On a winter’s night the door to the inn opened unexpectedly, turning every head with curiosity. The guests were bewildered; no one recognised the stranger filling the doorway. Although nothing about the stranger seemed too peculiar or odd, the fact that nobody knew him was so surprising that a blanket of silence fell over the room. Strangers rarely wandered these roads and seldom visited the small secluded village with its sole inn, the only building with welcoming light spilling out into the dark street. The man hunched and shivered beneath his long cloak, which was the only thing that offered respite from the cold. The critical and dismissive faces of the villagers only added to the cruelty of the harsh night.
The gloomy conversation roaming the room beneath heavy and greasy tobacco clouds suddenly stopped; as the stranger entered, every tongue stilled. All eyes followed him carefully, as though he was a rare and fascinating beast, or a interesting street clown performance. The stranger whisked the wet snow from his cloak: snow that, if allowed to remain too long on clothes, will reach the very bones and set such immovable coldness there it can never again be dispelled. Unconscious of the attention his appearance had created, the stranger calmly continued to remove his snow-laden cloak, and arrange it before the fire to dry. He lingered by the hearth, his hands reaching for warmth in a kind of prayer common on winter nights, and then sat at a vacant table in the darker end of the room.
When it became clear that the stranger was not going to do anything outrageous or unusual, such as spit fire or caw like a raven — though everyone was secretly and unfairly hoping that he would — all eyes turned to the innkeeper, who long ago had been a stranger in the village himself. Despite this, he didn’t like strangers any more than the others, and endeavoured not to meet with them at his taverns. All eyes stayed fixed upon him as he begrudgingly emerged from behind the large wooden counter.
The stranger politely welcomed the innkeeper, whose wide and scruffy shadow leaned over him.
“I would appreciate a bowl of your soup, some bread, and maybe some potatoes from the fire, with some lard, and I wouldn’t say no to some leftover roast,” the stranger said.
Before giving an answer, the innkeeper looked at the stranger with one eye almost closed, ignoring the murmurs around them while he assessed the stranger. The room fell silent when he said:
“The soup is made from vegetables, and some other things we found no use for.” After a small pause he added contentedly, “But it’s hot.”
He looked around the inn seeking agreement. But the villagers were silent, not wanting to miss any part of the conversation, since it would be discussed and recounted many times, with details overstated and exaggerated. The innkeeper looked back at the stranger disapprovingly.
“We shall find some potatoes. I’ll tell Elsa to pick out those that have not spoilt and roast them, but we have no lard. Nor roast,” he added.
The stranger thanked him but the innkeeper didn’t move. Instead he gazed at the corner, to the fireplace which hadn’t drawn the smoke properly since last winter, as if he would find the words he was looking for there. He must have found them, since he said:
“Do ya have anything to pay with, stranger? Here we don’t care for anything but gold and silver and have no use for the worthless paper.”
The room lit up in murmur again, people whispering about how long it had been since anyone saw gold or silver, or paid with it for the watered-down beer or soup that only resembled something edible. Elsa, the innkeeper’s considerably large hostess and perhaps something more toofrom whatever she found in the larder. More often than not, the ingredients were only one day away from not being edible at all.
Whether the stranger heard what the soup was made from, we don’t know, and even if he did, it did not seem to worry him.
“I have no money,” he said as the innkeeper suspected he would, “but I am cold and hungry. Tonight, I cannot continue my journey and I need shelter as well.”
The innkeeper felt galled more by the stranger’s cheerful tone than by the words themselves. The murmuring in the room intensified once again and was mixed with laughter. This was an unpleasant performance which the innkeeper was dragged into against his will.
“And how you intend to pay, then? This is not some shelter for your kind, and there is no work you could do as to pay,” he said harshly to the stranger.
The stranger looked kindly at him, and somehow pitifully, as if the innkeeper was the one begging for food and a place to rest his head. Then he emptied the contents of a shabby old bag onto the table. Three luminous stones glowed in the dark.
“I have this,” he said. The innkeeper looked with disgust at the shiny trumpery.
“Glass will not pay for your dinner.”
“It is not glass,” the stranger said, “but crystals of the highland fairies.”
Silence fell upon the inn. Even the crackle of fire seemed to quieten. The innkeeper stared at the stones, those strange, useless, insulting things. They annoyed him as much as the unexpected appearance of the stranger. But before he could do or say anything, the stranger pressed the stones firmly into the innkeeper’s palm. He felt a strange tremor and power coming from the stones. The stranger’s voice suddenly transformed, as if the words were carving themselves into the mind of the innkeeper, and all whispered words echoed loud and clear. The innkeeper felt the stones becoming warm and full of motion and energy in his hand, as if the stones were alive, as if his hand was burning. The innkeeper pulled back his hand and looked deeply into the stranger’s eyes. He did not see anything typical: the deceit of scoundrels or the beggaries of frozen vagabonds. His resolve to drive away this stranger melted unexpectedly and he wished for all to end soon, to escape from the eyes that stung his back, to move away from the middle of the room, the stage on which he did not choose to be the main entertainer, and to hide again in elusive security of his big wooden counter.
“For this…you can sleep in the shed. The hay is soft and warm, the cows never complained. I’ll bring the soup.”
When the stranger nodded gracefully in acceptance, like he was just promised regal treatment, the innkeeper snatched the stones from the stranger’s extended hand, put them deep in the pocket of his apron and vanished into the kitchen.
Nothing else out of the ordinary occurred. The conversation picked up where it had stopped, following its usual path. But the memory of that night was already village gossip, magnified every time the story was told. The tale of the stranger who rode into the village on the storm and paid for his dinner with magical stones that shone with all colours and floated on the flames of fire, circled the village for a long time. It expanded in the minds of those who seldom had a chance to experience such exciting adventures and felt fearful towards anything unknown or different from their usual day, yet were still drawn to it like moths to a flame.
What did not survive in these recollections was that the stranger slept in the shed. And although the cold wind cut through the shabby wooden walls, and the hay was old, wet and smelly, he was content. His stomach was warmed by the pigwash, and the cows looked at him with big sympathetic eyes, seeming to understand everything about life, except the fate that was handed to them.
The stranger was grateful that everything the fairies had told him had come true. Years ago they presented him with three stones: three mountain crystals, shimmering treasures which warmed and trembled when touched. That day his whole life had changed. Until then, he had blamed everyone but himself. He was surrounded by people he did not trust, and forced into a life he did not want. He didn’t understand the world nor did the world understand him. And the little he understood, he hated. Then, everything changed. No, he had changed, and he saw life through new eyes. He learned to find joy in the everyday, to love, to help, to laugh, to be happy — all the things he once knew but seemed to have forgotten. And now he had passed the crystals to somebody else, as the fairies had instructed him. He had passed them to someone who needed them more.
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