Lord Cannerby’s coach drew to a halt. Wearily, he pulled himself out of his seat. He’d suffered through three months at court, with all its intrigues and gossip, never a moment’s peace. At last, some time to himself, and to enjoy the peace of his new gardens.
He descended from the coach onto a pathway of small, black stones that crunched beneath his boots. It was, he considered, a promising start, given the dirt driveway that had led to Cannerby Hall when he left for court. A glimpse of bright flowerbeds further reassured him that he had left his grounds in safe hands.
The architect of this transformation stood facing the carriage, dressed in well worn tunic and hose. Liza Bunnis bowed to his lordship, as was only right and proper, then smiled.
“Would you like the tour, m’lord?” she asked.
“Absolutely,” Cannerby said. “I’ve been looking forward to this since the spring. Somewhere I can put my feet up and smell the flowers.”
The garden had been divided into quarters, as was the style at all the most elegant houses. Bunnis led the way onto a walk planted with bands of springy herbs in different shades of green. With each step, scents burst into the air. Cannerby enjoyed a breath of sweetly aromatic air, another that was crisp and cleansing, then a soft smell that summoned memories of childhood.
Then he stepped onto the dark green and almost choked.
“What is that?” he gasped, stepping back to escape the aroma of rot and decay.
“They call it dead man’s ears,” Bunnis said proudly. “The contrast cleanses the senses so that you can truly enjoy the rose garden.”
Cannerby frowned. This was not what he had expected. A garden was meant to be relaxing, and there was nothing relaxing about that stench.
On the other hand, Bunnis had come highly recommended. All the best people had her gardens, custom designed to their personal needs.
He took a deep breath, then hurried across the offending herb and into the next section.
“To the left is your maze.” Bunnis gestured to a complex network of short hedgerows. Cannerby smiled at the sight, but his face fell when he heard the moaning.
“What is that?” he asked, a shiver running down his spine.
“The voices of the lost.”
“How can anyone be lost? The hedges are only three feet high.”
“Lost souls. They’re caged at the junctions to misdirect people and make the maze more challenging.”
Cannerby frowned but said nothing more. He could have those cages removed once Bunnis was gone and he had the place to himself.
Oh, how he longed for time to himself.
“On your right are the flowerbeds,” Bunnis continued, “and beyond them the kitchen garden.”
At last, something normal. Roses in a dozen different hues bloomed in the flowerbeds, forming a floral mosaic in the image of the sun.
“Spectacular,” Cannerby whispered, taking a step closer.
Without warning, a dozen of the nearest roses exploded into flames. Cannerby yelped as he leapt back from the heat that blasted his face.
“What in damnation is that?”
“Phoenix flowers,” Bunnis said, as if it were the most normal thing in the world. “Aren’t they exquisite? I’ve chosen strains that will burn away and grow back at different times of day. You now own the world’s most dramatic floral clock. You can thank me later.”
Cannerby stared at the blackened stems of the burnt flowers, from which green buds were already emerging. He wasn’t sure he’d be thanking her when a spark from those flowers set the whole hall on fire.
Had he made a terrible mistake in hiring her? Or was he just too old-fashioned in his tastes?
“The orchard,” Bunnis said, pointing to the final quarter of the gardens.
Cannery peered at the trees. Was he imagining it, or were there faces in the bark?
“What madness does that hold?” he asked. “Dryads? Arboreal gnomes? Whirlwinds of leaves?”
“Only a fine selection of cherries and peaches. Your fruit bowl will be the envy of the county.”
With a sigh, Cannerby let go of the tension that held his shoulders up around his ears. Together with Bunnis, he continued down the pathway towards the manor house, beneath a bower of intertwining branches.
“Perhaps I can live with it,” he said. “Some of the features are a little wild for my tastes, but-”
Something grabbed him by the shoulder. He spun around and saw a pair of leaves snapping like jaws, just as another pair swung down and snatched at his arm.
With a scream, Cannerby dashed down the last ten yards of the path and into the safety of his doorway. Bunnis strolled along behind him, unperturbed by the grasping greenery.
“Enough!” Cannerby yelled. “I asked for a garden, not a menagerie of monsters. Tear it up! Burn it down! Give me a lawn and a chair and let me rest.”
Bunnis shrugged with surprising equanimity for a woman whose work was about to be destroyed.
“If you insist, m’lord,” she said. “But just one thought before I do. How many people do you think will risk a trip through this garden to call on you?”
“None!” Cannerby exclaimed. “Why, they would have to be mad.”
No-one would visit once they heard the wailing hedge, smelled the rotten path, were grasped and clawed by those wild branches. Not his nosey neighbours. Not his idiot son-in-law. None of the court dignitaries who rode out searching for gossip.
He would be alone, just him, his wife, and the servants.
“On second thoughts, it’s a splendid job,” he said. “Let me get my account book and we’ll settle the bill.”
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By Sword, Stave or Stylus
A gladiator painting with manticore blood.
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