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.
—-

6 thoughts on “Ages of Aenya: Chapter 1 (2012)

  1. Ok, I am tooting my own horn here, but I thought better here than before the chapter. This chapter has undergone continuous revisions for the past ten years, adding a sentence here, cutting words there. It's the very first chapter ever written featuring Xandr. I love the dynamic between Xandr and Ouranos. You know they are friends and have a hIstory together but they are also mad at one another. I almost cut out the meeting with the farmer, but I realized it was a great way to introduce Xandr's character. Sure, he's a barbarian and he's bitter, but he's also noble. He's not Conan or Cnair-Urs Skiotha. Xandr is a good guy.

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  2. I like it. My sentiments would only serve to echo your own as far as the Xandr/Ouranos dynamic, but I would like to add that in every incarnation of their conversation, I always find myself wondering how they met. Ouranos seems like an interesting character. It feels like he and Xandr have had aventures together, but it;s established that the Avians do not wage wars, which makes me wonder all the more about Ouranos.

    You did a much better job showcasing Xandr's bitterness this time around. Thinking back, I don't think I ever understood how borderline misanthropic Xandr was from the actual text, but rather from conversations with you about him. This changes that.

    Finally, I gotta say I miss the scene with Xandr and the whore. It was the right move to cut it, it certainly would not work in this chapter, but I hope it finds it's way into some story somewhere along the line.

    All in all, great work. I'm eager to read chapter two soon.

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  3. As always, David, thanks for your comments. It's always great to get feedback from someone who has something insightful to say. As for how Xandr and Ouranos met, I intentionally left many things for the reader to wonder about. I did my best to make this conversation as natural as possible, so I had to avoid what in the literary business is referred to as “info-dumping”. To be honest, I am not really sure exactly how Xandr meets Ouranos (maybe the subject of a prequel novel?). You are also correct in presuming that they have had many adventures together, and keep in mind that adventuring and waging war are two very different things. As for Xandr, yeah, he's a bitter guy. In later chapters we learn of the racism that exists for Ilmarin people. Just think how Christian missionaries tried to change tribal peoples throughout the world. Or, better yet, try walking naked out your front door and see how fast you get arrested! Finally, the whore scene is in the book—I moved it to chapter 3. The suffering of the poor (like that of the prostitute) was a way for me to show the hypocrisy of a people (Hedonians) who claim moral superiority due to being more civilized.

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