The Old Man was ancient when we found this place, which was long enough ago that my children now had children of their own. He’d never mentioned his name, and he only really talked to regale us with magical tales of days long passed. He hobbled into the room, leaning heavily on his gnarled stick. Usually he stayed in his room or puttered about the lodge; the last time he’d come down to the Fireplace Room was three months ago, at Christmas.
When he lowered himself into the easy chair by the fire, the kids knew the ritual. They gathered around him, sitting on the floor. Twenty children, everyone who was old enough to still be awake at this hour. He spoke, his voice barely above a whisper, but the whole room listened in rapt attention.
“I’ll never forget that night; it was forty years ago today, when I was living in the old cabin down by the river. Hard to believe now, but this place was pretty remote back then. I was mighty surprised when I heard a knock on my door.
When I opened it there was a man there, thin and pale and weary-looking. He’d apparently ridden up on a horse, a grey-white mare that he’d tied to the hitching post. I brought him in and sat him down with a bowl of stew, then tended to the horse while he ate. When I got back he gave me a weak smile.
‘It’s been a long and busy day, sir,” he said, “thank you for your hospitality.’
‘Same as I’d do for any other traveller, sir. Rest for the weary, food for the hungry, like the Good Lord says. You’re welcome to stay the night.’
‘I can’t, sir. There is much work to do before morning; so much.’
He looked like he was carrying the world on his shoulders, but he stood up to go.
‘Rest a while here, sir; for your horse if not for yourself. If there’s anything I can do to ease your burden, just ask.’
‘I cannot rest; there is too much work ahead.’
He stared at me, his dark eyes boring deep into my soul. In that moment I knew who he was, and why he’d come here. I should have been afraid, but wasn’t.
‘Perhaps you’d best finish your business here, then.’
A twinkle came into his eye. ‘You’re a good man, sir,’ he said, ‘Perhaps there is something you can do to help me. Fix up the lodge for those who follow; I’ll return later.’
Then he turned and left without another word. The next day I went into town for supplies, and that’s when I heard about all the bombs. But I did as he asked, and a year later the place was ready when your grandparents showed up. Now off to bed!”
At that the Old Man fell asleep. Nobody heard the hoof beats, or the knock on the door, but in the morning his body was cold.