Harmonia straightened with a sigh. This gardening was hard work. Hestia was weeding a nearby bed and she seemed to be able to tell her helper had quit even though her back was towards her.
"I told you, you could take a break. This doesn't have to be done today. The roses won't die because their roots are shaded by weeds." She sat back on her heels and smiled over one shoulder.
"I know. It's just ... if I'm busy then I'm not thinking about things." Harmonia wandered out of the rose bed and into the shade of the big oak tree. The cool shadows caressed her hot cheeks and she closed her eyes in relief. Maybe she should wear a hat while working in the sun. Mom was always going on about wrinkles.
"Pour some water for us, please, Harmonia." Hestia stood up and stretched, with one hand on her lower back. "This sun is almost too much for me. I don't see how Apollo stands it, all day, every day."
"He's as golden as the sun, Aunt Hestia. He told me once that he absorbed the heat like you or I drink water." Harmonia carefully poured a glass of ice cold water from the silver ewer on the table and handed it to the goddess of fire who'd settled onto a cushioned stone chair.
"Thank you, dear." Hestia took a long drink and fanned herself. "You'd think living in a fire all the time would make a little sun a snap to endure. I must be getting old."
Harmonia leaned over and gave her a hug before sinking down to rest against her knees. "You'll never be old, Aunt Hestia. You have to stick around for my children. I don't know what I'd do without you."
"You'd twist someone else around your little finger, young lady." Hestia's dry tones were at odds with the tender hand that combed through the long blond hair on her knee. "What's wrong, Harmonia?"
"I miss Mom. I'm worried about Daddy and Joxer." Harmonia tried to be calm but the frustration broke through. "And they've just sent me away like I was a child. It's just not fair."
"I know." Hestia moved a little restlessly herself and Harmonia raised up to watch her. "But you must realize how frightened your mother and father are. If I hadn't made Joxer immortal, he'd be dead and buried by now. Whether or not your father would have followed him, we'll never know. But feelings are running very deep right now." She sighed and took another drink of water. "Our edges are still quite raw."
Harmonia shivered in the warm sunlight, remembering Joxer's limp body, the blood on her dress and hands and the grief in her father's voice before he disappeared. "But we're gods, Aunt Hestia. We're immortal."
Hestia snorted. "Even gods can be killed, Harmonia. Zeus has always been able to dissolve one of us right back to our component elements. Normally, it takes, oh, five or six of our family to blast a god back to his or her original parts."
"We can do that?" Harmonia whispered.
"It's been a while since we've had to but if the need is there, then, yes we can."
Harmonia thought long and hard about that for a moment. "Have you ever ...?"
"It's been over six hundred years since we had to rid ourselves of a god." Hestia mused. "And, yes, I was one of the gods chosen by Zeus who helped with the actual dissolving. It takes a lot of energy and cooperation between the members of the team. I was drained for months afterward."
"Wow!" Harmonia was filled with curiosity. "Why didn't I know about that?"
"Because you didn't need to know. I certainly hoped it would be another six hundred years before I had to deal with the problem again." Hestia made a face. "What's worse about this one is that *if* she has all four element, she could probably dissolve one of us."
Harmonia sat up with a start. "What?"
"It's one of the reasons Aphrodite sent you away, child. She's worried that Ate will come after you. A child for a child." Hestia's tones were grim. "Either destroy you or use you as a hostage. You're young and have little experience with your elements. Ares gave you earth and 'Dite passed along air. I doubt you've been practicing much lately with either element."
Harmonia blushed at her aunt's dry accent. She had been goofing off lately. She made a solemn vow to start again. But that just brought up another thought. "What about you? Are you safe from her?"
"Yes and no. My elements are fire and air. Those are both new to her but she's proven she can handle air. We don't know if she's added fire, really but it's better to assume the worst." Hestia paused and took another sip, looking out over the rose garden. "I've built up a lot of power in the last few millennia. If she caught me off guard ... maybe she could take me." She looked down and must have seen Harmonia's look. "There are others more vulnerable than I. I'm a tough old bird, so don't you worry about me."
"No, of course, not." Harmonia spoke up quickly, wondering for the first time just how old Hestia was. She'd always just been there, small, plump and comfortable. Always willing to listen, tell a story or give good advice. Whenever she felt down or frightened, she always went straight to Aunt Hestia.
Her hand went up to the chain around her neck and the crystal that held a drop of Hestia's fire. The goddess of fire had given it to her yesterday, telling her that it would help light up the darkness. She blushed again, remembering how afraid she'd been in the cave where they found Daddy and Joxer until Hestia had made a light for her.
"What about Mom and Daddy? Are they in danger?"
Hestia hesitated a moment. "Yes, but no more so than any of the others. Our immediate family is more powerful than the . . . branches. Ate may decide to come after one of us, if only to get our attention. That's why you're here. The family is rather fond of you and would hate to lose you."
Harmonia leaned up and hugged her hard. "I love you too, Aunt Hestia."
Hestia returned the hug and murmured into her hair. Something soothing that comforted her young heart. She was just pulling away to suggest that they get back to work when the pain started. Relentless stabs of burning agony that pierced her through and through, bending her in two to roll on the ground.
Not even healing earth could take this pain away, flowing through her and racking her body into spasm. Then it was gone as suddenly as it had come. Cramps kinked her arms and legs into pin-cushions of pain. She stretched experimentally and slowly sat up, holding one hand to her aching head.
"What was that?" Harmonia asked her aunt uncertainly, only then discovering that Hestia was sitting slumped in her chair unconscious.
She knelt by her, checking her wrist for a pulse, afraid for a moment that there was none before the slow beat beneath her fingers reassured her. She brought over the water and began to bathe her face with the cool, damp napkin, flicking little drops of water onto the closed eyelids.
Hestia groaned softly and began to rouse, her gray eyes popping open with a start. She grabbed Harmonia's hand and held on tightly, almost hurting with the strength of her grip. "She did it. That woman did it!"
"Did what, Aunt Hestia? Who did what?"
"Ate killed Bacchus." The words sounded so final to Harmonia. So, that's what the death of a god felt like. I never did like Bacchus. He was so ... slimy.
Harmonia felt guilty immediately. She should be trying to think of something good about him but nothing came to mind. Then she sorted out some of the pictures the pain had masked in her thoughts and had to gulp hard to keep from retching. The blood and decapitated bodies of his Bacchae scattered before the wounded god like obscene offerings, filled her mind with his hatred and fear.
Hestia's hand jerked her chin up and snapped her out of the semi-trance into which she'd fallen. "Let it go, child. The pictures and emotions are quite real, unfortunately. They are what Bacchus felt and saw at the moment of his death. And sadly, they gave Ate a lot of power. The energy poured into her at his passing. It will take her a bit to incorporate all the power but not much time is left before we'll need to confront her. I just hope your father is in place."
"Daddy and Joxer were going to her power storage island?"
"Yes. They should be there by now." Hestia's thoughts were far away from her garden if the look on her face was any indication. Harmonia noticed the calculating look when the goddess of fire glanced down at her.
"If you need to be somewhere else, I'll understand." Harmonia had seen that look before on her mother's face. "There's sure to be chaos on Olympus after this. I'll just go back to work on the garden. I'll be safe."
Hestia's hand caressed her cheek. "I hate to leave you alone but everyone has a job to do. You could stay with the Muses?"
Harmonia rolled her eyes. "Oh, please! All they ever want to do is talk about men or their dusty old scrolls. I'll be fine here. Really!"
"Well, all right. You'll work on the roses but wear your hat. And you'll stay put and not get any ideas?" Hestia stirred restlessly and got up from the chair.
"I promise. I'll be good." Harmonia jumped up and hugged her once then stepped back and watched her disappear. It felt odd to be alone in the garden. Picking up the old straw hat, she plunked it on her head and reached for the trowel on the table. Weeds were one thing she could do something about.
After a half-hour weeding, she went into the small cottage and checked to see if any food had been delivered yet. The pharins, invisible servants that delivered the gods meals, usually came by this time of day, but with all the upset it appeared they hadn't today. So, she made do with the apples on the counter and some of the bread they'd had for breakfast.
Wandering outside again, she gazed out over the mountain top and the lovely garden that climbed the steep sides of the valley. Terraced with stone, the flower-beds rose in layer after layer of color. It was a lot of work to keep up the garden but she could see the appeal. While she was weeding or planting, there was no room in her thoughts for anything else.
Planting made her think of Joxer's rose bush sitting on the portico of Aphrodite's temple. Had she watered it before she left? Had anybody thought of it? Probably not. Aphrodite wasn't big on plants, although she did enjoy flowers, just not the work that went into growing them.
Looking over the rose garden near where she was sitting, she found the perfect spot for a pale pink rose. The Harmonia rose. It was so sweet of Joxer to name it after her. Suddenly, she ached with the need to hug her father and his mate. It just wasn't fair that Joxer could go with him but she couldn't.
Frowning, she brooded over the unfairness of life in general and her parents in particular. But the idea about planting the rose bush kept interrupting her sulk. It wouldn't exactly be staying put. But it wouldn't be getting in trouble. It would only take a few moments and I'd be right back here with the rose bush. Aunt Hestia wouldn't mind. She said Ate would have to take some time to gather in all the power.
Convincing herself, she whisked aback to the porch of her mother's temple and the forlorn bush that sat on the marble steps. Tsk-ing, she pulled off a few of the dead leaves and let them drop to the ground. Hefting it up in her arms, she took a deep breath before going back to Hestia's.
"Here you are, Harmonia Rose. Just look at all your pretty cousins in this flower-bed. I'm going to dig you a nice deep hole for your roots and then plant you safely in your very own spot that I've picked just for you. A nice cool drink of water and some sun and you'll be feeling better in no time." Talking to it made her feel better. Chloris had always told her that plants could hear every word you said.
Letting the pot down a little faster than she'd picked it up, Harmonia rubbed her arms a moment before picking up the shovel that Hestia had been using earlier and starting to dig. A few minutes later, the hole was just right and she patiently loosened the hard soil in the pot so she could get it off of the roots. She fought back a little cry of pain when the thorns scratched her but taking a careful grip, she was able to finally free the bush and set it in the hole.
Let's see, what did Aunt Hestia say about roots? Musing back on all the lessons, her hands carefully broke up the root ball and spread the tendrils out into the hole. Then, pushing back the soil heaped on the sides, she tamped down the earth so no air bubbles remained.
Jumping up, she got the ewer of water from the table and carefully watered the rose bush. Making sure it was evenly distributed, she wondered if she should get some more. Better let that settle and water it again tomorrow. Aunt Hestia said not to water too much at night. The gathering clouds obscured the sun and she shivered.
"There you go, Harmonia Rose. All safe and sound. I hope you like it here. I'm just going to go inside now and change my dress. This one is all muddy. So you just breathe in and out and let your roots settle. I'll come back tomorrow and see how you're doing." Giving it a last pet, she stood up and shook out her dress, which was indeed dirty with grass stains and muddy hand-prints.
Turning, she only had time for one step before a shimmering in the air heralded Hestia's return. Smiling happily, she began to talk almost before the shape completely appeared.
"Aunt Hestia, I hope you don't mind ..."
"Sorry, dear. Not Hestia. Just Ate come to pay a visit." The tall dark woman stood before her, gazing serenely at the disheveled figure before her. "I looked all over for you but until you came back for the rose bush, I didn't have a clue. The leaves linked me to the plant and voila, here I am. You're looking well."
Harmonia felt frozen. The same icy coldness that had numbed her when she saw Joxer die was back. Only this time it was worse because she knew this time it was her fault. Oh, Daddy!
"Cat got your tongue, dear? Such a lovely phrase, don't you think. So evocative of death and dismemberment." Ate turned her head slowly, taking in the garden around her. "All alone? Well, not for long, I'm sure. Bacchus' death caused somewhat of a panic among the others. I hurried through my meal of his power. Mustn't let them get complacent, I said to myself. Who next? Such decisions. I'm sure Hestia is on her way back."
Harmonia tried to disappear but her feet refused to leave the earth. Ate laughed and gestured at her. "Don't even think of it, my dear. You are leaving this bucolic little place, but not until I say so. Should we wait for Hestia or just leave now? Decisions, decisions."
She paced regally in the small glade, pausing to snap a crimson rose from its stem and inhale the fragrance. "A lovely garden if you like such things. Too much work for me, I'm afraid. But should you survive the coming battle, I will let you garden under my supervision. After all, what mother wouldn't want her child to have what she wanted."
She's mad. Quite, quite mad. Harmonia thought incoherently as she struggled to transport herself to safety. But she was glued to the earth and Ate watched her out of the corner of her eye with a horrid gloating look that made her want to scream.
Just when she thought she might scream anyway, Hestia shimmered into view. With a glance, she took in the situation and threw a fireball at Ate. Who deflected it with ease and sent one back at the elderly goddess. They traded blows with air and fire before the ground shook beneath their feet and Harmonia found herself free of the earth. Darting behind Hestia, she looked for a weapon to join her aunt in battle.
"Harmonia, get out of here, while I have her distracted. Go and get help." She was panting with the exertion and Harmonia protested at once. "No, get out now. It won't do either of us any good if she takes us both. I'll hold her off and you can bring help. Now, GO!" She sent a whirlwind of fire at Ate who disappeared then calmly walked out the other side.
"Is that the best you can do, Hestia? Really, I'm disappointed. Harmonia isn't going anywhere, are you, dear?" Gesturing at the teenager, Harmonia felt herself begin to twist out of shape. Hestia threw the ewer at Ate, distracting her for a brief moment.
Harmonia disappeared with a sob, knowing that Hestia didn't have a chance against the mad goddess. Thinking of Ares, she wished with all her heart to be with him again. Where ever he was, he'd know what to do. She felt the air twist around her, dissolving her then reassembling her on the deck of a ship. Her father was turning away from Joxer and she saw his eyes widen as he started towards her.
"Daddy, she has Aunt Hestia." Then the world turned dark and the last thing she felt was his strong arms going around her, holding her safe in a world gone mad.
End chapter 21