Kuzeyli, always thinking about her friends, arranged a bath for us. It was a genuinely nice gesture and after our talk last night I suspected it was largely meant to help us relax. She’s a good friend.
Zeynep went in first and her naked form quickly drew the attention of the male audience. She was a beautiful young girl and even Khurdan took note. I was not beyond some curiosity myself but my father had been… thorough in his instruction of not entertaining thoughts of intimacy before becoming a true shaman and thus having the knowledge necessary to train my offspring. As such, my gaze did not linger long.
Although she made no outward show of it, I could tell that Zeynep was uncomfortable with the attention she was receiving and so I decided to steer Khurdan and his friend’s attention towards the keep. We had decided to save our brothers and sisters and so we needed as much information as possible before going there. Khurdan was not very optimistic about the idea but he and his friend told me what they knew.
When Zeynep had finished bathing it was Manduhai’s turn. In truth, her form was harder to ignore. In many ways it embodied what it meant to be Khazari, strong, proud, defiant and uncowed. Perhaps it was due to our conversation the night before but I took notice of it more so than I had before.
Still my conversation continued and soon it was Kuzeyli’s turn. She could not help the way she looked, I knew better than most that beneath that pale exterior lived a spirit as proud and defiant as any other. Many it seemed had never taken the time to learn that, in truth, had the attack on the Valley of Fire not happened then I likely would not have either. The remnants of that attitude could be seen across her skin. Her scars, especially the old ones were different from mine, they were not from training or rituals but from random acts of cruelty.
Finally it was my turn. I was surrendering my clothes and weapons and stepped naked into the water. I appreciated Kuzeyli’s attempt at making us relax, but I at least could not bring myself to relax while unarmed and surrounded by Hyperboreans. Despite understanding this, Kuzeyli did her best and helped to wash my hair, reaffirming her support.
Finally it was Khurdan’s turn and to my surprise he asked for my assistance. I was glad, despite everything, Khurdan’s mood had slowly been shifting towards the better. Perhaps drinking himself into oblivion was indeed what he needed although I suspected it wasn’t the only thing.
When Khurdan was finished I left the others to head out on my own. Kuzeyli was right, I had to calm myself before we reached the fort and for that to be possible I had to stop viewing everything as enemy territory. Nature, at least, should not be my enemy.
I sat down a bit away from the village and tried to familiarize myself with the environment. The trees there were different, so were the birds’ songs, and the wind’s whispers. There were plants and animals whose name I did not know and smells I couldn’t identify. The spirits were different there, I didn’t know them and they didn’t know me either.
I sat there for several hours. It was a tense experience, I was still very much an outsider and the spirits made that known, but we had learned some of the other and when I once again opened my eyes, my surroundings seemed less alien than they had before. Dusk had settled and I made my way back to my friends to prepare for the next day.
The night continued without further incident and we set out early the next morning. Kuzeyli, Manduhai and Zeynep all wore Hyperborean clothes while I and Khurdan wore our own. Khurdan’s clothes were at least as suitable to face the winter as the hyperborean’s and as for my own… they were my clothes. They showed who and what I was. Much like the ‘Mammoth’s spirit’ there was strength to draw from that and I felt that as our journey would take us further and further away from home, we would need all the strength we could get.
We set out and made our way through the forest. During the morning on the second day I heard the sounds of a brief sword fight nearby. We decided to wait until we were sure that the coast was clear and then went out to investigate. Two men, likely the Hyperborean lord’s scouts, had been killed.
It was hard to see the reason behind their murder, and it was also not of particular interest. The Hyperboreans could well kill themselves as best they pleased, as for us, we decided to steal one of the men’s outer clothes to use as a disguise. During our planning for the attack, it was clear that our biggest obstacle in freeing the slaves were the archers on top of the fort. So far we had only reached two plans that we felt had any real chance of success. One would task me to climb the fort walls during the night, slay those I could while opening the gate to let the others in or have Kuzeyli infiltrate them as one of their own. Both would be risky and as the rain continued to fall, making any attempts at climbing rock more difficult, we had settled with Kuzeyli’s idea of infiltration.
And so Kuzeyli donned the dead man’s clothes after washing them in the stream and we closed in on the fort. Kuzeyli would go alone straight for the fort while Khurdan led us around to approach the worker lodges on the other side.
We all knew the fight ahead would be dangerous and that we might not live through it, but Kuzeyli was risking most of all. Death was the least of her worries. My final words to her were that whatever happens, I would come for her.
I would not let her die a slave.