Serpent Daughter – Snippet 18
“The truly ambitious man raises his fellows.”
Kinta Jane Embry had become accustomed to riding mastodons. The first few days had been the worst, until she learned to rise and fall with the beast’s rhythms rather than be battered by them.
From Montreal, the St. Lawrence flowed south and west toward the Sea of Ontario, and the Ottawa flowed closer to due west, toward other cities and farmlands of Acadia. Both rivers were followed by footpaths and trafficked by boats of many sizes — the St. Lawrence, from Kinta Jane’s brief views of it in Montreal, seemed particularly traveled by Ophidians.
Mesh followed neither river. Instead, he led their shu-shu caravan north, into mountains that were still thick with snow and rivers still choked with ice. He referred to the mountains, or to the land through which they rode, as Outaouais, but he couldn’t explain the name’s origin. “Algonk, perhaps,” he suggested. “But a person of such mean instruction as I am cannot be expected to know such things with any confidence.”
“Maybe that’s where Ottawa comes from,” Dockery suggested. “That’d be Algonk, all right.”
“If we’re being followed by Algonks,” Kinta Jane suggested, “maybe we shouldn’t travel right in their homeland.”
“I am a fool and I make poor decisions.” Mesh nodded, his head bobbing in a thick, snow-laden wind like the top of a young spruce. “But I don’t believe the lion looks for prey in her own den.”
“Yeah,” Dockery muttered, “but what about when the lion comes home and the prey ain’t left yet?”
They rode north, then west, then south. They rode into snowstorms, the mastodons plodding along without complaint even as Kinta Jane felt she might freeze to death without being noticed, and get knocked off by an overhanging tree branch. The mountains were old mountains, worn down by time, but they still possessed peaks, cliffs, and rugged ridges enough to make travel dangerous.
And there were always the dogs, watching. Within fifty feet or so of Kinta Jane, they fell silent, but she came to find that silence ominous, though her own enchanted tongue was the cause. She listened for the dogs’ footfalls, and turned deliberately to face them, to let them know she knew they were there.
As the snow became cold spring storms, they turned west, tracing valleys muddy with rain and rivers swollen with chunks of ice. Mesh relaxed — was he confident they had lost any pursuit? Kinta Jane no longer saw shadows outside the circle of campfire at night. Mesh took to singing, his rumbling bass with round vowels frightening birds out of many trees as he passed.
I’m going down to New Orleans
I’ll tell you what it’s for
I’m going down to New Orleans
To try to end this war
Dockery joined in at the chorus. To Kinta Jane’s surprise, he harmonized.
Get along home, Cindy, Cindy
Get along home
Get along home, Cindy, Cindy
I’ll marry you one day
Finally, as the cold rainstorms drifted into the gentler, warmer rains of spring, they turned south. Mesh began to strip off his furs, and Dockery bundled up his wool pullover frock.
At a palisaded trading-post town called Sault Sainte Marie, Acadian leather stockings and trappers walked the streets alongside several different kinds of Algonks, like a small New Orleans in the wilderness. Mesh procured passage on a ferry.
Dropped off by the relentlessly cursing ferryman on a pine-bristling shore, they crossed a narrow neck of land in one long afternoon and then were ferried across a body of water that seemed like the slender arm of an inland sea. Kinta Jane tried to remember the names of the great Eldritch seas some called the Great Lakes and couldn’t. Michigan was one of them.
On the far side, Mesh turned left and followed the sea. “There is copper up here,” he said. “It attracts people from your empire. Other than the copper and furs, your Pennslanders and Germans and Acadians find little of value up in this land. They leave it to us and the Algonks.”
“Copper,” Dockery said, “like that knife you have at your belt.”
The giant glared, his face dropping abruptly into a mask of menace and anger that nearly knocked Kinta Jane from her perch on the shu-shu. Then he seemed to remember himself, and smiled to show all his teeth.
They passed a village of Algonks that Mesh identified as Zhaabonigan. “I think it might mean ‘the sewing needle,'” Mesh explained, “though an ignoramus like myself is not to be trusted. But the village borrowed the name from the river.”
Kinta Jane had lost track of the days, but nearly a season had passed when she and Dockery and Mesh, on the backs of gigantic, hairy shu-shus, rode into a Misaabe village. Kinta Jane had never seen its like — she saw the village coming from a mile away, because a row of wooden poles, broad and tall as enormous tree trunks and each carved and painted with a colorful stack of fanciful creatures, stood along the seashore facing outward. The poles were set into the land, but the Talligewi houses stood on shorter poles, resting directly on the water — the houses were made of wood, thatched, and painted brightly with some of the same characters and creatures that adorned the poles.
“Be prepared for anything,” Mesh said to Kinta Jane and Dockery as they rode a narrow trail down toward the village of perhaps a hundred buildings, and three times as many decorative poles. “A person who commits such vile deeds as I have is not always welcomed, when coming home.”
The first giants Kinta Jane saw other than Mesh were children, who were nearly six feet tall but had the large eyes and energetic playful motions of youth. They stopped playing with hoops and balls and throwing javelins when the shu-shu caravan passed, and fell into line behind the great beasts, singing.
At the first pair of painted poles, which seemed to indicate the border of the village, two Misaabe men waited. They wore overlapping sheets of leather riveted together and bearing large bronze discs, and they leaned on spears so long you could plant them and hang flags from their heights.
The taller Misaabe spoke first; he had long gray hair and a thick beard. “Prince Chu-Roto-Sha-Meshu, son of Shoru-Me-Rasha,” he said, bowing. “Welcome home.”
The second was even taller, and had hair so bright red it was nearly orange, and a jaw like a granite ridge. In addition to his spear, this giant carried a long ax. “Prince Chu-Roto-Sha-Meshu, son of Shoru-Me-Rasha,” he said. “You are under arrest.”
Montserrat Ferrer i Quintana stood in the prow of a keelboat, booted foot resting on the gunwale as she watched the dark western shore of the Mississippi under heavy rain. The boat had lanterns, but they weren’t lit — flames on a dark night such as this would only make the boat a visible target. The keelboatmen stood at rest, a light anchor holding the craft in place against the muddy river’s tug; the Eldritch riflemen held their weapons wrapped and plugged against the rain, resting them on the gunwale or on the boat’s narrow roof.
If the rain persisted, the river would begin to flood. Would that make the city’s defense easier? If anything, the beastkind were better swimmers than the children of Adam.
Miquel stood among the riflemen. He was a good shot, and accustomed to firing at men, though not at close range, and mostly at men wearing the uniform either of the Imperial Revenue Men or the customs officials of the Chevalier of New Orleans. He moved easily among the Cahokian musketeers, pushing jokes through the clogged stream of his poor English and clasping arms, and now he sighted along his own rifle, standing beside them.
This was not a vessel Montse was used to; it worked more like a ship’s boat than like her beloved Verge Caníbal. She preferred to raise her flag in her sailing vessel, inherited from her mother and therefore very dear to her, but it served her well to set foot in as many of the keelboats, shallops, bateaux, and Memphite barges as she could. It meant her men could see her, be exposed to her competence, feel her affection, and give her their trust. It also meant she could better understand the capacities and weaknesses of the various kinds of craft she was using to defend the shores of Cahokia.
Beastkind who came to the eastern shore could be shot, if they came by day. Many still did so, their rampaging depriving them of ordinary sense, but the greater challenge for the Cahokian navy was to detect and shoot them at night, and shoot the swimming beastmen who crossed the Mississippi.
This keelboat was one of many ships patrolling the river this night, and Montse’s visit was completely routine.
“Capità,” called the keelboat’s captain. “Are those men?” He pointed, his arm a line of shadow in the darkness.