AKMARAL Opening Chapter

Enjoy a sneak peek into the world of the ancient Asian steppes
when women were equals with men.

A black stork drifts onto an isle in the middle of the great shallow lake that stretches for miles—a shimmering mirage. The water in some places rises only to the great bird’s ankles. It nips at the fishes, swallowing them by lifting up its beak and choking them back whole.

Some say I am like that: stately, yet savage, as easy to call for blood as for silence, as longing for the warmth of a lover’s chest as to shove it off at the call to arms. But I do not like battle. Only know that a show of strength is required to keep the peace. Blood is strength which often forms still pools on the battlefield, like this lake or others that are formed by sudden rains. When the sun rises, it dries into the soil and cannot be seen. Blood, passing into memory.

I, too, am passing into memory. I am dying and will lie soon within the earth and be forgotten. For most of us, it does not last long—this life. A warrior’s death always comes early. Yet mine has lasted long enough, longer than I would have thought. I should be proud of what I’ve done, of defending my people, of guiding them such a great distance from where we had begun.

They call us Sauromatae—the Greeks do and the Scythians also—“lizard breasts” for our glittering armor scales. But I remember a time when our people had no name, when we were a disparate multitude of wandering herders—a thousand, thousand isolated clans clustered into petty camps, our wind-rattled yurts scattered like dung clots across the undulating steppes. Half our horses then were wild, raising dust into dry showers; our sheep, goats, and camels tirelessly gnawing at the tall, sharp grass, turning the hapless earth from emerald to amber to ashen.

Out of this I made a nation, though it was nothing I ever sought, never my intent, nothing I would have chosen. This throng that surrounds me now they call a confederacy; and of its greatness, they name me leader—this, my legacy that will linger long beyond my death, exalting all the mighty strife that I abhor.

For most of my life, I have served the war god Targitai. In his duty, I have worn the pelts of wolves and leopards, and hung the horns of wild boars upon my belt. Many other beasts I have hunted roaming across our grasslands. And I have led my people into battle, and I have regretted it.

What I did was as anyone would do to protect her people, her family, her children.

I have tried to make amends for the damage I have done. If they call me queen, it is little honor for my sorrows. My people gather around me, singing chants and ringing small bronze bells. Hewana, they call me—mother of our tribe—but I have been a mother only once, and not for very long. Most of them do not recall.

This has been my journey; and I will leave it—now, or very soon. Though these last breaths before death are anything but sweet. Perhaps no one is proud on the day of their death. All are filled with question and doubt. As am I. As I have been, almost from the beginning.

Part I

The Snow Leopard

Chapter One
The Flying Deer

The Kara Kam foretold that I would be important. I was five winters old and had just begun to learn the skill of sewing felt. I sat beside our fire working at two small patches with a thin wool thread when my mother stepped inside our winter hut, kneeling low to warm her hands.

“It is time,” she murmured, cupping her icy fingers around my elbow, looking across at my father who sat on a cushion with his long legs crossed. He’d been sharpening the edge of a new-made dagger, the tools of his craft scattered over the thick felt mat. “Blood moon.” My mother gestured toward a sudden light that had broken over the snow drifting through our roof’s eye.

My father nodded, put down the blade, then rose to his feet, brushing the bronze filings from his leather trousers. His gaze drifted upward toward the wafting flakes—the air, laced with some foreboding I could not fathom.

I knew better than to question, as my mother pried a spouted jug from the pile of our stores. It was her favorite—made of pounded silver etched with the shapes of warriors, horses, and thick-maned lions, in a style I had rarely seen, unlike anything my father or any other craftsman could have fashioned. Perhaps the jug was bartered from a caravan of Persian merchants along the trade road—Six sacks of colored ores, I offer you! Add seven blocks of cheese! And three wool felts! No, I must have one of those fine daggers! I could almost hear the traders’ voices as my mother gestured for my attention back. She handed me the jug and helped me polish it with milk and sand, then gave me the small bronze bowl that always lay beside our fire. There, our earthen cauldron steamed with fermented mare’s milk—koumiss, the intoxicating drink whose bitter sips bring us closer to our ancestors.

I took up the bowl and ladled the koumiss carefully. When the jug was full, my mother wrapped it tightly in soft leather and bound the bundle with a thin gut cord. She wrapped me, too, in a heavy felt-sewn cloak. Outside, the snow was falling harder as my father loaded up our horses.

So late at night and all the other shelters of our camp already still—I sensed the burden of my parents’ silence as we rode single file into the storm. My gaze fixed ahead at my mother’s horse’s hoof-falls pricking the perfect blanket like small stitches through the white. We traveled eastward to where our narrow valley widened and windswept veils of forgotten spirits danced across a snow-draped steppe. There, beneath an overhanging cliff, stood a single yurt—a low, round tent—not even a winter cabin.

I gasped and reined my horse, but my mother had already drawn up close beside me. “Akmaral, a warrior is never frightened.” I nodded, clutching my cloak a little closer.

It was the Kara Kam’s yurt, as any child of our aul would know, swathed in felts so dark, they matched the high cliff’s walls. My mother had often told me how the Kara Kam could ride on the tails of golden eagles, how she knew the twisting fishes’ waters and could swim them out to the distant sea, that she flew between the altars of the stars and had traveled every passage to the heaven realm. But hers was a blackened path. She practiced in darkness, painted with ashes, her yurt filled with acrid smoke—so different from the Ak Kam, our people’s priestess, who sacrificed beneath the sky’s wide gaze before the aul and all the elders, where everyone could see and hear and understand her meaning.

My mother urged her horse and led us closer, settling our mounts before a frail wood post. My father raised his arms to ease me from my saddle. He clung to me—only for a moment until my mother tugged me off. I willed myself not to linger as I followed, trying not to stumble through the new, thick snow.

I entered last, behind my mother and then my father. They each knelt to give their offerings: a heavy sack of winter meat, small beads carved of colored stone, six pelts each of fox and marmot, the fleece of a yearling sheep, and my father’s new-honed blade. I carried the heavy jug filled with the drink my mother and I had prepared. And a tunic of colored felt, carefully embroidered, stretched across my mother’s arms. I’d seen her working at it, stitching in the dark, strange murmurs sputtering from her lips—prayers to our ancient ancestors.

The Kara Kam sat alone in her frigid hut before the embers of a failing fire. Her shoulders were slender, stooped beneath a rough silk tunic too large for her fragile frame. Her bare legs stuck out like brittle twigs from a long, thick skirt of crimson wool. Around her waist she wore a woven belt tied with heavy tassels, and from her head arose a headdress as tall as the lattice walls, dangling with fine, carved birds, gilded leaping horses, and twisted lions attacking rams. At its peak protruded sharp-fletched arrows wrapped in strips of gold. They spread like branches, reaching up as if to pierce the roof’s eye. Before her lay powders of ochre, cinnabar, and ash, each pressed into oyster shells, though there was no ocean near. Across her bare arms traced the tortured struggles of straining beasts—deer with griffins’ heads caught in the jaws of winged snow leopards—etched into her skin as dark indigo tattoos.

I had never seen her properly before. The black kam always lived alone, following our paths, settling her yurt at the distant edge of our encampments. Only sometimes she’d appear in the shadows beyond our fires. All knew her for the sudden flash of her round bronze mirror which she would hold in the dark to capture the hearth goddess Rada Mai’s homely light; then, she’d hurl the spark into a startling flare that would tear across the looming darkness. We all would scurry from the light, frightened and blinded.

Now she held the mirror before her face, and I could make out the figures of five stags flying and a single mountain goat caught in an endless whirl. She turned, moving the mirror through the air, softly, slowly, making the thin white smoke before her curl and dance. And she sang—strange, unintelligible chants—her mouth moving, revealing livid gums, pegged teeth between purple lips.

I squirmed to avoid her mirror’s cutting light. But my father held me still as my mother bowed low, offering her food. She unwrapped the jug and poured our koumiss into the small bronze bowl. The Kara Kam paused in her incantations, greeting my mother with a hard, quick glance, followed, slowly, by a guileless, almost tearful smile. She took the bowl and tipped it, scattering the droplets several times in all directions. Then she slurped the last down loudly. My mother poured another bowl and passed it round for each of us to sip. Even me. I choked a bit before I swallowed.

At the black kam’s beckon, my father pressed me forward. My mother took my wrapper off so that the icy air rushed around my frame. The Kara Kam did not seem to feel the cold, her shoulders fully bare now as her eyes rolled back deep inside her skull. I willed myself not to turn away as again she chanted, reaching blindly for a tall alabaster jug from which she sprinkled small black seeds over her smoldering fire.

Soon the yurt smelled strange. Another puff of smoke and then a haze. In time—I do not recall how long—the Kara Kam’s arms grew wide, then sprouted feathers. Flapping, she began to screech—she had become a bird—a vulture circling, with wings all black and an ashen-colored ruff. Then the stubbled head transformed again into the woman’s. I shuddered in mounting terror, for everything around me had transformed—even my mother and my father, who had become long-limbed gazelles.

Then the Kara Kam spoke. “Look down at your feet, Akmaral, my sister’s daughter’s daughter.” I looked and saw the hooves of a powerful steppe deer; then, almost without thought, I leapt through the roof’s eye and flew across the open sky.

When I awoke, I was still shaking.

It was morning. The light shone bluish through the roof’s eye, left open to release the smoke that rose coldly from the black kam’s fire. She sat in silence, looking feeble and diminished. Her headdress was gone. Her eyes were pale and clouded. She seemed now truly blind as she grinned at a space beyond me.

We left. My mother and my father both seemed pleased, each bending to take an arm, for I could barely stand, my limbs leaden after so much flying. But out of view of the old woman’s yurt, I began to feel my feet. They had left me, but now were firm and solid.

“What do you remember, Akmaral?” my mother asked as we rode slowly back. When I told her, she nodded to my father. “I will make you the flying deer.”

Some weeks elapsed before a caravan stirred the traders’ road. We trotted close, our warriors lowering their weapons so they would know we posed no threat. We offered thick felted mats, raw wool, and cheeses in exchange for unworked ore. In the days that followed, my mother carved a beeswax mold, her nimble fingers paring a graceful shape before casting it in clay. Finally, she set it in the fire to burn away the dross, then poured the metal. When the mold was broken, she withdrew the perfect figure of a deer with tiny, delicate antlers—threads made strong by the wisdom of a thousand generations.

My mother strung the little deer on a leather strand and hung it around my neck. I felt its heat. It was a long time cooling, and the fire left a little scar that I still treasure.


Want to keep reading? AKMARAL is available at all online retailers and from your local bookstore. Be sure to request it, if you don’t see it on their shelves.