In the Land of Ever After

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Chapter 18 - Belle and the Beast

Belle knew she was being punished…but she wasn’t the only one.


Belle had been in the old ruin of a castle for a fortnight already and was only just starting to grow used to the invisible servants. Their hands appeared when they touched something, or tried to, and if they were in the shadows the shadows moved with them, but other than that they could not be seen at all. And when their hands touched her they were icy cold and hard.

They didn’t touch her often. She’d gotten the distinct impression that they didn’t want to. They took care of her needs without being asked but didn’t seem to like her being in their ruin of a castle at all, and since she wasn’t able to leave the grounds it was just an uncomfortable situation all around.

She still didn’t understand why, though. Why here? Why snatch her out of the castle at Valeureux and imprison her in this dead place with no explanation? Because if she was supposed to be learning a lesson, she wasn’t seeing it yet. Feeling it still, yes, but not seeing it.

Feeling it was perhaps worse. Feeling the wildness and anger of the Beast within her, and knowing that had there been any other living soul about she’d have no doubt been snapping and snarling at them constantly. Feeling what Adam felt on his ‘quest’ – which had apparently gone so wrong one night that she’d awakened screaming in fear and hadn’t been able to sleep again until sunrise, his lingering fear mingling with her own as she realized that, romantic stories aside, quests were dangerous business which the unprepared or unlucky did not return from. In any fairy tale, the successful prince always comes across the remains of all those before him who were unsuccessful.

Adam’s fear had returned that afternoon, this time tempered with a different kind of sick horror, but that had gradually faded to a sort of determined nervousness and then everything had been fine again. Something had given him a very specific direction and purpose, something important.

His determination drove her to try to find a purpose of her own. The castle was huge and mostly dark, and some of the stone had fallen apart in places, so exploring was difficult and dangerous and more than a little frightening. She’d come in through a splintering door in the rotting, overgrown conservatory, though, and found a series of little rooms which led into a relatively large room that had once been filled with books.

That was before the roof had partly caved in and the rain and snow had come. And before that, something else: A good many books were ripped apart or slashed into shreds, even fixtures on the walls had been torn down and smashed. Someone – a Beast, by the familiar look of the slash marks – had taken out their rage on this room the way they hadn’t anywhere else that she’d been so far. No, not rage…rampage. They’d gone on a rampage.

Belle had tried to piece what was left of the library back together, with only minimal success as the servants wouldn’t help her at all. In fact, they wouldn’t even come into the library, preferring to hover in the shadows of the hallway until she came back out, and then they would hover around her at a distance. She wasn’t any too fond of that, as they made a noise sometimes that was like distant whispering, just with no recognizable words. They’d shown her to a ragged but relatively intact bedchamber the night she’d arrived, but they tended to hover there too so she took to spending most of her non-exploring time in the remains of the library, poring over the few intact books in a nest made of  torn pages and the remnants of cushions from the chairs. There was a window in the library as well, and she patched and stuffed the broken glass with more torn pages to keep the increasingly cold wind out of that corner. Because she was sitting beneath the window, sitting in what light crept in that could drive the other shadow back.

The large shadow of the Beast that sometimes stalked through the library wouldn’t come near the light; it prowled up and down the broken rows of shelves, hunting something that wasn’t there.

Or maybe someone who wasn’t there. Had there been a woman here, trapped in the castle with the Beast? And if so, what had happened to her? Belle’s curiosity drove her to keep exploring higher and higher into the even more precariously dangerous towers, hoping for a room filled with magic and hints of what had been, like the Rose Room in the castle of Valeureux…but all she found were empty chambers, rotten furnishings, and cobwebs worthy to house a Royal Kingdom of Spiders.

Saying that out loud had made a hovering pair of hands clap in delight, which had startled her into a realization so horrible she’d had to grab the wall for balance. The servants. Their Beast was long dead, but the curse obviously hadn’t been broken so they’d remained trapped ever since. Not as whimsical, unaging teapots and candlesticks and clocks…as invisible, voiceless people. Kept at a distance, maybe? Separated from everything somehow, only their hands reaching into the physical world while their bodies…

She swallowed hard. The disturbing whispering was them talking. To each other? Possibly to her? But she couldn’t hear them, they were too far away.

She went back to her bedroom that night, and stayed there. She started speaking to them, too, making an effort to be friendly rather than merely polite – after all, she wasn’t the mistress of this castle, and they hadn’t asked her to become their guest. And she stopped exploring the towers and ventured lower, into the places where the servants would have worked and lived when they were alive.

The servants’ quarters in this castle had been small and mean and poorly furnished, and here again were signs of a Beast’s rampage. Broken furniture, torn rotted cloth, claw marks sunk deep in wood and stone – and even teeth marks in a few places. Another realization began to grow: This Beast had not been some innocent child transformed by a bad fairy’s whim. Even the cursed burning she could feel inside her own breast wasn’t enough to produce such wanton, vicious fury as had caused the destruction she’d seen and, yes, the fear she could now perceive in the demeanor of the barely-there servants. Whoever this man had been, she had a feeling his nature hadn’t been a kind or good one even before he’d been transformed. Becoming a Beast had made an already bad man into a monster.

It had mainly made Adam cranky and hot-tempered, a feeling she now understood all too well. But no matter what he thought about what he’d been during those dark years, he’d never been a monster.

Belle went back upstairs to the library and stood in the doorway, watching the shadow prowl. “You deserved it, didn’t you?” she asked it, almost hearing the snarl in response. “Were you maybe already a monster, then?” It roared silently and stalked toward the doorway instead, and she shook her head. “This is a stone room – most libraries are, to keep fire from the books. But they’re also quite good at keeping fire in.”

Which was when she threw the rusty lantern in her hand into her papery nest under the window, oil splattering everywhere. The fire caught immediately, and she closed the ironwood door on the shadow which was now shrinking back from the quickly-growing flames and their shadow-destroying light. She nodded to the servants wringing their hands nearby. “I’m sorry for the mess that will make, but…well, I was angry.” The hands stopped wringing, and one of them pointed to her chest. Belle sighed and nodded. “Yes, I have part of the curse too. The fairy who gave it to me sent me here.” The pointing hand reached out then, tentatively, and gently pressed her shoulder in commiseration. Belle smiled. “Thank you, but don’t feel sorry for me. I broke this same curse your master had when it was on the prince of my kingdom…and then I behaved so horribly I drove him away and a different fairy came along and cursed me to have a Beast of my own as punishment.” She made a face. “I’d never realized…Adam was just a boy when he was cursed, a child. He never had it in him to be a true monster, as Beast or as man.”

The hand patted her shoulder again, then held itself out. Belle swallowed and took it, coldness chilling her skin, and the invisible servant led her away from the library and back downstairs. More servants followed, their distant whispering becoming almost loud, there were so many of them speaking at once. Down into the lower level of the kitchen they went, and then below it through storerooms full of long-decayed foodstuffs and finally through the wine cellar where the floor was black and sticky from the congealed contents of burst bottles and casks.  A crate was moved, and a hidden door in the floor revealed; opened, it led down into blackness. And then the whispering stopped, and the invisible servants waited.

Belle took a deep breath – almost immediately regretting it due to the stench of rot which permeated the cellar – and approached the black hole in the floor, seeing a ladder. They wanted her to go in, to see…what? Something important, obviously. Something they’d hidden from their master? That was likely as well. She tested the ladder to make sure it would hold her weight, then went down into what turned out to be a tiny room barely high enough for her to stand upright in; Adam would have had to stoop. A candle on a crude table burst into life, revealing an aged but intact leather-wrapped journal, a long-dry ink bottle and a dust-rotted quill.

And on a rough cot against the wall, the body of the Beast’s final prey, now reduced to a parchment-covered skeleton crowned with faded golden hair. She’d been dressed like a princess in watered silk and fine lace, although whether she had been royalty or not was anyone’s guess – the enchanted wardrobe at Valeureux had once dressed Belle the same way. The rotted remains of this gown were tellingly ripped, though, and even more tellingly stained, and many of the visible bones were broken.

He’d caught her, then. He’d wanted…Belle clapped a hand to her mouth to prevent herself from becoming sick and defiling the poor woman’s final resting place. He’d wanted…what Belle had thought she herself wanted, and when it hadn’t been given, he’d taken it. The horrified servants had spirited his victim away, hiding her from him, and while he rampaged through the castle searching for her she’d died here in this hole of a room, hurting and broken and terrified. And alone, because even had a servant stayed with her she wouldn’t have been able to see or hear them or even know they were near save for the touch of an icy cold hand.

Belle sank down on the stool which was before the table, shaking, the memory of the ice statue taunting her. No wonder she’d been punished; she’d rejected the man she’d once professed to love in favor of a fantasy, a fantasy which had only not become this same horrible, deadly reality because Adam even as a Beast would never have done such a thing. The worst Adam had ever done to her was roar and carry on and put her in a dungeon which his servants had promptly let her right back out of. They’d spoiled her, pampered her…but that because they’d been bored, and because the curse was nearing its end and they were desperate to have their prince and themselves freed. They’d known what he’d become hadn’t been his fault.

The candle flickered, and the journal opened. “An Account of the Terror of Ballanshire, Set down so that others may know of the Curse of the Beast and what was wrought by it,” she read, and the whispers from above increased to a louder but still incomprehensible murmur. “You want me to read it out loud?” The hand that patted her shoulder made her jump, but she nodded. “I can do that. Should I take the book upstairs?” The hand squeezed a warning, and she nodded again. “You’re right, it should stay here where it’s safe. May I have a glass of water? I don’t want to have to stop if my throat becomes dry.”

The water was brought, and she took a sip and started to read. “Here lies the only account the world will ever know of what transpired in Ballanshire after the curse of the Dark Fairy was cast upon our master. Our lord was ever a hard man, and his wants were many and must needs be satisfied with swiftness so as to avoid arousing his anger…”

“…And the curse fell like a chopping blade on us all, for the Dark Fairy said that as our hands had helped him with his wickedness they should be bound to continue serving him always…”

“…Our master became more beast than man with each passing season, and we began to fear more the promised cure for the curse than we did its expiration. For the only way for him to be freed was for one to come who would find love for him and cause him to feel such in return. But our master had never felt an emotion so tender as that, he was filled with the darkest of passions only…”

“…One more traveler, a merchant, had stopped here all unawares, although we had done our best to allow this once proud castle to fall into a frightening, inhospitable ruin. A storm drove him to take shelter here, and our master for his own amusement plied the man with wine and tempted him with a handful of the useless gold we have in such plentiful amounts. He wove a tale of a curse to be broken only by taking a wife, and offered a handsome bride-price and favors to come if one of the man’s daughters were to be sent to him. We had hoped the man would ride on his way and only remember his near escape, but his memory of the gold was stronger and less than a fortnight later he returned, bringing with him an innocent young daughter to barter…”

“…His body lies in the farthest corner of the dungeons, broken and torn and we fear partially eaten. Our master has told the girl her father has gone to fetch the rest of the family to be a wedding party…”

“…We can only watch as he stalks her through the castle, as her fear grows and the shadows lengthen. It is for his amusement that he does this. The girl begins to ask why her father has not returned, and our master is growing angry…”

“…He came for her in the library, where she was wont to sit and read as it is a pleasant, quiet room. He locked the door and forbade us to enter, and he stalked her between the shelves while telling her all the truth of what he had done and what his intentions were for her as he was tired of waiting and she was to become his wife that very night. She jumped from the window to escape him, perhaps thinking to take her own life, but she was only injured and he leapt after her into the garden. It was the following morning before he left her and we were able to come to her aid, but it was obvious even then that she would die. And for all our other sins in his service we could not bear to allow him to come for the poor broken creature again, so we hid her in the oldest cellar and removed every trace which might lead him to discover her whereabouts…”

“…He rages like a mad god above while I sit with her and write this account, that others may know of the horrors we have endured and perhaps find some way to prevent them from coming again. Do fairies die? For if not, the Dark One may well enact this curse again on some other soul and the horror will begin anew. Some of my fellows’ screams ring in my ears – he can apparently harm us by tearing off our hands if he chances to get one in his grasp, we had not known that…”

“…She is dead. The very stones of the castle shuddered as though they thought to fall upon us, and as this is surely near to the last day of the curse I fear what it might mean. I am told he has retreated to the library again and is destroying it in a frenzy of rage, but if the day of deliverance has indeed come upon us then he will soon be dead and rot like any wild beast fallen in a field. What will become of us after that I do not know.”

Belle had come to the end, but turning the blank page revealed one last message, and with that she knew what needed to be done. She stood up, carefully easing the stiffness which had come on her from sitting so long on the hard stool, closed up the book and then with one last long look at the body of the girl whose death had sealed the curse she laid the candle on the book so that the flame licked at the dry leather and started it smoldering. Then she quickly climbed back up into the wine cellar, leaving the door open and walking back out into the fetid, rotting mess that was the storerooms. What she wanted would not rot. She found it and politely requested that the servants take it up to the Great Hall for her, and then asked that every lamp and candle be brought as well.

The barrel of oil was waiting for her when she made it back up the stairs, and there was a heap of candles and a pile of lamps besides. The servants were all there, waiting; some, she saw, had only one hand to show and she became even more decided that this end should not wait even one more day to come. Belle filled each lamp to the brim and then lit them, directing servants to take one to each tower and smash it on the stairs, making sure the fire caught on the dry webs which curtained every nook and cranny. She took the rest into every room on the ground floor and did the same, and she opened the library door to the hungry conflagration which was raging within but had been stalled by the slow-to-burn ironwood. The candles were lit and given into each pair of hands which remained, with instructions to take them down into the servants’ quarters and set the ragged linens and soft-rotted woods there afire. And then she walked out of the hall, and out of the castle with the near-empty cask of oil and a single burning candle and lit all the dead winter brush that surrounded the crumbling walls, even to the trees that grew near them.

And the castle of the Beast of Ballanshire burned. Belle retreated to the woods that edged the castle’s grounds and gardens, found a place to wait and watched as the fire grew like a live thing and devoured the cursed dwelling which had stood for far too long. She knew books, and therefore writing, and the handwriting in the journal had been in a style not less than a hundred years old. Even one more day of letting the lingering evil of the curse continue would have been too many; the servants of the Beast of Ballanshire deserved their freedom, just as Adam’s servants had.

The castle burned like a torch all night, putting off such a generous amount of heat that Belle slept comfortably in the woods. She knew some might have said she should have waited, at least tried to find a cloak or supplies before destroying the castle which had been her only shelter from the harsh winter weather of this place, but in truth she’d been afraid to. What if taking something had meant prolonging the suffering of the servants? The last entry in the journal had said, ‘Our suffering shall not end until all this be destroyed. We have tried, and we have failed. The curse will not allow us to effect our own release; no lasting damage can we do direct unto any thing within this rotting carcass unless we are so ordered.’

She waited out all that day, watching the fire, making sure no well-meaning traveler came along and tried to put it out. By that evening little was left save tumbled piles of charred stones and great drifts of ash, and no movement which might have been any of the servants was to be seen. Belle found a strong branch and went closer again, using it to stir glowing, choked embers and knock over still-standing stonework. A noxious smoke was rising out of the lower chambers as the rot and ruin hidden there smoldered, too damp to burn quickly. She walked around the remains of the castle one more time, knocking down whatever she found, and then went back to the heat-cracked front steps with their fallen doors to see if she could encourage them to burn more.

There was a horse waiting before the steps, looking for all the world as though he’d just been brought around by a stablehand. Belle started, looking around. No one else was in sight. “Is someone here? Don’t go into the castle, it’s dangerous!”

Nothing but the wind answered her, and she shivered. The horse looked at her sidelong and pawed one hoof on the ground, and she approached him cautiously. He looked fresh, not sweaty at all, and there was a lamp fastened to the saddlebags and a length of gray wool lying draped across the saddle. The wool turned out to be a cloak, plain but warm and well-made, and to it had been fastened a note in familiar, old-fashioned handwriting on a singed piece of paper: ‘Find your way back home in safety, My Lady, with our grateful thanks.’

Belle buried her face in the folds of the cloak and cried like a child. She did not notice – and would not, for several days – that she could no longer feel the Curse of the Beast burning within her.

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