"I know the way, missus," said Old Mac, surveying Mrs. Powys in the light of his lamp. "Have you safe home in no time. Not wise to walk the moors at night in the dark, with all the fairy fires about. It's the time of year for them, see."
To Mrs. Powys, dressed in a widow's black frock and shawl, the words barely registered, and Old Mac, the lantern-man at the Stag, did not press her to speak, but simply set a steady pace towards the Powys's cottage, which sat about three miles away in a saddle at the eastern end of the moor. It was not unusual for people to spend the afternoon in the Stag and then wander home half-drunk over the hills in the dark and disappear, particularly so near Winter's Eve.
He had seen Mrs. Powys before, several times, in the company of her late husband and their circle, but never at this time of year. They had always visited in summer, when the long evenings made his own work scarcely needed. They were poets, or so he'd gathered. He himself was not one for modern poetry (give him a good country ballad on the other hand and he'd sing it as well as anyone within a half-day's walk of the Stag), and yet, there was something about her that had always drawn his attention—nothing so frivolous as romance, of course; yes, she was doubtlessly a handsome woman, but his shyness and deep sense of propriety had not allowed any such fancies; no, it was something otherworldly in her keen intelligence, quick wit and almost masculine laugh that, on those summer afternoons, pealed in harmony with the ice that tinkled like silver bells in her glass of Pimm's and lemonade; how boldly she seemed to exist! Yet if he spoke truthfully, being in proximity to her unsettled him, as if the gravity of her being was causing him to bend like a willow rod, until he could feel every structure he had built up about himself, every safety, every caution against heartbreak and grief and fear that had resulted in him living alone, never straying from the well-trodden sheep trails that crisscrossed the moor, about to splinter.
He lifted his arm high so that the lantern light suffused the cold air around them with a warm glow, though it did little, for all its brightness, to alleviate the evening's chill; his right leg drummed an exaggerated iambic rhythm on the hard path—dee-dum, dee-dum, dee-dum, dee-dum. It, like almost everything else, made Mrs. Powys think of her husband, how he would chant out lines in step with their footfalls on their long rambles across the hills, as if every rock, every square foot of packed earth, every ditch and divot were contributing lines to his poems. She liked to compose with pen and paper, the steady scratch of her nib a ready conduit to that intangible landscape of ideas. But he had always preferred to chant his lines aloud, like some ancient rhapsode, and indeed, his chanting would sometimes tease out some flash of inspiration from her own reverie, too, something brilliant, irregular, as if from a different country entirely to the one she knew so well. It had been, she thought, such a good marriage. She didn't quite know why she'd felt the need to come to the cottage where they'd spent so many happy summers, alone and on the cusp of a bleak winter, or perhaps she knew all too well, but didn't feel ready to admit it quite yet.
A light flickered in the corner of her eye. She turned her head and stared off into the moor's deep darkness, relieved for the moment of distraction.
"That's them, missus," Old Mac said. "The will-o'-wisps."
"Fairies?" she said.
"Some says they're fairies; some says they're the dead; some says they're one and the same, and fairyland is the land of the dead."
"And the fires? They lead people into fairyland?"
Old Mac chewed his lip. "Either that or into bogs and off of precipices."
"And you've never been tempted to follow one, to see for yourself?" The thought had flared in her mind as the lantern-man's faltering steps broke the metre of their journey: In the wake of her husband's death, writing scarcely interested her. But perhaps, if she followed the lights, followed their mystery, she would find something. No, no, those fires were nothing but marsh gas, kindled by the electricity in the air preceding a storm; she must think clearly, perceptively. There was no Fairyland to tumble headlong into. And yet, to think of them only as the belches of the marsh?—of the land wheezing and decaying, coughing, coughing, its bedsheets soaked in blood; no—she would not think of them that way; look! look!—they flickered, like flashes of inspiration in the sombre reverie of the night.
What a strange thing to ask, Old Mac thought. In all the years he'd lived on the moor, such a thing, such an act, had never occurred to him. What a strange creature she was! His loneliness—a thing he had long thought put by—suddenly came upon him. He had always felt important, in his small way, doing his necessary work, knowing the people and land about him like his own family. But her question had made him feel foolish, doddering. People already called him Old Mac, though he was barely fifty. He felt himself bending again, bending to her, as she seemed to flicker with the lantern's quivering flame. And before he could reply, off she had run into the night, the fingers of her shawl lingering for not even a moment on the edges of the lantern's glow.
He called out, scouring the darkness, but she had vanished into that moonless country. Old Mac breathed deeply for a few moments. Then he dropped his lamp, and he too strode headlong across the moor, towards the lights.