‘I will guard the hill,’ said Ki.
The Wise-Man looked at Ki in her deerskin tunic, her face and arms daubed with spirals of Thames mud. He shook his head. ‘The one who guards the hill should be a man. A strong young warrior to fight off the dark spirits.’
‘But I’ll be dead. I’ll be a spirit myself. What does my body matter?’
The Wise-Man took the flint knife from his belt, turned it over in his gnarled hands. The blade was serrated, like teeth. ‘Can you die this death?’
‘Yes!’ said Ki, fierce and tearful, fists bunched.
‘Why? Nobody volunteers to be a sacrifice. Everyone is afraid.’
‘That’s why! Because I love them all and I don’t want any of them to suffer. And because I love the Great Spirit. The sacred hill is my favourite place.’ She looked around, breathing in the misty hilltop air, drinking in the long view of the land, layers of green fading to a silver horizon. A seagull called in the distance, down by the shining river. She rose up on her bare toes in the grass and stretched her arms out to the sky.
‘I want to be here forever and ever. The hill is the heart of the land. I want to be the heart of the hill.’
The Wise-Man looked at her, and laid a hand on her matted hair in blessing. ‘Child,’ he said, ‘be it so.’
For thousands of years Ki guarded the hill. Her spirit was no longer caged in the ribs of the small skeleton curled beneath the turf. She unfurled like a bright banner, and the things that howled in the dark drew back in fear. Stone circles rose and fell, but the sacredness remained.
When the Romans came, they felt the sacredness. They built a temple to Diana over Ki’s bones. The green hills grew grey with houses, and the shouts of dockers rose up from the river and drowned the cries of gulls; but the moon-white dome of Diana’s temple held the silence of the hill.
When the Christians came, they felt it, and the temple became a cathedral. Churches in those days were built of wood. The spirit that had once been Ki was strong enough to protect the hill from darkness, but not from fire. Three times the cathedral burned to the ground, and three times it was rebuilt on the sacred hill. Roads branched out across the land like arteries, pulsing with people, and the cathedral was their heart.
The fourth time the cathedral burned, the city burned with it. It was the Great Fire of London. Ki had long since forgotten her own name; all that was left of her was her protective love. The spirit that wanted nobody to suffer felt the grief of the whole city. The charred earth was black with it. Watered with tears, her spirit grew. She towered up like a great tree of light, she arched down like a willow over the city’s broken heart. The prayers of the city rose into the sky, and power from the sky poured down on her like the sun.
‘Please,’ they prayed in the ruins of the cathedral, ‘let this be the last time. Please,’ they prayed as the new cathedral rose, ‘no matter what happens, let this one never fall.’
And it never has.