Serpent Daughter – Snippet 04

“And to count. Though with hands as large and ungainly as mine, it is difficult to take only the hair.” Mesh reached into the large sack hanging from his belt and produced a man’s head. He raised it by its long black topknot, allowing blood to drip from the cleanly severed neck to the trampled snow. “I count one.”

Kinta Jane vomited. Dockery’s own stomach turned, but he held it in check. The Algonk’s face was impassive.

“One is not very impressive,” Mesh said. “If you had come here as a pair, like a Wandering Johnny and his hired porter, the sight of your companion’s head would let you know that you were alone. But you did not come here in a pair, did you?”

The Algonk said nothing.

“No,” Mesh said, “you don’t need to tell me. I raided your camp, and I tracked you in Quebec, and I’ve been watching you for days. You didn’t come here in a pair.” He set the severed head neatly on the earth, upright, eyes facing his prisoners. “You didn’t come here in three, either.”

He pulled a second head from his bag. “This fellow’s name is Segenam. He loved to suck on dried meat, never chewed it, just sucked on it for hours on end, didn’t he? Mind you, a lowly barbarian such as I has no comment to offer on another man’s eating habits. I am merely sharing what I observed. Oh, and I forgot to introduce your first companion. He was called Chogan. Chogan loved horses; he always lingered to look whenever he encountered one. But then, you know both their names, don’t you, Etchemin?”

Cree names.

The Algonk still kept a calm expression on his face. “You know my name too, giant. What of it? Do you threaten me?”

Mesh shrugged. “I merely wish you to appreciate your situation.”

“I am not afraid.”

Dockery, though, felt a thin cold lance of fear stabbing up through his belly and along his spine.

“What names do you know of my people, I wonder?” Mesh reached out with his spear butt and tapped Etchemin on the forehead. “Do you know my name? Do you know the names of any of my kin?”

The Cree said nothing.

“Why are you following me?” the giant asked.

“You kidnapped these people,” Etchemin said.

“And you are rescuers?” Mesh frowned. “Rangers sent by Champlain?”

“You know we are not.”

Mesh nodded. “I know. And I grow weary of counting.” He stretched the drawstrings of the bag and overturned it. Three more heads bounced onto the earth. One rolled so close to the fire that its topknot fell across the coals, and the stink of scorched hair filled Dockery’s nostrils.

Kinta Jane vomited again.

“Mukki,” the giant said. “Wematin. Hassun.”

For the first time, Etchemin looked nervous.

“Yes,” the giant said. “You came in six. Don’t waste time either denying or confirming it, you and I both know it’s true. One thing you should know about me is that I have little imagination. Poetry is wasted on me, and so is bluffing.”

“I’m not afraid to die,” Etchemin said.

“I didn’t say I planned to kill you.”

The Cree’s eyes narrowed. “What then?”

Mesh stood. “I have killed my own cousins, Algonk. I have killed the very uncle who initiated me into the ways of manhood and I have killed my brother, and I have done these things to be able to take the places of those men. I would seize the power of Kanawha and restore my people to their ancestral lands and might.”

Something like a smile crept over Etchemin’s face.

“What do you say, Cree?” the giant asked. “You were willing to be my uncle’s ally? Will you be mine instead?”

“Yes,” the Algonk said.

“What the hell are you doing, Mesh?” Dockery blurted out.

The giant ignored Dockery. Taking a long knife from his belt, he stooped to cut the Indian’s bonds with it. Then he tossed the blade to the ground beside the Algonk and resumed his position leaning against the boulder, hands wrapped around his spear.

“These two southerners are faithful to the vision of William Penn,” he said to the Indian. “Kill them, and you and I will plot how we shall share power.”

Kinta Jane lurched to her feet. Vomit was still splashed on her lips, but she was faster than Dockery, who was rising to his knees as she stood. The Cree, though, was faster than both of them. He snatched up the blade and sprang into the air, hurling himself at Dockery —

but Mesh swung the butt of his spear and caught Etchemin midair, cracking him in the forehead with the heavy wood.

The Algonk dropped to his back beside the tumble of severed heads, all the air leaving his lungs in a single whoosh, and then the giant fell upon him, driving his spear downward with both hands, through the dead center of the man’s belly. Dockery heard the wet tearing of flesh and the crack of Etchemin’s spinal column and finally the muted thud of the earth receiving the spearhead, all rolled into a single split second of sickening sound.

This time, Dockery vomited.

“What are you doing?” Kinta Jane brandished her stiletto. It was a ridiculously tiny weapon.

Mesh left his spear pinning the dead man to the ground and withdrew a pace, leaning again against the stone. “This man was your enemy and mine. All these men were.”

“You couldn’t just tell us that?” Dockery asked. “You had to stage all this . . . theater?”

 “You wanted to test them,” Kinta Jane said.

“No,” Mesh said. “I had been stalking them for weeks, and I knew their mettle.”

“You wanted to test us,” Dockery guessed. “You wanted to see if we were in league with them. I was bait to lure them out of physical hiding, but they were bait to see if I would come out of . . . another kind of hiding.”

Mesh nodded.

“I wasn’t hiding,” Dockery said.

“Did we . . . pass?” Kinta Jane asked.

“You are alive,” Mesh said.

“Did you really kill your uncle, and those others?” Dockery felt sweat cooling on the back of his neck.

Mesh nodded. “I did not wish to, but when I learned the evil they were attempting, I had no choice. Even a worm such as I must from time to time straighten as if it had a spine, and take righteous action.”

“Now what?” Kinta Jane asked. “Now do you tell us what all that meant, about Kanawha? And why did you kill your uncle? And who are you really, and what are we doing here?”

“First, you may leave if you wish.” Mesh gestured at the two shu-shu. “Take Uchu or Shash if you like, either one. I think they’ll obey you now, and I know Dockery is enough of a woodsman to get you safely back to Montreal. I am not your captor any longer. I apologize for holding you as I did, I beg your forgiveness, and I give you your freedom.”

Dockery frowned. “Do you want us to leave?”

“No.” The giant’s voice was firm. “I want you to stay. I need allies. And I will tell you why, but only if you choose to remain with me.” He smiled, but somehow the sight of his horselike teeth was less frightening now. “As friends.”

“You killed Gert Visser,” Kinta Jane said.