First of all – spoiler warning! This is an excerpt from The Mongoliad: Book Three. You’ll find out things that happened in the previous two books. If you haven’t read those books yet and don’t want your reading experience affected, don’t read further in this post. (Trust me on this, as someone who saw this excerpt before finishing Book Two.)
Second, I was originally planning to write a separate review for each book in The Mongoliad trilogy, but as soon as I finished Book One I figured out this isn’t really a trilogy — it’s a very long novel chopped into three parts. Book One doesn’t really have an ending — it just kinda stops. So, I’ll review the entire thing. Soon.
Please enjoy this excerpt from The Mongoliad: Book Three by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, Mark Teppo, Nicole Galland, Erik Bear, Joseph Brassey and Cooper Moo.
The Shield-Brethren buried Finn on the hill where they had set up camp. “It is not as grand as one of those burial mounds—the kurgans—we have seen,” Raphael pointed out to Feronantus, “but it has a view of where we came from, and the sun will always warm the ground.” Given the choice, Finn had always preferred to sleep outside, where the sun could find him and warm his bones in the morning. Finn may not have been a sworn member of the Shield-Brethren, but he was a feral brother to many of them.
One by one the members of the Shield-Brethren attacked the rocky ground of the hilltop. Without coming out and saying as much, they all wanted to be the one to dig Finn’s grave, as if the backbreaking labor would somehow assuage their individual guilt. It was not that they valued Finn above their other fallen comrades—the loss of any brother was equally horrific—but each was racked with a sense of responsibility for the circumstances of the hunter’s death.
As he prepared Finn’s body for burial, Raphael tried not to let his thoughts dwell on other members of their company whom they had lost. Or even his own role in the deaths of those dear friends. With Vera’s assistance, he laid the small man’s body on Percival’s cloak—the knight refused to hear otherwise—and arranged Finn’s limbs as best he could. The stiffness that creeps into a man’s body in the wake of death had filled Finn, and one of his arms resisted Raphael’s efforts. His face, once it had been tenderly washed by Vera, was surprisingly boyish. Raphael felt the weight of his years when he saw the delicate lashes and the unlined swath of forehead clearly for the first time. Too young, he thought, to die so far from home.
And he realized how little he knew of Finn. How little any of them knew.
“Wait,” he said to Vera as she made to cover Finn’s face with Percival’s cloak. He strode to his bags and dug out his worn journal and his writing instruments. With the sun peering over his shoulder, he sat and carefully sketched Finn’s face on a blank page. There will be a record, he promised his dead friend. You will not be forgotten.
As Raphael painstakingly tried to capture the essence of Finn’s character—an amalgamation of the peaceful features before him and those memories he had of more exuberant expressions—Vera busied herself with washing Finn’s feet and hands. The leather of his boots had been soft and supple once, but months and months of being in the wilderness had hardened the material into a second skin over Finn’s feet. She tugged at them briefly, and then gave up, opting to run a knife along the thin seams instead.
“Strangely fastidious,” she noted when she got to his hands. Raphael looked up from his sketching as she showed him Finn’s palms. Calloused, as expected, but surprisingly clean. The nails were long, but there was no dirt or filth beneath them.
The Binder, Cnán, approached, and with some interest examined Finn’s hands. “Like a cat,” she said, and Raphael nodded in agreement.
“They’re done with the grave,” Cnán reported. “Though,” she snorted, “I think Percival would like to keep digging.”
Raphael nodded. “Yes, I can imagine he would.”
There had been very little conversation among the company since Alchiq’s attack on Finn; the sudden shock of the Mongol’s assault had left them all wordless. But no words were necessary to comprehend Percival’s grief at having fallen asleep at the watch.
Privately, Raphael thought it was more likely that the Frank had been captivated by an ecstatic vision—much like the one that had come over him in the forest shortly after the death of Taran and the knight’s horse. He tried to push the idea out of his thoughts though, because he did not want to face the dreadful conclusion that followed: illumination brought death to those nearby. What price was being exacted for the guidance the knight was receiving?
Vera indicated to Cnán that she should help with the wrapping of the dead. “It is time,” the Shield-Maiden said to Raphael, her stern eyes unusually soft. “No amount of drawing will bring life back to this face.”
“Aye,” Raphael agreed, and he set aside his tools. He lent a hand, and soon Finn was nothing more than a squat bundle.
The other Shield-Brethren came down from the hill and carefully carried the body to its final resting place. Without speaking, they lowered Finn’s corpse into the deep trough they had hacked out of the rocky hilltop. It was deep, Raphael noted. Deep enough that the body might never be disturbed by the carrion eaters. Feronantus waved them off, and even Percival relented, letting their aged leader undertake the task of filling the hole by himself. They stood around awkwardly for a little while, watching Feronantus scoop and pack handfuls of sand and rock into the hole. Once a thick layer had been carefully laid over the body to protect it from being crushed during the burial process, Feronantus would shovel dirt in more readily. A cairn would be raised and words would be spoken, but until then, they had little to do but wait.
Death itself was always quick, Raphael reflected, staring off at the distant horizon. It is the survivors who feel pain the longest.
“Where’s Istvan?” Vera asked.
Raphael blinked away from his thoughts and scanned the surrounding countryside. “I don’t know,” he said.
“Chasing Graymane,” Cnán offered, pointing toward the west.
Raphael vaguely recalled their pursuit of the Mongol commander after Finn’s death, the long line of horses strung out across the plain. One by one, their steeds had faltered, until only Istvan and Alchiq remained, two tiny dots dancing in the midmorning heat. “He hasn’t returned?” he asked, caught between surprise and apprehension.
Cnán shook her head. “I find myself hoping that he doesn’t. At least, not today.” She looked at Raphael and Vera, and they both saw their own pain mirrored in the Binder’s eyes. “If he is still hunting, then he might still catch him. If he comes back, we’ll know if he was successful or not.”
Vera nodded. “I don’t want him to return empty-handed either. Better he not return at all.”
None of us are going to return, Raphael thought as he turned and looked back at Finn’s slowly filling grave.
That night the company made no fire, and the stars wheeled dizzyingly overhead. The air grew cold quickly after the sun vanished in a burning haze of gold and red in the west. They hobbled their horses near a band of scraggly brush that the animals appeared to be interested in eating, and then they wandered off to make their respective prepartions for sleep.
Raphael tried to make himself comfortable. The lush grasslands surrounding the river had given way to flatter terrain, and he found the sere landscape to be oddly distressing. The muscles in his lower back and thighs kept twitching, phantom fears that the ground would suddenly tilt and he would slide away. But slide away into what? They had passed beyond the edge of the world that he—or any of the Shield- Brethren—knew. His hands pressed against the blanket beneath him, pressing the wool against the hard ground.
His reaction was not a sign of madness; it was simply a reaction to the unfamiliar. Men were drawn to civilization; only the most severe ascetic among them relished isolation. Penitent hermits craved seclusion. Being away from the squalor of humanity was an integral part of their spiritual monasticism. They could talk more readily to God in the silence of their mountaintop cave or their desert isolation.
It was easier to believe that the voice you heard responding to your queries issued from a divine trumpet if there were no other souls nearby.
But he was a soldier. He slept more soundly when surrounded by the sounds of men preparing for war. His mind was less prone to fearful speculation when he rested behind a stout battlement. Even the sounds of domesticated animals were a welcome lullaby: cows calling to one another in the pasture; the nervous clucking of chickens as they scratched in the yard; dogs, barking at shadows.
On the steppes, there was nothing but the sound of the wind through the grasses; when there was no grass, the wind had no voice, and the silence was unsettling.
He heard her bones creak as she lay down next to him. A blanket fluttered like the wing of a large bird, and he shivered slightly as the cloth descended upon his chest and legs. Her breath hummed against the skin of his neck as she pressed her head against his. Their hands found one another beneath the blanket. Beneath the stars.
Her skin was hot. Pressed against her, his mouth seeking hers, he thought they could stay warm enough to survive the night.
In the morning, there was only a fading blush of heat in the base of his throat. A lingering memento of Vera’s kiss.
“This emptiness does not go on forever,” Cnán said. “We have ridden off your maps, but we are barely at the edge of ones I have seen that show the boundaries of the Mongolian Empire.”
“No wonder it is so huge,” Yasper complained. “Do you really control the land if there is nothing there?”
The lithe alchemist slouched in his saddle, his jaw working absently on a piece of salted meat. In the days since they had crossed the river—since they had left Finn behind— Yasper was typically one of the first to break camp, and more often than not, volunteered to take point. At first, Cnán had found it odd that Feronantus usually acquiesced to the Dutchman’s request. While Yasper was not his to command, typically Feronantus would set one of the more proficient scouts riding before the company. Cnán soon realized Feronantus’s strategy: the alchemist was looking for something— a natural deposit of some alchemical treasure. As long as Yasper was keeping an eye out for anything unusual, then he would be a satisfactory scout and Feronantus could allow the other riders some rest.
Though, recently, he had been afflicted with the same malaise as the more experienced Shield-Brethren.
Graymane’s trail had led them toward Saray-Jük—not surprising, given the presence of more Mongol troops there—and with some caution they had found the place where Benjamin had instructed them to meet him. The caravanserai was deserted—nothing more than a scattering of fire pits near a stand of scrawny trees and a tiny trickle of a stream. The ashes were cold and there were too many tracks
of Mongol ponies—it was dangerous for them to stay in the area. Before they left, Cnán found the cryptic message left by the trader, a series of marks carved into the bark of one of the trees—almost as if she had known to look for them. South and east for six days, the message had read, look for the rock.
Which rock? Feronantus had asked.
It will probably be the only rock, Raphael had pointed out.
Given how Yasper tended to focus so tightly on his own little projects, Cnán suspected he might ride right into the rock before he noticed it.
While Raphael’s comment was all too accurate and would likely be the only guidance the company needed, she knew the rock. It was one of the landmarks the Binders used as they passed from the east to the west. A station in the wilderness where messages could be coded and left for others to pick up.
Some Binders, like her, traveled widely, but others stayed within a few days’ travel of where they had been born and raised. At the verge of their domain, they would receive messages and instructions from other kin-sisters, and being more qualified to navigate the dense locality, they would complete the assignment for the foreign Binder. In this way, messages could be carried across the known world and delivery could be readily assured, because the kin-sisters were never dependent upon one messenger.
Such a landmark was used by the Silk Road traders as well.
Cnán glanced over her shoulder at the string of horses and riders behind her. While she was accustomed to traveling across wastelands such as this, she could tell the tedium of riding from daybreak to sunset was beginning to wear on the rest of the company.
And they have no idea how many more days await them, she thought.
“What are you smiling about?” Yasper inquired.
“Nothing,” she replied, setting her face aright. “What could I possibly see that would provoke some humor in me?”
“That’s why I asked,” Yasper said. He sat up and tapped his horse lightly with his stick, edging closer to her. “You’ve been this way before,” he noted. “Tell me, have you seen deposits of salt?”
“Yes.” He spread his hand out flat and moved it across the landscape. “Like a dry lake. A place where the wind plays.”
Cnán laughed. “All of this land is like that.”
“No, no. Not like this. Perfectly flat. Alchemists call it a sabkha.”
Cnán shrugged. “I do not know that word,” she said, though she had a dim recollection of a Turkic word that might mean the same thing. She tried to dredge up the word, but nothing felt quite right on her tongue. “Nor have I seen one,” she admitted.
“A pity,” Yasper said. “Neither have I.”
Cnán smiled again. “There’s still time,” she said.
“I know, I know.” Yasper flapped his hands and blew out, puffing up his cheeks. This…wasteland…wears on me. I’ve been trying to find some solace in my recipes, but my supplies are terribly meager, especially after…” He trailed off, and Cnán knew he was thinking about the loss of his horse in Kiev.
When he had fled from the fight with the Shield- Brethren, the Livonian commander Kristaps had returned through the same stinking tunnels they had used to reach the Shield-Maiden sanctuary. Upon emerging from the well house, the Livonian had stumbled upon her, Yasper’s, and Finn’s horses. He had taken all three—a smart ploy to reduce their ability to pursue him. Yasper hadn’t been so distraught about the lack of his horse as he had been about the loss of his numerous satchels and jars and powders.
All of his alchemical supplies, gone.
Since then he had been trying to replenish his stores, with some mixed success. The market in the border town had supplied him with the firecrackers they had used so effectively against the Mongol war party, as well as a number of other basic ingredients. Yasper had been excited when they had first stumbled across the wormwood—the hearty plant native to these lands—but after days and days of seeing clumps of it everywhere, Yasper’s enthusiasm had diminished drastically. Cnán knew little about the alchemist’s recipes (and wanted to know very little, actually), but what she had gleaned was that all of his potions, unguents, powders, and salves were built from a carefully measured base of two or three simple ingredients.
Salt being one of those basic ingredients.
“What is it that you hope to create?” she asked, out of boredom more than any concerted interest.
Yasper offered her a wolfish grin. “Why, nothing more than the secrets of the universe, of course,” he laughed.
“Every alchemist seeks to unlock the riddle of existence by discerning the secret methods by which God constructed the world. All of this,” he gestured around them, “though this is not much, but all of the world was created through a complex set of instructions. Men have spent their entire lives trying to enumerate the multitudinous mystery of creation. Pliny—do you know Pliny? No, of course you don’t— Pliny wrote thirty-seven volumes on the natural history of the world. Thirty-seven!” He sat up in his saddle, his mood improving as he spoke. “Can you imagine how complicated this world is that God has created? Don’t you want to understand how all the various pieces fit together?”
“I hadn’t really thought about it,” Cnán admitted. “But why do you want to understand it? So that you can become a god too?”
Yasper shook his head. “That would be heresy,” he clucked his tongue at her, a grin stretching his mouth. “No, we seek to understand who we truly are, and what our true purpose is. If we can comprehend how the world was made, and learn the power of transmutation—the art of changing one thing into another—could we not give ourselves that same gift?”
“Becoming something new.”
Cnán scratched her nose. “What’s wrong with what we are?”
Yasper closed one eye and stared critically at her. “What’s right about what we are?” he asked.
Cnán, now somewhat sorry she had even asked her initial question, shook her head and stared out at the horizon in the vain hope of finding something to distract the alchemist. He was warming to this one-sided conversation, and she feared it was only going to get more confusing. “Look,” she said, sitting up in her saddle and pointing. She was not embarrassed to hear a note of elation in her voice. “There!”
Ahead of them, a thin black shape reached up from the flat ground, a finger stretching to poke the empty dome of the heavens. It wiggled, like a worm struggling to pull itself from rain-softened mud.
“Rider!” Cnán called out to the others while Yasper stood in his saddle, shading his eyes. After peering through the heat haze for a moment, he sank back down into his saddle, and the slope of his shoulders told her everything.
“It’s Istvan,” he said bitterly.
As the Hungarian drew closer, she could confirm what the alchemist had noticed as well. The Hungarian was alone.
But what chilled her was the fact that he was in front of them.
Where had Graymane gone?
The Mongoliad: Book Three will be available on February 26th, 2013.