League of Dragons by Naomi Novik

  The gun rang so violently it might have been church-bells, pealing. The crew fell away like rag dolls, collapsing; Temeraire glimpsed with sorrow the officer with his feathers sinking, his eyes gone red with blood. And then the barrel exploded. Flames and bits of iron and splinters, red-hot and smoldering, flew in every direction. All along the ridge of the low hill, the oaken carriages of the guns were shattering as though they had been struck by cannon-fire. Those men who had not fled fast enough or far enough littered the ground unmoving, in a wide fan-shape marking the path of the divine wind.

  And as Temeraire lifted away, wincing, the entire hill upon which the guns had stood abruptly collapsed, as though some essential foundation had shattered. Dirt and sand and pebbles cascaded away in a tremendous wash, burying the nearest ranks of French infantry to their ankles where they had not already been decimated by the hail of metal.

  The French ranks near-by were dismayed by the attack, and the dragons above reeled back; Cavernus and her formation wheeled into a diamond-shape round Temeraire, sheltering him as he got back aloft, and together they climbed out of fighting-height and dashed back to the safety of the allied lines. Temeraire had the satisfaction of seeing Eroica’s signal-ensign dip flags in a quick salute, as they swept past. His breath was short, and now that the moment of crisis had passed, the bullet-wounds stung fiercely; there seemed a great many of them.

  “Report, Mr. Roland,” Laurence called.

  “Flinders lost, Warrick wounded, sir,” Emily Roland called, hanging off halfway up his side. “A dozen hits to the chest, and the bellmen cannot stanch two.”

  “Mr. Quigley, signal Iskierka that we are going to the field-hospital, and to hold the line until we return,” Laurence called.

  “Surely that can wait until the battle is over,” Temeraire said, flinching; oh, how he hated the surgeons. “Truly, Laurence, I do not feel them in the slightest.”

  But Laurence was inflexible; with a sigh Temeraire put down at the clearing, and tried to console himself that at least Keynes was with them again—the finest dragon-surgeon of Britain’s forces, and the quickest hand at getting the wretched musket-balls out. It was not a very good consolation, however.

  “What the devil were you about, giving them your whole belly for washing?” Keynes demanded in great irritation, having ordered Temeraire to sprawl on his side—a highly uncomfortable position, nearly squashing one wing—while he clambered about with his savage long-bladed knives, and his assistants scuttling behind him with the dish.

  “Well, I did not want to!” Temeraire said, protesting. “But there was nothing else to be done, after Obituria had flown off. It would scarcely have gone better if I had circled around while Cavernus and the others were bowled over, and then the French could have come at me from aloft. Ow!” Another ball had dropped into the dish, with its inappropriately pleasant chiming sound, and the hot searing iron had been pressed to the wound to close it. “Surely that is all of them.”

  “I know a bullet-hole when I see one, damn your scaly hide,” Keynes said, jabbing him again.

  Laurence had with difficulty restrained his first instinctual reaction on the battlefield, which had been a murderous one; but hearing Temeraire say straight-out what ought to have been plain—which surely had been plain, to Obituria’s captain—renewed his rage afresh. For a moment sight dimmed, one of those too-vivid memories seizing him, and he was in the night sky over the ocean, the Valérie below them: her lanterns and the muzzles of her cannon glowing red-hot, the only lights upon her decks. The wind in his face and the shock of impact: the barbed ball tearing into Temeraire’s chest from her skyward guns.

  He shook the darkness away and stood again in daylight, torn grass and mud churned up with thick rivulets of dragon blood spattered across his boots, the low groans of injured dragons and men. Temeraire still bore that scar, a knot the size of Laurence’s fist, drawn flesh and dulled scales; he liked to paint it over sometimes for vanity. If there had been a skyward gun in the French emplacement; if they had fired off that last round in time, a difference of half a minute—

  “That is all of them,” Keynes said, straightening up, “and more than there ought to have been.”

  Laurence did not let anger go, but dismissed it to return later; the battle was not over. “Can he fly, Mr. Keynes?”

  “I cannot keep out of the fighting,” Temeraire protested immediately, pricking up his ruff.

  “I should prefer a week’s rest with no flying,” Keynes said, “but I do not insist upon it—yet. Keep him out of musket-fire range, and see he has a side of raw beef to-night.”

  “Very well,” Laurence said. “Has Mr. Warrick been taken off, Mr. Challoner?”

  “Aye, sir,” Challoner answered, from the belly-rigging; she herself had a bandage wrapped snugly about her left arm, and few of the bellmen had not been marked likewise.

  Temeraire craning around to peer at them said anxiously, “You are not badly hurt, Challoner? I am glad to hear it. Where are they taking poor Warrick? And are you quite certain Flinders is dead? Perhaps he will wake?”

  Flinders had lost nearly half his skull to a flying scrap of iron, likely a fragment of a cannon-barrel, and would certainly never wake again before the Judgment; Temeraire unhappily accepted the news, and said, “We will be sure to look in on his wife and children, Laurence, will we not?—I am very sorry he should be lost to them, and us.”

  “We will,” Laurence said, going back aboard. He was not surprised at the inquiry, for Temeraire had before now shown all the signs of taking to heart the many strictures Churki had lain down for the duty of care the Incan dragons felt due to those men and women in their charge. Temeraire had begun to apply these even while crewed by the sorriest gang of untrained sea-dogs, conscripted under their duress and his own after the wreck of the Allegiance—the dregs of the Navy and half of them drunkards and former convicts pressed out of the bowels of Sydney Harbor. It was not wonderful that those sentiments should have enlarged themselves rapidly on so much better matter as his new crew offered: men of the Corps, trained up in the service and among dragons from childhood, and all of them respectable even if not nice in their manners.

  But it was a novel expression to those men themselves, used to the European mode where dragons were encouraged to bind all their affections up in their captains, in hopes of giving that one hand a strong rein to pull upon. Laurence knew many crewmen thought it unremarkable to have gone ten years in service on a dragon, without ever once exchanging any conversation with the beast, direct; even most lieutenants spoke with them only rarely. He mounted back up hearing approving murmurs, mingled with the same anger he felt himself: the misconduct of Obituria’s captain had left them, too, exposed to the danger their dragon had faced, and there was not a man who did not feel that Flinders need not have died.

  “I will certainly have words with Obituria,” Temeraire said, as he pushed aloft again with a few stifled hisses of discomfort to belie his earlier bravado. “I do not see what business she had going off in that fashion. Oh! And as for Fidelitas—!”

  They reached fighting-altitude above a battlefield much altered by their handiwork, and the passage of three-quarters of an hour. Dyhern and the Prussian dragons holding the right still struggled against the more numerous and nimbler French—but they were making a far better showing than at the disastrous battle of Jena, where so many of the Prussian dragons had been brought low.

  The Prussians had indeed turned the French strategy back upon them: the big dragons had exposed themselves early on, pretending to cleave to their old formation-flying habits, but their captains had been hiding below, safe in the belly-netting. As soon as the French boarding parties had dropped onto their backs, the heavy-weights had raced at top speed to the back of the lines, where the French boarders were seized at once by the many eager hands of their ground crews and imprisoned. It was a blow even larger than the mere loss of numbers: the French could ill afford to spare trained veterans at present from any
part of their army, and with so many young and half-trained beasts among them, skilled aviators were an especial loss.

  By now the French had belatedly grown wary of this maneuver. The boarders had ceased to go, and in their absence, the sheer muscle of the Prussian heavy-weights made a solid wall which even the numbers of the French dragons could not penetrate. Many of the young French beasts felt all the natural hesitation of a twelve-ton beast confronted by one of eighteen tons, spiked and plated in the bony armor common among Prussian heavy-weights. They had thus reached a stalemate, and below them the Russian and French guns were arguing the question back and forth, with an equal lack of resolution.

  But on the left, the hole Temeraire’s assault had opened was proving worth the cost: the French flank was weakening, and from their lofty distance Laurence could see the wreckage of two French infantry squares, broken by the explosion of the guns and trampled by the Russian light cavalry; another gun emplacement was being overrun, and Russian guns had been dragged forward and now unopposed were rapidly clearing away the French dragons from the air.

  “We will let them work,” Laurence said, watching the guns boom and thunder. “Temeraire, we can turn against the center, I believe. Mr. Forthing, signal a charge; Iskierka to take point, if you please. We will keep to the rear—”

  “Oh, Laurence!” Temeraire protested.

  Laurence continued firmly, “—and make a feint at threatening their guns on that hill near the green barn. We have put some fear in their bellies, I hope, and we may do more good there, by drawing away a significant portion of their force for an unnecessary defense.”

  But Temeraire’s entire frame quivered with restive unhappiness all the while he hovered and darted around the hill, even though he was keeping a full six French dragons thoroughly occupied—two of them heavy-weights, and the French aerial center weakened materially thereby. Laurence was thoroughly satisfied with the arrangement, but Temeraire plainly not—and least so when he had to watch Iskierka lead a dazzling and ferocious charge straight at the French center, only to plunge with startling speed beneath the braced and waiting lines, and come up from beneath them.

  The French were so entirely taken by surprise by that dive—contrary to all received wisdom, as putting the British dragons vulnerable below their claws—that they did not act to seize the advantage it offered them swiftly enough. Iskierka as quickly looped back up between their two ranks, followed by the full company, who then broke into two groups: middle-weights twisting to pounce upon the French light-weights in the forward rank, while the light-weights and heavy-weights together fell upon the larger beasts to the rear.

  It was a daring maneuver—one which Temeraire himself had proposed, but it was perhaps not wonderful that its success should not be enough to content him when he was forced to see his design enacted by another. His ruff lay so flat against his neck that he looked nearly an Imperial dragon again. “I do not see why Iskierka needs to be flaming off in that showy way,” he said, “and she quite nearly fouled Latinius’s wing, on that last turn,” this referring to the small Grey Copper from Fidelitas’s formation, who was hanging on Iskierka’s coattails and making clawing passes at the eyes of her recoiling targets, with every evidence of high delight.

  Laurence laid a comforting hand on his neck, and told Forthing, “Pass the word to Requiescat.” The massive Regal Copper smashed through the wavering French light-weights. Dragons scattered in every direction as he rolled onwards over them, and the British middle-weights turned eagerly to join the others in their assault in the remaining French forces.

  Their own boarding parties now began going over. So many of the French dragons were unharnessed as to make the usual practice, aimed at capturing a beast’s captain, ineffective. Instead men on long tethers leapt over, in moments planted spikes deep into the unharnessed dragon’s bare back, and flung heavy cables over the side before they swung off themselves and were pulled back to safety. The crew of the light-weights seized the dangling ends and their dragons swiftly looped over and over around the enemy beast. Thus entangled, the French dragons had to flee or have their wings pinned, and more than one beast lost its wind and plummeted to the ground in a dreadful crash.

  Laurence watched the operation without pleasure. The same technique had been used in the medieval age by the dragon-slayers of the Norman court, who mounted on their own beasts had undertaken a ruthless culling of the wild beasts of the British Isles. The method had for a thousand years made harnessed dragons with their large crews inevitably the masters of the unharnessed, at least in the West; and these French dragons were too young and unpracticed to have mastered the Chinese dragons’ skill at defending one another from similar attacks.

  Poole had suggested the tactic at the conference Laurence had held with his officers, three nights ago, with an air of challenging him to object—as though he thought Laurence some sort of idle romantic, instead of a serving-officer who had been at sea since the age of twelve, and at war nearly all his life. He wondered in grim amusement how Poole himself would have liked to be on the deck of a sixty-four taking a broadside, trying to keep his feet on blood-washed oak. Laurence did not have the kind of squeamishness which consisted in a refusal to harm the enemy upon the battlefield, in open and honest combat.

  But there was still nothing like pleasure in seeing half-trained young dragons flung down, and they were going at a shockingly rapid pace. Ten French light-weights were felled in less than a quarter of an hour, and then Cavernus made a daring effort on one unharnessed Petit Chevalier. She dropped a dozen boarders on the heavy-weight dragon’s back, then she rounded up the ferals to help: every small dragon seized on the dangling ropes and whipped around the Chevalier, who grew clumsy with alarm and fouled wings as they drew more than twenty loops around him: he might have bulled his way loose at first, but the ferals were beating about his head, and abruptly his wings were pulled too tight against his body.

  He dragged a breath, struggled—one of the ferals took a sharp tumble, another was raked by outflung talons—and fell, fell, roaring in terror, to smash upon the ground below, crushing an entire company of cavalry beneath his massive bulk.

  The French aerial line broke: dozens of unharnessed dragons fleeing away towards the Elbe, their panic infecting the harnessed beasts and carrying many of these along with them; the remainder milling in uncertain confusion only to be harried away by Iskierka, pouring out flame as she descended on them. The center was theirs.

  “Signal bombardment,” Laurence said, and all the harnessed British dragons circled back, finding their formations, and began to sweep back and forth over the French infantry, freely dropping their incendiaries among them. The French were trying to turn their guns skyward; Fidelitas—now returned to the field—led his formation in a raking pass across two emplacements, and Cavernus went after another. But there were other guns beginning to threaten their position, and in any case Laurence judged the beasts would by now have spent the better part of their incendiaries. “Withdraw to heights,” he said, and as the first gun-crew began their firing sequence, the British dragons were already circling up and higher, out of range.

  They were also beyond the range of doing much damage direct, but Laurence was satisfied: they had established a secure command of the air. “Temeraire, if you please, send one of those ferals round to ask Dyhern if he could use a formation or two: we will spare him Cavernus and Fidelitas, if he requires their aid,” he said.

  “Very well,” Temeraire said unenthusiastically, and collared one of the circling Scots, who had got herself a table-cloth out of the wagon-carts and thrust her head through it, so it now hung on her like a sort of capelet. “Oh, all right,” she said, rather grumbling, but she went off in a hurry.

  Meanwhile, the guns kept firing a steady barrage to keep them far aloft, but these were no longer trained upon the allied forces, steadily pressing their advantage, and then Laurence distantly heard as the Prussian cuirassiers shouted as one. Their horses were hooded a
nd blinkered and nose-muffled from any glimpse of the dragons above; they made a thundering roll of a charge across the field, into the lessened hail of iron, and fell upon the guns. Laurence lowered his glass. He had seen enough: the day was theirs.


  Laurence saw Temeraire settled in the field-covert with a side of beef and a bowlful of hot beef blood, sent over by way of thanks from the Prussian corps. “Mr. Keynes said he will look in on us in an hour, Admiral,” O’Dea said, “and we will trust in the saints to keep himself,” meaning Temeraire, “from taking blood-poisoning before then, or going mad from lead in the humors; like as not the knife has missed a ball here or there.”

  This provoked Temeraire to say uneasily, “I am sure there cannot be much lead left in me, after all of that wretched rooting about. Laurence, is going mad very uncomfortable?”

  Laurence sighed privately. He would have been glad for a different ground-crew master, if he had dared ask for a replacement: O’Dea was clever enough, but untrained, and given to excess of both drink and poetic lamentations. In his case, Laurence would have had no compunction in removing him from the rôle and keeping him on as a personal secretary instead. But the Admiralty would surely have assigned them another scowling half-spy, or a man who would resist every advancement in practice. If O’Dea did not know his work as well as he ought, at least he had less to unlearn, and seven months’ observation of the habits of the Chinese legions made him nearly as much an expert as any man in Britain.

  “If you can feel any other metal remaining, pray inform Keynes; I am certain you will have no ill-effects before he comes. I will return directly I have seen my staff, and attended to the wounded,” Laurence said, and went to collect Granby.

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