Okay, so I know I said that Christmas needs to stay in December where it belongs, but it has come to my attention that some people are terribly Organised (deliberate capitalisation there, because this level of organisation is far beyond organised) and have made Christmas lists and written Christmas cards and even done the Christmas shopping already. Which means that they will have time in December for things like reading a Christmas cozy mystery, while the rest of us are cursing final delivery dates and wondering if novelty socks can constitute all our gift-giving for the year (answer – yes, they can. It’s the thought, right?).
And for all the rest of us less organised people, what could be a more pleasurable method of procrastination than a little time spent in Toot Hansell with Beaufort and Mortimer, Alice and Miriam, and a nice cup of tea (accompanied by mince pies, of course)?
I know it’s somewhere I love to escape to, because for all the dangers posed by rogue Christmas decorations and Jasmine’s cooking, friendship will out. And I’m incredibly happy to be sharing Yule Be Sorry, Beaufort’s second cozy mystery with you – it’s up for pre-order now on Amazon, or you can grab it from your other retailer of choice here and it’ll be magically delivered to your device on Friday the 30th. Or you can check your newsletter later this week (sign up here if you haven’t already) for a link to a free ARC copy!
Until then – let’s see what Christmas in Toot Hansell looks like…
A festive tale of kidnapping, explosions, & stolen turkeys….
One should never meddle in the affairs of dragons, but someone has been doing just that. They’ve been making imitation dragon scale baubles that are nothing short of lethal, and kidnapping delivery drivers all over the Yorkshire Dales. They’ve also been leaving behind some distinctly dragon-ish traces.
Beaufort Scales, High Lord of the Cloverly Dragons, is hot on the trail – or would be, if he wasn’t having certain political problems at home. That leaves Alice and Miriam to track down the real culprits, rescue the hostages, and salvage Mortimer’s bauble reputation, all while misleading the police regarding the of existence of dragons, and hopefully without being blown up by unexpectedly aggressive Christmas decorations in the process. Luckily they have the full resources of the Toot Hansell Women’s Institute at their disposal. They’ll need it.
And then there’s the small question of who stole all the Christmas turkeys…
Dragons, the Women’s Institute, and one very suspicious cat. What could possibly go wrong?
The air was crisp and still, sparkling with the promise of frost, and the stars pocked across the sky were dim beyond the Christmas lights. The scent of mulled wine and roasting chestnuts rolled across the cobbled streets, and yellow light spilled from the steamed windows of the pubs (both the nice one with foodie aspirations, and the other one, where the carpet was always sticky and it still smelt of cigarettes from the 90s). The smattering of shops and businesses that crowded the little village square had fairy lights and decorations and fake snow in their windows, and even the butcher’s empty display cases with their dubious plastic holly managed to look grudgingly festive.
But no one was window-shopping tonight. All eyes were on the tented market stalls blossoming across the square, crowded by shoppers with red noses and heavy jackets, while the stall holders chattered through their spiels and breathed mist onto the night.
The fairy lights and lanterns of the stalls shone on hand-tooled leather bags and knitted beanies, paintings in small frames and bird houses waiting for a distant summer. There was jewellery with hand-lettered labels, and cakes wrapped clumsily in cling-film, cupcakes with towering domes of wintry frosting and novelty T-shirts with flashing lights and tinsel. There were toys and puzzles, journals and pickles and nougat and gingerbread. There were wreaths and trees and brightly coloured soaps, wooden toys and dried flowers and bacon sizzling on a grill and a stall selling hot chocolate and spiced cider. It was, in short, a wonderland, the sort of place that required immediate exploration, and Mortimer was more than a little worried that was exactly what was on Beaufort’s mind. The old dragon had wriggled his scaly head out under the canvas at the back of the Women’s Institute stall and was peering around eagerly.
“Um, Beaufort?” Mortimer said. “No one can see you, can they?”
“Of course not, lad,” he said. “We’re dragons. No one sees dragons unless they’re expecting to see dragons.”
Mortimer could think of at least half a dozen occasions in the last year alone where humans had seen dragons whether they expected to or not. It was one thing spending time with the Toot Hansell Women’s Institute, who were not only remarkably well-disposed to see dragons, but were very indisposed to share that knowledge with anyone else. It was quite another being in the middle of a crowded market place where anyone Sensitive enough could see them. All they needed was some reporter over from Skipton, writing a story on the Christmas market for the local paper and being all observant.
“Beaufort, do come back in,” Alice said, not looking up from restocking the mince pie plate. Mortimer watched carefully to make sure she didn’t drop any. Although, with Alice, that was unlikely.
Beaufort gave a very pointed sigh and retreated, bumping into Miriam’s legs.
“Oh! Sorry, Beaufort. Are you alright?” Miriam was pink-cheeked in the soft light, hair escaping in all directions from under a misshapen wool hat.
“Just keeping an eye on things. It’s terribly busy out there, isn’t it?”
“Yes.” Miriam checked for eavesdropping customers before she kept talking. “I don’t think anything needs keeping an eye on, though. And you do need to be careful – we don’t want a repeat of the first Christmas market.”
Beaufort Scales, High Lord of the Cloverly dragons, veteran of more battles than he cared to remember and possessor of a most impressive set of age-yellowed teeth, looked suitably chastened. He sat down next to Mortimer, out of the way of the two women selling Christmas cake and chutney and hot drinks, and Mortimer’s own enchanted dragon-scale baubles and magical boats.
“That market was more fun, though, don’t you think?” he said to the younger dragon.
Mortimer snorted. “You made us wear dog suits, Amelia almost ate a dog, and then you caught fire. I guess it depends on your definition of fun.”
“It was more fun than sitting behind the counter, not being allowed to talk to anyone.”
Mortimer inspected him for a moment, then held out a plate. “Christmas cake?”
“May as well.”
Mortimer had never imagined what would come from such a little thing as suggesting to the High Lord that time spent searching for treasure troves would be better used collecting barbecues and gas bottles for dragons to sleep on. Beaufort had abruptly transformed from a bored old dragon to a very interested old dragon. Interested in everything, and once Mortimer had met Miriam and come up with the idea of restarting the dragon-scale trade (only instead of selling scales to knights for armour, he made magical baubles that unfolded into flowers and floated in mid-air when lit, or boats that blossomed into intricate sailing ships once they touched water, or gliders that were delicate and beautiful and near enough unbreakable. He felt it was an improvement), Beaufort had gone from interested to involved. It still made Mortimer shudder, thinking of the old dragon crashing the Women’s Institute meeting almost two years ago. Although that was nothing compared to the murder investigation they’d crashed this last summer.
Miriam held out a jug of mulled wine to the dragons. “Beaufort?”
“Don’t mind if I do.”
He took a paper cup with a wary glance at Beaufort. “Not too much.”
“Mortimer, the wine had nothing to do with last time.”
Mortimer had his own thoughts regarding that. He still distinctly remembered Beaufort, in a dog costume, wandering off to buy mulled wine from a very confused stall holder. He had nightmares about it, in fact. “Well. Just – it’s for the customers, isn’t it?”
“We always make extra,” Miriam said, pouring some for Alice, who took it with a smile and wrapped her hands around the cup.
Mortimer sighed. Beaufort had already finished his wine and was looking at the tureen expectantly. The High Lord was bored. It never did for the High Lord to get bored. He’d start Thinking About Things, and that never ended well.
Alice tipped her mug to the dragons in a gap between customers, white hair falling in neat lines to her chin from under her rather fetching felt hat. “The baubles are selling very well, Mortimer. I hope you have more.”
“I do. And the boats?”
“Not as well, but they’re still popular.” Alice leaned forward to watch the dragon-scale baubles bobbing softly at the ends of their tethers, like gently lit balloons. Some of them looked like birds, others like stars or butterflies or flowers, others just globes with fanciful patterns carved in their sides. They burned without using fuel or releasing heat, and had proved so popular that Miriam had introduced the dragons to something called the Etsy. The income was handy for things like gas bottles and barbecues, which the Cloverly dragons had embraced eagerly. But Mortimer felt that was only the start. He was currently trying to figure out whether to invest in AGAs, or if the logistics of underfloor heating in the caverns was a possibility. There were many options available for a modern dragon.
Miriam sat down on a folding chair next to the dragons, and Mortimer shuffled a little closer to her, letting the heat of his breath warm her hands. Beaufort sat by the counter, watching the passage of customers with old gold eyes while their gaze passed unseeing over the dragons, draped in fireproof blankets and half-hidden in the shadows.
“I feel like a horse,” he grumbled, shaking his wings so violently that the blanket almost fell off.
“Well, you don’t look like one,” Alice said, stooping to pull the blanket up again and patting him on the shoulder. “Not to me, anyway.”
“It’s better than looking like a dog,” Mortimer said under his breath, and Miriam snorted.
Beaufort looked back at them both and grinned suddenly, exposing those fearsome teeth. “Never mind, lad,” he said. “I’m sure something exciting will happen soon.”
Mortimer fervently hoped not.
It was getting late, the customers dwindling, heading home to firesides and warm beds. The mulled wine was almost finished, the boxes of chutneys and cakes and baubles under the counter all but empty. It had been a good night for the Women’s Institute, and Alice and Miriam were the last ones to take their turn standing in the cold (relative cold, thanks to the dragons, who radiated a lot more heat than the gas heaters some of the other stallholders were using). Gert and Jasmine had stayed to help them pack up, but it was mostly just empty boxes. The stall was rented and would be collected the next day.
“I think that’s the last of them,” Alice said, handing Gert a shopping bag full of flattened boxes.
“How did my cordial sell?” Gert had an enormous scarf on over a puffy coat, and bore a startling resemblance to a large purple bear.
“All gone. I think telling people that it might be a teeny bit alcoholic and that they shouldn’t serve it to kids was actually a selling point.”
“Of course it was.” Gert tucked the bag under one arm and picked up the empty mulled wine urn with the other. “You ready?”
“Oh, no. You go on. We’ll pack up the rubbish then walk back. No sense all of us hanging around.”
“Are you sure?”
“The walk’ll be nice,” Miriam said.
“If you prefer, then,” Gert said. “Come on, Jas. Let’s get out of the cold.” The younger woman nodded and picked up a storage crate full of paper plates and mugs and napkins.
“Lovely sandwiches, Jasmine,” Beaufort said from the shadows.
“Oh, really?” She gave the old dragon an enormous smile. “You really liked them?”
“They were wonderful,” Beaufort assured her, while Miriam and Alice made agreeable noises. Mortimer nodded vigorously. Fire breathing doesn’t lend itself to a very refined palate, so he hadn’t minded the sandwiches, although somehow they’d been both soggy and dry, and while the filling had looked like turkey and cranberry, it had tasted more like some sort of foam insulation. He imagined that was why Alice had asked Jasmine to be in charge of transport rather than, well, anything else. The younger woman had made some lovely wreaths for the stall, but so many bits had fallen off on the way here that they’d had to just use them for decoration at the back, where no one could see the gaps.
“Well, I’m so glad you liked them.” Jasmine’s cheeks had flushed a rather pretty shade of pink, and she was still grinning. “Okay – ’night everyone!” She all but skipped off toward the van, leaving a trail of paper cups behind her.
“I’ll get them.” Miriam hurried off in a swirl of bright skirts and multi-coloured thermal tights, collecting the spilled cups and calling to Jasmine to slow down. Alice smiled, and went back to wiping off the counters.
Beaufort stretched, and brushed Christmas cake crumbs off his snout. “Is there any mulled wine left?”
Alice raised her eyebrows, tucking the cash box into her bag. “There is.”
“It will keep, you know,” Mortimer pointed out, although he supposed the danger was past. They were one of the last stalls still packing up. Even if Beaufort got it in his head to start wandering around, hopefully anyone perceptive enough to see him would be coming out of the pub and would either think they were hallucinating or that he was a very odd, slightly oversized Shetland pony.
“But I thought this market was a one night only thing,” Beaufort said.
“We could take it to the W.I. meeting next week.” Alice sounded as if she was smiling, although she didn’t look up from what she was doing.
“Well. Of course. That’s right. We should do that. You, I mean.” Beaufort had a disappointed little droop to his shoulders.
“That seems like a good idea,” Mortimer said, trying to help Alice by taking the bin bag out but only succeeding in puncturing it with his claws. “Oh. Sorry.”
Alice took the bag off him. “Leave that, and do try to relax a little, Mortimer. It all went perfectly, no one looked twice at either of you, and there’s just enough mulled wine for four good glasses. A perfect evening, in other words. There’s no reason for you to fuss so much.”
Mortimer felt his scales flush a slightly ashamed yellow. Alice hadn’t even raised her voice, but it was worse than being shouted at by Lord Margery.
“Too late, am I?” A man leaned over the stall counter and peered into the shadows beyond, smelling of beer and chips and some undefined hunger that made Mortimer’s stomach tighten. The young dragon froze where he was, taking on the pale, murky colours of the tent canvas and the cobbled street underfoot, feeling Beaufort doing the same. The man felt aware, and combined with that hungry smell, it didn’t seem like a good thing.
“You are, I’m afraid,” Alice said pleasantly. “I’ve just sent the last of the stock off. Not that there was much left.”
“Those baubles,” the man said, straightening up to look at her. “Pretty good craftsmanship.”
“Excellent,” Alice agreed, re-bagging the rubbish bag that Mortimer had torn.
“Make them yourself?”
“No, but we buy them direct from the artisan.”
“The artisan, now. That’s fancy.” The man grinned, and Alice left the bag of rubbish on the ground, folding her arms.
“Well, he is an artist. They don’t come from a factory, if that’s what you’re asking.”
Mortimer considered the fact that Amelia and even her little brother Gilbert were helping him now, and wondered what, exactly, constituted a factory.
“I’m quite interested in the technique,” the man said. “I’m a bit of an artisan myself.”
Mortimer and Beaufort exchanged uneasy glances. The man’s hungry scent had deepened. Dragons can catch the whiff of emotions the way dogs can physical smells, and this one was ugly.
“I’m afraid I can’t help you with that,” Alice said, not moving. “He’s a very private individual.”
Mortimer rather wished he was somewhere more private right now.
The man put his hands on the counter, leaning forward again as if he wanted to grab Alice and drag her out. “I can keep a secret,” he said, and his eyes went to the dragons. Mortimer stared back at him in horror, not sure if the man could actually see him, or if he was just looking in their direction by chance.
For a moment no one moved, then Alice stepped deliberately in front of the dragons and leaned over the counter until her forehead almost touched the man’s. He pulled back in surprise, and she said, “If one shares a secret, it’s no longer much of a secret, is it?”
They glared at each other, and Mortimer couldn’t have said who was going to look away first, or what the man might do. Then Miriam appeared, hurrying down the rows of stalls, a bright apparition in the night.
“Oh, hello,” she said. “Are you after Gert’s cordial? Only it all sold out.”
The man glared at her. “No, of course I’m not after cordial.”
She frowned. “Well, there’s no need to be rude about it.”
“He was just leaving,” Alice said. “Weren’t you?”
“Yeah, we’re leaving,” a new voice said, and Mortimer risked shifting a little so that he could see the marketplace better. A big man in a new jacket of the sort that’s designed to look old was coming across the cobbles, swinging a paper bag from his fingertips. “Come on, Bill. Don’t hassle the nice ladies.”
Bill grumbled something about them not being very nice, and Alice gave him a disapproving look. “I was just asking about the baubles,” he said aloud.
“It’s late. I’m sure the ladies want to go home.” The new man grabbed Bill’s arm. “Let’s go.”
Bill glared at Alice and gave a little feint like he was going to grab her. Mortimer felt a growl forming at the back of his throat, and Miriam squeaked, but Alice just raised an eyebrow and smiled. There was a moment of still, frost-speckled silence, then Bill walked away, muttering under his breath. His friend – or maybe brother, Mortimer thought. They did look quite similar, and wasn’t there a whiff of that same hungry scent? – touched a finger to his flat cap in mock salute, and followed him.
“Is – is everything okay?” Miriam asked.
“I’m sure it will be,” Alice said, and Mortimer looked at Beaufort, raising his eyebrow ridges.
The bigger dragon shrugged, but his voice was a rumble at the back of his throat when he said, “Well, then. Shall we go?”
“I think we should finish the wine and give them a head start,” Alice said. “He was a little agitated.”
And observant, Mortimer thought. He seemed terribly observant.
It didn’t take long to finish the wine, but by the time they had, the rest of the stalls were empty, some of them even broken down and taken away already. Lights still shone in the pub windows, but the marketplace was silent and still and full of the scents of Christmas. The two women and the dragons walked together across the cobbles and toward the quiet streets beyond, the dragons taking on the colours of the night. If anyone had been watching, they’d have looked like shadows in the corner of the eye, something not quite seen. Dragons aren’t invisible, but they are faint, which is quite effective when no one expects to see dragons. They were perfectly clear to Alice and Miriam, however, contented green smoke drifting from their nostrils. There had been no more sign of the men, and the extra glass of mulled wine had gone a long way to making Mortimer feel better about things.
They walked in quiet companionship, Miriam carrying the last boxes of homemade mince pies, the scent of brandy and icing sugar drifting about them in the night. The women’s breath made dragons of their own in the chill air.
They came to Alice’s house first, and Beaufort insisted on waiting until she was inside, the light rolling out of the hallway and lighting the neat path between the dormant flowerbeds.
“Satisfied?” she said.
“He was a very unpleasant man,” Beaufort said. “Can’t be too careful with these things.”
“He was just drunk. And the day I can’t handle a drunk man is the day I resign as W.I. chair.” She gave them a little finger-wave and shut the door firmly, leaving them alone in the night.
“I knew he wasn’t a customer,” Miriam said, looking around nervously.
“I rather think Alice is right about him,” Beaufort said. “I’m quite sure he’s nothing to worry about.”
Mortimer thought of the man looking straight at him in the shadows of the stall, his blue eyes sharp in the night, and shivered. The mulled wine seemed to be wearing off.
Beaufort and Mortimer left Miriam in the friendly chaos of her kitchen, minus the mince pies, which she insisted they take with them. Not that either dragon had argued particularly hard against it. They ambled together down the path that crossed the stream behind her house and snaked up through the woods beyond to a small rise, walking shoulder to shoulder, pupils wide in the night. Away from the lights of the stream-girt village, the stars hung low and heavy above the trees, and as they breasted the little hill the fields beyond the woods unwound below them, multi-coloured green and cross-stitched with stone walls.
“Beautiful, isn’t it, lad?” Beaufort asked, pausing at the top and sitting down with his tail hooked around his feet.
Mortimer looked at him curiously. The High Lord had been around to see St George murder his predecessor (it was hardly a fair fight, considering High Lord Catherine, although large by the standards of today’s Cloverly dragons, had been half the size of the daring knight’s horse and was snoozing on her back in her favourite bramble-berry patch at the time), and he’d not been a young dragon then. He’d kept the clan safe and hidden as the humans spread and the old Folk faded, had seen kings and queens rise and fall, had watched the steady march of trains and cars and planes and cities, and still those golden eyes, glazed like old pottery, saw wonder in the world. Mortimer couldn’t even begin to comprehend how he managed it. Sometimes just the thought of getting Beaufort through another winter market unnoticed was enough to start him stress-shedding, let alone imagining all those centuries protecting a whole clan. He didn’t know how the old dragon had the energy. And not only that, but being so terribly enthusiastic about everything. He sighed, and Beaufort gave him an amused look.
“Are you alright there, lad?”
“I think so.” He scratched his chin. “Do you think that man – that Bill – actually saw us?”
“I doubt it.” Beaufort tipped his head up to the stars.
“He looked like he saw us.”
“He was just looking to make trouble. Some people are like that. In all species. I don’t think we should worry about it.”
“But he was quite unpleasant to Alice,” Mortimer pointed out. “And didn’t you smell him?”
Beaufort looked back at the slow roll of land below them. “It’s no good jumping to conclusions, lad. You do worry yourself unnecessarily.”
Mortimer sighed. He supposed he did, at times. But often he was right to worry, particularly when it came to the High Lord. “I thought you might have scared him off, though. So Alice wouldn’t worry.”
“Not everyone needs saving, you know. Plenty of people are very good at saving themselves.”
“But you must be a bit worried about him. You made Alice check the house before we left.” Mortimer couldn’t shake the feeling that something about the whole encounter had been wrong. Off. As if it wasn’t an accident that Alice had been in the stall alone (or apparently so) when Bill showed up.
Beaufort’s lips hitched up to show yellow teeth. “There’s a difference between being able to save yourself and feeling safe.” He unfolded his wings, shaking them out with a snap. “But I’m not worried about him. He was just a man who’d had a bit too much beer. Things are good, Mortimer. Our friends are safe. Our clan is coming out of hiding again. Your trinkets are selling so well, and everyone’s smiling. People love them. You give them something to take home that makes their hearts sing.”
Mortimer nodded, then asked the question that had been rattling around in his head since the first day Beaufort had trotted up to the W.I. and managed to get himself invited in for tea. “Can this last, though, Beaufort? Us and the humans?”
“Why shouldn’t it?”
“It didn’t before. People blamed us for things. We spent centuries in hiding. Most of the clans are hiding still.”
“We’re not exactly on the national news.”
Sometimes it feels like it’s not for lack of trying, Mortimer thought, but just said, “What about the Watch, then? What if they find out we’re trading with humans? Or if something goes wrong?”
“There’s no point worrying about that until it happens. Coexistence can work, Mortimer. It’s good for everyone.”
“We can see that. But not everyone does. Not even all the Cloverlies.”
“It has to start somewhere. Why not with us?” Beaufort gave him an enormous grin, then took two lumbering strides forward and leaped, wings catching at the air and pulling him aloft, suddenly graceful against the night sky. Mortimer watched him go, torn between the High Lord’s unshakable confidence and his own heartfelt conviction that this was too simple, too perfect. That anything this good couldn’t last. Then he shook his wings out and followed the old dragon into the sky, the boxes of mince pies clutched firmly to his chest and leaking warm sweet spices across the darkness.
Oh, Mortimer. You shouldn’t worry so much. I’m sure it’ll all be just fine…
Now tell me, lovely people – do you celebrate at this time of year? What do you celebrate? What’s your favourite thing about preparing? Least favourite? Let me know below!
Pop back next week to read chapter two, and don’t forget to sign up for the newsletter if you haven’t already! As well as the opportunity to get free ARCs, this month I’m giving away a paperback copy of Beaufort’s first mystery, Baking Bad, and in December there will be more gifts coming your way!
Not read Baking Bad yet? Head to the books page for the links to grab your copy!