Thunder rumbled ominously in the distance and the air was already syrup thick. We stood at the giant wrought iron gates of Lord Innsworth’s private arboretum and botanical garden, and waited for the stragglers to arrive.
“Indemnity forms in?” Professor Spiggs asked those of us who were already present.
“I don’t see why we need bloody indemnity forms for a botany excursion,” Derren muttered to me.
I shrugged. “I’m just glad we’re not sitting in the laboratory this morning. It’s a good day to be out.”
Derren glanced up at the overcast sky. “It’s going to rain at noon.”
“Better ’n tagging bulbs in the greenhouse.”
Professor Spiggs cleared his throat and gestured for the rest of the students to gather round. “Listen up, please. This is a great privilege. Lord Innsworth the Twelfth Earl of Curriemore hasn’t opened these gates to the university in more than five years. Not after the last, rather unfortunate incident...” The professor mumbled something only he could hear before he brightened and looked about. “Please stay on the demarcated paths. At all costs.”
Derren nudged me in the ribs. “Oi, what’s he talking about?”
“Be buggered if I knew.” I’d only lived in the city of Wynnton for the past two years, and everything was a bit of a novelty to me.
“I see Marcus isn’t here,” Derren said.
“Too bad for him then.” Secretly I was glad the fool hadn’t joined us. I still hadn’t lived down his last practical joke. Funny for him, yes, but intense mortification for me when the stink of fertiliser refused to wash out of my clothing for more than two weeks.
The gates squeaked open and we bunched together as we entered the hallowed grounds, clipboards in hand. There were plenty of oohs and ahs as we meandered down the gravel pathways. Our excursion was well worth chipping in the extra coin, though I wasn’t entirely certain what I’d do for meals the rest of the week.
Lush palms stood cheek by jowl with giant ficus and wild banana. Trembling spider lilies filled entire banks beneath iron woods of great girth, and I noted fifteen cycad species I’d never before had the pleasure of seeing or, indeed touching.
Even Derren, who’d gone on several field excursions to a number of exotic destinations, was impressed. “Good lord, this man’s sitting on more wealth here than the king himself,” he said while scratching at an insect bite.
“And now for the gem of the collection,” Professor Spiggs said once we’d finished goggling at a very rare violet-flowering squamous tree orchid.
Dutifully we trooped after the man, who trotted ahead in a state of agitation. We might find this excursion a highlight of our rather mundane botany degrees, but he frothed with childlike excitement. He led us to a wide expanse of lawn where a portion at its centre had been fenced off. No one could miss the multitude of “Danger” signs that had been posted. These ruined the organic flow of the garden’s layout, and immediately had me wondering what could possibly be so threatening about the bulbous mass of gnarled trunks in the middle of the enclosure. The tree—if it was that—had no leaves. Only short bare branches crowned its top.
“And here we have,” said Professors Spiggs, who was quite out of breath, “The most dangerous caudiciform plant in the world. Behold the balon tree from the Arceneedian Isles. This is a very small specimen. In nature they are at least three times this size.”
We all stared, slack-jawed. This was the botanical equivalent of the unicorn—rare and almost impossible to lay hands on. Lethal too, if it was the flowering season, though few botanists had gone close enough and lived to tell the tale.
“Now we will approach, but with caution,” the professor said. “And keep well away from the tentacles.”
“What tentacles?” Derren asked loudly.
I didn’t have an answer for him because even a bit closer, the tree looked dead. The only sign that it was alive was a white frill with a shocking pink edge at the seams, where some of the branches met. It fluttered slightly in the breeze that stirred and the scent of honey was strong.
“Sorry I’m late,” someone shouted. That someone was Marcus, who managed to turn his scruffy clothing into a fashion statement. He jogged up and wasn’t even out of breath. Bastard.
I sighed and shuffled slightly behind Derren.
Spiggs beamed. “So good of you to join us, old chap.” Then to the rest of us, he said, “There, do make a space for Marcus so he can get a clear view.”
We shuffled so that Marcus got a prime position. Several boots came down on my feet, and I wasn’t certain how many of these were unintentional. The professor then continued to extol the virtues of this plant, his voice dwindling to a nasal drone in my ears while I stared at the balon tree.
Tentacles? What tentacles? Apart from the way the damn tree’s fringe moved in the wind, it was perfectly motionless, its olive-flecked bark shiny in the sun. Because I was at the back, there was no one to see me pick up a pebble from the ground. I bit my lip and debated on the wisdom of what I was about to do. Then I thought, ah fuck it, and threw the pebble, hard.
It hit the trunk with a resounding clop and the damn tree moved—so fast none of us could react in time. A snakelike thing expelled viciously from its crown, coiled around a hapless student’s middle and dragged him screaming into the slimy maw which opened to receive him. We stood staring as the tree writhed while Marcus struggled gamely. Then, with an audible snap, he was gone.
“He didn’t sign his indemnity form, did he?” Trust Derren to be the first to speak up.