A DREAM OF DRAGONS

Chapter I

‘...and it’s guarded by a dragon with scales of beaten gold,’ said Richard.

Mary hadn’t been listening, not properly. It was a still, golden afternoon and she had let her attention wander from her cousin’s educational discourse to ponder the marvellous delicacy of the pattern that the summer-green leaves made against the blazing sunlit sky. His last words alone caught - and held - her wandering focus, bringing her back to earth with a guilty start.

‘Oh,’ she said. It was useless to pretend that she had been listening to every word, nobody could be expected to pick up a thread like that, least of all when it was spun by practical, down-to-earth Richard. Before she had time to find a tactful way to ask for clarification, he had swept on, too involved in his subject to notice the blank expression on her face.

‘It’s a story not without precedent,’ he continued, obliviously. ‘Quite near here, in fact, there’s a similar legend of a dragon that used to fly between Cadbury Camp and Dolebury Hill, and there’s allegedly gold or treasure buried on both those sites. There’s a rhyme about it -

If Cadbury and Dolebury dolven were
All England might plough with a golden share.’

He paused, expectantly.

‘Cadbury,’ said Mary, seizing with relief on a familiar landmark. ‘That’s King Arthur’s Camelot, isn’t it?’ Richard looked down his nose.

‘Maybe, if you like to believe in fairy stories. Equally, maybe not. There’s certainly evidence of Bronze and Iron Age settlement there, but King Arthur? Pull the other one, it’s got bells on! Or perhaps you’re making too much of that shield they found,’ he added, kindly. ‘It had nothing to do with the Knights of the Round Table, you know.’

Mary didn’t think it would help to ask "what shield?" and so she refrained. Prompting was hardly necessary, in any case: Richard riding his hobby horse was unstoppable.

‘He’s hardly relevant in this context anyway, so why drag him in? Bronze age is far, far, too early for the putative King Arthur.’ Mary, who knew it was but had still never heard of the shield he was on about, whether Bronze Age or any other, remained silent, containing a small resentment that he should be treating her as if she was a school child. Fortunately, Richard was nothing if not single-minded; he moved back, scarcely missing a beat, into his main theme. Not waiting for her to answer, he swept on inexorably. ‘There’s another very similar story about a place in Devon somewhere, but I forget exactly where right now, and even you must have heard about the hoard of gold protected by a dragon at Wormelow, up in Shropshire - I beg your pardon?’

Bereft of clues amongst all this un-Richard-like fantasy, Mary had made a bleating sound. Meeting his eyes, she gave up the struggle and owned up. ‘Richard, it saddens me to have to say it, but I haven’t a clue what you’re on about. What’s all this dragon thing? I’m sorry...’

Richard looked at her quickly, and then away again. He sounded hurt as he replied, so that she felt a fresh stab of guilt.

‘I was telling you about Professor Holliwell, but if you’re not interested ...’

‘Oh I am, I am,’ Mary assured him hurriedly. ‘It’s just, it’s so hot - and the shadows from this tree were dappling all over my face, and I’m afraid I just tuned out, I’m sorry. Tell me again. Professor Holliwell - he’s the man you met at that conference in Oxford, isn’t he? Iron Age man?’

‘That’s a fairly loose description, but let it pass,’ said Richard, with a grin that he couldn’t help when he pictured Jake Holliwell, who could easily be quite closely related to Iron Age man from his rugged appearance, and indeed, was often referred to that way by his students. ‘He’s got an excavation’ - he made it sound like some obscure disease - ‘at an old hill fort at a place called Shearwater, in Dorset, and the bloke who was going to be his Site Supervisor has had to back out at the last moment. He’s invited me to go along instead.’

Mary tried to look suitably impressed, but couldn’t stop herself from saying the wrong thing - a problem that she often encountered with Richard, who didn’t realise, or affected not to realise, how much interest she took in the subject that shaped his life. She said, ‘I would have thought they knew everything there was to know about that area by this time, with all those places like Maiden Castle and Badbury Rings and so on,’ and could have bitten her tongue out the moment she had finished speaking. She saw a lecture forming behind his eyes, and added hurriedly, ‘But that’ll be interesting for you. When’s it scheduled for?’

Richard looked away then, refusing to meet her eyes. She sat up, fully alert now.

‘When, Richard?’

‘He’s asked me to turn up in a couple of days’ time.’ He spoke casually, still failing to look at her directly. Mary took a very deep, calming breath.

She had been feeling peaceful and relaxed, utterly content and lazy, listening idly to Richard talking about his own interests as usual, now suddenly she was swept with the most un-peaceful jumble of emotions, of which indignation, disappointment and resentment were uppermost. She had turned down a trip to Italy, a place she would very much like to see, in order to spend Richard’s brief summer break in his company, after all they were engaged to be married and he took little enough time off. This was really too bad of him! She knew him well enough to be aware that an appeal to his devotion would fall on stony ground, but some protest she was impelled to make.

‘A couple of days!’ she echoed. ‘But what about your mother? She’ll be so disappointed, she was looking forward to seeing something of you for once -’ And me ... and me ... She broke off, swallowing hard.

‘Oh, she knows, I told her this morning. She doesn’t mind, why should she?’

Mary would have disputed this if she had felt it worth it, but she didn’t. Richard’s mother would put up with anything, but it didn’t mean she enjoyed it any more than she did herself. If she thought him selfish to put work so consistently before his loved ones, she had never said so. Perhaps she should have done, Mary thought fleetingly. - for what good it would have done, which would have been very little. And as for her, what was she now expected to do with the summer? Courtship was obviously over, what there had been of it, she was safely filed under the heading future wife, there to be found when required. She felt a fresh surge of indignation at the thought and wondered, not for the first time, if marriage to a committed archaeologist with Victorian notions on the subject was really what she wanted. She loved him, of course, she had always loved him, but ... enough?

Enough, at least, to know that if he went out of her life he would leave a wasteland behind him. If only he would admit her fully into his.

The thought was there, and gone again, fragile and transient as woodsmoke. Richard, unconscious of the miserable fury he had aroused in his beloved, was continuing unchecked along the lines closest to his heart.

‘It’ll be a good piece of research to be involved in, and although I’ve done a lot of things, I’ve never actually opened a virgin barrow. There’s a nice one right by the excavation site. Never been touched, to anyone’s knowledge - not even despoiled, which is quite rare, and we should find time to take a look at it..’

Mary gave it up. Nobody could compete with such single-mindedness, and after all, she had known him long enough not to be surprised.

It’s guarded by a dragon with scales of beaten gold,’ she repeated. ‘That sounds like a good story. Tell.’

‘I don’t know about a story.’ No, he wouldn’t. A dedication to hard fact, he had often - too often - said, was the hallmark of a good archaeologist. ‘A lot of these bell barrows have turned out to be important burial places, sometimes with some very fine grave goods - Rillaton, for instance, had a rather beautiful god cup, even you must have heard about that. The legends that grow up round these ancient burials sometimes have a curious foundation in fact, you know. There was a place in Wales where the locals claimed they had seen the ghost of a man in gold armour, and when a nearby mound was shifted, they found a gold corselet and a skeleton of a man - fascinating!’

‘So their dragon was a dragoon,’ speculated Mary, idly, on a spurt of laughter that was not reciprocated. He looked about to tell her that dragoons belonged to the wrong period, and she hurriedly straightened her face. ‘And your very own personal dragon?’

Richard had taken off his glasses and was polishing them absent-mindedly on his handkerchief.

‘Well, you never know until you look, that’s the charm of it. I mean, obviously the dragon is a legend, but the golden scales could be a folk-memory of a genuine treasure. That’s what I like about fieldwork. You never really know until you look.’ He repeated the phrase with satisfaction.

‘I suppose you don’t,’ said Mary, doubtfully. No use talking to Richard about ghosts, he didn’t accept them. He had nice grey eyes without those heavy spectacles, an attractive beast altogether in his dark and untidy way, in fact. But both drearily practical and scarily unworldly, a deadly combination. She suppressed a sigh that rose unbidden in her throat. The sun shone as brightly as ever, but she felt shadowed. This world and the people in it, even herself and his mother whom he professed to love, would never compete with the worlds and the people that had already crumbled to dust, not with Richard. It was a price that she had always known she must pay if she wanted him, and she therefore had no grounds for complaint. But ... there was a but involved too.

Richard was still speaking, unaware of shadows, riding his hobby horse through the blazing afternoon. She mustn’t be caught not attending twice.

‘A lot of barrows have legends about treasure guarded by dragons, of course, but this one is particularly persistent,’ he was continuing happily. ‘The barrow is on land belonging to a farm called Burnthouse - a significant name in itself - and there’s some fairly well-authenticated accounts of hauntings in some wood close to the place. Accounts of hauntings are sometimes interesting evidence of folk-memory, if you remember I just told you, even if they’re obviously nonsense in themselves. And as for the old hill fort, that could turn out to be a gem - it’s research, not rescue excavation, so there’ll be time to do a proper job. As much as we need, apparently. And yes, you’re right, Wessex isn’t exactly breaking new ground, but the directors of the local museum are sponsoring the work with Grant money, and providing storage and preservation facilities as part of an in-depth investigation of local antiquities to brighten up their image - something long overdue, if all Holliwell says is true!’

‘But surely a Stone Age barrow isn’t going to have gold artifacts, even if the fort itself is Iron Age?’ objected Mary, bringing him back to the aspect that most interested her. She thought - but she should have known better - that Richard would be impressed by her knowledge of his pet subject, which she had read up on purpose in order to be able to make intelligent conversation about his work, but to her annoyance he laughed at her, dismissing her as an ignorant layman.

‘You said Stone Age, not me. Bell barrows are Bronze Age, and Bronze Age Man had a liking for some very pretty trinkets. We know that a lot of trade routes were open then, from things of obviously foreign origin that have been found on ancient sites, so -’

‘Richard,’ Mary interrupted, suddenly impatient, ‘no lectures, please? We came out to enjoy the sunshine and spend some quality time together, remember? I think your barrow sounds very exciting, and I hope you find a treasure, but I don’t want to hear about trade routes today. Thank you all the same.’ Her tone was sharpened more than she had meant by a curious mixture of chagrin and disappointment, and for a moment he actually looked surprised. Then, thinking that he knew, the cause, he laughed.

‘Sorry. When people ask questions, I assume they want to know the answers and I get carried away. Where was I?’

‘Haunting, in the dragon’s wood. Is there a dragon’s wood?’ She drew a breath, forcing herself to speak lightly, taking a grip on herself.

‘So I believe. We’re to stay at the farm, the professor and I, at least to begin with, and some of his university students on a field trip are coming up every day from billets in the village to lend a hand, together with a force from the local Archaeological Society in Embridge - where the museum is.’ he added, kindly. Mary gritted her teeth. It took a conscious effort to relax her jaw in order to ask,

‘And how long will it take?’

‘That depends on what we find, it’s a big scheme. Years, possibly. This year’s the big one, of course, but we could be working a week or so every year in the summer break.’

Well, that would be something to look forward to! She was about to make an indignant objection when he smiled at her and her indignation melted before she could stop it. His unworldly preoccupation with old bones, after all, was part of his charisma. The absent-minded professor to the life, and one day, she was certain, he would be just that and herself the professor’s long-suffering wife. She had recognised it and accepted it long since, even liked the idea of travelling to far-off places to dig up old civilisations. It would be fun to go as partners, as a husband-and-wife team. They might become famous...

She realised that she was letting her mind wander again, and into the realms of Agatha Christie which was worse. On present form, when he would not even, apparently, invite her to go to Dorset with him and make herself useful, even if only making the tea, she wouldn’t be travelling far. But she smiled at him anyway, and ventured to tease him a little.

‘Do you care about the hauntings?’ she asked, with an impish, sideways look at him. Richard looked back at her over the top of his glasses, she wasn’t sure if he was amused or not.

‘No sensible person believes in hauntings,’ he said. He sounded suddenly unsure of himself. She was a beautiful girl, his Mary, slender and dark, with blue eyes that shadowed to violet, long lashes, and skin kissed golden by the summer sun. When she smiled at him, the way she was smiling now, with that mischievous look on her face, the nonsense that sometimes she talked didn’t matter any more. It had never occurred to him to wonder if it might mask a lively intelligence equal to his own, and had anyone suggested it he would have been astonished. Mary, he had long accepted, wasn’t academic, but her quicksilver brightness and her pretty smile were familiar ground, for they were second cousins and had known each other all their lives. He couldn’t imagine a life that didn’t include her. To wander the world in search of its past, and to come back to Mary ... waiting for him with a fire on his hearth and his children around her... now that would be the perfect way to live.

Richard had, of course, heard of the feminist movement, after all he spent quite a lot of time in and around universities. He had discounted it, tolerantly, as mere nonsense, for of course women were equal, of course they were free. It was just that their interpretation of equality and freedom was different from that of men: it had to be, because historically they were the ones who bore and cared for the children, so not their fault at all. There was nothing that he wouldn’t bring to Mary, his little cousin who had grown up so unexpectedly pretty, and lay at her feet. He believed that he would give her the world, if it was his to give, with a deep sentimental fervour as genuine as it was outdated. He had no conception that the world - his world at least - was the very thing that he denied her.

Mary’s impish smile had now reached the point where even a virgin bell barrow lessened in importance. He put his arm round her and drew her against his shoulder. Around them, the quietness of the woodland deepened. A leaf stirred with a faint rustling sound in the still afternoon, birds twittered sleepily. He asked,

‘What are you smiling about? You look like the cat at the cream.’

‘You,’ said Mary. ‘I love you, you boring old Richard, you.’

Her mouth was very close to his, her breath sweet on his cheek. He understood that she was teasing, he informed himself. She had a careless way of talking sometimes, it was the spirit behind the words that really mattered.

‘I’m glad then, because I love you too ...’

She emerged from the kiss, round-eyed and breathless.

‘And not boring old Mary, I hope?’

She was teasing again, of course. ‘I never find you boring,’ said Richard, loyally.

Above their heads, a blackbird trilled at the top of the tree, a liquid cadence of notes. Last season’s leaves, dry and crisp, had drifted among the roots making a soft blanket over the hard ground. Mary lay back, the sun warm on her closed eyelids, conscious that her body, thus sprawled against the trunk, was a deliberate enticement if he wished to see it that way. It was a glorious afternoon. A perfect afternoon for love...

...and he’ll leave me as undespoiled as his old barrow, she found herself thinking, unguardedly. The shadow of his head came between her accepting face and the light. He leaned towards her to kiss her a second time, but for all the passion behind the kiss, it went no further. He sat up afterwards, taking off his misted-over glasses to wipe them again, smiling down at her with affection, and who knew what else?

But then, had he done anything more, he wouldn’t have been Richard.

Shame about that.

 

 

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