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.