Beaufort Scales & the Unexpected Guests

Beaufort Scales & the Unexpected Guests

“Mortimer? Mortimer!”

Mortimer opened his eyes reluctantly. That voice and that particularly urgent tone popped up in his dreams quite a lot, but they weren’t usually accompanied by a heavy paw shaking his shoulder.

“What?” he mumbled. He’d fallen asleep at his workbench, mulling over some plans for dragon scale bags that would bite thieves. So far they bit everyone, which was unhelpful.

“Wake up, lad. We have a Situation.”

There was definitely a capital S in there, and as the dragon shaking his shoulder was none other than Beaufort Scales, High Lord of the Cloverly dragons and recent adopter of modern traditions such as tea parties and barbecues, that was pretty much to be expected. Mortimer sighed, and peered blearily at the old dragon, thinking that he must have fallen asleep with his safety goggles on, because – he pawed at his eyes, and was startled to discover that they were uncovered. He blinked, took a deep breath, and said, “Would the Situation have anything to do with why you have a chicken on your shoulder?”

“Do I? Blasted birds.” Beaufort shook himself like a dog coming out of the water, wings clattering against his scales, and the chicken gave a squawk of alarm, flaring her own wings out for balance. “Is it gone?”

“No. Still there. Why is it there, Beaufort?”

“The Great Cavern’s full of them. Come see.” The big (well, big by the standards of Cloverly dragons, so not much taller than a Shetland pony, but considerably longer) dragon turned and headed out of the workshop cavern, the chicken swaying on his shoulder like a country pirate’s mascot.

Mortimer scratched his ear, sighed, and pushed the plans for the bags onto a safe shelf. Well, it had been a month since the snowman incident. And that one hadn’t even been their fault. They must be past due for something strange happening, although he wasn’t quite sure why they had to be. Although he did have an idea who tended to pull them into said situations.

He followed the High Lord out of the workshop and scrambled up the rocky face of the cliff to the Grand Cavern.

#

Mortimer had expected that Beaufort was exaggerating, because the Grand Cavern was, well, large. It had to be – in the old days, it would have held not only the Cloverly clan, but any visiting dragons also (providing they were small enough to get through the entrance. When the Greater Horned Scillian dragons had sent an eight-strong deputation to ask for Beaufort’s help in settling a minor dispute over who would be their new High Lord, they’d had to sleep in the fields below the mount. It had been a mostly successful visit, though, despite the dozen or so cows that had mysteriously gone missing from local farms). These days, there were rarely more than a handful of dragons in the cavern at any one time, and even Beaufort spent most of his time roaming around the place rather than snoozing by the fire, as is the rightful place of a very old dragon. He did still sleep in the cavern, though, draped comfortably over a large Weber barbecue that had several fireproof blankets covering it. Now, however…

“They’re everywhere,” Mortimer said.

“I woke up because they were perching on me, Mortimer. Perching on me. It’s unacceptable.”

Mortimer wisely decided not to remind the High Lord that he was currently still wearing a chicken on his shoulder, and stared around the cavern instead. It was dimly lit by the light of the big fire that always burned in the centre of the dusty floor, but dragon eyes see rather differently than ours do, and Mortimer had no problem making out the sleepily clucking masses of chickens tucked into perches on the walls and snuggled into each other on the floor at a safe distance from the fire, and crowded around Beaufort’s barbecue. Also on top on Beaufort’s barbecue, as it happened. “Oh, dear,” Mortimer said.

“Quite,” Beaufort agreed. “So what do we do?”

“Well…” They were dragons. They might prefer rabbit, but a change wasn’t out of the question.

“No,” Beaufort said, and pointed to a pile of flowers lying next to his barbecue, half underneath a rather fetching black and white hen.

“An offering?”

“Not just an offering. There’s heather and Christmas roses in there.”

Mortimer sighed. Offerings were given to those you considered worthy of respect, which wasn’t a concept he’d thought chickens had much grasp of. Heather and Christmas roses were given when you wanted to seek protection from a dragon. “Can we say we haven’t seen the offering?”

“But I have seen it, Mortimer. And now you have too. We can’t lie.”

“But they’re chickens. Look, that one’s trying to eat your fire blanket.”

“No! Stop that! Stop it!” Beaufort charged towards the offending bird, waving his paws frantically and setting the roosting chickens into squawking retreat. They crashed off the barbecue and into their fellows, sending a spreading wave of panicked, feathered movement surging across the cavern. Only the one on Beaufort’s shoulder stayed put, looking on with round-eyed astonishment as the birds ran into each other, the walls, the dragons, and (with a whiff of burning feathers) across the fire. The sound was deafening, and Mortimer covered his ears in alarm, squeaking when a herd of chickens ran across his tail. The frenzy ran across the cavern and back again several times over, then subsided, the birds blinking rapidly at each other and the dragons as they settled slowly back down again, clucking anxiously.

Beaufort brushed feathers off his snout and stared gloomily around the cavern. Down and dust were floating everywhere, landing on the fire with little spits of flame.

“Mortimer-”

“Yes, you can use my barbecue. I keep falling asleep in the workshop, anyway.”

“Thank you, lad.”

“We’ll figure this out tomorrow.”

“I know just where to start,” the High Lord said, sounding vaguely threatening. They trailed out into the night, leaving the chickens to the warmth and safety of the high seat of the Cloverly dragons.

#

“Well?” Beaufort demanded. He was standing just inside the mouth of the Grand Cavern, which smelt very… chickeny. Mortimer sat next to him, trying to stop a small red bantam hen from climbing his tail, and Gilbert stood in the entrance, looking shifty.

“There really are a lot of them, aren’t there?”

“Gilbert,” Beaufort said warningly.

“Um – would it help if I said that I was sure there weren’t this many last night?”

“This really is unacceptable, you know. I’m never going to be able to use my blankets again.” The chicken on Beaufort’s shoulder nodded sagely and tried to investigate the old dragon’s ear. “Stop that!”

“There really weren’t this many, though,” Gilbert protested. “Okay, I admit I did the offering, but there were, like, six chickens!” The two older dragons stared at him without speaking. “Okay, twelve.” He did a little shuffle, avoiding their eyes, the piercings in his tail jingling. “Fine, there were twenty. But they were being treated horribly, and shoved in little sheds and stuff. It’s not right!”

Mortimer examined the chickens carefully. There were certainly more than twenty in here, and none of them looked very unhappy. He’d heard stories of the farms where they were jammed into cages and often never even got to walk or peck the ground, and it was truly awful, but these chickens looked suspiciously fat and sleek. “Where did the rest come from, then?”

“I don’t know. But it wasn’t me. Not deliberately, anyway. Maybe word spread?”

“What, the chicken telegraph?”

“Never mind that – what do you expect us to do with them, Gilbert?” Beaufort asked.

“I – I guess I’ll release them into the wild?”

A loud snort came from further inside the cavern, and they turned to watch as a small dragon picked her way around the massed birds and padded towards them. “Have you heard of wild chickens before, Gilbert?”

“Well, no-”

“And the weather we’re having – they’ll freeze out there, you know.”

“Yes, but-”

“My brother doesn’t always think,” the small dragon announced.

“We know this, Amelia,” Mortimer muttered.

“But none of you are particularly good observers, are you? Sorry, sir,” she added hurriedly, as Beaufort glared at her balefully.

“We have observed that there are far too many chickens in this cavern,” the High Lord said firmly.

“Also fifteen ducks, seven geese, and a small family of rabbits in the corner.”

Mortimer’s stomach rumbled loudly, and he covered it with one paw. “Sorry. I haven’t had breakfast.”

“No one has had breakfast,” Beaufort complained. “The whole Great Cavern is uninhabitable!”

“Yes,” Amelia said, “But why are there ducks, geese, rabbits, and far too many chickens in here?” She glared pointedly at her brother, and he gave a nervous grin that exposed a lot of very sharp white teeth.

“I have pumpkins,” he said. “I could roast us all pumpkins…?”

Beaufort closed his eyes, and Mortimer wondered if he was counting to ten. It was a technique that Miriam had taught them, and Mortimer used it a lot. A lot. He’d never seen Beaufort use it before, though.

“I think,” the High Lord said, without opening his eyes, “that we should take our breakfast outside today. Mortimer, can you chase us up some rabbits that haven’t somehow found themselves protected by an offering?”

“Pumpkins are-” Gilbert started, and Beaufort opened one ancient orange eye to glare at him.

“Rabbits it is,” Mortimer said.

#

“Who was that?” Beaufort asked, as Miriam came back into the kitchen with a thoughtful look on her face. Pumpkin had made for a singularly unsatisfying breakfast, so the High Lord had suggested to Mortimer that it had been at least a few days since they visited the village, and maybe they should call by Miriam’s for a cuppa. Mortimer had agreed readily – Miriam almost always had cake and cream.

“That was a woman called Patricia,” Miriam said. “She runs a chicken rescue just outside the village. Wanted to know if anyone had seen her chickens.”

Mortimer, sat comfortably next to the Aga on the kitchen floor, covered his nose with both paws. “A chicken rescue? Gilbert stole the chickens from a chicken rescue?”

“And apparently left pumpkins in their place,” Miriam said. “They’re very well-cared-for chickens, you know. Patricia does a wonderful job. Even knits them little jumpers if they don’t have their feathers.”

“He left pumpkins?” Mortimer repeated, bewildered.

“That lad has a terrible obsession with squash,” Beaufort said.

“It still doesn’t explain where the rest came from,” Mortimer added. “Or the ducks. Or the rabbits.”

“I should rather like to eat the rabbits.”

“Well, you’ve had your fill of toad in the hole, haven’t you?” Miriam asked. “That should tide you over.”

“It was very nice,” Beaufort agreed, handing her his bowl. “Although it tasted much better than I remember toad tasting. Was it a special breed?”

“Um, no. There was no toad in it.”

Beaufort stared at her. “So shepherd’s pie has no shepherd in it, and toad in the hole has no toad in it?”

“That’s about it.” Miriam put the bowls in the sink and went to carve her signature quinoa-flour-carrot-and-pineapple cake into generous slices. It had fallen apart when she tried to ice it, but she felt it rather added to the rustic feel of it.

Beaufort leaned a little closer to Mortimer and whispered loudly enough to be heard two rooms over, “There are some things, even after all these centuries, that I still don’t understand about humans, Mortimer.”

The younger dragon nodded firmly, and thought that there were still plenty of things that he didn’t even understand about dragons, let alone humans.

#

“But they had to live in sheds! Sheds!”

“They’re chickens, Gilbert.” Mortimer waved at the sea of feathered bodies. The other dragons were staying clear of the cavern, which was becoming steadily more fragrant. There also seemed to be factions developing in the new population, scuffles breaking out over the choice positions close to the fire or under Beaufort’s barbecue. The geese were particularly aggressive, and had chased Amelia away when she tried to retrieve the High Lord’s blankets. The High Lord himself had elected to stay at Miriam’s a little longer, so he could watch Poirot. He had become very fond of mystery shows, which was concerning to Mortimer, to say the least. He’d even started talking about the case of the missing chickens, as if they didn’t know who the culprit was.

“Chickens have feelings too!”

Mortimer took a deep breath and stared at Gilbert’s toes. His claws were bright yellow with orange spots today. “Maybe they like the sheds. They certainly seem like happy chickens, wouldn’t you say?”

Gilbert scratched his chin. “Well, I guess, but it’s no life, y’know?”

“Chickens can’t live in the wild, Gilbert. If they could, we’d have chickens running around everywhere.”

“Maybe they could if someone just gave them a chance.”

“So they were never let out of the sheds?”

“Well… I guess… like, they were in the garden when I first saw them. Their captor was feeding them pellety things.”

“So they could have run away at any time.”

“There was a fence.”

Mortimer closed his eyes, considering trying counting to ten, and decided it wasn’t going to help. “So the chickens were fed regularly, could have run away at any time, had a nice garden to potter around in, and a shed to keep them safe from foxes at night?”

“I – oh. Oh, that was what the shed was for.”

“Yes, Gilbert.”

“Oh. And I kind of forgot about the whole feeding thing.”

“I noticed,” Mortimer said, looking pointedly at two chickens that were attacking his toes hungrily.

“I guess – I guess I should take them back, then?”

“Yes. And the ducks and bloody geese, too.”

“Oh, but they were cold! It’s so cold out there!”

“Gilbert-”

“No, no, that’s mean! I’ll bring them pumpkin.”

“And the rabbits? What about them?”

Gilbert looked puzzled. “I don’t know. They may be the family that was living in my cave.”

“The family that-” Mortimer pinched his snout. He normally only got these sort of headaches from spending too long around Beaufort. “Look, never mind the rabbits. The rest. They can’t stay in here. You know that.”

“But they made an offering.”

Mortimer glared at the younger dragon. “Are you telling me that a bird that thinks my scales are edible knows enough dragon culture to make the exact right offering?”

“Yes.” Gilbert didn’t quite meet his eyes, and Mortimer wished mightily that Beaufort was here to deal with this. This was High Lord stuff, surely.

“Gilbert. Take the chickens back. Get rid of the rest of them. Now.”

“No.” Gilbert had a very obstinate set to his jaw. Mortimer took a deep, angry breath, then let it out in a yelp as he was elbowed unceremoniously aside.

“Sic ‘em,” Amelia said, and a family of six eager foxes shot past her into the cavern, ears high and tongues lolling.

“Oh, no!” Gilbert wailed, and plunged after the foxes.

“Amelia!” Mortimer gasped. “They were under our protection!”

She gave him an amused look. “You don’t know my brother as well as I do. He scammed the system to get them in here, and he’ll keep them here. He’s nothing if not dedicated.”

“But foxes-”

“We should retreat,” Amelia advised him, then when he still stared at her she turned and scuttled out of the cavern and into open air.

Mortimer looked back at the crowded chamber, still trying to formulate some sort of argument, then gave a yelp of horror and fled. Ducks winged their way after him, quacking wildly, the big forms of the geese in close pursuit, dive-bombing across the cavern and heading straight for the entrance. The chickens were a riot of scratching feet and frantic wings, bouncing into each other and falling over, rolling across the floor and scrambling up again, all squawking loudly and raising dust clouds like buffalo stampeding across a prairie. Behind them came the darting, bright-eyed foxes, snapping and coughing to each other excitedly, while Gilbert brought up the rear with the rabbits clutched to his chest, shouting incoherently.

Mortimer scrambled onto the ledge just to the left of the cavern mouth, seeing Amelia perched comfortably on the other side, watching the commotion with interest. The birds burst out of the cavern in a feathery wave directly behind him, the ducks and geese winging away for safer places, the chickens tumbling and sliding on the scree as they flung themselves off the ledge and down, flapping wildly as they tried to keep their balance, a vocal and feathery little avalanche. They washed down the slope and away, and suddenly the ledge was empty. The foxes came to a sliding halt at the edge, watching the birds fleeing, the smallest snapping excitedly at the feathers still floating in the air. Gilbert stumbled up behind them, still holding the rabbits.

“Oh no!” he wailed again.

A female fox with a startlingly beautiful tail gave him a bemused glance, then ambled across to Amelia. “Sorted, sister,” she said, and held her paw out.

Amelia bumped it with her own. “You’re a legend, Rose.”

“Always happy to help out.” Rose peered over the edge. “I hope they don’t get lost down there. No telling what’ll happen then.”

The biggest fox laughed. “Yeah, no telling. Like, nudge nudge, wink wink.” He sat down and licked his lips expectantly.

The smaller fox gave him a withering look. “That was not what I meant, Jimmy. Keep your tail in.”

“Amelia!” Gilbert shouted. “What did you do?”

“Sorted the problem,” Amelia said. “Besides, your bloody birds had eaten the offering by this morning. Any dragon that went in there could have legitimately had breakfast, lunch and dinner on them if we weren’t around to say no.”

“But-”

“Go put your rabbits away and take the silly chickens home. They really will be fox food otherwise.”

“No, Jimmy,” Rose said, as the big fox sat back on his hind legs and yelped, “Oh, yeah!”

“Why not?” Jimmy demanded. “Some of them were fat.”

“Because I said to Amelia that we wouldn’t touch any of the birds in here. Or rabbits.” Rose looked pointedly at Gilbert. “You have a very nice sister.”

“But-”

“Gilbert, listen to your sister,” Mortimer said, as authoritatively as he could manage, although he had a sneaking suspicion that he was in no way in charge of the situation. “Leave the rabbits and go give back the chickens.”

Gilbert looked at Amelia, at Rose, then at the rapidly vanishing chickens, sighed, handed the rabbits to a startled Mortimer, and scrambled off the ledge, starting a minor avalanche as he bounded down the slope.

“Why isn’t he flying?” Jimmy asked.

“Gilbert doesn’t fly,” Amelia said, which Mortimer thought was a tactful way to put it.

“Weird,” the big fox declared.

“You’re weird,” Rose said. “And rude.” She turned and headed down the skinny, barely-there track that snaked its way around the cliffs of the dragon’s mount, the other foxes falling into line behind her. A moment later, Mortimer and Amelia were the only ones left on the ledge, amid a slowly settling cloud of dust and feathers.

“Well,” Amelia said. “We should try and clean up before Beaufort gets back.”

“That would be good,” Mortimer agreed. “But what do I do with these?” His thrust his armful of rabbits at her. The smallest one had gone to sleep in the crook of his elbow, nuzzling into his warm scales.

Amelia grinned. “Totally on your own with that one.”

#

“Well, lad,” Beaufort said. “This is wonderful! The place is as good as new.” Which it was, apart from the most recent scorch marks. Dragon fire is a very effective way of cleaning a surprisingly large accumulation of bird droppings and feathers in a very short space of time. Beaufort’s barbecue had survived mostly unscathed, although the same couldn’t be said for the blankets. Mortimer and Amelia had donated their own until they could get more.

“Where’s the young troublemaker?” Beaufort asked.

“Still returning the chickens,” Mortimer said.

“I shall have to have words with him. It’s no good this, interfering with an old dragon’s rest. And breakfast.” Beaufort patted his barbecue, then climbed onto it, settling his belly against the warm steel. “So how did you get them out?”

“Well, it wasn’t-” Mortimer began.

“Wasn’t easy,” Amelia interrupted. “It wasn’t easy. But Mortimer did a wonderful job.” She winked at him while he stared at her, bewildered.

“Ah, well done, lad,” Beaufort said, and yawned. “Well, I shall sleep well tonight. Thank you for dealing with it. You really are coming along wonderfully.” He closed his eyes and settled his chin on his paws, and after a moment the younger dragons retreated.

“Why did you say I did it?” Mortimer asked.

“I don’t want him thinking I’m useful,” Amelia said. “Look at you – he thinks you’re useful, and now you’re stress-shedding constantly.”

Mortimer looked at his patchy tail gloomily. “Gee, thanks.”

“Aw.” She patted his shoulder. “At least you have a pet rabbit now.”

They both looked at the very small rabbit that had been following Mortimer all afternoon. “Yeah, that makes me feel so much better.”

Amelia chuckled. “Come on. I’ll share a pumpkin with you, as there’s basically nothing else to eat.”

Mortimer sighed, wondering what Beaufort had meant by coming along wonderfully as he watched Amelia leap off the ledge with her wings snapping wide. He supposed he’d know in time, whether he wanted to or not.

He picked up the little rabbit before following the smaller dragon, leaping high into the cold night air and catching it beneath his wings, spiralling under the stars and over the lake and fields, the lights of the village distant and golden in the folded land. Behind them, the High Lord of the Cloverly dragons snoozed on, and the chicken on his shoulder tucked her feet underneath her and slept too*, and the seat of the clan was peaceful in the winter night.


*Mortimer and Amelia had decided that the last thing Beaufort needed to hear was that he’d been adopted by a hen. And, past a certain point, it started to feel awkward to mention it.


 

 

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