This is a story carved deep into old stone, its lines sharpened by hail and sleet…
It was a foul evening when the Pilgrim Woman told this tale. A storm flung sand and salt over the dunes, whooped through wires and slapped at any visible skin. She placed lit candles on the window ledges and set lanterns to guide the way, made a fine fire and waited.
The people trooped in cross and weary. Their shoulders drooped under wet coats and worries. When the Lord-by-the-sea arrived, the Pilgrim Woman began straight away, her voice loud to drown out the tumult outside.
Hard times came to the village where the Boy of Hope and Starlight had found work. People grew hungry. The villagers began to grumble about anyone not quite the same as them. It was all their fault. The villagers whispered ideas of vengeance – but no-one did anything.
Then a man came in smart clothes and told them he was just like the villagers – but he knew how to make it right, to how it used to be, to how it ought to be. The villagers made him their leader.
But the man was a tyrant. At first, he merely encouraged the villagers. They threw stones at anyone different. They slapped ugly symbols and slogans on the walls of houses. Then the tyrant told them he would take charge, matters were not changing fast enough.
So on vicious storm-filled night, his vigilantes routed out women who made herbal medicine, artists and musicians whose work he did not like, and youths whose skin did not match theirs. The mob drove them out into the hail and sleet.
The Boy of Hope and Starlight ran ahead of the torches and coshes. He ran and stumbled and gasped up the Downs. He did not pause until he reached a summit where a dense ring of trees grew. They would not find him there, surely.
He slumped onto his belly and wriggled to the edge of the round copse. Panting, he looked below towards the village. The mob had given up, and had set fire to a gypsy caravan. His heart hurt to see a home destroyed and such beauty lost.
He crawled deep into the wood away from the wind, found a dry ditch and curled up.
In the deepest part of the night, light touched his salted eyelids. He blinked. Candlelight, here? He rose and found an open door.
‘Come in and be welcome,’ a soft voice said, though he could see no-one. ‘All are welcome here – for a little while.’
The warmth drew him over the threshold and into a hall. It had be a creation of the Grey Folk. So quiet inside, the soft flutter of moths against starlit windows could be heard. His heart settled down to the beat of a slowly tocking clock.
A door beyond opened into a library. ‘Sit you down and rest, many tales are close at hand,’ the voice said. He found a chair by a fire, and opened a book. The scent raised a half-smile.
‘Outside, the hail may rattle the window sashes and the wind may howl amongst bare branches. Yet here we stay away from such disturbances. No sleet can hiss down this chimney, no gale snatch roof-tiles away, no flood undermine these foundations. Make yourself at home.’
And so he read. The only interruption was the falling of ash from a fire of dried beech. He forgot the tyrant, he forgot his poverty, and the hope in his heart flared up.
At the turning of the last page, the voice spoke again.
‘The time has come to leave. This sanctuary will remain open to you on other days – but do not stay once you are revived. The spark you harbour in your chest is needed out there.’
He braced himself for the cold, then stepped outside. He turned to give thanks but the door had gone. He stood alone in a deep drift of warm, dry leaves. The last stars of night twinkled through the bare branches
The voice made a last whisper.
‘Remember – the House of Stillness is always here.’
The Boy of Hope and Starlight went back to the village. There had to be ways he could help.
The listeners in the Old Chapel sat still in the warmth, pondering the boy’s bravery.
‘Look!’ said a cheeky-faced lad. ‘The storm’s gone.’
And so they went out much lighter than they came in.