Northern Portugal. The winter of 1811.
What was left of the bridge lay in a rough line of broken slabs across the stream. The streambed was nearly dry at this time of year, awaiting the storms and snow that would soon fill it. The little water that still slid between the tumbled blocks was ink-dark and smelled bad.
Captain Richard Sharpe stood with his boots in the slippery mud and stared up and down the narrow valley, then down at the map in his hands. "Pat, this is going to be the shortest mission all year."
Sergeant Patrick Harper tilted his head. "Aye, sir, but are we sure this is the right bridge? Can't be going back to Major Hogan saying the bridge is gone if it's the wrong bridge that's gone, sir."
"It's the right bridge, Pat, I'm sure of it. There's only one stream heading down this way, and only one bridge on it. Besides, Hogan's smart – he took the map to one of the local alcalde's and asked him." He folded the map in question and shoved it into his pocket.
Harper hefted his seven-barreled gun onto his shoulder and prepared to follow his captain. "Who d'ye think brought it down for us, then, sir?"
"Maybe the locals didn't want any more French couriers coming this way?" If there were any locals here. They had seen nobody but themselves all day.
"Why didn't they say so then?"
"Christ, I don't know! Because they're bloody Portuguese? Because they don't talk to their bloody alcalde? Come on."
Sharpe turned and squelched his way out of the mud, then began climbing the slope to where his men waited. The valley the stream ran through was narrow and deep, as if it had been intentionally scraped out of the mountain by a trowel, and the winter vegetation and overcast sky made it look like a great grave. His men had squatted down on tussocks and stones on the slope, except for the pickets – one upstream, one downstream, one on the crest behind them. He had brought only half the company with him, leaving the musket-carrying redcoats back at the South Essex's winter quarters under Harry Price's alcoholic eye. He might have brought only half a dozen to destroy this bridge, though – they had carried out so many of Hogan's little missions before. Still, he had watched them all this month, since his return from recruiting in England, and knew they were in need of some form of duty, to remind them that they were still soldiers and not yet Christmas elves.
They were starting to huddle into their jackets now as the sweat from climbing began to cool. The satchel of gunpowder charges, which they had carried all this way, sat next to Sergeant Latimer.
"What do we do now, sir?" asked Hagman.
"We go back, that's all, Dan. We came to make sure the bridge is gone, and the bridge is gone."
"Seems like such a waste, sir," said Harris. "If anyone is going to blow up something the Romans built, it might as well be us so's we can enjoy the bang."
"Up you get, all o' ye." Harper blared. The patrol began to get up, some faster than others. Sharpe gave Hagman his hand and pulled the old man up.
"Can we fill up the canteens, sir?"
"You're not drinking that water, lads, it's fouled." He began climbing the slope.
A scream from above came to Sharpe's ears. "Wing! Wing! East to west!"
His sentry was pelting down the slope, leaping from tussock to tussock, waving his rifle with one arm and pointing to the sky with the other. The company dropped its lethargy instantly. Without waiting for the command they had turned in their tracks and were falling back on the stones of the stream, the only possible cover if a dragon came down, and covering each other from the direction the sentry was pointing. Though what good that would do, if a dragon came down on them here, Sharpe did not know.
Sharpe went to ground with them, crouched down between two chunks of broken bridge. He scanned the grey clouds, rifle held ready. "What was it, Perkins?"
"Dunno sir, the mist made it hard to see. Not big."
Bad news – a heavy-weight dragon wouldn't deign to attack a mere patrol, but a smaller dragon might consider it worth the effort to kill a few infantrymen.
Sharpe ground his teeth. The stinking water was soaking into his trousers, it was icy cold, and it might all be only be for a little courier – or a big bird for that matter. He looked around at his men. "Anybody else see anything?" The chorus of negative replies didn't surprise him. The cloud cover at this altitude hung close to the land, making it hard to see more than a few dozen feet in the air.
"Wing!" somebody barked, "coming down the valley!"
Sharpe swung on his haunches, rifle ready. A dragon was coming down from the clouds, mid-dive toward the stream bed. It snapped its wings out just above the mud and swung level agilely, and now it glided directly at them. It was a small beast, purplish blue with grey on its wings – a British courier. What was it called, a Winchester or a Worcester? "Hold your fire, it's one of ours!"
Just yards short of the first of Sharpe's men, the dragon back winged smartly and dropped himself back onto his hindquarters. Mud splattered. The dragon balanced on his hind legs, looming hugely.
Sharpe stood up to let the dragon's captain see him, lowering his rifle. Most of his men stayed right where they were. He opened his mouth to call to the dragon's captain, and then found himself without words as he saw that this dragon had no captain, had no harness either, come to that.
The dragon stood and stared at its muddy legs for a moment, and harrumphed in tones of great disgust. Then the blue head swung towards them. It was a rather lean, hungry-looking head, with a long mouth filled with yellow teeth, and grey eyes.
Sharpe saw some of his men's rifle barrels twitch upwards in reflexive fright, and called, "Steady lads, hold your fire." He put his free hand out to the side in a calming gesture. He stared up at the dragon's eyes.
The eyes had dark vertical slits in an iris of grey ice, wild and alien as a lizard, and the slits twitched back and forth as the beast examined his men. Then the alien-ness evaporated as the dragon spoke.
"Are you in command here, my good fellow?" The dragon's voice was male, with a plummy drawl.
He restrained a start at being spoken to directly by a dragon. "I'm Captain Sharpe." Almost a captain, he reminded himself.
"Well, captain, you may want to rearrange your dispositions, quick-quick. There's a Grande Lorraine just the other side of that ridge, y'see, offloading crew. Middle-weight. They're trying to sneak, the poor deluded things, but they'll be here very shortly. Very shortly, old boy." The dragon nodded sharply, as if satisfied he had passed his message properly. He spoke with a languid aristocratic drawl; the sort of upper-class accent that instantly made Sharpe feel lumpish and resentful.
Sharpe barked without taking his eyes from the dragon's. "Sergeant Harper, lead out! Get them into that farmhouse!"
"Up the ridge, lads. Go, go, go! Over the top!"
Sharpe stayed, as his men peeled off in pairs behind him and bolted for the top, and gazed up at the dragon, which had come down onto his forelegs with a thump and was watching the riflemen run.
"We've done what we came here to do," Sharpe replied. "Where's your captain?"
"Oh, don't have one, old boy; I'm all on my alone-some." the dragon replied, airily. "Where's your support?"
"Don't have any, old boy. We're all on our alone-some, too." Sharpe found himself grinning.
"All clear sir, just waiting for you!" shouted Harper from halfway up the slope. Sharpe waved an arm to show he had heard.
"Thanks for the warning."
"My pleasure, sir." The dragon lowered himself into what Sharpe thought for a moment was a bow, until the great beast used the position to launch himself directly up into the air with incredible force. Sharpe turned and ran after his men.
By the time Sharpe's men were all inside the ruined farmhouse, and had secured it around themselves, he knew for certain there was another dragon out there. He'd turned in the doorway in time to see a huge shadow leap down from the clouds into the valley where they had all been just minutes ago. A roar echoed, and then re-echoed dully from the mountains.
Harper whistled appreciatively from his window.
Sharpe took his eye from the gap in the door and gave the roomful of soldiers a quelling look. "Don't celebrate too soon, lads, they might still follow us up here."
It wasn't likely the dragon would go to the trouble of taking the farmhouse down around them, he told himself. Without infantry support it would just be taking an unnecessary risk for no benefit.
Unless it was hungry - no. Sharpe shook his head to rid himself of the old dread of feral dragons he'd had drummed into him in the orphanage. He'd heard aviators swearing that they didn't eat people, never ate people, would never eat people.
There was a draconic roar, and the sound of gunfire. Sharpe put his eye back to the door again. Then a voice yelled out, "You missed me, you missed me, nyaaaah nyah!"
The voice was far louder than any human throat could produce – the Winchester? – and it provoked another shattering roar. Two shadows flashed up from the valley and away, a smaller one followed by a much bigger one, but they were too deep into the cloud before Sharpe could be sure of anything more. More shots popped, from further away. He couldn't see muzzle-flashes.
"Our friend is leading them away from us," he told his men anyway. There was a muted cheer.
Throughout the rest of the afternoon they stayed in the abandoned farm house. He put sentries out to watch and listen, but they heard nothing more, and as time passed Sharpe watched the tension ease from his men. Conversation blossomed, and some slept. He sent a search party out to see if there was fresh water in the outbuildings of the farm, but there wasn't – only the stream. Sharpe decided to march down the mountain passes again after dark instead of waiting for morning and the possible return of the Lorraine.
Late in the afternoon he heard the warning cry. "Wing! It's the blue one again!"
He shouldered his way under the low doorway of the farm, hearing the thump of the dragon landing in the farmyard.
"I'm here. Are you all right? We heard that thing chasing you."
"Oh, I'm all right, never fear. No Grande Lorraine was ever hatched that could catch a Winchester, especially not in weather like this. No trouble at all. They're dreadfully slow, Lorraines, y'see. Beautiful singing voices, but all the world knows, dreadfully slow fliers. " This last was said in a confiding tone, as the dragon lowered his head closer to Sharpe.
Sharpe gulped, and restrained the urge to take a step back. The dragon's eyes and voice were friendly, but his jaws were longer than a man's arm and his teeth glinted.
"To be honest, I had hoped I could persuade her to fly into a nice cliff, but no such luck."
"We're all very grateful anyway." He paused, unsure of how to ask a dragon its name without offending it. "What is, that is to say, what are you - ?"
"My name is Moncey, Captain. At y'service." Moncey lowered his body, and then Sharpe really did take a step back, expecting the dragon to launch himself again. But this time it was a bow. "I saw your green gentlemen through a break in the clouds, and thought for a moment they were Aerial Corps. Then I saw the Lorraine, and of course I realized I'd better warn you."
Sharpe turned back to the farmhouse, and realized he was still the only man standing in the yard. "Come out of there, lads, and stop hiding like a bunch of little girls!"
Sheepishly, one by one, Sharpe's patrol came out of the low door, until they all stood in a ring around the dragon. Moncey eyed them puzzled for a moment. "What manner of beasties are you all? Not Aerial Corps; nor Portuguese, surely?"
"We're the Ninety-Fifth Rifles, attached to the South Essex."
"Ah, I see."
"They calls us the Sweeps sometimes, sir, begging your pardon sir. On account of the uniform, sir." This was Harper, looking as cautious as if he was picking up a lit grenade.
"I've heard of you. I've heard you're good shots. Almost as good as the Aerial rifles, or so the Aerial rifles say." Moncey closed one eye, and looked challengingly at Sharpe.
Sharpe rocked on his heels, and pretended to think. "I wouldn't know what the Aerial Rifles say, 'cause they never say it when we're close enough to hear them." There was a titter behind him.
Moncey considered this for a moment. "So what are you doing here? The lines are – well, quite a long way away, for you little fellows."
"Trying to blow up a bridge, that someone else already has."
"That bridge down there?"
"Goodness, Majestatis tore that up days ago." Moncey looked around him at the riflemen. "I'm afraid you've all had a walk for nothing. You poor little things."
"Yes, well." Sharpe put his hands on his hips. "We'll just have to go back and tell headquarters that. The Lorraine – will it be coming back soon, do you think?"
"Oh no. Not after a flight like that, old boy. She'll need a rest, and they don't like flying at night, at all. If you'll permit my advice, Captain, leave now, so that by next morning you'll be well away."
"I think we'll take that advice, sir – uh, Moncey."
Moncey grinned and thumped the ground with his tail. "Sir! I think I like that! I don't think I've ever been called sir before."
"Look us up behind the lines, and I'll call you sir some more, if you like." Sharpe found himself grinning back. "I've had years of practice."
"You know, I think I just might." Moncey gathered himself to leap. "As I said, it's been a pleasure, captain."
A single leap carried Moncey into the air. He brought his wings out and down in his first thrust, lifting a miniature flurry of farmyard dust around the riflemen, then his next wingbeat thrust him up and forward and a moment later he was skimming the crest of the ridge and disappearing into the clouds.
Sharpe found himself strangely lacking the urge to run away. Spontaneously he put his arm in the air and waved. "I like him," he said to no-one in particular after the dragon was out of sight.
"He saved our bacon today, to be sure." replied Harper.
On the requirement of the Post Office that names and addresses be written in print.
The South Essex had been shrinking slowly since the campaign began, and now their numbers were so low that the entire regiment was billeted for the winter in and around a single village, not far from the border with Spain. The buildings huddled in the bottom of a flattened valley that sloped gently back towards the distant Atlantic, centred around a farmhouse that had been the headquarters of a stud farm. The house's owners had long since left the house to the careless attentions of both armies. Now, in late 1811, it was the South Essex's turn to make it their home. They slept in the empty houses, cooked in the vegetable gardens, and grazed their horses and goats in the paddocks that had once held fighting bulls. The main house became regimental headquarters, with the parlour's aristocratic paintings staring sourly down on the English officer's mess. The house was built of stone, and snug, and every officer had contrived to cram himself into it. Sharpe had a room there too, shared with Lieutenant Price, but he was rarely to be found in it.
This morning he was standing on the wide columned porch watching a man ride a donkey toward him. The donkey looked as if it was about to burst into tears. The rider wobbled unsteadily on the donkey's back with every step, and also looked as if he wanted to burst into tears.
"You have our mail, sir?" Sharpe asked as the rider pulled on the donkey's reins in front of the porch to haul it to a stop.
"Yes." The rider climbed off the donkey with a groan, leaving it loose, and pulled a sack from his saddle.
"I'm Captain Sharpe, I'll sign for it."
Sharpe signed the receipt on the wide rail of the porch, handed it back, and went inside. "The post is here!" he roared, and walked into the parlour.
Lieutenant Price was slumped back in a chair with a cloth over his eyes. "D'ye have to shout like that, begging your pardon, sir?"
"Yes, Harry, I'm showing you the error of your wicked ways. Didn't I warn you not to go drinking with the Dirty Half Hundred? Let's see what we have here." He sat down to decipher the handwriting on the letters. Rich… Sha… feminine handwriting… that was his. H… Price. "This is yours, Harry." Offi… Comm… that was the Colonel's. Another for Price. This one he couldn't make out at all, which meant it was probably from Pendleton's mother. William… Law.. also the Colonel's.
In a few minutes he had the letters arranged in neat piles. His own solitary letter went into his jacket pocket. He gathered Lawford's letters and went out to take them to him in person.
Lawford, being Colonel, had a room and a fireplace to himself. He was sitting at his desk with a pile of papers in front of him and a glass of wine at his elbow. More piles grew like muckheaps against the legs on either side of the desk. Sharpe knocked on the doorjamb to announce himself.
"Come in, Richard, and sit down. Letters?"
"All yours, sir." He handed them to Lawford.
Lawford put the letters on the desk, and ran his hands through his fair hair. "I have a heap of documents before me, Richard, and now, I am about to take a break from dealing with them, by dealing with fresh documents."
"Not all of it is paperwork, sir," Sharpe pointed out. He took his own letter out, broke the seal and turned to the name at the end. It was indeed feminine handwriting, and he began to read it with great pleasure.
He had gotten no more that two paragraphs into it, when Lawford interrupted him. "Richard, this isn't mine." His voice was distressed.
"I beg your pardon, sir?"
"This isn't mine." Lawford held up one of his letters and shook it. "I've opened it and it isn't mine. It's addressed to someone else."
"Are you sure, sir?"
"Of course I'm sure! It's addressed to William Laurence, not William Lawford!"
Sharpe took the letter and stared at the name scrawled on it. "It looked like Lawford to me, sir."
"Well, I didn't look at the name on it, I assumed you did!"
"Burn it, sir?" He leaned toward the fire with the letter in his hand.
"No! Don't do that! We have to return it to William Laurence!" He ran his hands through his hair again, so that it stood on end. "This is damned embarrassing, Richard – I have read another man's intimate correspondence."
"Well, it's an honest mistake, surely. I can just send the letter back with an apology to whoever-he-is."
"Richard, sometimes you are exceedingly ignorant of the requirements of polite society. This man would have every right to be dreadfully offended." Lawford made a visible attempt to calm himself. "And besides, I couldn't let you go and reap the whirlwind all by yourself. I'm the one who read the dratted thing."
"We can apologise together then, and if he gets all offended we can just say that it's all my fault because I'm no gentleman and I don't read very well." It seemed like a sensible solution to Sharpe, if Lawford was insistent on not destroying the letter, but the Colonel exhaled through his nose with his lips tight shut. Sharpe shifted uncomfortably in his chair while Lawford stared at him.
"We will have to find him first," Lawford said eventually, in a normal tone of voice.
"Well, I'll see if there's a clue in –."
"You can't read it, Richard! It's not yours. Anyway, the letter mentions a dragon – I think he's with the Aerial Corps."
"The address says Vilar Formoso, and there's a bunch of them stationed just north of there – maybe they have a William Laurence?"
"Yes. I'll write to their commanding officer and find out."
Two days later a reply arrived. A curiously terse reply, it confirmed only that there was a Captain William Laurence stationed at Vilar Formoso. It was signed by the Officer Commanding, without that man's name. Lawford showed it to Sharpe.
"Not much of a reply, sir," said Sharpe.
"They don't have much of a reputation for civility, these Aerial Corps officers." Lawford frowned at the note.
"Well, neither do I, sir," said Sharpe. "Are you having second thoughts about going to see this Laurence?"
"Not at all, not at all. In fact I cannot let their reputation put me off behaving in a gentlemanly manner. We shall go tomorrow, if it suits, Richard?"
"Suits me fine, sir."
In fact it did suit him. The weather had briefly taken a turn for the better, and the idea of remaining in one place and staring across the border for the whole winter had lost its novelty for Sharpe. With the much-reduced regiment crammed into one village, the close-quarters idleness was beginning to grate in his nerves. A short journey would be welcome.
"I'll take my new horse. Would you like to borrow Portia?" Lawford asked the question briskly, as if it was a simple matter of preference, but both he and Sharpe knew that Sharpe had no horse, had no money to keep one. He must either borrow a horse or walk to Vilar Formoso.
"That would be … convenient, sir."
"Excellent, excellent." Lawford set the letter down and rubbed his hands together. "Richard, there is something else."
The very mildness of his tone warned Sharpe. He felt his back tighten. "Sir?" he said, warily. "This has something to do with my gazette, sir?"
"No, no. Put that out of your mind, Richard." Lawford smiled at him, with his head on one side. "Your position in this regiment is unassailable."
"Thank you, sir."
"No, I didn't want to talk to you about the Light Company. It's the Third Company."
"The Third, sir?"
The Light Company, of any regiment, were the skirmish troops. The men picked for it were the quickest, both in wits and on their feet, just as the men picked for the Grenadier Company were the biggest and strongest. These two companies comprised the flank companies, under Captain Leroy and Captain Sharpe. Between the two extremes were the other eight line companies, and these were numbered.
"The Third now needs a new Captain. Smith has bought a majority, and he's taking himself off to a new mess. I'm sure we all wish him well in his new post. His replacement is on his way here as we speak. Captain Henry Bouganville."
"Does the rest of the regiment know about him yet?"
"The Third do, as of this morning. I wanted to tell you in person. And I also wanted to ask you a favour."
"Ask away, sir."
"Captain Bougainville is new to the Peninsula. All his service up until now has been out of Europe – mostly the Cape. He might be a trifle – awkward. I'd like you to – how do I put this – help him find his feet, as it were. In the South Essex."
"I'll do my best, sir."
"There's something else, Richard."
Lawford looked at Sharpe with narrowed eyes. "Do try, please do try, not to let this fellow go to the drink. Eh? Poor Slingsby still hasn't recovered his equilibrium, my wife says." Lawford shook his head. "Tragic, truly tragic. I try to tell her his succumbing to temptation was not your fault, but she does take an idea into her head."
Slingsby had been a drunkard long before he arrived, and Sharpe had hated him with a malevolence that rather embarrassed him now that the poor wretch had scuttled back to England, but he didn't think Lawford should hear that. "Yes sir."
"Speaking of buying promotion reminds me of something. You know I keep in contact with my friends in London. I have heard recently that Captain Lennox's will has finally come through the courts."
"Only now, sir?" Lennox had died over two years ago, before Talavera, while the South Essex was still a newly-formed unknown regiment.
"Yes, I thought you might have forgotten. There was some tangle or other, I don't know the details. But as it happens, his commission might be up for sale. I – don't know how much money you have, hidden away, Richard, but you might consider applying to buy it."
"I can't afford it, sir." He had money, with his agent in London, but certainly not fifteen hundred pounds.
"Ah, well." Lawford leaned back in his chair, ran his hands down his thighs, tapped his fingers on his knees. "It's not likely anyone will buy it, at this late date. I find it hard to believe they'll turn you down, Richard – I have written in the strongest terms, and I believe the General has done so too. You have nothing to fear, as long as I command the South Essex."
"Thank you, sir."
Meeting the CO at Vilar Formoso.
The Aerial Corps was headquartered in and around a large farm half a day's ride west of the town of Vilar Formoso, well behind the lines. It was approached by a single track, along which Sharpe and Lawford rode. For the headquarters of a large military force, the track was strangely empty of traffic, Sharpe thought. He tried to ease himself to a more comfortable seat in the saddle. They had been riding for hours, and his pride wouldn't let him say aloud that he was saddle sore in front of a horseman as accomplished as Lawford.
Some way ahead was a building, clearly a roadside inn. As they rode up, a man in the green uniform of the Aerial Corps came out from the stable, and waved to them. "I wonder what he wants," gloomed Sharpe, but he steered his horse to follow Lawford to where the Aerial Corps man waited for them.
"Dragons ahead. No horses beyond here, gennelmen," the man said, without a greeting.
"I beg your pardon?" Lawford huffed, offended.
"No horses beyond here, gennelmen, they goes berserk when they smells the dragons." This was delivered in the sing-song tone of one who has repeated the same line many times, and who consequently has a ready reply for any challenge to it. "You can leave 'em here, and get 'em when you come back."
"Surely you cannot expect us to walk …" Lawford began, but Sharpe reached out and put his hand on his arm, and the Colonel subsided.
"Oh, we're infantry, we can walk anywhere," he said lightly. "Walk to Paris, we will, eventually." He lifted his right leg over Portia's saddle and slid gratefully off. His legs trembled and his seat ached from the unaccustomed riding. Lawford harrumphed, but he dismounted too, and gave the reins of his horse to the Aerial Corps man.
"That's all right, sirs, they'll be right here when you come back. Come along, my beauties, come along."
"Rub them down!" Lawford shouted as the man led his horses away.
The two officers looked at each other. "I suppose we must do as Banquo did, from hence to the palace gate make it our walk," Lawford quipped.
"Macbeth, Richard, Macbeth."
They began walking up the crest. The track meandered over the rim of a basin and down again, through fields and orange orchards and stands of cork oaks. Sharpe found himself having to curb his strides so as not to outpace Lawford's shorter ones, even burdened with the weight of his rifle.
"Why do they always maroon themselves way out in the middle of nowhere?" Lawford mused as they walked. "Even in England you never find a covert anywhere near civilised society. Very unsociable fellows."
"Maybe they know people won't stand for having dragons near women and children."
"They could always have the dragons stay in the coverts while they take up residence in town, if they wanted. But no, they seem to seclude themselves intentionally."
They walked in silence a little longer. The sun came out from behind a cloud, but it had passed its zenith and the day was cold. No bees buzzed at this time of year, and no birds sang. "I feel somewhat as if I am walking to beard the lion in his den, Richard."
The farm building came into view between the trees, one step at a time. It was a large building with an old tower, surrounded by outbuildings and trees planted for shade, with a creeper-covered façade and a porch in the middle surrounding an open door. It was surrounded by a wall, with a wide gate through which a coach could fit. Behind the building rose the summit of a black marquee. Nobody appeared to be about, although it was the middle of the day.
"There's nobody here."
They climbed the steps to the porch and hesitated in the doorway. "There has to be somebody here, surely," Lawford said.
"Maybe they're all in the marquee?"
"I find it hard to believe no-one is watching their own front door. Shall we go inside?"
"You go inside, I'll go around."
"Spoken like a true skirmisher." Lawford nodded briskly and stepped into the dark interior of the house.
Sharpe went down the steps of the porch, and stood scanning the deserted front drive of the farm for movement. Then he turned on his heel and surveyed the grand Spanish façade of the house. Still nothing moved, not even in the windows of the tower. Had they come to the wrong place somehow? He decided to walk around the right of the house. He leaned his rifle's barrel across his shoulder and strode along the front of the building. At the corner he turned, and came to a dead stop.
The side of the building formed a shaded alleyway between the house itself and another outbuilding. Lying in the alleyway on the packed dirt at his feet was the end of a long black scaled tail, as thick as his thigh.
It appeared he had found a dragon.
He stood and examined the tail for a minute, wondering where the other end of the dragon was. Was it dead? No – a twitch ran through it, a tiny judder that trembled the black skin without raising the tail from the ground. The dragon's hide, this close up, was made up of tiny scales, that glistened as if they had been oiled.
Where there were dragons there were Aerial officers. He resumed his walk and followed the tail around the whole wing of the house. It snaked gently from side to side, ran between trees, and at one point led him across a completely crushed kitchen garden. It grew gradually in diameter as it approached the rear corner of the great house until it was almost as tall as he was, and suddenly his mind made the connection between the black tail in front of him and the black marquee he'd seen over the house roof. Oh, God, how big did they get?
He heard voices from somewhere overhead, boys calling in high-pitched voices in a strange language. The language seemed to be mostly hissing and spitting, and he didn't recognise it.
If a boy was comfortable walking past that tail, so could he. He would continue. He took a grip on his sword hilt, hitched his rifle further up on his shoulder, marched around the corner, and found himself facing a massive haunched hind leg.
The leg was doubled up on itself, since the dragon was clearly lying down, but the knee joint of that leg was higher than his head, and the smooth back he could see above it was higher still. The foot attached to the leg had five great taloned toes like a hawk's. The scales here were marred in places by rumpled scars that were paler and duller than the glossy black, and ran through it as a string of tendon runs through pork.
Sharpe continued walking past the leg, with one eye on it in case it suddenly moved and pinned him against the wall. He rounded the corner of the building. Beyond it he found himself in the shady 'marquee' that was formed by the dragon's raised wing.
The scene under the wing resembled a picnic more than a military establishment. Tables and chairs had been set up, but most were abandoned in favour of a chess table around which a cluster of men in Aerial Corps uniforms was gathered. The long arch of the dragon's neck curved back on itself so that its head was hovering above the little group. In the gap between the dragon and the house he could see a vista of another, even larger, dragon's front half and head, but this dragon had his head flat on the ground and appeared to be asleep.
Sharpe had no opportunity to decide on his approach – the dragon's head was facing in his direction, and it lifted at his appearance around the corner.
"Well, hello there, where did you spring from?" the dragon rumbled, in a tone of great astonishment.
The hall Lawford found himself in was long and dark and panelled with wood. At the other end was another open door. The door had clearly been left open deliberately to allow an air current to circulate in the stuffy interior, as it had been propped open with a huge iron buckle. It smelled strongly of leather polish and dragons.
Lawford took a few cautious steps. He peeked into a room on his left to see a long elegantly furnished dining room with a great table heaped with leather and metalwork – buckles and chains and carabiners, the equipage of a dragon. He shook his head at the sight, took another step, and stopped short. An Aerial Corps officer – a lieutenant – had popped out from an open doorway to his right.
The man blinked owlishly, clearly astonished at finding Lawford there. "Er. Can I help you?"
Lawford bridled, but he said only, "Colonel William Lawford of the South Essex, at your service." He made a bow, carefully keeping it rather shallow. "We have come to speak to Captain Laurence. If you would be so kind as to let him know?"
"Oh, yes," the Aerial officer said, but his eyes drifted behind Lawford, clearly worried who else was wandering unattended in the Aerial Corps headquarters. He turned on his heel and disappeared back into the room he'd just come out of. Lawford hesitated, put off balance by the bizarre reception, and then followed him. The lieutenant spoke to another Aerial officer who was slumped in an armchair with a newspaper spread over his lap, drinking tea. "Go upstairs and tell those twits with the telescope they have some explaining to do."
"What?" said the other lieutenant, then clammed up as he saw Lawford entering the room. He got to his feet from under his newspaper and left the room without another word, almost brushing Lawford's shoulder as he went.
"Please wait here, sir, I will call Captain Laurence. It shouldn't take a moment, sir."
Lawford resigned himself to a lengthy wait. He settled himself down in a chair and picked up the departed officer's newspaper, but barely a moment later he heard heels approach the door, and another man in an Aerial Corps uniform appeared.
This man wore the insignia of a captain. He had a strong, tanned face, with a refined brow and clear eyes that sought out Lawford's without hesitation. "Colonel Lawford?"
Lawford rose. "I am."
The Aerial officer made a bow – a real one. "Captain William Laurence, of His Majesty's Dragon Temeraire, at your service." Lawford made a bow in return, of matching depth – the captain of a dragon, like the captain of a ship, had an equal rank to a colonel of infantry in his own element, even if they were wildly disparate in terms of social quality. This man however had the manner and accents of a gentleman, and Lawford wondered why he had been relegated to the Aerial Corps instead of to the Army or Navy.
"I apologise for any inconvenience we may have caused you, Colonel. Would you care for some tea, or would you prefer wine?"
He made no excuses, Lawford noticed. "I'd be most grateful for tea, Captain."
Laurence poured out the tea with his own hands, not calling for a servant. Lawford remembered Sharpe, and said, "I am not alone, Captain. I have another officer with me, Captain Sharpe. He is – he was – outside." He bit off the words "…looking for you" before he could say them.
Lawford glanced at him, set the teapot down, and stepped out of the room, saying, "Please help yourself to milk and sugar, to your liking, sir."
A minutes later he was back. "He's not at the front, and I've sent someone to look for him and to direct him here. Now, shall we wait for him, or shall we discuss the matter of your visit in his absence?"
Lawford set his teacup down on the table. "Actually it may be simpler to discuss this matter in his absence. We are in accord with each other in this matter, but I feel that he might be left feeling somewhat unc-, er, out of his depth in this conversation. He's a little shy."
Laurence nodded and sat down opposite. "How may I be of service to you, then, sir?"
"I would ask rather how may I make amends to you, sir." Lawford reached into his pocket and drew out the letter, and without a further word handed it over to Laurence.
The Aerial Corps captain took the letter, carefully, and turned it over. "Oh," he said, his brows lifting, as he saw the handwriting on the outside.
"You'll notice it has been opened, Captain, for which I can only offer my most sincere apologies. It was delivered to my office, unnoticed by either myself or Captain Sharpe, due to – ah – the unfortunate similarity in our names." Lawford watched Laurence's face for signs of indignation.
Emotions crossed Laurence's face, as he looked at the letter, but anger was not one of them. "It is from my mother, Colonel. I thank you for the return of it. Letters from her are sparse these days, and I value each greatly."
Lawford felt a great burden lift off his shoulders. "I do apologise once again, Captain, for the intrusion."
"You are most sincerely forgiven, Colonel Lawford." Laurence looked up and smiled at Lawford, tucking the letter safely into his pocket. "How did you get up here, might I ask?"
"We are billeted for the winter almost a day's ride east of here, so we rode. I intend returning to the tavern up the road and spending the night there."
"You may well have the pick of the rooms. Not many civilian travellers are willing to sleep within earshot of a farm full of dragons, and our people go there only for recreation, so the tavern is rather short of custom."
"There are dragons here?"
A rather odd expression crossed Laurence's face, Lawford thought. "Why, yes. You may have seen some of them if you walked up the road."
"I'm afraid we saw none," Lawford admitted.
Laurence gave another of his smiles. "I can assure you, a dragon saw you. We have one sitting as a sentry on the ridge, who is supposed to signal if he sees anyone approaching along the road."
"I see." That explained the lack of any sentries or challenges. "Most cunning, sir."
"I think you'll find the commander is rather a cunning fellow." Now Laurence was openly grinning. "I see you have finished your tea. Would you like to meet him?"
"I'd be very glad for the opportunity."
"Delighted to hear it. Follow me, please."
Lawford followed Laurence out of the door, but instead of turning into one of the other doors Laurence led him straight down the corridor and out of the back door.
They emerged not into sunlight but into shade. Lawford stopped short in the doorway. They were right under the wing of a dragon.
Lawford stood frozen, his mouth hanging open, and simply stared. The dragon lay right alongside the house. It was black, and long, and huge. It was too big to take in all in one glance! His eyes darted up at the wing arched above, down to where the dragon's end disappeared around a corner, to the huge legs and talons, and finally to the dragon's head. The head seemed comprised mostly of teeth, and it was lowered menacingly over a knot of men in green uniforms.
Laurence hadn't noticed that Lawford had stopped, and he had continued marching straight down the steps and across the yard, calling, "Temeraire, there is someone here to meet you."
To his horror Lawford saw that one of the green uniforms was much darker than the others, and trimmed with rows of silver buttons. "Richard!" he cried before he could stop himself.
The dragon's head lifted and turned at the sound of Laurence's voice. "I have someone here to meet you, too, Laurence."
The little group of uniforms clustered under the dragon's head split apart, and Lawford saw that Sharpe seemed unhurt. In fact the madman was actually smiling. Wobbling slightly, Lawford descended the steps. Further under the black wing, he thought, and closer to the teeth, but he avoided looking at those, keeping his eyes fixed on Sharpe.
"Colonel Lawford?" Sharpe asked, uncertainly, and came towards him. Lawford restrained the urge to clutch at him.
"Is that man all right?" rumbled the dragon's deep voice again, and suddenly, much too suddenly, the head was right above them, tilted down at them so as to see them properly.
"Muh," said Lawford, staring up at the dragon's head, and then clamped his hands over his mouth.
"He's just a bit dazed to meet you, that's all," Sharpe replied cheerily, and reached out to steady Lawford as the Colonel sagged. "I'm sure he's delighted. William, you're all right, aren't you? May I introduce Temeraire?" Sharpe said to Lawford, pointing up at the dragon with his free hand.
"Pleased to meet you," Lawford replied automatically through his fingers, and managed to steady his legs under him. Sharpe took his supporting hand away.
Laurence had come back across the yard again. "Temeraire, may I introduce Colonel William Lawford of the South Essex," he said.
"Oh!" said Temeraire, "You wrote me that odd letter asking me if Laurence was here. Laurence, this is Captain Sharpe of the 95th Rifles. We met while you were inside, and we have been talking about Talavera. He took an Eagle there."
"Pleased to meet you, sir," said Sharpe, and thrust out a hand to shake Laurence's. Lawford glanced at him. The rifleman's hard face was relaxed, and he seemed perfectly happy to be standing in the shadow of a dragon the size of a sail loft. Lawford had always trusted Sharpe's talents in war, as deeply as he mistrusted Sharpe's sense of propriety. If Sharpe was comfortable around the dragon, then so would Lawford be. He straightened his shoulders, resolute.
Laurence shook Sharpe's hand, with a sidelong glance at Lawford. The other Aerial Corps officers had drawn back out of their conversation, and now Laurence re-introduced them one by one to Lawford as members of Temeraire's crew and other officers. Some of them seemed rather effeminate to Lawford, enough that for a moment he actually imagined that they might be women. Some of them seemed fearfully young too. One of them was even Chinese, of all things, who was introduced as Temeraire's cook.
"That over there is Majestatis," said Laurence, pointing to the other sleeping dragon, "but he has no crew. All the other dragons are out of sight presently." He waved his hand in the air, to indicate 'on the other side of Temeraire.'
"Why is he wearing a harness, and why isn't Temeraire?" asked Sharpe. Lawford winced at the bluntness of the question, but none of the Aerial officers seemed to mind.
"He carries paying passengers," said Temeraire doubtfully, "as if he were a ferryboat, but he doesn't like to pay anyone to take his harness off and put it on again every day."
The other dragon's eye opened, and he said, "I heard that, youngster." Then he closed his eye again.
"We take Temeraire's harness off as much as possible, and the others too, when they aren't flying regularly," Laurence explained. "They are more comfortable that way."
Lawford held back slightly, watching, alive to every nuance that might be construed as an insult to his uncultured friend, but none of them even raised a brow at Sharpe's rough speech or threadbare uniform. Not one of them seemed anything like the overbearing, arrogant image of an Aerial Officer that he had had. In fact, he realized with a little sinking feeling, they were making Sharpe much more welcome than any infantry officers' mess would have.
"When you arrived, we were playing chess against Tem– ," began Laurence, but he was interrupted.
There was a shout above their heads, and they all looked up. A human head thrust itself out of an open window of the tower, and shouted, "Wing! Moncey coming!"
"Moncey," said Sharpe, starting. "I know Moncey."
"You do, too," said Temeraire, sounding amused. "He told us all about his adventure with a group of green gentlemen."
"I thought he was very big until I saw you," Sharpe told him.
Lawford started as a dragon somewhere roared.. Dragon heads were showing above the line of Temeraire's back, and others were rising from behind the treetops. There was a roar, a rush of wings, and another dragon arrived, dropping into the gap between Temeraire and Majestatis so suddenly that Majestatis jerked his head up and hissed at him. This dragon was much smaller than Temeraire, but he had arrived with shocking speed. Lawford reached to clutch Sharpe again, but restrained the gesture just before he could embarrass himself.
A gesture from Laurence sent the junior Aerial Corps officers back out of earshot, while he led the senior officers to meet Moncey.
"Hello, hello, hellooo," the newcomer greeted them all, turning his long lean head this way and that and shuffling his wings. His tongue flicked out. "Why it's Captain Sharpe, come to visit at long last."
"Hello, Moncey," said Sharpe, grinning hugely. "Good to see you again."
"Did you fly well?" asked Temeraire.
"I flew well, and far, and had a ton of fun." Moncey flipped his wings comfortably against his back. "Can't stay long, my friends, have to buzz back with the news."
"What news today?" asked Temeraire.
"Well for starters, I've spotted a kind of dragon I've never seen before in my life – about your size and reddish brown, and unharnessed. I was quite far away, though, couldn't say much else about it."
"Another Spanish feral?"
"Not with two Petit Chevaliers for a consort. Never seen anything like it. I'm going to name it Big Red, for future reference. As to where the enemy is frying his garlic today…" The Winchester tipped his head queryingly. "Can I speak freely, Temeraire? Not that I mistrust you, Captain Sharpe, but…"
"Well, I've heard enough of Captain Sharpe's reputation to know that Wellington himself trusts him." Temeraire said.
Laurence looked at Lawford and Sharpe. "Can I have your assurance you will keep quiet on anything you hear?"
"My next stop is Wellington himself," said Moncey. "Officially I report to him, but hey, if I can't talk to my friend Temeraire who can I talk to?"
Lawford glanced at Sharpe and nodded. "You have our word."
"Well," began Moncey. "It seems we were right last week, Temeraire, old boy. They've pulled back almost all the way to Ciudad Rodrigo, but there's a definite line in the sky around it that's being heavily patrolled. I had a devil of a job getting across it, couldn't get a look into Ciudad at all before I was chased out by a Defendeur Brave. Had to goose the angels to get past him, but they aren't even trying to keep a presence this side of that line."
"They've gone into winter quarters?" mused Temeraire's second officer.
"Goose the angels?" asked Sharpe.
Moncey lowered his head to him. "It's a figure of speech," he explained. "Light dragons can fly much higher than human beings can breathe. If a human being went that high, he'd be so high he'd be goosing the heavenly choir. Much higher, and he'd end up singing with 'em."
"No harnessed dragon would fly that high, not for any reason," said Temeraire, and he nudged Laurence with his nose affectionately, so that the Aerial Corps man had to brace his feet so as not to be pushed over onto his face.
"So if I want to get away from a harnessed dragon, all I have to do is fly higher than he can without killing his crew. Easy peasy," said Moncey.
"They didn't give up any air to us last winter," Temeraire said. "This is new."
Moncey tapped his chest with a talon. He wore a broad strap around his neck, and hanging from it was a flat leather pouch. "I've picked up some messages that the guerrillas … er, got their grubby little hands on. Our Scovell fellow will be able to read 'em in no time, and we'll soon find out what's cooking. I have a feeling, mind, and it's just a leetle hunch, that there's something going on over there that they don't want us to see."
"Maybe there's a new fellow in command?" Laurence asked.
"There is. Marmont was definitely called back to France. He's gone, but who's here in his place? None of our agents know sweet bugger-all. Actually, some of our agents have disappeared themselves, which is very worrying."
"They can't keep a secret forever, with almost the whole of Spain turned against them," Temeraire said.
Sharpe looked up at Moncey. "I'm starting to get the feeling that you're more than just a courier."
Moncey laughed out loud. "What gave you the idea I was a courier?"
"Well, you're rather – small. Compared to Temeraire." Sharpe shrugged. "I thought all small dragons carried messages."
Moncey preened himself slightly. "Me, the fastest dragon in Britain, a courier? Not a chance. I'm one of Wellington's exploring officers – and I have a captain's commission to prove it. And a captain's pay. I don't answer to Temeraire, really, my boss is Major Hogan."
"Major Hogan!" Sharpe's smile was very wide now. "We have something in common then. I know him very well. How is he?"
Moncey did something then that Lawford didn't understand. He held up one taloned forehand and sniffed the back of it, then pretended to sneeze. Sharpe clearly understood the gesture, because he laughed.
Laurence looked at Lawford. "Will you gentlemen stay for dinner? We've plenty, with all the dragons hunting."
"I think that would be delightful," said Lawford, looking at Sharpe. "I think we have a great deal to talk about."
"Well, I'm off," said Moncey cheerily. "Keep a cow for me, Temeraire. I'll be back in the morning."
Dancing the skies on laughter-silvered wings
A week had passed since the trip to Vilar Formoso.
Sharpe and Lawford had had dinner, and remained until late, so that they walked back to the tavern by moonlight. Moncey had flown back after dinner, to join in the conversation from a perch curled up on Temeraire's back. They had been introduced to more dragons, and to more crews, and it had dawned on both infantry officers at the same time that some of the Aerial officers really were the women they looked like they were. The reputation of the Aerial Corps for surliness was unfounded, Sharpe and Lawford agreed on the trip back to the regiment, and Temeraire was as clearly as much a gentleman as a twenty-ton dragon could be. Sharpe found it all fascinating.
The weather took a decisive turn towards winter. Sharpe had spent the morning drilling in competition with the second company of the South Essex, and this afternoon he and those of his men with rifles were engaged in wasting the King's powder and shot for the sheer fun of it. A target had been set up 300 yards away and they were firing at it, although Hagman was the only man whose shots regularly thumped a puff of dust from the poor abused target, which was beginning to look as if it had been attacked by sharks.
The day was hazy, and cold, and the Riflemen – and redcoats, for some of them had inherited rifles from lost Riflemen – of the Light Company were bundled up well. Sharpe's winter clothes were still in stores, far away in Lisbon, and he wore a tattered woollen garment between his jacket and his shirt, and a strip of stolen curtain around his neck and head as a makeshift scarf. The new Third Company captain, Bougainville, had snorted derisively when he saw it this morning, but Sharpe did not care.
"Wing," warned Harper, suddenly, just as Tongue fired again, kicking up a puff beyond the target. The Irishman's pointing finger tracked around in a wide circle, and Sharpe followed it with his eyes. A little speck skimmed the air against the mountains, seeming to throb rapidly. The throbbing became more definite, clarified into rapid wingbeats. The dragon was purplish-blue. Sharpe pulled his telescope out and ran out the lenses. It took a moment to find the little dragon in the lens against the busy background of mountain rock. Then it jumped into view, crystal clear, and it was Moncey, tipped over on one wing and twitching his long head from side to side as he scanned the valley below. Sharpe tracked him a moment, lost the rapidly-moving dragon, found him again, lost him and gave up trying to track him. His marbled hide blended in with the texture of the mountain too well.
"I think it's Moncey," said Harper.
"It is." Sharpe ran the telescope closed. The rest of his men were staring up too, more curious than worried. Sharpe had told Harper of his visit into the lion's den, word had travelled, and now the others were curious to meet Moncey again and see what kind of guest a dragon made.
"Sir," said Perkins, "they're running around back there." He was pointing behind them across the fields to the village. Sure enough there was activity in the village – he could see horses bucking and redcoats sprinting from house to house. It was too far away to hear but he could imagine the swearing.
"Let 'em. If they can't tell he's British to hell with 'em."
The dragon was circling their village, he realized – looking for a place to land? "Wave!" he snapped to his men. "Wave! Catch his attention – he's looking for us!" As encouragement he waved his own arms in the air wildly. "Spread out!"
The dragon levelled out at last in their direction, and stopped beating his wings so that he glided lower and lower. He grew larger as he came on towards them. Sharpe's men were still leaping up and down, waving their arms, yelling and laughing, and Perkins was beginning a surprisingly accurate imitation of an angry ape. "Stop that, for God's sake! He's not blind!" he barked, but he couldn't stop himself laughing at the ridiculous show.
Moncey braked hard by backwinging and dropping himself tailfirst in what Sharpe realized was a showy entrance. "Hello, hello helloo." His pouch still hung from his neck, but it now had been painted with a Union Jack.
"Hello, Moncey!" Sharpe gripped his sword hilt and walked forward. "Come to visit?"
"I have indeed. One can't let one's manners drop just because we're at war. And I do b'lieve it's your turn to be at home for callers today, old boy. Regret terribly I don't have a card for you," and here Moncey spread one hand on his breast and gave an exaggerated imitation of a bow.
Sharpe placed his own hand on his chest, swirled the other behind him in a flourish and bowed back, in mimicry of the overpuffed Spanish grandees he'd seen. "Delighted to tell you we don't have a little silver thingy to put it on anyway."
Moncey laughed and thumped his tail on the ground, and Sharpe laughed too. He looked around at his men and found that to a man they were grinning hugely. No-one was yet stomping up from the houses to find out why a dragon had landed riderless and was chatting up the Greenjackets, but he knew it was only a matter of time. He could see a few red coats edging out from hiding.
"We're doing some target practice today." He pointed down the makeshift range at their target.
Moncey twisted his head on his long sinuous neck to look at the target. "My, my. Looks like you've been hitting it, anyway. What are you shooting with, cannons?"
Sharpe held up his rifle mutely.
"I think you need a new target, old fellow."
"Oh, we have – we made up five."
The Light Essex's officers were trailing up through the field toward them now, Lawford in the van, with most of the rest of the South Essex making up a loose rearguard.
"I think I'm about to be mobbed," said Moncey doubtfully. "I hope none of 'em bite."
"None of 'em bite," Sharpe reassured him. Moncey put his head on one side and watched the crowd approach, his tongue flickering.
Lawford reached them first, and Moncey greeted him, "Colonel. How do you do."
"Very well. How do you do, Moncey?"
"I'm in excellent health, and so's the rest of the covert. I owed you all a return visit, and Colonel Temeraire imposed on me to carry your fine regiment's letters. So here I am, eh? Captain Sharpe, if you'd be so kind as to fish your letters out of my pouch?"
Sharpe had never been quite so close to a dragon before. He hadn't actually touched Temeraire. Moncey's body, close to, was covered with small close scales in a neat grid pattern, each a slightly different shade, which gave him his mottled blue-purple colour. Despite his size, each scale was only the size of a snake's. Sharpe put out his hand, and touched the dragon's shoulder. It was warm to the touch, to his surprise, hard-muscled under the pressure of his hand, but the scales felt as smooth as if they had been polished. He looked up, and found the dragon watching him.
Moncey was not as big as he now knew other dragons to be, and he found the pouch was easily in reach. It was closed by a flap secured by buckles, which the dragon clearly couldn't open himself without human help. It held a wedge of papers tied with string. He stepped back to Lawford and handed it all to him. "I think you had better sort it this time, sir."
Moncey said, "Captain Sharpe was about to give me a demonstration of his company's marksmanship." The look he gave Sharpe was challenging. "He maintains the 95th Rifles are finer shots than the Aerial Rifles."
"Oh, did he really?" said Lawford. He looked at Sharpe, and grinned at him. "Carry on, Captain Sharpe." He stepped back with a wave of his free hand.
Sharpe turned on his heel. "Rifles! Reload. Clear the range." He hoisted his own rifle, began loading it.
His men fell into a rough line. He took his place alongside them. Hagman whirled his ramrod jauntily while reloading. Moncey shuffled backward out of their line of fire. "Present!"
A row of rifle barrels rose, Sharpe's among them. "Level!" He adjusted his barrel for the distance.
"Take aim! Fire!"
Shots rang out and smoke gusted. His men had been trained only to fire when they had a target in sight, so to a line officer their volley would have seemed too ragged. Instead their shots hammered in a rough tattoo. Sharpe's hand was able to bring his rifle into an aligned position on its own, after years of constant practice. He fixed his eye on the target, his finger squeezed and the big nine-pound weapon banged and bucked. Miss, he thought, but it didn't matter.
The cold breeze carried the smoke away, and they could all see. Their target had collapsed in the grass, shattered by the weight of heavy rifle bullets all striking at once. A few strings of stuffing drifted in the air behind it. There was actual applause from the group of officers.
"Very impressive, at that distance, and with a crosswind too," Moncey said.
Sharpe held back from saying that they had already been banging away at the same target for an hour, from different distances and directions, so they were all very familiar with that crosswind.
"Very good, all of you," Lawford commended the Riflemen, with a trace of smugness in his voice. "And which do you think are the better shots?"
"Well, this has been a most excellent demonstration, Colonel. Hmm. I think I'll just have to say that the Aerial Corps are the best marksmen in the world in the air, and the South Essex are the best in the world on land. Anyone caught between you is in serious trouble."
Major Forrest piped up unexpectedly. "Hurray for Moncey!"
Flattered, the South Essex roared its approval.
"Now I think we're all eager for our letters, so Moncey, I will bid you good day, and leave you to the mercies of your hosts." From Lawford, that was as good as a command to 'leave the dragon alone now' and the men of the South Essex began drifting back to whatever they had been doing.
"And good day to you, Colonel," Moncey said. He and Lawford exchanged polite nods, and Lawford left them.
"What's with the Union Jack?" Sharpe asked, as he began the lengthy business of reloading the Baker.
"What's wrong with a Union Jack?" Moncey retorted.
"You didn't have it last week."
"One of my fellow exploring officers pointed out that since I'm technically not in uniform when I go on my little flutters over the lines, I could be considered as a spy. I'd hate to be seen as a spy, wouldn't you? Nasty spiteful things."
"Creeping around in ladies' linen drawers, that sort of thing, sir?" Harris piped up.
"Exactly!" Moncey brightened up. "I would never creep around in a lady's linen drawers! Nobody shall ever impugn my good name with such accusations! Thou canst not say I did it! Therefore, the Union Jack." He put a talon under the sachel to lift it so he could admire it himself. "I had it painted in Lisbon. Which was easy-peasy compared to getting the dratted thing in the first place, I can tell you. Major Hogan wrote to the Depot of Military Knowledge in London for a dragon-sized dossier carrier, and they wrote back saying 'wha-a-at?' Had to get it made specially." He let it drop.
"Jenkins, and you, Batten, go down and put the next target up," Sharpe told two of his men.
Moncey leaned over. "Actually, why don't you go, and I'll give you a lift?" He gave Sharpe a wink.
"A lift?" Sharpe stared at him. "You'll carry me down?"
Jenkins stared from one to the other. "Sir?"
"Wait, Jenkins," said Moncey. "I'll carry you down, you pick a target, and I'll bang the pole in for you. Eh? You have ridden a dragon before, haven't you?"
A ride on a dragon? "I haven't. I was in Corunna." Sharpe had missed out on all the carrying-around during the French occupation, having been with Moore in Corunna when it had all happened. He'd been cut off from the rest of the 95th, and had been among among those of the rearguard who had found themselves with nowhere to be evacuated to. And then he had been picked up by Major Hogan. A ride on a dragon? It would be a novel experience, to see what the world looked like from up there. He felt a surge of excitement bite at his breath. "All right. I'll go. Just don't drop me."
"I promise. Here, hop up." Moncey lowered himself slightly, and Sharpe used his neck strap as a handhold to help himself climb. It was trickier than getting on a horse, and Sharpe was too mindful of not jabbing the dragon's shoulder with his boot toes to climb easily.
"This won't snap, will it?" he grunted.
"We're only going 300 yards, old boy, but no. It's the breech strap of a Yellow Reaper, it has a big fat steel chain in the middle of it. Put your leg over, there we go."
Sharpe had managed to reach Moncey's back, heaved his leg over, and now sat perched precariously above his shoulders. Moncey's spine was flat enough here to sit across, and he was hard and solid and slippery. Sharpe wrapped his fists around the broad strap. He looked down at the upraised faces of his Riflemen, and gave them a grin and a wink.
Moncey leaped with such a force that Sharpe nearly tumbled over backwards. He had been expecting only a leap such as a horse might give! For a frightening second he felt himself sliding over, but he still had a grip on the strap to haul his body straight up again, against the force of the wind, and then he pressed himself forward on Moncey's neck. He caught a glimpse of ground flashing below. He was flying! Going faster than he'd ever gone before! The laugh that came out of his mouth was as involuntary as the yowl of panic that had come before it. Moncey's wings hadn't even beat, he was just using them to glide, and Sharpe just had time to glance at them, stretched behind and below him. Then the big body thumped, jarring his teeth, nearly jerking him off again, and they were standing still, earthbound. The wings folded up again to either side. He slumped against Moncey's neck, and laughed with sheer delight.
"Oi, what's the matter with you?" Moncey's long head was craned back, regarding him with curiosity. "You liked it that much, did you?"
"Oh yes." Sharpe climbed off on the other side of Moncey and tottered around his flank, so that his watching men might not see how their commanding officer sat down hard in the dry grass and laughed like a maniac.
"That's only three hundred yards, my boy. Maybe I should take you for a little further, eh?"
"That would be fun."
"All right, you find yourself something to stick yourself on with, and we'll do it. Where this target?"
Sharpe put his hands on his knees and pushed himself to his feet. "Over here." The targets had been made of woven straw and grass, scraps of fabric and tied up in old carpet with a post stuck up the middle to stand on. They lay in a row on the ground next to their fallen comrade, looking like a burial party of shapeless scarecrows. Moncey reached out, gripped the nearest one in both forehands, raised it to a vertical position, and then to Sharpe's astonishment, simply hammered it into the ground with a few economical blows with a knotted fist. "We dug holes for them, actually," he said weakly.
"Never mind, you can use your holes when I'm not here." Moncey flipped his wings. "Ready to fly back?"
This time the huge leap didn't take him by surprise and he was able to press himself into Moncey's neck, and then to sit up and marvel at the speed.
"What does it feel like, sir?" asked Harper, when they landed. His men crowded around now. Any trace of wariness they might have felt had evaporated completely.
"Like flying! It's really flying! Whoosh!" Sharpe made a blowing motion with his arms, and then laughed again at his own inarticulateness. Harper laughed at him.
"I'm going to take him for a longer flight, if you can find something to attach him to me properly," Moncey interrupted, amused. The Riflemen exchanged glances, and a discussion broke out that ended with Perkins being sent running to the village to look for rope. Target practice was forgotten.
In minutes, Sharpe sat astride Moncey's back again, with ropes secured around his calves and the neck strap, and another rope threaded between his belt and the neck strap. He tugged on each rope, with Moncey and Harper's eye on him to make sure all was snugly knotted.
"Not too tight?"
"No. I'm ready."
Without more ado, Moncey leaped. Sharpe rode the leap this time, pressed flat and gripping tight. The force of the wind took his breath away.
This time Moncey beat his wings sharply, driving himself up higher and higher. Every wingbeat caused Sharpe to shift back and forth in his seat. Sharpe kept his eyes on Moncey's head, until he couldn't avert his eyes any longer, and looked down. They were already high enough that the whole village lay spread out below like a map. His men were far behind out of sight already. They were flying!
The magnificence of it struck him again and he laughed aloud, and then whooped in surprise as Moncey stopped beating and tipped suddenly onto his wing. Sharpe found himself hanging sideways with empty air to his right. The drop grabbed at his weight hungrily. He clutched the leather strap and tried to hoist himself up again. "Don't drop me!" he yelled, terrified but delighted at the same time. The whole valley was spread out like a great bowl under him, so far below that his right boot was actually blotting out the manor house. Their shadow skimmed across the landscape, keeping pace from a wary distance.
"I won't drop you! Stop wiggling, you're unbalancing me!" Moncey levelled out again, gliding, letting his momentum alone keep him in the air. Sharpe looked out along his wings. He could see the tiny adjustments Moncey made to them so as to glide, opening and closing the stiff spines slightly, lifting and dropping them, teasing the air currents under himself just so. He could feel some of those muscle shifts, transmitted through Moncey's shoulders to his neck. He could feel the result of some of them in Moncey's balance under him.
"It's like sailing," he wondered aloud. "You're balancing."
Moncey twisted his head back so as to talk in the air, and began to beat his wings again. "You don't weigh as much as I'd thought, but I can still feel you moving around. I'm not used to a rider's weight, so please don't."
"I'll keep as still as I can," he promised. He was beginning to relax his grip on the strap, sitting up and looking around. The wind pressed his hair back from his forehead. He looked down the side of Moncey's neck, past Moncey's taloned hand. The ground was sliding along below, a road spooling out like a string, fields and trees pressed flat by their elevated view. He'd walked that road and those fields, knew they were far from flat, but from up here they looked so insignificant it seemed as if he could have stepped from one field to the next in a single hop. He looked further away, at the mountains, and realized that they could go to those peaks, choose any of them and land on it. "Where will we go?"
"Anywhere. Big circle?"
"I don't mind a big circle."
It was surprisingly intimate to talk to a dragon in mid-air, a private tete-a-tete on which no-one could eavesdrop. The rush of wind on either side gave the sensation of being closeted together in walls of air.
"I asked Major Hogan about you," Moncey called back.
"He seems to think we're birds of a feather, you and I. He said something to the effect that you're a cheeky rogue, and a loner, and a loose cannon."
"I was born in a whore house, and raised in the gutter, if that's what he means."
"I was born in a barn, thank you very much. Ran away when I was three minutes old, and raised myself on stolen sheep. Hogan said you're a fighter from the devil's own army come to show us mortals how they do it in hell. Are you?"
"I think he's exaggerating," Sharpe called, but he was pleased.
"I hope not. I rather like the sound of that. The devil's own army! Hah!"
Moncey pushed his head and neck up, and suddenly Sharpe found himself clinging again, as the dragon climbed steeply and gravity tried to drag him toward Moncey's tail. He slid backward a little, fingers clutching, but the ropes held and he fixed his gaze on the clip of daytime moon in front of him, unafraid. Moncey's wings scooped the air under him, beating almost parallel to his body, banging open and shut noisily with the force of his climb. "How fast can you go?" Sharpe called.
Moncey twisted his head back toward him. "Very fast! Hold on, I'm going to dive!"
And with that he did, twisting over himself in the air so that Sharpe hung briefly upside down, and then Moncey seemed to stand on his head, and they dropped, fast, like a stone, like an arrow, like the end of the world.
Sharpe felt his neck straining against the wind, felt the force of it push tears out of his eyes. It seemed to be trying to force itself down into his lungs against his own breath, trying to choke him, as alive as the sea. He pressed his face into Moncey's neck and howled with glee at their sheer speed, and the dragon roared with him.
Making friends, and irritating superiors
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
For reasons known only to himself, Moncey returned often to their billet in the following weeks.
He developed the habit of staying overnight with the South Essex, and leaving again in the morning. His habit somehow was transmitted to the other courier dragons, and the South Essex officers grew used to abruptly hosting Aerial Corps officers for dinner, and found, to their general surprise, that the Aerial officers weren't nearly as unfriendly as they were reputed to be. The men grew used to the sight of dragons, cruising the air around the village or lounging in the fields.
Once Moncey brought along his mate, another Winchester named Laculla, and that night the two lay intertwined on the ground and slept. Once Majestatis came, and disembarked a dozen rather dizzy officers for the 50th regiment, the Dirty Half Hundred, in the next valley. But most often their visitor was Moncey, alone.
The army was in winter cantonments, and once settled into place the social calendar reasserted itself, as if they were all still in England. The regiment's officers were drawn into a whirl of parties, concerts, hunts, and dinners. Sharpe was left alone, neither fish nor fowl with the other officers of the mess. He was with them, but he was not one of them, and he knew he never would be. Unless someone insisted, he was content to be left out of the interminable parties, he had no interest at all in joining a hunt club, and he had no fighting to do. He was bored, and so when Moncey was reported as being in the offing, he would walk down to the dragon's usual landing spot to meet him there. Sharpe often found himself leaning familiarly against the Winchester's shoulder, talking of this or that. Despite the wild differences in their size and past, he felt an immediate understanding with the dragon, an unspoken concurrence that up until now he had felt only with Harper.
Harper liked the Winchester, but he spent less time in his company than Sharpe did. Harper had more to occupy his time on these cold days, with his latest Portuguese ladyfriend, and the other Irishmen, and with the humdrum society of the regiment.
Lawford and the other officers too looked at Sharpe and Moncey deep in conversation, and withdrew to leave them to each other's company.
Occasionally they flew together. Sharpe enjoyed these flights. He'd learned the knots needed to tie himself securely to Moncey's neckstrap so that he could tie and untie them smoothly. He learned to balance himself to Moncey's movements, under the dragon's teaching, sometimes to throw his weight to one side to assist the dragon in a tight turn, sometimes to hold himself still so as not to knock the dragon's turns off. It was different to riding a horse. Moncey didn't need to be told what to do, but as they learned each other's movements, Sharpe found that he could predict what the dragon intended to do next. Moncey admitted he could feel what Sharpe was doing, and sometimes what he was feeling, transmitted through the small weight on his neck.
Some of the other officers had been willing to try it as well, but Harry Price had been the next man on Moncey's back. The dragon had lifted off, coasted a few hundred yards then landed again immediately, to let Price tumble off and be sick on the grass. He'd sworn Sharpe had to be mad to fly voluntarily. Nobody else suggested a ride after that.
The only thorn in Sharpe's side was Bougainville.
The man simply grated across the nerves. He'd got off to a bad start with the South Essex by requesting of Lawford that three men in his company be flogged for untidiness. Lawford had listened, and taken the new man into his office. Then, Sharpe guessed, Bougainville was told the South Essex's history under the unfortunate command of Sir Henry Simmerson, and the consequential reason why he, William Lawford, was exceedingly sparing with the lash.
Sharpe had been told by Leroy, privately, that when he wasn't present Bougainville had made scathing comments about men associating with dragons, but Lawford had made his disapproval clear, and Bougainville had subsided. Sharpe had had enough sneers since his promotion to commissioned officer to grow a fairly thick skin, and he liked the dragon's company too much to give it up on the basis of a few snobby words. After all, he told himself, if the company of dragons was good enough for Captain Laurence, who was a true-born gentleman, then surely it was good enough for the bastard son of a whore.
Still, the man was irritating, and he found himself bristling whenever he was in Bougainville's company.
"I've been meaning to ask you something," Sharpe told the dragon one morning after Harper had left them to their conversation.
"Your name. Moncey. Are you connected to that Frog general?"
"Ah, him. Monsieur le Marechal Bon Adrien Jeannot de Moncey, duc de Correglaino." The long French name slid glibly off Moncey's tongue. "No, he's not my long-lost twin brother, or anything like that."
Sharpe had jumped at the sound of the name, now he stared up at Moncey. The dragon's pronunciation had been perfect. "You speak French?"
"Oui, mon ami," Moncey said, amiably. "Learned it in the shell, and Italian. Portuguese, too, but I've picked that up the hard way. And I can just about make myself understood in Spanish if my conversation partner doesn't scream and run away."
"Does that happen?"
"Oh, all the time. Superstitious lot, these Iberians."
Sharpe forbore to mention that when he had grown up, London mothers had burned garlic on their hearths to prevent dragons from flying down the chimney and stealing their newborns away. He suspected that his mother might have neglected that precaution...
Moncey continued. "To go back to your original question, Captain, no, I am not named for anyone. My name is a contraction of Monte Sant'Angelo. That is a mountain in Italy."
"Why on earth are you named after a mountain in Italy?"
"I haven't the foggiest idea, old chap. Why on earth are you named after a dead king? I suppose my candidate captain had a fondness for the place. Perhaps he hatched there?"
"So your real name is Monty Santy…" Sharpe fumbled over the name.
"Monte Sant'Angelo. I have people sign my despatches Captain T. D. Monte Sant'Angelo. Polite society hasn't yet worked out that T. D. stands for The Dragon." Moncey shifted his weight sideways, flicked his tongue out at Sharpe, close by but not touching him. "Since you now have my name, might I beg the familiarity of calling you by yours? Richard?"
"Of course. And are you a Winchester? Or a Worcester?" Sharpe asked.
"No such thing as a Worcester, old boy. And I'm only half a Winchester, other half is a Widowmaker."
"What's that look like?"
"Big. With wings."
Sharpe smacked his shoulder, and Moncey laughed.
On one memorable flight, Moncey decided he was hungry, and would hunt on the wing. Sharpe wouldn't have thought there would be anything left to hunt in the valleys where an army had been living for months, but he was wrong.
Moncey flew low, at a slow tightly-controlled speed, with the membranes of his wings bunched up thickly, and barely skimmed over the contours of the land. His tail dragged behind him, and he swept it from side to side through the scrubby bushes. The noise and motion of his tail startled birds and small animals, which fled from the oncoming danger of his tail only to be snatched up in his snaking jaws and swallowed whole.
Sharpe, sitting high atop Moncey's back, watched a procession of small wildlife vanish down Moncey's throat. Birds, rabbits, rats, Moncey gulped them all down, indiscriminately, even the very small. Sharpe was reminded that Moncey, too, had once been a starving runaway.
They crested a rise, glided down the far side and Moncey slewed sideways, striking out at a red streak – a fox. This larger prey was worth a further lunge, and Sharpe had to grab hold of his neck to keep his balance, and only once he'd caught himself was his attention taken by the sound of neighing.
He looked up.
Not fifty yards away was a scene of utter havoc, a tableau of bucking, screaming, rearing horses, crashing into each other and throwing their riders in their panic to get away. A mob of hounds behind them was already streaking for the horizon. He heard shouting, saw riders running away on foot behind their horses.
They had interrupted a fox hunt.
"Oh, dear," he heard Moncey say, bracing down his legs and landing on the run.
To Sharpe's horror, he recognised one of the riders – a tall man, in a blue coat, with a long nose distinctive even from that distance, hatless – before his horse wrenched its head out of his control and bolted after the rest.
"Let's get the hell out of here!" he shouted to Moncey, and they leaped up and beat away from the scene.
In the air again, Moncey spoke. "I think that was Nosy."
"D'ye think he recognised you?"
"If I saw him, I think he must have seen me. He'll have recognised you, for sure."
Moncey twisted his head back to him, eyes narrowed quizzically. "Well, we couldn't have kept it a secret forever, could we, old boy?"
"No, we couldn't," Sharpe agreed, "but what a way to come out with it. If you've eaten your fill, maybe we can land? I think I should go see if there's any bones broken down there."
But when they landed, the valley was deserted. The whole hunt had galloped away out of reach of the dangerous dragon: hounds, horses, riders and all.
Three weeks after Sharpe's first flight, Major Hogan rode into the yard of the big house. Lawford met him on the steps and ushered him inside. The Colonel technically outranked the Major, but he knew perfectly well that Hogan was no mere Engineer. "Will you stay for dinner?" he offered, showing the Irishman into the parlour.
"No, no, sir, I'm not staying long. I'll just warm myself a few minutes and rest my poor horse's back a while."
"A glass of spiced wine, then?"
"I'll thank you for that, sir."
Lawford gave orders to his servant to fetch two glasses of warmed port, then sat down opposite his guest.
"Captain Sharpe is not here, Major, but he will be back in due course, if you were wanting to speak to him."
"Actually it was you I wanted to speak to, Colonel, sir." Hogan's voice was confidingly soft. "I've been given to understand you've been having a certain guest these last two weeks."
"Moncey the dragon?"
"Moncey the dragon, indeed. And quite a dragon he is, too. He's one of Wellington's exploring officers, so he is. Did you know, that little Winchester brought down a Grand Chevalier, all by himself, last year?"
Lawford started. "That was Moncey?"
"It was indeed. Quite a ferocious little fellow, he is. And a little bird tells me he's been getting along famously with another ferocious fellow, of mutual acquaintance?"
"He and Sharpe have become quite close friends," Lawford agreed.
"You might say they have a lot in common, Sharpe and Moncey. Peas in a pod, I sometimes think. The one is a guttersnipe who behaves like a beast, the other is a beast who behaves like a guttersnipe." Hogan smiled gently at his little joke.
"How does a Winchester bring down a Grand Chevalier?" Lawford asked.
"I'm not too sure of that myself, sir. Blind luck, if you ask me, combined with sheer bloody-mindedness. Nobody believed him when he told us, until a Navy brig bumped into it in the middle of the night. Nearly sank the ship, too."
The wine arrived, and they sipped the warm alcohol appreciatively. The fire crackled in the grate, and the rain hammered the windowpane.
"Fact is," Hogan continued, and his voice had become serious. "Moncey is one of the finest exploring officers under my command. He's very fast, very daring, almost no sense of self-preservation. Very ambitious, too. But he's useless to the Aerial Corps, because he won't take a captain, and he won't obey any order he doesn't like."
"More fool them," Lawford said, wondering what Hogan was getting around to.
"More benefit to me. And he'd be useless to me, if he ever did take a captain. His weapon is his speed, you see. It lets him get far over their lines and out again without being caught. He has the legs of anything in the air – unridden. Weight him down with a rider, and he loses that edge." Hogan snapped his fingers. "Gone! There goes my exploring officer!"
"I see," Lawford said slowly.
"You think Moncey is thinking of taking Sharpe as a captain and that'll cost you your spy." Lawford set his glass down on the table sharply so that a drop of wine spilled over the lip and ran down the side. "Because we all know he's still waiting for his captaincy to be made official, so he'll just grab whatever chance he'll get at a certain promotion."
"Captain Sharpe is ambitious too," Hogan said reasonably, his finger stroking the side of his glass thoughtfully. "And adaptable. And very aggressive. He'd make a fine companion for a dragon. Just, not this dragon."
"I think you'll find there is nothing behind his relationship with Moncey other than friendship. He's not that devious. In fact I think he'd be offended if he knew you think he is." Lawford stood up abruptly. "You needn't fear for your exploring officer, Major Hogan. Sharpe is wedded too closely to his company to give them up for a completely different service."
Hogan nodded calmly, looking up at Lawford. He didn't seem at all troubled by Lawford's anger. "I trust you'll see to it that he stays that way, Colonel Lawford. Captain Sharpe must not become captain to Moncey. In fact, you may consider it an order from Wellington himself."
Moncey arrived again that evening. He took up his usual position, waiting for Sharpe in the field where he'd landed the first time he had ever visited. He was lolling on his side, seemingly immune to the biting cold and the icy ground, sinuous body outlined by the pale sunset. Jets of vapour were bundling regularly out of his nostrils and drifting away in a cloud. Sharpe tugged his stolen curtain tighter around his face. His boots crunched brittle grass underfoot. He could hear the echoing crunching of Harper and Price behind him.
The distance they had to walk seemed to be getting shorter. Sharpe had the suspicion Moncey was landing closer to the village each time, slowly acclimatising the regiment's horses to his presence.
"Richard," greeted Moncey, lifting his head from the ground as they reached him. "What's up, old boy?"
"Not much, Monce. Just sitting around waiting for Christmas."
"Ah, that's coming up, eh? Hello, Sergeant Harper. Mr Price."
"Top of the evening to you, sir," Harper greeted. "Might I be asking the Captain how he fares this evening?"
"Fit as a flea and twice as nippy," Moncey replied.
"We have an early Christmas present for you, Moncey," Sharpe said.
"A present?" The dragon rolled himself upright, immediately interested, and extended his head to them. Sharpe came to a stop, and gestured Harper and Price to come around with their long burden. "For me? I say, I've never had a present before. Is it shiny?"
Price set his end on the ground. "We found it on Monday, and Harps sharpened it for you."
"Go on, unwrap it," Sharpe encouraged.
Moncey reached out his forehands and took the present gingerly from Harper. Sharpe had had it wrapped in a blanket, and Moncey stood it on one end with one forehand, and used the other to take hold of the end of the blanket and carefully uncurl it. Exposed, it glittered evilly in the evening light.
"Goodness me!" said Moncey, and laughed.
"You did say you had no way to defend yourself, if you found yourself unable to get away by speed," Sharpe said, exultantly. He exchanged gleeful glances with Harper.
It was a scythe, but not just a scythe. It had been made to a measurement far bigger than a man could use, the handle standing ten feet tall, and the blade was a clean arc. Harper had sharpened the rough steel blade until it was as sharp as he could get it and had given it a wicked point. He had also replaced the handle grips with ones much bigger, and he had had an ex-sailmaker in the second company wrap them with rope so that they would not slip.
"Where on earth did you get it?" Moncey was staring up at his new weapon with delighted awe.
"It was hidden in a barn back there," Sharpe explained vaguely. "God knows who made it, or why – I can't see any Spanish dragons cutting hay, can you? But I thought, that's dragon-sized, that is. And so it's yours." He made a giving-away sign with his hands. "Merry Christmas."
Moncey turned the scythe in his forehand so that the big blade revolved in the air. His eyes never left the tip. "With a thing like this, all I'd have to do would be to get under a bigger fellow, stick the point in and then drop," he mused.
"That's the ticket," Sharpe said happily.
"It's not a war-scythe. I've spoken to a Frog who saw those in the Vendee – said they gave him the horrors – but he said on those the blade is on the tip." Price put in. He looked from Moncey's bloodthirsty expression to Sharpe's, and shook his head. "Then again, this one is starting to give me the horrors, too."
"I did think about putting the blade on the tip," Sharpe admitted.
"Oh no, this is fine. This is fine." Moncey's eyes were glittering, as cold and grey as the blade itself, and his voice had dropped to a croon. "Oh, this is fi-i-ine."
"Glad you like it."
"Oh, ye-es." Moncey looked down at his human friends. "Tell you what. I'll fly with this tomorrow, whack a few imaginary enemies, and we'll see if it might be better with the blade on the tip. Eh?"
Price clapped his hands together. "Well, I'm going back to my hot toddy, gentlemen. It's going to be cold tonight. Coming, Harper?"
"Coming right along, sir," Harper agreed amiably, "Goodnight, Moncey." The two men crunched away across the frosted field.
"Aren't you cold?" Sharpe asked. "We can probably make room for you in a barn if you'd like."
"And then where would your horses sleep? I'm perfectly used to the cold, Richard. It doesn't bother me at all."
"If you're sure," Sharpe conceded doubtfully.
"If it did bother me, I'd go snuggle up with Temeraire or Madge anyway. So not to worry, old nurse."
Sharpe leaned comfortably against the dragon's shoulder. Moncey brought his wing down and set it over and around Sharpe like a tent. His head stayed up, his eyes on his new blade, turning it back and forth thoughtfully. They stayed like that for long minutes. "Would you like to go hunting tomorrow?" he asked, without looking down.
"Hunting game, or hunting enemy?" Sharpe asked.
"Oh, game. I've been wondering if we might not be able to treat your men to some fresh meat. Between my wings and your rifle we should be able to fetch something back."
"There's already a hunt club in this area – some of the gentlemen have organised themselves entertainment for the winter."
"I can assure you I intend a different sort of hunting to 'tally-ho, follow those hounds,' old boy," Moncey grinned. In the gathering dark his teeth glowed white in his dark head. "I learned how to stalk, after I ran away from the Aerial Corps. But please don't tell them that, they might start grudging me their lovely cows. So. Tomorrow we hunt?"
"Yes, tomorrow we hunt." Sharpe leaned against the great shoulder, pressed his cheek into the dragon's warmth.
Moncey continued. "We still don't know who's replacing Marshal Marmont. Haven't heard a peep. We can't read any letters if they aren't sending them, code or no code."
"Well, we aren't going anywhere until the spring, so there's no hurry."
"Don't believe it, old boy. That's what the Frogs are meant to think. This will be a short winter. And you'll be keeping that tidbit to yourself, thank you."
There was another long silence. Outside Moncey's wing, it began to rain.
"Do you remember Lily? The Longwing. She's laid her egg at last," Moncey said after a while.
"She has? That's good. Who are they giving it to?" He'd met both Lily and Lily's captain, and he'd been sworn into what had to be the world's most open secret by now. Lawford had huffed and puffed with surprise, but Sharpe had liked Captain Harcourt, had been strongly reminded of La Aguja, whom he hadn't seen for months. He'd felt a pang of longing for Teresa when he shook Captain Harcourt's small rough hand, and that night in his borrowed bed at Aerial headquarters he'd dreamed of her astride a dragon of her own. That would make a fine present…
"Don't know, but they're sending it back to England as soon as they can. The Spanish are starting to mention that they've always really, really wanted one."
Sharpe started, guilty. "Can't blame them."
"Well, we can't give 'em one."
"Have you had any eggs?"
"Of course. What else do you imagine one does in a breeding ground, but make eggs?" Moncey gave his huff of laughter. "There's bugger-all else to do, what? Laculla and I have managed an egg every third year for the past forty years."
Sharpe stepped away from Moncey's shoulder, the better to get a good look at the dragon's face. Moncey glanced down at him.
"You don't look over forty years old," Sharpe said.
Moncey tipped his long head sideways in assent. "I am forty-seven years old, in fact. Actually, I would look more my age, if I'd been dragging a rider's weight around all this time. And you? Have you any eggs to your name?"
Sharpe smiled, and retreated back to the warmth under Moncey's wing. "No. No eggs. No family at all. Only my mother, who died when I was a baby. "
"And now you're an officer and a gentleman."
"Yes. No. An officer, but not a gentleman. I don't belong." He tried not to let bitterness leak into his voice.
"I know exactly what you mean. I get a captain's pay, but I don't think I'd be terribly welcome in an officer's mess." The idea seemed to amuse him, and he gave a another sudden huff. "I wouldn't fit round the table, f'r starters."
"How did you come to run away?" Sharpe asked.
Moncey looked back up at his blade. "I hatched, and I just knew I didn't want to drag a man up and down my whole life. I wanted to be my own dragon, not someone else's career." He paused for a long moment, thinking, then continued. "My supposed-to-be captain talked to me in the egg, see. Yapped and yapped about duty and honour and noblesse oblige. All very serious. And then I hatched and I simply didn't want any of it. So I took off."
"Do you ever wish you hadn't?"
"No. Well, I do regret messing up his career, but he got another dragon eventually, and they're very happy. But no." Moncey scratched his chin with a talon. "Funny things, though, fates," he mused, as if he was speaking to the scythe. "I was bred to cart a rider up and down, up and down, and I didn't want to, so I ran away. But I've still ended up flying up and down, the whole length and breadth of the kingdom. And other kingdoms too. I can't help it, really. I can't sit for long before I start itching to take off again." He sighed. "Bred into me, I suppose."
"It's different if you decide to do things yourself," Sharpe said. "If I'd been ordered to go get an Eagle, I'd have … well, I'm too scared of Nosy to refuse, exactly, but I wouldn't have gone and done all that. But I decided to go get it, which is different."
"It is. I've flown all on my own, my directions, going where I want to, and I've gone much further than any harnessed courier ever does. Better than just flying a rut in the sky, from Loch Laggan to London and back twice a week, oh how dull. And besides, these days I get paid. And anyway I can still feed myself, so there's nothing anyone can use as a hold over me."
"Yes. Except company."
Monsieur le Marechal Bon Adrien Jeannot de Moncey, duc de Correglaino, was a real person, one of Napoleon's Twenty Six.
Sharpe and Moncey go hunting for trouble
The following morning Moncey was still sprawled in his field when Sharpe got up. He took his warmest clothes, his rifle and plenty of ammunition, but left his pack behind. The day was going to be wet again, and cold, but not as cold as last night.
"Morning, Richard," Moncey greeted, rolling upright.
"Morning, Moncey. We're still hunting today?"
"We are indeed. And I'm starving." Moncey stretched languidly, first his long body, then his wings, and yawned. His tongue curled upwards when he yawned, like a cat's, Sharpe noticed. In fact, rather a lot about Moncey was catlike, from his sinuous movements to his predatory eyes. He was like a feral cat, who had discovered a human willing to pour him a saucer of milk and give him a warm place to sleep. The thought made him smile.
Sharpe climbed up Moncey's shoulder, settled himself across his spine and tied himself to Moncey's neckstrap. Moncey held his scythe ready. "Ready to go!" Sharpe called, and without more ado Moncey leaped.
They flew for a few hours, talking about this and that. Moncey flew holding his scythe beneath his body. A few shrivelled trees came into sight, and Moncey paid them some attention with the scythe, chopping, punching and hacking at them so that twigs and dried leaves flew. He practised swinging it, one-handed and two-handed, mid-air and on the ground, working out which angle worked better, and as the only one with any sword experience at all Sharpe found himself giving a fencing lesson. The angle of the blade was judged satisfactory for some attacks, but less suitable for others.
At length Moncey flew on, further than Sharpe had gone before. They went deeper and higher into the mountains, at first high above the land but lower and lower as they went, hugging the landscape more as the cloud cover came down to meet them.
"Where are the dragons who used to live here?" Sharpe asked, watching the bleak winter mountains passing.
"Gone, old boy, all gone. Those that didn't run away from the Inquisition are being held in French breeding grounds. There are a handful left, south with General Blake, and a few miserable ferals hiding to the north. But here? No-one flies here but us and the French. Sad really."
On the sloping shoulder of a peak, Moncey landed. Sharpe climbed off.
"I picked up some sort of wild goat in the valley here last week, and there may be more," Moncey explained. "You stay here, hide yourself with your rifle aimed that-a-way. I'll go around and startle them from the other end."
"Be sure you don't get into my line of fire," Sharpe warned.
"I shan't. I'll try to bring one down for myself on that side. If they come this way, they'll come through that little path there just under that overhang. See?"
Sharpe followed Moncey's pointing talon. "I see it."
"If they run downhill I'll give chase."
"Same to you!" Moncey took off and beat steeply up into the air, hiding himself in the clouds.
Alone, Sharpe settled himself with his rifle. He made the weapon ready, and picked out a place to lie that had a good rest for his elbows. He noted the wind, and the amount of height his shot would have to make to hit a target on the path. Then he waited, eyes on the barely visible goat path.
The air here was still, and soundless. A bird called, intermittently and without reply, and eventually stopped. Sharpe's breath steamed in front of his face.
It occurred to him that if Moncey didn't come back, he would most likely not be able to find his way back down the mountain. He had no real idea of how far they had flown, or what direction, and the cloudy sky gave him no clues of direction. If he was caught alone up here overnight he would be in real danger of dying from cold. He shuddered.
Suddenly, soundlessly, a deer appeared on the skyline, right where Moncey had predicted. It shot over the crest and skimmed along under the overhang. Its hooves beat urgently.
Sharpe tracked it with his barrel, gave it a lead time, and squeezed the trigger. The rifle boomed, obscenely loud in the still air. His vision was obscured by powder smoke, which refused to clear in the cold air, so he stood up. The deer lay unmoving under the path.
He stood and reloaded his rifle before beginning the walk to where the goat lay. He was halfway there when Moncey swept up over the ridge and landed, wings mantled proudly, with a deer of his own in his talons.
"I say, jolly good shot, old fellow," Moncey said conversationally, and to Sharpe's shock proceeded to rip the head off his deer and to eat it where he was. Blood steamed, and lumps of flesh sprayed as he tore off mouthfuls of the deer and gulped them down whole.
"God," Sharpe said involuntarily. He'd come to a stop, openmouthed.
Moncey looked up from his gory meal. "What's up?" he said through bloody teeth.
"You're – um – you're making a bit of a mess," he said, lamely.
"You don't think all dragons eat their meat cooked like Temeraire, do you?" Moncey licked a splatter of intestine off his forehand. "I prefer mine fresh."
"I can see that."
"Come and fetch yours." Moncey rabbit-hopped away from Sharpe's deer on his hind legs, still eating. Sharpe walked up to his deer.
The animal lay on its side, eyes glassy. "I'm not eating this here," he told Moncey. "I'm taking it back to the mess for cooking."
"Be my guest. We can wedge it in the cliff here and come back for it later after we've found some more." Moncey had eaten every scrap of his deer and was now busily cleaning his bloodsplattered forelegs with his tongue.
"We'll do that." Nobody was likely to make off with it up here, Sharpe reasoned, not even wolves.
Compared with the savage abandon with which he'd eaten, Moncey was extremely fussy about cleaning himself afterward. It took a full ten minutes until every drop of blood had been cleaned off himself, and he had Sharpe examine his head to make sure there was nothing on his face. "Can't abide missing bits of food on myself, old boy," the dragon explained. "Starts to smell after a while, see? Clean it all off while you know where it all went to, that's the trick."
After wedging the deer securely, they took off again. Moncey claimed he knew of a high lake, deserted, where game drank unobserved by most hunters. No-one else would be hunting them this time of year, and they would be less wary than usual. He would put Sharpe down to stalk around the lake, he suggested, while he went up to the peak to see if he could catch anything on the high slopes.
Noon came and went while they were in the air. They were well into Galicia now, Moncey said, but they would avoid the towns. They flew low, skimming forested ridges and following deep, twisting valleys. They were approaching the final peak from downwind, around which the lake lay, when Moncey clapped his wings shut and dropped flat to the ground just short of the bend.
Sharpe was jerked violently against his rope, cheek slamming painfully into the back of Moncey's neck.
"Still!" hissed Moncey. He was inching crabwise toward the rockface of the outcrop, very slowly, wings tight to his body and his head as close to the ground as he could. Sharpe lay still on his back, fingers digging into Moncey's hide, not making a sound. Moncey writhed himself into a crack beneath a slab of the rockface.
"What did you see?" Sharpe whispered.
"Big Red, and two others. Around the lake. Don't think they saw me."
"What are you waiting for? We need to run for it!"
"Not a chance, old pop. This is as close as I've ever been. I can sneak up on the ground and take a closer look at Big Red. They won't smell us from this direction."
"Don't be a fool. You'd stick out on the skyline like a sore thumb, and then they'll grab us both. If it's so bloody important, I'll sneak up and take a closer look."
"It is important. We need to know who Big Red is."
"Well, there you go. I can wriggle up to the edge and take a look through my telescope."
Moncey didn't move his head, but his eye rolled down to look at Sharpe, still clinging onto his sloping back. "If they spot you and come looking, there won't be time for you to get back on. I'd have to fly for my life."
"Won't take a minute to see what they're doing. I'll take a quick look and come right back. Then, we get the hell out of here."
Moncey considered this for a moment. "All right. I'll wait here. If they spot you, sing out and warn me."
"They won't spot me." Sharpe untied himself and wriggled off Moncey's back – not a long climb since the Winchester was pressing himself as close to the rocks as he could. He left the rifle behind, figuring it would do him no good if three dragons came after him.
He walked to just below the crest, then began crawling. The rocks were cold under his hands. He crabbed his way, inch by inch, careful not to raise any part of himself, keeping the rocky outcrop to his right. There was some sparse vegetation, and he used it as cover much as he could, grateful again for his dark uniform. He inched over the rise, and then the ground under him began to slope down again. He found a slab of stone that had split off from the bulk of the peak, with a deep cleft between, and wriggled carefully into it, and over. When it began to drop off steeply under him, he lay still, snugly hidden in solid rock, and watched.
He had a perfect view. The lake lay just below, hard against the cliff, with a small waterfall feeding it from his right. Sharpe lay motionless. There were three dragons below him. One, a coppery brown colour, lay loosely coiled beside the water. That had to be Big Red. The other two were grey marble in colour, smaller, and were busily fussing over the brown dragon. He saw that they were engaged in wiping the brown dragon down with large pieces of cloth. There were people down there too, but Sharpe couldn't make out what they were doing with his naked eye. He slid his hand to his belt and very slowly took out his telescope and slid it open. No sun today to reflect off the glass and give him away, he told himself, as he scanned the valley.
The men below wore French uniforms. They were fussing around the talons of the brown dragon – scrubbing them with holystones, he saw. The brown dragon was long-bodied, he saw, large, with fine wings. Its head and jaws were covered by a ruff, much like Temeraire's, and its eyes were a strange pink colour. The grey dragons wore harnesses, but this Big Red did not.
As he watched, the brown dragon lifted itself from the shore and slid lithely away from the lake. The men were dashing about now – clearly orders had been given. His telescope darted back and forth, watching. They were folding up the large cloth, packing away the holystones, climbing up the grey dragons's sides, hitching themselves on. The greys stood up, ready for take-off, but they held themselves waiting as the brown dragon stood for a moment looking back upon its own body, unfurling a wing at a time as if to check that all was well with them, coiling its own tail back toward its face for closer inspection.
He saw the brown dragon nod, and its mouth move in speech. Then it took off, followed by the two greys.
For a moment he was horrified, then realized that they were flying in the opposite direction to Moncey's hiding place. Seconds later they were out of sight.
Sharpe retraced his track back to Moncey, faster now, but still keeping low in case the French had left anyone in hiding below. Moncey was still exactly where he had been, and his eyes watched Sharpe approach from the shadows of his crevice.
"They've gone," Sharpe said. "Took off that way. I only got a brief look."
"What were they doing?" Moncey uncurled himself from his hiding place.
"Bathing the brown one."
"That's what it looked like. There were men, scrubbing its talons, and the grey ones were rubbing it down with cloth. Towels, I think."
"Did you get a good look at Big Red?"
"Got a very good look. Funny, it looks a lot like Temeraire, only brown."
Moncey reared up. "Are you sure? How did it look like Temeraire?"
"Well, it had a ruff, like his. And it was slinky, like him."
"How many toes did it have?"
"Toes?" He hadn't taken much notice of the dragon's feet. How many toes? He recalled the men scrubbing the dragon's talons – there had been more talons than usual, hadn't there? "Five."
"You're sure? Five toes?" Moncey's eyes were wide with urgency. His head was lowered close over Sharpe.
Sharpe gazed back, surprised by Moncey's excitement. "Yes, I'm sure. Five toes, not four. And it had pink eyes."
"Oh, God," said Moncey. "Climb back on, we need to go warn Temeraire, right now."
"What's wrong?" Sharpe asked. He was already climbing.
"Big Red is Lien." Moncey whispered. He sounded awed. Rather, he sounded aghast, and Sharpe felt a cold shiver run down his spine.
"Lien? The white Frenchy?" Sharpe pulled his knots tight.
"The very same. She's Temeraire's blood relative, and his sworn enemy. If she's here, she surely isn't here on holiday. Temeraire and Wellington need to know about this right now. Are you on?"
"I'm on." They flew.
My horse without peer
If Sharpe had thought they had ever flown fast before, he had been very wrong. Moncey drove himself through the sky like an urgent arrow. His wings beat faster than ever, his body was slicked flat so that he whipped through the air. Ordinarily his head moved around, and his tail flicked as he flew, but now he moved only to balance himself better for more speed. Sharpe clung to his back, flattened against the wind of their passage. He could see the ground blurring below.
"Wellington or Temeraire?" he shouted.
"Wellington or Temeraire first?"
"Wellington is closer!"
As they reached the lower ground Moncey climbed, hiding himself in the clouds. Now Sharpe truly had no way to know where they were or how fast they flew, or how long.
The cloud was thick, damp and cold. Despite his warm clothes and the hot dragon he lay against, he was soon shivering with the cold. Icy water lashed his face and hands. Every so often they flew into wild air, and Moncey was forced to jerk and wrench himself around to stay on course. Sharpe ground his teeth together, pressed his face against Moncey's neck, and held on.
Sharpe came to, abruptly, finding himself hanging limply from Moncey's neck. His head was pounding, and someone far away was shouting his name. Was it reveille already? "I'm here," he mumbled and pushed himself upright. He was still suspended inside grey walls of cloud, with the moving bulk of a dragon under him, and Moncey's worried face turned back looking at him. He gazed at Moncey's face, surprised to see him.
"Thank God," said Moncey, and his wingbeats sped up again. Sharpe found himself having to press flat against the wind again. His brain seemed to be banging against the front of his skull with every wingbeat.
They flew for hours, until the light was beginning to leach from their wet cloud coccoon. His hands were numb on the strap when Moncey dived sharply, and the cloud parted to let the ground come up under them.
There were houses below, and tents, and Moncey skimmed over them, and let himself drop in an empty field. He didn't land in his usual flashy style. Instead he simply sank out of the air and thumped down on all four feet, tail and wings limp. He dumped his head on the ground, eyes closed. Sharpe blinked through his headache, surprised to find that although the ground was stable underneath them the world continued to rush by. His clawed hands battled to find the loose end of the rope that undid each knot, but he managed it, and tumbled off, catching himself before he could sprawl face-down in the dirt. His legs shook under him, with exhaustion and with cold, and he leaned against Moncey's side to prop himself up.
"Welcome to Freineda. I can go no closer to Wellington's headquarters." Moncey rolled his head to one side and opened one eye to look at Sharpe. His nostrils were heaving, in and out. "You'll have to go and tell him. He's in the biggest house close to the church."
"Rest here. I'll be back as soon as I can." Sharpe pressed his hand into Moncey's foreleg reassuringly, and turned away into the maze of buildings between himself and Wellington.
He wobbled through the village of Freineda as if still flying through clouds. The ground seemed uncommonly soft under his feet. He must have looked as dazed as he felt, for he was aware of long glances his way. He ignored them all, save to collar a man in Aerial uniform and to tell him to take water to the Winchester that had just landed. The man looked at Sharpe as if to object, then he took in the Rifleman's drawn face and shaking hand on his arm, and nodded without a word. Sharpe went on, grimly floating through the streets.
He kept his eyes on the church steeple, and when he came to it, he stopped, scanning the houses around. Headquarters was in a tall stone house. He pushed his way to it, staggered up the steps, shouldering aside two cavalry officers in the doorway, and went inside. It was dark in here. An aide blocked his way almost immediately.
"I need to speak to Wellington, right away," he rasped.
"Have you an appointment?" The man's enquiring eyebrows raised no irritation in him – he was too exhausted to care.
"I just got here. I have news. I need to speak to Wellington. It's urgent – tell him Captain Sharpe is here."
"His lordship is busy, perhaps you could…"
"I need to speak to him! This can't wait! I've flown all afternoon to get here, and I need to speak to him!"
The aide drew back, appalled at Sharpe's outburst, but another voice interrupted. "Richard?"
Sharpe swung around, almost losing his balance on his leaden feet. Major Hogan came the rest of the way down the stairs. "Whatever are you doing here, Richard?"
"I came here with Moncey. Listen, you have to tell the General – Lien is here. I just saw her, not four hours ago, in the mountains."
Hogan blanched. He didn't question Sharpe for a moment. He turned to the aide, now standing forgotten behind Sharpe. "Go fetch His Lordship from that meeting, tell him I say it's something he needs to hear."
"Yessir." The aide made himself disappear.
"Richard, come in here. You look absolutely shattered."
Sharpe followed him into a side room. "I've been flying for four hours, mostly in clouds." He heard his voice, and realized his throat hurt almost as much as his head. "Have you got any water?"
"Good heavens, you look like you need more than water." Hogan crossed to a side table, pulled open a drawer and brought out a bottle. He pulled out the cork and handed it to Sharpe. "Put that down you, man."
Sharpe lifted the cold ring of the bottle top to his lips and took a deep gulp. Brandy burned its way up his sinuses and straight down to his stomach. "Christ Almighty," he coughed.
"What's all this about, Hogan?"
Again Sharpe swung around at the sound of a voice behind him, and again he felt the room continue to turn for longer than he did. The voice was clear, educated and very cold.
Wellington had come through an adjoining door. He stood with his arms folded and looked down his long nose at Sharpe. "Captain Sharpe." His tone expressed no pleasure at seeing Sharpe.
Sharpe stiffened to attention. "My lord."
"Tell him what you told me, Richard." Hogan encouraged.
"Sir. I've seen Lien."
Wellington leaned forward, his long face alert. "Lien. Where?"
"In the mountains, my lord. By a lake. At mid-day. North-east of here, but I don't know exactly where, my lord. Moncey will know."
"You came here with Moncey?"
"Yes, my lord, we were hunting and we both saw her."
Hogan and Wellington exchanged glances. "This puts a whole new twist on the situation, Major Hogan," Wellington said grimly.
"Richard, are you sure it was Lien that you saw? The big white one?"
"She's not white anymore, sir." The room swayed, and he had to prop himself in the opposite direction to prevent himself falling, but this made him the room sway more.
"She's Big Red, sir. The one Moncey has been seeing. She's had herself dyed, or painted or something. She's brown now, sir. Not white."
"How do you know it was her, then? We have to be sure, Captain Sharpe."
"She looks like Temeraire," he said. Then he passed out.
He awoke on the floorboards, with a stinging in his eyes and Hogan's hand just about to flick more brandy at him. He groaned.
"Welcome back to the world, Richard."
He tried to sit up. "Wellington - !"
Hogan planted a hand in the centre of his chest. "Wellington has gone to interrogate Moncey directly as to exactly where he saw Lien. We've already sent a courier dragon off to inform Temeraire."
He let himself lie back down again. Hogan continued, "I don't know what Moncey was thinking of, dragging you through clouds for four hours in weather like this."
"We were together on the mountain," he explained.
"Moncey is the fastest dragon in our forces, Richard, and you've clearly been doing what aviators call goosing the angels. You have mal de montagne, and you're going to stay here like a good lad and let the doctor have a look at you."
"Oh," he said. He licked his lips. "I'm very thirsty."
"Silly bugger," Hogan said, and helped him to sit up. He gave Sharpe a glass of water, which Sharpe grasped and drained in a single breath. "Is that the doctor?" He stood up and went to the door, and Sharpe used the opportunity to clamber to his feet. The creaking floorboards gave him away, and Hogan swung around. "No, no, no! Sit down!"
"Sir. I'm going to go find Moncey and his lordship." His legs were wobbly. He felt a sudden surge of nausea, and sat down heavily in a chair so that his stomach couldn't give him away.
"You're not. You're in no condition to go charging off anywhere."
"I'm quite all right now, sir." Sharpe spoke in the level sergeant's tone he used to not-agree with Lawford's orders. It had the same effect on Hogan, because the Major stopped, propped his fists on his hips and sighed heavily.
"Aye, I suppose it would cause more strife to keep you here than to let you go. You will wait for the doctor to take a look at you, or I will have a couple of privates sit on you until he's finished."
The doctor was Wellington's physician. He gave Sharpe a cursory examination, but he didn't seem to know very much about whatever mal de montagne was. He peeled back Sharpe's eyelids, listened to his heart, mumbled in Latin, and suggested bleeding him. Sharpe escaped into the cobbled streets with a fresh bandage around his arm. He became aware for the first time of painful weals from the ropes on his calves and thighs, and willingly walked slowly, Hogan beside him.
The narrow streets of Freineda looked quite different, now that he'd had a rest in a warm room. Still narrow, still cobbled, but the madly arranged stone buildings seemed to be more stable, and the sound was less loud.
"I left Moncey in an empty field," he said to Hogan.
"I know where he is, Richard. We have all the beasties come down in the same field, so that it's always clear for them."
Moncey sat up when he saw them coming. "Richard!" he called over the heads of the men around him. "Are you quite well?" He still looked exhausted, his wings lay half-folded with the pinion joint resting on the ground, and he looked even smaller and leaner than usual.
"I'm much better than I was," he agreed.
Wellington had a map spread out on a table, and he and several other senior officers were leaning over it. He looked up with a frown as Sharpe and Hogan joined them. "You are absolutely certain of what you saw, Captain Sharpe?"
"Yes my lord. I've seen Temeraire, and this dragon looked exactly like him but for colour."
"And the other two dragons?"
"I don't know, my lord, but they were middle-sized, grey, with orange markings on their wings and spines."
"They're Lien's maids. She doesn't travel alone, but she won't carry any human but Bonaparte himself," Moncey interrupted.
"She has to be the new marshal in command in the north," Wellington said, and tapped the map with his pencil. "This explains why our friendly tailor in Irun hasn't seen a new marshal arriving, Hogan. She flew over his head and not under his nose."
"I'm wondering what she's doing here, my lord," Hogan put in, cautiously. "Marmont has been recalled for not holding on to Portugal. We know that Bonaparte is calling troops back to France. But he sends her out here? Why?"
"As long as she has no word of what we have been doing in Almeida, I don't care what she does." Wellington gestured his officers to roll up the map. "I've gone to great pains to let them think I'm staying here all winter. I'm not letting that white hag scare me out of attacking Ciudad Rodrigo after all."
"She's a clever hag, though," said Hogan. "Painting herself a different colour. I've never heard of that before."
"Pity it's not a trick Temeraire can play," Moncey said drily. "Now that would put the cat among the pigeons."
"Captain Sharpe." Wellington's attention had come back to Sharpe.
"Bringing this intelligence so rapidly and at such risk has been commendable. I'll be making due mention of you in my next dispatch to London."
Sharpe met Wellington's eyes. Damn the man, he knew all about Sharpe's worry that his captaincy hadn't been ratified. A mention in his dispatch was the most reward he could or would give Sharpe.
"Thank you, my lord."
"Gentlemen, I thank you and bid you a good evening," Wellington said stiffly. He turned and walked away.
"Cheerio till later, old boy," said Moncey. He watched Wellington go with something like a grin on his lean face.
"What have you been doing in Almeida?" Sharpe asked Hogan curiously. He walked to Moncey's side and slumped against the dragon's shoulder.
"Now, now, Richard. Don't be nosy, you'll find out soon enough."
"We sent a courier dragon off to Temeraire and to General Beresford immediately," said Moncey. "We've asked Temeraire to come here in the morning. He knows Lien better than anybody else."
"I have to get back to the regiment," Sharpe realized. "They're going to be wondering what's become of me. Again."
Moncey gave a whoop of laughter. "They'll think I took you off to some deserted mountaintop and ate you, old boy!"
"Someone can take you back in the morning, Richard. Not Moncey, of course, he's going to be busy. There's not much room here, but we'll cram you in somewhere overnight." Hogan said, and this was a tone of voice Sharpe knew not to ignore. "For now, neither of you is going anywhere."
"Of course, Major," agreed Moncey.
Sharpe ate dinner with Hogan. His meal consisted mainly of meat. Hogan had noticed Sharpe wobbling slightly and summoned an apothecary, who gave an entirely different diagnosis to the physician. "You have spent too much time imbibing the element of the air. You must counteract that element! You require more blood, not less, and less bile, to maintain yourself in equilibrium. I don't know what Doctor Miller was thinking of, bleeding you! Red meat, Captain, as much as you can get. And red wine. I will give you an emetic, to take with you, to lessen your bile, just in case." And so Sharpe ate a dinner of pork, beef, mutton, and sausage.
In the end, Sharpe slept in the field with Moncey. He borrowed blankets and an oiled groundcloth, and slept warm and dry wrapped up under Moncey's breast. In the morning Majestatis carried him back to the South Essex with a group of officers on their way to Braganca. Majestatis had a dragon surgeon on board, and he also looked Sharpe up and down. This third medical man had his own opinion. "Throw away the emetic. You flew too high and too suddenly, that is all. Stay down for a few days, the headache will go away on its own."
By comparison, Majestatis flew much more slowly and far lower than Moncey. Sharpe found the bigger dragon's swooping motion rather like an over-laden Indiaman. Unlike Moncey, whose movements were quick and who seemed to fling himself around the sky with glee, Majestatis seemed to deliberate over each wingbeat. While Moncey would whip his wings up and down once, and coast along for yards on that one wingbeat, Majestatis swept his wings up and down, steadily and unchangingly. Sharpe found himself wishing the Parnassian would go faster, or bank, or do something interesting. He said so to the artillery officer sitting just ahead of him, and the man twisted around to stare at him with wide eyes.
"Good grief," he said, "if this is too slow, what on earth have you been used to?" The man meant it as a serious question, Sharpe realized.
"A Winchester," he replied.
"Good grief," the artillery officer said again. "Better you than me, my friend. You couldn't get me on one of those for love or money."
When he reached the South Essex, Lawford was waiting for him in his office with an irritated expression on his face. "Well?"
"I can explain, sir. We ended up carrying intelligence to Wellington."
Lawford's expression of irritation didn't lift. "You always end up doing something for somebody. May I remind you, Captain Sharpe, that while you may have got lost from the 95th, you are, in fact, under my command? And therefore you have a duty to keep me apprised of your whereabouts?"
"Yes, sir." Sharpe focussed his eyes just above Lawford's eyebrows.
"That means not getting lost! You've made a career out of disappearing, man!"
"Yes, sir. Always come back again, sir."
Lawford's irritation dissipated quite suddenly. "One day you'll get so far lost you won't be able to come back. I worry about you, I really do. Your luck can't last, Richard."
According to Bernard Cornwell, there was a tailor at the town of Irun, who would sit sewing on his doorstep and watching the main road. Wellington knew about every French unit that came along that road...
The night raid
Sharpe was drawn out of his sleep by a shot and a shout. He rolled out of his bed with a thump and reached for his boots and rifle before his eyes were properly open. More shouts were echoing, and another shot. He forced his feet into his boots in the dark.
He heard Price thrashing around. "Muh! Whuh? 'S that a qui vive?"
"Get up!" Sharpe barked at the stupid question. He flung open the door and barged out into the dark hall only to collide with someone else coming in the other direction, who yelled at him. He shoved the other person out of the way and charged toward the invisible head of the stairs, clumped down with a hand on the rail to guide him. There was a distant roar. Dragons?
Downstairs there was a worse clamour, but at least there was a lamp. Officers were half undressed, running around. He shoved his way out of the doorway, and stopped on the porch, staring up at the sky with the rain running into his mouth.
There was fire in the sky! He stared up as a long tongue of flame high overhead lit up the silhouette of one dragon, and outlined the belly and wings of another. The fire lit the clouds above both dragons a lurid orange colour, then just as abruptly winked out.
Somebody shoved him hard from behind, and he started, used one hand to vault the wet rail. "Light Company!" he roared, and felt for his whistle on his belt, only to feel soft nightclothes. Damn! He put his fingers in his mouth and gave the rallying whistle that way.
There was a sparkling of fire in the sky, and the sound of shouting drifted to them, punctuated by echoing shots. Harper was beside him, suddenly, also with rifle in hand. "God save Ireland!" the Irishman breathed, staring up with wide eyes. "What's all this, then?"
"Come on!" Sharpe said to the group of his men who had rallied to his whistle, and he took to his heels, leading them from the well-lit hubbub into the rainy dark.
They crunched and crashed after him. "Stop! If anything comes down that's not ours, we're going to blow it to hell. Who's not got a weapon? Who the hell are you? And you! You, you and you, go back to your own company!"
He heard Price's voice coming behind them, and wheeled to the sound. "Harry! Take half of them a hundred yards left, if anything comes down that's not ours, kill it."
"Sir!" Price started off, dragging half of Sharpe's men with him as a comb drags wool apart.
"The rest of you follow me. Keep your locks dry." He led them to the right around the village, slipping in the mud in the dark. Over a wall, here, and up a slope, and then he had them spread out in a line around the village with instructions to make sure of their powder.
The chaos in the village was beginning to sort itself out. Above the invisible battle continued.
He could hear dragons roaring, the thunder of wings, men's voices shouting in English and in French. There seemed to be three clusters of rifle fire, but they moved around each other in the dark sky and were impossible to track. Then there was another great blast of flame that lit up the sky. The flame reached across the clouds like a spout of glowing water, and splashed against a raised wing and flank, and there was a shriek of agony.
"Shit," said Sharpe. The red-traced wing fell, thrashing uselessly in the air. There was another scream, and the dragon hit the ground down slope with a crash that Sharpe felt through his feet.
"Shit," he said again. Where the dragon had come down there was no sound of movement, only a very human wail that rose from the night. "Hold your fire! I'm going forward."
He walked forward. The dragon was a hump in the dark, silhouetted against the light from the village. There was a moving component to that silhouette, making a rocking motion, back and forth, back and forth. The wail had sunk to a keening, but it clearly came from the source of that movement. And it was using French, he realized.
The racket overhead was moving on. He could hear wingbeats above and around, but no more shots, and there was another bright flame, but it lit up nothing. A female voice shrieked in anger, and the overhead wingbeats began to fade away.
He approached the Frenchman. He could make out that the man was holding his dragon's head in his lap. It was a small dragon, he realized, no bigger than Moncey, and it was dead. He left the bereaved captain to his grief and walked back to his men. "Hold your fire, it's Sharpe," he called.
"What was that?" It was Harper's voice.
"French dragon. No, leave him be, lads, he's not going anywhere. It's dead. Jenkins, go find someone who speaks French and tell him we've got a very delicate surrender to take here."
"I'm here, sir," said Harris's voice out of the dark.
"Good. Go tell him we're the South Essex and he's a prisoner, and he can stay with his dragon if he gives his parole."
Harris departed, and Sharpe heard the sounds of voices from the direction of the dead dragon. He settled down on his heels to wait for any sign of the battle, but there was nothing. It had gone entirely quiet. The sky was empty.
"I think the show's over. Come along lads." He led them back toward the village, and gave the retreat whistle to signal to Price.
The rest of the regiment had barricaded themselves into the village's buildings, in textbook style. Lawford met him in the doorway of the large house. His red coat had been flung over his nightshirt, and his fair hair stood up comically, but his face was set firm. "What did you see?" he demanded.
"There were at least four of them, sir. One of them's lying out there dead. One of theirs, not ours."
"What the hell were they fighting about, at this time of night?"
"Why, what time is it?"
"It's nearly five, now."
"We can ask the Frenchy what they were doing, sir."
"He is, his dragon isn't. Courier-sized, only one rider."
Price came in behind Sharpe. "Two fellows fell out of the sky by us, sir. Both Aerial Corps."
"Oh, God. I hate picking up Aerial Corps dead," Lawford groaned.
Lawford went out, and at length managed to pry the French captain from his dragon's side before he froze to death. He took the poor man into his office and plied him with brandy, but the fortifying alcohol had the opposite effect to what it was supposed to and the recently-suppressed tears bubbled afresh, as if they hadn't already poured unchecked for half an hour. Sharpe watched as the conversation droned on in French, until he grew bored and went out.
There was little chance of returning to bed this night. Some few toughened souls had crept away but most, alert, cold and in terror of more dragons attacking out of the night, found excuses to huddle around lighted places and kept vigil. Sharpe went back to his room and shed his soaked nightclothes for his uniform. He took a lantern and went outside for a closer look at the dead dragon.
The beast was barely bigger than Moncey. It lay in its harness with an unnatural kink in its long neck. It had landed awkwardly, he saw, crunched sideways trying to hold its burned wing uppermost. It had fallen with its neck coming down across a wall, and must have broken it in its impact with the ground. It would have died instantly.
His lamplight glowed with incongruously cheery light over the horrible shiny burns and the dragon's huge open eyes. The dark slit pupil was growing cloudy in death, just like a man's, he saw.
He heard footsteps crunching through the snow behind him and turned to see Forrest and Bougainville coming towards him.
"Sir," he greeted.
"Sharpe," Forrest replied. Bougainville said nothing.
The three men stood for a while looking down on the dragon.
"I wonder what on earth has happened?" Bougainville mused.
"We're pretty far from the dragon bases," Forrest answered. "Not likely they just bumped into each other in the dark."
"The firebreather – she was ours," Sharpe said. "She was calling in English."
"I might be wrong," said Forrest carefully, "but I think this one is a Plein-Vite. I saw a lot of them in Calais during the Peace."
"How are we going to bury it, whatever it is?" Sharpe asked. "It must weigh all of two tons."
"Why bury it?" Bougainville asked, shrugging his shoulders. "Just have the men drag it away and leave it to the wolves."
"No," said Sharpe, and was surprised at the revulsion the idea gave him. "It needs burying. Or burning, somehow."
"Why? It's just an animal."
"No it bloody isn't." Sharpe rounded on the captain, the distrust he felt of the man blossoming into dislike at last. "It had a name and it did its duty so we bury it like a soldier."
Forrest put his hand on Sharpe's shoulder, as Bougainville raised his hands in mock surrender. "Oh, all right. Bury it if you like." The man was laughing at him, Sharpe realized.
"Dragons are people," he growled. "They talk, like we do."
"Parrots talk," Bougainville protested. "Just talking doesn't mean we treat them as if they were people. But I know you've developed a sentimental attachment to some of them, so go ahead and think of them that way if it makes you happy." Bougainville laughed. "Buried like soldiers! Really."
Sharpe clenched his fists and opened his mouth again, and Forrest, seeing a fresh outbreak of war developing in front of his eyes, used his grip on Sharpe's shoulder to tug the Rifleman away. "Come, Richard. We'll have to come up with a way to break the ground if we want to bury it."
Sharpe let Forrest draw him away as if he'd turned away from Bougainville's insult, but he was aware of the man's mocking eyes following him, and the challenge in them. He let Forrest lead him down the slope to the village.
Lawford met them in the hall. He'd just backed out of his office, and closed the door very gently after him. As they came up to him he was standing in the dark hall with one hand pressed to the door panel, as if he was unable to turn off his soothing words and so continuing to give condolences to the door as the Frenchman's proxy. He turned to them as their footsteps resounded on the floor, his face sombre in the light of Sharpe's lamp.
"He's sleeping," he whispered, before they could ask. "I've stuffed him with enough brandy to stun a horse."
"Did he say what happened?" Forrest asked.
"They attacked the Aerial Corps groundskeepers at a tavern just east of Guarda, in force. He doesn't know why, they were just the decoy so the real attackers could escape."
"The other French dragons all got away," Sharpe said. "I think the firebreather was by herself."
"We'll hear more about it in the morning," Lawford guessed. "If the Aerial Corps was attacked they'll send out scouts to see where they went."
"They'll see the dead one, and come down," Sharpe said.
Lawford nodded. "Run up the signal to land for a conference," he said. "And at first light send a rider to the 50th and the Fusiliers."
"Yes, sir," said Forrest.
"Sir?" asked Sharpe. "What was the dragon's name?"
Lawford's eyes flickered to him, looking haunted for a moment. "Atia," he said, and walked away.
The morning after the night before, Moncey comes up with a plan.
Morning came at last. They found two more corpses, lying like crushed mice in the wet fields. Lawford gave orders that the French captain had given his parole and must be left alone, and the South Essex did, leaving him huddled miserably in front of the mess fire.
The dawn brought snow, and the snow brought Temeraire himself, a silent grey ghost coasting through the falling skeins. He circled the village in the air, once, and then landed in the top field. His formation, Maximus and Lily, and two dragons Sharpe didn't recognise apart from being Yellow Reapers, landed on the ridge, further away to as to not induce panic. If there had been nervousness in the South Essex last night, it had disappeared with the arrival of the light, and some of the men immediately began making their way up to exchange gossip and news with the visitors. Sharpe and Lawford had time, while Temeraire circled, to make their way to the landing field and wait there.
Temeraire landed, much more heavily than Moncey would have done to Sharpe's eyes. His body and wings were dusted with snow, which melted constantly on his flight-heatened body and ran down his black hide to dribble off his underside. He looked an altogether different dragon to the amiable host they had last seen coiled in the sun at Vilar Formoso. He was visibly alert, his ruff out, his tendons and great muscles surging. He wore his full fighting harness, his crew armed and watchful. He was every inch a warrior, and his deep blue eyes fixed directly on Sharpe and Lawford.
"Good morning," he greeted in his deep voice. "I see Iskierka has been here last night. Laurence?" he said over his shoulder.
High up on his neck Laurence had unclipped himself. Temeraire reached his forehand up to his shoulder and plucked his captain up gently, as a child would pick up a pet hamster, and set him down on his feet next to Lawford.
Laurence didn't seem at all disturbed at being moved about like a living chess piece. He exchanged polite greetings with Lawford, beating his gloves together to warm his hands, then asked, "What happened here?"
"There was a fight at five o'clock this morning, between a British firebreather and about four French dragons," Lawford said. "That one's captain is alive but quite upset. What's going on?"
Temeraire leaned down over them, before Laurence could reply. "They stole Lily's egg," he growled.
The timbre of his voice raised all the hairs along Sharpe's arms. He saw to his alarm that the Celestial's ruff was standing up stiffly as wire, and out of the corner of his eye he saw Lawford take a small involuntary step backward.
Laurence reached up and patted the underside of Temeraire's jaw reassuringly. "The egg was being taken away to Lisbon by wagon. The wagon stopped for the night at a tavern, and just before midnight they were attacked by a force of at least twenty dragons."
"They had Fleurs de Nuit to guide them. They killed forty two men and the Yellow Reaper Dirigion, and straight after they split up into four groups. Iskierka ran into one group by accident, but they got away from her."
"The egg?" Sharpe asked, horrified.
"Gone." Temeraire's ruff had relaxed slightly under Laurence's soothing, but his voice still held that alarming timbre. Sharpe shivered inside the warmth of his jacket, involuntarily.
"How did they… how could they steal a newly laid egg?" he asked. "I thought they were soft."
"They are," Laurence said. His hand still ran up and down Temeraire's jaw. "They harden just enough to carry after two weeks."
"Which leads us to the question of how they knew the egg was ready, and exactly where to find it. We thought we might have a spy in the Aerial Corps – now we know we do," Temeraire spoke grimly.
"The Admiralty is going to be furious," Laurence said. "Losing a Longwing egg!"
"We'd sooner lose a whole army, than give up the secret of the Longwings to France," said Temeraire.
Laurence ran his hand over his eyes, and sighed. "Well, it's done now. No use crying over spilt milk. We can't be sure where they took it, we don't know how they'll take it back to France, and we don't have any agents at all in the Armee de l'Air. Colonel Lawford, if you have nothing to add, we'll be off. Moncey may come looking for us. If you see him, tell him we have returned to Vilar Formoso."
Lawford nodded. "I will, sir."
"Speaking of Moncey," said Temeraire, "Captain Sharpe, I have to have a word with you first."
"Certainly, sir," said Sharpe, surprised.
"Ah," said Laurence, in an undertone, "I know what this is all about." He bustled away to Temeraire's shoulder, while Temeraire's head remained where it was, and called up to one of the crew still up.
Sharpe found himself staring into a serious blue eye, and straightened to attention.
"Moncey tells me you have been flying with him," Temeraire said.
There didn't seem much point in evading it. "Yes, sir."
"That's all very well and good, but he tells me you have been tying yourself onto him with rope."
"Er," Sharpe said, taken aback. "Yes, sir. Good rope, sir."
"Rope will not do, Captain! It's not strong enough. If you are to go on flying, and I hope that you do, then you need to use proper equipment that won't snap, and that fits properly."
Temeraire tilted his head inquisitively, and his ruff lifted slightly. "Don't try to tell me you don't have rope burns, Captain Sharpe."
Sharpe glanced at Lawford. The Colonel was goggling at the sight of his fierce Rifleman being lectured like a schoolboy by a dragon the size of a first-rate. "Yes, sir. Quite bad ones, sir." His hands moved to his thighs, where his trousers concealed painful wheals from the rope that had connected his belt to Moncey's neckstrap on the long flight to Freneda.
Laurence had appeared at Sharpe's shoulder. "This is for you," he said.
'This' was a bundle of oiled leather straps and steel that Laurence held out to him. Sharpe took it, picked up a dangling piece of steel and looked at it curiously. "That is a harness," Temeraire told him from above. "We sometimes call it a carabiner, although technically the carabiners are those metal bits. Everyone in the Aerial Corps has one. I have asked Mr Fellowes to put rings on Moncey's neckstrap so you can clip yourself on. Put it on, Captain, so that we can see if it fits."
It seemed to Sharpe as if he and Temeraire were alone in the snow, as if here and now Sharpe was the only matter of any importance on the great black dragon's mind. He suddenly saw how Temeraire had risen unofficially to command the loyalty of every British dragon, and why Moncey spoke of him with such admiration.
Sharpe unrolled the leather straps and put them around himself, under the eyes of Lawford and most of the South Essex. A broad belt ran around his hips, with crossbelts over his shoulders. There were four straps attached to the belt, which paired up halfway down each thigh, and ended in two thick steel clips. "It fits, sir." The clips tapped his thighs, and would surely get tangled in his sash and his sword slings. Suddenly he understood why Aerial Officers didn't wear officer's sashes like the Army officers did.
Temeraire nodded his head, satisfied. "That is very good. And you see you can extend the straps so that you can stand up on a dragon's back as well?"
Sharpe agreed that he could.
"Excellent," Temeraire said, and his head withdrew slightly. "Now you can fly safely without falling off. Moncey is my friend, and I'm very happy that he has found someone who he likes to fly with. Everything is much nicer if you have someone to share it with. I couldn't allow you to fall off now that you have only just found each other." He leaned his nose down, and nudged his captain fondly.
"I wish you joy of each other," Laurence said drily, but his expression was kindly.
"Thank you, sir." Sharpe stole a sideways glance at Lawford, but the Colonel was standing aside, and for some reason he looked worried.
"Come, Temeraire, we must be off again," Laurence said. "I bid you good day, gentlemen."
"Yes, we must. Time and tide wait for no dragon," Temeraire replied. He reached out his hand and picked his captain up, and then set him back on his own shoulder. "Good day, both of you."
Laurence shouted down from his neck. "If we see Iskierka we'll send her to you to melt some ground so you can bury the Plein Vite."
"Thank you!" Lawford shouted, and waved his hand.
Temeraire launched himself into the air in a single bound, leaving a great bed of melted snow where he had been. His wingbeats whipped the fallen snow up in a brief blizzard, so that the two infantry officers had to shield their eyes with their hands. When Sharpe looked up again the dragons were already disappearing into the snowfall. His new harness slapped against his legs.
Later that morning, Iskierka and Moncey arrived together. Iskierka set her captain and crew down, and then stood for a long time examining her dead enemy.
Captain Granby and Lawford spoke together, and Sharpe made his way to Moncey. The Winchester had found a fire that had been precipitately abandoned on his arrival, and huddled over it so that his breast could be warmed.
"What's going on?" Sharpe asked.
"Well, you heard about the egg, I s'pose?"
"Yes. Temeraire told us, earlier."
"I just came from him. I think they've taken it to Cuidad Rodrigo, because that's where I've seen Big Red and that's where they take our prisoners. They'll have to move it by air from there, with the guerrillas on all sides, but they have three dragons to every one of ours."
"Any chance of getting it back?"
"You mean, without opening up a whole new campaign? Because that's what it's going to take to get into Cuidad, and we just aren't ready yet. By the time we are ready, that egg will be in Paris." Moncey hissed, and shuffled his wings angrily. "That white witch stole a Longwing egg from under our bloody noses, and there's nothing we can do but stand here and wave it goodbye."
Sharpe stared down at the mushed up snow, and ground his teeth. It was a bitter thing. "This will come down on Temeraire," he said, "losing the egg while it was in his care."
"The Admiralty is going to scream. And Parliament is going to say that's what happens when you trust beasts with command."
Sharpe spat into the slush, expressing his opinion of Parliament. "Bastards."
Iskierka took off with the dead Plein Vite in her forehands, and flew up to the top field. She laid the dragon on the snow, reared up on her hind legs and let loose a long jet of the same fire Sharpe had seen last night. The flame roared against the ground, so that her own smoke wreathed the sides of her face so that she looked like a demon. She drew breath, and flamed again.
Sharpe saw Lawford summoning him, and he left Moncey. Lawford told him to fetch the French dead from where they had been laid, and to bring them to Iskierka.
Sharpe rounded up a random group of men to act as pallbearers, and they carried the shattered corpses, now mercifully wrapped in sheets as shrouds, up to the top field.
Iskierka had dug out a great grave in the meantime, and the Plein Vite lay curled in the bottom of it already. The pallbearers laid the dead against the dragon's body, and the men of the South Essex and the firebreather's crew stood silently shivering by the grave as the regiment's chaplain read a burial service. Iskierka put her head close to two of the wrapped corpses, then she withdrew her head and stood silently next to Moncey. The dragons loomed over the assembly like great statues. Sharpe found his eyes resting on the French officer during the final long prayer.
He stood, with his face set, no longer weeping. He'd been given his sword back as a symbol of his parole, and as the final "amen" rumbled softly from the assembled men he drew it and set it at the salute. The shots of the musket salute banged out, and he jerked. Then he sheathed his sword, turned and marched away, not looking back.
Iskierka began filling the grave in again with sweeps of her forelegs. The regiment fell out, and the dragon's crew followed them away.
At length the only figures remaining around the grave were Sharpe and Moncey, Iskierka and her captain. Their breaths steamed from their faces in the cold air, except Iskierka, who steamed unceasingly from all over her body. The curling wisps, dancing and disappearing, gave a ghostly appearance to the scene.
"Her name was Atia," Sharpe said into the silence, staring at the raw earth over the grave.
"She's better off where she is, with burns like those," Moncey said, quietly. "She'd never have flown again."
"I don't think her captain would agree with you," Captain Granby said. He was unashamedly huddling under his dragon's body for warmth.
"I don't care what her captain thinks," said Iskierka archly. "If he wanted to keep her safe he shouldn't have been stealing other people's eggs."
"The egg is lost, dear one," Granby said, "and there's no use getting angry about it any more."
"I still think I should snatch that Frenchman up and shake him, really hard, until he tells us where the egg is." Iskierka was unrepentant. "I shall catch another Plein Vite and make him tell us, instead."
Moncey reared up, so suddenly that Sharpe jerked away. "Damn me!"
"What?" Sharpe said. Iskierka had reared up to, automatically, and reached protectively for Granby.
"Iskierka! My God but you've given me the best idea! Richard, how do you feel like retrieving that egg?"
"I'd like it rather well, but how?"
"Yes, how?" echoed Granby.
"Where's the egg? Cuidad Rodrigo. Where do they take captured couriers? Cuidad Rodrigo." Moncey thumped the ground with his tail. "Eh? Eh? What do you think of that, then?"
"Won't that be a little bit obvious?" Sharpe asked, frowning.
"You'd never be able to get a harnessed dragon to let itself be caught," Granby said doubtfully. "The first thing they always do is separate the dragon and the captain, and no dragon will volunteer for that."
"Oh, I certainly never would again," said Iskierka, who still had both forehands hovering around her captain. "Never ever ever."
"But I'm not any dragon's captain," Sharpe realized. "You wouldn't mind being separated from me, to get that egg back." He stared up at Moncey, shocked at the daring at it. "And it would be cheaper to lose me, than to send the army to Cuidad Rodrigo."
"They wouldn't expect someone to let themselves get caught on purpose. If you'd be willing to try it…" Moncey asked, and put his head on one side, leaving the decision to Sharpe. "They might shoot you as a spy."
Sharpe remembered Temeraire's words. They would rather have given up this whole army than lose the Longwings. "They could hardly still refuse my captaincy after a thing like that," he said aloud.
"And there's a big fat bounty for finding an egg – it's thousands of pounds."
Sharpe nodded. "You know, I think I'll give it a shot."
"You're insane," Granby said to them both. "You'll never get to the egg. They'll have you under lock and key the whole time."
"I've got myself out of lock and key before," Sharpe said. The idea seemed better and better every second, and he grinned wildly. "I've had a damn good education in getting in and out of locked places!"
"Are you ready to fly, Richard? We can catch up to Temeraire and put the idea to him."
"Let me run and fetch flying clothes," he said, "then I'm all yours."
Sharpe squelched and slid his way over the icy ground back to headquarters. Captain Leroy popped out of the parlour, as he entered, saw the intent look on his face and said, "Now what?"
"We've got an idea for getting that egg back." He didn't wait for Leroy's reply, but bounded up the stairs to his room two at a time. He snatched up his rifle and his new carabiners, and clumped down the stairs again while doing up the buckles.
At the bottom of the stairs, Lawford and Leroy were both waiting, staring up at the staircase as he came down. "You're not going," Lawford said. "Didn't you hear Temeraire say that the egg is lost?"
"We've got a chance to get it back, now, before they take it to France," he said, stopping in the hall, and sliding the tongue of the carabiner strap over his shoulder into its rings.
"Didn't you hear me say you aren't going?" Lawford huffed.
Sharpe stopped, and looked into Lawford's eyes. "If you forbid me to go, sir, I won't go. But I can do it, sir, with Moncey, and no-one else can."
"I'd rather you didn't," Lawford said. "I'm very worried you're going to buzz off with Moncey, and I'll lose you, and Major Hogan will lose him."
"Sir." He didn't take his eyes off Lawford's, and tried to keep his voice as level as possible. Not pleading, but not yielding either.
Leroy took his cigar out of his mouth. "I know this is none of my business, but I also know keeping the Longwings in Britain is more important than any one dragon."
Lawford was wavering. Sharpe held his breath. If Lawford ordered him to stay, he would stay. He didn't want to stay. He could do this, he knew he could! "Sir," he said quietly. "This is a chance to make sure they approve my captaincy. If I can save the egg, they'll have to take notice." He saw Lawford blanch slightly. "I don't think they're going to approve my captaincy, and I don't want to lose my company."
Leroy chimed in again. "If they can get it back, if there's even the slightest chance of it, then our duty is to let them try. Sir."
Lawford sighed. "All right. I'll let you go." There was a note of resignation in Lawford's voice, that puzzled Sharpe. "I can't deny you the chance, damn it! But you come straight back here, you hear me? You belong here! Wellington will have my guts for garters if you fly off and lose Moncey."
"I won't lose Moncey, sir. And if Temeraire says the idea won't work we'll come back right away. Thank you, sir," and with that he rushed out.
Lawford and Leroy were left staring at the door. "I'm far too permissive with him," Lawford told Leroy. "Far too permissive. I let him get away with anything."
Leroy put his cigar back into his mouth and sucked on it to get it to draw. "Yes, sir, but you can't keep a wild creature like that on a short leash. He's like a hawk, Colonel. Let him go, and he'll hunt."
"And I suppose if I coddle him he'll die?" Lawford asked.
"Well, no, sir," Leroy replied. "I think if you tried to coddle him he'd bite you. I don't think he even knows what coddling is, our Captain Sharpe." His tone was rueful.
Preparations for a rescue
The journey that had taken Sharpe and Lawford almost a day, took Moncey and Iskierka less than an hour. For Sharpe, used by now to flying alone with Moncey, it was odd to have another dragon in company. Moncey placed himself on a level with Iskierka's head, but just a few yards to her right, and every time Sharpe looked over his shoulder he saw the great bulk of the Kazilik's body looming behind as if in pursuit. He knew Moncey's movements well enough to tell that the little Winchester was judging each wingbeat very finely in order to stay exactly where he was in relation to the bigger dragon. Was it some sort of draconic politeness, or was Moncey playing a private game? He would ask later.
The Aerial Corps headquarters looked entirely different from the air. From ground level, the trees concealed the dragons from view. From the air, each cleared field between the orchards was visible, and each either held a dragon or showed signs of having held one recently. On the ridge another Winchester sat up on its hindquarters as they crossed overhead, and roared at them. Moncey roared back, and Iskierka peeled away to land on the ridge. Heads lifted on long necks to watch them pass overhead.
Temeraire lay in the same position of importance, closest to the house, but he was not sprawling today. The remains of a hasty meal were being cleared away from before him. He was sitting up, alert, and as they came in to land Sharpe saw two courier dragons – Greylings – take off from next to him and hustle off into the sky in opposite directions.
Men scattered, allowing room for Moncey to land. He came down on all fours, but only part-folded his wings. "Temeraire! Old worm! We have had a capital idea!" he called, urgently.
"What sort of idea?" Temeraire rumbled, picking his head up from where he had been in deep conversation with his crew.
"The sort of idea that we have to talk about out of earshot."
Temeraire bent down to Laurence, and cupped his forehand for Laurence to step into. Moncey took off. Sharpe clung like a jockey, and was startled to hear a great groan and rush of air just behind him, and turned his head in time to see the huge black bulk of Temeraire rising just behind the end of Moncey's tail.
Moncey cruised to the edge of the ridge, backwinged and landed neatly alongside the other Winchester. A moment later Temeraire performed the same manoeuvre, on a much bigger scale, and much noisier. Sharpe scrambled down from Moncey's back, just as Temeraire set Laurence down by his side and Granby arrived from Iskierka.
"Sir," Sharpe greeted, a little out of breath, and grinned at them all.
"What's this great idea?" Laurence asked.
"We think we can get the Longwing egg back," Sharpe replied.
"I can pretend to be a courier dragon, and let myself be caught," Moncey explained. "They'll haul me off to Cuidad Rodrigo, that's where all our captured fellows have been taken to. Odds are, that's where the egg is."
"We aren't even sure that they've taken the egg to Cuidad Rodrigo," Laurence objected.
"I am," said Moncey. "The Armee de'l Air is buzzing around there like flies over a muckheap. They wouldn't be able to keep it under guard anywhere else, and they have to keep it ready and warm for travel."
Laurence frowned. "They'll take Captain Sharpe away from you," he said. He was clearly playing devil's advocate.
"That's just it. They won't know he's just a friend. No offence, Richard."
"None taken," Sharpe said. "They'll take me away and lock me up," he continued, "I'll get out, get the egg, get to Moncey, and we'll be back in time for breakfast."
He sounded too confident even to his own ears, and the others looked doubtful. Temeraire scratched the side of his head with a huge talon, and looked down at his captain. "How can a plan so brazen possibly work?"
"That's what I said," Granby interjected.
"Well, if I can't get myself free, Moncey can simply take off on his own, and I'll be a prisoner of war. All you'd have lost is me, and I wouldn't mind, I'll have plenty of time to make my way back. I can look after myself." Sharpe gazed from one to the other. "Or if all else fails, I can destroy the egg."
"The very cheek of it works in our favour," Moncey wheedled, "They can't be expecting an attempt to get it back so soon."
"It's worth a try," Temeraire said.
"To get the egg back, it's worth more than a try," Laurence told him, then looked back to Sharpe. "You know, they might shoot you…?"
"Yes, sir, as a spy. I'll take that risk, sir." At least dead he wouldn't mind losing the Light Company. "Do we go, sir?"
Laurence and Temeraire exchanged looks. "All right," Laurence said.
The Winchester's captain had been listening with his arms folded and his head on one side. Now he spoke up for the first time.
"Excuse me, gentlemen," he said. "You're going to have to disguise yourself as someone else, sir. They aren't going to believe Moncey the exploring officer just happens to be carrying letters today. And you'll need letters, too."
"Laurence," said Temeraire, "We can send the letter we just received from Braganza, saying they haven't seen any sign of the egg."
"Yes. We can get you an Aerial uniform," Laurence told Sharpe. "Mulvaney is about your size. And you can keep your carabiners, and your sword, but you'll have to leave your rifle. Couriers don't carry them."
"Maybe Moncey can switch places with that dragon there?" Sharpe suggested, pointing at the other Winchester.
The little dragon popped her head up and said, in a noticeably female voice, "Excuse me? Me?"
"Not you, Elsie," the Winchester captain agreed. "Maybe Devastatio?"
"Too scarred. You can tell him anywhere."
"Hmm, how about Volatilus?" Granby suggested.
"Wrong colour – he's far more blue than me. A true-blue Winchester," Moncey said. "And he's far too big, anyway. I'm a bit on the small side." He turned his head back and squinted at himself wryly.
"Xanthus?" Temeraire suggested.
"Xanthus would do, actually," Moncey said, considering. "He's my own get, so he looks like me. Not too big. And he's sitting in Dover at the moment – his captain came back from Malta with the clap, the poor fool."
"What's the captain's name?" Sharpe asked.
"Tucker. Alexander Tucker."
Within an hour Moncey had switched harnesses with Elsie, with a great deal of adjustment to the length of some straps. Sharpe had been hurriedly dressed up in the uniform of the Aerial Corps, with his own carabiners and his scabbard attached in a fashion more suitable for flying.
The enormity of what he was attempting had finally sunk in, as he put on the Aerial uniform. It fitted, but looking down at himself and seeing a different colour gave him a strange sense of stealing an identity he had no right to. It was similar to the first time he'd put on the uniform of an officer, he realized.
The whole transformation took place on the other side of the ridge, out of sight. The letter was fetched, resealed, and given to Sharpe. He stuffed it into Hollins' borrowed letter sachel, swung the sachel onto his back, and saluted at his audience.
Elsie, bare of her own harness, wore Moncey's neckstrap, although it rode high on her larger neck, and carried Moncey's scythe. She agreed to fly over to Freneda and inform Hogan that an attempt was under way to retrieve the lost egg. Captain Hollin, in his own trousers and shirt but with Sharpe's jacket, and Sharpe's rifle over his shoulder, waved at them as he took off. Sharpe waved back.
"Now remember," Temeraire said to Sharpe, as he sat on Moncey's back while Temeraire's harness man made last minute adjustments. "What does the egg look like?"
"It's speckled brown, and about half the size of my chest," Sharpe recited.
"And how long have you been flying with Xanthus?"
"Since his previous captain died in 'ninety six, and before me was Captain Cooper."
"And remember to keep the egg nice and warm. It must stay at least as warm as you are, or it will not hatch."
"Yes, Grandma," said Moncey.
"If you can't get away with the egg," called Granby from Iskierka, "the next best thing would be to destroy it. It's not nice, but that's the next best thing."
"You didn't steal it," Iskierka said, philosophically. "They did. So it's their fault."
"I'll try to bring it back," he promised. "We're ready to go." Under him, he could feel Moncey's nervous excitement, his eagerness to take off and get the job started.
"Captain Sharpe," Temeraire said, in a concerned tone. "Are you absolutely sure? We need that egg, but are you absolutely aware of the risks?"
"I'm sure," Sharpe said. For my company, he thought. For my captaincy.
"We're both sure." Moncey said. "Who can do this but us? Who has a better chance for getting away with it than us? Who else is flat-out dumb enough to try a stunt like this, than us?"
"We'll be back in time for breakfast," Sharpe said again, with a bravado he didn't feel.
Moncey bent himself down, ready to take off. "You ready?"
Moncey's leap carried them up, and on their heels Temeraire and Iskierka took off, shielding them from view with their wings.
Getting in is easy...
Their flight took them on a winding course. They had to stay close to the couriers' flying routes, but pass far enough to the east that they presented an enticing opportunity for French patrols. Moncey's wingbeats were calm and even. The air was still and cold around them.
"If they don't want to take the bait," Moncey called back, "I can always fake a sprained wing."
"We'll have to see what they make of us."
Sharpe's lockpicks were tucked into the lining of his boot, hidden even if he took his boots off. His carabiners were snug, but he clung to Moncey's warm neck anyway.
They flew north along the Spanish Portuguese border, turned and flew south along a line, closer, Moncey said, to Cuidad Rodrigo. The Extremadura passed by beneath them, mile after mile of bare frozen ground and grey stone, barren, unforgiving and inhospitable
After a while, Moncey began to sing. He had a pleasant tenor voice, with the characteristic resonant undertone of a dragon, and at first Sharpe enjoyed listening to it. His voice echoed in the empty air. Moncey sang Spanish Ladies, then he sang Spanish Ladies again. And then again.
On the seventh resumption of the song, Sharpe pounded his fist on Moncey's hard spine. "Oy! You are not singing that song all the way to Ciudad Rodrigo!"
"What's wrong with it? I like it, and it happens to be on my mind at the moment!"
"You've sung it six times in a row! Sing something else, dammit!"
"I don't know, anything!"
Moncey began to sing Heart of Oak, keeping time with himself by waving his forehand in the air, but somehow on a steep banking turn he missed his line, and the song segued into Spanish Ladies. "Farewell and adieu-u-u to you, Spani-i-i-i-sh ladi-i-ies…."
Sharpe yowled and banged his fist on the back of his neck again. "If you don't stop singing that I swear I'll jump off!"
"All right, all right! You fussy human!" Moncey turned his head and laughed at him, open-mouthed, tongue curling up like a cat's. "What about … poetry?"
"Poetry? What sort of poetry?"
"The sort of poetry dragons like. I think I'll recite one I heard from Gentius. Annually. He heard it from his pwecious first captain. How about that, eh?"
"Just one poem?" Sharpe said, doubtfully. "One poem won't last all day."
"Oh, boy, do I have news for you. All right, here she goes. Sing, immortal goddess…"
After another hour of flying, Moncey interrupted himself with a shout of "Tally Ho!" and pulled up his speed so that Sharpe was tossed forward on his neck. "Here they come!"
Sharpe had time to see two large dragons lift off from a ridge ahead of them, before Moncey corkscrewed violently in the air and took off in the opposite direction. He heard them roaring behind them.
The Winchester's wingbeats came faster, but Sharpe could tell he was deliberately spilling the air from his wings. He thrashed along, making a great display of frenzied flight, and Sharpe looked over his shoulder to see that the two French dragons were closer now. The one in the lead continued to roar, went on roaring as if he could shout Moncey out of the sky.
"Hope they swallow my act," Moncey grunted. "If they flew any slower they'd be going backwards. Come on, damn you! Come and get me!" He swooped upward, beating for height, which gave up still more ground to his pursuers. Sharpe looked back again. Only one was still closing. The other had dropped back, had slowed his wingbeats to cruising speed.
"I don't think they're…" he started, and then the French closed their trap.
From out of the clouds, two more French dragons dropped. They fell vertically, straight down, bracketing Moncey like a pair of goalposts.
Moncey squealed in surprise as the net draped between them wrapped itself around him. In a single thrashing wingbeat it was inextricably tangled around his wings. Moncey went instantly from flying under control to falling, helpless. The dragons holding the net stopped their plunge effortlessly, closed on him, and Moncey was trapped. He hung in the net like a struggling fish, with Sharpe pinned to his back.
"I'm falling!" Moncey howled, fighting the net, tangling it even tighter around himself.
"You're not, you're not, they've got you!" Sharpe shouted back. The net was wound around his back, pressing him painfully hard against Moncey.
"Cut the damn thing!"
"I can't get my sword loose!"
Their pursuers had caught up with them, and Sharpe looked up to see that all four dragons now had a hold on the net and were coordinating their flight so as to carry Moncey's weight between them. They weren't going to take Moncey's 'captain' away from him! Instead they were going to carry them bundled up together like so much washing, all the way back to Cuidad Rodrigo!
Moncey switched to French, and shrieked up at the dragons holding the net in a way that told Sharpe that he was venting every Gallic oath he had ever learned. His tail was dangling free, and whipped the air from side to side like a snake's. Sharpe couldn't tell if Moncey was truly outraged, or if his behaviour was part of his performance.
"For God's sake, Monce, stop aggravating them, they'll drop us and we'll hit the ground like a ton of bricks!"
Moncey stopped thrashing, but he continued to scream at his captors.
They paid the furious Winchester as little attention as if he really had been only a fish. Moncey gave up on shouting after a while, and resigned himself to staring morosely at the ground as they skimmed over it.
"This isn't what I was expecting, at all," he grumbled. "Can't they spare a dragon some dignity, for heaven's sake, rather than cart me off like a sack of meal?"
"Well, at least they caught us," Sharpe told him softly. He had used both arms to shift a fold of the enveloping net off himself so that he wasn't in immediate danger of being crushed. "And think, they've obviously put a lot of effort into catching a courier, and what have they got for their pains? Us. Who were trying to get caught in the first place. Poor buggers, all that hard work. I'll bet they're happy."
Moncey grumbled wordlessly, then his characteristic sense of humour reasserted itself and he gave his huff of laughter. "That'll teach 'em."
They were carried along, gently swooping and swinging in the air. The French dragons and their crews were clearly pleased with their catch, and they called back and forth to each other, high over Sharpe's head. A man climbed down to one of the dragon's belly rigging, and shouted down in heavily-accented English if Sharpe wanted to come up and have a more comfortable ride, but Sharpe shouted back that the Frenchman could go to hell, which pleased Moncey mightily.
They hadn't been far from Cuidad Rodrigo after all. They were carried there in much less time than they had spent flying. Cuidad Rodrigo squatted atop a low hill, close by a river. It was ringed with a double wall with a ditch between them, with bastions and gun emplacements, and a gentle glacis that would draw an army to its death in the spring. From the air the precision and care that had been given to the building of the fortress was obvious to both of them.
"That's going to be a bastard to take," Moncey observed, craning his head to gaze down on the fortress.
"How so?" Sharpe asked.
Moncey replied sombrely. "See those hills? Whoever puts dragons on those hills commands the city. We're going to have to fight for those before we can ever fire a shot at the walls themselves." He cleared his throat, a peculiarly human sound. "By 'we,' of course I mean 'you,' Richard."
Their captors brought them in over the city's walls. Cuidad Rodrigo was filled with golden stone buildings, interspersed with squares, and it seemed that half the squares were filled by dragons. This, Sharpe realized, was the lion's den, the French equivalent of Vilar Formoso.
"They must have removed every horse in the whole city," he said, amazed at the sight of so many dragons inside the city itself.
"I wouldn't want to spend all winter lying on those stones," Moncey said, sourly.
They were carried over the city, and then two of their captors peeled off, allowing the two remaining dragons to lower them gently to a great square against a cathedral.
Lying coiled in front of a great stone building topped with a bell tower was Lien.
Slowly, deliberately, Lien uncoiled herself and rose to a sitting position to watch. She dwarfed Moncey, looming over him like a mountain, and Moncey lay without moving, gazing up at her. Sharpe had spent enough hours with Temeraire not to be intimidated by her size alone, but he too lay silent under that unblinking red gaze. Here was an enemy to be feared.
They lay for a moment on the stone, wrapped up too securely to struggle, with their captors on either side and Lien looming over them. Then the net was wrenched, and there were French voices in Sharpe's ear, and there were French uniforms climbing over Moncey, surrounding Sharpe. Blades flashed and slit the net from around him, and without ceremony they grabbed him by the arms and the back of his jacket and hustled him off Moncey's back.
The manoevre was too sudden for Sharpe to struggle, but when he felt his boots come into contact with the stone he started to protest. "Hey, where are you taking me? Put me down! Xanthus, don't panic! It'll be all right!" They paid him no attention but began frogmarching him across the square, so that he was forced to walk between them like a bullock to slaughter.
Behind him he heard Moncey thrashing around, joints thudding against the stones, and calling, "Tucker! Tucker! Where are you taking my captain? You're hurting him! Bring him back here, you're hurting him! Tucker!"
A cold female voice cut over Moncey's indignant yelps. "If you want to see your captain alive again, you'll settle down."
Moncey went silent. Lien went on, in a reasonable tone of voice, as if she was addressing a confused child.
"We aren't going to hurt him, but we can't give him back to you. And if you cause any trouble I'll have to have those men kill him. I wouldn't want to do that, but I would have to. Do you understand?"
"Tucker!" Moncey wailed behind him as Sharpe was hustled indoors.
Sharpe becomes a PoW.
Prisoners of War
Sharpe's jacket was released long enough for the man behind him to slam the doors shut on Moncey's wails. He had the chance to look around, at a lengthy, rather plush hall, high-ceilinged. Then his escorts resumed hustling him along. He let himself be steered in through a side door, and was pushed inside. The door was slammed behind him, locked, and he was left alone.
The room was clearly some sort of administrator's office. There were shelves along all four walls, and three desks crammed inside. The windows were all too high for him to see out. He paced around the room a few times, but there was nothing else in the room.
Sharpe knew he was being left to wait, so after a few minutes of pacing he pulled one of the chairs around to face the door and settled down in it. Out of curiosity, he drew some of the files on the desk toward him. They were written in French, and he recognised the coat of arms of the Armee de l'Air. He riffled through them idly. They consisted of nothing but meaningless French forms, signed and dated, almost identical to each other in outline but with different signatures.
Were all of these written in French? he wondered, gazing around himself. It seemed a lot of paper, even for running an army with. He got out of the chair and pulled a book off the shelf. No. The books running around the walls were in Spanish.
He just had time to cram the book back in its place when the door behind him was unlocked. He turned on his heel to face the doorway.
The door opened, and a French officer stood there. He came inside, and bowed politely. Sharpe bowed back. The door closed.
The Frenchman spoke to him, asking a question, but Sharpe just shook his head. "I don't understand," he said apologetically.
The Frenchman's eyebrows rose. "Parlais vous Francais?"
Sharpe shook his head again. "No. Non. I'm sorry. Je … je suis…" He gave up, shaking his head again, but the French officer had understood the gist of his words anyway. He shrugged his shoulders, said something in a wry tone to Sharpe, held up a finger and pointed it at Sharpe as if to say 'wait a moment' and left the room.
Sharpe sat down again.
Another officer came in, and Sharpe hauled himself back to his feet. This man bowed too, and Sharpe bowed back. He was surprisingly old, this officer, with steel grey hair and a face that had been dried by years of flight in all weathers into a mask of tight brown wrinkles.
"Good afternoon, Captain," this man said, in English that was nasal but quite understandable. "My name is Captain Valery De La Martiniere, of Accendare. Might I have the honour of your name, monsieur?"
"I'm Captain Alexander Tucker," Sharpe replied. The name slid off his lips glibly. "My dragon is Xanthus. Sir, I must formally claim the rights and privileges of my rank."
"You have those rights, Capitaine, of course." The Frenchman bowed again, and Sharpe bowed back. Sharpe was beginning to relax. They had accepted him as a fellow officer, and they weren't about to start bashing him or throwing him into a small cell.
"I am desolated to inform you, Capitaine, that you are a prisoner, and that you are held accountable to your dragon's good behaviour."
"I understand," Sharpe said. "What … where will you take us?"
"At this time you will remain here, but in future time we will ask your dragon to fly to Madrid. You may of course give your parole, should you wish to remain together in confinement?" The man's brows lifted, querying.
"No," said Sharpe, gruffly.
"Then I am afraid you will have to be confined, Capitaine. I must ask you for your carabiners."
"So be it," he said, and began to unbuckle them.
"Might I ask, Capitaine, how is that your dragon speaks French very well, but you do not?"
"I'm his second captain," he explained. He and Moncey had worked through Xanthus's story together so that they matched. Whether Xanthus spoke a word of French neither of them knew, so they decided it wasn't likely the French would know either. "After his first captain died, he came to me. Looking for familiar company, you see. I was armourer to Victoriatus, and I'd done some work for Xanthus, so he knew me. That was in 'ninety-six, sir, and I've never looked back." He handed La Martiniere his carabiners.
"As ever," said La Martiniere, "it is the dragon who chooses." The man gazed at the ceiling, as if contemplating a religious vision. "They choose, and in such a liberated choice the union between man and beast is greater than ever man has decreed."
"Yes, sir," Sharpe replied, and then realized he probably shouldn't call a French captain 'sir.' Was that a quote from scripture, he wondered? He cast his face into a serious expression more suited to a religious response, and repeated, "Yes, it is, indeed."
But La Martiniere hadn't seemed to notice anything amiss. "We have another English officer here. Captain Chadbourne. Of Tabellarius."
"Oh, dear," Sharpe said. His heart sank. "We were worrying what had happened to him."
"I regret they shall now worry what has happened to you, Capitaine Tucker. With your permission, monsieur, I will take you to him?"
La Martiniere opened the door and ushered Sharpe out. "I must advise against the opportuning to go to your dragon and try to escape, Capitaine Tucker. The city is well guarded and he has beside already been secured against him taking off."
"Secured?" Sharpe had no need to pretend to be worried at the sound of that.
"There is nothing to fear, Capitaine, we have merely joined him to the pillar of the building. He may not take off with the Town Hall attached to him."
They went up a flight of stairs, and at the top La Martiniere unlocked a door and bowed Sharpe in.
There was another Aerial officer there, sitting in a deep armchair in front of the fire. He sprang to his feet, his face coming to life. "Another Englishman, by God!" Then he stiffened as he saw Sharpe's unfamiliar face.
"Captain Tucker, at your service," Sharpe said, and gave a very slight nod of his head. He heard the door being locked again behind him. "And my dragon is Xanthus," he continued, nodding to the window. "Captain Chadbourne, I presume?"
"Oh, that is Xanthus who landed just now?" said Chadbourne, intently, and he stepped forward to take Sharpe's hand, and shake it while squeezing it rather hard. "I thought there weren't any Winchester captains I hadn't met yet, but so many Winchesters resemble each other." He stared into Sharpe's eyes. Sharpe hoped the man wasn't about to start wig-wagging like a ham actor.
"I've been told Xanthus looks a lot like his sire," Sharpe said, carefully. "Who is also flying in Portugal these days, so it might get a bit tricky telling them apart."
"Quite so, quite so." Chadbourne was beginning to grin. "The stamp he puts on his get is quite remarkable. Come, have a look, you can see him over the balcony."
Sharpe followed Chadbourne. The Aerial officer unlatched the door and stepped onto the balcony.
Sharpe walked over to the balcony rail and looked over. Moncey was curled in a small coil a few yards further along, bare of his harness. There was no sign of Lien. "Xanthus!" he called.
Moncey jumped, and flung his head up at the sound of his voice. "Tucker!" he cried, and lunged. He was pulled up with a jerk, and turned his head to hiss at his own hind leg.
Sharpe bent over the rail. He was aware that there was a French officer standing further along the balcony, silently watching them. "What's wrong, Xanthus?"
"They have chained me to the wall!" Moncey called back. "I can't come to you!"
"Never mind, I can come to you." Sharpe walked along the balcony until he was above Moncey, and Moncey reared up on his hind legs so they could speak on a level. The dragon had to arch himself awkwardly sideways to do it, and Sharpe could see why. A thick chain had been locked around his hind leg just above his foot. It led out of Sharpe's sight under the balcony. The chain gave just enough freedom to lie comfortably, so long as he lay alongside the building, but not enough to get off the ground. Moncey spoke, in a more normal tone of voice. "The chain is bolted down, out of my reach, and I don't think I am strong enough to pull it loose."
Sharpe nodded. "That's all right, Xanthus. Don't worry about the chain, I'm sure you won't have to wear it for very long." He nodded again, looking deep into Moncey's eyes.
Moncey lowered himself again, sighing. Sharpe found himself in the position of looking down on him for the first time. "Look, this is Captain Chadbourne. I won't be lonely, as long as you are a good dragon and don't cause any trouble."
"I don't want to be a good dragon," Moncey said sulkily. "I want to go home." He sounded so much like Iskierka Sharpe almost laughed.
"Well, we can't go home, just yet. We must make the best of where we find ourselves."
Moncey sighed again, heavily, and coiled himself up miserably. Sharpe looked down at him for a while, then Chadbourne touched his arm. "They won't feed him tonight, so that he doesn't have the energy to make trouble tomorrow. Come inside, sit down, tell me what's going on at home. I'll tell you what the daily routine is here."
Sharpe turned. La Martiniere was standing a few yards along the balcony, leaning against the wall with his arms folded. Sharpe gave him a brusque nod, then followed Chadbourne inside, and sat in the chair offered, facing the fire. "This used to be the Town Hall, but the Armee de l'Air have taken it over," Chadbourne told him, affably. "We have this room to ourselves. We'll have to share the bed, but Tab assures me I don't snore."
"They don't keep a very close guard."
"Close enough for their purposes. They lock me in at night, but during the day I can move around as long as I don't go downstairs. They know damn well I wouldn't leave Tabellarius to face the music."
Sharpe leaned forward to warm the palms of his hands. "Did they catch you with a net too?"
"A net?" Chadbourne frowned. "No. We flew into a wretched snowstorm, and Tab's wings kept icing up. We landed so he could knock some ice off, and that's when that damn Lorraine popped up out of nowhere and grabbed me off like a stolen pie." He laughed, bitterly. "Tab followed me all the way here, the silly twit." He shook his head at the fire, and sighed.
"They ambushed us with a net, like a fish. Two behind as beaters, two in front lying in wait in the cloud cover. Xanthus flew straight into it. They carried us here like a bundle of washing."
"A net?" Chadbourne leaned forward. "That's a new one. I wouldn't be surprised if that was Her Ladyship's idea."
"That's her. She frightened the hell out of Tab, I can tell you. She's the one giving orders to the Armee de l'Air around here."
"Did you hear about what happened last night?"
"I don't know what happened. They won't tell me, but most of 'em all went off somewhere and didn't come back until this morning."
"They attacked a wagon convoy, and made off with Lily's egg."
If Sharpe had had any doubt about the value of the egg, it would have been dispelled. Chadbourne stared at Sharpe, and slowly his face went white. He opened his mouth to swear, and ended up only pulling an agonised face, eyes squeezed shut.
Then he opened his eyes very wide, and stared at Sharpe with dawning realization.
... it's getting out again that's going to be hard.
The building was silent as the grave, and the room was dark. Sharpe knelt by the lock on their sitting room door, Chadbourne's hand on his shoulder, and worked his picklocks. The lock was a simple one, and in scant moments it came unlocked.
"Good luck," Chadbourne whispered.
"Thank you," Sharpe whispered back. They had agreed that Chadbourne should stay behind and claim he'd been asleep and knew nothing. The Aerial officer didn't want to leave Tabellarius, and Sharpe didn't want repercussions for his own actions to be taken out on Chadbourne's innocent head. They had lain in the dark, and Chadbourne had described the plan of the building, and told Sharpe where he guessed the French would keep the egg. "I know they have eggs here," he had whispered, his mouth close to Sharpe's ear. "They have all the Portuguese eggs they stole from Almeida, and some of their own."
Lien had come back in the evening, and she had spent time interrogating Moncey. Sharpe had been unable to follow the conversation, but he could tell that Moncey was playing simple Xanthus to the hilt. If he hadn't been a dragon, he might have had a plum career on the stage. Sharpe wondered how many lies and half-truths Moncey was feeding her.
"She did that with us, too," Chadbourne said, watching. "They haven't asked me anything – instead she pumped poor Tab till his head was spinning."
During dinner Sharpe's sword was returned to him, but not the message satchel. Moncey himself wasn't being fed anything; in the interest, Chadbourne said, of keeping him lethargic and less likely to bashing his way to his captain. He had watched Ciudad Rodrigo from their window, watched the dragons coming and going overhead, watched officers walk in and out from under their balcony, and he had seen how the French dragons settled in for the night, dropping like birds of prey to roost behind the rooftops of the city. Two middleweights settled down in the square to guard Moncey – Pecheur Rayes, according to Chadbourne.
Now it was time. The clock had struck two. Sharpe opened the door, and slipped out without a further word. He had taken the leg off a chair in the bedroom to act as a club, and he hefted it in the air, ready to strike. A pair of blankets and strips of bed curtain were tied around his waist, to carry the egg in if he found it.
The corridor was dim. The guard who was supposed to be on watch sat slumped in his chair, asleep. Sharpe slipped past him.
The staircase was deserted, and Sharpe slipped down those, testing his weight on each slowly in case of loud creaks. He could hear voices, in French, somewhere. At the bottom of stairs, he must turn right.
The hall was deserted, temporarily. A light and voices came from a single doorway. Sharpe turned around the bottom of the banister. Tucked behind it was a narrow corridor, that led, Chadbourne said, to the servant's quarters and kitchen of the building. It was even darker, and Sharpe moved faster, knowing that he would be silhouetted against the light behind him.
Down another flight of stairs, and around a corner into a kitchen. He tiptoed onto the flagstones, stood and stared around, one hand on the rough wall, one holding up the chair leg. It was only half a kitchen, and it was very hot. Sharpe felt sweat bloom in his hair, and around his eyes.
The room had been sectioned down the middle with a wooden screen. On this side was a table, pots and pans, a water pump, neat stacks of crockery. Golden firelight was leaking around the screen, and he could hear women's voices, whispering in Spanish.
Oh God. He didn't want to have to club down women.
He inched to the corner of the screen, and leaned forward to take an unobtrusive peek around it.
There were two women in that half of the room room, one bending over the fire with her back to him, one turned towards him holding a scoop of water which she was pouring into a bowl. The one facing him saw him immediately, and squeaked in surprise. He stepped quickly around the screen, improvised club held up in case they screamed.
Her companion swung around, and for a moment Sharpe and the two women stared at each other in silence. Then the woman who had turned smiled. "Ingles?" she asked.
Sharpe nodded. "Si."
The Spanish woman had a long face, broad nose and thick black brows, but her face was lit up to dramatic beauty by the huge grin that appeared on her face. The firelight playing across her features made her look like a warrior queen. Without a further word she tossed her hair back and pointed imperiously at a curtain that hung over the wall.
Sharpe took two steps to it, grabbed it and wrenched it aside. On the shelves, arranged as if for display, lay a whole treasure trove of eggs. Each lay upright, coddled with wet towels, with just the tops of the shells showing. Sharpe found himself holding his breath. It was magnificent. They lay in rows before him, laid out, glistening with damp in the light of the fire.
Sharpe stepped back and forth, scanning the shelves in search of the right egg, and came to a dead stop at the second shelf. "Oh, shit," he breathed.
There were two eggs matching the right description.
He sucked in his breath, and turned on the Spanish woman. "Which one?"
The woman didn't understand. "Which one?" he repeated, urgently. He pointed to each egg at a time, and them to himself, but she only shrugged. She didn't know.
The other woman was standing still against the screen, and now she spoke to the first woman in worried tones. The first woman nodded in assent and the other one turned to Sharpe, pointed at the ceiling, and mimed eating from a dish. He nodded and gestured that she must go, and she slipped past him, and around the screen.
Sharpe returned to gazing at the eggs. They were both roughly the same size, they were both speckled brown. One was a more coppery shade than the other, and the one had bigger speckles than the other, but they both looked just like the description he had been given.
Take one, leave the other? No. Take the one that was softest and therefore youngest. He prodded them, but they felt just the same. Destroy them both? He hefted the club reluctantly, worked his tongue in his mouth, trying to summon the will to smash the helpless eggs.
The Spaniard made up his mind for him with an explosion of hissed Spanish. She gestured at him with both hands – 'take both.'
He nodded, and began unrolling the blankets from around his waist. She picked up an egg. She dried it off carefully, explaining something to him which he did not understand, and rolled it up in a blanket.
Sharpe picked up the other egg. He had expected it to feel slimy or hard, but instead it was leathery, like a wet chamois, and gave very slightly under his hand. If he should accidentally fall on it he would crush it… He matched her movements, wrapping it, and tied it up with the strips of cloth.
In a moment both eggs had been securely wrapped and tied up, and he looked at her. "Gracias," he said.
"Por Espania," she said, then put her head on one side, and said something else that ended, very clearly, with the words "La Aguja." She pointed her finger at him, and wagged it knowingly.
"La Aguja," he agreed, feeling a blush start on his cheeks.
She said something else, and bunched her fist and aimed it at her own cheek.
"You want me to hit you out?" he asked. She repeated the words and the movement, more definitely, nodding. "Yes, you do. Damn."
He bunched his fist. She closed her eyes, crossed her arms, and braced herself. Sharpe leaned over her, and impulsively dropped a quick kiss on her cheek. Her eyes popped open in surprise, and he stepped back and hit her. Hard.
She crashed over backwards onto her bottom, stunned. "I'm sorry," he whispered. Then he grabbed the eggs in both arms and hurried out.
He had to hunch under the banister with the warm weight of the eggs against his chest, while someone came down the stairs and went into the lighted office. Then he jumped up, and dashed up the stairs again. Up the dark landing, up the corridor, and here was their door, and Chadbourne opened it for him. The sentry snored on, unaware.
"I've got it!" Sharpe hissed. His heart pounded in his chest. "I've got it!"
"Well done!" Chadbourne hissed back, clapped him on the shoulder, hustled him over to opposite wall.
On the balcony each night, Chadbourne had said, there was another sentry on guard, who stood a two hour shift before being relieved. He was visible through the glass of the door, huddled against the doorjamb with his musket in the crook of his arm and his hands under his armpits for warmth. Sharpe had times his escape to occur in the third half-hour of the man's shift so that he would be cold and bored but not yet alert for his relief.
Sharpe moved to the window. The door may have been locked but the window was a simple sash. Sharpe had once earned his bread and butter breaking into such windows, now he used the same skill to break out of this one. It took him mere seconds. At a nod, Chadbourne went to the fireplace and began banging the logs in the grate back and forth, to disguise the sound of the sash going up.
Sharpe put his head out, turned to see if the sentry had moved.
He had not. His back, turned toward Sharpe, loomed like a pillar, solid and motionless, the white crossbelts gleaming in the dark. Sharpe put his leg over the windowsill, climbed out smoothly, careful not to bump against the sash. He brought the chair leg up.
He took three tiptoe steps to the sentry, raised the club, and swung it in a short hard arc into the man's skull just under his hat.
The sentry crumpled. Sharpe jumped forward, wrapped his free arm around the man's chest from behind and lowered him gently to the balcony tiles. He turned back to the window.
Chadbourne passed him the eggs through the window, then a bundle of fabric. He gave Sharpe thumbs up, and then slid the sash down slowly without a word.
Sharpe turned and swung his leg over the balcony, ready to climb down one-handed, the other arm holding his burden, but then Moncey loomed over the rail. His head gleamed black in the dark. He said nothing, but Sharpe felt his forehands wrap themselves around his body and lift him off the balcony like a kitten.
He was set back on his feet next to Moncey, who lay down again and brought his wing over him to hide him from sight. "Do you have it?" the dragon hissed, head low to the ground as if he was still asleep.
"There's two of them."
"I don't know which is which." He heard Moncey hiss in the darkness. Sharpe ducked under the wing and went to work on the padlock around his foot. He could feel the great muscled haunch trembling against him. Picklocks slid into the lock, felt around, found the obstructions, pushed and prodded delicately.
"I can hold one, if you hold the other," he whispered under his shoulder. The lock came free, and he grabbed the chain before it could crash to the ground and lowered it gently.
The bundle Chadbourne had passed him was an odd collection of torn sheets, turned around and around into ropes and then knotted. It was for Moncey. Sharpe untangled the bundle, and then Moncey, unbidden, ducked his head down through the loop and then raised it again so that it fell around his neck.
Sharpe set one of the eggs into Moncey's forehand, feeling the strength of the talons as they wrapped around it. Then he climbed up onto Moncey's back, with the help of his other foreleg, and took a good grip on the knotted sheet harness with one hand. He would have to keep his grip on Moncey's neck with one hand and his legs alone.
Inside the building behind him, he heard a shout. Their nearest guard-dragon jerked its head up off the stones, with a sleepy squawk. "Comment?"
"Time to go!" Moncey said, and leaped off the stones as a roar erupted.
Sharpe felt the world turn giddyingly, a great black-and-flame smear in his vision. He was falling! He clutched at the rope, clutched the egg under his arm. Moncey righted himself, and the lights of the city were streaking under them, rooftops whipping by just below Moncey's belly.
Moncey's wings were beating frantically. Behind them the roaring continued, rising as new voices joined in the clamour, and Sharpe risked a look over his shoulder to see shapes rising into the dark air. A bell began to toll from the top of the Town Hall. "They're coming!"
"I know!" They fled through the night.
Sharpe could feel his body working back and forth with every wingbeat, could feel himself slipping sideways every so often, and he jiggled himself around to keep his balance. The weight of the egg pulled him off centre, and he feared he would drop it. Then he feared he must drop it or fall off, and he called to Moncey, "I can't hold the egg!"
"I won't let you fall," Moncey shouted back. "Hold it as long as you can!"
A deafening roar echoed behind them, and Sharpe felt a great convulsive shudder run through Moncey's whole body. "Lien!" the dragon cried.
The wall of the city was coming up, and Moncey angled his wings to slash over it with feet to spare, and then the ground underneath them yawned open and dark. Without warning Moncey dropped and snapped around. The ground came up to meet them, and Moncey screwed himself around in mid air, tail whipping out to his side in the violence of the turn. Sharpe yelled as he felt himself coming off. Moncey's forehand reached under him, shoving him back up again before they hit the ground. But they didn't hit the ground. They continued to fly at the same breakneck speed, skimming between black walls.
Moncey had slipped into the ditch under the wall itself.
It was pitch dark, and narrow, and Moncey's wings were nearly touching the walls on either side of him. He was flying with his wings only half extended, jinking occasionally around turns in the walls, throwing Sharpe this way and that. His balance and judgement were superb, despite Sharpe's weight. A single blow to his wings would have brought him spinning out of control, slamming into the stone wall, but they sliced along as fast as if they had been in empty air in perfect visibility.
Sharpe clung as tightly as he had ever done in his life. The egg was heavy, and warm, and the world was going too fast. He closed his eyes, unable to watch the dizzying walls any longer, and pressed his face into Moncey's neck.
Dragons roared. Overhead, and behind, and falling further behind. Moncey's breath was coming in great heaves.
At last Moncey lifted out of the ditch. The sounds of pursuit had fallen into the distance. He flew in a straight line in the dark away from the city. Now that his flight was somewhat steadier, Sharpe was able to look behind them.
The city lights behind them lit up a night sky filled with wings. Dragons were lifting off, and beating away under the clouds. They were spreading out into a great fan, but all of them, all, were heading in the direction they had last seen Moncey going. Sharpe thought he saw the huge shape of Lien rising, but he couldn't be sure at this distance. They had thrown off the hunt.
Moncey streaked off into the black winter night, hugging the ground. The thief had evaded the constables.
"That won't fool Lien forever," he called to Sharpe. "We have to make as much distance as we can before dawn. Do you still have the egg?"
"Yes. Do you have yours?"
They flew on.
In the dark, there was no benefit to hiding in the clouds, so Moncey flew low over the dark hills. His wings beat steadily. Sharpe's hand under the rope was getting rubbed painfully, and he switched the egg around from one side to the other to spare it from being rubbed raw.
They flew through the night, and into a dawn that rose before them like a view of heaven. The sun burned like a muted fire behind the clouds, casting perfect shafts of light down to play on the landscape. The shafts seemed to dance from their left to their right, fading then reappearing and shifting.
Quite suddenly they were flying into a gorgeous halo of golden light. Sharpe blinked his eyes in the blinding glare, and that was when the French found them.
The dragon was a middleweight. Sharpe couldn't have named it even if it hadn't been coming directly out of the sun. Moncey yelped, and swung around in mid-air, as the enemy dropped in to the attack.
Sharpe slipped completely off Moncey's back, his legs up in the air. His hand was the only thing still joining him to Moncey, and he screamed in sheer terror as the drop grabbed at him. His sight narrowed to the view of his own hand, still clenched around the white rope, and then with a violent yank Moncey came up under him again, slamming him around with a force that twisted his arm cruelly and brought another scream. His legs were hanging down on Moncey's shoulder, his boots kicking at the air. His whole weight hung suspended from his hand, then Moncey's forehand came up, catching him, pinning him there.
Sharpe's boots found purchase on Moncey's forehand. He scrabbled wildly, and managed to get his leg over the high spine and drag himself up. He leaned forward against the wind of their passage, gasping. His free arm was still wrapped around the precious egg, squeezing it with pressure that he realized might crush it, and he loosened his grip.
His eyesight was blurry with tears, but he didn't have a free hand to dash them away. The wind soon dried his eyes, and at last he remembered the attack that had caused Moncey's violent motion. He twisted his head back to look over his shoulder.
The French dragon that had dropped down on them was now below them. It came beating after them in grim pursuit, close on Moncey's quarter. Its head was down, concentrating. This was no noisy ambush, nor a clumsy Grand Lorraine, this was a beast of war, intent on the kill. He could see its crew along its back, but they were too far behind for him to make out what they were doing, and his telescope was in Vilar Formoso.
"This is the fellow who chased me before!" Moncey shouted, and then fell silent.
Sharpe clung on grimly. Moncey was racing under him. His wings reached for the air, driving him along, but Sharpe could hear his ragged breathing, feel the sluggishness transmitted along his back, and knew that his dragon was nearly exhausted.
He closed his eyes, willing Moncey to be faster than their pursuer, but when he looked back he could see more detail of the French crew.
They weren't going to make it. After all this way, they were going to be taken down, dragged into captivity, the eggs back in French hands. Moncey's heroic flight through the ditch was for nothing. They had lost.
"Drop the egg!" he shouted to Moncey. "They're gaining on us! Drop the egg!"
"Like hell! No!" Moncey screamed back.
Sharpe let go his grip on Moncey's neck so as to hold his egg with both hands. It was heavy and still warm, and he thought about the great trusting beast locked inside it. "I'm sorry," he told it. He reached a hand inside the blanket, peeled part of it back to look at the speckled shell.
He looked back at Moncey's head, about to tell him that he was going to drop the egg, and saw a great mountain ridge approaching ahead.
"Just up ahead…" Moncey panted.
"There's a rendezvous point. Where I meet the partisans. In a valley. I will put you down. Walk south. Then follow the stream down. There will be a cave."
"What about you?"
"I can get away. Not carrying you. Look for the cave."
Moncey put on a burst of speed, groaning with the effort. Sharpe looked back. They were opening the gap again. Moncey dived for the mountain, curved neatly into a valley, swept around a crest. The French dragon followed, and when Sharpe looked back it had fallen further behind.
Another rock wall, and Moncey whipped around it, and just beyond it smacked his wings out vertically so that his speed dropped to nothing. Sharpe was ready. He put both arms around the precious egg, threw his leg up and slipped off Moncey's shoulder, just as the Winchester accelerated out from under him.
He landed hard, on his feet, scrabbling for purchase on a shale slope. He lost his footing, crashed onto his hip, and slid on his side, down the slope, into the trees. He slid between them, and the sun was momentarily blocked out by the shadow of the French dragon passing overhead. He slid to a thumping stop against the trunk of a tree, and lay there, panting.
The mountain was silent, and empty.
Sharpe was alone. He lay and flexed his muscles one by one. Nothing was broken. His shoulder felt odd, rubbery and too warm, but not actually painful. His hip and thigh, on the other hand, felt like he had been beaten methodically with an iron bar, but his exploring fingers felt no blood. His breath churned out a cloud of vapour with each breath.
The egg lay in his arms, warm, and to his relief not damp. Without getting up, he unwrapped the blanket to have a look at it. It was still egg-shaped, and he could see no tears in the leathery shell. "I hope we haven't shaken you up too badly," he told it.
The egg, of course, did not reply. With a groan, Sharpe pushed himself to his feet, using the tree that had stopped his slide for a hoist. The shale was slippery with ice, and threatened to skip out from under his feet, so he let himself down the slope gingerly, one hand on the ground for balance. The other arm stayed around the egg.
The trees were thin at this time of year, and he could see well all around. The valley floor was bare, far below, and seemed to glow with snow through the bare trunks. What had Moncey said? Walk south, then follow the stream down. Very well. He paused, leaning against a tree, scanning the sky. He could see where the sun was going to rise above the surrounding mountains. That was east. He turned and resumed crunching downhill. Walk south.
His course carried him all the way to the valley floor. It was narrow, and he felt his feet cross the hardness of a road, but there were no tracks, and there was no stream. He began trudging up the opposite slope again.
His shoulder began to hurt, and then by God it really hurt. It felt as if it had been wrenched out of its socket, although he'd had that happen before and he knew it had not. But God! did it hurt. The muscle running over the top of the joint sang with pain every time he raised the arm higher than the bottom of his ribs. He switched to carrying the egg in his other arm, and tucked the painful arm into the front of his jacket. But there was no way to carry the arm that didn't hurt. He moved it, inch by inch, experimenting, this way and that, and each new position gave him some relief for a few seconds, and then the pain began to swell up again.
His breath rasped in his throat. He began to sweat inside his winter jacket. His hip and leg ached, and he found himself limping without realizing it, but the pain in his shoulder took up so much of his attention. God, it hurt!
At length, he stopped and sat down against a tree with the egg in his lap, and unbuttoned his jacket to rub the fingers of the other hand into the muscles of the shoulder. It felt to his fingers as if his muscles had turned into strings of steel, and trying to poke the strings back into the consistency of flesh brought involuntary gasps of pain. It could not be helped, he realized. It could only be tolerated.
He picked up the egg and limped on. To relieve his mind, he decided to speak to the egg. He'd heard that they learned language through their shells. He told the egg his name, and his rank, and the story of the rescue attempt. He told it of the war, and the importance of the Longwings. He told it who he was, and who the South Essex was. He talked, and talked, with his breath rasping, and with his boots crunching and slipping in the snow.
He crested the ridge into the next valley while he was telling the egg about the taking the eagle at Talavera. By now the sun was up, and the snow gleamed with a brightness that part of his mind could see was beautiful even through his discomfort. He reached the stream while telling the egg about the orphanage he grew up in, and stopped talking when he stood catching his breath and looking around.
He had grown hungry while he was walking. Dinner had been a long time ago. Yesterday, in fact. He was tired, so tired. He hadn't slept at all last night; and he realized, and told the egg, that he hadn't slept all that long the night before either. Had Moncey had any sleep? He seemed to remember Moncey telling him that dragons needed more sleep than people did. Maybe that was why he hadn't been able to outrun the French dragon. And he remembered Moncey telling him once that a dragon's need to eat increased with the amount of flying he did. Without flying at all he could eat as little as once a month, like a crocodile, but flying constantly he needed a meal every day.
How long would it take Moncey to outrun the French dragon and come back for him? He stopped short as it occurred to him for the first time that Moncey might be taken, and might not come back at all. In which case Sharpe's life depended on there being Spanish guerillas at the meeting place. And warm food, soon. He told the egg that there would be warmth, and food, and people to talk to, soon, soon, but he knew he was trying to reassure himself.
When he got to the stream he stopped and sat down again, to catch his breath and to try to rub life back into his shoulder. Water still ran in it, at this time of year, but it was lined with ice, and it looked forbiddingly cold and grey. His hip protested when he sat down, and when he tried to get up he found that he could not. He had to put the egg down, use his hand to push himself up, and then bend down again and retrieve the egg.
Clouds were beginning to pass in front of the sun.
Follow the stream down, Moncey had said.
He limped on. God, his shoulder hurt.
He had to climb down a small waterfall, but managed not to slip and fall. The stream curved around the contours of the valley. Further down, the valley's sides narrowed. One wall dropped away completely, so that the stream emerged into a saddle and picked its way down. The other side steepened from a gentle tree-covered slope to a rock-strewn near-cliff. Sharpe was already on the steeper side of the stream, so he was relieved not to have to cross the icy water.
He sought a cave, he told himself. He picked his way along the stream bed, gazing up at the slope. On the very top he saw a little pile of stones balanced on each other, and knew that he was looking at some sort of signal. He followed the stream over the edge of the saddle, slipping now and again.
His boot slipped out from under him, almost dumping him onto his rear, and as he scrabbled with the other foot for balance he thought he saw movement high above. He caught his balance, and stared, but it was gone again. He continued down.
If the cave was here, it had to be fairly well concealed, he realized. He would have to climb the slope itself, and examine it from above. He hitched the egg up again, and began climbing.
The cave entrance ran between two vertical stone piles. He almost missed it. From the same level it was a mere slit in the rock, but from above it widened like a cup. It might be possible for a very small, very determined dragon to climb in from the top, and writhe himself into it, vertically, if he didn't mind confined spaces. Sharpe squeezed in through the bottom of the slit, and found himself having to sidle in a narrow half circle at the bottom of a chimney. Then the opening of the cave itself yawned darkly in front of him.
Moncey had surely been in here. He could smell the coppery scent of a dragon in the still air. He laughed to himself at the thought of the Winchester wriggling himself in through the cave entrance like the world's largest mole.
The cave was dark, and cold, but sheltered. He felt his way into the darkened back, exploring, clambering over the rocks. He took out his tinderbox, and lit a match.
In the dark enclosed shelter of the inner cave was a treasure trove. He crouched under the low roof and stared around. Here were racks of dried meat, blankets neatly folded. Barrels of powder. Sacks of horse feed. Sacks of flour. Stacks of firewood. His match burned his fingers, and he flicked it out.
If the French had found this they would have destroyed it all. He was glad they had not. His stomach growled. "All righty," he told the egg. "Let's make us a fire, and warm ourselves a bit, aye?"
The tinderbox served again, and he used some of the tied bundles of tinder in the cave, and some sticks of wood, and he used his pocket knife to slice off some pieces of the dried meat. He knew that smoke would give away the fact that there was someone here to any watching eyes. The sun was past its zenith and soon it would grow dark enough that the smoke would soon be hidden anyway, but he could not wait that long. He was aware of the chills beginning to creep over his skin inside his sweat-damp clothes, and if he was cold, so was the egg. He was in more danger from the cold than he was from any enemy. The fire he built lay close to the entrance of the cave, so that the smoke was carried up through the funnel. He set out a stack of firewood, and lay down between the fire and the rock wall, so that the heat of the fire would reflect off the stone and warm his back. The egg he held against his body, facing the fire, with his arms wrapped around it, while he chewed the meat.
The cheery light of the fire and the sudden warmth on his face soothed him, and soon he fell asleep.
He was awoken by the touch of something cold on the tip of his nose. He jumped, and his eyes shot open.
The cold touch came from the musket barrel that was being held at his head. His eyes followed the barrel up to the hands of an unsmiling man in Spanish peasant clothes.
The man removed the barrel and gestured for Sharpe to get up. He sat up, very slowly. His fire still smouldered, and the man had come around it, and stood behind Sharpe. He had Sharpe's sword in his other hand. Another man stood in the entrance to the cave. This man held a Baker rifle aimed at Sharpe, and he called over his shoulder in Spanish.
There was a shuffling, scraping sound, and another Spanish guerrilla came around the narrow passage and stepped into the cave. This one took off her hat and shook her head so that her long black hair fell down around her face.
"Teresa!" said Sharpe.
She looked down at him, sitting on the ground, cold and hungry and alone, and her hawk-like face lit up in the familiar beautiful smile, and his heart was filled with summer. "Richard Sharpe!" she said, clearly astonished. She spoke to her men in Spanish, gesturing imperiously, and the weapons were raised off him. "What are you doing here, foolish Englishman?"
"Would you believe me if I said I was sent by a dragon to find a fair maiden?"
She tossed her head. "No."
"Almost true, though. I've just been to Ciudad Rodrigo and stolen a dragon's egg." He uncovered the blanket that held the egg, and said "Ta-dah!"
"You are lucky you found this place," she said, ignoring the egg.
He shook his head. "I didn't find it. Moncey told me where it was."
"Moncey? The dragon, Moncey? You have seen him? Where?"
"Last I saw him, he was tearing off back to Vilar Formoso with a French dragon chasing him. He told me to wait here for him. He told me he met with Spanish partisans here – he didn't say it was you." He didn't ask where have you been? He didn't say I've been missing you.
The rest of her band were crowding into the cave now, gazing at him, and he saw faces he recognised. He knew the Spanish regarded him with mixed feelings. On the one hand he was a mere Englishman, a heretic, a mercenary brought to Spain by invitation, and tolerated only because he would help oust the hated French. On the other hand, he was as much a killer of the French as they, and besides he was the lover of La Aguja, their leader, who had led them to dip their blades in French blood many, many times. So he was tolerated.
"I have not been able to speak with him since I returned from Badajoz," she said, sitting down next to him. She was close enough to touch, and he longed to touch her. "The French have blocked up Ciudad Rodrigo like a prison."
"He said they're patrolling around it so heavily he can't get through to you," Sharpe said. Some of the Spanish were warming their hands over his fire, and one was carefully putting extra logs on it.
Sharpe knew that there were few Spanish dragons left in Spain, most of them having either been chased away by the Inquisition or taken off to French breeding grounds, and he wondered aloud at her guerillas being so comfortable around Moncey. "He fights the French," she said, as if amazed that he did not understand such a simple fact. "Therefore he is our ally."
"Have you any dragons of your own?"
She shook her head. "None. None left, although my father told me the toughest dragons in all Spain came from the Estremadura. But the French took them all when they took our king. Whose egg is that?"
"Ours. They stole it from us. I've stolen it back." He leaned forward, warming his hands at the newly-revived fire, and changed the subject. "You were in Badajoz?"
"I have family there," she said, archly. "In Badajoz, they know me as Senorita Moreno, respectful daughter of an old family. La Aguja stayed behind in Ciudad Rodrigo."
They only used this cave as a storeroom, she said. It was impossible to get their horses inside, although Moncey had occasionally crammed himself in it to evade pursuit. The dried meat was his, she said. It was getting dark, but they could not all sleep here. Sharpe would stay to keep his egg warm, and she would stay to keep guard over him. The rest of her men would go back to their hidden horses and make camp.
The men left, and finally Sharpe was able to touch her to his heart's content.
Some time later, a listener in the night, if there had been one, hiding outside the cave, would have heard an English voice cry, in a voice of astonished delight, "A baby? Mine?"
And a Spanish voice replied firmly, "Ours."
Sharpe was awoken by a poke in the cheek. "Wake up," Teresa said. "It is time to get up."
He groaned, pushed his head deeper into the rolled up blanket they had used as pillows. His body ached, all over. Every bruise and sprain had gone to sleep with him, and she had woken them all up again. She poked him again, harder. "Wake up."
He opened one eye, rolled it up as far as it would go and mumbled into the blanket, "Can't you just kill me here instead, and put me out of my misery?"
"My men will be coming to fetch horsefeed," she said. She was standing over him, dressed already, but with her long hair hanging loose. "You want my men to find you lying here naked?"
He rolled his eye upward and considered it. "No," he decided. He got his elbow under him and pushed himself up, then threw the blankets aside to view his body. His leg and hip had turned a truly alarming colour, and he could feel the bruises in them as if stones were pressing against him. His shoulder hurt much less, thanks to Teresa's hard fingers last night, working the muscle over and over until it was soft as dough.
He climbed to his feet, and retrieved his clothes. The egg lay still next to the fire, securely wrapped. The blankets around it had been wettened with warm water overnight, and as Teresa repacked her saddlebags and measured out horsefeed he carefully dried it off and rewrapped it in new dry blankets. There were cold hard-boiled eggs to eat, and bread and cheese, and he tore into it and grinned fiercely at Teresa.
"We don't know if Moncey got away from the dragon that was chasing you," she said, "so we will not wait here."
"He said he'd be able to as long as he wasn't carrying me," Sharpe said around a mouthful of bread.
"There is a route he flies, to get here. It is the best way, he says, by air. We will ride along that route. If he flies it he will see us. And we will leave him a signal to say where we have gone if he comes here from the other direction. If he did not escape, no other dragon will know to look for you here. We will not wait here."
Sharpe shrugged his shoulders. "You're in command," he said.
In truth, he didn't much mind whether they stayed here an extra day or left immediately. He had succeeded in stealing the egg, he had met Teresa again, she had not forgotten him after all, and his heart was singing with both joy and worry for the small sick baby girl far away in Badajoz. A daughter! His only family!
He stepped out of the cave, rested, fed, and content.
He would have to tell Moncey that he had been wrong about not having any eggs of his own. He had a daughter!
They walked down to where her band of guerilleros had spent the night, lugging bags of horsefeed. Teresa's second in command had saddled her horse, but there was no spare for Sharpe. He would have to ride double. This morning, he did not mind if he had been told he would have to crawl back on his knees.
The horse snorted and arched its neck at his smell. "He smells dragons on me," he explained, but the horse was persuaded that he would not be eaten this day, and Sharpe managed to climb up behind Teresa. He put his arms around her just below her breasts, resisted the urge to bury his nose in her hair, and gripped with his thighs to the horse's bony hips as she clicked it into a walk. The precious egg was rewrapped in an extra blanket and was carried by another one of the Spanish in front of his saddle.
Sharpe had watched the Spanish handling the egg with some suspicion, but Teresa had reassured him. "If it hatches now it will not speak Spanish, no? And what would we feed it on? We have only dried meat. No. It will serve the cause of Spain best with your Aerial Corps."
They rode further along the valley, heading east.
The French would be out in force, hunting the egg thieves, as the British had been out in force just the day before yesterday. Sharpe saw that the Spanish travelled warily, but were not unduly tense. They had been avoiding dragons for a long time, and he saw that they had well-practised manoevres for covering the landscape in which they fought.
They rode with one eye always on the sky. Their route wound its way around, so as to keep inside the treeline whenever possible. When the little group was compelled to cross open ground, they spread out in a line along the edge of the cover, and at a signal all turned their mounts simultaneously and crossed in line abreast as neatly as haute ecole riders, so that the time they were visible from the air was kept to an absolute minimum.
One or two Spaniards left the little party periodically, gigging their horses uphill off the track, and Teresa explained that they were going to move the signals. "Piles of stones. Strips of cloth tied to trees. Things like that, that a dragon could see from the air but no-one would see from the ground." Moncey, if he came back, would follow the twisting valley, and he would pick out their signals. Sharpe was impressed. He had thought that Moncey simply flew about, but he realized that the dragon's job was fully as complex as any of the other exploring officers he had met on Hogan's staff. He remembered Kearney, and his horse Marlborough, and smiled to himself at the thought that in Moncey the two had been rolled into one.
Teresa explained that they had been trying to penetrate the cordon of secrecy around Ciudad Rodrigo, without success, all month. They had been close to the city, where Moncey had been unable to fly to contact them, but they had not been able to get inside, and the people inside were not coming out. Sharpe told her about Lien, and he told her about the Spanish woman in the kitchen who had helped him steal the egg. Teresa frowned, and stared down at the snow alongside her horse without replying when he told her that, and he did not ask who the Spanish woman was.
They were crossing a broad valley where the snow lay very thinly on the ground, when one of the Spaniards in the lead cried out and waved his arm at the sky. He felt Teresa's horse under him jump and skitter nervously backward, and she shortened her reins and spoke reassuringly to it until it stood still.
Sharpe slid backwards over the horse's rump, and landed on his feet. He shaded his eyes to scan the sky.
A dragon was up there, high up,. As he watched it changed its angle in the sky and came towards them. It was a Regal Copper, swooping its enormous wings as it flew, and when it came closer it thrust its head up into the sky and roared.
The sound reached them after the dragon had closed its mouth again. As he stood watching, the Spanish around him all dismounted, and one man in three took the horses away through the trees, upwind of the dragon. The rest stood around Sharpe and Teresa and watched the dragon come in to land.
Sharpe recognised Maximus. The Regal Copper landed heavily, and was just reaching his hand up to fetch Berkley, when there was another roar above. A black dragon, wings outstretched, appeared from the sky beyond the ridge, glided overhead and landed smoothly just beside Maximus.
"Captain Sharpe!" Temeraire called, almost as soon as his feet had touched down. "That is you. I am so glad to see you, alive and well."
Sharpe trotted forward, crunching through the snow. "Temeraire. Captain Laurence. Where is Moncey? Did he reach you?"
"He reached us. He was exhausted, and we left him behind to come look for you. Who are these?" Temeraire spoke, while putting Laurence gently down on his feet.
Sharpe turned around, to make introductions, and found that Teresa had not, as he'd assumed, come forward to meet the Colonel of the Aerial Corps. She stood with her men, stock still, staring with a wide-eyed, open-mouthed expression of awe up at Temeraire.
"Temeraire, Captain Laurence, I'd like you to meet Teresa Moreno, also known as La Aguja. Teresa, come and meet Moncey's friend Temeraire."
Teresa closed her mouth with a snap, and stepped forward with steely determination on her jaw. Her men stayed at a wary distance and watched as she walked straight up to meet the black dragon. The Celestial leaned his head down at her, with his customary expression of gentle curiosity and greeted her with, "Buenas dias, senorita Moreno. Me alegra encontrarme con un amigo de Moncey."
She looked up at him, surprise on her face, and Sharpe felt his heart warm at the unguarded girlish expression. "El sentimiento es mutuo," she replied, with a slight vertical bob that, had she been wearing a dress, might have become a curtsey.
Berkley arrived at Sharpe's side, having had to trudge the distance between Maximus and Temeraire. "Hello, Sharpe," he greeted Sharpe. "Glad to see you got out, egg or no egg."
"Yes," Laurence agreed. "We were all worried about you when Moncey said he'd had to leave you behind."
"Moncey wanted to fly straight back and hunt for you this morning, but he was too exhausted. He couldn't even get off the ground, never mind fly," Temeraire put in. "He said you were going to destroy the egg, but it doesn't matter. He was very worried you had fallen and hurt yourself. As long as we can take you back to Moncey unharmed, we are all happy."
"But I did get the egg, sir," Sharpe replied. "I carried it with me all day yesterday." He turned and waved to the man who held the egg bundled against his chest. "Here we go, sir. Right side up and all its buttons done. Undamaged as far as I can tell, sir, but you'll be a better judge than me."
Berkley leaped, whooped with joy, and clapped Sharpe hard on the shoulder, sending him flinching with pain. Laurence simply grinned, and Temeraire threw his head into the air. "You brought the egg!" There was a cheer from the crew still perching along Temeraire's harness. The word was transmitted to Maximus's crew, and moments later there was a roar of approval from there too.
Sharpe stood, grinning, aware that he was blushing. The egg-laden Spaniard came forward, awed into silence by his enormous audience, but pinkfaced with reflected pleasure at the cheering. Berkley pounded his hands on the partisan's shoulder, gleefully. The man staggered under the friendly blows and proffered the egg to him.
Berkley took it. "Gracias," he told the Spaniard, then turned to Teresa, bowing over the egg, "Gracias. Gracias." Laurence stepped forward, and put his hands into the blankets to have a look at the egg. He looked at it, then looked up at Berkley with his eyebrows raised, and the two Aerial Corps officers exchanged grins of surprised glee.
"What is it?" Sharpe asked. "Is it the right egg?"
"Moncey was carrying the right egg," Laurence replied, turning to Sharpe with his eyes shining. "We saw that right away. This isn't it."
He hadn't just walked all that way carrying a worthless egg, had he? Not judging by the way the two captains were grinning, as if Christmas had come early. "Aye, so what is it, then?"
"As far as I know…" Berkley said, bouncing a little on his feet as if he was a much lighter man.
"Congratulations, Richard," Laurence interrupted. "There's a bounty for capturing a heavy-weight dragon's egg. You and Moncey are in for a lot of prize money. We'll have to take it back to base to see what it is, exactly." He gave Berkley a warning look.
"Yes," Berkley said, still bouncing slightly. "We'd better make sure before we go getting all our hopes up. Congratulations, Richard."
"You will go away with them, now, Richard?" Teresa asked.
Sharpe looked at her. "I have to go, Teresa."
She turned her head away, stared across the winter landscape, her lips tight. She was determined not to ask him to stay. Sharpe touched her elbow, opened his mouth to speak again, but he was saved having to find words to say by Temeraire.
"Laurence," the dragon asked. "Can we not take Miss Moreno back to Vilar Formoso with us? I know Major Hogan has been looking for her, and Moncey can bring her back again."
"We certainly can do that," Laurence agreed. "Miss Moreno? Would you be willing to fly with us? We carry spare harnesses."
Sharpe looked at her, wild with hope that she would say yes. "Please?" he asked. "I'd be very happy if you did. It's not scary at all, and I'd hold you."
"Yes," she said.
As the valley fell away below, Sharpe felt her arms tighten convulsively around his waist. He twisted around to grin at her. "Good, yes?"
She was pale, but she met his eyes and managed a grin back. "Good."
Temeraire flew steadily, and picked up other dragons also quartering the mountains as he went. Soon the group was a formation, in a loose V, with Temeraire in the centre and the other dragons spreading out on either side. It was a breathtaking sight, as stirring in its own way as the sight of an entire army spread out in battle array, and to an enemy it would have been quelling. The flight to Vilar Formoso took a few hours, long enough for Teresa to relax and lean her head against Sharpe's shoulder, watching the dragons on either side. He revelled in it.
The valley in which the dragon base lay looked cold and bare, with the ground scattered with snow and the dragons' clearings empty. Their escorts peeled off to either side to land in their own clearings, and Temeraire headed for his own place by the house. Moncey lay curled up on himself, and he reared up as he saw the party coming down.
"Temeraire!" he cried. "You have him!"
"I have him!" called Temeraire, as he backwinged to land, so that snow flew. "I have him, and the egg too."
End of Part One