A Romantic Comedy

The third story in the Elmcombe series.

the life of gunnr

The night that Gunnr died, the whole tribe lamented. But none wept more sincerely or more copiously than his three wives for they knew what would happen to them. Gunnr was High Chief of the tribe and the custom was that when the High Chief was taken to be buried in the Mound then his wives would be buried with him.

Heti was the first wife and her son, Pegl, would become High Chief in Gunnr's place, that is if Pegl could fight and kill any other warriors who might want to challenge him for the Chieftaincy. Now Heti was old and ill. She had crushed her leg two years before when a stone quern for grinding corn had fallen on it and though it had healed so that it no longer hurt, it had done so crookedly and she could do little more than hobble along. As well as that she coughed a great deal and the slightest exertion left her breathless.

Bara was the next wife. Gunnr had taken her in an attack on the neighbouring tribe where she had been a princess. The capture and subsequent marriage had conveyed great prestige on Gunnr but she was ugly and bad-tempered and, especially after Vala had caught his eye, he had paid very little attention to her.

Vala was less than half Gunnr's age which meant she was about eighteen. She was slim and dark and her hair had a silken gloss to it that even the dirt could not hide. Her lips were red and smiled easily especially at young men - or if there was any advantage - at older men.

When Gunnr first noticed her he fell in love, totally, completely and absolutely. He could not eat and could not sleep and he had to have her or die. There was only one problem and that was that she was already married - which meant that she was taboo. While she was married he could sleep with her or, as High Chief, do anything he liked with her including having her killed, anything - except marry her. For that was forbidden by the Law.

Nor would it have been politically advisable openly to kill her husband, Hundar, because he was the head of the powerful neighbouring clan which Gunnr relied on for support when he went on his raids and successful raiding of course was the only reason that Gunnr kept his place as High Chief of the tribes.

A dilemma. But Gunnr had to solve it for he had to have Vala. So he would have to arrange for Hundar to die without his appearing to have anything to do with it.

He went to the wise woman, Sjeera, and told her his problem and together they concocted a plan. Because he was High Chief, she made him a brew which was a deadly poison. She also gave him an antidote.

So one night when all the tribes were carousing in the Great Hall, Gunnr had the brew mixed with the beer and he and Hundar and many men of both clans drank. Half an hour later they were all writhing with the pain which gripped their bowels with clenched fists of iron so that the sweat ran down their foreheads and they gasped and cried out, warriors though they were. And their mouths dried out with the heat.

Then in their agony they called for water and two pitchers were brought in, one of which had the antidote. And the one with the antidote was given to Gunnr and some of Gunnr's men and some of Hundar's men so that no one would suspect. But the other pitcher was given to Hundar and the rest and they all died.

And no one suspected. They blamed it on the Gods.

And Gunnr married Vala and gave her a necklace of amber beads which had the particular property of appearing warm to the touch and was therefore considered holy. Gunnr also took Hundar's sword which was the source of his power but the wise woman, Sjeera, he caused to be killed so that she would never tell. But before Sjeera died she wrote down the recipe in magic runes and passed on her secrets to another.

Now Heti and Bara complained because they were consigned to the outer house and Heti believed that, should Vala have a child and that child be a boy, then her son, Pegl, might meet with an accident so that the new boy would be heir.

And they plotted and schemed and worked magic so that Vala should die but the magic did not work or perhaps Vala and Gunnr's own magic was too strong. So eventually they went to a wise-woman in Bara's own tribe and bought a brew from her which was the same as that which Gunnr had given Hundar.

And they put it in Vala's drink.

But Vala was the one in Gunnr's tribe to whom Sjeera had confided her secrets so that when she felt the pains and suffered the raging heat, she knew what had happened and took the antidote and recovered.

But Gunnr had been with her when she drank the beer and had drunk some of it himself and then had gone away to speak to Kathun his advisor. So when he felt the pains, although he knew what had happened to him, he could not get to Vala to give him the antidote.

And he groaned to Kathun, 'One of my wives has done this.'

And he cursed all women.

Then he died.

And the whole tribe lamented.

But none wept more seriously or more copiously than his three wives for they knew what would happen to them.

* * * * * *

The Elmcombe Gold Rush all started, I suppose, when Phil Button and Peter Preston found the cup. Phil Button was a detectorist, to use that modern and infelicitous term for someone who walks over the countryside with a metal disk on a long handle which emits beeps whenever it electronically locates beneath the surface some screwed up silver foil or a discarded penny piece.

In fact Phil Button was a painter/decorator by trade and only a detectorist by hobby. Now the law about the finding of antiques is complicated. Two gold coins, as long as they are over 300 years old, or three silver ones, or twenty coins of some base metal, are classed as 'treasure trove' and the find must be reported to the authorities. A panel of experts will then decide on the financial value of the find which will be paid to the discoverer and landowner. The finds themselves belong to the Crown but usually go to a museum.

These thoughts went through Peter Preston's mind as he watched Phil Button doing a bit of a touch-up job on the outside of the kitchen window. Phil was a conscientious worker, a heavyset lad with a cheerful disposition and a wide interest in things, local and rural. Unlike Preston, Phil had been born and bred in the area and knew practically everyone and what was going on. He was quite prepared to gossip.

"Heard the latest from the Castle?" he asked through the window.

"No," said Preston eagerly. "What's Lady Ashdown doing now?"

Since Robert Shepherd had left the staff and gone away to fresh fields and pastures new, things had settled down; the Castle's plans for expansion had faded and the villagers had gone back to their normal bucolic diversions, the three main ones being, incest, underage drinking and sheep-shagging (if no family member was available for the purpose).

"She's holding some sort of charity evening, studded with celebrities."

"Sounds fairly harmless," said Preston. "Might go along myself."

"You'll have to be pretty flush then," said Phil. "Tickets cost £500 each. Still if you can afford."

Preston was taken aback. "Five hundred quid! That's way out of my league. Still if it's for a good cause and rich people want to give their money away . . ."

"Upkeep of the Castle," said Phil. "I think she needs some new carpets."

Preston smiled at Phil's cynicism "Oh well, if people have money to waste." He changed the subject. "Have you been out with your metal detector lately?" he asked. "Found anything interesting?"

"Not for a while," Phil said. "But I'm planning on going out at the weekend."

"I've always wanted to do some amateur archaeology," said Preston. "I remember digging in the garden when I was a kid and finding bits of painted china and being awfully proud - until my mother said it was an old plate that had got broken while we were having a meal in the garden the previous summer."

"There's a lot of disappointment," said Phil with feeling. "Come along if you want to, though it'll be a bit muddy after the rain we've been having lately."

"I'd like to," said Preston.

* * * * * *

Mrs Fletcher-Bell, who lived just over the road to Preston was, as always, deadheading her roses. when Preston walked past with Jess, his collie bitch, the following morning. She, Mrs Fletcher-Bell rather than Jess, was wearing a pink number with floating panels which was unsuitable as they had a habit of catching on the thorns. Nor did the colour do much for Mrs Fletcher-Bell's rather sallow complexion.

"Any news?" she sang out, waving the secateurs at him.

"Phil Button and I are off to find some historical remains," said Preston.

Mrs Fletcher-Bell was obviously not all that interested in 'historical remains' as she waved her hand in a vaguely dismissive way and said, "Hope he's got the landowner's permission."

Preston wondered if he had. "Have you heard about the celebrity gala?" he asked, changing the subject.

This was obviously more Mrs Fletcher-Bell's cup of tea. "No," she said enthusiastically. "Where? When? Who's coming?"

But Preston was forced to disappoint her. He had no idea who was likely to be there and he doubted whether he would have recognised any so-called celebrities if he had passed them in the High Street.

"Lizzie Burleigh?" asked Mrs Fletcher-Bell, "Lew Plant?"

Preston wasn't even sure whether he had heard the names right but they meant nothing to him. "Probably," he said. "Rick Zagger also possibly." He had made up the name but it sounded vaguely right.

"Ooooh," said Mrs Fletcher-Bell, in a tone of great admiration.

"Cost you £500 for a ticket," said Preston cruelly.

"Oh!" Mrs Fletcher-Bell's response was truncated with disappointment. "Well, I'll see if we can go. Hubert is rather busy these days."

Hubert, Yvette Fletcher-Bell's husband, Preston knew, had few duties apart from clearing the lawn of their dog, Tatiana's droppings, and drinking large quantities of whisky, but he let Yvette's excuse pass.

"If you do go," he said, "you must let me know everything about it."

"Yes, dear," said Yvette. "And you must tell me about your discoveries. I lost a couple of pound coins up on the hill last month if you happen to find any."

Hubert wandered out from the house and made a throat-clearing sound when he saw Preston.

"Ah Hubert. Peter tells me that Lady Ashdown is organising a celebrity gala," said Yvette. "If you see her, perhaps you could ask her if there are any complementary tickets for old friends."

Preston wondered what would happen to Hubert's 'busyness' if Lady Ashdown did come up with a couple of free tickets but held his tongue. It wasn't worth upsetting Yvette who could be a bit of a spitfire when annoyed.

* * * * * *

The early morning mist cleared as man and dog climbed the hill. Sheep dotted the fields but neither bothered Jess nor were bothered by her. At the top there was a stone stile on the other side of which was a track leading through some trees. Preston found a twayblade, a not very exotic orchid but an orchid nevertheless and he was pleased to see it. Its head of yellowish-green flowers stood out from the two leaves at the base, leaves that gave it its name.

A path to the left led to the Bronze Age barrow known locally as Gunner's Tump. It had been excavated in the nineteenth century and then rebuilt. Now it was owned by the National Trust who kept the grassy mound neat and tidy. Its three entrances each made of three stone blocks were really little more than rather smelly hollows leading nowhere but, if you were of a romantic, imaginative mind, you could fancy the old warrior, whose tomb this was, being carried up from the settlement below and buried here with perhaps favourite dog and horse, though bones of neither had been discovered, and then sealed in to remain for nearly four thousand years overlooking his land and the changing centuries.

Preston had been here before of course. It was one of the places everyone visited but he hadn't really stopped to look at it carefully. From the side it was one long, rather sausage shaped mound with a bulge added on to the side at one end. There was another similar bulge on the other side. He hadn't noticed these before but it suddenly struck him that, looked from above, it must resemble a cock and balls. Pure coincidence no doubt but then he wondered; ancient man no doubt thought about sex just as much as modern man - perhaps more when his mind wasn't clouded with work at the office, mobile phones, trips to Tesco etc. Of course life no doubt was just as full for Bronze Age man who had to find food, defend his dwelling against interlopers. Yet all the same the peculiar shape of the mound might be significant. Worship of the male generative principle. He wondered whether ancient man actually associated the pleasant practice of copulating with the result - nine or so months later - of a squalling addition to the tribe.

Preston pulled his mind back to the present, the green grass, the larks flying high and singing their hearts out, the warm sun. They weren't going to detect here of course; it was strictly forbidden on National Trust land but Preston and Phil had agreed to meet here at nine o'clock. Preston had no watch and wondered whether he was early. Jess wandered around sniffing, disturbed a rabbit and chased it into the undergrowth. She came out a few minutes later having caught nothing.

There was a rustle in the bushes. Jess barked and then wagged her tail as Phil arrived. He was carrying the metal detector and a digging implement, larger than a trowel, smaller than a spade, also a metal box and a water bottle. He looked hot.

"I didn't bring any refreshments," said Preston, referring to what he took to be a lunch box and some drink.

"Neither did I," said Phil. "The box is for anything I might find and the water's for washing off dirt." He dropped his luggage and sank down on the grass. mopping his brow with a large handkerchief. Preston, who was a good bit older than Phil, looked at him with a certain amount of self-satisfaction. He himself had hardly broken sweat in the climb, though of course Phil had been carrying his load.

"Where are going to try?" asked Preston, when he though Phil had recovered. "We can't do it here, can we."

"This bit's thoroughly worked out anyway," said Phil. "It's been officially excavated several times. Bronze Age stuff's in the British Museum."

"When was the Bronze Age?" asked Preston whose knowledge of anything previous to William the Conqueror was vague indeed.

"About as far BC as we are this side."

"4000 years old!"

"Could be," said Phil. "I'm hoping to have a go in the undergrowth round the outside. Strictly speaking it's still National Trust land but there aren't any footpaths so we're not likely to be disturbed."

He set up the detector, put on a pair of earphones and moved into the shrubbery, gently swinging the detector from right to left. Preston heard a faint ping as Phil did. He went over and watched as Phil lifted off the surface grass and dug down and only about 3 cms. He found something and held up a coin for Preston to see. It was a modern pound coin. Yvette would no doubt have claimed it for her own but he doubted whether she would have reached so far up the hill in her walk. Phil carefully replaced the piece of turf he had removed. Preston was pleased to see his care for the environment.

"Do you want a go?" asked Phil. "Keep the base of the detector just a little way off the surface and, if you hear something, stop at that point. The sound will go fainter if you go off the find."

The detector was lighter than Preston had expected. The earphones gave him a steady background hiss and he wondered whether he'd hear a contact if it was made. He did though, there was a sudden high-pitched sound which disappeared almost immediately.

"You're moving it too fast," said Phil, his voice muffled through the earphones. "Take that sweep again, this time more slowly."

Preston did so. Again the sound appeared, grew in intensity and faded until he moved it back again. "It's there," he said.

Phil looked at a gauge on the machine where a needle fluttered more than half way round the dial. "It's a strong sound," he said. "You may have found something."

Phil dug at the ground and Jess sat watching him. She obviously wanted to dig herself but Preston wouldn't let her. Phil removed the surface and then dug down. Whatever it was was deeper than the coin they had found before. He went down perhaps 18 cms before he scraped something. "Jeez," he said and Preston peered to see what he had found.

There was a glint of something metallic in the earth. "What is it?" he asked.

Phil was silent for a moment while he delicately cleared some more earth from the object with his fingers. He looked up at Preston and said, in a voice hushed with awe. "I think it's gold."

"Gold," said Preston.

Jess whined. She was bored and wanted to chase some more rabbits.

* * * * * *

Somehow the news of the discovery got round the village. Preston certainly claimed he hadn't told anyone. Nor did Phil.

"What's this," said Fred, coming out from the house he shared with his partner, Rick, which both ran as a Bed and Breakfast, "about you finding a fabulous treasure hoard up on the hill?"

"Well," said Preston. He wasn't all that eager to be quizzed by Fred about the find. It had after all an illegal side to it, and he wasn't good at lying.

There was a sharp knock on the window and Rick's face appeared, his glasses glinting with scholarly interest. His lips shaped the words, "Come in."

"Yes, tell us all," said Fred.

Preston surrendered and went into the kitchen where the three dogs jumped up in welcome. Both Rick and Fred also fussed around offering coffee and chocolate biscuits. They were obviously out to win him over with material comforts.

"So," said Fred, when they were settled around the table, with the Aga providing warmth on what was quite a chilly, though July day, "we hear, you've been out prospecting with the Button lad."

"A bit too much weight for me," said Rick, "but chacun a son gout."

"No, no," protested Preston, even though he knew Rick was teasing. "I was just interested in observing his probing techniques - "

"That's what we thought," interrupted Fred.

" - archaeologically speaking," finished Preston calmly, as if he hadn't intended his double entendre.

"Enough of this idle chit chat," said Rick. "Just tell us what you happened and what la Button found."

"It was me who actually found it," said Preston modestly.

"But what was it?" asked Fred. "Some said it was a golden hoard, presumably coins, others it was a cache of weapons."

"A cup," said Preston.

"A cup?" said Rick and Fred together. The word sounded dismissive, the tone disappointed. Wilma, the Dalmatian, expelled a great sigh and settled down in her basket.

"You mean, like this?" said Rick and he held up his coffee mug which was a rather ugly off-white ceramic piece covered with red blotches as decoration.

"Well, yes," said Preston, "in that it had a handle and was made to contain liquids without spilling. But ours was made of gold with raised ridges all round and the handle was fastened with gold rivets. It was also squashed flat."

"How old?" asked Rick.

"Perhaps 4000 years," said Preston. "Difficult to date accurately as gold doesn't change in the way that other metals do. But there have been a couple of other gold cups discovered which date from the Bronze Age. Proved by other things found in the same grave."

"Gold from the Bronze Age," said Fred. "Isn't that a contradiction in terms?"

"Great metal workers were the Bronze Agers," said Preston. "Of course they found out that copper and tin together, hence bronze, produced a much stronger material and they made lots of their stuff from that. But gold was for really valuable things. Not so much weapons as gold is quite soft, but for things they valued. Ritual stuff, perhaps used in religious ceremonies."

"Holy G and T," said Rick.

Well, maybe wine or mead," said Preston. "Buried with the dead chieftain as drink for the long journey to the Afterworld."

"Did they believe in an Afterworld?" asked Fred.

"Must have done, otherwise why bury the dead guy's weapons, food, pottery, coins, even his horse and dogs."

"So did you find anything else?" asked Rick.

"No," admitted Preston. "But the cup could have been moved by agricultural machinery from its original position. It was after all squashed almost flat."

"And was it valuable?"

"We're expecting thousands," said Preston complacently. "Shared, of course."

"And where did you say you found this treasure?" asked Fred.

"I didn't," said Preston. "The exact location has to be kept secret until a proper excavation has been carried out."

"Gunner's Tump is Bronze Age," observed Rick.

"And owned by National Trust," said Preston.

The pug snorted in its sleep.

* * * * * *

The following morning Preston observed a curious sight which gave him food for thought. He had been waiting for the post van to arrive as he was expecting a delivery of books and didn't want to be out in case they needed to be signed for. He peered out from his bedroom window which gave views both along the street in the direction from which the post van would come and of course over the road to the house opposite where Mrs Fletcher-Bell lived.

Jess was waiting downstairs, anxious on two counts. She wanted to bark at the postman who, she thought, had a cheek to be calling at her front door, leaving interesting letters and things which obviously should be chewed up and then going away again. Jess was also thinking it was time for her morning walk and what was Preston doing upstairs for so long.

The van drew up outside the house and Jess was immediately up on the windowsill barking furiously. The postman waved cheerfully and Jess redoubled her efforts. Upstairs Preston looked out to see if the postman was carrying anything that looked like his parcel of books. He wasn't, though he was carrying one oddly shaped, brown-paper-wrapped parcel. It looked a little like one of those upright hoovers, broad at the bottom, with a thinner handle towards the top. He wasn't however bringing it to Preston's as he lugged it over the road and rang Mrs Fletcher-Bell's door bell. The door opened immediately, presumably Mrs Fletcher-Bell had also been on the look out for the delivery.

She stood in the opening, her long hair, which was sometimes blonde but more often grey, floating in the breeze, draped in the dress which Preston always thought of as her night-dress though she seemed to wear it even when out to the shops so perhaps it was in fact something fashionable, for all he knew perhaps even 'designer'.

She examined the parcel carefully and then pointed to something on it. There was obviously a complaint. Preston could make out her tone of voice even though he couldn't hear the actual words. Perhaps the paper had been torn. The postman examined it, looked carefully and then handed it back. Mrs Fletcher-Bell, acknowledging defeat, took delivery, signed his book and disappeared inside.

He wouldn't mention the observance to Mrs Fletcher-Bell. She was always accusing him of watching from behind his curtains. No doubt she'd be full of her new purchase and would tell him all about it when next they met. He wondered, though why she needed a hoover as he remembered that she had told him about a purchase of some very expensive dry and wet cleaner that she had made not so very long before.

He thought back to the shape of the parcel. It hadn't looked all that heavy. The base was smaller than he'd have thought necessary. Perhaps it wasn't an upright hoover. If not, though, what was it?

Suddenly Preston had a shaft of inspiration. That was no household cleaner; that was a metal detector. Mrs Fletcher-Bell, with presumably her husband, Hubert, in tow was off to 'them thar hills' in what was becoming more and more like 'the Elmcombe Gold Rush'.

* * * * * *

Perhaps that was an exaggeration but when Peter Preston visited the local pub, The Fag and Fishmonger, much of the conversation that he heard round the bar was of the find, the golden treasure, the fabulous hoard just waiting up there for someone to find.

"Ho, Peter," said a voice and Peter turned to see Hurvik van Rook, Hurvik lived in a large house with a spacious garden up the drive from Preston's own small cottage. Hurvik was Dutch though his English was impeccable. He was a director of some manufacturing firm, the details of which Preston was unsure. Certainly whatever it was, it involved a vast amount of travel for Hurvik, and always to what Preston thought of as exotic places - Japan, Thailand, as well as nearer countries, Germany, Switzerland. With some of his wilder stretches of imagination, Preston sometimes wondered whether Hurvik was an arms dealer. On the surface he was polite and pleasant. Sometimes, when his wife and teenage son were also away, Preston was given the the key and asked whether he'd keep an eye on the property. Preston's name for him was 'the Flying Dutchman'.

"You want a drink?" asked Hurvik.

Preston smiled and waved his glass which was nearly empty.

"Thanks," he said, "just bitter."

Hurvik nodded and said "Please," to the barman. Preston noted how, though there were quite a few customers waiting to be served, they were all ignored and Hurvik's order was immediately taken. He had that sort of presence, though Preston. Or perhaps an implied menace. 'You serve Hurvik van Rook or you get your legs broken'. Preston dismissed the thought immediately but the idea remained that you crossed Hurvik only with impunity.

The bar was full and all the tables occupied but Hurvik, carrying Preston's beer and his own rather more exotic glass - Preston wasn't sure what it was but it seemed to contain some sort of vegetation floating on top - looked steadily at one group of young men drinking lagers and they suddenly felt it necessary to get up and stand at the bar. Hurvik and Preston sat down in two of their seats. Two other people made for the two remaining seats but, catching Hurvik's eye, decided they'd prefer the other side of the room.

"I've been hearing interesting things about you," said Hurvik.

Preston wasn't sure whether to be pleased or worried. "Oh," he said. diplomatically

"I've always been fascinated by archaeology."

"I wouldn't have thought you'd have had that much time," said Preston. "what with all your business interests."

Hurvik looked at him sharply. Preston noticed for the first time that there was a hint of menace in Hurvik's dark eyes, in the set of his eyebrows. "As a hobby," said Hurvik. "As an enthusiastic hobby."

"Ah," said Preston, and waited. He sipped his beer.

"I'd like to finance a dig some time."

"Perhaps if you contacted the Feltenham Archaeological Society," said Preston.

"A private dig," said Hurvik smoothly. "Are you interested?"

"I'm no archaeologist," said Preston. "It was pure luck that I found the cup."

"But you know where it was found. I'll get a professional to be in charge and you can work with him or her."

"What about Phil Button?"

"I'll take care of him." For some reason this sounded rather threatening. "Let me get you another drink."

Preston looked into his glass and found to his surprise that it was empty. "My turn," he said. "What are you drinking?"

"You're doing me a favour," said Hurvik. "The drinks are on me." He held up his hand and. almost immediately a waitress was at his side. "A pint for my friend," he said. The girl took Preston's glass. "In a fresh glass of course."

"Of course, sir."

"Good," said Hurvik to Preston. "It's a deal. Now lets discuss the details." He stretched out his hand and shook Preston's. The dutchman's hand was warm, the palm slightly moist.

Preston wondered what he had signed himself up for.

* * * * * *

Nothing happened for a few days. Unusually Mrs Fletcher-Bell had not mentioned the parcel, nor had Preston asked. Rick and Fred hadn't said anything more about the actual whereabouts of where Preston and Button had found the cup. Hurvik, on the two occasions when Preston had seen him driving out in his silver BMW, presumably on his way to the airport and then to foreign parts, had merely waved cheerfully from the driver's seat.

When things did start though they came all at once. First there was the article in the local paper, 'The Feltenham Journal'. 'GOLD CUP DISCOVERED' the headline, and a more or less factual account of the find. Preston himself hadn't been interviewed but Phil Button obviously had and also the Feltenham Archaeology Society to whom Button had reported the discovery.

The following day the national tabloids took it up: 'BRONZE AGE EL DORADO' screamed 'the Planet', 'RITUAL GOLD VESSEL IN BRONZE AGE RITE' was the somewhat tautologous and wordy headline of the 'Daily Reflector'. A more considered article was in 'the Custodian' which compared the find with two others, at Rillaton in Cornwall found in 1837 and at Ringlemere in Kent in 2001 and even linked it to a gold 'cloak' from Mold in North Wales.

"Ostentatious," said Fred when he phoned to discuss the situation with Preston, "and not all that practical. Seems as if it would rather restrict the arm movements."

"The cups?" asked Preston.

"Cloak," said Fred. "Look, Peter, you've got to support the village. There'll be oiks from all over, coming down to see what they can find now that it's gone national."

"It doesn't exactly give the actual location," said Preston.

Rick's voice joined in. "That's why you've got to tell is where you found it."

"Rick's on the extension in the bedroom," said Fred. "It is of course his favourite room."

"Better than yours, the most unused," said Rick caustically. "But I agree, Peter. You've got to tell us. And will la Button let us use his mine detector."

"I doubt it," said Preston, "and I'm not sure he'd approve of my going on a dig with you. It's his discovery after all and it's in his name with the authorities."

"Oh come on, Peter," said Fred. "You're our friend after all though what we'll do without a detector, I don't know."

"Mrs Fletcher-Bell's got one. or at least I think so. I saw a detector-shaped parcel being delivered on Monday."

This item of information was greeted by a short, digestive silence. Eventually, "Really," said Rick. "We'll have to ask her round to tea."

"Don't tell her I told you about the parcel," said Preston, panicking.

"As if we would," said Fred.

"Come to drinks, yourself, after we've seen her," said Rick. "Tomorrow about 8.00, and stay to dinner. We'll plan tactics."

* * * * * *

Later that day Hurvik van Rook's car stopped outside Preston's cottage. He was accompanied by a tall, gangling young man with a bright smile and a thick mop of black hair whom he introduced as Sean Fuller, a graduate from university, now studying for a doctorate. Preston gave them coffee. Jess disappeared under her chair and peered out warily. She didn't like strangers in her house.

Hurvik explained. "Sean's speciality is the Bronze Age. If he could find a new site, excavate it and write it up for his thesis, it could make his career."

"The start of it anyway," said Sean. He had, Preston noticed, slate blue eyes. It was on odd, yet attractive combination with his dark hair. "It's really the most incredible good luck that this should turn up at this time." His enthusiasm was catching.

"I hope you're free this afternoon," said Hurvik to Preston, "as it would be very convenient if you could take Sean up to the site, a sort of reconnaissance survey. Unfortunately I have a business appointment in Geneva so I can't come with you."

More Kalashnikovs and AK7s to be bought or sold, thought Preston, though his expression conveyed no more than polite regret; Hurvik might be ethically challenged but it was no business of his. In fact Preston decided it wouldn't be any hardship having Sean on his own for the afternoon. He liked the way Sean's hair curled over his forehead. He liked the way his mouth curled up in a smile showing white teeth. He liked the way his body, under T-shirt and jeans, looked strong and sinewy. Various thoughts of a definitely lubricious nature swirled round in his mind, though he dismissed them as being unlikely to be fulfilled. He realised that he was perhaps staring rather too obviously at Sean. He transferred his attention to the coffee.

Hurvik left in his silver BMW shortly after for Birmingham airport.

"Do you want to drive up to the hill?" asked Preston. "We can go at least part of the way in the car and park at the top of the hill, in spite of the signs warning against leaving anything of value visible and walk the rest of the way. Or walk the whole way which is pleasant but obviously takes longer."

"Let's walk, " said Sean. Preston was pleased. At least that meant that Sean had no objection to his company. Of course he could have suggested that they stay in for the afternoon and see what developed, but Preston hadn't the nerve.

"Good," he said, "that means we can take Jess. She doesn't like riding in cars."

The sun was shining and it felt like spring rather than half way through summer. They soon got into country and walked together side by side. Occasionally their arms would brush. The first time this happened Preston said 'sorry' and the next Sean said 'sorry'. Then they laughed and didn't bother after that.

It was a day of green and gold, gold buttercups and creeping masses of cinquefoil with their gold potentilla flowers, feathery bunches of bright yellow ladies bedstraw and overall the gold sun, shining through the leaves of the trees to make dappled shade on the grass.

"Tell me about a real dig," said Preston. "I've never been on one before."

Sean obliged. Words like 'resistivity' and 'magnetometers', 'ground-penetrating radar' and 'geophysics' hovered in the air between them. After a while Preston didn't really attend or try to understand, being quite content to listen to the tone of voice and the enthusiasm. He would ask questions later when there was something to see.

They emerged from a woody patch onto the common land. Ahead of them rose the smooth, grassy mound of the ithyphallic Gunner's Tump. To their right a stand of tall, brilliant blue flowers made a striking sight. "I wonder what they are," said Sean.

"Viper's bugloss," said Preston. "Echium vulgare. How anyone could think of them as 'vulgar' I'll never understand."

Sean looked at him with respect. "Ah," he said, "I see you have a specialist subject as well."

"Here we are," said Preston. "More or less." He wasn't able to give the exact location because that had been within the National Trust boundaries where it was illegal to detect. The spot he indicated was just the other side of the boundary fence. Preston thought it wouldn't make all that difference. The cup in any case had, it was surmised, been moved from its original position by agricultural machinery. The National Trust area had been well excavated according to Button previously. That meant that the cup most probably had come from this side of Gunner's Tump anyway. Probably Sean would have just as good a chance of finding something here as anywhere else.

Preston decided that he'd tell Rick and Fred that the area to search was the other side of the Tump. What a tangled web we weave, thought Preston to himself. Perhaps nothing at all would be discovered by anyone and the whole thing would die a natural death. But then Sean would be so disappointed. And Hurvik might take it out on Preston.

Sean himself had been striding up and down, looking sideways at the surface of the ground. Suddenly he flung himself flat on his stomach and peered seemingly at the horizon.

"What are you doing?" asked Preston.

"Come here," said Sean. He beckoned and Preston went and lay down beside him. "Look over there," said Sean. "Can you see that rise over there, a slight bump?"

Preston peered. He couldn't see much variation in the ground surface, no lumps or humps or bumps. "Er," he said.

"Over there," said Sean. "Move nearer to me. Look along my arm."

Preston moved closer. He was intimately aware that his body was close to Sean, was actually touching, along his side, thigh and leg. Sean didn't seem to be aware of the contact. "It starts at the bush on the left, finishes just to the right of the tree."

Preston saw it immediately, a low, slight rise, scarcely more than a couple of feet at the highest. "I was looking for something larger. What is it?"

"Could be the remains of a barrow," said Sean.

"Like Gunner's Tump?" asked Preston. "But that's much bigger." The tump reared high over to the right hand side, visible over the bushes and small trees where Button and he had found the cup. For some reason it looked to Preston, lying on the ground, rather threatening.

"Centuries of ploughing," said Sean. "When they rebuilt the tump, they put it back to the height it probably was originally. I expect when they actually found it, it was like that low rise, with perhaps a couple of pieces of stone sticking out. Or perhaps the ploughing there wasn't so sustained. Often the legends of these places last longer than the actual physical evidence. Could be there was something to stop people working there, a sort of superstitious awe."

They were still lying close together, still touching. As much as Preston enjoyed the intimacy, he didn't feel comfortable remaining there, even though Sean wasn't showing any signs of discomposure. Jess came over to see what the two of them were doing. Preston got to his feet and brushed the grasses from his shirt and trousers.

"So, what's the next move?" he asked. He wondered as he said it whether Sean might think he was referring to some sort of physical act between them but the young archaeologist again started talking about magnetic and resistivity surveys which he'd organise as soon as he could get official authorisation for the dig.

Preston heaved a sigh of relief that at least Sean's work would be legal. He wondered if this would be the last he saw of Sean, his own participation in the dig being over, but Sean had other ideas.

"You'll enjoy working with us, won't you?" he asked. "We can always use extra help, even if it isn't professional."

Preston hoped his pleasure wasn't too obvious.

They walked down the hill together in the gathering dusk and found they were chatting easily, had various interests in common and all in all showed signs of the possibility of friendship, at least, if nothing deeper.

Sean insisted on taking the bus back to Feltenham even though Preston offered to drive him home. Preston was disappointed but cheered up when Sean asked him for his telephone number so that he could contact him when arrangements for the dig had been made. He thought of asking for Sean's number but couldn't think of a valid reason for it.

* * * * * *

"And who's the new boyfriend?" asked Fred the following evening when Preston called round as agreed for drinks.

"What do you mean?" asked Preston.

"We saw you yesterday. walking by arm in arm with a hunk," said Rick.

"Well, he was a bit tall and thin for a hunk, but he was certainly attractive. Nice hair," said Fred, "and you were obviously besotted."

"I was not," said Preston firmly. "He was just a business acquaintance. Friend of Hurvik's actually."

"Me thinks the lady doth protest too much," said Rick. "Never mind, love, next time we see him, we'll put in a good word for you."

"Don't you dare," said Preston. Then, after a slight pause, "Do you think he's gay?"

Fred smiled. "'He walked kinda light'," he said.

"Is that a quote?" asked Preston.

"The film, 'Tea and Sympathy'," said Rick.

"Never mind, dear," said Fred. "We won't embarrass you."

"Much," added Rick. "Come on, drinkies time."

Fred busied himself.

"Now this detecting stuff," he said when the dogs were settled down in their baskets, He brought over some filled glasses, and they sipped companionably. "Hyacinth has indeed got a machine. She took some time to admit it but eventually she did."

"Took almost a half bottle of gin," said Rick.

"And she's agreed that we'll all go together. All we need now is the place to detect," said Fred.

"Just to the east of Gunner's Tump," said Preston.

Fred tore at his hair wildly. "East, West. Who knows that. We haven't got a compass. We aren't explorers. Dr Livingstone, I presume."

"Have you got a map?"

"Probably, but it would be easier of you came up and showed us."

"I may be busy over the next few days," said Preston vaguely.

"It is," shrieked Fred. "It's a big affair. You're holding out on us. What's he like in bed?"

Preston could feel a blush covering his neck and face.

"Look what you've done," said Fred. "You've embarrassed him."

"OK," said Preston. "I like him a bit. I don't even know whether he's gay though, or if he is, whether he fancies me."

"We'll find out," said Rick companionably.

Preston determined that at all costs he would keep Sean and his two friends apart. "I'll take you up tomorrow if that's OK," he said. "Show you the place and then you're on your own."

"There's something going on," said Rick suspiciously.

"Of course there isn't," said Preston, "though you probably won't find anything up there."

* * * * * *

But it wasn't to be for, when Preston got home, there was a message on his answering machine from Sean. Mr van Rook had organised everything - seems Hurvik had influence everywhere - and excavation could start on the following day. Would Preston be able to be there?

Would he? Of course he would. Even Rick and Fred would understand about actions which were led by the heart - or the prick. Not that Preston would tell them, just that something had come up - let them make what they would of that - and he wouldn't be free to show them where the cup had been found as promised. Preston wrote this and enclosed a map of the area with a cross clearly marked on the opposite side of Gunner's Tump to the one where Sean would be excavating.

Preston slipped the note through Fred and Rick's front door - he didn't want to meet them - and awaited the morrow with fanciful expectations. Of course nothing would happen, nothing of that sort of nature anyway. Yet it might. He found himself excited almost as if he was still an adolescent on his first date. He couldn't even sleep well and when he did, he was troubled by strangely unerotic dreams which he couldn't remember when he woke up.

Preston had hoped for a beautiful day but it was cloudy and dull. The temperature was humid and there was a threat of thunder in the air. Oh well, thought Preston, it can't all be perfect. Not that Jess was at all discouraged. She bounced around obviously sensing something in the air that proclaimed a day in the country. Perhaps it was Preston's preparation of a picnic (certainly enough for two) and the packing of a bottle of wine. Jess had intelligence way beyond the usual canine type.

When they got to the site, Preston was surprised to see quite a few people there. Sean's tall figure was obvious and its appearance gave Preston's heart a sort of jump. Apart from him though there were two young girls, their features almost indistinguishable in T-shirts and jeans though one had short hair and the other long. A middle-aged man was moving across the ground with a box on legs which he plunged into the earth, rocked it forward, lifted it, and then did the same thing a couple of feet further on.

Jess barked and they all looked up, Sean smiling and coming across to Preston. He pointed out the two girls, whose names Preston immediately forgot, as University students and very enthusiastic. Preston immediately became jealous until Sean remarked that they were 'inseparable' with a particular tone to his voice, though he did wonder whether Sean had tried, The girls came over and chatted pleasantly enough about the dig, hoping they'd be able to start soon. The man was called Harold and couldn't stop with his machine as it might spoil the resistivity map of the area he was covering.

Archaeology is destructive. As a site is dug up it is systematically destroyed, Hence each step of the dig must be painstakingly slow with careful documentation at each level. Geophysical probing on the other hand is rapid, non-destructive, and does not disturb the site. The resistivity meter hardware consists of a box of electronics mounted on a carrying frame, with wires leading down to a pair of metal spikes that are inserted into the ground. An electric current is passed through the ground and the box measures the resistance to the electrical current passing through the ground.

Larks sung high in the sky and they lay on the grass while Jess looked for rabbits in the undergrowth and the girls chatted and occasionally laughed. Sean talked about the importance of the dig and how, if it proved a major one, it could really be the start of something big for him. Preston hoped that they'd find something. He also hoped that all his other arrangements, with Rick and Fred, and of course with Button, wouldn't all come to a head together and he be faced with a concatenation of squabbling people. He felt sure he'd be blamed if it did.

Harold finished his survey, fiddled with the machine for a while and produced a printout. They all went over to look. To Preston it didn't look all that exciting being mostly a dark grey background on which appeared occasional whitish blobs. The others though seemed to find it more interesting. They poked at various of the blobs suggesting they represented possible features, a pit, some stone blocks which lined up in what was probably an intentional design, potential artefacts. They couldn't wait to start. Sean suggested a trench which would cross quite a few of the blobs and allowed Preston to start the proceedings by removing the first sod.

Then they all set to work and started digging, even Jet decided she would help and had to be diverted to another area so that in her enthusiasm she didn't spoil anything vital.

Preston was surprised that they just didn't dig down to those whitish blobs on the printout. After all that was surely where the objects of interest lay. That was how they had discovered the gold cup, its sound reflection announcing its presence, digging straight down to it. But no. They took off each surface layer centimetre by centimetre with trowels, saving the spoil so that it could be sieved.

"You mustn't miss anything," said one of the girls when Preston queried this slow progress. "What's down there won't run away, but we could miss something valuable if we rush at it, get the order wrong, the layers that tell us which object is probably most recent because it's on top."

Preston realised the sense of this and soon started to enjoy this slow, systematic progress. Sean had told him to query everything. Even the smallest pebble-like piece might be a ceramic portion, something to estimate the age of the layer they were disinterring. He looked up occasionally to watch Sean, head bent intent on what he was doing, his thick thatch of hair protecting him from the sun, his bare neck growing red and, after a while, a globule of sweat gathering on his forehead, running down the side of his face from which he abruptly brushed it away with a dirty hand and leaving a mark.

Perhaps Sean felt the intense gaze for he suddenly looked up, caught Preston's eye and gave him a wide smile. He's pleased I'm here, thought Preston, and all of a sudden felt ecstatically happy.

One of the girls gave a shout. They went over to see what she had found. A tiny patch of greenish metallic substance was showing through the dirt. "It goes on in both directions," said the girl.

It didn't look all that exciting to Preston though the others were looking very enthusiastic. "What is it?" he asked.

"Could be bronze," said Sean. "That goes that colour with age. The width suggests some sort of weapon, a sword, perhaps, or knife. Well done, Sandra."

Sandra, that was the long-haired girl's name, thought Preston. He felt envious. It had just been luck of course. Anyone could have come across it and received Sean's praise. He realised how petty he was being and wandered away from the others who were watching her as she carefully scraped the earth away from the object.

He continued scraping away with his trowel at the little patch where he had been before Sandra had shouted her discovery. He uncovered a small piece of what he now recognised as pottery. He was supposed to call someone to identify it but everyone was still crowded around the 'sword-revealer'.

"We've found another piece of pot," he said to Jess, who wagged her tail and came over to have a look. She scraped with her paws as if to help and Preston had to stop her. "You haven't got the necessary qualifications," he said, knowing that he hadn't either. "I'll just dig it out and tell them later." But he noticed that, where Jess had removed some dirt, the little brownish-grey shard was now enlarged into a linear piece with perhaps a curve to it. He felt around and was surprised to feel the piece continued, like a rim. Carefully he scraped away revealing more and more. It was certainly a rim and, from the way it was going, it looked circular. A little breeze blew across the holl and he felt the hair at the base of his neck lift.

He nearly called Sean but the others were still occupied with Sandra's find.

He daren't use the trowel as he feared it might damage the surface, but scratching away with his fingers, gently blowing away any loose stuff, he gradually exposed a complete rim. This surely was a discovery. Sean had told him that pottery could be dated whereas metal couldn't. Perhaps this might be an even more important find even than the sword - if that's what it was.

"Sean," he called. "I think I may have found something."

He was not disappointed. Sean was indeed very excited. He squatted on his haunches beside Preston and stared at the pottery rim. "Is it a pot?" asked Preston though it obviously was.

Sean put his left arm round Preston's shoulders and gave him a hug. Preston assumed it meant no more than the excitement of discovery to Sean. It made his knees weak though.

Sean babbled in his enthusiasm. He talked of the 'Beaker People' who had apparently taken over from the indigenous Neolithic folk, how they had made this distinctive pottery and then later worked in copper, gold and finally bronze, thus giving the name to their Age.

Like last time Preston listened more to the sound of Sean's voice rather than what he was actually saying though some things sank in - but it was more the tone of Sean's voice which pleased him.

"Do you think it's complete?" asked Preston in a hiatus when Sean paused.

"I doubt it. Probably the sides have caved in. But it's your discovery. Try to dig down the outside, very gently and see what happens. It's a great find. I could kiss you."

Preston's imagination took hold but unfortunately Sean appeared to be speaking metaphorically for nothing happened and Preston didn't dare look up. Patiently he started scraping away.

He was aware of Sean's body beside him, very close, until he had to move when Preston altered his position to get round the side of the pot.

* * * * * *

Saturday was the day of the Celebrity Gala at the castle. On the village grapevine, which meant via Fred and Rick, who had forgiven Preston for not taking them up to the site but hadn't stopped pestering him to find out exactly what he was doing, Preston heard that Hubert and Yvette Fletcher-Bell had not succeeded in getting themselves free tickets. They had therefore decided to go up the hill to 'detect'.

In fact, if you were a sky god. Apollo or Helios perhaps, or more prosaically someone in a helicopter flying over the area - as they seem to do more often these days, you would have seen various groups going up the hill towards Gunner's Tump.

There was the usual expedition led by Sean coming from the Feltenham area, and of course Peter Preston up the opposite side with Jess. A colourful second group consisting of Hubert and Yvette Fletcher-Bell, Rick and Fred. She was wearing a clingy, flower-printed dress and a brown, wide-brimmed, straw, Virginia Woolf hat, her husband more conservatively in brown corduroy trousers and a sort of lumber jacket that looked as if it had been fashionable in the 1940s.

Rick and Fred though outdid all of them and were dressed more flamboyantly as though for a Carnival rather than a digging expedition. Rick was wearing a purple shirt and Fred a yellow one. The colours clashed but the party looked festive as they set off.

Rick started to sing and Fred joined in. "Hi ho! Hi ho! As off to work we go."

"Behave yourself, boys," said Mrs Fletcher-Bell sternly as if they were seven year old primary school kids rather than middle-aged businessmen.

The third party to go up the hill went in some sort of comfort if a 4 by 4 can be classed as comfort. It consisted in fact of a party from the Castle and consisted of the main attractions for the Celebrity Gala which would start later in the day. Lady Ashdown had invited her guests to lunch and Liz Burleigh, actress and professional 'celebrity' had expressed a wish to see where the Gold Cup, which everyone was talking about, had been found.

Lew Plant, film star and who in times past would have been called juvenile lead, also seemed interested. Dick Zagger, prehistoric pop star, hadn't arrived and, being the sort of person who was always unpredictable, wasn't now expected. There were three other minor celebrities.

Lady Ashdown, a stout woman with a rather long, almost equine face, drove. In the back someone opened a bottle of champagne and they quaffed.

Sean's party arrived first and they set to work. The sword, or at least three quarters of it, which is what it had turned out to be, had been safely rescued, photographed, and removed. The girls and Harold moved along the trench. Sean, further down, dug at his own part. Clouds drifted overhead. There was a scent of clover in the air. A lark sang, joined by others, flying upwards till they were no more than dots in the sky though the songs were as sharp and clear as ever.

Preston, who was diligently scraping at his pot, looked up. Was it an exaltation or an exultation of larks, a raising or a rejoicing? Either would be appropriate. And how many larks were needed to form such a collection?

He returned to the backbreaking task which was so slow yet so rewarding as centimetre after centimetre of still unbroken ceramic was revealed. Sean no longer oversaw the work trusting in Preston's meticulous competence. So he was surprised when he was first alerted to the presence of an audience by a low-pitched whisper.

It was Rick peering down at him from the side of the trench. "So this is where you've hidden yourself for the week. So what's he like?"

Preston looked up alarmed in case Sean had heard, but he was engrossed in his own digging and out of hearing range. "There's nothing like that," he said. "We've never even . . . We're just friends. I still don't even know whether he's gay."

Rick gave him a calculating look and then glanced over to Sean.

"Don't you dare," said Preston. He tried to change the subject. "What are you doing here?" he asked though he knew the answer.

"We've at last persuaded Hyacinth to come up with her mine detector," Rick said. "and now we find you digging in another place to the one you told us. That's naughty, Peter. I think I'll have to speak to your boss." He took a step towards Sean.

"This wasn't the place where we found the cup," said Preston. "Honest. Harold decided to dig here after a scan with his resistivity meter."

"That's what they all say," said Rick.

Fred joined Rick at the edge of the trench. "It's worse than we thought," said Rick. "Our sluttish friend's carrying on with two people at the same time. Sean and now this Harold."

"No. No," protested Preston.

"Take no notice of Rick," said Fred. "You know he's just teasing."

"Just as long as he doesn't say anything to Sean," said Preston.

"Oh I couldn't guarantee that," said Fred.

"You two are as bad as each other," said Preston.

Mrs Fletcher-Bell arrived, the brim of her hat waving wildly in the breeze. "I wondered where you two boys had got to," she said. Turning round she called, "They're here, Hubert. I've found the two runaways - and Peter Preston too." She gave Preston a sharp look. "And what are you doing?" though the answer must have been obvious.

"I've found a pot," said Preston, indicating the, by now almost half exposed and so far perfect ceramic he was painstakingly uncovering.

Yvette peered at it with an expression which bordered on the contemptuous. "Hmmm," she said.

"Sean thinks it's important," said Preston.

Hubert arrived panting. He had the metal detector over his shoulder and looked hot. "Why did you have to go so fast?" he complained. "When are we going to start using this ruddy thing?"

"Is there anything wrong?" Sean, seeing the little huddle of people had come over.

Preston introduced him. "They're planning on doing a little detectoring the other side of the Tump," he said. He emphasised the point. "They're just about to start."

"I hope they've got permission of the landowner," said Sean.

Rick gave a little squeak. Preston knew it meant, 'Get her'.

"I'll have you know that Lady Ashdown is a close personal friend of mine," said Mrs Fletcher-Bell, outraged that her activities should be questioned in even the most tentative way.

To his amazement Preston noticed that her hair hanging long and loose from under the wide-brimmed hat, was a bright pink colour. Surely Mrs Fletcher-Bell hadn't intended such a bright tint.

Right on cue Lady Ashdown's Landrover bounced across the ruts in the hillside grass and drew up. The passengers debouched. All wore Barbour jacket and green wellies appropriate if not requisite disguise for a townie masquerading as a country dweller. Both Liz and Lew, though obviously male and female, had that same look, celebrity arrogance, and the ability to turn on (and off) a seemingly genuine smile at will.

Mrs Fletcher-Bell's eyes glistened. She recognised of course Lady Ashdown, as most of the people in the village would have, though being a 'close personal friend' was stretching the truth a bit.

"Lady Ashdown," she said, "how nice to see you."

Lady Ashdown looked her usual glum self and her expression showed no sign of recognition. "How's the dig going?" she asked. She wasn't sure whom to ask but her gaze was almost mesmerised by Mrs Fletcher-Bell's hair, so it seemed as if she was addressing her. At any rate Mrs Fletcher-Bell took the question as directed at her.

"There's a pot," she said pointing with an almost derisive finger at Preston's discovery.

Sean stepped forward. "We've found quite a few bronze age artefacts," he said. "A bronze sword for example. That 'pot' is a valuable Beaker people product of great value. If it is in fact whole it will be the only complete ceramic from the period found in Britain."

Lady Ashdown and her celebrity entourage showed interest and crowded round the edge of the trench in the process edging out Mrs Fletcher-Bell. "Well!" she said, outraged.

"Do you see who's there?" asked Fred.

"Liz Burleigh and Lew Plant," said Rick

"Where? Where?" demanded Mrs Fletcher-Bell.

"This is heavy," complained Hubert.

"Oh put it down," snapped his wife. "Which are the celebrities?"

But Lady Ashdown's group had been taken off by Sean to see the sword. Rick attempted to point them out but from the back, everyone looked similar.

"At least Lady Ashdown appreciated my pot," said Preston, rubbing it in but Yvette wasn't listening.

Yvette whispered to her husband. "Have you got a piece of paper?"

"What sort of paper?" asked Hubert. He had placed the detector on the ground and was rubbing his shoulder which was feeling sore.

"Any bit of paper?" said his wife. "And a pen."

Hubert felt in his pockets and produced an envelope which had once contained the electricity bill. He also found a ball point. "Will these do?" he asked.

Yvette tutted but took them. "Now," she said to Rick, "Which one's Liz Burleigh?"

The group from the castle had turned to come back to their Landrover. It seemed a bit rude to Rick to point, especially as they were all now within a few yards of each other. "Second one on the left," he said.

Yvette approached, an expression almost of worship on her face.

"She's got the wrong one," said Rick. "I meant obviously the second woman on the left."

But it was too late. Yvette had found who she thought was famous star of stage, screen and the tabloids, Liz Burleigh, and was proffering the rather crumpled envelope and pen. The girl, who was in fact a housekeeper at the castle and who had tagged on as it was her day off, looked slightly bemused but acceded to Yvette's request though there was a slight hiatus when the pen refused to write.

Lady Ashdown, her celebrities and the hangers-on got into the car. "Come on, Hilda," she called just when the ink started to run. The girl scribbled and dashed into the Landrover which reversed and set off again back down the hill, Liz Burleigh leaning out of the passenger window, waving and smiling.

"Hilda?" said Yvette, peering at the scribble on her envelope. "Who's Hilda?"

Fred stepped in to the rescue. "Hilda Swaddam," he lied, "the famous model."

Rick said bitchily, "That Lew Plant looks a lot older than he does on the TV. His skin's not all that good. And who does his hair?"

Hubert who was obviously missing his 11 o'clock whisky, said. "Are we ever doing to do any of this detectoring stuff?"

Yvette appeared satisfied with her autograph and the little group moved off. Preston returned his attention to the pot, not seeing Rick run back and have a word with Sean. They both looked at Preston bent over to his task. Rick smiled but Sean's expression was unfathomable.

The hill settled down to its former peace broken only by the exultant (or exalted) trilling of the larks overhead.

Occasionally Sean looked over to where Preston was working.

* * * * * *

It had been a long day and in some ways disappointing. Preston's pot had turned out to have no base. He had successfully disinterred it right down to the bottom and then, as he reached what he hoped would be the base. there was nothing, just earth which he had been scraping away. For a moment he wondered whether he'd himself broken away the base and he called Sean over, but digging down even further showed no sign of the remains of the pot.

"It happens," said Sean. "It was just too much to hope that we'd find a complete one."

"So all we've found is a bit of pot and half a sword." Preston sounded disappointed. He had hoped that Sean would fund something really important, something that would make his name in the archaeological world.

"There are these," said Sean opening a small box to show him. Inside were several roundish, grey, pebble-like objects. To Preston, they didn't look very exciting. "Amber beads," said Sean. "See they're pierced, probably a necklace or bracelet."

"But no neck or wrist bones to wear them."

"No," said Sean. "It's odd. If they are related to the 'Tump' you'd expect them to have been discovered at the original excavation rather than scattered at such a distance."

"I guess we'll never know." There were shadows round them trying to tell, but unable to speak. A sussuration in the branches of the trees around sounded like a sigh of despair.

Towards the end of the afternoon when the almost overwhelming sunshine was replaced by a cooling breeze, Yvette Fletcher-Bell came over holding in her hands almost reverentially a small object. She approached Sean offering it up as if it were something holy. "What do you think of this, Dr Fuller?" she asked.

Where she had got the 'Doctor' from Preston didn't know. Perhaps an example of Fred's mischievous sense of humour.

Sean examined the object for a while. It was shaped like a rather depressed-looking seagull, the wings outspread in a slightly dispirited way. Eventually he looked up and said, "It's a brooch."

Yvette said sharply. "I know that. Is it an antique?"

"Depends on your definition of 'antique', I suppose. One is anything older than one hundred years."

Yvette looked excited. "Bronze age?" she asked.

"Victorian," he said.

Yvette looked discouraged but she tried to put a good face on it by asking, "Is it valuable?"

"I shouldn't think so. Quite a few of the stones are missing," said Sean, indicating the gaps.

"Diamonds possibly?" asked Yvette, grasping at straws.

"More like glass," said Sean. "See how some of the remaining ones are chipped."

Yvette looked at the brooch and then threw it away into a patch of nettles with a disgusted cry.

Rick and Fred arrived just in time to see the fate of the discovery. "Hey," said Rick, "I found that." He peered into the nettles and gingerly moved some aside with his shoe. There was no sign of the brooch.

"Worth nothing," said Yvette, airily, as if she'd known all the time. "A cheap Victorian knick-knack."

"All the same," complained Rick. "It was me that detectorised it."

"Don't be such a baby," said Yvette. "Anyway I think it's time we all went home. Hubert will be missing his tea."

They disappeared down the hill towards Elmcombe, sounds of their complaints drifting behind them on the evening breeze.

"What an incredible woman," said Sean.

"She's my neighbour over the road," Preston said.

"I suppose it's time we were packing up for today too," said Sean.

Harold offered to take the girls back to Feltenham in his car. "Do you want a lift too?" he asked Sean.

Sean looked towards Preston. "I rather fancy a drink," he said. "What about you, Peter?"

"Sure," said Preston.

But first they walked to the top of the hill together side by side, occasionally their arms brushing companionably. They reached the summit where the wind breathed, blowing aside for a moment the burden of everyday pressure and responsibility. Fluffy white cumulus clouds drifted across the rain-washed blue sky. It was like being on top of the world. Preston sat with his back against a standing stone which had odd chiselled markings on it. He wondered how many thousands of years it had stood there and who had originally put it up. Under the ground, he thought, there were the remains of untold numbers of ancestors together with their products which gave clues to their thoughts, beliefs and desires.

He picked a blade of grass and chewed the end. The valley dipped and stretched out in front of them to where the Welsh hills marked the end of the world. Sean lay on his back next to him and gazed at the sky. They didn't speak and each kept his own thoughts to himself as the sun warmed him through his jeans,

Preston felt the warmth lapping his body, sensuously penetrating his clothes, playing intimately with his skin. He spat out the grass stalk and cupped his hands behind his head, spreading his legs so that he lay, open and vulnerable, a sacrifice to the sun. Feeling himself constricted he moved his legs and covered his loins, bulging now, with his hands, one on top of each other, protecting, hiding, the under hand gently squeezing, easing himself so that his prick extended unimpeded along his leg.

He stole a look at his friend lying quietly beside him but Sean's eyes were closed, perhaps he was even asleep. His shirt was rucked up showing his flat stomach and his legs were spread. He looked sprawled and defenceless and Preston knew a moment of complete happiness. He gave a quiet sigh, apparently not quiet enough because Sean opened his eyes, looked at him.

And from there he surely couldn't help but see the outline of Preston's erection. Sean smiled. "Must've dropped off," he said. "It's been an exhausting week."

It was suddenly cold. "Come on. Race you down," said Sean. He turned and ran down the hill, hotly pursued by Preston, like a couple of kids.

Sean was the athlete and would have escaped easily had he not tripped over a root half way down. He yelled, fell and rolled over a couple of times and then lay still on his back, his eyes closed. Preston arrived a second later and flung himself down beside him.

"Are you all right, Sean?" he said but Sean did not answer.

"Sean," he repeated, suddenly worried and put his hand on Sean's chest, He could feel the heart beating. Then he saw that Sean's eyes were open and he was smiling.

"You bugger," said Preston and flung himself astride the other's body. Sean struggled, laughing, trying to throw him off, then suddenly he lay still. Their eyes met.

Preston inched back down Sean's body so that he was sitting on his friend's groin. He could feel a shape there which was rapidly growing hard. He felt his own erection build and knew it was pushing out the front of his jeans. Greatly daring he lifted himself and put his hand underneath to feel the other's swelling tool. All the time his eyes never left Sean's face. Then Sean shut his eyes, though he did not say anything.

* * * * * *

The Fag and Fishmonger was full, as was usual on a Saturday evening. A minor celebrity had escaped from the Castle Gala and was drinking beer at the bar almost like a normal human being. He had attracted a small crowd of 'fanatics' and this had enabled Sean and Preston to find a table on the other side of the room. They had said nothing about what had happened - what had almost happened - up on the hill, but both knew and both accepted that it was the start of something new in their relationship.

Preston knew or at least was almost certain that, when they had finished their drink, and perhaps another one, the other half as it were, he would ask Sean if he wanted to stay over, and that Sean would say yes, and then . . . well, he wasn't exactly sure how the next part would work but it would certainly end in bed and that was surely good.

There was an excitement between them, almost palpable. Occasionally their fingers touched. They smiled and told each other about themselves, in bursts of speech and then silences when their eyes met and held. What Sean saw, Preston had no idea. There was surely nothing in his own fair hair, grey eyes, too long a nose and too short a chin, but Sean himself was something to lose himself in. Those dark blue eyes, black hair with a hint of a curl in, thin face with high cheek bones, the skin smoothly tanned by the week in the open air. The lips that smiled so easily to show his white teeth. Preston could scarcely take his eyes off him. Those lips, just across the table. If he leant forward he could kiss them. As if Sean could read his thoughts he himself bent forward to emphasise a point and Preston felt himself irresistibly drawn towards him. Their faces drew closer together.

"Ah," said a deep voice next to them, "my two archaeologists."

Sean and Preston drew apart. Hurvik stood at their table, his bald head gleaming under the overhead lights. Had he suspected what had nearly happened? Seemingly not. He showed no signs of suspicion, of distaste, of criticism. His tone, though, was one of disappointment.

"A broken sword, a broken pot and a few beads," he said. "It's not much. is it? Hardly worth my financial outlay."

How did he know, thought Preston. There always seemed something almost miraculous about Hurvik's possession of information, though, in this case, the source wasn't all that supernatural when he explained. "I've just seen Harold and he gave me a run-down."

"I'm sorry," said Sean. "We can't find more than there actually exists."

"So you don't think there's anything else?"

"I can't tell," said Sean. "You never know."

"I think I'll put a stop to the dig," said Hurvik. "I'm sorry but I can't keep injecting money into so uncertain an undertaking."

"I understand," said Sean.

"You want a drink?" asked Hurvik, as if to mitigate the disappointment.

"No, thanks," said Sean.

"We were just leaving," said Preston.

They went out, the moment of elation of such a short while ago spoiled. The sky had clouded over again and the street lights were on. They walked towards Preston's house passing on the way Rick and Fred's. Lights were on and the sound of music escaped. They could see people standing in the light, drinking, heard laughter.

"They're having a party," said Preston. "If you want we could call in. They wouldn't mind."

Suddenly he felt Sean's hand grasp hold of his. "Let's have our own party," said Sean. He put preston's hand into his own trouser pocket. Preston could feel his leg, the muscles solid and hard.

"I'm sorry it's all gone wrong," said Preston. "You were expecting a lot from the dig."

"I've met you," said Sean. "That's a bonus."

Preston moved his hand in Sean's pocket, felt for and found the cock that was down the inside of Sean's leg. As he felt it, it stretched and hardened.

"Quiero sentirte dentro de mi."

Preston looked at him, his eyebrows raised questioning.

"Harry teaches Spanish," he said, "and I learn the dirty bits. It means 'I want to feel you inside me'."

"Is Harry gay?"

"You bet," said Sean.

"And do you and he . . .?"

"We're just friends," said Dean, "and colleagues. But you never answered my Spanish request."

"That can be arranged," said Preston. He tightened his hold on Sean's cock and felt it twitch.

He had to leave go though to unlock the front door. Once inside a feeling of constraint fell on them both. "The place is a mess," said Preston and picked up the remains of his breakfast things, taking them through to the kitchen.

"Hey," said Sean. "Leave all that. Come here." He held out his arms. "There's better things to do."

"Hello," said Preston softly, feeling the length of Sean's body against his, feeling the hardness of Sean's groin against his own.

Preston felt under Sean's T-shirt, stroking the smooth skin of his back, first up between his shoulderblades then down, under the waistband of his jeans, inside his shorts, clasping his buttocks a finger questing in between. He pulled him close and kissed him hard on the lips. his tongue probing, entering, finding and embracing the other's tongue.

He drew back and pulled up Sean's T-shirt, revealing the flat, taut stomach, the heart-catching interruption of the navel, the dark hairs leading down under the waist-band of his jeans. So much to see, so much to explore.

"Let's go to bed," he said.

* * * * * *

the burial of gunnr

The torches flickered low and then flared up in the strong evening breeze. Pegl, the dead chief's eldest son, led the procession as was his right and then came the body of the old High Chief, Gunnr. It was carried on a bier by twelve warriors who had neither touched drink nor a woman for a full day from sunrise to sunset.

Then came the three wives.

They wept as was proper.

Then came the rest of the tribe, and the young children thought it was a great occasion and laughed and played along the way.

The wives had been given the sacrificial meal - of seeds and cereals and poppy juices to make them acquiescent. Around their necks they wore the halters with which they would be strangled for this was how the Advisor had interpreted the custom.

Heti and Bara appeared to have consented to their destiny. Certainly although the older woman needed to be helped along because of her damaged leg she did not protest while Bara, remembering her Royal heritage, walked proudly, unaided, her head upright. It could be that they both privately thought that they deserved their fate as it was they who had introduced the poison and they were at least taking the hated interloper, Vala, with them wearing her necklace of amber beads. Now no one would have Gunnr - at least not on this earth. And who knew what would happen if there were another life.

The young wife, Vala, though, knowing she was innocent of any crime protested furiously at every step. The poppy infusion, shared out of the big pottery container and drunk from the ritual gold cup, certainly had not dulled any of her senses and she wildly accused everyone of breaking the Law and hurled herself against the neck halter again and again, crying and pleading with the Advisor for her life to be spared.

The old man, watched her with a sinking heart. This behaviour was not right. It was not seemly. It was not his fault that High Chieftain's wives were buried with their husbands. It was tradition. It was the Law. Privately he regretted the young girl's death. Under different circumstances, he would have welcomed her into his own home, hoping that her youthful gratitude might have been able to warm his cold and ancient loins.

But if the Law was flouted who knew what terrible punishment the Gods would bring upon the tribe.

The procession wound its way, the warriors with their torches preceding the women and children of the tribe, until they reached the Mound. It had only recently been completed for Gunnr was still comparatively young and had not been expected to die so soon. Nevertheless life was unpredictable in this violent society and it was best to prepare for every eventuality. They would start digging the Mound of the next High Chief shortly after he was installed.

Gunnr's Mound was one of the biggest in the area. Its axis was East West, the head facing the rising sun and it had three assembly chapels - one for each queen - and a false door made of stone inscribed with protective runes at the west end.

The earth was still new and raw. It had not had time to become covered with a protective green coat of grass and wild herbs. Later it would merge into the countryside but now it looked like a sore red blister on the face of the earth.

As they reached the real entrance, the procession split into two and formed up on either side, the Advisor herding the warriors with their guttering torches into place. The ritual would have to be finished before the last torch died, otherwise it would mean bad luck on the tribe.

'Gunnr, Great High Chief,' he intoned in his high quavering voice, 'we send you to the land of the Gods. Take with you your weapons and your personal jewels and your household goods and your wives. Give what you must as offerings to the Highest and enjoy the rest for eternity.'

He gave a signal and the twelve warriors carrying the bier trooped into the excavated cavity in the centre of the mound. They placed it reverently down and then piled Gunnr's shield with its bronze pommel, and the Great Sword which Gunnr had taken from Hundar and which Pegl coveted, by his side. Then with less ceremony they threw the cooking pots and furniture into a heap at his feet. Finally, with great care two warriors deposited the Holy Cup, which, they believed, was the fount of Gunnr's power. They laid this on top of the pile and afterwards, because they had touched the holy thing, they would be treated with great respect for the rest of their lives.

Then the Advisor addressed the wives.

'Now you must follow the High Chief to his new life,' he said and added, trying to give as much encouragement as he could. 'There you will minister to his needs and live in comfort, security and great joy for eternity.'

Heti and Bara, still quiet, and Vala, struggling, were brought forward.

It was tradition that the Advisor was responsible for the strangling of the wives, but in the case when he was old or weak, it was permissible for him to have assistance.

The nooses were tightened around the necks by three warriors and two of the wives met their deaths bravely and consented to it as was seemly.

But Vala struggled and cursed until her windpipe was blocked off and even then the hatred in her eyes and the sound of the echoes of her curses in that still place shocked even those death-hardened warriors - and sent the women and children whimpering and crying back to their mud huts. And even the warriors were silent and morose and the beer with which they celebrated the old Chief's funeral tasted sour and gave no joy.

And the Advisor knew that this was a bad omen and that maybe the tribe was doomed and he was sad.

But worse was to come. For someone broke into the mound and stole the Holy Cup, the infusion pot and the Sword with Hundar's name engraved on its blade and buried them where only he knew. He even wrenched the amber necklace from Vala's neck. Then the cold came and food became scarce because the land was covered with snow and ice and the game went elsewhere and even the green shoots were blighted.

And from that day Gunnr's Mound - Gunner's Tump as it later began to be called - was considered a cursed and godless place and no one would visit it by day or by night.

The superstitious had it that the very ground was poisoned by the hatred and agony that lived there and certainly no trees ever grew on the mound and what weeds that did were sickly and died soon. It was as if the ground had been poisoned - like Gunnr himself. Nor did small animals or birds ever frequent the area of Gunner's Tump.

And Pegl broke the Law by desecrating the holy place and stealing the Cup and the Sword but it did him no good for Pegl was killed by his challenger who himself died soon after and the tribe weakened. The Cup and the Sword of Hundar were lost and after the Advisor died there was no one to interpret the Great God's wishes and so they were ignored. The Great God therefore was angry with the tribe.

And He cursed them.

Then the tribe died - but some of the spirits lived on in the Mound - and they were strong.

* * * * * *

Date started: 8, Thursday July, 2004 8:23 pm

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