It was chilly in the hall. The shutters had been closed against the cold and the double curtains were drawn. The space had a pervasive gloom. Near the fire, a screen was set up. A shadow was cast against it. A man sitting in a chair with a second chair beside him. Empty.
I tried to walk to where he sat waiting for me in utter silence. Somehow, he knew I was there and he turned his head to the left. "Come sit down, darling," he said. His voice was so warm and inviting. I wasn't sure what to say or do. In the town, rumors spoke of a monster in the mansion on the hill. My father's accounting of his experience when he was caught in the gardens was vague and said only that I was to go up to the mansion, alone. I rubbed my arms and hesitantly walked towards him.
When I came around the screen, I saw a man dressed in plain clothes in shades of dark brown. His hair was a dark auburn mass of curls that tumbled wildly about his shoulders. A long beard of similar shade was on his face, resting upon his chest as a single braid with a black wooden bead at the end. He picked up the clay cup that sat on the table before him and the jug beside it. As he poured a deep red liquid into the cup he said, "Sit, contrary to rumor, I will not bite you."
I walked between the fire and where he sat. As my shadow passed over him, I saw his eyes briefly flash with a light that did not seem related to the fire. Something uncomfortable troubled me but I found no words for it. Instead, I sat down at the chair on his right. As I sat down, I felt a twinge of self consciousness for the fact that my wet coat dripped on the floor and into the plush fabric of the chair. "Take the coat off," he said, setting the cup before me on the table, "I have a blanket that will work much better to make you warm." I arose and shrugged out of the linen lined wool coat. As I did so, the man in the chair beside me arose and took it from me.
He motioned towards the slightly damp chair and I sat down. I watched him as he walked towards the fire and spread my coat over another chair that was hidden in the shadows. He picked something up off that chair and carried it over. As he wrapped the thick woolen blanket about me, his hands lingered for a moment at my sides, pressed firmly against me. As the moment began to turn to something uncomfortable, he straightened and picked up the cup. He held it out to me and I cautiously took it.
"It has been a long time since I have had company," he rumbled before he sat down again in his chair. I watched him out the corner of my eye as I took a swallow of the contents of the cup. Wine with the richness of plums and warmed with spices delighted my tongue. I was tempted to take another drink but refrained because I wasn't sure of the man's intentions. A scar along his right cheek made him look particularly fierce in the dancing light of the fire. "You are my guest," he said, "I give you free reign of the grounds. A servant will escort you to your chambers after you have warmed. Then, you will be given clothes proper for attending dinner."
"When can I go home?" I asked, hopeful that my stay in the ominous place would be limited to a few days. The man's gaze flicked from regarding the fire to my face. An awful intensity that seemed a mixture of anger and hunger burned in his hazel eyes. I looked down into the cup of wine I held, sensing I had crossed a line.
"You are tribute," he said in his low baritone voice, "You remain as long as I will it. Be thankful. Your father has his life and might provide for your sisters because of you. This is now your home."