League of Dragons
They returned to their place; they slept again, or tried to sleep. Laurence stirred some unmeasured time later and thought morning must be coming near, but when he looked outside the night remained impenetrable: the light was only from torches. A Cossack courier had landed, his small beast already crawling into the general heap. The other beasts made grumbling protests at the cold of her body. Her rider was chattering so badly he could not speak, but waved his hands in frantic haste in the faces of the handful of officers who had gathered around him, the movements throwing wild shadows through the torchlight. Laurence forced himself out into the cold and crossed to join them. “Berezina,” the man was saying. “Berezina.”
A young ensign came running with a cup of hot grog. The man gulped, and they closed in around him to give him some little share of their own warmth. His clothing was coated white, and the ends of his fingers where he gripped the cup were blackened here and there: frostbite.
“Berezina zamerzayet,” he managed; one of the officers muttered a curse even as the courier stammered out a little more around another swallow.
“What did he say?” Laurence asked low, of one of them who had French.
“The Berezina has frozen,” the man answered. “Bonaparte is running for it.”
They were aloft before sunrise, and reached the camp of the Russian advance guard as the dawn crept over the frozen hills. The Berezina was a clouded ghostly lane between high-piled snowbanks. To the north of the Russian camp, a handful of French regiments were streaming across the river in good order, men marching two abreast, with narrower lines to either side of camp-followers and soldiers who had fallen out of the ranks, struggling across alone as best they could: women and children with their heads down, hunched against the cold; wounded men leaving bloody marks upon the ice as they limped along. Bodies lay prostrated beside the lines, and here and there a figure huddled and unmoving. Even with escape open before them, some had reached the limits of their strength.
“That cannot be all of his army?” Temeraire said doubtfully: there were not two thousand men. Upon the hills of the eastern bank, a small party of French dragons huddled together around a pair of guns, established to provide cover for the retreat, but there were only four beasts.
“They are spread out along the river to the north,” Laurence answered, reading the dispatch which Gerry had come running to bring him. The division was a clever stratagem: if the Russians came at any one crossing in strength, Napoleon might sacrifice that portion to save the rest; if the Russians divided themselves to attack more than one, Napoleon could use his advantage in dragons to concentrate several of his companies more quickly than the Russians could do the same. Each group remained large enough to fend off the Cossack harrying bands.
Laurence finished reading and turned to the crew. “Gentlemen,” he said, “we have intelligence that Napoleon has declared to his soldiers that he will not go dragon-back while any man in his army remains this side of the Berezina; if he has not lied, he is somewhere along the river even now.”
A low murmur of excitement went around the men. “If we can only get him, let the rest of them get away!” Dyhern said, pounding his fist into his palm. “Laurence, will we not go at once?”
“We must!” Temeraire said urgently, hunger and cold forgotten. “Oh! Why are the Russians only standing about, waiting?”
This criticism was unjust; the Russian sergeants were already bawling the men into their marching-lines, and even as Laurence ordered his officers to make ready for action, orders were sent running around the rest of the dragons: they were to go and survey the French crossings, and bring back word of any company of unusual strength. “Temeraire,” Laurence said, as he loaded his pistols fresh, “pray have Grig pass the word to look for Incan dragons in particular: there were not many with the French, and those few will surely be devoted to Napoleon’s protection. Ma’am, I hope you will be comfortable in camp,” he added, to Mrs. Pemberton, Emily Roland’s chaperone. “Mr. O’Dea will do his best for you, I trust.”
“Aye, ma’am, whate’er can be done,” O’Dea said, reaching to pull on the brim of a cap he no longer had; his head was swathed instead in a makeshift turban of furs and flayed horsehide, flaps dangling over the ears and the back of the neck. “We’ll strike up a tent and do what we can about some porridge, Captain.”
“Pray have not a thought for me,” Mrs. Pemberton said; she herself was engaged in low conversation with Emily and handing her an extra pistol, one of her own, and a clean pocket-handkerchief.
The French dragons on their hill lifted wary heads when they saw the Russian dragons coming, but did not immediately take to the air themselves; the guns beside them were heaved up, waiting if they should descend into range. Laurence looked across at Vosyem, the Russian heavy-weight nearest him; there was little love lost between himself and Captain Rozhkov, but for the moment they were united in their single goal. Rozhkov looked back, his own flying-goggles blue, and they shook their heads at each other in wordless agreement: Bonaparte would not be with this company, the most exposed to Russian attack; in any case, there were no carriages nor wagons, and very few cavalry.
They flew northward along the line of the river: already a dozen marching ant-lines dotted across the frozen white surface. Behind them, the French company fired up signal-flares in varied colors, surely signaling to their fellows ahead. As the Russian dragons closed in on the next crossing, a volley of musketry fired to greet them, and they had to go higher aloft: painful in the cold weather, and there was not an Incan dragon to be seen; only a few French middle-weights gathered by their guns, who eyed the mass of Russian heavy-weights with some anxiety.
There were, however, a dozen wagons crossing the river under guard by the company, pulled by teams of horses, many of them having lost their hoods: they went frantic and heaving with the dragons overhead. And the wagons were laden not only with wounded but with pillaged treasure, and in alarm Laurence heard Vosyem rumble interest, cocking her head sideways to peer down, as one of the wagons toppled over, and a load of silver plate slid out across the snow, blazing with reflected light.
Laurence heard Rozhkov shout at her, and haul brutally upon the spiked bit she wore, to no avail. The other Russian heavy-weights had seen the treasure as well—they were snarling at one another, snapping, throwing their heads violently to shake their officers off the reins. “Whatever are they hissing for?” Temeraire said, craning his head about. “Anyone can see Napoleon is not there. Napoleon is not there!” he repeated to the Russian dragons, in their tongue.
Vosyem paid no attention. With one last heave of shoulders and neck, she flung Rozhkov and his two lieutenants off their feet, leaving them dangling by their carabiner straps, and her reins were loose. With a roar, she banked sharply, her wings folding, and stooped towards the baggage-train. The other Russian heavy-weights roared also and flung themselves after her, all of them, claws outstretched: worried more about which of them would reach the laden carts first than about the enemy.
“Oh! What are they doing!” Temeraire cried; Laurence looked away, sickened. In their savage eagerness, the Russian beasts were making no effort to avoid the hospital-carts or the camp-followers, and wounded men were spilling out across the ice with cries of agony. The Russian dragons skirmished among them, heedless; others were smashing the rest of the carts, dragging them up onto the bank, mantling at each other with hisses and displays of their claws and teeth.
Temeraire turned wide circles in distress aloft, but there was nothing to be done. He could not force a dozen maddened dragons to come to heel, even if the Russian beasts had not already disdained him. “Temeraire,” Laurence called, “see if you can persuade the smaller beasts to come along with us. If we can only find Napoleon, we can return and perhaps by then marshal the other heavy-weights; we can do nothing with them at present.”
Temeraire called to Grig and the other grey light-weights, who were not unwilling to follow him; none of them could ho
Temeraire’s head was bowed as he flew northward, leaving the hideous scene behind them. They flew past another four crossing-points: Marshal Davout’s regiments, much diminished yet still in fighting-order. He had few guns and almost no dragons left, most of them forced to flee ahead of the retreat outside Smolensk, but his soldiers had climbed up onto the edges of their hospital-wagons, holding their bayonets aloft to form a bristling forest of discouraging points. “A courier has told him, I suppose,” Temeraire said, “how the Russian dragons were behaving: oh! Laurence, I hardly know how to look at them. That they should think I would do such a thing, go after a hospital-cart, and only for a little silver!”
“Well, it was quite a lot of silver,” Grig said, in a faintly envious tone, then hastily added, “which does not of course mean they were right to do it: Captain Rozhkov will be so very angry! All the officers will, and,” he finished glumly, “I expect they will take away our dinners.”
Temeraire flattened his ruff, not liking this speech very much. He beat away quickly, urgently. The river swung back eastward beneath them, snow blowing in little drifts across the ice. Over the next stand of hills, they found one smaller crossing already completed: tracks through the snow on both sides of the bank, and the ground atop the highest point on the eastern bank trampled and bared of snow, where dragons had lifted away the guns and followed the company. But the soldiers had already vanished into the trees on the western bank.
Laurence swept the countryside and the river ahead with his spyglass, anxiously. As little as he wished Napoleon to escape, he feared crossing the enemy’s lines. The Russian light-weights were not accustomed to any combat beyond their own internal skirmishing; they did not make a strong company, and now there were French dragons on every side, backed with guns and companies in good order. “We must begin to think of turning back,” he said.
“Not yet, surely!” Temeraire cried. “Look, is that not a Cossack party, over there? Perhaps they will know where Napoleon has gone.”
He flung himself ahead, eagerly. It was indeed a Cossack raiding party: seven small beasts, courier-weights perhaps half Grig’s size, each of them carrying a dozen men hanging off their bright hand-woven harnesses. The Cossack men were armed with sabers and pistols; their clothing was stained dark in places with dried blood. Parties such as theirs had been harrying the French rear all the way from Kaluga; they had been largely responsible for the speed of Napoleon’s collapse, but they had neither the arms nor the dragon-weight to meet regular troops. The chief man waved them a greeting, and Dyhern shouted back and forth with him in Russian, through Laurence’s borrowed speaking-trumpet; they landed, and Temeraire came to earth beside them. Dyhern leapt down and went to the Cossacks, carrying Laurence’s best map; after a quick conversation, he came back to say, “The Prince de Beauharnais is crossing over the next two miles with nine thousand men and twelve dragons: none of them are Inca.” Laurence nodded silently, grim with disappointment; but then Dyhern moved his finger further north on the map and said, “But there are two Incan beasts with the Guard company crossing here, where the river forks, with a carriage and seven covered wagons.”
“Only two dragons?” Laurence said sharply.
The Cossack captain nodded and held up two fingers, to confirm, and then moved his hand in a circle and flung it in a gesture westward, conveying flight. “He says all the other Inca dragons flew away west four days ago in a great hurry: they took nothing with them,” Dyhern said.
“They must have run out of food,” Temeraire suggested, but Laurence doubted. For the Incan dragons, all the potent instincts of personal loyalty were bound up in their Empress, now Napoleon’s consort. He was the father of her child, which had secured their devotion to him. That in extremis he should have chosen to send away those beasts who could have been relied upon to protect him, first and foremost, seemed unlikely.
“But we have not seen any other French heavy-weights, either,” Temeraire said. “None, except that poor Chevalier—so perhaps he had to send them all away, and kept only those two.” He was hovering, looking yearningly north, his ruff quivering. “Laurence, surely we must try. Only imagine if we should learn that he escaped us, so near—”
Laurence looked again over the map. Only the merest chance, and between them and the fork lay a force of twelve French dragons, and a strong company of men and guns. If the French should see a danger to Napoleon, and turn back in force—“Very well,” Laurence said. He could not bear it, either. “Dyhern, will you ask them to show you a way to come at the fork from the east? We must go around de Beauharnais, far enough to be out of sight, to have any hope of coming at his chief.”
Temeraire flew low, just brushing the snow from the tree-tops, and flat-out; setting such a pace that the small Russian dragons fell behind, just barely keeping in sight. Laurence did not slow him. Speed was the only chance, if there were any. If the Cossacks’ intelligence were good, then Temeraire alone could halt Napoleon’s party, if he arrived in time to catch them out in the open; then the Russian light-weights might catch them up, and provide a decisive blow. But if the Cossacks had been mistaken, if there were more heavy-weight dragons or more guns, a company too great for Temeraire alone to stop, then the Russian light-weights could not make victory possible. There was no chance, either, of going back to get the Russian heavy-weights—and just when their power might have told significantly, if the French truly had sent away all of their own larger beasts.
Laurence was well aware that if they found a force too large for them, he would have a difficult struggle against Temeraire’s inclination to keep him from an attempt which could only end in disaster. When Temeraire turned at last sharply westward again, going back towards the river, Laurence stood in his straps, despite the still-ferocious wind and cold, and trained his glass ahead of their flight. The trees broke; he could see the two branches of the river flowing, the marshy ground around them, and then his heart leapt. A very large covered wagon was trundling up the far bank onto a narrow road, being pulled not by horses but by one of the Incan dragons; and behind it rolled a carriage, large and ornamented in gold, with a capital N blazoned upon the door. Another Incan dragon waited anxiously beside the guns on the eastern bank, its yellow-and-orange plumage so ruffled up the beast looked three times its size—but even so, not up to Temeraire’s weight. There was not another dragon in sight.
“Laurence!” Temeraire said.
“Yes,” Laurence said, his own much-restrained spirits rising; two dragons and guns, and on the order of three hundred men, to guard only a carriage and a wagon-train? He reached for his sword, and loosened it in its sheath. “At them, my dear, as quickly as you can. Mr. Forthing! Pass the word below, ready incendiaries!”
Temeraire was already drawing in air, his sides swelling; beneath his hide trembled the gathering force of the divine wind. Faint cries of alarm carried to Laurence’s ears as the French sighted them; the Incan dragon in the lead abandoned the wagon and leapt aloft, beating quickly, and the second came up to join it, both going into a wide, darting, back-and-forth flying pattern, making themselves difficult to hit. The men on the ground sent up a volley of flares even as Temeraire swept in.
“Ware the guns,” Laurence shouted to Temeraire; a flick of the ruff told him he had been heard. Twelve-pound field guns, two of them, spoke together, coughing canister-shot and filling their approach with shrapnel; but Temeraire had already beaten up out of their range, skimming the top edge of the powder-smoke cloud, and as he swept over the emplacement, the bellmen let go a dozen incendiaries.
“Ha! Well landed!” Dyhern shouted: fully half of the incendiaries were exploding among the French gun
The Incan dragons dived, ready to make raking passes along Temeraire’s vulnerable sides. But Temeraire twisted sinuously away to one side and traded slashing blows with the heavier beast: blue-and-green plumage with a ring of scarlet around its eyes, which gave it a fierce look. There were nearly two dozen Imperial Guardsmen on its back; rifle-fire cracked from their guns, the whine of a bullet passing not distant from Laurence’s ear, and six of them leapt for Temeraire’s back as the dragons closed.
The sky wheeled around them, a tumult of colors and cold wind; then Temeraire pulled away, leaving the Incan beast bleeding. “Make ready for boarders!” Forthing was shouting. The Guardsmen had leapt across to Temeraire’s back latched one to the other; only two of them had made hand-holds, but that had been enough to hold the rest on.
The Guards made intimidating figures: they were all tall, heavily built men, bulky in leather coats and fur caps drawn tightly around the head, with broad sabers and four pistols each slung into their harness-straps. They steadied one another until they had all latched on; then in a tense, disciplined knot they came forward swiftly along the back, covering one another’s advance with pistols held ready.