League of Dragons


  Dyhern’s voice, and the example of his conduct, could not fail to carry enormous weight: while imprisoned, he had struggled for his liberty; while grounded, he had pursued service afoot; while his nation had been pinned beneath treaties, he had gone even to Russia to make himself of use in the struggle against the tyrant. Laurence nodded silently. Duty remained.

  The wagon-cart was unnecessary: Dobrozhnov tried to protest he was not yet well enough to travel, but when it had been borne in upon him forcibly that his alternative was to be flung out of doors, he sent for his well-sprung coach and was borne into it by his tall footmen, still groaning and muttering protests. They drove away, not before he pressed a little more gold into the mother’s hand, and gave Gabija a broad wink which brought fresh color to Ferris’s cheek. Dobrozhnov might well intend to send for her, or return when he was well; but for the moment he was gone from the house, at least. Laurence could see little more that they might do, and he could only trust to society to distract the man with more satisfying entertainments than he might have found while prostrated in a solitary farmhouse.

  The treasure had been well-packed into its carrying-wagon, and Churki and Eroica fed; she was urging Hammond in a low voice, making one final push to persuade him to bring the girl along. Ferris had gone away to Eroica’s other side, and busied himself with unnecessary harness-work, to avoid looking upon Miss Merkelyte. He at least had no further cajolery to face, although he looked as though he might have wanted some; his obligations to a family both distant and already disappointed perhaps seemed less compelling than the attractions of the lady before him.

  But when Laurence had been helped carefully aloft, and secured beneath blankets and oilcloth, he looked down Eroica’s shoulder and overheard Dyhern asking, “My young friend: you are determined not to pursue her? I wish to be certain you have made your choice.”

  Ferris kept his head bowed and swallowed, then said in stifled tones, “Thank you, Captain; I cannot.”

  Dyhern nodded. “Well, you are a young man, and there will be many young ladies yet! I have some heart to put into you, also: will I not write to my King’s ministers, and request your commission in his service? We have more dragons now than men to fly them, and I need not even ask Laurence if he would release you to us: his answer is a certainty.”

  Ferris flushed scarlet in his fair skin; he averted his eyes. “I—I am very much obliged to you, sir,” he said, unsteadily, and bowed; Dyhern clapped him on the shoulder and left him, and Ferris came aloft. Even distracted by the mingling of anticipation and unhappiness, he clambered up with all the nimble speed that youth and practice could offer; he hooked on his carabiners with a habitual motion, and sat staring down at his hands. The ground crew were loading their gear and adjusting the makeshift harness, which had been cobbled together for Eroica out of the one Temeraire had left behind, and only imperfectly fitted him, as his breadth and bony plates gave him an entirely different configuration.

  The officers were coming aboard; Hammond had persuaded a disgruntled Churki to give up her matchmaking and put him upon her back at last. Dyhern was speaking with Mrs. Merkelyte and her daughter, making their last farewells. Laurence shut his eyes; he had drunk laudanum against the pain, so he might not be unmanned by the flight, and he felt dizzy and ill. He opened them again: Ferris had made a small startled noise behind him. Dyhern had taken Gabija’s hand, and was speaking to her earnestly, gesturing to Eroica; she was looking up at him with surprise, a little shy. She glanced once at Ferris, who was staring down at her. But then she bit her lip and raised her chin, and nodded to Dyhern.

  Dyhern spoke to Mrs. Merkelyte again, who held a low muttered conversation with her daughter, and then laid her hand in Dyhern’s, and nodded her blessing over them.

  —

  Dyhern flew back to the farmhouse the next morning with a special license, and returned to the covert with his bride. Eroica had by then gathered enough from Churki’s openly expressed indignation to be very satisfied with his own captain’s victory, as he could not help but see it. He was however gracious in his temperament, and assured Churki heartily that Hammond was sure of finding a splendid partner very soon, if not one quite so lovely and charming as his captain’s wife.

  “I hope you do not blame me, Laurence,” Dyhern said candidly, stopping by Laurence’s small hut the following morning to see his progress. “But I am sure the boy will get over it soon enough: at that age, I did not think much of women when there was battle to be had. Six years grounded is long enough to cool a man’s head, however: I have had much time to be sorry that I had nothing to occupy my mind and my days, when my dragon was gone.”

  Laurence could understand his sentiments; he would himself have been grateful for distraction, any distraction, from his own fear and anxiety. When Dyhern had left, he spread out the maps and reports again, which he had politely put aside during the visit, and returned to his self-appointed torment: marking out the likely routes which Temeraire might pursue, and referring to the dispatches to learn all the worst of the circumstances which he might encounter. These were unhappy indeed. Ferals had devoured and ruined so many stores in the western part of the country that famine was spreading widely; the nobles were paying peasant bands by the head to slaughter dragons while they slept.

  When pain and fatigue overcame Laurence’s strength, and he closed his eyes to sleep a little, he walked through thick crusted-over snow, between black trees and a leaden sky above, and found Temeraire’s corpse lying still and alone in a field with a red-mouthed stoat feasting on his sides.

  WHEN TEMERAIRE SCRAPED AWAY the snow around the protruding hoof, he discovered why the horse had not yet been devoured: the rest of the corpse was barely visible beneath several feet of blued ice. He contemplated it wearily, but he had not seen anything else left to eat, anywhere, so he gathered himself and roared at the block of ice: the divine wind thrumming through his chest and cracking the surface. He roared again and dug into the block with his talons; at last the ice broke apart. The corpse broke, too, but that was just as well; he picked up each piece with his jaws, held it in his mouth until it thawed a little, and then he could swallow it.

  He was shivering when he had finished, but at least he did not feel quite so ravenously hungry. The light was beginning to fail, though, and he could not go much further. He went aloft to try to find something like shelter: after half an hour’s flight, he caught sight, to his grateful surprise, of a large barn—not quite a barn; it only had one rough wall of heaped stone, and a roof of half-rotten planks held up on columns, so the other sides were open to the elements. It seemed to have been left half-finished: a heap of tall logs stood to one side, as though waiting to complete the building and forgotten.

  Even so, it was better by far than the stone wall he had sheltered against last night; the ground beneath was heaped with leaves and even some hay, and nearly clear of snow. He landed, and crawled with some difficulty beneath the roof. Once within, the close quarters were all to the better; he was out of the worst wind, and by lapping his wings to either side and tucking his head beneath them, he warmed a little.

  He slept almost at once and deeply, exhausted with worry and effort. He was aware of nothing until he stirred some hours later, still in the dark, coughing and puzzled by his own warmth: he was uncomfortably warm. That seemed unimaginable, but when he tried to move his head out to see what was burning, he could not: something was keeping his wing in place. He managed to wiggle the wing-tip down a little, and discovered in alarm that while he slept, the heavy logs had been put up to complete the walls, and beyond them a great fire was crackling up from heaped tinder which had been buried beneath the snowbanks. He uttered a cry as a burning ember fell upon his back, between his shoulder blades, and looking up discovered the whole roof was heaped with tinder also. The hay beneath him was catching.

  Voices were shouting to one another over the crackle of the fire, in Russian. Temeraire peered out between the logs with one eye and saw shadows moving
, men with pitchforks, and he called out, “Help! Help!” in that language, and saw them turning to stare and cross themselves. But none of them came near, and he realized, despite a peculiar groggy dullness, that they had set the fire deliberately: they meant to burn him alive.

  He tried to draw breath to roar, but the smoke rasped his throat and set him coughing instead. He tried to wriggle, but the logs had been driven deep, and there were so very many of them. His wings were cringing against his body as more cinders began to rain upon him. He had no other choice; he set his legs beneath him and pushed: sharp searing pain along his wing-blades where the heat scorched the delicate membranes, and the roof pressed as heavily upon him as though they had loaded it with boulders. He pushed once, twice; he had to stop, coughing dreadfully—a third push, and the roof creaked and groaned.

  The men began shouting; they ran in closer, and thrust pitchfork-jabs at his head and his forelegs; he squeezed his eyes shut with a cry as one sharp point sliced the flesh and skin tight along the muzzle-bone, only just barely catching upon the heavy ridge of bone beneath his eye. The man drew back for another attempt, and Temeraire with real desperation gathered all his strength and heaved up, straining.

  The roof cracked abruptly above him. Heaped stones like hot coals came raining down upon his body, and the flames roared suddenly roasting-hot everywhere all around him. He tried to leap aloft, but his legs and wings were unwilling to answer; he floundered up and forward, smashing through the collapsing structure, gasping for the clear, cold air. Clouds of steam and smoke boiled furiously out of the furnace of the fire. Temeraire blundered away through them, his whole body scorched and stinging, until he could fling himself into the snow and roll over onto his back, writhing vigorously to try to cool the burns.

  But the men came again, shouting, and Temeraire had to roll back to his feet. They were running towards him, carrying scythes, pitchforks, axes all raised; the metal glowed orange-red in the firelight. Temeraire pushed himself with an effort up on his haunches, and opened his wings wide; he spread his ruff and roared out his pain, furious, and as a breaking wave they crumpled to the earth before him, and lay still.

  Those men further behind slowed, halted, their heads tilting back as they stared upwards at his full breadth. They dropped their weapons and torches and they ran. Temeraire dropped to four legs and stood trembling and panting. His wings stung dreadfully; he gingerly brought them forward and could see the orange-dyed snow through the burns, his membranes pierced in many places by ragged holes like worn-through sailcloth.

  He dug himself into a snowbank for a little more relief, but soon he was cold again despite the burns. He shivered in the frigid air, and he could not keep himself pressed into the snow for long. He even crept back a little towards the raging fire afterwards to warm himself, and curled into a heap near it: exhaustion trembled through him, and yet he could not sleep. The men might come back; they might return with guns. He flinched as the last corner of the false barn crashed down into the rising bonfire, orange sparks erupting in a blaze of fireworks-glory.

  He thought of trying to fly away some distance, but he did not want to try his wings. They stung so, and ached along all the ribs, and his throat was rubbed-raw and painful. And the night was so very cold.

  But he had evidently closed his eyes; he was sleeping. He opened them again at an unpleasant clanging noise, very close by, and reared his head up and away from a sharpened iron pike planted point-downwards in the snow, scarce inches from his eye. The man holding the shaft stared up at him, a face ringed in fur like a lion, and then in the next moment was already running away, his heels kicking up clods of snow behind him. Another man was still standing by the head of the pike, a drawn sword in his hand, which he had used to deflect it.

  Temeraire gazed down at him dully: it was Tharkay, although that it did not make any sense, of course. However, there was a more pressing matter: there was a horse running away, too, in the distance. “Is that your horse?” Temeraire asked. “Would you mind a great deal if I eat it?”

  He could only hope that the answer was not yes, because he could not bring himself to wait to hear it: in a few moments more the horse would be out of sight in the trees ahead, and perhaps lost. His wings stung and ached dreadfully when he unfurled them, and he had to overfill his breath to keep aloft—he felt ungainly, a lumbering hulk in the air, but none of that really mattered; the world had narrowed to a line of small hoofprint indentations in the snow, shadowed deeper blue, and the dark body of the running horse ahead.

  He devoured her hooves and tail one and all; he only remembered to spit out the saddle because the stirrups caught on one of his teeth. The hot blood ran comfortingly down his sore throat. When he had swallowed the last bite, he could be a little ashamed, and looked around guiltily as Tharkay trudged towards him, breaking a path through the snow. “I am very sorry,” he said apologetically. “And I will certainly get you another horse, as soon as ever I can; at least, once there are other things to eat. But what are you doing here?”

  “Looking for you,” Tharkay said. “Or rather, for the army you are with: I supposed that a message should reach you quicker, if I found the lines of communication, than I could bring it to Vilna myself. I was able to hire a dragon to bring me to Kiev, but no beast would go further north than that, nor any closer to the Russian Army.”

  “Well, they are quite sensible to refuse,” Temeraire said, “for I have never met any people so unfriendly as this, anywhere, at least not when I had not given them cause to be unfriendly. But Tharkay,” he said, misery seizing him fresh, as he recalled his circumstances, “I cannot take you to Laurence—I must go on. I must get to China—”

  “I beg your pardon for interrupting you,” Tharkay said. “But I think you will find you are mistaken: you must get to France. They stopped in Istanbul with your egg, two days ago. There may yet be a chance to intercept them, I believe, in the Alps.”

  “WELL, LAURENCE, YOU HAVE a gift for establishing yourself in the more benighted places of the world,” Tharkay said, his voice rasping with the cold even after they had warmed their hands and throats with a cup of tea. Laurence could hardly quarrel with the remark: they were huddling upon a ledge inside an icy crevasse which plunged away beneath them in rings of blue shading to midnight-dark, even though above their heads the clouds wheeled across a wide and sunny sky.

  They were at least not in present danger of a fall to their deaths: Temeraire, crouching, filled the pit beneath them very much like a cork sitting in the neck of a bottle, looking entirely as uncomfortable as this description might suggest despite a thick matting of dried leaves and straw which protected his hide from the walls. But he was very nearly invisible against the dark; two French patrols had flown directly overhead in broad daylight to-day, quite clearly visible from their hiding-hole, but Temeraire had not been spotted even by the sharp eyes of the Pou-de-Ciel dragons.

  “I will admit this is an unsurpassed bolt-hole,” Tharkay added. “I imagine I could walk past the opening a dozen times without the least suspicion, even if I had the certain knowledge you were within a hundred yards of me.”

  “I cannot think it so splendid as all that,” Temeraire put in, a little plaintively. “It is very strange to feel that there is nothing beneath me: I feel as though I am flying, but I am not; and these walls are quite cold. But pray let us look at the maps again, and see if you can tell a little better, which way they are likely to come?”

  These Laurence had just finished tacking to the walls of the crevasse with small nails, and they were more the work of his hands than their original surveyors’ by now, with a great many alterations drawn atop the long line of the Alps, and dozens of passes marked for being shut by snow and ice. The ferals had made a great many snickering comments about the quality of the maps when he had first displayed them for their consideration; dragons made considerably better surveyors than men.

  The French company might fly over a closed pass, but he thought it unlikely. Gr
eat inconvenience would attend such a choice: the dragons required places to rest the night, safe from avalanche and rockfall, and their passengers would have little comfort trying to make camp. Even French couriers going with all speed back and forth to Italy avoided the closed passes, and the company from Istanbul would have no reason to suspect they needed to brave so inhospitable a route: these were the walls around the very heart of France, and Napoleon did not yet suppose his citadel likely to be stormed.

  “You do not suppose they will try that crossing Bistorta told us of, where her friend was nearly buried?” Temeraire shuddered. “Oh! If they should let the egg be smashed, or frozen—”

  “You may rely they will do no such thing, having brought it so far, so carefully,” Laurence said. Even if Lien would have preferred to see Temeraire and Iskierka’s egg destroyed, Napoleon plainly did not mean to discard so priceless a cross-breed, nor hesitate to use it to his best advantage: whether to bring Celestial and Kazilik blood into his own lines, or perhaps even to compel Temeraire and Iskierka to surrender to him, removing them from the field of battle. The egg might remain unhatched and vulnerable for another year, perhaps even as much as two.

  “They have alternatives enough, without risking any of the worse passes,” Laurence finished. “Our best chance must be to ask our friends to disperse themselves widely through the passes, and bring us news of any unusual party of dragons seen coming into the mountains. Was there a heavy-weight among them?” he asked Tharkay, who nodded.

  “A Fleur-de-Nuit, I am sorry to say.” It was indeed unwelcome news: the party might well travel by night with such a guide, and if caught at such a time would have all the advantage of the night-flying breed’s better vision.

  “Only find them for me,” Temeraire said, with unwonted savagery, “and I will answer for any number of dragons, if they even have the gall to try and defend egg-stealing to my face: I wonder they should not be heartily ashamed of themselves.”

 
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