Amaryllis,Scholar-Soldier extraordinaire,battles to exorcise a Lady's Winter Garden...
* The first draft of this story placed 3rd in Round 1 of JPS 's Quick Contest*
The Winter Garden
Amaryllis stalked the interior of the Winter Garden in a half crouch, sword in hand. All was quiet in the garden. The entrance-corridor seemed deceptively normal: warm, bright air in which dust motes waltzed a waltz of aimless, random steps; a dance which had no beginning or end. Heavy, the silence weighed over the garden and over the narrow corridor in which the Scholar-Soldier prowled, always heading for the centre. She had a long way to go yet…
The owner of the garden, and of the grounds it stood in, one Lady Limoet, had waited until now, in the heat of summer, to do anything about it. Scholar-Soldiers are, after all, very pricey, but very effective. The lady had only been convinced by her head gardener, Holly, to act against it once the forces at work in the garden began to thrust their tendrils outside of the Winter Garden, making inroads into the Kitchen Garden and the orchards. Once that happened, the phrase, Out of sight, out of mind, ceased to work, and something had to be done. Even Lady Limoet had to admit, irritatedly, that something had to be done; to concede that the evil had to be faced up to once and for all.
By the time of Amaryllis’ arrival to the noble lady’s domain, fruit and vegetables had been discovered frozen solid, their stems and vines brittle to the touch so that they snapped at the slightest warmth of a wary, investigative finger; the least pressure and they snapped. Their skins froze and contracted, rendering the fruits unindentable and tough and smooth as polished wood. The freezing also brought out the colours and brightened them; they became radiant, if somewhat gaudy, the reds and yellows and greens displaying the many hues of the rainbow. The earth around the vegetables was hard and bone-dry and brown, as if all the moisture and life had been leeched out of it. There were just crumbs of soil from its uppermost layer that had escaped being frozen. Now they edged plants’ delicate stems like the lace frills on the cuff of a shirt. Elsewhere the ground had kept the pattern of ridges and furrows carved into it by Holly, amongst other gardeners, an unusual topographical record that bore witness to their efforts to farm the land. Amaryllis, inspecting the Kitchen Garden at the side of the head gardener, thought it looked like a map, all the lines and markings of the earth, they would stay there until the earth unfroze and melted from death to warmth; and that would be no sooner than when she cracked this creeping spell.
“I’m glad you called for me when you did; any later and there would not be a chance to undo this, it would simply have been too far in – even for the best of us.”
The head gardener had replied in deferential yet offended tones: “Well, I did try to have you in earlier, Madam-Captain, but the Lady weren’t having none of it. No, she knew best – until the child got in, of course.”
“Yes, of course,” Amaryllis muttered, and for a minute, they were both of them sobered by the memory of the near-tragic incident and its subsequent effects on the family.
The gardener continued: “The Lady’s youngest; went in that damned garden and never came out. What are we to do when it’s the effrontery to claim one of ours for its own?” She shook her head regretfully at the loss of the child.
Amaryllis had looked down at the Kitchen Garden’s ground: unlike in the case of the gardeners’ furrows, there was no trace on the floor of the young child’s visitation. A little boy of four leaves no footprints on frozen floor; he is not yet strong enough and heavy enough to make his mark on the world. The child had lain stretched out, corpse-like, for over a day and a night before being located here in the Kitchen Garden, invaded and claimed by the thing that festered in the centre of the Winter Garden’s maze, like some kind of hellish cuckoo in another bird’s nest.
This child was the only one small enough to wriggle under the Kitchen Garden’s chained and padlocked gate, the only one young and inexperienced enough not to feel the sense of foreboding prickling his neck as he toddled across the vegetable beds towards the bright-glazed strawberries in the corner. To him they were as sweets, and greed and innocence became the poor child’s undoing…Well, I am here to do him up again – and anything else that needs re-doing, too, Amaryllis vowed to herself. Unlike the boy, she was stronger and heavier, fully capable of leaving an imprint on the world if she so desired – and she did.
The tall, evergreen walls of the maze arched up above her on either side, hemming her in and directing her to the source of the malevolent presence that had been felt in the garden since the previous winter. Her breath puffed out, producing clouds of steam as though she were a dragon, and her skin tightened with the cold. It was cold in here…
Amaryllis meditated on the story of the little boy. Picking at it and plucking it to bits and pieces, she dissembled the incident and examined it for any clues it might yield her, much as one might unravel a loomful of weaving the better to discern how its pattern was made. The occupation of Scholar-Soldier is, after all, rather akin to that of the detective. All knowledge must be drawn together and employed, not just that relating to the discipline. Evil is ever resourceful, and the Scholar-Soldier must ever be ready to vanquish it: she must be just as resourceful, at least as powerful, and twice as bold.
Reaching them, the child had detached one from its brittle stem and squeezed, but the thing he grasped in his hand was hard like a boiled sweet, not soft like other fruit he had known, and at last, mercifully, he was perturbed. Now that tingling warning resonated properly down his spine, and he fled the garden with only the one berry in hand, squirming back Nevertheless, that one tiny fruit of evil ingested by the boy was almost enough…
Placing one foot in front of the other, the hunter moved forward, her suede-and-leather boots crunching gently on the gravel. Feeling for all the world like a trapper following a great pael-cat or snoe-shoe hare through the snow, she trudged forward, the only difference being that she knew with utter certainty where her prey lurked. At the centre of the maze it always lurked, dwelling in the exact and precise middle, in a position of absolute power from which to manipulate the garden’s pattern, whatever that might be.
Winter Garden, Knot Garden, Memory Garden; all patterns and plants could do nothing but succumb once it made the middle its own, its Home - it was always the way. “Onwards!” she huffed to herself, and onwards she went…
“Shall I show you the orchard?” Holly inquired as they left the Kitchen Garden, the Head Gardener locking the gate securely behind her with one of the many keys she carried on a jangling loop of metal suspended from the belt about her waist. Amaryllis noted that the bottom of the gate had been improved and fortified now; although none of the Lady’s other children were small enough to get through, the family were taking no chances; not even one of the household’s many cats could fidget its way through there, given the opportunity.
The orchard was the same when they reached it; the ring of gardens near the infected maze all had gates, chained and padlocked, or fences sporting bits of barbed wire and thorn-like spikes. Only one corner of the orchard was as yet infected, the Head Gardener pointed out, and in any case it would have been near-impossible to ramify the orchard fence so that it properly kept out children and animals, it was not designed for that. Neither did the orchard have its own gate. Useless, Amaryllis thought. These things were like a gangrenous limb; more often than not, one had to amputate the limb to save the rest of the body, you couldn’t just treat the toe. Too much is better than too little, she mused, eying the sorry bundle of wire fencing off the corner the Winter Garden had claimed for its own.
Then Holly indicated what had alerted them to the Garden’s presence here among the summer fruit trees, the trees that offered cherries and apples and pears and figs during the summer months. Standing in front of the Winter Garden’s outermost conifer hedge, imposing and dark, was a gnarled old apple tree, bent over in accurate imitation of a hump-backed old man, and hanging from one of its boughs was what had been, until recently, a child’s rope swing. Amaryllis’ lip twitched in disgust; the object had unpleasant connotations, one you though about what it was made out of… the swing rope was looped up and tethered as a hangman’s noose. Amaryllis looked at the knot’s spiralled form, remarking to herself that this one evidently was not kindly disposed towards children.
Holly broke in: “There’s nothing in it now but, earlier, when we first saw it, there was one of the kitchen cat’s up in it… We got it down, o’ course, the children - nor her Ladyship, wouldn’t have liked seeing it.”
The Scholar-Soldier nodded. It didn’t like animals either…
At the end of the corridor stood the garden’s gate, a Gothic arch of vine-like metal; here she would enter the maze proper, here she would begin her trespassing on the domain of the Winter Garden’s jealous inhabitant. The gate was open, invitingly, but Amaryllis felt like a fly being drawn onto the web of a particularly venomous spider. She paused, adjusting the position of the pack on her shoulder, and then stepped forward, over the threshold, one boot crunching down on scattered gravel…
Back at the house, the Head Gardener offered Amaryllis a cup of tea in her own quarters, the Lady Limoet being too busy with other visitors to see to this unwanted one, and besides, Holly knew more about the malady currently inflicting the Lady’s pride and joy that any one else. Making her rounds to check up on the younger gardeners whom she oversaw, Holly had been able to witness the Garden’s progress on a daily basis; every new development was shown to her, each new incident reported back to her.
They sat down. Amaryllis watched the other woman as they talked, nursing her cup of hot tea. With no need of written lists or visual aid of any kind, Holly explained all that had happened, describing symptoms as would a patient to his doctor. Amaryllis nodded and listened, much impressed by the woman’s down-to-earth practicality; she found that she much preferred her to the hysterical Lady Limoet whom she had met with upon her arrival. Even if the gardener had no knowledge of these matters, she had done well simply by employing common sense, approaching the garden-presence’s various manifestations as she would an overgrown or diseased plant that did not know its place, or was in danger of passing on its malady to its neighbouring plants.
They talked for long hours. The plate of biscuits lay untouched on the polished little table between them, tilting to one side because of its uneven spindly legs; nothing distracted these two women when they got down to business, different business though that usually was. Amaryllis listened in silence, interrupting only when she needed clarification, or a pertinent question occurred to her.
“Has anyone actually ventured in to the garden – and come back?” She inquired.
“I did – tried to shut the gates early on, but it were having none of it.” The gardener replied. “Six days in a row I tried, and each time I touched that damn gate it gave my a static shock, each one bigger than the last. After a week, I didn’t try any more… It hurt too much – the last one knocked me off my feet.”
They fell silent for a moment, and there came a sudden knock at the door. Both heads, one ginger-dark and the other silver-blonde, jerked up at the sound.
“Come in!” The gardener called.
The plump body of a young woman appeared leaning round the door, wearing the dark skirts and cap of an indoor servant. When Holly saw who it was she made a sound of recognition, and beckoned the anxious servant in, saying: “Come in, come in, you needn’t be afraid.” Standing up to make the formal introduction, she said with a gesture to the still-seated woman: “This is the Scholar-Soldier I’ve been looking after – her name is Master-Captain Amaryllis Hastings, she’s come to resolve our nasty little garden problem.” Master-Captain: ‘master’ for the scholar in me and ‘captain’ for the soldier.
Now the Scholar-Soldier heaved herself to her feet, smiling and presenting a hand. The servant woman nodded in cordial greeting as Amaryllis chimed in mocking yet amiable tones: “Oh, I wouldn’t call it little, Mistress Holly – not from what I’ve seen, anyway!” But she couldn’t help wondering why she was being introduced to a simple servant woman.
Holly chuckled and the servant-woman laughed, meeting Amaryllis’ hand with her own.
“I’m Ivy,” she said, confident as though it was self-explanatory, and the Scholar-Soldier had to look faintly embarrassed. She threw a quizzical look at Holly. “Oh, I’m sorry – perhaps I didn’t mention; this is my sister. She works in the house here, as Deputy Housekeeper. Our mother Mistletoe's the Housekeeper proper.” Holly explained.
“Aah, of course.” Looking again, she saw the resemblance: thick dark ginger hair, a light dusting of freckles across the face and curvy build. “Pleased to meet you, Mistress Ivy. Just call me Amaryllis – I don’t like grandiose titles and all that.”
“Right,” Ivy agreed, laughing, “Well, I’ve come to tell you that the dinner gong’ll be early tonight – it’s usually seven o’ clock – ‘cause tonight we’ve got a special guest.” At the enunciated and sarcastic – and to her, cryptic – message was delivered, the gardener rolled her eyes, groaning: “Oh, no, not him.” Mystified, Amaryllis eyes flicked from one sister to the other, but Holly continued: “Oh, we’ll be ready on time, you need not worry – I daren’t be late for him. Though I don’t know about the Master-Captain Amaryllis: how much do you like offending pompous old nobles?”
Amaryllis’ dark brown eyes lit up: “Immensely,” she said with relish and they all three grinned like the conspirators of treason and plot. “Immensely…”
In the middle of the first courtyard was a plaque on top of a short column, scrolled in the Corinthian style with large poinsettia flowers crafted on each corner, and leaves trailing down the sides. Amaryllis glanced round before stooping low to read the writing. In elaborate yet stately scrip it read:
Un-Welcome all ye, Intrepid explorers who would enter the maze and seek its end: ‘ware the icy heart of winter; ‘ware her jealous frozen grip
Amaryllis studied the engraving, taking in the words and considering their meaning. Reaching behind to her satchel she tugged out a neat, square portfolio bound in green leather; given her by the gardener before she went in. Its first page informed of what the plinth was intended to read, what its riddle-like engraving had said before it was corrupted maliciously by the Presence: “Welcome all ye, intrepid explorers who would enter the maze and seek its end: Winter’s kind-heart bids ye come in; her gracious hand is there to guide ye through.” “Much more innocuous,” Amaryllis commented under her breath, and straightened up.
Suddenly ripping the entire page out of the book, she fumbled briefly in her satchel and came up with glue and a brush. Having pasted the paper to the plinth, over the top of the transmuted plaque, she changed to a different brush and scrawled a couple of sigils in the corners; nothing too intricate or time-consuming, just some icons of welcome and goodwill to dispel the resentful air surrounding the carved plinth.
All packed away, Amaryllis rotated on the spot, getting a full view of the ways out of the first courtyard. Three archways cut into the bristling bush walls, all labelled with similarly engraved signposts: SNOW, ICE and COLD. The names, at least, remained unchanged. Amaryllis did not hesitate, but walked straight forward to SNOW’s high archway, the black metal tubes of the Gothic arch decorated with a hundred different snowflakes manufactured from a strange material; obsidian, it looked like to her. For this garden, it seemed, no expense had been spared; a pity, then, that it had come to this. Unthinking, she rushed forward through the arch, for once not pausing to look first. A sudden sharp pain made her cry out angrily: “Oh!”
Twisting her shoulder, she saw a scarlet line of blood marked horizontally on her upper arm. She wiped off the blood onto a finger and hissed at the pain; looking back, she saw, upon closer inspection of the beautiful snowflakes perched like butterflies up and down the arch, that their edges were all as sharp as razor blades. Now their beauty seemed marred, the stars of metal seemed to her to gleam and glint spitefully, chuffed at drawing first blood for the side of the garden.
Before Amaryllis had time to do anything other than be indignant at the snowflakes’ apparent nerve, and cross with herself at her stupid mistake, something else happened.
The whisper came, soft and malicious and most of all angry, floating across the misty air of this second courtyard. Her cry had attracted it like a compass needle compelled to the north. As if a pattern of magnetic forces ringed her, Amaryllis could feel its consciousness focussed deeply on her and she broke out immediately and unashamedly into a cold sweat. Fear was something a Scholar-Soldier had to work with on a regular basis. One had to manage to function under pressure of fear, carry on despite that great weight on one’s mind. Amaryllis made no answer. The seeming echo of the Garden’s words fading away with every second that Amaryllis continued to breathe. Only after did she register that it had been a woman’s voice pronouncing what had been less of a greeting and more of a surprised yet sincere warning: Don’t come in, this is my Home; don’t meddle with things that aren’t yours any longer, this is mine now…
In the second courtyard, the woman’s breath came sharp and short and her neck was damp with perspiration, darkening the wisps of ash-blonde hair…
But when she arrived at the dinner table, it was to discover that Holly’s ‘pompous old lord’ was not the only visitor for dinner that night.
Sitting alongside her pompous old lord was another, much younger man. Scruffily attired in emerald green and with a day or two’s growth of beard on his chin, he was yet neat enough to be presented at a Lady’s table. She knew that only he could achieve that,
From Holly’s map she knew that the left path was the correct one: it could not have been the middle, for they never could abide symmetry of any kind in their perverted yards, no sequence or sense allowed but all became as uneven as possible, as ragged as her breath in this chilled climate. Amaryllis wished momentarily that she had not spurned Ivy’s offer of a warm woolly hat, thinking instead that her own thick length of grey hair, habitually braided up in a crown round her head, would keep her warm. “Too late now…” Without thinking, she spoke aloud, and then cringed. Now the Garden could see her once again:
You… are not welcome…
*The concept of the Scholar-Soldier is gratefully borrowed from Mary Gentle's "White Crow" stories.*