The day had dawned clear and bright. Early in the morning, Bashudai had sent a mental image of a stream lying still as an azure cloth with stars of white sparkling out of it. The equine brethren of the other party members had made the same requests. Consequently, the party was basking in the sun near a stream that was recreated perfectly by Bashudai. Occasionally, the tip of a swishing tail could be seen above the surface, gleaming resplendently of hues of ruby and obsidian in the sun.
Plop. A pebble had been thrown into the stream and a ripple tarried before coming into being as if loath to disturb a perfect scene. Plop plop plop plumb. A hailstorm of stones were diving into the water and the clamour they made startled the school of fishes previously weaving in and out of the currents just beneath the clear surface of the stream. Now these fishes dispersed in all directions, frantically twisting their tails to get away with all speed. Bortai turned her head and craned her neck to look upwards at the perpetrators of this disturbance- a sizeable group of boys slighter younger than herself and Temujin. The leader of the group was an odd-looking youth, by Crunalan standards at any rate. It was mainly due to the fact that he was gangling, a very rare physical trait among Crunalan males who tended to have bodies that both appeared and were well-formed. He was a clear exception. However, he was not bad-looking overall, having inherited his father’s sunny disposition. Bortai recognised him straight away. It was Songkun, Nalan Khan’s only son. It had been so long that she could no longer remember his exact features but Bortai found that she took an immediate dislike to his thread-thin lips. Not because she believed in the old Chinese adage that those thin-lipped do not treasure old favours and relationships but because her intuition told her that it was an apt reflection of his acerb nature.
By this time, the party had all stood up facing the group of newcomers, with Temujin and Bortai in the lead. At this distance, Bortai could see the gleam that had come onto Songkun’s eyes after he could see her clearly and she found that her dislike of him deepened. Then he stopped about ten paces away from her and stood sizing her up, as if she was not a person but some kind of commodity that could be traded. That made Bortai practically livid. How dare the little brat , she thought in gritted teeth. Then Temujin deftly stepped in front of her, blocking off Songkun’s invasive gaze. Looking at Temujin’s back, a memory from long ago awakened in her and the two images from her two separate lives merged and became one. Bortai was cast back in remembrance to the time in their previous reincarnation when she was holding onto and sleeping behind him after he had rescued her and his other mother from the Merkrits as they were riding back towards home. She relived again of how relief and a sense of security (which she had never knew was so important to her) had flooded her then.
While Bortai was lost to reminiscing, Temujin and Songkun locked gazes on each other. The right corner of Songkun’s mouth twitched upwards in a half smile but it was not a particularly pleasant sight on him, given his narrow lips. Furthermore, the smile did not travel up to his eyes. On the whole, his half-smile was faintly menacing.
“You would do better to keep her hidden in your ger if you do not want other men’s gazes on her. She is certainly worth what ten stallions carry on their backs of the finest quality fur.” A smooth voice stated casually but Temujin had no time to appreciate how pleasant the voice was. He bristled at the implied insult to Bortai and the remaining members of their party tensed in preparation to follow the lead of Temujin.
Unpleasant laughter jolted Bortai back to the present. Songkun should count his blessings that Bortai did not herself hear the words he had just spoken. When Bortai came to, she realised that it must have been some time when she was lost in her own recollections. She was a little worried of the fact that they had now been hemmed in from all sides by Songkun and his lackeys. They were solely outnumbered. Moreover, it was simply bad form to quarrel with the members of the tribe that one was currently guesting at, even notwithstanding the caution that they had decided to adopt around foreign tribes that they visited ever since the warning they received at the Yorgus.
The sky had become entirely motionless, as if it was holding its breath for whatever uproar that would soon befall. A palpable tension hung in the air, like a bowstring already drawn taut. No one dared to make a sharp intake or out-take of breath for fear that it would somehow ignite the invisible sparks of flame hovering above and around them. Yet, all gathered were gripped hard by an unseen force, muscles rigid and knuckles white.
“So that’s where you all are.” A deep, rich and cultured voice intruded into the scene. The voice of Nalan Khan. He had brought with him a sizeable group as well.
“Khan-father…” Songkun was headed off by Nalan Khan’s warm introduction of Temujin and the rest of their party members before he had the opportunity to utter another word.
Bortai marvelled at how it came so naturally to some to be a pacifying influence wherever they went. In a sense, Bortai was reminded of her own father whilst observing how Nalan Khan was able to turn the atmosphere completely around in so short a span of time. It did not perturb her that she would find a strong semblance between one of her potential enemies and one of the rare few who are precious to her, as she might have felt in the modern era. She felt more of the ingrained trappings of that life crumbling and falling away from her as days flew by in her current incarnation.
“Oh, I had almost forgotten. I came to invite you all to the feast that we would be holding tonight, in honour of our respected guests as well as the Winter Equinox. It would be a great pleasure to partake of meat and koumiss along with our brothers and sisters of the Ankali. I am sure that you would humour us?” Nalan Khan seemed more polite than was his norm but probably that was because he wanted to further diffuse the unpleasantness with Songkun. At any rate, it would be rude for the party to decline the invitation so Temujin graciously accepted it on behalf of them all. With a contended smile, Nalan Khan led the now large procession of Neermus back towards the direction of the main camp.
After a period of silence- long enough for the Neermus to be well outside earshot, Borochu spoke in a whisper, “Did anyone else have the feeling that that little brat look like someone we know?” He had a distant look in his eyes, as if he was still concentrating so that he could pull out from his mind who exactly that someone was.
Bortai was about to enlighten him but Nergei got there before her. “His son,” he simply said whilst nodding off towards the direction that Nalan Khan had just walked off in.
The other party members exchanged glances with each other, troubled by such a revelation.
Temujin, Bortai and the rest of their party were fully gathered outside their gers at sunset. It had been a day of heavy fog all day and just now, there appeared to be a hazy fire raging across the full expanse of the sky. It seemed to bespeak of discord to come. The lump in their stomachs had all of a sudden gained in weight. Still not intolerable once one got used to its heaviness but certainty become a weightier burden than before.
The party walked silently up to where the preparation for tonight’s feast was already underway. Multiple cauldrons, each big enough to cook mutton stew for twenty at least, were already laid out in position above stacks of firewood. Fresh bounty from the hunt today- two gazelles and one yak, were just being carried across by sturdy men to where they could be slain afresh and their meat prepared the Crunalan way. It was also the exact same way that the Mongols prepared meats. Bortai suddenly felt eager for the meal ahead. She had never tasted meat as succulent and original in taste in her modern days despite the great variety of cuisines available along with the astounding developments in spices used and the fusion of different styles. Those were pretty much lost on her, it was only after she came back here that she realised what she loved best was the traditional Mongolian – or she should say Crunalan now, cuisine. The meat dishes, at any rate. Bortai reflected ruefully that the vegetable dishes were altogether a different thing. No matter how hard she tried, she could remove much of the unpleasantness taste contained within the raw vegetables and it was time like this that she started to miss somewhat her modern life where she could gain easy access to fine salt rather than the coarse salt lumps that were quite bitter in taste. She could perfectly empathise with Khan-father on being such a meat lover even though she herself always played accomplice to Chechi in making sure that he would consume a fair share of vegetables whenever the whole of their family gather for a meal together. She smiled fondly whilst recalling how childish her Khan-father behaved at such occasions.
Even though it was merely Winter Solstice, darkness had already fallen and so bonfires had been lit all around the rectangle of open ground that they would all be sitting down within. In fact, some have already settled down at spots that were to their liking while others walking towards their seats intermingled with designated helpers still milling around on this errand or that in preparation for the official start of the feast. A Mongolian feast would be just like this , Bortai could not help thinking as she gazed upon the bustling activities around them.
Bortai was about to steer the party towards a place where they could remain obscure amongst the crowd but Temujin grasped at her hand to pull them off towards another direction. When Bortai looked at him questioningly, he turned his head towards the right. This brought her gaze to a place still a fair distance in front of them where she could see Nalan Khan beckoning them to come sit next to him. Seats of honour truly.
“My fellow tribe members, it is a pleasure to gather together with you to celebrate the Winter Solstice. But of equal pleasure to us is that our brothers and sister of the Ankali will be joining us tonight in the feast. Let us rejoice!”
With that, a loud cheer erupted. As the official representative of them all, Temujin stood up and paid the return respects by first gazing all around at the gathered Neermus and then, with a self-confident smile, nodding his head firmly once.
The night quickly moved on in a cheery sequence. Both the food and the koumiss tasted good in the uplifting atmosphere. The Neermus had an especially skilful player of the Morin Khuur, or horse-headed fiddle, who was capably accompanied by a few other instruments traditional to both the Crunalans and Mongolians. The party had much fun in either joining in the ranks of the instrument players or the Biyelgee dance what occurred simultaneously at the pace of the music. The particular variety of Biyelgee practised by the Neermus required one to squat while leaning slightly backwards, which was slightly challenging to the uninitiated. However, Bortai, Borochu and Jelme were soon thoroughly lost in the rhythm and the music.
“And now, we have come to the highlight of tonight- the wrestling matches. May you all find your opponents worthy!” Nalan Khan announced to boisterous cheers at the height of the feast. Bortai suddenly had the feeling that the highlight for them tonight had also just about to start.
Sure enough, a group of youths had come up to Temujin, of which one or two Bortai distinctly remembered as trailing after Songkun from their encounter earlier in the day. Bortai’s brows furrowed. Despite her premonition, this was not what she had expected. Neither would anyone else mindful of protocol. Wrestling was one of the three manly skills in their society and while an annual competition was held where all tribes were invited, it was seldom that guests were invited to participate in wrestling matches. This was for none other than the practical reason that a bruised ego associated with losing a match might serve as a hidden flint to conflict and feud between two tribes. Although not banned outright, inviting a guest into a wrestling match was certainly an act frowned upon by the Elders. While the Crunalans do encourage competition and combat between tribes as a means to keep the Blood forever fresh, petty feuds and anything that could be an instigator for them has no place in their society. However, Bortai could well see why Songkun had asked his followers to undertake such a sensitive endeavour. After all, he was in the tender teenage where one was prone to not think much beyond personal gratification. How could he resist the opportunity to have Temujin humiliated in front of his own woman? It would be an additional boon if Temujin’s failure would alienate him among the other males of his own party. Then Bortai’s knitted brows loosened of their accords. From the expressions of these youths who were obviously not beyond goading Temujin into acceptance if need be, Bortai knew they had misjudged Temujin based on his leanness. Bortai smiled amusedly at the thought of the surprise that they would get. It was true that Temujin was a competent fighter, he was leaning towards being all-rounded and as such did no outstanding expertise in one area. However, they had not counted on the fact Bortai had taught him quite a few tricks, which she had learnt from her aunt Koka who is a very skilled wrestler indeed.
The participants sorted themselves into three groups so that three wrestling matches could occur at the same time. Like the Mongolians, Crunalan wrestlers did not heed things such as different age or weight between contestants so that the sorting would normally be more or less random. However, this was clearly not the case this time. Temujin became part of the second group along with most of the lackeys of Songkun and a few other youths while Borochu and Nergei ended up in the third group with the remaining. They drew straws to determine their order of competing and ordered themselves accordingly from left to right in the middle of the square, where the cauldrons had already been cleared away. As luck would have it, Temujin was somewhere close to the middle of the queue. With the rule being that the winner of matches would keep on competing until he lost, this meant that he was bound to come up against Songkun’s lackeys sooner or later.
Bortai looked with interest at the opening dance that each contestant participated in before the actual matches. She had already seen the style adopted by her own tribe and Temujin’s, which was the kharailtaa- modelled on the bounding of deer and the magshikh (mimicking the prancing of wolves for the Ankali and further having two other variations being the lions and tigers)respectively, exactly as they were in her Mongolian days. She idly wondered which one the Neermus used since she had never seen it first hand back then.
After she had seen the first movement, however, passing interest became genuine fascination. It was a variation of the devee which was based upon imitation of the take-off posture of falcons or phoenixes. Distinct from either the kharailtaa that was just energetic and merry or the magshikh that mainly conveyed of power, the devee was a highly elegant dance. And yet, the devees she had seen before appeared a crude impersonation of the style she was seeing now. In the Mongolian devee, there was really little difference between the two different versions until the very last posture when the ‘phoenix’ would shake out its magnificent tail. Although Bortai had not yet seen the other version of Crunalan devee, she knew that this would be not so. It was based on subtle impressions but she could tell from the start that this particular version of the devee was definitely modelled on the phoenix, that legendary species of birds appearing in the lore of many Oriental cultures. The majestic grace of this dance would befit no other avian species.
Then, the matches started. Although Bortai was fair at the act of wrestling herself, she did not really pay much attention to the short bouts that went past (the matches themselves were never timed but to make sure that the celebration does not run too long into the night, the zasuuls- on-field guides and coaches, would intervene more heavily in slow matches at the start). She did find Crunalan (or Mongolian) wrestling of somewhat more interest than modern day wrestling but then either was more of a pursuit that appealed to males. It was not until Temujin had come on that she got drawn back into the present. Because of her inattention, she had no idea of his first opponent’s skills. It wasn’t one of Songkun’s followers, that much she was sure of. He was already a full grown adult, at least mid-twenties from his looks, of medium height and compactly built. He was slightly winded by which Bortai presumed that he had made a few consecutive wins already. His eyes shone with eagerness.
Temujin gazed at his opponent calmly. After observing him for three matches, Temujin felt that he had a fair measure of the man in front of him who was starting to get drunk with his own successes. It was written not just within his eyes but throughout his posture. Yet, there was not harm in starting slowly and cautiously. Temujin knew that by now the zasuuls would be interfering less to hurry the matches along so that the contestants had more time to get the feel of his opponent.
When the next opponent came on, Bortai’s instincts told her that it would be a hard match for Temujin. He had a body shape much like Temujin’s- not physically powerful but with a latent strength. However, Bortai could also detect a visible difference between them in terms of the depth of that strength. Temujin’s was barely a small well while his was a hale river well fed from the source. He was of course many years Temujin’s senior but had a face on which age does not tell. He gave Temujin a friendly smile, and yet it was also a highly confident smile, like a master would pay to a novice.
After toppling his opponent, Temujin himself sat panting on the ground. Yet, he had a contended smile on his face as he listened to the cheers and applause that the audience had dedicated to him.