League of Dragons


  “And I cannot say Poole was unquestionably guilty, in any case,” Laurence said tiredly. “He might well have argued that the risk of a charge outweighed the value of saving us—that he desired to take a safer course.”

  “But if he had gone round, he should never have come in time to save the guns, which were in much more danger than I was,” Temeraire said, with an optimistic gloss upon his own peril. “And without the guns, everything should have been lost, anyone could see that. Poor Fidelitas! I am very sorry I was so abrupt with him to-day: he was behaving so oddly that I was sure he had done something to be ashamed of, but I see it is only that he was ashamed of Poole, and everyone else was pitying him. We must do something for him, Laurence. I do not suppose there is any hope of a prize?”

  “No,” Laurence said. They would be on short commons, if anything, by the end of the week. A great deal of supply had been abandoned behind the enemy lines.

  “Then a medal,” Temeraire said decisively. “He certainly ought to have a medal.”

  “We will consider the matter tomorrow,” Laurence said. “For now, you should be asleep: I made sure you would be so when I came, and I am sorry to have found otherwise. You have eaten enough?”

  “Yes,” Temeraire said. “All the third flight handsomely said they would go without, because they had eaten in the afternoon before they fetched the supply here, so we ate well. And really I am not very tired,” but here he yawned, enormously, and moments after putting his head down murmuring, “but now that Emily is back, and you have assured me all is well…” he was snoring in a remarkably stentorious way, which made the shrubs near his nostrils tremble violently with every exhalation.

  Laurence rested a hand on the soft muzzle and left it there a few moments, feeling the steady thrumming of breath moving beneath, before he continued on to the courier-clearing, where Yu Li awaited him, herself drooping with fatigue. Laurence hesitated; he had heard enough of her report that he knew he must urgently hear the rest, and take the news on to the headquarters, but she had been going back and forth all day in their service and now was shivering badly; the night had turned cool, and Jade Dragons did not have the flesh to keep them warm when they were not flying. He looked towards the large manor, overlooking the encampment, where the senior staff were assembling, and slowly asked, “Do you think you might be able to come inside the house?”

  She followed his courier to the manor, and came up the stairs behind him, to the great consternation of the guards. She was only some eight feet long from head to tip of tail, but her talons and teeth were remarkable enough for all that. But Hammond flung open the door from within and rushing out onto the top of the stairs seized Laurence by the hand, nearly wringing it in greeting. “Admiral!” he cried. “He has halted on the road outside Dresden. He has certainly halted. We have it confirmed beyond a doubt.”

  He required no antecedent, and the guards overhearing the news brightened as much as did Laurence. “I cannot think why,” Laurence said, though he returned Hammond’s handshake with all the enthusiasm this news invited, and came into the house with him, forgetting his own company. “He could have had us in striking-distance in two hours’ flight—you are sure he has not merely stopped to bring up stragglers?”

  “His stragglers are three-quarters of his army,” Hammond said. “Now that Blücher has rejoined us, he does not have enough men to meet us. He has sent half his dragons back to Erfurt, to bring the rest of his infantry along by portage. We will have three days, at least. Come in, you must come in at once,” Hammond continued, and drew Laurence along into the large dining room where the senior staff was assembled, without even noticing the dragon trailing behind them.

  Even there, Yu Li at first escaped observation—Marshal Blücher coming forward to greet Laurence with a fervent embrace, and the other officers acclaiming him with all the energy of men who knew very well how closely they had skirted disaster and defeat. “His Majesty will wish to see you,” Blücher said. “You have eaten?”

  A stifled yelp interrupted their greetings: Yu Li had inquisitively come up to the table, which was littered with maps tacked together to form a sweeping whole. She put her head out on its long neck to examine their positions, very much startling the young staff-officer next to her, who nearly knocked over his neighbors as he went stumbling back. “I beg your pardon,” Laurence said hastily. “Gentlemen, this is Lung Yu Li, who has been sent from the Chinese legions.”

  There was an enormous silence. Yu Li broke it herself, saying in Chinese, “This is a very handsome map, but those men are not over there,” while leaning forward to make several alterations to the disposition of figures with the talons of her foreleg, nudging some here and there in small increments until she was satisfied with their arrangement. She straightened up from the table and blinked around at the company, who wore a general expression of disquiet: a dragon did not generally appear in a dining room, and even Laurence had to admit of a vague sense of something decidedly out of place, as though a caricature from the Gazette had abruptly come to life.

  “Sir,” Laurence said to Blücher, “her news does not permit of any delay, further than has already been occasioned. Marshal Kutuzov ought to hear it at once, if he can be disturbed.”

  “Ah! He cannot,” Blücher said heavily. “Marshal Kutuzov has died.”

  —

  The men gathered around the table with the Tsar were divided neatly by dress: the statesmen neat and in good order, the serving-officers unshaven and in clothing stained with sweat and retreat; their faces were equally bleak, however, and Yu Li’s news was not calculated to make them less so.

  “By the Dread Lord’s order, the legions departed from Xian directly on receiving the Dread Lord’s order,” Yu Li said, “and proceeded without delay through Yutien and made the crossing of the Taklamakan Desert. Since then we have encountered a steady resistance which has hindered the secure establishment of our supply. As a consequence, we must establish a sufficient presence at each depot to defend it, and our supply-flights must travel in larger groups, which in turn necessitates an increase in supply, and thereby greatly delays our advance.”

  “Feral raiding?” a Russian officer asked, when Laurence had translated this far. “I dare say they do not know how to manage wild beasts, when they have none in their own country, but any respectable guards ought to be able to fend them off.”

  Laurence was sure Yu Li did not refer to ordinary feral attacks as might be made on any army’s supply, and when he asked her of the arrangements made to avoid these, she said, with a severe eye upon the officer who had spoken, “Naturally, as is necessary to any civilized army, we have a sufficient supply allocated to be able to give appropriate presents to those dragons whose territory we must cross. But our gifts have been refused. These attacks are bent upon destruction, not theft.”

  There was a pause, as this sank in. Every man there knew that Kutuzov’s intention had been, as nearly as could be managed, to arrange a trap almost exactly like the one which had nearly closed upon Napoleon’s army in Russia, in the last campaign. He had meant to penetrate as far westward as he could during the winter, and on meeting Napoleon’s advance retire by small piecemeal stages, grudgingly surrendering territory and stretching the French lines of communication, until the arrival of the legions from the East should abruptly shift the balance of aerial power, and allow him to strike a crushing blow—with, they had all confidently expected, the assistance of the Austrians, who would under those circumstances have finally come off the fence. Napoleon had already overset much of this design by leaping forward to seize Dresden and force them so far westward in a single blow. Even a small delay in the legions’ arrival would now have been a cause for concern.

  “How long?” Wittgenstein asked finally, breaking the silence.

  “General Zhao Lien regrets that it will not be possible to assemble along the Vistula before two months have passed,” Yu Li said.

  “We do not have two months,” Blücher said. “We
do not have two weeks.”

  “If the Austrians came in?” one man said.

  “The Austrians will not come in while Napoleon is on their border with five hundred dragons and two hundred thousand men, when we have half those numbers,” Hammond said. “Count Metternich is entirely with us in spirit, gentlemen, but he is not a fool.”

  “If I may be so bold,” Laurence said, “we ought first consider how Napoleon has obtained the services of five hundred dragons. Eugene had a strong aerial force at the Elbe, and Davout reportedly has two hundred dragons at Hamburg. The beasts here cannot all have been French. Not after Bonaparte’s losses in Russia, which to our knowledge were immense. There were too many dragons of unusual conformation with them, and Yu Li’s reports must further give rise to the suspicion that he has also established relations with the dragons in the east—that he has anticipated the legions, and arranged these efforts to delay their arrival.”

  A conclusion less to the taste of any man present could hardly be imagined: all Kutuzov’s aims shattered. But the rational force of the argument was difficult to avoid, and no-one objected; Laurence paused a moment, saw that no-one would speak, and said forcefully, “This is the work of his Concord, gentlemen. Do any of you doubt it? He has for the cost of pen and ink bought a thousand dragons, who otherwise would have spent this war sleeping idle in remote caverns. Have there been reports of increased raiding, on our own supply?”

  A steady rumble of muttering around the table. There had been, everywhere—

  “The consequence of so much strife and unrest, we thought,” a Prussian general said slowly, but at last a full understanding was taking hold among them, which Laurence had despaired of in the past months, when his every attempt at raising the specter of the Concord had been met with dismissal—ferals were of small numbers, of no account; Napoleon’s offer could not even reach them, for the lack of language and letters; they would not believe in it, if it did.

  “If he has truly gained the allegiance of the feral beasts, the unharnessed beasts, we must root them all out. How can it be done? Poison—” one officer began.

  “He has gained it,” Laurence snapped, “because this is the answer you would make them. When you offer them slaughter or even the mere slow dwindling starvation which has been their lot, these last few centuries, and Napoleon holds out the promise of liberty, and the enjoyment of rights in the territory which they consider their own, there can be hardly any wonder that they should flock to his banner. Do you imagine the harnessed dragons now in our service will long remain loyal, when they know you mean to destroy their fellows?”

  Wittgenstein held up a hand, and with an effort, Laurence silenced himself; he felt as though his heart beat with a palpable force against his ribs. He saw Hammond glancing at him sidelong, worried, and Yu Li, despite being unable to follow his words, had understood his passion; she had sidled over to take up a position flanking him to the left with her forelegs held high—apparently at rest, but the muscles of her legs were gathered as though to launch her with all their considerable force, if necessary. He felt entirely capable of violence himself.

  “The Tsar has summoned me to Bautzen,” Wittgenstein said to the silent room—the Tsar undoubtedly meant to name him commander, in Kutuzov’s place. He was nearly the only choice, and could scarcely refuse, but the position he would inherit could not have been less enviable. “I must inform him of this intelligence, and learn his will. We will convene tomorrow morning. For now, gentlemen, go to your rest. Mr. Hammond, if I may ask you for a word—”

  Hammond went away with him, not without an anxious backwards look, and Laurence turning walked from the house and returned to the field-covert still in that settled mood of wrath. “Come, you will sleep warmer with Temeraire,” Laurence told Yu Li, when they had landed. She tucked herself beneath Temeraire’s wing, which he raised murmuring without even opening an eye, but Laurence could not rest. He paced his fury out the length of Temeraire’s body—aware as he did that his officers and crew watched him out of their tents, and whispered. He could not care.

  The reply would come by morning. He did not know what the Tsar would decide. In Russia, Alexander had ordered the release of his own feral dragons from the hobbles that kept them imprisoned in the breeding grounds. But he had done so only from expediency—he had hoped to persuade those dragons to take carrying-harnesses, and transport his infantry, in exchange for their liberty and their bread, and to keep Napoleon from recruiting them instead. That same expediency might now induce him to attempt the wholesale destruction of the feral dragons, if he thought it easier to achieve.

  Laurence knew with perfect clarity that he would not obey such an order, nor even stand by and see it done—and he did not have to wonder what Temeraire would think of it. They had met a like choice, once before. His steps slowed at last, and he halted by Temeraire’s sleeping head, the calm of resolution settling upon him. He had determined not to regret his choice; if he were now to be taken at his word, and that determination tried, he could not complain. Their course would be clear enough, if as wrenching as he could imagine. He had refused Napoleon his service, twice over, when he could have served his own interest. But for this, they would go to him.

  At least the distance would not be long, Laurence thought, with a black humor, and almost might have laughed. He breathed deeply once instead, and mastered himself. Six bells had lately rung—there were a few hours yet until morning. He was still wearing his flying-coat; he climbed up to the crook of Temeraire’s foreleg, wrapped the leather skirts close around himself, and shut his eyes; sleep came easily and all at once, as though he lay in his cot, twenty years ago, without a care but the direction of the wind.

  —

  Temeraire felt really exasperated, the next morning, when everyone was very quiet all over again—his crew, this time, and once more for no reason which anyone would tell him. It was all shrugs, and “I don’t know anything, I’m sure,” except for O’Dea, who would only make dark hints of some mysterious terrible event which was certain to occur, and then say, “Ah, but I don’t know anything, I’m sure,” which was not to be preferred.

  Laurence had gone to meet with the generals again—he had looked so very fine this morning, Temeraire had noted approvingly. He had woken to find all the runners scrambling, for once summoned away from their schoolwork, and Laurence shaving while they sponged his best coat and ironed his best shirt, ordinarily kept in the chest with Temeraire’s talon-sheaths. Temeraire had seized the chance of offering a few suggestions—and Laurence had very obligingly put on his medal of the Nile, and freshly polished the hilt of his sword, and taken his dress hat with its handsome cockade, much to Temeraire’s satisfaction; but then the hour had grown late and Laurence had gone in a rush, and only then had Temeraire realized, from the behavior of the crew, that he ought to have asked what cause merited the display.

  “Very well,” he said, in some irritation, “then I am going to the porridge-pits to see if anyone else does know anything, as you are all quite useless.”

  Most of the ferals liked to gather there, and have a smell of the food even if it was not ready for eating yet; and at least one of the big dragons had to sleep near-by to keep them off it: it had been Iskierka’s turn last night, so she was lying beside them, but she had nothing to offer. “I don’t see there is anything to know,” Iskierka said, yawning. “Granby, is there?”

  “I don’t know, I’m sure,” Granby said—Temeraire looked at him with a strong sense of betrayal, but at least Granby had the grace to look troubled. “I did hear Laurence was in a taking, last night, but you know what he is: if anyone tells you he gabbed about what set him off, you can be sure it comes straight from Banbury. Perhaps it is only old Kutuzov dying like that; no-one can like the commander popping off in the night with Napoleon on our heels. They say it is going to be Wittgenstein next, I hear,” which was interesting at least, but did not answer Temeraire’s immediate concern.

  Grig landed near the pits a
nd said loudly, “Is there any chance of an early bite?” which brought Iskierka’s head up for a warning snort of flame. “I don’t mean anything by it, I’m sure,” he said, with a small hop that brought him over by her head, to make an apologetic bob, and then he pitched his voice very quiet and said, “Temeraire, what do they mean to put the poison in, have you heard?”

  “What?” Temeraire said.

  “I will not blab,” Grig said hurriedly. “Not to anyone you don’t like—”

  Temeraire put his head down and nudged Grig firmly back towards the outer ring of trees. “Now you will explain yourself at once,” he said, and everything came spilling out: a few of the small Russian dragons of Grig’s acquaintance had eavesdropped upon a conversation among their officers, and passed the word to him, in hopes he might be able to learn how to avoid the traps.

  Temeraire heard out the hideous plan, first with bafflement—it could not be, it was too infamous—but when he recalled that it came from those same men who had kept their beasts chained, hobbled, all in order to make them starved prisoners in breeding grounds, he ceased to doubt, and a settled, wrathful calm descended.

  He had all too much confidence in their power of achieving such a dreadful goal. Everyone was so very hungry now—there was not enough food anywhere, it seemed, and ferals did not even have the advantage of porridge, to stretch what there was. If men only put out some cooking-pits full of food, in the pretense of keeping the ferals from raiding, many would eat, and sicken, and die. And with their numbers broken by this first slaughter, still desperate with hunger, the remainder would be easier prey for all the forms of entrapment that men could devise. Temeraire remembered with a shudder the burning frame so close around him, the crowding pitchforks—and those had only been peasants; those men had not had guns.

 
Previous Page Next Page
Should you have any enquiry, please contact us via onlinereadfreebooks