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DRAGON IN THE POST

Yet there was one figure in the great kitchens that seemed to take an interest in the three of them that day – Herbert the Kitchen Phoenix. In between his food tastings and his endless tears at the slaughter taking place, the strange bird would suddenly swoop over and check Gareth’s Correcting, or nod as Sarissa strained at the spit, or look on approvingly as fat little Sao finished another batch of dirty plates. He seemed to like the three of them.
They all wondered how the bird moved around so fast, steam coming from his ears, since he seemed so ancient and his feathers kept moulting everywhere. The activity in the kitchens was frantic, and soon several of the scullies were in tears too, at their treatment by the Cooks, but Bouchebold seemed oblivious to it all and in a very good mood.
Until something terrible happened. Gareth had put down his chopping knife, as his arm was aching so much and suddenly noticed those two crates, now marked VERY DANGEROUS.
Well, he had seen too much already to be put off by this, not least his Godfather’s Very Dangerous Book, so when Gareth was sure no one was looking, he slipped over to take a peek.
Both had large white cloths over them and Gareth decided to look at the delivery from the Dark Wood first. He peeled back the cloth and inside were heaped luscious looking berries, a bit like blackberries, except a deep, dark red, and next to them, the strangest looking mushrooms he had ever seen.
They were huge blue-green toadstools, that seemed to have orange eyes in the top of them, which seemed to blink every now and then and stalks of the purest, nastiest looking black. Gareth noticed a sharp scent, coming off the berries, that made his eyes water and as he leant nearer to smell them, pulled back, because a terrible scene had just flashed in front of his eyes.
Gareth Marks thought he saw an animal, like a wild boar, in a wood, throwing up its head, as it crashed to the leafy ground with an arrow in its side. Then the poor creature was on its back, kicking its legs and blood was everywhere, soaking into the soft ground, as little bushes, with berries on them, bloomed from the earth. Gareth hurriedly pulled the cloth over the nasty things, as he thought he saw one of those toadstools quiver and turned to the second crate. A strong smell of salt and sea was filling the air now and, gingerly, Gareth pulled back the cloth, to see five enormous fish. They were like silver Sea Bass, although they had giant rounded heads, and, the strangest thing of all, they seemed to have lizard’s feet too, just below their fins.
Gareth noticed the crate was swimming with water but it was the magical sheen on their scales, silver, red, and a flashing turquoise, that made the boy reach out and touch one, with his forefinger, to stroke it lightly.
As soon as he touched the wet, Gareth felt a jolt run up his arm, as if he had put his finger to an electric socket, at home. Then the strangest feeling washed over him. At first it felt wonderful, like a sudden exhilaration, yet, with it, came an enormous sadness. Gareth’s eyes were suddenly dark, and he could hardly breathe. The sadness, that made him think of Herbert’s tears, was followed by thoughts of his dad, and then his horrid stepfather, and a terrible feeling of anger enveloped him, that made Gareth want to scream.
Then all these feelings were flooding over Gareth at once. He felt as if he was drowning, and in his mind he was underwater, while all around him were shadows of the strangest creatures imaginable. Dark, unformed shapes, flashed past his sight, and his eyes were stinging, as if washed by chlorine in a public swimming pool.
Now Gareth felt an impossible sense of despair too, and was falling, sinking, deeper and deeper, drowning, but he sensed what lay below had no end. It was like passing through the Seer Guard again.
He heard a screech, felt something hard below him, that hurt, but still he was falling, as if being sucked downwards, into the dark, with only the dim sense of sunlight somewhere very high above, getting fainter and fainter. Gareth felt he wanted to die in that moment, to give up, above all to stop the terrible, uncontrollable feelings washing through his being. Yet he felt water on his face, just specks, and could suddenly breath again, and his eyes began to clear.
He saw the Kitchen Phoenix first, hovering high above him, shaking its head and crying, and then Sarissa and Sao were peering down at him too.
“Gareth, are you ok? What happened?”
Gareth remembered thinking what a nice face Sarissa had when she smiled like that, but suddenly he was back, awake, on the hard floor, and now Bouchebold was glowering down at him too, pulling Sao and Sarissa aside.
“Get up, boy,” the Dragon chef bellowed.
Gareth struggled to his feet and looked around guiltily. The whole kitchen had stopped work to look.
“It’s lucky you only touched some water from the Foundless Sea,” said Bouchebold gravely, “and didn’t eat one of those DeathBerries. You’d have been dead on the instant. You have to soak DeathBerries for days, to take the poison out. So to turn them into Bloodberries.”
Gareth gulped.
“If one of those ToadShrooms had woken, and hopped out, they could have got into the grounds, and sown themselves all over the place. They can make people see the strangest things.”
Gareth looked nervously towards the first crate.
“As it was we nearly lost you though,” said Bouchebold, “Only Herbert’s tears brought you back again. No salt in them, only healing.”
Gareth looked gratefully at the old bird, who had perched on top of a casserole dish, the same colour as its feathers. He seemed to be smiling.
Sarissa and Sao were looking with great concern at their friend too
“But if I just can’t trust you to take orders,” scolded Bouchebold, “you haven’t a chance working for me, lad. You’re demoted, right now, to the lowest kitchen Peel Stacker. I’ll think of a real punishment later.”
Bouchebold was looking over to a filthy pile of potato peelings being gathered in a corner.
“Yes, Dragon Chef,” said Gareth miserably, still feeling shaky on his feet.
“WHAT DID YOU SAY?!” boomed Bouchebold, immediately.
Gareth saw the look of terror on the Choppers’ faces and remembered the term he was not supposed to use down here.
“Dragon Chefs?” bellowed Bouchebold furiously, “We’ve no filthy Dragon Chefs in Pendolis.”
Bouchebold had grabbed a huge ladle and seemed about to strike Gareth with it, but he slammed it against the counter instead, again and again, until it bent in two.
“Those lying, preening, self-regarding frauds. With their Blue Ribbons and their smug recipes, and their nasty little self-serving club. It’s all about Gold and Celebrity, nothing else, while half of them couldn’t cook a boiled egg properly.”
Herbert the Kitchen Phoenix had started to cry again to sob, but Bouchebold glared dangerously at Gareth.
“Out of my sight, underling,” he cried, “before I boil you alive in sizzling rabbit fat.”
One of the Choppers had grabbed Gareth’s arm, and was pulling him hurriedly towards the potato peelings.
“Don’t worry,” he whispered kindly, “he’ll calm down soon enough. There’s too much to do, today.”
“But why does he get so…”
“Upset? Because they denied him the Blue Ribbon, of course,” said the Scully, “The greatest accolade in all Blistag. When he was a Dragon Chef himself.You can only enter if you’re a Three Tail Chef, anyway.”
“He was one?”
“Oh, yes, and to none other than the Black Warlock. Before he got quite so dark. Bouchebold hates to talk about it.”
The scully had said this in a whisper but Gareth suddenly felt there was a grave mystery about this Bouchebold.
“It’s a wonder the Dragoman took Bouchebold in at all. But he does like his deserts.”
With that, they heard a scream, from somewhere down those passageways.
“What was that?” said Gareth.
“They’re probably torturing that mute, who brought in a FireCutter, to get him to talk.”
“But that’s silly,” said Gareth, thinking Pendolis horrid indeed, “if he’s mute, he can’t…”
“Don’t do to ask too much here,” said the scully gravely.
Like the others, Gareth got to work again, though among the potato peelings now, near a cook who seemed to be working on a pudding, with a veritable Cornucopia of strange ingredients, that kept drawing the twelve-year-old’s attention away from his peelings. While Bouchebold calmed down rather sooner than he might because the First Cook was suddenly looking towards the pass.
A Lady was standing there, one of the Dragon Maidens, in her high collared red velvet gown. It was the beautiful raven haired girl, they had noticed on the balcony.
“My Lady Mordanna,” piped Bouchebold immediately, pulling out a handkerchief and mopping his brow, then giving a very low bow.
“Good Bouchebold,” said the maiden softly, dipping her head gracefully, “Lord Cracken sends his regards, but wished me to inform you we’re gathering in the great hall. I wanted to see the kitchens too, I admit.”
“Yes, my Lady. And everything is perfectly on time. We’ll serve the Dragoman’s favourite pudding too, tonight. Bloodberry soufflé.”
Mordanna looked rather amused but she was suddenly looking about the kitchen and her eyes had fallen on Sarissa Halleet, looking embarrassed and resentful at that spit.
She smiled rather kindly, then she swung her head to take in Sao, and finally Gareth. The jewel held on forehead, by that necklace, or headlace, sparked in the light of the glowing kitchen fires.
The Dragon Maiden looked very out-of-place in a kitchen, but as she stood there, something strange happened. It was as if all the stove fires flickered and dwindled at once, and a shadow passed over the room. Gareth saw the glow from that archway increase, and wondered again if a Dragon was lurking beyond.
Bouchebold suddenly looked very worried too, as a lost, faraway look came into the Dragon Maiden’s deep, dark eyes.
“Strangers,” she whispered suddenly, in an even stranger voice, “Strangers, here in Pendolis, beyond the Seer Guard. They are important though. Vital in the Dragon Wars. The Prophecy comes, but there is evil among us already from the Black Warlock himself. The Seer Guard shall be breached. Something new is happening, born this very day.”
As Gareth listened, he felt those feelings overcoming him once more, but the stoves blazed in the kitchens again, and the shadow had passed. Mordanna was blinking, as if quite unaware of what she had just said.
“Well, Bouchebold,” she cried cheerfully, “I can’t wait to try your delicious food. The Dragon Warriors are starving.”
The Dragon Maiden turned and swept away, as all the kitchen staff looked rather warily at the First Cook.
“What are you all gawking at,” Bouchebold cried, “you know they can’t remember, when they’ve just prophesied. Now hurry up, we must get the food to the Pass.”
So they began to serve the dishes they had prepared that day, in a frantic flurry of activity. Suddenly starters were moving towards the Pass, to be taken upstairs, by eager servants in gold tunics.
Gareth’s mouth began to water furiously, as he saw that array of food; delicate Sweetmeats, slices of honey coated ham, terrines of liver pate in Brandy, and quails eggs, on a bed of delicate green and red leaves.
All the while, Bouchebold was sweating, shouting out orders, and this time Gareth wished he had forgotten him, because every time Bouchebold caught sight of Gareth he scowled furiously. Gareth thought of some punishment to come and knew that if he could not make up for himself, he would have a very hard time of it indeed, in the great kitchens of Pendolis.
His fear got worse, when he went to collect some soggy potato peelings and knocked over a little jar, of the most horrid looking brown liquid that tipped straight into one of the waiting dishes.
He caught hold of the thing, just in time, and felt he should tell someone but to his horror someone snatched up the dish and hurried it away towards the Pass. But so the main courses were sent up to the rooms above too. Great trays of what looked like sliced Rhinocerous. Platters of rabbit casserole, with duck hearts, chickens and beef, and fishes, and enough food to satisfy an army.
Now the desserts began to move. Oranges in caramel, strangely coloured jellies, delicate sugar biscuits, a huge bowl of red, orange and green triffle, someone said was called The Painted Dessert and all seemed to be going well, until Bouchebold wandered over to the cook nearest Gareth and there was suddenly a terrible roar.
Bouchebold had just dipped his finger into whatever the man had been making.
“Wrong,” he cried, “disgusting. I can never serve Lord Cracken or the new Dragon Warriors that. That’s not a BloodBerry soufflé mix at all, you idiot. It’s ruined.”
Herbert had flown in now, to try the thing himself, and the scrutinising Phoenix shook his head mournfully.
“Well, Herbert,” said Bouchebold, “what’s wrong with it?”
This time the Phoenix seemed totally at a loss. A limp feather dropped from its right wing.
“Really, Herbert,” snapped Bouchebold, “are you losing your palette?”
“Excuse me, Sir,” said Gareth nervously.
“You,” snorted Bouchebold, as he turned to look at the twelve-year-old, “You dare to interrupt Bouchebold, after all you’ve…
“Er, I think it’s the Cinnamon Flour, First Cook,” whispered Gareth, “He didn’t put in any Cinnamon Flour. I’ve been watching.”
Bouchebold, not to mention the rest of the kitchen retinue, looked at Gareth Marks in absolute astonishment but Bouchebold suddenly blinked and beamed.
“Cinnamon flour,” he cried, “But of course. You’re absolutely right, young man. It’s missing Cinnamon Flour.”
Bouchebold hurried over to a large glass jar, and when he had added six heaped tablespoons of orange-brown Cinnamon flour, then tried the thing, he seemed back to his old self again.
“Redeemed,” he cried, looking fondly at Gareth, “You’ve redeemed yourself, all right. You’ll rise as high as a BloodBerry Soufflé, and work with Bouchebold himself, one fine day.”
Gareth was naturally delighted and Sarrisa and Sao were looking at him in amazement, wondering how on earth their friend had known. They did not see him carefully replacing one of the torn pages of Pendelion’s book in his pocket. At the curling top the fragment said – “Bloodberry Soufflé. A COUNTRY RECIPE.”
“Quick now,” cried Bouchebold, “into the oven, straight. With the reaction of the BloodBerries, especially ones we’ve been soaking for months, it’ll only take five seconds heat. Then it must be served piping hot, with Whipped Dandelion Cream.”
One of the scullies had opened a huge oven, like a terracotta pizza oven, with a stone and glass door and lit at the bottom by an open flame. But as he did so the flame went out. Not just in this oven though, for all the fires in the great kitchens, guttered and died.
“No,” moaned Bouchbold, “not now. It’s impossible.”
“What’s wrong, First Cook?” said Gareth, “Why have the stoves…”
“Dragon Gas,” answered Bouchebold sharply, “the Dragon Gas must have run out. It happens sometimes. They must have forgotten to fill the tanks, but the whole citadel’s fired on it. Pendolis runs on Dragon Power. Farty creatures that they are, especially fed on Buttersqueak, like our Dragon in the next chamber. My pet.”
Gareth wanted to laugh, for the glow beyond had disappeared, and he suddenly realised what that strange smell in the kitchen had been. The kitchen fires of Pendolis were lit by methane gas, from actual Dragons.
“It’s a disaster,” moaned Bouchebold. “We’ll be on bread and water for a month, if Cracken doesn’t get his soufflé. The first day of Dragon Training too, and the whole meal’s failed. I’m ruined, ruined.”
Bouchebold had suddenly stopped though and swung round to look piercingly at Herbert. The old bird suddenly appeared terrified and now it was shaking its beak furiously, and flapping its wings too.
“Oh yes, Herbert,” insisted Bouchebold, “It’s the only way now, my dear old friend. And besides, its near your time, anyway.”
Bouchebold stood back and was holding open the oven door. Herbert had a very resigned look on his face but he suddenly took wing and sailed inside. The Phoenix settled on the ledge, below the huge soufflé tin.
Bouchebold shut the oven door fast and Herbert sat there, peering back through the glass, tears streaming down his feathery face. Bouchebold was crying too but it seemed that his culinary artistry came before anything else.
“Hey, what’s happening, Gareth?” whispered Sao, who had wandered up too. He looked fit to drop.
“Not sure, Sao. The Dragoman wants his favourite pudding.”
Inside the oven the Phoenix had closed its huge eyes and started to quiver. It was as if it was turning itself on, because, suddenly, its wings and feathers caught fire.
The poor bird flared there, before their eyes below the soufflé, and suddenly there was a flash of intense light and flame. Herbert the Kitchen Phoenix exploded into flames, which licked up around the edge of the soufflé tin, and suddenly the dark red Bloodberry mix was rising over the top, as Herbert vanished in a puff of smoke.
Bouchebold pulled open the oven immediately. Below the risen soufflé, Bouchebold was pulling proudly out with a pair of mauve oven gloves, was nothing but a mound of glowing ashes, with a lonely, half burnt feather sticking out.
“A triumph,” cried Bouchbold, regarding the pudding fondly. “Well done, Herbert, cooked to perfection.”
“Poor Herbert,” said Sao sadly, “he’s dead.”
“Well, he looked exhausted anyway,” said Gareth, consolingly, “and he really couldn’t stop crying. Everything seemed to upset him.”
Bouchbold had hurried the piping hot soufflé into the hands of a server, but now he turned towards Gareth and Sao, as Sarissa wandered over.
“You’ve done well, lad,” he said admiringly, and Sao looked at his friend as adoringly as ever, “quite saved the day. So for you, and your friends here too, there shall be a very special reward.”
“Reward,” said Gareth sceptically, feeling utterly miserable for Herbert, who after all had saved his life, when he had touched the fish and the water from the Foundless Sea.
“Of course, Garnet. Tonight there’s extra cabbage, and tomorrow, you’ll be given the morning off. Back to work by elevenses, mind.”
“Tomorrow,” groaned Sarissa, “You mean we have to do all this again? I could sleep for a month. And my arm hurts.”
“You may go with the Stewards,” continued Bouchebold, “out into the countryside, and make sure the Dragon Gas is turned back on.”
“Thanks very much,” said Gareth half-heartedly.
“It’s hard and smelly work, fetching Dragon dung,” said Bouchebold, and he suddenly looked at Gareth sharply, “not to mention very dangerous.”
Sarissa was scowling furiously at Gareth now.
“But it will take you in sight of the young Dragon Warriors,” added Bouchebold significantly, “and their earliest training. Few get to see that, especially from the kitchens.”
Gareth Marks brightened immediately, and with that, they all saw it. The embers in the open oven stirred, and a bright red head popped up and looked around. Suddenly a winged shape exploded out of the oven in a shower of soot, flew into the air and settled safely on the top of the hob and shook itself.
“Hello, Herbert,” said the Great Bouchebold cheerfully, “Welcome back, and very well done. The Dragoman will no doubt reward your greatest sacrifice, too. Perhaps he’ll find you a lady Phoenix.”
The children laughed, for the little kitchen Phoenix was standing there, beaming stupidly, not a tear in its clear, sharp eyes. Its wings were as bright and fresh as if it had been new-born, which, of course, Herbert the Kitchen Phoenix just had!

David Clement-Davies Copyright Phoenix Ark Press

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Filed under Books, Culture, The Phoenix Story

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