Tongues of Serpents

Chapter 8

BUT IT SEEMED to Temeraire that Jack Telly had indeed cursed them, for all their luck had run away. They searched and searched, and were always it seemed a little too late, or had gone a little too far; meanwhile the trail crept onward beneath them at the snail's pace of foot speed, offering only the most tantalizing bits of encouragement - today a scrap of porcelain; tomorrow another nest for the egg.

Temeraire passed an uneasy night, and woke even more uneasy; he raised his head in the first moments before dawn, while everyone else yet slept, and watched the line of the horizon growing sharper where it met the sky. It seemed very far away. The forest had broken up at some time during their last night's flight, and there was nothing to conceal the hard edge of the world but a handful of brushy trees looking a little like broomsticks stuck into the earth upside down, and low hillocks.

At first the dawn grey lingered, cast over all the ground, pale knotted clumps of grass and darker shrubs standing out against the dark earth. Then by degrees the blue washed over the vast bowl of sky in advance of the sun, and color began to come back into the world - but color terrible and strange. The sandy earth all beneath them was red as the exposed side of a freshly broken brick, as though someone had painted it. The grasses were hay-yellow, as if dead, but all of them; there was not a single green blade anywhere.

The stand of bushes along one side of their camp looked a little less unnatural: full of shining, dark green leaves; but they alone looked verdant, and the stand of trees which Temeraire had been looking at, between them and the horizon, were blackened as if by fire. The smoke-stains were dark up and down the bark, but equally strange, they had fresh green leaves put out at their ends, despite the curled-up, charred scraps of the old ones clinging still to the lower branches.

There were no clouds in the sky, no water on the ground; not a living thing stirred anywhere around. It was the queerest place Temeraire had ever seen: even the Taklamakan, which had been empty and barren and cold and of no use to anyone, had not looked so very wrong - at the oases, there had been poplar-trees, and proper grass; and where there was no water, there were no plants growing; and the ground had not looked so peculiar at all.

"Laurence," Temeraire said urgently, nudging him; Laurence was drowsing lightly against his forearm, sitting near the egg. "Laurence, perhaps you might wake up."

"Yes?" Laurence said, still asleep, and rubbed his hand over his face.

"I am not afraid myself, of course; but I should not like to alarm the men," Temeraire added, "and I am afraid we may have got into the underworld, somehow: I cannot account for it otherwise."

" - I beg your pardon?" Laurence said, opening his eyes, and standing; and then he was silent.

"I am sorry we should have pressed on during the night," Temeraire said, "but perhaps it was Jack Telly's spirit - "

"We are not in the underworld!" Laurence said, but the men when they woke were more of Temeraire's mind; until the meager breakfast of biscuit had been shared out, and then one very stupid person said, "I reckon there wouldn't be biscuit, in the hot place; we'm in China, I expect, and whoever would want to come here, I don't know."

At once the convicts all agreed: they had certainly reached China. They were not moved from this ridiculous opinion, either, even when Temeraire exasperated said, "But this is not China at all; China is across the ocean from here, and it is a very splendid place, not like this at all; there are thousands and thousands of dragons there, all over."

"There you have it," O'Dea said to the others with ghoulish relish, "a godforsaken place: we will see a horde of them fly out of the west, any morning now, coming to devour us; and then we will go down to Old Nick's country in the end." Temeraire put back his ruff in irritation.

"Some mineral in the soil gives it the color, I imagine," Dorset said, scraping at the earth with the end of a stick and peering inquisitively at the still-brighter dirt revealed below.

"We must backtrack in any case," Tharkay said, shading his eyes with a hand. "We must have overshot the turning of their trail."

"I can't see they would come into this countryside," Granby agreed, absently rubbing his arms as he looked around him yet again, as though he could not help it; Temeraire could see many of the other men doing so as well, and it made him look again also: it was indeed very odd to find oneself in the middle of this queer red landscape. "It is a godforsaken country; I don't suppose anyone can live here comfortably. Shall we go back to that water-hole we saw, last night? And we had better see the men all have a drink, before they come over ugly on us."

But when they had flown on three miles - still the endless sweeping in either direction, and all the while their eyes on the ground, so the tiny distance took the better part of two hours - Tharkay suddenly leaned forward on Iskierka's back, and Temeraire followed her to the ground: Tharkay leaped down in three bounds from her back to the sands, and he stooped at a mounded heap of red sand, exactly hollowed to that same eggshell curve, and beside it, stark and brilliantly reflecting in the sunlight, a white ochre handprint was marked freshly upon a jutting monolith of dark red stone.

Iskierka left them an hour later, winging her way back to Sydney, though not without a great deal of quarreling and dissension: she had not wished to leave, nor Granby; but there was no help for it. A smugglers' trail, which should by necessity come to a definite conclusion in some fixed harbor, was one thing; but the natives might go anywhere at all in their own country, and in circles if they wished.

"All right, maybe it isn't the smugglers; but what would the natives want with a dragon?" Granby had said. "I don't say they have any reason to love us, but they can't ever have seen a dragon before we landed in this country, and if you should tell me that a first glimpse of Temeraire, or Iskierka, or even Caesar, should make a man want to hatch a beast out for himself, I call it mad."

They were all at something of a loss from the new discovery: but besides the handprint the heavy red sand had taken all around the imprint of bare feet, and Tharkay had uncovered, too, some remnants of their meal: emptied seed-pods, roasted, and the stems of berries from a bush near-by; native, and certainly no smugglers would have made such a meal at the risk of poisoning themselves.

Tharkay shrugged a little. "I do not pretend to an understanding of their motives," he said, "but their tracks are reasonably clear, and I am afraid it answers a great many questions: I have already found it strange the smugglers should continue this far without making a turn for the coast, and such easy familiarity with their route was wholly unlikely even if the French had been colonizing this continent for a century."

"They have stolen the egg because it was precious to us," Rankin said impatiently. "We had it swaddled up as a great treasure; what more do you need? Likely they have not even realized it will hatch out a dragon, and think it some species of jewel."

Laurence could not be so easily dismissive. He would once have given as little credence to a native power sufficient to rival those of Europe, or as sophisticate in its organization and its forces. Although this was not a country, he rather thought, looking around the barren landscape, which should easily sustain and conceal an empire so large as the lush heart of Africa had concealed that of the Tswana; still he was not inclined to again make so dangerous an assumption.

"They have at the very least evaded us, despite the most urgent and enthusiastic search, over many days," Laurence added, "which ought command our respect and wariness. It would be a very unimaginative man who would look at a dragon egg and think it anything other than it is: they do have birds here, and snakes. Far more likely they should see us in company with Temeraire and Iskierka and Caesar, and realize the prize before them. They cannot be pleased with the usurpation of their territory by the farmers of the colony, and anything which offers them the power of resistance or of leveling the ground must appeal."

Rankin shrugged. "Very well; in that case we must fear at any moment that several thousand wild tribesmen, full of loathing, will leap on us in the night: splendid."

The greater danger of course was the far more certain one: that the trail might go on a long, cold time of searching; and it was this which necessitated Iskierka's departure. "We must grant them every power of hiding themselves from us in it, and knowing their way," Laurence said to Granby, " - and Riley cannot wait, weeks and weeks gone, and no word of us at all. We were already overlong, looking for our route through the mountains. By now he must be looking to see us return to Sydney every day."

"Well, I am not haring off to leave you here in the middle of the desert, if that is what you are getting at," Granby said.

"It is fairer to say that we are presently haring off, away from any reasonable course," Laurence said. "If the natives are not our friends, they are at least not the French; and one middle-weight dragon will not give them the power of doing us much harm even if they should wish to, when Temeraire is in the colony."

Fairer or not, Granby refused to like it, and Iskierka liked it still less. "Well, I am not going anywhere until we have found the egg," she said, dismissively, "so there is no sense discussing it: Riley must wait, and that is all."

But Riley would not wait, of course; they had already been gone nearly three weeks, on a trip that ought to have taken them one, and with no word sent back. Whatever misfortune could befall a party of two heavy-weight dragons and thirty men would not be lightly dismissed, and there was hardly anyone of the colony who could be sent in search of them, either. They would be written down as lost, victims of an unfamiliar territory; Riley might even leave the sooner, to bring the disastrous news back to England.

Even Temeraire was no ally, for once proving reluctant to see Iskierka go. "It is not that I am pleased with her company," he said to Laurence, "or that I cannot rescue the egg myself, of course; only it would be churlish to send her away, as though she were not worth having along. And she has been very handy at hunting; one cannot deny it."

"With as little game as this country looks likely to hold, from this day's flight," Laurence said, "if we must penetrate into it for any distance, that must argue rather for her departure, than her remaining: the two of you cannot as easily be fed as one in covering the same ground. But my dear, the greater concern must be their necessary imprisonment upon this continent: if Riley leaves, they are trapped with us for years perhaps, unjustly."

"Well, as far as that goes," Temeraire said, "I must say I do not see why it is just that I should be left behind, when Iskierka is not; for you cannot argue she is any more obedient to the Government than I am. But I do see the point: eggs are not always being stolen, and I am sure she would be tiresome again as soon as we had it back; and I dare say wanting to eat all the cows. For that matter, we ought to send Caesar back, also, I suppose?"

He finished hopefully, but this, of course, was by no means desirable: keeping Caesar and Rankin from interference in the colony's affairs was no longer their most pressing concern, but that scarcely meant they now wished to encourage it; and Caesar was not leaving with the Allegiance, in any case.

"We might go," Granby said reluctantly, "and come back, if you would build some cairns to show us which way you have gone. It isn't as though you would be moving very quickly, chasing a bunch of fellows traveling on foot: thirty miles in a day must be their utmost limit. We could catch you up if Riley thinks he can give us the time: I suppose he wouldn't mind that new mast, or at least it is an excuse. At this rate we will be chasing these fellows clear across the country, anyway, and we might well meet him on the other side, if he goes sailing around."

They did not immediately settle on this course: Iskierka continued to resist, and then there was the question of the convicts, and what was to be done with them. The men themselves were all for being taken back to Sydney, or at the least returned to the comfortable valley; Granby did not wish to leave Laurence so deserted.

"I know one can't call them reliable," he said, "but they are hands, and if you do find these fellows who have the egg, and need to work it away from them, you may need more than just your own and Temeraire's. It's precious easy to keep a dragon pinned down if you have an egg it is brooding: a little child could make Temeraire come to heel like a well-trained hound, with nothing more than a rock. And," he added in an undertone, "Rankin mayn't be good company, and he is a bounder, but in justice one can't call him a coward."

Rankin did not immediately offer his own opinion; Laurence was a little surprised to find him consulting quietly with Caesar, away to one side - he could scarcely have imagined an aviator less likely to inquire after a dragon's wishes. But Caesar's interests were the only ones aligned with Rankin's, of their company, which perhaps had driven him to such straits; and having conceded so far, no one could deny Caesar a great deal of sharpness, if he was too ungenerous for wisdom.

"Certainly I am not leaving," Rankin said, at length returning, when Granby pressed him. "If you are going, Captain Granby, I must necessarily assume command of the search; the recovery of the egg is our highest duty, and there can be no question of our returning to Sydney at present," by which he likely meant no value in finding himself again awkwardly committed to Bligh. "As for the men, for my part, you had better take this lot and deposit them back on the sufferance of the colony; they will hardly be of much use to us."

"Well, sir," O'Dea said to Laurence, "I do not mean to be quarrelsome, but we were offered our liberty for cutting a road: and I don't suppose we will get the one without the other."

"Those who wish to remain, and carry out their service, may," Laurence said. "Any man who prefers to return to the security of the colony, likewise; I prefer no unwilling hands."

Temeraire sighed a little, watching Iskierka go, after a great deal of urgent persuasion from Granby and only with the promise of returning, within the narrowest span of time. "And she is flying flat-out," he said, "and on quite a straight course; none of this tiresome sweeping. I do not suppose Tharkay might be able to make out their trail a little better, now that he knows they are natives and not smugglers, so we might not have to go hunting quite so wide?"

"First," Laurence said, "we must have water."

Water they might not have, however; not easily. The trees were quite misleading, and a patch of greenery did not seem to mean an oasis, as one might have expected. "They may be like succulents," Laurence offered as an explanation, "and have some reservoir of water to sustain them through the summer droughts, I suppose." But if Temeraire tore one up - rather difficult for all they were very skinny, as they had enormous nests of roots - it was quite dry all the way through, and there was not even a little cache of water which a person might drink from.

So they had to keep on with their sweeps, looking now always for some little trickle or gleam of water, and even more importantly for another sign of the thieves: who might easily go in any direction whatsoever. It was very distressing to look upon Laurence's maps of the enormous continent, so spread open, and so unmarked; they were already a way into the blank mysterious space at the center, and far from the surveyed coastlines. Now that Iskierka was gone, Temeraire felt still more anxious to be sure he did not overlook any movement, any small track which Tharkay perhaps could not see so well from aloft.

Caesar was flying alongside now, which limited their pace to his; as Laurence had pointed out, that was even so a good deal faster than any person might have walked, so Temeraire tried not to be anxious, but he was nevertheless very soon annoyed, for even though it was Caesar who necessitated their going slower, he nevertheless felt justified in making many unnecessary remarks on Temeraire's own preoccupation, and his efforts to watch the ground.

"I can't see why you should be jumping down and up like a jack-in-the-box, every time you see some sand being stirred up by the wind," Caesar said. "You will get worn out, and then you will want more of the food and water when we get it, and precious little of either to start."

"Whatever there is," Temeraire said, "if I am the one catching it, I will take as much as I like; you might help look, instead of complaining."

"And if I happen to see an egg," Caesar said waspishly, "I will let you know of it; or anything worth seeing, but I don't suppose you would like it much if I began to say, Oh look, there is something, and then I would say, sorry old fellow, I am mistaken, it is only a bush, after you went flinging yourself at it."

Temeraire was a little hungrier than he might satisfy as they flew, over such a short distance: there were larger kangaroos here, with reddish fur, but they could move quite surprisingly fast, and the hopping made them a little tricky to catch when he must at once avoid too much jostling of the egg; he had only managed to snatch two all afternoon.

"There are a whole lot of them hopping away over there, Temeraire, if you like," Roland said, as evening drew on; and though it was not quite in the right direction, Temeraire was tempted; but as he pursued, it came clear they were hopping away from a narrow creek, and everyone was very thirsty.

"If you are not excessively hungry," Laurence said, "we had best stop: the light is fading, and we may not easily find our way back."

"Perhaps," Temeraire said, setting down very carefully, so as not to disturb the grounds, "perhaps, Tharkay, the aborigines should have been here, too? It is the first water we have seen since mid-morning."

"I can only inform you that there have been a great many kangaroos here lately," Tharkay dryly said, which was not at all fresh news. Temeraire tried not to be discouraged, but when they had dug a deeper hole for the water to collect, and he had drunk, he looked up and gazed with dismay around the wide-open country: low red dunes swelling and falling in all directions, a few outcroppings of rock, stands of bushes and of trees along the little creek which ran away into the distance, the bed gone nearly dry in places. There was nothing to distinguish one direction from another.

He sighed and closed his eyes for a little rest, while the men made their own small smoky fire, and cooked a little salt pork to eat with their biscuit, and they all disposed of themselves to sleep; the pleasant coolness of the night crept on, and Temeraire found himself half-drowsing, listening just in case the kangaroos should come back; the hopping ought to make a noise, he felt, and abruptly a short high shriek startled him up, wide-eyed and looking.

Dawn had not quite broken, but the sky was paling; the men were all sitting up around him, blurred grey shadows against the ground, not moving.

The yell had cut off as abruptly as it had begun. Laurence stood, walking amongst the men to count heads as the light crept nearer, and there was a spare hollow in the ground with empty shoes set beside it, where someone had been sleeping.

"It's them," O'Dea said, " - waiting out in the dark and picking us off one by one, taking us in the night. The egg is only bait to lure us on deeper into their country, so they can kill us all. We never ought to be able to follow them otherwise - "

"There's witchery in it, I say," another man muttered, not low.

The men were for leaving at once, at once; no-one proposed staying this time to search any longer for the luckless Jonas Green. "The ground at the creek has been disturbed a little," Tharkay said to Laurence quietly, while the hasty packing commenced, and the men warily filled their cans of water afresh, "but I see nothing one might expect, of a grown healthy man being dragged away, alive or dead; they cannot have swept the ground clean behind them."

"This is a strange country," Laurence said, low and puzzled, and came to swing himself aboard.

Temeraire was as pleased to be gone, quickly, not only so they might keep looking for the egg: it worried him a little that this mysterious snatching agency might seize on one of his crew. It seemed just as well to have Laurence and all of them safely away. But then in the air he paused, before he had even properly made any height, and stooped swiftly to the lee side of the rock outcropping.

"Oh, not again," Caesar complained, "and we have not even had breakfast," but Temeraire paid no attention, none whatsoever, as he thrust his nose into the low, half-hidden hollow in the stone, tearing away the covering of brush: and in the dirt lay a small heap of fragments of bright, red-glazed porcelain, the lemon-curd-yellow pattern of birds smashed apart.

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