Black Powder War

Chapter 12

THE INNER COUNCILS of the army were wholly opaque to Laurence; the barrier of language and their establishment in the covert, far from most other divisions of the army, distanced him twice over even from the usual rumors that went floating through the camp. What little he heard was contradictory and vague: they would be concentrating at Erfurt, they would be concentrating at Hof; they would catch the French at the River Saale, or at the Main; and meanwhile the weather was turning to autumnal chill and the leaves to yellow around their edges, without any movement.

Nearly two weeks had crept by in camp, and then at last the word came: Prince Louis summoned the captains to a nearby farmhouse for dinner, fed them handsomely out of his own purse, and to their even greater satisfaction enlightened them a little.

"We mean to make a push south, through the Thuringian forest passes," he said. "General Hohenlohe will advance through Hof towards Bamberg, while General Brunswick and the main army go through Erfurt towards W锟斤拷rzburg," he went on, pointing out the locations on a great map spread out over the dinner table, the destination towns near the known positions where the French Army had been established over the summer. "We have still not heard that Bonaparte has left Paris. If they choose to sit in their cantonments and wait for us, all the better. We will strike them before they know what has happened."

Their own destination, as part of the advance guard, would be the town of Hof, on the borders of the great forest. The march would not be quick; so many men were not easily supplied, and there were some seventy miles to cover. Meanwhile along their route supply-depots had to be established, particularly with herds for the dragons, and the lines of communication secured. But with all these caveats, still Laurence went back to the clearing with much satisfaction: at last, to know something and to be moving was a thousand times better, no matter how slow it would seem to abruptly be bounded by the speed of infantry and cavalry, dragging their guns along in waggons.

"But why do we not go farther out ahead?" Temeraire said, when an easy two hours' flight had brought them, the next morning, to their new covert. "It is not as though we are doing anything of use here but making ourselves some clearings; even those slow dragons can manage flying a little longer, surely."

"They don't want us getting too far off from the infantry," Granby said. "For our sake as much as theirs; if we went off on our own and ran into a troop of French dragons with a regiment of their own infantry and a couple of guns to back them up, we shouldn't enjoy it above half."

In such a case, the enemy dragons would have a clear advantage, the field guns giving them a space of safety in which to regroup and rest, and providing a zone of danger against which the dragons without infantry support could be pinned. But despite this explanation, Temeraire still sighed, and only grumblingly reconciled himself to knocking down some more trees, for firewood and to clear space for himself and the Prussian dragons, while they waited for the marching infantry to catch up.

In this creeping manner they had covered barely twenty-five miles in two days, when abruptly their orders were changed. "We will be massing first at Jena," Prince Louis said, shrugging ruefully at the vagaries of the senior officers, who continued to meet daily, ferried back and forth by dragon-couriers. "General Brunswick wishes to move all the army together through Erfurt instead."

"First we move not at all, and now we change directions," Laurence said to Granby, with some irritation; they had already gone farther south than Jena and now would have to travel some distance northward as well as west; with the slow pace of the infantry it might mean half-a-day lost. "They would do better to have fewer of these conferences, and to more point."

The army was not assembled around Jena until early October; by then Temeraire was hardly the only one irritated with the pace. Even the most stolid of the Prussian dragons were restless at being held on so short a rein, and strained their necks out westward daily, as if they might win a few more miles by wishing for them. The town was upon the banks of the great Saale River, broad and unfordable, which would serve well as a barrier to defend. Their original destination of Hof lay only twenty miles farther south along its course, and Laurence, studying the maps laid out in the impromptu captains' mess organized in a large pavilion, shook his head; the change of position seemed to him a retreat without cause.

"No, you see, some of the cavalry and infantry have been sent ahead to Hof anyway," Dyhern said. "A little bit of bait, to make them think we are coming that way, and then we pour down on them through Erfurt and W锟斤拷rzburg, and catch them still in parts."

It sounded well enough, but there was a small obstacle to the plan, shortly discovered: the French were already in W锟斤拷rzburg. The news traveled round the camp like wildfire, scarcely moments after the panting courier had ducked into the commander's tent, reaching even the aviators with scarcely any delay.

"They say Napoleon himself is there," one of the other captains said, "the Imperial Guard is at Mainz, and his Marshals are all over Bavaria: the whole Grande Armee is mobilized."

"Well, and so much the better," Dyhern opined. "At least no more of this damned marching, thank God! Let them come to us for their thrashing."

Into this sentiment they were all prepared to enter, and a sudden energy gripped the camp; all sensed that battle was close at hand, as the senior officers again closeted themselves for intense discussions. There was no shortage of news and rumors now: every hour, it seemed, some fresh piece of intelligence reached them, though still the Prussians were sending out scarcely any reconnaissance missions, for fear of their capture.

"You will enjoy this, gentlemen," Prince Louis said, coming into their mess. "Napoleon has made a dragon an officer: it has been seen giving orders to the captains of his aerial corps."

"Its captain, surely," one of the Prussian officers protested.

"No, it has none at all, nor any kind of crew," Prince Louis said, laughing; Laurence, however, found nothing amusing in the news, particularly when confirmed in his suspicion that the dragon in question was entirely white.

"We will see to it you have a chance at her on the field, never fear," Dyhern said only, when Laurence had briefly acquainted them all with Lien and her history. "Ha ha! Maybe the French will not have been practicing their formations, if she is in charge? Making a dragon an officer; next he will promote his horse to general."

"It does not seem at all silly to me," Temeraire said, with a sniff, when this had been passed along; he was disgruntled at the news of Lien's preferment among the French, when contrasted with his own treatment by the Prussians.

"But she can't know a thing about battles, Temeraire, not like you," Granby said. "Yongxing kicked up such a fuss about Celestials not fighting; she shan't ever have been in one herself."

"My mother said that Lien was a very great scholar," Temeraire said, "and there are many Chinese books about aerial tactics; there is one by the Yellow Emperor himself, though I did not have a chance to read it," he finished regretfully.

"Oh, things out of books," Granby said, waving a hand.

Laurence said grimly, "Bonaparte is no fool. I am sure he has their strategy well in his own hands; and if giving Lien rank were enough excuse to convince her to come into the battle, I am sure he would make her a Marshal of France, and call it cheap at the price; it is the divine wind we must fear now, and what it may do to the Prussian forces, not her generalship."

"If she tries to hurt our friends, I will stop her," Temeraire said, adding, under his breath, "but I am sure she is not wasting time on silly formations."

They moved out of Jena early the next morning, with Prince Louis and the rest of the advance guard, for the town of Saalfeld, a cautious ten miles south of the rest of the army, to await the French advance. All was quiet on their arrival; Laurence took a moment to go into the town before the infantry should come in, hoping through the offices of Lieutenant Badenhaur, one of the young Prussian officers added to his crew, to acquire some decent wine and better provender; having replenished his funds in Dresden, he now meant to give his senior officers a dinner that night, and arrange for some special provision for the rest of his crew. The first battle could come now at any day, and both supplies and the time to prepare them would likely grow short during the ensuing maneuvers.

The Saale River trotted briskly astride their course, energetic though the autumn rains had not yet begun. Laurence paused, halfway across the bridge, and thrust a long branch into the water: down to the limit of his arm, not yet at the bottom, and then as he knelt lower to try and reach a little farther, a surge of the current pulled it roughly from his hand.

"I would not like to try and ford that; and least of all with artillery," Laurence said, wiping his hands as he came off the bridge; though Badenhaur barely knew any English, he nodded in full agreement: translation was scarcely necessary.

The inhabitants were not well-pleased with the coming invasion of their sleepy little town, but the shopkeepers were ready enough to be mollified with gold, even if the women closed the shutters on the upper stories of their houses with some vehemence as they walked past. They made their arrangements with the keeper of a small inn, who was despondently willing to sell many of his provisions, before the main body of troops should arrive and likely commandeer the rest. He lent them also a couple of his young sons to carry the supplies back. "Pray tell them there is nothing to fear," Laurence told Badenhaur, as they crossed back over the river and drew near the covert, the excited dragons making an unusually loud noise chattering with one another; the boys' eyes had grown saucer-wide in their faces.

They were not much comforted by whatever Badenhaur said, and ran off home almost before Laurence managed to give them each a few pennies in thanks. As they left the food, however, delicious smells rising from the baskets, nobody much minded. Gong Su took charge of the meals; he had by now mostly acquired the role of cook for the men as well as Temeraire, that duty ordinarily rotated about the men of the ground crew, and rarely well-performed. They had all gradually grown used to the creeping inclusion of Oriental spices and preparations in their food, until now they would most likely have noticed their absence more.

The cook was left otherwise unoccupied. Eroica said to Temeraire, as the dragons assembled for their own repast, "Come and eat with us! Fresh meat is what you need, on the eve of a battle; hot blood puts fire into the breast," encouragingly; and Temeraire, who could not conceal he was pleased to be so invited, assented and indeed tore into his cow with great eagerness, if he did lick his chops clean with more fastidiousness than the rest, and wash himself in the river after.

There was nearly a holiday atmosphere by the time the first of the cavalry squadrons began to come across the river, and the sounds and smells of horses reached them through the curtain of trees, the creak and the sharp smell of oil from the gun-carriages: the rest of the men would not arrive until morning. As dusk came on, Laurence took Temeraire for a short solitary flight to let him dissipate some of the nervous energy which had set him to clawing the ground again. They went high up, so as not to alarm the horses, and Temeraire hovered a while squinting through the twilight.

"Laurence, will we not be left very open, on this ground?" Temeraire asked, craning his head around. "We cannot get back across the river very quickly, if there is only that one bridge; and there are all those woods about."

"We do not mean to cross back over; we are holding the bridge for the rest of the army," Laurence explained. "If they came up and the French were in possession of this bank, it would be very difficult to cross over in the face of their resistance, so we must hold it if ever we can."

"But I do not see any more of the army coming," Temeraire said. "What I mean is, I can see Prince Louis and the rest of the advance guard, but no one else behind us; and there are a great many campfires over there, in front."

"That damned infantry is creeping along again, I dare say," Laurence said, squinting northward himself; he could just make out the lights of Prince Louis's carriage, swaying along the road towards the encampment around the town, and beyond that nothing but darkness, far into the distance; while in the south, small smoky campfires were winking in and out of view, like fireflies, brilliant in the thickening dark: the French were less than a mile away.

Prince Louis was not backwards in his response: by dawn his battalions were moving rapidly over the bridge and taking up their positions. Some eight thousand men with more than forty-four guns to support them, though half of them were the conscripted Saxons, whose mutterings were all the louder now that the French were known to be so near. The first musket-shots began to ring out only a little later: not the real beginning of a battle, only the advance outposts trading a little desultory fire with the French scouts.

By nine in the morning, the French were coming out of the hills, keeping well back in the trees where the dragons could not easily get at them. Eroica led his formation in threatening great sweeps over their heads, with Temeraire following after them, but with little effect; Temeraire had been forbidden to use the divine wind, so near to the cavalry. To their general frustration, they were shortly signaled back, so that the cavalry and infantry might make their way forward and engage.

Eroica threw out a signal-flag; "Down, land," Badenhaur, sitting close at Laurence's left, translated, and they all dropped down into the covert again: a panting runner was there with fresh orders for Captain Dyhern.

"Well, my friends, we are in luck," Dyhern called back to all the formation cheerfully, waving the packet overhead. "That is Marshal Lannes over there, and there is a pile of eagles to be won today! The cavalry will have their turn for a while; we are to try and come around behind them, and see if we can scare up a few French dragons to fight with."

They went up again, high over the battlefield: with the pressure of the dragon-formation lifted, the French skirmishers had burst out of the woods to engage the front ranks of Prince Louis's forces, and behind them marched out a single battalion of infantry in line and some squadrons of light cavalry: not yet a great commitment of forces, but the battle was properly joined, and now the guns began to speak in their deep thundering voices. Shadows were moving through the wooded hills; impossible to make out their exact movements, and as Laurence turned his glass upon them, Temeraire let out a ringing roar: a French formation of dragons had lifted into the air, and was coming for them.

The formation was considerably larger than Eroica's, but made almost wholly of smaller dragons, most of them light-weights and even a few courier-types among them. They had none of the crispness that marked the Prussian maneuvers: they had formed into a sort of pyramid, but a shaky one, and were beating up at such different speeds that they were changing places with one another as they came.

Eroica and his formation came about in perfect order to meet the onrushing French, spreading out into a doubled-line, at two heights. Temeraire was nearly turning himself in circles, trying not to overshoot their left flank, where Laurence had set him to take up position; but the Prussians were in formation before the French reached them, and riflemen aboard each dragon leveled their guns for the devastating volley-fire for which the Prussians were justly feared.

But just as they came into rifle-range, and the guns began to crack, the French formation dissolved into even more complete chaos, dragons darting in every direction; and the Prussian volley made almost no impression. A very neat piece of work, tempting the volley out of them, Laurence was forced to acknowledge; but he did not at once see the point: it would not do them much good, when the little French dragons did not carry the manpower to return fire in kind.

They did not seem to wish to, either; instead, they only circled around in a frantic, buzzing cloud, keeping a safe distance too far for boarding, and their crews firing off shots almost at random, picking off men here and there, dashing in for a moment to claw or snap at the Prussian dragons in any opening they were given. Of those, there were many; Temeraire's peevish criticisms were proving all too accurate, and nearly every dragon of the Prussian force was soon marked and bleeding, here and there, as bewildered they tried to go about in one direction or another, to face their opponents properly.

Temeraire, moving alone, was able best to avoid the skirmishing smaller dragons and pay them back; with no threat of boarding and gunnery only a waste of ammunition against such small quick targets, Laurence only gave him his head, and waved his men to stay low and keep out of the way. Pursuing fiercely, Temeraire caught one after another of the littler French dragons, giving them each a vigorous shake and clawing that had them squalling in pain and retreating hastily from the field.

But he was only one, and there were a great many more of the small dragons than he alone could catch; Laurence would have liked to try and tell Dyhern to break up the formation, and let the single dragons fight as they would: at least they would not have been rendering themselves so predictably vulnerable, over and over, and their heavier weight ought to have told badly against the smaller dragons. He had no opportunity, but after a few more passes Dyhern reached the same conclusion: another signal-flag went up, and the formation broke apart; the bloodied, pain-maddened dragons threw themselves with renewed energy at the French.

"No, no!" Temeraire cried, startling Laurence; and whipping his head around said, "Laurence, down there, look - "

He leaned over the side of Temeraire's neck, already pulling out his glass: a great body of French infantry were coming out of the woods to the west, enveloping Prince Louis's right flank, and the center was being pressed back by hard, determined fighting: men were falling back over the bridge, and the cavalry had no room to charge. Just now would have been the ideal moment for a dragon-sweep, to drive back the flanking attempt, but with the formation broken up it was almost sure to fail.

"Temeraire, go!" Laurence cried, and already drawing in his breath, Temeraire folded his wings and arrowed downwards, towards the encroaching French troops on the west: his sides swelled out, and Laurence pressed his hands over his ears to muffle a little of that terrible roaring force, as Temeraire unleashed the divine wind. His pass complete, he swept up and away; dozens of men lay crumpled and still upon the ground, blood oozing from their nostrils and their ears and their eyes, and the smaller trees lying cast around them like matchsticks.

The Prussian defenders were a little more dazed themselves than heartened, however, and in their shocked pause a Frenchman in an officer's uniform leapt from the trees and out amongst his own dead, holding up a standard, and shouted, "Vive l'Empereur! Vive la France!" He charged forward, and behind him came all the rest of the French advance guard, nearly two thousand men, and poured down against the Prussians, hacking away with their bayonets and sabers, getting in amongst them so Temeraire could not strike again without killing as many of their own side.

The case was growing desperate: everywhere the infantrymen were being forced into the Saale River and dragged down by the current and the weight of their own boots, the horses' hooves slipping on the banks. With Temeraire hovering, searching for an opening, Laurence saw Prince Louis rally the rest of the cavalry for a charge at the center. The horses massed around him, and with a roar and thunder they threw themselves gallantly forward, to meet the French hussars with an impact like a ringing bell, swords against sabers. The clash stirred up the thick black clouds of gunpowder smoke around them, to cling to the horses' legs and go whirling about them like a storm. Laurence hoped, for a moment; and then he saw Prince Louis fall, the sword spilling from his hand, and a terrible cheer rose from the French as the Prussian colors went down beside him.

No rescue came. The Saxon battalions broke first and spilled wildly across the bridge, or flung down their arms in surrender; the Prussians held in small pockets, as Prince Louis's subordinates tried to hold the men together and withdraw in good order. Most of the guns were being abandoned upon the field, and the French were raking the Prussians with a deadly fire, men toppling to the ground or falling into the river in droves as they tried to flee. Others began to retreat northward along the line of the river.

The bridge fell, scarcely after noon; by then, Temeraire and the other dragons were only engaged in defending the retreat, trying to keep the small darting French dragons from turning the withdrawal into a complete rout. They did not meet with much success; the Saxons were in full flight, and the smaller French dragons were snatching up artillery and horses alike away from the Prussian forces, some with screaming men still aboard, and depositing them back into the hands of the French infantry, now establishing themselves upon the far bank of the Saale, amidst the still-shuttered buildings of the town.

The fighting was all but over; the signal-flags sauve qui peut fluttered sadly from the ruin of the Prussian position, and the clouds of smoke were drifting away. The French dragons fell back at last, as the retreat drew too far away from their infantry support, and all drooping and weary Temeraire and the Prussian dragons came to earth to catch their breath at Dyhern's signal.

He did not attempt to cheer them; there was no cheer to be had. The littlest dragon of the formation, a light-weight, was carrying carefully in his talons the broken body of Prince Louis, recovered in a desperate lunge from the battlefield. Dyhern only said briefly, "Collect your ground crews, and fall back on Jena; we will rendezvous there."

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