It has long been known that plants have meaning intrinsic to themselves. Using plants and their intrinsic meanings to communicate started as a game for younger courtiers under the eyes of their parents. Over time, it has developed into a language.
-High Priest of the Court
Oleander. Beware. That was the most important message. He bent and trimmed off a stem with thick leaves and the cluster of white flowers at the tip. He had to be careful of what he touched until he had wrapped the stem in a scrap of cloth that would protect his skin from irritation. Oleander was poison, after all. Fitting, for the meaning it carried.
One thing he would say for the witch. She had the most incredible gardens, with patches of various climates to allow different plants to grow. The garden was divided into quarters, each a perfect replica, each in a different season. As the year passed, winter would become spring in one quarter, while spring moved to summer in the next, summer to fall in the third, and fall into winter in the last. The witch expended huge stores of magic in maintaining her gardens, but he knew she didn’t do it for the beauty; her gift of magic acted through plants. She needed them to cast her spells. The greater variety she had access to the greater variety of spells she could cast. Lacking the gift of magic, Rohan usually didn’t speculate on the uses of the plants. Wandering the gardens was the single activity he could enjoy in serving her.
Rohan’s duties involved care of the prisoners and running her errands. On days when he had no errands, the duties took perhaps three hours. The witch let him roam the gardens when he was not occupied and later tasked him with caring for anything her spells missed. When she observed he knew a great deal about plants, she permitted only him to gather those she needed from her gardens. Every time he brought her basil, he had to keep her from seeing his smile. Basil represented hatred, though the witch, never having been a knight, a courtier, or a priest, had no knowledge of the language of plants. She got her revenge without needing to know, of course; he had to bring her hemlock as often as basil, and hemlock represented his fear all too well. “You will be my death,” he murmured as he plucked a dead leaf from the hemlock plant. It was blooming, stalks with clusters of tiny white flowers abundant. More than likely, the witch would be Rohan’s death.
Not that the witch needed the subtleties of plant speech to remind Rohan to fear her. She sent him near to the maze in the central courtyard at least once a week, to remind him what he could suffer if she wished. He had belonged to her for three years, and in that time, he had learned to be terrified of the maze. She’d made him enter it all too often in the first year after she bought him. In it stalked creatures of illusion and of fact, all too ready to maul or eat a frightened slave. Before she sent him into the maze, she bound his voice so that his screams could not disturb her. Except when she sent him through it for her entertainment; then she left his voice alone.
Rohan shook his head and focused on the gardens again. Though the witch understood nothing of plant speech, something had told Rohan that the prisoner would. When Rohan had brought the prisoner breakfast, he had seen something, something that told him the prisoner was either lord or priest and would understand. It was why Rohan would take this desperate chance to communicate; this prisoner, more than any of the others, had touched Rohan’s conscience, had made him feel shame that there was so little he could do to help. Perhaps because, though he knew the witch kept prisoners to sacrifice, she had not had a sacrificial prisoner in the three years he had belonged to her. The prisoners who were his usual responsibility were those who were more useful to the witch alive than dead, those who had not slept when she cast her spell over the keep. There were two types of people who had not slept, those who were immune to her magic and the mages who had tried to defend against her spell. She liked to experiment on those who were immune to her magic, and she used the mages’ magics to fuel her own. Rohan didn’t have to worry that she would kill those prisoners out of hand, but he’d already heard some of her plans for this new prisoner; she would sacrifice him on the new moon to feed a spell to take the keep further out of time, to make it harder for some hero to find her and try to break her spells, wake the princess who slept at the heart of the keep. As she thought her new prisoner was one such hero, she had told Rohan that the prisoner’s death would be appropriate.
In his thoughts, Rohan had wandered too close to the maze. Turning away, he found another pair of plants to include in the green letter he was writing. Allspice for compassion, with its dark red bloom and many petals, and a branch of long, thin leaves and bright red blossom from the yew for sorrow.
He spotted the balls of little white petals surrounded by serrated leaves and stopped to add a snowball. Nearby, the vibrant blossoms covered in streaks of pink and yellow that seemed to clash with four o’clock flower’s timid meaning. Those two, to say that he was bound and frightened. The prisoner had to know how useless his sympathy was. And there was a patch of meadowsweet, stalks of tiny white flowers, just as he despaired of how useless he was to the prisoner, no matter how he wished he could help. He elected not to include meadowsweet in his letter.
Rosebay, with its magenta blossoms and long stamina, to emphasize the message in the oleander. He could not emphasize enough the danger in the keep. A stalk of the delicate white blooms of enchanter’s nightshade, to tell the prisoner what held the keep. An enchantment and the witch who cast it. The prisoner might have figured that out on his own, but Rohan didn’t think he could count on it. The prisoner needed to know that his captor was a witch.
Passing the water willow, Rohan laughed to keep from crying. Freedom. Something neither he nor the prisoner had. The long, flexible branches that brushed the ground of the weeping willow next to it were so much more appropriate; Rohan had been mourning the loss of his freedom for five years. In three weeks, he would be mourning the prisoner. His green letter would do no good, but he couldn’t make himself throw the plants he’d gathered into the stream. There. That was what he was looking for. He picked a sprig of yellow acacia. The least he could do was let the prisoner know he had a friend.
One more stop before he went inside, though this one had nothing to do with the prisoner. He stopped at a rosebush covered in white flowers that were just starting to fade and gathered as many petals as he could fit into the pouch he’d brought. He kept a bowl of dried white rose petals on his windowsill to remind himself that he would rather die than lose his innocence to the witch. He thought that resolve might be hard tested as the new moon approached.
His errands in the garden finished, Rohan returned to the keep and turned in the entry hall to the stairs that led below the cellar to the cells. At the head of the stairs, the witch stood. Waiting. Was she waiting for him? Without waiting for her to look at him, he dropped to his knees and bowed his head.
“My newest pet,” the witch said. “I have an errand for you.”
“Yes, Lady.” She was no lady, but she could order her servants to call her what she wished. It was one of her more harmless affectations.
“What have you brought from my gardens?”
Though she didn’t object if he took a few things from the garden, Rohan had to grip his emotions before they detoured into panic. When he thought his voice was steady, and when he’d thought of an appropriate answer, he said, “A reminder for my Lady’s prisoner of what he cannot see. My Lady said she wished him to feel his captivity as he waits for the new moon.”
The witch laughed. “So you bring him the fruits of a witch’s garden. Almost, I wonder if I should worry about your viciousness. But you would not betray me, would you? Still my newest pet, but you’ve been here three years. You know the folly of betrayal.”
Rohan didn’t need to fake his shiver. He did indeed know the folly of betrayal, and he knew he was courting punishment. “Yes, Lady. I would do nothing against you.”
When the witch touched him, Rohan managed not to flinch. She liked his fear, but she didn’t want to see his revulsion.
“Go, then, and remind my guest of the world he will not see again. My errand will wait until you return. I will be in my workshop. Attend me swiftly.” She swept away without waiting for his answer.
Though the witch had just given him a reason to hurry, Rohan took a moment to reassure himself that she didn’t truly doubt him. She had wanted to frighten him. Nothing more. He had to steady his legs when he stood, but they held him as he descended the three flights of stairs to the stone hallway lined with cells. He didn’t need to walk the long hall this time; the prisoner he wanted was in the second cell on the left. He stepped into the alcove that let him reach into the cell without letting the prisoner reach out and laid his green letter at the foot of the prisoner’s cot. For the first time, Rohan felt a shock of fear that the prisoner wouldn’t understand, that Rohan was wrong about the prisoner’s class, but he shook that aside. In the first place, he wasn’t wrong. Looking at the prisoner confirmed that. In the second place, there was no danger if the prisoner didn’t understand. There might be if Rohan elected to find a more obvious method of communication, but nothing would force him to do that. In the third place, the plants were already in the cell, and the witch already knew he planned to give them to the prisoner. It was much too late to back away.
It took a moment, but the prisoner realized something had changed. After a moment spent looking at the plants, he looked up at Rohan and cocked his head. When he opened his mouth to speak, Rohan shook his head. He pointed first to the slave’s mark on his neck then to his ear. He was convinced the witch could listen to anything said around her slaves if she chose to.
Though the prisoner closed his mouth, he continued to stare at Rohan for several long moments more. Abruptly, he turned and scooped up the bunch of plants. He went through the bouquet one by one, looking at each plant that had gone into it. When he had examined all of them, he gathered them up again and set them aside so that he could lie down on the cot.
Though Rohan had said the prisoner shouldn’t talk, this frustrated him; he wanted some sign that his letter had been understood. He bit his lip and stared at the prisoner, willing the prisoner to do something to show that he’d understood.
With a gesture Rohan would have missed had he not been watching so closely, the prisoner pointed to a spot on the floor next to the cot. For a moment, a sprig of many-colored Canterbury bells lay there, bell-shaped flowers on long stems shading through white, pink, blue, and purple. Then they were gone, quickly enough that Rohan doubted the witch would notice the magic, not when he understood that little real magic was needed for an illusion.
Without having spoken a word, Rohan turned and left the cell. Confident that there was no one there to see him, he smiled. Canterbury bells. Acknowledgement.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Aerin nic Carolan studied writing at Mills College and has a long time fascination with flower languages and fairy tales.