Belle was truly the most beautiful woman alive, Beau thought fondly as he watched her charm their feisty chickens with her bright smile and soft voice before reaching under their plump bottoms and sliding out their eggs. Fortunately for her, she did not look anything like him, with his great hulking height, his big hands and ungainly body, his face overwhelmed by the wide brow and large broken nose. Only her hair color was the same, but even there the deep brown was prettier on her, unmarked by the gray that was beginning to thread through his straight locks.
Turning to see her father watching her, Belle chided, "Have you no chores, Papa?"
"All done, princess."
"Then you will be off to track more wild animals, I know."
"I saw a wolf limping yesterday," he said apologetically, knowing the way she worried about him and his fascination with the creatures around them. He liked animals much better than the townspeople, finding them easier to understand, more simple and honest.
"You go to your woods then. I am walking into town to see Maria and Claudette."
"To talk more about the wedding?" he asked affectionately, knowing the answer would be yes, feeling already the pang of loneliness. She would leave him soon to become Marcel’s wife, in the lace-trimmed dress her mother had worn at their wedding. At least if he had to lose her, he was giving her hand to a young man as handsome and honorable as she was beautiful and good-natured.
"But of course!" She smiled and raised on her toes to kiss his bearded cheek affectionately. "We're going to talk about flowers. Now be sure to remember your lunch. I don’t like to think of you starving while you spend all day caring for poor beasts."
"Yes, princess." He didn’t tell her of the many times his lunch had been used to coax an animal into trusting him. Soon he would have to remember to make his own lunch, to take care of all the chores himself, then sit in the house in the evening and smoke his pipe without her lively presence. He hid his melancholy thoughts as they returned to the house and got ready, Belle donning a cape over her blue dress, him putting on his brown wool jacket over his tan shirt and brown trousers, all colors chosen to help him fade into the woods. He reminded himself that Belle would be happy, and that was all that mattered.
As he strode into the woods, he thought of the pack of wild dogs he saw occasionally. Perhaps he would be able to tame one and bring it home, a peaceful companion for him as he waited for grandchildren to entertain.
The day passed pleasantly, though without success. He lured the wolf closer with pieces of ham, but the gray animal wasn’t trusting enough yet to lie down and let him examine its paw. He gathered some herbs as he walked, knowing that Belle would be pleased to sprinkle them into her cooking. The barking of the wild dogs sounded nearby, and he was careful to stay upwind of them as he tracked them for several miles. Two of the dogs were still pups and would be easiest to tame, if he could just manage to separate one from its parents...
Musing over a strategy, he arrived home and routinely checked the animals, the old cow, the chickens, the ever-growing pig, then entered the house, surprised not to find Belle waiting for him, preparing dinner. Belle was always back by mid-afternoon. Walking between the town and their small home in the forest made her nervous.
Waiting for her, he began to prepare dinner, peeling and chopping vegetables. As time passed without any sign of Belle, he started to fret. She had always been such a sweet child, predictable, biddable, a joy to raise, and had not changed as she matured into a young woman. It simply wasn't her nature not to appear when she was expected. Finally, he surrendered to his worry and donned his jacket. He would walk to meet her, certain that she would be overjoyed at his presence, though she might present a brave façade and scold him for being overprotective.
Walking toward the village on the winding path, he whistled a sprightly tune. The night was falling quickly, and he didn’t want to surprise her. Halfway to his destination, he caught sight of a blue ribbon, a small object he might have missed except for the brightness of its color, so unusual in the forest. He plucked it off a branch, recognizing it as Belle’s and feeling his heart sink as he looked at the rutted path that branched off the lane.
Years ago, this path had been smoother and wider, maintained by the servants from the castle who used it to visit the village for supplies. But then tragedy had visited the family. The lord, lady, and their young daughter were killed by a horrible illness, leaving the young master bereft. Village rumors had predicted that he would go to Paris, to live with an uncle, but time passed and the young master stayed all alone, with only the company of his servants.
That year had been disastrous for the village, the illness that had destroyed the lord and his family descending upon many others. Both Beau and his wife had cared tirelessly for their family and friends before she succumbed. Already weakened with exhaustion from toiling for others, she faded away with a suddenness that left Beau shocked and devastated.
Then one day the village priest took time from caring for the ill to walk to the castle and minister to the young master's soul. But to his surprise, he discovered that everyone had disappeared. An entire castle of people, all gone, leaving behind only fearsome howls that echoed from every window, frightening the priest with fears of the devil. The mayor and some of the townsmen had ventured forth to investigate, to come running back, shaking with terror. The path had been allowed to grow over, and the castle and its connection to the village became a dim memory as the villagers focused on rebuilding their own lives.
The stories of the tragedy and the curse at the castle had barely penetrated Beau's grief-stricken numbness, as he struggled to raise his daughter, rapidly maturing from a girl to a young woman. He had never dreamed that he would have to explain the mysteries of life to her. Next to the frightening responsibility of caring for Belle, the horrifying tragedy at the castle seemed distant and remote.
Would Belle have gone to explore the castle? He fingered the ribbon. It was the first trick he had taught her when she was old enough to walk, to mark her path, both to avoid getting lost and to allow someone to follow her. She did it habitually, unthinkingly, any time she strayed from an established route.
Leaving the ribbon as a marker, he plunged down the path. He didn’t know why his gentle daughter would have done something so risky and foolish, but it felt like the right explanation for her disappearance. If she’d gone to the village, she would be home by now. But if she’d gone to the castle… anything might have happened. He had to find her.
Three more ribbons carefully placed on branches at Belle’s eye level confirmed to Beau the correctness of his instincts. He reached the castle, finding it as overgrown and desolate as he’d imagined. Made of massive stone blocks, the sturdiness of the square building was decorated by carved stone statues in niches and softened by two fanciful turrets on each side. The angled roof was covered by heavy tiles of a dark brown clay. Ivy had been allowed to grow on the walls, up to and over the roof, crumbling the stone and tiles as it clung to them, giving the castle an air of neglect and isolation.
Black iron gates swung open at his touch, the hinges squeaking, and he walked into the courtyard. Weeds were growing between the cobblestones and a carriage sat abandoned, the paint peeling from its wood. "Belle?"
Receiving no answer, he kept walking, crossing the courtyard and opening the big wooden door. "Belle?"
Walking into the entryway, he could see a side table along one wall, its beautiful carved wood and the figurines atop it covered with a layer of dust. A tapestry hanging on the other wall was similarly filthy, its pattern obscured and impossible to see. There were no candles burning, no fires, no light except for the streaks of sunlight from high slitted windows. Belle was bright and cheerful: she would hate this gloomy place. Fear for her safety drove him forward, calling her name, and finally he thought he heard a cry in response, distant and faint. The sound led him toward the back of the castle, down a narrow winding staircase into the cellar, to find Belle imprisoned in a cell.
"Belle!" He curled his hands around the bars and tugged on them, but the cold metal was solid. The neglect in the rest of the castle had not loosened the bars from their foundation.
Her face was stained with tears and her hair disheveled. "Papa! You must flee!"
He grabbed at the lock and yanked, frustrated that it failed to yield to his strength.
"Papa, please! You must leave!"
"After I get you out. Who has imprisoned you?" He looked around, searching for a piece of stone to smash the lock.
"There is a beast, Papa! He is horrible and dangerous. He will kill you."
Despite the general decay of the castle, the basement failed to provide anything that Beau could use as a mallet. Taking Belle’s hands through the bars, he squeezed them. "I must look for something to break the lock. Take heart, I will be back shortly to free you."
"Please, Papa, don’t! Save yourself. Get away from here."
He focused his eyes on her brown ones, so like her mother’s. "I will never leave you behind."
She sobbed once, understanding that he would risk anything to free her, and nodded in gratitude and obedience. Turning to leave, he recoiled as something swung at him. He fell back against the bars, Belle's screams ringing in his ears, staring in horror at a creature unlike anything that he had ever seen in the forest. Standing on two legs, it had the same form as a man, legs, arms and head connected to a central torso, but it was covered with rough fur and possessed a snarling face with flaming yellow eyes, like a demon from a nightmare.
Instinct made him twirl to the side when the creature struck at him again with its paw, all five claws extended to slash his face. Beau whirled again and again, evading the dangerous attack. Belle screamed and flattened herself against the back of the cell as the claws intended for Beau caught on her dress, leaving tears on one shoulder.
Realizing that he could not successfully duck the creature’s blows forever, Beau took the initiative, lowering his head and running forward, his shoulder slamming into the creature’s middle and knocking it over. Beau fell on top of the beast, grabbing for its paws, catching them below the claws, trying to use his grip to hold the animal down. It roared at him, the same sounds that frightened the villagers and kept them away. He hung on, undeterred by the ferocious noise, keeping the claws away from his face as the beast rolled, flipping Beau over and reversing their positions.
Belle was pleading from the cell. "Please no, please no, do not hurt him, I will do anything you say, please!"
The beast stopped all motion, using his weight to pin Beau to the stone floor. Beau struggled to gain the upper hand in the fight. While the beast's movement had made his size difficult to determine, Beau guessed that he was bigger than the beast, taller and broader of shoulder. Size was little advantage though, as the beast was uncommonly strong, and Beau felt weak with the beast’s entire weight holding him down. He could see the creature's face clearly now, looking like a cross between a cat and a wolf, with slanted eyes, ears that were long and pointed, and a prominent snout with the tips of two fangs escaping from the edge of the upper lip. Bucking his hips, he tried to throw the beast off him while keeping hold of its claws.
"Anything?" the beast asked over its shoulder.
Beau froze in his astonishment. The beast could talk? He had never heard of an animal that could talk like a man. Was he a beast or a demon? The beast had stilled too, its concentration on Belle. Then the import of the beast's words dawned on Beau, and he yelled, "No!" even as Belle promised, "Anything, but do not hurt my father!"
Taking advantage of the beast's distraction, Beau released his arms and punched him, a heavy blow to the face followed by another to the torso. Though not a violent man, Beau had been in his fair share of tussles while growing up and knew his blows connected strong and true. To his dismay, they barely fazed the beast.
Angered by the blows, the beast slapped Beau on his face with the back of its paw. Beau tasted blood as his teeth snapped shut on his tongue. Undaunted, he punched at the beast again, solid blows to its fur-covered chest and belly, hampered by his position on the floor but driven by fear for Belle.
The beast slapped him again, this time on the other side of his face, leaving Beau dazed, a trickle of blood seeping from his mouth and into his beard, his ears ringing. Belle was screaming, begging, promising anything to save her father's life.
Content that Beau was subdued, the beast sprung from him, crouching down between the two of them. "You will stay with me? You will remain here forever?"
"Yes, yes, but let him go."
"Why?" Beau asked, propping himself on one elbow, wiping blood from his mouth. "Why do you want a prisoner?"
"My reasons are my own. You will not question me."
"Yes, yes, I will stay, only leave my father alone!"
Unwilling to be a hostage for his daughter’s compliance and frightened of what the beast intended to do to her, Beau yelled, "She will not stay with you. I will remain as your prisoner if you must have one."
The beast swung its head back and forth between father and daughter, as if undecided which one to choose. "Your daughter has already promised to stay. She will be my companion."
A companion? Why would this beast need companionship not of its own kind? "My daughter is delicate and sensitive. She would sicken in this deserted place and die. I am sturdy. I will be able to keep you company for many years. Let me stay in her place, Monsieur. I will be a good companion. Let her go, Monsieur, please." The words tumbled out of him desperately, as he tried to reason with this strange creature that spoke like a person.
"You promise. You will stay with me."
"On the holy mother, I will stay with you if you free my daughter."
The beast held out one paw, and Beau stared at it for a moment, not sure what to do, before curling his hand around it, shuddering as he felt the long fur, the rough skin of the pads, and the extended claws.
Raising and lowering his paw, the beast made their hands shake. "I still remember how to do this," he said with a strange wistfulness. The sliver of softness gone, he leaped to the bars in one bound, flicking a claw into the lock and opening the mechanism. Belle rushed past him to kneel by her father, but the beast caught her by the back of her cape, lifting her to her feet, manhandling her to the door. Beau scrambled up, following the two, his mind frantically racing.
The beast was swift, forcing Belle to run to keep her feet under her. Up the stairs, through the castle and out the front doors, across the courtyard, the beast pushed her until they reached the fence. He shoved her through and slammed the iron gate behind her with a dreadful clang.
Beau stepped forward, hitting his forearm against the bars, drawing the beast’s attention. He couldn’t let his daughter go without a word, and he was aware of how an animal would regard his begging in the cellar. Beau would be the weaker one, the subservient pack animal. If he was going to remain here, he needed to establish his own power. "I will say goodbye to my daughter."
"Say it then," the beast snarled, but with a flick of his tail, he retreated from the gates.
Beau wiped the blood from his chin, not wanting to look so battered in front of Belle, then opened the gate, gathering her into his embrace. He squeezed her tightly, conscious that this might be the last time he held her. "I am so proud of you, my beautiful daughter. Your mother would have been so proud of you. You have grown into a wonderful woman. Marry Marcel and have lots of children. Be happy, I want to think of you as happy."
"I will, Papa," she promised. "But I do not want to leave you."
Whispering into her ear, he reminded her, "I have tamed worse creatures than this. I promised your mother that I would dance at your wedding. I will be there."
She looked at him, then at the beast waiting on the castle’s stone steps, her eyes wide and frightened. "I love you, Papa." Rising on her toes, she kissed him swiftly on the cheeks, then turned and ran down the overgrown path toward home.
Beau shut the gate behind her, and turned to face his new life. The beast was crouched, his hands resting on his knees. "I will not stay in the cellar."
"You may stay wherever you wish. As long as it’s within the grounds."
"Is there food? I’m hungry."
Though Beau was normally sensitive to the emotions of animals, the subtle flickers in mute eyes, the beast’s face was quite astonishingly expressive. Surprise and hesitation crossed its face, as if it hadn’t thought beyond achieving its goal to such practicalities as Beau’s needs. "There is some food in the kitchen."
"Then please show me the way. I will need a candle. The night is coming and my eyesight is not as good as yours."
The beast strode into the house, walking on its back paws. They were silent as it led Beau through the castle to the kitchen, a convoluted route that appeared designed to keep the lord of the castle well separated from his servants. Beau searched for flint and candles, which appeared unused, confirming his guess that the beast had good vision in the dark. He lit several candles, setting them around the kitchen. He began taking stock of his surroundings, acting as if it were his right.
Looking through cabinets, he asked, "What do I call you?"
"I have no name," the beast growled, pacing in the doorway.
"My name is Beau."
The beast laughed, an unpleasant sound. "Beau? You are not handsome."
"My mama said I was a beautiful baby," Beau replied mildly, undisturbed at the observation. He knew he wasn't an attractive man, his face too rough-featured with his nose crooked from falling out of a tree when young. He found plenty of cooking supplies as he searched, pots and pans of many different sizes, tools and dishes in the kitchen, but only a cooked chicken for food. "My daughter is named Belle, at my wife's insistence. She was also a beautiful baby, but she was fortunate to remain so as she grew up." Who had cooked the chicken? Could the beast use tools? Or was there another prisoner here, also made to serve the beast's needs?
"I don't want to know about your daughter. Your life with her is gone. Your life is here now." With those words, the beast disappeared.
Shuddering, Beau let himself collapse into a chair, listening to the fading sound of the beast's claws on the castle's stone floors. He couldn't show weakness in front of his host, but he felt it inside, the cold fear that seized his stomach, the worry that the rest of his life would be spent trapped in this isolated castle, the creature's captive. Never to see his Belle again, never to hold his grandchildren, never to wander the forests…
No! He could not succumb to that line of thinking. He could not surrender to despair. Somehow he would tame this creature, this thing that looked like a wild beast but spoke and walked like a man. It had the ability to speak and understand him; it must have a capacity for compassion and understanding. He would find a way to communicate with the creature as he would with any other animal in the forest. His life depended on it.
The beast sprung across the great hallway, up the stairs and to the east turret, the area that long ago had served as the bedrooms for the more privileged retainers. He ran down the hallway, through one bedroom, not stopping until he reached the window, leaping through it and onto the parapet, crouching by a winged gargoyle.
Letting himself collapse against the stone statue, he shuddered. Why had he let the daughter go? Why? She might have broken the curse, fallen in love with him, freed him from his hellish existence, freed the others...
But he couldn't. The scrap of humanity left within him prevented that selfishness. He wasn't that much of a beast to condemn an innocent to share his fate. Beau's words had been true. Belle was young and delicate. She would have withered away and died here.
Beau was strong, a hearty man, who hadn't cowered away from the sight of him, his claws and teeth and fur. The beast stared at his paws, ashamed. He'd struck Beau. Twice, viciously, the first blows he'd ever inflicted on another being. Others who had invaded the castle had fled at his first roar, but not Beau, not this tall mature man, who fought Bernard, striking him repeatedly until Bernard reacted aggressively, shamefully. How could he have done such a horrible act? Slapped Beau until the violence forced him to promise to stay?
Bernard shuddered, despising himself but made resolute by years of loneliness. Beau couldn't end the curse, but at least he would be another presence in the house, someone beyond the whispering voices in the walls.
A soul to share his fate...
Beau's dreams were odd that night, filled only with the sound of many different voices speaking into his mind - some male, some female, some old, some young, all worried and unhappy.
No... why did he let her go? Why? She could have been the one.
It’s too late, too late.
We'll never be free, never.
He's so old and ugly. Why didn't the beautiful one stay? The Master should have kept her here.
Somewhere in the dream was a bracing voice, a practical voice. The Master will have someone to talk to, and that's good.
The chorus of voices subsided.
As was his custom, Beau awoke with the first call of the birds, disoriented for a time, trying to decide why the mattress felt so much more comfortable and luxurious than the hard bed in his small cottage. Slowly he remembered where he was – the castle. He wiggled his toes, appreciating the length of the bed here in what he guessed was once the bedroom for the lord and lady. At least if he was to remain a prisoner, he would enjoy the best of the castle, and having a bed that easily fit his great height was satisfying.
Rising from the bed, he was pleased to find a pitcher of warm water on the nightstand, and fresh clothes laid out on a chair. He was surprised by the courtesies. Surely the beast hadn't carried these items into his room? From the rank smell of his fur, bathing was not a great concern. Washing and dressing quickly, Beau ventured forth to explore his new domain, and to tame his captor. The water had given him an idea, and he needed tools to act on it.
The morning was advanced when the beast finally appeared, allowing Beau plenty of time to arrange his first line of attack. The beast looked suspiciously at the large tub by the fireplace, the fire that was roaring and well stoked despite the day's pleasant temperature, the buckets of water and towels, before giving Beau an awkward, "Good morning, Monsieur."
"Beau. My name is Beau."
"What are you doing?"
"I have prepared for your bath."
The beast recoiled. "I will not bathe!"
Given the beast's reaction, it seemed unlikely that he had brought water to Beau. Was there someone else living in the castle? Another captive, a possible ally? But if so, where had he been hiding all morning while Beau searched the castle? Though certainly hiding would be easy in this great rambling building. The outside might be square and solid-looking, but the inside was full of confusing passages and stairways, all as dusty and dirty as the beast. "You are filthy and smell bad. If I'm going to live in this house with you, you will be clean."
"I am an animal. Animals are not clean."
"You are an animal with a voice and a mind. And before this day is over, you shall be a clean animal."
The beast's eyes reflected mutiny, turning the gray of storm clouds, but Beau held the stare, hands loosely on his hips to make his stature more intimidating. Belle had been a biddable daughter, but Beau had disciplined the village's rowdy boys more than once and stared down numerous wild animals. He knew how to be a stern figure of authority, counting on his being taller than the beast to help. Slowly, the beast advanced, step by step, toward the white ceramic tub. He paused at the edge and Beau held his hand out. The beast gave a strange noise that might have been a whimper before taking it with his paw, using Beau's hand for balance as he stepped gingerly into the water. "It feels... wet."
"Water usually does," Beau agreed, surprised and relieved that he had been the victor in this duel, allowing a trace of humor in his voice. Only a trace though. He didn't want the beast to think he was being mocked.
The beast knelt in the few inches of water in the bottom, his lower legs and feet becoming wet, looking at Beau rolling up the sleeves of his shirt. "You are going to bathe me?"
"I will take care of everything. Would you lower your head? I do not want to pour water in your eyes."
The beast bent his head and Beau took one of the warmed buckets of water, pouring it carefully over the beast's head and torso, wetting his fur. He picked up the bar of soap he'd found, soap that must have come from one of the big cities that the family had visited years ago, perhaps even Paris. The soap had a scent, faded but still noticeable, a masculine but elegant scent unknown to Beau. He wetted it and lathered it up, finding the texture creamier and more pleasing than the soap made by Madame Lautrec in the village.
Raising his head, the beast sniffed the air. "I know that smell."
The beast sniffed again, his snout wrinkling in concentration. "That was my – yes, I know it."
Deciding not to pursue what the beast didn't want to tell him, Beau began washing the beast's shoulders and back, which seemed the safest place to begin. He took the opportunity to study the animal. His fur was medium-length, light brown and coarse. His shoulders were broad, though overall the beast was not as intimidating as he'd appeared in the dungeon last night. He was definitely shorter than Beau, perhaps by as much as a head.
Scrubbing the back, he felt the dirt loosen under his fingers, the coarse fur becoming softer as he lathered the strands. The creature's spine was stiff at first, his muscles tense under Beau's hands, but gradually relaxed as Beau worked his way across the shoulders and down the length of the beast's back, which was slimmer with the wet fur plastered to his skin. He repeated his question from last night, "What is your name, Monsieur?"
"I have no name."
"Everyone has a name."
"My name is Beast," the creature growled, though with less heat than he'd displayed at the same question last night.
Beau concentrated on his neck, digging his fingers into the ruff of fur that gave the faint suggestion of a mane, like the exotic lions in far-off deserts. "Then I will call you Dieudonné."
"Given by God? Do you believe that God has given me to you?"
Surprised that the beast knew the meaning of the name, Beau allowed the question to hang. He picked up one of the buckets of water, holding it with one hand to drizzle it over the fur he'd washed, scrunching his other hand in the strands, ensuring that the soap was rinsed out. Setting the bucket down, he finally answered, "I believe that there is a reason for everything in this life, Dieudonné. A purpose."
"I have no purpose in life except to be miserable. You will not call me Dieudonné."
Splashing the soap in the water by the beast's legs, Beau wet it and rubbed it between his hands, creating more lather. He approached the front of the beast, kneeling by the white tub, and began working the bubbles into his chest. Under the fur, he could feel the powerful muscles, hard yet supple. His hands brushed against the beast's nipples and he was astonished to hear a small purr of pleasure. Rising his eyes to the beast's face, he was even more astonished when the beast glanced away, as if embarrassed by his reaction. "Then Ghislain," he said, more to distract the beast than as a serious suggestion, and curious to discover if the beast would know its meaning too.
The beast did, embarrassment turning to anger as he growled, his lips curling back to show his fangs. "You will not remind me every day that you are a hostage here."
"Then what, Monsieur? I will not call you beast." He rinsed off the beast's chest, then carefully lathered up his head, making sure to keep soap out of his eyes. Now their color was the blue of the nearby lake during a storm, though Beau would have sworn they had been as yellow as a flame when they’d fought in the dungeons.
The beast didn't speak until Beau had diligently washed and rinsed his face. "Tristan. Call me Tristan." Batting at Beau's hand, the beast claimed the soap, scooting in the tub to bring his legs to rest on the rim. The beast displayed a human's flexibility, making Beau wonder again how such a creature had come to exist. "I will finish."
Hunkering down on his heels, Beau watched as the beast washed his lower half. His long claws made his hold on the soap awkward, but his fingers were shaped more like a man's than an animal's paw, giving him the ability to grasp objects. "Are you sad, Monsieur?"
"The first meaning of 'Tristan' is 'tumult.'"
"Tumultuous and miserable… it does not sound like a good life you lead."
"Does it look to you like I have a good life?"
"A roof over your head, food in your belly… it is a better life than many, Monsieur."
The beast's eyes flashed, an angry yellow obscuring the blue, the long nails clinking on the tub as he curled one hand around its edge, prepared to spring. "You do not know my life, what I have been through. Do not condemn me."
"No, I do not. But I would like to learn." Beau held his breath, waiting for the result of his calm answer, until the beast's aggressive posture faded and he returned to cleaning his legs. "I shall call you Bernard, for you are like a hardy bear woken early from its hibernation, growling and showing your teeth."
"I will answer to Bernard."
Relieved that the topic was settled, Beau waited silently as the beast finished washing himself and stood. Beau picked up the last bucket of water and poured it slowly over the beast, sluicing the last of the soap down his fur and into the tub. Bernard shook himself, and Beau laughed as droplets of water splattered over him. "Come," he said, "let me help you dry."
Bernard acquiesced to Beau's stroking him with dry towels, absorbing the moisture from his fur until he was only faintly damp. Breaking away from Beau's ministrations, Bernard curled on the rug in front of the fire, letting the heat take care of the rest.
Accepting that the beast had tolerated enough physical contact for the day, Beau scooped a bucket of water out of the tub, intending to carry it outside.
"You don't need to do that," Bernard said sleepily.
"The room will not clean itself."
"Yes, it will. The castle takes care of itself. It's cleaner today, didn't you notice?"
"Yes, but I thought that you –"
Bernard laughed at the suggestion, rolling onto his back, exposing his belly. Now that he was drying, his fur looked a lighter color than before the bath, more tawny than brown. "With these?" he asked, waving his claws. "The castle takes care of itself," he repeated, curling back into a ball.
Beau hesitated, but Bernard's gentle breathing told him that the beast had fallen rapidly asleep. It was not in his nature to leave a task half-done, but sloshing the water around might wake the beast, and Beau's instincts warned him that Bernard's limits had been tested enough for the day. Leaving the tub, buckets, and sleeping beast, he crept out of the room. Now that his companion wouldn't smell quite so bad, it was time for further exploration of his new home.
The voices spoke to Bernard as he napped in front of the fire. He knew them well, his only companions for five long, lonely years.
He made the Master bathe.
A bath, he made the Master take a bath.
His hair was so matted and dirty. He'll feel better now that he's clean.
Maybe he'll get the Master out of the castle, introduce him to people again.
He must have smelled awfully bad, Mama.
Hush, child. Hush.
Bernard shifted in his sleep, smiling at the sensation of his clean fur rubbing on the rug, and the voices quieted.
A voice that Beau had not expected to hear for quite some time called out to him the next morning. "Beau? Monsieur Beau? Are you here?"
"Marcel! I am coming." Leaving the coolness of the castle, Beau crossed the courtyard to see Marcel standing by the gates. The young man looked nervous, shifting from one foot to the other, scanning the grounds. He was dressed in clothes more suited to town than walking through the forest, a green tunic with black breeches and polished black boots, and he carried a large basket.
"Marcel, I am glad to see you but why did you come?" Beau swung the gate open.
"Belle wanted to but I couldn't let her." As he spoke, Marcel thrust the basket forward at Beau. "She was worried that you wouldn't have food."
"Thank you. She is well?"
"She is worried for you."
"Tell her she has no reason to be. I am fine."
A roar sounded shockingly close, and Beau turned to see Bernard leaping across the courtyard on all fours, looking like a foul monster. Bernard sprang at the gate, shutting it, roaring at Marcel as the young man stumbled back, retreating from the menacing creature. "Leave this place!"
"He came to bring me food." Beau couldn't look away from Bernard, shocked to see him looking so wild when his manner was so calm after the bath.
"I didn't say you could have visitors."
"You never said I couldn't."
Bernard snarled at Beau. "Do not argue with me."
"This is my home now, and I will have visitors if I wish." Beau kept his tone even and his eyes level on Bernard's, determined not to back down, not to be isolated.
"Your visitor doesn't seem to agree with you," Bernard said with gloating satisfaction.
Beau turned his head to see Marcel fleeing down the pathway, and sighed. "He will tell everyone that you are a ferocious animal."
"Good. Then no one else will dare to come."
"Do you want to be lonely for the rest of your life?"
"I am not lonely," Bernard answered. "I have you."
Did you hear what the Master said?
He said he wasn't lonely.
That's good, isn't it?
We don't want the Master to be lonely.
But he needs to meet someone else. He needs to meet someone to love.
You must take him to the village.
One of the voices spoke directly at him, making Beau shift in his sleep. Why was his dream talking to him?
Take him to the village. Help him meet a young lady.
Why was his dream ordering him around? Bernard was already trying to give him orders. He didn't need to take commands from his dreams. Tugging at the bedclothes, he pulled the heavy blankets up to his ears, but he couldn't block out the sound. Take him to the village… take him to the village...
Bernard paced in the library and cursed his own hands. He was afraid to handle the books, to pick up the beloved tomes and risk scarring stiff bindings and thin paper with his sharp claws. The curse denied him even the comfort of reading, as it had denied him so many pleasures of living.
A voice called, "Bernard?"
"Yes, Beau?" At least he was no longer denied companionship.
"It's a library!" Beau stepped into the room, staring in amazement at the shelves of books reaching to the high arched ceiling. In all his life, he had never dreamed that so many books could be found in one place.
"Do you read?"
"Yes, I enjoy reading. I have never seen such an amazing collection of books."
"You may read anything you like."
"You could..." Though he had issued many commands to Beau, Bernard hesitated to make this request, fearing denial.
"I could?" Beau prompted.
"You could read to me sometime. If you would like."
"I would enjoy that very much. I used to read to my daughter when she was little, and then she would read to me, to help her learn. But I had a better thought for today."
"A better thought?" Bernard asked wistfully, doubting that there could be any better way to spend an afternoon than curling at Beau's feet while he read a novel of epic adventure in his wonderful deep voice.
"I thought we might go to my favorite meadow. I picked some fresh apples and found a bottle of wine."
The growl emerged from his chest unbidden, a result of his disappointment and anger. "You are not to leave the castle!"
"I am not trying to leave."
"You cannot! You promised!"
"I am not abandoning you," Beau stated firmly. "I am suggesting something that we can do together. For fun. You do like to have fun, don't you?"
Fun? When had he last had fun? Enjoyed a simple pleasure? He hadn't enjoyed anything for many years… until he had woken up on the rug and felt relaxed and clean, freshly scrubbed by Beau's big hands. "I don't have fun."
"Well, I do. And I would like you to have fun with me."
"I can't eat apples."
Beau stepped forward. Without asking permission, he clasped Bernard's head in his hands, tilting it back and using his thumbs to open his mouth.
Out of surprise, Bernard tolerated the invasion for a few seconds, the warmth of big hands cupping his furry face, before jerking away. "What are you doing?"
"You can eat apples. Your back teeth are like an animal that eats greens, designed for chewing. I will cut pieces for you."
"I can't drink wine."
"I have a bowl for you." Beau patted the leather satchel hanging from his shoulder. "Well? Do you have more excuses?"
Bernard glared at Beau, who maintained a determined and demanding expression. Unable to make Beau back down, Bernard finally relented in the silent struggle. "I would appreciate visiting your favorite meadow," he answered formally, making an awkward bow, seized by excitement now that his objections had been overruled. To leave the castle! In all the years since the curse, he had never dared to venture forth, never exposed himself to a new environment, instead remaining hidden within the rooms and gardens that he'd known since birth. Beau held out his hand, and Bernard trembled as he clasped it with his paw, allowing himself to be led out of the library and toward a new adventure.
Bernard had almost forgotten what it was like to enjoy the simple pleasures of life. A warm afternoon, a sunny meadow, his head lying cozily in a comfortable lap… not the companion he needed to rescue him, but a very pleasant, thoughtful companion nonetheless. A slice of apple dangled between Beau's fingers over his face. Bernard opened his mouth, let Beau drop in the tart fruit, and chewed with his back teeth. Swallowing, he said, "It has been so long since I tasted fruit. It is good."
"You should try more foods. I can cut them up for you."
"I would like that."
"Sweet fruits and hearty vegetables and aged cheeses…"
Bernard purred. His eyes were greener now, reflecting the grass under their bodies and the tall pine trees that circled the meadow. "You are making me hungry."
"Have you ever had croissants? Madame Fournier in the village makes the best chocolate croissants."
Flecks of yellow flared in the green eyes. "You cannot go to the village. You cannot leave me."
"I won't break my promise. But Marcel will come again. I can ask him to bring some."
"He won't be back."
"He'll be back."
"What makes you believe that?"
"Because he loves my daughter. And my daughter would not love a man who would abandon her father. You scared him, but he will return. Next time he comes, I will ask him to bring chocolate croissants."
Bernard made a guttural noise in his throat. He was still astonished that Beau had been able to face him so calmly since that first night, to make demands and to challenge him. Others who had dared to invade his castle – travelers, vagrants, treasure seekers – had all fled in the face of his wrathful appearance. And now Beau thought Marcel would come to visit? On a regular basis? Would Marcel leave another basket of food and flee, or could he learn to accept Bernard's presence? What would it be like, to talk with two people? "If he must," Bernard conceded, hiding his excitement behind a veneer of surliness.
"It is Louis!" Beau lifted Bernard's head off his lap, placing him gently on the ground, setting the rest of the apple on his leather satchel.
Bernard rolled to one side and raised himself on an elbow to look across the meadow. "Louis?"
"The wolf, see him? He's hiding in the trees."
The wolf was barely visible among the trees, its gray coat blending in with the shade thrown by the trees. "I see him."
"I've named him Louis. He has been limping. I believe he may have a thorn stuck in his paw. Wait here. I want to see if he'll let me remove it."
"You're going to try to heal a wild animal?"
But Beau was ignoring Bernard's protestation, walking calmly and slowly across the meadow. Bernard rolled up to his feet and started to follow, but Beau waved him back, speaking quietly. "Don't scare him."
"This is madness. He'll attack you."
"He knows I want to help him," was Beau's confident answer.
Bernard waited under the shade of the trees, watching as Beau stopped halfway across the meadow and held out one hand, asking the wolf to trust him, to come to him. To Bernard's astonishment, the wolf did, limping painfully across the meadow to meet Beau, who kneeled. Man and beast faced each other as Bernard held his breath, still waiting for the wolf to attack. How could Beau risk his life in this fashion?
Beau reached out, taking the wolf's paw, feeling the bottom. He spoke to the animal soothingly. "Poor wolf, poor Louis, you've got yourself in a fix, haven’t you? I knew you were hurt. But never mind, I'll take care of you." Using the tip of his knife, he began to ease the splinter from the wolf's paw. The animal yelped and tried to free his paw from Beau's grip, but Beau held on, speaking reassuringly. "You're going to be fine, Louis. I can see it in your eyes. You trust me, don't you? You can tell I'm taking care of you." He edged the last of the splinter out and pressed on the wound, making blood flow and ensuring that the wood was gone. A whimper was the animal's only protest.
Releasing the paw, Beau shifted his weight back on his heels. The wolf put his paw on the ground gingerly, taking one limping step.
Watching the two, Bernard could not understand why Beau did not back away from the animal. Did he not realize that a wounded animal was at his most dangerous? Could the wolf really understand that Beau had helped him? "You should get away from him," Bernard cautioned softly.
Beau crooned his response to the wolf, a lullaby of sympathy. "Louis will not hurt me, will you, Louis? The villagers fear you, but I know better. You cannot speak, you cannot take care of yourself. You need my help. You're not dangerous, are you boy? You're more vulnerable than the villagers who fear you. I am glad to help you, Louis."
With dread, Bernard saw another wolf in the shade of the trees, then another and yet another. The pack had followed Louis, and they began to approach Beau. The man had not noticed them, his attention still fixed on soothing the one he called Louis. The other wolves did not appear needy or vulnerable. They looked angry, the hackles of their dark fur rising as they prepared to defend their pack member against Beau. Growling to draw their attention, Bernard crouched, his hands dropping to rest on the ground, hoping he could scare them away.
Swiveling to see why Bernard was making noise, Beau saw the pack and froze. Staying calm, he deliberately stood up and took a step backwards. "Good wolves, good animals, we are your friends, you know this…"
The sound of Beau's voice could not ease the troubled situation. The lead wolf snarled, exposing sharp white teeth. Bernard sprang, running toward Beau in long leaps, using hands and feet to cover the ground swiftly. He slammed into the side of the lead wolf, sending them both rolling head over heels, and drawing the pack's attention to him and away from Beau.
Rolling to his feet, Bernard crouched, releasing his fear for Beau in a ferocious growling at the wolves. They circled him, snarling in return, as their leader struggled to his feet. It attacked Bernard, its mouth open to bite and tear at his flesh. With his own sharp claws, Bernard attacked back, raking slash marks in the wolf's fur.
The next few minutes were a blur for Bernard. Slash, growl, leap forward, retreat, slash, growl. Slash with his claws, bite with his sharp fangs. Send one wolf flying, turn to meet another one. He used the full extent of his animal nature to counter the threat of the wolf pack, out of his very human worry for Beau's safety.
Bernard kept one small part of his attention on Beau, worried that he might try to intercede, but the man stayed on the side of the fight, watching the horrible scene of teeth and claws and fur, of wolves sent flying and blood matting fur before falling to stain the grass. Beau held his knife in front of him, clearly wanting to help but hesitant to join the fray, perhaps afraid that he might get in Bernard's way. Bernard was grateful that Beau had been right about Louis, who sat by Beau's feet, whimpering, as if he wished he could stop his mates from fighting his helper's friend. At least in the midst of this madness, Bernard did not have to harm the newly-healed animal.
And then it was over, the wolves fleeing, conceding defeat to the beast. Bernard roared after them, a threat that they should never return, then fell to the ground on one knee, his attention going back to Beau, who still stood by Louis. The wolf looked up at Beau, who ruffled the fur around his neck. "Go with them." Giving one lick to Beau's hand, Louis followed his brethren as they disappeared into the forest. Beau rushed forward to Bernard, kneeling to slip one arm around Bernard's back and helping him. "Are you all right? Can you walk?"
Bernard let his weight sag against Beau, grateful for his support, breathing heavily from the fight. His fur was dabbed with splotches of blood, but he thought most of it was from the wolves. He hurt but the pain was more from burning exhausted muscles than wounds. "Yes."
"Let us get you back to the castle. I need water and cloths to care for you."
Bernard nodded in agreement, trying to shift his weight from Beau's support to his own shaky legs.
"Bernard." Beau cupped the beast's chin, raising the shaggy head to look at him. "Thank you. You saved my life. I've tracked those animals for years, watched them, studied them, helped them when I could. I never dreamed they might attack. My foolishness put your life at risk."
Not speaking, Bernard rubbed the side of his face against Beau's short beard, and began the walk to the castle.
"You are a horrible patient," Beau snapped, out of patience with the beast.
Bernard had hardly spoken on the long walk to the castle, then silently watched as Beau heated water. As soon as Beau tried to clean the claw marks in his fur, he'd begun twitching, fidgeting, shifting his body so that Beau was having difficulty finishing. Did he regret saving Beau? Did he blame Beau for his wounds?
"What do you want me to do?" Bernard snapped.
"I want you to stay still."
"The water's too hot. It stings."
"I didn't realize you were such an infant."
"I'm not an infant." Bernard jerked away, his elbow grazing Beau, who was crouched in front of him. The gesture made Beau lose his balance and he sprawled backwards on the ground. Bernard froze, his face horrified, then rushed forward, trying to help lift Beau up.
Refusing to move, Beau grabbed Bernard's arm, using the beast's own momentum to bring their faces close together. "Why don't you want me to help you?"
Bernard's eyes were more intensely blue-green than normal, the colors stark and separate. "I don't want you to touch me."
"Is my touch so offensive?"
"No!" He dropped his head, looking away.
Beau grabbed his skull with both hands, forcing him to meet his gaze, fiercely determined to learn what was upsetting his companion. "You were harmed because of me. Defending me. Do you blame me? Hate me?"
"No! I could never hate you."
"Then let me help you."
His whispered response was tortured. "I can't bear your touch."
Something was happening within Bernard, something that Beau did not understand. He released Bernard's head, instead clasping his shoulders, coaxing him down to the ground. Bernard accepted his lead, giving a heavy sigh as his head came to rest on Beau's chest. Beau stroked the rough fur on Bernard's back. "Talk to me, Bernard. Tell me what is wrong. Why does my touch hurt you?"
"Because I want more. I want to be held as if I were human again."
To be held like he was human again? So Bernard had been born human, not beast. Was he cursed when the rest of the castle's inhabitants disappeared? Had he been one of the servants? Or the young lord? If Bernard had been human, it was easy to understand the source of his distress. After his wife's death, Beau had experienced the long lonely hours of wanting to hold someone, to be held…but he'd always been able to give his daughter a hug. He’d never gone without human touch. "How long has it been, since anyone has touched you?" Had it been as long as Beau's wife had been gone?
"Since I was cursed. Since I became a monster."
"You are not a monster!" Beau protested vehemently. No wonder Bernard had imprisoned him, and acted so angrily at Marcel. What must it be like, to live all alone, no one to share your laughter or troubles, while you thought of yourself as a horrible demon?
"I am a monster."
"You are Bernard, who has suffered in my defense. Now stay still and let me clean your wounds."
The tone of his voice was commanding enough that Bernard obeyed, not fighting or fidgeting as Beau rolled him to his back, and picked up the water and towel again. Fortunately, the marks proved to be mostly superficial, thin scratches that had dried closed during the return walk. Most were on Bernard's chest, but a few had caught him on the arms. Beau took his time, finding each spot, wetting it carefully, cleansing the fur and patting it dry.
Satisfied that Bernard would be fine, Beau set the towel aside. He didn't rise though, continuing to stroke the soft fur of Bernard's belly. The fur was wonderfully thick and plush, silkier than any other animal Beau had ever touched, and warm from the heat of Bernard's body. He let his hands drift up and down Bernard's torso, stroking the fur to lie flat, then roughing it up.
Letting his hands drift back up Bernard's torso, Beau brought them to Bernard's nipples, remembering Bernard's astonished purr during the bath. He covered the nipples first with his palms, accustoming Bernard to the sensation of the rough skin of his hands on the peaks. He met Bernard's eyes with his own, seeing no rejection, only smoky desire as the blue-gray dominated and darkened. With his thumbs, he rubbed the nipples, around and around in steady circles.
The effect on Bernard was instantaneous and unmistakable. He arched, thrusting his chest forward into Beau's hands, the top of his head coming to rest on the ground as he groaned. His member began to emerge from the thick fur between his thighs, red and pointing toward Beau.
For a second, the sight of Bernard in sexual frenzy made Beau hesitate. What was he doing? Touching an animal this way… no, Bernard seemed more like a man… but even touching a man… Sensing his hesitation, Bernard looked at him, his eyes desperate and needy, full of loneliness and desire, and Beau could not refuse the silent pleading.
Beau stroked Bernard's torso again, coming close to the engorged member, teasingly moving his hands away and bringing them back to Bernard's nipples, rubbing them hard. Bernard thrashed on the ground, whimpering. He reached toward Beau, as if to touch him in return, then jerked his claws away from Beau and flattened his paws on the ground, burying his claws in the rug.
Bernard's unrestrained pleasure made Beau grin, his worry dispelled by the relief he felt, helping Bernard experience new sensations. Beau repeated his caresses again and again, going further downward, closer and closer to where Bernard most needed his touch, retreating back upwards, scratching in the fur to tickle Bernard before rubbing his nipples.
Shifting his body, Beau half-lay on the ground, half-covered Bernard, pressing his bearded cheek to Bernard's furry face, the coarse bristles intermingling with fuzzy fur. The tip of Bernard's tongue slipped out of his snout and licked at Beau's lips and Beau responded, meeting him lick for lick as his hands finally landed on Bernard's member, clasping the reddened length. This part of Bernard wasn't furry, but slick and wet. Beau grasped it firmly with one hand, the other seeking his balls. The fur was over them was thinner, the skin more prominent.
Finally, oh finally… Beau fondled the full heavy balls in his hand, making Bernard's eyes go wide and a smoky gray-blue with wonder. Bernard rolled, reversing their positions so that Beau was on his back and Bernard's hands were on each side of his head. Beau thrust up with his hips and Bernard responded, rubbing his body on Beau's. Caught in the rug, his claws dug through the fabric to scrape on the cold stone floor.
Not knowing what kind of touch Bernard would like, Beau did what he enjoyed, hoping it would be pleasurable. Moisture coated Bernard's shaft, easing the glide of Beau's fingers swiftly up and down the length. He rolled the sac in his fingers, gripping and squeezing. To his surprise, Beau realized that Bernard's passion was affecting him. His own shaft swelled within his breeches, his hips lifting up to meet Bernard's downward thrusting, his chest struggling to breathe. As his body became excited, Beau's touch became harder and rougher, transmitting a forceful urgency that Bernard responded to, his hips jerking more energetically, investing his full animal strength.
The fierce striving could not be sustained for long, sending them climaxing quickly, abruptly. Beau felt the wetness shoot from Bernard's member, coating his hand and dampening his trousers as his own body shuddered in great spasms, from his heels to the top of his head, giving up his own seed to meet Bernard's. As they came together, Beau's hoarse groan was lost in Bernard's triumphant roar.
Worn out, they napped together on the floor, the beast's head curled on the man's chest, both hearing the voices as they rested.
Mama? What was that? What did they do?
Hush, child. You don't need to know about that yet.
The Master and the man… should they have been doing that? They shouldn't have been doing that.
Does the Master… love the man?
How can he love him? He is a man.
Mama, is that love? Does that mean we'll be freed?
The voices died.
Bernard woke to find himself cuddled onto Beau's body, his head on Beau's chest, one of his legs thrown over Beau's hips. He studied the sleeping man, at once happier than he had been since the curse, and yet more desolate. This man had gifted him with his body, elevating Bernard to heights of which he had never even dared to dream. He had brought paradise into hell.
Despite his warning, Beau had chosen to stroke his fur, to fondle his most private parts, to press and thrust against him… in ways that he'd never known or imagined knowing in his cursed state. Beau had not withdrawn, not flinched away, but with his strong hands and big tall body, his wordless stroking and licks from his tongue, introduced Bernard to sensual pleasure.
How could Bernard keep his savior imprisoned?
How could he let him leave?
Beau smiled, his eyes still closed. "You are a deep sleeper."
"Yes. You haven't moved since you fell asleep." He opened his eyes, their light mirroring the smile on his lips. "My back is getting stiff. Will you help me up?"
Mortified, Bernard leapt up, helping Beau stand. The man brought him into an embrace, speaking quietly. "Do not be embarrassed. I am glad that I could help you, and I felt great pleasure from it."
Bernard butted his head against Beau's chin, waiting to see what he would say next.
"But I think we should do this outside of the castle from now on. Where the voices cannot see us."
"In the meadow?"
"The meadow. As long as there are no wolves around." Beau tilted Bernard's head back, lightly grazing his fingers over the furry face, tracing the pointed ears, the tufts of hair along his cheekbones, the damp nose. "I do not understand this," he said seriously. "What we have done here together. I only know that it feels right, to help you find happiness. You are happy?"
"For the first time in my life, Beau. For the first time in my life."
The week that followed was the most unusual in Beau's life. He'd known happiness most of his life, as an adored child, with his lovely wife and his sweet daughter, but this was a different type of happiness, strengthened by Bernard's gratitude, and a sense of purpose that he was helping a lost soul in a way that no one else could or would.
Beau and Bernard were constantly in each other's company, making the days full. Bernard no longer disappeared for long stretches of time. They explored the castle and the grounds, Bernard initially reluctant but then more eager to be Beau's guide. Beau had never lived in such grand surroundings, and was constantly amazed and befuddled by the complexity of the castle's design and the vastness of the overgrown yard. Methodically, Beau began to take stock of supplies, what was still usable and what had been destroyed by time. He sprinkled the conversation with comments about goods they could find in town and what Marcel could bring to them, pleased that Bernard no longer protested the notion.
Beau talked easily about his life, his dreams, his daughter, the time he spent following animals and caring for them, letting Bernard know him better. Bernard slowly began to share his thoughts, but backed away from details of his background, who he was and how he came to be cursed. Instead, Bernard diverted the conversation away from himself by requesting that Beau read to him. They enjoyed lazy hours in the library, Beau sitting on the couch, reading aloud, as Bernard sprawled with his head in Beau's lap, listening raptly.
To Beau's amazement, the castle responded to their happiness. The layers of dust slowly disappeared, the scenes and stunning colors of the tapestries revealed, the china figurines appearing to dance in their shininess. Candles and fires burned, giving the rooms a welcoming feel. More substantial food appeared than just cooked chicken: hearty stews and boiled vegetables and slices of fresh fruit. Even the creeping ivy began to disappear from the castle's exterior.
Marcel came again, as Beau had predicted, bringing more baskets of food along with expressions of concern from Belle. Beau assured Marcel that he was doing fine, asking for chocolate croissants from Madame Fournier's shop and special cheeses from Monsieur Renault, food that he wanted to share with Bernard. Marcel promised to bring them. Nevertheless, at the sight of Bernard entering the courtyard, he scurried away, even though Bernard didn't roar or chase at him, merely appearing and sitting in a crouch some yards distant.
Every day, they left the castle grounds eagerly for the meadow, carrying food, drink and a book to explain their leaving to the voices, items that were placed to one side when they reached their shady bower. Their touches were hesitant at first. Beau was embarrassed to remove his clothing outdoors, his large naked body visible to the sun, his skin incredibly sensitive to the feeling of cool blades of grass under his back while Bernard's warm soft fur covered him.
Only Bernard's need, his obvious craving to be touched and held, and his unabashed appreciation of Beau's long body eased Beau's modesty and freed him to learn what Bernard liked, how to make Bernard wild with the caress of his strong hands, when to thrust against him and when to make him wait, until Bernard was mindless with desire before becoming insensible.
They slept together in the night, but chastely. Beau would don a nightgown and arrange himself under the covers. Bernard would join him, lying on top of the quilt, curling into a circle like a big dog. And if they rearranged themselves during the night to awaken with Bernard's furry head on Beau's chest, what could the voices say?
Beau could have been content to live this life forever. In a way, it was almost the future he'd envisioned after Belle's wedding, except in a home more magnificent than his humble cottage and with a rather unique companion. But today was the eve of Belle's wedding, the date and the promise to his late wife nagging at him. He had sworn to dance at Belle's wedding, just as he'd sworn to stay with Bernard, and more and more, he realized he wanted to do both.
"What are you thinking about?"
Reluctant to confess his desire to leave, Beau replied, "I still wonder why Belle came here. It's rare for her to explore beyond familiar paths."
"I can show you where I found her. Follow me."
Beau followed Bernard, observing the beast's walk. He had run on all fours at Marcel and the wolves, emphasizing his animal nature. Around Beau, he stayed on two legs, his creamy fur shifting with the rippling of the lean muscles, a sturdy back tapering into lean hips. He seemed more and more comfortable around Beau, the hunched shoulders and tense body of the first days replaced by a relaxed, almost swaggering stride.
Bernard walked across the courtyard and down one of the garden paths, which were barely discernible through the encroaching plants. On this side of the castle, mostly ornamentals had been planted, clearly for the lord and his family to enjoy, pretty flowers and bushes with distinctive leaves. But now they were interspersed by weeds and other volunteers, brought over time by the wind and birds. With pleasure, Beau thought he might have to start taking care of the gardens that encircled the castle, as the gardener seemed less able than the voices in the house.
Coming to a high brick wall, Bernard paused. "This place is very special to me." He pushed aside a curtain of sweet peas draped over a dilapidated wooden door, opening it and standing aside to let Beau enter. Beau stepped through and halted in the doorway, amazed by the sight of abundant roses, more roses than he had ever seen in all different colors, vibrant reds, soft pinks, sunshine yellows, delicate whites. The rose bushes were heavy with blossoms, many in full bloom, their petals opened wide to the sun's caress. Beau walked among the bushes, avoiding being caught by the sharp thorns, inhaling the intoxicating perfume.
"I found Belle here,” Bernard said. "I don’t know how she knew the way in, but she was sitting amongst the roses, lost in thought, when I surprised her."
Unlike the gardens outside, the roses had been tended, pruned regularly so that they would bloom to their best advantage. Beau glanced at Bernard's claws. Was this one of his hiding places? "These are beautiful. I have never seen such roses."
"They were planted by the lady of the castle."
"You said that you had been human, so I guessed that you must be Bernard, the son who was left when the rest of his family was killed. I should have known from the beginning that you are too human to have been born an animal."
"And too animal to live among humans again."
"Come." Beau thought about disputing that belief, but decided he wanted to hear Bernard's tale before raising a subject of potential disagreement. He sat on a bench among the roses, patting the seat next to him. "Tell me what happened."
Reluctantly, Bernard approached the bench, sitting down and curling his legs to his chest, his feet on the bench and his arms on top of his knees. He faced Beau but stared down at his paws, loosely clasped together.
When Bernard appeared to have difficulty beginning, Beau prompted, "You were enchanted."
"I brought this curse upon myself."
"You must have been very young. And you were all alone."
Bernard spoke softly, slowly, as if the memories were still painful to discuss. "I imagine they talked about our tragedy in the village."
"The villagers wept for your family and for you." Beau rested one hand on Bernard's calf, lightly stroking the short fur, hoping his touch would encourage Bernard to speak.
"I was left alone, in the care of the servants. I was devastated by my loss, and angry at God. My uncle was supposed to send for me to come to Paris, but he was dilatory about sending a traveling coach and companion. His lack of interest only increased my anger. The servants tried to make up for my losing my family. They let me do anything I wanted. I became spoiled, willful." Bernard didn't meet Beau's eyes, making the man wonder if Bernard was embarrassed by his youthful reactions.
"An old woman came to the castle one night, seeking shelter. She offered me a rose. It made me mad, looking at this old woman with her rose, knowing that my mother had not lived to be old and enjoy her roses. I turned her away. She offered again, and I rejected her. She grabbed at my arm and thrust the rose into my face. I still remember the smell of its heavy perfume, almost overpowering. I pulled my arm out of her grip and told her to leave.
"She changed into a beautiful young woman, wearing a fine gown and many jewels. For my rejection, she cursed me and everyone in the castle, saying that we would never be free until I could learn to love, and was loved in return."
Beau squeezed Bernard's calf in sympathy. "It seems to me as if you loved too much, not too little."
Beau's eyes glowed, the yellow flecks shining forth warmly rather than with the burning fire of the first night. "You understand. You truly understand."
"An enchantress may be powerful but not necessarily wise."
"But you are very wise. The wisest man I have ever met." Bernard shifted on the bench, twisting to lay his shaggy head in Beau's lap.
Beau trailed his fingers over the thick neck ruff, patting gently, feeling sympathetic toward this young soul who had suffered so much, first from the loss of his family, then from the loss of his humanity. No… not his humanity, only his physical human appearance. Bernard had never lost his true nature, his goodness that made him human.
"I want you to leave now." In one fluid motion, Bernard rolled off Beau's lap, and stood facing him. "I cannot keep you imprisoned by a vow I forced upon you."
"But…" Beau wanted to protest, to demand that he be allowed to honor his pledge. He had never broken his word. The realization that Bernard was offering what he'd wanted since Belle had fled the castle stopped him. Now was the chance to follow her, to resume his comfortable life, to attend her wedding, to spoil his grandchildren... "I cannot leave you alone," he blurted out.
"I have lived alone for many years. I can do so again."
"I made a promise."
"I release you from your oath." Bernard turned away, walking among the roses, snipping the stalks with his claws until he held a large bouquet of new buds in his arms. "Take this to Belle, and thank her for me, for the time that she allowed me to experience with you. I will never forget these days."
"But…" Beau stammered helplessly, torn between the chance to have his old life restored and the contentment he'd discovered in this new strange life.
Bernard thrust the bouquet into his arms. "Please. Go." He ran toward the back wall of the garden, his speed and powerful thigh muscles giving him the momentum to leap onto the brick wall. Stopping on top of the wall, he took one long last look at Beau before he disappeared.
The entire village turned out for the celebration of Belle and Marcel's wedding. Beau was dressed in the new suit of clothes that Belle had made for him. The jacket and breeches were made from a cotton fabric that Belle had dyed to match his blue eyes, and he wore a white shirt and his brown boots.
No one was as beautiful or radiant as Belle, or as handsome and happy as Marcel. They wore clothes the color of new leaves, and seemed as alive and vibrant as spring. Beau watched fondly as Marcel twirled Belle in a dance, her laughing eyes adoring him as he gazed at her with love. He had felt that way at his own wedding, full of love and the promise of a new beginning.
Bernard's roses complimented that feeling. The buds had opened as the celebration progressed through the service, the feasting, and now displayed their rich velvety petals during the dancing. Belle had twisted the white roses into her brown hair, sleekly piled onto her head, with the last white rose on Marcel's lapel. Her dearest friends wore the pink and yellow, and three red roses were pinned together on Beau's lapel, the sweet fragrance teasing his memory with the vision of Bernard, alone once more.
"They are a beautiful couple," a woman's voice said next to him.
Beau glanced down at her. She was an old woman with white hair caught into a bun, dressed simply in plain sturdy clothes. He was surprised to see her, as she did not live in the village, but perhaps she was a relative of Marcel's, come from nearby? "They are very beautiful, old mother."
"And so in love."
"Very much in love."
"Have you been that lucky, Monsieur?"
"I was once, with my wife, Belle's mother."
"But not since then?"
He started to respond, no, not since his wife's death, but could not bring the words to his lips. "I have loved no other woman since I loved Belle's mother."
"But you have discovered that love comes in many guises?"
Her eyes were an emerald green, so clear and discerning that they seemed to see through him, and into his very heart and soul. He thought of Bernard, and of an afternoon spent lying in the meadow, sharing apples and wine. Bernard fighting for his life, even though Beau had caused the danger. The lovemaking they had shared, which should have seemed wrong. Bernard sending him away, willing to live alone for the rest of his life, to protect Beau's happiness. The wrongness Beau felt when he obeyed that instruction. "Yes, love comes in many different guises. As do you, I think."
She smiled, and her body rippled, the old crone replaced by a beautiful young woman, the white hair becoming black, the sturdy clothes shimmering into a beautiful silver dress. "You are as wise as you are handsome."
"Not handsome," he corrected. "But hopefully wise now that I have examined my heart."
"Very handsome. Now come, dance with me. Enjoy tonight."
He took her hands and swept her into the crowd of dancers.
Beau intended to return to the castle first thing in the morning, but circumstances intervened. He felt obligated to remain for the morning breakfast, where the feting of the new couple continued with many sly jests about the wedding night. Belle blushed prettily and gave many shy and admiring looks at her husband, giving Beau a peace of mind and a sense of freedom. He could leave her now, secure in her future.
His things were few, but he took the time to gather his clothing and personal items before announcing his decision to Belle and Marcel. He knew she would be upset to lose him until he could persuade Bernard to tolerate regular visits, but the extent of her unhappiness surprised him. Belle protested bitterly, tearfully, until he held her against his chest and let her cry to exhaustion as Marcel awkwardly patted her back, trying to console her.
The truth was revealed then, how Belle's mother had taken her to the castle on a visit to a friend, and the friend had stolen them into the walled garden to show off the lady's prized roses. The lady had caught them by accident, but rather than scolding them for their impertinence, she had been pleased by their interest and admiration. Bernard's mother had taken the time to introduce them to the different varieties, gifting Belle with a bouquet of pink roses.
That happy day was Belle's last cheerful memory of her adored mother before the illness consumed the village. With her own wedding quickly approaching, Belle had hoped to visit with her mother’s spirit, by venturing to see if the roses still grew and were as beautiful as she recalled. Instead, her foolishness was condemning her father to a life with a monstrous beast.
Touched by his daughter's confession and yearning for her long-departed mother, Beau took time to reassure her as much as he could of Bernard's good nature and Beau's safety at the castle, a task complicated by his reluctance to explain fully the closeness he shared with Bernard.
Belle finally accepted his reassurance, though he could see the doubt lingering in her beautiful brown eyes. Fortunately, the town mayor arrived to witness Beau signing a dead of transfer for the cottage and its contents, and Belle silenced her worries in his presence.
With a last kiss on Belle's cheek, and handshakes from Marcel and the mayor, Beau threw his pack over his shoulder and set out on his journey back to the castle. He had fulfilled his responsibility of being a parent and seen Belle into married life, and now it was time to start a new life of his own with Bernard, his lover.
The castle appeared gloomy as he approached it, as if the weeds and ivy had grown back with a vengeance, becoming even thicker in the brief time he'd been gone. He called for Bernard as he crossed the courtyard and entered the castle, but received no answer. Lighting a candle, he carried it with him as he wandered the first floor, searching for his lover.
A sense of alarm grew as he received no response. His steps quickened as he ran up the wide stairway, his calls sounding frantically. Why was Bernard not coming to see him? Bernard didn't leave the castle. He should know by now that Beau had returned to him.
Beau barreled into the bedroom he'd been using to see a still figure lying on the bed, on top of the heavy quilt. "Bernard?" Setting the candle on the nightstand, he perched on the side of the bed. "Bernard?"
There was no response from the beast. He was lying on his back, his arms by his sides, his fur looking coarse and unbrushed. His eyes were closed and he did not seem to be breathing. Beau touched him hesitantly on the chest. The fur felt cool under his fingers, not warm. "Bernard?" He stroked one side of his face, the high cheekbone, around the slant of his eyes. Bernard did not give a flicker of movement of acknowledgement.
"Bernard? Love?" Beginning to feel panicky about the lack of response, Beau grabbed Bernard by his shoulders and shook him. The body moved limply under his hands but it was only a body, without warmth, personality, or soul.
"NO!" Beau gathered Bernard into his arms, his eyes wetting with tears. How had Bernard died? Was it the curse? Was it the despair of believing that Beau had left him, that he would be alone all his life? Was his heart broken? The enchantress should have known, should have warned Beau to hurry back, to save his Bernard.
He rocked on the bed, holding Bernard, the tears falling freely, unable to believe that Bernard's life had ended while Beau was dawdling over packing and reassuring Belle. What good was having his possessions? He couldn't stay in the castle alone. Bernard's death freed him, but it was a freedom he no longer wanted. "I wanted to be with you," he gasped between tears. "I wanted to stay with you, in this castle, to read to you and love you. How can you leave me?"
In despair, Beau clung to Bernard, his face buried in Bernard's ruff, until he imagined the limp body twitching in his arms. But the spasms grew, shocking Beau, who couldn't understand what was happening. Bernard's body thrashed back and forth until Beau had to release him. Stumbling away from the bed, he watched as Bernard's furry body flailed and twisted, his arms and legs moving as if out of control.
"Bernard!" Beau's frantic cry was not acknowledged as the thrashing continued unabated, until Beau feared that Bernard's body would break apart. Indeed, his fur was rippling, large patches falling off, revealing clean skin underneath.
Bernard's arms flew straight up, his paws shaking as they seemed to … shrink? Yes, the sharp claws were shrinking, disappearing, turning into human fingernails, the paws transforming into hands. The legs followed the same miracle, claws vanishing, fur dissolving, until all that remained was a pair of human legs.
Astonished, Beau looked to Bernard's face. The beastly features were anguished from the pain of the transformation. As he watched, the muzzle shortened into a straight human nose, the tips of the ears and the fangs shrank, and the fur fell off the chin to reveal a charming cleft. And then it was over, and Bernard's body went perfectly still, the human body of a young man, devoid of life.
Exhausted by his tears, Beau could only give a single sob of understanding. The enchantress hadn't condemned Bernard to meet the divine spirit as a beast. To apologize for her own mistake, she had granted Bernard the favor of releasing his soul in the human form of his birth. Beau stepped forward and delicately touched Bernard's face, the lips he might have kissed had he known this man. The pain of losing his lover hurt too much and he looked away, unable to accept that the enchantress' kindness meant he would have to bathe and dress a stranger for his burying.
A sudden loud 'pop' emitted from the wall and he whirled to see a young man sprawling on the floor, dressed in the livery of a footman. The man sprang to his feet and patted his body, amazed. "I'm free! Monsieur, you have freed us!"
Beau could hear more pops in the hallway, and more exclamations before the door burst open and a veritable army of servants swept into the bedroom, their voices awakening the castle and overwhelming him. In a daze, Beau was swept into the corridor to be greeted by Madame Brun, who was clearly the housekeeper and the owner of the practical voice who often stopped the conversations in his dreams. He thought to tell her of Bernard's loss, but he could hear the footman making loud noises, and knew that soon she would learn the news from one of her own. He also met the very proper butler, two equally stiff footmen, several flirtatious maids, and the enthusiastic cook, who were all thrilled to meet him and seemed to know him well. Their enthusiasm separated him from Bernard's lifeless body, and he was relieved to go. At least the enchantress had not bound them to follow Bernard into death.
Finally escaping the noisy din of so many happy voices, he made his way out of the side door, to see an elderly man in the courtyard, down on his knees and tugging at the weeds growing between the cobblestones. "Monsieur?" Beau said hesitantly.
"Master Beau!" The man's voice was frail but jubilant as he took Beau's hand and shook it. "I am so pleased to meet you."
"And I am pleased to meet you, Monsieur…?"
"Jacques, Master Beau."
He remembered the voice from his dreams, one of the quieter voices. "It is a pleasure to meet you. But you must not work yet. You must enjoy your freedom."
"I have been without a body for five years, Master Beau, barely able to take care of the grounds. I tried to remove the ivy from the castle but it was so hard. There is much to do now. And I wish to enjoy feeling these old muscles move."
"Yes, of course." Beau smiled distantly and let him return to his work, remembering how he had anticipated caring for the garden. He wandered to the stables in the back, meeting the grooms, the carriage driver, and the husky young man and pert maid who handled the milk cows and the chickens. Alive, they were all alive, so full of vitality, so grateful to him, and so eager to resume their lives. He didn't have the heart to inform them that their master's death had been their salvation.
Turning back to the castle, Beau resolved to conquer his pain and talk to the housekeeper. The servants thought of him as a friend, and he should offer them comfort. At least the enchantress had given Bernard a kind fate, allowing his human body to be buried with the rest of his family.
He hesitated and decided to make a visit to one more place. His heart was too heavy, too full of its own grief to cope with people who were veritable strangers, even if they had loved their master as much as he had. He walked to the walled garden and opened the door, stepping inside, and then froze at the vision before his eyes.
There was a young man among the roses, sitting on the bench, his eyes closed and head tilted back to the morning sun, a young man who was clearly not one of the servants. His hair was tawny-colored and long, a diamond clip holding the strands together, his face handsome with a small smile curving his lips, and he wore a white shirt with dark green breeches, white silk socks and heeled black shoes with diamond brooches. This man was dressed like a lord, a member of nobility. Was this the face that had lain so still and lifeless on the bed upstairs? "Bernard?"
The young man's eyes opened as he turned his head to look at Beau. Like Bernard's, his eyes held many colors, flecks of blue, green and gray blended. His smile growing wider, he leaped up and rushed over to Beau, flinging his arms around him and hugging him. "Beau! My love."
Clasping the young man's arms, Beau pushed him slightly away so he could see his face. "Bernard? Is it truly you?"
"Yes, of course." Bernard laughed. "And it is Bernard. I was so astonished when you picked my own name. And pleased. It was as if you knew me already. But I never allowed myself to dream that you would free me from my enchantment. Free me and all of the others who were trapped by the curse."
Confused, Beau shook his head. "I thought you were dead. I thought I'd killed you, not returning in time."
"No, not dead. I merely needed time to recover from the transformation, from changing back into a human. Beau, you didn’t kill me, you saved me."
"But I have done nothing."
"Oh Beau. My handsome one." Bernard framed Beau's face with trembling hands, stroking his beard. "You loved me. You cared for me. And you came back. I went to sleep in your bed, knowing I was dying. I could no longer live by myself, without you. I woke up to find you holding me, crying, and my limbs were on fire. I shook and thrashed, and then it was over. I couldn't move. I felt so different, so light without the fur and the fangs and the claws, almost insubstantial. And then I knew I was free. Free. Because you came back to me." His arms wound around Beau's neck as he pressed a passionate kiss on his lips. "I heard voices in the room instead of my head. Do you know what a relief that was? I have never been hugged so much as I was this morning. I finally had to escape out here, hoping that we could meet for the first time as men without a crowd of our servants around."
His arms had been hanging loosely at his sides, but Beau placed them tentatively on Bernard's slim hips. Now that he was no longer a beast, the young man felt similar and yet so different in his arms. Still lean and muscled, but furless and less bulky. "I never dreamed that my coming back would free you."
"You were coming back to the beast?"
Bernard smiled, his expression open and happy. "It was not just your coming back, but your love. That was the curse, that I would be trapped until I learned to love another and was loved in return."
"Then this means… that you do love me?"
"Oh, Beau." Bernard threw himself at Beau again, kissing him hungrily.
Beau let himself enjoy the kiss, let his mouth open to accept Bernard's tongue, slipped his own into Bernard's warm mouth, feeling the even teeth. Without the fangs, he could kiss him, their mouths fitting as comfortably together as their bodies. The kiss deepened, their mouths melding, each tasting voraciously of the other until Beau felt Bernard backing away from him. Beau didn't try to hold onto Bernard, but let him go, waiting to see what the younger man wished to do.
Bernard grabbed Beau's hands, pulling him over to the bench, pressing on his thighs to make him sit. "I can do this, now, to thank you."
Bernard smiled, and Beau realized how much of his charm had been hidden by the beast's face. His lips curled upward with a sly sweetness, accentuated by the soft dimple in his chin and the mischievous sparkle in his eyes. "Take care of you, as you took care of me."
"Take care of me?" Beau asked, frowning as Bernard's long fingers plucked at the front of his breeches. "Bernard!" He had learned to accept the exposure of his flesh to the sun in the meadow but here? With others so close? He was horrified when his shaft began to swell, as if appreciating its release from confinement and Bernard's hungry gaze.
"Such a powerful man," Bernard murmured throatily, the tips of his fingers barely stroking Beau's length. "Such a formidable beast."
Though his mind protested, his body was responding to the promised delights offered by Bernard's open admiration, hardening and lengthening, yearning toward Bernard's mouth. "Not a beast."
"A beast," Bernard contradicted. "A powerfully hungry beast. But don't worry," he said with a grin. "It's a beast I can tame." With that promise, he leaned his head forward and took the crown into his mouth.
At the sensation of that moist heat surrounding his shaft, Beau gave a strangled shout. His hands clenched on the stone bench, the cold firmness anchoring his body as his mind exploded with sensation. He watched Bernard's tawny head bob over his lap, heard the buzzing of a bee near his head and the more distant noise of voices, smelt the perfume of the roses, fragrant and sweet, and felt the pressure of Bernard's mouth sucking on him, taking his length deeper into his throat.
Bernard's intense desire weakened Beau, drawing all his energy into his shaft. Spreading his thighs, he shifted his buttocks to the edge of the stone bench and leaned back, his hips cradled on the stone, helping to support him. Bernard seemed to understand Beau's need, slipping his hands under the small of his back, holding him up as his entire body went limp. Everything that is, except his shaft, hard and solid as the stone under him.
Moaning in pleasure, Beau stroked the silk material covering Bernard's arms and back, trying to transmit his feelings through sound and touch. Bernard responded with sound and touch of his own, loud greedy slurping noises as he sucked and licked on Beau's shaft, his hands sneaking under Beau's shirt and breeches to stroke his upper thighs and lower torso. Clasping the diamond clip, Beau released it and dropped it to the ground, freeing Bernard's glorious long hair, running his fingers through it. His hair was softer than his fur had been, not quite as thick and full, but even more pleasant to touch.
The feeling of Bernard's hair in his hands anchored him as a great wave of pleasure swept through his body. He shuddered, arching his hips, driving himself the last measure into Bernard's mouth, feeling Bernard's lips and nose pressed into his skin, the touch holding him steady as the storm flowed through him.
Bernard's pink tongue slipped out of his mouth, licking his lips, cleaning the last traces of Beau's culmination from his face. "I wanted that to be the first meal I had as a human again."
Groaning, Beau pulled Bernard onto his lap and into another hungry kiss. "You are amazing. I cannot believe your generosity."
"No more than yours. You are the most generous man I have ever known. To your daughter, to me, to wild animals… you care for everyone. Now come with me. Come with me to the master bedroom. I want to do everything we did before, out in the meadow, and even more, all that we could not do when I was a beast. I want to be in our bed, on clean sheets."
"You should not want me. You should go to Paris, meet young ladies, marry one and have a family. You should not love an old man like me."
"But I already do love you, and our love is blessed by the enchantress. You would not wish me to incur her wrath again, would you?" Bernard laughed even as he asked the question, knowing its foolishness. He caught Beau's hands, pulling him to his feet and toward the gate. "Come, I wish to celebrate our love and our new life in all ways."
Unable to resist his happiness and the sensual gleam in his eyes, Beau followed Bernard's lead, shivering as he anticipated what would occur in that big bed in the master bedroom. And how they would live happily ever after.
~ finis ~