“Mortimer,” Beaufort said. “Do you have a moment?”
Mortimer managed to keep his sigh mostly on the inside, and put the dragon scale boat carefully down on the bench, pushing his goggles up before he went to join Beaufort at the entrance to the cavern workshop.
“Morning, Beaufort, sir.” Mortimer still got a little confused about the best way to address the High Lord of the Cloverly dragons, now that he’d become – well, whatever it was that he’d become. It had started harmlessly enough, trying to introduce Beaufort to the delights of the modern age, such as gas barbecues rather than coals to sleep on. But he hadn’t considered just how enthusiastic old dragons could get when presented with new things. Now, when he wasn’t making baubles and toys to sell on the Etsy (so they could buy gas bottles for the barbecues rather than steal them), he spent most of his time trying to convince Beaufort that there was such a thing as too much involvement in the world of humans.
“Morning, Mortimer. The thingies coming on well?”
“The model boats, yes. I think I’ve got the water activation problem solved now.”
“That’s good. Can’t have it growing into the QE2 in a duck pond.”
“It didn’t grow that big.”
“There’s still a masthead in the ceiling of the grand cavern. Can’t get it down.”
“Yes. Sorry about that. I was a decimal place out in the expansion algorithm.”
Beaufort snorted softly. “Never mind that right now, anyway. Have a look over there.”
Mortimer followed the old dragon’s gaze, squinting in the sunlight. Further down the rubbly slope, past the mouths of the caverns and the rockfalls that discouraged climbers, a collection of age-rounded boulders huddled at the edge of the lake. A rather small dragon was perched on top of the largest of them, wings flared and belly flattened to the stone. Below him, another dragon was gesticulating energetically with her front paws.
“Is that Amelia?” Mortimer asked.
“Yes. And I believe that’s her little brother on the boulder.”
“She has a brother?”
Beaufort gave Mortimer a surprised look. “Of course she has a brother. His name is Gilbert. Honestly, Mortimer, do you pay attention to anything outside of that workshop?”
Other than trying to keep you out of the local newspaper, you mean? Mortimer thought, somewhat unfairly. The Detective Inspector had been quite adamant about the dragons keeping a lower profile since the whole poisoned cupcake incident, and so far Beaufort had listened. So far.
“She appears to be trying to teach him to fly,” Beaufort said. “But I’ve never seen this technique before.” Gilbert was sliding down the face of the boulder with his wings at the ready, and even from this distance they could hear the screech of claws on stone. Mortimer couldn’t quite tell, but he was willing to bet the little dragon had his eyes screwed shut. His shoulders were hunched up to his ears and his tail was a flat line of misery, while Amelia’s waving grew ever more enthusiastic.
Gilbert ran out of boulder and ploughed nose first into the rocky ground.
“Ouch,” Mortimer said.
“Indeed. Come on, lad. Let’s see what’s happening.”
Beaufort took flight from the cavern mouth with a swirl of leathery wings, stocky legs tucked close to his belly, and Mortimer watched him go. He didn’t have to join the High Lord. This was nothing to do with humans, or with the dragons’ newly developed line of dragon scale toys and trinkets. Those things were Mortimer’s area. Not young dragons struggling to fly, or any of the other matters that High Lords might concern themselves with.
He watched Beaufort loop over the lake, dropping low enough to drag his paws in the water, sending a sparkling wake behind him as he headed for the shore, and sighed. Then again, was it really right to leave Amelia and Gilbert with Beaufort, well-intentioned though he may be? Beaufort had landed now, bulkier than either of the young dragons, barrel-chested and tall – easily the size of a Shetland pony. He looked up at Mortimer and waved cheerfully, and Mortimer groaned. He was impossible. No matter how much you just wanted to get on with things and ignore him, he was utterly impossible.
Mortimer took to the air lightly, tail curling behind him as he went, heading straight for the little group below. Maybe Beaufort had time to play in the lake, but some dragons had work to do.
Mortimer landed with a clatter of claws on gravel, snapping his wings in tightly. Beaufort raised an eyebrow ridge at him and said, “Nice of you to join us.”
Mortimer bit back a retort – Beaufort was still the High Lord, after all – and instead said, “Hi, Amelia.”
“Hi, Mortimer.” She sounded despondent. “This is my brother, Gilbert.”
“Hi,” Mortimer said, and Gilbert nodded miserably back. He was still crouched below the boulder, rubbing his nose. He was missing some scales.
“So, what seems to be the problem?” Beaufort asked. “Nerves, is it?”
“Beaufort,” Mortimer started hurriedly, realising the small dragon was staring at the High Lord with something close to horror.
“Nothing wrong with nerves. Had them myself, plenty of times. Good for the heart, they are.” Beaufort smiled encouragingly at Gilbert, revealing an alarming amount of yellow teeth.
“Well, Gil’s just getting the hang of the whole flying thing,” Amelia said. “He’s doing great, honest.”
“I’m not,” Gilbert mumbled.
“You are,” Amelia insisted. “You couldn’t even climb that boulder last week.”
“So my climbing’s improved. Hoo-freaking-ray.”
“Now, lad,” Beaufort said sternly. “Your sister’s giving up her afternoon to help you. None of this sulking.”
“I’m not sulking. I’m never going to able to fly, and she’s just wasting her time.”
“Well, that’s ridiculous,” Beaufort said. “All dragons can fly.”
“Maybe I’m not a dragon, then. Maybe I’m a – a toad or something.” Gilbert sat down and stared moodily at his claws. They were painted dark green, for some reason.
“Amelia,” Beaufort said, in a rather carrying whisper, “Is your brother alright? In the head, I mean?”
“Beaufort,” Mortimer hissed, horrified.
“It’s okay,” Amelia said. “He’s got acrophobia.”
The two older dragons stared at her, while Gilbert slumped onto his belly with a sigh.
“Acrophobia? He’s scared of – acrobats?” Beaufort asked, puzzled. “I mean, I can see why, but it’s hardly relevant -”
“Heights,” Amelia said. “He’s scared of heights.”
“Come on Gilbert!” Beaufort called. He was perched on top of the boulder, peering down at the young dragon. Gilbert had gone the colour of the rocks around him as he desperately tried to ignore the High Lord. “Up you come, lad! You know you can do it, you were just up here before!”
“Ameli-AHHH,” Gilbert whimpered. “He’s scaring me.”
“Just get up there, would you? That’s the High Lord.”
“Amelia, he doesn’t have -” Mortimer stopped as she shot him a furious look.
“He does. Come on Gil. Mum’s tried. Dad’s tried. We’ve all tried. And now the High Lord himself is helping you, so get your bum up that rock right NOW!”
Mortimer blinked, startled, and Gilbert gave a little wail, then started scrabbling up the boulder, whimpering to himself as he went.
“Well done, Gil,” Amelia called brightly. “Just don’t look down, okay?”
Gilbert said something none of them heard properly, which was probably for the best, and kept climbing.
“Does he – is his tail pierced?” Mortimer asked, catching the flash of gold in the sunlight.
“Yep. Can’t fly, but he can get his tail pierced.”
“Oh.” Mortimer sat down and scratched his jaw thoughtfully. “Kids, huh?”
Amelia gave him a grateful look, and sat down next to him, the sun warming their scales and painting them gold.
“Now, then, lad,” Beaufort said, as Gilbert heaved himself onto the top of the boulder and lay there quivering, his belly flat to the stone and his eyes squeezed shut. “Stand up, stand up. You have to see where you’re going, or how else will you get there?”
Gilbert opened one eye. “I can see from here.” He shut it again.
“You can not,” Beaufort replied sternly. “At least open both eyes. We’ll work on the standing up in a moment.”
Gilbert took a deep, shuddering breath and opened his eyes, staring straight at Beaufort.
“That’s better,” Beaufort said. “Good dragon. Now, eyes on me, and stand up.”
Gilbert shuddered, and tried to straighten his legs. He managed to get his belly off the floor, then his gaze slid off Beaufort and to the empty space behind him. He squeaked and collapsed again, covering his eyes with his front paws. “I can’t!”
“You can, lad. I have complete faith in you.”
Beaufort’s voice was warm and close, and when Gilbert opened his eyes he found that the High Lord was sprawled comfortably across the stone, his nose inches from the younger dragon’s.
“You shouldn’t have faith in me,” Gilbert said. “I’m a failure of a dragon.”
“Nonsense. You hatched out of a dragon egg, didn’t you?”
“Then you’re a dragon.”
“But you said yourself, all dragons can fly.”
“And you will too. You just need to get the knack of it.” Beaufort rolled onto his back, four legs in the air and wings spread across the rock, soaking in the sun. “D’you know,” he said thoughtfully, “I have known a few dragons that couldn’t fly. Accidents, mostly, although one was born with only very small wings. It does happen.”
“Maybe I just can’t fly, then.”
“You have to try before you can say that.”
“But I’m scared.”
“Of flying, or falling?”
Gilbert raised his head and stared at the big dragon. His eyes were closed, a faint stream of pale lilac smoke drifting from his nostrils. He didn’t look stupid.
“Falling, of course.”
“Well, then. Stop thinking about falling, and start thinking about flying.” Beaufort rolled over and back onto his feet with unexpected grace. “You have to look where you’re going, remember?”
Gilbert watched as the High Lord caught the air in his wings and took flight, taking a swoop towards the lake that set the young dragon’s belly turning over. But, okay. Look where you’re going. So don’t look at the hard, nasty ground, with all the pointy rocks and bone-breaking boulders. No. Look at the sky. Yes. Look at the sky.
He rose to his feet, muscles trembling with adrenaline and fright. Beaufort was doing fancy circles and loops low over the water, sending spray shattering into rainbows. He came back towards the shore flying fast and low, and called, “Come on, lad! Fly!”
I have complete faith in you. Gilbert took a deep breath as Beaufort banked away again. The High Lord had complete faith in him. Everyone else might be waiting for him to face plant, but not Beaufort. Look where you’re going. Yes.
Gilbert bunched his legs under himself and leaped, wings flaring out into the sky, feeling the rock vanish beneath him, his eyes still on the old dragon, blood pounding in his ears, and this was it! This was it!
“I’m a dragon!” he shrieked. “I’m flying!”
“Gilbert!” Amelia bellowed, “Flap! Flap!” She launched herself off the boulder, and Mortimer flung himself after her, cursing.
Beaufort was angling towards the young dragon, but he wasn’t going to reach him in time. Mortimer overtook Amelia, wings tight to his sides, bulleting towards Gilbert. The little dragon still didn’t seem to have noticed that he was falling – at least his spread wings were acting as a bit of a parachute, slowing his fall. Mortimer tucked his own wings in tighter, diving hard, hearing Amelia still roaring Gilbert’s name, and Beaufort shouting, and still the young dragon was blissfully oblivious to it all.
And then Gilbert looked down, and screamed. He flailed wildly, wings apparently forgotten in his panic, and to Mortimer it looked as though he was trying to swim out of his fall. But he was almost there, he was close, there was still time…
They collided with the crack of scaly, muscular bodies, Gilbert clutching wildly at Mortimer as the older dragon snapped his wings wide, feeling the strain in his chest muscles, both of them falling too fast to recover in time. But that was okay, all he had to do was get them away from the rocks, over the water – his wings felt like they were being torn off his body, and he wondered if the fine bones would snap first, or the tough skin tear. He couldn’t control their fall, it was all he could do to slow it.
“Ease off! Mortimer, ease off!” They were thrown violently sideways as Beaufort hit them, the pressure on Mortimer’s wings suddenly almost bearable. He heard the snap and pull of the bigger dragon’s wings, tried to add his own to it, but he couldn’t tell if he was helping or not.
“Can’t stop! Can’t stop!” Amelia barrelled into them with a yelp as Beaufort’s voice rose into a roar.
They hit in an ungainly tangle of wings and legs and whipping tails.
Mortimer surfaced spluttering, mud in his mouth and a wreath of reeds hanging sideways from his ears. Someone had stood on his belly, and he’d got an elbow or a knee in one eye, and that was all besides the fact that he’d apparently been on the bottom when they landed, so had been half-convinced he’d drown before they all got off him.
Amelia was hacking and coughing, while Beaufort pounded her on the back rather too vigorously. Every blow sent her snout underwater again, but she couldn’t get enough breath to say anything.
“Beaufort, stop,” Mortimer said, then frowned and fished a large twig out from between his teeth. “Ugh.”
“Everyone alright, then?” Beaufort asked brightly.
Amelia sneezed, and pointed at her brother. He was floating on his back, staring at the sky, wings spread out on the water. “Him. Can’t -” she sneezed again. “Gonna kill him.”
“Now, now,” Beaufort said, wading over to the floating dragon. “We all have these mishaps in the early days.” The High Lord was the only one of them not festooned with water grass and reeking mud, so Mortimer assumed he’d landed on top of the rest of them. It certainly explained why they’d been driven so firmly into the muck. “Gilbert,” Beaufort said loudly, and poked the young dragon. “Good effort, lad.”
“Good effort?” Amelia spluttered.
Gilbert lifted his head. “I like it here.”
“It’s very nice,” Beaufort agreed. “But we can’t just abandon the flying lessons. You almost had it.”
“You almost killed us,” Amelia said.
“It’s a risky business, flying,” Beaufort said. “We have to expect the occasional brush with death.”
“I want to be a water dragon,” Gilbert announced.
“You’re a Cloverly dragon,” Beaufort said. “We’re not water dragons.”
“I like the water better. I’ll be a Cloverly water dragon.”
“Did he get hit in the head too?” Mortimer asked. “Because I got hit in the head.”
“I think his egg got cracked too early,” Amelia muttered.
“That’s not nice,” Gilbert said. “Just ‘coz I’m not like you, all flying and stuff.”
“I think he got hit on the head,” Mortimer said to no one in particular.
“He’s just a little shook up, is all,” Beaufort said. “Now off you go, you two. You’re distracting us.”
Amelia just stared at him, her snout daubed liberally with mud, and Mortimer paddled over to her. “Shall we get out?” he suggested. “Maybe Gilbert will do better if we’re not here.”
“I’ll kill him if he does that again.”
“He’ll kill us all if he does that again,” Mortimer said, and headed for the shore.
Beaufort and Gilbert floated in the lake, drifting in the tiny currents and eddies, pale bellies exposed to the sky and wings painted across the surface. Neither of them spoke, and after a while Gilbert slipped away with barely a ripple to mark his passage, turning slow somersaults and corkscrews as he spun through the dim green depths, his wings sleek to his sides and his tail twisting like a ship’s rudder. The mud ghosted off him in trails, and he lingered in the coolness, listening to the little cracklings and whispers in the water, the secret conversations of fish and sprites, the murmured dreams of tiddy uns and tadpoles. It was peaceful, the way the world beyond the water ceased to exist. No shouting sisters or disappointed parents. No one looking at him like he was a failure, just because he couldn’t fly. No one ever asked what he could do. No, it was all about this one thing that terrified him, that made him feel faint and sick, that made his skin crawl just to look out the mouth of the cavern and down to the lake below. Like that was the only thing that made a dragon, being able to fly. It was such a limited view of life. They were all so stuck in their ways, so blind –
Something poked him, and he looked up to see Beaufort peering down from where the glossy roof of the lake was cut into ripples by the big dragon’s movements. The High Lord beckoned him up, and he went reluctantly, the peace of the still water crumbling around him as his head broke into the air. Beaufort was bobbing peacefully, chin level with the surface and the tips of his wings visible over his shoulders like shark fins.
“Alright, lad?” Beaufort said.
Gilbert let his body swing upright, tail trailing into the comforting depths beneath them. ”I guess,” he said. “That didn’t go too well, though, did it?”
“Not so well,” Beaufort agreed.
“I did try.”
“I know you did.”
“I really just can’t do it, though. I’d much prefer to be here. I feel like – like I’ve been born all wrong.” He could feel tears in his eyes, and hoped they looked no different to lake water.
“Now, that’s a silly thing to say. We’re all a bit different.”
“Yeah, but you all fly. It’s like not being able to breathe, or something.”
Beaufort took a mouthful of water and let it out as steam. “Seems to me that we’re doing all sorts of things that we never did before, like making things for humans and going around detective-ing.”
“That’s extra, though, isn’t it? It’s like, you can fly plus all this other stuff.”
Beaufort was quiet for a moment, then said, “Well. Cloverly dragons have always been flying dragons, but I don’t see any reason that a dragon has to fly in order to be a Cloverly dragon. If you come out of a Cloverly egg, you’re a Cloverly dragon. All the rest is optional, isn’t it?”
Gilbert stared at the High Lord. “But – my dad said -”
“Is your dad the High Lord?”
“Well, no, but -”
“Then it’s settled. If you want to fly, fly. If you want to swim, swim. I’m sorry I said any different.”
“Yes. A High Lord should know better, but I guess I’ve still got some learning to do.” Beaufort rolled onto his belly and started to paddle back towards shore, shaking his wings out. “And, do you know – you’re a terribly good swimmer. We’ve never had a good enough swimmer to enter the Aquatics section of the Dragon Games. Wouldn’t that just rub the salt in the Shetland Clan’s snouts?”
Gilbert watched him go, his chest tight and full. When he finally started swimming, he splashed his face liberally, leaving sparkling drops like diamonds across his scaled nose, joining the tears.
The afternoon had come in cold, and Mortimer and Amelia had built a fire in the protective circle of the boulders while they waited, warming their sides and scraping the embers with their tails. Now they watched the High Lord amble up the slope from the lake, trailed by Gilbert, who had a much jauntier angle to his tail than Mortimer had seen previously.
“How did it go?” Amelia called. “Gil?”
Gilbert didn’t answer, just glanced uneasily at Beaufort.
“Gilbert is quite alright,” the old dragon said. “No more flying lessons.”
“You got the hang of it? Gil, that’s fantastic!” Amelia hurried forwards to rub snouts with her brother.
“Um, no,” he admitted, and she stopped short, glaring at him.
“What do you mean, no? How is that alright?”
“He doesn’t need them,” Beaufort said. “It doesn’t suit him.”
“It doesn’t suit him?” Amelia said faintly.
“No, and why should it?” Beaufort sniffed. “Can I smell rabbit?”
“But – Mum and Dad are going to be so upset -”
“Then tell them the High Lord says their son has no need to learn how to fly if he doesn’t want to,” Beaufort said, accepting a rabbit from Mortimer. “And he should swim as much as he wants.”
“But -” Amelia said again, then stopped.
Mortimer patted her shoulder. “You’ll get used to him,” he whispered.
“I’m perfectly used to him,” she hissed back. “My parents, on the other hand…”
“Will have to get used to it too.” Mortimer offered Gilbert a rabbit. “Eat up, Gil. You must be freezing after being in the water that long.”
“Oh, no thanks,” Gilbert said, looking away from the rabbit rather pointedly.
“Come on, lad,” Beaufort said, waving a rabbit leg at him. “You’ve got some growing to do still!”
“I’d really rather not,” Gilbert mumbled.
“Why on earth not?” Mortimer examined the rabbit. It was perfect, fur scorched off and cooked until the bones were loose and the flesh ready to fall apart. He prided himself on his ability to cook a rabbit. Well, most dragons did.
“He’s vegetarian,” Amelia whispered.
“He’s what now?” Beaufort asked.
“Oh dear,” Mortimer said, and Gilbert sat down with a sigh.
“I don’t suppose we could roast some pumpkins?” he said. “I do love roast pumpkins.”
Beaufort looked at his rabbit leg rather sadly. “Kids,” he told it. “I’m trying to understand. But some things…”
Mortimer handed him the spare rabbit wordlessly.
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