Feast or Fast

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The grass in the beetle pasture dripped with melting frost. Lohmeer shivered, a single ripple that began behind his arrow-shaped head, swept quickly down his long body, and buzzed out through the tip of his tail. So cold. He lifted his chin to keep it from touching the damp blades and imagined slithering right back inside the Burrow and not coming out until after the all-dark.

The fence he worked on sagged in the wan morning light. He'd have to redo at least three sections, but the temperature was making him sluggish. Not to mention as cranky as a viper's rattle. With a sigh, Lohmeer dragged his thoughts back to building, to the job he'd been given despite the weather, and focused on lifting another rail into place.

"Rapt, can you get my hammer?"

Normally, he would have divided his attention between levitating the long fence rail and opening the hatch in his skymetal band, but today, the cold leaked through his scales, and it was taking all his focus to find enough mental power to keep the railings in place.

"Got it." The mouse, who was his constant companion, scampered to his side. She scampered with quick, jerking motions, as if it were the middle of summer. Her paws pried his band compartment open. Rapt collected his tool and carried it over to the half-built fence. "Should I do it?"

"I'm not sure I can." Lohmeer strained under the effort of holding the wood with his mind. "Too cold. Too early."

They'd given him this job on purpose. He shivered and the rail slipped. "Sorry."

"It's too cold for you. They should have let you start last month." Rapt lifted the hammer and waited for the rail to rise into position again.

Whatever Lohmeer had done to land himself at the bottom of his class had come back to bite him on the tail now. The rest of the Burrow's building students had long since finished their last projects, before the holiday, but here he was laboring in the above-ground just days before the long all-dark sleep.

It wasn't like he even liked being a builder.

Lohmeer jerked his head up and glanced to either side, as if someone might have slithered by just in time to hear his traitorous thought. He was a builder, born and banded, and there was no use allowing other ideas into his head. He'd build the fence, build whatever else the Burrow asked of him, and live and die a builder through and...

"Do you need me to hold the rail?" Rapt's squeaky voice dragged him from his ruminations. He'd let the wood slip again, and the poor rodent was trying to hold the hammer and steady a wooden pole that easily outweighed her.

"I'm sorry, Rapt." He settled the rail back into position, this time holding it steady until the mouse had hammered it firmly into place. "What would I do without you?"

"Don't think like that," she squeaked. "You'll never have to find out."

Lohmeer thought of the all-dark gift he'd purchased for his friend, a snuggly scarf long enough to wrap around her at least three times. He worried about the rodents, sometimes, awake through the long winter months, running the Burrow all on their own. Once he'd given the scarf to Rapt, he'd be able to sleep knowing the mouse was warm even if the weather was totally uncivil.

"Let's take a break." He looked away from the fence, from the heap of unfinished rails and the long stretch they still had to build. "I feel like a snack."

Rapt never argued with him, even when he made terrible decisions. They left the fence site in disarray, slipping through the gap they were meant to be fixing and into the sparse forest beyond the pastures. One of the sentries gave them a droll look from high on his wooden perch. Lohmeer ignored the other constrictor, a lighter bodied serpent with a skinny neck and huge eyes.

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