Serpent Daughter – Snippet 06

Mesh nodded. The dagger’s blade was pocked with lines of dots, forged into the metal. “So long ago that many years fails as a description. We were lords of the Ohio so long ago that the stars were different. The children of the Serpent had not yet come to the Ohio when my people ruled it.”

Dockery frowned. “They came in the Serpentwar, didn’t they? Richelieu and Wallenstein and Adela Podebradas?”

“Wallenstein led an exodus from the Old World,” Mesh said, “but long before him, a sorcerer-king named Onandagos came. My people tell that it was against him that they fought and lost, though they name him Ona-Tagu in the ballads.”

“And is Kanawha your people’s name for the Ohio, then?” Kinta Jane asked.

Dockery shook his head. If Mesh wanted to dominate the entire Ohio, how did that make him any different from the uncle and cousins he claimed to have defeated? Besides, the name Kanawha struck him as familiar.

“No,” Mesh said. “Kanawha is a river, and the land it flows through, and perhaps also the mountain where the river has its head. It is an old name and its meaning is shrouded in mystery. It may mean the greatest waters, but it may also mean the river of evil spirits, in the same way that the greater land surrounding Kanawha bears a name that may mean land of tomorrow, or cane and turkey lands, or the dark and bloody ground.”

“The Kentuck,” Dockery said. “Holy shit. Kanawha is in the Kentuck?”

Mesh nodded.

“That’s ghost country,” Dockery said. “I don’t mean ghost country like ‘my cousin knew a fellow who told him that he saw a ghost,’ I mean that I’ve seen ’em myself. Three separate occasions, and none that I’d especially like to talk about. The Kentuck is haunted.”

He squinted, trying to force out of his mind images that angrily crowded in: a weeping woman gliding across the water of a beaver pond, holding in her arms a child whose arms and legs had been severed; an angry face shouting from the hollow of a dead tree; and five dead Indians whose paint and dress he’d been unable to puzzle out, who had followed him wordlessly, day and night, across that entire blasted land, spoiling his appetite and his sleep alike.

“The land is full of ghosts because it was the site of a mighty war,” Mesh said. “There were Indian allies on our side and on the side of Ona-Tagu and his usurping warriors. The songs say that each captain fell with his ten thousand at his side.”

“Ten thousand is a lot of men,” Dockery said.

Mesh cracked a faint smile. “Perhaps we can allow for a little exaggeration, or for a poetic use of the number. But many died, over many years, as Ona-Tagu and our war-queen, Eru-Jay, daughter of Chaku-Me-Setu-Ro, drove each other back and forth across the land. Ona-Tagu was a mighty wizard, but Eru-Jay was invincible with her fighting staves. She was said to stride the land three miles to a step, and to swing batons made of whole tree trunks, and if our people have no wizards, as you know them, we have always had mighty Spirit Riders. Alongside Eru-Jay fought Nika Pe-Shu-Re, who was said to have as her spirit guides the rivers themselves, so that with each attack of Eru-Jay’s wands, the Ohio itself drove home the blow.”

Dockery whistled. “You’re saying this is the side that lost?”

“The final battle took place at Kanawha,” Mesh said. “Thousands fell, bloodlines were exterminated. Merely in the deaths of the singers who fell at Kanawha, we lost thousands of years of remembered history. We had gods once, until Kanawha.”

“What do you mean?” Kinta Jane asked.

Mesh’s face was expressionless, and nearly perfectly still. “People generally say that so many priests and priestesses died in that battle that we forgot how to serve our gods, and they therefore forgot how to care for us. But I have had it whispered to me, in a secret chamber upon the waters of the Michi-Gami, that the truth is darker still, that in those dark days, when sacrifices were required, we slew not only Eru-Jay and Nika, but indeed our very gods.”

Dockery’s mouth was too dry to curse.

“We were forced to the dread acts by our enemy,” Mesh continued. “Or rather by his new ally, for in the final battle Eru-Jay had the river turn against her. Ona-Tagu had made a sacrifice to the Ohio River, and the Ohio River rode to war in his retinue. When the Heron King took the field for the Firstborn, Nika Pe-Shu-Re’s arts failed her, and Eru-Jay’s mighty thews turned to brittle sticks. We fled, but we left behind our mightiest on the field.”

“They made your retreat possible?” Kinta Jane stared into the darkness.

“The sacrifice was terrible,” Mesh said, “but we lived. We lost, but we also survived, and a smaller nation, guided by fewer chieftains and protected by fewer Spirit Riders, fled north, to make our homes upon poles on the great inland seas. Before Kanawha, we dwelt upon the land, like ordinary men.”

“You live on water because of Kanawha?” Dockery asked.

Kinta Jane struggled with the same idea. “You live on the water because . . . because being on a different body of water gives you protection against the Heron King, who is your enemy.”

“It gives us some protection.” Mesh nodded.

Dockery took a deep breath. “Why do you want Kanawha back? Pride? Are you looking to recover the graves of your ancestors?”

“All of those things.” Mesh looked at the dead Algonk, suddenly reticent. “And . . . one thing more.”

Dockery found himself intensely curious, but also hesitant to provoke the giant.

“We can help each other best if we understand each other’s aims,” Kinta Jane said softly.

“The lost genealogies.” Mesh looked up. “The forgotten gods, with their liturgies and their strictures and their theologies. Our ancestral laws. Our uncorrupted language, before our tongues were broken. The secrets which once made our Spirit Riders the greatest magicians on the face of this continent. They are written down, and the book is buried at Kanawha.”

“If all of that is located at some mountain in the Kentuck,” Dockery said, “and has been there for thousands of years, just waiting, why haven’t your people gone after it?”

“Fear of the Heron King?” Kinta Jane asked.

“Do not dismiss that fear,” the giant said. “But nevertheless, over the centuries, many of our bravest have tried. They have failed because of the Heron King and his agents, or they have failed because the ghosts of the Kentuck have misled them or killed them or driven them mad, or they have failed because they could not find Kanawha, and returned with empty hands and wrecked ambitions.”

“You forgot the way,” Kinta Jane said. “You forgot the road to Kanawha.”

Mesh blinked slowly. “Along with everything else, yes.”

“So you’re willing to stand against the Heron King,” Dockery said, “and in order to do that, you want to return to this ancestral land and recover a lost book that no one has ever been able to find. That book will let you stand against the Heron King, and maybe also you think that writing should be your reward for standing against the Heron King.”

“Correct,” Mesh said. “Both.”

“But Kanawha is lost,” Kinta Jane said. “What makes you think you can find it?”

The giant Chu-Roto-Sha-Meshu, son of Shoru-Me-Rasha, smiled. He put the knife away in its sheath. “Because I have been there.”