The night was cold and merciless. The wind screeched like a flock of harpies driven mad by the oncoming storm. The raging waves attacked the shore, crashing violently on the cliffs as if they were trying to tear them down.
The weather in this forsaken corner of the country was notoriously bad. Nothing grew in these parts, save for thickets of thorn bushes and fields of mangy grass. Few managed to make a living on such meagre land, and the people who did were as hard and resilient as the rocks that lay buried in its soil.
To the foreign eye, the landscape had the wild, untamable beauty of nature at its harshest. Driven by either blind enthusiasm or a death wish, hikers flocked to the little seaside town like migrating birds, coming and going with the relatively warm and rainless summer.
One such hiker was presently trying to find some kind of shelter against said warm and rainless weather. While taking a shortcut in order to get back to the inn before dark, he found himself wandering in the middle of nowhere, chilled through the bone by the biting wind, and contemplating the pleasing prospect of being thoroughly drenched by the approaching downpour.
He was starting to feel quite sorry for himself as he climbed yet another steep hill, of which the county seemed to have an endless supply. Yet, as he reached the top, he saw a beacon of hope, literally shining in the dark: a solitary lighthouse perched on the shoreline cliffs, just a couple of miles away. Heartened by this reversal of fortune, the hiker quickened his pace and soldiered on, guided by the inviting light and its promise of a safe, warm place to spend the night.
As he finally reached the building, exhausted by the trek, he knocked on the door with the last of his strength, heavily leaning on it for support. When no one answered, he knocked again, harder and harder, bruising his hand on the weather-beaten, petrified oak. At last, the door gave way, and light flooded out. Blinded, half delirious with exhaustion, he first mistook the silhouette in front of him for that of an angel. Wavy hair so blond it was practically white, long flowing gown the colour of foam, a pale face with pale blue eyes, all seeming to shimmer like calm water reflecting the sun… The vision faded as the hiker blinked owlishly at the young woman standing in front him, his eyes adjusting to the light.
“Are you alright, sir?”, the girl asked, her expression a mixture of wariness and concern.
The hiker came out of his daze at the sound of the soft voice, and tried to focus on formulating a reply. But coherent speech – or, indeed, coherent thought - was too much for him at this point, and he simply stood there, a silent plead in his eyes. The girl seemed to hesitate for a moment, and when she finally spoke again, there was still a trace of fear in her voice:
“You seem very tired, sir. What are you doing out in the dark? Have you lost your way?”
The hiker managed a single nod in reply. The girl looked clearly uncomfortable with the idea of letting him in. The echo of faraway thunder, however, seemed to help her reach a decision.
“There’s a dreadful storm coming, sir. You mustn’t stay outside tonight.”
The hiker could only express his gratitude with a wan smile, as he stumbled into the lighthouse. He let the girl guide him to an armchair by the small fireplace. He sank into it with a sigh, and surrendered to the oblivion brought by dreamless sleep.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The storm came and went, and the next morning brought a sky of steel and a fresh sea breeze. The hiker slept well past dawn, all but dead to the outside world. When he eventually awoke, the lighthouse was silent, save for the sound of rolling waves somewhere down the cliff. He called out, softly at first, then louder, but no answer came. The girl must have gone out, which left him in a rather awkward position. Was he expected to leave? Or should he stay and wait for her, to at least thank her for sheltering him from the storm?
As he grew accustomed to the chorus of breaking waves and sighing wind, he eventually noticed some noise coming from above, probably from the top of the lighthouse. The hiker decided on thanking whoever was up there, and then be on his way. He straightened out his jacket, retied his boots, and ran his fingers through his hair, trying to make himself slightly more presentable. Appearances did count, and he had been a rather sorry spectacle the previous night.
Climbing up a series of stairs and ladders, he reached the top of the lighthouse. As he came into the lantern room, he saw the girl standing on the gallery outside, a big shawl wrapped tightly around her shoulders. She was looking at the sea, seeming completely oblivious to his presence as he came near her. He nearly jumped when she suddenly spoke, without turning around to face him:
“Have you slept well, sir? I trust you are fully rested?”
“I- Yes- Yes, thank you,” he stammered, trying to gather his scattered wits. “And thank you so much for letting me in yesterday. I don’t know what I would’ve done if you hadn’t.”
“I could not leave you outside on a night like this, sir. You could have died.”
Her voice had a dreamy, almost eerie quality to it, as if she were mesmerized by the swell of the sea. The hiker stood silently at her side for a moment, unsure of what to say. He felt that he should go and leave her be, but something about her melancholy demeanor made him want to stay a little longer.
“I didn’t notice anybody else here while I was coming up. Don’t tell me you manage this lighthouse all by yourself?”
A cloud passed over the girl’s face, her serene expression suddenly turning to stone.
“My parents were the guardians of this lighthouse,” she answered in a flat voice. “But they are gone now. Lost to the sea.”
The hiker bit his lip, cursing himself for this blunder. He had wanted to thank the young woman for her kindness, and had revived the pain of an obviously recent loss instead.
“I’m terribly sorry for bringing this up,” he muttered. “I didn’t want- I didn’t imagine- I’m sorry.”
He cast around for something to say to make up for his clumsiness, and, finding nothing, simply blurted out:
“Look, I know that there’s nothing I can say or do to properly repay you. But if there is anything you need-”
Before he could finish his sentence, the girl turned sharply towards him, and stared at him with pleading, almost frantic eyes.
“Would you help me? Please? I can’t- I can’t go near the sea anymore. Not after- Not since they- I can’t even leave the lighthouse. I can’t stand it. Please, would you go to the beach with me? If someone is with me, I could- I’m sure I could go. I could live again. I could-”
Tears welled in her eyes, and her voice broke. She covered her face with her hands, and her shoulders shook with quiet sobs that she tried to hold back. Acting on impulse, the hiker gently took her in his arms, and held her silently while she cried herself out. Outrage boiled in him as he thought about her predicament. The town was not that far away, surely people must have known about her parents’ death? Someone must have known that the girl was here all alone? Yet nobody had come to help her or to comfort her in her distress. How could it be possible? Were this wretched country’s folk so heartless, so self absorbed that they would ignore the pain of one of their own?
Even as these thoughts careened through his mind, the hiker resolved to help her, no matter what it cost him. Right then and there, he even felt ready to stay in the lighthouse forever with her, so that she would have someone to care for her and to protect her. For a moment, he fancied himself a knight in shining armor, rescuing a lonely princess from her tower prison – which, in all fairness, was not that far from the truth. He would help her overcome her fear, her loss, her pain, and he would stay by her side… If she would let him, he amended sheepishly to himself.
Like the storm of the previous night, the girl’s violent turmoil eventually subsided. When he felt that she was ready to talk again, the hiker went out of his way to assure her of his help. He talked at length about his sympathy towards her, his intentions, his plans, his hopes, gibbering like a lovesick fool and not caring a whit about it. This outburst did win him a smile, however, and the girl thanked him, simply and sweetly, her eyes still full of tears.
They climbed down together, and he held her hand as they crossed the threshold and left the lighthouse behind. They walked in silence towards the beach. As they drew near, the hiker felt the girl’s hand tremble slightly in his. His heart went out to her, but his attempt at reassurance came out as an incoherent string of clichés.
They were walking on wet sand now, and the dark, salty water was lapping over their feet. The wind picked up again, and the hiker felt uncomfortably chilly.
“Are you alright?” he asked. “We can stay as long as you like, but if you wish to leave…”
“Leave?” the girl replied, sounding genuinely surprised. “Why would I want to leave?”
The tone of her voice was perfectly relaxed, almost cheerful. It carried a strange undercurrent that made the hiker’s skin crawl. Something akin to instinct suddenly made him want to let go of the girl’s hand, but he found himself unable to do so. A taste of bile rose in his throat as he stared at his hand in mute horror: his skin was slowly merging into the girl’s, as if their hands had been seamlessly stitched together.
“What in the Devil’s name…!” he cried out in a futile attempt to tear his hand away.
“What is the matter, my sweet?” the girl purred. “You were so eager to accompany me, to stay at my side forever. Don’t tell me you’re not a man of your word?”
She turned her face toward him, her head cocked playfully at an almost unnatural angle. Her skin had turned grey, and her eyes were now entirely black.
“Come now, don’t be coy. You wished to thank me for my hospitality, didn’t you? Well then… How about dinner?”
Her razor sharp teeth gleamed as she gave the hiker her sweetest smile.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Every now and then, a lighthouse would lose its guardian and fall into disrepair. And yet it said that on stormy nights, the abandoned towers on those deadly cliffs are set alight again by creatures of the sea, luring lost travelers who would fall prey to their glamour.