It was that time of evening that is no longer twilight but not yet completely dark. The snow, which had been falling for some hours, had now ceased, leaving the moor covered with a shroud of deathly silence that not even the crows, gathered on the bony fingers of the wind-tortured pine dared to disturb. The landscape was a shapeless, endless, empty blur where the dull grey horizon merged with the dull grey sky as if the whole world had been reduced to this one point and all encapsulated in a frosted glass ball.
But through this silent scene, at this unnamed hour, a hooded traveller made his way slowly towards a solitary stone cottage, his thick dark cape sweeping his trail clean of any footprints he might have left. He approached the door and paused as if reluctant to continue, as if wishing that fate had not brought him to this particular door. But fate, as he knew from bitter experience, was not someone you argued with. He raised the heavy iron knocker and let it fall with a single thud.
Inside the cottage the old widow, cradling a bowl of thin soup in her cold knotted hands, sat as close as she dared to the peat fire that gave out more smoke than either warmth or light as it struggled to warm the tiny single roomed dwelling. The crumbling plaster was stained brown-grey from decades of smoke; the only decorations; a wooden crucifix and a love spoon that hung together above the mantle next to a faded wedding photograph: the only items of furniture; the cast iron double bed, an arm chair with a shawl thrown over it to hide the fraying arms, a small table and the dresser her husband had made himself when they were first married.
The knock on the door startled the woman who had begun to drift off to sleep in her chair. ‘Who could that be at this ungodly hour?’ After 52 years of marriage she could not break the habit of addressing all her thoughts to her long dead husband. ‘Oh well, I don’t suppose I can leave them standing there.’ she said, struggling to her feet with a slight groan. ‘It’ll be nightfall soon and this is no night to be out in.’
Opening the door the woman found herself looking up at the ashen face of her uninvited guest and although his features were hidden in the deep shadow of his hood she felt that she noticed a disturbing familiarity that she could not quite place and she stood, momentarily frozen on the spot.
‘Where are my manners?’ she blurted, regaining her composure. ‘You must be chilled through to the bone. Please come in and warm yourself by the fire. It’s not much, I grant you, but coal’s beyond my means since my husband passed on so I gather my own peat when I can.’
The stranger entered stooping down to avoid hitting his head on the low lintel.
‘I’m just sitting down to some supper. It’s no feast I’m afraid but your welcome to share. You must be a long way from home to be out on this moor so late at night.’
‘Not so very far, really’. The stranger’s voice was deep and disarming. The woman felt immediately as if she could trust him with her life.
The man, still standing just inside the door, pulled back his hood slightly but now night had descended and the pitiful fire only served to make the shadows seem even darker so that the woman could still barely make out his features.
‘Still, you’ll be hungry, I expect.’
‘No, I’m fine, really.’
‘Well, if you don’t mind me, I’ll just finish what I’ve started. I’m quite starving.’
‘Not at all.’ said the stranger, ‘Be my guest. My house is your house, as they say.’
With this he gave out a gentle belly-deep chuckle that the old woman recognised instantly.
‘Oh, it’s you.’ she said putting down her spoon and looking once more at the stranger’s face.
‘It is.’ said the stranger, "I expect you've been expecting me. "
She could just detect his slightly ironic smile.
‘Will we be leaving straight away, then?’
‘No, there’s no rush. You’ve time to finish your soup.’
‘Will I need to bring anything?’
‘No, lass. You might want that shawl though. It’s a might chilly out.’
Outside, The full moon was just emerging from behind some clouds and was casting a soft watery light like a paper funeral lantern swathed in wisps of incense. It gently illuminated the couple standing hand in hand by the cottage’s only window. Glancing back in, the old woman could just make out, in the dim glow from the dying fire, the shadowy form of her former self slumped in the armchair, the now empty soup bowl broken on the floor.
‘Is it nice where we’re going?’ she asked hesitantly.
‘Aye, lass. It has its moments.’