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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33. Chapter 32 - Bluebottle

Allies!

Actual inside allies!

Bluebottle flushed with the idea as everyone else did, cooped up in Yew’s hut the morning after the big speech.

“I met with a messenger the other night following an anonymous tip.” Wormwood has said, hiding a yawn behind her ghost-pale hand, blinking blearily.

“An anonymous tip?!” Bluebottle had shot out, but after the events of the previous day she couldn’t find her usual force. “What if it had been a trap, Wormwood?”

Wormwood crossed her arms.

She hadn’t been acting quite the same either.

There was an air of embarrassment to her that was breeding irritation.

And underlying that, in the brief, suppressed tapping of her foot and the sighs filling her breath – impatience.

It wasn’t unnatural. It shouldn’t seem that way, anyway, but based on Henbane and the Weed’s adoration Bluebottle had almost forgotten Wormwood ever showed these negative types of emotion.

The sandy-haired girl frowned and pulled the stained, green cloth sheet Khat had forced on her tighter.

“Then I would have suffered the consequences,” She huffed, “and had faith that you could continue without me.”

From the silence, no one else liked that thought either.

Bluebottle was amongst those still reeling from Wormwood’s fainting episode. She’d spent so long learning to not care but, as Wormwood fell from that porch, whatever caring instinct she’d tried to suppress was let loose.

Suddenly, her head had been swimming with images of peering around the corners of buildings, Tea standing at height with her, both giggling and watching a little curly-haired stubborn girl crushing rose petals in her Rose Garden garden.

A little, curly-haired stubborn girl puffing up her chest and striding down the street boasting about a game she had created, or a new word Ragwort had learnt, or some new habit he’d picked up.

A 12-year-old, curly-haired girl with dead eyes in the darkest night telling her, in Reaper-like monotone, that she had work to focus on and had to get back. She had no time to be ‘rescued’.

And now, at 18, this curly-haired young woman, pale as frost, but trying her best to sound confident. Despite the lull in her tone. Despite the slouch in her stance.

Bluebottle opened her mouth to say something, but Khat got in first.

“Had faith that we would save you.” She corrected, with a stern softness only Khat could really muster.

A troubled expression crossed Wormwood’s face. Her frown deepened to a grimace.

Quickly, it was gone. She tried to smile, and unfolded her hand to show them a thin scrap of sky blue cloth.

“You’ll recognise them by these, used the same as our green ones. But I’m afraid that’s all I know.” She shrugged, and unfolded her arms, pulling the cloth from her shoulders. “Dismissed. To work, or bed.”

She turned without another word, Khat on her heels, and drooped her way through the door back into the bunker.

 

Sheep barked Bluebottle back to herself. She was in the forest again, clutching her clothes tight to her against the chill. The rough fabric scratched and tickled on her skin, irritating it into warmth.

Her fingers ached with the cold, though. She rubbed them together with enough speed to start a fire, imagining the cracked dry skin of them sparking.

As she walked back towards the bunker to change, the dog circled her, rubbing at her with his thickened fur as though trying to share the warmth he made for himself.

“Thanks, buddy.” She breathed, watching her breath curl through the air.

Medlar was a little way outside the hut, tucked into the very edge of the trees’ shade.

In this tiny clearing, the first of morning’s light streaked through the spiky canopy with warming fingers.

The young man looked up as Bluebottle approached and held up one finger to indicate for someone to wait – a man with a similar complexion and short cropped black hair that Bluebottle didn’t recognise.

“What are you doing out here?” Bluebottle asked, reaching out her hand to stop Sheep wiggling around. She buried her hand in the fur around his scruff, and he beamed up at her in response, tail waving in idle joy.

“We’re acting tomorrow. I’m making final preparations, like everyone should be doing.”

Bluebottle pressed her lips tight.

“Right.” She breathed, and turned away, leaving him to his business. Sheep bounded to the door as soon as she let him go, but quickly recoiled as the Reaper emerged from within.

“You’ve been here a lot recently.” Bluebottle got in before the Reaper had chance to speak. Her chest fizzled with a feeling like victory, as though speaking first could give her the upper hand.

“Interesting days call for such interesting turns of events.” The Reaper had their eyes on the men in the trees, “And more to come, no doubt. Joy, and pain.”

Bluebottle’s victory died away as Yew turned their eyes to her.

“And love.” The Reaper’s eerie voice hissed, one part elated and one amused.

“That’s a strange line from a Reaper.” Bluebottle grumbled, keeping her distance from Yew as the Reaper stepped from the porch, pitch-dark feet pressing into the icy soil. For an instant, like a sharp intake of breath, the air pulled in their direction, and then released. They continued to walk, unspeaking.

“What does Death know of love?” Bluebottle spat, refusing to drop what the Reaper had said. And why to her? It had to be a tease. Bluebottle wasn’t lucky in love.

“Oh, many things.” If Bluebottle didn’t believe the Reaper was incapable of real emotion, she would have thought they were incensed by what she had said, spinning on their heels more gracefully than the silent white owls that hovered over crop fields at dawn. “Friends weep over lost friends, lovers over lovers, parents over children, children over parents.”
On that last point, Yew met Bluebottle’s eyes and Bluebottle felt the string they held around her soul, the pull of it, the inevitability of it’s victory in this tug of war, the kindness of it’s leniency that it might let her live a long life.

Bluebottle thought of her parents. Dad and pa, and all the nights she had cried after they had been taken away, even now. She rubbed her chest as though she could dislodge the string, but she couldn’t pull her eyes away from Yew’s, and so the feeling stayed.

“Why don’t you just end us all?” She dared to ask. “Don’t you want to?”

Yew glanced away. Bluebottle gasped for a breath she had been afraid to take.

“Sometimes.” The echoes died down around Yew, almost as if to single out one voice – and it seemed so young and vulnerable, ringing there amongst the swarm that was rising again. “There are people even I wish could spend longer here, even if others lost their lives as payment.”

“So why don’t you do it?”

The echoes fell again.

“I am limited, as are we all. Limited, and bound to make irreversible mistakes.” They rolled their dark shoulders, and turned once again from Bluebottle, eyes to the pink that blushed across the sky under the rising sun. “And bound to love. Even Death is very human.”

They continued their purposeful stroll behind her, their destination unclear.

Bluebottle was about to dismiss them, sneer and forget and move on, when the Reaper spoke one last thing,

“Tea would understand.”

Bluebottle whipped around, ready to quash the Reaper in her blazing rage, but the creature was gone.

In their place stood a new figure. Her bronze skin was dull from exhaustion, her platinum hair clinging to her face in sweaty ringlets.

“Bluebottle, thank the Nameless God.”

Mistletoe reached a hand towards Bluebottle, leaning heavily on the tattered bark of the closest tree. She raised one foot lightly off the ground. Her breath rasped.

Even her clothes were unkempt – covered in mud and grass stains. As Bluebottle looked more she saw the dirt covered her arms, and spattered her face, too.

“Mistletoe, what happened…?” Bluebottle asked, too surprised to speak very loudly.

“Hurt my ankle.” Mistletoe gasped, clearly in pain, “Kept falling. Could you… Could you help me?”

The ground crunched, but not beneath either of the women’s feet, and suddenly Medlar had his hands on Mistletoe’s arms, checking over her.

Before Mistletoe could react, he had reached to grip her ankle.

With a cry, she flung herself back from him, kicking her leg out as she fell to the ground.

He hurried forward to her again.

Bluebottle started towards them.

“Get off!” Mistletoe was protesting, “Don’t touch me!”

Bluebottle could see her dragging herself onto her hands and knees, injured leg dragging behind. With each movement, she winced.

But she didn’t move far.

Medlar was swarming her, arms out as though to stop herd a sheep into a corner.

Bluebottle reached him just as he wrapped one arm around Mistletoe’s waist and saw the other woman blanch.

Without another thought, she pushed him away, not caring what force she had put into it.

The man stumbled back, face distorted with questioning anger.

“I was helping her!”

“She didn’t ask you to help her.” Bluebottle hissed, and knelt beside Mistletoe, lowering her voice so only the younger woman could hear, “Are you okay?”

Mistletoe breathed, blinked, straightening herself out mentally, and then nodded.

“I was just surprised.”

Bluebottle glanced back to Medlar, who was watching with his arms crossed and bitterness painted on his face, before helping Mistletoe to kneeling and then up to standing.

She wrapped one arm around Bluebottle’s shoulder. Bluebottle tucked her hand gently around Mistletoe’s waist.

Then she turned again to Medlar.

“Get Poppy.” She commanded, voice stern. “You said you wanted to help.”

Grudgingly, he went, letting the hut door clatter behind him.

Together, the two women limped over the porch and into the hut, where Bluebottle could lower Mistletoe into a chair.

With one hand against the splintering wood of the adjacent table, Bluebottle lowered herself to a crouch and, with a questioning glance to Mistletoe first, removed Mistletoe’s shoe and sock from her foot.

Beneath, her ankle had bloomed in mottled purple and yellow, and inflated like the head of a mushroom.

“What did you do?”

“I was avoiding my mother, and foolishly thought I could leave through the window.”

“The window!” Bluebottle exclaimed, just as Poppy came in. Behind her, Medlar peered around the door, face still dark with emotion.

“W-What-” She had just started, when Bluebottle interrupted,

“This idiot jumped out of a window! I swear this bunker is filled with children, sometimes – no common sense!”

A shaking hand landed on her shoulder, relieving her of Mistletoe’s care, and her rant.

Bluebottle huffed, and gave in. She glanced out of the window and saw the sky’s blush dissipating.

“And now I’m going to be late!” She rushed to the door, barging past Medlar.

Just before the door swung closed, she heard Poppy’s voice,

“P-probably n-need bandages, I-I guess.”

 

She couldn’t be late – she couldn’t, not today.

If she could just run a little faster-!
But the cobbles were a pain underfoot as she reached the Herb Garden, constantly seeking to trip her and put her in the same position as Mistletoe. She was forced to slow, even as her heart clenched in longing.

If tomorrow were the day of attack, today was the last day she would go to work-

The last day he would likely ever want to see her again. If he was still alive to make that decision.

The air was especially cold, the sky a juxtapositional luminous grey, and each rushed breath felt like it was turning the damp of her mouth to ice.

The cobbles grew slippery as she ascended the hill, on the lesser trodden part of the road that joined the Herb Garden and the Rose Garden.

She crashed into the door with the force of a freezing wind at her back. With one glance back before the door closed, she caught sight of the horizon swirling in a soupy grey. It seemed to bloat and was coming closer. A storm was coming – one that would be fatal with cold.

Bluebottle hoped it would pass before tomorrow; she didn’t know if the Weeds could manage the chill it would bring.

“Bluebottle!”

Bluebottle startled at the voice, the door swinging closed behind her.

But it wasn’t angry, rather it seemed almost relieved.

In two steps, he had closed the space between them, and then hesitated.

“I was worried you had been swept up in some chaos.” Alder retreated half a pace, though seemed reluctant. The cold had lit a rouge in his cheeks. “I am pleased to see you safe. Come in, get warm.”

“I’m sorry to be late, sir.” Bluebottle nodded her apology, hiding her own blush behind her bowed head.

“The children are eager to see you, you have been absent a few days now.”

“Yes, I’m sorry.” Bluebottle was quick in her reply.

“No, do not apologise, I was aware you would be absent beforehand.”

Bluebottle could only nod, continuing through the entryway to the kitchen, where two sets of blue eyes looked up on her arrival.

Yerba bounded from his chair, joy uncontained, and latched onto his nanny.

“Miss Blue, where have you been?”

“I’m sorry, Yerba, I had other arrangements I couldn’t put off.” She crouched down to the small boy, looking apologetic.

“What arrangements?” Holly’s voice came nearly monotone from the table, and Bluebottle found herself again reminded of Wormwood. The young girl still looked tired, eyes watery and edged with red. When Bluebottle looked up, Holly struggled to meet her eyes.

“Holly-”

“Holly, why not take a rest from studying today?” Alder cut in, gaze soft on his daughter.

Holly’s book shut with a deafening slap that reverberated through the table.

She glared daggers at her father, before rising and storming from the room.

Alder nearly collapsed into the seat she’d vacated.

“Holly…?” Bluebottle started, hands on Yerba’s back as he clung to her skirt. She furrowed her eyebrows at Alder.

“The training is taking it’s toll.” He heaved a sigh, and rubbed a hand across his face, trailing his fingers through his hair. “I fear I have contradicted myself.”

“Is there anything I can do?”

Alder looked up, met her eyes. Bluebottle’s heart thudded in her chest, pumping at twice it’s normal speed.

But then he looked away again.

“No.” He breathed, “No, I will deal with this matter.”

Then he got to his feet and followed Holly away and up the stairs, where muffled thumping had begun ringing through the floor.

“Holly’s not happy.” Yerba clung closer to Bluebottle. “I hope she can come back and study with us again soon.”

“I do, too.” Bluebottle ran a comforting hand across his head, though her own anxiety was settling itself deep. “Soon, Yerba. Everything will be okay again soon.”

 

~

“You are still here? The dark has settled outside.”

Bluebottle jumped, rising from where she had been sitting at the kitchen table, staring at the withered green of a winter garden as it grew darker under the oncoming night and weather.

“I just didn’t want to leave yet, I suppose.” She smiled coyly, brushing down her skirt as though to dislodge invisible crumbs. “I’m sorry. I’ll be going soon.”

“No, feel free to sit down again. If you want to.”

Bluebottle sat, and Alder settled across from her. She fiddled with her fingers, avoiding his gaze, fretting.

Had she missed something?

Holly had calmed down hours ago, but not emerged from her room, had not studied, had not even eaten. Bluebottle doubted Alder would blame her for that. She hoped.

Yerba had done all his prescribed reading, eaten lunch, dinner, gotten ready for bed and fallen asleep without a single hitch.

Holly had followed not long after, settling heavily into slumber like it had been pulling at her all day.

Nothing wrong, per se.

And yet here was the master of the house, sitting across from his nanny, as though he wished to talk.

So she was startled when he caught her hands with his own, and her gaze with those eyes swollen with worry.

“Tomorrow…”

Bluebottle’s heart stuttered – tomorrow what? Could he know about the plan?
What would that mean for it? What would it mean for the Serpent?

“You mustn’t come tomorrow.” Alder continued, eventually, “There is likely to be chaos, and I do not want you to be caught in it.”

“What?” Bluebottle’s mind was suddenly battered by a war of panic and concern. “Chaos? What… What kind of chaos?”

“Please, I can tell you no more. But I implore you to trust me. I would not lie to you.”

And those eyes – those eyes as blue as the sky in summer, and the water illuminated by it, those eyes like a spring breeze – were a torrent of care and worry and… and dare she even think it?

Affection?

Before she could think she had reversed their hands.

“I’ll be safe, if you promise me that you will be, too.”

“I-”

“If there’s going to be chaos, then it will come to the Rose Garden. Hide. Protect the children. Promise me?”

“I promise.”

Those words filled her with a courage for the day to come that no speech ever could. She was full, in heart and mind. Here was everything she loved most, everything that she wanted to protect, and it would be safe.

Finally, she felt like she could leave.

Picking up her coat, she set off towards the door, but found her wrist caught in a soft-skinned hold. Gently, that hand pulled her closer, the body simultaneously rising to meet her as she drew back towards it.

And then there was fire.

It rushed into her lips from his, spread into her veins, threatening to burn her up.

Her chest strained – she must go, but she couldn’t. This was all she wanted.

Never mind the impossible – her parents would never come back, Tea would never have loved her. Never mind tomorrow’s coming events – tear down the Garden to rebuilt it, whatever!

With his fingers, Alder was deconstructing everything about her, and rebuilding her as someone touched by him – perhaps loved by him.

When he pulled away, she was incomplete.

“Do not leave me yet. There is safety in the Rose Garden yet.” He breathed, and his breath brushed warmth across her flushed cheeks.

“I would believe it.”

He pressed closer again.

~

 

The sky was heavily overcast, and the street pitch black.

Bluebottle did not know how long she had to sleep before the new day dawned on her – the big day – but she didn’t care.

She was giddy.

She was a little girl again, rolling in the grass and making daisy chains with Dad and Pa! She was surrounded by new puppies! She was 18, wearing her new glasses and seeing the lettering of the Holy Book fall into place for the very first time!

More than that – More than that-

Alder loved her. She was loved by Alder. She loved Alder.

That was enough to assure her that all would be well – victory or defeat.

That was enough.

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