O Nhaama, Where Art Thou
"Ours is the soil. Come, come─come and listen to my tale. A tale of a brother most radiant─"
At this, the young men gathered around the fire chuckled.
"Most radiant indeed! But like all great tales, it began long, long ago─at the beginning, with a father, a mother, a Steppe, and a people..."
From the forbidding heights of the Tail Mountains flow many khaa which wind their way to Azim Khaat. And upon this khaat rests a great stone monument. A sacred fortress forged by the Dawn Father himself. A throne upon which his children might bask in the sun.
In its shadow lived a proud, strong people. They who were descended from Azim, they who were destined to rule. The Oronir.
And among the Oronir lived a boy born for great things.
More chuckling, followed by a hushing noise.
Magnai was his name. A full measure bigger and quieter than most youths his age, possessed of a fearsome strength that rivaled that of a full-grown warrior. He could carry a half-dozen pails of milk with ease, and wield an axe twice his size as if it were a hatchet. So talented was he that he often joined the men in their hunts, leading them to laugh and proclaim that Magnai was destined to be named the most radiant. Such things would be decided in the brotherly contests, of course, but still they patted his head and showered him with praise, which he enjoyed, as any boy would.
But what the young warrior loved to hear most of all were the tales of antiquity.
Again and again he would pester the storytellers to recount the oldest of them all─that of the Father and the Mother, their war and their children. With wide eyes and open ears he would sit as the elders spoke of the love that had blossomed between the children of Azim and Nhaama, and how the gods had come to share in it as well. Of how the gods could never be together, and of how the avatar of Azim, he of midnight scale, came to dwell amongst Nhaama's children as protector, giving rise to the Oronir.
Every time the storyteller reached the conclusion of the tale, Magnai would nod powerfully in affirmation, and return to his training without a word, his resolve forged anew.
Until, one day, after the tale had been told, Brother Magnai asked a question.
"Elder, how will I know when I have met my Nhaama?"
One with a skin to his lips nearly chokes on his drink.
Magnai's question, of course, stemmed from the Oroniri belief that the Dusk Mother, upon seeing the children of the Dawn Father, shed tears of love and longing, which upon striking the ground, rose up as counterparts to the men. For every sun, there would be a moon, for every Azim a Nhaama.
Surprised, the storyteller began to tell Magnai of how he met his true love. But Magnai grew restless, for the humble tale was a far cry from the ancient legends he held in such high regard.
So Magnai went and asked his older brothers, "How will I know when I have met my Nhaama?"
"In the markets," one said. "Our eyes had but to meet, and it was plain."
"On the hunt," said another. "When I saw her draw her bow, I knew at once that it was her."
He heard many such tales. A chance meeting, a shared glance. And then all was as it should be.
But like the storyteller before them, their accounts told Magnai nothing. From the smiling faces of those men who had been shown favor by the gods, who had gone forth and met their moons, he gleaned no secret wisdom.
But Magnai was a boy of faith. In his heart he knew that he was bound by fate to a woman of the dusk, and that when they met, they would both know.
Magnai's thoughts often turned to his Nhaama and what sort of person she might be. The Steppe is vast, and the Xaela many. She could be anywhere, among any tribe, he feared.
Now, Magnai had many sisters, and they were no less formidable than he. Whenever he tried to sneak away to play, in neglect of his chores, they would not rest until they had tracked him down. Once discovered, he would whine and protest, for he cared not for such menial tasks, but they saw to it that he completed each and every one─for which he liked them not at all.
One day, as he sullenly tended to wool freshly dyed by his elder sisters, he mused that his moon would never raise her voice to him as they did. Nay, she would be a gentle, ethereal maiden.
Murmurs, a snide remark.
Aye, that would be the perfect wife.
Later, Magnai was sent out alone by his sisters to bring home a lost lamb. As the burning sun sank low on the horizon, the boy came upon a horde of halgai thick as summer grass, drawn by the bleating of his quarry. He waded through the beasts and saved the lamb, of course, but by then the stars were out, and Magnai had no choice but to take shelter amidst the rocks with the animal and wait out the freezing night.
He woke as the Dawn Father's growing light began to blot out that of the stars. He watched as the world was transformed by the grace of Azim, as the sky grew brighter and brighter, like the cheeks of a blushing maiden, and the sight filled his heart with joy.
He mused that his moon would be this beautiful, and to look on her would be to relive this moment. She would be a dancer in the morning mist.
A groan followed by a burst of laughter.
Aye, that would be the perfect wife!
Years passed, and the young warrior grew bigger and stronger, and when he was old enough to join in the brotherly contests, he won with ease and was named the eldest. Brimming with power and pride, he led the Oronir to victory in the Naadam, and upon him were heaped still greater accolades. None were more fit to wear midnight scale than he, the most radiant of Azim's sons, the sworn protectors of the Xaela.
But for all his triumphs, for all his glory, he had yet to find his Nhaama.
One sighs; another stands to wander off into the dark and make water.
There were maidens who made overtures, of course. But Magnai was particular─very particular. "Not her," he would say, "Not her," and before long none would even bother to approach him.
One after another, brothers of the same age found their moons, while Magnai sat his throne and brooded, his mood growing fouler with each passing day. Seeing this, one of the younger offered a suggestion.
"Most radiant brother Magnai, ‘twas you who led the Oronir to victory in the Naadam, you who claimed the Dawn Throne, you who rose above all others on the Steppe! Surely it is within your power to demand that the maidens of these lands come before you, is it not? Let us send horse and yol to the far corners of the Steppe, and by the grace of Father Azim, they will return with your Nhaama!"
It was, Magnai saw, a wise suggestion.
Many maidens of the Steppe answered Magnai's call. In the shadow of the Dawn Throne, they gathered to present themselves to the most radiant, who sat in a grand pavilion with an expression most severe. At his shoulder stood one of the younger, who leaned forward and whispered in his ear.
"Most radiant brother Magnai, I give you the fairest maidens of the Steppe. I have no doubt that one among them is descended from the tears of the Dusk Mother and destined to stand at your side."
At this, Magnai nodded, before rising from his seat to inspect the line of women. He looked from left to right, studying their faces. Some looked on him with awe. Others with unease. Others still with disgust. But his eye was quickly drawn to one above all the rest.
Despite the mask she wore to cover her mouth, her beauty was plain to see. She did not share whispers with those next to her, nor did she watch him with fear like some. She was calm and composed and stood in silence, seemingly oblivious to his presence.
Magnai was intrigued. "You there," he began, stepping forward. The woman, however, stepped back with a start.
Alas, the most radiant had had few dealings with the Qestir, and was unaware that the woman had no interest in him─only his pavilion, which would surely have attracted many customers in Reunion.
A chorus of laughter, followed by calls for quiet.
Annoyed and confused, Magnai seized the woman's wrist. She froze, her eyes wide in terror.
She was weak and he was strong, and he could easily have crushed her arm had that been his intention. He himself was surprised to discover this. Still he held fast to the maiden's wrist. She was not unlike his sisters in stature, but she was graceful, and had yet to raise her voice to him. He felt his heart beat faster. Could she be the one, he wondered.
Magnai stared at her, as if searching for the answer. Searching for the color in her cheeks, waiting for her to lift her head and look into his eyes and reveal the moon of whom he had dreamt for so long. He would offer a thousand prayers in the gods' names then and there, and that day he would make plans for the greatest wedding ceremony the Steppe had ever seen...
Oh, if only!
For the trembling maiden, shrinking beneath Magnai's steely gaze, burst into tears and shook her head fervently in refusal! And in that instant, a voice thick with venom, a voice like thunder echoed around the Steppe!
"Hahahaha! There, you have your answer! Now, let her go. Unless you joy in making girls cry?"
All turned to the woman standing apart from the others. A woman clad in the blue of the undying ones come not to offer herself, but to observe the farce. Fearless, she strode forward, white hair dancing in the breeze.
She was Sadu, khatun of the Dotharl, who had fought many times against the Oronir for supremacy of the Steppe.
Smiles and nods of approval and respect.
Eyes wide, nostrils flaring, Magnai released the Qestiri maiden, who bowed her head in thanks to Sadu and rejoined the other women, who were observing the coming confrontation at a distance.
"So this is the Oronir's new khan. Though we did not meet on the field of battle, I heard tales of your feats...but none of your other appetites. How disappointing."
"Mannerless gedan. Do not presume to understand things of which you know nothing. Leave...or join the others, if you will. The sun may yet show you favor."
Sadu bared her teeth in a grin─a blue-eyed baras toying with her prey. She spied several Oroniri brothers approaching, and in a flash drew forth her staff and set the earth ablaze!
The younger shrank back in fear, and the other women fled. But, to his credit, Magnai merely frowned.
"Hah! It seems I have frightened away all your little moons. Or maybe they were grateful for the excuse?" She spread her arms wide and raised her chin, as if basking in the heat of her flames. "Your victory changes nothing. The world will not bend to your whims─much less we Dotharl!"
She lowered her head, and her eyes were full of murder and joy.
A brother raced to his side and pressed his great axe into his hand, before withdrawing once more, for this was between the khan and the khatun.
"One day," he was heard to whisper then. "One day I shall find you, my love. My lady of the dusk. My ethereal maiden. My dancer in the morning mist."
Three days and three nights their battle raged─for as long as the Oronir had fought to claim the Dawn Throne. In the end, however, neither one could best the other, and Sadu Khatun returned home to lick her wounds and dream of vengeance.
And the most radiant brother? He too returned to his home─to the brothers whose happiness he still envied, and the throne he would sit alone. All, all alone.
But who can say what the future holds?