|Xandr as originally envisioned c. 1999
I was recently contacted by Tim Forcer, a writer for H&E Magazine. Back in ’04, he was gracious enough to give my novel, The Dark Age of Enya, the thumbs up. Unfortunately, the review did little to boost my career. But talking to him again after so many years got me to thinking. This year is an anniversary of sorts. An entire decade has passed since I completed The Dark Age of Enya in 2003. It sometimes makes me sad to think how much time has gone by. I mean, what the hell have I been doing for ten years? I tell myself I got married, had two kids, and took over my father’s restaurant business, but that all seems like an excuse. After all, Isaac Asimov wrote and or edited (according to Wikipedia) 500 books! I like to believe, at the very least, I’ve been vastly improving over this past decade. I like to think Aenya is my masterpiece. Even if it isn’t, I love the Ilmar; they’re the first truly naturist heroes in the fantasy genre, which makes them wonderfully unique, but even with clothes on, they continually fascinate. Xandr and Thelana are not just two-dimensional pin-up heroes, but like real people with real stories, with genuine passions and beliefs and heartaches. If anything, I like to think Ages of Aenya elevates the sword & sorcery/sword & sandal medium into something respectful, into something reminiscent of the greats of literature, more Odysseus, less Conan.
Has it been worth it? You be the judge. The excerpts below are from the same scene, one from the The Dark Age of Enya and the other from Ages of Aenya (keeping in mind, of course, that the new novel does not follow the old book scene for scene).
The Dark Age of Enya
Nestled in the valleys between the low rounded hills of Kratos was little known Ilmarinen, not a nation or city nor even a village, but a boundless land, home to a stock of men with a language known only to themselves. Here the grass was soft and the rock gentle to the touch, and tulips grew in groves along the riverbanks, and grape-bearing trees spotted the sloping countryside.
On warm days when the golden sun topped the celestial triangle between the greater and the smaller moon, the people of Ilmarinen left their straw-roofed homes shoeless and without clothing, clad in only ornaments. So it was on this day, fourteen-year-old Xandr, with his blond braid hanging down against his left collarbone to show his manhood, proudly strolled between the tall quiet oaks with only his leather sword belt adorning his peach-tone figure. Beside him, as always, was his teacher, QuasiI, flecks of sunlight gleaming off his hairless scalp and filtering through his Goddess-monk raiment, an orange, blue and white feather cape.
For as long as he could remember, Xandr enjoyed these morning walks. But today something was different. Though wind and warm rays clothed him delicately, and the air was fresh with the scent of rain, and distant spreading Ilmarinen was as beautiful as he had ever known, something was not right. Perhaps it was his becoming a man, he thought, and the many questions burdening his mind.
“Teacher,” he inquired, “where have I come from? And why have we never ventured beyond the south river?”
“You will know some day,” answered QuasiI.
“No. I want to know now.”
The old man turned to the boy, just slightly shorter than himself. “So, you think you are ready to leave Ilmarinen?”
“I did not say that.”
“Have you been practicing with your sword?”
Xandr threw a hand over the bronze pommel at his hip. “Yes, every day and night.”
“Then show me.”
“Wait,” said he, “you always trick me into forgetting my questions this way. But I won’t show you my sword tricks this time.” And he folded his arms defiantly.
QuasiI smiled, saying, “Then, perhaps, you are ready.”
They climbed for a short while both knowing their destination. At the peak of the limestone hill, rising above a cluster of oaks, they came upon a misty plateau of layered rock crowned by a single mossy boulder sitting in a bed of clovers. Here many bloodless battles transpired, many philosophies were pondered, and many astral bodies were studied. And as always, QuasiI leaned his wooden staff against the mossy boulder before sitting, as young Xandr, with legs folded, sat atop the smaller rock below.
“The unborn chick,” QuasiI began, “too feeble for the outer world, remains safe within his egg. There he waits till he is ready, till he is strong enough to break his shell with his own beak.”
“But teacher,” Xandr replied, “I am no longer a chick, but a grown rooster fit to herald the sun with my crowing!”
“And how can you be so certain, my pupil, when you do not know what dangers lie beyond the south river, beyond the safety of Ilmarinen?”
“You’ve taught me well. I’ve already bested you with my sword!” he eagerly informed.
“There is still much you must learn of Enya. The wise man knows there is always more to know.”
“But how can I learn what you will not tell me?”
“I have passed all my knowledge to you.”
“What of my parents? Who were they? What happened to them? And no more riddles. I want straight answers.”
“You know the answers, young Xandr. You have merely chosen to forget them.”
The boy shifted uncomfortably in his rock chair, raising his foot to find a splinter embedded in his toe. It was strange, he thought, when he had done nothing that morning but walk a short distance from the monastery to their special hill. There were days when he would run barefoot much further, through denser foliage, without the mark of a single branch. Nor would a single weed scratch his sole after hours sparring.
Everything seemed different to him that day, as though the moons were strangely aligned, though they did not appear so. He then supposed it was his uneasiness, confronting his teacher with questions that had been troubling him for years, like seeds planted in his mind only now taking root in his awareness. Any other day, he figured, he would not have noticed the splinter.
“I can remember nothing,” he replied at last, though hazy images surfaced from the depths of his memory.
“You were brought to us,” said the teacher in a deep, soft tone, “by the Goddess Alashiya in her talons. And with you came the sword. That is how we knew you were special, the Batal of Legend.”
“That is the sword in the forbidden room, isn’t it?”
“So you have looked at it, have you?”
“Yes,” he murmured, pale blue eyes cast downward. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“It was not yet time. You were unfashioned clay, and we had first to mould you. For only one man can wield Emmaxis.
“When the Goddess brought you to us, we were bestowed with greatest responsibility, to care for the savior of the world, and to create him. Only the Batal can own the sword. Even if you were to have taken it into your hands, it would not have been truly yours.”
“And my parents?” asked Xandr. “Did you know them?”
“Some of the monks believe the Goddess is your mother. But you are the son of men, brought to us at the age of three with hair in the fashion of the Ilmar.”
“Yes,” said Xandr quietly. “I do remember my mother. She had deep green eyes, like emerald. But you, teacher . . . I always thought you were . . . my father.”
The old man smiled, then turned away slowly. “It has not been easy to hide my feelings, Xandr. The other monks thought it sacrilege, to act as father to the Batal. They also believed it would soften you, make you too human, but I do not judge that a weak trait.”
“Then,” said the boy, “may I ask, why did She take me from them, my parents? Would it have been wrong to have had a true mother and father?”
“Xandr . . . my pupil . . . I cannot say, for the Goddess keeps silent and her actions are mysterious. But if you wish to know the truth, I believe now you are old enough to hear-”
“Yes, go on!”
“Your parents, Xandr, they were-”
“Look!” said the boy suddenly, leaping to his feet with his finger pointing.
QuasiI turned to the gray ribbon of smoke wafting in the distance from the thicket of oaks, diffusing in the morning-orange sky between the turquoise quarter-moon and the shining violet, coin-sized moon.
“What could it mean?” asked Xandr worriedly.
“A fire,” the teacher replied. And for the first time the boy sensed uncertainty in the old man’s voice. “We must return to the monastery!” he added, steadying himself against his staff.
Ages of Aenya
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 wooden 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 sparring weapon and the blue mineral were his only accoutrements, but he was more interested in the stone, remembering the River 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 . . .”
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 people south of the river must hide 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 the women in some cultures may even be killed—with 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. Since time immemorial when men became men, before the greater moon loomed in the heavens, we were all Ilmar. For hundreds of millennia, humanity knew nothing of want or possessions . . . or clothing.”
“What happened?” 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 well 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 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 for concrete, rigid truths. The history of Aenya was a puzzle, but many of the pieces were missing.
“But Queffi,” he began, choosing his words carefully, “when the greater moon came into being with the Cataclysm, something changed. Man changed. How? Did it have something to do with what Brother Zoab told me, the star called 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!”
“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.