“Zeppelins,” he said. “Well, there’s no hiding out here.”
He tried to make an estimate of their distance, and a similar calculation about the hills toward which they were flying. Their speed had certainly picked up now, and the breeze was flicking white tips off the waves far below.
Grumman sat resting in a corner of the basket while his dæmon groomed her feathers. His eyes were closed, but Lee knew he was awake.
“The situation’s like this, Dr. Grumman,” he said. “I do not want to be caught aloft by those zeppelins. There ain’t no defense; they’d have us down in a minute. Nor do I want to land in the water, by free choice or not; we could float for a while, but they could pick us off with grenades as easy as fishing.
“So I want to reach those hills and make a landing. I can see some forest now; we can hide among the trees for a spell, maybe a long time.
“And meanwhile the sun’s going down. We have about three hours to sunset, by my calculation. And it’s hard to say, but I think those zeppelins will have closed on us halfway by that time, and we should have gotten to the far shore of this bay.
“Now, you understand what I’m saying. I’m going to take us up into those hills and then land, because anything else is certain death. They’ll have made a connection now between this ring I showed them and the Skraeling I killed on Nova Zembla, and they ain’t chasing us this hard to say we left our wallet on the counter.
“So sometime tonight, Dr. Grumman, this flight’s gonna be over. You ever landed in a balloon?”
“No,” said the shaman. “But I trust your skill.”
“I’ll try and get as high up that range as I can. It’s a question of balance, because the farther we go, the closer they’ll be behind us. If I land when they’re too close behind, they’ll be able to see where we go, but if I take us down too early, we won’t find the shelter of those trees. Either way, there’s going to be some shooting before long.”
Grumman sat impassively, moving a magical token of feathers and beads from one hand to the other in a pattern that Lee could see had some purposeful meaning. His eagle dæmon’s eyes never left the pursuing zeppelins.
An hour went by, and another. Lee chewed an unlit cigar and sipped cold coffee from a tin flask. The sun settled lower in the sky behind them, and Lee could see the long shade of evening creep along the shore of the bay and up the lower flanks of the hills ahead while the balloon itself, and the mountaintops, were bathed in gold.
And behind them, almost lost in the sunset glare, the little dots of the zeppelins grew larger and firmer. They had already overtaken the other balloon and could now be easily seen with the naked eye: four of them in line abreast. And across the wide silence of the bay came the sound of their engines, tiny but clear, an insistent mosquito whine.
When they were still a few minutes from making the shore at the foot of the hills, Lee noticed something new in the sky behind the zeppelins. A bank of clouds had been building, and a massive thunderhead reared thousands of feet up into the still-bright upper sky. How had he failed to notice? If a storm was coming, the sooner they landed the better.
And then a dark green curtain of rain drifted down and hung from the clouds, and the storm seemed to be chasing the zeppelins as they were chasing Lee’s balloon, for the rain swept along toward them from the sea, and as the sun finally vanished, a mighty flash came from the clouds, and several seconds later a crash of thunder so loud it shook the very fabric of Lee’s balloon, and echoed back for a long time from the mountains.
Then came another flash of lightning, and this time the jagged fork struck down direct from the thunderhead at one of the zeppelins. In a moment the gas was alight. A bright flower of flame blossomed against the bruise-dark clouds, and the craft drifted down slowly, ablaze like a beacon, and floated, still blazing, on the water.
Lee let out the breath he’d been holding. Grumman was standing beside him, one hand on the suspension ring, with lines of exhaustion deep in his face.
“Did you bring that storm?” said Lee.
The sky was now colored like a tiger; bands of gold alternated with patches and stripes of deepest brown-black, and the pattern changed by the minute, for the gold was fading rapidly as the brown-black engulfed it. The sea behind was a patchwork of black water and phosphorescent foam, and the last of the burning zeppelin’s flames were dwindling into nothing as it sank.
The remaining three, however, were flying on, buffeted hard but keeping to their course. More lightning flashed around them, and as the storm came closer, Lee began to fear for the gas in his own balloon. One strike could have it tumbling to earth in flames, and he didn’t suppose the shaman could control the storm so finely as to avoid that.
“Right, Dr. Grumman,” he said. “I’m going to ignore those zeppelins for now and concentrate on getting us safe into the mountains and on the ground. What I want you to do is sit tight and hold on, and be prepared to jump when I tell you. I’ll give you warning, and I’ll try to make it as gentle as I can, but landing in these conditions is a matter of luck as much as skill.”
“I trust you, Mr. Scoresby,” said the shaman.
He sat back in a corner of the basket while his dæmon perched on the suspension ring, her claws dug deep in the leather binding.
The wind was blowing them hard now, and the great gasbag swelled and billowed in the gusts. The ropes creaked and strained, but Lee had no fear of their giving way. He let go some more ballast and watched the altimeter closely. In a storm, when the air pressure sank, you had to offset that drop against the altimetric reading, and very often it was a crude rule-of-thumb calculation. Lee ran through the figures, double-checked them, and then released the last of his ballast. The only control he had now was the gas valve. He couldn’t go higher; he could only descend.
He peered intently through the stormy air and made out the great bulk of the hills, dark against the dark sky. From below there came a roaring, rushing sound, like the crash of surf on a stony beach, but he knew it was the wind tearing through the leaves on the trees. So far, already! They were moving faster than he’d thought.
And he shouldn’t leave it too long before he brought them down. Lee was too cool by nature to rage at fate; his manner was to raise an eyebrow and greet it laconically. But he couldn’t help a flicker of despair now, when the one thing he should do—namely, fly before the storm and let it blow itself out—was the one thing guaranteed to get them shot down.
He scooped up Hester and tucked her securely into his breast, buttoning the canvas coat up close to keep her in. Grumman sat steady and quiet; his dæmon, wind-torn, clung firmly with her talons deep in the basket rim and her feathers blown erect.
“I’m going to take us down, Dr. Grumman,” Lee shouted above the wind. “You should stand and be ready to jump clear. Hold the ring and swing yourself up when I call.”
Grumman obeyed. Lee gazed down, ahead, down, ahead, checking each dim glimpse against the next, and blinking the rain out of his eyes; for a sudden squall had brought heavy drops at them like handfuls of gravel, and the drumming they made on the gasbag added to the wind’s howl and the lash of the leaves below until Lee could hardly even hear the thunder.
“Here we go!” he shouted. “You cooked up a fine storm, Mr. Shaman.”
He pulled at the gas-valve line and lashed it around a cleat to keep it open. As the gas streamed out of the top, invisible far above, the lower curve of the gasbag withdrew into itself, and a fold, and then another, appeared where there had been a bulging sphere only a minute before.
The basket was tossing and lurching so violently it was hard to tell if they were going down, and the gusts were so sudden and wayward that they might easily have been blown a long way skyward without knowing; but after a minute or so Lee felt a sudden snag and knew the grapnel had caught on a branch. It was only a temporary check, so the branch had broken, but it showed how close they were.
He shouted, “Fifty feet above the trees—”
The shaman nodded.
Then came another snag, more violent, and the two men were thrown hard against the rim of the basket. Lee was used to it and found his balance at once, but the force took Grumman by surprise. However, he didn’t lose his grip on the suspension ring, and Lee could see him safely poised, ready to swing himself clear.