League of Dragons
That evening, the Alpine dragons promptly scattered on this mission—they were none loath to accommodate the request, Temeraire having brought two substantial chests packed brim-full of gold plate and handsome jewels—and after devouring the goat which they had brought him, Temeraire fell into a fitful drowse, his head curled awkwardly atop his body, which rose and settled uneasy in the bottle-neck of the chasm with every breath.
The ferals had also brought another load of hay, likely pilfered from some highly perplexed farmer more used to dragons stealing his sheep than their feed. With this, Laurence and Tharkay repaired the gaps which had opened in Temeraire’s protective waistcoat; an operation which, requiring them to clamber precariously around the ice-walls secured only with a pickax while they thrust handfuls of straw down Temeraire’s sides, left Laurence shaking and weary when it was done. He climbed only slowly back up to the ledge that was their shelter; Tharkay was adding the rest of the straw into the matting that was their own protection from the ice.
“This is a peculiar sort of place for convalescence, Laurence,” Tharkay observed as they huddled back beneath their makeshift heap of oilskins and furs, gnawing the dried meat which was all the supper they could have: fire could not be risked in the night, where the glow would illuminate all the crevasse for any Fleur-de-Nuit within fifty miles to see. “I cannot recall when I have seen either of you look more ragged.”
“There is nothing to be done for it,” Laurence said shortly. He was almost too cold to speak. The bullet-wound pained him deeply—an ache which drew all the chill of the ice into his body, and barred sleep. He dug out his brandy-flask, and swallowing handed it on to Tharkay. “I am sorry if your work in Istanbul was interrupted.”
“No,” Tharkay said, permitting the change of subject. “My work was finished, some days before the French dragons came through. It was just as well to have an excuse to leave. It is a very damnable thing, Laurence, to be forever reminded that one is too much betwixt and between to belong to any settled place.” He drank deeply, and handed the flask on. In the dark, his face could not be seen, and his voice had kept light, but Laurence was sorry. He thought he knew what had sparked that rare flash of bitterness: Tharkay had gone to Istanbul to see Avraam Maden, whose daughter had married another man.
“How did you manage to hire a dragon, for your passage?” Laurence asked quietly.
“An hour’s ride east from the city, I found an isolated place and staked out a handsome cow, and waited; a couple of ferals landed at twilight. They were inclined to be suspicious, but they understood Durzagh well enough for me to make myself understood, and bribery did the rest. They flew me over the Black Sea, nearabouts to the outskirts of Odessa, and made my desire to be carried onward known to the dragons there with whom they could speak, and handed me over to them like a piece of peculiar baggage. In this fashion I arranged to have myself bundled along. I cannot call it a comfortable way to travel, but for speed it was remarkable.”
They exchanged the flask a few more times, choked down the rest of the meat, and eventually slept, curled almost as awkward as Temeraire over their own knees, pulled in tight to make small warm knots of their bodies. Laurence jerked awake at uncertain intervals from discomfort and shrieks of wind, in pitch darkness, only Tharkay’s presence at his side and the steady low hissing of Temeraire’s breath to orient him. The sky above turned, stars in their paces, and the night crept onward; he woke again with the first brightness creeping into the sky, and dozed fitfully until the dawn was fully advanced. No word had come.
They built their small fire, and Tharkay made the climb to the top of the crevasse to pack a pailful of snow to be melted. They brewed tea, and soaked their hard bread and dried meat until it became a little more edible. Temeraire stirred, and looked longingly up at the open sky, but did not propose risking even a short flight. The day crept even more slowly than the night, and when Bistorta dropped into the crevasse at dusk, Laurence was not more startled than he was glad. She had brought Temeraire a small sheep, but no news: no party of dragons had been seen coming into the mountain, nor even a single heavy-weight.
“But Tharkay did say they were visiting at the Sultan’s palace,” Temeraire argued with his own disappointment, “and I dare say meant to stay in Istanbul a little while, so we ought not have expected them yesterday: to-night, perhaps, or tomorrow.”
“Or the day after, if I misjudged their haste,” Tharkay said.
Laurence did not say, that it had taken Tharkay three days to find Temeraire, and more than a week to reach their present camp, where the search had consumed another; that the egg might already be gone into France, and beyond their reach.
“Well, perhaps it will be to-night,” Temeraire said, low, half to himself.
But there was no sighting that night or the following, and by the third Temeraire was in a fever of anxiety: the possibility that the egg was near acted upon him as a goad. Only the strongest persuasion kept him from struggling out of their bolt-hole and attempting his own search, and Laurence had no confidence that even this would restrain him when the next dawn came.
But in the late dark hours, the moon having set, he jerked awake as Temeraire moved, scrabbling against the ice walls: he looked up and saw the outline of a small dragon against the stars, peering in: Bistorta. “Laurence,” Temeraire was saying, urgently, “Laurence, quickly, at once.”
Temeraire put them up out of the crevasse, small showers of snow and ice drifting down as the ice walls shivered and groaned around him. He had barely put them down before he came scrabbling out himself, emerging like some unexpected monstrous beast from the depths of the earth. Great chunks of ice crashed away beneath him with a shattering noise as he heaved himself onto the slope, back legs clawing for purchase at the mouth of the crevasse. Then he shook himself, put out a taloned forehand, and caught Laurence and Tharkay up and put them on his back: barely a moment for them to clip their carabiners onto his abbreviated harness and he was launching aloft, his still-ragged wings churning furiously, and circling up into the air.
He could fly no quicker than his guide, for which Laurence was grateful, as otherwise he feared Temeraire would have pressed past his strength. Even keeping Bistorta’s pace, his whole body was laboring, his breath coming with some difficulty; they were neither of them, as Tharkay had said, having a healthy convalescence. Thin blades of mountain air drove through the gaps in Laurence’s own huddled-on wraps, the corners of his oilskins escaping often to flap noisily in the wind until he could catch them back around himself.
The mountains were shadows, black shapes jagged against the sky. Bistorta and Temeraire did not talk; they flew and flew southward, and after perhaps an hour’s travel Bistorta landed and made a small sharp whistling noise, piercing, and then stood with her head cocked, listening. No reply came; she came back aloft and said, “Further!”
After perhaps another ten minutes, she tried again; this time in the distance a similar whistle answered her, and she altered their course slightly. Another brief span, and the whistle was very close: then another of the small dragons was leaping up to meet them, chirping to Bistorta and to Temeraire: Laurence could not follow much of the conversation, but they wheeled after this newcomer and plunged into a valley between two of the tall sharp peaks. The new guide led them to a narrow ledge—narrow by Temeraire’s standards, at least; he had to stand on his hind legs almost embracing the cliff face to keep himself upon it. “They are coming,” he said to Laurence, his voice trembling with urgency. “A heavy-weight dragon, but not a Fleur-de-Nuit; they do not know what she is, he says.”
“Alone?” Laurence said, and looked at Tharkay, who shook his head doubtfully.
“What I heard in Istanbul was three dragons, traveling in company,” he said, “but rumor on the streets is often amplified; I would not rely upon it.”
“I must stop them,” Temeraire said, “but I must be sure not to hurt the egg—oh! If I should use the divine wind upon them, and the shell were to—
“We must try and pen them in,” Laurence said, looking at the narrow pass, “and ask the ferals to make something of a screen above them. If it is not a Fleur-de-Nuit, we may well take them by surprise, and they will not be sure the size of our party; caution may persuade them to surrender the egg. You are sure the other dragon will not think of harming the egg?”
“Unless it is Lien, herself,” Temeraire said venomously. “She would do anything, I am sure, even to a helpless egg: you see what she has done already!” He twisted his neck about to look as another feral landed, to chirp a new report: their quarry was perhaps ten miles distant, coming quickly.
They could not use the divine wind against the mountain-side for fear of warning the oncoming dragon; but Temeraire’s weight and fury served well enough to tear down a great heap of stone and ice and snow to block the far mouth of the valley: still a terrible noise, but not an unfamiliar one in those mountains. On the ledge, Laurence cleaned and loaded his pistols, and the rifle he had brought with him from Vilna, and put fresh wicks on his pair of incendiaries. They would not do much to bring down a heavy-weight, but they might do to make a convincing show of arms; he lined the guns up in a row, ready to be fired off as quickly as possible. Tharkay also added his own pistol and rifle to the collection.
And then Temeraire returned to his perch, and they all held stiff and cold and silent, listening for the rhythmic flap of wings. The ferals—another five or so had joined them—gathered on either side, but in a much more celebratory spirit; they were quiet but chirping softly to one another, and Laurence caught more than once the exultant word for treasure passing among them.
But their voices fell silent, soon, and then they were listening, too: their prey was close. The Alpine ferals all sat up alertly, their narrow heads giving them a look of eager greyhounds trembling for the sign to spring. Laurence heard the dragon coming: if Granby had been here, he might have been able to say what the breed was, by the wing-gait. Laurence could not guess, but the beast that passed below their ledge was certainly a heavy-weight and a large one, throwing a long sinuous shadow blue on the blue snow, with drifting scraps of cloud clinging to its sides.
Temeraire managed to restrain himself until the dragon had gone through the pass; then he flung himself off the cliff in a leap, twisting as he did mid-air to come about, and then he roared—not in the dragon’s direction, which might have threatened the egg, if the other beast was carrying it, but at the rock face.
The shattering force of the divine wind blasted the snow-laden peak on the other side of the pass, and an avalanche came roaring down: rock, snow, ice all together, a great cloud. Laurence squinted through his flying-goggles as snow spattered his face; the Alpine ferals had all jumped aloft and were keening their high-pitched hunting song as they went in circles over the valley, forming a ceiling for their trap. The cloud of snow and ice hid the other beast. Temeraire roared again, not the divine wind this time, only a challenge; he was hovering mid-air, darting a little to one side and then another, waiting for an opening to dive in.
Laurence glimpsed the shadow of the other dragon as it twisted around upon itself wildly, taken by surprise, turning towards them, and then a long painfully brilliant gout of flame came erupting through the cloud, dissolving the blizzard into boiling steam. A tongue of fire licked at the mountainside, and Laurence and Tharkay dived into the snowbank as the flames came spilling up the rock and past their ledge, heat and cold both intolerable at once. The dragon came roaring out behind its flames and struck Temeraire mid-sky, and the two beasts rolled, twisting around each other, hissing and furious. Alarmed, Laurence dug out of the snow, squinting uselessly: Flammes-de-Gloire did not travel alone; they were too rare for that; were there more beasts coming? He could see almost nothing of the struggle: his eyes were streaked with dazzle from the flames, and a handful of trees and scrub in the valley below had caught like dry tinder, blazing small suns that made the night around them into pitch.
But he did not need to see: he heard the snarling of the fire-breather’s voice saying, in clear wrathful English, “Oh! How dare you leap on me out of the dark, like a coward! I will tear you into pieces, see if I don’t!”
“Whatever are you doing here?” Temeraire said, struggling with a crushing sensation of disappointment. But if the egg had not come this way, surely it had gone another; he turned without waiting for an answer to Bistorta, who had at last crept cautiously back: the other ferals had scattered in high alarm at the torrents of flame. “What do you mean, setting me on Iskierka?” he demanded. “She is not a French dragon, at all; and where is the egg?”
Bistorta defended herself smartly. “How were we to know she was not a French dragon?” she said. “They have so many peculiar kinds; and anyway, you did not say you wanted a French dragon, you said you were looking for a heavy-weight and a fighting-dragon, and you cannot say she is not that.”
“What am I doing here?” Iskierka said, paying no attention to their conversation. “I am here for my egg, which you promised me and promised me would be perfectly safe in China, and should have an emperor as companion, and now only look what has happened! Why are you jumping out upon me out of nowhere like this? Granby, did you put him up to it? I did not think you would betray me so,” she added reproachfully, her head swinging around.
“I didn’t, but you may be sure I would have done it in a heartbeat, if I had any notion of his being anywhere near,” Granby said without even a little hesitation as he clambered down her side. “Hell-bent on going straight into France, and bearding Lien in her den,” he told Laurence and Tharkay, as he shook their hands. “Nothing would hold her, when she knew. It was all I could do to persuade her we had to swing out over the Med, and not fly straight across over every Frenchman and French gun in Spain.”
He sat heavily down upon a boulder and rubbed his arm across his forehead. The golden hook which had taken the place of his left hand gleamed with reflected flame: half a dozen bushes and scrubby trees were still alight, where they clung to the walls of the mountains. His brown hair was unbraided and in a wind-tangled mess, his clothing disordered and his face unshaven, as though he had been flung dragon-back without any warning and dragged across Europe for days, very likely the case. He gratefully accepted the offer of Laurence’s canteen.
“Well, that is quite absurd,” Temeraire said, “for if ever Lien gets the egg, she will have it well-hidden, and any number of soldiers and dragons guarding it.”
“It is not absurd,” Iskierka returned. “Of course we must go to her, if she has the egg. What use is there going anywhere else?” Which had an uncomfortable ring of truth to it, Temeraire had to admit; only that was plainly hopeless, so he could not allow Lien to have the egg, yet.
“When I have scorched her a few times, I dare say she will turn it over,” Iskierka continued. “What good did you suppose it would do for you to leap upon me?”
“I did not mean to!” Temeraire said. “We have been laying a trap for the dragons who are bringing the egg back from China.”
Iskierka snorted. “I see how well that plan has worked. If you cannot tell the difference between me and an egg-stealing French dragon, I do not see how you ever expected to get the egg back this way.”
“It is dark!” Temeraire said. “And I could not go and look closely at you, or else the element of surprise,” on which he laid especial emphasis, as a point of strategy that surely even Iskierka might understand, “should have been lost.”
She remained unimpressed. “It was certainly a surprise, because it was a ridiculous thing to do. What if the egg-stealer should be one of those night-flying dragons? I dare say she should have flown straight around you. I saw one of them yesterday evening at a distance, while I was trying to work my way around these wretched mountains, and I thought I should make her show me the way; but as soon as it was dark she managed to lose me, even though I should have had her in an ho
“What?” cried Temeraire, seizing upon this intelligence. “Where did you see her?”
“You are not paying attention; what difference does that make?” Iskierka said crossly, but when Temeraire had made her understand that a Fleur-de-Nuit had stolen the egg, and very likely it was the same one she had seen, she ceased to be quarrelsome at once.
There was no sense in retracing her steps, but Laurence, dear Laurence, had brought his maps; Temeraire remembered with a moment of shame how he had privately resented Laurence’s taking those few moments, when they had been leaving the crevasse, to take them down and pack them up: how useless they had seemed in the moment! And how priceless now, as Laurence drew them out and laid them before Granby, who squinting by the light of a torch found the place where Iskierka had sighted the Fleur-de-Nuit. From there, they found the nearest pass she would have taken through the mountains, perhaps twenty miles distant. Their best chance—Temeraire refused to name it their only chance—was to catch her on the western side. Inside the borders of France.
“The ferals cannot match your pace,” Laurence said, as he rolled the maps up again. “But ask them to follow us, so long as they are able and willing: we may well be grateful of their aid at the end; or they may sight her coming out of another pass, if we have mistaken her course.”
He did not say, This Fleur-de-Nuit may only have been a patrol-dragon; you must not raise your hopes, or It has been a day and a night; the egg may already have been carried deep into France, or Iskierka was sighted, they are looking for us; we are sure to run into a French patrol.
Laurence said none of these things, and nevertheless Temeraire was unwillingly conscious that Laurence might have said them. He did not wish to think these things; he struggled not to think of anything so much like despair and surrender, but the long dragging weeks of fears and searching had worn away at his own blind determination. It seemed his mind would fix upon them, no matter how he tried to evade the thoughts.