Preview: After the Garden by Michelle Browne (5)

SSV is happy to present a preview of Michelle Browne’s newest book, After the Garden. It will be published in 2014. We’re happy to release a series of the upcoming novel and give our readers a taste of what’s to come! A segment will be released on Saturday. Keep an eye out and read along with us.

~ After the Garden ~

A young woman is experiencing memories of The Time Before. She and some other Bearers are trying to solve the riddle of their past and stay under the radar, but a certain fanatical cult may have other ideas. There’s a chance that love might complicate things, but in a world of ruin, poverty, and decadence, it might also be her undoing…

o-o-o-o

Chapter 5

Morning broke in slow motion, a languid dawn that brought Ember a renewed longing for her horse. She still remembered the cats’ bright eyes and the staff—she’d had to set it alight, and it had been enough—but she’d barely gotten away.

She shuddered. She’d had a few nightmares about the wildcats. The fire she’d fended them off with came to her as she watched the sunrise stretch lazily across the horizon. Claws on stone, ivory teeth in black or sandstone muzzles, whiskers stirring, white as blades of sunlight, eyes green-gold and shining like her own. It was dusk, when it happened. She’d been able to feel their hunger rising from their minds like steam, hot and primal.

She’d tried touching their minds, but even beginning to summon the power necessary had been too exhausting. If she’d failed or fainted, she’d be done for, so she’d taken her packs and abandoned her beast. He’d been a good horse, and fast enough to get by on, even with all her delays. Even so, she was lucky he’d lasted this long, and that she was so close to her destination.

She paused, trying to remember where she’d come from—a small test. Sure enough, the memories were remote, vague, dreamlike. She had forgotten names already. It had been her choice, but had it been wise? The longing for—who were they? A family? People she shouldn’t forget…and yet, they’d let her forget them, and she’d chosen it…because she needed to get to the city.

Guilt nipped at her heels, increased the length of her stride. She didn’t know where she was headed, but as the thin sound of running water reached her ears, a river was the next best thing to a destination. She strode through the grass with a renewed purpose and thirst.

It wasn’t a river, as she’d thought, only a pond connected to a dribbling creek. Its source could only be the river network, but this creek was too remote and too small to support the most agile of the light trading canoes. There was no-one around; Ember retrieved the bar of soap from her satchel. After having washed her clothes, she applied the coarse grainy stuff to her own skin. She washed her hair, using a sturdy comb to pick the knots it had formed, and dried by lying in the sun. Her clothes, hanging from the branch of a stunted tree, sagged damply, water dripping from the dangling hems.

She knew dimly that silk had once been a luxury of the highest order, but it seemed so ridiculous, so foreign, that her mind could but dimly grasp it. Thick silk, each strand the width of a piece of old embroidery floss, a millimetre or so in diameter, the structure weaker than it had been, once. The spiders, like their tiny ancestors and relatives, still lived in colonies: enormous webs woven by feral spiders spanned the old skyscrapers in some cities.

Cities. She longed to be washed away into a sea of humanity, there to go unseen and unnoticed. Loneliness ached, and she hungered for the comfort of a family. She sensed that the place she was drifting towards would be like this, a large city, or the remains of one. Her memories had given her information about those, much as the disabling fragments were frustrating.

As she walked, reciting bits of knowledge, and a pastiche education to herself, she found that the fields were giving way to dirt roads and cracked, fragmented grey asphalt. The asphalt twisted like a garter snake’s shedded skin towards houses damaged beyond repair.

A town, then, creeping from the horizon and getting closer, home to more ghosts than men. It was too small even for a surrounding wall or a city guard.

She knew well what it would look like before she came to it. Alleys and scrubby wilderness of lawns grown wild, suburbia returned to the grasslands primeval. Drifting through the gateways of rotting, unsalvaged fences, twisting the grasses and plaiting them through rusty hinges, she stepped from reality to dream and back again, April hollyhocks guiding her between worlds with dusty, gold-breathing blooms and fluttery petals. Ember noticed a small herd of woolcattle browsing through the verdant, lush remains of what had once been a playground. The low sun bathed them in gold from one angle and casting long shadows. There were about fifty there, brown-tinged with dirt over their fluffy, tough hides. This group, though, didn’t look as though a farmer would be allowed to get within kicking range—they were wild, all right. Her second sight alerted her; using it, she saw something coming around the side of the house.

The wildcat sidled up calmly, watching her with more curiosity than hunger. Her bow and arrows bumped against her back reassuringly, a steely ring of exposed blade glittering from the sheath of her knife.

The wildcat paced, walking through the yard of the house, watching her cautiously. She lacked the ruff of fur most males had encircling their necks—if Ember had to use her knife, it would be easier. Better than killing her the other way, anyway. She was high up enough that the cat couldn’t jump at her; she couldn’t know how smart it might be. Ember remained as still as possible.

She heard the mournful bleating before she saw the lone woolcalf wandering too close. The cat was upwind and it didn’t smell her in time—a golden bolt of movement, a crack, and the calf’s neck was broken. Light as smoke, light as a temple dancer. The cat settled in for its supper. Ember slipped away.

The soles of her leather shoes were silent as she crossed the playground field and headed towards a farmer’s territory.  Nearly out of town, now; home free if she could find some food. Glancing at the sun, Ember saw that it was getting near nightfall, and she would have to make a kill before the sun fell. Her empty stomach was eloquent.

From the corner of her eye, she noticed movement. Ember withdrew and notched the arrow. The game, a mere ten feet away, sat on its hind legs, whiskers and nose twitching. Closing one eye momentarily to train the weapon on a rabbit, she felt the strength of the wood as it protested, aching to be loosened. Ember exhaled sharply and let the arrow fly; it struck the bull’s eye and she heard the crack of a skull. Pleased, she trotted over to retrieve it.

“Hey! This is our land! What’s that you’ve caught?”

Ember froze and then straightened, holding the rabbit up innocently. The man walking briskly towards her was armed with a quiver of arrows, but a leather holster bounced against his hip. A beaten plasteel gun’s handgrip protruded, and his hand coiled around its shape. The gait of the man was even and fluid, but held a peculiar military stiffness, probably from an old injury. His weathered face, sun-bleached hair, and roughness skin matched his oft-mended clothing. Ember thought he was likely a farmer; in any case, she smiled politely and knelt, baring the back of her neck. This was the mercy stance, and the hostile look he had been giving her seemed to make it the best greeting.

“Who are you?” Now that she was in sight, he was less aggressive; he came closer and she assumed the mercy position, kneeling and exposing her neck.

“Someone,” she said quietly. “I hope I’m not stealing your property. I didn’t know I was on your land, and I’m hungry. If it’s yours, I apologize for killing it.” After all, there was the possibility that this was one of his farm animals, not a wild specimen, as she’d first thought.

“Nah, that’s all right. Don’t worry about the rabbit. It’s just that we’ve been having a lot of vandals and looters round here of late. You don’t look like trouble to me,” said the man, and his smile was quite kind this time.

“Is there any way I can earn a meal and a night’s rest here?” asked Ember hopefully. “If you have any children, I’d be happy to mind them, and I can certainly—”

The man smiled at her again, much more deeply, and interrupted. “No, no, my youngest daughter’s away and married, and my eldest already has three children. Ain’t no kids running around no more. I think we can afford to let you stay for one night, anyway. Follow me.” He turned, and she followed him through the field.

The house they soon reached was decent enough, well-cared for despite its plainness. Already Ember could see a woman within it, her visage distorted by the cheap glass of the window.

“Come in,” said the man. “By the way, I go by Dave.” He waited for her to reply with a name.

“Call me Fiona,” she said.

“Ain’t got a family name?”

She smiled and said nothing.

“Well, if you don’t want to tell me, that’s your business. Still, you’re welcome to stay for a night or two,” he reminded her, opening the door. Ember felt his thoughts pawing at her. Too skinny, said his mind, but she would do. Ember made a note to give him plenty of space that night. Her small knife was still in a sheath around her neck, and she had another at her hip. She touched it meaningfully as she felt his eyes peruse her ass.

Ember stepped into the kitchen. The house was a comfortable sort of place inside, too, with few luxuries and decorations. A plump woman with grey hair and muscular arms stood before the cast-iron stove.

“This is Diya,” said Dave, gesturing to his wife. “Diya, we’ve got company tonight.”

The woman finally looked up from her oven, from which she was removing what looked rather a lot like pork and root vegetables. Ember’s mouth watered at the scent.

“I’m sorry to intrude,” said Ember. She tried not to sway under the power of the rich, delicious smells of the cooked meat. “I didn’t mean to interrupt—this must be a special occasion. It’s just that I shot a rabbit on your land.” she produced the rabbit from her satchel.

The woman squinted at her. “Well, now, that’s all right. Ain’t ours—didn’t you check, you old fool?” She glared at her husband for a moment. “Ain’t got the notch. “Anyway, young miss, tell you what. Give me that rabbit and I’ll give you some salted meat for it in trade. That sound fair?”

“Very,” said Ember, smiling with relief. “What can I do in exchange?”

The woman paused. “Eat first, we’ll negotiate later.”

Ember set her bag down inside the door and trotted over to the sink, where she gave her hands a brief rinse.

Diya opened the cupboard and retrieved three earthenware plates. She piled them with he took three plates and laid them with boiled potatoes, green beans, turnips, and yams. She did the same with the pork roast simmering in the baking pan. Ember praised the food and savoured it, forcing herself not to gobble it too quickly.

Ember treated them to a warm smile. She decided it wasn’t cheating too much to stir feelings of warmth and happiness in their minds. Sure enough, their smiles loosened and Diya’s shoulders relaxed.

They chatted over dinner. Diya and Dave spoke about their children and extended family. Ember hid her pangs of longing at that. She wracked her brain for scraps of information about the towns over the mountain, but it had been a long time since she’d run into traders. For their part, they cared little. She made a few inquiries about the city and the town, saving the scraps of knowledge in case they were useful for trade.

A little brandy was brought out, and mint tea from a dented, heavy kettle was poured into dense ceramic cups. Ember asked them more about the region, about the city, and for some reason, her innocent question brought taut looks to the faces of both Diya and Dave.

“Well…” Dave drank back his tea in a powerful swig, then re-poured it, adding more brandy this time. “I think you’ll be safe enough around here…” His wife automatically began to nod in agreement, but hesitated.

“Thing is, pretty young girl like you could still get some trouble from The Order of Ezeriah,” said Diya, picking up the plates from the table and taking them to the sink. Before Ember could ask, Diya added, “horde of lunatics in a cult over this way. Keep talking on about the demons, a bunch of people who were born after The Crash with strange powers. Nonsense—there ain’t no such thing, and they’re a bunch of wackos, if you ask me. Round here, we call them the Purifiers. Lotsa strange hang-ups, they have, but they got influence enough—you don’t wanna get on the bad side of the Purifiers.” She was dismissive, but Ember felt her throat stick.

“Really,” she said slowly. “So, what kind of things do they say?”

“Oh, they blather on about magic and the end of the world and the rebirth of demons after the apocalypse. Don’t you mind them, young lady; but I hear their leader likes…well, likes things that decent folk…”  Diya trailed off suggestively, shaking her head and pursing her lips.

“I’ll stay on my guard,” Ember promised them.

They finished the supper and Ember set to work. She prepared the rabbit with Diya, helped her clean up and tidied the house, and even helped her mend some clothes. She rubbed Diya’s arthritic hands and told her to soak them in hot water, or wrap them in bandages warmed by the fire. Diya made more tea, and they traded songs by the fire. Ember washed herself in an old tub and finally headed off to bed.

She spent the night on the bed of one of Diya’s long-vanished daughters. She rested easily at first, but her dreams were troublesome. There were shades and shadows lurking in corners; moonlight through a broken window illuminated the body of a girl, lying prone and bloody on the floor. A soft voice whispered, They are unclean; death to them, over and over, crooning the words like a lullaby.

She woke to find the room silent, eerily so. She rocked herself to sleep beneath the thin blankets, missing body heat, and searched within for a few precious memories. A vague ache, and nothing more. She stilled her own panic with a reminder that she’d get them back. At least the fragments were still clear.

She got up and fetched herself water from the sink. It sputtered for a few moments before dispensing water. Footsteps creaked; she whirled around to find Dave standing in the doorway of the kitchen. The light of his candle made her eyes flash, reflecting green. She blinked.

“Sorry. Couldn’t sleep,” she said. “I’m going to bed now.”

He grunted. “Hmph. Night.” She felt his eyes drill into her back as she tiptoed back to her room.

She rearranged the covers, hoping her heart would stop pounding. She’d managed to escape a witch-burning so far, but she’d heard rumours. Though most things about the temple were blurred, they’d left her with knowledge to protect herself. Shivering at the thought of the rumours she’d heard from the south, she drifted back to sleep.

The next morning, Ember bounced out of bed and towards the washing area behind a curtain outdoors. It felt good to be clean and civilized. She rinsed herself of the night’s memories and came in for breakfast, where she found Diya and Dave arguing under their voices.

“She’s an odd girl,” he growled to his wife. “Saw her in the night gettin’ water. In the candlelight, her eyes shone like a cat’s. An’ she walked real quiet-like. Soundless. It’s confounded odd.”

“Odd, but harmless,” she snapped back, and headed to the stove. They hadn’t noticed Ember yet. Diya muttered a few unladylike words to herself as she bent to stoke the fire.

“If you have some matches or a bit of flint and metal, I’d be happy to help,” said Ember.

“Thank you,” said Diya, groaning. “This old back is of mine has had about enough.” As Ember knelt before the stove, Dave watched her over his wife’s shoulder, as though keeping watch.

She handed Ember a lump of stone and a knife blade, and Ember accepted it cautiously. She struck it once or twice for good measure before setting to work. She stirred the rubbish inside with her finger, transferring a spark and blowing on it, mostly for appearances—it didn’t need much help to catch. The flame blazed up, turning into a small, crackling fire in moments—she jerked her hand away, but not quickly enough. Fire licked her fingertips, almost friendly, like a dog would. She made as though she’d jerked her hand away in just barely enough time, and squealed as if in pain.

“Careful!” she exclaimed, pulling Ember away. “Did you burn yourself?”

“Oh, no,” said Ember. “It came close, but I’m fine.”

“Let me look,” insisted Diya. She reached for Ember’s unblistered hand, and Ember reluctantly extended it. At their contact, Diya jumped for a moment.

“My, your fingertips are still hot!” she said, laughing nervously. Diya’s eyes flickered over to her husband’s, and Dave frowned slightly. Ember listened to his thoughts.

I didn’t see that spark catch before she had a look at it. Why didn’t she have to relight it? And her hand was in the flames for a moment, I’m sure of it. You don’t just see things like that. What’s going on?

Dave looked at Ember again, his creased face furrowed deeply across the brow and at the corners of the mouth. He said nothing, though, only pulled out his chair at the table and waited for breakfast.

Ember helped with the cooking, mostly so that she could avoid Dave’ gaze. After the meat and vegetables had been fried in fat, Diya went to the cellar and retrieved some canned fruit and milk. The rich cream mixed with the tea like fog and snow; it was silky on Ember’s tongue. She ate neatly, but faster than she had the previous night.

“My, you’re in a hurry,” remarked Diya.

Stupid, stupid, stupid! Ember reprimanded herself. “Well, truth be told…I want to try and get going before I run into trouble in town. Those Purifiers you told me about…I’ve heard the most awful things about witch-burnings down south…”

“Shush now. Just give their camp a wide clearance and you’ll be fine.” Diya’s light tone was belied by the suspicion in her eyes.

“So, where are you headed, anyway?” Dave sounded mild, but Ember could sense his suspicion.

“My family is from quite far away—the north—and they wanted to negotiate a trade deal with a company. Unfortunately, the caravans have all been sent out, and with things being so competitive, well, they wanted to have a quiet look around before they signed on with a supplier. That’s why I didn’t come the usual way, with one of the Nations.”

“What sorta trade? Not glitterjuice, I hope?” Dave’s eyes were sharp. “We don’t need no glitterjuice trade here. It’s startin’ to be a problem in the cities, and I’d sure hate to hear that someone wanted to expand. Especially down here.”

Ember shook her head vehemently. “Goodness, no! We sell metal pots.” It was a bald-faced lie, but with the truth tucked away and concealed from her own memory, it was as good as the truth.

He relaxed. “All right. That’s fine then, I reckon.” Diya had been gripping a broom handle too tightly, and she relaxed as Dave did.

“I have to get there soon, though,” said Ember brightly, “because they’re expecting me before the end of the month.”

Dave gave her a sidelong look. “Well, we’ll see you into town proper, anyway,” he said. “I need to take a load of vegetables in.”

“Thank you very much,” said Ember, smiling. Her heart thudded with alarm. Glitterjuice and Purifiers—what next?

o-o-o-o

Links:
Prologue & Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four

Check out Michelle Browne’s website for more information on the author and her work.

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