Saturday, December 7, 2019

Serial Saturday: "Red, The Wolf" Part 10

Part 10

"Stop where you are!" said one lawman, even though Justin hadn't yet made his move. "You're under arrest for the trafficking of stolen goods!"

Justin looked around. The fascinated crowd was growing thicker by the minute. One by one, all his avenues of escape were being cut off, as the constables were nearly within arm's reach. Justin made his choice. Dropping the leashes, he aimed a swift kick at Rascal's fluffy behind and shouted, "RUN!"

Rascal took off like a shot, with Red following close behind--not because she'd been commanded to, mind, but because the white wolf happened to be headed straight for the most available path of egress.

Everyone was so wrapped up in seeing the slippery criminal get arrested that no one paid attention to the two muzzled animals racing together. Rascal ducked around wagons and between legs in the crowded streets. Red followed, lengthening her stride till she was neck-and-neck with him. Her shoulder screamed for mercy, but Red focused on her goal. She needed the mutt, just until she could be human again.

Red kept pace with Rascal until he veered off-course, headed for the front gate of the city instead of down toward the apothecary. The moment he did, she surged alongside him and lunged for the leash, catching her paw in the loop on the end and stopping short.

Rascal flipped head-over-hindquarters at the sudden jerk on his neck. He tugged and pulled against her, but Red stood firm and held fast, stepping on the leash with her uninjured paw for good measure. When Rascal finally stopped tugging and looked at her with a flurry of pitiful whines, Red gave a low growl and snarled at him.

Let go! Master said run! he whimpered.

I am in charge. I am your master! Do as I say, she snapped. She maintained her grip on the leash as she bent down, getting her paw up behind her head and scraping forward until she could wriggle the muzzle's straps over her ears. Justin had been putting them on for show, anyway, as a reassurance for the humans, so it wasn't actually very tight. Now that her mouth was free, Red could grip the leash in her mouth, putting Rascal entirely at her mercy.

Rascal understood, and he stopped fighting. He allowed Red to lead him back down the road they should have gone down, sniffing all the way until her nose caught the scent of thread and cloth--the smell of Deborah Garrity's rag-bag, where she often let Red curl up and sleep as a tiny pup. Red blinked away the nostalgic memory and focused on making her way to where the scent came strongest. Truegood Millinery, the shingle proclaimed. Red paused in the alleyway behind the shop to scent the air again, this time looking for the yeasty aroma of bread and flour. They were within sight of the building when Rascal's tail began to wag in a most unseeming manner for a wolf. Red rolled her eyes as she realized it had taken him this long to finally smell where they were going.

Rascal whimpered at her again, this time pulling her toward the bakery faster than Red's injured leg could keep up.

Hungry, his pleas proclaimed. Food want now!

Red lifted her lip and snarled, tugging on the leash to get him away from the pile of waste beside the back door. I'm still in charge, she asserted. Keep moving!

She paused beside the bakery, scanning every inch of her surroundings to find the apothecary. Across the street and sandwiched between a tavern and a general store was a small shop front with a narrow door and a single window. There wasn't even room for a shingle or a sign like the others had. Rather, the apothecary identified herself by a simple etching of a mortar and pestle over the door.

Red gave Rascal's leash a tug, and the two wolves trotted across the road and into the apothecary's shop.

Inside the tiny shop, small shelves filled with little bottles and boxes of every shape filled the walls. In one sniff, Red detected the apothecary herself. She stood behind a wide counter, weighing out herbs into a small jar. Red felt Rascal twitch, and felt the small tug that told her that he was in the mood to run straight out of there at the next available opportunity. She couldn't drop the leash, for fear he might escape--but then how would she get the woman's attention?

Rascal's twitching and scratching on the floorboards made enough racket to prompt the woman to turn. Her eyes widened at the sight of two fierce animals in her shop.

"What do we have here?" She cried, grabbing for the nearest item--a wicker broom. "Shoo!" she cried, gripping the broomstick and keeping a safe distance. "Get out of here!"

Rascal again turned toward the door and tugged, but Red held fast. As she had done with the man who gave them directions, she maintained the woman's gaze. Those haunting blue eyes were mesmerizing. She could see generations of knowledge in the lines of the old woman's face--it wasn't round and smooth and hearty like Deborah Garrity's face. The apothecary's face was lined, discolored, and gaunt. Her skin and the silvery hairs peeking out from under her woven headscarf belied her age, while her eyes bespoke an ageless vitality, the sort of youthfulness that only strengthens with age rather than fading.

Red heard the woman give a long, slow breath. "Wait a moment," she said.

The young lycanthrope remained sitting, with the leash in her mouth, as the apothecary came out from behind the counter.

The old woman appraised both animals, squinting deeply as if to peer into their souls.

"There is something different about one of you," she said. "And the one who understands what I'm saying will acknowledge that I'm right."

Red perked up, angling her ears forward and nodding her head. Beside her, Rascal had suddenly taken a keen interest in the woman crouched before them, and he began nodding his head as well.

The apothecary still looked from one wolf to the other, as if she sought some kind of sign in the response of the shapeshifter that wouldn't be present in the natural wolf.

"So you both understand my words. Are both of you shapeshifters?" asked the old woman.

Red immediately wagged her head back and forth, answering in the negative. Rascal copied her movements exactly, as if this was all a game and not the difference between survival and certain doom. Red bared her fangs and growled at him, but he only whimpered and tilted his head playfully.

"Are you here of your own volition?" the apothecary asked again, still dividing her attention between the wolves, when Red desperately wished for attention to be on her. This time, she waited to see what Rascal would do if she didn't respond first--the miscreant dared to bob his head up and down in imitation of a nod! This was too much for Red. She dropped the leash and stepped on it, holding it firmly in place while she snarled and lunged for the troublemaking pup.

"Hold!" The apothecary commanded, and though she did not touch either of them, Red felt her authority deep inside her veins. This woman really was a thaumaturge, practitioner of blood magic! Red felt her muscles ache and throb with every beat of her heart, and the pain in her shoulder increased until it felt like it would burst at any moment. Through the pulsing haze, Red saw Rascal whimpering and fawning in response to some stimulus, and she reasoned that he must have felt a similar sensation, though on a much different level, being neither a shapeshifter nor fatally wounded.

The thaumaturge gripped the leashes of both wolves. "This is very confusing," she remarked. "But I have one more test for the two of you."

She picked up the leashes and led the two wolves out to a small yard behind her shop. The ground was dirt here, a soft clay easy to dig in. She anchored two stakes into the ground and tied a leash around each. Red and Rascal both watched her expectantly. Finally, the thaumaturge stood back.

"Write your name," she instructed.

Red felt a rush of pleasure--finally, something she could do that a natural wolf could not! Her wolf muscles were different than her human muscles, but the same brain directed both bodies, and Red knew she could make her wolf-paws do the movements necessary. Carefully, she extended her claws and scraped out the rough shapes of the letters "R-e-d" in the soft earth. Beside her, Rascal happily dug a shape that looked more like a warped hole of some sort.

The apothecary smiled at last, and leaned forward to untie the rope from around Red's neck. The lycanthrope shook her head, grateful to be free of the offending thing. She walked beside the apothecary back into the shop, leaving Rascal to scrape and dig in the dirt to his dimwitted heart's content.

Inside, the apothecary turned back to Red.

"So, Red," she mused, "that's an unusual name--but since you happen to be a wolf just now, I gather you are a very unusual person. My name is Greta. It's been a long time since I've seen a lycanthrope, particularly one that is trapped in their animal form." She began searching the shelves behind the counter. Finally, she pulled out a small jar with a pale-grey powder inside. She sprinkled this into a pestle, with some red flakes that smelled like crimson hoods, and a few other powders.

"There are a few reasons a shifter might be blocked from shifting," Greta mused as she added the dry ingredients to a small pot of liquid over a tiny fire. "Sometimes physical wounds, mental trauma, or even the wrong emotional state could keep a person in one form or another." She stirred the potion, and Red watched as it gave off a pale lavender steam. Greta finally nodded and lifted the pot off the flame. "You don't look wounded, and your mental faculties seem intact, so whatever it is, this should override everything and force a transformation."

Red remained calm as Greta brought the pot directly underneath her nose.

"Breathe deep," the thaumaturge instructed. "Focus on taking the scent all the way into your brain."

Red closed her eyes and obeyed. For several moments, the only thing she acknowledged was the smell of crimson hoods and the woods of Queston, tinged with the scent of sheep's wool and wolf-pelt. She did as she was told and took it all the way in. As she breathed, she felt an awakening in her mind, a definite ripping sensation, like every time she'd shifted in the past year, all rolled into a single massive upheaval. She inhaled the smell, and hardly noticed when her legs collapsed and sent her crashing to the floor.


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Friday, December 6, 2019

A Bookish Blog Hop: Winter Hop 2019! Day 6--A Book They Made Into A Film

Danielle - Snatched Words

I like both the book and film versions of Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. I loved the novel part of Les Miserables, which tells the intertwining stories of Jean Valjean and a host of other characters in the lead up to the Paris Rebellion. It’s heartbreaking, romantic and epic. About a quarter of the book reads more like essays though and I found these hard going. Partly I like the film because it misses out the essay parts of the book. So the film is more of a loose re-interpretation of the story, rather than an attempt to re-tell the same story in a film version. It also has great songs. The only analogy that springs to mind is Frozen and The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen, which probably says a lot about the type of films I’ve watched recently!

Leslie Conzatti (Me!)
I’m going to skip over the obvious answers like Hunger Games and Divergent and The Lord of The Rings/The Hobbit and The Chronicles of Narnia, since of course those titles were adapted--that was the whole reason they were going to be popular!

Instead, I’m going to list some books that became films that I’ve both read and watched.

There is The Book Thief, which was a book that enthralled me and taught me to love prose as an art form as much as a medium of communication. The film was so brilliantly crafted, I remember watching it with a friend and we got so into it we were holding each other and bawling by the end! Also a classic favorite that I know practically by heart, The Princess Bride--the only way an adaptation can top it is if the person who writes the original book also happens to be in the filmmaking business and writes the screenplay as well. There’s The Girl on The Train which I picked up expressly because there was the film adaptation coming out and I was intrigued by the idea--my first experience with the “unreliable narrator” style and I definitely got taken for a ride, right up to the very end!

I feel like I want to mention a book for which I’m looking forward to the film adaptation: Artemis Fowl. I don’t even mind that it’s Kenneth Brannaugh at the helm. I enjoyed that series quite a lot and I am eager to see it brought to life!

I always love it when books are turned into films. I like to see if the characters and scenes are how I imagined them. Unfortunately, most movies that are based off books I usually don’t like as well as the book. I’m pretty sure most book bloggers are that way though.

The book and movie If I Stay is one adaptation that I really like. The movie stars Chloe Grace Moretz. Honestly, I like a lot of movies that she’s in. Another book to movie adaptation I really liked is The Maze Runner. A few of the monsters are hard for me to imagine so I’m glad I’m able to see what they look like on the big screen. Those are the few that I can think of. The only reason I usually don’t like book to movie adaptations is because things aren’t how I imagined them. Not only that, I feel like really important things get left out of the adaptation.

Eline -

I’m very curious about trying Passionflix. They turn bestselling (indie) Romance novels into movies. They haven’t been around for all that long so there aren’t that many movies yet. But it seems like such a great project and I think after their next release, I’ll sign up.

Jo Linsdell
I’m going with Chocolat by Joanne Harris for this one. I’ve had a copy of this book my bookshelf for years and recently it keeps catching my eye. It was made into a film in 2001 starring Juliette Binoche, and Johnny Depp. I’ve also yet to watch the film version. I’m moving it up on my list though, and honestly can’t believe I’m benched it for so long.

In tiny Lansquenet, where nothing much has changed in a hundred years, beautiful newcomer Vianne Rocher and her exquisite chocolate shop arrive and instantly begin to play havoc with Lenten vows. Each box of luscious bonbons comes with a free gift: Vianne's uncanny perception of its buyer's private discontents and a clever, caring cure for them. Is she a witch? Soon the parish no longer cares, as it abandons itself to temptation, happiness, and a dramatic face-off between Easter solemnity and the pagan gaiety of a chocolate festival. Chocolat's every page offers a description of chocolate to melt in the mouths of chocoholics, francophiles, armchair gourmets, cookbook readers, and lovers of passion everywhere. It's a must for anyone who craves an escapist read, and is a bewitching gift for any holiday.

Becki - A Book Lover’s Adventures
I have several books that were made into movies that I really enjoy, but I’ll share my favorite two with you today.
The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling, both books and series, are extremely well done! These are still a family favorite. We watch the series whenever they come on TV, and we have all the DVDs, lol.
My other favorite is Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen. I thought the movie with Emma Thompson and Hugh Grant was lovely and I enjoy splurging once a year or so and watching the movie!

Tania Richardson -
Anyone who knows me knows how much I love The Princess Bride by William Goldman, both the book and the film. So it’s no surprise it would be my pick for today! What's it about? Fencing. Fighting. True Love. Revenge. Giants. Pirates. Escapes and Captures. Death, Lies, Truth, and Miracles. The film is my automatic go-to whenever I’m feeling under the weather… And of course, it’s not my birthday without a cake filled viewing! In terms of film v book, The Princess Bride film adaptation may be one of the very few out there that just about beats the book, but that is just testament to the talents of William Goldman and Rob Reiner.


How about you? What are some film adaptations you've seen, that you'd recommend? Comment below and join the discussion! Stay tuned--Tomorrow you can find out where to find our BOOK REVIEWS!

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

"The Sheriff's Showdown" Excerpt: Walking Into Town

In the list of everything I ever wanted to do in my life, even just the once, for the sake of "experiential writing research", walk through a desert in the blazing sun alone dressed in nothing but a synthetic jumpsuit did not even show up anywhere at all. And yet, thanks to a quirky typewriter, an impossible challenge, and goodness knows what other substance I may or may not have ingested to bring me here--this is exactly where I found myself in this moment.

The thing that irritated me most was the fact that there didn't seem to be any trees or means of actual shade under the clear blue sky and the blazing sun. My only relief came from the fact that the futuristic jumpsuit from the Phantessan space ship possessed some kind of super-wicking ability, evaporating any moisture on contact, so that even my sweat didn't cause any problems. Of course, I still lost those copious amounts of moisture, so I felt the dehydration settle over me at a much faster rate. The bright sunlight reflecting off the pale sand didn't help the dizzy factor, either. I kept my eyes down, watching my shadow as I shambled over the ground. Gradually, I came to more or less of a flat, packed surface, instead of loose gravel and soil, and the track seemed to follow more of a direction, like a road rather than just open scrubland.


A town spread before me, on the valley floor below. I could see the wooden buildings of many shapes and various heights, and if I squinted really hard I could even make out people and animals moving about between them. I almost laughed aloud with relief at the sight--except that I couldn't shake the feeling I was being watched somehow, among those craggy cliffs.

"Time to find out what this story will be like," I murmured, taking long strides down the hill toward the town.


I wasn't exactly watching where I was going, and I nearly spooked someone's horse as they trotted down the road in the opposite direction.

"Watch where you're going!" snapped the rider.

A piercing wolf whistle cut through the air. A couple of drunks eyed me up and down. Lucky for me they were too hosed to stand up straight, but that didn't prevent them from hollering at me.

"Eyyy, pre'ygirl!" slurred one.

"No, issa boy," objected his companion as they reeled and staggered right past me. "See'is trousers?"

"Nevva see'd trousers go up to 'is neck like that!"

"Hey you!" barked a gruff voice, and something hard glanced off my cheek and splatted in the mud at my feet. I looked down to see a couple coins I didn't recognize, one of them golden in color (but surely it was too big to be real gold!) and the other a pewter-ish silver. I regarded the man who had thrown them. He made a rude motion with his hands.

"Yeah you... long-johns! Go buy yourself some real clothes, loony!"

He meant it as a slight, I could tell that from the way the people around him burst into a fit of laughter at my expense--but on the other hand, it struck me as a good idea to at least clothe myself in a way to fit in better. I bent down to pick up the coins.

It was so noisy already, I hadn't noticed the extra level of frenzy, but as my fingers closed around the shiny metal discs, I felt a shadow fall over me, heard the words "Look out!" and I stood up just as the fence less than ten yards away from me shattered in front of a runaway wagon headed right for me!

I cringed and threw my arms over my head, crouching down and praying that the horses went around me--but instead of hooves, I felt two arms lift me straight up and sweep me off to the side, as the wagon went thundering out into the middle of the road as people and crates screamed at the narrow escape and dove out of its way. The wagon plowed straight out of town without stopping or overturning.

"Are you all right?" asked a voice just over my head. The arms pulled back and gentle, strong hands supported me as I looked into the honest face of the man who had saved my life.

I gasped, feeling a keen sense of deja vu as I could have been looking into the face of Commander Gerald of Phantessa!

"Y-yes," I stammered, my body quivering as the rush of adrenaline subsided. "I'm fine, thank you."

The man stepped back, pushing the brim of his Stetson back to mop the sweat from his forehead with a kerchief. "It's my pleasure--and, I guess you could say, my job to ensure the safety of any who enter this town." He dusted off the sleeve of his plaid shirt and pointed to the silver badge clipped to his pocket. "I'm the Sheriff, you see. The name's Jerry Coldwell. Who might you be, stranger?" His eyes wrinkled as he talked, but his face was not unkind.

I managed a smile. "My name is Laura," I said.

He nodded and shook my hand. "Pleasure to meet you, Laura. Now, if you don't mind my saying..." Sheriff Jerry gave me a casual once-over, "I get the feeling you're not exactly from around here. Care to tell me where that might be?"

Oh, blazes! I hadn't had nearly enough time to cook up a reasonable response--and I already knew from my experience with Commander Gerald that I was absolutely no good trying to bluff on the fly. My eyes began to wander, as I knew that I had probably hesitated far too long to avoid suspicion, even from one as open and honest as the good sheriff before me. I had to say something!


"Sheriff! Sheriff Coldwell! Thank God I've found you!" shouted a man, running up to us.

His hair stood out wildly from his head, and his clothes were streaked with dirt, even a little bit of blood from a cut on his face and a split lip. The wiry man whose skin looked like a bad sunburn all over, waved his hands and grabbed wildly for the Sheriff.

"Did you see them? Did you see those miserable outlaws?"

"Hold up there, Ingalls," Sheriff Jerry responded with the utmost calm. "What outlaws? What are you talking about?"

"The thieves!" Ingalls shouted. "Those men driving the wagon that just about ran down half the town! Those men ride with Big Tom the Bandit, and they've made off with nearly half my merchandise!"

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Short Story Feature: "The Prince And The Rose" Part Final

"The Prince and The Rose": >>Part 1<< >>Part 2<< >>Part 3<< >>Part 4<< >>Part 5<<

Part Final

Charmaine wandered the grand, empty halls in an vacant melancholy. By the time she'd recovered from her outburst at Felice, her friend was long gone. Still, twice a day, the Beast left her meals in the Great hall, in front of the fire, with a fresh, warm blanket waiting for her. Twice a day, she sat down to eat and saw the same message, scrawled on torn pages.

Tu est belle. 
Tu est belle.
Tu est belle.

"He doesn't even know what he's talking about!" she told herself time and again, even going so far as to throw one of the notes into the fire, only to see a new one appear at the next meal. "I'm not beautiful--and neither is he!"

For three days, she moped around by herself, not even bothering to brush her hair most of the time, because what would be the point, if the only person she had to impress was the Beast--and she couldn't care less what he thought!

As the third day faded into evening, Charmaine aroused from her heavy, defeated state enough to realize that, come morning, it would be the end of her second week in the Beast's castle--and she was no closer to freedom than the day her father broke the news to her.

"I'll never escape!" she mourned. "I'm doomed to walk around this big empty castle, avoiding that hideous monster, eating my two solitary meals, until one of us is dead!"

The moment the words left her mouth, she heard a low grunt behind her. In the time it took to turn and look toward the door, Charmaine saw the sloping, ridged back of the Beast, just in the act of walking by the room. A frantic fear beset her--what if he'd caught her outburst? She waited, statuesque, not daring to so much as blink or breathe until the sounds of his claws clacking against the marble faded from her hearing.

She released her breath with a sigh. "If this is going to be my new life," she muttered to herself, "I suppose now is as good a time as any to make the best of it!"

She emerged from her room, checked carefully for any sign of the Beast, and upon finding none, she made her way to the stairs. This time, instead of going to the Great Room and waiting for her supper, as she had done for the past couple days, instead Charmaine decided to change things up. She took a sharp right turn and headed down the hallway that led to the courtyard at the back of the house.

Everything was the same slate-grey stone, from the flagstones to the archways and columns giving a closed-off atmosphere to everything. Charmaine felt her lip instinctively curl at the many large stone vases of dead limbs--or just bare dirt. She noticed as she wandered among the scattered columns that there were certain places that seemed to absorb all sounds. One could very much indulge in a profound sense of loneliness here. Charmaine settled in the depths of a recessed alcove between two small columns. She could feel the tears itching at the back of her eyes already, as words to suit her mood came to mind. Dead... Alone... Abandoned... Unloved...

A soul-rending roar reached her, even in the depths of her despair. Charmaine abruptly sat up and leaned forward, listening to the wailing, bone-shaking sound. Was it the Beast? What was happening to him? Had a handsome monster-hunter come to kill him in an attempt to free her?

She glanced up to the vaulted windows, shattered as they were. Somewhere inside there, the Beast howled at the top of his lungs. Had he seen her? Was he angry with her?

"I probably trespassed in that courtyard or something," she concluded as she bounded the steps two at a time.

She reached the door into the Beast's upstairs parlor, and the memories of what happened last time she ventured this way crashed over her. She stopped short, her fingertips just inches away from the door. She clenched her fist and drew her hand back.

"I shouldn't..." she whispered to herself--but at the same time, she couldn't move away from that spot. The sound of his roar haunted her. Was it pain? Anger? Sadness?

Charmaine stood rooted to the floor until her curiosity overwhelmed the sense of foreboding. She placed her hand against the rough surface of the door, braced herself, and pushed.

The moving door stirred up a cloud of dust from the floor--but beyond that, the only thing that moved was the wind.

"Beast?" Charmaine called in a tiny voice. Her straining ears didn't catch so much as an echo from that space. She dared to cross the threshold into the room. "Raul?"

Now she stood inside the space. It was much more disheveled than the last time she'd been in there--but other than that, not much had changed. There were the tattered curtains and the cobwebs and the inch-thick layer of dust over everywhere except where the Beast walked most frequently. There was the strange flower under its jar on the table--

Charmaine gasped and clapped her hands over her mouth as she laid eyes on what remained of the ethereal rose. It could hardly be called a flower any more; barely a handful of petals clung pathetically to a bowed stem, upon which the thorns outnumbered the petals. A familiar sight caught her eye, so familiar she almost missed it: a page torn out of a book, with writing upon it. Charmaine stared at it curiously as she moved forward. Had he left a note, expecting her to come in here after him? She read the inscription. Her hand trembled so badly she almost dropped the paper. She felt faint. Her heartbeat pounded in her ears in a triple cadence.

J'ai fini. "I am finished," it declared.

Charmaine woke from her mortified stupor at the sound of a sharp crack. She blinked and watched as yet another petal broke away from the top of the rose stem and wafted to the table's surface. When the last petal falls... her thoughts followed that logic to it's likeliest conclusion, even though up to this point there had been no sure way of confirming it.

"Come on, Charmaine!" The young lady groaned at herself. "Of course you know his fate--the only question is, what are you going to do about it?"

She stood there long enough for yet another petal to fall, and then Charmaine did the very last thing she ever anticipated doing: she went after the Beast.

She couldn't be absolutely certain where he went, but the moment she entered the sunroom, with its massive bay of windows offering a three-sided view, she saw a flickering light glinting in the garden. Of course! The last time anyone had seen Raul as a human had been in the garden. Charmaine hurried for the nearest door and dashed down the long path to the overgrown yard.

She could hear the commanding voice before she saw them.

"Of course you tried. But all of your best efforts just weren't enough."

Charmaine saw them, the Beast and the Fairy--she was so pure and so fair, her skin fairly glowed, and her clothing enrobed her with a richness that surpassed even the clearest diamonds. Beneath her, the cowering, groveling, slovenly Beast barely looked like more than a heap of garbage. He let out an unearthly moan.

"I would that it were not so," said the Fairy, lifting her hand. "But I made you a promise, and I cannot rescind my word--"


Charmaine hardly had a moment to contemplate the best course of action before she suddenly screamed out and flung herself between the two entities. She found herself actually deigning to lay hands upon the magnificent Fairy, her own skin dark and ugly against the clear whiteness of the hand she held.

The multicolored eyes fixed on her.

"You are the damsel sent to lift the curse?" she asked.

Charmaine felt a massive weight settle around her shoulders, causing her to stoop and dragging the words back into her mouth as she tried to say them. "I--I am... I was sent to live with him."

The Fairy lifted her gaze, looking toward the place Charmaine knew was the window to Raul's chambers, where the flower stood. She blinked, and the Fairy held the flower in her hand. She peered at it closely. "But three petals remain." Her gaze shifted back to Charmaine. "You did not love him."

"So?" Charmaine retorted, standing up straight and setting her chin. "I don't see how that matters. I'm asking you--begging you--now to let him go."

The Fairy's face did not change. "Why do you beg now on his behalf if you did not care enough to break the spell sooner?"

The words struck into Charmaine's psyche. She fought to keep her voice calm and steady as she replied, "I'm begging now because I realize it's not about me and whether I harbor feelings for the Prince or not. It's about him--he's the one you're punishing, but he's not the same sort of person he once was!"

The Fairy lowered her hand, and folded her arms. "Speak on," she said. "The reason for this curse was because he took that which was not rightfully his, claimed a right to behave however he wished, and did not bother to acknowledge others more powerful than himself. Yet you say he has changed?"

Charmaine nodded, feeling the rush of emotion rising up to choke her. "Oh indeed! Since I first arrived, he has done nothing but care for me, preparing food, allowing me to roam where I wished, providing what he could for my comfort," the words caught in her throat and the tears itched at the back of her eyes as she recounted her experiences. "When I responded in fear and anger, he withdrew and heeded my demands. When I expressed more affection for the idea of receiving a visit from a friend in the city, he risked his life by going down to the village and retrieving her--something he'd never done for himself, but he did it for me." The conversation with Felice leaped into her mind, and Charmaine hung her head. "He--he paid me compliments, he's only ever been gentle--and in return, I've screamed at him, called him names, and blamed him for every little thing that happened to me." She lifted her tearful eyes and looked the Fairy right in the face. "If anyone deserves the punishment of becoming a monster and the curse of eternal isolation, it's me! I'm the monster! Prince Raul has seen the error of his ways and mended his choices, but I have continuously made things so much worse by what I've done!"

Her knees buckled, and Charmaine fell into a crouch next to the weary and slumping Beast. She lifted his head to see his eyes.

"Your highness," she murmured, "I am so sorry for the way I've treated you! All the things I said about you, the way I reacted to your kindness with only spite and anger and bitterness--the fault wasn't yours! It was all mine!" Her chin trembled, but she gently supported him as he shifted to a sitting position. Holding his terrible claws in her hands, she looked into that awful face and pronounced the words, "Tu es digne." You are worthy.

The Beast groaned and turned away, but Charmaine persisted. "No, listen to me! Tu es digne--I don't know how much longer I can say it to you, but you deserve to hear it at least as many times as you called me beautiful. You are worthy, Prince Raul! You are worthy!" Her eye fell on the rose in the Fairy's hand, and she sniffed. "I'm like that stem--you bore the sting of each of my thorns because you believed there was a rose among them..." She was crying in earnest now. "But I only showed you more thorns for your efforts. I'm nothing but a wilted, empty stem! You are worthy of someone who can reward you with a better love than you've gotten from me! You are worthy of true love, Prince!"

"Enough!" declared the Fairy, and she clapped her hands together.

A bright flash of light sent Charmaine reeling backward, her hands over her face. She cowered on the ground, expecting at any moment to feel her skin warp and change into a beast-like form--but none came. Instead, she felt a pair of warm, strong hands grasp her by the arms and lift her up.

"Charmaine?" asked an unfamiliar voice, low and warm.

Charmaine lowered her hands, leaning against the other person. The Fairy had vanished, and there was no sign of the Beast anywhere, either. Instead, Charmaine found herself standing beside a rather unkempt young man, with a thick beard and shaggy hair--but when he smiled, she took one look in his eyes and knew.

"Prince Raul?" she gasped. "But I thought--"

He chuckled, scratching at the side of his face. "I suppose your words must have swayed her somehow. You managed to break the curse, after all!"

Charmaine still struggled to understand this turn of events. "But then, if I broke the curse--" She lifted her hands up to her face. Her fingertips connected with a series of ropy scars. "I'm still..."

Raul grabbed her hands and caressed them. "Still what?" He challenged. "You still have the scars--but haven't you been listening, Charmaine? I've told you every day since that moment that you're beautiful--and for what its worth, I still mean it. You see only the thorns, but I've been looking at the rose this entire time." He dropped her hand and ran his fingers over her scars, himself.

Charmaine closed her eyes, relishing the feel of his skin against hers. The pair linked arms and turned back toward the castle. It was still every bit as ruined as it was before--but this time, there was no wall separating it from the rest of the kingdom. She leaned her head on his shoulder. "What is going to become of you--become of us--now?"

Raul sighed. "Well, since I was cursed by a Fairy to remain a hideous beast indefinitely, I am fairly certain my father already disinherited me, which means his crown will go to my cousin, and a new line of succession will begin." He escorted her to a low bench in the courtyard and sat next to her. "I'm afraid I'm no longer a Prince."

Charmaine considered this turn of events, searching for any hint of disappointment but her newfound feelings remained as strong as ever. "I don't care that neither of us can be royalty anymore," she declared. "I wouldn't even care if my own father wouldn't take us back, either. I trust you to take care of us, with or without riches and finery and status."

A sly smile inched across Raul's face. "My! Listen to the little mockingbird change her tune after being faced with an imminent curse!"

The words might have stung the Old Charmaine, but New Charmaine just laughed.

"As far as whether or not your father will accept you back," mused the former prince, "I can reassure you that a little bit of humility can tame the most ferocious beast." As he spoke, he tapped her on the shoulder.

Charmaine blushed as she recalled Raul's own display of humility in the face of her beastly behavior.

"Whatever happens," Raul sighed as they re-entered the castle, "I promise, Charmaine, that I will be there for you, I will be with you wherever life takes us." He stopped in the doorway, taking her hands and staring right into her eyes. "Dearest Charmaine, in return for breaking my curse, I give you everything I have--which is to say, merely myself, if you'll have me."

Looking into that clear, wholesome face, Char felt a sense of optimism and confidence such as she'd not experienced a long time, if ever at all in her life. "Dearest Raul," she replied, "I accept you for who you are, nothing more, nothing less."

The couple shared a tender kiss, and the Prince and his Rose lived in joy for the rest of their days.



Saturday, November 23, 2019

Serial Saturday: "Red, The Wolf" Part 9

Part 9

Red awoke to the overwhelming aroma of crimson hoods. The smell permeated her entire olfactory system, overriding every other discernible sense in a haze of ruddy florals. Her paw felt like it had been turned to stone as she hefted it up to her snout. One befuddled glance told her that Justin had gone and coated her snout with the stuff--probably because he wanted her docile and suppressed for the trip into Callica. As she focused all of whatever energy she still possessed on listening, she heard him admit as much to Rascal.

"Callica," Justin grunted as the wagon trundled down the uneven road. "Why did it have to be Callica? That's Hector's territory, remember? And he don't take kindly to interlopers steering customers away from his underlings." The peddler snorted, "Weren't we clever, though, swiping those trinkets out from under his nose? There they were, plain as day right in front of him on the display, with rich folk running right over to hand me their purses, and there weren't nothin' he could do about it!" Justin threw back his head and laughed, causing Rascal to yip in response to his master's happiness, more than actual comprehension. Red could feel her energy flagging, but she clung to her last few threads of consciousness as Justin kept talking.

"Too bad Lord Brennan was there to spoil our fun--how was I supposed to know that Hector had stolen those things from him in the first place?" He sighed deeply. "And now here we are, headed right back into town, looking for an apothecary that can turn our new wolf friend here into a human." Red felt some of the crimson hoods' effects fading as Justin whistled. "Won't that be a treat? Now, if we can find her before Hector's men get me arrested, maybe this supposed young woman will be so grateful for my assistance and care that she'll do whatever she can to help us," he paused. "Or... if not... Maybe I won't use the remedy right away, and keep it in order to motivate the wolf to do whatever I tell her to do." He let out a dark chuckle. "Either way, we have a skin-changer at our mercy, for sure!"

Red listened, every fiber of her being ready to tear this man to shreds for even thinking that he could command her in any way. She would show him whose mercy he ought to be concerned about!

Right now is not the time, she thought to herself. I am just as desperate to reach the apothecary and find a way to be human again--though my reasons are not for gain, but to return to Queston and to my rightful place as Guardian. She need only comply until she had the remedy in hand--and then it was every man and wolf for him and herself. Full of that knowledge, she let her eyes close and her body relax as she waited for the crimson hood ointment to wear off.

It seemed only a few minutes later she awakened again to something tugging on the tether around her neck. The scent of crimson hoods had given way to the foul reek of Rascal, hesitating just out of her reach as Justin kept urging him to move forward and awaken her himself. Red channeled her wolfish instincts, waiting for the young pup to stir just a hairs-breadth, and she came roaring awake, lunging at him with teeth bared and eyes full of fire. Rascal just about tripped over his own hindquarters in his eagerness to back away from her reach. Justin laughed at his pet's comical reaction, but Red noticed that he did hold her tether like a leash.

"All right you two," he declared. "Fun's over. Now we have to be very stealthy."

He tied another length of rope around Rascal's neck, and the three of them set off down a forest path. Red paused to look back over her shoulder at the wagon. Justin had somehow found a thicket big enough to conceal it completely. If Red hadn't been inside the wagon just a few moments ago, she might not have suspected it was there at all. She reeled back when the peddler knelt in front of her, but the tight collar prevented her from going very far out of his reach.

"Now then, Beauty," Justin crooned, waving the last bit of crimson hood ointment under her sensitive snout, "this is just a precaution, you know. It's not going to hurt you. Just look at Rascal! He knows there's naught to fear."

Red glanced over to the white wolf waiting patiently by the wagon. Rascal blissfully jumped on a bug crawling across the ground in front of them, heedless of the large leather muzzle he now wore. Red twisted this way and that as Justin tried to slip its twin over her mouth.

"Now then!" He kept saying over and over, "Now then!" It took a few tries, but Red did eventually twist the wrong way, and he got the contraption around her snout. It stank of so many other animals, that Red could hardly smell the crimson hoods anymore--though she almost would have preferred it to this reek.

"Like I said," Justin muttered, urging the two wolves onward, "Just a precaution. These folk are a bit skittish around creatures such as you two, so we don't want to cause any undue alarm!"

They took a twisting, winding route out of the forest, stopping every so often to duck behind trees and into bushes, waiting through the absolute silence until Justin deemed it safe to continue. The whole time, Red played the part of a meek and disoriented animal, gladly keeping pace with the stinky, stupid white mutt beside her, willingly following Justin's every move.

The sun was nearing midday when they finally broke through the edge of the forest, and Red saw the short road that led right to a high gate that marked the edge of the city of Callica.

The gate Justin found was small, unkempt, and most of all, unguarded. He prodded the two wolves through it ahead of him, and Red got her first glimpse of Callica--the first city she'd been to outside of Queston.

Her first impression was rather a dull one. She saw a few small thatch-roof cottages, and dirty, unkempt people tending dirty, unkempt yards. As Justin predicted, many of them stopped and gasped at the sight of two vicious creatures slinking down the streets, but they seemed reassured by the presence of the muzzles and leashes, as if everything was all right as long as the human was in control.

Red sneered behind her leather mask. In Queston, no one feared the Red Wolf--they cheered her on, offered any assistance they could, whenever they saw her. Children would cling to her fur, throwing themselves on her neck the moment they saw her. She would soothe their cries, lick away their tears, and bolster their confidence, without there ever needing to be a leash or a constraint of any kind. She wondered what these people might think if, as they shrank back and cowered at the mere sight of her, muzzle and leash and all, a small toddler from Queston happened to toddle over her, cooing and babbling and reaching out for this "vicious animal."

Red felt Justin jerk sideways on the leash, and she stumbled a bit over a stray stone, sending pain shooting up into her injured shoulder. Rascal padded along happily, leaving Red to perform an ungainly, sideways hobble to keep the weight off of her shoulder. Now that the crimson hood salve had worn off, the pain was back and worse than ever--but Justin wasn't worried about tending to the needs of his newest prize anymore. It bothered her that the pain hadn't gone away even though she knew the skin had healed under the bandage--but if what Desiree had said was true, then she hurt because the wound she'd received as a human was infected, and that couldn't be fixed unless she could shift to human form. They needed to find that apothecary before she died of complications from a wound that not even crimson hoods could touch.

"Excuse me," Justin plucked the sleeve of a passerby.

The man took one look at the two leashed and muzzled wolves and backed away several paces with a brief shout.

Justin did his best to put on his biggest salesman smile. "Never fear, these are only my pets, and they mean you no harm. I only mean to ask--I seek the services of the apothecary. Where might I find her place of business?"

"The apothecary?" The man glanced warily at the two animals, but Rascal wasn't even paying any attention to him, while Red made it her mission to be as passively aggressive as possible. She held the man's gaze without moving. The scent of his increasing discomfort rolled off of him in waves she could smell, even through the dirty old leather of the muzzle. He made a conscious effort to tear his eyes away and fix them squarely upon Justin--but she'd accomplished her goal. The man was clearly unsettled.

"The apothecary shop is down two streets, take a left at the milliner's, and go past the bakery. You can't miss it." He fought the urge to glance at Red again, and moved on his way.

Justin shifted his grip on the leashes. "Now then, Beauty," he muttered under his breath. "We're almost there. Just don't do anything to attract--"

"You there!" A whistle split the air. "Stop where you are!"

"--attention..." Justin finished, as the two constables advanced toward him, making as much ruckus as they possibly could.


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Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Short Story Feature: "The Prince and The Rose", Part 5

"The Prince and The Rose": >>Part 1<< >>Part 2<< >>Part 3<< >>Part 4<<

Part 5

The next morning, Raul waited at the top of the stairs. He'd left her breakfast in front of the fire in the Great Hall, along with a note, painstakingly inscribed in ink-blotted letters with his own claw: Tu est belle. You are beautiful. He'd had quite enough of Charmaine's complaining lately. He figured a small compliment might go a long way to boosting her mood. He sat absolutely still, waiting and listening for any little sound she might make. He didn't have to wait long.

Raul heard Charmaine talking to herself, as she had gotten in the habit of doing, and he heard the dishes clinking together. He listened to the skirts swish as she walked the width of the room--and then he heard her choke out a sob. Her pitiful wails resounded through the empty halls, and Raul dared to creep down to the floor to see what was the matter.

He found Charmaine standing in front of the massive mirror hanging in the hallway outside the Great Hall. She was holding her face and crying, the tears pouring freely down her face.

"I can never go back to the city!" she wept, "not like THIS!" She grasped at the scars on her cheek and arm, where Raul himself had scratched her. "They'll never accept me now! Not even Felice would so much as recognize me!"

Raul felt a surge of compassion, and he saw the note he'd written, tossed aside in the Great Hall. Using another door so as not to disturb her too much, he entered the Hall and picked up the note, approaching slowly and offering the note a second time, as if to reiterate its meaning.

Charmaine only wept harder. "Get away from me!" she shrieked, reeling backward. "I told you I never wanted to see you! What's the point of your stupid note, anyway? You think flattery is going to make me like you? You think for one moment I'm going to ignore this terrifying face in front of me, because somehow I'm going to realize there beats a noble heart underneath the matted fur and the—ugh!" she covered her face. "The stench? We've read the same fairy-tales, Beast! This?" She plucked the note from his claw with the very tips of her fingers and tore it right down the middle. "This is only a ploy to get me to undo the spell!" she tossed the pieces aside, and Raul felt their weight as they crashed to the ground, taking his hopes with them. "I know what you want! You only want to be handsome again--but what about me? Even if I did break the spell, you'd be human--but I'd still be ugly, thanks to you! How is that even fair?" She resumed crying, and ran away from him down the hall to the second stairwell, leaving Raul behind in the darkness with only tattered shreds of a note beside him.

She continued her tantrum up into the first bedroom she saw, where she all but tore the dress off in a fit of anger, and threw herself upon the bed, dressed only in the chemise and petticoats. There she cried until she had no more tears, and her face had swollen considerably, and her whole body felt worn and tired. Charmaine slipped off into a troubled slumber, filled with dreams of people she knew, ones she once considered friends, pointing and laughing at her, despising her ugliness as much as she despised the appearance of the Beast. She tossed and turned, shivering as the lengthening shadows and heavy clouds brought great gusts of frigid wind through the holes and gaps in the masonry--and then she awoke to the feeling of warmth, softness, and security.

Charmaine peeled her eyes open. The tears had made her eyelids sticky, but once her eyes adjusted to the half-light of evening, she found that while she had cast herself half-undressed on the bed, someone--or something--had spread over her a thick, soft blanket. It had velvet on one side, and a luxurious pelt on the other. She moved to leave the bed with the blanket wrapped around her, and she found a pair of slippers waiting for her. She padded out into the hallway. Everything was deathly still.

"Beast?" she called, but the only thing she heard was the echo of her own voice. She traveled down the stairs to the ground floor. She could hear the crackling fire in the Great Hall--had he lit another one? A few paces more, and she could smell all sorts of savory seasonings, that at once made her mouth water and her stomach grumble in longing.

In front of the fire, the Beast had set a small table. A pot of stew rested on a warmer filled with coals from the fire. Charmaine lifted the lid to release a cloud of steam, as the Beast hadn't been there for a while, yet everything was still warm for her. She ladled some into the bowl, and saw beside it a second note, very similar in composition to the first.

Tu est belle.

Charmaine huffed. "I suppose he could mean it as a sort of apology for frightening me so badly this morning!" She didn't rip the note up this time, but set it aside as she happily consumed the delicious stew.

About an hour later, the fire had settled somewhat, the stew was long since gone, and Charmaine didn't know what to do with herself. She stood, gathering the thick blanket around her, and trudged up to the room full of dresses, but after wandering among the many wardrobes and chests till her cold feet ached and her knees felt wobbly without seeing anything that renewed her interest, she finally settled on a plain blue day dress, and a pair of flat black slippers. She slipped a comb into her hair to hold it up, and left the room without even glancing at the bank of gilded mirrors. She wandered down to the parlor and sat in an armchair, waiting to hear the familiar grunting and scratching that the Beast Prince made any time he moved.

Instead, the whole castle held so still, Charmaine could almost hear her own heartbeat. She slumped in the chair, letting her arms flop in a most ungainly manner. As the clock chimed the next hour, the young debutante found herself in the uncomfortable position of having to admit that she, a prisoner detained against her will, a damsel in much distress through circumstances forced upon her--was unimaginably bored. She mused to herself that she would almost be willing to start reading the books in the castle library--dusty, dull, outdated things! Charmaine wagged her head and rubbed her temples. Had she really become so resigned to her fate that she wouldn't dream of trying to escape? Where had the Beast gone? When would he return?

She sat in that chair, drowsing off a little, listening to the clock on the mantel tick away the minutes in this large, silent room...

And then she heard the screaming.

It made all of her hairs stand on end, the piteous wails No! Let me go! Put me down! No! Stop! Please!

Charmaine leaped to her feet and ran out of the parlor to the open atrium. In the distance, she could see the Beast returning with a bundle of something slung over his shoulder--the one that was wailing and shrieking. Her heartbeat quickened and she scurried into her usual spot, the sofa in front of the fire in the Great Hall. Had he claimed another victim because she had refused to break his spell? What did that mean for her then? Would the two of them spend the remainder of their days in the custody of the Beast until the curse became permanent, or one of them eventually caved? It certainly didn't sound like this new person would be any more willing than Charmaine had been.

She heard the heavy, huffing breath, the hideous claws scraping along the marble floor, but she couldn't hear the screams anymore, not even a whimper. Charmaine heard the grunts and scrapes shift closer. They echoed in the Great Hall now--the Beast had entered the same room she was in. Charmaine hardly dared, very slowly, to turn and see what he was doing. He had the bundle over his shoulder still, and he let the body slide down to the floor near Charmaine's couch. He grunted and bobbed his head--was he bowing? she wondered--and left the room.

As the sounds of the Beast died down, Charmaine saw the person huddled on the floor begin to tremble all over, and resume the sounds of soft crying. She darted from the sofa to help the person up.

Under a thick grey cloak that might have been familiar, she saw a dress of tiny red flowers on a blue field, and as the head came up, Charmaine gasped.

"Felice?" she choked.

The young brunette stared with wide, unblinking eyes. Charmaine felt the carefully-manicured fingernails digging into the skin of her arm. "Ouch! Felice, you're hurting me!" Her friend began to twitch and spasm, trembling all over, and it was all Charmaine could do to ease the young woman upright. "Felice," she urged. "It's me, Charmaine--don't you remember me?"

"Reme--mem-member?" Felice stuttered. She gave a little cry as Charmaine eased her into a sitting position on the couch. "Oh! Charmaine, is it really you?"

The young woman frowned. This was hardly the reception she was hoping for, seeing someone from her old life after nearly a week and a half in the lair of the Beast Prince! "Of course it's me!"

"Oh Charmaine!" Felice gushed again. "Your poor father has just been beside himself ever since you left! Your absence took all life and color out of him--not two days passed, and he was quite convinced that the Beast had already torn you to shreds, and we would never see you again!"

Charmaine felt her cheeks burn at the mention of her father. "Yes, well--if he really was as sorry as all that, he might at least come out to try and find me, and see that the Beast has done nothing of the sort." She reached out to run her fingers over the fine fabric of her friend's skirt.

"Charmaine!" Felice grabbed her hand. "Have you actually fallen in love with him, then? Or maybe he's in love with you--but why hasn't it broken the curse?"

"The curse isn't broken because I don't love him!" Charmaine drew her and away and snapped. "Really, Felice--one would think you were blind not to notice that! If he was free of that curse, then why are we all still here in this crumbling, dusty ruin?"

Felice lifted her eyes and looked all around the room. "Oh..." she responded softly.

"Speaking of which," Charmaine peered at her friend closely. "What are you doing here? Did the Beast catch you in the forest trying to look for me?"

"In the forest!" Felice cried with just a hint of derision. "I should think I would expect to be attacked if I was foolish enough to go into the forest alone! But no--do you know what this Beast Prince of yours did? So there I was, making my way down the merchant lane--I was heading for Mrs. Basty's mercantile, you know how she always manages to get ahold of the latest fashions--when this monster bursts out of nowhere, takes one look at me and my friends, and just tosses me over his shoulder like a wagon boy with a heavy pack, and takes off back down the road! I was so terrified, Charmaine--I thought for sure something had happened to you, and he had chosen me for your replacement, and I'd suffer the same fate you had!"

Hearing this shocking account, all Charmaine could say was, "Oh, how dreadful." Inside, her thoughts and emotions were in a chaotic state, rushing and ebbing like a madly-boiling stew. How had the Beast known to target Felice alone? If he was worried about Charmaine having some sort of companionship--why Felice, and not just any girl in the city? Why would he risk getting blamed for an attack and being beaten or perhaps shot by the townspeople, charging out in public like that?

The answer came over her so suddenly, she blurted aloud, "Oh! He chose you because of me!"

Felice actually let her mouth drop open as she stared at her friend for several moments. "He what?"

Charmaine felt her cheeks warm again, though the sensation came with quite a different mix of emotions. "I was crying the other day because I missed you so much, and I started saying the things I missed about you, like your hair and your eyes and the way you dressed--he must have heard me! He knew what you looked like because I basically described you! Though," she frowned pitifully and ran her hand over the scars on her arm. "I confess I was fearful that you wouldn't even recognize me if you saw me, nor would you be able to stand looking at me anymore."

Felice pursed her lips and squinted. "What do you mean, I wouldn't want to look at you?"

Charmaine watched her friend to see if she was joking, or perhaps she really was blind as a bat. "Because of this, of course!" She gestured to the scars over her cheekbones. "I'm hideous!"

Felice raised her eyebrows. "I see a week and a half in a closet with nothing but a Beast for company hasn't changed you much. You are not hideous, my dear!"

Charmaine stuck out her lip in a pout. "I can't believe I've suffered like this, and you didn't even notice! For my very closest friend, Felice, you aren't very observant!"

The slim brunette raised an eyebrow. "Well, I can see that you're still very much alive, and--unless you're putting on an act for my benefit--in reasonably good health. So..." She cast her eyes around the room, taking in the sights of the small table in front of the fire and the empty dishes. By now, after nightfall, it was too dark to see much of anything else. "Tell me about it! What's it like living in this castle? Does the Beast really come out to howl at night? Does he kill animals during the day and bring them back here to feast upon their carcasses in the middle of the ballroom?"

"Felice!" Charmaine shrieked at the idea. "How could you say such things? Living here has been the worst kind of torture I've ever experienced! I'm all alone, the Beast is so smelly and so abominable that I can't stand to be around him, and he's done absolutely nothing to recommend himself to me!"

Felice spotted a scrap of paper sitting next to the bowl, and she picked it up to read it. Her eyebrows lifted when she read the simple message. She looked over at her friend with a meaningful glint in her eyes. "He brought me to you, didn't he?" she asked.

Charmaine rolled her eyes and petulantly draped herself over the arm of the couch. "You think he went and did that just because I said it? And what, I'm supposed to take that as an overture of affection from this monster?" She didn't let Felice respond, but steered the conversation onto another topic. "Anyway, enough about all that! Tell me what I've missed in the city, and don't spare any details! I want to hear everything!"

Felice heaved a long sigh, but she still held on to the paper, staring at it, tracing the lines over and over.

"Well, you haven't missed much--"

"What?" Charmaine sat up straight with a sigh. "Ten days, and you're telling me nothing has happened?"

Felice nodded, toying with the embroidered poppies on her skirt. "Well, yes."

"No parties? No festivals? No balls?"

"Not really--There's Helena Travis who is planning a soiree for next week, but beyond that..."

"Helena who?" Charmaine hit the arm-rest with her open hand. "I don't even know who that is! Aren't the Saliermanns throwing their extravagant gathering, the one with the fireworks and the dancers and--"

She faltered and stopped as Felice wagged her head.

"Not this year, I'm afraid. I haven't heard anything about it. Honestly, Charmaine, after you left, everything else... moved on."

"Moved on!" Charmaine squealed. "I get shipped up here, miles away from the city, my home, my friends, and you're telling me it's as if I never even left? No one's noticed? No one's cared?"

Felice drew a hand across her brow. "Well, not completely! Your father's been--"

"Don't tell me about my father!" Charmaine snapped. "It's his fault I'm up here, wasting away--"

"Excuse me?" Felice retorted, standing up and facing her friend. "Wasting away? With this rich food, a nice fire, and plenty of clothes and blankets? With someone who loves you?" She held the note in front of Charmaine's face.

Charmaine frowned and pushed it away, using her arms to cover her face so she didn't have to look at the crude scrawl. "Put that away, Felice. It doesn't mean what you think it means!"

Felice snorted. "I should think it does!" She insisted, dropping it in Charmaine's lap. "Can't you see that you've won the prince's heart? Goodness knows how you managed it, the way you are sometimes!"

"I've won nothing!" Charmaine bounded to her feet, staring defiantly into her friend's face. "He's not a prince anymore, Felice! He's still a beast, and a beast is incapable of love! These silly scraps of paper mean nothing to me!"

For several moments, the two erstwhile friends held their ground against each other, and nothing was heard except the occasional pop and crack of the fire.

Finally, Felice broke the stand-off. "If that's what you believe," she replied softly, "then he's not the only monster living under this roof. You're too shallow and wrapped up in your own feelings to realize when someone is actually being kind to you." She turned and picked up her cloak. "You know," she called over her shoulder, without turning all the way around, "Prince Raul might be a beast on the outside just now, but you're the real monster underneath all that beauty you carry on the outside!"

Charmaine felt the words like a dagger in her throat. She opened her mouth to speak, but it only released tears from her eyes. "How dare you!" she choked, "I don't think I miss you or anybody else in the city as much as I thought I did. You aren't welcome here anymore, Felice. You can stay here for the night, but tomorrow, I think it's best if you found your way home again. I don't want to see you."

Felice gathered her cloak around her and swept toward the doorway leading out of the Great Hall and to the stairwell. On the threshold she paused.

"Tu est belle," she quoted, the scorn lacing her voice. "What a pity he's wasted his care and concern on such an ungrateful wretch."

Charmaine waited until Felice had gone upstairs to find a bedroom to sleep in. She went to pick up the fur blanket, but the note tumbled out of it. As bitter tears trickled down her face, Charmaine left it on the cold floor in front of the dying fire and curled under the covers of the large bed to cry herself to sleep.


Saturday, November 16, 2019

Serial Saturday: "Red, The Wolf" Part 8

Part 8

Justin stared at the woman, and Red felt the same reaction within her. How did this woman know? Were there other shifters like herself? She forced her body to remain still and disinterested as the peddler and the fortune teller discussed.

"What do you mean, she's a woman?" Justin spluttered. "Is this more of your fortune telling hokum? Because if you're still trying to legitimize that crap you pull on unsuspecting country folk--"

"How is it any different than the way you hawk your own fraudulent wares, sir?" Desiree snapped in return. "We are both shysters--I sell dreams of success, and you sell the clothing to match." She waved her hand as Justin tried to come up with a rebuttal to that. "No, never mind trying to make a competition out of it, dearie--I don't care whether you believe in what I do, but know this--I would stake my life on the fact that this is indeed a woman in the guise of a wolf. I don't know how she came to be, nor whether there are more like her, but she is veritably a woman who can change her shape, and you've gone and treated her like a common animal!"

It took all of Red's human willpower not to leap to her feet and howl at the acknowledgement. She rolled over and pretended to look away from them, absorbed in her own thoughts. She needed Justin to continue believing that she was just a common animal. As degrading as it might be, the more wolf-like she could be, the more Justin would perceive her as harmless and controllable--much like his view of Rascal. The more harmless he thought her, the more freedom she had to plot her escape and his own ruin, right under his very nose.

Would this be the end of any chance she had of returning to Queston, then?

Justin folded his arms and stroked his mustaches. "Change her shape, you say? Well, if you are so certain, then--why don't you prove it?"

Desiree melted back a step under Justin's looming stare. "I... I cannot..." she stammered. "I am what they call a seer because I can see beyond the physical realm--You can't expect me to be able to manipulate it..."

"More convenient excuses to cover your shams!" Justin grunted, grabbing the rope still tied around Red's neck. She turned to acknowledge the pressure on her neck, nothing more. He squinted at her. "Well if that fortune teller won't, then why don't you do it, hey? If you really are some kind of magic girl in there, show me what you can do, and I'll untie you and set you free!"

Even if I could, Red thought, we both know better than to trust your word when there is money to be made from my servitude! She ducked her head, pretending not to comprehend what Justin was saying, only responding to his tugs on her makeshift leash as if she expected him to lead her out of the wagon for a walk.

Desiree noted the movement, but her eyes did indeed see beyond what was right in front of them. "She cannot change herself--not just now, anyway. She is trapped as a wolf. If you want to see her shift, you must find what is hindering her and remove it."

All malice and frustration cleared from Justin's face, though the interest and intrigue remained. "Find what is hindering a skin-changer? I don't see how that would be possible--are you sure you can't just ask some kind of Great Wolf Spirit to do it?"

Desiree shook her head, folding her arms and fixing her eyes upon Red until the young lycanthrope met her gaze. "That is not within my purview, Peddler. I can only listen when the spirits speak, and see what they care to show me--What this one needs is a dose of true power-magic, and for that, you need a thaumaturge."

Red felt her ears flick forward involuntarily at the strange word, and she forced herself to flatten them back again. Thaumaturge? What sorcery did these people practice? She felt a small shudder run down her spine, as she thought of all the impossible things that she never knew existed beyond her small mountain community.

"A Thaumaturge?" Justin sneered. "You're talking blood magic, fool woman--I thought your kind didn't practice out in the open, yet you speak as if I can just waltz into the nearest town and find one on a street corner somewhere!"

Desiree all but glared at him. "Do not speak of supernatural practitioners as if they are a different species--you have a shape-shifter tied up in the back of your wagon, for pity's sake!"

The peddler snorted. "So you say!"

"Even your dopey wolf-dog is more domesticated than a typical wild wolf, anyone can see that." The fortune teller waved a hand in Rascal's direction. "In any case, you don't just find a thaumaturge--I know of only one, and she works as an apothecary in Callica."

Again her ears flicked, and again, Red forced them back and hoped the two humans didn't notice. Callica, she knew, was the name of the city at the foot of the mountain. Master Remani had spent a few sojourns there over the impassable seasons.

"Callica?" Justin repeated, an uneasy edge in his voice. "Are you sure?"

Desiree folded her arms over her chest, her cloak falling over her shoulders in a sparkling cascade. "Of course I'm sure. What's the matter? Afraid of the welcome you'll receive there?"

Justin placed an affronted hand over his chest. "I? Afraid? Absolutely not; rather, I know exactly the sort of welcome I'm going to receive. There are certain--ahem!--citizens I would rather not cross paths with."

The fortune teller gave a short chuckle. "Well, you're going to have to risk it, if you want to be able to return this wolf to her human form."

Justin hemmed and hawed for a long while, stroking his mustaches and sighing deeply. "I suppose there isn't another way around this."

Desiree shook her head, the beads on her fringe clacking together. "Not unless you want to drag around a strange wolf who just might resent you enough to finally kill you at some point."

Justin scowled at her morbid grin. "Gah! Be off with you! And take your spirits and tomfoolery shams with you!"

Once Desiree had drifted away, Red thought she was safe in the dying light of nightfall--but then she felt Justin tug on the rope around her neck, hard.

"You!" He growled, "If you really are human in there, then listen good: I am not someone you want to toy with. If we do find this thaumaturge and she changes you back, you'll owe me, for doing what you never could--I am the only chance you have of a normal human life, so don't be forgetting that and running away on me!"

Red indulged herself in a savage snarl, turning her head to nip at his arm. Justin released and twisted out of her reach. He checked the knots on the other end of Red's rope, and settled down beside the wagon to sleep.

This second night, Red found sleep futile and fleeting. Her mind filled with nightmare situations of the worst sort: The screams of villagers as whole bands of roving thugs beset the town, burning and looting the homes while Red could only stand helplessly by, yelping and snarling behind the straps of a muzzle over her mouth... She dreamed they did find the thaumaturge, but whatever spell kept her in wolf form could not be broken, so she was doomed to wander the world as a wolf forever... She dreamed of Justin, in a blind rage, beating her so savagely that all the crimson hoods in the world couldn't save her... All too soon, the sun rose and Red wearily greeted a new dawn with the knowledge that this day would either save her life or end it all, and the only things standing between her and the return to normal life were a greedy, duplicitous peddler, a mysterious thaumaturge, and the untold risk of blood magic.


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