Xandr stood at the prow of the Horizon Chaser, watching the waves split apart and close together, his thoughts flowing like the water. They had been traveling for more than a cycle, down the Potamis toward the Sea, and in the confines of the ship, he had been forced into clothing. It was not as though the captain or crew had done anything to threaten him, but he knew their customs, knew they would look upon him with revulsion should he expose his genitals, and he was not one to draw attention to himself. He loathed civilization nearly as much as he adored solitude.
Despite the years he had spent living among outsiders, covering his body had never felt right to him. He was Ilmarin, of the first humans to stand upright, and clothing was as superfluous to his people as it was for any other animal. And that, he knew, is how they saw him. Only for the Ilmar, all humans were animals, and every other species a cousin.
Even now, he could feel the leather kilt girding him, grating him with every step, suffocating the life from his loins. But in their southerly course, the ship had delivered them far from the snows of Northendell, and in waking that morning to the warmth touching his cabin, he had made his decision. With a breath of finality, he tore the kilt from his waist, and offered it to the wind. It flailed in his fist for a moment and was taken, across the sails and down into the river’s depths. Elation followed, a sense of freedom from constraint, and of finding oneself.
As he made his way down the ramp to the middeck, he crossed the captain. She eyed him without a word, stealing furtive glances at his manhood, and continued on. Thelana was sitting at the edge of the guardrail, still in her tunic, where she delighted in the spray of the rapids.
“You know they won’t let you.”
He shared the spot next to her, the wet air filling his lungs. “We can never be. They will never simply let us be.”
“Our customs offend them—you know this. We are few, my lover, and they are many.” She tucked her knees under her chin, rocking with the dip and swell of the ship, until finding herself against him. “When we reach port, they may not give us audience, not if they think us savages, not if we do not look like them . . . dress like them.”
“I know, Thelana. But at least for now, upon the Potamis, I will commune with the Goddess.”
“It is different for you,” she said. “You are fortunate.”
“Why is that?”
“I am a woman. You do not know how they see me, how they look at me. An outsider cannot look at a woman without desiring her.”
He made a sound of disgust. “If anyone touches you, I will tear out his member!”
Sif returned with her first mate. Already there was grumbling. He knew that the crew detested the thought of savages sharing in their food, slumbering in their bunks. But the captain remained adamant.
“But captain, must he go around like that, with all his bits dangling in everyone’s faces? Are we to respect them when they don’t have the decency to act like human beings?”
“It is their custom,” she answered. “Just as what we wear is ours.”
“But he’s naked as a newborn babe, he is!”
“Their bodies are sacred to them,” she said slowly. “To touch the goddess, they cannot be clothed. It is the way of the Ilmar. Respect it, or take your leave below, where your eyes may not find injury.”
He knew that the captain was not fond of the situation, and that, if he had not done what he had in the mountains, if all Aenya was not calling him Batal, she might hold a very different view. The truth about his people’s customs was more hazy than she let on. No doubt he could feel the Goddess’ presence in the wind, in the sun and in the water and in the earth, but had she been absent from him in Northendell, in the cycles living among the Delians, eating and drinking and dressing as they did? The other matter was that of his two-hander, Emmaxis, a weapon not of his kind but of the Zo, which burdened him to such a degree, he was made to visit the city tanner. His new baldric was of iron rivets and worked leather, which fastened around his torso and thigh to distribute the sword’s weight evenly. He was far from freedom while wearing it, but the sword was his burden to bear, and now its weight had been lifted to some degree.
Split between his longing to feel the world around him and the need to conform to society, Xandr fell silent, until Thelana turned to him, saying, “No, you are right. Wherever people gather, anywhere in the world, they are dressed as their custom dictates. Hedonians wear the chiton, Delians the tunic, women from Shemselinihar the niqab. Why should we do otherwise? I mean . . . if we start wearing clothes, we admit that our customs are inferior, and that are people really are savages.”
He eyed her intently. She was particularly beautiful when finding her passion. “Just what are you suggesting?”
“No more clothing,” she declared, pulling her tunic over her head and letting it slip into the water. “If you go without, so will I.”
“And when we reach port? What then?” he asked. “Do we go naked in the bazaars, where thousands gather? In their halls? Before kings and queens?”
“And proudly! If they scoff, let them! If they should deem me a whore, what should it matter to me, who is not one of them? After what we have suffered, in the Dead Zones, upon the Pewter Mountains, words mean nothing. We represent our people, Xandr, and everything the Ilmar stood for! Don’t you see, this is what we have long awaited, because of who you have become and what you have done. Could they truly shun the Batal—call you a savage—after saving their lives and their children’s lives? No, you will address the kings and queens of Aenya in your native habit, and they will rethink their ways, not just how they see us, but all primitive peoples. There may yet be Ilmar in hiding. But should they come to know that the Batal is one of them, they may come out of hiding, and someday return with us to Ilmarinen.”
Xandr measured her words carefully. Nothing had prevented him from discarding his loincloth but shame—the shame impressed upon him by others. For the first fourteen years of his life, he had not known the word naked, or that the people who lived beyond the Mountains of Ukko hid parts of their bodies. How had he honored his people by abandoning their way of life? Thelana’s wisdom was worthy of the keepers. Now was the time to honor their race. He would no longer abide by the customs of civilization, knowing that they mocked him behind their walls. All too painfully, he recalled their jeers and their laughter, from the day he first chanced upon a village, and no doubt he would again endure ridicule and scorn, but the world knew him as Batal now, and if they were to have his sword, they would have his body also. Wherever summoned, from the holiest of shrines to the highest of courts, Xandr and Thelana would answer in the fashion of their people, as Ilmar, clothed in wind and sun and nothing more, so that in time the world would come to know them as the Skyclad Warriors.
“Do you ever feel cold?”
Thelana turned to the captain, who she noticed was standing beside her. “I feel it,” she answered at length. “But it does not affect me.”
“If I were you, I’d be shivering. There is a cool front coming in from the East, I believe.”
Captain Sif was fitted in her usual gold cuirass, pouldrons and boots, with a white linen undercoat and a chain skirt, leaving only her face, neck and hands exposed. Thelana, by contrast, could not have been more naked, but for the knot in her braid. Her quiver was in her quarters, along with the dagger sheath she sometimes fastened to her thigh. “Are you not weighed down in all that metal? We are not at battle this moment.”
“No, but it reminds the crew of my place. They must not see me as a companion, but as a superior. Clothing serves many purposes. As a show of authority, for one.”
Part of her envied the captain. The regal accouterments of her station fitted her well, and the patterns etched into her armor and along the trim of her undergarments were elaborately arrayed. But she and Xandr were committed to abstaining from clothing. “It is always a matter of appearances with your kind. My people do not dwell on such things.”
“But have you not noticed how the men stare at you? Do you not consider what they must be imagining?”
“You think me naive, and yet you believe yourself immune to their fantasies. Do not think for a moment that because you are their captain, that they see you as any less of a woman. At least I do not give them power over me, by hiding myself, by cowering in shame.”
“I am not . . .” Sif stammered, “. . . I am not ashamed!”
“Prove it,” Thelana said. “Throw your clothes into the water, here and now.”
“I prefer to keep my dignity.”
“What is dignity, if it can be taken away? Do you not strip your captives bare? Your slaves? If you fall in battle, they will do the same to you, and what then will that armor signify? My dignity cannot be stolen, even in death . . . I surrender it only by submitting to your customs.”
“So, you intend to remain like this when we reach port? Stand naked before the masses? The queen’s court?”
“Why should I not? Besides, I am not naked—that is your word. If we were in Ilmarinen, I would ask whether you intend to keep hiding yourself.”
“But we are not in Ilmarinen. Your homeland is no more, Thelana, and humanity has moved on, has become, well . . . civilized.”
“Is it civilized to shun what is natural? Under all that armor, we are no different, only you choose to hide it. What shame is there in flesh? In being as you were born? What need is there of clothing, truly? It serves no purpose that I can see.”
“I respect your devotion to your people. In a way, it is not so different than the wars we fight, to preserve our identities, our way of life. You fight your own battles, I suppose . . . one that exists in the hearts and minds of men. But, to survive, we must also change. Adapt.”
“You know . . .” Thelana took a long, deep breath, “I remember the first time I saw outsiders, soldiers from Kratos. Many were wounded or dying. We gave them shelter, fed them. At first, I did not understand what I was seeing. Were they ilma, or some other kind of animal? Their captain was a woman—strong like you—but I was not certain she was female. But oh, the colors, the reds and whites and golds! I’d never seen such beauty, but in the flowers that bloom in low moon, and I wanted only to join them. And yet cotton does not grow in Ilmarinen. There are petals, and leaves in abundance, only they are too fragile for clothing. The day I left home, my mother forced me into a frock, a plain, ugly looking thing. I hated the feel of it, but now I realize how it made me see myself. I needed to change to suit the outside world. On that day, I learned that I came from a lesser people, and that I should be ashamed. I joined Kratos, and for two years dressed and acted and lived as they did, telling no one of my heritage. I changed, adapted, and hated myself every single day. My family would never have recognized me, and if they were to have sought me out, I would have denied them. And what did I learn among the civilized races? Colors. Colors beyond my wildest imaginings, and yet, so much red. Blood red. The civilization you take such pride in is built upon murder and slavery. Your castles and high walls were made for it. You wear armor and weapons for war, and carry bright banners for war, but in war there is only suffering and death. In Ilmarinen, we fell a tree and mourn for it. We kill when we are starving, and never without respect. When I returned home to find my family, they were gone, as were my people. I never saw my mother and father in anything but their skin. My sisters and brothers likewise. They perished, and I among them survived, and for what? Colors? To dream that I was not human, but a butterfly?”
“I did not expect this turn of events,” Sif said after a time. “We are headed for Thetis, and I do not know how the people there will react to your . . . custom. Queen Frazetta may not accept you at court. For all we know, we may be lynched.”
“No,” Thelana said, “we must meet with this queen, stand before the high born, prove that we are not savages, that we have a rightful place among the peoples of Aenya.”
“You will need a voice to come before you, someone to represent you to the world. For what you have done for us, I will be this voice. But the people of Thetis are bound by tradition. They will not know you as I do and will not take your story to heart. But I have an idea that may work in your favor . . .”
“The coastal city states are a stubborn lot, I admit, but prone to rumor and superstition. Already, there is outlandish talk of the Batal. They say he fought and killed Lunestes, the giant that holds up the greater moon. They say he moved the world . . .”
Thelana remembered Emma telling her of the machine, the Hammer of Strom at the mountain’s peak, and the great lever that shook the world. “He did, in a way.”
“Truth does not matter here, only belief. What if we were to feed into this myth? We will proclaim Xandr a god among men, and you will be his goddess. After all, only gods could have done the things they’ve heard about. It’s risky, to be certain. We may be branded blasphemers, but from what I have been told, the queen usurped most power reserved for the temple. She is no fool, and will likely see our ruse for what it is, but the masses may not.”
“I still don’t understand. How does pretending to be gods help us?”
“Gods are not bound by mortal custom. In Thetis, as in Hedonia, the gods make the law. In essence, you and Xandr will stand above their priests and monarchs. Men need clothing and armor, because they are vulnerable. Gods do not.”
Thelana watched the coast of Thetis drift into view, the deep green hills of olive trees rolling across her line of sight, as waves dashed whitely against the rocks spraying her nose and cheeks and eyebrows. Beyond the shoreline, blue and white homes marked the cliff face like barnacles along the prow of a great galleon. In other places, the Sea poured inland, forming sandy alcoves, where people might gather, but the beaches were lonely. What were the people of Thetis like? In her travels, Thelana had seen much of Aenya, but while traditions varied from place to place, nowhere among the civilized races could wild humans, like herself, call home.
Aboard the Horizon Chaser, the crew prepared to disembark, gathering cargo, securing ropes and lacing the laces of their most presentable attire, all but she. For she did not own a single garment, or shoe, or anything that might touch her body, beyond her bow, quiver, and a dagger sheath. These were her only possessions. Despite the occasionally leering eyes of her crew mates, she had remained steadfast in her rejection of clothing, until her bare body became as common a sight as the gulls circling the topmast. Now, as the ship made its way to port, she could feel the blood rushing to her head. A few dozen ship-hands she could handle, but a teeming city populace? Women and children and husbands? Merchants and priests and soldiers? She knew nothing of their habits, beliefs, what made them laugh and for what they took offense. Did they make love under the sun? Swim naked in the Sea? Were their children, the young clinging to their mothers’ teats, permitted the freedom of the Ilmar? No doubt men would ogle her. How often had she been told that she was beautiful, only to feel their groping lustful hands? In the outer world, it seemed, men were slaves to their desires, and women were but things to be enjoyed. And yet, even the women, who did not despise her brazenness, seemed to admire her physique. How else could the captain have conceived of such an outlandish plan? Gods were young and muscled, she was told, but for the Ilmar the Goddess was round and voluptuous, with a large bosom for feeding hungry mouths, and broad hips for bearing children.
As the long stone piers, and the many oared ships and fishing dinghies came into view, Thelana grew faint. She tried to remember the stance they had rehearsed, but her stomach was protesting, urging her to wretch over the side. She had not been so afraid since confronting the golem in the mountains. Shame could be a powerful weapon, she realized. The arrows of humiliation can pierce the heart as readily as bronze. Countless pairs of eyes would soon be upon her, to probe and examine her. If this was to work, she needed to show absolute indifference. Indifference was her only defense against their jeers, but she was not a goddess. Surely, their prying eyes would break the facade, for the Ilmar were not a people known for deceit. Perhaps, she thought, a loincloth was not too much to bear. After all, it was the space between the legs that offended, little else. Surely, she could remain true to her people and cover her loins? But no—to the Ilmar—nothing of the body was taboo. Besides, whatever clothing she had owned swam in the depths, where she had sent it days ago fearing a change of heart. There was no way to back out now.
When the heads of the people came into view, the crowds on the pier and along the adjacent ships and from every tower and parapet, her heart fell like a stone. Tall hatted magistrates and mothers suckling babes and bare-chested sailors in long white scarfs, they all came to glimpse heroes, and she retreated, hiding her nakedness behind the rail. But she was not alone. Xandr was beside her, bare as could be, having entrusted even his sword’s new scabbard to the crew. His hand slipped firmly into hers, and in seeing him there, proud and resolute, she realized how false her feelings had been, how ridiculous her shame, for it truly did not matter what the people thought. Accepted or rejected, they would stand together.
Ropes were pulled and anchors dropped, and the ship’s lateen sails cut short. With great skill, the Horizon Chaser turned, sidling against the pier. People rushed to greet the docking vessel, having learned of its precious human cargo. As the gangplank lowered, the sailors moved hastily one by one, on to firm ground. Xandr and Thelana were to be the last, following the captain. Remember who you are, she told herself, closing her eyes to the wind, to the wood planking under her soles. This will only work if you do as Sif suggested. Be more than a woman. A goddess.
Clenching her every muscle, to become taut and strong as marble, she crossed the gunwale so that the people could drink her in with their eyes. Mortals looked down at people, but she lifted her face heavenward, regarding the masses with only fleeting interest, deflecting their still and horrified stares like a shower of arrows. They did not matter, she convinced herself, because she was not of them, but far beyond, a savior of the world, a divine being, and divine beings did not concern themselves with trifling, mortal things. But would they be convinced of it? She doubted, and when the people saw the Skyclad Warriors and realized who they must be, there was utter silence, and her doubt turned to dread.
Perhaps it was the way in which the Ilmar carried themselves that day, or how they seemed to wear their bare bodies like suits of armor, or the fickle nature that is human custom. Whatever the reason, that silence was followed by a deafening chorus of hooting and clapping. The gods of the Ilmar had arrived and the people of Thetis rejoiced. Thelana could not believe what she was seeing, and overjoyed, became afraid to reveal her mortality by weeping. From that day forth, she could not be made to feel lesser for how she lived. Never again would she walk under the sun in shame. Saviors of the world, she realized, could never be shamed.
Xandr followed the guards, hand-in-hand with Thelana. He could feel the moisture budding in her palm, her skin quivering. She would not release him, for his presence, he knew, strengthened her resolve. Shame could possess such power, but such power was an illusion, for it could do nothing to harm them. They had only to suffer their scorn and ridicule, and become pariahs. And yet, despite having lived much of his life in solitude, Xandr could not quell the racing of his heart. Ilmarin or no, he was like a beast removed from its habitat. Hundreds of Thecians gathered about them, soldiers and magistrates and holy men, and families of royal birth, and his body quailed and shrank at the sight of them, his member like an ambling minnow between his thighs. And still he could not be called entirely naked, for he was burdened by his sword, Emmaxis, weighed to his back in its scabbard.
Despite the searing sun, pouring through openings in the walls, the palace interior was cold and lacked of air, and the granite floor, patterned in semi-precious stones, was unforgiving against his soles. Every eye was upon them now, from the queen’s courtesans in their flowing silk and lace, to the magistrates in their ceremonial garb and conical hats, to the guards in their bronze and leather. Many had not gone out to the pier to receive them, and would not have known to expect a naked man and woman entering their chamber.
The little air circulating the room seemed to rush out of it just then, as Xandr and Thelana exposed themselves before their prodding eyes. He awaited their jeers and their laughter, like one armed for battle, but could not defend against judgement. His only recourse was to stand, in as proud and godly a manner as one might manage. But truly, what did he know of Thecians and their gods?
A day prior, having arrived from port, Sif had led them into a bathhouse, where he and Thelana were washed and oiled and meticulously groomed. Their bodies glistened, and their scars masked, and not a follicle was out of place. No sign of human frailty was allowed them. So much trouble for a charade. A lie for a truth.
Surely, it would have been easier simply to have dressed. His scabbard could be altered, with a belt to gird his loins, but Thelana had been adamant that they go naked before the world, so that other primitives in hiding might come forward without shame. Even the captain took increasing interest in the charade. While she did not care to preserve their customs, the idea of a god or gods speaking on behalf of the Delian people did not lack appeal. Even Xandr could recall how the supreme god of the Hedonians—Sargonus—wore no clothing. At least the idol he had seen had not.
Queen Frazetta acknowledged the Delian host, showing only curiosity, as though she were looking upon some extinct species of man. It was a long bearded priest who broke the silence. “Who are these rabble? How come they to this hallowed place with such disregard for custom? Do you mean us insult? Have you no respect for our queen?”
Sif addressed the man before anyone could answer, “Take care how you speak, priest, lest you damn yourself. Citizens of Thetis, we mean no disrespect. As you can see, I, Daughter of King Frizzbeard, Princess of Northendell, stand here in the regal accouterments of my station, as prudence dictates. But I stand here also, humbled before two great divinities.”
“Divinities? What do you mean by this?”
“Have you not heard of the goings-on in Northendell? Of the giant who threatened our world and the gods who cast him down?”
“Gods?” He was about to laugh, but stopped himself to study the two naked bodies again. It appeared there was enough doubt and superstition in him for the captain to twist his mind.
“You think us mad,” she went on, “to bring this man and woman before you, naked as newborns? No . . . do not let your mortal eyes deceive you. Men are frail things, prone to sickness and death and injury, to the cold of high moon, to the heat of the western sun. Men have need of clothing and armor. Gods do not.”
“Jafenji, could this be true?” the queen asked him. “Might they be immortal?”
“I would ask that they grace us with their divinity, so that we may be blessed.”
“Clever words,” Sif answered. “But not clever enough to hide your intentions. You wish to test them. Is that not blasphemy? To question a god? To doubt a god? You wager your very soul that these are but mere mortals?”
“I will give him proof,” Xandr said, his voice resonating from wall to wall, “so that no one will doubt us.” The naked warrior moved into the center of the room, slowly drawing the six feet of steel from over his head, and where the sun painted mosaics of light against the floor, he thrust the blade down, and the sound of metal on stone resounded, followed by an unearthly rumble and flashes of light.
All who watched were stunned to silence. Even Thelana looked on, forgetting herself entirely. Xandr released the weapon, and it remained, suspended on its tip. Before that moment, even he had been unaware of it, that his sword could hover like it did. But Emmaxis had a will of its own, he knew, whispering instructions into his mind, that he often mistook for his own thoughts. The priest opened his mouth, but no sound came out, and at last he cowered.
Standing from her throne, her arms wide, Queen Frazetta addressed the host, a slight tremor in her voice. “Truly, the gods of old are not bound by custom, and may come to us in whatever fashion they choose.” Her words were diplomatic, but whether she spoke them out of religious devotion, or to appease those with whom she would seek a favorable treaty, he could not be certain. Their nakedness, however, did not seem to faze her, and he did not doubt that, as queen, she was accustomed to many stranger habits. Rather, it was the sword that appeared to move her. “Welcome to my kingdom. We shall do what we can to honor you.” Without hesitation, the queen moved from her dais, unfastening the gold brooch at her shoulder, and her stola crumpled about her feet, so that she stood wearing only her crown and the gold bands about her arms and wrists and ankles. A string of gasps followed. A number of others looked away or covered their faces. It was a powerful act, evoking only confidence, and Xandr could not help but admire the woman. Even stripped of her clothing, she took on a regal air.
The seeds of change were planted. He could feel it in the way they watched him, and Thelana, and the naked queen. What was for ages a sign of poverty and slavery, and debauchery, would in time fade into obscurity.