This is a story washed up by the tide and written in shells and seaweed…
Once, beside the strandline, a wanderer came. Head bowed and the with the staff of a pilgrim, she asked for a bed for the night.
‘No,’ said one of the seaside proprietors, ‘our rooms are all full.’ This was not true but he did not care for the wanderer’s strange accent.
‘So sorry,’ said another and turned away from the empty foreshore, ‘such a busy time of year.’ She did not care for the wanderer’s patched and gaudy clothes.
All along the low shoreline, doors closed. The dusk fell and the wanderer’s feet brought her through hill of sand and whispering marram grass. Perhaps a dip in the dunes would give her shelter.
A few steps on and a building appeared in the evendim. Rough blocks and narrow windows showed its age, but not its purpose. A chapel, a byre, a hermitage? she wondered. Still there was warmth in its lee and shelter form the sand-blasts.
She went to put her pack down by a small arch. The silvery wood of the door rattled. Worth a try, she thought. The latch lifted easily and she went in.
The earliest stars shone through the lancet windows. The room lay empty. Nothing but a bare floor that had no smell of animals. One hefty tree trunk led up to a loft, rough steps adzed into its black bulk.
No-one here to harm or hinder, she thought and climbed the steep ladder.
The garret stretched beneath well-made rafters. She put down her pack, drank water and gave thanks. Then she let the sea sing her to sleep. No-one passed by her shelter but the terns and the seals in the shallow bay.
Tide after tide she brought sea-leavings to the garret. She worked for the villagers downalong – but no-one asked where she lodged. Her willing strength was enough for them.
The lone chantry housed her well enough. Waves brought her wood and rope, and her work kept her belly fed. A good story at the inn might earn her an ale or two, and she had peace.
But then the Lord of that land came back from his journeying.
‘What’s this,’ he said, ‘someone staying in my property without my leave?’
‘But no-one else ever wanted it – you know the tales,’ his bailiff said. ‘Besides, she has bettered the place. No more damp, the pointing made good -‘
The Lord held up his hand.
‘Still – she must pay rent, if only a peppercorn. It is my property, not hers.’
‘Very well, sir,’ said the bailiff. The woman had nothing, he thought. He would miss her gypsy dresses and honest smiles.
Next evening the Lord rode to the lone chantry. He opened the door, newly oiled against the weather and strode in. The woman came down and did not curtsey.
‘I have come for the rent you owe me.’
She shrugged and small bells on her clothes tinkled.
‘What could I give you? I have neither money nor aught to trade. My labour is spent each day getting enough to eat.’
‘Yet the garret must be paid for.’
He pulled his fur collar close to him. It was cold in here. Haunted according to the superstitious. Some said it moved. Others said it changed shape.
There had to be a way. After all this place was unused and she was an asset to his tenants – or so the bailiff told him.
‘I hear you tell a good tale. Let that be your rent -‘
‘One story a week,’ she interrupted, ‘if you want a good’un.’
‘It will be like a peppercorn – small and dark and with a little spice to it. Deal?’
She held out her hand. It surprised him to shake with such a woman – but rent was rent.
‘One story a week – or you must leave.’
She spat on her palm.