Jagani felt excitement coursing through his veins like the strongest koumiss ever brewed. The Prey was the most untamed and graceful rider that he had ever seen, speeding fearlessly ahead with her mount. She had to be bonded to it! She would be a great catch indeed, although she would be a harder prize to win than they had reckoned on. But then which true Crunalan man does not thirst for the intoxication of a worthy challenge? A smile came unbidden onto his lips.
He glanced across to his two companions and saw that they were both gazing intently ahead at the Prey, with the fire of desire dancing merrily in their eyes. His smile widened. He knew that they too had grasped what he just realised moments ago. He initiated a long song of courtship whose verse just came to him like the waters of a river flowing by on its natural course. Soon all three of them had joined in upon it. Their jovial voices leapt all over the air. Then he saw that she was starting to slow. A gleam lit up his eyes. He gave the signal for Qorchi and Minga to fan out to either side in preparation for trapping the Prey.
Bortai could tell from the glistening coat of moisture on Bashudai and the way she was panting for breath that her magulaje was rapidly tiring. It would not be long before she gave out altogether. She gently laid her palm against the tender spot in between and above Bashudai’s brow ridge in an attempt to soothe her and then felt a tingle stirring within herself. An intangible stream seemed to flow out of her body and into Bashudai, which seemed to have a marked revitalising effect on her magulaje. Soon, Bashudai was breathing long and steady again. Bortai cursed herself for a fool. In her immersion in the thought of escaping, she had entirely forgotten that while Bashudai was winded by the breakneck pace that they had to keep up, she herself still had an abundant supply of vigour that she could share. That latest bout of stamina transfer had only sapped about one third of her total store. In a heartbeat, they were off at top speed, Bashudai loping along in long elegant strides.
She turned her head to check the progress of her pursuers. She was slightly taken aback when she saw only one of them behind her. However, it soon dawned on her what their intention was. Let’s see, Bortai thought to herself as a mischievous smile turned up the corner of her mouth.
Two spectres loomed up respectively at the edges of Bortai’s vision. That was their first mistake. Bortai sneered. At a thought, Bashudai veered towards the right a second before they were about to be trapped amongst the two riders. After that, they flew ahead.
In their single-minded chase and escape sequence, neither parties were prepared when the vast Steppe had suddenly thinned out into a large meadow that was a perfect circle. In particular, the meadow was not deserted but rather dotted with gers on two separate rows on opposing edges of the circle. At its centre, two groups were sitting in a ring broken off straight through the middle. About four strides away on the north and south side of this cracked ring sat five or six elderly figures with snow in their hair. Bortai felt that the scene was somewhat familiar but couldn’t quite place it yet. She glanced backwards to look at her pursuers and saw that they had already dismounted and were standing in a daze. Then confusion was quickly replaced with restless anticipation on their faces. However, they made no movements but stayed where they were. Bortai decided that the prudent approach was to follow suit, at any rate she would have gained some time to continue rummaging for the significance of this gathering from some cobwebbed corner of her mind. Bashudai whinnied. Bortai was annoyed at being interrupted in her thoughts. However, when she lifted up at her head to see a hand beckoning them forwards and then a palm quickly flipping from the downwards position to upwards– the Crunalan gesture for choice, it immediately came to her what this place, and this gathering, was. She had stumbled into the Ctofalir- the Ground of Truce. Moreover, she had inadvertently interrupted a Meeting of Truce between two tribes about to go to war!
Bortai and her pursuers moved forwards at a solemn pace until they were only three paces short of the Elder who had called for them. He demanded their formal names and punctuated his sentence with rising and falling inflections that chase each other in that way taken to bespeak of portentous occasions. The three youths pounced upon this request like wolf packs homing in on the kill. They proclaimed in loud volumes, “Jagani, son of Khuchar and Mide, of the Buryaad!”, “Qorchi, son of Zorig and Chotan of the Dorben, of the Buryaad!”, “Minghangal, son of Arasen and Orbei of the Tsaatan, of the Buryaad!” Bortai was about to calmly state her own when she was drawn to a face as if by invisible but inescapable threads. In that brief glimpse, something threatened to flood her chest that she had no comprehension yet. She forcefully broke off the contact as the current situation intruded upon her thoughts. She had effectively blundered into a war! How could she think about anything else? While the presence of the Elders was to ostensibly give their disinterested judgements on whether it was to be truce or war, she remembered Aunt Koka remarking wryly that their judgements can be summed up as “Truce it shall never be, war the degree of which we shall contain”. At any rate, she was already being offered the choice of choosing which tribe to ‘foster’ with for the coming conflict. She quickly offered a “Bor… Bortani, daughter of Olchubayar and Chagantai, of the Ognuud” before the Elder inviting them could express in words his disgruntlement with her slow reaction. She did not know what seized her but at the last minute she substituted her own formal name for an assumed one. But then she relaxed. It was not an unheard of practice, as young warriors having yet drawn First Blood was often apprehensive of sallying the name of their tribes and ancestors. The idea of assuming for the moment another identity might have just occurred to her as her deep-mind pondered on the situation.
“You have walked into the Gathering of Truce between the Ankali and the Tatars. You have the time of one long song to consider.” The Elder recited earnestly.
The three Buryaad youths bounded off to mingle with the two sides gathered. Bortai followed at a mild pace in their wake. However, if anyone was to observe her closely, the way her throat had made an involuntary gulping motion would betray the inner turmoil she felt. For Bortai knew that her subsequent choice would be vital. The tribe that lost would forfeit all rights to live freely but instead be considered property of the victor. If she happened to choose the tribe that lost, then that would be her fate as well regardless of her status as the eldest daughter of Otgonbayar Khan or as a Sister. She took a deep breath to steady herself. Her first business now would be to choose among these two tribes that she knew naught about. She eyed the three youths eagerly conversing with the tribe warriors present with faint disdain. How could one rely on the impressions gathered from such shallow exchanges to make such a momentous decision? She certainly was not going to base her choice on it. Her mind was spinning furiously to come up with a better approach to gather useful information that could guide her decision. Then Bashudai shifted her footing restlessly. Looking sideways at her, an idea emerged like a shaft of clear light from the haze of Bortai’s mind. Why not get Bashudai to talk to the other maguls gathered here? Whatever knowledge they offered would be guileless and therefore much more trustworthy.
Bortai made the request to Bashudai on their mental-link and waited leisurely for the results. In the interim, her eyes roamed over the various people gathered, forming their own judgements. The first personages that she contemplated on were the chieftains of the two respective tribes. Both chieftains were around the age of her own Khan-father. In particular, Bortai would estimate the age of the chieftain sitting on the left side to be slightly older at early forties, although the fact that one of his eyelids was slightly droopy made him appear even older. He was tall, stocky and the eyes of a tiger stared out of his pockmarked face. Bortai could feel that his bond with his magulanda- a gleaming dark bay, was firm and based on genuine equity between the two parties. Bortai approved. She also noted that he was probably either the father or uncle of the one who had disturbed the strings of her heart so just moments ago, as a blush crept onto her face that she had no awareness of. She had been avoiding direct gazes of him but he seemed to keep materialising on her horizon of his own accord. Bortai forcefully tore her gaze to the other side of the meadow. The other chieftain was of average height but bulkier with muscles like knolls. He had a plain practical face that looked amiable. It appeared that he had brought not his first magulanda but rather a young roan mare full of curiousity that went around sniffing at various plants. It was little wonder that the bond between them was somewhat dominated by the man, like a father guiding his young daughter in navigating the Steppe of life.
“Decision time.” The Elder proclaimed. Bortai walked with determined steps towards her choice.