- Black Rose
- The Great Train Robbery
- Blue Dahlia
- Carnal Innocence
- Dance Upon the Air
- High Noon
- Sacred Sins
- Face the Fire
- Holding the Dream
- A Man for Amanda
- All the Possibilities
- Black Rose
- The Great Train Robbery
- Blue Dahlia
- Carnal Innocence
- Dance Upon the Air
- High Noon
- Sacred Sins
- Face the Fire
- Holding the Dream
- A Man for Amanda
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.
"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."
- The Loners
- The Saints
- Tome of the Undergates
- Black Halo
- The Skybound Sea
- If You Stay
- If You Leave
- Until We Burn
- Before We Fall
- Every Last Kiss
- Suspiciously Obedient
- Random Acts of Crazy
- Random Acts of Trust
- Her First Billionaire
- Her Second Billionaire
- Her Two Billionaires
- Her Two Billionaires and a Baby
- His Majesty's Dragon
- Throne of Jade
- Black Powder War
- Victory of Eagles
- Tongues of Serpents
- Empire of Ivory
- Crucible of Gold