Serpent Daughter – Snippet 33
He paid three Texians to help him build it and to help him fire it. They were fascinated, averring at first that it couldn’t possibly work, and then hooting and slapping their broad-brimmed hats against their knees when it did.
It was not a perfect solution. He would require courage, and the help of God.
He wished he still had the assistance of his former colleagues, and he cursed the upstart bishop in his heart.
It was a May morning when he put his plan into action. He denied the Texians liquor the night before, to be certain they would be present and sober. Having watched the flying snakes gorge all night long, when the dawn came there were few enough of them flying over the river that he was willing to make the attempt.
One bite was all it took to kill a man, so a modest number of aggressive basilisks still made the river an impenetrable barrier.
But the snakes weren’t standing watch, as men would do; it was simply the case that there were still snakes alert, bellies empty and looking for food.
Abd al-Wahid released a basket full of mice. Some had died, and lay still at his feet, but most rushed toward the river. The snakes fell upon them.
Abd al-Wahid released more mice, and frogs with them. As the gray and green creatures scurried and hopped toward the water, he launched others into the air. He threw mice and frogs, over and over, into the trees. Many of them passed through the spring foliage and fell into the river, but many were snatched midair and eaten.
He loaded basket after basket of mice and frogs into the trebuchet and fired them across the river. He didn’t fasten the lids tightly, so each basket became a cloud of flying edibles that fell short of the snakes’ habitats on the other side . . . but came close enough to lure out the basilisks.
The snakes ate frogs and mice in midair. They also plucked them, swimming, from the surface of the river to eat them, and they even dove beneath the water.
When he no longer saw snakes, Abd al-Wahid sent a couple of calves down to the water’s edge. The beasts made it to the waters of the Mississippi and began to drink — and no snake appeared to bite them.
For good measure, he fired the last of his baskets of rodents and amphibians upstream and down, to give any basilisk approaching a bounteous meal to eat before it got anywhere near Ahmed Abd al-Wahid.
Then he stripped down to his loincloth and walked to the water’s edge.
He prayed as he walked, wordlessly, but with a solemn feeling of supplication in his heart. God had guided his heart to this moment, or God would kill him now.
At the water’s edge, he saw the fat iridescent coil of a gorged basilisk, slowly turning over in the shallows. He ignored it, passed the cattle, watched his footsteps to avoid treading on any other irascible creature, especially any creature that was both irascible and venomous, and then lowered himself into the water and swam.
The water was cool, a welcome relief from the heat, which in May already began to be oppressive. Unlike the Nile, the Mississippi filled the air with its humidity and choked off Abd al-Wahid’s will to move, but once submerged within its waters, he felt good.
The water stank, and he was very careful not to take any of it into his mouth.
He swam with long, measured strokes. His belly, facing the bottom of the river, felt bare and vulnerable. Basilisks were a risk, but there were other venomous snakes — cottonmouths and coral snakes and others. And there were also alligators, smaller than the crocodile of the Nile, but still deadly to a naked man taken by surprise. And just because Abd al-Wahid didn’t see any alligators, didn’t mean they weren’t there, waiting and hungry.
In the center of the river was a muddy sandbar. As Abd al-Wahid approached, the mud shifted, something beneath it slithering into motion. Gorged basilisks? Hungry basilisks? An alligator, teased into full appetite with a couple of frogs and now ready for larger meat?
But Abd al-Wahid was committed. There was no way to turn back, and no weapon, and nothing to do but hope, pray, and if an alligator came, try to seize its jaws and hold them shut.
He fixed his eye on the shore ahead and swam.
He bumped into swimming frogs and mice, as well as the corpses of drowned mice or frogs who died on impact with the water, or from the sheer acceleration of being flung into the air. Snakes slithered across his skin.
None bit him.
And none had wings.
Something under the water touched his leg. He started, curling into a ball, but there was no second contact.
He approached the eastern shore. He would feel more comfortable if he had been able to hurl frogs and mice this far, but the Mississippi was simply too wide. The corpses of frogs and mice became more scarce, and then disappeared entirely. He was gambling that basilisks nesting in the trees or in the mud on this side of the river would all have seen the feast mid-river and gorged themselves into a stupor of sleep, but the eastern shore was too far from the western shore for him to have actually seen snakes feeding, and he might well be mistaken.
He lengthened his stroke, swimming more eagerly.
Whether it was conquest or death, he was swimming toward what God chose for him.
And, insha’allah, closer to the death of the gangster bishop who had killed so many of his comrades.
His foot struck mud, and then his knee, and then Ahmed Abd al-Wahid stood and ran. The cold Mississippi sucked at his feet and ankles, trying to drag him back in — and then something sharp pricked his heel.
Blackness filled his heart.
It came to this, years of war and service, and he would die bitten by a snake in a jungle river in a land cursed by God.
He slowed, slightly, but continued.
If he was going to die, at least he’d die standing on solid ground.
He marched across sandy soil, held together with tall, thin grass, and then climbed up under gnarled and muscular oak trees.
Turning, he raised his arms above his head and faced the western shore. He had crossed the mighty Mississippi, at least, piercing the serpentine armor of the sorcerer-bishop, and if his dagger had failed to find the man’s throat, it had at least come close.
But the fire in his veins and the chilling of his thoughts that he expected to kill him didn’t come. He sat, puzzled, and looked at his foot.
A single puncture mark marred heel. Not two, which would be the mark left behind by the bite of a serpent, but one.
His foot had struck a nail or a thorn, or something else in the Mississippi’s cold mud that could sting, but delivered no venom.
He stood again, and laughed. He stretched his arms wide to embrace the perilous world of the Mississippi, then turned eastward again. A few miles away, the stone wall enclosing New Orleans was visible as a cold gray line.
Exultant, Ahmed Abd al-Wahid broke into a run.
He was nearly naked, barefoot, unarmed, and covered in mud. And he had a bishop to kill.
“Cal,” Sarah said.
She had murmured for two weeks; this was the first clear word she said.
Cathy took her hand gently. “Calvin’s not here, Your Majesty. This is Cathy Filmer.”
“Are we alone?” Sarah’s voice trembled.
Cathy stood beside the Serpent Throne upon which Sarah lay. The nearest other people would be Yedera, one of the lesser priestesses, and the messenger boy, all standing in the front entrance. Incense dictated by the King of Tawa burned in the nave, on the other side of the temple veil; piles of crushed herbs lay to either side of Sarah’s head.
“Then call me Sarah, dammit.”
“I’m here, Sarah.”
“I’m blind, Cathy. What happened?”
“Your eyes are bound. You haven’t been well.”
With pale, trembling fingers, Sarah worried at the bandage around her eyes.
“That might not be wise,” Cathy said.
Sarah pulled aside the strip of cloth. Both whites were bloodshot, and there was crusted blood and pus in both corners of both eyes, but when she fixed her gaze on Cathy, she heaved a sigh of relief.
“You can see,” Cathy said.
“Jest tell me I ain’t missed the weddin’.”
Cathy laughed softly. “You have not. May I get you a glass of wine? There’s a bottle here with herbs in it, chosen by a healer.”
“Water,” Sarah said. “Nothing doctored.”
Cathy brought a cup of water to the throne. While Sarah nursed it, she asked the messenger boy to fetch the Vizier. She also took a moment to inform the Podebradan that Sarah was awake; Yedera said nothing, but stood straighter and smiled. By the time the water was gone — Sarah used the last of the liquid to dab crusted blood from her eyes — Korinn had arrived. The Vizier stood outside the veil, at the top of the steps by which one accessed the sanctum; Cathy knew from experience that he would only see the luminescent, golden silhouette of the throne itself from his vantage. Luman Walters had come with him.