The warm, heavy summer evening crept across the Sussex meadow like a hand with an unseen spindle. It teased the shadows out from under the brook-side tangle of willow and alder trees, lengthening them into slender shafts that fell across the grass of the fairy-ring and the more regimented cropped pasture of the meadow.
In the distance, still visible from the fairy-ring, two children slowly threaded their way along the path by the hedge, talking of serious things. The path came out through a rickety gate as it left the long shadow of Pook’s Hill. When the children stepped out into the golden light, they blinked and shook their heads a little, as if dispelling cobwebs. The boy took an oak leaf out of his mouth and dropped it by the path.
The Old Thing lying in the fairy ring took his pipe out of his mouth and sighed with the air of a workman after a long, productive day. He stretched out in the grass, put his cap over his face against the sun, and closed his eyes.
“How now?” said a voice from above him. A reptilian head peered out from between the two oldest oaks by the ring, and two enormous wings shook themselves free of twigs and branches. “What mischief stirs here, Puck, that you’re out of the hills again?”
Puck tweaked the cap away from one eye and waved a lazy arm.
“I don’t see where you’re going with that story you told, but I tell you, this meddling is beneath you. Lovelorn swains again, I suppose?” The Dragon waddled forward and dropped to the ground with a great thump that rearranged the soil beneath him. He settled comfortably in the grassy earth, which bent beneath his weight like a cushion. “And beardless children! They are both beardless, aren’t they?” he said, squinting after their small forms. “My eyes are not what they were.”
“One of them permanently, I fear,” Puck agreed solemnly with his eyes still shut.
“A fine host you are!” the Dragon said. “I did not come to be mocked. Rouse yourself!”
Puck pulled the cap from his face entirely, sharp blue eyes opening on to the limpid evening sky above. “I’m awake,” he said. “No mischief here, old friend – or if there is, then not of the meddling kind.”
“Hogwash! You meddle as naturally as you breathe.”
“I’m reformed,” Puck said lazily. “Now I teach schoolchildren.”
“I’ll believe you turned tutor when the Hills crumble,” the Dragon said.
Puck reached for his pipe beside him and knocked it out. After a pause to leisurely refill it, he said, “They broke the Hills.”
“Well,” said the Dragon. Then, “Well.”
“Indeed,” said Puck, pillowing the back of his head on his wrist. He took a puff of his pipe. “I thought they might make good use of some knowledge of the People.”
“Spoke you about me?” the Dragon said, dipping its face eagerly towards Puck.
Puck removed his pipe and blew smoke up at the blue sky and oak leaves. “I’ll speak of you and summon you gladly, if you can make yourself clear to the eyes of Men. Or,” he added, “maids.”
The dragon sagged and let out a dispirited puff of smoke.
“Our time will come again,” he said. “Men will see me again and wonder. All things rise and fall, in Albion as everywhere else.”
“Hm!” Puck said distantly, in the voice of one who knows a great deal more than he is letting on.
This roused the Dragon’s suspicions. He subjected Puck to a scrutinising look, but the Oldest Old Thing in England did not have an expression amenable to scrutinising, even by the white wyrm of Dinas Emrys.
The Dragon resettled itself, elaborately casual. “Still, that’s uncommon generous of you,” it said, with a sly glance at Puck. “Even for Men – children! – who broke the Hills. I saw you offer seizin.”
“Well,” Puck said, “there are some who may be owed it.”
“Oho! And who is owed seizin from Puck of Pook’s Hill?”
Puck looked as if he were weighing his choices, but finally he sighed and said, “The King of the Britons, maybe. ‘He who they say is not dead.’”
Shock in a Dragon is very easy to see. The wings went up, the crest went back and the scales rippled and clicked against each other in a susurrus like shifting chainmail. “No!” he said. “The boy, think you?”
“The girl,” said Puck.
“The girl!” The Dragon’s crest flattened lower, but after a moment it slowly fanned out to its former height. “A longer hill to climb then, for her. If she wakes.”
“If she wakes,” Puck agreed. “But boy or maid, these are modern times, my friend.”
“And getting more modern by the minute,” the Dragon grumbled. “I can feel the ache in my bones. And the boy?”
“He broke the Hills, same as her. He was my part! It hasn’t happened since the King in the Oak, you know. What’s that been, now, two hundred years?”
“You old knave. I heard you tell them a thousand.”
Puck grinned, showing more sharp teeth than had been visible to Dan and Una a half-hour before. “Did your mother never teach you not to correct your elders? What do they teach them in these schools?”
“Don’t change the subject,” said the Dragon, who had too much experience with Puck to rise to the bait. “The boy broke the Hills too, and…?”
“There is something there,” Puck said thoughtfully. “And he came with the girl. I admit I wonder— But you know how things stand. He has hid himself from us all these many centuries.” He shrugged as if it was of no moment. “If wishes were horses, we’d feast for weeks. Perhaps he only managed it because he’s her brother. Or perhaps his father was a leprechaun.”
The Dragon was silent for a moment. Then, with a great slither of scales, he spiralled on himself. “I hear what you won’t say. You think it is him?”
“Hm!” Puck said again.
The Dragon’s tail twitched at the end, the spines flattening stalks of meadowsweet. “Some Old Things would not be so glad to see Merlin back.”
Puck sat up and glared. “Some Old Things should mind their tongues. Can you have the sword without the cup? The greenwood without the shade?”
“Peace, peace!” the Dragon said. “I never said I agreed with them. But those two together – if it is them – would rouse their allies, and I am in no hurry to find my erstwhile opponent awake and ready for the fray.”
“The red wyrm? He sleeps, yet,” Puck said. “Victory does that to you.”
“You would mention it,” the Dragon said peevishly. “I thought you had more manners.”
Puck laughed, a warm, belly-shaking laugh, restored to his former humour. He stretched back out on the grass. “I turn milk and shatter mirrors and sink potholes in roads,” he said. “You should know me better than that, I think.”
The Dragon huffed out a small, aggrieved flame. The oak leaves above them crackled in the heat but didn’t catch. “At any rate, the girl may never wake. She is what, the fifth?”
“The seventh,” Puck said. “And the first this thousand-year.”
“None of the others woke,” the Dragon reminded him.
Puck sighed. “Yes.”
“But yet you hope?”
Puck laughed. “I hope!” he said. “That is all I do these days, that and steal porridge, and mourn the decline in adventurous maidens seeking out the People on Beltane Night.”
“Well,” the Dragon said. “If anything comes of it – if anything comes of it – then we’ll all hear the rumblings. In the meantime, I suppose meddling keeps you occupied.”
“It does, at that,” Puck agreed. “You’re to the North?”
“The air down here doesn’t agree with me these days,” the Dragon said. “I’ve a couple more respects to pay, and then it’s North for me. Damn smoke and iron carts. Nowhere south of Mercia is uncluttered enough to hunt.”
“I’d lay money there’s not a human that calls it Mercia any more, either,” Puck said. “Well, it’s been fine seeing you. Drop by again.”
“Don’t mind if I do,” the Dragon said, but it was craning its neck to see past the curve of the hill. “That’s their dwelling?”
“It’s over yonder,” Puck said, his sharp gaze on the Dragon. His face had gradually lost its twinkle-eyed look over their conversation. The shadows on it were deeper, the human laugh-lines fainter. Dan and Una, seeing him now, would have been put in mind not so much of the friendly country lad, but older, more frightening things that lurked between the lines of their fairy-tale books.“I’ve laid wardings around them, though, with the seizin, so don’t you go thinking of it.”
The Dragon gave a rumble that could have been amusement or annoyance. “Ah! Well. You know best.”
Puck chuckled. “They shall see what they shall see,” he said. “And it shall pass as it shall pass, though interfering overgrown lizards like to stick their snouts into what’s not their business. Good night, friend,” he added, as the Dragon bowed its head and bunched its legs for flight. “And fare you well!”
A corn-crake chirped in the wheat, like sandpaper rasping across wood. Above, in the cool air, leathered wings beat through the reddening sunset light, heading North. And in the Long Slip, by the brook, Puck knocked his pipe one more time on the ground, stretched, and disappeared into the dark, leaf-covered shade of the thicket.
The roads of stone have tamed the land,
Where once the giants trod,
The Druids’ stones no longer stand,
The wild hart is shod.
The grail fades, to ages lost,
The sword sleeps ‘neath the lake,
‘Til comes the bark, by tempest tossed,
The dreaming iron to wake.
Yet! Echoes faint the distant horn
O’er greenwood, slope and rill,
While Man grows Oak, and Ash, and Thorn
The Old Things answer still!