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Mongoliad     The

Book  Three  

      By  NEAL  STEPHENSON,  GREG  BEAR,   MARK  TEPPO,  NICOLE  GALLAND,  ERIK  BEAR,   JOSEPH  BRASSEY,  COOPER  MOO           The  characters  and  events  portrayed  in  this  book  are  fictitious.  Any  similarity  to  real  persons,  living  or  dead,  is   coincidental  and  not  intended  by  the  authors.   Text  copyright  ©  2012  by  FOREWORLD  LLC   All  rights  reserved.   Printed  in  the  United  States  of  America.   No  part  of  this  book  may  be  reproduced,  or  stored  in  a  retrieval  system,  or  transmitted  in  any  form  or  by  any  means,   electronic,  mechanical,  photocopying,  recording,  or  otherwise,  without  express  written  permission  of  the  publisher.   Published  by  47North   P.O.  Box  400818   Las  Vegas,  NV  89140   ISBN-­‐13:  9781612182384   ISBN-­‐10:  1612182380   Library  of  Congress  Control  Number:  2012944823  


1241   Veturnætur   CHAPTER 1: Leaving Finn

T

he  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?” 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?” Which  gift?” Transmutation.” Trans-­‐what?”   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?    


Mongoliad Book Three Excerpt