Home > League of Dragons (Temeraire #9)(5)

League of Dragons (Temeraire #9)(5)
Naomi Novik

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-crews. Others rolled away; one burst on the river and sank into the hole it had blown itself in the crust. And then Temeraire was past; he doubled back on the guns and unleashed the divine wind against their rear—the endless impossible noise, ice-coated trees on the bank shattering like glass bottles, the housing of the guns cracking and coming apart. One still-smoking barrel rolled down the hill and carried away two massive snowbanks; it struck the back wheel of the carriage, shattering it, and the cascade half-buried the entire vehicle in snow.

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.

Laurence now had cause to regret his threadbare crew. He had but few officers; his choices had been scant, in New South Wales, and of that motley selection only a handful had survived the wreck of the Allegiance: small Gerry, who could not yet hold a full sword, brandishing a long knife instead; for midwingmen, besides Emily Roland, he had only Baggy, still gangly in the midst of getting his growth and only lately advanced from the ground crew; and thin, stoop-shouldered Cavendish: brave enough, but likelier by the look of him to be blown overboard by a strong gust of wind than to cross swords with one of Napoleon’s Grognards.

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