The Perfect Princess

When the princess was born, her country was so poor that the king and queen could only afford one fairy godmother at her christening, and not a very experienced one. The young fairy was overwhelmed by the responsibility. She could only give one gift to the baby, and the future of the nation hinged upon her choice. Should it be wisdom, so that if the princess grew up to be queen, she could guide her people to prosperity? Should it be beauty, so she could win the heart of a rich prince and bring foreign wealth to the country?

The poor fairy dithered at the cradle for a good five minutes, while the courtiers tutted and tapped their feet impatiently. Then, finally, her face lit up. She had the answer! One gift that would cover all eventualities!

‘Your Highness -’ she waved her wand over the cradle – ‘I give you the gift of absolute perfection.

And so the princess grew up as beautiful as a swan and as wise as an owl, as gentle as a lamb and as brave as a lion. Everything she tried, she did perfectly. She was always loving, always virtuous. She never so much as whispered an unkind word.

Princes came from all over the world to court her; but after a few days in her company, they always turned away. ‘Your Highness,’ they would say, ‘I feel ashamed to stand next to you. You are better than me at everything, even slaying dragons. I can give you nothing.’

‘You could give me love,’ she wanted to say, ‘for I am lonely.’ But she was perfect, so she simply smiled, and thanked them, and let them go.

Years passed, and the perfect princess began to wonder if she would die an old maid. Then one day a ragged minstrel came to the court, selling songs and stories for a few copper coins or a bowl of soup. He was weather-beaten and unshaven, and he bowed before the princess with a rakish grin.

‘So you are the perfect woman,’ he said. ‘Tell me, Your Highness, are you happy?’

Nobody had ever asked the princess this; they just assumed, because she always smiled. She would have liked to say yes, because she hated to make anyone feel bad; but she was perfect, and so she could not lie. ‘No,’ she said. ‘I am terribly lonely. I have no friends, no man to love me. Even my own family are ill at ease around me.’

‘I can see why,’ said the minstrel. ‘Being perfect is really a terrible flaw.’

Because she was perfect, the princess was not angry, but she was hurt. ‘How so?’ she said.

‘It’s so boring. If everyone were perfect, we storytellers would starve. The only story in the world would be, ‘Once upon a time, they all lived happily ever after,’ and who would ever pay to hear that? Look at you. Not a hair out of place, not a freckle, not the slightest asymmetry to your smile. If that were beauty, men would marry dolls.’

The princess blushed, with a curious mixture of emotions.

‘Then – are you not ashamed to stand next to me?’ she said.

‘Not at all,’ said the tattered man with his wide irrepressible grin. ‘I think I look rather handsome standing next to you.’

‘Even though I am perfect at singing and telling stories too?’

‘Well,’ said the minstrel, ‘it would be very quiet in the forest if only the best birds sang.’

‘I think,’ said the princess slowly, ‘I should like to see you again – if you think you could put up with my flaws.’

Some months later, the minstrel came to ask the king for his daughter’s hand in marriage. The poor old king nearly had apoplexy; he had pinned all his hopes on her marrying a wealthy prince. But the queen, who had long since given up hope of her marrying anyone, was just happy that she had finally found love; and she persuaded her husband to give his blessing.

Since the princess and the minstrel had no money for a proper honeymoon, they set off together in a wooden caravan pulled by two old donkeys, and planned to earn their bread along the way by singing and telling stories.

The princess’s talent was every bit as wonderful as she had claimed; and with the minstrel beside her, and the chemistry between them, they were unstoppable. Everywhere they went, from country to country, people clamoured for more, and threw them gold and silver. They were invited to perform at all the royal courts and all the best castles. They enjoyed themselves so much that their honeymoon lasted for years; and when they finally came back, they came back with enough money to lift their country out of poverty.

In time, they became king and queen; and the king loved his queen to the end of their lives, even though she was perfect.

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The Closed School

‘We have to have lessons in the SCHOOL ROOM!’ yelled Flora from upstairs. Mum and I exchanged glances. The schoolroom was still full of moving-house clutter and DIY dust, but Flora was obsessed. Brought up in freedom, my sister pined for conformity.

She clattered downstairs, wearing her blue gingham sundress over an outgrown party blouse, patent shoes, and her hair in messy pigtails tied with Christmas ribbon.

Mum smiled. ‘Are you Dorothy?’

‘No, this is my UNIFORM!’

She wouldn’t have survived five minutes in a real school.

‘The children who used to go to school here wouldn’t have worn uniforms,’ said Mum.

‘I can see that. But the girls are all wearing things a bit like this.’ She frowned at me in my home-made tie-dye and ripped jeans. ‘Molly says YOU look like a street arab.’

‘Well, you tell Molly I’ve been bullied plenty by actual live, visible, non-imaginary kids, and she doesn’t scare me!’

‘Flora,’ said Mum over me, ‘we don’t use racist language. Where did you even learn that?’

‘I just told you. Molly just said it.’ She turned her head and looked intently at thin air for a moment. It really creeped me out when she did this. ‘Can we do modern history today? Can we bring the record player? They’ve never heard the Beatles!

‘Sweetie,’ said Mum, ‘I don’t want to limit your imagination, but you’re making Fauna uncomfortable.’

‘No she’s not,’ I lied. ‘I don’t mind having History with a bunch of dead kids. Bring it on.’


‘Molly’s sorry,’ said Flora later, when we were walking Bramble. ‘She wants to be friends with you. They all do.’

‘No they don’t. They don’t exist.’

‘You’re just saying that because you’re scared! They’re not scary! They’re not skeletons or anything.’

‘Yes they are. Smashed-up, bombed-out, buried skeletons. There’s probably bits of their bones embedded in the ground where the bomb went off. They’re dead. Dead dead dead. And I do not want to hear about them walking around my house!’

Flora looked up at me with saucer eyes. For a second I thought she was going to cry. Then her expression hardened. ‘Right,’ she said. ‘We’re going to see Miss Carver. Molly wanted me to say hello to her anyway.’

‘What? Why?’

‘Because she was Molly’s old best friend. She was the only kid that survived. That’s why her face is like that.’

‘Flora, no, bad idea. Flora, leave her alone!’ But she was already dashing off up the hill to Miss Carver’s house. Miss Carver was shuffling around her front garden in bedroom slippers with a watering can. She smiled at us. On one side a sweet old-lady smile, all crinkles and twinkles; on the other side the grin of a dried-up dead thing. The burned side of her face looked like a tangle of half-melted rubber bands that pulled her mouth and nose out of shape and dragged her eye down till you could see the red inside.

‘Hello!’ said Flora. ‘Can I ask you a question?’

‘All roight,’ Miss Carver chuckled in her broad Gloucestershire accent.

‘Was your best friend at school called Molly? And did she have red hair and wonky teeth? And was her doll called Topsy? And did you and her steal cider from her dad and throw up in the gazunder?’

Miss Carver’s smile dropped. ‘Where’d you ‘ear all that? Nobody in this village…’

‘Molly! Molly said it! She said to tell you that she misses you and to sing you a song about boats.’

Miss Carver put the watering-can down on the garden wall. Her hand was shaking. ‘A song about boats, dear?’

Flora put her hands behind her back and puffed her chest out. ‘Loight in the darkness, sailor, day is at hand -’ she sang tunelessly.

‘Don’t make fun of her accent!’ I hissed.

‘I’m not! It’s how Molly sings it!
See o’er the foaming billows fair haven’s land,
Drear was the voyage, sailor, now almost o’er,
Safe within the lifeboat, sailor, pull for the shore.’

‘Flora, shut up, it’s not about boats -’

‘PULL for the shore, sailor, pull for the shore!
Heed not the rolling waves, but bend to the oar;
Safe in the lifeboat, sailor, cling to self no more!
Leave the poor old stranded wreck, and pull for the shore!’

I’d never seen such an old person cry before. Tears oozed out of her red lashless eye. ‘I’m sorry! I’m sorry about my sister!’ I grabbed Flora’s arm and ran away, pulling her and Bramble behind me.

‘Believe me now?’

We panted up to the schoolhouse, and I stopped. BOYS and GIRLS still carved over the two front doors, faded hopscotch in the playground. This was my home now, and I was scared to go in the front gate.


‘Leave the light on.’

‘They’re not scary!’ said Flora from the bottom bunk.

‘I said LEAVE THE LIGHT ON.’ I put my head under the covers, and for the first time in years, I found myself sucking my thumb.

An ambulance siren wailed in the distance. ‘Hello, it’s coming up the high street. It’s someone in the village,’ said Flora. I felt her get out of bed and heard the curtains being drawn. The siren stopped. ‘It’s outside Miss Carver’s! I’ve got to go and find Molly!’

Her small footsteps pattered out of the room, and I was on my own.

It was a long time before Flora came back, and when she did, she was crying. She crawled up the ladder and into my arms.

‘Hey, it’s okay. What’s the matter? It’s okay, I’m here…’

‘They’ve gone,’ she sobbed into my shoulder. I could feel her tears soaking through my pyjama shirt. ‘Everyone’s gone. Molly’s gone. There’s no school any more.’


‘Miss Carver died. They were only waiting for her.’ She looked up at me. ‘I wish you’d seen. She was beautiful. But I couldn’t go.’ She curled into me again. ‘I want my friends.’

‘I’m here,’ I said again. There was nothing else I could say.


I must have been asleep when Flora crept out of my bed. When I woke up sunlight was spilling across the carpet, and my sister was sprawled in the pool of light surrounded by pens and coloured pencils, scribbling intently in an exercise book.

‘What’s that?’

She held up the cover. NEW SCHOOL BUSINESS PLAN, it said, in bubble writing with little mortar boards and apples drawn around it. ‘This place doesn’t want to be just a house,’ she said. ‘Think about it. This way Mum could teach us and make money at the same time. And Dad could work here too. He’s always moaning about his commute and the headmaster. He could be the headmaster. It could be a school for kids who get bullied in other places.’

‘Hmm,’ I said. ‘I suppose that could be okay. If it’s a really small school. And no uniform.’

‘Will you come with me to show this to Mum and Dad?’

‘All right.’

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The Flyhounds and the Dragons

Queen Ambergold of Azuria stood on the palace steps, and the great battledogs bowed before her.

‘Your Majesty,’ said brindled Storm, steed to the queen’s best knight, ‘we have an idea. A way to repel the Viridian invasion.’

‘Your thoughts are welcome,’ said the queen, and she smiled politely at the expectant dogs; but despair and hope were fighting in her breast. Her small mountain kingdom had little chance against the empire of Viridia.

‘The issue is one of numbers,’ said Storm. ‘Numbers and dragons. If we can match their numbers, and take their steeds out of the sky, then we can win.’

‘Well – yes,’ said the queen, trying not to look appalled as the dog stated the obvious. If you all grew wings and learned to breathe fire, she thought, we could win too.

‘May I introduce our new allies, Your Majesty. Fierce, loyal, eager to serve, numerous as the stars, and, I believe, equipped to take down a dragon.’

For a moment it seemed as if a gust of wind had whirled a million dead leaves into the air; then it seemed as if a million furry butterflies were fluttering down. Flyhounds. The tiny dogs folded their winglike ears, each one bigger than their bodies, and settled in the courtyard and on the stoical battledogs’ heads.

Azurian flyhounds, with their insatiable appetite for midges, kept the damp and misty kingdom habitable; but they were so small that when they hunted bumblebees, they hunted in packs.

The queen wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry; if not for a lifetime of etiquette training, she would probably have done both.

‘Little ones, your courage does you great honour,’ she said. ‘But tell me, how do you plan to kill a dragon?’

The flyhounds squeaked excitedly, too high for human ears to understand.

‘We have no interest in killing dragons,’ said Storm. ‘They are innocents enslaved against their will. The Viridians break their spirits when they are hatchlings. All we need to do is induce them to throw their riders. I suggest you order the flyhounds to aim for the insides of the ears. The inside of a dragon’s ear is very ticklish.’

At dawn, the small Azurian army watched from the cliffs as the sky over the sea grew black with dragons. The battledogs’ hackles bristled under their armour, and the knights who rode them swore soldiers’ prayers and gripped the pommels of their swords. And down in the short cliff-grass, among the flowers of thrift and samphire, the flyhounds waited.

Suddenly, the dragons were overhead, blotting out the sun, their fiery breath scything through the army. The wave of flyhounds rose up from the earth, each tiny warrior smaller than the blink of a dragon’s eye. Some died in that first blast of flame; their bodies fluttered to the ground like flakes of ash from a bonfire.

The rest pressed on, aiming for the dragons’ ears, as the Azurian knights tried desperately to hold their own against fire and sword and lance and talon, and the Viridian knights on dragonback jeered and yelled in triumph.

Then the first dragon began to shake its head. Several flyhounds lost their toeholds in its ears; one hung on with its teeth. More flyhounds joined the attack, and soon the dragon was shaking its whole body like a dog coming out of water, while the knight clung helplessly around its neck, being tossed to and fro like an armoured doll.

And then the most astonishing sound was heard: a dragon’s laughter. It was rusty, because the dragon had never before had reason to laugh; but it made the cliffs ring.

Soon the Viridian knights were dropping from the sky, as dragon after dragon began to shake and roar with laughter. Most survived the fall because of their armour, but few survived without broken bones; and those that did had to fight on foot, against knights on armoured battledogs. And in the sky the dragons swooped and laughed at them.

‘Fly away,’ the flyhounds whispered in their ears. ‘Go to the mountains, hide in the caves. Never go back to your masters! You are dragons!’

And the beleaguered knights of Viridia looked up to find their steeds had disappeared.

Before the sun set, the commander of the Viridian army knelt and laid his sword at the queen’s feet, asking only for permission to bury his dead. Peace settled on the cliffs, and the knights of both armies moved quietly together over the battlefield, taking up the dead and nursing the wounded. The only sound was the tiny voices of the flyhounds howling for their fallen comrades.

The queen gave orders for every flyhound who died that day to be buried with full honours; and to each one who survived she gave a very tiny medal.

The loss of their dragons was a terrible blow to the Viridian empire; but worse was the story, which followed the defeated knights back home, that their formidable army had been defeated by laughter. In far-flung corners of the empire, slaves and serfs began to wonder: if dragons can throw off their masters and laugh, and fly away, then maybe, one day…

And so Viridia began to crumble. It would be many years before it finally fell; but from that day on, the flag of rebellion bore the emblem of a flyhound, and the motto: LAUGHTER CONQUERS FEAR.

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When Malaika was twenty-one she dozed off at her desk and had a dream that changed her life. It was just one image: a little girl’s face looking up at her, with eyes full of awe and profound hero-worship. Malaika felt completely unworthy.
She woke up certain that the dream was prophetic. One day she was going to meet that little girl, and when she did, she was determined to be worthy of the look in her eyes. From that moment on Malaika vowed to be a better person.
She thought perhaps the child was her future daughter; so when she married and had children, she worked hard to be the best mother she could be. She had three daughters, and all of them loved her, but none of them looked like the child in her dream. She would have to look further afield to find that one little girl she needed to impress.
So she started to write children’s books. She put her heart and soul into it, and after several years, she became quite famous. She went to schools and booksignings, and children pressed around her, looking up at her with admiring smiles; but she was always hoping in vain to meet the solemn eyes of the little girl in her dream.
She had to do more. She started to use her fame to do high-profile fundraising stunts for charity. She became the oldest woman to climb Everest. She was made a Dame. She went to children’s hospitals and orphanages to present them with huge cheques. She saw children look at her with gratitude that brought tears to her eyes; but her little girl was nowhere to be found.
As she grew older, and her health declined, she started to despair. She was afraid it had been nothing but a dream after all, and she’d spent her whole life chasing after something that didn’t exist.
She fought to stay alive, just in case. Another year, another month, another day, another minute – and then it was over. Her life was over, and her dream had never come true.
Time stopped for her, and the events of her life rolled back beneath her like a landscape seen from the air. She saw her illness progress backwards until she was healthy again; she saw herself kneeling before the Queen; she saw herself gasping with joy and exhaustion on the summit of Everest; she saw the eyes of every child she’d helped, and every child who had loved her books. She saw her books unwrite themselves, her daughters unborn. She saw her dream again. She saw her teenage years, her childhood. She hovered above her child-self tucked up in bed.
And then the child Malaika looked up, and caught her eyes. ‘I see you, ghost!’
‘I’m not a ghost. I’m you.’
‘You can’t be, you’re too old!’
‘I’m you when you’re an old, old woman.’
‘Then do you know everything I’ll ever do? Do you know what I’ll be when I grow up? Tell me!’
And Malaika told her. She told her child-self of all the exploits of her life, the person she was destined to become. And as she talked, she watched. She saw the solemn awe that dawned and deepened in the child’s eyes. And she realised, at long, long last, who it was she had been trying to impress…

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Shanty was hot. She stood up in her coracle, balancing between the turquoise water and the sky, and dolphin-dived over the side. A splash of cool bubbles tickled her skin. She swam underwater and looked up at the round bottom of her coracle bobbing black against the rippling sun. She was proud of her boat, and how far it had carried her.
She came up gasping and scrambled back in, coconuts and mangoes rolling round the bottom of the boat as it rocked with her weight. She squeezed out the salt-frayed rope of her hair and took up the oar again. Her thin dress would dry in minutes in the baking English sun. She looked down at herself, admiring the way the wet fabric clung to her small breasts, and how the muscles of her arms worked at the oar.
A woman, she thought. By this time tomorrow I’ll be a woman – if I’ve got my compass bearings right…
She checked her compass again. What would happen if she was hopelessly lost? Could she just go home and tell them she’d seen the cathedral? Would they know? It didn’t matter, she thought. She’d know. That was how a coming-of-age quest worked. You could pretend, but then you’d have to live the rest of your life pretending to be an adult, and knowing that you really weren’t.
She scanned the horizon for the hundredth time. Straight ahead, a ghostly daytime moon was rising on the sea. Wait – straight ahead? That meant she was heading due east, which meant something had gone horribly wrong -
She blinked, and what she’d thought was the moon became suddenly clear. A fractured dome rising out of the waves, a spark of gold glinting from the top. St. Paul’s.
‘Haaaaaaaa!’ She held her oar over her head, and the lonely sea listened as she yelled in triumph.
St Paul’s was hours away yet. As the afternoon wore on, she began to pass more signs of habitation, clusters of houseboats and broken towers where children swung like monkeys. But the dome seemed to keep floating away from her, while the palms of her hands burned from rowing and her muscles ached.
Towards sunset, with the sweat cooling on her tired body, she looked up and saw the cathedral looming suddenly much closer. She saw birds wheeling in clouds around the dome, heard the familiar cries of gulls and the pew-pew-pew of parakeets, and below the waves, the echo of drowned bells.
Then she was close enough to hear the tide washing in and out through the windows with hollow clops and sighs, and see the barnacles and algae on the sea-wet stones. Close enough to touch. When do I become a woman? she thought. Is it now? She watched her hand reach out, rocking with the boat, watched the tips of her fingers touch the cathedral. The stone felt cool and rough. No mysterious bolt of grown-up wisdom struck her. She felt just the same.
Pushing off with her hand, she steered her coracle through the window, into the dome. A huge airy space, dim and full of echoes and the smell of the sea. Birds darted through the sunbeams that glanced down into the green water, and ripples of light danced across the ceiling, flashing on gold leaf and jewel-coloured mosaics. The whole inside of the dome was a riot of art, winged and robed figures, plants and animals, words in a language she didn’t know. ‘Ahhhhhhh,’ she breathed, and the cathedral whispered it back.
‘Ahoy, dear,’ called a friendly voice from across the water. Shanty jumped. An old woman was waving at her from a rocking chair on the deck of a tiny houseboat moored in the shadows. The roof of the boat was completely covered with nesting, bickering birds.
‘Ahoy!’ Shanty rowed across to meet her. ‘Are you the Storyteller here?’
‘That’s me!’ the old lady said cheerfully. ‘Coming-of-age quest, is it?’ Shanty nodded. ‘Goodness, you get younger every year. What’s your name, then?’
‘And where have you come from?’
‘The Cotswolds.’
‘Ah, such lovely islands. Best coconuts in England.’
Shanty smiled. ‘I’ve brought you some. For the story.’
‘Well, aren’t you a sweetheart! Thank you, dear. But the sun’ll be setting soon. Have a look around under the water first – and be sure to look at the portico over that way.  Then swim back here and tell me what you see, and I’ll tell you the story.’
‘I wish I didn’t have to breathe,’ said Shanty when she came back. ‘I wish I could have stayed down there forever.’
‘Ah, it gets a lot of people that way, the first time. Which faith are you, little one?’
‘None, really, I just – oh, you know. Everything. The sky, the sea, the land – it all feels full of something. Like a spirit. And being here, it feels like being right inside its heart, and I -’
‘And you love it,’ said the old woman.
‘Sensible girl. Now, tell me what you saw.’ She patted the wall of the houseboat, and Shanty scrambled out of the water onto the deck. There was barely room for her to curl up by the rocking chair.
‘I saw statues. Tall people in robes just standing under the sea. They had a quiet feeling about them. Watchful and gentle. Some of them had their hands held out, as if they were giving something. They were good people, weren’t they?’
‘The best,’ said the Storyteller. ‘They were saints. Tell me, what else did you see?’
‘It’s a palace. A whole palace just for people to sit and love the – the thing – that’s all it’s for, and everything’s so beautiful, so much art, and that’s all the art is for too – and now it’s all underwater, and only the fish and the statues can see it. It ought to feel sad, but it doesn’t. It feels… waiting.’
The old woman nodded. ‘Did you go to the south portico, like I told you? What did you see there?’
‘A stone bird rising out of a stone fire, and a word I didn’t understand.’
‘Resurgam,’ said the Storyteller. ‘I shall rise again. This cathedral rose from fire once, and she will rise from water one day too. You see, this has always been a sacred place, since Ludgate Hill was green…’
Shanty shuffled back, hugging her wet knees, as the Storyteller’s chair began to rock. She listened to the long tale of St. Paul’s, as the sun sank down towards the sea and threw a path of molten copper through the dome.  
When the story drew to a close, dusk had fallen, and early stars were winking through the cracked ceiling. She realised she could hear singing in the distance.
‘What’s that?’
‘Wait and see, my dear, wait and see…’
Soft golden lights were bobbing on the sea outside. Voices joined from all directions, different songs weaving together in a complicated harmony. In through the windows sailed the boats, with lanterns on their masts and candles in the bows. The warm light glowed on the dark water, and bathed the figures on the ceiling in gold.
‘Oh, what is it?’
The old lady lit a candle, and held it out to her. ‘As I said – this has always been a sacred place.’
Pulled by the music, Shanty took her candle, stepped into her coracle and rowed out into the throng of boats. Threads of music rose out of the harmony, caught her for a moment and drifted away.
O Lord, open Thou our lips, and our mouth shall show forth Thy praise…
Om Mani Padme Hum…
Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar…
Return, return, return, return, the earth, the water, the fire and the air…

There was even a group of people who just sat peacefully, making no sound at all.
Shanty knew no hymns or spiritual songs, but her heart was bursting with love that wanted to be expressed. Lost in the great tapestry of sound, she sang the first song of love she had ever learned, her mother’s wordless lullaby. The great sea rocked her as she sang, here in the heart of everything.
She came back to herself as the boats began to disperse. The Storyteller was smiling at her, a knowing smile.
‘I – I’m ready,’ Shanty said, realising the truth as she spoke. ‘My quest – it’s done.’
‘Then come here,’ said the Storyteller, reaching out to help her aboard the houseboat. Shanty knelt, and the old lady held a hand above her head in blessing.
‘By the power of stories and the sacredness of St. Paul’s, I pronounce you a woman, Shanty of the Cotswold Isles.’

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Kit Wren was getting face-ache from pretending to smile. As the king’s golden-boy architect, he probably didn’t have to be polite to the Verger, he just couldn’t help it. He trailed after the old man up and down the aisles of St. Paul’s, making notes and sketches and fantasising about telling him what he really thought.
The medieval cathedral made him queasy. It was like the plates of leftovers you gave to the servants after a party – all those fancy dishes, roast meat and jelly and cake and marchpane, lumped together anyhow into a nasty sloppy mess. It had been battered and botched by generations of hands, struck by lightning and used as a Roundhead cavalry stable, and then Inigo Jones had puked Greek columns on it. And that wooden roof was a massive fire hazard. In his opinion, the whole thing ought to come down.
He could design a cathedral, the cathedral, from scratch… He shivered among the tombs, trying to sneak his towering daydreams past the eerie stone knights. Suddenly, something moved. He jumped back in panic, skidded and almost fell over.
The Verger chuckled. ‘She’s harmless.’ He nodded in the direction of the movement. Kit saw bright hollow eyes and wild grey hair emerging from a dirty blanket. A beggar. ‘We call her Anna,’ said the Verger.
‘Ah…’ Kit nodded. ‘Anna departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day. You let her live here?’
‘Certainly not. That would be illegal. We simply… don’t notice her.’
He saw Anna again later, after the fire. When he brought workmen and gunpowder to demolish the charred ruins, she was there, black with soot and ragged as a crow, trying to scream at him in a croaking ghost of a voice. She clung to the altar and clawed at anyone who came near. The city watch had to come and take her away. She gave him nightmares.
In his nightmares he got close enough to see her face clearly, and ice crawled down his skin as he finally realised. She had burned to death in the fire. This blackened, withered, voiceless screaming thing was her corpse.
‘You don’t seem very excited, sir,’ said Davy, the foreman. ‘First stone of your new cathedral.’
‘Oh, I am,’ lied Kit – Sir Christopher, now. He was sweating under his powdered wig in the June heat, once again wishing he could say what he was thinking. Almost a decade since the old one burned down. Most of it spent trying to get everyone to agree on a design. More and more compromises, watching his dream cathedral get paler and flabbier and more middle-aged along with his body. He was tired. And going to the site made him nervous. He always felt as if that thing was lurking somewhere.
At least now the sweaty dignitaries in their velvet robes had gone home, and the real work could begin. One stone down and a million to go. He wiped his face with a lace handkerchief.
‘I am a brother to dragons,’ whispered a hoarse voice behind him, ‘and a companion to owls. My skin is black upon me, and my bones are burned with heat.’
Fear hit him in the stomach like a punch. ‘D-Davy? What’s behind me? Do I want to know?’
The foreman looked baffled. ‘Just a poor old woman, sir.’
He turned. Just a poor old woman, tiny, white-haired, starved, looking up at him with eyes full of deep sorrow. He felt foolish and ashamed. ‘My harp also is turned to mourning,’ she said to him, ‘and my organ into the voice of them that weep. Here endeth the first lesson.’ Her thin voice wavered into a cracked attempt at singing. ‘All ye Works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord: praise him, and magnify him for ever.’ She held out her sticklike arms, trailing rags, turning slowly on the spot in the field of rubble. ‘O ye Angels of the Lord, bless ye the Lord: praise him, and magnify him for ever.’
The workmen stared in silence. What was she trying to do – to rebuild the cathedral out of thin air? To fill this great yawning space with just that nothing of a voice? How many services had she held here alone?
Anna tipped back her head and addressed the sky. ‘O ye Heavens, bless ye the Lord: praise him, and magnify him for ever. O ye Waters that be above the firmament, bless ye the Lord: praise him, and magnify him for ever.’ As if all this air was St. Paul’s, all the way up and up, a cathedral with the sky for a dome.
He didn’t know he’d started to sing with her until he heard his own voice. ‘Hats off, lads,’ said Davy. ‘Looks like we’re in church.’ And the men joined in, laughing and shouting the familiar hymn as if it was a tavern song, and the rafters of the sky began to ring.
The cathedral was still standing, the shape of it in the air, solid as ever. Only the skin of it had burned. A new skin  – a new vessel to hold all this, to make it visible – suddenly he wanted to go home and design. Wanted to the way he’d wanted to as a young man, up all night, candles everywhere, eating sweetmeats to keep himself awake, sugar-high and shivering with the feeling of creation. The king had said he could make ornamental changes. Fine. He was going to take that and run with it.
He came back to the site the next day, clutching a sheaf of plans and a parcel of food for Anna, giggly with exhaustion, black ink on his fingers and on his lips where he’d been sucking his pen. ‘Morning! A few little changes here. Don’t tell the clergy. We’re having a dome.’

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Aemilia and Fortunata

Lucia Aemilia Prisca held on tight to Fortunata’s hand as they walked into the temple of Diana. As the great doors closed behind them, the street-noise of Londinium disappeared, and the two girls stood alone in the echoing hush. Sunlight filtered down through the mist of incense under the painted dome, and glowed on the gold of Diana’s chiton and the crescent moon that crowned her marble curls.

Aemilia felt the sting of tears at the sight of her. This was the last time, and she was sure Diana knew. They approached her altar slowly, feeling the ground grow holier with each step. Her hands went to her heart as she looked up at her goddess looking down at her, that face the same as ever, wild and luminous and gentle as the moon.

‘Friend of Maidens -’ she started, and then she had to stop. Fortunata squeezed her arm. ‘Lady of the Wild, I – I’m getting married. Tomorrow. I haven’t met him, but Daddy thinks he’s a good match and – anyway, I’ve come to say goodbye. Tomorrow I won’t be a maiden any more, but I’ll always, um –’ She looked down at the mosaic floor, and blinked hard. ‘I’ll always love You. All my life.’

She looked up again at Diana’s face. Her heart felt too big, as if it was pushing into her throat. The tall statue received her love in silence. So many girls had stood at her feet like this, blinking back tears, saying goodbye.

‘I’ve brought You my toys,’ said Aemilia. ‘Not just because it’s tradition, but – it’s a present. Look after them, please, the way You’ve looked after me.’

Fortunata handed her the bag of toys. Aemilia swallowed. This was it. She pulled out her old hobby-horse, long since too small for her to ride. The bittersweet absurdity of it hit her, and she wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. ‘This is Atalanta,’ she said. ‘She was the fastest horse in Britain.’ She laid the hobby-horse on the altar, small and shabby at Diana’s golden-sandalled feet.

‘This is Coral Dog. When I was a baby I cut my teeth on him. This is Lollia.’ She hugged the beautifully carved and dressed doll, jointed limbs in a limp tangle. ‘This is Lalage. It’s Greek for chatterbox. And this one’s Flora. Before I got Fortunata, she was my best friend.’

No matter how she arranged the dolls on the altar, she couldn’t seem to make them look alive.

There was one more toy in the bag – something soft, like a bundle of rags. She pulled out the tattered, ugly home-made doll and stared at it. ‘Fortunata?’ she hissed, as if the goddess might not hear a whisper. ‘Why’s Boudica in here? You don’t have to give your only toy away just cos I’m getting married.’

Fortunata shrugged. ‘Nothing to do with me. She must have climbed in there by herself. I guess she wants to stay with her friends.’

Aemilia burst into tears.


‘What was that all about?’ said Fortunata at bedtime, when she was brushing Aemilia’s hair.

‘Nothing. I was just upset.’

‘Look, I know when you’re hiding something. I can spend all night teasing it out of you, or you can just tell me and we can both get some sleep.’

Aemilia twisted round to look at Fortunata over her shoulder. ‘All right, but you have to promise you won’t get your hopes up. Promise.’


‘Right.’ Aemilia looked down at her hands, twisting the fabric of her nightgown. ‘It was just that I’ve been thinking – aargh, I can’t work out how to say this. Just – this is all completely hypothetical, okay? When I’m married – if I were to ask my husband to set you free, and if he were to say yes – would you still be my friend after you were free?’ A pause. ‘You, um – you’re allowed to say no.’

‘Idiot!’ Fortunata pulled her backwards into a hug, resting her chin on her head. ‘You think I’m only your friend because you own me? I’m your friend in spite of that. Trust me.’


In the middle of the night, Aemilia jumped awake. What was that sound? And was that dawn or moonlight spilling so bright through the window? Fortunata was snoring quietly on the bed beside her. Then the sound came again. ‘Fortunata! Aemilia! Hurry!’

It was a girl’s voice, with a British accent like Fortunata’s. For a second everything seemed normal, just a neighbour’s slave being silly, and Aemilia pattered to the window to tell her off.

The girl standing in the moonlight was nobody Aemilia knew. Tall and beautiful, with wild red hair and golden bracelets on her bare arms, she looked more like a young queen than a slave. ‘Come on!’ she called. ‘Get your cloaks and shoes! You’ll miss the Hunt!’

‘Boudica?’ cried Fortunata behind her.

‘Yes, it’s me! Come on, come on!’

‘Huh?’ Aemilia reeled. ‘What’s happening here? Anyone? Are we dreaming?’

‘Don’t know, don’t care,’ said Fortunata. ‘It’s Boudica.’ She slung a cloak around Aemilia’s shoulders, and stood her in the moonlight to pin the brooch.

‘Your rag doll? Her?’

‘It’s what she’s always looked like in my head. What are you waiting for? Let’s go.’

As they scrambled out of the window, Boudica caught them by the hands, and the next thing they knew they were running. At least, they thought they were running, though afterwards neither could remember feeling their feet touch the ground. Bigger and brighter stars flashed overhead, and the night wind rushed past them, full of the scent of nocturnal flowers, and dewy earth, and trees. They were in a clearing in a wood. Dark leaves rustled overhead, and dazzling moonlight slanted down among them and spilled onto the ground. Aemilia shivered, not with cold but with the mystery in the air.

‘We’re here,’ said Boudica. Aemilia heard a flute playing in the distance, high voices singing and whooping, and then suddenly a wave of dancing figures whirled into the clearing. Nymphs, thought Aemilia, and then she and Fortunata were pulled into the dance, tossed and spun from one laughing girl to the next, hair and limbs flying.

‘Aemilia, Aemilia!’ A fair-haired girl caught her hands and danced away with her. ‘It’s me, it’s Flora! Welcome to the Hunt!’

Aemilia stared, trying to make sense of it, to recognise her doll in the living, moving, life-sized face in front of her. Then they waltzed into the moonlight, and Aemilia saw. The friend of her childhood. Tears blurred her eyes but she was laughing, breathlessly, as Flora spun her into the arms of Lalage and Lollia. The three girls hugged her, and the Coral Dog leaped around them, wagging and barking with joy.

‘I thought I’d never see you again! I thought you were – I thought –’ And she started really crying.

‘Don’t cry, we’re alive! Alive, alive, alive! Why do you think they tell you to give your toys to Her?’

‘To Her – ’And the dance suddenly stopped. A beat after everyone else, Aemilia dropped to her knees, as Diana rode into the clearing on Atalanta’s back.

She was the moon. The moonlight gathered in her and she shone. She pulled Aemilia to her like the tide.

Her radiance filled the clearing as she slipped from the saddle of the noble beast that had once been a child’s toy. Aemilia started to shake. The goddess was walking towards her. The moon was walking on earth.

And then she was so close that Aemilia had to tip her head back to look up at her, and she recognised – not the features but the feeling of her, wild and luminous and gentle, the goddess she loved. Diana made a small gesture, and Aemilia found herself rising to her feet as if drawn by strings – so close, she could have touched her, but she was afraid she’d die.

‘Lady-’ Her voice came out in a whisper. ‘Lady, thank You – I – why are You being so nice to me?’

Diana smiled, and Aemilia realised that her goddess was amused by her. ‘We all like to be loved,’ she said softly. ‘And besides, this is not just for you.’ She held out her hand and Aemilia felt, rather than saw, Fortunata coming to her side. ‘Both of you have pleased Me.’

‘Arduinna,’ breathed Fortunata.

The two girls joined hands, without taking their eyes off the goddess. ‘Can we stay with You forever?’

‘You can stay until sunrise.’

To Aemilia’s surprise, it was Fortunata who dissolved in tears. Diana bent her shining head, and kissed the tears away.

‘I am the Moon,’ she said. ‘Every month I turn dark with sorrow for the maidens who leave Me. Every month I shine with joy for the maidens I meet for the first time. And this is right. I hold everything you leave behind. Your wildness and your purity, your dances and your dreams. Nothing is lost.’

She held out her silver hands. Fortunata caught hold right away, moonlight spilling between her fingers. Aemilia reached out, shaking, and flinched back, and held her breath, and finally dared to touch the hand of her goddess.

Her skin felt warm, and human, and Aemilia felt the power of her flooding up her arm, through her body and Fortunata’s, linking the three of them in an endless ring. The flute started up again somewhere, as Diana spun them all into the dance.

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‘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.

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