Crucible of Gold

Page 18

But no-one at all came down to the sand to greet them, nor even issued cries of alarm; at least none that could be heard over the sailors calling up, asking to be let loose from the nets. "Quiet there: I would as soon set loose a pack of wolves, before we have been made welcome," Laurence said. "If there is any man among you who is not afraid to come with us to make our introductions, he may come out: the rest of you must wait."
He untied the rope from Temeraire's breastplate and threw it out over the side; with one hand for the rope and another for Hammond's elbow, he climbed down.
"I'll go, sir," Baggy called out, in his wavering half-broken voice; Laurence took out Mayhew as well, ignoring that fellow's faint dissatisfied murmur, which did not quite reach a volume requiring acknowledgment: Laurence was determined to promote him, if he could, and regardless if Mayhew did not like it; a few more men volunteered themselves from curiosity, or a desire to stretch their legs.
"I do not see that I ought to only sit here while you go," Temeraire said, disconsolate. "After all, I speak more Quechua than do you, or anyone but Hammond; and my accent is better than Hammond's, too. Oh; with no offense meant."
As Temeraire was larger than any of the village houses, save the one ceremonial building on the hill, and the street would not have allowed his passage, Laurence could not endorse his attempting to come with them. "They can hardly miss seeing you from the village in any case," he said, "and your presence here must induce them to caution: I do not think we can be walking into danger."
"There is something wrong with my accent?" Hammond said, under his breath, as they left.
They scarcely seemed to be walking into any human habitation at all: they climbed the low sandy hill into the village, with Temeraire looming behind them on the shore, and came to the first houses without any sign of life. "Halloa," Laurence called, without answer, except one fat waddling creature which looked a cross between a lap-dog and a rat, which put its nose out of doors and came towards them with every overture of friendliness.
"A guinea pig, I believe," Hammond said, picking the animal up: it offered no resistance but snuffled at him curiously.
"Looks like good eating, that," Baggy said, making the creature the recipient of ever-as-longing a look as Temeraire had cast upon the sheep. "Which is to say, if they was to offer us some, I wouldn't say no," he added hastily.
"Can they all have decamped so quickly, without our seeing them?" Hammond said. "Perhaps we were seen on our approach-our lanterns?"
"No," Laurence said: there was no smoke of cooking-fires, and weeds grew thick in the street. "There is no-one here."
"I can scarcely credit that so prosperous a settlement should have been abandoned," Hammond protested. "Their herds-the boats on the shore-"
Laurence stepped to the doorway of the hut where the guinea pig had come, and looked inside: a few low pallets on the floor, empty, covered with blankets; some clay pots for cookery; a jug smelling pungently of liquor, when he bent over it. All the gently disordered air of a house lived-in, or only temporarily abandoned. Outside, on a wooden rack, ears of maize tied together by the papery husks were drying in the sun; picked at by birds, but far from stripped-clean.
They climbed up the road to the stepped pyramid: the earth around it had been turned a great deal on both sides of the pathway, and the mounds of dirt not covered over or laid smooth; only a few weeds had sprung up on most. The opening of the pyramid was a black empty mouth, waiting; Laurence stepped just inside, out of the sunlight, and waited for his eyes to adjust to the dark.
And then stepped back, quickly, putting his cloak over his mouth. "Back to the shore," he said. "Put that animal down, Hammond; back to Temeraire, at once, and do not step off the path, or go into the houses."
"What?" Hammond said, even as the sailors began to back away. "What is it, Captain?"
"Plague," Laurence said. "Plague; and all of them are dead."
Temeraire was sorry for the people, of course, but as after all they had no more use for the sheep-which were not sheep, but another animal entirely, larger, with a long neck and meat not unlike venison, which Hammond called a llama-he did not scruple to enjoy them tremendously. Fish was very well and good, but one grew tired of it unendingly, especially when there was no chance of preparing it differently, either, and the sea-lions they had taken on that last island but one were not really a sufficient change.
"You might try stewing a few of them for tomorrow," he said to Gong Su, gnawing clean a final bone, "and I would not mind some of that maize, either, did you call it, Mr. Hammond? It has a pleasant smell," emanating from the fire where a great many ears were presently being roasted for the men to eat along with a round dozen of the guinea pigs.
There were also potatoes-very peculiar in color, a lurid purple-which had come out of a great storehouse at the edge of the town. There were many other things in it also besides food: woven blankets, sandals, even several bronze tools whose purpose they could not make out: a long wooden handle with a blade set into it at the end, but it did not seem to be a weapon. "Something to do with farming, I suppose," Granby said, turning it over in his hands.
The bulk of the stores however were fish: dried fish, salted fish, fish, fish, fish. And there were not very many of the llamas at all left, when one considered them with an eye towards extended supply. "We had better start looking for some other town," Iskierka said, when they had done eating and looked over the remaining herd. "Those will not last for long, and I am d-d if I will eat more fish."
The men were very eager to be gone themselves, as soon as any other place could be found. "You had all three better go," Granby said. "I make no odds of anyone coming to a plague-ridden town, and if there is anyone left to object to our making free of their goods, there cannot be so many of them, anyway; we will do perfectly well, and you should meet the local beasts in force if there are any."
"I am not leaving Demane here with the sailors," Kulingile said, flatly.
"I will go hunting," Demane said, "and you will go find us somewhere to stay; I am not a child who needs to be always watched."
He stalked off; Temeraire thought it was rather hard on Kulingile, who drooped unhappily, but there was a great deal of sense in what Granby said. "And you would not want to bring Demane along the very first time to meet strange dragons, anyway," he said to Kulingile, which he meant as consolation, even though privately Temeraire would have preferred to keep Laurence with him also: he could not help but recall that in Africa he had also thought Laurence would be safe, and returned after only a day's flight to Capetown and found him snatched away by the Tswana.
"We will not go very far, either," he added.
There was at least no need to range widely over the ground: there was the river, and to either side of it a narrow green wilderness, and beyond that only a broad dusty desert; they needed only follow the course of the water . They did once come across what Temeraire decided on consideration was a road: the footpath itself was difficult to make out, certainly not intended for use by dragons, but it was marked very regularly with trees which could not have lined up in such a way by nature. It cut the river and continued on both north and south, which provoked some debate: Iskierka was for turning aside to follow it.
"It is built by people," Iskierka said, "so that must mean they go along that way, and where we find them, we will very likely find more llamas, and perhaps some other beasts."
"If they are travelers, they might go a very long distance without having any animals besides a horse, or something else to ride and not to eat," Temeraire said. "I cannot call it a good notion to go off into the desert when we do not want to be gone long. It is much more likely that we will find some people living along this river, if we only keep to it."
"But if they live along the river, they likely eat fish," Iskierka said, grumbling.
The expanse of green around the river broadened as they continued in the upstream direction. Kulingile was watching the progress of the sun by looking at the shadow of his wing, and wanting only to go back; but when Temeraire out of pity proposed his doing so early, Kulingile said low, "No; if I went back without you, Demane should know I had come to look for him; he does not want me back sooner."
"Well," Temeraire said, sorry, "we had better divide up and go separately, to cover more ground; then we can find something and all go back together, quickly." Kulingile brightened, and Iskierka was nothing loath, either; they agreed to find one another in an hour, and parted.
The hour was nearly spent before Temeraire gave up and turned back towards the river, for their rendezvous, and then stumbled quite by accident upon a sort of construction-an aqueduct carrying water northward, away from the river, and while he did not know its purpose it was plainly built deliberately, so he turned to follow its course and came with only a few minutes' flying out upon a broad field. In it a small dragon in green and yellow plumes was hard at work, dragging an odd contraption behind himself through the dirt.
The device, Temeraire thought, was made of six of the strange bronze implements they had seen, which had been somewhat clumsily yoked together; they were slung with ropes over the dragon's shoulders. A few men and women followed the dragon through the field, turning over the dirt that the blades had cut apart.
Temeraire paused hovering over the trees, but they did not look up, all of them too fixed and intent upon the earth beneath them instead, so he landed to introduce himself; and as he came down the small green dragon looked up, saw him, shrilled in tones of horror, and flung the entire bronze plow at his head.
"Ow!" Temeraire said, wincing away as the clanging mess struck against his breast and head. "You are not an eighth my size; whatever do you mean by-" but the dragon was not even waiting; it had seized up the handful of people in its talons and was tearing away into the air.
"Oh!" Temeraire said, outraged, and roared after him; the strange dragon only put on yet more speed, until he pulled up short mid-air just as suddenly, as Kulingile, lit golden by the sun, came flying over the tree-tops.
"I thought you were maybe Supay, or one of his servants," the small dragon, whose name was Palta, said absently, his impressed gaze still fixed upon Kulingile. But who Supay was, Temeraire did not know, and by Supay the dragon seemed to mean some sort of creature from under ground.
"I do not see how you can have thought any such thing," Temeraire said. "It sounds as though you had mistaken me for a bunyip or something like it, instead of a dragon, which is perfectly ridiculous."
"I do not mean to be rude," the little dragon said, ruffling his feathers up so that he looked nearly twice his size, "but you are all black and shriveled, as though you had been burned up, so I do not think it is as ridiculous as that."
That was rude, in Temeraire's opinion, and he was about to say so when Iskierka landed. "What are you all sitting about here for? Have you found another town yet?" she said, and peered critically at Palta. "Is there anything more to eat near-by?" she demanded.
He did not understand her, of course, but Palta shrank back anyway from her outthrust head, wreathed in steam. "My fishermen have just had a very good catch of-" Palta began timidly when Temeraire asked.
"Whatever good is he, then?" Iskierka said impatiently. "Come along back to the camp, and we will find out more from this fellow instead."
"What fellow?" Temeraire said, and then discovered that Iskierka was carrying a man, whom she had evidently snatched up from somewhere: an old man, with very white hair and his skin deeply furrowed and brown with sun, and marks all over his face; and she had not even asked him if he minded.
"How could I have asked him when I do not speak the language?" she said, dismissing Temeraire's protests. He was quite sure that she had ought to have asked, and better still not taken him at all. "It is not as though I meant him any harm. We will ask him where we can find some better food, and then I will take him back where I found him-oh, somewhere back that way."
"I am sure she doesn't know in the least where she found him," Temeraire said under his breath, and then asked Palta. "I don't suppose you know him?"
"No, he is not mine; and you mayn't have any of mine, either," Palta said, putting himself anxiously between them and his small group of wide-eyed people. "If you try-"
"Pray stop that; whyever would we take them?" Temeraire said. "We are not trying to take you prisoner; we only want to know where we are, and how we can get to Brazil: we are not thieves." He paused, realizing Iskierka had already given him the lie. "Well; except Iskierka, but-you see-she does mean to take this gentleman back home, when we have asked him some questions," he finished uncomfortably.
Palta, unconvinced, was only persuaded to accompany them back to the shore when Temeraire acceded to his demand that he should be allowed to send his handful of companions back to their home, first. Even so, he tried to keep himself in front while they left, as though he could stop Temeraire seeing which way they were going into the trees; and further insisted on waiting afterwards for a while also, until the sounds of their passage had entirely faded. He then wanted all four of them to go flying abreast and together, even though that was not convenient when Kulingile was slower than all of them, and Temeraire might have gone ahead.
The sailors had put up a makeshift camp with the goods out of the storehouse: several lean-tos and tents, farther up the river away from the village, and several cooking-fires, Temeraire was glad to see; the men were even singing a round of "Spanish Ladies" as they came in for a landing.

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