Temu awoke to the soft sound of Yeb’s voice, murmuring incantations and the whisper of his boot soles in the snow and fallen pine needles as he walked slowly around the perimeter of the campsite. "Ene mor ayu manu jaga," Yeb said softly. "Ta yadaqu getulku dotura ene yajar." This line shall be our border. You cannot pass into this place.
Temu sat up, drawing away from the warmth of Toghrul’s body. Toghrul shrugged his shoulder, settling himself comfortably beneath his blankets without stirring. Temu rubbed his eyes sleepily and looked out from beneath the lean-to’s canopy. He could see Yeb, more silhouette than solid form, moving on the far side of the clearing, just beyond the circumference of the fire’s glow. The shaman held a dalbuur - a small ritual fan made of thin hide stretched taut across a frame of wood - in one hand, flapping it over the ground as he passed. In the other, he held a small pouch upturned, letting something that looked like sand or ash sprinkle down onto the snow.
"Ugei rid ayu boke adali manu buyu," Yeb said. "Ba minu kucun ayu masi tomu. Bi ibegel bide." No sorcery is stronger than mine, and my power is vast. I shall protect us.
His quiet words did not disturb anyone else among the sleeping Oirat. Jelmei and Nakhu, the two Kelet guards assigned to the watch sat near the fire, watching Yeb with interest. A light, but persistent snow had started to fall, filtering down through the pine boughs overhead.
"Ugei lus, ugei kelberi getulku bi," Yeb said, waving his fan skyward and then down at the ground again. No spirit, no form shall pass me. "Bi managa degere bide. Bi ibegel bide." I am guard over us. I shall protect us.
Temu crawled out from beneath his blankets and furs and stood, keeping one burlagh hide wrapped about his shoulders against the chill. He ducked his head and stepped carefully among the dozing forms of his friends. He moved into the circumference of firelight, drawing Nakhu and Jelmei’s gazes. Yeb did not seem to notice Temu’s approach at all, and continued walking slowly, sprinkling the contents of his little pouch, flapping his fan and chanting.
"What is he doing?" Temu whispered to Jelmei, wide-eyed with wonder.
"Buyu," Jelmei whispered back. Magic.
Temu sat next to the two guards as they watched Yeb in fascination. He noticed Rhyden asleep across from them by the fire, curled beneath heavy layers of furs. Aigiarn slept near him, resting on her side facing the warmth of the blaze. She was close enough that the cap of her head nearly met Rhyden’s, and her hand lay draped against his.
He is lonely…alone… Aigiarn had told Toghrul of Rhyden. As though he is haunted by things he cannot bear to recall, but does not dare to forget. I can see it in his eyes sometimes…when he thinks no one is looking…
Temu had always been able to see Aigiarn’s own loneliness and sorrow in her eyes. Yeb was right; a part of her still mourned for his father. She was isolated by her grief, imprisoned by it.
The way he looks at Temu…it is as though Temu draws him out, chases that burden from his heart…when he smiles at Temu, that sorrow lifts from him and he is beautiful for it.
Temu smiled softly. Aigiarn could have just as easily been describing herself with those words, and the effect Rhyden had on her lately. A couple of days earlier, while they had brought the knarr briefly ashore, Rhyden had coaxed Aigiarn into playing a round of pingachu with him and Temu. When she had accepted, Temu had been astounded; he had never seen his mother play anything before. She was not the sort for games or goofing, and he had been further astonished when Aigiarn turned out to be very good at pingachu - she had beaten them both, as a matter of fact. She had laughed with them, a deep, visceral, joyous laugh Temu had not heard from her in a long, long time. She had opened her mouth in a wide, happy smile and laughed aloud with abandon, and Temu had been nearly dumbstruck with wonder.
"What do you think it means?" he had whispered to Yeb once they had been underway once more that morning. He had kept his voice low, lest Toghrul overhear. Toghrul had not missed the playful exchanges between Aigiarn and Rhyden, and to judge by his scowl, he had not approved.
"I think it means perhaps other destinies were meant to be served by Rhyden’s company than just Ag’iamon’s promise," Yeb had replied quietly. He had glanced at Temu, raising his brow. "Does it trouble you, Temu?"
Temu had blinked at him, surprised. "No, Yeb," he said, shaking his head. "Not at all. It is just different about her, that is all. I like it - I like that she is happy."
Yeb had tousled Temu’s hair with his fingertips, smiling. "For every winter, no matter how long it may seem in the duration, Temu, there is always a spring."
Temu thought he understood what Yeb had meant, although he was not certain. Aigiarn had found within Rhyden a like mind and heart. Both of them had withdrawn in their own ways following the deaths of those beloved to them - and both harbored feelings of shame and responsibility for those deaths. Aigiarn never spoke of such things to Temu, but he had sensed them about her, just as he could about Rhyden, without Rhyden saying a word.
Toghrul had always understood Aigiarn’s pain, because he, too, had known his share of loss and grief, but he had never shared in it. Toghrul railed against his sorrow in actions and anger; Aigiarn had retreated from it. She had harbored it very much in private and secrecy, just like Rhyden had with his own. The two shared this common bond, and when they were together, somehow it lessened upon their hearts for awhile.
For every winter, no matter how long it may seem in the duration, Temu, there is always a spring, Yeb had said, and Temu smiled again, gazing at the Elf and his mother, at the simple but somehow poignant image of their hands folded together, aglow in the firelight.
"It is late. You should be asleep," Yeb said, startling him from his thoughts. He had not even heard Yeb approach and he blinked at the shaman as he sat on the ground, folding his legs beneath him.
"I heard you chanting," Temu said. He watched as Yeb folded his dalbuur and tucked it within the bogcu pouch at his sash. He produced two small, relatively flat items in place of the fan, each wrapped carefully, deliberately in squares of wool. "What were you doing, Yeb? What was that you spilled on the ground?"
"It is a ritual called toyuriqu," Yeb replied. He set the two bundles on the ground before his lap and set about unwrapping one. It was a toli, a small, circular amulet made of silver. The medallion was smooth and featureless, polished like a mirror. It was fastened to a loop of sinew, which Yeb drew over his head, draping about his neck.
"I spilled salt upon the ground," Yeb said, glancing at Temu. "I drew a ring around our campsite. It is a jaqa, as a spiritual barrier, to keep our uthas within - yours, mine and Rhyden’s - and keep any spirits or spells the Khahl send to spy on us from drawing near."
"Will it work?" Temu asked, watching as Yeb unfolded the second bundle. This one contained seven dark, shriveled, dried berries tucked inside. Yeb pinched two of the berries between his fingertips and popped them in his mouth. He chewed slowly, but did not swallow.
"I do not know," he said. "Kagan Targutai’s yeke idugan has powerful hiimori. I am stronger than she is, but she conjures many spells and incantations in tandem with her shaman council. Rhyden’s endur spirit, his utha, Trejaeran handled them when they tried to spy on us before, but I would do my part, whatever I can, to keep them from us should they feel bold enough to try again."
"What are these?" Temu asked, leaning over to peer at the berries.
"Qola’nidu," Yeb replied. "They are summer fruit of the woodlands. They serve many purposes to shamans, including as part of the qaraqu ritual - which I am about to practice."
Temu knew of the qola’nidu plant. It was a type of forest scrub, with thin leaves that flowered in late summer with scattered bell-shaped blossoms. The qola’nidu’s hard green fruit that yielded to darker hues of scarlet and purple toward the autumn was unfit for eating, because they were poisonous.
Yeb saw the look of startled, horrified realization cross Temu’s face, and he chuckled. "It is alright, Temu," he said. "They lose some of their potency when dried in the sun. They help me see things."
"What sort of things?"
"Spirits," Yeb said. "They open my mind, my visai - my senses - to the presence of spirits. They enhance my hiimori, focus it, bolster it. I do not plan to sleep tonight. I will allow my mind to awaken fully and will practice qaraqu."
"Qaraqu?" Temu said.
"My ami suld will leave my form," Yeb said. "It is a dangerous ritual, and not without its risks. Anytime a shaman releases his or her ami, they must depend upon their utha sulds, and our rituals of buyu to keep our amis from thinking we have died, that it is time for them to return to the spirit tree."
"Yeb…!" Temu breathed, wide-eyed.
Yeb smiled. "Do not be frightened, Temu. I have done this many, many times. Ogotai will be with me. His strength, and the power of the jaqa perimeter I have cast around the fire in salt will contain my ami here in this place. I will keep vigil over us against the Khahl shamans’ trickery."
"Can you stop them if they come, Yeb?" Temu whispered anxiously.
"I can keep them from us," Yeb said. "The jaqa and the incantations of toyuriqu will keep them away, but should any spirits draw too close, I will drive them back with this." He took the toli between his fingers, showing it to Temu. "This toli mirror is spiritual armor of sorts. It repels attack by sulds, deflects dark buyu back toward the conjurer. This one is most powerful indeed. It belonged to my father. It has served me very well for many long years."
Temu was quiet for a long moment, looking down at the dried berries. "If I took one," he said quietly. "Would I see spirits, too, Yeb? Would I…" He glanced at the shaman. "Would I be able to see my father?"
"I do not know, Temu," Yeb said gently.
"Could I try?" Temu asked. "I…I could help you with toyuriqu."
"Not tonight, Temu," Yeb said. "Go back to your pallet and rest now. Let me tend to this."
"Even if I go back to the pallet, I will not sleep," Temu said. "I am not tired at all. Please, Yeb. I am awake. I could help you."
"No, Temu. Not tonight."
Temu blinked at him, crestfallen. "You…but you said I have strong hiimori, too…"
"I did, yes, and you do," Yeb said, nodding once. "But you are inexperienced with your gifts, Temuchin, and qaraqu is no idle undertaking for young shamans. Tonight is not the time for introductions or lessons to its methods."
"Please, Yeb," Temu pleaded. "You said the jaqa and toli would keep you safe, and that Ogotai would be with you. Would not my father be with me to protect me? You have always trusted me - trusted my hiimori. Please, will you not now?"
Yeb smiled at him kindly. He reached out and brushed the cuff of his knuckles against Temu’s cheek. "Yesugei is always with you, protecting you, Temu," he said. "You were so certain of it earlier, when you stood against Toghrul. Why has your faith waned so soon, in so few hours?"
Temu blinked down at the ground, shrugging away from Yeb’s hand. "I…I just want to see him," he whispered. "Just once, Yeb, I want to see him."
"I know, Temu."
"He would come for me just this once, I know he would." Temu stared at the shaman, imploring. "Please, Yeb."
Yeb was quiet for a long, pensive moment. He regarded Temu wordlessly, his eyes kind but unwavering. At last he reached down, lifting one of the berries from the scrap of wool. He pressed it against Temu’s palm, holding the boy’s gaze. "You will listen to me," he said, and Temu nodded, his mouth unfurling in a bright smile. Yeb cupped his hand against Temu’s cheek, his grave expression making Temu’s enthusiasm falter. "You will listen to me," he said again. "You will stay near to me. When I tell you to, you will hold my hand and you will not turn loose of me. You will not leave my side."
"Yes, Yeb," Temu said, nodding again.
Yeb reached into his bogcu and pulled out another small package. It was another doli, this one smaller than his own. "Here," he said softly, draping the loop of sinew around Temu’s neck, drawing the amulet down to hang against Temu’s heart, above the swell of his father’s ongon outlined beneath his clothes. Temu stared down at the small mirror, wide-eyed.
"This was my first toli," Yeb told him, drawing his gaze. "Bugu Inalchuk, my father gave this to me when I was just a boy and I embarked with him upon my first qaraqu. It, too, has served me very well over the years…as it will you."
"I can keep it?"
Yeb smiled. "Yes, Temu."
Temu smiled again. He leaned forward and embraced the shaman, wrapping his arms around Yeb’s neck. "Thank you, Yeb."
Yeb canted his head and pressed his lips against Temu’s brow. "You are welcome," he said softly, stroking his hand against the top of Temu’s cap. When Temu sat back from him, his expression grew solemn again. "Bite into the qola’nidu, but do not swallow it," Yeb instructed. "Tuck it between your back teeth and hold it there. Chew only a little. Let the waters of your mouth soften the fruit and call forth its buyu."