Disclaimer: The characters and incidents portrayed in this story are fictional. No infringment was intended.
Summary: A retelling of the classic fairy-tale.
The Enchanted Castle
He found her among the rosebushes, her hands scratched and torn, her long wild hair caught in the thorns. When he approached, she bared her teeth, and snarled. He hesitated a moment, and nearly walked by, leaving her there. Something about her amused him, however, and so he picked her up and took her into the castle. His thick fur protected him against her bites.
"You Beast!" she cried out. "I merely bent to pick a rose, and . . ."
"They would have torn you apart, my dear," he informed her, looking at the long cuts which scored her arms and legs. "And why not? They are my roses, after all."
He grinned, throwing her down on a couch and eying her cautiously.
"But perhaps that would have been a pity. You are rather a Beauty."
She growled at that, but he roared, and his enchanted servants came and attended to her. She found her wounds bound, her rags replaced with rich clothing, and a meal fit for an empress placed before her. Soon her snarls were replaced with something like a smirk.
The Beast came to be glad he had spared the woman. She admired the clever spells he used to manage his charmed helpers, though she sneered at his formalities. She loved his magic garden, where vines would leap up and snatch the birds from the air; and best of all, she liked to hunt.
She would watch him eagerly as he would cast a spell to draw every living creature into their forest. After that they would choose their weapons; one day bows, perhaps, another throwing daggers, or javelins. Then they would go out on their horses - enormous beasts, far larger than any ordinary horse - and hunt down whatever they could find, ending the day exhausted, with their horses dragging piles of meat back to the castle for their evening feasts.
After that, with their hands still bloody, his fur still stuck with burrs and her hair caught with twigs and leaves, they would swap tales, their subjects becoming more and more incredible as they night went on.
She would assure him she had been a Pirate Queen, who had ruled at least eight different seas, and an ocean besides. At that time, so she said, fifty-four islands paid tribute to her, often in the form of beautiful young men. And her name was feared by emperors.
He would top that with the story of a great enchantment he had cast, when he had sent a hero into the past and had changed the future of the whole world.
She would laugh with disbelief, and tell him that she had worked - for gold - for the lord of thunder, escorting his chosen warriors to the hall of the damned. And not only that, she'd visited the place of the dead, not once, but several times.
He would snort at such a tale, and instead declare that he had raised the dead, and could demonstrate such a skill at any time which she chose.
Such story-telling would last the night, until the first colours of dawn streaked the sky. Often they would sleep where they sat, right through the morning and even into the next day.
One morning she woke long before he, and called on the enthralled servants to dress her, and rode out into the forest.
She knew that there would be no animals, because they were afraid of the forest, and stayed away unless the Beast's magic drew them. Still, she liked to ride hard along the forest paths, and a part of her enjoyed the quiet.
She spurred her horse on, and raced through the woodlands. Suddenly she saw a figure on the horizon.
"You!" she called. "What do you do here? This is not your land."
The man waited till she approached, and then stood easy.
"I am in search of my dear friend, whom I have lost. Have you seen the one I seek?"
She stared at him. "No, and I would advise that neither of you wander around these parts, lest you lose yourselves and never return."
"I see." The man nodded, and then slipped back in amongst the trees. And though she tried to spy out his path, she could not find him again.
When she returned to the castle, the Beast had awoken, and asked her where she had gone and what she had done. But she was distracted; she answered him brusquely, and did not join him at his evening feast.
The next morning she went out again, and sure enough the young man was there again.
"What!" she called out. "Did you not understand? What do you do here?"
"I am in search of my dear friend, whom I have lost. Have you seen the one I seek?"
She shook her head, and laid her hand upon her whip. "Do you toy with me? I have said I know not your friend, and I have also said not to return!"
"I see." The man nodded; and again, although she tried to seek him out, he eluded her.
When she returned, confused, to the castle, the Beast was there waiting for her.
"Where have you been?" he asked her, and laid a paw on her arm. "Why are you trembling?" He laughed. "Did you spy out a beast?"
She hesitated, but shook her head. "Leave me be."
"Come, eat with me tonight. Then we will hunt tomorrow - what would you have me conjure? A centaur? A unicorn?"
"You forget, they are only captured by chaste maidens," she returned acidly, and then left him, climbing up the winding staircase and secreting herself in the highest tower. From there she stared out at the forest. Just on its very edge, she saw lights, twinkling.
The next morning she rose early, and, leaving her horse, went out into the forest.
The man was there, waiting.
"Are you the one I seek?" he asked gently.
She nodded, and he held out his hand. She took it, and they left the forest, through a secret path.
She did not know, but the Beast had followed her, and watched her as she left.
The Land Outside
When she came to the land outside the forest, she was astonished.
The houses were tumble-down; and the crops were thin, and scarce. The people were gaunt, and the children quiet. The man took her to his own house, and it was but a thin-walled shack.
"The people have nothing to eat, because the Beast draws in all animals to the forest," the man explained to her. "The cattle, the sheep, even the beasts of burden. He has taken every one."
She looked about, recalling the piles of rotting meat they had dragged to the castle, too much for anyone to eat. She had never thought from where it had come. And so, the people lacked meat, and milk, and even the means to till the soil. She remembered rising, and going out to the hunt; she had not realised all that time she had been a thief.
"I must restore at least a little of that which I have taken - " she began, and looked at him. "Will you come with me?" "I must leave you to begin your own journey alone," the man told her. "My task is but to rescue those under the Beast's thrall."
She felt a stab of jealousy at the thought of any others who had shared her place in the castle, but it faded as she looked out at the wide world. Time in the castle had passed slowly; but the world outside had aged a thousand years.
She walked through the villages, noticing not only their poverty, but their strange gaze upon her. She wondered whether they knew she was the cause of all their ill. But when she passed by the still clearness of a pond, she saw instead that they stared at a brigand; for she was no longer dressed in the enchanted clothing of the castle, but in the simple outfit of a bandit. For that is who she had once been. And when she looked down at her arms, she saw they bore no scars.
When the evening came, she sought refuge in a small village, knocking at the largest of dwelling places. When the man opened the door and looked at her, she saw his face changed; he grew afraid, and then she saw a gleam in his eye.
"Come - come into my humble shelter, and take rest," he stammered.
"I have no money, but I -"
"Oh; what is that to me?" he stuttered, leading her to a warm place by the fire, and setting a meal before her - hard black bread, and sour cheese.
He watched her a moment, and then excused himself, leaving the hut. She looked about the hut, holding a rough wooden table, and a bed covered with a threadbare cover. It was dim, and she saw the light came from a smoking tallow candle. She wondered if the man had gone to get some companions, in order to rob her. Well, she had nothing to steal.
The door opened, and she stood up, seeing the man enter, with several others behind him. But they seemed no threat.
"I - I took the liberty of -" the man began, then wiped his brow. He was trembling. Then he started again. "I can see you have not come to our village for - the pleasure of it. We ask that - if you take some slaves, you will spare . . ."
She stared at him a moment before understanding dawned. After all, she was dressed as a brigand. So, he thought she was some kind of warlord, ready to destroy the pitiful town for their black bread and cheese.
An ugly smile crossed her lips. And so - they were willing to give up four, five, young girls in recompense?
She looked at the young girls. One was crying, two were trembling, another refused to meet her gaze. Only one looked back at her, with disdain in her eyes. So she smiled again.
"Oh, how wise you are," she told the man, who wiped his brow again. "I will call off my army, who were waiting to see what kind of response this town would give. And - let me see - your slaves. . ."
She went over to the girls, pretending to assess them for their worth. Instead, she looked into their eyes, and whispered into their ears.
"Do you wish to come?"
Only one girl gave her a swift nod. She grasped her arm, and swung around.
"This one is worthy. I would suggest that you do not offer any more girls of this type to those passing by. They might kill you for the insult."
She eyed the black bread and cheese, knowing that it might be her last meal for some time; but finally, she left it. After all, she had stolen the man's security, integrity, and peace of mind; she might as well leave him a crumb.
With the girl in tow, she fled towards the sea. It was night, and it was cold, but it would not take long before the village realised there had been no army, and came after the pair furiously.
"Where - where are we going?" the girl gasped, trudging after her.
"We'll go to the docks, find a ship that's bound far away from this poor land, and -" She stopped, remembering that once she had known this isle as the wealthiest land of all. "And then we'll bring back the riches to this place."
The girl laid a hand on her arm, and she stopped, finally.
"We don't need to leave this land in order to do that," the girl told her, and turned back, looking towards the dark forest. "There lies our treasure."
Her eyes widened, and then she smiled. "Let me take you to the house of a friend, tonight. You'll be safe, there."
She had a different task.
The forest was filled with mysterious paths, that wound round about and drove the wanderer mad. This she knew.
The forest was as silent as death, with not the cry of a bird or even a sigh of wind. Oh, this she knew.
The forest was the setting for a great chase; and it transformed whoever entered it into a creature to be hunted. And this she finally knew.
The moon was high when she entered the woodlands, but although it lit brightly the paths and clearings, she ignored those false trails. Instead she headed through the trees, through the thorns and the bushes, to the very centre; and there the dark castle stood.
He stood there in the garden by the rosebushes. He was not facing her, but as soon as she stood directly in the moonlight, he turned and looked at her.
"I am in search of my dear friend, whom I have lost. Have you seen the one I seek?" she called desperately.
He moved a little forward, and she saw that his eyes were those of a man.
"I am in search of my dear friend, whom I have lost. Have you seen the one I seek?" she spoke again.
He moved closer again, and held out a great paw. She stepped closer, and repeated softly;
"Are you the one I seek?"
"I am," he spoke finally - and she grasped his paw and pulled him out of the forest.
He stood before her in the shape of a man, and she smiled, seeing his true form - a bandit like herself. She drew him into her arms, promising herself that tomorrow they would steal back the treasures from the dark forest.
"Hunt's over," she told him. "We're found."