The mud covered track that rises up through the wood in front of me dampens my resolve; such a stark contrast with the blazing sun at my back seems ominous. I hesitate, noting the marks of hooves in the churned mess as my eyes adjust to the darkness beneath the trees. The rustle of their leaves sounds like nothing less than a malediction on my presence and I shiver, unsettled. I’m about to turn back, telling myself it is for the best, when a wren zips past me and alights on a stone in the middle of the path. Dipping its tail it chatters at me, song bubbling like a brook after a rain shower, before hopping to another stone further up. The message is clear and I do not think of disobeying.
Walking forward, trying to avoid the worst of the glutinous brown muck, I start my assent. Despite the care I take my feet do not feel as if they are under my control and it takes every ounce of my concentration to remain upright. After five minutes the gloom starts to lift and, curious, I raise my eyes from the ground to see the ending of the path, opening out onto the grassy plateau beyond.
And he is there, waiting for me.
I speed up, almost falling flat on my face in my unwillingness to look away, frightened that if I lose sight of him he will disappear. When I finally step out into the sun, blood pounding loud in my ears, he breaks into a smile.
I nod. My voice doesn’t seem to be working.
‘I’ve been waiting.’
His voice warms me more effectively than the sun but his face eclipses it. I stare unashamedly, not caring what he might think in my bid to memorise every feature. He doesn’t flinch under the scrutiny, instead taking another step forward so there is barely half a metre between us, forcing me to tilt my head back to keep my eyes on his face.
He is and yet is not how I imagined him; the broad shouldered, well muscled physique is right, as is his warrior-like bearing and the coal black hair – glossy as a raven’s wing – that brushes his shoulders. What I didn’t expect were the scars etched into his left cheek and forehead, or the slightly crooked nose. Silly really, after all I know what he has been through, how hard he has fought for his place in the world. To have imagined him unblemished by his journey seems so naive, not what you would expect from a grown woman and certainly not what I expect from myself. His eyes, however, drive all thoughts of my own foolishness from my head. In my dreams they were grey, like storm clouds at dusk, but they are blue and seem to be lit from within. Not the colour of the sky above but the blue of a tide pool, freshly abandoned by the sea. Mutable, ever changing, they flit from azure to turquoise to the blue-green of seaweed and they hold within them a mix of sorrow and joy that calls to my heart. I am captivated, finally knowing what it means to drown in another’s gaze.
‘Welcome to my home,’ he gestures with his left arm, the movement sweeping away his cloak and drawing my eye to the sword at his hip. I fight the urge to reach out and touch it; such a breach of etiquette would be unforgivable. Instead I turn and follow his gesture, at first seeing nothing but the remnants of the fort, hints of foundation stones peeking through moss and grass where the outer wall would once have stood. I open my mouth, to say what I’m not sure but my lack of eloquence doesn’t matter, covered by the inelegant snort of laughter he emits.
‘Here,’ he rests his hand on my shoulder, the touch insubstantial but somehow imbued with strength. The effect is almost instant and I can’t help the gasp that escapes my lips. Around me walls reform, stone and timber rising together so fast I cannot follow it all. My jaw falls slack as I stare about, unsure what to look at first.
‘Come with me,’ he moves his hand, sliding it from my shoulder down to the small of my back and with the lightest of pressures he propels me forward, in step with him. His face is intent but the smile remains as he adds, ‘I don’t want you to miss anything.’
So I walk with him in the noonday sun, across thousands of years of history, and he sets my mind aflame. I listen as I have never listened before, not daring to interrupt lest I break the flow, and all the while his hand never moves from my back. Nothing is withheld; no view goes unremarked, no stone or walkway ignored. I have never felt such a connection with a place as the land and buildings are brought to life through his words. Eventually we reach the central tower, high above the great hall, and he once again draws my attention to the Tor on the northern horizon.
‘He’s so busy,’ there is a hint of apology in his words and his forehead creases. ‘If he’d remembered he would have been here too, I’m sure.’
Finally I find my voice. ‘It doesn’t matter. Truly. It was you I came to see.’
His reply is lost amidst a cacophony of bellowing and I jump, dislodging his hand. At once I am alone, unless you count the herd of cows which surround me, my feet firmly on the bare ground next to the small observation point marking the highest part of the hill. There is no sign of the glorious building I’d been standing in a second ago and no sign of him.
I concentrate, remembering the sound of his voice, the flecks of gold just round the edges of his irises, the almost imperceptible feel of his hand on my back. When I blink the walls are back; not solid like before, instead merely an apparition. They glitter like dew on spider’s web in the dawn light but they do not fade. It is not enough though, so I close my eyes, rebuilding his face in the darkness behind my lids. When I reopen them he is there again, exactly as he was. We stare at each other, for how long I don’t know, until I can’t help but ask:
‘Why did you leave?’
‘I didn’t,’ his face is serious but there is amusement in his voice. ‘I’ve always been here … I always will be.’
‘Oh,’ I say inanely, as comprehension hits with all the subtlety of a cloud burst. The truth of the situation sweeps away my uncertainty and I let out the breath I hadn’t realised I’d been holding, relieved beyond measure that I understand. I don’t say anymore but I don’t need to, simply shooting him an enquiring glance as I start walking towards the path. He falls in beside me and together we wend our way through the buildings.
As we reach the path we turn and look back at the shimmering mirage of Camelot.
‘Not really real,’ he smiles crookedly, resting his hand on the ghostly arch of the gate. ‘But real enough.’
I take his hand, beaming up at him. ‘Yes, Arthur, real enough … just like you.’
Photos taken at Cadbury Hill Fort, the place that inspired the words above: