HARMONA

Why release Chapter 3 so early?

Because I can.

I make the rules here, not some distant publishing company. That’s the whole point of this experiment. And it feels gooood.

I also wanted to get the first three chapters out as soon as possible, so that readers can meet all three main characters. Their separate narratives entwine as the book goes on, but we’ll keep visiting Svetlana, Crag, and Harmona individually until fate brings them together. (No spoilers, dude!) Chapter 3 introduces Harmona and the New Organics. 

A big THANK YOU to everyone who’s reading and spreading the word.

In case you missed a chapter: Chapter 1    Chapter 2

 



A FEW ODD SOULS

Chapter 3.
HearthHome

 

The world was green and good. Harmona watched the sun rise from the top of the Hearthtower. The stone beneath her bare feet grew warmer in the first light of day. The last hint of night faded from the sky and clouds rolled above the worldforest.

The tower’s top was flat and entirely seamless. Its diameter was wide enough to hold a hundred or more people, but nobody had followed Harmona up here this morning yet. She relished these rare moments of quietude, when the only sounds came from the great flocks of birds soaring above the trees. This was the only place where she could look across the treetops, a green ocean of leaf and palm that blanketed the continent as far as she could see.

Ten years living on Gaeya and her people had yet to locate the edges of the great woodland or the farthest shores of the continent. She knew there was an actual ocean out there somewhere, a place where mighty rivers emptied themselves and solid land gave way to the chaos of open waters. Some enterprising wanderer of a future generation would discover it. She was content to stay here at the heart of the green world, to watch the sun rise above the pinnacle of HearthHome.

The morning wind tossed the curls of her hair and whipped the mothsilk gown about her legs. She inhaled the fragrance of a million blossoms on the breeze, the comforting scents of leaf and bark, and beneath it the everpresent musk of raw earth. Somewhere under that canopy of endless green, Dorian and his band of hunters were on their way back home.

Ten years ago she would never have imagined him as an archer, a huntsman, a wood-roaming champion of his people. Yet back then she would have never imagined herself standing atop this tower and staring at a new world of bounty and freedom. She raised her hands to catch a ray of sunlight, like picking fruit from a low branch. The golden light played across her knuckles, her upturned palms, the pale brown skin of her forearms. These simple pleasures would have remained unknown to her if she had not come here.

Gratitude swelled like a raw flame in her breast, ready to burst from her skin like sunbeams. The wind caressed her face. She hoped Dorian would return soon. It had been six days since she felt his warm skin against her own. She trembled, anticipating the heat of his lips, the strength of his arms wrapped about her waist.

“Mother!”

Harmona turned to meet her daughters as they topped the spiral stairwell from the tower’s uppermost chamber. Elodie, her youngest, had been the first to call out. Harmona couldn’t quite believe that six years had already passed since Elodie’s birth. Astrid and Sabine, Elodie’s eight- and nine-year old sisters, followed her onto the tower-top, grinning into the wind. Elodie blinked into the glaring sunlight as she leaped into her mother’s arms. All three girls still wore their sleeping gowns. Like Harmona, they hadn’t bothered to change before coming up to enjoy the dawn.

They stood together along the short circular wall that enclosed the roof. Harmona lifted Elodie so she could see over the edge.

“See how green the world is,” Harmona said. She brushed Elodie’s hair back from her round face.

“The sun hurts my eyes,” Elodie said. She buried her face in Harmona’s neck.

“You can’t look directly at it,” Astrid said. “You’ll go blind.”

Harmona smiled and rubbed Astrid’s head.

“Who told you that?” she said.

“Father,” said Astrid. “When he took us to the Sacred Grove.”

“Is it true?” Sabine asked. She was the skeptic of the bunch. Wise beyond her years. The firstborn and the first to question what was given or said to her.

“Yes,” said Harmona. “The sun is made of fire. If you touch a hearth fire your hand will burn. The sun will burn your eyes. Yet without it we’d all be stuck in darkness.”

“No we wouldn’t,” Sabine said.

Astrid gave her a dirty look. “Why not?”

“Because of the moons,” Sabine explained. “Six moons greater and lesser to light our way through the darkness.”

Harmona smiled. Sabine had learned well from her tutors.

“Can you name all six moons?”

Sabine rolled the names off her tongue rapidly. Astrid joined in with the names of the last two, mimicking her sister.

“The sun also gives us heat and warmth,” Sabine said. “There are six moons, but the nights are cold. Why don’t the moons give us warmth, Mother?”

Harmona pinched her eldest daughter’s cheek. “You are full of questions,” she said. “The moons only reflect the sun’s fire. They are bright but cold.”

“What are the moons made of?” Astrid asked.

“Stone,” Harmona said.

“Like HearthHome,” said Elodie.

Harmona kissed her daughter’s forehead. “That’s right, precious girl.”

Mother and daughters stared across the green world for a moment. A flock of white birds reflected the sun’s gold from their plumage.

“Tell us about the place you came from,” Sabine asked. “You never talk about it.”

Harmona frowned. Sabine’s curiosity went hand-in-hand with her intelligence. She cherished this quality in her oldest, but sometimes it made for difficult moments.

“It was an old world,” she said. “Nothing like this one. It was dark and grey. Cold.”

“Were there six moons?”

“No,” Harmona said. “Only one.”

“The nights must have been dark there.”

“Yes,” Harmona said. “Very dark.”

“Tell us more,” Astrid said.

Harmona sat Elodie down at her feet. “Your father is better at telling tales than I am. He’ll be home in a day or two. You can ask him these questions.”

Sabine sighed. She was used to her mother’s avoidance of this topic. Dorian had a way of explaining things to his girls that softened the cruelty of the past. He turned everything into a lesson or an entertaining story. When Harmona thought of their life before Gaeya, she felt like weeping. She didn’t want the girls to see her like that.

“Father’s coming home?” Elodie asked. She jumped and ran around the rooftop, shouting her joy to the wind. Children had no filters for their emotions. Already Harmona felt the shadow of Sabine’s question fading. She smiled and embraced her two eldest.

“Let’s go down to breakfast,” she said. “We’ll have honey and wheat-toast, and there’s loamberries and wingfruit fresh from the gardens.”

“I’m hungry!” Astrid said. Sabine reluctantly agreed to receiving nourishment over knowledge. The girls followed their mother down the spiral stair into the suite of bedchambers that served as home to the HearthMother. They changed into soft tunics of plant fiber dyed to colors of earth, leaf, and sky, set with golden trim at sleeves and hem. Each daughter presented herself and passed inspection.

Harmona took up her staff of black metal, her touch igniting the emerald flame that danced above its head. A circlet of beaten gold inscribed with a pattern of leaf and vine marked her status as HearthMother. It had taken her years to get used to wearing the circlet, but now she hardly noticed its presence about her forehead. She thought of it as little more than a device to keep her mass of dark curls from obscuring her face. The staff was a reminder of the world from which she had escaped. One day Sabine would ask for the story behind the staff. One day Harmona would have the strength to tell her everything. But that was not today.

They walked through a maze of lofty corridors and hanging tapestries toward the dining hall. The aroma of baking bread filled the air, along with the smokes of twenty-four baking hearths. Already the ovens were busy, tended by the staff of forty cooks male and female. The head baker greeted Harmona cheerfully and prepared a table. Several other families sat about the hall enjoying the day’s first meal.

In the ten years since Harmona had come to Gaeya, the population of HearthHome had grown from a hundred to nearly a thousand. Her people–and it had taken only a few months to begin thinking of the New Organics as her people–were multiplying. At least half the current population were adults or teenagers. The latest figures presented by the LoreKeepers indicated about two hundred children this year, half of them beneath the age of three.

As HearthMother her family extended well beyond those who had sprung from her own loins. Every one of these people were her family. They looked to her for wisdom and guidance and love. She sometimes doubted her ability to give the first two, but there was no end to her supply of the third. She loved the New Organics and she took every chance to remind them of that.

“Someone has to rule, even in paradise,” Dorian had said. She had refused the title of HearthMother when the Founders first offered it to her. It was Dorian’s belief in her that had convinced her to speak with the StoneFathers, and they had urged her to accept the honor. Nobody here was older than twenty-seven, and Harmona was a year younger than that, but still they regarded her as their wise woman, their leader, and the voice of their collective conscience.

She used to wonder if her possession of Sala North’s black staff had convinced them more than anything. She gave up that line of thinking, as it did not seem to matter. She carried the staff, she wore the circlet, and she spoke for the StoneFathers, whose power had constructed HearthHome from the raw stones of Gaeya. Any real wisdom that Harmona provided her people came directly from them. Serving them meant serving the New Organics, and that double service was the best way to show her gratitude for the life she cherished here in the green world.

After breakfast Sabine and Astrid went to the library for their morning lessons. Elodie accompanied her mother to check on the newest Arrivals in the nursery. Fifteen newborns lay swaddled in wooden cradles, tended by pregnant matrons. The women greeted Harmona and Elodie with quiet smiles. Harmona placed her finger to her lips, reminding Elodie not to disturb the sleeping babes.

She strolled between the rows of infants, pausing here and there to kiss a forehead or let a tiny set of fingers wrap around one of hers. These younglings would be adopted into HearthHome families as soon as the physicians gave them final approval. They had learned from experience to keep infant Arrivals under a watchful eye until they were confirmed free of disease and properly nutritioned. Sixty eager couples would draw lots for each of these babes, and the winners would gain new additions to their families.

“They weren’t born here, were they?” Elodie asked.

Harmona paused to kneel and examine her daughter’s face. “No,” she said. “They all came from places very far away. Soon each will have a family that loves them the way your father and I love you.”

Elodie considered her mother’s words. “Was I born here?”

Harmona’s cheeks reddened. “Yes,” she said. “You and your sisters were all born on Gaeya. The Arrivals were not. But we love them no less. Do you understand?”

Elodie nodded and chewed on her finger. “Can I go play in the blue garden?”

Harmona kissed her and nodded. A matron led the child away to where the Garden Mothers would keep an eye on her until dinner time.

Harmona went alone to the great amphitheatre. The Leaflings were rehearsing their next performance. At the Festival of Summer Moons the troupe would perform another classic. She observed their rehearsals whenever time allowed. Today there were no scrolls to study, no judgments to render, and no orchard inspections scheduled. If she could have remained a member of the troupe and still served as HearthMother, she would have done it. But being an actor required constant dedication and focus. Such a double duty was impossible, especially while raising three children.

The Leaflings were assembled on the stage at the center of the amphitheatre, running through the play for the fiftieth or sixtieth time. They still had nine days to perfect the performance. The stage decorations were being finished by painters, builders, and sculptors using the raw materials of the forest and plaster recreations of boulders, trees, and a small waterfall. The costumes were finished, and the actors wore their colors with obvious pride.

Harmona sat in the twentieth row from the stage, hoping they would not notice her. Of course they did, and the Brix the director waved to her from behind his sheef of notes and silken scarf. The current scene was dominated by Brix’s lifemate, Chancey, who wore a crest of wooden antlers and pranced across the stage in a pair of mock goat’s hooves. Harmona marveled at the quality of the costuming this season. If she didn’t know better she would think Chancey a living satyr stepped from the pages of myth. For a fleeting moment she wondered if there were any satyrs out there in the green world, waiting to be discovered by some future generation. Then the drama stole her attention as Chancey traded lines with Beaumont, who was dressed as King of the Wood.

“This is thy negligence!” cried Beaumont. “Still thou mistakest, or else committ’st thy knaveries wilfully.”

Chancey bowed low before his Woodking and begged forgiveness, antlers bobbing. “Believe me, king of shadows, I mistook. Did not you tell me I should know the man by his Athenian garments? And so far blameless proves my enterprise that I have annointed an Athenian’s eyes. And so far am I glad it so did sort, as this their jangling I call sport.”

The Woodking frowned with displeasure, his pointed brow rising at the latest wrinkle in his scheme. “Thou see’st these lovers seek a place to fight. Hie therefore, Robin, overcast the night. The starry welkin cover thou anon with drooping fog as black as Acheron, and lead these testy rivals so astray as one come not within another’s way.”

“Cut!” shouted Brix. “More rage, Beaumont! Your foolish servant has disappointed you. Let us see the Woodking’s anger before he gives his next command.”

Harmona smiled as Beaumont nodded. The costume designer adjusted the Woodking’s sparkling tunic and the crown of roses about his head. Again the scene unfolded, this time flowing smoothly into the next one. The Bard’s ancient story was well-told in the hands of the Leaflings. Harmona was proud of them. Yet within that welling pride lay the sting of jealousy. She missed acting, and she even missed directing, as frustrating as it could be. For six years now she had missed these things, but she never missed a Leafling show. Brix was a worthy leader for the troupe. It should have been Dorian, but he had quit the Leaflings when Harmona did, despite her protestations.

“How could I go on doing this without you?” he told her. “It wouldn’t be fun anymore.” On that day he had given her another reason to love him. As if she needed another one. In the six years since abandoning the stage, Harmona had learned to be an effective leader while Dorian had earned the title of HuntMaster, one of thirty men who bore that title. Harmona ruled HearthHome while her husband led men into the wild and returned with braces of wild birds to feed the population. The hunters also gathered fruits, nuts, and plants, discovering new kinds of vegetation every year. One day they would find the shore of the great ocean.

Harmona wondered what delicious treasures Dorian would bring home this time. Something succulent and delicious no doubt. She would enjoy nothing he brought her so much as the man himself. Their love had survived a journey across uncounted worlds, including the transition to Gaeya. Here it had blossomed like the worldforest, unstoppable and ever fertile. Dorian had given her three perfect daughters. She still had time to give him a son one day.

Lost in her private thoughts, she no longer heard the lines of the players on the stage. The presence of someone standing nearby was a sudden alarm. She turned her head, rising from the seat. A youth stood unspeaking, waiting for her to notice him. He wasn’t one of the Leaflings. She searched his narrow face and dark eyes for memory of a name. The green flame danced at the tip of her staff, shedding light without heat.

The boy’s eyes were narrow and his mouth was almost a snarl. She sensed the unhappiness radiating from his lean body, and it made her uneasy. He wore a knife tucked into the belt of his green tunic. A fringe of black thread ran along his arms and the sides of his leggings. His boots were those of a hunter, but they were spotless. He had not been very far into the wilderness, if he had been at all.

“Anton,” she said. She recalled his scowl from previous meetings.

“Lecuyer,” he said. “My name is Anton Lecuyer.”

“Of course.” Harmona indulged him. “What can I do for you?” His petulance was no secret. She remembered a conversation with his parents about his difficulty adjusting to this new life. How many years ago had that been? Two or three already. She heard rumors of him getting into trouble, but her advisors insulated her from these kinds of things. Why had this troubled youth sought her out? He should be learning a trade at his age. Let him get into the forest and discover his true calling.

Anton folded his arms across his chest. Bracelets of bone and copper hung on his wrists, the trophies of youthful sporting events. Wrestling, archery, or perhaps climbing. She regretted not having followed his education closer. Unhappy faces were practically unknown among the New Organics. She should have taken a greater interest in this one.

“I want to go home,” Anton said.

Harmona offered him a gentle smile. “This is your home,” she said. “Here you are loved and accepted for what you truly are. You belong with the New Organics. You’re a citizen of HearthHome, and one day you will inherit all its glories and wisdom.”

Anton turned his eyes away from her. “No,” he said. “I remember my real home. I was heir to the House Lecuyer. I am a Beatific. I want to go back.”

Harmona sighed. She sat down and gestured for Anton to join her. He refused, playing with the pommel of his knife and looking at the ground. The players on the stage ran through a scene of mock combat, Lysander chasing Demetrius with a leafy club. When Anton realized that she would not speak another word until he sat down, he finally took a seat across the aisle.

“How long has it been since you crossed over?” she asked.

“You mean since I was stolen?” Anton said. His eyes accused her as much as his words. “Taken from my true parents and brought to this wilderness?”

She ignored the trap set by his words. “How long?”

“Four years,” he said. His head hung low, elbows balanced on his knees. “And I’ve hated every one of them. I want to go home.”

“Those you remember were not your true parents,” she said. His eyes shot venom at her. “You’ve been told this many times.”

“I don’t believe it!” Anton said. A few of the players glanced at him, and he lowered his voice. Yet his tone remained insolent. “It’s all lies. I am the rightful heir to House Lecuyer and I want to go back. To my real home. To claim what’s mine. I hate this place.”

“We have not lied to you,” Harmona said. She spoke to him as she would speak to her own son. His anger was only a form of pain. She reached out to take his hand, but he pulled it away from her.

“There’s nothing here,” he said. “We wear the same sweaty faces day after day, year after year. In this place we’re frail and weak. Watch–” Before she could stop him, he drew the knife and ran its blade along his palm. A red stripe appeared and blood began to drip on the marble floor of the amphitheatre. “We bleed! We suffer! We have to eat and sleep and rut like animals. Everything I was promised has been taken from me. I want it all back.”

“Give me the knife,” Harmona said, stepping close to him. She said it again, and he relented. She took the weapon and put an arm around his shoulder. He squeezed his fist and the blood seeped between his fingers.

“Listen to me, Anton,” Harmona said. “What you’re feeling is perfectly natural. You’re still very young, and you wonder what life would have been like if you hadn’t come to Gaeya. You think you’ve been robbed, but you’ve actually been saved. Everything you see as a weakness is in reality a strength. Trust me. We love you. I love you. Gaeya is a paradise. Don’t blind yourself to its wonders.”

“I’m not the only one,” he said, pushing her away.

“What?”

“There are others who want to go back,” he said.

“How many?”

“Enough,” he said. “Enough to make a difference. We want to go home. Why won’t you let us?”

Harmona shook her head. “You are the only one who has spoken such words to me. The only one.”

“I’ll show you,” said Anton. “I’ll bring them to you. You’ll see.”

“Wait, I–”

He was deaf to her plea. She watched him run out of the amphitheatre, heading for the southern gardens. She examined the bloody knife in her hand. His protest had come out of nowhere. She hadn’t expected her day to take such a dramatic turn.

“Are you all right, dear?” Brix came over to stand with her. He’d given the players a break. He saw the red knife and his eyes grew wide. “What happened?”

“I’m not sure,” she said. She gave him the knife, asked him to do something with it. “I need to speak with the StoneFathers.”

Brix nodded as she walked away.

“Heavy hangs the head that wears the crown,” he said. She smiled back at him. “See you at dinner?” She nodded. Brix went back to his rehearsal. Harmona crossed the open courtyard to the Inner Sanctum.

Anton’s request was impossible. Nobody could go back. It would only mean death or worse. Yet how could she convince him that he was truly better off on Gaeya? And if there were other malcontented youths, what did that mean for the future of the New Organics? She considered dismissing the whole thing as the folly of youth, then realized the issue was too important to ignore.

As she climbed the steps toward the Sanctum, the peal of a horn rang across the courtyard. The sounding of the HuntMaster’s horn, announcing the return of his band. The low note quivered on the warm air and echoed from the stone walls. Harmona paused for a moment on the wide stair, closed her eyes, and thanked the StoneFathers that her husband was here to help her through this crisis. Perhaps all Anton needed was for Dorian to take him under his wing and show him the ways of the hunt. Most boys dreamed of that until they were old enough to go roaming with their fathers. Anton’s father was a gardener, but it was obvious that farming held no appeal for the lad.

A crowd of men, women, and children came rushing from the doors of the Sanctum and from the gates of the surrounding gardens. A babble of excited voices drowned out the chittering of birdsongs as Harmona found herself at the center of the welcoming crowd. They walked toward the western edge of the courtyard, where the Outer Gates were swinging open to admit the hunting party.

The boles of titanic trees stood like a wall of wilderness outside the gates. The crowd at the threshold waited for the hunters to emerge from the green shadows. At the first sign of movement the crowd cheered, launching into the Hunter’s Welcome with jolly voices. The traditional song of welcome was a custom that had existed even before Harmona had come to Gaeya. Not only did it celebrate those who braved the wild for the good of the community, it also bonded the New Organics in a way that all songs bonded their singers. It was the vocal expression of fellowship, gratitude, and sheer joy. Harmona did not see Anton in the crowd, but she knew he would not be singing.

The hunters marched out from a corridor of dense foliage. Immediately Harmona knew something was wrong. First, she noticed their diminshed numbers. Dorian had led twenty-five archers into the worldforest six days ago, yet barely half that number approached the open gates. Second, she saw the dirty bandages about their limbs and chests–bloodstained rags covering wounds of various severity. Third, the long faces of the men spoke volumes. Where were the smiles of victorious huntsmen? And where were the long poles heavy with the carcasses of fresh-killed birds? A terrible thought hit her like a physical blow: Where is Dorian?

She rushed forward to meet the hunters halfway to the gates, and the astonished crowd ran after her. The welcome song died in their throats, replaced by cries of confusion and alarm. A few men carried strings of dead birds at their waists, but most of them carried only spear and bow. Their quivers were mostly empty.

Harmona called Dorian’s name as she came upon the first man. He raised a bearded face to regard her with despair. He turned toward the rear of the procession, where two men carried a litter between them. Dorian lay asleep or dead on the litter, a blood-stained travel blanket covering his lower half.

She rushed to him, calling his name again. Her staff dropped to the ground, its green flame extinguished. Tears welled in her eyes as terror welled in her heart.

Dorian raised his head as the litter-bearers sat him gently on the ground. Harmona kneeled over him, kissing his cheek and forehead, then his lips. His pale face was damp and constricted. He seemed lost in a dream, or half-dead from weakness.

She barely noticed the women about her embracing their husbands and brothers, or demanding to know why their man wasn’t among those who returned. Nobody asked about the pitiful amount of game they had brought. Everyone knew there was something far more important happening here, but nobody knew yet what it was. The hunters were rudely quiet, embracing their loved ones with heavy arms, the wounds on their bodies speaking of deeper wounds that could not be seen with the eye.

Dorian lifted his right arm to take Harmona’s hand. His left arm was a mass of bloody bandages. He squeezed and she realized how little strength he had left. It dawned on her then that he might be dying.

“Out there…” Dorian tried to speak. “They came…” His beard was a tangle of matted blood, his hunting tunic ripped to shreds. She silenced him with a kiss.

“Don’t try to talk,” she said. She sent a runner to bring the physicians.

The weary hunters lifted Dorian once more and carried him through the gates. They had no more strength to carry him across the wide courtyard, so they set him on the lawn and dropped to sit among the ripe grass. Their families hovered about them and peppered them with questions, waiting to hear what catastrophe had befallen them.

Nobody had ever died on Gaeya. Not in the decade Harmona had lived here. Nobody died in paradise. The oldest person here would live at least seventy more years before old age killed the first of them. There were no vicious predators or lurking enemies in the worldforest. Or maybe, like the distant ocean, such threats had remained hidden.

What had Dorian’s band discovered out there?

Dorian lay half-awake, mumbling to himself in his pain. The physicians rushed into the courtyard, five of them carrying bags of medicine, white bandages, copper needles, and thread for stitches. One of them came directly to Harmona and pulled the blanket from Dorian’s litter. Harmona lost her breath. She stifled a scream by stuffing the heel of her hand against her mouth. Dorian’s lower left leg was completely gone. Jagged bone jutted from the raw flesh where his knee should have been.

Strong hands pulled her away from Dorian as the physician began his work. She turned to see Duval, one of Dorian’s hunters. His face was marred by a trio of long wounds across the cheek, daubed with mud to stop the bleeding. She fell against his broad chest, letting the tears burst from her eyes. She allowed herself a few seconds of weeping, then wiped her face with a tunic sleeve. She picked up her staff while the physicians did what they could for Dorian and the others. The green flame re-ignited at her touch.

Several women wailed now, realizing that their men were lost. Thirteen men had not returned from the hunt, and they never would.

“Tell me!” Harmona demanded, the green flame flaring at the top of her staff. This manifestation of her power seemed to shake the surviving hunters from their stupor. She grabbed Duval by the shoulder and demanded answers.

“What happened?” she asked.

Duval’s eyes streamed tears. The big man cried like a small boy.

“They came out of the trees,” he said. “We never saw them…until it was too late. All we could do was run…”

She stared at his mauled face. Madness danced like starlight in his eyes.

“They tore us apart,” Duval said, “with fangs and claws…” He wept freely, heedless of the crowd gathering around him, listening.

“They tore Fabian to bits right in front of me…took Dorian’s leg off. I saw one of them gnawing on it…when we went back for him.”

“Who were they?” Harmona asked. “What were they?”

Duval stared at the trees outside the gate. A gust of wind rustled the leaves.

“Monsters,” he said.

 

NEXT WEEK: “The Apothecaries of Nil”

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—  A FEW ODD SOULS Copyright 2019 John R. Fultz —