them alternate, from one squadron to the next. The Pesticide first, then the Herbicide, then the Pesticide, and so on.

In that time, she had come to know faces, who was friends with who, and even aspects of personality.

She had learnt all that – but if they disappeared at any point, she wouldn’t have cared.

What were they to her? She had her books, her brother, as much food and water as she needed.

And she’d never needed anything else.

Now, she realised what she really needed – well, what the Serpent needed – were soldiers.

“But we will have guns.”

Khat had clamped her hands over her ears.

“Don’t! I don’t even want to think about that!”

 

“I’m fine!” The exasperated cry echoed into Henbane’s ears as though from a distance, and pulled her back to the present.

Wormwood barrelled through the door, with Khat and Hemlock in quick pursuit.

“You’re late!” Medlar called, eyes narrowed in irritation, stopping any protest that Khat and Hemlock may have been about to make.

And there was that smile that could heal the sick. Wormwood beamed at the room in greeting.

“Good morning, everyone!” She declared, “Sorry I’m late.”

She strode to the windows, placing her hand down onto the sill as she looked out.

Closing her eyes, she took a heavy breath. Then stiffened.

“They look like a flower garden.” Yew spoke from beside her, black-light hand resting at the top of Wormwood’s back.

Henbane had not noticed Yew enter. Everyone stood still in alarm at their sudden appearance – but even more so at the physical contact.

Even Wormwood seemed unable to react at first.

“I suppose it does.” She laughed weakly, drawing back so that the Reaper’s hand fell from her. “I guess I should go and face it.”

“Let someone else do it.” Khat called from where she had stopped at the rear of the group.

“Wormwood, maybe you should…” Hemlock agreed.

But Wormwood was already swinging open the door. Freezing air rushed in past her, swirling about the members stood behind.

Wormwood stood firm against the insistent gusts, displaying strength in the shielding she wore over her torso. Spaulders decorated with swirling vine-like patterns protected her shoulders, fastened to the chainmail shirt she wore by two round metal fasteners, shining silver in the morning light. The aventail gathered above the spaulders, extending slightly upwards to cover all but the very top of her neck, where a strip of black was just visible.

For once, her hair was tied back, held in place by a ribbon of green cloth.

“I’m the leader, why would I not do it?”

She stepped forward onto her small stage – the platform porch of the hut.

The crowd grew still in reverence.

 

“People of the Garden,” Wormwood needn’t have spoken loudly, for the crowd was silent, “Rejects of our society. Those who struggle and fight just to live.”

She paused, taking in the crowd.

“You are welcome here.”

With arms spread, she welcomed them. And she smiled.

“I want you to know,” She spoke evenly, clearly, “That, though the society we were raised in may put you down, may condemn you, you are not wrong.”

Henbane wondered where she had learnt to speak like this. She wondered if it came naturally to her.

Yes, she could imagine that.

“Hear this: Do no harm, and nothing you do, nothing you are, will ever be wrong.” She leant slightly forward, arms raised by her sides with fingers spread to emphasise her words. “I have been amongst you, I have learnt your names and heard your stories and you are good people. If you have made mistakes in the past, know they are forgiven now. This is a new start. Not just for you.”

Wormwood swung her hand to the front row of the crowd, where Henbane stood with the other members of the Serpent, and then in the direction of the Garden.

“For everyone.”

She clenched her fists, narrowing her brows in steely determination.

“I have seen the cruelties committed against you, I have experienced them, and I will no longer let them stand. Starting now, every member of the Serpent will actively fight to achieve fairness.

And if you will join us, I believe we can win. We can turn this town over, this society over, and build it again! Build it better! We will build a town where no one is left to freeze in the dead of Winter or starve when there is plenty of food to share. We will build a town where no one is abandoned to rot in a jail cell. We will build a town that forbids torture, and reach out to other communities for aid and friendship.”

As she spoke, her voice grew louder, swelling with the passion of her words.

She dove with every word, hands swinging to match her fire. Sweat beaded on her forehead as she moved.

And still, no one spoke, only watched on in awe.

“I cannot promise you will never again feel pain, or sadness, or grief – I am not a miracle worker.”

Henbane clenched her chest. Somehow, the confession of not being able to work miracles only convinced her more than Wormwood could.

“But I will not allow it to grow. I want us all, as we live and develop together in the years to come,” She breathed heavily, blinking rapidly for one moment as though to rid herself of tears that had grown at her words, “to work towards a world where the only pain is that which convinces us we are human. The only grief will be the grief of old age, and never of hunger or sickness or violence.”

She looked briefly at everyone – at every single person. Henbane saw her see individuals, loved ones, children and mothers and fathers and guardians.

She took them all in.

“Do you agree?”

In the silence, a rumble start. Out of the trees it rolled like a dust cloud, so thick with feeling Henbane felt she could reach and touch it.

It rose and rose, louder and louder, crashing into Wormwood on her stage, and she stood strong within it. She breathed it in.

And she pushed the joy of the cheer back with her beaming grin – the truest expression of happiness and hope Henbane had ever seen.

“Thank you.” Wormwood said, eyes glowing, as the cheer quieted. “You don’t know how hopeful that makes me feel. I want you all to feel that, too, forever. That is why I – why we – are doing this. You are all of the Serpent now. You are our family. We are one town, one species, one people.”

Suddenly her face grew grave. She pressed her lips tight, swallowed, looked briefly at the ground. Nervous movements – but practiced, purposeful nervous movements.

To show humanity.

And yet despite this, Henbane saw her grow beyond that in the eyes of those in the crowd. She grew and grew to something beyond the height of herself. Beyond her physical greatness.

“We work together now. And so I cannot lie to you.” She raised her chin high, pain deep set on her face, “There is a lot that needs doing. In a few days time, my crew and I will access the Chapel of Law. We will take the Messiah, and we will tear down the Hand and the establishment of the Gardeners. But we will need your help.”

For just a moment, the crowd tore in two. Half wanted to cheer, the other recoiled at the prospect of violence.

“Understand this: Not a single member of my crew advocates violence.” Wormwood caught their worry and eased it. “As you have, everyone will be given a second chance.”

“But-!” Came a protest. Medlar. Hemlock silenced him with a smack over the back of the head, but he wasn’t the only one with an argument to make.

Wormwood put a hand up for silence.

“Everyone deserves a second chance.” She breathed deeply again, and let the air out slowly. “I got a second chance.”

Again, the crowd faltered.

“Those of you who know my name may already know.” She bit her lip and clenched her fists and breathed again, as though what would follow would be difficult to admit, “For those of you who don’t, I am Wormwood Astera. The oldest daughter of Burdock Astera. I was born a Rose.”

A mutual gasp, even amongst the members of the Serpent. Like her, Medlar, Pennyroyal and Laburnum also seemed taken back by this statement.

“I was born a Rose. I was raised to be a Gardener. I got my second chance when I was fourteen.”

Khat twitched and looked at the ground. Henbane didn’t understand why.

“And since then, look what I have done. Look at what I and those around me have built.” She gestured again around herself, indicating the Serpent and what it provided as a whole. “Look at this, and tell me – Do any of you now doubt that I have your best interests at heart, despite how my life started?”

A consensus of answers swept over the crowd in a new rush of silence.

Wormwood smiled again, shoulders dropping slightly in relief.

“Thank you.” She said again, “And I doubt none of you in your good intentions. But now you understand – everyone deserves a second chance.

The pained expression, a confessing expression, crossed her face again.

“Those who refuse to take it, the worst, will, of course, be dealt with.”

She almost whispered the words, but Henbane didn’t doubt that everyone heard. What Wormwood said was not perfect – it could never be perfect – but it was enough to appease both sides.

Henbane looked again in awe at Wormwood as her chest heaved, as sweat dripped from her forehead and down across her cheeks. Her eyes seemed bleary with the overwhelming passion and difficulty of her confession.

The cold air had painted her skin paler than usual, showing the purple under her eyes that spoke of a hard-working leader more clearly.

“Will you work with me?” She asked.

Slowly, slowly, another cheer rose, accompanied by a few fists pumping into the air.

“Are you with me, in this, and everything to come?”

Yes! Came the returning cry, and more fists flew up in excitement.

“Are you with me?” She demanded again, voice raised as high as it could go, her voice overflowing with determination.

YES! Came the returning cry, and more pumping fists.

Then we stand together!” Wormwood threw her own fist into the air. It shook with adrenaline. The crowd flew into a chaos of cheer, as though triumph was already at hand. People cried and yelled, hugged and pumped their fists and leapt in the resonating thrill of Wormwood’s words.

On the stage, Wormwood’s shoulder seemed to drop in relief. Her eyes were hazy but happy as she looked over to them – her crew, Henbane thought, stomach twisting in euphoria. She looked tired – Henbane wondered how long she had stayed up perfecting her speech.

The crowd was alive and inspired, buzzing with hope for what they could achieve. Henbane felt it boring into her own skin, tingling with wonder.

Without thinking, she stepped forward towards her leader-

Khat moved quicker, practically running to her lover’s side-

Wormwood wiped the sweat from her forehead, glancing at the sun-

She moved to step from the porch-

She grinned-

An unsure grin-

She stepped from the porch-

Khat met her-

Wormwood leant forward-

And fell into her lover’s arms.

A spark of further glee shot through the people gathered at the embrace.

It was soon extinguished.

Screams followed, killing the elation of a moment ago as quickly as it had risen.

Khat was barely managing to hold Wormwood up.

The leader’s legs were bent and limp beneath her, her arms hung lifelessly and her skin showed a sweat-soaked, pallid grey. The deep purple bags under her eyes suddenly looked much more severe – the marks of someone pushed beyond their limit.

Khat lowered herself to her knees along with Wormwood, and began calling for help, terror clear in her voice.

In the fuss of movement that followed Henbane heard both fearful declarations that their leader was dead, and relieved reassurances that she yet breathed.

Henbane didn’t know. Her brain buzzed with confusion and lingering thrill. She couldn’t force herself to focus enough to find the rising and falling of breath.

Folded in Hemlock’s arms for the return to her room, the leader looked small and weak.

Henbane had almost forgotten that Wormwood was not someone with years of leadership experience – she was a young woman who had taken up the plea of the needy and unwanted.

No matter the difference – she was exceptional.

And yet, looking at her now, she could have been no more than a sick child, cradled like a babe in arms, sweat-slick hair clinging to her face, lips as white as the clouds now moving in to cover the sun.

Then the epiphany vanished with the leader into the hut, and the crowd again seemed to forget Wormwood’s mortality.

Henbane knew that, when next she saw the leader of the Serpent, it would be as though this fall had never happened.

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