In a prosperous country where fairies and men still lived beside one another, there was once a king who had three sons. The two older ones were everything a king could want in princes: upright, diligent, attentive to their duties, and honorable in every way. The oldest was set to inherit, the middle to be a great duke and adviser to the first, and the king was in every way satisfied with them.
But the youngest, oh, the youngest! The king had tried to have him raised in the same manner as the elder two, but something had gone terribly wrong, and the youngest prince was not at all like his brothers. He was diligent, so far as it suited him – but the moment he tired of study, nothing could induce him to remain sitting, and he ran wild about the palace. He had the semblances of honor when in court – but when not under the king’s eye he broke his promises, insulted the character of others, and showed himself to lack integrity. He was impatient with both man and beast, striking his servants and his animals when they did not obey him exactly, and he was discourteous in both speech and manner. Worst, he was ungenerous, and though the king provided him with any manner of riches, he hoarded them jealously, and would not part with a single golden cup of it.
This distressing behavior continued for years, and worsened as the prince grew. His older brothers looked on in concern, and the king as well, for how could he, in good conscience, trust the rule of any part of his kingdom to such a prince?
The queen, though, had a plan. She was of a mixed line, her mother being fairy and her father being human, and so in her blood ran the fair folk’s love for pure and perfect justice. The prince’s failings had long rankled her inhuman side, and she thought perhaps to test the prince, and if he failed, to teach him a harsh lesson.
So she explained her plan to the king, and he agreed reluctantly, for he did not want his son to fail. That autumn he sent the young prince to a remote castle, with instructions to care for the lands surrounding, and to guide the people through the winter. It was a tall order, but the elder two princes had been doing such things for years, and the youngest prince had clamored long that it should be his turn, too. The prince was delighted at the appointment and left without even a goodbye to his family.
The queen waited a fortnight. Then, one day, she called on her fairy blood and transformed herself into an old, old woman, and went to the young prince’s lands to see how they fared.
Well, it was just finishing up harvest, and so they did not fare too poorly. The people were still gathering their grains and storing them, milling them, and preparing for the winter. There was some little complaint that the prince rarely heard their charges, and dispensed justice indifferently. Very well, the queen thought to herself, and went to see the prince.
She petitioned at the door, calling herself a traveler and hoping for a place to stay. She waited in the courtyard for perhaps an hour before servants led her to the kitchens and gave her a meager bowl of soup and a crust off a two-day-old loaf, then told her to sleep in the corner. Very well, said the old, old woman, and did as she was asked.
And the next morning the queen left, and went home, and told the king what she had found.
A month later, as winter was properly coming on and the trees were losing the last of their leaves, she changed herself again, and went again to the prince’s lands.
Now, the people were discontent, for there was less grain left from the harvest than they had hoped: the prince had taxed them highly, just before winter, and kept his own stores full while the people outside could do nothing but hope there would be enough to last winter through. He listened still more rarely to the cases put before him; people petitioned him and waited hours before admittance, where, if they were allowed speech, their charges were dispensed with quickly and sharply, with no consideration of the actual case. Very well, thought the queen to herself, and went to see the prince.
She waited long at the door before finally being admitted to the courtyard, where she saw servants sitting about and talking, or sleeping, and a very few running frantically to their actual tasks. She waited another long while before being admitted to the kitchens, handed a five-day-old crust, and then being ordered to the stables to sleep. Very well, said the old, old woman, and did as she was told. The next morning the queen left. She went home, and told the king in anger of what she had found.
A long, cold month later, she changed again, and went again to visit the prince.
This time it was hard midwinter, and the people suffered. The prince had levied a second tax – smaller, certainly, than the first, but enough to keep himself in comfort and his kitchens full. He never heard petitions now; the mayor returned from the castle with edicts, and people complained in taverns about the prince’s disinterest and his gluttonous manner. Very well, thought the queen to herself, and went to see the prince.
She was not admitted. No one stood at the back gate, and, finally, with a bit of magic, she let herself in, and wandered the courtyard. The servants lounged in the stables or stood about the kitchen, talking or playing at dice and cards. Finally one shouted to the others – where had this old woman come from?
Did she belong anywhere? The old woman explained that she was a traveler looking for a place to spend the night. The servants discussed, and finally one led her to the stables and put her in an empty stall, telling her that she could sleep there if she wished.
Very well, the old, old woman said, and waited til the servants had returned to their own affairs. Then she made herself invisible, and went into the castle.
Everywhere she walked, she saw signs of disinterest. There was dirt and mud about the floors of the main hall, and nothing was clean. The kitchens were a shambles, servants eating freely from the stores and drinking freely in the cellars. The hallways were empty, and the courtyards ankle-deep in snow no one had cleared away. Fires went unlit and most of the halls were cold – but that changed when she came to the rooms of court, where fires blazed high and candles lit the rooms bright. The prince sat surrounded by flattering, fawning courtiers, spending his time distracted by pleasant company and wholly uncaring of the state of anything outside his golden rooms.
Then the queen let her invisibility fall, and wandered into the rooms of court, her form an old, old, ragged woman leaning on a stick. It took several minutes for the prince to notice her, but when he did, he stood and roared, “who let this old woman into my court?”
The guards looked at each other, for indeed they had not seen her enter. “Your Grace, we did not-”
“Ah, Your Grace,” the old woman interrupted, coming forward. “Be not angry. I am only a traveler and I wish’d for a night out of the cold. I’m to see my grandson tomorrow, but the roads -”
“Get her out,” said the prince to the guards.
“- the roads, and the snow, and the cold,” the old woman said, as the guards did not move – could not, for her spell. “I wish’d for a pallet by the fire and a bowl of soup. Surely this is not too much to ask?”
The prince was pricked to anger by the admonition. “It is, for an impertinent old woman like you. Now get her out,” he said to the guards, who still did not move.
“Dear Your Grace! Don’t turn me out! I could even pay.” The old woman rattled a small handful of coins.
“If I wanted your pennies, I could have them taken from you,” the prince growled. “Now get out. Get her out,” he added to the guards, who still, still did not move.
Then the queen saw how much of a monster her son was. Anger filled her, and she dropped her disguise in rage and grew to fill the entire hall. “So I see what you truly are,” she roared, and the courtiers cowered. “Here with no eyes on you but your own, you forget all that a man must be!”
The prince stared in horror at the transformation. Then he dropped to his knees and tried to bargain. He pleaded: he had not known it was the queen, he had not meant to offend, he had meant no harm, he would never, not to his own mother –
“You meant the old woman harm,” the queen replied. “And your harm has spread through all the surrounding lands. We taught you better. You knew you did wrong, yet you did it anyway, having as little dominion over your own wishes as a beast may have over his. Be, then, in form what you are in your heart!”
And the queen pointed. The prince felt a great change go through him and tried to stand, but his body roiled and he could summon no words. He tried to stand, but the change overtook him, and his body fell at the queen’s feet.
Here the fairies end the story.
The true, full story goes on much longer, of course, and eventually wakes in the stories of men. But for the fair folk, the story goes only thus far.
In their own tradition, it is a good tale. There is a love among them for pure and perfect justice, and in this recounting, justice is served. The weak, ireful, gluttonous prince is changed into the beast he is. It does not even need to be said, for a fairy thinks upon what should be done next, and that ends the tale.
Men do not pick up the story here, though. It is too heavy and harsh for them to carry far. They pick up later, when there is hope.
So here, out from under the eyes of fairies and of men, the story continues.
When he awoke, it was in his own home, and to find that his name had been turned to Beast.
He lay in the middle of the court. The whole golden court spread about him, marble floors, rich tapestries, bright-clothed courtiers and the familiar, soaring pillars holding high a bright-painted ceiling, dim in the night. Windows let in no light, and fairy-made candles, that hold a flame for three full days, floated above the heads of the court. It was the whole court, fully gathered. Not one of them spoke. Fairies and men, they were all silent.
His family was there, on the thrones. The king, the queen, the two elder princes, dressed in their finest of fine. They watched the Beast awake.
“Well?” the king said.
The Beast looked up at him, and then around. He tried to stand, but stumbled, and tried to kneel, but his legs twisted under him. He struggled up and looked at his own body. Misshapen hooves held him on four feet, like an animal. The Beast stared back up at the throne.
“Something like a wolf, for avarice,” said the queen. “Something like a boar, for gluttony. The rest stayed of man, since there is no other animal so cruel.”
The Beast tried to speak, but his own muzzle held him silent. His throat was ill-formed and could not make words.
“You are banished,” said the queen to her son. “The king and I renounce you as a son, and you are to leave our castle by morning, and our lands by a month hence. No carriage will be provided; you must walk.
You are no longer the prince. You are no longer ours.”
And my riches? cried the Beast in the language of fairies, which needs not be spoken aloud.
“Oh, those.” The queen scoffed. “You may keep them all, and the castle we gave you. Keep what you like. Much good may they do you.” The human courtiers looked at each other and bit their lips; the fairy courtiers tittered.
The Beast looked about in dismay. He had not been laughed at before to his face, and he realized, of a sudden, how very unpleasant the feeling was. Is it for life? he asked.
“No,” said the king.
The queen looked aside at the king, and then echoed him. “No, it is not,” she said, but shook her head.
“But we have very little hope that you should ever be able to come back, since you may only return as a man.”
How can I?
“The enchantment upon you has three conditions. First, that you must know the error of your ways. The second, that you must learn honor. And the third -” the queen’s fairy nature broke out, and she smiled.
“The third is that you must love and be loved by a woman despite your hideous form, and that she must agree to marry you as a beast.”
There was a moment of silence. Then the whole court began to laugh.
The Beast cringed. He looked up at the thrones, but his brothers and the king looked away, stone-faced, and only the queen smiled merrily down on him. “Go now,” she said. “Or stay, and let us talk more of your faults, which we would be glad to do. You reap by this only what your whole life has sown. You finally look like what you are. That should free you.”
His father and brothers still looked away. His mother smiled down on him. Laughter rose up on all sides.
The Beast fled.
It was black midwinter, and even in the middle of the kingdom, where fairies and men walked together and enchantment thicked the air – even so, it was a cold, cold night. The Beast only fled – out of the palace, through the gates, and away down the road. But there were people in the city, too, and on the road, too, and they watched him run. The humans, lord and merchants and commons, watched him and smiled.
The fairy merchants and lords and commons – those laughed, and joked, and pointed, and called after him.
The Beast left the road, and ran North. His castle was North. His castle – the only thing left to him.
All of his riches, all he loved. He ran North.
He ran as long as he had breath. The night was clear and cold about him, and he ran down small streets and through courtyards, and, finally, as his tiredness grew, looked for somewhere to stay, where there were no people. He came upon a stable, but when he opened the doors the horses screamed in terror. He came upon a kennel but the dogs went after him. Finally he came upon a warehouse, full with goods but quiet. He tore the lock down with his teeth and went in, found wools and cottons baled high, and stretched out upon them, and slept.
When he woke, it was to shouting. His entire body hurt from the long run. His muzzle hurt from the tearing of the lock. He wished for more sleep, but voices were shouting into the warehouse, and as he opened his eyes, he saw men.
They saw only a Beast. They drew clubs and knives and chased it out.
He ran, but tired more easily, and it was only morning. The city was alive, now, and people looked out of windows and upon him. The Beast held himself away from roads, straying through yards and sometimes through houses, over fences, under rails. Some people, on seeing him, cried out, but others knew the story from the palace, and as the Beast ran, the story ran with him, until he passed from the town out into rich homes of landed lords, and then, further out, into farms.
He found a barn as the sun fell, and slept til it rose again.
And so his days began to pass: in flight. He learned his new body through use: longer-legged than a boar’s, fatter-ribbed than a wolf’s, with curiously crooked legs and long, sharp-clawed hoof-feet. He was bristled all over in rot-brown and iron-grey. His face, though still human in form, felt forward-pushed, with small eyes and a short, tip-ended boar’s muzzle that made chewing hard. He had fangs and claws and was faster than a deer running full-pace, and the further he went from the city, the more people cried out in fear upon seeing him. For the first days this made him feel powerful, and thrice in a row he barged into houses, frighting the owners and driving them out. Thrice he slept in men’s homes, and only on the third night did he wake to find the men of three villages standing over him with sickles and axes. He escaped with his life, but stayed for days after in a cave, nursing his wounds and hating the men and thinking of being a prince.
He ran as a thief, after that, stealing from rabbit-hutches and storerooms, and sleeping in barns and caves. Twice he had dogs set upon him. Speaking in the fairy tongue did him no good – people disbelieved, and were only horrified that a Beast could speak into their thoughts. Out here, in the country, fairies came only rarely, and so the men had no notion of their nature, nor that the Beast stealing their food had ever been anything else.
After a long, cold month of flight, as the dusk end of a long, cold day, he finally came to the castle. The lands about it were abandoned, or perhaps moved, through fairy magic, back into the kingdom. There were few houses left, and those that stood were empty, snow-blown and long-shadowed in the winter sunset, with their thatch rotting in and their shutters falling off. The Beast wound his way between them and found his castle, walled around, the gates shut. As he neared, they opened for him.
The Beast hesitated. Who are you, he asked.
There was no answer, and the gates stayed open. Behind them, lights burnt in the castle. They looked warm.
The Beast went in, but slowly. The paths to the courtyard were swept of snow, and, inside, the main hall was clean and light around him: the carpets bright, the girandolas lit, the walls and floor scrubbed.
There stood, in the center of the hall, a fairy mirror, and the Beast recognized it for what it was immediately. He stalked up to it and said, “show me my mother.”
The mirror opened onto a picture of the queen. She sat in a rich room in her own palace, speaking with the king, but as the mirror opened onto her she stopped, and looked toward it. Then she told the king, “please excuse me. Our Beast calls.”
She came toward the Beast and slipped through the mirror, standing out before him in the hall. Lights dimmed around her, and she said, “well. So you arrived.”
I did, the Beast said. What do I do now?
“Oh, whatever you want,” the queen said airily. “Trying to turn yourself back into a man might be a good start.”
“That is your own work,” said the queen, and turned back to go through the mirror. Then she paused as though remembering. “The servants,” she said, and turned. “They are of my own creation. They will obey you if you comport yourself as a prince should. Only then.” She smiled and went back through the fairy mirror. It silvered behind her, and reflected the Beast back upon himself. He snarled at the thing and said, take it away! but the mirror did not move. The Beast turned from it and left the great hall. He turned into the first bedroom he found, kicked the door shut, curled up on the bed, and fell quickly to sleep.
It was cold, late morning when he woke, with winter sunlight bright between the heavy red curtains. His room was chill, shadowed from the curtains and without fire or brazier. No servants came to light one, and when the Beast called for them in the fairy tongue the air was still silent. So, after a while, the Beast stood, stretched his front legs, then his back, then his hind legs, then stepped down from the bed and went to walk the castle.
It had been changed. It was larger, now, which the Beast approved of. Before, there had only been a dozen court rooms – now there were near on forty, marble-walled and -floored, gold chasing the details, winter tapestries covering the bright murals and thick rugs on the floors. Long halls connected them, lined with little tables with shining candlesticks and delicate vases and gold ornaments. All the windows were glass, and taller than twice the Beast’s standing height.
Magic had laid across the gardens, too, and sped winter in them to its end. They were free of snow and green-leafed, with budding flowers everywhere. The Beast walked through them, and the air was mild and wet. Behind them lay a forest, still in his lands, and had already small leaves on the trees. He smelled animals, and heard them, at a great distance, running from him.
Everything was silent.
The Beast could not find servants to bring him lunch, so he went without. But when the sun finally fell and the Beast returned to the rooms of court, there was a place laid for him at the grand dining table. He remembered the servants’ invisibility, and so leapt up onto the chair, crouched on his haunches, and called lazily out, bring me dinner.
Bring me dinner now, he called again, but still there was none, and the castle remained silent.
He began to abuse the servants, calling them names and shouting that they must bring his food. He added his beast-voice, and growled and barked, but the castle remained as silent as before. Finally he ran out of words, and the room was dark. Candles lit suddenly around him, but the Beast could see no servants.
They were there. They would not obey him.
The Beast closed his eyes and curled up in the chair, his stomach rumbling. He fell asleep there, and did not wake til dawn.
In the morning he was hungrier even than before. He decided to find the kitchens.
It was a long, weary walk through the castle, early-morning and cold. He lost his way in the vast marble rooms, and found himself walking through the wood-and-stone corridors of the servants’ quarters, dozens of small, thin rooms and little tallow candles in sconces. He found several doors to outside, and stairways, and towers, and little curving rooms, and finally he found the kitchens.
They were clean, and precise. The Beast was lost in them, having never been in a kitchen before in his life. Food should be here somewhere, but all he saw was closed drawers and shut cabinets. They all seemed stuck – he could not open a one of them. The barrels in the corners had their lids on fast, and no amount of clawing would open them.
The ovens were warm, which was something, so the Beast settled on his haunches beside them. He was irritated, and mystified, and hungry, and so he said, I would have something to eat.
Immediately the oven doors opened. A shovel rose and pulled the bread out. A barrel-lid tipped up and meat drew out, and went into a pot with onions and water, and another shovel carried coals to the fireplace, where they poked a fire into life.
The Beast was so hungry he near jumped for the bread, but it raised up out of his reach. He let out a frustrated roar, and all work stopped in the kitchens.
To comport himself like a prince. The Beast drew back, and sat up, back straight, head raised like a lion on a shield. You may continue.
The work resumed.
It was – it was this easy. The Beast watched in surprise, his anger fading. He only had to behave as he had under his father’s eye, back in the old court, back in his old life – he had only to playact the prince, and they would listen. And wasn’t it true? He knew enough nobles who changed their behavior around the golden rooms, and spoke softly, and stepped delicately, and were courteous and chivalrous.
Then, when he went to their own estates and they hosted him, then they let themselves go, and beat the servants and flirted with the women and overate and schemed and drank to excess.
They acted. So could he.
I wish also to have my rooms warmed, he said, and soon enough braziers and hotpans floated in, to be filled with coals before his eyes, and baskets of wood and kindling were carried out to start a fire.
In the dining room, too, and more baskets went out, and he followed them.
The fire was laid and lit, and moments later, food came. It was more food than he had eaten in days, and warm, and the Beast leaped up on the chair and reached for his knife. But his hoof-paws could not grasp it. He tried again, and they flipped the knife onto the floor. His claws curled around the spoon, and it clattered out of his grip and into the soup. He could not even lift his glass.
In fury he shoved plates off the table. A bowl, on its way to serve him, halted halfway across the room, then began to retreat. No! the Beast cried, and struck the table. He restrained himself, and sat up, and pulled his hoofs back. I … wish … to eat.
A bowl filled with food, and then swept off the table and onto the carpet. Wine poured into another bowl, and laid itself beside the first.
The Beast glared. You would feed me like a dog? He roared aloud and swept his paws across the table, sending everything crashing to the ground. Then he leapt from the chair and ran from the room.
He tried to hunt in the forest. Beasts ran from him. He was loud and clumsy, and animals heard him before he even saw them. He came back to the castle late in the night, and went to his room, where the fire burned and the bed was warm. He could not sleep for hunger. His stomach churned and pinched and he thought of how long it had taken to get here, and the meager chickens and raw potatoes he’d last eaten four days ago. He said, bring my dinner here and lay it out for me, and the door opened and closed. One bowl of stewed, spiced pork was put on the rug before the fire. Another, of fresh brown bread, beside it. A third, of warmed wine, above them.
The Beast got out of bed, crouched before the fire, lowered his head, and began to eat.
The first girl came two months later, as spring unbent snow from the branches, and green came into the trees around the castle. Inside the walls, magic brought out the summer flowers, and hedges grew high with new growth. The cherry trees blossomed, the tulips stretched up, and the lakes grew green with weed.
Inside the ruined village, vines trailed across the unused paths, and saplings grew up in the old yards. Animals hid in the ruined houses. People did, too. The Beast watched from the highest windows as travelers passed by on the main road – more, now that it was spring. A very few, seeing the village, turned off it and came in, but they would look at the castle’s chain-locked gates and the crumbling village and shudder to themselves. A few would make camp inside one or another of the old houses; none would dare come up to the castle.
None until one, on a cold, blustery day in mid-Spring, with grey rain spitting down onto the muddy land. The Beast was just settling in for lunch when he heard voices in the castle. He sprang silently down from the chair and went to look.
In the main hall were two people: a young man, a younger woman. The man was lean-faced and suspicious of the castle, but walking forward nonetheless, and the woman hung back on his arm, uncertain. To the Beast’s eyes she was beautiful – perhaps newly come from her family, not older than fifteen, brown hair and cheeks red with chill. A new bride? The Beast hoped not – perhaps she would marry him.
They were both sodden and hesitant. The Beast sat back on the balcony and watched as they crossed the hall, toward the lit corridor. He ran fast on clacking claws through halls and rooms and down stairs, into the kitchen corridor, and came up behind the false-wall that led into the dining room. Here it was that the lit corridor came out, and the couple was just approaching the table.
“We shouldn’t,” the woman said.
“Shouldn’t is shouldn’t,” the man snapped back. “There’s none here and I’m hungry, so damn the consequences.” He sat in the Beast’s place and took up his knife.
The Beast nearly tore down the wall in anger, but held himself back. The woman – the girl would flee in terror. She already looked near to doing so, peering hesitantly around while the man ate, and then slowly pulling out a chair for herself and reaching for some food.
The Beast watched them eat, and then watched them get up, and then watched them walk the castle. The man picked up every little thing of value and appraised it, and slipped some of them into a bag and some into his pockets. The girl followed timidly. The Beast followed at a distance, calculating how to get her away from him. She could stay here. She could marry him. Hadn’t he already learned the first two parts of the curse? He knew what he had done wrong. He knew he must be more generous, more chivalrous, yes, yes, he knew all that. He was even princely toward the servants, hardly yelling anymore except when his temper got the best of him. So what remained was for a woman to marry him, and there! He would be free!
He followed the two til they found a bedroom, and there undressed. They must have been newly married, for they shared a bed, though the girl kept on sitting up and looking around. She heard the Beast’s claws on the floor. She heard wind out in the trees. The man growled at her, but she stopped, and listened, and raised her head, and looked around the room.
“We shouldn’t,” she said.
“Shouldn’t is shouldn’t,” the man growled. “There’s none here and I’m tired, so damn the consequences.”
He pulled her back down and held her and fell asleep, and the Beast could see the girl’s eyes open in the dark.
He waited until it was near dawn, then walked the room again. The girl’s eyes opened, and the Beast said in the fairy tongue, come.
The girl slipped out of the man’s embrace and stood. The Beast slipped out of the grey room into the dark hall and turned, and the girl walked out behind him. She stood and peered at him in his direction. The Beast could see her perfectly, but knew that, in this little light, she could see only a shadow. He said, why are you here?
“For shelter,” the girl whispered. The Beast waited. “We’re travelers. We’re only passing through…”
Travelers that steal?
The girl trembled. “He didn’t mean it,” she said. “I’ll ask him to put them back. We can leave. I’m sorry.”
You are sorry. He is not. The penalty for stealing from me is death.
“Oh, please!” The girl looked into the shadows, trying to see the Beast. “Don’t kill him! He didn’t mean it! Let him go, please! I’ll put them back, I’ll take them back from him and put them back, only please don’t kill him!”
Very well, the Beast said, on one condition.
That you marry me.
The girl was silent. Dawn grew.
Why do you hesitate? If you don’t, I’ll kill him. He paused. Are you man and wife?
“Not – not yet -” the girl bit her lip. “We were to marry -”
Then very well. You marry me. I let him go.
“Oh, I can’t!” the girl wailed, and turned away. “We wanted to marry, we had to run, to – to – don’t kill him for it! We wanted a new life somewhere, and he couldn’t stay! I love him and I can’t – I can’t -”
The man stood in the doorway. Behind him, light filtered through the curtains.
“Ah, Jack!” the woman started toward him, and the Beast stepped before her.
Thief, he said.
The man gaped to see him.
“What- Deidre! Run! Ru-” and the Beast roared and threw him back, lunging forward as he rolled. The man grasped around for a weapon, but the Beast pounced and landed atop him, breathing into his face.
Thief! he roared. You deserve to die! The man brought an arm up over his eyes, and, dimly, the Beast felt hands clutching at his fur, pulling him back. He turned his head and saw it was the girl, weeping and trying to pull him away from the man.
He shook his body briefly and tossed the girl aside. You came into my castle, you ate my food, you slept in my bed, you stole my silver and gold. Thief four times over! I should kill you for this!
“Don’t!” the girl cried, and started forward again. The Beast kicked her back and turned to the man. It was hard to remain calm enough to speak – the man’s throat was right there under his muzzle.
I might spare you on one condition, he said.
“Yes!” the girl said. “Yes, please! Just let him go!”
“Wh- what?” the thief looked out from under his arm.
I might spare you, the Beast said, were she to stay here and be my wife. He looked toward the girl. She’s already said yes, so you just have to agree. Make her accept me. Make her marry me, and I’ll let you go.
The thief glanced over at the girl, and his face hardened. “I’d never do that to her,” he hissed, and brought his other hand up with a knife. He drove it into the Beast’s body and the Beast yelped and flinched. The man slipped from beneath his paw, but the Beast swung his other paw around and clawed the thief full across the face, throwing him across the room. He lunged after him and tore the man’s throat out, swallowing blood and flesh and letting the body fall to the floor.
He turned, and the girl was gone.
Out in the hall, and there was no trouble of finding her, her fear stank so strong on the air. The Beast turned after and followed her, up the stairs, across the hall, running fear-crazed and directionless like a prey animal, only to get away from him. Up stairs, through halls, to the golden balconies of the rooms of court, and he cornered her there, in the arches above the throne room.
“You killed him!” she kept screaming, and the Beast only saw that she was a woman, that if she said the words it would save him.
Marry me! he said, and shook the blood off his chops. Marry me! He’s dead! There’s nothing else you can do!
The woman choked on her tears, and looked aside, and shook her head, and then looked at him. “Yes there is,” she said, and threw herself off the balcony.
When he came down to look at the body, the mirror was there. He looked at its clawed feet and at the girl’s broken neck and didn’t even look up as his mother came through. It was only when the queen took him by the neck and lifted, choking him, that he looked up.
“You killed her.”
The Beast could say nothing. The Queen threw him down and advanced.
“The thief deserved to die, because he was a thief. But she? She?”
They – they were to marry! the Beast whined, rolling to his feet and backing away. She wouldn’t marry me, because she was going to marry him!
“Then let them!” the queen bellowed, and the Beast’s ears went back. “This was a failure in every way! Marrying her would have done nothing for you! She died for nothing, and you’ve thrown a life away for nothing!”
The Beast stared. She – would not have …saved me?
“Of course not! Are you so dim as to think you are a prince now?” The queen grew larger, but stopped where she was. “Have you learned so little?”
The Beast only stared, dumbfounded. He looked from the queen, to the body, to the queen again. What did I do wrong?
The queen looked at him for a long time. Then she turned on her heel and left. She went back through the mirror, but the servants did not take it away, and the Beast stayed there as the day drew on, staring at the claw-footed mirror and the dead girl beside it.
Months passed, and at first, the Beast tried to understand. He went back to the body often, even as it rotted, to sit by it and try to understand why this had happened. After a week the smell was terrible, but worse, it was tempting – old meat to an animal’s nose. The Beast stayed away from it, and told the servants to clean it up.
They would not.
He ordered them. He asked politely. He roared and howled. The invisible servants would not move the body, even as it fell apart, even as the skin dried up and bleach-and-brown bones showed. The mirror stayed in the hall, too, claw feet behind the broken neck. The Beast stopped going in the hall entirely, and spent more and more days outside, in the forest on his lands.
He learned to hunt. His body was fast and powerful, he found, but loud, and animals could hear him from three leagues off. Even human hunters could get closer. He trained himself to walk the forest silently, moving so quiet he could come across a rabbit warren without startling the occupants. He trained himself, and grew so able that he did not need to return to the castle to eat. He stayed days, then weeks, out in the forest, hunting game, tracking deer, ranging far into the green shadows. He came back to the castle once in a while, but stayed outside, sleeping in the gardens at the most.
Spring passed. Summer passed. Autumn passed, and Winter came to him. It was cold in the forest, and the Beast remembered the fires of the castle, the candles and braziers and the warm hearths and beds. He returned, then, as the first snow fell, tracing his steps under the empty branches, walking silent past hungry deer.
His mother waited for him in the garden.
“You have a guest,” she said.
The Beast stopped. The queen looked him up and down, and said, “so. You enjoy being a Beast.”
The Beast answered nothing.
“That is as it may be, but you must choose. Either you will work to turn yourself back into a man, or you will live your days as a Beast. You may do either. But you cannot do both.”
The Beast looked at the lights of the castle. They looked warm. He walked past his mother, and toward the open doors.
“Very well,” said the queen, turning to walk behind him. She passed him inside, and turned her steps toward the court room with the mirror. The Beast watched her walk out of sight, then started toward his bedroom.
It was not until dinner the following day that he discovered that his mother had told the truth. He had a guest. He stopped in the shadows of the doorway into the dining room, and looked at the woman at the table.
She was not nearly the beauty the first girl was, nor was she as young – perhaps twice the first girl’s age. But she seemed very comfortable here, dressed in clothing from one of the courtier’s rooms, and eating her dinner with vigor. The Beast hung back and watched her, wondering what had brought her.
You, he finally said, and the woman looked up from her food. What are you doing here?
The woman put her food down and stood beside her chair. She looked around, but then crossed her hands in front of her and spoke.
“Please excuse me. I am a traveler, and I needed a place to stay. I have remained here because of your hospitality, but I can leave at any time. I can also pay for my imposition on your generosity. Are you the master of this place?”
The beast frowned. I am, and I have only just returned. How long have you been here?
“Ah,” the woman said, and nodded. “Near on a week, I believe. Your servants have provided for me generously from the beginning, and I have nowhere to go in any great hurry, so I accepted their offer to stay. Please excuse me, my lord, for imposing without your knowledge. Once again, I can pay and leave if you wish me to.”
No, the Beast said. You needn’t.
He said nothing else, and finally the woman sat back down and continued eating. He watched as she did, and watched, after she finished, as she stood again and clasped her hands in thanks.
“I appreciate your hospitality with all my heart, my lord. My village was struck with famine this autumn, and I decided to leave to relieve the burden on my family. I intended to go to the city to find work, but along my way I came across your castle. The doors opened for me, and I found food waiting, and my lord, I beg your pardon for imposing, but I had not seen such food in a long time. I ate, and was guided to a room to sleep. Since then I have stayed here. Now I will leave if you ask me, or, with my lord’s permission, I will stay and pass the winter here, as the snows have begun and traveling on foot will be impossible.”
The Beast was impressed. You left your family of your own will? he asked. To save them?
The Beast considered. Perhaps, if she was so good-willed, she would save him too. No, he must not ask yet. Not after last time. Very well, he said, you may stay the winter, provided you repay me by the end of it.
The woman bobbed her head. “I have little money, my lord, but I would happily work to earn my keep.”
You need not work, the Beast dismissed. I have one other condition.
“What is it, my lord?”
That you never look for me, the Beast said. I will speak to you from a distance, and I will keep that distance. You must never look about for me, nor seek me out.
“I see, my lord,” said the woman. She considered. “Perhaps you come from that land of fairies and men? I hear stories, but this castle is so full of enchantment that I feel they must be true.”
Yes, the Beast said, and the woman looked satisfied.
The next morning, the Beast tried to hunt. He wandered through the fall-green garden, and out into the winter-grey forest, and in five steps he began to feel sick. The sickness only increased, and the further the Beast drew into the woods, the stronger grew in him a longing to be back at the castle. It pulled at his heart and clenched at his stomach; he could hardly breathe with the need in him to be back in the castle.
As soon as his steps turned back toward the castle, he grew well.
Thus he realized the choice he had made. His mother had offered: he could be either Beast or beast, but not both.
He could not live in the woods again.
And then there was nothing left to him but to spend the long, silent winter in the castle with the woman. At first the Beast avoided her, keeping to the halls and the rooms where she did not rove. The castle was large enough, and he could keep easily away from her.
The servants still would not clean up the bones, and so he had them lock all entrances to the two rooms: the one the thief had died in, and the one where the girl’s body still lay. He stayed away from those rooms as well, and lay by the lit fire in his own room for many hours, dozing, waking only to eat.
In two days grew bored.
He had been used to the hunt. He had been used to movement, constant movement, tracking and finding, the work of being silent and stealthy, the thought of where his prey was, the remembering of the forest’s deer-trod avenues, the focus and stealth and rage and triumph of the hunt. This cozy quiet was not for him. This moveless stay-by-the-fire, even though he was warm and well-fed – there was nothing to do, and it rankled at him, and he paced, and he walked the halls, and finally, he went looking for the woman.
He found her in the solarium, surrounded by out-season plants and stitching together pieces of cloth. He rounded her on hunt-silent feet until he saw what she was working on, and then retreated behind a row of dense bushes and chairs.
The woman started to look up, then turned her head and looked only forward. “My lord! Good day! We have not spoken in some time.”
Indeed we have not, the Beast said. And how pass the days with you?
“Very well, my lord. I find myself very much at leisure, and I fill my days here. This room is beautiful.”
It was like she was waiting for a cue. The Beast considered, then tried to think how he would respond were she a noble lady. The answer came naturally, then. You are not bound to any one room, madam. You may walk the rest of the castle as well, if you wish.
“Thank you, my lord.” The woman sounded satisfied.
There was silence as she returned to sewing. The Beast did not want the boredom of silence.
Madam, what name do you go by?
The woman hesitated. “Mara,” she said. And, as the Beast did not reply, she added, smiling at her sewing, “although I suppose the name will mean nothing to you who are from the lands of the fairies, my lord.”
It does not.
“Then I will call myself Cecilia, if it is all one to you, my lord.” She waited, head tilted like a doe-rabbit listening.
Then that will be your name, the Beast said.
The woman – Cecilia – smiled. “Thank you, my lord.” She continued her stitching, and looked out. “It really is pleasant here. I have never worked with such fine cloth, and your gardens out there are beautiful -”
The Beast looked out. The solarium faced full onto the gardens. To the far edges of the windowed room, snow fell outside the walls, and on top of the walls. Inside them, though, it faded, and only low grey clouds spun overhead. The hedges were yellowing at the edges, and the flowers fading. Still, when considered beside the winter wood, they were quite nice.
They are, he said.
Cecilia, as it turned out, loved the gardens. With the Beast’s permission granted her to roam, she now spent most of her daylight hours outside, walking the gardens or sitting and stitching and looking out.
She loved the gardens, and the gardens obliged her. They went through a brief, flashy fall, all the leaves turning to wild and bright colors within a week and staying fire-red and yellow for days, the last lilies and roses shining. Then, as she withdrew into the solarium, they sparkled with winter ice for a week, new snow on the paths between the flowers and along the hedges. Then, as the outside drew into the depths of midwinter, they burst into frantic, happy spring, the snow melting and soaking the ground and the green buds pulling out of the mud.
Cecilia could not stay inside. She was always out, all day, and excepting the days when it snowed – when his footprints would be seen – the Beast followed her, creeping along the outsides of the hedges, talking to her. Cecilia never seemed to mind. She always stared straight ahead, looking only at the flowers before her or around her. She did turn corners suddenly, and the Beast had to scramble to stay hidden.
Inside the hallways, it took all his skills from the hunt to stay out of her sight. She was fond of talking, and the Beast could never refuse her that, but in walking through the castle, he had to step silent, and retreat suddenly, and wait in corners, and talk to her from the far ends of long halls where there was nowhere to hide.
But they did talk, and that constantly. The Beast had a few days of silence in the garden’s winter, when he could not go out with her, and the silence was dull and still, then. He eagerly anticipated the descent of the sun and Cecilia’s return, and when she returned she would dine – he waiting out in the hall – and then return to the solarium, where they would talk long into the night.
The weeks grew, and the Beast came to prefer Cecilia’s company. He thought that none of those great ladies of court could be so interesting, because while they talked either of things he knew intimately – intrigues and lies and scandals – or things he bored quickly of – the weather, unruly servants – Cecilia would tell of things he had never come close to. She had the gift of words. The daily life of a farming village became somehow, under her words, new and bright, because she told of every person, how she knew them, what she knew of them, what had happened, where they were now. He heard precisely how cold it could be in this midwinter under a thatch roof, and how bright the day could be when a little sister was born.
The Beast thought of those quiet, abandoned houses outside his front wall; their thatch falling in, the white long rain-rinsed off the walls.
There were some stories about the lord whose lands Cecilia’s family had farmed. The Beast thought to himself how blind peasants could be when Cecilia told of her village’s resentment of the conscription and the taxes, and he pushed back into the conversation, trying to explain to her what these were for, why lords and princes and kings needed them. “To be sure, my lord,” Cecilia said, and then told of times when the surviving soldiers had come back to the village, and read off the dead names, or the extra calls the tax-men made, or the counting up of how much less than full each family could pay one year. “We were tithed and taxed and drained of men, and then the tinkers came,” and she told about that year, when her little brother disappeared, and two of their three pigs. The village had sent the mayor to their lord, then, to ask reparations. The lord refused the mayor a hearing, and sent him back that very night, so that the mayor must travel in the dark and rain.
The Beast thought of his own ruling, the way he had administered the lands he now lived on. He thought of his own hearings. He thought of his own court. He grew quiet.
And when Cecilia went nightly to bed, the Beast slunk nightly away and into the wide, golden room where the body lay. He looked at it, or paced the room, or leapt up onto the throne and surveyed the court, its doors locked shut, its windows curtained, its fireplaces cold. He thought about the rulings he had held here, and the company he had kept. He thought about the old woman before he had known it was his mother. What had he said? The Beast remembered, and winced.
Come back next week for Part 2 of Laura Ek’s Beast and the Beauties.