Serpent Daughter – Snippet 02
“Kanawha is lost. What makes you think you can find it?”
A week’s journey from Montreal, with the valleys of Quebec behind them and surrounded by rocky, snowcapped peaks, the giant Chu-Roto-Sha-Meshu, son of Shoru-Me-Rasha, let Tim Dockery go.
The eight-foot-tall redheaded man, known to both his prisoners as Mesh, stood at the edge of the light thrown by their tiny fire, leaning against the flank of one of his mastodons and stroking it with his left hand as he stared through thick pines at the darkness below and behind them. “Very good, Dockery,” he boomed. “You can leave now.”
Dockery was startled from his reverie. He’d been contemplating escape. He and Kinta Jane Embry had been contacted in Montreal by the giant, and had taken him for an ally, until the giant had killed the third member of their party and taken them prisoner.
“Go where?” Dockery spat tobacco juice. “We’re in the hinterland of Acadia now, there ain’t a settlement within days of walking.”
The giant grinned, his enormous teeth shining in a horizontal line that nearly split his head open. “There are settlements in the Outaouais. Even a tracker as poor as myself should be able to locate a hunting party within a few hours, and possibly a village.”
Mesh pointed his spear at Dockery. Taking that to be a command, Dockery stood. He shrugged, adjusting the wool pullover frock on his shoulders to center it and straightening the badger pelt on his head. “You . . . hungry?”
The giant squinted, the firelight flickering around the clay-colored skin of his face and making his eye sockets look cavernous. “I have had enough of you. You are no longer welcome at my fire.”
Kinta Jane stood, alarm on her face. Mesh whistled sharply and both his dogs, each the size of a small pony, lunged forward to seize Kinta Jane’s match coat in their teeth and pull her back to the ground. They did this without uttering a sound; dogs couldn’t bark at all in Kinta Jane’s presence — she claimed that she had a dog’s tongue in her mouth, and Dockery hadn’t pressed for more explanation.
“Why?” Kinta Jane demanded.
Mesh pointed his spear head at the woman, but turned his eyes to Dockery. “I will not explain myself to either of you. Dockery, leave now, or I kill Kinta Jane.”
Dockery choked. “No,” he said. “No, I’m going.” Mesh was right. Dockery would be able to survive in the cold, even if he might not immediately find a hunting party. Kinta Jane was from New Orleans, and suffered from the winter weather.
“Take your rifle.” Mesh smiled.
Dockery scooped up the long weapon — his Missouri war ax and knife were still on his belt — and stumbled into the cold darkness.
He owed Kinta Jane no debt of love, though she was, practically at least, his superior in the Conventicle. Thinking of her receiving a spear wound filled his heart with too many dreadful images: Gert Visser, dying impaled by that same spear on a tree; Julia Stuyvesant, once Dockery’s lover, carrying Dockery’s unborn child to a wedding with the Emperor Thomas Penn, and the horrifying void that was all Dockery could call to mind when he tried to imagine that child’s eventual fate.
In moments, the yellow light of the fire was gone, and Dockery was plunged into moonless darkness.
The snow was thick and crusted with a thin shell of ice, no new flakes having fallen in two days. While he gathered his thoughts, he marched quickly and kept to their trail — the mastodons, or shu-shu, as Mesh called them, cleared a broad and manageable trail with their bodies, and since they had zigzagged up a steep incline to reach their camp, retracing their steps had the added virtue of quickly putting Dockery out of Mesh’s line of sight, in case the giant decided to shoot him in the back with his enormous bow.
What was Mesh doing? He had held them prisoner by their own fear of violence rather than by any explicit threat, and claimed to be taking them to his people. Dockery and Kinta Jane had gone along out of fear, looking for an escape opportunity that had not yet materialized. They had also gone along because they had been looking for an ancient ally among the giants, someone or some group called Brother Anak. Mesh knew about Brother Anak and the secret alliance, so traveling with Mesh, they seemed to be at least close to being on the right track.
But why cast Dockery out now?
Surely, Mesh wanted Kinta Jane to himself.
To offer her a secret bargain? To beat information out of her about the Conventicle, or about its great enemy, Simon Sword?
To eat her?
Dockery stopped. He shivered from the cold creeping up under his pullover frock and around the edges of his badger-pelt hat.
He had to rescue Kinta Jane. This was the opportunity they had been waiting for, or at least, Dockery could turn it into that opportunity. With fingers growing stiffer by the moment, he checked the firing pan of his rifle and then turned to look back up the hill. The fire was a distant twinkle, a mere Biblical jot.
He could leave her. Dockery had the skills to return to Montreal on his own. He’d been raised by hill folk outside Pittsburgh, counterfeiters who preferred making their own trails to taking William Penn’s tollways, and he’d lived for years with Wild Algonks. He owed Kinta Jane Embry a duty by their mutual association with the Conventicle, but that was all.
Surely, that shouldn’t be enough duty to hold him.
And yet his feet didn’t go anywhere.
She was a woman, and in danger.
“Dammit, Dockery,” he growled.
“Do not move,” an unknown voice behind him whispered. “Or I will kill you.” At the same moment, a razor-thin wedge-end of cold metal touched Dockery’s neck.
Best to believe the voice.
“If you snuck up on me and I didn’t hear you,” Dockery said, “you’re an Indian. Up here, I’m going to guess some kind of Algonk. Cree? Or could be, what, Mi’kmaq or Mohawk?”
“Lay down the musket,” the voice said.
“Your English is good, anyway. Méti?” Dockery obeyed, pushing the butt of his musket down into the snow and leaning the barrel against the nearest pine trunk. “I’m friendly. Out here on a matter relating to three brothers.” He was holding his breath.
The other man hesitated. Was that surprise? Confusion? “I have two brothers,” Dockery’s new captor finally said. “We each came from a different mother and father.”
Dockery let out a sigh of relief. “Such brothers would be a marvel to remember until the end of days.” He turned, but the grin that had been forming on his face melted — the other man was indeed an Algonk; he wore a fringed shirt and leggings much like Dockery’s, and he still held a long knife to Dockery’s neck. In his other hand he held a short carbine, barrel now pointed at Dockery’s belly. A blanket over his shoulders might have been dyed gray and red, but it was hard to be sure, in the darkness.
The Algonk had his head cocked to one side and his eyes narrowed.
“I ain’t saying I expect hospitality,” Dockery said, “but this is starting to feel downright hostile.”
Silence. Dockery smelled pine and some animal musk he couldn’t identify.
The Algonk pursed his lips and whistled two notes, following them with a tut-tut clicking of tongue against teeth.
The Algonk wasn’t alone. Whoever he was signaling, though, made no response.
“Listen,” Dockery said. “We’re being held prisoner –“