Alice surveyed the white expanse of the village green with some satisfaction. Winters being what they were these days, one could never be quite sure if you were going to get snow or not, and it was pretty much guaranteed that if you really wanted snow, you were in for a thaw. However, just this once, it looked like the world was cooperating.
“Miriam,” she said, “I believe we’re in for a wonderful day.”
Miriam shuffled her feet in the cold, chin tucked deep beneath a multi-coloured woollen scarf that had sprouted so many pulled threads she seemed to be wearing a knitting basket. “That’s good,” she said. “I mean, it’s just not the same without, is it?”
It was, of course, entirely possible to have a snowman building competition without snow, as long as you applied the correct level of ingenuity and planning to the problem, which was why the Toot Hansell Women’s Institute had a rather large collection of polystyrene blocks and balls set aside in the back room of the village hall. But it certainly wasn’t the same, and trudging through mud to judge haphazard constructions of plastic rather lacked the charm and appeal of messing around in real snow.
“Come on, Miriam,” Alice said. “Let’s get set up. It’s going to be a busy one.”
And that was providing no dragons turned up. They weren’t expecting dragons, but Alice had learned over the past year that it was best to always expect dragons.
It was busy. By three o’clock, there was a steady stream of people through the tent that was serving as competition headquarters, half the mince pies were already gone, and they were on the second batch of mulled wine. On the green itself, snowmen, snowwomen, snowdogs, snowhorses, and snow-I-don’t-know-what-that-is-but-let’s-call-it-art were sprouting like unusually virulent fungi, and there were a lot of pink cheeks and red noses in evidence – although whether from the mulled wine or the cold was a matter of speculation. It was all, Alice thought, going rather splendidly. She smiled at the field like a satisfied general surveying particularly well-trained troops.
“Alice?” Miriam said, and the chairwoman’s smile froze. Sometimes you only need one word to know when things are going to get interesting. “Ah – we have company.”
Alice followed the other woman’s gaze to where four – four creatures were trotting up the road next to the green. She supposed that, to the uninitiated, they might pass as dogs, but when you expect dragons it’s very easy to spot one wearing a rather shoddy disguise.
“What on earth are they doing?” she murmured, seeing people turning to look at them curiously. Either the disguises weren’t very good even when you weren’t expecting dragons, or four large dogs wandering the village unsupervised were making people nervous. She put her thermal mug down hurriedly and jogged out onto the road, giving a piercing whistle as she did so. “Here boy! Come on, pups! Here you go, treats!” She clapped her hands together encouragingly, and the creatures broke into disjointed jogs, heads bobbing alarmingly. “I must have left the gate open,” Alice said to a young man holding a hot chocolate in one hand and a gaping toddler in the other, her voice loud and carrying. “My cousin’s dogs. She’s in the Caribbean for Christmas.”
The young man looked from the dogs to her then back again, as if he couldn’t quite decide what he was seeing, then towed the little boy away. Alice could hear the boy saying faintly, “Daddy, monster-dogs! Monster-dogs!”
The biggest creature came to a halt in front of her, breath smoking a delighted green in the still air. It seemed to be coming from the eyes as much as from the nostrils, which was disconcerting to say the least.
“Beaufort!” she hissed. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“I tried to tell him,” said a smaller black and white dog. His head was twisted to the side, giving him a perpetually quizzical look. “Especially after last year.”
“Nonsense,” the big dog said, his voice deep and gravelly and somehow suggestive of brandy and monocles in darkened libraries. “That was just a small problem with a little dog. We’ll stay clear of little dogs, and it’ll all be fine. Don’t worry so much, Mortimer.”
“If you’d just let me eat that stupid thing, it wouldn’t have been a problem,” a rather hairy yellow dog said.
“Amelia, stick to the mince pies,” the black and white dog said, and Alice pinched the bridge of her nose, then glanced around. Most people seemed to have lost interest now the dogs had been claimed by someone. Dragons tend to be faint, and difficult to see at the best of times, so the odds were that most people really were just seeing dogs, although to her it was obvious that their tails were too big and long, their backs were lumpy from their folded wings, and their heads were entirely wrong.
“Come on into the tent, then,” she said. “Let’s not draw any more attention to you.” She headed back to the stall, and Beaufort Scales, High Lord of the Cloverly dragons and survivor of the days of crusades and dragon hunts, padded after her in his Newfoundland costume, trailed by three dogs of questionable authenticity.
“We’d have been here much sooner,” Beaufort said, a cup of mulled wine in one paw and a mince pie in the other, “But Gilbert here isn’t such a fan of flying.”
“Sorry,” said a small dragon in a suit that Alice thought was probably meant to look like a standard poodle. He seemed slightly dejected, but that may have just been the fact that the white wool of the suit was grubby from road grit and tangled with twigs. He looked rather like the sort of stray you saw in ‘before’ pictures on pet adoption ads.
“You shouldn’t be here at all,” she scolded Beaufort. “What if someone does see you?”
“No one will even notice us,” Beaufort said soothingly. “Although it may be best if you don’t talk to us quite so much.”
Alice resisted the urge to kick his scaly tail and went back to pouring hot chocolate for frazzled parents.
To Alice’s astonishment, no one did notice the dragons. A few of the younger snowman builders seemed a little more fascinated with them than they might have been normal dogs, and one worried woman did ask if the dogs should be drinking mulled wine, but that was the extent of it. And they were wonderfully warm to have behind the trestle table, too, radiating heat like a series of pot bellied stoves. Even in her thermals and ski trousers it was a bitterly cold day, and it was relief to be able to shuffle a little closer to them between circuits of the field.
“There are some wonderful ones this year,” Miriam said admiringly, stomping up the green in paisley wellies and a bright pink and turquoise ski suit. “Did you see the snowdragon?”
“A snowdragon?” Beaufort asked eagerly. “Where?”
“Oh – er, you best not go out there,” Miriam said hurriedly, and Alice nodded. It wouldn’t do anyone any good for Beaufort to spot the dragon depicted in the act of eating a knight, with one paw on his decapitated head. So far they’d kept him away from things like Game of Thrones. It’d only upset him.
“We’ll have a look once everyone goes home,” Alice said. “It won’t be long now – it’ll be getting dark soon.”
“Whatever you think,” Beaufort said comfortably. “I say – is there some more fruit cake left? Jolly nice, that.”
A sudden explosion of clapping and cheering rose from the darkening field, and the dragons peered out at the patchy crowd stomping and huffing in the cold air.
“Have they got a winner?” Amelia asked.
“Sounds like it,” Mortimer said.
“Good. Gilbert’s getting twitchy.”
“I’m not getting twitchy. We’ve just been sitting here for, like, ages. Are we going soon?”
“Alright, not twitchy. Impatient.”
“What, this is exciting for you?”
“Gil, you’re such a-”
“Now, now,” Beaufort said. “No need for that.”
“It looks like everyone’s heading off,” Mortimer said. The crowd on the green was dispersing as the afternoon pulled into an early dusk and the cold tightened down all around them.
“Ah, lovely. Let’s go have a look, shall we?”
The dragons, still in their disguises (Amelia had torn an ear with a slightly too vigorous scratch, leaving her distinctly lopsided, and Mortimer had a shed scale stuck in one armpit, which was horribly annoying), padded around the green as the WI finished tidying away the debris of the competition.
“Wonderful, some of these,” Beaufort observed to Alice, who had joined them with her hands wrapped around her thermal mug.
“They certainly are – inventive,” she agreed, trying to decide if she was looking at a snowrhino or a snowunicorn. Unicorn seemed more likely, but if so it had had more than its fair share of Christmas dinners. She took another sip of tea and surveyed the green. In the failing light, the snow sculptures seemed like living things caught in a snapshot, forever just on the verge of turning towards the watcher. She shivered, and Beaufort looked up at her.
“Are you cold? Perhaps we should go.”
“It’s been a long day out here,” she said.
“Of course. But what a marvellous thing to have done!”
She smiled. It was marvellous – not her, though. What the village had built – an army of snow creatures, poised to march into the night. She could almost believe they were waiting for the moon to rise to do just that.
Gilbert plunged past them, his disguise discarded to leave his scales faded to the cool blues and greys of the snow, and flung himself into an untouched snowbank, wriggling around on his back ecstatically.
“Gilbert!” Amelia shouted, running after him with her golden retriever head slipping further and further back from her scaly snout. “Put it back on!”
“No! It’s dark, and I’m itchy!”
Beaufort looked down at his own suit. “They are rather irritating.”
Alice smiled. “Go on, then. I think you’re safe.” She stood and watched as the dragons shed the dog costumes and raced across the snow, rolling and huffing and panting with delight, while the scant streetlights came on and the stars came out, and the village retreated to warm rooms and hot teas and firesides.
“Miriam, what happened to that other thermos of mulled wine?” Alice asked, frowning at the boot of the car. The dragons were still on the green, attempting to build their own snowmen without breathing on them and melting them entirely.
“I’m not sure,” Miriam said, sliding the empty trays from the mince pies onto the back seat. “Maybe Gert took it home?”
“She didn’t mention it.”
“She does like her mulled wine, though.”
Alice smiled. “You’re probably right. Thanks for helping clean up, Miriam.”
“It’s no bother. Um – you don’t happen to have any spare bread, do you? Only last time Beaufort and Mortimer came around they had six fried egg sarnies each, and now there’s four of them.”
Alice laughed. “I can do better. I made a shepherd’s pie yesterday, and it’s far too big. I’ll bring it around.”
“Oh, that’d be amazing.” Miriam shut the car door. “Shall I meet you at home, then?”
“I’ll see you there.”
Miriam watched Alice drive off, then turned back to the dragons. Gilbert and Amelia had discovered the snow dragon and were arguing over whether it was insulting or a true artistic statement. Mortimer was lying on his back, watching the stars come out, and only Beaufort noticed her kicking through the snow towards them.
“And how are you, Miriam?” he asked.
“All the better for seeing you,” she said. “Alice is bringing a shepherd’s pie to mine. Do you want to come?”
“Does it have real shepherds in it?” the High Lord asked, intrigued.
“No! Of course not. It’s got mince in it. Lamb, traditionally.”
He looked puzzled. “Shouldn’t it be lamb pie, then?”
“Yes, but then it’d have pastry on it.”
“How’s it a pie if it doesn’t have pastry on it?” Gilbert asked. There was snow melting on the side of his face, and it looked rather as if his sister had won the argument through force.
“It’s – look, it doesn’t matter. Are you coming?”
“We’d love to,” Beaufort said cheerfully. “Only -” he leaned in closer to Miriam and whispered loudly enough to be heard on the other side of the green, “Young Gilbert here’s vegetarian. I do apologise.”
“That’s just fine,” Miriam assured him. “Shall we go?”
Alice was wakened by a scream. She sat straight upright, then winced slightly. She’d walked over to Miriam’s, and by the time she’d arrived there had been a pot of mulled wine scenting the whole house with Christmas. Now her head was decidedly on the tender side. She kicked the covers off and hurried to the bedroom window, although the scream hadn’t come again. Just kids playing, probably, but it had had an edge – she’d heard it even in her sleep.
The street below was empty – the screamer had either run around the corner or gone inside. She yawned, and was about to turn away when movement caught her eye. She stopped, eyes narrowed as she peered out into the snow, and had almost decided that the pre-dawn light was playing tricks on her when she saw it again. Some – thing came ambling out of the yard across the road. It was hard to see, the same dim blue-grey as the snow, and for a moment she wondered if the dragons were out there, but the thing was wrong. It lacked their low-slung grace – in fact, as she watched it, the word lumbering came to mind. She watched it walk onto the road, then head towards town, big feet stomping down and heavy head nodding.
“Oh dear,” she said softly, as the creature rounded the corner and passed out of sight. “What on earth has gone on here?” Because, just as when confronted with dragons, there’s no use denying the evidence in front of you.
The creature lumbering into town was the snowrhino.
By the time Alice was showered, dressed, and buttering toast she’d already fielded half a dozen calls from distressed members of the Women’s Institute.
“There was a snowman in my yard!” Gert had said, sounding like she blamed Alice entirely. “And I don’t mean just standing there! He made some very rude gestures!”
Jasmine had been beside herself. “I took Primrose out for walkies, and this – this thing came jumping out of the hedge and tried to – tried to – it was very rude!” There had been several snowdogs, Alice thought. It was entirely possible.
“A snow – something tried to climb in my window!” Rosemary complained. “Luckily I had the hairdryer on – soon sorted him out, but what on earth is going on, Alice?” Alice had to admit that she wasn’t entirely sure.
“Alice, all the snow sculptures are gone,” Priya almost whispered. “And I think – I think there might be footprints out there. Funny ones.” Stay there, Alice told her. I’m coming over.
“Alice, I think I just saw -”
“You probably did, Miriam,” Alice said. “Meet me at the green.” And she hung up.
No one mentioned dragons, but – well. They’d never had this problem with the snowman competition before, and they’d never had dragons before. She sighed, and ate her toast standing up. Which just went to show the severity of the situation.
Priya was quite right. All the snow creatures were gone. There were a few discarded sticks on the road, and a striped scarf, but other than that the field was empty. Alice tried to remember if the there was anything other than the snowdragon that had looked particularly unfriendly. She could definitely remember a shark, but God knew if that was something to worry about unless one was paddling in the stream.
“What do we do?” Miriam asked. They were gathered in the dubious shelter of the tent, the ladies of the Toot Hansell Women’s Institute, bundled up against the cold.
“I don’t know,” Alice admitted. “This is most unusual.”
“Someone has to ask,” Gert said. “I mean, we suddenly have dragons, then we suddenly have snow monsters?”
“You can’t -” Miriam began, and Alice held her hand up imperiously.
“It’s a reasonable question. I did wonder that myself. But I don’t think the dragons were responsible. Certainly not deliberately.”
“So, it’s a curse?” Carlotta suggested. “We know them well in the old country.”
“What, Manchester?” Rosemary said.
“My family is Italian! Just because you’re a culture-less commoner -”
“Oi! There’s more culture in Huddersfield that you have -”
“Ladies,” Alice said, and the two women subsided. “I doubt it’s a curse – that seems very unlikely.”
“And any of this seems likely?” Gert pointed out.
“What can it be, then?” Jasmine asked. “I got flashed by a snowman on my way here! I mean, he had nothing to flash, but he did the jacket thing, and well – it was very unnerving.”
The stillness of the day was suddenly shattered by screeching brakes, followed by the unpleasant crunch of a car hitting something immovable. They hurried out of the tent to see a man climbing from an Audi that had ploughed into a postbox.
“Who – what idiot put a damn snowman in the middle of the road?” he bellowed at the world in general, then turned and saw the women watching him. “What? What’re you all looking at? Was it you? Did you put it there?” He took a threatening step towards them.
“What snowman?” Alice said calmly.
“That – there -” the man spun around, pointing wildly. The road was empty. “There was. There was!”
“Tricky driving conditions at the moment,” Alice said. “I’d take it a bit more slowly, if I were you.”
The man spluttered something probably unrepeatable, and stamped back to the car. He reversed off the post box with a scream of the engine, slammed the car into gear and sped off, the back end sliding as it tried to find purchase.
“Audi drivers,” Alice sniffed. “Always going too fast.”
Across the road, the pony-height snowporcupine that had been crouching down behind a parked car toddled back into the road and headed for open country, shedding a few leaves and spines as it went.
The ladies watched it go, then Carlotta said, “I see this being a problem.”
Alice nodded. “Indeed. Rosemary, you said you dealt with one using a hairdryer?”
“Well. I scared it enough that it jumped back down from the window and ran away.”
“Then I think we need dragons.”
The problem with dragons, Alice thought as they sat around Priya’s scrubbed kitchen table, is that they’re not very contactable.
“Smoke signals?” Jasmine suggested.
“How will they know it’s not just smoke?”
“Why can’t they just have mobiles, like normal people?” Gert grumbled. There was a pause while everyone considered this, then Rosemary pointed out that charging it would likely be a problem. Carlotta said that there were very good solar charging options these days. Alice leaned back in her chair with her hands wrapped around her cup and tried to think of what they could do without dragons. Grit? Hot water? More importantly, how to get it done quickly?
Her phone rang, and she glanced at the display, winced, and went outside to answer it, grabbing her jacket on the way to the door.
“Detective Inspector Adams.”
“Alice. How are you?”
“Very good, Detective Inspector. How are you keeping?”
The Detective Inspector sighed. “Better before I heard that there were reports coming in of snowmen – well, snowmonsters to be exact – rampaging through Toot Hansell and terrifying the local populace.”
“Quite. Apparently a whole group of very small snowmen – snowchildren, I guess? – broke into the village shop and made off with a load of sweets.”
“That is most unfortunate.”
“And someone else reported a snowspider making a web in their back garden. They were worried it was going to eat their Shitzu.”
“Well. How unusual.”
“Which is quite besides the snowcat that tried to catch a small child.”
“Ms Martin. Alice. Please tell me this is all some sort of mass hallucination.”
“Well.” Alice had caught a small movement out of the corner of her eye.
“Failing that, please tell me this is something dragon-related, that is going to be dealt with very quickly.”
“Well,” Alice said again. The movement had resolved into an oval-ish snowball, rolling down the little garden path.
“You are not filling me with confidence.”
There was something else lurching out of the shadows of the garden shed. “Yes. Wel-”
“Please do not say ‘well’ again, Alice.”
The something was a headless man, teetering on badly-made snow legs, tottering after the snowball, which, Alice assumed, was his head. “I’m trying to get a grip on the situation, Detective Inspector.”
“You’re trying – no, okay. I’m coming up there.”
“I’m sure that won’t be necessary.” The headless snowman had reached his head and was trying to pick it up, which was proving difficult with his spade-shaped hands. As Alice watched, one hand fell off with a muted thud and the snowman sat down, a dejected slump to his shoulders.
“You don’t know what the situation is, and you have rogue snowmonsters running about town. I think it’s best if I come up before another policeman, who may not be quite so open-minded about such things, comes poking around.”
There was something else pushing the shed door open and shouldering into the garden. “If you think that’s best, DI Adams.”
“Alice?” The detective sounded puzzled. “Are you okay?”
The snowcreature plodded down the path, its head low and sad, and sat down next to the headless man. “I – I have something to deal with here, Detective Inspector. May I call you later?”
She hung up without answering, and stepped hesitantly onto the path. Neither of the snowcreatures looked at her. The creature next to the headless man – well, it had looked so proud last night, so furious. Now its wings drooped towards the ground, and as she watched it put its toothy head onto the man’s lap, tiny pearls of snow rolling from the corners of its eyes. Alice crouched down in front of them, and lifted the snowman’s head gingerly. There were some rudimentary marks on one side, so she assumed that was the face. She seated it carefully on the snowman’s shoulders and looked at the dragon. It had lifted its head to watch her.
“Now,” she said. “You seem like a nice dragon. I’m assuming you never meant to take his head off.”
The dragon shook his head dolefully. The man was patting the snowball on his shoulders carefully, as if unsure it’d stay. Alice wasn’t sure it would, either.
“Well, his head’s all back on now. So will you do me a favour?”
The dragon looked from the man to her, then nodded, suddenly eager. Alice felt a little twist of guilt, then reminded herself that there was rain forecast for next week. They weren’t going to last that long, anyway.
“I need you to find me dragons,” she said. “A particular one, in fact. Can you do that?”
The dragon sat up and stretched its wings, almost knocking the snowman’s head off again. He held it in place, his posture suggesting that he was outraged. The dragon spat a little snow in its excitement.
“Beaufort Scales,” Alice said. “Get me Beaufort Scales.”
It was slower going than the Detective Inspector would have liked, even the A59 crusted with snow and full of drivers going either too fast or too slow for the conditions. And once she turned off into the B roads it was even worse, her little car slipping and sliding in the patches where the ice was still coating the road under the new fall of snow. It was after lunch by the time she arrived in Toot Hansell, and she was starving.
She drove slowly through the village, more slowly that she maybe needed to. She didn’t spot any of the mysterious snowmonsters, just a surprisingly large congregation of cars outside the pub, and melted spots here and there, as if someone had taken to the streets with a giant hairdryer. Otherwise, all was as it should be in a small village on the week before Christmas.
She drove to Miriam’s house, because Alice wasn’t answering her phone, and from what she’d seen before the little cottage on the edge of the village was a positive hub of unexplained activity. She parked outside and sat watching the smoke climbing from the chimney in the still air. It was like a scene from a Christmas card, lights twinkling in the deep-set windows and strung around the untrimmed bay trees in the garden. She sighed and got out, crunching across the snow to the door, squaring her shoulders as if she were about to enter a drug den full of unpredictable people and all kinds of possible danger. She didn’t feel much different, if she were honest.
The door swung open as she raised her hand to knock, making her jump.
“Hello! Detective Inspector – um – ma’am.” Miriam put her hand out to shake the detective’s, then looked horrified and dropped it again. “Sorry, I mean -” she gave a little wave as if she were about to salute. “Um.”
“Good afternoon, Ms Ellis,” DI Adams said.
“Yes. Um. Miriam.”
“Well. Very nice to see you again, Miriam.” They looked at each other for a moment, until the detective gave a shiver that was only slightly theatrical.
“Oh! Oh, come in. Please come in.”
DI Adams knocked the snow off her boots and followed Miriam into a hall that smelled of wood smoke and incense, then through to the low-ceilinged kitchen beyond. In here the smells were of Christmas spices and citrus, with an underlying tang of alcohol, plus a hint of burned toast that was oddly pleasant.
“Alice,” the DI said, then forced herself to look at the patch of floor her eyes were determined to slide away from. It took a moment – and a swooping leap of vertigo – but then the dragons came into focus, Beaufort shedding the red hues of the rug in front of the Aga to take on a more familiar green, while next to him Mortimer cradled a mince pie rather anxiously in one paw. “Ah. Beaufort. Sir.” She still wasn’t quite sure how you should address a dragon High Lord. Well, any sort of dragon. “Mortimer.”
“Lovely to see you again!” Beaufort said, looking genuinely delighted. “If I’d known, I would have brought you a rabbit.”
Mortimer shook his head and ate the mince pie, his wings drooping.
“That’s – very nice of you, but I’m good for rabbits.”
“Oh – have you gone vegetarian, like our Gilbert?”
DI Adams thought of the crisped rabbit she’d found outside her car door last summer. That had been enough to drive anyone to vegetarianism.
“She didn’t like the rabbit last time,” Mortimer said, looking at his bowl of tea sadly. “You have to stop trying to give people rabbits, Beaufort.”
“In my day, they were always appreciated.”
“Yes, well -”
“It was a very nice gesture,” DI Adams said hurriedly, “But I’m not here about rabbits. I’m here about snowmen. Snowmonsters.”
Miriam dropped a mug into the sink with a squeak, splashing herself with soapy water.
“Tea?” Alice suggested, and took a chipped cup from the shelf.
“There are no snowmonsters, Detective Inspector,” Alice said, and gave the teapot a practised swirl before she poured. “We had a snowman competition last night and people just got a little overexcited, is all. Do you have sugar?”
“No – I mean, yes, one. Look -”
“Fruit cake?” Alice asked, handing the detective the mug. It was just the right shade, strong and soothing-looking. “I’m afraid we seem to be out of mince pies.”
“Sorry,” Mortimer mumbled. “I think I’m stress-eating.”
“Better than stress-shedding, lad. You’ll be bald by New Year’s at this rate.”
“Do you think?” Mortimer picked up his admittedly patchy tail and examined it. “I keep thinking it’ll stop. But then – stuff – keeps happening.”
Beaufort patted him on the shoulder. “It’ll clear up, Mortimer. But you really must stop worrying so much.” He helped himself to a shortbread biscuit while Mortimer glared at him as if restraining himself from saying something regrettable.
The DI looked away from the dragons and back at Alice, who slid a hefty slice of fruitcake in front of her. “Miriam makes a very nice fruit cake,” the chairwoman said. The DI stared at it, wondering how she’d ended up with tea and cake when she’d come for, if not an interrogation, at least some heavy questioning.
Miriam tripped over Beaufort’s tail, and squeaked again. “Oh! Oh, sorry, Beaufort, sorry.”
“Quite alright.” But he tucked his tail safely out of reach as Miriam sat down and picked her mug up with shaky hands.
“Are you alright, Miriam?” the DI said. “You seem a little uneasy. Anything you want to tell me?”
“Me? No! No, nothing. Nothing.”
“So there’s nothing to these snowmonster rumours, then?” DI Adams felt she was on safer ground with Miriam. She certainly acted like someone with something to hide, unlike Alice. The DI had a sneaking suspicion that Alice would have made a very successful master villain, had she so chosen.
“No. People just had too much mulled wine.” Miriam took a shortbread biscuit from the plate and promptly dropped it in her tea, sending a mini tidal wave over the rim. “Oh, no!”
“Do calm down, Miriam,” Alice said, getting up to fetch a cloth.
“I’m more intrigued by the missing shepherds,” Beaufort said.
DI Adams stared at him. “What?”
“The ones that aren’t in the pie.”
“The shepherd’s pie.”
DI Adams gave in and took a sip of tea, wondering if she was hallucinating this whole visit. Maybe she was actually back at her desk, dealing with the usual holiday rash of break-ins and domestics, with the tired tinsel over the door and the nightmarish dancing Santa on Sean’s desk that hohoho’d every time she walked past. That made a lot more sense than discussing the semantics of shepherd’s pies with dragons. She took a bite of cake. Although the food was admittedly excellent in her hallucinations.
“It was lovely to see you again,” Alice said pleasantly, as the DI declined a third cup of tea and got up from the table. “I’m sorry you had to waste your time coming all this way.”
“Well, it’s always an – experience,” DI Adams said, taking her coat from the back of her chair.
“For all involved,” Alice agreed, which the DI rather thought wasn’t a compliment. She started towards the hall, then stopped and turned back to the window that overlooked the back garden. She stayed there, staring out into the afternoon, until she was quite sure what she was seeing, then went back to her seat and sat down.
“I will have another cup of tea, thanks,” she said, then waited as Alice put the kettle on. Miriam was tearing a napkin into small pieces, whispering oh dear over and over again.
Alice poured fresh tea all around, then sat back down, and for a moment the kitchen was quiet. The DI took a sip of tea and considered her hallucination theory again.
“Miriam,” she said eventually, “Why is there a giant snow shark swimming – not floating, swimming – in your fishpond?”
“I’m not quite sure,” Miriam admitted to the napkin.
“I knew he’d turn up eventually,” Alice said. “I never thought to check there.”
“So – snowmonsters,” the DI said.
“Pixies,” Beaufort said, and slurped tea.
“We think they stole the mulled wine,” Mortimer said.
“Pixies stole the mulled wine.”
“They do like a tipple,” Beaufort said comfortably.
For a moment no one spoke, then the DI said, “So the pixies stole the mulled wine and then?”
“Well, they magicked the snow sculptures,” Beaufort said, as if the DI was being particularly slow. “They’re terrible for pranks, are pixies.”
“Yes – practical jokes, you know?”
“I know what a prank is, yes, thank you Beaufort.” DI Adams looked at her tea and wished mightily that she could magic it into whiskey. “So the town has been overrun with snowmonsters, and it was a prank.”
“Oh, it’s all sorted,” Beaufort said. “They don’t last long. Very meltable.”
“I did feel a little sorry for the dragon and the headless knight, though,” Alice said.
“That was a shame,” the High Lord agreed. “But they weren’t exactly alive, so you can’t feel too bad.”
DI Adams considered asking about the headless knight, then put her tea down and said, “Do you have any whiskey?”
“Aren’t you on duty?” Alice asked, looking amused, as Miriam bounced out of her seat and rushed away.
“I don’t know what I’m on right now, but I feel whiskey will help.”
“You’ll be fine,” Beaufort said, and gave her an enormous, toothy, and somehow reassuring grin. “I have complete faith in you.”
The DI wondered if that was a good thing or a bad thing, then decided that, on the whole, a dragon having faith in you could never really be bad. Particularly a dragon like Beaufort.
Outside, the shark wallowed in the fishpond as the night drew in, and pixies peered in windows looking for booze to loot, and two hills over an enormous snowy porcupine trailed giant footprints across the hills that would confuse the walkers who discovered them the next day. Dragons slept in caverns, and unnamed things snoozed beneath frozen ponds and curled into fluffy nests, and the world wheeled on beneath the stars, as beautiful and wonderful as could ever be imagined.
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