Clare saw the first dragon as she crossed the Severn River. It was on a bridge pylon. It wasn’t breathing fire at passing motorists, as a dragon should. No. It was a painted dragon, welcoming her to Wales.
The second dragon was in the pub where she stopped for lunch. This was a brewer’s dragon, advertising the local ale. She tried half a pint. It was good beer.
After that, Clare seemed to see dragons everywhere. On road signs. In tourist shops. On T-shirts when she stopped to buy petrol and a map. Well, what had she expected? This was Wales after all. And weren’t dragons the reason she had come? The fluffy red toys in the tourist shops were less frightening than the dragon inside the folder on the back seat of the car.
At least the pub wasn’t named after a dragon. It was called “The Lamb”. “Dragon fodder, perhaps,” Clare thought as she pulled into the car park. The rental agent had said she would see the cottage from here. Perhaps that was it. A single building was faintly visible in the valley that sloped down to the broad dark waters of the bay. There was nothing but a few sheep beyond the cottage. No beach to attract the tourists. No fishing boats. Just the dull mud flats and the wide sweep of the bay. On the other side of the valley, a steep headland was topped by a huge mound of rock.
It was isolated. It was deathly quiet. It was perfect.
“Good evening. What can I get you?” The landlord’s smile was warm and welcoming. Clare smiled back. She knew there was no answering warmth in her eyes. That knowledge merely added to her sadness.
“Good evening. My name is Clare Anderson. I’ve rented the Bayside Cottage for a few days, and was told to pick the keys up here.”
“Of course. Would you like a drink, while we do the paperwork?”
“Actually, coffee would be nice. It’s been a long drive.”
“Coffee it is.”
He was back in a moment with a cup and a set of keys.
“It’s a bit late in the season for it be rented.. It’s starting to get chilly.” He paused. Clare could read the question in his eyes, but there was no way she could give him an answer.
“My wife was down there earlier today,” he continued after a few moments. “She aired the place, and checked the heating. Are you right for supplies? The village store will be shut by now. But perhaps we can organise something for you.”
“I’ve brought my own supplies.” Even to her own ears, it sounded abrupt. Clare forced a smile to her face. This man shouldn’t have to suffer for her mood. “Thank-you for your help.”
“You’re welcome. Do drop in any night for a pint.”
“I’ll do that.” But she knew she wouldn’t.
The cottage was a pleasant surprise. It was old, but well maintained. It was also clean and warm, thanks, no doubt, to the publican’s wife. The ceiling was low, with beams blackened by decades of smoke from the fireplace. Clare could easily imagine the cottage as a haven for smugglers in days of yore. She smiled at this flight of fancy. Her imagination was starting to run away with her. Good. That was what this trip was all about.
She unloaded her car, stacking the supplies in the kitchen. The last items to come in were a folder containing typed pages, and a bundle of watercolour paints, paper and pencils.
Clare didn’t even glance at those tools of her trade, as she fixed a light supper. She was an illustrator of children’s books. Not rich or famous, but good at her work, which she enjoyed with a passion. For the past three months, however, her artist’s materials had remained virtually untouched. She had been sunk in the depths of despair since a motorway smash claimed the lives of both her parents.
Clare had been very close to her mother and father. She was an only child, and even as an adult, she’d visited them often. The joy had gone from her life on the day they died. She missed their love, their advice and encouragement. The grief she couldn’t shake had also taken away something else – her work
Clare’s parents had been proud of her talent, and encouraged her. Without them, she was lost. How could she draw images for children’s stories, when that crash had taken away the last vestiges of her own childhood?
Her friends had tried to help. They’d offered sympathy, company and shoulders to cry upon. Clare still felt almost guilty about refusing their kindness. It had been easier to say no to the offers from her few remaining relatives. Distant in both the physical and emotional senses, they were neither surprised nor offended by her withdrawal. All she really wanted or needed, Clare had decided, was to be alone.
So she had come to this isolated spot. There was a manuscript in that folder lying on a chair. An epic tale of heroism…. of knights and dragons and beautiful princesses. It was a story to delight any small child. Clare had one more week to illustrate the tale, or the author and publisher would turn elsewhere. She wouldn’t blame them. The few sketches she’d tried in the past few weeks had been lifeless and dull. Like the endless days she was now living.
She desperately hoped things would be different in this place. Wales was full of dragons. She would find inspiration. Her muse would return. Starting tomorrow!
Exhausted, Clare burrowed deep into the warm bed and slept, dreamlessly.
Early next morning, Clare set up her easel in the bright front room of the cottage. She opened the door and windows to let the breeze blow through, bringing with it the gentle sounds and smells of the valley and the bay. She spread her watercolours and pencils around her, picked up the manuscript, and began to read.
Three hours later, she finally gave up. Pages from the sketchpad lay scattered around her. There were incomplete drawings of knights and dragons and princesses. None of them, Clare knew, was any good. They were cold. No passion. No imagination. She picked one up. Call that a dragon? No self-respecting hero would ride such a beast into battle against the terrible forces of evil.
Clare sighed deeply, and buried her face in her hands. She was beginning to suspect that the decision to come to this remote spot had been wrong. That there was nothing here for her.
Disgusted with herself, and depressed, Clare decided some fresh air would clear her head. A walk. But not just anywhere. She pulled out a tourist map. There it was – Worm’s Head. A sleeping dragon on a headland, and not very far away. She’d go there for fresh air. Perhaps the dragon would speak to her. That could be the inspiration she needed.
The tourist season was pretty much over and the car park at Worm’s Head was almost empty. The wind was cold, pulling at her coat and scarf as she began walking along the headland.
A jagged collection of rocks, reached out into the cold grey sea. Clare could see how it got its name. The long arch of the dragon’s neck. The shape of its lowered head as it slept. But despite her desire to see more, it remained just a pile of rocks. She stood for many minutes, looking over the waves, but there was nothing here for her.
Walking back to her car, she spotted some half-buried beams of rotting timber on the beach.
Clare was breathing heavily from exertion when she reached them, still not certain why she’d felt the urge to climb down to the beach. Slowly she put out a hand to touch the dark waterlogged timbers.
It was as if someone had opened the floodgates to her memory.
Suddenly she was a child again. She could hear her father’s tale of a brave ship lured to its doom by wreckers hunting salvage. She remembered sword fights on beaches just like this one, as she battled the smugglers (cunningly disguised as her father). Then she was the princess, rescued by the brave knight, who also looked a lot like her father. She remembered the soft sound of her mother’s voice as she wove the magic around a child’s heart.
Once more, grief at her parent’s death overwhelmed her with a pain so fierce she could barely draw breath. Clare dropped to the sand, the sound of her sobbing lost as the wind whipped the sea spray around her. For many, many minutes, she knelt and cried for what she had lost. When her emotions were spent, Clare gathered her coat tightly against the chill, and made her way slowly back to her car.
Clare was feeling unusually restless as she drove back towards her isolated cottage. As she approached the village, her eyes were drawn to the pub. “The Lamb” looked so cosy. It almost beckoned to her. There would be a fire blazing in the bar. And another welcoming smile on the landlord’s face. Clare suddenly realised that she was reluctant to go back to the lonely cottage. She had good excuses to visit the pub. With no fire, the cottage would be cold. She’d missed lunch, and the publican’s wife would probably make her a sandwich. What Clare didn’t admit to herself was that, for the first time in weeks, she no longer wanted to hide. At last she felt the need for some human company.
There was a fire burning. And yes, of course the publican’s wife could fix her a something to eat.
“Are you all right, dear? You look a little pale.”
“Yes. I’m fine. Thank-you.” Embarrassed, Clare brushed a hand across her face. “It must be the cold and the wind. I was just out on the headland.”
“Worm’s Head.” The woman nodded. “It’s chilly on a day like this.”
“Yes. But it was quite beautiful.”
“It is that. And here’s just the man to tell you all about it,” the publican’s wife was smiling at an elderly man who was just walking through the door. “Eryl Jones has lived here all his life. He’ll tell you a tale or two.”
“No. Really. I just stopped for a moment.” Clare felt something akin to panic. She didn’t want to get stuck in a tedious conversation with some garrulous old man. And he might ask questions about her. Questions she wasn’t ready to answer yet.
“It’s all right love,” the older woman nodded reassuringly. “He’s a nice man. You might even enjoy his stories. Come here, Eryl Jones, and meet the young lady from London who’s renting the cottage. She’s just been up to the Head.”
“The Worm. Now, there’s a place.” The man took off his hat as slid carefully onto the stool beside Clare. “Have you heard about the smugglers, girl? And wreckers too. The worm has seen them all.”
Clare looked into the man’s face. She saw nothing there but kindness. And a storyteller’s yearning to share his tales. There was something in that look that reminded her…
“I imagine it has, Mr Jones. Would you sit with me a while, and tell me a tale or two?”
“Why, of course. Now, do you know about the greatest storm to hit these parts? The best part of a century ago it was…”
When the landlady returned with Clare’s sandwich a few minutes later, she noted that the anguished lines around the young woman’s eyes had faded just a little. The too pale face was now warmed by a smile, as she listened to the old man’s tales.
It was late afternoon when Clare arrived back at the cottage. She felt more relaxed than she’d been in a long time. She lit the fire, and made a steaming cup of tea, still smiling occasionally at the memory of the old man’s tales of storms and smugglers, of wrecks and rescues. She curled herself on the coach, looking out of the window to the headland, where the sinking sun was weaving strange patterns into the rocks.
Clare felt a welcome stillness come over her. She had felt no peace since her parent’s deaths. But something had changed today. Was it the emotional torrent on the beach, or perhaps some kind of gentle magic in the old man’s voice? For the first time in many weeks, the dreadful pain and yearning had stopped.
Clare let her eyes roam over the headland outside her window. They came to rest on the rock formation at its peak. Somehow, it seemed different. Its shape. It was almost organic. It looked… She shook her head. It looked almost as if the rock had moved. No. It must have been a trick of the light.
But there. See. It did move. Clare watched in amazement as the shape slowly uncurled, raising a broad head against the deepening evening sky. Then the whole headland seemed to heave, as the wondrous creature stretched its wings. The dragon raised its noble head and gazed out at the setting sun. The heavens were calling, but it remained earthbound. It turned its gaze towards the land, looking and listening for something. For someone.
Then a smaller shape appeared beside the creature. This was a man. A man who knew the creature well. Slowly the great dragon lowered its head, and the man placed his hand on the broad forehead in a brief caress. With a movement of unconscious grace, the warrior slid onto the dragon’s broad back. He settled on its shoulders, and two beings became one. A moment later the dragon launched itself into the sky. One sweep of its mighty wings, and it was gone into the blackness.
Clare sat transfixed. She shook her head. Had her eyes deceived her? She must have fallen asleep. There was the huge rock on the headland. As it had always been. Dragons weren’t real, not even in Wales.
But Clare knew what she had seen. She had to climb that headland. The rising moon would light her way.
Her trek across the valley was brought to a halt by a broad deep gash in the ground, with a fast flowing stream in the bottom. She looked around, but there was no way to cross. Clare worked her way back to the cottage, determined not to lose the image that was still glowing in her mind’s eye. She reached for her pencils as soon as she stepped inside the door.
Clare never really knew how late she worked that night. She barely remembered falling into bed in the small hours of the new day, exhausted.
When she awoke, the despair that had been her constant companion these past weeks was gone. Her grief was still there. It always would be. But it no longer weighed her down. Clare rose from bed feeling refreshed for the first time since her parents’ deaths.
As she walked into the living room, Clare stopped in something close to astonishment. Drawings of dragons and knights littered the room. It was her work of the night before.
Clare picked up a watercolour painting and held it to the light. The deep eyes of the dragon seemed to blaze up at her. The illustration was good. Very good. These were probably the best she had ever done. There would be more. Clare reached deep inside herself, and knew that her muse had, indeed, returned. Her eyes moved to the window. Outside, the headland reared tall against the clear blue sky. At its peak, the dark shape of the rock loomed darkly, as it always had. Rock and nothing more.
That morning, Clare packed her things. It was time she went back to London. Back to her life, her friends and her work. She stopped at the pub to hand back the keys.
“Is anything wrong?”, asked the surprised publican.
“Not at all. It was lovely. But I have to get back to London.” Clare paid the full week’s rent on the cottage, but paused as she was leaving. “That headland, with the big rock. Does it have a name?”
“The rock? No. Not that I know of. The only headland worthy of a name around here is Worm’s Head. My wife tells me that you talked to Eryl Jones, so you’d know all about the Worm now.”
“A little bit”, Clare agreed, as she took her leave.
Before she went home, there was something Clare had to do. A mile down the road, she parked the car. Shaking her head at the impulse that drove her, she got out and climbed through the fence.
Clare was about halfway to the headland, when she saw the man walking towards her. He was just a silhouette against the sky, but she knew him. Of course he would be here. She stopped, waiting for him to come to her.
“Hey! You! What are you doing here?” The voice was hard, uneducated and uncouth.
“I was just…. I wanted to get out onto the headland.”
“Well, you can’t.” The man had drawn close to her now. “Get off. And close the gate behind you. Damned tourist.” The man was as rude and dirty as his manner.
So, this was her hero. Her valiant knight.
“Sorry. My mistake.” She turned to walk back to the car. For a moment she was disappointed, then laughter began to bubble up in her throat.
What would the man think of the paintings and sketches stowed so carefully in her car? Could he ever see himself as she had seen him – a handsome and noble knight. Should she tell him that he was her muse? Clare looked over her shoulder, to where the man stood. He raised a hand in a vaguely threatening gesture as she left his land. This time she laughed out loud.
Clare was still smiling as she waved goodbye to the last dragon, on his bridge pylon, as she crossed the river, and turned towards London.
Published as “Home of the Dragon” by My Weekly Magazine – July 2002
Artwork by Melvyn Warren-Smith, courtesy of My Weekly Magazine
This was my first fiction accepted for publication. I wrote it after a visit to the Gower Peninsula, in Wales. Our lovely B&B pub, The Lamb, overlooked a bay with a small white cottage near the sand, and a large rocky headland. It was much as it is described in the story. There really was a dragon…
© Janet Gover 2001