Beauty in the Beast – Chapter 1

The morning brought sunshine and the smell of freshly baked bread. Birds were singing in the trees, and bees buzzed around the flowers. Belle stood in the small garden behind her father’s house, looking at the meadow that stretched all the way to the edge of the forest. The warm wind stirred the long grass, and gentle waves moved through it. It reminded her of going to the sea. Of a day spent with her feet in the cool sand, watching the water toss and turn. So beautiful and still so deadly. It had been her only wish on her birthday for as long as she could remember. Her little sister always wanted a new dress, but Belle wanted the sea.

But that was before. Before the monster took them. Before it killed her mother. Before. She touched her face, running her fingers over the uneven skin marking her features.

After, there had been no trips, no celebrations, and no happiness.

She turned away from the meadow and pulled up the hood of her cloak. It was too warm to wear, but she would rather be sweaty than have the people in the village stare at her like she was one of the monsters too. She should be used to it by now. After all, it had been almost fifteen years since they were taken. But it still hurt. It hurt when her little sister started pulling away from her. When people she had called friends stopped wanting to play. Her sister had married a young man from another village, and Belle hadn’t heard from her since the day she left. She had a child now and another on the way. Belle was an aunt but would never see her niece.

All because the monster marked her.

Both her sister and she had been taken that winter night, but it was Belle that paid the price. Paid it in blood and tears and a broken heart.

She shook her head at her own melancholy and stepped out on the road. Today was her birthday. Her twenty-fourth. And while no one else was celebrating it, she was going to buy herself a new book. Reading had become her escape. A way of getting away from the village, the people, and the rumors.

The doors to the smithy were open, and she saw her father already hard at work, his young apprentice working the bellows.

She followed the road through the village and ignored the whispers around her. A mother, someone Belle had once called a friend, grabbed her child and crossed the street, making the sign of the cross in front of her chest. Belle blinked away the tears and kept going.

Don’t let them see you cry, she told herself angrily.

She gave a relieved sigh when she ducked into the small store, the little bell over the door jingling at her arrival. She pushed the door closed behind her and leaned her head against the cool wood, breathing deeply. She just needed a second before she had to face the world again.

“Belle?” an old voice asked behind her. She turned and smiled at old Mr. Tobias. He had been a traveling salesman but had settled in town when traveling became too hard on his body. He was the only place in the whole village you could buy a book. Or get help writing a letter. Mr. Tobias was Belle’s saving grace. He had taught her to read and write and never cared about the scars marking her skin or the whispers following her around.

“Good morning Mr. Tobias.” She gave him a smile.

He took her hand in his. “Happy birthday, my girl.” He carefully padded her hand, the one with the scar. Belle couldn’t help the tear breaking free, and she quickly wiped it away.

“So, are you here for your birthday book?”

“Yes, have you gotten anything new?”

“A few.” He pulled out a few books from a shelf behind the desk and carefully placed them in front of her. She studied them each, but her eyes were drawn back to a smaller book with a blue cover. La Belle et la Bête was written in silver lettering on the front. It was the prettiest book she had ever seen. She carefully put it down. Such a lovely book was not something she could afford.

Mr. Tobias picked up the book and put it back in her hand. “From me to you, my dear. You know I would give it to you for free if you let me, but you will not, so I will take my usual price instead.”

Belle wanted to refuse. The book was worth so much more than the single silver coin she had in her pocket, but the draw of the book was too much. She handed him the coin and carefully tucked the book into the pocket of her dress.

With her price safely stowed away, she made her way back to the house she shared with her father at the edge of the village.

It wasn’t a big house, but it was warm and cozy. Being the blacksmith gave her father enough coin to feed them and care for them, and Belle was grateful that she had not been forced to marry. No man in the village would have her, and the outsiders who might show interest were always scared away by the rumors. Not that Belle wanted to marry anyone, but she longed to leave this place. This life. She touched the scars again. Unfortunately, there were just some things in life you could not escape.

She slipped into her bedroom and carefully pulled her new book out. She sat in the old rocking chair and opened the book to the first page. She didn’t have much time; her list of chores was too long to spend much of her day idling around, but she could read that much.

“Belle?” Her father’s deep voice ripped her out of the story, and she glanced around, worried. The shadows on the floor had moved, and she could hear her father move around the house.

“Coming, papa,” she called and carefully placed the book on her little bookshelf beside her bed. It joined her most prized possessions, her twelve books. Her escapes.

She hurried out to the main room and found her father looking at her with a scowl.

“Where is lunch?” he asked and looked around the kitchen.

Lunch? Oh no. “I’m sorry, papa. I’ll get you something right now.” She got some bread, cheese, and butter for him and a cup of the thin ale he favored. She couldn’t believe she had lost time like that. Hours lost and not a single chore done.

Belle was exhausted when it was finally time for bed. She had been running herself ragged, trying to catch up, and still, she couldn’t stop herself from sneaking in a page or two from her book. If only a handsome prince would come and take her away. She would even let him lock her up in a castle if it meant leaving this place.

You are losing your mind, my dear Belle, if you’re willingly agreeing to be locked up by a monster. She scolded herself. She had always prided herself on having a good head. She didn’t fall for pretty words and especially wouldn’t do as someone told her just because of title or money. She had learned a long time ago that the only thing that mattered was how a person acted.

She eyed her bed, her tired body screaming for her to fall into it, but she still had a few hours left of her birthday, and she would be damned if she would celebrate them in her sad little bed.

She grabbed her cloak and swung it over her shoulders before carefully opening the window. She easily slipped out into the darkening summer night and followed the path through the garden, past the small hut where chickens, the pig, and the cow were locked up for the night, and out into the meadow. She hurried through the tall grass, knowing her father was fast asleep and still scared he would somehow spot her dark form running toward the forest. When she finally reached the forest edge, her heart was hammering wild in her chest. Freedom, it said with each beat.

Belle took down the hood and let the wind play with her long hair. She walked among the trees, listening to the evening sounds of the forest animals. She knew she shouldn’t go out here, not alone, and especially not at night.

Wolves, wild boars, and sometimes even bears made their home in the forest, but Belle had already met the biggest monster and survived.

She made her way to the small forest lake. The water was still, reflecting the hues of the evening sky as the sun was swallowed by the horizon. She sat on the giant boulder where she had spent many nights and stared at the water, getting lost in her thoughts.

Beast steered his horse between the trees, following the little used path that would lead him a safe distance past the village. He had been here before, years ago. Hunting the same monster he had finally killed this day. For fifteen years, he had looked for it. Ten years of knowing it was out there, killing and creating more monsters to haunt his life.

That he would find the monster in the same place it had first eluded him was either a miracle or a curse. A miracle because the monster could have fled to where ever it wished. A curse because being back brought memories. Memories of two little scared girls. One blond and pretty with wet cheeks and dripping eyes. The other quiet and brave, with torn skin and bloody clothes. He had saved them, but in doing so, he had let the monster go.

He had given them both back to the town, but he had lingered for weeks, watching, waiting. Looking for the slightest hint of the girl turning. She had healed, showing a strength few men could match, and when he was sure no curse had befallen her, he had left and vowed to never return. But the monster had brought him back.

His horse shied under him, disturbed by something in the darkening forest. He stopped and listened, and heard it, faintly. A low whisper of a song, carried by the breeze.

He turned his horse and followed the song, and as he drew nearer, it pulled at him, calling him in. When he reached a small clearing, he spotted a figure sitting on a rock, back towards him. He jumped from the horse and tied it to a tree before walking closer. The song stopped, and the figure turned, gasping as she saw him so near.

“I’m sorry,” he said and held his hands out. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

The woman, her face hidden in the shadows of her hood, jumped from the rock and backed away. Not that he could blame her. Meeting strange men late at night was not something most maidens wished to try.

He was sure she would run without saying a word, but after a few steps back, she stopped. He felt her gaze even as her face was hidden in the hood of her cloak.

“It’s… It’s you,” she said and took an unsure step closer.

“Have we met before?” he asked, trying to remember. To call forth something from all the memories clouding his mind.

“You’re the lost prince.” She laughed and stepped closer, reaching forward as if to touch his face, despite the distance between them.

“I think you’re mistaken.” He took a step back. All he had to do was get on his horse and ride away. Leave the area and not come back in this lifetime. In another eighty years, everyone who might remember anything would be dead.

“No, I’m not,” the woman breathed out on a whisper and took the final steps to bring them close. She fell, her foot caught in something in the dark earth, and he grabbed her arm before she could hit the ground.

“Careful,” he said and pulled her up, steadying her while she caught her footing. Her hood had fallen down, revealing a mass of dark hair trapped in a long braid. He starred into her dark eyes before she ripped herself out of his grip and covered her face with one hand as she tried to get the hood up with the other.

But he had already seen it. The long scar carving up her face. A long ragged slash from forehead to chin, twisting her left side. He grabbed her chin and turned her face, pulling her hand away so he could see it.

“You,” he said and ran his fingers over the scar. It went straight through her eye, which was nothing but a milky white orb, and he wondered if her vision was impaired.

“Let go of me,” she demanded of him and pulled her face out of his grasp, pushing him in the chest. Her fist connected with his cheek, and pain exploded in his head. He stumbled back, staring at the small woman in shock.

“How dare you? How dare you touch me?” The woman raised her hand again as if readying to hit him once more, thought better of it, and took a step back instead. “You left me. Left me to become an outcast, feared by everyone. I was the crazy one. The one saying she had seen the lost prince.”

“I saved you,” he said with a frown her way. He had done the right thing. Saved two little girls from the monsters. Maybe she was crazy. Not quite right in the head.

“Saved me? My own father looks at me with fear. My sister left town to get away from me and the rumors that haunt me. I would rather have died in that frozen cave than live this life.” With those parting words, the small woman turned and ran between the trees.

Beast stared after her, too stunned to move. She hit him. Accused him of making her life hell after he saved her. Saving her probably cost lives as the monster had fifteen more years to go out hunting. And she was worried about a few rumors?

He wanted to go after her. Wanted to tell her just how an ungrateful little wench she was. But the hunt was still too fresh in his blood. He could already feel the blood pumping, hear his heart picking up speed. He breathed deeply, trying to calm down. She was just a woman. A silly woman from a small village, and she knew nothing about the world.

When he finally relaxed enough to unclench his jaw, he decided the forest lake was as good a place to set up his camp as any. He walked back to his horse, ignoring how he could still smell her in the air. It was just the battle rush talking. A good night’s sleep and he would be ready to head home again.

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