The traveler had been walking for miles without rest, determined to reach his destination before nightfall. Now in the dying light of the sun, the path had grown shadowed and unclear, causing him to quicken his pace and grip at his coat to keep warm against the building wind. Despite his best efforts, these cliffs were unfamiliar and misleading, forcing the man to turn heel and retreat in search of a more reliable route. Ireland was tamed and fenced, but had not lost her wildness just yet.
By the time he had doubled back it was already late evening, the howling of wolves signalling the beginning of their hunt and the moon’s rising. A beautiful pale marble cast shaky beams of light through the canopy of birch trees, who stood themselves as ancient reminders from a different time. He could see his breath rising in uneven puffs of heat, and somehow this brought a flicker of light into view. Just off the path, a small campfire burned not too far away; certainly close enough to make the traveler shiver with jealousy. Cautiously, he approached, resigning himself to the fact that he may have to spend the night here.
The flames were well kept, dancing obediently within a small circle of wood and ash to provide heat. The traveler crept closer, trying to catch sight of the figure nearby, but struggling to see past their hooded and cloaked appearance. “Excuse me…” He said quietly, repeating himself when there was no answer. “Excuse me but I was hoping to warm myself by your fire, if I may?” He dipped his head, both in a show of gratitude and a sly attempt to see a face beneath the hood. Though he didn’t quite catch sight, the figure was revealed to be a man when they finally spoke back. “Oh ‘I mayyy’, is it? Well you may sit, you may stand, you may entertain us both with a jig if you prefer. Join me, my friend.” There was a kindness to that voice almost unheard of, with a natural warmth and booming depth that reminded the traveler of a father he had never known. Before he could respond, the man looked up at him, and gestured to a nearby stump.
“Thank you.” He said simply, regarding his new companion’s face with curiosity. It hadn’t seemed obvious at first, but this man was well over 7 feet tall, and even beneath a long cloak it was clear to tell he was strongly built as well. There was a smile on his face, but an almost tired expression that marked his skin with dry wrinkles that cut through a light dusting of freckles. His messy, copper beard reminded the traveler of the dancing embers below; spread like flame across the stranger’s smiling face. Even so, something about him didn’t feel right, and he found it impossible to shake the uneasy feeling in his stomach.
“I really don’t mind you staring at me like some clueless child, you know.” The tall stranger interrupted the traveler’s worrying with another volley of noise, before rummaging around in the tall grass by his seat. “But at least have something to eat first.” A modest little cauldron was eventually produced, and placed on the flame while the stranger retrieved a matching iron spoon. Both were blackened with use, and he hummed cheerfully as he stirred the contents. “Now that you’re my guest, I probably shouldn’t let you starve to death tonight. Not while there’s lamb and potato to be had.” He grinned toothily, allowing his hood to slip just enough to reveal thick, messy flame for hair, matching his beard. The traveler had barely spoken, though managed to nod by way of a meager reply.
A few moments passed in silence, the tall man busying himself with cooking and humming, while the traveler watched the mixture bubble against the heat. “You haven’t had stew in years, have you? Not since your Mother last made it.” The stranger spoke as if he had known this man all his life, nonchalantly stirring the pot without even bothering to look up. “No I…That’s not…” Again, the traveler was left struggling for words, and felt that unease build up again. In the light of the fire, bright green eyes shone like jewels, and for a moment it seemed as though the trees edged closer to the tall stranger. They offered their branches to him, their golden leaves practically wrapping around his shoulders. Something was wrong. “How could you know that..?”
“Eat.” The stranger demanded, dunking a bowl into the cauldron and passing it over to the traveler. “You’ll enjoy it, truthfully. Don’t act like it’s some kind of fool’s poison – see?” The stranger took a handful straight from the pot and slurped it down hungrily, just to prove his point. “If I can eat it, you can eat it…or I put you in the pot for tomorrow!” Thankfully a great, hearty laugh followed the threat, which hopefully made it out to be some kind of joke. The traveler certainly wasn’t smiling, but put his lips to the bowl and drank the broth out of hunger and no small amount of fear. It was delicious, beyond anything he had ever tasted before. That first sip soon turned into starved, desperate gulps for more, and chunks of meat and potato only added to the flavour. His senses lit up, his mouth watered and his body flooded with shivers of delight as the meal lasted a lifetime. Flashes of happy memories rolled by, of laughter in houses and comfortable beds, fireplaces and friends, a childhood by the ocean. In reality it had taken less than a minute to finish the bowl, but it had changed everything.
“Not bad, eh?” The stranger smirked, now appearing as a far younger man with a staff by his side. “Now, I believe it is time for a story. I know a good one.”