Once, there was a blessed kingdom. The sun was always shining, the weather always warm, the highways expansive and well-maintained, and the produce always fresh. Avocados grew like wild nettles along the highway, and the people smiled flawless white smiles.
One day, the cup of this kingdom was filled to overflowing when the king and queen were delivered a daughter. She was beautiful, with golden hair and azure eyes, and she never cried, only laughed. They named her – appropriately, it seemed – Aurora.
When the day of the celebration came, the courtyard was filled by people wishing the princess well and drinking the royal wine and eating the royal sushi. The king and queen didn’t pay much mind to the throngs, of course, but rather to the various visiting dignitaries. Most important was the royal family of the neighboring kingdom – to the eldest son of which they were planning to arrange their new daughter’s hand – and the four neighboring fairies.
The fairy of the East was first to show, in her chariot drawn by doves – a spectacular sight, because, trim though she was, it took quite a lot of doves.
The fairy of the South arrived, her carriage pulled by giant seahorses temporarily enchanted with legs – impressive creatures, if rather confused.
The fairy of the West arrived carried by her retinue of a thousand walking oaks – which settled themselves in to provide much-needed shade.
The royal parents anxiously awaited the arrival of the fairy of the North. But the evening wore on, and eventually the time to present the gifts to the princess could be held up no longer.
The usual gifts were on hand – a flock of mute swans, bejeweled combs, gilded spinning wheels with no sharp corners, and a fine Arabian steed that would be past its prime before the princess was old enough to 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 comely all of her days.” And the princess’ hair shone more brightly, and her eyes sparkled like polished sapphire.
The fairy of the West gave her gift: “May she always be full of joy and laughter.” And the princess’ giggles became like the peal of silver bells.
Just then, with much fanfare, the long and shiny black carriage of the fairy of the North pulled up. Everyone stood whispering as the fairy got out, her expression as always cold and haughty, her latest nose held aloft.
The king and queen tried to tell themselves that she’d just been fashionably late – and it was just like her to make 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 to the front of the line of fairies, and began, “Life is a treacherous thing, isn’t it?” she began. “So full of disappointments. I know I was disappointed not to have been invited.”
For, unbeknownst to anyone, the messenger dispatched with the invitation had not been as reliable as they’d believed. His body would later be discovered nude in an enchanted 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 bring a gift.” She smiled a cold and radiant smile. “I would not have the child suffer the woes of this life. On her sixteenth year, she will fall down dead. With a lovely smile on her face.”
And with that, she placed a darkness deep within the child, that would wake in sixteen years to consume her.
The guards that rushed after the fairy were turned into swine, and statues, and statues of swine, 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, but they replied that they could not. The fairy of the South, however, said, “I cannot undo it, but I know a weakness to the spell she used. It relies on the child’s pure soul – the darkness will emerge suddenly, to shatter her like crystal. I would not choose this, but if you wish, I can keep her from 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 else, they were sure, could be dealt with, using only love and patience and a castle full of servants.
“Very well, then,” said the fairy. Turning to the child, she said, “I grant you flaws. I grant you damage. I grant that your facets will never meet perfectly, nor anything fill you completely.”
The king and queen saw no change about the child, and worried that the gift had not taken. But the fairies, who could see into her soul, all agreed that what each had said, had come to pass. And indeed, upon close examination of her eyes, there could be seen a faint pattern of fracture, like the web of a spider.
As the child grew, she was indeed beautiful. But she herself did not see it when she looked into a glass; her reflection looked wrong to her, as in a broken mirror. So she took little care how her royal gowns looked, and often went with something comfortable, or which suited her cracked aesthetic.
She laughed much, but at strange times – at thoughts that passed through her labyrinthine mind, or where others saw only cause for pity, or disgust. She would find people looking at her, not knowing what there was to laugh at, and when she tried to explain, they only looked more strangely.
Some days, things worked well, and she was very happy, and the love she was given made her feel warm inside, and she was able to love back like anyone else. Other days, they did not go so well, and she found herself caught in panics, and the pressure of the love made her want to twist around in her own skin, and bite, and she would go off alone to calm herself.
And always there was within her some unfinished space, that seemed to demand filling. It became impossible to prevent her following through on a thought to exploring some new place or idea. She would spend hours each day – or days of each week, if she got the chance – in the royal library, drinking in the books as if trying to quench some terrible, bottomless thirst, adding pieces endlessly to herself.
Despite misgivings, the king and queen eventually had another child, also a daughter. At her celebration, they hired a company of fairy hunters for security, but the northern fairy did not deign to appear. The more cautiously named Princess Janet grew up, golden of hair and blue of eye, tall and laughing and innocent and undamaged. And the sisters, different as they were, loved one another like… well, sisters. Frankly, the elder did not mind having some of her mother’s attention to princessly education shifted onto someone else; it gave her more time to read, and to explore.
Aurora was in the library on her sixteenth birthday, having snuck away from the celebrations to finish a chapter on a brand new book on the Dignity of Man. She was compiling a mental 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 marveled at the new sensation; it felt dangerous, but not at all unpleasant, or at least only the shadow unpleasantness of the most delightful sort of fear. She walked down the hallway and had just been spotted by a servant, who rushed to say that her presence was demanded at the party, when the what waited within her burst.
Aurora gasped as the darkness that had lain in her heart since infancy rushed forth. It tried to fill her, shatter her mind, crush her heart into stillness. But it found that it only flooded an endless branching of flaws and furrows, poured itself into the boundless space that had claimed most 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 as snow; 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 darkness there, and felt that it suited her.
In the face of this dark turn in their already odd daughter, the king and queen decided to offer their younger daughter’s hand to the neighboring Prince Bradley, in her stead. This breach of protocol drew no complaint from the royal neighbors; they had met the growing Aurora, with her 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. She wished her sister well, and thought anyway that marriage would interfere with her many interests. There were adventures to be had in the abandoned ruins in the hills. She developed a fascination for the royal armory, and used her royal status, dark looks and some mutually enjoyable kisses to coax a number of the younger and more comely guards into secretly showing her the use of blades. 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 long ago learned every inch of the chamber, and she could go anywhere just with the measurements her body took as it moved. She didn’t need music, though she would sometimes hum; there was no musician in the kingdom that could – or, likely, would – play the strange, dark melodies that she carried in her head. She danced for the music inside of her, and for the satisfaction of motion, her body cutting prayers into space.
And while she danced, she remained outside of time, and could explore the darkness within 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 her sister’s wedding arrived. The marriage of the two kingdoms was an event surpassing even the births of the princesses. Aurora attended, was happy for her sister, and took much pleasure in the dancing, the shocked looks she engendered, and one of the groomsmen. The royal couple departed the next day for their honeymoon, while Aurora’s family and their 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 drew near, 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 and took 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 more composed.
“I… do not know,” answered the prince, turning an alarming crimson. “It was a strange castle 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 herself an intense need to understand that the prince had never before inspired in her. “You had twenty armed men and you were afraid of wolves?”
“There were quite a lot of them!” the prince retorted. “From the sound. And yes, there was perhaps no danger, but it seemed better to not let Janet be frightened. So we went into the castle gate, which lay open. It seemed quite abandoned.”
“So,” Aurora pressed, still fascinated, “you went into an abandoned castle in the middle of 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, an enchanted castle of some sort! But the fact that none of my retinue ever thought to question it would seem to indicate that there was something preventing us from considering that option!” He turned rom her, to the king. “I will need a dozen men. I’ve already sent word to my father for a dozen more. We will lead an assault on the monster and bring my princess home!”
“As you’ve said!” the king agreed. “And not a dozen men, but twenty! We will leave immediately, and meet your father’s men on the road.”
In the long discussion of logistic that followed, it was decided, over His Majesty’s protests, 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 Aurora aside. “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. “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 back unharmed, princess,” he said soberly, “our kingdoms will still need to be united. And I will still need 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 to watch with fascination the copulation (and subsequent cannibalism) of spiders – recoiled, and walked quickly away.
The prince rode out with twenty men, armor shining in the setting sun. They would march well into the night by torchlight, so went the plan, and meet up with the other kingdom’s reinforcements 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 to meet the king. The monster, it seemed, had been too much for even their combined force. It had shrugged aside their blades and torn the flesh of man and horse alike, until riders could no longer be told entirely from their mounts.
The king was distraught. The kingdom had many blessings, but a large military was not one 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 in the morning.” Turning to Prince Bradley, she said, “Cousin, if you will, I’d best see to your wounds myself.”
The prince seemed confused. “My wounds?”
“Yes, cousin,” she said. “Your men have been seen to. You must need yours cleaned and bound.”
The prince shook his head. “I… I am not hurt.”
Aurora opened her eyes in apparent amazement. “Near forty of the men you led dead… and the rest wounded. And you are unhurt?” She held his gaze a moment longer. “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 their bandages. She was familiar with the men by now, even the soldiers of the other kingdom, as she found the treatment of wounds fascinating, and had made sure to be present for each change of dressing. 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 sewing up a wound.
In fact, Aurora had always liked soldiers. She enjoyed their direct manner, their colorful language, their stories – and while she wished they wouldn’t try to be so proper with her, she was touched by the effort.
And so when she came to one of the more lightly wounded, an old veteran named Corbin who had been in both battles against the monster, she addressed him companionably. “How are you today, Corby?” she asked. “Looking to get back in the thick of it?” 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 enough for you?”
He winced, either at her wrapping or her question. “Lady,” he answered cautiously, “I go where ordered. Always have. But the prince…” He shook his head.
Aurora did not stop rewrapping. “The prince what, Corby?” she asked amiably, but did not 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 his attention; he gasped. “Corbin,” she said gently but firmly, “I think you need to decide which is better: 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, as slipping away was an art she had mastered long before. She rode her Arabian – who, like Corby, was older now but by no means out of fighting shape – and headed eastward.
It wasn’t hard to find the home of the fairy of the East. She kept an address on record at the castle, after all, in case there was a ball or some such. Also, it was the only home in its neighborhood that was built into the trunk of an unnaturally large tree. Aurora knocked.
The door opened, and the fairy herself stood in the door – seeming not a day older than she had at the celebration for Aurora’s birth. She looked her guest over, smiled and said 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 the fairy’s parlor. For she was wearing the plain riding clothes she preferred, with no mark of royalty.
“You do have a face, princess,” the fairy admonished, amused.
“Don’t patronizing me,” Aurora demanded. “I haven’t seen you since my sister was born. I was three.”
The fairy was nonplussed. “Ah, but I gave you that face,” she said. “And I recognize my work. 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 think they’re overdone. Symmetry, though – that’s 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 was a 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 miles north 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 knew that 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.”
“It’s not my drama, it’s hers,” the fairy insisted. “We don’t get involved in one another’s drama. 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 any one of us, you’ll get the same answer.” She frowned. “But yes, she’s the queen bee, alright. No sense of her own unimportance.”
Aurora was disconcerted. She was, against her better judgment, beginning to like the fairy. 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 I don’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. Over her way is chock full of frog princes, sleeping princesses, knights turned to stone. Peasants are pretty 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 neighbors coming 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 anything else 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 kill the 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 really expect it’s that simple?” she asked. “First off, for obvious reasons, I won’t recommend the assassination of local fairies. Second, you can’t; we don’t die that easily.” She paused, then added, “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,” she said. “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, or nobody’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, and then have to make the weapon that kills us. Don’t you think there’s a blessing in being able to simply 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 my own.” She paused. “When I’m 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 you die? What makes you think it’s any different for us? Even if you could kill her, it wouldn’t change 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 ever after.
Aurora did not head home, of course. She headed north. She followed Corbin’s directions to the place where he and the others had left the road. From there, their trail was easy to follow – shrubbery trampled and saplings hacked down.
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 it horrifying; 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 together obscenely, 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 congealing upon the flagstones. She knew that some of these men (and, for that matter, some of the horses) she’d have 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 both satisfaction and disappointment that it did not creak ominously. She was relieved to find lamps burning along 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 the forest. There was nothing for it but to assume that her sister was, in fact, a prisoner. The alternative was not yet worth contemplating, on a number of levels. So she looked for a descending stairway.
Nothing menaced her as she found it and made her way downward. The design of the castle was oddly intuitive to her, and she seemed to know what to expect from each turn. She simply 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, soi she called more loudly, and 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 she got to her, the stench of days of fear and sweat and waste and sickness. But not of decay; she was alive. 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 and somewhat stagily. “My God! Aurora! Can you get me out? If you can’t get 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. Do you know where the key…” She trailed off as her sister’s eyes widened and she stepped back toward the wall. “…is.”
She felt the darkness move behind her to the sound of pads on the stone floor. Breath like a hot wind blew down her back, blowing her hair about her. She licked her lips, and closed her eyes – but not in fear. Her emotion was like nothing she’d felt since nine years before, that delicious 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 were her last.
“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 in fear. If a bear, and a wolf, and a bull could speak, she thought, together they might sound like this. It was the voice 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 have come 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 impressions more than images: Horns. Tusk. Mane. Musk. Power. Size. Animal. Eyes… she looked into the eyes. 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. The creature simply lifted the iron gate of the cell with one paw, stepped in the cell, and with the other 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 trail south until you meet the road, then go home. You’ll meet with Father’s men soon, on their way here for you. Tell them you were released. Don’t tell them I’m here. Don’t ever tell them I’m here.”
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 prisoner willingly.” 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 her mind, 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,” she agreed.
She scarcely had time to blink. A steel grip was tight around her arm, lifting her off her feet, hurling her into the cell without effort. She struck her shoulder against the wall, and fell onto 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-tender spot 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 bad meal 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. Its eyes, 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. She had, 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 as she passed through its shadow. It let the gate clang back into place. “Up three floors,” it rumbled behind 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 sensed enormous restraint. “How?” it demanded.
She stared straight ahead, her heart pounding. “It seems the sensible place for it,” she said. 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 more blanched greens and one of fresh rolls completed the meal.
The creature padded to its chair – the huge one of reinforced wrought iron. The chair intended 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 thick slabs of the meat. She piled it high –- on intuition, she took care to cut the rarest portion –- and added several rolls and most of the greens. She set the platter before the creature before filling her own plate.
She sat, and watched, eating as the creature ate. In the light of the dining hall, she was able to examine it more clarity. It was more manlike than she’d first thought. The shoulders were massive, however, making its back seem hunched. In fact, its whole body seemed very fluid; she was certain it had padded on all fours sometimes, but it seemed perfectly suited to using its hands. The face was lost behind the black mane and dark whiskers, against which the fierce upward tusks stood out like daggers.
Its clothing was poorly made, but not barbaric. It occurred to her that there was probably no tailor in the castle, and that its paws were not well made for needlework. This made her feel a bit better about it, almost proud – she liked things that did what they could for themselves.
I’m thinking of it as mine, she thought. Interesting.
Though the creature made no attempt to use the silver, it did use its hands, rather than eat from its plate like a dog. It ate all of the meat, a few of the rolls, and did not touch the greens. When it was done, it stood.
“Walk with Me.”
She stood and caught up with it as it padded down the hallway. Indeed, it did move now on all fours, and now on two. It brought her to the door to the courtyard, and held the door for her.
“If you run, I will catch you,” it said.
“I won’t run,” she said, as if an aside. Indeed, she had not considered it.
It led her through the gory courtyard, now bright red in the sunset. Had it not been for the overgrowth and the carnage, she realized, it would have been beautiful. In the light, she could not now shut out all the faces, and some she recognized; they stung her, but she did not allow it to show in her carriage.
Then they rounded a corner and she came face to sightless face with the groomsman who had 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 just seems so very…” She trailed off.
“Cruel?” 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, pale and cold, unable to hold anything at all. She felt that something had been stolen from her.
They went a little way from the courtyard through low-hanging treas. The creature had to go 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 after shrub, branches black and straight, held masses of garnet flowers. Roses; she would knave known if blind, from the smell alone. Perfectly kept, perfectly grown, yet with all the chaotic beauty 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 she had the floorboards of the dance hall at her family’s castle.
I don’t think if it as my castle anymore, 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 the moment, 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 the courtyard, though the blood remained. This time, among the roses, she asked the Beast if he would 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 she had not.
She was let out earlier on the third day, to prepare the meal, and the castle’s larder amazed 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 she disposed 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. The Beast told her to feed the chickens, gather the eggs, and pick what she thought best for the kitchen. 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 feed the 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 no books.
The sixth day, she was let out in the morning, and told to roam where she would, once she’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, the door was unlocked, and she was told to roam where she would. When – after she had seen to the chickens – 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 dozen black and thorny stems. 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 to see 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, and a 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 – practical and comfortable wear, though she also made him some finer things that she thought accented his roughness. It took time for her to do all the sewing needed on even one of his huge garments, but she found a peace in it that sewing had never provided before – except, she noted, when sewing the wounds of the soldiers he had mauled. Anyway, it pleased her to see him favor the clothes she’d made.
Their meals together became more talkative. The Beast entertained with interest her rambling musings on whatever came to mind during the day, and she soon found that he, though of few words, was wonderfully laconic, often reducing her narratives to something delightfully concise.
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. “I’ve noticed it’s mostly game in the larder. You hunt, don’t you?”
The Beast did not wish to speak of it.
“Then don’t speak of it,” she replied. “But unless you do something about it, you soon won’t 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 you expect I’d 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.
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 first week, 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 to stay put, and that if he did not do so it was because he did not care where she went. After that she began to spend her days where she wished, often in the rose garden, and often with a book in her hand; 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 the night. 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, if listened closely, roars and screams from outside.
He had not, she realized, forbidden her from exploring the grounds at night. So, one night, when he had gone out (after again refusing to take her hunting with him), she decided to see 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. She delighted 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. It sounded not far off, but she seemed to walk a long time. The woods were not supernaturally thick, and visibility was good, except for the shadows of the canopy. Eventually, she came to a stream; looking down it, she saw a hunched figure, difficult to make out in the shadowy moonlight 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 see its 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 sensed her, and turned to face her. It rose up from all fours, and she froze as it stood clearly illuminated in 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 she doubted she could have done more than anger it anyway. Running, she suspected, would only excite 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 slender tree.
The bear circled around, and so did she, trying to keep the tree between them. The bear tried the other direction. They danced around the tree, the bear growing more frustrated but not giving up. At last, it rose up, put its front paws against the tree, and pushed, snapping the trunk and stepping over the stump.
Aurora cried out as she stepped out of the tree’s way. It was a cry not of fear, but of surprise, 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 a blink, she forgot the bear, forgot everything as his arm surrounded her, crushed her against his side, into the folds of the cloak she had made him. She had never been so close, and she closed her 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, she could see, that it was too late.
Reluctantly, she let herself fall away when the Beast tossed her aside to leap forward. She stood transfixed as they clashed, unable to blink as they ripped one another with tooth and claw, muscle tearing muscle.
It was the Beast’s grace that stunned her. She had become used to his strength, but had thought 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 Beast’s size, dwarfed him. He moved like a great cat, now on its back, now tearing at its belly. She saw at last how the Beast had cut so easily through her father’s men. The bear was powerful, and desperate, and its mouth and claws were red with the Beast’s blood by the end, but that end was never in any doubt.
When the bear no longer moved, the Beast stood over it on two feet, covered in blood. He swayed, 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 don’t 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 Beast’s wounds.
When she began to strip the bloody cloth from the Beast’s arm, she noticed older scars, twisting like cords. Following them to up his arm, she watched, amazed, as they braided together, twisting into shapes and runes. When the Beast realized what she was looking at, he pulled away and covered himself.
“They’re 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, and pulling gently.
She might have been tugging on stone.
“I’d show you mine,” she ventured, “but it’s mostly inside.” She moved to look into his golden 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 her hand. She got as far as she could, then unlaced his shirt, peeled it back, and continued to trace the raised 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 to him, 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 as she danced in the moonlight in the rose garden. She asked once if he would join her, and was secretly pleased when he declined – it was, he said, her dance, not his.
Of course, she still saw to the routine – the cooking, the cleaning, the gardening, and the chickens. In all this, she soon lost track of the time she had spent at the castle – each day seemed to lead effortlessly into the next.
One day, she was reminded of the passage of time when she answered a terrible squabble coming from the chickens. By the time she got there, what had been a young pullet on her arrival was 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, before she noticed that he had not, in fact, let anything of the kind; a short distance away, she spied the crumpled 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, assaulting the hens at any opportunity, and likely as not to viciously peck her ankles when she came to gather 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 she brought it to the kitchen, over the sad way of chickens, and wondered if such viciousness as that morning’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…
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 for him 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 to her.
Aurora, stunned, did not speak for a moment. “The prince, who brought my sister here, is going 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 laid a 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! You are 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 your work.”
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 to answer 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 more withdrawn than earlier, and merely prodded her food without eating. When he announced they would 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 food before herself. Still, she answered all that was asked of her, politely, but seemed listless and unfocused. That night, they did not walk the grounds; rather, the Beast commanded her to retire early to her chamber and her bed.
The afternoon of the fourth day, the Beast came to her chamber, for the chickens had gone 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 the mirror, only by moving her eyes. “I mean no protest. I do not play such games. If I could keep food down, I would eat. If I could sleep, I would do so. If you order me to see to the house, I will do 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 the previous 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 your strength, 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 see the Beast. Though she could once more eat, she had no appetite for it; she forced herself to chew and 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 her head. Only concern for her father prompted her to rise.
The morning of her departure, she dressed in the clothes she had brought, and took only what 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 walked through the courtyard, which was in the full bloom of late summer and bore no trace of the slaughter 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 a hedge in which to sleep. She needed no blanket in the warm night. She used her cloth bundle as a pillow.
She reached the road before noon the next day. The day after that, she was given a ride by a man with a wagon, who talked the entire trip about his business as a driver and his marriage of fifteen 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 pointedly between. She decided to appreciate this as manners, though she expected that by that time he had begun to find her unsettling.
The next evening, they reached the castle. She offered the driver coin, which was cheerfully 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, they found that, for the moment, their months of questions and fears – and a lifetime of strict royal decorum – 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 consult the fairy – which was a very proper thing for a princess to do in extreme circumstances – and that she had then gone on a journey based upon what she had learned from that consultation. No one was able to find precedent for meaningful criticism.
She told them that she was happy to hear that her sister been returned, and she wanted to go see her immediately. They begged her to stay awhile, and said that they would send for the her sister at once, who had been worried sick for Aurora’s sake ever since her return. She thought only a moment before agreeing.
A few days later, Prince Bradley and Princess Janet arrived with their retinue. Janet was overjoyed to see her sister, weeping (and, to the confusion of many, apologizing) profusely until Aurora told her firmly to stop. The prince greeted her with a great show of joy, and the couple 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 was ordered, enormous quantities of the region’s tasty (but not particularly distinctive) wines were readied, and a great hunting contest planned, at which the king and prince made plans to ride together.
Late that night, Aurora could not sleep. The return to her family had helped ease the numbness she had carried since leaving the Beast’s castle, but with that thaw came the pain that made her wish her nerves might burn into scars just for the strength to hold their weight. As she had always done at such times, she found her way to the ballroom. She shut the door behind her, and in the blackness began to dance against the pressure in her lungs that wanted to become a scream.
So she screamed with her body, a terpsichorean song to the music of her blood in her temples, the tension twanging in her spine. She sang with it, each movement brutal, beating some rebel note back into the theme of her soul, until the discord had taken on a shape that she recognized as herself. She took joy in working the anger and pain until they were too exhausted to demand her attention. Until she could sleep without dreams.
The morning of the hunt, Aurora surprised all by announcing that she, too would ride with 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 since the celebration was given partly in honor of her return, it seemed strange to deny her choice in the matter. The king found this persuasive and he, being the king, was really the only voice that mattered.
For the hunt, Aurora wore the most practical hunting clothes a princess could get away with at a formal celebration. She was pleased to be mounted again on her Arabian, toward which 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 force herself 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 the blanket, while the prince, whose horse had been carrying the picnic, brought it down. As he set the 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 looked sharply at her, then to the king, and said, “No! No, I’m not quite right. I was, in fact, about to say, 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, am famished.” 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 head home, cousin?” she asked. “You don’t look at all well. I’m sure the prize isn’t worth your health.”
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 the hounds began to bay.
“Sounds like they’ve caught scent of something,” the king said, starting to rise. “Let’s get moving 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 jerked back his hand in surprise. His startled mount reared, throwing him from the saddle. The king, full of concern, began to dismount; Aurora calmed the horse, as the prince stared in horror at his hand.
“You were more creative than I’d expected.” Aurora told him as she carefully unbuckled the 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 their teeth in.” She turned to her father, and explained, as the prince cried and sucked frantically at the many tiny wounds on his hand, “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, being pregnant with his heir, remained behind lest the strain, already terrible, be too much. The bereaved royal parents were told, truthfully, that he had been bitten during the hunt.
They were also told, with some private satisfaction, that the treacherous serpent responsible had been killed.
After the disposal, Aurora bid her family farewell. Tears were shed, smiles had through them, thanks and pardon given in roughly equal measure. She took little with her beyond her clothes, her horse, and a basket of food. Out of affection, and at his insistence, she let Corbin escort her.
When the maid went to clean her mistress’ erstwhile chamber, she didn’t know what to make of the dozen dried, thorny stems she found under the pillow, and so threw them away.
They arrived next day, and she said farewell to Corbin just outside the gate. He tried, of course, to convince her to return with him, but she silenced him with a firm but not entirely unaffectionate look, and favored him with a kiss on his leathery cheek before she walked her horse inside to look for the Beast.
She didn’t have to go far. He lay sprawled on the stones of the courtyard. She couldn’t help thinking of the old, beaten rooster lying torn apart in the chicken yard, and she held her breath as she ran to him.
Closer, she saw that the ground had been gouged, flagstones torn out. The Beast’s paws were 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 a hunt. He had told her – much to her sympathy – that it must have gnawed off a leg to escape a trap.
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. She touched them in disbelief, tasted them, fascinated.
They fell upon the Beast. She reached out to wipe them from his wounds, when his arm moved 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 growl like 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, and I 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 go away,” 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’t command 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 only you, 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.
And then the glitter appeared.
In the gloom, a little glitter went a long way. It started small, and within seconds there was 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. It was 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 let her. But you’ve earned the love of this one,” with a flick of her wand toad Aurora. “A love without promises. A for now love. But it’s the best you could do, apparently.
“So I will keep my word,” she said, “and redeem you now.” The Beast watched warily from between 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 from the 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 the ground.
“He is not your clay,” said Aurora. “You broke him, and that made him perfect. I won’t let you touch him now.
“How long ago,” she asked, “did you convince yourself that the light is right, and the darkness is wrong? Did you really believe it, or was it just an excuse to use in front of other people?”
The fairy’s aristocratic features twisted in a sneer. “You stupid girl,” she hissed. “You had the prize and you threw it away. That can’t kill me,” she spat through lips beginning to foam red. “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 just to get your attention.” She tossed it away to clang against the flagstones, then knelt to look the fairy in the eye, taking her by the hair as she continued, “Do you recognize me? Your sister gave me this face.”
The fairy’s smirk melted into uncertainty, then into dawning recognition.
“You made the thing that would kill you twenty-five years ago,” Aurora explained as she placed her free hand around the fairy’s throat. “All the murderous intent you brought against a helpless child; it’s grown up inside me. You can have it back now.” As she squeezed, the darkness 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 his back. He roared as she twisted his mane around her fists, and she shut her eyes in delight as he sped 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.
© Sean Miner 2022