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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5. Chapter 4 - Henbane

“Old books?” Bluebottle frowned at her, “They’re downstairs, next to Hemlock’s room.”
Henbane deflated.

“Naturally.” She sighed. “Naturally that is where they would be. Closest to where I first looked.”

“You asked Hemlock?” Bluebottle cringed.

“I did.” Henbane lay back on Bluebottle’s bed and focused on the sounds of Sheep crunching into the bones of an un-cooked rabbit.

The very thought sickened Henbane to her stomach – a dead animal being consumed right before her. She couldn’t look.

Bluebottle seemed un-phased, however. Henbane supposed it was due to repetition, or due to memory.

Dog keepers – trainers and farmers – were the only ones with permission to use their animals for food, and only as food for other working animals, but there were rules.

One – The animal to be consumed must be killed by the animal that would consume it, as God intended.

Two – The consumption of another animal must be limited, to be supplemented by non-animal-sourced foods.

Bluebottle had explained these rules to her the first time she’d witnessed Sheep having his dinner. She had clamped her hand over her mouth and fled back to her room to throw up her own meal. Henbane had been incredulous at the sight, disbelieving, disgusted.

Thanks to Bluebottle’s patience she understood better now, but she still wasn’t comfortable with it. And, despite Bluebottle having told her the rules, she was aware that Bluebottle trapped and killed the rabbits herself.

“It does no harm.” She would say with a shrug, “Rabbits are all over the place. They eat all the crops. Farmers should be thanking me!”

She claimed that by slitting the rabbit’s throat, it suffered a far quicker and less painful death than it would at the jaws of Sheep.

Besides, she didn’t want to make her best friend to something she wouldn’t do herself.

Even so, Henbane didn’t think Bluebottle had ever let the thought of eating part of the rabbit cross her mind.

Henbane rolled over on the bed, and turned her attention back to Bluebottle and the sound of her hands under the water flowing into the sink that each room was equipped with.

“That was a mistake.” Bluebottle grimaced now, staring at the wall in front of her as though a memory played there.

“I know.”
“But you shouldn’t have had to go through that anyway.” She grumbled, “Wormwood had them moved, she knows exactly where they are. I can’t believe she sent you to run around.”

Henbane sat up suddenly, eyes wide, feeling like the victim of a trick.

She scrunched the sheets in her hands. She didn’t like feeling messed with, not one bit!

“Why would she do that?” She tried to withhold her frustration, but still felt her body tremor slightly. She could feel them niggling at the back of her mind, pushing the emotion.

“Calm down.” Bluebottle put her hands out as though trying to soothe a frightened animal, “She probably wasn’t trying to trick you.”
She reached for her towel from a hook by the sink and rubbed her hands.

“It was probably something like ‘She’s been so quiet, she should go make friends!’” Bluebottle mocked Wormwood’s voice, then, mumbling, added, “Or something.”

“It’s hardly like I need to seek people out for conversation, I see them all in the dining room, or the showers!” Henbane protested, still not convinced she hadn’t been messed with.

She could see Wormwood laughing in her room. She could hear her, even on the third floor. Laughing that she’d made the newbie run around and get harassed.

Henbane gritted her teeth.
“She’s laughing at me.” She hissed.

“She’s not laughing at you.”

“Yes, she is.”

“No one’s laughing.” Bluebottle huffed. “I’m not laughing.”

Henbane drew back, pulling her knees up to her chest. The laughter faded.

“Believe me,” Bluebottle’s sigh was deep and weary, “Wormwood’s been a brat for a long time, but if she wanted to mess with you for a laugh she’s got better ways to do it than just telling you to go look for books.”

Henbane’s brow knitted.

“What does that mean?”

Sheep finished his meal with a final, blood-curdling crunch, and wiggled to Bluebottle, eyes aglow, head bowed in submission and appreciation. Bluebottle scratched his head and cooed at him.

Coyness suddenly forgotten, he leapt at Henbane on the bed.

She yelped, and rolled out of the way of his incoming tongue.

“No, Sheep!” She screeched, “No licking! No licking!”

“Sheep, no kisses.” Bluebottle commanded, voice steady. The dog turned and wormed his way back towards his best friend.

“Kisses?”

“Dog kisses. When he licks you.”
Henbane grimaced.

“I do not wish to put myself at risk of further dog kisses.” She gagged, “I’m going to keep looking for those books.”

“Good luck.” Bluebottle half-cooed, crouched low to stare lovingly into her dog’s eyes. She babied her voice to mock-up the dog speaking, “‘Good luck, Henbane!’”

Bidden farewell by the shaking of a paw and a dribbling tongue, Henbane left with a shudder.

 

~

 

Henbane was glad she hadn’t chosen to check every room. As soon as she entered room 204, the new book storage room, she almost felt like knocking on Hemlock’s door again.

The room was piled high with crates, all of them filled with books.

They were clean of dust on top from recent transfer, but too heavy for Henbane to lift on her own.

At first sight, the room had seemed like a blessing – what matter were crates and crates of something as long as that something was that which you sought?

But when she fished out the closest book and opened the first page she realised she was facing a bigger challenge than she’d anticipated.

She checked another from a different crate to be sure, and then another, but soon came to the certain conclusion that this room held more than just old books.

Any of the books could be what she wanted, but she would have to sort through them to find out.

And, if she wanted to sort through them, she would need someone to help her.

For a moment she almost wished they could be so helpful. They must be plenty strong, but all they did was taunt her.

She shook off the thought. She mustn’t let herself get dragged under their spell.

“I’ll ask someone.” She declared, aloud, “Someone must be available to help.”

“But will they help?” They asked.

“People are helpful here.”

“Wormwood toyed with you.

“She didn’t. Bluebottle says she wouldn’t and I believe her.”
They went silent as Henbane remembered that she had asked how Wormwood could mess with people and hadn’t been given an answer.

Maybe she should ask, she thought, striding from the room and towards the narrow stairwell that led down to the first floor.

The faded bruise on her stomach panged.

Maybe she shouldn’t ask.

She hesitated at the top of the stairs.

“But I could still ask for help with the books…” She whispered. She steeled herself. “After all, she sent me off on a near-fruitless search.”

Before she knew it, the white-wood door of Wormwood’s office loomed before her.

She glanced briefly at the black door on the neighbouring wall – Wormwood’s chambers.

Could she be in there instead of the office?

No. It must still be light outside, she wouldn’t be in her room yet.

She knocked on the office door.

“Wormwood?” She called, timidity clear in her voice.

She knocked again when there was no reply.

“Wormwood, it’s Henbane. I located the books, but I-”

The black door on the other wall creaked open a crack, startling Henbane.

Only half a face showed, but Henbane could clearly see the hazel eyes and coiling sandy hair that defined the Serpent’s leader.

“Give me just a moment.” She was breathless, flush. The door closed again.

Henbane stood by the door, tension in her arms.

Was she really going to ask the leader of the Serpent to help her with a menial task?

“She won’t help you. She’s not coming back to the door.” They said, matter-of-factly.

Henbane bit her lip, and wondered if she should just leave.

Until she heard hissed whispering from inside the room.

What was Wormwood doing?

Warily, she toed closer to the door, and pressed her ear against it, as softly as she could.

“Where’s my corset?” Came one hiss, panicked,

“I don’t know!” A different voice – Wormwood’s - hissed back, “I threw it somewhere, use a towel!”

“I need it!”

Wormwood huffed, and then grunted. A moment later there came a delighted ‘A-ha!’ followed by shushing.

Not long after that the door opened again, and Henbane stumbled back, begging the Lord that she had not been seen eaves-dropping.

However, it was not Wormwood but someone else who flew past, tall and fit with her ginger hair in ringlets and freckles up and down her arms.

Henbane couldn’t speak, she just blinked.

And then Wormwood was leaning on the doorframe, bedraggled.

Henbane looked her up and down, and then cast her eyes to the ground.

Her clothes were creased and her hair was more tangled than usual, such that it almost rose above her head like a golden cloud.

“You found the books?” She spoke quickly, as though caught off guard, still slightly breathless.

“I-I did.” But Henbane wasn’t thinking of the books, she was thinking of corsets being thrown across the room, warning whispers and Khat dashing down the corridor with her skirt tucked into her knickers.

Wormwood swallowed.

“Do… Do you need help with them… at all?”

“Please.”

“Okay.”

Wormwood locked her door behind her, and rushed ahead, so fast that Henbane could barely keep up at a jog. She headed straight to room 204 and Henbane felt again a pang of bitterness.

“You knew where they were.” She blurted before she could stop herself.

“What?” Wormwood said, as though surprised by Henbane’s presence.

“You knew where the books were, you’re the one who had them moved.”

Wormwood paused with her hand around the knob. She paused, running her thumb over the knob in consideration, and then turned to face Henbane.

Henbane forced herself to hold Wormwood’s gaze.

“I suppose I did.” She confessed, bashful suddenly, “I’m sorry.”

She turned back to the door and swung it open, tapping the glit as she entered, provoking the algae to start glowing again.

“I just thought it would do you good to talk to everyone.”

“Bluebottle said you’d say that.” Henbane frowned, running her fingers over a book bound in green wood.

“Did she say anything good?”

“She said you weren’t trying to mess with me.” Henbane confessed, then pouted, “It seemed like it though, when I talked to Hemlock.”

“Isn’t she a character?” Wormwood gushed, proud light glittering in her eyes.

Henbane glanced at Wormwood, not sure whether she was joking.

Warily, she replied,

“She certainly is…”

Wormwood gestured to a crate, and grabbed a small wooden ladder from the corner of the room.

She climbed to the top and heaved the first crate from the pile, resting it on her round hip as she moved down, face going red from strain, then passed it to Henbane to place on the ground. Henbane instantly sank with it as it was placed in her arms.

She leant forward and dropped the box as soon as she was sure it wouldn’t break.

When she looked up, Wormwood was smiling. But she quickly turned back to her work. One crate at a time, the pair dismantled the pile, until, finally, only one remained – the very bottom one.

“I wasn’t expecting someone would be able to translate them.” Wormwood commented, exuding humour. “I would have left them in sight if I thought we’d find someone like you.”
She slapped Henbane’s shoulder. Henbane stumbled, tired from the lifting. Even Wormwood was breathing heavily, sweat clear on her forehead.

She wiped it away with the collar of her t-shirt.

“Listen,” She started, face dropping slightly, but still crooked with a small smirk, “Sorry about earlier, we must have startled you.”

“What were you two doing?” Henbane asked, eye brow raised.

Wormwood blushed, something Henbane had never expected from her.

“We…” She started, blundering over words, “Well, we… I mean… We were… doing… well, what girlfriends do… I guess.”

She seemed to be looking at anything but Henbane.

“What girlfriends do?”

The idea was nearly foreign to Henbane; a man married a woman, a woman married a man. Since there was very little love in Garden marriages, even the idea of a boyfriend was unusual (not that it’s use had managed to elude Henbane entirely-)

But a girlfriend!

“I… see.”

“You’re weirded out.” Wormwood huffed a chuckle, and managed to meet Henbane’s eyes.

“I am not.”

“I know you are.”

“Certainly not.” Henbane shook her head defiantly and crossed her arms, “I am a master of the unusual, and nothing can surprise me anymore.”

Wormwood laughed then, and it was loud and joyful, hand-on-stomach laughter.

She rubbed tears from her eyes.

“Absolutely, you are a true connoisseur of everything, even woman-on-woman intercourse.”

They both blushed at the same time, Wormwood realising what she had said, and Henbane realising what Wormwood had meant by ‘what girlfriends do.’

“S-sex?!” She exclaimed, and Wormwood laughed again, growing breathless around her embarrassment, so that she had to lean against the wall to keep from falling over, “B-But that is a sacred… I-I mean, adults… I mean-”

And Wormwood laughed harder, face bright red, gasping for breath. Unwittingly, Henbane smiled, and smiled harder, and harder, until she was laughing, too.

It felt like a long time before they were able to stop, and when they did, they both felt warmer for it, cheeks tingling.

Looking at the curls of the girl in front of her as they shook away from her face, Henbane was suddenly very certain Wormwood hadn’t been laughing at her.

That laugh had sounded nothing like Wormwood’s. It must have been them, messing with her again, trying to get inside.

Henbane leant against the wall, too.

“I really know nothing about people…” She sighed, though not unhappily. She couldn’t be unhappy after what had just happened.

“Don’t worry.” Wormwood smiled reassuringly, “You’ll learn about them in no time here.”

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