Published in Aug. 2020 (Issue 123) | 11083 words
© 2018 by Carrie Vaughn, LLC. Originally published in Asimov’s Science Fiction. Reprinted by permission of the author.
One day, long ago, a fierce storm scattered the royal hunting party. The prince, his best huntsman, twelve of his great lords and all their attendants, men and dogs and horses charged every which way, vanishing down one path and another until the prince and his best huntsman, whose name was Jack, were left alone, on foot, at the gates of a strange castle.
“I didn’t know there was a castle here,” the prince said, leaning close to be heard over the noise of the storm, holding his arm up against the rain. “You’d think I’d know about a castle here.”
The maps showed this region as a wide, unbroken stretch of forest. Jack looked again, because he always looked again, and saw that several windows had broken glass and boards nailed across them from the inside. Nearby, he thought a gardening stake jutted from the ivy, but when he tugged at it, he lifted out a spear. Something terrible had happened here.
Thunder rocked the earth, and the rain came down in sheets, then turned to hail.
“I see no lights, sire,” Jack said, studying the windows, scanning the grounds for any signs of life. He found none.
“We would do well to wait out the storm inside,” the prince said.
Jack wasn’t sure, but didn’t see that they had a choice. He put his shoulder to the bars of the gate, shoved hard, and with a wrenching of rusted iron, it opened.
Ahead, at the end of a leaf-strewn walkway, was a wall of gray stone with windows and turrets, sloping slate roofs, spikes, and rails that might once have been gilded. The gravel walk led to ornate carved doors under a stone archway. On either side, dragon-shaped sconces held broken lanterns. All around them must have once been gardens, but the hedges had turned to towering thickets, the lawns had become meadows, and seas of ivy had overwhelmed the flowerbeds. This seemed another part of the forest.
They approached the wide set of steps that led to double wooden doors. There was a great iron knocker shaped like a rose on a vine, twisted into a circle. Jack let it fall three times, and the sound echoed, on and on.
The door opened, just a crack. Beyond the door was darkness. Jack couldn’t tell what waited inside. Maybe this was a ruin, abandoned. The perfect shelter, with nothing to worry about.
The prince sighed. Rain dripped off his hood; his cheeks were pink with cold. “We’re soaking wet, Jack. Let’s go in.”
Sword in hand, Jack pushed open the door and led the way.
Inside was exactly what he expected to find in an abandoned castle: a wide, tiled hall covered in dust. A musty smell, damp and stale. Vermin had likely built nests in the furniture. A wide, curving stairway climbed to the next floor. Cobwebs draped the stone banister.
The ceiling climbed high. Carved archways on either side led to even grander halls. At its best, this place should have been splendid.
“There’s no one here,” the prince said. He shook out his cloak, dripping pools of water on the tile.
Jack wasn’t sure. He trusted the prickling at the back of his neck that told him something wasn’t right.
“There should be beautiful girls in fine gowns coming down that staircase to greet me.”
“Of course, sire.” Jack agreed; there should be music here. Dancing. At the very least a doorman to welcome them. Servants with mulled wine. He drew out the flask of brandy he kept in his doublet and offered it to the prince, who sipped and handed it back, still looking at a crumbling painted ceiling, at carved wood chairs lined against the wall.
In the next hall they found a fireplace, the centerpiece of what must have been a sitting room. A velvet settee had rotted through or been eaten by mice. A handful of wooden chairs were still intact, and Jack drew a pair of them near the fireplace. As chance had it there were logs piled here, very dry, and soon he had a fire roaring. He spread out their cloaks and found some dried meat in his pouch to make an unsatisfactory meal.
“Well, this is an adventure,” the prince said, resting his boots close to the fire, leaning back in his chair, and looking around while he gnawed.
“The storm is already breaking up,” Jack said, scrubbing at a grimy window to look out. “I think.”
“It’s near dark. We’ll have to stay the night.”
“Yes, sire.” Jack by himself would have traveled the woods at night. But the prince was probably right. They were likely safer here than going out after dark. And at least they’d be dry when they set out in the morning.
• • • •
Jack planned to stay in the hall by the fire. Catch what sleep they could, eat what little they carried, and leave as soon as light came through those grimy windows. But the prince wanted to explore.
“It’s astonishing!” he said, dusting off a candleholder on a table, cleaning off the still-extant wick, and lighting it with a brand from the fire. He carried it to the next room. Dutifully, Jack followed. They went like this, room to room, through much of the castle. When the prince started up the grand staircase, Jack protested.
“Sire, I’m not sure we can trust how solid the footing is, it might not be safe—”
“I want to see!”
They explored the next floor, its parlors and libraries, dusty windows and haunted stillness. Dozens of paintings decorated walls, and in the scant candlelight Jack studied the faces for clues of what this place might have been. Stern men in military attire, gracious women in gowns of every fashion from the last fifty years. Whole families, sons and daughters looking placid, painted. His own family had had paintings like this, before they were sold off.
Then, in the farthest room, they found an armory. A whole training salle with a good wood floor, a couple of mirrors, and racks of weapons of every kind.
“Oh,” the prince breathed, eyes round with wonder. “It’s beautiful.”
Whoever had gathered this collection had a good eye and presumably great skill with arms. But now it was all abandoned, shrouded. The prince, as one might expect, went to a display of swords, rapiers arranged on a gilded rack, pride of place, and passed his hand across the hilts, brushing each one. “These rival the blades in the royal armory. These . . . my God, they’re too beautiful to leave sitting here in the dark, we must take as many as we can with us—”
Of course he picked out the richest, the one with the inlaid swept hilt, the silk and gold wire-wrapped grip and the faceted jewel set in the pommel, the one that glowed, even covered with dust. He wrapped his hand around it, drew it from the rack, ignoring the trail of dust it left in the air as he swept it in one arc, then another.
“That was my father’s sword,” a deep voice growled from the shadows.
Jack had the presence of mind to set down his candle before drawing his sword. The voice came from the hallway behind them, and he put himself between the shadow and his prince. The prince dropped the beautiful rapier, which clattered on the parquet.
The beast emerged. It was a great clawed thing, covered in fur and rags, grinning around yellowed fangs, terrible to behold. The prince shouted a curse.
“Why do you trespass?” the creature demanded in a voice more like a bear’s grunt, thick and grating. “This is my castle. You are not welcome here.”
“We knocked!” the prince shouted. “We knocked at the door!”
“I don’t care!” it roared, a sound to rival the thunder outside.
Jack shouted at the prince to run, to get to the stairs and flee outside, the storm be damned, they should never have come here. But the beast was too fast. Somehow, that immense form crossed the floor in just a pair of strides and backhanded Jack, knocking away his sword and spilling him on to the floor. Head ringing, Jack got himself back between his prince and the creature. The beast roared. Jack pressed hands to his ears and winced, and the creature took that chance to knock Jack over again. He bounced and lay still, the breath knocked out of him.
“Stay down,” it muttered at him and went again for the one who had handled the sacred blade.
The prince cried out; the beast took him by the throat, swung him, pinned him to the wall. Jack struggled against his own shocked nerves—then he saw the prince had drawn a knife. A little thing, he must have had it tucked into his belt or a pocket of his doublet, but if he could get it into the beast’s eye or throat, it would be enough.
But the beast wasn’t just a monster, it was a warrior. It grabbed the prince’s hand and twisted until the knife fell. The prince cried out; the beast held him immobile and brought its fierce brown eyes, its gaping mouth, close to him. Jack would never get to them in time.
The beast said, “I was only going to throw you out. But now . . . I will keep you. You will serve me to the end of your days in payment for this trespass.”
Heart racing, Jack stumbled forward, reaching. He dropped his own weapon and said, “No! He only held the sword because he saw how beautiful it was. How precious. He only admired it—”
“He was going to steal my treasures,” the beast snarled at him. “You both were.”
Jack closed his eyes, took a deep breath. Tried again. “I’m sorry. We’re sorry. Please let him go.”
“No,” it said, decisive.
Jack said, “Then take me. I will serve. Let him go and take me instead, please.” The beast hesitated, and that told Jack he might have a chance. “I swear to you I will stay in his place, but you must let him go free.”
“You . . . swear?” the beast said.
“I do,” Jack answered, trying to sound brave. The beast glared at him, studying him. Judging him. Deciding if it could trust his word.
It let the prince go. Dropped him to the floor.
“Go,” the beast barked at the prince, who stumbled toward the door.
“Jack—” the prince called.
“It’s all right. It’s fine. But you—you must go. Please.”
The prince fled, and Jack sighed with relief.
He and the beast stared at one another for a good long time. He opened his mouth to say something, he wasn’t sure what—ask a question, like what was going to happen to him, or maybe if the beast had a name—when the beast sprang. So quickly, so powerfully, he didn’t have time to draw breath before it caught him up, grabbing him around the middle, slinging him over its shoulder and running, charging through the castle to . . . somewhere. Jack couldn’t tell.
The trip lasted minutes, through halls and rooms, down a set of stairs, and then another. The beast’s claws clacked on tile, tore on carpets. The halls grew small—the noise closed in on them, the air grew mustier. Then, finally, the beast threw him down. He hit stone and rolled. A door slammed shut. The beast growled under its breath and retreated.
Jack sat up and took stock. He was bruised and banged up, but otherwise unhurt. He now sat in a dark room with a bare floor and stone walls, no more than two strides in any direction. Some light came in through a narrow slit in the door. A simple cot lay against the back wall, a chamber pot sat underneath. Both as dusty and disused as anything else in the castle.
It wasn’t a dungeon. Likely, this was a servant’s quarters. Well then, he could cope with that. He’d have to, for the foreseeable future. For form’s sake he tried the door, and yes, it was locked from the outside. He kicked it, which didn’t do anything, and smacked the stone wall, just to hear the noise.
Well. At least he was alive.
• • • •
The storm broke; the sun rose. The light coming in through the slot in the door changed, however slightly. The smell of damp fur still lingered. What Jack was thinking, lying back on the cot that he’d dusted off as well as he could: that beautiful rapier was made for human hands, and the beast had said the sword belonged to its father.
Sooner than he liked, the sound of monstrous breathing filled the hall outside, and the door’s lock clicked. The door cracked open, a tin plate scraped on the floor. A tin cup followed it, and the door slammed shut again.
He stared for a long time, uncertain as to what he’d seen. The plate contained half a roast chicken and a small turnip. The mug held water. Well, at least he was being fed. Like a pet. He ate because he was hungry, because he might as well. The chicken was burnt, tough, and overdone. After eating, he paced the room. Pressed his face to the slot in the door, but only saw the opposite wall.
Toward evening, the great claws clacked on stone and the lock clicked again. When the door opened, Jack called out, “Wait! I want to talk to you! Please!”
As before, the honest please seemed to make the beast hesitate.
“Just for a moment,” Jack added.
The door opened, stayed opened. The beast appeared, holding a plate that seemed small nested in its great claws. It had been a day since Jack had first seen it, and it was no less fierce and horrifying. In the light, it was almost worse. The black horns of a goat spiraled above its ears. Its shoulders were almost too large to fit through the door, and coarse, matted hair in all shades of brown covered its body. It wore clothing, or what had once been clothing.
“I just need to know if my prince . . . if you let him go, if he was able to leave safely.”
The beast said, “I made sure he fled back to the forest. He has gone away.”
“Then he is safe.”
A fang showed underneath a furred lip. “Is anyone, out in the world?”
“Is that why you stay locked up in a castle?”
It snarled at him and went away, leaving behind another half a chicken, overdone. At least Jack would not starve here.
• • • •
A lot of time for thinking, locked up in a room. Jack thought hard about what he’d seen, that good look he’d gotten of the beast, filling the doorway, the tiny plate in its hands. It would have to return, to collect the plates and bones, to bring more food. Jack would thank it for the food, he decided.
In the morning, the beast came again, the door opened a little wider this time, maybe.
“Good morning,” Jack said. “Thank you. For feeding me, I mean.”
The beast grunted. “Did you think I would not?”
“I’m not sure what to think.”
“Here.” It set the plate on the floor. Another half a chicken.
Jack said, “There’s nothing else to eat?”
“Do you want it or not?”
“I do. Yes. Thank you. But.”
He looked, confirmed what he thought he’d seen the day before. A jeweled ring was fitted on one clawed hand. Rings of silver glinted in its furred ears. The cloth hanging from the beast’s middle used to be a skirt. Two skirts, lashed together to make one large. The bits of shirt it wore still had a length of lace around the collar. A hint of embroidery. He could see little else with all the fur, and he was suddenly unwilling to look closer, at the beast’s shape underneath all the fur.
“You’re a woman,” he said.
Her eyes widened, and he knew he was right. He hadn’t been entirely sure. It, she, slouched a moment. As if he had made some kind of accusation. Then, challenging, she lifted her chin, met his gaze and bared her fangs. Before he could say another word, she slammed and locked the door, and left.
• • • •
Jack made note of the fact that learning the beast was female made him immediately sympathetic to her. No matter that she had tossed him and the prince around like they were nothing, that she was three times his size. She was now someone to be rescued. He knew he should mistrust this feeling. But the story lurking behind this place felt bigger than ever. He had to get out of this room. He must speak carefully.
The next meal came. He was standing there, waiting for her when the door opened. He’d thought about kneeling, then decided she might think he was mocking her. He didn’t know what she might think, but he must persuade her to let him out.
“What?” she grunted.
Something human lingered in her eyes, but right now he could only see the beast. He swallowed the dryness from his mouth.
“You said you wanted to keep me to serve you. But you lock me up. Let me out, let me do something here. Like . . . well. I can cook.” He nodded at the half a burned chicken on the plate.
The monstrous face shifted, as if she pressed her lips together doubtfully. “You’ll kill me in my sleep and flee.”
“I never will, I promise.”
“How can I believe you?”
“Try it? You see . . . I think . . . I believe, that you don’t want to kill me. You didn’t want to kill either of us, or you would have. Without thinking, you could have snapped our necks. But you didn’t.”
They gazed at one another. His fear lessened, just a little.
“You can cook?” she asked.
“Yes, I can.” He sounded braver than he felt.
“There’s food in the kitchen,” she said, and left the door open.
• • • •
There wasn’t much food in the kitchen. A sack of flour, another of lentils, a barrel of those sad turnips. But there was a spectacular garden just outside, closed in by a low wall. Lettuce, onions, peas and beans, all manner of herbs, and even an apple tree. He discovered a flock of feral chickens still dutifully producing eggs. Near as he could figure, the beast had lived by butchering chickens and sticking them in a pot in the oven.
He wasn’t the best cook, but he could keep a hunting party alive in the field with not very much on hand. He took off his doublet, rolled up the sleeves of his linen shirt, and got to work. First, he cleaned. Cleared dust and grime from pots and pans, swept mouse nests from the pantry, scrubbed the stove, and washed the window to let in more light. The place began to smell of soap instead of rot. Only then did he start bringing in food from the garden. Onions and rosemary, a scoop of lentils. He used the bones of the most recent butchered chicken to make a broth.
The beast stood close by, watching him, scrutinizing everything he did. Waiting for him to break his promise. She was a wall of fur and power lurking in the doorway. He only glanced at her. Didn’t stare, lest she take offense. He couldn’t make out her expression in any case, under the horns and teeth and hair.
As the pot simmered on the stove, the place filled with the warm scent of lentil soup. Made the kitchen smell like home.
“Why do you do this?” the beast asked.
“I like to be useful.” He couldn’t tell if she approved. Really, he thought he was doing this for himself, so he wouldn’t have to eat another burned hen.
“You are a gentleman. I can tell by the way you speak and carry yourself.”
His smile was wry. “My father was a gentleman. He had five sons, I am the youngest, and there was nothing left for me. I could be as frustrated and dissolute as my brothers, or I could make my way in the world. As I said, I like to be useful.”
“And how does a gentleman—or a gentleman’s son—learn how to cook?”
“When his family, however fine its pedigree, is so poor they cannot hire someone to cook for them. My mother was very good at making do. There were no daughters, so I was the one who helped her.”
“You say she was.”
“Yes. She’s gone.”
“I’m sorry.” The beast sounded sad. He was surprised he could tell.
Grief for his mother was an old familiar ache, and he tucked it away. “For my part, I think she was worn out.”
“Five of you, you said.”
“Yes.” He had not thought of his family in a long time. The prince kept him very busy, and he was grateful for the work and the friendship, such as it was. He was glad not to think of his family.
“I was youngest of four,” she said.
“So you know how it is—never a word in edgewise, the brunt of everyone’s teasing.”
“I miss them, my three brothers.”
“Then I’m sorry,” he said. He couldn’t say he missed his, so he didn’t. He gave the soup a last stir. “Well then, what do you think?”
She sighed, a rasping breath. “I haven’t smelled anything so good in years. But . . . I don’t . . . I’m . . . not sure I can.” She held out her hands, her thick beast’s paws with wretched curling claws. They were terrible hands, capable of ripping apart a chicken perhaps, but not much else. Such hands could never hold a spoon. He looked around the kitchen. There must be a solution. He wouldn’t let so much soup go to waste.
He found a wide wooden serving bowl. It wasn’t fine, it was the sort of thing used to bring bread to servants. But he thought two large clawed hands might be able to hold it.
“Try this,” he said, and she did. She could grip it in her palms, bring it to her mouth, and drink.
They shared a meal together at the heavy wooden table in the kitchen, him eating with a spoon, her sipping carefully. The smell of roses came in from the garden. This was almost nice. But he kept looking out at the low wall. It wouldn’t take much to climb over it, to escape. Except that he had promised not to. He didn’t have much: a dead mother, a penniless father, and four ne’er-do-well brothers. But he had his word, and he kept it. For now, at least. Later would take care of itself.
He made small talk of how he would try to bake bread tomorrow, maybe do some weeding in the garden to see what other treasures he could discover. Start stealing eggs from the chickens to make more interesting fare. She sipped soup and watched him.
Finally, when the sun was setting, and he lit candles around the room, he turned to her. “I must ask,” Jack said. “That is, may I ask—how did this happen? When we first came I saw spears and arrows caught in the ground. There are broken windows, scorch marks on some of the walls outside. This place was abandoned, except for you. Why?”
She growled, shook her head so that all her fur rippled, and raced out of the room.
• • • •
Jack spent the next few days working in the kitchen garden, salvaging squash vines and tying up lengths of peas, pruning shrubs that hadn’t been touched in years and seemed to burst to life with the attention. He did indeed bake bread, make pot pies and stews, roast squash and salted peas. They ate very well, though the beast said little.
She watched him. He could feel it.
In the middle of the kitchen garden, a spring bubbled up through the rocks and had been tamed in a stone pool. After working, he’d wash up here. The first time he did so, he pulled his shirt over his head, dropped it to his side, flexed his aching shoulders, and he couldn’t say how he knew. Whether he’d sensed an intake of breath at the edge of hearing, if he felt the weight of a gaze. If he looked, he knew he wouldn’t be able to see her. She’d be hiding at one of the windows. She’d see him looking back, and she’d flee.
He could be bothered. He could go back to the tiny room and stay there, behave as the prisoner he was. Or he could wash up in fresh water, in a fine garden.
So he turned his back to the windows and kept on. Scrubbed arms and shoulders, dunked his head to rinse out his thick brown tangle of hair before tying it back in a tail. Sat for a moment, enjoying the warmth of the sun. Not thinking about anything else at all.
• • • •
“I had a thought,” Jack said after supper one evening, producing the tools he’d found in a garden shed. “That might make things easier for you.”
“Easier how?” she said.
He held up a long, coarse rasp, a set of farrier’s clippers. “To make your claws more manageable. If you like.”
“I might not be as fierce without them.”
He chuckled. “Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that.”
She crossed her arms, curling her hands into fists, hiding them away. He admitted he was disappointed—he only wanted to help.
“I meant no offense,” he said. “I’ve kept my word, I haven’t tried to escape. Will you not trust me?”
“Why should I trust anyone? Men like you with bright banners and shining swords, the stink of righteousness all over you. Men like you destroyed my family and home, trapped me here. You wanted to kill me when you first saw me. Why should I trust?”
“Because . . .” He had nothing to say; he couldn’t explain. Yes, he had wanted to kill her, he couldn’t deny that. He had been defending his prince.
She sat back. “So why aren’t you trying to escape? Don’t you hate me for keeping you prisoner?”
“This isn’t so bad.”
“It’s because I’m a woman. Somehow, past all the fur and fangs, that matters to you. It upsets you, to see a woman brought to such a state.” When her lips curled this time, it might have been a smile.
Softly he answered, “It does.”
But it did. He said, “If you were male, we’d be enemies. There’d be no question. I wouldn’t need to know your story at all.”
“But I am not male.”
“And that makes this is a tragedy. Doesn’t it?” This felt like a trap; the back of his neck itched.
“And if I were a man turned into a beast, and you were a woman—”
He swallowed. “I suppose I’d be terrified.”
She lunged, all her sharp fangs bared. “And aren’t you terrified now?” she roared, slamming her untrimmed claws on either side of his face.
He choked back a scream, pressed himself against the wall, face turned away, eyes squeezed shut, waiting for her to rip out his throat. Her hot breath blew over him. Cringing, he held his own breath. Worse than his sudden terror was his shame at his own terror.
“I fought to defend my castle. When my family was gone, there was only me, and I fought. Though I am cursed for it, I will fight, and I will not be tamed!”
With a last snarl, she lunged away, fled.
He slumped to the floor, beside the tools that he’d dropped.
• • • •
He had a nightmare about those claws sweeping past his hair, so close to his neck. Waking, gasping, he thought of the beast, and his throat closed on a scream. This response was primal, that of a rabbit facing a hound.
He would not be a rabbit here.
The next day he made roast chicken, real roast chicken with crispy basted skin and juicy meat, and brought it to the hall with the fireplace. He’d kept a fire going in it most days since he’d gained some little freedom in the castle. Sitting on the floor, picking absently at the food and watching the flames, ignoring the world outside the walls and the eyes watching him within, he felt almost comfortable.
A great shadow filled a doorway. He couldn’t help it; he scrambled to his feet and backed away. His heart pounded loud; he was sure she could hear it and know he was afraid. And he should be afraid of her, she was a beast. He swallowed back that scream, forced himself to calm. She kept the claws hidden.
“Smells good,” she said finally, glancing at the platter of food he’d brought out. “Better than I ever made.”
“Have some,” he said carefully. “Please.”
When she approached, he kept his distance. Marked the path to the doorway where he could flee, if he needed to.
She ate, taking great care, holding a piece of chicken between her fingers and bringing it to her mouth, avoiding her claws as delicately as she could, which was not very. She dripped grease on her fur, and only made it worse when she tried to wipe it away. Jack resisted bringing her a handkerchief.
“You want to know what happened to me,” she said, after a time, long enough that Jack had added extra logs to the fire.
“If you want to tell me.”
She took a deep breath and told him a story of a rebel baron who coveted her family’s castle and land. At first, this man had merely asked her father for her hand in marriage. He—and she—refused him. This angered the baron beyond reason, and he called forth a troop of brigands and cutthroats to wage war, to take their home—and her—by force. Her family fought back. They were good fighters, skilled and well armed—Jack had seen the armory for himself. So the rebel lord hired a magician to trick them. One by one he drew out her father and each of her brothers and murdered them. The invading force thought then the castle was theirs. But she and her mother kept fighting. And fighting. Somehow, with rigged traps and buckets of burning oil and a hundred other strategies, they kept the invaders at bay. Until her mother was killed, and she was alone. But still she fought, as best she could.
“And then I put an arrow through the baron’s eye. Did it from the roof. The shot of a lifetime. I had my revenge, and I thought it was over.”
Jack had been rapt, and now his heart sank. “But the magician cursed you.”
“He said that I will be the beast I so clearly am at heart until I find a man who can tame me, and submit to his will.”
The lurch in his gut on hearing this was the same he felt when his father told him there was nothing left, he would have no inheritance, he would have nothing but what his brothers could do for him. And they could do nothing.
“That isn’t fair,” he said.
“No,” she said. “And even so, after everything, I will not be tamed. I . . . I fought too hard.”
“There must be something . . . some other magician who could break the spell—”
“And who would listen to a beast? Who would not run screaming from me? Or they would only show the pity that I see now in your eyes.”
He looked away. The fire crackled. There seemed to be nothing left to say.
“Do you have any brandy?” Jack asked. “I have a flask in my coat, but it’s almost out.”
She shook her head. “There’s only the bottle of wine my father was saving to celebrate our victory. I will not touch it. Not yet.”
More silence, with only the sparking, snapping fire to disturb them. It was actually a cheerful sound, offering a sense of home and warmth. Indeed, looking around, the parlor seemed almost normal. Except for the great beast, sitting back with her clawed hands wrapped around her knees. But even she had become familiar.
“I’m sorry I’m so melancholy,” the beast said suddenly.
“If anyone has cause for it, it’s you,” he said.
“I imagine at your home you’re surrounded all the time by friends, by the prince’s court and all its good cheer.”
Jack chuckled. “Would it surprise you that I’m rather enjoying the peace and quiet here?”
“Yes,” she said bluntly.
“Well. Perhaps there is a bit of trying make the best of things.” He smiled, meaning it to be a joke. But she sighed, and even with the strange monstrousness of her face, he could see the sadness. He shouldn’t have said such a thing.
Carefully, aware of her shape and size, that such a creature wasn’t meant for an elegant parlor, she climbed to her feet. “It’s late. I’ll leave you alone. Let you have a restful evening.” Once on her feet, she was nimble, fast, and she left, almost before he realized what was happening.
“Beast, wait!” he called after her, but she kept going.
He only now realized that he didn’t know her name.
• • • •
He knew very little about her, in fact. Where she slept in the castle. What her life had been like before this curse had befallen her. What this place must have looked like in happier days. His heart broke thinking that she kept him prisoner—that she had wanted a prisoner at all—so she would have someone to talk to.
He didn’t believe she’d do anything to him if he tried to leave. So why didn’t he? He told himself he could be useful here. At least clean up a bit more of the castle before he fled. He’d done the kitchen, the kitchen garden, the servants’ quarters, the main parlor. Part of the dining room, most of the foyer. While exploring the second floor, he came again upon the marvelous practice hall. Where this all started, where he had offered himself in place of the prince.
Even stepping softly, his boots echoed. He could track exactly where they had been, where they had tried to fight the beast—they’d left marks in the dust across the floor and on hilts and staves where their hands had brushed. The beautiful sword that the prince had dropped had been replaced on the rack.
She had gotten in the habit of coming to the kitchen to watch him cook, and to talk. He was afraid that she might not do so that evening, after what he had said. He made sure the stew that day was particularly savory and filled the hallway with a rich smell, to draw her in. And she came, lurking in the doorway as she always did.
“Good afternoon,” he said, trying to sound bright. She huddled in on herself, but that was normal. “I have a question for you.”
“What is it?” she grumbled.
He tasted the stew, added a bit of salt. “May I clean the armory? That lovely practice salle upstairs, I mean.” He cringed inwardly at his awkwardness. Of course she knew what he meant, what else would he be talking about?
She scowled. “Why? So you can use my weapons against me?”
“Because it pains me to see such a fine place so neglected.”
“What was I supposed to do? What can I do?” Again, she held up her large hands, her awful claws, showing the difficulty of doing anything but fight with them.
“I’m not blaming you. I want to help.”
“Because you feel sorry for me.”
“Yes,” he had to admit. “I do.”
“I could kill you.”
“Then why don’t you?”
“Because . . . because I like talking to you.” She ducked her fierce head and ran, disappearing down the corridor and away.
He sighed and tossed the spoon into the pot. “Would you stop running away!” he shouted after her, then wished he hadn’t. The stew was ready to eat, but she likely would not emerge again. He didn’t mean to keep chasing her off. Maybe it would be better if he didn’t speak at all.
The next day, he brought brooms, rags, and buckets of soapy water to the armory and got to work. The task was hard, mindless, and satisfying. Washing mirrors and windows—they immediately let in so much more light, everything looked less dingy for it. He wiped down each weapon individually, every spear, crossbow, and sword. Exactly the kind of work he did as huntsman for the prince.
“Oh, I had forgotten how lovely this place could be.”
The beast’s grumbling voice spoke from the far doorway. She entered, looking around her with wonder at gleaming spear tips reflected in the mirrors, at rows of swords and a shelf of helms, all dust free. She paused by a rug where he had made a pile of various pieces.
“Those had a bit of rust on them,” he explained. “So I set them aside for polishing.”
“It’s wonderful. Thank you.”
“My pleasure, truly,” he said. He set down the dust cloth he’d been using, picked up a rapier from a nearby rack. It was simpler than the one with the twisting gold hilt the prince had so admired, the beast’s father’s sword. This one had a simple bell guard with a stamped design of vines around the edge, a leather grip, a good blade just exactly right for his reach. Felt good in his hands. This was much more his style.
“That was my eldest brother’s,” the beast said with a sigh.
“I’m sorry.” He started to put it back.
Quickly the beast said, “It can be yours, if you like it.”
Jack kept hold of the grip, and now it felt a little like he held hands with a ghost.
“I like it very much. Thank you.”
“I think he would like you, my brother.”
He smiled. “I’m glad.” He extended his sword arm, looked down the blade, ran it through a couple of practice parries, and yes, it sang. Light enough to feel part of his arm, but strong enough to press forward in a fight. He looked at the beast, his lips pursed. “You were cursed for bearing arms. Are you any good?” He saluted with the rapier.
“I was. But I can’t hold a sword like that anymore. Though I can hold a spear.”
“Oh?” He set the sword back in its place.
Another rack held practice spears, with softer wood and padded tips instead of steel. He looked at her, judged her height, guessed her preferences, and chose one he thought would suit. Tossed it to her from a dozen paces away. She caught it easily, finishing the arc of its fall before gripping it with both hands and coming to ready. Even with her bulk, the movement had grace. He had no doubt of her skill. He donned a grin and chose a spear for himself.
“Let’s try our paces, then.”
She stepped around to keep him at the center of a circle, just out of her range. “Are you certain? Can you take it?”
“Yes, I need the practice. I’ve been getting soft, lazing around and eating all your chickens.”
“That flock needed to be culled anyway.” Snarling, she lunged. The directness of the attack startled him; he thought he had been ready for it. Apparently not. Dodging back, he got his spear in the way for an awkward parry, then danced sideways and tried for his own attack, stabbing at her chest. She ducked, dashed back. They went back to circling one another. Jack’s heart pounded—he really was out of practice.
He stepped in, feinted low, thrusting the spear to the edge of his reach, then swept up and over her weapon as she took the bait. Stabbed for her shoulder, but she ducked and pivoted out of the way with astonishing agility. Then she drove him back, striking and stabbing, and while he managed to block each attack, he couldn’t gain solid enough ground to counter her blows. He held the end of the spear and swung, just to get some space for himself, but the move was so broad she easily retreated.
Little comfort, when she planted the end of the spear and leaned on it to rest, catching her breath. He was doing the same.
“You’re good,” he said.
“I know,” she said slyly. “That’s how I got into this mess.”
He laughed. “Again!”
They sparred, laughing and teasing, pulling their blows so that when they struck the padded ends only tapped. Still, he’d have bruises. But they’d be satisfying bruises earned from work. She was better than him, at least with a spear. Even with her size and bulk she had precision, placing the tip exactly where she intended, blocking with conviction. He had no doubt she could handle a rapier just as well. If she had the hands for it.
In an attack of desperation, he let out a cry and charged, leading with his spear. He intended to thrust near her feet, to tangle up her legs as he ran alongside. Make her at least stumble if not fall, and thereby get some kind of upper hand. But even here, she was ready, springing out of his way and shoving her weight into him. She was a wall, implacable, and he crashed to the floor, his weapon bouncing away.
Taking advantage, she moved in, placed the tip of her spear hovering an inch or two above his neck. He’d have been quite dead if they’d been fighting in earnest. Chuckling, he lay back and accepted his fate.
She looked down her spear at him and sounded worried. “You’re not hurt, are you?”
Only his pride. He wiped sweat off his cheek. “I’ll recover. And you have won. I think I’m finished.”
He moved her spear aside, and she let him. Taking hold of it, he used it to steady himself as he got up off the floor, climbing the spear shaft hand over hand, until one of his hands landed on hers. He was tired, unthinking. He didn’t even notice, until they were both staring at their hands together. And hers felt like a hand. He could sense the strength, muscle and tendon clenched under the fur. She was gripping the shaft hard, as if she wanted to snap it, and gazed back at him, wide-eyed and fearful. What was she afraid of? Of scaring him off? Of simple human touch? But it wasn’t that simple, was it?
He drew his hand away, noticing how warm hers had been now that he wasn’t touching it. No longer able to stand the look in her eyes, he glanced away, tried to smile again.
“I don’t know how your terrible magician ever thought anyone could tame you,” he murmured.
She barked a laugh, looked away, her teeth still bared. The fangs appeared wicked, but he’d long since trusted she would not use those teeth to hurt him.
“Tell me, Jack,” she said. “Must one be tamed before she can be loved?”
He opened his mouth, determined to say something, to answer her—the question did not seem rhetorical, she needed an answer. But he didn’t know what to say, and he waited too long. She hugged the spear to her, ducked her monstrous face away and muttered, “I’m sorry,” before racing away, her clawed feet clicking on the wooden floor.
Weakly this time, almost under his breath, he said, “Stop . . . stop running away, dammit.”
• • • •
The beast didn’t appear at all the next day, no matter how much he looked for her. He wondered how a creature of that size could hide at all. He wanted to apologize, but was sure that an apology would insult her. He was rarely at such a loss about what to do.
Climbing several flights of stairs to a dusty storage room filled with wooden crates, broken chairs, rolled-up rugs and dozens of other artifacts, then climbing narrow stone steps to a trapdoor, Jack made his way to the roof. There, he found the spot where the beast had been when she fired the arrow that killed the marauding baron who destroyed her family. She was right, it was the shot of a lifetime, a hundred yards out past the gardens to where attackers had held their line.
It looked peaceful now. Ivy had grown to mask all evidence of battle. In a few more years, the whole forest would swamp the place and no one would ever know there’d been a castle here.
The woods surrounding the castle were vast—it was why the prince had wanted to hunt here, in the most wild and challenging place anyone knew. The prince had dozens of parks ideal for hunting, but those weren’t enough, and Jack obliged, however much trouble it caused, however many more guards it required and dangers he needed to plan for. Somewhere far beyond the vast green carpet of trees, to those far-off hills many miles away, lay civilization, and another castle, a great edifice in good repair, the center of a kingdom. Jack found he didn’t miss it much at all.
Then he looked again. Something large and wide moved through the forest, and he was afraid he knew what. He went down the steps to the library where he’d seen a spyglass. He carried it back to the roof, looked through it, and saw an army. Still dozens of miles away, but the smoke from their campfires was visible, dark columns reaching up.
And still he could not find the beast. He went through the castle calling for her, cringing at the way his voice echoed, how he disturbed the peace.
The next evening, the movement, the campfires and their columns of smoke were closer. Jack knew an army approached, and he was sure he knew why.
“What do you look at?”
Startled, he turned from the window. The beast was at the doorway. His anxious demand of where she’d been and what she’d been doing stopped at his lips. So did all the apologies he wanted to give.
Instead, he offered the spyglass. “Do you want to see?”
“Not sure I can.” She held up her hands, too large for the delicate instrument.
“Never mind. You can probably see from here.” He stepped aside, giving her room at the window. “The prince is coming with an army. To rescue me.” He snorted.
“To take the castle,” the beast countered, and Jack nodded.
“I will fight. I will defend my castle as I always have.”
She said this without a hint of doubt, her determination clear. Admirable. But this wasn’t a marauder’s band. This was an army. He wanted to say a dozen things at once. You can’t, please don’t, and let me help. He began making plans. For all its ominous appearance, surrounded by its unkempt garden, the place wasn’t very defensible. But they could board up windows and doors, add spikes to the outer wall. They might have time to make some kind of palisade—
None of it would work.
“Let me go,” he said.
Her furred face pursed, eyes narrowing, a first show of anger. But then she looked away. “You wish to flee. I understand.”
“No! No, that isn’t it at all. That army belongs to the prince. Let me go talk to him. He’ll listen to me; I can persuade him to leave off. To leave you alone.”
She stayed hunched in, a great beast huddled on the floor. He flattered himself that he could read at least some of her expressions. She remained sad. Unconvinced.
“Will you let me go do this thing? Do you trust me?”
She flinched at the word. Looking out the window, she said, “You will not return.”
Oh. Yes, she would think that.
“I promise I will return.” He did not know how to sound any more earnest. “I would not leave you here alone. I must return, to tell you that the prince listened to me and will turn back. Or . . . I will return to help you defend your home.”
“Jack,” she said. “Are you really so honorable?”
“Let me prove it.”
He prepared. The prince’s army would be here within a day. If only he had a horse he could race to them; as it was, he would have to meet them halfway. The prince would need a lot of convincing—he was likely very excited at the idea of a siege. Jack would have to flatter him.
Before he left, he looked for the beast. In the armory, in the kitchen garden, in her usual parlor. Finally he found her at the front door. She had brought a stack of spears with her, and was sharpening their tips with a stone.
“I was looking for you,” he said.
“I was waiting for you.” She set aside her work.
“I’ll go as quick as I can and be back before you know it.”
His heart broke a little, again. For everything she had been through. For the cruelty, the impossibility of it all. He reached out, took her hand, quickly, before she could flinch away. It dwarfed his own. She could crush his bones in her grip. But her hand lay lightly in his. Almost trembling. Even under the fur, the muscles, and those fierce claws, he could feel a scrap of humanness. The way the fingers flexed as if to curl around his, then pulled back.
“My lady, I promise you I will return. On my honor.”
He bowed over her hand as a gentleman would, pressed his lips to the back of it, then let go. She drew the hand to her chest. Her eyes were wet.
He left the castle.
• • • •
“Halt! You there, halt!”
Outriders caught him by the end of the day. They were two ordinary cavalrymen, their blue coats clean and crisp, their hats just so, their swords polished, their horses fit.
Jack stopped and raised his hands. “I must speak with the prince! It’s urgent!”
“Who do you think you are?”
Jack studied them, then sighed. “Peter, you know exactly who I am. Please, take me to see him at once, I beg you.”
The shorter of the two stared a moment, and his eyes went round. “Jack? Jack! We thought you were dead! We’re marching to avenge you!”
Not even a rescue. Well then. “As you can see, I am quite well, and you’re all making a terrible mistake. I must speak with His Highness, please!”
“Yes! This way!”
They reached the front of the army, the prince and his officers lined up, rows of silk banners lined up behind them, the spears of the guards glittering in the sun. The warhorses were grand, white and black, with arched necks and polished hooves.
Behind this company came foot soldiers and archers, the wagons and horses following them, filling the woods with the noise of their existence, an undercurrent of thunder and aggression.
The prince led the company. His helmet was tied to his saddle, so his black hair flowed, and his noble face looked out with the pride of a conqueror. He’d had new armor made for this expedition, polished steel with gold trim, etched all over with his family’s sigils. He’d probably had a portrait painted before he left.
“Jack!” The prince slid off his horse and strode up to grip Jack’s arms. “You’re all right! You escaped!”
“I am well, sire. But I must speak with you. You cannot make war against the castle. I beg you to turn back.”
The smile fell from the prince’s handsome face. “What are you saying?”
“You mean to attack the castle. Please, don’t do it.”
The prince chuckled, uncertain. “My dear Jack. I was coming to avenge you. And kill the beast, of course.”
“Oh no, sire, you can’t! Please, there’s a story, dark and terrible. The beast isn’t what we first thought. She means no harm, really, her story is tragic—”
“She? Her?” The prince took a step back. “No, I do see what has happened here. The beast has put a spell on you.”
Yes, Jack thought. But not like that. And then: I am already dead to him.
“This is a trick,” the prince said. “The beast has sent you to trick me. Guards!”
Jack ran, or tried to. While he ducked out of the first guard’s lunging grip, slipped past the second, kicked the third’s legs out from under him, ten more were waiting beyond, and twenty more after that, and they caught Jack up by his arms and legs, hauled him away, tied him up, and threw him in the back of the surgeon’s wagon. The prince’s own physician tried to examine him, but even with his hands and feet bound, Jack was able to kick him and drive him off.
They declared him mad and continued on, marching on the lonely castle.
He tried to make the calculations—how fast was the army moving, how quickly would it reach the castle, and how much danger was the beast in. But he was so full of rage he couldn’t think. More than all other thoughts, he couldn’t stand that the beast would believe that he had broken his promise. That he had betrayed her. Somehow, he had to escape.
He ripped skin off his hands doing it, and nearly pulled his arms out of their sockets, but he managed to loosen the bonds on his wrists. Somehow, by force of will and more struggle than he thought possible, he freed himself. Slipped out the back of the supply wagon using all the stealth that hunting and tracking had ever taught him. He even stole a horse. He’d never done anything so rash in his life. He raced, and that was when the soldiers saw him, drawn by pounding hoofbeats and the rush of motion. Jack heard the calls for him to stop, even heard an arrow or two pass close.
And then, the sounds of horses thundered after him. In later days, he would remember this race as a blur, shrouded in the awareness that he was pushing the horse too hard, praying that the poor creature didn’t stumble, that the way would remain clear, and that somehow he could make all this right. Most certainly too big a task, and so the trees, the sky, the state of the path ahead and all the signs he would normally track while on a hunt fell clean away from him. He only knew of the castle ahead, and the army behind.
Then, finally, he arrived at the familiar ivy-shrouded gates, the hulking stone walls. He made a sort of leaping dismount and slapped the horse’s hindquarters, yelling for it to go back home, and the horse obliged, launching back down the path.
Meanwhile, they didn’t have much time. Or any time.
He rushed through the overgrown garden, up to the front door. It was locked.
Maybe even barricaded. More, there were crossbows resting at some of the windows. She needed help, he needed to get inside. If she would have him. If she hadn’t decided that he’d betrayed her. The thought sent him into a panic.
He slammed the doorknocker a dozen times, pounded with his fist. “Beast! It’s Jack! The army’s coming, I couldn’t stop them.”
If she never spoke to him again, he couldn’t blame her.
Then the door opened, and he just pulled back before pounding on air. They stood staring at each other until she slouched with relief, disappointment, something he couldn’t say.
“You came back,” she said with a sigh.
“I said I would.”
“Yes, but . . .”
“Oh Jack, your arms.” She reached for his hands, the shredded rope burns on his wrists, red and scabbed over with dried blood, and then drew back. “I’ll get bandages—”
“Never mind about that. The prince didn’t believe me. I had to escape, to warn you.”
She nodded solemnly, as if she had expected this. “What are we to do?”
“I don’t know.”
“But you came back.”
“To stand with you, yes.”
“Well then. We’ll do our best.”
They couldn’t win. Not against a whole army, they both knew that. If only Jack could think of some trick, just the right words to keep the prince away from their door. If the prince could meet her without him immediately wanting to kill her—
She was speaking. “I’ve laid out every crossbow and bolt I could find. If we start firing before they reach the outer wall, they might hesitate. There’s a bottleneck at the gate we can use, and I have spears for the ones who come in through the door—”
“No,” he said, looking out across the garden. If they had time to build palisades, ditches, traps, maybe then. If they had gunpowder and catapults. But they only had themselves. “Do you trust me?”
Her hands clenched; her expression changed, the fur along her jaw shifting. “I do. Yes.”
“I want to try one more time to talk to him. The longer I can keep him talking . . . well. I have to try. Go inside, find a hiding place—that servant’s room where you kept me that first day. Stay there, stay quiet.”
She bristled, hair rising across her shoulders. “I will not hide, I’m not a coward—”
“Of course you aren’t! You have never stopped fighting, and I love you for it. But if I can convince the prince that you’re already gone . . .” He shrugged, an admission that this might not work. “I don’t know. It’s all I can think of.”
They heard the sound of hoofbeats, of barking dogs. Soldiers shouting at one another. The army had arrived.
“Go, please!” he begged her.
She nodded, turning to vanish down the hall.
He watched her go, wishing he could do more, wishing he had a little magic himself. But he was just a huntsman. Jack found one of the spears, closed the door, and stood before it like a guard.
The great and glittering royal army halted in the yard before the steps. They regarded him for a time. Sizing him up, Jack thought. Finally, the prince dismounted.
“Jack!” the prince exclaimed, approaching.
“Sire,” Jack said cautiously, wondering how far he would actually go to keep the prince on this side of the door.
“Jack. Why did you run?”
“You took me prisoner.”
“For your own good. You clearly weren’t in your right mind.”
“What about now?”
The prince regarded the scene, his lips pursed. “You seem to be trying to protect an entire castle alone, with only a spear. I say you’re still a bit off.”
Jack quirked a smile. “Even so. I can’t let you enter, sire.”
He stretched his spine a little straighter. “I promised to protect this castle for its mistress.”
“Its mistress? What about the beast?”
“Well, sire, I’ve been trying to explain, there’s been a spell cast on this place—”
“Yes, the one that’s so badly affected you—”
“No, that isn’t it! This castle belongs to a lady, a noble lady, and her family was killed—”
“By that horrid beast, yes, of course.”
“No, sire!” How could he be explaining this so badly? If he wasn’t careful he’d use his spear to bash the prince over the head. And a hundred arrows would fly into him in the next breath.
“Then tell me what is happening here!” the prince demanded.
At that moment the door behind Jack opened. A woman came out. A woman.
She was disheveled, tired-looking, with a round face and deep frown. Shadows under her eyes, stark against her ivory skin. Her long tangle of light-brown curls hadn’t been brushed in ages and bunched around her shoulders. She held a wool cloak tight around her, like it was armor. With her hand on the edge of the door, she looked around, blinking at everything, as if she had just woken from a long sleep.
It was her. It was the beast—transformed. Somehow. Jack stared in awe. They all did.
“What is this?” she asked. Her voice was a clear, strong alto. More human, more musical than the beast’s, but unmistakably the beast’s. The same cadence, the same underlying certainty of someone who always spoke her mind.
Jack renewed his grip on the spear. “My lady, an army has come. I was just trying to learn their purpose.”
“My lady,” the prince breathed, with a polite nod of his head. She bowed a little in response, but only a little.
“Sire, you see what I’ve been trying to tell you?” Jack said, his heart racing.
The prince said, “Yes, of course. The castle belongs to this good lady. Clearly the beast has been holding her prisoner. My lady—Jack rescued you. And of course you fell in love with him. Have I got it straight?”
“Close enough, I suppose,” she said, looking at Jack, her expression showing stark wonder.
“You know he’s only the fifth son of a minor lord,” the prince stated.
Still looking at Jack she said, “I imagine that’s what makes this a fairy tale.”
The prince said, “Did you kill the beast, Jack? May we see its carcass?”
She flinched at this.
“Jack?” the prince repeated.
Somehow he brought himself back to the moment, the door, and the prince. “Ah—alas, no, sire. I merely wounded it. It fled, deep into the forest. I could not give chase, I needed to stay behind . . . with her.”
“Of course! See that the lady is protected, of course! Lucky girl,” he said, winking. “Well then. We’ll go after the beast and hunt it down. We will avenge you, my lady. Which way did it go?”
“That way. I think,” she said. Both Jack and the beast pointed vaguely off to the north.
“Very well then.” The prince turned to his company and called in an admirably martial manner, “We ride! Let us hunt!” A great cheer went up, and after a ponderous few moments getting themselves turned around to march back out of the gardens, the army departed.
Quiet fell, enough stillness that they heard birdsong. They were alone, and without thinking they turned to one another.
“What happened?” he asked wonderingly. The question felt abrupt, as if he jostled the universe.
“I don’t know.” She sounded just as baffled. “I went inside, as you told me to. And, I stopped. Something stopped me. There was light, a thunderclap. And then . . . and then . . . I had my hands back. Hands, Jack. Look at them!”
In fact, he had dropped the spear some time back and was holding both hers in his own, making it a simple thing to raise them and study them. Fine hands, with long fingers, slender and strong, with calluses. Perfectly normal fingernails, if a bit rough. The ring she’d worn had slipped off, and he wondered if it had belonged to her father, as well.
He thought a moment, trying to solve a puzzle that he wasn’t happy about. To tame her would be to break her, which would break him. “I would never think to command you, to ask you to submit—”
“I trusted you. Maybe that was better.”
His smile broke. “Yes.”
She looked back, toward where the army had left. “Are you ever going to tell him what really—”
“No, God no.”
She laughed, and put her hand, her perfect human hand, on his cheek, and he leaned into the touch.
“You . . . you’re taller than I thought you’d be.”
“While you are exactly right,” he said.
She brushed his cheek, his jaw, making him far too aware that he hadn’t shaved in several days, and he almost apologized, then he didn’t. He wanted to catch her up in his arms, but he was still so busy studying her face, the lips pressed anxiously together in a familiar expression, the slope of her cheekbones, her brown eyes and the fall of her hair over her shoulders.
“I don’t know how to speak to you,” she said finally, as if she too needed time to believe. And then she smiled. Her eyes lit.
Part of him would always expect to turn and find the beast standing there when he heard that voice. But her . . . she was already familiar. “I think . . . I think I would like to make you dinner. A proper dinner, with cutlery and goblets and everything.”
“That is. I mean. If I can stay,” he asked hopefully. Everything he did with her would be with hope.
“Jack. I could not possibly manage a castle like this on my own. You saw how it was. Defend, yes. But not manage. Not really.”
“Generally, in my experience, fine people like you hire someone. Bring someone on to help with a job like this.”
“Like a fifth son who wants to be useful?”
“Just so. Well, my lady. What would you like to do first?”
She kissed him. Lightly, hesitating, as if she was still judging her own strength and distance, she drew close and put her lips on his, and he waited, still as any hunter. When a rare beast draws close, best to be still, lest she flee. She drew away, and he paused long, to remember the warmth of her touch.
She held his hands tightly and said, “And next, I would like to open that bottle of wine.”
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