On the northern bank of the Onon River, a grove of willows and birches rippled in the heat. Hoelun gripped the reins of the horse that pulled her covered cart. The gently rolling green land, bright with wild flowers, would soon grow parched and brown. Spring and early summer were no more than a brief respite between the icy winds of winter and the scorching midsummer heat.
Hoelun's robe and leather trousers lay next to her, under the square, feathered birch head-dress she had worn at her wedding. A short woollen shift covered her; she had shed her other garments earlier that morning. Her home was under the curved covering of her two-wheeled wooden cart--the frame and felt panels of the yurt she would erect in her husband's camp, the trunks that held her pots, clothes, hearth, jewellery, and rugs, the bed where they would lie.
Yeke Chiledu rode at her side, his back straight under his quiver of arrows. His bow was inside the lacquered case hanging from his belt; his short, trousered legs hugged the flanks of his chestnut horse.
At fourteen, Hoelun had known that she would be married before long, yet her wedding had been upon her as swiftly as a summer storm. A month ago, Chiledu had come among the Olkhunuguds to find a wife, and had seen Hoelun outside her mother's yurt. By that evening, he was speaking to her father of the gifts he would offer for her; before the moon had grown full once more, she was Chiledu's bride.
Chiledu turned his head, and the faint lines around his small black eyes deepened as he smiled. His teeth were white against his brown skin; his face was broad, his cheekbones flat. He was eighteen, his moustache only a light sprinkling of hairs above his mouth; two coiled black braids hung down from under the wide brim of his hat.
"You should cover yourself," he said, accenting his words as his Merkit people did.
"It's too warm."
Chiledu scowled. She would put on her clothes if he ordered it. The young man suddenly laughed. "You are beautiful, Hoelun."
She flushed, wishing he would say more, remembering all the words he had used to praise her golden-brown eyes, her small flat nose, her thick, braided hair and pale brown skin. She had closed her eyes during their first night together, unable to stop thinking about her father's mares and the way his stallion mounted them. Chiledu's quick thrusting inside her had brought her pain; he had moaned, shuddered, and withdrawn, to fall asleep at her side a few moments later. The next night had been much the same; she had hoped for more.
Chiledu turned and scanned the horizon. On open land, any danger could be seen from afar, but here, with patches of wooded land by the river, they would have to be more cautious.
They rode slowly towards the Onon's narrow stream. The river was shallow here, barely more than a small creek; they would be able to cross it easily. A small flock of ducks were feeding upriver. Chiledu trotted towards them. Further up the bank, he dismounted, took out his bow, and crept towards the distant flock.
Hoelun pulled at her reins; the cart rolled to a halt. She untied the spare horse from the back of the cart and led the animal to the water. Long fingers of willows and birch trees came nearly to the edge of the opposite bank; in the distance, a massif abruptly jutted from the land. Tengri, Heaven, was a vast yurt under which parts of Etugen, the Earth, thrust upwards, reaching towards its roof. The mountains, with pines and larches that hummed and sighed whenever the wind stirred them, were places of spirits, of voices that might whisper to shamans, of ghosts that might enter the bodies of animals to protect a man or lead him to his death. The slender stream of the Onon trickled as it flowed over the rocks; running water also harboured spirits.
Upriver, Chiledu was intent on his game, his bow raised. A shadow moved under the trees across from Hoelun; a twig cracked. She turned towards the sound and saw a man with a falcon on his wrist. The stranger leaned forward on his horse, his shoulders broad under his long, open coat, his eyes tilted, but also long and oddly pale, unlike any eyes she had seen. She tried to cry out; her voice caught in her throat. The man suddenly vanished among the trees.
The spell of those strange eyes was broken. "Chiledu!" she shouted as she tugged at the horse. "Husband!" Chiledu had not even sensed the stranger's presence; she wondered how long the hunter had been watching them. "Come quickly!"
He ran towards his horse, his game forgotten. She glimpsed the stranger riding around a small hill before trees hid him once more.
"What is it?" Chiledu called out as he reached her.
"I saw a man there, under the trees." She pointed. "He rode away. You had better go after him and see--"
"And leave you unprotected?"
"He was alone," she said.
"He might want me to follow him. He could have friends nearby. Water the horses, and then we'll go on."
They crossed the Onon and moved north-west. Chiledu rode ahead of the cart. Hoelun touched the flank of her horse lightly with her whip. Here, the land sloped into hills, slowing her pace.
The cart rattled as she rounded one grassy slope. The stranger had not greeted them, or held out his hands to show that he meant no harm, but maybe he had not wanted to provoke Chiledu by gazing openly at his unclad wife.
Such thoughts were not keeping her fears at bay. Clans of Mongols roamed the lands to the south, and she knew that they were enemies of the Merkits; Chiledu had told her about their raids. Resentment clogged her throat. She would not be worrying about the unknown hunter now if Chiledu had kept his men with him instead of sending them ahead to his camp after the wedding. He should have been more alert, and not so certain that he could protect his bride alone. He had been thinking only of how he could enjoy his new wife during the journey, instead of waiting until she raised her tent in his lands.
"You should have gone after him," she muttered, "and put an arrow into his back." Chiledu was silent. The sun hung overhead; she thought of the cool shade under the distant willows where they might have rested.
She urged her horse on, then heard the distant thunder of hooves. She looked back. Three riders were moving towards them from the south. A small hill hid the men for a moment, before they reappeared.
Chiledu rose in his stirrups, then galloped towards a nearby hill, trying to lead the men away from her. She lashed at her horse and the cart bounced and swayed as the animal broke into a trot. The three men raced past her after Chiledu; she recognized the stranger. He grinned at her, his greenish-brown eyes filled with a wild joy.
The men soon disappeared behind a distant hill on which an obo stood. The shrine was a small pile of stones with a spear jutting from the mound; she whispered a prayer to whatever local spirits the obo honoured.
Chiledu could not have carried her on his horse; that extra burden would have ensured his capture. His only chance was to outrun his pursuers. She trembled with rage at her helplessness. Her husband had failed her. Maybe that meant he deserved to lose her.
Chiledu burst out from behind a hill; he was riding back to her. She tensed, then stood up as he galloped towards the cart.
"What are you doing?" she shouted, as his chestnut gelding skidded to a halt. "I saw their faces when they passed--they mean to kill you."
The young man panted for breath. "I can't leave you here."
"You'll die if you don't. Go--you can always find another wife." Her words were more bitter than she intended. "You may call her Hoelun in memory of me, but save your own life now!"
He hesitated. The three strangers rounded the hill. "Listen to me." How could she convince him to save himself? She clutched at her shift, then pulled it over her head and threw it at him. "Take this as a keepsake, to remember my scent. Go to your people, and come back for me with your men later."
Chiledu pressed the garment to his cheek. "I will come for you, Hoelun -- I promise you that."
He lashed at his horse, then galloped away. His looped braids beat against his back, then were tossed forward as he glanced back at her one last time. The three strangers neared her; they whooped and circled the cart. For a moment, she thought they would let Chiledu escape, but then they rode after him. She stared after them until she could see only four small clouds of dust on the horizon.
Hoelun sank to the seat of the cart. Despite Chiledu's brave promise to come after her, it was not likely his people would trouble themselves over one stolen bride. The Merkits would wait before they sought vengeance for this wrong. By then, Chiledu would have another wife to console him.
She was still naked, except for her oxhide boots. She reached for her robe, pulled it on, and tied the strings at her waist. Even if she fled on the spare horse, she did not know where she could find safety. Her bow lay behind her, but she made no move to fetch it; forcing the strangers to kill her would gain her nothing. The pale eyes of the hunter had told her that he wanted her alive.