We continued our talk with Grandmother Kiryat and after coming to an agreement that we were family and could trust one another, we began preparations for the vulture tribe to rejoin the rest of the Khazari after their self-imposed exile. They had chosen to remove themselves from the outside world, to keep the cult, The Black Sun cult as they called it, locked away with them, as they waged war against them. Now, that it became clear that they had failed to contain the spread of the corruption, they had no reason to stay in exile and along with the constant threat of the unnatural beasts called ‘yetis’ that surrounded them on top of the mountains, I suggested that they should leave the mountains. It was decided that they would send a representative, a ‘diplomat’ to Big Brother Aldin as a first sign of good faith.
It is my hope that they will heed my advice but inevitably it will be up to them. Mountain dwellers or not, they are still Khazari, they are still free men and women and the choice is theirs to make.
Kuzeyli had her wounds treated by their wise women and herbalists and after it was clear that she was in no immediate danger I began fulfilling my duties. First was the removal of the immediate filth left within the cave. It would later have to be cleaned and have incense burn away the impurities but first myself and Manduhai hauled the slain Hyperboreans out of the cave.
Then we began scouring the land to find the fallen as well as any potential survivors. Two Merkits were found still alive although badly injured but the rest were all dead, either killed by enemies or by the Great bear. The injured were sent to the Kongar camp, as it was now the only safe and still operational camp in the area besides the vulture tribe’s one, while we carried the dead back to the Merkit camp. I helped with some of the preparations for their send off, but respecting Manduhai’s position as closest of kin, left most of the procedures to her.
Then came the cleaning out of the Hyperboreans. We took from them anything that could be of use and then they were dragged into the marshes, left there in the dark to be forgotten.
This took a lot of time and effort and several days passed. Finally, Kuzeyli was deemed healthy enough to move around and she could fulfill the duty she was sent out to do. The battles and her first encounter with the world of spirits had taken a toll on her, both physically and spiritually, but she did not hesitate to fulfill her duties. I lead her to the Ondar cairn stones along with Moonhawk and we left her to walk up the stairs herself and give her respects. She stayed there in silence a long time and after she returned, some of the old steely resolve from before had returned in her eyes. It was a good sign.
She had done what she had planned to do and would return to Ondar as soon as the Vulture tribe diplomat arrived. I was unsure how long my duties would keep me here but we agreed that if our paths strayed we would meet again and she promised that I would have her sword beside me when the time would come for me to look for my father. She was a good friend, for all the horrors the Hyperborans had brought with them I was grateful that at least it had led me to get to know her as well as Moonhawk, Manduhai and the others.
Me and Moonhawk went to give our respects to the Merkits while Kuzeyli returned to the Kongar tribe to await the diplomat. We arrived as the Merkit fire was already blazing and the air filled with the smell of the fallen as their spirits passed on. We stayed there next to Manduhai and she lamented that the Merkit fallen here had not been ready to fight. This was a holy place where people were sent to learn and to teach, to teach the young what it meant to be khazari. Instead they died.
Yet Manduhai had survived. She was a warrior and had not been sent there to learn or to teach, she had been sent to be out of the way and unable to seek out revenge for the death of her uncle. It was understandable, but it pained me to hear the depths of the chasm between the two sisters. I hoped that in time it could be healed.
I asked, careful not to cause offense why they had gone into the valley in the first place. It would seem that it was due to a well-intended albeit misguided attempt by Big Brother Ögedei’s nephew, Khasim, to save the Ondar people and gain their respect. We stared into the fire and the result of that order. Manduhai argued that she was in no place to question Khasim’s decision. Her words confused me; surely she could have spoken up? It was all well and right to listen to one’s superior but she was Khazari, no one had the right to silence her right to voice her opinion. Had things changed so much amongst the Merkit that that was no longer the case? Was this another effect of them embracing that Thrice cursed Tarim?
Before I could question her further, sounds of a Khazari war party was heard across the plains. But it was not the Ondar reinforcements that we assumed, but one from the Merkit, led by Big Brother Ögedei himself.
We walked up to meet him and his soldiers. There must have been nearly 100 of them, all itching for a fight. We told them what had happened and while they were clearly disappointed to hear that the immediate threat of the Hyperboreans had already been taken care of, Ögedei, when we mentioned the two who had gotten away from us, Ögedei sent 30 men to hunt down them and any other potential remnant that might remain.
I and Manduhai explained as best we could what had transpired, without mentioning the gold or the painted cave walls. I was thankful for Manduhai that she understood the importance of keeping it secret, although I got the impression that she would not have told her king regardless. There seemed to be no great love between the two.
As we explained the return of the Vulture tribe, as if on cue, Kuzeyli alongside a tall man in vulture clothing, undoubtedly the diplomat, appeared heading towards us. With my meeting with the king over, I returned to the valley to begin the final and most important task, to restore the cave and hopefully, the seal.
I had already taken care of most of the crude aspects, the bloods and guts of the enemy as well as that of Kuzeyli had been scrubbed away. The physical cleansing had been taken care of, but the spiritual one would be far more difficult. In truth I doubted I would be much use, I had not learned the correct prayers or the right words but I lit the herbs and incense and spoke what was in my heart as I began to work.
I do not know when it happened; I was rebuilding one of the cairn stones when I began hearing voices, whispers just out of ear shot. This had happened before, always the same thing, whispers I could not hear, shapes I could not see. As my heart began to sink at once again failing to cross the barrier, one voice cut through the others. A voice crying out in pain, loss and anger
The sound was coming from the mouth of the cave. Startled, I rushed after it and there I saw a woman, clad in bear fur, curled up on all four, weeping. As I approached she turned to me, gazing up at me with pitch black eyes. It was difficult to determine her age, she appeared old and youthful all at once. She threw an old pair of bear claws at my feet as if to confirm her identity as the bear we met a few days prior. She mourned the loss of so many of our kin, kin she had killed in her blind rage. She recognized me as the one who had reached out to her before she had a chance to add Kuzeyli amongst them. She seemed grateful.
She named herself Araataan and she recognized me as an apprentice and appeared willing to teach me. So long had I gone without being given guidance and the chance of being taught by an elder spirit was an incredible honour. But, there was something that seemed off putting, something that frightened me. She told me that she had felt my rage, that I would need to let that rage free and then I would know what it meant to be truly free. To be truly Khazari.
She mourned the dead, but she did not feel at all guilty over having slain her kin. She felt no more responsibility than that of the blistering summer heat or the limb numbing winter, or a blood crazed predator. It was simply her nature. She told me to leave behind my humanity and be what Khazari meant once upon a time. To be like her, truly free.
Much of what she said echoed things taught to me by my father, but from a different perspective. He told me of the duties of a shaman, the importance of control of one’s self, of not being controlled by one’s emotions but to always be free to do what one thought was right.
She told me to rid myself of duties, the importance of letting one’s emotions run free and unchained and to always be free to do what one wanted.
Both were forces of nature in their own right, but their perspectives were so different. Different yet similar, like different seasons. Both were likely right. For them, but what about me?
For a moment I felt it. I was the endless grassy plains, the bird, the horse, the wind and the sun. All of it at once. But I was alone. That was the price this path would cost me. Brother to everyone, brother to no one. That was what it meant to be a shaman.
She seemed to sense my conflicting emotions and the meeting drew to a close with a promise that we would meet again and, if she felt so inclined, she would teach me.
I awoke. I was unaware of ever falling asleep but around me the cave was back to its original state; even the seal protecting the gold had been restored. Had I done this or had it been the spirits? My mind was hazy yet at the same time clearer than ever before. The gold, which previously held some temptation for me was now mere pointless metal.
I still did not know if Araataan’s freedom was the freedom I truly wanted, but she was a teacher and I was a student in desperate need of tutelage. I was grateful to her, and I am not ashamed to say it, frightened by her, but that does not mean I need to conform to her way of life. I will learn what I can from her and then choose my own path to freedom.
I made my way out of the cave on unsteady legs, walking on two legs suddenly feeling alien to me. As I was leaving I saw tufts of fur and a broken off bear claw where Araataan had thrown her old bear claws in my vision. I picked up the gift she had left for me, and then began my way back to camp.
As I arrived dawn was slowly breaking. I was greeted by one of the Ondar men who had been on alert to monitor people going in and out, which drew the attention of Moonhawk who seemed to have been worrying about me since I never returned. Perhaps because my mind was still reeling from the experience, that simple act kindness and concern struck a chord within me. I had indeed found good friends.
I was soon reunited with Kuzeyli as well and from above the rooftop, came the voice of the Vulture tribe Diplomat; Shigatse. He was an inquisitive sort who was genuinely interested to learn of our ways and happy to share his own. We sat down to eat our butter and breakfast had never tasted as good.
We rode on soon afterwards to meet up with Manduhai who would be riding in the same direction. The travels went well and with Moonhawk’s guidance, made good progress. The evening was less peaceful, although Moonhawk sang admirably songs of heroism and acts valour amongst our people, the tension between the women was palpable.
After being confronted about it, Kuzeyli admitted that she suspected or at least had suspected that the Merkit had been the ones that poisoned Uncle Baatar. I stepped in; voicing the suspicions I’ve had since I learned of what had happened. I told them that I believed that Bataar had been murdered by the cult. I could of course not say anything for certain, but the horrible symptoms described matched those of other victims of the cult. Honorable brother Shigatse was finally able to confirm my suspicions, identifying a poison as one made by herbs found atop the mountain.
After having said that much, it was only right that I also mentioned that Kuzeyli had originally been a logical suspect. She was The Northerner, the outsider and someone who had been in a perfect position to commit the crime. I could see the hurt in her eyes, even behind that stoic veneer. It pained me, but at the time it seemed like the most likely explanation, any other explanation would mean that it would have been one of ‘our own’, be it Ondar or Merkit… That was then and any suspicion I had towards Kuzeyli is long since done away with and I could only apologize for having harbored such thoughts.
With that we went to sleep and so we continued our journey. It was largely uneventful beyond that except for the final day, as our supplies began to run low, Moonhawk felled, what he thought was a wild goat.
It was not until we were approached by a shepherd, returning from brother Aldin’s coronation that we were informed that we were eating his goat. It had recently escaped and he was clearly dismayed. I found it all rather amusing, a series of bad luck on behalf of my poor brother, but it was clear that he did not view it the same way and wanted some compensation. In truth I had problem seeing things from his point of view; we had done nothing wrong, it was he and his people who had let their animals escape. Was my lack of guilt for taking this goat what Araataan had meant when she told me to take and do what I wanted? I did not like the idea of stealing from family so offered what I had on hand, treated meat taken from the invaders and fairly valuable. It was meant as a sign of good will and I told them that Brother Aldin would likely compensate further should they ask, seeing as how this was a diplomatic mission. It seemed as though my younger brother was not convinced and he retreated back to his own camp malcontent. A pity.
We then travelled back to Ondar and met with Aldin. We explained what had happened in the camp and introduced Shigatse. It would seem as though the vulture tribe had taken my suggestion to rejoin the Khazari to heart, and were planning on coming down the mountains and claiming the territory around the Valley of fire. This made me somewhat uneasy, the thought of a single clan claiming a holy site like the Valley as their territory was concerning and it was unlikely the other clans would agree to it, not to mention how this would affect the fire keeping traditions. It is true that they had guarded the cave’s secrets but claiming sacred land for themselves would certainly not go smoothly. But this was not for me to decide, it would likely fall to the elder shamans and clan leaders, so I held my tongue.
There was also the concern that claiming the valley and its surrounding territory would also mean taking parts of Ondar and Kongar land. But this too was not a matter for me to weigh in on as a neutral party unless asked to, so once more I held my tongue.
Much had happened here as well. My brother was now crowned king, but my friend and brother Tobur never arrived for the funeral or the coronation. Search parties had been sent out but so far to no avail. Even little brother Tolui had been sent off to search for his brother in Aldin’s place. Rumors were being thrown around, some even claimed that Tobur had left Ondar to join up with a man called Borchim, who were uniting the small clans to the north. Kuzeyli was quick to say that Tobur would never do something like that but I was not so sure. Tobur valued the open plain more than anyone I knew and I could well imagine Tobur siding with a worthy Khan if that allowed him more freedom than he would have as the brother of the Ondar Khan and the duties such a title might bring him. What did concern me however was him not attending his father’s funeral. Tobur was an honorable man and would not neglect such an important duty easily.
This latest rumor caused further unease in that Tobur and thus Ondar siding with Borchim might be viewed as an act of aggression, seeing as how Borchim had also been recruiting Nagalai men to join him. It could even lead to war.
It was at this moment, when Tobur’s loyalty to Ondar had been brought into question that Manduhai who had remained silent for most of the audience, insinuated that perhaps Tobur had been the one to poison Uncle Bataar.
I was of course insulted by her insinuation but I knew she was just as eager to find the culprit as Kuzeyli. She however did not know Tobur and did not know him as the pious man that he was. As I was about to correct her, Kuzeyli stepped in for me and was… less understanding about the insult. Kuzeyli who had previously been apologetic throughout their previous arguments now went on the attack. It was right and proper that she would defend her brother but it became apparent that soon it might not just be words thrown between the two. As they in chorus asked me to side with them, I once more found it prudent to hold my tongue.
Instead, I turned the conversation back to Brother Aldin who was blissfully unaware of the hidden accusation of his brother. I volunteered to seek out Borchim as a neutral party and while there try and also convince the Nagalai that Ondar were not siding against them. Kuzeyli, Manduhai and Moonhawk would go with me as bodyguards and representatives of the different tribes, while Brother Shigatse stayed behind to talk with Brother Aldin.
I offered Aldin the adorned helmet of the swine Crahask as a small present for his coronation, and then we began preparations for our journey as well as distributing what we took from the Hyperboreans. A few days passed and we rode onwards and I was once again reunited with Scar.
We rode North, and although Moonhawk bravely tried to ease the tension through stories and song, it was clear that a line had been crossed between the two sisters and it would take time for that divide to heal, if it would at all.
After a few days we came upon a small farmstead that had clearly been attacked and ransacked. The farmers there were clearly frightened and on edge and as we approached, Kuzeyli’s unfortunately choose that moment to take off her helmet as a sign of good faith to greet them. The farmers did not see it that way, they only saw another Hyperborean that had come to enslave them. They attacked.
They were no warriors and while some of them hefted bows, no arrows hit the mark and we were able to convince them that we had come in peace and that Kuzeyli were one of us. They told us of how a band of Hyperborean soldiers had raided them the night before and taken food and supplies. They had not even bothered to try and enslave them, they had simply slain all those who would stand in their way. They seemed to be deserters and carried their wounded with them.
We decided that we could not let that band of raiders be left alone and so we followed after them and after tracking them for about a day, we finally caught up. Their pace was slow due to them caring for their injured, an act that initially surprised me but I supposed that even a viper cared some for its own kind. They had made camp across a lake with four men on lookout for any pursuers.
My good friend and sister Kuzeyli made a curious suggestion that I run a wide arc across the field around them so that I could attack them from behind. My sister’s faith in my ability was heartwarming, but at times it seemed as though she thought I was one of the great spirits themselves and not just a man of flesh and blood. Instead we decided to simply charge them and dispatch them as quickly as possible. It was still of course risky, but none of us wanted to leave them a chance to kill any more of our brothers and sisters.
And so it began, Kuzeyli and Manduhai charged on ahead, while I tried to keep up on foot. The enemies’ crossbowmen focused on Kuzeyli, she and her horse weathered it well and finally we were amongst them, We struck as one, fast and hard; three dead enemies in as many strikes. The dance continued and with it more of them fell. But one of them did not die easily, their captain had managed to pin Kuzeyli to the ground with a spear thrust in to her, right below her shoulder. Just as I was about to come to her aid, she roared her defiance and in a desperate attack, slew her would be slaver with one swoop of her blade. Indeed, a true Khazari. With a smile on my face I ran to Manduhai and helped her dispatch the remaining combatants surrounding her. Kuzeyli’s wrath had not been quenched however and she stormed after the last of them, a fleeing coward who she stabbed, again and again. It was clear that the encounter had shaken her and she let out some of that strain on the Hypoerborean.
Meanwhile, Moonhawk had called upon reinforcements using his singing who arrived just in time to see Kuzeyli vent her rage on the raider. I recognized the head rider of the war party, Sister Ay-demir. She announced her presence that she had come in the name of her husband, Khan Tobur.