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Sharpe's Dragon, or, How Richard Sharpe was gazetted into the wrong service, Part Two

Chapter Text

That night Sharpe had dinner with the Aerial Corps. Sharpe refused to sit at the head of the table, embarrassed by the honour. Instead that place was taken by Laurence, and Sharpe sat at his right side, with Teresa on Sharpe’s right side, and Captain Harcourt and Captain Chenery opposite him. He was aware of Teresa’s knee pressed against his. Teresa had been fascinated to meet the female aviators, and Harcourt had seemingly been fascinated by her in return.

 As they ate, the dark glass of the window behind Laurence was occasionally filled by a glittering orange eye, that glanced this way and that inside the room, then withdrew into the night again. It was Lily, the Longwing and the mother of the egg that Moncey had carried. Every time the eye appeared Sharpe raised a glass to it in salute.

 “So, tell me, Sharpe,” Chenery asked him, as the fish was being cleared away. “Has that devil of yours told you how he brought down a Grand Chevalier?”

 “I really don’t know,” Sharpe said. “He mentioned it, but not the details.”

 “He’s the smallest dragon in Britain, you know,” Captain Harcourt said. “It’s the result of not having had enough to eat when he was a hatchling.”

 “I believe Gherni is the smallest, now,” Laurence said, raising his glass apologetically to her. “But not by much.” He returned his gaze to Sharpe. “He has quite a reputation. He’s been asked if he’d take a captain, but he’s always refused.”

 “Winchesters are so common, and they’re so small, that a lot of people don’t mind if one of them goes feral.” Chenery explained. “If they decide to do as they like, nobody much cares.”

 “They sound like the orphans of the air,” Sharpe said, and took a forkful of the newly arrived beef.

 “Moncey is a little bit special, though,” Laurence explained. “Even before the occupation, he never simply sat around in the breeding ground. He’s even turned up in as far afield as Egypt.”

 “Yes,” Harcourt said. “Everyone knows him, and he knows everyone.”

 “Exploring officer in his own right. A born spy,” someone further down the table agreed.

 “A hatched spy,” Laurence corrected. “And of course an unrepentant thief.”

 “I’m rather glad he’s a thief,” said Harcourt, and raised her glass. “Here’s to our new egg.”

 The table rose in a toast.

 Sharpe rose with them, and wondered where the egg was now.

 He had carried it against him one last time during the flight, but immediately on landing it had been whisked away, and he had seen it disappearing into the building, swept along by a gaggle of furiously talking surgeons. Sharpe’s shoulder had been examined and bound up in a sling by a doctor who smelled strongly of dragon. He had been forbidden strictly to fly with Moncey until all the stiffness had gone out of it, then that doctor too had hurried off to go see the egg. Before Sharpe could follow the man he had been dragged away again by Ensign Roland to Moncey’s side. Hogan had arrived with Elsie and Captain Hollin, he wanted to speak to both of them, and then there was no time to ask after the egg.

 Moncey lay curled up in the snow. His wings still trembled occasionally, and his face seemed thinner than usual, as if he had flown through his own flesh like a cavalry horse. He had, Sharpe learned, landed in such a state of exhaustion that he could barely bring his message out, shuddering with cold. He had gobbled down over half his own body weight in beef and then fallen into a deep sleep for the rest of the day and night. Now he still seemed weak, but he was awake and able to speak to Hogan.

 Hogan had brought with him a map of Ciudad Rodrigo and a bombardment of questions. The endless probing questions for Sharpe, Moncey, and Teresa, took up all the rest of the day. Moncey’s sharper eyes had seen things in their short trip over the city that Sharpe had not, and he had recognised individual dragons. Teresa knew what had been happening around the city, but not what was happening in it. Sharpe gave his experiences, and then gave them again, and again, and again, each time in deeper detail, until he was sure that every breath he had taken in Ciudad had been accounted for. Every scrap of information would be incorporated into Hogan’s intelligence picture of the city – he could almost see the puzzle being built behind the Irishman’s bright eyes.

 Hogan had sucked his teeth and shaken his head at hearing of the news of Captain Chadbourne and Tabellarius’s capture. “That’s too bad. He was a good courier.” Hogan had not stayed for dinner. Instead he had flown back to Freineda immediately. As soon as he left, Moncey put his head down on his foreleg and went back to sleep. Sharpe patted his side and left him to it. He also felt tired, and his body ached, but he didn’t feel quite as exhausted as that.

 After dinner, Laurence drew Sharpe aside. “Would you like to see something interesting?”

 “Very much,” Sharpe said. He had eaten rather a lot, and the warmth of the wine in his belly was making him feel easy-going. He restrained a burp.

 “Come with me, then.”

 The Aerial captain led him through the building and into the kitchen. At the back of the kitchen was a low door, with a half-flight of steps that took them into a narrow space, set just below ground level. “This was the wine cellar,” Laurence explained. “We use it because it’s easier to keep eggs warm in an insulated space.”

 Sharpe shuffled under the doorway. The space was cramped, and hot. The centre of the room held a small stove, with a metal chimney leading through a makeshift hole in the roof. There was the smell of steam from the bowls of water bubbling away on the stove top. Sharpe felt sweat bloom under his winter clothes immediately. There was a man there on the other side of the room, blocking their view, leaning over a table at the far wall. He turned around, underlit by the red light of the stove like a stage demon, his face shiny with sweat.

 “Captain Sharpe, may I introduce Mr Keynes,” said Lawrence. “He is the senior dragon surgeon here.”

 Keynes edged around the hot stove, and held his sticky hand out for Sharpe to shake it. “Your servant, sir,” he said, and then turned back to the table. “You’ve come to see the eggs, I take it?”

 Laurence moved to the back of the room, perched on the steps. “There’s not space for three, Captain Sharpe. You go have a look.”

 Sharpe edged carefully around the other side of the stove, holding his face out of the steam. The narrowness of the room meant that he and the surgeon stood hip to hip, and now he could see what it was on the table that the man was leaning over. “Eggs!” he said.

 There were four, lying glistening and well-padded in piles of damp sawdust. Two were much smaller, but the other two were immediately familiar. He pointed to the one he had carried. “I know you,” he said, affectionately.

 “I think by this time it knows you too.” Keynes picked up something from the table – a wooden tube with an opening in one end, and a wide bell-shaped mouth on the other. “I was examining it, and I noticed something you might like to know.” He held it out. “Put the small end in your ear.”

 Sharpe took the tube and set the end into his ear. Keynes pressed Sharpe into a leaning position over the table, and laid the metal endpiece gently against the side of the egg. “Listen,” he whispered.

 Sharpe listened. He could hear the pot bubbling on the stove, and the crunch as a log collapsed in the fire. He could hear Keynes’ slightly wheezing breath. “I hear nothing,” he said softly.

 Keynes breathed, “Hmm,” and moved the endpiece to another section of shell. “Now?”

 For a moment there was nothing, then he heard it. A soft boom, regular and slow. It sounded like the echo of a very large cannon resounding off a very distant mountain. He laughed, softly, and listened some more. “That’s the dragon’s heartbeat,” he said, delighted.

 “It is,” said Keynes, equally pleased. “It tells us the creature is just six or so months away from hatching. If you listen for a bit longer you might even hear it moving around in there, bumping on the inside of the shell.”

 He listened, but he heard only the heartbeat, thumping away. “I was worried it might not survive being shaken up, while I carried it,” he said.

 “At this age, it might a bit annoyed, but it would be formed enough that a few bumps won’t hurt it. If it were feral, its mother would be rolling it back and forth constantly.”

 Sharpe looked up at Keynes, still listening to that distant pulse. “I talked to it, while I was carrying it,” he said. “Do you think … would it have been able to hear me?”

 “Oh, at this stage certainly. Every word.”

 “It’s good that you spoke to it,” Laurence interrupted from the front of the room. Sharpe turned to look at him, without taking his ear from the tube. “The sooner we start it learning English, the better. It’s heard only French and Spanish, up until now.” The Aerial Captain was leaning back against the wall halfway up the steps, with his arms crossed across his chest and one heel crossed over the other ankle. “Would you like to know what kind of egg it is?” he asked, smiling.

 “It’s a heavy-weight,” Sharpe guessed.

 “Oh, it is. But we have heavy-weights of our own, so that’s not why we’re all so happy about it.”

 Sharpe could see a grin beginning to grow on Laurence’s face. Keynes was grinning too.

 “What is it then, sir?” he asked.

 “It’s a Flamme de Gloire.”

 “A Flamme – A firebreather, sir?”

 “Yes, a firebreather. We have exactly one firebreather at the moment, and you’ve met her. We haven’t had a Flamme de Gloire for hundreds of years. So, Sharpe – congratulations! You’ve brought us a dragon that’s just as valuable, in its own way, as the Longwing.” Laurence grinned at him.

 Sharpe looked down at the egg. “I’m glad I didn’t drop you, after all, little egg,” he said.

 “Tell him the rest of it,” Keynes urged.

 Laurence cleared his throat. “You may know there’s a certain amount of prize money, for getting hold of an egg that can be harnessed.”

 “Moncey mentioned it, sir. Although that’s not why we went there.”

 “Well, you might not get anything monetary for retrieving the Longwing egg, but this one is a different story. The Admiralty set a reward, back in the time of Charles the Second, for a Flamme de Gloire egg – a bit more than the usual. We looked it up, as soon as we were sure what the egg was.” Laurence cleared his throat again. “It’s fifty thousand pounds.”

 Sharpe felt his breath whoosh out of his lungs. “Fifty – thousand – pounds? Fifty?”

 Laurence frowned at him. “I do hope you’ll share that with Moncey.”

 “Fif- yes, sir. Fifty thousand pounds?” Half of fifty thousand was twenty five thousand quid. He could buy his captaincy with that!

 “Yes, I thought you’d be pleased. It would be more, actually, but it was fixed in the same way as Naval pay.”

 “I knew there was a bounty, but I thought it was a few hundred quid, like for cavalry horses,” Sharpe said, grinning. He could buy a dozen captaincies, with twenty five thousand pounds. He could buy his captaincy, and fix his daughter up with an inheritance from twenty five thousand pounds.

 Laurence shook his head. “It’s not as much as you’d get for capturing a ship of war. Dragons take a bit longer than ships before we can put them into service. But still, it’s a good sum.”

 “I can buy my captaincy, with that,” Sharpe said. “I’m still waiting – well, I suppose you’ve heard, everyone else has. But there’s a commission for sale in the South Essex, that nobody’s picked up in two years. I can buy that one instead.”

 He would buy his commission. He had fought and earned his captaincy the hard way, and everyone knew it, but he would buy it again, and once he had that no London clerk would be able to write his command away. Fifty thousand pounds! He and Moncey were rich.

 “Come,” Laurence said. “We’re going to look at the stars this evening. The ensigns need practise, and it’s good to keep one’s navigation skills fresh.”

 Sharpe clapped Keynes on the shoulder in farewell, and followed Laurence out. Outside in the night, the sky was clear and the stars were bright. The officers of the Aerial Corps lay leaning backward against the dragon’s sides as if they were grandstands, with their telescopes aimed at the sky. Laurence was surrounded by his junior officers, teaching them, with Temeraire interjecting explanations when the youngsters faltered. The dragon had the gift of easy explanation, Sharpe noted. He leaned against Temeraire’s warm shoulder, with his own telescope aimed at the sky, trying to follow the lesson, but they were so far beyond his level of comprehension that in spite of his interest in stars he lost track and gave up. He stood for a moment, picking out constellations he recognised, and then went in search of Moncey.

 Moncey was awake. Laculla had arrived, and now lay sprawled alongside her smaller mate. “Grew tired of astronomy, old boy?” Moncey asked as he approached. He had retrieved his scythe from Elsie, and now he turned the handle lazily between his talons so that the blade revolved, this way and back. Teresa leaned against his shoulder. Her eyes and teeth gleamed in the dark as she smiled. Sharpe moved to stand beside her.

 “I only wish I knew half of what they were talking about,” he said. “Did you hear about the prize money?”

 “I heard. Fifty thousand. Twenty five thousand each.” The dragon yawned. “I think a nice London house and a coach-and-four will set me up nicely. Or, I’ll just spend it all on cows. Don’t know yet.  What do you think?" he asked Laculla, "Do you see me joining the haut ton?

 “I’m going to buy a captaincy,” Sharpe told him, and took up his position against Moncey’s shoulder alongside Teresa. The dragon folded his wing down over them both. “And I have a daughter now.” He wrapped his good arm around Teresa. “I’m going to give the rest of it to her.”

 “You are a rich man, now, Richard,” Teresa told him. “You can use the money to start a family.”

 “I have a family,” he told her. “Most of it is next to me.”

 Moncey huffed in laughter. “I trust you aren’t referring to me. Mind you, I think we’ll have to put something aside for Elsie. We did fly off and lose her harness.”

 “Is she upset?”

 “Not at all, actually. Captain Hollin used to be a harness-maker. He can whip her up a new one in no time even nicer than the old one, but the material will still cost money.”

 “Aye. We’ll go half and half,” Sharpe agreed.

 “By the way, here is another harness for you.” Moncey gestured with his nose to his forelegs. Sharpe walked forward in the dark. The Winchester had a bundle of leatherwork draped over one forearm.

 “Where did you get it?” Sharpe asked. The harness clinked softly as he picked it up.

 “Nicked it, of course.”

 “You are a thief!” Teresa said, startled, and laughed.

 “But of course I am a thief, dear lady,” Moncey said, and bowed his head exaggeratedly to her on his long neck. “Sheep, secrets and dragon’s eggs. I think it’s why I get along so well with our friend Richard here.”

 “I’ve never stolen a sheep in my life!” Sharpe protested. He stepped out from Moncey’s side, and said, “And where’s my bloody deer, you bugger?”

 “Ah, the deer ,” Moncey said, and his eyelids slid down in a serene blink. “The deer.  Well, now, you see, you shouldn’t have left it lying around if you didn’t want somebody to steal it. Actually, I do know what I will do with the money,” he continued, over Sharpe’s spluttering. “I will add it to all the rest of the money I have piling up, and when the war is over, Laculla and I are going to fly around the world.”

 Laculla on his other side made a noise of agreement.

 Sharpe whistled softly.  "Around the world?" 

 Moncey glanced down at him. “You have made India sound very interesting, old frog, and I have heard so much from Temeraire about China that I have to see it for myself. Go on the Grand Tour, as it were.  As soon as the war is over, Laculla and I are saying ‘toodle-oo’ to Merry England.  I shall have to see if I can find some marbles to send back.  That seems to be the Done Thing for the rich.”

Sharpe became aware of Teresa’s hand slipping into his. She drew him away from Moncey, and around the dragon’s front. They went into the shadows between Moncey and his mate. There, snug in the hollow between the Winchester’s shoulder and his side, she pressed up against him and kissed him.

 Laculla moved in closer against Moncey, and brought her wing down over them.

 In the warm solid cavity between them, there was no sound but the slow thunder of dragon hearts. It was warm and dark and secret in here, with the Aerial Corps on either side, yards away but oblivious. Sharpe pressed Teresa against Moncey’s side, and there they made love.

Chapter Text

“Moncey, I can’t wear this,” Sharpe said, the next morning.

 Moncey looked down at the Rifleman standing below him. Sharpe held the harness, with the broad belt turned inside out. The buckles glinted in the morning sun. “How do you mean, you can’t wear it? Doesn’t it fit?”

 “Oh, it fits,” Sharpe said, grimly, “but I can’t wear it. You stole it.”

 Moncey blinked at him. “Well, yes, I told you that last night.”

 “Yes, but you didn’t say you stole it from another British aviator!” Sharpe protested, and turned the belt over to show it to Moncey. “It has Maximus’s name stamped on it! I can’t take it.”

 “I wouldn’t have thought you’d be so fussy about it,” Moncey said, in surprised tones.

 “Well, no. But I have only three rules for my company. Just three. No stealing unless it’s from the enemy or you’re starving, no getting drunk without permission, and fight like the devil. I run my company with just those three rules.”

 Moncey looked at him for a long time. His tongue flickered in and out thoughtfully. “Only three rules? Ever?”

 “Only three. Those are Mr Sharpe’s rules. And they can’t be broken. I can’t make the lads follow the three rules, and go around with a stolen harness myself.”

 “Well, three rules is not so bad.” Moncey tipped his head sideways at him, like a London rake eyeing a likely racehorse and wondering how much money to throw away. “All right. I’ll go steal you a French one instead, eh?”

 “Don’t put yourself to the trouble. I’ll go to Captain Hollin, or Mr Fellowes, and have them make me one.”

 “Is your shoulder still sore?”

 “It hurts like hell, but it’ll be all right, the doctor says. And your wing?”

 “Much better this morning, I think I’ll be fit to fly by tomorrow.”

 “I can’t stay until tomorrow. Colonel Lawford isn’t thrilled that I’ve been away so long.”

 “So you’ll be going back with Madge then.”

 “Yes,” Sharpe agreed. “Back to the South Essex.”

 …..

 Temeraire and Laurence stood together watching as Sharpe flew away on Majestatis’s back. They stood as close together as a twenty-ton dragon and his twelve stone captain can, with Laurence under Temeraire’s head and Laurence’s hand on Temeraire’s jaw. “Laurence, that was a very brave thing Captain Sharpe did, flying so far with only a knotted sheet to hold onto. Did you see, when Moncey reached here, that the sheet was nearly chafed through across his breastbone?”

 “I saw,” Laurence said.

 “Do you think Captain Sharpe knew that?”

 “No. I don’t think Moncey would have told him. I think he put Sharpe off just in time.”

 Temeraire rolled his head onto one side, and cast a look to where Majestatis was now only a speck in the sky. “I’m so very glad they like each other so much. It isn’t right for a dragon like Moncey to spend all his time on his own.”

 “I hope they share the money.”

 “I’m sure that they will. Lawrence, I have been thinking about how best to get Captain Sharpe’s captaincy for him. If Horse Guards does not give it to him he will have to buy it, and it is surely a waste of capital to buy something he already has. I am sure I have some influence in London that I can use. I have a letter all planned out in my head.”

 “Very well, my dear. It certainly can’t do any harm to add your voice to Wellington’s,” Laurence smiled at him. “Roland!” he called. “Please go and fetch my writing desk.”

 The ensign dashed off. Temeraire watched her go. “I have been trying to think what Lien would do, if she had to deal with the people in London,” he explained, in a rather thoughtful tone. “I don’t really like copying Lien, but it does seem to be useful.”

 “How so?” Laurence queried.

 “Well, she is very clever, and she knows how to persuade people to do what she wants. I thought, if I learn how she thinks, I might also learn to persuade people. It came in very useful in the breeding ground, and I think it might also be very useful in letting Parliament know what dragons want, when I can talk to them myself.”

 “I don’t think turning yourself into a copy of Lien will help British dragons very much,” Laurence pointed out. “She serves only herself and Bonaparte, remember.”

 “Oh, I know that, very well,” said Temeraire. “But I think as long as I remember that I am Temeraire, and not allow myself to feel anything like Lien, but only to consider what she might say, then I might learn without becoming anything like her. Lien is a bad dragon who tried to harm you, and I would never want to be like her.”

 Laurence patted Temeraire’s arm. “What have you planned out?”

 “Well, I am going to put my request for Captain Sharpe’s promotion in the middle of a letter telling them about the Flamme de Gloire egg. And asking for a pavilion to be built here in Vilar Formoso. And for more pay for the Spanish ferals. And I know they won’t say yes, but they won’t want to ignore the letter either. I think, they might say yes to this one thing, because they keep asking me to send them the eggs, and they want me to agree to that, so they might agree to it just because they won’t want me to think they are completely unreasonable and refuse them the egg.”

 Laurence nearly choked. “That is rather – convoluted, my dear.”

 “I know.” Temeraire ducked his head. “I have listened to Wellington complain about how he has to deal with London. And they don’t know yet that I am not sending any more eggs away to them, whatever they say, so it is not breaking a promise, really.”

 “Well, it is certainly worth a try,” Laurence conceded. “It can’t be very pleasant for Captain Sharpe, not to know where he stands.”

 “It can’t be, and that is a pity, because we all like him, very much. Here is Roland with the writing desk.”

 “Put it down here, Roland,” Laurence directed. He took his pen and some paper out of the desk’s little drawer, and unscrewed the lid of his ink bottle. “I am ready, Temeraire, please begin.”

 ….

 On Christmas Day Moncey and Laculla flew to the South Essex, flying low under the weight of three fresh deer, and half a dozen partially-cooked chickens, which he swore he had found flying high over the mountains in a V-formation. Moncey brought Sharpe another harness as a present, which Sharpe immediately put on.

 The festivities started early, with a bonfire that reached high and threw sparks up into the wind. The horses were moved to the further side of the village, so that the dragons could come closer to the buildings. Chestnuts were roasted, and hot toddies were made up and drunk. And Sharpe discovered that dragons could and would get drunk.

 Moncey had mentioned wistfully to Price, in Sharpe’s absence, that he had never tasted rum. Price declared, in a happy haze of alcohol-inspired generosity, that such a deprivation should cease immediately, and he had poured a tot of rum into Moncey’s mouth. Moncey had licked his lips, and then claimed that the tot was too small for him to taste. So Price had poured in a mugful of rum. Moncey claimed again that he could taste nothing, and Price, still unaware, up-ended the entire bottle into the dragon’s gaping jaws. By the time Sharpe arrived to put a stop to Moncey’s game, Price had lost five bottles of rum, and Moncey had been unable to focus his eyes.

 That had been in the afternoon. That night Lawford hosted a Christmas dinner, inviting the officers of the 50th regiment as the South Essex’s guests, and when a pair of Yellow Reapers arrived he spontaneously invited their officers too. The party barely fitted inside the long dining room of the old Spanish house, so that they sat elbow to elbow around the table. The food had been in preparation all day, and bolstered with Moncey’s deer and stolen French chickens there was enough for the whole table, and music was provided by the South Essex’s bandsmen.

 Sharpe sat in the middle of the table. He was too full of food, and lightheaded with wine, and he felt horribly outclassed. There were two conversations going on around him, and he sat in the middle, unable to hear either clearly over We Three Kings Of Orient Are played in the style of a military march. He had a Spanish lady on one side, and a female Aerial officer on the other, and the one spoke only Spanish and the other spoke not at all. So he kept his silence, shovelled his food down, and waited until he could make his excuses and escape.

 Lawford sat at the head of the table, with the Colonel of the 50th on his right, and the senior of the Aerial captains on his left. He was too far from Sharpe for the Rifleman to copy his table manners from him, but neither lady seemed to notice anything amiss.

 Sharpe was trying to follow Lawford’s conversation by reading their lips. The conversation seemed to revolve around horses, which was dull, but he would rather pretend to be listening raptly than simply stare at his plate. His attention was jolted back to the other end of the table by Bougainville’s voice, loud enough to cut over the noise.

 “They’re no more than beasts, and all this talk of giving them rights and pay, and all that? Good heavens, they’ll have England no better than France! They’re Jacobins with wings, that’s what they are!”

 The table had gone very quiet. Sharpe noticed that the Aerial officer next to him had stopped chewing, and was gripping her cutlery very tightly as if preparing to fight with them.

 The captain next to Lawford put his glass down on the table, hard. Sharpe saw Forrest lean forward and hiss something to Bougainville.

 “No, no, it needs to be said. It needs to be said. They’ll be the ruin of England! Mark my words!” Bougainville raised his finger and shook it at the 50th officer sitting opposite him, seemingly oblivious to the growing silence. His face was red and swollen with drink. “Mark my words! They’re as malevolent as blacks and as fickle as women, and they’ll be the ruin of England! To hell with the lot of them! Scheming vermin!”

 It seemed to Sharpe that he had held his tongue in the face of Bougainville’s snubs these two months for no reason. Every Aerial officer, as well as every woman around the table was looking livid. The conductor of the band, noticing that something had appeared to have gone hideously wrong, let them fall out of rhythm, and the sound died with a final squalling from the piper. Bougainville seemed to notice at last that his pronouncements were being received by the whole room, because he turned and looked around the table. His pointing finger drooped.

 Sharpe could almost have felt sorry for him. Almost. He had the urge to laugh with savage glee.

 “Luckily for you,” Leroy said drily into the silence, “Aerial officers are forbidden to duel. Or I have no doubt one of them would be calling you out this very instant.”

 Lawford’s lips were thin, and his face was the colour of sour cream, a shade Sharpe knew it only attained when the Colonel was at the end of his patience. “Captain Bougainville, you will apologise for your remarks, this instant, and then you will go to your quarters.

 Bougainville looked as if he wanted to refuse.

 “Directly, if you please, sir!” Lawford snapped.

 “I apologise for any offence I may have caused,” Bougainville gritted. His face was sweating, and he picked his napkin out of his lap and wiped his face with it. “I am overcome, and I beg your indulgence to retire.”

 Lawford nodded, but his face was stony.

 Bougainville got up heavily, and picked his way around the chairs on his way out. Once he had gone, the table sat in silence for a while. Lawford turned to the Yellow Reaper captain on his left, and said, “I do apologise, captain. I can assure you that man’s opinion is an abberration in this regiment.”

 “Apology accepted, Colonel. You were telling me about your stallion?”

 The conversation resumed, stilted at first. The band picked up We Three Kings from the beginning again. After a while the incident seemed forgotten. Sharpe munched his way steadily through another course, and then looked up to see Lawford staring at him.

 On meeting his eye, the Colonel made a ‘go’ gesture with his head, and Sharpe nodded his assent. He made his apologies as best he could, and left.

 Outside in the hall, he found Rifleman Harris. “Did you see which way Captain Bougainville went?” he asked.

 The redhead had been pressed into service as a waiter again tonight. He nodded. “He went outside, sir.”

 “Oh, excellent.” Sharpe rubbed his hands together happily, crossed the hall and went out onto the porch. “That’s just what I wanted to hear.”

 It was cold and dark, and quiet in comparison with inside the dining room. He could hear the bubble of voices and music through the thick stone walls. He stood on the porch, letting his eyes adjust. Bougainville was marching back and forth across the snowy yard, stopping every few paces to boot the edge of the porch and swear at it.

 “You bastard,” Sharpe growled.

 He was on the captain in three steps, and shoved him backwards with both hands in the chest. Bougainville staggered backwards, catching his balance on the slippery slush, but before he could defend himself Sharpe had followed him.

 The Rifleman grabbed up fistfulls of the red and yellow facings, and hauled Bougainville up close so that he could smell the alcohol on the man’s breath. “Vermin, are they? Fickle as women, are they? Eh?” He shook the man, as hard as he could. “I don’t know which pisses me off more, that you insult every dragon I’ve ever met or every woman! Not to mention every black from here to Cape Horn! You bastard!” He shoved Bougainville backwards again, and this time the captain fell over onto his back. Instead of getting up, he rolled over and vomited.

 Sharpe walked over to him, bent over him and stood with his elbows braced on his knees. His breath steamed in the night air. “Now you mark my words. Those Aerial officers in there might not be allowed to duel, but I’m not an Aerial officer. Am I? No, sir! I’ve been putting up with you and your crap for two months, but no more! If I hear one more word from you … I’ll rip off your head and your balls and I’ll feed ‘em to Moncey. You hear me, Bug-ainville?”

 Bougainville coughed, and swore at him, and snapped his leg up in an attempt to kick Sharpe in the groin, but Sharpe just laughed at the drunken assault, and kicked the flailing limb aside. He could have done more, he was angry enough to do more, but the wine in his belly had turned sour and he just didn’t have the energy to give Bougainville a satisfying hiding.

 “Now, the good Colonel gave you an order, didn’t he? Go up to your quarters, he said, and the general idea is for you to sleep it off, aye?” He bent and grabbed the front of Bougainville’s coat again and heaved the man up to his feet, ignoring a flailing punch. “So that’s where you’re going to go.” He heaved Bougainville up the steps of the porch, and kicked the double doors open.

 “Harris!”

 “Sir?”

 “Take this miserable shit up to his room and make sure he stays there.”

 Harris looked the vomit- and snow-smeared Bougainville up and down, and said, very carefully, “Yes, sir.”

 Sharpe left Bougainville in his care, knowing that Harris had probably heard every word, and went back outside. He stood on the porch, hunched into his uniform, and dug his hands into his pockets.

 “Jolly good show, old frog,” said a familiar voice from the dark.

 Sharpe leaped in surprise. A blue sliver of reflection appeared in the dark beyond the porch, hovering in mid air. It came closer and formed into a narrow moonlit relief of Moncey’s face. His eye glittered like a jewel. His head came into the light, around the side of the porch, and stretched down between two pillars to peer at him closely.

 Sharpe felt a great lump of pleasure in his heart at the sight of his draconic friend, but he said, “What are you doing here?”

 “I came down to listen to some music, but I think I’ve had about as much as I can stand.”

 “Did you hear all that?”

 “Every word. The Aerial Corps can’t call him out, but there’s no prohibition that I know that says you can’t.”

 “Grass before breakfast isn’t his style,” Sharpe scoffed.

 “True. Watch your back, Richard. A fellow’s true nature comes out when he’s in his cups, they do say, and his true nature looks to be as mean as I’ve ever met.”

 “I’ll watch my back.”

 “I can always eat him for you.”

 “Would you?”

 “Of course. Anything for a friend.”

 Strange thought, that, but the idea of having an accomplice who would eat his enemies wasn’t as disturbing as it might have been. He patted the underside of Moncey’s jaw, the way he had seen Laurence pat Temeraire, and went back into the building.

Chapter Text

In the New Year, Wellington’s orders arrived, and the army, that had been looking forward to a quiet winter keeping warm, left their snug quarters and took to the roads, heading east. There was work to do, and they would have to do it quickly to catch the French off their guard.

 Wellington’s train of great siege cannon, which had been painstakingly and secretly amassed in Almeida, left on their journey east. The Aerial Corps packed up their belongings into their belly-rigging, loaded their crews, and left Vilar Formoso, flying east. The South Essex packed up its billet from the little village, and said goodbye to the valley. All knew they would never come back this way again. This was the year they took the war to the French. The Army marched east, and Sharpe marched with them, at the head of the Light Company.

 They were going to Ciudad Rodrigo, the first guardian fortress that barred the way. Ciudad Rodrigo would be first, and then Badajoz, its sister fortress to the south, and then the British and Portuguese armies could drive deep into Spain. Lien was in Badajoz, Moncey said. She believed that the attack on Ciudad Rodrigo was nothing but a feint, and that the rest of Wellington’s army was coming south.  The power of misinformation, Moncey said smugly. The spy in the Aerial Corps had been more useful to the British than to the French, and ‘Xanthus’ had brought their deception to its peak.

 But first, Ciudad Rodrigo had to be taken…

 ….

 Richard Sharpe pushed his way through the crowd, cold, cross, and hungry. He had been forced to ride a horse all day with Harper, as Moncey was away. Now Harper had finished his business for the day and gone off in search of female company. Sharpe had taken hours to track down the South Essex’s missing supply of rifle ammunition, and to arrange a mule to carry it, and he was tired.

 “Richard! Richard! Aye, it is you!”

 Sharpe turned to the sound of his name, and looked at another version of himself. There was another 95th officer bustling toward him,  dark green uniform and silver buttons, and the other Rifleman was holding out his hand.  His face was alive with good humour and mischief. Sharpe found his own face opening in a reflexive smile.

 “Johnny Kincaid! I haven’t seen you since, what, Fuentes?”

 “Fuentes, yes!” The irrepressible Scot was pumping his hand vigorously. “Fuentes, God, yes!  Are you staying in town tonight?”

 “I’m not staying, sorry, I’m going back in a few hours. Sergeant Harper is here too – you remember him?”

 “The Irish giant, yes, who could forget him? Does he still have that monster gun? Why don’t you come in and have a mug of tea then, and tell me how the devil he fires that thing?”

 “I think I will.”

 Sharpe let himself be steered in through a low doorway, into a dark room over-stuffed with chairs, men and the aroma of hot tea. Kincaid ordered two cups of tea from a Spanish servant with a stirring gesture and a two raised fingers, and the two riflemen settled themselves into chairs.

 Kincaid seemed much the same – competent, confident, and good company, even for a man as awkward in society as Sharpe. He had a natural facility for telling comical stories, and often made himself seem the butt of his own jokes, but Sharpe knew his sense of humour could also sometimes cross the line from teasing to tormenting. Still, Kincaid was no fool, and Sharpe liked him. They exchanged news, gossip, and the details of their present billets. Sharpe found himself asking Kincaid if he’d heard the one about the seating arrangements of Wellington’s councils.

“Where does Nosy sit? In the middle. Where does the commander of the cavalry sit? On the left. Where does the commander of the artillery sit? On the right. Where does the commander of the dragons sit?”

 “No idea.”

 “Anywhere he bloody wants to!”

 Kincaid laughed, and blew the steam from the top of his tea and said, “Aye, and have you heard the newest story that’s going around the army about us Rifles yet?”

 “Not yet,” Sharpe replied.

 “Fellow from the Connaught Rangers told me, the whole army is talking about a Rifles officer who’s been press-ganged into the Aerial Corps. The Aerial Corps! I ask you, what do people think the Aerial Rifles want with another rifleman – don’t they have enough of their own? Och! Are you all right, man?”

 Sharpe’s tea had gone into his lap, scalding hot, and he was trying to staunch it with the tablecloth before it burned his thighs. “Fine – fine – hot,” he gritted through his teeth.

 “I’ll stand you another cup.” Kincaid waved at the Spanish servant again.

 “What was that about the Aerial Corps?” He knotted his fingers in the warm damp tablecloth and stared balefully at the oblivious Scot.

 “Oh, well, it’s just a rumour of course, the whole regiment would know who it was if it was one of our mess, and oh God it’s you. You aren’t part of our mess!  You're still attached to the South Essex!  That’s why no-one in the 95th knows who the devil it is.” Kincaid stared at him, aghast.  "It's you, isn't it?"

 “It is not me. Nobody’s pressganging me into anything!”

 “Nobody knows it’s you! If it’s you. Don’t worry!”

 “But what are people saying?”

 Kincaid gazed at him, worriedly, and took in a deep breath. “People are saying that we’re such an odd bunch in the 95th that we fit right in with the Aerial Corps, and one of the damn dragons has taken a liking to one of our officers, and he’s going to be ordered to shift his hammock to their side of the boat.” Kincaid raised his eyebrows. “But it’s just a rumour, Richard. It’s not true, is it?”

 “Oh God.” Sharpe put his head in his hands.

 “Oh God,” Kincaid echoed. “It is true. Oh woe, woe, woe, for the reputation of the regiment. What on earth happened?”

 “There’s this dragon – Moncey – he’s attached himself to the South Essex. I met him on patrol, and then I went around to their headquarters on – an errand – and I’ve been associating with them. The dragons, as well as the officers.”

 “Usually your stories begin with ‘There’s this woman,’ ” Kincaid complained. “Or ‘there’s this French bastard I'm going to kill.’ That I can understand! But a dragon?”

 “Nobody at the Aerial Corps has said anything to me about this. Or to Moncey, I’m sure.”

 “Maybe it’s just a rumour after all. Or maybe – ,” he drummed his fingertips on the tablecloth thoughtfully, “Richard, we all know you still haven’t been confirmed Captain yet. I could be wrong, but if the dragon has picked you, doesn’t it automatically give you the rank of Captain?”

 “No. No! Captain in the Aerial Corps. Not the same as a captain in the infantry. I already have the Light Company, I can’t just abandon them to start all over again in the Aerial Corps. I won’t.” Sharpe picked his head up from his hands at last.

 Kincaid sat back. “Well, I’m sure both Lawford and Craufurd would have something to say about it. This dragon would have to prove to us he’s worthy of the flower of the fighting 95th.”

 Sharpe glared at him. “Kindly do not plan any regimental entertainment around me, Johnny. I know your sense of humour too well.”

 “No,” Kincaid sighed. “And I’ll keep your secret for you, Richard, as long as I can. You have my word.”

 “Thank you. Now I have to go and nip this in the bud.”

 “Good luck.” Kincaid clapped him on the shoulder.

 Once outside, the cold air bit at his face and hands again. Questions led him to a tavern on a side street, with Irish music spilling out. Sharpe decided the better part of valour was not to push his way into a building full of drunken Irish non-commissioned officers shouting questions, so he stopped outside an open window, put his fingers in his mouth and gave the Rifles’ whistle to rally on the Batallion.

 Harper loomed out of the doorway minutes later.

 “We’re leaving,” Sharpe said.

 “You’ve heard about - .”

 “Yes. We’re leaving!”

Chapter Text

The road was thick with traffic, and by the time they had reached the Aerial Corps covert Sharpe had been asked by every familiar face whether the rumour was true. How had the story spread so fast? He'd barely heard it himself, and at exactly the same instant the whole Army seemed to know it!  He found himself marching faster and faster, fuelled by a belly-full of worry.

 Now Sharpe stared up at Temeraire, hands on his hips, and the huge Celestial stared down at him, his ruff pressed flat, clearly confused. “How did you know?” the dragon asked, puzzled. “The letter only arrived this morning.”

 “What letter?”

 “From the Admiralty. It concerns you. And your actions with Moncey. They’re very pleased with both of you.”

 Sharpe’s heart soared. And then it sank. “The Admiralty?” he asked. “Not the Horse Guards?”

 Laurence arrived, coming up under Temeraire’s shoulder and stopping under Temeraire’s head. “What’s up?” he asked.

 “The whole army thinks I’ve been transferred to the Aerial Corps,” Sharpe said to him, and then returned his gaze to Temeraire.

 Laurence blinked. “You haven’t, have you?”

 “I have not! I don’t want to be transferred. I already have my own company, bought and paid for. I’m just waiting for confirmation.”

 “Well, you should have your fears laid to rest about your captaincy, Captain,” Laurence said. “They must approve it now. They can hardly refuse after you brought us the eggs.”

 “I’ve just paid for the captaincy,” Sharpe said. “Only Colonel Lawford can block the sale, and he won’t. So it doesn’t matter whether they approve or not. I’m just waiting for the reply from London.”

 “Well, that’s just the problem,” Temeraire said, apologetically. His ruff was very low against his neck. “They already have approved your captaincy. Er, Mr Scott, please bring the letter in question.”

 Temeraire’s second lieutenant came forward, stepping around the bristling Rifleman to give Laurence a letter. It was a stiff folded sheet, bearing the familiar coat of arms of the Aerial Corps. Laurence unfolded it, and read it in silence. Sharpe shifted his hands from his hips, to folding his arms across his chest, and waited.

 At length, Laurence looked up. His lips wore a wry twist. “I don’t know whether to give you congratulations or condolences.” He picked up another sheet of paper, that had been folded inside the larger sheet, and held it out to Sharpe. “Captain Sharpe, this is for you.”

 Sharpe took it, and unfolded it.

 It was printed on thick butter-white paper, with elaborate scrollwork on the head. His own name and the date had been filled in the gaps between the printed lines.

 It was a very familiar document to him. He had something rather similar to it already. He kept in his pack, and he had carried it with him, carefully folded, ever since he first earned it in India. All other officers carried one too, either on their person or very close, and all of theirs had the same scrollwork, and were signed in the name of the same king.

 He sat down on the cobbles, and read further. It confirmed him as an Honourable Subject, and Constituted and Appointed him to take upon him the Charge, Command and Care of His Majesty’s Dragon Monte Sant’Angelo, in peace and war, until death or decree relieved him. It went on to Charge and Command the Dragon to behave himself with all due Respect and Obedience unto him, his said captain, and warned him that hereof nor him nor either of them should fail, as they would Answer to the Contrary at their Peril. It was signed at the bottom with the flowing signatures of two Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, and the Secretary.

 It was a commision. A captain’s commision.

 For the Aerial Corps.

 He groaned aloud. “I just sent off my share of the egg bounty to purchase Lennox’s commission, for the South Essex Light Company,” he said, “and now there’s this!”

 “You don’t sound very happy,” Temeraire rumbled over his shoulder. The black head had come down very close.

 “I’m not! This isn’t … I didn’t mean to …” He stopped, and restarted, aware that he was being offensive. “I didn’t intend to join the Aerial Corps.”

 “Wouldn’t you like to be Moncey’s captain, and fly with him every day?”

 “I would love to fly with Moncey every day, but … I like it quite enough where I am, too. I have a good company, I have a Colonel who trusts me, and I’ve fought hard for all of it. All I’m short is my captaincy, and then everything will be well with me. I’m not so desperate that I’d chuck it all up for being Moncey’s captain!” He stood up again. “I’ve fought like hell to get here, and I don’t want to start all over again from scratch!”

 “I do apologise, Captain,” said Temeraire. “I am afraid that this may be all my fault.”

 “How do you mean, it is your fault?” Sharpe asked, turning around at last. “What did you do?”

 “I wrote a letter to the Admiralty, mentioning you were still waiting for your captaincy. I think I was too clever,” Temeraire replied. It was strange, to see such a huge creature look so low. “I told them all about you, and they took it in entirely the wrong way. I am very sorry, Captain Sharpe.”

 Sharpe shook his head. “Don’t second-guess yourself,” he told him. “That’s not what a good commanding officer does. Not your fault, it’s just…” he flapped the commission up and down.

 “What does Moncey think of it?” Laurence asked.

 “I don’t think he knows about it yet,” said Temeraire. “I sent him to Lisbon yesterday.”

 “I don’t think he’ll be terribly happy about it either,” Sharpe said. “He likes being his own captain.”

 “To be honest, I think the Admiralty would be perfectly in agreement,” Temeraire said, “were it not for the fact that there is not one other dragon of his breed under harness anywhere in Europe.”

 Sharpe stared up at him, and then looked at Laurence, but the Aerial captain was staring up at his dragon with equal astonishment.

 “His breed?” Laurence asked.

 “I thought he was a Winchester,” Sharpe said.

 “Oh, that is what I thought, as well, when I first met him,” Temeraire explained. “But in fact, he is only half a Winchester. His mother was a Winchester. His sire, on the other hand, was a wild Grey Widowmaker.”

 “Oh. He mentioned that once,” Sharpe remembered.

 “A Widowmaker?” Scott burst in, horrified, and then clapped his hand over his mouth in embarrassment.

 “Oh yes. His colouration is all Winchester, but the shape of his breastbone and his temperament mark him out quite unmistakeably as a Widowmaker. His sire was Gracchus, a notorious stock thief, who threw in his lot with Wolfe Tone. Moncey told me himself.”

 “Excuse me,” Sharpe interrupted. “What is a Widowmaker?”

 “Grey Widowmakers were one of the earliest native British breeds,” Scott explained. “There aren’t many of them left these days, because they are all, to a dragon, violent, intractable, arrogant, deceitful, too intelligent for their own good, and have not the slightest respect for authority.” He listed the characteristics of Widowmakers on his fingers. “They are considered unharnessable.  Dangerous and useless.”

 “There are a few in the breeding grounds,” Temeraire went on, “but most of them live wild in the Highlands of Scotland, and the Outer Hebrides. They were bred to the Winchesters, centuries ago, and the result are the Greylings, but Moncey is certainly not a Greyling.”

 “I think nobody at the Admiralty knows he is not a Winchester, either,” Laurence said. “Are you quite sure, Temeraire?”

 “I am absolutely certain. Dragons may paint themselves all the colours of the rainbow, but the conformation does not lie.”

 “He cannot be a Widowmaker,” Sharpe said flatly, “because he has been allowing me to ride him. And the Admiralty doesn’t need me as his captain, because he doesn’t want a captain, and he’s too valuable as an exploring officer.” He turned to Laurence. “I’ve no hard feeling to the Aerial Corps, but I am a soldier.” He refolded the commission and handed it back to Laurence. “I’m sorry, sir.”

 “Well,” said Temeraire. “I will send Minnow to find Moncey. We will see what he thinks.”

Chapter Text

The South Essex had contrived to move its bivouac closer to the Aerial Corps every night on the march. They built their own fires to huddle around in the winter weather, but they wandered to the Aerial Corps, whose fires, thanks to Iskierka, were usually larger and hotter, and the two officer’s messes joined together as often as not. Dragons flew overhead all day, and often in the night, and they all grew accustomed to the rush of wings, so that few glanced up anymore at the sound, not even the horses. Sharpe stalked from the temporary covert to his own mess in just a few minutes.

 Sharpe ducked under the flap into Lawford’s tent, and stopped short. Forrest had frozen with his glass halfway to his lips. Leroy had cut off a sentence halfway. They all stared at Sharpe.

 Lawford was at the head of the table, and he bounced to his feet as if he’d just sat on something sharp. “Richard! Glad to see you! Gentlemen, may I have a moment to speak with Captain Sharpe?”

 The other officers of the mess all rose, without any sign of complaint, and Forrest patted Sharpe’s shoulder reassuringly as he went out. Sharpe pulled himself upright, and stood at attention, ice water running in his veins. “You wanted to see me, sir?” he asked.

“Sit, Richard, sit.” Lawford waved him to Bougainville’s abandoned chair. “Would you like some port?”

 “No, thank you sir.”

 “Ah, well. Ah, well.” Lawford rubbed his hands together, clearly at a loss as to how to say whatever he needed to say.  "Well, then."

 “Sir,” Sharpe said. “If you wanted to ask me about the rumour, it isn’t true.”

 Lawford stopped rubbing his hands together, and looked at Sharpe closely. “What rumour?”

 “That I’m going to transfer to the Aerial Corps. There’s been a mix-up, the Admiralty got a bit confused, but it’s only a rumour, sir.”

 “Ah. Tongues wagging. Well. This is something else.”

 “Yes, sir?”

 “I understand you’ve applied to buy the captaincy of the Light Company?” Lawford asked. “With the money from the egg?”

 “Yes, sir.”

 “Well, ah. You see, it’s already been sold.”

 Sharpe took his gaze away from Lawford, and stared at the wall of the tent, not seeing it. “It’s been sold,” he echoed.

 “It was sold a few weeks ago, in fact. I just heard about it today. The new fellow is already on his way here to take over the Light Company. Captain Rymer. I’d have blocked it, but he dealt directly with Colonel Simmerson.

"Yes, sir." 

"I’m terribly sorry to have to be the one to tell you this, my dear friend. Terribly sorry.”

 The captaincy had been sold. It had been sold before he’d even thought of retrieving the egg. Sharpe stared at the tent wall some more. “Thank you for telling me, sir.” They must have turned down his gazette before the egg had even been laid.

 “Of course you’ll keep your brevet rank, Richard. I’m not having you popped back down to lieutenant. We’ll have to make a plan to fit you in somewhere. We will, though, never fear, and as soon as I find you a space, up you’ll go to full Captain again.  The South Essex is fully aware of your excellent qualities, even if Whitehall is not.  You've nothing to fear, you have a place in this regiment as long as I am in command.”

 “Yes sir.” His company was lost to him. Dear God, Harper too, was lost to him.

 “And there will be places opening when we storm Ciudad Rodrigo. And of course, the General is as aware of your qualities as I am. You’ll get your captaincy back, Richard; it just might take a while.”

 “Yes, sir.”

 Lawford was quiet a moment, then burst out, “Oh, for heaven’s sake, man! Get angry, will you?”

 Sharpe looked at Lawford. The Colonel was leaning forward, anxiety on his face.

“I can’t, sir. I’ve been afraid of this happening for too long. I can’t get angry.”

 “Then go and get drunk, instead. With my blessing. Go and find Miss Moreno. Or find Moncey, and go kill something together.”

 Sharpe found himself able to smile after all. “Yes, sir.” He stood up, and went to the door of the tent. He paused, with his hand on the tent flap. “William?” he asked, using Lawford’s first name as he rarely did.

 “Yes?”

 “Thank you for telling me in private.”

 “Of course, Richard, of course.”

 Sharpe walked away from the tents. He stood in the rain and stared up at the sky. He had lost his captaincy. He had gained another captaincy. He had gained a dragon who didn’t want him, and lost a company that he wanted. What if the new captain was a thug like Bougainville, or a buffoon who would lead them to their destruction? He would have to stand by as an outsider, under Lawford's overprotective wing, and watch another man command in his place. Or he would have to stand inside his own company as a lieutenant again, plain Mr Sharpe, taking orders. He might get the captaincy back, if he led the Forlorn Hope into the breach of Ciudad Rodrigo, but there was no guarantee he’d get his own company back.

 There were officers he’d trained that were suddenly senior to him. Knowles was a captain. Dear God, he realized, he was the same rank now as Harry Price! He’d have to call the new captain ‘sir.’

 “Sir?” It was Harper’s voice, carrying softly out of the gloom. “All well, sir?”

 He turned to the sound of the sergeant’s voice. “Not well, Pat. They’re turned down my captaincy. There’s a new fellow on the way already.”

 There was a moment of silence. “What will you do?”

 “I don’t know, Pat. I really don’t know.”

 “Colonel Lawford will look out for you, sir.”

 “I don’t want Colonel Lawford looking out for me,” Sharpe snarled. “I’m not his pet civilise-the-savage project.”

 “Aye, I can see that,” Harper agreed drily. “Would you care to take an Irishman’s advice?”

 “Knock me out, Pat.”

 “You’re not footloose anymore, sir. You’re the father of a child, and I’ll keep my fingers crossed, maybe you'll be a husband as well soon, begging the assumption?”

 “I don’t know.”

 “A man on his own, now, if he goes off and gets killed nobody’ll be starving on his account. But you’ve got the opening now for a billet that’ll last for life, sir, war or peace. You could stay here, and you’ll fight your way back up to Captain again, I’ve no doubt, but why fight at all and risk leaving the little one without a father, when you’ve been given something else?”

 “You’re saying I should take up the Aerial captaincy?” He didn’t know how Harper knew already.

 “I’m saying no-one in the regiment will blame you if you do, sir.”

 “Did you hear Moncey has told everyone he won’t have me anyway?”

 “I’ve heard it, sir, and to be honest, I don’t think Temeraire will let that stand in his way. He likes arranging things just the way he wants them, so he does. And he does want you for Moncey, sir, powerfully so. That’s just an Irishman’s advice, sir.” Harper hoisted his rifle onto his shoulder. “I’m off to check the pickets, sir. Colonel’s orders, sir.”

 “Carry on, sergeant.”

 Sharpe watched the Irishman walk away, and then turned in search of Harry Price and a good deal of rum.

 

Chapter Text

The next day, Clayton woke Sharpe up with the news that Moncey had been seen flying overhead and landing alongside the line of march. Sharpe rolled out of his blankets. He had slept fully dressed, for warmth, huddled around the dead fire along with the rest of the Light Company. Getting up involved no more than stuffing his blanket hastily into his pack, stretching, refusing a mug of tea from Clayton’s wife, and walking off. Harper picked up his trail and followed him, neither man speaking.

 The Winchester had landed in the roadway between the South Essex and the Aerial Corps, blocking the road until he strolled off to the side of the road and lay down. Sharpe walked up to him. It was still dark, but all around them the army was waking up and preparing for another day on the march.

 “Richard,” Moncey greeted, folding his wings cosily.

 “How are you, Monce?” Sharpe asked, warily.

 “Bearing up, old boy, bearing up. The war goes on. Hello, Sergeant Harper.”

 “Good morning, Moncey.” Harper grounded his rifle and crossed his hands over the barrel, gazing from Sharpe to Moncey quizzically.

 “Have you spoken to Temeraire yet?” Sharpe asked. He gazed up at Moncey worriedly, but the dragon seemed unconcerned.

 “Not yet. Where is he hiding himself?”

 “Ground crew says he flew off to meet with Major Hogan right forward, sir,” Harper put in.

 “Well, I have to go and report to him,” Moncey said. “I want to know if he wants me helping here or buzzing around Badajoz.”

 “It would help if you could think of a way to get all of us in there, sir,” Harper said, jerking his head to where Ciudad Rodrigo waited.

 Moncey laughed. “Oh, no, old boy, once was quite enough. They’ll have got wise to that trick from now on. Richard, would you care for a flight?”

 “I’d like that,” Sharpe said, and stepped forward. His mind was blank as to how to tell Moncey the news of his commission. Maybe in flight the words would come and he would know how to broach the uncomfortable question of captaincies. He climbed up to his place on Moncey’s neck, and clipped himself in. Moncey leaped.

 Their flight took them in a wide circle over the road, and up into the early sunlight. “Bougainville has been very quiet since Christmas,” Sharpe told Moncey. “He spends a lot of time staring at me. Doesn’t dare say anything, just stares. And his men have all learned to avoid mentioning the word ‘dragon’ in conversations. They say he talks to himself too.”

 “He’s mad, if you ask me,” Moncey said.

 “We’re all starting to wonder about that,” Sharpe agreed. “Nobody else in the mess has a problem with dragons, but he never passes up the chance to rant about you anyway.”

 “Perhaps a dragon dropped him on his head when he was a baby.” Moncey twisted his head this way and that, scanning. “Ha! There is Temeraire,” and with that he banked suddenly, tipping Sharpe over in his new harness so that he got a grand view all along a line of marching Scots, pale faces staring up at him. They swept down alongside Temeraire.

 The Celestial was hunched over in conversation, and they landed neatly alongside him. Temeraire swung his head around to meet them.

 “Hello, big fellow,” Moncey greeted.

 “Hello, Moncey,” he greeted. “I’m glad to see you back again. Hello, Captain Sharpe. How remarkable your dress is!”

 Sharpe looked down at himself. “Sir?”

 “Well, let’s see, that is a 95th jacket, but that is a Dutch harness, and those appear to be French cavalry trousers. And that’s not a regulation side-arm. They give you a somewhat unique appearance. You appear to have been assembled out of all the best bits of three different services.” The dragon nodded, very pleased. “I commend you on your sense of style, Captain Sharpe. It is most distinctive. Identical uniforms are rather dull. You will notice, Laurence does not wear a uniform at all.”

 “Hey, I like the way he looks!” Moncey protested. He twisted his head back to look at Sharpe, still perched on his back and the Rifleman found himself being closely examined by them both.

 “Of course you do," Temeraire said. "He looks very well. I wish I could get Laurence to wear sparkly buttons like that. You should be very proud of him. Now, then, Moncey, what have you to tell me today?””

 “Nothing good to report, I’m afraid. All the dragons missing from here are sitting waiting for us in Badajoz with Lien.”

 “I thought I sent you away to Lisbon,” Temeraire said, nettled. “No wonder Minnow couldn’t find you!”

 “Nothing’s happening in Lisbon. I came by to see if Hogan needs me here, or if I should buzz off back to Badajoz.”

 “Hogan is here,” said Temeraire, and swung his head back around to his front again. “You just missed Wellington.”

 That was the problem with a dragon as large as Temeraire, Sharpe realized, as he unclipped himself and slid off. You could be on one side of him having a conversation with his head, unaware of what might be happening on his other side. He found he much preferred Moncey’s size – at least Moncey didn’t carry on two geographically-distant conversations at once. He walked around Temeraire’s shoulder, aware of Moncey stepping in time with him.

 He rounded Temeraire’s outstretched foreleg to find Laurence and Hogan both waiting for him. He stopped short and stiffened himself to attention. “Sir,” he said. It was the first time he had seen Laurence since he’d turned down the commission.

 “Good afternoon, Captain Sharpe,” Laurence greeted.

 Hogan merely nodded to him, his eyes on Moncey. “Sharpe,” he said. His expression was annoyed, and Sharpe stood at parade rest, puzzled by the displeasure.

 “Have you any work here for Moncey, Major Hogan?” Temeraire asked.

 “Not at present, but I’d be obliged if he went away, and scouted around south. I want to know just how far away the troops who left Ciudad Rodrigo are, and if they’re coming back yet. But be back before we get to Ciudad.”

 “Hear that?” Temeraire asked Moncey, and reached out his nose to nudge the little Winchester. “That’s called an order.”

 “Right-o,” Moncey replied cheerily.

 “Before you go,” Temeraire asked, “Have you talked to Captain Sharpe? He has news.”

 Moncey’s eyes widened and he snaked his head around to Sharpe. “They paid out for the egg?” he asked delightedly. “Capital!”

 “Not the egg, Moncey,” Laurence said. “It relates more to Captain Sharpe’s career.”

 “They’re confirmed your captaincy?” Moncey nosed him, happily. “Go on, then?”

 “Er, yes.” Sharpe found himself standing at attention, the old refuge of the private soldier who knows he is in trouble. He flicked his eyes to Laurence, and found the Aerial captain watching him with concern. The captain put his hand on Temeraire’s leg, tapping gently in what Sharpe recognised as a ‘tread warily’ signal.

 “Well, this is a cause for celebration, surely?” Moncey frowned and looked around at the men, and then raised his gaze to meet Temeraire’s eyes. “Why the long faces? What haven’t you told me?”

 “I’ve been confirmed in my captaincy,” Sharpe said, uncomfortably. “You have that part right.”

 “Captain Sharpe has been confirmed as your captain, Moncey,” Temeraire finished for him.

 Moncey froze. His eyes narrowed, and then his wings slowly part-opened. “No,” he hissed softly.

 “It’s true,” Laurence said. “We have his commission at the covert, if you want to see it.”

 “No,” Moncey said again, louder. Hogan had begun to sidle away, gazing rather nervously at Moncey’s talons. They were beginning to flex, digging into the ground as if it was fresh dough and not hard frozen dirt.

 “Well, there has obviously been a miscommunication,” Temeraire continued. “The Admiralty probably thought that, since your name keeps popping up with his in despatches, you and he have come to an understanding.”

 “A miscommunication! What am I, a ship? that bumps against a rock a few times, and thus sticks to it forever?” Moncey said. “No, I say!” His voice was louder now, with a tremor in it that warned of his anger.

 Temeraire reached out, reflexively, and wrapped his hands protectively around Laurence. “It has probably come as something of a shock,” he said soothingly to Moncey. “To suddenly find yourself with a captain at your age.”

 “I will not have a captain!” Moncey snapped. “I need no captain!”

 Sharpe stepped forward, coming to his senses at last at the sight of Moncey all but swelling up with anger.

 “Moncey, believe me, this was not my doing. I have my own command. This is as much a shock to me as it was to you. I didn’t go behind your back.”

 Moncey turned to him. His eyes were still slitted, but his voice was quieter. “I believe you, Richard. You’re a fighter, not a spy. You aren’t that sneaky.” He swung his head back up to the others. “Now hear me well. I like Richard here, a great deal. But I will not have him as my master! I am my own dragon, and only my own dragon!”

 He launched himself, shooting himself vertically as from a catapult, banging his wings out noisily with anger, and flew away. His tail whipped from side to side like an angry cat’s as he went. Sharpe watched him go.

 “Well,” he heard Temeraire say, at length, breaking the silence. “That didn’t go nearly as well as I’d hoped.” He sounded crestfallen.

 “I knew he’d say no,” Sharpe said, without turning around, “but I didn’t expect him so say no so … forcefully.”

 “I hoped he would say yes,” Temeraire said. He leaned down and rested the end of his muzzle against Laurence’s back. His eyes closed. “I would have said yes,” he murmured.

 “Well, dear one, we must accept that it is his choice,” Laurence told him.

 “It is my fault,” Temeraire said, without opening his eyes.

 “No, dear one, you could not have known London would misunderstand,” Laurence said to him.

Temeraire sighed and put his head down on his foreleg. “Still, I am sorry that I interfered.”

 “Let’s hope it’s for the best, then,” Hogan said. He banged his gloved hands together to warm them. “Richard, I suppose you’re going to have to walk back again.”

 “I suppose I am,” Sharpe said.

 They made their farewells, and he followed Hogan to where the Engineer had left his horse. Instead of asking Sharpe for a leg-up, Hogan gathered his reins and led the horse alongside him. They followed the road, walking in the opposite direction to the troops.

 “It really is for the best, Richard.” Hogan looked at the ground as he walked. “He’s not cut out to be a courier – he’s simply too valuable as a scout. And you are valuable too, in your own way.”

 “I suppose so, sir,” Sharpe said. The angry betrayal in Moncey’s voice still rankled, and he kicked irritably at a tussock of snowy turf. The snow spat up and stuck wetly to his trouser leg, and he swore at it.

 “I will tell the general,” Hogan carried on, “and he will write to London that in no way has the dragon Monte Sant’Angelo submitted to a captain. He doesn’t want to see Moncey taking up with a captain any more than Moncey does. And we’ll see about getting back your captaincy, shall we?”

 “You know about that, sir?”

 “Of course I know about that. It’s my job, aye?”

 “Thank you, sir,” Sharpe said.

 “Don’t mention it, Richard, don’t mention it. We’ll soon have you and Moncey untangled again.”

 

Chapter Text

The battle for the hill known as the Grand Teson was joined at ten o’clock in the morning, and raged all day. Charge after charge went up, behind rows of bayonets, and each charge drove the French back a little further toward Ciudad Rodrigo. The cavalry roamed the lower slopes, bottling the defenders in, and the British went up, again and again. The hill must be taken!

 The South Essex stood in their lines on the snowy plain. Today, they were the reserve. They would wait until they were most needed to push up the hill, outflanking the defenders, or until the fleeing French came down to meet them. Ahead of them, all was noise and chaos, concealed by solid banks of powder smoke. And further up formations of dragons fought for control of the air over the hill. Moncey was up there too, somewhere, but Sharpe hadn’t seen him since the dragon’s rejection of his captaincy. He wondered how the dragon fared.

 Sharpe stood with his company. A few yards away Lawford sat on Portia. Portia was taking nervous crab steps, so that as they waited Lawford was being carried sideways, across the face of Sharpe’s company, until he pulled her up and walked her deliberately back to his proper place. Sharpe knew that the horse was responding to Lawford’s own nervousness, but said nothing. This was not a time for conversation.

 His own belly was jumping inside him. The long wait was working on his imagination. What use would they be put to today? Where would they have to take their bayonets? Up there, beyond the smoke? Impossible to conceive of these neat lines going into that chaos and surviving. He turned and met Harper’s eye.

 Yes, his men were ready. They were hard and prepared and they had trust in their officers. He scanned the rows of faces. All of the faces were tight with nerves, but there was no shaking, no silent crying. They were ready. They would win, as they had won before.

 He faced front again, determined not to show them how the long wait was disturbing him, lest he unsettle their own readiness.

 "Wing! Wing!" screamed on of the South Essex corporals, suddenly, breaking the tension.. "It's Moncey! He's coming down!"

 "Clear him room behind the line!" roared Sharpe. He hoisted his rifle onto his shoulder and ran, crashed two soldiers aside and ran on. His men were scrambling towards him, now, hurrying to get out of Moncey's way, and they parted on either side of him like water going around a rock.

 Then the ground darkened with the shadow of a dragon, coming down, and Moncey crashed onto all fours just feet in front of him.

 "Christ," Moncey burst out, "this is hot work!" He dropped his scythe, letting it bounce and clatter on the hard ground.

 "Wha's going on up there, Monce? We can't see for the smoke?"

 "Everyone's shooting at everyone else. Heavyweights are at it hammer and tongs. I nearly had a Grand Chevalier coming down on top of me, just now. Christ." His flanks were heaving, and the joints of his pinions were trembling. Sharpe saw that his slitted pupils were spread as wide as they would go, and restrained himself from touching him.

"Christ," Moncey said again. "I thought I wouldn't find you. How's your troublesome neighbour?"

 "Still troublesome, but just carping."

 "He sounds like tons of fun." Moncey gulped air. "Your fellows might be sent in any moment. The left is hard pressed, hard pressed. Can't see the right at all - too much smoke. And they have guns on the convent roof, for joy."

 "Your wings are all bloody."

 "None of that's mine. That Chevalier. Bullet holes all over him." Another gulp. "I think I saw him go down." Another, shallower gulp. "We littlies have been bashing each other a bit, much higher up. I'm glad, glad, glad I don't have to manage this with a rider's weight."

 "You! Stop messing around with the sweeps! Get in the air, we want you up there keeping watch! You can fly for hours still!" It was Bougainville again. He was marching toward them, waving his arm at the sky. He hadn’t seen Sharpe.

 With a snarl, Moncey lunged. In one movement he had the captain pinned up against the wall in the cleft between his talons. The man's legs kicked helplessly, then he realized his position and froze with his boot soles flat against the bricks and his arms wrapped around Moncey's talons in a helpless hug. He stared up at Moncey's head with terror. Small as the feral Winchester was, he held Bougainville sprawled against the wall, effortlessly confined , without actually crushing him.

 "Tell him to put me down, Sharpe!" Bougainville screamed.

 Suddenly there seemed to be a little pool of stillness and silence around them. The men of the South Essex had frozen. The crash of shot sounded quite far away to Sharpe. He was caught between a sudden desire to laugh, and a sense of horror that his career was disappearing on the very field of battle.

He opened his mouth to reply, when Moncey spoke.

 "Captain Sharpe."

 "Sir?"

 "Do I tell you when to pee against a tree?"

 Sharpe stood at attention. "Nossir!"

 Moncey lowered his head closer to Bougainville’s face.

 "Have I ever told you when to get drunk?"

 "Nossir!"

 Moncey's head was now so close to the captain's that the poor man must have been seeing little more than an array of long teeth and a foreshortened view of angry slitted pupils.

 "Would I ever condescend to give you orders about when to lie with a woman?"

 "Definitely not, sir!"

 "Then why does this insignificant little worm think that he can tell me when to take off and fly, hmm?" Moncey tilted his head to one side, treating his victim to a very close view of his right eye.

 "Don't know, sir!"

 "D'you think perhaps this fellow doesn't know the meaning of the word 'feral'?"

 "I suspect not, sir!"

 "You." The dragon's voice was a metallic rasp, addressed to the captain. "Don't go thinking I'm Temeraire, old boy. I'm not civilized.  I'm not speaking Chinese, and drinking tea, and reading mathematics. I've been my own dragon a long time, and I've been shot at by enough of you that no man gives me orders. Not you, not Captain Sharpe, not anyone." He removed his foreleg so that Bougainvilled dropped.  "Now go away, and command your little soldiers." 

 The man scrambled away, to the safety of his own men. Someone behind Sharpe made a soft jeering noise, but when he whirled to see who it was all the faces were carefully blank.

 After Bougainville had disappeared, there was a brief but very studied silence. Moncey stared at the brick wall. Cannons roared on another planet.

Harper sighed heavily. "To be sure, the two of you are both the sort that deserve a sort like each other. Peas in a pod, you are. And what are we going to do now?"

 "Doesn't seem very sporting to frighten him that way, but at least he won't be back to bother you." Moncey said, in a normal tone of voice. "The Aerial Corps is going to be furious. Not good form, scaring a red-piece like that." Sharpe felt a wave of relief.

 "I thought you were going to kill him."

 "Oh, I might have done, old boy, if he'd yelled any louder at me. I might have done. I came very close." Moncey turned his head from the wall at last, and surveyed Sharpe. "I think I can understand a bit of why some harnessed fellows are so very protective of their captains - I'd be quite, quite bored without you."

 "Aye, peas of a pod," sighed Harper.

 Moncey shook his wings, and snorted. "As it happens, Captain, I am quite rested enough to go off again. Thank you for your hospitality." He picked up his scythe carefully.

 "It's only a pleasure, Monce. We'll keep some ground clear for you, after."

 "Then I'll see you after. Happy hunting."

 ….

 The South Essex waited. They stood in their dressed lines and they waited. The ground beneath their feet hammered with the fall of shot, their nostrils were clogged with the foul air of the battlefield, and every man quivered where he stood. The battle raged, blood spattered, beyond the clouds of smoke, but their barrels were cold and clean, and the snow before them was cold and clean, and still they waited.

 The wind was winning its own battle against the concussion of shot, and the smoke above was beginning to thin. They could see the sky, miracle of miracles. Above flew dragons, neat formations, that sailed calmly overhead, collided, broke up into disorganised flurries and regrouped into formations, then sailed calmly around for more. The battle sounds overhead were drowned out by the roar of cannon ahead, so it seemed the dragons were flying in a great pool of silence. The men stared up, mesmerised, some with lips moving, seeking distraction from the storms on the ground into which they surely, surely must march.

 Sharpe watched with them, scanning the sky through his telescope. Skeins of smoke drifted across his lens, obscuring the battle from his view, but he could see enough to recognise dragons he knew. That was Iskierka! Flame gouting from her jaws, in pursuit. That was Lily, head low, with Maximus close astern as always, as she swooped like an avenging hawk, and just missed a Petit Chevalier that had just savaged a Winchester. The Winchester fell, and his heart jumped into his mouth, stopped his breath. His lens followed it down, and to his relief, to his horror, the falling Winchester was Laculla.

 “Oh God, no,” he moaned, dry-throated.

 “Sir?” said Price. His own glass was trained up, but he didn’t know Laculla. Hadn’t known Laculla.

 “That is Laculla,” Sharpe said. The Winchester tumbled, end over end. “That’s Laculla, falling!”

 He didn’t hear Price’s reply, because Moncey had just filled his lens, leaping into view from the black ring around the glass. Moncey yanked at his mate, dug his claws into her flanks, tried to wrap his wings around her. Sharpe could see his frantic straining face, as he tried to keep Laculla in the air. But even as Moncey’s wings beat, frantically, at the air, trying to lift them both to safety, Laculla’s head fell back, hanging loosely on the end of her neck.

 “She’s dead. She’s coming down. Drop her, man, save yourself,” he muttered, though Moncey could not hear him.

 Moncey flung his head back, stretched his jaws wide in a silent howl of agony. He dropped her.

 Laculla dropped, like a dead bird falling under birdshot, and disappeared from his view. Moncey, alone, beat for height, grew smaller and disappeared in a drift of smoke.

 Sharpe lowered his telescope. He staggered where he stood, so that he lurched sideways into someone’s horse, and clung there.

Laculla, dead?

 “That was Laculla!” said Lawford’s voice, above him.

Sharpe clutched the horse’s shoulder, and looked up into Lawford’s shocked face.

 “It was. She’s dead. Poor Moncey!”

 “Moncey’s coming down!” someone screamed.

 Before they could make space for him, Moncey came down, faster than Sharpe had ever seen him. He burst through the smoke and slammed into the ground directly in front of the company, so suddenly that someone fired a shot in shock, but he even didn’t seem to notice the bang.

 His head scanned this way and that, blankly. His eyes were huge, and his jaws were red with fresh blood, contrasting with the dried blood already covering his wings and back. “Richard!” he shouted hoarsely.

 Sharpe shoved his way to him, stood in front of him, unsure what to say. “I’m here.”

 Moncey’s pupils were huge, and he was grinding his jaws. “Come with me! I want to get that fucking Chevalier! I’m going to kill that bastard! He killed Laculla. He killed Laculla!” He hissed the last through bared teeth.

 “I’ll come.”

 “Come fly with me!”

 Sharpe’s rifle was loaded, his carabiners hung at his thighs as they always did these days. He climbed onto Moncey’s back. Lawford shouted behind him, but Moncey was shaking convulsively under him with grief and rage, and there was no time for Lawford. Moncey leaped.

 They flashed through bursts of cloud, smoke that made Sharpe choke. The air was so full of smoke and diving dragons it was like flying into a drawnet of beating fish. Moncey flew with a hot rage, shaking, bounding from beat to beat. He dived and plunged, this way and that, yielding to every wing, intent only on the search for his quarry. Sharpe wanted to tell him to be calm, to fight calmly, but he knew calmness would not avenge Laculla. Calmness would tell him that a feral Winchester and a bastard Rifleman would never even sting a Chevalier, but he shook calmness aside, and then he saw the Chevalier.

 “There he is!” he shouted, and pointed with his rifle.

 The Chevalier was circling, alone, just behind the French lines. Moncey drove for him, a vengeful gnat.

 “Put me down on his back!” Sharpe had to scream to be heard. He saw Moncey nod, felt the body beneath him strain as they banked. They closed with the Chevalier, head to head.

 The Chevalier saw them coming, didn’t even turn away, just opened his jaws and roared at them. The roar would have turned off any other Winchester, at any other time, but Moncey roared back, and the two dragons’ anger crossed each other in a horrible chord that jarred Sharpe’s teeth.

 Then Moncey was ducking, and skimming along the Chevalier’s belly, daring the great beast to reach for him with its talons. It did, and he slipped past, just, and then flipped himself around the other’s haunch. Rifles banged, and Sharpe heard bullets tear past, then Moncey was right above the other dragon’s hip. Sharpe’s fingers plucked his carabiners loose and he pushed with his knees and let himself drop. Then he thudded down and clung like a tick onto the Chevalier’s hot scaly rump.

 The Chevalier had a harness strap here. He clipped himself to it, missed one carabiner, but found that he could stand. It flew heavily, heaving its wings up and down. The rolling rhythm of its movement was easy enough to stand on. God, the thing was huge! He had a clear view all the way up the length of its spine, like the clear sweep along the gundeck of a ship-of-the-line.

 The Chevalier’s crew took a moment to realize that the gnat had left its rider behind, but their rifles were empty and would take a minute or more to reload. They drew swords instead, and began climbing hand over hand toward him across the huge haunch.

 Sharpe steadied himself on his feet.

 The Chevalier’s pelvis was a steady base on which to stand, one foot on a huge vertebra, the other braced against the carabiner strap. He could see all along the line of the dragon’s spine. The beast hadn’t yet noticed he’d been boarded. His head was following tiny Moncey, now engaged in a tormenting dance just out of reach of his teeth. Just at the base of his neck was his captain, one hand rooted to the dragon’s spine for balance, the other pointing, exhorting his dragon.

 Sharpe knelt.

 The Chevalier’s crew were coming for him, blades drawn, faces screwed up in rage, teeth bared. Somehow he knew they were screaming at him, but he couldn’t hear them.

 On one knee, Sharpe aimed, carefully, calmly, at the point where the French captain’s crossbelts met across his back. His hand brought the foresight of the Baker in line with the backsight. He allowed for the height difference to the dragon’s neck. He allowed for the range, the length of the dragon’s back. He drew a careful bead. Gently, he squeezed the trigger.

 Smoke billowed. It was whipped away instantly and revealed the French captain hanging limply.

 The French crew were almost at him. Their blades reached out for him, hungry for his blood.

 Sharpe swung the rifle into his right hand, unclipped his carabiner with his left, and hopped backwards into the air.

 He heard the Chevalier scream, shrilly, above him, as he fell.

 The dragon seemed to leap away from him against the sky.

 He dropped.

 And continued dropping. This hadn’t been a good idea, he realized, as the air buffeted him, taking his breath away. He hadn’t checked if Moncey was around to catch him. God, he was going to fall!

 He rolled himself over in mid air, and saw the ground underneath, festooned with smoke and bright uniforms. Such a long way to fall, and his breath had stopped completely with terror.

 He was going to hit that ground! It was coming up faster each second. The air was buffeting him, hammering him. He was going to hit that French cavalry company, he was going to land among them like a piece of meat. He tumbled. He yelled for Moncey, he clutched his arms and legs to his body. He was going to fall! He squeezed his eyes shut in anticipation of his impact. He was a dead man!

 Then a great shadow blocked out the light, and claws darted out and around himself, and his body was slammed sideways. He shouted, eyes jerked open from pain, and the ground under him swung like a hammock as the dragon who had grabbed him snapped his wings out, straining to arrest his own fall. Wings banged and slammed overhead. Then they were flying level, only barely above the battle, and Sharpe hung in the dragon’s claws, limbs dangling, head down.

 He twisted his head up to look at the dragon holding him, sobbing, and it was Moncey, who was gazing back worriedly. “You all right?” the dragon asked.

 “Yes,” he croaked. His insides had almost come out of his throat with the sudden stop. Every joint had seemed to reverse itself in its socket, but he was alive. His stomach was leaping like a live thing, but he was alive!

 “Want to go around again?”

 “Uh,” he temporised, but Moncey was lifting again anyway, with a wild look on his face. He wasn’t finished with his vengeance just yet. He’d promised to get the Chevalier, Sharpe remembered, he wouldn’t be done until he had. “Yes,” he said, feeling the fear rise in him and thrusting it down. The job had to be finished. Laculla was still dead.

 “Climb up,” Moncey told him, and held him up against his shoulder, using his long talons to help Sharpe climb. Sharpe reached the steady base of his neck again and clipped himself in.

 “Are you sure you’re all right?” Moncey asked again. “I can feel you shaking.”

 “I got a fright,” Sharpe admitted. “I thought you wouldn’t catch me.”

 “I would never let you fall,” Moncey promised him, and there was a note of absolute truth in his voice. “Now let me pick up my scythe, and off we go.”

 He swooped, flying low, wings outstretched. They swept over the heads of a red-coated infantry square, and then skimmed so low over the fouled snowfield that Moncey was able to pluck the scythe up without slowing, let alone touching down. Then they arched away, and he began beating for height again.

 Moncey had grown icily calm now, in contrast to the white-hot rage of bare moments ago. He scanned the skies, weaved between formations, seeking his quarry.

 The Chevalier was flying in the distance.

 It was retreating. It was leaving the field, sagging from its wings, head low. It had been defeated, but it didn’t care any more about the battle, the war, or the world. Its captain hung from its harness, dead. Dead, dead, dead. And then there was a scream behind it, and the murderer flew out from under it, flamboyantly rolling in the air. The Chevalier howled, and dropped blindly to the attack, talons extended.

 Sharpe looked over his shoulder at the massive beast lumbering after them. He had lost his rifle during his fall, without ever noticing. He could only hunch over Moncey’s neck and hold on. “What are you going to do?” he shouted.

 “Watch!” Moncey swooped through the air, drawing the Chevalier further after him, wings beating. Then without warning he stopped beating, stretched his wings out and coasted as if the Chevalier hadn’t been there at all. There was a furious roar behind them, and Sharpe glanced back again to see the Chevalier’s huge head reaching for them, jaws gaping wide, gums drawn clear of its teeth. The teeth seemed to be reaching out grasping for the tip of Moncey’s tail. Closer, closer, and Moncey still coasted, silent, motionless.

 Then Moncey dropped his head between his forelegs and turned completely over in mid air, tail whipping up and over as a counterweight. The teeth clapped shut above them, with inches to spare, then Moncey was below the dragon’s throat, upside down. The Chevalier tried to adjust his aim, and sent his head striking down after them, but he was too slow, far too slow to save himself. Moncey screamed, and the scythe slashed up in a flashing arc.

 Sharpe was flipped upside down, looking up, hanging from his harness. He got an eyefull of the Chevalier’s jaws lunging down at them, then of the scale pattern of the dragon’s throat zigzagged past. He heard Moncey’s scream, felt the Winchester’s body slew sideways with the force of his blow, and then he was drenched in a hot black rain.

 The dragon’s blood didn't pour, or run. It simply exploded from its slashed throat in a solid weight of liquid. Sharpe was crushed by it, choking in it, blinded by it; and he felt instead of saw Moncey clap his wings shut and drop head-down like a stone, away from the Chevalier. He coughed blood, and felt Moncey flip himself the right way up in free fall. Then his stomach dropped as the dragon pulled up, and began beating his wings again rapidly in a steep circle. Sharpe let go the harness to use both hands to wipe clear his eyes.  When he could see, he looked around for the Chevalier.

 The sky around them was empty. The only dragon nearby was impossible to miss, high above them. It was flying still, but erratically. It was trying to staunch the blood fountaining from its throat with its forehands, while still staring around with wild eyes for its attacker. Sharpe could see its crew trying to climb out along its neck with waving white bandages to stuff inside the vicious gash. Moncey screamed, and slashed the scythe in the air, and began climbing to the attack again.

 “No! Drop it!” Sharpe shouted. “Dead ‘un! Dead ‘un!”

 “No!” screamed Moncey. “I’m not done with him yet! Come here, you big bastard. Come to me!”

 “Christ!” Sharpe said to himself. He realized for the first time that Moncey was utterly out of human control. Sharpe was merely a passenger on him, he could only sit tight through whatever the dragon under him decided to do. Come what may, he was not in charge here, he could do nothing but grit his teeth and hang on.

 “Come to me!” Moncey climbed. The Chevalier watched him coming, wary this time, and it turned away from his attack as Moncey attempted to loop around its flank and attack it from its haunch.

 Moncey screamed his challenge at it, in French this time, and the dragon’s crew answered him with a volley of bullets, but he had seen the weapons lining on him and dropped just in time. Sharpe heard the sound of lead passing close by, but on Moncey’s bloody hide it was impossible to see if any had found their mark in him. Moncey paid no attention, if any had. He spiralled around, seeking another opening.

 He came down on the Chevalier’s shoulder, dropping too fast for the riflemen aboard to take aim. The Chevalier yawed in mid air, and rolled over, reaching up, trying to snatch him out of the air with his talons. Each of his talons was as long as Moncey’s head, but the scythe swung again, and Sharpe saw blood fly, as the blade sliced across the back of the dragon’s forehand. Then Moncey dropped away again, out of reach.

 The length of his scythe gave him a reach he would not have had otherwise. Had he tried to close without it, he would have been caught by the grabbing talons. With it, he could evade the huge dragon’s grasp and still strike. He laughed at the Chevalier, whipped the scythe back and forth tauntingly.

 The wounded Chevalier screamed above their heads again. This time the huge dragon went on the attack. It was wounded and in pain and beyond sense, and it would use brute force to kill this tiny enemy. It folded its wings back to its body and dropped on them, claws out, intending to smash them down bodily out of the sky.

 But again it was too slow. Moncey backwinged and doubled over in his own length, evading as lightly and easily as an insect does the swatter, and the Chevalier plummeted down within feet of them.

 Without hesitation, the little Winchester dropped after it. He screamed as he stooped, and Sharpe screamed with him as the great broad back seemed to come up to meet them. Moncey landed square on the other dragon’s back, thudding, crushing its crew under him. His hind talons raked deep and clutched. “Boarded, you bastard!” and with that he raised the scythe above his own head and brought it down on the Chevalier in a slamming punch.

 The blade punched into the thick hide like a needle, disappeared up to the shaft in the Chevalier’s spine. Sharpe felt the dragon stagger under them, suddenly limp. Its wings flew up, and it yowled and tipped headfirst and began to fall out of the sky. “Dead ‘un!” he shouted, and slammed his fists into Moncey’s neck. “Dead ‘un!”

 Moncey shuddered under him, and flung his wings out wildly, and the air caught him and unfolded his pleated wings with a snap, and lifted him off the dying Chevalier’s back as lightly as a leaf. The Chevalier dropped away from under his feet.

 Then there was another dragon coming toward them, a huge one, wings outstretched like walls. Moncey snaked his head around, and made a metallic hissing sound in his throat, but the dragon was a Regal Copper, and British, and he ignored them entirely for the Chevalier.

 “You, again?” the dragon boomed, and Sharpe saw that he had no harness. “Every time I see you, I find you interfering with Winchesters!” Requiescat soared to meet the Chevalier, talons reaching out, but stopped his attack in surprise as his new enemy just fell vertically past him, tumbling end over end.

“Hey!” Requiescat called, watching the Chevalier fall. “What the hell?” He dived after his falling enemy.

 Moncey was shaking now. He had been shaking before, but earlier his tremors had been fullbodied shudders of bloodlust that worked their way down his whole frame. Now his muscles gave tiny quivers of exhaustion under Sharpe’s legs.

 Sharpe leaned forward and put his hands on either side of his bloody neck. “That’s enough for now, I think.” He held his voice low, trying to calm the dragon. “Put me back down with the South Essex, please, and then land and have a rest.”

Moncey nodded. He banked away from Requiescat, sliding down in the air, and headed back to the smoke-shrouded battlefield. He said nothing, but Sharpe could still feel the tremors. His head hung low. Sharpe felt grim. He knew that the bloodlust was wearing off, now, and that Moncey was about to feel the full weight of his grief, but Sharpe’s place now was with his regiment. Moncey flew in silence, and Sharpe rode him in silence.

 …

Colonel Lawford turned in his saddle as Wellington’s aide-de-camp burst through the smoke on a lathered grey. “General’s compliments, and you are to take the place to the left of the 28th and hold that gap closed at all costs!”

 “Thank you,” Lawford said automatically, and turned to Forrest and Leroy. “Gentlemen, if you would be so kind…”

 Forrest sent his ensigns galloping to pass the word to the left wing. Leroy spurred away to his own company on the right, shouting across to the Light company. Harry Price swallowed heavily. The Light Company had the extreme right position of the regiment. They would be sealing the hole in the line with the 28th, and they would meet whoever was coming to break through that gap. And they would have to do it without Sharpe.

 Bugles blew, the flags were raised even straighter, and all along the line hearts beat faster. Then the bugles blew, sergeants bellowed, and the South Essex took their first step into the smoke.

 …

 Moncey came down in the bare snow. Sharpe threw the carabiners off and jumped off. “Where are they?” he shouted. “Have you brought me to the right place?” In the smoke and noise all the ground looked the same, and he couldn’t see through the dense clouds to see who his neighbours were.

 “This is the place. I know it is the place.”

 “God in heaven. They’re gone forward without me! Which way is the line?”

 Moncey pointed with his talon into the smoke. “That way. They must have gone that way.”

 Sharpe drew his sword. “Thank you. I will see you after.”

 “Good luck!” Moncey called after him. For a moment he stood motionless in the slush, wings drooping, watching Sharpe go. Then he collected himself and leaped into the air and away.

 Sharpe plunged forward. His company was facing hell in the smoke without him. They needed him, now. One battle was over, but another was about to begin. This was his battle, and this time, perhaps the last time, he would be in command.

Chapter Text

Darkness fell on the battlefield, with the British in possession of both hills, and the French bottled up in the city below. The dragons of the Aerial Corps lay exhausted, slumped like giant earthworms across the slopes. Both armies were dazed and exhausted, like punch-drunk boxers. Each was vulnerable, but neither was able to take advantage of the other’s weakness. The armies simply fell where they were, ignoring each other for the night.

 Sharpe’s company were settled near the summit of the Grand Teson, facing away from the city, sleeping if they could. The cries of the wounded and the movements around them disturbed few of them. Some had made tea, but most had simply collapsed, safe in the huge looming presence of the Aerial Corps all around. Sharpe strode up and down, seeing to his Company, settling problems, sending orders, noting and mourning in the silence of his heart the missing faces – here a drummer, gone; here the private with the sty in his left eye, gone; here a corporal, gone. He could distantly hear the officers of the other companies, moving about, shouting, matching his grim business. At last all seemed sorted, and he bullied a bottle of rum out of Price’s baggage, and walked forward in the dark.

 The gunners were hard at work already, setting their pieces for the walls a few hundred yards away. There was not a moment to lose. He could hear them at work, digging and dragging, and he could hear the city firing back, attempting to hamper the building of their emplacements before dawn. He walked away from the sounds.

 He came across Maximus first, lying flat, with the surgeons extracting bullets from his hide by lamplight. Beyond him lay Temeraire, enduring the same. He collared one of the Maximus’s crew who was outside that intense little circle, and asked, “Have you seen Moncey?”

 The woman pointed a bloody rag toward the rear, “Last I saw he was up there, sir.”

 “Thank you.”

 The infantry may have been able to collapse in sleep, but the men of the Aerial Corps had too much work to do. He would not interrupt such intimate business. He skirted the bustle, feeling himself an intruder among them, for the first time in a long while. He was ignored, generally, and allowed to weave his way through them.

 Beyond them, and in the grass along the road he had marched only that morning, he came across more night business. There were surgeons here too, working in tents, and the sound of screams. He shuddered and drew his greatcoat tighter around himself. His body hurt in every muscle from his fall, especially his shoulder, but he was glad he had no need of the surgeons tonight. He avoided a great pile of amputated limbs, piled carelessly on the verge, and walked on.

 He went further, and now he walked alone. In a low patch of land, filled with snow, and dark, he came across the black hump of a dragon.

 He stood for a moment, watching, listening to the hoarse breathing. He knew it was Moncey, although he could not have said how he knew. He stepped off the road into the wet slush, and squelched carefully across to the dragon.

 The Winchester’s form solidified out of the dark. Head here, wings curled there. Not coiled neatly, not lolling comfortably, but lying flat as if he had landed and simply collapsed onto his belly. Sharpe saw the long head lift, and then droop again.

“Go away,” Moncey whispered.

 “No,” Sharpe whispered back.

 He stepped closer, and knelt in the snow by Moncey’s head. The great slitted eyes were closed. Sharpe put his hand on Moncey’s horn.

 “I am so sorry.” The words were inadequate, but he had seen enough of war and death enough to know that no words were ever the right ones.

 “Forty years,” said Moncey after a long time in silence.

 “I know.”

 “My only mate.”

 “I know.”

 “My home ground was always where she was. I flew, but she was always behind me to go back to. Why do any of this, if she’s not …” Moncey sighed, shuddering. His breath clouded, and drifted away. Sharpe stroked the length of his jaw.

“When the war is over,” Moncey said, “we were going to take all our treasure, and we were going to fly around the world. We wanted to see China. She wanted to see China.”

 They sat in silence for a long time. Sharpe pulled the cork out of the bottle with his teeth, and took a long draught. “Have you had any bullets taken out?”

 “No.”

 “Tomorrow,” Sharpe promised him. “Tomorrow we will go and have the surgeon check you over.”

 “I don’t care.” Moncey still hadn’t opened his eyes. “I don’t care at all.”

 “I care,” Sharpe told him. He settled himself down in the snow alongside Moncey’s head. “Come here,” he said. He laid his legs alongside Moncey’s jaws, one arm curled under the dragon’s throat, and the other over Moncey’s muzzle. He leaned his body against the warm face, and rested his face on the dragon’s brow.

 Moncey sighed, a long gust. Slowly, his wing came up and curled itself over both of them. In silence, man and dragon mourned their dead.

Chapter Text

The next week there was no sign of Moncey.

 The morning after the battle the Winchester had had a dozen bullets taken out of his breast and belly. Sharpe had watched the operation, standing by Moncey’s head. He had stroked the hard bony brow, not restraining but soothing, as the surgeon probed deep. Moncey growled throughout, and twice yanked his head away from Sharpe to glare at the doctor with bared teeth and slitted eyes, but the man seemed used to being threatened by his big patients and each time Moncey had grumbled and brought his head back to Sharpe for more stroking. Sharpe noted the pattern of bullet holes, and realized that had Moncey not rolled at the exact moment the French fired, at least two of the balls would have gone into Sharpe instead.

“Right,” the surgeon said at last. “A round dozen, all out. Now, no flying for a week.”

“No flying,” Sharpe agreed, walking with the surgeon.

 “…And if you see any sign of swelling up or of pus, you’ll – What the hell is he doing?”

 Sharpe had heard the heave of Moncey taking off behind them, and spun around in time to see the Winchester beating his wings for height. The surgeon squalled, but Moncey had gone.

 He had been seen flying south, but he had sent no word to say where he was going. Hogan quizzed Sharpe, but Sharpe knew no more than anyone else. For all he knew the dragon was going back to Wales.

 The war took a brief lull, then, as both armies sat down to watch each other over Ciudad Rodrigo’s walls. The rear base was no single place. It was strung out along the road toward the city, and all the little towns along the road were thronged, day and night, by marching soldiers, supplies, wagons, guns, and a horde of miscellaneous loiterers who had followed the army. The French were bottled up in the hilltop fortress, and the British could flow around them like a sea.

 Ciudad Rodrigo waited. Guarded by the British and Spanish, pounded by the siege cannons from the Grand Teson, and surrounded by dragons, no-one now could go in or out of the city.

 Day by day, the trenches advanced across the frozen ground. The first parallel ran across the hill, and the second started on the other side of the river. The men dug, a division at a time, a thousand men crossing the river each day before dawn with their food already cooked, and staying at the work until the night became too cold and dark to continue. The Aerial Corps attempted to bomb the city, but the great guns on the walls drove them off. The great siege guns blasted away at the walls, hour after hour, day after day, until it was too dark to see.

 Ciudad Rodrigo would have to be taken the hard way, by the infantry. The artillery would help them, sweating over their guns, in shirt sleeves despite the cold. The Engineers would help them, planning and mapping, and the Aerial Corps would help them, patrolling and watching the fall of shot and reporting on what they saw, but no one could open those walls except the infantry.  The city would have to be taken by storm. Rumour had it that the people still inside the walls were pro-French, and the simmering tension in the army began to heat into anger. Rumour also claimed that the 10 000 Frenchmen who had marched south to Valencia, lured by the lies fed to them by Moncey, had turned back and were marching to relieve Ciudad Rodrigo. One way or another, this had to be over before the French got here. The anger was leavened with the need for hurry, and the dough began to rise.

 Sharpe had accepted that he would keep the Light Company until the new man, Captain Rymer, showed up. He hoped that Rymer wouldn’t come. He dreamed at night that Rymer had been lost at sea, fell down a deep hole, broke his neck in a fall off his horse, but he kept these spiteful hopes to himself. He wouldn’t poison the Company’s minds against their new commander.

 The other officers avoided him warily, at first, but Lawford, as usual, paid no attention to Sharpe’s glowering resentment. He simply organised the grumpy Rifleman back to the mess, and ignored Sharpe’s attempts to sit in gloomy silence. After the first week, under Lawford’s irrepressible optimism, Sharpe found his affronted rage had dissipated into a deep gloom. Lawford tried to discuss a temporary post of quartermaster, but Sharpe had nothing to say, and Lawford gave up trying to achieve a willing consensus and simply ordered Sharpe to take up the post. So Sharpe would be a quartermaster again. At least under Lawford the idea was less objectionable than it might have been.

 He began to take mental notes of things he might, if the new captain listened, warn Rymer about – that Price was always as drunk as that but unless he was given the opportunity for a celebration he would always turn up for duty; that Private Batten needed a regular kicking just to keep him polite; and that Hagman was a dead shot but since he was old enough to be Sharpe’s father (although he probably wasn’t since he’d never been to London), he occasionally needed a little assistance on the march.

 One dry cold afternoon saw Sharpe standing in the first parallel trench, not far from a newly placed siege battery, elbows on the top, gazing up at a Greyling which circled high above the siege through his telescope. Captain Knowles stood beside him, gazing through his own telescope. They were out of range of the muskets from the walls, but not of the big guns.

 Knowles had a company of his own now, in a Fusilier regiment. He was a captain in truth, which stung, but Sharpe was glad he was here. He had taught Knowles all he knew of war, and the younger man still occasionally caught himself calling his old commander ‘sir.’ Sharpe pretended not to notice.

 Sharpe could see through his telescope the route he and Moncey had flown on their wild escape from the city, but he could not see into the ditch itself because of the long snowy glacis before it. He couldn’t see the base of the wall either, but he knew the great guns were battering a breach into it.  The rubble had to be building up in the ditch beneath the wall, slowly accumulating into a great ramp that men could scramble up.

 The gun behind them barked, gouting smoke. They couldn’t see the ball travelling, except as the slightest dark streak against the cloud as it reached the zenith of its flight. It disappeared behind the fortifications.

 Sharpe twitched his telescope up, used his other eye to find the Greyling, and matched it through the lens until it popped into view. He was in time to see a long flexible rod swing out from the dragon’s shoulder, and a flag flickered out on the end.

 “Fell over! Two hundred yards!” he heard the artillery ensign scream. The massive shot must have fallen clear over the wall, and come down in the city itself. The artillery men went to work, recalculating, while the gun’s crew laboured their huge gun back into position.

 The fortress’s gunners had by now cottoned on to what the Greyling was doing, and all along the wall smoke bloomed. The bangs of the guns reached them a moment later.

 “Move, damn you, or they’ll shoot you down,” muttered Knowles. His eye was glued to his own telescope.

 “He knows what he’s doing.”

 A second later there was another blooming of smoke around the little dragon, as the shells exploded in mid air. The cloud blocked the dragon from view entirely, and Sharpe’s breath caught in his throat. Surely the dragon had been bracketed by the shot? But a few breaths later, the dragon sailed clear of the drifting smoke, flicking its wings cheekily in defiance. The shot must have exploded below it. Someone in the gun’s crew cheered.

 “Are the rumours true?” Knowles asked. “That you’re thinking of joining the Aerial Corps?”

 Sharpe swore. “It doesn’t bloody matter any more, does it? He’s flown away and nobody knows where he is.”

 “If he comes back, will you go then?”

 “I don’t know.”

 “Don’t. You’re too good at what you do.”

 “That’s as may be, but nobody told Horse Guards that.”

 They had to stop talking as the siege gun fired again, and again they watched the Greyling respond. When the ringing in their ears stopped, Knowles spoke. “Someone told me the White Witch isn’t there.”

 “It’s true. Nobody’s seen hide nor hair of her since we got here.”

 “Maybe she’s been keeping her head down?”

 “No. If she was in there, someone would have spotted her. She’s a bit distinctive. Someone told me she’s been led to believe this is a feint, and the real attack is going to be Badajoz. She's probably there.” News had reached them, from deserters and the Spanish, that the white dragon had cleaned herself of her brown dye, in the realization that her subterfuge had been discovered, and flown away to the south. Sharpe found himself examining the walls just in case she appeared over them, and made himself stop. “The White Witch?”

 “That’s what the Spanish call her. The name’s stuck.”

 “Suits her.”

 “You met her, didn’t you?” Knowles asked.

 “I didn’t meet her as much as see her close up. She frightened the hell out of me.”

 “That’s a distinction, frightening you. Still, never fret, she’s not here.”

 “I’d be happier if I thought she was here, not out there somewhere causing God-knows-what mischief,” Sharpe grumbled. “Trust me, Robert, we’ll have to bring her down eventually, and on that day I hope I’m somewhere else.”

 “Well, that’s a battle for another day,” Knowles said, reasonably. “First we have to get in there.”

 ….

 Teresa rode in, at the head of her party of guerillas. They had been riding with Don Julian Sanchez since he had seen her last. Her men peeled off to go set up their own camp. Her second in command gave Sharpe a weary nod of greeting as he rode off, entrusting La Aguja to her Englishman for the night.

 It was too cold to cuddle, and there was nowhere private they could go anyway. They sat together under both cloaks, talking. Sharpe told her about his commission, about the battle, about Moncey. Teresa told him about Badajoz and their daughter.

 “Moncey has strong wings,” Teresa told him. “Wherever you are you will be able to fly to see us. Instead of marching away and never coming back.”

 “You’re forgetting he has already said he won’t have me,” Sharpe pointed out.

 She shrugged. “Why not? He likes you, you like him. You like to fly. And you are both welcome in Spain. You have friends here. Antonia will have a father.”

 “Antonia will have a dowry.”

 “Antonia will want a father more than a dowry.” There was no doubt in her voice at all. “The war will not last forever, and when it is over there will be enough space in the Estramadura for an Englishman and an English dragon both. Our daughter will learn to fly too.”

 …..

 Lawford liked to hold councils. He felt it was a good idea to get all his officers together once in a while so that they could all reconnect with each other, and since he was the Colonel his officers obligingly 'reconnected' with the men they saw all day every day. Today he had all his senior officers arranged around a table that barely fitted inside the canvas sides of the tent. They were setting out a roster for which companies got to dig on their division’s day, and which lucky company got to spend that day guarding the others.

 Ensign Phyfer of the Grenadier company stooped under the tent flap, and rapped his knuckles on the tent pole. The boy’s hand was still so small his rapping was barely audible.

 “Yes, Phyfer?” Lawford asked, lifting his head from the papers on the table. All the other officers, including Sharpe, swung their eyes to the relief from boredom the young Ensign represented.

 “Beg pardon, sir, but a message from headquarters just arrived, sir.” The boy’s eyes were rather wide at speaking aloud with a whole tent of his superiors listening.

 “Well, what is it?” Lawford snapped. “Out with it, lad, if you carry a message you must not be shy to deliver it.”

 “Yes, sir. The Duke’s compliments, sir, and he wants to see Captain Sharpe. Sir.”

 Sharpe found the concentrated stare of his fellows now turned on himself. “I don’t have any idea,” he said, before anyone could ask what he’d done this time. He pushed his chair back and stood. “Permission to be excused, sir?”

 “Go, go,” Lawford urged, waving his hand at Sharpe, “and give him my very warmest compliments, would you?”

 “Yes, sir,” Sharpe said, and ducked under the tent flap and left.

 What did the general want with him? He wasn’t even a captain anymore, he held onto his title only at Lawford’s sufferance, and only until Rymer turned up. Maybe the general had a mission for him? Maybe Temeraire had a mission for him?

 He had hardly spoken to any dragons since Moncey had left, although he had seen them from a distance. Temeraire had asked after him, but a twenty-ton dragon was surprisingly easy to avoid socially, and they had all been busy. He couldn’t think of anything Wellington might need him for in the middle of a desperate siege.

 The speculation lasted him all the way to Wellington’s headquarters. The general had managed to find an intact house for his general staff. Sharpe went in through the front door, and was met by a wall of warmth that engulfed his face like a welcoming glove. He sighed, and closed his eyes with sheer pleasure at the sensation of being warm.

 “Sir?” a voice asked.

 He opened his eyes reluctantly, to see one of Wellington’s sprightly aristocratic aides in front of him.

 “I have an appointment with his Lordship,” he told the young man, benevolent with warmth.

 “Ah, of course, Captain Sharpe, is it? This way, sir, if you please.”

 To Sharpe’s disappointment, the aide led him, not to a warm office, but straight through the house and out of the back door, through the stable yard and into the stable itself.

 The Duke stood, hands behind his back, observing a farrier working over a fine bay charger.

 “Captain Sharpe, sir,” the aide announced.

 “Thank you, Fitzroy,” Wellington said, turning his head to glance at Sharpe, and then looking back at the farrier. The farrier, head down, ignored them both. He held the horse’s hind leg between his thighs, and was rasping rhythmically back and forth.

 “Sir,” said Sharpe, and stiffened to attention. “Reporting as ordered, sir.”

 “Stand easy, Sharpe. I understand you’ve been having some difficulty holding on to your captaincy.”

 Hogan must have spoken to him. “Yes sir,” Sharpe agreed.

 The farrier, still head-down, set his rasp down and reached for his knife, and the horse, sensing his inattention, made a subtle attempt to slide his leg out from the man’s grasp. The farrier picked up the knife, grasped the leg by the fetlock, and hauled it unceremoniously back into position. The horse sighed.

 “Good horse,” Wellington said. “Thinking of buying him.”

 “Yes sir,” Sharpe said. He wasn’t sure if the general intended him to examine the horse, or merely to look at it.

 “I also understand that you have had some difficulty holding on to your dragon.”

 “He’s not my dragon, sir,” Sharpe said.

 Wellington sighed, just like the horse. “Don’t be obtuse, Sharpe. You have lost your army captaincy, and gained an Aerial corps one with his name on it. That makes him your dragon.”

 “Yes, sir,” Sharpe agreed. “I’m working on rectifying that, sir. You can rely on that, sir.”

 Wellington turned to him, and his eyebrows slid up. “Rectify it?” he said. “You’ll do nothing of the sort!”

 “Yes, sir,” Sharpe said, astonished. “You want me to keep the captaincy, sir?”

 “Of course I do! What did you expect, that I would insist on you giving him up?”

 “Er,” Sharpe wavered, “Yes, sir.”

 “Nonsense. You are very advantageously placed, Sharpe. Usefully placed. I want a man I can trust, keeping an eye on what that Jacobin Temeraire is up to.”

 “Thank you, sir.” Sharpe’s mind was reeling. Wellington wanted him to keep Moncey?

 “And I will confide in you, Sharpe, that there is more than simple expediency involved. Did you know that the dragon Requiescat has been telling everyone that he brought down a Petit Chevalier, in the battle for the Grand Teson?”

 “I heard something of the sort, sir.”

 Wellington stroked his chin. “The Chevalier was certainly lying there with his throat cut. And his captain was lying on his back with a great big bullet hole in his back. Very odd, don’t you think?”

 “Very odd, sir,” Sharpe agreed. He kept his face carefully blank. Did the man really know everything that happened in his army?

 “Requiescat says he brought down the Petit Chevalier, but apparently one of the Turkish ferals says she saw him engaged with a Winchester. One lone Winchester, she said, bouncing around like a lunatic.”

 “There are a lot of Winchesters, sir.”

 “Ah, that is true, but then this was discovered.”

 Wellington stepped away. Sharpe hesitated, then seeing the general keep going, followed him to the back of the stable.

 The general picked up the corner of the piece of canvas that hung down from the stable wall, and whisked it aside. In one sweep of his arm he uncovered what lay beneath sufficiently for Sharpe to recognise it. It was a giant-size scythe. The blade had been cleaned and sharpened, but there were deep nicks along its edge, and the handle was stained with something dark. Behind them, the horse threw its head up with fright at the smell. “Do you recognise this?”

 “That’s Moncey’s scythe,” Sharpe said. “I wondered where it had got to.”

 “The Petit Chevalier had it stuck in his cervical vertebrae. I don’t suppose you know how it came to be there, Captain Sharpe?”

 “Can’t explain it, sir.”

 “Then I’ll explain it for you. Moncey put it there, with your help. Don’t deny it, Sharpe. I know it, even if no-one else believes it. It’s impossible, Sharpe, quite impossible. Beyond belief.”

 “Quite so, sir,” Sharpe said, with feeling. He’d been there, and he still found it hard to believe.

 “And this is the second time!”

 “So they say, sir.”

 “Winchesters aren’t supposed to bring down heavyweights once, never mind twice.

"Moncey is not a Winchester, sir. He's half Widowmaker."

"Don't be coy, Sharpe.  He is the second-smallest dragon in the Aerial Corps! Only Gherni is smaller!"

"Yes, sir." He wondered how Wellington knew that. 

"If he goes around trying to duplicate that feat, it’ll be the end of him. It was a fluke, a lucky shot. It was a Plunkett-and-Colbert shot.”

 “Yes, sir.” He stood bemused. He didn’t think Wellington had ever said so much to him directly in all the years he had served under him. The man was speaking with more passion than Sharpe had ever seen in him.

 “We can’t have that, Sharpe, can’t have that. That would be a waste. God knows, I wasn’t happy when you first started flying with him. He’s valuable, Sharpe, as valuable as Colquhoun Grant. And just as devil-may-care, unfortunately. He does what he does because he feels like it, damn his eyes.”

 “Yes, sir.”

 “And as it happens, what he feels like is you. So. Take charge of him, Sharpe. Impress on him the importance of staying within the limits of the militarily possible, eh? You’ll be preserving a very valuable dragon for His Majesty. There aren't many men as valuable as Colquhoun Grant, and there certainly is only one dragon of that calibre!”

 “Yes, sir.”

 “Now, I would not have imagined that you would get as high as you have, but here we are. A switch to a more appropriate service will surely suit you very well, much better than the army. So, Sharpe, take my advice. Take the captaincy, and take command of this very important dragon for me.”

 Sharpe remembered the battle for the Grand Teson, and the moment he realized that he was merely a passenger caught up in Moncey’s quest for vengeance, carried along for the ride. Take command? He doubted anyone would ever be able to take command of Moncey.

“Yes, sir,” he said anyway.

 “Capital.” The general rubbed his hands together. “He’s very intelligent, for a beast, and I’ve not a doubt in the world your command will be a successful one.”

 “Thank you sir,” Sharpe said. He felt he had just been given a fishing net, and told to catch a swarm of bees for the King. How the hell was he going to avoid angering either Moncey or Wellington?

 “I know in time you’ll come to thank me for the encouragement, Sharpe. There are great compensations for joining the Aerial Corps, you know. Chief among them is of course the company of dragons themselves. This is a factor not to be underestimated.”

 Wellington’s voice had taken on a tone Sharpe had never heard in it before. He realized the general was gazing down his nose at him with a peculiarly paternal expression. Good grief, was the cold bastard unbending at last, after all these years? For the second time in two minutes he felt the borders of his world shifting. He realized he was gaping stupidly.

“Yes, sir,” he agreed cautiously. “I’ve found dragons to be very agreeable, so far.”

 Wellington smiled at him, rather stiffly. “Excellent. I might have known you and I would have something in common. When you see Moncey again, please do pass on to him my compliments. Please inform him that Perscitia is in excellent health, and is enjoying life at Dangan Castle tremendously. Kitty says she has quite taken the place over.”

 “Yes, sir.”

 “They do have a way of taking over one’s life, you know. And one's Army. And one’s wife. And one's ancestral home, but you’ll find you don’t really mind.”

 With that he gave Sharpe another very strange smile, a brisk nod, and strode away. The interview was clearly over.

Chapter Text

Sharpe walked back to the South Essex, bemused. Lawford was waiting for him at the picket line that had been pitched discreetly upwind of the dragons. “Well?” the Colonel asked.

 “Very well, thank you, sir,” said Sharpe, grinning.

 Lawford frowned, not to be put off. “You know perfectly well what I meant, man. What did the General want with you?”

 “I don’t know how to say, sir. It was the strangest meeting with him I’ve ever had. And that includes dragging him out from under cavalry by the scruff of his neck. Who is Perscitia?”

 “I don’t know.”

 “Ah, well, someone will know. Bugger if he wasn’t actually smiling at me. It was downright disturbing.” Sharpe began walking back to the officer’s campfire.

 “Smiling at you? What’s so odd about that? He does smile occasionally, you know.” Lawford fell in alongside Sharpe, and the two men strolled in step.

 “Not at me, he doesn’t. He sucks on lemons when he hears I’m coming, so he does.”

 “What did he say? I take it he doesn’t want to send you on another hare-brained mission.”

 “He wants me to be Moncey’s captain. He seems to be happy about it! He seems to think I’ll be a sort of spy for him, in Temeraire’s camp. Can you imagine that? Me?”

 Lawford had stopped dead. “He what?”

 “He seems to think I’ll be able to control Moncey! As if Boney himself could control that one! And he’s got Moncey’s scythe. He knows I flew away with him before the Grand Teson, and what we did up there. How the hell does he always know?” Sharpe shook his head, with the growing realization of how deeply muddled his life had become, and noticed that Lawford was no longer at his side.

He turned, to see Lawford behind him, staring at him with an expression of outrage.

 “Sir?” Sharpe asked.

 “Wellington said – he wants you to be Moncey’s captain?” Lawford asked, in a choked voice.

 Sharpe nodded, puzzled by his Colonel’s behaviour. “He sounded in favour of dragons in general, to be honest, sir. I must find out who this Perscitia is.”

 “Oh, that sneaky worm,” Lawford gritted. He threw his head back and snarled at the sky. “Oh, the sneaky underhanded Irish crook.”

 “Who?” Sharpe asked. It had been a very melodramatic gesture, for the usually-serene Lawford.

 “Major Hogan! He came around, weeks ago, hinting and sliding that the general didn’t want you to become Moncey’s captain. You must not become Moncey's captain! At all costs, the man said.”

“He did?” Sharpe said. He scratched his head. “Maybe Wellington changed his mind, eh?”

 “Richard, it was all a humbug! Hogan just didn’t want to lose his precious spy, that’s all. And he made me promise to prevent you becoming Moncey’s captain. Threatened me, in fact, in Wellington’s name.”

 “And meantime, back-at-the-farm, the General knew nothing about it.” Many things suddenly fitted together in Sharpe’s memory. “Hogan was rather put out when we pitched up in Freineda together,” he said, “and he’s made a point of separating us whenever he can.”

 Lawford turned to him and gripped his arm. “Richard, this puts a whole different complexion on the advice I feel able to give you. All this time I have been keeping my silence, believing I was doing my duty, but now I am going to tell you my true opinion.”

 “All right,” Sharpe agreed. “Let’s have it.”

 Lawford took a firmer grasp on Sharpe’s shoulder, and stepped closer. He lowered his voice so that his words couldn’t be overheard by the soldiers around the nearest fire. “Richard, you know I care for you as I would a brother.”

 “Aye, I know: a big ugly uneducated bastard of a brother,” Sharpe agreed, lightly, startled by Lawford’s intensity.

 “Nevertheless. You know I would like to keep you with me. And … you know I would provide for you financially, if you had ever asked -.”

 “I wouldn’t ask!” Sharpe said, indignantly.

 “I know that! Nor would I offer it!” Lawford’s eyes were intense, and he moved his lips, trying to choose his words with precision. “The point is, I would want to keep you with me, but in this case, I would be selfish to try. I can’t deprive you of this opportunity. I can’t not encourage to you grab your chance with both hands.”

 “William,” Sharpe began.

 “No, let me finish.” Lawford held up a rebuking finger and poked it into Sharpe’s chest. “You, sir, have the chance to secure a position that will last you the rest of your life. Not just the rest of the war, Richard; for life. Security, pay, a home to go to, all of that. Wars end, Richard, and then where will you be?”

 “I know that,” Sharpe huffed.

 “And besides - you’ll fit, in the Aerial Corps. You already fit in there, more than you have ever fit in the officer’s mess.”

 “That’s never stopped me before,” Sharpe said.

 “I know, and it’s one of the things I have always found admirable in you, but I can see perfectly well you’re awkward in the mess, and you’re not at all awkward with the Aerial Corps. You’ll fit right in as if you were born to it. I’ll miss you, but you’ll be happy there, and I do want to see you happy, Richard.”

 Sharpe found that he couldn’t look at the bare emotion of Lawford’s face any longer, and so he shifted his gaze over the Colonel’s shoulder to stare at the summit of the Grand Teson.

“It’s a moot point, William,” he said, regretfully. “Moncey won’t have me. It’s his decision, as much as mine.”

 Lawford let his pointing finger fall back to his side. “Promise me,” he said, “that if he changes his mind, you’ll take him on.”

 “I can’t promise anything. I don’t know myself.” Sharpe looked back at Lawford, and smiled wryly. “I don’t want to leave the South Essex, either.”

 “It would be the most advantageous course of action,” Lawford said, “the most rational choice.” His intensity had faded again, now he gazed at Sharpe with a rather sombre expression.

 “As you say, William, I must look to my own happiness.”

 Lawford shook his head. “I hope that you decide wisely, Richard, I really do.”

 “You can count on it, I will.”

 ….

 The week after that brought worse weather, and it brought death to a few who were simply unable to bear the biting cold in the open.

 That week brought more rubble down the side of the wall into the ditch. It brought a tension in the army, which knew the city would have to be stormed soon. It would have to be soon. The French were coming. Lien had to know that the attack on Ciudad Rodrigo was no feint by now, and the missing dragons and the ten thousand men were sure to be on their way back to relieve the city.

 One morning in the week brought fog, and Sharpe and some of the other rifle officers led their men into the dead ground between the trenches and the walls, and they lay hidden all day picking off French gunners with their rifles, until the night came and the cold drove them away again. It was a chance for Sharpe to get to know his newly acquired rifle, the replacement for the one that had been smashed to smithereens in the battle for the Grand Teson.

 Two days after that, Moncey returned.

 The little Winchester had landed well behind the gun emplacements. He didn’t like the noise of them. Sharpe walked to see him after dark.

 “Hello,” he said, coming to a stop. He tried to see the dragon’s injuries, but it was too dark.

 Moncey picked up his head, and gazed at him for a long time. “Hello,” he said.

 “I hope you don’t mind that I came to see you. I thought you might like the company.”

 “I don’t mind it.”

 They looked at each other for a while. “Come here,” Moncey said, and raised his wing for Sharpe to take up his usual place under it. He leaned back against the high, warm shoulder. The night was quiet, the great guns having stopped in the dark, and he could hear Moncey’s slow breathing, and smell the dragon’s familiar smell.

“I didn’t think you’d be coming back,” Sharpe said, when he had begun to warm up slightly against the dragon’s body.

 “I didn’t think so either, old boy. Somehow I seem to keep coming back to you anyway.”

 “I’m glad.” He stroked Moncey’s side. “I’ve missed you, you big bugger.”

 They stood in silence. For Sharpe it was the most peaceful silence he had had in what seemed like years. He didn’t want to break this silence. Mentioning the strife of his commission, and the siege, and the death of Laculla would raise the walls of hurt between them all over again. For now he just wanted to savour the presence of Moncey, together again, as they had been before Christmas. It had all been so very simple before Christmas.

 “I have a book for you,” Moncey said, offhandedly.

 “A book?” Sharpe said. “I don’t read much.”

 “I know. Temeraire recommended this one for you, and I found it weeks ago, but the last time I saw you…” His voice drifted away. “It is in my pouch.”

 Sharpe came out from under the wing and felt for the pouch. The book was leather-bound and heavy in his hands. “I can’t see enough to read the title,” he said, apologetically.

 “I told Temeraire you liked stars, but you didn’t know much about them, so he recommended that one.”

 Sharpe looked up at the long head, staring off above him at the sky as if the clouds held great meaning. “Thank you,” he said, touched, “and tell Temeraire thank you, too.”

 Moncey didn’t reply, but he raised his wing again, and Sharpe went back under it. He put the book under his arm, and took out his telescope. Jupiter was out, and Sharpe stared at it through the glass for a while. He wondered idly if there was anything on Jupiter looking back.

 “I got it from Valencia, when I was having my little holiday.”

 “Valencia? That’s where you went!” Sharpe sat up straight. “Hogan said you flew away and vanished.”

 “I joined Blake, just in time to see Suchet wipe the floor with him. At least it’s nice and warm down there this time of year. It did me the world of good, just to fly around and break things.” He sighed.

 Sharpe could understand that. He himself tended to grieve with tears, and by falling into a deep depression, but he could well believe that Moncey, unable to weep, might vent his grief by giving battle. He stood in silence for a while longer.

 “By the way, since you left, Requiescat has been telling everyone he brought that dragon down” Sharpe told him.

 Moncey shrugged his shoulders. “Doesn’t matter. It makes things a little bit uncomfortable, when the big fellows know you’re capable of bringing one of them down. It’s one thing to be a wild beast at heart, it’s quite another for everyone else to think so.”

 “You brought down a Grand Chevalier down, before.”

 Moncey turned back again to Sharpe, his eyes narrowed. “The truth? That was an accident. And I only told people about it because I thought it would get me a bit of notice. Instead everyone stared at me like I’d grown an extra pair of wings. I don’t much care for people staring and pointing fingers.”

 “Me neither,” Sharpe said. “How did you bring down a dragon that big by accident?” If the Petit Chevalier was out of Moncey’s class as an opponent, a Grand was even more so.  Moncey was tiny enough to ride on top of a Grand’s head, never mind land on his back.

 “I ran, he pursued. We flew into a storm over the Bay of Biscay. When I felt the static building up, I dropped. He didn’t have time, or maybe he didn’t recognise the signs. Anyway, long story short: he was struck by lightning. Fell into the sea. Drowned, with all his crew.”

 “Good God.”

 “And I’m so tired of people asking about it, Richard; about as tired as you are of being The Hero of the Field at Talavera.” He gave the words a theatrical emphasis.

 “I’ll keep it to myself,” Sharpe promised.

 There was a rustle of wings. “I have been speaking to a lot of dragons,” Moncey said, at length.

 “Oh, really?”

 “Mostly Temeraire, I’ll admit, but what he says is borne out by others.”

 “What does he say?” Sharpe lowered his telescope and looked over at Moncey’s face. He couldn’t see the dragon’s expression.

 “Well, most of it is mere hyperbole. Most harnessed dragons are completely off their rockers when it comes to their captains. I don’t think I could be. I think being the age that I am, and the breed that I am, has entirely inoculated me against thinking that any one human being is all that wonderful. Some dragons, Temeraire included, say that a good captain is the finest treasure anyone can ever have. Don’t know about that myself.”

 “I can vouch for the fact that I’m not made out of gold.”

 “I can vouch for the fact that you bloody weigh like you were made out of gold.” Moncey sniffed. “Anyway, he says that life with a captain is much more interesting than life without. He also says that some dragons have captains, some dragons don’t, and some dragons just have human beings that they allow to think are their captains.”

 Sharpe found himself smiling at the thought. “You think that Laurence only thinks he is Temeraire’s captain?”

 “I think that Temeraire would rather let himself be run over by stampeding centipedes than admit it, but actually, yes, old fellow. Haven’t you noticed, these days, Temeraire gives the orders, and Laurence just transmits them?”

 Sharpe could hear the old Moncey humour had come back in his voice. “Doesn’t seem to cause them any problems, though. What else?”

 “If, hypothetically speaking, I publically took a person as my captain, all I’d have to do is say that such-and-such person is my captain. That’s all. Doesn’t necessarily mean I’d have to cart that person around all the time. Doesn’t mean I’d have to take orders. If a dragons points to a fellow and says, Right-o, I'll have that green fellow over there - well, that’s that. He is that dragon’s captain, and nobody interferes between a dragon and a captain.”

 “I see.”

 “Especially since the person I’m hypothetically talking about would have a commission with a more recent date on it than my own. I would outrank him. He’d be taking orders from me. I’m a captain in my own right after all, you know.”

 “You are. And you have your own money, too.”

 “True. I am a dragon of independent means. Anyway. I did a lot of thinking, in Valencia. I thunk, and I thunk. Have you ever thought about what you’ll do after the war?”

 “Find another war,” said Sharpe, shortly. “It’s my trade. I can’t go back to burgling houses, and I don’t know what else I’d do. Or I might stay in Spain – there’s nothing in England for me. Haven’t thought about it, much. I’ve been a soldier so long I can’t remember what peace was like.”

 “I have been thinking about peace. Everything is different now. I have lost my mate. Nothing to go back to the breeding grounds for, ever again. I don’t think I’ll ever take another mate, either. I thought maybe I’d end up flying around the world all on my own, the way I flew on my own when I was a hatchling. But actually, you know, I don’t want to do that either. Too lonely.”

 “You get paid, nowadays,” Sharpe pointed out. “You could keep on as you have been. Maybe go into business on your own account.”

 “Do you really believe that the government will keep all their promises? Temeraire does, but Temeraire is young, and frankly in some ways he is a little naïve. No. As soon as the war is over, they’ll start making excuses and nibbling away at their promises, and we’ll all end up right back where we started. No, I’m away from Britain when the war ends.”

 “You’re almost as cynical as Major Hogan,” Sharpe told him.

 “Thank you. Anyway, I don’t believe there will be any real changes. Can’t go back to where I was, either. Not without Laculla. And, Richard, the more I thought about it, the more I realized, I have become bored. I am bored with flying alone, bored with the breeding grounds. I want to do something different with the rest of my life. I want to fly, Richard, as far as any dragon has gone before, but I want to have someone around to share it with. I thought that would be Laculla, but…”

 His voice petered out.

 “Are you working your way up to asking me to be your captain?”

 There was a long silence.

 “Well, no.”

 “No?”

 “What I mean to say is, if you had wanted to be my captain, if … and if it was really important … then I might say yes. It doesn’t seem to be that bad.”

 “Oh.”

“We can pretend I didn’t mention it,” Moncey said, after a while. “Keep it between the two of us. No-one has to know. It’s a big change. Very big decision.”

 There was another long silence.

 “I don’t know. I’ve been thinking about it too.”

 “We can always change our minds later, if we start getting on each other’s nerves.”

 “Yes, I know. It’s not only me I have to think about, you see.”

 “I know. You have responsibilities.” Moncey shifted himself more comfortably on the ground.

 “I’ll think about it,” Sharpe said. “After we get in there. We can talk about it then.”

 “We can do that. After you get in there.”

Chapter Text

Sharpe stood between Laurence and Temeraire, and asked the dragon, “Sir, is there anywhere we may go to talk privately?”

 Temeraire looked astonished. “Is there something you can’t speak about in front of Laurence and Captain Granby?”

 “Yes, sir, there is. I want to ask your opinion. As a friend and not as an officer.”

 Laurence patted his shoulder. “Well, Temeraire can carry you away a few yards. We will wait here. Granby, I have some biscuits, would you care for some?”

 Temeraire put his hand out, frowning slightly, and Sharpe stepped into the circle of talons. Temeraire didn’t put him up on his back. Instead he held Sharpe in his hand, gently as a flower, and launched himself off three legs. He glided to a gentle landing, a few hundred yards down the hill, and set his hand back on the ground again. Sharpe stepped out, a little breathless. Temeraire gazed down at Sharpe. “Now, I am sure I can guess what you want to ask me,” Temeraire said. “You are still wondering whether to go away with Moncey, or to stay with the South Essex.”

 “I don’t know which to choose. I like Moncey. I enjoy flying with him. I’m good at it, sir, and other than fighting there’s not much else I’m good at. At the same time, the South Essex – they’re dear to my heart, sir. I’ve been with my company two and half years, and I’ve trained them, and I’ve watched them turn into the best troops in the army. I don’t want to lose them, but I don’t want to lose Moncey either. I’m – well, sir, I’m stuck.”

 “I see,” Temeraire said.

 “Yes, sir.” Sharpe waited. They had this stretch of snowy field all to themselves. The infantry had all begun to edge away when Temeraire landed, and Sharpe was grateful for the incidental privacy.

 “You could always fly with Moncey part of the time, and stay with the South Essex when he is away,” Temeraire said, in the tone of a devil’s advocate.

 Sharpe pursed his lips, and shook his head. “On the day of the battle, I realized something. I can’t be in two places at once. I flew off with Moncey, I admit it, and while I was up there my company went into battle without me. Even if they only have me working as a quartermaster, sir, I can’t do two jobs and do them both properly. If I stay in the South Essex, it wouldn’t be fair to them to be flying off all the time if there’s fighting to be done. And I don’t want to leave the South Essex, sir.” He gazed up at Temeraire, despairing. “They’re my men. I love them, sir.”

 “There’s no reason you can’t be his ground crew, instead of his captain. He needs someone to write his letters, manage his accounts, make his maps. He certainly doesn’t need a commanding officer.”

 “I still can’t command infantry, and be Moncey’s crew, at the same time. I’d neglect him, or I’d neglect them, and they both deserve better.” Sharpe was aware of a note of despair in his own voice.

Temeraire scratched the underside of his jaw with a talon, thoughtfully. “We both know Moncey is worth a score of couriers to the war, and he works best alone, but it also isn’t right for a dragon to be alone all the time. Especially since Laculla died.”

 Sharpe stared up at Temeraire. He attempted to use his usual trick of staring slightly above his commander’s line of sight, but the huge size of Temeraire’s eyes compelled him to abandon the ploy. He simply stared into the blue irises, and Temeraire stared back.

 “Are you speaking as a dragon, or as an Aerial Corps officer?”

 “I was speaking as a commanding officer, but now let me speak as a dragon. Having a human companion is better than the finest treasure."

"Moncey said you had said that."

"And I will say it again. Treasure doesn’t touch you, or trust you, or talk to you. Treasure doesn’t sit up and read to you at night, even though he doesn’t really understand the book he is reading. Look at Laurence, over there.”

 Sharpe turned to look. Laurence and Granby were standing, both helping themselves to biscuits from the paper in Laurence’s hand.

 “I know, in my mind, that in his essence he is but a man, among millions of men, but he is the one my heart echoes to. He, and he alone. His shape is permanently etched into my vision of what is home. If there is the slightest chance that Moncey may have the kind of happiness in your company that I have in Laurence’s, then I urge you to choose him.”

 Sharpe sighed. “I know that, sir. If it weren’t for the war, I would choose him, in a heartbeat. But I love my men too, sir. I love them all. The idea of never being among them again is tearing me in half. I can’t abandon them in the middle of a war to fly off with Moncey, not even for my own happiness sake.”

 “There is not enough of you to go around,” Temeraire said, sadly. “You cannot choose the one, without thinking that you are cheating the other.”

 “Exactly.”

 “And you want me to tell you which to choose, because you cannot bear to choose yourself.”

 “I have asked everyone whose opinions I care about, and all they do is make me more confused. Moncey says he will take me, or leave me. He has left the choice to me.” Sharpe found, to his embarrassment, that there were tears in his eyes. He refused to brush them away, which would draw attention to them. Instead he simply blinked, and looked around to distract himself from them.

 There was a long silence. Granby and Laurence continued their conversation, but it looked as if their stock of small talk was running out. Both officers were glancing down the hill to where Temeraire and Sharpe stood.

 At length, Temeraire sighed, and shook himself, and then sat down in the snow as if he had come to a decision. “Well, enough of the mawkish sentiment. I am left with only one rational recourse.” His voice had grown firm, no longer gently confiding. “This is my decision. You may not fly as Moncey’s captain, but you may not stay with the South Essex. Neither place will fit you, any more.”

 “Sir!” Sharpe protested, horrified, but Temeraire held up one talon.

 “I’m going to speak to Wellington. I’m not going to ask him to order you under my command. I’m going to ask him to give me the whole South Essex, lock, stock and barrel.”

 Sharpe stared at him, gobsmacked.

 Temeraire shook his head. “This business of entrusting our eggs and our supplies to groundskeepers simply won’t do any longer. Lien would never have been able to steal the Longwing if we had had it protected sufficiently, but the soldiers we have are all parcelled out in platoon strength on individual dragons. On the ground they are too few to fight.”

 “I’ve seen that, sir.”

 “Well, no more. I want to re-organise the groundskeepers, and the supplies, and Perscitia’s little band of experimenters. I want to put them together under one flag, along with a strong fighting regiment that has no fears about fighting alongside dragons. The South Essex fits the bill nicely. I’d join them to you, under your flag.”

 “You mean, a regiment of quartermasters,” Sharpe said, despairingly. “We aren’t quartermasters, sir, we’re a crack regiment on the line.”

 “No, no. That’s what we have the present disparate little groups for. I want to organise them properly, and then back them up with teeth. That’s what the fighting regiment will be for. You see, the big drawback to line regiments is that they are too slow, and the Aerial Rifles are quicker but too few. And they fight separately, in separate spheres. I want to bring those two spheres together.”

 Sharpe listened, growing interested. Temeraire continued.

 “In battle, I’m thinking about a different style of regiment, that can be separated to fight as individual units, in the air or on the ground, or as one. You’d have to be ready to go at a moment’s notice, and to be put straight down into battle wherever we don’t yet have any other troops. Your job will be to arrive unannounced behind the enemy, and scupper any of their plans until your support can arrive. You’ll be the very first soldiers on the battlefield, and I must warn you, you’ll spend most of your time outnumbered and surrounded. And, obviously, you’d be the guardians of the ground crew, whenever they are abroad.”

 “We’d be like minutemen,” Sharpe said. “We’d go forward alone, attack, and take off.”

 “The rest of the army would be a sledge hammer, and you’d be a rapier, slipping in and cutting deep. I must admit, it wasn’t my idea, originally. We did something similar in England, but not with any real organisation. And Lien is already doing it, with that Grand Lorraine carrying troops around to fight the partisans. I just want to take the idea a little further, and see what comes of it.”

 Sharpe found himself staring at his boots, envisioning it. Now he looked up at Temeraire and smiled. “You’ll have a hard job convincing Wellington this whole idea isn’t just a ploy to keep your friend Moncey happy.”

 “He already knows about the idea, and he agreed it is worth a try. He has already agreed to give me one line regiment, and a battalion of detachments here and there, and whatever pepper guns I can scrounge. I will happen to ask for this regiment, and he has no reason to say no, does he?”

 “No,” Sharpe agreed. “The South Essex is the best in the army. If anyone can work out how to do it, we can.”

 “And of course, as commanding officer of the Aerial Corps I may dispose of the officers of my command as I see fit.”

 “Which means me.”

 “Which means you. You might not find much time to actually fly with Moncey, but you will certainly spend a great deal of time in his company, and since he’s so small not flying with him all the time will probably serve his health better. The Aerial Corps likes you, and the South Essex knows you. You may consider yourself an official liaison between the South Essex and the Aerial Corps. I do hope you have the strength to do what I’m asking you.”

 Sharpe was reminded of Harper’s comment that Temeraire would arrange things to his liking one way or another. He put his head on one side, thinking.

 It would mean giving up his company to Rymer, for good; and yet he would still be able to watch over them. Rymer was inexperienced, but he was not stupid. He would learn, and Sharpe would be there. He would not lose Harper. And he would still be a captain – an Aerial Captain, but still a captain – and he would be an officer for the whole regiment, and not only the Light Company. He would be able to fly with Moncey when Moncey needed him, and yet know that he was doing his duty to the South Essex when they needed him. They could see Teresa and his child, whenever they were free to fly there.

 It dawned on him that he would not be a lieutenant, ever again, and he would not have to call Rymer ‘sir.’ In fact, as an Aerial captain he wouldn't even have to call Lawford 'sir' - they would be equals again, in a way they had never been since Seringapatam.

 And it sounded a lot more interesting than being a quartermaster. Or a courier.

 “So, Captain Sharpe. Will you consent to join the Aerial Corps, and act as my liaison with this new regiment?”

 “Yes,” said Sharpe. He thought for a moment. “Does Moncey know what you’ve decided?”

 “No, but since it means he can keep seeing you, I don’t think he’ll mind, do you? Now come, let me pick you up, and we will return to the others. Laurence is beginning to look worried, and I have a letter to write to Wellington.”

Chapter Text

The assault would take place tonight.

 Everyone knew it. The great booms of the guns carried on without pause, but still the whole army somehow knew that tonight was the night. The breaches in the walls had been beaten down enough to be passable. The tower over the second intended breach had fallen; had seemingly grown tired of enduring the constant pounding given to it as its reward for all its decades of faithful standing, and lain down over the wall with a grumbling sigh, and now the second breach was passable as well as the larger one.

 The official orders came in the afternoon, long after it was old news. Sixteen concise paragraphs, which rumour claimed had been written by the General while actually sitting in a forward sap, were transmitted down the ranks and into every unit. Lawford read them aloud to his officers. Both breaches would be assaulted. The South Essex would be part of the Third Division which would storm the greater breach. The first wave would be the honour of the Forlorn Hope, chasing the promise of guaranteed promotion as well as suicide. The South Essex wouldn’t be the first regiment over the snow, nor the second, not even the third. They would have to wait their turn, and only if the earlier waves had been beaten off would they be called on. At the same time there would be diversionary attacks elsewhere on the wall, helped by the Portuguese.

 Robert Knowles came around to visit his old regiment, and told them his company had been asked to carry huge bags of hay up the glacis to be thrown into the ditch for the storming party to jump onto. Sharpe wished him well.

 The storming was set for seven o’clock, after dark. The South Essex crammed the first parallel long before then, huddling together in the dark, waiting.

 Sharpe crouched in the dark, and found his mind wandering to the new task he would be taking over. A whole new type of regiment, Temeraire had said. A whole new style of fighting, and he knew it was a way of fighting he was good at. It had dawned on him that he was probably taking up the same job as Sir William Stewart when that officer had started the 95th Rifles, only Sharpe was doing it with only a captaincy. Earlier in the day he’d watched the dragons flying overhead before it had become too dark, and suddenly his gut had clenched with the knowledge that he wanted to be up there with them. He had watched a pair of Greylings soaring over the city one last time, sweeping effortlessly 2000 feet above the sluggish desperation down here like a pair of angels looking down on mere mortals, and he knew with an iron intensity he wanted that for himself. Then he had looked back down at the other men in the trench and had seen one of his own men looking back at him, and he had felt suddenly guilty for wanting to leave them behind.

 Sharpe could hear his men’s breathing. He could hear the rattling of equipment as each man touched his weapons one last time, the whispers as a last rum ration was handed out. He couldn’t see them. He stood up, fetched out his telescope, and hauled his body over the edge and lay there. Here there was light, radiating from the distant city. He gazed at the walls through the lense. Harper was behind him in the dark, and Price, and all his sergeants, and the men were as ready as they ever would be. Except Private Batten, who was missing again and due for a good kicking when Harper found him.

 The city glowed, like a hearth. They would be getting in to that warmth tonight, or die trying. He scanned the walls. From here the wall was almost hidden by the glacis, and the breach was silent and empty. He shivered. The wet was seeping through his uniform.

 He heard someone else heave himself up on the edge of the trench, and knew without looking that it was Harper.

 “We might not get in there at all, before it’s over,” he told the Irish sergeant softly, more to reassure himself than the sergeant.

 “That’s as may be,” the Irishman agreed, in the same tone. “They’re keeping us well out of it this time, the lads think.

 “I don’t like it, Pat.”

 “You’re Staff now, sir,” the reasonable Irish voice whispered out of the dark. He couldn’t see the man’s face, only the silhouette of his shako and the glint of light in his eye. “Liaison, you said? Maybe they’re wanting to keep the whole regiment out of it, then?”

 “They must want to turn us into the Household bloody Cavalry, then,” Sharpe grumbled. “And God only knows if Moncey will agree to any of it.”

 He scanned the quiet night land with the telescope again, with his mind dancing between Moncey and his company. “Pat?” he said at last, lifting his eye from the glass. “If I did…?”

 “You don’t need to ask, Lord love you, sir.” Harper said. “We’ll be just fine. And it’s not as if you won’t be seeing all of us, is it? That’s the grand thing about dragons: they have wings.”

 Sharpe smiled at him, knowing that Harper couldn’t see him. “Right you are. We’ll buzz you every morning and keep you on your toes.”

 “Captain Sharpe?” a voice hissed from some way away. He heard his men hiss directions, and the call came closer. “Captain Sharpe?”

 He lowered his telescope and shoved himself backward off the parapet so that he dropped back to his feet in the trench. Harper followed a moment later. “I’m here,” he called. He felt as much as saw a dark figure turn to him.

 “Major Hogan’s compliments, sir, and he needs to see you. On the bank of the river, downstream from the parallel.”

 “What, now?”

 “Yes, sir.”

 Damn, was the man mad? Now? What the hell could be more important than the storming? “Bloody hell.”

 “Go, Richard.” It was Lawford’s voice. He hadn’t heard the Colonel approach, but the elegant gold trim of his uniform glinted in the dark. “We probably won’t go in at all. Go and come straight back.”

 “Yes, sir.”

 He forced his way through the packed trench, after the staff officer who’d called him.

 “Did Major Hogan say what he wanted me for?”

 “I didn’t speak to him in person, sir, I’m just passing on the message. River bank, sir.”

 The trench crossed the stream, and Sharpe sloshed through the water and clambered out. It was as dark as pitch. His boots crunched the snow as he set out along the bank alone, and then he was distracted from that sound.

 A distant roar of battle had risen up. He stopped and turned, the hair on the back of his neck stiffening. It was the first of the diversionary attacks. He could see the flashes of gunfire in the distance, and hear the roar of battle. He walked more quickly. It wouldn’t be long now. The nearest of the diversions was supposed to run around the ditch, clear the way and meet up with the Third Division at what was already being called the Great Breach.

 The snowy ground around him was still. He stood in plain sight of the wall, out in the open. Had it been daylight he would have had a rifle trained on him in an instant, but it was dark, and the enemy had more on its mind this night than one wanderer in the snow.

 Ahead, he spied the silhouette of a man, standing square and gazing at the distant wall. At last. He crunched forward.

 “Ahoy, there,” he called softly. “Major?”

 “No,” the man said, and bent to pick up something from his feet. It was Bougainville, and the object at his feet was a bull’s eye lantern. He opened the shutter, shone it at Sharpe, and then set it down again on the snow.

 Sharpe stood still. It all seemed so simple, suddenly, and he smiled at Bougainville. “Hello, what are you doing here?” he asked the captain. “Didn’t you know we’re storming this place tonight?”

 “We’re storming it,” Bougainville corrected him smugly, and a leer crossed his round face, underlit from the lantern so that he looked like a puppet in a show. “Get up, lads.”

 Sharpe heard the sounds of men around him climbing to their feet from the snow. Now was the time to draw his sword, and he did, slicing the great heavy cavalry blade out from its scabbard.

 He continued to smile, as he turned in a circle, treading lightly in the lamplit ring cast by the lantern. It made the snow glow coldly in a disk, as if they were standing on a stage. Distantly he could hear the din of battle, but it had become only a buzz in the background that didn’t break through his concentration.

 They stood around him, holding their muskets with the bayonets fixed. Five of them were from Bougainville’s company, but one was not. Six blades against him, not counting Bougainville.

 “Hello, Batten,” he said, and gave the man a smile. Batten grimaced, and his eyes slid down. “How long have you been planning this, Bug-ainville?” he asked.

 “Since Christmas,” Bougainville told him. “I’ve had enough of you, and your behaviour. Parading around like you think you’re one of us. And running around with that vermin of yours. Dragons!”

 “Aye, what is it you have against dragons? I’ve been wondering.” Sharpe circled again. The ring of men stood back out of range of his sword’s point, waiting for Bougainville to give the command. He weighed in his mind what he knew of each one.

 Bougainville ground his teeth. “Treacherous vermin! If you saw what I saw, at the Cape, you wouldn’t be half as keen on them! Women and children, crushed to death. Maimed. A whole colony of civilised people, wiped out! Fields left to the savages! They’re just crocodiles on wings, and there’s only one thing to do with crocodiles. I’d poison them all if I could!” He gestured at one of the men behind Sharpe. “Do it!”

 He felt a sudden blow on his back, hard enough to jerk his left shoulder forward, and he turned on his heel to strike at the man who’d hit him. The nearest was several feet away not directly behind him, and the blade slashed empty air as he recovered his balance The men on that side threw their bayonets up, and Sharpe drew his blade up to his face as if in salute. He stepped back as if to talk to Bougainville again, and lunged straight at Batten.

 The suddenness of his move surprised them all, and Batten was forced to parry the blade. The man to Batten’s right stabbed at Sharpe, his blade licking at Sharpe’s elbow, but he was past them both already, and whirling around. The bayonets changed direction too slowly, from lunging to parrying, and Sharpe’s left hand battered aside a musket’s barrel as his right sent the point of the blade neatly into the man’s throat, and then Sharpe was out of the circle and the man was falling.

 He and Batten faced each other over the dying man. Batten backed away to the security of the others, unwilling to stand against Sharpe alone. He didn’t raise the musket and fire it, and Sharpe realized that he could not. Perhaps their powder was wet. Or more likely Bougainville had ordered them left unloaded, so that a discharge wouldn’t draw any early response from the wall.

 Five blades against one.

He realized he was still smiling.

 “Come along then,” he invited them.

 They spread out in a rough line, facing him. Sharpe still had his rifle slung over his back, but his opponents were acting as if they weren’t aware that it was loaded. Batten certainly knew better, but he was holding back, afraid of Sharpe, as he’d been afraid of so many other enemies. Sharpe was glad of it. He felt unaccountably tired, as tired as if he had been marching all day, and the heavy cavalry sword seemed a bigger, heavier weapon than it did before.

 Three of them lunged at him with their bayonets, from different angles, and he couldn’t parry all three, so he slipped away backward, feet spread to keep his balance in the snow, and saw a fourth go wide around them to take him from behind. That was the man he had to take down first, the one with reach to his back, and he stepped back and to the side, fast, and leaped for him. The man saw him coming, and turned fearlessly to meet him head on, and sword clashed against bayonet again. Then Sharpe had to disengage again, abandoning a lunge without touching him, to face the other three who were coming up on his other side. He backed again, and realized the fifth man had come up behind him, and he was encircled again. He stopped.

 .....

 Moncey sat in the dark, picking his teeth out with a discarded bayonet. There was a lantern before him, attached to a rope, attached to his neckstrap, and ready lit. He could hear the noise of the assault very distantly from here, on the far side of the Grand Teson, but he doubted whether any of the men around him could. The bayonet point, pinched carefully between his talons, picked gingerly at a strand of gristle that had become lodged between two teeth. It would be easier to find Richard, and have him reach in with his knife to dislodge the gristle, but Richard was not here, presently.

 He wondered where Richard was this moment. Waiting his turn to storm the breach, probably. Well, with a bit of luck he wouldn’t have to.

 Around him, lit by great bonfires, the dragons of the Aerial Corps waited for the signal. Each wore a carrying harness, and each carrying harness was crowded with soldiers, so that the dragons bristled with redcoats and weapons like hedgehogs. Beyond, out of the light of the bonfires, more men waited for their turn to be carried on the second wave.

 He gazed at the men, pondering. Men had always seemed much the same to him. They had similar voices, similar uniforms, and he would be willing to bet they all tasted just the same as the ones he’d secretly eaten in the Occupation. They each looked like absolutely nothing special, just as they always did, and yet he recognised a difference in the way he regarded them. They were just the same as before, but the alteration was in himself. There were individuals among them, he knew now.

 To take a captain, or not to, that was the question.

 Moncey had granted Richard a ride on his back, and had discovered secretly that he liked it. The man was heavy, but the weight was not as upsetting as he would have imagined. His neck had grown accustomed to the Rifleman’s arse, he thought, and grinned fiercely, which made the soldiers nearest him stiffen with reflexive fright. He had made the offer of a flight on the spur of the moment, and although he had wondered at his spontaneous generosity since that day, he was unable to analyse the impetus more deeply than to say to himself that at that time, and with that particular man, it had felt obvious. Fly a bit, hammer in a few poles, fly back – so simple!

 He couldn’t imagine flying with any other. No one else had ever flown on his back, not even Hogan. The idea repelled him. Large dragons grew up accustomed to the touch of hands and the movement of crews climbing all over their bodies and regarded it as a fact of life, as little to be permitted or disallowed as the rain, but as the smallest of all the Winchesters Moncey had never been required to allow it. He bore only as much touch as he must, and then only by a few. He was not a pet, to be caressed! And yet the touch of Richard’s tiny hand on his shoulder was somehow not only tolerable, but pleasant.

 It was most strange. The very essence of who he was was changing. He observed that he wasn’t disturbed by the change in himself. Richard had had an effect on him, but he found that he didn’t much mind.

 He remembered his youth, flying wild, before loneliness and hunger had lured him into the breeding ground for the first time. He knew perfectly well that in the years since his escape from his aristocratic twit of a captain, his offspring had always been confined indoors while hatching, so that none of them could repeat his escape. It had disturbed him for a long time, when the information reached his ears. What a bind these men put dragons into! Box them indoors until they submitted to harness, and then reward their submission with hard usage! He had flown alongside harnessed dragons, and he had pitied them, and been grateful for the lucky open door that had preserved him from membership in their company. Men! Despicable, all.

 It disturbed him still more when he met Levitas. Poor sorry little Levitas, too sweetly stupid to kill his tormentor, as Moncey would have done if any man dared treat him so. If there was one egg he regretted siring, it was Levitas.

 No, he told himself. He would not be a harnessed dragon. He would never give up his pride, and meekly fly where he was directed. Men were frail creatures, easily crushed, and of course easily eaten. He was no hatchling, to be indoctrinated into submitting to any order. He would reward any attempt to subjugate him with revolt!

 And yet, it did seem as if in his miserable end Levitas had struck some sort of blow for his siblings. He had overheard, since, dragons and men discussing Captain Rankin. The man was being held up as a sort of model to others, not as a paragon deserving emulation but as a figure of disgust. There was a new standard of conduct being discussed around the coverts, and he had seen with pleasure that it ran counter to the conduct of the Rankins of the past. In the future it might mean something else for a dragon to be harnessed than a life of endless servility.

 Votes for dragons! Pay for dragons! Pavilions! Tea, for the love of heaven, tea!  Strategies, and tactics, and intelligence work. Who would ever have imagined a wild feral from the mountains of Wales holding a captain’s commission in the King’s army? And so much of the change had been Temeraire’s doing.

 And now there was Richard. Richard Sharpe, bastard whore-son from the back-alleys of London, who was as different from the men Moncey had known before as Moncey himself was from Levitas. He sensed a loneliness, and a wildness in the Rifleman that resonated with him. There was a burning eagerness there, a yearning to burst out of his boundaries and achieve more than should be possible. Richard wanted respect, he had noticed, and he knew no other way to get it but to fight for it. Richard would be about as likely to compel a dragon to harness as he would be to grow a pair of wings of his own. He had been on the receiving end of compulsion, and he had flung off those restraints and flown as high as he could.

 Moncey hadn’t known there were such men.

 He turned his head to gaze over the ranks again, wondering how many of these were made from the same rare mould as Richard, and if so, why the Admiralty didn’t make more use of them. He could think of at least three feral dragons whom he wouldn’t allow within speaking distance of Richard, lest they decide to claim this most fascinating human for themselves. Even Laculla had liked him; had said “He smells very nice,” in the wistful tone she had always reserved for her own lost captain, dead of dysentery all those decades ago. Beautiful Laculla….

 During the battle for the Grand Teson, when he had been consumed by grief and the urge to kill the killer of Laculla, he hadn’t even considered going to another dragon for assistance. It would have been sensible to wait, and enlist the help of Requiescat, or Temeraire himself, and take the Chevalier down later. However in the heat of the moment, overtaken by a storm of pure emotion, he had demanded the help of a single tiny human. And by some miracle granted by the gods of war, Sharpe and he had succeeded.

He remembered a story of a Yellow Reaper during the reign of Queen Anne, which he had heard from Gentius. She had killed her own captain, as a hatchling. She had picked him up, during the course of an argument, and shaken him, and the motion had broken his neck. The dragon had gazed at him, waiting for his rejoinder, and when none came she had put out her tongue to smell him, and realized instantly what she had done. A great cry had burst from her, and she had flown madly, clasping him to her breast until she collapsed from the air. Her mind had been turned by the shock of it, and she had lived out the rest of her life in the breeding ground, inconsolable, and eventually quite mad.

 No, that was not his way. He had no desire to carry Richard everywhere, no inclination to keep the man at his side at all times. He had no urge to tell him all his secrets. He knew the man kept strange arcane human secrets of his own, and he didn’t care. Even now, he had only the very vaguest idea of where he was. He would like to retain the Rifleman’s company, that was all. And his touch. And of course the dexterity of his hands; so very useful, human hands. He would miss Richard. He enjoyed the time he spent in Richard’s company. And he had never felt the least sensation of being under restraint with Richard, not even so much as a quiver of unease.

 Was that enough?

 It would have to be enough, that was all he had in him to offer. If it was enough of a basis for Richard, it would be enough for him.

 Moncey flicked the bayonet away. The metal had left a strange aftertaste in his mouth, and he ran his tongue around his teeth. After all, he told himself, I have these. If he tries to compel me, he shall have these.

 But as long as I am happy, and as long as I am free, I will have him, and no other. I will have him, if he will have me.

 “It is time,” he heard Laurence say to Temeraire, while snapping his watch closed and slipping it into his pocket. The great black dragon lifted his head and looked around at the waiting dragons and the men bundled up on their backs. Hundreds of points of light glittered from the eyes that looked back at him. Temeraire opened his mouth to speak, pitching his voice to carry.

"Soldiers!" he said, "the eyes of your country are upon you! Be steady, be cool, be firm in the assault. The town must be yours this night. Once masters of the wall, let your first duty be to clear the ramparts; and in doing this keep well together. Now, lads, for the breach!”[1] With that, he nodded to Moncey.

 Moncey leaped, a single spring lifting him up so that the lantern swung freely. He saw Temeraire lifting up below him, and behind him Maximus, using the space vacated by Temeraire to launch himself. Behind Maximus came Requiescat, and behind him others, so that like a great string of beads the dragons of the Aerial Corps lifted from the ground in line and led off up into the night sky. Moncey beat strongly for the western horizon, and once certain of his altitude and course he looked over his shoulder. The entire formation hung in the air behind him, strung out in his wake and silhouetted against the brightness of their bonfires. It was a magnificent sight.

 He led them through the dark, a tiny vanguard lighting the way for the huge warriors of the Corps. He led them west at first, and then in a great arc to the south, and then to the east. All too soon the lights of Ciudad Rodrigo came into view over to his left, and he banked over toward it so that his light swooped below him.

 The hill top within the medieval walls glowed like the inside of a hearth, with a thousand fires lighting up the streets, hot and brilliant against the night. He could hear the din of the assault again, from the north of the city. He knew that he was silhouetted perfectly against those fires for the dragons behind him, as he stroked his wings gently and glided silently over the wall and the first of the rooftops. The lantern’s job was done, and he let it smash against a gable under him as he passed over it. He glanced back again, and his heart leaped as the great figure of Temeraire formed up out of the darkness astern and glided into the light like a huge black ship, and behind him Maximus, and the rest, and still not a shot had been fired at them. Not a shot, not a shout of alarm had sounded. His breast swelled with the urge to give a roar of triumph, but he forced his teeth shut on the cry.

There was the steeple, and here was the square, and here was the wall, with the Great Breach writhing with men. The noise of the breach was tremendous, a living force that battered at him from below, and that made him want to lift up away from it. He shuddered at the image of frail human creatures like Richard Sharpe marching into that millrace, and whirled on a wingtip above the square.

“Here!” he roared. “Here!”

 Temeraire backwinged and dropped. He landed awkwardly, overburdened, with half his body in the square and his breast and tail collapsed onto the rooftops. Roof tiles scattered and spun off like pebbles as he clutched the spine of the building under his breast to avoid sliding off, but he was down, and the men poured off his back and down his flanks like ants. Moncey turned again, twisting in mid air, and Maximus came down a few rooftops away with a shattering roar.

 The defenders on the wall couldn’t miss that roar! Yes, they were dashing back along the firestep, frantic. Moncey added his roar to Temeraire’s, as he realized that he had been right! Every single one of the French guns was aimed outwards or upwards, and none of the pepper guns were crewed! There were none at all aimed back on the city itself! He roared again, and flew darting at the firestep so that his tail smacked a few of the defenders off into the air.

 Temeraire was launching himself, eeling out of the way of Requiescat who crashed down headlong. He delivered a flattening blow to a building already damaged by Temeraire’s breast, and it now collapsed into a cloud shot through with flames. Shrill human shrieks pierced the air.

 Here came Majestatis, and Ballista, neck and neck, and there was no more room to land here. “Go to the other breach!” he screamed at them. “No room here! No room! Follow me!” He dashed across Ballista’s face, and she twisted in mid air to follow.

 He followed the zig zag line of the wall, until he came to another square. Ballista needed no urging. She dumped herself down on all fours, and her passengers flooded off her back and charged for the wall. There was a ramp up to the firestep here, manned by fresh Frenchmen not yet engaged in the breaches. Ballista’s burden charged up the ramp behind their bayonets, but the French had had time to turn, and they met in a struggling mass, blocking the wall.

Moncey turned again on his wingtip, to see Majestatis start to clear the blockage by snatching up fistfuls of his own soldiers and stuffing them onto the firestep behind the defenders. Outflanked, by God, and Moncey laughed out loud, and lifted along the level of the wall on a single wingbeat.

 There were more figures running on the glacis, white crossbelts and red coats, streaking along in the dark. The diversion! They were on their way to join the assault in the Great Breach, clearing obstacles as they went. Moncey had a better job for them!

“Ballista!” he screamed. The heavy-weight was just lifting off, and he screamed at her again until her head turned in his direction. “Ballista! There are more over here! Come over here, and do what Madge is doing!”

Miracle of miracles! She heard him, and she obeyed without arguing, diving over the wall and landing beneath him in the ditch itself. The redcoats, startled, had a brief moment of panic, and a few stupid ones bolted down the other side of the glacis. Then an officer shouted, and more voices echoed, and they adjusted to the idea of their brand new breach, and in a moment more they were scrambling over Ballista herself, up her shoulder and over her back, and through the empty embrasures, and onto the wall.

 They joined her load, and Majestatis’s, and Temeraire’s, and all the other breaches into the centre of the city. They joined the men of the 45th and 88th streaming into the Great Breach, and the Portuguese who had broken in with their diversion, attacking the defences from the inside. The defences had been pierced in too many places to save Ciudad Rodrigo. They were inside the city, hundreds of them, thousands of them now, carrying British bayonets into the soft heart of the city.

 Moncey left the wall, and as he flashed over the narrow streets he saw French uniforms below him, running. There was a deep booming explosion from the direction of the Great Breach, and he turned that way.

 Temeraire was out of sight already, and Maximus, and he thought he saw the coppery gleam of Requiescat in the distance, but there were more dragons coming in over the rooftops. All the middle-weights, coming in a clump, carrying more men, not by the hundred but by the score. Excidium went by him, close overhead so that he ducked involuntarily. Spreading his wings to slow his glide, he caught himself on a steeple, dropping his weight vertically so as not to knock the structure down. The building held, and he half closed his wings, gulping for breaths he hadn’t known he needed.

 The landing area close by the Great Breach had been pulverised flat, and the only French uniforms here lay still. The only moving figures in sight wore red coats. They bolted through the rubble below his perch with crazed expressions over out-thrust bayonets. They were scattering through the city, run mad with bloodlust. The wall was theirs, and the breach was open wide. More screams began to echo, shrill in the absence of the cannon. The city lay under him like a shattered egg, and now the ants were seething over it and tearing into its soft yolk.

 They were in!

“Tell Temeraire to stop sending men!” he shouted to Cantarella. “Tell him the city is ours!” The Reaper nodded and banked away.

 When had the cannon stopped? He hadn’t even noticed. He launched himself from the steeple, to overfly the breach itself for the first time, and glided slowly along the wall.

 At least one mine had exploded in there, by the look of it. The French had mined the ramp of rubble leading up to the breach, and then touched it off. He saw two gun emplacements dug into the sides of the breach itself so that they would cross each other’s fire over the mouth of the breach. Behind these lay the pepper guns, their muzzles silent. The air stank with blood and gunpowder and Longwing acid, and with a twinge of sympathy he realized that one of the Longwings had dealt with those guns by putting their head into those emplacements and letting fly a lethal cloud of acid into the confined space.

 All this his sharp eyes took in with a few glances, as he swept over the wall and out into the dark.

His job was done. They were in. The surprise arrival of hundreds of men behind them had broken the defenders utterly. They were in.

 And with that his mind turned to Sharpe. Where was he? He must still be out there in the trench, waiting with his men. Moncey had seen a dozen uniforms tonight, but none of them had been South Essex men. The red coat with yellow facings would have caught his eye. Which meant that Richard hadn’t yet arrived for the party.

 He realized that he was flying drunkenly, heavy-winged. His eyes were blinded to the night by the furious glare of the city, his sense of smell was overcome and tainted by the carnage in the breach, he was deaf with the sound of cannon. He blinked his eyes, and drew in a deep breath of the icy winter air. He had just contributed to the deaths of hundreds of men, and yet there was not a spot of blood on his talons or his teeth. Bizarre. He shook himself in mid-air, so that his shudder slipped along his spine and snapped the tip of his tail like a whip.

 The South Essex had been in the Second Parallel, closer to the city, and he re-oriented himself against the city and turned in that direction.

 The trenches lay like black scars in the snowy land. He landed heavily, flicking his wings. “Hello, the trench,” he called. “The South Essex?”

 There was a breathless silence from the dark ground. Then a voice quavered, “Friend or foe?”

 “Friend, you twit.” He felt the irritation rise in him, an echo of his earlier bloodlust, and he bit it back. “Where is the South Essex?”

 There was a whispered conference. “They are further down the trench. About a hundred and fifty yards,” the voice replied. “Er, are we in yet?”

 “Yes, we’re in. Better move it along, lads, or the party will be over before you get there.”

 A hubbub of new voices arose from the trench, but he leapt off the ground and left them to it. He coasted along the line of the trench easily, and landed again.

 “Hello, the trench,” he tried again. “Is that the South Essex?”

 “Moncey? Is that you out there?” It was Lawford’s voice, crisp and clear.

“It is indeed.”

 “Are we in yet?”

 “We’re in all right, and the party’s started without you.” He craned his head, although he was sure they wouldn’t be able to make out his expression in the dark. “Captain Sharpe?”

 “He isn’t here,” Lawford replied. “He was summoned by Major Hogan, and hasn’t come back yet.”

 Moncey raised his head. “From Hogan?” he asked, incredulous. “When?”

 “Not half an hour ago. To meet him down the river from this trench.”

 “Half an hour ago Major Hogan was with us.” Moncey felt a cold quiver begin deep inside his breast, half-fear, half-bloodlust. “And we were nowhere near the river.”

 There was a brief silence, broken by a whisper, followed by Major Forrest’s voice. “Captain Bougainville is missing too.”

 Moncey heard Harper exclaim, but he ignored the exclamation. His muscles seemed to explode of their own accord, flinging him aloft like a projectile. His heart pounded. Hadn’t he warned Richard that Bougainville was treacherous? He whipped through the air above the dark trench and banked sharply to follow the river.

 His scales felt as if they were creeping up towards his spine, a more emphatic reprise of the sensation he had felt when he had watched the French Aerial crew haul Richard into the depths of their lair.

 Half an hour. Plenty of time for murder in the dark, and who would notice one extra death on a night like this? He prayed he was in time. He should have been more strident in his warnings, should have impressed on Richard the unease he felt when he saw Bougainville’s eyes on him.

 There, off to his right. A disk of light cast onto the snow, with the small silhouettes of men around it. He leaned over on his wing and closed on the little group, looping around them. There were seven of them standing, and one lying still. To his relief he recognised one tall figure, with a shako, the familiar sabre drawn – Richard Sharpe, alive and fighting. He saw the ring of bayonets around Richard, and recognized Bougainville with a little gulp of rage in his throat. He put his tongue out, and tasted the tang of blood in the air. He looped around them silently, invisibly, a hundred feet above the ground and a hundred feet away. He could smell Sharpe’s blood.

 His Rifleman was defending himself, clearly. The dead man wouldn’t have lain down and died of his own accord. The others seemed to be keeping their distance from him, held at bay by his sword. Six to one seemed all right odds to Moncey, when the one man was Richard Sharpe. He looped again, keeping his eye on them, husbanding each wingbeat so as to fly as silently as an owl.

 Then he saw Bougainville draw his sword. The other men drew back from Sharpe, to allow him room. Moncey saw the tiny change in Sharpe’s silhouette, saw him take a firmer grasp on his sword hilt, shift his right foot to be ready to move, saw his shoulders straighten. He knew that stance. Sharpe was unnerved.

 Moncey felt his gaze change, from that of an observer to that of a predator. He banked once, using his tail for balance so as to make no sound, and stooped towards the little group below, his wings cupped so as to raise his speed. All the rage and horror of the night burned and crystallised into a cold hard purpose, as if Ciudad Rodrigo itself drove him to his target. He spread out his talons before him, opened them wide, and braced his shoulders for the killing strike.

 …..

 Sharpe had been encircled again, and now he stood waiting in the ring of bayonets. He had scored a slash along another man’s arm that dripped blood, but he was so tired. They were at a stalemate. Sharpe was unable to attack any one without opening himself to the rest. His opponents were unwilling to attack him in unison, knowing that some of them would die, but unable to let him escape.

Bougainville had picked up the lantern and followed his accomplices. Now he set it down again. “This can go on all night, and we haven’t the time. Hold him still between you,” he said to his men.

 Sharpe didn’t bother giving any sort of salute. It would be more effort than it was worth. He waited. He had seen Bougainville practise, he knew that the man had been really well trained in the use of his blade. He knew that for all his own brute strength and ferocity, the other had the training and the speed to slip his blade past Sharpe’s. And all the time the other five would be circling, waiting for him to give them an opening to bury a bayonet in his back.

 Bougainville drew his own sword. Sharpe readied himself for the attack, took a firmer grip on the hilt of the heavy straight sword. He smiled at Bougainville. “Come on,” he invited. His breath gusted on the cold air.

 There was a great rush of air. Sharpe was knocked over backwards by the shock of it. By the time he rolled over and thrust himself up on his hands and knees it was all over.

 Moncey was crouched in the centre of the circle, hunched low. The fallen lantern flickered over his underside and shone off his bared teeth. Bougainville lay on his face below him. Moncey’s curved talon was sunk into his back right between his crossbelts like a scimitar, penetrated to its quick. The captain’s dead eye stared blankly at the snow.

 The men in the circle had sprung away in shock, and stood staring, frozen still. Sharpe climbed to his feet, tore his eyes from the sight of Moncey mantling over the corpse as if over a meal, and turned on them. “Game’s over, lads. Dragon stopped play.” He stood tall, his back to Moncey, aware that the dragon loomed behind him like an avenging angel.

 Batten broke the spell first, dropping his musket on the ground and bolting out of the circle of light, and the rest followed. Only the fourth man, who had driven Sharpe off with his bayonet, remained standing.

 “And you?” Sharpe challenged him.

 The man pursed his lips. “Which he was offerin’ us all fifty quid to come after you, which he ain’t in a position to pay, like.” He shook his head. “Tain’t worth desertin’ for fifty quid what won’t be comin’ no more, innit? Not with you bein’ another fellow as knows how business goes.”

 “I’ll give you ten quid to help me get rid of these two.”

 “Right-o.”

 “No need,” Moncey gritted, through a fixed snarl. “I’ll give you twenty pounds just to stay where you are and tell the truth.”

 “We have to get rid of them,” Sharpe told him. “You killed an officer. If they find out you killed an officer there’ll be hell to pay. We can drop them in the breach with the rest, no-one will notice two extra.”

 “There’s no need. They attacked you. You are my captain, I have every legal right to kill the whole lot of them in your defense.” Moncey’s tone was that of a lawyer explaining a logical conclusion. His long tongue flickered out, sniffing Bougainville. “You are my captain, as of right now. Exigencies of war and all that.”

 “Twenty quid says I’m your witness, guv.” The last remaining man crossed two fingers over his heart. “I just ‘appened along ‘ere and saw the ‘ole lot. It were ‘orrible, sir, Mr Bougainville, he were screaming, and the five of ‘em all set on Mr Sharpe all at once, sir. And then the dragon, ‘e came down and said, don’t yer touch my cap'n, you; and killed ‘im.”

 “Fair enough,” Sharpe agreed. He bent to pick up his sword from the snow, and heard a gasp from Moncey.

 “Richard, can you not feel that?”

 He straightened up. The effort made his head swim a little, and he blinked. The dragon was staring at him, the lantern light casting his worried expression into sharp relief.

 “Feel what?”

 “Old boy, there’s a knife sticking out of your back.” Moncey gave his hand a shake to dislodge the corpse from his talon, and then resorted to prying it off with his other hand. Bougainville slumped to the ground, forgotten.

 “There is?” Sharpe said, startled. “I didn’t know. I can’t feel a thing. There’s bugger-all feeling left in my back after the two hundred lashes.” He tried to arch one hand over the opposite shoulder to find the hilt, but Moncey squawked.

 “Don’t yank it out, you fool, or you’ll bleed to death! A doctor will have to take it out. It might be sitting in a blood vessel.”

 The private cleared his throat. “Beggin’ your pardon, sir, it shouldn’t be. Were aimin’ for yer heart not yer shoulder, but me aim were a bit off, like.”

 “You did this?” Moncey barked, and lunged.

 “No!” Sharpe shouted. He threw his hands up as Moncey’s jaws lashed out over his head. His palms smacked into the dragon’s mouth. “Don’t hurt him!”

 Miraculously his touch arrested the strike. Moncey paused with his neck stretched out, Sharpe’s hands resting lightly on his long upper lip. He peeled his lips back from his teeth, and snarled, so that his hot breath curled around Sharpe’s wrists. “You mark this,” he addressed the private. “If your blade has killed him, I will hunt you down and rip you apart.”

 The man gulped. “Fair enough, guv, fair enough. Then he needs a doctor, right away.”

 “Bugger the doctor,” Sharpe said. “I need to get back to the South Essex.”

 “To do what?” Moncey asked. “Didn’t you know? We’re in. The Great Breach fell, and the Aerial Corps got in over the wall. It’s over.”

 “We’re in?” Sharpe asked. His hands still rested on Moncey’s lip. Now the effort of holding them there was too much, and he let them drop to his sides.

 “Listen,” Moncey told him.

 Sharpe turned towards the city and listened. He could still hear noises from the city, and he could see the glow of fires, but the hammering of gunfire had stopped. Now that he noticed it, the difference seemed to echo in his head. “We’re in,” he realized, dazed at the change, and suddenly he found himself sitting down.

 “Oh Lord,” he heard Moncey say. “You there, go and tell Colonel Lawford what has happened, and that I’ve taken him off to find a doctor.”

 Sharpe felt himself being gathered up from the cold snow, long warm talons curving under his body and lifting him up as if in a cradle. He closed his eyes, tired and soothed by the sense of protection given by the hard embrace. There was a rush of cold air and the familiar heave of Moncey taking off, and he opened his eyes to see Moncey’s long elegant head and neck arched against the orange clouds like a living bowsprit.

 He smiled at the sight. His dragon. Moncey had claimed him as his own, before a witness. A whole new life lay ahead of them. He was Moncey’s captain, now, and Moncey was Sharpe’s dragon. He was, and always would be, Sharpe’s Dragon.

 

THE END

Chapter Text

“There goes Moncey!” shouted Majestatis, pointing with a talon. Harper, and the rest of the brand new First Airborne Regiment crowded aboard Majestatis, turned to look in the direction he pointed. Those of the company on his hindquarters craned out as far as they dared. Behind them, the soldiers crammed onto Ballista had heard Majestatis calling, and they were jostling to have a look too.

 On Majestatis’s neck, Harry Price took his little telescope from his belt, slid it open and trained it on the speck against the clouds ahead of them, but the figure in the distance was too tiny to see clearly even through the glass.

 “How can you tell that’s Moncey?” he called to the dragon.

 “My eyesight is much better than yours," Majestatis replied.  "It’s Moncey, and there’s a rider on him.”

 “Can he see us?” shouted Harper.

 Majestatis arched his head back to see who had called from his shoulder. “Yes,” he replied to Harper, “he can see us, too. And he recognises me, or he would have gone to ground long before I saw him.”

 “Can we catch up to him?” Price asked Majestatis’s officer quietly.

 “Not a hope – he’s the fastest dragon in Britain. He could fly to Gibraltar faster than Madge can fly to Badajoz. He’ll be there waiting for us by the time we get there.”

 “Do you think that’s Captain Sharpe over there, Sarge?” Perkins asked.

 “Aye, laddie, I reckon it is.”

 The men of the South Essex watched the tiny black dot on the horizon get further and further away, following its own course, until it disappeared into the vastness of the sky.