The trail was little used anymore, but it looked great. I thought that having a guidebook from the early part of the 20th century would be useless, but soon discovered that little had changed in the last 100 years. Of course, the trail brought me what I craved, solitude.
It was the second day out, just approaching twilight, and I knew I would soon have to stop for the night. I hadn’t seen a building, nor even another living person, since early morning so I was fearing I’d have to brave the night under the stars. A light fog began to fill the low points, making finding some sort of shelter imperative.
And then I spotted the little cottage.
My knock was answered by the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. She wasn’t young, and yet radiated youth. She wasn’t old, yet I could feel the weight of deep wisdom. I was frozen by the vision of loveliness.
Her words loosened my tongue. “I am sorry to disturb you, ma’am, but I was wondering if you had a room that I could rent for the night.”
Behind her smile I could see that the cottage had but one large room. I felt a little silly.
“The evening is growing dark and damp. Please come in,” she said.
I followed her over to the fire.
“I have but this one room, but you can stay here tonight if you wish.”
“Thank you, ma’am. And I’ll compensate you for the trouble. Just let me know.”
My words were answered only with a smile.
She brought me a large, steaming mug of a beverage I couldn’t place and sat down beside me.
“Tell me about your travels,” she said.
We talked for hours. Or perhaps I should say that I talked. I told her about the places I had been and the things that I had seen. But mostly she was interested in what I thought about the surrounding moorland. I had fallen in love with the stark beauty and so was able to talk without end on it.
As the night grew old, I began to feel slightly intoxicated, but it wasn’t a feeling of alcohol. It was as if her presence was effecting my mind. I found myself slowly being drawn to her until I was up against her, my arm around her shoulder. At one point, I realized that neither of us had spoken for quite a while. My mind was filled only with wordless wonder on my hostess.
I began to draw her in for a kiss, but she spoke, “I will let you know the price of sleeping under my roof at dawn. For now, sleep well.”
My next memory is of waking. I was in the corner of the cottage, naked under a wool blanket. I blushed momentarily, trying desperately to remember any part of the evening after she told me that I would pay at dawn. But there was nothing there.
I sat up. The cottage was empty, the lady wasn’t there. The fire was down to just a few hot coals, not enough to give any light, but I could see from the window that the dawn’s first glow in the east was on the verge of arriving.
I was stricken by a panic and jumped up. My pack and clothes were in the spot by the fire where I had been sitting the night before. I hurriedly dressed and left.
It was still dark when I started down the trail, but the twilight glow of dawn began to spread, turning the dark purple mist to a light pink. In my mind I could hear her sweet voice calling for me, pleading for me to come back. I had left without saying goodbye and there was still the matter of payment.
I looked back, up the eastern hill, and could see her silhouetted in the growing dawn light. I was still in a twilight world between night and day, but I knew that soon, she would be in the light.
As the sun came up, my remorse finally forced me to turn back. I did owe her for the night, didn’t I? But I couldn’t find the cottage. Where I thought it should be was only a large earthen mound crowned by flowers.
That afternoon I found myself in a tiny village. Not daring to go any farther, I found a house that had once been an inn built to service walkers on the trail. They said they would gladly take me in for the night. The common room was setup and by twilight was filled with a dozen villagers.
Being the rare outsider, I was, of course, the center of attention. I told stories about my travels and then started talking about the night before. The faces that were rapt at the tales of exotic London, Paris and Milan became ashen as I described the cottage and its occupant. I noticed that the people were drawing away from me as I spoke. There was a deep sense of relief as I told them about my pre-dawn panic and twilight walk away from the cottage. They didn’t seem surprised that I couldn’t find it when I returned. I had to find out what it was about.
“Well, sir, you are a very lucky man if what you say is true,” the owner of the inn said.
“Oh, so what was it about then?” I asked.
“There is a legend as old as the hills about The Lady of the Moor.”
I laughed. “It sounds like some gothic novel or something. Right. ‘The Lady of the Moor’.”
They all looked at me with such serious expressions that the laugh died on my lips.
The inn keeper cleared his throat and said, “They say that she wasn’t human, like you or I, but a fairy princess. Of course, nobody believes that any more, but some wonder what she was. She took a mortal husband, some say from this very village. She was happy and the land was happy, flowering as it never had before. But he grew old and died, as every mortal does.”
“Let me guess,” I said. “She became sad and the land paid for it, not being able to grow anything. Or something like that.”
The innkeeper gave me a long serious look. “Something like that. But it faded and few remembered. But then men started to disappear. Not a lot of men, and not all at once. It would be single men alone in the moors at night and perhaps once every 30 or 40 years.”
“New husbands?” I asked.
“That is the legend,” the innkeeper said. “After someone disappears, the world is all goodness and light, but then, after 25 or 35 years, it grows dark again. Legend has it that one man escaped, oh, perhaps 400 years back, and told the story of the beautiful lady. Few believed him, until a week later another man disappeared in the same area starting the cycle of light and dark once again.”
“So you think I stayed at The Lady of the Moor’s cottage last night? That my payment to her for her hospitality would be that I would become her new husband and stay there forever?”
Everyone in the room nodded.
“Nobody has disappeared on the moor in almost a century. About 50 years ago the darkness descended. The trail had long since become disused and the people of the village avoided the moor at twilight, so no new husband has been found.”
I wanted to laugh, but everyone seemed so solemn. I changed the subject and we chatted for another 20 minutes before the villagers all left for home and I was shown my room.
I couldn’t sleep that night. I went over my life and my journeys. I was restless and constantly traveled, yet as I grew older I wanted only solitude. Solitude and a place I could call home. I needed to sink my roots into some good soil and take time to gather some moss.
The next morning, after my breakfast, for which I tipped grandly, I set off on my way. Only, after about an hour I decided to circle around, avoiding the village. It didn’t take long to pick up the path again, heading back the way I had come.
The sun had set, the embers of the sky slowly dying. Twilight was descending on the land and the mist began to fill the low places, giving a light blue tinge to the landscape. I was beginning to feel foolish. Why had I turned around? I was wasting time, perhaps two full days of my journey gone.
I was about to give up and make camp under a hill when I noticed a glow echoing that last bit of twilight before the dark night. I could smell the peat fire and hurried to the door.
She was there, waiting. Her smile was genuine.
“Welcome home,” she said.
We entered the cottage shutting out the dark, damp night.