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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35. Chapter 34 - Henbane

The morning’s cockerel crowed in crashes and bangs.

Somewhere below, furniture was meeting it’s end.

Emerging into the corridor Henbane found Bluebottle peering from her own room. Inside, Sheep was whining, but his owner was still rosy cheeked from the day before – Henbane didn’t know the details, but it must have been good.

Without a word, the two women emerged into the corridor and joined Medlar at the stairs, Laburnum trailing behind with Mistletoe leaning against her, staying well out of Medlar’s reach.

Descending to the floor below, the rest of the Serpent met them. As they went, they eased the Weeds that started to emerge from their rooms, wondering if there was some danger and whether it was time to move.

Some Weeds had already been moved back over to the town late last night, once everyone was asleep. Bluebottle had unwittingly met them in town only to be scolded by Khat, who was leading the procession. Poppy and Hellebore had flanked the group, with Hemlock scouting ahead and around for danger.

Apart from a couple of stray Herbs doing night work, and younger Roses out walking the woods away from their parents’ watching eyes, they met no danger – though Hemlock was sure to terrify anyone who came within range.

The Roses seemed to be keeping their defences close, and somehow that was more worrying. How difficult would it be to free Mandrake if he was surrounded by soldiers trained for overseas combat?

In Bluebottle’s absence, and Wormwood’s weariness, Henbane had taken her concerns to Hellebore. Despite her clear twinges of fear, she had reassured Henbane that they would deal with that when they came to it - with the weapons, if they must. For now, they had to focus on the next step of getting the rest of the Weeds transported before it became too light outside.

The Weeds seemed to be just as anxious to be moving as Henbane was.

“Everything’s fine. It’s not time to move yet, please wait in your rooms.” Bluebottle’s voice was scratchy. Henbane was sure she had had very little to no sleep, and maybe would have to enter the Garden on that.

Would she be okay?

Henbane clutched her stomach as though she could quiet the discomfort twisting her organs.

Once the Weeds had returned to their rooms, the Serpent huddled around the narrow stairway that led to the very bottom floor, where the sound was coming from.

Something else smashed into the corridor below, screeching and clattering across the concrete as it landed.

A voice followed it, echoing up the stairs in raging sobs. In the distance from the stairwell to the other end of the first floor corridor the identifying features of the voice were lost.

But there were only two people it could be.

“They’re fighting?” Henbane’s voice felt gritty, still waking up.

Poppy, Hellebore and Bluebottle shot each other worrisome glances.

Mistletoe edged forward then hesitated, drawing back again with Laburnum following her every movement.

“Should we leave them to it?” She mumbled, uncertain even as she tried to edge closer to the stairs, but Laburnum held her secure.

“Are you joking?” Medlar’s voice was a coughed whisper, “It won’t be long until we have to get the Weeds to move, Wormwood needs to be prepared to move. Both of them do.”

The older three women glanced at each other again, cringing slightly. Henbane saw the same thought cross each of their faces simultaneously.
“What?” Henbane asked.

“Maybe we shouldn’t do this today. Wormwood-” Hellebore started,

“-Is the leader, the one who started this whole thing.” Medlar finished for her. “She needs to be there.”

Henbane had to agree. She wanted Wormwood there – no, she knew Wormwood had to be there.

Wormwood was her light and certainly a morale-booster for the Weeds.

Without her, nothing could go right.

“Maybe we could go down there and stop them.” She suggested, keeping her voice so low she was almost unheard beneath the shattering of another item below.

More crying rang up the stairs, and everyone’s spines.

“It sounds terrible.” Henbane swallowed, looking again down the stairs.

“It sounds dangerous.” Bluebottle’s teeth gritted against one another.

Hellebore just shuddered as the sounds and yelling seemed to grow louder and angrier, breathing quickening until Poppy pulled her away and put her shaking hands over the other woman’s ears.

“Wh-whatever’s h-happening, I’m t-taking H-Hellebore back u-upstairs.” She frowned, and led Hellebore off, though they both were reluctant.

Henbane watched them disappear back down the blue-grey dimness of the concrete corridor. The Weed’s voices were starting to rise behind their doors, smothering the sound from below – but only slightly.

“I’ll go.” Mistletoe declared and hopped forward, nearly falling as Laburnum held her back again.

“No, you won’t.” Laburnum sighed, holding back a yawn. “You need all the rest you can get, and this is just stress.”

“But Wormwood-” Mistletoe protested,
“-Has others, who don’t have a sprained ankle, who can help her.” Laburnum looked over at Henbane, Bluebottle and Medlar, still waiting at the top of the stairs. “You can talk to her once this is over.” She finished.

Mistletoe’s face scrunched like a tantruming child, but eventually she gave in, hopping away on Laburnum’s shoulder. With every step, she glanced back in pained, envious longing.

 

The three sat for a while longer, listening to the tumult as it reached it’s peak and then died away again.

“Does anyone know what they’re arguing about?” Henbane asked, cross-legged on the floor.

On the other side of the corridor, Bluebottle sat against the wall.

“I couldn’t guess.” She hummed, her eyes glazed and distracted as though she were lost in thought. “Whatever issues they have, they’ve never really talked about it.”

“Does it matter?” Medlar huffed, toe tapping furiously under his crossed arms. “Are we going down there, or what?”

Henbane met Bluebottle’s gaze questioningly. Bluebottle looked back with eyes as dark as freshly dug clay, stubborn and hard.

She had no answer.

Medlar saw this and stood.

“This can’t be allowed to go on!” He exclaimed and took the first step down.

Bluebottle started to scramble up to stop him, Henbane copying her instinctively, but all three of them were brought to a halt as Khat came into the light that pooled in the stairwell.

She seemed ragged and worn, hair wild and clothes askew. From her view point, Henbane could see the red swell around her eyes and the chap of her lips.

Khat seemed startled by their presence, giving Henbane a chance to look more closely at the rest of Khat’s body. Henbane forced herself to resist a gasp.

Khat’s arms were smattered with scarlet, splashes and thumb-prints of it even spread across her cheeks. When she removed the hand she had used to steady herself from the wall, Henbane saw the scarlet there, too.

With one sharp breath, she continued her ascent.

Her gaze was dark as death, her expression a storm rolling in to strike them down.

When she spoke, her voice seemed to make the very ground rumble.

“Go back to bed. We aren’t moving today.”

She strode past them, feet firm and angry as her shoes thudded against the ground.

What?” Medlar squawked, then puffed up his chest in defiance, “Did Wormwood say that?”

“No.” Khat rumbled, meeting Medlar’s eyes with a glare so cool he visibly recoiled. “I say that.”

“Th-then why-” He stuttered out, but Khat spun around fully, biting back,

“Wormwood is currently unfit to lead.” She snarled, teeth bared.

This shook them all. Each of them tried desperately to hold back in the wake of Khat’s rage – but how could Wormwood, of all people, suddenly be unfit to lead when she could do so well even when she was on the edge of fainting?

Medlar looked like he would try to object again, but Khat caught his intentions and spoke first.

“In such a situation, command is deferred to me.” She spat, “That is what Wormwood said.”

“Did Wormwood decide she was unfit?” Henbane dared ask.

“I decided.” Khat seemed to be tiring, but her anger raged on strong, “She can’t see it.”

As though to illustrate her point, a screeching echoed up the stairs, following by loud thumping.

Khat clutched her fists tight around something metallic, dragging air in through her nose, like the sound hurt her physically.

When the sound stopped, Khat released her breath and stretched her hand again, and Henbane saw that what she was holding was a key, hooked onto a loop that hung on one finger.

Noticing her looking, Khat gripped it tight again.

“We’re not moving today.” She said again, turning away from them. “Even if… Even if Wormwood were well enough, we can’t move so many people right now.”

“What do you mean?” Bluebottle asked. “You, yourself, moved this many last-”

But Khat had had enough.

“Go outside and see for yourself.” She snapped, and took her rage into her room, slamming the door behind her.

 

~

 

Henbane stretched out her hand – the first to do it, as they all dithered on the porch, trying to gauge this new thing falling from the sky and blanketing the ground.

It tumbled through the air in white puffs, sparse and slow. The sky it was coming from was an illuminated grey, nearly blinding.

A single white flake landed on the pale skin of her palm, so soft she couldn’t even feel it, and instantly vanished.

She rubbed her fingers across the place the flake had just been and found her palm was wet.

“Water.” She gasped, dazzled, “It’s rain.”

“So what does that make this?” Bluebottle gestured to the mass of white swarmed at their feet. “A flood?”

“A nuisance.” Medlar muttered, shuffling the edge of the white with his foot. It stuck, alarming him, and he shook his leg rapidly to try and get it off.

“How deep do you think it is?” Henbane peered, excitement rising. “Do you think we can walk in it?”

She leaned further over the edge of the porch, still apprehensive. Something knocked into her back with a yelp, and the white was suddenly rising quickly to meet her. Spluttering, she rose from where she has plunged head-first into the it, freezing damp seeping into her clothes.

On the porch, Medlar almost looked apologetic. More than that, however, he looked amused.

“You’re covered in white!” He cried, “Looks like it’s safe.”

With that, he followed her in, dragging his legs through the snow, his eyes aglow like a child with a new toy. When he saw her looking, he hurried to hide his expression with a scowl, but the sparkle remained.

“Try this.” A new voice echoed. Blackness swept before them suddenly, diving into the snow and struggling about in it.

Medlar and Henbane had both frozen in their own study of the stuff to watch. The white was so deep and soft that their new playmate had sunken straight into it, out of sight.

“Yew, that’s childish.” Came a sniff. The white-haired girl stood a little further away, nose upturned huffily, caramel fingers gripping hard at her deep green cloak to keep it close to her skin. The white covered her nearly to her waist.

The Reaper rose from the ground, startling everyone and very nearly smiling. Their skin was clear, as black as ever, but their cloak clung to the white so it seemed almost patterned, like the wings of a great white bird, as it wrapped lightly around the Reaper. The Reaper didn’t seem at all bothered by the cold, unlike their small companion.

“There is no harm, Snowdrop. Come. Enjoy it, it is your namesake’s namesake, after all.”

Snowdrop hesitated, face twisted in conflict as they watched the Reaper, who had leant over and was twisting a clump of the white in their hands.

“Enjoy the snow, Snowdrop. We shall both take this chance to be children, for once.” And they let the clump in their hands loose, speeding towards Snowdrop in a perfect ball.

Snowdrop gasped as it crunched apart against her face. Breathing through her nose, she scraped the snow off, then lunged to grab more of her own.

Henbane heard herself guffaw and also leapt to make a ball out of this white – this snow – as the Reaper had.

She threw it straight at Medlar, who dodged it.  The ball landed softly behind him, hardly broken. He grabbed for it, re-shaped it, and threw it back.

Henbane laughed as it hit her, despite the sharp cold of it, and scurried to gather more. She pulled a great heap to her chest, feeling the iciness tighten her lungs. Her breath steamed and clouded before her as she began to work it into balls, dodging those flying towards her from Snowdrop and Yew and Medlar almost successfully.

Meanwhile, Bluebottle stared incredulously at the scene before her. Henbane could see, when she dared to glance – whenever the projectiles ceased whilst everyone gathered more snow – that she was mainly watching the Reaper and her white-haired companion.

Henbane had not seen the Reaper too often, and Snowdrop only the once, but even she thought it strange to see them enjoying themselves.

They seemed like such distant characters, mysterious and separated from the rest of existence like it had no control over them, as it did everyone else. Hemlock gave off that feeling, too.

It was something Henbane couldn’t understand, a distance she could never cross.

She realised she had been staring when Medlar smacked her in the face with another snowball, and nearly brought tears to her eyes from the shock. She snatched up more snow and whacked it back at him.

He scoffed a laugh, and they went to snowy battle again.

 

When the sun reached it’s peak in the sky, the snow that had not been trampled to sludge under their feet grew slick and they decided to return to the bunker.

Wrapped in the soft white towels that Khat brought back whenever she visited the black market, they huddled around a table in the dining room. Yew stood apart, watching with a lingering air of amusement.

Mistletoe was also in the room, though sitting on the adjacent table so as to avoid their damp, and to raise her foot onto a pillow on the opposite bench.

Laburnum tottered out of the kitchen with a tray of steaming mugs. The warmth drifting from them swayed sweetly into Henbane’s nose. It reminded her of a sweet something she had tried only once, another thing from the black market – chocolate.

“You should have called me when you saw there was snow!” She huffed, hanging out mugs of the hot, creamy brown liquid. Henbane clutched her mug earnestly, absorbing it’s warmth. “I have experience!”

“You’ve seen snow before?” Henbane was eager to hear more, her eyes wide.

“Well… no.” Laburnum blustered, looking away from Henbane, “Even where I’m from, there hasn’t been snow for more than a thousand years, but my father told me stories about it. And it still gets cold enough to freeze entire lakes there.”

She looked over them all, squashed shoulder-to-shoulder and shuddering, and sighed.

“At least I could have told you how to keep warm!”

She tucked her tray under her arm and took a sip from her own mug, shoulders easing as she did.

“Stories about snow?” Henbane pressed, “Will you tell us?”

Laburnum scowled and took another sip of her drink. Henbane did the same, and then beamed at Laburnum, chocolate foam thick on her upper lip.

Laburnum snorted a nostalgic laugh and slumped in defeat.

“He told me that, long ago, even before the Waste War, there was the ‘White Wild’ - I think that’s how you would translate it. It was an expanse of sheer white, all snow and ice way to the north. A tundra, he said they called it. In the White Wild, a whole horde of white, fearsome animals thrived. Great white bears with arms like clubs that could kill a man with one swipe and swim for miles in frozen waters.”

Henbane didn’t think she knew what a bear was, but she was too entranced to ask.

Laburnum continued,

“Then there were the sly, white black-spotted cats – covered in shaggy fur, sneaky enough to steal a child away before you’d even realise you weren’t alone. They were known for taking cattle and making harsh winters even worse.

And then there were the mega-dogs, with their ragged, scarred faces from constant battles, and bristling fur – white and grey and black. They would attack anything that moved, even the bears. They travelled in packs, so once they were on you you’d never be able to outrun them. Some say all dogs that exist today originate with those great beasts.”

Henbane realised her mouth was agape, and promptly shut it. Excitement thrummed in her veins. She had read history in the books from the bunker, but these were real legends, passed down for generations.

“I don’t believe that!” Medlar sneered, “‘Mega-dogs’? Spotted cats that took children? Those are myths.”

“Maybe.” Laburnum folded her arms, keeping her mug steady. “I told you they were stories.”

“I think it’s real.” Henbane hummed.

“I’m not sure about the mega-dogs.” Bluebottle said thoughtfully, clearly thinking of her own mega-dog descendent. “I don’t think Sheep could tackle a sheep, never mind a fully-grown person.”

Henbane laughed with her at the thought.

“I usually would not intervene with your legends, but I am in a good mood.” Yew readjusted their cloak and fiddled with the dog’s-head charm that hung around their neck on a thin silver chain. Henbane realised she hadn’t noticed that before. She wondered in it had any meaning. “It might please you to know they were real. Extinct now, sadly; very much revered thousands of years past, particularly these ‘mega-dogs’, or wolves, as they were known. And they are the origins of modern dogs – I did not see it myself, but archaeologists and scientists many years later rediscovered the fact.”

“That’s incredible!” Henbane wasn’t well-versed in science – it was illegal, after all, even if she had learnt to have an open mind – but that an eternal being, who had seen everything, was telling her…

“Incredible…” She breathed again. Then caught on something, “You never saw wolves?”

“I saw wolves, I just did not witness the domestication of them into dogs. It had already happened when I became.”

“When you ‘became’?” Henbane asked, confused, “Have you not always ‘been’?”

“No.” The Reaper replied simply.

The room fell into to contemplative silence, broken only by the politely quiet sipping of Snowdrop.

“This is horrifically sweet,” She grumbled, but continued to drink. Henbane got the feeling her complaint was for show.

But never mind that – Henbane’s mind was reeling with curiosity so thick she almost couldn’t form a thought from it.

Eventually, she blurted,

“Will you tell us-?” But Yew cut her off, the atmosphere around them flickering with discomfort.

“I think not.” They spoke, voice echoing even more than usual as they fiddled with their dog charm, “Besides the days it would take to tell you in the detail you desire, 6000 years is an awfully long time and memories are awfully fragile things. I do not remember my origins.”

With a swish of their cloak, they spun from the room. The doors clattered shut again behind them.

The group gathered at the table watched the space they had vacated, and then returned their gazes to one another curiously.

“What-?” Bluebottle started, clearly intrigued by the Reaper’s unease. Henbane suspected that now she’d seen it was possible, Bluebottle would want to push that if she could.

Snowdrop didn’t give her a chance – she slurped loudly, manners forgotten, and rose. Her cup hit the table with such force that a crack appeared in the side of it.

She reached to pull her green silk hood up.

“It seems there have been enough tales for today.” She said, her voice stoic, showing no sign of the child she had appeared to be earlier in the snow. “I believe you all need rest. You may delay one day – two may be lethal.”

Her eyes were piercing – they looked to be a mixture of grey and brown, so closely mixed it was hard to call them either. They were slashed with white as they regarded Henbane and her friends. Henbane recalled the snowy ground as the sun had started to melt the white away. Her eyes looked like that.

Henbane was so distracted, she hadn’t realised that Snowdrop had reached the door.

But as she began to push it open, it wasn’t Henbane who called her back,

“Wait. Last time we saw you, you didn’t seem like someone who took sides.” Medlar called after her, “So why did you come today? Were you going to support us, to help us fight?”

Snowdrop turned, and there were those icy eyes.

“Not that it is any of your business, but there are those here I have history with.” Snowdrop seemed to be looking particularly at Bluebottle, who startled under her gaze, “I do not especially wish them dead. I came to tell them good luck for the coming day, and to see Wormwood.”

She left before anyone could say anything more.

The excitement of the day was fading. In all that had happened, Henbane hadn’t even thought about the fact that they should have rescued her brother today. She’d hardly thought of him at all.

Now he came suddenly to the forefront of her mind again, but in her thoughts of finally saving him tomorrow it wasn’t joy that struck her.

It was fear.

It fell like a rock down a well to the pit of her stomach, and she remembered what she had heard the demons say to him.

He had planned to kill her, and tomorrow she would finally have to face that.

Henbane took another sip of her hot chocolate but it sat sickly sweet in her throat.

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