As morning came, my hope for some form of enlightenment were dashed. Dawn had not brought any new insight or guidance, it had however brought pain. Or more accurately, sister Sabriye had. She had smeared a stinging, foul smelling concoction on my bruises. I knew better than to complain and I had faith Sabriye knew what she was doing.
She told me that Tobur and the others were planning on hunting down the injured beast so I thanked her and went out to join them. I was unsure what to expect with Tobur after our argument the previous night but after some initial awkwardness, things seemingly returned to normal, but there was a distance between us that had not been there before.
It was agreed that he and I as well as three of his men would hunt down the beast and finish it off and I went to seek out my friends to see if they would join us. This was not something I was used to. A shaman volunteers to seek out threats, they offer guidance when asked but they rarely ask and certainly don’t tell others to do something except in very specific and often dire situations. This is part of the reason we are in some ways outsiders, it is not our role to decide the Khazari ways, merely to protect it.
So it was with some hesitation I went to talk to Manduhai to ask her about joining us for the hunt which ended up with the even more difficult subject of her joining us for the journey into Hyperborea. It resulted in asking her if she wanted to join us in ‘merely’ hunting down the monster became the easy part of the conversation, something she had assumed she would be joining as a matter of course. Even Moonhawk who joined our conversation agreed to join us in the role of a tracker. Their bravery commended them, and as for the travel to Hyperborea, Manduhai decided that she would talk with Kuzeyli and make her judgement after that.
On that note I went to see Kuzeyli in turn and see her view on hunting down the ape, as well as and more importantly, investigate a comb. One thing Zeynep had shared with us was that one of the ways Borchim had learned to identify cultists was by jewelry and the like. She told us of how her father, after seeing a woman with a golden comb immediately had her executed and had threwn the comb into the lake to be forgotten.
I reasoned that learning the signs to look out for was worth the potential danger of recovering the cursed thing so Tobur had made Ay-demir in charge of finding swimmers to look for it and Kuzeyli had volunteered to be one of them. I waited a ways off, spending most of the time in conversation with an unfortunate guard with a stomach problem and counseling him as best I could.
The hours went by and it said a lot about Kuzeyli and her perseverance that she had persisted in her search for as long as she did despite the dropping temperature. At the end it payed off and she found the comb and brought it to me. It took a good while for me to make sense of it. It was written in a language I did not know, but it shared aspects of the language of spirits, which was disturbing in and of itself. Thanks to that link however, I was able to eventually decipher at least the basic meaning of it. It spoke of magic that could reflect a beasts rage onto another.
Even with just a surface understanding I could see the potential danger of something like that, but far more menacing than the text itself, was the rune that gave the comb its power. It was practically thrumming with power. I would have to consult Sabriye for the true meaning, but it was enough to convince me that Borchim had acted correctly when he executed the woman. This was enough information it seemed for Ay-demir and she left me and Kuzeyli to discuss things further.
When we were alone, Kuzeyli’s stoic visage broke momentarily and she sought confirmation that Tobur was not behind the murder of Baatar. I did my best to put her worries to rest, telling her however Tobur might have changed; he was still a good man and I did not suspect him. This had a visible effect and she seemed more at ease, but she then also mentioned that Tobur had met Shulami at the camp set up in preparation for Baatar’s duel.
She did not say anything more but it seemed like she wanted me to know that specific detail. Perhaps she had grown suspicious of Shulami. I had not had time to speak much with either of my brother’s wives since arriving at the camp so there was little insight I could have provided if that was the case and it seemed wrong to speculate on such a horrendous train of thought without good reason. Perhaps I should have pressed a bit more, but we were both pressed for time and we left to handle our preparations.
I returned to speak with Sabriye. She was making her own preparations. She would join one of the tribes as they left and were packing up. I told her about the comb and about the sigil, and she validated my fears; it was sorcerous powers that would protect the wielder from beasts, as well as targets filled with rage but that its protection was merely a reflection, the wielder would be protected at the cost of someone else. Sabriye suspected it was sigils and powers such as this that the cult used control the white apes, and perhaps even people. It had to be destroyed, preferably discreetly so we agreed to leave it in Sabriye’s care until we got back from the hunt.
I joined the others and we set out after the white ape. It was fairly uneventful. The beast had bled well and was therefore not terribly difficult to track, but it had managed to cover a lot of ground despite its injuries and so it was that only after several hours of travel did we finally find its nest; a cave next to a small river.
Tober and Kuzeyli immediately took the lead alongside one of Tobur’s men, Vargerim. Tobur it seemed, merely wanted to go first to be closer to the fight and if I had to guess, Vargerim wanted to prove himself to Kuzeyli. These things did not bother me. Kuzeyli however went first because she meant to lead.
Once again it irritated me the way she seemed to want to take command and lead without me ever having agreed to be led. It did not sit well with me. But this was no time to dwell on minor annoyances, I knew how dangerous the ape could be and there was no time for distractions.
As we got closer to the cave, we went over our plan of attack. Tobur seemed to underestimate the creature, viewing it as merely an overgrown beast, and lowered his guard. That was when the beast struck. A rock, larger than a man’s head came crashing towards my brother but Kuzeyli bravely interposed herself and took the blow on her shield. The shield shattered but she did not let that slow her and she leapt at the ape.
They clashed and she fought valiantly, but like me, she had difficulty piercing the beast’s hide. She was too slow in getting away and the beast caught her in one of its fists. It might have been wounded but its brutish strength had not diminished and more eerily, it seemed to have treated its own wounds. It was far from just a mere beast.
I wanted to rush in the second Kuzeyli was grabbed, but my last fight with the beast had taught me that I’d likely only get one chance to strike before it retaliated and so I had to make sure to make it count. I slowed my breathing, and edged closer until finally I saw an opening. The beast was unable to keep track of the struggling Kuzeyli, and the rest of us all at once, which let me get close enough to end what I had started the night before.
The beast died with my knives buried in its neck, and it dropped Kuzeyli on the ground. She was quickly back on her feet, bruised but not too worse for wear. Letting out a sigh of relief, I and Tobur thanked her for saving his life and he promised her whatever boon he had not already offered her.
With that we returned back to camp and as we arrived I gave the shield I had taken from the earlier battle with the Hyperboreans to replace her old one. I smiled, noticing how she was clearly more grateful for this small gesture than my assistance against the ape. It made sense I suppose, helping each other in battle was a matter of survival and so taken for granted, outside of battle, such things were personal and thus more important.
I split ways and I went to seek out Sabriye to reclaim the comb. We spoke briefly and exchanged our final farewells. As I returned there was a lot of commotion amongst the tents. It would seem as though Ay-demir, based on the advice given by Zeynep, had ordered Shulami’s tent to be searched and her jewelry investigated. Tobur had understandably not appreciated this suspicion against his new wife and some way or another, I ended up with the duty of going through the jewelry that Tobur’s guards had gathered.
It was not a comfortable position to be in, not just because of being thrust into a marriage dispute but far more so because of the sudden responsibility that had been given to me. I was not even a fully trained shaman yet and still it had in some ways fallen to me to judge Shulami based on her jewelry. A judgment that would likely decide whether or not my brother’s new wife deserved to live.
In the end none of the jewelry showed any signs of sorcery. A part of me had of course wanted to finally find evidence of the cult and its activities but I was still relived. Kuzeyli and Manduhai joined me and we left to meet Tobur to deliver the good news but we only found Ay-demir alone. She told us that after a heated argument, Tobur had taken Zeynep with him out to the side of the camp. The women continued talking amongst themselves, while I hurried to find my brother before he did anything too foolish.
As I arrived, my brother was in the middle of doing exactly that. He had two of his men hold the young girl and it was clear that he had already struck her and was considering to kill her. My brother might have taken Borchim’s family in, but he was not her father and had no right to treat her like that, certainly not while he had agreed only the night before to leave her in my protection.
I was able to reach my brother despite his building anger, and Zeynep was released and was left in the care of Kuzeyli and Manduhai. I meanwhile went to have words with him. It was a breaking point and I think both of us in some ways knew it. It would determine whether I would leave him tomorrow as my brother or if I would leave Khagan Tobur’s camp, never to return.
We spoke honestly with each other, as we have always done and I told him that from what I had seen, he bore his new title poorly. He had adopted a hands off approach of ruling where he refused to lead and govern, while simultaneously taking an active part in interfering with the governing of other tribes. We debated the meanings of freedom and duty, the strain and pressure we were both under, his handling of Zeynep and much more and finally, to my immense relief, it was my brother and not the Khagan who I parted with.
Tobur was still a good man who had simply fallen into a position he was unsure of how to handle. My final advice to him, given as a friend and not as a shaman to be, was to forgive Ay-demir and not to take her and what she did for him for granted. She was a fine woman and should not be forgotten.
We said our farewells and while it was clear that he believed I would never return from Hyperborea, fated for death or worse, he had accepted my choice and had promised me to wait with interfering with the Nagalai. He would return to Ondar and give his respect to his father as well as brother Aldin, and thus give us time to save Big sister Jeshid.
The next morning came and we said out farewells to Moonhawk who would travel alongside Tobur and keep an ear to the ground. He lent his borrowed horse to Zeynep and we were off. Zeynep, myself, Kuzeyli and even Manduhai who had decided to join us after speaking with Kuzeyli the night before. The two sisters had gone to excruciating lengths in order to pretend that they were still enemies to the point where Manduhai had declared that she would join us to ensure that it would be she who killed Kuzeyli and no one else. It was all rather endearing really.
The first night’s journey was largely uneventful but when we made camp, I made sure to throw the cursed comb into the fire to cleanse it of the sigil. The gold was still cursed however so the next morning I followed in Borchim’s footsteps and threw the remaining golden lump into the lake. I knew that this would not be enough, we never found the cultist who controlled the ape, but hopefully with Zeynep and the rest of us gone, at least Tobur and his men would be safe.
Kuzeyli had curiously taken on the role of mentor for young Zeynep and decided to teach her swordplay. It was a strange sight, not least of all due to how Zeynep seemed to be as surprised by the whole ordeal as I was. It was not until I learned that she too had decided to join us into Hyperborea, and not just guide us to Khutan, that I understood Kuzeyli’s reasoning.
I did not know what to think about it. Perhaps I should have protested, told her that such thoughts were foolish. Perhaps I should have spat on her pride. But I didn’t. She was old enough to marry, old enough to create life, perhaps then it was only right that she was old enough to risk her own life for a cause she believed in.
There would likely be several chances for her to change her mind should she choose, so in the end I let her do as she pleased, although I made it clear that while I had offered her my protection as a way for her to move freely once more and to protect her from the cult, I would not be able to guarantee her or anyone else’s safety on this journey. She agreed and after exhausting herself with sword practice, it was time to move on.
The journey continued and as if as response to our journey, the first snow began to fall. There was little time for chatting, we kept a good pace to make sure we reached the Khutan outpost before the sun set. As the outpost came into view we saw a large fire out in the distance.
Fearing the worst, with marauding Hyperboreans fresh in our minds we pushed our mounts harder. There were no Hyperboreans but it was still ill news. The fire was a funeral pyre, a sending off of Buchijin, the chief’s wife and Kuzeyli’s cousin.
The mourning chieftain, Azarga met us but given the circumstances it was understandable that he was not very welcoming. Nor was his younger brother, Vardak who had been assigned to keep an eye on us. We did however find a friend in the youngest brother, Esugan, who invited us into his home for the evening.
It quickly became clear that things were not well in the camp, and as Esugan explained the situation under the watchful gaze of Vardak, two version of events seemed to be forming. The first one was what Esugan and Vardak both told us, Buchijin had been kidnapped and then murdered by a traitor within the camp named Khurdan. The other version, which Esugan heavily implied but never out right spoke out loud was that it had been Vardak who had killed her, likely while trying to kill Khurdan. The chief had many of his men hunt for him at that very moment. But Khurdan was an excellent huntsman, their very best even, according to Esugan and thus had so far eluded them.
Kuzeyli picked up on this as well and barbed her words against Vardak, who in turn grew increasingly more insulting and threatening. It rose to a level where even I had to speak up, but before it could escalate, Esugan managed to convince his brother to guard outside.
Vardak listened in on our conversation outside so I asked Esugan if he could aid Kuzeyli in learning the Hyperborean’s language as an excuse so that at least one of us could get a detailed explanation of what was happening.
Whatever was said seemed to convince Kuzeyli to want to seek out the man, so we offered to help search for him the next day. With that we settled in for the night, with Kuzeyli and Esugan offering to keep watch.
I dreamed, or perhaps I woke up. Either way, I found myself on a snow-covered plain. Instinctively I knew that I stood before a crossroad. One path would lead me to my father, the other would take me to Hyperborea. A choice had to be made.
I did not know why the path to my father was presented to me, especially now of all times. Was it because he needed my aid or was it merely a test? A way to prove my resolve? In truth the choice was not difficult, which surprised me. I wanted to find my father, I wanted to help him, that had been my goal since he left over a year ago, which was all the more reason why I could not go to him now. How could I go to him, claiming to be his son and wanting to aid him while abandoning my family in the process? No, I would not shame him or myself like that. I would finish what he started so that next time I do see him, he will have no choice but to acknowledge me.
I scribed a rune of blessing on his path, then turned towards Hyperborea and continued walking alone. After a while, I heard Araataan’s voice behind me. She questioned my decision not to go after my father. Was she the one behind that choice? I explained that that road only led to a man, the path to Hyperborea led to hope. It was the path I had chosen.
She accepted my choice, like I knew she would. My certainty faltered momentarily however as I looked behind me. I could not shake the feeling there had been something important I had missed back at Tobur’s camp, a clue or perhaps even one of the cultists. Surely there was something there I had missed. She agreed that there had been, but would not tell me what it was, there was no need for that knowledge to cloud the path ahead. I had made my choice and now had to look forward so that I could see the friends and enemies before me. She told me to follow Buchijin, who had passed on as blue bird. She would guide me if I wanted to meet Khurdan. With that Araataan disappeared and so I continued walking onwards.
I dreamed, or perhaps I woke up. Either way, I found myself back in Esugan’s home. My talk with Araataan had unnerved me, but despite everything I felt more secure in my choices and worried less about if I had made the right ones.
We shared breakfast and bought furs from Esugan and then left to go search for Khurdan. Unfortunately the chief, Azarga, had taken an interest in my connection to the spirits and had decided to arrange the search parties himself. He along with seven of his men would go with me. Kuzeyli would not leave my side, and since Zeynep was under my protection, she would go with us as well.
He refused to take Manduhai with him however and she was assigned to Vardak’s group. We tried to convince him otherwise but he had made up his mind, and it seemed as though refusal would lead to bloodshed. It also became increasingly obvious that Azarga had a plan, likely not an entirely honorable one for wanting to bring Kuzeyli with him. It was suspicious but we relented and set out to look for Khurdan.
It did not take long before I saw Buchijin and so I followed her as best I could. The path was indirect and took many turns but I did not pay much attention to it, I instead focused on not losing track of her. Finally she came to a stop and I began looking around. Finally I saw the small camp he had set up. It was well hidden but the rustling twigs gave away that he had just fled.
I didn’t want to give his direction away but alerted Azarga that I had found his camp. While increasingly unlikely, I hoped the truth of the situation would show itself without further bloodshed. That we could talk and so come to an agreement. That small hope was quickly dashed since as soon as I let Azarga know we had reached the camp, he immediately launched himself towards Kuzeyli to try and use her as hostage.
I think we all knew he had some scheme planned but not even I thought it would be quite that blatant and dishonorable. Kuzeyli deftly blocked his attack and sent him falling on his ass. I cried out trying to have the matter end there, but he sent his men to take her.
She fought well but one wrong move sent her toppling to the ground, keeping her assailants away with her sword. Azarga did not relent, ordering his men to strike her down. Kuzeyli meanwhile had avoided bloodshed and was fighting twice as hard to not have to kill them. I ran up in front of her, trying to shield her and talk sense into them, hoping against hope there was some ounce of shame left in them.
There was none. Azarga simply ordered his men to press the attack and kill her. Kuzeyli had been forced to start fighting back in earnest and arrows had begun falling now, undoubtedly Khurdan killing off some of Azarga’s men. The situation was escalating and it showed Azarga’s true face.
One thing which is unfortunately often misunderstood is that shamans are not warriors. They are not soldiers nor are they kings. Khazari people wage war with one another, they duel, they kill, they murder. Shamans rarely involve themselves in such matters. Such things were for the leaders and the men and women of the tribes to solve amongst themselves. Our role is to protect the Khazari ways, more so than anything, sometimes even from the Khazari themselves. During such times, when those who once were Khazari have thrown away their humanity and their oaths, it is our duty to pass down judgement.
I did not hesitate; there was no place for second chances or forgiveness. Azarga and sadly his men with him had crossed a line that should never be crossed. They did not die well. I was showered in blood and worse. Kuzeyli looked at me strangely, it was unclear if it was with fear, approval or revulsion. Zeynep’s stare was even harder to read. Kuzeyli half-jokingly said never to make me angry.
That was wrong, I had not killed in anger. I had killed in despair. I fought to cool my features and to remind myself that they had not been family, that they had not been Khazari. All the while I felt their blood run down my face…
It had been the same when I had fought the cultists, but then I had had my father’s guidance. This time it had been I who had made that judgement, not him. My judgement, my choice. “They were not Khazari”, I declared and with that the matter was closed.
We met with Khurdan soon afterwards, we explained who we were and how we had found him, leaving him time to briefly see Buchijin fly away free, the way she should have been allowed to live amongst the Khutan. He was a man who was suffering and perhaps even longed for death, but he swore himself to our cause and promised to lead us to where we needed to go.
We went back to find Manduhai only to see she had had a similar experience with Vardak’s group and she had gutted him after he tried to force himself on her. It was only right. We returned to the outpost and solemnly burdened Esugan with the title of chief.
He acted the way he had to. We had killed his family and many of his men, and so he banished us. There was no animosity between us however, he allowed us to cleanse ourselves and prepare for our journey. Khurdan gathered his mount Midnight, a fine black stallion and we let him lead the way.
The way into Hyperborea.