YICORI

In case you missed a chapter: Chapter1  Chapter2  Chapter3  Chapter4  Chapter5  Chapter6  Chapter7  Chapter8  

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Chapter 9. 

A Midsummer’s Night

It was the LoreKeepers who saved the day. While the battle raged along the wall, they climbed the sentry stairs two at a time hauling barrels of black oil. Harmona’s staff incinerated three more Yicori while the LoreMasters poured the barrels over the side of the battlements. Another LoreKeeper ran along the battlements setting a torch to the spilled oil. The outer surface of north wall erupted into blue-white flames. The swarm of climbing Yicori wailed, burned, and fell to earth.

The last Yicori to top the wall died in a blast of Harmona’s flame with six spears and fifteen arrows protruding from its body. Spearmen drove the flaming brute backwards until it fell screaming from the wall. The LoreKeepers’ oil burned for several minutes, charring the entire north side of the outer wall. A hundred meters below, the burnt and broken corpses of Yicori lay in heaps. The survivors had already fled into the forest.

When the oil-flames died away the dead were counted and carried away. Duval went with Harmona to thank the LoreKeepers. They took her into the catacombs below the keep where the earth had split open three days earlier, creating a new well that bubbled forth black oil.

“A gift from the StoneFathers,” explained LoreKeeper Trenton. He was chosen to oversee the extraction and barreling of the flammable substance.

“Another weapon in our fight against the flesh-eaters,” Duval said. “A perfect way to protect our walls.”

“Until it runs out,” Harmona said.

“The black well is deep, HearthMother,” Trenton said. “We’ve filled thirty barrels so far, plus the six we used to repel today’s attack. I’d say we’ll run out of barrels before we run out of oil.”

Harmona offered him a weak smile. “Good work,” she said. “Make sure we have a supply of oil at each watchtower and set up stations at the mid-point of each wall. The Yicori will climb our walls again, it’s only a matter of time. We must be ready.”

“I will see to it myself,” Trenton said.

Harmona and Duval walked to the dining hall for a mug of hot tea.

“You fought well,” she said.

“The blade was unsteady in my hands,” Duval said. “My training has only begun. The new metal is…effective. I’ll say that much.”

“You are among the first company of blade-wielders,” she said. “And you’ve set a great example. I heard men talking along the wall. You’re a hero to them. You killed a Yicori, and now they all know how effective these blades can be.”

Duval sighed and sipped his tea. “This was only a small pack of Yicori,” he said. “A scouting party. Most likely they are the first of the beasts to find HearthHome. We killed a few but most of them survived. They’ll carry the news back to the rest of their tribe. They will all come for us, Harmona. We have a few days, perhaps weeks, depending on how far out the main horde still is.”

“Then we’ve more time to prepare,” she said. “Every man or woman who’s willing to fight gets a blade and shield. Soon we’ll have armor.”

“We’re doing everything we can,” Duval said. “I know it’s difficult. You haven’t had time to grieve for Dorian. None of us have. But you need to know that you’re a symbol of hope for everybody here. Now more than ever.”

Harmona let the liquid warm her belly. A quiet moment passed between them.

“As long as the StoneFathers keep bringing us the secrets of the earth and showing us how to use them,” she said. “We have a fighting chance.” She didn’t want to tell him the StoneFathers knew all along that war was inevitable. She hadn’t told anyone the truth yet, that they were dropped into a paradise doomed to become a battleground.

Duval squeezed her shoulder as he rose from the table. “Time to supervise the day’s training. Care to observe?”

“I have a council in thirty minutes.” She took his hand lightly. “Come and eat with us tonight. The girls feel safe when you’re around.”

Duval hesitated, then nodded. He left her alone with her tea and her thoughts.

Harmona met her advisors in the Great Hall, where she sat at the head of the long table. She listened, nodded, and approved. The foundries and forges were working night and day, relieving Artisans in shifts to avoid exhaustion. The weaponsmiths had taken several apprentices each, which increased productivity. Field workers, prohibited from their fields outside the wall, concentrated on seeding and maintaining the inner gardens and harvesting the orchards. The kitchens worked to preserve foods and stock the cellars for a siege.

If the New Organics could keep the Yicori from climbing their walls, they could stay safely locked in HearthHome for about a year–until provisions ran out. At least the wells inside the wall were deep and dependable, and now there was the black well. The StoneFathers could obviously open more wells anytime they needed to. Water wouldn’t be the problem in a siege.

The council examined calculations and inventories, reporting rapid progress. In a matter of days HearthHome had bent the whole of its efforts to preparing for war. It was frightening how quickly and easily the transition had overtaken her people. Tensions were running high, and fights among the young men were breaking out every day. The children of HearthHome totaled 90 under the age of ten and 120 pre-teens, all of them too young to fight. Sixty percent of New Organic women were currently pregnant, meaning another 150 non-combatants.

Duval, Macre, Andolir, and Fedgemont, four of the most respected HuntMasters, were assigned the title of “captains” for the duration of the war. Fedgemont represented the captains in council, presenting grim numbers: The Yicori had claimed 56 lives so far. In the blended ranks of Hunters and Hunters-in-Training–all of whom were now learning to be soldiers–there were 457 men and women. Ages among these troops ranged from 14 to 27, and because of the high pregnancy rate the ranks were predominately male by a factor of two-to-one.

Four-hundred-and-fifty-seven souls against a horde of Yicori. How many were out there? The StoneFathers had told her this was the last tribe of Yicori, but still there could be ten thousand of them out there lumbering toward HearthHome. Or a hundred thousand. “I will speak to them again,” she promised, “now that they have finished melding with our LoreKeepers and Artisans. Perhaps they can tell us more clearly how many Yicori are coming.”

Harmona waited for a single one of them, man or woman, to question the path in which the StoneFathers were leading them. She waited for the slightest show of suspicion about this rapid fostering of a warrior culture and the terrors that lay ahead of them. None of these advisors had seen the blood and bowels spilled along the parapet, or smelled the burning reek of Yicori flesh. None of them had seen a glimpse the violence that was to come. Only those along the north wall, and those who survived attacks in the wild, only they knew the true horror of what HearthHome was to face. The blood and guts and death that the StoneFathers had bequeathed to their chosen people.

She waited, but nobody said it. Not a single “Are we sure?” or “Is there no other way?” The StoneFathers had said it must be war, and so it must be. She wanted to tell the council the truth in that moment, to shatter their illusions of the thirty-nine benevolent faces. They knew it was coming. They set us here and waited for those creatures to come for us. They trapped us, made us believe we have no choice. And now we don’t.

Nobody questioned her or the StoneFathers, and she said nothing.

The StoneFathers and their guidance was all these people had. As their leader she needed to protect them from the pain of truth. If she told them, they would still have to fight the Yicori. Yet they would do it with less than perfect faith in their spiritual allies.

She dismissed the council and went to spend time with her girls in the blue garden. She hugged each one of them in turn and kissed their cheeks, while the citadel belched flame and smoke and prepared for war. First would come the siege, and they would see how great the Yicori horde was. The cogs of the HearthHome war machine ground themselves together with a sound like distant thunder.

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Three days later the Leaflings decided to perform their play, even though there would be no festival this year. Harmona had encouraged Brix to proceed, and he had stripped the cast down to a skeleton crew. After working so hard for so many days, the New Organics needed a diversion. Chancey had been trying to convince Brix of this fact all along, and with Harmona’s help he finally succeeded.

A weary crowd gathered in the amphitheater at the appointed hour. All six moons lay across the evening sky like a string of pearls. For the first time in two weeks the practice yards fell silent, the clanging blades sheathed and soldiers shuffling between the benches with their families. The children ate green olives with fruit juices while adults drank wine or ale. Harmona’s seat was positioned for an excellent view. She piled onto a divan with Elodie, Astrid, and Sabine while the lamps of early evening flared about the proscenium arch. Duval stood at the edge of the HearthMother’s covered pavilion, refusing Harmona’s invitation to sit on the divan with her family. It wasn’t only her daughters who took comfort in the man’s presence.

The crowd fell quiet when the curtains parted, and the Palace of Theseus stood revealed in all its painted glory. The play had always been one of Harmona’s favorites. She had played the role of love-struck Hermia when she was an apprentice. Dorian had played Lysander. She forgot about the tremendous weight of rulership as the Athenian lovers lost themselves in the enchanted wood.

The Woodking and his wicked servant Robin Goodfellow played with the lives of mortals who had invaded their wild paradise, but the Woodking was only playing a game to win back the love of his scorned Queen. Harmona watched her girls smile for the first time since their father’s death. The amphitheater roared with laughter when Quince and Bottom performed their inept play-within-a-play for the Duke of Athens.

Despite his reduced resources, Brix’s production was flawless. The New Organics enjoyed themselves in the way they used to do. For almost two hours they forgot about the war they must fight and the tree-climbing brutes that wanted to devour them. It was a marvelous time, and Harmona could not have asked for a better way to raise their spirits.

Yet the bittersweet reunion of Woodking and Woodqueen that should have ended the play never happened. Instead a group of youths with swords hidden beneath their cloaks stormed onto the stage from both sides. Drawing their bright new blades, they held them to the necks of the players, grabbing and twisting elbows backward. Seventeen youths in all, some of them girls, now owned the stage, and the play came to a sudden halt. Before anyone realized it wasn’t part of the show, nine actors were hostages. Chancey, who played the Woodking, was one of them. Brix stared in horror from stage left, unsure if he should move, cry out, or fight.

“Organics!” One of the youths pulled back his hood to reveal a headfull of black hair and a pair of angry eyes. “We are The Stolen. The Sons and Daughters of noble houses! Hear us now, or we will end the lives of these players right before your eyes. Stay in your seats! The first one to move against us kills the Woodking.”

Harmona recognized him immediately. Anton Lecuyer had tried to convince her to send him “home” two weeks ago. He had cut his own flesh to remind her of its inherent weakness. A true son of the Urbille, perhaps he was taken too late into the bosom of Gaeya. The boy had said there were more like him, a group who wanted to abandon Gaeya and return to the Urbille. Lecuyer was too stupid to know that he would never be allowed back into the city of the Potentates. He was stupid enough to try a stunt like this.

Anton raised the point of his blade to Chancey’s chin, and Brix yelled “Stop!”

The audience froze, some already out of their seats, staring in dumb amazement.

“We have been saying for years that this place is not our home,” Anton announced. “You refused to listen. We were stolen away–lured away–from our true home by the Surgeon and the StoneFathers. Now do you see what they have given us? A new home? No! A death sentence! These monsters are coming to devour us, and we sit here waiting for them. Anyone who wants to stay and fight a losing war, you have that right. But we have a right to go home. We who were stolen from the Urbille want to go back. Now is the time! Before these beasts carry our bones in their bellies…”

Anton’s eyes turned to the HearthMother’s pavilion, where they fell upon Harmona. The girls sat breathless, clutching at their mother’s robe. Duval had drawn his sword, but he couldn’t reach the stage if he tried. Nobody had brought a bow to the amphitheater, or someone might have tried shooting an arrow. Harmona wondered if she could placate this young group of idiots, turn them loose on the Thoroughfare and be rid of them. If she did that her army would shrink by seventeen more soldiers. It might be worth it to end this internal conflict.

“HearthMother!” Anton yelled at her. “It’s up to you. Come and lead us to the Hidden Gate. Open the way for us. Nobody has to die. Any of you who wish to join us are welcome.”

The crowd remained silent as Harmona made her way down the aisle. Duval held back the girls, who would have run after her. Elodie wept with her head against his thigh. This was something Harmona had to do alone, something she’d explain to the girls later.

She reached floor of the amphitheater and climbed the short stairs to stand on the stage. Anton gestured with his blade, and she lay the black staff at his feet. The green flame extinguished itself, as it always did when she wasn’t touching it. She thought Anton would take up the weapon and carry it back to the Urbille, but he only kicked it away.

“Lead us to the gate, open the way, and we’ll release our hostages,” he said.

Harmona nodded. She walked past Brix, who squeezed her hand for a moment and slipped a prop dagger into a pocket of her robe. Anton moved the point of his sword to her neck. The seventeen Stolen followed her out of the amphitheater, dragging along their nine hostages. They moved carefully behind Harmona and Anton along the garden path.

“You should have listened,” Anton said. “You could have avoided these drastic consequences.”

“Do you see anybody joining your little revolution?” she asked, looking backward. “These people want to stay and fight for their real home. Do you really think there’s a place for you in the Urbille now that you’ve been gone so long? Do you imagine House Lecuyer remembers you and longs for your return? They’ve already replaced you with another stolen infant. Count on it.”

“Shut up,” Anton said. They walked between rows of sculpted evergreens. “Our parents will accept us because we are their children.”

“They were never your true parents,” Harmona said.

Anton lowered his blade and slapped her across the face. Harmona gritted her teeth and clutched the dagger inside her pocket.

“Say another word and I’ll cut your tongue out before I leave,” Anton said. Harmona wiped blood from her lip and led them into the Courtyard of the Hidden Gate. The great arch of stone that formed the porte stood five meters high, carved with symbols and formulae that Harmona could not read. She knew its Word of Command only because it had been given to her by the gate’s creator.

She smiled to see that same creator standing in front of the gate, as if waiting for her. He wore a black tri-corner hat as usual. His face was a finely-carved mask of bronze with black opticals. His cloak hung dark as night from inhumanly broad shoulders, and his fists rested on the pommel of a greatsword whose point rested between his boots. On a stone bench beside him lay an infant swaddled in white cloth.

“Wail…” Harmona greeted him with a mixture of relief and anger. Better late than never. He must have arrived seconds ago from the other side of the gate. Coincidence or intervention from the StoneFathers? Wail was their roaming disciple. She was no longer sure if she could trust him, but she was glad to see him anyway.

“What have we here?” Wail said. “A mutiny?” His voice rang like a bell from the walls of the cloistered garden.

Anton’s people froze, securing their hostages. Anton pointed his blade at Wail. “You brought us here against our will, Surgeon. Now we’re going home. Open the gate or stand aside so Harmona can do it.”

“I’m afraid I can’t allow that,” said Wail. “Let these people go and I’ll explain to you why.”

“No!” said Anton. He grabbed Harmona by the hair and forced her head back, raising his blade to her neck. “Open the gate or she dies.”

Anton’s eyes were on Wail, who stood calm as a statue. Harmona pulled the dagger from her robe and plunged it into Anton’s thigh. The boy screamed and looked to the weapon protruding from his leg. She slammed the side of his head with her doubled fists and he fell, the sword clattering from his hand.

Clouds of purple mist exploded from the rows of giant orchids, and the Surgeon’s dark blade flashed here and there about the garden. Someone screamed as Harmona dove for Anton’s sword. She raised her eyes to see the Surgeon dancing between the ranks of rebels and hostages, his long blade flickering like a pale flame. Removing an ear or finger, jabbing an eyeball without puncturing the brain behind it. He parried a sword blow, then another and another, returning the attacks with disabling thrusts and disabling lacerations. When half their number was down in seconds, bleeding and howling, the rest threw down their swords and ran.

The purple mist made Harmona drowsy. It must be why everyone moved so slowly while the Surgeon moved so quickly. Wail had called forth the vapors as surely as he had called dead spirits from the swamp ten years ago. Anton pushed through his bleeding companions and scuttled over the wall of the garden. He dropped and ran, leaving a trail of red drops from his wounded leg.

Two of the Stolen lay bleeding to death from sliced jugulars, six of them clutched punctured eyes, hands, or faces, and nine of them had fled. Beyond the rows of orchids, guards ran them down one by one, shackling their hands and leading them away at Duval’s command. Seventeen souls who might have made good soldiers. Maybe some of them could be redeemed, but most would never be trusted again.

There was no sign of Anton. He had slipped away by using his fellow conspirators as a diversion. But he wouldn’t get far with a wounded leg. The only possible place to hide was in the catacombs beneath the citadel. She’d have to send someone to hunt him down there. At least his absurd conspiracy was ended for now. This was no time for Harmona’s people to be divided.

Guards came for the wounded and led them away. They wept and moaned and blamed Anton for the whole thing. Harmona stayed in the bloody garden as the last of them were hauled away. Wail presented the new baby to Harmona, laying it in her arms like a priceless treasure. The little fellow couldn’t have been more than a few weeks old. The newest member of HearthHome, and another one who couldn’t fight this war.

“You have a fine sense of timing,” Harmona said, her eyes on the baby. She stroked its head, held it close to her. It cooed and made funny little shapes with its mouth. She missed the days when her girls were this tiny.

“You’re welcome,” said Wail. “I took him from a Harvester along the Lesser Thoroughfare.”

“Did you know?” She brought her face close to his bronze mask. The anger poured from her like an invisible steam. She could almost hear the gears and cogs turning in his mechanized body.

Wail’s head tilted. His expressionless face did not change. It never did. Beatifics could only change their expression when they changed faces.

“Tell me: Did you know?” she asked again.

“Did I know what?”

“That this isn’t our world after all? That a horde of monsters is coming to devour us? That it’s all part of some insane plan hatched by the StoneFathers? Tell me you didn’t know. I’ll try to believe you.”

Wail wiped his bloody sword on the edge of his cloak. The last of the purple mist faded at his feet. “Slow down. Tell me everything.”

Harmona carried the new arrival toward the nursery. There it would be bathed, fed, and eventually assigned to a family who wished to raise it. Wail walked beside her, and she noticed Duval following them at a distance. She gave him a brief look that said “I’m fine” and explained to Wail what was happening.

“I told you on the day we met,” said Wail. “That I was building an army here. That one day I would lead it back to the Urbille and bring down the Potentates. But that day is hundreds of years away. There aren’t enough of you here to make any kind of viable fighting force. The army I agreed to build for the Ministere de Stone will be an army of your people’s descendants. A century or two from now there will be thousands and thousands of New Organics. Those who want to fight the Potentates will have the chance to do so. I thought you understood that.”

“I did,” Harmona said. “But apparently the StoneFathers had other ideas.”

“They told me this world was uninhabited,” Wail said.

“They lied,” Harmona said. “To all of us.”

“Why would they do that?” Wail said.

“Isn’t it obvious? They’re remaking us. Turning us into a society of warriors they can use to bring down the Potentates, but only if we prove ourselves deadly enough to take this world. And if not, we get wiped out. They can always start again with a new batch of Organics.”

Wail stood in silence for awhile. Duval leaned against a nearby pillar, still watching. Brix and Chancey came from the amphitheater to return Harmona’s staff. She wrapped her fist around the black metal, and the green flame ignited at its head. Brix and Chancey embraced her, gave her apologies and thanks. They greeted Wail with handshakes and hugs.

“The play was superb,” Harmona said, “despite the interrupted Third Act.”

Brix rolled his eyes and sighed. Harmona lay a hand on Chancey’s shoulder. He had removed the Woodking costume and looked like a normal frightened man again.

“You were very brave,” Harmona told him.

“What choice did I have?” Chancey asked. Brix wrapped an arm about him.

Harmona laughed. “What choice do any of us have?”

“Excuse me,” said Wail. He turned with a swirl of black fabric and walked away.

“Where are you going?”

“To speak with the StoneFathers,” Wail said. “Alone.”

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She looked for Wail later that night, but he was already gone. Slipped back through the Hidden Gate without a parting word. That was always the way with Wail. He came and went like a restless ghost, delivering his recently liberated charges. She had grown used to this behavior over the past decade.

She wondered what he said to the StoneFathers, and what they told him.

Most of all she wondered if it would make any difference whatsoever.

 

NEXT: “Creep City”

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