You may have already encountered Beaufort Scales, High Lord of the Cloverly Dragons, in his previous modern-day adventures – The Definition of Treasure, and The Christmas Baubles. Of course, you don’t have to read these stories first, but you may want to.
“Alright.” Alice surveyed the ten women sat around the table, stirring cups of tea and examining each others plates critically. “Are we all here?”
Miriam rather reluctantly took a piece of shortbread as Jasmine offered it around. She was a lovely girl, but she really couldn’t cook. Shouldn’t. It was a small village, and it was common knowledge that the fire brigade had been out twice in the last few months because a neighbour had mistaken Jasmine’s baking sessions for a house fire. Miriam nibbled an edge of the biscuit, tea cup at the ready. She smiled as brightly as she could.
“Lovely,” she said. “Do I detect a hint of lemon?”
“Ooh, yes,” Jasmine said eagerly. “I put in a little extra, because a quarter of a teaspoon lemon zest really seemed like such a tiny amount.”
That explained the way Miriam’s eye was twitching, but didn’t account for the faint aroma of burned rubber. She kept hold of the biscuit until the younger woman turned away, then placed it discreetly on the edge of the table, where she was liable to knock it to the floor. Accidentally, of course.
“Ladies,” Alice said, not raising her voice. A hush descended on the little room just off the village hall, where the Women’s Institute of Toot Hansett met to share tea, gossip and plans. Early Spring sunlight filtered in through the windows over the sink and blushed the (mostly) beautifully arranged bouquets of garden and wild flowers they’d brought for each other. Someone sipped tea and gave a soft, contented sigh, and Alice smiled. “Now we’re all settled, let’s hear the minutes, shall we? Priya?”
A slim woman with white-shot hair ran a long finger down the list on her tablet as she quickly re-capped the previous month’s meeting. Miriam didn’t really listen – she was thinking of Mortimer, and magic, and floating ornaments fragile as stars. As much as she loved the WI, the memories made custard slices and strawberry jam seem a little bland, somehow. She watched the light catch the gold edging on the tea cups and wondered what Mortimer would come up with next. He’d been so encouraged by the response to the baubles he’d designed that he’d started thinking of other ideas for the Summer fete. He hadn’t shared anything with her yet, but he’d come up with something amazing again, she was sure of it. He really was quite remarkable.
Plates were passed, cups refilled, cakes complimented and a few more shortbread biscuits dropped accidentally on the floor as Alice led the conversation through the plans for the upcoming Spring market, and, further off, preparations for the Summer fete. There was some discussion over ideas for guests for the coming year, derailed a little by Gert, who said they should ask “that nice young man Bertrand Capsicumpatch.” Order devolved somewhat after that, and Alice watched it all indulgently. They were a motley lot, Jasmine almost sixty years younger than Gert, with everyone else scattered along the decades in between. But there were never many rows, and disagreements were sorted out civilly before they could fester. She made sure of it. She may not have had an iron fist, but her glove was certainly more steel mesh than velvet.
Now she cleared her throat, and the women closest to her turned expectantly. The movement spread around the table, until everyone was waiting for her to speak. “Ladies,” she said, straightening the seam on her cardigan almost imperceptibly, “I would like to – what the hell is that?”
Ten heads turned in the direction of her pointing finger, as stunned by her wording as by the edge of a shriek in her voice. There was a very slight pause, then someone dropped their teacup. It exploded into shards on the wooden floor, and more than one person screamed. Miriam covered her mouth with one hand. At the window, a fearsomely scaled visage peered in at them, hot breath steaming up the glass. Thin lips drew back from long yellow teeth, baring them in an alarming grin, and the creature examined the room with dark gold eyes. Still no one moved, waiting for it to come bursting through the glass, or for someone else to do something. For once even Alice was speechless. Then the creature spotted Miriam. He waved enthusiastically, and she slumped over the table, burying her face in her hands. The monster disappeared from the window.
“What,” Alice began again, and Miriam hoped that quavery word wasn’t directed at her. But before she could find out, there was an imperative tap on the front door, echoing across the empty hall and swelling as it dived into the back room to meet them. It was the sort of tap you imagine being made by the kind of person that carries a cane, and maybe even wears a monocle. The sort of person that isn’t used to being ignored and probably says things like “jolly good” a lot. No one spoke. No one moved towards the hall. Someone whimpered, and Miriam thought it was probably Jasmine. The tap came again, and she groaned, pushed her chair back and got up, aware of ten sets of eyes watching her in horror, and, she was uncomfortably certain, a little fury also. Because he’d come here for her, hadn’t he? Of course he had. Bloody Beaufort. Bloody Beaufort Scales, High Lord of the Cloverly dragons. How was she supposed to handle this? And where the hell was Mortimer?
Mortimer leaned over his workbench and breathed on the fledging construction of metal and scale, careful not to blacken it. Just enough heat to soften, that was all he needed. Yes, there. Perfect. He worked slowly and methodically, shaping the object into something that was halfway between a dragon and a glider, the folding wings made of scales stretched to almost gossamer thinness but stronger than any human fabric, the body longer and leaner than a dragon had any right to be. A lot lighter, too. The physics of aerodynamics took a bit of a detour when it came to actual dragons, but he’d found that they were pretty rigid with anything else.
He could feel someone watching him, but he waited until he had the tail at the exact jaunty angle he wanted before he set the little glider to cool in the window. On the wall to the left of the window were rows of rough shelving holding an slow-growing army of gliders, each one a slightly different colour, some with scales of deep burned red, others open ocean blue, still more the milky opalescence of mountain lakes. Mortimer had made sure every one flew perfectly, imitating the way he’d seen kids throw paper aeroplanes, watching with satisfaction as the dragon gliders swooped away from him, lifting on the air currents, climbing and falling and spinning until they eventually dropped back by his feet. He could have asked Miriam to test them for him, of course, but he had decided that he didn’t want to bother her until they were done. She’d be busy anyway. And he could still see the shine in her eyes when she’d seen the baubles for the first time, hear the catch in her voice. He didn’t want to show up with something unfinished. What a waste of her time that would be!
Now he turned, and looked at the small dragon hesitating in the door. “Hi, Amelia.”
“Hi, Mortimer.” She was watching the glider cool, the light catching the panels of its wings like a butterfly.
“What’s up?” The younger dragon had been wonderful with the baubles, but she didn’t seem to have the touch for the gliders – she was curiously nervous whenever she came into the little cavern where he’d set up his workshop. She kept dropping scales, and knocking over piles of scrap metal with her tail, and once she’d sneezed and set fire to her work bench. After than Mortimer had suggested that she should work on researching their next project instead – that and keeping an eye on Beaufort. The High Lord kept coming up with schemes for interacting with humans that were, to put it mildly, alarming – the latest had been an outreach programme partnering at-risk youth (he’d also taken to reading newspapers, which were really far too flammable to have around an old and occasionally absent-minded dragon) with some of the more unruly young dragons – it’d give them a purpose, he said. Mortimer thought the purpose was quite likely to involve theft and property destruction on a scale not seen since the days of Viking raiders, but it had taken a lot of work to get Beaufort to see it. Gods knew what his next brainwave would be.
“Ah.” Amelia kept looking at the glider, rather fixedly. “Have you – ah – have you seen the High Lord?”
“What?” Mortimer dropped a pair of pliers on his toes and swore. “What d’you mean, have I seen him? Since when? Have you lost him?”
Amelia sat back on her haunches and scratched anxiously behind her ear with a back foot. She was getting a scale-less spot there, Mortimer noticed. “Ah – I mean – right. Yes. I brought him some lunch, and he said he was going to have a nap after, so I didn’t want to disturb him, so -”
Mortimer made the universal ‘hurry up’ gesture with one paw, feel a tight knot of indigestion forming in his throat.
“Yes. Sorry. Ah – he’s not there. No one seems to have seen him.”
No one seems to have seen him. Of course they hadn’t. He was old – no one knew quite how old, but he could tell the story of so-called St George slaughtering High Lord Catherine first hand – and maybe he limped a little in winter and sometimes forgot where he’d put his dinner until someone spotted it trying to escape the caverns, but old doesn’t mean stupid. And it certain doesn’t mean lacking in wiles. Rather the opposite. Mortimer pressed both front paws over his snout and took a deep breath.
“I’m so sorry, Mortimer,” Amelia whispered. She’d taken hold of the end of her tail and was stroking it anxiously, like she was no more than a hatchling.
“It’s not your fault,” Mortimer said. “It’s really not. We need to put a damn tracking device on the silly old sod.”
Amelia nodded, and let her tail go hurriedly, composing herself. “So what do we do?”
“Find him, I guess.” And he had a pretty good idea where the High Lord would have gone. He hurried out of the workshop, muttering about old dragons and new tricks and the concept of sensible boundaries in human/dragon relations.
“Miriam!” Beaufort said, sitting back on his haunches to extend a paw to her. “It’s wonderful to see you.”
Miriam smiled in spite of herself – the old dragon sounded genuinely delighted. She shook his paw, his talons heavy and sharp as they closed over her hand, making her shiver. “Beaufort – not to say it’s not lovely to see you, because it is, but, um, what are you doing here?”
“Well. I had a few ideas, you see. Mutually beneficial for both the Cloverly dragons and Toot Hansell.”
“I see. Well, that’s great, really. Ah -” she peered past him and down the gravel path to the gate. The road beyond was thankfully empty. “Is Mortimer with you, by any chance?”
“No, no – you know, for such a young dragon, he’s quite a stick in the mud.”
“Well, yes, but -”
“He insists on waiting around, being all secretive – I think we stand on the threshold of great things! I think it’s time for dragons and humans to co-exist once more – and to cooperate, this time!”
“Beaufort, that sounds great, but -”
“So I thought I’d just nip down here, because I believe the very people I need to talk to are in this room.”
“It’s just a Women’s Institute meeting, Beaufort. It’s not county council or anything. I think -”
“That’s the one! Women’s Institute. How marvellous. Let’s meet them.”
“Beaufort, really, I think you probably want the council, and anyway, we should find Mortimer -”
“If you want to get something done, you go straight to the people that do things, not the people that talk about it. Come on! Introduce me!”
“Beaufort, please -”
But the big dragon – big on the scale of Cloverly dragons as least, which meant that on all fours he was as tall as a Shetland pony – pushed cheerily past her and headed across the bare hall floors towards the little meeting room. “Come along, Miriam. If you introduce me it means I’m not crashing the party, so to speak.”
“Beaufort! It’s the Women’s Institute. What d’you think we can do?”
He paused, looking back at her in mild astonishment. “Well, absolutely anything.” Then he turned away again, his claws clicking smartly on the wooden floors.
Miriam rubbed her hands over her face, pulling the skin down into a mask of despair, then ran after the dragon, her boots squeaking and her skirts swirling around her. “But you can’t just go in there! You’ll scare them.”
“Tosh. They may be startled, but I’ll win them over. I’ve always been good with the ladies.” He tipped her a rather alarming wink, and Miriam overtook him, planting herself with her legs wide and her hands on her hips in front of the door.
“Now, stop this! Honestly, Beaufort. You haven’t thought this through. We need a plan if you’re going to start revealing yourself to the general public.”
“It isn’t the general public. It’s the Women’s Institute.”
“God – we’re not like a secret army, you know. We bake cakes and make jam and – and stuff.”
“Cakes? What sort of cakes?”
“You’re the one that mentioned cakes.” The dragon sat back on his haunches and examined her with eyes that had crackled with age and heat, turning the gold to the deep warm amber of fossilised things. “Miriam, what are you so afraid of? You’re not scared of us, so why should they be?”
Miriam looked away, as if searching for someone else to answer the question. “It’s not safe. You don’t see it. Humans are – well, they can’t handle things that don’t fit into their idea of the world. They’ll want to catch you, and examine you, and categorise you, and – I don’t know.” Dissect you.
Beaufort cocked his head. “You’re human.”
“Okay, yeah, but -”
“There are still dragons that believe we should be marshaling our forces to take back our territory, not fading into silence. That we should be stealing maidens and burning villages. Hoarding gold and massacring cattle. That the only true meal for a lord of dragons is the hearts of his enemies.”
The hall was silent, the windows painting squares of light across the floor, and a car went by the on the road outside, impossibly remote.
“But you wouldn’t -”
“But how do you know?” Beaufort smiled, his teeth huge and extremely dragonish. “These are things that some dragons do.”
“Yes, but I know you -”
“So the dragons you know are safe, but not the ones you don’t? Do you fear all dragons but me?”
“No, of course not, I just -”
“So why should I fear all humans? You’re perfectly lovely, as are most humans I’ve met over the years. Why would we each judge the other’s kind based on the bad actions of a few? And, as it happens, bad actions we may have only heard stories about?”
“Okay.” Miriam considered this, then tried again. “The problem is, we don’t know how people here will react. You really can’t just go wandering into any old village hall and -”
“The problem,” a cool voice said from the door behind Miriam, “Is that you seem to have a terribly poor opinion not just of humans in general, but of the ladies of the WI. And I really would have thought better of you.”
Miriam spun around in a whirl of multi-coloured skirts. Alice stood in the doorway in her neatly pressed grey slacks and red cardigan, her blouse done up firmly to her chin, the other ladies of the WI crowding close behind her. She peered over her glasses at Miriam until the other woman moved to the side, and then she turned the same stern gaze onto Beaufort.
“The Woman’s Institute is used to keeping its own counsel and dealing with many things that concern it both directly and indirectly,” she said to the dragon, as if it were quite a normal occurrence to find a mythological beast trying to sneak into the village hall. “However, attendance at a meeting by non-members is by invitation only.”
“I’m terribly sorry,” Beaufort said, placing a paw over his chest. “If I had thought an invitation might be forthcoming I’d have waited.”
Alice stared at him a moment longer. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she said finally. “How could we send you an invitation when we didn’t even know you existed until five minutes ago?”
“That is a problem,” Beaufort agreed.
“Well. As you are here, I would like to invite you in. We have plenty of food to go around.”
“But -” Miriam said, then stopped. She wasn’t at all sure what she was protesting.
“My dear,” Alice said, “No one here is about to rush off and inform the authorities that we have a dragon – you are a dragon, aren’t you?” Beaufort nodded, grinning that toothsome grin, and Alice gave him a short nod in return. “I thought so. Although I did imagine you’d be bigger.” The High Lord looked a little crestfallen, but not particularly offended. “Anyhow – no one is going to be rushing off talking about dragons in our midst. Not unless they want to get carted off to the home for particularly delusional old folks, anyway. And you know how I feel about rumours.” She turned and looked at the women still in the room. “We all know how I feel about them, don’t we?”
There was a chorus of agreement, and she made a gentle little shooing motion with one hand that sent everyone fleeing back to the table.
“Okay,” Miriam said, to no one in particular. “Okay. Ah, Beaufort Scales, High Lord of the Cloverly dragons, allow me to introduce you to Alice Martin, Chairwoman of the Toot Hansell WI.”
“Also Wing Officer, WRAF, retired,” Alice added. “Pleased to meet you.” She spun on her heel and walked back into the room without waiting to see if the dragon would follow.
“Marvellous,” Beaufort said happily, and trotted after her.
Miriam stayed where she was for a moment, wondering if she should just go home. There was a certain appeal to going home, locking the door and pretending she’d run away to the West Indies.
Mortimer edged out of the bushes that lined the back fence of the village hall, pressed himself as low to the ground as he could manage, and took one last check for any observers. Then he scooted straight across the short-cropped lawn and into the flowerbed under the windows, silently apologising to whoever looked after such things as he trampled across the pansies. He stayed where he was for a long moment, listening for shouts of alarm. So far, so good. The birds had hesitated in their song, then decided he was no threat and started up again. He pressed his back to the wall and eased himself up onto his haunches, then waved to Amelia. She bounded out of the bushes and across the lawn like an exuberant and over-sized dachshund, but had reached him before he could even signal her to slow down. She still had twigs caught around her horns, and she looked up at him eagerly.
“Are we okay?” she hissed.
“So far. Shush.” He hooked his claws over the window ledge, his belly flat to the cool stone, and very carefully drew himself up, trying to keep his head tipped so his horns stayed hidden. There were no screams or shouts from inside, so that was a good start. He could still smell the faint trace of the old dragon on the soil, so he’d been here – they’d picked up his scent at Miriam’s house. Hopefully, he’d found her and she was keeping him out of trouble. As far as that was possible.
Mortimer’s snout slid onto the windowsill, and with as much care as he could manage he tilted his head up until he could peer into the room beyond.
The window banged open and he fell backwards with a shriek.
“Hello, Mortimer,” Beaufort said cheerily. “Would you like some shortbread? It’s rather unusual but I quite like it.”
“At least someone does,” a slim woman with very tidy waves in her hair said, almost under her breath, as she examined the two new dragons. “Do get out of the garden. Teresa does a lot of the planting, and she’ll be most upset if you’ve killed all her pansies.”
“What’s that about my pansies?” someone called from further inside the room.
Mortimer picked his way out of the flowers as carefully as he could and thought, not for the first time, that life had really been much easier before he’d made the mistake of suggesting to Beaufort that they could modernise things a bit. He’d only been talking about getting some heating in the damn caverns. Now look. Being told off for standing in flower beds by stern women in red cardigans. He sighed deeply enough to singe a rose bush by the door, and hurried inside before anyone noticed.
Miriam and Mortimer sat side by side on the floor on a pile of cushions. It was hot and crowded in the little room with the addition of three dragons, and loud, too – Amelia was blowing smoke rings and bouncing from one woman to another, accepting scratches on the head and being plied with Victoria’s sponge cake and lemon tarts. Beaufort and Alice seemed to be exchanging war stories, and Miriam was pretty certain that Gert’s elderflower cordial was about 40% proof. Everyone looked a little pink and excited.
“Well,” she ventured. “It could be worse.”
Mortimer looked disconsolately at his jar of cordial. “Really? We only get through the Christmas market without it being a complete disaster because no one’s cameras work, and now this – he’s looking to expose us.”
Miriam rubbed her ear. “Yeah. But maybe he’s not entirely wrong. Maybe a few people knowing is okay. Maybe it can even help, you know, having some support.”
“Until someone outside finds out, and the next thing you know it’s open season on dragons.”
Neither of them spoke for a while, watching Beaufort examining a bright pink macaroon and demanding to know who had made such exquisite, delicious things. Alice admitted that she had, a flush creeping into her cheeks as Beaufort continued to exclaim over the sweet little morsel, which was slowly losing shape in the heat of his paw.
“He’s very good at this,” Miriam said.
“No. Public relations.” She smiled, and patted Mortimer’s shoulder. “Drink your cordial. If it doesn’t cheer you up, it’ll knock you out.”
He didn’t move. “He is good, isn’t he?” he said finally. Beaufort had eaten the macaroon and was quizzing Priya about her lemon tarts. She was giggling.
“I doubt he ever had to steal maidens. They were probably running after him.”
Mortimer nodded, thinking of all the long, aching centuries of hiding that lay between then and now, thinking of how old dragons might lend themselves very easily to new tricks, but they were full of old ones too. Especially old dragons that had survived the days of hunting and hatred, and never bowed to it themselves. Especially old dragons that laid their hearts so easily before new acquaintances.
“Maybe I’m the one that needs to learn old tricks,” he said.
“What?” Miriam looked puzzled.
“Nothing.” He clinked his jar off her glass and took a mouthful of cordial, barely stopping himself from spitting it out in a flaming cloud. “Gods!”
“Yeah.” Miriam took a rather more judicious sip. “Gert always likes to spice up the meetings.”