The SIX Greatest Fantasy Novels of All Time

I’ve been wanting to make this list for a long time, a greatest of, but strictly for fantasy novels. So this list excludes a lot of great books, like the Sci-Fi masterpiece that is Frank Herbert’s Dune. I also left out things that could be construed as fantasy, but also fall into other genres, like Marry Shelley’s Frankenstein. Children’s books, some of which are just as wonderful, like the Velveteen Rabbit, are also out, as are comics, despite being great works of art in their own right (Watchmen and The Sandman immediately come to mind). Also missing, anything written more than one hundred years ago (sorry Homer!).

If you’ll notice, there are a great deal of young adult books on this list. This kind of came as a surprise to me too. I suppose young adult novels possess the kind of nostalgic, wistful, boundless imagination that I love. They also tend to have more heart. I do not really count world-building among my priorities, after all. For me, story is everything, followed closely by character. If a book also has a nice, fully realized setting, that’s just frosting on the cake, but it can in no means take the place of the cake itself.


1. The Once and Future King by T.H. White

This is the very best telling of one of the very best myths. It’s the story of King Arthur, Sir Lancelot, and Guinevere, with everything you might want out of fantasy. But more importantly, T.H. White pulls at the heart strings while teaching you lessons about life, love, and loyalty.


2. The Never Ending Story by Michael Ende 

On the surface, The Never Ending Story is children’s fare, but on a much deeper level, the land of Fantastica with its strange and magical inhabitants serves as a continuing metaphor for the many facets of human desire, from simple wants like strength and security to the need to be admired, respected, and even feared. Like many other books in the genre, The Never Ending Story explores themes of identity and “absolute power corrupting absolutely” but Ende works it into his story effortlessly, with subtlety and deep insight.


3. The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

Peter S. Beagle is one of the great novelist-poets of our time. His prose is literary music, his fiction is story in its purest form. The Last Unicorn is a created myth that doesn’t feel created, but like something found hidden in a fairy wood. For all those people who argue that we should abandon poetic style because it distracts from the story, I challenge you to read Beagle. If anything, beautiful writing is the special effects of books (you can quote me on that!).


4. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

Of course I had to include Tolkien on this list, but sorry, ringers, Lord of the Rings is not the Bible of fantasy for this reader. The Hobbit is more charming, has a lot more humor, and is much less plodding than its bigger sibling. It is also superbly written, with such wonderfully descriptive passages that every future fantasist felt compelled to imitate it, thus ruining the fantasy genre forever.


5. Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock

In the category of originality, Mythago Wood takes top honors. This mystery tale is compelling while dodging the pitfalls of excessive exposition. And, just like Beagle and Tolkien, Holdstock manages to not only tap into that subconscious part of the brain (or is it heart?) where fantasy lives, but deconstructs it, making fantasy and the imagination itself the theme of his book.

 

6. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

The most crucial part of making a fantasy series is laying down the foundation. Sorcerer’s Stone not only creates a world you immediately want to live in, but it’s the only book in Rowling’s seven part series that stands on its own. Most of what came after, with few exceptions, is a retelling of this wonderful tale.


Disagree with my picks? Read something better? Post away!

Ages of Aenya (2012): Chapter 3

Chapter 3

Jewel of the Sea

Cities rise and fall with the tide. Gods of stone and symbol vanish in the winds of ages. But the children of Alashiya are eternal.
—Sayings of Kjus
Trident of the Hedonian Navy
Banners rippled in the air, blue and tapered and hemmed with tassels, each with a truncated trident emblazoned in gold. Bridging each tower, battlements rose and fell with the slope of the land atop which hippocampus-driven chariots patrolled two-by-two.
A multitude of peoples crashed in waves against the city’s arches, moneylenders from Thetis, fishermen from Thalassar, craftsmen from Northendell, and traders from the far eastern province of Shemselinihar. It was a canvas of disparate humanity; lizard jerkins mingled with distantly embroidered tunics; pleated kilts married striped djellabas; clanking chain mail challenged revealing chitons. Many were of a displaced people, Xandr knew, populations which—due to invasion or famine—no longer possessed lands to call their own. Whether any were of his race, there was little way of knowing. Despite the plethora of customs, only Ilmarin fashion—the complete absence of fashion—was shunned here. From the time he stumbled as a boy out of Ilmarinen, his nakedness was met with ridicule or pity. The few that knew of the Ilmar spoke of them as if less than human. After a time, he learned that the world’s civilized races hated that mankind should share any affinity to beasts of the wild.
Continuing down to the coastline, a multitude of tongues jarred his ears, as few could be counted to converse in the same dialect. Hedonian speech, which to the Ilmarin sounded overly syllabic and flowery, was omnipresent, contorted to suit the enunciations of conquered languages. Adding to the noise was the twang of the sitar player’s F-string, the trombone-like bray of a saurian as it tugged at the chains tethered to its three gilded horns, the purr of the green striped sabertooth pacing in its cart, the sympathetic applause for a strongman swinging his daughter from the rope in his teeth, the chiming of the merchant nomads’ wares—from ivory prayer beads to wards of eyeball-and-hand.
Under the dizzying height of the central gate’s topstone, centurions directed the traffic of emigrants, gleaming like bronze golems, abstracts of tridents emblazoned along their convex arms. It was not long before Xandr’s weapons drew attention away from the merchants and beggars. Two men accosted him. Their horsehair crested helmets, too hot for peacetime, were tilted away from their faces. One was newly ripened to manhood, and though weighted and stewing in his bronze, hopped from sandal to sandal with naïve exuberance. The other was in his middle years, idling against the lip of his hoplon. He had a wary look about him and his breastplate with its dull polish and clawed grooves gave evidence of battle.
“From what land do you hail?” he asked, swatting at mammoth-flies with his miniature cat-o’-nine-tails.
“I am from a land far off,” Xandr replied.
“And what business do you have in the capital?” he droned, grown bored with the words.
“I was summoned by your priest.”
“There are some three hundred clerics here. You will have to give me a name, or—”
“Urukjinn,” Xandr intoned, hiding, as best as he could manage, his newfound longing to tear the soldier’s head from the collarbone.
“What?” the fresh faced soldier interrupted, “Do you mean to say the High Priest of the Sargonus Temple? Summoned you?” Incredulously, he glanced toward his companion, “summoned him?”
Ignoring the youth’s presence entirely, the hoplite studied Xandr with a mix of contempt and revulsion. “The priest does not summon . . .,” he began, but judging the Ilmarin by the kilt and boots, and the immense sword mirroring his face, he could not decide whether to call him beggar or barbarian.
“I am . . . the Batal,” he admitted through clenched teeth. “Now let me through.”
“You!” the younger man exclaimed. “You are the Batal? I’d heard you were eleven feet tall.”
“Please, Finias, no one asked what you’ve heard, nor does anyone care.”
A man at the dusk of boyhood, Xandr saw him now for the first time. Brother Zoab taught how worlds existed with only one moon or none at all. On Aenya, the greater and smaller moon affected every aspect of culture and language. Infinity was synonymous with the positive, greater attributes, whereas the small moon served as a metaphor for the lesser. A child of ill-health was born under Eon. A man of sizeable stature was named after Infinity. But this Finiasdisplayed no characteristics one could call greater. His greaves, breastplate and helm boasted more intricate etching than those of his comrade, but they fit him loosely. No doubt he was of an aristocratic house, his armor an heirloom from his father or grandfather.
“Well, what do you think?” Finias asked sheepishly. “Should we let him through? Could he be the Batal of Legend?”
“Oh, I’m certain of it!” the other man answered, swinging and missing the mammoth fly buzzing at his ear. “As are the other dozen Batals raving in our streets! You’ve been filling your head with too much bard shit, kid. But as I’m in no mood to scuffle with muscled lunatics, there’s no sense turning him away. Escort him to First Commander. He’ll have fun with him.” Eyeballing Xandr, he added, “I warn you, vagrants coming here making brouhaha end up dead, or worse, in the dungeons.”
Sun baked roof tiles and fluted marble sprawled across their plane of view as Xandr and Finias passed under the arch and into the city. Further into Hedonia, Xandr’s senses drowned in the exotic. There were carpets of obscene complexity draped in loose piles, children perched in niches high above the streets tapping bronze into plate ware, housewives fingering spinning mud into pottery. Aromas from a thousand different nations confounded his nostrils, from mounds of powdered saffron to barrels of almonds.
“This is the market district,” Finias remarked. “Long ago it was a temple complex, I think, but it’s turned to ruin.
“Um, there are many things to do here,” he went on, stealing nervous glances at the man towering by his side. “From the looks of you, you’ve never seen a city.”
“I have,” Xandr replied.
“Ah, but no city like Hedonia, I’d wager. All the delights of the world can be found here. That’s why Hedonia’s called the Jewel of the Sea! If you like, we can go to the stadium to see the chariots, or perhaps the gladiators would better suit someone of your . . . er, profession. Father took me to the fights when I was little, said it would make me a man, but I was sickened by the blood. He also took me to the races. I liked it better.”
“I have no interest in any of that,” said Xandr. “Just show me to the priest.”
“Yes, sir.” Finias shifted uncomfortably under his shoulder plates. “I don’t suppose you’d care for the theater? There are several performances showing right now by some of our finest dramatists. One of them, I believe, is about you.”
Xandr paused in mid-stride, noticing the second wall curtaining the horizon. “About me?”
“Truly!” he said, beaming with enthusiasm. “It’s called, Batal and the Floating City of Abu-Zabu. I mean, the actor doesn’t share your build, of course, but actors are meant for acting, not brawling. He does have a booming voice, though . . . you can hear him all the way in the two-mite seats, which is good because I can scarcely afford better. But it’s quite a riot, watched it seven times already. It’s about your, you know, your adventures, about how you slew the two-headed giant of Abu-Zabu.”
“Did I now?” Xandr’s lips eased into a smile, the whites of his teeth growing visible through the tangles of his hair. “I was not aware of that.”
Courage crept into Finias’ voice, though he failed to look the barbarian eye to eye. “So, did you really slay the two-headed giant of Abu-Zabu?”
“No. I’ve never seen a two-headed giant, nor heard of a place called Abu-Zabu.”
“Oh.” Drained of his eagerness, the boy engrossed himself in the pavers on the street, counting the ones that were missing. “But if you didn’t slay the giant,” he went on, tapping a pebble from his sandal, “you must not be the one we hoped for, the Batal of Legend, I mean.”
“You are fond of speech,” Xandr admitted.
“Oh, that’s true, sir.”
When they arrived before the shadow of the second gate, Xandr peered down the alleyway framed by the face of an old library and the inner wall. Under dimly glowing lanterns, he could make out the tents that served as homes and the peasants in their soiled and tattered clothing.
“Do not go that way!” Finias called to little avail. “It is a wretched place . . .”
An aged man sat amid his possessions, rattling a pair of obol in his tin. With a shift of his head, the man recited, as he had countless times before, “Good sirs, sit a spell and be moved, if you will. I am no mere beggar, but a proud legionnaire of the Stygian campaign, who lost his sight to heathen hands. Alas, I cannot longer work, and only ask a pittance for a respectable burial.”
Finias lurched suddenly, kicking the man with his greave. “Get moving, worm! And take your rubbish with you. You know you can’t make your homes here.”
“Let him be!” Xandr cried, surprised by the youth’s sudden assertiveness. But already the old man was fleeing, making a trail of his belongings.
“But . . .” Finias muttered, “they’re the basest class! They sleep in their own piss!”
“He said he was a legionnaire.”
“Oh, they all say that. And they don’t belong here along the tower wall, Demacharon said so. Muck up the whole place with their filth. Besides, he could have robbed you.”
“If I am here to face merquid, feeble paupers should hardly pose a threat to me. Do that again and you shall know my might first hand.”
The Hedonian shrank away. “Forgive me.”
Xandr scowled. Could someone of Ilmarin birth have been treated here with such cruelty? “I thought such men were turned away at the gates.”
“That’s the whole point, isn’t it? Hedonia’s bursting with such riffraff. Can’t keep them all out, you know, it’s a big city, and now we have gill knocking on our gates from the other side.”
“Have you seen them?”
“Who? The gill?” he said, answering his own question, “no, not yet, but from what I’ve heard, well . . . they do give me the creeps.”
Unabated, Xandr and Finias ventured deeper into the shadows, where the glow of sun and moons was absent. His guide kept close behind as disturbing revelations set upon his innocent eyes.
“I’ve never been this far in,” Finias admitted. “I’m no longer a guide here.”
The Ilmarin paid him no heed. “So . . . this is where Hedonia hides its poor and downtrodden,” he said quietly. “Did your father never show you this?”
“No, sir. He died a long time ago, on a campaign to liberate the barbarians.”
Children huddled near a flame to roast pigeons and rodents. Peasants mottled with boils shuddered with fever. A few bodies lay wedged between stone embankments as feasts for mammoth flies. A newborn wailed like a distant squawking bird, its pleas going unanswered.
Someone called to them from below in a voice so strained from lack of use it could hardly be recognized as a woman’s. She had not reached the third season of her life, yet her face was split from years of worry, where soot had set too deeply to be washed away. Dark strands, never knowing the touch of a blade, reached long across her face, and many spindly legs skittered freely between each hair. Finias stepped away, shielding his nostrils with a raised forearm, but Xandr knelt beside the woman, gazing honestly upon her. Her eyes were clear, he could see, as they were so often washed by tears.
“What do you want?” he asked her.
She straightened, letting the ox hide slip from her knee to reveal a thigh. “One copper drachma,” she answered, pointing to the upturned helmet in her lap, “for half a moon passing.” She worked up a smile but it was hardly sincere.
Xandr turned to his companion. “Give her what money you have.”
“B-But, sir!” he stammered. “If this is what you crave, I assure you, there are better women to be had in Hedonia! This is not the place for us! Come away with me to the Temple of Irene, choose from the youngest stock, from the most lovely females the Empire has to offer, any hair, skin, or shape you fancy . . .,” but seeing how the barbarian remained unmoved, the Hedonian added, “for the right price, there are the sacred virgins, trained in the arts of love without ever knowing a man’s touch . . .”
“I care not for whores!” Xandr cried. “Give her what money you have and I will repay you in blood on the battlefield.”
The soldier emptied his purse into the woman’s lap. Falling on her hands and knees, she poured the contents onto the cobblestone, counting four gold drachmae and two copper. Fearing she might be deceived, she hurried the gold into her mouth, bent the soft metal between her molars. With that, she lifted her eyes to Xandr, awestruck.
As he motioned to leave, she loosened her tunic, and they could see her pale flesh stretching tightly over her ribs.
“No,” he said, turning again.
“Please, kind sir,” she murmured, “Do not shame me. Of all the times I’ve lent this body for copper, let it now be for gold.”
He snatched up the tunic, thrusting it violently into her arms.
“Mercy.” Casting her face in shame and shadow, she motioned to a bundle against the crumbling wall. “Would you like . . . my daughter instead? S-She’s older than she looks . . . and she has experience . . .”
With that, the Ilmarin’s mood changed so frightfully, even Finias was made to tremble. “Away from me, whore! And with this,” he added, indicating the coins in her hand, “buy back, if you can, her innocence.”
As the two strangers retreated to the façade that was Hedonia, a pair of eyes followed, shining like emeralds amid the squalor and the shadows, hidden in that den of man’s waste and the waste that had been made of men.
***
Throughout the city, in bronze relief across doorways and on marble pedestals, in armor donned by stone goddesses and flesh and blood soldiers, everywhere a traveler could look, Xandr noticed the varied forms of the trident. In some instances, the standard of Hedonia was garlanded by laurel leaves. Elsewhere, the trident included flanking hippocampi. But as they neared the Coast of Sarnath, it was more often a rising sail from the mast of a trireme. The naval trident, as Finias called it, greeted them at the door of the First Commander.
Demacharon was a broken man. It was clear to see upon meeting him, though Xandr could not tell where he was broken or what had broken him. Weaving across his handsome face, a violet discoloration divided his cheek and chin, a scar having not healed properly. But it was little clue to his brokenness, as Demacharon wore the deformity like a medal of honor.
“What have you brought me now, Finias?” he asked without ceremony. “Another cliché?” A map spread across the granite slab between them and Xandr noticed the Empire’s chalk outline, which the neighboring kingdoms could never have agreed to. Hedonia encompassed all the lands from the Dead Zones in the West to the Dark Hemisphere in the East.
“Um . . .,” Finias stammered, “this is Xander. He claims to be the Batal of Legend.”
“Excellent,” the commander replied. “We’re saved.”
“Yes, um, and he seeks audience with the High Priest.”
“Oh?” He sighed with distaste, lifting his eyes to study the newcomer. “Few men look upon the High Priest. What makes you believe you’re worthy of the honor?”
“It is no honor for me,” said Xandr, “I merely answered a summons.”
“A summons?” he replied, and as if there was no reasonable way to reply, he turned to the young escort. “Finias, go do something useful, will you? Go clean my steed.”
“Yes, sir!” he exclaimed, slamming a fist against his breastplate. “Strength and Honor, sir!” he cried, making an overly dramatic about face before marching out of the room.
“Yes, yes, strength and honor,” Demacharon said warily, waving him off.
As the sound of Finias’ clanking bronze softened, Demacharon leaned across the empire. “You’re a long way from home. Yes, I know what you are—the refugees we’ve taken in over the years have the most difficulty adjusting to . . . modesty.” He added the word carefully, testing Xandr’s composure.
“To modesty or shame?” The thought of other Ilmar passing through the city made his heart thrum, but Xandr’s hardened face betrayed no emotion.
“And what would you know of shame? Or anything for that matter?” Demacharon exclaimed. “You’re kind prefer living where deserters go in exile.” He stood, revealing the naval emblem of trident and trireme across a bronze breast, the wine dark blue of his cape swaying from his shoulders. “But you can fornicate with swine for all anyone cares. Leave the moralizing to the moralists, I say. My citizens and I fear only one thing, and we have it in great supply: xenophobia—a distrust of strangers, especially those with points of view.”
Despite the commander’s harsh words, Demacharon did not elicit the same reaction as the guard at the wall. There was sincerity in his convictions that made it difficult for Xandr to hate the man.
“So what’s your story?” he went on. “Witness many awful things in the untamed lands?”
“No worse than on your campaigns,” Xandr replied. “Though my hands are clean of innocent blood.”
The commander grinned appreciatively. “We’ve beaten back the wild so that men might live free of terror. The lives of a few short-sighted dissenters are a small price to pay. Besides, our hands rinse clean in the holy waters of the Sargonus Temple.”
“Do they?”
Demacharon stood by the tower window. A glorious vista spread before him, the center of the city, and beyond it, the surrounding cityscape with its gleaming marble colonnades, magnificent rotundas, and pediments lined with gods. At its extremity, the land sloped to the opposing city wall, where blue and white roared and rocked against silhouettes of long narrow hulls and masts as numerous as shafts of wheat in a field. Xandr was no stranger to the Sea, yet so much water never failed to impress him. Even at such distance, the salty air was intoxicating.
“My father was a legionnaire,” he said slowly, “as his father before him. The cause has been in my family for generations, and you think to barge into my chambers, lob a few pointed words at me and alter my loyalties?”
Xandr was tempted to argue but chose the course of discretion.
Now Xandr could see, through the opening in the wall, the monument complex casting its shadow over the city. In a perfect rectangle of green, the Temple of Sargonus stood in gleaming white and gold, mirrored in a pool of equal dimension, flanked by six obelisks that stabbed at the turquoise moon. It was a three-sided pyramid flat at the apex, with a ramp of steps ascending from its base to the arched recess at its center.
The Ilmarin was dumbfounded, speaking only as words came to mind. “What giants could have built such a thing?”
“No giants,” Demacharon replied. “Unless men can be called giants. Slaves and freemasons, tens of thousands, laboring for decades before the time of the High Priest Callusa. Impressive, isn’t it? I’ve dragged holy men prepared to meet the Taker before the Temple and watched them renounce their gods, watched them grovel in humility.” After a pause, he added, “I don’t know what his Eminence thinks you can achieve—even if you weresent from Nimbos. I never would have thought it possible, the Batal an Ilmar, a small degree above animal . . . yet if his Eminence believes, I must also. But mind your tongue before him. Nature worship is a heresy in Hedonia, and heresy is punished by death.”
Hedonian sunrise, courtesy of Evan Kyrou

 

Ages of Aenya (2012): Chapter 2

 Chapter 2

Dreams of Ilmarinen

Let me run the hills of Ilmarinen
With soles in soil and grass
where braids play the gale
And sun splashes sharp shoulders
I wrap the sky around me
And birth myself to freedom
Let the universe swell my lungs
And stars scorch my heart
my feet pound the river rock
as I run the hills of Ilmarinen
—A song of the Solstice Night

Hand over foot, the young boy managed his way to the top of the plateau. The air was crisp about his pores and the green scent of the Goddess filled his lungs. His arms spread across the horizon, across the turquoise crescent that was Infinity, the greater moon. The other moon, Eon, glittered like an amethyst in the morning sky. Melting snow cascaded beneath his battered soles, vanishing into mists below, the water gathering, pooling over sheets of rock, feeding into the sun gilded Potamis River. A thousand shades met his eyes, from the jade of the leaves to the amber of the oaks to the purple of the ilms. To the north, the Mountains of Ukko met the heavens like strokes of gray-white chalk.
Apart from his sword’s baldric and the lapis lazuli in his braid, the young monk was clad in nothing but sky, with all the ground his shoes and the sun his coat. The sword and the blue mineral were his only accoutrements, but he was more interested in the stone, remembering the girl who had given it to him; she had a pleasing face and an easy gait and he admired the skill with which her henna was applied, the pattern running up her thigh to form an arrow between her breasts.
Effortlessly, his hands and feet met the nooks in the olive tree’s roots. Descending the hill, he spotted his mentor rounding the path.
“Queffi!” the boy called. “I am here!”
QuasiI did not appreciate Xandr’s sudden disappearances, but never punished the boy’s eagerness to explore. Blinded by the sunbeam flaring off the old man’s scalp, the boy suppressed the urge to laugh. It was not as if his mentor lacked for hair; his ash white locks reached to the middle of his back and his silver streaked beard concealed the whole of his collarbone. But the top of his head was as barren as the western hemisphere.  
“Recite the names again,” his mentor droned, steadying himself on his quarterstaff.
What enthusiasm Xandr had shown earlier that morning drained from his voice. Not ecology. Again. Why couldn’t they learn more about saurians or mammoths or horgs? He doubted he would ever face mortal danger from an elm.
“High in the canopy there, I see a camphor tree, with elms all about it . . .”
“Good.”
But these trees were easy to name. Oak and camphor were made into homes, its wood integrated with the living whole, a good example, QuasiI loved to remind him, how every life is connected. Lesser known flora, like the dead looking baobab tree, Xandr mistook for a fledgling oak, for which his mentor had rapped him on the head.
They continued on, the boy directing his mentor to things he was certain to recognize, through a grove of twisting bark with dull green leaves. “. . . and these here, of course, are olive trees . . .” The fruits were small and flat, not yet ripe for the beating. It’s odd, he mused, how the younger limbs are smooth but the trunk and the older branches are rough and gnarled . . .
“Xandr!” a voice rumbled. “Focus! What of these flowers here?”
The boy suppressed a groan. “Um . . . blue orchids?”
“They are blue, indeed, but only look like orchids. Did you forget?” Disappointment gnarled his mentor’s face, making him look more like an olive tree. “You must not forget the names of the Goddess, or she will forget you.”
“Yes Queffi, that is true, but—”
QuasiI bent to example a sapling, thumbing the tiny leaves between thumb and forefinger. He was not so different from his pupil, often distracted, aloof, but Xandr’s respect for him never lessened. Despite his great age, his mentor’s hands looked strong enough to squeeze water from a rock. And QuasiI knew things no one else did. He could tell when rain was to fall days in advance; he knew the age of any plant by touch alone; and he referred to each animal as part of a great family, explaining how the rabbit was cousin to the deer and the deer to the ornith.
Every year on the morning of the Solstice, the keepers would descend to the village to select among the wisest of the youth a protégé to be raised in the monastery. A boy or girl showing an aptitude for metallurgy was taught the secrets of metals, and after a lifetime of study was expected to replace their mentor as Keeper of Metallurgy. So it went with all the secrets of the universe. But Xandr was unlike the others. For as long as he could remember, he lived with the keepers, and though he cared little for plants, he was expected to know everything about them. As QuasiI often reminded him, the discipline of ecology was the greatest of all the sciences, but Xandr could not bring himself to agree. He much preferred tales of the Zo with their planet spanning cities and fantastic machines and weapons. The boy could not understand why the Ilmar, despite seemingly limitless knowledge, had no such things as the Zo—why the Ilmar were, in fact, forbidden possessions of any kind. Whenever he asked the keepers about it, he was simply told, “You are the Batal,” and nothing more.      
“Shall we go over flowers, then?” QuasiI suggested.
Leaves crackled and seeds popped underfoot as the boy circled. Xandr was a jumble of energy, nimbly ducking branches and hopping roots. “Queffi . . . there are things I wish you to teach me that you never have.”
“Such as?” He arched a bushy eyebrow, knowing what weighed upon his pupil’s heart, and the boy knew it also, knew his mentor was testing him.
Xandr decided to ask a simple question first, to loosen his mentor’s tongue. “I want to know of the things beyond Ilmarinen. Is it true that in the lands south of the river, people must cover their bodies?” 
“It is true,” he said matter-of-factly. “Clothing, or fabric, is woven from many different plants, animal skins as well. The most common method is the loom, by which—”
“Queffi!” the boy interrupted. “That is not what I wanted to know.”
QuasiI feigned confusion, but the boy remained adamant, rooted to a mossy root. “With whom have you been speaking?”
“Brother Zoab,” the boy admitted.
“I should have known.” He cleared his throat of morning phlegm, as though he were about to recite from the philosophers. “We are as diverse as the flowers, Xandr. Just as the soft soil suits the ilm so that it may flourish, so do human customs differ. Ice does not fall here as in the Dark Hemisphere, nor does the sun scorch the flesh as in the West. Here in the Womb of Alashiya, we live as simply as we are born, as Kjus teaches.”
“But Queffi,” the boy went on, hopping from his perch, “that is not what Brother Zoab told me . . . he told me that the Ilmar cannot venture beyond our borders without clothing, that we are hated otherwise, that women in some cultures may even be killed—by stones—should their bodies be seen. I do not understand these things, Queffi. I asked Brother Zoab about it, but he gave no answer.” The boy stood in silence, staring into his own palm, wondering at its complexity, at the faint blue lines beneath the skin. “Are we not to roam freely about the world? Or is there some flaw in the people of the outer world?”
“No,” QuasiI asserted. “The body is an absolute good. Mankind is born of the Mother Goddess, just as our cousins, the merquid and the avian. We are lovingly and minutely refined over the aeons. The flaw is not in us—I fear—but in the stars. Before the greater moon loomed in the heavens, we were all Ilmar. For two million years, humanity knew nothing of want or possessions . . . or clothing.”
“Why did we change?” Xandr asked a little too loudly. “Was it the Cataclysm?”
“No—,” he paused, addressing Xandr with uncertainty, with half-truths. “—it was not the world that changed us. It came from within. The Zo ate of the fruit of knowledge, but did not drink from the wells of wisdom. They looked upon themselves and saw that they were fauna, and became ashamed, and in their hubris longed to separate from the Mother Goddess, to become gods themselves. Of all the species of this world, only humans hate what they are, hiding their nature behind clothing. This shame is a great perversion. If one does not see the Goddess within himself, he will not see it in others. If man can hate himself, he will hate others of his kind, and those not of his kind. ”
The boy rocked uneasily, disappointed. He never cared for abstractions, for ideologies, for lessons that forced him to think and ponder until his head hurt. For once, he wished to be given concrete, rigid truths. “But Queffi,” he began, timidly, choosing his words carefully, “you spoke of a time before the greater moon, before the Cataclysm, when we were all Ilmar, when there was no shame, no hubris. Tell me plainly, what happened? And is it true what Brother Zoab says, of the star they call The Wandering God?”
QuasiI paused to glare at the broad shouldered youth who stood up to his chin—then hurried off, his staff clacking against the stones. “I am not so certain Zoab should speak to you of such things. You are not yet a man.”
Xandr held his anger in his fists so that it not show on his face. He was no longer a child. When a boy or girl began to show hair about the loins, they would partake in the rituals of the Solstice Night. Though Xandr had yet to jump the sacred bonfire hand-in-hand with a girl that was to be joined to him, the time was upon him, as evidenced by his maturing body. “No,” he protested, “my hair has grown and my chin is coarse. Soon I’ll be bearded, and a man!” Xandr had never challenged his mentor so openly before, but he still lacked the courage to meet the deep well of wisdom that were his mentor’s eyes.
“Have you been practicing the technique we went over, the delayed counter?”
Devoid of thought, a hand flied to the pommel at his hip. “Yes, every day and night!”
“Show me.”
“Wait . . . you always trick me into forgetting my questions this way. But you won’t this time.” And he folded his arms defiantly.
“So the Batal has come of age, eh?” It was more a question than a statement. “Come.” Without a further word, they followed a path clear of shrubs formed by years of treading feet.
Layers of limestone rose above the tree line. An immense white willow grew at its peak. Its trunk always made Xandr think of a bent woman with a cane. It was a place for bloodless battles, long discourses on philosophy, and an observatory for the Zo, Alashiya, and Skullgrin constellations. As was their custom, QuasiI let his staff against the mossy stone and was seated. Xandr folded his legs atop the boulder below, tucking his manhood between his thighs, a thing which had become a bother lately, especially when he thought of the young girls bathing in the waterfalls in the valley below. He assumed it was a part of his growing to maturity, but he was destined to be the Batal, which made him wonder whether he would ever join in the festivities of the Solstice Night.
“The sapling,” QuasiI began, “too feeble for the outer world, remains safe within its seed. There it waits till ready, till strong enough to break its shell and lay roots in the earth.”
More metaphors! If there was one thing Xandr disliked more than abstract answers, it was metaphors. “But teacher,” Xandr informed, “I’ve already bested you with my sword!”
The old monk waved a dismissive hand. “You know how to kill, but it is not what matters. Do not forget the lesson of the Zo, and the sayings of Kjus, ‘knowledge not tempered by wisdom sows destruction’. I may know to destroy this willow,” he added, caressing the violet bulbs of a flower sprouting from between the crevices in the rock, “yet I may not have the wisdom to hear it speak to me.”
Xandr threw his shoulders back, the sunlight turning his hair to gold. “But I am ready, Queffi, ready to leave Ilmarinen, to become the Batal.”
 “And how can you be so certain, my son, when you do not know what lies beyond the Potamis? Look there . . .” QuasiI pointed to a tree as tall as the sky, with branches thick enough to walk upon, “the Batal is like the mighty camphor. It begins as a berry no bigger than your thumb, but then it grows, becoming a home to many species . . .”
Having heard the lecture countless times, Xandr’s mind drifted. QuasiI was either stubbornly repeating himself or becoming forgetful. It was not quite as boring as ecology, but philosophy made him want to sleep. He greatly preferred Brother Zoab’s tales of magic and monsters and heroism.
Shifting in his limestone seat, he pulled at his ankle to study his sole. The underside of his foot was black as tar and rough as bark, the cracks in it like some form of lettering. In his fourteen years of pounding up the jagged slopes to his monastery home, of navigating the river rocks lining Ilmarinen’s southern border, of stomping through raw earth and twigs, his feet could have borne him across half the planet. But today—he could not remember from when or where—a sharp sensation followed his steps. Being Ilmarin, it had to have been a long splinter for him to notice. Running a thumbnail to his heel, what he thought a splinter was a knife-edged seedling. His fingernails drew blood as he worked to remove it, as he considered that his questions were also seedlings only now taking root in his awareness.
After his mentor was finished speaking, he looked up from his sole, saying, “But am I not already the Batal?”
QuasiI rubbed his skull, forming new folds of flesh, as he did when frustrated. “No. Not yet.” He gazed into the sunrise, drawing images with his hands. “Only by relinquishing pride, by surrendering possessions, can one hope to escape the mistakes of the past. It is why the Goddess chose us, for of all the world’s peoples, only the Ilmar desire nothing.”
“But will you not tell me, plainly, what I am meant to do?”
The wizened monk drew a long, tired breath. “You will know when you learn to listen to the trees, to hear the voices of Alashiya.”
As if remembering something urgent, the old monk’s attention came away and they became aware of it—between the turquoise moon and the violet glow of the smaller—a gray ribbon of smoke was diffusing over the orange sky.
Xandr could see the turmoil in his mentor’s eyes, but to a boy so innocent, imagination did not lend itself easily to horror. “What could it mean?”
 “No,” he murmured, never straying from the ribbon of smoke. Instantly, the staff was in his hand, no longer a stick for walking but a weapon, and QuasiI became more than he had been, a warrior of commanding presence. “We’ve been found! Hurry, Xandr! Today you prove yourself!”
And for the first time the boy sensed real fear in his teacher’s voice.

Go to: Ages of Aenya (2012): Chapter 3

Go back to: Ages of Aenya (2012): Chapter 1

 

Ages of Aenya: Chapter 1 (2012)

The First Omen

City by the Sea

Chapter 1
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, he gazed over his kill—at the monster that had fed on so many passersby—and spat.

Emmaxis reached over his shoulder, the skull-face trapped in the steel quivering with lust. He could feel the sword’s eagerness like a flame running to his ankles. But it would not taste blood today. The attack had come from beneath the murky waters, offering little time to unsheathe the great sword. Aside from the mud caking the muscled clefts of his torso, and the leeches clinging to days’ old blood, and the dirt and twigs in the long blond tangles of his hair and beard, he was utterly without clothing of any kind. Standing in the midst of the swamp, he was like the god of a lost civilization, like a statue where the granite is chipped and worn by the ages. Only his eyes were soft and untarnished, seeming to belong to a different man.
A maple leaf, curled with age, was sticking to his shoulder. The tree that had dropped it did not belong to the swamp.
What winds brought this to me? From how far have you traveled? The gale carried the leaf from his fingertips, over and beyond the brambles of the marsh. Another shape was soaring in the crimson sky, a wing taking form as it approached. He shielded his brow from the eclipsing sun and there was now a creature where the shape had been, a man flecked with feathers from the crest of its scalp to its winged heel. Familiarity loosened the grip on his ax.
“Ouranos!” he called through the gold tangles of beard that grew over his lips, his voice hoarse, thirsting.
The avian shifted into a glide, with taloned feet pointed earthward, the feathered membranes between his hips and wrists waxing to fullness. Flexing his wing beyond his fingertips, Ouranos shimmered, changing hues like a peacock from silver gray to shades of blue.
“What brings you from Nimbos, Ouranos?”
The avian studied him, disappointment stretched across his angular face. “Always to the point with you, eh, Xandr? No time wasted on formalities? No polite chatter regarding myself or the nest mate?”
Xandr betrayed nothing as he scraped the muck from his chest to reveal the long winding scar that defined him. He had many such scars, telling tales of battle in pink script across his body.
“I should have known to find you in such a place. Drowning your miseries in misery.”
Xandr knew the bird man hated the swamp. Growth choked the air with muddied greens and browns, with boughs that twisted at odd angles to meet the sky, with vines of weeping willows stooping 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 will you return to the family of men?”
“Men are cruel and stupid things and no longer interest me,” Xandr replied, amid the ear pinching whine of a fist sized dragon mosquito—a poison shade green with wiry tendrils—which floated up from the moon to drink from the snail’s corpse.
“So you are satisfied here, in this Marsh of Melancholy? You would be king among the . . . the mosquitoes?”
The avian could see that Xandr was unmoved, so he tried again, twittering in a gentler tone. “How have your wounds healed since last we parted?”
“I still have the scars to remember you,” said Xandr, taking an overgrown root for a seat.
The avian made a noise strange to the Ilmarin’s ear, an amalgam of human laughter and a parrot’s squawk.
“How does the world look from above?” Xandr asked, letting his wet braid fall against his collarbone.
“All the lands are in disarray,” Ouranos replied. “Everywhere I look . . . there is suffering.”
“What is to me? That is the way of things.” Pulling the sword from his shoulder, Xandr impaled the ground between them. Ouranos hated the way his reflection twisted about the folds of the metallic skull face. Emmaxis remained flawless as if perpetually born from the molten fires of a blacksmith’s furnace, a mirror surface without nicks or smudges of any kind. “The people can keep their miseries. I am done with them.”
“Are your senses still attuned to the elements? Feel about you,” the avian implored, “there is great change in the air. The middle lands grow colder . . . Omens of change abound.”
Xandr’s braid whipped about as he turned away. “Let me alone.” Somewhere in the heart of the marsh, a beast brayed with agony as something massive snarled and stomped. Numerous other things raised their voices in a fearful clamor, but Xandr paid them 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 out to him with his 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.”
The Ilmarin stared off into the distance, to a place Ouranos could not see. “The dead is all I have.”
“No!” Ouranos objected. “There are others . . . I have seen them . . . I—”
“Have you come here to torment me?” Xandr cried, the blue of his eyes receding under an angry brow. “Away with you, bird man!”
“No, I’ve come to deliver a message.”
“A message?” Xandr was dumbfounded. He could not imagine who would know him to deliver a message. For nearly ten years he’d lived as a recluse, avoiding civilization, scavenging for food, sleeping—whenever fortunate—under shade of the wood.
“Cycles ago, a man came to us in the Tower of Heaven; he climbed up to find us, a feat we believed impossible. He hailed from the city by the Sea, from the capitol of the Hedonian 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. The Hedonian spoke of a Batal of Legend. He offered a talent of gold so that we might 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.”
The name floated between them, no less poisonous than the dragon mosquitoes gathering at the corpse of the sinking snail.
“The bones of such men have long become dust,” Xandr replied. “. . . For all anyone knows, they may be less . . . they may never have been at all.”
“I was sent to find this Batal,” Ouranos screeched, “to deliver the plea of Urukjinn! And as I believe you are this person, to your ears shall this plea fall!”
“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 a man king.”
 “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 . . .”
“Avian cowards!” Xandr spat. “Your tongues should be cut off to speak of the Batal! Even so, there’s no Batal—it is a fiction born of hope 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, the sword parallel to the horizon. A shaft of sun ran platinum white along its side, its tip shining like a jewel. Ouranos watched with amusement. “It directs you north, to Hedonia.”
The Batal cursed and spat as he wrestled with the weapon.
“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 a wicked thing. Why not toss it in the swamp and have done with it? It is unbecoming for one of your race.”
Xandr’s eyes fixed on the devilish intricacies of its skull face as though looking upon a long departed friend. “. . . If I do not carry it, who will? It is my purpose.”
“You do not know that for certain, Batal,” Ouranos said, “but if that is so, I suggest you do as it wills.”
“Should I do that,” Xandr replied, “you would be dead.” But Xandr knew he had been tricked. He could not deny the bird man’s reasoning. Under heavy gold brows, he maintained a contemplative gaze, like a master painter before an empty canvas, saying, with finality, “. . . perhaps there is something there for me in Hedonia.”
“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, his feathers bristling and billowing with fullness, and with a sweep of his arms he was distant again.
***
Irrigation channels radiated like the spokes of a wheel, splitting the fields about the village of Akkad. 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 that chimed 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 the 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 as long as me. On the planet, that is. It’s all in the eyes—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 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 was like some great fleet 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 . . .!” He 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?”
“I am Ilmar—we do not need clothing,” Xandr replied sharply. “And I have long to join the company of men,” he added.
 “Don’t trouble yourself,” the farmer replied. “I got boots to spare, made from my own hide. Well, not myhide, 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, or some measure of both. “I am grateful, but have no coin for it.”
“Alas,” he said with pity, “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. But I will return the favor—somehow.”
“Pff!” the old man 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,” Xandr said. “When my people made their exodus from their lands, the men were made beggars and the women, being beautiful, were forced into bondage with civilized men and were made 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 sprang from the riverbank. Bathing in the Potamis—what was here called the Phayus—could wait till sunrise.
Solos melted like the yoke of an egg into the surface of the greater moon in the celestial ritual that turned day to night, and slowly he drew forth Emmaxis, gazing at his distorted reflection. He had days to succumb to the lure of sleep. 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.
Watch the sky.
Those were the last words of his mentor.
—-