The sound of galloping hoofbeats made her look up. Her eyes widened in surprise.
Belle had been going about her chores when the horse galloped into the yard, lathered, panicked, and exhausted. She dropped the basket of grain and the chickens swarmed around her feet. She took a step towards the horse, trying to calm him with words of nonsense, and once she got close enough, she realized his hair was spotted with blood.
The horse reared, but calmed once Belle had grasped the reins. The ends were rough—they had been torn. She swallowed, and then concentrated on the task at hand. She led the horse to the water trough and wiped him down while he drank. Then she guided him into the stable and settled him with hay and a scoop of their precious oats. After she made sure the stable door was shut, she sank onto the front steps of the house, hands shaking. The horse had no wounds.
Belle crouched, head on her knees, trying to breathe. The horse had returned, alive. The reins had been torn. He had had blood not his own on his pale coat.
“Belle?” said a man’s voice.
Belle, still clutching her knees as though she might fly apart, looked up. Gaston stood there, a bouquet of flowers in hand. Part of her wanted to tell him to leave and never come back. But her practical side took over.
“My father is missing,” she forced herself to say. “The horse came back...there was blood. Can you help me?”
“Of course,” said Gaston, setting the bouquet aside and taking charge. “Where had he gone?”
“The market two towns over, he’d gone through the woods, he always does and returns the next day, he’s only been gone a few hours...”
Gaston nodded. “Come,” he said. “If he’s injured, you’ll want bandages. I’ll go fetch Le Fou to help us while you gather what we might need.”
They left less than an hour later, following the road that traveled through the woods. Eventually, they found the wagon, overturned by the roadside. It and its cargo were mostly intact, but a short distance from the wagon, they found him.
Gaston looked at the body with a hunter’s experienced eye. “Wolves,” he said decisively. “They aren’t usually so dangerous, but game’s been thin this year.”
Belle touched her father’s face, tears streaming from her eyes. “Oh, Papa,” she whispered.
Le Fou cleared his throat. “We can pull the wagon back, Gaston and I,” he said. “Let us...” He gestured at the body.
Belle nodded, and stood. “Thank you,” she said. She followed them to the wagon, and once they had righted it, she replaced the cargo and cleared a space for her father.
The two men loaded Maurice’s body into the wagon, wrapping it in the heavy cloak Belle had brought, and pulled the wagon back along the rough road through the woods while Belle walked beside them.
The funeral was brief, and sparsely attended. Maurice and Belle had moved to the town after her mother’s death, only five short years ago. It wasn’t enough to make them a part of the town, not when they were the sort of people better suited to life in the city, rather than the provinces. The priest intoned the Mass and the gravedigger carefully covered the coffin with earth.
Belle stood beside the grave afterward, feeling more lost than she had ever believed possible.
She turned around. It was Gaston. He had helped with the arrangements, making sure the coffin was made, speaking with the priest.
He bowed his head for a moment, then met her eyes. “I realize this isn’t the best time, but circumstances being what they are...”
“You can’t run the farm alone, Belle. It’s too much for you—it was almost too much for you and your father. I can do the work, and during the winter, I can hunt; we’ll have meat, and furs to sell. I can provide for you. And I need a wife.”
Belle looked at him closely. There was something vulnerable about Gaston that she had never seen before. “I’m not giving up my books,” she said.
He nodded. “Le Fou is willing to help at the farm as well in exchange for a place to live. We could plant a bit more to sell, and when I was out hunting, he would make sure the livestock was well.”
Belle considered the offer. From what she recalled, Le Fou and Gaston currently shared rooms in the boarding house beside the tavern. If Gaston married her, Le Fou, whose pension from the war was not much, would need to find a new place to reside. “Fair enough,” she agreed. “All right. I’ll marry you.”
The town’s response to the news of Belle’s engagement to Gaston was predictable: gossip. It was commonly known that Gaston had wanted to marry Belle for her beauty, and now he was getting the beautiful woman and her farm. Belle was generally viewed as having done well for herself, and most of them concluded that she’d be less odd once she and Gaston settled down and had a few children. Maurice’s death was commented on a a tragedy, but no one was particularly bothered by it other than Belle herself. The marriage itself, rather than being the event of the year, was small and restrained in deference to Belle being in mourning for her father.
Once the wedding was done and Gaston and Le Fou had moved out to the farm, the rest of the town went about their business. Gaston and Le Fou were both seen in the tavern a couple nights a week, but no longer nightly (the older people in the town felt that was just as it should be, with Gaston newly married), and the three attended weekly Mass just like the rest of the town. Otherwise, they were mostly left to themselves.
This was a good thing in Belle’s mind, and she soon learned that her spouse held similar views of the lack of interference by their neighbours.
Several weeks after their quiet wedding, Belle went in search of her new husband. She found him and Le Fou in the barn. Neither saw her, but she saw the deep kiss they were exchanging. She backed away, and waited until Gaston found her to ask her question.
That evening, Gaston came to bed after Belle and she took her opportunity before he extinguished the candle she had been reading by. She set aside her book for the night and spoke. “I saw you and Le Fou in the barn today.”
He went still, sitting on the edge of the bed as though he had been frozen.
She cleared her throat. “I read, you know? I’ve read about the ancient Greeks, what was tradition for them, for their men. The Spartans...I mean, I understand.”
His shoulders relaxed. “We can’t....no one can know,” he said. “They would turn on us.”
Belle reached out and touched his hand. “I understand not being able to fit in,” she said. “I know, Gaston. It’s not the same as it is for you two, but I can understand. We’re all of us odd. We can make this work.”
Gaston swallowed. “Thank you, Belle. It’s...I won’t trouble you unless we’re trying to make a child.”
“Thank you,” said Belle. “It’s not that you aren’t attractive, but I’m not sure I really enjoy it.”
“I’ll do my best to make it tolerable,” he said. “And you really don’t mind?”
“I don’t, no,” said Belle.
A few days later, Belle was in the kitchen garden, preparing it for winter, when Le Fou came by. “Thank you,” he said quietly. “Gaston told me.”
Two months later, Belle realized she was pregnant. Gaston and Le Fou were both excited, and she realized that her child might as well have two fathers.
At the first quickening, Belle placed a hand on her slowly rounding belly, thinking about the life within, wondering what her child would be like. It wasn’t the life she had imagined, but Gaston and Le Fou were both kind to her—the men they were at home were not the men the village saw. She had her books. She was tinkering with her father’s work and building new music boxes to sell in the summer. And now they would have a child. She wished her father was here, but now he was with her mother, and she hoped they were happy. She was content enough.
Somewhere, deep in the forest, the last petal fell from a rose.