“Oh, Mortimer – they’re beautiful.” The woman held the ornament up to the light filtering through the deep-silled window, setting up a kaleidoscope of colours in its heart. “Exquisite.”
Mortimer inclined his head as modestly as he could manage – he knew they were exquisite. It had taken him six months to figure out how to work dragon scales into the delicate baubles, another couple to perfect the technique, and three more to train up two young dragons in the new art. It wasn’t easy, working with their talons and custom-made tweezers held in their mouths. And the price he’d had to pay the dwarfs to make the tweezers – daylight robbery. Still, it was an investment – and the result was, yes, exquisite. “Do you think you’ll be able to sell them?” he asked.
She smiled, her eyes crinkling at the corners. “Be able to? These will fly out. They’re so unusual.”
“You haven’t seen the half of it. Light it.”
“Really?” She looked at him uncertainly. “It’s not going to explode or anything, is it?”
He rolled his eyes. “No, Miriam, it’s not going to explode. Jeez. I want people to buy them, not be disembowelled by them.”
“Right. Sure.” But she still hesitated, watching the dragon sitting neatly on her hearth rug, his tail coiled over his feet and the firelight sliding off his scales. “It’s just – you guys are kind of impervious.”
“It’s not going to explode. Just light it. Please.”
Miriam nodded a little reluctantly, then picked up one of the tapers from the sideboard, lit it off a candle (the room was full of them – she felt electric lights rather detracted from her status as A Sensitive, so she only used them in the bathroom, and for when she was reading), and touched it to the wick that nestled inside the ornament with a hand that only trembled slightly. She couldn’t see any fuel source, and she suddenly wished she’d put it down first.
“There we are,” Mortimer said, somewhat smugly. “Let it go.”
Miriam did, releasing the fine wire that was threaded through the top of the ornament and letting it float, alive with soft gold light, a stained glass star drifting in the window. She watched it with her eyes wide and her lips parted, child-like in its glow. The bauble shivered, then peeled itself quietly apart, blossoming into a multi-hued flower that re-folded itself into a bird with shimmering wings. It hovered, neither rising nor falling, silently luminous, and Mortimer said, “You can touch it, if you want.”
She did, gingerly, ready to jerk her hand away if it burned her. But it was cool to the touch, the dragon scale holding the heat of that fuel-less flame within. It bobbed softly away from her and drifted to the corner of the window, bounced off and headed towards the ceiling.
“Gods, Mortimer,” she whispered. “It’s incredible.”
“They’re all a little different,” he said. “Some are more like butterflies, others just stay as baubles – it’s to do with the properties of the scales.”
“How long do they burn for?”
He shrugged, and cast a longing look at the biscuit tin on the coffee table. He wanted another mince pie, but it felt a bit rude to ask. He’d already had six. “Until the magic’s gone – twenty years, maybe? You can turn them off, though – just grab them and shake them, and it’ll put them out.”
“Twenty years,” she breathed, watching the dragon scale bird slide along the heavy beams and cruise down to investigate the Christmas tree. “This is just – well, magical.”
He chuckled, watching her with as much interest as she was watching the bauble. These humans – little traces of magic left in them from the old days, and they call themselves sensitives, or psychics, or whatever. But put some scrap of basic magic in front of them, and they’re as enchanted as the next person. “When’s the Christmas fair?” he asked.
“Three weeks.” She looked away from the bauble reluctantly. “People are really going to love them – how many can you make?”
“Plenty,” he said, and got up, shaking his tail out. “We’ll have plenty.
“We can’t,” Mortimer said, a panicked edge in his voice. “It’s a Christmas fair.”
“Nonsense,” Beaufort Scales said, peering down at the young dragon from his perch on top of the Weber. “We’ll be in disguise.”
“No, sir, we – what?”
“I’ve figured it out, Mortimer. I’m very impressed with these new things you’re doing. It’s really invigorated – well, everything. All that worrying about trying to find gold and silver and precious gems, scrabbling over dwarf trade and goblin leavings – this is so much better. Barbecues and baubles, that’s the modern way!”
“Yes, sir, but -”
“But nothing, lad. I want to be there to see the reaction to these things you’ve made.”
“I wasn’t even going to be there. I mean, it’s a Christmas fair. For humans. Don’t you think a couple of dragons might be noticed?”
Beaufort gave him a severe look. “I’m old, not stupid. Remember that if you want to keep your tail. Like I said – we have disguises.”
Mortimer squeezed his eyes shut and started to count to ten. He’d read in one of Miriam’s books that this was a helpful thing to do in times of stress.
“Mortimer. Mortimer! This is not the time for a cat-nap!”
He sighed. “No, sir.” When he opened his eyes, a young dragon called Amelia was dropping a large fire-proof bag next to the barbecue. “What’s that?”
“Disguises,” Beaufort said triumphantly. “Got the dwarfs to make them. Cost us that last crown we had left, but modern dragons have no need of such trinkets.”
Mortimer swallowed another sigh and forced himself to dip his head in agreement. After all, it had been his stupid idea to get them re-defining treasure for the 21st century. How could he have known that Beaufort Scales, High Lord of the Cloverly dragons, veteran of a hundred battles, survivor of the rise of the humans, remnant of the days when the Old Folk walked the earth, upholder of tradition and protector of the clan, would, in fact, adore all things new and unusual, and the shinier the better. It had re-energised the old dragon to the point that he’d shed his patchy scales and grown a brand new set, much to the disgust of Lord Margery, who had thought she had a good chance of taking over in the next few decades. Now he was looking like he still had a good century ahead of him at least. And he was buying disguises from dwarfs. “Alright,” Mortimer said. “Let’s see them, then.”
Beaufort nodded at Amelia. “Show him.”
She upended the sack on the floor, giving Mortimer an apologetic look that said, quite clearly, that she was awfully sorry, but there was no getting out of it. On the floor were three furry suits, like over-sized teddy bears that hadn’t been stuffed yet, one of them black and white, another a beige sort of colour, and the biggest black and excessively hairy. Mortimer stared at them, then at the High Lord. He couldn’t even think where to begin.
“Don’t worry,” Beaufort said cheerily. “The dwarfs used fire-retardant material, and I’ve put a couple of charms on them, too. It’s perfectly safe.”
Mortimer looked back at the deflated suits, and nodded. “Great,” he said. “That’s just great.”
At least it was dark. Some bright spark on the village council had decided that a night market would be wonderfully romantic, which it was, but it was also freezing. However, Mortimer was grateful for the iffy lighting of the bonfire and lantern-lit stalls that encircled it at a judicious distance. The disguises were – well, not entirely convincing, was the most polite way he could think to phrase it.
They were meant to be dogs.
Mortimer thought, rather bitterly, that if they were taken as dogs, the person observing them must never have seen an actual dog in their lives and, in fact, might well be visually impaired. Being Folk, of course, the average human eye tended to slide off them, but he still felt ridiculous. Miriam, who, although not as Sensitive as she claimed to be, was perceptive enough to know a dragon when she saw one, gave a startled little squeak when they turned up at her stall.
“Mortimer?” she said cautiously. “Is that you under there?”
“Yes,” he said, his voice tight. “May I present High Lord Beaufort Scales? And this is Amelia.”
“Well. I’m honoured, absolutely, but do you think it’s entirely wise -”
“We are glamoured, Madam,” Beaufort said, a little muffled by the heavy fur of his disguise. “To anyone else, we will look entirely innocuous.”
“I see. So, you’re – a bear, perhaps? Only I’m not sure -”
“Dogs,” Amelia said hurriedly. “We’re dogs.”
“Of course you are,” Miriam replied, her tone neutral. “Ah – can I get anyone a mulled wine? It’s rather good.”
“Wonderful,” Beaufort said. “We’ll mind the stall.”
“Yes. Right. Just – okay.” She headed off towards the mulled wine stall, trying to resist checking on the dragons behind her. They weren’t stupid, they wouldn’t talk to anyone, but – well, the horse in the village hall pantomime had been more convincing. She ordered a jug of wine and exchanged the obligatory ooh, isn’t it cold small talk, stealing surreptitious glances back at her little stall. Half a dozen baubles, secured with fine wire, circled above the white canvas of her stall cover, glowing with warm light. There were already people pointing at them curiously, and she almost missed what the wine seller said as she started back.
“Are they your dogs?”
“Ah – no. Dog-sitting. For my – cousin.”
“Nice looking Newfoundland there. Huge, isn’t he?”
She looked at Beaufort, peering around the side of the stall, his back almost as high as the counter. “Yeah,” she said. “He’s a mixed breed.”
The baubles sold just as well as Miriam had predicted. She sold some of her own stuff, too – boxes of charms and jars of simple spells, love potions and sleep wishes. But most everyone came for the baubles, entranced by the graceful, slow loops of the ones tethered above her. She claimed they were made from plants found only in the tropical rainforests of Ecuador (hoping no botanists decided to drop by), and that the craftsmen kept their method a closely guarded secret, which was true enough. A few people commented on her unusual dogs, but no one seemed to doubt that they weredogs. People see what they expect to see, and Mortimer had to grudgingly admit that Beaufort had been right. The flow of villagers, red-nosed with cold and drink, were far more interested in the baubles than in them. He took a sneaky sip of the sweet spiced wine, his disguise pushed back from his snout. He supposed he was meant to be a border collie, from the markings. His tail felt weird in the wrappings of the suit, but other than that, it wasn’t bad. The whole night wasn’t bad. He regarded the dwindling stock of baubles with satisfaction, and nodded at Amelia. Her golden retriever head had slid sideways, and she was peering out of the ear, which was a little disconcerting.
“That’s the last of them,” Miriam announced, as a man turned away from the stall, his daughter clutching the box with the final bauble against her chest. “Not a one left. Well done, Mortimer.”
“Tremendous,” Beaufort said. “Just wonderful. And we shall have payment in – barbecues?”
“If we want,” Mortimer said. “But we were paid in money, so we can buy whatever we want with it.”
“I like barbecues,” Beaufort muttered. He also quite liked the wine – it reminded him of long ago days, when a dragon could still get a drink in a tavern without some misguided would-be hero trying to run a lance through him. Those heroes never cared that Cloverly dragons, even in those days, never grew much larger than a calf.
“Can you make more before Christmas?” Miriam asked. “Could I take pre-orders, maybe?”
Mortimer rubbed his chin, the feel of the fabric strange against his scales. “Yeah. I could do some. Amelia, what d’you think?” Amelia had been one of the dragons he had trained up – she was quick and talented with the baubles, and now she nodded, the head slipping over her nose and blinding her.
“Ugh. Yes. Can someone help me?”
Miriam adjusted the dog head so Amelia could see again, and straightened up to see a woman in a puffy pink jacket peering at her. “Oh – hello! Didn’t see you there.” She moved hurriedly to the front of the stall – she still didn’t think those disguises would stand up to any close scrutiny.
“Those baubles,” the woman said. “Any left?”
“I’m afraid not. However, I will be taking a limited number of -” She was cut off by a clamouring of hysterical yaps, and she spun around as something small, fluffy and disproportionately loud scampered past her feet and came to a stop in front of the startled dragons. “Oh, no -”
“Petal! Petal, come back here! Heel!” the woman shouted. Petal paid no mind at all – she was all but frothing with fury over the strange smells of the creatures she’d discovered. They smelled a little like her favourite toys at home, but there was something altogether wilder and older beneath that. She bounded in a circle, still barking, shaking with fright and excitement. “Petal! I’m dreadfully sorry – I’m going to have to come around -”
“No! No, I mean, I’ll get her -” Not that Miriam really wanted to. Damn thing looked like it’d probably take a bite out of her.
“Don’t be ridiculous. Just keep an eye on your dogs, I’m coming around -”
Miriam lunged at the dog, who snapped at her and bounced away again, still yapping. She cast some aspersions on Petal’s parentage under her breath and stared pleadingly at Mortimer.
“I’m going to eat that thing,” Amelia declared, setting her plastic glass of wine down. Her talons had left holes in it. “It’s giving me a headache.”
“Amelia, do not eat that dog.” Mortimer looked to Beaufort for support, but he was gone. “Beaufort? Sir? Where the damn High Lord?”
“Mortimer, if it doesn’t shut up -”
“Amelia, leave it,” Miriam grabbed for the dog again. “Petal? Come here, Petal -”
“Petal! Come to mummy! What is that dog doing?”
Beaufort Scales had left them to it when the woman arrived at the stall. Mortimer was a terribly efficient young dragon, and he was really quite fond of both him and Amelia, and the woman Miriam seemed awfully nice as well. He was going to buy them all another jug of mulled wine, and maybe some mince pies – Miriam had brought some with her, and they were little jewels of sweetness. He trundled across to the wine stall, and stood up on his hind legs, using his tail for balance.
“Excuse me,” he said to the man warming his hands on the urn. “Another jug of your finest, please. And some mince pies.”
Reginald looked at the enormous dog that had propped itself on its hind legs in front of his stall, and smiled uncertainly. It looked like the big Newfoundland Miriam was looking after, but who was talking? He peered over the counter, finding no one. There was, in fact, no one near the stall at all. There was some awful commotion going on over at Miriam’s, but otherwise people were drifting away as the night deepened and grew colder. “Hello?” he said. “Did someone say something?”
“Yes,” a deep and rather musical voice said, and this time Reginald was looking at the dog, and he saw its snout move. Not its lips, exactly, but – he glanced at his mug, and decided it was time to cut himself off. Past time. “I say,” the dog said, “You do have some left, don’t you?”
“Um. Yes?” Maybe there was a speaker on the dog’s collar? It could be one of those support dogs.
“Wonderful.” The dog placed a paw on the counter, and spilled some pound coins over the sticky circles of poured drinks. “Is that enough? I’m not too good with your money.”
Reginald looked at the coins without counting them, nodded slowly, and took a jug from a box under the counter. His movements were jerky as he filled it from the urn, and held it out to the dog without speaking. The dog took the jug carefully in both its front paws, and Reginald balanced the mince pies on top. He had the strangest sense that the dog’s skin didn’t fit somehow, as if it were wearing a dog-suit over its true self.
“Thanks so much,” the dog said. “Enjoy your evening.”
“You – you too,” Reginald said, and watched the dog shuffle away on its hind legs, tail trailing on the ground and looking oddly muscular, more like a kangaroo than a dog. It made its way towards Miriam’s stall, where there was still an awful lot of yapping and shouting going on. He wondered if he should go see if she needed help, but he didn’t exactly feel like it. Not at all, in fact. He wondered if Lacey had put the wrong sort of mushrooms in the steak and mushroom pasty he’d bought from her earlier. It seemed quite possible.
“Dammit, Mortimer, if that thing doesn’t shut up -”
“Amelia, no! Where the hell is Beaufort?”
“Shut up, both of you -”
“Petal! Petal, come here -”
The woman in the pink jacket was still trying unsuccessfully to grab her little dog, keeping one wary eye on the ill-defined shapes of the dragons. Thankfully the dog’s yaps were so loud, Amelia and Mortimer’s voices were all but drowned out, and Miriam was shouting loudly enough to cover whatever the barking didn’t. But the bloody dog wouldn’t shut up, and they really did seem to have lost the High Lord, and if they didn’t get rid of this woman soon, they were all screwed. Amelia feinted at the dog, sending her into a paroxysm of yelps that made Miriam wince.
“No!” She and Mortimer shouted together, and Amelia stepped back. Petal, emboldened, rushed forward and snapped at the dragon’s tail. There was the sound of tearing fabric, Amelia flicked her tail, and the dog rolled back towards her owner, who shrieked in fright.
“Now can I eat it?” Amelia demanded, as the little dog evaded the woman’s hands and came back for another pass.
“Gods damn it,” Mortimer began, then the dog’s yaps became a whine and her owner screamed.
Beaufort held Petal as neatly by the scruff of the neck as any mother cat holds her kittens. He’d set the jug safely out of the way and was back on all fours. He gave the dog a little, warning shake, and a growl that trembled his whole body, then placed her gently back on the ground. For a moment no one moved, then the dog bolted, howling, past her owner and out into the safety of open ground.
“Petal!” the woman screamed, and ran after her.
Beaufort sniffed, rubbed his snout, and said, “I got more wine.”
Miriam covered her mouth with one hand, and looked out into the makeshift marketplace. Reginald was watching them, and he wasn’t the only one. There had been an awful lot of shouting and screaming and barking going on. “Oh, Mortimer,” she whispered.
“Beaufort – sir -”
“You should have just let me eat him,” Amelia muttered.
Beaufort waved them all to silence, one paw still pressed to his snout. “I – oh dear. I – ah – ah – ah-choo!”
The sneeze rolled out in a ball of white-hot dragon fire, tinged yellow and orange at the edges, incinerating the corner of the stall and belching heat out to where Reginald raised a hand against it, much as he had when he’d ventured too near the bonfire earlier. And then it winked neatly out of existence, leaving the after-image burned across his eyeballs and Miriam’s stall burning merrily.
It wasn’t the only thing. The fire retardant fur hadn’t been meant to stand up to such intense heat. It held up as long as it could, but under the onslaught of the sneeze it gave up and rolled over, leaving Beaufort wrapped in yellow flames and most unmistakably dragon-ish. People were running towards them, shouting for fire extinguishers and water, but they slowed as they drew closer, confused by the sight of the apparently fire-proof dog. Some had their phones in their hands already.
Dragon fire burns fierce, and even as the would-be rescuers arrived, the last of Beaufort’s suit collapsed to ash around him. He stretched, rolling his shoulders and flexing his wings, scales gleaming in the firelight, and looked at the spectators. They stared back, fire extinguishers forgotten. Even when you don’t expect dragons, they’re hard to deny when they’re standing right in front of you, the grass smouldering around them.
Beaufort Scales, High Lord of the Cloverly dragons, tucked his wings against his back with a snap and said, “Woof?”
“I should never, never have let them come. None of us should have come!”
“I don’t think you could have stopped him,” Miriam said. Mortimer was sprawled on her hearth rug in a state of abject despair, his snout under his front paws and his back legs splayed behind him.
“No,” he admitted, “But then I should never have done any of this! Not the barbecues or anything!”
“Nonsense,” Miriam said. “You were quite right. Dragons can’t go on living like they’re still in the dark ages. Not if they want to do more than hide in caves and hope no one comes across them.”
“But we’re good at hiding,” Mortimer mumbled. “That’s why we survived when so many of the bigger clans didn’t.”
Miriam sighed. “But it’s no way to live, Mortimer. Every creature needs to try to live in a way that brings them joy. That’s why you started on the barbecues. That’s why you want to stop hiding. So you can let your clan live in joy again. Wasn’t Beaufort terribly happy?”
“He’s still happy. He doesn’t understand about camera phones, or that people might start hunting us again.”
Miriam picked up her tablet from the side table (not having electric lighting in the main rooms didn’t mean not having technology. Absolutely not). She put a video on to play and set it in front of Mortimer. He watched blearily as the stall caught fire, and then – well. Then nothing, really. There was some more fire on the grass, and it might, with a stretch of the imagination, have been in the shape of a dog, or a bear, but you really would be stretching. He cocked an eye at Miriam.
“Best footage of the entire night, and the stills are no better,” she said. “It seems Folk are even harder to photograph than they are to see.”
Mortimer pushed himself onto his elbows. “So – there’s no evidence?”
“None at all. And Reginald is so convinced that he either over-fortified the mulled wine or someone put funny mushrooms in the pasties, that everyone else is starting to believe it, too.”
“So – we’re okay?”
“We’re okay.” She smiled at him. “You want a mince pie now?”
“No.” He slumped back to the ground. “It’s just going to happen again. Beaufort’s going to want to be in on everything. He’ll probably want to have a bloody dragon’s picnic party or something next. What do I do? How do I deal with him?”
“Just the way you have done. With love and respect. Just because he’s old, doesn’t mean he can’t adapt. Explain things to him. He’s found joy again, Mortimer. You gave him that. He’ll listen.”
Mortimer stayed where he was, his front talons ticking out a soft little rhythm on the mat, his eyes suddenly distant. Miriam got up.
“I’m having a cuppa. You want that mince pie now?”
He hesitated. “Is there cream?”
“Lashings of it.”
He pushed himself back onto his haunches and gave her his unnerving, toothy grin. “Go on, then.”
Hopefully you survive all your Christmas or holiday preparation without any immediate threat of incineration by sneezing dragons. Although, honestly, I’d do more Christmas shopping off-line if there was a risk of dragon sightings. Sneezing or not.
Would love to hear what you thought, and, as always, all shares are greatly appreciated!