Tongues of Serpents

Chapter 11

THEY HAD LOST MUCH of the light. "If we find any sign of the trail, we will find it at water," Tharkay said quietly to Laurence, as Temeraire flew on towards a mid-point between the purple and golden splendour of the beginning sunset and the haze of fire yet clinging to the horizon to the north: the orange light more a faint tinge of color flung up against the sky than real illumination. They were nearly free of the scorched landscape: patches still of burnt ground beneath them, but these faded into the low scrub like paint-strokes brushed too long.

"And these bunyips also, of course," Laurence returned, grimly.

Tharkay nodded. "The camps we have seen have all been some distance back from the water, or upon rock: an example we perhaps ought to have had the sense to follow before now," he said dryly.

"Now that we know of them, I will clear the bunyips away," Temeraire said over his shoulder, "when we have landed: I cannot see what business they have sneaking about so, hiding under bushes, and I am not going to have them leaping out and snatching away any of my crew; or anyone else, either. I think they must all be very great cowards."

The sky behind them was already gone to cold-water blue when they found another water-hole, and Temeraire and Caesar drank deep and thirstily while they yet all remained aboard; except Demane, who slipped his carabiners and slid down to go hunting at once, and was already out of ear-shot before Laurence could notice and reprove.

"There," Temeraire said, lifting his dripping muzzle, and shaking his head to throw off a little of the dirt and sand which had accumulated upon his ruff and brow as they flew, "that is very refreshing; and now we will see about these bunyips, if there are even any of them here."

He set upon the bushes, tugging, and almost at once uncovered another of the trap-door openings; Caesar likewise found another, and pushed the mat clear of it. "Well, I don't see anyone in it," he said, poking his snout inside, and then drawing out, "so I expect they have run off."

Temeraire tossed aside the covering and said, "We had better make sure there are no more, however, before any of you should come down," and raking his claws through the knotted, clumped grass hit upon another.

They went scarcely a few strides before they had found a fresh opening after this, and throwing aside the vegetation in great heaps began to tear up all the border of the water-hole: the gaping dark holes began to show themselves everywhere, as they worked, and the oasis began to have a strange, nightmarish ant-hill quality, as the full honeycombed extent of the tunnels became clear. The bunyips never showed themselves, but their presence was everywhere: as though the water-hole itself was but a shining lure in the midst of a vast and malevolent trap, its real nature concealed beneath the earth, and they had haplessly been throwing themselves within all along.

Some of the tunnels further from the water's edge were in worse repair, disused and half-crumbled; in other places the concealing mats had dried up and were thin and fragile things that broke when Caesar and Temeraire pulled upon them. Others however were fresh and strong, requiring real effort on Temeraire's part to drag them loose: this was no abandoned complex. "How many of the creatures could there be, to build to such an extent?" Laurence said, a little horror-stricken to envision armies of the creature which he had glimpsed so briefly; and if they should survive here, in the desert, he wondered, what of their possible presence within the countryside nearer the colony - ?

Temeraire stopped to turn his head aside and cough raggedly; they had stirred up a great deal of dust and dirt, in tearing up the mats and the stubborn clinging roots. "I don't suppose we must keep going," Caesar said, pausing to take another drink himself. "We might fill these in, what we've found already, and then we can have a rest if we only stay on this side of the water-hole. It is getting dark, and it will be too hard to spot them soon."

They all warily disembarked, and unloaded the dragons; then Temeraire reared up on his hind legs and set his claws into the side of the rising dune and pulled it down, cascading sand and the narrow trees sliding askew, to bury all the dark gaping mouths: the tunnels vanished beneath the spill of darker red earth, and they all beat down upon it with the backs of shovels, to trample it flat and smooth, and then without any orders, the men began to roll over whatever rocks of any size they could find, and the toppled trunks, to make an entrenched border around the site.

They posted a watch of four men, holding pistols: not much use, Laurence privately thought, against the sort of creature he had seen, unless a man should be exceedingly lucky in his shot; but comforting to the spirit nevertheless. He stood by the water's edge with his own pistols drawn and ready, while they filled their water-jugs by twos and threes, and when Demane came back over the ridge, Laurence said to him, "You will not go away without permission again and alone: we do not know how far from the water-holes these creatures may travel."

"But I have to hunt," Demane said, "or else he will eat everything we have: he has already eaten half the salted meat I found the day before."

Laurence had not realized that Demane had given Kulingile still more food during the flight, but a consultation of their stores confirmed the truth. "Well, I call that greedy," Caesar said, disapprovingly, "and a waste, too. Now what are we to eat, and when we have been doing all the work?"

"I have done the work of finding the meat," Demane flashed, "so I may feed it to anyone I want."

"That is enough, Demane," Laurence said. "All our stores are held in the common interest, and we must ration a little better than this; if you permit him to gorge in excess to-day, he is too likely to starve tomorrow, when we are in strange territory with such uncertain supply."

Demane subsided, and his latest gleanings were shared out. Temeraire at least did not quarrel over his portion, but as his restraint came from lack of appetite, Laurence was not disposed to be glad. Gong Su dug out a cooking-hollow in the earth, lined with the oilcloth, and brewed a profligate vat of tea which Temeraire drank eagerly; but this at once consumed nearly all their store of tea, and was no adequate substitute for food.

"Pray do not be anxious," Temeraire said, "I am sure I will be better soon; only it is so very dry, all day long," and he coughed again.

"I will make soup," Gong Su said, "and we will let it cook overnight, so more of the virtue will go into the water," and three times during the night, Laurence roused to see him depositing more hot stones from the fire into the cooking-hollow, clouds of rich steam billowing out from under the oilcloth, soft hissing smoke as the rocks went into the water: Kulingile woke with him, his small head rising on the narrow slender neck from under Demane's protective arm, to watch very intently, and sniff deep.

By morning, the meat had been wrung nearly grey and the cracked bones clean and white with all the marrow gone, a thin gleaming layer of flecked white fat floating on the surface in the slanting early sunlight, when Gong Su had uncovered the whole. This Temeraire ate, and then drank off the soup to the dregs and professed himself very satisfied. The meat he would have abandoned, with the last few feet of the soup which were too awkward for him to extract; Kulingile waited only until Temeraire had turned his head away to pounce, tipping himself nearly entirely inside the hollow, and very shortly had consumed all that was left.

He certainly would have cared for more breakfast, but there was none; Laurence shook his head when Demane would have gone hunting. "When we stop at mid-day, you may go," he said. "We must use these early hours for travel," and, he hoped, thereby ease Temeraire's labor.

Dorset had persuaded Temeraire to tip his head back, angled towards the sun, and had crawled nearly into his throat to perform an inspection further aided by the light of a candle. "There is a great deal of general aggravation to the tissues," he reported, his voice echoing out queerly. "Hmm."

This last came stretched long and hollow, and Temeraire said interrogatively, "Ammnh?"

"It appears particles of ash entered the throat: the flesh is burnt in a speckled pattern," Dorset said, and did something.

"Aaahm!" Temeraire protested, and when Dorset had emerged added reproachfully, "That was not at all pleasant; I do not see why I ought let you look if you will only be hurting me."

"Yes, yes," Dorset said, callously, and informed Laurence, "There is some blistering as well; I should advise against any roaring, and only cold food, henceforth. It is a pity we do not have any ice." The sun was climbing; soon it would be near enough to a hundred degrees. It was indeed a pity.

They rigged up again the oilcloth canopies on his back, for what relief both they and Temeraire could get thereby, and settled within the artificial shade as he leapt aloft, only stirring to look over the side for some track or sign; or to sip from their warm canteens. There had been no trace of the aborigines at the water-hole though they had inspected around the near-by rocks which should have offered shelter from the bunyips.

"I am still hungry," Kulingile piped from behind them.

Laurence sighed. "Demane, he must be patient."

"Yes, sir," Demane said, but when the bell was rung for the half-hour, Kulingile asked with great anxiety, "Now may I have something?" and again before the next bell sounded. At last Laurence permitted Demane to swing down and fetch him a little of the salted meat, but this did not stifle the pleas for long, and they possessed an edge of real misery which made them very difficult to endure. Kulingile did not whine, but only grew more desperate, and when he fell silent, Demane said suddenly, "No! You cannot chew that - " and Laurence turned to see Kulingile had begun to gnaw upon the harness.

"I did not mean to; only it is hard to be quiet when it aches so," Kulingile said, small and miserable, leaving off and trying to hunch himself tighter around his belly.

"Temeraire," Laurence said, with equal and warring parts pity and exasperation, "if you should see any game, we must stop, I think." Happily the kangaroos proved to yet be active in the relative cool of the morning, but Temeraire did not quite so easily catch them as before: he made several attempts, while Caesar took two one after the other, and plainly did not mean to share his bounty.

There was a quiet indignation in the makeshift camp, when Rankin did not order Caesar to do so; Caesar remarked, "I am sure I would be happy to share with anyone who could not catch their own, if they did their part; but as for throwing good food after bad, no, thank you."

"Oh!" Temeraire said, coughing, "I should like to know why he has deserved to be fed, ever, in that case; and I certainly would not like any of his catch: they look very skinny and tasteless to me. If I wished a kangaroo of that sort, I am sure I might have taken two myself."

"I would not mind one like that," Kulingile said indistinctly, swallowing.

"What are you feeding him?" Laurence said, looking over.

"Snake," Demane said, despairingly, "and also two rats, but I could not find any more."

Temeraire gathered himself and leapt aloft once again, going after the small herd of kangaroos which were yet fleeing, and this time he did not try to snatch one or another as they hopped: instead he flung himself down among them and returned with eight: more than their appetite could require, and the herd likely smashed beyond recovery by so brutal a culling; he was plainly embarrassed by the clumsiness of the maneuver, and looked away when Caesar sniffed.

"Pray eat as much as you can now," Laurence said, "and when we have reached water, Gong Su can stew the rest for us to carry: it will save us similar pains should we have enough to feed him tomorrow."

Kulingile dispatched an entire kangaroo alone, by no means the smallest of the catch; Temeraire could scarcely manage as much, despite all his exertions, before the pain of his throat once again overcame his appetite. They loaded the remaining carcasses, cleaned a little, into a sack to hang below the belly-netting.

"Only," Temeraire said, a little low, "it is quite unaccountable why I should be so tired when we have not been flying very long; it feels as though I cannot properly get my breath, and if I should try and breathe deeply, it aches." He stretched his wings, and rolled them through their range of movement, a few times, and refused Laurence's suggestion they should rest a little longer. "No; we have already lost too much time," he said, "pray let everyone come back aboard."

Temeraire flew now with the sun climbing over his shoulder and his neck, so that he felt uncomfortably warm upon the one half, and lopsided; a grinding flight which seemed very long. "I suppose it is not mid-day yet," he said eventually - he did not ask for himself, really; only Laurence had urged a break from the heat of the day, for all their sakes. But it was only eleven.

He put his head down and flew doggedly onward, thinking of nothing but the next wingbeat, until Laurence said, "I think we will stop a little while here, my dear, if you will agree," and Temeraire raised his head to see the shining blue-white stretch of water, rolling out before them and stretching northward, covering all the ground.

The lake's shore was peculiarly crusted, seen from aloft: blue and shallow water, and very white sand, which when they had landed proved instead to be salt: a thin crust over the earth, and the lake full of fish; too small to be worth catching for dragons, Temeraire noted with regret, but the men made a hearty meal of them, and it was pleasant to dip into the deepest part, some distance away, and come out wet.

There were not very many trees or shrubs, although fresh grasses grew in abundance; but despite the lack of shade, Temeraire found it a great refreshment to sit upon the half-green shore and look away from the red sand and rock everywhere; and there were no bushes to hide lurking bunyips. It only lacked, to make the respite complete, Tharkay's returning in a little while with a tiny scrap of blue silk he had uncovered, half-buried, near some rocks a distance down the shore.

"It has been here some time," Tharkay said, spreading out the ragged strip to show them: one corner exposed to the sun had gone quite white, where the rest which had been buried was yet a dark blue when it had been brushed free of sand. "There is no reason to expect their latest visit was recent, but we are on some track which they have used."

"And which should lead us back to their home," Temeraire said, jubilantly, "and there we may wait for them to come out of the desert with the egg, or perhaps if there is someone there, they will tell us which way to go to find them."

So he might rest easy in his conscience: he flew out for another swim and drank deeply, gratefully, from the cool water; he did not mind at all that it had a faint little taste of salt, and it was pleasant running down his throat.

He was sorry to leave again; the lake seemed a true oasis at last, the first they had found in so very long. When they had built the cairn of stones, for Iskierka to follow back, and Laurence had tucked a note for Granby beneath it, Temeraire looked over the gleaming expanse with a little sigh.

But Caesar said, half under his breath, "We might stay a little longer," so Temeraire might even feel virtuous in saying sternly, "No; the egg is still somewhere ahead, and we must keep going," and he flung himself aloft over the silver water with a leap.

They made good time, after the rest, and Temeraire thought that his breathing was not quite so embarrassingly noisy as before; certainly he could get his breath a little easier, and if he did cough a little, it was nothing so unpleasant as before, he told himself, and managed not to be overcome.

Tharkay counseled against crossing the lake directly: instead they skirted its limits, ragged and imperfect, with long spurs of land protruding deep into the lake, miles wide, which they crossed, landing briefly to scrape together a few more cairns. Long hours and not a sight of the smugglers, or their trail; at least there was game, and Temeraire took more than one kangaroo from the air, neatly, to his satisfaction.

They landed for the night at another stand of trees and shrubs around a watering-hole of fresher water, a little distance onward from the lake, although the ground was still pale with salt. Temeraire put down the kangaroos to be cleaned properly: Gong Su meant to salt down a great quantity of the meat, to sustain them through the desert. The men began to rake together a heap of the salt under his direction; meanwhile Temeraire set upon the vegetation with a will, happy to clear away the bunyips' concealment.

He had an additional cause to be satisfied with this labor, too, for many little rodents fled from the wreckage, and also some birds, and Kulingile sat by as he worked and snatched them up as they tried to dash.

"You see," Temeraire said to Caesar, quite pleased, "he can hunt, even if he cannot fly; so there is no call for you to always be sneering."

"I don't call it hunting," Caesar returned, tugging up a shrub beside him, "when we are running them out towards him, and he is only sitting there picking them up. Why, you might as well call it hunting to take a drink of water from a hole that is right before you."

Temeraire snorted, dismissively; water did not try to run away, so it was not at all like. "Perhaps you might care to try flying, again," he suggested to Kulingile, as he threw down another heap of bushes.

Kulingile shook out his wings and drew a deep breath and reared up on his hindquarters; he flapped a little; his sides quivered, jelly-like, and then he tipped back down panting thinly and said, "Maybe I will manage it tomorrow."

Temeraire sighed.

Demane was plainly glad for the respite, also; he had gone out hunting at mid-day again, to take advantage of the bounty of game at the lake, and as soon as they had disembarked to the security of the rocks, he collapsed almost enervated in what shade they offered. Temeraire thought he might say a private word to Kulingile: he was not taking very good care of Demane, and one might be hungry and still think of these things.

Temeraire, and Caesar, had cleared away the brush and once again filled in all the wretched tunnels - there were so very many of them; Temeraire did not see why they should be necessary. If the bunyips were as quick as Laurence said, it seemed to him they did not need to be hiding underground and leaping out on some unsuspecting person, only to eat; they might hunt respectably. There was something unnatural and unpleasant in it, he felt - and when they had cleared all away, and made safe the camp, the rest of the men shifted over: but Demane lay where he was, asleep.

"If he does not want anything to eat, he can stay there," Sipho said, rather coldly. "I am surprised he has not gone out hunting again; won't Kulingile be hungry?"

"You are saying it wrong," Temeraire said, "it is Kulingile, and you know better, so there is no excuse."

"I don't see why it should matter to anyone," Sipho said, and stared down at his book mulishly.

But Roland pushed herself up, after she had drunk and rested a little, and trudged over to Demane with her canteen. He struggled up and hanging limply over his crossed legs drank and drank, and then drooping followed her to the camp and fell asleep once more, as far as he could be from the little fire which the aviators had put up, for comfort and cooking. Kulingile crept over to him and nosed at his shoulder anxiously until Demane blindly reached out and patted him; then slumped back.

Kulingile sighed, reassured; then looked up at Temeraire and said, in his thin voice, "May I have another kangaroo?"

"After all those rats you ate, anyone would think you had put away enough," Caesar said, but as Caesar had taken two kangaroos earlier and not shared a bite, Temeraire was quite out of temper with him, and it pleased him to say, in what he felt was a particularly gracious way, "Certainly you may; I do not believe in being stingy," and Kulingile fell with so much gratitude upon the meal that it gave Temeraire a glow of lordly satisfaction.

"If he is going to smother himself with his own weight," Caesar said, "it seems to me you can't call it friendly to help him do it quicker," but this was only spiteful meanness, Temeraire felt; although Kulingile would eat too quickly, and then stop and gasp to catch his breath, and then begin again; and when he was done and had collapsed in slumber beside Demane, his breathing was a little worse.

"Another ten feet," Dorset remarked, winding up his knotted cord again as he stood from Kulingile's side. "The rate of growth is exceptional. I will have to make a note of it for the breeding journal, and perhaps for the Royal Society."

"But when will he be able to fly?" Temeraire asked, and Dorset had no satisfactory answer to give.

But this was only a small and vanishing shadow on his general complacency of spirit: his throat did not hurt quite so much, and Gong Su was now making another pot of soup, which Temeraire expected to enjoy a great deal in the morning - flavored this time with the small yellow fruits of one of the bushes which Temeraire had torn up; Tharkay had pointed it out as having been harvested a little by the aborigines, he thought, and an experimental taste had not caused any discomfort: a little sweetness, and a strong flavor rather like tomatoes, although they looked more nearly like raisins.

"Will you try and eat a little now, before you sleep?" Laurence said. "We can cut some kangaroo small, if that would ease the passage; you cannot heal quickly or well when you are straining to your limits, and not eating."

"I think I can," Temeraire said, feeling optimistic, and if he only managed perhaps one kangaroo, and none of the bones, those went directly into the soup and so would not be wasted, and he did not feel quite such vivid pangs when he at last settled upon the sand.

To cap his evening, Laurence read to him a little; when their patience for going over the by-now-familiar material had faded, he put the book down, and Temeraire said, "I have been thinking, Laurence, of the valley: perhaps we might take some of this red stone out of the desert with us, as we return, and use it in building a pavilion: would it not make an interesting pattern, with the yellow stone there?"

"I cannot quarrel with your taste," Laurence said, looking at the red earth, "although the labor in bringing back so much stone must be great. But we will have the time, I imagine."

He was silent a little while: night had come on fully now, clear, and with the moon out and shining, cool and pleasant after the sun's heat. The desert beneath was endless shadows of clumped grass and the thin scrubby trees, dunes rising and falling away into the distance, and the water a silvered reflection gleaming out at them from the ground. Temeraire thought perhaps Laurence had fallen asleep, but then he said, softly, "I had not quite felt the vastness of this country, until we had come into it all this way, nor its strangeness."

"Laurence," Temeraire ventured, holding his breath for the answer, "are you very sad to not return to England?"

"I must be anxious for the sake of our country," Laurence said, "and our friends left behind; it is difficult to know them in dire straits, and feel we might be of more use elsewhere, and yet remain helpless to assist. But in a personal sense, I have left very little behind, my dear. I have long been used to rely upon correspondence to sustain the intimacy of friendships: it is a necessity for a sailor."

He paused, then, and said low, "You must be more constrained than I am, by our remaining; I have not forgotten Tharkay's proposal, only - " He stopped.

"Well, I must say that privateering seems quite splendid, to me," Temeraire said, unable to conceal a touch of wistfulness, "but I do see, Laurence, that you do not quite like to think of it; and I should not at all wish to do it if you did not feel perfectly satisfied, also; only I thought perhaps you might miss the war."

"The war? No," Laurence said. "To be of use, yes; but there is no sense in thinking of it. I am very sorry, my dear, but I hold out no hope for a pardon."

"But I am sure we need not be useless here," Temeraire said. "We have found our valley, after all."

"It would be something, indeed," Laurence said, "to build for once, instead of tear away; yes."

So Temeraire might lay his head down with some degree of relief, and the pleasant occupation, before he slept, of working out in his head a design for a pavilion of adequate magnificence to console Laurence for any remaining regrets, patterned in stone of red and gold.

He woke gradually, very cool and comfortable, except for a little smacking of sand at the corner of his jaw; he raised his head and spat it out, and startled: he was overbalancing, and his hindquarters went tipping away underneath him as though he were on the deck of a ship plunging unexpectedly down into a trough. "What has happened to the ground?" he said, and tried to stand, and could not: there was nothing solid for his feet to grasp, and his limbs dragged very strangely if he moved them - everything seemed very low - "Laurence?" he said: the moon had set, and the sun was not yet risen, and he could not make out much of anything but the small glow of the fire's embers, down within the camp, and the rearing outcrop of rock some distance away.

"Yes, my dear?" Laurence said drowsily, from his back, and then looking over raised his voice and called, strongly, "Mr. Forthing! A light there, if you please - "

The aviators came with torches, and then abruptly stopped, scrambling back with exclamations: their boots sinking in the sand, thick sludgy noises like the bubbles of a porridge slowly boiling as they pulled them free. In the light, Temeraire saw he had sunk into the earth, nearly up to his breastbone; the folded edges of his wings were plunged deep and his tail was half-submerged, his legs wholly so -

"But I was only sleeping," he protested, and tried to rear out, but he could not pull his forelegs free, though he exerted all his strength: one would come a little way out, rising, wet sand dribbling from his hide as he pulled, but the effort required grew, and grew, until he could not continue, and sank forward again.

He panted and found this raised him perhaps half-a-foot, not unlike bobbing in the water, but he could not get out: he could not move. He tried again, more vigorously thrashing his limbs - he might move them a little side to side, he found, if he did not try to pull free - until Laurence sharply said, "Temeraire, stop! You are sinking further - "

The sand had crept up higher on his chest, and was lapping at the edges of his back. "Laurence, perhaps you had better climb off," Temeraire said, turning his neck around to inspect Laurence's position with some concern. "I am sure I can reach to the others, if I stretch my neck."

"No, I thank you," Laurence said.

"I would advise against moving, or lowering your neck to where it may be entrapped," Tharkay said; he was crouched down inspecting the pit, and setting broken-off twigs into the sand to mark its border. "I am surprised the quicksand should go deep enough for you to have sunk this far."

"We cannot have overlooked this last night," Laurence said. "Temeraire and I were sitting here an hour before we slept; the earth was perfectly solid."

"I only do not understand why it will not let me out," Temeraire said, unable to resist trying again to draw his foreleg free, very slowly and carefully, only a little way at a time, but it dragged and dragged and dragged, and at last halted: he could draw it no further, and it sank gradually back away as soon as he stopped his efforts.

He was not uncomfortable, precisely: it was quite pleasantly cool, and when Laurence asked, Temeraire said stoutly, "Oh, I do not mind it of itself, only I would like to get out of it, now," but that did not address the clinging, sticky quality of the stuff: sand was squirming everywhere under the edges of his hide, and there was something dreadful in not being able to get out: it was not at all like swimming in water, which did not try and drag you back down, like chains which you were not allowed to take off.

"Well, I don't see why you didn't get out of it when you first noticed," Caesar said, having roused up, and yawning tremendously against the early morning: he was not yet done with a hatchling's usual tendency to sleep endlessly.

"I was asleep," Temeraire bit out, annoyed, "and so I did not notice, until I had woken; and I do not think it is at all wonderful I should not have, as no-one would expect perfectly ordinary sand to turn into something like this. How are we to turn it back?"

"The sun's heat may burn off enough of the moisture to allow you to dig free, when it rises," Tharkay said, after a moment. "Perhaps some underground spring feeds this place."

"If we can remove some quantity of the sand, you may be able to free yourself more quickly," Laurence said. "Mr. Forthing, shovels, if you please - "

"What's over there, then," one of the convicts said, pointing, and Temeraire looked: on the ridge of the dune rising above his precarious position, a narrow angular head was up and visible as a black silhouette against the lightening sky, watching.

Another rose up beside it, and then another: until there was a line of them, long muzzles with rounded snouts, and small black eyes which caught the reflections of the torches and gleamed yellow back at them. They had queer tufted heads. "Steady, there," Forthing said; the aviators had out their pistols.

The light was increasing: the bunyips were shades of red and brown, the very color of the earth, with pebbled hides, and the tufts were yellow as the grass; if they were not poking up from the hill, they would have been very difficult to see at all. "Oh," Temeraire said, indignant, "I see now how it is: they are even more cowardly than I thought. This must certainly be their doing; they did not care to fight me properly, or defend their territory, but instead they have made this wretched sneaking trap."

Rankin snorted. "How a gaggle of lizards are to have produced anything of the sort, I should care to know," he said. "More likely they have come like vultures, to wait."

Laurence would rather have liked to knock Rankin into the quicksand. "Mr. Forthing," he said, tightly, "let us begin digging: I doubt the beasts will make any direct attempt while we have Caesar here, nor come near enough for Temeraire to reach them with his jaws."

The row of spectators was nevertheless unpleasant to endure: those gleaming pupil-less eyes, malevolent even in their immobility, while they worked and dug heaps of wet sand out from around Temeraire's body to pile up dark and wet into piles like the misshapen sand castles of small children, towers crumbling as they dried in the rising sun.

"Laurence," Temeraire said, as the sun grew higher, "I would not mind a drink of water, if it were at all convenient," which it could not be, given his size, but Forthing sent men down to fetch back all the largest jugs of water, under a pistol-wielding guard.

They returned empty-handed. "There isn't any," O'Dea said, " - any water, it has all run away in the night."

"We drank it nearly dry last night, but it ought to have refilled by now, surely," Forthing said.

Tharkay had slipped silently away at their announcement, drawing his own pistol; he returned shortly and said, "The spring is no longer flowing to the water-hole. It has been diverted; underground, so far as I can tell."

Laurence paused, looking up at the row of sentinel bunyips, and said, "Tenzing, do you mean they have done it? Deliberately?"

"Certainly they have done it deliberately," Temeraire interjected. "You cannot imagine they have done it to be friendly; oh! How I should serve them out, if they were not such cowards, and hiding all the way over there where I cannot get at them, thanks to all this sand."

Tharkay said, "I see no reason to doubt it. They would find it still more convenient to their hunting to make the water-holes, rather than merely take advantage of whatever natural ones the countryside should offer. If they can divert a natural spring to suit one purpose, why not this one?"

"Why did they not make the pit deeper then, and sink him entire?" Laurence said.

Tharkay shrugged. "It is no great difficulty to avoid drowning in quicksand," he said. "He is too buoyant to sink so far. The difficulty is in getting out."

And whatever difficulties should entail on extracting one man, trapped in such a quagmire, were as nothing to the problem of extracting Temeraire, Laurence dismayed realized - and Temeraire was already thirsty.

"This excavation is nonsense," Rankin said. "We cannot hope to get him out without Granby returns, and that is scarcely likely."

"If you have any better solution to propose, Captain Rankin, we may hear it at any occasion," Laurence snapped: he had been looking to the east, vain and unlikely though the hope was, of course, when they had been blown so far off their course and their line of cairns broken by the storm.

"We might rig some ropes as well," Forthing said, "and do what we can to pull him - "

Rankin snorted, and there was indeed very little to be hoped for, from such an effort: thirty men to drag him out when Temeraire himself could not even presently free one limb. "If you will try and drag him nearer one edge," Laurence said grimly, "perhaps, Temeraire, you may then draw yourself out."

The ropes were hurled over, and Laurence secured them about the base of Temeraire's neck, and through the rings of the harness which he was devoutly glad they had not removed, the previous night. But there was not very much purchase, still, for such an operation; with only a handful of passengers, and no expectation of combat, Temeraire had barely been rigged out with what harness was necessary to support his belly-rigging.

Thirty men hauling, the rope resting upon their shoulders, their hands wrapped around the length: Temeraire did move, a little, trying to help as best he might, with a sort of paddling; but they gained a few inches with the best they could do, and needed perhaps fifty feet. "Sir," Forthing said to Captain Rankin, "I believe we must rig Caesar up," politely but firmly: Rankin hesitated, but could scarcely refuse under the circumstances.

"I will help, also," Kulingile piped up, watching, and seized onto the rope near the edge with his jaws, to pull; Demane said, "Wait - " and to Mr. Fellowes said, "Can you put him into harness?"

"Precious good that will do," Caesar said, ungraciously submitting to having the ropes secured to his own harness, as Kulingile was hooked in to a makeshift affair of a few straps and buckles: he had grown at least to the size of a respectable cart-horse and, while he might not be anything to Temeraire, or to Caesar, was not wholly inconsequential.

Mr. Fellowes said, "We might send the ropes around a tree, or some of these rocks, to make a bit of a pulley, sir."

They took up the oilcloths and folded them together to make a pad about an outcropping of rocks, and stretched their two hawsers around it; Caesar and Kulingile were put at the end, and the men hauled on wheresoever they might. The bunyips made an excellent overseer, their small eyes gleaming: if Temeraire were taken so, Caesar could not carry all the men out of the desert; and if any were left behind, there was hardly any doubt of the death-sentence to be read in those eyes.

Muscles strained, and groaning they all pulled together; Temeraire bracing back his neck so the pulling would act upon his body instead. The quicksand glubbed around his breastbone and eddied away, curling in upon itself in thick slow-moving rolls like pudding batter being stirred, and he moved - a little, only a little, but he moved. "Heave, there!" Forthing shouted, and, "Heave!" - one enormous effort after another, each one winning a little more space.

Temeraire tried to paddle a bit, to move himself along; another united heave, and he slid a few more inches through the muck. A few men fell to their knees, panting; all but hanging from the rope. Caesar snapped, "There's enough of that, we are all pulling, aren't we? Get up, then."

They crawled back up. Forthing sent Sipho down the line with a swallow of rum for each man - the last dribbled end of their supply, with nowhere to look for more; but he did not mix it with water, and the taste of the hard liquor heartened them, more a memory of satisfaction than a reality with the sun still beating upon them, but with a great straining effort they drew again upon the ropes, and Caesar, for all his complaining, threw his powerful shoulders fully into the effort.

Kulingile, too, strained; he drew great heaving breaths, and his long claws scrabbled into the earth as he leaned into the harness, and then abruptly his slack and crumpled sides belled out very like sails catching the wind into smooth roundness. He gasped in his thin fragile voice, and clawed furiously at the ground again; Demane was by his head, encouraging and pulling also. "What is the matter?" he said, then catching sight of the swelled-out sides said, "Dorset! Dorset, what is wrong with him!"

"Not now!" Forthing snapped, "all together, heave - " The ropes slid upon the oilcloth and putting their heads down they one and all pulled: feet dug into the sand, driving up dark red hillocks of the damp sand below. One man started to sing, "There were two lofty wyrms from Old England came," and one after another took it up: awkward voices, dry and cracked with the heat and lack of water, and tuneless; but their feet crept on, little by little the ropes crept after them, and Temeraire was moving.

Then abruptly someone yelled, "Christ, the buggers are coming at us," and the ropes were falling. Caesar turned in the yoke and was instantly in a tangle as men dropped all the slack of the ropes and began to run, as a couple of the bunyips made a sudden darting-quick lunge down the slope, lean and serpentine, broad splayed feet webbed a little between narrow clawed fingers to give them purchase on the sand.

Roland was too short to get more than her fingertips on the rope; she had her pistol out already, and her first shot caught the advancing bunyip in the thigh. It flinched back, its mouth opening on a peculiar and incongruous sound, a low throaty howl more like the coughing of a hyena than the hiss of a reptile, and then it came swarming on again.

"Roland!" Temeraire called, very anxiously, and Laurence found his hand uselessly clenching upon his sword hilt. "If I should roar," Temeraire began, but he could not - the divine wind would as surely have killed Roland herself, or more likely brought the whole slope down upon them and buried them bunyips, men, and dragons all together into a single common grave. Temeraire strained his neck, but he was too far to reach.

She held her position coolly; she was already reloading, the cartridge tearing in her teeth, black powder into the barrel and then the wadding and the bullet rammed down hard, powder in the pan, and she took aim and fired again as it drew nearer.

The second shot took it in the throat, and the howl was choked; blood ran deep, near-black from the wound, very like dragon blood, dripping upon the sand and making small wet pockets in the red earth; the bunyip curled over itself coughing. Young Ensign Widener had his small single pistol drawn now: he fired also, though the recoil nearly staggered him, and the second bunyip flinched from the noise; then instead of continuing after the fleeing men, it darted for the ropes themselves.

It moved a little awkwardly, perhaps, over the sand: a quick but skittering motion, the hind legs small and the forelegs enormous and disproportionate, and two strange half-circle stubs rising between the shoulders, small webbed ridges. Seen in profile, it had an enormous lantern-jawed head, built to crush and grip, and the talons of the forelegs were short but hard gleaming-black horn; it seized upon the rope and took a length between its jaws and began to pull.

"Damn you all for cowards!" Roland yelled over her shoulder as she reloaded, "come back here and stop them; or they'll pick us all off," and she fired again; Forthing had dragged himself free of the ropes, and Demane, who had been at the end: he dived for Laurence's pistols, in amongst his things, and fired again at the bunyip.

The shots took chips off the rock, and one struck home; the second bunyip howled and let go the rope, retreating; it stopped only to nose the first, still bleeding, and they together skittered limping back up the slope to rejoin the rest of the watchful band, the others more patient, more prepared to wait.

Their effort had not been in vain, if it had cost them: the ropes hung slack and all ahoo, Caesar only making matters worse with his efforts to work loose, and the chewing had worn through a couple of strands of the cable. Forthing inspected the damage grimly, and then he said, "Back to the work, gentlemen," and detailed off Roland and Demane with pistols to stand guard.

The men straggled back from their panicked flight, but not all of them: two did not return, and Laurence looking up at the ridge noted that there were fewer bunyips watching than before; they had not failed to take advantage, then, of the confusion which they had created. "It is not at all fair," Temeraire said stormily, "that they will do such things where I cannot even try to fight back; low, and sneaking, and they ought to be ashamed. I am glad that we have drunk their water, and wrecked their territory; I will do it again, whenever I am loose."

They resumed their effort. Caesar was untangled; the damaged rope was mended, a little, as best it could be, and Fellowes wrapped some oilcloth about the gnawed section and sewed it down with waxed thread. The men spat upon their hands, and rubbed them with dirt, and took hold.

No one sang. Inch by inch, Temeraire shifted. "If you should exhale, just as they heave," Laurence said, "you might make a little more slack in the sand," and the trick helped, a little. All together breathed in, and took hold, and exhaling pulled; Temeraire breathing out opened a small gap of softness in the quicksand, into which they might drag him a little further.

"Oh," he said, abruptly, "pull! Pull harder, I think I can feel a little rock - " and with this encouragement they all threw their backs into another throw, and then all were stumbling onto their knees with the ropes gone suddenly slack, as Temeraire gave a low struggling hiss and managed to pull himself nearly a foot further along.

He was obliged to stop, panting, but he did not sink back; they drew the ropes slack again, and with another heave, now all their efforts united, his breastbone rose several more inches from the clinging mirk.

Laurence swung down onto Temeraire's shoulder and said, "Mr. Forthing, if you will fetch me a shovel, I think we may begin to do some good clearing some of this away," and they detailed away some five of the men to the work: shoveling away the quicksand from before Temeraire's body, to the sides, while the hauling teams yet strained to assist him in the effort of climbing free.

The evening was coming on a little; the watching bunyips one after another began to disappear, as Temeraire made his slow and creeping escape. When at last they freed his first foreleg, coming loose with a gargled sucking noise like a choked drain running clear, the last of them were gone, and when Roland and Demane warily went to look over the edge of the slope, they returned to report no sign of the bunyips anywhere upon the flat plain of the desert: likely they had gone somewhere beneath the earth, to brood upon the failure of their attempt, and perhaps to envision another.

With his forelegs free, Temeraire might more easily exert force, and they restrung the ropes around his mid-section, behind the foreleg joints, to better pull; he began to drag himself onward, little by little, and they dug around the ends of his wings to free them. Then around the hindquarters, as little by little he crawled the rest of the way out and crumpled exhausted upon the solid ledge of rock, free at last, and caked thickly with red sand dried onto him by the sun.

"Oh, how tired I am," he said, and closed his eyes; they were united in thirst and hunger, but exhaustion commanded still more of their spirit, and the men were dropping where they stood.

Laurence sat down and leaned against Temeraire's side, heedless of the red sand crumbling over his coat, and closed his eyes; then he opened them again, and looked up as Iskierka came spiraling down from the clouds and demanded, "Whatever have you been doing? You are all over sand; and where is the egg? You might have found it again by now."

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