Milly Floss counted the fire arrows leaping into the night sky like embers spat from some giant hearth beyond the city wall. They sailed up among the stars as though hoping to join the ranks of Lord Decemberon’s Fieries, but fell short and streaked down towards the battlements and tower rooftops, too fast for Milly to finish her count. She quickly added a guesstimated half dozen, arriving at sixteen.
Another volley followed and another, the same pause between each. She lost sight of several missiles as they fell into the streets. Most struck stone, splashing tiny bonfires atop the wall or occasionally crowning a snow-dusted tower or two. The flames failed to spread and allowed her to check her numbers. Every volley tallied at about the sixteen mark.
Sixteen archers. Could be more Orkans trying to scale the walls with ladders but if there was anything like a huge army out there they would have brought more archers. Just a stupid raiding party, trying their luck on a chilly Decemberon Eve. Orkans didn’t care it was a holiday.
But the city was safe tonight.
Between the small flocks of flaming arrows, the crack and puff and flash of muskets answered from the battlements and there were way more than sixteen. At least three times as many, like – forty-eight? – yes, forty-eight baby dragons raining down their fury on the enemy.
Dad would have been so chuffed with her sums, but wouldn’t have been happy to know she was up watching the battle from her lofty bedroom window when she was supposed to be tucked up in bed. In her defence, she was on her bed, kneeling, with the blankets drawn around her shoulders like a cape against the cold. Also, she would tell Dad, she couldn’t have slept anyway. She wanted to be up when he got home. She wanted to run downstairs and give him his present.
Milly glanced at the wardrobe, where she’d hidden the gift under a pile of her more summery clothes which needn’t normally be disturbed for another five or six months. She practically burst with smiles, imagining Dad’s face when he opened it. She’d done really well this year, she reckoned. Okay, it was simple and probably a bit silly, but she knew he’d love it to bits. She laughed at the thought. Hopefully not actually to bits, she corrected herself. She’d packed it in wads and wads of straw and paper and wool, having to fight off Naughty all the while, to safeguard against breakages.
She could hear Naughty now – rustle rustle – trying to burrow his way into the package.
“Naughty! Stop it!” she told him.
Quiet returned to the wardrobe.
Milly shook her head and tutted. Then went back to counting arrows and musket shots.
Add about four that time. Ooh, only thirteen. Thirteen arrows. Twelve more little bonfires dotted all over, one bigger fire where an arrow fell and caught on a thatched roof in spite of the snow. A bell rang and rang and rang. Crack-puff-flash all along the wall. Forty-five! Or thereabouts. Milly might have miscounted. And anyway Dad always said muskets sometimes misfired or failed to go off at all. Not his, mind, he always added, as he’d spend so much time cleaning and maintaining it and Milly would brew him a strong cuppa and bring it to him as he worked.
She wished she could see him up on the wall. Just to know which one of the tiny dragons was Dad’s, fiercely defending the city tonight.
Milly sighed and tore herself from the window. Pulling her blankets close around her, she walked on her knees to the edge of the bed then hopped off and padded to the wardrobe. She tugged open the door and peered down, ready to scowl at the bright pair of over-innocent eyes gazing up from the shadows with their who-me? expression.
They weren’t there.
Something darted out between her bare feet. Milly jumped back.
It scurried across the floorboards, cloaked in her favourite summer blouse.
“Naughty!” He was always trapping himself under clothes and towels and the like. Getting himself in a panic and shooting around like a comet of fur and fabric.
Ignoring her, he sprang for the door and scampered out onto the landing,
“Come back here!”
Little legs thump-thump-thumped down the stairs.
Milly grrred. She would catch him and punish him with intense cuddles later.
Outside, the fire bell still clanged and clanged and she heard the muskets still cracking like they were breaking icicles.
She’d go back to counting later. For right now, she had to check on the state of her present.
Kneeling at the wardrobe, she dug through the disarrayed clothing pile and fetched out the package for inspection.
Oh dear. The pretty paper was torn and Naughty had managed to claw a ragged hole in the box. Shreds of paper and bits of straw spilled from the hole.
She grrred again.
She held the parcel to her ear and gave it the gentlest of jiggles. No clinks. Just a couple of dull thumps.
She set the box down and started unwrapping. If Naughty had damaged anything, oh boy, he was going to get extended cuddles and he could wriggle and squirm all he liked but she was going to make him serve his full sentence. She dug through the nesting, tossing aside bunches of straw and fistfuls of paper, revealing –
Big enough for two normal cuppas, it boasted a gorgeous sky-blue glaze, ringed with delicate curlicues like a circle of golden birds. Pretty, but not too pretty for Dad. And across one side she’d painted in sunny yellow:
Unbroken. Not a crack on its surface. Only that faint little bump between the word DAD and EVER that the market stallholder had explained was a teeny flaw in the ceramic and that was what made it unique and gave it character and it was just like a diamond in that respect, as flaws were what all the best jewelers looked for in all the best gems.
But the cup was alone.
Where was the saucer?
Naughty padded slow and sleepily into the room. He yawned, but then his eyes lit up with interest in what Milly was doing kneeling at the wardrobe. Brushing his tabby cheek against her elbow, he peered with deep curiosity into the jumble of clothes and shadows. He then stuck his nose in the box and sniffed the contents, treating himself to experimental licks and chews on the straw and paper. And paying no particular attention to the cup.
“Where’s the saucer?” Milly echoed her thoughts aloud, sifting through the packing even though she was sure she wouldn’t have missed anything as obvious as a saucer.
“He’s run off,” piped a voice that sounded a bit like a bugle that had swallowed a selection of pebbles from the beach.
Milly searched about for whoever had spoken but all she could see was Naughty, chomping on a tasty strand of straw and –
“I begged him not to,” it said, flexing a miniature mouth between the words DAD and EVER, “but he insisted. And he is the boss.”
Outside, through the clamour of the fire bell, the muskets cracked again but they sounded further away than ever and impossible to count.
In that moment, Milly reckoned she’d lost her ability to count on anything.
[To Be Continued…]