The Burial chapter 6

I waited for seven suns. Then each morning, I walked to the foot of the mountains, watching for her descent, but she did not come. The fevers continued to spread, and even the Chief fell ill. She came off the mountain on the third day of his illness, she already knew it when she returned, straight backed, with a set look in her wolfish eyes. She put a lead around a fat black ram, and set the hat of her station upon her head and walked to the Chief’s house without saying a word.

I ran behind her, but I was not going to stop her. The people in the Chief’s household parted to let her walk though the room. She cut the rams throat and collected his blood in a dish, and she drank it, though I knew it revolted her.

She sang until she fell into a trance and then she battled with other shamans as she tried to ascend the mountain to call the Chief’s soul and wrest it away from those who held it captive. She battled all day and all night and the next day and the next night. She wrestled with the spirits and rolled on the floor, she fainted and was revived, she sang in a strange language that no one understood. But everyone knew that she tried to heal him at the risk of losing her own soul. They knew, and they praised her even when the Chief died. The spirits that took him were too powerful, they said.

I took her home and helped her bathe and change her clothing, and then I asked what she had done.

‘I sent his soul to the infernal regions from whence he will never return.’ She turned her face to the wall and didn’t say another word.

I cooked some broth for her, for she was weak from her fast and then I went out to tend to the horses, because I knew she was exhausted and would sleep for a long time. I thought about what she had done and what her vision might had shown her. Soon afterward, the fever stopped and no animal or person fell ill.

I tended to the Shamanka, but I could see she was not recovering her strength. She did not talk to me about anything important, only small things, about my horses and the things they did. One day I said, ‘You are not improving, but you did not teach me how to do the things you know how to do.’

She thought for a while and said, ‘When you were a little girl, I saw you in my looking glass. You were a powerful leader, a Chieftain, though a woman.’

‘I am maimed and will be no leader,’ I said, ‘and the dead Chief’s younger brother will lead us now.’

She thought for a time, and said, ‘When I was young, I believed I could see the true future in my glass, but now I see there are only possibilities. The distant future itself can be changed according to our deeds.’ She sat up in her bed, under the skins, her blond hair tied in a thick braid, and I wanted to ask her so many things, but I saw she was struggling to stay awake.

‘Why don’t you get better?’ I shouted.

‘Because I have done a bad thing and no longer wish to live.’

‘No, your vision showed you he would cause more death and devastation. The evil was with him and not you.’

She sank back onto her pillows and finally said, ‘No. I waited many days and nights for a vision until I began to despair. I had given up, but then one day it came, and I saw that we would have many foolish leaders like the Chief, and that one day a yellow people would rise up, many in number, and ride over our lands until we were obliterated and lost to history. Few would know us, they would see the small things we left behind in our graves, but nothing would truly remain of us, not like the Hellenes nor the Seles, nor the people of the Indus. We are rich but warlike and spoiled, we leave nothing of value to the world, and even our gold stuffs are borrowed.’

‘And the Chief?’

‘I took that upon myself. If he had gone to battle again, it is certain he would have lost and caused the suffering and deaths of many. This way, the people are safe for a while. His brother is no warrior, and your life will be lived out in peace.’

‘But you said the future can be changed.’

‘Yes, but there are certain probabilities. I know the character of the dead Chief and of the new one. I know the people will be safe if no wars are fought.’

‘Then change your future and live!’

‘No. I am no better than he. I took one life, and he many, but the deed is done.’

‘What about me? What am I to do?’ I wiped the tears from my eyes.

‘Do what you want. Do what you choose to do.’ She closed her eyes and was asleep. She slept for three days and three nights, and then she was gone.

The Burial chapter 5

The morning we faced the enemy, the sky was red with a maddening sun and the earth was stilled. We saw them line up in rows across the great plain, and they were as plentiful as ants upon the ground. Their infantry marched in rows with their shields before them, their archers behind them. Their catapulters threw balls of flame at us, their cavalry awaited ours. We fought bravely, but we fought without discipline, without method. We were scattered and routed, and they came after us and mowed us down on the field until the land was as red as the sky had been. We retreated and then we rode for our lives, leaving the slaves and everything we could not carry. We rode until we were far from that land and certain they could not follow. We had lost many of our number, many were wounded, our Chief lay as if asleep on a litter, and we decided to turn back for home. The wound on my arm festered. I fell into a fever, and when I came to I did not know my arm was gone, for I still felt that it was there.

The Shamanka went ahead of the people, she had seen us returning in her mirror, she knew all that had happened. She took me to her house, she took me, because I was no use to the warriors now, and when she saw how low I had sunk, she put me to work tending the horses, thinking the same cure would work on me as did before. But it was not my lost arm I mourned for, nor my lost place in the world, but those we had done wrong to. And when I closed my eyes to sleep, everything I had seen, but not set store by, came back to haunt me.

‘Help me, Eirene, help me,’ I cried, though I did not tell her we had left children motherless, left the wounded at the mercy of the elements, shattered the skulls of men and babies, sent free people to market to be sold as slaves, and looted everything we could get our hands on.

‘I can’t help you,’ she said, ‘what has been done cannot be undone.’

I did not know what to do with myself for I was in a place of torment. When I walked the shores of the lake, I thought, a quick and merciful death, a death by drowning – all I need do is step into the cold, cold water. Sometimes I thought to stampede the horses and put myself in their way, and sometimes I thought to throw myself down into a gorge. But her thoughts had poisoned me, and I did not know what lay beyond, but knew that for me there would be no peace and no glory.

The others did not think like me, they talked of battles into the night, and they talked as if everything we had done had been good, was as it should be. The Chief recovered from his wounds and soon there was talk he would raise another army to avenge his losses on the battlefield. He would go back there, he said, he knew how they fought now, and he knew how to meet them accordingly. There were many on his side that winter, though some who had survived, and some who had lost family were not for him. He could not compel anyone to fight, but many joined of their own free will and were eager.

The Shamanka looked in her mirror and said, ‘An evil time will fall upon us.’

That summer there was drought and the cattle and horses fell ill. The fever spread to the people and many died, suffering. The Shamanka cured some but had no cure for others. She did not know where the source of the evil lie.

One morning she packed a bundle and said, ‘Satana, tell the people I have gone up into the mountains where I will fast until I have a vision.’ She turned her back to me, and I watched her walk away.

The Burial 4

The old chief died and had a splendid burial. Our ancestors smiled on us, our land was rich, our herds plenty, and the people prospered and were happy. The Young Chieftain become Chief and for a while all was good in the land. He married the most beautiful girl among us, the one with green eyes and long shining hair, and they had two sons. But then the Young Chief became restless. He was not content with his fat herds or the telling of past glories. He hunted, he had other women, he passed the day as he pleased, but there was nothing that filled him. One day he said he would go to war.

The Shamanka stood up in the council and said, ‘We are happy, we have plenty, our world is good. There is no need to make war, to cause the death and suffering of others.’

Some people agreed but some said, ‘Those who die go to a happy place, where all is good and plentiful.’

The Shamanka said, ‘Some say that is the way of it, but some say we pass into a world of shadows, and some say we are reborn into endless suffering to pay for our misdeeds.’

The people considered this, and the wise said it was different for different peoples, but that with our people death was not a bad thing. The war party prepared to leave, and I was among them, and though the Shamanka had begged me to stay, I wanted to see the world that she had told of.

I came to say goodbye, but she was ashen and her face was drawn. I touched her shoulder as she turned her back to me.

‘I’ll be back Eirene.’ I had never said her name before. It was Hellenic and strange on my tongue.

‘I know you will be, Satana,’ she said. Her voice was hollow and came from a far off place, farther than death. I knew she was not saying this to comfort me, but that she had seen the way of things yet to come, and I rejoiced. I went back with the woman warriors who presented me with my first armor made of pared horse hoofs and a helmet with crested feathers which made me feel like a bird which could soar. Our leader had horns on her helmet and carried the traits of the deer with all its swiftness and power. When I dressed, I wore trousers and boots and a padded jacket over which my armor was placed. I had my bow and my quiver of arrows, my spear, my sword and sharp knife. For five summers I had trained with those weapons; I knew how to thrust and parry, and leap and duck, and hit a moving target with my arrows while galloping on horseback. The older warriors bound their large breasts with tight cloths, the better to aim and shoot, but I was light and well muscled, and there was no need of that.

The war party left one spring morning for the lands in the south; the people came to see us off, the horses were excited and snorting, pawing the ground. The Young Chief was resplendent in a costume of deep red trimmed with sable, commanding the troops, the men on the right, the women warriors on the left. The people chattered, throwing wildflowers on our path and cheering us on. Our banners unfurling, we rode away from our mountains, anticipating victory, arrogant and well fed.

We stopped at the camps of our allies to raise a great army, we feasted and drank, we told stories, and I saw the wide world. I reveled in it, it was an adventure, it was an endless banquet. There came the day when our army was mighty, when the hooves of our horses made the earth shake, and the sky turned red from our banners and then we were ready to let blood run over the land. We went to the south, we went to the west. We fell on settlements like ravening wolves and killed those who stood in our way. Those we did not kill, we enslaved. We took goods from our enemies, we took them for ourselves, we took their horses and livestock, we took their silver and gold. And the more we took, the more we wanted. We sang songs of glory about our people, we sang to our victories, we thought we were blessed by the Gods and the spirits, and that the skies smiled down on us. We had everything, and for our enemies, we left nothing.

Our Chief now wore a golden diadem on his head and drank from golden goblets and even his food was sprinkled with gold dust. He took the best women and had them in his carpeted tent, and then he discarded them for his men to do what they willed with. He had horses, he had cattle, he had fortune, but he had no mercy. And then one day, his fortune left him.

We heard that a great army was being raised against us, our scouts knew, and there was a whispered rumor among our prisoners that spread through the camp. Our war chiefs said that enough was enough, we had taken everything, we had killed everyone, it was time to go back. But our Chief was filled with blood lust, and he was filled with rage. They didn’t dare raise their voices against him, for he called them cowards and assured them we would be victorious and lay waste to the enemy, and then we would invade the capital of Daraya and seize such wealth that it was beyond imagining. That night I dreamed of maggoty meat and for the first time was frightened of battle, but the others said, ‘Hush, don’t speak of it, for he has executed a captain for defying him and wanting to lead his troops home.’

The Burial 3

The Shamanka started on the journey while her father was still alive. He was alive but ailing and wanted to get to our pure mountains where the bones of his ancestors were buried where he would have peace. They began the journey in late spring with their litters and horses and traveled for many days and nights until they came to this place.

The Shamanka’s father had many horses and many fine things, golden ornaments and fine wares which he gave as gifts, and he was welcomed as an honored son returned home. The Old Chief was still alive then, and they two sat many nights under the stars talking of all the faraway lands the Trader had seen and of the kingdoms of the Skitoi and of how they lived. The Trader knew of things, but he had no gift for the telling, so she would speak in his place and tell the people stories, great and small, of heroes and brave deeds, and of Gods, and common people, who lived in towns and nipped at each other like small close rodents.

The Old Chief’s son, the Young Chieftain, had been away fighting with the tribes in the south. He came back one summer’s day in a blaze of glory, his black hair blowing behind him, the scalps of his enemies tied to his bridle, driving two hundred horses, their hoofs thundering across the land. He had been a hunter as a boy and could shoot arrows straight into a rabbit’s eye from a long way off. He had been tattooed on his journeys and had the panther of power on his shoulder, it’s body on his arm. He was going to be a great man, everyone said, and a great chief when his father passed to the other side.

The Chieftain drank honey wine from a cup made from the skull of his dead enemies and raised it to the people, asking them to toast his victory, and the people basked in his glory. He told them how it was, riding to the south, gathering warriors to his side and then laying his plans, outwitting his enemies, surrounding their camp, striking in the early morning before they had a chance to know what had happened, and then laying them low, men, women and children. He took their horses, which he shared with his warriors, saving the greatest portion for himself. He gifted those horses to the elders and kept nothing, and they said he was a great warrior and would make a fine leader.

The Shamanka listened to his boasting; she listened with her gray wolf’s eyes that revealed nothing of her thoughts; she said nothing but she did not approach him like the other young women who vied for his attention. He walked through the camp, proud and tall; his muscles, thick and rippling. He walked and women followed him to the forest, laughing and smiling as if he was the golden sun.

The Shamanka alone avoided him, and when her father died and was buried, and she had performed all the rites of passage for him and observed his forty days, she fell ill with a fever and was brought to the house of the Shaman. The Shaman stripped her of her clothes and bound her in wolves’ hides and burned hashish all around her to purify the room. He put on his horse’s tail and his deer antlers, and he danced until he fell into a trance and passed into the spirit world. He was gone for a long time and when he came back, the spirits had driven out the illness and had told him many things which were strange and new. When the Shamanka recovered, he took her as his apprentice, and soon she began to heal the herds.

For her there were no hidden mysteries – the animals spoke to her with their thoughts, she said. She knew when a saddle was too tight and where the pain was when a horse was hurt. She knew when cows cried for their babies which were taken away and the fear the sheep felt before they were slaughtered. She loved our animals and only lived on cheese and milk and the things of the forest and never ate flesh. She said it helped her hear the spirits who were her helpers.

The Old Shaman smiled and said it was why the animals spoke to her, but when he did healings he sacrificed beasts to call the powerful spirits to him. She said nothing, he was her elder, she kept quiet, but after he passed and she took his place she said there was no need, that those spirits were evil and lost in endless darkness, and she only called on beings of light who came out of goodness and wanted to help.

I had been ailing for some time, the old shaman had tried to cure me, but I had gotten better then worse, and when she came to look at me she asked that I be sent to her house where she would look after me herself. My parents sent me. They were only too glad to be rid of me. My father was dead and my mother remarried to a young warrior. They had children of their own, and I was in the way.

I had bad dreams that cast a pall around me and would leave me weak and listless for days. She bundled me in linen soaked in fat and wrapped me in furs and smoked me with fire, and when I broke a sweat and fell into a daze, I raved for hours, but when I woke up, she said it was over and I would be well, though I would live in her house and tend the horses with the other young girls now that I was getting bigger. I never went back to my mother’s house. Sometimes, I thought she would teach me, that I would become the Shamanka after her, but she said no one day after I had gotten the courage to ask her, that she had seen my destiny in her mirror, and now I had to become strong.


I rode the horses bareback, I learned to jump off and mount in a flash, I learned to stand on their backs and hold their reins while they galloped, and one summer when I began my bleed the woman warriors took me as one of their own, and I learned the arts of war.

The Shamanka let me stay with them all summer, but in winter she said she needed my help, and they deferred to her and allowed it. I helped her powder her dry herbs, and I helped her with the sick. The whole time, she told me stories of the great goings on in the world, and I thought then that it was to pass the time, but later I understood that the Shamanka was teaching me in her own way and showing me the true path of goodness.