Home > League of Dragons (Temeraire #9)(3)

League of Dragons (Temeraire #9)(3)
Naomi Novik

Only the corpses remained unburied, the trail of dead that Napoleon’s army left behind it. But even these did not linger in the open long: a host of feral dragons pursued them, savage as any murder of crows. If a man fell, they, too, did not wait for the body to grow cold.

Laurence might have called it the hand of justice, that Napoleon’s army should now be hunted and devoured by the very ferals he had unleashed upon the Russian populace. But he could not take any solace in the dissolution of the once-proud Grande Armée. The pillage of Moscow trailed grotesquely behind them: silken cloth and gold chains and delicate inlaid furniture discarded along the sides of the road by starving men who now thought only of bare survival. Their misery was too enormous; they were fallen past being enemies and reduced to human animals.

Temeraire reached the rendezvous an hour later, on the edge of nightfall. He inhaled a grateful deep breath of the cooking-steam from the big porridge-pit as he landed, and immediately fell-to upon his portion. As he ate, Ferris approached Laurence: he was holding several short sticks which he had tied together at the top, making a skeleton for a miniature tent. “I have been thinking, sir, if we propped these over his nostrils, we might drape the oilcloth over them, and have his nose in with us after all. Then his breath shan’t freeze in the night; and we can open a chimney-hole at the top to let it out again. Whatever warmth we might lose thereby, I think the heat of his breath will more than make up.”

Laurence hesitated. The responsibility of their arrangements was the duty of the first lieutenant, and ought to be left in his hands; the interference of the captain on such a level could only undermine that officer’s authority. Ferris would have done better to apply to Forthing rather than to Laurence, allowing the other man to take the credit of the idea, but that was a great deal to ask when Forthing stood in the place that should have been his; that had been his, before he had been dismissed from the service.

“Very good, Mr. Ferris,” Laurence said, finally. “Be so good as to explain your suggestion to Mr. Forthing.”

He could not bring himself to refuse anything which might improve Temeraire’s situation, already so distressed. But guilt gnawed him when he saw Forthing’s cheek color as Ferris spoke to him: the two men standing mirror, the one stocky and squared-off in shoulders and jaw, and the other tall and lean, his features not having yet lost all the delicacy of youth; both of them equally ramrod-straight. Forthing bowed a very little, when Ferris had finished, and turning gave stiff orders to the ground crew.

The oilcloth was rearranged, and Laurence lay down to sleep directly beside Temeraire’s jaws, the regular susurration of his breath not unlike the murmur of ocean waves. The warmth was better than anything they had managed lately, but even so it was not enough to drive out the cold; at the edges of the oilcloth it waited knife-like, and slid inside on any slightest breath of wind. Laurence opened his eyes in the middle of the night to see a strange rippling motion in the cloth overhead. He put a hand out and touched Temeraire’s side: the dragon was shivering violently.

There were faint groans outside, grumbling. Laurence lay a moment longer, and then groggily forced himself up and went outside. The fur he had wrapped over his coat was useless as armor against the cold. The Russian aviators were up already, walking among their dragons and striking them with their iron goads, shouting until the beasts stirred and got up, sluggishly. Laurence went to Temeraire’s head and spoke. “My dear, you must get up.”

“I am up,” Temeraire said, without opening an eye. “In a moment I will be up,” but after a little more coaxing he climbed wearily to his feet and joined the line the Russian dragons had formed: they were all walking in a circuit through the camp, heads sagging.

After they had walked for half an hour, the Russians permitted their dragons to lie down again, this time in a general heap directly beside the porridge-pit. A thick crust of ice had formed over the top; the cooks at regular intervals threw in more hot coals, which broke through the crust and sank. Laurence urged Temeraire to huddle in as well; a great many of the small white dragons curled in around him. The oilcloth was slung again; they all returned to the attempt to sleep. But it seemed to him the cold grew still worse. The ground beneath them radiated chill as a stove might have given off heat, so intense that all the warmth which their bodies could produce was not adequate to push it back.

Temeraire sighed behind his closed teeth. Laurence drifted uneasily, rousing now and again to put his hand on Temeraire’s side and be sure he was not again shivering so dangerously. The night crept on. He roused Temeraire with the other dragons for another circuit. “The banners of the Monarch of Hell draw nigh, Captain,” O’Dea said, he and the other ground crewmen stamping along with Laurence alongside Temeraire’s massive plodding feet. His hands were tucked beneath the arm-pits of his coat. “No wonder if we are o’ertaken, and the dawn find us locked in ice eternal; God save us sinners all!” Then the cold stopped even his limber tongue.

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