Laurence looked out anxiously from the shore, as far over the ocean as the thin grey curtain of rain would permit: he could not tell if it was still freezing, further out from shore.
“That is a very handsome whale,” Temeraire said: he was looking out to sea also, but his attention was fixed all upon a party of the small local dragons returning in triumph from a fishing expedition.
Two days of sleet had kept them huddled here in what little concealment they could find on the high, isolate Danish coast: dragons might fly in rain and snow, but not with ice building upon their wing-joints at every beat. Only the native feral dragons who inhabited the coast ventured it, their unusually prominent and ropy veins standing in relief all over their wings as they darted out to fish the coal-black waters. Even they returned as swiftly as they might, bringing their prizes back to shore to eat: seal, tunny, and on this occasion a smallish whale seized upon by three of them all together. It was still thrashing as they carried it back, flying so low under their burden that the wave-crests lapped at the dangling flukes. Having heaved it up onto the rocky shore just clear of the water, they fell-to at once, scarcely a quarter-mile away and in clear view: the natives had been otherwise staying warily clear of the encampment of men and foreign dragons.
“They could share,” Iskierka said resentfully, watching their feast with all the intensity natural to a new-hatched dragon; she was the hungriest of their ragged little band, having added another two feet to her length overnight, and there had been only a handful of wild goats to share out among nearly two dozen dragons for dinner, one of them Temeraire, who could have gladly eaten the lot himself. She leaned over and nipped at his side. “Go and make them!”
“It is their catch, I am not going to take it away, as though I could not hunt for myself,” Temeraire said with great dignity, thrusting her away with his nose and pretending he had not just been eyeing the rapidly vanishing whale with unconcealed longing himself. “Laurence, surely it is not so cold to-day? I could try and fetch us another.”
“I am not certain,” Laurence answered reluctantly, “and if the weather has broken, we ought to be off at once; we will have to fly through the night to reach England, in any case.” He tried looking again through his glass, but the rain dimmed the morning light too far to be sure.
“We had better fly out and see,” Temeraire suggested, “and bring back something to eat before we go.”
They went out only the two of them: the crew could only have hampered Temeraire in fishing and had an uncomfortable flight of it besides, with Temeraire either hovering in place, in a jouncing kind of motion, or stooping into abrupt dives which seemed to Laurence to thrust his stomach into his throat. But the rain was only cold, not frozen, and though he watched Temeraire’s wing-edges carefully, Laurence saw no rime of ice building on the black hide. “It is not what anyone would call pleasant flying,” Temeraire said, between bites of a tunny which he had plucked up for himself, “but it is not very bad, and so long as you have the compass to show the way, it does not much matter if we cannot see very far: Arkady and the others can follow me.”
“I am only worried if the weather should turn again, once we are too far from shore to get safely back,” Laurence said. “If only it would clear a little I should be easy.”
As if to punish him for complaining, his wish was answered: the cover broke abruptly, two clouds parting ways, and sunlight went spilling in a glittering line from Temeraire straight on southwards, and illuminated a pair of small patrol-dragons not three miles distant. For a moment Laurence entertained the faint hope they might be British dragons, from one of the transports that were stationed in the North Sea, though Britain scarcely had beasts enough to spare for distant patrols—but immediately they had sighted Temeraire, the two small dragons turned tail and dashed away towards the Continent. Temeraire was too easily recognizable: solid black, as no European breeds were, and sleek but for his head-ruff and horns, characteristic of the rare Celestial breed.
“A French patrol, or at best Dutch,” Laurence said to Granby and Ferris, who had been waiting by the edge of the encampment for his return, “but even that will not give us much more time. We will have to get everyone back aboard at once.”
“But I am hungry!” Iskierka said, sitting back on her haunches mutinously. She jetted a little steam, like an overheated kettle, from the small spikes bristling all over her length, the internal workings which produced her fire giving vent to her irritation. “I do not see why we must always be running away, and I want a whale also.”
“Here, you may have this,” Temeraire said to Iskierka, offering her the large seal he had snatched up on the way back; without pause for a word of thanks, she was instantly deep into its belly-meat, scattering offal and blood in a wide ring around her.
The other dragons roused from their huddled sleep at the smell, and came nosing out to see if there was any more; they were not at all satisfied to be told that there was no time for hunting, despite the improvement in the weather. Arkady and his ragged band of mountain ferals had been recruited to the British cause only with the promise of regular and ample provender, and they were growing thoroughly disillusioned after some four days of hard flying and little food.
Arkady in particular made some loud remarks, emphasized with dramatic slashing gestures of his claws. Laurence did not need to understand their native speech to perceive his displeasure; the horns on the red-patch feral’s forehead were jutting out, and his fellows were nodding in agreement.
“They think I am lying,” Temeraire said, in some indignation, attempting without success to convince them that the promised feasting awaited them at the end of this last leg of their journey.
Tharkay, who had recruited the ferals to their cause, unrolled himself from his cloak in the midst of this increasing clamor and rose to join Laurence at the edge of the encampment; he listened without much dismay while the squabbling dragons went on, and when their conversation briefly paused, addressed them himself at length. He had acquired the ferals’ tongue originally as a curiosity, during his travels through the East, but what had once been an indifferent fluency had improved with much use.
“I have suggested to them,” he told Laurence aside, “that as they will find no good hunting here, they had just as well come along with us and see: they can go home from Britain as easily as from here, if they find the conditions not to their liking.”
This argument had no sooner managed to produce a grumbling quiescence in the dragons, than the men began their own complaints. Temeraire’s small crew of aviators would have found nothing strange in an order to be aloft in five minutes, bag and baggage be damned, but the Prussian soldiers rescued from the siege of Danzig were disorganized and timid before the dragons, and there were nearly a thousand of them to be gotten aboard.
There had been no time, in the final pell-mell rush of their escape, to put this last group of men off onto the British ships which had evacuated the rest of the Danzig garrison, much to the poor soldiers’ dismay; they had expected to be carried through the air for perhaps a quarter of an hour, not over days and oceans. In justice to their fears, the makeshift carrying harnesses, patchworked out of curtains and table linens, were by no means reliable, and more than a few men had tumbled free in the wild flight to Denmark, lost to the ocean.
It was not to be hoped that perfect discipline would hold men exhausted, cold, afraid, and hungry; and many of them had family to think of, now living under French occupation in their conquered homeland. Surrender, so lately an unthinkable misery, had gained in attraction for some, particularly when they were asked to climb aboard for another long dark flight….
Note: The story would have continued from here into the events of the opening of Empire of Ivory, an excerpt of which you can read online here.