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League of Dragons (Temeraire #9)(5)
Naomi Novik

The French dragons on their hill lifted wary heads when they saw the Russian dragons coming, but did not immediately take to the air themselves; the guns beside them were heaved up, waiting if they should descend into range. Laurence looked across at Vosyem, the Russian heavy-weight nearest him; there was little love lost between himself and Captain Rozhkov, but for the moment they were united in their single goal. Rozhkov looked back, his own flying-goggles blue, and they shook their heads at each other in wordless agreement: Bonaparte would not be with this company, the most exposed to Russian attack; in any case, there were no carriages nor wagons, and very few cavalry.

They flew northward along the line of the river: already a dozen marching ant-lines dotted across the frozen white surface. Behind them, the French company fired up signal-flares in varied colors, surely signaling to their fellows ahead. As the Russian dragons closed in on the next crossing, a volley of musketry fired to greet them, and they had to go higher aloft: painful in the cold weather, and there was not an Incan dragon to be seen; only a few French middle-weights gathered by their guns, who eyed the mass of Russian heavy-weights with some anxiety.

There were, however, a dozen wagons crossing the river under guard by the company, pulled by teams of horses, many of them having lost their hoods: they went frantic and heaving with the dragons overhead. And the wagons were laden not only with wounded but with pillaged treasure, and in alarm Laurence heard Vosyem rumble interest, cocking her head sideways to peer down, as one of the wagons toppled over, and a load of silver plate slid out across the snow, blazing with reflected light.

Laurence heard Rozhkov shout at her, and haul brutally upon the spiked bit she wore, to no avail. The other Russian heavy-weights had seen the treasure as well—they were snarling at one another, snapping, throwing their heads violently to shake their officers off the reins. “Whatever are they hissing for?” Temeraire said, craning his head about. “Anyone can see Napoleon is not there. Napoleon is not there!” he repeated to the Russian dragons, in their tongue.

Vosyem paid no attention. With one last heave of shoulders and neck, she flung Rozhkov and his two lieutenants off their feet, leaving them dangling by their carabiner straps, and her reins were loose. With a roar, she banked sharply, her wings folding, and stooped towards the baggage-train. The other Russian heavy-weights roared also and flung themselves after her, all of them, claws outstretched: worried more about which of them would reach the laden carts first than about the enemy.

“Oh! What are they doing!” Temeraire cried; Laurence looked away, sickened. In their savage eagerness, the Russian beasts were making no effort to avoid the hospital-carts or the camp-followers, and wounded men were spilling out across the ice with cries of agony. The Russian dragons skirmished among them, heedless; others were smashing the rest of the carts, dragging them up onto the bank, mantling at each other with hisses and displays of their claws and teeth.

Temeraire turned wide circles in distress aloft, but there was nothing to be done. He could not force a dozen maddened dragons to come to heel, even if the Russian beasts had not already disdained him. “Temeraire,” Laurence called, “see if you can persuade the smaller beasts to come along with us. If we can only find Napoleon, we can return and perhaps by then marshal the other heavy-weights; we can do nothing with them at present.”

Temeraire called to Grig and the other grey light-weights, who were not unwilling to follow him; none of them could hope for a scrap of treasure with so many heavy-weights engaged. Even as they turned away, two of the Russian dragons went smashing into the frozen surface of the river, clawing at each other, rolling over and over, and the ice broke with a crack like gunfire: three wagons and dozens of screaming men and women sank at once into the dark rushing water beneath.

Temeraire’s head was bowed as he flew northward, leaving the hideous scene behind them. They flew past another four crossing-points: Marshal Davout’s regiments, much diminished yet still in fighting-order. He had few guns and almost no dragons left, most of them forced to flee ahead of the retreat outside Smolensk, but his soldiers had climbed up onto the edges of their hospital-wagons, holding their bayonets aloft to form a bristling forest of discouraging points. “A courier has told him, I suppose,” Temeraire said, “how the Russian dragons were behaving: oh! Laurence, I hardly know how to look at them. That they should think I would do such a thing, go after a hospital-cart, and only for a little silver!”

“Well, it was quite a lot of silver,” Grig said, in a faintly envious tone, then hastily added, “which does not of course mean they were right to do it: Captain Rozhkov will be so very angry! All the officers will, and,” he finished glumly, “I expect they will take away our dinners.”

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