Serpent Daughter – Snippet 26
“Did I plant this Ashtar?”
“Did this Ashtar grow here because of some deed of mine? Was this Ashtar caused to grow by some object I once owned? Did a spell of mine cause this Ashtar to grow?”
Luman hesitated. “Does the serpent goddess want me to do something with this Ashtar?”
Luman shook his head in frustration. What could it be?
“Have I seen this Ashtar in some other form?”
The rod bobbed.
“Did I see its seed? Did I see its fruit? Did I see its planting?”
Luman looked down along the avenue, at the scattered arrangement of the Ashtares. He looked up the other way, toward the Great Mound, and saw its pale green mantle of newly sprouted trees, shrouded in the rain and in the low clouds. Running from the former location of the breach in the wall up to the mound where the Imperials had finally assaulted Sarah — and Oliver Cromwell and the Lazar Robert Hooke had broken through into the Temple of the Sun and attempted to assault its goddess — the trees reminded Luman of nothing so much as an invading army.
“Did I see this tree when it was a person?”
The rod bobbed.
A chill ran up Luman’s back.
“Was this tree a child of Adam before it became a tree?”
The rod bobbed.
Luman Walters tried not to think about the strangeness of that answer. He focused instead on whom he might know, who could have become a tree. One of Cahokia’s defenders? One of its assailants?
“Was this Ashtar once Notwithstanding Schmidt? Sherem . . .” he couldn’t remember a surname, “Sherem the Polite? Alzbieta Torias? Robert Hooke?”
He tried to think of stranger possibilities. “Was this tree once Sarah Elytharias?”
“Was this tree once . . . Luman Walters?”
He heaved a sigh of relief.
“Hey, hetar,” a voice called, “what are you doing?”
Hetar was an Ophidian word. It meant something like friend, and was informal. Luman turned around and found he was being watched by a group of young Firstborn, none of them older than fifteen. They wore broad hats that kept the rain off their heads, and a combination of oilpaper slickers and wool cloaks.
“I’m trying to figure out something about this tree.” He smiled, then pointed at his dowsing rod. “This is an old technique for getting answers. It’s called a dowsing rod, or a Mosaical rod, because Moses and Aaron had rods in the Bible.”
“Dowsing rods find water.” The young woman who said this looked like she could have been Sarah’s cousin, pale skinned and blotchy, with stringy black hair and eyes full of curiosity. She lacked Sarah’s hard edge, though. “Are you trying to find out whether there’s water in this tree?”
Luman shook his head. “I feel drawn to this tree. I feel as if, well, it’s embarrassing to say because it makes me feel a bit silly, but I feel as if this tree wants to talk to me. I don’t suppose you know anything about this tree, do you?”
They all shrugged and shook their heads.
“You should start a college of magic,” the girl with stringy hair said. “Cahokia doesn’t have one.”
“If I did,” Luman said, smiling, “would you sign up?”
“Yes,” she said immediately.
“Really? Even though I’m not Cahokian myself?”
“You’re Queen Sarah’s wizard,” the girl said. “If you taught classes on how to use a dowsing rod, I’d go.”
“Queen Sarah made the trees grow,” one youth said.
“They sprouted the night the Imperials got through,” another added.
“Do you live near here?” he asked them. “Were you here on this avenue on the night the Imperials got through the walls?”
They all nodded.
“What happened here, that night?” Luman smiled at the children. He wished he had candy or something to offer them, though they looked too old to be bribed with sweets.
“There was the wagon with the sick people,” a red-haired girl volunteered.
A child with a thick growth of freckles in a saddle across her nose pointed at the wall. “There was the Spaniard lady. She threw the cannon down off the wall and smashed the draug. And then she came over here and killed another draugar.”
Several of the children nodded.
“The Indian draugar,” the freckled child clarified.
Luman frowned. “Indian? What kind of Indian?”
The children all shrugged.
Luman felt a growing suspicion like a tickling sensation in the pit of his stomach. “Was he wearing a tall hat? A tall hat and a red blanket?”
The freckled child nodded.
Luman took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. Then he stepped back to make room for the operation of the rod, gripped its fork with his two hands, and pointed its shaft out, parallel with the ground. “Was this Ashtar once a Haudenosaunee named Dadgayadoh?”
The rod bobbed.
Luman felt light-headed. Dadgayadoh had been a good trader, an ambitious Company man from the Ohio Forks. He had become a draug . . . and then a tree.
Luman wanted to sit down. He almost wanted a drink to steady himself, but he had sworn off alcohol to his Memphite initiator, years earlier.
“So?” the girl who resembled Sarah asked. “Are you going to start a college of magic?”
Luman laughed at the incongruity, and then smiled. “You know what? Maybe I will.”
“I have not felt at home in many years,” Bill said.
“I regret that I was not able to make New Orleans a more accommodating place for you.” Cathy smiled at her betrothed. “I did try.”
They rode horses through the streets of Cahokia, he would not say to where. They crossed many-sided plazas and passed building after building in a state of partial construction; many had been shattered or burned by the Imperials or the beastkind, and more had been knocked flat by earthquakes. Cathy shielded herself from the rain with a baleen-framed umbrella that Bill had given her, while Bill relied on his coat and hat.
Bill laughed. “My lady, but for you, New Orleans was a hell on earth. But that is not what I mean. I am a soldier, and a cavalryman, and my life has been lived in saddle, tent, and hotel room. I am a man of Johnsland, but it is many years since I spent any significant time there. I need a home.”
He stopped his horse and Cathy stopped beside him. She reached out to touch his hand, big and muscular, and wet with cold rain. “I have felt the same.”
Bill nodded and took her hand. “I hoped you would say that. I hoped you might feel that this could become our home.”
She smiled at him. “Cahokia is our home, Bill. But truthfully, I would spend another twenty years in tent and saddle, so long as I could be with you.”
“Heaven’s finials, Cathy, I am so tickled at your words that I can scarcely bring myself to point out that you misunderstand me.”
Cathy’s heart skipped a beat, but her long practice at concealing uncertainty served her well, and her smile remained in place. “Whatever can you mean, my knight?”
“This.” Bill released her hand and gestured, and for the first time, Cathy really noticed the building beside which they had stopped. It was a low mound, of the Cahokian residential style — its first floor was half-sunk in the earth, with additional stories built atop it. Only this mound was wrecked and burned, its timbers askew in the mud and its thatch only vaguely remembered in tufts of scorched straw lying here and there. “I had hoped this could become our home.”
Cathy gasped. She tried to say something elegant, and couldn’t find words.