Feast or Famine

Feast or Famine

Note: “Breakfast in Dover, with complications. Set between the events of His Majesty’s Dragon and Throne of Jade.” — Naomi

Temeraire yawned and opened his eyes; much of the leaf cover was already gone, and the early morning sun had fallen upon the end of his tail: the sensation of increasing warmth had woken him, and he was very conscious of the emptiness of his stomach. He lifted his head: none of his crew were about. He hated to wake them; it was still very early, and the patrol yesterday had been a long one: aloft from eleven in the morning until seven in the evening, so they had eaten their dinner cold, in mid-air, and gotten to their beds late.

He sat up on his haunches and fanned out his wings, rolling them back a little, enjoying the pleasant crackle of his shoulder joints. Morning dew spilled down the translucent folds and off his black scales. The air was sharp on his tongue, full of the salt air from the ocean; he considered for a moment going to take some fish for breakfast. But he recollected himself in time: he would certainly give a fright to the Dover fishermen if he were to begin hunting in their harbor, and he could not go further afield: they had formation-work this morning.

A fresh sheep would be just as nice; more pleasant, even, on such a cold morning; or maybe a cow. Decision and action were one: he was aloft at once, flying low over the trees of the covert to the common feeding grounds. But he landed and found that the herdsmen were not there yet: still asleep, undoubtedly, with less excuse than his crew.

The doomed cattle and sheep showed no inclination to submit to their eventual fate: they had retreated to the covered shed within their enclosure, and were staying there, lowing unhappily. Temeraire considered them with some perplexity. There was not enough room in the pen itself for him to land and pull one of the animals out; and while he could knock down the fence easily enough, he was quite sure that would not be appropriate, silly though it seemed to him. He was entitled to the King’s sheep, but not to the fence that was in the way: perfectly absurd.

Still, he would not for the world distress Laurence by behaving badly. As always, the thought of his captain woke a secret glow of deep, proprietary satisfaction; he spared a moment to rub his nose over the great pearl-and-sapphire pendant which he wore, Laurence’s gift.

The thick flapping of wings drew his head up again: Maximus, coming for his own breakfast. The enormous Regal Copper thumped down next to him, a cascade of dying leaves showering down from the trees around the borders of the clearing. “Are those lazy buggers not here yet?” he inquired, peering down at the enclosure. “I will complain to Berkley; this is the third time we have had to wait.”

“Yes, I know,” Temeraire said. “Laurence tells me it is difficult to get good servants for the covert, especially for the feeding grounds; they are too afraid of us.” He sighed, and they sat together contemplating the animals, who had fallen wholly silent now in terror.

“I suppose if we set up enough of a bellow someone will take notice,” Maximus said after a moment: perfectly correct so far as it went; his full roar would likely have been heard in London.

“I do not want to disturb everyone after yesterday,” Temeraire said. “It is a pity the herdsmen do not sleep hereabouts; I would be quite happy to wake only them.” He considered. “Perhaps we might open the gate ourselves.”

“I do not see how, without hands,” Maximus said. “I am not even quite sure how they do it themselves.” He drew back his head and peered at the gate with one eye; he was badly far-sighted and could not easily make out so small an object.

“It cannot be very difficult,” Temeraire said thoughtfully. “It takes them hardly the work of a moment to get it open.”

However, his cautious attempts to push on the gate or tug it open merely made the entire fence lean alarmingly; the gate section did rattle separately, but did not open. Temeraire put his head down close to it and narrowed his eyes as best he could: there were so very many small pieces to it. “I think perhaps that bar keeps it shut.”

A sheep baa-ed uneasily. Maximus managed to squeeze the tip of a claw between the bar and the wood; but when he tugged, the iron bands around it made an unpleasant loud squealing noise that made both dragons draw back their heads in distaste.

“No, it must come off some other way,” Temeraire said. He thought, looking more closely, that it seemed to rest within a pair of braces that had no tops; he put the tips of his foreclaws beneath it and tried raising it. The bar lifted easily; in another moment he had it up and discarded, and the gate swung open.

They reached in for their prizes; before they knew what was happening, the animals had bolted, and Temeraire and Maximus were standing by an empty pen, each clutching a cow, while the entire herd of cows and sheep went pelting away across the field and into the trees, crying out in mad terror.

“Oh,” Temeraire said.

“Mmhm,” Maximus said; his mouth was full. He finished the cow in three bites, belched, and licked the blood from his claws. “Now what?”

“Perhaps we could herd the animals back into the pen?” Temeraire said; he bit the head off his own cow and crunched it. “They cannot have gone very far; they do not have wings, after all, and they are quite small.”

“I do not mind trying,” Maximus said. “I am still hungry.”

It was extraordinary how far cows could run in only a short time. Temeraire dropped panting on the ground of the clearing to rest. It was not so much the distance; but they kept changing directions, and then many of them would go scattering in the wrong way, and require chasing afresh. At least they were finally beginning to be exhausted, and to allow themselves to be herded closer.

Maximus landed with another two sheep in his fore-claws, set one down inside the pen, limp if not dead with terror, and ate the other. “Perhaps we ought to just wake the others and tell them they will have to catch their own breakfasts,” he said, crunching away.

“Breakfast?” This question came in hopeful tones: little Volly, the courier, landed beside them. He had heard the noise and come looking, now he gazed about inquisitively. “Cow!” he squealed, seeing one loose, and immediately leaped after it: the animals began bellowing and ran away all over again.

“It is not really our fault,” Maximus said, when they were once again alone, Volly and the animals already far distant. “The herders ought to have been here.”

Temeraire closed his eyes and hid his head beneath his wing, curling his tail around himself; he hardly imagined how he was going to face Laurence.

To add to his misery, Excidium landed, asking, “Where are the animals?”

Temeraire made a muffled noise and curled up smaller: Excidium was the oldest of the dragons at the covert, a Longwing close on a hundred years old, scarred from many battles; he was very impressive, and led the largest formation at the covert: it was painfully embarrassing to be exposed so before him.

“We opened the gate, and they ran away,” Maximus admitted. “And now we cannot get them back in again.”

Excidium said, sounding puzzled, “You opened the gate? But it does not look broken.”

“It is not broken at all,” Temeraire said indignantly, raising his head at this. “We were very careful. It works perfectly still.” He rose and lifted the bar with a couple of talons to demonstrate: now that he had understood the basic principle, it was perfectly simple.

Excidium watched him curiously, then imitated it. “Why, that is neatly done,” he said, when he had satisfied himself that he could do it also. “I have never particularly paid attention; I was always sure it could not be done by a dragon.”

“My claws are too big,” Maximus said, sadly, after he took his turn; he did not have quite enough control, being so large, and could not lift the bar without digging into the wood of the fence and nearly uprooting the whole thing.

“Wait, I have an idea.” Temeraire padded over to the edge of the clearing and sat up, breaking a branch off one of the trees; taking it in his teeth he brought it back, and put the end of it beneath the bar. “There; now you lift it, and the bar will come up as well.” Maximus looked dubious, but snorted with pleasure when it worked.

“That is all very well; however, now I would like something to eat, and there is none,” Excidium said. He had no compunction about waking anyone: he sat back on his haunches and roared out at once.

Heads popped up all over the covert, the smaller dragons flying up to see over the trees: the dragons of Excidium’s formation had naturally recognized his voice. “All aloft; we have some herding to do,” he called out, having gotten their attention. “Do not look so miserable,” he told Temeraire kindly. “Someone lets the animals loose at least once a year, although usually they smash the pen. We will have them back soon enough; it takes a larger number of us, and knowing the trick of it. Where away?”

“West north-west,” Maximus said, pointing with his nose in the direction where the herd had gone, and Excidium took to the air, followed by the dragons of his formation. “I am glad it is not just us,” Maximus added, after the others were gone.

“Yes,” Temeraire said, in heartfelt agreement; Excidium’s apparent approval had comforted him. “And at least we did not smash anything.” He was already forming his explanation to Laurence in his head, and considering a new idea: “I wonder if we might have forced a cow out of the shed with a branch,” he said thoughtfully.

Maximus huffed in amusement. “We have got into enough trouble for one day,” he said. “And we have formation-work in an hour or so; I am going to go take a nap.” He reached into the pen and took out his second sheep, eating it even as he flew off. Temeraire followed more slowly, returning to his own clearing; now that the excitement was over, he also felt the need of a rest.

But there was no reason, he thought, curling up to sleep, that mechanisms might not be made dragon-size; something like the rig the crew occasionally used to lift the heaviest combat armor onto his back, with pulley and tackle, would be quite handy—