Xandr stood at the prow of the Horizon Chaser, watching the waves split apart and close together. He removed the leather kilt girding his loins and raised it to the wind. It flailed in his fist for a moment and was taken, across the sails and down into the river's depths. Elation followed, the sense of freedom from constraint, of finding oneself. For too long he suffered the trappings of civilization, whether out of respect for their customs or to shield against the high moon cold.
As he made his way down the ramp to middeck, he crossed the captain. She eyed him without a word, taking furtive glances at his manhood, and continued on. Thelana was sitting at the edge of the guardrail, still in her tunic, where she delighted in the spray of the rapids.
"You know they won't let you."
He breathed deeply, the wet air filling his lungs, and shared a spot next to her. "We can never be. They will never simply let us be."
"Our customs offend them; you know this. We are few, my lover, and they are many." She tucked her knees under her chin, rocking with the dip and swell of the ship, until finding herself against him. "When we reach port, they may not give us audience, not if they think us savages, not if we do not look like them . . . dress like them."
"I know, Thelana. But at least for now, upon the Potamis, I will commune with the Goddess; and damn the crew."
"It is different for you," she said, "you are fortunate."
"Why is that?"
"I am a woman. You do not know how they see me, how they look at me. An outsider cannot look at a woman without desiring her."
He made a sound, as if disgusted. "If anyone touches you, I will tear out his member!"
Sif returned with her first mate. Already there was grumbling. Many of the crew detested the thought of savages sharing in their food, slumbering in their bunks. But the captain remained adamant.
"But captain, must he go around like that, with all his bits dangling in everyone's faces? Are we to respect them when they don't have the decency to act like human beings?"
"It is their custom," she answered, "just as what we wear is ours."
"But he's naked as a newborn babe, he is!"
"Their bodies are sacred to them," she said slowly. "To touch the goddess, they cannot be clothed. It is the way of the Ilmar. Respect it, or take your leave below, where your eyes may not find injury."
He knew that the captain was not fond of the situation, and that, if he had not done what he had in the mountains, if all Aenya was not calling him Batal, she might hold a very different view. The truth about his people's customs was more hazy than she let on. No doubt he could feel the Goddess' presence in the wind, in the sun and water and earth, but was she absent from him in Northendell in the cycles living among the Delians, eating and drinking and dressing as they did? The other matter was that of his two-hander, Emmaxis, a weapon not of his kind but of the Zo, which burdened him to such a degree, he was made to visit the city tanner. His new baldric was of iron rivets and worked leather, which fastened around his torso and thigh to distribute the sword's weight across the body. He felt far from free while wearing it, but the sword was his burden to bear, and now its weight was lifted to some degree.
Split between his longing to feel the world around him and the need to conform to society, Xandr was silent, until Thelana turned to him, saying, "No, you are right. Wherever people gather, anywhere in the world, they are adorned by the customs of their people. Hedonians wear the chiton, Delians a tunic, women from Shemselinihar the niqab. Why should the customs of the Ilmar be any different? Because we choose to wear nothing? And for that they think us animals! No . . . to do so is to admit we are beneath them, that we are animals."
He eyed her intently; she was particularly beautiful when finding her passion. "Just what are you suggesting?"
"No more clothing," she declared, pulling her tunic over her head and letting it slip into the water. "If you go without, so will I."
"And when we reach port? What then?" he asked. "Do we go naked in the bazaars where thousands gather? In their halls? Before kings and queens?"
"And proudly! If they scoff, let them! If they should deem me a whore, what should it matter to me, who is not one of them? After what we have suffered, in the Dead Zones, upon the Pewter Mountains, words mean nothing. We represent our people, Xandr, and everything the Ilmar stood for! Don't you see, this is what we have long awaited, because of who you have become and what you have done. Could they truly shun the Batal---call you a savage---after saving their lives and their children's lives? No, you will address the kings and queens of Aenya in your native habit, and they will rethink their ways, not just how they see us, but all primitive peoples. There may yet be Ilmar in hiding. But should they come to know that the Batal is one of them, they may come out of hiding, and someday return with us to Ilmarinen."
Xandr considered her words. Nothing had prevented him from discarding his loincloth but shame---the shame impressed upon him by others. For the first fourteen years of his life, he had not known the word naked, or that the people who lived beyond the Mountains of Ukko hid their genitals. How had he honored his people by abandoning their way of life? Thelana's wisdom was worthy of the keepers. Now was the time to honor their race. He would no longer abide by the customs of civilization, knowing that they mocked him behind their walls. All too painfully he recalled their jeers and laughter, from the day he first chanced upon a village, and no doubt he would again endure ridicule and scorn, but the world knew him as Batal now, and if they were to have his sword, they would have his body also. Wherever summoned, from the holiest of shrines to the highest of courts, Xandr and Thelana would answer in the fashion of their people, as Ilmar, clothed in wind and sun and nothing more, so that in time the world would come to know them as the Skyclad Warriors.
|The Skyclad Warriors|