The New Moon shone pale against the backdrop of black velvet that was the sky. In contrast, various constellations competed intensely in a race to outshine each other. In the centre of the Celestial River, the Two Hares bounded ahead of the stalking Fox whilst continuously throwing furtive glances behind and inevitably faltering a little in their steps. At such times, the eerily lit eyes of the Fox would shine forth somewhat brighter, heralding the great leap it was about to make in order to close in with its preys. But then, the Two Hares would unerringly find their footing again and adeptly swerve to the side such that the Perpetual Chase would begin anew. Behind the Fox strode the Hunter, who spent the Steppe and Blood Moons hunting the Fallow Deer prancing merrily above the Fox while chasing after the Wilful Maiden for the other half of the year. Just now, the Maiden was tossing her hair and laughing, keeping most of her gaze on the Perpetual Chase above her but periodically teasing and enticing the Hunter to follow on her heels. She seemed like a wholly different person from the kneeling figure who spent most of the time with her entire face cupped within her hand and only occasionally looking up to show a tear-streaked face- the Weeping Maiden as she was at such times. Bortai did not care for her in either form. She much preferred her sister, the Silent Maiden who had all of her attention fixed on interacting with the Dying Rack. Although she was not as ethereally beautiful as her sister, the sense of absorption in her own realm that she showed stroke a chord deep within Bortai.
Tonight, however, neither Bortai nor Temujin took heed of the aerial mosaic unfurling before their eyes. For they had eyes only for each other. Bortai suddenly experienced an urge to twist her hands. She stole a glance at Temujin and could see that he was also unsettled, as if plagued by an invisible itch. She chuckled inwardly at the sight- it was a long time, one and a half life time, since she had seen her husband behaving out of his element. The sight prompted another set of memories to flood back into her consciousness, the memories of their time together when he was living at her tribe to cover her bridal price. A sense of warmth suffused her, arriving on the heels of her mirth at seeing the behaviour of a youthful Temujin that relegated the cloak of nervousness holding her in thrall just moments ago.
“I came to find you.” Temujin heard a husky voice speak those words and he felt like his heart was being caressed tauntingly by a slender feather. He looked up and was mesmerised by the eyes that hung before him. Under the moonlight, it appeared to be a darker and richer colour than the usual brown common to Crunalans. Furthermore, a vein of ebony lurked within, only visible when the constellations timed their flow and ebbs such that the overall lighting was just right. He could feel the great depth in them, the seeming depository and dam of experiences unfathomable to him. In contrast, the emotions contained within them were laid open for him to see. Wistfulness, longing, admiration and a sense of promise, of love and much more. He felt a shuddering within his own spirit that became more intense when it spoke his name after a momentary pause, “Temujin.”
But that proved just the start of the fascinating night Temujin spent listening to his love tell of the remarkable sequence of happenstance through which Fate led them to each other. He remained motionless even long after she had stopped talking, almost trancelike.
Bortai glanced at Temujin. She had told all to him, again withholding the parts too out-of-place in relation to the experience of the actual Bortai belonging to this world and meant naught where it counted, or so she told herself. She knew that it might take a little absorbing before he could react- such was the nature of Temujin, one generally given over to contemplation despite occasional acts of extreme rashness. So she waited contentedly but vigilantly for the unfolding of Temujin’s reaction.
Temujin moved only marginally, like a statue barely awakening to flex a tiny part of his stiff body. Yet, Bortai caught it and smiled. Her smile became even wider when she noted the ember that burned bright in his irises. Wordlessly, she cleared away some wayward strands of hair that had fallen across her right ear and turned slightly.
The stars seemed to twinkle in merriment as the young lovers consummated their love when the man bended over to kiss the woman on her earlobe, lingering especially on the spot where she had a little mole.
Bortai’s party, now six strong, rode into the main camping ground of the Yorgu, the Northern Eastern neighbour to the Ankali. Answering to the mental summons of Borochu and Nergei sent immediately after their successful escape from ambush, their Second magulandas finally managed to catch up with them barely two days ago.
Bortai gazed with some curiousity upon the dominant colour scheme of the Yorgu, which was a dusty yellow reminiscent of the desert. Compared to the vermilion of the Ontaggarit and the simple black and white of the Ankali, it was a desolate colour, making Bortai think of decay and abandonment. But to each his own. Unlike the Mongol society that Bortai was accustomed to, which was rather unsophisticated in all crafts and manufactured goods, the Crunalans were at least highly proficient in the art of dying. The Crunalan Steppe was not just rich in lush grasses that nourished their equine brothers and sisters and herbs that had healing properties but also a variety of plants that could be turned into dyes of many vibrant and whimsical shades. Hence, while it was usual for the foundation poles of a Crunalan ger to be garishly decorated by many different colours- as she had seen upon first awakening, it was also their customs to choose one or two colours at the maximum to dye the outer layer of the gers in. It was for the spiritual unity of the tribe, so that it would not only be reflected in the essence but also by appearance through an uniform colour scheme. And the number of Crunalan tribes were plentiful such that there was no accounting for tastes among such a multitude.
Whilst on the road, the party had conversed briefly about the first of their destinations- Bortai’s own tribe, and plotted out the path they would be taking and the necessary stops in between. Like the Mongols, hospitality was an integral part of the Crunalan culture and any traveller on the Steppe could expect an offer to be taken in as a guest within a ger in the case that he did not carry one of his own. The Yorgu was the first stop along their chosen path. From what Bortai’s companions had spoken of, Bortai gathered that it had been an amiable enough neighbour to the Ankali but there was no real relationship between the two tribes.
As each of the party members had brought their own gers on this journey, they were ushered straight into the ger of the Khan for the Yorgu. This was a custom among the Crunalans. Any one guesting with another tribe would be brought in front of the Khan to share news and gossip, to find whether there could be a common lineage traced between the guest and their hosting tribe through the help of the pedigree keepers. Since Bortai was not a genuine native, she did not really understand why (being able to communicate with horses by telepathy seemed to Bortai magical enough) but somehow the pedigree keepers and the shamans were the only ones considered to wield magic in the Crunalan society. In contrast to the shamans who might dabble in many elements within the supernatural realms, the magic of the pedigree keepers was simple and focused on one aspect only. Within each tribe, there were only handfuls of these remarkable personages (of course, shamans were even rarer). Each of them could flawlessly recount the entire lineage of their clan back to the initial off-springs of the union of the Blue-grey Wolf and the White Deer- the creation myth for the Mongols and the Crunalans was virtually the same except for the negligible difference of the deer being a fallow deer in the Mongolian version. Moreover, while each lineage was recorded with the patriarchal blood as the basis, the formal names of each females who married into the lineage were equally honoured and a pedigree keeper could detect at a glance whether someone’s blood had ever intermingled with his clan with precise details of how that came about. Thus, many of a visitor was delighted to find a previously unknown distant relation among the tribe that he was guesting at, with the hosting tribe being as equally pleased.
Such was indeed the situation the party found themselves in, when the pedigree keeper of the chieftain’s very own clan declared that one of the Chief’s distant aunt from generations back was related to both Borochu and Temujin, the former being more closely related compared to the latter. Immediately, the Chief called for his sons so that the party could meet the distant cousins of Temujin and Borochu.
The party did not have long to wait before three youths barely into their twenties strolled into the ger of the chieftain. As the chieftain made his enthusiastic introductions, Bortai found the time to peruse the three of them in detail. The eldest son of the chieftain- Donoi by name, was a bear of a man. Yet, despite being the mightiest physically, Bortai would say he was the youngest if she had to hazard a guess by herself. He had both a petulance and jumpiness about him that suggested that he was well spoiled. The middle son Khalja was only marginally shorter than his elder brother but as lean as a willow. Yet, there was a certain resilience to him like well-made leather or days old meat jerky. In a way, he reminded her of Nergei although he appeared capable of devising insidious schemes which Nergei certainly couldn’t and wouldn’t. The youngest among them, Sartak, was a bright eyed lad with a cherubic face. Yet, Bortai felt especially cautious and even mistrustful about him as she could detect nothing of him beyond what he had chosen to convey of himself, which was all youthful ignorance and curiousity.
“Now I would leave all you young ones to talk.” Bortai heard the chieftain say before he promptly exited the ger, presumably to run some errands.
Surprisingly, it was Khalja who ventured to speak first. He appeared to ask casually but Bortai thought there might have been some undertone hidden within his words, “So what brings our fair neighbours here?”
The party had already decided that it would be better to keep the purpose of their journey hidden to strangers encountered on their journey, given the distinct possibility that their ambushers were still hot on their trails. Consequently, Temujin politely smiled and replied that they were planning to visit relatives living in regions further east without being more specific.
Donoi’s eyes widened only momentarily but Bortai was sure that everyone remaining within the ger caught it. Bortai’s intuition told her that some devilry was at work. Meanwhile, Donoi seemed utterly unaware that he had already given himself away. He gleefully plunged into the conversation before any of his younger siblings had the chance to utter a word and visibly gloated over this ‘achievement’ of his, as if it was a major triumph.
“So you will be passing near the Dale of Luugas?” he eagerly asked. Khalja and Sartak were far more subtle but Bortai could feel rather than actually see that they were perking up for the answer.
The Dale of Luugas was about a week away from the Yorgu territory. It was an odd landmark- a shallow gourd-shaped valley several miles in length that just occurred amidst the Steppe, which otherwise would have been an unbroken grassy plain seemingly stretching to a distance unfathomable. The party had already decided to circle around the right side of it. What Temujin replied was “Oh yes, we will be sure to travel through it. Bortani here had quite a knack for herbs.” Besides the somewhat mysterious circumstances of how it came about, the Dale was a place where many uncommon plants with healing properties grew and so it was considered a place of good rather than ill fortune among the superstitious Crunalans. Thus, it was true that many involved with the art of healing frequently visited it.
The conversation that followed was essentially an alternating sequence of clumsy probing of Donoi followed by adept evasion or diverting by Temujin. Bortai did not waste time on noting any of its details. Her mind had been long turned to probing yet another strand of the indecipherable and imperfectly formed web of schemes, hanging above but quite out of their reach, that she felt had just fallen into place.