Steel and Silk

Separation Anxiety

Khurdan led us towards the fort until he suddenly stopped. He noticed signs that people had been in these woods quite recently. The idea that whoever had wandered around might return and flank us during the attack worried him and so we decided to track them down first and then spring the attack.

As we got closer, Manduhai and I snuck closer and saw three Hyperboreans hidden away around a small campfire. As we were readying the attack, alarm signals began sounding from the fort. The enemy were readying themselves for us, which could only mean that Kuzeyli had been found. We had no more time to play things cautiously and so Manduhai and I swept in and immediately slew two of them, infuriatingly enough one of them managed to get away, yelling and screaming as he did so.

There was no time to waste in running after him, especially if he was calling for allies. We turned and joined the others, hoping against hope we would be in time to save Kuzeyli. We weren’t. As we stepped out of the forest, I saw on top of a grotesque stone building as tall as a small mountain, Kuzeyli being surrounded and quickly overcome. Increasingly desperate plans of how to rescue her were forming in my mind, first of which would be to save the captives, archery fire be damned. As I readied myself, a warhorn blew in the distance and with it came a large group of mounted Hyperboreans. It seemed we were not the only ones to have taken notice of the unguarded fort. The man who got away must have gotten the others to spring their attack.

Thoughts of facing the riders filled my head, a defiant last stand where we stood tall to fight both sides of the conflict and to save Kuzeyli or die trying. But that was once again the coward in me making himself known. It would have been easy to ignore the responsibility I had and find a good death on those fields instead of doing everything in my power for us to succeed; even if it meant abandoning Kuzeyli.

Abandoning Kuzeyli… the realization came to me slowly and the weight of it almost drove me to my knees. There was no hope of victory. Even if we managed to free the captives, they would simply be ridden down by the enemy cavalry along with myself and the rest of the group. No, our only hope was to fall back before being discovered. But I would come for her, I had made that oath and I would keep it.

Days passed without much being said. A cloud hung over the group and we were all reminded of the risk each day here meant for us. Self-doubt tried to worm its fangs in to me, if only we had gone with the idea of infiltrating during the night, then the enemy attack would have sprung and Kuzeyli wouldn’t have been caught. That and many other similar thoughts of how we could have done things differently assaulted me but I never voiced them and I tried to fight them off when they surfaced. Kuzeyli deserved better than to second guess her choices and it was arrogant of me to feel guilt or responsibility for her. She was a free woman and her choices were hers and hers alone to make. I knew that, I did, but it didn’t lessen the pain of having my sister taken from me.

What was important therefore was taking her back. Our only hope was that while the Hyperboreans fought over that abominable stone house of theirs, they would send their slaves away from the fighting. A so called ‘slave train’ would form and would likely be lightly guarded. We would strike at it hard, free Kuzeyli and the slaves and accomplish our goal that way.

A few days passed and we were in luck, the captives were beings sent off towards a nearby city. Khurdan had scouted the area and concluded we had two options, either ambush them in a canyon or wait until they made camp for the night in a nearby village and free them while the guards were bust drinking and whoring. Manduhai interjected a third option, to face them on the open field and fight in honourable combat. I respected her pride, but it would only lead to unnecessary losses, I did not fight for honour but for my people, putting them at risk unnecessarily was out of the question. I didn’t like the idea of launching the attack at night either. There were too many unknowns for a plan like that and too many things that could go wrong in the dark.

So we settled on the ambush with Manduhai compromising in attacking the enemies from behind on horseback. We settled in and waited. As the enemy leader rode right below be, I leapt down on him, severing his head from his body with one knife, then making a show of impaling the head with the other. I did not speak their language but that did not mean I could not make myself understood.

The sight of their leader’s unblinking gaze and a free Khazari with steel in hand was enough to unman them and break their spirits. They surrendered and with Manduhai performing a heavy assault on the remaining guard from the back, the battle was over within seconds and without and casualties.

It was a fine victory that was further sweetened with Khurdan being reunited with his brother in law, Algidir, and Khurdan giving a heartfelt declaration of freedom. There was only one thing missing… Kuzeyli was nowhere to be found.

When questioned, one of the guards who had surrendered explained through Zeynep that a blonde warrior had been freed by the invading Hyperboreans but due to her wounds she had been taken to a healer in a nearby city.

I could not imagine why the Hyperboreans would do something like that but the man seemed too frightened to be lying. We knew our destination, the question then became what to do with the freed captives. Things seemed more complicated than I had expected, Khazari and Hyperboreans having bonded during captivity despite their better judgement and there were several men and women with clearly mixed heritage. It was clear that simply dividing the captives between Khazari and Hyperboreans would not be work.

Algidir suggested raiding one of the nearby villages for supplies and clothes and then they could all choose their own paths afterwards. This seemed like a fine plan but they would need help and I was no warrior or leader. Brave Manduhai stepped up and volunteered to lead the attack while I went to find and save Kuzeyli from the Hyperboreans.

As if the spirits were guiding us in the right direction, as we looted the guards for weapons in preparation for the attack I saw Kuzeyli’s sword strapped to the leader I had killed.

Just a little longer now, hold on. I will come for you.

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Enemy Territory

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.

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Stoic to a Fault

I feel like it could have gone worse. Not by much. I mean the stairs was not a place to fight. I did need to get to the archers. I fought somewhat poorly, though given the situation… Pretty well. When that captain asked me who I was, and who I was working for. I don’t know why Marshal Vashka came to mind… How was that better? Well, now I’m sitting here… In a cell. The pain in my arm is overshadowed by my will to escape. They missed my knife… That will be their downfall. Well, I should probably hesitate when the door opens, what if it’s Ahriman? Who knows what that man is capable of. When the opportunity reveals itself, I will be ready.

I don’t know how long I had to wait. But eventually I heard footsteps, so I sprung up hitting my wound to give me a jolt. I grasped the knife, and stood ready. The door swung open. But no one entered. My heart skipped a beat. Ahriman… It has to be. A voice came out of the hallway. No… It was not Ahriman. It was Marshal Vashka. I was sure this was how I died. Failing them. But I held my knife, took a breath into the shit drenched air around me. If I go down, I’ll go down fighting. Except… He said he wanted to thank me. Thank me? What? As it turned out, due to my statement that I was with Marshal Vashka, some of the soldiers of the keep had taken the opportunity to desert. I was greeted as a hero, of sorts. I had been through this dance before, but this time I felt that my suspicions were well founded. I’m in enemy land, an enemy stronghold even. Boyar Belgaru or Marshal Vashka… Does not matter. He seemed honourable, but was still a Hyperborean slaver. I’ll play along, but sooner or later, I need to escape. He offered me food and drinks. I… I am ashamed to admit that my hunger lead me to indulge. It was not until me head started getting woozy that I realised my mistake. Poison… How did I not see this coming?! I stumbled back, and toppled over. Preslav rushed up to me. Get away! I tried to fight him, but strength was leaving my body. What did he say? I was wounded. Well, yeah! So what? My sight blackened before I could hear what he said.

I woke up in a place I did not know. I saw a person I did not know. I felt a pain I knew, however. My wound had been treated. It’s burning… Similar to our medicine, but this is Hyperborean witchcraft. I spoke to the woman, whom I learnt was a sort of Hyperborean Shaman. She said that I was not poisoned, but in fact my wound had been infected. Oh right… Open wound, in a shit and piss drenched cell, all night… Perhaps… Maybe she’s telling the truth. I felt a bit silly. I’ve always had an easy time hiding my pain, much the chagrin of my childhood tormentors. But perhaps… This is not a time, nor a place to hide such things. My people seeing me as a strong warrior is all I have. But pride alone will not be enough to survive out here. I can open that door… To Ahriman, Zeynep… Not Manduhai… Not yet. I liked this woman. At least after she said she wasn’t actually a witch, thinking that made my skin crawl. Before I could get better acquainted with my predicament Marshal Vashka arrived. Now that I was getting a better non-woozy look at him. He looks… Good. Strong. Determined. Honourable. Kind. Kind? What? I got up, and it wasn’t until he commented my body, that I realised that I was bare. Such things don’t bother me. I’ve feigned being bothered, as it puts people off not to be. But I… I didn’t mind him. We spoke of what was happening, and the current state of Hyperborean society, and his thoughts on it. I don’t know why… But I trusted him. He reminded me of my father… Baatar? Yes. Bishtak? Yes?… No. He reminded me of myself. I opened my mouth, and out came… All of it. I could’ve told him everything. Anything. But, I managed to filter it. I did not tell him who I truly was, until it seemed like he would aid us against the sorcerer… SORCERER! Grigori Yefimov… I learnt his name, and what he did to make sure that Jeshid would remain in Hyperborean lands… I must tell Ahriman. Ahriman… Where are you? No… I can’t count on Ahriman, I far afield… I’m a cottage who knows where… Vashka seems to allow me to leave and find my friends. For now, I will go with this man… For now.

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All according to the planned

We were all a bit shaken up after what had happened over the past few days, so I felt we all needed a bit of a break. To that end, I decided to visit our new found friends to see if they could aid us. The herb…—flower picker— provided me with some herbs that helps with hangovers, and something that would help Ahriman with his wound. I vowed to protect him… He is still alive, but I failed to keep him safe. I also drew a bath for us to wash up properly. Zeynep went first, followed by Manduhai, and myself. I had figured this might spawn some awkwardness… Given the whole… Getting naked part. Ahriman for his part did what he could to distract the older men. But, I failed to take into account the washing. I helped Zeynep, Zeynep ended up helping me and Manduhai, so far so good. I ended up washing Ahriman. He seemed very tense, unsurprisingly. Lastly Khurdan went into the bath, and we all kinda sighed in relief. No particular reason, I mean he doesn’t at all smell like moldy forest, or anything. Something did strike me… Manduhai is a warrior, like myself. I thought my scars would be… Less conspicuous. But her skin was… Seemingly untouched. I envied her. I left it behind me. I even treat them kindly when I see them now. They were young… I was young… We didn’t know any better. As Baatar would have said, When will you stop making up excuses for them? Baatar didn’t act like a bully because he wanted to… He had to. My fault. I pushed these thoughts to the back of my mind, and went to fetch our bread from Ilyana.

The next morning, we set up to leave. There is this strange feeling in the air when warrior know they are setting out to fight. I did not have to speak to Manduhai to know that she too was to save the Khazari slaves by the bridge. Zeynep did not seem surprised either. Khurdan though… While he seems better, he has a long way to go. It would be 2 days march before we reach the tower, however. The first day nothing happened, though Zeynep kept close eyes on the bushes, probably still with wolves close in mind. I can’t blame her, wolves are scary. Not as scary as bears! But that’s a completely different subject altogether. In the morning of the next day, Ahriman said he heard some people nearby. Him and Khurdan went to investigate. Me and Manduhai flanked Zeynep, staring into the forest. The two men returned and told us that a fight had happened nearby. We checked the corpses, to find more information about what we’re up against. We also took one of their armors, as a possible disguise.

That was the plan. It was a good plan. I mean… I got up the tower, did I not? Oh, Kuze… Sometimes you are truly dumb… I approached during the night, clad in their armor. Before I could make it to the tower, one of the Hyperborean guards called me out, and a woman approached me. She brought me to the one in charge. I was trying to convince them that I here under the Boyar Belgaru’s pay and orders. It was a hard sell, so I spiced it up with describing an attack party that I run into. That would not happen until daaaays ahead. That will happen tonight! What? Two Khazari warriors! A shaman and their guide. Oh no. So, they rang the alarm. BUT! I was taken to the tower, where I am setting up my plot to take out the archers. All according to the plan…

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Hatred of Smiling Faces

We continued our journey and when we found a suitable tree, I climbed up to scout ahead. The Hyperborean camp had moved further north, away from the village which was good. A more immediate problem however was the pack of wolves that were trying to encircle us.

I gave the warning and everyone got into position while I stayed in the tree to keep an eye on their movements. The wolves sprang their attack and launched themselves towards Kuzeyli and Manduhai who were keeping Zeynep safe. Kuzeyli met their threatening growls with one of her own and they clashed.

Manduhai was taken by the wolves and Kuzeyli went after her, leaving some of the wolves free to roam, I leapt down at them and slew them. Meanwhile another set of wolves were approaching Zeynep and the Hyperborean. Kuzeyli immediately flew into action protecting them, every lunge a wolf made, was followed by a counter attack and another dead wolf.

Men would have fled but the wolves were feeling cornered and simply pressed on and died because of it. I had little time to admire my sister’s prowess however as more wolves began to encircle me. I was too slow and one of them got my leg. He died because of it, his jaws still holding on as he died.

Khurdan got the last one with an arrow and so, as suddenly as it began, it was over. Zeynep rushed in and helped to tend to my wound. She was scared, but she mastered it in order to do what she had to do. Good. It was something she would need to learn to do more of in the travels ahead.

I was able to make it to my horse, dragging along the last pair of wolves that attacked me and had them drag along behind Scar. The others did similarly and so we rode onwards to the hyperborean village. I mused on the fact that both master and steed had managed to ruin their leg within the first week of entering these lands.

But we journeyed on and not too long after did we reach the edge of the village. We stopped, noticing a Hyperborean had set up a guard post, the woman Kuzeyli had saved spoke with him and seemingly explained the situation as the old man lit up, happy and surprised.

His reaction surprised me but I did not think too much of it, but as we entered the city, everyone had the same reaction, young and old, man and woman. They all greeted us and especially their lost kin with smiles and cries of celebrations.

That was how they greeted her? That was how they reacted when once again being face to face with her? A quiet anger and disgust seeped into me. I admit that reading some of these people’s hard faces was difficult but I did not see a single one of them show any sign of shame. They were content with simply being happy that by a strange unearned coincidence, she had been returned to them. Their smiling faces, more so than any other strangeness regarding them was to me the most unsettling thing about them. I did not understand them and I hated them for it.

We met with one of Khurdan’s ‘friends’, although it pains me to use such an honorific for even one of these people, who brought us to his home. He could speak our tongue and told us about the keep we needed to pass. He told us that the Hyperborean who led their camp searching for the stag had left it largely unguarded. He even mentioned that one of Khurdan’s family members as well as a few dozen other slaves were kept there. It saddened me how Khurdan did not react more to that, he simply told him it was not his concern.

His friend seemed equally disinterested, even though it seemed likely that most of those slaves were of his own kin. How can these people choose to live like this? It was strange, the man spoke and acted honorably throughout the evening, so how could he sit here and laugh while his kin were being kept as slaves just a short journey away? How was he not ashamed that he let his neighbour be sold off to strangers as if she was a bag of grain? Why were there no pyres of those who died trying to keep them from taking her? Why do they act like slaves even though they are free? I stayed to the side throughout the evening as the others drank themselves to unconsciousness.

Manduhai went out to relieve herself after having lost her drinking challenge against Kuzeyli. She was unsteady on her feet so I decided, as the only sober one amongst us, to follow after her. She asked about Khurdan and her assumption and hope that we would free the people there.

It would jeopardize our mission, news of such a break in would likely spread and keep the others on alert… But there were Kazahri men and women locked up there, not only Khurdan’s family, but mine as well. Our goal out here was never to merely save Big Sister Jeshid, it was to help preserve and protect the Kazahri way of life by doing so. If we were to abandon that, to sacrifice our brothers and sisters for the sake of our leaders and kings, then we would be no better than the Hyperboreans.

Manduhai agreed in a scene that would have been touching had it not immediately been followed by her emptying her stomach in front of me. We continued talking as she went into the bushes to piss. It was strange, as soon as she went out into the dark vegetation, both her posture and voice shrank somehow.

She admitted to sharing much of Khurdan apprehensions. She felt as though she had very little left to live for. She no longer felt at home amongst the Merkit and she had lost the last of those she considered family to Kuzeyli’s blade. Gone was the bravado and bluster that usually defined her, and in its place was a young woman who was lonely and without direction. I knew it took courage for her to open up like that and I was honored she was willing to do so, even though it was likely that it had more to do with the drinks than with me.

She envied Kuzeyli and the family and friends who surrounded her, even if not all of them could recognize her the way they wanted to. In Manduhai’s eyes she did not even have that. That was partly why her rivalry with Kuzeyli was so important to her. I stopped myself from extolling the truth of all Khazari being family and that I viewed her as a part of my family. She knew my stance on such but I feared that saying that then would only have hurt her, likely making her feel even lonelier.

She did not need to return to Merkit if that place was no longer her home. The Khazari plains are vast, and she was free to choose which wind or road to follow in her search for a place to belong, be that alongside the rest of us or somewhere else.

Although she was still unsteady on her legs, more of her self-confidence resurfaced and she seemed adamant that if she could not find such a place, she would simply have to make one herself. Family was clearly very important to her and so raising one seemed to appeal to her. Half-jokingly, likely due to the alcohol, she even suggested a pact of sorts.

As we returned to our lodging she grabbed a blanket on which she could comfortably fall unconscious. Meanwhile Khurdan was taken care of by his friend, tucking him in with care I had not expected from their kind. I gave him my thanks for that and went up to the loft.

There Kuzeyli was cradling Zeynep to sleep. Perhaps it was not only Manduhai whose motherly instincts had awoken. It seemed the events of the last few days had finally caught up to Zeynep. I hoped for her sake that she learned to cope with it sooner rather than later.

Kuzeyli asked me about why I had not drunk anything and if it was due to my shamanic training. In part it was. It was true that some shamans drank and laughed with the best of them, but the consensus was usually that people were more prone to come seeking your counsel if you had not fallen asleep in your own filth the night before.

She asked me if it was difficult putting up an image around others but that was not what it was. I do not pretend to be someone I am not, but being who I am is sometimes tiring. Not drinking myself to sleep was not a large concern in that sense.

But that was of course only part of the reason; I drink with friends and family, not with Hyperboreans. She asked me if I truly hated being out here, if all Hyperboreans, even these people were my enemies. The simple answer was yes.

I knew, on some level that the man below who had given us food and lodging was likely not an evil man and had likely not been part of the slavery of the Hyperboreans beyond his inaction in stopping it. But making that distinction was pointless. The same could potentially be said about some of the whoresons who raided our lands. Perhaps some were merely following orders and were good and kind deep down. They still deserved to die.

Humanizing the enemy only made things harder when the time came to strike them down. And humanizing one of them, meant humanizing all of them. Perhaps it was a cowardly way of distancing myself from viewing them in ways outside black and white, but I had seen too much of the aftermath that these people had caused to my family to view them in any other way. And cowards who would even let their own kin be sold into slavery without fighting for them would not sway me to think differently.

Next morning came and me and Zeynep went downstairs to eat breakfast. She helped to tend to my wounds while Kuzeyli went to speak with the woman she had rescued. She returned a while later having abandoned her Khazari robes for Hyperborean ones.

I could see the reasoning; their clothes were more adapted towards this climate and her clothes had been abused even before entering these lands. But the appearance was unsettling at first glance. The rest of us were offered similar attires and both the recently risen Manduhai as well as Zeynep agreed. Zeynep did so with some hesitance, understanding the usefulness of such clothes while still valuing her real clothes.

Kuzeyli explained that she could bring those clothes with her on her horse and when Zeynep asked me for confirmation Kuzeyli practically dared me to naysay her. It was strange, she was increasingly taking the role of mother for her and seemed to expect me to act as father. I would not. I had already made the decision to accept Zeynep’s choice to come with us and would not treat her any differently than I would any of the others. She was no longer a child and I would not treat her like one.

That did not mean I would be unnecessarily cruel either, she was still my little sister. Perhaps there would come a time when supplies would force us to abandon things precious to us, but for now there was little reason not to keep them as a reminder of home and faith that those clothes would be worn again.

I truly hope that they will.

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Fear and how it affects us

As soon as the sun rose, we packed up our camp and left. We thought the nightmare was over, but as it turns out… It was just biding its time. The wolves attacked up just as we were nearing the village. Ahriman spotted them, so we had time to get into defensive positions. Myself and Manduhai placed ourselves between the wolves and our two non-combatants. The wolves managed to lure us out of position. Through sheer force of will, somehow I made myself over to them, I managed to keep them safe wolves’ attacks, and take a fair few of them as well. My father’s voice rung in my ears: “Men are beasts in battle, and beasts are the most vulnerable after they attack.” My father knew little of beasts, in fairness… But I figured I’d try it out, see if it applied to wolves as well. Luckily, it did apply to wolves. Ahriman, however, seemed a bit out of his element. It is my duty to protect him, so I kept an eye on him. While he get hurt, he didn’t seem to be in lethal danger, so I kept my shield in front of the non-combatants. Duty only goes so far… I felt a responsibility towards Zeynep and Ilyana, as I felt it was due to me they were here. Even so, we survived and reached the village.

Karel, a local herbalist of sorts, came in contact with us as we neared the village, he escorted us in. And before long Ilyana had taken us to her neighbour’s house, Arkady. He seemed to be a very nice man. He let us eat and sleep in his house. He also provided us with a good amount of alcohol. Khurdan for himself seemed almost happy for ones, a friend at his side, with a huge amount of booze. On the other side of the table though, instinctually (Cause we’re idiots) myself and Manduhai started a… Drinking contest. It seems I held my booze better. She stumbled up and made her way out, Ahriman went with her. I stayed inside, and Khurdan started making less and less sense, and his friend listened to his story patiently. Arkady is a good friend… He seems to be exactly what Khurdan needed. Ilyana went home before too long, and Zeynep decided to sleep in the loft, as it was apparently the more quiet location. I went up to her, and as I got up she tackled me, hugging me. She started crying. The last few days was a lot to handle. She asked me if I was scared. Hell yeah I’m scared! Not of what she thinks though… I told her… about my past. The duality of me being a Khazari. I am both a Khazari and not a Khazari. My mind… My sensibilities are Khazari, but my image is Hyperborean, that is how people saw me. People saw me like that for so long, that somewhere deep inside, I started seeing myself that way. Maybe being here is just confusing me. Whatever I said, seemed to calm her down, and she managed to sleep, listening to my heart beat. I remained awake as she slept. Until Ahriman joined us, I spoke to him. This all… Must be hard for him. His heart is big, he cares so much. Being her, meeting people like Arkady must be very confusing for him.

The next morning, I woke up early, with Zeynep still sleeping peacefully next to me. Khurdan, for his part, was still asleep. So too was Manduhai. I went to speak to with Ilyana. I didn’t really care about any compensation… But it would be nice re-supply, fix my belt, and such. She was more than happy help. I also went by Karel, and got some herbs for Khurdan and Manduhai.

We had decided to stay for at least a day here. Partially, because Khurdan would be out for a day, anyway. But also because we sorely needed rest. As much as we are used, or whatever, to traveling for long periods at a time, our travel had been tough on all of us, we needed time to rest. Ahriman, I fear, gets no rest here, however. Specially not as something keeps coming up. Khazari brother’s and sister stuck as slaves in a hyperborean fortress? We all know our next destination…

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Temptations

The temple proved to be largely intact and good shelter from the increasing wind. It even had a basement leading to what seemed to be its catacombs but we all agreed to leave their dead alone, a curtsey they had not offered us.

We all went to bed while Khurdan and Kuzeyli stayed up to skin the wolverine. I was however woken not too long afterwards by their frantic shouts as they pulled on my beddings. They asked me if there were gods lurking in the basement. I tentatively sniffed the air, but I could at least not smell any signs of alcohol.

Had I not known Kuzeyli I would have thought she had simply worked herself up while telling stories. It was not unheard of that shamans were woken up at night by otherwise proud and noble warriors who had started jumping at shadows after sharing stories of spirits and ghosts around a campfire.

But I did know Kuzeyli and her tone was all too serious. She explained that the halls in the catacombs seemed alive, moving to something akin to a heartbeat. I made sure to wake myself properly and then head out to see this for myself.

I understood what Kuzeyli had meant, there was something akin to life in the halls of the catacombs. It was a tear, a weakness between the realms, where spirits or indeed shamans had an easier time crossing over to the other side. It was also a place where powerful sorcery could be used.

The area around it had the risk of temporarily muddying the mind of those who stayed there too long, but other than that it was largely harmless without the work of outside forces. I went back and explained the situation to the others and we decided to move our sleeping area a bit further away from the stairs to the basement and returned to sleep, with Khurdan taking the first watch.

When Khurdan woke me to take over the watch, he warned me that strange voices kept seeping out from the basement. I told him it should not be dangerous, but to be safe it would probably be best if he did not listen to them. He returned the advice back to me, and then went on to settle in for the night.

I was not worried, I had been taught to steel my mind to dark whispers. Besides, what could they possibly offer me that would have any sway over me?

Za

The voices Khurdan mentioned began making themselves known.

ra

It could well have been my mind playing tricks,

thus

but it seemed as though they were saying…

tra

Zarathustra

They, were calling out my father’s name. For what purpose? Did they seek to speak with him, to tell me he was in danger? My advice I had given to Khurdan just a short while ago began fading from my mind. I had to find out more.

But I did not trust myself, I knew I might well make a mistake while going down there. I needed to wake someone to keep watch in my stead, ideally over me as well. Kuzeyli was the logical answer, but she was exhausted from the travel and she… trusted me more than she should. If I stayed there too long, if I did something foolish, she would likely accept it and trust I knew what I was doing. I needed to rely on someone who could see things more clearly.

I woke Zeynep and briefly asked her to take my place while I returned to investigate the basement. She seemed concerned but did not argue and readied herself to wake the others should she have to.

I walked down once again and the voice kept calling out my father’s name. I reached the source, a mound in the floor, leaking out gas and fumes. I asked out loud what it wanted, what business they had with my father. It whispered something in return, but too quiet to hear.

I leaned in closer, but it was still too quiet. Once more it whispered and I got closer still. Debris, dirt and stone and blocked off the source, making it hard to hear. If I only removed them and cleared the way, surely I could…

Finally I stopped myself. Nature had sealed this place and it would be the worst kind of arrogance for me to ignore that, especially when I did not know more about the spirits of this place. I realized that I had drawn far closer to the source than I had intended and quickly took a few steps back. I was lucky my father was not there, if he had seen that he likely would have punished me severely, and he would be right to do so.

But the fact remained my father was not here, even if there were answers to be gained from this creature it would not matter. There was nothing I could do for my father from where I was, nor anything he could do for me. I remembered my conversation with Araataan; I had already made my choice and nothing would be gained by second guessing it. The voice soon faded and I returned to take over my watch, but Zeynep must have seen something in my face and offered to take my watch and I gratefully accepted.

The night passed without further incident, the voice stayed dormant and we awoke the next morning. Zeynep deemed Scar ride-worthy once more and after a quick breakfast we rode out, leaving whatever slept down there buried and forgotten.

After a few hours, Khurdan asked me to climb a tree to get the lay of the land. I saw a large Hyperborean army making camp north of us as well as the village we were heading towards. I also saw a small Khazaricamp hidden in the woods.

I went down and told the others what I had seen. After some arguing, we decided going to the Khazariwas the right thing to do. They might be in need of aid, and if not, they might know more about the area and about the large Hyperborean force.

Khurdan was displeased by the decision but led us after our brothers. We found, first their camp and not too long afterwards, we found our brothers riding along a river. They also brought with them a Hyperborean woman, bound and bundled on top of one of their horses.

This was not unheard of, especially not out here in the north. At times, it even happened in the southern lands, like in Ondar… That did not make it right. I did not care about the Hyperborean, had I had my way then we would simply slay her and be done with it. But we dishonour ourselves and what we stand for when using the same vile practices as our enemies, even if we do pretty up the language, calling them ‘guests’ or ‘wives’ who you have to keep under guard.

They said she had been part of the payment they had been given for telling the Hyperborean leader of the camp that they had seen The white stag in the area. This too shamed them. The stag was a spirit of the forest, some even call it the spirit of the hunt and as such there is no shame in hunting it to test your prowess, but to sell its whereabouts to the enemy and have him hunt it with an army…

This all seemed wrong. But it was still nothing close to Azarga’s sins and no laws had been broken. So I remained quiet and observed. Everyone seemed to be in a sour mood, we had all but wasted the day and especially Khurdan seemed to be taking it badly. Perhaps the talk of marriage had brought with it foul memories.

And then there was Kuzeyli, she had been talking with the women since we arrived, barking at each other in that strange tongue of theirs. Then she began trying to buy the woman. It was a strange thing for a Khazari to do, but her reasons I suppose were noble. They refused her offers however, claiming the woman was meant as a wife for their chieftain. I could tell that my sister felt torn, she would not draw her blade against Khazari but she did not want to leave the woman to be a slave wife.

I wished she did not feel any kinship with the woman and I did not want her to foster such things in her, it would only make things harder for her. But I would also not sit idle while my sister struggled for something she believed in, so I did what little I could.

I scared them. Or unnerved them at least. I brought forth some foul smelling herbs and capsules and began a prayer for safe travels. They did not know the intent of course and shied away at the ominous sounding words. When questioned I explained their sins and how that might well be viewed poorly by others. Man and spirit alike. It was perhaps a crude attempt, but it was enough at least for him to agree to sell the woman to Kuzeyli in hope that might appease the spirits, or at the very least, me. Kuzeyli gave away what she had, and in return the woman gained her freedom.

With that the parties parted ways and we rode back to use their old camp for the night. Khurdan still looked displeased by the whole event and arranged to camp quickly and went to bed. The rest of them did similarly as I took the first watch and then switched with Kuzeyli.

Sometime later, Kuzeyli woke me up. Much like she had the night before and I quickly understood why. Animal sounds came from behind the trees, wolves. We quickly woke the others and Khurdan swore at himself for forgetting to check if the others had dumped their supplies near their camp before leaving.

What was done was done, and now we needed a plan. Kuzeyli acted on the advice of the Hyperborean, throwing food in amongst them. After some deliberation, Khurdan seemed to agree that giving them our food might well make them less likely to attack us. It seemed like a risky proposition, especially with the Hyperboreans hunting the forests en masse. It would likely be difficult to restore our supplies. But I followed my brother’s council and we chucked our food in within them.

And so we waited, they were still out there and it was up in the air whether or not they would attack us or not. Thankfully, as dawn rose the wolves began to disperse and we could finally breath more easily again. We broke camp and set out.

Hopefully there would be no more excitement before reaching the village.

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The Importance of Faith

Khurdan led us forward, setting a good pace for us as we left the Khutan camp behind us. The snow and cold had gotten worse and so we pressed on in silence, taking only short breaks until Khurdan signaled to stop for the day and make camp.

I had been the only one who had brought a tent so we dispensed with propriety and we all sought shelter from the cold inside. All except for Khurdan who seemed unwilling to share a tent and instead settled for pelts and furs outside. Me and Zeynep kept watch, she took the first one and I the second. When she woke me to take over her watch, she warned me that Khurdan had not gotten any rest, he had simply been staring at the fire throughout the night.

I sat a bit away from him and slowly but surely he began opening up. He was hurting more than I knew. During my travels with my father I had come across men and women in despair due to losing their loved ones to Hyperborean raiders, mothers mourning the loss of their child to disease, warriors mourning fallen brothers. But there had always been something simmering beneath that hurt and sorrow, anger being the most common. While sometimes dangerous, that anger was a defense as much as anything to keep the despair from eating away at them.

I sensed no anger from Khurdan. Nor did I see anything else beyond the all-encompassing hurt. Perhaps there had been once but it was as if he had been hollowed out. He spoke of Buchijin, how he had not protected her, how without her his life had no meaning or value.

I feared I was not the right person for him to open up to. Tact had never been something I had been known for but I hoped that blunt honesty would be sufficient. I was not even able to hide the tinge of anger in my voice when I responded. He had spoken of the worth of human life as something measured in material wealth, even commending the Hyperboreans for knowing the value of a person. That was not how Khazari life was measured and he of all people should know that. The fact that we all needed him was largely irrelevant, if he sought evidence for his worth, then he should remember the people who loved him. He should remember Buchijin whose love and faith in him and his worth remained even after her death. No man could hope for any truer validation of his worth.

He did not respond to that but he did finally tear his gaze from the fire and instead looked out into the night. He nodded, maybe to me or to himself and settled into sleep at last. I could only hope my words had reached him.

The rest of the night went by without incident and I was joined by the others in the morning. We let Khurdan anf Zeynep sleep in while we prepared and after breakfast we set out again. Khurdan broke off for a short while to go hunting, leaving us to ride forward on our own.

It was strange, in truth the landscape and terrain was not that different from what I was used to during winter, but as soon as Khurdan left I became increasingly aware of how we had left Khazari lands and with that realization I became distrusting of my surroundings. As if enemies lurked around each corner or the land itself had been fouled by the proximity of the Hyperboreans. It was a childish fancy that passed, but I was still more on edge than usual but despite this, or indeed perhaps because of that, I did not notice the blanket of ice below me which led Scar to take a wrong step, spraining his leg.

I dismounted and with Zeynep’s help we managed to stabilize the leg somewhat. It was at that moment we saw helmets in the distance. It could well be Khazari border patrols, but the fewer people who knew where we were going the better, so we decided to try and avoid them, shifting our route somewhat.

Khurdan joined us soon afterwards, and after we explained what happened, as well as the Hyperborean attacks that had happened, he suggested a more secure route that would keep us well away from any potential Hyperboreans returning from their raid.

We travelled onwards, but Scar was in no shape to be ridden so had to be led on foot. Thankfully my companions kindly offered to take turns to lead Scar and so the added burden was distributed amongst us.

As the sun began to set, Khurdan became increasingly more excited. It was in no way blatant, but compared to his previous melancholic demeanor he was practically glowing. Finally he stopped and pointed towards the source of his excitement. The skeletal remains of an enormous creature, a ‘Mammoth’ Kuzeyli called it, although I am unsure if that is it’s true name or simply what the Hyperboreans call it.

With some measure of pride, Khurdan told us about it, how few people knew about it and that such a creature was sure to have strong spirits guarding the site. As I got closer I felt… nothing. There were no spirits that had taken up residence here, and I could sense to signs that they ever had. I made no comment on this and instead nodded silently to Khurdan’s explanation, leaving his imagination and faith to reaffirm his vision of the place rather than my own.

Khurdan had spent many nights hiding out in the woods before we met him and he decided it was well past time to get rid of the muck and grime, so he erected a ‘sauna’, a heating station inspired by the shamans’ tents, although lacking the herbs and spiritual cleansing of such places. Instead, this seemed focused on a physical rather than a spiritual cleansing.

He stripped down and washed himself off with the snow and then quickly stepped inside, offering the rest of us to join him. I was keen to learn more of Khutan customs and more importantly to finally rinse myself completely of Azarga and his men’s blood.

It was a nice enough experience, more so because Khurdan’s mood had continued to be cheerful, or perhaps more accurately, cheerful in comparison to the previous night and was something I wanted to encourage as best I could. He told me of other saunas, including Hyperborean buildings dedicated to it. I was not surprised, of course the Hyperboreans would take a natural and intimate custom and trap it inside walls of stone and make it another show of their opulence. I did not comment on it and instead simply let Khurdan talk about the things he still loved.

Afterwards Khurdan went to bed and the women went in afterwards. They were loud and immediately began fighting although I suppose I’ve come to understand that is simply the nature of women. Zeynep did not stay long and left Manduhai and Kuzeyli to sit beside me by the fire.

She asked me about the ‘Mammoth’s spirit’, having seen through my act. She wondered why I had not told him the truth. I explained that we all believe in different things, things that more often than not are wholly separate from the spirits. Such faith is often the strongest and the one that brings people the most comfort. Faith is not just about worship or showing respect to that which is and the gods and spirits that can hear us. It is also about drawing strength and comfort in the things important to you.

I smiled as Zeynep clearly did not take my words as gospel but thought it through herself and eventually agreed. She even deigned to qualify me as not stupid. The conversation drifted to her decision to come with us and she almost pleadingly told me that she would be useful and not a burden to us.

I still worried about her inability to defend herself, but she too had made a choice and had already proved her worth when treating Scar. She told me that she had no intention of becoming a warrior like Manduhai and Kuzeyli and had the good sense to know that her best chance of surviving was to avoid fighting all together. She did surprise me however as she brought up the death of Azarga and his men. She told me how in her I eyes, I had slaughtered them like cattle. She told me she wanted to learn how.

I fought to keep the content of my stomach from escaping. So that was how it had looked like from an observer. It was likely an accurate description. I schooled my expression as best I could before meeting her gaze. I knew she understood the weight of what she was asking but I did anyway. It was too important not to.

I did not teach her much. I did not teach her how to fight and certainly not any of the dances. I effectively taught her how to murder someone. There were no major revelations, I told her where to cut and the importance of studying your enemy, to find his weaknesses and to Exploit them. After I had told her what I felt comfortable with passing on, she went to bed and I continued to keep the first watch.

And so the night passed much like the last. Bad weather was heading our way so we ate breakfast and got ready in a hurry. Khurdan knocked on the mammoth for luck and so I and even Zeynep echoed the ritual. Our talk the previous night had left its mark it seemed, time would tell what effect the second half of our conversation would have.

It was a hard journey. It was a steep and rocky path where we could not ride our horses and the cold wind blew in our faces the entire way. Finally we reached our destination, the abandoned ruins of a Hyperborean village.

We split up to find any largely intact buildings where we could find shelter. Me and Manduhai found what seemed to have been a temple for one of their fertility gods. It was clear that whatever god might have once lived there had long since left and all that remained was cold stone.

We began setting up camp inside when we heard Zeynep shout in the distance. She had gone with Kuzeyli to search for lodging and neither of them had come back. We began hurrying out but soon found Kuzeyli and Zeynep walking towards us. They had been attack by a wolverine, the remains of which Kuzeyli carried on her shoulders. Kuzeyli had a few more bruises and her armour had taken a nasty hit but thanks to her protection both she and Zeynep were uninjured.

With the day’s hardships over and a prized animal pelt to show for it, we settled in to rest inside the temple.

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The Scary Basement

We had found an abandoned village that was mostly run down. I had had a scuffle with a wolverine, protecting Zeynep, where the belt of my armour was damaged. I repaired it as best as I could, while we were preparing our camp in the one building we found that was mostly intact, a church. The church had a basement, so I went with Khurdan to investigate. The basement was pitch black… I was terrified. What I saw was the the entire room beating like a heart. I quickly went up and got Ahriman on the case, cause in my mind that was some spiritual-demonic something. I played it down a bit for him, partly to not have Zeynep and Manduhai freakout. Manduhai is likely less of scaredy cat than me, though…. Did I say that outloud?! No. Good. As it turns out, spiritual was potentially the right word. It seems that this kind of natural occurrence is used by shamans as to easier… Enter the spirit world, or whatever it is that they do. Regardless, it made me feel much safer, and I was able to sleep.

The next day the plan was to reach the village, but when we got close we noticed a lot of activity surrounding the city. A big hyperborean entourage was camping outside the village. We also managed to spot what we thought might be a group of Khazari in the forest, as well as another, smaller, hyperborean camp. This seemed like a powder keg waiting to blow up in our faces, so when the discussion began on whether or not to seek out the Khazari I wholeheartedly agreed with it. Not only because they may need help, as Ahriman said, but also because it would give us valuable information about what is going on.

When we caught up to them, we found that they were traveling with a hyperborean captive. They had BOUGHT this person. My rage boiled, but I sheethed it. “I will not strike a Khazari brother without provocation.”, I repeated in my mind. If not for Ahriman’s presence… I just may have, I don’t know. I spoke to the hyperborean, she had been bargained for, after the Khazari gave the big entourage information regarding a white stag. She said something about monetary compensation… I honestly didn’t care, I was already in the mindset of freeing her. Although, there being money in the backdrop did make it easier to negotiate. I… May have done it again, my grim fatalism, as my father kept jokingly calling it, may have been a bit more intimidating than I had planned. Regardless, I tossed my sack of coins to them, as he started talking about amounts. How much was in it…? I forget… Clearly more than he wanted, given his reaction. Shit… Partly to cover up my thinking about the amounts in the bag, I went straight over to her and cut her loose.

We returned to the camp where the Khazari had stayed earlier. I could swear my father had told me something about hunting… Camps… Old camps… I don’t know. Khurdan seemed distracted, but we all trusted him. During my watch I woke up Khurdan. This wasn’t a good time… But out here, there is never a good time. Selfishly, I wanted to know about my cousin. At the same time, I often saw my elder sister speak to people who were hurting. There is a key way to speak to people who are hurting, I tried to emulate her as best as I could… I think it helped. By focusing on what she meant for him, and the way she opened his eyes… I think it helped.

The night was far from over, however, wolves came stalking. I heard my father’s voice echo in my mind: “When leaving an old camp you intend not to return to, don’t worry too much about cleaning the old food leftovers… As wild animals are attracted to them, so they may just got there, instead of to you.” Shit. We tossed out all of our food to them, then I tried to scare them off, I failed. They started circling, but we closed ranks, and gave them no opening. Eventually, they left. We did not resume sleeping, however.

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The Giddy Feeling

As we left the Khutan behind us I started feeling a bit odd. I figured maybe I had eaten something bad, or something, so I ignored it. Though, while Khurdan did not speak much, he had explained that we were going to visit Hyperborean villages. The feeling grew in me… Was I… Nervous about meeting Hyperboreans? What do they even talk about? “Hey, how’s slavery going!” No, that’s stupid… “Gee, weather sure is cold! Not that we mind…” Wow, shut up, Kuzeyli! I was so deep in thought that I missed that we had spotted some people. Maybe they were Hyperboreans. Luckily, they were quite far away, and didn’t seem to either spot us, or care about us.

Khurdan took us to a resting place, that seemed somewhat sacred. The shelter was a skeleton of a mammoth. I only knew of these creatures from my mother’s stories, old Hyperborean children’s stories. Khurdan began setting up a sauna, or whatever he called it. He set up the skin from his hunting earlier in the day, and set up… Warms stones in it. While inside, you pour water on the stones, and they produce steam. It was very comfortable. Normally, I think I would have been wiser about who to challenge… But, for whatever reason I thought it was a good idea for me, one of Hyperborean blood, who almost boils to death during the summer, to challenge a southern Khazari… Manduhai won this battle.

Zeynep joined us in the sauna. She got me talking about Baatar. From what I told her, with Manduhai chiming in every so often, she concluded that Baatar was a bully. But that’s not entirely true. He wasn’t a bully, his heart was bigger than most… But, I can see how he could appear that way. Further into our conversation I felt myself trapped between the two. As Manduhai is a warrior, so I understand her lifeview very easily… Fighting is all I can do. But… I agree, that solutions gained through fighting tends to not solve the problem. But the fairytale land Zeynep wishes we lived in, does not exist. But, maybe… Just maybe, one day it could. I wish I could tell Zeynep that the world is the way she wants it to be, but one has to realistic… This is a brutally violent world.

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