Silence… all silent and… still…
Afar a great griffin was trying to break it screaming at the great ball of fire that ruled the pale blue sky. Aclose the griffin was desperately searching for shade. It wasn’t screaming at the sun, it was begging for mercy. From below the rock, a faint scream answered back; the griffin turned, locked its target and plunged for cover disappearing from the misty horizon. Moments later, a song trilled from below the rock signaling nature’s small victory. The griffin was safe… for now.
Silence… all silent and… still…
From the rocky ground of the Wasteland, misty, invisible flames sprung up blurring the barrow landscape. The heat was unbearable and the sun was merciless. The clouds were nothing but distant, burning dreams on the pale sky swept away by a hot wind that scorched everything in its path.
A howl could be heard from adistance moving through the shades of yellow, brown and green that covered the land. It moved striking fast, disturbing the stillness and silence instilled by the sun. With a grand blow, it rose up from the grassy plains and moved past the Great Planes leaving the dwarf trees trembling and rustling.
The dwarf oaks were the only guardians left in the Wasteland, all twisted, crooked and undersized, as if afraid of reaching the sun. Many of them grew in the cracks of the colliding planes where the water gathered before disappearing underneath. Inside those dwarf forests, protected by high thorn bushes, the moisty ground was teaming with life. The old rocks were covered with moss and all the little creatures dwelt in there unaware of the burning landscape below them.
Nothing was still here, not even the shaky ground and every living being had a voice of its own…
The wet ground trembled for a moment. Afar, in a much deeper crevasse, rocks were falling down making way for a large creature. He was huffing and puffing looking behind as if he was a deer running from a pack of wolves. Jumping from one rock to another, he made his way through the oases and stopped.
Now where am I?
He said to himself aloud this time looking ahead and not behind.
He was a mere boy no more than fourteen with rich, long burning hair and deep, thinking eyes. His young face was burnt and his body covered with soft, black and white cowhide tightened on his waist with a long, braided rope. Only his lean, long hands and slim, lower legs were bare, reddened as his face by the great ball of fire that ruled the Wasteland.
In his hands, he had a long, wooden stick, sharpened at one end and a pair of hard leather sandals bound with it. He liked to walk barefooted and feel the moisty, soft ground and moss underneath him. The touch was as if the earth itself kissed his feet and that comforted him.
Ah, there you are Crooked-Nose
He said in relief, smiling at a nearby old tree with a cut down branch right in the middle of its large trunk. For Father and Mother, the branch didn’t mean anything but for the boy, the trunk was a face and the branch was a crooked nose just like some of the Elders in his clan used to have.
“That means I’m not that far away,” he thought. “All I have to do is meet Slim Grim, turn left and up I go into the fire once again.” The boy knew the way thanks to the strange trees in the oases. All of them had a name and all of them were his special friends who aided him in need. Most of the oaks couldn’t be set apart but some of them had a feature that made them distinctive like Crooked-Nose and Slim Grim.
Slim Grim was special because of its trunk size: most of the oaks, even though not very tall, had bulky trunks. Slim Grim however had a slim, long trunk and very few leafs no matter the season, summer or winter. The tree seemed grim because of this odd nakedness.
The boy resumed his movement and not long after meeting Crooked-Nose, he saw Slim Grim. He turned left thinking of his tree friends he left behind.
“Would I play and talk with them again?” he wondered looking at the road ahead, the road to adulthood. “Would I even see them with the same eyes?” He was afraid that once the ritual is completed, his imagination would be forever lost in oblivion and he would turn like all the other members of his clan, grim and frightful of the days ahead, hardened by the burdens of the barbarian life.
Would I be able to fight my own war against the Evil Wizards, alone in the darkness, away from prying eyes? Would I still be able to fend them off and reclaim my people’s freedom?
Since he was little child, not long after learning how to walk and run, he has been hiding in this oasis and with a stick in his hand, he would imagine Evil Wizards coming here and dying one by one, all killed by him and his courageous tree friends. Just like in the tales of old where the barbarians were fearless and free, not shackled and torn apart.
Would I still believe those tales?
But he already knew the answer. With tears in his eyes, the boy realized that once reached adulthood, all those tales would turn into nothing more than lies and he, like all members of his clan, like all barbarians from the Wasteland, would have to submit to the Evil Wizards and forever become a lamb waiting for its execution day.
Wiping away his tears, the boy could see a dim light calling him. As he moved further, the light grew brighter and the voice stronger. The voice was calling out:
Slowly, the boy stepped into the light where the Great Sun ruled with fire and death. The reign for the day though was almost over. It had no power anymore, raging red over the Wasteland. A soft, warm wind was blowing and distant, happy trills could be heard from afar yet the boy felt uneasy. He turned around and wanted to get back into his oases when a large hand grabbed him by the shoulder and stopped him. He tried to scream but one other hand covered his mouth and this is when he knew he couldn’t turn back anymore.
The boy looked at his foe in terror.
“Shhhh! Come Tarnum, there isn’t much time left! Your father and mother await us by the Old Great Oak…” the foe said letting the boy loose.
Tarnum smiled at the large, stocky barbarian in front of him. He wasn’t a foe, he was a very good friend of his and his family, one of the few Masters of Wood and Clay left in the Wasteland. He had a round, brown face and small, almond-shaped eyes that differentiated him from the barbarians in Tarnum’s clan. Some said he was some Wizard’s bastard from the North-East but how could this be, the boy thought? The Elders in his clan said all the Wizards had a thin, vulnerable body and a large head. Atlas was big and stocky. Others argued he came from afar, from the lands that lay beyond the Endless Ocean. Mystic lands, Tarnum thought, where all men were wise beyond their years. Wise as Atlas.
“Come child, we must hurry and perform the ritual ‘cause soon all these planes will be crawling with filthy goblins and orcs.”
This was why the ritual wasn’t performed at night anymore like in the tales of old. The Evil Wizards had many scouts among the goblins and it was forbidden even to talk about such initiations. To talk about the past, rituals and barbarian traditions would mean to put yourself in great peril. That’s why wise men like Atlas were cast out and hunted down, because they held on too tight to their beliefs and to the ancient traditions.
“Do you know your words for the ritual?” the Master of Wood and Clay asked the boy as they moved close together on the rocky, naked plane. The stocky barbarian looked worried as he was scanning the surroundings. Tarnum answered confidently:
Erect and thou shalt reap
He knew from Atlas those words were first used by one of the Ancestors when the first Barbarians settled near the World Tree. The Master said those words simply meant that to become a great nation and to be great in numbers, the people must become builders.
A great nation, Tarnum thought as he remembered Atlas’ tales of the free and fearless barbarians that once ruled the lands from ocean to ocean.
Will you be telling the tales of old after I become a man Atlas?
The boy asked looking at his friend’s bald head. This was another feature that made the Master of Wood and Clay different from the other barbarians. Most of the men from Tarnum’s clan had long, messy hair, rarely cut. Atlas had a bald head except the top where he let his hair grow braiding it tightly into a long ponytail. The boy too was about to experience the blade’s cold touch on his skin; after the ritual, after reaching adulthood, it was the parents’ duty to cut the young adult’s hair and thin, wispy mustache for the very first time. Just thinking of it gave Tarnum the chills.
“As long as you’re willing to listen,” the Master replied smiling at the soon-to-be man. “Ah there they are, your Mother and Father.”
Although there were more than 100 feet away, Tarnum could see the Great Old Oak and yes, his parents. He wanted to run, hug them and greet them but it was a boyish thing to do. He was about to become a man so he had to act like one. Standing by Atlas’ side seemed the most reasonable thing a man could do, he thought. When they reached the Great Old Oak, Tarnum saw his father holding a young lamb tightly. Mother had tears in her eyes and seemed sad.
The boy stopped and bowed respectfully. “Father… Mother…” He looked long at his mother and asked her: “Mother, why are you crying? Aren’t you happy for me?”
The mother answered:
Today, my son, I’m both happy and sad for you.
The boy didn’t understand how someone could be happy and sad at the same time and why she was indeed sad in the first place. Wasn’t this ritual proof enough that she did well? Wasn’t this ritual a moment of celebration?
“Don’t listen to your Mother son,” Father interfered seeing confusion in Tarnum’s eyes. “You’re soon to become a man just like me. Women won’t ever understand that. Now go and fulfill your duty in front of our Ancestors.”
The boy looked at her Mother and Atlas. Both nodded so he slowly moved towards the Great Old Oak. Nobody knew how this tree came to be, growing larger than any tree in that part of the Wasteland. It wasn’t crooked and undersized, it was standing tall, firm and… alone on a rocky plane with no other trees around in hundreds of feet.
Some said the oak was an old reminiscence of the World Tree. Atlas said its seed was brought by the wind from the foothills of the Ancient Mountain, from the Ancient Forest of Elder Redwood Trees where trees grew so big that they could touch the clouds. In front of the Great Old Oak, all secret rituals were performed by his clan with the help of the outcast wise men.
Suddenly, Tarnum heard a low, pleasant hum coming from behind him. He turned and saw Atlas with his eyes closed…
The ritual had begun.
Alone in the stone circle that surrounded the Great Old Oak, the boy didn’t feel invisible at all; that’s what all who returned as men used to say in his clan: “Inside the stone circle, you and the World Tree stand invisible to the unexperienced eye.” On the contrary, he felt naked and helpless. His Father and Mother were definitely seeing him and Atlas… he didn’t know what to think about the Master of Wood and Clay, what he actually saw.
Maybe I have to believe I’m invisible first
Tarnum thought as he started to untie his waist braided rope. He slowly took off his cowhide and reached for his sandals only they weren’t on his feet. He then realized he had forgotten to put them on after he was out of the oasis as he and his friend hurried to get here. And he didn’t even feel the hard, rocky and burnt ground underneath him.
All naked and ashamed, the boy moved around the circle searching for four big stones. He eventually found them half-buried in the hard ground. He took the stones and placed them one by one near a pine cone, in four corners. Between the corners, he drew a line in the dust with his index finger and said aloud:
Erect and thou shalt reap!
The hum behind him stopped.
He repeated the words: Erect and thou shalt reap but this time, the message meant for the Ancestors was much stronger. Atlas had just joined in.
The third time, all four present voiced out their demands:
Erect and thou shalt reap!
With small, careful steps, Father entered the stone circle, tied the lamb to the Great Old Oak and stepped out not noticing his son standing all naked and alone. Maybe he was invisible after all, Tarnum thought.
The boy neared the small lamb and noticed a knife right near the pile of stones, right where Atlas said it would be. He grabbed the blade stealthily and approached the animal. The lamb sensed his uneasiness and started bleating. Tarnum tried to fight it but couldn’t calm the lamb down, he didn’t know where to start. His father showed him how to end its life as quickly and as painless as possible but he always had his help when the animal struggled.
The bleating stopped and the lamb was still…
Behind Tarnum, Atlas was babbling hastily in an unfamiliar tongue. The animal seemed enchanted by the Master’s words staring at the bulky barbarian and not noticing the blade’s glare anymore. The boy too looked at his friend only to see a pair of colorless, lifeless eyes staring at them back. What was happening to Atlas, the young barbarian wondered? Was he speaking to the lamb? And what happened to his real wise and full of life eyes? Confused, the boy turned to his parents yet both were looking at the Great Old Oak unaware of their son’s frightened eyes.
Invisible and alone…
“I must make the sacrifice,” Tarnum said to the lamb as if it would understand. “I must become a man… I must say the words… I’m… sorry…”
With tears in his eyes, the boy lay the animal on one side, grabbed it by the snout and slit its throat in one move screaming out loud:
DIE AND I SHALT BE REBORN!
Atlas stopped his babbling and his eyes came back to life while he echoed Tarnum’s words on the naked plane three times, along with the proud parents: DIE AND YOU SHALT BE REBORN!
Tarnum finished the incantation feeling the warm blood dripping on his slim legs.
Silence once more…
With a firm move, the young barbarian moved the lamb from the ground to the pile of rocks and began to carefully skin it as his father taught him. All members of his clan would soon feast from the meat of this lamb celebrating Tarnum’s initiation yet he didn’t feel changed in any way. He felt rather dirty, cold and disappointed.
He didn’t picture his initiation ritual the way it happened. He pictured it like in the tales of old: he and his father going deep into the Wasteland for one day and one night to hunt wild board and griffin, face countless perils together and return back with enough game to feed the whole clan.
“Sadly, much has changed since the tales of old,” the young man realized as he opened the lamb’s belly to remove its bowels. “No real tests, only tamed lambs and child’s games.”
After disemboweling the animal, Tarnum had one more test to pass before returning to his clan as man. He had to remove the spine and brain of the lamb, eat the spine and leave the brain on the pile of stones for the Ancestors.
“In the brain all the knowledge of the world lies. No barbarian is worthy of such knowledge. We can only eat the spine,” Atlas told him the night before.
Remembering what Father taught him, the young barbarian removed the spine entirely along with the animal’s head. He then broke the skull and drew out the small brain… the knowledge of the world. He wondered if the Ancestors really forbid their sons to be wise or it was just some Wizards’ lie.
“How can a Father let his son live in ignorance? This can’t be the way!” Tarnum thought craving more and more for that forbidden wisdom. “At least a bite,” he whispered to the Great Old Oak in front of him and to the Ancestors above as he touched the lamb’s brain with the blade of his knife.
Atlas yelled and Tarnum looked up. The bulky barbarian was ready to interfere and enter the sacred grounds. The parents too stormed into the stone circle and grabbed their son.
“We must leave immediately!” the Master of Wood and Clay said. “Danger draws close.” The young man couldn’t see or hear anything. “We must hide now! Goblins are coming and they are approaching fast.”
“Take our son Atlas and hide behind the rocks,” Mother demanded. “We’ll handle the goblins.” She looked at Tarnum with worried eyes. “It’s the only way you’ll be safe.”
The young man disagreed. “But Mother I’m a man now. I must protect you and stand up for my family.”
Mother smiled: “You have much to learn before becoming a man, my son. This is just the beginning. And besides, your Father is here to protect me,” she added looking at her man and encouraging him to intervene and comfort his son.
“Don’t worry young man, we’ll be fine. It takes much more than a pack of goblins to scare us. We’ll return home safely. As soon as we leave, go back to the clan and tell them about what is about to happen. NOW GO,” Father commanded.
Giving a last look full of remorse, Tarnum turned and ran for cover with Atlas to the nearby rocks. Behind them, they would be safe from the goblins’ sight but from wargs? He wasn’t that sure; those foul creatures had a keen smell and if the wind blew the wrong way, they could be easily discovered.
From behind the rock, the young boy could hear goblin screams and warg bark closing in. Moments later, the sounds faded and all Tarnum could heard were whispers. He turned to look and saw a pack of goblins and a warg rider standing in front of his parents. Mother was cutting down the lamb and Father talked with the rider. Even he could smell the strong sheep stench.
“Of course,” he thought as he looked at the restless warg. “Sheep stench and all that blood can make any beast mad. The warg will never sense us.”
He couldn’t understand what they were talking about but it seemed Father was trying to soften the rider by offering him a sheep leg. His own sacrifice eaten by worthless, foul, honorless beasts. The offer however was rejected at once as one goblin hit Father on the side and the rider laughed cruelly. Tarnum wanted to help his family and tried to get up but Atlas grabbed him at once.
Now is not the time to act, young lamb
The Master of Wood and Clay whispered.
For the first time in his life, he cursed his friend for being so wise… and careful… and useless. Why couldn’t he help his family, the boy inside him screamed silently as he saw Mother helping Father get up? Why couldn’t he act now, the boy inside him yelled mutely as he saw his parents being hit over and over again, blinking strongly at every blow as if he could feel that pain? Why couldn’t he free his parents from those foul creature, the boy inside him cried noiseless as he saw his parents being dragged in shame away from the Great Old Oak into the darkness? Why couldn’t he have the knowledge of the world, the boy inside him howled voiceless as he felt the piece of the lamb brain slowly slipping away from his strong fist? Why? Why?
The man inside Tarnum whispered thunderously demanding an answer from the wise man in front of him.
“Because it’s the right thing to do,” Atlas answered softly. “Because… it’s the right thing… to do…”