Saturday, April 12, 2014

Giving the Garden Another Look

Of all of the books and stories I've published in the last few years, without question the thing that has gotten the least attention is a fantasy novel called Garden of Dust and Thorns. I attribute its lack of attention mostly to the fact that the cover art and title don't give much of a sense of what the book is all about. Even the blurb doesn't give a compelling sense of the story, the characters or the unique strangeness of the novel. Of course, since the book is self-published, all of these things are my own fault. But that's the way it goes.

I am convinced more people would really enjoy the story if they had a better sense of what it's really like. I happen to be very fond these characters and this setting, and I won't have them ignored, I tell you! Just kidding. But maybe I should do a little more to get the word out, what say? Fine. To that end, here is an excerpt of the book to give a good sense of it. It is slightly spoilerish, but read it anyway if you haven't yet tried the book.

This particular scene takes place after our protagonist, a young woman named Adhi, and her shepherdess friend, Evirsi, flee from an invading army and take refuge deep inside the massive garden that is the setting of the novel.

Chapter 3: The Spirit of the Old Planter

The first light of morning was just peeking through the trees, when Adhi finally stumbled to a stop in the shelter of an overhanging rock. A crude nest of moss and leaves had been laid down here by an animal, but it looked long abandoned. Adhi curled up on the nest and tucked her hands under her cheek, thoroughly exhausted, her dress covered in grass stains and mud and bits of leaves. A small pear tree cast shifting shadows on the ground beyond the rock, and Evirsi lingered there, her knees drawn up to her chest. She rocked back and forth, looking half-crazed. But the forest around them was quiet now, still, as if it had no memory of the night before.

“You should rest,” Adhi said. The images of men in black and gray moving through the clearing were fresh in her mind, but she felt strangely calm.

“I don’t hear them,” Evirsi said. “Maybe they turned back. Maybe they lost track of us. I know I did. I have no idea where we are.”

“Rest a little while,” Adhi said. “We are safe here. Can’t you feel it? Can’t you feel the spirit of the Old Planter?”

Evirsi cast her gaze around at the endless trees, bushes and shrubs and creeping vines, flowers blooming in a myriad of colors.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said, after a moment. “I don’t feel anything but sick to my stomach. Is that the spirit of the Old Planter? Sickness in my stomach?”

“No,” Adhi said and sighed. Why couldn’t anyone understand? What was it that made everyone so insensate? It was impossible to explain.

Finally, Evirsi scooted back under the rock and lay down on her back, folding her hands on her stomach. Adhi closed her eyes, listening to the familiar sounds of the Garden but alert for anything unusual.

“I hope Omaan got away,” Evirsi said. “Do you think it’s possible?”

“There are many tall rocks along the ridgeline north of the city,” Adhi said. “It is possible to find a good hiding place there. Or so my brother says.” She wanted to believe it as much as Evirsi did, but the words came out of her mouth and dropped right to the ground like bits of lead.

“So many people to hide,” Evirsi said. “I hope there are many, many tall rocks. I hope…” Her voice trailed off, and when Adhi finally looked at her, the shepherd girl had fallen asleep.

Adhi closed her eyes again and she, too, felt sleep stealing over her. How could it be? That was her last thought. The city overrun by strangers, the Garden invaded, people scattered in all directions. How could it be?

She slept for hours, dreamless, though it felt like mere minutes. A sound, indistinct but forceful enough to make her whole body shudder, pulled her out of sleep. She opened her eyes, but the light was painful. Clapping a hand over her face, she peered out between her fingers, seeking the source of the sound. Evirsi had rolled onto her belly, her face hidden beneath her long hair. Beyond her, hazy rays of light danced between the trunks of trees.

Adhi rubbed her eyes and sat up. She heard the sound again, but it was clear this time, a low melodic echo, as of some great gong being hammered. With the sound, the rays of light became brighter, the whole forest suddenly filled with a pale brilliance. Adhi gasped and held up both hands.

“What is it?”

The sound faded and with it the light. Once again, only yellow sunlight trickled down through the branches. Adhi rose, brushing the damp moss off her backside, and stepped over Evirsi. She moved out from under the overhanging rock and approached the small pear tree. There was an open space just past it where the grass grew knee-high, but then the trees closed in.
She saw a cluster of banyan trees, straight as pillars, an enormous chestnut tree that had cast its spiny burrs all over the ground, and a pair of skinny birch trees with papery bark. Nothing out of the ordinary in that direction.

Adhi leaned against the pear tree and looked back above the rock to a high hill covered in a thicket of lavender and periwinkle, many different shades of purple. But this, too, was as always. The strange light was gone, and she began to think she had dreamed it.

A sudden wind shook the branches, bent the pear tree almost double and sent Adhi stumbling backward. It swirled around her, lifted her hair, filled her nostrils and forced her eyes shut. But it passed quickly, a brief gust, as of some giant’s breath, and then all was still again. Adhi opened her eyes, and there before her, standing beneath one of the great banyan trees, was an elk. A great red bull elk with a massive set of antlers, it stood as if it had always been there, calmly regarding her. It was taller than any she had ever seen, a good seven feet from the ground to the tips of its antlers, and it had an enormous shaggy mane around its neck.

A long quiet moment passed, and Adhi held her ground, crouched slightly in case it charged. But the great beast only stood there, large black eyes fixed upon her. Finally, it tipped its head, as if in greeting, snorted and turned. With a loud crash, it leapt through the underbrush between the banyan trees and was gone. Adhi listened to it moving through the Garden, swift as a jackrabbit, headed west.

To the heart of the Garden. A voice spoke, soft as a whisper, and Adhi did not know if she heard it with her ears or only in her head. But the words were distinct and very close. To the heart of the Garden. Where the first tree rises at the confluence of every stream. Come.

Shaken, Adhi went to her knees, clasping her hands. She stayed there a long time, waiting for the voice to return, waiting for something else to happen. And finally she felt a touch on her shoulder. Startled, she lurched to her feet, caught herself against the trunk of the pear tree and swung around. Evirsi stood there, bleary-eyed and frowning.

“What are you doing?” Evirsi asked in a sleepy croak. “Are you sick, too?”

Adhi blinked. “No. No, not sick. Didn’t you…didn’t you hear anything, see anything?”

Evirsi shook her head. “Was it the men approaching? Is it time to move on?” She looked around, turning a complete circle. “I am completely lost. Which way is forward?”

Adhi took a step in the direction the elk had gone. “To the heart of the Garden,” she said. “Where the first tree rises at the confluence of every stream.”

“What?” Evirsi said, stepping up beside her. “What does that mean?”

Adhi shook her head. “I’m not sure.”

Evirsi seemed to consider this and shrugged. Then she reached up on her tiptoes and plucked a ripe pear from the tree. She turned it this way and that and rubbed it against her dress. Clearly, she meant to clean it, but her coarse linen dress was filthy with dust and dirt. She only made the fruit worse. Nevertheless, she took a big bite, devouring to the stem.

“It doesn’t seem real,” she said, spitting out bits of pear as she spoke. “Last night. Maybe it didn’t really happen. Maybe we imagined it.”

Adhi moved to one side to avoid the flying bits of chewed food. “I wish you were right,” she said. “But it did happen.”

Evirsi sighed and tossed the remnants of the pear over her shoulder. “Well, maybe they left. Maybe they took what they came here for, and they’ve gone back. It’s so quiet now. We should go to the city and check.”

“I’m not sure if that’s a good idea,” Adhi said. To the heart of the Garden. Where the first tree rises at the confluence of every stream. Come. “In fact, I think I—”

She heard it before she saw it, a high whistling sound, and then she caught a blur of some spinning object out of the corner of her eye. Adhi turned back in the direction of the overhanging rock, just as something slapped against her legs. She felt it wrapping around her, and then she went down. Only as she fell did she see what had hit her, a long rope with large spherical weights on either end. She slammed into the pear tree and slid down to the ground on her back, as men stepped out of the high tangle of lavender and periwinkle.

“Evirsi, they’ve found us,” she said. “Get out of here!”

The shepherd girl watched Adhi fall, a confused look on her face, as if she thought Adhi had simply thrown herself down. She shook her head and turned. Three men stood on the hilltop, wreathed in black and gray cloth. Even their eyes were hidden in the shadows of heavy hoods. Two of the men bore long spears. The one in the middle was currently unwinding a bit of rope. Adhi heard the clink of stone weights.

“Get out of here!” she shouted.

Evirsi started and nearly fell. With a whimper, she glanced down at Adhi, opened her mouth as if to speak but then took off running. She leapt through the space between two banyan trees just as another weighted rope came spinning after her.

“Don’t stop,” Adhi yelled. “Keep going!”

Evirsi shouldered her way through the underbrush and disappeared from sight, as the rope and weights slammed into one of the banyan trees and wrapped around the trunk. Adhi sat up and began untangling the rope from her legs, surprised at how tightly it had wound itself. She grabbed one of the weighted ends, a smooth and polished piece of granite, and lifted it.

Shadows hit the ground on either side of her. Two of the men had leapt from the overhanging rock. One of them knocked her hand away from the rope with the butt of his spear, and the other pointed his weapon at her chest. The third man stood at the edge of the rock. He drew a small curved sword from a sheath at his belt and hopped down to join the other two.

“Chase down the other girl,” he said, gesturing toward one of the men. “Magesh wants every single person brought back.”

* * * 

Okay, that's just a tiny sample. There are some major action scenes, intense battles, a lot of really strange magic, rampaging animals left and right, and ultimately a story with something to say. Well, maybe that sounds cliche, but it's true enough. Anyway, that's my pitch for Garden of Dust and Thorns. Follow the links and check it out.

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