Black Powder War

Chapter 15

"NO, I AM all right," Granby said, hoarsely, when they laid him out in the covert. "For God's sake don't hold up on my account; I am only damned tired of always getting knocked about the head." He was shaken and ill, for all he said, and when he tried to drink a little portable soup he vomited it up again at once; so his crewmates contented themselves with giving him enough liquor to knock him over yet again, of which he drank only a swallow or two before falling asleep.

Laurence meant to take aboard as many of the ground crews as he could, of the dragons taken prisoner. Many of the men almost refused to come, in disbelief; the covert was well to the south of the battlefield, and they had not seen the day's events. Badenhaur argued with them a long time, all of them growing increasingly loud and tense. "Keep your damned voices down," Keynes snapped, while the crew carefully bundled the eggs back aboard into the belly-rigging. "That Kazilik is mature enough by now to understand," he said to Laurence in an undertone. "The last thing we need is for the blessed creature to be frightened in the shell; it often makes a timid beast."

Laurence nodded grimly, and then Temeraire lifted his weary head up from the ground and looked into the darkening sky above. "There is a Fleur-de-Nuit up there, I hear its wings."

"Tell those men they may stay and be damned, or get aboard now," Laurence said to Badenhaur, waving his own crew aboard, and they landed outside Apolda cold and tired and cramped.

The town was nearly a ruin: windows smashed, wine and beer running in the gutters, stables and barns and pens all emptied; no one in the streets but drunken soldiers, bloody and ragged and belligerent. On the stoop of the largest inn Laurence had to step past one man weeping like a child into the palm of his right hand; his left was missing, the stump tied up in a rag.

Inside there were only a handful of lower officers, all of them wounded or half-dead of exhaustion; one had enough French to tell him, "You must go; the French will be here by morning if not sooner. The King has gone to Sömmerda."

In the back cellars Laurence found a rack of wine bottles unbroken, and a cask of beer; Pratt heaved the last onto his shoulder and carried it, while Porter and Winston took armfuls of bottles, and they went back to the clearing. Temeraire had smashed up an old dead oak, lightning-blasted, and the men had managed to kindle a fire; he lay curved round it while the men huddled against his sides.

They shared the bottles and breached the cask for Temeraire to drink; little enough comfort, when they had at once to get aloft again. Laurence hesitated; Temeraire was so exhausted he was swallowing with his eyes almost shut. But that fatigue was itself a danger; if a French dragon-patrol came on them now, he doubted Temeraire could rouse quickly enough to escape. "We must be away, my dear," he said gently. "Can you manage?"

"Yes, Laurence; I am perfectly well," Temeraire said, struggling up onto his feet again, though he added, low, "Must we go very far?"

The fifteen-mile flight seemed longer. The town bloomed out of the dark suddenly, with a bonfire on the outskirts; a handful of Prussian dragons looked up anxiously as Temeraire landed heavily beside it, in the trampled field which was their bivouac: light-weights and a few couriers, a couple of middle-weights; not a single formation entire, and not another heavy-weight among them. They crowded gladly around him for reassurance, and nudged towards him a share of the horse-carcasses that were their dinner, but he tore off only a little of the flesh before he sank down quite asleep, and Laurence left him dead to the world, many of the smaller dragons tucking themselves against his sides.

He sent the men to find what cheer they could to make their camp more comfortable and walked across the fields to the town alone. The night was quiet and beautiful: an early frost made all the stars shine bright, and his breath only briefly hung white in the air. He had not done very much fighting, but he was aching in all his parts, a clenching hot pain around his neck and shoulders, legs stiff and cramped; he stretched them gratefully. Tired cavalry-horses crowded into a paddock raised their heads and whickered anxiously as he went past the fence: they smelled Temeraire upon him, he supposed.

Little enough of the army had yet reached Sömmerda: most fugitives had escaped on foot, and would be walking through the night, if they even knew to come. The town had not been looted, and some measure of order was kept; the groans of the wounded marked the field-hospital in a small church, and the King's hussar guards were drawn up still in ranks outside the largest building: not quite a fortress, only a solid and respectable manor.

He could find no other aviators at all, nor any senior officer to make his report to, with poor Dyhern captured; he had spent some of the day in support of General Tauentzein's command, and another part under Marshal Bl锟斤拷cher; but so far as anyone could tell him, neither was in the town. At last he went to Hohenlohe directly, but the prince was engaged in conference, and a young aide, with an officious brusqueness hardly excusable even by the weight under which they all were laboring, took him to the room and told him to wait in the hallway outside. After half-an-hour cooling his heels outside the door without so much as a chair, hearing only the occasional muffled sound of voices, Laurence sat down on the floor and put out his legs, and fell asleep leaning against the wall.

Someone was speaking to him in German. "No, thank you," he said, still asleep, and then opened his eyes. A woman was looking down at him, with a kind expression but half-amused; abruptly he recognized the Queen, and a couple of guards were standing with her. "Oh, good Lord," Laurence said, and sprang to his feet with much embarrassment, begging her pardon in French.

"Oh, what a nothing," she said, and looked at him curiously, "but what are you doing here?" She opened the door, when he had explained, and put her head in, to Laurence's discomfort: he had much rather have waited a longer time than seem a complainer.

Hohenlohe's voice answered her in German, and she beckoned Laurence in with her. A good fire was laid on in the room, and heavy tapestries on the walls kept the cold stone from leaching away all the heat. The heat was very welcome; Laurence had stiffened up even further from sitting in the hall. King Frederick stood leaning against the wall near the fireplace: a tired man, not as handsome or vital as his wife, with a long pale face and hair set high up on his broad white forehead; his mouth was thin, and he wore a narrow mustache.

Hohenlohe stood at a large table covered over with maps; Generals R锟斤拷chel and Kalkreuth were with him; also several other staff-officers. Hohenlohe stared at Laurence unblinkingly a long moment, then with an effort said, "Good God, are you still here?"

Laurence did not immediately understand how to take this, as Hohenlohe had not even known he was in the town; then he was abruptly wide-awake and furiously angry. "I am sorry that I should have troubled you," he bit out. "As you have been expecting my desertion, I am perfectly happy to be gone."

"No, nothing of the kind," Hohenlohe said, somewhat incoherently adding, "and God in Heaven, who could blame you." He ran his hand over his face; his wig was disordered and dingy grey, and Laurence was sorry; plainly Hohenlohe did not have full command of himself.

"I have only come to make my report, sir," Laurence said, with more moderation. "Temeraire has taken no serious injury; my losses are three wounded, none dead, and I have brought in some three dozen ground crewmen from Jena, and their equipment."

"Harness and forges?" Kalkreuth asked quickly, looking up.

"Yes, sir, though only two of the latter, besides our own," Laurence said. "They were too heavy to bring more."

"That is something, thank God," Kalkreuth said. "Half our harnesses are coming apart at the seams."

After this no one else spoke for a long time. Hohenlohe was gazing fixedly at the maps, but with an expression which suggested he was not properly seeing them; General R锟斤拷chel had slipped into a chair, his face grey and tired, and the Queen was at her husband's side, murmuring to him in a low private voice in German. Laurence wondered if he ought to ask to be excused, though he did not think they were keeping silent from any scruple at his presence: there was a very miasma of fatigue thickening the atmosphere of the room. Abruptly the King shook his head and turned back to face the room. "Do we know where he is?"

There was no need to ask who he was. "Anywhere south of the Elbe," one young staff-officer muttered, and flushed as it came out over-loud in the dull room, earning him glares.

"Jena tonight, Sire, surely," R锟斤拷chel said, still scowling at the young man.

The King was perhaps the only one who took no notice of the slip of the tongue. "Will he give us an armistice?"

"That man? Not a moment to breathe," Queen Louise said, with scorn, "nor any kind of honorable terms. I would rather throw myself completely into the arms of the Russians than grovel for the pleasure of that parvenu." She turned to Hohenlohe. "What can be done? Surely something can be done?"

He roused himself a little and went through his maps, pointing at different garrisons and detachments, speaking half in French and half in German of rallying the troops, falling back on the reserves. "Bonaparte's men have been marching for weeks and fighting all day," he said. "We will have a few days, I hope, before they can organize a pursuit. Perhaps a large share of the army has escaped; they will come this way and towards Erfurt: we must gather them and fall back - "

Heavy boots rang on the stones in the hallway, and a heavy hand on the door. The newcomer, Marshal Bl锟斤拷cher, did not wait to be asked in, but came in with no more warning. "The French are in Erfurt," he said, without ceremony, in plain blunt German even Laurence could understand. "Murat landed with five dragons and five hundred men and they surrendered, the fuckers - " He cut off in great confusion, blushing fiery red under his mustaches: he had just seen the Queen.

The others were more preoccupied with his intelligence than his language; a confused babble of voices arose, and a scramble among the staff-officers through the disordered papers and maps. Laurence could not follow the conversation, mostly in German, but that they were brangling was noisily clear. "Enough," said the King, suddenly and loud, and the quarreling faltered and stilled. "How many men do we have?" he asked Hohenlohe.

The papers were shuffled through again, more quietly; at last the descriptions of the various detachments were all collected. "Ten thousand under Saxe-Weimar, somewhere on the roads south of Erfurt," Hohenlohe said, reading the papers. "Another seventeen in Halle, under W锟斤拷rttemburg's command, our reserves; and so far we have another eight thousand here from the battle: more will surely come in."

"If the French do not overtake them," another man said quietly; Scharnhorst, the late Duke of Brunswick's chief of staff. "They are moving too quickly. We cannot wait. Sire, we must get every man we have left across the Elbe and burn the bridges at once, or we will lose Berlin. We should send couriers to begin even now."

This provoked another furious explosion, nearly every man in the room shouting him down and in their disagreement finding a vent for all the raw violence of their feelings, which were all that one might expect from proud men, seeing their honor and that of their country rolled in the dust, and forced to learn humility and fear at the hand of a deadly and implacable enemy, whom even now they all could feel drawing close upon their heels.

Laurence too felt an instinctive revulsion for so ignominious a withdrawal, and the sacrifice of so much territory; madness, it seemed to him, to give so much ground without forcing the French to do battle for any of it. Bonaparte was not the sort of man who would be satisfied even with a large bite when he could devour the whole, and with as many dragons as he had in his train, the destruction of the bridges seemed at once an insufficient obstacle, and an admission of weakness.

In the tumult, the King beckoned to Hohenlohe and drew him aside before the windows to speak with him; when the rest had spent themselves in shouting, they came back to the tables. "Prince Hohenlohe will take command of the army," the King said, quietly but with finality. "We will fall back on Magdeburg to gather our forces together, and there consider how best to organize the defense of the line of the Elbe."

A low murmuring of obedience and agreement answered him, and with the Queen he quitted the room. Hohenlohe began to issue orders, sending men out with dispatches, the senior officers one by one slipping away to organize their commands. Laurence was by now almost desperate for sleep, and tired of being left waiting; when all but a handful of staff-officers remained and he still had been given no orders nor dismissed, and Hohenlohe showed every sign of once again burying himself in the maps, Laurence finally lost patience and put himself forward.

"Sir," he said, interrupting Hohenlohe's study, "may I ask to whom I am to report; or failing that, your orders for me?"

Hohenlohe looked up and stared at him again with that hollow expression. "Dyhern and Schliemann are made prisoner," he said after a moment. "Abend also; who is left?" he asked, looking around. His aides seemed uncertain how to answer him; then finally one ventured, "Do we know what has become of George?"

Some more discussion, and several men sent to make inquiries, all returned answers in the negative; Hohenlohe said finally, "Do you mean to say there is not a single damned heavy-weight left, out of fourteen?"

Lacking either acid-spitters or fire-breathers, the Prussians organized their formations to maximize strength rather than, like the British, to protect a dragon with such critical offensive capabilities; the heavy-weights were nearly all formation-leaders, and as such had come in for particular attention in the French attack. Too, they had been peculiarly vulnerable to the French tactics, being slower and more ponderous than the middle-weights who had spearheaded the boarding attempts, and much of their strength and limited agility already worn down from a day of hard flying. Laurence had seen five taken on the battlefield; he did not find it wonderful that the rest should have been snapped up afterwards, or at best driven far away, in the chaotic aftermath.

"Pray God some will come in overnight," Hohenlohe said. "We will have to reorganize the entire command."

He paused heavily and looked at Laurence, both of them silenced by the awareness that Temeraire was the only heavy-weight left at hand; at one stroke thus become critical to their defenses, and impossible to restrain: Hohenlohe could not force them to stay. Laurence could not help being torn; in some wise his first duty was to protect the eggs, and given the disaster, that surely meant to see them straightaway to England; yet to desert the Prussians now would be as good as giving the war up for lost, and pretending they could do no more to help.

"Your instructions, then, sir?" he said abruptly; he could not bring himself to do it.

Hohenlohe did not make any expressions of gratitude, but his face relaxed a little, a few of the lines easing out. "Tomorrow morning I will ask you to go to Halle. All our reserves are there: tell them to fall back, and if you can carry some guns for them, so much the better. We will find some work for you then; God knows there will be no shortage."

"Ow!" Temeraire said, loudly. Laurence opened his eyes already sitting up, his back- and leg-muscles protesting loudly, and his head thick and clouded besides from so little sleep: there was only a little dim light filtering in. He crawled out of his tent and discovered that this was rather the fault of the fog than the hour: the covert was already alive, and even as he stood up he saw Roland coming to wake him as she had been told to do.

Keynes was scrambling over Temeraire, digging out the bullets; their precipitous departure from the battlefield after the fighting had kept him from attending to the wounds then. Though Temeraire had borne them up to now without even noticing, and far worse wounds without complaint, he flinched from their extraction, stifling small cries as Keynes drew each one out; though not very thoroughly.

"It is always the same," Keynes said sourly; "you will get yourselves hacked to pieces and call it entertainment, but only try and stitch you back together and you will moan without end."

"Well, it hurts a great deal more," Temeraire said. "I do not see why you must take them out; they do not bother me as they are."

"They would damned well bother you when you got blood-poisoning from them. Hold still, and stop whimpering."

"I am not whimpering, at all," Temeraire muttered, and added, "ow!"

There was a rich, pleasant smell in the air. Three meager horse-carcasses were all that had been delivered to the covert that morning to feed more than ten hungry dragons; before the inevitable jostling could begin, Gong Su had appropriated the lot. The bones he roasted in a fire-pit and then stewed with the flesh in some makeshift cauldrons, the dragons' breastplates temporarily put to this new use and all the youngest crewmen set to stirring. The ground crews he peremptorily sent out to scavenge by means best not closely examined whatever else they could find, which varied ingredients he picked over for inclusion.

The Prussian officers looked on anxiously as their dragons' provisions all went into the vats, but the dragons caught a sort of excitement at the process of choosing which items would go in, and offered their own opinions by here nudging forward a heap of knotted yellow onions, there surreptitiously pushing away some undesirable sacks of rice. These last, Gong Su did not let go to waste; he reserved some quantity of the liquid when the dragons had been served their portions, and cooked the rice separately in the rich broth swimming with scraps, so the aviators breakfasted rather better than much of the camp; a circumstance which went far to reconciling them to the strange practice.

The harnesses of the dragons were all in sorry shape, clawed and frayed, some down to the wires threaded through the leather for strength, some straps entirely severed; and Temeraire's was in particularly wretched case. They had neither the time nor the supplies to make proper repairs, but some patchwork at least had to be done before their departure for Halle.

"I'm sorry sir, with all we can do it'll be rising noon before we can get him under leather again," Fellowes came to say apologetically, having made a first survey of the damage and set the harness-men to work. "It's the way he twists about, I expect: widens the tears."

"Do what you can," Laurence said briefly; no need to press them: every man was working to his limits, and there were as many as could be asked for, volunteers from the ground crews they had rescued. In the meantime, he coaxed Temeraire to sleep and conserve his energy.

Temeraire was not unwilling, and laid himself out around the still-warm ashes of the cooking fires. "Laurence," he said after a moment, softly, "Laurence, have we lost?"

"Only a battle, my dear; not the war," Laurence said, though honesty compelled him to add, "but a damnably important battle, yes; I suppose he has taken half the army prisoner, and scattered the rest." He leaned against Temeraire's foreleg, feeling very low; he had so far staved off with activity any serious contemplation of their circumstances.

"We must not yield to despair," he said, as much for himself as for Temeraire. "There is yet hope, and if there were none at all, still sitting on our hands bewailing our fate would do no good."

Temeraire sighed deeply. "What will happen to Eroica? They will not hurt him?"

"No, never," Laurence answered. "He will be sent along to some breeding-grounds, I am sure; he may even be released, if they settle upon terms. Until then they will only keep Dyhern under lock and key; what the poor devil must feel." He could well imagine all the horrors of the Prussian captain's situation; to be not only himself prevented from doing any good for his country, but the instrument of his inexpressibly valuable dragon's imprisonment. Temeraire evidently shared some very similar train of thought, with respect to Eroica; he curled his foreleg in to draw Laurence nearer, and nudged him a little anxiously for petting; this reassurance only let him drop off at last.

The harness-men managed the repairs quicker than promised, and before eleven o'clock were beginning the laborious process of getting aboard all the enormous weight of straps and buckles and rings, with much assistance from Temeraire himself: he was the only one who could possibly have raised up the massive shoulder-strap, some three feet wide and full of chain-mesh within, which anchored the whole.

They were in the midst of their labors when several of the dragons looked up together, at some sound which only they could hear; in another minute they could all see a little courier coming in towards them, his flight oddly unsteady. He dropped into the center of the field and sank down off his legs at once, deep bloody gashes along his sides, crying urgently and twisting his head around to see his captain: a boy some fifteen years of age if so many, drooping in his straps, whose legs had been slashed badly by the same strokes which marked his dragon.

They cut off the bloody harness and got the boy down; Keynes had put an iron bar in the hot ashes the moment both came down, and now clapped the searing surface to the open and oozing wounds, producing a terrible roasting smell. "No arteries or veins cut; he'll do," was his brusque remark after he had inspected his handiwork, and he set to giving the same treatment to the dragon.

The boy revived with a little brandy splashed into his mouth and smelling-salts under his nose; and he got out his message in German, gasping long stuttering breaths between the words to keep from breaking into sobs.

"Laurence, we were to go to Halle, were we not?" Temeraire said, listening. "He says the French have taken the town; they attacked this morning."

"We cannot hold Berlin," Hohenlohe said.

The King did not protest; he only nodded. "How long until the French reach the city?" the Queen asked; she was very pale, but composed, with her hands lying in her lap folded over lightly. "The children are there."

"There is no time to waste," Hohenlohe said; enough of an answer. He paused and said, his voice almost breaking, "Majesty - I beg you will forgive - "

The Queen sprang up and took his shoulders in her hands, kissing him on the cheek. "We will prevail against him," she said fiercely. "Have courage; we will see you in the east."

Regaining some measure of self-control, Hohenlohe rambled on a little longer, plans, intentions: he would rally more of the stragglers, send the artillery trains west, organize the middle-weights into formations; they would fall back to the fortress of Stettin, they would defend the line of the Oder. He did not sound as though he believed any of it.

Laurence stood uncomfortably in the corner of the room, as far away as he could manage. "Will you take their Majesties?" Hohenlohe had asked, heavily, when Laurence had first told him the news.

"Surely you will need us here, sir," Laurence had said. "A fast courier - " but Hohenlohe had shaken his head.

"After what happened to this one, bringing the news? No; we cannot take such a risk. Their patrols will be out in force all around us."

The King now raised the same objection and was answered the same way. "You cannot be taken," Hohenlohe said. "It would be the end, Sire, he could dictate whatever terms he desired; or God forbid, if you should be killed, and the crown prince still in Berlin when they come there - "

"O God! My children in that monster's power," the Queen said. "We cannot stand here talking; let us go at once." She went to the door and called her maid, waiting outside, to go and fetch a coat.

"Will you be all right?" the King asked her quietly.

"What, am I a child, to be afraid?" she said scornfully. "I have been flying on couriers; it cannot be very different," but a courier twice the size of a horse was not to be compared with a heavy-weight bigger than the whole barn. "Is that your dragon, on the hill over there?" she asked Laurence, as they came into view of the covert; Laurence saw no hill, and then realized she was pointing at the middling-sized Berghexe sleeping on Temeraire's back.

Before Laurence could correct her, Temeraire himself lifted up his head and looked in their direction. "Oh," she said, a little faintly.

Laurence, who remembered when Temeraire had been small enough to fit into a hammock aboard the Reliant, still in some part did not think of him being quite so large as he really was. "He is perfectly gentle," he said, in an awkward attempt at reassurance; also a brazen lie, since Temeraire had just enthusiastically spent the previous day in the most violent pursuits imaginable; but it seemed the thing to say.

All the dragon-crews sprang up startled to their feet as the royal couple entered the makeshift covert, and remained at stiff and awkward attention; aviators were not used to being so graced, as the little couriers who ordinarily bore important passengers went to their lodgings to carry them to and fro. Neither monarch looked very easy, particularly when all the dragons, catching their crews' excitement, began craning their heads to peer at them; but with true grace the King took the Queen's arm in his and went around to speak to the captains and give each a few words of approval.

Laurence seized the moment and beckoned hurriedly to Granby and Fellowes. "Can we get a tent put up for them aboard?" he asked urgently.

"I don't know we can, sir; we left all behind what we could spare, running from the battlefield, and that lummox Bell had out the tents to make room for his kit, as though we couldn't work him up a tanning-barrel anywhere we went," Fellowes said, rubbing at the back of his neck nervously. "But we'll manage something, if you can give me a turn of the glass; maybe some of these other fellows can lend us a bit of scrap."

The tent was indeed managed out of two pieces of spare leather sewn together; personal harnesses were cobbled together; a half-respectable cold supper was hastily assembled and packed into a basket with even a bottle of wine, though how this should be opened mid-flight without disaster, Laurence had not the least idea. "If you are ready, Your Majesty," he said tentatively, and offered the Queen his arm when she nodded. "Temeraire, will you put us up? Very carefully, if you please."

Temeraire obligingly put down his claw for them to step into. She looked at it a little palely; the nails of his talons were roughly the length of her forearm and of polished black horn, sharp along the edges and coming to a wicked point. "Shall I go first?" the King said to her quietly; she threw her head back and said, "No, of course not," and stepped in, though she could not help but throw an anxious look at the talons curving above her head.

Temeraire was regarding her with great interest, and having let her step off again onto his shoulder, he whispered, "Laurence, I always thought queens would have a great many jewels, but she has none at all; have they been stolen?"

Fortunately he spoke in English, as otherwise this remark would not have been much of a secret, issuing as it did from jaws large enough to swallow a horse. Laurence hurried the Queen into the tent before Temeraire could shift to German or French and take to questioning her on the state of her array; she very sensibly wore a plain heavy overcoat of wool over her gown, adorned with nothing more elaborate than silver buttons, and a fur pelisse and hat, practical enough on a flight.

The King had the benefit at least of a military officer's experience of dragons, and showed no hesitation, if he felt any; but the retinue of guards and servants looked more deeply anxious even at coming near. Looking at their pale faces, the King said something briefly in German; Laurence guessed from the looks of shamefacedness and relief that he was giving them permission to stay behind.

Temeraire took this opportunity to put in his own remarks in that language, provoking startled looks all around; and he then stretched out his foreleg towards the group. This did not quite have the effect that Laurence imagined Temeraire had intended, and a few moments later there were left only four of the royal guard, and one old woman servant, who snorted profoundly and climbed without ceremony into Temeraire's hand to be put aboard.

"What did you say to them?" Laurence asked, half-amused and half-despairing.

"I only told them they were being very silly," Temeraire said in injured tones, "and that if I meant to do them any harm, it would be much easier for me to reach them where they were standing, anyway, than if they were on my back."

Berlin was in a ferment; the townspeople looked without love on soldiers in uniform, and Laurence, going through the town in haste, trying to get what supplies he could, heard muttering about the "damned War Party" in every shop and corner. News of the terrible loss had already reached them, along with news of the French drive on the city, but there was no spirit of resistance or revolt, or even any great unhappiness; indeed the general impression was a kind of sullen satisfaction at being proven right.

"They drove the poor King to it, you know, the Queen and all those other young hotheads," the banker told Laurence. "They would prove that they could beat Bonaparte, and they could not, and who is it that pays for their pride but us, I ask you! So many poor young men killed, and what our taxes will be after this I do not want to think."

Having delivered himself of these criticisms, however, he was quite willing to advance Laurence a good sum in gold. "I had rather have my money in an account at Drummonds' than here in Berlin with a hungry army marching in," he said candidly, while his two sons lugged up a small but substantial chest.

The British embassy was in turmoil; the ambassador already gone, by courier, and scarcely anyone left could give him good information, or would; his green coat commanded not the least attention, beyond queries if he were a courier, bringing dispatches.

"There has been no trouble in India these three years, whyever should you ask such a thing?" a harried secretary said, impatiently, when Laurence at last resorted to halting him in the corridor by main force. "I have not the least understanding why the Corps should have failed in our obligations, but it is just as well we had not more committed to this rout."

This political view Laurence could not easily subscribe to, still more angry and ashamed to hear the Corps described in such a way. He closed his mouth on the reply which first sprang to mind and said only, very cold, "Have you all safe route of escape?"

"Yes, of course," the secretary said. "We will embark at Stralsund. You had best get back to England straightaway yourself. The Navy is in the Baltic and in the North Sea, to assist with operations in support of Danzig and Königsberg, for whatever good that will do; but at least you will have a clear route home once you are over the sea."

If a craven piece of advice, this at least was reassuring news. But there were no letters of his own waiting, which might have given him an explanation less painful to consider, and of course none would find them now. "I cannot even send a new direction home with them," Laurence said to Granby as they walked back towards the palace. "God only knows where we shall be in two days, much less a week. Anyone would have to address it to William Laurence, East Prussia; and throw it into the ocean in a bottle, too, for all the likelihood it should find me."

"Laurence," Granby said abruptly, "I hope to God you will not think me chickenhearted; but oughtn't we be getting home, as he said?" He gazed straight ahead down the street and avoided Laurence's eyes as he spoke; there was alternating color and pallid white in his cheeks.

It abruptly occurred to Laurence, to be compounded with his other cares, that his decision to stay might look to the Admiralty as though he were keeping the egg out in the field intentionally, delaying until Granby might have his chance. "The Prussians are too badly short of heavy-weights now to let us go," he said finally, not really an answer.

Granby did not answer again, until later, when they had come to Laurence's quarters and might shut the door behind them; in that privacy he bluntly said, "Then they can't stop us going, either."

Laurence was silent over the brandy-glasses; he could not deny it, nor even criticize, having entertained much the same thought himself.

Granby added, "They've lost, Laurence: half their army, and half the country too; surely there's no sense in staying now."

"I will not allow their final loss to be certain," Laurence said strongly at this discouraged remark, turning around at once. "The most terrible sequence of defeats may yet be reversed, so long as men are to be had and they do not despair, and it is the duty of an officer to keep them from doing so; I trust I need not insist upon your confining such sentiments to your breast."

Granby flushed up crimson and answered with some heat, "I am not proposing to go running around crying that the sky is falling. But they'll need us at home more than ever; Bonaparte is sure to already be looking across the Channel with one eye."

"We did not stay only to avoid pursuit or challenge," Laurence said, "but because it is better to fight Bonaparte farther from home; that reason yet remains. If there were no real hope, or if our efforts could make no material difference, then I would say yes; but to desert in this situation, when our assistance may be of the most vital importance, I cannot countenance."

"Do you honestly think they will manage any better than they have so far? He's overmatched them, start to finish, and they are in worse case now than they were to start."

This there was no denying, but Laurence said, "Painful as the lesson has been, we have surely learnt much of his mind, of his strategy, from this meeting; the Prussian commanders cannot fail to now revise their strategy, which I fear before this first contest of arms had too much to do with overconfidence."

"As far as that goes, too much is better than too little," Granby said, "and I see precious little reason for any confidence at all."

"I hope I will never be so rash as to say I am confident of dealing Bonaparte a reversal," Laurence said, "but there remains good and practical reason to hope. Recall that even now the Prussian reserves in the east, together with the Russian Army, will outmatch Bonaparte's numbers by half again. And the French cannot venture forward until they have secured their lines of communication: there are a dozen fortresses of vital strategic importance, fended by strong garrisons, which they will first have to besiege and then leave troops to secure."

But this was only parroting; he knew perfectly well numbers alone did not tell the course of battle. Bonaparte had been outnumbered at Jena.

He paced the room for another hour when Granby had at last gone. It was his duty to show himself more certain than he was, and besides that to not permit himself to be downhearted, sentiments which should surely convey themselves to the men. But he was not wholly sure of the course he was following, and he knew that his decision was in some part formed by his disgust for the notion; desertion, even from a situation into which he had effectively been pressed, had too much an ugly and dishonorable ring to it, and he had not the happy turn of character which might have allowed him to call it by another name, and lose the odium thereby.

"I do not want to give up, either, though I would like to be at home," Temeraire said, with a sigh. "It is not so nice, losing battles, and seeing our friends taken prisoner. I hope it is not upsetting the eggs," he added, anxious despite all of Keynes's reassurances, and bent over to nudge them gently and carefully with his nose where they lay in their nests, presently tucked between two warming braziers under a ledge in the main courtyard of the palace, waiting to be loaded aboard.

The King and Queen were saying their farewells: they were sending the royal children away by courier to the well-protected fortress of Königsberg, deep in East Prussia. "You ought to go with them," the King said softly, but the Queen shook her head and kissed her children goodbye swiftly. "I do not want to go away, either, Mother; let me come, too," said the second prince, a sturdy boy of nine, and he was only packed off with difficulty and in the face of loud protests.

They stood together watching until the little courier-dragons dwindled to bird-specks and vanished, before at last they climbed back aboard Temeraire for the journey eastward with the handful of their retinue brave enough to venture it: a small and sad party.

Overnight a steady stream of bad news had flowed into the city, though at least these pieces of intelligence had been largely expected, if not so soon: Saxe-Weimar's detachment caught by Marshal Davout, every last man of ten thousand killed or taken prisoner; Bernadotte already at Magdeburg, cutting Hohenlohe off; the Elbe crossings falling into French hands, not a single bridge destroyed; Bonaparte himself already on the road to Berlin, and when Temeraire rose up into the air, they could see, not very distant, the smoke and dust of the oncoming army: marching, marching, with a cloud of dragons overhead.

They spent the night at a fortress on the Oder River; the commander and his men had not even heard rumors, and were bitterly shocked by news of the defeat. Laurence suffered through the dinner which the commander felt it necessary to give, a black and silent meal, quenched by the officers' depression and the natural embarrassment attendant on dining in the presence of royalty. The small walled covert attached to the fortress was barren and dusty and uncomfortable; and Laurence escaped to it and his meager bivouac of straw with great relief.

He woke to a soft rolling patter like fingertips on a drum: a steady grey rain falling against Temeraire's wings, which he had spread over them protectively; there would be no fire that morning. Laurence had a cup of coffee inside, looking over the maps and working out the compass-directions for the day's flight; they were trying to find the eastern reserves of the army, under command of General Lestocq, somewhere in the Polish territories which Prussia had lately acquired.

"We will make for Posen," the King said tiredly; he did not look as though he had slept very well. "There will be at least a detachment in the city, if Lestocq is not there yet himself."

The rain did not slacken all the day, and sluggish bands of fog drifted through the valleys below them; they flew through a grey formlessness, following the compass and the turns of the hourglass, counting Temeraire's wingbeats and marking his speed. Darkness was almost welcome; the cross-wind that blew the rain in their faces slackened, and they could huddle a little warmer in their leather coats. Villagers in the fields disappeared as they flew overhead; they saw no other signs of life until, crossing a deep river valley, they flew over five dragons, ferals, sleeping upon a sheltered ledge, who lifted up their heads at Temeraire's passage.

They leapt off the ledge and came flying towards Temeraire; Laurence grew anxious, lest they either provoke a quarrel or try and follow them, like Arkady and the mountain ferals; but they were small gregarious creatures and only flew alongside Temeraire a while, jeering wordlessly and making demonstrations of their flying abilities, backwing swoops and steep dives. Half-an-hour's flight brought them to the edge of the valley, and there the ferals with piercing cries broke off and circled back away into their territory. "I could not understand them," Temeraire said, looking over his shoulder after them. "I wonder what that language is, that they are speaking; it sounds a little bit like Durzagh in places, but it was too different to make out, at least when they spoke so quickly."

They did not reach the city that night after all: some twenty miles short they came upon the small and sodden campfires of the army, settling into miserable wet bivouacs for the night. General Lestocq came to the covert himself to greet the King and Queen, with sedan-chairs drawn up as close as he could persuade the bearers to come; he had evidently been warned to expect them, likely by a courier.

Laurence was naturally not invited to accompany them, but neither was he offered the simple courtesy of a billet, and the staff-officer who stayed to see to their supply was offensively short in his hurry to be gone. "No," Laurence said with mounting impatience, "no, half a sheep will not do; he has had a ninety-miles' flight today in bad weather, and he damned well will be fed accordingly. You do not look to me as though this army were on short commons." The officer was at length compelled to provide a cow, but the rest of them had a wet and hungry night, receiving only some thin oat porridge and biscuit, and no meat ration at all; perhaps a spiteful revenge.

Lestocq had with him only a small corps: two formations of smallish heavy-weights, nowhere near Temeraire's size, with four middle-weight wing dragons apiece, and a few courier-dragons for leaven. Their comfort had been equally neglected: the men were sleeping mostly distributed upon the backs of their dragons, only a few smallish tents posted for officers.

After they had unloaded him, Temeraire nosed around here and there, trying to find some drier place to rest, without success: the bare ground of the covert was nothing but mud two full inches down.

"You had better just lie down," Keynes said. "The mud will keep you warm enough, once you are in it properly."

"Surely it cannot be healthy," Laurence said dubiously.

"Nonsense," Keynes said. "What do you think a mustard-plaster is but mud? So long as he does not lie in it for a week, he will do perfectly well."

"Wait, wait," Gong Su said, unexpectedly; he had been gradually acquiring English, being isolated otherwise, but he was still shy of speaking out, save where his business of cookery was concerned. He went through his jars and spice-bags hurriedly and brought out a jar of ground red pepper, a few pinches of which Laurence had seen him use to flavor an entire cow. He put on a glove and ran beneath Temeraire's belly, scattering a double handful of it upon the ground, while Temeraire peered at him curiously from between his legs.

"There, now will be warm," Gong Su said, stepping out and sealing tight the jar again.

Temeraire gingerly let himself down into the muck, which made rude noises as it squelched up around his sides. "Ugh," he said. "How I miss the pavilions in China! This is not at all pleasant." He squirmed a little. "It is warm, but it feels quite odd."

Laurence could not like having Temeraire thus marinated, but there was little hope of doing better by him tonight at least. Indeed, he recalled that even while with the larger corps, under Hohenlohe's command, they had received little better accommodations; only the milder weather had rendered their circumstances more comfortable.

Granby and his men did not seem to take it as he did, shrugging. "I suppose it's what we're used to," Granby said. "When I was with Laetificat in India, once they put us on the day's battlefield, with the wounded moaning away all night and bits of swords and bayonets everywhere, because they didn't want to be put to the trouble of clearing some brush away for us to sleep elsewhere; Captain Portland had to threaten to desert to get them to move it the next morning."

Laurence had spent his career as an aviator so far entirely in the highly comfortable training-covert at Loch Laggan and in the long-established one at Dover, which - if nothing like what the Chinese considered adequate - at least offered well-drained clearings, shaded by trees, with barracks for the men and junior officers, and rooms at the headquarters for the captains and senior lieutenants. He supposed perhaps he was unrealistic, to expect good conditions in the field, with an army on the march, but surely something better might have been arranged: there were hills visible not very distant, certainly within an easy quarter-of-an-hour's flight, where the ground would not have been so thoroughly soaked.

"What can we do for the eggs?" he asked Keynes; at present the two large bundles were standing upon a handful of chests, draped over with an oilskin. "Will they take any harm from the cold?"

"I am trying to think," Keynes said irritably; he was pacing around Temeraire. "Will you be sure not to roll onto them in the night?" he demanded of the dragon.

"Of course I am not going to roll onto the eggs!" Temeraire said, outraged.

"Then we had better wrap them in oilskins and bury them up against his side in the mud," Keynes said to Laurence, ignoring Temeraire's muttered indignations. "There's no hope of starting a fire that will keep in this rain."

The men were already all as wet as they could be; by the time they had finished digging a hole they were also all over mud, but at least they had warmed up by the exercise; Laurence himself had stood out the whole while being drenched, feeling it his place to share the discomfort. "Share out the rest of the oilskins, and let everyone sleep aboard," he said, once the eggs were safely tucked into their nest, and gratefully climbed up to his own shelter for the night: the tent, now vacant, had been left up on Temeraire's back for him.

Having covered nearly two hundred miles in two days of flying, it was an unwelcome reversion to find themselves once again leashed by the infantry and, worse, by the endless trail of supply-waggons, which it seemed were stuck as often they were moving. The roads were terrible, unpaved sand and dirt that churned and squelched under every step, and littered with fallen leaves, wet and slippery. The army was moving eastward in hopes of a rendezvous with the Russians; even in the wretched conditions, laboring under the news of defeat, the discipline did not fail, and the column marched along in steady order.

Laurence found he had been unjust to the supply-officer: they were indeed on short rations. Though the harvest had just been brought in, there seemed to be nothing available anywhere in the countryside; at least not to them. The Poles showed empty hands when asked to sell, no matter what money they were offered. The crops had been bad, the herds had been sick, they said if pressed, and showed empty granaries and pens; though the black shiny eyes of pigs and cattle might occasionally be glimpsed peeking out from the dark woods behind their fields, and occasionally some enterprising officer unearthed a cache of grain or potatoes hidden in a cellar or beneath a trap-door. There were no exceptions, not even for Laurence's offers of gold, not even in houses where the children were too thin and scantily dressed against the coming winter; and once, in a small cottage little better than a hovel, when in exasperation he doubled the gold in his palm and held it out again with a pointed look at the baby lying scarcely covered in its cradle, the young matron of the house looked at him with mute reproach, and pushed his fingers closed over it before she pointed at the door.

Laurence went out again rather ashamed of himself; he was anxious for Temeraire, who was not getting enough to eat, but he could hardly blame the Poles for resenting the partition and occupation of their country; it had been a shameful business, much deplored in his father's political circles, and Laurence thought perhaps the Government had made some sort of formal protest, though he did not properly remember. It would hardly have made a difference; hungry for land, Russia and Austria and Prussia would not have listened. They had all pushed their borders out piece by piece, ignoring the cries for justice from their weaker neighbor, until at last they had met in the middle and there was no more country left in between; small wonder that the soldiers of one of those nations should meet a cool reception now.

They took two days to cross the twenty miles to Posen and found an even colder welcome there; and a more dangerous one. Rumors had already reached the town: with the arrival of the army, the disaster at Jena could hardly be a secret, and more news came pouring in. Hohenlohe had finally surrendered with the tattered remnants of his infantry; and with that all of Prussia west of the Oder was falling like a house of cards.

The French Marshal Murat was repeating all over the country the same trick that had worked so nicely for him at Erfurt, seizing fortresses one after another with no weapon but brass cheek. His simple method was to present himself at their stoop, announce that he had come to receive their surrender, and wait until the doors were opened and the governor let him in. But when the governor at Stettin, several hundred miles from the battlefield and as yet wholly ignorant of what had occurred, indignantly refused this charming request, the iron beneath the brass plating was revealed: two days later there were thirty dragons and thirty guns and five thousand men outside the walls, busily digging trenches and piling up bombs in very noticeable heaps for a full assault, and the governor meekly handed over the keys and his garrison.

Laurence overheard this story told some five times in one walk around the town's marketplace square; he did not understand the language, but the same names would keep ringing out together, in tones not merely amused but exultant. Men sitting together murmuring in alehouses were raising their vodka-glasses to Vive l'Empereur when there was no Prussian in hearing distance, and sometimes even when there was, depending on how low the level in the bottle had gone; there was an atmosphere of belligerence and hope mingled.

He put his head in at every market-stall he could find; here at least the merchants could not refuse to sell what was plainly in sight, but supplies in the town were not much more plentiful and had for the most part already been appropriated. After much searching, Laurence was able only to find one poor small pig; he paid some five times its value and at once had it knocked smartly over the head with a cudgel to stun it and trundled to its doom in a wheelbarrow by one of his harness-men. Temeraire took it and ate it raw, too hungry to wait for cooking, and painstakingly licked clean his talons afterwards.

"Sir," Laurence said, restraining his temper, "you have not the proper supply for a heavy-weight, and the daily distance you cross is a tenth of what he can do."

"What difference does that make?" General Lestocq said, bristling. "I do not know what kind of discipline you run in England, but if you are with this army, you march with it! Good God, your dragon is hungry; so are all my men hungry. A fine form we should be in, if I began letting them run fifty miles afield to feed themselves."

"We would be at every evening's camp - " Laurence said.

"Yes, you will be," Lestocq said, "and you will be at the morning camp, and at the noon camp, and with the rest of the dragon-corps at every moment, or I will have you down as a deserter; now get out of my tent."

"I take it things went well," Granby said, looking at his face when Laurence came back into the small abandoned shepherd's hut which was their day's shelter, the first time they had slept dry in the week of slow and miserable marching since Posen; Laurence threw his gloves down on the cot with violence, and sat down to pull off his boots, ankle-deep in mud.

"I have half a mind to take Temeraire and be gone after all," Laurence said furiously. "Let that old fool put us down as deserters if he likes, and be damned to him."

"Here," Granby said, and picked up some of the straw from the floor to take hold of the boot-heel, so Laurence could get his foot out. "We could always go hunting, and join up again if we see a fight coming," he said, wiping off his hands and sitting back down on his own cot. "They'll hardly turn us away."

Laurence almost gave it consideration, but he shook his head. "No; but if this continues as it is - "

It did not; instead their pace slowed even further, and the only thing in shorter supply than food was good news. Rumors had gone around the camp for several days that a peace settlement had been offered by the French; an almost general sigh of relief had issued from the weary troops, but as the days passed and no announcement came, hope failed. Then fresh rumors followed about the shocking terms: the whole vast swath of Prussian territory east of the Elbe to be surrendered, and Hanover, too; huge indemnities to be paid; and, outrageously, the crown prince to be sent to Paris, "under the care of the Emperor, to the improvement of understanding and friendship between our nations, desirable to all," as the sinister phrasing had it.

"Good Lord, he does begin to think himself a proper Oriental despot, doesn't he," Granby said, hearing this news. "What would he do if they broke the treaty, send the boy to the guillotine?"

"He had D'Enghien murdered for less cause," Laurence said, thinking with sorrow of the Queen, so charming and courageous, and how this fresh and personal threat should act upon her spirits. She and the King had gone on ahead to meet with the Tsar; that, at least, was a piece of encouragement: Alexander had pledged himself wholly to continue the war, and the Russian Army was already on its way to rendezvous with them in Warsaw.

"Laurence," Temeraire said, and Laurence shuddered up out of an old familiar night-terror: finding himself utterly alone on the deck of the Belize, his first command, in a gale; all the ocean lit up by lightning-flashes and not a human face anywhere in sight; with the unpleasant new addition of a dragon egg rolling ponderously towards the open forward hatch, too far for him to reach in time: not the green-speckled red of the Kazilik egg, but the pale porcelain of Temeraire's.

He wiped the dream from his face and listened to the distant sounds: too regular for thunder. "When did it begin?" he asked, reaching for his boots; the sky was only just growing lighter.

"A few minutes ago," Temeraire said.

They were three days from Warsaw, on the fourth of November. All through that day's march they heard the guns to the east, and during the night a red glow of fire shone in the distance. The guns were fainter the next day and silent by the afternoon. The wind had not changed. The army did not break from its mid-day camp; the men scarcely stirred, as if they all collectively held their breath, waiting.

The couriers, sent off that morning, came back hurrying a few hours later, but though the captains went directly to the general's quarters, before they even came out again the news was somehow already spreading: the French had beaten them to Warsaw. The Russians had been defeated.

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