Preview: After the Garden by Michelle Browne (6)

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 6

Chris grinned at Arthur as they walked over to the flier. “I always like this part,” he said. He ran a hand over the smooth side of the vehicle in admiration. Rare as a unicorn, vehicles like this. Most of them had been fried in the Crash, along with everything else. Its carbon-fibre sides were a bit dented, and the paint, a bit scuffed, but it was still beautiful.

Arthur smiled with childlike delight and stroked its hood fondly. “Man, I miss my racing days.”

“That was in the Time Before, though.”

He shrugged. “Still miss ‘em.”

“So, what are we looking for this time? How long do we get to cruise around for?”

“We’re watching for signs of expansion.” Arthur looked sternly at him. “Remember, this isn’t all about fun. If we don’t keep an eye on Purifier activity—”

“Aw, come on. How often do we get to drive this sweet thing? I know it’s work, but let me enjoy it,” Chris whined.

Arthur shook his head and smiled a little. “Well, you’re not an aristo prince out on a pleasure drive. Enjoy it, but don’t take a nap.”

“As if!” Chris was already lifting the wing of the door and gawkily seating himself, a baby bird re-entering the nest.

“Where to?” he asked. Arthur glanced at him from the corner of his eye, a mannerism that only made Chris all the more anxious to continue.

“Satellite towns to the south. That’s where the rumors are coming from. The Purifiers were closer to the mountains a few months back, but they’ve moved closer to the city, and the one of the Nation trader bands got attacked. Karine said. Add that to the rumours Callaghn heard, and—are you listening, Chris?”

“Of course! But I wanna get going.”

“We’re not going anywhere until I know you’re going to be on guard.”

He scowled. “Yeah, yeah. I heard you. I know what to ask about. I’m not a kid, you know.”

“Fine.” Arthur grinned wickedly at his younger brother as he turned the ignition key.

“You ready?” he asked, locking the doors. Chris could only grin. The roof hatch from the attic was open. They lifted off vertically, fans purring. The mansion shrank below them rapidly as Arthur shot into the sky.

“AAAAAAAAAAAAHHHH!”

Chris clutched the dashboard as Arthur bolted up. They skimmed the lowest clouds until they were out of the city. Fliers were a rare site, but not unheard of. Still, Chris grinned to himself at the thought of all the people looking up at them. Arthur banked sharply, then banked again to the other side.

“Now you’re just fucking with me! Urgh,” he groaned. Chris’ seatbelt strained as he shifed in the flier’s seat.

“Maybe a bit. Are you daydreaming or are you going to keep your eyes on the ground?”

“I’m gonna be sick,” groaned Chris.

“Open a window. Don’t do it in the car.”

“Oh, right, and then you’ll drop me out. You’re just trying to get rid of me!”

“Am not. Don’t be ridiculous.”

Chris turned green. “Open a window? Please?”

Arthur cracked the window down just in time. Chris leaned to the side and heaved once. He shook and wiped his mouth.

“I hate it when you do that,” he grumbled.

“Sorry,” said Arthur. Chris pouted until his brother awkwardly cleared his throat.

“Thanks for not puking inside.”

“Hmph. Just wait until I learn to drive.”

The drive into the township was filled with the sound of the weary horse trudging forward on the gravel road, but little else. Ember didn’t speak, but hummed snatches of song. If she didn’t think about certain things, her head hurt less, and she could almost remember—them. The people. Trying to pry made her head hurt, so she stuck to the tuneless humming. Dave cleared his throat once or twice, but didn’t say a word.

When they reached a stall at the small market, he didn’t even introduce her, just barked a few orders as they unloaded the wagon.

“Haven’t seen you before, miss,” said the stall-owner politely.

Ember smiled. “I’m just passing through.”

“Applesauce is near the front,” said Dave. He shot the stall-owner a withering look, and the woman didn’t say another word.

When the wagon was empty, he bought a pair of fricasseed ground squirrels and gestured to the cart. She looked at him uncertainly, but took the ground squirrel on a stick and got back in her seat. He retrieved a jug of cider from below the seat and a cup, and poured some for her. She took a bit and watched as he ate. He chewed the squirrel like he had a personal grudge against it and didn’t look at her between swigs from the bottle.

“Well, thanks for your hospitality,” said Ember. “I’d better get going. The city—”

Dave grabbed her by the wrist. His weathered eyes, burned with suspicion. “That’s enough, girl,” he said. “I want the truth.”

“I have to get there so I can—”

“You ain’t northern. You look wrong—right colour, almost, but if you’re from one of the Nations, you’d be with your people. They don’t mix with us as much. But your eyes ain’t right. I saw you in the kitchen. Who are you, really?”

“I told you, I—”

“Uh-uh. And what was all that about witch hunts? I’m an old man. I raised a coupla daughters. I know when a girl’s lyin’. So what are you, huh? What are you so afraid of?”

She couldn’t remember who she was protecting, but Ember hadn’t forgotten her own secrets. And an old man, no matter how stubborn, wasn’t going to blow her cover. She narrowed her eyes at him, but Dave didn’t back down.

“All right,” she answered softly, “I’ll tell you the truth.”

“Do we really have to stop here? It’s so dinky.”

“Shush. The Order was last noticed around this way.”

Chris looked longingly back at the hill they’d parked the flier behind. “Okay, fine.”

The walk up the road hadn’t taken long, but both of them were already covered in dust. The marketplace, though, made them both look clean.

It was a paltry place compared to city markets, and this one was grimmer than usual. Having the Purifiers next door had sucked away some of the trade, from the looks of it, but it wouldn’t have been much even without them draining the trade. The fabric was grey and coarse, there weren’t many trinket-sellers, and everyone else had very practical loot on display.

A few people glanced suspiciously at them as they strolled in, baskets on their arms. The brothers exchanged a glance; without saying it, both of them shared the same burst of gratitude that it wasn’t night. Their eyes wouldn’t give them away in broad daylight—a small mercy. Chris shrank back at the glare, but Arthur pressed a hand to his shoulder.

“Where do we start?”

Chris closed his eyes and tried to feel the minds around him. “Over there. The one who looks shaken. With the jars and the apples.”

Arthur nodded once. He casually walked to the stall next to the woman’s and examined a poorly-made brass pot. The ‘tweener there scowled at him, xis features creasing.

“Good make. What’s the price?” The ‘tweener replied, and Arthur offered a counter. It was a fine distraction.

Chris walked right up to the produce seller’s stall and examined a jar of applesauce. He didn’t have to glance through it, because the jar was made of clear glass, but he did glance at the woman’s mind.

The images were as indistinct as the apples through the glass. He caught a feeling of hesitation as an old man gripped a young woman’s wrist, but that was it. Nothing concrete.

Chris sighed in frustration. Arthur, his bargaining ineffectual, sidled up to Chris.

“Excuse me,” said Chris brightly. “Can we get some winter apples?”

“Oh, I don’t have those.” The woman pointed to a man leaning against a wagon. “Just the sauce. But I think Dave might still have some.”

Chris’ eyes widened as he recognized the old man from the woman’s mind.

“Thanks,” said Arthur, giving the woman a small smile. He threw down a few coins for the applesauce and put the jar Chris had been holding in a bag.

“Have a nice day,” said the woman, frowning. She turned to the person beside her. Xe shrugged and polished one of xis pots, unsure what to make of the strangers.

Arthur slipped ahead of Chris. “Pardon me, sir. My brother and I were wondering if you had any winter apples left.”

The man was slumping against his cart, and jumped perceptibly when they came to him. He looked startled, almost frightened, at their intrusion into whatever private world he’d been in.

“Er, yes, all right,” he said distractedly. He patted a barrel in the back and opened it, as though startled to find it still there. He lifted out one warm, shining apple to them, its skin an even crimson.

“My wife’s got a good touch.”

“They look wonderful,” said Arthur. He took one to examine it. “Much nicer than average.”

Chris skimmed against the man’s mind. He looked through the wagon, but no-one was hiding under the stuff in the back. No-one hiding behind it, either. He decided to check out the old man’s mind, see if anything could be turned up. Even with his paltry talent, the memory of the girl was sharp and bright. He jumped a little at it

“My, those are magnificent,” said Arthur in a low, impressed voice. “We’ll take two dozen,” he added. “Between the two of us, we have hungry wives and three children.”  Well, it was almost true.

The man gave them a sharp look. “My, lotta strangers round these parts today. Been a while since I saw so many new faces. I don’t suppose you’re lookin’ to go to the city to trade pots too, are ya?”

Chris cocked head to the side innocently. “Huh?”

The man scrutinized him. “Well, naw, I reckon I’m just being foolish. Had a funny thing happen…strangest girl passed through here. Little older’n you, but younger’n your brother. She said she was from a kettlesmith family, but she wasn’t with no Nation caravan or no family, nothin’. And she got mighty scared when witch burnings and the Purifiers crossed the conversation.” He chuckled, but there was a look of fear in his eyes. “’Course…why’m I telling you folks all this?”

The old farmer seemed to have aged a decade in moments, looking at them with hungry, frightened eyes.

“Please,” he begged them. “I’ve already said too much. She didn’t mean no harm, really. She was strange, but…”

“We’re looking for strange people, too,” said Arthur. “But we’re not out to hurt anyone. Can you tell us more about her?” The seriousness in his face seemed to reassure the man. Finally, Arthur withdrew their largest coin. The man could take it no longer, and nodded.

In a low voice, and at great speed, he related the tale of the mysterious girl who had appeared and disappeared in the space of two days, the movements of the Purifiers, and the odd things he’d seen. He told them of the way he’d seen her strike fire without a spark to catch, and reach into it without burning her skin. The way her eyes had flashed like a cat’s in the night, and the way she moved—too quietly, too well, even for a good hunter.

“What else happened?” asked Arthur, raising his voice above a half-breath.

“She..aw, it’ll sound crazy.”

“Like what?” asked Chris. He could feel the man’s anxiety, little flashes of memory bleeding through, without even trying.

“She said somethin’, only her mouth didn’t move. She said, ‘please. Don’t let them get me.” He tapped his temple. “I heard her—felt her, I guess, in here. And she had this look in ‘er eyes, even when it was daytime…this old look. Like she’d seen more even than I had. Old eyes.” He paused, inspected the two youths seated there with unexpected ferocity. “You have the same kind of gaze, you two,” said Dave, speaking under his breath. “And I’ll bet they shine like hers in the night.”

“Where did she go?” Arthur’s voice trembled with hope.

“Towards the city. Well, she might still be around here. Trouble is, them Purifiers are moving towards the city, too.” He looked at them, and suddenly took Chris by the hand, betraying emotion. “If you see her, make sure she doesn’t get hurt. She weren’t truthful, but I don’t think she was all that bad.”

“We will,” answered Arthur. “But I’d appreciate it if we kept this quiet.” He handed the man a full dollar, and Dave squeezed it.

“Sure. Only ones’d care are the Purifiers. You take care, now. And keep an eye for her.”

They almost ran through the market and back to the flier. Arthur flew low and took a few circles around the town, but they couldn’t see anyone walking. Finally, though, the fuel guage was getting low, and there was no way the town would have the kind of pure water the flier need. With a disappointed sigh, Arthur flew back into the city.

They hardly spoke on the way homeward. Each was lost in their own thoughts.

It was late afternoon by the time they got home, but supper was laid out. When they walked in, scrubbed clean of dust but still dressed like farmers, the table went silent.

“We’ve been checking out the advancement of the Purifiers,” began Arthur. “We stayed in a satellite town for a while, and we overheard a rumour that was—”

“We think there might be someone else like us.” There was a long silence as they all absorbed the weight of his words. Chris continued. “And I think we should go back tomorrow to search for her. She’s coming to the city, but if a few of us go out, we might be able to find her.”

What do you know about her?” Eva asked, her round, wide eyes curious. “What does she look like?”

“Kinda medium skin, thick dark hair, and almond-shaped brown eyes—kinda gold, from what the man saw,” Chris said. Callagn and Kerrick glanced at each other, both exchanging startled looks, but didn’t interrupt.

“Thing is, he said they flashed like a cat’s in the night,” said Arthur.

Chris nodded vigorously. “I saw his memory. They did. She has to be one of us.”

Karine whistled. “I wonder what her talent is.”

“If she’s one of us, we have to go for her,” said Hamza. He got to his feet and leaned forward. “We can’t just leave a Bearer out on her own.”

They all glanced at Karine, who nodded in agreement. “Not even a question,” she said.

“And you’re sure she’s not a blank slate?”

“No way. He mentioned talents and he mentioned the eye thing, and that she looked old. And everyone found her strange. They treated her like they treat us, so she has to be a Bearer,” confirmed Chris.

Arthur nodded. “The plan is to track her down and try to talk to her.”

Callaghn spoke up. “It could be dangerous. Remember, we don’t know what her talent is yet, and that’s double-edged.”

“I think we could do worse than asking outright. I mean, we always recognise our own, and it beats letting her wander around until someone picks her up and whores her out,” pointed out Hamza. Callaghn’s mouth twitched in a gesture of discomfort.

o-o-o-o

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

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

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