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Poison Maiden, Open Skies
    by Laurie Tom

Poison Maiden, Open Skies
Artwork by Nicole Cardiff

The wagon comes to halt and tips forward as the pulling soldiers set the shafts down. It is so cramped inside that I'm able to brace myself against the walls and my seat to keep from falling over.

Hell is raining ahead of us. Our artillery pounds the German trenches, but the window before me is so tiny that the only thing I see is the dark of night with the occasional flash from the falling mortars.

Metal scrapes against metal and my enclosure shudders as the soldiers unbar the wagon. One of them raps lightly on the door; the signal that they're leaving. Two minutes.

I count out the seconds for the soldiers to get clear, knowing that Beth, Charlotte, and the rest of the Harpies are doing the same. When I reach zero I push against the door. The airtight seal breaks with a pop I can feel more than I can hear. The artillery is louder outside.

Our escort has fled, leaving us in the middle of no man's land. No one ever wants to be near Harpy Squad once we're out.

Susan yawns and slings her rifle over her shoulder as she joins us, clustered at the head of the wagons. The enemy trenches stretch out ahead and the wind is with us tonight. Once the eight of us get close, we'll spread out every three hundred yards. We can cover a lot of trench and incapacitate soldiers quietly and more efficiently than any chemical weapon. Our poison doesn't require hours to work. Minutes is enough, and few survive.

"Do you ever think about how many are down there?" asks Olivia.

Charlotte spits. "Wouldn't make you feel better." She is always angry. The hope for a cure is the reason she keeps fighting.

Beth waves for us to follow. "Come along, girls. The shelling's only going to last a few more minutes, and we've got to get into position."

I wish I was back home. In a month it will be Christmas. My brother Albert would still be serving with the army, but at least I would be with Mum, Dad, and my sisters. Thomas too. Maybe. Thomas is only here in Belgium because of me. If I had never been contaminated, I'm sure they would have kept him home in England, and we would not have had to postpone our wedding. He's a researcher, not a soldier, and far more valuable as one, even if they had to conscript him to get him to work.

Thomas hates the use of chemical warfare, because of accidents like the one that changed me and the others.

"Wake up, Edith." Katherine's face appears close to mine. I look up and see we're almost there.

"Sorry," I mutter.

Beth signals for us to split up and I mouth a prayer as I press my fingers against the blouse of my uniform. I can feel the reassuring touch of the glass rosary underneath, a gift from Thomas after the poison gas devoured the wooden one I had worn since childhood.

I hunker down as the shelling comes to an end. There is barbed wire in front of me, so I know I am not far. Carefully, I use my wire cutters to clear a path and creep in.

A strangled cry of alarm comes from the trenches as the first wisps of gas reach them. Shots ring out and I can't help but flinch, but I am unharmed. They don't know where I am.

I don't need to climb inside the trench myself, just close enough for my poison to seep out and down to where the soldiers are. I'm told the pain is excruciating. Masks are useless, and the affected collapse in moments. Their skin blisters. Their eyes water and shrivel into their skulls. We are far worse than any mustard gas the Germans ever used.

My rifle is more decoration than weapon. The mere presence of a Poison Maiden is all it takes to kill, and there is no place for me or any of the others save on the battlefield or in a box.

I stop when I find the lip of the trench. I don't want to look over the edge and see the bodies. The smell of their burns is bad enough. It should be as horrible as their wounds, but instead it's oddly pleasant, and makes me think of baking bread. I never want to see another oven.

Something explodes far to my left and I cringe. Grenades. The last resort of a dying soldier. Even if he can no longer stand, he can throw one over the lip of the trench, and if he is lucky . . .

The blast lands where Beth is supposed to be. I think I hear her cry out, but I cannot move. We are positioned to maximize coverage of the enemy trench, and . . . these are our orders. I stay and wait, trying to not think. There is nothing I can do until we are certain our poison has permeated our assigned area.

When I know it is past time to fall back, I sneak over to see if Beth needs help, but what I find cannot be saved. We have to leave her, and she knows this. She will continue to give out poison for a while after she dies.

Our base is a short distance behind Allied lines. We can hear the shells sometimes, but we cannot be easily reached. It would be a problem if our enclosures were breached.

Colonel Bradshaw says it's not a prison, and the locks on the doors are only for our own safety. We each have our own quarters with a bed, a desk, and a shelf for keepsakes, but all the furniture is metal and plastic so our poison does not eat through it. Even then we have to be careful because the secretions that cover our bodies react with water to form acid. A spill makes a mess in more ways than one.

There are only eight of us in Harpy Squad, though we are not the only survivors of the factory accident. The others were split into Siren and Fury and we haven't seen them since the day they discharged the lot of us from the hospital.

Thomas visits me in my room for my post-mission examination. There is not much in the way of privacy. The door is glass and Charlotte can see us from her room on the other side. She tries not to look, but I know she is envious. Her lover used to send letters every week, writing that he believed in her, and that she was not a monster.

The letters had been written to keep her in good spirits, by military request.

Charlotte is too strong. She is the most poisonous of all of us, and the military researchers won't exam her. They'll ask one of us Maidens to do it instead. Charlotte's poison ate through their protective suits once, and even the tiniest exposure nearly killed the man. I understand why they have to be cautious, but the distance gnaws at her and she often wishes she had never taken the job at the factory.

I don't know how to regret like that. I want to believe that God has a plan for us, and though I am a living weapon, it is possible that through our efforts we will end the war with fewer lives lost than if we had never been transformed at all.

"Edith." Thomas's voice is kind, but persistent.

I turn away from the door. I can't see Charlotte now. She spotted me looking and shrank out of sight.

Thomas is wearing a bulky suit made out of a plastic that can resist our poison. It's the same material they use for our uniforms, but thicker, since he cannot risk a tear. I wish I could hold him again, without the suit between us.

"Your saturation level is still high." His voice comes out through a metal box under the glass faceplate. "It's barely any different from last time."

Two of our number have started depleting; Katherine and Olivia. The scientists are hoping that if they somehow manage to expend all their poison they will return to normal, but their progress is slow. They can stand in the same room as the rest of us and do not feel any different. Charlotte's presence does not harm them.

I don't know if I will ever deplete. Only Charlotte's poison is stronger than mine. Beth likes . . . liked to place us on opposite ends of our attack spread because of that. We close off avenues of escape.

"I suppose I should get used to that," I say. It's been five months since Harpy Squad was formed and I am as dangerous now as I was the first day I was deployed.

"We're not giving up." Thomas smiles, though his face is strained. He doesn't sleep much anymore, though he brushes it off as though it is nothing worth mentioning.

I ask, "Are they treating you well?"

They threatened him with prison when he quit his research. He doesn't want Britain to use mustard gas like the Germans. But Thomas is brilliant, so the military found a bargaining chip in my contamination. If he worked for them, he could also work on me.

"They are demanding," says Thomas, his voice neutral, "but that can't be helped. The war has gone on long enough, and they're desperate. But we're still working on finding a treatment, don't worry. It's just . . . a long process. I still want to have something for you by Christmas . . ."

"I know you'll try." I understand a cure takes time, takes rounds of testing, and he'll want to be sure before risking my life or my health with anything. Though my current situation is difficult, I am stable, and I am alive.

"The past few weeks have been good to us. We've learned a lot." He smiles again. "So don't give up."

Thomas glances out the door. There are soldiers outside, and the light is not enough for us to see through their masks. In an emergency, should his suit be breached, they'll be the ones to rescue him.

"We think we've figured out how you transformed." Thomas speaks quickly, his head turned back to me. "It wasn't just the chemicals at the factory where you and the other women worked, but the reaction caused when the fire broke out. We're running tests."

He stops abruptly, on the verge of saying more, and I can tell he's conflicted.

"That's good, right?" I wrap my arms about him and carefully, very carefully, hold him close. He doesn't pull away, though death is near, and for that moment I don't care if Charlotte or the soldiers see.

But Thomas is not reassured. "I don't know," he says. "I really don't."

They feed us in the tank. It's a large holding chamber we use while they air out our quarters, giving us fresh air to breathe and preventing build up that would endanger our handlers. There usually isn't much to do besides eat, so we're surprised when the door opens sooner than expected.

One of our transport wagons is carefully fitted against it so as to form a seal between the tank and the rest of the building, and there is a woman inside. Our age. Maybe even younger. She cannot be more than nineteen.

"Who are you?" Charlotte is the one who asks.

The newcomer bobs her head, nervous, and says, "My name is Henrietta Wells. I've been assigned to fill the vacancy in Harpy Squad."

"Vacancy?" Mary's words are muffled by the soggy mash in her mouth that used to be bread.

We've lost squad mates before, back when we were first learning the range of our abilities, but this is our first time getting a replacement.

Susan exhales and stands up from the chair where Olivia is braiding her hair. She is a lieutenant now, in the wake of Beth's passing, though her title does not mean much. They don't send women to officer training, even if they aren't exuding a cloud of poison.

"I don't remember you," she says as she eyes the newcomer.

Henrietta cringes and stares at the floor. "I wasn't very good at the factory. I just kept my head down and tried do my work."

I don't remember Henrietta either. There had been about thirty of us survivors, and while we were not the closest of friends, all of us had been kept in the same medical ward, save for Peter Conroy. He had been the only male survivor and was isolated for his gender, at least until his deployment.

If Henrietta had been in the hospital with us, I ought to know her, but I can't recall seeing her before. Still, she is not blistering and boiling away before our eyes, so there is no doubt that she is one of us.

I mention that and Susan tilts her head as if weighing the matter.

"If she's here, she's been assigned," she says finally. "Nothing we can do about it. Did they set out a plate of food for her?"

"Are you joking?" Charlotte snorts. "Command's never that organized. There are only seven plates here and we're all eating out of them."

"I can pass," says Henrietta, a little too quickly.

I hold out my plate. Food does not taste quite the same anymore, and it's always mealy before we're done. "If you don't mind that I tore off some, you can have the rest of my bread."

Henrietta takes it and sits down on the metal chair beside me. She takes the withering bread and hesitantly holds it to her lips before taking a bite. For a moment her eyes meet mine, and she glances away, embarrassed, before jamming more in her mouth. I can't decide if she's starving or disgusted.

A part of me wants to feel sorry for her, but I can't do that without pitying myself.

Our next mission goes terribly. The Germans are wary of bombardments, never knowing whether they will bring enemy soldiers or a squad of the Poison Maidens, and they've lined the path to their trenches with mines.

Rebecca almost heads right into them, but Susan pulls her back in time, pointing out the odd lumps scattered in the terrain. And the one directly in front of her.

Henrietta is a nervous wreck. We barely get her to climb out of her wagon, and by the time Susan intentionally detonates the mine, the girl breaks down bawling. She clearly has never been out on the battlefield before, which is impossible if she transferred from the Sirens or the Furies.

The explosion ruins any chance of surprise. Machine gunfire lights up the night, driving holes in the dirt far too close to our position. Susan decides to withdraw. Clearing additional mines will draw too much attention. Poison Maidens are few, and if the British army loses Harpy Squad, it would be a huge blow to their resources. Henrietta freezes though, and Katherine and Mary all but drag her back between them.

"You have to talk to her," says Charlotte.

Susan grunts to show she's heard, but doesn't discipline Henrietta. I don't think she wants to deal with her, but Henrietta isn't going to go away if we do nothing.

"Pull yourself together," I tell the girl. "You can't slow us down."

The Germans might not know we've retreated, but if they figure it out, they will probably send men to follow us. We'll be vulnerable once we've shut ourselves back in our wagons.

Susan realizes this too. When she speaks, she tells us to each grab the shafts of our wagons and pull them along. We're going to get closer to our side of no man's land, but stop shy of the trenches themselves.

She says, "If Henrietta won't pull her own wagon, leave her."

Henrietta pulls.

It is slow going. The ground is pitted and torn. Sometimes we stop and it takes two of us to pull a wagon out of a ditch, but we do. Our soldiers are probably wondering why we have not signaled for pick up.

Susan stops us when she thinks we're close enough, and arranges her mirror to signal that our mission has been aborted, and that we've moved. The retrieval team will have to wait for the poison to dissipate from around our wagons before they can safely approach and haul us back.

Henrietta moans and clings to the side of her wagon as though it's the only thing holding her up. "This isn't worth it."

"You want to get cured don't you?" Charlotte sniffs. "This isn't something we can call on a doctor for."

"I know, but this is worse than I ever imagined. They don't talk about this when they offer you the money."

"Money?" Susan echoes.

We have a stipend, but it's not much.

"What do you mean?" A hard edge creeps into Katherine's voice as she steps away from her wagon and up to Henrietta. "Don't make me regret taking you with us."

Henrietta chokes.

"Nothing adds up with her." I'm not trying to be accusatory. It is a simple fact. "I don't think she's been in combat before now."

We all fear things. We're all scared. But we no longer freeze because of that fear.

Henrietta scoots and reaches for the door to her wagon. "We . . . We should get inside, before the retrieval team gets too close."

"I haven't signaled them yet," says Susan, which is a lie. I know it doesn't take that long for her to send the code.

But Henrietta does not. She has never been on a mission before.

We get the story out of her, quickly, and as the details come out, Olivia declares that she will stand watch. She doesn't say why, so Henrietta will keep talking, but the rest of us know she is looking for our soldiers, so they do not come up on us unawares while we are still outside.

It turns out that Henrietta is not like us. She volunteered.

She knows that there is no cure, not yet, but that there may be one soon. The army wants more Poison Maidens. Creating one is cheaper than the resources spent on a proper artillery barrage with soldiers to match, and Henrietta has been paid a fair sum for her sacrifice. Her family needs the money, so I can pity her for that, but in this moment I hate our government, hate the army that keeps us in the tank and locks us in our own quarters.

Their research is supposed to be about curing us, not making more. It is one thing to keep those of us who had no choice. Another to transform volunteers.

"Why someone like you?" Katherine doesn't bother to hide her irritation. "They have soldiers for a reason."

Henrietta lifts her hands helplessly. "Men don't . . . survive as well."

I remember Conroy. There had been other men in the hospital with him, other workers from the factory, but they had died shortly after the accident, leaving him the only one.

"So they send their women instead," Susan snorts.

"I can't believe it!" Rebecca shakes her head. "They pay her stacks of money and we earn less than a private . . . We didn't even have a choice."

True enough, but I say, "We can make a different one. We need to talk to the colonel."

Charlotte sneers and sets a booted foot against the door to her wagon. "What we need to talk to him about is a cure. I heard your fiancé, Edith. They're close. If they can fix us, then they can go ahead and create Poison Maidens out of as many damn volunteers as they want."

We get in our wagons, because there can be no negotiation if we do not allow the retrieval team to bring us back, but that means we cannot talk to each other, and communicating with our escort is difficult. I bang and shout to get the attention of one of the soldiers once we are safely on the other side of our trenches, but I'm not sure he understands that I want him to send the colonel to us.

I fear that the colonel will ignore us. We've only seen him twice, once in the hospital, and once after our enclosure was set up, but I've heard that he is head of research, so he must be nearby. Even if he does not come himself, if he sends an aide that would be a start.

My wagon is pressed against the door to my quarters, and after I hear the pressure lock and the doors unbar, I know it is safe to exit to my room. I leave my rifle and rucksack behind for restocking and yell a reminder to get the colonel, but I'm not sure if they hear.

Reluctantly, I shut the door and they pull the wagon away.

Voices shout, and I look across the way to see soldiers surrounding Charlotte's wagon. It shakes so badly I fear it will dislodge itself from the door to her quarters. The soldiers are aware of that. Their rifles are up and they yell for her to stop. In response she shrieks so loud I can hear her inside my airtight enclosure.

Charlotte refuses to come out, and she cannot be forced. Even though the soldiers are suited, her poison is too strong. The smallest mistake could cause a breach, and no one wants to die simply to drag Charlotte into her room.

"Shut her up in there!" says one of the soldiers. "If she wants to stay inside, let her. She'll tire out eventually."

I pound on my door to get their attention. "You can't leave her like that! She'll suffocate if she's sealed in too long!"

The soldier who spoke turns to me and shakes his head as if reminding himself that's true. "We'll check back before that can happen. What's gotten into you all today? The whole squad's been making a fuss."

"We need to talk to the colonel."

"You can't just ask for the colonel. He's a busy man."

"I know, but it's important. That's why we have to be loud, because if we're not, then you don't listen."

He stares, surprised, then looks back as Charlotte has started banging on her door. I don't think it's in regards to being let out.

The soldier curses, apologizes as though he's forgotten he's in front of women, and then says, "I'll see what I can do."

It is quiet after they leave. There isn't a soldier in sight, but I am sure there are a few just outside the door to the common area, standing guard.

Just as I resolve to sit and wait, I hear Susan's voice through the adjacent wall. "Edith, is Olivia inside, or is she still in her wagon?"

"I think she's in." Olivia is my other neighbor, and though she hasn't said anything, I haven't heard any racket from next door. "Charlotte's not though."

"I figured as much. Henrietta and Katherine are in too. I'm taking a head count, but I think most of us are. Can you ask Olivia about Mary?"

In a few minutes we're able to determine that all of us are in our rooms, save for Charlotte.

"If she's still in her wagon, then she has her rifle," says Susan. "They won't consider opening it if they think she's going to shoot them."

"They have to open it," I tell her. "Otherwise she'll run out of air."

"I'm not certain that concerns them. We're not unique anymore. They might want someone more controllable, and a little less poisonous."

Though she can't possibly hear us, Charlotte starts another row.

Colonel Bradshaw arrives two hours later, after the group of us refuse our physicals. I think that, on top of our earlier ruckus, is what gets his attention. Charlotte's wagon is quiet. They haven't opened it yet, but she should have air for a little while longer.

Thomas is with the colonel and his escort, and a pit of fear forms in my stomach. I am certain that Charlotte is not done, and if she escapes, she might not care who receives her anger. And there is another part of me that is afraid that Thomas might have known about Henrietta and the creation of additional Maidens. I want to trust him. He is not like the man that Charlotte used to love.

The colonel stops in the space between our rooms and the four soldiers with him fan out. Their rifles are unslung, though the barrels are pointed down. All six men are wearing thick, full body suits for protection. They open small slots in our doors so all of us, save Charlotte, can hear without effort.

"Ladies, I think I have the measure of your situation." Bradshaw's voice is stern. He expects to be the final word. "You must understand that discovering the process that created you is the key to reversing it. That requires experimentation."

I'm not sure that is required, but I'm not the one who calls him out on it.

"You don't infect a person with a disease to figure out how to cure them." Susan's voice is cold, pragmatic. "That girl hid that she was a volunteer, and she would have had no reason to do so unless you asked her. How many squads are there now? How many really?"

Bradshaw ignores her and turns to Thomas. "Doctor, you can explain."

Thomas lifts his head and half-turns to me, but averts his eyes before they can meet mine. "We are working on a treatment. Please, believe me. You all have met me before. You know Miss Edith Yance is my fiancée. There has been a lot of progress, but we are not done yet. We know things now."

There is a tenor in his voice that shouldn't be there. I don't think he's lying, but there's something else.

Thomas continues. "The gas that comes off your bodies is the same one created in the explosion at your factory. It's part of the transformation process, but that alone is not enough. In addition to the heat from the factory fire, it needs a catalyst, to speed the process along before it becomes lethal. That is why most people die when exposed, but you have not. We will be able to help you. I promise, as soon as the war is over, you'll be taking your first steps to going home."

A sob comes out of Olivia's room. It has already been three years. Who knows when the war will end.

But Thomas's words bother me. I think he is telling the truth, but he's also hiding something. Then it dawns on me, the reason he can make that kind of promise. He has no idea if the war will end tomorrow or five years from now, so the only way his words could be true is . . .

I open my mouth, and my voice comes out sharper than I expect. "How soon can you begin the treatment?"

Thomas replies immediately. "As soon as we have permission."

"It's not that simple." Bradshaw's voice cuts like a knife. "It's not as though our team hasn't tried it already."

"Those people never finished their transformation." Thomas does not raise his voice, but he speaks firmly. He is angry now, and I fear for him. "The other volunteers became sick because we gave them medicine that was poison to them, but it shouldn't be to a fully developed Poison Maiden. If you had used Miss Wells to test the treatment instead of deploying her into battle . . ."

What he says is not anything the colonel wants us to hear. We know the truth, and for that I'm grateful, but I see Bradshaw's gesture and how the soldiers move. They are going to arrest Thomas, and then I won't see him anymore.

The door won't yield, though I wrench and pull at the handle. A loud crack sends a shudder through me, but it's not my doing. Charlotte's wagon topples on its side, torn free of her quarters. The door slams open and she screeches as she leaps out, rifle in her hands.

Bradshaw steps back and immediately the soldiers turn to face her. "Stand down or we'll open fire!"

She doesn't shoot, but the soldiers crowd in front of my door, blocking her from view. I think quickly and grab the canteen on my desk. A little water poured on my hand will be enough to make acid, and then I might be able to eat through the lock. My greatest fear is that I will be too slow to help her.

The door handle turns before I can begin, and I look up to see Thomas. He motions for silence and steps to the side. I'm not sure what to do next, I haven't thought this far ahead, but I know I can't stay.

"Hey! Back in your room!" Bradshaw has spotted the open door. "And you," he points at Thomas, "step away."

Thomas moves back, hands raised, and I am fine with that. I don't want him hurt. But I refuse to return to my room. Two of the soldiers have turned to face me, and the others remain focused on Charlotte, who calls out to me.

I lift my hands to show that I am unarmed. "You can make more Poison Maidens now. You don't need to keep us anymore, let alone at gunpoint. And if the treatment doesn't work, we will fight harder knowing you have acted in good faith."

"It is too late for that," Charlotte growls.

Glass shatters with the sound of a bullet. I don't know who fired, and I'm not sure it hit anyone, but the soldiers twitch, rifles up, and for a terrifying moment I think about I'm to die.

Then Susan drives one of them to the floor. She is out of her quarters and I realize that Thomas must have released her. The soldier beneath her struggles to throw her off, but she is fighting unencumbered while he is in a thick protective suit.

When the other soldier watching me turns to help his companion, there is no question what I need to do. I hook my arm around his neck and squeeze the fabric of his hood tight, giving him less air to breathe.

More gunshots fire.

Katherine is out. I see Rebecca as well. Thomas must be freeing them, but I can't catch another glimpse of him. The man I am choking is struggling too hard. Rebecca grabs his rifle and throws down with all her weight to wrench it out of his hands.

An alarm sounds, notifying everyone that there has been a breach in the Poison Maiden compound. Soldiers will evacuate from facilities nearby to avoid being poisoned, but an emergency team will arrive to contain the problem.

We will not let them. If they drive us back now the noose will only be tighter. I don't want to kill anymore.

Bradshaw calls for his men to fall back and Charlotte crows with delight as she shoots her rifle. I let go of the man I'm holding so he can run with them. He shakes with fear and Rebecca has his gun.

The soldiers flee, following the colonel out the door. Most of them anyway. One man groans on the floor and I can see blood leaking from his suit. Without turning him over I am certain he is dying.

"We need to get out of here," says Mary. "Where is Henrietta? Did she not come out?"

All the doors are open.

Thomas. "Where's Thomas?" I didn't see him run. He has to be here.

My heart pounds, and I spot a crumpled shape against the wall at the end of the row. There's no blood, but . . .


There is a hole in his suit. It is small, it must have been from an errant bullet in our fight, but it is enough. Our poison . . . My poison . . .

He stirs at the sound of his name and I can see him through the faceplate of his suit, already deteriorating.


"Edith, we have to leave before reinforcements come." Susan's voice comes from behind me. It is not a command, but I know she and the others will leave without me if they must.

"Thomas." I kneel beside him. "Can you tell me how the transformation works? Do we have any of the catalyst nearby?"

He is confused, I can see that on his face, and when he speaks, his voice is pained and dry. "My lab. There's a jar on the second shelf . . . next to my desk . . . Why . . .?"

Thomas stops. Understanding dawns on him.

"You're going to die if we don't try. Even if the odds aren't good, there's still a chance . . ."

That he'll live, and become like us. I know it's not a good choice, but I can't say that I would rather have died. We survived. God willing, Thomas will too.

I hold out my hand. Though he is pained, he takes it, and I pull him to his feet. We don't have much time.

Before I even ask, Susan stands opposite me, and drapes Thomas's other arm over her shoulder. She shouts to the others. "Start heading to the lab. Clear a path!"

Charlotte springs ahead, rifle ready, soldier's pack with ammunition still slung over her back. Katherine and Rebecca follow close behind. Henrietta is out of her room and looks ready to sink into the floor, but she moves with us. She has little choice. There isn't much chance they will spare her after what happened here.

"Thank you," I tell Susan.

"He knows the most about curing us," she says simply, "and he is on our side."

We move as quickly as we dare. I hear gunfire ahead and pray to God we'll make it outside. Each step is a victory. Every encounter where we do not die.

I will not leave Thomas. In sickness and in health. I will not leave him without a fight.

Our escape is treacherous, and not all of us survive. The seven of us who do carve out a space for ourselves in the middle of no man's land. There is no other place for us. To go away from the front would endanger civilians. To stay in between endangers ourselves, but we make do.

We find one of the widest spaces between trenches and line our territory with stakes and barbed wire, using whatever supplies we can find. The British stop trying to recapture us after a while, and once the Germans figure out we have no intention of invading, they leave us alone as well. It is not worth the manpower to force a confrontation with us.

Or so we hope. We have no idea what is happening with the other Poison Maidens, if they will one day be sent after us, but it is almost Christmas, so we try to think of better things.

Charlotte is the one who suggests decorating a tree, and though it is no fir, there is a tall and barren one with hardy bark that has yet to wither in our presence. We cover it with the things we scavenge; canteens, shovels, and broken bits of weapons. I wrap it with stretches of utensils hung from wire and Susan tops it with a spiked helmet for a star.

"It is not so bad," says Olivia. "But I wish we had candles."

Mary wishes we still had Katherine and Rebecca.

Henrietta is with us too, more out of fear than anything else. She rarely speaks, though she eats whatever food we feed her. We escaped with enough rations for a few weeks, but after that we will have to steal.

"Is that supposed to be a garland?"

Thomas comes to stand beside me and hunches over, out of breath. He is still recovering from his transformation, but he survives, and God willing, his stamina will return until he is as fit as the rest of us. We haven't the materials to work on a treatment out here, but he remembers his research. Perhaps if we get lucky, we can eventually find what we need.

Or perhaps, we aren't meant to be cured.

I don't know God's plan for us, but right now, this feels right. The group of us stand around the tree, away from armies, away from other people, so they do not have to die.

"Yes, it is," I tell him.

His hand is warm to the touch. We no longer need a suit between us.

"I never thought this is where we would end up."

"But it's better, isn't it?"

We have no candles for the tree, but we can see the stars above. However long this lasts, we have this place, where there are no walls and the ceiling is just the sky.

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