Empire of Ivory by Naomi Novik

  “Sir,” Emily Roland said, “beg pardon, sir, but Mr. Dorset says to tell you, there is smoke coming into the cave, from the back.”

  A narrow vent, at the back, higher up than they could reach: propped up on Mr. Pratt’s broad shoulder, Laurence could see, through the thin stream of black smoke, the orange glow of the fire which the men had set to smoke them out. He dropped back to his own feet and cleared out of the way: Fellowes and Larring, Harcourt’s ground-crew master, were trying together with their men to block the vent with scraps of harness and leather, using their own coats and shirts besides. They were having little success, and time worked against them; already the cavern was nearly unbreathable, and the rising heat only worsened the natural stench.

  “We cannot last long this way,” Catherine said, hoarse but steady, when Laurence had come back to the front of the cave. “I think we had better make a dash for it, while we still can, and try and lose them in the forest.”

  Outside the entrance, the thorny brush which they had torn up to make their camp was now being heaped up closer by the dragons, forming stacks higher than a man’s head all around the cavern-mouth, and the dragons had arranged themselves carefully behind this barrier: screened from rifle-fire, and blocking their avenues of escape. There would be precious little hope of breaking through; but no better alternative would offer itself.

  “My crew is the largest,” Laurence said, “and we have eight rifles. I hope you will all agree we should make the first attempt, and the rest of you come upon our heels: Mr. Dorset, perhaps you will be so kind as to wait with Mrs. Erasmus until we have cleared a little way, and I am sure Mr. Pratt will assist you,” he added.

  The order of emergence was settled upon, in haste; they agreed upon a rendezvous point in the woods, consulting their compasses. Laurence felt his neckcloth, to be sure it was tied, and shrugged back into his coat in the dark, adjusting the gold bars upon his shoulders; his hat was gone. “Warren, Chenery; your servant, Harcourt,” he said, shaking their hands. Ferris and Riggs were crouched by the opening, ready; his own pistols were loaded. “Gentlemen,” he said, and drawing his sword went through the cavern exit, a roar of God and King George behind him.

  Chapter 10

  LAURENCE STUMBLED AS the rough hands dragged him up; his legs would not answer, and when he was flung forward they crumpled at once, casting him full-length on the ground, beside the other prisoners. They were being flung roughly into a rig much like their own belly-netting, but of coarser rope and designed less for passengers than for baggage. In a few sharp jerks, they were hauled up and slung below the red-brown dragon’s belly, their arms and legs left to dangle through the large haphazardly knotted gaps, and their bodies crammed in one atop another. The netting was loose, and swung in great sickening curves with every shift in the wind or direction, every sudden diving movement.

  There was no guard set to watch them, nor any personal restraint, but they were thoroughly immobilized regardless, and had no opportunity to shift their positions or converse. He was low in the netting, with his face pressed directly into the raw cords, which scraped him now and again; but he was grateful for the air despite the thin ribbons of blood which came dripping past him, and the wider arc of swinging. Dyer was pushed up against his side; Laurence had his arm around the boy, to keep him in: the netting was uneven, and the cords moving might have easily let him slip through to plunge to his death.

  The wounded had been thrown in with the whole. A young midwingman from Chenery’s crew, badly clawed, lay with his jaw pressed against Laurence’s arm, blood seeping slowly from the corner of his mouth and soaking through the cloth. Some time during the night he died, and his corpse stiffened slowly as they flew on. Laurence could distinguish no-one else around him, only the anonymous pressure of a boot in the small of his back, a knee jammed up against his own, so that his leg was bent back upon itself.

  He had glimpsed Mrs. Erasmus only briefly, in the dreadful confusion of their taking, as the nets were flung down upon them from the trees; she had certainly been dragged away alive. He did not wish to think on it; he could do little else, and Catherine’s fate weighed on him heavily.

  They did not stop. He slept, or at least passed into a state more distant from the world than wakefulness, the wind passing over his face in gusts, the rocking of the netting not wholly unlike the querulous motion of a ship riding at anchor in a choppy cross-sea. A little while after dawn, the dragon brought up sharp, cupping the wind in its wings as it descended, bird-like, and came to the ground jarringly, skipping a few steps along the earth before dropping onto its forelegs.

  The netting was cut loose, roughly, and they were picked over quickly and efficiently, the men prodding them with the butt ends of their spears and heaving away the corpses. Laurence could not have risen to his legs with all the liberty in the world to do so, his knee afire with returning blood, but he raised his head, and saw Catherine lying a little way distant: flat upon her back, pale and her eyes shut, with blood on the side of her face. There were two bloody rents in her coat also, near the arm, but she had kept it, and buttoned; her hair was still tightly plaited, and there was no sign she had been distinguished.

  No time for anything more: a little water was splashed in their faces, and the netting folded back over their heads; the dragon stepped over them and they were hoisted back up with quick, jerking pulls. Away again. The motion was worse in daylight, and they were a lighter load now, swaying more easily with the wind and every slight change of direction; the Corps was a service that hardened the stomach, but even so filth trickled down now through the press of bodies, the sour smell of bile. Laurence breathed through his mouth so far as he could, and turned his face to the ropes when he himself had to vomit.

  There was no more sleep, until at last with the sun they descended again, and this time at last they were taken out from the netting one and two at a time, weak and ill, and lashed together at wrists, upper arms, and ankles, into a human chain. They were fixed to a pair of trees at either end, and their captors came around with water in dripping leather bags, fresh and delicious, the spout dragged too soon away from their seeking mouths; Laurence held the last swallow on his parched tongue as long as he could.

  He leaned forward and glanced down the line: he did not see Warren at all, but Harcourt looked up at him, a quick nod; Ferris and Riggs looked as well as could be expected, and Roland was tied on at the very end, her head drooping against the tree to which she was fastened. Chenery was tied the other side of Dyer from him; his head was tipped awkwardly onto his own shoulder, his mouth hung open in exhaustion; he had a great purpling bruise all across his face, and he had his hand clenched upon his thigh, as though the older wound pained him.

  They were near the banks of a river, Laurence gradually became aware, hearing the slow soft gurgling of the water behind him though he could not turn about to look, a torment when they were all still thirsty. They were in a matted grassy clearing; sending his eyes to the side he could see a border of large stones encircling the flattened grounds, and a fire-pit blackened with use: a hunting camp, perhaps, used regularly; the men were walking around the boundary, tearing up the greenery which had sent encroaching tendrils into the clearing.

  The great red-brown beast settled itself at the far side of the fire-pit, and closing its eyes down to slits went to sleep; the other two took wing again: a mottled green, and a dark brown creature, both with pale grey underbellies gilded with a kind of iridescence, which quickly made them melt into the deepening sky above on their leap.

  A long-legged plover wandered through the clearing, picking at the ground for seeds and chirping, a high metallic sound like a small bell struck with a hammer. In a little while the smaller dragons returned, carrying the limp bodies of several antelope; two of these were respectfully deposited before the red-brown dragon, who tore into them with appetite; another they shared amongst themselves; and the last was given to the men, butchered quickly, and put into a large cauldron already steami

  Their captors were quiet over their dinner, clustering to one side of the fire and eating from bowls with their fingers; when one of them rose to go to the boiling-pot again, and the flames leapt with the sizzle of water, Laurence glimpsed briefly Mrs. Erasmus on the other side of the fire beside the dragon, sitting bent over a bowl in her hands and eating, steadily and calmly. Her hair had come loose from its ruthless restraints, and curved out around her face in a stiff bell-shape; she had no expression at all, and her dress was torn.

  After their own meal, the men came over and in a handful of bowls fed them all off the remnants, a kind of grain-porridge cooked in meat broth. There was not a great deal for any of them, and humiliating to have to eat with their faces bent forward into the bowl held for them, like rooting in a trough, the remnants left dripping from their chins. Laurence closed his eyes and ate, and when Dyer would have left some broth in the bowl said, “You will oblige me by eating everything you can; there is no telling when they will feed us again.”

  “Yes, sir,” Dyer said, “only they will put us back aboard, and I am sure I will have it all up again.”

  “Even so,” Laurence said, and thankfully it seemed that their captors did not mean to set out again immediately. They instead spread out woven blankets upon the ground, and carried out a long bundle from among their things; they set it down upon the blankets and undid the wrappings, and Laurence recognized the corpse: the man whom Hobbes had shot, the one who had murdered Erasmus. They laid him out with ceremony, and washed him down with water carried from the spring, then wrapped him again in the skins of the antelope lately caught. The bloody spear they set beside him, as a trophy perhaps. One of them brought out a drum; others took up dry sticks from the ground, or began simply clapping or stamping their feet, and with their hands and voices made a chant like a single unending cry, one taking up the thread when another paused for breath.

  It was grown wholly dark; they were still singing. Chenery opened his eyes and looked over at Laurence. “How far do you suppose we have come?”

  “A night and day, flying straight, at a good pace; making steadily north by north-east, I think,” Laurence said, low. “I cannot tell more; what speed do you think he would make, the big one?”

  Chenery studied the red-brown dragon and shook his head. “Wingspan equal to his length, not too thickset; thirteen knots at a guess, if he didn’t want to throw the light-weights off his pace. Call it fourteen.”

  “More than three hundred miles, then,” Laurence said, his heart sinking; three hundred miles, and not a track left behind them to show the way. If Temeraire and the others could have caught them, he would have had no fear, not of this small rag-tag band; but in the vastness of the continent, they could disappear as easily as if they had all been killed and buried, and waste the rest of their lives imprisoned.

  Already they had scarcely any hope of making their way back to the Cape overland, even setting aside the great likelihood of pursuit. If they made directly westward for the coast, avoiding all native perils and managing to find food and water enough to sustain them over a more reasonable month’s march, they might at last reach the ocean; then what? A raft, perhaps, might be contrived; or a pirogue of a sort; Laurence did not set himself up as a Cook or a Bligh, but he supposed he could navigate them to a port, if they escaped gale and dangerous currents, and bring back aid for the survivors. A great many ifs, all of them unlikely in the extreme, and sure to only grow more so the farther they were carried; and meanwhile Temeraire would certainly have come into the interior after them, searching in a panic, and exposing himself to the worst sort of danger.

  Laurence twisted his wrists against the ropes: they were good stuff, strong and tightly woven, and there was little yield. “Sir,” Dyer said, “I think I have my pocket-knife.”

  Their captors were winding down their ceremony; the two small dragons were digging a hole, for the burial. The pocket-knife was not very sharp, and the ropes were tough; Laurence had to saw for a long time to free one arm, the thin wooden hilt slippery in his sweating hand, and his fingers cramping around it as he tried to bend the knife against the bindings around his wrist. At last he succeeded, and passed it along to Chenery; with one arm free he could work on the knots between him and Dyer.

  “Quietly, Mr. Allen,” Laurence said, on his other side; the ensign was tugging clumsily at the knots holding him to one of Catherine’s midwingmen.

  The mound was raised, and their captors were asleep, before they had more than half disentangled themselves. There was a noisy groaning of hippopotami in the darkness; it sounded very near-by at times, and occasionally one of the dragons would raise a sleepy head, listening, and make a quelling growl, which silenced all the night around them.

  They worked more urgently now, and those of them already freed risked creeping from their places to help the others; Laurence worked with Catherine, whose slim fingers made quick work of the worst knots, and then he whispered softly, when they had loosed her man Peck, the last, “Pray take the others into the woods and do not wait for me; I must try and free Mrs. Erasmus.”

  She nodded, and pressed the pocket-knife on him: dulled to uselessness, but at least a moral support; and then they quietly one by one crept into the forest, away from the camp, except for Ferris, who crawled over to Laurence’s side. “The guns?” he asked softly.

  Laurence shook his head: the rifles had unhappily been bundled away, by their captors, into the rest of their baggage, which lay tucked beside the head of one of the snoring dragons: there was no way to get at them. It was dreadful enough to have to creep past the sleeping men, lying exhausted and sprawled upon the ground after the catharsis of their wake: every ordinary snuffled noise of sleep magnified a hundredfold, and the occasional low crackles of the fire, burning down, like thunderclaps. His knees were inclined to be weak, and some of his steps sagged, involuntarily, almost so they brushed the ground; he had to steady himself with a hand against the dirt.

  Mrs. Erasmus was lying apart from the men, to one side of the fire, very near the head of the great red-brown dragon; his forelegs were curled shallowly to either side of her. She was huddled very small, with her hands tucked beneath her head; but Laurence was glad to see she did not seem to have been injured. She jerked almost loose when Laurence’s hand came over her mouth, the whites of her eyes showing all around, but her trembling quieted at once when she saw him; she nodded, and he lifted his hand away again, to help her to her feet.

  They crept as softly away, and slowly, around the great taloned claw, the black horny edges serrated and gleaming with the red firelight, the dragon’s breath coming deep and evenly; his nostrils flared in their regular pace, showing a little pink within. They were ten paces away, eleven; the dark eyelid cracked, and the yellow eye slid open upon them.

  He was up and roaring at once. “Go!” Laurence shouted, pushing Mrs. Erasmus onward with Ferris; his own legs would not answer quickly, and one of the men waking leapt upon him, taking him by the knees and to the ground. They fell wrestling in the dust and dirt, near the fire; Laurence grimly hoping for nothing more, now, than to cover the escape. It was a clumsy, drunken struggle, like the last rounds of a mill with both parties weaving and bloodied; both of them exhausted, and Laurence’s weakness matched by his opponent’s confusion of having been woken from sound sleep. Rolling upon his back, Laurence managed to lock an arm around the man’s throat, and pulled with all his might upon his own wrist to hold it; he lashed out with his booted foot to trip another who was snatching for his spear.

  Ferris had pushed Mrs. Erasmus towards the forest; a dozen of the aviators were running out, to come to her aid, and to Laurence. “Lethabo!” the dragon cried—whatever the threat or meaning, it brought her to a distracted halt, looking around; the dragon was lunging for Ferris.

  She called out in protest herself and, running back where Ferris had dived to the ground to evade in desperation, threw herself between, holding up a hand; the claw, descending, stopped, a
nd the dragon put it down again before her.

  THIS TIME THE men set a watch, learning from their mistake, and tied them up closer by the fire: there would be no second attempt. The two small dragons had herded them back to the camp with contemptuous ease, and an air of practice; if in the process they had also stampeded a small herd of antelope, they did not mind that, and made a late supper to console themselves for the effort. They missed only Kettering, one of Harcourt’s riflemen, and Peck and Bailes, both harness-men; but the latter two stumbled demoralized back into camp and surrendered, early in the morning, with the intelligence that Kettering had been killed, trying to ford the river, by a hippo; their pale and nauseated expressions precluded any wish of knowing more.

  “It was my name,” Mrs. Erasmus said, her hands tight around her cup of dark red tea. “Lethabo. It was my name when I was a girl.”

  She had not been permitted to come and speak to them, but at her pleading they had at length consented to bring Laurence over, hobbled at the ankles with his wrists tied together before him, and one of the spearmen standing watch lest he try to reach towards her. The red-brown dragon himself was bent over their conversation alertly, with a malevolent eye on Laurence at every moment.

  “Are these men of your native tribe, then?” he asked.

  “The men, no. They are of a tribe, I think, cousins to my own, or allied. I am not very sure, but they can understand me when I speak. But—” She paused, and said, “I do not understand it properly myself, but Kefentse,” she nodded towards the great hovering beast, “says he is my great-grandfather.”

  Laurence was baffled, and supposed she had misunderstood; or translated wrong. “No,” she said, “no; there are many words I do not remember well, but I was taken with many others, and some of us were sold together also. We called all the older men Grandfather, for respect. I am sure that is all it means.”

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