Serpent Daughter – Snippet 05

The giant frowned. “That was an error of judgment. When he sneaked into my camp, I believed I had been outwitted. I jumped to the conclusion that he, and you, were my enemies. I know now that I was mistaken.”

“That was no error,” Dockery muttered. “Bastard deserved it.”

Kinta Jane ignored his comment. “What is Kanawha?”

“I have many things to tell you,” Mesh said, “if we are friends and allies. If you are merely going to leave me, then you must direct your questions to a book-cadger.”

“You aren’t Brother Anak,” Kinta Jane said. “You lied when you said that you were.”

“I never said that I was Brother Anak,” Mesh said. “Groveling and mealymouthed worm that I am, I did intend to mislead you on that point. But what should be more interesting from your point of view is that I can become Brother Anak.”

“I guess you better explain that,” Dockery said.

“The three brothers have failed.” Mesh leaned forward to pluck his spear from Etchemin’s belly, wiping blood from the blade in the snow. “Onas has become too interested in his own power. Anak and Odishkwa have formed an unholy alliance to abandon their oaths and join with the monster Simon Sword, rather than to resist him.”

“Join with him?” The word sprang from Dockery’s startled lips without his bidding. “How do you join with a force of nature?”

“You offer him aid and sacrifice, in exchange for things you want. Just as you join with any other sort of power.”

“But would Simon Sword honor such a bargain?” Kinta Jane asked. “Could he honor such a bargain?”

Mesh rubbed his large chin. “When I was a boy, I believe my uncle would have told me no. He would have said that Simon Sword does not have a will as you or I, he rushes with all his force and rage along the path that lies before him. But my uncle became corrupted, and his men, including my cousins, came to believe that they could regain Kanawha by making a bargain with the destructive demon of the Ohio.”

“And with Odishkwa,” Dockery said.

Mesh nodded slowly. “And I believe the men carrying on the Algonk tradition of the three brothers must have become similarly corrupted. It is easy to imagine how — in exchange for, say, the wealth of Pennsland, many men would change alliances, or sell their country’s honor.”

“You know the story of the three brothers,” Kinta Jane said, “because it was taught to you.”

“My family knew the secret,” Mesh said. “My grandfathers met with William Penn, and his son, and his son’s son. When I was a boy, my uncle met with Hannah, when she was Sister Onas and I was newly initiated.”

“And when did you learn that your family had lost its way?” Dockery asked.

Mesh’s face darkened. “Last year. My two cousins, whose short names were Kush and Toru, took me down to the shores of the Michi-Gami, as your Ojibwe cousins call the sea on which my people live. They told me that I had gained in wisdom and stature, and that it was time to tell me the true nature of our tradition, which was that it was a plan to retake our lost land of Kanawha, and that with our Algonk allies, we would destroy Brother Onas and share his land.”

Kinta Jane looked stunned. Dockery felt dizzy.

“How did you react?” Kinta Jane asked.

“Kush and Toru are bad liars.” Mesh’s face was impassive. “I killed them both, and I buried them in the dirt, touching no stone.”

“And you brought your uncle to justice,” Dockery suggested.

“My uncle accused me of secret murder,” Mesh said. “His men bore false witness, and I was cast out. But it is true what I have told you of myself — I am a hunter. I lay in wait on the fringes of my people’s lands, watching my uncle’s movements and the movements of his men, until it was clear that they were coming to meet with Brother Odishkwa and Brother Onas, and then I followed them.”

“The larger snowshoes you had,” Dockery murmured.

Mesh continued his story as if uninterrupted. “I killed my uncle, but he has many allies who yet live. I thought I had killed their Algonk allies, but other men followed me — tonight, you yourself have seen those men die.”

“And you thought perhaps you could not trust us, either,” Dockery said.

“I did not know,” Mesh admitted.

“Does that mean the end of the three brothers?” Kinta Jane asked.

Mesh shrugged. “Are there more Talligewi or more Algonks who know the story, and carry on the tradition?” He shrugged again.

“Are we part of the same organization?” Dockery wondered out loud. “Somewhere, are there children of Adam and Misaabe who know each other and who jointly pass down the story of the three brothers? Are there members of the Conventicle who are Misaabe and Algonk? Are there cells of the Conventicle prepared to intervene in the case of the failure of Brother Anak?”

“I do not think your Bishop Franklin had influence among my people,” the giant said. “I believe that he feared the failure of Brother Onas, and prepared a remedy. John Penn must have told him the watchwords.”

“The Franklin might have known the answers to these questions,” Kinta Jane said. She didn’t look at Dockery, quite conspicuously, but he felt her words like a dagger to his heart.

It was his fault that the Franklin had died.

“Maybe John Penn feared his son Thomas,” Dockery suggested. “After all, he made his daughter Hannah the landholder, and Sister Onas.”

Kinta Jane sat silently a moment before answering. “Maybe we will one day know the answers to these mysteries. But if you intend to become Brother Anak, Mesh, and lead your people to stand against Simon Sword, then I am with you. It is for this end that my brother René brought me into the Conventicle. I have seen Franklin’s Vision, and I have taken his oath.”

Dockery saw in his mind’s eye, for just a moment, an image of the face of Julia Stuyvesant. In his mind’s eye, she was screaming, not in fear or from a wound, but in the moment of giving birth. Julia screaming, and then Julia handing a child to her husband. To Dockery.

And the child was beautiful.

Then his heart tumbled. If there ever was such a birth, if such a child were ever permitted to come into the world, it would never know Dockery at its father.

“I’m with you, too,” Dockery said. “I’ve severed all my ties.”

“I said nothing about leading,” Mesh clarified. “A poor near-imbecile such as myself, with modest talents at hunting and warfare, can scarcely hope to lead a nation as mighty as the one I with great temerity claim as my own. At most, I can hope to beg some small amount of assistance. Indeed, I think the most likely outcome is that I return to my home and am executed on sight, for the deaths of my cousins and my uncle, or for the new killings with which I have more recently bloodied my hands.”

“Well, now I feel cheerful,” Dockery said.

“You should know the risks.”

“What is Kanawha?” Kinta Jane asked.

The giant’s expression flattened instantly, into something that looked like reverence, or maybe awe. “Ah,” he said. He pulled a wide-bladed copper knife from his belt, a blade Dockery had never seen before, and began to examine it.

“You called it a land,” Kinta Jane continued. “I’ve heard stories that the Ohio was once inhabited by giants.”