Home > League of Dragons (Temeraire #9)(7)

League of Dragons (Temeraire #9)(7)
Naomi Novik

Laurence was well aware that if they found a force too large for them, he would have a difficult struggle against Temeraire’s inclination to keep him from an attempt which could only end in disaster. When Temeraire turned at last sharply westward again, going back towards the river, Laurence stood in his straps, despite the still-ferocious wind and cold, and trained his glass ahead of their flight. The trees broke; he could see the two branches of the river flowing, the marshy ground around them, and then his heart leapt. A very large covered wagon was trundling up the far bank onto a narrow road, being pulled not by horses but by one of the Incan dragons; and behind it rolled a carriage, large and ornamented in gold, with a capital N blazoned upon the door. Another Incan dragon waited anxiously beside the guns on the eastern bank, its yellow-and-orange plumage so ruffled up the beast looked three times its size—but even so, not up to Temeraire’s weight. There was not another dragon in sight.

“Laurence!” Temeraire said.

“Yes,” Laurence said, his own much-restrained spirits rising; two dragons and guns, and on the order of three hundred men, to guard only a carriage and a wagon-train? He reached for his sword, and loosened it in its sheath. “At them, my dear, as quickly as you can. Mr. Forthing! Pass the word below, ready incendiaries!”

Temeraire was already drawing in air, his sides swelling; beneath his hide trembled the gathering force of the divine wind. Faint cries of alarm carried to Laurence’s ears as the French sighted them; the Incan dragon in the lead abandoned the wagon and leapt aloft, beating quickly, and the second came up to join it, both going into a wide, darting, back-and-forth flying pattern, making themselves difficult to hit. The men on the ground sent up a volley of flares even as Temeraire swept in.

“Ware the guns,” Laurence shouted to Temeraire; a flick of the ruff told him he had been heard. Twelve-pound field guns, two of them, spoke together, coughing canister-shot and filling their approach with shrapnel; but Temeraire had already beaten up out of their range, skimming the top edge of the powder-smoke cloud, and as he swept over the emplacement, the bellmen let go a dozen incendiaries.

“Ha! Well landed!” Dyhern shouted: fully half of the incendiaries were exploding among the French gun-crews. Others rolled away; one burst on the river and sank into the hole it had blown itself in the crust. And then Temeraire was past; he doubled back on the guns and unleashed the divine wind against their rear—the endless impossible noise, ice-coated trees on the bank shattering like glass bottles, the housing of the guns cracking and coming apart. One still-smoking barrel rolled down the hill and carried away two massive snowbanks; it struck the back wheel of the carriage, shattering it, and the cascade half-buried the entire vehicle in snow.

The Incan dragons dived, ready to make raking passes along Temeraire’s vulnerable sides. But Temeraire twisted sinuously away to one side and traded slashing blows with the heavier beast: blue-and-green plumage with a ring of scarlet around its eyes, which gave it a fierce look. There were nearly two dozen Imperial Guardsmen on its back; rifle-fire cracked from their guns, the whine of a bullet passing not distant from Laurence’s ear, and six of them leapt for Temeraire’s back as the dragons closed.

The sky wheeled around them, a tumult of colors and cold wind; then Temeraire pulled away, leaving the Incan beast bleeding. “Make ready for boarders!” Forthing was shouting. The Guardsmen had leapt across to Temeraire’s back latched one to the other; only two of them had made hand-holds, but that had been enough to hold the rest on.

The Guards made intimidating figures: they were all tall, heavily built men, bulky in leather coats and fur caps drawn tightly around the head, with broad sabers and four pistols each slung into their harness-straps. They steadied one another until they had all latched on; then in a tense, disciplined knot they came forward swiftly along the back, covering one another’s advance with pistols held ready.

Laurence now had cause to regret his threadbare crew. He had but few officers; his choices had been scant, in New South Wales, and of that motley selection only a handful had survived the wreck of the Allegiance: small Gerry, who could not yet hold a full sword, brandishing a long knife instead; for midwingmen, besides Emily Roland, he had only Baggy, still gangly in the midst of getting his growth and only lately advanced from the ground crew; and thin, stoop-shouldered Cavendish: brave enough, but likelier by the look of him to be blown overboard by a strong gust of wind than to cross swords with one of Napoleon’s Grognards.

Laurence had not wanted to take men from his fellow-captains; Harcourt had offered, handsomely, when they had parted ways in China. But Laurence knew he and Temeraire were deep in the black books of the Admiralty; he might have been reinstated, as a matter of form and necessity, but no-one could imagine that those gentlemen would turn a kindly eye on any officer coming from his crew. That consideration might now doom the men he did have, or even Temeraire.

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