SIR," HOLLIN SAID, "I don't like to make you think of it, but with him loose this long, gone this far off from the grounds, it stands to reason he isn't flying wild - he has gone to look for you."
"I know," Laurence said.
If Temeraire had gone to Dover, he had flown straight into the arms of Napoleon's invading army. And Laurence could not follow - Jane's very justification for retrieving him from prison at all had been to keep him out of French hands. Already he was four days overdue in camp, or generously three, and their absence would reflect on her just when she most needed all forces of persuasion aligned in her favor to prepare for Napoleon's inevitable march on London.
He knew what duty demanded: return, and report his failure, and wait until some word at last came in of Temeraire's fate. To sit in gaol endlessly, with no notion of what had happened to Temeraire - Laurence did not know how he would bear it. But there was no other alternative. Already he had likely injured Hollin's career, if so much prior association with him had not been tarnish enough; as he had injured Jane, and Ferris, and so many others - as if he had not already done enough harm.
"We might go another day," Hollin suggested. "Work our way back towards the Army, sir, asking along the way, and maybe see what anyone has heard about the French. It stands to reason the generals will want to know that anyway, sir."
Laurence knew he ought to refuse it. It was generosity offered from friendship, not Hollin's real and considered judgment. "Thank you, Hollin; if you think it justified," he said at last, the internal struggle lost, or at least some ground yielded. "But we shall go straight towards the camp," he added, to win back a little of it, and tried to persuade himself perhaps Temeraire had heard, somehow, of the main body of the Army, and gone there. They might find him in Woolwich waiting - but no, that passed the limits of optimism. Temeraire was not waiting, anywhere, if he knew where Laurence was, and likely even if he had not the slightest idea. He had crossed half of Africa without the least notion and found Laurence in the middle of an unfamiliar continent; he would certainly not be discouraged by the need to search all of Britain if need be, even in the middle of a war; and as like as not get himself hurt thereby.
They flew much-interrupted, stopping at any farm with a herd of moderate size, and at any towns with a clearing large enough for a courier; but they got no news, or at least none they wanted. "Lost twenty of my sheep, but not to any dragons; to the French, damn they eyes," one angry herdsman informed them.
"They are so close?" Laurence said, in dismay; they were yet west of London, much farther than he would have imagined the French had come even in small parties.
The man spat. "Came through here yesterday, pillaging buggers; begging your pardon sir, but it is enough to make a saint swear. Three of my best ewes going into their bellies, and a stud, all because of that lunkhead boy of mine didn't get them into the hills in time. But there, who thought they would be here so soon?"
The mayor of Twickenham confirmed the French presence. "We have heard from Richmond they were dropped in," he said, "dragon-back, and they have been all up and down this countryside thieving. Our lads are gone to fight them, north of here; there has been a militia mustered up round Richmond. There are some dragons with them there, sir; was a courier came here to fetch out our boys, as they had heard nothing yet of what to do. But of any loose dragons not a thing have I heard. We will be sure and keep our cattle under cover, though, you may be sure."
He gave them dinner, very kindly, and waved away Hollin's offer of payment, if he accepted it for the goat which went to feed Elsie. The mayor's wife and oldest girl, a few years out of the schoolroom, ate with them, and Laurence was occasionally recalled to his manners enough to make some little conversation, but he was too burdened to be fit company. This fresh intelligence meant they must go back, at once; the generals must know the French had penetrated this far.
"There were some eagles, I hear," the young woman ventured. "Georgie said, afore he went, the boys from Ham saw two of them."
That was bad, very bad; two French regiments, and so far from the bulk of Napoleon's army, that likely meant a Marshal somewhere in the area. The worst of the Marshals were competent alone; acting as the hands of their chief they were dangerous as vipers. There was nothing strategic to be won here, in the west of England, but a great deal of food; food which would keep those French dragons in the air. "Had they cavalry?" he asked abruptly, raising his head. "I beg your pardon," he added, realizing belatedly he had interrupted a conversation which had moved on without him; Hollin and the young lady had been talking about the places which he saw on his route.
"Oh - I am sorry, sir, I don't remember Georgie saying so," she said, abashed at being addressed.
"But I think they do not, Captain," the mayor said. "They came on foot here, anyway."
If Napoleon had thrown all his lot onto air power - Laurence was not sure what it might mean. It disregarded all established wisdom about modern warfare, which held that a properly organized force of cavalry and infantry together, supported by pepper guns and artillery, could repel virtually any dragon attack. But no-one had ever heard of a dragon attack of more than fifty dragons before Napoleon's first attempt at crossing the Channel in the year five; Laurence remembered their general astonishment at his managing to bring together a force of a hundred beasts.
He went outside after the meal, and waited politely and dully while Hollin took Miss - the name had already escaped Laurence - to see Elsie, by her nervous request; the dragon was interested to meet her, ladies not common company for dragons but for the female captains, who rarely dressed for their natural station; and Elsie was quite willing to be petted and offered a blancmange the young lady had made, which she politely licked up from the serving plate in a couple of swipes.
"Why, what a lovely plate," she said after, with much more enthusiasm, and was visibly sorry to see it drawn back, as it had a gaily painted border in red and blue with a few small touches of silver. "I have never seen anything so pretty," Elsie added, stretching her head to look at it again.
"Why, it is only an old - " the girl said, and then quickly swallowed the rest, and added, "which I have painted over; I am sure you may have it, if you like it so."
"Oh," Elsie said, and said urgently to Hollin, "Will you keep it for me? And perhaps it might be washed, and packed away safe?"
This took another half-an-hour to be done to her satisfaction, with much bobbing of heads and exchanges of compliments on both sides, a happy conversation which went past in a buzz of noise for Laurence, until at last he made an effort, and forced himself to say abruptly, "Hollin, we had better be going."
"Oh," the girl said. "But, shan't you wait for him?" She pointed; and they looked to see another dragon in the sky, coming in their direction.
"A fine thing," Miller said, "a fine thing. Expected four days ago in camp and I find you here, Captain Hollin, wandering around where you oughtn't be, and taking a convicted felon into good society."
Hollin flushed and said sharply, "If I have done wrong, Captain Miller, you may be sure I will explain myself to those as has the right to ask me to account for it. We have been looking for the dragon we was sent to fetch, seeing as how those fellows in the breeding ground have forgot their duty and gone, and the beasts all scattered."
"What?" Miller said, forgetting to be pompous in his alarm. "All of them gone, out of the grounds? Where have they got to, what have they been eating - "
Miller's courier beast, Devastatio, was markedly smaller than Elsie, who was big for a Winchester. Hollin had known better than most new young courier-captains how to see about the proper feeding of a dragon, and he had already been on friendly terms with most of the herdsmen around the bigger coverts, a further advantage. Devastatio had landed showily, nearly strutting the last few strides into the clearing, and having realized too late he was outweighed, was now trying his best to puff out his chest, and surreptitiously to climb upon a hillock. Elsie eyed him puzzledly, and then offered, "Would you like to see my plate?"
"Gentlemen," Laurence said sharply, seeing Miller dragging Hollin through all the narrative of their search. "We have no time for this. The French have been sighted nearby, and we must go and bring the intelligence to camp at once."
"We already know about the French being here, there has been some fighting," Miller said. "Some bright militia-officer has raised the countryside and beat them properly over at Wembley, and at Harlesden last night. That is why we are here: I am carrying a colonel's commission for him."
"Oh!" the young lady said, having hung back a little from their conversation. "Have they beat, at Harlesden? Georgie will have been there - I must go tell Mother - " She half-turned, then turned back and curtseyed, and then hesitantly raised her hand a little, and Hollin stepping towards her brought it to his lips, also a little hesitantly, and said, "Your servant, Miss Jemson, and I hope my rounds might bring me again - "
"I hope so, too," she said, pink, and having dared so far, turned and fled.
"Sir, if the news is in, and Miller will tell them where we are, we might keep looking - " Hollin said, turning back, his own cheeks a little ruddy.
"Oh, no; no, thank you, there'll be none of that," Miller said. "Your orders is not to be wandering over all Creation, it is to go and get the dragon and come back; well, if you haven't got the dragon, you can do what is left, and that is to come back. If they want you to keep looking, they will tell you so. We will fly in company, like we ought when there is news like this to be bringing back, in case one of us is brought down. A hundred dragons out wild, eating people as like as cows? I don't know what you was thinking not to return at once, except to save the neck of one as don't deserve - "
"Captain Miller - " Hollin said.
"Enough," Laurence said. "I do not intend to be the subject of quarreling in circumstances such as these. Captain Hollin, we had some rational hope of finding Temeraire quickly, having arrived so shortly after the dispersal of the breeding grounds; now we can have none. I am very sensible of your generosity, but will not trespass upon it further. Let us go at once."
He had steeled himself to it, and now wanted nothing more than to have it over. The quicker he returned, the less damage would be done by his having kept them out, selfishly, further contrary to his duty; success only could have made it forgivable. Even then he ought to have been reproached. Granby was right, all along. His discipline had been wholly corrupted, Laurence saw now. Perhaps the effects were all the worse because he had not been brought up properly within the Corps, and had let the sudden liberty of the service, looser by necessity than the Navy, go to his head completely and become license.
He swung himself up and over onto Elsie, after Hollin had climbed up, and silently strapped himself in, heavy with self-reproach. He had no attention for their surroundings, or the journey, and let the cold wind coming in their faces make him dull. Devastatio flung himself ahead far of Elsie, by way of further self-puffery, which he was able to manage as she was burdened by two instead of one. It was all that saved them: because of the distance, the Petit Chevalier could not come at them together, and so he bore down on Devastatio alone in the lead.
The little Winchester squalled and tumbled straight down, blood streaming from his wing and side where he had been savagely clawed. He managed to right himself with great hissing gulps of breath, puffing out his sides until his fall slowed enough for him to gain purchase, but he was not flying properly, only able to limp half-skewed to the ground. Satisfied that he had been grounded, and might be retrieved at leisure, the Petit Chevalier wheeled about, and turned his attention to Elsie.
The name of the French breed was appropriate only by comparison with the Grand Chevalier; the heavy-weight coming towards them was some eighteen tons, his claws already stained with Devastatio's blood, and he roared threateningly as he came on. Elsie gave a small desperate gasp and dived out of his way. She twisted nearly upside down to evade, setting Laurence and Hollin both dangling from their straps, and shot forward with all her might past the great dragon's belly, rifle-shot from the bellmen whistling like wasps past their heads.
But she was too weighted down to get her full speed. The Petit Chevalier doubled back on himself and set in steady pursuit: over distance his strength would tell, and he would have them, if she could not escape before then. And he was fast enough to keep her in his sights an hour, Laurence judged, looking down over Elsie's side to watch the dragon's shadow flashing by over the ground.
It came chasing after Elsie's smaller shadow like a racing cloud, pouring up and down the curves of the hills, darkening slopes and sending deer bounding away through the trees. The outline of the dragon remained steady as the ground rolled away beneath them with blazing speed, at least twenty-five knots with the wind howling and tearing at their clothing, no matter how low they crouched against Elsie's neck.
The Petit Chevalier roared behind them. Laurence could not lift his head up into the wind to look back, but they were over a broad stretch of farmland, fields in neat snow-powdered squares bordered by roads, so the dragon-shapes made perfect silhouettes upon white, and as Elsie's first desperate sprinting failed, the distance between the two shadows began slowly and inexorably to narrow.
And then, sliding into place behind the Petit Chevalier's shape, a third shadow joined the line: beginning first as a small speck and rapidly growing, larger and larger and larger, until at last it swallowed up the other, and with a dreadful shattering roar a tremendous Regal Copper came thundering down from above. The enormous red-and-gold beast pounced directly upon the Petit Chevalier, serving him out with the very trick he had used on Devastatio, and without any restraint bowled him over and down.
The two heavy-weights went tumbling, head-over-heels, snarling and snapping wildly, uncontrolled; a couple of men went flying wildly off the French dragon's back, and munitions, bombs, and rifles tumbling loose towards the countryside. Laurence had no idea how the Regal Copper's crew were managing, and then he realized the dragon had no harness at all.
Elsie was panting as she slowed, curving in a wide arc so they could look back at the titanic struggle. "Oh, I am glad," Elsie said, gulping air between words. "I am not - quite sure I could have run away from that big French one."
"I hope we may not need to run away from that other fellow," Hollin said, a sentiment which Laurence shared: the Regal Copper outweighed the other dragon by at least another seven or eight tons. He had now got his claws into the Chevalier's shoulders and was scratching at him with his hind legs, shaking him all the time so the riflemen could not get their feet enough to fire at him properly; and the handful of wild shots which they managed did not trouble him greatly.
It was a savage style of fighting, and if cruder than formation-flying, on the level of such an individual contest the unexpected ferocity told worse than discipline. The Chevalier squalled at last, frantically, and with a great convulsive heave managed to tear himself free, leaving great torn gashes in his flesh, three furrows along each shoulder almost like bars of rank. He bolted headlong away, leaving the Regal Copper in possession of the field.
The victorious beast spread his wings, glowing vividly red with the sun behind them, and roared triumphantly after the Petit Chevalier, a great deep bellowing noise like hosts of thunder, and then the Regal Copper turned to look at them and said, in tones of great disapproval, "Well, and what are you about? I don't think much of your sense, taking on a fellow that size."
"Pray," Elsie said timidly, "we didn't mean to, only he came on us all of a sudden; and Devastatio is hurt."
"Oh, there is another of you?" The Regal turned and scanned over the ground. They had drifted some way off in the fighting, and Devastatio had tried to drag himself under some trees, for concealment, but Regal Coppers had tolerable eyesight from a sufficient distance, and after a bit of scanning about he said, "Ha, there he is," and flew over to the hiding place, landing with a tremendous thump. "You lot were all told this morning not to come round here," the big dragon said severely, nosing over Devastatio's wounds. "I said those big Frenchies were going to be going up and down carrying soldiers about all this way, didn't I? This is going to be nasty, healing."
"We were told nothing of the sort!" Miller said, having to lean rather frantically away to keep from being squashed by the prodding.
The Regal jerked his head back in surprise, and then put it farther back, squinting at them rather uselessly. "Is that a man? Why, you are under harness," he said, exclaiming, and turned to squint at Elsie, too. "Both of you."
"Of course they are," Miller said, and added, with what Laurence had to admit was marked courage, if not much sense of gratitude, "Why are you flying about wild like this? Why have you gone out of the breeding grounds?"
"Hum," the Regal Copper said. "I am no hand at explaining things, so I suppose you had better come along with me and talk to the commander."
"What do you mean, commander," Miller said, bewildered. "Are you fighting with the militia?"
"Yes, all those fellows are with us," the Regal Copper said. "Come on then, up you get," he added, to Devastatio. The Winchester sniffed a little, still licking at his wounds a bit more, but obeyed, climbing awkwardly onto the enormous dragon's back. The Regal Copper went up with a tremendous propelling leap, took on a little height, and ponderously began to flap away, Elsie darting after him anxiously.
The flight was short, despite his slow pace, and he astonishingly landed them just outside the edges of a vast and neatly organized camp. Laurence had a glimpse of many dragons lying about in the clearing as they landed, and a large pen full of enormous black pigs.
The Regal padded along a broad cleared lane through the trees towards the heart of the camp, only to pull up short when a little Winchester, also without any harness, popped up on the border and said loudly, "Stop and give the watch-word!"
"It's me, isn't it?" the Regal Copper said. "And these two are with me, so they are all right, too."
"That don't matter," the Winchester said, stubbornly. "Everyone must give the watch-word, or else I am to yell, but," he said hastily, as the Regal Copper lowered his head, snorting, "I suppose that don't mean you," and hopped aside.
Laurence was startled to find a commander who had so little prejudice against unharnessed dragons that he had somehow conceived both to recruit them and make use of them in such a fashion. He wondered if the man could have some experience of the Corps - if he had a relation, or perhaps had lived near a covert. It made a solution twice over: both to keep the dragons from roving wild across the countryside, pillaging, and to strengthen his own militia force greatly. It did puzzle Laurence to see a dragon put on watch duty; but perhaps it would serve all the better to put off any spies.
Miller's expression, where he sat perched up on the Regal beside Devastatio, stroking the injured dragon, suggested he was less impressed than scandalized to see beasts without harness, and serving in such a rôle.
For his part, the Regal did not seem to think much of it, either. "What things are coming to, I am sure I don't know," he said, shaking his head as he padded along. "It is all well and good to be talking on about pavilions and such," and Laurence felt a great leap of hope, even before the Regal brought them out into the clearing at the center of the camp and said, "Temeraire, there are some fellows here to see you," and Laurence flung loose his carabiner straps and leapt down from Elsie's back, to see the great black head swinging around towards him.
"IT IS VERY WELL to have an eagle," Temeraire said; it was a particularly bright gold now they had washed all the dirt from it - everyone had been ready to help - and the standard with it was very handsome, too, now the men had brushed it clean. It would be quite a wrench to sell it, he felt, and the way everyone else looked at it he expected they felt the same. "But we must not begin to think we will have things all our own way. There have not been very many French dragons to fight yet, because they are all busy carrying about the men, but sooner or later we will have to manage them."
"I have some notions," Perscitia said, "which we might like to try, when we have more to fight - "
"Temeraire," Requiescat said, coming into the clearing behind him; Temeraire looked around and saw there was an injured Winchester on his back, and another trotting along behind him, with his old ground-crew master Hollin on her back.
Requiescat was still talking, and Perscitia going on about pepper, but Temeraire did not perfectly understand either of them; the words did not seem to want to make sense. That was Laurence, coming towards him; but Laurence was dead, and he was saying, "Temeraire, thank Heavens; I have been trying to find you these last five days."
"But you are dead?" Temeraire said, uneasily. He had never seen a ghost, and had often thought it would be very interesting, but this was not, at all; it was dreadful, to see Laurence just as in life, to wish that he might reach out and gather him in, and keep him safe.
But Laurence said, "Of course I am not dead, my dear; I am here," and Temeraire bent down his head and peered at Laurence very closely, and put out his tongue experimentally to sniff at him, and then at last he cautiously, so cautiously, put out his forehand to curl about Laurence and lift him up, and oh, he was quite solid: he was there, and he was not dead at all, and Temeraire gave a low joyful cry and curled around him tightly and said, "Oh, Laurence; I shall never let anyone take you from me again."
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