Aenya Newsletter 9/01/2017

Greetings, fans!

The question I am most asked about Aenya is the most obvious one: when the heck is the book coming out? All I can say is, be patient. I admit to being a bit slow, but it’s only because I abhor the thought of releasing anything but the very best possible work. I’d also like to point out that, as a struggling writer, I, among others, are embarking upon a new age of independence. The big publishers are bleeding money, and as a result, have become increasingly mired by conformity. Vampires. Zombies. Apocalyptic teenage romances. Gritty Game of Thrones wannabes. And when something like 50 Shades of Grey makes a bajillion dollars, we get inundated with bondage porn, and an entire new section at Barnes & Nobles. Now, I don’t really blame the booksellers for this. They are simply doing what they need to survive. As I put it in my new bio:

Since starting out on this journey, nearly three decades ago, the literary landscape has changed. My dream of dropping a manilla envelope at the post office, to have a cigar-smoking editor in New York scream with delight at having found the next great author, is just that, a dream. We are living in a time when bookstores are shutting down and publishers are going broke. People have more addictive things to do these days, like staring at their phones and Netflix. We may be living in the last days of the written word, before the novel goes the way of the play, and I am well aware that the demands of the writer are greater than ever. On the other hand, the stigma associated with self-promotion is quickly fading. This is largely due to things like Kickstarter and YouTube. We are fast discovering that, not only can an independent entertain us, but that they can often be more humorous, and more sincere, than what’s on TV. In the literary world, the advent of e-books has become a double-edged sword, delivering a lot of pulp but also, some pretty great out-of-the-box writing we might never have otherwise seen.

In other words, independents have an even higher bar to jump than your average published writer. The Aenya series must not only be as good as your Tolkien, Martin, Rowling clones, but superior.

OK, getting off my soapbox now.

This summer, I took the family to London, because frankly, it is the world’s capital of great fiction. Being the literary geek that I am, I was only too thrilled to pick up C.S. Lewis, and the late great Terry Pratchett in the original Queen’s English. I was also frothing at the mouth touring Oxford University. But it was in the British museum where I rediscovered my inspiration for Aenya.

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Hero fighting a centaur

This is part of the “Elgin marbles,” named after Lord Elgin, whom my people blame for “stealing” from the sculptures of the Acropolis complex. Greek politics aside, this frieze, which originally adorned the pediment of the Parthenon, shows a Greek hero, possibly Heracles, fighting a centaur, possibly Nessus. For those of you in the know, I first featured Nessus in The Dark Age of Enya. He is responsible for giving Xandr his scar. Unfortunately, I had to cut the scene from Ages of Aenya, but that doesn’t mean I retconned the story. Nessus makes appearance in The Princess of Aenya and will probably crop up in future novels. Notice, also, how the hero fighting the centaur is entirely naked. This is a big part of my heritage. The Ancient Greeks envisioned their heroes sans clothing. It was, for them, an ideal, what has come to be called, the heroic nude. This is something I have long tried to revive in modern culture, through my heroes, Xandr and Thelana.

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Hero fighting a guard

To be fair, you won’t find any women, naked or otherwise, in combative positions on the Parthenon, or anywhere else. But this had less to do with modesty and more to do with sexism, in that the Greeks could not conceive of women as heroes.

The following day, in the Tower of London, I made another inspiring discovery. Will you just look at that sword:

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Holy crap! It’s like 7′ long!

 

OK, this might not have been a real weapon, used by a real person in battle. The Brits, just like the Greeks, loved their legends. Either way, it compares to Emmaxis, the sword hauled around by Xandr, which I have long considered too big to be practical. But just like the heroic nude, the protagonist’s weapon is an ideal, a storytelling tradition, and I do not pretend to be a historian.

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OK, if this is just making you want the book more, I give you a sneak peak at nickalimonos.com, my upcoming author site. Once it goes live, you will be able to order the book directly from there, for yourself and your friends, and every person you’ve ever met, hopefully. Ages of Aenya will also be available on Amazon.com

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THE AENYA BESTIARY: AVIAN

 

Avian

The avian or “bird man” is a human subspecies, and can best be described as a cross between a human and a bird.

HISTORY: The origin of the avian race is unique to Aenya in that their development from proto-human into a winged/feathered species is due largely, in part, to culture, in an example of ‘controlled evolution.’ Beginning at about 10,000 to 9,000 BGM (Before the Greater Moon), early hominids from the Nimbos valley fled from the invading Septhera, ascending into the mountains. Those slow to follow were enslaved or eaten by predators, the most terrifying of which was the caw, a bird with a 60′ wingspan. The dreaded caw became a focus of proto-avian myth and history. It was once worshipped as a deity, and animal sacrifices were commonly proffered to abate its hunger. All the while, the proto-avian subsisted on a diet of fowl, as the chain of Nimbos Mountains housed a multitude of feathered species. As time passed, dozens of breeds were domesticated, including falcons, carrier pigeons and owls. Most notable was the giant ib, a timid, dove-like creature with a 12′ wingspan. The ib was used for travel, hunting, and evading predators. Not soon after, tales of hunters braving the caw’s nest spread to every tribe. While the proto-avian never managed to tame the greatest of aerial predators, its eggs, feathers and skeleton became prized possessions, and to be adorned in its plumage became a mark of status. The skulls of unborn and newly hatched caw were worn by kings and priests as masks. After less than a century, between 9,000 and 8000 BGM, the proto-avian joined wax and feathers to produce simple winged gliders, which could be used to descend the mountain quickly. Consequently, the proto-avian came to see themselves as children of godlike, winged beings, that aeons ago were cast down to grovel in the earth. It was, therefore, avian destiny to return home to the clouds, and achieving flight became a cultural obsession. Each generation came closer to this realization, as traits conducive to flight were actively fostered. These traits included longer arms, shorter legs, stronger torsos, and a shallow, tapering bone structure. As bio-technologies advanced, the proto-avian grew more sophisticated in this endeavor, manipulating their species at the level of the chromosome, until their infants were born with feathers and wing-like membranes along the arms. By 2000 BGM, the once human species was successfully transformed into a new species: the avian.

PHYSICAL APPEARANCE: Avians are as diverse in appearance as the birds of Aenya. Their plumage may be as black as a crow’s wing or a rainbow of hues. Differences in coloration depend largely on diet, which is determined by territory.

Avians tend to be thinner and shorter than humans, a typical male weighing between 85—115 lbs, and standing at about 5′. A thin, wing-like membrane extends from the wrist to the heel, which can be folded in on itself to allow use of the hands. Completely unfurled, wingspans average from 9′ to 10′. At a 2:1 ratio, they are less aerodynamic than their aerial mounts, which is why they spend most of their time soaring from great heights. To increase altitude, the avian oscillates its wings in a manner similar to a hummingbird or a bat.

An avian’s feet are hard and scaly, with long, talon-like nails, which can be used for snatching prey and clinging to mountainsides. Their eyes glitter like crystal in the sun, and are much larger than a human’s, approximately the size of a lemon, with the iris extending to the edge of the skull.

Avian’s have little use for clothing, but are highly fond of ornamentation. Intricately wrought bangles of gold, jewels and semi-precious stones are commonly worn. Of their earliest traditions is that of the beaked mask, which mimics a myriad of bird species, albeit in abstract and impressionistic fashion.

CULTURE: Avians are reclusive and fearful, tending to avoid contact with other humanoid races. They are also proud, believing themselves morally and intellectually superior. This comes as no surprise, as their culture revolves around the concept of “ascendency.” Those of higher status live at greater altitudes, with their governing body, The Ascendency, dwelling at the very peak of Mount Nimbos. At 80,000 feet above Sea level, it is the highest point on Aenya. Their divine ancestors are imagined to live above them in the clouds.

Appearance is of utmost importance to an avian. Those born with more colorful plumage and bird-like features are thought to be more beautiful, and are more frequently selected for mating. Color also dictates social standing, marking regional and tribal divisions. Darker and more muted hues are considered less desirable, whereas blues and purples are indicative of royalty.

Despite their namesake, avians are mammals, and as such, do not hatch from eggs. They are born unable to fly, but slowly learn to glide as they mature. When an avian comes of age, at thirteen years, they are expected to partake in the Trial of Ascension. Tribal members gather upon the sacred plateau, known as The Crag of Destiny, whereby the uninitiated youth must prove their manhood by flying upwards onto a higher elevation, across a distance of one hundred and twelve feet. While a measure of air currents provide lift, many have been known to have died during the ceremony. Over the centuries, as the avian species evolved into its present state, the frequency of such deaths significantly decreased.

Most avians abhor violence, aside from the occasional hunt, but a small number of warriors are trained in use of the wingfoil, a lightweight sword consisting of many bladed feathers hammered together in the semblance of a silver wing.

Avians are skilled craftsmen, working with remarkably lightweight materials, including a lighter than air mesh called whisper. Whisper is used for everything, from clothing and receptacles to building material. The dome-shaped Tower of Heaven, where the Ascendency resides, is made from pure whisperstone.

RELIGION: The avian faith is a kind of ancestor worship. Those of higher social standing are more closely related to the first of their race, who is called Az, The Most High One. Az is thought to live above the world, in a city made of cloud, with his progeny. Each successive descendant falls lower in rank. These include Az’s son, Aza, his grandon, Azael, and his great-grandson, Azrael. King Azrael IX is said to be of this lineage.

 

 

The Nomad: A Love Story DLC

The Nomad is a love story, a mythical tale of heroism and enduring faith, parts Odyssey, parts The Arabian Nights

Like the Greek hero, Odysseus, Dynotus is twenty years from his homeland, searching the desert for Sali—the woman he loves—who has been taken as a slave. It is rife with fantastic locales, mythical monsters, and epic bloodshed, all set against the endless sands of the Sahara.

The Nomad is my first novel, that I wrote when I was in high school. It is presented here for the first time in its entirety in PDF.

 

[The Nomad: A Love Story]

 

The Lightning Thief

So, I’ve been having this problem with fiction lately. The last eight books I’ve read have been about philosophy, religion and physics. It’s gotten to the point that my wife told me last night I should have been a physicist (really, I’d be clueless). But whenever I pick up a novel, I can’t get into the story, because I am distracted by my ambitions. I cannot help but compare it to my own books, and if the story is weak, I’ll rework it in my head, coming up with ways it can be improved. But eventually, I knew I’d have to get back to the business of reading, so that the literary neurons in my brain start to fire, forming the raw materials I need to build worlds. More importantly, I had to remind myself why I love story, and of the reasons people like to read.

My nephew, Arthur, told me about The Lightning Thief many years ago, which he enjoyed better than Harry Potter. This is coming from a kid who can talk to me about video games forever. The fact that he could enjoy any book came as a surprise to me, but I’ve long hesitated picking it up to find out why.

As someone of Greek descent who has written his own mythology—The Nomad—I am a bit sensitive, especially when the author, Rick Riordan, doesn’t even share my heritage. Now, I’m not saying that a writer can’t or shouldn’t write about a culture other than his own, but it still stings a little, knowing very few Greeks who know or care as much about these stories. There probably isn’t a soul on the planet who hasn’t heard of Hercules or Zeus. Historically speaking, our mythology defines who we are as a people. Whether we are conscious of it or not, we are all influenced by it in some way. When Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings, he did so, in part, because he lamented the British not having a mythology of their own. The legends of King Arthur and his knights came long after most of the world’s folktales were established, in 1485, after Sir Thomas Malory’s La Morte d’ Arthur. By contrast, Homer’s The Iliad dates to between 1200-1100 BC. These stories were memorized by my great ancestors, passed down through oration long before writing fiction was invented. So I cannot help but be bothered by the fact that an entire generation will be learning these stories exclusively from a non-Greek.

Another thing I find irksome, writing in an established canon, with its own brilliantly realized backstory and characters and plot lines, feels a lot like cheating. Fantasy writers are particularly burdened with having to invent worlds from scratch, but by choosing to write Greek mythology, Riordan has most of his work cut out for him. He didn’t have to make up Zeus or Hades or Ares, all of whom appear in the story, nor did he have to create the monsters his heroes would be fighting, like the furies and the minotaur and the chimera. He also didn’t have to come up with any fantastic locations, like Hades or Mount Olympus. While it is true that all writers borrow, Riordan tends to borrow more than most. Tolkien did not invent elves or dwarves or trolls or dragons, but his interpretations were expansive to the point of reinvention, and The Hobbit is its own story. The same can be said of JK Rowling. She appropriates liberally from modern myth, with wands and witches and flying broomsticks, but adds enough originality to make the wizarding world hers. Compare that to The Lightning Thief, where the heroes encounter a bedmaker who stretches people to fit his mattresses, or cuts off their feet if they’re too tall. The tale is derived, almost verbatim, from the Greek.

Mythology aside, much of the story is cliche, copying heavily from Harry Potter. Just like Harry, Percy starts off as a normal kid with a miserable life. His stepfather is an abusive jerk, he has few friends, and he is having trouble at school due to his dyslexia and ADHD. Unbeknownst to him, however, Percy is special, in that he is a wiz—I mean, demi-god. It’s all explained to him by his half-human protector, Chiron, and not soon after, Percy leaves his normal life and home to live in a special school. Despite these blatant similarities, I have no doubt publishers were thrilled by Riordan’s manuscript, having found a somewhat original way to ape the success of Potter. They’re not wizards, they’re demi-gods! As if that weren’t enough, Percy must embark on a quest with his two closest friends, Annabeth and Grover (one boy, one girl). Of course, in a Snape-Quirrell-like twist, the real villain turns out to be someone unexpected.

Now, you could argue that, with the 19 million he earned last year, and all of the R’s in his name, that I’m simply jealous, and I’d be lying to deny it. Either way, why should I bother reading it? I never thought I would, until something happened to change my outlook. My 11 year old daughter got the book and loved it. And why wouldn’t she? She isn’t a jaded writer like myself, and she does not know, nor care, about the stuff I do. Having never read Greek mythology, The Lightning Thief is a great introduction, and having only read the first Potter book, its cliched elements are less tiresome. More importantly, heroes like Percy and Harry resonate deeply with children, because they speak to the deep seated concerns children have. What if my parents don’t love me? What if I am not special? 

With this mind, I decided to sit down with my daughter to get a kid’s perspective on The Lightning Thief, because, after all, Riordan didn’t write it with me in mind …


 

Nick: So, Jasmine, what did you like about The Lightning Thief?

Jasmine: I like his [Percy’s] sword, how it becomes a pen. I also like how the demi-gods and other mythological creatures were disguised in the real world.

Nick: Yes, I remember when they were in Hades, and a TV evangelist who had stolen some money was being taken away to be punished. Percy asked about the evangelist’s Christian faith, and Grover remarked how people tend to see things based on their beliefs. I found that very interesting, a clever way of dealing with ancient myths in a modern setting.

Aside from that, what were your favorite parts?

Jasmine: I really liked when Percy and his friends went to this hotel in Las Vegas. It was a really nice place, with arcade games and free food and everything a kid could want, but it turned out to be a trap. The heroes were really enjoying it, until Percy noticed how one kid talked and dressed funny, like in the 70’s. Turns out, the kid had been there for 40 years! Percy was smart enough to figure out what was happening, although he’d been there five days without realizing it.

Nick: Yes, that was one of my favorite parts too. It reminded me a bit of Odysseus and the sirens, how their beautiful singing lured sailors to a rocky shore, where their ships would sink.

OK, so what was your least favorite part?

Jasmine: I didn’t like the beginning, when they’re driving and they are attacked by the Minotaur, and the Minotaur “kills” Percy’s mom.

Nick: What about that didn’t work for you?

Jasmine: I just thought it was sad.

Nick: Don’t you think that makes you care about the characters more?

Jasmine: Yes.

Nick: So, isn’t that a good thing, in a way?

Jasmine: For the reader, maybe. Not for Percy!

Nick: Would you recommend The Lightning Thief to a friend?

Jasmine: Yes, it was very interesting, and great for kids starting to learn Greek mythology.

Nick: Hey Arthur [really] what a surprise seeing you here! How old were you when you read the book and what did you think of it?

Arthur: Oh, hey Nick. Yeah, I’m here. I read it in 2006, when I was 11 [just like Jasmine!]. I thought the story was very interesting because it took old myths and put them in a modern context. It’s how I imagine the ancient stories would have been told if they’d been written during our time.

Nick: Looking back at it, do you think it would be as interesting now that you’re older?

Arthur: Not really. When the fifth book came out, The Last Olympian, I’d lost interest. I was in high school at the time, and the writing felt as though it hadn’t matured, not in the way Harry Potter did.

Nick: So it seems like he [Riordan] focuses on the youth demographic.

Arthur: Yeah.

Nick: I agree. Rowling is a more accomplished author, and her work holds up, even today.

OK, guys, how do you rate it, from one to four stars?

Jasmine: *** 1/2

Arthur: *** 1/2

Nick: ** 1/2

 

 

 

 

 

The Nomad: Chapter 6

Disclaimer: This is a love story and an adventure, a modern take on The Odyssey, set in a mythological past where all of the world’s pantheons coexist. It is my first full-length novel, which I wrote in high school circa 1993. 

The Nomad represents a much younger and less experienced Nick Alimonos, but also, a writer who was more passionate, confident, and brash. If you can get past all of the warts (the wordiness, archaic language, melodrama, and awkward sentence structure) I think you’ll find a fun and fascinating story to enjoyThank You.


 

Chapter 6

I found Seline’s white robes soaked with tears when I met her. I had finally reached my homeland as Elios Hyperion and Apollo began to carry the sun across the sky. It melted into the atmosphere like a boiled egg spilling its yellow yoke over the horizon. I had just come over a grassy hill, when I saw the palace standing in a cloud of thick fog. It was on that hill, that I found Seline running toward me. In one hand she carried a handkerchief and with the other she held up her dress so that she could run.

We embraced and I saw that her golden hair had turned gray and her skin had become pale and sickly. Her eyes were pink and weak and shimmered with dampness. Her hands were cold and numb. When I saw her like this, I was in so much shock that I could not speak. Then, she said, “Dynotus, is it you? Is it really you?”

“My dear, who else could it be?”

“I thought you were dead.”

“Why would I be dead?”

“Did you not seek the crown?”

“I did.”

“At first, I knew nothing of the crown. But when I heard stories of what fate befell those who sought it, I believed you were dead. After all, you are only a man.”

“Yes, but I am a man who loves you, and no power on Earth or on Mount Olympus can stop true love.”

“Dynotus, I love you so much. . .” and she paused to catch her breath, “. . . and when I thought I would never see you again, I began to slowly wilt and die, and hoped that I would so that I could find you in Elissium, so that we could be together. I wished to waste away so that nothing but the echo of my tears would remain. My tears for you.”

“There is no need for that now. I have returned with the Crown of Kirce, and we will be wed this very day! Nothing can separate us again.”

And I lifted her in my arms and carried her to the palace, and as I did, the fog lifted and the sun rose high into the air warming Mother Gaea, and flowers sprouted after each step I made.

The gates of the palace opened and all the guards and maid servants greeted us with hospitality and joy. This, at first, surprised me, for I had not expected such a warm and friendly greeting from people whose acquaintances I had slain. Then I saw the King, who rushed toward me with open arms. Though he was smiling, I could tell that much grief had befallen him. “Dynotus!” he exclaimed, “you have returned!”

“What happened? I believed you despised me and wished me dead.”

Then the King laughed and replied, “I did! I did! When you left, I thought you would not return and rejoiced. But my daughter locked herself in her room and cried. There was not one day that passed that she did not cry. She did not eat. She did not sleep. And she said she would never leave her room unless she saw you coming toward the palace from her balcony window. I implored her to come out, but, she refused. I offered her everything a young woman could want. Clothes, jewels, horses, servants, she cared nothing for them. At last, I broke down her door and saw that she had become thin and frail, and that her skin had turned pale and her eyes lost color, and I became terrified. I thought she would die of grief. Then, I fell on my knees and begged her to tell me of anything that would make her eat. And she said, ‘to see Dynotus again’. It was then, that I realized, that she truly loved you. And I told her that I could not find you. But, that, if you were found, or if you returned alive, I promised her to be wed to you. With that promise, she ate.

Then, we waited. The entire kingdom fell into mourning and prayed to the gods for your safe return. Even the guards, when they saw my grief, hoped for your return.”

“So I didn’t need to find the crown?” I asked.

“My son. . .I give my blessing. If marrying you will make my daughter smile again, then marry you she will!”

Seline hugged me and looked deep into my eyes, then smiled and turned to her father. Already, her beauty had returned. “And for her wedding wreath, she will wear the Crown of Kirce!”

A crowd of people gathered round to see it. The King lifted it in his hands and said, “magnificent! I have never seen a treasure of its equal. It will make excellent raiment to my daughter’s head, its beauty surpassed only by her own.”

Seline smiled and reached out her hands to touch it. “Ohh, it is beautiful!” she said, and as she began to place it on her head, the maid servant Astymeloisa called out. “Seline, you have such beautiful things. I know I would never be able to afford such a gift for my wedding. But at least, let me try it on, to know what it would be like to be you.”

“Oh Astymeloisa, you are such a good servant. I would be more than kind to offer it. . .,” and Seline handed Astymeloisa the crown. The maid servant combed her hair back and stood upright to look her best, then, smiling with enthusiasm, did place the crown atop her head.

I think, I was looking down at the time it happened. I was lost in thought, wondering about the mildew growing on the brick walls, when I noticed, what at first I thought was a gust of wind, blow a leaf out of my hand. Then, the heat burned my side and I panicked. I yelled Seline’s name and lunged myself at her, toppling her to the ground. I turned around and heard people screaming, crying. Astymeloisa was still alive, though. Poor girl must have clung on to life for several minutes before she died. I remember her turning and turning and screaming. It took five buckets of cold water before the flames were drowned out, and by then, nothing was left of Astymeloisa but a black charred corpse. The crown had turned to dust, and I could have sworn that Kirce was alive and back to normal some place, laughing at me. I just thanked the gods for whatever impulse drove Astymeloisa to put on the crown before Seline. What I would have done if Seline had put on the crown, could I not even bring myself to think.

The King commanded that several days of mourning be observed for the dead maid servant. I could not believe how things were changing. Not even the King saw women in the same respect. At one time, the King would have sold Astymeloisa to me like a farmer who sells his livestock, to be used as a private whore. But today, due to Seline’s friendship with her and my love for Seline, Astymeloisa’s death became a national tragedy. Because of this, our wedding was postponed. Perhaps, if we had been married a few days earlier, I would not be here, speaking of what was to happen next.

 

The day of our wedding took many days to prepare, even with the hundreds of servants and maid servants working for the King. I demanded that as a naturist, the ceremony be as informal as possible, so Seline agreed to wear only a simple white robe and a gold tiara. Furthermore, a high priest of Zeus was summoned from the north, in Macedon, to marry us.

When the big day came, everything went as planned, even up to the very end of the marriage ceremony. The priest announced us husband and wife, and when I turned to look at Seline, for the first time my wife, all the memories of every woman I had known, melted away, and I experienced a thrilling moment of unspeakable joy, far beyond even the wildest of my sexual adventures. All that I could think, was of how I wished to swim in the ocean blue of my beloved’s eyes, and could not believe that, I had never even kissed Seline, not even once, and that by kissing her would I erase all memory of ever having kissed before.

I placed my hand behind her waist and cocked her head back. She gave me a welcoming smile and I descended down to drink of her rose pedal lips, when, suddenly, a cry was heard from the back of the temple. I turned to see the disturbance, my lips having just glided over hers, close enough to feel her breath, but, never having touched.

“I object to this wedding!” the voice cried out.

King Demaratus rose from his chair and asked, “who dares interrupt this union?”

Then, the crowd parted like the Red Sea, and coming forth, a strange old man with dark and wrinkled skin. He sat upon an old wooden throne carried through the temple on poles. The poles were held by four men in black robes and black turbans. His one eye was bloodshot and stared coldly at me, while the other sank closed. His nails were long and dirt filled, and his teeth were black as night. He spoke with a harsh and raspy voice, “I dare insult anyone, I, Iuz the Cruel!”

“And why should these two not be joined in marriage?” asked the King.

Iuz whispered into one of his guard’s ears and the guard brought forth a wooden box and opened it. Upon seeing the contents of the box, Seline screamed, and the others in the temple were just as shocked. Laying there, lifelessly, was a human arm, stained with blood and severed below the elbow.

“What is the meaning of this?!” cried the King.

“This is the arm of my son. My son who was mutilated by the Son of Zor. For this crime, he must be punished.”

Suddenly, out from another caravan, came Trax the Torturer. He looked as mean as ever, but, this time, with only one arm. Now, however, he had attached to his severed limb a large iron clamp, one which held his double bladed ax. “I demand justice!” cried Trax.

“Well, you shan’t have it. Dynotus did nothing wrong. You were bandits intruding upon Greek land. Dynotus was right for banishing you then, and he will be right to banish you now,” said the King.

Iuz leaned closer to the King and said in a deep voice, “oh, you misunderstand, my King, we are not asking for justice, we are telling you of the justice you are to receive, you and Dynotus!”

“Guards, take them away!” the King commanded.

Suddenly, hundreds of soldiers surrounded the room. All of them dressed like Iuz’ guards. The Greek soldiers had disappeared. “All your guards are dead. We took care of them outside the village. In the Greek harbor is a fleet ten times the size of the last one I sent. It was easy to get beyond your defenses, since half of your army is attending this wedding. I was prepared to contend against a much greater force. I suppose this is my lucky day. And this time, we mean to sack the city of all its treasures, including the beautiful women!”

“Enough! Guards or not, if you did not learn the last time, you shall learn now! For as a trophy, I swear: before you leave here this day, shall you take back your own arm, held in a box!” I threatened.

“I think not!” Iuz replied, and as I went to smote him, did he cast from his hand a glowing jade beetle, which struck me on the waist and wrapped around me like a belt. A jolt of energy ran through me, as if I had been struck by lightning, and I fell to the floor paralyzed.

Iuz leaned over me and grinned, “I heard of your might, Dynotus, and so came prepared. Not even the greatest of the desert giants or the mightiest of the task genies can remove the Scarab of Nether Sharrukin, once it is placed upon them. When it attaches to your body, you become as powerless as a child.”

Then, two of his guards grabbed me and began to beat and kick me. I sustained their blows, unable to move, and watched as Trax and Iuz did their evil, and I, powerless to stop them.

“The girl is mine!” Trax said, taking Seline in his grasp.

Iuz turned to me, and pointing his bony finger, said, “I thought for a long time the punishment I could enact upon you. But it looks as though the Fates have been generous. For there is no greater torture I can conceive, then letting you live and taking your beloved with me! If I were to kill you, you would merely ascend to Mount Olympus as a demi-god. If I were to kill her, you would know her fate, and eventually end your mourning, perhaps to find another love. But by taking her with me, you shall never know what tortures she will be made to endure. You will be plagued for all eternity by the unknown, and you will live, never knowing whether she is alive or dead, whether she is happy or whether she is forced into wedlock with another! A finer punishment, I could not have devised!”

Seline turned to him and said, “you monster! How could you be so. . . so. . .”

“Cruel!” he finished. “That is why, my sweet, they call me the Cruel!”

Trax pushed Seline to the ground and fastened manacles around her ankles, dragging her away in chains. Desperately clinging to the ground, Seline looked at me as long as possible, pleading, “Dynotus, help me!”

I reached out with all my might, taking her hand in mine, and said, “Seline, you must forgive me, you must forgive my weakness, but, I cannot move! But, I swear. . .I swear that wherever you go, wherever he takes you . . .I will find you, in the remotest corners of the world, I will rescue you, I promise!”

“And I swear, my love, that I will never love another. They may force themselves upon my body. . .but they will never have my heart; it shall always be yours!” and with that, she began to cry, as our hands were pulled apart.

I watched Seline be dragged from me and felt an enormous rage build within. It was as if something in me had exploded. With that, I grabbed the scarab from my gut, and letting out a blood-curdling scream, one to scare the meanest of wolves, I did free myself from its power. I crushed the scarab in my hand, and taking hold of both guards, did smash their heads together and break their skulls.

Immediately, I rose to my feet, my godly strength returned. I ran after the bandits, but, already they were on horseback. I called for my own horse, Thunderfoot, riding him out to the harbor.

There, I saw a fleet of ships departing. I wished to catch them, but, knew not which of the many ships contained my love. With all of my effort, I was too late.

           ***

It was then that I vowed, that no matter what the cost, no matter how difficult, no matter how impossible, I would search and I would find her, even if it took the rest of my life. I would not rest. . .until she was back in my arms again.

This is how I lost my treasure, effendi, the greatest treasure that any man may possess, the treasure of true love.


 

Want the next chapter? Previous chapters? Search the archive here: THE NOMAD

The Nomad: Chapter 4

Disclaimer: This is a love story and an adventure, a modern take on The Odyssey, set in a mythological past where all of the world’s pantheons coexist. It is my first full-length novel, that I wrote in high school, circa 1993. 

The Nomad represents a much younger and less experienced Nick Alimonos, but also, a time when I was more passionate, confident, and brash. If you can get past the warts, I think you’ll find plenty to enjoy. Thank You.


 

Chapter 4

Any man who would have said to me those words, would I have taken his life. But I could not bring myself to be angry with the King. Though he now despised me, and would never see me again, I still thought of him as my friend, my only friend. At times, I even wished to call him father, for that is what he would be to me, if he had granted the wish I so deeply desired. But rather than be filled with spite, I turned unto myself and hated what I was. I am a god, worshipped by multitudes, and yet, I would rather wish to be a pauper or a mortal servant. Though I would not live forever, nor dwell among the gods on Mount Olympus, nor seduce so many into my bed—I would have sacrificed everything to be but near her, not as a husband or a lover, but as a servant, one who could enter the palace of the King and not be shunned, if only to see my beloved Seline.

Very slowly did I return to my home. As quickly as I had journeyed to the king’s palace, did I now ride Thunderfoot, at merely a trod. I dirtied my hands in the dust of the white stone, of the mountain that I climbed. When I reached the top of the cliff, I was tired, though it was a thing I had never known before. My muscles sagged and my massive arms lay limp and dead like from my shoulders. My head bowed low, so that, I could dwell only on the earth. For I could not bring myself to look up into the heavens, in fear of seeing that which made me. Lowly was I, lowly to live not upon a towering mountain, but within the dirt, like the worms and the bugs. Finally, I collapsed upon my knees, not in weariness but in prayer. I, then, looked up into the sky, up into the sun, and did cry out and raise my hands unto heaven. And the white clouds did close in and encircle the sun and form an image. I could see a beard as white as snow and two eyes blazing with blinding light. Then, did I cry my father’s name, “ Z O R !! “ And his name was carried out all across the land, through every mountain, off every stone, echoing in the ears of every nymph and god of nature. But, he did not answer me.

Several days passed and I lived atop a boulder in the mountain. I made myself fire and hunted for food. But I did not return to my palace. I did not feel worthy enough to live there.

Then, on one hot day, as I was hiking through the mountains, I heard a scream. At once, I rushed to the sound of the voice. And as I neared closer, I heard that it was the voice of a woman. Then, I began running, running until I heard the voice calling for help directly below me. I looked down over a broken ledge and saw a string of blonde hair blowing in the wind and a pair of delicate hands clinging desperately to the rock.

“Seline!” I called, reaching out my hand. She looked up at me, her fear stricken countenance subsiding to a happy smile. “Dynotus, I knew you would save me!” she said.

“I have not saved you yet, my dear. Reach out your hand so that I may catch it!”

“I can’t! I can’t hold on with one hand!” she screamed back.

I stretched to grab her as best I could, but I could not reach her. Determined to find another way, I yelled, “hold on!”

“Please, hurry! I don’t think I can hold on much longer!”

Desperate, I leaped over the edge of the cliff and caught myself upon the slight protrusions of the rock wall. I then grabbed her by the waist and with all my might, pushed her up over the edge, knowing it would cause my fall. Seline tumbled to safety. I dropped like a stone. When she gained her senses, she looked over and screamed, “Dynotus! NOOOO!!”

Luckily, I landed on a small ledge about fifty feet below. Only my godly might saved me from death. Yet, still, I believed that I had broken a rib. As I lay unable to stand, I saw Seline running and reaching her hands toward me. We embraced, and I found her in my arms again. “Dynotus, why, why didn’t you fly?” she said, and looked at me, confused.

“Fly? I cannot fly,” I replied.

“But. . .but you are a god, are you not?” she asked.

“No, I have told you countless times. I am only a man. I am not even. . . .not even a strong man. Even now, I cannot bear to be without you.”

“Nor can I,” she said.

“You. . .you came to find me?” I asked in amazement.

“The King was cruel and harsh to you. I overheard what things he said. I felt so horrible, but there was no way that I could convince him that your feelings for me were true. I even showed him the letter that you wrote to me, but he thought nothing of it and tore it up!”

“You heard what he said of me? Than you must think of me as an animal.”

“No, no, I do not. I don’t care what you did or have done in your past. What matters is that we be together.”

“But. . .how did you get here?” I asked.

“At night, when the guards were asleep, I crept out of my window and rode my horse to this mountain. It was the highest one, and it was here that I knew I would find you.”

“But why, Seline? You should not be here. Your father will miss you and I cannot love you the way I desire.”

She began to press herself in my arms, resting her head on my chest and gently caressing her fingers against my worn, rough face, “but why? Do you not want me? Do you not love me?”

I pushed her away, “NO! You cannot understand the way I feel for you- the way. . . .the way I love you.”

She tried to coerce me again, “show me!” she said.

I turned away. “I already have. It is not in the flesh and so, you have not seen it. You are blind to it. And I cannot take you. . .I will not take you like a whore. If I could be. . . .if I could be your husband. But it is law. I cannot marry you without your father’s permission.”

“Why. . .why are you crying? Men. . .men don’t cry,” she said softly.

I touched her cheek, “this one does. Tonight, you may rest here. But in the morning, I will take you back to the King.”

That night, I made a fire and hunted us something to eat. While we sat around the flame, under the starry sky, Seline and I began to talk. “What’s it like being a god?” she asked.

“It’s not so different than being a man. Except. . .it’s very lonely.”

“Isn’t wonderful, to be able to lift anything and be stabbed by knives and things and not be killed?”

I lifted my hand in the air and let a bolt of lightning come down from the sky. “And what would I lift? If I could live forever, what would I do?”

“Do you. . .do you get bored, up here?” she asked.

“Yes, but tell me, what’s it like being a princess?”

“I think. . .I think it’s very awful. My father. . .he locks me in my room and doesn’t let me go out. He’s afraid that I’ll get pregnant with some boy or that I’ll be raped or something. I can’t go anywhere or do anything, without mobs of people wanting to look at you and kiss you and fondle you, and tell you how pretty you are and how they would like to live in the palace. And I have no friends. So many say they are my friends, but they don’t really care about me. They don’t see the person inside. All they see and all they care of is my father’s wealth. Of course everyone wants to marry me, I’m the princess!”

“I understand how you feel. It’s horrible that your father locks you in. Such a beautiful creature should not be kept locked up. She should be free to roam wild, to do what she wants and go where she pleases. I hope that the person you marry gives you greater freedom than your father.”

Seline frowned, and said quietly, “no. I fear whoever I will marry. The men below are not like you. They are not gentle and kind. They don’t think of women as people, but as pieces of meat, meat to be enjoyed. And when they are bored of you, they keep you to do work. My husband will marry me for my riches, and then force me into cooking and cleaning and staying home. If he doesn’t like what food I serve or if the palace is unclean, he will beat me.”

“No. . .don’t say such things.”

“It’s true. I know. All the wives I’ve known get beaten. Astymeloisa, the maid servant who lives in the palace, has a husband who is in the army. Every night he comes home late, after whoring around with other women, and then he is drunk and beats her. I find her every day with new bruises and scars, but she says they are nothing, that she hit her head on a table by accident. But I know better. Rather would I die than be married to any man. Any man, that is, but you.”

“I’m sorry. . . I wish that I could do something.”

“Please, let’s change the subject.”

“What should we talk about?”

“Tell me anything. Just speak to me.”

“You know, in the light of the fire, your eyes sparkle like the stars.”           Seline looked up, brushing her hair, and said, “tell me about the stars.”

I pointed up to three stars that were aligned in the heavens and asked, “do you see those three? Those stars are really a belt, and if you look around them, you can see the shape of a person, can you not?”

“Yes! . .I never noticed that before.”

“Well, that is Orion. He was a great hunter. And he was very handsome.

One day, while he was out hunting with his pack of dogs, he was seen by the Goddess of the Hunt, Artemia. Though Artemia is a devout virgin, she fell in love with him. However, Apollo, the brother of Artemia, became jealous of Orion. And so, Apollo schemed to be rid of him.

One day, when Artemia was swimming out in the ocean, Apollo came to her and challenged her hunting skill, saying that she was unable to shoot a far off bird that flew over the water, with her bow and arrow. Well, Artemia became very angry, and she took her bow and did shoot down the bird. However, as she approached closer to see what she had shot down, she realized that the bird she had killed was not a bird at all, but in fact, that it was her loved one, Orion. Well, when mighty Zeus, God of the Heavens, saw how grief stricken she had become, he came down to earth to take Orion’s body, putting him in the sky to remain forever as a constellation.”

After telling the tale, I looked and saw that Seline had fallen fast asleep. I shivered, feeling a gust of cold wind come in from the West. I stood up and looked for something warm that could be used as a blanket. It was then that I found my horse, Thunderfoot, and saw that on his back he wore a sheep skin saddle. And so, I took the sheep skin saddle from him and walking over to where Seline slept, did drop the blanket over her, whispering, “good night, sweet princess.” Making sure she was tucked in tight, I crawled to a nearby boulder, trying as best I could to keep myself warm.

 

I woke early the next morning. I didn’t sleep well; for I was plagued with strange nightmares. I fought the demi-god, Phobos, and lost.

Placing Seline on Thunderfoot, I began making my way down the mountain toward the King. Then, as we were descending, Seline cried out, saying, “what is that!?”

I looked to where she was pointing, seeing down below, at the base of the mountain, a swarm of marching men. “It is the King!” I cried.

Seline looked at me, terrified, “he brought the entire army!”

I separated from her, “stay here, I’ll handle this.”

“No, I can tell them to stop. It’s me that he wants. Let me go alone, so that they do not hurt you.”

“It doesn’t matter. The King thinks I have stolen you, and for such a crime, he will not let me live. I must face him, or forever run and be in hiding.”

 

I went down to meet the army. The soldiers stopped in front of me, armed with swords and shields and wearing helmets. One of them stepped forward and said, “where have you hidden the princess?”

“She is safe. I will return her to the King if you do not attack me.” “Silence, swine! You are in no position to make demands. We shall find the princess and then slaughter you!”

“Do you know who I am!? I am a god! I, in fact, have not kidnapped the princess. But, if you wish to meet your fate, step closer.”

“Ha! you are no more a god than I. You are but a man who knows nothing but to rape and force women, for you could never know love like a man with a wife, like I, with my Astymeloisa.”

“Bastard! Die!” I screamed, and thrust my sword through his gut. He dropped over dead. When the other soldiers saw what happened, without having heard what was spoken, they rushed in and attacked, thinking that I had initiated the battle through a blatant and impudent act of violence. Without thought, I became a raving mad man, rushing into battle with my bloody sword. The army fell around me and swung their weapons to strike me dead. I blocked and parried their futile blows and struck back with such force, that no shield, sword or helm could save their lives. I created a circle of death, and any who came within striking distance of me did I slay. All at once, they charged toward me, but I hacked them down like long stemmed weeds, cutting through and killing three or four with each blow. Others tried to stab me through the back, but I was too fast for them and too conscious of my surroundings. Using the skills I had learned in the Far East, I did fight with both hands and both feet. Those behind me felt the force of my kicking blows, which shattered their armor and broke their bones. Those in front of me felt the cutting edge of my swirling blade. Those beside me felt my fists of rage. And though I was great in might, their numbers overwhelmed me, and soon, I began to feel the slings and gashes of many blades cut into me, those which I did not see or could not catch. After dropping hordes of men, I grew weary at my blood loss, and fell back in retreat. As my blood cooled and my savage madness left me, I realized, that, I was fighting Greek soldiers, the same people who I had sworn to protect. Then, I felt my weakness, and did run to find my horse.

I reached, Thunderfoot, finding Seline sitting upon him. She looked at me in shock, and upon seeing her, did I lose all my strength and drop to the ground. Seline fell to my side, so that her long blonde hair dipped into my blood. “Oh, God! Dynotus, you’re. . .you’re dying!”

I reached up to touch her face, already seeing the tears welling in her eyes. “It’s all my fault. I shouldn’t have fallen in love. God’s do not fall in love the way I fell in love with you.”

“But. . .they hurt you. They made you bleed. You are not a god. You are a man.

When you climbed upon the ledge to save me, you risked your life. You could have died. Why did you do that? Why did you risk your life for me, if you knew that you could not even marry me?”

“I would give my life for you. This is what I’d do, this is how I love you.”

“Now, I understand. I know now what you feel for me.”

“I wish that I could live, just to be with you. But it is better to die, if I am to live without you.”

“But you won’t die. Your wounds are not that severe.”

“No, but the rest of the Greek army is coming and they come to kill me.”

“Can’t you run?” she asked.

“No, I cannot run forever.”

“Run, run and come back to fight another day.”

“I cannot fight the Greek army. I am and will always be Greek, and I have sworn my life to protect the Greek people. I cannot fight my own people. It would be a sin to bear far worse than any simple death.”

“No! I will not let them harm you!” she cried.

When Seline turned around, she saw a legion of men standing before her. One of the soldiers approached, and taking off his helmet, bowed and said, “princess, thank Zeus that you are safe.”

“Get away! Do not harm this man!”

“But, princess, he raped and kidnapped you!”

“He did not kidnap me! I came here on my own. Nor did he ever lay a finger on me. He is the kindest, most loving soul I have ever known. You shall not touch him!”

The soldier lifted his sword, “he may have not kidnapped you or raped you, but he did kill Astymeloisa’s husband and many other good men. He must be put to death!”

“Astymeloisa’s husband deserved it, the bastard! And well, as for the other men, they’re all bastards too!”

“Move aside, princess!” he ordered.

“No! I will not! If you want to kill him, your sword will have to go through me!”

“Please, Seline, do not endanger yourself,” I said.

She knelt down beside me, “but. . .but I love you.”

And her tears washed away my wounds and cleaned my bloody scars and I said, “all right. For you, I will run.”

I stood and pointed my sword at the leader of the army. “Do you wish to fight again!? Maybe your men will take me down, but I shall take more with me, and surely you shall not survive. Order them back, or I will kill you!”

He looked down at the sharpness of my magic blade and said, “all right. Give us the princess and you can go.”

“Only under one condition,” I replied.

Both Seline and the soldier looked at me in surprise, “what condition?” he asked.

“You must swear. You must make an oath that you will do what I ask. Do you swear?”

“I swear.”

“You must promise to let her be free, to go where she wants, when she wants, and to never keep her locked in her room again. Also, when she gets married, it will be your responsibility to be sure that she is never beaten by her husband, and if she is, I will come find you and kill you myself.”

Suddenly, a voice called from the distance, “no need for that!”

The three of us turned. “Father!” Seline proclaimed.

“King!” said the soldier and bowed.

“Demaratus! It is good that you are here, so that I may give these demands to you myself.”

The King leaped off his horse and everyone, save for Seline and myself, knelt and bowed. “There will be no need for these demands, if you can carry them out yourself.”

“Whatever do you mean?” I asked.

“I have decided that you may marry my daughter, if, you bring back to me, to be used as a wedding wreath, the Crown of Kirce.”

Then, I realized that the King, indeed, wished me dead. For he still believed me to have kidnapped his daughter, and feared that, if I were to escape alive, would return to kidnap her again. Thus, he wished me to find the Crown of Kirce, an artifact almost impossible to find, every hero having tried also having died, hoping that I, too, would seek it and not return. And though I knew that I could run and never be caught, I loved Seline so much, that I was willing to gamble this small chance with my life, in the hope of marriage. First, however, I had to be sure that the King would keep his word.

“And how do I know that you will not lie, as you did the night of the banquet, and not give your blessing?”

“I will swear by the river, Styx, that if you bring me the Crown of Kirce, my daughter shall I give to thee in marriage.”

“None may break that oath, even gods, and not be damned for all eternity. Very well, I shall accept your offer. I will search and find the Crown of Kirce, and return to be wed to Seline.”


 

 

Want the next chapter? Previous chapters? Search the archive here: THE NOMAD

The Nomad: Chapter 3

Disclaimer: This is a love story and an adventure, a modern take on The Odyssey, set in a mythological past where all of the world’s pantheons coexist. It is my first full-length novel, that I wrote in high school, circa 1993. 

The Nomad represents a much younger and less experienced Nick Alimonos, but also, a time when I was more passionate, confident, and brash. If you can get past the warts, I think you’ll find plenty to enjoy. Thank You.


 

Chapter 3

The next morning, I was quick to mount my faithful steed early, so that I would not be mobbed by my many votaries. Like the wind I did travel over land, for my stallion was of sacred and Olympian descent, and no beast or fowl on Earth could match his speed. Like the thundering of Zeus’ chariot wheels did the hooves of Thunderfoot equally quake and move with untiring and unyielding speed. By noon, I had reached the top of my mountain abode, and looked down upon all the land governed by the King.

Climbing to my humble home, I found the serenity and peace I once cherished. And yet, I was unable to meditate or be at peace. I thought, perhaps, I longed for the comfort of a woman’s touch. But I did not. And this baffled me, for as a man of nature, I had no desire for any material thing. I had eaten a good meal and did not thirst. Of the things I owned and valued, my horse and ring, I had both with me. Yet, I felt, that there was something I left behind, and that without it, I would never be whole. Within me there was an emptiness, a piece of my soul that was cold and barren. Deeply disturbed by these emotions, I prayed for a dream to reveal the secret of my longing.

I awakened suddenly that night, having drempt that I was wrestling with the son of Ares, the demi-god, Phobos, and was unable to best him. And then I noticed it, that the walls of my room were as empty and shallow as I. Till the coming of Dawn I lay restless, my feelings turned to torment. It was as though I had never known life nor lived it. I breathed and walked, and yet, felt no more living than the kouros, a man made of stone.

Looking out upon the horizon, I knew my destiny would lead me to the king’s palace, and knew without question, there I would return.

The day was warm and bright, and the chrysanthemums bloomed and the little birds sang, and I knew that Persephone had returned to her mother Demeter from her time spent in the Underworld. As I journeyed to the king’s palace, I chose to take an indirect route, so that I might cross through no village and keep unnoticed in my arrival.

When I saw the palace from afar, I dismounted and left Thunderfoot in a wooded olive grove, then threw my tunic round my shoulders and cautiously approached from the side. In this way, I hoped to find the King, so that I might tell him of my troubles without the knowledge of the old and stodgy oligarchs. As I walked, I came across the royal stables. Here were the charioteers and equestrians from Macedonia who tended to the royal mounts. It was there that I saw Clytemnestra, her rags muddied, clutching the reigns of a large horse upon which a young maiden sat, dressed in a short chiton, her golden tresses swaying in the breeze. At the sight of her, my heart raced, for I knew that it was Seline.

Clytemnestra was instructing the princess on how to ride a horse. Seline, all the while, attempted to balance herself upon the animal riding side-saddle, and as the horse trotted, she looked as if she were about to fall. Finding this amusing, I watched as she was eventually thrown face down into the mud. At first, I thought she might rise with tears or fury. But, to my surprise, she lifted herself with laughter, and seeing this did Clytemnestra laugh also. Seline was not hurt. But her hair, face, and clothes were soiled. After that, Clytemnestra told her that she should bathe immediately, for a princess should never be as filthy as a peasant. But Seline refused to listen and tried to leap upon the horse again. She lost her footing, however, and fell now backward into the mud, and I laughed again. Covered like a hog she arose, chiton sticking to her skin, globs of mud falling from her hair. Undaunted, she attempted to mount the horse, and it was apparent she had succeeded earlier only with the help of her maid servant. Finally, after many failed attempts, she accomplished the task and for several minutes rode free.

With the wind brushing against her she raised her arms defiantely and cried out in triumph. And as I looked, I found myself sharing in her newfound joy. Then suddenly, her bare heel kicked inadvertantly against the animal’s side, and the horse galloped too swiftly for her to control. Unable to halt the beast, she tugged on the reigns managing only to steer it towards the fence.

Immediately, I broke though the wooden boards in my path and leapt onto the field to intercept them. The horse charged blindly against me, but at the final instant before impact, bucked, tossing the loosely seated girl from its back. With my godly strength, I pushed the horse aside, and caught her in my arms. Our eyes met and in hers I saw a spark of remembrance.

“You . . . saved me,” she murmured.

“Those Macedonian breeds can be temperamental at times.”

“Have we met before?” she inquired.

“Yes, I am Dynotus.”

“You were the man I spoke to last night. But if, if you are Dynotus, what are you doing here? I thought you returned to Mount Olympus, to your home amongst the gods?”

I lifted her as I stood, saying, “I do not really live among the gods. Actually, my home is quite near to here, in the Taygetos.”

She smiled and replied, “Could you . . . put me down now, please?”

“But of course,” I studdered, doing as she asked.

“So you don’t live on Mount Olympus with Zeus and Athena?”

“No, Seline, I am not a god. I am only a man.”

“My father told me of your modesty. I am grateful that you came to help. Thank you.”

Then, I looked into her glimmering eyes and fell speechless. Being the son of Zeus, I could take anything from anyone. But, in the same instance, this made me feel apart from humanity.

“You really should go and clean yourself,” I said at last.

She blushed. “Yes, I should.”

As she strolled back to Clytemnestra, I called out, “If you like, I have a beautiful horse. He can take you to a river nearby and you can bathe there.”

She turned to look at me, combing a dirt stained lock from her eyes. “I adore horses! But they do not seem to share the same fondness for me. Is he gentle?”

I cupped her hands in my own. “As gentle as you, fair princess.”

“Yes, I would like to see him.”

I then whistled loudly and summoned the mighty Thunderfoot. Seline looked at him in awe. “He is so beautiful. His mane is so soft and white. I have seen no horse his equal. May I ride him?”

“If you wish,” said I, picking her up by the waist and gently placing her on its back. It was then that I realized, no man or woman had ridden my horse but I, and it was strange for Thunderfoot was a divine animal, a gift from Zeus, and would not lend himself to mortal hands, or so I thought.

“Do you wish to see the river now?”

“Oh no! I dare not!”

“But why?”

“She knows her place!” said Clytemnestra, accosting them suddenly. “The princess is not allowed to leave the palace grounds unless escorted by her father.”

“But Klea!” Seline objected, pouting, “He saved my life! Surely I’ll be in safe hands, with him. He is the son of Zeus, after all!”

“Well,” said the maid, “I don’t know about this. I’ll have to go ask your father.”

“Go ask and we’ll wait for you here.”

When Clytemnestra was far off, Seline turned to me with a devious grin, saying, “All right, let’s go!”

“But I thought you did not want to . . .”

“That’s just because of Klea. She’s hovers over me like an albatross. I had to wait until we could get away.”

“But your father . . .,” I began.

“Oh, my father is a stuffy old man. He keeps me locked away in the palace night and day! There is so much I don’t know and want to know! I haven’t any idea of the world or of anything in it!”

“Your father is a good friend. I cannot disrespect him.”

“Please, Dynotus, I want to roll in the grass and play in the sea . . . and I want to run naked in the gymnasium like the wives of the hoplites!”

“Seline!” I exclaimed, grabbing her by the ankle, “you are a princess. Such things are not for you.”

“What good is it to be princess then? Everyone envies me, my clothes, my jewelry, the palace where I live, and yet they don’t understand; I live no differently than an outcast, than a prisoner! I want to see other kingdoms, all the ones I’ve heard about: Thebes and Athens, and Olympus! All I know is outside my window, a small part of Sparta. And this must be the most boring place in the world with all the men living in their barracks or off fighting some war. I wish I could live in the barracks too, maybe become a hoplite myself . . .”

“Believe me, you don’t want that. Besides, women are not meant to fight. Your battle is maternity, in giving birth.”

“Did Tyrtaeus write that drivel? What about Athena, she wears armor and a helmet and carries a shield!”

“That’s different. She is a goddess.”

“And Artemis has her bow. Even Aphrodite fought at Ilium in the Trojan War.”

“You know the words of Homer?”

“I memorized the entire epic poem, both the Iliad and the Odyssey. What else is there to do when you are caged in your room like some animal?”

“You’re not like any woman I have ever known . . .,” I murmured softly.

Then she pierced my soul with her eyes, blue as the Aegean and penetrating as a hoplite spear. “Please, Dynotus, we haven’t much time. Once Klea comes back, it will be too late, and I’ll never know a day of freedom.”

 

Seline rode while I walked beside her, leading her to the river. Through a dirt path and over jagged rocks we went, between the olive trees and the eucalyptus. The stream we came to dashed against many layers of jutting stones, and there I helped her to dismount as Thunderfoot began to graze.

“Here we are,” I said. “Skotino, the dark river.”

Seline let her chiton slip off her shoulders and it fell as if loosely fastened, bundling round her ankles. As Spartan women did not wear undergarments, I was forced to look away, out of respect for her and her father. But she responded to me, “Do not be timid. Have you not seen thousands of women before? Do not the Spartan women show their thighs in public, and exercise with the men in the gymnasium as Lykourgos decreed to ‘produce in us habits of simplicity and an ardent desire for health and beauty of body.’?”

“It is true what Lykourgos said,” I answered. “But you are different, you are the-”

“I know. I am the princess!” she interrupted, wading knee deep into the current.

I spied upon her then as she splashed her sides gently, but her simple beauty did not manifest lust, but rather, a feeling of awe and reverence, an uplifting of my spirit as on the wings of Daedelus.

“Have you brought me here to make love?” she asked bluntly and unabashedely, a strand of hair lain wet across her cheek as she faced me.

“No!” I stammered. “I did not mean to mislead you.”

“Do you not think I’m beautiful?” she asked, river droplets glistening from her skin, revealing herself to me proudly as a sculptor would his korè.

“You are fair as any goddess,” I answered truthfully.

She smiled. “What hubris! But I suppose it’s alright, since your father is Zeus.” And then she pouted. “So then why do you not wish to make love to me?”

“I cannot,” I replied. “You are Demaratus’ daughter. It is forbidden.”

Seline and I parted ways without as much as a kiss. It was not that I did not want her. But in that she was a virgin princess, fornication with me, who was not her husband, would only defile her and make her a whore. Regardless, there was a greater than the pleasures of the flesh. I wished to wake each morning to find her resting in my arms. I yearned to share with her my home and all my life’s experiences. Yet, more than anything, I longed to do something special for her, to give her happiness, and to know that it was I who did so.

Several nights passed and I could not sleep, knowing now what it was that troubled me. One day, as I was gathering pomegranates from my garden, tortured by the icon of a bathing Seline as if stamped like a drachmae under my eyelids, a Muse took pity and gifted me with inspiration. Hence, I summoned my steed and rode to the port of Gythio where I met with Phoenician traders from Biblos. And from them I purchased sheets of papyrus and ink for writing.

For Seline I did compose a letter, the words being those of the Muse but with feelings my own, for I had little knowledge of writing. Then in the moonlight I crept along her balcony window and left the letter there for her to find. When she awoke the next morning, she stepped out on to the ledge and found a flower and a scroll. Curious, she lifted the flower to her nose and opened the scroll, which read thus:

 

With how melting a glance does she look towards me, more

Tender than sleep and death; nor are such sweets idly

proffered. But Seline answers me not, but wearing her

garland like some bright star shooting across the sky or golden

sprout or soft plume she strides with feet outstretched . . .

grace sits on the maiden’s tresses . . .

Were she but to look at me . . .

coming close to hold me with her soft hand, quickly

would I become her suppliant

 

After this, I returned one night to gaze at Seline’s empty balcony. Even in that darkest hour I found her, standing with candle in hand. And she called to me, “Dynotus, how I cherished what you wrote and read it if not a thousand times!”

“Seline, how do I find you not in dreams at this hour, when even satyrs pause their reveling to slumber?”

“Oh, but I dared not sleep for hope that you might come again unto my windowsill and this time catch you in an act of love.”

“And how do you know that it was I who sent you such doting words? Would any man be so foolish as to open his heart to a woman, to reveal his very essence and remain unshielded, like a naked breast against a spear point?”

She cast me a mischievious smile. “I did not say that they were doting words, Dynotus.”

“Then it is true that I am but the deliverer of the scroll. But the words belong to the Muses.”

“Do not the Muses come when they are summoned? Summoned by the yearning and aching of men’s hearts?”

“Tell me. Do you patrol your bedroom like a centurion watching for a thief? Is it passion that keeps you awake, or is it fear?”

“It is both. The passion that churns for you and the fear that you might not come again.”

“Then I pray this churning continue so that passion might thicken and become . . . love.”

“Dynotus, will you ask my father to marry us? I cannot know joy without you. I can’t breathe without you. I can’t live without you. The day you caught me in your arms, I knew that I would be your wife some day.”

“Should your father give me his blessing, I will marry you. Till then, pray to Aphrodite.”

“But no, Aphrodite is for love, and Hera for marriage.”

“But what is marriage without love? We should ask for both.”

“No, Dynotus! You are the son of Zeus. And Hera, his wife and goddess of marriage, despises all Zeus’ sons that are not her own. Your mother was Alcmena, a mortal woman, was she not?”

“Then praying to her will be of no use. Let us venerate Aphrodite, and that which Pandora’s Box did not release.”

“And what is that?”

“Hope.”

 

And so there I slept beneath her balcony, and when Dawn rose I did wake and enter the palace. There I sought the King, and found him on his throne. As always, Demaratus was delighted to see me. He greeted me warmly and asked, “Dynotus, my friend, what brings you here?”

Now, I was filled with fear, and kneeling before him did reply, “I have come to tell you my wish, that which you granted me the night of the banquet last.”

“Excellent!” he replied. “And for what have you decided to ask?”

“It is the one thing, the one thing that shall give me joy and happiness all the days of my life. I implore you, do not deny me this one wish!”

Demaratus laughed. “This is quite unlike you, Dynotus! Do not hesitate. Whatever you desire, I shall gladly grant. Do not fret.”

“I humbly request your daughter’s hand, your daughter, Seline.”

The King sat stunned for a moment, and then his smile turned to an angry scowl and his face pale and aged “. . . my daughter? You wish for my one and only daughter? She is the only person, the only thing left in this world that I love. Of all the women you have defiled, the only virgin, the only thing I know that is young and pure, all that I have left in the world that you have not spoiled! No! I will never allow your lecherous hands take from me my daughter! As if you could not go and satisfy yourself with all the whores in the village, you would dare come here and rape my precious Seline and make her one of them! I say never! You will see my death before your limb shall ever know the love of my young and innocent daughter! Go now and ravage a pig to satiate your appetite, and may I never suffer the sight of you within my hall again!”


 

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The Gorgon’s Lover

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Let me tell you how I killed her—how I killed the only woman I ever loved. I am a wretched thing, truly, and have little else to offer but this story. Hear me out, if you are wanting for a tragedy, but I give you fair warning: this is no tale for children or the weak of heart, but a thing to curdle the blood, to raise the small hairs of the body.
To know my story, you must know of how I came to Aea. You have heard tales, no doubt, of that fabled isle where no one knows hunger, where the women are as beautiful and as willing as the nymphs. Aea does not appear on any map, and no two sailors will agree on where to find it, but it is no myth.
In the dawn of manhood I found myself a recluse, wandering between the lands. Having never known family or a home, the world was joyless and bitter, and I unprepared for it, for the way men battled starvation. The gods are angry, people say, so these are dark times. And so life for me was a waiting for death.
War gave me hope for better days. Nibia marshaled its forces against the Dark Hemisphere. There was hope of crushing the bogrens so that men might venture forth without fear to farm what had been despoiled. Bold men and women came from throughout all Ænya, vagabonds such as I, lending their swords to the cause. In this I found purpose, and was determined to it, to win the war alone if need be.
We paraded through the streets, reveling before the first blow was struck. Fate smiled on me, or so I thought, and a new age of prosperity seemed within reach.
We pushed onto that shore of eternal twilight, fighting along the border. The first cycles were promising, merciless. We trampled over bodies, the dead stretching to the horizon, and many of the lost lands were reclaimed. The Nibian commander, his heart bolstered by victory, longed to push deeper into that sunless land, to make it so that no bogren could challenge mankind again. But soldiers who had not blinked before uncounted hordes fled upon crossing into that accursed wasteland. Our commander was accused of hubris; they said such vanity was an affront to the gods. Fearing mutiny, we were led back to the western hemisphere. Everyone was in good spirits but I, who longed to spill more of the blood of those mongrels.
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After two cycles marching across cold dead rock, the sun began to show on our faces. We boarded a ship, which seemed safest passage to Nibia as bogrens have deathly fear of water, but our eyes never met that familiar shore. The fleet met with a storm, churning, black, unholy as Hades. Debris ripped the hull to pieces and all but two joined Sargonus, God of the Sea, in the depths. I was the one. The other was a soldier and a friend of mine. His name was Valis.
We clutched at the splintered hull until our fingertips were raw and swollen, our throats parched, our shoulders simmering under the intense gaze of the sun. Adrift in misery, we longed to have died honorably on the battlefield. But we shuddered at the thought of our bodies being desecrated, used by bogrens in some perverse, ungodly ritual.
Sargonus took pity on us, or so I believed. I woke with a hard stretch of earth beneath my cheek, and in the bright blaze of morning the sand was radiant and golden and blessedly coarse against my fingertips. Within a few paces, Valis stood shakily, and I was overjoyed to see him. For a brief moment, I hoped we’d died on a good day and journeyed to Alashiya. But as strength returned to my limbs, I realized that I was not gone to the Taker, but trapped in the same emaciated body. With great effort, I pushed myself from the tide coursing through the fringes of my beard, my body heavy as if bound in bronze. Wasted with hunger, my ribs could easily be counted beneath the skin. I squinted through salt lined eyelids toward brilliant clover-green hills, to icy peaks touching the sky. Was I in paradise? Ages adrift in briny waters, any land would have been.
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That night, we camped on the beach, resting against a reef which cut against the tide like the keel of a ship. When the light of morning pried open our eyes, we foraged for clams and seaweed, and after regaining some strength, I studied the zigzag rim of mountains to determine what kingdom we’d been tossed upon.
We set out for civilization on the second day, falling speechless before the unfolding coastline. The cliffs lifted from the Sea like wild, white brush strokes, and the Sea was tranquil as a pond. We could not tell where waves met sky, but for a silver, translucent disc—the moon—mirrored in the ripples of the waters.
We continued along the beach, seeking a path through the rocks, till coming upon sections of colonnades jutting from the rock as if long ago abandoned. Lying across the water, a hundred paces from shore, was a half-submerged statue—a robed woman—whose glaring eye could have eclipsed the sails of our ship. It was there we first glimpsed signs of life, clinging to the mountainside and all about the arms of a harbor, atop islets rising in loops from the waves: houses, gleaming whitely in the sun, with domes and doors and shutters awash in blue.
A half day trek through dense foliage and we came to a clearing of huts made of mud and straw. The islanders went about without clothing of any kind, oblivious to shame or modesty. They were adorned only in trinkets of bone, lapis lazuli or gold, and with patterns of tattooing or branding. With our clothing in tatters, we’d feared the natives might take us for vagabonds, but seeing how it did not matter, we discarded what shreds still clung to our bodies and went about as the natives.
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Like no other people I’d known, the islanders devoted themselves to leisure, to singing and dancing and to spinning pottery into every shape of the imagination. They moved with such gaiety, you might think their feet never touched the earth. At last I had found . . . a radiant people. For them, there was no age of darkness. Here was no hint of misery. In that moment I began to feel, in that most simple state of being, the weight of existence lift from my shoulders.
Though we could not imagine such people harming us, we were too accustomed to suspicion to walk out into the open. And though practicing their custom of nakedness, we resembled outcasts in that we were in need of grooming.
On the third day, Valis stole a knife of volcanic glass from a hunter, resisting the urge to cut more than a morsel from the spit where a boar had been roasting. I gazed longingly at my friend as he ate, fearing how closely I must resemble him. The greasy sliver of meat fell with a thump into my stomach and the succeeding sensation of hollowness only increased my hunger. At last we resolved to cut our beards, and when we sufficiently resembled the islanders, set out for the blue and white domiciles.
The islanders strolled past us, our emergence met with indifference, for we were no more haggard than the fisherman with his carts of tangled netting. The youth and the poor went about as freely as the primitives in the woods, but the highborn women of childbearing age went to market in pleated robes, as the men labored in kilts and sandals. Despite the urge to learn more about this strange land, we held our tongues.
With the memory of boar still on our palettes, hunger continued to gnaw at us, but Valis and I were without anything to barter. We could not hope even to kill for food, as our weapons were lost to the depths.
Coming upon the city center, we were taken aback by what such a simple people had made. Save for Hedonia with its towering domes and pediments, we’d never witnessed such architecture. Three temples stood, mirroring one another, forming a square. Joy and wonderment and hope mixed in our throats, believing that, as in our own places of worship, the temples must serve as houses of charity.
We made our way to the east temple, eager to hide from the sun amid long columns of shadow. Strange gods of stone frolicked along the pediment, but we did not hesitate to pass under the threshold where the air was cool and crisp.
What came to greet us loosed our hearts like racing horses. The clerics of the temple were women, beautiful beyond measure, formed from the stuff of men’s fantasies. They were in states of undress, in hanging silk and peels of gold, in peacock feathers worn in ways that excited our curiosity. Their beauty overcame even the bray of my stomach, reminding me of another, long forgotten hunger. Valis and I were welcomed with butterfly eyelashes, with gestures of hand and hip. What the priestesses discovered must have been pleasing to them and I suppose that even in our haggard state Valis and I were handsome, for one of the older women spoke and we were led into a cavernous space.
We lifted sun beaten eyes to the welcoming lips of a nude goddess. Between her ankles, in a mosaic of splendorous hues, was a clear pool. Without a word, they proceeded to strip off their loose garments, stealing imagination from my mind, and like children we were led to bathe. Fingers soft and white as pearl brushed against me. Hands from many bodies probed my war ravaged frame like serpents seeking to feed. With every caress—a hard day’s marching, a night shivering in hunger, a friend wailing in blood—one by one the memories left me like dead leaves in the gale.
We learned that this was the Temple of Irene, Goddess of Love and Peace. Of the other two goddesses we did not bother ask. We were mesmerized by beauty. And my friend and I were given everything a man might crave, food and clothing, and a warm body to spill our seed.
The nightly orgies became all, and our hearts were enslaved. The women explored each perverse action with abandon, indulgences of which I am too shamed to describe. How many succumbed to me, or I, rather, to their lustful appetites, I dare not count. Every eye and lip, bosom and hip and buttocks, became indistinct in the sweat, in the revelry—their names unspoken, unremembered.
This was my poison, as deadly as any bogren’s dagger. The moons came and went and came again, and I no longer waited for night with zeal but dreariness. As for my companion, he never tired of his new existence, continuing into each night as if his lust could only grow out of depravity.
Though my body was restored, a great gaping emptiness was left in me, as if I’d been torn open by a mortar. Despising the wretch I had become, I longed to hold a sword again, to hear the dying of my enemy. Driven mad by the sensation, I abandoned my sanctuary to explore the others, wondering if they, too, functioned as consecrated whorehouses. The central temple was the most grand, a shrine to Zoë, goddess of Life, Wisdom and Balance. Only women served the goddess, their beauty paling before what I had known, but unlike those whores who knew to satisfy only the flesh, the servants of Zoë were wise in philosophy and astronomy. By then, I could understand a little of the Aean language, and with the aid of a Zoë priestess, I learned to speak fluently.
The third temple honored Maki, of War and Virtue. This is where I found my true self . . . and my greatest cause for grief.
***
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Her name was Midiana. Hers is the face burned under my eyes, the image that shines alone in the darkness.
The goddess in her battle helmet, with her sword and shield of serpents, possessed a hard, somber beauty that made me feel intimidated. At Maki’s heel, a priestess was kneeling with bird seed as snow-white peacocks, camouflaged against the stone, nipped at her palms. She was half in silhouette, the shadows playing across the nape of her neck where the torchlight touched her. Her hair was black as pitch against the gleaming white of her chiton, every strand threaded into braids as thick as ropes. When she noticed me, it was like looking into the sun—there was such beauty to be found in those ample lips and dark amber eyes—so much like a bird’s eyes—I feared to go blind dare I stare too long.
The priestess was in shock, scattering seed everywhere as the great white birds scampered after it. To my inquiries, she responded with measured and quavering lips, as her forearm hid the sight of me. I’d feared such a reaction cycles ago, upon first engaging the islanders, but was unprepared for it now that I had come to know, in more ways than one, the locals of Aea. She was quick to make it known that nakedness was forbidden in the temple, and I felt suddenly ashamed, for I’d grown accustomed to not wearing clothes. She went on to tell me that no male was to step foot over the goddess’ threshold, that even the white birds sacred to Maki were female. Confounded by the extreme difference of customs, I could do nothing but apologize and take my leave.
As morning crept under my eyes, I realized sleep had not taken me the whole of the night. And I knew, like the bee born knowing of the flower, the hollowness I’d long suffered was for her—that nothing could fill the gaping in me but her presense.
Mystified, I returned to the east temple, to find comfort in the company of my old companion. But by that time, he was no more the proud warrior who’d slaughtered bogrens by my side. He had grown, in fact, quite pale, and his belly sagged about the waist, and like a fattened hog he lolled about in nothing but a crown of laurel leaves. I found him on the steps, like a king retired from conquest, laughing like a fool at some base amusement. I pitied what he’d become, but had not the strength to tell him. Upon seeing me, his face brightened, and I told him of the beautiful priestess girl and my pining for her. As a remedy, he invited me to a frolic with the devotees of Irene. My heart did not rise to the idea, but I agreed to join him.
The air was heavy and wet with jasmine and rosewater, and the music of the lyre echoed from the chambers of the sacred pools where stone gods gazed with coy smiles and mock shame. The women in the dim firelight were young and shapely and eager to please, but to the abasement of my pride, I was powerless to engage in the act. I had cycles in which to spill my seed, but again I felt, more than ever, that sense of repulsion.
I abandoned the temple, restless and alone beneath the great moon. The bright turquoise disc seen by kingdoms near and far reminded me of my wandering days, and the vast spread of constellations looked distantly on me in my isolation.
Dressed in a borrowed chiton, I found her in an orchard behind the Temple of Maki, with a rake of sorts, beating olives into a basket. But she did not know me. Was I forgotten so quickly? How awful that seemed when I’d studied her every line for hours, grating thin my brain with the thought of her!
With greatest care to not mangle her language, I offered her my name. It sounded oddly from her lips, my name echoing in her exotic, dulcet inflection like a butterfly painted in vibrant colors I’d never before seen. As politeness was custom, she introduced herself also; ­Midiana, she told me she was called, but it was more than a name to me; it was a magic word, a secret spell of power. Tradition forbade her from speaking further, she explained, but after decades of peace and prosperity the law had become lax. Nevertheless, she made it known that I was never to touch her—that to graze a single of her hairs was sacrilege. Foolhardy as a man is in his youth, I did not heed the little wisdom that was in me, but persisted.
Worlds divided us . . . I was like a bird who loves a fish, and the sense of awkwardness was like a fist in my gut. Did she look away from me with disgust for my sex, or fear for her god? Were her words, tipped with ice, out of indifference, or something more sinister?
Keeping at arm’s length, I raised an empty basket and a rake. We worked alongside one another in silence but for the subtle swish and thump of dropping olives. My forearms became sore and my brow sweaty as the day wore on and the sun grew hotter and higher. She, all the while, moved lightly as a moth, her bare feet turning in a kind of dance to each tree.
With five bushels full and only the bright green of unripe fruit left on the branches, I chanced to ask of the island and of her religion, and of things already known to me so that I might listen to the song of her voice. Like a cleric eager to convert one to their faith, her tongue came unknotted, and she began to explain many things.
Maki delivers punishment to those who blaspheme her or her sisters, Zoë and Irene. The goddess also protects the island from foreigners. Ships wandering close to Aea are split apart by storms. I am ashamed to admit that, even as she told me this, it did not occur to me to think upon my own lost crew. Love for my fellow comrades paled to nothing before her beauty. Both sexes worship idols of Maki, but only a woman can be called to divine the will of the gods. As in every aspect of Aean culture, the female is dominant. Even in war, women go into battle. A female follower of Maki knows a man only in marriage, but a priestess can never be touched by the male sex.
After a little while—or was it many hours?—no more questions could bridge the distance between us; and her eyes—in which I’d found sanctuary from the cold hard surfaces of existence—drifted away from me. I became an apparition beside her, of no more consequence than the moonlight in her hair. Her indifference, and my powerlessness, gnawed at my innards until I could suffer it no longer, and with little ceremony I crept off into the night.
For some days I continued to lend her my hands. When cloistered in the temple, I awaited her from afar. Once, she shooed me away, so that other priestesses not discover me. At any moment she could have had me banished, and it gave me hope when she did not.
With the cycle of the moons, I learned the pattern of her outings, for the temple priestesses, even those of Irene, functioned in an orderly manner. When Midiana remained indoors to pray, I found comfort in solitude, in roaming the hills and the dry brush wilderness about the outskirts of the city.
One day she was in the courtyard with a sword. Her movements were graceful, hypnotic, but of little use in battle. I knew the priestesses of Maki were warriors, but peace had dulled their skills. Their training was now ritual, more art than war. She took great care presenting the sword to me, and I resisted the urge to brush a fingertip against her. The hilt was exceedingly ornate, looping patterns etched in gold and jade, like the bands about her forearms. Her face watched me from the mirror surface of the blade. I showed her how to use it, how to kill with it, swinging the weapon with such force that I feared to snap it in twain. Each thrust was to a vital part of the body: the underbelly, the knees, the part of the neck that separates the head . . .
Midiana was fascinated, and it was not long before the thread of her questions turned to me and my origins. She confessed in never knowing battle, and when I related tales of the Nibian War, she quivered with horror, finding the whole bloody ordeal too awful to listen to. At birth, a priestess is chosen to be raised in one of the three temples, but Midiana was not, nor could ever be, a warrior.
We practiced swordplay until our shadows stretched across the courtyard, and I dared to ask if it was not sacrilege to change her fate, to perhaps become a priestess of Zoë, but she withdrew from me like a frightened hare. I did not see her after that for two days, and cursed my tongue for separating me from my love.
When my eyes touched sight of her again, she drifted through the temple’s colonnades burdened and insignificant between the massive stone columns weighing upon her. And then she chanced to lift her gaze to see me and was weightless again. Love radiated as the sun upon the world, and as her eyes lingered on mine, more was spoken between us than any words can convey. We were separated by ten paces, mouthing words of affection, and then she was called away.
When the sun was deep in the moon and all were in dreams, we carried on in hushed, frightful voices. She was more beautiful than any goddess could ever be, with hair a deep violet in the moonlight, crowned by the pinks and violets of the bougainvillea climbing the pillars of the gazebo where we sat. With tears that glistened like diamonds, she lamented her fate—how she could not abandon the priesthood to become my wife. I was taken aback to hear it, having doubted the depth of her love for me. At once, I grieved for us, and confessed all that was in me, and in hearing it she showed no apprehension, but soaked up my words as if she could not survive otherwise. I vowed to return and to sit by her, till my limbs no longer carry me, if only to adore her with eyes and ears. With that, she tore at her robes as if burning in them, letting the once noble cloth in tatters, and embraced me. I did what was in my nature, touching wherever her fingers led me, and no part of her remained sacred.
We found warmth in the cool twilight air. With the sun behind Infinity, we were as united silhouettes, but we dared not be discovered and hid like shamefaced children in a copse of basil. That was time enough for me to regain my reasoning, and like removing an arrow from my side, I suggested we abstain from doing what we had been about to, my fear for her great. At this she flew into a rage, pulling at her braids, clawing at her skin, and I was astounded to hear her cursing Maki with the foulest of obscenities, vowing to offer up her maidenhood should it mean her death. I shuddered at the oath, but she persisted, and whatever power I had to resist her wasted away, and hand-in-hand we ventured into the temple, our hearts thrumming in our chests. “It’s the only place,” she murmured, “where we will not be seen.” I asked about the other priestesses, but she assured me that they were deep in the slumber of undiluted wine and could not be awakened. “No one will know,” she added, and I nodded, captivated by her will, tailing her into the Shrine of Maki.
Across a floor of semiprecious stones, before the eyes of that wrathful goddess, in that sacred chamber where no male was to set foot, I seized her body and she mine. Nude and entwined, we gave shape to our love, and worshipped each other in words and actions. And though the walls echoed with her elation, we continued untamed, freely exploring every facet that made us man or woman, relishing in our bonded flesh all the more in that we defiled the sanctity of the temple.
What possessed us so? What devils of lust turned us to madness? Was it mere love? I cannot say. When the deed was done, we lay wet and breathy in each other’s arms. I felt the victor of a great battle, of a great war, but the moment of ecstasy, of bliss, was fleeting. Spread and broken and overflowing white with seed, Midiana turned to me and whispered, with such shuddering fear I cannot ever hope to forget,
“. . . What have we done . . .?”
Wisdom erupted from my brain into my consciousness, but it was for naught, for what I witnessed then was a terror beyond comprehension. Sensing some motion in the corners of my eye, my head froze upon the ceiling, fixed upon the scowling face of a living, breathing idol.
“MIDIANA,” the goddess bellowed, and my love shot upward, shaking gruesomely with terror, desperately clutching the remains of her robe to hide her nakedness. Oh, how she turned pale, and fell on her face in penitence! Alas, how she wept for mercy before that somber, pitiless visage. I could hear her murmuring, like a small child, “Forgive . . . forgive . . .” But the idol did not care to listen, delivering justice with its massive, pointing finger. Midiana jolted, like a fish on an invisible hook, and her chiton dropped weakly from her fist. With panic and rage, I demanded to know what was happening to my beloved. But already I could see it. Midiana’s figure convulsed like a marionette on the strings of a drunken puppeteer. Her fair flesh was turning hard and pressing up through the skin: scales. As I stood, powerless and desperate, the goddess’ words hammered in my ears: “FOR SUCH SACRILAGE, THERE SHALL BE NO DELIVERANCE FROM ME, AS YOU HAVE SWORN—BUT LIFE IMMORTAL! AS GREAT THE GIFT OF BEAUTY THAT YOU HAVE KNOWN, SO SHALL YOU KNOW, FOR AS LONG AS THE STARS BURN: UGLINESS. AND ALL WHO SEE YOU WILL SHUDDER AND BECOME UNMOVING, AND BECOME LIKE STONE.”
I reached out, to snatch her from that judgment, my eyes following her transformation as if to steal her beauty in memory. But she stumbled away, hiding her face with a claw that once had been a hand. “Titian!” she wailed, in a voice I accepted, with great reluctance and despair, to be hers. She begged me not look, and in that there was no other way to ease her suffering, I did as she asked and turned away. With what little sanity endured in her, she pleaded that I flee. Despite her new form, my love endured, but I knew that whatever stood before my clenched eyelids was far from human, far from my Midiana . . . so I abandoned her, looking back once to see a shadow across the breast of a lifeless statue, and oh how that writhing shadow made me shiver and look once more away.

***

c1807-medusahead
Waves crashed against the reef, collapsing over my waist in a cold frothy mist. I’d often visit that rock to listen to the waters and remember my life before Aea. The shore was at thirty paces, and I could still see the depression of our camp in the sand. More than ever, I longed for peace in my soul, for the freedom from worry granted in death. If only I were as fortunate as my Nibian crewmen to never again know the burden of living!
Without her, I was an empty shell, without will, without a soul. But guilt was my tormentor, for I was to blame for Midiana’s affliction, I who envied the loveliest ilm in the garden, having ripped her from the roots so her loveliness decay. Maki, that cruelest of gods, found fault in the innocent. I deserved to be cursed . . . I who had wallowed in that cesspool of flesh, in that den of whores . . . what had Midiana known of such debauchery?
Alas, there was no sacrifice to make to undo this evil. I cried until my throat gave out, so that my own gods might hear, yet they were deaf to me. As the echo of my anguish carried out to Sea, something glittered in my sight. Embedded in a reef, beaded in the salty spray, was a familiar length of silver. Had the gods taken pity on me after all? Seeing my old sword again conjured bitter joys of bloodshed. Torn between those twin tidal forces of existence, between thoughts of love and thoughts of death, the dreadful solution became clear. Remembering the oath she had made, I vowed by my sword she’d not live a monster.
I walked straightway from the beach, and in that it was midday, the sun beat down on me and I succumbed to delirium. The sword burdened my shoulder with more weight than ever on the battlefield. Had I grown weak since coming to the island? Or was it the heaviness of the deed that pulled on me? Never had I lifted my sword with the intent to murder; how could I turn it against one I adored? But was any part of her still my Midiana? Would she recognize me, or was her mind transformed as well? The more I thought on these things, the more uneasy I became, and nearing the city as I had a hundred times before, I fancied it all a dream. After all, who could have believed it?
Clouds rolled over the city, like those which had brought ruin to the Nibian vessel, casting a gloom over the rooftops and gardens and fountains, the deepest part of the storm looming above the square with its three temples. I had never seen a sunless day on Aea. It was now evident, to all the islanders, that some curse had befallen them.
Above the Temple of Maki, the storm churned angrily like some living thing, like a black whirlpool in the sky. Thousands were gathering there, and the shadows were thick as pitch, revealing each face in sharp relief. To my utter amazement, vines had grown overnight, wrapping every pillar in thorns, weaving across the steps and down from the pediment. Not a gossiping murmur came from the islanders, not a fearful gasp. It was as if they were holding a silent vigil for a procession of the dead. Only their shuffling feet broke over the rumble of the sky, as the people were drawn, trancelike, to the befouled temple. But the islanders kept at a distance as if what had infected the walls might also infect them. My heart throbbed with guilt to see it, a people of such free spirit, of such playfulness and innocence, now muted and pitiable like the condemned marching to execution. I wanted to surrender myself to them. I hungered for their scorn, their jeers, but such emotion was beyond their capacity.
They parted to let me through like docile sheep. Deep into the crowd, I came upon a chain of priestesses, linked wrist-to-wrist before the temple. I recognized their faces and was ashamed, remembering what they had done to me, and I to them. Zoë’s acolytes were there also, as were the women from the befouled temple, yet all stood united in the same pure white garment with gold lace about their ankles and hair. Love and Wisdom and Virtue stood together, penitent before the angered god. Beneath that great churning cloud, every face was statuesque, every chin high and proud, no woman less than another. The Priestesses of Aea were joined in a ring like rigid columns beneath an invisible circular temple, their chanting a low murmur of contrition.
Others looked on with reverence, their eyes glazed with zealotry, but I was far from owing respect to that god of cruelty. I pulled a young girl out of her ritual, demanding to know what was happening. “Maki is angry,” she told me, and a follower of Zoë added, “The balance has been broken.” She looked as frightened and helpless as the rest. I asked if anyone had gone in. “Only one,” a voice replied. It was a woman who had known Valis and me intimately. Her face was solemn and world weary, as a mother with aged children, the perverse rituals I’d known of her seeming unthinkable. “Your friend, Valis . . .” she murmured. “We tried, but nothing could dissuade him. He was adamant to find you.”
“Let me go,” I cried, but they would not let me through the ring, and many more turned to me, saying it was forbidden. Hearing the word forbidden loosed something dark within me, and I fell into frenzy, pulling apart their joined hands.
I cut through the web of thorns and crossed into that vast, cold lair. With my sword tight against me, I moved inward, the mosaics on the walls turning monstrous in the flickering light. Rows of fluted marble flanked my sides. Barrel arches beckoned to infinity, like when a mirror reflects upon another. Like a prowling thief I searched the temple, hiding from pillar to pillar. My friend I could not hear, nor Midiana; and I dared not call out for fear of what might answer. In the deadening silence, my breathing was like a windstorm, the crackling and popping of unseen torches like thunder.
The memory of Midiana’s beauty contested with my dreadful imagination, and I recognized the morbid curiosity in me, to look wide eyed upon what she had become. But the deeper I probed in the gloom of the temple, the more the thought terrified me. How grotesque can a living thing be? Would Maki’s words ring true? Would my mental faculties withhold? I was more frightened than in the heart of the Dark Hemisphere, for death is a trifling thing, a peaceful repose, but to lose one’s sanity is to live a nightmare from which there is no waking.
Answering my thoughts, I crossed upon a long shadow and the silhouette of a man. I knew it to be Valis, but what I discovered struck me with both awe and despair. Valis stood, ashen as the marble at his feet, his every follicle a thorn. Did the shadows deceive me? No. I looked into his face, into pupils like inkblots fixed in the chalk white orbs of his eyes. Whether living or dead, I could not say, for there was no trace of life within him but that he remained standing. I went to rouse him only to snap my hand away, for what I had touched was nothing like flesh. All the warmth in that virile body had gone. Like weathered flagstone, I expected his arm to break off should I touch it again. And then the inkblots moved, and I leapt, catching a scream in my throat.
My love for him bolstered my courage, and placing my ear to his marble cold lips, I bid he speak to me.
“I came to look for you.” It was so subtle a sound that I doubted it, whether coming from him or my own skull. But then he was pleading, begging, as if he knew I would not obey. “Don’t look at her, Titian! Don’t look at her! Turn back!”
His final breath escaped with those words, and I grieved for my friend, for his senseless death on my behalf. There was no denying that he was victim to Maki’s curse, that upon seeing my priestess, Valis was changed into something less like flesh and more like stone. Stricken by his fate, my heart gave way to such terror, I feared the blood might burst out of me completely. One thought kept me from breaking my vow and fleeing, and I spoke it aloud, so the walls echo with her name. Love remained, greater than any fear.
Turning in search of her, something crept beneath my feet with such a noise that the hairs on my neck pricked in warning, and then a human shape, familiar yet strange, silhouetted the light from the adjoining hall. My sweat turned to ice and my spine became limp as straw. I could do nothing but run, gripped by such dread I worked my feet awkwardly across the floor like a crippled soldier.
Where was I headed? Back to the comfort of daylight? But already that voice, that horrid voice was calling me. I prayed for deafness, imagining what such a creature might be to make that sound, and I accepted Valis’ wisdom, never turning to face what chased me.
The temple became a maze of shadows and flames and fluted colonnades. Gasping at air like a dying fish, I found shelter by the one torch still burning, before that scowling idol of Maki. At my feet, a splendor of multicolored stones fanned out, and in my mind’s eye our naked and entwined bodies groped like ghosts across the mosaic.
I had hoped the monster to avoid the light, to hide its ugliness in darkness, but her shape was already forming about my eyes, and I was amazed by its size, for surely it stood above me! And that awful voice came again, and I could no longer deny it . . . the sounds it had been making—over and over amidst those tortured syllables—was my name.
“Do you not still love me, Titian? Why do you flee from me?”
“Midiana!” I cried weakly, ashamed that I could not bear to lift my eyes, my sword slipping from my numb and quaking fingers.
Her answer was acid in my ears, “I am no longer she, but the guardian of the Shrine of Maki.”
Redemption was beyond me, yet I fell to my knees, my hands as blindfolds, begging that she show some sign of her former self, some understanding of me and my remorse.
“Look at me!” she wailed, her shadow suggesting a darting, slithering motion, “See what you’ve made me!”
Embattled by love and pity and shame and remorse, I wept. I wept and like a madman beat at my naked breast.
It—or she—moved within my circle of light. I could sense her presense, creeping like maggots, her tortured voice riddling me with gooseflesh, “Titian! Oh, Titian . . .! Truly, you must love me, for even as I am, you return to me. Now we shall be together forever.”
Only then did I come to understand, with a sickness growing in my heart, the full extent of Maki’s curse—for our love had not been abolished, but perverted, twisted into a thing unrecognizable and repulsive. Cast into madness, I screamed, throwing down the torch stand. But the fire still flickered from the mosaic, and by chance she hooked my eye, and I saw where the light crept over the rough surface of a reptilian thing with cream-colored fish eyes in what vaguely suggested a woman’s—Midiana’s—face. I turned as if blinded by a wasp’s stinger, but I could still feel her caress drawing lines of blood across my shoulders. If not for the sword at my ankle reminding me of my vow, I might have stood there forever, blinded and quivering in her embrace.
To be done mercifully, I knew, was to be done quickly, but even then, even then, I loved her. And in that moment’s pity, something writhed about the edges of my sword, a tangle of braided serpents, their fangs pressing like needles into my lips, nose, working their way through my clenched eyelids. Her claws were at my throat now and the wiry serpents continued to nip and draw blood. I was paralyzed, the sword unwieldy in her embrace. But then I remembered the torch stand, and righting it with my heel, the monster recognized its hideousness upon the surface of my steel and recoiled. I struck at her. The blade lodged into hard flesh and cold blood oozed against my bosom. Her anguished screams would have torn the sanity from any man, yet I blotted all but my aim, and realizing I had yet to cut through bone, struck again and freed my love.
As the monster fell away, something rolled over my feet, and I dared to look, seeing braids where there had been serpents. With Midiana’s head removed, the goddess’ curse was lifted. She looked peaceful, asleep in death. I cradled her head, washing her brow in tears, and with every kiss upon those rose red lips, my heart throbbed as if to burst.
Too brief a time was given me. Her face was turning pale and cold, her beauty restored only to wilt. Like a knife in the sternum, I realized what I had paid for my obsession. Of this life which I so detested, I loved but two things, Valis and Midiana . . .
The world was now empty and I wished for nothing but to bring my sword to my throat, to join my friend and my lover. But I had more evil to do. Lifting my sword from the multicolored tile, I made for that scowling idol. Sparks rained down from the goddess’ marble heel as I attacked it, over and over, as though the tower of stone could die.
My hatred was spent upon Maki until my arms gave out, but it was their woeful gasps that made me surrender.
“Enough!”
The High Priestess of Zoë, my tutor of the Aean language, was watching me. Every priestess, from every temple, was with her. “You have done enough harm,” she said. “Leave now. Men are forbidden here.”
Something monstrous stirred in me, at the reverence for that evil deity, at the lack of bereavement for their fallen sister. And then many things happened at once. I turned to the idol and they moved against me. When the blood cooled and I came again to my senses, three women lay at my feet, a crimson color spreading across their pure white garments. One of them had been my lover in the Temple of Irene.
At the sight of the massacre, I awaited their rage, their hatred. I wanted nothing more than to die at their hands. But they did not move against me. Their eyes were full of fear and pity and sorrow, but rage and hatred was not known to them.
“You disrespect this holy place,” the High Priestess said, “you do not accept the Tenets of Maki; and yet, did you not partake in the ceremonies of the flesh?”
I was dumbfounded by the question, and ashamed, and my sword grew heavy at my fingertips.
“You cannot revere one god and blaspheme another. There must be balance between them. In your lands, there is only war and desolation. You came here, envying our prosperity, yet you cannot accept the balance which grants us peace.
“Leave this island now. Leave never to return, never to speak of it to outsiders, for your kind is unworthy of paradise.”
That night, I claimed the bodies of Valis and Midiana, letting their ashes rise to the gods from the pyre I set upon the beach. When dawn broke upon my restless eyes, I commissioned a boat for my departure, and the gods favored me with a strong wind in my sails.
***
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