Continuing from the Prologue, here’s chapter 1 of Ages of Aenya. I will be posting chapters 2 and 3 in the coming days, up until Thursday, when I’ll be heading out to the post office to mail these out. It will be too late after that to give any constructive criticism, so if you have something to point out, or if you just want to show your support, now is the time!
|Billy Tacket drew the first ever Xandr, pulling this image straight out of my head. Notice the snail in the background. Also, Xandr is wearing a loincloth, though no self-respecting Ilmarin would bother.|
A Compass for Miseries
If the body is offensive, then it is offensive to be human.
—Sayings of Kjus
Again he planted his battle ax into the gelatinous head, squeezing slime from an antenna as he wrestled to keep seated aloft the snail’s olive-green shell. With that final stroke, the cloven head submerged without a squeal and the warrior slid from its neck to the rim of the marsh. Under the turquoise moon quartering the horizon, he gazed over his kill and spat, and cursed.
The sword strapped to his back reached over his shoulder, quivering with lust. He could feel its fire running to his ankles. But it would not taste blood. The attack had come from beneath the murky waters, offering little time to unsheathe Emmaxis, so the snail that fed on passersby met its fate instead by his readied ax.
Flakes of mud caked the clefts of his chest and days’ old blood marked his massive limbs. Scars told many tales across his body. But despite his hard edges, Xandr was like a nude god etched in timeworn granite. Only the eyes were soft, untarnished, seeming not to belong to him.
A curled maple leaf escaped from his palm and the autumn gale carried it beyond the brambles of the marsh. Against the crimson sky, it looked as if it might return, but Xandr was mistaken; it was no leaf he was seeing but a soaring shape, a wing taking form as it approached. He shielded his brow from the glare of the eclipsing sun and there was now a man where the shape had been, flecked with feathers gray as a pigeon from cresting scalp to winged heel. Familiarity unfastened the knots in the warrior’s temple and he loosened the grip on his ax.
“Ouranos!” he called through the gold tangles of beard that grew over his lips.
Shifting into a glide, with toes pointed down, the avian stretched into the wind and the feathered-membranes between his hips and wrists waxed to fullness.
“Ouranos,” he called again, his voice grown hoarse from lack of use. “What brings you from Nimbos?”
The avian studied him gravely, expressing disappointment. “Always to the point with you, eh, Xandr? No time wasted on formalities? No polite chatter regarding myself or the nest mate?”
The Ilmarin betrayed no feeling, scraping another layer of swamp from his chest to reveal the long winding scar that defined him.
Flexing his wing beyond his fingertips, Ouranos shimmered, his feathers changing hues like a peacock’s, from silver gray to shades of blue. “I should have known to find you in a place so inhospitable. Drowning your miseries in misery?”
Xandr knew the bird man hated this place, hated that he could not see to the edge of the world where the turquoise moon met the horizon. Here the surrounding growth choked the air with muddied greens and browns, boughs twisting at odd angles to meet the sky and vines of weeping willows drooping like maids in mourning. Only the smaller violet moon hemming the tree line beckoned with promise of hospitable lands beyond.
“This is no home for a human,” the bird man admonished. “When shall you return to the family of men?”
“Men are cruel and stupid things, and no longer interest me.”
“So you are satisfied here, in this Marsh of Melancholy?” Ouranos asked, his chirp pitching angrily. “You would be king among the . . . the mosquitoes?” Seeing how Xandr was unmoved by his reasoning, the avian changed tactics, twittering in a gentler tone. “How have your wounds healed since last we parted?”
“I have scars to remember you,” said Xandr, taking an overgrown root for a seat. “But the gorgons were lost to the tar pits.”
The avian let out a cacophony that was always strange to the Ilmarin’s ear, an amalgam of human laughter and a parrot’s squawking.
“How does the world look from above?” Xandr asked, loosing his shoulder length braid from the mud in his hair.
“All the lands are in disarray,” Ouranos replied. “Everywhere I look . . . suffering. This moon past, I spied a woman offering breast milk to her village, for her infant was stillborn and her people wasted with hunger.”
“All life is suffering; joy is but an aberration.” He picked a whetstone from his pouch and ground the fan shaped edge of his ax with long, lazy strokes. “The people can keep their miseries. I am done with them.”
Straining at the straps at his shoulders, Xandr impaled the ground with Emmaxis, setting the sword between them despite the bird man’s uneasiness. Ouranos disliked the way his reflection twisted about the sword’s skull face or how the blade remained flawless, without nicks or smudges of any kind. It was as if Emmaxis was perpetually born from the molten fire of a blacksmith’s furnace. Despite being five feet in length, the blade nearly vanished on edge. Once, Ouranos joked that “Emmaxis can cut you just by thinking about it.”
“Are your senses still attuned to the elements? Feel about you,” the avian implored, “there is great change in the wind. The seasons grow colder . . . Omens of change abound.”
Xandr’s braid whipped about as he turned from the bird man. “Let me alone.” Somewhere in the heart of the marsh, a beast brayed with agony as something massive snarled and stomped the ground. Numerous other things raised their voices in a fearful clamor, but Xandr gave it no heed. Only Ouranos’ milky, white on white pupils darted with apprehension. His bones were hollow and many a creature considered him prey.
“When will you stop wandering?” Ouranos continued, reaching with a feathered palm, “you cannot hope to outrun the gods nor unfasten the strings of Fate.”
“What do you know of human gods? Or of my Fate?”
“I am your only friend, Xandr, who but I would know? . . . It is ignoble to hold to the memory of the dead.”
Xandr’s fingers tightened about his sword, eyes fixed on the devilish intricacies of its hilt as though looking upon a long departed friend, paying no heed to the ear pinching whine of the fist sized dragonmoth—a poison shade green with wiry tendrils—which floated up from the moon to drink from the snail’s corpse.
“The dead . . . is all I have.”
“No!” Ouranos objected. “There are others . . . I have seen them . . . I—”
The Ilmarin’s expression shifted, the blue of his eyes receding under the shadow of an angry brow, a warrior once more. “Have you simply come here to torment me? Away with you, bird man!”
“No, I’ve come to deliver a message.”
“A message?” Xandr sat dumbfounded. He could not imagine who besides Ouranos could know him to deliver a message. For the past half decade he lived as a recluse, scavenging for food, sleeping—whenever fortunate—under shade of wood fronds.
“Eclipses ago, a human climbed to the Tower of Heaven, a feat we once believed impossible. He hailed from the city by the Sea, from the capitol of the Hedonia Empire. They are at war, he said, with the waterlings, with those they call merquid.
“It is strange that this should happen now, that waterlings should rise against groundlings when they’ve coexisted for untold millennia. I fear it is a sign of the darkening times. But no matter! The Hedonian spoke of the Batal of Legend. He paid a talent of gold so that we seek him out, and so I knew I had to find you, as you are the only one who has spoken this name to me: Batal.”
The word floated in the air between them, no less poisonous than the dragonmoths gathering at the corpse of the sinking snail.
“Those are men whose bones have long become dust,” Xandr replied. “. . . For all anyone truly knows, they may be less . . . they may never have been at all. No more than lies.”
“Myths are not lies, but tales to inspire others,” Ouranos corrected. “And I was sent to find this Batal, to deliver the plea of Urukjinn, and as I believe you are this person, to your ears shall this plea be given!”
“Urukjinn? Should I know him?”
“He is the High Priest of the Sargonus Temple. Lead a contingent of hoplites against the merquid and he promises his virgin daughter to you in wedlock, with such a dowry as to make any man king.”
Xandr’s fingers ran through his beard skeptically as Ouranos let a grin escape him. The avian had hit upon something, not the promise of love or riches but something else, a choice of words that intrigued the barbarian. “Dowries and spoon fed princesses do not entice me. What of Nimbos? Is the Council of Azrael too cowardly to lend arms?”
“Since the age of the Zo we’ve kept to the mountains, that we never know war. You know this, Xandr. No groundling or waterling has ever posed a threat to us. If we were besieged, then perhaps . . . But do you not think this is what you’re meant for, to be hero to these people?”
“Avian cowards!” Xandr spat. “Your tongues should be cut off to speak of heroism! Even so, there’s no Batal—it is a fiction born of hope, of desperate fears by desperate men.” He tugged his sword southward, but the blade remained fixed in the damp soil. “I shall go my own way!” he barked, half-speaking to the weapon. With that, Emmaxis surrendered into a wild arc, nearly kissing Ouranos’ lip.
Still gripping the hilt, Xandr turned on his heel like a weathervane against a changing wind, sword parallel to the horizon. Ouranos stared with amusement, his feathery eyebrow arching. “It points you to Hedonia.”
The Batal cursed and spat as he wrestled with the weapon. A shaft of sun ran platinum white along its side till its tip shone like a jewel against the West.
“It is your destined path.”
“No, Emmaxis follows blood. It is,” he added tiredly, “a compass for miseries. Remember that its name means blood spiller in the Ilmarin tongue. It senses war, an opportunity for slaughter.”
“That sword is the closest you’ll come to love,” Ouranos said. “I suggest you do as it wills.”
“Should I do that,” Xandr replied, “you would be dead. But perhaps there is something there for me . . . in Hedonia.” Under heavy gold brows wet with mist, Xandr maintained a contemplative gaze, like a master painter before an empty canvas.
“I am uplifted by your change of heart and shall tarry no longer,” Ouranos replied. “Farewell, my friend, and good journey.” The avian caught the gale, the feathers of his wings bristling and billowing with fullness till he began to rise, and with a sweep of his arms he was distant again.
Irrigation channels split the field about the crook of the river, radiating from a hilltop like the spokes of a wheel. The huts that followed the water’s course were of thatched straw and stacked dung with spaces left open for windows. Lone doors hung open, captive to the irregular whims of the wind. Age old chips of paint hinted at better days. A three-legged beet dog was losing a race against a lanky rooster, looping in circles about the village square.
Children were curious enough to approach him, pocking the hard earth with bare feet, wondering at the sword and ax jangling with each of his steps. Those with older relatives were snatched up with frightened whispers. A few women moved about hastily, their wicker baskets and sun baked ceramics teetering overhead, their stares hidden under their shawls. None greeted the Ilmarin.
Finding no inn or tavern, the stranger accosted a man hacking at rows of dirt with a rust-flaked hoe. Beside him, a humpbacked aurochs shackled to a plough hoofed at clay, its frilled horns crisscrossing over the two men. “Blasted scrabs,” Xandr heard him grumbling, “They’re more of them each season!”
“What place is this?” said Xandr.
The man nudged the brim of his hat to take a better look at the stranger, his nose dipping under his beard as he spoke. “No place you’d want to be, I can assure you. Most folk pass through here don’t know they did. But should anyone ask, this here’s Akkad.”
“You are different from the others of your village.”
“Oh?” the farmer replied. “And how’s that?”
“You do not fear me.”
“Should I?” A chuckle caught in his throat. “Fools just haven’t been around long as me. On the planet, that is. Naked as the day your mother pushed you from the womb and with those eyes of yours; only Ilmarin-folk have eyes so fair.”
Xandr smiled. “You have a gift.”
“And you’re a well built fellow, even for a wild man,” he said, straining under a crooked spine. “You might not be some kind of god now, are you?”
“I confess, no.”
“Always good to be kind to strangers, see, never know when they might be a god.”
“You have nothing to fear from me. Your kindness is your own.”
Even as he said this, Xandr could sense the man’s growing unease. It was not an uncommon reaction. But the farmer was more intrepid than most and Xandr did not have to ask the reason. Loss was camouflaged beneath the old man’s unassuming demeanor; a plague or raid had likely stolen his wife and children and such men feared neither the loom of Fate nor the scythe of the Taker.
“How grow the crops this season?”
“Scrabs,” he replied. “I’ll be damned if you don’t need a pickax to crack those buggers. They chew up my roots, but you can turn ‘em into a nice soup and bowl. I only just got planting: ollyps, blums, watermelon grapes, napshins, hockenberries, tomatoes, the usual sort of thing, but harvest is small, seems less so each year. I say . . . we’re headed to famine.”
“Perhaps the Mother Goddess shall favor you.”
“Well, sure is hot this day,” he replied with a hesitant wipe of his brow, unsure of which goddess was meant. “I’d be grateful just for a cool wind.”
“Can you show me the way to Hedonia?”
“You mean you don’t know? I thought every man knew that. All roads lead to Hedonia, or so they say.
“Look,” he said, “Don’t you see it?” Silhouettes of obelisks and rotundas, no bigger than his thumb, stretched across the turquoise moon like a chain of mountains. In the distant haze, the city looked like a mirage, like some great masted ship drifting in the ether. “Follow the Phayus to the Sea.”
“I am thankful it’s so near. I expected another cycle of walking . . .”
“You may yet,” the old man replied. “Those monuments are monstrous.” His bitterness for the place was evident on his tongue. Even his aurochs rattled the leathers of its harness and brayed with distaste. “Tell me, son, why go to Hedonia?”
“I am summoned there.”
“Well, you can’t go as you are . . . an Ilmarin in the capital!” He again attempted a laugh, but his mouth was too full of dust. “You’ll be turned away at the gate! I was . . . once, when my wife was ill. Dressed too much like a beggar, they told me. Haven’t you anything at all to wear?”
“Nothing but a strap for my sword,” Xandr replied. “In the untamed lands there’s no need for such trappings, and I have long to join the company of other men.”
“Don’t trouble yourself,” the farmer replied. “I got boots to spare, made from my own hide. Well, not my hide, but you figure my meaning. In lunar days I work as a tanner. It helps when so many shoe worn travelers pass through here seeking the city.”
Xandr could not tell whether the offer was out of kindness or a plea for self-preservation. Oftentimes, it was some measure of both. “I am grateful, but have no coin for it.”
“Alas,” he said with pity, “truly, there are no poorer folk than Ilmarin folk.”
“I am not—we are not poor!” Xandr said to him. “No man is poor who wants for nothing. An Ilmarin needs only a weapon. All else the Goddess provides.”
“Pff!” he intoned, waving Xandr away. “Blessed by Sargonus are those who show kindness to a stranger. But be forewarned: should you find yourself caught in the wheels of civilization, sooner than you realize you’ll be laboring like my beast to repay some debt. A land of riches, sure, but those who go there hunger for want of the soul, living to forever quench their greed, their appetite for wine and meat, their lust.”
“Do not preach to me, old man,” Xandr said angrily. “When my people made their exodus from their lands, the men were made beggars and our women, as they were beautiful, were taken to wedlock and forced to denounce their traditions. I know of civilized men.”
“Now I meant no offense and I apologize if you took it that way. Sargonus watch over you.”
With the farmer’s words fresh in his ears, Xandr took shelter under a eucalyptus which had sprung up from the riverbank. Bathing in the Potamis—what was here called the Phayus—could wait till sunrise.
Watch the sky.
As he did so, Eon chased Solos’ chariot behind the greater moon in the celestial ritual that turned day to night, and slowly he drew forth Emmaxis, gazing at his distorted, shimmering reflection across the blade. He had days to succumb to the lure of sleep for only after terrible weariness did the dread and pain become forgotten. Gold and turquoise and violet streaked the dying sky and in shifting clouds he sought familiar faces. And one by one, the stars emerged, glinting like tips of daggers.
Continue to: Chapter 2: Jewel of the Sea