Otgonbayar were in earnest conversation with his two wives when they were interrupted by a voice that requested entrance. The three of them stood to pay the customary respects but were quickly waved back down by an impatient Koketani. 'Borka had left?' she had her eyebrows raised which meant tell me more than a yes or no.

Chechi wisely kept silent while Ariga made a plea with her expressive eyes. Koketani tossed her a white eye and snorted, meaning I will have a reckoning with you, later. That made Ariga wither. In the interlude, Otgonbayar replied a little helplessly, 'We were just discussing it. She left a note saying that it was part of her Bride Test. The would-be groom has a year to track her down on the Steppe.'

'A year to track her down on the Steppe? A year!' Koketani fumed and the air suddenly felt much warmer inside the ger.

Otgonbayar cleared his throat as if to start talking but was halted by Chechi's warning glance. After they had frozen for a time as silent spectators of Koketani's frantic pacing, she stopped of her own accord. It was then that Chechi ventured to speak in a soothing way, 'We all know that Borka can be wilful but she also has sense, in her own way.'

'Sense? You call wandering off without her tailisman of status at the height of the Wolf-teeth Moons sense? And how many time have I warned you against spoiling the children and her in particular?' Koketani glared accusingly at first Ariga and then Otgonbayar.

'But children are to be nurtured without restraint so that they grow in the way they are meant to grow by Tengri.' Ariga said in that completely sincere way of hers that set Koketani's teeth so much on edge. Before she could make a retort, however, Otgonbayar coughed and reminded them in that placidly serene voice of his that a discussion of the proper way of raising children would be better left to another day.

Koketani spoke while clamping down hard on her own lower lip. 'And then this nonsense of tracking down someone within a year on the Steppe? That is not a Bride Test! That is an insult!'

'No, I do not think it an insult. It is a challenge for sure but not impossible. To ask for the Moon or the Stars, that is impossible. But meeting someone within a year? Not so if Tengri wills it. And anyway, any worthy Crunalan man loves a challenge.' Otgonbayar could not help interjecting and was alarmed when he saw her choking on whatever she was about to say next.

'Calm down, I'm sure Borka will be fine.' he said in a pacifying tone.

'Has Father told you about the new passage of the Beginning Lore sang at the meeting of Elders that just went past?' came the unexpected reply, in a trembling voice.

'No, the occasion did not arise.' Otgonbayar gave her a quizzical look, not seeing how the conversation has jumped hither.

'Then, you know nothing, nothing at all of what that wayward child has set into motion.'

Chagan felt like her limbs had turned into clay, the way they do on those rare but really hot summer days. That's why she had not heeded the call of Ogul and Sorai to go play near the Creek. But she felt bored now that she was alone. Well, not quite alone since Nachan was still sound asleep besides her. And Chagur was due to come back any moment now with the flock. Sure enough, the tent flap parted to admit Chagur with her diminutive form. Even though Chagur was four years her senior, she herself had already grown up to Chagur's shoulder and she was only eight.

Bounding ahead, Chagan smiled eagerly so that both of her dimples would show. 'Chagur Sister,' she began but was cut off.

'Now whatever do you want?' the slightly authoritative words came out of a dainty and rather pouty mouth.

Chagan was unperturbed. Instead, her smile became wider. 'How about we wake Nachan and go off for a session of sibling bonding?'

Chagur nodded her assent and Nachan was promptly roused. He blinked his slit-like eyes rapidly for a few times upon awakening but otherwise was in his obedient little brother mood. Being told that they would be going out, he dressed himself capably although, judging from his speed, he was probably still a little sleepy.

Just when the three had exited from Mother Chechi's ger, they saw several paces ahead of them Bacquder who was heading eastwards. He was thinking hard, with his brows all puckered up. Chagan headed towards him and with one out-reached hand, made to smooth out the crease above the bridge of his nose. Bacquder swatted her hand away and gave her a distant look.

'You let Elder Sister do it.' Chagan accused, clearly displeased.

'But you are not Elder Sister.' came the calm retort.

'But I am still your elder sister by birth.'

'I know you are. And?'

'And you should treat me with respect.'

'Oh, in what way have I not treated you with respect?' he said the whole sentence in an even pace, more so than was his norm.

'You...' Chagan sputtered.

Bacquder opened his mouth as if to make a further comment but Chagur broke in upon them. 'Enough bickering, you two.' While Chagur said this, she made sure that both Bacquder and Chagan would be equally exposed to that steady gaze of hers that many found unsettling because she had inherited the odd colouring of her father's eyes. In her experience, it also happened to be the most effective tool for keeping her siblings in line. Pausing but briefly, she continued. 'I know you are both concerned for Elder Sister but arguing between yourselves will not bring her back to us. There is no help for it but to pray to Tengri that the time would be soon...' What Chagur left unsaid shrouded over them. Nevertheless, both Chagan and Bacquder had loosened up from the rigid stance that their bodies had unconsciously adopted and they subsided into silence.

Seeing this, Chagur turned to Bacquder and said cordially, 'We were about to go off on a session of sibling bonding. Care to join us, Bacquder?'

After some hesitation, Bacquder politely declined, 'I have other business to attend to.' With that, he briskly headed off towards his original destination.

'So where do you two want to go?' Chagur asked her two younger siblings.

'To the Creek!' 'To the Big Tree!'

Chagur was exasperated to see a verbal battle starting between Chagan and Nachan, again. She did not intervene but rather patiently waited them out. For she knew that the two would make their peace eventually. When exactly they would do it the best shaman could not have foretold but she knew that it would occur over an eye blink. That's how erratic the two were.

True to the nature of their ‘feuds', the two children were holding hands and skipping along in a single direction already. Towards the Creek. Ah, so Chagan had ‘won' this time. Chagur wondered what ‘small boon' she had agreed to in exchange for getting her way this time. A smile had crept onto Chagur's face, replacing the detached expression that she normally wore in front of these two trouble makers.

Bortai idly cast her glance over the training ground and saw that everywhere, there was bustling activity-young warriors sparring with each other, older warriors showing youths certain techniques and individuals practising their skills with the bow. On the faces of each, there was eagerness and resolution. Then she spotted two familiar faces, that of the youth with a plain face and the sharp gaze- she had later learnt that he was a Nergei, and another that she had often seen often in the company of Nergei and him. She had not yet learnt the name of the latter. He was actually the best looking among the three youths (at least according to Crunalan standards) but Bortai did not much care for his habits of incessant talking. It reminded her too much of Nala and she felt it unbecoming for a man. Ah well, he was at least not unpleasant in feel, she thought. The two of them were sparring with each other. Bortai felt her eyes lit up. While she was originally only drawn because of the familiar faces, she was riveted by the display of their respective skills. Each was a good warrior but in completely different ways. And they were evenly matched. Bortai could see that already more than her own gaze had been drawn by the remarkable display of battle prowess shown by these two.

Where the strength of the loudmouth lied in was obvious. True to his form, his crushing blows were very powerful and he was bold in movements. Meanwhile, Nergei really took Bortai by surprise. For while Nergei was visibly shorter in comparison, he was about similar in bulk and yet he moved about a nimbleness that was characteristic of someone much slighter in build. Thus, a broad sweep or an audacious lunge would be countered with a skilful deflection or else stepping aside just in time. By now, cheers had already rung out all around, urging either one or even both of them on. Certainly, both of them deserved respect for their achievements. Bortai basked in the atmosphere of cheerful activity on the ground and felt, for the first time since she had stumbled into the Ctofalir, somewhat relaxed. However, the feeling was destined to be short-lived. As she looked upon those gathered here, she suddenly wondered how many of them would live through to the end. She had no inkling where the thought came from but it loomed up large and dark across the horizons of her mind.

Then a figure that she was learning to crave but also dread for seemingly floated into her field of vision. The sight immediately dispelled the shadow on her mind, leaving not even a scintilla of it. Yet, a new worry came to replace it. When she had set the terms of her Bride Test, she was merely thinking of stalling for time. She did not really contemplate the feasibility of the terms from the angle of his betrothed. Now that she thought about it, it seemed harsh indeed. And yet, what if his betrothed actually found her in time? What then in light of her growing attraction to him? And in the converse happenstance, then how would she contend with the nameless and unfathomable dread at the sight of him, notwithstanding her deep-seated fear of marriage itself whose source still remained a mystery to her? On top of all, there is also her memory loss and the circumstances of her ‘accident' to reckon with.

The figure made for her. Before she could dispel the spell of petrification lay on her feet by the recent turn of her thoughts, he was already there. In front of her and looking at her as if he had every right to. Bortai could feel heat assaulting her cheeks and lowered her gaze.

She heard suppressed mirth in his voice as he started to talk but it soon turned to solemnity. 'Bortani, the second Council of War has been initiated. Your attendance would be an honour to us.'

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Crunalan terms glossary

Nergei- literally meaning 'no name', a taboo name given to an orphan to ward off bad luck but also a name that carries with it stigma due to the way personal worth is assessed in the Crunalan society. Specifically, personal value is assessed first and foremost in terms of contribution to the family unit and then to the overall tribe. With teenagers and youths, it is especially the case that his/her personal worth is almost exclusively cast in terms of how far they help to advance the prosperity and status of his/her own family. Hence, given that the Crunalans are a superstitious people, the main situation facing orphans is that no family would want to take him/her in, thus by default making him/her an individual with little personal worth as assessed by his/her own society.