Black Powder War

Chapter 14

THE ARTILLERY BATTERIES were trading hot words before Laurence had even left Hohenlohe's tent; already the fastest couriers were flying desperately after Brunswick and the King, and westward to call in the reserves from Weimar. There was no option now but to concentrate as quickly as possible and give battle. For his own part, Laurence could be almost thankful for the French catching them, if not for the suddenness of their assault; it seemed to him as it had to Temeraire, that the commanders had labored desperately the last week to avoid the very war which they had provoked and which all their men were prepared to endure; a stupid cowering sort of delay that could only wear down morale, reduce their supply, and leave detachments exposed and vulnerable to being cut down one by one, as poor Prince Louis had been.

The prospect of action had quite swept away the malaise hanging upon the camp, and the iron discipline and drill was telling in their favor: as he walked swiftly through the ranks he heard laughter and joking tones; the order to stand-to was met everywhere with an instant response, and though the men were themselves in sorry case, wet and pinched with hunger, they had kept their arms in good order, and their colors sprang out gaily overhead, the great banners snapping in the wind like musket-shot.

"Laurence, hurry, hurry, they are fighting already without us!" Temeraire called urgently, sitting up high on his back legs with his head craned out of the covert, spotting Laurence before he had even reached the clearing.

"I promise you we will have enough fighting today, however late we enter the fray," Laurence said, leaping into Temeraire's waiting claw with a speed that belied his counsel of patience, and swinging himself rapidly into place with the aid of Granby's outstretched hand; all the crew were already in their places, the Prussian officers no less than the British, and Badenhaur, who was trained as a signal-officer, sat anxiously beside Laurence's own place.

"Mr. Fellowes, Mr. Keynes, I trust you will make the safety of the eggs your first concern," Laurence called down, locking his carabiners onto the harness just in time: Temeraire was already launching himself aloft, and the only answer Laurence got was their waving hands, any words inaudible in the rush of wingbeats as they drove towards the front lines of the battlefield, to engage the oncoming French advance guard.

Some hours later, the morning's first skirmishing done, Eroica led them to ground in a small valley where the dragons might snatch a few swallows of water and catch their breath. Temeraire, Laurence was glad to see, was holding up well and little affected in his spirits, though they might be said to have suffered a repulse. There had been little hope, indeed, of keeping the French from gaining a foothold, not under the guns which had already been established on the heights: at least they had been made to pay for the ground which they had won, and the Prussians had gained enough time to deploy their own regiments.

Far from dismayed, Temeraire and the other dragons were rather more excited at having fought, and full of anticipation of still more battle to come. Too, they had benefited from their work: few were the dragons who had not managed to seize a dead horse or two to eat, so they were better-fed than they had been for many a day, and full of the resultant energy. Waiting their turns to drink, they even engaged in calling across the valley to one another with accounts of their individual bravery, and how they had done for this enemy dragon and that. These Laurence judged to be exaggerated, as the entire plain was not littered with the corpses of their victims, but no scruples on this account arrested their pleasure in boasting. The men stayed aboard, passing around canteens and biscuit, but the captains gathered to consult for a few moments.

"Laurence," Temeraire said to him, as he climbed down to join the others, "this horse I am eating looks very odd to me; it is wearing a hat."

The limp and dangling head was covered with an odd sort of hood, attached to the bridle and made of some thin cotton stuff, very light, but with stiff wooden cuffs almost encircling the eye-holes, and some sort of pouches covering the nostrils. Temeraire held it for him, and Laurence cut away one of the pouches with his knife: a sachet of dried flowers and herbs, and though it was soaked through now with blood and the horse's damp sweating breath, Laurence could still smell the strong perfume beneath.

"Over the nose like that, it must keep them from smelling the dragons and getting spooked," Granby said, having come down to look at it with him. "I dare say that is how they manage cavalry around dragons in China."

"That is bad, very bad," Dyhern said, when Laurence had shared the intelligence with him. "It means they will be able to use their cavalry under dragon-fire, when we cannot use ours. Schleiz, you had better go and tell the generals," he added, to the captain of one of his light-weights, and the man nodded and dashed back to his dragon.

They had been aground for scarcely fifteen minutes, but they rose up to find the world already changed. The great contest now was unfolding fully beneath them: like nothing Laurence had ever seen. Across full five miles of villages and fields and woods the battalions were forming, ironwork and steel blazing in the sun amid a sea of color, uniforms of green and red and blue in their thousands, in their tens of thousands, all the massed regiments filing into their battle-lines like a monstrous ballet, to the accompaniment of the shrill animal cries of horses, the jar and clatter of the wheels of the supply-carts, the thundercloud-rumble of the field guns.

"Laurence," Temeraire said, "how many of them there are!" The scale might justly make even dragons feel small, a sensation Temeraire could hardly have been less used to; he halted in place and hovered uncertainly, gazing over the battlefield.

Clouds of white-grey gunpowder smoke were blowing across the fields and tangling into the forests of oak and pine. There was some hard fighting continuing on the Prussian left, around a small village; better than ten thousand men engaged, Laurence guessed, and for all that inconsequential. Elsewhere the French had paused to reinforce their lines, in the space which they had already gained: men and horses were pouring over the bridges of the Saale, the eagles of their standards shining gold, and still more coming on dragon-back. Upon the morning's first battlefield the bodies of the dead lay abandoned by both sides; only victory or time would see them buried.

Temeraire said, low, "I did not know battles could be so large; where are we to go? Some of those men are far away; we cannot help all of them."

"We can but play our own part as best we can," Laurence answered him. "It is not for any one man or dragon to win the day; that is the business of the generals. We must look sharp to our orders and our signals, and achieve what they ask of us."

Temeraire made an uneasy rumble. "But what if we should not have very good generals?"

The question was unpleasantly apt; at once the involuntary comparison sprang to mind between that lean and glittering-eyed man on the heights, so full of certainty and command, and the old men in their pavilions with their councils and arguments and endlessly changing orders. Below to the back of the field he could see Hohenlohe on his horse, his white-powdered wig in place, with his knot of aides-de-camp and men running back and forth around him; Tauentzein, Holtzendorf, and Bl锟斤拷cher were moving among their separate troops; the Duke of Brunswick was not yet upon the field, his army still hurrying back from their aborted retreat. None of them distant strangers to sixty; and they faced on the French side the Marshals who had fought and clawed their way through the Revolutionary wars and the man who held their reins, any one of whom could have given them twenty years.

"Good or bad, our duty remains the same and that of any man," Laurence said, thrusting aside with an effort such unworthy thoughts. "Discipline on the field may win the day even if the strategy be flawed, and its absence will ensure defeat."

"I do see," Temeraire said, resuming his flight: up ahead, the French light-weight dragons were rising again to harry the unfolding ranks of the Prussian battalions, and Eroica and his formation had turned to meet them. "With so many men, all must obey, or there would be no order at all; they cannot even see themselves as we can, and know how they stand in the whole." He paused and added anxiously and low, "Laurence, if - only if - we were to lose this war, and the French were to try again to come into England, surely we would be able to stop them?"

"Better not to lose," Laurence said grimly, and then they were back into the thick of it, the tableau of the battlefield dissolving into the hundred private struggles of their own corner of the war.

By the early afternoon they could feel the tide shifting in their direction for the first time. Brunswick's army was pouring back in double-quick time, long before Bonaparte could have expected them, and Hohenlohe had sent out all his battalions: twenty of them already now deployed in parade-ground form upon the open field and preparing to make an assault against the leading corps of French infantry, who were hunkered down in a small village near the center of the battle.

Still the French heavy-weights had not engaged, and the larger Prussian dragons were growing exasperated. As Temeraire said, "It does not feel right to me, only batting around these little fellows; where are the big dragons from their side? This is not much of a fair fight." By the sound of Eroica's loud and grumbling response, he wholly agreed, and his swipes at the little French dragons were beginning to be desultory.

At last one Prussian courier, a high-flying Mauerfuchs, risked a quick overflight of the French camp while the rest of them engaged the light-weights at close quarters. He winged back almost at once in a flurry to say the larger French dragons were no longer bringing in men, and now were all lying about on the ground, eating and some even napping. "Oh!" Temeraire said, outraged, "they must all be great cowards, sleeping when there is a battle going on; what do they mean by it?"

"We can be grateful for it; they must have worn themselves all out lugging about those guns," Granby said.

"Yet at this rate they will be well-rested enough when they come in," Laurence said; their own side had been flying hours with only the briefest pauses for water. "Perhaps we ought take turns ourselves; Temeraire, will you not land a while?"

"I am not at all tired," Temeraire protested, "and look, those dragons are trying some mischief over there," he added, and dashed away without waiting for an answer, so they all had to cling to his harness to keep from being flung off their feet as he collided mid-air with a startled and squalling pair of French light-weights, who had only been circling around looking over the battlefield, and who promptly fled his attack.

Before Laurence could renew his suggestion, loud cheering rang out below and their attention was distracted: in the teeth of the continuing terrible artillery-fire, Queen Louise herself had come out and was galloping along the Prussian line, escorted only by a handful of dragoons, the Prussian banner streaming out brilliantly behind their little party. She wore a colonel's uniform coat over her clothing and the stiff-sided plumed hat also, with her hair caught up snugly beneath it. The soldiers yelled her name wildly: she was perhaps the heart of the Prussian War Party and had long urged a resistance to Napoleon and his predations of Europe. Her bravery could not fail to put heart into the men; the King also was on the field, his banner showing farther on the Prussian left, and all throughout the ranks the senior officers had exposed themselves with their men to the fire.

She had no sooner cleared the field than the order was given; in another sort of encouragement, bottles were going down across the front ranks, men pouring the liquor straight into their mouths. The drums beat out the signal, and the infantry charged straight out from their lines with bayonets leveled, men screaming with raw voices, and stormed into the narrow lanes of the village.

The death-toll was hideous: from behind every garden wall and window the French sharp-shooters arose and put forth a ceaseless fire, and near enough every bullet found a mark; while down the straight-aways of the main tracks of the village the artillery pounded away, canister-shot breaking apart into deadly shrapnel as it flew from the mouths of the guns. But the Prussians came onward with irresistible force, and one after another the guns were silenced as they poured into the farmhouses, the barns, the gardens, the pigsties, and hacked down the French soldiers at their places.

The village was lost, and the French battalions were pouring out its back, retreating in good order but retreating nonetheless, for nearly the first time that day. The Prussians roared and kept coming onwards: behind the village they drew back together into line again under the shouts of their sergeants and threw the terrible volley-fire upon the retreating French again.

"That is a great success, Laurence, is it not?" Temeraire said jubilantly. "And now surely we will push them back still further?"

"Yes," Laurence said, full of inexpressible relief, leaning over to shake hands with Badenhaur in congratulation, "now we will see some proper work done."

But they had no further opportunity to watch the ground-battle unfold; Badenhaur's hand abruptly tightened on Laurence's with surprise, and the young Prussian officer pointed him around: from the summit of the Landgrafenberg the massed forces of the French aerial corps were rising, the heavy-weights coming to the battle at last.

The Prussian dragons gave almost as one a loud roar of delight, and full of renewed energy began to shout out taunting remarks on the subject of the French dragons' late entry to the field as they waited for the others to move into formation and close. The French light-weights, who had so valiantly held the field all day, made now one heroic final effort and kept up a sort of screen before the oncoming dragons, darting back and forth around the Prussians' heads to obscure their view, wings flapping distractingly in their faces. The bigger dragons impatiently snorted and lashed out here and there, but without much attention, rather craning their heads to see. Only at the last moments did the light-weights pull away, and Laurence saw the French were not coming in formation at all.

Or almost - there was one formation, the plainest imaginable, only a wedge, but made entirely of heavy-weights: in the lead one Grand Chevalier, leaner but with broader shoulders than Eroica, and behind him three Petit Chevaliers, each one bigger than Temeraire, and behind them a row of six Chansons-de-Guerre only a little smaller, incongruously cheerful in appearance with their orange and yellow markings. They might all have been formation-leaders in their own right; instead they made one enormous if lumbering group, surrounded by a vast unformed crowd of middle-weights.

"Well, that's never a Chinese strategy?" Granby said, staring. " - what the devil are they trying now?" Laurence shook his head perplexed; they had seen a few military reviews amongst the Chinese dragons, who operated aloft more nearly as men did upon the ground, drilling in lines and columns, and never in so confused a manner.

Eroica and his formation anchored the center of the Prussian line, and now with bared teeth he threw himself forward to meet the Grand Chevalier, crying out in a ringing challenge. The Prussian colors were streaming out from his shoulders like another pair of wings. The two formations increased their speed as they drew nearer one another; the miles turned into yards and then feet and then vanished all together. The collision was at hand - and then the moment was past, and Eroica turned round bewildered and indignant in mid-air: the big French dragons had one and all swerved to go past him and gone straight for the wings of his formation, the ranks of smaller middle-weights.

"Feiglings!" Eroica bellowed after them at the top of his lungs as they clawed and scattered his wing dragons. He had been left flying almost alone, and even as he came around to the attack again, three of the French middle-weights seized the opening and drew up alongside him. They were too small to do him any direct harm, and did not even try, but their backs were crammed full of men. No less than three boarding parties leapt over, almost twenty men, swords and pistols in their hands, grabbing at his harness.

Eroica's crew burst into activity to hold off the new threat, all the riflemen bringing up their guns, and a sudden spatter of musket-shot rang out, making the raised sword-blades sing in high, clear notes as the bullets struck them. Thick streams of gunpowder smoke boiled away as Eroica thrashed in the air frantically, head going this way and that as he tried to see what was going toward and protect his captain.

His efforts threw off many of the hapless boarders, who went flailing through the air, but others had already latched themselves on securely; and Eroica was throwing his own crew off their feet as well as the boarders. The confusion served the French with a lucky stroke: two lieutenants clinging to one another for support kept their feet after one of these mid-air convulsions, when all the crew had been flung down, and in the momentary gap they sprang forward and hacked off the carabiner straps of some eight men, sending them tumbling free to their deaths.

The rest of the struggle was sharp but brief, as the boarding parties advanced in force upon the dragon's neck. Dyhern shot two men and killed another with a saber-thrust, but then his blade lodged in the man's chest and would not come out again; and the falling body ripped it from his hands. The French seized his arms and put a blade to his throat, calling to Eroica, "Geben Sie oben," while they pulled down the Prussian flags and put the tricolor in its place.

It was a terrible loss, and one which they could not avert: Temeraire himself was being hotly pursued by five middle-weights, similarly overburdened with men, and all his speed and ingenuity were required to avoid them. Now and again a few men would take the desperate risk and leap across onto his back even though they were not very close; but few enough that Temeraire flung them off at once, with a quick writhing turn, or the topmen cut them down with sword or pistol.

But an Honneur-d'Or, greatly daring, flung herself directly at Temeraire's head; he ducked instinctively, and as she whisked by overhead a couple of her bellmen let go and dropped aboard directly onto Temeraire's shoulders, flattening young Allen and knocking Laurence and Badenhaur into a tangled sprawl of straps and limbs. Laurence grabbed blindly for some purchase; Badenhaur was with an excess of courage trying to throw himself atop Laurence protectively, and getting in the way of his putting himself back on his feet.

But the act was justified: he sank back gasping into Laurence's arms, blood spreading dark from a stab-wound through his shoulder; the Frenchman who had dealt the blow was drawing back the sword for another attempt. Granby with a shout threw himself against the handful of attackers and heaved them back three paces. Laurence at last righted himself and cried out - Granby had thrown off his straps to make the attack, and the pair of French officers seizing him by the arms flung him over the side.

"Temeraire!" Laurence shouted. "Temeraire!"

The earth dropped out from beneath his feet: Temeraire doubled on himself and plunged after Granby's falling body, wings driving. Laurence could not breathe for the sickening, dizzying speed of it, the blurred ground hurtling towards them and a humming like the sound of bees all around them from the flight of bullets through the air as they came low over the battlefield. And then Temeraire corkscrewed up and away, his tail smashing to flinders a slim young oak-tree. Laurence clawed himself hand-over-hand up the straps and looked over Temeraire's shoulder: Granby lay in Temeraire's talons gasping, trying to staunch the blood streaming from his nostrils.

Laurence rolled to his feet and went for his sword. The Frenchmen were leaping to the attack again; he smashed the pommel into the first one's face, savagely, and felt the bone crush beneath his gloved fist; then he ripped the blade free from the sheath and swung at the second. It was the first time he had struck a flesh-blow with the Chinese sword: it bowled the man's head off with scarcely any resistance.

From startlement and reaction, Laurence stood gawking at the headless body, its hand still clinging to its sword. Then belatedly Allen jumped to his duty and cut the Frenchmen's straps, so their bodies fell away, and Laurence was recalled to himself. He wiped his sword hurriedly and put it back away; hauling himself gratefully back into his place on Temeraire's neck.

The French had turned their successful maneuver against the other formations one at a time: the heavy-weights throwing themselves en masse against the wings, isolating the leaders so the middle-weights could pounce. Eroica was flying away wretchedly with hang-dog head, and not alone; three more Prussian heavy-weight dragons followed him in short order, all of them beating so slowly they were descending towards the ground between each wing-stroke and the next. The other members of their formations were milling uncertainly without them, slow to comprehend the abrupt losses: ordinarily the members of a formation so stripped of its leader would have at once gone to support a different formation, but having been all stricken at once, they were now mostly flying into each other's way, at the mercy of their enemies. The French heavy-weights massed again and brutally scattered them over and over, riflemen firing terrible barrages into their crews. Men were falling like hailstones, and the loss was so dreadful that many of the dragons cried out and yielded themselves in desperation, unboarded, to save their captains and the remnants of their crews.

The last three Prussian formations, forewarned by their comrades' fate, had drawn up in tight close ranks, protecting their leaders; but though they were successfully fending off the attempts at breaking in, they were paying with distance and position, drifting farther and farther afield under the steady pressure. Temeraire's own situation was growing increasingly desperate; he twisted and turned this way and that, constantly under fire with his own riflemen returning their own shot in bursts: Lieutenant Riggs bawling out the firing drill to keep them steady, though they were all of them reloading as fast as they could go.

Temeraire's scales and the chainmail with which he was girt turned aside most of those balls which came towards him by accident, though here and again one tore through the more delicate membrane of his wings, or lodged shallowly in his flesh. He did not flinch, too full of battle-fever to even feel the small wounds, but concentrated all his powers on the evasion. Even so Laurence thought in anguish that they too would soon be forced to flee the field or be taken; the long day's labors were telling on Temeraire, and his turns were slowing.

To quit the field, to desert under fire without an order to retreat, he could hardly imagine; yet the Prussians themselves were giving way, and if he did not withdraw, aside from the very great evil of their own capture, the eggs were almost sure to fall into enemy hands as well. Laurence had no desire to so recompense the French for having taken Temeraire's egg from them; he was on the point of calling Temeraire away, at least for a breath, when his conscience was spared: a clarion roar sounded, musical and terrible at once, and with breathtaking suddenness their enemies vanished away. Temeraire whirled around three times before he was satisfied he had indeed been left in peace, and only then risked hovering long enough for Laurence to see what was going forward.

The ringing call was Lien's voice: she had not herself taken part in the battle, but she was hovering now in mid-air, behind the lines of the French dragons. She had no harness nor crew, but the great diamond upon her forehead was glowing fiery orange with the reflected sunset, almost to match the virulence of her red eyes. She cried out again, and Laurence heard another drumming below: signals flying from the French ranks, and at the crest of the hill on a grey charger Bonaparte himself watching over the field, the breastplates of the feared Imperial Guard behind him molten gold in the light.

The Prussian formations dispersed or driven off, the French dragons had acquired a clear dominance over the aerial arena. Now in answer to Lien's call, they all moved together into a straight-line formation. Below, the French cavalry all as one wheeled and broke away to either side of the battlefield, all the horses spurred as quick as they could go, and the infantry fell back from the front lines, though keeping up a steady musket- and artillery-fire as they went.

Lien rose higher into the air and drew a great breath, her ruff under its steel diadem spreading wide around her head, her sides belling out like sails overpressed with wind, and then from her jaws burst the terrible fury of the divine wind. She directed it against no target; she struck down no enemy and dealt not a single blow; but the hideous force of it left the ears ringing as though all the cannon in the world had gone off at once. Lien was some thirty years of age to Temeraire's two, a little larger and more experienced by far, and there was not only the power of her greater size behind it but a sort of resonance, a rise and fall in her voice, which carried on the roaring a seemingly endless time. Men reeled back from it, all along the battlefield; the Prussian dragons huddled themselves away; even Laurence and his crew, familiar with the divine wind, jerked instinctively away so that their carabiner straps drew taut.

A complete silence followed, broken only by small shocked cries, the moans of the wounded on the field below; but before the echoes had stopped ringing away, all the line of French dragons lifted up their own heads and, roaring in full voice, plunged earthwards. They pulled up their dive just short of collision with the ground; some few, indeed, were unable to do so, and tumbled out of the sky to crush great swaths of the Prussian ranks beneath their bodies, though crying out in agony as they rolled over their own wings. But the rest did not even pause: dragging their claws and tails as they skimmed just above the ground, they went tearing through the stunned and unprepared ranks of the Prussian infantry, and they left great bloody ranks of the dead behind them as they lifted away again into the air.

The men broke. Before even the dragons struck the front ranks, the lines to the rear were dissolving into utter confusion, a wild panicked attempt at flight, men struggling with one another and trying to flee in different directions. King Frederick was standing in his stirrups, three men holding his frantic and heaving charger to keep it from throwing him off; he was shouting through a speaking-trumpet while signal-flags waved. "Retreat," Badenhaur said, gripping Laurence's arm: his voice sounded utterly matter-of-fact, but his face was streaked and dirty with tears, which he did not seem even to notice he was shedding; down on the field below, the Duke of Brunswick's limp and blood-spattered body was being carried back towards the tents.

But the men were in no frame to listen or to obey; some few battalions managed indeed to form into square for defense, the men standing shoulder to shoulder with their bayonets bristling outwards, but others went running half-mad back through the village, through the woods, which they had only just won with so much labor; and as the French dragons dropped to the earth to rest, their blood-spattered sides heaving, the French cavalry and infantry poured all down off the hill and streamed past them, roaring in human voices, to complete the ruin and defeat.

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