Author: David Barber

Peter had noticed the hippy girl earlier, as he loitered near a tour party, eavesdropping on the French tour guide. The chap was enthusing about Marie de France, mediaeval author of tales of chivalry, who was born in this castle, but Peter’s French wasn’t up to it. In the end he trudged up the steps of the ruined tower instead.

At home, stairs with no railings, loose masonry and abrupt drops would have been fenced off, but the French just shrugged, put up a warning sign and left you to it. He emerged from a dark spiral staircase onto a rooftop with dazzling views across the valley.

And there was the girl, leaning over the battlements. Even in Peter’s youth, clothes like that had gone out of fashion; sandals just brushed by an Indian print skirt, lilac tie-die top and a bandanna.

“Careful,” Peter said, without thinking.

She turned to look, ravishingly pretty, with freckles.

“I mean, don’t trust the stonework. Eight hundred year old mortar.”

He busied himself with the view; she didn’t need her afternoon spoiled by some old fusspot.

“Do you know Marie de France’s tale of Guinevere and Sir Lanfal?” she asked. “Written when this mortar was still new.”

“No, I…”

“Sous le marteau du destin dur, la foi est l’enclume du cœur?”

“Um, under the hammer of fate, something something heart.”

“Faith is the anvil of the heart.” She inclined her head. “Well done.”

Under the hammer of being patronised, his favourable impression faded.

The blustery wind swelled her skirt like a sail. “A misjudged costume. From a distance all these years look the same.”

Despite appearances, something told him she wasn’t young at all.

“But these are safe times. Civilised times. Two travellers having a chat. Neither of us armed. Not like when this castle was built. Or when it’s flattened. Perhaps Marie de France stood where you are standing now.”

Peter studied the view thoughtfully.

“I did consider visiting her, but it involved knights and servants and horses. And speaking Anglo-Norman. Besides, she was just a child here.”

He’d known someone at Oxford who had episodes of schizophrenia. Did she hear voices? Was she pestered by Marie de France?

“I love conversations like this,” she went on. “Confronting the past and telling them where they went wrong.”

Everything about her was perfect. Perfect face. Perfect teeth. A perfect mad smile. Perhaps he should go back down now.

“This is a curious age. Somehow word got out the future was like a bad neighbourhood you drove through by mistake, with doors locked, staring straight ahead at stop lights while some undesirable raps on the window. But what you dreaded came and went.”

She began pacing about. “Global warming? The rising waters set us free of nationhood in vast armadas. And deserts are just unused solar farms. Go South, young man. Antarctica, land of opportunity!”

“Ha ha.” He’d read science fiction. “Should you be telling me this? Risking the fabric of time.”

“You were the greedy ones who devoured our share, who wanted nothing to change. Frankly, we despise you.”

Of course he felt sorry for her, but he didn’t need a madwoman spoiling his afternoon.

“You think I’m mad, and it’s true, we’re not like you, not like you at all. You’d hate our world.”

“That tour party will be up here soon, so…”

“Yes,” she added, calmer now. “Perhaps a mistake to reveal so much. But it’s no problem, I think I know your future.”

She followed him closely down the dark twisting staircase.

“Dangerous places, castles.”