To those who still hear the bells of Christmas
and to Steve, Kevin and Brian who give everything meaning
The wind charged in like a freight train, whipping dried leaves into Meg’s face with broad, open palms, and firing sand that stung her skin with a barrage of tiny daggers. What lunacy had driven her out to the weather beaten cliffs of Cornwall in the path of a wild gale? It was the madness of a woman trying to blast away memories stuck like barnacles to every waking dream and every sleeping nightmare. One jump, one quick leap, even an ‘accidental’ fall and it would all be over. Suicide was such a cowardly act, but if she simply relaxed her body, let all of her limbs go limp, the storm would surely take the blame and blow her out to sea. She would never again have to face her soul-killing humiliation.
Because she was deafened by the roar of the wind, the horse and rider were on her without warning. The enormous monster reared to an impossible height, threatening to crush her beneath its thrashing hooves. When she threw her arm out for balance, Meg found only emptiness above the deadly plunge to the sea. Just as she resigned herself to splattering on the rocks below, a strong hand grabbed her and pulled her onto the solid earth. She flattened on the ground, rolling and squirming out of the way before the flailing beast trampled the life out of her.
As she willed herself to draw a breath and summon her senses, the horse was suddenly gone, and a hooded figure was reaching down to her.
The clear masculine voice cut through the tumult as if there were no other sound. She surrendered to the stranger, allowing him to lift her up onto the horse that had calmed with his touch. He vaulted up in front of her, pulled her arms around him tightly, and took off ahead of the rampaging storm.
He drove the big white horse in a full out gallop toward the entrance to a cave that fading into her vision through the glassy curtain of rain. They ducked together as they clambered through the passageway at full speed, coming to a sudden, violent halt when they were safe. The force of the stop propelled her into the back of her rescuer, whose strong hold on the horse prevented them both from flying off its back.
The hooded figure slipped off and lifted Meg down as easily as though she was a small child. Lightheaded and unsteady, she knew that this could not be happening. Did you dream when you were dead? Could she be hallucinating as the life drained out of her body where she had fallen onto the rocks? Only in romance novels and fantasy movies did women in distress get rescued by men on white horses. And those women deserved to be saved.
“Who are you?” she pleaded, panting, as he backed away from her, hooded head bent to hide his face. He did not speak. “Please,” she begged again. “Tell me who you are. Let me see your face.”
A blinding flash and thunderous crack drew her attention out to the storm. She knew she owed the mysterious stranger her life, but the hood and silence were too Ghost-of-Christmas-Future for her to let her guard down. Willing aside her fears, she turned to speak to him again.
Man and horse were gone.
They had not ridden past her, had not made a noise behind her. Even with the deafening noise of the storm, they were too big, too solid to have disappeared without a sound, but disappear they had.
Meg swayed against the solid rock wall of the cave. It was cold and hard and real. She was definitely not in the place where she had started and had no other explanation of getting there except the impossible truth. She had been rescued from gale force winds and pounding rain by a phantom on a ghost horse.
Phantom? Ghost horse?
She felt around the cave looking for a door or hidden passageway where they might have disappeared. Her close inspection revealed that it wasn’t a cave at all. The rocks were chiseled supports for some sort of storage cellar or storm shelter. The top was a ceiling, supported by carefully placed lintels of hewn rock. All the sides were smooth as though rubbed by hundreds of hands for hundreds of years. Moss and other darkness-seeking plants grew through the cracks, giving the man-made grotto a sense of immeasurable age.
Meg did not surrender her search until she noticed that the storm had blown itself out. Reluctantly she left her refuge and the mysterious dream hero. She had a long walk to her car and a long time to puzzle over the events of the last hour.
She was met at the door of her bed and breakfast by its anxious owner. “Thank goodness you’re safe!” exclaimed Mrs. Bennett breathlessly. “We’ve been so worried about you. These storms can come up with no warning and blow a body out to sea so as we’d never know what happened. We didn’t want to lose our first American guest without a trace.”
Meg calmed her host with a comforting hand. “I’m fine. I rode it out in some sort of cave.”
The motherly woman nodded wisely. “You found our fogou.”
“Our fogou. We’re not sure as to where it came from, but it’s older than time can say.” She leaned in to share an intimate secret. “There’s some say it’s haunted.”
“No kidding?” Meg replied, forcing her voice to sound casual.
Continuing her confidence, Mrs. Bennett dropped her voice even lower, “There’s some say they’ve seen a hooded figure on a ghost horse charge out of the fogou and riding off to God-knows-where, then vanish back inside through solid stone walls.”
“Is that right?”
“You’ve seen him, haven’t you?” the kind woman’s demeanor changed. She stepped away as though Meg had brought a deadly contagion into her house. “They say his appearance is a bad sign. Some say he rides out for the Devil searching for souls.”
Meg was not normally superstitious, but she could not deny the aura of the supernatural when she was with him. It was not death that he had brought to her, however, but life. “Are there more stories about him? What do they say about who he is or his connection to the fogou?”
“Well,” Mrs. Bennett relaxed a little, enjoying the telling of the tale but being careful not to touch Megan just in case, “this village has been here over thousand years, and they say he was already here when they came. Some say he’s a wild heathen that got left behind when they all went to Ireland. Others think he’s a leftover Roman, or a Druid or some such.”
“What do you think?”
“Me? I think he’s a leftover knight from King Arthur. The castle’s not far from here.”
“That’s right. Have you been?”
“Not yet.” Sightseeing had never been part of Megan’s escape plan.
“Oh my dear, how could you come here and not see Camelot? It’s the reason people visit us.”
Planning her trip to Tintagel for the next day, Meg spent the afternoon touring the village and collecting stories of the spectral rider. She found the population held quite a variety of opinions, though not one person doubted his existence. Many claimed to have seen him or knew someone who had, although always from a distance. No one she talked to had ever actually touched or spoken with him.
Some told her with a shudder that they believed he was Death himself. Others believed the heathen priest theory and still others subscribed to the Arthurian knight. The owner of the local bookstore proposed the romantic scenario that he was a tortured soul haunting the wind-swept plains looking for his lost love, searching eternally for one who had died before he could make her his own.
“Does he have a name? Does he have a time?”
“Don’t matter ‘t’all, does it now? True love is true love, don’t matter the name or time.”
The owner of the market had a different story. “There’s times when people have a need and a bag of gold appears on their doorstep. Not only money, mind you, but gold coins, even in recent times.” He spoke with a calm confidence the others had lacked. “First they thought it was leprechaun gold, and it’d disappear soon as they tried to use it. Foolishness. There’s no such thing as leprechauns. Nope, I say he’s an angel of mercy sent by God when people have a deep need.”
He dismissed her suspicions with unshakeable faith. “Folks need clothes, they appear. Folks need food, it appears. Folks need money, it appears. No muss, no fuss, no by-your-leave.”
“You’re the first who’s told me that. You seem awfully certain to be the only one who believes it.”
“I’m not the only one who believes it, but ghost stories are better for the tourists. Everybody knows that.” He turned back to stocking his shelves.