Although she could see nothing but blackness from the window of her cottage, Maglana had already known for quite a while that a traveller was approaching because of the faint sound of weary, beating hooves, so she was not at all surprised when a rough knock on the door roused her from her midnight slumber. She pushed the fraying, wooden portal open, sending a single, wailing creak out into the abyss of night. Standing in the doorway was a man who easily could have been forty years her junior, yet already grey streaked his thick beard and he somehow gave off an aura of tired familiarity with all about him.
“Hello?” said Maglana with a little uncertainty.
“Greetings,” said the man, with little expression. “I require a place to sleep tonight—I assure you that I shall be as little trouble as possible and plan to depart before the sun rises next morning. My horse will stay outside.”
“Why certainly,” replied Maglana, her heart somehow going out to the odd traveller. “Come in. Would you like some milk? I just got it from the cows this morning. You seem tired after travelling for so long—please, sit here.” She gestured towards a chair and went to prepare the milk.
“Thank you,” replied the man, quite surprised. Over the uncountable years during which he had journeyed across the land, he was all too familiar with the painful process of asking people if he could stay in their houses for a night, and usually, he was lucky to get even a grudging agreement. Most simply told him to find another place and slammed the door. This old woman, all alone in this ramshackle cottage on the heath, was nearly one of a kind.
“Here you are,” she said with a smile, placing a large earthenware bowl full of fresh, warm milk in front of him on the candlelit table. She sat across from him as he eagerly supped it. “What name do you go by?”
“My name?” he asked, as though it were a difficult question. After a brief pause, he said, “Läkken Helmsbrödlyren. My mother gave me the name when she christened me at the river, or so the story goes. She was taken by raiders the next day.”
“Ah, I’m… sorry,” said Maglana, her eyes shifting uncomfortably.
“What is your name?” asked Läkken, not seeming in the least affected by the story of his mother’s cruel fate.
“Maglana Ashenhacker—my great-grandfather was a fletcher, you see,” she explained. After a brief pause, she looked over and noticed that the bowl was empty. “Did you enjoy the milk?” she asked.
“I did, thank you,” replied Läkken. “But tell me, Maglana, why do you receive me so freely, and with such kindness?”
“You are a weary traveller—would it not be a terrible sin to refuse such a person shelter?” said Maglana, spreading her arms as though it were an obvious conclusion.
“I suppose…” said Läkken, looking off to the side, “but how can you be perfectly sure that, after I have left tomorrow, you will not find your most valuable possessions taken and your home ransacked?”
“Well, of course I cannot be sure…”
“Then perhaps you should be more careful.”
“Would you prefer it if I had not let you in? I am sure you would have had a much harder time of it.”
“Of course I am grateful for your help—but how can you ignore this possibility, Maglana? Are you not at least a mite suspicious?”
“Suspicious?” Maglana laughed. “I cannot think of a single great deed that has been accomplished out of suspicion.”
“Yes, but a great many have been broken for want of it,” countered Läkken.
“Then should I live my life in fear of the mere possibility of being broken?” Läkken was silent, so Maglana continued. “Let us assume for now that you do perform such terrible acts as you mentioned earlier. Let us assume that next morning, I awake to find the emerald rosary that my grandmother left me stolen, and my windows shattered. What then? Can I decide retroactively that I actually did not let you in the past night?”
“Of course not.”
“Exactly—the only direction, for me at least, is forward from there. I will always remember my grandmother’s goodness, and I believe Our Lady will hear me say the rosary even if I am not at the moment holding a string of beads. Windows? It is a simple matter to ask Mr. Sithwelder in the valley to make me new ones. Yes, Läkken, there is always that risk, but let me ask you now: why did you approach my house? How could you have been certain that it was not inhabited by a violent horse-collector, or perhaps a flesh-eater?”
“Such things do not exist in this land.”
“I have never encountered an evil-spirited traveller either—perhaps they as well do not exist in this land.” She fell silent, and for a long while, the two of them stared out the window into the blackness. Finally Maglana spoke again. “Here, Läkken, if we stay like this much longer, the sun will rise, and the whole purpose of your coming will be wasted. To bed with you now; you can sleep where my grandmother once did, in that room facing the east. And in case you were curious, her emerald rosary is in the box under the bed.”
“Please don’t worry—I have no intention of taking such a thing,” replied Läkken with a smile. “Thank you again for your hospitality.” He rose, walked into the room, and was soon lost to sight. A moment later, Maglana rose, snuffed out the candles, and retired to her room. On moonlit nights, the cottage stood out like an old, stooped guardian on the heath, but tonight, it was indistinguishable from the surrounding dark.