Steel and Silk

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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Judgements

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.

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The White Ape

I continued my conversation with sister Sabriye, I told her of the valley of fire and the Hyperborean attack, about the vulture tribe and my meeting with Araataan. She shared her wisdom with me freely for which I was grateful although I admit that her revelations about my father and Borchim was still taking up most of my thoughts.

During the conversation a boy went past me and told me that someone needed to talk with me alone and to return there during the evening. The boy didn’t say anything else and went on about his work. I didn’t pay it too much thought, and continued speaking with Sabriye.

Finally our conversation came to an end and we went separate ways. I joined the others at the campfire. Moonhawk was telling stories but despite my brother’s talent for it, my mind was still preoccupied with other matters.

My father had confided in Borchim, but not to me. He had trusted him above his son. In truth it was not entirely surprising but it was frustrating all the same. More importantly, Tobur had killed him before he had been able to realize what my father had entrusted him with. Was Tobur the man to realize it in Borchim’s stead? Perhaps.

So my mind wandered until it was time for the meeting. I excused myself and went alone to the edge of the camp. There I met Zeynep, Borchim’s daughter. Sabriye had insinuated that Zeynep and her mother were practically kept as prisoners while Tobur decided what to do with them.

She was nervous, fearful that I had been followed. After I assured her that I had come alone, she told me that she knew some of what my father had told Borchim and that she wanted my help. Her explanation drew short however as, as fear and panic struck her. I turned and immediately understood her reaction. Slowly, silently, a white ape rose from the lake.

I wanted to run. I wanted to call for reinforcement, to call for Tobur, Kuzeyli…for my father. As fear began constricting its tendrils around me, I felt the amulet my father had given me hang heavy on my shoulders. I remembered why I had spent all of these years training. It was for the sake of being able to protect my people against creatures like this. I charged at it, distracting it, and gave my sister time to escape. But she didn’t move, fear had already taken hold of her. I faltered in my dance and the ape moved; far faster than something that large had any right to and picked me up in one of its oversized hands as if I was nothing but a small child. I was powerless as it squeezed the life from me, but then it turned its gaze to Zeynep and immediately lost interest in me and tossed me to be crushed by one of the trees.

I managed to readjust the angle and was able to land relatively safely. The creature was still intent on the girl and she was still too afraid to move. It thought I was dead or otherwise not a threat to it. It underestimated me, that was likely my only chance. I lunged at it again, this time pleading her to flee back to camp. Finally she began hurrying away.

I struck, but despite seemingly hurting it, I was still not able to fully pierce its hide. It was cautious of me now, my one advantage seemingly forfeited. As I heard Zeynep’s running feet, I knew that at least if I died there, she would be safe and I would die free with steel in hand.

But such thoughts were cowardice, excuses to avoid the challenge ahead. I had been taught better that that. Once more I planted myself In front of it, daring it to ignore me a second time. We clashed and this time, finally my knives hit true and tore into him. With that, the unnatural intelligence I had seen in its eyes faded and the interest in my sister with it. Now it was worried about its own survival. It shrugged me off and made to escape into the forest.

Cursing I went after it, it could not be allowed to survive. But my strength was spent; I stumbled as it hurried away into the forest. I simply sat where I had fallen, cursing myself for failing to kill it while slowly realizing I had actually survived.

I don’t know how long I sat there but eventually I heard Manduhai and Kuzeyli approach. Manduhai had no intent to mince words and without ceremony dragged me up on her back and carried me back to camp.

I met with Tobur and his trusted men, along with Kuzeyli , Manduhai and Zeynep, who had gotten away and had warned the camp. I explained what had happened, along with my suspicion that the creature had been after Zeynep, not me. This caused some commotion and so I offered to take the mother and child as part of my retinue. I thought it could be a way to help my brother in what seemed like a delicate matter as well as a way of keeping the potential targets close at hand.

That and in truth I was not fond of the way it seemed like they were practically treated as captives. Zeynep stopped me however, telling me I should only take her. I assumed she knew something I did not so agreed.

Then Tobur told me what he and Kuzeyli had talked about. He explained that he meant for Kuzeyli to fight as his champion and free clan after clan amongst the Nagalai until finally the Nagalai would have to disband. In some ways I understood my brother, brother Kushkash was a poor ruler and had a good deal to answer for when it came to what he had allowed to happen to his people. There were many who served him who wished to be free of their oaths for this very reason.

Had Tobur said that he would take Kushkash’s place as guard against the Hyperboreans, perhaps I would have given him my blessing. But he showed no interest in ruling, he merely wanted to make them free tribes. It would likely spell the doom, not only for the Nagalai but for the Khazari people as a whole.

We are dependent on the Nagalai as a bulwark against potential invasions. Without them, the Hyperboreans could plunder and enslave us with impunity. He used Khazari customs and laws against us by following them by the letter and not the spirit that they were intended to be followed by.

It is true that no Khazari should be a slave to anyone, least of all their own kind, no matter how important they are to their brothers, but that does not negate oaths of loyalty, traditions and the need for unity. There had to be another way.

I could only see one other option open to me; to continue my father’s work, only without the tribes Borchim had gathered. The first step in that case would be to head into Hyperborea and rescue Big sister Jeshid. It was the only way to preserve the Nagalai without a war.

Tobur would have nothing to do with the idea and wanted to go through with his original plan. In a fit of anger, I told him that I would go alone in that case. I would do whatever I could, even if the chance of success was minimal. To my surprise Kuzeyli said that she would go with me.

Tobur had offered her what must have been everything she had always dreamed of: a place to belong, a family who would love and accept her. So then why follow me in what was almost certainly a fool’s errand? We were friends yes, but we shared no greater bond than that of her and Tobur. The likely explanation then was the promise she gave me back in the valley, where she told me that she would follow me in my search for my father and the fight against the cult.

If that was the reason, then a better man would perhaps have convinced her out of it, told her that she had no such obligation. But I could not afford to do so. The truth remained that this was more important than any of us and if I wanted to succeed I needed all the help I could get.

Even Zeynep latched on to the idea and promised to guide us to a nearby Khutan clan who might be able to help us. Tobur rejected the idea outright as suicidal and Manduhai did not seem particularly optimistic about it either. Tobur left the tent in anger. It was the first time harsh words had been exchanged between us while not in jest and it left a bitter taste in my mouth.

I could not blame them for being skeptical but in my pain addled mind, this seemed like the only way forward. I could only hope that I would come to my senses come morning. And with that I slowly drifted into unconscious sleep.

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The Brilliant Plan

In the morning Ay-demir came by and asked for strong swimmers. Honestly, I felt restless. I don’t know the waters here, but I knew what we were looking for, and I’d call myself a pretty good swimmer. Besides, the lake is big, and the comb is small… It’d take a miracle to find it, regardless. Only us women were diving for the comb, however guards were close by. Zeynep was also diving, as she was the one who had seen her father toss the comb. She pointed roughly where he stood. I picked up a pebble, took his place, and threw it, as far as I could. I am not a strong man, but I am a strong woman, so I figured it’d give us a decent area to start in, if nothing else.

The woman started giving up one after another. I cannot blame them, the waters were cold, and the currents strong. My shoulder still ached from the stab some days prior. But, as we neared the time limit I dove down, thinking this might well be my last dive. I dug around in the dirt, and there it was… Something metallic. I quickly rose to the surface to alert the other divers, and made my way to the shore. Ahriman was already waiting for us, so I handed the comb to him and he told me we were going after the ape. Technically, he asked me if I was coming along. But he knew I would not decline the hunt.

We tracked the ape to a cave. We were creeping on it, when seemingly out of nowhere, a bolder comes hurtling towards us. I react, tossing myself, shield first, into the bolder. The shield shattered, but I did not hesitate… I was weak against the bear, but that would not happen now. I lunged towards it. It picked me up, and was about to throw me into the wall, but Ahriman slew the beast. His dance, or whatever he called it, is very effective.

The challenges of that particular day was not over, however. Sometimes the grim fatalism of my blond ancestors come in handy, as much as it pains me to say… Interrogating someone I have come to think of as kin… Feeling anger and disappointment for the sibling who always treated me as kin, no matter the situation… These things would bring greater beings to tears, but not the cursed blonds… It reminded me of my last memories of my father. She stared off into the east, with a stoneface… Saying that she couldn’t put it off any further. She said that she was sad she had to leave me, but I couldn’t see any sadness in her face. Now I know better. I had Ahriman go through Tobur’s things, as Tobur would not trust just anyone to do it, and having Ahriman be part of it would calm him down and his people. But Tobur… Sometimes even the most honourable of men can turn into beasts, it seems… He was beating Zeynep, as she had suggested the search on Shulami’s things. But Zeynep was under Ahriman’s protection, therefor she is under mine, also. She wanted to leave with us in the morning. Perhaps my anger towards Tobur made me speak of turn, but I told her that if she wanted to leave with us, that she would.

Manduhai… I met with her, as she wanted to settle things before I go and kill myself in the north. If you asked me now, I don’t know what I had planned during our meeting. All I knew was that I was leaving the next morning. But as I looked at her… I felt that we needed her. And this was bigger than our petty squabbles. Of course, I could not say that to her face. Even I have enough tact to not call the death of a family member petty. To my surprise, she accepted. And thus our journey together continued.

We left the next morning, towards the lands of Khutan. I knew little of the Khutan, except that they rarely stayed in one place for long. But, it seems that Moonhawk did not have a relative in the camp we were headed for, but I did. Baatar’s niece, my cousin, was married to the chieftain. On the way I decided to check how much Zeynep knew about fighting. It turns out, very little. I taught her a few things to help her defend herself.

As we neared the Khutan camp, we spotted a fire. The village wasn’t burning, however it seemed a funeral pyre was burning. As I entered the camp I found out that it was my cousins pyre. I went up to the pyre, to pay my respects. The chieftain, Azarga, seemed to be in mourning, and did not approve of my presence. He had his younger brother, Vardak, watch over me. The youngest, Esugan, was quite a bit more pleasant. He invited us to his tent, and told us what had happened. My cousin, Buchijin, had run away with one of their hunters, Khurdan. What he said about her death did not add up. Khurdan kidnapped her, and shot her in the back. It didn’t take a great mind to figure out that someone else had killed her, the chief and his brothers were on the top of my list. So I confronted Vardak, he was not too happy with the accusation, and left to speak with his brother. As Esugan realised that I could speak Hyperborean, and he often trades with them, he could confirm my suspicions without the brothers knowing. We offered to aid in the search for Khurdan. Esugan left to speak to his brother. We were allowed to aid in the morning, for now we slept in Esugan’s tent. I decided to stay awake, as the middle brother made his intention of killing me very clear.

The morning after we got up, and left the tent to aid with the hunt. Azarga made it very clear that he respected Ahriman’s shamanistic abilities, but had barely acknowledges that the rest of us were even there. And as I said that I was joining the hunt, as I vowed to protect- Which he agreed to, being likely the only reason Azarga believed it. -he first looked at me like he would kill me then and there… Then his face changed. Something told me that he just had a brilliant plan. So I remember what Bishtak had said to Baatar one time long, long ago… Sometimes the best way to deal with a trap, is to spring it.

Myself, Zepnep, and Ahriman went with Azarga. We followed Ahriman’s lead, as he seemed to have an idea of where to go. I trusted Ahriman, either he followed the spirits, or he had a cunning plan. Either one was fine with me. We reached Khurdan’s resting place. And Azarga decided to execute his brilliant plan. He was going to use me as bait, to have Khurdan give himself up. His plan didn’t exactly work… For one, he didn’t actually knock me out. I did fall on my ass, though more so due to the current surroundings than anything he did. I did knock him down, however. And secondly… He underestimated how deadly myself and Ahriman are, when facing people who have given up khazari ways… Ahriman turned into a whirlwind of blood for a second, and it was over. Note to self, do not get on Ahriman’s bad side. We asked Khurdan to take up north, and he agreed. But first we needed to go fetch Ep—save Manduhai, then get Epona. I knew I had forgotten something! Although, maybe I just didn’t see a need to aid Manduhai, as when we caught up to her she had already slain everyone. And Buchijin’s murderer, Tardak, was dead. We returned to the Khutan camp, and informed Esugan of his promotion. He reacted the only way he could… Calling us murderers, and banished us. Apologised to him, since I knew he did not want to become chieftain. And with that, we washed the blood off our hairs, saddled up and left…

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The Offer: Too Good To be True

Tobur’s words… His offer. I was a bit too dumbstruck to properly grasp the magnitude of both his offer and his plan. If I agree, maybe I can have a normal life… Maybe I can even marry and a have a child. A child who’ll suffer as I did… Tobur will protect it. Can he? Will he, really? It all sounds too good to be true… Me… The Northerner, the Mule, Kuzeyli… A proper member of a family? Not just adopted, but a real bloodskin… What about Aldin-chaa? Brother Aldin won’t like this. I know Aldin much better than I know Tobur. Tobur never made a difference between me and Aldin. But… Aldin treated me differently when people were around. I’m not sure if he noticed, but I did. Tobur was the only one who didn’t care about my northern bloodline. He was also not around much. His plan is solid. Plan? Oh yes, a much more pleasant chain of thoughts… Even if the Nagalai are weakened, and infiltrated, they will still abide by Khazari custom. Duels will solve it, as bloodless as possible. Will Ahriman agree? He is Khazari, but he is… Different, somehow. Fanatic? Uuuh, no bad thought.

Ahriman was attacked, by a white ape. Miraculously, he made it out with relatively minor injuries. In the resulting discussion he made it very clear how he feels about Tobur’s plan. And I do see his point. I almost feel obligated- That’s the wrong word… -forced into agreeing with his deal. Tobur will accept whichever answer, he believes in free will… But he knows as well as I do, this is THE deal. Aldin-chaa will never be able to offer me the thing, or anything even close to it. If I remain with Aldin, I will fight, and die, for the Khazari. And I am fine with that… But, if I take Tobur’s deal… I can live, and die, with the Khazari. How can I pass that up? For now, I will have to. I am free to take my own path, but I am also a woman of my word… I’ve vowed to protect Ahriman, and whether or not I did just fail in those duties, I will carry them out… Even if his plan may be a suicide mission. Though, I guess… If I die, I won’t have to choose…

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