NO; THEY NEARLY drowned you, and not even on purpose but only through carelessness. I am not letting them have you back," Temeraire said. "Besides, I cannot go; I cannot just leave everyone here."
"You are more desperately needed with the main force," Laurence said, trying to explain, the obstinate gleam in Temeraire's eye discouraging. "We must speak to the commander."
"I am the commander," Temeraire said.
Laurence stared up at his earnest expression from within the protective wall of dragon encircling him, and then pulling himself up onto the ridge of Temeraire's forearm looked more closely around the clearing. There was not a senior officer to be seen, anywhere, and none of the dragons, many of them regarding him with equal curiosity, were harnessed - besides the enormous Regal, an old Longwing lay with milky orange eyes half-lidded sleepily, and a big Chequered Nettle, a Parnassian, and scattered smaller dragons all around.
Beyond them Laurence could see the camp all full of dragons: Yellow Reapers by the dozens, sleeping nearly in a single heap, and smaller courier-beasts and light-weights sprawled upon them everywhere. There were a handful of men dealing with the pigs and a few cattle, penned up to one side, but they were in rough clothing, not officers of the Corps. Some few hundred in red coats mostly faded to russet, standing by the guns, and some volunteers in private coats: that was all. "The militia," Laurence said, slowly.
"Yes, Lloyd and some of our herdsmen told us where to fetch them," Temeraire said. "They are very good fellows: once they settled down, at least, and began to believe we were not going to eat them. We needed them to fire our guns."
"Good God," Laurence said, comprehensively; he could well and vividly imagine the reaction which the Lords of the Admiralty should have, to the intelligence that the well-formed orderly militia which they confidently expected, with a clever young officer at its head, was rather an experimental and wholly independent legion of unharnessed dragons, without great sympathy for their Lordships, and under the particular command of the most recalcitrant dragon in all Britain.
"Well," Temeraire said, when he had listened to Laurence's awkward attempt to explain the orders which had brought them here, and the misunderstanding, "it does not seem at all complicated to me; they did not say you were only to give the commission, if the commander were a man?" he asked, lowering his head towards Miller.
"Why, not - no - " Miller said, staring, "but - "
"Then it is perfectly plain," Temeraire said, riding over him. "I shall write and say I am happy to accept my commission, and apologize that my duty to the regiment prevents my returning with Laurence at present; they cannot complain of that. Anyway, we must send at once to warn them: Napoleon will be attacking London in two days."
A more sensational means of diverting their attention he could hardly have conjured. Laurence did not know what to think, at first: Temeraire had perhaps a dragon's idea of distances, and did not appreciate the difficulties inherent in moving so many men and horses and their supply, from a landing on a hostile shore, to assault. It had not yet been a week since the landings on the Channel coast. Without opposition, in that time Bonaparte might have marched his men in a long string to the city, but as an army, ready to fight, no: Laurence relied on it. Or, he wished to rely on it, but he recalled too vividly the thunder of the guns at Warsaw, a month and more before the French ought to have been there, either, and doubted uneasily. "Can you be certain?"
"We have been watching Marshal Lef®®bvre's corps," Temeraire said. "They had orders this morning and set off directly; and they have been moving soldiers about all of to-day, towards London. Requiescat saw them."
"Requiescat?" Laurence said.
"You have met him, he brought you here," Temeraire said.
"He cannot have got very close, unnoticed," Laurence said: a Regal Copper was an odd choice of spy.
"Oh, he did not try to sneak," Temeraire said. "No-one very much likes to start a quarrel with him, you see, so he could come close before they were quite ready to fight him. And when the French could see no-one was with him, they supposed he was run away from the breeding grounds, and looking for other dragons to have some company. So they were very eager to tempt him to stay, and they put out cows for him in their camp. It was much easier than if we had to feed him ourselves, and he was able to see everything they were doing."
"Which is, hieing themselves off towards the city," Requiescat put in. "They was all looking for us before then, as we had blacked their eye a couple of times, but soon as the orders came in, off they went; and they sent all the cattle on ahead," he finished, in gloomy tones.
"Blacked their eye," Miller said, with a snort. "Yes, damned likely."
"Like enough," Hollin said, and pointed. Laurence looked: an eagle standard was jutting from the ground, the 13®®me regiment blazoned on the banner. "I'll take the news, sir," Hollin added, looking at Laurence. "Me and Elsie can make the dash quick, on our own, and let them know - "
"Damned nonsense," Miller said. "The news you ought to be taking is, there are sixty dragons as need rounding up, and herding back to the breeding grounds - " He cut off abruptly, as Temeraire took a step and lowered his head very close.
"We are not going to be herded anywhere we do not like," he said, dangerously, "by Napoleon or by your admirals; and if you like to ask the other dragons of the Corps to try it, I expect they will see at once how very foolish it is, and if not, I will explain it to them, and I dare say they will join us instead."
Laurence had a fair notion which dragons would be perfectly prepared to join Temeraire under such circumstances, with very little explanation required. That would bring the tally to two Longwings, even if one of them was surely past his real fighting days, and two Regal Coppers; to join with the five other heavy-weights Laurence could see, and a full complement of middle-weights and couriers, which would make Temeraire's army very nearly the equal to the Corps in strength, at least those forces presently in England and under harness.
If he were not fully aware of these prospects, Miller was wise enough to blanch at the suggestion and to be quelled at least a little. He settled for writing a letter, in a quiet corner, while Temeraire dictated his own:
I am very happy to accept your commission, and we should like to be the eighty-first regiment, if that number is not presently taken. We do not need any rifles, and we have got plenty of powder and shot for our cannons,
- Laurence wrote with a vivid awareness of the reactions this should produce -
but we are always in need of more cows and pigs and sheep, and goats would also do, if a good deal easier to come by. Lloyd and our herdsmen have done very well, and I should like to commend them to your attention, but there are a lot of us, and some more herdsmen would be very useful.
"Pepper, put in pepper," another dragon said, craning her head over; she was a middle-weight, yellowish striped with gray, some kind of cross-breed. "And canvas, we must have a lot of canvas - "
"Oh, very well, pepper," Temeraire said, and continuing his list of requests added,
I should very much like Keynes to come here, and also Gong Su, and Emily Roland, who has my talon-sheaths, and the rest of my crew; and also we need some surgeons for the wounded men. Dorset had better come, too, and some other dragon-surgeons.
You had all better not stay where you are at present -
"Temeraire, you cannot write so to your superior officers," Laurence said, breaking off; he had forgone any attempt at explaining that the commission should be instantly withdrawn, and had swallowed many protests already on the language of the letter, in favor of getting its urgent news sent quickly; Jane would understand it, at least; but there were limits.
"But they really had better not," Temeraire said, surprised. "They have not got enough soldiers, not anywhere near, because they are not moving quickly enough."
Laurence persuaded him at last to soften the language:
Napoleon will be attacking you on Tuesday, with nearly all his army, as the French are going very quickly because they are all being carried about by dragons, and your reinforcements will not reach you in time - our couriers have seen them on the road and they are only going fifteen miles in a day.
"But what if they do not realize that means they ought to retreat?" Temeraire objected.
"They will understand it, I assure you," Laurence said; he did not bother to say that they would very likely not believe it, and that nothing would come of Temeraire's advice.
In this at least he was thoroughly wrong: a great deal came of it, if nothing very desirable. Laurence awoke the next morning, on his dragon-arm pallet, to a furious yelling noise outside the sheltering membrane of Temeraire's wing. He was not allowed to get down to his feet; he was snatched at once and put on Temeraire's back, by the breastplate-chain, and then Temeraire pushed himself up to his feet, just as a couple of courier-weights came bounding in urgently from the boundary-line of the camp, half-flying and half-leaping, and gasped out, "Temeraire, she hasn't the watch-word, but - "
"I do not need any silly watch-word," Iskierka said, padding into the clearing, and coiled herself back on her hindquarters and snorted a thin stream of fire for emphasis, and the whole mess of the Turkestan ferals came tumbling along behind her.
"WHAT DO YOU WANT?" Temeraire said, very ungraciously. He did not see why Iskierka had to come along, showing away and making a great noise of herself.
"To fight," Iskierka said, as if the answer were obvious. "We are supposed to be in a war, and there has not been any fighting for four days, and I have not even been let to go flying anywhere and," she hissed smoke again, "they came and lectured my Granby, when I went out for just a bit of hunting."
"Well, there is about to be a great deal of fighting over there," Temeraire said, "so you ought to go back."
"No there is not," Iskierka said, "at least, they are not getting ready for any fighting; they said it would be another week before there is a battle. But then we heard that you had had two battles already, and your letter came saying that there was going to be some more, so we have come to have a share of the fighting also. And," she added, "when we have finished and beat Napoleon, I have decided that you may give me an egg."
"Oh!" Temeraire said, swelling with indignation, "how very kind! I am to be honored, I suppose."
"Well, I am much richer than you are," she said, "and also I can breathe fire, so you ought to be."
"I would not give you an egg," Temeraire said, "if you were the very last dragon in the world, but me; I should rather have none at all."
"You haven't," Iskierka said. "No-one has got an egg by you at all yet, so you see, I am very generous to try."
This was no comfortable news, and Temeraire drew back a little, startled. He had not been very enthusiastic about all the breeding, by the end, but one could not help but be satisfied at being wanted, and think how many eggs there should be. He did not understand why there should be none. It did not sound very well; not, however, that it made him wish any more to give Iskierka one.
She meanwhile preened herself smugly, stretching out her coils in a messy way so everyone would notice her more. She had on a lot of gaudy stuff on her harness, some chains that were probably not real gold at all, and which had in them chips of what were certainly colored glass, and Temeraire could not help but be conscious that Granby, who was talking with Laurence and Tharkay over by the standard in low voices, was in a very fine green velvet coat, trimmed all over in golden braid, with not one but two swords at his waist, one of them short but both very brilliantly ornamented at the hilt, in fine shining leather sheaths; even if he did not look very happy at present. And Laurence was in a shabby coat which did not suit him at all.
The others were eyeing her with admiration, and Arkady and the other ferals, too, all of whom had bright stuff on them, hooked haphazardly onto their harness and making them look rather like slovenly pirates, Temeraire thought, and Arkady, Temeraire realized in outrage, Arkady had Demane on his back; Demane who was of his crew, and he said reproachfully to the boy, "What are you doing with him?"
"He does not know what the other soldiers are saying with the flags," Demane said, looking up, "so I tell him, and then we decide whether to listen. The flags are wrong sometimes," he added.
They had not brought anyone else from his own crew, or any food, or anything useful at all; they had no notion of how they were to be fed or where they were to sleep, and did not respect the order of the camp at all. Wringe, who was rather big for a feral, a good-sized middle-weight, tried to shove a Yellow Reaper out of his place, and so of course all the Reapers jumped up and hissed at her, and then Arkady and the others jumped in hissing back, and Temeraire had to roar to get all their attention and push them apart.
"You are new, so you must clear your own places," he said sternly.
"Oh, that is easy," Iskierka said, and hissed a command to Arkady, who quickly chivvied his gang to one side, and she then blasted fire out across a swath of ground at the edge of their clearing, dry leaves crisping up and tree-bark popping with sounds like gunfire off the trunks. One old dead pine caught like a torch and went into a perfect crackling blaze, while everyone else squawked and jumped to their feet.
"That is enough!" Temeraire said. "You may not go about setting fires in camp; we have powder all about, and you will have us all blown up. Now put out those trees, and clear it properly, by pulling them out."
The ferals in a rather surly way smothered the flames with dirt and obeyed; but Iskierka did nothing but sit and yawn and observe, while everyone in the camp watched her, rather impressed than otherwise. It was not at all satisfactory, and when he said as much to Perscitia, she added insult to injury by having no sympathy, and saying instead, "A fire-breather will be very useful," and showing him several maneuvers which she had sketched out, to make use of Iskierka especially.
"THEY DIDN'T BELIEVE A WORD OF IT," Granby said to Laurence, no surprise. He was rather exhausted looking, and left sweat streaked on his forehead when he rubbed his hand against it. "The generals, anyway; you may be sure she swallowed it whole, and nothing would do but we would come and fight with you, or else Temeraire would be getting all the glory, and prizes, and she wanted an eagle, too; and once she has decided on something, those ferals will follow her to the end of Creation." Arkady was still their leader, but even he had evidently taken to regarding her as a force of nature beyond ordinary leadership, so much treasure had she led them to seizing.
"Roland was damned understanding," Granby added. "She sent a courier after me, with orders, after Iskierka had up and gone; put us on detached duty, scouting, so I am not insubordinate technically. But - " He raised his hands, helplessly.
"No preparations were made for a French attack?" Laurence said, low. "None whatsoever?"
"To be fair," Granby said, "there is not much they can do; they haven't the men yet. Admiral Roland tried to persuade them we ought to be ferrying in the troops, but to their minds, it will only make a mess, and mutiny everywhere when the men won't go aboard."
"They might retreat," Tharkay said, "rather than wait to be routed."
"Well," Granby said, and Laurence felt much the same; it was one thing to retreat from the coast, having failed to prevent a landing, and another to let London be taken without a shot.
"Is there any hope you are mistaken?" Laurence asked Temeraire, a little later, after the ferals had been settled into the camp.
"They are moving their men somewhere," Temeraire said, practically, "and I cannot think where he would move them, other than London, where your Army is; there are plenty of cows still around here, so it would not be only for food. But if you like I will ask Moncey and the others to go and see if they can work out where they have gone, for certain."
Before this plan could be wholly put into effect, however, it was rendered unnecessary: Elsie came flying desperately into camp, nearly skidding across the ground. "Hurry, oh, hurry," she cried, "they are not attacking tomorrow, they are attacking to-night," and Hollin came scrambling off her back and said, "It is all true, sir; the scouts have seen them formed up not an hour's march away, and there are ten Fleur-de-Nuits arming to the teeth in their camp."
Laurence now had opportunity to see for himself how quickly an army of dragons might go, when their own camp moved: first the herd of cattle gone bellowing down the road in a cloud of dust, with the herdsmen beating them along, and a few aerial shepherds for encouragement. "We will meet you at Harpenden," Temeraire said to the chief of the herdsmen, "or send you word there, where to bring the cows, and along which road; and if you do not hear from us, only make sure they are safe, and the French do not get them."
"Aye, sir," the man said, touching his forelock, quite automatically, and cheerfully shouting to his men kicked his mule, a placid beast, and moved along.
The handful of tents were struck and bundled up, stakes and all, into a crumpled heap upon one large cloth; cooking gear thrown in, too, and the great cauldrons all filled with round-shot. The middling dragons seized the guns, the militia and the remaining hands clambering up onto the smaller beasts with ropes to secure them - "It needs less rope, you see," Temeraire explained, "for the little ones to carry, and the men say they like it better if only they can sit astride, instead of being cross-legged."
He kept a stern headmaster's eye on the operation, and from time to time darted an anxious glance at Laurence, as if to gauge his opinion; but there was nothing to complain of at all. As the dragons went aloft, they dipped down over the rear of the moving herd, and snatched themselves each some dinner, a cow or a fat pig, sluggish behind the rest, and flew away eating, with no evident difficulty in combining the activities, if they spattered themselves somewhat with blood.
"There, now we are ready also," Temeraire said, and put out his hand for Laurence, to set him up aloft, and with a leap they were up: not an hour gone by, and beneath them nothing but the bare untidy field.
The flight was desperately quick from necessity, and the dragons flew in no particular order but one great disorganized mass, shifting continuously; or so it first seemed to Laurence, and then he discovered that the small dragons were dropping back, now and again, to rest upon the largest. The discovery was realized rather abruptly, when a small muddy-colored feral dropped down onto Temeraire's back out of mid-air, and clutching on put her head out to peer at Laurence, with rather a critical expression, while she caught her breath with great gulps.
"Will Laurence, at your service," Laurence said cautiously, after a few moments of silent staring.
"Oh, I am Minnow," the dragon said. "Beg pardon, only I was a bit curious, because himself was so low, over losing you, I wondered if maybe you was different from other men."
Her tone suggested she had found nothing out of the ordinary to admire. Temeraire put his head around indignantly. "Laurence is the very best captain there is. We have just been saving everyone, and fighting the admirals, so of course we do not have our nicest things with us presently."
"Have you never wanted a companion?" Laurence asked the little dragon; little a relative term of course, as her head alone likely outweighed him entirely.
"I have chums enough," she said, "and as for harness, and being told always where to go; no thanks very. I expect it is better for you big fellows," she added to Temeraire, "in service, as no-one thinks they can bull you into anything you really do not like, but I hear enough from the old couriers to know it isn't for me. Broke-down by the time their captains go, and nothing to show for it but harness-stripes. There, that has set me right, off I go," she said, and jumped off again, with no more ceremony than she had arrived, and dashed off again out in front.
Laurence then saw the maneuver a common one, and responsible for the greater part of the confusion of shifting beasts. The heavy-weights indeed did not much change their positions, but made steady bulwarks in the force, timed to Requiescat's pace, as he was the slowest of them all. The middle-weights, with more energy to spare, would occasionally break off and dive, low to the fields: returning, now and again, with cow or pig or sheep, which they either ate themselves or occasionally brought to the larger dragons.
"Yes, so we needn't all stop," Temeraire said, "and this way no-one is hungry when we arrive, not even Requiescat, even if he complains a little anyway just for show."
"It ain't for show," Requiescat said, swinging his head around. "When I was in real fighting-trim I was twenty-six tons. I am not back up to snuff just yet, after that nasty cold," a rather mild way of describing the effects of the virulent epidemic, which had struck the Regal Coppers particularly hard. All of them had lost a great deal of weight, which now was slow to return; although it was difficult to imagine Requiescat might be much larger than he was.
They met no opposition along the way, if a few French scouts: but these sighted them and turned and fled at once, bearing the news away. It was too much to hope for, that so large a force as they were, aloft, would go without notice; and if it made Napoleon delay his attack, indeed desirable he should have the news. Their flight bore them over Hammersmith and Kew, the snaking brown ribbon of the Thames with sparkling ice on its edges and a crust of snow, and then over the city itself.
Hollin took Elsie out ahead, quick, and threw out signal-flags; then the guns spoke from below, acknowledging, and below people came running into the streets to cheer them on, a heartening noise if made faint by distance. Temeraire called ahead, "Dirigion, Ventiosa, go ahead so they may see our flags," and two Yellow Reapers darted out ahead, red velvet curtains streaming from their grasp.
Another twenty minutes' flight brought the Army visible: a sea of redcoats in the churned mud and snow of camp. Temeraire took on height as they came in, so he had a clear lane before him, and then drawing breath roared. The air before them was cold and full of fragile wisps of white cloud, and these gave an ephemeral physical form to the terrible ringing force of the divine wind, breaking before its force into wide striated ripples, very much like the haze of heat which might appear over packed ground or sand in high summer. They melted away nearly at once again, but below, the dragons of the Corps were all putting their heads up from their clearings to watch them coming on, and roaring out in answer, glad greetings, and Temeraire banking took them down in a broad field, on the Army's left flank near about Plumstead.
"Laurence," Temeraire said, as they were settling, "pray will you tell the generals that I am very happy to come and speak to them, but they will need to clear some room at their tent, if it is that large one in the middle of camp, and also they had better do something about the horses."
"I must prepare you, they will certainly not be in the least happy to have you come," Laurence said, "nor take any act towards easing that end."
"Then," Temeraire said, "we will all go away again, and they may fight Napoleon without us. They have asked us to come, and they need our help; they may not treat us like slaves. And we will manage to feed ourselves, I dare say, somehow or other, even if they do not like to keep giving us cows."
Laurence hesitated; he wished to voice some protest, and speak of duty, but justice silenced him. It was surely in no wise Temeraire's duty, nor the duty of any of those dragons, who had never been asked for an oath, nor received any recompense for service. His own duty, he saw less clear. If he were ordered to remain, to serve whether in the field or a sentence of death, there could be no alternative. But he feared the duty demanded of him would be rather to persuade Temeraire to stay - against the dragon's own interests, if necessary.
He was brought to the same tent again, now much altered: the map-tables occupied the lion's share of the floor, unfolded wide, and littered with markers and figures. A steady low arguing was going on in a back chamber which had been added on, through a fresh-cut flap, querulous voices and frightened, and only a few with any note of decision; Laurence could hear Jane's voice rising clear and ringing above them all. He was kept standing silently, trying not to overhear.
A group of young lean unsmiling officers were working over the tables; they looked at Laurence with cold disdain, and then paid him no attention. At length a colonel came out and said to Laurence, icily, "I am to tell you that you will be pardoned, if you can make the dragons fight."
That the remark gave him no pleasure was evident. "Damned disgrace," one of the young men in the corner muttered, without looking up.
"Bring me sixty dragons the hour before a battle and I will pardon your treason, and murder, too," Wellesley said, coming out of the back room. "I don't know what sort of genius of disaster you are, Laurence, but if you can be aimed at Bonaparte instead of us, you are worth not hanging. Can you make the beasts obey?"
"Sir," Laurence said, "I have brought you no dragons; you would better say, the dragons brought me. They do not obey me but Temeraire - "
"And the creature obeys you, that is good enough for me," Wellesley said. "I am not in a mood to have my time wasted with legalities. Do your damned duty, or I will have you hanged, before I go and get myself shot on the field." He snatched a paper from the table and scribbled upon it a few hurried lines, which could have been interpreted in nearly any fashion one chose, and thrust them out.
Laurence looked at the paper, life, liberty, duty all in one; and was nearly grateful to Wellesley for the bribery and threats, distasteful in themselves, which could only make the command easier to refuse.
"You will forgive me, sir," he said, "I cannot make you the promise you wish; I have not the power to make it good. If you wish to speak with the leader of the dragon-militia, that is Temeraire himself. And he will not obey, nor the beasts with him, if they are not consulted."
"For the love of God, and Bonaparte on our doorstep," Wellesley said. "Do you imagine we have time to go jumping a mile across camp, to coddle dragons now and not just men?"
"He needs no coddling, sir," Laurence said, "beyond what information you would consider appropriate, for any commander of a substantial militia arrived late, and without any prior knowledge of your plan of attack. He is more than willing to come to you, if there were space cleared for him, and the horses secured against their natural instinct of flight."
Wellesley snorted. "Plan of attack? He can't know any less about it than any man alive does. Rowley," he said, turning abruptly to one of the young men at the side of the tent, who jerked to attention, "go tie up the horses and clear enough room for him to land. How much does he need?"
He waited for no answer, but went back into the general staff meeting. "Temeraire will require some hundred and fifty feet, square, to come down," Laurence said to Rowley, going outside with him.
"What is he, clumsy as a cow?" the young man said sourly, and shouting gave orders for several tents to be moved, and an entire picket-line of horses. "I won't answer for your neck if he eats the general's favorite horse," he added.
Laurence did not bother to answer these remarks, but went as quickly as he could back to the clearings, and halted: word had traveled at speed, and a handful of his crew had come to the camp, evidently having slipped away from their other assignments. "Sir," Fellowes said, glancing up from his work, and Blythe beside him with a small forge. Gangly young Allen stood up flushing, two inches taller at a glance than he had been, and touched his hat, and with them Emily Roland.
"Gentlemen," Laurence said, torn between gratitude and dismay, for they were working not on harness and armor but on Temeraire's platinum breastplate, and Emily had brought Temeraire's jeweled talon-sheaths.
These, having been given him in China, were remarkably beautiful, and remarkably gaudy, gold and silver engraved with elaborate Oriental designs and studded with small chips of gemstones. His breastplate, with its great pearl and sapphires, further advanced the service of vanity, with his old smaller string of gold and pearls suspended from its chain, not at all complementary. Besides this Temeraire had arranged to have himself scrubbed until he gleamed, and even, Laurence was sorry to see, his handful of scars painted over, with a pot of the sort of glossy black used upon doors and iron railings. It was most notable upon his chest, where a barbed French ball had taken him in the flesh, during an engagement at sea; the wound had been ugly, and though healed clean had left a puckered knot of scales.
When Laurence came in Temeraire was engaged in examining himself critically as best he could, in a large dressing-room mirror good enough only to show perhaps five feet of him at a time, and considering whether to add a spangled net of chains to be draped over his ruff.
"Iskierka offered me it," he said, "and while of course ordinarily I would not borrow anyone else's things, and pretend that they were mine, I am only thinking that, as we have not had time to make medals yet, it might stand in for them."
"Pray let me advise you against it," Laurence said, sadly, imagining the generals' reaction. "Borrowed finery cannot be to anyone's taste, and if it should be lost, or damaged, you would be indebted - "
"Oh," Temeraire said, "that is very true; I suppose I had better not," and he sighed wistfully. "Very well, Roland, take it off," and he lowered his head reluctantly.
It did not much matter, however, in the end. Temeraire descended to a great spreading silence, even the horses' frightened cries dying away to overwhelmed stillness. Rowley, still waiting outside, was pale beneath his dark narrow moustache, as Temeraire neatly fitted himself into what was indeed a very cramped space for him, having to coil up his tail as he landed.
"Well, is it here?" Wellesley said, coming out, and pausing looked up and up and up, and said nothing more. A few pieces of jewellery were perhaps not much to notice, Laurence realized, when one had never seen the whole dragon before; and as an Army officer, Wellesley had likely never been close to a beast over courier-weight; a seaman might at least have served on a transport.
"I am Colonel Temeraire, at your service," Temeraire said, peering down interestedly.
"You are, are you?" Wellesley said after another moment, recovering his voice. "You'll do to stop a few mouths, anyway. Rowley, go tell those fellows in there to come out, so we can meet with our new colonel."
A man came hurriedly out of the tent: no military officer, but a gentleman in a neat sober suit of dark brown. "General, if you will forgive me - the Ministry feels there is some danger of a precedent - if I might have a word - " He had not properly, fully, noticed Temeraire yet: while he talked his eyes flicked a few times to the side and up, caught glimpses of black scales, the smooth horn of the talons, impressions which over the course of his sentence accumulated until at last he raised his head to look properly, and fell silent.
"No, you mightn't," Wellesley said with satisfaction, watching him choke, and pressed him unresistingly into a folding-chair. "Have a seat, Giles. Rowley, go on and tell the rest of them to come out here."
"I beg your pardon," Temeraire said to the poor man, who trembled violently as the dragon's head lowered near, "but if you are part of the Ministry, I should like a word, myself. We would like to vote, please, and also to be paid."
The professional soldiers were not quite so easily quelled, and Jane dispelled a great deal of the effect, by coming out and saying to Temeraire, "Did you deck yourself out for Christmas? This is a war, not a Vauxhall burlesque."
"I have put on my nicest things, to be respectful," Temeraire said, injured.
"To show away, you mean," Jane said, and as this mode of conversation did not result in her being eaten, or squashed, the others grew more bold. More bold than Wellesley at least would have liked; he had very evidently hit on the notion of stifling dissent with his own proposals through an intimidation by proxy, more than he had any real interest in consulting Temeraire's opinion.
What threat they faced was not any longer the subject of disagreement; scouts and word along the road had brought enough plain intelligence for that. The Fleur-de-Nuits would come, two formations' worth of them, likely near the middle of the night, and would bombard them steadily until morning, when the massed French lines would fall upon them and try to drive them from their position.
This position was indeed an enviable one: the generals had retreated from the coast very particularly to reserve for themselves the luxury of choosing the next battlefield. That Napoleon would seek to occupy London, had never been in doubt. He had occupied Vienna, though that city lacked strategic value, and marched through Berlin, only for the moral value of these victories, the personal and not the military satisfaction of standing in his enemies' palaces and feeling them his own. - And London had a great many banks. Gold and silver to fuel his invasion, and the chance to split the country south from north, with the Thames as a useful vein bringing him lifeblood from the coast.
So the British army had arranged itself on the southern bank between Woolwich and Oxleas Wood, overlooking the Great Dover Road to London, barricades having been established across what alternate roads might have served the French. If these impediments were not as advanced as one would have liked, Napoleon having moved too quickly, still they would have markedly delayed the progress of any great mass of men, and given the British time to fall upon them from behind, and they were well-placed if Napoleon tried to come at the city down the river. But Napoleon did not mean to scorn the gauntlet which had been thrown down: he was coming to them, along the main road.
In the present encampment, the British had the advantage of higher ground, with several stout farmhouses and a few old stone walls and fences, for barricades and fortifications, which should make them all the harder to dislodge. "We will hold here," Sir Hew Dalrymple said: he had the command, an older officer with a stout neck and fair hair creeping back from his temples. "It would be folly to yield so advantageous a position - "
"And if we are forced to yield it?" Wellesley said, dryly; there was marshy ground on their western flank, sodden with snow; but no-one would discuss this difficulty.
"He has moved quicker than we had expected, but we must not let this throw us into disarray," General Dalrymple continued. "That is how the Prussians ran into trouble - letting him cast them into confusion, changing their minds and their ground ten times a day."
"Sir, I beg your pardon," Laurence said, unable to restrain himself. "That a lack of decision plagued the Prussian army, I cannot deny; but they were outfought, sir, on open ground - "
"With this trick of horse-blinders you have gone on about, in your report," Dalrymple said. "You may set your mind at ease," he added, in ironic tones, which said without a word how little he trusted Laurence's anxiety, "we have not discounted what of your intelligence could be confirmed; our horses have their own damned hoods now, and if Bonaparte thinks he will stampede us with a few dragon-charges, he will soon learn otherwise."
"And this time, Bonaparte has let his thirst for speed outpace his sense," another general said. "All the scouts agree, even the beasts," he added coldly in Jane's direction, before she had said a word, "that he has not brought up all his army yet. He has some thirty thousand men, not fifty; we are not far short of him even without our levies and reinforcements."
"You will be a damn sight shorter by morning," she answered, "if you mean to lie here and be bombarded. And my scouts have made thirty thousand, but that does not mean there are not more to come."
"You have caterwauled without a stop how we must have these sixty more dragons," another officer, a colonel, said belligerently, "and swallow treason and unhandled beasts to have them, and now you talk as though we have nothing to do but sit and bear it while the French drop round-shot on our heads. If they are of no use here, they are of no use at all."
"We have seen a great many of the French along our way from Wales," Temeraire said, putting in his own oar, "and of course we can stop the Fleur-de-Nuits, if we can only see them, but at night that is difficult."
"Difficult? So is winning battles difficult," General Dalrymple said, scowling, and not looking up. He beckoned to his aide and thrust out a map to Laurence. "You will take the beasts here, a mile out past camp," he said, "and hold the Fleur-de-Nuits there, until morning - "
"That is very silly; the Fleur-de-Nuits will go right around us if we are a mile out," Temeraire said.
"A couple of rounds against Lef®®bvre's rear-guard, and now you try to tell us our business," Dalrymple said to Laurence. "By God, I have half-a-mind to - you will obey orders, damn you; you will do as you are told and be grateful for the chance - "
"If I had done as I was told," Temeraire said, "you should have sixty less dragons, and Lef®®bvre would have a good deal more food, and tomorrow Napoleon would likely beat all of you for good. So that is a very stupid thing to say. Whyever ought I do as I am told?"
"If you do not, we will hang - " the belligerent officer began, and Jane said, "Maclaine!" too late, and Temeraire growled, deep in his throat, and lowered his head with his ruff up sharp.
Briefly, he had perhaps become to them only another voice in their deliberations, if a queer, more resonant one, speaking from aloft. But what contempt the little familiarity had produced, vanished in the face of that growl, the great glossy lowered head with the eyes half-a-foot across and glittering yellow-slitted like lamps, over a jawful of serrated teeth with the smallest the size of a man's hand. It was too palpable a reminder that they were in the presence of a creature who could have, with a stroke, killed them all, and with very little effort to himself. To Laurence, Temeraire could never seem viscerally a threat; but he had handled the dragon from hatchling to maturity, and remembered him a creature scarcely larger than a dog.
"Laurence has oaths and duty to you, and he would let you hang him, although I do not understand why," Temeraire said after a moment, low and angrily. "And I cannot make him come away with me, against his will, because that would also be wrong. But I will not let him be parted from me again, and if you do hang him, then I will take my friends and go; but not back to China. I will go to Napoleon, and I will tell him he may have my territory, if only he destroys you all, and I will give him any help he wants of me to do it. Now threaten me again, if you like."
Laurence stood wretchedly, helplessly. He ought to have expected it. Lien had done as much, for the death of her companion, Prince Yongxing; had gone and put herself freely into Bonaparte's hands, with nothing at the time but contempt for him and all the West, and even though a Napoleon the master of Europe might turn his eyes against her own nation, someday. And what sense of loyalty Temeraire might have begun to acquire to Britain, whatever Laurence might have been able to instill in him, had been undone thoroughly first by the Admiralty's plan, to infect and kill all the dragons of the West, reserving the cure for British use; and by their later imprisonment and the death-sentence on Laurence which had been used as a bludgeon against him: and now used once too often.
To think his execution would leave Temeraire not free to make his own way back to China, but a devoted enemy of Britain, was a fresh agony; Laurence had no doubt that such a threat would only make the generals despise him and the dragon all the more, and see in it his own scheme for preserving his neck by blackmail. They might choose not to provoke Temeraire again, while Napoleon had men on British soil, but that, he hoped profoundly, was only a temporary state, and then -
Laurence did not discount, as Dalrymple did, Temeraire's achievement: without experience or training for the task, or anything but will, he had persuaded sixty lazy, well-fed dragons to go with him to war; and had won two victories already, against the French army. That Lef®®bvre was not the best of the Marshals, that he had no great number of dragons with him, that Temeraire had only engaged with small companies, meant very little next to the greater success that he had managed to keep his force together and fed. But these men might shortsightedly think themselves happy to be rid of Temeraire and any dragons recalcitrant enough to follow him; and if they did not, they would only take this as still more cause to try some low scheme of murder against him.
"Temeraire," he said, low, trying, into the silence which lingered, "Temeraire, you cannot say such things; you are a serving-officer now - these are your superiors; you may not make threats, or growl at their orders - you must withdraw the remarks."
"I did not growl at the orders," Temeraire said after a moment, still low and angrily, but drawing away his head a little, and all around the circle one might see chests rising with postponed breath. "I did not growl at the orders, and will not, no matter how stupid they are; but as for hanging, if anyone should try to take you from me again, I shall growl at them, and worse, and it is no use telling me I ought not."
"As one might expect - " Maclaine began, a little faintly, only to be interrupted by Wellesley.
"Damn you, Maclaine, stop baiting the damned bear to see it dance." Wellesley seized the moment, and addressed the others, still silent and shaken. "This is all nonsense. I do not believe for a minute that Bonaparte has come up with a man less than all his army, whatever phantasy the scouts have brought you. We can get forty thousand men at Weedon, with their guns and supply, and if we give Bonaparte one of his precious pitched battles without every last one of them, we are a pack of fools."
"Then what do you propose we do?" Dalrymple snapped. "Stand aside and wave him on to London?"
"London was lost three days ago," Wellesley said, "if not two weeks ago, when Nelson was sent to Copenhagen with twenty ships, and Bonaparte saw his main chance. The sooner we swallow it, the better. Get the men on the road tonight, at once. They have been lying about with nothing to do but get drunk and gamble and whore for a week, they can give up a little sleep - "
Cries of protest began rising, through the stifled moment, accusations of defeatism and surrender. Wellesley raised his voice and kept going, "Waste munitions and men and beasts to hold a lost position - we all ought to be hanged for traitors if we do it. To Scotland - to Scotland and the mountains, damn you all! He can't hold the country and keep the Channel open both. Let him have England for a month, let him spend men and dragons trying to hold it, and march for Loch Laggan. We will have a hundred thousand men by Christmas, and come down on him when we choose, not Bonaparte - "
"And let him milk London dry, and wreck the country in the meantime - " one man shouted.
"Send men on to London to warn the tradesmen and the bankers out of the city with whatever they can manage," Wellesley said. "Half of them have gone running to Edinburgh already, after the King; let the rest of them go, too."
"If they choose to," someone said, "instead of stay, and shake Bonaparte's hand as he comes in."
"If they mean to stay, they'll stay," Jane said. "You won't make 'em less eager by letting Bonaparte beat you beforehand. Scotland is the first damned thing of sense anyone has said. We needed these sixty beasts, Maclaine, but you cannot throw sixty dragons like round-shot and hope they land somewhere useful. In a week I will have worked out a way to use them, and by Christmas I will know how to do it properly; for tomorrow we can't do more than cut them loose on his flank and let them do as they like everywhich-way."
"But that sounds perfectly agreeable to me," Temeraire interrupted. "I do not see at all why we ought not be able to beat Napoleon tomorrow, even if he outnumbers us; it seems quite cowardly to run away from him."
Laurence sinkingly heard this speech, which he was sure could have no salutary effect. If he did not much like the idea of retreat, he had yet heard no plan of battle offered, which gave him any confidence that the British were prepared to meet Bonaparte; and he was not heartened, to see that those officers advocating loudest for battle, were by and large those in finer clothes, and fatter than field rations could keep a man.
"O, you wretched bloodthirsty creature," Jane said, "as if it were not bad enough dealing with all the thrusting-out of chests already, now you must needs do it too; we need more sense, not less."
"I am not thrusting out my chest at all," Temeraire protested, pulling himself in rather concave instead, "and I am being very sensible, because if you did run away, it would not do any good, at least if you go by foot as you have been. He will just go after you. He can catch you up in a trice: they go fifty miles in a day."
"Nonsense," someone said.
"It is not nonsense," Temeraire said. "Lef®®bvre's company, eight thousand men, were all near Newbury by Thursday morning, and they had only landed at Deal on Monday; so he can do it."
There was a moment of perfect silence, on all sides: it was one thing to argue over retreat; another entirely to hear the enemy could not be escaped. After a moment, Jane said, "Well, he can beat us by the numbers, but we have around two dozen heavy-weights now, and he hasn't more than ten, aside from his Fleurs. I will take it on to beat his speed, if you will only let me - "
" - put redcoats on dragons, yes, yes, as you keep saying," she was interrupted, by another colonel. "I should like to see it."
"You can come to our camp if you would," Temeraire offered. "We have been carrying along a lot of them, although," he added severely, "if you wanted us all to carry, you ought to have spent a little time making carrying-harnesses, which I know Laurence told you of; because it would be a good deal more convenient than rope, and we could manage more, but perhaps if they do not mind being bundled up into sacks made out of tents, or belly-netting - "
"I should damned well say they will mind," one general said.
"Are they soldiers or aren't they?" Wellesley snapped. "Shoot the first insubordinate bastard to refuse and the rest of them will go quiet enough."
But it was too far; he and Jane were both shouted down. "Enough of this craven counsel," General Dalrymple said. "We stand, and we fight. General Wellesley, you will take the right flank tomorrow, and hold the line at the barracks. General Burrard, you will take the left, and plan on pinching him, when he has worn himself out enough, trying to fight uphill against the main body of our force."
Wellesley stiffened, at the assignment; something of a slap, to be set in the position where less maneuvering should be required, and less initiative. He made no outward protest, however, but his fingers on the hilt of his sword drummed.
"And as for you, Roland," Dalrymple added, "if the damned beasts will not fight the Fleur-de-Nuits - "
"I did not say that at all!" Temeraire said, bristling. "We will fight anyone, I only said, we cannot stop them, if you send us out of camp to do it. The Fleur-de-Nuits can see at night, and we cannot; it stands to reason they can go right around us, above or below. We cannot stop them just by lining up somewhere in their road and hoping."
"You can hear them, can't you?" Dalrymple demanded, exasperated enough by repeated interruption to address Temeraire directly, for once.
"A Fleur-de-Nuit sounds just like a Yellow Reaper to us, flying," Temeraire said. "They beat at the same pace."
Laurence blinked. He had never noticed such a thing, nor considered it as a difficulty, and by the expressions of the other officers, neither had any of them; even Jane looked surprised by the intelligence, and she was an aviator of thirty years' experience and more.
"And anyway," Temeraire added, "one cannot tell where a sound is coming from closely, not when one is aloft and moving, and there are a great many other dragons about all beating in circles. If the Fleur-de-Nuits should go past us one at a time, we would likely never notice them at all, and then we would come back and you would complain we had not done anything. If you want us to stop them, you may say so, and then let us work out, how it is to be done."
***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com