Tongues of Serpents Chapter 9

"I WISH YOU FELLOWS would make up your minds," Caesar said, "are we looking for smugglers, or natives, or the egg; and can't we go find something to eat, instead?"

"Pray don't be so thick," Temeraire said, "we are looking for all three, of course, and all three of them are one; and we will go get something to eat when Tharkay has worked out their trail and which way we ought to go."

This conclusion seemed quite self-evident to him, so he was puzzled to find Rankin utterly dismissive of the notion, and even Laurence saying to Tharkay, "Can the natives be responsible for the smuggling of the goods? I suppose the French might be supplying them, at some distant port - "

"It would certainly save them a great deal of labor," Tharkay said, "if I do not see how the natives could profit from the effort of carrying large quantities of goods across the width of an entire continent, only to the Sydney market."

"Why should they not like the goods for themselves?" Temeraire said, " - the porcelain is very nice; although they have been careless again." Anyone would have liked the piece, he thought, when it had been whole. "While I cannot really wish anything so nice broken, if they meant to break them anyway, it would be very useful if they should drop some others, as they go; and perhaps they may. Which way have they gone?" he asked, which after all was the real, the crucial point.

It was a little disheartening that Tharkay would have it that the pieces were older - had been here since the last rainfall, which certainly had not been in the last week, and of course that was far too long; but he insisted. Temeraire sighed a little, but after all, this was still a trail: if they had come this way before, then likely they had come this way again, or at least should end in the same place.

"And that would suit very well," Temeraire said to Laurence, tearing hungrily into his meat; they had gone on, and taken a few kangaroos to breakfast upon, "if we might fly on, and then wait for them to come to us, now that we know they will not be carrying the egg onto a ship somewhere, and over the ocean where we can never get at it again."

He looked for more shards or broken bits as they flew onward, now: if the ground had not been such an inconveniently bright color, it might have been easier; and also there were quite distinct sections, flying over, some of which were much more troublesome to examine. Temeraire preferred those where the trees and shrubs were scant and fire-blackened, and the grass very low to the ground, but in the afternoon when they had flown past a dry creek bed lined with the dark green shrubs, the vegetation flourished up again, huge straw-yellow mop-heads of grasses and pale green tender shrubs everywhere, trees spiking up.

Caesar did not help, either; he would have it that one could not hunt very well here, and they had very likely lost the trail, and the aborigines had gone quite another way, and so forth. And all the while the hot, dusty wind blew and blew into Temeraire's nostrils, and his eyes, and the red sand gritted upon his hide and collected in small pockets as his wings rolled through each stroke, and itched; and the men in the belly-netting muttered low and sullenly of home, and called out now and again to try and wheedle a halt for "a little grog, sir; it is downright inhuman, in this heat."

Caesar murmured and complained also, muffled by the heat and wind, until after an hour he said suddenly, "Hi, what is that there," and Temeraire halted mid-air and whipped his head around, hovering.

"I saw something there, I thought," Caesar said, but Temeraire flew back and forth and saw not the faintest gleam of foreign color among all the bushes and trees, not a track or even much of a clearing which could have been a camp, and Tharkay shook his head when he looked an inquiry back.

"Well, it wasn't color, so much," Caesar said thoughtfully, on being interrogated; he was flying in lazy circles while Temeraire searched. "Just I thought I saw something moving, but when I sang out it stopped. No, I can't tell you exactly where; this country all looks the same to me. I think it is pretty wonderful I should have spotted it at all."

"Very wonderful," Temeraire said, "when you cannot even say what you saw, and no-one else can see it."

"I am sure I don't need to bother, another time," Caesar said, bristling up his shoulders, and throwing out his red-blazoned chest, "if my effort is so unappreciated; just how I suspected it should be, and my fault, of course, that you can't hunt it out. If you want my opinion, if there were a hundred aborigines hiding about in this grass, you wouldn't know it, at all. We ought to fly somewhere else entirely; and at least we might set down and have a rest."

"I am not so lazy that I must have a rest before mid-day," Temeraire said. "We have already wasted enough time on whatever it is you saw."

Rankin was standing in his harness, on Caesar's back, looking behind them. "We will have to set down," he said, "in at best an hour: there is a thunderstorm coming on."

"Whyever should he think so?" Temeraire said to Laurence as he banked away, onto his course; the sky was clear, except for a little bank of blue clouds one might see if one looked around behind, but those were not coming on swiftly.

"I have been flying courier duty since I was twelve years old; I can damned well smell a storm," Rankin said flatly as Caesar came up with them, and twenty minutes later Temeraire was forced to concede, as the wind coming towards them began to die away in odd fits and starts, a suggestion of heaviness in the air, and as they flew on, the cloudbank behind grew long and turned a dark, essential blue striped a little with luminous grey and seaweed-greenish bands of color. The trees stood pale and white-limbed beneath it, lit from before by the sun.

"And it will surely erase all signs of passing," Temeraire said to Laurence unhappily. "Whatever can be done? I suppose we might fly on anyway, and try to keep ahead?"

"I am not flying on through that," Caesar said, looking behind apprehensively, as for emphasis the clouds put down abruptly a silent forked line of lightning directly to the earth, spidery and branching and flaring a moment in the dark. The roll of thunder came a long, dragging moment later; and a thin, wispy grey curtain of rain trailed down at one end of the cloud.

"We had better not," Laurence said, grimly, "and we ought not set down on higher ground, either; you are too large."

There was a little open space, of bare red earth and yellow grass, among some larger dunes and sheltered from the worst of the rising wind; the clouds were near upon them by then, and spattering gusts of rain which did not fill the eagerly outstretched canteens and cups, but only dimpled the softer loose dirt and left spots upon their clothing, and rattled the dry blades of grass. It was still hot and oppressive. The dark cloud came rolling up across the sky, suddenly quick after its long creeping approach, and the sun vanished.

More great long forks of lightning were tonguing down to the earth against the wide-open horizon, all around, and the voices of the thunder roared and groaned to one another from one side of the clouds to the other, so that one almost imagined meaning into it. Temeraire could not stop himself trying to make sense of it - he felt on the verge, over and over, as when he had learned only a little of some different sort of language, and thought he had just picked out a familiar word or two amid the sea of new sounds.

The wind shifted, coming hard into their faces: another thin spatter of unrefreshing rain thrown into his eyes and nostrils and flinging the dust upon him, so he had to blink and shake his head, snorting; a smell of distant smoke quite clear upon his tongue. Violet and orange haze spread across the sky, and Temeraire put out his wing a little further to shield the egg a little better from the wind.

"Peculiar sort of color there," Caesar said uneasily, sitting up on his hindquarters: he had grown a great deal, and when he stretched, now, his head might clear Temeraire's shoulder. It was a strange color: a vivid glow of red as though someone had painted a line across the horizon, and it was altering the color of the sky, casting that umber light on the clouds, so they were at once blue and muddied with orange-red, and still the lightning flashing against it, although now difficult to see.

"May I beg you to put me up," Laurence said, and Temeraire lifted him so he might see; Laurence opened up his glass and stood looking on Temeraire's shoulder, and then said, "Thank you; Captain Rankin, Mr. Forthing, I believe we had better get all aboard again."

The fire came upon them with shocking speed, a low hissing beneath the continuing crash of the thunder and dry wind, whispering with great malice and hunger, and Laurence shouting over the noise, "Leave that, damn your eyes," while one of the convicts came reluctantly out from behind some bushes and through the grey wisps of drifting smoke, dragging a cask of rum which he had somehow stolen away after their landing, meaning to privately enjoy. The other men jeered and called, yelling at him, "Bring it on quick, Bob, and we'll be merry as grigs all this fucking flight for once; you won't have it all to yourself, you old sodden bitch, no you won't."

Maynard halting stooped to heave the cask up to his shoulder. The fire was in the distance yet, a broad and smoke-shrouded wall of glowing orange seen through the veil, but already the yellow tips of grass were igniting like red embers upon the crest of the dune behind him as he bent, and a wave of heat came shimmering almost palpable into Temeraire's face and stole his breath.

Maynard was staggering towards them, and the cask was dripping; small sparks of blue fire going up as the droplets struck the ground to meet the catching tinder of dry grass, and then the thickets were going up ahead of his feet, smoke rising in one thin column after another blown into spreading curtains. Temeraire could not see the fire at all anymore as a separate thing: all the world beyond the dunes was flame, and the smoke climbing into thick and stinging pillars around him.

The man let the cask fall, and began to run shambling and coughing towards them. Temeraire felt very strange; his head was thick and confused and his wings felt leaden. He breathed in deeply, and coughed and coughed also; his throat and chest were closing as though someone had wrapped chains around him, and was trying to draw them taut. "Aloft," Laurence was roaring, "Temeraire, go aloft," and Temeraire thought, but I must wait, and he felt quite tired; and then a sharp stab of pain caught his hindquarters, startling his eyes open: when had he closed them?

"Get that egg out of the fire, you damned beast," Rankin shouted, from behind him, and the egg, the egg: Temeraire with a great bunching effort launched himself up; as his wings spread a great shuddering gust of hot, hot, hot wind blew up from beneath him, catching him aback; Maynard was dangling from the belly-netting, being pulled in, and the cask below was a brief torch burning blue-white out of the smoke for a moment. His hindquarters yet ached: there was a little blood dripping, where Caesar had pricked him hard with his claws, which ran down Temeraire's legs as he beat upwards. His wings still did not wish to answer very well.

Caesar was ahead, stretched out long and flying all-out in a straight line, beating and beating: Temeraire fixed upon his grey body and flew as best he could. The smoke still climbed after them, in rising tendrils mingling into columns mingling into sheets, thickening along the ground as all the heaped growth was consumed. His breath whistled painfully in his throat, a particular effort every time, and the thunder roared abruptly very near, out of the huge building clouds overhead; he twisted away on instinct, quite uselessly: the lightning had already struck the ground, perhaps a quarter-of-a-mile distant, and another tree was burning like a torch on its hill of red and gold.

The cold air felt better on his hide, in his throat; but the wind struck him from one side and then the next. One great buffeting gust came rushing at them from above, wet and shockingly cold after the heat, and Caesar was tumbled over: his left wing and shoulder blown hard down, and turning his other directly into the gust, so he was blown every which way, and Temeraire with a laboring burst of speed came under him only just in time to right him; sharp painful sting as Caesar's claws scrabbled on his hide.

Caesar steadied a little, and then they were taken apart again by the wind, another dragging gust which pulled Temeraire suddenly fifty feet straight upwards, only barely managing to keep his wings from snapping against his back.

"Laurence, Laurence," Temeraire called, to be sure that Laurence had not been hurt, by Caesar's claws, nor any of his crew; or he tried to call, but nothing came from his throat, so far as he could hear. The thunder was going off again, like cannon or worse, beside him and ahead, all at once: the sky above blazing with great gunpowder-flashes of lightning which showed the clouds going up and up and up like mountains full of cavernous hollows, false promises of shelter, and the edges billowing and crawling out and in, like living things brooding.

He tried to look and nearly had his neck wrenched around for his pains, the only comfort that he could glance downward and see the egg against his breastbone, the oilskin wrappings shining wet with rain. But the harness did not look so tight, he thought with sudden anxiety, and then the wind struck and he was tumbling, his head bowed down nearly below his forelegs, the blazing orange of the fire suddenly become the sky, the ground yawning with blue cloud-canyons, and then turned over and over, blurring; he could not spread his wings.

He stretched his jaws wide and drew in all the breath he could; the wind cut a little as he fell back towards the earth and the heat rose up instead, and he felt lighter as his chest filled out. He managed to twist himself sideways, and open his wings out straight up and down, in the line of his falling, and banking just a little into the wind caught an up-draft back towards the blue-black heights of the storm, already reaching a talon towards the egg, anxiously, to try and see: he brushed it very gently and carefully with the edge of a knuckle; it was there, it was safe.

"Secure that rigging there, if you please, Mr. Roland," he heard Lieutenant Forthing shouting, and as the fire roared up in pursuit behind them, Temeraire might have heard Laurence's voice; but he was not perfectly sure. But he could not look, he could not turn; the fire was below, the storm above, blind and unmeaning ferocity in every direction, so vast one could not even see the limits of it. He did not see Caesar anywhere, anymore. The sky was so dark, so black, smoke and thunderclouds and no relief, and somewhere there might be sunlight, but so far as Temeraire was concerned there was none left in the world at all, and no direction, either.

He put down his head and flew on.

Laurence nodded his thanks as Roland gave him the small cup of water, and drained it off despite the bitter and acrid taste. Water was rushing with great violence along the once-dry creek bed and had collected in deep puddles over the flat baked surface of the ground, but all choked with ash and dirt, undrinkable until it had been poured through a handkerchief to strain it as clean as it might be gotten.

The landscape had been wholly altered: trees reduced to black-twig skeletons, the thick grasses all gone as if into vapour, leaving behind only scorched and blackened patterns upon the ground which in places still sent up thin lines of smoke. Only the thick dark green bushes yet survived, more or less; the fire had only skirted along their line, and on the other side a region of the sparser vegetation had escaped destruction. Distantly ahead, the fire continued on, a thick black smudge against the sky.

Temeraire lay sleeping, his breath coming in low, worrying rasps. He had landed and thrust his muzzle into the rushing stream to drink long and deep, despite the clots of debris; then had fallen into a stupor. Dorset had listened to his chest and his throat and shaken his head.

Caesar had flown limping into their camp perhaps half-an-hour later, dripping-wet and exhausted from being tumbled about but a little less wretched: Rankin had steered him into the sheeting rain, far to the west along the cloud, where the fire had not been able to take hold. "I would not mind a bite, anyway," he said, drowsily, with his head upon his forelegs; his grey hide was streaked and mottled with charcoal.

Meat proved no difficulty, except for their fatigue. Many of the desert creatures formerly hidden by the scrub had been robbed of shelter where they had not also been robbed of life; there were twelve kangaroos lying upon the earth near enough to be dragged back to the creek, their fur already singed off and the flesh partly cooked through. The aviators wearily set about the gathering and butchering, under the direction of Gong Su. The best Laurence could say of the convicts was that they were keeping quiet and out of the way, having been doled out a reduced ration of grog. Maynard was forced to take his own glass at the opposite end of the camp, alone and in disgrace.

"I shouldn't like to go aloft on this harness again, sir, not without repairs," Mr. Fellowes said, climbing down from Temeraire's side with a segment of leather, to show him a buckle which looked as though it had been made of soft clay, pulled and stretched long and misshapen. "Not the worst of it, either: all the buckles are gone ahoo: softened by the heat, I think, and twisted up with all that buffeting we took."

"Do what you can with the supplies, Mr Fellowes; in any case we cannot think of leaving tomorrow," Laurence said tiredly, running his sleeve across his forehead; Temeraire would need the rest, and the pursuit should have to wait, if it were not now rendered quite hopeless. "Mr. Forthing, Mr. Loring, we will have a little order in this camp, I hope: let us have a couple of fires, and clear some of this debris; and perhaps if these gentlemen will dig us a pit near enough the water channel, it will give us a little cleaner water for drinking."

"Yes, sir," Forthing said, and went to work upon the convicts, sending those of them less greenish than the others to fetch their shovels; Laurence realized belatedly he had not thought anything of giving an order, nor evidently the officers of obeying: the united power of crisis and habit, he supposed, on both sides.

The sun was sinking, through the shredded remains of the storm clouds and the haze of smoke: all the sky become true extravagant splendour of purple and crimson and violent pink, gold-limned clouds and shafts of light flaring out like beacons through their gaps. There was not enough strength among them for any great labor. They managed with the shovels to rake away the worst of the smoky, stinking debris; the hole was dug in a curve of the creek and gradually began to fill up with water, filtered in through the dirt.

There was biscuit and the meat, thoroughly tasteless and without any scent and difficult to chew. "Can you stew them softer?" Laurence asked Gong Su, over the three kangaroos set aside for Temeraire; Gong Su nodded, but said, "They will be better in the morning," and Laurence nodding did not wake Temeraire to eat.

They slept uneasily, with a watch of four men all the night. The plains glowed with lingering embers all around, like a field of fallen stars burning gold, and a haze of orange-lit smoke hung in the west, as if the sun had chosen not to set but only to drop below the horizon. The creek's roar died away little by little. Laurence woke twice when Temeraire fell into a coughing fit, shudders rippling down his hide, and his head bent over; but Temeraire did not himself fully rouse, his eyes still closed to slits even as he trembled and spat grey-streaked phlegm.

"No, I am well, very well," Temeraire croaked out frog-like the next morning, although he swallowed the kangaroo, stewed into small half-disintegrated lumps, only very slowly and with visible pain, and reluctantly. "We must go on: we must find the trail again."

"My dear," Laurence said quietly, feeling a species of sneak, "I understand your feelings, but we must be practical: we must consider the egg which we yet have, and put its safety before the one which has been lost. Any strange territory is dangerous, wholly unguided as we are; we have already nearly come to grief one and all, and several of our company have suffered worse misfortune. We risk the last egg with every moment we continue: only your utmost exertions were sufficient to preserve it from this last disaster; if we should encounter a second such, could you honestly declare your present strength equal to the task?"

Temeraire was silent, his head bowed deeply over the last, the tiny egg. Laurence could not repress acute guilt: deeply unfair to use Temeraire's feelings so against him, perhaps even smacking of dishonesty, yet Laurence could not for a moment wish to withdraw, if by such a low method he might persuade Temeraire to take the rest necessary for his own health, even if a thousand eggs should be cracked upon the sands. "When you are recovered," Laurence said, "and the fire has died down, we will have more opportunity of finding the trail again. There is this benefit: the fire has quite cleared the landscape for our search."

"But also all the trail," Temeraire said sadly. "I cannot see how we should ever find them again if we wait at all; although I suppose I am being foolish. The trail is lost, and there is no help for it. Oh!" he cried. "I am glad we are never to go back to England again, Laurence: I do not think I should ever be able to look Cantarella in the face."

Temeraire cast his wings up and hid his head beneath them, afterwards, and did not care to speak; Laurence rested his hand on Temeraire's muzzle, for what comfort wordless sympathy might convey, and then fetched his writing-case and sat beside him in the dim shadowed cavern the wing-membranes made, pale bluish-grey light filtering in through their translucence. Laurence had been keeping a log of the journey, from the habit of service days; now he added the annotation,

Our present Location remains uncertain: we have been thrown thoroughly off any course, and we cannot be sure of the hour until we have made Noon, if the Sun should prove visible, at present it remains concealed within the extensive Haze. We are encamped beside a Creek, but this may as easily be the same dry bed of two days heretofore, or one entirely new, so I have not put it on the Chart. I hope we will retrace our steps towards Sydney, soon, when Dorset feels Temeraire is up to so much Activity.

He wrote to Jane afterwards, a separate sheet to enclose with the letter he had already begun to her: he felt he could not put off so unpleasant a task on Granby as to convey the intelligence of the loss of the egg. If it had not been estimated so valuable in England, here it had been priceless, where the long journey would make any shipment of additional eggs all the more difficult; and if Jane had fresh hostilities to contend with, in Spain, she would all the less wish to spare more eggs to the very hypothetical breeding grounds of this new continent.

The camp was quiet, except for coughing. Laurence sipped at a mug of grog at intervals himself, the heat a little soothing against the rawness of his throat; there was a heaviness to his limbs, and despite all the game easy to hand, he did not wish to eat apart from a little biscuit soaked in water, which went down softly.

No one had much appetite. Aviators often did not set a regular meal hour, and lately the scarcity of water had made their mealtimes still more irregular, occurring when sufficient number of the party began to make a noise of protest; to-day no one spoke, even as the day advanced and the noon hour must have gone, even though the sun had not shown itself clear. The younger aviators only had any interest in their surroundings, more resilient: Demane had been foraging, and Roland had organized Sipho and Paul Widener - Rankin's signal-ensign, an anxious and fretful sort of boy - to butcher his findings and put out the meat to dry, sprinkled thoroughly with salt. For their immediate delectation, they roasted a brace of large lizards on sticks: Demane had found them alive but so dazed by smoke and thunder they might be taken by hand.

"It is quite good, sir," Roland said, offering some to Laurence, but what little of the smell he could perceive over the clouding of his senses was not appealing enough to provoke his deadened appetite.

They had already more meat than they would require for the return voyage; Demane went out again anyway, unable to resist the bounty, and coming back in the space of less than half-an-hour put down his latest trophy, a handsome-sized kangaroo, only a little singed, and then ducked under Temeraire's wing.

Laurence looked up; Demane said, "There are men there, on the other side of those dunes."

The men were for attacking at once, "before they creep away again, and come lurking upon us during the night, and steal away another," O'Dea said, presenting this to Laurence and Rankin, as a petition on their behalf. "Even the little one ought be able to do for them - " meaning Caesar, rather bloodthirstily, and Rankin said icily, "That will be quite enough, Mr. O'Dea; when your opinion is desired again it will be solicited."

A good deal of resentful muttering followed this, which the convicts did not trouble themselves to keep low; Rankin ignored it roundly, but Laurence shook his head a little: he had seen mutiny before, and with less motivation than the conviction of imminent murder. With Temeraire and even Caesar a little ill and groggy, there could be a real mischief done, if the convicts chose to try and seize upon himself or Rankin, or even another of the crewmen whom Temeraire valued.

"It is not them," Demane said, loudly and impatiently. "They do not have the egg."

Temeraire stirred, here, from his restless drowse, and raised his head: when he understood, he brightened and said, "But perhaps they may know where the others have gone - " and swinging his head towards the convicts asked, "Can no-one of you speak with them?"

"It is no good talking to them," O'Dea said, "what we want is some quick action: if they know we are here, they are sure to run off again, and steal back - "

"They do know we are here," Demane said. "They saw me taking the kangaroo."

"Well, he is a black fellow, though, isn't he; one of them," one man said; Demane was certainly of sable complexion, but hailing from the south of Africa had no more in common with the natives than this accident of coloration; although Laurence supposed doubtfully this might engender some common feeling, or at least defer the suspicion which their own appearance, so far different, might provoke.

"Are any of you gentlemen conversant with their tongue?" Laurence said, and after a little shuffling O'Dea granted that he had some experience; so, too, did a Richard Shipley, one of the younger of the convicts, not twenty and one, who said, "Though not much more than to trade some rum or some buttons for - well, sir, for a little company," with a blush.

"I cannot see how that will be any use here," Temeraire said anxiously. "I might make out a little bit, or they might know some other language: perhaps I ought to come as well."

"That must substantially diminish any hope of their receiving us in a friendly manner," Laurence said, and checked his pistols, instead, which if smaller were no less deadly.

He and Tharkay and Forthing took their two prospective interpreters, however inadequate, and Demane led them over the charred dunes perhaps a mile from the camp, near the far edge of the seared band where the marks of the fire ended and the vegetation had escaped. The aborigines had already collected their own supply of game, many dead animals strung together, and were standing near the unburnt ground, holding some discussion amongst themselves: four men, and a youth perhaps a few years older than Demane. Laurence was surprised, when they drew nearer, to see that the ground before them was burning, and evidently by their doing. They were watching it with narrow, careful attention, and stamping out flames which leapt back towards them.

The aborigines received them not unwarily but without open hostility, and when Shipley and O'Dea hesitantly spoke, they listened and made some reply. This at once exceeded the translators' limits; Shipley said, "It don't sound at all like, a word or two maybe."

Laurence turned instead to pantomime and sketchwork, in the conveniently empty canvas of the burnt ground which showed his lopsided figures red against the black of the ash; he tried to draw a picture of the egg, large, being carried away by small men - blank looks only - and then held out a fragment of the pottery.

This opened some species of communication: the aborigines nodded, and one held out a spear-thrower, which Laurence was startled to see decorated at the end with a string of porcelain beads in red and blue, and another of jade and pearls. He pointed at the pistol in Laurence's belt. Laurence shook his head and said, "No, I thank you," rather bewildered to be offered such a bargain in the middle of the desert. The hunter shrugged and equably accepted refusal, and when Laurence brought out his map and laid it out, they were willing enough to look down at the chart.

This, however, they did not seem to think meaningful; they touched the paper between their fingers appreciatively, and traced the colored lines of ink, but turned it upside-down and back without sign of recognition, even the territory lately traversed which Laurence pointed out to them, the newly marked creek beds and salt pans and hills which must have been familiar landmarks; but perhaps the aborigines did not have the habit of mapmaking.

Instead, Shipley pointed at the necklace and asked "Where?" in the version of the language which he knew, then pointing in each direction of the compass; the aborigines answered with "Pitjantjatjara" and "Larrakia," and pointed north and west, with almost a throwing gesture and another word - "Far, far," Shipley said. "I think that's what it means, anyway."

"And then what about the men they have been snatching?" O'Dea said, and drew in the sand several figures in stick form, and by them the water-hole and the rock outcropping where Jonas Green had vanished. He then crossed out one of his figures; the aborigines nodded without surprise and said, "Bunyip," and shook their heads vigorously.

"Bunyip," they repeated, and crossed the man out more thoroughly, and said a great deal more, which might have been excellent advice if they could have understood a word of it. But then, perceiving they were not understood, the youngest of their company proceeded to hold up his hands like claws by his mouth and made a hissing snatching gesture, with a growl, rather looking like a children's bogey; and Laurence grew doubtful of the proffered explanation: there had certainly been no monsters wandering about the camp.

But O'Dea proved more willing to accept this excuse, and, somewhat mollified, trying more of his limited supply found a few more common words: he drew the egg larger and showed a dragon coming out of it, wings outspread. The aborigines repeated their gesture towards the north-west, and then the oldest tapped the youth on the shoulder, demanding attention, and opening his mouth sang, in a low and gravelly if resonant voice; the other men clapping softly along, to add rhythm to the chant.

"No use to trying to work that out," O'Dea said, looking around. "They go off so from time to time, when you ask them directions, but it is only these stories of theirs: monsters and gods and the making of the world. It don't mean anything."

The song finishing, and the small smudgy fire also, the men bent to take up their strings of game and to move on to another patch of the grasslands; the youth stepped into the newly burnt section and took himself a branch still burning quietly at one end. Laurence would have liked to try and get a little more intelligence out of them, perhaps recruiting Dorset, who was a good hand at draftsmanship, and trying to with better illustrations convey more precise questions; but the hunters had evidently tired of a conversation of so little profit to themselves, and to restrain them could only provoke the quarrel which the men had formerly imagined.

"Bunyips," O'Dea repeated to Shipley with ghoulish satisfaction, as they walked back towards the camp. "So it is bunyips: and they must be man-eaters, did you see how those black fellows shook at the word? God rest their souls, Jack Telly and poor Jonas; in a bunyip's belly, it is a cruel way to end. Like tigers, they must be."

The story would certainly be all across the camp in moments, when they had returned, and the men undoubtedly as pleased to transfer all their fears to man-eating monsters, as to native tribesmen; or more pleased, for the greater hideousness of the threat. Laurence sighed, and climbed wearily up the dune ahead to wave a reassuring hand to Temeraire, who should be worrying; but when he came in sight, Temeraire was looking down instead at the egg, which Fellowes was hastily taking out of its wrappings.

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