Bortai opened her eyes to a clear starlit night. She gingerly and somewhat unwillingly slipped out from underneath her blanket stuffed full of fresh feathergrass (therefore plump and comfortable). Once she got up, however, she swiftly put on her kaftan and boots. She lifted a hemp pack that she had already stuffed full of necessities for travels onto her shoulders and managed, with the practiced ease of the past month, to exit her ger with silence.

Bortai looked to her right, towards the ger of her Khan-father. She felt her gaze lingering. She did not know why but she thirsted for his company and affection, for the sense of warmth and security that she felt around him. It was a thirst that she had felt since first lying eyes on him when she had revived from her Healing Sleep. It was also a thirst born of having been denied for a long time, a time beyond reckoning. That puzzled her but then she had gotten use to pushing it aside for the moment, along with all the other things she felt unsettled about. For another time, she promised herself. She turned slightly to take in the ger directly behind Khan-father's. That of Aunt Koka. Even though she could still not feel the same instinctive recognition of her through Blood as the rest of her immediate family, the two of them had bonded. She had great respect for Aunt Koka's sharp mind even though her tongue was likely to be even sharper. Nevertheless, it was under her tutelage that she had already accumulated (or re-accumulated) a wealth of knowledge within such a short span of time. Not just on her Craft but also various bits of herbal and other lore that she might not find as fascinating as Aunt Koka herself but certainly of great practical value. Finally, she looked across the two gers situated to the west side of Khan-father's, in which dwelt Chechi, Ariga and all of her siblings. She knew that she would miss each of them greatly on the journey, as well as Nala and Tolun. Already she was feeling a sense of nostalgia at the thought of leaving, when she had not even set foot outside the Ontaggarit main camp yet.

And yet... and yet she could not help feeling panicked at the prospect of marriage. She did not know what was so terrifying about marriage but fear came to her like a reflex. If it was due to a past memory that was obscure but still lurked within her intuition, then it must be that no one else but herself knew about it. Else everyone in the tribe was working in unison to smooth over the geal. No, then she would have surely picked up some nuance, from nattering Nala at least.

Well, it was not like she had years of time to do scouting work around one morsel of her forgotten past. It was now less than a month before the official wedding and preparations were already fully under way. Already, Khan-father and Chechi were discussing who to send with her as escorts of her bridal entourage while Ariga was throwing herself with abandon into overseeing the other details. If not for the need of re-bonding with her magulaje and scouting out the surrounding areas, she would not have tolerated this long within a household nearly gone crazy with the excitement of either those bustling in and out of her ger on errands concerning her imminent wedding or the children congregating around those so engaged and goggling at various trinkets. It took all of Bortai's composure to grind her teeth and take her own counsel rather than shout at everyone to take all the knick knacks and get out her ger and her sight, now, right from that moment.

Bortai let out the breath that she did not realise she had been holding. She ignored the feeling that she had left something important behind and the temptation to go back into her ger to check. She knew she had carefully packed everything she would need. This was surely just some excuse that her heart had concocted to trick her into staying. She set the first step forwards, on a journey that would turn out much longer (and with many surprises) than she had first expected. She looked back once with longing, to take in the full view of the gers of her most beloved. Then, determinedly she walked on ahead.

Bortai was strolling besides Bashudai along a tributary of the Mother River. They were treading softly on lush meadow grass that only reached up to the top of Bortai's boots. Ahead a group of orioles were spiralling playfully, chirping at each other, chiming in to produce a bustling but surprisingly enchanting tune. Meanwhile, nearby silver birches were reaching out their twiggy hands to fondly tease these free-spirited creatures. Bortai felt a gentle nuzzle from the small of her back. At the same time, an image of the gushing stream that they had been pacing along came to the forefront of her mind. Bortai turned back to ruffle the mane of Bashudai and waited with a light heart on one side while Bashudai went to refresh herself.

Dada. Dada. The sound of a series of even-paced hoof beats came to her from afar. Her keen ears could clearly make out that only three riders were approaching. Bortai was not particularly worried, as they did not appear to be on pressing business judging by the pace they were travelling at. In fact, Bortai looked forward to a restful afternoon exchanging news over koumiss, joining in one or two long songs and she even felt the whims for asking for a knuckle throwing match. In correspondence with her mood, she gave a cheerful wave to welcome the riders who would be surely see it at this distance.

Suddenly, they sped up. Instinct seized Bortai and in an eye-blink she was on Bashudai riding at a speed rivalling the Steppe Winds. Still, she was beseeching Bashudai to make haste. She craned her head back to look at the riders, now on hot pursuit of herself and hooting in excitement. It dawned on her then. They were Bride Raiders! Bortai made an internal growl of despair which was really more frustration. She could not believe her luck and stupidity. Why had she not thought about the possibility? The Wolf-teeth Moons were ebbing, next came the Bounty Moons. A time for marriages and seeding the next generation of capable hunters and sturdy keepers of the household who would delight in each other's company and bond to form suitable matches in a continuum adding to the prosperity of each tribe. Also a time for Bride Raiders- enthusiastic youths eager to snare a spirited daughter of the Steppe by impressing her about his warrior prowess, an attribute greatly valued in Crunalan man. It was not that the woman so caught would be forced into a marriage against her will- that would only disrupt the harmonious spirit of the tribe by creating a foolishly unsuitable match between a man and woman who could have both found perfect happiness with someone else. That was not the Crunalan way. While Bortai had been grumbling about the practice of having arranged marriages, she was also thankful that the Crunalan society was practical enough to have set many safeguards against the disastrous possibility of unsuitable matches being formed. Such as the Bride Test that was her excuse of starting this trip.

She was whisked back to the present when the shouts behind her got louder. Bashudai was tiring. Bortai could feel her muscles bunching together underneath herself. Bortai felt exasperated with what had just come up on the Winds. She had no intention of being tangled up in a drawn out ritual of courting as ‘guest' in a foreign tribe when all she wanted was to sort out her apprehensions before facing up to her looming marriage. She needed solitude to ‘let Time smooth out the crinkles of one's mind'.

She pictured a hunting knife in her mind and wielded it to cleave through the limp mess of thoughts clouding her mind. She needed calm and clarity to deal with the situation on hand. Wait... she had overlooked something. She concentrated and breathed out a sigh of relief. She signalled for Bashudai to slow now that the ‘peril' was over. For she just remembered that Aunt Koka had once mentioned that a Sister of Magul, even a trainee one, was exempt from being Chased in this way. Hurriedly, she rummaged in her pack for the talisman that would prove her status as a Sister in training which she had set aside before leaving so that she would not be easily found. Her heart sank. The feeling that she had felt when she left was no trickery of her heart. The important object that she had left behind was the talisman proving her status! She craned her head back to look how far the riders had gained on her in the interim and could feel a wail of despair rising up in her throat when the first rider was now just four horse-lengths behind her.

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Crunalan terms glossary

smooth over the geal - a geal is the Crunlan term for a splotch made on a fabric during the dying process. It is a phrase used to refer to the uncovering up of unpleasant truth.

This Chapter is slightly shorter than the others because I'm not that great with writing action scenes. Would like opinions on whether it needs more meat on the bones or not.