Hill Fort - A Dream Out Of Time

A short story written especially to get you in the mood for the Iron Age!

The sheep-cropped grass was firm and warm beneath her feet as Zoë walked up the track towards the summit. She had stowed the map in her backpack. She didn’t need it now.  Even had she not been able to see where she was heading she could feel it, the sense of recognition, the agony of remembering, the happiness – she  had forgotten there was  happiness  too– so  quickly wiped by the blood and sweat of the dream.

Pausing, she turned back, looking down the way she  had come. She could see the small distant patch  of  vivid blue, reflecting the sunlight: her car tucked into the hedge at the foot of the easy lower slopes. The car represented all that  had been her life until an hour ago. It contained her suitcases, her personal belongings, everything she had hastily collected from the flat before she left. With a grim smile she turned her back on it and moved on, panting now as the slope grew steeper and she scrambled over the first of the great earth ramparts, barely  more than a shelf on the landscape here, where she was standing,  only truly visible from the air. From a plane. Or from the vantage point of a spirit soaring upwards, free at last of its heavy, wounded body. In the dream, of course.

Behind her the sun was slipping lower.  In the valley a cold veil of mist was slowly filling the bowl of shadows. She couldn’t see the distant river any more.  Soon the sun would be engulfed and there would be a premature dusk. It would leave her up there in the dark.  She didn’t mind. She hadn’t thought about what she was going to do or what was going to happen  once she   reached the top. Her only concern had been that there might be other people there. Modern, noisy, brightly-clad people who had listened attentively to instructions to wear sensible shoes, who had told someone where they were going, and brought water and thermal blankets just in case. Noisy, chatty people. Twenty-first century people. But she needn’t have worried. Those people had listened to the weather warnings. They knew about the coming mist; the likelihood of a storm before morning. They had stayed at home. She was, as she had hoped, completely alone.  No one knew where she was, where she had been or where she was going.

She walked on. She could hear it now, faintly, beating to the sound of her footsteps on the grass, a rhythm that matched the pounding of the blood in her veins. A drum; in the distance there was shouting, and then far away  the eerie call of a bronze trumpet summoning – who? Fright began to eat away at her resolve  for the first time since she had set out to climb the hill and  she paused, staring round again. She couldn’t see another living thing. Nothing moved in the landscape. The sheep she had noticed  earlier were nowhere to be seen; their companionable calls had died away.  The skylark, its piercing trickle of song, the most beautiful and evocative of sounds, had fallen silent.

Her mouth had gone dry. She could feel her breathing, tight and panicky. Suddenly she didn’t want to be alone any more. Surely there was someone else up here? She wished she hadn’t come.

Slowly she turned round  and once more  stared back down the hillside. She could retrace her steps. She would go back to the car, throw herself inside and lock the doors. She would go back home. No one would know where she had been. Tim  wouldn’t have missed her yet. The sun was still well up; it was turning orange, losing its heat, but it was still there. It would be a long while  before it grew  completely dark. She had plenty of time to descend the hill.

She listened. The silence had drawn back.  A breath of wind strayed across the grasses and they stirred with a quiet whisper; somewhere in the distance  she could hear water, a gentle splash of some small mountain spring running over the wet stone ribs of the hill where the thin coating of soil had been worn away. One day, millennia hence,  that small trickle would slice the hillside in two.

Then she heard them. The horses were very close. She could  hear the beat of their hooves, the clink of bits and harness,  feel the ground shake, as they galloped towards her. She closed her eyes. She knew she wouldn’t see them. How could she? They weren’t there. She never saw them, even in the dream. She clenched her fists, feeling the icy trickle of fear between her shoulder blades. One of the horses whinnied as the riders drew to a halt beside her and she felt the hot breath of the animals’ flaring nostrils  in her face. Then the others had ridden on, their hoof beats receding into the distance. Only one man remained.

‘Where are they?’ The voice was in her head.

At last she opened her eyes. ‘I don’t know.’ She was speaking to emptiness.

‘You must know!’

She could picture the sword. Not his sword; one he had picked up from the ground.  It was unsheathed, the blade foul with blood, the delicate enamels  and silver on the hilt blackened and tainted as he raised it towards...


This was now she always woke up. Every time, as he raised the blade her eyes would fly open to find her pillow damp with sweat and tears and she  would fling herself shaking and terrified from the bed.

But this time she wasn’t in bed. She was here on the hillside. She had found the place after years of hunting for clues. She had come deliberately to seek out the nightmare.

Her partner, Tim,  had driven her to it.  ‘I can’t stand it any more!’ he had said after she woke him yet again for perhaps the hundredth time  and stood sobbing and shaking beside the bed.  ’I just can’t bear to see you in so much pain. Either you go and see someone about this or I’m moving out. It’s not normal. No one dreams like this every bloody night! You have to get help. You’re destroying yourself. You are destroying our relationship.’

‘It’s not every night,’ She  replied miserably, clinging to the one item in his list  which was wrong. She was still shaking.  He had turned on the light, the last dregs of sympathy and understanding gone. She couldn’t blame him. It had happened again and again since  she  had moved in with him a few months before. It was as though the presence of the man’s body beside her in the bed had switched the  terrible memory into overdrive.  She had had the dream forever. As long as she could remember.  When she was small it had come perhaps once or twice a year. Then it resurfaced  at times of stress.  But never like this.  Never every single night. At first he had been sympathetic; understanding. Intrigued. Not any more. He was as exhausted as she was. And he didn’t have to live with this.  That morning after he had left for work she  had packed her stuff and left a note. The  relationship  was over. Perhaps it had never really been there at all. If it had, surely he would have understood; tried to help?  She didn’t let herself think too hard about that.  If she did she might  weaken. Stay. Look to him for protection. Remember the love she felt for him and which she was so sure he felt for her.  No, this was her problem, and at last she was facing it head on.

The answers to her questions were there inside her head once she had  dared to look for them.  She had been drawn to this place  for years, photographing, painting, even writing poetry about the great outcrop of hillside with its ancient fort. But she had never climbed it. Some sense of self preservation had stepped in. It was taboo.  There were always  reasons she couldn’t climb it;  good reasons, and  she had never  questioned those reasons too closely. But over the last two or three weeks she  had started to investigate.  She  had looked the place up on Google. She had consulted maps and guidebooks. She had seen the history. She  had read about the massacre, all those millennia ago, leaving no signs on the surface of the hill, leaving  nothing but bones in a hastily dug pit.  Then she knew.

After she had written her farewell note to Tim,  she had forced myself to do the unthinkable. She had driven to the foot of the steep escarpment  and started the long climb up towards the top.

She could still feel the vibration from the horses’ hooves as they stamped on the grass beside her. Desperately she focussed on the feeling.  This is a dream. A powerful dream.

Dreams can’t hurt. Dreams can’t kill.

She forced herself to look round. Nothing. No one. She was alone.

A horse let out a shrill neigh. She could hear the chink of harness.

Dreams can’t hurt. Dreams can’t kill.

Her mouth was dry. She could feel the perspiration icy on her back.

‘Where is he?’  Again the voice in her head.

Who?  Had she ever asked before. But she knew who. Of course she knew.

She raised her eyes in the direction of the voice and then for the first time she saw him. His eyes were the colour of burnished metal, the colour of the hate and anger and hurt which poured from him. They were savage. He wasn’t seeing her. He was focussed only on one thing: to kill the man who -

The man who what?

Through her fear she asked the question at last.

The man who had hurt her. The man who had raped her.

Surely he wasn’t going to kill her, this furious man on the  horse, the man she loved above all others, her husband.  She reached up towards him. ‘No!’ Did she speak out loud? She wasn’t sure.  ‘He’s gone. Long gone.’

The countryside was very still. The mayhem which had torn their lives apart while he was  away hunting had raged over the community within the fort and it  was over.

But it wasn’t over. Death lay behind them, beyond the ramparts. The place which had seemed impregnable had been violated. Father, mother, cousins, neighbours, all lay dead and deep inside her already, the attacker’s seed was growing into a child.

She looked up at him again.  ‘No! Please.’ She was pleading for her life.. ‘Please – ’

‘You betrayed us!’ His voice was quiet.  ‘You showed them the way in.’


‘Why else did they spare you?’  His voice was cold.

‘I didn’t know.  I didn’t understand. They tricked me.’ They were her relatives. As a child bride she had been sworn away as a bargaining tool, her maidenhead  the price of a  peace between the tribes and she had thought them still  her  friends. They had smiled  and greeted her and asked for hospitality and she had led them in.  ‘I didn’t know.  Please.’

‘They have broken the agreement. It is over.’ He lifted his sword.

‘Please –  ’    Raising her arm she tried to fend off the blow, but what use an arm against a sword?  The last thing she saw was those angry burnished eyes as her final scream echoed round the empty hillside and down across the years.

‘Zoë! Stop it!’ Another voice echoed in her head suddenly,  speaking close to her. ‘Zoë! Can you hear me?’  There was an  arm around her shoulders, gripping her tightly,  shaking her.  ‘Zoë, wake up!’

Sobbing, she opened her eyes and stared round.  ‘Tim?’

‘I followed you.  I had a suspicion you were planning something stupid so I came back early. I saw your note and guessed you had come here.’

‘I don’t understand.’ She was confused. Hearing his voice she had expected to find it had all been a dream after all; to find  herself in their bedroom but she was still there on the hillside.  The valley below was growing dark; only the summit of the hill was still bright with the last rays of the sun. ‘Wasn’t it a dream?’ Her voice was shaking.

‘Yes, it was a dream. Of course it was a dream! The dream that has been haunting you.’ He looked down at her, scanning her pale face. His eyes were gentle, worried, but they were the colour of steel.

She grew tense. ‘It was you?’ she whispered. Pushing him away she stared at him. Suddenly she was trembling. ‘It was  you!  I loved you so much and I destroyed everything because  I didn’t know what I had done. I didn’t understand.’

He frowned at her. She saw a flicker  of uncertainty in  those deep grey eyes as he stared back at her. Then he shook his head. The moment was over. If he too had memories of a distant past together they had gone. ‘You  haven’t destroyed anything, Zoë.  I love you, you know that. I’m sorry I got ratty about the nightmares, but we can sort that. I am sure we can. You can’t leave me!’ He caught her arm and pulled her towards him, then let go abruptly,  with a look of horror. ‘Oh God! You’re bleeding. How on earth did you do that? Oh, Zoë! Hang on. That’s bad.  I’ll find something to wrap  round your arm.’

The sword blade. It had cut swiftly and deep. She stared numbly at the welling blood as it dripped onto the grass.. ‘It was you,’ she said softly.  ‘I betrayed you, and you killed me.’

He froze. Standing away from her for a second he gazed at her face anew. He had been about to rip off his shirt to use as a bandage but her words stopped him dead as he took in what she was saying.  ‘Zoë – ’

‘It must have been in a previous life. Do you believe in reincarnation? I didn’t. I didn’t  think about it at all. Until now.’ She was backing away from him. ‘We’ve been reborn. To work it out. To replay the scene.’ Her face was white. She looked as though she was about to faint, the pallor of her skin a stark contrast against the red of her blood. ‘You look like him. Your eyes are the same. I didn’t know before  because I never saw him in my dream.’ She closed her eyes. Her head was  throbbing. In her ears she could hear again the distant beat of the drum.  ‘I loved him so much. But I betrayed him. I didn’t mean to. They tricked me.’ Her words were becoming slurred.  ‘He, you, picked up a  dead man’s sword.  The pain was too much. You couldn’t live with what had happened.  I knew that.’

He saw her stagger lightly. ‘Zoë?’ 

She gave a faint smile. ‘I understand. You had to do it.’

He caught her as she fell, and gently lowered her onto the ground. ‘Sweetheart?  Zoë?’  He felt for a pulse beneath her jaw.  ‘Zoë. Wake up.  Ripping his shirt he tore strips off it to bind her arm, then he pulled her against him, for the first time gazing round at the coming dusk as he tried to warm her chilled body against his own. In the distance he could hear a drum beat.  He shivered.

The strange thing was he believed her. Sitting there, below the ancient ramparts of the fort, with the  unconscious woman in his arms, he knew he had been there before. In the time before time, he had slain the woman he loved; he had killed her and he had wept. Then at last he had scrambled to his feet and turned his back on this place, walking away towards the dying sun. He had never come back.

Until now.

He gave a grim smile. What utter nonsense.

But it wasn’t nonsense.  It was completion.

Zoë stirred in his arms.  ‘Tim?’

‘I’m here.  I’m not going to leave you again.’

‘The dreams will stop now we know, won’t they?’

Slowly he nodded.  ‘I believe they will, yes.’ He glanced round. To his certain knowledge he had never been here before.  And yet there was a strange familiarity about line of the distant hills, the contours of the land, the ramparts on  the ground beneath their feet. He scanned the horizon thoughtfully as he sat holding her in his arms.  Did he know it in some deep inner part of his memory; had he once ridden over the brow of this hill? For a split second he could feel the strength of the horse beneath him, the regular thrust and bunch of the powerful muscles between his thighs. He shook his head with a wry smile. He had never ridden a horse in his life.

‘Why are you smiling?’ Zoë was looking up at him, watching his face as the light faded.  Painfully she sat up, holding her arm away from her awkwardly.

‘I was remembering.’

‘When we first met? We felt as though we had known each other forever, didn’t we.’ 

It was true. They had both felt it; said it, in awe at the weird truth of the cliché.

He nodded slowly, watching as she unwrapped the shirt carefully from her arm.  The wound had  more or less stopped bleeding. She stared down at it.  Dreams can’t hurt. Dreams can’t kill.

But the dream  had hurt her. The sword had cut her; she had bled. 

‘Can you stand up?’  He helped her to her feet carefully. ‘We need to start going back to the cars  before it gets too dark.’

‘What’s happened to us, Tim?’  She was still trembling.

‘I’m not sure.’ He glanced up again towards the western horizon, still uneasy at his own recognition of that distant line of hills against the pure eggshell translucence of the sky; below it the mist lay in the line of the valley, cloaking the river as the last of the sunlight retreated to the distant hilltops leaving the valley and the slopes where they stood to grow dark.  ‘If I was here before, it was a place I loved,’ he said softly. ‘I have only fond memories. I don’t remember the horror.’  He heard a suppressed sob beside him and put his arm round her shoulders again. ‘I’m so sorry. If I believed in this stuff I would say perhaps we have been reminded of the horrors of the past to ensure we give ourselves a second chance.’  Gently he raised her arm and kissed the wound. ‘To hurt the person you love is a sign of intolerable anguish.  Jealousy and pain and fear and anger, too terrible to be born.’

She nodded.

‘When did this all happen?’

‘Two thousand years ago.’

He gave a low whistle.  ‘What goes around, comes around, eh?’ Clichés again.

She laughed shakily. ‘It looks like it.’

‘We’ll never be able to tell anyone about this. Who would believe us?’

‘We don’t have to tell anyone, do we?’

He shook his head. ‘I still don’t believe it myself.’

They stood for a moment in silence, watching the sky grow dull as the last of the light faded. ‘I loved this place,’ she whispered. It was an exact echo of his own thought. ‘You and I were happy here, weren’t we.’

He reached for her hand. ‘We were very happy.’ He paused. ‘If what you say is true,  I – he – never forgave himself for what happened. It destroyed him.  He must have  vowed to follow her – you – into the next world and onwards for as long as it took until he found her again and told her how sorry he was and how much he loved her.’

She smiled. ‘Consider it done.’ Putting her arms around his neck she reached up to kiss him. Neither of them, for a moment, noticed that the wound on her arm had gone. It was as if it had never been.

All short stories »