“Khan-father, Uncle Huyag came to visit me yesterday. He and Aunt Koka… they did not seem to get along?” Bortai tried to ask casually.
From the set of his shoulders, Bortai could already deduce that this was one of the topics that her Khan-father felt uncomfortable with. He sighed, “It’s true.”
If Bortai could sit up, she would be leaning forwards at this point. Her Khan-father must have read her thoughts. “I cannot give you the details. It is bad to revive talk of such unpleasantness in the past, like rubbing a still raw wound. But yes, your uncle and aunt had a fall out, when they were barely youths.”
“I assume Aunt Koka was at fault?”
“I agree that Koka owed Huyag a debt that could never be repaid. We were all relieved that Huyag at least decided not to call upon it. As for being at fault, I do not think one could attribute blame so cleanly. After all, it was merely her nature coming forth. One can hardly fault a hawk for slaughtering a hare because it is his nature.”
“Her nature being?”
“Full of pride, like you, my erdene.” Khan-father gave her one of his indulgent smiles. Bortai instinctively knew that the term erdene meant something valuable and that one cherished even though this was the first time she had heard it since waking up.
“And the scar never healed in the long period that went past? Has anyone ever tried to… well, try to make them re-bond?”
“I…” he picked up his words briskly but a tinge of something had crept into his voice. Something too complex- it contained tiredness, sadness, regrets and a myriad of other emotions, for Bortai to completely analysis in so short a time. “I tried but I failed them.” Like I failed your mother. Otgonbayar thought but did not say to his eldest daughter, who brought status to his household. To him, she was also the greatest of all the erdene that was his children though he loved all of them.
“How about others that tried? Have they all failed as well?” Bortai persisted.
“Borka, you do not yet understand that there are some things that are better left as they are until time smooth the edges out of them and wear them thin. There are some grudges that can never find resolution. These would ultimately be better left alone from outside influence. Words from one who is away from the centre of it might well be impartial and reasonable. Yet, precisely because they are impartial and reasonable, they do not soothe the hearts of those trapped within of grief, anger, despair, all that will haunt you until the end of your days.”
Tears came unbidden into Bortai’s eyes but she knew not why. What she did know was that she felt a strong resonance in her heart to her Khan-father’s words, especially regarding the ineffectualness of impartial advice. There are some struggles that one has to bear alone and a voice of reason is often poor defence against the turmoil of feelings arising from within. Bortai became aware of a phantom-like mass in the pit of her stomach. Droplets of water fell down from her eye sockets and she cleared them away with the back of her left hand.
“I understand, Khan-father.” She sounded different even to herself, like someone with mild difficulty in breathing.
Even though Bortai could, for some inexplicable reason, empathise with Khan-father’s logic, she still felt knowledge of the dispute between her uncle and aunt lying heavy on her mind. She said as much to her friends Nala and Tolun one afternoon when they came to her ger. She was still confined to the bed and they would come to keep her company every few days. Despite initially finding Nala’s loquaciousness to be somewhat repellent, she had quickly grown fond of their company. In fact, she found that the three of them formed quite interesting contrasts amongst themselves. She herself was proud- not as apparent as her Aunt Koka who seemed inborn with something that elevated herself beyond others but she certainly felt the embers of it in her spirit, as well as strong-willed. She found that she did not particularly crave company but she had come to cherish the times with her family and friends. In contrast, Nala was forever eager to be the centre of attention and it seemed to Bortai that she almost had a fear of being alone. And then Tolun, sweet smiling Tolun, she seemed content to listen most of the times.
“Taika, are you going to meddle in the affairs of your uncle and the Sister again?” Nala immediately responded.
“Again? Have I done much before the accident?”
Nala rolled her eyes. “None of the elders want to dabble in it. But you have surely kept your hands busy. You would arrange to have your uncle visit while the Sister is in your ger or bring the Sister along to visit Elder Gugun whenever you know your uncle is also there. You think neither of them saw through your ploys? They humour you but naught comes from your efforts.”
Bortai knew that the Elder Gugun that Nala referred to was her own maternal grandfather, one of the respected few whose elderly age made him no longer suited to participating in hunts and warfare and so had turned to safeguarding the tribe with his wisdom and memories. Bortai has not yet seen her own grandfather as he seldom walked about the tribe, instead being imposed on by the ailments that came with age to wait in his ger for visitors. It did sway her a little that as the father of the two siblings whose relations had come to such an impasse, her grandfather had chosen to not involve himself. His body might be frail but Bortai knew that his mind would still be sharp, else he would not have been entrusted with the position of Elder at all.
Despite this, she still argued for her original tactics. “But should one give up merely because one’s efforts prove futile rather than continue striving for success? How would one ever succeed then? I understand forgiveness is no one else’s right to give except Uncle Huyag’s and I would not be binding him into giving it. But I could at the very least steer him towards seeing that it’s possible and in his power to forgive, thereby freeing both of them from the hold of the past. Is not disharmony within a family bad fortune for all?”
“Hush, Borka. Do not speak openly of such. A malignant spirit might seize upon it to do real harm.” Tolun spoke in all seriousness, which conflicted with Bortai’s conception of her as being ever comfortably practical. But she had always known on an instinctive level that her people were superstitious.
“Fine, but I still ask this of you: while inaction has its place, wherever has it led to good on its own?”
“Borka, I do not argue with your logic, nor with your rightful concern for the Sister. But I think you should not dwell over long on it. Rather, is it not more pressing for you to try to get your memories back?”
Bortai found that words have come up short for her. Yes, that should indeed be her priority.
“I think you should rest now.” With that, Tolun left Bortai to her thoughts, leading Nala away by the hands.
Bortai breathed deeply of the scents of fresh grasses and morning dew. She made a full pivot on her toes and opened her arms out wide, laughing in her slightly husky voice. The grassy plain that stretched out beyond the furthest horizons echoed with the deep trill of her merriment. Bortai felt a profound sense of liberation as if she had finally come back to where she was meant to be after eons.
“Borka, what are you doing? We are not here for idling.” Bortai heard her aunt Koka’s admonishment and swiftly turned around with an unctuous smile on her face. Despite her initial wariness over not immediately recognising her aunt-mentor, she had grown truly fond of this ivybloom of a woman. As for her troubles with Uncle Huyag, she wanted to help as repayment for her affection. However, she had decided to heed the advice from Khan-father and her friends and stay her hands, until she could regain her full self.
“Aunt Koka, you know how I’ve been bed-ridden for the last month, and that’s not even counting the time I spent in the healing sleep.” Bortai pulled a sour face at the word “bed-ridden” and made furtive glances at Aunt Koka to gauge her reaction.
The way Bortai was stealing glances at her did not escape the sharp eyes of Koketani but what shot out of her mouth faster than her thoughts was, “One long song, no more dithering.” With that, she set off to study and collect a sample of that plant with smoky grey blooms and whose leaves are bordered with soft tassle-like filaments that so intrigued her. “And you should be grateful for the fact that you are only bed-ridden for a month after breaking your leg. Do you think that any and every who had done so were so privileged to have been treated by the most renowned healer of all Crunalans and the Sister who had the most extensive knowledge of herbs on the vast Steppe together?” she tossed back over her shoulders to her wayward niece as if speaking of a casual thought.
A whinny came from Qasqhai. An image of a mother hen making a great show of being a female wolf intruded upon Koketani’s mind. Koketani knew that was Qasqhai chiding her for pretending to be gruff when that was not what she really felt at all. She pretended not to take notice. A rapid series of pictures came from Qasqhai again and she knew that they were his way of saying “the human folly of hiding their true feelings.” Koketani felt her heart tremble for the briefest instant. A tiny whoosh of air came out of Qasqhai’s nostrils, his way of sighing. He shared with her fragments from his own memories- of a strong glossy mare being chased by many stallions, of the stallions fighting among themselves to claim her, of one in particular accidentally killed by flaying hooves in the fray. Then, the images dissolved and reformed into wolf pups, born of the same litter, at play. First, they chased each other’s tails, licked each other, and then they fought a little with their claws and milk teeth and then they went back into cordiality again. Koketani knew what he was driving at, it being an old argument between the two. This time, she simply let him know in very firm terms to mind his own equine business. In return, Qasqhai snorted and firmly reminded her that it is his right as part of the pact made long ago to look after the welfare of a Sister to which he is bonded to, her tribe and the Crunalan society at large by association. At that, Koketani chose to break off their mental communication. She signalled to Bortai to let her know that her lesson would commence, now.
Having appeased her appetite for soaking in the moment of glorious elation, Bortai obediently came on the beckoning of her Aunt Koka. They had already gone through the basics of what it meant to be a Sister of Magul but having been confined to her bed, she had no chance to pick up on her actual Craft. Instead, most of the time was spent on revisiting, or rather her being re-taught, some of the periphery aspects of it that her Aunt Koka insisted was foundational to their calling. Today, at last, she was about to reconnect with what she thought was the real crux of it but she was not going to let Aunt Koka know, of course.
A light tap knocked on Bortai’s conscious and she instinctively followed after the trail of hoof prints towards its host, her Aunt Koka’s Qasqhai, the Dream Steed of the Ontaggarit. She was surprised by the touch of an equine mind, its texture being more dense- an earthen dense- than her own. It opened up to her and she entered with courtesy. Or rather, tried to enter with courtesy. For at that moment, she felt locked into place. Immobilised. She panicked and tried to wriggle free. She fell back a pace. Relief flooded her and she tried to move forward again, towards the open path before her. Frozen, again. This time, she calmly took a backwards step on her own accord. When her eyes came to meet with Qasqhai’s, she knew that he was as puzzled as she was, at his unanswered invitation. Bortai quickly stole a glance at Aunt Koka but saw that she was absorbed in her own world. She breathed out a sigh of relief. She motioned Qasghai to silence and sent out a tentative plead for letting her try again. He nodded once and soon she saw the broad path leading into his mind. This time, no mishap befell her and she had her first taste of an interesting conversation with a noble creature. However, the impression of the ‘accident’ of that first time of their mental contact stayed with her long into her dreams that night, and afterwards.