Published by Hope Ann Schmidt at Shakespir
Copyright 2016 Hope Schmidt
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Dedicated to my mother who started me on the path to writing, and to my father who always encouraged me in it.
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But the fruit of the Spirit is love…
I am afraid. Not because I am alone. Not because thick roiling clouds obscure the moon. Not because the wind rushes through the forest like a wild dragon. I am afraid because I am late. And to be late means death.
Beauty, a whisper seems to race on the rising wind as I cower by the small pool. Beauty, I told you not to come.
Lightning stabs through the shadows and sets my surroundings in stark relief against the black sky. A sob catches in my throat and for a moment I make no effort to rise. What is the use? I am lost. I will never get there in time, even if he is still alive.
Bowing, my head touching my knees, I weep.
I was born in Aslaria, a prosperous and once peaceful land. My given name was Anabella, but that was fated to change before I could voice my own opinion.
A week after I was born, Vera, my oldest sister, was holding me when Aunt Wylda came for a visit.
“Why, she is nothing like the others,” Wylda announced after studying my face. “She’s so plain.”
“She is not,” Vera protested hotly. “She is nothing but a little beauty.”
Like either of them could tell by looking at my small red face, but the name stuck: Little Beauty. When I was old enough to protest, the ‘little’ was dropped. But I was forced to resign myself to being called Beauty.
And, though I hated to admit it, in the end Wylda was right. My brothers were handsome, Vera was fair, Nadine delicate, and I was plain: light brown hair, a few freckles, and eyes a swimming mixture of color. But Beauty I remained nonetheless.
Though my mother died when I was three, my life was happy overall. Father moved us into a large city where he traded in jewels, spices, and all kinds of exotic goods. That was before the dark rumors, connected with the Stieg Der and the Separation, resurfaced after an age of peace; word of a rebel in the King’s court. The Prince began to gather an army, and by the time I was thirteen my three brothers, Saris, Othniel, and Ithran, had joined. I missed them, but disappointment was quickly drowned in the bustle of prosperity until the year I turned sixteen. The rebel was unveiled as Tauscher, chief of the King’s servants. And when he struck, he struck hard, terrorizing trade routes with secretly gathered armies and plundering whole towns. We barely escaped the burning of our city, but all Father’s supplies were destroyed. Even his last fleet was sunk in a late autumn storm.
As my brothers and the Prince’s soldiers slowly drove Tauscher south toward the Shadowfen, Father managed to buy us a small home and some land with the last of his money. We were already used to working hard, despite our riches, so the transition from mansion to cottage was easier for us than many others.
Fortune is as fickle as the wind, but she occasionally gives moments worth every second in gold. Such was the evening all events in my life seemed to lead to, and the evening from which all events since have led.
I knelt in the garden, moist earth working its way beneath my fingernails as I weeded. The late spring sun blazed vigorously, and I was sure the weeds took after the dreaded Fen Serpent, with two heads growing for each one I plucked. The quick pounding of horse’s hooves met my ears and I brushed a strand of hair from my face as a rider cantered up the dirt road.
“Alaric!” I leapt to my feet at the sight of the dark-haired young man, welcoming the interruption from work. “What are you doing here at this time of day?”
“Right before dinner, you mean?” Alaric dismounted with a grin. “You’re having visitors so I decided to bring your sister some extra meat.” Alaric’s father was the village butcher. “Where is she?”
“She?” I raised an eyebrow. “I’ve two sisters you know, which one are you inquiring about?” The corner of my lip curled as Alaric’s gaze searched my merciless face. It took a moment for his full explanation to sink in. “Wait…we’re having visitors?”
“Vicious ones too, with swords and shields and grim faces.” It was Alaric’s turn appear disinterested.
My eyes widened. “And they didn’t write! Where are they?”
“Oh, down the road a bit.”
I ran to the lane and shaded my eyes, but the hilly countryside blocked my view.
“Wait a moment,” Alaric protested. “Where is –”
“Vera’s in the house.” I called over my shoulder, lifting the skirt of my dress and darting up the gentle slope. At its crest I paused. Sure enough, the sun flashed off the armor of three tall figures striding along the dusty road.
“Ithran!” I called as I ran toward my brothers. “Othniel! Saris!”
“Hello, Beauty.” Ithran quickened his step and met me with a grin, seizing me under the arms and spinning me around as if I were a little girl again.
“Will you never stop that?” I demanded with a smile of my own as he released me.
“Never.” He winked a bright blue eye, tugging at my dark hair which matched his own.
I tossed my head, retreating a step with a light laugh as Othniel gave me a quick embrace then took one of my arms in his. Saris took the other as he planted a kiss on my cheek. “Good to see you again.”
“And the same to you.” I glanced between Saris’s merry green eyes and Othniel’s steady brown ones. “Why didn’t you send word?”
“We didn’t expect the leave,” Othniel explained. “You wouldn’t have received the letter before yesterday.”
“Besides,” Ithran interrupted, glancing over his shoulder. “What would have been the fun in you knowing?”
“And the Prince?” I questioned eagerly without answering. “Have you met Him? Spoken to Him?”
“Yes and yes, more than once this last year.” Saris chuckled. “And no, the Stieg der has not been taken from Tauscher. Yes, we are still pushing Tauscher back. No, there have been no unusual raids. And yes, we’ve been eating well. Did I get everything?”
I grinned as he stopped for a breath. “Just about.”
Nadine met us at the top of the hill with a laugh. “I can’t believe you’re actually here!” She embraced Ithran, Vera’s twin, then linked her arm with his.
Vera and Alaric hurried from the cottage as we approached. Wide smiles covered both their faces, perhaps wider than the surprise leave of three brothers merited, I mentally noted to myself.
“So where is Father?” Othniel asked a few minutes later as Nadine unbuckled his armor.
Vera looked across the room from where she was helping Ithran. “In town. He was simply supposed to pick up a bushel of grain, but he’s later than normal. Come on Alaric, take a seat.”
Alaric shook his head. “I’m not tired.”
“Well, I am.” Saris collapsed in a chair by the table as I carried away his armor. “Do you have any idea how much walking a foot-soldier is expected to do?”
“Walking?” demanded Ithran as he and Othniel joined their brother. “What about standing night watches when you are already exhausted?”
“You complain about being exhausted when you get up in the morning,” Saris interjected.
We all laughed.
“Why did no one invite me to such a merry gathering!” a jolly voice boomed from the door.
“Father!” I exclaimed.
“Hello, Beauty,” Father greeted me with broad smile as he entered the room. “And who, pray tell, are all these strange men?”
“You arrived at the perfect time,” Father announced after our first greetings. “I’ve some special news for you all. But you’ll have to wait until dinner. I’m famished.”
Nadine and I flew to help Vera set the table, and supper was laid out quicker than seven lightning strokes.
Soon we were all seated, even Alaric. Despite our impatience, silence held sway for several minutes as Father and the other men sated the sharpest pangs of their hunger.
“I met a merchant I used to trade with this afternoon.” Father paused and took a drink, looking at us each in turn.
“Well?” Nadine and Ithran demanded together.
Father chuckled. “He told me one of my ships survived last autumn’s storm. It was damaged badly and put into a distant port where it wintered and, apparently, stayed most of the spring, for it has only just arrived in one of our northern ports.”
Silence followed this announcement for the fraction of a second as we looked at one another, remembering the treasures Father’s ships used to carry.
“Does that mean we will be rich again?” Nadine asked.
“Not right away.” Father smiled. “But the markets have recovered and, if there is enough capital left on the ship to start trading again, only the King can tell what I might be able to do.”
The silence snapped as everyone started talking at once. I covered my ears and laughed out loud as I glanced from one beaming face to the next. To be rich again. I was content as we were, but to have warm baths for the asking, rooms of books, and bowls of roses…
“Can I have just a moment?” Alaric rose to his feet after the first cheers were over. “I have one small thing I need to say.”
I glanced at Vera, who was watching Alaric, then looked at Nadine. She caught my gaze and we both stifled a laugh. Alaric’s announcement would be anything but small, even if it was expected.
Alaric glanced about awkwardly as everyone turned to him. “Well, it’s just…Vera, with her father’s permission, has pledged herself to be my wife,” Alaric blurted out.
“Finally,” Ithran said with a grin. “But what about that rich young man, Jetur, who was trying to woo you, Vera?”
“Now I have a good excuse to rid myself of him.” Vera tossed her head.
And we all laughed again.
“I hope to be back in a week,” Father said as he sat down to a quick breakfast early the next morning. “I wish I could stay for the duration of your leaves,” he nodded to our brothers, “but if I don’t get to my ship soon, the Port Master will confiscate her.”
“Don’t worry about us,” Saris assured him. “Besides, you’ll probably be back before we leave.”
“So, assuming the ship still contains her wares, what would you like, Vera, my dear?” Father asked a few moments later as he finished a draught of milk.
“You have a wedding coming up.” Father smiled. “You must have a gift.”
Vera thought for a minute as she slid a loaf of bread in Father’s knapsack. “Well, cloth for a wedding dress wouldn’t be amiss.”
“I’ll buy you the most beautiful dress I can find,” Father declared, tossing the knapsack over his shoulder,
Nadine, Vera and I exchanged not-so-subtle smiles.
“Just the material, Father,” Vera protested with a laugh.
“Very well.” Father’s eyes sparkled. “And you, Nadine?”
“A sapphire necklace,” she replied promptly, “and I know I can trust your judgment in jewels, at least.”
“A necklace it is; and Beauty?”
I handed Father his traveling cloak. “How about a rose?”
My brothers burst into laughter at this request and even Vera and Nadine smiled.
“You still can’t bring yourself to ask for expensive gifts, can you?” Ithran demanded.
I smiled too. I’d asked for roses ever since I was small, first because I didn’t know their value compared to other gifts and, later, because I could think of nothing else I wanted.
Father winked at me. “A rose it is.”
Dawn lingered over the rolling green fields as Father left the cottage. We stood in a small group, first waving then watching silently until he disappeared over a distant hill.
“Time to work.” Vera was the first to break into my thoughts. “We can’t just sit around until he comes back.”
Though I knew five days were the soonest we could expect Father’s return, and a week was more likely, the day passed in impatient eagerness. Alaric came that evening, of course. He came the next day too, and the next.
On the fifth day, my suppressed excitement swelled and continued upwards until it reached a bursting point a week after Father left. What would Father find at the harbor? It seemed too good for such a sudden turn of fortunes to be true. I went about my chores as normal, but every few minutes my eyes were drawn down the dirt road.
At dinner, we talked of nothing else. How had his journey gone? What had he found in town? When would he return? Was he on the road even now? And one of us would invariably think we heard horse’s hooves and jump to look out the window. But it was never Father.
“I have something I ought to tell you all,” Alaric said as we sat around the table, finished with supper but unwilling to get up. “Vera already knows.” He glanced at her and she smiled sadly.
“Well?” Ithran asked when Alaric hesitated.
Alaric took a deep breath. “I’ve joined the Prince’s army.”
I stared at him in surprise.
“Whatever possessed you to do that?” Saris demanded. “You just got engaged!”
Alaric nodded. “I got engaged, but I have nothing. Father’s shop will go to my older brother and I want more for Vera than what I could earn as a simple farmhand. Besides, if we can’t defeat Tauscher now, then he’ll advance again, leaving destruction in his steps.”
“But the army?” Othniel protested. “Not to underestimate your fighting abilities, but the Prince could defeat Tauscher without you going into danger. We have to leave the day after tomorrow and hoped you’d be here to keep the girls cheerful. Is there no other way?”
Alaric shook his head. “I’m afraid not. I leave to join the third regiment with you. Hopefully I can save enough in a year for Vera and I to marry…if the war even lasts that long.”
Hopefully. The word echoed in my mind and I looked down glumly at my hands. Silence hung in the air with unfurled wings and Alaric left soon after his announcement. We cleaned up and went to bed early. There was no excited talking about this news.
Clouds lowered in the sky the next day. Still Father did not come.
The day after, my brothers and Alaric somberly buckled on their armor and swords.
“I wish you could wait another day or two,” Vera said, glancing toward the gloomy sky.
“A storm won’t harm us,” Othniel assured her. “We’ve faced much worse and already we’ve lingered longer than we ought.”
“I’ll be back soon,” Alaric promised, kissing Vera’s hand. “A year at the most. Never fear, dearest.”
“I’ll be waiting.” Vera smiled slightly.
“Don’t let Vera worry,” Saris said as he hugged me. “We’ll guard Alaric so closely he’ll be sick of us by the time he returns.”
I laughed, but the sound caught in my throat.
“Goodbye, and may the King guard you,” I said as I pulled back.
“And may He remain with you,” my brothers said together as they turned onto the road.
My throat burned as I watched the small party move away, but I held back my tears and waved bravely. The threat of rain hung heavy in the air all that day. We moved about our tasks silently, and still Father didn’t come.
Darkness fell early, due to the smothering clouds. We’d barely gone to bed when the storm broke. Thunder crashed and roared while lightning split the sky again and again. Rain lashed in torrents and dashed itself against the windowpanes. I curled up on my bed and closed my eyes. My brothers would be safe at an inn by this time, as would Father. Dimly I wondered if he’d started home yet, but soon the black rush of a restless sleep swept me into oblivion.
The first thing I saw when I awoke was sunlight streaming across the bed. I leapt up and threw open the window, breathing deeply of the cool air. The world was fresh again, scoured clean and gleaming.
The new day carried with it a fresh breath of life. Vera was her old self at breakfast and Nadine was positively merry. If only Father would return, life would seem almost normal.
The morning wore away and an hour before noon I was in the garden, examining the damage caused by the storm and picking several early cucumbers, when I heard a familiar whinny.
I spun around.
“Father!” I called. “Father’s back!”
Father’s cloak and boots were spattered with mud as he trudged up the road, but I saw immediately that his clothes were rich and fine. And our horse, Obsidax, carried a small chest fastened across each flank.
“The ship really was there!” I cried as I darted forward.
“Hello Beauty,” Father enveloped me in a quick hug. “Here.” He held me at arm’s length and handed me a large scarlet rose.
I took it with a small gasp. The petals were soft, velvety, and without even the hint of blemish of any kind. I breathed deeply, inhaling the sweet rich smell. “It’s beautiful,” I whispered, looking up at Father. “I’ve never seen anything so perfect.”
“Nor will you again,” Father smiled wearily. “That one came at a high price, but,” he leaned closer, “I have it on good authority that it will stay fresh for months, perhaps forever.”
I laughed merrily, expecting Father to wink and laugh along. Instead, a flash of pain seemed to cross his face and he lifted his head to greet Vera and Nadine who were hurrying from the house. Then the expression passed, and I wondered if I’d imagined it.
“Come inside, Father,” Vera urged. “You must be exhausted.”
“I am, rather,” Father replied with a low sigh.
At the door of the cottage he lifted the two chests from Obsidax, letting them drop with a thud just inside the door. Nadine led the horse away and I took Father’s cloak and boots while Vera set to work preparing the noon meal.
“Alaric left with the boys just yesterday,” Vera told Father, filling him in with the goings-on while he’d been gone. But I could tell Father was only half listening. My forehead furrowed as I wondered why he wasn’t happier.
When Nadine entered the cottage, Father looked up and smiled, some of his old energy returning. “So, you’re all here now? Put the pitcher down, Vera. It is time for gifts.” Father opened one of the chests and I inhaled sharply as I stared at its velvet interior and the dozens of small bags used to hold expensive jewels.
“Here, Vera, is your material.” Father carefully unwrapped a large package.
“Father!” Vera gasped as the shimmering white silk and lace came into view.
“Do you like it?”
“Do I?” Her eyes shone. “Why, this would have been rich cloth even when we were prosperous.”
“And for you, Nadine,” Father continued, producing a blue velvet pouch from the trunk and holding it out with a slight bow. “I trust you find it satisfactory, my lady?”
Nadine undid the drawstring and pulled out a delicate silver necklace. Small leaves sparkled with diamonds intertwined around a lustrous flower of blue sapphires.
“It’s beautiful, Father.” Nadine hugged him.
“And Beauty,” Father turned to me again, “you have your rose, like you asked. And I got you something else too.” Father handed me a small velvet box.
I opened it and the light flashed off a stunning emerald ring. “I love it!” I exclaimed, slipping it on my finger. “Thank you, Father.” I hugged him.
“And now,” Father said, shutting the trunk. “I think Vera has lunch ready, and I am quite hungry.”
“I suppose,” Vera said after we’d all sat down, “that there’s no point in asking how it went at the port. You were obviously successful.”
Father smiled ruefully. “Actually no, I wasn’t.”
We glanced at Father in surprise. He took a long drink, then leaned back. “When I reached the port, I found my ship all but abandoned and in poor condition. It carried nothing but ballast and enough coin to pay the harbor tax. The ship was in such a state that the money I got from selling her barely covered the payment of the crew and the costs of my stay at the town.”
“But did another ship come in?” Nadine questioned. “What happened that you were able to buy our gifts and all those jewels?”
“Oh that?” Father glanced at the chests. “An accident, you might call it.”
“An accident?” we all exclaimed.
“It is a long story, and one I am too weary to tell now,” Father said. “Suffice it to say that there are enough jewels to keep you well off until you get married.”
“You aren’t going to trade with them?” I asked.
But Father refused to answer any more questions and we had to content ourselves with what deductions we could form from what he’d already said, which wasn’t much.
Later that day Father stored the two chests in a hidden compartment in his room. He spent several hours talking with Vera, instructing her on how and where to sell the jewels. “I may have to leave very soon,” he explained, “and will perhaps be gone for quite a while. I want you to know what to do in case you need money.”
A day passed. Then another, and yet another. On the fourth morning after Father’s return, as I fastened his rose in my hair, I tried to decipher the strange air that had fallen over the house. On the surface everything was as it had been before my brothers and the message came two weeks ago, but an invisible unease moved in an underlying current.
Father vaguely held off further explanation of the jewels. Instead he worked feverishly, repairing tiles which had rattled loose in the recent storm, tightening bolts on the doors and windows, clearing away fallen branches. He refused to rest, but the strength he’d had before leaving for the port seemed to be lacking.
I worried about him; we all did.
The next day Father was ill. He complained of a headache, but I could tell his ailment was much deeper. For long periods Father sat in his chair, almost in a daze, then would suddenly leap up and finish some chore or another he’d long put off and forgotten.
He was putting everything in order, I realized suddenly as I lay in bed that night. Father mentioned leaving, but now a cold fear gripped my heart as I considered what he might mean by that word.
I watched the steely brightness of the moon spill through my window until I could stand the tension no longer. Throwing a thin robe over my shoulders, I quietly pushed open the door of my bedchamber and tiptoed down the corridor to Father’s room. A thin sliver of golden light shone under the door.
I raised my hand to knock, then paused as I heard Father talking within. Hesitating for only a moment, I lifted the latch gently.
Father was standing before a small fire, his back to me. And as he spoke again I realized he was murmuring to Mother. Not as though he thought she could hear him, but it was a habit he’d fallen into long ago. He only indulged it when he thought no one was around.
“This is the fifth night, Seraiah,” Father said softly, rubbing something small which glinted in the firelight from the palm of his hand. “Already I can feel my strength waning. Only two more days, my dearest, and I’ll be with you again. For I can’t do as he asks. But the girls, my poor girls.” Father sank down into a chair with something like a sob catching in his throat and buried his face in his clenched hands.
I held back in fear. What could possibly have happened while to Father while he was gone? He was examining the shining object again; a ring, I thought it was.
I jerked as Father stood with sudden strength, ejecting the word in a low voice but with such force I trembled.
“No, I cannot. I will not. Do what you will.” He hurled the ring against the far wall and I caught sight of it glinting in the corner. I didn’t know who he was speaking to, but Father’s desperate energy frightened me more than his sorrow.
I pulled the door closed, hoping Father wouldn’t see the movement as he began to turn. But I couldn’t go back to bed. For a long hour I waited in the shadowy corridor, shivering in the cool drafts until the lamps and fire dimmed and all movement ceased.
Silently I pushed the door open and tiptoed into the room. Silver light spilled through the window and dripped on Father’s pale face and closed eyes. I paused a moment, watching him. What could have happened?
Slowly I felt my way to the wall where Father had thrown the ring, hoping it was still there and at the same time wondering why I was even looking for it. What could a ring tell me about what was troubling Father? A soft gleam shown through the shadows even as I hesitated. Gingerly I picked the silver band up, shivering as an inexplicable thrill rushed through me. Light seemed to seep from the ring itself and I could pick out every detail of the silver leaves framing a ruby rose. A glow spread through the ruby as I stared at it. Deep, rich, red, almost like flames licking from the gem toward me. I gasped and closed my hand.
Trembling, though from cold or fear I couldn’t tell, I made my way back to my room. It was only when the door was safely closed and locked that I opened my hand and looked at the ring again. If anything, it glowed even more furiously. And the ruby…I inhaled sharply. I could almost swear a storm of red swirled over the surface. Which was strange, considering how small the gem really was. But the longer I looked, the larger the mesmerizing storm appeared. Suddenly a lightning bolt flashed through crimson clouds and I was staring at the dark path of a forest.
Wind shrieked; lighting cracked; the rain lashed in blinding curtains.
I shuddered, a tremor sweeping my body.
And there he was. Father, head down as he led Obsidax along the muddy track.
“A shortcut through Mosswood indeed.” He snorted under his breath, pulling his cloak tighter.
I shivered as the rain stung my skin. Cold. Thunder. Darkness…
And a distant whispering which hovered in my bones and knotted my stomach.
I could see again. Father hesitated before great iron gates hanging ajar from a high brick wall. A vast mansion loomed from the middle of tangled gardens and he reluctantly entered, looking warily from side to side. The grounds were dismal and foreboding.
The whispering quickened.
The picture shuddered. A fire blazed in a long hall as Father entered. A table, covered with food. He waited, pacing. But finally, after a long while, he ate alone.
The whispering slowed in anticipation.
I blinked, and suddenly it was the next morning. Father, dined and dressed, scribbled a note of thanks to his unseen host.
The breathless, indistinct murmur dimmed as he strode from the hall. A sunbeam glittered off chains of diamonds. Another glanced off crystal bowls of rubies. Others danced among sapphires and emeralds set in gold…
Father hesitated and the whisperers waited with bated breath. Shaking his head abruptly, Father turned away and hurried to the stables.
The whispering sprang back to life in excited exclamations.
Father was leading Obsidax through the dew-drenched garden. Through the roses. Roses…they were everywhere. They climbed the house. They sprawled over the ground. They clambered upon polished trellises in wild abandon.
And Father slowed as he neared the gate. My throat tightened as a lush bush of red roses swept into focus. Full blooms. Scarlet petals. Fragrant dew…
The whispering quickened.
A rose, my rose, was cut carefully from the bush.
And the whisperings fell silent.
Rising in their place was a single inarticulate cry, almost a snarl. A figure, appearing from the shadows of the wall. A great man, I could see no more than an indistinct outline.
“I gave you shelter,” the man (or beast as I mentally and almost unconsciously named him) didn’t raise his voice, but it reverberated through the garden. “I gave you food. Clothes. And you repay me with this? With thievery?”
A single low whisper returned, carrying a sorrowing ache which brought tears to my eyes.
“I touched nothing.” Father’s eyes flashed even through his fear. “I took only what was given me; ate only as much as I needed. Do you think I’d have taken a rose if I hadn’t thought they grew wild for the picking?”
Obsidax reared as the beast took a step forward.
A second whispering joined the first.
“And why did you pick it?” The beast demanded, stretching one hand toward Father’s horse. Obsidax calmed instantly. “Speak!”
The rest of the whisperings joined the first two in a low confusion.
“These roses are special,” the Beast spoke. “They will not wither nor die, but to pick one involves death or sacrifice. Death for you, or the sacrifice of freedom from the one you bear it to.”
Father shook his head. “Then kill me. I will not allow my Beauty to come here.”
The whisperings quicken again as the beast led Father back to the ancient hall.
In a blur I watched the beast order then threaten until Father drank a goblet of thin clear wine. Moments later they were both in another room filled with gold and jewels and silks where two trunks waited.
Then Father was standing at the gate with Obsidax, the trunks tied to the horse’s side. The beast, still shrouded in shadow, handed Father a ring.
The weaving whisperings of hope and treachery, sorrow and defiance, mingled into one indistinct cadence.
“The potion you drank will give you a week to live,” the beast said. “If your daughter will return the rose, if she’ll consent to live here, then she must take the ring and return before the seventh day. It will guide her here.”
The whisperings reached a crescendo.
The beast turned away and a brilliant flash of light burst across my vision. I could see myself, lying on my bed, one hand clutched tightly while I stared upwards with wide eyes. The darkness swept about me, echoing with the beast’s final words.
She must take the ring and return before the seventh day….the seventh day…the seventh…
The whispering ceased.
And the darkness trembled with the sound of weeping.
I sat up, gasping for breath. Light poured through the window and it took me a moment to realize it was morning. But why had I fallen asleep atop my blankets and still wrapped in my robe? I glanced at my clutched hand and a shudder ran through me as I remembered.
Lifting the ring to the light, I examined it from every angle. The ruby and silver flashed back at me like any other piece of jewelry but what I had seen, what I had heard the night before…I knew it was real. How and why, I couldn’t tell, but it had happened. Father was dying and I was the only one who could save him.
He’d never let me leave.
Tucking the ring into my pocket, I breathed a prayer to the Prince that this was all some nightmare. But when I saw Father, I knew it was horribly real. It was the sixth day since his return and he was much worse. By evening, even Vera and Nadine were frightened. But he resisted their attempts to call a doctor, saying the next day would be soon enough. Only I knew the next day would be too late. Tonight was my only chance.
I went to bed early but instead of sleeping I sat still, waiting. I could stay at home, I thought numbly as cold fear settled over me. I listened as Father went to bed, and then my sisters followed. The hours stretched by, longer and longer as night deepened. Father was sacrificing himself for me. I didn’t have to go. He didn’t want me to go…
And still I waited until, from the position of the moon, I deemed it was drawing nigh midnight. With a trembling hand I placed a note of explanation on my dressing table.
Clutching the fatal rose, still as fresh and sweet as when I’d first held it, I slipped softly from the room.
For a moment I paused in the corridor, tempted to tiptoe into Father’s room and return the ring to its dark corner. Instead I slipped it on my finger and hurried to the kitchen. My cloak hung by the door and I tied it on, glancing about the dark room. Sadness rushed over me as I stood alone in the shadows but I shook it off and unlatched the door, slipping outside. Once on the road I didn’t look back, but walked quickly: sometimes on paths, sometimes through meadows thick with dew. I wasn’t afraid now, wasn’t excited, wasn’t anything. I was numb, with the thinnest strand of sorrow weaving though the nothingness. It was only the dark shadow of a forest that brought me to myself.
Mosswood. I looked at the trees like one waking from a deep sleep. The moon was dipping low on the horizon, but the hours had flown in a daze. I started forward again, twisting the ring on my finger. I wasn’t conscious of any urging or directions and yet I knew where to go, which way to turn. And in that way I walked.
But now all was darkness, gloom and shadows. My feet led me on sure paths and clear ways, but terror lurked just behind me. I had no protector. There was no one with me, no one to help me, to speak with me. What had I been thinking? My one thought had been for my father. But what did the beast want of me? I couldn’t tell; I hardly dared to guess.
Mosswood was eerily silent and every step I took sent snaps and rustles echoing though the gloom. On and on I walked.
The shadows thickened on either side. The trees grew denser and interwove their branches over my head but the path wove on steadily until it simply ended. I blinked as I found myself at the edge of a clearing. In the graying light a wall rose up not a dozen paces before me. Great iron gates stood ajar. And beyond them…I couldn’t tell. A white mist hung in the air.
Shivering, I pulled my cloak tighter about me with a whispered prayer. As I passed the threshold of the gate a breeze sprang up, stirring the mist. Steeling myself, I followed a path of paved stone. Slowly the mist retreated to either side until a great house loomed against the sky.
No light shone from the windows. No lights shone anywhere.
With a heavy sigh I mounted the shallow steps and knocked softly on the door. There was no reply. I knocked again, louder this time. Perhaps no one was up. Resting my hand on the latch I hesitated, then retreated back down the steps. I would not, could not, enter that gloomy house alone, at least not until the sun rose. I was here and that was what was needed. I sank down on the bottommost step, leaning my head against the marble railing as weariness swept over me.
For several minutes I watched the sky growing paler and, despite myself I must have dozed, for I suddenly started upright. Golden streams of light shot through the trees of Mosswood and caught sparkling dew drops hanging from every stem and rose, creating a beauty so wild it made my heart ache.
“It’s the only garden of its sort in the whole of Aslaria, I suspect.” a gruff voice announced from behind me. “Does it please you?”
I gasped and sprung to my feet as I turned. A tall figure stood in the shadows of the porch, leaning against a pillar as though he’d been there for some time. He straightened and I tried to make out his face but he remained wrapped in shades.
“You must be the merchant’s daughter,” the figure said after a pause.
I nodded, then found my voice. “My father, is he alright?”
“He is now, though I must say you took your own sweet time getting here. Was a week too short for half a day’s journey?”
“It was hardly my fault,” I retorted, heat rushing to my cheeks. “I didn’t find out about you until two nights ago, and then only by accident.”
“So why did you come if your Father kept it a secret?” the beast asked.
“To save him, what else?” I held out the rose. “Is this what you wanted?”
The beast examined the rose without approaching then nodded. “Keep it, for now.”
“And do what?” I demanded.
“And live with me.” The beast turned toward the door. “Why else did you think you were here? You are now mistress of these gloomy halls.”
I gave an incredulous laugh. “What sort of service or companionship do you need that requires kidnapping girls?”
“You came of your own free will,” the beast reminded me.
“Under duress, rather,” I retorted, surprised at how unafraid I felt.
The beast didn’t respond but turned again toward the door.
“Wait!” I cried.
“What now?” he looked over his shoulder with a sigh.
“Come out of the shadows.”
“Why?” The beast’s voice was low but I persisted stubbornly.
“I want to see you.”
I bit my lip. Perhaps…but no, if I was to live here, I needed to see him. However horrible he might look, it was nothing compared to what I would picture to myself if left to my own imagination. “Because I won’t go inside until you do.”
Silence from the porch, then a long low sigh. Slowly the beast stepped into dawn’s golden light. I cringed inwardly, but tried to keep my face expressionless.
I was glad I hadn’t seen the beast fully in my vision. I may not have gathered the courage to come. His frame was tall and strong, but he stood with an uneven stoop. Ragged hair, the dirty gray of dead ashes, hung below shoulders and covered his arms and bowed legs. His feet were unshod and a brown robe hung loosely on him, girt about with a belt but revealing his bare chest.
But it was to his face that my eyes were drawn. Jagged scars marred his features and turned his lip up in a perpetual twist. Whatever he used to look like, he was unrecognizable now. And yet there was something about his gaze, about his deep blue eyes that didn’t match the rest of his figure.
A quick spasm crossed the beast’s face. “Have you seen what you wanted to see?” he asked curtly.
Without a word the beast strode into the house. I followed. The hall was dim with age, but a finger of light from a high window crept down the wall. Another moment and it flashed against sparkling jewels in crystal bowls, then shattered in glittering rays down the passage.
“Come along.” The beast had hardly slowed his pace and now he was half way up the hallway. I ran to overtake him as he led me up a flight of stairs and down another corridor. Finally he stopped and opened a door. Clear lamplight spilled into the passage.
“This is your room.”
I glanced in. It was a light, airy chamber, and richly furnished with more delicate furniture and hangings than I’d ever seen. I pulled back and stared at the beast.
“What, used to richer surroundings?” he demanded sharply.
“No, it’s beautiful, but…”
“About me staying here…what exactly do you mean?”
“Is the phrase so hard to understand?” the beast muttered to himself. “You are staying here. You will live here. You will not leave here. Do I make myself clear?”
“But for how long?” I persisted. “Forever?”
He look at me keenly. “That is not for me to say.”
“And if I decide to leave?”
He gave a snort, almost a laugh. “You won’t.”
“Why? Because Father will die if I do?” I asked. If I was to truly live here, then I was determined to know how things stood. “I don’t even know if he really is well; beyond your word…not that I’m implying you’re lying,” I hastened to add. “Well, I mean-”
“You mean you don’t trust me and my word isn’t good enough?” the beast growled. “No need to mince speech. Come with me and I’ll do better than tell you. And no,” he added, as he continued down the hall. “He wouldn’t die, but you couldn’t escape from the forest unless I let you.”
“And what am I to call you?” I asked, changing the topic abruptly.
“What do you think of me as?”
The question caught me by surprise and I hesitated.
“A beast,” I said finally, determined not to lie and preparing myself for his anger.
“Then, Beauty,” he dwelt on my name and I was surprised until I remembered he’d heard it from Father, “call me Beast. Here we are.” He opened a great oaken door.
From the thick dust and cobwebs, it was obvious no one had been inside for a long time. There was only one item in the long room: a mirror, full-length and framed with silver, standing at the far end. The beast paused halfway into of the room and motioned me ahead of him. I edged past, keeping wary eyes on my host but he pointed to the mirror.
“Tell it what you want to see.”
I looked at the beast suspiciously but there was no mockery in his eyes. I turned back to the grimy mirror. “Show me my father.”
My reflection vanished and a mist rose over the glass. A moment more, and the whiteness faded, leaving the image of a familiar room, Father’s room. He was sitting on the edge of his bed, a blanket draped around his shoulders but already looking much better. At least he would have, if his face wasn’t so haggard and worried. Nadine sat next to him, her arm around his neck. The door opened and Vera entered, a piece of paper in her hand. She handed it to Father and I recognized my note. Father barely looked at it before burying his face in his hands.
My own eyes filled with tears. “How do you stop it?” I whispered.
“Put your hand on the glass,” the beast responded quietly.
I stepped forward and did so. The mist returned and then my reflection, revealing my worn face and muddied clothes. I turned away.
“You can use the mirror whenever you wish,” the beast said.
I didn’t reply. “I’m going to my room to rest.” My voice was curter than I’d meant it, but to my surprise the beast nodded and stepped to the side.
“Very well, but I expect you to dine with me tonight.” His voice followed me to the door.
I paused and half turned. “Is that an order or a wish?”
“I thought you said I was mistress here.”
“Even the mistress obeys the master,” the beast said in a low voice, taking a step toward me.
When I reached my chamber I slammed the door. A key hung on the wall and I turned the lock then stood back, panting, listening.
Silence, not even a footstep.
Gradually my breathing slowed. Weariness settled over me. I tossed the key onto a low table, kicked off my muddy boots, and untied my cloak, letting it fall to the ground where I stood. Then I threw myself on the bed and wept.
I didn’t realize I’d been sleeping until I awoke. Late afternoon light streamed through gauzy curtains and I lay still for a long minute, letting my thoughts slowly connect.
I was in this…this place. I hardly knew what to call it. Father was well, but I could probably never leave. The beast said I was mistress here. Mistress for the rest of my life? The thought was alarming. And yet, gruff and strange though the beast was, he didn’t seem to want to hurt me. What he did want of me was still a puzzle.
I sat up slowly, then my eyes widened. My boots were cleaned and against the wall. Through the half open door of the closet I saw my cloak, along with glimmers of silk and lace. Terror jolted up my spine at the thought of the beast prowling about my room while I slept, and I leapt up and tried the door. It was still locked, but the key hung back on its hook.
I leaned against the door, running my hand through my loose hair. Obviously there were two keys to the room and I only had one. I’d have to bring this up with the beast, if I dared. Something rustled as I shifted my weight, and I glanced down to see I was standing on a piece of paper which appeared to have been slipped under the door.
I picked it up and opened the note. It contained a single scrawled line.
Your presence is requested at the great hall, at 6 o’clock, for dinner.
I sighed, but resigned myself. If I had to go, then go I must.
Behind me I sensed, rather than heard, movement. I swung around, then stared again for the second time in as many minutes. A door I hadn’t noticed before swung silently open, but I saw no shadow or any other sign of life.
Cautiously I stepped forward. It was a small room and steam rose from a porcelain tub. Spongy rugs sank beneath my feet as I carefully examined the room, walking its perimeter several times. When I satisfied myself no one was concealed inside, I bolted the door; an old-fashioned iron sliding lock which could only be opened from the inside, keys or no keys.
I undressed and sank into the perfumed water with a sigh of satisfaction. This was one thing I’d missed from our former luxurious life, and I smiled to myself as I leaned back with my eyes closed. Immediately swept through my veins. Father and my sisters were worrying and mourning, and here I was almost enjoying myself.
Still, I washed leisurely. According to the clock in my bedchamber, I had a good hour before I was expected to appear before the master of the house. But finally I knew I must get out. I dried myself on a soft white towel and turned to my clothes I’d left on the floor.
They were gone.
Wrapping one of the great towels about me, I searched the room, but to no avail. My old torn dress had vanished and instead, across a chair, lay a dark green gown trimmed with white lace. I glanced around the room again, more bewildered by the loss of my clothes than dismayed, then gingerly touched the dress. It had been over a year since I’d worn something so fine.
The cool satin flowed over my body, fitting perfectly, and I spun around, letting the hem twirl in a widening circle about my ankles. My hair I dried and fixed as best I could, then I examined myself before a full length mirror.
The figure looking back at me was a slim girl with a graceful poise but a bewildered and slightly frightened expression. Besides that, I could have been a princess ready to descend to dinner. It was only then I noticed I still had the rose ring on, along with the one Father gave me a week ago. I slipped the beast’s ring into a small pocket, determined to return it to him.
According to the clock, the given time lacked a quarter of an hour when I entered my bedchamber again, and I slowly walked about the room. Gauzy curtains framed a window overlooking the front garden and, beyond the brick wall, dark forest spread as far as my eyes could see.
My wardrobe was filled with dresses of all descriptions, and jewels ornamented my dressing table. That’s where I spotted my rose. I touched it gingerly, glanced over my shoulder, then fixed it into my hair before leaving the room.
I followed the twisting corridors down to the hall I’d first entered by, then reluctantly walked up the passage. Golden candlelight streamed from a half-open door and I hesitated, my hand on the smooth oaken panels, before stepping in.
At first, though the long table was laden with candles and dishes of all descriptions, I thought the room was deserted. Then a movement in the shadows caught my eye and I saw the beast step forward.
“Welcome, Beauty,” he spoke in a courteous manner which contrasted strangely with his gruff voice and rougher looks, though I noticed his robe had been discarded for a rumpled but rich looking doublet.
The beast motioned to a chair at one end of the long table, then took his place at the other. “I thought you might prefer your distance,” he said by way of explanation. “I’m afraid my appearance is no longer what would be considered gentlemanly.”
That was true enough. I bowed my head slightly at the consideration, and pulled out my chair without a word. I was grateful for his thoughtfulness, but felt slightly guilty as a flash of disappointment crossed the beast’s face when I didn’t protest the arrangement.
The beast loaded his plate without looking at me, then began to eat. I followed his example and the meal progressed in silence. Meat and boiled potatoes, fruit and jams and bread. It was delicious.
“Did you cook this yourself?” I blurted out after the second course.
The beast raised his head and looked at me, then snorted. “No. You’d hardly want to eat anything I’d cook.”
“Then who prepared the meal?” I questioned as no more information was forthcoming.
“Servants here?” I exclaimed.
“Yes.” The beast turned back to his meal.
“Do the servants have something against being seen?” I asked, thinking back to my cleaned boots and vanishing clothes.
The beast put down his knife and fork with a sigh and leaned back in his chair as though preparing for a lengthy interrogation. “They don’t have much choice in the matter.”
My own food forgotten, I looked at the beast, waiting for an explanation.
“They are invisible,” he said simply.
“And I suppose they can pass through walls?” I retorted incredulously.
He looked at me keenly. “Indeed they can, and I suspect you’ve had some experience with that by now.”
I glanced down at my clothes and blushed, though I hardly knew why.
“Are they mute too?” I asked.
At this the beast chuckled, and the action surprised me so much I barely caught his answer. “Hardly. You haven’t been in this house long enough. There is something in the air of the place; over time you will be able to hear them. And then perhaps you will wish for a moment or two of peace.”
“And the mirror?” I asked as an idea sprang into my mind.
“What about it?”
“Will I be able to hear things from the mirror as well as see them?”
The beast nodded slowly. “Yes…in time.”
I sat still for several minutes, considering this new information, and the beast bent back over his meal.
“Can I talk to them?” I asked suddenly.
“Talk to who?” He looked up.
“The servants; can I talk to them?”
“There’s nothing to keep you from it, I suppose, if you are in the habit of conversing with servants.”
In this place I fancied even invisible servants could be welcome enough company.
“But if you ever need anything,” the beast continued after a pause, “just speak your wish out loud. There will always be one or two of the servants with you to obey.”
“And if I want them to go away?”
“I’m not sure how that would end.” The beast turned back to his plate.
I sighed and leaned back.
“What? More questions?”
I nodded. “What is the name of this place?”
“Whatever you wish it to be.” He shrugged.
“Did it have a name before?” I pressed.
He looked at me sharply. “That name will never be used again. Pick something.”
“Very well.” I closed my eyes, picturing the outside gardens, walls, and structure. Roses, my thoughts went back to the profuse roses. An interesting choice of adornment when one considered the notorious blackened rose, the Stieg der, but beautiful none the less. “How about Rosebramble Hall?”
“It will do.” The beast slid his chair back and stood up. I stood too.
“Tell me, Beauty.” The beast stepped forward into deeper candlelight. I forced myself to hold my ground and not shrink back. “Do you think I am ugly?”
I glanced up, meeting the beast’s eyes suspiciously. It wasn’t as if he couldn’t tell for himself, there were plenty of mirrors around the hall. Was he mocking me or trying to find fault?
“Well?” he urged. “Surely it doesn’t take that long to make up your mind.”
I crossed my arms and took a deep breath. “You are rather hideous…at least on the outside. I haven’t decided what you are on the inside yet.”
The beast smiled wryly. “You are very circumspect in your answer. Do you think any –” He cut himself short, shaking his head slightly as his eyes seemed to sift through me.
I bit my bottom lip as the silence rapidly passed from uncomfortable to extremely awkward. ‘That any –’ what? I dropped my hands to my side then twisted them behind my back, unsure if he wanted me to stay or leave.
“Here is your ring.” With some relief I finally remembered the circlet in my pocket. I placed it on the table and the beast nodded.
“You may leave if you wish.” The beast spoke abruptly. Something in his tone carried an unspoken request to stay, and a dim urge to consent welled through me, but I resisted.
“Good night then.”
“Good night.” The beast sighed.
I kept my pace steady as I walked from the room, but as soon as I reached the corridor I lifted my skirts and darted up the steps, sprinting through the halls until I reached my own chamber. Evening was drawing on and nearly a dozen lamps lit my room when I entered. I locked the door then leapt on my bed, curling my feet beneath me.
“And now what?” I whispered to myself. “What does he want? Companionship?” I shuddered slightly, then for a long time I sat motionless, looking through the window and watching the burning red sunset reflect off the forest. I’d been willing to give my life for Father, but living here, safe and well, was something I’d never expected. I wasn’t even sure I was safe, but there was something strange about the beast, already I wished I’d chosen a better name for him, something deep and secret in his tone and in his eyes.
Darkness fell apace. Finally, with an effort, I rose to my feet, took a lamp in one hand, and cautiously stepped into the corridor. The shadows were thick, and I shivered as I imagined the beast lurking in them, waiting for me. Though he’d acted with courtesy so far, I wondered if he’d remain unchanged at night or if he’d become some ravenous bearwolf, like the shapeshifters in the stories Vera used to tell me. I shook my head at myself for even thinking about the dark legends and, in any case, my vague fears were unfounded as I made it safely to the Mirror Room. In the dim light I saw the cobwebs and grime had been swept away.
“Show me Father,” I whispered.
The mirror cleared and at first it was so dark I wondered if it was working. Then I saw a lantern and trees. A sob caught in my throat as I glimpsed Father’s pale face. I read his lips and was glad I couldn’t hear his voice. He was searching the forest for me. Alone. Despairing. I knew he’d never be able to find me and quickly placed my hand against the glass, unable to watch more.
I thought about looking at my brothers; they didn’t know I was gone yet. They would still be happy. But instead I went to bed and cried myself to sleep.
My dreams were restless, and when I awoke with the dawn I couldn’t lie abed. Pictures of Father and my sisters floated through my mind and anger against the beast who had caused such sorrow in my family seethed within me. I pulled on a simple blue dress then descended to the garden.
How could this happen? I cried inwardly. How…and why? My resentment heightened as I tramped feverishly along the overgrown paths, ignoring the dewy roses.
“Good morning, Beauty.”
I spun toward the voice, startled. My host stood to the side in the shade of white roses growing over a trellis.
“Have you eaten?” the beast asked.
“No.” I watched him warily.
“Would you allow me to escort you in to breakfast then?” He held out his arm and I recoiled half a step at the thought of touching him.
“No,” I returned. My tone was sharp, but I didn’t care. “I might not eat at all.”
“That I doubt,” the beast rejoined, but I didn’t look at him. Instead I stalked away to the other side of the garden and sank down under a rose bush near the outer gate. The sweet red blossoms brushed my cheek and I recognized them as the same kind Father picked for me. My throat tightened and a tear rolled down my cheek.
Why? Why, why, why? How could a rose be of such importance to the beast? He had so many. I closed my eyes and hugged my legs to my chest, trying to calm myself. How could the King have let this happen?
I buried my face in my hands and took a quivering breath. Father had picked the rose because I asked for one, but I was the one who’d chosen to leave him. I bit my lip. Father would have died for me, but I loved him too much for that. Whether it was for better or worse, I’d made my choice and now I would face the consequences.
I lifted my head and looked toward the great house. The beast was sitting on the steps, his elbows on his knees, his chin in his hands. I wondered what he was thinking. The compassion I’d felt the night before swept over me again, though I resisted it stubbornly. But I couldn’t stay angry, try as I might, and I knew I was being unfair. Perhaps not completely unfair; he was the one who’d pronounced the punishment on Father, after all. But if I couldn’t undo the past, I might as well make use of the future, or at least what future still remained.
After a few minutes I slowly stood. The beast hadn’t moved, and I walked up to him quietly.
“Is breakfast still ready?” I asked.
“Ready and waiting, no thanks to you,” he said as he rose and strode into the house.
I followed, unable to decide between being embarrassed or angry as we took our seats at each end of the long table. Surrounding each of our plates were identical dishes of eggs, breads, jams, and fruit. I didn’t try to start a conversation, and the beast didn’t speak to me until the end of the meal.
“Will you dine with me again tonight?”
I hesitated, but there was something in the beast’s tone that carried a resolution even I couldn’t deny.
I nodded reluctantly. “What time?”
“Same as last night,” the beast said as he turned and walked from the room. A moment later I heard the outer door slam shut.
I relaxed, knowing he was gone, and looked around the dining hall. The edges were hidden in shadow, though unlit lamps lined the wall.
“Light the lamps, please,” I said after a moment’s hesitation, remembering the beast’s comments about the servants. For a moment nothing happened and then, in the corner of the room, one lamp blazed to life. Then another, and another. Soon golden light bathed dining hall. I leisurely examined the statues and paintings, but the hall didn’t hold much excitement.
“Light up the whole house,” I ordered with a small smile. “I’m going to explore.”
I soon found Rosebramble Hall was a maze of corridors and rooms of all sizes and descriptions. I started my wanderings on the first floor but, after several side halls and numerous smaller rooms, I opened a thick oaken door and stopped short.
The walls were covered with books, books, and more books. Shelves upon shelves rose throughout the room, forming a maze of winding passages. I entered it, breathing deeply of the musty scent as I turned first one way and then another. When I finally broke free of the shelves, I laughed with delight at the sight of several comfortable chairs, a table, and a blazing fire.
I sank down and flipped through a pile of books on the table. Soon I was swept to a world far away, a world of metal and stone where men used weapons which flashed fire and metal to save those they loved. At one interval I looked up and realized a light lunch was arranged on the table before me, though how or when it got there I didn’t know.
When I finished the book and became fully sensible to my surroundings once more, the first thing I heard was the clock, chiming a quarter of an hour till six. I sprang to my feet and dashed for my room, but a hushed voice in the hall stopped me.
“No,” the beast’s voice was low. For a moment I thought I was speaking to himself, and then I remembered the servants. “No. After two hundred years, do you think six months too long to wait? Let her be happy while she can.”
I caught my breath. Me; they were talking about me. I tried to shake the thought but who else could they be talking about?
The beast growled. “You will say nothing.” A threat was mixed with the order and I caught my breath, then ducked my head and darted past the entrance. The beast’s back was toward me and I could only hope the invisible servant wouldn’t catch a glimpse of me either.
Back in my room, I smoothed my dress with trembling hands then added a sash of white lace. I wasn’t in the mood to change. My hair I braided in a crown around my head. It was fussy work without one of my sisters to help me, and my fingers fumbled as I tried to make sense of the partial conversation I’d heard. In the end I gave up on my hair; it was good enough. The clock was beginning to strike the hour and I pulled open my door then stepped back in surprise. There was the beast, his hand raised as though he were about to knock.
“May I escort you down to dinner?” he asked, offering me his arm.
Let her be happy while she can. His words swept back through my mind and I shook my head. “Please, I’d rather not.”
The beast didn’t look surprised but turned and headed for the dining hall. I followed and we took our seats in silence.
“What have you been doing today?” I inquired after several minutes. Despite my apprehension, I longed to talk to someone, even if it was the beast.
He shrugged. “Walked about; tended the gardens.”
“You tend the gardens?” I asked, surprised.
“I started to explore but once I found the library I couldn’t bear to leave it.”
Silence. So much for that angle of conversation.
“Do you have a family?” I tried again.
The beast looked at me. “No.”
“But surely you used to,” I pressed.
The beast remained silent.
“What happened? How old are you?” I asked, thinking again of his one-sided conversation.
The beast put down his knife and fork and looked at me. “There are some things you do not need to know, Beauty. My past is one of them.”
Very well, if you put it that way, I thought rather indignantly. I looked down at my plate and didn’t lift my gaze again until the meal was over. Then I retreated to my chamber in silence.
Over the next two weeks, I explored Rosebramble. Each time I thought I’d discovered every nook, a new door or abandoned corridor opened up its secrets. Several parts of the building, including a tower, seemed to have no entrance at all. When I asked the beast about them, he told me they were ruins and had been blocked off.
Every morning the beast invited me to dinner. Every evening he arrived to escort me to the meal, though I always declined to take his arm. The beast never brought up my future and I didn’t overhear any more conversations. Eventually I wondered if I’d misjudged him; he could have been talking about anything.
Throughout this time I never entered the Mirror Room. I couldn’t bear to see Father again. If only there was some way to tell him I was safe. I was in the library when the thought occurred to me, and I darted out at once in search of the beast.
I found him in one of the side gardens. A spade was imbedded in the earth beside him, and on his great hand hopped two house sparrows, pecking at seeds in his palm. They fluttered away as they saw me, and the beast scattered the seeds on the ground then turned.
“Well Beauty, what is it?”
“I was wondering…” I paused. Even though we now talked with comparative ease on superficial subjects, I wasn’t sure how he would respond to my proposition. “Well, is there any way I could send a note to my father? Just to tell him I am safe and well cared for,” I added hastily. “It hurts me for him to be so miserable at my expense.”
“Are you sure you are safe?” the beast asked with a strange look on his face. “You aren’t afraid of me?”
I shook my head. The beast was still a mystery, but for some inexplicable reason I felt, I knew, I could trust him.
“You’re happy here then? With your surroundings…and your company?” I searched the beast’s face sharply at the last phrase. There was something in his eyes: a pain, almost a tenderness, that sent an ache stabbing though my heart.
“I’m…happy enough considering the circumstances, I suppose.”
“That’s a beginning.” The expression vanished so quickly I wondered if I imagined it. Except I knew I hadn’t. “Very well.” He smiled faintly. “I was given the service of a messenger falcon long ago. But he will not return, so make sure you say all that needs to be said.”
“Oh, thank you! Thank you so much!” I grasped the beast’s hand unthinkingly, with instinctive gratefulness. His fingers began to close about mine and I pulled back in confusion then darted from the garden.
Back in my room I sank into my chair. I’d never touched the beast before but now his warm, strong, completely human grip lingered on my hand.
I pushed the memory aside, pulled a sheet of paper from a shelf, and began to write.
My Dearest Father,
I am at the mansion where you picked my rose. I am well provided for, and have not been, and do not believe I will be, harmed. While I miss you all, I believe I could even be happy here if I knew you were not worrying about me.
Please forgive me for leaving like I did, Father, but I couldn’t let you die.
I am not allowed to leave the grounds. But I have a mirror, through which I am able to see what goes on at home. And perhaps, someday, the master of this place will let me return.
My most heartfelt love to you all.
Your loving Beauty.
I slipped the ring Father had given me in the envelope as a token, then sealed it and went in search of the beast. He took the message without comment.
Later that evening, at dinner, I asked him if he had sent the letter.
“Yes, and messenger falcons are swift so your father should have it by now,” the beast replied.
“Thank you so much!” I exclaimed again with relief. Later that night I sat before the mirror. It was several minutes before I gathered up the courage to speak the necessary words.
“Show me my father.”
The glass fogged and cleared, and I saw my father holding my message as he talked with Vera and Nadine. It would be far from the truth to say they looked happy, but at least the despair I’d seen on Father’s face before was gone. For now I was content.
The next afternoon I ordered the servants to set dinner on a smaller side table in a cozy nook of the dining room. I went downstairs early to make sure all was in order, and the servants must have told the beast I was there for he walked into the hall promptly at six.
I watched his face anxiously, suddenly hoping I’d not been forward in my assumption that he’d prefer sitting at a smaller table.
The beast’s gaze swept the room and lighted on me, standing by the table. And for the first time I saw him smile…a real smile, twisted though it was by his scarred face. I returned it as he approached.
To my surprise, he stepped first to my side and pulled back my chair. I sat down gracefully and he took his own place. We never used the long table again.
As the weeks progressed, I began to feel almost happy. I still refused the beast’s arm when he came for me at dinner time, but gradually our conversation flowed smoother until we could talk comfortably on many subjects…almost any subject in fact, except those related to our pasts. He resisted any urging on my part, and speaking of my family only reawakened the pain of knowing I might never see them in the flesh again.
I glanced in the mirror every few days. I never figured out much about my brothers. Even though I occasionally heard, or thought I heard, whisperings, I still couldn’t form the sounds into words. All I knew was they were marching…to the south, I thought. The Prince, Whose firm stance and confident expression caught my gaze whenever he spoke with my brothers, was steadily driving Tauscher toward the Shadowfen, but the two armies had still not come to a pitched fight. The matters of Father and my sisters were easier to decipher. Father was trading again, using the jewels the beast gave him. I even caught a few glimpses of Jetur, Vera’s persistent and rich suitor.
One afternoon, nearly two months after I left home, I walked in the front garden, inhaling the sweet scent of the roses. Turning a sharp corner I stopped at the sight of the beast on his knees, tending one of the plants.
He looked up and smiled. “Finally outside, Beauty?” he inquired. “You spend too much time in that stuffy library.”
“Hardly stuffy, Beast.” I laughed. “It should be large enough for even you.”
The beast snorted and turned back to the plant.
“Why all the roses?” I inquired suddenly, voicing a question which had long been on my mind. “The gardens are full of them. And you spend at least half your time tending them.”
“Roses stand for love,” the beast said after a pause. “I know some say they are a symbol of rebellion, pointing to the plucking of the Stieg der. But they’re ignoring what followed that disobedience; the King’s mercy and the Prince’s promise of deliverance. A promise which He even now fulfilling as he fights Tauscher.”
“You sound like my father.” I laughed, but the sound caught in my throat as I remembered Father’s repeated smile every time I’d asked for a rose. ‘They’re a promise, Beauty,’ he used to say. ‘Even though the first subjects plucked the forbidden rose and caused the separation…even though Tauscher stole it from those he deceived and is now using the curse of punishment to war against the Prince, he’ll not win.’ Father would brush the petals against my cheeks. ‘He’ll not win, for the Prince gave us a promise.’
“The roses stand for love and hope.” The beast’s eyes gleamed as he spoke slowly. “And, in this place, they stand for much more.”
I searched his eyes sharply at the last line, but he shook his head with the hint of a smile. “That is all you are getting from me today.”
“But then why…” I hesitated, not sure if I should ask the foremost question burning in my mind.
I couldn’t help it, even if it did make him angry. “When my father picked one of the roses…why…well, why were you so upset?”
The beast was silent for so long I was afraid I’d offended him. Then he sighed. “It was your father’s misfortune, or rather his fate, I suppose, to pick a rose from that bush.” He pointed a little ways down the path to the lush plant I’d noticed my first morning there. “Though it looks common enough, the roses upon it are not. The plant was given to me many years ago, and a prophecy and a curse lie upon them.” He gave a small sigh and glanced away. “To pluck a flower demands a heavy price, either death or sacrifice. And it sets in motions things which have long slept in peace.” These last words were spoken in a low voice, but I caught them as he glanced back to me. “The drink I gave your father prolonged the one day he had left to seven, but that was all I could do unless you returned.”
I looked at the beast in wonderment. “So you were saving Father’s life? The drink I mean; it wasn’t a poison of some sort which would act if I didn’t come?”
A look of pain flashed across the beast’s face, but he didn’t respond.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…” I flushed, glancing away. “But what about now?” I met his gaze again. “Couldn’t I go home, if you let me, I mean. Would my father still die?”
“No.” The beast shook his head with a sigh. “But it’s…impossible.”
“What do you mean?” I persisted. “What would happen?”
“There are…” The beast hesitated. “There are many lives at stake, Beauty. More than that I cannot say; not yet.”
“Then when?” I demanded, irritated and a little frightened.
The beast looked at me as though he was awakening, then a faint smile creased his lips. “In due time.”
And what, I couldn’t help but mutter inwardly, was ‘due time’? Six months. The thought rose unbidden to my mind. Is six months too long to wait? Let her be happy while she can. I glanced at the sky. That would leave me four more months…until what? His words from moments early flitted back though my ears. …sets in motions things which have long slept in peace.
That evening, when the beast knocked at my door, I was waiting for him. He held out his arm like normal but, instead of mutely shaking my head, I stepped forward bashfully and laid my hand on his arm.
I kept my eyes fixed on the ground until I was seated. As the beast took his own place I glanced up at him. He was watching me, mirth lighting his eyes. I glanced back at my plate, blushing, while the beast threw back his head and laughed.
“What?” I demanded.
The beast shook his head. “You are as proper as a princess and then blush about it like a farm girl.”
“I can punch like a farm girl too,” I warned.
“I’d hate to see that.” The beast served himself a large slab of meat.
I watched him as he ate, marveling how his manners and dress had improved since I first saw him, a half-wild man on Rosebramble’s steps. And to think I’d once wondered if he could be a shapeshifter.
“What are you looking at?” the beast demanded.
“Your hair,” I said. “It is awful.”
“It’s a tangled mess,” I retorted, making my decision and standing up. “Wait here.”
Before the beast could protest I dashed from the hall and raced to my room. I returned a moment later with a stiff comb in one hand and a pair of scissors in my other. The beast glanced at them warily. “Don’t even think about it.”
“It will be one or the other,” I said resolutely. “I’m either cutting your hair or you can let me comb it.”
The beast frowned, but I knew he wouldn’t resist me.
“Or you can take care of it yourself,” I added. “But you have improved so much since I got here, and your clothes could dress a prince, but your hair looks like a bird’s nest.”
“Leave me in peace until the meal is over.” The beast sighed. “Afterwards we’ll go to the library and you can do with me as you wish.”
I smiled triumphantly and obeyed. As we walked to the library a short time later, I still couldn’t suppress a grin.
Stifling a mock groan, the beast settled down in a low-backed chair at the library. I took my place behind him, then hesitated as I glanced at the scissors and comb.
“Do you care how your hair looks?” I asked.
“Whatever pleases you will suit me.”
“Very well…don’t complain,” I said with a smile as I set about the task I’d longed to do for the last few weeks.
In the end I used both instruments, cutting the beast’s hair so it hung slightly above his shoulders, combing it smooth despite muttered protests, then trimming it again. When I finished I stepped around to admire my work, and frowned thoughtfully.
“So have you improved my looks?” The beast winked.
The action took me aback. “At least you look like you’re taken care of.”
“But I’m still ugly,” he finished my thought.
“Not as though you can help that I suppose,” I teased. “But I can assure you, you aren’t ugly on the inside.”
“I’m pleased to hear that, at least.” The beast rose and hesitated, then turned and looked at me. “Beauty…”
The word was so soft I could barely hear it. A stab of fear flashed through me, though I hardly knew why.
“Is something wrong?”
The beast shook his head. “I…I…will you marry me, Beauty?”
My breath caught in my throat as I froze, staring at the beast. He couldn’t…he couldn’t have just spoken the words I thought I’d heard. But there was no denying the anguished passion in his gaze.
He closed his eyes for a moment, pressing his hand to his forehead. “I love you, Beauty. This wasn’t what I intended when you came, but…” He shook his head, then looked at me again, his eyes pleading. “Will you marry me?”
I’d grown to know him, yes. I even considered us friends. But marry him? With no warning? With no chance to think? I’d grown to trust the beast and, though I didn’t dwell on it, I knew he cared for me. But it was a companionship, a friendship. The thought that the beast would love me…?
“I…I can’t.” The words were barely above a whisper.
“Why not?” the beast took a step forward. I recoiled and he stopped. “Is it because of my looks?”
I bit my lip and shook my head. “I just…” my thoughts jumbled in confusion. I wasn’t opposed to marriage someday, but to be asked so suddenly. By a man who I was forced to live with. Without even a chance to consult my father. “I can’t.” I darted from the library, leaving the beast standing alone. Tears burned in my eyes as I stumbled up the steps to my own room. Marry him…? I liked the beast, but I didn’t love him, at least not like that. Not like a wife ought to love her husband. A friendship; a friendship was all it had ever been. Did he need to ask for my love too?
I drowned my sorrow in sleep, but thoughts of the beast were driven from my mind when I awoke. Something was different. I looked about my room as dawn’s light filtered through the curtain. Everything looked the same, and yet…
“When do you think she’ll want breakfast?”
I drew a breath slowly as the thin, silvery voice hovered in the air.
“How would I know?” an older voice snapped back. “I can’t read minds.”
“An hour, if you please,” I said sitting and rubbing my eyes. “I’m getting up now.”
Then came a small gasp and the thin voice. “You can hear us?”
“Obviously.” I laughed. “And it is about time, if you ask me.”
The voice laughed too. “Why, and to think –”
“Breakfast in an hour,” the older voice interrupted. “Hurry on down and tell them.”
I rose and chose a pale yellow gown then hesitated. Though maids may have been in the room when I dressed before, now that I knew they were present a sense of modesty overcame me.
“Don’t worry, I won’t look,” the maid said with a soft chuckle. “My name is Abigail, by the way.”
“Mine is Beauty, though I suppose you know that already,” I replied as I slipped into the dress. “Where is the beast?”
“The master,” the lady put emphasis on the two words, disapproval edging her tone, “the master is in the garden.”
The other maid, I soon discovered, was named Violet. To my surprise there were only five other servants in all of Rosebramble Hall: one woman and four men. Though I asked, Abigail wouldn’t give me any information about the beast’s past. But on other subjects she soon grew talkative and, before I knew it, breakfast was announced.
Later that day I found myself in the Mirror Room, the beast having assured me that all servants were strictly forbidden from following me inside.
I stood before the mirror, excited but slightly nervous at the thought of hearing my family. “Show me Vera,” I said finally.
A picture appeared and I saw my sister, her arms covered in flour, kneading bread in our kitchen. Their kitchen, I corrected myself, swallowing back a sudden ache in my throat.
The sound from the mirror was quiet at first but grew louder as Vera hummed a marching tune. I smiled, and was about to put my hand to the glass, when a loud knock startled me. Vera jumped too, and turned as the cottage door was flung open. Jetur stepped through, his great mantle flowing behind him and his polished black boots clicking on the floor.
“What are you doing?” Vera demanded.
“What do you think?” Jetur leaned against the table. “Is your father here?”
Vera sighed as she cut the dough in three pieces and rolled each one out. “How many times do I have to tell you I’m engaged?”
“Engaged,” Jetur scoffed as he sidled closer. “Alaric is fighting for a fool. Do you think the Prince will really win when the two armies finally clash? Alaric will die and then –”
Vera spun toward Jetur and landed a floured smack on the side of his face, pushing him backwards with her other hand. “I’ve been polite long enough, but you have gone too far. I don’t want to marry you and never will. Now leave, and please don’t come back.”
“Are you sure that’s what you want?” Jetur scowled he straightened, trying to brush flour from his dark cloak. “You’ll change your mind, never fear.” He stalked out the door, almost running into Nadine as she entered.
I watched Vera tell Nadine what had happened and joined in their breathless laughter before leaving the room.
I looked into the mirror less after that, and now that I could speak with the servants life got much busier. Violet and May, the other maid, wanted to pick out my dresses. Hans, the cook, constantly asked for opinions on new dishes. Gareth, I never could figure out what he did, hardly spoke, at least not to me. I did hear him arguing with the beast once, and thought I heard my name, but they fell silent when I tried to slip up on them. Micah and Amos, the servant lads who seemed to do everything, and none of it well, more than made up for Gareth’s taciturnity. And as the summer began to fade and the first cool winds of autumn blew, Abigail fussed about shawls and cloaks whenever I went outside. I sometimes thought she sat by the door, lying in wait for me, and I began to slip out of the house by lesser-known routes.
Neither the beast nor I alluded to the evening when he’d asked my hand in marriage and, though several awkward silences passed between us at first, soon the memory faded. At least it seemed to in the beast’s mind, though I could still see his passionate gaze when I closed my eyes at night.
One sunny afternoon, as October drew to a close, I slammed the door of the Mirror Room, panting slightly. Outside I heard Violet and May’s voices grow louder as they approached, then stopped, grumbling as they realized I was in the one place they couldn’t follow.
With a smile I turned toward the mirror. I’d have to wait at least a few minutes before the maids left; I might as well look at someone.
“Show me…” I hesitated, then made up my mind. “Show me the beast.”
The image cleared and I saw the beast on his knees, working in the garden. He stiffened, then lifted his head slightly and turned until it seemed he was gazing though the mirror.
“Beauty, what are you doing?” he asked in a stern yet amused voice.
“How did you know?” I gasped.
“It’s my mirror. Of course I know.”
“And you can hear me too?”
“I’m escaping from the maids,” I told him.
“How would you like to escape for a day?” the beast inquired.
“What do you mean?”
“Come and see.” He smiled.
“I’ll be right there.” I placed my hand on the glass. “Show me Violet.” I didn’t see her, of course, but I saw a corridor one hallway over.
“Show me May,” I ordered. When the picture didn’t change, I knew they were still together.
Softly I opened the door of the Mirror Room and darted down the corridor to my own chamber, shutting the door quietly behind me and laughing in my delight at having fooled the invisibles for once. I fastened a caramel-brown shawl with a rose-shaped brooch around my neck then opened my window and looked down.
Ten feet was too far to jump and I snatched several sheets from my linen closet. Abigail would be furious, but for now I didn’t care. I fastened the sheets together, testing each knot, then tied one end to my bedpost and threw the other end out the window.
The beast stepped from behind a corner of the house as I slid to the ground. The wind caught at his mantle and he trembled with silent laughter.
“What?” I demanded.
He shook his head. “I didn’t know you were so desperate. Come on.” He stretched out his hand and I grasped it without hesitation.
“Where are we going?” I questioned as he led me through the garden.
“Out,” he said with a smile. The great iron gates swung open silently as we approached.
“We can go out?” I asked in surprise as we entered the forest.
“I can,” the beast corrected. “Until a certain point.” He slackened his pace as giant trunks closed us in. “The servants can’t venture here at all so we will have some peace from their incessant chatter and fussing.”
“They aren’t that bad,” I defended my absent friends.
The beast shrugged. “What may be more to the point is that they can’t hear us. This way; I have something to show you.”
I wrapped my shawl tighter as a cool wind blew through the dappled shadows of the forest. All the trees seemed the same to me and I wondered how the beast kept his sense of direction. But he obviously did for after ten minutes we stepped into a small, perfectly round clearing.
I gasped and clapped my hands in delight. Before me, at points equidistant from the edge of the circle and from each other, stood two apple trees. Between them lay a still pool of water.
“I thought you’d like it.” The beast smiled. “Quite a cheery refuge, don’t you think?”
“And a perfect place for a picnic,” I added, spinning in a small circle and relishing the feeling of freedom as well as the surrounding beauty.
On closer examination, I found the apples on one tree were tinged with gold, and the others with silver.
“The gold apples are sweet, and the silver are tart,” the beast explained, picking a silver one. I preferred the gold but they were both delicious and, after we’d eaten our fill, we relaxed in the shimmering reflection of the shadows.
“Will you ever tell me who you are?” I broke a long peaceful silence as I lay on the ground, my hand dangling in the water as I watched gold and silver reflections shimmering over the pool’s surface. “There is obviously some kind of enchantment over the place, with the invisible servants, the roses, this forest…”
The beast shrugged with a slight smile but his eyes were troubled. “I come from a very old family, and all old families have their secrets.”
“Such as?” I questioned eagerly.
“Your brothers are with the Prince, fighting Tauscher, are they not?” the beast questioned, though in a tone that didn’t need an answer. “Tauscher is unveiled now; it is known he carries the Stieg der. But Tauscher’s rebellion started long ago…” The beast’s voice trailed off for a moment, then he took a deep breath and continued slowly. “You know the one bearing the Blackened Rose can call forth the punishment of death on those to whom it’s due, which includes everyone since the Separation.” The beast let out a low sigh. “To shorten a long story, Tauscher wanted our, my, loyalty. I refused. And here I am.” He shrugged, but my brow furrowed.
“But he didn’t use the Stieg der?”
“No.” A flash of pain flickered over the beast’s face. “No, he did not claim my life. It might have been a mercy… But soon, for better or worse, it will be over.” The beast hesitated, then blinked away the distant look which had seeped into his eyes and smiled. “But there is no need to mar such a lovely day with those dark topics. What about yourself? You’ve lived here nearly half a year, but I don’t know much more about your family than what your father told me so many months ago.”
“Maybe there isn’t much to speak of,” I replied in what was supposed to be a merry tone, though my thoughts were still sifting through the beast’s information about his past.
“That I doubt.” The beast laughed.
Though I feigned reluctance, I slowly let the beast draw out story after story about my family. It felt good to talk about them again. I’d just finished an anecdote about Nadine trying to ride Obsidax for the first time when a rumble called us both to our senses.
The beast leapt to his feet. “Now this is what comes of getting preoccupied,” he muttered. “We’ve stayed too long. The forest is no place to be when a storm breaks.”
He held out his arm and I clung tightly to it as a gust of wind howled through the trees. Another blast of wind answered as the beast quickly led the way from the clearing. Lightning shredded the sky overhead and a thunderous crack reverberated through the air.
“Are you alright?” the beast asked anxiously.
I nodded and grinned up at him. “It’s just a storm.”
“Yes, just a storm,” he repeated in an unconvinced tone.
The first heavy drops of rain pelted through the leaves and I shivered, trying to pull my shawl tighter about me.
“Wait.” The beast paused, pulling off his mantle and draping it around my shoulders.
I wrapped it close and took the beast’s arm again.
“Better?” he inquired.
“Yes, thank you.”
The wind lashed the rain through the tree trunks, and I pressed close to the beast, keeping my head down as our pace increased with the rain. And then we were at Rosebramble’s gates. They clanged shut as we dashed through. The beast shoved open the door of the Hall and slammed it behind us, shutting out the storm.
“What did you both think you were doing?” Abigail demanded in a stern voice. “Staying out in that storm…and Beauty, do you realize the damage you did to those linens? Climbing out the window indeed. And now you’re dripping all over the floor…”
I laughed breathlessly and let the mantle fall to the ground. “It was worth it, Abigail, trust me.”
“Why? What did you do?” Violet demanded eagerly.
“Did he take you to the apple trees?” May chimed in. “He’s been talking about it for some days now.”
“Take her upstairs and lay out some dry clothes,” the beast ordered. “And don’t pester her.”
The two maids groaned, but obeyed swiftly.
The storm raged for nearly a week but the beast and I spent time pleasantly enough, mainly relaxing in the library.
On the evening of the sixth day I lay awake, listening to the slash of rain against the windows and the howl of wind through the trees. It reminded me of the storm which drove Father to shelter in these very halls and I shivered. Finally I rose, wrapping myself with a shawl that swept down to my ankles, and slipped from my room. I didn’t want to sleep; I wanted a warm cup of tea and a book.
When I reached the entrance of the library I saw the lamps were still lit. A smile broke over my face, but Gareth’s low voice from inside froze me in my tracks.
“Are you going to tell her? They’re probably on their way now, you know.”
“It is not for you to meddle with my affairs,” the beast replied, his shadow swept up the far wall of the library and I could tell he was pacing.
“No? And what about the others?” Gareth paused. “You can’t be serious; you know what will happen.”
“And yet…” Gareth sputtered. “You are really going to give them all up?”
“They’ve been dead to me for nearly two hundred years, thanks to your master.” I heard suppressed fury in the beast’s voice. “Do you think I don’t know who you are or why you were sent here? Now, by the Prince…”
I didn’t wait to hear more but fled to my room, the tea and book forgotten. Fear surged through me, but slowly I calmed myself, remembering the beast’s replies to Gareth. He’d not let anything harm me.
The next morning the clouds broke. The beast headed outside before breakfast to see what damage the winds had caused. I didn’t follow him. The servants and thankfully Gareth seemed absent, so I wandered the halls alone, finally ending up in the Mirror Room.
“Show me Nadine,” I said after a moment’s hesitation, an impulse to see and hear my family sweeping over me.
The mirror misted and cleared. Father, Vera, and Nadine were sitting around the kitchen table. Vera held a letter in her hand and was reading it in a tremulous voice. I’d missed the first part, but what I caught was enough.
“…Alaric died bravely in the battle. It is Saris, Othniel, and Ithran I am concerned about. Tauscher keeps his word, especially when the execution of prisoners is concerned. And, unless the 10,000 crescents per head are delivered within the week, I fear there is nothing I can do…”
I gasped. Alaric dead? My brothers prisoners? It couldn’t be; the Prince couldn’t fail. He couldn’t be defeated by the likes of Tauscher.
“Show me Saris,” I ordered firmly, suppressing the fear rising within me.
The picture changed and I saw my older brother. His face and clothes were grimy, and he sat in a tent, washing the face of a comrade. As Saris turned, I caught a glimpse of the man he was helping; Alaric. And, while wounded, Alaric was certainly not dead. I checked my other brothers quickly and was relieved to find the report carried no truth. A battle between the Prince and rebel had finally been forced, but the Prince’s troops had been overwhelmingly victorious.
When I directed the mirror back to my old home again, Father was gone. Vera was still there, speaking with Nadine.
“But you can’t do that,” Nadine protested. “You don’t love Jetur.”
“He knows that, but if it is the only way…” Vera’s voice trailed off.
“But marry him?”
“He promised to pay the ransom if I do. And Father doesn’t have the money even with the trading he’s done.” Vera sighed. “It’s all wrong, I know, but what else is to be done?”
“But Alaric isn’t dead,” I cried.
“But marry Jetur this week?” Nadine shook her head. “It is too fast. There must be another way.”
“Like what?” Vera demanded.
“Like just waiting. Please, Vera…” I sighed in frustration and pressed my hand to the glass.
For several long minutes I stood there. Vera couldn’t, mustn’t, marry Jetur. Yet I knew she would if she thought that was the only way to save her brothers. But what could I do? I repeated Vera’s question in my mind.
That evening I was quiet at dinner, Vera’s predicament shifting aside my concern about the conversation I’d overheard the night before.
“What is it?” the beast asked.
I took a deep breath but my voice cracked as I told him what I’d seen. “Their only hope is that a letter will come from my brothers in time, but that isn’t very likely with all the post-battle confusion. They don’t even know anything is wrong back home.” I watched the beast, hoping he’d say something.
He didn’t, but a glimmer of something shown in his eye. It was almost of…relief?
“You sent them a message once, can’t you do it again?” I burst out.
The beast shook his head. “I told you, I only had one messenger falcon.”
“Then is there nothing we can do?” I asked, tears starting to my eyes.
The beast glanced at me strangely. “You could go to them.”
I froze and looked at him, wondering if I’d heard right. “I can leave?”
“But…I thought,” I hesitated, stricken between hope and disbelief. “You said…”
“I’ve changed my mind,” the beast said abruptly.
“You can do that?”
The beast just looked at me, a suppressed and distant rage mixing with sorrow in his eyes.
“What will happen?” I demanded. The beast hadn’t kept me here on a whim, of that I was sure. And now, if I left…
“Nothing will happen to you.” The beast closed his eyes, and when he opened them the rage was gone. He looked weary. “You’ll be safe.”
“And you?” I rose to my feet. “Will I be able to return?”
“Perhaps.” The beast rose and stepped toward me. “Leave tomorrow morning. Bring the ring. And if you wish, in two weeks…”
“I’ll come back,” I promised, wrapping my arms around the beast.
“I believe you will,” the beast replied, returning my embrace. After a moment he released me. “You should rest.”
I nodded, but as I reached the door to the room his voice stopped me. “And Beauty?”
I turned toward him.
“Take the rose with you when you leave.”
Back in my room I hastily prepared for my departure on the morrow, then tried to obey the beast’s advice and rest. But a whirlwind of thoughts drove away any peace of mind and eventually I made my way to the mirror room. For several minutes I watched my family’s preparations for a hasty wedding. Disdain for Jetur grew at every glimpse of Vera’s pale face. Wouldn’t they rejoice when I brought them news tomorrow?
After I rested my hand on the mirror, I hesitated. Gareth’s conversation with the beast the night before rose in my mind and I wondered where the servant, or whoever he was, had been all day. Did he know what would happen if I left? Perhaps he was even now speaking with the beast again. The beast knew when I looked at him before, but if I looked at a servant, would he be able to tell?
Before I had time to think, I found myself speaking. “Show me Gareth.”
The picture in the mirror changed and I narrowed my eyes, bewildered. I saw myself and the mirror room, but at the wrong angle. I gasped and spun to the side, clapping a hand over my mouth as I understood.
“Hello, Beauty.” There was a mocking tone to Gareth’s voice which I hadn’t heard before.
I scanned the room before me, though I knew I couldn’t see the intruder. “I thought –”
“What, that servants aren’t allowed in here?” the sneer in Gareth’s voice deepened. “Only I’m not a servant, at least not of your beast or the Prince.”
I shivered, backing up against one of the walls and wishing with all my might that the beast would appear. But the door to the room remained shut and when Gareth spoke again his voice was normal.
“He’s sending you away.”
“Yes,” I replied, still turning in the direction of Gareth’s voice as he moved.
“Has he told you why?”
“I have to bring news to my sister…” Even as I spoke the words I knew there was something else; some deeper reason for the beast’s sudden decision. “But I’ll be back in two weeks.”
“In two weeks everyone will here be dead,” Gareth announced in a bland voice.
I drew a sharp breath, a thorn of icy fear stabbing to my heart. No. It was impossible.
“You lie…” But the words caught in my throat as various fragments and pictures flashed through my mind. ‘Do you think six months too long to wait? Let her be happy while she can.’ Who had the beast been talking to then? Gareth? And what had the beast told me himself? ‘To pluck a flower…sets in motions things which have long slept in peace.’
“Perhaps I do lie,” Gareth agreed. “Or maybe not. There are some things you can’t stop, my fair maiden. The beast, as you call him, is sending you away for your own safety, just like your father kept the secret of this place from you. Secrets and truth, deception and lies…leave if you wish. I’ll not hinder you or fill your ears with what you do not want to hear.”
I gritted my teeth, glancing once more from the mirror to the general location Gareth was standing. ‘Soon, for better or worse, it will be over.’
I clenched one fist. “Tell me.”
“Tell you what? Stories? Truth? Prophecy –”
“Tell me what will happen to the beast if I leave,” I demanded, anger giving a firmness to my voice. “Tell me!”
“Is that all then?” Gareth questioned after a pause. “The truth? The truth is, Tauscher’s soldiers are coming. They’ll be here in a week and a day; six months after your arrival.”
“For the fulfillment of the curse placed over this house. The plucking of the rose and your coming set the end in motion; the Stieg der of this Hall, if you will, though there’s no Prince to promise salvation this time. But there are old secrets here, Beauty. A heavy sleep lies over this place.” Gareth seemed to be pacing as he spoke. “If you return by midnight of the seventh day, then there is a chance all will be what you would call ‘restored’. If you are not here, the whole hall will perish. Everyone, even those you don’t know of, will die.”
“Why didn’t the beast tell me?” I asked in a whisper.
A long silence followed my question, and when Gareth spoke it was not an answer. “If you wish to return, no matter the cost to yourself, leave the rose on the table in the center of the tower.” He stood by the mirror and suddenly its picture changed, showing me the long-sought secret entrance to the ruined sector of Rosebramble Hall. “And remember, midnight on the seventh day, or it will be for naught.”
The mirror went blank. Gareth was gone.
I sank to the floor, my arms wrapped about my chest as I tried to control great heaving breaths. It couldn’t be true. It couldn’t be.
The beast, the servants…and who were ‘the others’? Dead. They’d all be dead.
“No, no, no, no…” I closed my eyes. “No, it can’t be. Help me, my Prince. Help us.”
I could go speak to the beast, but his past answers to my questions didn’t hold much promise for the pure truth this time. And it fit; the pieces fit. There was a curse of some sort over this place. There was some mystery the beast refused to speak of.
But if Gareth really were his enemy, why would he be telling me this? ‘No matter the cost to yourself,’ he’d said. My stomach tightened but resolution hardened in my heart as I pushed myself to my feet and hurried to my room. There was something, something Gareth wasn’t telling me. But there was also truth in his words, despite the sneers and treachery.
“Aid me, my Prince.”
I wouldn’t leave the beast to die.
‘Roses stand for a promise,’ my father used to say. ‘The promise of life and hope and love.’
‘The promise of life,’ the phrase echoed through my mind and my fear crystalized, slowly warming to a grim firmness. Closing my eyes, I picked up my rose, caressing the scarlet petals. No matter the cost… The beast had told me to take the rose, but that was when he’d ordered to me leave for two weeks. I’d be back before then.
I’d return. I’d save the beast, and the others here, if I could.
Quickly I slipped through the shadowy halls to the deserted storeroom Gareth had shown me. The secret lever was there, beneath an empty ledge. I shivered as I touched the cold stone, but didn’t hesitate as I pulled it down. Noiselessly a section of wall faded into shadows, revealing a dim staircase.
I glanced over my shoulder, but the house lay still and silent. I’d not thought to bring a lamp, but I shrugged to myself and started carefully up the winding steps to the tower. Moonlight seeped through chinks in the wall, lighting up the shadows tolerably well. And, despite the ruinous and sometimes precarious condition of the walls, the steps were firm and solid.
A short passage opened before me and I pushed against the door. Its weary creaks echoed through the night.
“Shh,” I muttered, half to myself and half to the door, as I stepped through. And then I stopped, catching my breath.
From the round walls and narrow windows just below the eaves of the roof, I knew I was indeed in the ruined tower. Dust drifted through the silvery moonlight and settled on overturned chairs and benches. Tapestries hung, half shredded from the walls. Silence draped the room and I trembled again, but this time in awe, not fear. And there, in the center of the room, stood a round table. It, of all the furniture, appeared untouched from whatever struggle had ensued in this place. Pulling my robe tighter about me I stepped forward, my bare feet sifting through the dust.
The table was clean and white, sparkling even. Gently I laid the rose down, then stiffened, conscious of someone, or something, behind me.
“What are you doing here, Beauty?” The beast’s voice from the door was low, but not in anger.
A flush passed over my face even as I relaxed. I shouldn’t be here and I knew it. But resolution and stubbornness got the better of me, and I turned to face the beast.
“Is it true?” I asked softly.
For a moment the beast was silent. Finally he sighed. “Yes, it is true.”
“Then why are you letting me go?” I demanded, stepping forward. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I was afraid you would come back.”
I narrowed my eyes. “What are you talking about? Of course I’ll come back.”
The beast glanced about the room and pain flashed across his face. “Come back down to the library. I cannot speak of it here.”
I bowed my head and followed. Soon we were seated by the crackling fire in a small nook of the library.
“When is your sister getting married?” the beast asked abruptly as he poured me a cup of tea.
“Three days.” I was prepared to defend my actions and his question surprised me. “Why?”
The beast shrugged. His next comment was closer to the topic I had in mind. “So, Gareth told you.”
“Some of it, anyway.” I hesitated, wondering if all he’d said was true. “He said if I left and didn’t return, you would die.”
“And was that all?” the beast questioned sharply.
I nodded. “He said to return by midnight on the seventh day and you’d be safe.” Or had Gareth said that? ‘There is a chance all will be what you would call restored’, those were his words. “Well, that you might be safe anyway.” I amended my former comment and took a sip of tea. “And he told me to bring the rose to the tower. What is that room anyway? And why didn’t you tell me?”
The beast leaned back and looked at me in resignation. “Because it’s…dangerous.”
“The tower or the curse?” I yawned.
“You being here,” the beast replied. “The last six months have been the beginning of the end. And, when the curse does end…I wanted to send you away so that you’d be safe.”
“Safe, while you and everyone here dies?” I demanded.
“It was better than the alternative,” the beast said, so softly I barely heard him.
I blinked trying to keep my eyes open as a wave of sleepiness rushed over me. “And what…is that?”
The beast looked away, but didn’t reply at once. Finally he spoke, but without referencing my question. “Very well. But if you return it will be at your peril and cost.”
“I came here at peril and cost too,” I reminded the beast with a slight smile.
“Indeed you did,” I thought the beast was smiling but then, as though from a distance, I heart his exclamation. “Beauty? Beauty, are you alright?”
My teacup clattered from my hand. The beast caught me as I slumped forward. For a moment I felt his arms about me and then was swept under a rushing tide of sleep.
When I awoke, dawn brushed at the curtains of my room. For a moment I lay still, then the memories rushed back: Vera’s wedding; the curse; the beast letting me return home. I leapt from bed and dressed hurriedly, wondering what had happened night before but thankful no side-effects remained.
The beast met me at Rosebramble’s entrance.
“Feeling better?” He asked with a small smile.
I nodded, blushing slightly. “I’m not sure what happened.”
“It was the tower, probably. Of the whole hall, it holds the most enchantment.” The beast handed me the rose ring I’d worn so many months ago. “Now remember, the seventh day. Enjoy your time with your family. There is no need to come back early.”
I laughed, but the sound caught in my throat. “The seventh day then.” I took a deep breath as Gareth’s words swept through my mind again. ‘No matter the cost to yourself.’
No matter the cost…
I hurried down the steps, but paused at the gate and looked back, waving to the beast. He lifted his hand in reply, then I plunged into the forest. The trees seemed to part before me and, as when I had come, the ring was a sure guide.
It was only midmorning when I broke from Mosswood and, not long after, I struck the familiar road. I didn’t need the ring after that and hurried along it, avoiding the ever-present patches of mud as best I was able. It was only as I mounted the last hill between me and my old home that my steps began to slow.
I’d vanished into the night and been gone for almost six months. What would the others think of me? I imagined how I’d feel if Vera or Nadine did what I’d done and hoped they wouldn’t be angry, though I might deserve it.
I crested the hill. The farmyard was deserted but the door to the cottage stood partially open. I realized I was trembling as I stepped up to it, but took a deep breath then pushed the door open.
Nadine was sitting at the table alone. “Well Vera, is he excited about tomorrow?” she asked listlessly, without looking up.
Nadine leapt to her feet with a gasp. The next moment we were embracing tightly.
“Beauty! But where have you…what did you mean…where did you get those clothes?” Nadine questioned me breathlessly.
I looked down at my silk dress with a breathless laugh at my sister’s first coherent sentence. “Didn’t you get my note?”
“It isn’t the same as seeing you. How did you escape?”
“I didn’t,” I replied quickly. “But I have permission to be here for one week.”
“What? For Vera’s wedding?” Nadine asked bitterly, her smile fading. “I suppose you don’t know, but –”
“I know,” I interrupted. “That’s why I am here.” I didn’t have time to explain because the cottage door creaked open behind me. I turned slowly.
“Beauty?” Vera stared, then hugged me tightly. “You are back!”
“Only for a week.” I returned the embrace. “But you can’t marry Jetur.”
Vera sighed. “Beauty, listen –”
“No,” I interrupted. “Alaric isn’t dead. I’ve seen him and he’s wounded, but not seriously. All our brothers are free and their regiment is traveling north even now.”
Vera stared at me, grasping my arms so tight it hurt. “You are sure of this? How?”
“Remember the mirror I told you of?” I reminded her. “I looked for our brothers. They are perfectly well and Alaric is very much alive.”
“But the letter….” Vera started.
“Most likely Jetur’s invention.” Nadine scowled. “The brute.”
“I don’t know about him.” Now I wished I’d looked at Jetur too, to see if I could find any more information. “But the boys are coming home, Vera.”
“Jetur will be disappointed.” Vera laughed shakily after a long pause. “I’m so glad you’re back, Beauty.”
My reunion with Father that evening was filled with tears and laughter. After our first greeting, I looked at the floor. “I know you would have spared me, Father. But I couldn’t let you die.”
“I know.” Father put his hand on my shoulder. “I admit, I still wish you had stayed. But perhaps it is turning out for the best.” He smiled. “Now tell me everything that happened.”
This I eagerly did, recounting all the beast had done for me; how he’d cared for me, and about the roses and the mercy the beast had shown. The only thing I left out was the mystery of the curse and the possibility of the danger I might find myself in when I returned. And the beast’s proposal of marriage.
“But I will have to go back,” I concluded. “I promised and…I hope you don’t hate me for this, but while I am happy here, I am also very happy there. I hardly know if I could leave now.”
Father nodded slowly. “We’ll discuss that later.”
The next day Father met Jetur at the threshold of our house and told him Alaric was indeed alive and Vera was going nowhere. Jetur left in a sour enough humor, and we all cheerily settled down for breakfast.
Two days later, a letter from Saris put any lingering uncertainty at rest with the information that they were safe, Alaric was recovering, and they’d been granted leave and would all arrive within the week.
I settled back into my old chores but, while so many things were unchanged to sight, everything seemed different. I found myself thinking of the beast quite often. Did he miss me? Was he lonely? Could he see me in the mirror and did he watch? And then I would blush at my thoughts.
The fifth day dawned gray and cool. I hurried through my chores, but couldn’t help glancing down the road in my spare time. The cold wind nipped my fingers and nose as I stood at the top of the hill and remembered waiting for Father to come home…oh, it seemed so long ago now. Two horsemen approached, but I paid them only passing heed, expecting four or at least three. The horses broke into a trot as they neared, and one of them stopped before me.
I glanced up. “Ithran!” I exclaimed. “Othniel! But where are Saris and Alaric?”
“They’ll be here tomorrow. They are traveling slower because of Alaric’s wound. But Beauty…” Ithran looked at me questioningly. “Father wrote you were gone…or something of that sort. He wasn’t very clear.”
“It’s a long story, and rather complicated,” I said as I walked alongside him toward the house.
We stayed up late that night. Ithran and Othniel told us all about the battle. How Alaric was wounded saving Ithran, and then how Saris stood over his body until he could be carried to safety. They didn’t seem surprised at the note we’d received; apparently it was a common ploy of Tauscher’s to pretend to have hostages and collect ransom, but they were both enraged at Jetur’s behavior and it was well a certain young man was not there at the moment. Indeed, Father had much ado to keep my brothers from riding over to Jetur’s house that very night.
They, in turn, demanded an explanation about my absence, and soon the whole story of my stay with the beast came out. It was close on midnight before we reluctantly parted for bed.
The next day dragged on in eager excitement. Finally, after dinner, Othniel rode to town to see if Alaric and Saris had arrived. He came galloping back with word that they were on their way and would arrive at our cottage soon.
I was caught up in the whirlwind of excitement as we completed final preparations, thankful they were returning. I’d have to leave on the morrow, but at least I’d get to see all my brothers.
Eventually, as I glanced out the window, I saw a pair of horses slowly plodding along the road.
“They’re coming!” I called, hurrying from the cottage. The rest of the family joined me near the road, and we waited as the horses came up.
Saris leapt off his mount with a wide grin as Ithran helped Alaric to the ground. “I told you we’d care for him, Vera.”
Vera didn’t speak, but hugged Saris tightly and I could see tears shining in her eyes. Then she turned to Alaric who offered her his arm.
“So what is this I heard, about you planning to marry Jetur?” Alaric demanded with a smile.
Dusk fell as we compared stories again, though I kept as silent about the beast as I could. It wasn’t difficult, for soon the talk drifted to other topics as the four men launched from one story of their adventures with the Prince to the next. I forgot everything, even the deepening darkness outside, as I listened.
“And to think, Beauty came home only a day before the wedding.” Vera commented with a smile as she leaned against Alaric’s shoulder.
“Two days before,” I corrected.
Vera chuckled. “Do you think I don’t know when my own wedding was?”
“But…” A tendril of horror wrapped about my chest. “You were to be married three days after I saw you receive the ransom message.”
“Yes, and you came two days later.” Vera looked at me curiously. “What’s wrong?”
I opened my mouth, but was unable to speak. I’d fallen asleep in the library and woken at dawn…hadn’t I? Surely I couldn’t have slept a whole day and night. And yet, when I thought of the beast and his reluctance to let me return, and then his insistence that I return on the seventh day…I shook my head mutely. How could the beast have done this? What had he mixed in my tea to make me lose a whole day? And what was so bad that he refused to let me return, even if it meant his own death?
That’s when the clock began to chime.
It was midnight of the seventh day.
For a moment my vision blurred, and I seemed to see the beast standing at the other end of the room, a sad smile etched into his features. Then the picture faded.
I suddenly realized I was on my feet and all the others were staring at me. The small bells were still tolling the hour.
“What is it, Beauty?” a voice, I wasn’t sure whose, asked.
“I’m late.” I stared at them like one stunned, then shook myself and grabbed my cloak. “I have to go.”
I dashed into the night as Father and the others sprang to their feet. Obsidax was standing in the stable. There was no time to saddle him and I led him outside, hardly noticing the gathering wind as I leapt on his back.
A flash of movement caught my eye and then Father was there, his hand grasping the bridle.
“Beauty,” he said softly.
“Please don’t,” I cried. “I must go.”
“So I see.” He looked at me. “But you aren’t going alone.”
I stared at him uncomprehendingly as the thud of hooves echoed in my ears. My brothers rounded the house on their mounts. One of them led Alaric’s horse, and Father swung up on it. Only then did I see he was wearing his sword.
“Father!” I cried, gazing at it in terror.
“No, I’m not going to kill the beast.” He frowned. “Though the Prince knows I’d do almost anything to bring you back to me. But you must be mad if you think I’d go into that forest without some sort of weapon. Lead on then.”
I needed no other urging, but spurred my horse forward. Golden lamplight spilled from the door of my home and I saw my sisters and Alaric watching us. Then they were gone, and I was galloping along in the ragged light of the moon with my brothers and Father behind me.
It was only minutes before horror about my chest tightened as I began to sense what I could not feel. The pull of the ring was weaker, the direction more indecisive. We reached the edge of Mosswood and I leapt off Obsidax, turning his head back toward our cottage. We’d be able to travel faster on foot once among the tangle of the forest.
I led the way into the shadows. The others kept up as best they were able but I paid them no heed. My sense of direction was growing doubtful, flickering like a dying candle.
“Just wait,” I pled in a whisper. “Please, my Prince, let it hold out a little longer.”
But, with a final gasp, the ring went silent and lifeless. I choked on a sob and continued forward at the last angle the ring impressed upon me. The lashing branches tore at my face and clothes, and drying leaves rustled under my feet. I didn’t know how or when they’d fallen behind, but I could no longer hear my brothers and father behind me. I hardly noticed in the agony of the moment.
Why had the beast tried to keep me away? The thought of obeying his wishes hardly crossed my mind. I loved my family dearly, but now I realized that somehow the beast held my affections too. I hardly dared say I loved him, and yet he was kind, noble, and gentle. If I returned I would never leave; at least not without him.
The light of the moon, already hidden by the thick boughs overhead, faded almost completely as clouds rolled in from the south. The wind howled. I stretched out one hand before me to keep from running into a tree while I pressed the other against my mouth. My foot hit a fallen branch or root, and I stumbled to my knees. Sobs shook my shoulders. A flash of lightning glinted off a pool just before me, smooth and glassy in the storm.
Hardly knowing what I was doing, I reached forward and touched the water. Instantly a glow shimmered from the pool and yet it didn’t seem to come from the water. It was a reflection, an echo of deep memories and hidden secrets
Pictures tumbled through the water and words raced through my mind. With a gasp I pulled back, but it was too late. I knew now; I knew the extent of the curse. And I knew why the beast wanted to keep me away.
For death accompanied the breaking of the curse.
Death and sacrifice.
The light fades from the pool but, to my surprise, I can still see. A faint glow pierces the trees in the distance and I rise to my feet, wiping my eyes. The light is shining, very dimly but without wavering, and hope sparks within me as I suddenly recognize where I am. The wood spreads in a perfect circle and an apple tree sways to either side of me. I’m almost to Rosebramble Hall.
And the light can only be coming from the home of the beast.
I start forward at a run, following the light gleaming faintly through the forest. I know I’ve been wandering in the woods for some hours, but perhaps I won’t be too late. Perhaps I can still save the beast. And everyone else.
In the distance I hear Father’s voice but I don’t stop.
Lightning flashes as I speed forward but no rain falls; at least not yet. Before me I see the gates of Rosebramble Hall. Light is streaming from the tower, piercing the darkness and slowly growing brighter. The rose; in an instant I know that’s what is giving the light. The gates hang open at a crooked angle and I dart through them, hoping, praying, I am not too late.
And then I see him. In a flash of lightning and with the glow from the tower I see the beast, standing on the top step of the Hall. Alone.
“Beast!” The cry escapes my lips and his head turns towards me. I dart for him, but strong fingers close about my wrist and jerk me back.
I swing around with an exclamation of anger, and Saris puts a finger to his lips. Behind him, I see the shadowy figure of my father and brothers, their swords drawn.
“Tauscher’s soldiers,” Saris hisses before I can speak. “Look in the shadows. What are they doing here?” The last comment is muttered to himself and I don’t bother to answer as I follow the motion of his hand.
The next crack of lighting snaps the sky in two, glinting off the soldiers’ distinctive armor and curved blades. In that same flash I see the beast also holds a great sword, and his face is grim and hard. Curse or not, he isn’t going down without a fight.
The clouds battle overhead, and the glow from the tower is growing stronger.
I look back at the beast. Our eyes meet and his expression is a mixture of joy and sorrow. And then he lifts his sword. The rose’s light has grown strong enough that Tauscher’s soldiers can no longer linger in the shadows. And neither can the beast. The soldiers can see their intended victim and coordinate their attack. I count nearly a dozen enemy warriors and wonder if there are more hidden elsewhere.
“Stop!” Father’s voice rings with authority as he steps forward, his sword crossed against his chest. “You are trespassing in the country of the King, and in the King and Prince’s name I order you to disband!”
A man, dressed as a captain, steps from the shadows with a laugh. I catch my breath as I recognize him. Jetur. “We have every right to be here.” His lip curls upward and, as his dark gaze falls on me, I shudder wondering how we’d even allowed such a man into our house. “We’ve the right of the Stieg der. Now leave, or we will kill you too.”
Father doesn’t respond but takes another step forward while Saris advances on his right hand and Ithran and Othniel on his left.
“Then so be it,” Jetur mocks. He raises his sword, and the next moment chaos bursts loose. Half the soldiers break toward Father and my brothers, who dash forward to meet them. The others turn toward the beast, but he hews down two with one stroke and his position prevents more than three from attacking at once.
My gaze darts between the two fights, my heart clenching tighter and tighter. This is a curse; there’s only one way it can be broken and, even then, the outcome is far from certain. Father has cut down one soldier already, and my brothers are plying their blades with skill. The beast is holding his ground and no more soldiers appear…but one is missing. I search franticly for Jetur, finally spotting him standing to the side as he casually loads a crossbow.
I press my lips together as I look back toward the beast. So that’s their plan, the cowards! But perhaps….I dash for the house, but not for the door. In one of my escapes from Abigail, I’d discovered a front shutter which didn’t latch properly. I yank it open now and leap inside the dark room. Darting for the entrance, I turn into the hall and sprint toward the front door, pulling it open and springing out into the night. The prophecy and curse doesn’t matter anymore; my actions may be part of them, or not. It doesn’t matter now. My heart pounds and my chest aches.
I love him.
I love the beast.
And I’m not going to let him die.
The scene before me is bathed in red light. The clash of swords fills the air, and now I see I was wrong in my former assumption about no more soldiers appearing. Several bodies lay on the ground, but more are hurtling into the fight.
And then I see Jetur. He is aiming his crossbow.
“Beast!” I call. But my voice is lost in the shouts and clanging of blades.
Jetur is pulling the trigger; there is no more time. I leap forward, spinning between the beast and the two soldiers he is fighting, between the beast and the bolt, and push him back with all my might.
The beast staggers, but only a step. The next moment the bolt strikes me in the side and I gasp, stumbling forward. I hear a clatter as the beast drops his sword and catches me in his arms.
“Beauty,” he whispers.
I shake my head weakly though a daze of pain. Tauscher’s soldiers are still only feet away, surely they will kill us both. But they don’t appear.
“Beauty,” the beast whispers again.
“I’m sorry,” I gasp. “I had to come back.”
He shakes his head, and I see tears in his eyes.
The light brightens from a fiery red into a pure whiteness. My vision must be slipping away. But then the beast looks up, and I wonder if he sees the sheets of light swirling faster and faster about us in silver streams. I can’t speak; I can barely breathe. My eyes close and I lean against the beast.
New strength surges though me. The pain in my side fades and I wonder if I’ve died and passed into the Haven of Rest, and yet I still feel the beast’s arms around me.
Then the light fades away.
I open my eyes. For a minute I can’t focus on anything, but as my sight clears and I look up at the beast I gasp. The man holding me is not the man I have grown to know. The scars on his face are gone and instead of loose gray hair, brown waves fall over his forehead. But his eyes; as he stares back at me in bewilderment, I recognize those deep blue eyes.
“Beauty?” he asks incredulously, and now I have no doubt. He examines my side then a smile breaks over his face. “The same power that brought me back must have healed you too, thanks be to the Prince. Can you stand?”
I nod, still unable to speak. The beast laughs and lifts me to my feet. His shoulders are broad and square; he stands straight now, and I estimate he is in his late twenties. And quite handsome too, I notice, blushing slightly.
The garden has grown very still, and now I force myself to turn and see what has happened. The light from the rose is dimming, but in the growing shadows I see bodies sprawled on the ground. I gasp at the sight of Father and my brothers among them.
“Don’t worry.” The beast touches my arm. “They are only sleeping.”
“Sleeping?” Though the golden light from the tower has vanished, I can still see. The storm has blown past, and the east is growing pale. I shiver and the beast pulls off his mantle, wrapping it about me, then sits on the top step and gently pulls me next to him.
“I suppose you’d like an explanation?”
I turn back toward him, hardly hearing the question as I gingerly touch his face, still unable to comprehend the change. “I can hardly…I can’t call you Beast anymore, can I?”
“How about Aden?” He smiles down at me.
“Aden.” I try the name and it suits him. After a pause I recollect myself and glance back into the garden. “Why is my father and everyone asleep?” I demand. “Will they be alright?”
Aden nods. “It’s part of the breaking of the curse. The only reason you’re not asleep is that power of the Prince, which healed you, has also counteracted the effects of the sedative.” He looks at me thoughtfully. “How much do you know? About all this, I mean?” he gestures outwards.
“Bits and pieces.” I still can’t keep my gaze off Aden’s transformed face. “But I still don’t know what caused the curse or,” I look around, “what happens now.”
“The past is easier to tell than the future.” Aden smiles. “I won’t bore you with the details, but it started nearly two hundred years ago.”
I remember hearing that time mentioned before but still my eyes widen in surprise.
Aden chuckles. “The Prince has finally driven Tauscher to Shadowfen, but back then Macsen, as we used to call him, was a faithful servant to the Prince. Or so it seemed. I discovered otherwise, but before I could confront him or voice my suspicions to the Prince, Tauscher found my mother and sisters.”
Aden pauses, a far-away look in his eyes.
“I told you once that he had the Stieg der and wielded its power with deadly treachery. We met in the tower, Tauscher and I. Tauscher threatened to kill my family…to kill me, if I didn’t join him. We all refused. Tauscher offered us money, power, anything we wanted. But we told him our love for the Prince was greater than anything. He grew angry then, and told us that such love didn’t exist; it was only a mask. And, instead of killing us, he laid a curse on me and on this house. My family and the servants, with the exception of those you know, slept, invisible until the breaking of the curse. I was left alone, changed and disfigured, until one could love me as I claimed to love the Prince, and as the Prince promised to love us.”
“Until someone loved you enough to die for you,” I expound, blushing. “And if I hadn’t returned?”
“We would have all died,” Aden says simply.
“And yet you tried to send me away.” I look back up, my gaze firm. “Don’t you ever do something like that again.”
Aden’s lip turns upwards. “My family was willing to die for the Prince, as was I,” he says finally. “At first I was content to let the curse run its course; to let the rose which had been given me be plucked and let the Prince control the rest. But Tauscher isn’t one to keep his promises; there was every chance you’d be killed even if you didn’t consciously give your life for me…and as I grew to know you, Beauty, I knew you’d never leave me to die, even if you did refuse to marry me. But to just stand by while you died…that I could not do.”
“But they’re alive now,” I question. “Your family, I mean. They’re awake and visible; the curse is broken.”
Aden smiles at me. “Yes. It’s broken.”
“One of Tauscher’s men. He was here, watching and waiting. None of the other servants knew,” Aden added quickly, “but I guessed. He was the one who alerted Tauscher’s soldiers.”
“But why did he tell me to return here?” I question. “Did he want the curse broken?”
Aden sobers and rises to his feet as he looks over the garden. “I think he knew that, if you came back, it would cause me more pain than if you stayed away.”
I catch my breath as I look at Aden, but don’t reply.
“He knew I loved you,” Aden looks down at me and shrugs with an apologetic half-smile. “And in the end, I couldn’t bear for you to die for me.” Aden holds out a hand and lifts me to my feet. “I asked you once, even though I thought we’d only have a few short months together, and now I must ask one more time. Will you marry me, Beauty?”
I catch my breath. “Back in the woods, when I thought I’d lost you, I wished I had said yes before.” I hesitate and glance away, heat rising up my neck. “Now I fear it will seem I just like your new face.”
“Beauty.” Aden takes my hand with a smile. “I could never think that. You almost died for me while I was still the beast, remember.”
I duck my head, blushing in the rosy glow of the sun. Aden lifts my chin. “Well, Beauty?”
“Yes, Aden,” I breathe out. “I will marry you…if my father gives his permission.”
Aden laughs and pulls a small bottle from his jerkin. “Come along, then. Let us go wake him and your brothers.”
“And then we must get back to my sisters,” I add. “They will be worried about us. But what about the soldiers?”
“The servants will wake early and bind them until I can decide their fates. But first, after waking your father and brothers, I want to present my bride to my family. They will love you, I know.” Aden holds out his hand. “Are you ready, Beauty?”
I smile and slip my hand in his. And together we step down into the garden.
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.
I love to write, creating worlds, stories, and characters, but it is the reader who makes the whole process worthwhile. After all, what is the use of stories if there’s no one to read and enjoy them? If you did enjoy reading this novella, please consider leaving a quick review at your favorite retailer to increase this book’s visibility to other readers.
Hope Schmidt is a Christian authoress who lives on a small farm in northern Indiana. She was homeschooled and now helps teach several of her eight younger siblings.
She has been writing for over five years, and has so many story ideas that she doubts she will ever stop. Her favorite genre to write is high fantasy with a touch of the allegorical. A close second is futuristic suspense. Her goal is to not only entertain with her stories, but to provide inspirational fiction for young adults.
Predictably, she loves reading fantasy, fairy tales, mythology, and futuristic suspense. Her favorite authors include J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Dickens, Frank Peretti, Mark Twain, and Serena Chase.
Her hobbies include photography, movie making, knitting, tree climbing, writing e-mails to friends, listening to Celtic music, and collecting shiny trinkets for story inspiration.
Hope highly values each reader’s thoughts. If you have any questions or wish to contact her, you can e-mail her at or you can visit her blog at . You can also follow Hope Ann on [+ Facebook+], , , or .
Coming late summer of 2016!
The second novella in the Legends of Light series
Sword of Song
(A working title subject to change)
A retelling of Rapunzel!
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I used to never read acknowledgements. To be quite frank, I still don’t do much more than skim them on occasion. But the more I write, the more I appreciate what they stand for. Because, without my friends who beta read and edit my works, my stories would be much less than they currently are.
So I’d like to thank Sophia White, who corrects my admittedly horribly grammar. Also Sarah Lim, who also corrects grammar and cuts out most of my ellipsis by saying they don’t belong where I place them. I’m sure she’s write, even though I love ellipsis…so thank you, Sarah.
I’d also like to thank Kate Flournoy, who helped pick out rough and confusing bits of the plot. And thanks also goes to Rebecca Morgan and Brianna Densmore who read the story and gave me their feedback as well.
Special thanks to Olivia White at Windy Knoll Photography for the use of the rose photo on my cover and to Kate Flournoy who put the cover together.
She is afraid. Not because she is alone. Not because thick roiling clouds obscure the moon. Not because the wind rushes through the forest like a wild dragon. She is afraid because she is late. And to be late means death. Her life had been happy once. Despite the destruction wreaked by Tauscher, traitor to the King. Despite the distant war led by the Prince and fought with the help of her three brothers. Despite her own poorly-chosen nickname of Beauty, she'd enjoyed life. Of course, that was also before her father left home on a hopeful errand but returned weary and ill, bearing a velvety scarlet rose which he claimed would never wither. But even life in the ancient hall, tucked away in the center of Mosswood, surrounded by roses of every description, overshadowed with mystery and home to a scarred figure who is more beast than man, wasn't too bad after a time. But now...now, in a flash of light, Beauty finally glimpses the truth. And the cost. The price which must be paid, or the sacrifice which must be made. It is a curse which even love alone may not be able to break. Writing in the Light Publishing presents the first of nine novellas in The Legends of Light series! Rose of Prophecy,a fantasy seeped retelling of Beauty and the Beast containing an ancient promise, an invisible spy, and the legendary Stieg der, is more than a mere retelling of a favorite fairy tale. Each novella focuses on one of the nine aspects of the Fruit of the Spirit while also following the conflict between the Prince and Tauscher and expertly retelling and twisting some popular, as well as several lesser known, fairy tales.