It was a night like any other; Laurence had long grown used to the monotony of life aboard ship, but with only an hour allowed on deck and nothing but correspondence - such as it was - to relieve the day it grew nearly intolerable. Still, he had committed treason; the only reason the Admiralty had not immediately called for the hangman was because of Temeraire.
Temeraire was a heavyweight, possessed of the Divine Wind, and moreover a Chinese Celestial - and that empire would take a very dim view indeed if he were to be harmed. Laurence himself was technically a Chinese Prince, but he knew that formality to be hollow at best, a mere stratagem conducted by the Chinese Emperor to save face in the wake of Temeraire's tenacious clinging to Laurence.
Laurence was interrupted from his morose thoughts by a sudden cry on deck. He could not quite make it out, but the drums began thundering as the men beat to quarters. The Goliath was on blockade duty in the channel, which could mean only one thing; Napolean was trying again.
Laurence rushed to the door and shouted through it - but the lobsterbacks who had been standing guard day and night had rushed to help and, traitor or no, Laurence could not do any less than every other man aboard ship. He rushed to the deck, and his heart seized in his chest. Wings filled the sky, and sails filled the sea. Napolean had committed fully to the invasion, and his numbers looked endless.
Laurence ran to the bosun, who looked from him to the sky once before thrusting a cutlass into his hands and indicating the rail. "'Ware boarders!" he roared, and Laurence nodded grimly before taking his place. The night promised to be long and bloody, and there was much to do.
Laurence dragged himself, coughing, up the shoreline. He did not know if the tide were in or out, for he had lost all track of time during the battle. Napolean's ingenious new tactics smacked of Lien's interference, but Laurence could barely spare a breath to cough up the seawater he had taken in his desperate swim for the beach as the Goliath sank beneath the waves. He was an indifferent swimmer at best, and had nearly drowned several times. Still, he was better off than a large number of poor scrubs who did not even know how to float, let alone swim. Far fewer would be washing up on the beaches than would have been lost in the disasters at sea.
Finding grass underneath his fingers - when had he gotten so far up the beach? - Laurence stopped and fell into a fatigued stupor. One could not properly call it sleep, yet neither was he wholly awake. For what seemed a timeless eternity he existed in this state, wholly undisturbed by man or beast. In fact, what finally caused him to bestir himself was the first weak rays of dawn breaking over the horizon. Blinking into a more wakeful state, he saw that he had drifted considerably after the Goliath had sunk, for he was some miles from Dover down the coast. Duty tore at him, the same duty that had brought him back to face the consequences of his actions after delivering the Cure to France, but while the spirit was willing the flesh was weak. He could not even raise himself so far as to hands and knees, his elbows feeling peculiarly rubbery and sending him crashing back upon his face in the sandy scrub.
With difficulty he made his way to a nearby bush and tucked himself beneath it, the tangled limbs providing him shelter from the sun's rays and the heat that would surely follow. Having done so exhaustion pulled his eyes shut, dragging him downward into a true and restful sleep.
He did not know at first what had woken him some hours later. The light had shifted, certainly, but the bush was still doing an admirable job of keeping him in the shade. He slipped towards unconsciousness again when another sound intruded, one that brought to cold wakefulness; unknown voices nearby, conversing in French.
While he had been no great hand at the language, Temeraire and the continuing war with France had pushed him to learn it better and so he could make out a few of the words. The French were discussing the taking of the port and the gains they had made since. One went so far as to compliment "The spectral beast" who had cadged the Emperor's ear. Laurence saw red and with his anger his hurts and exhaustion melted away. The patrol, some five men in all led by a corporal, had already passed his hiding place when he emerged from the bush. With a strength born of mingled desperation and anger - and a silence brought on by his having lost his boots to the sea - he fell upon the patrol.
The first he strangled, coming upon him from behind and restricting his windpipe that he might not alert the others. Much to his astonishment it worked, the man's struggles beneath his desperately held grasp eventually slackening. Being only one man, Laurence could not afford to take prisoners and so held on just long enough for the soldier to become true deadweight before releasing him.
The sound of his fall was muffled by the distance the patrol had unwittingly put between themselves and Laurence, and he could have gotten away then. Yet there was something queerly angering with that thought, such that Laurence was compelled to follow the others. Four on one, especially when the one was weakened and injured from a long night of fighting, would seem to be sheerest folly; yet when Laurence returned to himself - in truth, he could not say when he had left, only that he returned - all four men lay in a gory mess across the roadway.
Laurence blinked, for the moment astonished, before he straightened and hurried away. There was blood under his nails, and an unpleasant coppery taste in his mouth that he did not like to think about. He was not overly familiar with this territory, having seen it only from dragonback, but he managed to find a stream in reasonably short order. As he approached the water, his feet dragged from more than exhaustion. Leaning over, his trepidation was justified, for in the slowly running water he could see his reflection with ease, blood on his chin and around his mouth.
He sat for a long time in a stupor, his mind trying to reconcile what had happened. He could not remember, yet it seemed he had set upon the French patrol with nails and teeth like some form of animal. The thought came with morbid amusement; without his honor he was truly unmanned, and this was the proof. And yet he could not bear to leave it, splashing the image away and scrubbing at himself furiously. His skin was red and raw by the time he made himself stop, and yet he felt almost as though he could still see traces of red at the corners of his mouth and nails.
Still, exhaustion suddenly struck him like a blow and left him reeling where he sat. It was all he could do to crawl into the shade - and shelter - of a nearby tree; should any French dragons pass by, he did not wish to find what their reactions might be to having him prisoner. Napolean had allowed him to return to England, that much was true, yet there had been a gleam in his eye that spoke of plans involving Laurence that he did not wish to contemplate.
Providence was with him, for the rest of that day saw no other Frenchmen happen upon him. He awoke, feeling refreshed in body if not in mind, as the sun was setting. The air that had warmed during the day was already cooling and crickets chirped a soft susurrus in the night.
As he was no longer sleepy, Laurence struck out East by Northeast, orienting himself by constellations as familiar to him as the back of his hand. He hoped to reach Dover, and attempt to link up with the British forces that must surely still be there.Travelling at night would allow him to - hopefully - avoid French patrols both aerial and ground-bound. While the French did possess a nocturnal breed of dragon, the Fleur-de-Nuit, it was better used to keep a lookout for other dragons as it was among the largest the French bred.
What luck he had had for a day's nearly uninterrupted rest had deserted in in the dark of the night, however, and Laurence happened upon a small band of French foragers, looking for whatever food they could get to bring back to the French army. Already they had a dozen pigs, a number of chickens, and several milch goats held in temporary pens by the camp's perimeter. The party as a whole was not more than a dozen men, and most of them slept while three stood watch.
The anger Laurence had felt earlier in the day had deserted him. In fact, most of his emotions seemed queerly far away, as if locked behind a glass wall. He could not feel them, but he knew them to be there. He knew, too, that he had a duty to England to ensure that these scavengers did not return with their ill-gotten gains. He had neither knife nor sword - and yet he also lacked honor. Voluntarily surrendered it, perhaps, but he felt keenly its absence.
Still, that left certain options open. Taking a chance, he stalked around the camp until the fresh sea breeze blew in his face; only then did he move closer. It would not do, after all, to be given away by the animals raising a fuss. The first guard went down quietly; Laurence crept up behind him and snapped his neck, a hand over the man's mouth to keep him from crying out. The snap seemed queerly loud in the quiet of the night, but the other sentinels did not look around at the noise and the animals remained quiet.
He managed to get the second man much the same way he had disposed of the first, but then his luck ran against him for the third man was positioned squarely upwind of the camp. Still he was looking out towards the grassy hills and not towards the camp; perhaps there was a simpler way. Keeping himself downwind, he set about methodically disposing of the sleeping men, his normal distaste for such an action having fled along with his honor and a good many of his emotions. It was wholly logical, and Laurence was numb to the outrage that should have inhabited his breast.
When he had finished, he yet still had to deal with the remaining guard; no sooner had he moved into the breeze the goats began making noise, his scent - still bearing traces of dragon, he supposed, even after all this time - having been carried back to them. The man on duty stiffened and spun around, eyes a trifle wild. Laurence leaped - there was no-one left to hear them, after all - and the man gave a shrill cry. Laurence bore them both to the ground, keeping himself on top, and feeling as though possessed by some demon he tore at the man's throat with his hands. Blood, hot and gushing, sprayed into the air and splattered Laurence in face and chest. The man gurgled obscenely, his eyes bulging with terror, before they went glassy and breath ceased.
Laurence panted in the cool night air, his mind a blank even as blood slowly dripped from his hair down his face. It was the pigs' squealing joining the goats' baaa-ing that finally drew him from his stupor. Standing, he fairly stumbled over to the makeshift pens, the feline grace he'd carried himself with throughout the confrontation now wholly absent. In a daze he mechanically undid fastenings and ropes and stepped back when the gate fell away. The pigs and goats huddled on the far side of the pen, making such a ruckus you'd think Laurence was butchering them.
When they made no move to escape Laurence frowned, but did not have the leisure to make them go. He needed to break the camp as best he could, to keep the French dragons from noticing it for as long as possible. With weary tread he stepped away from the pens towards the embers of the fire; as soon as he was clear of the entry all the animals rushed out as one, or nearly so, and fled for the hills. Laurence frowned, but could not muster much curiosity. He buried the embers, struck the tents, and used the canvas to cover the bodies before covering the canvas in turn with some brush he had pulled from a nearby wood.
It would not hold overlong, but as long he was well clear it did not matter. Looking to the stars, he oriented himself once again towards Dover, and began loping away at a steady, ground-eating pace.
As he approached Dover, French patrols and scavenging parties increased in frequency, and Laurence began to move wholly nocturnally, picking spots to sleep in the daytime that kept him well concealed. Those Frenchmen he encountered at night were not so lucky, and more than a few of them never woke up from their slumber. It was growing more difficult, however, as the French grew to fear the night and the groups became larger with more on watch to look out for resistance. In addition, sleeping on the hard ground was doing him no favors and his joints ached, especially his hands; his last few forays had been clumsy indeed and it was only through supernaturally good luck and some quick-thinking that he had not woken the entire encampment and been killed.
It was just coming on dawn when he finally came to a hill overlooking the city, and his heart sank. Smoke or dust hung in a low haze over the city, but there was no mistaking the flags that hung from every balcony. Napolean was not shy about claiming things as his, whatever his other faults, and it was clear that Laurence would find no safe harbor in this place. Bereft of a destination, he settled himself in a thicket near a stream for the day, thinking long and hard about the possibilities before him as he slid into sleep.
When he woke at sundown, he wiped his face with his hand, and froze in surprise as he felt a sticky liquid begin sliding between his fingers. With haste but careful not to make undue noise, Laurence rushed to a relatively still part of the nearby stream and splashed his face before leaning over to examine his reflection. His eyes were queerly colorless, bereft of their usual blue color, but he did not see anything to suggest an injury. As he reached up to feel his face, however, something about his hands arrested his attention.
He stared, mildly perplexed, at his missing fingernails. The ends of his fingers where they once had been were a trifle swollen, and had bloodless cuts running from the last knuckle to the tip.Probing the slit on his index finger yielded a sharp prodding and he drew his other hand back, flexing the first almost involuntarily. Claws, rather like those of a cat, slid from the ends of his fingertips and glistened in the wan moonlight. Laurence stared; he could feel something like horror trying to raise his gorge, but it came up against the blank numbness that had rested over him like a shroud since his trial and stopped. He could only blink as he relaxed his hand and the claws slid away. He flexed and relaxed his other hand, with similar results.
A dreadful sort of calm settled over him, the blanketing numbness settling more heavily than ever. This would, at least, make up for difficulties he had in getting his hands to bend and the clumsiness that resulted from it. The joints in his hand were clearly swollen, and a certain tightness in his shirt at his knees and elbows suggested that they were too. His back ached, and he suspected some of his teeth were becoming loose; he had thought, with his somewhat limited choices in diet, that he was perhaps contracting a case of scurvy. Clearly this was not the case.
Still, thinking about that prevented him from considering where to head next. After some consideration he stood and turned North; the castles in Scotland were unlikely to have fallen, and there were a number of coverts and other fortifications in that direction where likely lay friendly forces. He began walking with careful steps, the pains in his joints forcing him to move more slowly than he would like.
Moving North into the countryside saw a decrease in French patrols, but an increase in their scavenging parties. Clearly Napolean wished to both provide for his own forces without spending overmuch coin and deprive England of her home ground resources. Laurence killed all that crossed his path, his new claws making job even quicker than before.
His hair was grown long, and had mostly fallen out of his customary plait. While he had never done so so quickly before, the long beard he had grown mixed with the strands to frame his face. His clothing, too was in disarray; as his hands had grown numb and swollen he could not put himself together as was his custom and was obliged to leave buttons and ties undone so as not to waste time trying to do and undo them so often.
His boots, too, began to pain him, and he stopped early one night to struggle them off. It took him longer than he would have liked, and then his socks also had to be persuaded to part ways with his foot. What was finally revealed when they came off was something he had almost dully expected. The past few nights had seen the palms of his hands and the pads of his fingers gain a rougher texture, recalling to him the rope calluses of his younger days aboard ship. The rough patches had swollen, almost like blisters, and it seemed similar changes had been wrought on his feet. His toenails were gone, and balls of his feet were swollen and rough. He though also that perhaps the arches of his feet were longer than he remembered, but he dismissed it as a flight of fancy and had curled up underneath a gorse bush to sleep.
The next morning he was woken by something touching the back of his leg; startled, he bit back a reflexive oath as he reached back to find whatever had decided to make a home of his trousers. Feeling around - carefully, for his fingers were not sensitive and he did not accidentally wish to unsheathe his claws - he at first encountered nothing, and was about to give up when the touch came again. Quicker than he would have believed possible before everything, his hand grasped at whatever it was and pulled, attempting to bring it around for his inspection.
A sudden frisson of pain raced up his already-aching spine, and he stopped pulling immediately. Slowly he followed the bit of bone and skin up for about an inch before he found its terminus - the base of his spine. He stopped, trying to grapple with this new reality. He had a tail; so too, did he have claws, and his hands and feet were resembling less of humanity as something distinctly more.....bestial.
He put his head in what was left of his hands. Was this, then, the price of honor? Had he lost himself so thoroughly that even the Almighty did not believe him human any longer? He had listened to the stories the ensigns told each other, of heathen priests in Africa and the Caribbean, who would strip men first of their minds and then of their human form, and had first scoffed and then discouraged such nonsense in his crews. Clearly there had been some grain of truth to the stories.
In a sudden frenzy Laurence tore at his clothes, some unknown and morbid determination driving him to see for himself how far he had fallen. His shirt and coat gained several new rips, but he got them off in the end and stared at his chest. While he had not been as smoothly-chested as some of his shipmates, neither had he resembled a walking carpet as some of the sailors did.
Not so now. In patchy array, the light dusting of hair he had sported since he had grown into his voice had increased. Still a light golden color, its thickness gave it away for what it truly was. It was not so very thick, yet, but it lay in smooth array as opposed to the curls he had seen on the sailors and thickened as it approached his trousers. Laurence stared dumbly, sitting in silence until a cool breeze ruffled the undeniable fur and made him shudder.
He stood abruptly, and continued North. He doubted very much now that he would be accepted if he did report in, but one direction was as good as another. Bleak despair chilled his breast, and he clung to the thought that, even should he be lost entirely, he might still do his duty for King and country and deny the invaders to her shores.
He left his shirt unbuttoned, and daily the fur thickened further until he had a thick pelt - a good thing, for the nights were growing ever colder as he approached the northern latitudes. So, too, were the French scavenging groups growing in size; now it was almost fifty men to a group, and Laurence could see why; he was not the only one hunting the French. He came across several desolate battlegrounds where tattered french flags lay in the dirt beside men in French uniform. There had been young trees laying about, pulled up by the roots, and they smelled heavily of dragons. Laurence could only suppose that the Admiralty was trying to prevent scavengers from feeding the French dragons.
Laurence's joints continued to ache, even as his tail grew longer by the day. When it finally stopped it was at least two feet in length, and possessed a mind of its own - or so it seemed. His feet and hands had lengthened as well, palms and arches stretching as fingers became nearly immobile and almost worse than useless, save for fighting or hunting. Finally, one evening, when Laurence had awoken and gathered himself to stand, he found the position unnatural and putting a great strain on his hips. He essayed a few steps and nearly fell on his face, only branches of a nearby tree saving him from so ignominious a fate.
Walking flat-footed served him a little better, but the rocks dug painfully into his heels and he was forced back to his toes. With some trepidation, he crouched and placed his lengthened hands - paws - on the ground. Their growth had brought him to a nearly even keel, standing thusly, and he took a few careful steps as he had seen cats do in the stables when he was a boy. The movements were awkward, his shoulders and neck still unsuitable for the task, but the motion was surprisingly pain-free. He could move more quickly, too, each pace eating up more ground than his previous steps had, but the pain in his shoulders and neck forced him to take breaks more often than he would have liked.
Eventually the ache in his neck dissipated, but the ache in his shoulders remained - a certain heaviness to it that grew more uncomfortable with each passing day. His clothes, now much the worse for wear, began to split at the seams; his shirt hung in tatters from his neck while his trousers and smallclothes split unevenly up the seams. When they began to prove a hindrance he tore them shorter; he could not bring himself to forsake them entirely, no matter how foolish he may look.
When one day he woke to the feeling of foreign weight upon his back, it somehow did not surprise him in the least to find yet more new limbs, though the fact that they were wings - feathered wings, at that - did evoke a mild surprise in him. In the almost fugue state he had been in since the sinking of the Goliath he had felt emotions but distantly, listlessly. Were it not for the duty he held for his country to see her safe and foreign invaders driven from her shores, he might well have sunk into a blackness which would have seen him captive twice over.
The lack of his honor would pain him keenly, the title of traitor burned onto his heart and mind, yet he could summon no regret for his actions. The thousands of lives, of dragons near and far, enemy and innocent, were by far worth the more than his. Better he did not think about such, and concentrate on the matter at hand.
The wings were small yet, though that could be because Laurence himself were grown larger. He could not be sure, of course, having no way to measure himself, but things that had been eye level before he had been forced to a posture more suited to beasts than men were suddenly eye-level again. He could flap the wings, but they did not provide much lift - though they were still growing, he could tell that much.
As they grew he practiced flying, some deep part of himself that he would deny pleased beyond words with the thought of flying by Temeraire's side, equals in the air. As flapping them did not seem to do much, he essayed gliding and found that worked better - though his wings trembled with exhaustion at lengths greater than thirty meters as yet. Still, he remembered enough from Temeraire's training that such practices were necessary for endurance, and that strength would come with time.
Much to his annoyance, the end of his tail sprouted a fan of feathers that itched at his nose whenever he curled up to sleep.
French patrols were shifting, and dragons - both English and French - passed over him more frequently, all headed west for the coast. Laurence turned to follow; if there was to be a battle, perhaps he could be of some material assistance. His wings had fully grown in, and he had - clumsily - taught himself to fly. The fan of feathers on his tail turned out to be extremely helpful with turning and maneuvering and his disgruntlement with it faded somewhat. Still, he avoided flying insofar as he could, his silhouette wholly unlike a dragon's and he did not wish to see how he would fair in aerial combat against so many.
He could smell the encampments as he drew closer, the smell of so many men, beasts, and dragons in such close proximity carrying on the air for miles. Laurence's nose, while his face had remained largely unchanged save for size, had become distinctly more acute during his months of travel. He stopped a good distance away from the camp to consider. While some fatalistic portion of his mind called for him to march straight into camp to give himself over to the justice his crimes demanded, another - more pragmatic - part told him that he would likely be shot before he got within hailing distance.
He prowled around the edges of the camp, keeping himself out of sight as he had with the French encampments for so long. Men worked feverishly, loading guns and ammunition, setting out cannons and canister shot, pepper balls and flash powder in special chests set at regular intervals that would clearly cover the maximum amount of the battlefield. Laurence approved, feeling more alive than he had since before the Goliath's unfortunate demise.
He nearly broke from cover and galloped into camp, however, when he reached the dragons. There, in place pride at the center, was Temeraire. He wore the lightest of harnesses with a shining medallion attached to the platinum breastplate Laurence had given him so very long ago, and Laurence's heart squeezed at the sight. He wanted nothing more than to run to Temeraire's side once more, and yet he could not. He stood there for a long time, drinking in the sight of one most precious to him, until the wind shifted and blew from his back. Temeraire looked up from where he had been speaking to a smaller dragon - not one Laurence recognized, a light-weight of indeterminate coloring, and looked sharply at the treeline where Laurence stood.
Laurence melted away; he had no desire to let Temeraire see him, having fallen so far. He did not stop until he was nearly on the beaches of the coast itself. It was odd that battle should be pitched so close to a coast without a harbor in sight, but he could not guess why the French had come here of all places. The dreary wet that had been threatening all day became rain in the night and Laurence laboriously drew together some bushes for a shelter, curling tightly beneath them and tucking his tailfeathers beneath his head.
The next morning dawned bright and early, the rain having largely subsided in the course of the night, and while a fog lay dense upon the sea for some distance the clouds in the sky were patchy and light. Scarcely had the sun cleared the horizon than the first shots rang out, the boom of cannon fire punctuating the crackle of rifle fire and throatier roars of the pepper guns. The dragons themselves - Temeraire in the lead with a light-combat rig, which Laurence thought peculiar - Also launched into the sky to face off against the French dragons.
Their tactics were wholly altered, starting in formation but then breaking apart in a way that did not wholly make sense from this angle, yet seemed to be proving effective so he supposed there must have been some consideration gone into their use. He ached fiercely to be there, fighting for England, yet he knew that his presence would prove a distraction at best and a hindrance at worst. He did what he could, ambushing French soldiers who had drawn too close to the trees and edges of the battlefield, but it was not much in the grand scheme of things.
Still, he could feel the tides of the battle stalling, becoming mired in a tiring morass that would see neither the victor, and it worried him. Before he could do anything particularly foolish, however, a rolling roar echoed out from the sea and five French dragons fell squalling to their deaths, crushing their crew and countrymen alike with their corpses. Laurence turned sharply, and saw that, with the fog blown away, seventeen ships of the line standing at anchor, rolling broadsides speaking now over the battlefield to bring down yet more French dragons. He could not resist joining in the huzzah that rose from the British lines, the depth of his own voice surprising him into silence rather more quickly than the general hullaboo.
The battle now turned decisively in England's favor; the French dragons were either falling back or being driven forward and down into the ground-based pepper guns of the English infantry . Deprived of their air support, French gun positions were now vulnerable to strafing runs from Longwings and experienced British bombardiers, several gun emplacements destroyed in the minutes since the first volley from the ships. Laurence could see, now, why Britain had forced the fight at this lonely spot; it was one of the few enough places that had deep water nearly to the shoreline itself without those shores also being nearly impassible cliff faces.
Even as he watched the French position grew more desperate, British forces now spilling across the battlefield in carefully calculated charges, pushing back towards the French camp and the command tents set therein. If the battle continued, Napolean would not be able to escape their grasp this time as he had before.
As he watched, a graceful white shape took wing from the center of the French camp. Lien, glittering in the sunlight but curiously unadorned, began winging her way toward the coast - and the line of firing ships. Laurence's heart clenched in a mixture of fear and anger; he remembered well what Temeraire had done to the Valerie and knew that Lien could do at least as much harm, if not more - she had been trained to use the Divine Wind by the Chinese for years, whereas Temeraire had never had any formal education on the subject at the time of the Valerie's sinking.
Laurence could see that the British dragons were wholly engaged in the ground forces and French dragons; none could disengage and be there in time to stop Lien. There was only one thing for it, then. Resolution in his duty filled him, and Laurence launched himself skyward, his wings cupping the air and propelling him upward much faster than anything he had managed previously.
He was by no means a terribly skillful flier yet, having had no formal education on the subject, but he was swift enough to intercept Lien before she could totally clear the coast. Surprise was on his side for his initial attack - a good thing, for however much he had grown during the strange change of the past months he was still no better than courier-weight if one was being generous and he was soaking wet. Still, his claws were razor-sharp in their newness and they slid through Lien's unprotected scales like a hot knife through butter.
Hot black blood splashed him as he tore at her throat, fore claws gripping tight while he slashed again and again with his hind claws, some unknown instinct driving him to a frenzy. His grip was such that, despite the frenzied spiraling she immediately undertook was not enough to shake him loose. His claws drove deeper by the second, desperately searching for the large veins or her windpipe. Lien came to a halt, hovering in midair as she twisted her neck oddly to bring her own claws into play.
Laurence was forced to let go at the first narrow miss, talons larger than his head nearly relieving him of it in a single stroke. Dropping free, he twisted himself with surprising deftness up over the curve of her shoulder and set about her wing-joint, her lack of a crew allowing him to undertake a maneuver that would be suicide were even one man available to stop him. She screeched, and twisted to bite at him, but his claws had done their work and one of the big tendons of the wings lay exposed to the air, somewhat frayed from his attempts to sever it.
Immediately Lien began falling from the sky, the damage done to her wing rendering it too weak to continue hovering, and she angled for land. Laurence released his hold and leaped into the sky, circling as Lien made a heavy landing. She bled freely from the lacerations in her neck and shoulder, and Laurence suspected that they would be enough to finish her if left untreated. Still, she was not dead yet and he saw the tell-tale swelling of her sides that was a precursor to the Divine Wind. He dropped from the sky like an arrow, and the shattering roar flew wide of him - though the wind of its passage buffeted him like a blow.
Laurence made sure she had no time to try again; he flung himself forward and only just avoided a snap from her jaws that would have cleaved him in two. Unfortunately, that left him open to the follow-up blow from her fore claws. She slammed him into the dirt and left a long gash in his side. He huffed and rolled to avoid a second swat, but he could feel his strength waning; she would have her revenge in a moment and that would be the end of him.
A shadow fell over him and Lien was knocked aside. She collapsed and did not get up; her wounds were at last catching up to her, or so Laurence hoped. He squinted up at the shadow above him, but he could not quite make it out against the light of the noonday sun. He brought up a paw to shield himself from the glare and winced when the motion pulled the injury on his side. "Laurence!" A familiar voice exclaimed and Laurence froze, a feeling as though he had been dipped in a bath of ice water running over him. Surely it could not be-
"Temeraire," he said, his voice deeper and rougher than he remembered but still distinctly his. "Laurence, what has happened to you? They told me you had died," and oh, Temeraire sounded so desolate Laurence could not quash the impulse to get up and comfort him. His legs would not support his weight, however, and he fell back against the sand. "Temeraire," he said again, more faintly, and he could almost feel the palpable alarm emanating from the dragon.
"Laurence! You are injured! I will take you to Keynes at once." Matching word to deed, Laurence could feel Temeraire's claws sliding beneath him and supporting him even as his vision faded to black.
Temeraire flew with all haste back to the grounds given over for the use of the dragons. Oh, the battle was still going on but it was nearly over and Laurence was by far more important anyway. What had happened to his captain? Temeraire had been told he was dead and had done many things in his memory, but here he was alive - though much changed. He was nearly the size of a courier-weight, now, with fur the color of his hair, paws instead of hands or feet, and wings! He had always been assured - usually by Laurence himself - that such transformations, whenever they appeared in the various books his captain had read to him, were wholly fictionalized; still, Laurence had been - mistaken - about other things. It appeared that he had been mistaken in this instance too.
Temeraire's appearance over the temporary covert-grounds while the battle still raged caused a flurry of concern in the humans who had been left there; the dragons did not pay him overly much mind, though Perscitia did look interested in what he held in his claws. "Keynes!" Temeraire roared, his voice carrying only a fraction of the Divine Wind. It was still enough to shake the tents, however, and be heard from some distance. Keynes hurried over, looking a trifle harried as he had been working on injured dragons practically since the battle began. "What is it-" he began to say, then stopped when he saw the tawny pile of fur and feathers Temeraire placed ever so carefully on the ground for his inspection.
"What...is it?" Keynes asked, coming closer to have a look. "It is Laurence; he is injured, please you must help him!" Temeraire said earnestly. Keynes stared fixedly at the face he had just uncovered by pushing back some of the mane the creature had. "Please!" Temeraire repeated, nudging at the surgeon with one of his claws. "Hmm? Oh. Oh!" Keynes bent hurriedly to examine the gash Lien's claws had left, pulling some instruments out of his ever-present bag. "I'll have to stitch it, but it at least looks clean. Hi there! Fetch me some water!" Keynes peremptorily ordered one of the younger ground crew who had cautiously entered the clearing when Temeraire had yelled for Keynes. The boy looked at the slack face of the unconscious patient, turned an interesting shade of oatmeal, and ran off.
Not willing to wait for the boy's return, Keynes began working on stitching up the wound. He'd never had to sew through fur before, but it wasn't terribly difficult. Temeraire watched him like a hawk, body curled around the pair as if to shield them from the world. A faint cheering was heard, borne on the wind, but none of the three where in a state to hear it. Keynes was concentrating on his work, Temeraire was concentrating on Keynes working, and Laurence had yet to wake.
The other dragons began trickling back from the fight; most called out a greeting to Temeraire but he ignored them all. His irregular company landed near him, but he hissed at them all to stay back. He very nearly hissed at Admiral Roland too, when she arrived with the boy Keynes had sent for water in tow. "What's all this I'm hearing about there being a monster with Laurence's face on it?" She demanded, letting the thoroughly frightened boy go give Keynes the water he'd requested.
Temeraire shook his head. "It is not a monster, it is Laurence! He is alive!" The joy in his voice was palpable, and he looked happier than he had in months - ever since he'd gotten news of the sinking of the Goliath he had not truly been happy. Roland looked at him for a long moment before directing her attention to Keynes. "What the devil does he mean by that?" Keynes stood up from where he'd been rinsing his hands and the now cleanly stitched cut with the water he'd requested and nodded in the direction of the furry heap in front of him's head. "See for yourself."
Roland gave him a Look but he said nothing else; huffing she stalked over and looked down.
And gasped. There, looking for all the world like he was merely asleep, was Laurence's face - well, Laurence's face if Laurence had ever lowered himself to a full beard. She looked sharply back up at Keynes. "How is this even possible?" She demanded, but the doctor only shook his head. "If you had asked me that half an hour ago, I would have said that it was not," he responded. "But as it clearly is, I suspect we shall have to wait until he wakes to get our answers."
Admiral Roland scowled but nodded; then abruptly pointed to the boy she'd caught telling breathless stories to the other ground crew as he'd filled a basin with water. "You! No more tales out of you. No-one besides Keynes or myself is allowed in or out of this clearing until further notice. Arrange a guard and for Heaven's sake keep your foolish mouth shut." The boy gulped and nodded before running off again. Roland turned back to the surgeon. "I realize you have more patients to see, but make sure they are informed that I am to be told the very moment he awakes." Keynes nodded and went after the boy. She looked back at the somnolent form nearly obscured by the jealous dragon that was curled around it. "Oh Laurence, what have you gotten yourself into now?" she whispered to herself, before turning on her heel and heading for the command tent. For now, she had reports to make.
Laurence felt truly warm for the first time in a very long time, a familiar heartbeat thrumming near his ear and the smell of dragon obliterating nearly all other scents. He stretched briefly and curled closer to the nearby warmth, his side merely pulling where before it had been painful. "Laurence," a familiar voice intruded on his sleep and he frowned a little. Why did Temeraire sound so concerned? "Laurence, are you awake?"
Laurence sighed. "For you, dearest, always," he replied, concealing a huge yawn behind his paw. His paw? The circumstances rushed back into his waking mind and he jerked to his feet - all four of them - now fully awake. "Laurence!" Temeraire nuzzled at him, rubbing soft scales against short fur while avoiding the bandage Keynes had placed on his handiwork. Laurence leaned into it in an attempt to return the affection. "Laurence, they told me you were dead, gone down on the Goliath. But here you are, though you are much changed." Laurence opened his mouth to reply, but was interrupted by another familiar voice.
"Laurence! What the Hell happened to you?" Admiral Roland came striding into the clearing, several of the other captains of Temeraire's formation hanging back at edge of the clearing, having evidently followed her once they heard of Laurence's waking. He dipped his head to her in the best approximation he could of a bow. "Admiral. I am afraid I do not have much of an explanation myself." He could not meet here eyes, and was acutely aware of his state of undress, no matter that his effects would likely no longer fit him anyway.
"Well, start the beginning. What happened on the Goliath?" The Admiral's tone was not unkind, but it was implacable. Laurence dipped his and began, telling of how he had joined the action onboard the Goliath, of going to the deck and of receiving a sword from the bosun. How Napolean's dragons had come upon the ship, sinking great harpoons attached to hawsers and dragged it around like a whale. Of his and other men's desperate attempts to saw through the hawsers - of the bombing run that had holed the hull. "I am - was - an indifferent swimmer, but that puts me ahead of a deal of the sailors. When the Goliath sank, I attempted to make my way to shore. I succeeded, but the riptide had carried me some miles from the port and I was too exhausted to even begin making my way back. I rested under some trees until a French patrol came upon me; I managed to kill them, but required more rest after. When I had finally come to, it was night and I know not how many hours later. I endeavored to make my way back to the port, but it was quite overrun by the French."
Roland nodded, then gestured to him. "But how did this happen? Why are you.....Furry?" Laurence shuffled his wings, still avoiding her gaze. "I do not entirely know. Symptoms manifested themselves not long after I left off going to Dover and began to head North. It happened slowly, with the wings coming last; I do not know why it happened, though I suspect the effects are permanent." If they were not, he did not like to think of going through the somewhat tortuous process in reverse, not now that he was finally largely free of the dragging blankness that had plagued him since his sentencing by the Admiralty board.
"Are you.....alright, Laurence?" Came a soft inquiry from behind Roland. The other captains had drawn near as he related his story to the Admiral and it was Captain Harcourt who had spoken. Laurence realized with a jolt that even while he was sitting on his haunches he was now taller than his fellow captains. He inclined his head toward her. "I am as well as can be expected, though the process itself was.......Unpleasant." An awkward sort of silence stretched until finally Temeraire broke it.
"Well, I am glad you are alive no matter what you might look like. Besides, I think your new form is much more convenient, for now you can fly beside me whenever you like." His frill perked up in excitement. "In fact we could go now, if you liked." "No," came the firm interjection of Admiral Roland. "Putting aside the fact that Laurence should technically still be a prisoner, Keynes told me Laurence shouldn't be flying for at least a week while his side heals to be safe. If he were a dragon he'd be up and about in three, but as we've never had to deal with anything like this Keynes required the whole week."