So lots of things happened this month that kept me from doing much writing. I got sick for two weeks, and then a lot of other craziness happened.
However, I did finish the story based on my latest writing prompt: https://inkwellheart.wordpress.com/
It’s probably terrible, and I barely got to edit it, but here it is anyhow.
He hated tending to this part of the garden. The strange mask he had to wear was cumbersome and uncomfortable. It made him look like a bird. A skinny, pale bird watering ugly herbs and flowers. Despite his dislike of the mask, though, he knew he was better off wearing it and looking like a fool than wandering through the deadly garden unprotected. Without the mask, it would only be minutes, perhaps even seconds, before he would lose control of his muscles, fall to the ground, and eventually lose the ability to control his lungs, thus dying of asphyxiation.
Needless to say, he wore the mask.
Of course, it wasn’t just him. Anyone who walked through the garden would have to protect themselves. That is, if anyone else ever did wander through. Which they didn’t. No one ever saw the garden, never mind set foot in it.
Except for her.
Oleander did not need to wear a mask when she promenaded thru the garden. In fact, she would often stop and stroke and sniff the ugly plants that grew for her. She even smiled at the hideous things. It made Ash wonder why she insisted he tend to the plants every day instead of doing it herself. Since the poisonous beasts didn’t seem to have any effect upon her—other than make her happy, apparently—it seemed to make sense for her to take care of them.
But then again, she had other more important things to tend to.
Such as making up her “bouquets.”
The Flogger was looking a bit depressed. Ash would have to report that to her before it committed suicide. Finished watering and feeding the plants, he retreated to the cottage, removing the ridiculous mask and wiping away the sweat that was trickling into his eyes. He tossed the mask onto the kitchen table and headed towards the door that led down to Oleander’s workshop. The stairs creaked, alerting her to his arrival.
“What is it?” she asked without looking up from her latest order.
“The Flogger is looking depressed,” Ash informed her.
Oleander sighed. “Such a fragile little herb. If a fly but looks at it the wrong way it threatens to undo itself,” she mumbled.
She did not move, though. The workshop looked like an ordinary cellar. Herbs and flowers hung from the ceiling, drying so as to be used in “bouquets.” There were gardening tools, as well as various apothecary instruments scattered about. Barrels were randomly placed about the room, some sealed, some open. Candles were placed along the walls so as to illuminate the otherwise dark space. And in the center of it all was a single table, at which Oleander sat, her head bent over her latest work. Her dark brown hair was pulled back loosely, although strands of it had come loose and hid her face from view. Not that Ash needed to see her face; he had been with her long enough to know what she looked like when she was concentrating on her work.
“Was that the only concern? Is the Chimsel doing well? I worried after last night’s humidity,” Oleander said, still not looking up at him.
“Yes, no sign of frizz or splitting. And the Yrellz is in bloom,” Ash replied.
“Indeed? What color?”
“Excellent. Just what I hoped for.”
“I took the liberty of transplanting it into a small pot and bringing it into the house so that it would not harm the others.”
“Well done.” Oleander now looked up and flashed Ash a dazzling smile. “I could not have hoped for a better assistant. How blessed I am to have found you.”
Ash nodded his head to acknowledge the compliment but did not speak a word. He expected Oleander to return to her work, but she continued to watch him, her grey eyes probing through him. It made him uncomfortable, as he wasn’t convinced that she couldn’t see straight through his heart and mind, reading all his thoughts and desires. Not that he had anything to hide; but who wants someone to break into their thoughts? So he turned and retreated up the stairs.
Four years. It had been four years since Ash had limped up to Oleander’s home in a desperate attempt to find help, even from a crazy hermit in the woods. As he weakly knocked on her door, his legs giving out underneath him, he never expected a pretty woman to answer his desperate plea for sanctuary. She took him in without a word, not even asking how he had come to be in such a sad, wounded state. It seemed strange to him that a single woman of all people would show no apprehension at taking in a complete stranger.
But he hadn’t known then what kind of a person Oleander really was.
She nursed him back to health. When he was at last able to support himself and carry on a conversation, he admitted to her that he was a thief, on the run from the authorities as well as other ne’er-do-wells like himself whom he had managed to make enemies of. She listened patiently, her face never betraying her thoughts. When he was done, he wondered if she would throw him out or perhaps turn him in. But she surprised him. She smiled and laid a gentle hand on his shoulder.
“We all have pasts. We all have secrets,” she said understandingly. “Not everyone, though, has a future. You, however, can. If you’re interested. Are you?”
“What do you mean?” Ash asked, not expecting such a positive response.
Oleander got to her feet, fetching a paper from her writing desk. Sitting back down beside him, she held what appeared to be a document out to him. “I am in need of an assistant. And if you would like, I would be happy to give the position to you.”
“And assistant? What am I going to assist you with?”
“I am a florist.”
“Yes. A special kind of florist. My garden is not the prettiest of beds, and my flowers are not so sweet, but they’re as important as any rose.”
“It’s not just a hobby, this garden. I run a business. Some of my customers are very well-to-do. Kings and queens, dukes and duchesses. I have made bouquets for more noblemen than you would know.” A sly smile spread across her face. “I am certain you have seen my handiwork one time or another.”
Ash felt thoroughly confused, but he was still recovering from his injuries, so perhaps that was complicating matters. “So you need me to help you make bouquets for prissy rich girls?”
Oleander raised an eyebrow. “No. You will not be required to make bouquets. It’s not something you would be capable of, anyhow. I simply need you to help me make sure this garden continues to thrive, even after I’m gone.”
Ash furrowed his brow in confusion. Oleander held out the document to him, as well as a quill, ready with ink. What choice did he have? This woman was offering him sanctuary. She didn’t care about his past. She was giving him a chance at a future.
So he signed it.
And that’s how he became Oleander’s assistant. Thus far it hadn’t been anything glamorous. But it was nothing horrible, either. She made sure he was protected from her deadly garden. She never allowed any nobleman or soldier to take him away. A few had recognized him. However, they would likely never have breathed a threat in his direction, considering what they were there for.
For as time went on, Oleander slowly revealed to Ash why her ugly “bouquets” were so valuable. Why royalty came in the dead of night in disguise to buy at great cost her disgusting flowers.
“My bouquets, as I like to call them, perform services for these high officials,” she told him.
“None of the things they buy look like bouquets,” Ash commented.
That sly smile sidled up once more. “No, they don’t. That’s because they are my own creation. Some are powder. Some are food. Some are liquid. But all get the job done.”
It didn’t take Ash long to connect the dots. “You sell poison.”
“Many different kinds.”
“They buy poison from you to kill…whoever, I guess.”
Oleander held Ash’s gaze. “Do you think I am wrong?”
Ash held her gaze. “I don’t know. But I really don’t think I have any place to judge.”
Oleander smiled complacently. “You’re a good assistant.”
Ash now stood in the kitchen. He didn’t think poorly of Oleander for the work she did. He feared her, a little, but he was very much impressed with her as well. To live such a lonely life and to serve such cowardly people. It took a strong person to do such things.
Ash turned around and found Oleander standing in the doorway of her workshop. He started when he saw her. It wasn’t that she took him by surprise necessarily; her expression did. It was so soft and vulnerable. He had never seen her look like that before.
“Yes?” Ash replied.
“I need to speak with you.”
Motioning to the kitchen table, she invited—rather commanded—Ash to take a seat. He did so, and she sat across from him. She smiled, but it didn’t have her normal confidence behind it. She seemed almost nervous.
“Is there something wrong?” Ash asked anxiously. Anything that could unnerve this woman had to be terrible.
“No. Nothing is wrong. It’s just…” Oleander trailed off a bit, her eyes wandering away. Before Ash could even attempt to say something, she snapped back to attention, her gaze determined. “Do you remember the contract you signed?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Well, it’s about time that we complete its purpose.”
“Its purpose? I thought its purpose was to make me your assistant in caring for the garden.”
“Not exactly. There is more to it than that.”
Oleander leaned forward a bit. “Do you remember that I told you, before you signed the contract, that I needed you to help me be sure my garden will be cared for even after I’m gone?”
“That is what the contract is really about. Yes, it also included helping me care for the garden itself, but ultimately our contracts are to procure a successor.”
“Wait, what? ‘Our contracts’? What does that even mean? Who are you talking about?”
“I am not the first to tend to this garden. My mother was the caretaker before I. And her mother before her, and so on and so forth.”
“This is like a family business?”
“Yes. My family has been around for a long time. We’ve been supplying bouquets to people for decades, perhaps even centuries.”
“How am I involved with this?”
“Well, I certainly can’t produce a successor on my own.”
It took Ash only a second to catch her drift. The color drained from his face, and he went cold. “Oh.”
“The contract was sort of…a marriage contract?”
Ash’s head was spinning. “Marriage?”
“Yes. We must find a suitable mate in time for us to produce a successor who will then be raised with the garden. Doing so, she will become immune to the ill effects of the flowers as well as learn how to make bouquets.”
Ash ran his hand through his hair and leaned forward a bit, trying to wrap his head around all this.
“Of course, when I met you, you were a bit too young for my liking,” Oleander continued. “So I decided to wait. Which may have been a mistake, as I’ve become rather fond of having you around.”
“Why is that a problem? Shouldn’t you be fond of your husband?”
“In a normal marriage, perhaps. But the women of my family are Black Widows. We marry only with the intent of producing offspring. A mate would only be in the way.”
Ash’s stomach dropped. “So you kill your husbands?”
“How many fathers would allow their wife feeding their child poisonous herbs and exposing her to deadly flowers? Besides, we can only trust people for so long. We are involved in a very risky business.”
Ash felt panicked. The day he signed that contract he thought he was signing up for a better life, for a future. But really, he had only been buying a few years.
“Are you all right, Ash?”
Ash looked up. Oleander was gazing at him concernedly. “Am I all right? You just told me you plan to kill me! How could I be all right?”
Oleander laughed. She gently placed a hand on Ash’s arm, causing him to twitch slightly. “Do you really think if I planned to kill you I would have told you about it? Like I said, I’ve grown fond of you. Perhaps I’m not in love with you, but I do enjoy your company. I want to keep you around. If you are agreeable to it.”
“Do I have a choice?”
“Well, while I am fond of you, I really can’t let you go. Too much risk.” Her eyes flickered playfully. “Do you not want to marry me? Am I so old and repulsive?”
“You’re not old.”
“Older than you’d think. I’m an herbalist. I know how to stay looking youthful. I’m certainly not decrepit, but I am nearing the age when childbirth will no longer be possible. Even I don’t have the power to slow down time.” Oleander placed her hands around Ash’s own. “Are you willing, Ash? Will you be my husband? Will you help me keep my garden alive?”
Ash tried to think. He wasn’t opposed to marrying Oleander. She was pretty. He wasn’t in love with her, but he admired and respected her. Perhaps love could grow from that? And he wasn’t certain he’d be all right with his daughter being exposed to that deadly garden. But Oleander had been, and she was a strong, brilliant woman. Aside from the fact that he would be killed if he refused—that did have some bearing on his decision—he realized that a continued future here, in this home, with this frightful woman and her terrifying garden was not unappealing.
Placing his other hand over hers, Ash smiled. “I’d be honored.”