The town was in panic as the flames spread. Soldiers and citizens alike swarmed the streets and it seemed risky to carry Kuzeyli trough that throng of people. I looked around in the dark and found a small house where they kept their horses. I laid Kuzeyli down to rest on the horse blankets, hoping that familiar smells would help anchor her mind.
What she had seen had damaged her, not her body, but her mind and no wonder. I too was afraid. Sorcery on that magnitude was far beyond what I could hope to go up against, and the implication that he was somehow tied to what was happening back home terrified me. Not only due to what that might mean for the cult, but what it would mean for me personally; that sooner or later I would have to seek him out.
But at that moment Kuzeyli needed me and that had to come first. So we stayed there during the night, as I quietly told her about who she was, the things she had accomplished, times she had failed, as many stories as I could remember, hoping that it might help. It didn’t.
Morning came and went as we stayed there, hidden from sight. Armed men had begun patrolling the streets and so I thought it wise to wait until the coast was clear. Finally, towards the afternoon I began leading Kuzeyli through back alleys towards the lodge house where I had left the others. I spotted Zeynep through one of the windows, working alongside the slaves.
My worries were alleviated somewhat after having called out to her and she explained that she was working so she could continue stay there while waiting for me to return. It would seem as though Khurdan along with many other men left the city to avoid being conscripted to help with the aftermath of the fire. She did not know where he had gone but we did not doubt that he would return.
Although I understood Khurdan’s reasoning, it angered me that he would leave Zeynep behind in a hostile slave city. Who knows what could have happened to her during the chaos that ensued. It also meant that we were stuck in the city until Khurdan returned for us. It meant that we would have to work as slaves.
As I have travelled, I have and been a guest in many tents and houses and it is often understood that you don’t simply laze about and abuse someone’s hospitality, especially during extended visits. This was different though, these were people claiming ownership of people, and I would be helping them. I would stay there, and do the jobs required of me alongside their slaves and so the distinction between slavery and freedom would blur. But Kuzeyli needed us and she needed a place to rest, and so we got to work.
Days passed and Kuzeyli’s condition improved but not by much. She had started speaking again but only a few words, seemingly strung along at random; she spoke of bears, spirits and rats, things that frightened her. I moved her into the stable so that she could reunite with Epona, hoping that perhaps she could help her where I could not.
Although she had a positive reaction to her, it seemed more instinct than anything else. I had returned her sword to her, but she refused to grasp it and I felt a growing fear that what she had witnessed had truly broken something inside of her, perhaps beyond repair. I cursed myself for my lack of knowledge. I did not know how to mend a spirit once broken, I only knew enough to see and understand her pain, but not to do anything about it; just enough to be useless.
Never before had I been more aware of my ineptitude in my craft. When my sister truly needed the help of a shaman, all I could do was to watch over her impotently. The spirits remained silent within these stone walls and a creeping melancholy had begun to worm itself into my mind. I was trapped within these claustrophobic walls and forced to work alongside the slaves, Hyperborean and family alike. In some ways, working alongside other Khazari was worse; there were no promises of escape I could make them and worse yet, I was unsure if all of them would accept freedom even if I could offer it.
It was… a difficult time for me, which seemed petty when my sister suffered far worse, and so I made an effort not to make it show. I had to appear calm as best I could, not only for Kuzeyli but perhaps more importantly for Zeynep. She was a strong girl, but it was likely this was even more disconcerting to her than it was to me. Because of this, I made sure to watch over her, to make time to talk to her when she wished and was hopefully able to provide some support to her at least.
So the days continued until a Hyperborean man, the one the sorcerer had marked for death, visited the establishment. It was clear he was some sort of lord and he quickly got the attention of the matron of the place. I could not understand but I recognized their word for Khazari and eventually the matron pointed him in the direction of the stable, where Kuzeyli was resting.
I went after him and saw him kneeling next to her with an intimacy he had no right to. He spoke to her quietly in his tongue and made to hang an amulet on her. I could not stand idle any longer and challenged him to stand down, my bared blade pointing at his amulet. I did not know its meaning, but I recognized it. I had seen my father use it once during one of his more powerful rituals. All I knew was that it was somehow tied to a dark god and that was all I needed to know, given these people’s devotion to such gods and their magicks, I wanted Kuzeyli to have nothing more to do with it than she had already suffered through.
He seemed to understand my meaning if not my words and dropped his amulet next to Kuzeyli. He spoke to her one final time and her eyes focused on him, a noteworthy feat for her current state, and whispered something to him. The man then spoke with the matron and arranged for her to be guarded, despite my objections.
After he left, I went back over to Kuzeyli. It was clear that she trusted that man, despite her better judgement and so, since she seemed willing to try, I offered to use the amulet he had left her. If it held any dark powers, at least it would go through me first. I picked up the amulet and studied its symbol further, there was no doubt that it contained power but to trap that power, a power with a connection with a dark god in permanent metal was yet another example of Hyperborean hubris.
It was that hubris, the one that made them think to tame not only people but the spirits and gods themselves that would inevitably bring doom upon them… and us if we let them. The power within the amulet felt strangely familiar as I guided it and placed it on Kuzeyli’s chest. I held my breath, preparing to rip it away should anything happen, but nothing did.
We stayed that way for some time but I could not sense any stirrings of power or any effect, neither good or ill, on Kuzeyli. More days passed and there was no visible improvement. Finally Khurdan returned and seemed surprised to find that we had not gone to find him. Apparently he had given Zeynep a landmark to meet up at, but it was too vague for her to even recognize that he meant it as a meetup place.
I explained the situation and he told us that he had heard rumors of a Hyperborean wise woman who had treated Kuzeyli’s wound. I felt ill at ease at the thought of entrusting Kuzeyli to a Hyperborean but it was not my choice to make. I asked her and although her mind was still feeble, she was still able to choose her own way forward, like a true Khazari. She chose to place her faith in the woman and so we honored her wishes and set out. The guards the slaver lord had placed did not intervene but the matron gave us some meat to take with us, presumably on the slaver lord’s orders.
It was not a long ride to the village and the woman was easy enough to find. She recognized Kuzeyli and greeted us in Khazari. I explained what had happened to her and what she said was far from comforting. She told us there was no medicine or treatment that would help her, the only thing she could do would require witchcraft.
I should perhaps have slain her then and there at that and I almost did. I would have, had she been Khazari. No life, not even Kuzeyli’s could justify tainting ourselves with that power, but this was Hyperborea, it was already corrupt as it was and I had no obligation to cleanse it for them.
Not slaying her was one thing, allowing her to use her craft on my sister was another. My sister seemed worried and looked to me for answers, for guidance and once again, my limited knowledge was useless. I have never wandered The Great Plains myself, I have not learned its secrets and so I could not judge the nature of her rite beyond the fact that it was blood magic. Normally that should have been enough, it is one of the most vile forms of magic, it was blood magic but not in the form of a sacrifice but as a focus. I… did not know what that would mean, for the rite itself and for Kuzeyli. In the end I was unable to advise her and my sister was left to choose her path forward herself.
After a brief uncertainty she pushed her doubts aside and agreed to let the woman use her crafts on her. Even with her mind and spirit mangled as they were, her resolve remained strong. Or, a darker thought told me, anything, even the risk of damnation was preferable to her current state.
The witch had Khurdan bury her in snow and then poured something in her mouth. I studied the rite on the sideline in case I had to intervene or to slay the old crow. At first, nothing happened. Her breathing slowed and right as I began to fear the worst, Kuzeyli burst out of the snow as if reborn. Perhaps she had been.
She was not healed, far from it, that would take time, but she had returned to us. Changed yes, but that was a given considering what she had been through and I could only hope the witch’s sorcery had not altered her beyond that. My misgivings aside, I was simply glad to have my sister returned to me. She told me that she never doubted that I would come for her, even if it had been too late. It was a bittersweet reunion.
I told her what had happened after she lost consciousness and she in turn told me about the sorcerer. It was far worse than I imagined; she told me that he was the one who had kept big sister Jeshid a prisoner for all this time and that he was using his magic to try and break her will.
Grigori Yefimov was his name and the thought of facing him terrified me. I feel no shame in admitting that. If I had learned anything since our encounter, it was that my understanding of my craft was laughably lacking and Yefimov was clearly a master of his. But I looked at my sister’s drained but still proud face and I thought of Jeshid, still struggling against that monster and the fear I felt for myself was swiftly overcome by that of losing my family to that man. I might not be a true shaman, but that was merely an excuse. It was to protect my family against threats like him that I had chosen this path to begin with. We would seek him out and if possible, I would make sure that my sister would not have to face him a second time.
But it was possible that we would not have to seek him out alone. It would seem as though during her stay with the Hyperborean slaver lord, she had suggested that they joined forces. The thought of joining forces with a man like that was anathema to me, but making sure that we end Yefimov was too important to ignore help offered to us. Especially if it was the difference between going there to face him alone as opposed to doing so alongside an army.
Before returning to the city to speak with him, we had to go and seek out Manduhai but before leaving I asked the witch about the amulet the slave lord had left behind. She was surprised to hear that I didn’t know, given my name. It was the sign for The Heart of Ahriman, a sign, supposedly for both life and death.
I had been named after a god, a dark one at that? Why and why had I not been told? Names had power and knowing my father it was obvious it was not a decision he had made by chance or on impulse. I had scorned the Hyperboreans for their hubris in forming a link to the gods using metal, but had my father done so using a person, using his son? What were you hoping to achieve with me father?
We travelled largely in silence, all of us having much to think on until we finally reached the place where we had set up our ambush. That was when I noticed that someone seemed to have had the same idea. A man had been hiding in a tree and began to alert his companions as he saw us coming. I readied myself and yelled out to him and to my surprise, Manduhai was the one who called back.
After the successful raid on one of the villages most of the freed men and women had split off, to return to where they came from. But some had apparently stayed behind and joined Manduhai as their chief. It was perhaps a bit too small a group to call it a proper tribe, especially since even some Hyperboreans had joined the mix, but she seemed satisfied. They had taken up banditry while waiting for our return and it was clear that they had done well for themselves.
Manduhai had taken her role as chief seriously and followed customs more closely than most khagans. She presented us with gifts and arranged for us to have places of honour around the campfire. We told her what had happened and why we had been slow in returning. I also took this opportunity to try and explain the situation more clearly to make sure they knew what they were getting themselves into.
I had asked them to join me in a quest to save a queen of our people from one of the most fortified places in Hyperborea. It was understandable why it was described as a suicide mission. Yefimov had changed things. It was one thing to ask your family to risk their lives, but another to risk their very souls.
I do not believe I am a coward, I do not fear death or even truly slavery since I know I will die free and that in death I will simply begin a new journey alongside my ancestors. Sorcery changes that; it can enslave you in not just this life but bind your spirit for eternity. That I do fear and it would be unforgivable not to warn the others of this danger.
Still, none of them wavered. Yefimov could bleed and die like any other man, and that he would. We spoke no more of it and instead ate and drank, watching Kuzeyli test the mettle of Mandhai’s warriors. I smiled despite everything; I was relieved to see her taking up her sword again.
Finally we settled in for the night with Kuzeyli sharing my tent. She spoke some of what she had experienced and I noted that she had been prone to speak of herself in the plural form and more and more she had begun to use the expression of ‘we do what we must’. I warned her of this, her mind was still recovering and therefore it was all the more important for her not to let memories of the past bleed into the present. She had to focus on who she is, not on what others had been. I also cautioned her of the new expression she had picked up. That is the rationale of slaves, not of free men and women. We do not do things because we must, but because we chose to do it. I hope she takes that to heart.
We left early the next day, with Manduhai’s men alongside us. We decided to camp in the witch’s village and once there we found the slaver lord and his men. Kuzeyli rode up to meet him, presumably to explain the situation. I stayed behind, observing them and while I did not understand the language, there was little to misunderstand about the man’s attempt at seduction.
I threw the man’s amulet to him, drawing his attention. I had wrapped it in cloth to make sure it didn’t hang out in the open. I tried to explain to him, hoping Kuzeyli would translate that using the amulet frivolously was dangerous and might well have been how Yefimov had found him with his sorcery in the first place.
The man stopped Kuzeyli from translating and instead answered me in horribly broken Khazari and thanked me for returning the amulet and how it was precious to him. I stared at him in mute disbelief, even more so considering he seemed to take pride in answering in my tongue.
He had entirely disregarded my warning and had without missing a beat moved on to his flirtations with Kuzeyli, asking her to teach him our language.
The man who would be leading the army and who we would be forced to rely on, was an idiot.