FORGIVE ME," LAURENCE SAID. Temeraire had settled himself for the night, curled up comfortably in an old, well-plowed field behind the barn, fallow now and full of soft dry grass underneath the snow. They were alone, or nearly so. Demane and Sipho and Roland and Allen were all tucked into the curve of Temeraire's haunch, under a little lean-to which Demane and Roland had worked out of a tent and a few sticks, and rigged to Temeraire's side, as it was warmer to sleep against him so than in the tent alone. But all four were fast asleep. Arkady at last had stopped telling stories, and was now busily making up to Iskierka, to sleep near in the heat she gave off. Temeraire had sniffed a little in disdain, and curled his own tail about the lean-to, just to be sure his crew would sleep warm, and dry besides.
He did not at once understand, what Laurence was apologizing for, until Laurence had explained a little. "Forgive me," Laurence repeated. "Bad enough that I used myself so; to have used you likewise, is unpardonable - "
"But Laurence," Temeraire said, at once glad and baffled, "it was my fault, surely: it was my notion we should go to France in the first place. Only, I did not know that they should take your capital, and your rank; and I am sorry - "
"I am not," Laurence said. "I should give more than that, and count it cheap, to preserve my conscience; I am ashamed to have submitted to despair so far as to ever have thought differently."
Temeraire did not wish to argue in the least: Laurence sounded like himself again, if still drawn and perhaps unhappy, and that was worth anything; but privately he could not help a certain resentment that a conscience seemed to be so very expensive, and yet had no substantial form which one might admire, and display to one's company.
"But," he said, heroically, "I did mean what I said, dear Laurence, about the talon-sheaths, and I do wish you may sell them, and buy some new things for yourself: I would like my conscience to be just as clear."
Laurence said, with even a touch of amusement, "I am sorry to have neglected my coat, if it has given you so wretched a notion of my finances, but I am not so wholly impoverished." More gently he added, "There will be no more pavilions, I am afraid, but I hope I need not be an embarrassment to you."
"You should never be," Temeraire said, and nudged Laurence with his nose.
Laurence stroked his muzzle. "I do not know what our course will hereafter be," he said. "I owe apologies, more than this, and must make them; and then I must write to Wellesley - I know not how, but I must tell him we will not continue in this manner. There will be no more of this slaughter without quarter. We will manage our prisoners somehow; and we will rather seek out than flee any force which has a gun, or a few dragons."
Temeraire had not known how worried he had been, until the source of the distress had lifted; but his spirits rose almost effervescently at Laurence's words. "How happy I am to hear it," he said, adding, "and I am sure we will take a great many prizes." However brave a face Laurence wished to put on it, Temeraire felt this could not but be reassuring.
"More likely," Laurence said, "Wellesley will order me to come back and be hanged at once."
"If he does, you shall not go," Temeraire said indignantly, flaring his ruff.
"No," Laurence said, after a moment. "I shall not."
* * *
I must beg your leave to acquaint you with an Alteration in the methods of our company, to which I hope you will not object, for humanity's sake, despite some increase in Inconvenience and in Danger, which all those officers in His Majesty's service presently reporting to me, and those dragons likewise, have gladly agreed to support, venturing rather their persons than their conscience...
Along these lines the letter was written, with difficulty, and by Gherni it was sent. They established their new camp between North Seaton and Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, and began to put up a stockade manned with volunteers from the countryside. "We are making a nice honey-pot for them to rescue," Sutton commented, as the dragons cheerfully tore up trees: they had no guns to defend the walls.
"Then at least they will have spent the time and effort to come for them, which they would otherwise have used to bring fresh troops over from France," Laurence said. In any case, no-one objected; it shamed him again to see how greatly the other officers and dragons both were relieved by the alteration in their practice. He expected daily however an answer from Wellesley, relieving him of the command, and wondered what he should say to the other captains when it came; if Wellesley should have found some other officer to carry on the work.
But no letter came: three days later a great noise arose in the morning around their camp: many ferals bursting in upon them eagerly with news, and before their combined chatter could be worked out, the great dragons of the Corps were already landing everywhere, laden with men. One company after another were put off onto the ground, supplies, artillery, and the dragons leapt away again with scarcely more than a call of greeting. Above them more dragons were flying past, all the British Army on the move.
Wellesley arrived a little past noon, and commandeered the old half-derelict barn, where the crews had been sleeping, for his headquarters. "Out, the rest of you," he said, jerking his head at the crew and even the aides sweeping out the floor, fixing Laurence in place with a cold look. "Cleverly done, Laurence," Wellesley said, when they were alone. "Not so simple after all, are you?"
Laurence was silent, uncertain, until Wellesley added, "I will not waste my breath asking who on my staff passed you the news, but you will understand me: if you have the infernal gall to waste my time now, with some damned attempt at extortion, I will shoot you myself."
And then Laurence understood: Wellesley thought his letter had been timed deliberately, on the very eve of his southward advance, to establish Wellesley's own responsibility for the slaughter of the French irregulars.
"I will not hear a damned word about pardon from you," Wellesley said, "not a one. In three days' time we will meet Bonaparte, and if I win, no-one will give a damn whatever accusations you like to make. And of course," he added, icily, "you will be well-looked-after in the event we lose. Rowley!" he bellowed. "Get my desk in here, and call in the general staff."
Officers began to pour in, struggling under tables and maps and chairs. Laurence was almost at once pressed away from Wellesley as they thronged around him, and any reply Laurence might have made was lost in the crowd.
He felt the urgent wish to push through, to seize Wellesley and to argue; but he forced himself to be still. It did not matter. He could make no denial Wellesley would believe. In any case, that Wellesley thought him a blackguard for refusing to continue, rather than for having begun at all, made little difference; Laurence had earned the condemnation, and he might as well bear it for the wrong cause.
"Emily," he said, turning instead, and beckoned her back into the building; she was peering in at the door cautiously, to one side of the stampede. "Take Demane and go up and get those hayloft doors open," he told her, "so Temeraire and the other dragons can hear."
He went outside himself: it was already becoming impossibly cramped upon the ground, though more trees had been uprooted, and a broad avenue opened up to the road: every dragon who had landed, dropping off men, was soon jostling for space at the hayloft.
"We shan't manage like this," Jane said, Excidium having landed after a warning hiss had cleared him a place. "Dragons over the rank of lieutenant only may stay: the rest of you must go on with the rest of the Army, and get the news from your officers or your captains. We have had to give them all ranks, thanks to your Temeraire's splendid scheme," she added dryly to Laurence. "The rest of them turned miserably sulky and wanted epaulettes of their own; frivolous creatures." She patted Excidium, who looked rather smug with two epaulettes of deep fire orange, to match the edges of his massive wings.
They had scarcely made a little order, and themselves crammed back into the barn, before Wellesley began: his aides put up a map of Chatham roads, the mouth of the Thames where it spilled into the Channel, with all the small towns and villages thereabout. Their positions were marked, and a low murmur went about: their backs would be to the sea.
"Well, gentlemen, I see you like our position as well as I hope our friend Bonaparte will do," Wellesley said. "The Navy and the Corps have all but cut off his connection to the Continent, and the countryside has risen. He loses now each day a hundred men, and each week two dragons, for lack of supply. He can ill afford to refuse us a pitched battle, if we offer it to him on what I trust he will think reasonable terms."
The terms seemed indeed reasonable - from the French perspective. Laurence wondered if Wellesley meant by such an arrangement to stiffen the backs of the soldiers, by denying them any avenue of retreat save through the French troops before them.
"Colonels Featherstone and Bree, you will take the center. Your position is the most essential: you must hold, until you are signaled," Wellesley said. "Yield before the moment is ripe, and he will split our forces, and destroy us at his leisure. You are not to advance, under any circumstances: you are only to form square and hold. Colonel Rethlow, you will back them with the artillery.
"The cavalry will take position on either flank, with the rest of our infantry positioned here, and here," he indicated, "and the Corps will hold off any French attempt to charge our center from aloft. All our design, gentlemen, as I hope you gather," he went on, "is to hold fast, while they spend the best part of their strength, and divert their attacks from our center, until the signal is given.
"The order of march then being sounded, we will gradually withdraw along either flank - " Two of the aides heaved up a fresh map, with new positions marked, yielding to the French the very center position which had been so vigorously defended. " - and cut him off from his aerial support and whatever reserves he may have yet kept back, and launch our attack against his rear. General Paget, it will be your task to ensure that Bonaparte himself remains within our circle. General Ollen, your artillery will be directed towards Bonaparte's reserves, rather than the main body of his force, to keep them from rejoining him.
"Our aim, gentlemen, is the capture of this tyrant, and an end to his perpetual war. I will be satisfied with nothing less, and I assure you their Lordships have agreed with my judgment."
With only this brief and unsettling plan of battle, he concluded and dismissed them all, adding, "Colonel Featherstone, a word with you." He drew that officer aside privately, thus preventing many other officers of the general staff, who themselves plainly wanted a word, and more than one.
Laurence went out to Temeraire, who was rather regretfully submitting to being rigged out in carrying-harness. "We are taking this company," he said, as Laurence came, "or so he tells me - " The infantry officer nodded to Laurence, a little stiffly, and touched his hat.
"Very good," Laurence answered, and stifled his doubts. To risk dividing their forces so, yielding the center to Napoleon and then directing all their force deliberately between him and his reserve, to be pounded upon from either side, seemed a terrible risk to run; if it made more likely Napoleon's capture, it made also more likely that the French should simply overrun them. But Wellesley was not a fool, and if he meant to tolerate all the weaknesses and dangers of his planned course, he had some cause. He had certainly taken pains to evade any questions, and any protests which might have been made against him to the ministers, by delaying the conference until the deployment already had begun. There was nothing for it now, but to trust him.
THE DEGREE OF EXCITEMENT which Temeraire felt, expressed itself nearly as pain: his ruff expanded, whenever a few minutes passed where he did not make an effort to smooth it out, and drew a pounding tightness all along the line of his neck. He tried now and again to curl himself for a little rest, but it was impossible: no more of wretched raids, no more hiding, no more carrying anyone about; a real battle at last.
Their coverts were established also on the coast, but well to the flanks of the battle, to north and south. Temeraire could see the dotted lines of fishing huts scattered away around them, a few distant yellow candle-gleams, and the rocky coastline a dark mass against the faintly lighter sky, the steady ongoing roar of the surf behind them. It was yet dark; the voices of the Fleur-de-Nuits, scouting their positions, echoed overhead. Occasionally a flare was shot off to blind them, or a few dragons chosen by lot went up to chase a few of them away.
Laurence rose a little before dawn, and climbed down from Temeraire's back, to look out towards the battlefield.
"Is Napoleon there?" Temeraire asked Laurence, eagerly. "Have they come?"
"Yes," Laurence said. "They are in pickets; put your head down and you will see them."
Temeraire lowered his head and tipped it so he had one eye aimed along the ground: against the deep grey of the sky as it lightened, he could see atop a hill the tiny narrow lines of the pickets: narrow posts, little more than sticks, each leaning a little in one direction or another, and the lumpy dark shapes at their base: the sleeping soldiers, thus kept in their columns. Overhead, the stars were dimming and going out: a thick grey fog rolling in from the water, as the sky grew paler.
"It is time," Laurence said. Fellowes stirred, behind Temeraire's leg, and yawning rose to see to the harness.
Temeraire rumbled softly, deep in his throat, and called, "Majestatis, Ballista - it is time to get everyone up."
"I still do not like this plan at all," Perscitia said, fretfully, as they all ate: fresh cattle, saved for this morning, and nearly everyone had all they wanted. "I do not see what the use is, in fighting so hard to keep them from the center, and then letting them have it after all; why not give it to them at once, to begin? And are you quite sure they are there?"
The question was not as odd as it seemed; the fog had grown so thick they could see nothing from the ground but the trees just about the clearing: the presence of their own army had to be taken on faith, much less the enemy.
"Yes, I am quite sure," Temeraire said. "Laurence pointed them out to me, just before morning. We will see them better once we are aloft, I am sure."
Rain fell in a thin icy drizzle as they went up: they had all drawn lots to see who should have which shift, as Admiral Roland had insisted they might not all fight at once, and Temeraire did see the sense in keeping some back, when the battle should be very long. He was very relieved to be leading up the first rank, however, and hoped privately that the fog might last; and perhaps Laurence would not notice when it was mid-day and time for their own rest.
He could not, after all, see much better from above. Pockets of mist like seething cauldrons stood in every low valley, and still more great towering clouds were rolling majestically in from the sea, so high they stretched up to engulf him as much as the ground below, with gusts of sharp rain that pattered noisily on his wings. As they flew on towards the battlefield, he began to catch glimpses of the soldiers in their companies on the march, all arranged a little differently, like patches of cloth in odd sizes, some long as ribbons and only five men across, others great massed bodies upon the field.
All rippled smoothly over the ground, columns of white and black and blue and red, on either side, gliding up over the hills, down again into the valleys to be swallowed up in the fog. Even then, he could still hear the strange noise they made marching: less a thumping, which he might have expected, than a regular hissing, as their clothing or their boots brushed against one another with each stride. The wet ground muffled their steps. The trumpets sounded, a joyful encouraging noise no matter who had blown them; and the cannon spoke in orange flame to announce the battle had been joined, somewhere.
The French dragons were somewhere farther back, Temeraire supposed, peering uselessly; trees lashed with fog-banks barred his view of the French rear. "There," Laurence called, and Temeraire followed the line of his arm to see their own center established.
Temeraire was pleased that, to his eye, their own force was much the handsomer. A great many of the Frenchmen he could spy wore long drab coats, with scarcely a touch of color, and otherwise were largely in white breeches and white shirts - none too clean, Temeraire noted - with very ordinary dark blue coats. He much preferred the vivid red coats which dominated their own army. They had also several companies of soldiers in the center in colorful and patterned skirts, instead of plain breeches; and of course their flag was by far the more interesting.
"And if they do have eagles," Temeraire said to Laurence, "all the better for us to take them away. Laurence, do you not like those skirts they are wearing, over there?"
"Those are the Scots Greys cavalry," Laurence said, looking through his glass, "and those are the Coldstream Guard, beside them. If anyone can hold the center, they will; but good God: Bonaparte will pound them without mercy."
"We will keep the dragons off," Temeraire said. "I am only a little worried, that at the end we are meant to encircle Bonaparte, and not his aerial support - what if Lien should escape?" Privately, Temeraire felt it was rather peculiar to take so many pains to capture Napoleon and not so Lien, who was a good deal larger, and possessed also the divine wind.
"Let us hope to have such success as will make that a matter for concern," Laurence said. "But if Bonaparte is taken, she will surrender, I expect; although she may realize he cannot be held hostage for her behavior in the usual manner."
"Here they come," Majestatis called, wheeling around. Through the sheen of rain, Temeraire could see the dark shadows of the French dragons coming. Below them the front lines of the British infantry began to form into their large bristling squares to receive the charge. Soldiers stood shoulder-to-shoulder, facing outwards, about an open center. The front rank knelt with bayonets outward, the second aiming over their heads in parallel, and the third pointing upwards. Long pole-arms were thrust deeply into the ground just behind them, steadied by their bearers: the gleaming broad fan-shaped blades straight up, and the narrower pikes angled backwards, to catch any dragon attempting to strike at the line of the square from behind.
The French dragons were coming with bombs and nets, however, to try and overcome such measures; they had also stolen Perscitia's trick of uprooting trees, which they plainly meant to use broom-like to sweep gaps into the squares at a distance.
"Now, Temeraire," Laurence called urgently, and Temeraire dashed ahead to meet the French skirmishers, roaring with delight. There, there was a Roi-de-Vitesse coming out of the fog. He was armed with a tall if slender birch-tree, white and bare-branched, clutched a little awkwardly in his talons. He dived to avoid Temeraire's charge, making determinedly for the front lines of the first square; his crew fired a spray of rifle-fire up at Temeraire's belly as they passed. A quick hot sting of pain - he had been hit, but Temeraire sniffed when Laurence asked; it was nothing, nothing at all.
He threw himself over with an elegant, corkscrewing twist, and plunged low in pursuit of the smaller French dragon. Dimly he was aware of the bayonets looming ahead, gleaming and silver as the fog swirled away from them, and Laurence saying something to Demane about the bombs, but the French dragon filled all his view. Oh, it was very quick - but Temeraire stretched his wings, cupped all the air he could, and flung himself after. He would not let it at the square; he would not be outrun - and with a lunge, he had got near enough to put his claws into the other dragon's tail.
The Roi-de-Vitesse squalled, and tried to jerk away. Temeraire set his talons and beat backwards furiously, while over his shoulder, a couple of small bombs were lobbed at the French dragon's crew as they tried to bring their rifle-fire to bear again. "Tenez bon," the dragon cried to his crew, at once squirming to throw off the bombs and flailing away with his tree, as best he could manage with Temeraire's grip upon him.
Temeraire only just stifled an undignified yelp as the tree-top fetched him a sharp slap across the neck and belly: the branches were springy, and stung painfully. But he kept his head, despite the very unpleasant sensation, and managed to seize hold of the tree in his jaws and wrest it away. Disarmed, the French beast gave over his attempt at last and flew away hurriedly for the safety of his own covert, his bleeding tail dripping behind him.
"Ha," Temeraire called after the vanquished, curling his talons about the trunk, and he lashed the air with the tree experimentally a few times. "Laurence, perhaps we might go at their ranks, with this?" he proposed, over his shoulder: he could see a company of French soldiers advancing slowly from the mist, and he was quite sure the tree would answer nicely in reverse.
"We must stay near the squares," Laurence answered, "and not advance. Pray call those Reapers back, on your left: they have already let themselves be lured too far."
Temeraire sighed a little, but he threw the birch-tree into the sea, and turned to corral Chalcedony and the others. They were all darting at a Grand Chevalier, lunging in at her head and nipping at her flanks, but the big dragon, rather than turning on them in earnest or fleeing properly, was slyly retreating little by little, luring them back towards the French lines so the smaller dragons could slip past and make their attempts against the squares.
"You are meant to be an officer, it is your duty to keep everyone else from flying off," Temeraire said sternly, when he had rounded them and they were all flying back towards the squares.
"Well, Cantarella has the epaulette," Chalcedony said, a rather craven defense.
"Oh!" Cantarella said, and nipped at the edge of his wing; he yelped and twisted away. "Very well, then I am in command now, you have all heard him say so," she declared, and hitched her epaulette forward - it was a bit sodden with rain, but still notable against her pale yellow and white. "You may be sure I will not let us go afield again."
They did not have to go afield, anyway, to have all the fighting they might want: the French were coming steadily after them, and Temeraire wheeled to meet them with a will.
BY MID-DAY, they were driven farther aloft: the French had established an artillery emplacement at the center, despite all the British artillery could do against them, with a shield of pepper guns and several of the cannon elevated to strike at any dragon dipping low.
The air was colder and cleaner as they rose out of range, and more clouds streamed past to divorce them from the noise and fury of the battlefield below. Their own struggle was quieter, the whistling air and the muffling clouds stealing all but fragments of roaring, and the occasional pop-pop of rifle-fire. The French had abandoned their trees and netting, proven to encumber them too greatly against a determined aerial defense. Laurence felt rather discouraged than pleased, however, by the speed with which the experiment had been adopted, tried, and cast off.
He could feel Temeraire's energy flagging: they had been fighting now six hours, and there was little chance to pause and rest. Many of the soldiers below were lying upon the ground, out of the way of cannon-fire; Wellesley had ordered they might do so, when not themselves engaged. There was nowhere similar for the dragons to land, except the coverts where they had slept, a mile away. Behind the British lines there was only the roar of the sea, invisible beneath the blanketing fog, and on either flank the cavalry horses stood nervously shifting, pawing at the dirt.
The French had abandoned cavalry entirely. It ought to have given away an advantage; dragons could not be risked on charges in the face of artillery, as the cold calculation of warfare would allow an individual horse to be, and the British horses were all hooded now, blinders cupping their eyes, so they could only see straight ahead, with sachets of fragrance over their nostrils so they could not smell the dragons. A little past noon, Laurence heard the drumming of the first charge below.
The heavy cavalry were splendid in their rush, all of them shouting furiously and waving scimitars, the standard flying out behind them. They were sent at a battalion of the French infantry, a maneuver to gain some breathing room - nearly every French company now was pressing steady fire against the Coldstream Guards, which Napoleon had surely identified as the linchpins of the British center. The French battalion did not break; instead they formed square themselves - but a peculiar square, double-size, with a great empty gap in the center.
The cavalry committed to their charge: they were flying across the gap, in the face of the steady musketry - horses falling with terrible human shrieks, men flung off and crushed beneath the hooves of their own mounts. "Laurence, where is that Pou-de-Ciel going?" Temeraire said urgently, pointing - one of the small drab French dragons had broken away from the skirmishing and was diving quickly towards its own lines.
The Pou-de-Ciel landed, directly within the French square - and doing so, brought to vivid life the relative nature of size. The Pou-de-Ciel were a light-weight breed just barely combat-weight, and this one perhaps six or seven tons only. It yet loomed hugely over the ranks of soldiers, great taloned claws flexing behind the silver rows of bayonets, roaring with its red mouth full of teeth.
Even hooded and with their noses full of perfume, the horses would not run directly at a dragon: the cavalry-charge wavered, and broke. The horses' necks were bowed deeply, or pulling frantically away to either side, as they fell to a stumbling gait fighting the reins. One, out in front and recoiling too late, slid off its hind legs as it came too close. The Pou-de-Ciel leaned over and snatched the horse bodily off the ground with one clawed forehand, shook the rider unceremoniously off onto the ground, and with much enthusiasm opened its jaws wide and took off the flailing horse's head with one bite; the French dragons had likely been on short commons a while now.
The effect upon the remaining cavalry of the pitiful sight was pronounced; the horses were given their way, wheeling away back to the British lines, never having come within ten yards of the infantry square at all. The Pou-de-Ciel leapt away again as soon as the cavalry had fled, before British artillery could be brought to bear against it, having had a little rest and a little supper besides.
Farther to the rear of the French army, Laurence saw, more of their dragons were dropping down for a similar rest, out of artillery-range and amidst the infantry companies, who did not flinch.
"Well, I do not need a rest," Temeraire said bravely, "and if I did, there are Ballista and Requiescat coming now, with the fresh shift. I suppose I would not mind setting down for just a minute, perhaps," he added, "and a little something to eat."
"I think we cannot," Laurence said, grimly. "He is sending in his reserves." The fog was thinning now a little, blowing away from the land, and far to the rear of the French lines, dragons were leaping into the air, one after another. And now the advantage would tell: none of the French dragons, with their short and frequent rests, were withdrawing. There would be no rest for Temeraire, or any of the British dragons who had been aloft and fighting since first light.
Temeraire pulled up very short, abruptly, so Laurence was flung against his leather straps. A determined crowd of six little Garde-de-Lyons pouring fresh into the field had charged him in a body, and now began shrieking in exaggerated voices and belaboring his head and neck wildly, batting with wings and claws.
Temeraire backwinged with two mighty strokes and roared to scatter them, the tremor of the divine wind knocking them back, but in those few moments, the enormous Grand Chevalier they had seen earlier came crashing past, and threw herself down at the square of the Coldstream Guards.
The pikes and bayonets were stiffened, but she did not come down upon them directly. Instead she struck the ground directly before the front ranks, so heavily many of the men were flung off their feet, and turning round roared full in all their faces. It was a moral assault only, but a dragon the size of a large barn roaring less than ten paces away might make the bravest man blanch. Bayonets wavered and dipped, and then twenty riflemen stood up on her back and fired a terrible and concentrated volley into the stunned ranks.
A knot of men fell all together, opening a vulnerable gap in the wall of the square, and she thrust her massive foreleg into that open space and swept it along the line, all the way to the corner of the square, crushing and knocking down men and pikes like so many blades of grass. Temeraire roared furiously and dived towards her, but one of the Garde-de-Lyons flung itself into his path.
"That," Temeraire said furiously, "is quite enough, and anyway the soldiers are smaller still than you." He seized the little dragon's neck in his jaws, and with a jerk of his head broke it, a single dreadful snap. He let the beast go falling out of the sky, a little scrap of scarlet and blue, the small handful of crewmen scattering like falling leaves through the air behind.
The Garde-de-Lyon had bought the necessary time with its life, however. Below, the Grand Chevalier had gotten herself off the ground again, and with an escort of joyfully roaring P¨ºcheurs and Pou-de-Ciels was ponderously flying back to the shelter of her lines - "The coward," Temeraire said bitterly, watching her escape into the range of the French artillery. The square was trying desperately to re-form, some soldiers crawling back to their places on hands and knees, too dazed yet even to stand, dragging their muskets along behind them.
Laurence heard the horns blowing, a thin and thready sound, and everywhere the French were suddenly advancing. The knot of fishing huts on the left flank, so long hotly contested, now came suddenly under a savage bombardment. The fresh dragons coming in flung themselves over it, casting down loads of munitions, until at last a rush of infantry poured over the low encircling fences and charged into the huts, one after another, and black smoke came out the windows as the British colors came down.
If they meant to give the center up, it must be soon. But Wellesley gave no order: he was observing the battle from a ridge on the right flank, where a few tents had been erected for the headquarters. At the moment he was looking out to sea, gauging perhaps the weather, which had begun at last sluggishly to clear, before sweeping his glass back towards the French rear. Laurence followed his line of sight with his own glass, and saw in the thinning mist Napoleon's standard, and the Emperor himself in his plain grey coat and black hat, mounted on a white horse and backed by the gleaming and polished ranks of his Guard.
Even as he watched, Napoleon raised a hand, and with a single economical gesture sent ten thousand men in motion. The word ran along the French lines, and one after another of those marshaled companies began their steady march forward, into the British center. The Emperor himself turned towards the fishing huts, just taken, and the Guard followed in steady ranks as his command shifted forward.
On either flank, the dragons of the Corps were fighting fiercely to hold off the advance, but they too were tired. On the right Accendare, the great Flamme-de-Gloire, loosed a torrent of flame against Lily's formation, and Laurence to his horror saw Messoria recoil, her wing blackened and smoking. She did not fall out of the sky, but reeled heavily against little Nitidus, fouling his flight, and a few men, specks of black, went tumbling down through the sky.
Two of Accendare's wingmen darted in to press the advantage, boarders leaping across to Lily's back. She twisted and plunged, trying to shake them loose, and in the opening a spectacular Honneurd' Or, gold and blue and red, went through the shield, diving towards the massed ranks of British cavalry with a great roar, his crew firing off flares from his shoulders as he went, spreading his wings wide.
The horses shrilled and bucked in terror, and stampeded madly straight ahead, pouring in a mass into the open field, and providing the French with their bodies a shield against the British artillery. The advancing ranks of the French infantry broke now into a steady jog, their bayonets fixed low as they came; and back over the French camp, dragons formed into line: heavy-weights and middle-weights, with a screen of light-weights and courier-beasts before them, and all together began a slow, measured advance, one wingbeat after another, inexorably.
"LAURENCE, IF WE DO NOT GIVE THEM the center now, I think they will take it themselves," Temeraire said, doubtfully. Still Wellesley did not give the order; the signal-flags on the hill, when Temeraire could get a glimpse of them through the fog, showed still hold fast.
"I know," Laurence said. "We must keep off the advance, as long as may be. If you will break their line at scattered points, and engage the heavy-weights - "
"Wait, wait," Perscitia cried shrilly from a distance, and Temeraire looked over surprised to see her flapping madly towards them. She looked very odd: all her artillery-crew of militia were upon her back, tied on with ropes, and they in turn were helping to hold on her back enormous bundles, of the carrying-harnesses which had been used to bring the Army hence. The harnesses had been made hastily of silk and linen, any which could be obtained: dresses and curtains and table-cloths all sacrificed to the cause, many in bright colors, so she looked as though she were wearing an enormous fringed skirt dangling over her sides and legs, just barely shy of fouling her wings.
"We are not going to retreat!" Temeraire said, indignantly. "We have not lost the battle; and we shan't, either," he added determinedly.
"No, no," she said, panting, as she came up to them: and Temeraire saw the harnesses were really so hopelessly tangled up that no-one could have picked them apart in less than an hour. "Take - " she said, gulping for breath, and waggled some of it at him.
Dubiously he took a bundle of it in his claws, and discovered it was wet; and it did not smell very nice, either, like the smell when grog was passed out, aboard a ship. "What have you done with them?" he said, and, "Ow," jerking his head back; there was something sharp and bitter, which stung his nose.
"Liquor," Perscitia said, getting back her breath, as other dragons came and took more of the bundles from her, "and also some tar, I think; and there is some pepper on them, too, so do not sniff them. Where is Iskierka? She must - oh, there you are, no," she said, resisting as Iskierka reached for one herself, "you shan't take one, you must set them all alight, as we drop them - "
"Oh, that is easy," Iskierka said. The Anglewings each snatched a bundle, and the Grey Coppers, and a good many of the ferals: all the quicker dragons, the little ones.
"Hurry, hurry," Temeraire called: the French dragons were coming slow, but they were coming, and down below their infantry was already engaged in a dreadful struggle, bayonet-to-bayonet, which was spilling blood over the field and weakening the massed British squares: the French design plainly meant to leave them vulnerable to aerial attack.
He led them all aloft, high aloft, and spreading out along in parallel to the French line they let the bundles go: Iskierka shot after them eagerly, flames licking from her jaws in one burst after another, and the unraveling bundles caught with bright blue and yellow flames as they fell through the air.
The French dragons recoiled from the fireballs dropping into their faces, fouling their smooth line. "Now, at once," Laurence said urgently, pointing at the weaknesses in their line. "That Chanson-de-Guerre, and that Defendeur-Brave - "
"Ballista, do you see?" Temeraire called, and she waved her tail like a flag to show she had heard: a swarm of Yellow Reapers dashed after her as she charged the marbled yellow-brown Chanson-de-Guerre. "Quickly, with me," Temeraire said, to the lightweights, "and do you want to come with us?" he asked Perscitia.
"No, I do not," she said, hastily circling away, "and anyway," she called back over her shoulder, "I will go see if I can make more of those bundles; although I think I have used all the spirits that were in the supply-waggons - "
Temeraire did not have time to listen to any more: they were hurrying down straight for the Defendeur, who had swerved to avoid a particularly large one of the fireballs, that had left a thick trail of smoke behind. His flank was open now and unprotected for a moment by the line, and the Grey Copper Rictus darted in and opened a great slash along the line of his shoulder, nearly severing one strap of his harness.
The Defendeur bellowed in pain and hunched himself towards the wound: a wide gaping slice stark red against the golden brown and green of his hide. "Hah!" Rictus called, and then squalled as the Defendeur snapped out his hook-ended tail and caught him full in the belly: a more dreadful and dangerous wound, on so much smaller a beast, and Rictus was borne crying away by one of the Anglewings.
But he had opened an avenue for attack, and Velocitas flung himself to the Defendeur's rear, baiting the slashes of his tail and swerving this way and that, so the other Anglewings and the Grey Coppers could make darting attempts on the Defendeur's head; and when the riflemen had all been flung off their feet, Minnow threw herself into the melee, landed upon the big dragon's back, and snatched away one of the men in her talons.
"There, that's your captain," she called, waving the poor man, and the French dragon roared furiously and went after her in a rush, bowling over one of the Anglewings and breaking the French line completely, as Minnow raced away towards the British clearings with her prisoner.
"That is a little hard," Temeraire said, feeling rather sorry for the poor dragon, and making a note Minnow should never again ride upon his own back, while Laurence was there; he had not thought she was quite so unscrupulous as to steal in the middle of a fight. But he could not deny it had been very handy, at getting the big dragon away, and now he himself might clear away great swaths of middle-weights, just by roaring to either side of the gap the heavy-weight had left.
Requiescat was engaged with the Grand Chevalier in the next section of the line, and though he might have had a little edge in weight, her advantage in having a crew was telling against him: a steady rifle-fire was peppering his massive sides, and had left a great many small holes visible in his wings, and she cleverly took every opportunity to position herself higher aloft, where he was forced to dodge one bomb after another which her bellmen flung against him. Temeraire saw that on their flank, too, the harnessed dragons of the Corps were only just barely holding off the vast right wing of l'Armee de l'Air, also advancing, and they would soon all be forced into a tangled mess together.
"There are ships coming," Majestatis said, looping nearby.
"What?" Temeraire said.
"Ships," Majestatis said laconically. "Out to sea. You can see them if you go over that cloud."
And then the trumpets were at last, at last sounding the order to yield the center, with a shrill note, and there was no time to look; the squares below were falling back into column and marching away, and Temeraire had at once to be sure everyone was flying away properly, to either flank as they were meant to do. "Remember, we are to meet again behind their lines!" he called urgently, nipping an over-excited Anglewing who had started to fly the wrong way.
The French soldiers were charging forward more quickly now, and their dragons were stooping. "Surely we ought not just fly away - they will have our men in a moment," Temeraire said urgently over his shoulder to Laurence.
"Go!" Laurence said; he was looking through his glass at the sea. "Go at once! You must get clear of the center, and aloft - "
Temeraire pulled away, with a last anxious look over his shoulder; but as he did, he was startled to see the last of the Coldstream Guards throwing themselves flat upon the ground instead of marching away farther, and then a roar of thunder erupted from the fogbank, smoke and orange flame.
He broke over the top of the cloud-bank and saw them in that moment: sixteen ships-of-the-line, and the enormous gold-blazoned Victory at their head, with Nelson's admiral's flag flying from the mast. All of them together were unleashing their full broadsides directly into the front rank of the French dragons and men, clouds of black smoke enveloping them even as the fog at last spilled off their sails and prows.
The French dragons came down in shocking numbers. The heavy-weights, one target after another, were struck with cannonballs: wings shattering and bones cracked, they came down into their own infantry below them. A few only managed with faltering beats to carry themselves out over the remaining laggard lines of British infantry and smash them. The great Grand Chevalier crashed through the lines and dragged so far along the ground that she ended at last in the surf, shattered and still, her head rising and falling limply with the choppy waves as they crashed upon her shoulders.
Temeraire felt a queer, confused shudder of sympathy, his wings wanting to come forward, as if to protect his own breast. The trumpets were blowing again, and the British artillery on the flanks, whose force had all this while been blunted, opened a deadly hail of canister-shot against the rear and flanks of the French infantry, chasing them forward into the endless rain of cannon-fire from the ships.
"Temeraire!" Laurence called, and he started: Excidium was roaring out the signal, distantly, and he was not yet in place! He flung himself hastily back - he no longer felt tired at all, the urgency of the moment trembling along his wings. He gathered up the others who also had been distracted by the dreadful spectacle, all of them flying to join the dragons of the Corps in a great single body, nearly a hundred of them all together, and as one they roared and charged the French reserves.
The French soldiers were already reeling from so visible a disaster - the falling dragons could be seen for a good mile, and the wind was blowing harder now, clearing at last the clouds and fog. Nelson's flagship was plainly visible off the shore, the admiral's flag streaming out brilliant white and crossed with red, and the ships in line-of-battle ranged alongside Victory - the Minotaur and the Prince of Wales, and all the rest of the fleet returned from Copenhagen, and some six prizes beside them, each one pounding away now at the shore.
The French broke, at the attack from their rear, and fled; but there was nowhere to run but into the waiting maw, a withering cross-fire of Navy and Army guns at the ready to receive them. The British infantry marched at a steady trot into the emptied space, and Temeraire heard Lien at last - she was calling frantically as the infantry divided her and the last French aerial reserves from Napoleon and his Guard.
Napoleon had seen the trap, of course, and the retreat was sounding furiously from every French trumpet; but too late. The order of the French ranks had dissolved into one mass of terrified men, and the dragons carried by their momentum all came falling into the hail of cannon-fire. Wellesley had committed all his reserves now, companies which had been held off to either flank, and emerging from the trees and fog with their artillery set up a wall of hot iron, to prevent the French forces from retreating or regrouping.
The tightening noose closed upon Bonaparte. "Temeraire, the Corps will help the infantry hold the line," Laurence called. "We must keep off any who break through."
Temeraire could see Lien now clearly - she was yet on the ground, calling to direct the French dragons to try one thing after another, intent now only on breaking someone through, to rescue Napoleon and what other survivors could be rescued from the wrack and ruin.
"Of course she would not come herself," Temeraire said, contemptuously, as a great cloud of little dragons - she had even sent in the couriers - came racing forward. "Velocitas, you and all the other Anglewings, fall back to meet them, and you too, Moncey. Cantarella, when they have got them confused, you all harry them forward, into the range of the ships."
The little dragons managed to dart through and past the heavy-weights, but came quickly up against the pack of Anglewings, too agile to easily be passed. Velocitas and the others slashed and snapped at the little dragons, chivvying them along, breaking up the knot and dividing the dragons from one another, leaving them easy prey for the pouncing Yellow Reapers. Recoiling from so many larger dragons, they were herded into the cross-fire. "Temeraire, you must call Chalcedony back," Laurence said, sharply.
"Where?" Temeraire said, looking round too late. Chalcedony had pursued one little Pou-de-Ciel too far, and with a dreadful hollow thump one of the indiscriminate cannonballs took him directly in the chest.
He seemed to fold up around the blow, and fell without a sound. The little Pou-de-Ciel fluttered raggedly on, managed to thread the rain of iron, and broke out again into the open sky. It did not turn back for another attempt, but flew on across the Channel, towards France.
A handful more had managed to get through - a few even had collected some handful of desperate soldiers from the ground - and were straggling away over the water. But none had got near Napoleon himself; and the British infantry were advancing on his position. The Guard had pulled into square around him, a mortal shield.
Lien had seen the failure, and his peril; she gave suddenly a loud shrilling call, and took to the air herself.
"Oh!" Temeraire cried, eagerly, but she did not come: she turned instead away and fled, over the fields, with the scattered handful of French dragons behind her: her honor-guard of Petit Chevaliers, and a few half-blind Fleur-de-Nuits, with eyeshades. "Oh, oh!" Temeraire said, jouncing in the air with indignation, "oh, how cowardly, she is leaving him behind - "
"She will be going after the ships," Laurence said. "Temeraire, quickly, turn so they can see you. Allen, the signal-flags, warning to ships, wing to northeast - spell out for them, Celestial, Nelson will understand - "
"Shall we go and help them?" Temeraire said, hopefully, hovering while Allen waved the flags urgently. It still looked to him as though Lien had run away, and he was sure if she did mean to try anything at the ships, it would just be an excuse: what she really wanted was to be out of the fighting, and he was sure she would flee for good as soon as she had made some small gesture. "If she does mean to run away, we ought to stop her; I was worried all along she should escape."
"If we should engage, the British ships will not be able to fire upon her," Laurence said. "There, they have been warned, do you see: he is directing some of their fire against her. Can you come about the other side? If she tries to flee towards France, we may then intercept her course."
It was a fine and elegant sight to watch the flank of the British line-of-battle weaving gracefully, one after another, to present their broadsides to the dragons coming around. Lien went nowhere near the ships' range, however; she had stopped far distant, a small white figure against the grey sky, and now was hovering over the waves while the remnants of the French aerial forces wheeled and wheeled above her in tight circles. She was roaring: the echoes of the divine wind came carrying over the water, even at such a distance, with a fine mist of wave spray steaming away from her in clouds of white.
"Have you any notion what she is doing?" Laurence asked; he was looking out at her through his glass.
"Perhaps she has gone mad, over losing another companion," Temeraire offered. He did not really think so, but he did not see what good it could possibly do her, to be roaring at the water. "It is not as though water holds shape; even if she breaks it, it will just come back together, so - " He flicked his tail, uncertainly. "She is going nearer the ships, though," he added, "so they will be able to shoot her, soon, in any case."
Lien was indeed gradually approaching the ships, still roaring madly at the waves. She was so low now the waves were nearly lapping at her belly, rearing up to reach for her after every roar.
"Those waves are ten foot above the rest of the swell," Laurence said. "Mr. Allen, a signal for the ships: storm anchors, not in our code, in the Navy's - yes, the red and white, and then the green, and then the red circle. Temeraire, I do not know what she is about, but I think we cannot hazard letting her try it - go after her, and quickly."
Temeraire scarcely waited for the word and threw himself joyously forward. The waves did not seem so very high; they would not have reached over the sides of the tall ships, and he had been to sea enough to know they might manage much higher. But if they should be struck by so many waves, one after another, perhaps they could not fire their guns, and then Lien might come near enough to use the divine wind upon them.
In any case, he privately cared only that he should at last have a chance at Lien; who had done nothing, only sat about watching while everyone else was hurt and killed. But even as he came, Lien abruptly stopped chasing the waves she had raised. Instead she wheeled back from them, some dozen wingbeats. Temeraire was close enough he could see the trembling of her breast, and the way her wings wavered. She was very tired; and Temeraire pressed on with new urgency. He would have her now, she could not fly away quickly enough -
Lien hovered a moment, drawing breaths, and then she charged after the waves once more. She swept low and level across the water, roaring so loud that the cannon, still speaking behind Temeraire, were drowned out. A fresh swell rose ahead of her in response, not so high as the others, but low and smooth, and moving very fast away. Spent by the effort, she fell silent and hung there in the air trembling. Her head was almost limp, but the swell ran on without her, to outpace and catch the elevated waves. As it met them, the waves seemed almost to stutter and collapse into it, one after another melting into the whole -
Temeraire heeled back, startled: with scarcely any warning the wave had reared high enough to block Lien out, thrusting itself directly in his way, and his wing-tip cut a line of spray in its face as he wheeled away just in time to keep from being caught by its rising crest. He thought, at first, he would just climb higher aloft and go over the wave; but he had no time. Behind him the swell was rising, rising, a dark green-glossy wall of water so vast that now small curlers of foam were breaking upon its face as well as its crest, and he was racing it towards the ships.
"Temeraire!" Laurence was crying out, "Temeraire, can you break it - "
Temeraire darted a look over his shoulder: the wave was still growing. He had never seen anything so vast, and a shudder trembled along the tip of his tail. They had weathered a typhoon once, in the Indian Ocean; a swirling wrath of clouds overhead, so he could not fly, and the Allegiance climbing and climbing each terrible rising wave, only to go rushing down the far side at shattering speed. But this was another thing entirely; almost not of the world in its monstrous size. But Lien had made it; she had raised it, with the divine wind, and so surely he might break it.
The wave came on after them, swift and dreadfully silent for all its great size, the choppy surf smoothing out before it as minor courtiers yielding way to a passing monarch. With frantic wingbeats he pulled away, trying to get a little more room to turn around. The ships were so very near now that he could read their names off their prows, and see men in the rigging, and darting about on the deck, little specks scurrying. Temeraire was dripping with the spray, his wings streaming as he flew and flew. He could not gain elevation, he had not time to draw much breath; but he had gained all the ground there was to be gained, and he turned himself around, and roared out, with all his very might.
"DEAR GOD HAVE MERCY," Laurence said, or thought he said, when he had wiped the salt from his eyes and looked back.
Temeraire had broken them a hole in the wave: a great ragged patch standing open like a window, for an instant, wherethrough they could still see a glimpse of the line: Victory with her pennants, all the line-of-battle and their white sails gleaming like pearl against the thunderstorm color of the ocean. And then doom was upon them.
The great Neptune, broadside to the wave, fired her guns in a flaming golden roar before she was struck, a last shout of defiance; then she was gone. The ships facing into the wave rose up the shining face, their prows driving seafoam-pale gouges into the monster, mere pinpricks, climbing bravely until one after another they were overturned in cataracts of white foam and swallowed into the green mass.
The wave slouched onward down the Channel, subsiding gradually as it ran: the shoulders of a giant irritated, shrugging away. One solitary ship-of-the-line, the Superb, bobbed at anchor, all her masts snapped away and water pouring from her sides; two frigates, which had dropped their anchors in time, were on their beam-ends and struggling to right themselves before they, too, sank. A few human specks in the water were clinging to wreckage. Of fourteen ships-of-the-line, nothing else remained, like castles built in sand, swept away by the tide.
No cannon spoke, nor guns; even the personal knots of fighting stilled. In the silence now the last of the French dragons came flying, massed in a desperate arrow-head lunge into the sudden gap in the cross-fire, and the Guard ran forward, packed around Napoleon, to meet them.
"Temeraire!" Laurence called - a frantic trumpet-signal was blowing the alarm. Temeraire struggled wearily to turn, calling out to the other dragons. Already a small, lithe Chasseur-Vocif¨¨re was leaping away from the ground, and Napoleon was on her back.
Temeraire made for the party, but four of the French dragons wheeled to meet them, smaller P¨ºcheur-Rayes but valiant, clawing and shrieking heedless of how they themselves were cut about. Ballista dived into the fray, lashing a couple of them across the heads with her tail, and Requiescat was charging in to join them, roaring in fury, but the Chasseur was away, fleeing across the Channel, and after her went five others burdened with dozens of Guardsmen, a cloud of musketry trailing. They were clear. Across the water, Lien, crumpled, was being supported away over the Channel by her escort, a couple of Petit Chevaliers, laboring mightily to keep her in the air.
The last of the French dragons broke away and fled. The men yet on the field threw down their guns, and sank most of them to their knees or to all fours, broken with exhaustion. Nineteen eagle standards lay trampled and mired in the blood-churned mud, amid twenty thousand corpses.
The day was won.
***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com