I felt sure, in my youthful naïveté, that the truth she spoke of was already breaking in on me and would never depart. I had no conception of how far I still had to fall and how deeply I would forget - and worse than that - to deny to myself, though mercifully not to others, that these events had taken place. But I knew no better at the time. What I did know was that her words were true. They had the mark of authenticity. It wasn't just the evidence of my senses - the hunger in my belly (because, of course, I was now very late home for my tea), the cool evening air, the breeze whipping her hair across her face. It was more than this. It was that sense of homecoming again, that consciousness which had been growing ever since Marcus beckoned me over, of being in the right place with the right people - my place, my people.
'I was last on Earth in Arthur's time,' she continued. 'My name is Dindrane. I have been nearly fifteen hundred years in the sacred city of Sarras, which is invisible to human eyes and will remain so until the day of the Great Unveiling. Upon my return, two nights ago, I found the Empire more shattered and broken than ever I could have imagined. Not so much in its physical form, which is ephemeral and far from essential, but in spirit and imagination. So much has been lost; so much forgotten. And we have brought it on ourselves. Neither Saxon nor Turk could have wrought such inner havoc. To forget is the gravest sin of all, both for an individual and a civilisation. And that is why I have been sent - to kindle the fire of anamnesis and to guide and inspire you as we rebuild the Empire, first as a counterpoint to the darkness and then as its conqueror.
'I was born in Dumnonia, in the far South-West. My father, Gerren the Fleet Owner, was King there, and my brother, Percivale, as is well known, later supped from the Grail with Galahad and Bors. There was no High King in Britain at that time. Vortigern, who had last claimed that title, was dead and gone, duped by the Saxons he had hired to keep the Picts at bay. The country was a chaos, a smoking ruin, a formless, pirate-riven mess. Our father mourned the Romans' departure and hoped that Brittania would one day return to the Imperial fold. But there was very little of the Empire left after Vortigern's death, so he swore allegiance instead to the young Romano-British prince Ambrosius Aurelianus who was quietly gathering his forces in the mountain fastnesses of northern Cymru. And when the call to arms came, my father's ships harried the enemy so effectively in the Channel that the campaign was already half won before the cavalry routed the Saxons at the Durobrivae Bridge. Then Ambrosius became High King and ruled southern Britain from Venta Belgarum for fifteen years, while Arthur, the Dux Brittaniorum, pushed the barbarians back in the North and East as far as the Antonine Wall.
'I was just three when our father sent us to live with Ambrosius at Venta. Gerren had an eye on our education, for the High King had a passion for learning and had invited scholars from Hibernia and Gaul to teach Latin, Greek and Divinity to the children of rich and poor alike. Ambrosius was a slight, dark man with clear grey eyes that glimmered with a soft and secret golden light. He was unmarried and childless and treated us as his own offspring. We loved him greatly and sorrowed deeply when he died, gouged on the antlers of a royal stag while hunting in the woods one frosty Friday morning.
'So Arthur was crowned High King in his place, and with his magus Merlin beside him extraordinary things started to happen. Camelot was built and Caerleon remade. Churches sprang up across the land and the flames of countless votive shrines were lit along the Roman roads and our ancient British trackways. Arthur consecrated his realm to the Mother of God in a solemn Mass at Canterbury, and there was joy and expectation everywhere, a sense that we were standing on the brink of something wonderful and unprecedented.
'Arthur was like the Sun. Like Christ. With his brown hair and beard he reminded me of the icons of the Saviour at the convent at Almesbury. Ever since coming East, I had wanted to join the sisters there and spend my life in silent adoration. And now I was seventeen, with just a year left before I was deemed old enough. But I became very close at that time to the Lord Taliessin, the King's Poet and Captain of Horse. I see him now. I see him always - thin and intense, with wide blue eyes and a shock of wild blonde hair. I came alive in his presence in ways I had thought impossible, and my heart and mind were torn. I would accompany him sometimes on various official trips, and on one of these, to the Roman fortress of Rutupiae on the Isle of Thanatus, my fate was decided in a singular and unexpected fashion.
'It was an August afternoon, the sun concealed behind banks of high white cloud. Taliessin had gone with Bors to inspect the new sea defences and I was left alone to wander the jetties, with the cries of gulls and the hammers and saws of the stone-mason's yards and the boat sheds ringing in my ears. Then, in a quiet place I had found to pray in - an ancient store room lined with sandstone blocks of fallen vaulting - I beheld, as if waiting for me there, Merlin and his sister Brisen, both tall and slender, he with hair as black as a raven's pinions, her as bright and golden as Venus herself. I could tell by the intensity of their gaze that they had come to tell me something serious, but I had no idea that after fifteen hundred years in Sarras and with the weight of eternity behind me that it would be only now - this very night on this very tower - that I would start to sense the full import of the request they made. I am only glad that I said yes. It has been a cross as well as a joy, but I know how easy it is to miss a vocation and I am grateful to have had my destiny shown me so clearly. Not once but twice, as it turned out.
'My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my saviour.'