'Borka!' 'Taika!' Two melodious voices precipitated the entry of their owners, two of the most prized flowers of the Ontaggarit.

'Nala and Tolun,' Bortai greeted her sole two friends with a smile, 'what errands have you two come on today?'

Nala crinkled her nose and pouted. 'Do we have to come on errands rather than simply for the pleasure of your company?'

Bortai put out her hands with palms facing upwards and then lowered her arms down so that they hung loosely- the Crunalan gesture for conceding defeat. That earned a smile from Nala but in a moment Bortai saw her big eyes starting to rove in that way that bespoke of the planning of some mischief. Bortai started to dodge to the side but it was already too late. Soon a peal of giggles reverberated within the ger. It only ended when Bortai could barely gasp out a plea for forgiveness. Bortai cast a reproachful glance at Tolun. 'And you just sat there?' Tolun shrugged as if to say what could I do? Then she proceeded to feign the condition of being overcome with fear by lightly patting her own chest. Bortai rolled her eyes at Tolun but let it go at that.

Suddenly, goosebumps rose up on the back of Bortai's hand and she turned back to see two depthless wells sucking her in. After shaking off the temporary enthralment induced by the sight, she fended off the shapely hand reaching for her armpits with ease. She smirked when Nala hung her tongue out and tried to take on an innocent look with her eyes. Bortai made a show of setting her features to a stern expression and only grazed Nala with the corner of her eyes. 'Haven't I already told you not to stare at my back in that way again?'

Nala hung her head and mumbled in a voice audible to all within the ger, 'But I was just trying to get a closer look at one of the three Flowers of the Ontaggarit, who was about to wed off to the young Wolf of the Ankali'. The smile froze on Bortai's face when she heard the words 'wed off' and she didn't hear any more. She felt as if her heart was seized by a sliver of cold. Wed off... to whom? How soon? She became dazed with the tornado of thoughts whirring in her head.

She came to when she felt a pair of warm marmoreal hands closing over her own. She lifted her head and saw the unspoken question in Tolun's eyes. Bortai shook her head lightly to indicate that she need not be concerned. The gesture also seemed to have cleared her head. It was no longer ringing with a mad cluster of notions vying and interposing over each other. Then an idea occurred to her. She tuned into Nala's gabbling once again, hoping to glean some more information on her impending marriage. Meanwhile, she did not neglect to send Tolun an appreciative smile, to which Tolun returned a composed nod. This entire exchange, of course, was lost on Nala who was so self-absorbed in her own speech that she remained oblivious to all else. It went on like this for a while- Nala pouring a torrent of words while Bortai and Tolun mostly listened and interjected here and there. Bortai was soon rewarded with the answer to one of the questions plaguing her- her marriage will be in three months' time. She also learnt a few aspects (amidst a jumble of pure chattering and hearsays) of the tribe that she would be marrying into, such as the fact that the chieftain of this tribe was anda or sworn brother to her own Khan-father, that he was respected as a ferocious fighter and that it was a tribe with many strong hunters and warriors.

At one point, the lethargy that Bortai felt at the incessant prattling of Nala must have finally penetrated through her haze of excitement. For her roving-eyes expression had come on again, followed by her whispering conspiratorially, 'Have you thought of a suitable Bribe Test yet?'

Bortai gave her a blank look, which met with her exaggerated gasp. 'Have you forgotten that even?'

Bortai did not even bother to reply.

Thwarted, the corners of Nala's mouth turned downwards. But she dutifully proceeded to explain the matter. Apparently, it was a traditional custom that allowed a woman the opportunity to gauge the measure of her would-be husband before the misfortune of an ill-chosen union occurs, as wont to happen as a large number of Crunalan marriages are arranged by parents. It was not that such misfortune could not mended. Far from it, Crunalan women had always been fully entitled to divorce her husband if she found herself in such happenstance and would not carry any smear to her name as a consequence. Nevertheless, an ill match and subsequent divorce might drive an irksome spur between the woman and her birth family. As this was seen as boding ill not only for the immediate and extended family but rather the spirit of the entire tribe and the Crunalans overall, the Elders had long decreed that this custom had to be upheld in all circumstances.

Bortai's eyes lighted up. She had no inkling of why cold fear would seize her at the thought of marriage but she was determined to take things into her own hands rather than sitting idly by and letting Fate blow her hither and tither.

At Borochu's urging, Temujin and Nergui had agreed to go on a short trek with their most recently bonded magulandas. However, before the three had even set foot out of Temujin's ger, Temujin suddenly doubled over. Just as inexplicably, he straightened up again and waved off Nergei, who had dashed to his side like a gust of wind and was about to take his arm into possession. It was an odd feeling that seized Temujin, not of pain but something else as intense. That made him feel like his heart was a tovshuur whose strings were being plucked to play a tune of equal parts longing and melancholy. He was puzzled when he felt it, but also enthralled in a way. He sensed the feeling sinking into his being and becoming one with himself.

When the three youths filed out of the ger one after the other, their hearts became soft as gubei juice when hailed by an enchanting smile on a face made exquisite through large limpid eyes. Temujin saw an immediate change coming over Borochu and Nergei. They acted as if drunk on the bounty of their First Hunts. Borochu kept stealing covert glances at her at every opportunity. As for the ever unassuming Nergei, he had that staring off into far-away look in his eyes that might escape all others except the anda that grew up with him within the same ger. On the other side of them, little Temulen seemed completely ignorant of these undercurrents of amorous attentions. Mentally, Temujin shook his head at the three but remained neutral from their affairs, as custom dictated in such matters.

It was not long that Temulen bade farewell to them and flitted off on some girlish pursuits of her own. The three youths sent out a mental call to their respective magulandas and not long after, three young stallions pranced into view. Temujin and his two friends ascended onto their backs with fluidity. As they did not have any pressing business, each deferred to his magulanda to run at his own desired pace. Being barely out of colt-hood and still excitable, the three fine equines set off at a brisk trot and then not long after, brought their brothers-on-two-legs onto a truly exhilarating journey across the lea. That is, for any worthy Crunalan, others might find it harrowing.

After the three pairs of man-horse andas had fully indulged their appetites for racing, Temujin, Borochu and Nergei paced for a while in companionable silence. Then Borochu, ever the most energetic of the three, led out a loud hoot of laughter that resounded all around them. He drooped his arms across each of his andas' shoulder and then stopped. He felt an inexplicable tautness in their bodies. He looked at each in term, in puzzlement. 'What ails you two?'

Temujin and Nergei exchanged glances. It was Temujin that finally spoke up. 'Are you not troubled by what Khan-father just said?'

'Of what in particular?' came the reply after Borochu had thought for a while.

Temujin gave him a suffering look. 'Didn't you think that what Khan-father last said was... well, let's just say inopportune.' He placed emphasis on the words 'last' and 'inopportune'.

Borochu looked across to Nergei and was met with a light but firm nod. 'A little,' he admitted but then shrugged as if to say what did it matter? Before the other two could comment, he calmly asserted, 'The wind blows where it pleases.' To this, Temujin and Nergei finally nodded and fell silent.

It was again Borochu who spoke first, gazing intently ahead at the vast expanse of undulating grasses. 'Sulan oenga naisha.' He stated in his deep bass, which had acquired a perceptible edge of steel normally absent. An ember lit up his glossy black pupils. 'I would become a renowned warrior known throughout the Steppe!' he announced in a volume that the whole Steppe could hear and the ending notes of his proclamation fanned out and ricocheted all around.

Look always ahead and beyond . Borochu's assertion of the old Crunalan dogma lightened the fog stifling the hearts of Temujin and Nergei so much that it became but a piece of gauze as thin as cicada wings. Nergei saw an image forming morsel by morsel in his mind's eyes. First, there was just the outline of one cheek. The chin was slightly angular but not unpleasantly so and it was distinctly feminine. Then, the corner of one lip was revealed and already he could make out a tell-tale upwards twitch. Just as it shimmered into being, Nergei felt his heart fluttering its wings and took off unerringly towards that that tiny image of the lip that he would recognise no matter how miniscule a portion of it was presented. Then the butterfly of his heart flitted to the right and then upwards, inching its way along the pair of luscious lips, lingering over each bit that has been gently grazed by its wing-tips. When the full image of that pair of lips had fully formed, his eyes drank long and hungrily of it. The same ritual was repeated with her slightly pudgy but still charming nose, her laughing eyes and her eyebrows shaped like the supple limbs of a willow tree. Then the image twinkled once, rippled over and turned into that of his erdene (or treasure) with a silent, capable, totally self-assumed and yet unassuming warrior striding at ease besides her. Nergei felt a pang in his heart. The two seemed to be engaged in light conversation. Temulen was smiling and happiness glittered in her eyes like starlight. Then she seized a part of his kaftan to pull him closer to whisper in his ears. He made a half turn to accommodate her and Nergei gasped. The warrior was him, but not quite him. It was an kuai him. Nergei's eyes misted over with wistfulness. And then the image shifted again. This time, he- still the kuai him, and Temulen were sitting in their ger, playing with a new-born babe. Their son . Nergei felt suffused by warmth and unquestionably euphoric. Then, a strong breeze came onto the Steppe and the image disintegrated into motes that were buffeted amidst the wind.

Ahead and beyond... Temujin frowned. He had never thought about it much. In fact, not at all.... except for the days when he felt restless like there was an invisible itch that he could not scratch. He was hafin, one of the contenders for the position of chieftain of the Ankali succeeding from his Khan-father. But he had never thought that he had to be the one to take up the mantle. Others- Borochu, Nergei and the other hafins, were just as capable as himself to lead the tribe onto prosperity. In his mind anyway, just in different ways. That is not to say that he did not take his status as hafin seriously. Quite the contrary. A large portion of his time was devoted to learning under Khan-father, the Elders and visiting Mother. He had moved out from Mother's ger now that he was preparing to be wed to the Erdene of the Ontaggarit. He felt his heart beating faster at the thought. Even though he had never seen his would-be bride, she had a reputation of being a true daughter of the Steppe and was training to become a Sister. He had high hopes that she would provide as wise counsels to him as his own Mother to Khan-father and that they would together raise as fine a family. Despite of himself, he smiled. Khan-father, Mother, his younger siblings- Hasar, Hachiun and Temulen, second-Mother Engnai and his second-circle brothers Behter and Belgetui. Each and every was dear to him in their own ways, even emulous Behter who was full of conceit and always argued for a larger share of the hunting catches than his due. The bond of the Blood called for him to guard them well and honour them with joy. In fact, that was what he had been pursuing. But beyond that, he was at a loss. Once in a while, he could feel the distant call of something arising from a yawning pit within himself. That would bring about a bout of fretting, listless pacing about. Yet, he was truly hard pressed to define what was that call truly. Just when his brows were coming to interlock with each other, a hearty breath from Yosani jolted him out of his reverie.

Temujin looked up and saw that the sky was already a grimy off-yellow colour characteristic of approaching sunset in the Wolf-teeth Moons. He looked across at his two andas and saw that Borochu was still in a state of exuberance while Nergei had a wistful look in his eyes that he had not yet had time to hide. He sighed. 'Let's go back.'

The three of them rode back in silence, each rather self-absorbed in thoughts of times ahead.

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Crunalan terms glossary

tovshuur - a two-stringed lute

gubei - a fruit whose juice is rich and smooth

kuai- an ideal or pinnacle state