Then she appeared, a tall, thin woman.
She was handsome in her severe-ness. A linen dress stopped midway down her slender calves. With her elegant, long fingers she drew her brown shawl tighter around her bony shoulders. Her face was all sharp lines: her high cheekbones sloped beneath sloe, crystal-blue eyes to her pencil-thin nose, which had a slight upturn at its end. Her wide mouth showed neither friendly nor stern, yet the only thing soft about this woman was the loose, brown curls that framed her angular face.
Annabelle swallowed hard; she was not able to look away.
"I am the Forest Wife, Matt Jones and Annabelle Smith." The woman’s voice was deep, feminine and rich. "It is my cottage in which you find yourselves. I hope the stew has filled your bellies."
Annabelle pressed her lips together before quietly saying, "The stew was delicious. Thank you. And thank you very much for your hospitality, but my friend and I," she broke from the woman's stare to glance at Matt, "we've decided to find accommodation elsewhere." Matt stood stricken. Annabelle reached to him and tugged his sleeve. He stumbled to her side.
The woman's mouth widened slightly further into a smile. "There is nowhere else," she said in a throbbing, steady voice. "You will not survive out in the night. You will stay here. I will take care of you."
"Thank you for your warning, but we'll be leaving just the same."
The conundrum was before the pair like lightening, and Annabelle gasped while Matt moved between the two women. “Sit,” she said in that throbbing, steely voice.
Standing so close, Annabelle could smell the fragrance of fresh trees, petrichor and newly turned dirt wafting from the woman, who could nearly look 6'1" Matt in the eye.
“Please. I am anxious to hear of your journey."
Matt and Annabelle sidestepped the woman and made for the door, Annabelle clinging to the tail of Matt’s jacket like a leash.
"Matt Jones, Annabelle Smith," spoke the woman.
Matt stopped and lingered at the door. Annabelle found herself lingering too, shoulder bag swinging from her hand.
"You will stay. Only terrible danger awaits you out there. Stay here," the woman's voice became liquid caramel, "where there is a warm fire and food to fill your bellies. Listen to what I say; then tomorrow you may make your…decisions."
Something in Annabelle's head, like a small, insistent voice softly pounded an encouragement to not leave the cottage. Annabelle shook her shoulders and guided Matt forward with a hand on his back. "Thank you, but we really must be going." She closed the door behind them.