A dragon is missing.
A Beast stalks the Dales.
And the hunters are coming …
DI Adams’ missing person is a human, not a dragon. But the trails of both lead straight to the village of Eldmere, where glimpses of a mysterious Beast have drawn the attention of the nation’s monster hunters.
And where, of course, the Toot Hansell Women’s Institute and the Cloverly dragons are in hot pursuit of Gilbert. They’re not letting a valley full of weekend Yeti hunters and Nessie-loving cryptozoologists stand between them and the young dragon.
But nothing is as simple as it seems. Something strange is happening in Eldmere, and the dragons, the Beast, and the ladies of the Women’s Institute are right at the heart of it. As are the hunters, some of whom are more serious – and more dangerous – than DI Adams ever imagined.
She’s in a race to find Gilbert before the hunters do, because someone out there doesn’t just want to see a dragon. They want to finish them.
There’s more than dragon secrets at stake in Yorkshire this summer …
Lovely people, it’s almost time for dragons! Hungry dragons. Anxious dragons. Missing dragons. Angry dragons. Not-entirely-sure-how-they-got-into-this-situation-but-no-backing-out-now dragons.
And ladies of a certain age and a slightly horrifying level of determination, of course.
Beaufort’s seventh book is out in just over two weeks (sorry, that small wailing sound was just me coming to terms with that fact – I actually wrote ‘three’ initially), and you can get your pre-orders in now at all your favourite ebook retailers! Paperbacks will be coming soon, so keep an eye out for updates on those.
Which means that it must be time to share the first chapter, doesn’t it? Of course it does. So I shall get out of the way and let you find out just what is happening with this whole Beast thing. I mean, dragons, sure. But a Beast …?
PS – today’s the first look at that glorious cover, too. All sunny and happy and not at all representative of the monsters within … 😉
Chapter One – Mortimer
Mortimer hesitated on the small ledge outside the workshop cavern, the sun hot on his wings. He had been planning to tinker with the new dragon scale phone cases, in the hope that he could tweak the anti-loss charms and make them usable. Currently there was no chance of losing the cases, as the instant anyone touched them, they turned into highly determined limpets. He was still missing scales from his chest where one had attached itself.
However, he wasn’t sure it was going to be a day for phone cases. Despite the fact that the workshop was at the opposite end of a tunnel that dog-legged back into the mount, he could clearly hear the crashes of someone being very enthusiastic with their tools. He considered coming back later, but he’d already tried that twice today, so he padded warily down the tunnel and paused on the threshold of the little cavern. The floor was as scrupulously clean-swept as always, and the light from the hole bored into the rocky roof refracted through a prism just as it should, glittering on the piles of unused dragon scales and dulling the light of the fires in their braziers. The baskets of toys and baubles were neatly stacked on one bench, and at another, surrounded by shattered scales and softly luminous dust, a red-toned dragon was hammering away at something, her wings trembling with every strike.
“Ridiculous”— tap tap— “imbecilic”—tap TAP tap—“disgrace to the word dragon”—TAP—“sheep-loving”—CRASH—“oh, ghasts take you!” Amelia hurled a broken scale at the discards basket in the corner, where it skidded off the edge and clattered to the floor, already losing its sheen. “Useless!”
Mortimer wasn’t sure if she was talking about the scale, her tools, or the design she was working on, but he didn’t fancy surprising her. That seemed a sure route to a singed snout or a pair of pliers to the head, possibly both. So he coughed delicately, poised to flee back up the tunnel if it seemed prudent.
“What?” Amelia demanded, spinning to face him with a hammer in one paw and her snout flushed an unsettling maroon. “Oh. Morning, Mortimer.”
“Afternoon.” He eyed the hammer. “Everything alright?”
“Of course.” Her voice went up an octave. “Just a tricky design, is all.”
“Right.” He scratched his chin with a forepaw, looking at the broken and charred scales cluttering up the discard basket. They were smouldering slightly. “Perhaps a small break …?”
“A break? We need baubles. I’m making baubles.” She picked up a scale and glared at it, as if daring it to be uncooperative. “Not that anyone else is helping.”
“Ye-es. But we don’t need them right now. We’re already ahead.”
“We want to be ahead. Christmas shopping starts early, and we completely sell out every year.”
“That’s good, though. We don’t want a surplus. Best to keep them wanting more, right?”
She squinted at him. “Don’t humour me.”
“Right. Of course. Only …” He glanced at the discard basket again. The trail of smoke rising from it was intensifying. “You seem to have gone through half a basket of good scales and the workshop’s about to catch fire.”
For one moment he thought he was going to be the one on fire, then she sighed. “Ugh. I know. I know.”
“We don’t want to end up having to use Walter’s scales or something.”
All dragons shed, old scales slipping away naturally due to wear and tear, to be replaced by soft new ones. Baby dragons shed like kittens, scattering delicate little scales everywhere as they grew, but they weren’t strong enough to be useful. Older dragons’ scales, though, were tough and pliable and perfect for working with, and all the Cloverly dragons were encouraged to donate their cast-offs to the workshop. Mortimer donated more than his fair share due to stress-shedding, and was only rivalled by Lord Walter, who was so old that his scales seemed to have forgotten how to stay attached. Every time Mortimer passed him, it seemed, the old dragon would shove a pawful of scales at him, but they had proven impossible to work with. They resisted any attempt to be polished or shaped, remaining stubbornly dull and resolutely inflexible.
Now Mortimer wrinkled his snout and said, “I keep thinking that anything I make with his scales will turn around and bite someone. Me, probably.”
Amelia snorted and put the scale down. “It wouldn’t surprise me.”
They were both silent for a moment, then Mortimer said, “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Amelia said, brushing dust off her bench without looking at him.
“Are you sure?”
Mortimer considered the wisdom of retreating with his snout un-singed. It was tempting, but Amelia’s mood seemed to have been deteriorating steadily over the past few days, and at this rate they’d have no scales for the Christmas baubles at all. So he said carefully, “This isn’t your normal … work standard.” She gave him a fierce look and he added quickly, “I just mean you make really good baubles. And this …” He waved at the smoking basket. “Well, isn’t usual.”
Amelia picked up a different scale, ticking one talon off it. “I s’pose. Are you sure we’ve not got Walter’s scales mixed up with the good ones?”
“No,” Mortimer said. “I’ve got a special basket for his.” Baskets, actually. He didn’t want to just throw the scales away, in case the old dragon found out, so he had a steadily growing collection of baskets filled with worn, dull, and pocked cast-offs in the back of his personal cavern. At this rate he’d be sleeping on a bed of them within the year. “Maybe take a break,” he suggested again.
Amelia shrugged, a stiff little movement, then spoke without looking at him. “Have you seen Gilbert?”
“Gilbert? No. Why?”
“Oh, it’s probably nothing. We fell out.”
“Oh dear.” Mortimer had heard Lydia, one of the older dragons, describe the fights between Amelia and her little brother as the sort of things humans would have written stories about in the old days. “What happened?”
“Oh, nothing really. He was just being Gilbert.” She glanced at Mortimer. “You know, complaining that since we couldn’t go near the village there was no one to watch over the hedgehogs and so on. Apparently autumn’s even worse than summer for them, and he wanted to get ahead of the bonfires or some such rubbish.”
“That does sound like Gilbert,” Mortimer said. The young dragon had made somewhat of a name for himself among the Cloverlies by being the first dragon to embrace vegetarianism. That, and the fact that he had some issues with flying. “He wasn’t going to try and get to the village or something, was he?” The village being Toot Hansell, where the dragons had, over the last few years, broken centuries of isolation by befriending the ladies of the Toot Hansell Women’s Institute. It was a friendship characterised by tea, cake, the burgeoning bauble trade, and a surprising number of criminal investigations, which always made Mortimer feel a little queasy. But Toot Hansell was currently not the welcoming place it had been, due to a sudden influx of journalists who were far too interested in the possibility of dragons. Mortimer hadn’t even had a scone in months. Well, weeks. But weeks without scones felt like months.
“I don’t think he’d go there,” Amelia said. “I mean, he’s an idiot, but he’s not silly.”
Mortimer wasn’t quite sure he understood the difference, but he said, “Of course not. He’ll be around.”
Amelia made an unconvinced sound. “I thought that too, but I haven’t seen him.”
Mortimer looked at the tight lines of her shoulders and felt a coil of unease in his belly. “For how long?”
“A week? Amelia, that’s ages! He’s never been away that long, has he?”
“No,” she admitted. “But he’ll be fine. He has to be fine.”
“He hasn’t been back at all?”
“I’m his sister, not his bloody keeper.” She glared at him, then her shoulders slumped and she scratched her chin with the hammer. “He’s just got the hump. He’s probably off rescuing bloody hamsters somewhere.”
Mortimer examined the younger dragon. The maroon had faded, leaving uneasy grey tinges around her snout, and he said quietly, “How bad was the fight?”
She hesitated, then put the hammer back on the bench and looked at her forepaws resting on the hard stone next to it. “I might’ve told him that I was going to stuff his roast pumpkin with mice unless he started acting like a real dragon.”
“Ah,” Mortimer said, realising it wasn’t a euphemism but rather an insult to the young dragon’s vegetarian stance. “Quite a bad fight, then.”
“You know how silly he is! Bloody Rockford and his lot were trying to push him off a ledge to make him fly – or to watch him do that silly fall-glide thing he does – and he was getting all upset, of course, because he hates even trying to fly, so I stopped them, but … but they’re right, you know? And they’re never going to stop. So I just said he needed to at least pretend to be a proper dragon so they’d leave him alone, and he—” She stopped and took a breath. “Anyway. I haven’t seen him since.”
Mortimer nodded, then said, “Shall I go and ask around? See if the sprites have seen him? The dryads?”
Amelia looked at him, and he braced himself for her to tell him in no uncertain terms that his help was not required when it came to her family. Instead she said, “I’ve checked all his favourite spots. No one’s seen him.”
“Is there an echo?” she snapped, then added, “Sorry. I mean, no. No one at all. He’s just gone, and I can’t even find a scent beyond his favourite pond.”
Mortimer blinked. “I mean, he has flown. In an emergency. That could explain not finding a scent.”
“Then where did he fly to?” Her voice was quiet. “There’re journalists in the village, Mortimer. Monster hunters, not to put too fine a point on it. And Gilbert’s disappeared. Where’s my brother?”
And Mortimer, staring back at her, didn’t have an answer.
Mortimer made sure nothing was about to catch fire before he left the workshop, and persuaded Amelia that she should at least go and eat a rabbit before she did any more work. She became a little upset over that and admitted that she’d been feeding the unofficial menagerie of orphaned or injured animals Gilbert maintained in his cavern, and that the smallest rabbit had fallen asleep on her shoulder two nights ago and she hadn’t been able to eat anything but fish ever since.
“And I don’t even like fish,” she complained. “The scales get stuck in my teeth.” She took a deep breath and stared at Mortimer. “I actually thought about having a pumpkin. Am I … am I becoming a vegetarian?”
Mortimer had reassured her as well as he could, which wasn’t very, as he’d been having some trouble eating rabbits himself since spending more time with Gilbert. Then he’d left before she could say anything else about pumpkins. He’d eaten two yesterday and was worried he might be starting to get a taste for them. Rockford would love that, if he found out about it.
Now he hesitated on the ledge outside, watching the tarn below being rippled by the wind, and the trees shifting colour as a light breeze turned their leaves, like a hand brushing a cat’s fur in the wrong direction. There wasn’t much wilderness left these days, but pockets of it clung on, and there was plenty of it left for a young dragon determined not to be found. He watched for a moment longer, not sure what he was looking for – Gilbert to surface in the tarn, perhaps, or to come trotting out of the trees.
But he didn’t, so Mortimer launched himself off the ledge, catching the air in the curves of his wings and sweeping up the cliff, keeping his body close to the rock and his scales a dull grey, just in case anyone was looking. Not that there should be anyone out here. It wasn’t that the land around them was particularly brutal or the vegetation unusually impassable, but the mount was wound about with a mesh of cloaking charms, runes pressed into trees and carved into stone, old magic that encouraged strangers to be elsewhere. They were subtle but irresistible, and made any humans rambling through the networks of footpaths and bridleways that spread across the country like spiderwebs find themselves absently turning onto different routes. So no one should be here to see him, especially as the dragons had reinforced their protections since the appearance of the journalists. But Mortimer still wasn’t entirely sure how well their defences might work against people like them, humans who so desperately wanted to see something. People like that were dangerous.
So he kept close to the mount as he swept up to its crown, landing on one of the craggy, variegated ledges that offered lookout points in every direction. Beyond the woodlands surrounding them, as the land flattened, the fields were patchwork green framed with the crooked stitching of drystone walls, and Toot Hansell was visible as a jumble of buildings lassoed by the glittering thread of the rivers. Mortimer sat there with the sun warm and un-English on his scales, thinking longingly of Miriam and scones, and sighed.
“That doesn’t sound good, lad,” someone said, and he yelped, looking around the choppy ledges of the mount.
“Hello?” he managed. “Beaufort?”
“Down here, lad.”
Mortimer padded across to the edge of the highest crag and peered over dubiously. Beaufort Scales, High Lord of the Cloverly dragons, who had seen his predecessor murdered by that sneaky Saint George while she snoozed in her favourite bramble berry patch, who had ushered his clan through the retreat of magic from the increasingly human world, who had hidden them in far places and protected them from the greedy and the scared, who had watched villages become cities and cities expand to swallow the land, who had witnessed the endless spread of humanity as it crushed the magical and natural worlds in its path, who had survived countless battles and pointless wars and who bore the scars of them all, who had seen the worst of the humans and yet still somehow counted them friends, was clinging to the sheer rock face, wings pressed to the cliff and his talons embedded in the stone like a particularly large and glamorous green gecko.
The High Lord grinned. “Afternoon, lad.”
“Afternoon,” Mortimer said, then when Beaufort made no move to join him, added, “What are you doing?” He tried to sound mildly curious rather than bewildered, but he wasn’t sure it worked.
“Yes. Walter is currently seeking me, but I think I’m winning.”
Mortimer nodded, thought about it for a moment, then said, “Does he know you’re playing hide’n’seek?”
“Probably not. But he’s been telling me – repeatedly – about how we need to take the fight to the enemy, which apparently means the journalists. Or the government. Or farmers. Or Rose’s current boyfriend. Or whoever took the last gas bottle. It depends on the day, really.”
“We’re out of gas bottles?”
“Yes. But it’s summer. By the time it gets cold enough that we need them, things will be back to normal. Humans don’t have long attention spans, really. We just need to wait them out.”
Mortimer sighed, wishing he shared Beaufort’s optimism, and said, “I hope you’re right. It feels like I should never have started the whole gas bottle thing in the first place.” The gas bottles were to run the barbecues that the clan had adopted as beds, and which they bought using the proceeds of the bauble sales. Or, rather, that Miriam of the Women’s Institute bought for them, as dragons might be very good at passing unnoticed by humans, but Mortimer was still quite sure that wandering into the nearest shop and asking for a gas bottle might give them away somewhat. But the barbecues warmed the bones of old dragons and heated the eggs of the unhatched, and rather than spending all day collecting wood for fires, the Cloverlies were now free to do things like get involved in human investigations, attract the attention of cryptid journalists, and discover vegetarianism and animal rights. Mortimer really wasn’t sure free time was good for dragons, and especially not for old High Lords who insisted on being interested in everything.
Beaufort watched him, age edging his golden eyes with deeper burnt amber, then he heaved himself up onto the ledge, his claws scraping dust from the stone as he climbed. He sat down next to Mortimer and said, “What’s up, lad?”
“Everything. The journalists, and us not being able to go to the village, and we were safe before, but now …” Mortimer waved a paw wildly at the woods and the fields in the distance. “Monster hunters!”
Beaufort hmmed. “I rather think monster hunters were inevitable. We couldn’t escape them forever.”
Mortimer gave him a horrified look. “Then why did you ever let me start this? We should’ve stayed away from humans!”
“And what fun would that have been? There are always risks to moving forward, Mortimer. But one can’t remain stuck in one place just because of what-ifs. That way lies stagnation, and we’ve been there before. It’s not a good place to linger.”
“But look at us now! It’s worse than it was before, when we didn’t even know about the W.I., and markets, and barbecues, and … and scones.”
“It’s a hiccough. Progress is never linear.”
“I’m not sure it’s good, either.”
“Some is, some isn’t. But one must always move forward. Discard what doesn’t work and embrace what does. Do more of what does.”
“But what’s working, really?” Mortimer asked. “We seem to spend all our time hiding from someone, or worrying we’ll be discovered, or running from someone who almost discovered us. Surely if it worked it wouldn’t be this stressful.”
“Working isn’t the same as easy. Often it’s entirely the opposite.” Beaufort shot him an amused grin. “Besides, I’m not sure it’s all quite as stressful as you make out.”
“It is for me,” Mortimer grumbled.
Beaufort snorted and patted his shoulder. “I wouldn’t swap one moment of any of it, no matter how stressful. Imagine never knowing Miriam, or Alice, or any of the ladies. Or never having a mince pie?” He looked at Mortimer expectantly, and the younger dragon sighed.
“That’s true. I’d hate not to have met them.” Or to have never tried a mince pie, but that seemed less important, really.
“Friendship is worth risking an awful lot for,” Beaufort said. “As are excellent baked goods. Now, what’s today’s particular stress?”
Mortimer swallowed hard, surprised to find a nasty tight feeling in his throat, as if there was some pumpkin there still. He wondered if he were allergic. That would just cap the day off wonderfully. “Umm,” he said, then stopped, staring toward Toot Hansell.
“Are you alright? You’ve gone very grey.”
Mortimer checked his paws. He really was exceptionally grey, and he was fairly sure there were a couple of scales on his tail that already looked like they were going to fall off. And he’d been doing so well. “I don’t know,” he said.
“I’m sure it can’t be that bad, lad. No worse than having Walter threaten to burn a farm down two counties over to shift suspicion, as he put it.”
“Really. Hence the hiding. But whatever you’re worried about, it’s not going to be as bad as that.”
The tight feeling in Mortimer’s throat gave way to a little growl, startling him. He wasn’t angry, was he? Not at Gilbert and Amelia, surely. He didn’t think he was. Well, not really, anyway, but oh, the frustration sometimes! “This could be worse. It could be the very, very worst.”
“Well, tell me, then. We can’t fix anything if you’re sitting there plucking your tail bald again.”
Mortimer let go of his tail hastily. He didn’t even remember picking it up. “Gilbert,” he said. “He’s missing.”
Beaufort was silent for a moment, then he said, “How long?”
“And you’re only telling me now?”
Mortimer swallowed. Beaufort didn’t sound angry, but he was definitely displeased. It was in the flatness of his tone. “He and Amelia had a fight, and she just thought he’d gone off in a bit of a huff. You know how he gets.”
“No one was meant to be going off anywhere, in a huff or not. That was the rule. Even I haven’t been beyond the borders. Some rules are not to be broken, Mortimer.”
“I’m sorry.” His throat was horribly dry, and his tail was hurting. He looked down – he’d picked it up again at some point, and as he made himself let go a scale flaked off and drifted to the rocky ground. He sighed. “I should have noticed he was missing sooner. I was distracted by the silly phone cases.”
Beaufort watched him for a long moment, then nodded. “Nothing to be done about that,” he said, sounding almost normal. “But you’re quite right. This is terrible. And we must find him at once. One can walk an awfully long way in a week, should one be so inclined.”
“He might even have flown,” Mortimer said. “Amelia can’t find any sign of him. None of the dryads or sprites or anyone at all seem to have seen him. She’s had to feed his rabbits,” he added, rather pointlessly, but his heart was still trying to decide whether to sink to his belly with worry or jump out of his mouth in fright, and it was making him a bit lightheaded.
Beaufort got up. “Then we need to start a proper search. He may still be in the area. It’s entirely possible some of Gilbert’s friends might not have wanted to point his angry sister onto his trail.”
Mortimer wrinkled his snout. “I didn’t think of that.”
“Because you were too busy worrying about it to actually think about it,” Beaufort patted Mortimer’s shoulder again as he spoke. “Never mind, lad. He can’t have gone far. We’ll find him.”
The sun was suddenly a lot warmer than it had been, and Mortimer smoothed the scales on his tail. Of course they’d find him. He’d just be hiding out with a sprite or something, to get back at Amelia. He’d been entirely overreacting.
Poor Mortimer. He does live in hope, but we all know how well that’s likely to work out …
Now over to you, lovely people – what’s the one small treat you miss the most when you can’t get it? I am very much with Mortimer in that tea is vital and I’m most put out when I have to go without (or even have to make do something other than Yorkshire Tea, if I’m being honest). And baked goods are life, as we all know …
Don’t forget to pop back next week for chapter two – and get your pre-order in now at all your favourite retailers!