Home > League of Dragons (Temeraire #9)(4)

League of Dragons (Temeraire #9)(4)
Naomi Novik

They returned to their place; they slept again, or tried to sleep. Laurence stirred some unmeasured time later and thought morning must be coming near, but when he looked outside the night remained impenetrable: the light was only from torches. A Cossack courier had landed, his small beast already crawling into the general heap. The other beasts made grumbling protests at the cold of her body. Her rider was chattering so badly he could not speak, but waved his hands in frantic haste in the faces of the handful of officers who had gathered around him, the movements throwing wild shadows through the torchlight. Laurence forced himself out into the cold and crossed to join them. “Berezina,” the man was saying. “Berezina.”

A young ensign came running with a cup of hot grog. The man gulped, and they closed in around him to give him some little share of their own warmth. His clothing was coated white, and the ends of his fingers where he gripped the cup were blackened here and there: frostbite.

“Berezina zamerzayet,” he managed; one of the officers muttered a curse even as the courier stammered out a little more around another swallow.

“What did he say?” Laurence asked low, of one of them who had French.

“The Berezina has frozen,” the man answered. “Bonaparte is running for it.”

They were aloft before sunrise, and reached the camp of the Russian advance guard as the dawn crept over the frozen hills. The Berezina was a clouded ghostly lane between high-piled snowbanks. To the north of the Russian camp, a handful of French regiments were streaming across the river in good order, men marching two abreast, with narrower lines to either side of camp-followers and soldiers who had fallen out of the ranks, struggling across alone as best they could: women and children with their heads down, hunched against the cold; wounded men leaving bloody marks upon the ice as they limped along. Bodies lay prostrated beside the lines, and here and there a figure huddled and unmoving. Even with escape open before them, some had reached the limits of their strength.

“That cannot be all of his army?” Temeraire said doubtfully: there were not two thousand men. Upon the hills of the eastern bank, a small party of French dragons huddled together around a pair of guns, established to provide cover for the retreat, but there were only four beasts.

“They are spread out along the river to the north,” Laurence answered, reading the dispatch which Gerry had come running to bring him. The division was a clever stratagem: if the Russians came at any one crossing in strength, Napoleon might sacrifice that portion to save the rest; if the Russians divided themselves to attack more than one, Napoleon could use his advantage in dragons to concentrate several of his companies more quickly than the Russians could do the same. Each group remained large enough to fend off the Cossack harrying bands.

Laurence finished reading and turned to the crew. “Gentlemen,” he said, “we have intelligence that Napoleon has declared to his soldiers that he will not go dragon-back while any man in his army remains this side of the Berezina; if he has not lied, he is somewhere along the river even now.”

A low murmur of excitement went around the men. “If we can only get him, let the rest of them get away!” Dyhern said, pounding his fist into his palm. “Laurence, will we not go at once?”

“We must!” Temeraire said urgently, hunger and cold forgotten. “Oh! Why are the Russians only standing about, waiting?”

This criticism was unjust; the Russian sergeants were already bawling the men into their marching-lines, and even as Laurence ordered his officers to make ready for action, orders were sent running around the rest of the dragons: they were to go and survey the French crossings, and bring back word of any company of unusual strength. “Temeraire,” Laurence said, as he loaded his pistols fresh, “pray have Grig pass the word to look for Incan dragons in particular: there were not many with the French, and those few will surely be devoted to Napoleon’s protection. Ma’am, I hope you will be comfortable in camp,” he added, to Mrs. Pemberton, Emily Roland’s chaperone. “Mr. O’Dea will do his best for you, I trust.”

“Aye, ma’am, whate’er can be done,” O’Dea said, reaching to pull on the brim of a cap he no longer had; his head was swathed instead in a makeshift turban of furs and flayed horsehide, flaps dangling over the ears and the back of the neck. “We’ll strike up a tent and do what we can about some porridge, Captain.”

“Pray have not a thought for me,” Mrs. Pemberton said; she herself was engaged in low conversation with Emily and handing her an extra pistol, one of her own, and a clean pocket-handkerchief.

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