"David, if your face grows any longer your chin will be scraping the soles of your shoes." Elizabeth Pennykettle hung up her apron and half-scowled, half-smiled at her student lodger. "Whatever's the matter?"

"Give you one guess," the lodger muttered cheerlessly. He sloped into the kitchen, his mouth turned down into a curve of disappointment. In his hand, he was flapping a letter. As he approached the kitchen table he pushed the letter under the snout of a dragon, which was sitting by a pot of raspberry jam. "Here, torch that."

The little clay dragon remained unmoved.

On the far side of the table Mrs Pennykettle's daughter, Lucy, tutted. "You mustn't say that to the dragons. They're not allowed to burn things, are they, Mum?"

"No," said Mrs Pennykettle, glancing at the letter. "I take it that's another rejection?"

David nodded. "Complete with coffee stain. This makes fourteen now. And they all say the same. Thanks, but no thanks. No one wants to hear about Snigger the squirrel."

Lucy immediately put down her sticks. She had been busy modelling a brand new dragon, a handsome (if slightly bemused-looking) creature with wide, flare nostrils and enormous paws. She picked up the letter and frowned. "Well, I think it's the best story ever."

"You're biased," said David, peeling a banana. "I wrote it foe you. You're bound to say that."

"It's not a bad rejection, though, is it?" said Liz, reading the letter over Lucy's shoulder. "They do say your writing shows some promise. Perhaps you should forget about Snigger for a while and start working on something new?"

"Yes!" exclaimed Lucy, spinning in her seat. "The Adventures of Spikey the Hedgehog."

Through a mouthful of banana, David said: "I'm not writing about blooming hedgehogs."

"But you said Gadzooks wrote 'Spikey' on his pad. And he underlined it. Twice. Gadzooks is your special dragon. You've got to do what he says."

David sighed and let his gaze drift across the kitchen. It settled on top of the fridge, where a so-called 'listening' dragon sat: a studious-looking, bespectacled creature with ears like a couple of large rose petals. Dragons were everywhere in this house; Elizabeth Pennykettle made them for a living, in a room upstairs called the Dragon's Den. Gadzooks, the dragon that Lucy had spoken of, sat on the windowsill in David's room. Liz had made him as a welcoming gift when David had first moved into the house. In general appearance, Gadzooks was like most of the Pennykettle dragons: green and scaly with oval-shaped eyes and short, ridged wings. But in his left paw he carried a small white notepad and in the right he held a sawn-off pencil. He was 'special' in the sense that, now and again, when David had been writing his squirrel story, Gadzooks had seemed to help things along by scribbling a word or two on his pad. The last thing he had 'written' - some weeks ago now - was the word 'Spikey'. Lucy had immediately decided that this must be the name of a hedgehog she had once glimpsed in the garden. But David had refused to be so easily swayed. And as the autumn days had gradually lengthened, his mind had dulled to the possibility that there was any meaning to the word at all. Indeed, if the truth be told, he was slightly tired of the presence of dragons and embarrassed by the fact that he had once allowed himself to believe that they might, in some way, be real.

Icefire, Chris d'Lacey