Northern Portugal. The winter of 1811.
What was left of the bridge lay in a rough line of broken slabs across the stream. The streambed was nearly dry at this time of year, awaiting the storms and snow that would soon fill it. The little water that still slid between the tumbled blocks was ink-dark and smelled bad.
Captain Richard Sharpe stood with his boots in the slippery mud and stared up and down the narrow valley, then down at the map in his hands. "Pat, this is going to be the shortest mission all year."
Sergeant Patrick Harper tilted his head. "Aye, sir, but are we sure this is the right bridge? Can't be going back to Major Hogan saying the bridge is gone if it's the wrong bridge that's gone, sir."
"It's the right bridge, Pat, I'm sure of it. There's only one stream heading down this way, and only one bridge on it. Besides, Hogan's smart – he took the map to one of the local alcalde's and asked him." He folded the map in question and shoved it into his pocket.
Harper hefted his seven-barreled gun onto his shoulder and prepared to follow his captain. "Who d'ye think brought it down for us, then, sir?"
"Maybe the locals didn't want any more French couriers coming this way?" If there were any locals here. They had seen nobody but themselves all day.
"Why didn't they say so then?"
"Christ, I don't know! Because they're bloody Portuguese? Because they don't talk to their bloody alcalde? Come on."
Sharpe turned and squelched his way out of the mud, then began climbing the slope to where his men waited. The valley the stream ran through was narrow and deep, as if it had been intentionally scraped out of the mountain by a trowel, and the winter vegetation and overcast sky made it look like a great grave. His men had squatted down on tussocks and stones on the slope, except for the pickets – one upstream, one downstream, one on the crest behind them. He had brought only half the company with him, leaving the musket-carrying redcoats back at the South Essex's winter quarters under Harry Price's alcoholic eye. He might have brought only half a dozen to destroy this bridge, though – they had carried out so many of Hogan's little missions before. Still, he had watched them all this month, since his return from recruiting in England, and knew they were in need of some form of duty, to remind them that they were still soldiers and not yet Christmas elves.
They were starting to huddle into their jackets now as the sweat from climbing began to cool. The satchel of gunpowder charges, which they had carried all this way, sat next to Sergeant Latimer.
"What do we do now, sir?" asked Hagman.
"We go back, that's all, Dan. We came to make sure the bridge is gone, and the bridge is gone."
"Seems like such a waste, sir," said Harris. "If anyone is going to blow up something the Romans built, it might as well be us so's we can enjoy the bang."
"Up you get, all o' ye." Harper blared. The patrol began to get up, some faster than others. Sharpe gave Hagman his hand and pulled the old man up.
"Can we fill up the canteens, sir?"
"You're not drinking that water, lads, it's fouled." He began climbing the slope.
A scream from above came to Sharpe's ears. "Wing! Wing! East to west!"
His sentry was pelting down the slope, leaping from tussock to tussock, waving his rifle with one arm and pointing to the sky with the other. The company dropped its lethargy instantly. Without waiting for the command they had turned in their tracks and were falling back on the stones of the stream, the only possible cover if a dragon came down, and covering each other from the direction the sentry was pointing. Though what good that would do, if a dragon came down on them here, Sharpe did not know.
Sharpe went to ground with them, crouched down between two chunks of broken bridge. He scanned the grey clouds, rifle held ready. "What was it, Perkins?"
"Dunno sir, the mist made it hard to see. Not big."
Bad news – a heavy-weight dragon wouldn't deign to attack a mere patrol, but a smaller dragon might consider it worth the effort to kill a few infantrymen.
Sharpe ground his teeth. The stinking water was soaking into his trousers, it was icy cold, and it might all be only be for a little courier – or a big bird for that matter. He looked around at his men. "Anybody else see anything?" The chorus of negative replies didn't surprise him. The cloud cover at this altitude hung close to the land, making it hard to see more than a few dozen feet in the air.
"Wing!" somebody barked, "coming down the valley!"
Sharpe swung on his haunches, rifle ready. A dragon was coming down from the clouds, mid-dive toward the stream bed. It snapped its wings out just above the mud and swung level agilely, and now it glided directly at them. It was a small beast, purplish blue with grey on its wings – a British courier. What was it called, a Winchester or a Worcester? "Hold your fire, it's one of ours!"
Just yards short of the first of Sharpe's men, the dragon back winged smartly and dropped himself back onto his hindquarters. Mud splattered. The dragon balanced on his hind legs, looming hugely.
Sharpe stood up to let the dragon's captain see him, lowering his rifle. Most of his men stayed right where they were. He opened his mouth to call to the dragon's captain, and then found himself without words as he saw that this dragon had no captain, had no harness either, come to that.
The dragon stood and stared at its muddy legs for a moment, and harrumphed in tones of great disgust. Then the blue head swung towards them. It was a rather lean, hungry-looking head, with a long mouth filled with yellow teeth, and grey eyes.
Sharpe saw some of his men's rifle barrels twitch upwards in reflexive fright, and called, "Steady lads, hold your fire." He put his free hand out to the side in a calming gesture. He stared up at the dragon's eyes.
The eyes had dark vertical slits in an iris of grey ice, wild and alien as a lizard, and the slits twitched back and forth as the beast examined his men. Then the alien-ness evaporated as the dragon spoke.
"Are you in command here, my good fellow?" The dragon's voice was male, with a plummy drawl.
He restrained a start at being spoken to directly by a dragon. "I'm Captain Sharpe." Almost a captain, he reminded himself.
"Well, captain, you may want to rearrange your dispositions, quick-quick. There's a Grande Lorraine just the other side of that ridge, y'see, offloading crew. Middle-weight. They're trying to sneak, the poor deluded things, but they'll be here very shortly. Very shortly, old boy." The dragon nodded sharply, as if satisfied he had passed his message properly. He spoke with a languid aristocratic drawl; the sort of upper-class accent that instantly made Sharpe feel lumpish and resentful.
Sharpe barked without taking his eyes from the dragon's. "Sergeant Harper, lead out! Get them into that farmhouse!"
"Up the ridge, lads. Go, go, go! Over the top!"
Sharpe stayed, as his men peeled off in pairs behind him and bolted for the top, and gazed up at the dragon, which had come down onto his forelegs with a thump and was watching the riflemen run.
"We've done what we came here to do," Sharpe replied. "Where's your captain?"
"Oh, don't have one, old boy; I'm all on my alone-some." the dragon replied, airily. "Where's your support?"
"Don't have any, old boy. We're all on our alone-some, too." Sharpe found himself grinning.
"All clear sir, just waiting for you!" shouted Harper from halfway up the slope. Sharpe waved an arm to show he had heard.
"Thanks for the warning."
"My pleasure, sir." The dragon lowered himself into what Sharpe thought for a moment was a bow, until the great beast used the position to launch himself directly up into the air with incredible force. Sharpe turned and ran after his men.
By the time Sharpe's men were all inside the ruined farmhouse, and had secured it around themselves, he knew for certain there was another dragon out there. He'd turned in the doorway in time to see a huge shadow leap down from the clouds into the valley where they had all been just minutes ago. A roar echoed, and then re-echoed dully from the mountains.
Harper whistled appreciatively from his window.
Sharpe took his eye from the gap in the door and gave the roomful of soldiers a quelling look. "Don't celebrate too soon, lads, they might still follow us up here."
It wasn't likely the dragon would go to the trouble of taking the farmhouse down around them, he told himself. Without infantry support it would just be taking an unnecessary risk for no benefit.
Unless it was hungry - no. Sharpe shook his head to rid himself of the old dread of feral dragons he'd had drummed into him in the orphanage. He'd heard aviators swearing that they didn't eat people, never ate people, would never eat people.
There was a draconic roar, and the sound of gunfire. Sharpe put his eye back to the door again. Then a voice yelled out, "You missed me, you missed me, nyaaaah nyah!"
The voice was far louder than any human throat could produce – the Winchester? – and it provoked another shattering roar. Two shadows flashed up from the valley and away, a smaller one followed by a much bigger one, but they were too deep into the cloud before Sharpe could be sure of anything more. More shots popped, from further away. He couldn't see muzzle-flashes.
"Our friend is leading them away from us," he told his men anyway. There was a muted cheer.
Throughout the rest of the afternoon they stayed in the abandoned farm house. He put sentries out to watch and listen, but they heard nothing more, and as time passed Sharpe watched the tension ease from his men. Conversation blossomed, and some slept. He sent a search party out to see if there was fresh water in the outbuildings of the farm, but there wasn't – only the stream. Sharpe decided to march down the mountain passes again after dark instead of waiting for morning and the possible return of the Lorraine.
Late in the afternoon he heard the warning cry. "Wing! It's the blue one again!"
He shouldered his way under the low doorway of the farm, hearing the thump of the dragon landing in the farmyard.
"I'm here. Are you all right? We heard that thing chasing you."
"Oh, I'm all right, never fear. No Grande Lorraine was ever hatched that could catch a Winchester, especially not in weather like this. No trouble at all. They're dreadfully slow, Lorraines, y'see. Beautiful singing voices, but all the world knows, dreadfully slow fliers. " This last was said in a confiding tone, as the dragon lowered his head closer to Sharpe.
Sharpe gulped, and restrained the urge to take a step back. The dragon's eyes and voice were friendly, but his jaws were longer than a man's arm and his teeth glinted.
"To be honest, I had hoped I could persuade her to fly into a nice cliff, but no such luck."
"We're all very grateful anyway." He paused, unsure of how to ask a dragon its name without offending it. "What is, that is to say, what are you - ?"
"My name is Moncey, Captain. At y'service." Moncey lowered his body, and then Sharpe really did take a step back, expecting the dragon to launch himself again. But this time it was a bow. "I saw your green gentlemen through a break in the clouds, and thought for a moment they were Aerial Corps. Then I saw the Lorraine, and of course I realized I'd better warn you."
Sharpe turned back to the farmhouse, and realized he was still the only man standing in the yard. "Come out of there, lads, and stop hiding like a bunch of little girls!"
Sheepishly, one by one, Sharpe's patrol came out of the low door, until they all stood in a ring around the dragon. Moncey eyed them puzzled for a moment. "What manner of beasties are you all? Not Aerial Corps; nor Portuguese, surely?"
"We're the Ninety-Fifth Rifles, attached to the South Essex."
"Ah, I see."
"They calls us the Sweeps sometimes, sir, begging your pardon sir. On account of the uniform, sir." This was Harper, looking as cautious as if he was picking up a lit grenade.
"I've heard of you. I've heard you're good shots. Almost as good as the Aerial rifles, or so the Aerial rifles say." Moncey closed one eye, and looked challengingly at Sharpe.
Sharpe rocked on his heels, and pretended to think. "I wouldn't know what the Aerial Rifles say, 'cause they never say it when we're close enough to hear them." There was a titter behind him.
Moncey considered this for a moment. "So what are you doing here? The lines are – well, quite a long way away, for you little fellows."
"Trying to blow up a bridge, that someone else already has."
"That bridge down there?"
"Goodness, Majestatis tore that up days ago." Moncey looked around him at the riflemen. "I'm afraid you've all had a walk for nothing. You poor little things."
"Yes, well." Sharpe put his hands on his hips. "We'll just have to go back and tell headquarters that. The Lorraine – will it be coming back soon, do you think?"
"Oh no. Not after a flight like that, old boy. She'll need a rest, and they don't like flying at night, at all. If you'll permit my advice, Captain, leave now, so that by next morning you'll be well away."
"I think we'll take that advice, sir – uh, Moncey."
Moncey grinned and thumped the ground with his tail. "Sir! I think I like that! I don't think I've ever been called sir before."
"Look us up behind the lines, and I'll call you sir some more, if you like." Sharpe found himself grinning back. "I've had years of practice."
"You know, I think I just might." Moncey gathered himself to leap. "As I said, it's been a pleasure, captain."
A single leap carried Moncey into the air. He brought his wings out and down in his first thrust, lifting a miniature flurry of farmyard dust around the riflemen, then his next wingbeat thrust him up and forward and a moment later he was skimming the crest of the ridge and disappearing into the clouds.
Sharpe found himself strangely lacking the urge to run away. Spontaneously he put his arm in the air and waved. "I like him," he said to no-one in particular after the dragon was out of sight.
"He saved our bacon today, to be sure." replied Harper.