Serpent Daughter – Snippet 19
Formally, Montse’s title was admiral. Following the example of Josep and the crew of the Verge, most of the navy simply called her by the Catalan word Capità. This suited her just fine.
She looked through her spyglass; at first, she saw nothing.
Then she spotted a woman. She wore a tattered cloak that had once been dark red but now looked closer to black, and she scrambled down a steep bank toward the river. She was too far away to be audible, but Montse could see that her face was red and streaked, suggesting tears.
As if she had realized Montse was watching her — which was not impossible, given the waxing moon — the woman started waving one arm.
Only one, because, Montse realized, she held something in her other arm. She trained her eyeglass on the bundle and focused. The woman turned left and right, sloshed her way up and down the mudbank, waving at the river.
She couldn’t see them. She was waving to people she hoped were out there.
“Captain,” she said. “Bring us to shore. That looks like a refugee, and we’re going to pick her up.”
The anchor came up quickly, and the keelboatmen sprang to their work. Montse continued to watch the woman, and when she turned again, Montse got a clear look at the bundle — it was a baby.
The woman turned because she was waving at someone unseen, high up on the bank over her head. Moments later, more people emerged and began to creep down the thick mud slope toward the water’s edge.
“Faster, Captain,” she said. “And signal for assistance.”
The keelboatmen ran a banner up the keelboat’s pole. Montse checked her pistols, refreshing the firing pans. In a more well-ordered navy, it might appear peculiar that its senior officer dressed and was armed in such a piratical fashion; as head of what might be termed a mob of keelboatmen, merchantmen, former Hansa traders, and hunters in canoes, Montse wasn’t even close to the most colorful person.
Montse checked the refugees through the glass again. She made them thirty — far too many for her keelboat to carry. Pivoting and looking out over the river, she saw two more keelboats, a wide shallup, and several large canoes following her to shore. It might be enough.
Miqui and the riflemen with him were focused on the approaching shoreline with deadly calm.
Then she turned back to look at the shore and saw changing shadows. At the top of the slope, the silhouettes of what might be more men, but looked too bulky and misshapen. She examined the moving figures under the moon’s gray light, looking for the indications she feared she’d find.
There — a pair of horns.
There — wings, like a bat’s, but larger than an eagle’s.
There — a thing with two heads, and a forest of tentacles sprouting from its chest.
They were close enough to shore that she could hear the shouting refugees. There were English cries, mixed in with French and Ophidian. She had thought Missouri had already been scraped empty of its population — where were these people coming from?
“Captain,” she said. “The hill behind these people swarms with beastkind. Prepare to fire, and to put ashore as many fighters as possible, so we can carry away the largest number of refugees. Signal our intentions to the others.”
The captain, a man with a large forehead, curly red hair, and tiny eyes set deep into his head, nodded. “Aye aye.” He turned and bellowed orders to his sailors, who checked their muskets and pistols and took aim at the shadowy bank. Every man on the ship was either poling, or prepared to shoot. Even the captain took a carbine into his hands.
If only she had a few cannons. A single ball, even a small three-pounder, bouncing through several ranks of an enemy, made a big impression.
Montse looked through the glass. The beastkind were hard to see, shadowed, hidden by trees and tall grass. The refugees didn’t see them, and were screaming and signaling to the ships on the river.
“Aim over the heads of those refugees!” the captain called.
The shore drew closer.
Canoes and other vessels of the Cahokian river-navy were a couple of minutes farther out. How long would it take them to reach the shore?
The beastkind charged.
At first their motion was a mere ripple, a shadow that shifted upward and then settled back into place, but Montse saw the outlines picked out against the hill change with that ripple, and then change again.
Beastkind were charging, and more beastkind were taking their place.
There could be thousands of them.
The captain saw it too. “Fire!” he yelled.
In the darkness, the volley of musket and pistol fire erupted red. The wall of smoke was quickly battered flat by the rain.
Yelling turned to screams.
Montse had pulled both pistols, but she didn’t fire with Miqui and the others. Instead, she took one in each hand. As the keelboat’s shallow bottom bumped from hitting river bottom, she jumped out of the boat. The sudden shock of cold water from the waist down was an old friend to Montse.
She sloshed up onto dry ground and found herself face to face with the first woman she’d seen through the spyglass. Meeting her face to face, she saw that she hadn’t realized the woman’s age earlier — she was young. So young, the baby might be her sibling, or if it was her child, it was her first.
With her were other women, children, and old men.
No warriors, and no visible weapons.
There were dogs, though. A line of mastiffs at the back of the refugees slowed the beastkind advance, biting hands and heels. But hoof and spear were gradually crushing the dogs, small bodies being cast aside.
“Cahokia and Elytharias!” Montse shouted. A beastman with the head of a goat and a third eye, set into its forehead, trampled over the corpse of a hound dog and lunged for the young woman with the baby.
All three of its eyes closed forever, and the beastman fell onto his back. Montse realized she was weeping, and she wasn’t sure why.
Did she miss Margarida?
A beastwife with horse’s hooves and a turtle’s shell charged. Bang! Montse’s shot took her in the center of her chest and she dropped.
She heard the splash of the keelboat’s riflemen jumping into the water to join her on the shore. More beastkind ran in her direction, so there was no time to reload. Montse barely had the time to sling the two firearms back into her belt and arm herself with her saber before a third beastman fell on her and the young woman.
Was is that defending this young woman with a child felt so much like defending Sarah?
Montse forced aside a spear tip, stepping boldly closer to its beastman wielder with heavy jaws and long fangs, and then grabbed him by the horns, forcing his face down into the water.
“Behind me!” she yelled to the young woman.
Carrying her baby and sloshing awkwardly through the muddy water, the young woman complied.
As two more beastkind charged Montse, the one face-down in the Mississippi stopped struggling, and she was able to let him go. One spear, though, was difficult to defend against. Two was nearly impossible, especially if one had noncombatants to defend.
Montse parried the first attack, and prepared to take the second attack in her own body.
Her tears, she thought, came from her failure to save Hannah. She had failed Hannah, Hannah had been imprisoned and died, and Montserrat had only ever been able to save one of her children.
But this young woman, and this child . . . she could save them.
Even if it killed her.
She braced her teeth to take the blow —
The sudden musket shot at her side left her with ringing ears, but it cut one of the beastmen down, reducing it in one second from a raging, berserk man-beast to a corpse floating on the river’s muddy breast.
And then Miquel charged past her with bayonet fixed to the end of his musket. Bayonet against spear might be an even match, but Montse saw no reason to leave her young crewman fighting even matches. She joined him, and together they killed this beastman, Miqui delivering the coup de grâce with a slash of a bayonet across a throat that looked like an alpaca’s.
Montse immediately sheathed her saber and began loading her pistols. “As many as can get on the boat, go now!” She turned to face the young woman and pushed her in the right direction with her own shoulder. “You first. You and your baby. Go!”
Half the keelboatmen pulled in their poles. While their colleagues held the boat in place, they pulled aboard refugees. At the captain’s direction, small children came aboard first, but soon panic overcame order and women and men came aboard without differentiation until the captain stopped them and the keelboat poled away. It rode low now, the water lapping nearly over its sides, but the keelboatmen had strong arms and knew how to exert leverage with their instruments, and the boat was soon away from the shore.