From the author: Cabhan and his wolfhound Tom walk in search of the cottage over the next hill, where his lost love Aoife awaits--or so he was told. A fabulist tale that's gentle in tone and mostly a personal indulgence.
Cabhan swept his hair out of his face as he crested the hill, though the wind immediately tousled and pulled at it again. Still, the brief glimpse he'd gotten through his brown tangles had been enough: the cottage wasn't there.
"Maybe the next hill, Tom," he said to the wolfhound loping at his side. He shrugged his shoulders to adjust his pack, got his head down, and started down the side of the hill, following the thin muddy path that cut through lavender and gorse.
You'll find her in the cottage over the next hill, his Grandpa had said, and fool that Cabhan was he'd taken him at his word and not thought to ask the hill next to what? He should have known, after thirty years of his Grandpa's cryptic pronouncements, that no simple statement was ever what it seemed; but the thought of Aoife had stolen his sense, as it always had.
A sudden squall of cold rain blew in on a bluster, and Cabhan staggered into Tom. The wolfhound looked up quizzically. Something in those dandelion tuft eyebrows always seemed to hold the relevant question.
"We're not stopping. If we stopped every time the weather got bad, we'd never get anywhere round here. Jesus above, judged by my own hound."
Another surge of cold Atlantic wind pushed Cabhan back, and he stumbled over his dog and landed on his rump. Tom yelped in pain and lifted a foreleg tenderly, struggling to keep his balance against the gale.
"Oh Jesus, I'm sorry, Tom. Come here." Cabhan reached a hand out and the wolfhound recoiled instinctively before he overcame his fear and limped over, his dark eyes full of love and forgiveness so complete that Cabhan could naught but take it as an accusation.
"Maybe I'm a fool, Tom. No, I am a fool. I shouldn't be risking you in chasing a memory. I'm sorry, old boy. Let's find somewhere out the way till the worst of it passes, then we'll turn for home. It's time I faced the truth of it."
Cabhan found an overhang of rock to keep the wind off, though the rain still found a way to spray in, cold on his cheeks. Man and hound waited three hours for it to lift, watching the clouds drift over the next hill, the dark peak floating above the grey veil of rain then disappearing again. Eventually, though, the darkness moved in, and with a resigned sigh Cabhan built a small fire from the scraps and branches that had gathered beneath the granite. It took some effort to get the damp wood lit, and more kindling than he'd like to have used, but a chill had settled in him from an afternoon off his feet and him and Tom both were in need of it. Once it was spitting and crackling, he laid his blanket roll out and whistled for Tom. "C'mere, you big lunk!"
The wolfhound padded over, still wary of his forepaw, and curled round at the head of the blanket. Tom stretched out and leant his head back against the dog, then groped blindly in his pack until he came up with a single strip of salted beef. He looked at it wistfully, stomach rumbling, and then passed it up to Tom, who took it delicately between his front teeth.
"I wish she hadn't have left us," said Cabhan, as he said every night. "I told her I'd follow her wherever she went. I reckon she took it as a challenge, up and died on me to prove a point, you know." And as it did every night, the memory of blood on her lips and a rattle in her chest twisted his heart.
He took a quick swig of whiskey from a flask, careful not to take too much. It was a long way back home, after all.
"To the next hill. It might have been the one I'm looking at, but I'll never know now." He gestured at the peak he'd watched all afternoon, barely distinguishable against the falling dusk, then tucked the flask away again.
Cabhan couldn't say when sleep finally took him, but after a time a full moon that shouldn't have been rose behind that hill, and the way ahead was clear, and all thought of giving up had vanished as if it had never been.
Cabhan sat up. "Come on Tom, we're moving." He turned to shoo the dog off the blanket, but Tom was already gone, even though he'd only just lifted his head from his side. Cabhan looked back at the path and saw Tom already stood on the rise of the next hill, brush fur picked out in silver pencil by the moonlight. When he looked down, his pack was tidied and ready to go. He didn't think to question it; he just picked it up and set off.
The path was dry and easy despite the day's rain, and the evening was comfortably warm for the late autumn season. Tom stayed just ahead, leading the way.
Over the crest of the hill, the cottage stood.
It was low, small but not tiny, with a single east-facing window in the thatched roof. A neat fenced garden was lined with herbs and bedding flowers, mint and thyme and marigolds and pansies, glittering with a moonlit frost that didn't seem possible in the warmth. A line of woodsmoke drifted straight up from the stone chimney, amber sparks flaring and dying against the white stars.
Tom sat by the oak door. Cabhan tried the handle and found it unlocked, and stepped in. He whistled low for Tom to follow, but the wolfhound stayed still, only watching.
Warm tomato soup bubbled on a copper pan on the stove, shreds of rosemary still littering the side. A small red door led through into the front room.
"About time, you lummox," said Aoife, curled in a worn high-backed armchair by the stone fireplace. She was holding a blue clothbound book, threads coming loose at the edges where it had been held and read hundreds of times.
"You're here. You're really here."
"And where else would I be except where you were told I was?"
"But I've looked over the next hill, and the next hill from that, and the next hill from that, and you were never there."
"Ah, well, that's cos you were walking wrong. You weren't meant to take to your feet. You always did take things too literal, Cabhan McShane."
"Is this it, then? I've found you now, and you can come home?"
"I can't leave here, Cabhan. And why should I? I'm at peace, and the world can't hurt me no more. Nor you can stay, neither. But you know how to find me now, and if I know you, you'll come find me again and again."
Tears streamed down Cabhan's face, and he made no move to hide them or wipe them away. "If I can't stay, how long have we got?"
Aoife smiled. "Time enough, lover." And she stood, and went to him, and clung to him.
At some point during the night, as they sat in the half-moon window seat looking over the moor, rain began to fall again, a gentle drumming against the leaded window. Cabhan's head was in Aoife's lap, and neither of them talked; they'd been silent for hours, for there was nothing needed saying, and everything that did was said with a touch, and everything was known as soon as thought. Aoife leaned down to kiss him on the forehead once, a single, soft kiss that carried all the love of one life and the next.
Sometime after that, Cabhan realised he was looking at the hill top in the grey dawn, and he was laid beneath the overhang with his head resting on Tom, and the window and the cottage and his wife had all slipped away.
But he knew where they were now, and so he packed up his bag, scratched his hound behind the ears, and turned for home, happy now to be walking there. The cottage was only ever over the next hill, after all, wherever he was.
This story originally appeared in Curious Fictions.