I continued my conversation with sister Sabriye, I told her of the valley of fire and the Hyperborean attack, about the vulture tribe and my meeting with Araataan. She shared her wisdom with me freely for which I was grateful although I admit that her revelations about my father and Borchim was still taking up most of my thoughts.
During the conversation a boy went past me and told me that someone needed to talk with me alone and to return there during the evening. The boy didn’t say anything else and went on about his work. I didn’t pay it too much thought, and continued speaking with Sabriye.
Finally our conversation came to an end and we went separate ways. I joined the others at the campfire. Moonhawk was telling stories but despite my brother’s talent for it, my mind was still preoccupied with other matters.
My father had confided in Borchim, but not to me. He had trusted him above his son. In truth it was not entirely surprising but it was frustrating all the same. More importantly, Tobur had killed him before he had been able to realize what my father had entrusted him with. Was Tobur the man to realize it in Borchim’s stead? Perhaps.
So my mind wandered until it was time for the meeting. I excused myself and went alone to the edge of the camp. There I met Zeynep, Borchim’s daughter. Sabriye had insinuated that Zeynep and her mother were practically kept as prisoners while Tobur decided what to do with them.
She was nervous, fearful that I had been followed. After I assured her that I had come alone, she told me that she knew some of what my father had told Borchim and that she wanted my help. Her explanation drew short however as, as fear and panic struck her. I turned and immediately understood her reaction. Slowly, silently, a white ape rose from the lake.
I wanted to run. I wanted to call for reinforcement, to call for Tobur, Kuzeyli…for my father. As fear began constricting its tendrils around me, I felt the amulet my father had given me hang heavy on my shoulders. I remembered why I had spent all of these years training. It was for the sake of being able to protect my people against creatures like this. I charged at it, distracting it, and gave my sister time to escape. But she didn’t move, fear had already taken hold of her. I faltered in my dance and the ape moved; far faster than something that large had any right to and picked me up in one of its oversized hands as if I was nothing but a small child. I was powerless as it squeezed the life from me, but then it turned its gaze to Zeynep and immediately lost interest in me and tossed me to be crushed by one of the trees.
I managed to readjust the angle and was able to land relatively safely. The creature was still intent on the girl and she was still too afraid to move. It thought I was dead or otherwise not a threat to it. It underestimated me, that was likely my only chance. I lunged at it again, this time pleading her to flee back to camp. Finally she began hurrying away.
I struck, but despite seemingly hurting it, I was still not able to fully pierce its hide. It was cautious of me now, my one advantage seemingly forfeited. As I heard Zeynep’s running feet, I knew that at least if I died there, she would be safe and I would die free with steel in hand.
But such thoughts were cowardice, excuses to avoid the challenge ahead. I had been taught better that that. Once more I planted myself In front of it, daring it to ignore me a second time. We clashed and this time, finally my knives hit true and tore into him. With that, the unnatural intelligence I had seen in its eyes faded and the interest in my sister with it. Now it was worried about its own survival. It shrugged me off and made to escape into the forest.
Cursing I went after it, it could not be allowed to survive. But my strength was spent; I stumbled as it hurried away into the forest. I simply sat where I had fallen, cursing myself for failing to kill it while slowly realizing I had actually survived.
I don’t know how long I sat there but eventually I heard Manduhai and Kuzeyli approach. Manduhai had no intent to mince words and without ceremony dragged me up on her back and carried me back to camp.
I met with Tobur and his trusted men, along with Kuzeyli , Manduhai and Zeynep, who had gotten away and had warned the camp. I explained what had happened, along with my suspicion that the creature had been after Zeynep, not me. This caused some commotion and so I offered to take the mother and child as part of my retinue. I thought it could be a way to help my brother in what seemed like a delicate matter as well as a way of keeping the potential targets close at hand.
That and in truth I was not fond of the way it seemed like they were practically treated as captives. Zeynep stopped me however, telling me I should only take her. I assumed she knew something I did not so agreed.
Then Tobur told me what he and Kuzeyli had talked about. He explained that he meant for Kuzeyli to fight as his champion and free clan after clan amongst the Nagalai until finally the Nagalai would have to disband. In some ways I understood my brother, brother Kushkash was a poor ruler and had a good deal to answer for when it came to what he had allowed to happen to his people. There were many who served him who wished to be free of their oaths for this very reason.
Had Tobur said that he would take Kushkash’s place as guard against the Hyperboreans, perhaps I would have given him my blessing. But he showed no interest in ruling, he merely wanted to make them free tribes. It would likely spell the doom, not only for the Nagalai but for the Khazari people as a whole.
We are dependent on the Nagalai as a bulwark against potential invasions. Without them, the Hyperboreans could plunder and enslave us with impunity. He used Khazari customs and laws against us by following them by the letter and not the spirit that they were intended to be followed by.
It is true that no Khazari should be a slave to anyone, least of all their own kind, no matter how important they are to their brothers, but that does not negate oaths of loyalty, traditions and the need for unity. There had to be another way.
I could only see one other option open to me; to continue my father’s work, only without the tribes Borchim had gathered. The first step in that case would be to head into Hyperborea and rescue Big sister Jeshid. It was the only way to preserve the Nagalai without a war.
Tobur would have nothing to do with the idea and wanted to go through with his original plan. In a fit of anger, I told him that I would go alone in that case. I would do whatever I could, even if the chance of success was minimal. To my surprise Kuzeyli said that she would go with me.
Tobur had offered her what must have been everything she had always dreamed of: a place to belong, a family who would love and accept her. So then why follow me in what was almost certainly a fool’s errand? We were friends yes, but we shared no greater bond than that of her and Tobur. The likely explanation then was the promise she gave me back in the valley, where she told me that she would follow me in my search for my father and the fight against the cult.
If that was the reason, then a better man would perhaps have convinced her out of it, told her that she had no such obligation. But I could not afford to do so. The truth remained that this was more important than any of us and if I wanted to succeed I needed all the help I could get.
Even Zeynep latched on to the idea and promised to guide us to a nearby Khutan clan who might be able to help us. Tobur rejected the idea outright as suicidal and Manduhai did not seem particularly optimistic about it either. Tobur left the tent in anger. It was the first time harsh words had been exchanged between us while not in jest and it left a bitter taste in my mouth.
I could not blame them for being skeptical but in my pain addled mind, this seemed like the only way forward. I could only hope that I would come to my senses come morning. And with that I slowly drifted into unconscious sleep.