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Crucible of Gold


Page 33


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"If they take their notion of principles from the example which the Spanish made them, there is not much to wonder at," Laurence said, controlling irritation; he would have been glad of a cup of tea himself, and more grateful yet for one of strong black coffee; instead he cupped water in one of the broad, dinner-plate-sized leaves which hung vinelike off the tree, and poured off the trickle into his mouth.
"We must rather consider our course of escape, and our direction," he said, and bent to sketch out the shape of the continent roughly in the dirt.
"To Rio, of course?" Hammond said, as though it were merely a matter of choosing their destination. "Now there can be nothing worth delaying for; we ought make all speed possible."
"Well, we can't: it is asking for disaster to go haring off through the jungle with no water to speak of," Granby said. "Laurence, I don't think we have much choice in the matter: this tree-bark dribble will do for us, but not for the dragons. There might be a hundred streams flowing under the leaves, but they won't do us any good if we can't see them from the air. At least if we hold by the mountains, we are pretty sure of seeing some run-off every day."
"And more likely to be seen in turn," Laurence said, "by our pursuit. But I do take your point: if we should keep to the trees by day, and put our heads north by night, towards Venezuela-"
"No, no," Hammond cried. "Gentlemen, we must go to Rio. You have not considered, perhaps, the increased urgency of our mission. With the Sapa Inca having decided to throw her lot in with Napoleon, Brazil is now beset on all sides. You must recall the Prince Regent of Portugal is there, and all the royal family. They must be warned-warned, perhaps rescued; they do not as yet know anything of their danger. I must insist upon it, in my authority as ambassador: I hope you will agree I do not exceed it, in such a cause."
"If he can't marry us off, he will murder us, I suppose," Granby said to Laurence under his breath. "Had we better make for Venezuela, and then circle back to Rio along the coast?"
"We should lose six thousand miles on such a journey," Laurence said, "and no guaranty of supply along the way, in any case."
They bent their heads over the dirt, trying without much hope to plot a course more direct across the jungle: they scarcely knew where they were, so even to begin was difficult, and at Granby's insistence had to allot full half each day's flying for finding water. "And that I would call ambitious," he said. "In any case, we mustn't go so far that we could not fly back to some decent water within a day."
"Well, it will have to do," Laurence said finally, when they had at last agreed, and they made their uncomfortable damp beds on the ground to take a little more rest before nightfall; but twilight had only just begun to descend when Demane was shaking Laurence awake.
"The monkeys have gone quiet," he said softly. Laurence sat up listening, but the waterfall covered any sound of wings. They sat together a moment, squinting upwards: then a groan of rustling branches, and a great orange-feathered dragon's head thrust down and whispered in Quechua, "Hammond? Are you there?"
"What?" Hammond said, staring up, and Churki landed among them, ruffling up her plumage to cast out the leaves and twigs which had been caught betwixt the feathers.
"We must leave at once," she said. "The tumi patrols are out after you, and beating the jungle near-by: I have bribed a lieutenant to let me rescue you, but he cannot keep them off for very long."
When they demanded explanation for her having gone to treasonous lengths in their interest, "How can you call it so?" she protested. "It is my duty. After all, I did not know the Sapa Inca was going to choose to marry your enemy when I asked Hammond to join my ayllu. What sort of creature would I be if I did not do all in my power to protect him, only because it has become inconvenient?"
Of course, her preferred notion of that protection was that Hammond should return with her, to her mother's territory. "For the Sapa Inca will not mind at all, I promise you," she added persuasively, "and my mother will give me more people to join the ayllu: you may have three wives all your own, if you would like."
"I call that justice," Granby said to Laurence, with a great deal of enjoyment in Hammond's discomfiture, even as they directed the urgent retreat: all were piling aboard the dragons in great haste, men scrambling to tie themselves to the harness while Forthing and Ferris pushed the clumsier among them back into the belly-netting.
Hammond struggled meanwhile to dissuade Churki, edging close to Temeraire as he spoke: a certain frowning gleam in her eye suggested temptation to snatch him away in disregard of his wishes, when they were so plainly misguided. Until at last he hit in desperation upon the notion of adding, "And you know, I cannot desert my family: why, I have eight brothers and sisters, with any number of children themselves-there must be three dozen by now-"
"Oh!" Churki said. "Why did you not say so, at once? Dozens, and in that uncivilized country of yours, with no dragon to look after them. Of course we must go back to them." She ruffled her feathers high. "I do not like getting in the way of the tumi patrol, of course; I am sure it will make trouble for my mother if it is known. But she will understand, when I can send her word."
They were aloft scarce twenty minutes after Churki's warning. Full dark had fallen, and even as they rose they were attacked by a patrol: five dragons, striking out of the dark, all with small spear-shaped heads and dark green feathers cropped short. They were middle-weights at most, each not a quarter of Temeraire's size, but they made up for that in numbers and in night-vision; their coloration made them nearly invisible against the night, and plainly the hazy moonlight which came through the clouds was sufficient to enable them to see.
The green dragons were making low calls to one another, in almost chirping voices. "Do not roar," Laurence called urgently, as yet another of the dragons came darting into the fray from up ahead, slashing at Temeraire's flank in passing as it winged to join the other five in harrying their flanks. "Temeraire, do you hear me? The jungle must be alive with these beasts; if you should roar, you will draw them upon us in a cloud: we must get ahead of their line before you roar."
Temeraire flicked his ruff in acknowledgment; he was flying and fighting at once, and Laurence had all the pain of feeling himself and his crew useless in their present circumstances: they had neither guns, nor incendiaries, nor even flash-powder, which might have allowed them to be of assistance against enemy beasts, and could only cling on and hope they did not obstruct Temeraire's own efforts.
"Mr. Ferris," Laurence called, leaning over, "do we have that netting-the rope and sailcloth netting, have you any of it left, below? Light it along, if you please-"
"Aye, sir," Ferris called, and came clambering up Temeraire's side with a rope lashed around his waist, a tether to the heavy entangled bundle; Forthing and Roland and even Hammond joined their hands to the cable, and they drew it up, brine-stinking cloth and half-rotten rope. Laurence hacked apart a portion with his sword, Roland setting her knife to the sailcloth: she and Ferris and Forthing, aviators all since childhood, managed to take and keep their feet long enough to heave it out as one of the green-feathered dragons swung close to Temeraire's hindquarters, and the mess billowed open, descending, and settled on the dragon's head .
The beast squalled, muffled and surprised, and fell away clawing blindly at the unexpected attack; it ran into a second beast and fouled her flight for a moment, but this one squirmed loose and plucked away the ragged cloth, throwing it out over the trees. It sank, a momentary flash of pale cloth, and vanished away amid the trees behind them.
The effort won Temeraire only the briefest respite, but at least it was something. Laurence sawed grimly away at the rope with the dulled edge of his blade, and they managed to try a second time, and a third, but by then the green dragons had grown wiser. Three more of them had joined the pursuit by now; Laurence looked again where the moon made a glowing patch of haze in the sky: they were being herded back westward, and the dragons' chirping calls were growing more energetic.
Iskierka also had not loosed her flame: as much as lighting a beacon of invitation to the enemy; but the enemy dragons evidently already knew to fear it, anyway. She bore the brunt of their sweeping attacks, one pass after another which only her maneuvering enabled her to avoid; and even so she was clawed and bleeding from a dozen small wounds. She hissed in fury as another pass caught her along one shoulder, and turned to lash out reprisal at the smaller beast: the green dragon fled and was caught only a glancing blow, feathers bursting loose, but the effort left an opening which the enemy were too numerous to miss.
Two of the dragons flew at Iskierka's head, one from either side, beating their wings furiously to obscure her vision; a third, the largest of the enemy, lunged at the side which Iskierka's strike had bent into a wide and open curve, unprotected by the chainmail which was her usual battle-gear, and savaged her with tooth and claw both, opening the flesh to the air.
Iskierka roared in agony, and turning blasted flame at the dragon who had already lifted away, too late. Her head was wagging back and forth in pain; and Laurence could see a line of steam in the air where her blood ran freely away. Then he heard Granby crying out, "Sear the wound! If you go down, it doesn't matter, Iskierka; sear the damned wound, or I swear to you on my honor I will jump anyway-sear it at once-"
He was standing on her back, harness-straps hanging loose save one that he gripped in his hand. Iskierka cried out in protest, and then bent her head back and breathed fire upon her own side: flames coruscating up and over her hide, washing down her length as she flew. Laurence saw Granby and Bardesley silhouetted black against the yellow-red banner of fire for a moment, then the night was pitch-black, darker for the moment of light, and he did not know what had happened to them.
He blinked away the dazzle of the light: Kulingile had ranged himself alongside Iskierka, trying to shield her wounded side with his bulk, and Temeraire was racing to her other side: but behind them, the enemy were gathering together for another run at her, one which should surely bring her down. Their light chirping voices rang clear, incongruous and dreadful as they arranged themselves for the strike and came, arrow-shape formation, towards them.
Laurence felt Temeraire gathering himself, drawing in the great breaths one after another which expanded out his lungs, and yet something different: when Laurence put down his bare hand, he felt nearly a drumming tension to the hide. The enemy dragons were coming, swiftly; then Temeraire turned and roared: but not once only; he roared, low, and roared again, and a third time, and only with the fourth rose to that shattering, terrible sound that was the divine wind.
The very air seemed to shake and howl, rushing away from them; the rain-mist boiling into tight spindled clouds. The first dragons of the formation were pulling up, beginning to pull up, as the ripple struck, and Laurence saw blood come bursting from their noses and their ears.
The three dragons foremost in the formation fell from the sky without a sound, stone-dead; Laurence heard their bodies crashing through the branches below. Others, too, were falling, thrashing in mid-air, choking on blood; and only the hindmost beasts survived, sheltered by the bodies of their fellows: survived, reeled back, and fled away into the night, shrilling out their horror.
Chapter 15
THEY WERE PURSUED NO LONGER. That night they lay exhausted amid trees that towered away from a strangely dim and barren jungle floor populated by ferns and the decomposing bodies of fallen giants, suffering the yelling resentment of the monkeys and of astonishing birds plumed in colors Laurence had scarcely seen in artifice much less nature.
The next morning they buried Lieutenant Bardesley there, in a grave as deep as Temeraire's claws could open. There was no avoiding the funeral, as the ordinary course of putrefaction seemed accelerated by the damp heat and luscious verdure all around: though Mrs. Pemberton had sacrificed her petticoat and Emily's to make a shroud, by first light the corpse was crawling with ants the size of grasshoppers, whose jaws left angry bites as they were beaten away. They did not open the shroud to look on his face before they laid him to rest.
Iskierka's wounds had not mortified, cauterized as they had been by her flame, but a strange feverishness set in by the following evening: the steam which ordinarily issued from her spikes dried to a bare trickle, and her eyes were glassy and bloodshot nearly to black. The heat of her body was become intolerable for close quarters.
"She must have water, and soon," Churki said, after a sniffed inspection of the injuries, and with a decided air. Laurence had known dragons of more years-Messoria, of their formation, and Excidium-but these had been raised in the British fashion, to obey rather than to command, where Churki seemed to take a certain precedence as a matter of course: she was of course eldest of the dragons by far. "Where do your family live, Hammond? We must determine the best course to reach them."
When Hammond had, with a certain degree of duplicity, explained their desire to reach Rio and thence to take ship for Britain, she looked at Laurence's sketch of their proposed route and shook her head, ruffling. "This will not do very well: guessing at water is not sensible. We must go to the Ucayali and follow it to the sea."
They were no longer pursued, though they did little to conceal their passage. Three more days of flying under Churki's lead brought them to the river she had described: sluggish-brown, enormous, swollen with all the ice-melt of the Andes.
"If it is not the Amazon, it must yet come out at the ocean," Laurence said, shading his hand to look down along its length while Iskierka crawled into the river and submerged herself; crocodilian animals with long snouts swam away resentfully, and she rested her head upon the bank and closed her eyes as steam curled up and away from her back where the water lapped against the scales.

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