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The Legend of Snow Wolf Excerpt: Chapter One

“Hold still, grandfather,” Suthachai said, lifting his knife.

The old man closed his eyes, released a deep sigh, his soul escaping with every breath. Suthachai leaned forward to constrain him, and waited, waited for the uneven breathing to calm. In a moment, his blade tore into the purple cyst on the old man’s back. The old man screamed in pain, squirming against his ragged sheepskin. Suthachai watched dark fluid ooze on the ground.

“Who’s Su Ling, grandfather?”

#

Outside, the shrieking wind of the Mongolian plains announced the approaching storm. There would be an onslaught of snow and ice that night.

Suthachai sat in his grandfather’s yurt, feeding dried horse manure to a campfire that clawed the dangling pot. He was a towering, muscular warrior with piercing eyes and a heavy-set jaw. His tall nose made him stand apart from the flat-faced nomads of Mongolia.

His grandfather’s yurt was small, tattered; the thin walls of woolen felt so worn and old that wind entered at will. It was barren, except for a chest no one had ever seen him open, and a sheepskin bed both thin and rigid with age. Most Mongolian tents could be dismantled and packed away in the time of an ordinary meal, yet, the old man hadn’t moved his yurt for decades. He had few animals to protect, with no reason to migrate from season to season.

Steam levitated from the boiling water, only to vanish through the round opening on the roof of the yurt. The blackened pot, suspended by a single iron rod over the fire, began to sway with every shriek of the wind.

“Horse meat stew,” Suthachai said. It would be half a day’s ride back to the main camp, and if the storm arrived that evening, it would be impossible to visit his grandfather in the coming days. But if the Elder’s predictions were true, the old man wouldn’t make it through the night.

His grandfather shifted with a moan. “Horse meat stew?”

“With salt. I was at the border last week.”

There was no response from the old man. A faint smile escaped his lips.

The young warrior’s voice lowered. “I can speak to the Elder again. Maybe bring the shaman.”

“I don’t want the damn shaman!” The old man only managed a croaky whisper. “I don’t need anyone!”

Suthachai ignored him. His grandfather managed to lift his finger.

“Is that old rat happy now that I’m about to die? The old rat. I curse them all—their mothers, their children—I curse them all! You watch. They will all meet violent deaths!”

Suthachai drew the ragged sheepskin over the shivering body. “No one’s getting killed anymore. Get some sleep.”

“And who the hell doesn’t get killed on the steppe?”

“That was before the peace agreement.”

“Peace agreement. Ha! They named you the greatest warrior on the Mongolian plains. Doesn’t that show how little talent there is on the steppe? Bunch of cowards—it won’t be long before someone invades your clan. Then they’ll all follow me to hell!”

Bubbles emerged in the water again. Suthachai casually tossed another chunk of horse manure into the flames. The steaming pot of horse meat smelled good, but the old man couldn’t possibly sit up to eat. Perhaps he could take the food with him to the afterlife.

“Who’s Su Ling?” Suthachai asked.

“Who? What are you talking about?”

“You’ve been saying her name in your sleep.”

“Who are you to question me, child?” He lifted a trembling finger and pointed at Suthachai. “How. . . How dare you?”

A cough spasm overwhelmed him. The shriveled body racked with heavy convulsions, and in alarm, Suthachai reached over to restrain his grandfather. But the old man glared back; so intense were his penetrating eyes that the younger warrior withdrew.

Gradually, the anger left him, but the damage was done. The ashen-white face, now streaked with blood, appeared more ghostly than ever.

Suthachai felt a strange sense of relief. Perhaps the Elder was right. His grandfather would leave this world of suffering tonight.

But the old man wouldn’t go. Something continued to torture him, to eat his soul, even now so close to death. Suthachai moved closer. The muscles on the ancient face were twitching, and the fluttering eyelids wouldn’t close.

“Grandfather . . . ”

The old man lifted a trembling finger and pointed to the wooden chest.

But the chest had been nearly empty for years.

The old man shook, drops of sweat rolling down his crusty face. He opened his mouth but couldn’t speak, painfully drawing each breath, his eyes pinned to the chest.

“What’s wrong?”

The old man wheezed into another spasm. Dark fluid seeped through the bandages covering his cyst. His entire body heaved in torment, and he lifted a crooked finger to point.

Suthachai sprung the chest open. There was nothing in it except for a knife, a few rags, and a frayed water flask. He looked at his grandfather, staring, and held up each item. But the old man’s face didn’t change.

“What are you looking for?”

The old man shook with pain, tears in his eyes. He pointed at the chest again.

Suthachai looked, and this time, he noticed. The chest was tall but not deep, with space unaccounted for. There could be additional layers underneath the base. He drew the heavy saber slung across his hip, wedged the sharp edge into the side of the chest, and pried the wood apart. The bottom was loose, and in a moment, it separated.

Suthachai stared. There was a small metal box hidden underneath layers of wood. He lifted it, carefully, like it was a dying rabbit, before showing his grandfather.

Slowly, the old man closed his eyes, settled into the sheepskin, and went to sleep forever.

#

The night was dark. Suthachai held the metal box under a dim light, caressing it, his fingers tense, his heart racing. He was in his own yurt, on his own bed.

The wind began to rise on the Mongolian Plains, but his clan was well prepared. Every yurt was secured for this storm, the horses tied and blindfolded, and they slept with ease. Normally, when the western wind grew violent, the clan would begin preparing the next stage of migration. They would leave the nearby lakes and search for better grazing grounds. But this year, a great hunt was underway. The predators of the steppe were being eliminated, and over thirty clans united in a hunt that lasted six months. It almost lasted into the winter season.

Despite the daily excitement of the hunt, preparations for the winter had to resume. Winter on the steppe was brutal, and each day, men, women, and children took extensive measures to protect the tents. Heavy layers of animal skin, dried and treated after each slaughter, were lined against the walls of every yurt. Tools for cutting the frozen rivers were sharpened, large sheets of fur were sewn together, and meats were dried and preserved. The Elder said the first storm of winter would arrive in three nights, and it would arrive with rage.

Suthachai, alone, lit his oil lamp, the box clenched in his hands. He ran his fingers across the top, felt its harsh texture, and entertained the idea of burying it. His grandfather had nothing in his lifetime—maybe it should remain that way.

Jocholai was on the other side of the tent, snoring under a thick covering of animal skin. Suthachai smiled. The sleeping warrior couldn’t be awakened without a war trumpet.

Jocholai was the only other warrior in the clan who had no family. It was destiny that they grew up together. The new yurt that they shared was built well before Suthachai became known as the greatest warrior on the steppe, and every strip of skin stitched into this massive yurt was awarded to them for their courage and leadership. Suthachai and Jocholai did everything together. From the daily tasks of herding sheep to seasonal hunting and ice cutting, Suthachai always stayed close to his brother.

He turned his gaze back to the box again. It was the one thing his grandfather refused to die without seeing—a hidden possession that no one knew about, yet, the old man clung to it with his last breath. Suthachai leaned back on his sheepskin, carefully opened the box, and looked inside.

A sense of elation riveted him. It was a piece of jade, carved into the shape of a three-headed dragon, dark red yet transparent. The attached silver necklace had already turned black, but the brilliance of the jade carried an enormous, mysterious power. He traced his finger along the contours of the dragon back, a murmur of admiration escaping his lips.

He looked into the box again, and found layer upon layer of cowhide strung together by an iron ring, with dense writing on every surface.

He recognized that language—his grandfather had made sure of it. It was the language of the Chinese. Suthachai, as a child, was forced to learn these strange symbols because they enabled the Chinese to communicate without speaking, like using fire to signal the presence of enemies, only more sophisticated. His grandfather told him that, if he could master the Chinese written language, new worlds would appear before him. And every day, the old man would force him to learn.

Suthachai hated it, but learned quickly. The writings presented him with stories of war, of the rise and fall of dynasties, of warriors who relied on strategy instead of strength. He read about entire empires falling under the hands of a single woman, and warriors who lived and died for a strange set of principles.

Memories, long banished, began to surface, and Suthachai shook his head clear. Something caught his eye. The writings described his grandfather in China, that for years, the old man lived among the Chinese. Suthachai leaned over to read:

The chaos continued. So much looting and killing. The evil that people can do to each other. A few days ago, I saw a young girl slaughtered in the city for a sack of grain.

I’ve been here for four years, and I want to go home. But I agreed to stay with father so he can train the magistrate’s horses. The local government can do nothing to end the violence. They say that only when Snow Wolf returns from the South will the fighting stop and the famine end.

Suthachai moved closer to the light, skimming through the words, a drop of sweat rolling down his forehead.

I was shot by an arrow. By good fortune, I escaped the madness, and after a few days on foot, I found myself in a small village named Pan Tong Village. Most here are farmers, and like all Chinese, they worked on their knees. But here, they are kindhearted.

Especially the girl. Her name is Su Ling. She found me somehow, as I wandered close to death, and oh, I thought I saw a goddess! She was so beautiful, and so concerned about my injury. She brought me into her home, bandaged my wounds, and called a local doctor to treat me.

From the moment Su Ling spoke to me, I knew I was in love. I was a mere stranger, a Mongolian, but she cared for me to ensure my wounds were healed. I will never forget her smile, a smile I would sacrifice my life for.

Su Ling . . . I think of the woman who saved me, and I shudder.

Su Ling.

That was the name on the old man’s lips before he died. His grandfather was once in love? Impossible . . .

I was still recovering in Su Ling’s house that night, and I was awoken by screaming. I scrambled out of bed and into the living room. I saw a man in the main room, covered with blood, and Su Ling weeping and trying to stop the bleeding. The man was her father. I have never seen anyone bleed like that in my life—more blood spilled on the floor than when we slaughter sheep. I moved closer and I saw knife wounds all over his body, as if he had been stabbed thirty times. I didn’t know what to do; I only knew that when I saw the pain on Su Ling’s face, I too felt pain.

Her father died there on the floor. Su Ling wept for a long time, and all I could do was stand there and watch her. She finally told me to leave her alone. She wanted to burn some candles and incense to her father’s spirit, so he could go in peace. It was the Chinese tradition, I learned, and foreigners must not be present. She told me to go to the roof and keep watch. I didn’t know what I was watching for, but I obeyed.

Then she handed me something, a piece of magnificent jade from her father. She wanted me to protect it for her. She made me promise that I would never part from the jade, that I would bring it with me to Mongolia, where she would come for it when things settled.

I put the jade in my pocket and went to the roof. There was no one in sight.

Soon after, I heard Su Ling scream. My soul screams with her now. I rushed down the stairs, but moved slowly, like I was in a dream. When I reached her, she was already hunched over in pain. Her skin was blue, her nails were black, and dark blood was jetting out of her mouth in short spasms. I reached for her, held her, but in a second, she stopped moving, and I knew she was gone. I didn’t know what to do. I was a foreigner in a strange land . . . I ran out of the house.

Somehow, I stumbled back into the city by dawn.

I never found out what happened to her body. But why should it matter to me? I didn’t help her; I left her, and I never cared for her body.

Suthachai exhaled, leaning back. Should he read further?

The wind howled outside, shaking his tent, taunting him to a confrontation.

He folded the book, inserted it into the box, and closed his eyes. Su Ling burned incense to her father’s spirit when he died. Perhaps his grandfather would like him to do the same.

Suthachai jumped to his feet, grabbed his saber, and marched out of the yurt.

His tall stallion Arrow Head wheeled in delight when he heard the approach of his master. Suthachai peeled off the blindfolds and stroked the horse’s head like he would his own child.

“Let’s ride against wind and ride so hard that the neighboring clans think a war is coming.”

Arrow Head nodded, as if he understood. Suthachai mounted with a nimble spring and charged into the night. It would be a day’s ride by horseback, but Arrow Head, tearing across the plains, was determined to fight the wind. They reached the market by late morning.

#

The marketplace was small, cluttered, and misplaced on the edge of a vast desert where sand and dust floated. The small town of filthy stone shacks and unpaved roads were created for travelers, barbarians, patrol officials, and businessmen seeking trade across the border.

Few nomads ever rode south of this town into the heart of the desert. Beyond the desert was China, and they were never welcomed in Chinese society, never regarded as anything more than uncivilized beasts. But here, it was different. In this small town, with its scattered buildings and small cottages, nomads and barbarians from all directions were welcomed.

Suthachai drifted down the main road and passed the Chinese vendors with small booths and tables. Tea, salt, herbs, tools, weapons, all were sold on the street. But he didn’t need provisions, or salt, or tea. He came for one particular vendor.

It was a small shop, unusually simple and almost hidden. The front of the shop was merely a window with a rigid man seated inside. Suthachai dismounted. He had seen this shop before, attracted by the smell of burning incense, though this time, only the scent of dried earth filled the air.

The man eyed him, still motionless.

Suthachai walked up to the window. “You will trade for candles and incense here?” He could barely speak the Chinese tongue anymore.

The man leaned forward a little, still eyeing him. “What do you have?”

Suthachai opened his bag and showed the sheepskin. The man nodded, his expression cold. He glanced at the jade dragon around Suthachai’s neck, and then nodded again. “Candles?”

“For my dead grandfather.”

“A Chinese tradition,” the man said with a smile. “Burning candles and incense for the dead.”

He pulled out a pack of incense from small shelves next to him. He glanced at the jade again, and then smiled again. “He must have been a great man.”

“He was not.”

“Regardless. You should light special candles for him, out of respect. I’ll give you a pair as a gift.”

“Thank you.”

The vendor disappeared into the back of the store, and in a moment, reemerged with a pair of red candles. Wrapped around the candles was the print of a fierce, three-headed dragon.

Suthachai stared. “These are beautiful.”

“I’ll take one skin for the incense. These candles are yours. Thank you for spreading our tradition up North.”

“Thank you.” Suthachai handed over the skin and tucked the candles deep inside his robes. He took Arrow Head’s reigns and walked away.

The ride back was much slower, but Suthachai barely paid attention, often permitting Arrow Head to wander across the plains. He carried enough water and food, both for himself and the animal, and the storm was not due for another day. There was no reason to hurry. He closed his eyes and casually leaned against his horse’s mane.

How did she die? Her skin turned blue. Perhaps she was poisoned . . .

He shook his head. Who could’ve poisoned her? No one else was there—surely his grandfather would’ve seen it. Suthachai ran his finger along the contours of the jade. It was fifty years ago. Why bother thinking about it now?

Two men had been following him for some time. He turned, finally, tapped his heavy saber with a smile, and they slowed their pace. Horse thieves and desert robbers infested the steppe every summer and winter season, a time when travelers often succumbed to heat or cold and were at their most vulnerable. But Suthachai was clearly a warrior of the steppe, and for bandits to trail him, hoping that he would become lost, was a sign of desperation.

The sun was on its descent by the time he reached familiar grasslands. The atmosphere was peaceful, the wind calm. In the distance, Suthachai noticed scattered clouds of dust. The hunt! He grabbed the reigns and charged forward.

The incredible scale and duration of this hunt was something no one on the steppe had ever seen before. Thousands participated, and after six months, the hunt continued. Half a year ago, the wolves and leopards, already too numerous, began to attack their sheep and cattle at an unprecedented rate. The major clans of the steppe joined to exterminate them. The hunters and warriors of the steppe divided into four groups, assembled their families, their herds, and traveled in four separate directions. Then, on the designated day, those participating in the hunt fanned out into lines so incredible in length that an entire day on horseback was required to travel from end to end. Slowly, over the span of six months, the four lines closed in and chased every animal toward a central point, where the carnivores would be slaughtered and the deer and wild horses led back into the open plains.

Suthachai, often revered as the leader of the hunt, had been absent for days and morale had been low. But that moment, in the final stages of the hunt, where the circle of warriors became so dense that the gap between each man was a mere ten strides in length, he suddenly appeared. The men bellowed with excitement.

They were chasing two packs of wolves. When two wolf packs ran together, the end of the hunt was near.

Suthachai watched Jocholai barging across the smooth grass on a black horse, pursuing two gray wolves at the rear of the pack. Two other hunters followed closely behind, with arrows fitted against their bows.

Jocholai released an arrow that barely grazed his target. His companions also fired in unison, but the wolves were moving too quickly.

Jocholai shouted: “Suthachai! You haven’t killed a wolf in days!”

Arrow Head stormed toward the fleeing wolves, crashing in with such a burst of energy the wolves were forced to change direction. Suthachai reached for his bow, realized that he was too close to them, and flung it aside. With a roar, he leaped off his horse and onto a wolf’s back. The wolf stumbled under the weight, long enough for Suthachai to wrap his arms around the furry neck. With a violent jerk, he twisted its head to the side. There was a yelp, Suthachai twisted its head the other way, and dropped the carcass to the ground.

The rest of the pack was slain by a shower of arrows. Suthachai climbed onto his horse without a word and returned to his yurt. He left his friends to continue the chase. At dusk, campfires would be built around the perimeter of the hunt, and half the men would sleep along the encirclement to ensure that no predator escaped.

#

The world seemed exceptionally quiet in his yurt. Shadows heaving from the Chinese candles seemed to caress his face. The first drops of wax fell like tears. He closed his eyes to the smell of incense, and wondered if his grandfather could sense the burning candles and rest in peace.

The hunt was almost over, and outside, the clan welcomed the winter. But the sounds of laughter and celebration softly floating in the distance couldn’t penetrate his tent. Deep thoughts drowned the music of the winter festival.

The flap of the yurt was thrown open and Jocholai stuck his head in.

“The wrestling match started! Where were you?”

Suthachai opened his eyes. His face softened. Jocholai slapped him once on the back before rushing out again. “Come on! Everyone’s expecting you!”

Suthachai emerged into the open. The soft winds of the Mongolian steppe rode with the music. Women danced in a circle, people played stone-tossing games, and colorful chatter roamed through the air.

Jocholai stood beside him. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.”

“Did your . . . ”

“He died last night.”

The girls stopped dancing. A group of men began pounding their drums while young girls clapped to the rhythm. The first pair of wrestlers stepped into the circle and squared with one another. They charged, the audience cheered, and the beating drums overwhelmed the night.

Moments later, the larger of the two wrestlers stood victorious over his opponent. The audience cheered, then began to shout in unison. “Fight the number one warrior! Fight the number one warrior!” They were calling for Suthachai to enter the circle.

Suthachai stepped in. Then, at the first beat of the drum, the smaller warrior charged. Without a glance, Suthachai sidestepped, grabbed his opponent, and threw him to the ground. Second beat of the drum.

#

Her cries were an echo. Dark blood spilled from her mouth. Her screams were hollow, desperate; her face twisted. Her skin turned pale blue, her nails turned black . . .

With a roar, Suthachai sprang to his feet, the vivid dream barely faded. Fresh blood flew from his mouth. A sudden surge of pain and searing heat expanded in his chest. He grabbed his ribcage and crumbled to his knees.

He was in his yurt, on his bed. The camp was completely silent.

He dragged his hand across his mouth and stared at his fingers. His eyes widened. His nails were black, his skin pale blue, and the warm blood from his lips was dark—so dark that he thought his liver had burst.

In the distance, he heard a faint rumbling, as if thousands of horses were charging toward him. Suthachai sat back, waiting to awaken from the dream. The rumbling grew louder.

Just like Su Ling.

His grandfather. The selfish old man who saw his loved one poisoned, who abandoned the woman he loved. She died bleeding from her mouth, her skin pale blue . . .

War horns from the perimeter of the camp screamed into the night. “A raid! A raid!”

Suthachai awakened from his spell, scrambled to his feet, grabbed his saber, and dashed out the tent.

Outside, the entire camp was lit by hundreds of torches. Every warrior was charging east while the women and children retreated to the center.

Jocholai, saber in hand, came up to him on horseback. “What took you so long? I thought you’d never wake up!”

“Who’s attacking us?” Suthachai shouted. “What happened to the peace pact?”

“I don’t know. But there are hundreds of them—all on horseback.”

Suthachai bolted east with a roar, sensed Arrow Head appearing next to him, and flew onto his saddle. The enemy was approaching the camp at high speed, none of them emitting a single war cry.

Strange, Suthachai thought. Which clan would come this close and still remain silent?

The Mongolian warriors gathered around him, eager for his signal to charge, eager to watch him kill. Suthachai took a deep breath and quickly assessed the battlefield. The terrain was completely flat, with no trees, no hills. There could be no ambush from the side.

There was nothing left to do but ride out and butcher the enemy. Suthachai drew his saber and screamed at the top of his lungs.

“Kill!”

The warriors behind him charged.

Clad in the light armor of the steppe, the invaders also drew their sabers.

The wind whipped across the plains. The charging horses sounded like never-ending thunder. The two tribes rushed at each other, brought to frenzy by the smell of blood, the delight of slaughter, the fierce eyes of each warrior gleaming as they approached the enemy.

Suthachai shivered, the hollow pain in his chest expanding. No! He was too close to the enemy, too deep in the battlefield.

The pain surged. He couldn’t control the dark blood streaming from his mouth. The world darkened, blurred.

He rolled off his horse, slamming into the ground with a hoarse choke. The other warriors soared past him, crashing into the oncoming enemy.

He heard the collision of bare steel, the screams, the cries of pain . . . It seemed unnaturally slow, like blood seeping through soft soil. He supported himself on one elbow and stared. The invaders had cut a path through their defending forces and were racing toward their camp. They were after the women and children.

Suthachai forced himself to one knee, a glare of murder in his eyes. A quiver of arrows and a long bow lay beside him—both from a fallen warrior. He slung the quiver over his shoulders, fitted an arrow, quickly drew it, and fired. It sounded like a bullwhip slicing thin air. The arrow pierced the leg of an enemy horse, causing the animal to rear in pain, to stumble and collide into a nearby mount. Three men collapsed at once.

Suthachai fired again into another horse, then another. Nearly ten horses had fallen by the time the enemy turned to confront him. The pain in his chest was forgotten. He leaped off his feet and charged the cavalry. With two sabers in hand, he slashed left and right, dodging the enemy and attacking only their mounts. The animals turned wild in panic, bucking and tossing their riders, crushing one another and beginning to fall. Over thirty horses fell, and chaos ensued.

Jocholai lifted his blade high above his head. With an earth-shattering scream, he brought his warriors blaring down on the enemy again. Suthachai began to slay his dismounted enemies, springing on them like a beast, cutting them down like he was slaughtering sheep.

Soon, clouds of dust circled the air, hovering over the ground now littered with bodies. Suthachai looked on. Everyone seemed to be moving much too slowly. His pale blue skin had become deeper in color, and the nauseous feeling in his chest reemerged. At that moment, he noticed something in his hand, something that he had been holding the entire time. He must have ripped it from an enemy. It was a small necklace with a beautiful dragon carved into a wooden leaf. It was a fierce looking dragon, three-headed, one that seemed to stare at him, laugh at him.

Suthachai reached for the jade around his own neck. He placed the two dragon emblems next to each other, and his hands began to tremble. The carvings were identical.

He stood in the middle of the field, lost in thought. The image of Su Ling resurfaced in his mind, the blue skin, the black nails, the jade dragon.

Two identical carvings . . .

Suthachai climbed onto his horse, blood flowing from his forehead in a steady stream. He gazed into the distance, his eyes out of focus, his mind repeatedly envisioning the moment before Su Ling’s death.

Dark clouds hovered over him.

#

Much later, Suthachai found himself in a warm bed, the wooden leaf torn from his enemy still gripped in his hand. A thin, bony finger touched his forehead.

The Elder was next to him. “Strange poison,” the old man said, shaking his head. “I’ve never seen it before.”

“Poison?”

“Not poison from the steppe. Never seen anything like it in Mongolia.”

“How? How could I be poisoned?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know what medicine to use.”

A long silence. Suthachai tried to sit, but felt weak. He stared at the dragon carving. “Am I going to die?”

“The greatest warrior of the steppe cannot be afraid of death,” the Elder said.

Suthachai gritted his teeth. “How much longer will I live?”

“Maybe three months. You are strong. You should have three months.”

#

His grandfather once told him that to live is to struggle. Every day, the animals of the steppe must outrun the fastest predator. And every day, the predators must outrun the slowest prey.

Suthachai opened his heavy eyes. The Elder was still beside him, gently smearing crushed leaves on his forehead. The younger Mongolian breathed a sigh of relief. The Elder was the most respected man in the tribe. He understood the will of the gods, the fears of mankind, the profound medicines of the Earth. The smell of bitter herbs meant that he was still alive.

“Elder?”

“You need rest.”

“How many men did we lose?”

“Forty-six.”

The young warrior trembled. “And our women and children?”

“They’re safe. All of them.”

“And the enemy?”

“Don’t you remember? You killed most of them. The rest ran away.”

Suthachai shook his head. “It’s my fault.”

“Why?”

Suthachai reached for the jade around his neck. “My grandfather left this behind—this three-headed dragon. The wooden leaf—also a three-headed dragon. The symbols are identical. Somehow, I brought this upon us.”

The Elder took the jade and for a long time couldn’t tear his eyes from it. “Maybe the jade brought this upon us. Maybe it belongs to someone, and they want it back.”

“Elder, I’ve heard of this poison before.”

“Where?”

“My grandfather saw it in China about fifty years ago. A woman, this woman was poisoned. Like I am now. But she died instantly. I even dreamed about her. I dreamed about her last night. Her face turned blue and her nails turned black . . . Like mine. Fifty years ago, and now, it’s happening to me.”

The Elder held his hand and tried to calm him. Suthachai pushed himself into a sitting position. “She gave my grandfather this jade, right before she died, in Pan Tong Village.”

“Pan Tong Village?”

“In China. I have a map. It’s on the last page of my grandfather’s diary. I can find this village. I can find other people wearing this dragon emblem. Maybe there are answers out there.”

#

By the following night, Suthachai recovered his energy, though every time he looked down, his bluish hands reminded him of the poison in his veins. Three months left to live. The Elder said so.

“I need to go to China.”

The Elder sighed. “You’ll die in a foreign land. Are you sure?”

A forced smile. “When can anyone be sure of life or death?”

The flapping door of the Mongolian yurt seemed to beckon him, luring him into the dark, limitless grasslands. He seemed to hear the Elder suggesting that a group of warriors accompany him, but the old man’s words faded into the rising wind.

“Not even Jocholai,” Suthachai whispered. “If the invaders return, every man counts. I brought this upon my people. I can’t put them in any more danger.”

Suthachai felt the chill of the earth creep into his spine, numbing his skull, freezing his tongue. He sensed the Elder standing at the door of the yurt behind him, watching, and he was afraid to turn, to bid farewell.

Arrow Head trotted up to him. Almost reluctantly, Suthachai climbed onto his horse. He uttered a short laugh. “Survival. Is that my final destiny?”

He disappeared into the darkness. The dense clouds foreboding the first storm of winter began to gather. Then he seemed to hear the Elder, alone in the darkness, saying, “Suthachai, my boy. Survival, is hardly a worthy quest.”