Otgonbayar carefully moved the tent flap aside, making sure that the level of noise created by his action was just right to alert his sister-in-bonding to his presence but not startle. Once he entered into her domain, he saw an exact replica of his knitted brows in hers.

'Koka, you heard of Borka's accident?' he ventured a guess.

'No, I was thinking of the Gathering.'

'The Gathering?' Otgonbayar felt a deepening in the crevasse on his forehead. 'What tidings?'

'The usual gossip.' Koketani made a long pause, then began hesitantly. 'But... there's a change coming, a change with a faint tinge of malice....' With that, her eyes glazed over and her mind trailed off to the moment when she had just arrived at the Gathering of Sisters.

It was a day of clear sky and a playful breeze that was perfect for riding, the exhilaration experienced in the ride cleansing the mind of all worries while one's tender flesh is spared from the sharp stings that accompany a heavier draught. Qasqhai stopped of his own accord and Koketani dismounted in one fluid motion, walking swiftly towards Altansaran, her fellow Sister of the Barghun. Just then, Qasqhai snorted and stamped his hooves hard, nostrils flaring. Koketani looked towards him annoyingly and saw that the commotion was caused by the approach of her Sister of the Jarchigud or rather the Jarchigan Dream Steed- the Jarchigud's equine guardian whose name slipped her. She was about to reproach Qasqhai for his impertinence when she felt it as her stray mind brushed against that of the Jarchigan Dream Steed. A touch of... something inexplicably slimy that coated the mind of an otherwise noble creature. And then it dissipated like tendrils of smoke that never existed. Qasqhai quieted down but Koketani remained troubled. Out of an unknown impetus, she stretched out filaments of her mind towards all the equine minds present. She let out the breath that she had been holding unconsciously when she found nothing untoward. Wait... what was that she just felt? A flash of white hot indignation, of defiance? She chased after the particular thread from which the feeling came and arrived at a mind that appeared to be encased in murky crystal. When she ventured closer to get a better look, she saw a ferocious war between two colours- a ball of radiant white tinged with red against a glassy mist of black that shimmered in and out of existence... and then she was slammed back into her own body.

When Koketani came to again, she saw Otgonbayar looking at her keenly. She looked away briefly. Then, she briskly recounted all the seemingly innocuous incidents passed around as idle gossip by the other Sisters. Such as the goading of a sibling that led a boy to attempt his First Hunt before his due that was passed off as pure youthful mischief. Such as groups of men forming coalitions of unknown purposes within tribes. Such as the unconscious flaunting of wealth in the form of the glossy beads woven into her braid and a thing embroidered with outlandish frivolous patterns that she wore at her hips that looked ridiculous with the rest of her outfit- all that could only have come from the few travelling merchants that sold useless knick-knacks good only for gawping to tribes of the Crunalan in exchange for an outrageous amount of fine fur and sturdy work of timber - by a Sister whose tribe scant months ago was on the verge of being merged into a neighbouring tribe and becoming no more. Such as the inexplicable squabbling and prancing around of particular herds that only occurred when they were in heat.

Otgonbayar's gaze met unerringly with Koketani's. 'Do you think this was what the prophecy meant?' Otgonbayar's voice came out in a wisp.

Koketani shrugged but replied in the same fashion in despite of herself. 'Strife like never known before? Maybe, maybe not. How could one tell when we Crunalans pride ourselves on being descended from wolves?' she shook her head.

Both of them fell silent for a moment. 'Do you think Borka's accident was' Otgonbayar was cut short by Koketani who waved her hands impatiently.

'Let's not dig into the elusive again. What actually happened with Borka?'

'I take it you have visited her already' he did not frame it as a question but rather arched one of his eyebrows. He hid the smile that had risen up to his lips when she, his proud Koka who often scoffs him for giving in too easily to the children and thus raising them to be needy, did not deign to answer but glared at him instead.

'Well, Mushker was able to deduce through his sire-colt link with Bortai's Henarai that the little temul had died from an unnatural cause and it deeply upset him.' This time, it was he who met the arched eyebrows of Koketani. 'He, and therefore I, knows no more beyond that.'

'Qasqhai showed me glimpses of what he gathered from the herd link.But if anything could be gathered from them, it would be shards of what occurred and I simply could not make sense of them.' She outlined the images she was shown, what she was able to make out and what still puzzled her. Despite an ensuing discussion of both length and depth, many possible interpretations were raised but none ascertained to be the unerring truth.

After they had thoroughly exhausted both their tongues and minds, the two parted. Otgonbayar made a last glance backwards towards Koka as he exited her tent. He was unsettled to see a deep frown seemingly etched onto her face, as she supported her head on a single palm and stared without seeing at a single point in the air.

It was the fourth day after Aunt Koka had given her a short discourse on the Craft of being a Sister of Magul, or training to become one as it was in her case. The fact that Aunt Koka has seemed truly seemed appalled that she had forgotten it all stayed on her mind. So too did the pure disbelief she subsequently felt told that when apparently, being a Sister revolved around the ability to converse with any and every maguls- the Crunalan term for the four-hooved creatures with a long tail, an athletic body covered with a long mane and a slender neck and visage. In particular, only a Sister could communicate with the Dream Steed, the head of the Herd local to one tribe's territory. It was also a Sister's responsibility to teach the craft of such communication to all the males of the tribe after their Rite of Choosing at age seven when they have attained approval to form a bond with their First Magulandas, the equine version of an anda or blood brother bond between two Crunalan males.

As Bortai lay on her bed reflecting, she had the impression of something jarring about what Aunt Koka had been re-teaching her about her Craft during her daily visits these few days. Sometimes, she would attempt to spark Bortai's memory by teasing her, suddenly stopping half way through an explanation of how to actually practice this skill in the hopes that Bortai would say something in despite of herself. Bortai could tell that Aunt Koka did it out of genuine concern for her. So she had come to accept the presence of this elder woman in her life, even if she still could not figure out how it was possible that she could recognise the majority of her social circle except for one person. She had finally put it down to the peculiarity of her condition. And yet, whenever Aunt Koka tried to draw out her missing memory on the Craft, the odd feeling would come. In particular, she felt that the whole concept was so alien to her, as if it was the first time that she had encountered it. It might simply have been the unfortunate result of her memory loss but compared to how she had still retained an instinctive sense that she truly should be where she was now and that those immediately around her were precisely right- she could easily embark on conversations with no obvious handicaps despite her memory loss because she still had a good sense of the unique nuances underlying what it meant to be a Crunalan on a deep level within herself, her feeling of unfamiliarity with her Craft definitely felt wrong. But how could such a conundrum exist? She truly had no idea and it was not even the first one of such that had been plaguing her mind lately. Bortai felt frustration mounting and had the greatest urge to grind her teeth together. But she knew that there was naught to do except hope that her memories would return of their own accords and enlighten her. She made a few slow breaths in and out to invite calm back.

Just then, Aunt Koka entered into her ger. She gave Bortai a warming smile and enquired about her injury. Bortai replied that she was well and then a thought flashed past her mind. She put it forth to her Aunt Koka as a question, 'Aunt Koka, it just came across my mind then, from whence do we Sisters draw our ability to communicate with the Dream Steeds? How did it come about that no one but us can do so?'

'Had I neglected to mention this?' Aunt Koka looked slightly embarrassed, 'It must have slipped my mind.' Bortai knew what Aunt Koka had left unsaid was that she no longer expected that any of Bortai's memory would just return as if they had never departed in the first place. Consequently, she no longer tried to bait Bortai in their conversation to see whether a casual mention of something might lead to the slightest of remembrances on Bortai's part. It hadn't, not during the past three days.

'A passage in our Beginning Lore runs thus:

Amidst the days of unchecked invasion of the sands, a steed came forth

into the dream of the Propitious One.

From this, a pact was forged.

A pact exchanging companionship and loyalty,

akin to that pledged between the blood of two men,

in exchange for guidance and wisdom of the Herd.

A pact that shall be honoured until the day

when other pastures are conquered and prosperity to both are to be had .'

It refers to the pact made by our ancestors with the Herds that run wild on the Steppe bowing to no Masters, unlike what those travelling merchants make of maguls- draught animals, what indignities!' Aunt Koka had started to fume but then caught herself. 'You probably have forgotten,' she sighed before continuing. 'but our people had not always been living our lives as wanderers across the Steppe. Back then, we had yet to learn that the encroachment of the Ulagh Gobi on the Steppe will be ever-present. Through our ignorance, we were effectively accomplice in such invasion that threatens our own livelihood. In our time of need, the Dream Steeds, the heads of the Herds as you already know them to be, stood forth in the dream of the First Sister whose name is lost to us now after all these years, and offered us a chance. A pact was forged. In return for guiding us to green pastures whenever the need arises and sharing equine wisdom with us on other affairs that have an influence on the welfare of our tribes, we will provide companionship, loyalty and respect equal to the gesture of generousity of our equine brothers and sisters. Eventually, we will be leading them to other green pastures in places far from the Steppe and other Herds that are worth of being integrated into their bloodlines in a future generation. We do not know when this glorious day referred to in the passage will come but I wish I will be there to witness it when it comes!' A steady glow of pride, anticipation and hope for the future was in Aunt Koka's eyes.

The actual passage recited by Aunt Koka and the lore she subsequently retold were both new knowledge for Bortai. However, the term Beginning Lore seemed to evoke a vague sense of familiarity. Yet, at the moment, she found that she was driven more into the character of this First Sister. 'Is it also lost how the First Sister was like as a person?' Bortai had a wistful look in her eyes.

Aunt Koka nodded. 'I'm afraid so.'

Bortai's lips curled downwards. 'So originally, it was only the First Sister that had the ability? How did it spread?' Bortai frowned, puzzled.

'Yes, at the start, it was the First Sister who was the sole one with this remarkable ability. All the others who took up the Craft after her were able to do so through the talismans that she made herself for each of them so that the Dream Steeds can each choose the most suitable one to which to bond to.' Aunt Koka responded in a dreamy voice, as if she was witnessing those yore days and being held enraptured by what she witnessed.

'But have you not said that the Craft cannot just be wielded by anyone, that it is more of an ability? How then is it that a talisman is the basis of how our Craft originated from?'

'You were forever the impatient one, I was just getting to that.' Aunt Koka gave Bortai an indulgent smile. 'These talismans were not mundane items that can be wielded by anyone. Only those of the Deer form that are right for the talismans can make actual use of them. In the hands of others, they might as well be ornamental knick-knacks.' Those of the Deer form... Bortai felt that the term was somewhat but not entirely unfamiliar to her. She could well guess that it referred to those like her, Aunt Koka, Chechi, Ariga and her sisters as opposed to Khan-father and her brothers, as it is the belief of their people that they are descended from a union of the Wolf and the Deer.

'How does one know whether one would be right for one of these talismans?'

'You close your hands around one of these and you just know. We of the Deer form have our own Rite of Choosing and that is the time when testing is done on whether we are fit for being a Sister. We do not speak of such experiences to anyone else but neither do we lie about something as important as this.'

'Is there ever more than one right for a single talisman at one time?'

'There are often more than one that fits a talisman at one time. All who find acceptance with the talisman is accepted into the Sisterhood but not all are officially recognised outside of it. You, as the chosen Sister of your generation, carry with you a talisman- though not one of the original ones as you are still under training, signifying your position. Your sister Chagur, though she is strong enough at the Craft to bond with one of the Rogue Maguls, does not enjoy the privileges of our position. It is the Dream Steed who ultimately determines who he will be bonding to as kin. This girl that he chooses is the only one who he will be trusting with his thoughts, intuition and wisdom for the duration of his life. The rest who are congruent with a talisman assist the chosen Sister of their generation and devote their time to studying other aspects that have important impacts on the Craft such as how the Herd will behave differently due to weather fluctuations, changes in the soil and other manifestations of Tengri's will.'

'What are these privileges that we enjoy?'

'Well, no one will dare raise a hand against one of us. Also, we will never be abducted by the Bride Raiders, those silly youths thinking having brawns is all that is needed to win over a woman. Not that they will do anyone any harm but it's just tedious to be brought as unwilling guest into a foreign tribe and have to go through the formality of being courted.'

'Has there ever been a man who was right for a talisman?' Bortai asked on impulse, saying the term man somewhat hesitatingly because she was not sure whether the correct way to refer to them was those of the Wolf form.

Aunt Koka shrugged. 'They have never been tested. But I would say no, since they all had to be taught after their Rite of Choosing.'

Just then the tent flaps had been hurriedly brushed aside to admit a man looking to be about the age of Bortai's Khan-father. His face was quite regular shaped, in that his chin was like one of the edges of a piece of timber cut to be part of a cabinet. Overall, he looked to be quite a serious and upright person. Bortai also felt that she could go so far as to hazard that he could possibly look severe on occasions. He was clearly winded and from the splotches of dried blood on the sleeves of his kaftan, Bortai deduced that he was just back from a hunt. This was confirmed by his own words.

'Borka, I just came back from the hunt and I heard about your accident. What happened? How are you feeling now?' he wheezed out.

'You are? Sorry, I lost all my memories and they have not come back.' This is the second time that Bortai said similar words and she idly wondered whether this man is somehow related to Aunt Koka.

'I'm your Uncle Huyag.' Unlike the others close to her, he did not seem overtly upset by this revelation but merely frowned. Bortai also took interest in the fact that he was her maternal uncle and thus, elder brother to Aunt Koka. And it came to her that she had previously neglected to note that Aunt Koka had never talked about her own family- her birth family since she had remained single, somewhat unusual for her age. Was this related to how she had forgotten all of the relatives from her mother's side, as it seems? She had never known her mother but surely a pattern of non-recognition of all of her mother's surviving relations does not follow on from this fact. It made her wonder again whether her ‘forgetting' her aunt so thoroughly was merely coincidence or...

Bortai looked across to Aunt Koka and saw that she had gone quite stiff and was unconsciously wringing her hands. Uncle Huyag's gaze must have travelled with her own. It was then that she saw, for the first time since he had entered, his composure temporarily taking leave from him. He appeared positively taken aback at the sight of Aunt Koka, then his entire face froze and a palpable chill emanated off him. Oddly, Bortai found that this reminded her of Aunt Koka (the two siblings definitely shared nothing in common in terms of outlook) although she had never personally witnessed her losing her temper, yet. However, she imagined this would be what her Aunt Koka was like when she did so.

Aunt Koka had visibly shrank from Uncle Huyag's cold gaze. 'Elder brother.' she mumbled out a greeting with a lowered head.

The air in the ger only turned more frigid. 'I will come by later. Rest well.' Uncle Huyag told Bortai and then promptly stomped out.

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Crunalan terms glossary:

temul - an affectionate term to describe someone or a creature that is free-spirited, sometimes so much so as to cause troubles. In fact, it originated from description of the look in a horse's eyes, that encapsulates his will to run where he pleases despite of the will of his rider (note: a real Mongolian vocab. with similar meaning).