By the third week of their journey, the party of Oirat had made it through nearly half of the deep mountain gorge called the Deguu Masiff. As the gradient of the ground shifted beneath the waters of the Urlug, and the landscape began to drop into the ravine, the river changed as well, growing faster and harsher. River banks became narrow scraps of gravel-strewn earth, littered with large boulders and chunks of granite that had tumbled down from higher elevations, or been carried by the swift currents of tributaries during past springtime floods.
Early in the week, they had encountered their first true and apparent trouble on the water. They had passed into a deep length of the ravine, a declination in the ground gradient that was imperceptible to the eye, but which churned the water beneath their boats into a violent, foam-capped torrent. While two of the boats managed to make it ashore, escaping the rapids in time, the lead knarr was not as fortunate. The force of the river's sudden, brutal current had smashed the boat into a tangle of broken granite. The planks of the hull had splintered with the impact, and men had been tossed into the waves, their shrieks drowned with their forms by the rushing roar of the water. The boat had been whipped about in the current, and they had been helpless to prevent it. Again, it had slammed into rocks, the keel rending apart against the stone. The knarr had shattered like a child's toy fashioned of twigs, and the Uru'ut aboard had been swept away by the river, dragged beneath the surface and lost.
This had left those who remained at a point of grave impasse.
"We cannot abandon the knarrs," Aigiarn had said firmly."We cannot take them any further," Toghrul had argued, his hands planted firmly against his hips. He had been standing near her, and his voice had been sharp. She had lifted her chin stubbornly at him, her brows narrowed, her mouth turned in a frown.
"We will tie lines to them and draw them by shore in the shallows," she snapped back at him. "And if that does not work, we will carry them somehow. We cannot abandon them--not until we reach the Hawr, where Juchin will have bergelmirs waiting to help carry our supplies."
They had followed Aigiarn's instructions, and though it had taken them until nightfall--many long, grueling hours--they had managed to haul, drag and wrestle the remaining two knarrs past the channel of rapid water, into a stretch of river where the current ran more predictably, and less violently.
This, then, had become their new routine. At least four times each day, they would have to disembark from the knarrs and lead them by rope, hand over fist through churning sections of rapids. The river did its best to lull them into false senses of security, running at a maneuverable pace for several miles and then whipping unexpectedly into foam-capped, furious water again.Yeb had suggested that those among them with hiimori--himself, Rhyden, Nala and Baichu--could induce qaraqu journeys, that they could send their ami sulds, or mind spirits, ahead of the knarrs to survey the landscape and the flow of the Urlug. Aigiarn had immediately and firmly rebuked this idea. All of the shamans, and even Rhyden, had found trouble since their encounter with Mongoljin. Their uthas had difficulty in reaching them; even Trejaeran only seemed to be able to visit Rhyden in dreams, as though all of the spirit guides were being deliberately kept from them.
"It is as though a shroud has been drawn over us," Yeb had remarked. He had seemed troubled by this turn of events, but not alarmed."The Khahl would keep us blind," Nala had said, her brows furrowed. "They would summon all of their strength to keep our uthas from us."
"Perhaps," Yeb had said, glancing at her. "Or perhaps the Tengri simply mean for us to learn from this, to rely upon our own eyes and senses, and not those of the uthas."
I know what it is, Trejaeran had told Rhyden in a puzzling and somewhat disturbing dream. Trejaeran had offered no other explanation than this, and he had smiled at Rhyden, his form faint, like a shadow waning in a sunbeam. Do not be frightened. Yeb is right--it is a shroud. But it is meant to protect you, not blind you.Aigiarn feared that Mongoljin or the Khahl shamans were to blame, although there seemed no other indication of buyu against them by the Khahl save this, and Aigiarn did not want to risk weakening the hiimori they had among them with such a task.
She had made her decision, and Yeb had not questioned her. He had merely glanced at Rhyden as Rhyden had directed his thoughts into the shaman's mind.
She is wrong, Yeb. Trejaeran told me it is nothing that will harm us. I believe him.
As do I, Yeb replied. But there is wisdom in her words, Rhyden. Even if it is not Mongoljin or the Khahl doing this to us, they are far from through with their efforts. That they have not tried anything else so far disturbs me more than Ogotai's silence or this shroud-like shadow that seems to have descended on us. Aigiarn is right--we will all need our strength for when they come again.The Oirat learned in short measure other methods to detect changes in the river's current. Most conversations on the knarrs had been restricted, as every man and woman trained their ears upon the water, listening for the muffled roar of approaching whitewater. Rhyden and Baichu had proven particularly helpful at this; he was Elfin, and by this grace of birth, his hearing was sharply acute, while she had been blind long enough to have come to rely almost exclusively on her nose and ears for any sensory perceptions her utha could not provide her. Between the two of them, one at each prow, Rhyden and Baichu could glean the sounds of rapids in the distance from nearly a quarter-mile away, even when no one else could detect them.
They made it three days at this creeping pace, following the river currents for several miles before having to cross miles further by land, drawing the knarrs through the calmer shallows with them. By late afternoon of that third day, Toghrul and seven of the Kelet scrambled up a slope of crumbled granite and loose stone left behind after a flood, their ropes stretched taut between their fists, their brows drawn, theirs faces twisted with grim determination as they hauled one of the knarrs. Midway up the slope of rubble, the heel of Toghrul's gutal settled on unsteady rocks that shifted and yielded beneath his weight. He yelped, startled, feeling the stones beneath his feet move suddenly, and then he spilled, his knees buckling beneath him. He turned loose of his rope and fell hard onto his rump, spilling sideways and tumbling as the mound of earth fell with him. He landed hard against the riverbank, rocks and loose granite hunks spilling about him, smacking painfully against his shoulders.
"Toghrul!" he heard Temu cry, his voice shrill with alarm.
"Toghrul!" Aigiarn cried, running toward him, turning loose of her own rope. "Toghrul--ayu ci jobaqu?" Are you hurt?
"Ugei..." he groaned, shoving his hands beneath him and sitting up. No. He felt pebbled sediment spill from his shoulders and spine, raining against the ground and he shook his head, sending another spray of grit scattering. He heard Aigiarn's footsteps, her gutals scrambling for frantic purchase of the rocks, and those of the other Kelet, rushing to his aid. "I ... I am alright," he said, pressing his palm against his brow and opening his eyes. A stone had caught him squarely in the back of the head as he had fallen, and he reeled slightly. If he had not been wearing his heavily lined fur cap, he realized it might have likely split his scalp and skull open. "I am not hurt--"
His voice faded in a soft, startled tangle as his vision cleared, the pile of rocks swimming into view before him. "Tengeriin boshig!" he gasped, scuttling backward, his eyes flown wide in sudden fright.
"What is it?" Aigiarn cried. She ran up to him, her feet skittering in the loose gravel, and she stumbled forward, catching herself on her palms. She looked up and saw what had startled Toghrul; she recoiled, scrambling to her feet, her eyes widening, her voice escaping in a breathless mewl. "Tengeriin boshig!"
A body had been buried beneath the rubble. When Toghrul had fallen, disturbing the arrangement of stones and debris, the body had been unearthed, and they could see it now, a small, shriveled form protruding from the rocks. It was a small figure, a woman or child. A scarlet woolen scarf, tattered and weathered, had been wrapped carefully around the head, the ends tucked and secured in place to frame the delicate temples and cover the cap of the small skull. The flesh beneath was dark and withered, like tanned hide stretched taut to dry. They could see a face, a child's small features, distorted by time, the elements and the cruelty of slow, but meticulous decay: a diminutive, shrunken nose; eyelids nearly closed, allowing only a margin of hollow darkness to be glimpsed beyond; thin, cracked lips wrinkled back from dark gums to reveal loosened, listing teeth. A tiny hand, no bigger than Temu's, had landed draped near the body's face, as though the figure was curled on its side, sleeping. Nothing more was visible beneath the rubble save for the edge of the child's clothing, a scrap of red fabric, sun-faded but still discernable.
The other Oirat had drawn near, and stumbled to uncertain halts, all of them blinking in stunned bewilderment at the little, mummified corpse. "Ya ... yagun ayu tere?" one of them whispered. What is it?
"Tere ayu kegur," gasped Nala, stumbling in aghast. She turned to Yeb, who stood beside her, his expression equally as stricken as hers. It is a corpse. "Yeb ... tere ayu kelberi keukid." Yeb, it is a child's form.
Only Juchin seemed willing to approach the body. The burly Uru'ut noyan shouldered his way past Aigiarn and Toghrul and genuflected beside the rubble. He reached down and gently brushed his fingertips against the scarf bound about its head. "This is a khadag," he said. He began to slowly, carefully move aside rocks and rubble with his hands, sifting through it. He found something among the stones and paused. "These are the remains an I'uitan child. It has been here for many long years."
"How do you know?" Aigiarn asked. Temu had joined them; she heard the startled intake of his breath as he caught sight of the corpse, and her arm shot out instinctively to stay him. Rhyden beat her to it, catching Temu by the shoulders, his hands moving as reflexively as hers.
"Temu, no," he said.
"Temu, go back," Aigiarn said. "Go stand with bugu Baichu."
"Mamma, no," he pleaded. He looked up at Rhyden. "Please, Rhyden, can I see? Please? Bugu Baichu is old and she smells like--"
"I said go stand with her, Temuchin," Aigiarn said.
His brows drew slightly, but he relented. "Yes, Mamma," he said, his shoulders hunched. He looked at Rhyden again, and sighed heavily as Rhyden turned him gently about, offering him a nudge in the right direction.
"How do you know it has been here so long, Juchin?" Toghrul asked, rising slowly to his feet and wincing slightly for the effort.
"Because this is a likeness of a tjama," Juchin replied, holding out his hand. Toghrul knelt beside him, studying the little stone figurine Juchin had found among the rocks. It had been deliberately carved and formed into the rudimentary shape of a deer or goat in profile. "A sort of mountain goat found only on the Lydian side of the Khar once," Juchin said, as Toghrul pinched the little figure between his fingertips and lifted it from Juchin's palm, studying it with interest. "They have not roamed these mountains for at least one hundred years."
He touched the scarf wrapped about the body's pate again. "The I'uitan wore scarves such as these about their heads in this fashion--a khadag. They called much of northwestern Lydia home. They were herdsmen; their tribes raised khoni for wool and meat. My aysil traded with them years ago. Before they kept khoni, their ancestors tended flocks of tjama. It was a sacred animal to them."
"I met them once," Rhyden said quietly. He stood near Yeb and Nala and blinked at the huddled little form, his expression crestfallen. "Years ago, when I first came to Torach, I visited with them."
"You are one of few, then," Juchin said grimly, his brows drawing as he looked down at the child's body. "The I'uitan are no more--the empire killed them or snatched them for slaves. They have been gone many years from the Khar."
"Why is the child here?" Aigiarn asked softly, drawing Juchin's gaze. "Juchin, do you know what happened to it?"
Juchin leaned forward, using his hands to ease some of the stones and rubble away from the child's torso. They could see that the body had been wrapped in woolen blankets, and Juchin carefully drew aside the folds from the child's breast. "The I'uitan were not Oirat," he said quietly as he worked, his fingers finding a series of wooden buttons holding the child's del closed at its right shoulder. "Though these mountains and their tribes were once part of Kagan Borjigidal's great empire. They adopted many of our customs, our beliefs and language as their own."He glanced at Aigiarn as he unfettered the child's del. "They knew of the dragons, and Ag'iamon's promise. They knew of the baga'han. They considered these mountains sacred in the Tengri's regard, that the baga'han had blessed this land. They were the last people besides the baga'han to witness the migration of the dragons. Their legends spoke of it, the skies filled with dragons as they soared one last time among the peaks. They felt they had a sacred part in the destiny of the Negh."
"What do you mean?" Toghrul asked as Juchin opened the flaps of the mummified child's coat. "What are you doing?"
Aigiarn gasped softly, her hand darting for her mouth. The child's flesh was stained dark with death, fragile as old parchment, but what Juchin had meant for them to see beneath the flaps of the del remained apparent. The child had been tattooed; a pattern of darkened marks appeared on its breast."The mark of the Dologhon?" she whispered, staring at Juchin, stricken.
"The seven sacred stars," Juchin said, nodding once. "When the dragons disappeared, the I'uitan spent generations searching for them, hoping to mark the path so that when the Negh came, they could lead him to the lair. They made pilgrimages into these peaks..." Juchin motioned with his finger toward the mountains around them. "Their noyan and shamans told me once that they had discovered the entrance to the lair thousands of years ago. The I'uitan had no written language of their own, though, and the location of it had been lost among the generations since. But they told me their ancestors had tried to mark the way for the Negh--for Temuchin. They offered their children to the mountains to guide his way--children bearing his mark, so that he would know them."
"They sacrificed their own children?" Aigiarn asked, staring in horror at the tattooed stars against the child's breast, the marks her own son bore by birth.
Juchin nodded again. "Gifts for the mountains, the gazriin ezen who dwell in the peaks," he said. "And the dragons, that they might know patience, and know they were not forgotten, that the Negh would come. They would bear the children high into the mountains, and bury them there."