It had finally stopped snowing. The sky had been grey for days, which was not so upsetting as the snow that had come with it. It had been so cold, and no one wanted to elave their homes. No one wanted to come outside into the freezing air. No one except for Hope, and the strange man she met that evening.
It was the sort of night where it is cold enough to chill you, but the wind is still and the sky is clear except for the falling flakes twinkling in the moonlight. These were her favorite sort of evenings, and the ones that made her want to brave the chill.
She watched the snowfall through her window as she waited for her parents to go to sleep, then found her winter coat, (the one that was heavy enough to keep her warm but light enough to still move easily), and went out into the yard. The air was fresh and crisp, and smelled clean with the new snow. She danced under the porch light and caught the flakes on her tongue. It was a beautiful night.
She looked up the quiet street and down, looking at the snow-covered benches and streetlamps, and decided to walk to the corner park...
...If only for a moment.
It was late, and she had not expected to see anyone else in the park when she arrived. Yet there, on one of the benches, was a man, dressed all in black tossing corn to a squirrel. Upon hearing her footsteps, he looked up. His expression was only slightly startled; far more surprised.
"What are you doing out so late at night, little one?" He asked in a kindly voice. "Are you lost?"
"No, sir." Hope answered softly. She turned and pointed back up the way. "I live just there. I only wanted to come and see the snow in the park."
"Well...it is lovely. This is my favorite sort of winter night." The man said as he rose to his feet. He was much taller than the girl, and dressed in fine attire with a fair sized satchel at his side. "I am sure that your parents would not approve of you being out."
Hope's expression soured a touch. She knew the man was right, and wished he had not been here to spoil her fun. "Yes, sir." She replied.
"I don't suppose that you will go right home if I instruct you to," he raised an eyebrow to her. He had a kind smile, and tipped his hat to her.
"Such a clever girl as you, since you were able to leave without your parents knowing, must want to be out so much as to simply wait until I am gone so that you can do as you may."
Hope smiled sheepishly in reply. The thought had crossed her mind.
"Then I shall see to it that you are at least safely delivered home, and safe while you are here." He said as he took his place once more upon the bench. "I will sit with you until you are ready to go home, and then I will walk with you to your door so that no strange predators might endanger you." He smiled again, and patted the bench beside him.
Hope smiled skipped through the snow toward him, happy that she could stay outside a while longer without the risk of waking her parents when returning home. She twirled slowly around the streetlamp, stopping to watch the man pull something out of the satchel at his side.
He unwrapped a large loaf of bread with cheese and cakes and laid them out on a cloth at his other side. "Would you like something to eat? All that dancing might make you hungry."
"Do you always carry such things with you?" Hope asked, finding it curious for a man dressed so well to be out at night in the park, and carrying his own food.
"No, no." he chuckled. "I was coming home from a dinner party, and brought some treats home for later. I passed your lovely park and decided to share a bit or corn with the animals, as such things are scarce for them this time of year. And now, since I have company, I thought it as good a time as any to share my treats with you." The lamp light caught his smile and sharp features. He had bright blue eyes, almost the color of the snow itself.
This explanation sounded feasible to Hope. It was not so strange afterall, to take home treats from dinner parties, or to stop at such a fine park to feed the squirrels. She had done so many times. And when coming upon a kindly stranger, it is impolite to eat in front of them without offering to share. So she skipped through the snow, paying no attention to the snow that found it's way into her shoes, and sat next to the man.
"I wish I had some tea to share, but alas all I have is wine...and that is not proper for a girl your age."
"I have wine on Sundays," Hope responded a little hurt, "and on holidays and sometimes at dinner when mother makes a special meal."
She was not fond of it, mind you. She simply did not want to let this man think that she was too young for such things. "I am 16 after all."
"Oh! Well then a young lady in my presence and not a girl at all." He rose to his feet once again and bowed exquisitely. "My name is Victor von Erich. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance."
Hope giggled a little, stood and curtsied, then sat back in her spot as he took his beside her. "My name is Hope."
"That's a lovely name." Victor said with a smile. "Do you have any brothers and sisters?" He tore off a piece of bread and offered it to her.
"No..." Hope shrugged, taking the bread. It was still warm and smelled wonderful. "I don't think mother and father want any more children."
"I should think that in 16 years they would have decided by now, yes." He tapped his nose thoughtfully before taking the bottle of wine out and setting it aside.
"Do you have any children, sir?" Hope asked.
"Oh, Victor, Victor please." He laughed patting her knee. "No, no children. I am a wealthy man, and have many charges, but no children to speak of, no."
"Did you ever want one?"
Victor looked down his long nose at her and smiled. "Oh, yes." He replied softly. "...very much. I just never met the right person."
"That's too bad." Hope's thoughts trailed off into the night sky. She looked up at the stars peeking through the trees, smiling to herself.
"Do you study well?" Victor asked, calling her out of her reverie.
"Study?" A moment passed before she realized what he meant. "Oh...I do well with school, yes."
"And your favorite subject?"
"I love to read, and to write." She replied, her smile brightening at the thought. "I hope someday to become an authoress and travel the world writing great novels."
Victor smiled in kind. "That is a marvelous wish," he said. "What sort of novels would you write?"
"Oh, I love fairy stories. Dark ones with witches and magic." She said it with such vibrancy and attitude as to make one think that she was quite skilled. "They are so much more interesting, and with so many fewer limitations. The real world limits you to what you can tell."
"Does it?" Victor asked, raising a brow.
"Of course!" Hope exclaimed, looking at him with shock. "There is no magic in the real world. There are no vampires or witches, or fairies who grant your wildest dreams. Fantasy is limitless."
"You sound so certain that those things do not exist." The man reached over and took up one of the little cakes to offer her, then reached into his pack and retrieved a kerchief for her lap so she would not soil her dress. "I have seen many magical things in my long life."
"You're not so old." Hope said, eying the cake. It looked sweet and wonderful.
Victor laughed out loud. It echoed through the trees, making the birds scatter. "Oh, if you only knew."
"Why, you look no older than my father...and he is still quite young."
"I have aged well for my years, little one." He said, still grinning. "I believe it is in my blood."
Hope smiled, savoring the subtle flavors of the delicious cake. She wondered if he had more in his pack.
Again, Victor reached into his satchel and retrieved a kerchief, laying it in his own lap. he took up the other cake and broke it in two, offering half to Hope. "You look like you enjoyed it."
"Oh, yes!" She accepted eagerly and immediately began to devour the treat.
"I shall tell my friend that you liked her baking."
Hope nodded in reply, nodding up at him. Her belly now full of sweets and warm bread, she stretched. She could feel the late evening air creeping into her and making her tired.
Victor smiled. "I am afraid, as I said, that i have no tea to offer you, and no glasses for my wine."
Hope yawned, her eyes growing heavy. "That's quite alright." She said. The snow drifted slowly down and over her, leaving tiny spots on her dress as they landed. Watching them had almost hypnotized her, so much so that she did not notice as Victor produced a lovely flute from his pack and began to play.
The snowflakes dances and swirled in the air above her. They shimmered in blue and pink and white. The music filled her senses with wild visions of faeries and fauns, of dark castles and winged beasts. Before long, however, the sweetness turned dark, and something loomed over her. Some sinister presence crept from the beauty that had surrounded her, and shrouded her within it. She struggled to be free of its grasp, but something sharp held her fast. The faeries became witches, the fauns merged to twisted demons, and from the castle came a man, dressed black with eyes of the brightest blue.
Finally, she shook herself free of it, and woke to find herself along on her front step.
There was no trace of Victor, or his sweets. There were no footsteps in the snow; no lingering of music from his flute. It couldn't have been a dream, she thought. I can still taste the cakes!
She tried to get to her feet, but her knees failed. Her head began to swim, the snowflakes began to swirl around her again. She tried desperately to make out any sign of the man through the snow down in the park, but to no avail. Hope put her head on her arm and laid against the steps. Turning away from the park, she saw Victor's bottle of wine propped against the rail at the foot of the steps.
Something warm..., she whispered to herself aloud as she stretched her other arm out to retrieve the bottle.
She drew it to her and found the cork somewhat loose, and yes it was still warm compared to the surrounding air. Hope put the bottle to her lips, and tasted of the strange dark liquid - indeed the strangest wine she had ever consumed. Perhaps it was some foreign, expensive wine that Victor had brought from his fancy party.
But why leave it here?
It was a question she pondered only moments, as the taste lingered on her tongue and made her want more. Indeed, she had consumed the entire bottle before she realized it, yet with it had come renewed strength, warmth and clarity.
She looked up at her parent's door and went inside, leaving the bottle int the bushes outdoors. No sense in making them wonder where it had come from. Softly, Hope crept up to her room, closing the door behind her, and removed her coat.
She looked in the mirror, startled at her reflection. She shook off the reaction and looked again.
For a moment, she thought she had seen Victor there.
She allowed herself a soft sigh, and looked out her window.
At least it had stopped snowing...