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It stood on Dartmoor, well away from the road to the village. Its surrounds were covered with brambles, its roof sagging. The weathered beams beneath protruded in places and stood out starkly against the grey sky. She walked towards it, stepping over nettles and rocks. The stories about ghostly noises heard by the locals in the deep of night didn't put her off. They said that signs of ghostly inhabitants had been recorded at this time of the year when the days were short and the mists dropped to shroud the moors practically every day.
She'd spent the past evening in the cosy bar of The Boar, pumping all the locals about the ghost. Every story was different, but she chose to believe the one about the ancient warrior who haunted the cottage. He was to have been married and a week before the wedding day was sent off by his King to fight in a distant county, where he had been killed. His beloved had waited in the dwelling that was to have been their home; waited in vain for her knight's return. When he never returned her ruthless father had forced her into a loveless marriage with a landowner.
When the story reached the part where the maiden ended her life by throwing herself from her hated husband's castle wall her skin crawled and her heart began to beat in double time. Had her overworked imagination let her taste the girl's despair, felt her hopelessness, and endured her pain as she stood on the battlements; her wretchedness warring with her faith?
She pushed open the door that hung on one rusted hinge. It protested as she lifted the rotten wood back out of the way. There was a fireplace opposite the door, recessed in the thick wall. A few cinders piled in its grate showed it had been used recently by a tramp, or perhaps a lost hiker had built a small fire here when one of the mists the moors were renowned for had come down, stranding him.
Once, a staircase must have led to the upper floor where a small room might have been nestled beneath the roof beams, but that had long since collapsed. There was just a ragged hole in the ceiling now, letting in the drizzle. The walls had been built to last, for most of them were still intact, just crumbling here and there by the small window openings. She ran a hand over one of the solid blocks of stone she knew had been carved from one of the local hills.
A sense of homecoming enveloped her, which was strange to say the least, for hadn't she spent all her twenty years living with her parents in a comfortable semi-detached house on the outskirts of London. Once, when she was about ten, her mum and dad had brought her on a holiday to this part of the West Country, and as her dad drove near to this old dwelling she'd called to him to stop, begging them to let her look it over. Bemused, her parents had stood aside while she explored its derelict interior.
That same compulsion that urged her to come inside then had called her back. In the years since, she had known that one day she would return; had been biding her time. Waiting, in fact, until her parents had no real need of her any more. Perhaps people would say there was something weird about a house calling you, but to her it was not extraordinary at all. Although it was something she never discussed with anyone. Her parents had long forgotten her fascination with this place.
The sky was getting darker by the minute; even though her watch told her it was barely two. Curving her arms about her middle, she shuddered. Not with fear, but because she felt chilly in her thin sweater and lightweight slacks. She should head back to the hotel, but knew she couldn't leave yet. Going to stand by the fireplace, she rested a hand on the wall above it and stared down into the grate, knowing instantly that she'd stood here before, in the same position, but also sensing that then her heart had been heavy with sorrow. Her eyes misted as a great sadness crept over her; an echo of the anguish she'd known then. But even as she began to weep, she knew her tears were not for herself but for some distant soul whose feelings had somehow become intermingled with hers.
“Anna,” a soft voice whispered, and she gave a startled little moan as the faint sound seemed to reverberate about the room.
Her first instinct was to deny the caller, for her name was Jean, but then she found herself returning the call with a whispered response of, “Hugo?”
Hearing a slight movement behind her, she turned her head to stare over a shoulder. A man stood in the doorway, framed by the fading light. She felt no surprise to see him there, in fact now knew she had been waiting for him. Waiting all her life. He wore a simple shirt of some woven fabric above a pair of breeches, with leggings fastened by cross garters.
“I didn't hear you arrive,” she said softly as he walked towards her, hands outstretched.
“I came as soon as I knew you were here, Anna.” His smile was agonisingly familiar. “It's been so long. Now we are home for good, my love.”
She fell into his welcoming arms, and he held her in a tight embrace. “Hugo, my love, we'll never be parted again,” she whispered, knowing they would be together now through eternity.
As they kissed, warmth invaded her limbs, and she felt the rays of the sun on her head. In the second before her eyes closed, she momentarily saw the room as it had been long ago, with the table of roughhewn wood set with a linen cloth finely embroidered about its edges. Simple crockery laid for a meal; the dresser by the wall with familiar plates lined up on its shelves and a copper pot holding wild roses.
“Home at last,” he said in a low voice at her ear.
She knew it was the truth. This was where she belonged. Where her heart had always belonged. Her love was truly home; and so was she.