- 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
Tongues of Serpents
THE SENSATION GREW only gradually: the settled fields yielding to unbroken wilderness, stands of ancient timber, eucalypts with their oddly sharp fragrance rising if they landed, and the last hunting tracks fading away beneath the leaf cover. They crossed the Nepean and followed a small nameless tributary winding slow and westward into the mountains, hoping to find somewhere at its end a pass through: but there was none. Instead they came one day after another to another high, rising cliff wall: ragged sandstone, fresh yellow and old stained grey, climbing in heaps of pebbles and cracked boulders to where at last the face rose away sheer.
At length it fell beyond the other rim of the gorge, and they had a little more shade: but the lassitude was not easily shaken off, and instead deepened for a little while, so when Laurence had at last roused himself, with an effort, the day was wearing away and late: it was past six, he thought, at the very least, and perhaps later. There was a smell of roasting meat, which had brought him out of that well of uneasy sleep: Demane had half-a-dozen wombats on skewers, over a small, neat fire, and had already given a small cup of the blood to his brother to drink.
"I am not hungry," Temeraire said, opening his eyes, "but I would not in the least mind a drink of water: pray let us go find the river now; and then I do not suppose I would mind a bite of wombat, even though they are not really worth eating."
"Then get your own," Demane said, rather indignantly. "They are very worth eating, to me. Finish that," he added, to Sipho, who was showing no marked enthusiasm for his treat.
"It is hot, and it tastes very ill," Sipho said, but quelled by a look accepted his unhappy fate and tipped back the rest of the cup; several of the convicts, also woken by the smell of the cooking meat, watched with more envy than sympathy; every man's mouth was dry as sand.
"Might send the boy to fetch some more," Telly said, eyeing Demane, who glared in offense and turned his back.
"We had better make a go of finding the stream again, I suppose," Granby said, " - we won't have more light than we do now."
They already had little, and that quickly diminishing. Though fortunately they had not unloaded wholly, but only shifted the baggage so Temeraire might lie down, it must all be resecured, particularly the eggs; and then Caesar had to be persuaded to climb up onto Temeraire's back.
"I do not see why I must ride on him; it is very hot and unpleasant," Caesar grumbled; he had roused enough with the coolness to be difficult. "I think I had much better stay here, and you may go and fetch some water and bring it back; and then I will feel like flying again."
"It will be a good deal more hot and unpleasant for me," Temeraire said, "so you may cease caterwauling: it will be no treat to carry you, and I think it is a great pity you should have been allowed to be such a glutton that you are grown fat with no good purpose; I am sure that is why you have tired so quickly."
This was unjust, coming from a beast who himself had grown to perhaps five times his hatching weight in the space of a week, and Caesar was inclined to resent it; but Iskierka's temper was at once shorter and more violent. Having reached its ends, she did not bother with recrimination, and only jetted a thin stream of flame directly at Caesar's hindquarters; which as a form of persuasion worked to admirable effect, as he scrambled forward promptly.
"Ow!" Temeraire said, jerking his own singed tail away, and hunching his wings away from Caesar's claws. "That is not at all helpful, in the least; and will you stop catching at me? I am not to be climbed like a hill."
Their departure so delayed, the light was very nearly gone before they were aloft again: only the gorge walls holding a little reflected brightness, the trees a solid dark mass beneath, blanketing the ground. Lacking any certainty of their way, they continued along the line of the gorge, eastward away from the vanishing sun, hoping in such a way to retrace part of their course; the sound of water tormented them, once in a while, coming so clear that Temeraire would raise his head and prick forward his ruff.
From time to time, Iskierka would set down, where there was a little opening, and thrust her head beneath the cover: but there was no sign of water. The stars had slowly begun to come out, and Laurence looking up realized in dismay from the Southern Cross that they had somehow turned again: they were traveling north-west, instead. "Temeraire," he said, "set down: there, in the space at the base of that cliff."
"What the devil are you doing?" Rankin demanded; sharp with anxiety.
"We have lost our way, again," Laurence said. "We cannot keep flying in circles and exhaust them: better we should rest until the stars come more clear."
Temeraire was indeed very hot and fatigued; where Laurence touched the hide with his bare hand, after they had landed, it felt nearly feverish: blood pumped vigorously along the great swollen vein curving down from the wing-joint. "I do not feel ill; only so thirsty," Temeraire said.
Caesar was also worse: somnolent again and still, barely twitching when Rankin touched his head. They had only a few cans of water left among them; Temeraire held up the dragonet's head carefully with a talon, and they tipped what little they had inside. They could not do more than moisten his tongue and mouth, but it at least perhaps gave a sensation of relief; he seemed to lie easier, afterwards.
"Let's have a little rum, then," Jack Telly said, whining; and with some reluctance Laurence approved Blincoln's doling it out to the men in small cups: the worst possible medicine for their present condition, considered as a matter of health, and yet as a matter of discipline the most necessary; they were grown restive in direct proportion to the increasing torpor of the dragons, and the folly of discomfort might easily drive them to desertion and flight into the wilds of the forest, however more unlikely they were to find relief or water on their own.
"I suppose we might dig to a little water," Granby said. "We aren't in a desert, at least."
They had the shovels, and Iskierka was persuaded to oblige as well; but the ground was too porous: they managed to sink a hole some ten feet down, and a few inches of water filled in, but it ran quickly away, and the sides collapsed too easily to hold. Every man had a handful of water, soaked up in handkerchiefs and wrung out into the mouth; they soaked a few more again and laid them over poor Jonas Green's face, to give him a little relief; and then they were forced to give it up: they could not even fill a cup or a can.
The sky was yet obscured by clouds, which only infrequently broke long enough to show the stars. "We ought to have listened to Temeraire from the first," Laurence said quietly. "In the morning, I think we must unload him and separate; we cannot hope for more than another day of searching from him or Iskierka, without we find them water."
"And when you have found any water, how do you propose to find your way back?" Rankin said. "If you do, of course; that certainly would simplify the problem."
"Oh, honestly," Granby said, a more measured if less formal response than Laurence would have liked to make, when Temeraire had spent so much of his strength already in carting Caesar about. Rankin compressed his mouth, and did not apologize, but neither did he attempt to continue this line of inquiry; he looked over at Caesar instead, with real anxiety: he could not, Laurence supposed, ever hope to have another beast, if he lost this one as well; and perhaps he had learnt to value the privilege more, after finding himself out of harness.
"In the morning, we'll have Iskierka set a fire going, a little way up the gorge," Granby said. "If we break up one of these old monsters, we can make a bonfire they will see in Sydney, I dare say: then we can find our way back. For my part," he added, "I mean to try crossing some of these ridges, instead of going along the gorges: I don't know if we have gone back anywhere near the way we came, and I think skipping along sideways we are more like to find some kind of water, even if it isn't that same blasted stream."
"I have very little say in the matter, I find," Rankin said, coldly. "I trust the rest of us will not have been murdered by our company before you return; I suppose at least I can let them at the rum, if it comes to that." He rose and went to Caesar's head, and cast himself alongside to sleep.
"I don't like to be coarse," Granby said to Laurence, "but if I did, I would be," a sentiment Laurence shared: he could not help but contemplate with some unhappiness the prospect of long years immured in the colony, with Rankin the senior captain, and with the support of both military rank and family influence, back in England: it could not make for a comfortable or a quiet future.
That, however, whatever vicious phantasies Rankin might entertain, had not the least bearing on their present circumstances. In the morning they must find water, or the dragons would perish: another stretch beneath the sun's height, in heat this implacable, with no relief, would leave them too wrung-out to fly even a little distance. "If we cannot find anything before noon," Laurence said, "we must try and sink a proper well; if we line the sides with tree-bark, perhaps, and widen the whole, enough that we can get inside and dig."
Granby nodded a little; they did not need to speak of the alternative.
They separated, to sleep beside their own dragons; but Laurence found sleep did not come; he was not tired enough, after their long half-involuntary rest during the heat of the day. He sat instead beside Temeraire's jaw, where the heat radiating from his body did not come too strongly; the night air was still close and thick and hot. The moon rose, at length, and shone from behind a thin veil of clouds, haloed brilliantly in shades of pale pearl-grey and white.
It was very queer to be amid this verdant and standing forest, the ground soft and rich beneath their hands, and still so desperately thirsty when plainly there was plentiful water somewhere near; something almost like deliberate torment in it. Laurence did not care for superstition; he did not yield to it now, but he felt it not unreasonable to be conscious of how ill-fitted they were to be in this country, a lack of understanding and of place.
"They say," he heard Jack Telly telling the others, low, "that you can fetch up all the way to China, on the other side of the mountains: and get work on a merchantman, and back to England if you like. I spoke to a fellow got up there and back, a year ago."
"A charming notion, do you not think?" Tharkay said to Laurence; he had come to sit beside him.
"Have you heard it before?" Laurence asked.
Tharkay nodded. "It is rather popular in the port, and made all the more so for these goods coming in; although I think they imagine something more in the line of Xanadu than Canton."
The convicts were taking it in turns to give Green a few drops of water from the handkerchief-squeezings and to fan him, despite their almost satisfied airs of pessimism. "He is sure to die, and he will not be the last man of us to go, either, you may be sure of it," O'Dea said, tenderly wiping his brow.
At length, Laurence stretched himself on the ground, rather out of duty than a real desire to sleep. The leaves were thick blotches overhead: for backdrop, the moon had sunk deeper into cloudbank, imbuing the sky with a general pallor instead of the pitch-black of a clear night. The silence, the heat, remained. Laurence thought perhaps he slept a little; but he had no sense of time passing when he opened his eyes. There was a strange low moaning, but it was not Jonas Green, as he first thought: it was a song, somewhere in the distance.
Laurence remained prone a moment, then abruptly sat up as the noise broke fully into his mind. Several other of the men were sitting up already, tense and listening, their eyes showing white in the corners. They could not make words out, but the rise and fall and rise of the drumming came clearly, over and over: and over it an unnatural and repetitive rattle like dried leaves shaking in wind. It died away even while they listened; then began once more afresh.
"That is a very strange sound," Temeraire said, drowsily, without opening his eyes. "Whoever can be making it? It sounds as though they did not feel very well; or perhaps were angry."
This interpretation plainly did not recommend itself to the listening convicts. "Pray do not disturb yourself," Laurence said, loud enough to carry over the noise, and reach their ears. "It cannot be of concern to us in your company, and you had much better get as much rest as you can."
Temeraire did not answer, except to sigh a little breath and sleep again. Laurence put a hand on his muzzle, and turned back to his pallet; beside it Tharkay's lay empty, and his small pack gone with him.
Laurence lay down again, mostly to give an example to the men which should reassure; he did not feel very much like sleep, with that strange inhuman music still lingering. It felt of a piece with all the rest, the alien cry of an alien land.
There were more low whispers, inarticulate yet uneasy, until abruptly Rankin's voice rang out in its drawling, ironic vowels, "I am sorry to have to ask you gentlemen to be so good as to reserve your presentiments of disaster for morning: I am not competent to endure the hysterics without the fortification of a night's rest and strong coffee."
The cold contempt did what sympathy, perhaps, would not have: it silenced them. The strange moaning song died away once more, fading into the dry air. Laurence watched the leaves stirring overhead, and again time slid away from him; he opened his eyes this time to a touch upon his shoulder, and pushed himself up to look at Tharkay, who silently handed him a canteen, full and dripping wet.
"Thank Heaven," Laurence said, low; and looked a question at Tharkay, why he had not roused all the camp for the discovery.
"I did not find our singers," Tharkay said, "but their tracks, I believe: there is a way over the ridge to another river, and its banks are not impassable. I have found only the fewest signs of passage, but the trail is not unused. I think it may answer your search - and perhaps mine, also."
"The - smugglers?" Laurence said, slowly, relying on Temeraire's intuition.
Tharkay paused and said, "I imagine you find I have been very close; although perhaps not so close as I might have prided myself upon."
"You may congratulate yourself as much as you like," Laurence said ruefully, " - my intelligence is borrowed: Temeraire worked out the whole, not myself, and that only by guessing. But I cannot see I have the least right to demand candor from you on the subject of your private affairs. I am sufficiently in your debt," he added, "that I hope you know I would be glad of an opportunity to make some return; and you need not make me explanations."
Tharkay smiled, glinting a little even in the dark. "You are kind to make me such an offer; I can well imagine how little you would like in practice to lend yourself so blindly to another man's course."
Very true, Laurence was forced to admit, "but despite that, I will not withdraw," he said, "and if you prefer to keep your silence, I beg you to believe I will not press you."
"I do not propose to entertain myself unnecessarily," Tharkay said, "though I will ask you to come aside with me: I have been silent all this while shipboard only because I am not content with the genteel fiction of privacy when separated by only a plank of wood from a hundred idle ears, and I am no more so here in an open forest, surrounded by men who may only pretend to sleep."
- 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