Black Powder War

Chapter 4

THE RED DRY mountains looked as though they had been folded directly up out of the desert plain, cliffs painted with broad stripes of white and ochre, without any softening foothills at their base. They remained stubbornly distant: for a whole day Temeraire flew at a steady pace and seemed to come no closer, the mountains drawing themselves ever upwards and out of reach, until suddenly canyon walls were rising to either side. In the space of ten minutes' flight the sky and desert vanished away behind them, and abruptly Laurence understood the red mountains were themselves the foothills for the towering white-clad peaks beyond.

They camped in wide meadowlands high in the mountains, fortressed by the peaks and sparsely furred with sea-green grass, small yellow flowers standing up like flags from the dusty ground. Horned black cattle with bright red tassels dangling over their foreheads eyed them warily as Tharkay negotiated their price with the herdsmen in their round, conical-roofed huts. At night a few white flakes came silently drifting down, glittering against the night; they melted snow in a great leather pot for Temeraire to drink.

Occasionally, they heard a faint, far-off call of dragons that made Temeraire prick up his ruff; and once in the distance saw a feral pair go spiraling up chasing each other's tails, crying out in shrill joyful voices before they vanished around the other side of a mountain. Tharkay made them put veils over their eyes, to shield against the brilliant glare; even Temeraire had to submit to this treatment, and very odd he looked with the thin white silk wrapped around his head like a blindfold. Even with such precautions, their faces grew pink and sunburnt for the first few days.

"We will need to take food with us, past Irkeshtam," Tharkay said, and when they had made camp outside the old run-down fortress, he went away and returned nearly an hour later with three locals herding along a small band of fat, short-legged pigs.

"You mean to take them up alive?" Granby cried, staring. "They will squeal themselves hoarse and then die of terror."

But the pigs seemed curiously somnolent and indifferent to Temeraire's presence, much to his puzzlement: he even leaned over and nudged at one with his nose, and it only yawned and sat down thump on its hindquarters in the snow. One of the others kept attempting to walk into the brick wall of the fortress, and had to be hauled repeatedly back by its minders. "I put opium in their feed," Tharkay said, in answer to Laurence's confusion. "We will let the drug wear off when we make camp, and he will eat after we have rested; then the rest we dose again."

Laurence was wary of this notion, and not inclined to trust Tharkay's offhand assurance; he watched closely after Temeraire ate the first pig. It went to its death perfectly sober and kicking all the way, and Temeraire showed no inclination afterwards to begin flying in mad circles; although he did fall into rather a deeper sleep than usual, and snored loud enough to rattle.

The pass itself climbed so high they left the clouds below them, and all the rest of the earth; only the nearby mountain peaks kept them company. Temeraire panted for breath, now and again, and had to let himself down to rest wherever the ground permitted, leaving his body outlined in the snow as he lifted away. There was a queer sense of watchfulness, all the day long; Temeraire kept looking around as he flew, and pausing to hover in mid-air, with a low uneasy rumbling.

Having cleared the pass, they set down for the evening in a small valley sheltered from the wind between two great peaks with the ground clear of snow, and anchored their tents at the bottom of the cliff face; the pigs they penned up with a fence of kindling and rope, and let them range freely. Temeraire paced his side of the valley a few times, and then settled himself down with his tail still twitching; Laurence came to sit beside him with his tea. "It is not that I hear anything," Temeraire said, uncertainly, "but I feel as though I ought to be hearing something."

"We have a good position here: we cannot be come upon by surprise, at least," Laurence said. "Do not let it keep you from sleeping: we have posted a watch."

"We are very high in the mountains," Tharkay said unexpectedly, startling Laurence: he had not heard the guide come towards them. "You may only be feeling the change, and the difficulty of breathing: the air has less body."

"Is that why it is so hard to breathe?" Temeraire said, and abruptly sat up on his haunches; the pigs began to squeal and run as nearly a dozen dragons, motley in colors and size, came winging down towards them. Most of them landed skillfully clinging to the cliff face, peering down towards the tents, faces sleek and clever and hungry looking; the largest three dropped down between Temeraire and the makeshift pen, and sat up on their haunches, challengingly.

They were none of them large: the lead fellow something smaller than a Yellow Reaper, pale grey with brown markings and a single crimson patch across half his face and down his neck, with a great many spiny horns around his head; he bared his teeth and hissed, the horns bristling. His two companions were of slightly larger size, one a collection of bright blues and the other dark grey; and all three heavily scarred with the relics of a great many battles, the marks of tooth and claw.

Temeraire outweighed nearly all three of them together: he sat up very straight and his ruff opened wide, stretching like a frill around his head, and gave a small growling roar in answer: a warning. The ferals, so isolated from all the world, likely would not know to fear Celestials as anything other than large dragons, for their size and strength; but the strange ability of the divine wind was by far their most dangerous weapon, and without visible means could shatter stone and wood and bone. Temeraire did not now raise the divine wind against them, but there was an edge of it in his roaring, enough to rattle Laurence's bones; before it, the ferals quailed, the red-patch leader's horns flattening against his neck, and like a flock of alarmed birds they all flung themselves up and out of the valley.

"Oh; but I did not do anything, yet," Temeraire said, puzzled and a little disappointed. Above them the mountains were still grumbling with the echoes of his roar, piling them one on another into a continuous roll of thunder, a sound almost magnified beyond the original. The white face of the peak stirred at the noise, sighed, and let go its hold upon the stone, the entire slab of snow and ice sliding gently free; for a moment yet it kept its shape, moving with slow and stately grace, then cracks like spiderwebs spread across its surface, and the whole collapsed into a great billowing cloud and came galloping down the slope towards the camp.

Laurence felt like the captain of a ship on her beam-ends, seeing the wave that would make her broach-to: in perfect consciousness of disaster and powerless to avert it; there was no time to do anything at all but watch. So quickly did the avalanche come that a couple of the luckless ferals, though they had all tried at once to flee, were swept up in its path. Tharkay was shouting, "Get away! Get away from the cliff!" to the men standing around the tents, pitched directly in the path; but even as he cried out, the vast eruption spilled off the slope, swept over the camp, and then the boiling mass came seething and roaring across the green valley floor.

First there came a shock of cold air, almost physical in its force; Laurence was flung back against Temeraire's great bulk, reaching out to catch Tharkay's arm as the guide stumbled back, and then the cloud itself struck and tore away the world: like being thrust abruptly face-forward into deep snow and held down, a cool muffling eerie blue all around him, a hollow rushing sound in his ears. Laurence opened his mouth for air that was not there, flakes and slivers of ice like knives scraping his face, his lungs heaving against the pressure on his chest, on his limbs, his arms spread-eagled and pressed back so that his shoulders ached.

And then as quickly as it had come, the terrible weight was gone. He was buried standing-up in snow, solidly to the knees and thinning to a solid icy crust over his face and shoulders; with a great desperate heave he broke his arms free, and scraped at his mouth and nostrils with clumsy, benumbed hands, lungs burning until he could drag in the first raw, painful breaths; next to him Temeraire was looking more white than black, like a pane of glass after a frost, and sputtering as he shook himself off.

Tharkay, who had managed to turn his back to the cloud, was in a little better case, already dragging his feet out of the snow. "Quickly, quickly, there is not a moment to lose," he said, hoarsely, and began to flounder across the valley towards the tents: or where the tents had been, now a sloping heap of snow, piled ten feet deep or more.

Laurence dragged himself free and went after him, pausing to pull up Martin when he saw the midshipman's straw-yellow hair breaking the snow: he had been only a short way off, but, having been knocked flat, he was more deeply buried beneath the snow. Together they struggled through the great drifts: thankfully nearly all soft wet snow, not ice or rock, but dreadfully heavy nonetheless.

Temeraire followed anxiously after and heaved great mounds of snow this way and that at their direction, but he was forced to be careful with his talons. They soon uncovered one of the ferals, struggling like mad to get herself free: a little blue-and-white creature not much bigger than a Greyling; Temeraire seized her by the scruff of her neck and dragged her loose, shaking her free, and in the pocket underneath her body they found one of the tents half-crushed, a handful of the men gasping and bruised.

The feral tried to fly away as soon as Temeraire set her down, but he caught her again and hissed at her, some broken words of the dragon-tongue mingling with ordinary anger. She startled and fluted something back, and then, after he hissed again, turned abashed and began to help them dig; her smaller claws were better for the more delicate work of getting out the men. The other feral, slightly larger, in motley of orange and yellow and pink, they found pinned at the very bottom of the slope in much worse case: one wing hanging torn and wildly askew, he made low terrible keening noises and only crouched, shivering and huddled against the ground, when they had freed him.

"Well, it took you damned long enough," Keynes said, when they had dug him out: he had been sitting placidly in the sick-tent, waiting, while the terrified Allen hid his face in his cot. "Come along; you can be of some use for once," he said, and at once loaded the boy down with bandages and knives and dragged him over to the poor injured creature, who warily hissed them away until Temeraire turned his head and snapped at him; then, cowed, he hunched down and let Keynes do as he liked, only whimpering a little as the surgeon moved the broken spines back into their places.

Granby they found unconscious and blue-lipped, buried nearly upside-down, and Laurence and Martin together carried him carefully to cleared ground, covering him with the folds of the one tent they had managed to extract, lying beside the riflemen, who had been standing together very near the slope: Dunne, Hackley, and Lieutenant Riggs, all of them pale and still. Emily Roland managed to dig her own head out, nearly swimming up through the snow, after Temeraire had swept away most of the top layers, and called until they came and got her and Dyer free, the two clutching at each other's hands.

"Mr. Ferris, I make all accounted for?" Laurence asked, near half-an-hour later; his hand came away bloody from his eyelids, rubbed raw with snow.

"Yes, sir," Ferris said, low: Lieutenant Baylesworth had just been dug out, dead of a broken neck, the last man missing.

Laurence nodded, stiffly. "We must get the wounded under cover, and manage some shelter," he said, and looked around for Tharkay: the guide was standing a little distance away, head bent, holding the small, still body of the eagle in his hands.

Under Temeraire's narrow gaze, the ferals led them to a cold, encrusted cave in the mountain wall; as they went in deeper, the passage grew warmer, until it opened up without warning into a great hollowed-out cavern, with a pool of steaming sulfurous water in the middle, and a crudely carved channel for fresh snow-melt running into it. Several more ferals were disposed around the cavern, napping; the leader with the red patch was curled up on an elevated perch, atop a leveled-off rise, chewing meditatively upon the leg bone of a sheep.

They all startled and made small hissing noises as Temeraire ducked into the chamber, with the injured feral clinging onto his back and the rest of them following behind; but the little blue-and-white dragon sang out some reassurances, and after a moment a few more of the dragons came forward to help the injured one climb down.

Tharkay stepped forward and spoke to them in their language, approximating several sounds of it with whistles and cupping his hands around his mouth, gesturing towards the cave passage. "But those are my pigs," Temeraire said, indignantly.

"They are all certainly dead by now from the avalanche, and will only rot," Tharkay said, looking up surprised, "and there are too many for you to eat alone."

"I do not see what that has to do with anything," Temeraire said; his ruff was still bristling wide, and he looked over the other dragons, particularly the red-patch one, with a martial eye. They in turn uneasily shuffled and stirred, wings half-rising from their backs and folding in again, and watched Temeraire sidelong.

"My dear," Laurence said quietly, laying a hand on Temeraire's leg, "only look at their condition; I dare say they are all very hungry, and would never else have tried to encroach upon you. It would be unkind in the extreme, were you to chase them away from their home that we might shelter here, and if we mean to ask their hospitality, it is only right we should share with them."

"Oh," Temeraire said, considering, and the ruff began slightly to curl back down against his neck: the ferals truly did look hungry, all whipcord muscle and taut leathery hide, narrow faces and bright eyes watching, and many of them showed signs of old illness or injury. "Well, I would not like to be unkind, even if they did try to quarrel, first," he at last agreed, and addressed them himself; their first expressions of surprise gave way to a wary half-suppressed excitement, and then the red-patch one gave a quick short call and led a handful of the others out in a flurry.

They came presently back, carrying the bodies of the pigs, and watched with fixed and staring interest as Gong Su began to butcher them. Tharkay having managed to convey a request for wood, a couple of the smaller flew out and returned dragging some small dead pine-trees, grey and weathered, which they inquiringly offered; shortly Gong Su had a crackling fire going, smoke drawing up a crevice into the high recesses of the cave, and the pigs were roasting deliciously. Granby stirred and said vaguely, "Would there be spareribs?" much to Laurence's relief; he was soon roused and drinking tea, hands shaking so he needed help to hold the cup, though they seated him as near the fire as they could.

The crew were all of them inclined to cough and sneeze, the boys particularly, and Keynes said, "We ought put them all in the water: to keep the chest warm must be the foremost concern."

Laurence agreed without thinking and was shortly appalled by the sight of Emily bathing with the rest of the young officers, innocent of both clothing and modesty. "You must not bathe with the others," Laurence said to her urgently, having bundled her out and into a blanket.

"Mustn't I?" she said, gazing up at him damp and bewildered.

"Oh, Christ," Laurence said, under his breath. "No," he told her firmly, "it is not suitable; you are beginning to be a young lady."

"Oh," she said dismissively, "Mother has told me all about that, but I have not started bleeding yet, and anyway I would not like to go to bed with any of them," and a thoroughly routed Laurence feebly fell back on giving her some make-work, and fled to Temeraire's side.

The pigs were coming to a turn, and meanwhile Gong Su had been stewing the intestines and offal and hocks, judiciously adding from the various ingredients which the ferals had begun offering him, the fruit of their own collections, not all entirely legitimate: some greens and native roots, but also a bushel of turnips in a torn sack, and another bag of grain, which evidently they had snatched and found inedible.

Temeraire was engaged in a conversation of rapidly increasing fluency with the red-patch leader. "His name is Arkady," Temeraire said to Laurence, who bowed to the dragon. "He says he is very sorry they should have troubled us," he added.

Arkady inclined his head graciously and made a pretty speech of welcome, not looking particularly repentant; Laurence doubted not that they would set on the next travelers with as good a will. "Temeraire, do express to him the dangers of this sort of behavior," he said. "They will all end by being shot, likely enough, if they continue to waylay men: the populace will grow exasperated and lay out a bounty on their heads."

"He says it is only a toll," Temeraire said doubtfully, after some further discussion, "and that no one minds paying it, though of course they ought to have waived it for me." Arkady here added something more in a slightly injured tone, which puzzled Temeraire into scratching at his forehead. "Although the last one like me did not object, and gave them a pair of very nice cows, if they should lead her and her servants through the passes."

"Like you?" Laurence said, blankly; there were only eight dragons in the world like Temeraire, all of them five thousand miles away in Peking; and even in so broad a quality as color he was very nearly unique, being a solid glossy black save for the pearlescent markings at the very edges of his wings, while most dragons were patterned in many colors like the ferals themselves.

Temeraire made further inquiry. "He says she was just like me, except white all over, and her eyes were red," he said, his ruff coming straight back up, and his nostrils flaring redly; Arkady edged away, looking alarmed.

"How many men were with her?" Laurence demanded. "Who were they; did he see which way she left, after the mountains?" Questions, anxieties at once came tumbling over one another: the description left no doubt as to the identity of the dragon. It could only be Lien, the Celestial whose color had been leached away by some strange mischance of birth, and surely in her heart their bitter enemy: in her startling choice to leave China he could read nothing but the worst intentions.

"There were some other dragons traveling with them, to carry the men," Temeraire said, and Arkady called over the little blue-and-white dragon, whose name was Gherni: being in some measure familiar with the Turkish dialect of these parts, as well as the draconic speech, she had served as interpreter with the pack-dragons and could tell them a little more.

The news was as bad as could be imagined: Lien was traveling with a Frenchman, by the description surely Ambassador De Guignes, and from what Gherni said, she had already mastered the language, from her ability to converse with De Guignes. She was certainly on her way to France, and there could be only one motive for her to have made such a journey.

"She won't let them put her to any real use," Granby offered as consolation, in their hasty discussion. "They cannot just throw her into the front lines, without a crew or captain, and she'll never let them put a harness on her after all the fuss they made about our putting one on Temeraire."

"At the very least they can breed her," Laurence said, grimly, "but I do not think for a moment that Bonaparte will not find some way to turn her to good account. You saw what Temeraire did, on our way to Madeira: a frigate of forty-eight guns, sunk in a single pass, and I do not know the same trick would not do for a first-rate." The Navy's wooden walls were yet Britain's surest defense, and the still-more-vulnerable merchantmen carried the trade which was her lifeblood; the threat Lien represented alone might well alter the balance of power across the Channel.

"I am not afraid of Lien," Temeraire said, still in a bristling mood. "And I am not in the least sorry Yongxing is dead, either: he had no business trying to kill you, and she had none letting him try, if she did not like it served back again."

Laurence shook his head; such considerations would surely hold no water with Lien. Her strange ghostly coloration had rendered her outcast among the Chinese, and all her world had been bound up in Yongxing, even more than most dragons with their companions; she would certainly not forgive. He had not imagined, proud and disdainful of the West as she was, that she would ever go into such an exile: if revenge and hatred had moved her so far, they would suffice for more.

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