Atlas [ Chapter 6 ]
“Now this is more like it!” said Plâton with a deep satisfaction in his voice, “And now we have enough jerky for a long journey as well! Of course we can take the horses no further than the outskirts of the Red Sands, but those are still about a hundred leagues away, no journey we could undertake on foot. We should be there in a fortnight, give or take; then we can sell the horses and buy or rent camels for the passage through the desert.”
Atlas nodded placidly to that. He still remembered little from before his death and all he did recall was hazy and distant to him. This filled him with a slowly awakening insatiable thirst for knowledge and discovery. He basically had never seen a desert as far as his memory went and so he was considerably curious about the sight of it. Of course there was the small matter of everything seeming somewhat gray and disjointed to his senses as if he had been hit over the head with a blunt instrument, but such was the nature of his existence for the moment. In his mind, the unlikelihood of him dying or reestablishing his sense of existence any time soon lead him to the conclusion that he might as well enjoy the vistas, seeing how he had little choice in the matter of his own fate right now. When he had mentioned this point of view to Plâton, he had called it ‘enlightened’, to which Atlas had suppressed the desire to defiantly scratch his bum.
To his relief, riding came easy to him; he had probably done it often enough for his body to remember.
“You… You are very wealthy,” noted Ayveron, skeptically looking at Plâton, “you paid our supplier in gold and didn’t even haggle.”
Plâton shrugged to that, “The price was fair enough. And I was the general of Midas Creek for a great many years. I fought in seven wars and the general gets a share of the spoils by ancient custom.”
Ayveron’s eyes opened wide. “Is Midas Creek truly paved with gold?”
To that Plâton laughed hard and for quite a while before he had recovered enough to reply: “Aye! Paved with gold, covered with gold, the gold is everywhere, even in your smallclothes if you go there for a visit. The people like to tell outsiders that their streets are paved with gold, yes, but what they omit is that the whole damn desert is golden. Why do you think they call it ‘the Golden Sands’? The streets are filled with it, for it carries with the wind.”
Atlas listened with one ear, but he was busier with patting his horse’s head and telling her that she was a good girl. It was a seasoned but still strong and vital mare with a brown coat and pretty, large, white spots as well as a calm nature. Atlas would have given her a treat, but Plâton had told him to only feed her during breaks. He hadn’t thought that it would be such a curious thing to have animals about that were accustomed to man. In the small village they had visited, named Saltryvault, a nice little place on the Saltplains, he had been chasing cats and patting dogs while Plâton had arranged for their provisions and three strong horses to carry them on their journey. Oddly enough, or at least Ayveron insisted that it was odd, they had not traveled along the eastern flank of the Middle Lands for more than a few days before reaching the Saltplains. Ayveron had then insisted that Plâton had used some sort of magic, which Plâton had refuted as being ‘not technically correct’, at which point Atlas had lost interest.
When Atlas had seen the horse, he had almost hugged Plâton for buying it. When Plâton inquired why Atlas was so happy about all the stock animals, he had just shrugged and said that they were soft and furry and liked to play, except for the horse, but she was kind-hearted too. In truth it was, for lack of a better word, the glow of their souls that spoke to Atlas. His strange sight had allowed him to glimpse some of the feelings and moods of his travel companions, but they were very complex and chaotic, though kind in nature. The animals, however, were very different. It was as if their souls were of a simpler, less sophisticated sort: still there, still pulsing like heartbeats, but without the complexity and with a natural calmness and honesty that was almost like a soothing balm for Atlas’s aching existence; something simple and pure to hold on to in a world of confusion.
While Ayveron seemed to eye all that with suspicion and Plâton just took it as an excuse to be even merrier as he always did with everything, Atlas just enjoyed the new sights and sensations as much as his condition permitted while they traveled through the Saltplains. As if knowing that they were leaving for different lands, the horses were greedily grazing whenever given the opportunity: the Saltplains owed their name to the rich amounts of salt in the grass here that made it grow lush and green and made the livestock strong and healthy. It was no remnant of old seas either; most folk agreed that the salt came from the hidden ocean that was rumored to have its shores deep underground, or at least so had some of the older children that Atlas had played with claimed. From time to time the Saltplains would weep water and form small ponds and swamps in their meads and those would dry out in the sun and leave behind grass that was rich in minerals and salt. Some of the children would then go out with their parents to ‘sweep the salt’, selling it to the Middle Lands later. Because of the rich soil and green meadows, cattle lived very well here and were raised in plenty. The same led to the wealth of these lands and oft as not jealous neighbors would think about taking a share of that wealth for themselves. There were bandit tribes in the Middle and Southern Waves of Yamato, and the free folk of the Red Savanna sometimes felt they deserved a piece of the action. But Plâton had told them that the borders of the land were secure for once and they would probably not run into any raids during their journey, though he noted that they should still be on their guard. He also told tales of how his company and he often came to the defense of the Saltplains, who didn’t have their own military but relied on the Middle Lands, to whom they had sworn fealty, as well as his Midasmen, who were regularly hired to step in when raiders got too feisty.
Come evening they made their camp for the day and Atlas thanked his mare kindly for carrying him so far. He had named her Surefoot, because she rode smoothly even when the ground got all muddy from the up-seeping groundwater. They made their rest under an old walnut tree, which stood its lonesome vigil on a wide green meadow that seemed to stretch out forever like a sea of gently swaying grass. Atlas wanted to see the ocean again. His recollections of it were vague, for even in the old days he had visited it rarely, but he thought it must be as wide and beautiful as the sky.
After collecting some firewood from the base of the tree, Plâton cooked some rich stew for them, which was well seasoned thanks to a number of handy pouches he had purchased in Saltryvault and was filled with all kinds of vegetables. There were plenty of those to be found on any Saltplains market, for the land was so fertile here that, beyond large farms, almost all citizens that owned as much as a garden planted every last inch of it with fruits, berries, and vegetables, partaking in a vivid trade and barter culture with their own produce.
As the three of them slurped their stew, it was time for Plâton to continue the story of his childhood. He had not taken the time to tell more of it on every night of their travels, but oft as not he would sit them down and resume the tale where they had left. He had told them of his recovery and how his new mother Freyja had wrestled with a she-bear that had grown thrice the size of a normal animal to steal her milk for him, for the gods believed that the milk of the bear made children strong, just as meat of the bear made men strong, especially the heart. And so it was that Plâton fully recovered and took to strolling around the parts of the forest that were close to Freyja’s longhouse, for after his recovery she had left him to himself to procure a lexicon for his name. He found many strange plants and animals there, and the further he went the colder it got, as if the longhouse was an oasis of spring inside a winter forest. And now Plâton continued the story: “Where were we? Ah yes, I had waited many days for mother to return, and when she did, I was already in danger again…
“You really shouldn’t do that, unless you are ready to lose your life.” It was mother’s voice so I turned around, abandoning the basin with the turning gear inside, the one that looked like a magical waterwheel, splashing, always splashing.
“I am sorry, mother,” I said, withdrawing my hand.
She took her own and put it softly on my shoulder. “No my son, it is I who is sorry. I should have warned you right away. Do not apologize for your curiosity; it is a quality of the strong and the wise. How have you fared in my absence?”
I looked at the door. “I have walked in the forest for a bit. It is very beautiful, but it gets cold if I go too far.”
Freyja nodded to that. “Yes, winter has a strong hold over this land. It bends the knee to me and so I let it have the forest as the leal subject it is.”
I did not understand. She went to the long table and pulled a small sphere engraved with runes and Yamato characters alike from within the many furs she was wearing, putting it on the table with care. “Here it is: the lexicon I could procure. The tribes of the North took theirs with them quite a while ago when they marched for the Saltplains, but there was one they acquired in a raid on one of the Seventeen Yonder Islands. Nord or not, the lexicon will choose the right name for you, if you so desire,” she said. The lexicons are eternal relics of worlds long past. It is said they can see a man’s destiny and grant him a name befitting of that. Some believe that there is great power in names, especially among the northern tribes. Not all people had the privilege of using a lexicon though, locating one and getting permission from its holders was oft a perilous pilgrimage. For this reason many would pass down great names to their children, names once granted by a lexicon, in hope that some of that destiny would rub off.
Hesitantly, I reached for the small sphere, and as my fingers touched it, the runes and signs began to glow brightly. I quickly retracted my hand in fear of getting hurt by it, but instead it began to levitate and part. The sphere grew larger as it split into many rings that rotated around a core of light on several layers, making it look like some awe inspiring machine of sorts. A strange choir of voices called out one word:
And then the name was projected onto the surface of the table in glowing letters of the old alphabet of Guantil-ya, one of the Seventeen Yonder Islands that lies in the Ocean Belt below the Spiral Sea. The sphere compacted again and was nothing but a small metal ball on the table once more. “It is done then,” Freyja said. “My Plâton.”
“So you really have your name from a lexicon?!” Ayveron asked with excitement, interrupting the story.
Plâton nodded. “So I gather you have not?” he inquired.
Ayveron shook his head. “No, from my grand-grandmother to my mother the name Ayvra was passed down and then to me, Ayveron. It is a name given by lexicon and retained by family,” he explained.
“I see,” Plâton said. “In the end a name is no more powerful than its bearer. Shall I continue?”
Atlas and Ayveron nodded eagerly.
“Very well then…
So my name was to be Plâton. It had a strange, foreign ring to it. Even though all men are born with the gift of one hundred tongues, as parents raise their children, some dialects are spoken more frequently in different cultures, and with Freyja I had spoken mostly in the tongue favored by the Spider Tribe Kaltani, who hunted alongside giant frost spiders, and the Angel Saxons from whose stony halls most of the Valkyries were said to have come.
“The old gods are proud,” Freyja then said, “courtesy requires of me to bring you to them before I raise you as my own, Plâton. They will not want you, but they will not deny me either. Come with me, but speak no word when we enter the great hall of the Aesir unless you are spoken too. Will you promise me that?”
I nodded. “I promise, mother.”
We walked out into the forest and wandered there for quite some time. When I asked how the Nordmen had raided Guantil-ya, even though the Great Land and the Iron Belt lay between the North and the Ocean Belt, she had told me that they had not gone that way but used the power of Asgard.
It was quite a long stride through all those conifers, and the further we went the more the idyllic green was covered in layers and layers of snow that began to crunch underneath out feet.
But even though it should have gotten colder and colder it was always nice and warm while I walked besides her, as if a tranquil spring was surrounding her very being. From time to time I thought I saw silhouettes whisking about the snow but I could never make any of them out. Whether they were animals or people I could not say at the time.
Even though I remembered little of my life before I was found by Freyja, I did notice that much was different about the way this realm felt compared to what I was used to. Even the air smelled much different, and though I thought I could recall the sight of coniferous forests from my homeland, the trees here seemed to be growing to three times their size, broad as mighty oaks and each as tall as a great watchtower.
From time to time there would be an elk or a bear, all freakishly large, but they seemed tame as kittens when they walked by Freyja.
“Why do the animals grow so big here?” I asked her curiously.
She looked around and spied the elk that had me ask that question. “I suppose they do grow larger on this side,” she mused. “Perhaps it is the presence of ancient might that makes them grow strong. Or the savage hunt that allows only the strongest here not to perish.”
I nodded slowly. “Will I perish too? I am not very strong,” I said with a fearful voice.
Freyja sighed then. “Not as long as you are with me, son. But do be careful, there will be those who may want to do you harm here. It is said that in times of peace the war-like man will destroy himself. Well, we are a war-like people. The last great battle the old gods have fought in was during the Age of Heroes and before that there was only the war that shaped the world. Only few wars are within our scope you must know, for we are many thousands of years old and are not concerned with battles that do not have the potential to kill us.
But peace makes kind men grow cruel here, always be wary of that my son, never forget.”
And I remember taking hold of her skirts then like the frightened little boy I was. “I will not forget mother,” I promised.
So it came that we left the small woods of whom Freyja had named herself keeper. Tree’s end revealed wide, grassy plains wafting in the breeze. There were some fields as well, planted with different crops, but no man plowed the field or reaped the harvest; instead strange large machines that were puffing out white and black smoke were tending to those fields and taking care of the work of men. I clung closer to my mother, “What are those things?”
I wanted to know.
“Be at ease, they mean you no harm, son. Those are machines that were given to us by the technocrats of Borealis when the war during the Age of Heroes was brought to an end. This gift they gave us to seal the peace, and since then no man here has ever needed to break his back and sweat over the fields. Though some say it is not for the better. Hard work makes strong and humble men. Aesirian men are strong regardless, but they lose a shred of their humility with each passing day I fear. They sit in tall halls, making plans for wars that never come, dwelling on those that have long passed.”
There was nothing I could reply to that, so I simply listened and committed what I heard to memory. Freyja had sternly warned me about the old gods we were about to meet, and above all I was filled with anxiety and doubt. I had rather just stayed in the small woods with my mother, stayed there forever. It was a kind place.
As I thought about that, my gaze struck the great oak tree that stood afar on the plains. But this tree was grand beyond measure; I had to look upwards to the sky to see its end - only it ended not like most trees: its crown was pressed flat, almost to a disk, and it carried a great castle on its branches made of gray stone that had been polished and made to shine like crystal. To this day I have never seen a castle greater and I have been to the city of Yamaseki, which has a castle as large as a smaller city lifted up on great pillars of stone.
“Will we go up there?” I asked her.
She nodded gracefully. “Indeed we will. The men of Asgard climb the tree every day as proof of their strength and endurance, but there is a rope winch floor as well; we will use that one to get to the top.”
”. There was a moment’s silence.
“And then?” Atlas urged on.
But Plâton shook his head. “We have a long journey ahead, lots of time to tell the story. I think we should start your training before we rest.”
Atlas was incredulous. “What, now?” he asked.
“I am sure your body still remembers how to fight, but I think I shall be able to bestow a few improvements onto you,” Plâton argued. “The last ancient martial arts slowly fell into decay during the Age of Heroes, and now only the Null and some secluded monasteries in the Yamato Kingdom still teach from long lost scrolls, which detailed the many movements that could be made to keep oneself safe from harm and beat stronger opponents to a degree. Martial arts are the arts of the human body and fighting. These days military men are only trained in standardized armed combat and a normal martial artist would not stand any better chance than one of those against a magus or superior technology. And because real martial art training takes many, many years, the art has been more and more lost to the common folk.”
Atlas shrugged. “Then why should I learn it?”
Plâton grinned wide. “The old ways are less effective against more magically inclined or severely armed foes, but they still can serve you much better than you could ever guess. And indeed there are still orders of mages that specialize in combat, who have developed their own styles, sometimes based on ancient teachings. And there is no art like this one; that I promise you. Now stand up straight!”