|Thelana: The Naked Hero|
Aboard the Horizon Chaser, the crew prepared to disembark, gathering cargo, securing ropes and lacing the laces of their most presentable attire, all but she. Since pushing out from Northendell, Thelana refused to wear clothing of any kind. A bow and quiver and dagger sheath were her only possessions. But despite leering eyes, she remained steadfast, until the sight of her bare body became as common as the gulls perched over the topmast. Now, as the ship made its way to port, she could feel the blood rushing to her head. A few dozen ship-hands she could handle, but a teeming city populace? Women and children and husbands? Merchants and priests and soldiers? She knew nothing of their habits, beliefs, what made them laugh and for what they took offence. Did they make love under the sun? Swim naked in the Sea? Were their children, the young clinging to their mothers' teat, permitted the freedom of the Ilmar? No doubt men would ogle her. How often had she been told that she was beautiful, only to feel their groping lustful hands, when she was be forced to break a limb or two? In the outer world, it seemed, men were slaves to their desires, and women were but things to be enjoyed. And yet, even the women, who did not despise her brazenness, admitted to her ideal body. How else could the captain have conceived of such an outlandish plan? Gods were thin and young and muscled, she was told, though for the Ilmar the Goddess was round and voluptuous, with a large bosom for feeding hungry mouths and broad hips for bearing children.
As the long stone piers and the many oared ships and fishing dinghies came into view, Thelana grew faint. She tried to remember the stance they had rehearsed, but her stomach was protesting, urging her to wretch over the side. She had not been so afraid since confronting the golem in the mountains. Shame could be a powerful weapon, she realized. The arrows of humiliation can pierce the heart as readily as bronze. Countless pairs of eyes would soon be upon her, to probe and examine her. If this was to work, she needed to show absolute indifference. Indifference was her only defense against their jeers, but she was not a goddess. Surely, their prying eyes would break the facade, for the Ilmar were not known for deceit. Perhaps, she thought, a loincloth was not too much to bear. After all, it was the space between the legs that offended, nothing more. Surely, she could remain true to her people and cover her loins? But no---to the Ilmar---nothing of the body was taboo. Besides, whatever clothing she owned swam in the depths of the Sea, where she had sent it days ago fearing a change of heart. There was no way to back out now.
When the heads of the people came into view, the crowds on the pier and along the adjacent ships and from every tower and parapet, her heart fell like a stone. Tall hatted magistrates and mothers suckling babes and bare-chested sailors in long white scarfs, they all came to glimpse heroes, and she retreated, hiding her nakedness behind the rail. But she was not alone. Xandr was beside her, bare as could be, having entrusted even his sword's new scabbard to the crew. His hand slipped quietly and firmly into hers, and in seeing him there, proud and resolute, she realized how false her feelings had been, how ridiculous her shame, for it truly did not matter what the people thought. Accepted or rejected, they would stand together.
Ropes were pulled and anchors dropped, and the ship's lateen sails cut short. With great skill, the Horizon Chaser turned, sidling against the pier. People rushed to greet the docking vessel, having learned of its precious human cargo. As the gangplank lowered, the sailors moved hastily one by one, on to firm ground. Xandr and Thelana were to be last, following the captain. Remember who you are, she told herself, closing her eyes to the wind in her soul and the wood in her soles. This will only work if you do as Sif suggested. Be more than a woman. A goddess.
Clenching her every muscle, she became taut and strong as marble, crossing the gunwale so that the people could drink her in with their eyes. Mortals looked down at people, but she lifted her face heavenward, regarding the masses with only fleeting interest, deflecting their still and horrified stares like a shower of arrows. They did not matter, she convinced herself, because she was not of them; but far, far beyond, a savior of the world, a divine being, and divine beings did not concern themselves with trifling, mortal things. But would they be convinced of it? She doubted, and when the people saw the Skyclad Warriors and realized who they must be, there was utter silence, and her doubt turned to dread.
Perhaps it was the way in which the Ilmar carried themselves that day, or how they seemed to wear their bare bodies like suits of armor, or the fickle nature that is human custom, whatever the reason, that silence was followed by a deafening chorus of hooting and clapping. The gods of the Ilmar arrived and the people of Thetis rejoiced. Thelana could not believe what she was seeing, and overjoyed, feared to reveal her mortality by weeping. From that day forth, she could not be made to feel lesser for how she lived. Never again would she walk under the sun in shame. Saviors of the world, she realized, could never be shamed.