Beast By Sean Miner Once, there was a blessed kingdom. The sun was always shining, the weather alwayswarm, the highways expansive and well-maintained, and the produce always fresh. Avocadosgrew like wild nettles along the highway, and the people smiled flawless white smiles. One day, the figurative cup of this already blessed kingdom was filled to overflowingwhen the king and queen had delivered unto them a daughter. She was beautiful, with goldenhair and azure eyes, and she never cried, only laughed. They named her – appropriately, itseemed –- Aurora. As was the custom, a great celebration was planned, with wine and avocados and apeculiar kind of inside-out sushi. An announcement was made, and all in the kingdom wereinvited. Special care was taken to invite the four fairies who lived nearby –- even the relativelybitchy one to the north, because this king and queen actually knew a little something aboutdiplomacy. When the day of the celebration came, the courtyard was filled by people wishing theprincess well and drinking the royal wine and eating the royal sushi. The king and queen didn’tpay much mind to these throngs, of course, but rather to the various visiting dignitaries.Especially important was the royal family of the neighboring kingdom – to the eldest son ofwhich they were planning to arrange their new daughter’s hand – and the four fairies.
The fairy of the East was first to show, in her chariot drawn by doves – a spectacularsight, because, trim though she was, it took quite a lot of doves. The fairy of the South arrived, her carriage pulled by giant seahorses temporarilyenchanted with legs – impressive creatures, though they seemed rather confused. The fairy of the West arrived carried by her retinue of a thousand walking oaks – whichsettled themselves in to provide much-needed shade. The king and queen waited anxiously for the arrival of the fairy of the North. But theevening wore on, and eventually the time to present the gifts to the princess could be held up nolonger. The usual gifts were on hand – a flock of mute swans, bejeweled combs, gilded spinningwheels with no sharp corners, and a fine Arabian steed that would be an old nag by the time shecould ride it. That sort of thing. Last, the fairies stood to give her their blessings. The fairy of the East gave her gift to the little princess: “May she be beautiful and comelyall of her days.” And the princess’ hair shone more brightly, and her eyes sparkled like polishedsapphire. The fairy of the West gave her gift: “May she always be full of joy and laughter.” Andthe princess’ giggles became like the peal of silver bells. At that point, with much fanfare, the incredibly long and shiny black carriage of the fairyof the North pulled up. Everyone stood whispering as the fairy got out, her expression as alwayscold and haughty, her latest nose held aloft. The king and queen tried to tell themselves that she’d just been fashionably late – and itwas just like her to make such a dramatic entrance – but something kept them from relaxing.Something they couldn’t put their royal fingers on. The fairy of the North stepped quickly yet languidly up to the front of the line of fairies,and began, “Life is a treacherous thing, isn’t it?” she began. “So full of disappointments, as I wasdisappointed not to have been invited.” For, unbeknownst to anyone, the page dispatched with the invitations to the fairies hadnot been as reliable as they’d believed. His body would later be discovered floating naked in anenchanted pond with no sign of foul play, but with hugely dilated pupils. “Nevertheless,” she continued, “I will not hold it against the child. I still have a gift.” Shesmiled a cold but perfectly stunning smile. “I would not have the child suffer the woes of this
life. After she leaves the boundaries of childhood, on her sixteenth year, she will fall down dead.With a lovely smile on her face.” And with those words, she placed a darkness deep within the child, that would wake insixteen years to consume her. The guards that rushed after the fairy were turned into swine, and statues, and statues ofswine, while she made her way to her carriage, which sped off, trailing cackles. The king and queen immediately entreated other three fairies to remove the curse, butthey replied that they could not. The fairy of the South, however, said, “I cannot undo it, but Iknow a weakness to the spell she used. It relies on the child’s pure soul – the darkness willemerge suddenly, to shatter her like crystal. I would not do this, but if you wish, I can keep herfrom dying at sixteen. I can fight one curse with another.” The king and queen answered hurriedly – perhaps too hurriedly, they would later think –that of course they wanted their child to live. Anything less, they were sure, could be dealt with,using only love and patience and a castle full of servants. “Very well, then,” said the fairy, solemnly. Turning to the child, she said, “I grant youflaws. I grant you damage. I grant that your facets will never meet perfectly, nor anything fill youcompletely.” The king and queen saw no change about the child, and worried that the gift had nottaken. But the fairies, who could see into her soul, all agreed that what each had said, had cometo pass. And indeed, upon close examination of her eyes, there could be seen a faint pattern offracture, like the web of a spider. As the child grew, she was indeed beautiful. But though others told her this, she herselfdid not see it when she looked into a glass; her reflection was wrong to her sight, as through abroken mirror. So she took little care how her royal gowns looked, and often went withsomething comfortable, or which suited her cracked aesthetic. She laughed much, but at strange times – at thoughts that passed through her labyrinthinemind, or where others saw only cause for pity, or disgust. She would find people staring at her,not knowing what there was to laugh at, and when she tried to explain, they only looked morestrangely. Some days, things worked well, and she was very happy, and the love that was given toher made her feel warm inside, and she was able to love back like anyone else. Other days, theydid not go so well, and she found herself caught in panics, and the pressure of the love aroundher made her want to twist around in her own skin, and bite, and she would go off alone to calmherself.
And always there was within her some unfinished space, that seemed to demand filling. Itbecame impossible to prevent her following through on a thought to explore some new place oridea. She would spend hours each day – or days of each week, if she got the chance – in the royallibrary, drinking in the books as if trying to quench some terrible, bottomless thirst, addingpieces endlessly to herself. Despite misgivings, the king and queen eventually had another child, also a daughter. Ather celebration, they hired a company of fairy hunters for security, but the northern fairy did notdeign to appear. The more cautiously named Princess Janet grew up, golden of hair and blue ofeye, tall and laughing and innocent and undamaged. And the sisters, different as they were, lovedone another like... well, sisters. Frankly, the elder did not mind having some of her mother’sattention to princessly education shifted onto someone else; it gave her more time to read, and toexplore. Aurora was in the library on her sixteenth birthday, having snuck away from thecelebrations to finish a chapter on a brand new book on the Dignity of Man. She was compiling amental list of the logical flaws of the work when something began to throb deep within her. She set aside the book and sensibly made for the lavatory, but at the same time marveledat the new sensation; it felt dangerous, but not at all unpleasant, or at least only the shadowunpleasantness of the most delightful sort of fear. She walked down the hallway and had just been spotted by a servant, who rushed to saythat her presence was demanded at the party, when the darkness burst forth. Aurora gasped as the darkness that had lain in her heart since infancy rushed forth. Ittried to fill her, shatter her mind, crush her heart into stillness. But it found that it only filled anendless branching of flaws and furrows, poured itself into the boundless space that had claimedmost of the royal library. But though it could not shatter the princess, yet it made her its home. Her hair changed,from gold to black as ebony. Her skin, already pale from days in the library, became white assnow; her eyes from deep blue to a piercing crystal ringed in gold. When, later, Aurora looked into a mirror with her cracked sight, she saw the darknessthere, and felt that it suited her. In the face of this dark turn in their already odd daughter, the king and queen decided tooffer their younger daughter’s hand to the neighboring Prince Bradley, in her stead. This breachof protocol drew no complaint from the royal neighbors; they had met the growing Aurora, withher odd humor and unsettling habit of being more erudite than they.
For her part, the elder princess did not mind a reprieve from her matrimonial duties. Shewished her sister well, and thought anyway that marriage would interfere with her adventures inthe abandoned ruins in the hills. She developed a fascination for the royal armory, and used her royal status, dark looksand some mutually enjoyable kisses to coax a number of the younger and more comely guardsinto secretly showing her the use of blades. A few found that they enjoyed being menaced by a pretty girl with a weapon, but shequickly lost interest in these. For the darkness in her drew her to strength, while the flawsgranted her by the fairy refracted it inward, and made her want that strength for herself. Thus,she craved strength greater than hers but, once it was found, was compelled to surpass it –whereupon its fascination was gone. In fact, the only places she seemed long able to hold her hunger at bay were the library –where she fed on a constant stream of words and thoughts – and the ballroom, where she danced. She danced alone. Sometimes, in the dead of night, in the pitch black; her body had longago learned every inch of the chamber, and she could go anywhere just with the measurementsher body took as it moved. She didn’t need music, though she would sometimes hum; there wasno musician in the kingdom that could – or, likely, would – play the strange, dark music that shecarried in her head. She danced for the music inside her, and for the satisfaction of motion, herbody cutting prayers into space. And while she danced, she remained outside of time, and could explore the darknesswithin without the distraction of the hunger of the empty space. When it was strongest, it ached,a sense of loss that she could almost taste, a bile-tinged sweetness in her throat. At those times,felt she could ride the pain anywhere in the world. The day of the younger princess’ wedding arrived. The marriage of the two kingdomswas an event surpassing even the births of the princesses. Aurora attended, was happy for hersister, and took much pleasure in the dancing, the shocked looks she engendered, and one of thegroomsmen. The royal couple departed the next day for their honeymoon, while Aurora’s family andtheir retinue set off for their own kingdom. Happily ever after seemed inevitable. Only two days later, a mounted party was sighted riding hard at the castle. As they drewnear, it was seen to be Prince Bradley and a small number of his men. Of his new bride, there was no sign.
“A monster!” the prince raged as he stormed before the king. “It killed half my men andtook the princess! We must go take her back! I need fresh horses and a dozen men!” “A monster?” repeated the shocked monarch. “There was a monster at Ellingham Shire?” “No!” said the Prince. He flushed red as he attempted to regain his composure. “We...lost our way. In the woods. It was getting to sundown, and we stopped at a castle...” “Whose castle?” asked the Queen, no less perplexed than her husband, but morecomposed. “I... do not know,” answered the prince, turning an alarming crimson. “It was a strangecastle in the forest.” Aurora, though never one to spare many words for Prince Bradley, felt compelled to ask,“You found a strange castle in the forest? That no one had heard about? And you went inside?” “We sought shelter, yes! There were... howls of wolves, and the princess was frightened.” Something like the hunger for books possessed the princess now, and she found in herselfan intense need to understand that the prince had never before inspired in her. “You had twentyarmed men and you were afraid of wolves?” “There were quite a lot of them!” the prince retorted. “From the sound. And yes, therewas perhaps no danger, but it seemed better to not let Janet be frightened. So we went into thecastle gate, which lay open. It seemed quite abandoned.” “So,” Aurora pressed, still fascinated, “you went into an abandoned castle in the middleof the forest that nobody knew was there even though it was right in between our two kingdoms?You realize that any military entity of that magnitude should be in the books somewhere, right?That didn’t seem a little suspicious?” “Clearly,” said the prince, struggling to speak calmly, “yes, it was, in retrospect, anenchanted castle of some sort! But the fact that none of my retinue ever thought to question itwould seem to indicate that there was something preventing us from considering that option!” He turned again to the king. “I will need a dozen men. I’ve already sent word to myfather for a dozen more. We will lead an assault on the monster and bring my princess home!” “As you’ve said!” the king agreed. “But not a dozen men, but twenty! We will leaveimmediately, and meet your father’s men on the road.” In the long discussion of logistic that followed, it was decided, over His Majesty’sprotests, that the king would have to stay behind; it was a matter of personal, not national,importance, and the princess’ husband should be the one to see it through.
When the discussion was done, and preparations underway, Prince Bradley took Auroraaside. “My apologies for my temper,” he said. “This is a passionate time for me.” “Yes,” she answered. “I’m sure you’re worried.” “Of course I am,” he said. His head slumped as he allowed himself at last a moment ofslipped composure. “The wedding was perfect for our kingdoms. We need to be united.” “Yes...” said Aurora, cautiously. The prince looked again into her eyes and said, “If we fail to bring your sister backunharmed, princess,” he said soberly, “our kingdoms will still need to be united. And I will stillneed an heir to seal it. I will not hold your condition against you in this.” After a stunned instant, Aurora – who had lain on her belly in the dust of a catacomb towatch with fascination the copulation (and subsequent cannibalism) of spiders – recoiled, andwalked quickly away. The prince rode out with his men, armor shining in the setting sun. They would marchwell into the night by torchlight, so went the plan, and meet up with the other kingdom’sreinforcements by noon the next day. Two days later, the riders were seen returning. They were seven. The princess was not among them. Again the prince stormed in, insisting on attention to his men’s wounds as he came tomeet the king. The monster, it seemed, had been too much for even their combined force. It hadshrugged aside their blades and torn the flesh of man and horse alike, until riders could no longerbe told entirely from their mounts. The king was distraught. The kingdom had many blessings, but a large military was notone of them – one of its blessings was, in fact, that one had never been needed. At last, Aurora,fearing for her father’s health – he seemed to have aged a decade in the last three days – insisted,“We can do nothing tonight, father. You should go sleep now – we will need all your strength inthe morning.” Turning to Prince Bradley, she said, “Cousin, if you will, I’d best see to yourwounds myself.”
The prince seemed confused. “My wounds?” “Yes, cousin,” she said. “Your men have been seen to. You must need yours cleaned andbound.” The prince shook his head. “I... I am not hurt.” Aurora opened her eyes in apparent amazement. “Near two-score of the men you leddead... and the rest wounded. And you’ve returned to us unhurt?” She held his gaze a momentlonger. “You are truly blessed, cousin.” She walked away, leaving king and prince alone with one another’s stares. The next morning, Aurora went among the soldiers as they strapped armor over theirbandages. She was familiar with the men by now, even the soldiers of the other kingdom, as shefound the treatment of wounds fascinating, and had made sure to be present for each change ofdressing. Once he had gotten used to the impropriety, the old surgeon was glad to have her –she’d been trained well in needlecraft, as befits a princess, and she never flinched when sewingup a wound. In fact, Aurora had always liked soldiers. She enjoyed their direct manner, their colorfullanguage, their stories – and while she wished they wouldn’t try to be so proper with her, she wastouched by the effort. And so when she came to one of the less severely wounded men, an old veteran namedCorbin (a name she liked), who had been in both battles against the monster, she addressed himcompanionably. “How are you today, Corby?” she asked. “Looking to get back in the thick ofit?” For when she asked, they were always, to a man, eager to get back in the thick of it. To her surprise, Corbin did not, in fact, look anything like eager. “What is it, soldier?”she asked, unwrapping his bandage and smelling for infection. “Two battles in one week enoughfor you?” He winced, either at her wrapping or her question. “Lady,” he answered cautiously, “I gowhere ordered. Always have. But the prince...” He shook his head. Aurora did not stop rewrapping. “The prince what, Corby?” she asked amiably, but didnot release her hold on his arm. He seemed to have reconsidered. Good old loyal Corby. “He wouldn’t listen!” piped up a young soldier who Aurora disliked. “Corby told us all.” “Enough!” Corbin shouted at the boy, and began to cough.
She tightened her grip on the old soldier’s damaged arm, just enough to regain hisattention; he gasped. “Corbin,” she said gently but firmly, “I think you need to decide which isbetter: lying for the prince… or telling the truth for me.” He told. Then she asked something more. He told her that, too. As the new war party assembled that day, Aurora slipped away. She went unnoticed, asslipping away was an art she had mastered long before. She rode the son of her old Arabian nag– both of which she’d refused to have gelded – and headed eastward. It wasn’t hard to find the home of the fairy of the East. She kept an address on record atthe castle, after all, in case there was a ball or some such. It was also the only home in itsneighborhood that was built into an unnaturally large elm. Aurora knocked. The door opened, and the fairy of the East herself stood in the door – seeming not a dayolder than she had at the celebration for Aurora’s birth. She looked her guest over, smiled andsaid cordially, “Come in my Princess! And tell what I can offer you today!” Aurora entered with suspicion. “How do you know me?” she asked as she sat in thefairy’s parlor. For she was wearing the plain riding clothes she preferred, with no mark ofroyalty. “You do have a face, princess,” the fairy admonished, amused. “Don’t talk to me in that patronizing tone,” Aurora demanded. “I haven’t seen you sincemy sister was born. I was five.” The fairy was nonplussed. “Ah, but I gave you that face,” she said. “And I recognize mywork. Tea?” “Thank you,” said the princess. She did not drink wine; tea was another story. “Some are all about the pert nose,” the fairy continued as she poured the tea. “I thinkthey’re overdone. Symmetry, though – symmetry is a classic. Never goes out of style.” “I’m not here to talk about my face,” Aurora bristled. “Well, good thing, that; I’ve a no-return policy,” said the fairy, sipping. “Anyway, it wasa good call, turns out – pert nose wouldn’t suit you at all.” “I came,” said Aurora, raising her voice slightly, “to learn about the castle thirty milesnorth of here. In the middle of the forest. That nobody remembers having heard about,somehow.”
The fairy put down her tea and rolled her eyes. “Oh, that place,” she sighed. “I just knewthat was going to come up sooner rather than later.” She looked levelly across the little tea table.“There’s a lot I can’t tell you, understand,” she said, looking the princess in the eye. “Rules.” “What rules?” “It’s not my drama, it’s hers,” the fairy insisted. “We don’t get involved in one another’sdrama. We’re regionally autonomous.” “Well, can you tell me who ‘she’ is?” Aurora asked, annoyed. “My sister in the North,” the fairy answered, seeming equally annoyed. “The bitch,” Aurora nodded. “They’re all bitches, my dear,” the fairy corrected. “All but me.” She smiled. “Ask anyone of us, you’ll get the same answer.” She frowned. “But yes, she’s the queen bee, alright. Nosense of her own unimportance.” Aurora was disconcerted. She was, against her better judgment, beginning to like thefairy. She didn’t feel comfortable liking someone who looked so grandmotherly. “It’s like this,” the fairy explained. “I don’t know what got into her at that time, and Idon’t care to know, but her little fit of pique with you wasn’t isolated. For about a decade there,she was likely to imagine offense at just about anything, and then fly right off the handle. Overher way is chock full of frog princes, sleeping princesses, knights turned to stone. Peasants arepretty safe, at least – she wouldn’t deign to touch anyone below landed gentry. “But that castle was the winner. She wanted total isolation. Couldn’t have the neighborscoming by to ask what the problem was, maybe lend a hand, that wouldn’t be a very alienating,would it? So, she wiped it out of everyone’s head, all the books, all the maps. Quite a trick,actually, and I have to respect it as far as craft and attention to detail, but really, how petty.” She put down her cup. “Well, my tea’s done. My story’s done. Unless there’s anythingelse I can help you with, I’ve an engagement this evening and I must prepare.” “Wait,” Aurora said, momentarily off balance. “So, that’s it? It’s all her doing? Just killthe witch and the monster evaporates and I get my sister back?” The fairy regarded her with a look of pity, or perhaps disappointment. “Do you reallyexpect it’s that simple?” she asked. “First off, for obvious reasons, I won’t recommend theassassination of local fairies. Second, you can’t; we don’t die that easily.” She paused, thenadded, “For better or for worse.” Aurora waited, then gestured expectantly. “Less cryptic, please.”
The fairy cocked her head a moment, and sighed again. “I’m starting to like you,” shesaid. “That’s against my better judgment, to like a princess; never fraternize with the clientele.Very well. What I mean is, we don’t pass away. We don’t get killed. We die by our own hand, ornobody’s.” “That’s a sweet deal,” said Aurora. “Maybe,” said the fairy with a shrug. “We go on until living’s lost all its pleasure, andthen have to make the weapon that kills us. Don’t you think there’s a blessing in being able tosimply go to sleep one night and never wake up?” Aurora considered this, but not for long. “No,” she said. “I’ll choose when I go. On myown.” She paused. “When Im done.” “Damn,” the fairy said, sadly. “I do like you. And nothing good ever comes of that. “Anyway,” she resumed, “do you expect everything you’ve done to undo itself when youdie? What makes you think it’s any different for us? Even if you could kill her, it wouldn’tchange anything she’s done.” Aurora stared into her teacup for some time. “Damn,” she said at last. She rose, quickly.“Thank you for the tea,” she said, and showed herself out. The fairy watched her go, cleaned up after the tea, and gamely got on with her own everafter. Aurora did not head home, of course. She headed north. She followed Corbin’s directionsto the place where he and the others had left the road. From there, their trail was easy to follow –shrubbery trampled and saplings hacked aside. She made good time; the path was made, and she wasn’t bogged down with armaments.Still, it was after dark when she found the castle. Which of course suited her tastes just fine. The carnage in the courtyard was incredible. She realized that most people would find ithorrifying; even to her warped aesthetic, it was disturbing. It was, as the survivors had said,difficult to tell where one body ended and another began. Horse and rider blended togetherobscenely, and amazingly. She waited at the gate, to see what would come. Nothing did. She stepped inside. Over bodies. Between curdled pools of blood that sat stagnant uponthe flagstones. She knew that some of these men (and, for that matter, some of the horses) she’dhave known all her life; she did not choose to look particularly closely.
She climbed the stairs to the main door, which she opened, carefully; she noted with bothsatisfaction and disappointment that it did not creak ominously. She was relieved to find torchesburning in the walls, because darkness of the soul did not increase her powers of vision. The traditional place to look for her sister would be the dungeon, assuming there was one– and it seemed a safe assumption of a monster-haunted, enchanted castle in the middle of theforest. There was nothing for it but to assume that her sister was, in fact, a prisoner. Thealternative was not yet worth contemplating, on a number of levels. So she looked for adescending stairway. Nothing menaced her as she found it and made her way downward. The design of thecastle was oddly intuitive to her, and she seemed to know what to expect from each turn. Shesimply went where she would have put a dungeon, and there it was. Now she called her sister’s name, softly. The sound of her own voice made her bolder,and she called more loudly. And she heard a soft sound, like a gasp. She walked toward the cell. There was Janet. In a far corner, away from the bars. Aurora could smell her before shegot to her, the stench of days of fear and sweat and waste and sickness. But not of decay; she wasalive. Aurora crossed to the cell, grasped the bars. Janet saw her at last and scrambled to her feet;she looked, to Aurora, much like she smelled. “Aurora!” she whispered frantically. “My God! Aurora! Can you get me out? If you can’tget me out, go, run away! Now! Tell father where I am!” “Calm down!” Aurora ordered. “He knows where you are. I’m here to get you out. Doyou know where the key…” She trailed off as her sister’s eyes widened and she stepped backtoward the wall. “…is.” She felt the darkness move behind her to the sound of pads on the stone floor. Breath likea hot wind blew down her back, blowing her hair about her. She licked her lips, and closed hereyes – but not in fear. Her emotion was like nothing she’d felt since nine years before, thatdelicious thrill of the darkness within first surging to fill her. But now she felt it outside of her;she wanted to let go the bars and spin around to finally have the sight of its face – even if it wereher last. But. “I came for my sister,” she said, evenly, to what lay behind. “She is Mine,” came the answer. Aurora trembled – again, not in fear, or not wholly infear. If a bear, and a wolf, and a bull could speak, together they might sound like this. It was thevoice of the darkness when it spoke in her dreams, unremembered until that moment. “I have come to ask for her release,” Aurora said.
“You ask nothing of Me!” the voice bellowed. Aurora hesitated. But as with the castle, she somehow knew where she need go. “I havecome to beg for her release.” “I am not charitable.” “To beg to ransom her, then.” “I have all I want.” She knew she must speak carefully. “Do you have what you want from her?” Breath and silence. “You can have it from me. I’m stronger than she is.” “I have you already.” Slowly, deliberately, Aurora released the bars, and turned. She registered impressionsmore than images: Horns. Tusk. Mane. Musk. Power. Size. Animal. Eyes… she looked into theeyes. They were fierce, but intelligent. Cunning. Eyes of black and gold. “You would have me by my choice,” she said. The voice growled, “I can have you *without* your choice.” She asked, softly, “Would it be the same?” The creature said nothing. Aurora’s hair and cloak fluttered in one hot breath. Two.Three. It moved in a blur, and she saw why she had found no key. There was no key. Thecreature simply lifted the iron gate of the cell with one paw, stepped in the cell, and with theother hauled out her sister, who screamed. I love you, Janet, Aurora thought, but shut up! It tossed her sister on the stone floor, and stood still. “Janet,” Aurora said calmly and firmly, “my horse is outside the gate. Follow the trailsouth until you meet the road, then go home. You’ll met with Father’s men soon, on their wayhere for you. Tell them you were released. Don’t tell them I’m here. Don’t ever tell them I’mhere.”
Her sister hesitated. Aurora was touched, and angry. “Go now!” With that, Janet turned and ran. Aurora knew her sister would hate herself for doing it.She did not care. “Now,” the creature commanded. “I’m your prisoner,” Aurora said. “When I know she’s away, I’ll be your prisonerwillingly.” She stood still, imagining her sister’s flight, allowed her time to get lost in the halls,panic at the sight of the dead in the moonlight, find the horse. She watched her sister, in hermind, go through several false attempts to mount the saddle, and finally ride off. Only when she exhaled did she notice that she’d been holding her breath. “Now,” sheagreed. She scarcely had time to blink. A steel grip was tight around her arm, lifting her off herfeet, hurling her into the cell without effort. She struck her shoulder against the wall, and fellonto the cot. When she looked up, the creature was gone, and she was alone. She felt dizzy at the creature’s strength. After a moment, she gingerly felt the now-tenderspot where it had grasped her arm. She ran her fingers around the forming bruise, and shivered. When she woke, there was food waiting – boiled eggs and blanched greens. Not a badmeal for a dungeon, she reasoned, and there was more than enough. Tea would have been nice,but what could one expect? She spent most of the day trying to recall her favorite poetry; second-tier work, not the pieces she knew by heart. The creature came back at what she guessed to be late afternoon. She stood to face it.Claws clinked on the bars with a sound like iron, and ivory tusks stood against its sable mane. Itseyes, as before, were furious and intelligent. “You will join Me for dinner,” it demanded. She blinked. Had Janet not been offered this? Then she realized that, yes, she had. Shehad, and had been too frightened; she’d stayed in the cell instead. Aurora looked inside herself.Was she afraid? She answered the creature, and herself. “Yes.” Again the creature lifted the iron gate and held it for her. She stepped out, shuddering asshe passed through its shadow. It let the gate clang back into place. “Up three floors,” it rumbledbehind her. “The dining hall is there.”
“I know,” she said as she began to walk. A paw landed on her shoulder, hard enough to make her wince, though she sensedenormous restraint. “How?” it demanded. She stared straight ahead, her heart pounding. “It seems the sensible place for it,” shesaid. She waited, conscious of claw tips touching her skin through the fabric of her cloak. The weight withdrew. She waited only a heartbeat before continuing to the stairs. The table was set for two. A whole roast animal lay on the long table. A bowl of moreblanched greens and one of fresh rolls completed the meal. The creature padded to its chair -- the huge one of reinforced wrought iron. The chairintended for her was wicker, with lace armrests. Black lace, she noted with approval. “Serve us,” it said. She began to fill a plate, then thought again and took up a platter, and began slicing thickslabs of the meat. She piled it high –- on intuition, she took care to cut the rarest portion –- andadded several rolls and most of the greens. She set the platter before the creature before fillingher own plate. She sat, and watched, eating as the creature ate. She was able to look at it now, in thelight of the dining hall, more clarity. It was more manlike than she’d first thought. The shoulderswere massive, however, making its back seem hunched. In fact, its whole body seemed veryfluid; she was certain it had padded on all fours sometimes, but it seemed perfectly suited tousing its hands. The face was lost behind the black mane and dark whiskers, against which thefierce upward tusks stood out like daggers. Its clothing was poorly made, but not barbaric. It occurred to her that there was probablyno tailor in the castle, and that its paws were not well made for needlework. This made her feel abit better about it, almost proud – she liked things that did what they could for themselves. (I’mthinking of it as mine, she realized. How interesting.) Though the creature made no attempt to use the silver, it did use its hands, rather than eatlike a dog. It ate all of the meat, a few of the rolls, and did not touch the greens. When it wasdone, it stood. “Walk with Me.” She stood and caught up with it as it padded down the hallway. Indeed, it did move nowon all fours, and now on two. It brought her to the door to the courtyard, and held the door forher.
“If you run, I will catch you,” it said. “I won’t run,” she said, as if an aside. It led her through the gory courtyard, now bright red in the sunset. Had it not been for theovergrowth and the carnage, she realized, it would have been beautiful. In the light, she could notnow shut out all the faces, and some she recognized; they stung her, but she did not allow it toshow in her carriage. Then they rounded a corner and she came face to sightless face with the groomsman whohad made the wedding night so enjoyable. There she stopped, and stared, and thought. The creature noticed. “Why do you look at this one?” “I knew him,” she answered. Silence told her it was not enough. She continued, “It justseems so very...” She trailed off. “Unjust?” the creature said, disdain thick in its voice. “Sad,” she finished. And walked on, feeling unpleasant. Because the word that paused on her tongue had not been “sad”; it had been “pitiful”.Here were the chest and arms she had thought thrillingly strong only nights ago. And now, paleand cold, they seemed so obviously weak. She felt something had been stolen from her once more. They went a little way from the courtyard through low-hanging treas. The creature had togo on all fours to get through, and the branches brushed Aurora’s face. When the creature halted,Aurora came round beside it, and gasped. The garden before her burned in the last light of the sunset. Tree after tree and shrub aftershrub, branches black and straight, held masses of garnet flowers. Roses; she would knaveknown if blind, from the smell alone. Perfectly kept, perfectly grown, yet with all the chaoticbeauty of a mass of wildflowers struggling against one another for the choicest patch. She looked for a long while, taking it in, trying to memorize each branch and stem as shedid the floorboards of the dance hall at her family’s castle. (I don’t think if it as my castleanymore, she thought. Also interesting.) “What is this?” she breathed at last. “This is what is most important,” the creature said. “You may look, but do not touch.”
She nodded, half to herself. To see it was enough. She felt bold. Rather, she felt the need to be bold. Felt it was owed to the place, and themoment, to be bold. “What shall I call you?” she asked. Did the creature’s breathing falter? It was hard to be sure. At last, it answered. “I am a Beast,” it said. “If you must call Me anything, call Me that.” After a time, he led her back to her cell. The next afternoon, they had dinner, and a walk. The corpses has been cleared from thecourtyard, though the blood remained. This time, among the roses, she asked the Beast if hewould like her to prepare the meals. The Beast agreed. Again she spent the night in her cell, but there were books; some she had read, some shehad not. She was let out earlier on the third day, to prepare the meal, and the castle’s larderamazed her – meats smoked and salted, game and sausages and hams. Pickled quail eggs,gherkins, cabbage and peppers crowded the shelves. Some of the meal was wormy, and shedisposed of it. She was not satisfied with the results of her cooking, but the Beast seemed to be. This time, while they walked, the Beast asked her what part of the grounds she favored.She answered that she loved best the rose bushes. Again she spent the night in her cell, but the cot had been replaced with a brocade couch,and the books she had already read had been replaced. The fourth day, she was let out in the late morning, and shown the vegetable garden. TheBeast told her to feed the chickens, gather the eggs, and pick what she thought best for thekitchen. When she brought the meal to the table, she found at her place a garnet rose. She looked at the rose a moment, and thanked the Beast. Politely. And ate her meal. They did not walk the grounds after dinner.
Again she spent the night in her cell. There were no books. The fifth day, she was let out at noon, and taken to the garden. The Beast told her to feedthe chickens and gather the eggs, and that he wanted turnips with dinner. When she brought the meal to the table, she found at her place a dozen garnet roses. Again, she thanked the Beast. Politely. And ate her meal. That night there was a rainstorm, and they did not walk the grounds. Again she spent the night in her cell. There was paper, quill and ink. There were nobooks. The sixth day, she was let out in the morning, and told to roam where she would, onceshe’d seen to the chickens. She went outside, and found that the rain had washed away the blood.When she went among the roses, she saw the Beast there, brooding. She did not interrupt. When she brought the meal to the table, she found at her place a hundred garnet roses. Again, she thanked the Beast. Politely. And ate her meal. That night, they did not walk the grounds. Again she spent the night in her cell. There was paper, quill and ink. There were books. On the seventh day of her captivity, she was let out in the morning, and told to roamwhere she would. When -- after she had seen to the chickens -- she went among the roses, shesaw the Beast there, brooding. She did not interrupt. When she brought the meal to the table, she found at her place a dozen black and thornystems. The flowers looked to have been bitten off. She did not thank the Beast. Instead, she smiled throughout the meal. When, after dinner, they walked the grounds, Aurora asked if the Beast would like her tosee to his clothing, as she had been trained well in needlecraft. He consented.
That night, the Beast showed her to a chamber on the second floor. There was a bed, anda desk, and paper, quill and ink. There was fabric, needles and thread. There was a wall of books.“This room is yours,” he growled. She bade the Beast good night. Over the next few weeks, Aurora made clothes for herself, and for the Beast -- practicaland comfortable wear, though she made him some finer things that she thought accented hisroughness. It took time for her to do all the sewing needed on even one of his huge garments, butshe found a peace in it that sewing had never provided before -- except, she noted, when sewingthe wounds of the soldiers he had mauled. Anyway, it pleased her to see him favor the clothesshed made. Their meals together became more talkative. The Beast entertained with interest herrambling musings on whatever came to mind during the day, and she soon found that he, thoughof few words, was wonderfully laconic, often reducing her narratives to something delightfullyconcise. One day, she noticed that the larder was running low. She told the Beast of this at dinner.“You go through a lot of meat,” she said. “Ive noticed its mostly game in the larder. You hunt,dont you?” The Beast did not wish to speak of it. “Then dont speak of it,” she replied. “But unless you do something about it, you soonwont be eating of it, either.” A few days later, the larder was again full. Over dinner that night, she asked the Beast, “Do you still expect me to run away?” The Beast seemed surprised. “Why do you ask?” “Because you leave the grounds in secret,” she answered. “When you hunt. Do youexpect Id run away if I knew when?” “No,” he answered. “You know I could hunt you down.” “I would like to come with you when next you hunt,” she said. “No.” That night, they did not walk the grounds.
It had taken her awhile to get used to her freedom to go where she wished. For the firstweek, she had treated her room much like her cell, remaining in after the door was shut at night,until called forth the next day. Then she realized that the Beast was not shy about ordering her tostay put, and that if he did not do so it was because he did not care where she went. After that shebegan to spend her days where she wished, often in the rose garden, and often with a book in herhand; she learned to keep one eye on sewing and the other on a book at the same time. And she began to stay up nights. She started listening for the sound of the Beast in thenight. Some nights he would pace the halls, and she found the soft thud of his passage reassuring.Some nights, there was no sound in the halls, and on those nights she found she could hear, iflistened closely, roars and screams from outside. He had not, she realized, forbidden her from exploring the grounds at night. So, onenight, when he had gone out (after again refusing to take her hunting with him), she decided tosee what they grounds looked like at night. She had not been out at night since she had come to the castle, and she had missed it. Shedelighted in the night air, and was shocked when she noticed that the moon was nearly full again,as she had last seen it; she had been at the castle almost a month. She heard a scream, as of an animal in terror, and went toward it along a game trail. Itsounded not far off, but she seemed to walk a long time. The woods were not supernaturallythick, and visibility was good, except for the shadows of the canopy. Eventually, she came to astream; looking down it, she saw a hunched figure, difficult to make out in the shadowymoonlight but unmistakable, she thought, in its size. It looked to be drinking from the stream,and she could smell blood. Again she felt the thrill of the darkness rise up in her, the need to seeits face, her Beast blooded and savage. She stepped into the cold stream and approached. She was not quiet. She was not trying to be. So before she reached the figure, it sensedher, and turned to face her. It rose up from all fours, and she froze as it stood clearly illuminatedin a beam of moonlight. It was not the Beast. So stupid, she thought as the bear dropped back to all fours, and bellowed. There was no use making a stand. She was weaponless (stupidstupidstupid), but shedoubted she could have done more than anger it anyway. Running, she suspected, would onlyexcite it further, and the trees, she noted, were too small to climb to safety. As the bear began to move toward her, she positioned itself on the other side of a slendertree.
The bear circled around, and so did she, trying to keep the tree between them. The beartried the other direction. They danced around the tree, the bear growing more frustrated but notthan giving up. At last, it rose up, put its front paws against the tree, and pushed, snapping thetree before it. Aurora cried out as she stepped out of the tree’s way. It was a cry not of fear, but ofsurprise, and frustration. She turned to run, and collided with the darkness. Instantly she knew him from his smell, his heat, his strength as he moved against her. In ablink, she forgot the bear, forgot everything as his arm surrounded her, crushed her against hisside, into the folds of the cloak she had made him. She had never been so close, and she closedher eyes against his smooth, coarse mane. He roared, and it rolled through her like thunder. She opened her eyes to see the bear backing away. She felt badly for it; it knew, shecould see, that it was too late. Reluctantly, she let herself fall away when the Beast tossed her aside to leap forward. Shestood transfixed as they clashed, unable to blink as they ripped one another with tooth and claw,muscle tearing muscle. It was the Beasts grace that stunned her. She had become used to his strength, but hadthought him lumbering as he padded about the castle halls. Now she saw that it had been ease,rather than clumsiness; he did not trade blows with the bear, which, for all the Beasts size,dwarfed him. He moved like a great cat, now on its back, now tearing at its belly. She saw at lasthow the Beast had cut so easily through her fathers men. The bear was powerful, and desperate,and its mouth and claws were red with the Beasts blood by the end, but that end was never inany doubt. When the bear no longer moved, the Beast stood over it on two feet, covered in blood. Heswayed, unsteady, then focused his eyes on her once more. “What are you doing out?” he demanded. “Walking,” she answered. “You should not be here!” he growled. “I dont need to hide from the dark,” she insisted. For several seconds, they traded glares. “Although,” she allowed, slowly, “I will be more careful to hide from bears.”
Together, they returned to the castle, where she insisted on cleaning the Beasts wounds. When she began to strip the bloody cloth from the Beasts arm, she noticed older scars,twisting like cords. Following them to up his arm, she watched, amazed, as they braidedtogether, twisting into shapes and runes. When the Beast realized what she was looking at, hepulled away and covered himself. “Theyre part of your curse,” she said. It was not a question. The Beast would not move. “May I see them?” she asked, putting a hand on the paw that covered the scars, andpulling gently. She might have been tugging on stone. “Id show you mine,” she ventured, “but its mostly inside.” She moved to look into hisgolden eyes, laid a hand on his hairy cheek and turned it to face her. “But look,” she said.“Here.” The Beast moved just his eyes, until they met hers. They made little jerking movements,as they traced the cobweb pattern around her pale irises, and the ring of gold like his own. Slowly, uncertain, he let her pull his paw aside. She began to trace the scars with herhand. She got as far as she could, then unlaced his shirt, peeled it back, and continued to trace theraised knots of skin across the massive stone of his chest. His scars were a pattern like a fracture,chaos written into flesh. She read them all, wrapping his body, a cuirass of pain. Eventually, she remembered his wounds, and cleaned them and wrapped them tight. Later, when she lay in her bed feeling the bruises on her ribs where he had crushed her tohim, she imagined they were his network of scars, and shuddered with pleasure. After that, he let her attend whenever he hunted. Other nights, he would lounge nearby asshe danced in the moonlight in the rose garden. She asked once if he would join her, and wassecretly pleased when he declined -– it was, he said, her dance, not his. Of course, she still saw to the routing -– the cooking, the cleaning, the gardening, and thechickens. In all this, she soon lost track of the time she had spent at the castle –- each day seemedto lead effortlessly into the next.
One day, she was reminded of the passage of time when she answered a terrible squabblecoming from the chickens. By the time she got there, what had been a young pullet on her arrivalwas strutting excitedly around the grounds, in full cock’s comb and plumage. She found this odd,and wondered briefly where the old rooster who ruled the yard could be to let this go on, beforeshe noticed that he had not, in fact, let anything of the kind; a short distance away, she spied thecrumpled form twitching in the dust. It was with some sadness that she picked up the torn and crippled bird. It had, in truth,been a thoroughly unpleasant creature – bullying and intimidating the other chickens, assaultingthe hens at any opportunity, and likely as not to viciously peck her ankles when she came togather eggs. Yet it had possessed a kind of crotchety dignity that she had respected. She shrugged, however, and wrung its neck as a final kindness. She mused, as shebrought it to the kitchen, over the sad way of chickens, and wondered if such viciousness as thatmorning’s would lessen her feelings of regret when it came time for the new cock to be usurped. She found it strange that she felt any animosity for the new master of the chicken yard.After all, there could be only one king at a time. She stopped, staring at the body of the fallen bird, lying now on the counter. Its dim eyes.Its torn... red... Crown. The cleaver rang as it struck the floor. She ran to find the Beast. She found him, as she had expected, tending the trees in the rose garden. He started at her approach, falling instinctively into a crouch. She slowed, and waited forhim to address her, as had become their custom. “What is wrong?” he demanded upon seeing her agitation. “My father is in danger,” she said. “I need to tell him.” The Beast paused only a moment, then returned to his roses. “No,” he said, his back toher. Aurora, stunned, did not speak for a moment. “The prince, who brought my sister here, isgoing to kill my father. Soon.”
The Beast paid no attention. She insisted, “They don’t understand what he is. They see things too... straight.” She laida hand on his elbow as she continued, “I will be ba—-” “You will STAY!” the Beast roared, turning on her in a flash. “You forget yourself! Youare MINE, and you will remain here as you are told!” Aurora blinked. She was afraid, though she did not know how much of the Beast’s anger,and how much for her father. “Leave Me now,” the Beast growled, turning once more to his roses. “Return to yourwork.” Numb, she lingered only a moment before she returned to her work. That night at dinner, lost in her concerns, she made no conversation, only speaking toanswer the Beast, and then with great politeness and concision, and ate sparingly. The next night, the Beast engaged her with unusually good humor, but she seemed morewithdrawn than earlier, and merely prodded her food without eating. When he announced theywould walk the grounds, she complied with grace, but not enthusiasm. The third night, she appeared gaunt, for she had not eaten that day, and she set no foodbefore herself. Still, she answered all that was asked of her, politely, but seemed listless andunfocused. That night, they did not walk the grounds; rather, the Beast commanded her to retireearly to her chamber and her bed. The afternoon of the fourth day, the Beast came to her chamber, for the chickens hadgone unfed and the fires had all died. He found her in her nightgown, sitting before her mirror,staring, worrying. When he demanded that she cease her protest, Aurora answered, looking at him in themirror, only by moving her eyes. “I mean no protest. I do not play such games. If I could keepfood down, I would eat. If I could sleep, I would do so. If you order me to see to the house, I willdo that, with what strength I have for it.” The Beast made no such order, but left, and sulked. That evening, Aurora came to dinner, which the Beast had set with food left from theprevious night. She did not eat, nor speak but a few words when asked.
At last the Beast made to leave, and paused at to the door. “Go to your father,” he said.“I release you from My service. Go now, and rest, and eat. When you have gathered yourstrength, leave and do not return. I am no longer your master.” With that, he left. Aurora, still vague of mind from distress and deprivation, took a moment to understand.When she did, she was too weak to cry her relief. Or her anguish. It was two days before she decided she was ready to travel. In this time, she did not seethe Beast. Though she could once more eat, she had no appetite for it; she forced herself to chewand swallow a meal, with distaste, three times each day. She spent much of each day sleeping,and much of the rest lying in bed, awake, watching the ceiling, or the covers pulled over herhead. Only concern for her father prompted her to rise. The morning of her departure, she dressed in the clothes she had brought, and took onlywhat else she had brought that night, some food and tea for the trip, and a small bundle of cloth.She went slowly through the main hall to the door, where she waited a moment. She walkedthrough the courtyard, which was in the full bloom of late summer and bore no trace of theslaughter she had seen on her first day. When she reached the castle gate, she paused. She was not stopped. She did not look back. The trail, too, was grown in, but not the fallen saplings, and it was easy enough to follow.It took longer without her horse, and she had not reached the road at sundown. She found ahedge in which to sleep. She needed no blanket in the warm night. She used her cloth bundle as apillow. She reached the road before noon the next day. She was given a ride the next day by aman with a wagon, who talked the entire trip about his business as a driver and his marriage offifteen years. She tried to consider this good fortune. At night, the driver put a tarp over the wagon, and they slept under that – he on his side,she on hers, a pile of beets between. She appreciated his manners, though she expected that bythat time he had begun to find her disturbing. The next evening, they reached the castle. She offered the driver coin, which wascheerfully refused. For the first time in over a week, Aurora smiled.
Servants recognized her before she reached the castle. By the time they’d brought her in,the king and queen were waiting. As they stumbled forward to embrace their daughter, theyfound that, for the moment, their months of questions and fears -– and lifetimes of strict royaldecorum –- really didn’t amount to much after all. For Aurora’s part, things were apparently working well that day, all things considered,and it felt quite nice. She would not say, of course, where she had been. Merely that she had gone to consultthe fairy – which was a very proper thing for a princess to do in extreme circumstances – andthat she had then gone on a journey based upon what she had learned from that consultation. She told them that she was happy to hear that her sister been returned, and she wanted togo see her immediately. They begged her to stay awhile, and said that they would send for theher sister at once, who had been worried sick for Aurora’s sake ever since her return. Shethought only a moment before agreeing. A few days later, Prince Bradley and Princess Janet arrived with their retinue. Janet wasoverjoyed to see her sister, weeping -– and, to the confusion of many, apologizing -– profuselyuntil Aurora told her firmly to stop. The prince greeted her with a great show of joy, and thecouple took the occasion to make the announcement -– obvious though it was -– of the princess’expectant motherhood. The celebration was begun at once. A massive avocado harvest wasordered, enormous quantities of the region’s tasty (but not particularly distinctive) wines werereadied, and a great hunt contest planned, at which the king and prince made plans to ridetogether. Late that night, Aurora could not sleep. The return to her family had helped ease thenumbness she had carried since leaving the Beast’s castle, but with that thaw came the pain thatmade her nerves want to burn into scars just for the strength to hold their weight. As she hadalways done at such times, she found her way to the ballroom. She shut the door behind her, andin the blackness began to dance against the pressure in her lungs that wanted to become ascream. So she screamed with her body, a terpsichorean song to the music of her blood in hertemples, the tension twanging in her spine. She sang with it, each movement brutal, beating somerebel note back into the theme of her soul, until the discord had taken on a shape that sherecognized as herself. She took joy in working the anger and pain until they were too exhaustedto demand her attention. Until she could sleep without dreams. The morning of the hunt, Aurora surprised all by announcing that she, too would ridewith her father and the prince, having developed a recent appreciation. Though the prince
protested that it was far too dangerous, and she was still looking frail, she pointed out that sincethe celebration was given partly in honor of her return, it seemed strange to deny her choice inthe matter. The king found this persuasive and he, being the king, was really the only voice thatmattered. For the hunt, Aurora wore the most practical hunting clothes a princess could get awaywith at a formal celebration. She was pleased to be mounted again on her half-Arabian, towardwhich she now felt a conspiratorial fellowship. She had only ever joined the hunts half-heartedly before, as an obligation. This time,however, she launched herself after the hounds, her blood loud in her ears; she had to forceherself to let the others catch up. Whenever she glanced toward the prince, his eyes darted away.She was enjoying complicating matters for him, but didn’t need him becoming desperate. They took their lunch at midday, gathering and leashing the hounds. Aurora spread theblanket, while the prince, whose horse had been carrying the picnic, brought it down. As he setthe basket before the king, Aurora asked him, “Are you alright, cousin? You look queer.” For, indeed, the prince had grown pale and, and sweat glistened on his brow. He lookedsharply at her, then to the king, and said, “No! No, I’m not quite right. I was, in fact, about tosay, my appetite is not what it should be. I think that the excitement of the day has gotten to me.” “I’m so sorry,” said Aurora, concerned. “You should rest, then. I, however, amfamished.” In terrible breach of etiquette, she reached in front of the king and into the basket.The prince’s eyes flashed when she gasped in shock. “There’s a hole!” She exclaimed, feeling about. “I hope nothing’s fallen out.” She looked at the prince as he suddenly exhaled. “Are you certain we shouldn’t headhome, cousin?” she asked. “You don’t look at all well. I’m sure the prize isn’t worth yourhealth.” The prince searched her face, but his eyes found only concern. “No,” he said at last. “No,I’ll be alright.” And indeed, color seemed already to be rushing back to his cheeks. He still did not touch the picnic, and the king and princess had nearly finished when thehounds began to bay. “Sounds like they’ve caught scent of something,” the king said, starting to rise. “Let’s getmoving before it’s gone; we can come back for this later.” Aurora set loose the hounds while the men mounted up. “The horn!” the king said in excitement. “Sound the horn!”
The prince reached into the pouch beside him on his saddle, then cried out and jerkedback his hand in surprise. His startled mount reared, throwing him from the saddle. The king, fullof concern, began to dismount; Aurora calmed the horse, as the prince stared in horror at hishand. “You were more creative than I’d expected.” Aurora told him as she carefully unbuckledthe horn pouch. “I was looking for poison in the _food_.” She tossed the pouch onto the ground,away from the skittish horses. The king gasped as the adders slithered out and away like a flash. “Snakes are easy to handle,” she told the men. “You just have to not let them get theirteeth in.” She turned to her father, and explained, as the prince cried and sucked frantically at hishand, “The important thing is knowing where they hide.” The prince’s body was sent with a royal escort to his father’s castle. His wife, beingpregnant with his heir, remained behind lest the strain, already terrible, be too much. Thebereaved royal parents were told, truthfully, that he had been bitten during the hunt. They were also told, with some satisfaction, that the treacherous serpent responsible hadbeen killed. After the disposal, Aurora bid her family farewell. Tears were shed, smiles had throughthem, thanks and pardon given in roughly equal measure. She took little with her beyond herclothes, her horse, and a basket of food. Out of affection, and at his insistence, she let Corbinescort her. When the maid had gone to clean her mistress’ erstwhile chamber, she didn’t know whatto make of the dozen dried, thorny stems she found under the pillow, and threw them away. They arrived next day, and she said farewell to Corbin just outside the gate. He tried, ofcourse, to convince her to return with him, but she silenced him with a firm but not entirelyunaffectionate look, and favored him with a kiss on his leathery cheek before she walked herhorse inside to look for the Beast. She didn’t have to go far. He lay sprawled on the stones of the courtyard. She couldn’thelp thinking of the old, beaten rooster lying torn apart in the chicken yard, and she held herbreath as she ran to him. Closer, she saw that the ground had been gouged, flagstones torn out. The Beast’s pawswere caked with blood. She knelt and saw that his forearms had deep, ragged punctures.
She remembered a mangled, three-legged fox that her father had brought back from ahunt. He had told her -– much to her sympathy -– that it must have gnawed off a leg to escape atrap. She was unused to tears; stoic endurance was her usual reaction to great distress –- or,more rarely, panic and anxiety. Now, she marveled to notice them spilling down her cheeks. Shetouched them in disbelief, tasted them, fascinated. They fell upon the Beast. She reached out to wipe them from his wounds, when his armmoved like a snake, his paw wrapping painfully around her wrist. He raised his head, and she watched his eyes focus. “You came back,” he said, his growllike a purr. She smiled. “Of course I did,” she said, as he relaxed the grip on her arm. He frowned. “I told you not to return!” he snarled. “You also said you were no longer my master,” she retorted. “So I’ll do what I want, andI want to be here.” He considered this. “And if I told you that you were Mine again?” “Then I would be yours.” “And if I then told you to go away, and never come back?” She looked him in the eye, managing defiance through acquiescence. “Then I would goaway,” she said, “and never come back.” He looked into her eyes. Neither they, nor her voice, left room for doubt. “You are Mine,” he told her. “I know,” she said. He matched her gaze. “Go,” he said. She matched his gaze. “Go,” he said. “Where I go.” “Yes,” she said. One listening could not tell whether it was capitulation, or confirmation.
She frowned a bit. “You can command me to stay or go,” she said, “but you can’tcommand me to love you. You know that.” The Beast said nothing. “I don’t have to love you. I don’t have to love anyone.” The Beast grunted. Or purred. She wasn’t sure, and it didn’t matter. He understood. “I’m choosing to love you,” she said. “Because I want to. I don’t promise to love onlyyou, or to love you forever. I don’t promise anything at all. Is that enough for you?” He seemed to think about it a long time, then grunted, “It’s not your promises I want.” “And I don’t need you to love me, either,” she added for the hell of it. “Love is hard to know,” said the Beast. “Hard to know… whether I do or not.” “Handy, then,” she said, tousling his mane. It was, she decided, a good mane for tousling.She breathed in the night air. It was going well, she thought. Then the glitter appeared. In the gloom, a little glitter went a long way. It started small, and within seconds therewas quite a lot of it, fearfully bright. Then it began to fade, as from the center stepped, of course,the fairy of the North. She spared Aurora not a glance, but walked to the Beast, and beamed down on him. Itwas not a kind smile, nor really cruel; it was a very superior smile. “Well done!” she announced.“Not the way I’d intended it, but good enough. “I saw the other girl who came. Innocent, that one; she could have saved you, if you’d lether. But you’ve earned the love of this one. A love without promises or conditions. A for nowlove. But it’s the best you could do, apparently. “So I keep my word,” she said, “and redeem you now.” The Beast watched warily frombetween narrowed eyes as she raised her wand above her head. “By the power of the northern light,” she began as the wand grew bright, “I grant you re—” She stopped, as her eyes grew wide. The Beast’s ears pricked at the sudden silence. He watched the wand dim, and fall fromthe fairy’s nerveless fingers. Her knees buckled, and she fell to them. Aurora stood behind her,and leaned forward to speak into a pointed ear.
“You duplicitous bitch,” she said evenly. “You’ve played with him enough.” The fairy slid down the length of Prince Bradley’s sword to lie, astonished, on theground. “He is not your clay,” said Aurora. “You broke him, and that made him perfect. I won’tlet you touch him now. “How long ago,” she asked, “did you convince yourself that the light is right, and thedarkness is wrong? Did you really believe it, or was it just an excuse to use in front of otherpeople?” The fairy’s aristocratic features twisted in a sneer. “You stupid girl,” she hissed. “Youhad the prize and you threw it away. That can’t kill me,” she spat through lips beginning to foamred. “I’ll turn you into a palsied mouse for this. And that one into a hungry, eunuch cat.” Aurora tilted the red blade. “Do you think I need this?” she asked quietly. “This was justto get your attention.” She tossed it away to clang against the flagstones, then knelt to look thefairy in the eye, taking her by the hair as she continued, “Do you recognize me? Your sister gaveme this face.” The fairy’s smirk melted into uncertainty, then into dawning recognition. “You made the weapon that would kill you twenty-five years ago,” Aurora explained asshe placed her free hand around the fairy’s throat. “All the murderous intent you brought againsta helpless child; it’s grown up inside me. You can have it back now.” As she squeezed, thedarkness in her surged. She let it play. When it was done, Aurora stood, her darkness still there, but in its place. She turned to the Beast. “Can you get up?” The Beast heaved onto all fours. He wobbled, but became steady. “Well I’ve killed something tonight,” Aurora said. “But there’s no way I’m eating it.Feel like hunting?” In answer, the Beast reached out a paw, grabbed her roughly and tossed her upon hisback. He roared as she twisted his mane around her fists, and she shut her eyes in delight as hesped like a wounded lion across the hills. The moon was rising. Rising on them both. She knew it was going to be a wonderful night.