An array of berries like little soldiers:
the belladonna deeply black,
intermixed with blueberries, gooseberries and
raspberries enough so they smear the more potent
root powder I sprinkled within the paper horn.
I botched the interview to be the queen’s companion on purpose. Told her that the colour of her dress did not suit her complexion.
As I handed over the paper horn, the berries inside slipped and slid on account of slightly crushed raspberries, purposefully done. For what better way to hide the slight tang of the root shavings but in the puckering sweet taste? And what better way to make sure the root powder clung than to have the berries wet one another?
“I was told you liked sweet things,” I said brazenly. Then I glanced meaningfully down at the multi-toned grey organza layers of her gown in order to subtly remind her what I thought.
The queen twisted the paper horn in her hands, running a scarred thumb across the textured outer surface. “I don’t.”
“Well good, because I put in some gooseberries and the sourest of blueberries so you’d have trouble keeping your face straight while eating them.”
Beside me, the others interviewing to be the queen’s companion gave a murmuring reaction and I knew what sorts of hopeful thoughts must be coursing through their minds. For surely, the queen would turn me on my heel right then. Wouldn’t she?
The queen lifted her gaze from the paper horn and laughed. Then she plucked a few berries out—a belladonna and two blueberries—and threw them into her mouth, letting her lips purse and her nose scrunch as she chewed. She said not another word to me.
She continued to munch on the berries as she accepted curtsies and glorious compliments that vied to be the most ridiculous. I did not even attempt to keep myself composed, allowing my subtle mirth at the others’ expense to knock me out of the running for the position.
Yet when I attempted to leave, the queen beckoned me back. She had a flush across her mid-tone cheeks and a slight slurring to her words as she spoke to me. The beginning effects of the belladonna.
Or so I thought.
“Her,” she said, patently not addressing me at all. “I want her.”
I then attempted not to panic, but I failed in that too.
wishing I’d done the same to the conscription,
the day it arrived, then I added lavender petals alongside a
dollop of honey, and served tea for one.
I spilled hot tea over the queen’s new damask skirt at her fitting. I didn’t apologize.
Instead, I found a napkin to blot the stain. As I leaned low, her breath touched my neck, warm and wet and mint-laden.
“It’s syrupy, sweet,” she said. “Did you forget?”
“I had other things on my mind,” I said, standing back, staring at raised white lines along her collarbone.
The queen drained her tea in one swallow, then the cup hit the saucer with a loud clink as the seamstress unrolled expensive fabrics. It would be an appointment she’d not soon forget, granted my plan worked. It would work this time. I’d chosen foxglove with care, so often confused with its leafy cousin—comfrey. The perfect alibi to tell the guards.
The queen stood, took my arm, and led me to the line-up of cloth. “Choose one for me, then.”
There was silver and gold brocade, taffeta, butter-soft cashmere, royal-blue velvet, linen, cambric, and more. I reached out and touched the velvet, thinking it proper for a funeral.
“This one,” I said.
The queen examined the velvet with a critical eye, her lips quirking before her low laugh escaped into the air. “Oh, how you enjoy teasing me.”
I hadn’t meant it to be teasing. I opened my mouth to say so, but the queen was watching me, her eyes glassy, her pupils dilated. As she swooned, I caught her, the two of us like petals falling to the floor.
“Go get help,” I half-shouted at the seamstress, a panic croaking my voice. It was an act, even if my heartbeat quickened beneath my whale-bone corset.
Then the queen rose in a cloud of skirts, recovered, blushing rose-red. She ducked behind a changing curtain, hiding, I thought, from me.
like the cannons far, far away
where my brother fought for queen and country.
I gathered them, crushed them, pressed them,
added them to the queen’s evening glass of sherry each night.
The queen drank the dry sherry with a blanch, a light twisting of orange-painted lips. She rarely met my gaze this evening, though she did note, “This bottle has soured. And not in a pleasant way.”
“Would you like me to open another tomorrow?” I asked, finishing my own untainted glass without so much as a flinch, as if to show her strength where she exhibited weakness.
“No waste,” she said, then tipped the castor-spiked alcohol back for the fifth night in a row, revealing the scabbing along the back of her hand.
I’d thought she’d be struggling more by now, sick with shakes and cramping, growing worse. But the only shaking she did was when I stood close enough to undo the buttons on her chiffon and silk dress, then the pastel ties on her corset beneath.
There, with her skin close to mine, she shuddered. “You may ring for the maid to finish.”
Sometimes she dismissed me earlier, and I envisioned meetings with her generals and chief of staff.
Sometimes she dismissed me later, that she might wander the gardens with me, arm in arm, past the vast trunk of the Scourge Tree, its bark and thorns stained with copper-scented sap the colour of rust. Or of dried blood. Its origins unknown, even to me.
Yet, despite its barbed and ugly branches that shivered like leather whips around us, she would lead me under its drooping, thorny domain, and into the winding maze once planted and cultivated by a royal predecessor.
We admired blossoms she never learned the names of. More important matters, I presumed out loud just last night, eliciting a quiet chuckle from her.
Then she’d patted my hand gently and said, “Right now, hearing more about the medicinal properties of honeysuckle and hyssop and passionflower is more important.” She’d put a strange emphasis on passionflower, though I’d spoken least about the flowering vine.
I bowed and left the queen’s chambers, a strange feeling cramping in my gut as if I’d been the one administered castor seeds night after night.
The queen of poisons had blooms with two to ten petals,
the same odds of a soldier returning from the front,
which I reminded myself of while collecting monkshood blood from tall stems,
using it to soak a pair of fine deerskin riding gloves.
I spurred my mount, my competitive nature rising as it had during long-ago races afoot against my beloved brother.
Ahead, an oak’s trunk solidified where the hounds flocked. The queen reined in her flashy gelding. The hunting party followed her lead. A cast of lords and ladies, their attire a mix of armour and frills.
The queen’s gelding circled at her command. She drew bright steel, a spark in her eye as she pointed her sword’s tip at me. “I dedicate this hunt to you.”
I adjusted my reins, hiding a grimace, my palms blistered from the monkshood the night before. “Don’t you dare.”
The queen pressed her deerskin gloves to her lips in shock or in anger. Either way, I was angry too. How could I not be, seeing the ease with which she killed? As though this world belonged to her. As though all our lives did.
Her sword wobbled in her grip, then fell to the ground. A sign I noted with grim satisfaction.
“I’ll have no part in this,” I said, tight-lipped. In truth, I was a coward. I couldn’t watch her die. I turned my mare and kicked her into a gallop. I hoped the queen hadn’t seen my tears.
Later, she stood outside my bedchamber and knocked softly, muffling an apology against the wood grain. I didn’t trust myself to answer, though my hands balled my sheets.
I had failed, again.
Petals deeply pink, almost red, floated atop the bathwater,
like bodies down the river, coursing homeward bound.
Only here there mixed pestle-ground leaves of oleander
within my jasmine and rose infusion.
I begged off scrubbing the queen’s back after I prepped the bath, claiming a headache, though my lingering distaste for her bloodthirstiness may have shone in my averted gaze. She reached out in an aborted touch, and then allowed me to leave.
I passed the maid on my way out of the queen’s chambers.
The stone tapped under my heels as I paced, first the halls, then the gardens, the Scourge Tree’s menacing thorns like little blades wafting in the air.
I finally fled to my own chambers when I couldn’t stand the cheeriness of the sun any longer.
Somehow, I knew the queen would survive, as she’d survived before. But it was the maid’s face that danced behind my eyelids each time I closed my eyes. An innocent, caught between the queen’s war-neediness and my own avenging fury.
I attended the funeral, the queen in royal-blue velvet at my side, her arm linked in mine, her body unaffected, her constitution seemingly immune to all I threw at it.
“She must have ingested something meant for me,” the queen confided softly as the maid’s body was lowered into the ground. “My staff believes a spy has slipped in from the war.”
I shivered against her. And she, mistaking my horror at being thought of as one of her conquered enemies, patted my hand, her skin calloused from swordplay, yet soft with hibiscus lotion, the tiny puncture wounds that crafted a constellation across her palm catching as she stroked me.
“I am glad it was not you,” she murmured, even softer than before, her breath ghosting over the lacy holes at my shoulder, causing me to shudder again, but for a different reason.
I pulled wings off hemlock seeds I grinded with a stone,
adding the result to the queen’s foundation,
a luxury item of Madonna lily and purest wheat,
imported before red leaves of war fell like loosened arrows.
I listened without comment as I mixed foundation into rosewater, painting her skin in the moon’s colours. The rouge smelled of safflower, the lip stain of grease and good wine.
After I finished the last dabs, she admired her reflection. I looked at her in the gilded glass. It offered back the image of a stranger. Even the perfect mole on her right cheek was fake, a beauty patch applied over a thorn-shaped scar.
“I don’t need you to tell me I look handsome,” she said, vying for my compliments with a simmered voice. It wasn’t like her to beg.
“Then I won’t,” I said, my tone harsh and bristling. Maybe if she’d married sooner, there’d have been no war, no battles. No need for my brother to die. “Will that be all?” I asked, dipping my chin, unwilling to meet her eyes.
She sighed. “You needn’t worry. I won’t be their prized fox to corner.”
I looked up, bit my top lip to feign concern and hide growing interest. “How can you be so certain?”
The queen smiled knowingly, but her eyes were dull, withered by a deep-rooted pain I couldn’t comprehend.
Like jewelry beads, the jequirity beans rolled in my palm,
like dice meant to stave off a soldier’s boredom.
A prick of a sharpened brooch needle through the seed
coated the suitor’s gift with another gift of my own.
My fingers fumbled, lace puffing under my breath as I pinned the brooch on the queen’s dress. I almost did so cleanly, almost let the poison rest sedately, pointlessly within the fabrics. But as I hesitated, she leaned toward me, her gaze hard and filled with desire that made me swallow convulsively.
She flinched when I missed, when the needle slipped past lace and deep into her skin beneath. Yet she didn’t say anything at my murmured apology.
“Stay. I shall need a soothing voice once I’m done listening to platitudes and flattery,” the queen ordered.
So I did, sitting on a stool against the wall, a silent companion, watchful over my queen’s nonexistent virtue as she endured the fawning attentions of the suitor from our neighbouring country to the west. He noticed that the queen wore the brooch, I saw, and I’m sure, like the others, thought himself special, not realizing I changed out her jewelry between each careful meeting.
Once he had been guided away, the queen spoke to me without turning her head, her voice considering. “They did not want anything to do with me before. Not even as allies. I was sent missives with barely concealed disdain and the whispers my spies told me showed there were intentions flittering about between the countries. This war could have been with any one of them. This war…” She paused. Looked down at her hands. “This war brought their respect the moment I began to win.”
“And you wanted their respect?” I asked, clenching my teeth on my disgust.
Her voice turned brittle. “I wanted them to leave my people free and safe rather than see us as easily conquered. Would that I still fought at our border, for at least there I could identify a man who wished to kill me.”
I sat stunned during the next suitor’s visit. And the one after that, the evening drifting away.
Later, when I helped her remove the expensive dress, loosening cinched cuffs, slipping sleeves from her scarred arms and off her calloused fingers, I noticed a smear of blood, no longer hidden behind the silver girth of the brooch, and I felt…ashamed.
repoured the pitcher, set among a tray of fine chocolates,
and remembered my brother’s gentle warning
of white snakeroot, and the cows that sometimes ate it.
“Three proposals, and there’s enough pink alba roses to fill the greenhouse twice over,” the queen said, wrinkling her nose despite the garden’s midnight perfume of evening primrose and star jasmine. She wore a muslin chemise nightgown, the long sleeves rolled up to reveal vein-like scars. “I’d rather have a new mare.”
“You’ve no need of another,” I said, my mind drifting outside the moonlit gardens, still focused on the report delivered to the queen by an express rider at our evening meal. As the rider bowed her head, she’d spoken of a whole battalion lost at the frontline. The queen’s soldiers had defended us again with their own blood.
“It wouldn’t be for me to ride,” she said, her eyes softening as they met mine. “You’ll need another if you’re ever to keep up.”
“I’m hardly the problem,” I said, setting the tray on the twig-littered ground beneath the Scourge Tree. Its shadow was the same gloom, night or day, and I disliked the smell of its bark: coppery, with a tint of iron.
The queen sat, unladylike, her back resting against the trunk while ugly, barbed branches stirred above. She reached for a chocolate, then gulped down the milk.
Cows sometimes grazed on white snakeroot, and its toxin passed through their milk or meat. I had thought it out carefully, as always, knowing my defence by heart. Not that it mattered, for my queen refused to die, and I couldn’t make out how she managed it.
“Eat,” she said, her eyes full of starlight and unfulfilled wishes.
I looked at the chocolates. All different shapes, different shades of despair. “How will you pick?”
She raised a candy to my lips, a tremour shaking her fingers. “You’ll dance with me at the masquerade,” she said, softer now. “After, I’ll…choose one. For now, leave me.”
I stared at her. My mouth was full of bittersweetness. “But—”
A darkness touched her face, and she reached out to the sap-coated thorns on the Scourge Tree. Her blood dripped from her cut palm to water the earth. “Go.”
Like a shadow about to be consumed by daylight, I fled.
The queen preferred bright colours, like pokeberries,
like male birds garnering the attention of predators,
so I made her lipsticks purples and the brightest of reds,
and hid the rolled wax tubes in with her others,
the pile looking like the parchments delivering news of soldier deaths.
One does not demand answers of the queen. Not if one were anyone but me. Yet, hadn’t she seen in me someone who would do just that? Someone unafraid to speak her mind? Demand. Demand. Demand?
The next time I was painting her face for the day, I let my hand fall to her arm where new scabbing had dried in purplish bumps. Let my fingers trace those hills and divots, all the scarring, new and old.
She lifted her chin and stared into the mirror. But she answered the unspoken question I ended up not demanding.
“They remind me of the fallen, the men and women I’ve ordered to their deaths. Little pricks upon my skin as penance. The Scourge Tree is there to force me to remember what my choices have wrought, so that I do not make those choices in vain.”
It wasn’t until she pressed her hand over mine that I realized I had been stroking her still, my fingers unceasingly guiding circles about her small penances. Which scar was my brother, I wondered.
She looked up at me, as if reading my mind, hearing my loud thoughts. She licked her lips, bright purple lipstick suddenly glinting, shining. We were so close now, her eyes both hard as a diamond’s edge, yet soft, aching for some form of understanding from me.
I wanted to lean in those last inches. To taste her lips on mine. To hold her, let her be afraid, be sorrowful, for a few moments, before she had to be strong and merciless and powerful once more, her back straight and her chin high. I wanted.
But I could still remember the clumps of pokeberries I’d stripped, crushed, and mixed with wax and oils to craft the lipstick that marked her tentative smile. A smile that turned to a sigh, then a thoughtful, thin line as I gasped and stepped back, away, needing air and space as I grew dizzy.
When she pressed a kiss against my temple, I leaned into the touch, knowing I’d be red there later. Wondering when I’d begun to stop caring.
but swords aren’t the only bringers of eternal slumber,
so I plucked trumpet-shaped moonflowers and tore the white petals,
hiding them in a small tin of smelling salts,
wishing I could rip away the doubts in my heart as easily.
With crossed arms, I waited at the end of the gardens’ path. I’d been dismissed this evening while the queen sat beneath the Scourge Tree, alone. Her sorrow and guilt were my fault this time. In a moment of weakness, I’d told her of my brother—how much I’d loved him, the battle he’d died in.
When she emerged, she looked pale, so I pulled free the tin of smelling salts I’d prepared. Yet there I stopped, my fingers curled tight, my heart full of contradictions. She stepped closer, and I allowed the tin to fall into her waiting hands, my resistance withering. I didn’t believe the poison would harm her—how could it now, when none had ever before? Still, a small aching part of me wanted someone to suffer. The queen opened the tin and took a strong sniff.
She wore riding breeches—like me—and floral Honiton lace fluttered at her throat. A shallow scratch like a scarlet ribbon marked the top of her left palm. I glowered at it, my concern a hypocrisy I couldn’t explain.
“You’re mad at me,” the queen said, handing back the decorative tin.
Self-consciously, I touched my forehead, though the redness left by her pokeberry-stained lips had healed.
Horse carts cluttered the servants’ entrance, a prince’s ransom of deliveries being unloaded for the grand masquerade. The date was set for a fortnight’s time. I’d been measured for my costume, and I longed to feel the rich voile against my skin, to sway and bend beneath falling petals while the queen twirled in my arms.
Only, I’d never get the chance thanks to her relentless suitors. More and more, I hated them. For plucking the fruits of my queen’s labours as her influence and power grew. For their apathy as blood and war drowned my country. For being complicit in my brother’s death.
They meant to claim the woman I kept trying to kill. The woman I could not kill. The woman I wasn’t sure I wanted dead any longer.
As we walked side by side to the stables, I kept silent.
“I sat a long time beneath the Scourge Tree,” the queen said, “but I only thought of your barbed tongue and sad smile.”
“A tree can’t grant forgiveness,” I said, but my voice lacked its usual nettles.
“I know,” the queen said.
She pulled a pair of new deerskin riding gloves from her pockets and donned them. Servants in stable livery led out the queen’s flashy gelding and my graceful-as-a-willow mare. The queen mounted, the saddle leather creaking, and then she smiled down at me.
“Let’s chase the sunset,” she said, “before it disappears.”
My cheeks flamed. Was I a fool to think her heart beat alongside mine? The world was a place of passing seasons, but when she smiled, I felt the heat of everlasting summer.
It was then I realized the sun-glaring truth: I loved her.
For each thorn that had pierced my queen’s skin,
for each soldier death,
for every neighbouring country wishing to see us fall,
and maybe a little for me,
did I pluck from an old yew tree.
We rode sunset after sunset, with me foolishly thinking that those sunsets signified the end of my hate. A closing of a chapter. No—the last breaths of a plant before it curled and withered and sighed as it collapsed.
The wound on her palm healed and no new ones appeared. The queen’s visits to the Scourge Tree diminished with each sweet moment we shared, alone.
The barbs from my tongue, which I’d once thought of as honesty, turned to honey. I found myself saying such things as, “Can we stay a little longer before we turn back?” and “That colour suits you well.”
“It suits my complexion, does it?” she said, in an opposing echo of our first meeting. Yet she was laughing, her hair falling from the austere up-do I’d helped pin that morning before she’d seen her suitors for the last time before announcing her choice.
And at that thought, I found my smile fading.
She bestowed the honour of delivering the betrothal cups to me. In her eyes I saw the need for me to understand. To see how she put her people first, her hard decisions necessary, her marriage to the eldest son of a military-strong neighbour not meant to hurt me, but to bring about a quick end to the warring at our border.
A quick end to the deaths she’d once so viciously punished herself for.
I slipped on my costume, voile grazing my skin like a gentle goodbye embrace. I strode into the masquerade just behind her, my assassin black to her funeral blue. Like a bruise we were, portraying our agony to an audience incapable of seeing.
When she announced the betrothal, wearing a false smile behind a feathered mask, the crowd of nobles cheered. And when she and her suitor drank, the yew deep in the wine’s bitter flavour, I cheered within, knowing she’d get her support without needing to marry, that the suspicion for his death would be laid on an interloper, as it’d been with her maid.
I watched her dance with him, my longing hidden behind my mask. She twirled, she spun, she moved with all the grace of a fighter.
And then she fell.
In return for a payment of blood and pain,
the thorns wept sap and dripped mithridate into my queen’s veins,
but when she ceased visiting the Scourge Tree,
the sap-made armour fell away, like withered vines.
For the last time, I dressed her. To meet her hall of earth, she wore royal-blue velvet. I had chosen it, but unlike many of my choices, I wouldn’t regret it. She looked as noble and beautiful as the night sky.
As the funeral rites were spoken, a wake of vultures watched on: a crowd of nobles in coats of woven brocade, trimmed in soft dead furs. They wore their kills as trophies, so unlike my queen dressed in her scars of mourning.
Long after the burial, I stood in the gardens and watched the Scourge Tree’s claw-like branches shiver. Like marrow-sucked bones, the wood and bark were wrinkled and rough. The tree’s gnarled secret, I would come to learn, was life and misery, was death in happiness, was protection in pain. My love had grown from an invisible thorn, cutting deep, my avenging nature refusing to be uprooted.
There were ten plants that could not kill my queen. There were twenty. There were many. For the Scourge Tree had protected her. Just as she had protected her people. And I…had done the opposite. I had allowed my jealousy, my selfishness, to overcome my love.
I had removed my queen’s armour, piece by piece.
With the dusk, I went to the tree and took a handful of thorns. And then, in my penance, I squeezed.
Story copyright © 2021 by Marie Croke & Anna Madden
Artwork copyright © 2021 by Michelle Modestino
Marie Croke, a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop ’20, has had stories published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Dark Matter Magazine, and Apex Magazine, among many other fine places. She lives in Maryland with her family, all of whom like to scribble messages in her notebooks when she’s not looking. She’d love to chat with you on Twitter @marie_croke.
Anna Madden lives in Fort Worth, Texas. Her fiction has appeared in Dark Matter Magazine, PodCastle, Orion’s Belt, and elsewhere. She has an English degree from the University of Missouri – Kansas City. In free time she gardens, mountain bikes, and makes stained glass. Follow her on Twitter @anna_madden_.
Michelle Modestino is a Canadian digital artist, settling back home after many years living abroad in Europe. Assuming she would stick to painting and portraiture, a year of study in the UK showed her that collage and mixed media art were more fitting methods of expression. She now collects a wide variety of images to mix and match in her work, which mostly includes her own photos of plants and landscapes, images from magazines, vintage encyclopaedias, and scenes from her parents’ photo albums.