League of Dragons by Naomi Novik

  Half their company was leaving under Granby’s command from Edinburgh, but even the two formations which would back them made an enthusiastic noise full of consequence. Temeraire only wished he could think better than he did of the dragons behind him. Obituria, the senior heavy-weight among them, was impressive in the physical sense: she was a large Chequered Nettle, with a fourteen-barbed club of a tail which she could lay about as skillfully as if it were another leg, but she was a stolid, dull creature who flew her formation-patterns without the least spirit of inquiry. She would never say, Why are we turning left and upwards here? Would that not expose our flanks to those little French harriers? No, she did as her captain told her, and Captain Windle was as dull as his beast: seemed to only speak in words of one syllable, or two if he were much pressed.

  Then there was Fidelitas, their Anglewing, who had the very peculiar habit of being almost interesting. If they were ever near each other, breakfasting at the pen perhaps, and Temeraire struck up a conversation with him, very soon he would be talking animatedly and getting quite excited—and then abruptly he would stop as though someone had clapped his mouth shut for him, and go wooden. There was no accounting for it, and anyway Temeraire nursed a private irritation against his captain, Poole, who often forgot entirely to call Laurence “sir” and never touched his hat.

  But they certainly made a good enough outward show, with their formations assembled behind them, to make Temeraire pleased to lead them. It was not as glorious of course as flying at the head of the massed legions of China, but one could not have everything, all the time. And their complete equipage was perhaps even more impressive—if not attractive; Temeraire did not see why the Corps could not spare a thought, when laying out their gear, to provide them with banners, perhaps, or streamers—narrow streamers of thin cotton, attached to the front wing-edges, would have produced quite a remarkable effect, he thought.

  At least Requiescat added admirably to their color. The formation-dragons were more than a little startled when he landed as they were forming up; he had been outfitted with mail, and Perscitia had further sent him along a new leather-and-steel head covering of her own devising, which only made him look more impressive. “I would have ordered one made for you,” she had told Temeraire apologetically, “but it requires a great many measurements, to ensure it does not obstruct vision, and in any case I am not confident it would do for you, what with the divine wind—like being inside a bell when it has been rung, very likely.”

  “So, we are off to give the French another good drubbing, are we?” Requiescat said genially, as Ning leapt aboard his back and settled herself, with a rather preening stretch of her neck, between his wings. “Where is everybody?” he asked, looking around.

  “The other formation is leaving from Edinburgh,” Temeraire said, feeling this an unjustified aspersion on the size of their force: they had two formations, and besides that another dozen unharnessed beasts had been persuaded to join up.

  “I don’t mean formations,” Requiescat said, “but there they are coming, I guess,” and Temeraire looked round to see a cloud—no, a flock of birds—no, it was dragons; at least fifty smallish light-weights, all coming towards them—

  It turned out to be Ricarlee, with a crowd of the Scots ferals. They produced a near-riot on their arrival—they had no notion of order, and directly they had landed they were scrambling into everyone’s clearings, rousing up the Channel dragons from their sleep, poking their noses into the feeding pen, until finally Temeraire roared loud enough to secure their attention, and also to knock over one old oak, which crashed down into a barracks cabin and brought out a dozen ground crewmen shouting and cursing.

  This noise quelled the better part of the horde. “Requiescat, go and round up those fellows away from the officers’ mess there,” Temeraire said, more than a little exasperated, “and Fidelitas, pray chase those others out of the pen. It is quite intolerable your fellows should be making such a mess of all our arrangements,” he added severely to Ricarlee, who had landed with a handful of lieutenants—small dragons in dark shades with bright blue streaks painted upon their hides. “If you are here to steal, we will serve you out as that deserves straightaway; if not, you had better come to order and explain yourselves and this behavior at once.”

  “No call to be unfriendly,” Ricarlee said. “You can’t blame anyone for wanting a bite to sup. We are for France, isn’t it? A long way to go on an empty belly. Now then,” he sidled in peculiarly close, and put his head near Temeraire’s. “It’ll be share and share alike, I trust?”

  “Share and share alike of what?” Temeraire said suspiciously.

  “Ha ha,” Ricarlee said, winking one eye in a strange fashion, “very good, I understand you. So long as we’re agreed.”

  “I do not understand you,” Temeraire said. “You cannot expect to eat as much as we heavy-weights.”

  “Hmmrph,” Ricarlee said. “Oh, aye, fair enough,” in a tone of one yielding on an important point at a bargaining-table.

  “Laurence, whatever do you suppose he is talking about?” Temeraire asked, in an undertone, while the covert’s harried quartermaster began a scurrying effort to put out some hot mash with leftover beef bones for the blue-streaked ferals, mostly to keep them from hanging about the pen peering wistfully through the stakes and terrifying all the cattle within.

  “I suppose that word has got about that there are heaps of treasure to be had, in fighting Napoleon,” Laurence said, “undoubtedly aided by legends of your recently acquired gold.” He was conferring with Challoner and his own supply-officer, a Lieutenant Doone. “We will have them, if they will come: I had not expected so many to answer your lure, but I think we can manage it, even if our commons must be a little short.”

  “Do I understand correctly, sir,” Captain Windle said—he had walked over from Obituria—“that you propose to saddle us with this unruly gaggle for baggage, and feed them out of our supply? The winter is a hard time for feral beasts, I am sure, and as a form of charity this must recommend itself; I would be glad to know what military purpose you intend they should serve.”

  More than you, Temeraire would have liked to say, his ruff going back at Windle’s tone, which he felt thoroughly disrespectful, but Laurence answered as though he had asked the question without rudeness.

  “I propose, Captain, that they should be a screen for our formations, and a constant threat to the enemy’s supply and cavalry—what he has left of it, after Moscow. If we cannot contrive to feed them, they must supply their wants somewhere, and better in French territory than in Scotland. We will not, however, delay our departure any further for their sake. Temeraire, they must be ready to go now, or not at all. Pray pass the word to check harness.”

  Temeraire called out with a pleasant sensation of significance, “Let everyone see to their harness, if you please,” and himself spread his wings and rose onto his haunches to give himself a thorough shaking, politely ignoring the young rifleman Dubrough who lost his footing and mortified had to haul himself back up along his carabiner straps.

  “Ha ha, like geese,” Ricarlee said, too audibly, but from every side the dragons were calling back, “All lies well,” and Captain Windle scowling retreated to Obituria as Laurence stepped into Temeraire’s ready claw to be put up.

  “Temeraire, your heading is east by north,” Laurence said, clasping his own carabiners onto the harness.

  “East by north,” Temeraire called. Fidelitas and Obituria returned, “East by north,” correctly, and then—a leap, a beating of wings, and they were all aloft, the formations taking their arrow-head shapes behind him to either point of wing as they climbed. Temeraire would have liked to pause hovering to look over the display, or at least to crane his head around for a good look, but it would have spoilt the picture they made and reduced his dignity; he restrained the impulse. Distantly he heard Ricarlee and his fellows coming along after them in a clamoring mass.

  When his ear could catch no more of the be
ating sounds of dragons in their first climb, he wheeled away from the coastline and over the open water. A rush of bracing air met him coming in from the Channel, and he let the warmer air beneath his wings carry him up above it. It was a fine clear day, and the harbor speckled with white sails and rowboats, faint cries of people seeing them streaming past—only for a moment; then they were already whipping past and out to sea.

  Temeraire settled into a comfortable pace, flicking out his wing-tips on the upper crest to make sure everyone behind him saw the beat. A quick glance to starboard made sure he had not exceeded Obituria’s pace—she would be their limit. She was certainly making an effort, but not unduly so, Temeraire judged. He would have to slow a little in an hour, perhaps, to give her a rest, but it was so lovely to fly swift at the start of a journey, after so long in covert; he was sure everyone must be glad of the chance to stretch themselves.

  The cliffs had fallen away behind them; the Continent was a faint smudge on the horizon. One of the large ships of the blockade—a first-rate, or a second-rate? He should have to ask Laurence—was beating up the Channel on patrol, working against the wind that was diving beneath them. Only mizzen and mainsails spread, but she was still impressive, and to Temeraire’s surprised delight she fired a salute as their shadows came streaming over the waves and ran up her sails.

  “Laurence, what is that ship?” he asked.

  Laurence trained his glass upon her and after a moment said, “My dear, that is the Temeraire, herself.”

  ISKIERKA’S FLAME SCORCHED THE air just short of Temeraire’s leading wing—“I beg your pardon,” Temeraire said indignantly. He wheeled round, and then discovered half the ferals had abandoned their positions, wreaking merry havoc among a handful of French supply-carts on the road to the south, quite away from any fighting.

  “Temeraire, we must try and establish control over the left flank,” Laurence called, his glass trained upon the field below, where all the infantry of both sides were tangled in what Temeraire found an indistinguishable mass, clouded by stinking wafts of black powder smoke. “I think we are near to breaking them. A run of incendiaries, united with Wittgenstein’s advance, would have a material effect, if it can be done—a quarter of an hour from now, I think, or a little more.”

  “But Laurence, look what the ferals are doing,” Temeraire protested. “If I do not go and chivvy them back into line—”

  “We knew not to expect better from them, my dear,” Laurence said. “This is not the moment to concern ourselves with their correction.”

  Temeraire without pleasure resigned himself to ignoring the ferals’ pillaging; he recalled with pain the behavior of the Russian beasts, over the Berezina—and those dragons had not been under his command; it had not reflected on him. Now here they were with nearly the entire city of Berlin observing, and all their allies—General Wittgenstein himself was at that very moment taking a courier on an arc to the east, watching the battle through his glass—and everyone could see that nearly half his troops were behaving in this scaly and disorderly fashion. He writhed inwardly with mortification and threw a glance towards their right flank, where Dyhern and Eroica were maneuvering with their fellows. Perhaps they would not notice?

  He turned his attention back to the battle and called to Iskierka, “Can you take that blue-green fellow over there, or will you need some help?”

  “Oh!” Iskierka gave her present victims, a pair of French light-weights, a last pursuing gout of fire. “As though I should need any help to manage anyone at all,” and she was tearing off after the big French cross-breed, who was serving as the anchor of their artillery-cover.

  Quite naturally, a handful of the middle-weights from the left flank came to help screen him. “There,” Temeraire said. “Requiescat, pray knock us a hole on the left.”

  “Do you mean their left, or my left?” Requiescat said, circling him lazily, as though they had all the time imaginable. “And which is the left; I am no hand at remembering.”

  “Over that large building with the green steeple!” Temeraire said irritably.

  “Have him take the rest of the ferals with him,” Laurence said, and Temeraire passed along the order—for what it was worth, as nearly all the Scottish dragons were busy rummaging through the sacks of the shattered wagons below; but some half a dozen of the smaller ones went after Requiescat when he called them to order, even if they were not likely to be much use.

  Meanwhile, however, Temeraire’s new signal-ensign Quigley was putting out the flags—ready incendiaries and fall in behind leader. Temeraire fended off an attempt by a couple of over-daring young French beasts, who did not know better than to come at him from his lower flank—a quick hovering twist and he was doubled on himself. He roared at them as they closed. Both wheeled away with cries of anguish, a lighter lesson than they had asked for, Temeraire felt; but he did not have time to pursue them at present. Requiescat had gone barreling through the lines, his head down and the rifle-fire pinging harmlessly off his helm, and the ferals had gone in after him clawing about the dragons who had been first bowled out of the way and were struggling to beat back up into place.

  “Excellent,” Laurence said. “Make your pass when ready, Temeraire,” and Temeraire plunged into the disorder of the French line with his legs tucked in carefully, the long-unaccustomed feeling of his bellmen scrambling about in the rigging below, which was growing noticeably lighter as they cast off the incendiaries in their careful way—he could feel each one being handed along a line of men until it reached the end of the rigging, just below his tail, and there down a line of three men suspended by lines, to the last one who ignited the fuse and let the bomb drop.

  Obituria and Cavernus were with him—Cavernus another of their formation-leaders, a Malachite Reaper, who had come over with Granby from Edinburgh; she was a bit standoffish, and not above middle-weight, but a really clever flyer. All their formations came behind them, their crews dropping their own bombs. Not one in five landed anywhere useful, of course, and each one was necessarily small; that was the trouble with incendiaries—and worse, there was no sign of Fidelitas, who ought to have come along, too. Temeraire, startled, did a quick survey over the battlefield as he finished his pass; the dragons of Fidelitas’s formation were circling uncertainly, many of them having small unhelpful skirmishes with French beasts—and Fidelitas himself was down among the baggage-carts, with the ferals.

  “Oh!” Temeraire said, indignant.

  “Can you manage another pass?” Laurence called, at the same moment; they had created some noise and confusion on the ground beneath, but not as much as one might have hoped—not as much as four formations should have done. But the French dragons were recovering from their buffeting now, coming for them in their dangerous swarming numbers, and if he tried to lead the others back through that cloud instead of going round back to their own lines, Obituria was sure to take some injury; she was not quick enough. Fidelitas would have been, Temeraire thought resentfully.

  He cast an eye quickly over the ground below—the incendiaries had at least thoroughly disordered the twenty gun-crews covering the French center; those would take several minutes to begin firing again. “Laurence, I might take those guns, myself, if the others could keep the French dragons off my back a little longer,” Temeraire called back, proposing an alternative, and Laurence gave the word. The signal-flags flashed out, telling the rest of the dragons to cover his pass. But Obituria seemed perplexed; she was already climbing up out of combat-height to circle back to the allied line, without any orders at all, and even though the signal-ensign on her back ought to have been watching the flag-dragon, she did not turn round. Fortunately, Cavernus rallied her own formation to make a shield—but the smaller dragons, unsupported, would not be able to hold for long. Temeraire calculated quickly—he would have to go straight at the gun-crews, flying over the French infantry before them; he could not afford the time to circle round and come from their rear.

  There was no more time to
consider; either he must go at once, or they must give up, accept that their pass had failed in such a clumsy manner in front of everyone, when it ought to have gone well. Temeraire whirled and dived low even as he caught a glimpse of Laurence raising the speaking-trumpet to call him off, and steeled himself against the frantic spattering of musket-balls that struck his chest and legs from the French infantry below—like being bitten all over by rats or something equally unpleasant, and he could not even give vent to a hiss of displeasure; he required every last ounce of breath.

  Halfway from the guns, he began roaring at measured intervals, just as though he meant to raise up a wave. Men and horses collapsed and scattered even before the shorter roars, and most of the already-disordered artillery-crews broke and began to flee in every direction; faintly he heard voices crying, “Le vent du diable!” as they ran. But one brave crew had stayed by the third gun in the line—blood streaming over their faces and hands, and the ground near them still smoking where an incendiary had landed not far away, but they were holding fast, exhorted by a tall young officer in a shako with its once-proud plume replaced by a makeshift bunch of chicken feathers. They were trying to bring the gun to bear—on him.

  The wide mouth of the iron cannon gaped hideously round as they struggling turned it inch by inch. Staring down its dark maw, Temeraire tried not to think of all the dreadful things Perscitia had said about being struck by cannon-shot, and especially not of poor Chalcedony, who had gone down so horribly in the Battle of Shoeburyness with a ball to the chest. He could only try to outrun them: if he shifted his course now, the divine wind would collapse, and it would not do against all those guns; it was not enough just to destroy one.

  He kept his roars coming, kept flying, even as the gunners frantically tamped down the wadding, and loaded in the shot. And then he was close enough: even as they were putting the slow-match to the tube, he gathered one last breath and roared enormously, collapsing the other waves into a single monstrous force, and the divine wind rolled out over them.

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